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.