Evolution and Higher Purpose
By Robert Wright
Dec 11, 2016
In 1986, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins published a book called The Blind Watchmaker. This was two decades before he would become known as an advocate of the assertive brand of atheism known as “the new atheism”. But in retrospect, the book was a harbinger of this phase of Dawkins’s career. Its subtitle was: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design.
In one sense the subtitle was accurate. The book successfully debunked a particular argument that life on Earth was imbued with purpose by a god. But in the course of debunking that argument for higher purpose, Dawkins unwittingly laid the foundation for a second kind of argument for higher purpose. And the “evidence of evolution”—or at least some evidence from evolution—actually supports this second argument.
At least, that’s my view. And I hold it as someone who shares Dawkins’s commitment to the theory of natural selection. My 1994 book on evolutionary psychology, The Moral Animal, was grounded in the very ideas Dawkins had popularized in his landmark 1976 book The Selfish Gene. I remain, like Dawkins, unstintingly Darwinian in my view of how evolution works: natural selection is the engine of evolution and the only engine of evolution.
But you can believe that natural selection created life on Earth and still suspect that there is a larger purpose at work—that the purpose is being realized through natural selection. At this point I have to urge you not to jump to any conclusions. As I’ve explained elsewhere, to say that natural selection was set in motion for some purpose doesn’t necessarily mean it was set in motion by a being that merits the term “God.” In fact, there are scenarios in which the purpose was imbued by something that isn’t really a “being” at all, but something more like a process.
Anyway, my main contention for now is that, leaving aside the question of what exactly might have imparted a purpose to evolution, there are ways of assessing the hypothesis that something did: you can look at the history of life on this planet and find evidence for or against the hypothesis. What’s more: the legitimacy of this enterprise is affirmed in Dawkins’s book, even if not in so many words.
The “blind watchmaker” in the book’s title comes from an argument made by theologian William Paley in a treatise called Natural Theology, published in 1802. Natural theology could be defined, in a very generic sense, as the enterprise of examining nature for signs of some larger purpose. Paley’s version of natural theology was, as Dawkins showed, flawed. My version, I hope, isn’t.
Here’s the basic argument Paley made:
If you’re walking across a field and you see a stone lying on the ground, there’s no reason to think it has a purpose, no evidence of design. But if you see a pocket watch lying on the ground, there’s good reason to think it was designed for a purpose. There is just too much intricate interconnection, too much seeming functionality, for it not to be a product of design.
Now, Paley asks, what if instead of coming across a rock or a pocket watch, you come across some animal, like a squirrel. Well, a squirrel is at least as intricate as a pocket watch, right? And its intricacy seems to be functional: it looks as if it was designed to do things like find nourishment, defend itself, and so on. So, says, Paley, in the case of the squirrel, as in the case of the pocket watch, it is valid to infer that there was a designer. And that designer is God.
On that last point, needless to say, Richard Dawkins begs to differ. He rightly points out that the organism was designed by natural selection, not by God. But, significantly, Dawkins agrees with Paley up to the point where Paley asserts that the designer was God. Here is what Dawkins says about Paley: “He had a proper reverence for the complexity of the living world, and he saw that it demands a very special kind of explanation. The only thing he got wrong—admittedly quite a big thing—is the explanation itself.”
It’s important to appreciate two big ideas Dawkins is affirming here.
First, Dawkins is saying that you can divide physical systems into two categories: the kind that demand a “special kind of explanation” and the kind that don’t. In the former category are pocket watches and squirrels—things that have the hallmarks of design, even though the “designer” may turn out to be either a conscious designer, like a watchmaker, or an unconscious process, like natural selection. In the second category are things like rocks, which don’t demand a special explanation because they don’t have the hallmarks of design.
Second, Dawkins is, by implication, saying that it’s legitimate to examine a physical system and ask, “Does that physical system demand a special kind of explanation?” Does it have signs of “design”—leaving aside for now whether those signs are the product of a conscious designer, like a watchmaker, or a blind process, like natural selection?
The physical system I want to examine is the entire system of life on Earth, including technologies created by living things on Earth. You could call this system the biosphere or the ecosystem so long as you define those terms with unusual breadth, but I want to put special emphasis on a part of the system that is starting to resemble a global superorganism, complete with a global brain—the vast web of human beings linked by the internet and other information technologies.
Before I elaborate, a note on terminology, in particular, the terms “design” and “purpose.” Daniel Dennett—the philosopher most prominently associated with modern Darwinism and also with the new atheists—finds it acceptable to speak of organisms as having been “designed” by natural selection and of their having “purposes” that were imbued by natural selection (the overriding purpose being to spread genes, a purpose which entails such subordinate goals as staying alive via nourishment, etc.). Some philosophers prefer not to use those terms in this context, since an organism, unlike a watch, doesn’t have a conscious designer; natural selection, unlike a watchmaker, doesn’t design things with a purpose “in mind.”
In what follows, I’ll be using these two terms broadly, as Dennett does, because I share his belief that it’s legitimate to talk about design and purpose whether or not the designer, the purpose-instiller, was a conscious being or an unconscious process (and whether or not we know which of those it was). But, in deference to people who don’t share that belief, I’ll put quotation marks around these two words. If you are one of those people, you can think of “designed”—in quotation marks—as meaning “having the kinds of properties that are known in some cases to result from conscious design and that Dawkins says demand a special kind of explanation.” So too with “purpose”—think of it as the function(s) that a system which demands a special kind of explanation seems structured to fulfill, or the goal(s) it seems designed to pursue.
OK, so what kinds of things constitute valid evidence that a system is “designed” and has a “purpose”? There are basically two categories of evidence. The first has to do with the complexity—and, specifically, with the apparently functional complexity—of the physical system. So, for example, a squirrel is very intricate, and the intricacy seems well organized to perform certain functions (such as locating food), and these tasks in turn seem subordinate to certain overarching “functions” (such as keeping the organism alive). This is the kind of evidence of “design” that Dawkins emphasizes.
The second category of evidence has to do with the process by which the physical system has taken shape. In the case of the squirrel, this is the process that biologists call “ontogeny”—the process that starts with a fertilized egg and involves an unfolding of increasing complexity and functional integration. In the case of what I’m calling the global superorganism, the process is a combination of biological and cultural evolution—the biological evolution that led to, among other things, the human species, and the cultural evolution that the human species launched, with particular emphasis on technological evolution and its influence on social structure. (See my book Nonzero for a very relevant discussion of the dynamics and tendencies of both biological evolution and cultural evolution.)
So, in the two three-part sequences below, what I’m calling the first category of evidence is the third part. (GSO stands for “global superorganism”—though of course how comfortable you are with that term may depend on whether you buy the argument I’m presenting here.) And what I’m calling the second category of evidence is the second part.
Dawkins doesn’t emphasize the second category of evidence. He focuses on the functional integration of an organism, not on the process of how that integration unfolded during a life cycle. But I discussed this second category of evidence—and its application to the argument that the “global superorganism” has a purpose—some years ago with Daniel Dennett. A video of this exchange is embedded right after this paragraph. I don’t want to say too much about the views Dennett expresses in this conversation, because he took issue with my subsequent characterization of some of the things he says. (My account of our ensuing exchange is here.) But what is undeniable is that he does agree that this second category of evidence is a valid one—that, whether we’re talking about what we call ontogeny, in the case of an animal, or what we call biological and cultural evolution, in the case of the (posited) “global superorganism,” this process by which the physical system in question came to exist is a valid place to look for evidence in examining the hypothesis that the physical system is a product of “design” and has a “purpose”.
Maybe the best way to get a sense for the overall argument I’m making here is to just watch the exchange between me and Dennett, because he gives me some pushback that valuably forces me to clarify my argument and fill in some of its details. But I’ll give a quick summary of the argument here:
Suppose you observed this planet from a distance for the past few billion years. Or, if it’s too hard to imagine observing something for a few billion years, suppose someone had set up a camera to record those few billion years and then you viewed a time lapse version of the recording.
You might notice something: the process actually has some of the properties that ontogeny evinces in the case of the squirrel, such as seemingly directional movement toward greater complexity. And not just greater complexity of organisms, but also greater complexity of ecosystem, a complexity that features what could be characterized as a division of labor among distinct parts that perform functions that help sustain the whole system. For example, plants capture energy from the sun and, by expelling oxygen, make it available to animals, which expel carbon dioxide that sustains the plants; meanwhile, and perhaps most importantly for purposes of my argument, evolution eventually produces a very smart species that launches a technological evolution that enmeshes that species in information technology—and here, too, we see what could be interpreted as a functionality at the global level; indeed the species, as interconnected by information technology, comes to resemble a kind of giant global brain, a brain that in principle could assume stewardship over the whole biosphere somewhat as a squirrel’s brain governs the squirrel.
Now, in the case of the squirrel, we would all agree (at least, Dennett, Dawkins and I would agree) that this basic dynamic—the unfolding of greater complexity, including the development and integration of functionally distinct parts, is a manifestation of natural selection’s “design.” In other words, this dynamic is part of what, in Dawkins’s terminology, demands a “special kind of explanation.” So, I’m asking, isn’t there at least some reason to suspect that what appears to be much the same dynamic demands a “special explanation” in the case of the whole system of life on Earth—a biosphere that increasingly seems governed (even if sometimes badly governed) by a giant global brain?
At this point in the argument some people ask, “Wait, how could you possibly say we need a ‘special explanation’? We already have an explanation of how the ecosystem got created: It got created by evolution—by biological evolution and by technological evolution!” Yes, we do have that explanation—a nuts and bolts, material explanation for how the whole thing unfolded. But you could say the same thing about the squirrel’s ontogeny: We understand the physical process by which an egg unfolds into a squirrel. Yet Dennett and Dawkins agree that, in the case of a squirrel, we still need an additional “special kind of explanation”—namely, an explanation for how there came to be squirrel’s eggs that do this sort of remarkable unfolding. Well, I’m making a comparable claim about the first seeds of life on Earth—the original self-replicating material that unfolded into the whole biosphere. I’m saying this unfolding, and the product of this unfolding, have properties that should lead us to suspect there is a “special kind of explanation” for how these seeds came to be here in the first place; I’m suggesting that these seeds, like squirrel’s eggs, may be a product of “design” and have some “purpose”. In other words, I’m suggesting that the word “seed” may be apt in a pretty strict sense.
Again, if you want to learn more about the texture of my argument, you should watch my video exchange with Dennett, above. But the elevator pitch version is simple: I think the ontogeny that gave us the squirrel and the bio-cultural evolution that gave us a biosphere with an emerging global “brain” have key properties in common. Both seem to be directional processes that were very likely, given a benign environment, to carry organization to higher and higher levels, ultimately producing a system characterized by seemingly functionally parts, and indeed functionally integrated parts. I’m not saying the evidence for “purpose” and “design” is nearly as strong in the case of the “global superorganism” as it is in the case of squirrels. Indeed, in the first case there is, by virtue of the nature of the question, bound to be less available evidence, both for and against the hypothesis. I’m just saying there is more evidence for the hypothesis than is commonly appreciated.
There is one other line of argument you could use to make the case for a purposive global superorganism. Before reading any further, you should be warned that this line involves the slipperiest of subjects: consciousness—by which I mean sentience, subjective experience: the fact that (as the philosopher Thomas Nagel famously put it) it is like something to be alive.
Over the centuries, philosophers have come up with a number of ways of thinking about consciousness. Descartes, for example, believed consciousness was a kind of immaterial “stuff” that had a two-way relationship with the physical stuff that constitutes our body: the body can influence consciousness, and consciousness can influence the body.
This is called “interactive dualism,” and it is frowned on by many scientifically minded philosophers for obvious reasons: to attribute causal power to something immaterial is to suggest that the behavior of human beings, and perhaps other animals, lies beyond a full scientific accounting.
If you want a view of consciousness that is easier to reconcile with science, you can just cut Descartes’ view in half: lose the part about consciousness influencing the body, and stick with the part about the body influencing consciousness. In this view, consciousness bears the relationship to your body that the shadows in a shadow play bear to the puppets: changes in the puppets change the shadows, but things don’t work the other way around; the shadows don’t influence the puppets. Shadows are real, but they don’t do anything.
This view—that consciousness is merely an “epiphenomenon”—has come to be known, naturally enough, as “epiphenomenalism.” I’d say epiphenomenalism is the prevailing view of consciousness in the behavioral sciences—not because many behavioral scientists have explicitly endorsed it, or have even thought about it in a precise way, but because an epiphenomenal view of consciousness is implicit in the way that so many of them talk about their work.
Here’s what I mean: If you listen to a scientist describing, say, the reflexes that lead a person to withdraw her hand if it happens to touch a flame, the explanation will be entirely physical: contact with the rapidly moving molecules that constitute the heat causes physical information to be sent along the nervous system, and this physical information induces muscles to physically retract in ways that pull the hand out of the fire.
So too when a neurologist gives an account of someone reacting to a loud noise, or responding to human speech: Sound waves enter the brain and trigger a sequence of physical events that culminate in behavior. Though neurologists may have mapped out this causal chain less completely than in the case of the hand reacting to the fire, there is a faith (a not unreasonable faith, given the track record of the behavioral sciences) that eventually we will be able to map out such a chain—a chain that leads inexorably, for example, from a sentence that enters my ear to a sentence I utter in reply.
Epiphenomenalism makes sense to me. At least, it makes as much sense as any other story about this elusive thing we call consciousness. But here’s the problem: though epiphenomenalism may at first seem like the view of consciousness most compatible with science—a view that conveniently confines consciousness to a wholly inert role and thus doesn’t raise any troubling questions about the immaterial influencing the material—it does wind up raising a question that is, at first glance, at least, hard for the scientifically minded person to answer.
Here’s the question: If consciousness doesn’t do anything, then what is it for? Why does it exist?
Of course, things don’t have to exist for anything; they don’t have to have a function. Rocks, as Paley and Dawkins agreed, seem not to be for anything. But since organisms, unlike rocks, were built by a process that imbues things with functionality, we plausibly assume that major features of organisms will have a function. And consciousness is a pretty major feature, even if it is qualitatively different from such plainly functional, undeniably physical features as feet, eyes and the circulatory system.
In my 1988 book Three Scientists and Their Gods I wrote that, if consciousness is epiphenomenal, if it indeed bears the relationship to biological processes that shadows bear to puppets in a shadow play, then consciousness would seem to be “evolutionarily superfluous”. Some philosophers have since come to call this feature of epiphenomenal consciousness “extra-ness”—a term introduced by the philosopher David Chalmers in his important and influential 1996 book The Conscious Mind.
Chalmers has put the matter this way: “It seems God could have created the world physically exactly like this one, atom for atom, but with no consciousness at all. And it would have worked just as well. But our universe isn’t like that. Our universe has consciousness.” For some reason, God chose “to do more work” in order “to put consciousness in.”
Chalmers isn’t a religious person—he’s using God in a kind of metaphorical way, somewhat as Einstein was when he dismissed the possibility of true randomness in the universe by saying “God Does Not Play Dice”. Still, it doesn’t seem to me crazy for the seeming superfluousness of consciousness to provoke thoughts of higher purpose.
There are two reasons for this. One is that, as I noted in Three Scientists and Their Gods, consciousness is the thing that gives life meaning. If there were no subjective experience—if there were no pleasure or pain, no awe or angst, if we were just zombies, devoid of sensation—it’s hard to see how our lives could have meaning. If you imagine a planet full of robots that looked and behaved like humans, but had no interior life, you’re imaging a planet where nothing would matter.
If the one part of life that seems to have been an optional add-on—seems not to have been required for life to function—is the thing that gives life meaning… well, that’s the kind of add-on that we associate with higher purpose, right? At least, that makes sense if the higher purpose we posit, or part of the higher purpose we posit, is for life to have meaning. And traditional notions of higher purpose—religious notions—do tend to entail as much.
There’s a second, quite different, way that an epiphenomenal view of consciousness could be enlisted in an argument for higher purpose.
The key to understanding this sense is to first understand something that may, at this point in the exposition, sound impossible—or, at least, sound contrary to what I’ve said so far. Here is that something: It’s conceivable, I think, that an epiphenomenal consciousness could have a function—and I don’t mean a vague, ethereal function like “giving life meaning,” but a much more concrete function.
I hope it’s clear why this claim should seem at odds with what I’ve said about epiphenomenal consciousness so far. If epiphenomenal consciousness doesn’t really do anything, doesn’t exert any influence on the material world, then how could it have a concrete function?
My answer begins with an irony that some philosophers have noted. Namely: Even if consciousness is generically epiphenomenal—even if it has no influence on the behavior of the frogs, dogs, and monkeys that harbor it—there is one species in which consciousness does seem to have come to have effects on the behavior of organisms: our species. Specifically: Consciousness leads people to say things about it. And I don’t just mean it leads people to discuss the mind-body problem. It also leads people to say things like “I feel hot” or “What you said made me sad.” Animals as smart and social as us—reflective, self-aware animals that communicate via complex language—report on their subjective experiences, something they presumably wouldn’t do if there weren’t any subjective experiences to report on.
You might say, then, that “epiphenomenal” consciousness is a misnomer. Or, at least, it became a misnomer at some point in evolutionary time. For millions and millions of years, animals felt hunger and pain and other things, but none of those things actually influenced any behavior; subjective experience didn’t make any difference because it was merely epiphenomenal. And then we humans came along and started talking about our feelings, and consciousness was no longer epiphenomenal. To be sure, it was still the case that the feeling of heat played no role in getting us to pull our hands away from a flame; in that sense subjective experience was still epiphenomenal. But once we uttered the sentence “My hand feels hot,” subjective experience was influencing human speech and hence human behavior. An initially epiphenomenal consciousness had, through evolution, passed a threshold beyond which it was no longer, strictly speaking, epiphenomenal.
So this is the reason epiphenomenal consciousness could, in principle, have a function. Or, at least, it’s the reason a consciousness that had been epiphenomenal throughout the history of organic life could come to have a function once organic life developed self-awareness and complex language, thus rendering consciousness no longer epiphenomenal. But what might the function of this suddenly not-epiphenomenal consciousness be?
Well, we’ve already suggested that, if there is indeed a larger purpose unfolding on this planet, it has involved the expansion of human social organization. After all, in order to get to a point where we could build a giant global brain, we had to approach a global level of social organization—which meant first moving from isolated hunter-gatherer villages to ancient city-states to regional states to lots of regional states interacting fairly harmoniously, and so on. Is there a way that people discussing their subjective states—talking about their feelings—could have abetted this expansion of social organization?
Maybe. After all, the expansion of social organization has been intertwined with, and apparently assisted by, a kind of progress in moral discourse. There was a time when members of one Greek city-state considered members of other Greek city-states undeserving of decent treatment—fair game for enslavement, for example. Then, thanks to such thinkers as Plato, and to certain social and political developments, a consensus developed that all Greeks should be treated decently; it was just non-Greeks, such as the Persians, who could be treated as though they were sub-human. And today, of course, the enslaving of anyone is frowned on more or less universally. That’s progress, and it’s the kind of progress that facilitates global social organization.
And, more to the point, it’s a progress that has involved the discussion of subjective states. Moral discourse involves saying things like, “But wait, if we do this, those people over there will suffer undeservedly, and we’ve agreed that undeserved suffering is bad.” It’s very hard to imagine what moral discourse would look like if there were no subjective experiences to refer to, so it’s far from clear that the moral progress that has abetted the expansion of social organization could have taken place if subjective experience didn’t exist. So it’s at least conceivable that an initially epiphenomenal consciousness has turned out to have a function—not a function at the level of the individual organism, but rather a function at the level of the unfolding global superorganism. Specifically: it has helped the global superorganism become global and begin to congeal.
One interesting feature of this scenario is that subjective experience existed for a long time before it started fulfilling its function—in other words, before a species evolved that talked about its subjective experiences. I consider this feature to work in support of the hypothesis that the unfolding “global superorganism” has a larger “purpose”. After all, this sort of latent functionality is common in the unfolding of “designed” systems. Indeed, you see it in individual organisms that were “designed” by natural selection. Human reproductive equipment, for example, exists in some form for a good dozen years before it gets to a point where it actually functions as reproductive equipment. (In any event, one thing is clear about any scenario in which subjective experience is a widespread feature of organic life long before there is a species via which it manifests material influence: any functionality there may be couldn’t possibly reside at the level of the individual organism. After all, natural selection, which is responsible for all functionality at the level of the individual organism, can’t make a trait widespread unless the trait has some influence on the reproductive prospects of members of the species in which the trait arises, and the trait can’t have any such influence if it has no influence on the material world at all.)
This possibility—than an initially epiphenomenal consciousness has come to manifest a function at the superorganic level over evolutionary time—is obviously quite conjectural. And I’ve found in discussing it with people that it is prone to being misunderstood. One good way to clear up at least some misconceptions about it is to watch the video below, in which I discuss it with David Chalmers, who is skeptical, but not wholly dismissive of the idea, and so makes for an illuminating interlocutor.
There’s one objection Chalmers brings up that I think many philosophers would bring up. Namely: How exactly does a consciousness that was previously epiphenomenal, incapable of exerting influence on the organism harboring it, suddenly acquire causal force, provoking discussions about itself? In other words: When you start trying to imagine the fine-grained mechanics of such a transition, don’t you draw a blank? I don’t purport to have a clear answer. At the same time, given what fundamental thresholds the advent of self-awareness and the advent of complex language were, it doesn’t seem to me inconceivable that crossing these thresholds could qualitatively change the capacity of consciousness to in some sense interact with the world.
Here is an analogy, based on my earlier analogy between an epiphenomenal consciousness and a shadow in a shadow play. Suppose there was an organism that had no eyesight, no perceptual sensitivity to light whatsoever. Then suppose it developed eyesight and every once in a while looked at its shadow and reacted to its shadow. Well, at this point its shadow would have gone from being epiphenomenal—having no effect on the organism’s behavior—to having an effect on the organism’s behavior. Strictly speaking, nothing about the nature of the shadow would have changed—the changes all came in the physical constitution of the organism—and yet the shadow would now have a new capacity for interaction with the organism. (I wish I had thought of this analogy during my conversation with Chalmers!)
Obviously, none of the arguments I’ve presented in the course of this essay are overwhelmingly persuasive. Then again, I think it is in the nature of the question of higher purpose for arguments in the affirmative to fall short of that mark. One reason for this is that, whereas the theory of natural selection is built on lots of data points—lots of observed organisms, and indeed species, that are all products of the same creative process—in the case of higher purpose we have only one data point to work with: life one Earth. In any event, my main point is just that it is legitimate to mount such arguments, that there can be at least some evidence for or against the hypothesis of “higher purpose”—and, indeed, that some of this evidence is, qualitatively, the same kind of evidence that Dawkins used to make his argument in The Blind Watchmaker.
I should emphasize, again, that a “higher purpose” wouldn’t necessarily originate with a God. As I’ve explained in an essay I wrote for the New York Times, this purpose could in principle originate not with any being at all, but rather could be imbued by a kind of meta-natural selection—specifically, a particular variant of the “cosmological natural selection” scenario posited by the physicist Lee Smolin. This would still be a “higher purpose” at least in the sense of deriving from a process that is at a higher level of organization than the process (natural selection) that created the human species. But it wouldn’t be a higher purpose in the sense of a divine purpose.
That said, note that some of the properties evinced by the system we’ve been discussing are the kinds of properties associated with “higher purpose” in the more traditional sense of a “divine” purpose. For example, there’s the aforementioned moral progress that has accompanied the expansion of social organization. And there’s the fact that sustaining history’s erratic but discernible drift toward a cohesive global community will almost certainly require more moral progress. Indeed, given the signs of blacksliding on this project—given the growing prospect that humankind, having reached the brink of a global community, will dissolve into chaos—you could say that our species is facing an epic moral test. And God knows that kind of thing has traditionally been associated with divine purpose.