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Robert Wright Asks: Can Evolution Have a Higher Purpose?

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Editor’s note: We are delighted to welcome Dr. Miller as a new contributor to Evolution News. He is Research Coordinator for Discovery University’s Center for Science & Culture, and holds a BS and PhD in physics from MIT and Duke University respectively.

Writing for the New York Times philosophy forum “The Stone,” journalist Robert Wright asks a good question: “Can Evolution Have a ‘Higher Purpose’?” He describes an interview with evolutionist William Hamilton, who developed the theory of kin selection. Hamilton postulated that some type of “ultimate good, which is of a religious nature,” could exist, and to understand it we have to “look beyond what the evolutionary theory tells us” to some higher source. If so, life could have some transcendent higher purpose.

Hamilton goes on to describe the higher source not as God or any other nonmaterial entity but as aliens who set up earth as a type of zoo. These visitors could have introduced self-replicating molecules, which evolved over time through natural processes. The aliens could also have on rare occasions intervened to prevent such undesirable consequences as humans driving themselves to extinction. Their interventions might even explain religious stories of miracles. Similarly, Richard Dawkins allows for the possibility of design in life, so long as that design was generated by aliens, who themselves were the product of purely materialistic causes. Both scientists, in other words, open the door to considering alien, but not otherwise intelligent, design.

Wright reassures readers that any understanding of purpose in evolution must remain entirely within a purely materialist framework. He dispels what he considers four common myths:

  1. ” To say that there’s in some sense a ‘higher purpose’ means there are ‘spooky forces’ at work.”

  2. “To say that evolution has a purpose is to say that it is driven by something other than natural selection.”

  3. “Evolution couldn’t have a purpose, because it doesn’t have a direction.”

  4. “If evolution has a purpose, the purpose must have been imbued by an intelligent being.”

This is the standard evolutionary doxology that the appearance of purpose in nature is simply a product of natural selection directing species toward certain outcomes, which only mimic design. For instance, the vertebrate eye appears to have been designed by some intelligence for the purpose of advanced high-resolution vision, but it actually developed through successive evolutionary steps which each provided some immediate benefit. In this familiar view, the steps were not directed toward any end goal. The ultimate form of the eye is simply a happy byproduct of blind mutations and selection.

However, this simple description of evolution producing the appearance of purpose is increasingly questioned by scientists. Even some who are determined to operate within a purely materialistic framework, such as proponents of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, doubt the creative power of natural selection to operate as the sole source of innovation in nature.

Still more significant, scientists studying evolutionary algorithms have come to recognize that no search process (e.g., natural selection) is capable of generating a biological novelty (e.g., an eye) unless information is provided about the desired outcome in advance. So, natural selection might be capable of slightly improving a population of moths by making them lighter or darker, or it might be able to increase the size of finch beaks. But, it could never make such innovative changes as morphing the arms of a dinosaur into the wings of a bird. To generate the information to find such a target, intelligence is required.

This conclusion is further supported by experimental evidence that even a single typical protein could not come about by natural selection. And even if evolutionary pathways were direct and simple, the required timescales are far greater than what the fossil record would allow. (See here, here, and here.) As a result, the ubiquitous appearance of purpose in nature cannot be explained away by natural processes with occasional tweaking by aliens. Instead, it requires continuous guidance, often dramatic, throughout the history of life.

In addition, the evidence that the laws of physics were fine-tuned for life indicates that the designer, unlike aliens, had to exist outside of our universe. Wright actually addresses this argument with some very creative responses. He describes the attempt by physicist Lee Smolin to apply evolution to entire universes:

Smolin thinks our universe may itself be a product of a kind of evolution: maybe universes can replicate themselves via black holes, so over time — over a lot of time — you get universes whose physical laws are more and more conducive to replication.

Several theories like this have been proposed, seeking to explain how a universe-generating mechanism could produce a multiverse, so that a life-permitting universe could come about purely by chance. However, no such scenario can escape the need for a designer, for they all require that the underlying laws and initial conditions be finely tuned for the generator to work properly.

Wright goes on to describe an even more extraordinary theory:

That said, one interesting feature of current discourse is a growing openness among some scientifically minded people to the possibility that our world has a purpose that was imparted by an intelligent being. I’m referring to “simulation” scenarios, which hold that our seemingly tangible world is actually a kind of projection emanating from some sort of mind-blowingly powerful computer; and the history of our universe, including evolution on this planet, is the unfolding of a computer algorithm whose author must be pretty bright.

That’s a stretch, but Wright’s or Smolin’s way of viewing the world demands something like it. As evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin famously acknowledged, materialism is “absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

The honest observation of nature is a constant reminder that an intelligent agent must have directed the formation of the cosmos and the design of life. Materialism, however, is a demanding master, forcing its followers to embrace any theory, regardless of how implausible, in order to deny that this appearance of design and purpose is real.

Photo: Vervain hummingbird (Mellisuga minima), by Charlesjsharp (Own work, from Sharp Photography) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.