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June 15, 2007

Evolving Design - A third way between evolution and creation

By Jim Arnold

There's another way of thinking about the evolution issue that many may find more palatable, less polarizing that "random mutation" or "creation".


The dispute over the teaching of evolution is an aspect of our culture-divide that may be surprisingly bridgeable. Many an embittered partisan might find a way to meet others mid-span.

At present the opposing sides on the evolution issue are sharply drawn, and actually quartered, as two fairly distinct groups can be found in each camp. Most fundamentally, those who are pro-evolution, or at least indifferent to the implications of science, regard Evolution Theory as an independent field needless of reconciling its propositions with religious beliefs. Those who oppose the exclusive teaching of evolution insist that science should acknowledge a supernatural beingabove all, if not renounce evolution altogether.

Not always so clearly distinguished are the factions within the factions. Among the opposition to evolution are Creationists who take literally the religious teachings about Adam and his Rib, and the Animals Two-By-Two, and the Six-Day Chore. They can be excused from reading further, as we will be kindly disregarding them from here on. We might describe them (now that they've gone) as the rather mulish cousins of those with a more competitive species of belief, the advocates of Intelligent Design. These are not so easily dismissed, as many in the pro-evolution camp have been impatient and pleased to do. Intelligent Design considers Evolution Theory insufficient, not entirely wrong, in its account of the development of life. Most compellingly, it regards emerging evidence of micro-biology as revealing processes too complex and interdependent to have evolved by the discrete and random mechanism of accidental mutation. Not so scientifically compelling (not at all) is what often goes unexpressed, the conviction that evolution could only have been possible by the design of an intelligent and purposeful God, and (according to some) that humanity was created from scratchoutside the evolutionary process. These beliefs alone needn't bridle someone in active opposition to evolution theory, except for a coincident determination to squeeze from science teachers a confession of the supreme validity of Religion.

On the pro side, Evolution Theory attributes the development of life to random mutations, some of which, by chance, are beneficial to mutant organisms, allowing them to thrive and reproduce with a competitive advantage. For anyone who has investigated the matter with a genuine curiosity there is obvious and overwhelming evidence that species have evolved, and evolved into other species. And it's apparent that mutation and natural selection are the only mechanisms that can be directly observed operating in the evolution of life forms. Evolution remains just a theory, but that's because all of science is theory. Science is a vast, faceted discipline of tentative positions with shifting reflections according to unexpected discoveries and consequent reinterpretations. In principle, scientific theories are, unlike beliefs, subject to question and development or refutation by the accretion of evidence.

But among pro-evolutionists there is a distinct faction of philosophers, many of whom doggedly insist they're not being philosophical. The philosophy they nevertheless espouse and would deliberately impose in science class is a form of Materialism, a belief that the observable mechanisms of evolution are the only things going on in the development of life. It's a claim beyond confirmation or refutation, and as such it's no less extra-curricular to science than the doctrine of Intelligent Design. And if It's true that religion has no place in scientific theories, it's just as true that science has no warrant to declare that a theory necessarily provides a consummate account of its object. Science, when true to its precepts, seeks only to describe what can be observed, and to continually subject its inferences to sanction among disciplined colleagues. Science can make no claim about what cannot be observed, described, and substantiated -- whether for or against. Specifically, there can be no evidence, much less proof, whether life evolves exclusively by random mutation and natural selection.

Not all scientists confuse their discipline with a metaphysical philosophy. And anyway, we needn't excuse those who do from further consideration, as unlike Creationists, theirs is a position at least ostensibly open to debate. But it will be important to recognize them as a distinct para-scientific faction in the pro-evolution camp.

Having identified the contenders we can stipulate to this much: Evolution Theory is a legitimate science. The mechanisms the theory describes have been investigated and verified to what is always the tentative though sufficient and operative satisfaction of disciplined scientists. But at least one concession must be granted to the advocates of Intelligent Design: The theory of evolution is, by itself, a trivial explanation for life -- as an indulgence in a little imaginary vignette may serve to illustrate.

Imagine a young scientist sitting beneath a tree, absorbed in the Book of Darwin. Suddenly a leopard springs from the branches, and startled by the rustle and roar, the scientist looks up to see fang and claw just an instant away. Happily though, being a very highly evolved human specimen, she has a means of escape. She needs only to snap her fingers to disappear in a puff of smoke and reappear on a hilltop hundreds of yards away, leaving the leopard bewildered and famished amidst a pile of clothing and a tattered Darwin. Thanks to a fortuitous mutation, the young scientist remains free to one-day propagate her excellent genes to a most fit and select progeny.

The scientist's mutant maneuver is unlikely, of course. Put scientifically, we might say it is evidently beyond physical possibility. But the imagination serves to emphasize that evolution has to work within strict limitations. Natural selection can only exploit natural possibilities, and presumably, magic is beyond exploitation for competitive advantage. This is what makes aspects of our world like consciousness, morality, love, art, and spiritual feeling wondrous in-themselves, beyond any evolutionary advantage they may confer. They are features of our reality so immediate and pervasive their profundity may be obscured and even freely denied, though from under a draping blind of irony - ironic because they are denied by conscious, free, loving, moral, aesthetic beings. Ours is a universe where consciousness is possible, where morality is feel-able, where beauty is appreciable, where freedom is conceivable, and evolution by itself can't explain the very possibility that the world could evolve such remarkable faculties and capabilities, except by a decrepit para-scientific appeal to the finite plausibility of the infinite improbability of what-is. Materialism would reduce the universe to matter-in-motion, but if that's anywhere near an apt description, it is a universe, at the very least, of very specialmatter in very special motion.

But need we invoke Intelligent Design, and an intelligent designer, to account for the intricacies of life and our most cherished attributes and values? Or need we insist on a contrary, ultimately meaningless contingency? And in any case, do such questions belong in a science class?

Many scientists persist in arguing as if the controversy over evolution stems from a misunderstanding of the nature and scope of science. But the issue goes beyond definition and won't be resolved by a consensus on the boundary between science and religion. The opposition of pros and cons is charged with animosity and suspicion. Each side mistrusts the scope of the other's agenda, and each side fears the social implications should the other prevail. Those opposed to Evolution Theory view the reduction of life to an ultimately random process as a sacrilege, a threat to their most fundamental beliefs, to the foundation of their morality -- to their everyday chin-ups of morale. Those in support of evolution are indifferent if not comfortable with a barren physical principle at the origin of existence which they dismiss as unavailing on the ethical conduct and daily enjoyment of their lives, and their own abiding dread is of a resurgence of age-old religious authority.

The question of evolution goes to the very fissure of our culture-divide. Is life a creation of a divine spirit, and is that the basis of moral conduct and routine contentment, or is life the product of a spontaneous burst of particles, fundamentally meaningless, yet irrelevant and un-detracting from our heart-felt human values?

The opposition may seem irreconcilable, but one's position on evolution needn't be a dutiful belief, nor a defiant foil to dogma. An alternative can be derived from a third perspective that preserves and upholds the best aspects of both -- a commitment to free and critical inquiry and a belief in deeper meaning, where the human spirit isn't regarded as just some freakish and unnatural byproduct of mutation and survival.

So then, what if the source of the universe is neither a separate omnipotent divinity nor some inexplicable bang of soulless matter? What if this ultimate source could be minimally described as a wholly natural beingness that is somehow probing, prospecting, and inventive in its innocent quest of existence? What if each evolutionary innovation is the fulfillment of an implicit virginnature, absent any sort of clairvoyance, premonition or predestination? What if evolution is a deliberate but slow and provisional self-rearranging of the genetic blueprint, subject to the contingencies of natural selection, and a "design" only in our retrospective? Such a nature might eventually develop mature attributes like love, conscience, and spiritual feeling -- the same basic characteristics many of us find in our own hearts -- out of the latent fullness of itself, just by the evolution of its self-making and self-discovery. This beingness, this universe of ours, would be a naturally evolving expression of an industrious and holistic sort of proto-intelligence we've yet to acknowledge, appreciate, and comprehend. And it may be that we've looked right through its pre-conscious machinations because, just like thought, it is intangible, invisible, and maybe it functions at the biological level on a different time-scale than thought, perhaps taking generations to form something akin to an organizing "concept" and invention.

Needless to say, this is just unsupported speculation, a non-scientific, philosophical alternative to Religion and Materialism, and it needn't be more precisely expressed or comprehended here. To avoid misinterpretation it should at least be said that to be an alternative it wouldn't be the same as pantheism, which by definition retains a divinity somehow transcendent of the natural world it pervades, as if an infusion of a something-there into the something-here. Nor would it cohere with the idea of a "life-force", a non-religious variation on the pantheist concept involving a distinct active principle of some kind working through an inert material.

A naturalistic view of evolution, what I'm calling Evolving Design, may not have been satisfactorily articulated as yet, and it's only been fantasized in various approximations by mystics and philosophical idealists. But even in its faintest outline it may already be most compatible with the intuitive sensibilities of a large number of people -- scientists, philosophers, laypersons, and non-doctrinal believers in divinity. It may be a solution in which our ideas about life and evolution can eventually coalesce in mutual acceptance and amenity. As a middle path, Evolving Design could soften the defensiveness of many who value science but distrust religion, who have felt constrained to embrace a materialist philosophy for the strength of its opposition to pious dogmatism. Among those who embrace Religion for its opposition to Materialism, Evolving Design could replace the desolate improbability of existence envisioned by Materialism with a more inspiring alternative, without need of a religious attachment.

The idea of Evolving Design stands in sharp contrast to the para-scientific interpretations of Materialism, but it needn't be less respectful of scientific facts. By its contrast, Evolving Design profiles Materialism as a peer philosophy with no exclusive claim on scientific evidence. It's arguable that Evolving Design is actually better equipped to recognize and accommodate the interdependent, wondrous examples of evolution featured by the advocates of Intelligent Design. By any argument, an open competition for scientific fitness between philosophies could serve to clarify both the indispensable value of a speculative perspective and the need to separate speculation from scientific methodology. Science, freed of its implicit materialist slant, could return a-lightened and afresh to its original project, an inspired but disciplined methodology for analyzing direct experience.

The segregation of science from philosophy could help illuminate both what science is and what science lacks. When left alone to its work, science is supremely adapted to classification and the analysis of function, but it is unable to account for the unaccountable. Science can measure tones, intervals, and decibels, for example, but it is unable to comprehend music. So while it's important that science is isolated, it may be just as important that science is situated, placed in a context of meaning and value.

The percolating political battle over the teaching of Creationism and Intelligent Design in science class could find a resolution in these terms. Situating science, placing it in context, might best be accomplished by means of an introduction to each course of study where a discussion of the scope and horizon of the subject-matter is made explicit.

In the teaching of Evolution Theory up to now Materialism has usually pervaded (rather than introduced) the curriculum as the one implicit and presumptive philosophical orientation, just because it adds to the science only a belief that there's nothing else to add. But though Materialism may be the simplest, most economical pro-scientific philosophy, a scientific description of a magic act (to offer an admittedly superficial analogy) isn't credited for simplicity if it leaves out the unseen trick that explains the illusion. The amazingly complex interdependence of cellular metabolism is no illusion, and science can be rightly criticized for dismissing the challenge micro-complexity presents to Evolution Theory. The point is, a presumption of virtue for simplicity and economy begs the question of whether there might be something more encompassing to consider and understand.

Introducing the science of evolution with a survey of various perspectives, even including a mention of religious denials of the evidence (presented as anti-science) might satisfy the ultimate desires of many on both sides of the culture-divide without infecting the curriculum itself. And by giving large context to the minutia of scientific investigations, an introduction might encourage a more elevated and productive diversity of approaches to the analysis and synthesis of facts.

Who can say what insights placing Evolution Theory in the context of differing pro-scientific philosophies might inspire? Who can say what constrictions have been perpetuated by the presumption of just one perspective? And what possible threat could there be in a brief introductory survey of opinion prior to delving into the science, except the threat to the hegemony of a Materialist bias?

A recognition that science should be strictly circumscribed, that it's best presented in the context of various conflicting but supportive philosophies, that in situating the theory of evolution there is a third way between Religion and Materialism -- these considerations could finally provide a bridge to reconciliation among true friends of science.

Submitters Bio:
A former visitant of UC Santa Cruz, former union boilermaker, ex-Marine, Vietnam vet, anti-war activist, dilettante in science with an earth-shaking theory on the nature of light (which no one will consider), philosopher in the tradition of Schelling, Hegel, Merleau-Ponty, Marx, and Fromm (sigh, no one listens to me on that either), author of a book on wine clubs (ahem), and cast-off programmer of ancient computer languages.

I've recently had two physics articles published in an obscure but earnest Central European journal (European Scientific Journal but my main interests remain politics and philosophy.