Evolution: The Synthesis Perspective

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Written by Nash Popovic

Neo-Darwinism is the best theory of evolution we have so far but – we argue – it is incomplete. Too much selection, synchronisation, and amplification of the mutation rate take place to render credible the view that random mutations are the only drive of evolutionary processes.

Those who believe in a God of Chance may still maintain that given enough time, anything can happen by chance. The so-called ‘Infinite Monkey Theorem’ is frequently invoked in support of such a claim. It goes something like this: a monkey randomly hitting keys on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time will at some point type the complete works of Shakespeare. However, this theorem hinges on the assumption of true randomness, meaning that the monkey does not repeat the same sequences. And yet, it is perfectly plausible that it can keep typing letters g and p, for example, or any other more complex pattern forever, and never come around to accidentally complete the work of Shakespeare – in fact, the probability that it will end up in one of such loops is far greater than getting to write something meaningful. Lasting true randomness is a hard call in the natural world. Besides, the time available on this planet has been huge but not infinite. Considering these limitations, the challenge is to provide an interpretation that would give the evolutionary process a fair chance, rather than an astronomically small one.

We don’t think thought that falling back onto a God the Watchmaker is a viable option. Let’s just bring here one reason among many for that. As already discussed, evolution does not happen gradually, but in leaps (rapid transformations) followed by long periods of relative equilibrium. If this has been God’s job, rather than creating for six days and resting for one, it would seem that God creates for one day, and rests for six – or even longer. Whatever ‘day’ is supposed to mean, this is rather inefficient for an omnipotent entity. If an intelligence is involved at every evolutionary step, one would expect steady progress – there would have been no need for long periods of stagnation. So, what else?

In the mass of arguments and counter-arguments, it is easily overlooked that Creationism and Neo-Darwinism have something in common. In both views, life is essentially a passive material, moulded either by an all-powerful external agency or by the ‘blind’ natural forces; Neo-Darwinian orthodoxy insists that all it is to individual organisms, as well as evolution, can be fully accounted for by an interplay between their genes and the environment. Nothing else is necessary to explain biological processes on a small and large scale. If this is true, it follows that genetic clones that live and grow in exactly the same environment should be exactly the same. For a long time, the sexual reproduction of most species and inevitable variations in the natural environment had made it difficult to check this prediction. However, in the 1990s, marmorkrebs were accidentally discovered in pet fish tanks in Germany. These are a type of crayfish that are characterized by unisexual reproduction (parthenogenesis). In other words, females produce offspring on their own. This means that the offspring are genetically exact copies – perfect clones. Biologists seized this opportunity and put them in exactly the same environment expecting to see exactly the same replicas that behave in exactly the same way. To their surprise, this did not happen. Individual marmorkrebs with identical genes and living in the same environment varied in many ways. They were different in size (up to twenty times). Every single marmorkrebs had a unique pattern of marbled markings, there were differences in their sensory and internal organs, as well as in their onset of reproduction, the number of eggs and the number of batches. Another big variation was lifespan, which ranged from 437 to 910 days. There were also behavioural differences, and how they moved and rested (some sat under shelter, others lay on their backs). While laying some fed, others didn’t. Some marmorkrebs moulted in the morning, others at night. There were also differences in how they socialized: brought together in one tank, they soon fell into hierarchies, some submissive, some dominant. Some were solitary, others liked a crowd. (Vogt, et al. 2008). They were genetically identical and lived in a world where everything was as far as possible identical. They have plenty of (the same) food and no need for partners to reproduce, so the competition was also absent. Yet, they were chalk and cheese.

In his book, The Hidden Half, Michael Blastland points out that epigenetics cannot be an explanation for these variations as it only pushes the question back: where do these epigenetic effects originate when everything is the same? The indeterminacy of quantum physics and chaos theory are sometimes brought up in an attempt to explain away such findings, but these arguments are not convincing. Indeterminacy on the micro-level averages out and cannot be simply transplanted onto the macro-level. If it could, we would see similar effects in inanimate objects and phenomena, but we don’t. Chaos theory states that within the apparent randomness of chaotic systems, there are underlying patterns. In the cases such as the above, we nether have apparent randomness, not discernible underlying patterns, and although some features of biological organisms may exhibit chaotic designs, by and large, they are highly organised and structured – far from anything that can be truly called a chaotic system.

It seems clear that something else, another dynamic factor besides random genetic mutations and the environment must be at play – and if this factor plays a part in individual species, it must play a part in evolution too. The answer to the question “What is it?” is staring us in the face. Life itself. Life is not passive, but an active participant in this process. In the next part, we will describe some ways in which life contributes to shaping itself and the evolutionary process on both, the ontogenetic level (of individual organisms) and on the phylogenic level (of species).


Choice is still a controversial topic in some quoters, so it may be useful to clarify first what we mean by it. For this purpose, the Choice theory is formulated as the almost exact reversal of Chaos theory: it states that within the apparent patterns of self-directed behaviour in living organisms, there is underlying indeterminacy or a chaotic state (for more details see, for example, Harnessing Stochasticity: How the organisms make choices?).

We have already presented evidence that even very simple organisms have a rudimentary capacity to make choices. This can be recognised in the way organisms react to stimuli – and they react (in subtle ways) differently, and sometimes contrary to what may be expected. The minute choices that individual species make can lead to noticeable although perhaps unintended effects (for example, in the case of marmorkrebs, behavioural choices such as laying on the back may affect the pattern of marbled markings). But do we have any hard evidence that tiny choices can have significant consequences? In 2013 and 2015, two papers were published in Science and Neuroscience respectively on the results of a study with 40 genetically identical mice exposed to the same ‘highly enriched environment’ (that is, a space with different levels, toys, tubes, etc.). We have here a pretty similar situation to the marmorkrebs but involving more complex, mammalian organisms with fully developed brains. In this case, the scientists measured so-called Cumulative Roaming Entropy (cRE) – or in the everyday language, curiosity. At first, some mice were just a little bit more curious than others, but from this small beginning, the difference accumulated. Their initial curiosity became increasingly explorative. In time, the brain of the more explorative mice changed distinctively (hippocampi of more curious mice were noticeably larger). Also, they appeared to be more individualistic and these differences became stable in time. The researchers concluded that “factors unfolding or emerging during development contribute to individual differences in structural brain plasticity and behaviour”.

One may wonder why the influence of choice is not so easily detected in the natural environment. An obvious reason is that we don’t often come across clones in nature, so differences between individuals that may be the result of their choices are customarily ascribed to genes. There may also be something else at play. It is interesting that in these cases of genetically identical species growing in the same environment with no competition, the diversity may be even greater than among non-identical individual species in the natural setting. It seems that the environmental pressures and competition have the effect of narrowing the choice. This may not be surprising – take people who just go for a stroll in a park – they may go in all directions; however, if they are racing through the park, they will all try to take the shortest route and will appear more uniform in their choices.

All the above actually makes perfect common sense. If a child (with the MC1R gene) chooses to play outside more than inside, they are likely to have more freckles (an equivalent of marbled markings in marmorkrebs). If that child is also more exploratory and curious, this will affect their brain development. The choice factor is not acknowledged only because those who would like to see life in mechanical terms are not at ease with giving any credence to something that is so not machine-like. The real question though is if and how choices can affect subsequent generations and evolution.

The evidence suggests that it can. The influence of choice has been recognised by a number of evolutionists (see, for example, Hameroff, 1998). To play a part in the evolutionary process, choice does not need to trigger genetic mutations or other biochemical alterations directly. For instance, by making certain choices, an organism can affect its environment and its own subsequent preferences, which can indirectly tip the balance in favour of some genes. Karl Popper concludes:

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)

Indeed, life has played a key role in maintaining and modifying its environments, which made possible not only its continuation but also the appearance of its many variations. The niche construction, a fundamental evolutionary process in its own right, whereby organisms, through their activities and choices, modify their own and each other’s niches, is an example[1]. By transforming natural selection pressures, niche construction generates feedback in a manner that alters the evolutionary dynamic. There is little doubt that non-deterministic, self-initiated actions can explain particular variations within species better than just pure chance.

Still, this will not explain the Dawkins’s fish described above that needed numerous simultaneous and right mutations to become what it is. The fish didn’t change the environment, it made all the changes to adapt to it. Some of these changes may have been dormant in its genetic material, but what activated them at the right time and place and synchronously? Obviously, every living creature intends to adapt – is it possible that the intent may have an effect on that process? To tackle this question, another (in this case a converging rather than a diverging) factor of life agency needs to be considered. We can call it the intent to adapt and grow.

[1] We should be clear that we don’t have in mind just individual choice. From ant colonies to flocks of birds and herds of dears, species make collective choices too.

The Intent to Adapt and Grow

Before Darwin’s interpretation of evolution took hold, there was another very popular theory called Lamarckism after its originator, a French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. It asserted that the striving of organisms is the major cause of evolutionary changes. To use a typical example, giraffes have long necks because they were stretching them to reach leaves that were high up and this was gradually passed to subsequent generations. Such an explanation seems so sensible that even nowadays many people erroneously understand Neo-Darwinism in a similar way[2]. Lamarckism failed though to explain how that ‘striving’ is passed from one generation to another, so it was rejected in favour of the former. Nevertheless, it seems that some relatively recent developments breathed new life into this theory. The field of epigenetics (the study of what regulates genes, what turns them on and off) has provided convincing evidence and support to the notion that the choices and behaviour of one generation can affect which genes will be activated in subsequent generations. So, contrary to the traditional Neo-Darwinist account, the phenotype may, in fact, affect its genotype.

Of course, to operate on a large scale, there must be some synchronisation of this on the phylogenetic level. In other words, there must be some pathways that operate on the molecular level and allow a manifestation of the adaptive push throughout the population. Acting solely at the level of individual organisms could never do the trick (especially at the early stages of evolution). It seems that there are such pathways. The genomes of most organisms contain so-called gene families, which consist of multiple identical copies of the same gene. 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 that act to maintain the sequential identity between all the copies of the same gene in any one species. As Cambridge geneticist Gabriel Dover suggested, the integrated effect of these various internal mechanisms may enable synchronous genetic changes in all the members of a population (Dover, 1982). It is easy to envisage how such mechanisms could be utilized – or given direction – by the life’s intent to adapt. Can the same processes be also responsible for the ever-increasing complexity that we witness in evolution?

We already argued that the anti-entropic nature of life makes implausible the hypothesis that the steady growth in complexity is the result of only random mutations. A number of scholars (who do not associate themselves with the creationist or similar accounts) take this view too. Laszlo 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)

He points out that some biologists also came to the conclusion that life must harbour some fundamental order-generated tendency:

Already in the 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. (ibid. p.91-92)

However, reductive materialism has its own reasons to reject the possibility that something else, besides pure chance moderated by natural selection, may be involved on the phylogenic level. Polanyi observes:

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)

So, early attempts to introduce an ‘ordering principle’ into the mainstream were forcefully suppressed. For example, in the early 20th century, philosopher Henri Bergson argued for the existence of a unique vital impetus (élan vital) that pushes self-organisation and spontaneous morphogenesis in an increasingly complex manner. This notion was dismissed by the scientific establishment because nothing like that could be found in the physical bodies they examined. In principle, though, this should not be a decisive reason for the rejection – as already mentioned, gravitation too cannot be directly found, it is deduced through its consequences – and yet it is accepted. Here, the consequence is the fact that evolution goes in the direction of increased complexity. Endowing life with such a tendency explains things better than blind chance, as it could account for life’s anti-entropic trend.

Of course, this explanation may not be convincing if the phenomenon it needs to explain is the only reason for invoking it. Gravitation was accepted because it could account for phenomena on the large scale (such as the movement of the celestial bodies) as well as locally (an apple falling down). In evolution, we can take that an increase in complexity (of the nervous system in particular) over millions of years is a large scale. However, the intent of life to grow must be evident on a smaller scale too – an equivalent to the falling apple. There seems to be indeed a fitting candidate for that: learning. We already argued that learning involves intent. To demonstrate its significance for evolution, let’s take one example – learning by association (Baldwin effect describes the effect of learning on evolution more generally). According to an evolutionary biologist, Eva Jablonka, and a neurobiologist, Simona Ginsburg, associative learning was a game-changing adaptation: animals could adapt ontogenetically rather than only phylogenetically. They even argue that this capacity drove the Cambrian explosion. Learning also has an impact on other evolutionary processes such as niche construction and niche selection. It made it possible for organisms to seek out or alter environments, changing the selection pressures that lead to speciation or other phenotypic developments. Whether learning was sufficient to drive the Cambrian explosion is open to debate, but concluding that life has an innate impetus to grow in complexity seems reasonable.

Matter (which is very densely packed energy) must be though much stronger than this intent, so it would need to accumulate in order to produce any tangible results. This may explain the above-mentioned punctuated equilibrium. The evolutionary process is very slow, consisting of long periods of seeming stagnation and relatively short bursts of creativity. We can compare this to something that we are all familiar with: generating a new idea or solution to a problem. When it happens, it may seem that the idea has come suddenly, out of nowhere, but this is not the case. You have probably been focusing on the issue for a while. This is the period of incubation, the accumulation of your intent, which enables an idea to eventually break through[3]. So, new ideas are neither the gifts of gods nor random occurrences, but the result of a self-generating process. The appearance of new species may be similar. 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 inertial and resists the change. The build-up of intent is necessary in order to overcome this resistance. When intent accumulates to a sufficient degree, matter gives in where the natural equilibrium is already “thin” (usually at the ecological peripheries) and a ‘jump’ takes place.

In summary, we propose that evolution is influenced by choice and an overall cumulative tendency of life to adapt and develop, but this, of course, cannot happen in isolation. Life forms also interact. There is a particular type of interaction – unique to life, that is especially relevant for evolution. What we have in mind is cooperation.

[2] Neo-Darwinism does not allow any acquired characteristics to be directly transmitted to subsequent generations. One of its main dictums is – or was until recently – that phenotype (all observable characteristics of an organism, including its behaviour) cannot affect genotype.

[3] Comparable ‘jumps’ also happen in the atomic world and in individual and social development. Relatively long periods of an accumulation of energy (an increase of pressure) lead to the seemingly sudden leap of an electron, a personal change in an individual, or a paradigm shift (in science, culture, or religion).


Cooperation is strangely neglected in the theory of evolution in favour of competition, and yet it is equally, if not more important. Two male hippos may compete and fight ferociously to get to a female, but then the female hippo and the winner need to cooperate to produce the offspring. Sexual reproduction, which was a huge step in enabling recombination of genes is a form of cooperation. But an even more striking example of cooperation and its importance is symbiosis, which plaid a crucial part in evolution. Plants and animals both owe their origins to endosymbiosis, a process where one cell ingests another but does not digest it. The evidence for this lies in the way their cells function. Both plants and animals rely on structures called mitochondria which are the power plants of the cell.

There is solid evidence that mitochondria evolved from free-living bacteria: they are the size of bacterial cells; they divide independently of the cell by binary fission; they have their own genome in the form of a single circular DNA molecule; their ribosomes are more similar to those of bacteria than to the ribosomes found in the eukaryote cells; and like chloroplasts, they are enclosed by a double membrane as would be expected if they derived from bacterial cells engulfed by another cell. The cell nucleus (the core of the cell) is also likely to have an origin in a similar process. So every cell in plants and animals, including humans, is the result of symbiosis. And this is not all. We are symbiotic creatures in other ways too. For example, cows get protein out of grass (which doesn’t contain protein) due to bacteria in their guts. The human body too contains trillions of microorganisms (outnumbering human cells by 10 to 1) that play a vital role in human health.

Some like to see cooperation as a subset of competition, but this cannot be the case because sometimes organisms give up competition for the sake of cooperation – even their very capacity to reproduce. The traditional explanation for this is that the preservation of collective genes is prioritised over individual ones. However, this is not convincing as genes are only situated within individuals and there is no plausible mechanism of communication between them. A more likely explanation, although incompatible with materialism, is that individual organisms in a collective (e.g. an ant colony) are connected on the non-material level – joined by threads invisible to us. It is also interesting that all examples of cooperation have in common an increase of complexity. For example, cooperation between insects and plants increases ecological complexity that makes a fertile ground for the appearance of even more complex organisms. We, therefore, suggest that there is a link between cooperation and the intent of life to increase complexity. Furthermore, if all the above is taken into account, it becomes apparent that evolution is not directionless.


Largely for ideological reasons, Neo-Darwinism has to interpret evolution as directionless (directed evolution doesn’t sit well with materialism). Still, a number of authors, of which some with a background in science and biology, have challenged this dogma. A biochemist, Michael Denton[4], 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. (1998, p.384-385)

This is not to say that we must adopt the orthogenetic hypothesis, stating that evolution goes in a straight line with a pre-determined endpoint. That would be inconsistent with the patterns found in the fossil record, showing that evolution is non-rectilinear (richly branching). This branching does not indicate a lack of direction, as it is sometimes presented but, in fact, that we need to recognise three dimensions (or directions) of biological evolution:

  • One is characterised by an increase in diversity and expansion of life to unoccupied environmental niches.
  • The other goes in the direction of greater efficacy. In simple terms, living organisms are getting better (more efficient) in what they do. A typical example, often brought up in biology books, would be that in time, lions are getting faster and more efficient in catching gazelles, but gazelles are getting faster and more efficient in running away, so the equilibrium is maintained, although they are both improving.
  • The third one is characterised by an increase in complexity – the appearance of more and more complex organisms.

Withing these three-dimensional coordinates evolution could be presented as a spiral that gradually unfolds in time. This is because these dimensions fluctuate (follow a wave pattern rather than a straight line). For example, diversity may be occasionally reduced due to natural disasters, but after such events, there would be inevitably an explosion of the variety of often new and more complex species, and an overall trend is preserved.

It is interesting that some of these tendencies can be observed even on the ontogenetic level: if the above-discussed marmorkrebs with identical genes are put in groups, one group shows a different spectrum of variation to another, as if they have an innate urge to diversify. So, the question is where does that ‘urge’ come from? Adaptation to the environment cannot be an explanation as some simple organisms are far better adapted than complex ones and some existing variations are not very adaptive. We suggest that they come from life’s tendency to maximise its two unique and fundamental features: existence and agency (being and doing). They are the innate and irreducible drives embedded in all species, but not in inanimate objects.


Existence and Agency

Maximising existence is manifested in a tendency to live and proliferate that can be called a ‘drive to survive’ or ‘survival intent’, evident in all living organisms. This instinct not only drives an organism but every cell in the body and even cell components serve the survival of the whole. For instance, when a new antigen invades the organism for which it does not have the relevant DNA sequence to make an antibody, the immune system responds by rapidly mutating the variable part of the immunoglobulin until a cell evolves which does have the DNA sequence with the correct shape. But why does such a remarkably complex and well-orchestrated action happen at all?

Biologists assume survival instinct but do not explain it. When a champion of Neo-Darwinism, Richard Dawkins, call genes selfish, he had survival instinct in mind, but he was silent on where that ‘selfishness’ comes from – as it is hard to escape the conclusion that wanting to survive requires some kind of self (as implied in selfish). And yet, genes cannot be candidates for this alleged ‘selfishness’. They may determine how organisms reproduce but not why they reproduce in the first place. In other words, genes cannot simply ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ – survival instinct has to be causally prior even to them. In fact, some elements of the body’s immune response (such as red blood cells) don’t even have DNA.

If that ‘will to live’, to use philosopher Schopenhauer’s term, is not in genes (and is even less likely to be in any other material aspect of an organism) it makes sense to deduce that it originates in the non-material aspect of life. In the absence of physical mechanisms that can explain such a drive, this seems the most reasonable conclusion. We argued in previous parts that life can only be fully comprehended if this aspect is acknowledged. So, if life is a factor in evolution, it is not surprising that the reference to its non-material aspect would be necessary to understand this process too.

We propose that energy that becomes aware of its own existence intends to remain focused (which is necessary to sustain self, awareness and intent). In the material world, physical bodies enable upholding that focus as the attachment to them provides boundaries to the associated non-material component. For that reason, the latter is invested in preserving the physical bodies. Of course, maximising existence is not only about maintaining but spreading too. So, in addition, the non-material energy pushes the material one to fill in any available environmental niche (like water that fills in any crack on its way), which could explain a huge variety of living organisms and finding life even in most inhospitable environments.

But this is not all. Let’s recall that energy is movement, the very embodiment of the dynamic principle. Physical reality, however, is restrictive in this respect, so energy associated with life has another tendency that is a counterpart to the one above: to maximise agency (in other words, to maximise its freedom, the capacity to do, move, act). We witness in evolution the emergence of systems that are agents, systems with teleological, end-directed properties that unequivocally characterise life and life only. Maximising agency requires that those constraints imposed by the physical aspect of life are pushed back. But as they help energy remain focused, this has to be a gradual and balanced rather than a  haphazard process. As greater complexity loosens the grip of physical determination, evolution goes in the direction of increasingly complex forms. Let’s take the most obvious example:  animals are, by and large, more complex than plants; they “are highly ordered systems that in contrast to most plants are largely synthesized from highly ordered (low-entropy) molecules.” (Silver, 1998, p.352). Animals also have greater freedom (of movement if not anything else). Willis Harman (an author who also made an attempt to reconcile science and spirituality) summarises a view that has existed in the niches of evolutionary thinking from the beginning and that “speaks of some 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)… In this kind of explanation, evolution is characterized both by the organism’s freedom to choose and by its inner sense of ‘right’ direction.” (1998, p.49). In other words, the expressions of life agency that we discussed above: choice and intent to grow.

We can see that both existence and agency contribute to all three dimensions of evolutionary trajectory. On the existence side, competition contributes to efficacy while cooperation contributes to diversity through sexual reproduction and also to complexity through symbiosis. On the agency side, choice contributes to diversity while intent to adapt and grow contributes to efficacy and complexity respectively. If this is taken on board, we can conclude that evolution, as life itself, is the result of the interplay between material and no-material aspects of life. However, that would not be really meaningful if biological evolution did not, in turn, play a part in the evolution of a non-material aspect of life, to which we will turn next.


[4] Denton worked as a senior research fellow in the Biochemistry Department at the University of Otago and describes himself as an agnostic. However, he did later become a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute that advocates intelligent design.

The Dialectic of Evolution

All the above indicates that evolution fits perfectly with the overall purpose of life, which can be simply defined as the growth and development of non-material energy. In other words, the energy is self-actualising through matter. There are two aspects of that process: on one hand, biological evolution enables the fragmentation (differentiation, individuation) of energy into smaller units with their own self, awareness and intent, as well as their shaping and refining though life experiences. This is achieved mainly through diversity (although complexity plays a part too). On the other hand, evolution enables the qualitative development of these energy units, which is achieved mainly through the increase in complexity (although, as in the previous case, its counterpart, diversity, plays a part too).

Both aspects of this process contribute to the development of awareness and intent, as awareness and intent are exercised through life experiences in the material world. The greater the diversity and complexity,  the greater opportunity there is to enhance awareness and intent. In short, species become more aware and gain more control through evolution, fulfilling the 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 environmental and other constraints.

In turn, awareness and intent contribute to diversity and complexity as well. At the beginning, awareness and intent are quite limited, but throughout evolution they gradually expand while the strength of biological and environmental determinism decreases. Greater awareness and stronger intent means that more energy can be controlled by the self. The self is, to start off, a relatively passive and limited observer and does not have a big impact. Through the process of evolution, the individual selves become more pro-active and their influence grows, which is reflected in a reduction of predetermined actions and behaviour. So, the evolutionary process can be seen as an interplay between the material and non-material components of life within the dynamic boundaries that expand throughout the process.

This is not to say that chance and the overarching Intent do not play a part. Chance mutations may proliferate possibilities and the Intent may have effect too (mainly by setting the boundary conditions to these possibilities). However, in the space between these two, life itself gradually becomes more and more responsible for the dynamic of the evolutionary process.

We should be clear that this is not an attempt to reduce the role of the Intent, more or less, to initiating the process, in a kind of Deist fashion. We take a position that The Intent permeates everything. It can be compared to a river that in conjunction with the environmental constrains creates a river-bed as a boundary that determines its general flow. Within this flow, some variations can occur that may appear to stagnate or have a different (even opposite) direction than the main flow, and perish if they go too far outside its boundaries. Some species have, indeed, got stuck in evolutionary terms or regressed, even though the general trend towards diversity and complexity has been maintained. This is not surprising; many avenues are bound to be dead-ends. However, as with a river, an overall flow goes on. Do we have any indication (if not evidence) for this steady flow in evolution? The uniformity of mutation rates might be a candidate:

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)

We should clarify that the above view is quite different from Creationism (or Intelligent Design). The creationist and this perspective on evolution can be compared to seeing the universal agency as an engineer or artist who makes a tree on one hand, or as a gardener who provides the right conditions for a tree to grow and interferes only if necessary, on the other. To what extent the Intent tinkers with the evolutionary process we cannot know, but generally speaking, one principle would make sense in this respect: when everything is going well, the Intent is not noticeable as there is no reason for interference. Very occasionally though, the wheels of evolution may need to be lubricated. For example, for a long time, life on Earth consisted of mostly single cell organisms living happily in relative equilibrium. At some point, a merger of two types of organisms enabled a highly complex bio-chemical process known as photosynthesis. The by-product of this process was oxygen – essential to all animals including ourselves, but highly toxic and detrimental to those simple organisms that produced it. The ‘discovery’ of photosynthesis was itself a major miracle, but that its by-product would also accidentally be essential to the appearance, much further down the line, of more complex organisms, beggars belief. It is hard to avoid a feeling that a nudge in the right direction took place. The demise of dinosaurs that enabled the rise of more complex mammals may be another instance, but there is no way of proving it conclusively, because there is still a possibility that we have been simply incredibly lucky – time and time over.

What we can say for sure is that a consistent feature of biological evolution is a growth in complexity, particularly of the nervous system.  Thus, human consciousness did not appear accidentally – it is a stage in the evolutionary process. Let’s examine empirical evidence for this assertion.


Evidence indicates that the appearance of humans is not an accident. Palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist, Simon Conway Morris, writes:

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. (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. In fact, all the distinct characteristics of humans (brain, tongue, standing upright) do not make much sense if the strictly 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 blind biological evolution. Let’s 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 with a smaller and less sophisticated brain in terms of what they needed to survive. 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 new-borns alike. The soft part of the skull (necessary to accommodate the brain growth after birth) made infants more vulnerable to injury. Heaviness of the head could only make balance harder, and disproportional consumption of oxygen and glucose by the brain contributed to the species being less, rather than more physically fit. In addition, a big brain is accompanied by slow physical development. This enables learning, but makes the off-spring dependent on their parents for longer – 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 are less adapted. Of course, language appeared later to be a big 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; also, the larynx descended in the throat and by being lower, contributed to this ability. Such synchronised events fit much better with 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. So, rather than developing consciousness to adapt, it seems that we have adapted to develop consciousness – and this makes us unique.

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 of humankind will go unacknowledged too. This point is that evolution continues through the individual and collective development of human beings. But the outcome is by all means not guaranteed. As other species throughout evolution, individuals and societies can progress, but also stagnate or regress. What is really remarkable though, is that due to the complexity of the brain and its unprecedented dynamic, humans have a potential to develop substantially even within a single life.

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

This potential for personal development makes the process incomparably faster than biological evolution, and also allows huge variety within the same species. We will address this topic next.