(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)
A few days ago I released a new video in which I discuss my thoughts on a neo-darwinist spin on the theory of evolution by natural selection. See above. Motivated by the comments I received on the video, I feel the need to elaborate a little more on what I am saying – and, perhaps more importantly, what I am not saying – in the video. In what follows, I'll assume that you have watched the video.
The first thing to highlight is that the main thrust of my argument is not a new hypothesis for the processes underlying genetic mutations, but, instead, to point out that there is no evidence for what neo-darwinists casually peddle as established truth: That the genetic mutations that get selected for – or not – by natural selection are random at origin; that is, entail no identifiable pattern. There is simply no evidence for this. In order to get such idea across, I contrast this with the obvious alternative possibility: That there is an underlying, as-of-yet undetected pattern in the mutations. The purpose of my discussing this alternative possibility is not the possibility itself, but solely to demonstrate, through an example, that there are other reasonable scenarios that neo-darwinists seem to lack sufficient scientific imagination to contemplate. Physicists are off talking about parallel universes, hidden dimensions, reverse causality and what not, while neo-darwinists seem stuck in 19th-century billiard-ball materialism.
Science is about finding the patterns underlying nature, and it is a fundamental premise of scientific activity that there may be patterns in natural processes where we currently cannot see one. To deny so amounts to arbitrarily decreeing an end to the process of scientific discovery. Indeed, openness to – and even an inner hope for – the possible presence of new and as-of-yet undetected patterns is integral to scientific thought. The conclusions of the discovery process in science should – and, fortunately, almost always do – focus on the patterns we do find, for these are the footprints of the laws of nature. In this context, neo-darwinism is unique in that it makes a direct, positive statement about there not possibly being a pattern, even though no evidence exists to substantiate such statement. There is a sense in which this is an aberration in modern scientific thought, and runs counter to the scientific spirit of discovery. The only evidence available that relates to such statement is the very richness and variety of nature, which ought to be construed, if anything, as suggestive precisely of the presence of an undetected pattern waiting to be discovered.
When we state that a process is 'random,' all we are stating is that we cannot identify a pattern in such process. This can say something about the process (i.e. it has no pattern) or about ourselves (i.e. we are not able to see the pattern). In the absence of objective evidence, it seems more appropriate to me that we remain cautious and state simply that, so far, we have been able to detect no pattern behind the genetic mutations at the basis of evolution, and that we currently do not see any strong-enough reason to believe there is one. This is accurate, cautious, fair, and leaves the appropriate doors open. To state – or worse, to teach in science classes in schools – that the mutations are random is, in a fundamental way, analogous to teaching religion: It's just a belief, no matter how reasonable and even necessary it may sound to neo-darwinist ears.
For clarity, the alternative hypothesis I mentioned in the video is this: There are phenomena in physics suggestive that the universe is, at a fundamental level, unified; in the sense that any event can potentially influence any other event across time and space limitations, at a quantum level. The phenomenon of quantum entanglement, when taken together with the Big Bang theory, is suggestive of this possibility. Some interpretations of quantum mechanics suggest the same, like David Bohm's Implicate Order. So it is not completely unreasonable to imagine that there could be some form of non-local feedback from the results of natural selection back into the probability envelops governing the quantum-level processes from which genetic mutations arise. After all, those mutations are probabilistic processes at a molecular level, governed by quantum wave functions.
If this is true, natural selection could conceivably not only preserve past mutations that provide a survival advantage; it could also tilt the probabilities of future mutations in favor of complementary ones. If anything, this would help the evolutionary algorithm avoid local minima – where it is notorious for getting stuck at, according to computer simulations – and reach a globally optimum result. The scenario here is one where a hypothetical, underlying intelligence interwoven in the fabric of the universe (or identical to the universe itself) is experimenting in the laboratory of nature, using natural selection as its evaluation function. In the process of experimentation, it does make many mistakes: Mutations that are useless or destructive are continuously tried out. But through such iterative trial-and-error, it learns and gets ever closer to its telos.
You may say that the hypothesis I discuss above is entirely gratuitous, in the sense that we have no strict evidence for it today. And you will be entirely correct to say that. But what I am doing here is not attempting to convince you that there is a telos behind evolution; I don't know for a fact that there is one. Instead, I am merely illustrating one conceivable scenario according to which mutations are not random, so to show that randomness cannot be taken for granted in the absence of evidence. Therefore, all I need to show is reasonable conceivability for my example hypothesis, not proof or even solid substantiation. And reasonable conceivability, I dare say, has been achieved in the discussion above.
In science, understanding what you do not know is often more important than understanding what you do know. I hope it is clear to you now that the core of my argument in the video is not to state positively that there is a telos behind evolution – for I do not have enough objective evidence to substantiate such hypothesis, even though I personally feel it is true – but to show that the hypothesis cannot be discarded on the basis of the available evidence, nor on the basis of hand-waving arguments about what is reasonable to conceive.