Can evolution have a higher purpose? No.

Robert Wright, the author of The Moral Animal and a visiting professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary, has written a provocative article recently in the New York Times’ Stone column, entitled “Can evolution have a higher purpose?” His answer is a qualified and rather nuanced yes. Mine, as we shall see, is a decided no. But my no also comes with some qualifications. Our differences might be useful to those who want to think about the nature of science (the subject matter of philosophy of science) and the nature of the world (the subject matter of metaphysics).

The article begins with an extended quote by famed evolutionary biologist William Hamilton, who during an interview was asked by Wright whether he could conceive of evolution having a “transcendental” purpose. He answered: “Yes, yes. There’s one theory of the universe that I rather like — I accept it in an almost joking spirit — and that is that Planet Earth in our solar system is a kind of zoo for extraterrestrial beings who dwell out there somewhere. … Every now and then they see something which doesn’t look quite right — this zoo is going to kill itself off if they let you do this or that. … [so these extraterrestrials] insert a finger and just change some little thing. And maybe those are the miracles which the religious people like to so emphasize. I put it forward in an almost joking spirit. But I think it’s a kind of hypothesis that’s very, very hard to dismiss.”

I don’t know the degree to which Hamilton was indeed joking, but the “hypothesis” is very, very hard to dismiss, on scientific grounds, for the simple reason that it isn’t a (scientific) hypothesis at all. It’s just a poorly formulated logical possibility, and logical possibilities are much broader and more difficult to put to the test than scientific hypotheses. Moreover, the extraterrestrials don’t seem to have paid a lot of attention throughout 2016, or they would have intervened already, since this zoo is indeed going to kill itself off, if they leave it to its own devices.

Wright tells his readers not to focus on the concept of miracles, however, but rather “on the idea of ‘higher purpose’ — the idea that there’s some point to life on earth that emanates from something that is in some sense beyond it.”

If we do that, he suggests, we quickly dispel a number of what he calls myths about evolution. In order:

Myth number one: To say that there’s in some sense a “higher purpose” means there are “spooky forces” at work.

The Hamilton story is supposed to convince us that in order to talk of higher purpose one doesn’t have to talk about gods (the “spooky forces”), since evolution on earth could have been the result of a large scale experiment set up by alien scientists. That’s okay if you are not spooked by alien scientists, of course. But if the Hamiltonian joke turns out to be true it would also mean that we aren’t talking about “evolution” in anything like the sense in which biologists use the word. We would be looking instead at the result of an artificial experiment, which is very different.

Myth number two: To say that evolution has a purpose is to say that it is driven by something other than natural selection.

“Evolution can have a purpose even if it is a wholly mechanical, material process — that is, even if its sole engine is natural selection. After all, clocks have purposes.” Well, yes, but clocks are decidedly not the result of natural selection, but rather of intelligent design. And so would we be, if the Hamiltonian joke actually held in reality.

Myth number three: Evolution couldn’t have a purpose, because it doesn’t have a direction.

Here Wright argues that even the arch-enemy of directionality in evolution, Stephen Jay Gould, had to admit that evolution doesn’t move entirely in a stochastic fashion, since, for instance, it has pushed toward higher and higher complexity. This is correct, as Gould discussed at length in his wonderful Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin. But Gould also provided a simple explanation for the increase over time in the complexity of biological organisms: they had to start simple (unless they were placed there by an intelligent designer), so the only way to go was more complex. It’s like a drunk starting a random walk from the exit of the bar. He’s bound to get further and further way from the bar and eventually wander into the street, despite the fact that he doesn’t mean to get there. Moreover, Gould reminded us that by far the most successful living beings on earth are among its simplest: bacteria. Or, as my professor of biophysics in college, Mario Ageno, often said, the goal of a bacterium is not to become a human being; it is to become two bacteria.

Also, if Hamilton’s aliens did set up an experiment on our planet they sure went through a lot of trouble to make it seem entirely natural, and if the point of the experiment was to see what intelligent beings capable of language would do with the “zoo,” then the aliens have a lot more patience than any earth scientist, not to mention that their equivalent of the National Science Foundation apparently doesn’t mind giving out grants that span billions of years…

Myth number four: If evolution has a purpose, the purpose must have been imbued by an intelligent being.

Wright arrives at this by way of physicist Lee Smolin’s idea of cosmological natural selection, an entirely hypothetical mechanism of “reproduction” of universes via black holes, that allegedly shows that natural selection can have a purpose even without any intelligent alien (or whatever) to guide it, the “purpose” being to produced more and more universes. (Please note that this is a meaning of “purpose” that really doesn’t go well with the normally accepted definition.) A variation on Smolin’s theory has been proposed by mathematician Louis Crane, who postulated that intelligent beings could actually interfere with and fine tune the cosmological process envisaged by Smolin, if their technology has developed to the point of producing black holes, at which point purpose would indeed be the right word.

First off, I think Smolin’s (highly speculative, definitely rejected by the majority of the physics community) mechanism has actually little to do with Darwinian natural selection, has I have argued in detail in the past. Second, if the black hole-making aliens did interfere with the process, obviously it wouldn’t be natural selection anymore, would it?

Wright continues: “Some philosophers are comfortable talking about animals having a ‘purpose’ imbued by natural selection (to spread their genes). So if biological evolution is a product of cosmological natural selection, it has a purpose in a defensible sense of that term — and we’re part of that purpose.”

Yes, but this is predicated on an ambiguous use of the word “purpose”: when biologists say that the purpose of an eye is to see, or that the purpose of sex is to spread one’s genes more effectively, they are talking entirely metaphorically, and to take them to mean “purpose” in the ordinary sense of the term is to confuse teleonomy (scientifically acceptable, within the Darwinian theory of evolution) with teleology (which applies scientifically only to human intentions, and to intelligent aliens, if they exist).

Let’s take stock of what we have so far, before we move to an entirely different argument made by Wright in his article.

None of the above seems to me to amount to the conclusion that evolution may have a transcendental purpose. This is not because it isn’t conceivable that an advanced alien civilization has set up our planet as a gigantic petri dish to satisfy their own scientific curiosity. That scenario is indeed conceivable, though there is neither a shred of evidence nor an iota of reason to take it seriously. (I do think Hamilton was joking.) Rather, it is because if the scenario were true we would not have evolution in the sense of a natural process explained by the Darwinian theory. We would be in the presence, instead, of an intelligently designed experiment, our scientific explanation of it would be entirely wrong, and in fact we would be in a position similar to that of an undergraduate student who has been recruited for a psychology experiment of which he is the subject, and the purpose of which has to be obscure to him, on penalty of the experiment itself being hopelessly biased.

Now to the second part of Wright’s article, and his argument that there 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.”

Ah yes, the infamous “simulation hypothesis” put forth by philosopher Nick Bostrom and believed by luminaries of modern metaphysics like David Chalmers. I have explained in the past why I dont’ think this is a reasonable scientific hypothesis or philosophical scenario at all, though apparently none other than “philosophy is a waste of time” Neil deGrasse Tyson, somehow, finds it plausible.

Regardless, I think Wright makes a very good point when he writes: “When an argument for higher purpose is put this way — that is, when it doesn’t involve the phrase ‘higher purpose’ and, further, is cast more as a technological scenario than a metaphysical one — it is considered intellectually respectable. … Yet the simulation hypothesis is a God hypothesis … Theology has entered ‘secular’ discourse under another name.”

That strikes me as exactly right. And I’d like to hear what a number of skeptics and new atheists, who tend to like talking about the simulation hypothesis at cocktail parties as if it were a serious possibility, but react with contempt to any mention of gods and intelligent design, would react to that suggestion.

Would they attempt to draw some kind of metaphysical line between God and the Simulators? But on what grounds? Not only the Simulators would for all effective purposes be gods to us, they also would literally be outside (our) space and time, just like the classic Christian God.

Seems to me that Wright’s argument presents a fundamental dilemma to the secular minded: either accept, as Wright suggests, that theology has entered secular discourse, or relegate the simulation hypothesis to the status of a religion for nerds (similarly to the way I suggested multiple times that the related idea of mind uploading is a secular version of the Rapture). I think the reader knows which way I’m inclined to go without need for me to spell it out.

229 thoughts on “Can evolution have a higher purpose? No.

  1. Robin Herbert

    I don’t know if the practice of avoiding the details of particular argument by making fun of the people who are making the argument is really the same thing as childhood bullying or not. Bullying at school bothered me until I learned how to deal with bullies.


  2. Robin Herbert

    Actually I am not sure what most of this chat is about. I thought that it had something to do with the simulation argument, but everybody but me seems to be studiously avoiding that actual argument for various interesting reasons.


  3. SocraticGadfly

    I want to further refudiate myth No. 3 of Wright’s with something you already know, Massimo, and that Mark Lane pointed out well in his book of about a year ago. Due to energy directionality, “fit,” etc., once evolution starts in a certain direction, it continues moving that direction in a more narrow corridor. That doesn’t mean there’s a purpose behind it. It just means that it would take massive energy expenditure for insects to move to a simple eye, mammals to move to a compound eye, etc.


  4. synred

    Robin, Are you seriously suggesting the BIV and such might be true?

    I assume ‘reality’ because it’s the only way science makes sense to me. I don’t care to be investigating what ever illusions somebody is feeding into my brain. These alternatives are artificial constructions of infinite number. I can’t be bothered with them.

    Not being falsifiable they are of no scientific importance. If you don’t like the term BS for such things that perfectly OK with me.

    Once you get the idea that ‘ding an sich’ has to be assumed, these kind of hypothesis serve no further purpose. The vast variety of indistinguishable hypothesis serves no purpose. One is enough of to establish the human condition and the sand beneath or feet.

    End of story.


  5. Robin Herbert

    Hi synred,

    Robin, Are you seriously suggesting the BIV and such might be true?

    Why do you keep asking me if I am suggesting something that I have never suggested or remotely implied? It is getting intensely irritating. In fact it is you who keep bringing up the BIV for some reason.

    If I am suggesting something, I will suggest it. I have not suggested anything that I have not suggested. I thought that much would be obvious.

    You call things BS, but struggle to explain on what basis you claim they are BS.

    You studiously ignore the actual argument and just about anything I say and then ask me if I am suggesting something that I haven’t suggested. Please just stop this silly game.


  6. Robin Herbert

    Hi synred,

    If you don’t like the term BS for such things that perfectly OK with me.

    I think we both know that I am pointing out that you have obviously not the slightest idea on what basis you are applying the term.

    You just keep repeating the mantra “they are not falsifiable” as though this had any relevance to the argument although I don’t even have the slightest idea if you even know what the argument is because you studiously avoid all reference to it.


  7. Robin Herbert

    Hi synred,

    What I said was “it [our uncertaintly about being a simulation or not ] is an unavoidable consequence of mainstream views of physicists and cosmologists which are, I am told, quickly gaining ground”. If you wish to disagree with this, please reference it directly.

    Am I wrong about that? I have pointed out that such simulations are uncontroversially physically possible. I keep hearing from physicists that in an infinite multiverse all possible things will be actualised. Am I wrong about one of these things? Is there some physical principle that I am unaware of that would make such things impossible or unlikely in an infinite multiverse or many worlds scenario? In a many-worlds scenario are there some physically possible things that just won’t ever happen?

    If not then maybe it is your fellow physicists that you should be asking, are they seriously suggesting that there are mind simulators.

    If so then please point out my mistake directly. I am happy to retract if I have misunderstood.


  8. Robin Herbert

    Now if you are saying that Everettian Quantum Mechanics is BS (and by implication) then I must confess that thought has crossed my mind from time to time.

    But if you are not saying that EQM is BS then you can hardly be saying that something that is an unavoidable implication of EQM (ie the existence of infinitely many mind simulations) is BS. To do that would really be bad science.


  9. Robin Herbert

    If nothing else then it is a nice little bellwether for what physicists really think of EQM. Some say they support the idea, others seem to lend credence.

    But if you mention some implication of it and they react like you just said there are faeries at the bottom of your garden then it becomes abundantly clear that in reality the don’t consider there to be the remotest possibility that EQM is true.


  10. Sherlock

    Dan said:
    What on earth are you talking about?

    As Robin said, agree or disagree but the import of my comment was pretty straightforward. Your remarks (yours and SG’s), which I characterised as ‘banter’, remember, seemed to me to be primarily defensive, a kind of ‘maintenance of the echo chamber’ and to mix the metaphor even further, a circling of the wagons (an impression strenghtened by your coming to the aid of Coel, which must be a first. And yes I know, you’d always support him if only he’d agree with you 😊)

    Socratic said:
    Dan, I think Sherlock is indirectly telling us about memories of childhood bullying.
    This remark is a classic of the genre. Apart from being a fatuous foray into pop-psychology, it can always be portrayed as an innocuous bit of straight reportage (“I merely said……”), and could only be taken as snide by an over-sensitive type, and who would wish to be cast in that light? It could even be construed as ‘caring’ if one were brazen enough to spin it that way. As for ‘childhood bullying’, I don’t know of anyone who has not experienced that, as a perpetrator, victim or witness.

    Dan said:
    And sorry, but I find the association of some harmless, stray remark here with childhood bullying to be absurd. Not to mention precious.

    I don’t believe the remarks I referenced were ‘stray’. They were obviously aimed at a particular commenter. And just to be clear, it was Socratic who made the association with childhood bullying, not me, so take up the matter of being absurd and ‘precious’ with him.
    And whether they were harmless or not depends on their impact on the person they were aimed at.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. SocraticGadfly

    Sherlock, I made what I thought were the most charitable interpretation of your remarks. Neither Dan nor I was aiming at a particular person, but a particular idea. Sorry that you weren’t so charitable as to read them that way, which, in my opinion was certainly an easy read compared to trying to decipher your reference.

    I won’t make such assumptions, nor will I likely extend the same degree of charitability, in the future.

    Nuff said from me


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