(continued) Chapter 3. Long Evolution: Life Emerging
Some quite closed mindsets are trying to block the road to fuller understanding, so let us begin by getting them out of our way. Natural selection has been operating on planet earth for more than three and a half billion years, is fully functional today and is rightly hailed among biologists. But it is hailed with an exuberance that blends into the irrational – Greenspan-like in its excessive certainty – among a sub-subset of biologists who self identify as “neo-Darwinists,” thereby falsely implying some special connection of themselves to the illustrious legacy of the master, Charles Darwin.
Neo-Darwinists stoutly announce their absolute conviction that natural selection is the one way and the only way biological evolution occurs, and the selecting occurs precisely thus and so, naturally. They commonly decry – in overloud voices and writings which seeth with ridicule – all points of view which differ in any degree from their own. They speak insulting of fellow biologists whose research leads to other viewpoints, and they speak atrociously of all persons gullible enough to believe in – or even consider – any religious or spiritual possibilities. Like that sixth-century revisionist in Genesis chapter two, they KNOW the truth. And they seem to enjoy pissing people off.
Neo-Darwinists speak with knowing certainty of “determinism,” which means that you and I and all other living creatures have no such thing as free will because (they say) biological evolution – like the initial conditions of physics before it – determines everything that happens. It’s all inevitable; you’re deluding yourself if you think you have freedom of choice. Neo-Darwinists write whole books about how free will, in humans and all other species, is a will-o-the-wisp. They know that in a world governed by natural selection, free will does not, cannot, exist. They’re very certain about this.
Thus neo-Darwinistic “determinism” is the scientific fundamentalist’s version of “predestination,” which is the religious fundamentalist’s equal certainty that everything that happens was pre-decided and made to happen by God. And therefore – obviously – you have no free will or choice about anything whatsoever, including who you will marry, whether you’ll go downtown today, or whether your immortal soul will eventually wind up agonizing in the fires of hell because that, too, was predetermined by God before your birth. Science or religion, sometimes it’s hard to tell these guys’ mindsets apart.
But: by the self-initiated free exercise of what I stubbornly believe on both visceral and rational grounds to be my personal free will, I hereby conclude that the Neo-Darwinists take up space at one extremely far end of a bi-polar divide in biological science where they have self segregated themselves from their more open-minded scientific brethren, and they do not seek or tolerate any third options. Their mindsets, one may reasonably say, are as closed as those of fundamentalist preachers and fanatic apologists for unregulated capitalism – another closed-mindset gang we’ll get around to in this book. Against all their bad examples, let us do better as we consider the evolution of life.
Emergent directional complexity
As previously noted, the term evolution means “change.” In context of the evolution of living things, this means biological change that happens by chance – just the same as the non-living universe’s self organizing structures happened by chance. Out of all this changing by sheer chance, significantly, there emerges ever-increasing complexity.
In the preceding chapter we saw how the complexity of objects in the universe gradually increased after the big bang. It’s the same with life. But it’s not a smooth process; not all evolution results in increased complexity. Things sometimes go three steps forward and two steps back, so that some evolving goes the other way – de-volving – whereby living things become less complex, less able to survive, even to the point of going extinct as did the hobbit humans on Flores Island a mere thirteen thousand years ago. On average, though, instances of things that devolve are much outweighed by the many other instances that display increasing complexity. This is self evidently true because here we are – and both we and the universe we live in are greatly more complex than formerly, before we evolved up to where we are now.
Viewed overall, evolving complexity exhibits direction, and that direction is indeed “upward” – meaning from less complex to more complex. Overall upward-trending complexity is displayed in the formation of the universe (big-bang chaos to ordered galaxies and solar systems) and in all living things that have emerged out of that universe. Algae exemplifies less (lower) complexity among lifeforms. A squirrel exemplifies more (higher) complexity. Evolution has overall direction upward. This thought usually puts the neo-Darwinists into apoplexy though, to most folks with eyes to see and brains to think it may seem obvious to the point of trivial. In fact it could not be more important.
The directionality exhibited by evolution is and has always been from less complex to more complex, from “lower” to “higher.” Though it can and occasionally does go the other way, on average it does not. All species constantly evolve, changing, and even though a few degenerate, the overall average is ever “upward.” The prime example of examples is of course high-level mammalian intelligence today compared with an ancient world that was everywhere populated by, and only by, bacteria without much in the way of common sense. The downward-trending exceptions found in fossil records of extinct creatures are just that, exceptions – all were momentary setbacks in the grand upward sweep of evolution.
It’s as if we, along with our parent universe, are all on some grand journey, from “less” to “more”… and we wonder how the sheer chance of ever-evolving nature could do such a marvelous thing. The magnificent grand sweep of it overwhelms our imaginations. It’s almost as if an omnipotent creator God planned the whole thing for purposes known only to God, wrote the broad parameters into a brilliant Godly Algorithm, and then said “Let there be a big bang”… Notice, fellow creatures, the undeniable march of increasing complexity that just happened – organizing itself, all by itself: first a chaotic big bang… then clouds of gas… clusters of galaxies… single galaxies… stars… planets… lands and oceans… simple life… simple plants and animals… complex plants and animals… vertebrates… fishes… reptiles… mammals… hominids… humans… and then…
I must here pause to spell out an important distinction. Many scientific experts on biological evolution object to a widespread misconception generally called “human exceptionalism.” Science magazine editor Henry Gee, for example, describes this as “the tendency to see ourselves as the inevitable culmination of a progressive trend of advancement in evolution,” and goes on to say:
“…an untenable view of human evolution [is] one that can only admit to a single pathway of evolution in which human beings stand at the head of a single line of ancestors, each one progressively improved compared with the one before. Proponents of this view tend to be both passionate and argumentative, and become more so as evidence mounts to discredit it. This suggests that the argument is…an attempt to shore up a view of the world that is fundamentally mistaken.”
Gee is quite right. Many there are indeed who believe humans are the pinnacle of a steadily rising chain of evolutionary links proceeding – inevitably – from “lowly” early-life bacteria all the way upward to primates and hominids – human hominids being “at the summit” of a single, ascending evolutionary line. That this literally is the observable case does nothing to clarify the valid point being made. Versions of this view are held not only by religious mindsets convinced that God made Man to rule over the rest of the animal kingdom including Wo-men; many science-minded people also assume homo sapiens to be the culmination of inevitable rise in evolution’s upward directionality.
Except for the Wo-men part they may all happen to be right, even if for wrong reasons, but this view does not represent the true facts of biological evolution through natural selection. “Human inevitability” in fact was never inevitable at all. Each individual step – via mutations and the many other events that have influenced evolving life in its slow but steady upward direction – has occurred by chance and chance alone. Random natural selection could have produced an infinite number of different scenarios. The one we have arrived at as of today is a chance product of evolution’s central feature: change by sheer chance. Like rolling dice. This is all true even if there might be a Godly Algorithm out there gently guiding evolution along within its extremely broad but guiding parameters.
If you could rewind the tape of life’s evolution on the planet earth, re-playing it over again and again, it would produce different paths and different end products with every replaying. Only one of those paths would culminate in the humankind we know. Other paths could produce furry humans, tiny humans with bushy tails, no humans at all – or very brainy dinosaurs, which in fact almost happened. And, don’t forget, humans are merely the outermost tip of one particular branch on a multi-branched tree of life seen in top view. Many other branches are there too, on both sides of our branch and all around the tree, daily evolving in their own upward (outward) directions. Notwithstanding the top view, the overall trend of all branches is “upward” – from less to more complex.
Though informed evolutionists accept that natural evolutionary change occurs by blind chance and exhibits de facto upward direction, many feel it necessary to insist that the upward direction is not “intentional” even if it is de facto. Moreover, they feel it necessary to add, said de facto upward direction cannot be called evidence of “purpose.”
Hold on there. These statements may or may not be true. How can they know? Anyone caught insisting that evolution’s upward direction is not intentional, or does not reflect purpose, reflects nothing more than a closed mindset. Those who so insist have no more grounds to back up their opinions than do those who insist that self-organizing upward direction absolutely does constitute “proof” of Godly intention and purpose. These insisters represent a bipolar argument with closed minds on both ends. Opinions abound, but nobody knows. Evolution’s directionality may indeed reflect intention, purpose and the existence of God – but certainty of this was not handed down to Moses along with the commandments. The questions of intentionality and purpose, as well as how we can “know” the things we think we know, are important matters to which we will return later.
The upward direction to which I call attention is observed fact. Leaving quite aside the “apparent miracle” of a universe that organized itself into grand clusters of galaxies, stars within those galaxies and planets around the stars, simply look at what has happened in fact on earth over the most recent three billion years. The simplest early life forms – living things – begat themselves, somehow, out of inert elements and minerals which cannot by any stretch be defined as “alive.” Then, by some means utterly unknown to anyone who wasn’t standing there watching at the time, these “alive things” managed to 1) survive and 2) reproduce themselves. From these beginnings so simple, evolution has in fact produced a steady stream of rises. Declines also happened here and there, but they were well outnumbered by the rises. This much we can actually know.
Let us pause and reinforce what we actually know. What exactly is meant by rises? It means ever increasing complexity over what existed before – i.e., evolving self-organization of life, living things emerging toward ever-greater and upward-trending complexity driven by a process called natural selection. One of the products at the outer end of one of those many branches of rising life forms is the fairly complex, definably intelligent species which we call ourselves. If I can write these lines and a virus cannot, my situation can reasonably be said to be “higher” than that of the lowly virus. To not call that “rise” is semantic quibbling – though, assuredly, professional science has plenty of quibblers and argumentative neo-Darwinist mindsets head the line. The current summit – life’s highest so far – didn’t have to be us. It could have gone any number of different ways. Yet the fact is here we are. Evolution advanced, complexity arose – and we humans are the coincidental outcome, lucky for us. Knock on wood.
In case you aren’t convinced yet, two important points deserve extra emphasis. As noted above, the notion of linear evolution straight up to Homo sapiens is a fiction. Rather than a straight line there was a bunch of zigzags, with many, many sideways meanderings and backslides along the way. Unarguably illustrating this, at least twelve (12) other fully human species – that we know of – within our own genus Homo evolved into existence, lived a good long time, and finally died out. The completely human species Homo neanderthalis, Homo habilis and Homo florensiensis, for example, were all half-sisters of Homo sapiens. They walked this earth much longer than we have so far, but for various reasons they eventually went extinct. And we didn’t. So far. Time marches on. We’ll see.
Second, evolution hasn’t stopped. It is ongoing. Constant change is forever. What we call modern humans will, in due course, be supplanted by…whoever it is that we eventually evolve into. Homo futuris? Or maybe we won’t further evolve at all, maybe we’ll drive ourselves extinct by utterly fouling the environment our lives depend on. Never doubt extinction as a real possibility – the precedents are there before us in those twelve (12) other Homos who no longer walk the earth.
And if you doubt we have the power to make ourselves extinct, just have a chat with the CEO of any corporation in the business of making a profit out of fossil fuels. Ask him (they’re all male) if he’s willing to cut back just a little bit on profits, say just enough to attain a mere two percent (2%) reduction of the carbon/methane pollution that’s destroying our environment and driving to extinction hundreds of species today, thousands tomorrow. See where he tells you to go. And don’t forget: the actual cutbacks needed to save a living environment for our children and their children are much, much larger than two percent, and they should have already been made, long before now.
Some of our species might survive the suicidal path we’re on. And if we get smarter than is presently the case, and with some luck, and given the clearly observable upward trajectory of long evolution, something “higher” than us still can reasonably be expected to follow us in time to come – a homo smart enough to not burn coal, oil, or natural gas.
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…to be continued in one week…
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