(Article changed on April 4, 2013 at 11:00)
small-DSC_0689 charles darwin by Gêro
I recently posted an article titled, God, Evolution And The Goal Oriented Universe. This column will add a bit more detail to my suspicion that we may live in a teleological (goal oriented) universe. Please keep in mind that I am not arguing for or against an intelligent designer. Further, I am not a scientist, so my view is more philosophical than scientific. Tending toward instrumentalism, I write about what I think is useful rather than a comprehensive explanation of objective reality.
From Charles Q. Choi, of Scientific American, "Billions of years ago, organic chemicals in the primordial soup somehow organized themselves into the first organisms. A few years ago scientists found that something similar happens every once in awhile in the cells of all living things: bits of once-quiet stretches of DNA sometimes spontaneously assemble themselves into genes. Such "de novo" genes may go on to play significant roles in the evolution of individual organisms--even humans."
This discovery causes one to question if Neo-Darwinian theory is a complete and comprehensive explanation for the evolution of life. By way of review:
Neo-Darwinian evolution maintains that heritable characteristics are passed on to progeny. Of course, they must survive and reproduce if heredity is to be successful. In the process of reproduction, certain mutations will occur. If those mutations provide an adaptive advantage in a particular niche, the organism will flourish.
This implies that evolution is acausal and random. But it also implies the environment influences evolution by providing niches that allow for survival of those organisms best suited for each niche. In addition to de novo genes, there's more.
We now know there are other factors that can shape evolution by affecting how a gene expresses. This process is being called epigenetic. Because the process seems to be an emergent property of normal genetic evolution but not due to direct inheritance of genetic characteristics.
Now, Dr. Stuart Kauffman has a new, and third question to consider; some niches come into existence as a result of another niche that is not necessarily a part of the existing environment. In other words, it is adjacent to the primary niche but just happens to allow for another organism to flourish. It has nothing to do with either an adaptive advantage to fill an existing niche or epigenetic influences.
So let's review:
1. Evolution is the process of random selection for adaptive advantages for niches that exist in the environment.
2. Genes spontaneously assemble themselves from once quiet stretches of DNA.
3. Genes express differently based on epigenetic (external) factors and these modified genes can be conserved through heredity.
4. Genetic modifications can spontaneously create new adjacent niches that didn't exist in the environment before the modification showed up.
Do these facts support the belief that evolution is acausal? Take just item four; if the unintended adjacent niche provides for the flourishing of another organism, why? Is it purely by accident or is there an overarching goal? I don't know the answer. But I also don't know why this universe is finely tuned to allow for intelligent life to evolve; referred to as the anthropic principle.
In the absence of entailing laws governing the emergence of life, anything is possible. But for some reason, complex life becomes conscious in a universe that tends toward more, rather than less, entropy.