Charles Darwin and the directionality of Evolution

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts 36 Comments

I have often heard and have at times gotten into arguments about whether the process of evolution has directionality.  And this argument has seen lots of air time in the media recently. I realized the other day that there is a fictional dialog that lives in my head about this topic that misleads me about the actual source of disagreement.

If you picture the argument in your own mind's eye you are likely to see that on one side there is a strong-Darwinian materialist claiming that the universe is like a blind clockmaker who stumbled upon this world through a process driven by nothing but chance. On the other side is a romantic fundamentalist claiming that monkeys cannot write Shakespeare and therefore there must be some intelligence guiding the evolutionary process.

What I realized was that no one actually denies (as far as I can tell) that there is an apparent directionality behind the universe's unfolding. Evolution clearly happens in a particular direction. For instance you can't imagine animals evolving on a barren planet before any plants appeared. Plants needed to come first – that is directionality.

What people do argue about is the mechanism of directionality. Darwin‘s hugely significant discovery was a theory that satisfactorily explained the apparent directionality of the evolution of species. That theory he called “Natural Selection by Chance Variation.” Essentially it states that the individuals of any given species are born with variations in characteristics. Some of these variations have survival advantages and are passed on genetically to offsprings. Over time successive generations will become more uniformly adapted to the environment. And at times one species transforms into a new one through this same mechanism.

Darwin had this insight and then sat on it for 20 years before publishing his findings in the book, “On the Origin of Species” and only then because another scientist published a paper explaining a dangerously similar theory. One of the reasons that Darwin's theory was and is so controversial is that he explained the evolution of species, which meant the development of man, without needing to appeal to any form of intelligence or God. He could explain man's development through purely mechanical means.

Darwin could see that evolution had directionality and he could explain that directionality through a process resting on chance variation and survival. There are good arguments against Natural Selection being the only mechanism through which evolution occurs and many find it necessary either for logical or sentimental reasons to theorize that some form of intelligence must be behind the process. But they are not arguing for or against directionality – they are arguing for or against telos.

Telos is a Greek word meaning purpose. And this is where the problems start. Darwin found a mechanism for evolution that was devoid of purpose. If there is no intelligence behind evolution then there is no ultimate purpose, no final destination or goal that we and the universe are heading for. This leaves many of us with an uneasy feeling because it goes against our deeply felt conviction that there is a purpose to life, that there is meaning to existence. So this is the actual point that the argument pivots on, not if there is directionality to evolution – for surely there is that – but if there is purpose. OK, let the argument continue.

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Eb
Eb
11 years ago

I agree with you Jeff, this is exactly the question: Does it mean anything at all after all??? The more we find out about LIFE the more complex it gets, whether we look into the inner or outer, into the micro or macro realms – it all seems interconnected. How could there be purpose? Or if there is purpose how could it express itself? I am curious about your next blog!

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

Jeff, Your post is a beautiful example of balanced journalism; a treat this Easter weekend. I don’t know whether or not evolution has direction and purpose, but I certainly admire the question. Purpose suggests agency. People have purposes. Now that we are aware of evolution, we can possibly direct it for our own purposes. If the meaning of life is the meaning we make, the meaning I make is to enhance successful evolution — by teaching, organizing, stewardship, etc.

Thanks for the post. More comments, everybody?

Carl
11 years ago

Jeff, your post hits it right on point from my perspective. It is hard, given that we humans have the capacity to imagine future states, for us to relate to a mechanism for evolution that does not include that future-imagining element. But that, I think, is what is implied by “telos.” Darwin, like Skinner and others, understood the idea of “selection by consequences” as including two types of factors: those things that cause variation to occur and those “selection” factors to which the variations must adapt or fall away. There are lots of things that cause variation at the individual… Read more »

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

Carl, You are a man after my own heart. But sorry, I’m already married. When I walk in nature I am amazed that it all came about through an unguided process. It seems so unlikely and far more exciting than magical explanations. In our town of Franklin, TN you can take a ghost tour and learn about all the minor doings of our local spirits: strange noises, lights turning on and off, etc. But in between the ghost stories, the tour guide tells the real history of our town and, believe me, its far more interesting. When I asked the… Read more »

Stephanus
Stephanus
11 years ago

Essentially it states that the individuals of any given species are born with variations in characteristics. (Which would be a truism)

Some of these variations have survival advantages and are passed on genetically to offspring.
(Other than noting the genes were passed on how was their advantageousness measured? Thus Darwin formulated a tautology. )

Carl
11 years ago

The idea of “direction” might be anchored in the Big Bang, which seems to have had a single direction (“out” in all directions from an infinitely small center). Consider, though, that this “direction” has a big impact. In simplest terms, any little explosion that goes against that big direction would probably be overrun. Any little explosion that was in the same direction as the big bang’s force would be compatible with and mutually strengthening with the big bang. That may be more metaphor than real physics, but if you consider the idea that variations are selected by consequences — whether… Read more »

John Landon
11 years ago

Check out the study of directionality in history at http://history-and-evolution.com

Directionality and teleology are confusing subjects, not easy to get straight

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Doug
Doug
11 years ago

I see directionality implied in much of the ‘evolutionary’ approach talked about by Cohen and Wilbur. The notion of ‘karma-free sex’ for example, implies a universe in which the choices you make have meaning and take you in one direction or the other. The ‘right action’ presumably towards an expanded or evolved consciousness. To me, the Big Bang is amazing, but what grounds it is what facinates.

“You know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones.”

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