Life Force

In the research and writing I do I generally stay away from evolution, mainly because it is so widely accepted that I feel like I need to understand it better before I reject it out of hand. Is it possible these proponents of it understand something I don’t?  But more importantly, it’s not central to my theme.  I don’t hold to the belief that if evolution is true, there is no God.  There are natural mechanisms at work in the world all the time, and we have known that since the beginning of knowledge.  The acceleration of scientific inquiry in the last few hundred years has explained much, of course, but it hasn’t changed that basic idea.  So if biological development occurs by natural processes, too, that doesn’t crowd out God.  It doesn’t even call Genesis into question, as far as I’m concerned.

But I am interested in evolution. I took it as given, for a long time, because it was taught so assiduously in school, and my understanding of the Bible and of spiritual matters was so weak and frail that I was only vaguely aware that there was, in some circles, some sort of controversy about it.   I was probably in my 30’s when, while thinking about how evolution worked, it suddenly occurred to me: where are all the in-betweens?  

Since then, I’ve read many explanations on that subject, though I don’t find them very convincing. And anyway, once that breach in the edifice of faith occurred, I started to doubt everything.  I have some even more fundamental questions about how evolution is supposed to work.

One of those is teleology. One definition of teleology is “the explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than by postulated causes”.  I think that’s an over-simplification.  It doesn’t reach outside of natural causes, necessarily.  It does begin to get at the concept, however, because it suggests looking at phenomena from the other end, so to speak.  Instead of thinking about gravity acting on water and causing it to flow downhill, you think of the water as having a purpose of flowing.  I think the definition is oversimplified because it assumes naturalism.  In fact, it makes the “purpose” perspective seem silly.

By teleology, I mean the metaphysical idea that there is a goal-directedness in things.  It is thought to originate with people like Aristotle, who considered the four causes, the final being an inner purpose to things.  So fire consumes things and warms us; it has that internal purpose.  But the idea is expanded in philosophy (or theology) to imply that that inner directedness has Divine origin.

Back to evolution, remember we’re going from simple to complex, in structure and in function.  A wing exists for the purpose of flying.  An eye for seeing.  The teleology question has to do with how this purpose becomes engrafted into populations by natural selection.  I am intrigued by the information approach, because I often see now arguments (like Dembski’s) that purpose requires information which requires an information-provider.

But to me, the information issue is a sub-set of the teleology issue. Every time I read a proponent of evolution (like Richard Dawkins) they explain evolution as if it proceeds toward something.  I.e., the light-sensitive patch over time becomes an eye so that it can see better.  Sometimes the person writing will see the problem as they go, and will explain it away by saying that their explanation includes a purposive assumption because that’s just how we think of things, and so it’s easier to talk this way; that every time they say or imply a goal for an evolutionary process, we’re to imagine the absence of a goal.  Not very convincing.

How does evolution account for going from simple to complex, and doing so for particular purposes?  Here’s how I understand the theory.  First, it doesn’t deal with how life first began; that is the subject of other scientific speculation.  Second, it presupposes speciation, though variation plus pressure plus selection ought to go in every direction, not one, if there is no outside agency.

But in any event we typically start with the idea of a population of individuals. Though sufficiently similar to comprise a species, the individuals in the population are genetically and physically diverse.  This is variation.  So what is the evolutionary process acting upon the varied individuals in that population?

Two things, as I understand it. One is environmental pressure.  This could be anything, like running out of room; increase in predators; the change in a river course; climate change; etc.  This pressure is not purposeful, however.  It does not occur so as to make the population respond in any particular way; nor does it impute to the population a purpose.  Moreover, the population does not react in a way that has any other purpose than to survive.

Now before going on to the second thing, I have to say something about the will to survive. That is itself a purpose.  That’s my foundational bug-a-boo with evolution.  Even saying “will” to survive gives the game away.  We are so imbued with this driving force, this life-force, that we don’t think about the purposive nature of it.  Why should the population respond in such a way that it purposes survival?

And while I’m on the subject, why is there an understood-but-never-explained desire to procreate? We’re always asking why (theists) or how (theists and atheists) living things desire to live and desire to procreate.  But the desire to procreate isn’t self-evident, either.  Why is there a sex drive?  To cause us to procreate.  But why?  By what non-purposeful process does that exist?  Every time I read about evolutionary explanations for what I have come to think of simply as “life-force,” the explanations embody purpose, and every explanation of the explanation similarly presumes purpose, like those nested Russian dolls.  Every explanation just repeats the question.

Now the second thing: natural selection.  The whole idea of evolution, as I understand it, is that pressure acts on a population so that those individuals with features well-adapted to respond to the pressure survive, and those individuals ill-adapted to respond to the pressure die.  The population in the next generation is therefore comprised of a slightly different genetic or structural make-up, in response to the environmental pressure.

Thus, according to the theory of evolution, natural selection has the effect of a creative process. It is passive, so it doesn’t actually create; that would imply purpose.  Instead, it has the result of introducing new features into the population, inter-generationally.  Only in that sense is it “creative.”  Actually, calling it “creative” is an instance of anthropomorphizing purposeless processes, and thereby sneaking in teleology where it supposedly doesn’t exist.

I also point out that this is an instance of the distinction the above teleology definition makes, between looking at causation versus purpose. The population doesn’t respond to the pressure so that, as a population, it adapts.  That would be purposeful.  What happens, according to the theory, is that the pressure causes selection and de-selection of traits, with the passive result that the population changes incrementally.

We can’t explain what we observe in terms of environmental pressures. We can’t really begin to know what they were, nor why (nor how) they caused the particular branching they are said to have caused and that we observe now, though that would be necessary to eliminate in-betweens, among other problems with the theory.

It is argued that we can, however, observe the result of natural selection. I have to pause and speak, footnote-wise, to irreducible complexity, in this context.  For many, the problem of irreducible complexity rules against evolution out-of-court.  I mean by this the idea that a partial wing is deleterious to an individual, not adaptive, and the wing could only form incrementally.  It’s not like you have a population of lizards, some with wings (dragons!) and some without.  Irreducible complexity seems to me like an affront to the notion that pressure and selection happen passively.

It’s not just a matter of whether the time is sufficient. The nature of the process is such that populations would change in such minor incremental ways that the finished product (a wing, in my example) would never eventuate; not just that it would take a long time.  It would not eventuate because the individuals do not purpose to respond to the pressure by wishing their descendants, millions of years hence, could fly.  Without purpose, we’re left with passive selection alone.  The partial development of a complex feature, like a wing, is not adaptive.  In fact, it’s maladaptive.

I paused to mention irreducible complexity because it is another argument arising out of the pressure plus selection limitations of evolution. But it seems to me that the bigger problem is that what we observe does not actually support selection as the “creative” force of evolution.  For one thing, if we look at populations of living things around us, and consider how they seem well-adapted to their environments, we’re engaged in observing surviving traits, only.  There is no way, from observation, to arrive at deselected traits, other than by unsupported speculation.  Moreover, there is no reason to suppose that even vast amounts of time would eliminate them all, which puts us back to the where-are-all-the-in-betweens problem.

But in addition to that, even what we observe doesn’t seem to support adaptation. Salamanders thrive in temperate, shallow, fresh water, and not on mountain peaks.  We think of them as adapted to their environments.  But the major features we observe them to have are not observably (or conjecturally) the result of adaptation, or else there is a lack of functional continuum inter-generationally, throwing us back on the irreducible complexity problem.

The issues I have with evolution seem to spiral out, in whorls and eddies of thought, but I think the absence of teleology is at the heart of it. Where does the life-force come from?  Even if living things can go from simple to complex by the agencies of variation, environmental pressure, and selection, what push makes them do so?




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