Is There a Direction to Evolution?

Science and religion sometimes converge.

Paleontologist / Catholic priest / philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, writing in the first half of the 20th century, described a mystical vision of evolution. Teilhard believed that all matter had a spiritual quality and was fore-ordained to evolve toward life (seen as a “biosphere” surrounding the Earth), then to many individual consciousnesses (the noosphere), and then to universal consciousness, which he called the Omega Point. In effect, he shared 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s belief that God was immanent in Nature. But Teilhard differed from Spinoza not only in understanding that life evolved, but in believing that it evolved through stages toward a moral transfiguration. For Teilhard, evolution was the ancient God’s progression through time toward the goodness of Christ.

In 2005, Robert Hazen, a Professor of Earth Sciences at George Mason University, recorded a lecture course on “The Origins of Life,” as a Learning Company CD. Hazen lays out a detailed and dispassionate view of evolution on our planet – but one still resonant of Teilhard’s revelation. The natural process of “emergence” that Hazen and many contemporary scientists perceive appears built into the nature of the universe itself. The direction of our universe is toward increasing complexity.

As Hazen describes emergence, once enough interacting particles of any kind come together – whether hydrogen nuclei, stars, planets, complex molecules, organisms or neurons — and variable energy (such as the day and night we experience on Earth) is applied to the system, the units self-organize into patterns of increasing complexity and novel structure. The new structures “appear to be much more than the sum of the parts… New, often surprising behaviors emerge with each new level of complexity.”

Once the Earth’s initial violent formation was completed, for example, and the planet had cooled to a point where large water oceans could form, a natural, evolutionary process leading to life began. Whether in tidal pools, underwater vents or sheltered mineral deposits, simple molecules, energized by ultraviolet radiation in an atmosphere with no initial ozone protection, gradually and spontaneously combined into complex organic molecules, then to life. Evolution preceded life as pre-organic molecules “competed” for components that allowed them to reproduce and spread differentially. Some components, such as the bi-level lipids that still form our cell walls, apparently arrived here from space.

In the course summary, Hazen gives an overview of the process that goes beyond the emergence of life. “The theory of emergence,” as he sums it up, “argues for an inexorable evolution of the cosmos, from atoms to stars to planets to life.” But “we recognize this progression only in hindsight…. Emergent phenomena are all but impossible to predict from observations of earlier stages.” [iii]

Hazen – and this is the consensus view of contemporary scientists — describes the origin of conscious awareness in relatively advanced animals and humans as simply the latest emergent step. Human brains are the most complex entities of which we are now aware. [iiii]

And “perhaps,” Hazen concludes, “the universe [beyond Earth] holds levels of emergence beyond individual consciousness, and beyond even the collective accomplishments of human societies. If that’s true, then the story of life’s origins and evolution is far from over.”

Certainly, given the natural direction of evolution, it seems likely that new, more complex and surprising phenomena will continue to emerge. One possibility, among many, is that something akin to Comte, Haldane and Teilhard’s vision of an emerging collective consciousness on Earth lies in our future.

Many scientists in addition to Hazen, of course, now also find it likely that life may already have emerged elsewhere in the universe, or will emerge in the future. Many astronomers and biologists are looking for it. A “second genesis” on a different planet, Hazen points out, would “reveal countless details about life’s inevitable origin.”

As has been clear through one hundred fifty years of discussion about natural selection, no external intervention is required to shape Nature’s pattern of emerging complexity. We may, however, reasonably ask why it is that we live in a universe where this seemingly improbable trend is part of Nature’s program.

Hazen’s lectures, and the Theory of Emergence, in fact, challenge not only traditional distinctions in some religions between matter and spirit, but also the now common perspective that humans are only one among myriad equal life forms on our planet. Confronted with evidence of progressive and directional evolution on our planet, some scientists and some atheists have responded defensively, predicting that many other universes may exist, where nature’s laws are randomly different from ours, and NO life or no consciousness emerge.

As yet, there is no compelling evidence of any universe beyond our own, and no hint of natural laws differing from those we continue to discover in our universe. There appears, instead, to be a natural tendency toward growing complexity, leading in at least one planet to growing self-awareness.

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