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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