Evolution, intelligent design, and other myths

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Structure of DNA. Image source: Wikipedia.

When I think of, and talk about, the big questions of science and spirituality, I do not adopt the notion of a supernatural being separate from nature as the external ruler of reality; somehow the form of such notion doesn't resonate with my intuitions. However, I am indeed sympathetic to the possibility that there may be intelligence and awareness intrinsic to nature. In other words, that as our knowledge of nature advances we may find a natural intelligence and awareness – not just mechanical laws – woven into the very fabric of reality at multiple levels. As I sought to elaborate on in Chapter 6 of Rationalist Spirituality, our science today is very far from showing that it has uncovered all causal influences determining the observable phenomena of nature. The notion that it did simply reflects a pervasive but ultimately unjustified extrapolation grounded purely on subjective values (a paradigm), not on empirical evidence (I discuss this in another article in this blog). Therefore, there is indeed plenty of room for such a causally-effective, underlying intelligence in the phenomenology of nature we observe every day.

Cut to the raging debate between evolution and intelligent design. I confess to have largely ignored this debate until very recently, and to be still largely ignorant of the fine points of the argument (which I will not touch upon in this article, opting to remain conservatively agnostic of them). The reason was – I confess – a pre-conception: I have always thought of intelligent design as creationism. In other words, I equated intelligent design with the notion of a supernatural being standing outside of nature and designing it like an architect designs a building. As I explained above, I have always had, and still have, a strong tendency to reject this story as simplistic, logically inconsistent, and somewhat arbitrary.

Then, a couple of weeks back, I wrote an article on this blog that seems to have been identified by both the materialistic and the religious sides of the debate as bearing relevance to it. That motivated me to have a brief look at what intelligent design actually is. In the corresponding page at Wikipedia, intelligent design is defined as ‘the proposition that certain features of … living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process.’ The article goes further to state that intelligent design ‘deliberately avoids specifying the nature or identity of the intelligent designer.’ Ignoring for now the possibility that there might be – as some claim – political or religious agendas and biases behind either side of the argument, the statements quoted above, taken on face value, seem quite reasonable in light of the discussion in the first paragraph of this article. If there is an underlying intelligence woven in the very fabric of nature and causally contributing to its phenomenology, then this underlying intelligence is consistent with the definition of the ‘designer.’

It is important for me now to state very clearly and explicitly what I am saying and what I am not saying regarding the debate between evolution and intelligent design. Within the context of our current scientific paradigm, and ignoring a potential contradiction built into it, evolution by natural selection is, in my view, an overwhelmingly established model for how we’ve got here as living beings. The evidence for it is, in my view, very clear and solid. Indeed – and remembering that I, as a Jungian, like to call all human models of reality ‘myths’ – evolution by natural selection is one of our best myths.

Now, by stating the above, what I am saying is that the notion that organisms evolve over time through environment-selected mutations is a well-substantiated one. But there is one key aspect behind the modern notion of evolution that I consider non-provable and inelegant: the idea that those mutations are always random. In other words, that the changes in the DNA of organisms that later get selected for are, at origin, purely the result of blind chance.

There is a sense in which saying that something is random is saying nothing at all. In this sense, appealing to randomness is a precarious attempt to conceal our lack of understanding of what is really going on. Indeed, randomness is defined as something that cannot be predicted. As such, it is a human-centered abstraction; a label for our inability to find any coherent pattern in a set of data. And even as an abstraction, randomness is a difficult one: tests for randomness in information theory are notoriously tricky and often unreliable since, theoretically, there is always a chance to find any pattern in random data; somewhat of a contradiction.

Going further, all evidence for evolution by natural selection, as the name indicates, is evidence either for the idea that organisms change over time (i.e. evolution) or for the notion that genetic mutations are selected for based on survival fitness (i.e. natural selection). Both can be entirely correct regardless of whether the genetic mutations are random at origin or the manifestation of an intelligent pattern. Even if genetic mutations in the past were not the result of blind chance, there would still be – as there is – evidence that these non-random mutations were selected for based on survival fitness and, thereby, led to genomic evolution.

Strictly speaking, there isn’t any solid empirical evidence that genetic mutations in the past have had a purely random origin. Evidence for that would require statistical data of a magnitude way beyond anything that could be realistically expected from the fossil record. And even then, the statistical checks for randomness, tricky as they are, would have questionable validity since this data would not have been collected under sufficiently controlled conditions. In my view, it is simply impossible to state that all genetic mutations at the basis of evolution by natural selection have had blind chance as their sole causal agency. Stating it is merely a somewhat arbitrary necessity of the current scientific paradigm – i.e. a set of subjective values and beliefs – but cannot be firmly grounded on empirical evidence.

The hypothesis here is not that a superior intelligence already knows exactly what all organisms should look like, or even that it already knows how to get there. Were this to be so, evolution would be unnecessary: This intelligence could simply manipulate all DNA, in one direct step, into its final desired state. Clearly, empirical evidence contradicts this. So the hypothesis here is that, instead, the underlying intelligence we postulated above is rather experimenting in the laboratory of nature. It may be iteratively seeking an 'optimization' of DNA according to an unknown, but subjective and intentional telos. At each iteration, it may 'observe' the resulting outcome and refine its next attempt through a shift in the balance of genetic mutation probabilities. Evolution by natural selection in the theatre of nature may be its feedback mechanism; its necessary tool in the realization of its intentionality.

To the extent that an appeal to randomness reflects simply our lack of understanding of the causal forces behind genetic mutations, it leaves room for this kind of underlying intelligence. And that, interestingly enough, is not in contradiction with evolution by natural selection; on the contrary: it may be the driving engine behind the variety of all living organisms. Moreover, this hypothesis remains entirely consistent – I dare claim – with all scientific evidence relevant to the debate.


  1. You might find Aquinas' position on the matter quite enlightening. I don't know if you've read it or not, but the best, more clear place to learn about it (and Aquinas' philosophy in general) is Edward Feser's book, "Aquinas." Take a look, his ideas are teleological but go beyond this simplistic ID vs. Neo-Darwinian dichotomy. You also might be interested in my blog, as I deal with philosophy, parapsychology, theology, etc.:


  2. Bernardo,

    We can not deny creationism. Even if we think of evolution based on unintelligent random mutations, we must acknowledge creationism, because for something to evolve it must first be created. If man have been trying to create life from carbon and nitrogen atoms (intelligent design) without success, how could randomness do that?

  3. Bernardo, I would like to speculate answers to your statement, "This intelligence could simply manipulate all DNA, in one direct step, into its final desired state".

    1- Yes, god can do that, but it simply doesn't want to. Without playing with us, it would have nothing to do. We are god's time killer.

    2- God is not so intelligent as you want it to be. It has to perform tests. Just like our technology evolves, god's technology also evolves.

    3- "Its final desired state" assumes that there is a desired state, but god's pleasure can be exactly to watch us evolve.

    4- God did do it in one single step, and our eternity fits into this step.

  4. So I'm burningly and maddeningly curious: given that you've said elsewhere about how that quantum mechanics suggests the universe is fundamentally interlinked with specifically *human* consciousness, how do you even make logical sense out of a *pre-human* Universe of the type evolutionary theory requires within your paradigm? (That is, the "chronology problem")

    1. Perhaps this response is a bit late, but given that your comment was written seven years after the post was written, I'll overlook that.

      While Bernardo does state that the universe is fundamentally interlinked with human consciousness, he does not state that human consciousness or the consciousness of biological organisms in general are the whole of what consciousness is. Rather, Bernardo argues extensively throughout his writing and elsewhere that conscious is, we may say, the ground of all being. Consciousness preceeds any of its contents. Keep in mind that everything known to anyone is a content of consciousness by necessity. Consciousness in general, "Mind at Large," as Bernardo often states it, preceeds human consciousness; as such, all evolutionary processes have always been and could only be processes within consciousness, the consciousness that is the ground of all being, the sole ontological primitive, of which our personal human consciousnesses are a part.

      As it is, to put it lightly, unreasonable to suppose that any contents of consciousness create consciousness -- the Materialist contention -- Bernardo's paradigm (that the brain is only ever an image in mind, rather than the mind being an image in the brain) explicitly excludes the possibility of a chronology problem. What intelligent processes might influence evolution exist prior to it, both ontologically and chronologically.

  5. Intelligent Design was not something that used to interest me - indeed I assumed the subject itself had been designed to conclude that God was needed to do the designing!

    However, after some discussions with a guy whose Skeptiko name is Lone Shaman, I decided to use my chemistry background and take a look.

    Most of the ID work is organised by the Discovery Institute, which openly promotes the cause of Christianity, but they have sensibly avoided almost all mention of God or Christianity in their technical publications.

    I think they have proved beyond reasonable doubt that the information stored in our DNA did not get there by natural selection - i.e. by DNA mutations, passed on to the next generation, which were selected based on whether each mutation improved the fitness of the organism.

    It isn't Darwin's fault, because he could not have known that the genes he postulated are in fact chunks of DNA, hundreds or even thousands of bases long that encode for proteins, which in turn provide the mechanisms that keep our bodies going.

    In order for a new protein to evolve, it is usually assumed that an existing gene gets duplicated, so that the copy can (randomly) mutate without impairing the function of the organism. Given enough mutations it is of course possible to mutate any gene into any other, but that produces an impossible combinatorial explosion - 4^N for N mutations. For most of those mutational steps the partially formed protein is of no benefit to the organism, so that there is no increase of fitness to drive the selection process.

    Moreover, when thinking about the creation of the first living organisms, the concept of natural selection is not even well defined!

    Michael Behe's book, "Darwin Devolved" covers all this well, but he also introduces another fascinating argument. The one way in which an organism could benefit from a reasonably probable genetic mutation, is when the organism is fitter with a weakened or destroyed gene. Thus for example, some bacteria can acquire a mutation that makes them less fit in general, but confers resistance to a particular antibiotic. Humans likewise benefit from a mutation in the haemoglobin gene because it confers resistance to malaria. In the absence of malaria, this is of no benefit and can cause sickle cell anaemia.

    Such mutations actually destroy a part of the genome, and yet get selected. If they spread through the entire population they deprive the organism of useful genetic material. Using this mechanism an organism can evolve to a small extent by natural selection, but the process is obviously limiting.

    Clearly this is a huge flaw in the materialist explanation of reality, and is of value to anyone promoting a nonmaterialist ontology such as Idealism.

    I am not a Christian!

    1. It rather looks as if a circumflex character gets lost in the process of entering a comment, so that 4 to the power N came out as 4N - drastically changing my meaning!

  6. Hello Bernardo,

    I was introduced to your idea of modern idealism through your chat with Swami Sarvapriyananda. I thoroughly enjoyed the same. It was a good point of convergence of ancient eastern thoughts and fresh and original thoughts on idealism based on an exclusive exposure to western philosophy and modern science. Highly admirable and inspiring for the rest of us.

    On reading your thoughts on evolution, felt a strong urge to share mine. These are thoughts brewing up in my mind based on Vedantic reflections, which when intense can go on 24/7. Vedanta urges us to rethink about everything around us from inside out. This includes the question of origination or rather the absence of it.

    From Vedantic point of view, consciousness reigns supreme and is the only reality and Prakriti or nature is subservient to it. When Christian theology speaks of God “willing” the universe into existence, it is in some manner this subservience of nature to consciousness which is being spoken of.

    If we think of this universe as not just dead matter from which living and thinking beings are emerging as bye products, then the other possibility is that from the very Big Bang on, universe not just exists (sat), but knows (chit) and moves towards something substantial and meaningful (ananda). And therefore from the huge, almost infinite pile of rubble comes out life capable of aspiration. And this aspiration - a.) to survive [exist (sat) - therefore the mechanism of evolution to allow survival. This would include the ability to prey on and to save oneself from being preyed upon] b.) to experience or know [knowledge (chit) - therefore comes evolution to allow sensory development.] c.) to enjoy the experience [ananda - therefore evolution of beauty to the eye, of fragrances to appeal the Lord of evolution, i.e., the conscious beings; of variety of tastes - to appeal to the Lord, of wonderful musical notes in nature, and the pleasurable touch available around.]

    I wonder if it is not these three aspects of the Self or pure consciousness which gives impetus to evolution, the being itself wills itself to evolve and wills for the nature around it to evolve. And since each and every being has this capability and there is probably a unifying consciousness which directs the whole process at a cosmic scale, we have what we have around us, an extremely complex variety. Created by none other than each of us, sentient beings.

    I also feel, for infinity to express itself and to experience itself, it can only be done in finite packets. Therefore an infinite variety of organisms - some have come and gone, some are there for us to observe and experience and infinite more are waiting to become manifest.

    The nitty gritty, such as the mutations at the base pair level is just something that nature (Prakriti) cooks up, since it is it’s very nature to do so. We know that within the genetic code also, each cell selects what it will express and what will stay unexpressed. Many phenomenally different organisms share surprisingly similar genetic make up.

    Prakriti is also considered to be the Maya principle (principle of time space and causation), the principle which creates the illusion of time and space - a theatre on which a display of cause and effect is carried out. The universe and nature around us makes so much sense, only to bind us down to this state of objective reality, where we spend all our time reasoning and understanding and ‘knowing’ so that the reality stays safely out of our reach!! The only way out then, is to dive into the subject, which is the source of it all and has all the answers within it, waiting to be revealed, only to those who really seek from within.

    Hope to know if this makes any sense to you.