EVOLUTION

Evolution undoubtedly happens, however, it is far from clear how and why it happens. A few possibilities will be examined here: Neo-Darwinism, a dominant approach at present, briefly some theistic interpretations,  and the synthesis perspective on the subject.

NEO-DARWINISM

Neo-Darwinism, the dominant interpretation at present, attempts to operate within a strictly materialistic framework. Evolution is regarded as a gradual process that comes about through the interplay of two factors: random mutations (accidental changes of genetic material) and natural selection that enables some of these changes to take over on the basis of their adaptive and reproductive advantages. The dynamic of evolution is based on the struggle and competition within and between species for limited resources. Although this process is considered directionless, it is apparently responsible for bringing forth the successive forms of life from single cell organisms to human beings. This interpretation of evolution has its merits, but also has some flaws. It was widely accepted in the 20th century not because it explained everything perfectly, but because it accounted for the facts better than any alternative and because it fitted well with the prevailing ideology of materialism. The purpose of what follows is not an attempt to prove Neo-Darwinism wrong, but to show that it is incomplete, which is why it cannot provide plausible explanations for all the characteristics of evolution (e.g. the increase of complexity) and for all the paleontological and biological facts. Actually, almost every key term associated with this view: chance, natural selection, competition, and gradualism, raise some doubts, especially if taken dogmatically as it is often the case at present[1].

  • [1]. The phrase ‘survival of the fittest', which is also linked to this model is not considered, because, as biologist Waddington already pointed out a long time ago, it is just a tautology: the existing species have survived because they have been the fittest, and they are the fittest because they have survived.

Chance

The materialist view is that all the changes in living organisms from the original single cell to a great variety of species that have existed and exist nowadays are the result of accidental genetic mutations[2]. Sure enough, some mutations may be accidental, but the claim that all the mutations in all the organisms have been, seems improbable for several reasons.

The effects of random mutations are almost always harmful and incur a loss, not a gain of information and complexity. Only in extremely rare cases may they be harmless. As Denton points out, ‘the fact that the vast majority of all mutations which have some detectable influence on the functioning of the organism are deleterious suggests that each functional living system is indeed enormously constrained to adaptive changes along only a tiny fraction of all the possible evolutionary trajectories available to it' (1998, p.341).

Even if an advantageous mutation occurs, the chances of it spreading throughout the population are very small and the chances against are extremely large. Taking into account the number of mutations that should have taken place, it is highly improbable that they would randomly lead from a single cell organism to human beings. The above quoted biologist states that ‘...evidence for the doctrine of the spontaneity of mutation is hardly ever presented. Its truth is nearly always assumed' (ibid., p.286). Chance mutations acted on by natural selection could scarcely account for variations within species (microevolution) let alone for successive variations among them (macroevolution). A blind process on an erratic trial-and-error basis is not impossible, but is incredible. Laszlo concludes:

...A random process could not have produced the kind of order that we meet with in our experience; it could not even have produced the kind of chaos that surrounds us at times. The fact is that pure, unadulterated chance could not have existed in the universe even if it coexisted with strands of order. If a series of chance events had punctuated the developmental process, the things that would have emerged out of that process would have randomly diverged among themselves... Given a process that is subject to pure chance, even previously ordered things would each grow their own way... Evidently, mere chance did not dominate the evolutionary process: there must also have been a significant degree of binding and coordination. (1993, p.18)

 

A usual response by neo-Darwinists to these challenges to chance as an explanation for the evolutionary process is that given enough time, random mutations would eventually lead to the complex life forms that exist today. However, this does not hold water, especially if long periods of stagnation are taken into account. The rates of mutation necessary are staggering, even within billions of years, considering the cost involved in disposing of the predominant bad mutations. Also, for a good mutation to become fixed in a population, all those individuals which do not have the new trait must die. When these considerations are combined with the low rates of reproduction of many animals, there has hardly been enough time for the present species to have evolved. To quote Laszlo again, ‘it is highly unlikely that random processes could have constructed an evolutionary sequence of which even a basic element, such as a protein or a gene, is complex beyond human capacities'. (ibid., p.91)

 

Environmental changes - another reason that makes evolution by chance implausible is adaptation to environmental changes. A suitable habitat may become less suitable in a relatively short time, which may threaten the survival of some species. In order to carry on, they have to adapt to new conditions. But, if species changed only by random and gradual mutations, they could not adapt fast enough. Yet, many somehow have managed to do so, by producing numerous and complex mutations that were just right.

 

Specific mutations - chance may play a part in mutations, but there are many instances indicating that genetic mutations are not always random and that specific genomic changes can take place under certain con­ditions. For example, both plants and insects can mutate so as to decontaminate the chemicals that enter their environment and develop a resistance to toxic substances. Some experiments (carried out independently by John Cairns and Barry Hall) also show that bacteria seem to be able to mutate solely their defective genes. Purely random mutations could never be so specific.

 

Inter-species consistency (evolutionary convergence) - despite the staggering variety of organisms brought forth during the Cambrian period (about 500 million years ago), the species that now populate the Earth exhibit striking regularities both within and among themselves. Some highly specific anatomical features show remarkable consistency among species with very different evolutionary histories. For example, the wings of birds and bats have similarly positioned bones as the flippers of seals and the forelimbs of equally unrelated amphibians, reptiles and vertebrates. Diverse species also exhibit common orders with regard to the position of the heart and the nervous system: in endoskeletal species the nervous system is in the back and the heart in the front position, while in exoskeletal species these positions are reversed. Another example is the eye: its basic structure appears to have been invented independently by about forty unrelated species. Organisms faced with the same challenge repeatedly arrive at the same solutions. Even if chance is streamlined through natural selection, the convergence of many highly ‘creative' solutions beggars belief.

  • [2]. It may be worth mentioning that Darwin is not responsible for this but his followers, who are trying, as any other ideologists or religious people, to be more Darwinian that Darwin himself. He allegedly wrote: ‘I cannot, anyhow, be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance' (in Fontana, D. 2003. p.73).

Natural selection

Natural selection is also a problem. Although it can weed out the misfits, natural selection cannot make new things (selection means choosing a few from a greater number). It does not create features but merely selects those that provide a greater survival value, and by doing so only narrows the width of the evolutionary process. Although Neo-Darwinists usually claim that the growth in complexity is the result of adaptation to environment, the appearance of increasingly complex organisms cannot be predicted solely from the work of natural selection upon random mutations.

The classical Darwinian mechanism works mainly to adapt individuals to their existing niches; individual variations do not contribute significantly to the emergence of new, more complex species. Even more importantly, many simple organisms are equally or better adapted to environmental variations than complex ones. Only they can be found in extreme conditions. Some unicellular life forms are spread across different environments much more than complex organisms (with the exception of humans). Evolutionist Gould states that ‘...without question, these earliest and simplest cells, the bacteria and their allies, remain the most abundant, widespread, and successful of all living things' (1988, p.44). If only adaptation directs evolution, evolution should not have moved from one cell organisms. This reasoning can be pushed even further:

If mere survival is the sole desideratum, then it would seem that some rudimentary type of organism would be all that is needed. And there would seem no reason why even a rudimentary type of organism should appear, since it could not hope to rival in longevity the everlasting rocks - but unstable DNA? (Edmunds, 1997, p.159)

Natural selection also cannot adequately explain long term adaptive changes. Some changes have immense consequences, and yet they could not have had adaptive advantages when they happened. One example is bisexual reproduction that increases diversity at great cost. Laszlo points out that ‘such a mechanism, while offering an obvious long-term advantage (the more rapid spread of advantageous mutations) does involve an equally obvious short-term disadvantage (the reduced average number of descendants due to males failing to produce offspring)' (1993, p.169).

Finally, natural selection seems to be based on a circular argument (everything that survives is adaptive and therefore selected, and everything that is selected is adaptive and survives) so it cannot be refuted, which does not make good science. When natural selection is used to explain everything, even mutually contradictory adaptations (e.g. the indistinctive colours of some insects, as well as very distinctive colours of others), in fact, it does not explain much.

Competition

A popular science writer, Hazen, describes evolution in the following way:

Charles Darwin proposed that evolution occurs because of the constant struggle for survival. Many more individuals of most species are born than can possibly survive. In the brutal competition for limited resources, individuals with advantageous traits are more favoured to survive long enough to pass those traits on to offspring. (1997, p.197)

This scary way of interpreting the evolutionary process, using phrases such as ‘survival of the fittest', ‘struggle', ‘brutal competition' and so forth, is fairly typical. Such a view was already popular in Darwin's time, probably as a reaction to the idealisation and glorification of nature by the Romantic movement.[3] However, this outlook is biased. No doubt that struggle and competition exist, but cooperation and symbioses within a species and between species is at least equally important[4]. For example, in order to start creating multi-cell organisms, some single-cell organisms must give up their capacity to reproduce - which is a striking example of symbiotic cooperation leading to complexity, but is contrary to ‘selfish gene' (or similar) interpretations. Using loaded adjectives such as ‘brutal' even in connection to the predatory nature of certain species is misleading. Every organism must die, and the suffering of those individuals who are unfit or misfit would probably be longer and more brutal without predators.

More importantly, if competition is the only driving force (between species, as well as within a species), one would expect that super-bacteria, super-plants or super-animals would have developed well before the appearance of humans and have taken over the whole eco-system. Yet, a delicate balance in nature that allows development seems to be permanently preserved. In rare cases when a particular type of species starts to dominate to the extent that they prevent further evolution, they conspicuously get wiped out. Many researchers have argued, for example, that mammals and thus humans could not have evolved without the demise of the dinosaurs (presumably, this has not been the fate of humans, although they are now dominant, because evolution so far has continued within the species - a point taken on in the following chapters).

  • [3]. His contemporary, poet Tennyson, famously characterised nature as ‘red in tooth and claw'.
  • [4]. After a long battle, the scientific community nowadays looks more favourably upon the proposition of Lynn Margulis that the cooperation between organisms, rather than competition, is the chief agent of natural selection. In a consolatory fashion, she said that ‘Darwin's grand vision was not wrong, only incomplete'. The position here is that the same applies to some other tenets of Neo-Darwinism.

Gradualism

The Neo-Darwinian theory maintains that life has been subject to a process of gradual transformation that allowed it to move from simple forms to ever more complex ones in small steps. Early life consisted of tiny unicellular organisms living in water, and every other form, extant or extinct, is connected by an unbroken chain of intermediate species to these first ones. This is not exactly the picture that one would get from the available fossil evidence. If evolution had been gradational, there should be greater variations between fossil specimens reflecting every small step in the process. But, this does not seem to be the case. Although there are an abundance of fossils of fully formed species, there are few contenders for their transitional forms (hence the phrase ‘missing link'). For example, there are no traces of the evolutionary ancestors of the trilobites in the rock layers beneath where the trilobites are found. It seems that trilobites, with their sophisticated optical systems, appear in the geological record relatively suddenly. These occurrences cannot be fully accounted for by the incompleteness of available data. Mounting paleontological evidence suggests that ‘speciation' (the emergence of new species) is a rapid process. Species change in relatively swift bursts, without leisurely transition periods[5]. These episodes of fast speciation are separated by fairly long spans during which no significant alterations can be detected. In other words, species appear abruptly, often in entirely different forms, and remain substantially unchanged for millions of years - a condition of stasis at odds with Darwin's model of continuous change. Then, just as quickly they become extinct and are immediately followed by other very different species[6]. The fossil record demonstrates abundantly that each episode of extinction was followed by a period when new forms proliferated, filling the ecological niches emptied by the old. Not only individual species but entire genera make their appearance in relatively short time. One example is the so-called Cambrian explosion about half a billion years ago, the sudden emergence, in the span of a few million years, of a great variety of the bigger animals that now populate the earth. The rapid evolution of mammals between 60 and 65 million years ago is another instance of this recurrent phenomenon. It is significant that every new cycle is not made of species at the same level of complexity, but more advanced ones.

 

This does not refute the continuity of the evolutionary process and certainly does not imply that an external force directly interferes with it, as the creationists (or the proponents of ‘Intelligent Design') would like to believe[7]. Slow, continuous change (within species) may be the norm during periods of environmental stability, while rapid speciation may occur during periods of environmental stress. When the milieu changes and the existing niches disappear, some species die out. Then the ‘peripheral isolates' (species that live in relatively small numbers) invade the centres of dominance and take over as the new main species. Also there are some creative solutions. For example, a link between prokaryotes (cells without organelles) and eukaryotes (cells with organelles and other structures) has not been found. The difference between these single-cell species is striking, and yet there are no intermediate stages between them. There are many living samples of each, but none of the intermediate stages. One imaginative possibility, put forward by the biologist Margulis, is that eukaryotes could be the result of a symbiosis of two different prokaryote species.

 

However, even when the above hypotheses are taken into account, conventional Darwinian mechanisms do not seem sufficient to explain the stops and starts observed in the fossil record (why species appear so abruptly and why they persist so long without changing.). These punctuations are too radical to allow for Neo-Darwinian interpretation. The problem is not only to explain the sudden burst but also, as a science writer Richard Kerr puts it, ‘what would maintain the equilibrium... keeping the new species from evolving in spite of environmental vagaries' (1995, p.1421-1422).

 

Intriguingly, growing evidence suggests that extinctions follow relatively regular periodic patterns[8]. The statistical chance of these patterns being a random occurrence is very small. Some of them may have been caused by physical factors (e.g. slight variations in the Earth's orbit over long periods, leading to a climate change). Nevertheless, it is conspicuous that new, and as a rule, more complex life always follows relatively soon after.

 

All the above makes it hardly plausible that new species could have arisen gradually by purely accidental transformation from one species into another.

  • [5]. Although it had its precursors, so-called punctuationism or punctuated equilibrium brought these facts to wider attention in the 1970s. It caused quite a stir, especially among dogmatic Neo-Darwinists, for fear that it could be used as a weapon against the theory of evolution as a whole.
  • [6]. Of course, ‘immediately' only in geological terms. For instance, Denton writes that ‘the evolutionary pattern was one of millions of years of stasis interrupted by periods of no more than 100, 000 years of rapid and sudden change' (1998, p.297).
  • [7]. Punctuationism, strictly speaking, is not ‘saltationism' (radical changes from one generation to the next or discontinuous appearance of new species), so it does not contradict the theory of evolution. It only adds weight to the argument that the traditional Darwinian mechanisms may not be the only factors.
  • [8]. The figure of 2.5 million years seems significant in this respect. Paleobiologist Sepkoski also suggests 26 million years, but according to Muller and Rohde, a 62 million year pattern is even more striking.

The increase of complexity

It is difficult to explain why more and more complex organisms have steadily appeared throughout evolution if every life form is supposed to be a result of accidental changes in the genetic material. The second law of thermodynamics demands that in any closed system entropy increases. This means that energy tends to go towards equilibrium, disintegrating into simpler forms, rather than integrating into more complex ones. In other words, a system inevitably moves towards the state of maximum randomness and disorganisation. Life, of course, is not a closed system, so an increase in complexity does not violate the second law. Nevertheless, it seems strange that at every level there is a tendency in evolution to produce something new and more complex, going persistently against that law - from relatively simple and crude forms to complex and refined ones. Polanyi and Prosch comment:

another unsolved problem arises from the continuous quantitative increase in DNA chains from those of bacteria to those of man - from about twenty million DNA alternatives to about twelve billion. DNA does not behave naturally. It moves from a lower energetic level to the higher, because it moves towards a higher complexity, which cannot be explained by DNA itself. There is no chemical model available to explain this enormous growth or the chemical explanation for this fundamental fact of the system, just as we have no chemical explanation for the historical origin of DNA or for its capacity to produce media that apparently anticipate the continued development of the embryo. (1975, p.167)

Materialists sometimes argue that all life could develop from a hypothetical first cell, as all new life develops from a single fertilised cell. However, a cell can develop into a complex organism only because all of the parts and instructions are in the original cell produced from conception. For large scale evolution, mutation must on average add information. It has been already demonstrated many times with detailed probabilistic analysis that this is extremely unlikely (most classic textbook cases of mutations cited in favour of neo-Darwinian evolution are, in fact, losses of information). So, it is incongruent to conclude that random mutations on their own can account for an increase of complexity.

Redundancy (two or more solutions for the same problem found in many species, such as the development of the vulva in the nematode) is a further challenge for the traditional view. Denton writes:

...the greater the degree of redundancy, the greater the need for simultaneous mutation to effect evolutionary change and the more difficult it is to believe that evolutionary change could have been engineered without intelligent direction. (1998, p.339)

Even if it is accepted that gradual incremental steps may in some cases accidentally lead to more complex structures, they could not do so in all. A comparison can be made with horse-drawn carts and motor cars. Carts and cars have some similarities (e.g. four wheels) and the same purpose, but cars did not gradually evolve from carts. Throughout centuries, carts had been steadily improved. However, in order to make a car, a leap that required the development and addition of several completely new components at the same time was needed. Even the simplest functional motor requires a few parts non-existent in the most advanced carts. And if just one of these components were missing, the motor would be nothing more but extra weight that the cart would be better off without. Similarly, the survival of a new species is dependent on all the necessary mechanisms (in at least a rudimentary form) being present to begin with. The problem is that obviously one gene mutation is not enough for more complex adaptation. But, if just two mutations are required at the same time to produce at least a slight advantage, the chance that this will happen accidentally decreases dramatically. One example from Dawkins' book The Blind Watchmaker may be a case in point (1986, p.97-99). Weakly electric fish use electric fields to navigate in muddy waters. However, this remarkable ability is of no use unless the body of the fish is absolutely rigid. To make up for this, the fish has developed one long fin, so that the rest of the body can remain still. Even with this fin, the movement of the fish is rather slow, but this is compensated for by its ability to detect electric fields in water. So, the navigation system is useless without the fin, and the fin is maladaptive without the navigation system. Their appearance had to be synchronous, but they require very different sets of genetic mutations (not to mention that these mechanisms must also be controlled by an appropriate nervous system and brain). Sometimes many simultaneous mutations are necessary, which makes chance, as their main cause, improbable. Considering that the vast majority of mutations are lethal anyway, it stretches belief that numerous beneficial mutations  can occur at the same time accidentally.

This issue is even more striking in relation to macroevolution, the emergence of new (usually more complex) species from earlier ones, especially if it is taken into account that intermediary forms are often not found, and that no breeders have ever managed to produce one species from another. To quote Denton again:

There are innumerable examples of complex organs and adaptations which are not led up to by any known or even, in some cases, conceivable series of feasible intermediates. In the case, for example, of the flight feather of a bird, the amniotic egg, the bacterial flagellum, the avian lung, no convincing explanation of how they could have evolved gradually has ever been provided. (1998, p.275)

Let us take one of these examples. No transitional fossil structure between scale and feather is known. This is not surprising, considering that a half-feather is  likely to be a disadvantage rather than an advantage. A feather has a quite complicated structure that is light, and yet wind-resistant. This is possible because of the complex system of barbs and barbules. Barbules on one side of the barb are rigged, and on the other have hooks. It is hard to imagine that chance mutations could produce this precise cross-linking of the barbules to make a connecting lattice. Even if the chance mutation of a ridge/hook occurs in two of the barbules, it also needs to be translated to the rest of the structure. Moreover, if the lattice structure was not lubricated, the sliding joint made by the hooked and ridged barbules would soon fray, which means that the wings would be useless. Many others adaptations are necessary to have birds that can fly (forward-facing elbow joints, navigating tail, strong wing muscles, hollow bones etc.). Even if all of them have developed gradually, each step had to be synchronised and the new must be so great an advantage that it compensates for the losses (of fully functional forelimbs or strong bones). Moreover, not only does each modification have to have sufficient survival value, but the related genes also have to be dominant in order to pass it on to successive generations. Of course, once this transformation has occurred, natural selection will select the better wings from the less workable wings. Evolution clearly operates in part by Darwinian natural selection, but this process simply selects those transformations that have already occurred by different mechanisms.

The problem of complexity for undirected evolution resides not only in the remarkable number of components that are sometimes necessary, but also in the fact that life forms are such highly integrated systems that their components cannot be changed independently. Any functional change would require specific compensatory changes in the interacting subsystems. For instance, a change in a protein structure would necessitate many complex simultaneous changes throughout the molecule to preserve any biological function. Denton concludes that ‘it is hard to envisage a reality less amenable to Darwinian change via a series of independent undirected mutations altering one component of the organism at a time' (ibid. p.342).

The above does not imply that complexity is irreducible, as proponents of Intelligent Design would like to present. For example, some components may have been adapted from existing structures that had a different faction, or more significantly, irreducibility may diminish on a molecular level. However, it still makes sense to challenge the claim that such complexities can be fully explained by the adaptive selection of purely accidental mutations.

Concluding Remarks

The above issues are not detrimental to evolution as such, nor do they necessarily lead to a conclusion that species were created as separate units by an external agency. For instance, the genomes of all organisms are clustered in a relatively small region of DNA sequence space forming a tree of related sequences that can all be inter-converted via a series of tiny incremental steps. So the sharp discontinuities between different organs and different types of organisms greatly diminish at the DNA level. What looks very different on the macro level, may not be so different on the DNA level:

...in DNA sequence space it is possible to move at least hypothetically from one adaptation (position) to another in DNA space via functionless or meaningless intermediate sequences. This is because a DNA sequence does not have to be functional to survive and be passed on through the generations. In fact, the greater part of all the DNA in nearly all the cells in higher organisms, although it is copied faithfully at each cell division, is never expressed... It is very easy to imagine how an evolving DNA sequence might be passed silently down through several generations before being expressed... [this] means that new sequences and hence new evolutionary innovations can be generated, at least hypothetically, via functionless intermediates. Thus, new organs and structures that cannot be reached via a series of functional morphological intermediates can still be reached by change in DNA sequence space. (Denton, 1998, p.278-279)

Some genetic changes, especially in higher organisms, have been largely a matter of the rearrangement of pre-existing genes rather than the emergence of new ones. Information specifying the future of evolutionary events may be stored in so-called junk DNA (non-protein-coding DNA). Many such sequences have been conserved over millions of years of evolution. This, however, does not explain the enormous increase of the DNA chain throughout evolution, and even if it is assumed that these dormant genes are the key, the questions remains why they are passed over to the next generations when they are not needed, and even more importantly, why they become active just when they are. To repeat, these objections do not invalidate the idea of evolution as an organising principle, only its reductionist interpretation. The above arguments are an attempt to show that mechanisms that Neo-Darwinists use to explain the evolutionary process are not sufficient, strongly indicating directed evolution:

The sudden emergence of an entirely new type of organism, or of a functionally perfect novel organ system, would be almost impossible to account for except within some kind of directed evolutionary or teleological framework. (ibid., p.296)

If this is the case, it is reasonable to consider what is the minimum that such a framework would require.

THEISTIC INTERPRETATIONS

The fact that the theory of evolution is incomplete does not mean that the older interpretations are necessarily right. The Old Testament account, for example, contains a number of incongruent and inconsistent statements that renders Creationist interpretations far less plausible than the theory of evolution. For instance, according to Genesis, fruit-bearing trees were created on the third ‘day', while fish and other marine creatures were created two ‘days' later. Whatever ‘day' is supposed to mean, the fossil record shows clearly that fish pre-dated trees by hundreds of millions of years. The existence of redundant organs and other imperfections (e.g. the position of optic nerves in the human eye) is another reason why the creation of species by intelligent design is extremely implausible. An omnipotent designer should do better.

However, there have been many theologians (notably from the Jesuit breed) who have not interpreted the Bible literally and have even attempted to incorporate the theory of evolution within a religious framework. A prominent relatively recent example is Teilhard de Chardin, who took evolution as a central tenet of his theology[1]. His essentially Hegelian vision, but extended beyond historical time, is far removed from conventional religious views with sometimes bizarre consequences. He argued in favour of the racial and cultural superiority of Europe, and even welcomed the atom bomb as a sign of humankind's triumph over nature. The other, more traditional position that can be traced back to St Augustine, emphasises God's transcendence, insisting that God only sets the starting parameters, after which nature follows the evolutionary path without any further interventions. It stems from the doctrine that the creation is perfect, so further interference is not necessary (such a view was taken to an extreme by deists in 18th century). This is also a challenge to the Biblical account that assumes the active involvement of God (from the story of Abraham to Jesus). In order to overcome these difficulties, philosopher Whitehead proposes a bipolar nature of God, one transcendent and one ‘in the world', but the tension between these two poles appears to create more problems than it solves. Without delving into detailed analyses of these perspectives, one conclusion is inevitable. In order to incorporate the accepted facts in a meaningful way, the understanding of the creator and shis involvement has to undergo an evolutionary process too.

  • [1]. In the East, a similar concept was espoused by Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo.

THE SYNTHESIS PERSPECTIVE

The purpose of the above was to outline some problems with the current interpretation of evolution. However, just as the belief in chance being the main driving force is impossible to prove, an attempt to conclusively demonstrate that such a belief is incorrect is equally futile. Anything can happen by chance. Given an infinitely large eco-system and infinite time, everything is possible (although not necessary). But the eco-system of this planet is not infinite, and the time available, although huge, has not been infinite. So, the real challenge is, given these limitations, to provide a framework that is more plausible. It certainly makes sense to consider an interpretation that would give life and the evolutionary process a fair chance, rather than an astronomically small one.

In the mass of arguments and counter-arguments it is easily overlooked that Neo-Darwinism and Creationism have something in common. In both interpretations, life is essentially a passive material, moulded either by the all-powerful external agency or by ‘blind' natural forces[1]. The evidence, however, suggests a different picture. Species not only adapt to, but also actively create the environment (the present composition of the Earth's atmosphere, for example, is to a large extent created by the activity of organisms). Life has played a key role in maintaining and modifying its environments, which made possible not only its continuation but also the appearance of new and more complex forms. Thus, the Synthesis perspective considers life an active participant in this process, and suggests two additional factors that influence evolution - the one on the micro level and the other on the macro level. The first is individual choice and the other one can be called evolutionary intent. So, the process of evolution is seen as the result of natural selection and mutations that are not completely random, but influenced by individual choices and an overall accumulative tendency of life to grow and develop. In other words, a creative act is moderated by environmental restrictions. In principle, this is not something that goes against the grain of the theory of evolution. Darwin himself confessed: ‘I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification' (1859, p.69).

  • [1]. The Neo-Darwinian orthodoxy that adheres to the Newtonian mechanistic model does not permit any permeability between the internal (e.g. genes) and the external (the environment). In other words, phenotype (behaviour, experience and the other characteristics of an organism) cannot affect genotype (its genetic constitution). So, not only is life completely passive, but the environment has only a selective function. According to this view, ‘blind' chance and ‘blind' nature work in parallel (or in sequence) but they do not interact.

Choice

That agency plays a role in the evolutionary process should not come as a surprise if accepted that it is one of the fundamental properties of life. It seems that even very primitive organisms exhibit agency. Choice can be recognised in the way organisms react to stimuli - and they react (in subtle ways) differently, sometimes even contrary to their urges or to what is expected. The influence of choice has been already recognised by a number of evolutionists (see, for example, Hameroff, 1998). This does not need to be seen as a form of Lamarckism[2]. Choice does not need to trigger genetic mutations or other chemical alterations. By making certain choices, an organism changes and affects its environment and its own subsequent preferences, which can indirectly tip the balance in favour of some genes rather than others. Popper (who named this ‘Organic evolution'), writes:

Thus the activity, the preferences, the skill, and the idiosyncrasies of the individual animal may indirectly influence the selection pressures to which it is exposed, and with it, the outcome of natural selection. (1977, p.12)

This is compatible with Darwinism and is not acknowledged only because those who would like to see life in mechanical terms are not at ease with giving any credence to a factor that is so non-machine-like. As for Lamarckism, it has received a fresh breath of life recently. A new field of epigenetics (that studies what regulates genes, what turns them on and off) provides some support to the notion that choices we make can affect which genes will be activated in subsequent generations. A number of scientists are working on accumulating the evidence but the verdict is still open. Even if minimally proven right, the reliance on chance would be reduced further, but these ideas would have to overcome scientific inertia before being accepted. What is important, for the time being, is to recognise that choice does play a role in one way or another.

Nevertheless, although choice may explain some adaptations within species better than pure chance, it is not enough. To explain the more global aspects of the evolutionary process (e.g. an overall increase in complexity) another factor needs to be introduced.

  • [2]. An interpretation of evolution that was very popular before Darwin, asserting that the striving of organisms is the major cause of changes. So (to use a typical example), giraffes have long necks because they were stretching their necks to reach leaves that were high up, which was gradually transmitted to subsequent generations. This description is worth including because it seems so common-sensical that even nowadays many people erroneously interpret Neo-Darwinism in a similar way (Neo-Darwinism does not allow any acquired characteristics to be directly transmitted to subsequent generations).

Evolutionary intent

Reductive materialism has its own reasons to reject the possibility that something else may be involved on the macro level besides pure chance. Polanyi observed that

the action of the ordering principle underlying such a persistent creative trend is necessarily overlooked or denied by the theory of natural selection, since it cannot be accounted for in terms of accidental mutation plus natural selection. Its recognition would, indeed, reduce mutation and selection to their proper status of merely releasing and sustaining the action of evolutionary principles by which all major evolutionary achievements are defined. (1958, p.385)

However, too much selection, synchronisation, and amplification of the mutation rate take place to make credible the view that random mutations are the only source of the ever increasing complexity. A number of scholars who do not associate themselves with the creationist account or any religious credo take this view too. Laszlo, for instance, writes:

One would need an almost blind faith in Darwinian theory to believe that chance alone could have produced in the line of birds all the modifications needed to make them high­ performing flying machines... it is hardly credible... that small random mutations and natural selection could have produced a dinosaur from an amoeba. (1993, p.98-99)

Evolution generally goes in the direction of more complex forms. Matter, on the other hand, is normally entropic, predisposed towards simplification, so it is unlikely that complex organisms would have developed if only physical and chemical processes were involved. This is not the only reason to reach a conclusion that evolution is not just a series of accidents. The uniformity of mutation rates may be another example:

The curious equality of mutation rates and evolutionary substitution rates and the just as curious uniformity of protein evolution which have caused end­less discussion over the past twenty years have not proved easy to reconcile with Darwinian explanations. And although in no sense can either of these two phenomena be claimed as evidence for design, they are suggestive of something more in the evolutionary process than purely random mutation. (Denton, 1998, p.383)

A further indication is also that evolution does not happen gradually as one would expect if Darwinism was completely right, but in leaps (rapid transformations) followed by long periods of relative equilibrium. This feature may point at something even more important. Namely, that the concerted intent of species, rather than the Intent, is responsible for evolutionary dynamics. If the Intent were directly involved, one would again expect a steady progress, there would have been no need for periods of stagnation. It is more likely, as already suggested, that the Intent is mainly involved in setting the boundary conditions by streamlining possibilities (in other words, enabling a fair chance), the rest is mostly left to life itself[3]:

If neither natural selection nor any other sort of undirected evolutionary mechanism seem plausible, then could they conceivably have been the result of the activities of life itself operating via some as yet undefined type of inventiveness inherent in all life?... even if much of the overall order of organic nature was determined from the beginning, it is surely conceivable that the Creator... could have gifted organisms not only with the capacity for growth, reproduction, inheritance and variability, but also with a limited degree of genuine autonomous creativity so that the world of life might reflect and mirror in some small measure the creativity of God. (ibid., p.364)

This implies that new species do not come from nowhere, there is no ‘invisible hand' that creates them. The difference between the Creationist and this view can be compared to seeing the universal agency as an engineer or artist who makes a tree, or as a gardener who provides the right conditions for a tree to grow (and pruning it if and when necessary). A number of scientists have by now come to the conclusion that life must harbour some fundamental order-generated tendency:

Already in mid [20th] century Hermann Weyl noted that because each of the molecules on which life is based consists of something like a million atoms, the number of possible atomic combinations is astronomical. On the other hand the number of combinations that could create viable genes is relatively limited. Thus the probability that such combinations would occur through random processes is negligible. A more likely solution, said Weyl, is that some sort of selective process has been taking place, probing different possibilities and gradually groping its way from simple to complex structures. (Laszlo, 1993, p.91-92)

Philosopher Henry Bergson argued for the existence of a unique vital impulse that is continually developing, implying that evolution was creative rather than mechanistic. He named this impulse élan vital (life force). Many traditions hold the same basic view. Hindus call the life force prana, Polynesians mana, Iroquois orenda, while in Islam it is called baraka. For the ancient Egyptians the world was permeated by sa, in China they use the term Ch'I. The notion of life force is discredited by its misuse in popular culture and dismissed by most scientists because it cannot be found. This should not be a problem in itself though; as already mentioned, gravitation cannot be directly found either. The effects of gravitation and other fields, however, can be easily measured, while the effects of evolutionary intent (that is a manifestation of life force) can be detected only over long periods. Nevertheless, the fact that evolution goes in the direction of increased complexity cannot be ignored, and this factor has potentially a greater explanatory power than blind chance or God the watchmaker. So, what is this life force? The suggestion here is that it is an intent of life to maximise existence and agency, which are the innate and irreducible drives embedded in every species.

Existence is manifested in a tendency to live, adapt and proliferate that can be called ‘drive to survive' or ‘survival intent' evident in all living organisms, but not in any inanimate objects. Biologists assume ‘survival instinct' but do not explain it, because it has to be causally prior even to genes. Otherwise, why would genes ‘want' to survive, maintain their complex dynamic structure as well as that of the system they belong to - the cell? Genes determine how organisms reproduce, but not why they reproduce in the first place. It is proposed that the energy intends to remain focused (which is a prerequisite of life). What helps in this respect, at least in the material world, are physical bodies. So, to realise itself, the non-material component forces the material one to fill in any gap that is available (like water that fills in any crack on its way),  which is why there is such a huge variety of living organisms. As Denton puts it, ‘the enormous diversity of the pattern of life on earth may not represent a full plenitude of all life forms, but it appears to approach closely this ideal.' (1998, p.383)

The agency, on the other hand, is not only manifested in the tendency (which does not need to be fully conscious) to exercise freedom or choice as suggested above, but also to increase it. Harman proposes that there is a ‘sort of teleological "pull" in the evolutionary process, of evolution towards increased awareness, complexity, freedom - in short, of evolution going somewhere (not in a predetermined sense, but in the sense of preferred direction)' (1998, p.49). This pull that is the driving force behind the leaps in complexity could be called evolutionary intent. It leads to further differentiation and fragmentation into more complex units (with their own self, awareness and intent), enabling individualisation of energy. Non-material energy though, can be self-actualised only through matter, so there is a general trend to push matter in the direction of more complex and integrated structures, which results in biological evolution. This could explain the anti-entropic trend of organisms.

However, evolutionary intent is weak, and needs to accumulate before producing any result, which is why the process appears punctuated. This can be compared with generating a new idea. It may seem as if the idea has come suddenly, out of nowhere, but this is not the case. The person has probably been focusing on the problem for a while. This is the process of incubation, the accumulation of intent, which eventually enables the idea to break through. So, new ideas are neither the gifts of muses nor a random process. The appearance of new species may be similar[4]. Organisms can live for long periods in a relative equilibrium that can produce some adaptive changes within species, but does not spawn different and more complex ones. The much stronger material side is essentially inertive and resists the change. The build-up of intent (usually at the ecological peripheries) is necessary in order to overcome this resistance of the existing equilibrium. This is a very slow process considering how weak evolutionary intent is. Environmental conditions, of course, also need to be right. However, although natural disasters may in some cases facilitate a change, they are not necessary. When intent sufficiently accumulates, the matter gives in, and some species undergo a number of simultaneous mutations in a relatively short period of time.

It is possible that on the non-material level there are connections between the organisms within a species (the more primitive, the more connections) and some between different species. So, individual intents may add up to the collective intent of species and these intents, in turn, may add up to the ‘global' intent, which (especially at the early stages of evolution) converges with the Intent, and can influence biological evolution. Denton indicates how this can be translated to the biological sphere:

...the genomes of nearly all organisms contain so-called gene families, which consist of multiple identical copies of the same gene. Surprisingly, these copies are often identical not only within the genome of one individual but in the genomes of all the individuals in the species. A variety of genetic mechanisms have been identified which act to maintain the sequential identity between all the copies of the same gene in any one species. In the early eighties Cambridge geneticist Gabriel Dover suggested that the integrated effect of these various internal mechanisms is potentially capable of causing synchronous genetic changes in all the members of a population. He termed the effect ‘molecular drive'. It is relatively easy to envisage how such processes could be utilized... to bring about cohesive directional mutational change during evolution. (1998, p.281)

  • [3]. This is, however, not straightforward. For example, oxygen was a by-product of the metabolism of simple organisms that dominated the biosphere for a long while. When the oxygen production had enabled the development of more complex organisms, these simple ones vanished. It is hard to avoid the sense of a subtle background influence of the Intent in some instances (perhaps a demise of dinosaurs is also such an instance, but it will never be possible to prove it).
  • [4]. Comparable ‘jumps' happen in the atomic world and also individual and social development. Relatively long periods of an accumulation of energy (an increase of pressure) lead suddenly to the leap of an electron, personal change in an individual, or a paradigm shift (in science, culture, or religion).

The direction

For ideological reasons Neo-Darwinism has to interpret evolution as directionless (directed evolution is incompatible with materialism). This, however, contradicts not only common sense but the facts too:

The very great complexity of life, and especially its quite fantastic holistic nature, which seems to preclude any sort of evolutionary transformations via a succession of small independent changes, is perfectly compatible with the notion of directed evolution. ( ibid., p.383-384)

Natural selection, acting upon random mutations, could never produce such results. Denton collected data on every level of biological organisation that renders directionless evolution unlikely. He concludes:

The evolutionary evidence is similar; it compounds. In isolation, the various pieces of evidence for direction, the speed of evolutionary change, the fantastic complexity of living things, the apparent gratuity of some of the ends achieved, are perhaps no more than suggestive, but taken together, the overall pattern points strongly to final causes... No other explanation makes as much sense of all the facts. ( ibid., p.384-385)

This, of course, does not mean that every biological blueprint is directed. Any particular form will depend on the available genetic material and environmental circumstances. There are many contingent adaptations (particularly noticeable in isolated environments). The evolutionary pull can be compared to the gravitational force that pulls river water in the same general direction. In conjunction with the environmental constrains a river-bed is created as a loose boundary that determines its general flow.  Within this flow some variations can occur that may appear to have a different (even opposite) direction or stagnate. Similarly, many evolutionary lines are dead ends. Although there is a general trend towards complexity, some organisms get stuck in evolutionary terms, and sometimes even regress. Nevertheless, as with a river, an overall flow is maintained.

Broadly speaking, two dimensions (or directions) of biological evolution can be discerned: the horizontal (characterised by an increase in organisation, integration and diversity - expansion of life to unoccupied environmental niches) and the vertical (characterised by an increase in complexity, specialisation and dynamics). Both processes lead to a relative decrease in entropy. From this perspective, animals, for example, are a step further ahead than plants in the process of evolution:

Animals are highly ordered systems that in contrast to most plants are largely synthesized from highly ordered (low-entropy) molecules. (Silver, 1998, p.352)

Ultimately, however, the aim of biological evolution can be linked to producing forms that would enable development of the non-material energy. This primarily means increasing and refining its main properties - awareness and intent, that are exercised through life experiences in the material world. So, the purpose of biological evolution can be defined as an enhancement of awareness and intent through developing more complex and independent biological forms. In other words, species become more aware and gain more control through the processes of evolution, fulfilling an overall tendency of life towards self-actualisation.

To avoid chaos though, this increase needs to be carried out in manageable steps, which is achieved through internal and environmental constraints. Thus, evolution can be seen as a result of the interaction between the material and non-material components of life, within the pre-set but dynamic boundaries that expand throughout the process. So, evolution starts with narrow awareness and intent that gradually develop, while the strength of biological and environmental determinism decreases. Greater awareness means that more energy can be affected by the self. The self is at the beginning a relatively passive observer and does not have a big impact, but through the process of evolution the individual selves become more pro-active and their influence grows. In other words, the role of intent becomes more prominent. It is reflected in a reduction of predictable, predetermined actions and behaviour.

To summarise, evolution enables individualisation and also the shaping and refining of energy, which is compatible with the overall aim of life. If evolution is characterised by the increase of complexity and organisation, and if the One is the source of the most complex and organised phenomena, the end result must be to become an equivalent, counterpart to the One.

This process is enabled mainly by a growth in complexity of the nervous system (more can be done with an advanced computer than with a simple one). Indeed, the awareness of higher organisms seems broader and more complex. Generally speaking, animal species are more aware than plants, and humans are more aware than animals. The self of an animal is capable of focusing (holding together) a relatively small range of qualitatively different pieces of information. Some of them may hear or smell better than humans, but they are not aware of much more besides these sensations, because their ability to organise and structure what they are aware of is limited. Thus, the consciousness that humans possess did not appear accidentally, but as a stage in the evolutionary process. There is a sound empirical basis for this assertion.

Humans

Some evolutionists agree that the appearance of humans could not be an accident:

With all these examples of convergence it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the evolution of a humanoid creature was very much on the cards since at least the time of the Cambrian explosion more than half a billion years ago, when all the major groups of animals we see today originated. (Morris, 2002, p.26)

This convergence of the evolutionary process is unlikely to be a random product of adaptation and is more compatible with directed evolution. All the distinct characteristics of humans (brain, tongue, standing upright) do not make sense if the Neo-Darwinian view is taken. They only have long term benefits (thinking, language and freeing hands to enable tool making) that could not be anticipated by purely biological evolution. It is worthwhile to look at these features in more detail.

The claim that human consciousness was developed as an adaptive mechanism does not seem valid considering that most (if not all) of it, in fact, did not have an immediate advantage. The human brain has unique capacities that cannot be rivalled by any other organ; because of the brain, humans are the only species on the Earth that can calculate, philosophise, produce art, contemplate God or the structure of an atom. Yet, none of these abilities were of any use when the human brain appeared (the brain did develop further, but not much, throughout human history). The first humans, as all other animals, could do well for what they needed to survive with a smaller and less sophisticated brain. In fact, it was a big disadvantage. The bigger head (to accommodate the bigger brain) made birth more difficult, which must have increased the mortality rate of mothers and newborns alike. The soft part of the skull, to accommodate growth of the brain after birth, made infants more vulnerable to injury. Heaviness of the head could only make balance harder, and disproportional consumption of the oxygen and glucose by the brain contributed to the species being less rather than more physically fit. Also, a big brain is accompanied by a slow physical development that enables learning, but leads to the off-spring being dependent on their parents for longer, which is another adaptive disadvantage. So, if adaptation to the environment was the only decisive factor, species with the human brain should have disappeared as soon as they appeared.

A similar argument can be applied to the development of the human tongue, which is quite different from a chimpanzee tongue. It has a thick muscle at the back which enables humans to speak (chimpanzees have a flat tongue). However, a bulky tongue makes swallowing more difficult and therefore those who have it less adapted. True, language appeared later to be a huge advantage, but what use could early humans have of their potential to speak, when no language yet existed? The argument that the thickness gradually developed in parallel with the development of a primitive language does not hold water. It is extremely unlikely that the several sets of unrelated but right mutations affecting the brain, speech apparatus, and skeleton would have happened within the same species accidentally. For example, to have the control over breathing that is necessary for complex speech, humans needed a wider vertebral canal behind the ribcage than their predecessors such as Homo-erectus had; also the larynx descended in the throat and by being lower, contributed to this ability. Such synchronised events would require directed evolution.

Standing up must have been an adaptive disadvantage in the early stages too. It made humans slower, they could not climb trees well, and injuring one leg would be fatal. Yet, it was necessary for the development of consciousness because it enabled the anatomical change of the thumb and the use of hands for tool making.

In 1927, biologist Julian Huxley (who was the first Director-General of UNESCO and a founder of the World Wildlife Fund[5]) wrote:

Biology... has thus revealed man's place in nature. He is the highest form of life produced by the evolutionary process on this planet, the latest dominant type, and the only organism capable of further major advance or progress. Whether he knows it or not, whether he wishes it or not, he is now the main agency for the further evolution of the earth and its inhabitants. In other words, his destiny is to realise new possibilities for the whole terrestrial sector of the cosmic process, to be the instrument of further evolutionary progress on this planet. (in Edmunds, 1997, p.172)

A view like this may be unpopular nowadays for the fear of human hubris, but if the main point that it contains is not recognised, there is a real danger that the unique responsibility that humankind has will go unacknowledged too. This point is that evolution continues through the individual and group development of human beings. As biological species, individuals and societies can also regress, stagnate, as well as progress. However, due to the complexity of the brain and its unprecedented dynamic, humans have a potential to substantially develop even within a single life. This potential for personal development makes the process incomparably faster than biological evolution, and also allows huge variety even within the same species. The next chapter will address this subject.

  • [5]. On the darker side, he is also associated with eugenics, although he quickly became its fervent critic, advocating that race is a cultural not a biological term.

Some possible questions

Why the animal kingdom appears to be so brutal?

Transitional physical bodies are not important in themselves, but what they are a vehicle for: the shaping and developing of energy and the passing on of genetic material so that the process can go on. Biological evolution is necessary for the evolution of the soul. Preserving the bio-environment, so that organisms can continue to develop, is more important than self-preservation. The more primitive organisms are, the more readily they perish after reproduction. This is because there is a very limited chance for progressing while attached to a relatively simple organic form.

 

If there is the evolutionary intent, why are there still so many simple organisms?

Biological life is interdependent, more complex organisms cannot survive without simple ones. This does not mean that evolution is deliberately stalled in some cases. There is a constant influx of crude non-material energy that needs primitive organisms.

 

What is the fundamental difference between animals and humans?

Both, animals and humans, have the self and soul. So, animals are aware and self-aware (e.g. they can be aware of their own pain), but their ability to construct reality, to integrate their experiences, is very limited. They are not able to conceptualise, so any mental structure relies chiefly on the consistency of immediate physical sensations. In this respect their experience resembles a dream-state (e.g. the past, the future or reality outside their vicinity is non-existent or fragmented at best).  Also, they do not have ‘I', a mental representation of themselves, so the inner and outer world are far less separated. As a consequence, they cannot distance themselves from, organise and reflect on their experiences, which means that it is unlikely that they can affect the content of their minds. Humans, on the other hand, can connect clusters of experience in much more elaborate ways because their brain size and structure is more complex (there are forms of connectivity among nerve cells not found in any animal). These connections lead to separating the internal and external further, which enables them to interpret, create and reflect upon the materials of awareness (giving rise to art, for example). However, as already mentioned (p.166), this ‘barrier' makes humans less open to more direct experience and interactions, which does not seem uncommon in the animal kingdom (see, for example, Sheldrake, 2000).