TELEOLOGY – NATURAL SELECTION – PART V – NON- HUMAN CONCIOUSNESS

Consciousness cannot be defined: we may be ourselves fully aware what consciousness is, but we cannot without confusion convey to others  a definition of what we ourselves clearly apprehend. The reason is plain: consciousness lies at the root of all knowledge.– Sir William Hamilton.

 

 

 

In our analysis of natural selection, we have considered inorganic evolution, the appearance of life, and the evolution of organisms. Last time we found natural selection is likely independent of preordained design, but entails a directiveness and leads to a teleology within living things. Now we will focus on the appearance of consciousness, perhaps the most surprising of nature’s byproducts. This subject breaks into two parts: (1) non-human animal consciousness, and (2) human (reflexive) consciousness. This blog and the next will look at the first of these.

It seems most likely that early life was able to receive its energy directly from sunlight, using chlorophyll or a similar substance; which means most early living things were “plants.” These organisms would be able to float freely on or in water, and eventually could survive on land. But because they created energy directly from sunlight and a few simple surrounding chemicals, they did not need to evolve specialized functions such as locomotion or sensation. Thereafter some organisms living in an environment rich in plant matter abandoned photosynthesis and seized on deriving their energy for living by consumption of plant species, thus becoming the first animals. (Of course with time these early animals evolved and some even began to consume other animals leading to the scenario that exists today.)

But animals required new abilities including locomotion and sensory functions necessary to find food, water, and mates. New organ systems were required to permit these key functions, especially a nervous system. Early neurons were probably just specialized cells sensitive to temperature or touch. Over time these developed connections (synapses) with other neurons, forming nerves that could transmit information throughout the organism. Natural selection meant advantages for specialized senses – vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste – and for greater mobility, balance, and fine movements, all of which depend on nerves. With time these nerves became integrated into networks or ganglia.

At some point, likely with early worms, ganglia in the front part of the organism (quite logical as that is where the mouth is located) became enlarged and began to coordinate the senses with the muscular system at which time the most primitive brains can be said to have formed. Increasingly complex organisms required larger brains. All of these changes seem to be reasonably explained by natural selection within a long enough time-frame.

Less easily explained is the still mysterious appearance of consciousness.  We will pick up there in the next post.

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TELEOLOGY – NATURAL SELECTION – PART IV – ORGANIC EVOLUTION (cont’d)

We saw in an earlier post3 that George Gaylord Simpson identified three theories on the forces acting throughout the history of life: (1) materialistic, (2) vitalistic, and (3) finalistic.

The materialistic theory argues that the evolution of life is simply an extension of the evolution of all matter with only the difference of the organization of life. The vitalistic theory suggests the possibility of forces peculiar to and inherent in life. The finalistic theory assumes a force that brings progression toward foreordained goals or a transcendental purpose.  Scientists typically affirm the materialistic theory. He does not see progress as an essential feature of evolution. Man is a new kind of animal with a second order of evolution – the ‘inheritance of learning’ or ‘societal evolution.’4 This phase of evolution does involve purpose and plan unlike organic evolution. Teleology then is an outgrowth of societal evolution not vice versa.

Bernard Rensch concedes an upward trend in organization of some animals, for example, mammals as compared to reptiles or fish, and considers it one of the “distinctive characteristics of life.”4 He also considers as fact their “capacity for progressive evolution.”5 But he is clear in a later chapter, that given the regular biological and biochemical laws that can explain evolution and the finite expectancy of life on any planet based on modern cosmology, science “can offer no proof of an ultimate aim of existence for the organisms which emerge and vanish again as life rolls on in a continuous stream, nor a purport of existence for the highest species, Homo sapiens. We humans too are no more than temporary, finite, highly complex systems of the protophenomenal ‘matter’ of which the world is composed, a ‘matter’ representing a system of certain relationships subject to universal laws… the ‘purport of existence’ can therefore be looked for in finite aims alone.6

Natural selection then leads to a denial of design behind the appearance and variation of living things and of  particular species, but does allow a directiveness and an internal teleology. Through man, a second order of ‘societal evolution’ leads to a novel teleology.

1Fadiman, Clifton, Editor, The Treasury of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.Viking Penguin, New York, 1992. ISBN 0-670-83568-4, page 434-440.

2Russell, E.S., The Directiveness of Organic Activities. Cambridge University Press, Great Britain, 1946. Page 1-9.

3See Post on this site September 4, 2019, Human Destiny – Part III – Biologic.

4Bernhard Rensch, Biophilosophy, Columbia University Press, New York, 1971. ISBN 0-231-03299-X, page 53.

5Ibid. Page 65.

6 Ibid. Page 314.

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TELEOLOGY – NATURAL SELECTION – PART IV – ORGANIC EVOLUTION

 “This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr. Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.” – Herbert Spencer

Now we move to Darwinian evolution; the gradual development of species by virtue of variations in makeup (particularly genetic variation) and adaptability to environment.  Since the mid 19th century, natural selection has upended the religious explanation for man and other creatures. Julian Huxley presents the evidence in a 1926 entry in The Encyclopaedia Brittanica: (1) paleontology meaning fossilized remains of organisms now extinct, (2) embryology which in land animals repeats the forms of earlier species, (3) distribution of animals, (4) comparative anatomy, and (5) vestigial organs (e.g. remnants of limbs in snakes). Darwin “assumed as a fact the existence of variation, showed the universal presence of a struggle for existence due to the invariable birth of more young that can come to maturity, and then pointed out that this would inevitably lead on average to the survival of those that were best fitted to survive and so to evolutionary chance and progress.”1

E.S. Russell writing 80 years after Darwin sees natural selection as “directiveness.” He sees life as showing directed action towards the biological ends of self-maintenance, development, and reproduction in contradistinction to the inorganic . He does not see this as purposive, but neither is it completely mechanistic. In fact he considers this directive activity an “irreducible characteristic” of life. He believes trying to reduce biology to strict physical laws and data does not help us understand living things and their activities, and so is not sufficient for the biological sciences.2

(continued next post)

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TELEOLOGY – NATURAL SELECTION – PART III – THE APPEARANCE OF LIFE (cont’d)

At the end of our last post, we were stalled on the question of whether the appearance of life is evidence of design in the universe. Science cannot be certain on this question as observation and experiment are and may always be inconclusive. The opinions of two philosophical biologists may be useful here.

Bernhard Rensch believes that since all processes within organisms follow physical and chemical laws, it is unnecessary to postulate ‘vitalism.’ Nonetheless he concedes we have yet to explain how “living physicochemical systems could originate and become so constructed that the processes follow one another in a purposeful manner and combine to function efficiently and in so finely adjusted a manner that the individual system and the species survive, and the continuation of life is ensured.”1

He comes to two conclusions, first, that “the fundamental biological processes are so completely integrated, especially in their interposition in individual systems, that certain specific laws relating to living organisms originated.”2 (his emphasis). Perhaps more revealing is his second conclusion, “A special feature of all living organisms… is the fact that biological processes in general appear to be ‘meaningful.’ They are not only appropriate to the immediate conditions but also seem to be directed to some purpose which in individual development is only achieved at a relatively late stage and after many modifications of form.”3 The implication, it seems to me, is that teleology (or perhaps teleonomy) is incorporated into living organisms, even if one remains skeptical of design behind the origin of life.

George Gaylord Simpson approaches this subject from a slightly different perspective beginning with a reminder there is no fossil record of very early life, and it would be useless in any case. Biochemistry and cytology are the fields that offer hope of explaining how life appeared although he concedes the solution may be unattainable. Rather he notes “there is no theoretical difficulty…under conditions that may well have early in the history of earth, in the chance organization of a complex carbon-containing molecule capable of influencing or directing the synthesis of other units like itself…‘a protogene’…There is at any rate, no reason to postulate a miracle. Nor is it necessary to suppose that the origin of new processes of reproduction and mutation was anything but materialistic.”4 But he admits the evolution from ‘protogene’ to amoeba was as great as from amoeba to man, and likely required multiple seismic steps over millions of years.

What response can be offered to the biologists? Well, their belief that life appeared spontaneously appears to be speculation, not science at all as it can neither be observed nor tested. Some have proposed that the odds against the appearance of any functioning organic chemical (e.g. a protein) are astronomical – V.H. Mottram put the odds at 10160 to 1 and a required time frame of 10243 years,  both equivalent to impossible – although his assumptions and justifications are unclear and debatable.5 For myself, I look back on my college courses on molecular and cellular biology, remembering the amazingly complex structures involved, and remain astonished that scientists can so glibly propose spontaneous generation – a principle Louis Pasteur disputed and disproved in the 19th century. One is reminded of Fred Hoyle’s analogy of millions of separate jet parts being blown about in the wind and assembling into a Boeing 747.

There is much here to contemplate, but for now the main points are: (1) only inconclusive arguments and speculation exist for the spontaneous appearance of life, (2) life requires the origination of specific laws, (3) biological processes appear meaningful, and teleonomy is integral to life. These will reappear in our synthesis at the end of this section.

 

1Bernhard Rensch, Biophilosophy, Columbia University Press, New York, 1971. ISBN 0-231-03299-X, page 81.

2Ibid. Page 107.

3 Ibid.

4Simpson, George Gaylord, The Meaning of Evolution. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1949. Pages 14-15..

5Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 6, page 410.

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TELEOLOGY – NATURAL SELECTION – PART III – THE APPEARANCE OF LIFE

Intelligence is characterized by a natural incomprehension of life” – Henri Bergson.

 

 

In our consideration of natural selection as a potential alternative to design in explaining the universe, the last post explored the evolution of inorganic compounds and the environment wherein they exist. Today we will discuss the appearance of life. The fundamental question here is less about selection than origin. In other words, is it credible that life appeared spontaneously from a primordial soup of colloidal substances, or did it require a creator?

This is one of those difficult questions that may never be resolved definitively by science. If life forms are eventually found on other planets, it would make the theory of spontaneous life more reasonable, but would not be clear proof as a designer might create life in multiple locations or life may have disseminated form an initial site. If scientists eventually produce a living thing in a laboratory from scratch, one might argue this is simply further evidence that life is created only by design (in that case a human designer). The hope of an experiment wherein organic and inorganic chemicals known to readily form in nature are placed in a sterilized vat, and observed for the spontaneous appearance of life seems futile given the astronomical odds of life arising in a human time frame.

On the other hand, the inability of man to synthesize life to date and the absence of demonstrated life elsewhere in the universe to date serve as only weak support for a designer, and certainly not proof. It would appear we have reached an impasse – the  origination of life turns out being inconclusive in deciding whether teleology applies to the universe, rather opinion, often based on prejudice, likely informs one’s belief. Agnosticism here is vain as well since whether life is accidental or intentional is the crux of the whole question of teleology as opposed to a pointless universe. That is, if life is designed, than the universe has a point – as the setting for the fabrication of life!

Perhaps we should think about this enigma for a couple of days…and pick up where we left off next time.

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TELEOLOGY – NATURAL SELECTION – PART II – INORGANIC

“Evolution consists largely of molecular tinkering – producing new objects from old odds and ends.” George Wald, Nobel Prize winner, Medicine, 1967.

 

Last time we discussed the two possible explanations for the mechanism of the universe and for life –either a designer (presumably God) or natural selection. We noted that natural selection is a highly coherent theory based on the assembly of some common observations and scientific principles. In fact, nowadays many theists concede that natural selection is irrefutable. Our next step is to sort out the two facets of this selection process – the inorganic and the organic.

In an earlier post we reviewed the ‘evolution’ of the inorganic as outlined by Fred Kohler.1 Briefly, following the Big Bang subatomic particles aggregated into atoms which combined to create molecules. Stellar processes formed higher weight elements such as carbon, oxygen, and iron, and forces in supernovae created the very heavy elements such as gold. Crystalline structures followed in favorable places as for example on the crust of Earth. These highly organized substances were able to spontaneously enlarge or ‘self-replicate’ as were the still more advanced colloidal structures such as proteins which formed from primitive amino acids.

But at the cosmic level inorganic evolution also includes the elaboration of essential environments, a process where the force of gravity appears to be fundamental. Stars, planets, and galaxies are explained by the effects of gravity on what would be free floating matter. Large amounts of matter in close proximity are drawn together by gravity into megastructures. The largest resulting structures become stars while some of the smaller structures become planets and moons bound to the stars by gravity, although at varying distances. This critical circumstance allows temperature differences on each planetary body permitting a range of inorganic chemical reactions.

Assuming we grant this ‘evolution’ of complex inorganic structures and their environment, we are left with the question of its implications for teleology. Can we truthfully say the unfolding of nonliving matter is purposive or designed?  Let’s turn to Julian Huxley, an early 20th century biologist, who thinks we should broaden the idea of evolution into ‘the directional processes’ seen in the universe. “So far as a main direction is to be observed in physics and chemistry, it is, as all authorities are agreed, towards the degradation of energy and a final state in which not only life but all activity whatsoever will be reduced to nothing,”2 However he identifies a subsidiary direction towards the production of more complex forms of matter.3 Huxley further defines his three great principles of the cosmos – unity, uniformity, and development which he sees as ‘emergent’ rather than ‘creative.’4

In short, Huxley feels ‘directionality’ is a more accurate term than ‘purpose’ or ‘goal,’ and ‘emergence’ more accurate than ‘creation.’ The direction appears to be one of interim complexification of matter but eventual futility. Perhaps he is hinting at a component of short term, but not long term, design in the form of complexification. Next time we will expand our discussion to organic evolution.

1See Posts on this site September 9 and September 11, 2019, Human Destiny – Part IV – General Science View.

2Huxley, Julian, Essays of a Biologist. Chatto and Windus, London, 1929. Page 72.

3Ibid.Page 252.

4 Ibid, Pages 241-242.

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