The multidimensional Kevin Kim, over at his one-of-a-kind weblog Big Hominid’s Hairy Chasms, has posted a response to my mention of Robert Wright’s book Nonzero. In his post Kevin calls into question the idea of any directionality or purpose to biological evolution, making common cause in this regard with the late Stephen Jay Gould. Kevin writes:
[...I] wonder whether Wright isn’t making a mistake similar to that made by certain process theologians– people who (1) look at events happening in the “cream of the crop” of the evolutionary tumult and (2) mistakenly conclude that evolution at this top layer somehow represents a universal telos. I think human arrogance tends to suggest the “ladder” paradigm to us when we assess natural phenomena: we can’t help seeing ourselves as some sort of culmination of natural (or supernatural) processes. My own view is that life and mind are not representative of any telos at all: they are simply stochastic occurrences. Most of this cosmos, pretty though it be, is not alive.
Closed systems tend toward greater entropy over time. Within those closed systems, regions of anti-entropic activity may arise, but the overarching history of those systems is foreordained to follow the path of the “thermodynamic arrow,” as Stephen Hawking calls it. That is why, in a (theoretically) closed system like our universe, tiny pockets of life can form while most of the universe remains (as far as we know) abiotic. Billions or trillions of years hence, all that life will disintegrate as entropy settles more comfortably into its ancient throne. Those tiny pockets of life, then– those little bits of animated telos– are no evidence of a larger cosmic end or purpose. They– we– are a brief spark in the Nabokovian blackness: here and gone. The pessimist views this state of affairs with rue; the man of religion, by contrast, knows this means that each moment is absolutely precious. Life’s finitude and frailty are what give it its value.
Kevin, writing with customary eloquence, makes some very good points, and most of all I agree with his remarks about what gives life its value. But I think that he is missing the point made by Wright in his book, and is wrongly conflating the idea of telos with the possibility of there being a directionality, an “arrow”, to Darwinian evolution.
Telos is a word that has been in philosophical use since classical Greek times, and means “goal” or “purpose”. To argue for telos in evolution would be to suggest that there is in fact a preordained aim – an Omega point, to borrow a term from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – toward which the process is drawn, or toward which it is consciously guided by an intentional entity.
But telos is not the same thing as directionality. Telos has the aim always in sight, and carries with it the whiff of divine or mystical purpose. Given the tension between creationism and Darwinism nowadays, scientifically-minded types are wary indeed of any such association. (Paradoxically, Gould’s efforts in his books Wonderful Life and Full House bent so far backward to avoid any taint of directionality that they left people wondering how all the superb sophistication of modern species such as us could have arisen at all, an opening that has been exploited by some creationists who now cite these books in support of their benighted cause.) But in contrast to the “top-down” influence posited by a teleological view, mere directionality can be achieved quite blindly by the “bottom-up” design work of variation and natural selection. This is the distinction made by Daniel Dennett in his outstanding book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, in which he refers to teleological influences as “skyhooks” (which lift magically from above), in contrast to Darwinian “cranes” (which do their lifting by standing on what has already been built).
While it is true, as Gould has pointed out, that in numbers, historical durability, and sheer biomass, the dominant lifeform on Earth is arguably the bacteria, there is no denying that as you move forward in time the complexity of the most complex organisms, and the complexity of their interrelationships, has increased relentlessly. This is the “arrow” that Wright refers to, and it undeniably exists.
There is a wealth of insights in this book, and more posts about it all are forthcoming.