Thursday, 24 May 2012

A quick thought on evolution and teleology


Today I was re-digesting good conversations with a friend about religion and philosophy. I remember being struck by how he could accept both the theory of evolution and Christianity without the ideas clashing like two steamships in choppy waters. While natural selection does not rule out a creator-type god, nor does it specifically prove against one, a quick glance at the fossil record doesn’t show much teleological guidance or direction. Christianity relies on, no, needs for there to be a plan at the bottom of all this. For the religious, there has to be some semblance of direction or for this all to not be a cruel game or arbitrary experiment.

My friend sees nothing wrong with agreeing that life evolved over millions of years, accepting that evolution works through tiny incremental changes in response to environmental pressures, among other factors. For him evolution is absolutely compatible with the idea that god created all life and is most definitely still involved in its development today. While there’s no reason to believe he thinks god created life in today’s form at one distinct time in the past (as a creationist would), his inclusion of god in the natural process of evolution strikes is entirely redundant and dangerous for his belief. I want to try to explain why.

If life can start on its own (a proposition with a growing amount of evidence, but still no solid ideas on how exactly it might have happened on this earth) and if it is the case that life plods along slowly, adapting to environments by itself, no divine intervention necessary, then what role does an all-powerful creator god play? Sure, god could be responsible for all the changes. Perhaps it’s god who made the fish begin to breathe more gaseous oxygen and crawl out onto the dry shore. And perhaps god is causing all the small mutations making bacteria and viruses so damn resilient to our drugs. And further, I guess god could even direct where the amino acid groups fit in DNA structures, or even where the molecules and the very atoms of the molecules arrange inside an adenosine protein. And sure, god could ensure the strange quantum rules actually form the atom. God could do it all. God would be pretty tired from all this micromanagement, but who cares, it’s God we’re talking about!

This is all well and good, but something about this doesn’t seem right. If god is just a tinkerer, would there ever be a natural process? If god is in the details, just like his devilish antonym, how could saying god exists be any different from saying nature exists? Surely if god is at the bottom of everything like the turtles, then I would have to presume either god is tinkering with my atoms right now, or god actually IS my atoms. Maybe god and nature are the same thing, just like the eastern religions have said this whole time.

However, this doesn’t get us anywhere. If god really is doing everything, all the time, then what good is science? Of what possible use could the invented of a word like ‘nature’ be when we already have the word god? They both describe the same thing. Yet this is what you get if you purport some divine guidance for evolution. But thinking like this is a complete non-starter. After all, don’t you want to know HOW god does things? Don’t you want to know HOW to replicate these phenomena in a lab or in technology? Or is the idea that god does absolutely everything comforting enough not to care?

If god really is directing evolution, it must be assumed there’s a destination. God is proposed by the religious to have a plan (although how they would know of such a thing is beyond me). A direction proposes a destination. God has to be tinkering with life to get a result. But what is the end-game? Is it frogs? They’re pretty cool; maybe god has been working steadily for billions of years to finally create the Green Tree Frog species. Now god can watch them jump around on leaves and catch insects with their creepy tongues like the stupid looking things they are. Maybe god is keen to see how they camouflage themselves on bark or swim goofily through the water with their spindly legs. Or whatever god wants frogs for, I don’t presume to know what god wants, I’m not that arrogant. But if the whole purpose of evolution is frogs, then that’s cool with me.

I guess the Christian faith would have us believe that the ‘special’ homo sapiens is evolution’s destination. With us god’s tinkering was complete; god had found the end point of evolution, and god was pleased. It makes sense really; since god came down to earth in the form of a homo sapien then, obviously, god is some kind of ape. Of course, it also stands to reason that god appearing as an ape would be the smart move on god’s part if god wanted to talk to other apes. We’ve no idea if god also appears to frogs as a frog to talk to frogs. Or if god appears to rabbits as a rabbit to talk to rabbits. Or for that matter we have no idea whether god has assumed the form of every creature that has ever lived at any point in their evolution (or god wouldn’t have seen all the species) just to talk to them and save them from ‘sin’. We simply can’t know that, and god very well could have.

But if god’s mighty interfering in evolution was to eventuate the humble homo sapiens, then that’s fine too. Until you do a little more thinking. And here’s what’s been bothering me:

If you take the premise that the homo sapiens is the destination in the long, winding road of evolution, then you have to: a) agree to the vast age of the earth, b) agree with the theory of evolution, c) agree that natural selection has created and destroyed almost every species that has ever lived on this earth, and d) [this bit is optional] that evolution by natural selection is an on-going process.

All but (d) MUST be agreed to if we upright apes are the destination of god’s wonderful plan for evolution. But (d) is the problem, the fly in the ointment so-to-speak (biology puns). If evolution is an on-going process (and we can show definitively that this is the case) then it follows that evolution has not magically stopped as soon as humans arrived. Natural selection is still a force that humans, albeit in very minor ways, have to deal with each day. One of those nasty viruses might catch on a sneeze and destroy a fair chunk of our population. Or what if a natural disaster (sorry, a ‘god’ disaster) such as a rogue asteroid were to kill millions of people by ploughing into this spinning rock with the force of a million nuclear explosions? Anything could happen and humans might come off worse for wear.

That’s fine if you agree that no god controls anything (it’s a fine thought, but not a nice thought. Reality can be a depressing place sometimes…) but it’s a problem for any theist who thinks it’s all part of the plan. Consider what would happen if the next 100,000 years (a mere yawn in evolutionary time) was to be relatively asteroid-free down here on the third rock from the sun. A lot of evolution can happen in such a long time span. Granted it wouldn’t be enough time to see any radical changes in morphology on any one branch, but it would be enough to encourage speciation within many animal families. Surely if one agrees with the theory of evolution then it’s clear that humans are part of the living world and are therefore still subject to the biting claws of natural selection. In 100,000 years what are the chances of homo sapiens still being recognisable to us today? Very low I would predict. That is, such a time-span would probably result in a homo sapiens population becoming isolated and the inevitable speciation event occurring (perhaps this happens through some other process than isolation).

The point is, there is no evidence to support the theory that the homo sapiens are the final play of evolution. We’ve progressed technologically to the point of being able to offset much of the natural pressures that directly affect our survival, and the gene pool is large enough to dilute any significant morphological changes. But this doesn’t mean that evolution has been in closed off for our species. Our records can only reliably stretch back around 2000 years, and it shows humans looking and acting in pretty much the same way as today. But this is only 2% of the years I proposed earlier! What might occur in our species if we gave it another 98,000 years?

What if humans evolve away from what we are today? Does that mean that god didn’t intend for homo sapiens to be the final stage after all? What does that tell you about this god coming to earth as a homo sapien? Did god come too early? Was god mistaken in telling us we were who god was “most pleased” with? For that matter, did god also visit homo erectus or neanderthalensis? Those guys had brains comparable in size to ours, and, in the case of neanderthalensis, the brain was quite a bit larger than ours. What if humans evolve away from our current form, will god send down his son as a saviour for those post-human creatures too? Maybe god will tell them that it is their “sins” that are keeping them from entering heaven and they need to turn their ‘homo whatever’ hearts towards god.

For me, this whole idea of god and evolution being compatible falls apart when you consider not only how long evolution has been working in the past, but how long it probably still has to go into the future. Don’t stop thinking about the next 100,000 years, stretch your mind a bit more and visualise the next 200,000 or 1,000,000 or even the next 20,000,000. Keep going, if you can, and think how earth life might look in the next 600,000,000 years. Will homo sapiens still be around then? Maybe (if we can develop technology to a point where evolution no longer affects us), but I highly doubt it. I rather think the homo sapien will go the way of the dodo or the plesiosaur: extinction and into the great rubbish pile of failed species.

If god really is a tinkerer, working away furiously each and every second on each and every piece of the universe (even the bits we’ll never see in the Andromeda galaxy; can’t forget those atoms!), and there really is no natural processes at all, then I guess we just might be the destination of evolution. But you’d have to be incredibly short-sighted not to even ponder what things might look like in the distant future.

Maybe it will all end soon, just like the bible-bashers say it will. Maybe the universe is about to wrap-up and humans really will be the final stage of our small evolutionary branch on this isolated planet orbiting a mediocre star in a run-down stellar neighbourhood inside a rudimentary whirlpool galaxy. Yes, perhaps we are the final scene, but I’m not narcissistic enough to believe such rubbish. 

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