Like so many debates, the one around how we came to exist is a victim of the ‘false dichotomy’ problem between “Intelligent Design” – another way of saying “God did it” or a godless, random process where it’s total chance that we ever ended up existing at all. Even the “Giant Spaghetti Monster” hypothesis is really just another version of Intelligent Design.
We are not limited to these two choices in understanding how life in general and humanity in specific came to exist on Earth.
In college, I used to get in fierce debates with my science-major friends about the non-randomness of evolution; arguing that I strongly believed in evolution, I just didn’t think it was random. This was something they seemed unable to understand. For them, if I didn’t believe in Random Genetic Mutation (RGM) coupled with Sexual Selection, I was a Creationist.
For my part, I thought this was a vast underestimation of the data that gets exchanged at a biochemical and energetic level among organisms in the world we live in. Everything we take into our body – whether breathing, eating, or absorbing through our skin – has an impact on us.
Consider the pheromones given off by many creatures (including humans!) when they seek to mate. Pheromones are a chemical substance that communicates more powerfully then any pick-up line could.
I couldn’t understand why it was so hard to believe that our bodies could take in environmental information at a cellular (or atomic / energetic) level and use it. Granted, maybe not in the current generation, but perhaps in future generations. For me, this meant that it wasn’t a random genetic mutation driving evolution, but a very targeted one.
It seems like the very core of evolution to argue that a species genetic code can be modified based on the data that came in from the environment.
Reflecting back, I can understand a little bit what the resistance of my friends might have been. Targeted genetic modification sounds a lot like ‘someone’ is making a ‘decision,’ and that sounds an awful lot like “Intelligent design.”
However, I associated this behavior on a cellular level as a more fundamental example of what we readily observe on an organism level. For example, when a plant grows in the direction of sunlight – is that a decision? When a tree (or plant) gets too much sunlight and flips it’s leaves over so that the more reflective backside of the leaves slows the absorption of sunlight – is that a decision?
It’s a stimulus and a response.
Interestingly enough, it was a college Ecology class that really galvanized my belief that evolution is not random. (And before you ask, I went to college at a large public university). We were discussing the evolution of evolutionary theory; gradualism, random genetic mutation, sexual selection, etc. One thing the professor said really sparked my interest. She said,
“The one big mystery of evolution from a random genetic mutation perspective is that you would think – if it’s random – the fossil record would be littered with bad mutations – ones that didn’t work out, but that’s simply not the case. We don’t have a record of all these failed random mutations.”
We have records of organisms both large and small that have gone extinct, even organisms as old as stromatolites. But we don’t have examples of animals that have mutated in unsuccessful ways. Isn’t that interesting?
Now, one could argue that all those fossils have disappeared into the Earth – or that the fossils we do have aren’t really a representative example of all the iterations of creatures that have existed. Or it could be argued that the fossils we do have may have had failed mutations that aren’t visible in their remains.
The lack of fossil evidence of random genetic mutation is not a smoking gun by any means, but it is a data point that’s worth paying attention to.
A few years later I stumbled on Olivia Judson’s book Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation, a pop-culture evolutionary biology book that bolstered my developing belief that evolution is something less than random. Here is one interesting quote (of which there are quite a few) to illustrate what I mean;
“an experiment with yellow dung flies…has shown that testes size can evolve in response to sperm competition in as few as ten generations.” (pg 23)
So first of all – I hope you weren’t eating. If you were, I apologize 🙂 Secondly, though, ten generations? That’s not millions of years, that’s evolution happening in weeks and months. Also, worth noting, if we were talking about random mutation in response to an environmental stimulus (here: sperm competition), one expect flies to turn pink maybe or grow extra legs or maybe their wings change size, but that’s not what happened here.
Maybe it’s easy to miss, but here we see (and I did do a quick skim through the source studies for this one) that evolution is happening in a very targeted way for the animal– one that corresponds to the area where adjustment is needed. That makes perfect logical sense, but it’s definitely not random.
This is not to say that there are no random mutations. That surely happens. My argument is merely that random mutations (even ‘coupled’ with sexual selection) are not the primary driver of evolution.
Of course this may all seem like ‘old news’ now as I know there is a “new-ish” field called Epigenetics that studies modifications to the genetic code based on environmental conditions. Still – it’s worth considering that evolution may be a bit “smarter” than we thought without needing to imagine a single, high god tinkering with every plant and creature.
Off the Deep End
I’m now going to take a leap in a completely different direction – I think it’s only fair to warn you.
Above we’ve discussed evolution of organisms from the perspective of ‘matter’ – that is, bodily, but we haven’t really touched on the idea of consciousness. Consciousness in general is possessed by most subjects in the Animal Kingdom. We can all tell that there is a difference between the consciousness of a plant and that of a puppy.
But, as an observable phenomenon, there seems to be a categorical difference between the operation of human consciousness and any other known life on this planet. We may talk about dolphins and whales as intelligent animals, but we do not mean by this that dolphins can work with complex mathematical algorithms, nor do we evaluate the complex narrative structure of a whale’s song compared to a work like War and Peace.
The human ability to create and self-reflect, to understand diverse perspectives and craft narratives based on complex emotions and motivations; all of these are representative of the uniqueness of the human condition. Also notable, is the human ability to build on what came before – not just over tens of thousands of years, but year over year. We don’t really see that with any other known species.
Now, some may argue that we simply don’t know enough about the inner life of a whale or dolphin (or ant for that matter) to judge. This is true. We should allow that that’s possible and avoid dismissing the argument outright. However, on the other hand, we should not let that argument stop us from thinking about the difference between human consciousness and that of all other life on Earth as we presently understand it.
It is partly this difference, of course, that sparks our speculation on the human soul. In the face of the human experience from the perspective of this difference, it is perfectly logical and rational to wonder why it is so. Why can fruit flies evolve sexual adaptations in ten generations, but in the 60,000 years of human existence hasn’t another species evolved a consciousness like ours?
Based on the current evolutionary debate it seems like we are at an impasse here – that we must choose between believing in a human soul and believing in evolution. Fortunately, that is actually not true, we are not required to believe that our bodies and our human ‘sense of self’ came about in the same way. People have certainly been wondering over the mind-body connection since Descartes and probably a long time before.
As a person who believes in both evolution and reincarnation, I feel compelled to be open-minded about how these two parts of our existence (both as spirit and as body) might have come into being and changed over time to result in our current experience.
In closing I want to note that I am clearly not a geneticist or an evolutionary biologist. It is not my goal with this post to try to convince you that the ideas in this post are right. What’s most important to me is that you take away this; we don’t have to ‘choose sides’ between a ‘godless’ evolution and a creationist myth that clearly ignores the evidence we do have on record – the more possibilities and options we consider, the better our chances of making a real breakthrough in this area.