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Can Natural Reward Theory Save Natural Selection?

Douglas Axe
Photo: The Origin of Species, first edition, via Wikimedia Commons.

Owen M. Gilbert has bad news and good news for the Darwin Party. The bad news is that natural selection doesn’t work (and never did). The good news is that he has arrived to rescue it with a new, improved theory. Along the way to his macroevolutionary nirvana, he will reveal to his readers the fatal flaw in Darwin’s theory, with side trips to the fantasylands of mindless emergence of molecular machines, instant appearance of complex animals in the fossil record, the evolution of evolvability, various miracles, and more, narrated with his sneering disgust at all things teleological. There is no foresight in biology, got it? There is no foresight!

Moreover, there is no longer a need to appeal to final causes to explain why life has advanced over the billions of years since its origin. Instead, advancement is explained as an expected outcome of two deterministic evolutionary forces, natural selection and natural reward, acting together without foresight for the future. [Emphasis added.]

Dr. Gilbert is a researcher in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Texas at Austin. Phys.org introduces his idea with the headline, “Natural reward theory could provide new foundation for biology.” It could. Will it? Inquiring minds can analyze his ideas in his open-access paper in the peer-reviewed journal Rethinking Ecology, “Natural reward drives the advancement of life.”

Thou Shalt Not Think Teleologically

To materialists, the promise of evolution is getting humans from chemicals without foresight or design. Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection seemed to be just the trick: it was a deterministic force for progress. Or was it? Gilbert thinks it gave biologists schizophrenia by sending conflicting messages, putting them in a double bind. Worse, the contradiction allowed pseudoscientists to sneak into the hallowed halls of materialistic science:

Darwin’s double bind manifests as the conflicting messages that: (i) natural selection yields comparative progress only, and (ii) natural selection also yields absolute progress …. The authors of the modern synthesis could not comment on the contradiction without revealing a weak point of evolutionary theory to political and religion-based ideological opponents, who promoted the teaching of pseudoscience in high school classrooms (Tax and Callender 1960b; p. 42). Therefore, the authors of the modern synthesis accepted both messages as correct, and thus in fighting pseudoscience, advocated a theory that contradicted itself (e.g., Simpson 1949, p. 269; Dobzhansky 1951, p. 17; Stebbins 1959, pp. 305–306). Evolutionists since that time have accepted both contradictory messages in various ways (Ruse 1993, 1996), in some cases apparently unaware of the contradiction. This led to a schizophrenic state of modern evolutionary theory.

The dilemma can be summarized thus: microevolution does not entail macroevolution. But macroevolution — the grand unfolding tree of life — is what evolutionists since Darwin have wanted to explain without foresight. Gilbert accuses modern evolutionists of coping with their schizophrenia by invoking teleological language such as “fitness maximization” and supposing that the purpose of a trait is its cause. Some actually “take apparent design in nature as evidence of a unifying final cause, and by implication, a design-function final cause.” These bad habits are forbidden to a true naturalist. Gilbert considers teleology a “metaphysical delusion” that was never expunged from biology.

The result of the persistence of teleological thinking in prominent fields of evolutionary biology is that the current climate is much like it was immediately after the publication of “The Origin of Species”. In that era, researchers disagreed about whether Darwin had supported or replaced teleology (Huxley 1870, p. 330). Likewise, evolutionists today still debate how Darwin’s theory relates to teleology (Ayala 1970; Ghiselin 1994; Huneman 2019). I therefore will close the door to teleological interpretations of natural selection….

… which he proceeds to do. First, he dismisses Darwin’s metaphor of the struggle for existence that he got from Malthus by turning it on its head. Animals don’t struggle against limited resources; they have plenty! They’re like pioneers in the Old West, taking advantage of vast horizons of living space. Surely there was no struggle for existence when the first cells evolved; they had a whole world of vast resources to conquer. And with each new habitat life exploited, whether going from methane respiration to oxygen respiration or from sea to land, there was never any shortage of resources. Even today, the biosphere is nowhere close to using all the solar energy impinging on the Earth. With plentiful resources, existence is easy. If there was ever any struggle, it was a struggle for supremacy.

To the Rescue

Having undercut Darwin’s attempt to account for absolute progress, Gilbert presents his own. His new fortified Darwinism does not eliminate natural selection; it supplements it. The new theory involves two deterministic forces that, working hand in hand, yield the coveted explanation for macroevolution, conjuring up human brains from bacteria. 

The first deterministic force is good old natural selection in the Dawkins portrayal of Blind Watchmaker. The second force is Gilbert’s added concept of “natural reward.” It’s a bit like Monopoly:

To separate the roles of natural selection and natural reward, I distinguish the roles of invention and entrepreneurship, known from studies of human innovation (Schumpeter 1942, p. 132; Schumpeter 1947, p. 152). In human technological evolution, invention refers to the initial origin or creation of technological novelties (Paley 2010; Grossman 2011). The process of entrepreneurship, in contrast, typically involves dissemination of inventions (Murphy 2015, pp. 70–71). For example, Steve Wozniak played the role of inventor, and Steve Jobs the role of entrepreneur in the early days of Apple Computer, because Wozniak created the first Apple computers, and Jobs spread them to markets (Wozniak 2007; Isaacson 2011). Likewise, authors often play the role of inventor and literary agents the role of entrepreneur in the origin and dissemination of literature. The entrepreneurial function is often overlooked because it does not consist of creating anything new (Schumpeter 1942, p. 132), but instead refers to the spread of inventions to new markets that demand them.

In this scheme, natural selection is the blind inventor, and natural reward is the blind entrepreneur. Whereas natural selection favors alleles within species, natural reward favors genetic systems within ecosystems. A bacterium, for instance, invents a way to utilize rising oxygen levels for respiration. Its colony rushes into the new fitness landscape and is rewarded by grabbing all the peaks. It wins the monopoly game at that second tier until another organism invents a way to exploit another habitat, rushing in to buy up Broadway and Park Place. Stepwise upward it goes over deep time, and presto! Human brains!

Now Wait Just a Cotton-Picking Minute

Is this how evolution created a world that looks designed? Did cotton evolve the same way as the cotton picker that John Rust invented, which other companies exploited? More to ID concerns, is this how Anomalocaris showed up suddenly in the Burgess Shale? Gilbert is well aware of Darwin’s doubt (not the book, but the doubt). “The theory of natural reward also suggests an explanation for the seeming sudden appearance of new forms in the fossil record,” he promises. But he delivers based on the absence of evidence. The invention of a new body plan was so quick, he surmises, that it became abundant without leaving a trace in the fossil record. All the remarkable innovations seen in the apex predator of the Cambrian seas must have leaped out of the small shelly fossils so fast that it was a blur: small shelly fossils, zzzzz, boom! Hidden arthropod ancestor wins Monopoly! Cambrian explosion! zzzz, Burgess Shale, zzzzz. 

These two deterministic forces, Gilbert argues, explain a whole gamut of natural history: the universal genetic code, adaptive radiations, gaps in the fossil record, extinctions, and human brains from bacteria. Microevolution becomes macroevolution. Comparative progress becomes absolute progress. No teleology need apply. No foresight was required. Darwin is vindicated, with a little help from Natural Reward Theory. So there, pseudoscientists.

Explanatory Projection

Gilbert is as guilty of teleology as the evolutionists he criticizes, including Darwin. He never met a metaphor he didn’t like. If artificial selection was a weak metaphor for natural selection, why is Apple Computer a better metaphor for natural reward? Both commit personification: instead of natural selection imitating farmers breeding better cotton, natural reward imitates Steve Jobs exploiting the designs of the Woz. If this sounds crazy, it gets worse. Consider the implications against Gilbert himself. He has turned the human mind, with all its ingenuity and creativity, into an artifact of deterministic forces. If he really believed his own brain was the result of mindless processes, his readers would be wise to mistrust the strategy of those selfish genes of his. They might be marketing an invention that would drive them out of Gilbert’s own Monopoly game. It’s all a ruse.

Readers shouldn’t be fooled by all this because it is a case of projection. Gilbert sneers at “political and religion-based ideological opponents, who promoted the teaching of pseudoscience,” but he himself finds miracles very handy. They’re everywhere in his paper, concealed within passive voice verbs and dogmatic assertions:

  • A major increase of the resource supply came when photosynthesis first originated in anoxygenic form, about 3.7 Gy….
  • Another major step came 2.45–2.32 Gy, with the origin of modern oxygenic photosynthesis….
  • By around 200 My, the mammals had appeared and were beginning to evolve the traits that would contribute to their later diversification….

Such words would have readers envisioning simple life forms striving for success, busily inventing and exploiting innovations in the marketplace. That kind of analogical thinking, which might be dubbed Darwinian vitalism, confuses rather than enlightens, and is contrary to Gilbert’s own goal of ridding biology of teleology. Do material organisms care about markets? Do they say, “Look at all that oxygen; how can we exploit it?” Do they understand the concept of an advantage? If he were consistent with his non-teleological foundations, Gilbert would have to concur that a physical entity couldn’t care less if it survives or goes extinct.

Gilbert also errs in portraying natural selection as a force. It is no more a force than an obstacle course is a force. Material organisms need not run it; they can just sit there and die, which is much easier to do, if there is no drill sergeant ordering them forward — the only instance that might rescue the concept of “selection pressure” from vacuity. Similarly, what is natural reward to a material organism that doesn’t even know what a contest is?

The potential for transient population increase means that those organisms that are first to win the race to innovate are naturally rewarded with an incumbent advantage. This suggests the possibility of natural reward as a deterministic force of evolution separate from natural selection. 

How does that make any sense in a mindless materialistic world? Incumbent advantage? Who cares, a worm? A lichen? Rewards only makes sense to a mind or to a program written by a mind for the purpose of succeeding. It makes no sense in a purposeless world.

Redeeming Virtues

Judging from comments after the Phys.org summary, readers were not impressed with Owen Gilbert’s new-and-improved, deterministic, non-teleological theory of evolution. ID advocates can, however, thank him for exposing more of the flaws of Darwinism, such as the “double bind” that disqualifies natural selection from extrapolating its limited successes into “absolute progress.” He has demonstrated that without extensions to Darwin’s theory, such as his proposed “natural reward” idea, “natural selection leads to the origin of idiosyncratic traits that appear as one arbitrary thing after another.” 

Emerging markets are often highly complex, chaotic and unpredictable based on past experiences. Therefore, the best entrepreneurial strategies are reactive rather than predictive (Christensen 1997, p. 129; Felin et al. 2014, p. 270), and many human inventions often originate through a process of conscious building combined with random error and succeed for unanticipated reasons (e.g., Wagner and Rosen 2013, p. 2). If nature operates similarly, then nature’s entrepreneur may operate without foresight.

Too bad that “natural reward” theory is just as much a personified, impertinent analogy as the old unfortified Darwinism. As a materialist, Gilbert cannot import “conscious building” into a materialistic story. The ability to respond to chaotic environments with know-how or programmed strategies takes a mind. From our uniform experience, inventions and innovations beyond the trivial level of idiosyncratic, arbitrary traits require the element that Gilbert so wished to avoid: Foresight.