Benevolence in evolution

From the comfort of temples and churches at the dawn of our intellectual awakening, our ancestors sought meaning – as we all do – a purpose, a reason for our existence and how we came to be. At that time, lacking the considerable collection of knowledge that we now possess, they developed some elaborate theories to explain how we as a species were conceived. Religion is a defining feature of all human societies, the representation of our primitive unilateral search for truth and understanding. It provided the social adhesive that brought people together as a community. Today, some still remain in that primitive mindset, despite all our achievements. They cannot accept that we are just another terrestrial species vying for dominion over our competitors, albeit with a particularly effective evolutionary strategy. We arrogantly assume that we are the purpose of everything that has come before, and that will come after, akin to gods walking the Earth. All this despite being extremely late-comers to the life-on-Earth party.

Creationism, in all its ugly forms, is fundamentally boring and intellectually lazy. Despite being dogged by logical fallacies, inconsistencies and contradiction, it continues to linger on amongst those unable, or unwilling, to accept simple, incontrovertible truths regarding our existence. An anachronistic throwback to a simpler, earlier stage in our societal and intellectual development conceived in a time long before the enlightening torch of scientific discovery was lit. At the time, the authority of the politico-religious ruling elite was unquestionable and organised religion was the tool used to extract loyalty and revenue from their citizens. Accordingly, creationism is the antithesis of science – it encourages intellectual complacency by providing a disappointingly simple and vague explanation for everything that has ever happened and that will happen in the future, without any evidence whatsoever, and on the basis of empty, unfounded and unrewarded faith. Those who continue to subscribe to this obviously outdated belief system contribute nothing – and in fact substantially subtract – from collective human intellectual endeavour and curiosity. Creationism will never achieve anything, save to revert our young societies to superstitious and bigoted tribal communities, feeding off our primitive irrationality until we are once again feeling our way through the darkness of existence with no guiding light except the dim candle-light offered by weak philosophies of a time gone by. Vitriolic creationist rhetoric is the water to the torch of understanding; it extinguishes the flame of rationality and keeps us rooted in the past.

Those of a more liberal religious disposition who have the (preferential) good sense to view the Genesis saga as a myth, as well as the rationally minded amongst us, are fully aware of the true driver of speciation amongst organisms – evolution by natural selection. It is a theory, but in the same sense that the laws of gravity are a theory. Evolution is by all reasonable grounds, and to a significant degree of certainty, a fact, and natural selection is its very effective mechanism, albeit a very indifferent and cruel one at that. It is supported by a body of evidence that is undeniable in its enormity, housed in every natural history museum and within the genetic code of every organism. It is happening now and we can observe it in action.

In a very simplistic and reductionist definition of this mechanism, the passage of genetic information and the phenotype it codes for, probably acting at the level of the gene, is ensured by the successful reproduction of the organism that possess it. The level of reproductive success of a given organism is proportional to its environmental adaptability – a well adapted organism will most likely be the most successful at gathering resources, and therefore the most likely to pass on its genes to its descendants. Natural selection is not teleological, it is indifferent to subjective human notions of cruelty and suffering, but it is efficient and powerful, probably so much so that if life was to exist on another planet it too would most likely be driven by natural selection. In that sense, evolution by natural selection is a universal constant, akin to the laws of gravity or thermodynamics, constant throughout space and time.

It probably didn’t happen like this…

Consider, despite the unforgiving unpleasantness involved in so doing, the innumerable organisms that have been destroyed by predation or competition throughout the vast expanse of time that life has existed on this planet. Pause to imagine the indescribable suffering wrought by one organism upon that of another; the agony and fear, the venom and spines, teeth and tools that contributed to their destruction. The sick and old, feeble and weak, their fleshy frames easily torn by tooth and claw, brittle bones of calcium snapped by rock, their bodies poisoned by toxins and withered by age and disease. Viruses abound, DNA replication fails and cancers malign. The accumulation of all of the pain and suffering, the collective agony of all creatures killed by predators, enemies, competition, disease or themselves, expressed as a whole would be impossibly traumatic to even begin to comprehend. A tireless, indifferent and endless cycle of birth, death and decay.

Prior to our self-domestication and effective removal from the pressures of natural selection, Homo Sapiens was originally a raptorial species that hunted in packs using tools and superlative cunning to ambush and assault our prey. Short-sighted and nimble, we were efficient hunters and could run at a moderate pace for an impressive duration to exhaust our pursued prey and make the kill. Not many individuals of the species continue to hunt at present and most have descended into physically feeble, fat and sloth-like creatures living communally in enormous nest-like artificial structures, usually perched on a coast. We still squabble violently over resources, reproduce prolifically and alter our environment to suit our short-term needs, occasionally to our long-term detriment. Epitomised by our superior intelligence we are the culmination of millions of generations of successful organisms. We are very effective at adapting to our environment using superlative ingenuity to circumvent our otherwise relatively feeble physical endowments. However, we are in many ways imperfect organisms blighted by defects, psychosis and degenerative disorders and we carry with us several items of evolutionary baggage that are now unessential.

Why would a benevolent Creator choose this long-winded, brutal and imperfect mechanism as His ideal path to eventually culminate in the dominance of His image on Earth; the sentient, introspective evolutionary pinnacle that is Homo Sapiens, over 3.5 billion years after life first emerged? Those who invoke the notion of a loving, omnipresent Creator, even in the most liberal of interpretations, surely have to at least pause for thought upon considering this unspeakably horrific reproductive strategy, as admittedly effective as it is.

In light of this, the continued belief in creationism, in all its guises, is so nonsensical and so deeply flawed in its reasoning and rationale that it could be considered a serious defect of human nature because of its very real ability to stunt our continued dominance as a species, and therefore tantamount to an evolutionary failure. Or, perhaps it could too be an evolutionary mechanism; religion may be a means to deal with the occasionally unnerving level of comprehension and foresight that a superior intellect affords us. We all want to be saved after the agony of death, to have a loving protector guiding us at every step, to one day achieve a higher sense of understanding and purpose. It eases the pressure applied to our psyche by the apparently uncomfortable knowledge of our desperate mortality and isolation.

This is no excuse however. We should not be seeking shelter in ignorance, however comfortable its embrace. It is within our species’ best interests to deal with the matter of our existence with rational forethought and in as objective means as possible, however unpleasant or humbling our findings may be.

9 comments on “Benevolence in evolution

  1. Although I agree that creationism has no part to play in any scientific debate from a purely existentialist viewpoint one could argue that science, like religion, performs a task of appearing to give sense to a process that is, in fact, purposeless.But that's just an existentialist view…

  2. Your opinions are absolutely valid, but I argue that they are based on some vulgar misinterpretations of the “primitive” mindset of religion. Your article appears to be based on the ultra-Darwinist perspective that Darwinism implies atheism. That being true, you like Dawkins have made a category error; evolution by natural selection provides us with the answer to the question of ‘how’, religion (generally) attempts at guiding us to find an answer to the question of ‘why’.Creationism is a fallacy; both scientifically and religiously. I argue that anyone who engages in discussion of creationism as a serious topic, both in support or rejection, is guilty of intellectual laziness. Why? Because creationism is a post-reformation misinterpretation. Before the Protestant Reformation it was widely accepted that the book of Genesis was allegorical; an opinion upheld as far back as the first century by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria. Philo’s opinion is based on the very obvious contradictions between the first and second chapters of the book of Genesis. How can Genesis be a literal account given the very clearly maintained contradictions in the order in which God apparently created the plants, animals and man?So on the acceptance that evolution by natural selection is a fact, is there still room for a God? Is it possible that an apparently random, unguided, blind process can be viewed without time? Let’s start with the word “random”. In short, the word random is used to describe things that human beings are not able to fully describe mechanistically. Nothing in this universe is strictly random, it’s merely that with our limited observational capacity at the extremities of scale, certain things appear to us as random. I emphasise “our limited observational capacity”, because that concept should be noted when placing too much faith in science, particularly in its capacity overshadow and outshine religion in its ability to answer the questions of ‘why’. Please also note the use of the phrase “faith in science”. Faith; “unfounded and unrewarded faith”, apparently just like religion.As for viewing the world without time, there is a very interesting thought experiment in the 1925 book “Experiments of Physical Biology” by Alfred Lotka. The very same Lotka of the Lotka-Volterra population dynamics equation. Lotka puts some effort into working towards a ‘law of evolution’ which would enable us to predict the course of this apparently unguided process. Lotka notes that if knowledge of all the state variables in an evolving system were known, including the properties and energetic value of all the particles involved, then the arrow in time imposed by the second law of thermodynamics effectively disappears; the course of evolution can be seen into the past and future. The evolving system can effectively be seen without time.I am not a Christian, I am not religious, I do not know if there is a grand creator and overseer viewing the universe without time, guiding the mechanism of evolution by natural selection to produce human beings; I too am a Scientist. And on that basis I would like to point out that Creationism, in terms of a literal account of the book of Genesis is certainly a disproven hypothesis. But as for disproving God, a god or gods; quite a bit more work needs to be put in to disprove that one. So I urge you to consider the possibility that science may never provide you with all of the answers, even though your enthusiasm for science may see you entertain that as a possibility.

  3. Firstly thank you for the comments, it is nice to know that my posts are being read and my intention was to instigate debate, to which end this article in particular seems to have been very successful! (Note to self: write vitriolic attacks against religion more often to draw attention to blog).My intention in this article was to critique creationism, not necessarily religion in general, although with retrospect I can see that it may not appear this way. My main point was, and remains, that the 'benevolent creator' invoked by both creationists and also those of a more liberal religious background is incompatible with the evidence, as provided by natural selection. I would argue that there is still room for a God in this interpretation, but not the all-loving, omnipresent creator often alluded to. If this is the case, if God played some unknown but integral role in the creation of the universe, time and space and everything in-between, then very well. I should state that this is not necessarily essential, there are several means by which it is possible that something could spring spontaneously from nothing without the need to invoke a creator, but that is for another post. I don't know the definite answer to that question and make no claim to the contrary. However, to worship Him as a paternalistic deity, only capable of love and forgiveness, in the face of this interpretation seems absurd. In which case, why worship Him at all? Respect, fear or loathe would be more appropriate.There is no sense, no direction of travel, in space or time, biology or physics and I regret this interpretation of the article. There may be a purpose, although one has yet to be discovered or even alluded to, and science is fully aware of this fact. Is that reason to abandon or quest for understanding of our environment, be it physical or philosophical? I agree that our contemporary observational abilities cannot be superlative; there is undoubtedly an enormous, revolutionary compendium of knowledge that we have yet to even comprehend. But I am fully confident that we have the ability to uncover and exploit this information using science and its guide the scientific method. What other sensible choice do we have? If we want to make progress, we have to look forward, not backward, albeit using a very cautious and justifiably conservative approach. We are unlikely to make further, paradigm-shifting discoveries regarding the nature of our physical universe, consciousness or anything else for that matter, using the anachronistic philosophical guidance of century’s old religious propaganda. My point was that, in this sense, religion and particularly creationism, actually fundamentally detracts from our ability to make these discoveries by attempting to anchor our societies using the philosophies conjured in a mind-set of a bygone age. Fantastic, unimaginable discoveries will most likely be made incrementally by scientists, as they have done in the past: biologists, physicists and chemists working at the cutting edge of our understanding. I made the point the article that religion, or perhaps the religious mind-set so ubiquitous amongst our species, is most likely an evolutionary neurological device to assist in processing the conflicting and confusing information that is constantly bombarding our senses; whether or not it is now outdated is perhaps another question. You could argue, I suppose, that science is too, but, unlike religion, science is a process, a means of actively engaging in the past and present. It thrives on revolution and upheaval, but using a balanced and cautious approach. Conversely, religion makes no new discoveries, is doggedly and detrimentally conservative in its outlook, and recent attempts to extract any further meaningful interpretation relevant to the world of today from literary analysis of the Bible, Torah or Quran has resulted in violent bloodshed, bigotry and suffering.

  4. No need to thank me. Ben pointed me toward your article because he knew I’d have something to say about it. I’m sure I’ve bored him for hours regarding my interpretations of religion and spirituality.There is a simple but powerful rebuttal to your statement that “the benevolent creator … is incompatible with the evidence”. It’s one that I’m told Einstein himself was challenged with and was unable to respond to. Benevolence literally means “well meaning and kindly”, it doesn’t mean that someone (or something) acting with benevolence will always be perceived as so. Ultimately our perceptions of someone who is kind is relative to our perceptions of someone who is unkind. Good is relative to bad, light to dark etc. Without evil and suffering we can never know kindness and joy. This view is consistent with Taoist philosophy and curiously correlates with the whole matter versus anti-matter concept.As for our purpose, perhaps you missed my statement regarding the category error; science cannot answer such questions. Understanding the mechanism of evolution by natural selection demonstrates that life has no purpose, but it doesn’t yet say anything about the mechanisms that produced a species that looks for one. You state that you are “fully confident” in the our ability to uncover and exploit information yet to be discovered; I agree. What other choice do we have? As far as the politically and economically driven science machine is concerned; none. But again you’re placing assumptions on precisely where this information is. What about the possibility that information pertaining to the true nature or purpose of our universe existing outside of it? What about the possibility that we never create a technology that can overcome the measurement problem, thus preventing our ability to observe and test on the smallest scales. How are we ever going to find the limits of scale? Are there limits of scale?Who says that the purpose of religion is to create “paradigm-shifting discoveries regarding the nature of our physical universe, consciousness or anything else”? Religious doctrine may appear to be static, its dynamism is in the hearts and minds of its adherents. People alive today who face a daily battle to reconcile their faith with what they know and learn. Let it be stated now that when you join the department in October, some (admittedly few) of the people you’ll meet and talk to will be devout adherents of the world’s major religions. Religion is not anti-science, the two can be compatible. In fact of the more contemporary religions, consensus between religion and science is an explicit goal. The Bahá'í Faith is one such example of this. Conservative religious adherents of any faith who defend unchanging beliefs to potentially immoral or destructive ends are not representative of science or the religion they seek to uphold. The people who are may never make their presence known to you.

  5. Thank you for your response! Since leaving Facebook last month I haven't gotten into an e-debate for a while. I miss it.I have replied, but blogspot is taking its time again.

  6. Phil, you make an exceptionally strong point; if Einstein couldn’t respond to that rebuttal, I am very unlikely to be able to either. Matter vs. anti-matter, positive vs. negative electrical charge, localised angular momentum cancelled out my distant angular momentum – these are all valid arguments for our understanding of a concept by the understanding its relative opposite. What I would say is that it is very difficult to determine whether our moral juxtaposition between ‘kind’ and ‘unkind’ is a biological or socio-cultural construction. Does the total ‘kindness’ metric of the universe have to equal exactly zero, with ‘kindness’ cancelling out ‘unkindness’, as with the other concepts? Even if we were to observe unkind actions by others, and be aware of them as such, I think it would still be identify ‘the creator’ as ‘kind’ if His benevolent personality had been epitomised in a more humane strategy of creation and speciation, if one were to exist. Individuals could still act in an egotistical manner for personal gain or some other reason, but if a hypothetical ‘kind’ method of inception or creation was evident, we could exclude the creator from this label.A species that evolves from a system without purpose, and then seeks purpose where there may be none will create its own purpose. Its existence is driven by the need to exist, its purpose to find purpose. We seek order in chaos, artificial patterns in stochasticity. How can we detach ourselves from this loop? We desperately want, need, there to be a purpose to our life, our sentience wills it to be so, but would we even know how to comprehend this information if it was to present itself to us? It is possible that we already may have all the information required to identify ‘our meaning’, but we lack the ability to assemble and comprehend it. If that information is outside of the universe, far beyond our understanding of time or space, then you are undoubtedly right; it is possible we will never gain access to it. But if there is a possibility, however remote, surely it would be revealed by science? How could religion, however dynamic the mindset of its adherents, hope to reveal in the future what it has yet to do in the past? What further revelations can be extracted from the tomes of our ancestors? What more can prayer, entheogens or meditation offer us that they have not already? I fear this is turning into a full-blown assault on religion in general, and that was not my stated intention. Whilst I have strong views on the subject, to assert these personal opinions in this arena would detract from the original purpose of this article, which was to illustrate that it remains logically impossible to hold creationist views, and to identify the difficulties in reconciling the idea of benevolent creation with natural selection. Religion and science may be compatible in some cases, and I am fully supportive of religious movements that can reconcile their views with the evidence provided by science. What concerns me is that science often is viewed as the anti-religion, and it is especially upsetting when science is distorted to suit the beliefs of a particular religious ideology. This is perhaps a view not held by you, me or anyone in the department, but it certainly is by some people; ultra-religious conservatives in the US, for example. Religion should not be given equal weighting when considering matters primarily the concern of science, especially when the body of evidence is as significant as it is in the case of evolution.

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