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.

Albert Einstein: A Mystery Behind the Machine?

“I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists,” Einstein replied to an interviewer. “That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of einsteinGod.”

Einstein, however, emphatically did not believe “in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind. … I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals, or would sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation.”

In fact, in the words of biographer Walter Isaacson, “Einstein…believed, as did [17th century philosopher Baruch] Spinoza, that a person’s actions were just as determined as that of a billiard ball, planet or star…. Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control.”

In his adherence to the scientific principle of invariable cause and effect, Einstein was as confident and uncompromising as his hero, Spinoza.

But, also like Spinoza, Einstein was generally humane and modest in his personal life, and generously radical in his political views. “From the standpoint of daily life, there is one thing we do know; that we are here for the sake of others”

His great scientific discoveries and charming personality eventually won him huge popularity across the globe and in all classes of society, from Presidents to other scientists to the immigrant garment workers of New York City.

But while Einstein’s description of the large-scale structure of the universe has proved uncannily accurate, his convictions about billiard-ball determinism have been challenged by scientists viewing reality at a microscopic level. His refusal to accept quantum evidence of uncertainty in the micro-universe made Einstein appear unreasonable to some. He never overcame his mistrust in such weirdness as “entangled” particles moving in tandem, even while separated by cosmic distances. “It was as if the ground had been pulled out from under us,” he said, “with no firm foundation to be seen anywhere.”

As for his most famous discovery, Relativity, Einstein’s vision has suggested both new possibilities and new constraints for humanity’s future. His revelation of time as a fourth dimension opened new possibilities for exploring the vast universe. Travelling at the speed of light, a person (or electromagnetic waves representing that person) would not age. But from the point of view of compatriots back on Earth, Einstein’s speed-of-light “speed limit” implies it would take space travelers an inconceivably long time to visit planets around other stars — and prospective travelers might return eons later to a planet no longer there.

We can hope that the quantum uncertainty that Einstein rejected, and other revelations to come, will open a path for our descendants to move beyond Einstein’s automated universe. We might begin with a recognition he shared with Spinoza: “I am compelled to act as if free will existed, because if I wish to live in a civilized society I must act responsibly.”

ETHICS AND OUR CARBON / SILICON FUTURE

Some synthetic biologists and digital techies are taking steps that could lead eventually to remaking or replacing our single, carbon-based human race.

Chinese biologists, for example, have begun “gene editing,” of non-viable human embryos, using a mnemonically convenient technique known as “CRISPR”[i].  The technique could be a precursor to “editing” inheritable human characteristics. “Human-directed evolution” is now on humanity’s agenda. This is occurring before most of humanity understands how evolution based on differential survival of random variations has brought life on this planet to its current state.

Other biologists and humanists, meanwhile, are wisely proposing a moratorium on producing inheritable changes in human genetic material. The moratorium might allow time for scientific and public discussion before taking existentially risky steps toward a different kind (or kinds) of humanity than we have known before.[ii] The scientific discussion might begin with an international conference like the one that took place in 1975 near Asilomar, California, to consider the potential risks of recombinant DNA and the genetic modification of non-human organisms.

On the techie side, some in Silicon Valley are at work on replacing or supplementing living tissues with mechanical – perhaps silicon-based — devices. Google guru Ray Kurzweil, for one, envisions a “singularity” in the 2020’s, in which merged – and vastly improved – human/machine entities will begin to enjoy far more intelligent and longer life than we have ever known. In this technological perspective, consciousness (formerly known as “soul” or “spirit”), is simply a function of organized complexity, in no way limited to the biological, carbon-based entities we have, up to this point, known as “life”.

The number of offspring in this imagined future would presumably be radically reduced. And the random evolutionary improvements generated by the four billion year – old system of life/death/renewed-and-better-adapted life would be consigned to the dustbin of history.

If the choice were only between competitive carbon-based genetic engineering and commercial silicon chip upgrades, it’s not clear that most of us would have a dog – or a vote — in that fight. Most of us, to be sure, welcome the continuing advance of human knowledge, and the conscious pursuit of a technically better life for humanity and all this Earth’s creatures. As with nuclear power in earlier decades, however, we cannot afford to leave development of a radically different future path for humanity – and all life on Earth — only to a small number of scientists, tech wizards and profit-seekers.

We must all seek, through our educational, political and other broad-based systems, to apply suitable ethical and democratic political norms to the dramatically new reality we are entering.

As one guide through the moral thicket, participants in a possible new Asilomar gathering for science professionals – and all of us as we become more informed — might consider concerns raised a decade ago by Tibetan Buddhist leader Tensin Gyatso, among others. The “Dalai Lama” has committed much of his time to building friendships between scientific and spiritual thinkers, and complementarities between eastern and western paths to knowledge. Herewith some passages from Gyatso’s “The Universe in a Single Atom”[iii]:

# (how will) “the development of new technological options (be) combined with the financial calculations of business and the political and economic calculations of governments?”

# “Given that genetic technology is bound to remain costly, at least for the foreseeable future, once it is allowed, for a long period it will be available only to a small segment of human society, namely the rich…. (Will it) breed a ruling elite?”

# “…decisions about the course of research..cannot be left [only] in the hands of scientists, business interests, or government officials…. We need a much higher level of public involvement.”

# “..we need…a holistic and integrated outlook at the level of human society that recognizes the fundamentally interconnected nature of all living beings and their environment.”

# “A necessary principle is a spirit of oneness of the entire human species.”

# “All human beings have an equal value and an equal potential for goodness. ”

# We must all…keep in mind the primary goal of the well-being of humanity as a whole and the planet we inhabit… If we do not look after this home, what else are we charged to do on this earth?

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[i] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/human-embryo-editing-sparks-epic-ethical-debate/ citing article by David Cyranoski, Sara Reardon in Nature magazine, April 29, 2015

[ii]Scientists Seek Ban on Method of Editing the Human Genome,” Nicholas Wade, NewYork Times, March 19, 2015

[iii] Tenzyn Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, “The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality,Harmony Books, New York, 2005. As the Dalai Lama wrote this work, the Silicon Valley vision of a mixed biological / technological future for life was not yet on the public agenda.

Spinoza: Natural Law is God’s Law

Baruch Spinoza was born in liberal Amsterdam in 1632, ten years before the birth of Isaac Newton in England, near the dawn of modern scientific culture. He was descended from grandparents who had emigrated from Portugal to escape the Catholic Church-led Inquisition.   At the age of twenty-four, he was placed on religious trial himself, and expelled from the Jewish community of Amstespinozardam for what the leadership deemed flagrant atheism. He flatly rejected the charges, insisting that he saw God in everything.

Utterly confident and uncompromising in his philosophical views, Spinoza was kind and humble in interpersonal relationships, earning a modest living at work in his small apartment, grinding glass for microscopes and telescopes. He also made little money from his philosophical work – most of it banned from public sale, but widely distributed hand-to-hand. His ideas attracted the attention of European intellectuals like Gottfried Leibniz, co-inventor of calculus (and hypocritical butt of Voltaire’s Candide). He died at the age of forty-five, probably from respiratory infirmities stemming from his profession.

When asked if he believed in God, Albert Einstein famously answered, “I believe in Spinoza’s God.” Einstein explained his admiration for Spinoza by crediting him as “the first philosopher to deal with the soul and the body as one, not two separate things (and) the first to apply with strict consistency the idea of an all-pervasive determinism to human thought, feeling, and action.”

Spinoza, in fact, defined God and Nature (the entire physical and conscious world) as one and the same: God WAS Nature, and Nature was God.   Since, logically, God could ONLY act perfectly, neither God, nor we humans were ultimately free. Like all physical events, every human thought and every action, Spinoza argued, is predetermined, but seems to us an act of choice, due to our incomplete understanding. “Man considers himself free,” he writes, “because he is conscious of his wishes and appetites, whilst at the same time he is ignorant of the causes by which he is led to wish and desire.”[i]

The work of science, Spinoza believed, was to discover and explain God’s law. But Spinoza’s God, after giving rise to perfect, natural laws, had no reason – or ability – to intervene in the course of Earthly events following that law. For Spinoza, attributing events on Earth to divine intervention, rather than seeking a rational (evidence-based, scientific) explanation, was “the last refuge of ignorance.”

It is easy to see why religious leaders of his day were outraged. They believed that God ruled the world like one of the arbitrary monarchs of their day – deciding each morning who would live, and who would die, who would prosper and who would starve, and so on. But for Spinoza – and for scientists in our day – everything that happens in our universe is presumed to be pre-ordained and inevitable, following the unchanging (once fully understood) laws of Nature.

Remarkably, and in no less defiance of the political norms of his day than his religious views, Spinoza advocated complete free thought, political freedom, and democracy with the same vigor as he denied the ultimate existence of free will in a deterministic universe.

Speaking with a passion fed by his personal persecution, he insisted that “freedom is absolutely necessary for progress in science and the liberal arts… “[T]he more rulers strive to curtail freedom of speech, the more obstinately are they resisted… [T]he object of government is not to change men from rational beings into beasts or puppets, but to enable them to develop their minds and bodies in security, and to employ their reason unshackled… In fact, the true aim of government is liberty”

In politics as in science and religion, he blazed the liberal path that many scientists follow to this day.

From my point of view, however, while Spinoza both defined the deterministic path that naturvendoral science follows, he also articulated its central contradiction: if free choice is ultimately an illusion, what can words like “truth” and “freedom” mean? If there is not real choice somewhere, are we not just wind-up “puppets,” as in the Woodman (New Yorker) cartoon on this page?

But that is a contradiction we all live with today.

Spinoza’s re-unification of body and spirit may prove his most lasting contribution. He helped move Western thought away from the Christian (Platonist) view of his day, which held that the ideal and unseen universe of Heaven was vastly more important than anything “down here” in our world of dirt and sin.

[i] Spinoza, Ethics, Part 1