August 23, 2005

Intent on Purpose

This started out as a comment in response to this, but when I realised how long it was getting, I decided to just post it and link to it. You may want to read the above article to understand it all.

I'm no scientist, and I'm no defender of evolution or intelligent design, but it seems to me that many of the points you are making are based on very anthropocentric assumptions, and also upon a view that "evolution" is a directed process, in terms of there being a progress from one state to another, from simplicity to complexity. As I understand it this isn't necessarily the case (see your own point number 5 about algae still being around). I'd like to address each of your points:

1) Creative leaps - an incomplete fossil record does not mean something didn't happen.

2) Random mutations producing so many successes - I think the whole point of survival of the fittest is that all the failures don't survive, ergo there's no fossil record of them. That doesn't mean they didn't exist, though.

3) How does evolution know where to stop - who says it stops or has stopped? Sharks and turtles have been around so long because they are extremely well suited (for the moment) to their environment. Any evolutionary changes haven't been able to improve upon those designs, so that's why they've remained unchanged.

4) Multiple mutations - why is this a problem? After all, there's nothing magical about the number one. If you take a look at the theories of cellular automata, you see that very small changes in the conditions lead to vastly different outcomes. Maybe it's the same with life/DNA. A small change in the structure of DNA could have a huge range of changes in the outcome of a species' design.

5) Why are we so intelligent - again, you're presuming that humans are the "end goal" of the evolutionary process. Perhaps our intelligence is not so remarkable, and we really aren't so much more intelligent than other creatures. I mean, if you compare the difference in intelligence between us and monkeys, and us and algae, which is the monkey closer to? And who's to say that in the long run our intelligence is going to serve to make us any more likely to survive than the algae?

6) Why do forms replicate - that I have no answer for, except to say that I'm not sure why that leads to any specific conclusion in relation to this issue.

7) Simple molecules coming into contact with life - oxygen (and other molecules) enters the body and becomes part of the complex chemical interactions of our bodies. Why does that make them intelligent? If you knock a pinball through a pinball machine it will follow a complex pathway - does that make the ball intelligent?

8) How can whole systems appear all at once - isn't this similar to point number 4?

9) The tautology of "survival of the fittest" - I don't think the modern interpretations of evolutionary theory are suggesting that the key to survival is simply fighting to see which organism is fittest. This is simply the label that's been attached to evolution. What is actually meant by this is the fittest/most appropriate for a situation, not the fittest as in the strongest, fastest, biggest, etc.

10) Competition being suspect - evolution (and nature's) goal is survival of species, not individuals from a species - that's a profoundly human concept, born from our "intelligence". And even for us, if we are evolved to survive as individuals, why do we die after only 100 years?

11) Symbiotic co-operation - you're looking at two end products and saying "wow, how did those mysteriously spring up?". Evolution is a process, and likely the co-operative instinct developed over time, as did the specializations of the long tongue and deep calyx of your example.

12) Beauty serving no purpose - depends how you look at purpose. And also I think you've negated your own argument by saying first that beauty is everywhere, and then that non-beautiful creatures have survived too. Also, don't name any specifics, as I can guarantee you that any example of something either beautiful or non-beautiful will be shot down by at least one person who disagrees with you. We all find beauty in different places.

I think most of this stems from the misleading term "evolution". I think it ideally should be renamed altogether, but failing that I think we need to try and understand it for what it is - a non-directed process that has created some amazing (okay, a whole lot of amazing things). I don't understand why some people insist that there has to be a direction for it to "make sense". Personally, I think it's astounding as it is without trying to attribute a specific direction or intent to it.

Posted by mthaddon at August 23, 2005 05:32 PM