QR5.7.2 What is Evolution?

Ever since science parted from religion on the origin of man, biology has denied that evolution has a direction. It currently sees evolution as a purposeless process going nowhere, so if time was reversed to let evolution run again, it would give entirely different results because the same random events would be unlikely to repeat (Gould, 1990). But others note that given the same conditions, evolution repeatedly finds the same solutions despite random events, so replaying the evolutionary tape might give much the same results (Morris, 2003). For example, birds, bats, insects and fish all evolved wings to fly, despite following unrelated evolutionary paths, because it benefits survival.

The argument is that replaying evolution would still give cells with membranes, reproduction, predators and prey, parasites and hosts because that system works. A way to capture solar energy like photosynthesis would still arise, giving plants as primary producers and animals as secondary consumers, with sight, smell, hearing and mobility based on fins, limbs or wings. The argument isn’t that playing the tape again would give humans but that something like us is likely to reappear.

Evolutionary algorithms are programs that work the way evolution does. They create a set of solutions, randomly tweak those that work, then repeat until a best solution emerges. This method can solve difficult problems that direct calculation can’t because it tends to the same answer if only one way works. If a best answer exists, rerunning the algorithm repeatedly finds it, so while it uses trial-and-error, it has a direction that it always arrives at.

If evolution is an algorithm exploring what life forms work, rerunning it might give the same results if they are the answers that work. In evolutionary potential studies, researchers replaying the tape of life on a small scale with generations of bacteria find that Gould’s idea that evolution never repeats is incorrect. Natural selection isn’t a chess player that plans several moves ahead but it isn’t just happenstance either, because exploring all the options eventually leads to a solution. Hence, we run evolutionary algorithms to get answers not random outcomes

It pays to try every option, good or bad, because some changes lead to later benefits. Evolution is the exploration of quantum combinations that survive, like electrons, quarks, atoms, molecules, cells and organisms. Each gives a local order increase if it can preserve itself. To ask if evolution converges to common results or diverges to new results is to ignore that it does both. Mostly it converges but sometimes it diverges to create a new branch of the evolutionary tree.

The scale of evolution is hard to comprehend, so it is indeed egotistical, as Gould says, to think that our vast universe has run for billions of years for our sake. The universe isn’t just for us, as it existed long before we came and will no doubt continue long after we are gone.

Life involves permutations and combinations so vast that we can’t conclude that a hairless ape had to result. Homo-sapiens was the lucky ape that won the evolution lottery but after four billion years, some species had to because beings like us are possible. The unfortunate corollary is that if we prove unstable, something else may take our place, as the grand evolution is far from over.

If evolution in general increases order by finding combinations that are stable, then the tree of life is growing in a direction that can be measured by the evolutionary steps that increase order. For example, the merging of simple cells into a complex cell that led to plants and animals (Lane, 2015) was an order-increasing evolutionary step as merging atoms into molecules was. Biologists currently say that bacteria are just as “evolved” as we are, or more so as they have been around longer, but time elapsed doesn’t actually measure evolution. In terms of order, a human is more evolved than a simple cell because there are more order increasing steps in the ancestry of humans.

The earth took about a billion years to discover the self-replicating molecules that led to life, and it was another three billion plus years before sentient beings like us emerged. Given the effort involved, who are we to call it pointless? The first atom was an accident, as was the first molecule, the first cell, the first plant and the first animal, but the trend to increase order is no accident because it happened again and again. That evolution uses accident doesn’t make evolution itself an accident.

In biology, the argument that the universe is purposeless takes the form that the genes causing us have no purpose so neither do we:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference. … DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.(Dawkins, 1995) p133.

It is evident that physical causes like genes have no purpose but to conclude that life in general has no purpose requires the additional assumption that the physical world is all there is. It doesn’t matter that the physical world is a machine with no purpose if it something else created it, as the conclusion that our universe began suggests. The argument that biology implies purposelessness is thus essentially based on a physical realism that isn’t obviously true at all. If the universe was created to evolve, whether it has no purpose is an open question not a foregone conclusion.

Our universe is constantly trying every possibility, as if it was looking for something, like an algorithm set up to solve a problem. Maybe evolution doesn’t have a design because it is the design. If biological evolution is part of a universal evolution that created the matter, stars and galaxies that planets like earth needed to evolve life, why was it set up to do this? That the physical world is a virtual reality suggests the answer has something to do with what observes it.