A Purpose For Everything by L. Charles Birch
Charles Birch is a biologist specializing in genetics, and resides in Australia. He is joint winner of the 1990 International Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.. His teaching career includes Oxford, Columbia and the Universities of Chicago and Minnesota, as well as visiting professor of genetics at the University of California at Berkeley and professor of biology at the University of Sydney. Professor Birch has blazed new paths into the relationships between science and faith. Published by Twenty-third Publications, Mystic, Connecticut, 1990. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 2: Purpose in Nature
Many a scientist has patiently designed experiments for the purpose of substantiating his belief that animal operations are motivated by no purposes. He has perhaps spent his spare time in writing articles to prove that human beings are as other animals so that purpose is a category irrelevant for the explanation of their bodily activities, his own activities included. Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study.
I cannot think that the world . . . is the result of chance: yet I cannot look at each separate thing as a result of Design. I am, and shall ever remain, in a hopeless muddle.
Neither pure chance nor the pure absence of chance can explain the world.
Two ecological worldviews, referred to in the Introduction, namely deep ecology and the postmodern ecological worldview, both forge strong links between non-human creatures and us. And both, though in quite different ways, extend the links well beyond the living to the inanimate world. The postmodern ecological worldview of this book finds intrinsic value in all those entities it calls individual entities, from protons to people. Deep ecology finds value, not so much in the individual as in the system, be it an ecosystem or the biosphere as a whole, each with its ‘interests’ in self-maintenance. The deep ecologist seeks an extension of the sense of self, as far as possible, with the rest of nature and that includes trees, ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole (Fox 1984, Naess 1989). Hence the alternative name of transpersonal ecology given by Fox (1989) to deep ecology.
There has always been a tendency in the Western world to make a dichotomy between humanity and the rest of nature. The book of Genesis refers to man as ‘made in the image of God’. A widespread, yet superficial, interpretation is that no other creature is so made. But the book of Samuel contains the strong emphasis that ‘We are bound in the bundle of the living’. We are a part of nature. Tillich (1967) affirms: ‘We come from nature. If God had nothing to do with nature, he finally has nothing to do with our total being because we are nature’ (p. 422). The strong affirmation of biology ever since Charles Darwin is that our roots are in nature. Yet our branches reach into the heavens. It is no denial of the uniqueness of humanity to also affirm our continuity with the rest of the living world. The theme of Chapter 1 is that human life makes no sense except in terms of purpose. Humans are purposive creatures. We are not just contrivances, even though aspects of our anatomy and physiology can be understood in those terms. We now ask if humans are unique in this respect. Or are other living organisms also more than contrivances? Are they purposive?
There are two senses in which this question might be asked. Living organisms serve purposes in the sense that they serve useful ends. Grass serves a purpose for the deer that depends upon it for food. Everyone agrees that organisms serve purposes in this sense. The question of this chapter is different. Do non-human organisms have purposes? Do they pursue goals in the sense in which humans do? Are we bound in the bundle of the living in this sense? If they do not have purposes, a sharp line would have to be drawn between humans and all other living organisms. To have purposes is to make choices. So we are asking if organisms besides humans choose. In other words, do they have some degree of self-determination? If they do, it inevitably follows that they are subjects and not just objects. Or again, in the language of Chapter 1, it would be saying that they have internal relations, as well as external relations. The meaning of internal relations as we humans experience them, is the influence of people and other things in our lives and the influence of the purposes we choose to serve. These relations are all internal relations. They make us what we are; that is, they are constitutive of our being. With other internal relations we would be different persons.
The Urge to Live
Those of us who have pets, such as cats and dogs, consider them to be more than machines. We really believe they suffer when they are ill and enjoy company when they are well. We do what we can to keep them happy. We create societies to protect cats and dogs and other domestic animals from cruelty. In other words, we regard them as subjects. We put them into a different category from our motor car. We value them on two grounds. One is the sort of value we give our motor car. Both have instrumental value to us. We enjoy the services they render to us. In the case of a dog it might be the pleasure of its company or its usefulness in rounding up sheep in a paddock or guarding our premises. We consciously or unconsciously attribute a second sort of value as well as an instrumental value to our pets. They have an intrinsic value. They have a value in themselves for themselves. They too want to remain alive. Like us their life is bound up with an urge to live.
The urge to live is more fundamental to life at all levels than Darwin’s principle of survival of the fittest. As Bohn (1982) says:
If you look at nature, you find that elaborate and complex forms appear that are not explained by the mere requirement of survival. If our notion of time postulates that each moment is creative, then at every moment the possibility arises for new structures, along with a continuation of some of the old structures. Therefore you could say nature is constantly and intentionally exploring new structures and when these new structures are able to survive (by the process of replication) they will build up and become stable. (p. 39)
Bohm correctly asserts that the urge to live is a sine qua non for survival. Whoever has the greatest chance to survive is another matter. When Bohm speaks of each moment as creative he refers to the notion of anticipation tied up with the urge to live. That living organisms have an urge to live means that life has value for them. And that value is presumably greatest when life is full and happy rather than when they are sick and miserable. An ethical principle follows. We should respect their experience of life and seek to enhance it. It is the animal’s feelings of the world that give it intrinsic value. Without feeling there is no intrinsic value. In using the word feeling it is important to recognize that it pertains not simply to conscious experience but to much that merges into the unconscious.
There is as much reason to attribute to our pets awareness and consciousness as there is to attribute these characteristics to other humans besides ourselves. I cannot have the experience of another human being, nor that of my cats. But it is reasonable to suppose that they too have experiences. They are like us.
There are those who are willing to grant that non-human animals have feelings but they want to make a distinction between humans and non-humans by attributing to humans alone what they call self-awareness or self-consciousness. But what other kind of consciousness could there be? When I experience pain it is my own self that has the experience of pain. So it is redundant to speak of self-consciousness. What the term self-consciousness is evidently meant to convey is some degree of self-reflection. I might have a toothache without reflecting much at all on my misery. But I would probably reflect a lot about notice of dismissal from my job.
We reflect a lot about what we want to do and to become. The human being can be self-conscious in this sense. Yet this quality may be quite poorly developed. Indeed, in human history, we can trace different levels of self-consciousness being achieved at different stages of cultural evolution. Paleolithic peoples disciplined their lives extensively for the sake of their distinctively human purposes. Life was not simply a matter of one experience following another, without any sort of order or unification. The unified human experience or human psyche came with developing purposes and reflection as culture evolved. Pre-rational sources of meaning became replaced more and more by rational ones with a conflict between the two ever present. Perhaps we can speak of full self-consciousness appearing for the first time only by the first millennium so when quite independently in China, India, Persia, Greece and Israel spiritual leaders arose who proposed new ways of ordering the whole of their experience. From then on we find people devoting a great deal of their time to reflecting upon the meaning of life and what they should do.
Self-consciousness is not an all or nothing matter. There are degrees of self-consciousness. It probably evolved culturally this way in ourselves. But even amongst people today there is a great difference between a deeply reflective person and one who hardly reflects at all. Likewise there is a great difference between a reflective person and any non-human animals we know. But who knows if reflection is zero in the higher animals? For ten years David and Ann Premack (1983) trained a chimpanzee, Sarah, for three to four hours a day five days a week. For each type of problem Sarah was first taught the answers for a training series and then tested for her understanding of a new set of problems that were formally similar. If she could give the correct answer on the first trial of such problems she must have had an intelligent understanding of the problem. For example, experiments showed she could understand that a can-opener is to a can as a key is to a lock. Intelligent understanding implies some sort of mental reflection. There are no good grounds for drawing a hard and fast line between the higher animals and us. The difference is one of degree. In 1871 Charles Darwin wrote: ‘The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind’. This statement is as true now as it was then.
Purpose in the Lives of Animals
The evolution of human purposes is evident in what is called cultural evolution. Culture is what is learned and transmitted from one generation to the next. As has been already indicated, the evolution of culture from Paleolithic times to the scientific age is a consequence of the evolution of self-consciousness. All along the route humans made choices as they reflected upon them. This changed their world. Whilst humans developed culture par excellence, they are not alone in choosing purposes, learning from others and so transmitting culture from one generation to the next.
Exploratory behavior and learning are known to be a feature of many non-human animals. We see it most clearly in the higher mammals. Books have been written about this (e.g., Thorpe 1956, Donald R. Griffin 1976, 1984). Amongst a troupe of macaque monkeys on Koshima island in Japan a young female was seen to wash sand from sweet potatoes in the sea. Her playmates were the first to imitate her, followed by their mothers. Subsequently the infants of these monkeys learned the custom from their mothers. Later, different styles of potato washing developed along kinship lines (Kawai 1965). In England some great tits, through their exploratory behavior, invented ways of opening milk bottles to enable them to drink the milk. First they coped with cardboard tops and later metal tops. The invention was learned by subsequent generations and spread through the population, not just of England, but in continental Europe as well. A tit learned behavior that achieved a goal it found rewarding. And so we can go down the animal kingdom finding examples of exploratory behavior leading to new ways of life, amongst insects and lower forms (Birch & Cobb 1981 p. 57). The understanding of this is important for evolutionary theory. We tend to think of the animal as being at the mercy of its environment. Those individuals with genes that adapt them to the environment survive and reproduce. But animals also create their environments. They do this in at least four ways (see Lewontin, Rose & Kamin 1984 pp. 274-5). The way of interest in the context of this argument is by selecting the habitat in which they live. The tits selected doorsteps with milk bottles on them.
Much work has been done on non-human animals that strongly points to the conclusion that they make choices, have feelings and are therefore subjects. Donald R. Griffin (1976, 1984) argues it is high time students of behavior relaxed their behaviorist stance and led the way to an experimental science dealing with the mental expression of animals, and not just of higher animals. For example, Donald R. Griffin (1976 p. 23) discusses the behavior of the swarming of honey bees when they are about to establish a new colony. The bees exchange information about the location and suitability of potential locations for the new hive. They do this by means of complex dances which symbolically trace out on the vertical surface of the honeycomb the direction and distance of the new localities from the hive. Individual bees are swayed by this information to the extent that, after inspection of individual localities, worker bees change their preference and dance for the superior place rather than the one they first discovered or that was communicated to them by their mates. Only after many hours of such exchanges of information, and only when the dances of virtually all the scouts indicate the same site, does the swarm fly off to it: ‘This consensus results from communicative interactions between individual bees which alternatively "speak" and "listen". But this impressive analogy to human linguistic exchanges is not even mentioned by most behavior scientists’. The bees do not appear to be acting as programmed robots. It is not a totally stereotyped behavior. A bee does not always respond to the dance. If the ‘language’ were in words rather than in dances and bees were the size of people, we would be inclined to attribute to them similar ‘experiences’ to those we have when we communicate about whether to go to this place or that one.
How far down the scale of nature can we suppose that living organisms are subjects that have some element of self-determination, that have internal relations and so in some sense have mind and feelings? The conventional wisdom is that at some point in the evolutionary sequence from atoms to human beings, mind and feeling appeared for the first time. Something that was an object only, without any aspect of mind, becomes a subject with mind. The conventional way of putting this is to say that mind emerged. But that simply restates the problem. It solves nothing. And as one of the most distinguished evolutionary biologists of this century has said: ‘the emergence of even the simplest mind from no mind at all seems to me at least utterly incomprehensible’ (Wright 1953 p. 14). Birch and Cobb (1981) argue that the only satisfactory alternative is to interpret the lower levels of organization in terms of the higher as well as the other way around. What we see clearly as mind in ourselves we may find implicitly in all creatures. None are mere contrivances or machines. The poet Robert Frost saw this intuitively in ‘A Considerable Speck’:
A speck that would have been beneath my sight
I have a mind myself and recognize
Maybe this little speck of life could not be called intelligent. But the poet quite correctly waxes lyrical about its urge to live and the presence of mind wandering on his sheet of paper.
Do we then draw the line at mites or perhaps the ameba in a pond. The proposition of the ecological model is that no line is to be drawn anywhere down the line of what we call living organisms, and thence down through molecules, atoms and electrons and protons. This is not to argue for consciousness as such all the way down the line, but for some form of awareness or attenuated feeling associated with some degree of freedom to choose. Human experience is seen as a high-level exemplification of reality in general, that is of all individual entities from protons to people. Hence Whitehead (1978 p. 29, 1933 p. 129) calls his model ‘the philosophy of organism’. Birch and Cobb (1981) refer to this as an ecological model of life since ecology puts the emphasis on relations. The geneticist Wright (1964) wrote:
The only satisfactory solution . . . would seem to be that mind is universal, present not only in all organisms and in their cells but in their molecules, atoms and elementary particles. This is more plausible for the entities of modern physics than for the concept of matter that held essentially from Democritus to the end of the last century. (p. 114)
Modern physics has indeed moved far away from Democritus’ atoms. About the year 400 BC he declared: ‘There is nothing but atoms and space, all else is an impression of the senses’. His was a universe of multi-shaped little billiard balls moving in empty space, colliding with one another, grouping together and separating from one another. His ideas became part of the background of physical thought in the renaissance of science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through the works of Copernicus, Bruno, Galileo, and later, Newton. But modern physics has moved away from this mechanistic model of the ultimate particles to a much more ecological model (see Chapter 3).
What has modern biology to say to the proposition that all living individuals are subjects with a degree of self-determination and not just complex mechanical objects? Reasons have already been given for regarding animals as subjects. But what about cells and their parts? A cell, unlike a machine, behaves differently in different environments. All the cells of an early embryo appear to be the same. But in due course their daughter cells differentiate. Some become nerve cells. Others become muscle cells and so on. They all have the same genetic information. So how is it that they become so diversified? Whilst the full answer is as yet unknown, at least we know that what the cell becomes depends upon the environment in which it finds itself. That includes the other cells around it and its Orientation to these cells. When undifferentiated cells are put in a dish of nutrients that enables them to grow and divide, they fail to differentiate as they would in the embryo. Cells in the body take account of their environment and become different as a result. The DNA in the nucleus of the fertilized egg contains all the instructions needed to make all the different proteins and all the different sorts of structures in all the different sorts of cells in the body. But not all the instructions are used by every cell. The cells in the liver use some, the cells in the brain use others.
We all know that birds have no teeth. But only recently have we known that the cells in a bird contain the potentiality to produce teeth, the teeth of a reptile. When tissue from the jaw region of a chick embryo is wrapped in tissue from a mouse embryo from the region where teeth are formed and then incubated in the eye of an adult mouse, the chick develops teeth. The presumption is that these derive from genes for teeth bequeathed to birds from their reptilian ancestors. What is potentially possible for the bird becomes a reality in this experiment (Gould 1984 p. 182). Biologists who study the development of living organisms are beginning to find out how the selection takes place as each different cell is made and carries out its functions. More is known about these processes in the bacterium Escherichia coli than in other cells. Normally these bacteria reside in our intestines. If a culture of them is presented with lactose instead of glucose, which they normally use, within a few minutes the bacteria begin to produce the enzyme betagalactosidase which was not there before. This enzyme is necessary for the bacteria to get their energy from the lactose. In their normal life in our intestines these bacteria must be ready to change their enzymes quickly in response to the sort of sugar they find in their environment. They choose from several enzymes their DNA allows them to produce. The part of the DNA that is not used at any time is prevented from expressing itself. When a new sugar arrives it must first be detected by a receptor on the surface of the bacterium. Then a signal is passed through the cell, a process of de-repression is set in action, and the DNA is activated to spell out its message in the form of appropriate RNA (this is called transcription). The message in the RNA molecule is then ‘translated’ into a particular protein (enzyme). The chemical factory for this is in the part of the cell outside the nucleus. The cell does not set up its factory de novo. The factory has already been made for it in the course of its evolutionary history. The factory can make many different sorts of things but there is a choice as to what is made at any one time. The story is yet more complex than this. If the bacterium is confronted with glucose and lactose at the one time, the lactose pathway is repressed. There is a trigger mechanism in the cell for this. The advantage to the bacterium for this is that lactose has to be converted to glucose before it can be used, so its use involves the loss of energy compared with using glucose.
H. S. Jennings, a student of animal behavior early this century, suggested that if a single-celled organism such as an ameba were the size of our pet dog we would not hesitate to ascribe some form of mind to it. Lewis Thomas entitled one of his books The Lives of a Cell (1974). He might also have written a book on the lives of a DNA molecule. In describing the various chemical pathways the DNA molecule sets in train, biologists speak of this pathway being chosen rather than that one. Most of them use the word choice in this context metaphorically. They fall accidentally into anthropocentric language. It is a happy accident. All we know about these fascinating activities of cells is quite consistent with the notion of choice being included rather than completely excluded from the action.
We don’t have to suppose, with the complete mechanist, that everything the cell does is completely determined by its genes and its environment. What we do know is that the DNA molecule can express itself in a great variety of ways. Which ways depend upon the environment of the cell (and therefore of the molecule) at the time. The molecule and its chemical environment are in a state of perpetual dynamic equilibrium depending upon the magnitude of physical forces and the concentration of chemicals inside and outside the cell. Which pathway is ‘chosen’ is a matter of probability rather than absolute determination. For example, in the presence of lactose alone the bacterium Escherichia coli may produce betagalactosidase 99.99 per cent of the time. We might then say that the pathway is determined. But it is not completely determined. The difference between 100 per cent determination and 99.99 per cent determination is all the difference in the world. It is the difference between being completely determined by the environment and having a degree of self-determination. A thoroughgoing mechanist might argue that the difference between 100 per cent and 99.99 per cent may be due to defective functioning of a deterministic system. That is precisely the point. If accidents can happen in the system then determination is not complete. Choice becomes a possibility when determination is not 100 per cent. The billiard ball concept of matter is obviously no longer relevant in molecular genetics. The classical geneticist supposed that genes were pellets of matter that remained in all respects self-identical whatever environment they were in. This has to be abandoned in the light of modern knowledge.
To have self-determination is to exhibit mind. It is to have some degree of freedom, no doubt minute at the molecular level. I am not saying that having investigated the life of the cell and its molecules biologists have found mind. What they have found is more consistent with the proposition that the cell as an entity and the DNA molecule as an entity have internal relations.
The more we know about complex molecules the less they appear to resemble the strict mechanical models that textbooks tend to portray. In the ecological model of nature all molecules and cells are recognized as subjects. They take account of their environment in the deep sense of taking account. The individual entity, in this case the bacterium, is constituted by its relations. If a bacterium has never been introduced to lactose the DNA inside it is different from the DNA in the bacterium that has been introduced to lactose. Both have the potentiality of taking account of lactose. One has, the other hasn’t taken account of that possibility. The analogy with the human is precise. Each of us is what we are by virtue of the DNA we did not choose and the environment in which we have lived, including our internal relations with other organisms. All our experiences have made us what we are. We are what we experience. So it also seems to be the case with the cell and its molecules.
The contrast of the mechanistic and the ecological model of life can now be restated at the level of molecules and beyond to entities such as electrons. The mechanistic model entails that the constitutive elements in the cell behave like the constitutive elements of a machine. Their behavior is considered to be relatively independent of their environment except in so far as they are subject to the laws of mechanics. In the ecological model the elements in the cell relate to one another and to the cell as a whole, more like the way an animal as a whole relates to its environment. Most research on the inner functioning of the cell has been carried out by biologists chiefly influenced by the mechanical model, but what has been learned appears to fit the ecological model better. Some biologists who have recognized this are Wright (1953, 1964), Waddington (1969, 1975) Young (1978, 1987), Sheldrake (1981) and Sperry (1983a, 1983b). Whitehead (1966) before them recognized this when he wrote: ‘neither physical nature nor life can be understood unless we fuse them together as essential factors in the composition of "really real" things whose interconnections and individual characters constitute the universe’ (p. 150). This is the strong affirmation that what is real in the physical world, be it electrons or what have you, must have the germs of qualities we find more accessibly expressed in the living world. This is the unity of nature.
Why Did Human Consciousness Evolve?
A central feature of the ecological model of life is that the universe is made up of entities that act and ‘feel’ as one. Every individual entity from protons to people has its degree of self-determination. We arrive at this concept by working backwards from human self-consciousness to inanimate objects. We find no breaks. At the human level the most characteristic feature of life is that we serve conscious purposes and reflect upon the world around us. But consciousness has arisen in evolution from ‘proto-consciousness’ (proto means primitive or first) which is some form of awareness less than conscious awareness. Proto-consciousness is the aspect of mind in all entities. But why did it ever become fully conscious mind?
This question has always been a problem for evolution. There are two questions here. One is a question for the mechanist. How is it that conscious mind arises from no mind? My answer has already been given. It can’t. The second question is for the evolutionist. What is the survival value of consciousness? According to some evolutionists all major features of living organisms must have some survival value, else they would not have evolved. It is not difficult to find uses for consciousness that enhance the chance to survive and reproduce. It is one way of solving problems to be able to think ahead and work out plans for the future. But that is not the issue.
The real issue for the evolutionist is why aren’t living organisms all unconscious mindless robots? A robot can have inbuilt into it systems that make it respond appropriately to dangers such as a red hot poker and to useful objects such as a fruit on a tree. A recent attempt to find survival value in consciousness that exceeds anything that a robot could accomplish is Humphrey’s (1983) proposal that consciousness evolved in order to help the individual to deal with other members of the species. The idea is that you need to understand the behavior of others and you can do this only by reflecting consciously on your own and their activities. But, as Sutherland (1984) has argued, a robot could be programmed to take account of the behavior of other individuals in its environment. So presumably could the brain in the course of its evolution. Indeed we already know that the brain contains a representation of the position of parts of the body, but this representation does not appear in consciousness; it is easy to invent functions that consciousness might subserve. What is difficult, and has never been achieved, is to show which functions can be subserved only by consciousness. As far as we know there is, in principle, no behavior, no matter how complex, that could not be exhibited by an organism or by a computer that lacked consciousness. Indeed, many of the unconscious calculations made in perception or in controlling activity of the limbs and other organs appear to be as complex as the thinking of an Einstein. Why then did human consciousness evolve?
This debate is an old one. As Gould (1983) pointed out it goes back, at least, to a bitter disagreement between Darwin and the co-discoverer of natural selection, Wallace. Wallace believed that natural selection should account directly for every trait in the evolution of all organisms. But for him there was one exception -- the conscious human brain. Wallace was a non-racist who believed in the equal mental capacities of all people. But he believed in the overwhelming superiority of Western European culture. Now, if natural selection constructs organs for immediate use and if brains of all people are equal, how could natural selection have built the original brain of the ‘savage’ (Wallace’s terminology)? After all ‘savages’ have capacities equal to ours, but they do not use them in devising their cultures. Therefore, he argued, natural selection which constructs only for immediate utility cannot have fashioned the human brain. Darwin was flabbergasted. He wrote to Wallace: ‘I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child’. Darwin’s simple counter-argument held that the brain is a very complex machine that performs functions that have great survival value. This doubtless was responsible for its increase in size and complexity. And as Gould (1983) interprets Darwin:
selection has probably built our large brain for a complex series of reasons, now imperfectly understood. But whatever the immediate reasons, the enlarged brain could perform (as a consequence of its improved structure) all manner of operations bearing no direct relation to the original impetus for its increase in size. (p. 10)
He went on to say that one might put a computer in a factory for the simple purposes of issuing paychecks and keeping accounts, but the device can complete (as a consequence of its structure) many complex calculations that go well beyond the simple requirements for which it was purchased. Historical origin and current function are different properties of biological traits. Features evolved for one reason can, by virtue of their structure, perform other functions as well. In the case of the brain these side-functions become of prime importance. Consciousness, argues Gould, could be one of them.
Dobzhansky (1967 p. 70) considered that the first evidence we have of self-consciousness in human beings is the ceremonial burying of the dead in Neanderthal man. This indicates death-awareness, and therefore probably self-consciousness. This is not to say that death-awareness and self-consciousness may not exist below human beings. Perhaps, as Gould suggests, nothing that our large brain has allowed us to learn has proved more frightening and weighty in importance than awareness of death. Did our large brains evolve in order to teach us this unpleasant fact? Yet consider the impact of this knowledge upon a diverse range of human institutions, from religion to kinship and divine right. The specific forms of religion need not be seen as direct adaptations for tribal cohesion. Religion with culture may arise as a direct consequence of a large complex brain and not as an adaptation for survival. The adaptive analysis of human cultural characteristics may be an inappropriate methodology. Gould and Lewontin (1979) wrote an article for the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London with the intriguing title ‘The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme’. Spandrels are the spaces left over, above and between the great arches that support the huge dome of a cathedral. They are a consequence of having arches and, at least in some cases, have no structural function. The spandrels of San Marco in Venice have been filled with wonderful mosaics that enhance the whole scene. A structure that may have no structural value in itself is put to another use. So it is with evolution.
Hence the evolutionist who can find no convincing reason why consciousness evolved can argue that it is a corollary from the evolution of structures that did have survival value. We didn’t have to have brains that could do pure mathematics and endow us with an artistic capacity that made a Mona Lisa possible. What survival value is there in being able to paint a Mona Lisa? Nor did we need to have brains that could reflect upon the world leading some to spend their lives contemplating the mysteries of the universe, others to beatific visions and yet others to found great religious movements. In many ways the logic of this argument is unassailable. I find it far more convincing than attempts to pin survival value on every single human characteristic. Evolution is more than survival of the fittest.
Yet this argument, important as it is, evades the central question of mind and consciousness arising from a mindless world that preceded it, which is the assumption that Gould, and with him, most biologists make. But if we see the mental as an aspect of all individual entities involved in the evolutionary process we have no such problem. Evolution is then inevitably the evolution of mind-matter. It is the evolution, not of substances, but of organisms. The mind aspect of the cell is different from the mind aspect of the human brain, yet there is a continuity the one with the other. The capacity to take account of the environment internally, that is to have internal as well as external relations, develops with evolution until we have the self-conscious human who invents the future and responds to an infinitely rich environment that includes aesthetic, moral and spiritual values.
In the ecological model the environment is not simply food, other material resources, predators and the like. Our environment is far richer than that. It includes values and purposes. We have the capacity for a richness of experience denied the frog or the ameba. This is not to deny that these creatures have their own experiences (proto-consciousness) that may be rich for them. The ecological model makes sense only in so far as these qualitative elements of environment are given a reality as real as the material objects around us. This is a central insight of the great religious movements that helped to transform the human scene for better and for worse. The lives of people can be governed by long-distance purposes that include the idea of a better world for future generations whom they may never see. To the question -- why did human consciousness evolve? -- we can now reply: because what evolves is not a substance (mere matter) but mind-matter.
Recent years have seen the rise of an alternative model of mentality which is popular amongst those who investigate ‘artificial intelligence’ or ‘cognitive science’. Machines are now made that do all sorts of jobs humans did in the past. Robots are part of the assembly lines of automobiles and other machines. Robots can be made to play chess. Programmed with the rules of the game, they make formidable adversaries. This raises the question -- if a machine could be constructed that would act like a human, would it think and feel and have purposes of its Own? This startling question is answered yes in much science fiction and by some students of artificial intelligence.
While there are some parallels between a complex computer and a human brain, it is widely agreed that if a brain is like a computer it is like a computer no-one has ever yet designed. And in terms of complexity perhaps no-one ever will. For the cortex (the thinking part of the brain) has over 10,000 million nerve cells with probably billions of different possible connections. Computers that operate robots obey instructions programmed into them by their makers. These are rules of arithmetic. Our brains perform functions of many sorts besides arithmetic ones. Nevertheless, one might argue that eventually a computer will be constructed that does perform other functions besides arithmetic ones. A major case against the claim that computers can think, or eventually will think, is given by Searle (1984) in his Reith Lectures. An example which he, with others, claims is irrefutable is the following. Put a man in an empty room and provide him with a set of rules for combining Chinese ideograms together in ways that make sense (to Chinese speakers). Then imagine that a number of Chinese-speaking people outside the room are able to present him with bundles of ideograms which the man must combine together according to the rules provided. To those outside the room he may well be performing like an intelligent machine. But to the man, the process will be devoid of meaning. This system, says Searle, is exactly equivalent to a digital computer. The difference between the man in the Chinese room and an intelligent human being is that the former has been provided merely with the formal syntax of language with which he is working, but human beings attach meanings to symbols. Thinking implies feeling and understanding. Hume said reason is the slave of the passions, and in a sense it must be so. If you do not care about the answer to a question, or do not enjoy thinking, you will not be thinking. If a machine solves problems for us, caring nothing as to which problems are put to it, and never enjoying or suffering any pleasure or pain, then what it does is not thinking. For thinking is basically feeling things and ideas as valuable and pursuing those regarded as of greatest value.
There is but one theory, known to me, that casts any positive light on the ability of brain cells to furnish us with feelings. It is that brain cells can feel! What gives brain cells feelings? It is by the same logic that we may say -- their molecules. And so on down the line to those individuals we call electrons, protons and the like. The theory is that things that feel are made of things that feel. ‘Thinking machines’ are made of microchips, wires and the like, all of which are aggregates of molecules as contrasted with individual entities that constitute a brain -- namely brain cells that are composite individuals. The basic parts of a machine, being aggregates, do not feel any more than do nuts and bolts. Maybe one day someone may construct an exact copy of the millions of cells in the brain with billions of connections with microchips and whatever, then set electronic currents flowing. That machine may perform more complex operations than any machine has ever performed before. I still see no reason for supposing that it would have feelings and think.
Chance and Purpose in Evolution
The proposition of the previous section is that non-human animals are like us in having feelings and purposes that are real causes in their lives. In this respect there is no sharp line between them and us. But you may ask -- does not the Darwinian theory of evolution claim we have all come into existence by pure chance, that only those arrangements of atoms and molecules and cells that promoted survival persist? If the answer is yes, it would give support to the thesis that living organisms are machines and, moreover, made in a somewhat extraordinary way. For this reason Haught (1984) says: ‘the central issue in science and religion today is whether nature in its entities has any purpose or ultimate meaning’ (p. 7). It is as well to confront the issue head-on. The distinguished evolutionist Jacques Monod answers no to this proposition. ‘Chance alone,’ says Monod (1974 p. 110), ‘is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere’ (p. 110). For Monod, chance is the one and only principle in nature. He contrasts his position with those who seek to find in every detail of nature evidence of deterministic design in which living organisms are compared with contrivances which a man designs. There is no room for chance in designing a space vehicle. It is thoroughly determined by its designer. The deists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries said the design of the universe was like that. The order of nature is the creation of an all-powerful deity who left nothing to chance nor, for that matter, to any entity the deity created. The world and all that is in it are thoroughly determined from outside. This is the concept of deism. But is the only alternative to an order of nature created by chance one created by complete determinism from outside? It is true, as Monod would claim, that the Darwinian theory of evolution overthrew the doctrine of deterministic design. But does it follow that chance alone rules supreme? To answer this question we need to be clear as to the role given to chance in the Darwinian theory of evolution.
Darwin began his epic voyage on the Beagle a convinced determinist and, moreover, a deist. He had read Paley’s Natural Theology as a student at Cambridge University and was impressed by its arguments for the existence of God from the design of nature (Darwin F. 1888 Vol. 1 p. 309). The ‘doctrine of divine carpentry’, as it has been called, was promulgated by bishops from their pulpits. Students at the great universities were expected to believe it. Scientists were expected to provide more and more evidence for it. In that respect Darwin was a traitor, for the voyage of the Beagle around the world changed completely his view of the source of the order in nature. The author of The Origin of Species had failed to perform what the public expected of its biologists. It was as if the Archbishop of Canterbury had announced his conversion to Buddhism. Darwin had discovered that nature was not made complete and perfect once and for all time. Nature was still in the process of being made. Moreover, the process involved a ‘struggle for existence’. And, even more devastating for the design thesis, the process involved chance! The element of chance in Darwin’s theory was the genetic variation on which natural selection acted. Instead of the tiger being designed with its stripes for camouflage, once and for all, Darwin invoked the notion that originally tigers had all sorts of patterns of coats. This was a consequence of chance genetic variation. But only that pattern persisted that gave the animal an advantage in its struggle for existence. This is the principle of ‘chance and necessity’ which Jacques Monod considers to be the one and only principle in nature; chance at the level of genetic variation, necessity in the working of natural selection.
Darwinism came as a shattering blow to the notion that the order of nature was completely determined in all its details by a deity outside nature. This does not mean that Darwin showed there was no purpose in nature. What he did show was that existing views of design by an external agent were invalid. And as Passmore (1959) points out, Darwin’s theory did nothing to prove that God did not exist. But it did destroy the only argument by which many people thought the existence of God could possibly be established. Darwin put the emphasis on chance variations at the heart of the order of nature. But as we shall see, that does not mean that design is replaced by chaos.
Neo-Darwinism, which is the dominant view of biologists today, is an interpretation of Darwinism in terms of a modern understanding of genetics. The basic source of genetic variation in the living world is chance variation of the DNA molecule. It can come in a variety of forms; which form is a matter of chance. At the beginning of life on earth there may have been just one DNA molecule, maybe associated with another sort of molecule, namely protein. The DNA molecule had the peculiar capacity of being able to replicate in the appropriate environment. Had it replicated for ever with deterministic perfection, that is without any change at all in its constitution, there could have been no evolution. Evolution was, and is, utterly dependent upon occasional change in the molecule when it replicates. That is what mutation is in its most basic form.
Mutation involves rearrangement of the base-pairs in the steps of the ladder-like DNA molecule. This basic event in evolution is a random change, a chance change, an accident, if you will, during replication. Thomas (1979) asked whether molecular biologists would have thought of this had they flown in from another planet to create life on earth.
We would have made one fatal mistake: our molecule would have been perfect. Given enough time, we would have figured out how to do this, nucleotides, enzymes, and all to make flawless, exact copies, but it would never have occurred to us, thinking as we do, that the thing had to be able to make errors. The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria. (pp. 28-9)
And if our imaginary molecular biologist had the wisdom to create flaws, would he also have the wisdom to keep some flaws and repair others, which is what the cell does? So important is the capacity to change that there are some genes whose job it is to speed up the process of change, that is the rate at which accidents in replication occur. An intriguing example is the gene or genes that control the rate of formation of antibodies used in the body’s defense against disease. When the body is invaded by a foreign agent such as a virus, antibodies are formed to neutralize the virus. Genes exist that increase the variety of antibodies that can be produced on such occasions. The advantage of this to the organism is obvious when the invading virus may itself mutate to a variety of forms, as often happens.
One might well expect that accidental changes in DNA during their replication would be deleterious to the organism that harbors the changed DNA. That indeed is the case. Most mutations are deleterious to the organism in which they occur. Some few are not. By chance they confer some advantage upon the organism that harbors them. So we talk about chance mutations as being the basis of all genetic variation in the living world.
The meaning of chance in this context is quite specific, but it is often misunderstood. It does not imply that mutation has not a cause. We know many of the causes of mutation such as radiation and certain chemicals. Whether or not a particular mutation will increase the chance of its possessor to survive and reproduce is dependent upon a second chain of events which is quite independent of the event of mutation itself. This second chain of events has to do with the environment in which the organism finds itself. The DNA of a fly mutates to confer upon its offspring resistance to DDT in its environment. This chain of events is quite unrelated to whether or not the environment contains DDT. If the environment doesn’t contain DDT the mutation confers no advantage upon the organism. It is important to understand that the DDT itself doesn’t cause the mutation. All it does is act as the selecting agent eliminating those insects that lack the gene for resistance and letting those that have it survive and reproduce. The mutant fly is at an advantage in an environment with DDT compared to the fly that doesn’t have that mutant DNA. The significant point is that the two causal chains are entirely independent -- that is, the particular mutation and the environment at that moment.
So we say that mutation is random in relation to the needs of the organism at the time the mutation occurs. That the two chains of events intersect with advantage to the organism is a matter of chance or accident. The word chance does not imply without a cause, rather it means that the intersection of two causal pathways ‘is not decided by any agent and is not fully determined by the past’ (Hartshorne 1984a p.16). Darwinism introduces an indeterminacy into the concept of the evolutionary process. Nothing determines that the appropriate mutation will occur just when it is needed. There is a chance that it will because of the enormous capacity of the DNA molecule to vary. The number of its possible forms is infinitely large. We know that insects must have been producing genes that conferred resistance upon the possessor even before DDT existed on the face of the earth, that is to say before it was invented by man. But the fullness of time for this gene came only when DDT became part of the environment of insects. Likewise today insects are doubtless producing DNAs that could confer upon them resistance to chemicals not yet invented by man. Such is the fantastic profligacy of nature! What I have described is a thoroughgoing neo-Darwinian interpretation of the evolution of resistance to an insecticide by insects.
An alternative theory of the mechanism of evolution to neo-Darwinism is Lamarck’s doctrine of the inheritance of acquired characters. According to this doctrine the giraffe which stretched its neck to feed on higher branches acquired a slightly longer neck by so doing. Its offspring were supposed to have longer necks, the character being inherited from the parents. This transformation was supposed to occur because the animal wanted more food. Its need instigated an adaptive response that was inherited. Since plants were not regarded as having feelings of need Lamarck did not apply his theory to them. So it is ironical that the only sure demonstration of this type of change, for over a century, has come from experiments on plants. When flax plants were fed with fertilizer they increased in size, as might be expected. What was not expected was that subsequent generations of flax plants would be large like their parents, even in the absence of the fertilizer. It seems that the fertilizer increased the number of ribosomes (tiny organelles in the non-nuclear part of the cell). This additional dose of ribosomes was passed on in the cells of pollen and ovules to subsequent generations through the non-nuclear part of the cell. Having more ribosomes made the plants grow bigger. This sort of inheritance seems to be very rare, otherwise it would have turned up more often in experiments.
Lamarckian inheritance has had a certain appeal since it does not include any role for chance in evolution. But the fact of the matter is that neo-Darwinism with its role for chance variation better accounts for how evolution operates for the most part. It would be incorrect to conclude from the account I have given of the way neo-Darwinism works that the two chains of causes, one to do with mutation and the other to do with the environment, are completely determined. A determinist might want to say that there is an omnipotent observer who sees that the appropriate mutation occurs at the appropriate time so that the two chains of events interact with benefit to the organism. That this is not the case is a scientific fact known from careful experiments. There are no two ways about it. All sorts of mutations occur all the time. Most are deleterious. By chance, some are not. The result of the interaction between the causal chain involving mutation and the causal chain involving the environment is not predictable from either chain of events taken separately. But we can go further than that. The two chains of causes can, and in the ecological model do, involve creativity, choice and decision. The presence or absence of DDT in the environment involves human choice. And the changes in DDT from one form to another are not completely determined by the past history of DNA. There is an indeterminacy here in the sense that we can speak of a ‘choice’ being made to become this sort of DNA rather than that sort. The sense in which the word choice is used in this context is similar to the way it is used earlier in this chapter in accounting for the different enzymes produced by the bacterium Escherichia coli. The schematization of the interaction of the two pathways tends to exaggerate the separation of purpose and chance. In the ecological model every event involves intersections that introduce elements of chance, but every causal pathway has elements of purpose, expressing itself in choice, or decision, or self-creativity. The acceptance of a role of chance in nature does not exclude a role for purpose. Indeed, as we shall now see, it makes a role for purpose possible.
The world of Paley’s Natural Theology was a completely determined one. The world for Jacques Monod, a modern interpreter of Darwinism, was one of chance and chance alone. But there is a third possibility. Neither pure determinism nor pure chance alone, but chance and purpose together. As Hartshorne (1984a) has said: ‘Neither pure chance nor the pure absence of chance can explain the world’ (p. 69). The recognition of chance and accident in the natural order is critically important in the ecological model of nature. Without chance there could be no freedom. If the universe and all happenings in it were fully determined by some omnipotent power, attributed by some to God, there would be no freedom. As Hartshorne (1984a) says:
Agent X decides to perform act A, agent Y independently decides to perform act B. So far as both succeed, what happens is the combination AB. Did X decide that AB should happen? No. Did Y decide the combination? No. Did any agent decide it? No. Did God, as supreme agent, decide it? No, unless ‘decide’ stands for sheer illusion in at least one of its applications to God and the creatures. The word chance . . . is the implication of the genuine idea of free or creative decision making -- ‘creative’ meaning, adding to the definiteness of the world, settling something previously unsettled, partly undefined or indeterminate. (p. 16)
To take chance seriously is the first step in moving away from the concept of deterministic design, whether by an omnipotent designer or as some inbuilt principle of nature. It is also the first step in moving toward a realistic concept of purpose. Monod, who took chance seriously, failed to see the implications for freedom. For him, chance alone was the one and only principle of nature. Darwin never came to this conclusion. It seems that he could not admit the reality of chance, despite the role he attributed to it. In this respect he was like Einstein when he said he could not believe that God plays dice (Pagels 1984 p. 148). Darwin probably greatly admired the deterministic universe of Newton and the sort of thinking that led Newton to that concept. At least we know he had studied and admired the life of Newton (Darwin F. 1902 p. 229). Perhaps he saw himself as the Newton of biology. The key to Darwin’s thinking on chance and determinism is not to be found in On the Origin of Species but in Darwin’s correspondence, especially with the Harvard botanist Asa Gray in 1860 and 1861. The first person, so far as I know, to appreciate the significance of this correspondence is Hartshorne (1962 Chapter 7, 1984a Chapter 3). The critical passage in Darwin’s letter to Asa Gray is the following: ‘I cannot think that the world . . . is the result of chance; and yet I cannot look at each separate thing as the result of Design . . . I am, and shall ever remain, in a hopeless muddle’ (Darwin F. 1888 Vol. 2 pp. 353-4). And ‘But I know that I am in the same sort of muddle . . . as all the world seems to be in with respect to free will, yet with everything supposed to have been foreseen or pre-ordained’ (p. 378). Darwin repeatedly declared in his letters to Asa Gray, as well as to others, that chance cannot explain the world as an ordered whole. To a Mr. Graham, for example, he wrote: ‘you have expressed my inward conviction far more vividly and clearly than I could have done, that the Universe is not the result of chance’ (Darwin F. 1888 Vol. 1 p. 316).
Again and again Darwin’s letters reiterate this refrain -- is it all ordained, or is it all a result of chance? Because of his dilemma Darwin gave up theism. At the same time he could see there must be pervasive limitations upon chance since unlimited chance is chaos. In the following quotation Darwin actually suggests that perhaps the solution is ‘designed laws’ of nature, with all details, good and bad, depending upon ‘what we call chance’:
I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand, I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me . . . But the more I think the more bewildered I become. (Darwin F. 1888 Vol. 2 p. 312)
Hartshorne (1962 p. 207) makes two suggestions. Darwin tended, like many others, to think of science as committed to determinism; what we call chance may not be chance at all. Secondly, it was not apparent to Darwin why cosmic purpose should leave anything to chance. God was identified with absolute law and non-chance. The dominant theology of Darwin’s day was of no help to him in this respect. It had no clearly conceived creationist philosophy. God must do everything or nothing. And if God is responsible for everything, then why all the evil in the world? To Asa Gray Darwin wrote (Darwin F. 1888 Vol. 2) about his dilemma thus: ‘You say that you are in a haze; I am in thick mud; the orthodox would say in a fetid, abominable mud; yet I cannot keep out of the question’ (p. 382).
The ‘mud’ in which Darwin found himself immersed was, as Hartshorne (1962) says, ‘the opacity which always characterizes a deterministic world-view’ (p. 208). Darwin argued correctly that the facts of evil are in conflict with a belief in deterministic design by a benevolent designer (Darwin F. 1888 Vol. 1 p. 315, vol. 2 p. 312). But only one of his correspondents suggested to him that God was other than an omnipotent determiner of all the details of nature. That was the English vicar and novelist Charles Kingsley: He wrote to Darwin: ‘I have gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity, to believe that He created primal forms capable of self development into all forms needful . . . as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which He himself made’ (Darwin F. 1888 Vol. 2 p. 288). And elsewhere Kingsley wrote about Darwin’s contribution thus: ‘now they have got rid of an interfering God -- a master magician as I call it -- they have to choose between the absolute empire of accident and a living, immanent, ever-working God’ (quoted by Raven 1953a p. 177). In the evolutionary epic The Water Babies, which Kingsley wrote for children just four years after the publication of The Origin of Species, he tells of how God ‘makes things make themselves’ (1930 p. 248). At the time Kingsley’s lonely voice must have been drowned out by that of the majority of his fellow clerics who could see no saving grace in Darwinism at all. Nor is there evidence that Darwin appreciated Kingsley’s alternative to the omnipotent deterministic God of the deists.
Darwin needed a Jacques Monod to convince him that chance and accident were essential to the order of nature. He needed also a Charles Hartshorne to persuade him that there was a credible alternative to the deism of Paley and other nineteenth-century divines. But in fact he never did resolve his dilemma of chance and determinism.
The great and positive contribution that Darwinism makes to our thinking about nature is the role of chance. It closes the door on absolute determinism and opens the door to freedom and choice. But many have never gone beyond the closed door of determinism. Hartshorne (1962) hit the nail on the head when he said: ‘There must be something positive limiting chance and something more than mere matter in matter, or Darwinism fails to explain life’ (p. 210). What is ‘the something positive’ that limits chance and what is the ‘something more than mere matter’ in matter? Darwinism rules Out the notion of an all-determining orderer. It opens the door to another concept of ordering.
There are in fact only two ways of ordering. One is dictatorial. The other is persuasive. The something more than matter in mere matter I have already referred to as responsiveness or sentience. The individual entities that constitute matter are subjects, be they protons or people. They are sentient to the possibilities of their future, within the limitations imposed by their past. What they respond to -- ‘the positive something that limits chance’ -- are the persuasive possibilities relevant to their future. Creation is not by fiat but by persuasion. Order by persuasion is the factor limiting chance. Hartshorne (1984a) has said ‘the only positive explanation of order is the existence of an orderer’ (p. 71). This is a very different concept of ordering from the operations of the deus ex machina of the deists, which Darwin rightly rejected. Kingsley hinted at this notion when he said that things tend to make themselves. Creativity exists within the entities of the creation. That is the first step in our argument for order. Many people find this difficult to grasp. For as Hartshorne (1962) says:
Since teleology has been thought of as unilateral creativity on the part of deity, unshared in any appreciable degree with the creatures, indications that the world had far reaching potentialities for self-creation were naturally startling. But only because creativity had not been grasped in its proper universality, as the principle of existence itself. (p. 209)
Today that should be a less startling concept. Science is leading more and more in that direction as witness, for example, the recognition of self-organization as a principle in nature by Prigogine and Stengers (1984).
The combination of sentience in individual entities, together with the lure beyond themselves for their possible futures, is the source of their creativity. Nuts and bolts can’t evolve. They are aggregates which consequently have no intrinsic creativity. Only individual entities that have some degree of creativity can evolve. Creativity is not simply the rearrangement of bits and pieces of stuff from simple to more complex arrangements. It is the anticipation and the move forward toward possibilities not yet realized. Possibilities or purposes are causes of the present, as are also influences (akin to memories) of the past. We recognize these as potent causes in human life. This recognition should be a guide to thinking about such causes in non-human individual entities.
A multiplicity of creative agents implies the need for the rule of one. Too many cooks spoil the broth. There must be something that sets limits to the confusion and anarchy possible with a multiplicity of creative agents. Individual purposing agents need to be coordinated. The key here is not manipulation of the individuals of creation, but persuasion. In the ecological model the persuasive ordering principle that coordinates the creativity of a multitude of creative agents is the divine Eros. An orchestra consists of many players. Each player interprets the music in his or her own way. All are coordinated by the conductor. A brilliant documentary film was made in 1984 of Leonard Bernstein conducting an orchestra during rehearsals of his own composition West Side Story. Those who saw that documentary were struck by the way in which musicians, composer and conductor became one. Bernstein originated the music. Each player was making an interpretation from what Bernstein had written and from the grimaces on his face as he conducted. Sometimes, indeed, the orchestra seemed to exceed the conductor’s expectations and he responded with intense delight and participation. The individual entities in nature, like the musicians in the orchestra, have their own degree of freedom to respond or not to respond. This may be tiny at the level of the proton. It is highly significant at the level of the human person. Instead of being the all-powerful manipulator of the creation, the divine Eros is conceived as its great persuader, providing each individual with specific goals or purposes and coordinating the activity of all. ‘What happens,’ says Hartshorne (1967),
is in no case the product of [God’s] creative acts alone. Countless choices, including the universally influential choices, intersect to make a world, and how concretely they intersect is not chosen by anyone, nor could it be. . . Purpose, in multiple form, and chance are not mutually exclusive but complementary; neither makes sense alone. (p. 58)
This argument has carried the principle of cultural evolution (as accepted for human evolution) all down the line of natural entities through the non-human, the non-living to the simplest individuals of creation. In cultural evolution we accept the role of choice as well as chance and the role of purposes that make choice possible. There is no reason to draw a line anywhere and say that below that line choice no longer operates at all in any sense. Of course the degree of choice or the degree of freedom of the entity must be minute at the level of the proton compared to what we know in the case of humans. The principle in the ecological model is that there is a continuum all down the line.
The Individual and the Ensemble
The creative evolution of individuals is inconceivable if they are thought to maintain their identity throughout all evolution. As one moves up levels of organization -- electrons, atoms, molecules, cells, etc. -- the properties of each larger whole are given not merely by the units of which it is composed but by the new relations between these units. It is not that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, but that its parts themselves are redefined and recreated in the process of evolution from one level to another. An electron in a lump of lead is not the same as an electron in a cell in a human brain. This means that the properties of matter relevant at. say, the atomic level do not begin to predict the properties of matter at the cellular level, let alone at the level of complex organisms.
In the ecological model a contrast is drawn between an organism or individual and a machine. The parts of a machine are subject only to the laws of mechanics with its external forces acting upon these parts. In some modern machines nuts and bolts are replaced by transistors and microchips. The development of new and better computers involves rearrangements of the parts and the invention of better parts. There is no evolution of computers in any real sense of the word. There is change in design brought about by the designer outside the machine. There is also natural selection in the marketplace! Likewise, in the mechanical model of life there is no real evolution. There are only rearrangements of parts and natural selection between the different arrangements.
Evolution involves change within the parts and in the organism as a whole. It is not simply a rearrangement of parts. Something of the difference between a machine and its parts and living organisms is captured by the English poet Henry Reed in his poem ‘Naming of parts’. The poem contrasts the naming of the parts of a rifle and a recruit’s perception of the almond blossom in the garden with the bees going backwards and forward. There is a difference between the gun in its bits and nature:
To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday.
That machines can’t evolve, that they can only have rearranged parts, means that a completely mechanistic account of evolution is a gross abstraction from nature. Whitehead (1933) perceived this distinction when he wrote:
A thoroughgoing evolutionary philosophy is inconsistent with materialism. The aboriginal stuff, or material from which a materialistic philosophy starts, is incapable of evolution. This material is in itself the ultimate substance. Evolution, on the materialistic theory, is reduced to the role of being another word for the description of the changes of the external relations between portions of matter. There is nothing to evolve, because one set of external relations is as good as any other set of external relations. There can be merely change, purposeless and unprogressive . . . The doctrine thus cries aloud for a conception of organism as fundamental to nature. (p. 134)
Whitehead understood and enunciated more clearly than anyone how the creative evolution of living organisms could not be understood if the elements composing them were conceived as individual entities that maintained exactly their identity throughout all the changes and interactions. He sought to identify both permanence and change in the entities. With some notable exceptions evolutionary biologists have yet to catch up with Whitehead.
Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is what I call the ecological model of nature. According to this image evolution is not just the rearrangement of building blocks into ever more complex structures from atoms to humans. That can account for the diversity of buildings one might find in a city. But it cannot account for the diversity of lives in the living world. Here we are dealing not with building blocks but with subjects. Evolution is the evolution of subjects. The critical thing that happens in evolution is the change in internal relations of the subjects. As environment changes so do the subjects, be they electrons or cells or whole organisms.
Most evolutionists ignore this aspect of entities in evolution. Whilst they in no way endorse a Whiteheadian concept of organism, Lewontin, Rose and Kamin (1984) have a similar appreciation of the relation of parts and whole:
A living organism -- a human, say -- is an assemblage of subatomic particles, an assemblage of atoms, an assemblage of molecules, an assemblage of tissues and organs. But it is not first a set of atoms, then molecules, then cells; it is all of these at the same time. This is what is meant by saying that the atoms, etc., are not ontologically prior to the larger wholes that they compose.
Conventional scientific languages are quite successful when they are confined to descriptions and theories entirely within levels. It is relatively easy to describe the properties of atoms in the language of physics, of molecules in the language of chemistry, of cells in the language of biology. What is not so easy is to provide the translation rules for moving from one language to another. This is because as one moves up a level the properties of each larger whole are given not merely by the units of which it is composed but of the organizing relations between them. To state the molecular composition of a cell does not even begin to define or predict the properties of the cell unless the spatiotemporal distribution of those molecules, and the intramolecular forces that are generated between them, can also be specified. But these organizing relationships mean that properties of matter relevant at one level are just inapplicable at other levels. Genes cannot be selfish or angry or spiteful or homosexual, as these are attributes of wholes more complex than genes: human organisms. (p. 278)
Lewontin (1983) makes the distinction between a biology that he calls constitutional and one that is relational, a distinction which I have called mechanistic versus ecological.
The profound question evolution raises is why did atoms evolve to cells and to plants and to animals? Why didn’t creativity stop with the first DNA molecule? Materialism (which itself is a metaphysic) provides no real answer to this question. The ecological model opens up a way to understanding this in terms of lure and response.
A New Dialogue with Nature
It is one thing, says Lewontin (1983 p. 36), to call for a biology that is relational rather than compositional; it is quite another to put it into practice. There are already some pointers in the movement away from exclusive mechanism to a more ecological model of nature. There are, of course, aspects of the living organism that are to be understood in terms of machinery, such as the movement of the chambers and valves of the heart as a pump and the movement of limbs as levers. The triumphs of molecular biology in describing and manipulating genes are triumphs of the mechanistic approach. The ecological model is inclusive of much that is worthwhile in the mechanical analysis. But it calls for a more complete analysis. It is not a return to vitalism. Vitalism sought to solve the problem by arguing that in addition to the physical components of the living organism there is an additional principle or force. It was variously called life-force, elan vital and entelechy which is completely absent from non-living entities. Reasons why this can no longer be regarded seriously are given by Birch and Cobb (1981 pp. 75 -7). Likewise the model of emergent evolution which is a half-way house between mechanism and vitalism has to be rejected. Emergent evolutionists argued for the miraculous emergence of life and of mind in a previously lifeless and mindless universe. The problem is still left as a mystery (Birch & Cobb 1981 pp. 77-9). 1 was present at a discussion between two of the greatest evolutionists of our times on this very topic. Professor Sewall Wright claimed that to believe in the emergence of mind from no mind was to believe in sheer magic. Whereupon Professor Theodosius Dobzhansky, a proponent of emergent evolution, retorted ‘Then I believe in magic’.
A mechanistic physiologist analyses my sitting at my word processor in terms of light waves hitting my retina from the keyboard and the screen which then set in train chemical and electrical processes in my nerves and brain. Messages from the brain to my muscles cause them to contract in ways that result in the very complex movements of my fingers and arms as I sit at the machine. But this interpretation, which is fine as far as it goes, leaves out of its account the fact that I have some thoughts in my mind which I intend to put into writing. It is thoughts that initiate the complex sequence of events which the physiologist studies. The distinction between these two sorts of causes was clearly made by Socrates as reported in Plato’s dialogue the Phaedo (p. 144). There are some, he tells us, who argue that the causes of his actions are the mechanical forces on his bones and muscles and sinews. Without these activities he would not be able to do as he pleased. But the real cause of his sitting in prison was that he had made a choice to bow to the sentence of the Athenians. The two sorts of causes so clearly set before us by Socrates became the famous distinction between mechanical causes and final causes, or as has been put in this book, mechanical causation and causation through purposes. The one involves external relations, the other involves internal relations.
A mechanistic brain physiologist thinks of the brain in terms of the circuits in a complex computer. If the brain is like a computer then it is like one that no-one has ever designed. Memory is not like electronic memory. Human memory can create new circuits. There are some activities such as the movement of the fingers that appear to be represented in particular areas of the brain. But there are others which cannot be so represented. According to Pribram (1977) and Pribram, Newer and Baron (1974), visual memory is of this latter sort. Large parts of the brain can be removed through injury, yet visual memory is retained. It looks as though, in this case, the brain does not store information locally but widely. Pribram and his colleagues have produced a model of the brain which they call the holographic model. As in a holograph (p. 82), the image is not represented in the brain as a point-to-point image from an object to a photographic plate. Rather, it is represented such that if some cells in the brain are removed this does not destroy just a part of the image but reduces the clarity of the image as a whole. It is not possible to dissect the visual image down to particular cells in the brain. The image is the consequence of the interrelation of many cells as a whole.
The mechanistic view of the relation of brain to mind has either claimed that the brain produces mind or has denied existence of the mental altogether. The ecological model sees mind and brain as two aspects of the same reality. Whereas the mechanistic brain physiologist does not regard purposes as causes, the non-mechanistic brain physiologist such as Sperry (1983a, 1983b) considers that a thought itself can initiate chemical and electrical impulses in cells in the brain. Brain physiologists can tell us a lot, but there is an enormous gap between what they describe, be it in terms of a computer or some other model, and what the human being experiences.
A mechanistic student of animal behavior seeks to interpret all behavior in terms of stimulus and response, analogously to the way in which a photoelectric cell receives a message from our approach to a door and responds with a message to a motor to open the door. These relationships can be made quite complex by adding negative feedback (cybernetic) mechanisms and so on. Much of this thinking goes back to Jacques Loeb who invented a mechanical ‘insect’ that followed the beam of a torch light held by the inventor who moved around a dark room. Today we have quite sophisticated robots that can perform very complex activities. Such models may add something to our understanding of animal behavior. But we should appreciate that the environments of these robots are extremely simple as compared with the environment of an animal in the wild.
The non-mechanistic student of animal behavior tries to study animals in their complex relations with a complex world, as Goodall (1971, 1986) has done with chimpanzees in Gombe Reserve and as Donald R. Griffin (1976, 1984) has proposed. These two ethologists attempt to understand the mind of the animals they study in a way analogous to the way in which you and I struggle intuitively to enter each other’s lives. If I want to communicate with a culture radically different from my own, there are two basic options open to me: either they learn my language or I learn theirs. When the representatives of a different culture are also members of a different species, exactly the same Options arise. Saint Francis, Lorenz and Tinbergen chose the first route. Goodall and Griffin chose the second. Goodall sought a rapport with her chimpanzees and they seemed to return the compliment. By contrast the attempts to teach chimpanzees, albeit by special symbols, have been fraught with difficulty, despite the early claims of success. Bedeviled by persistent ambiguity of their results, researchers deserted the field, leaving their primate proteges to survive in settings far from the humans’ homes in which they were trained. Lucy now lives on an island in a river in West Africa. Her vocabulary of about seventy-eight signs is now a bizarre handicap. Others have suffered a similar fate (Linden 1986, Savage-Rumbaugh 1986).
A mechanistic sociobiologist argues that individual human limitations imposed by genes place constraints on society. The non-mechanistic student of societies argues that social organizations are able to negate individual limitations. Lewontin (1983 p. 37) makes the analogy of human beings and flight. No human beings can fly by flapping their arms and legs. Yet we do fly because of the existence of aircraft, pilots, fuel production, radios -- all the products of social organization. Moreover, it is not society that flies, but individuals who have acquired a property as a consequence of socialization. The individual can only be understood in terms of the total environment. In different environments we have different properties.
The naive mechanistic geneticist says that genes are particles located on chromosomes, that the genes make proteins and proteins make us and that the genes replicate themselves. The non-mechanistic geneticist says genes are not like particles at all. What a gene is depends upon neighboring genes on the same and on different chromosomes and on other aspects of its environment in the cell. DNA makes nothing by itself, not even more DNA. It depends on enzymes in the cell to do all these things. Geneticists no longer teach ‘particulate genetics’. So molecular genetics is properly called molecular ecology. Molecular genetics was the last into mechanistic biology. Maybe it will be the first out.
The mechanistic developmental biologist thought an organism developed in complexity from a single fertilized egg to a complex living organism in the way a motor car is built up from individual bits and pieces. But we now know that if you cut out the limb bud of a developing frog embryo at a very early stage, shake the cells loose and put them back at random in a lump, a normal leg develops. It is not as though each cell in its particular place was initially destined to become a particular part. Each cell could become any part of the leg (but not of the eye), depending upon its total environment. Unlike a machine that can be pulled to pieces and reassembled, the bits and pieces of the embryo seem to come into existence as a consequence of their spatial relationships at critical moments in the development of the embryo.
A mechanistic microbiologist says that the cause of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a virus. Yet many people apparently have the virus in their cells without, as yet, developing symptoms of the disease. Whether or not the symptoms develop depends upon the environment in which the virus finds itself. And this varies from person to person in ways we don’t fully understand. The virus seems to be harmless until some change in its environment renders it lethal in its effects.
Many infectious diseases, once rampant in the Western world, began to decline in their incidence well before antibiotics came into being. Their decline paralleled a change in the human environment. People became better fed and practiced simple hygiene. Many of us have the tuberculosis bacterium in our bodies but we have not had, and probably never will have, the disease. The death rate from tuberculosis dropped by 90 per cent between 1850 and 1945. The effect of streptomycin in 1947, the first effective medical treatment, only effected a further 3 per cent drop in death rates. Likewise malaria had largely disappeared from Europe and yellow fever had vanished from the United States before the causative agents were even discovered (Ornstein & Ehrlich 1989). Sir Macfarlane Burnet pointed out half a century ago (Burnet 1940) that the proper study of disease is the ecology of disease organisms.
A mechanistic ecologist would seem to be a contradiction in terms. Yet they exist. They come in two forms. One is the mathematical wizard who represents organisms as symbols in complex mathematical equations. The organisms are treated as billiard balls whose movements are subject only to mathematical rules of the game. No matter what the stage of the game, the billiard ball remains the same billiard ball. The second sort of mechanistic ecologist says the units in the game are not individual organisms at all but communities or ecosystems. But communities and ecosystems are abstractions from nature. The ecological study of nature involves, instead, the study of the relations between individual organisms within their natural environments. We want to know why a particular species of cactus which is relatively rare in Central America became so common after its introduction into Australia that an area the size of England became a dense forest of cactus. The relevant question to ask is what are the new relations the cactus had to its new environment and how can these be reversed.
The good ecologist goes further by taking into account the fact that organisms (including cells and molecules) are not simply at the mercy of the environment they happen to be in. They create their environment to some extent. One way they do this is to choose the environment in which to live. Animals are always doing this but sometimes they make a choice which is a radical break with the past, as for example when they choose a new host on which to feed. The environment is not something simply imposed on the living organism but to some extent it is the creation of the organism. In addition to choosing where they live, organisms make their own climate (bees), increase their food supply by grazing and fertilizing the soil and so on (Levins & Lewontin 1985).
A thoughtful ecologist will try imaginatively to live the life of the creature being studied. An ecologist in charge of the eradication of the mosquito responsible for the transmission of yellow fever in the coastal cities of Brazil was asked for the secret of the success of his campaign. He replied: ‘I try to think like a mosquito’. He put himself imaginatively in the place of the mosquito and asked -- where shall I go to get a blood meal? where shall I find shade in which to mature my eggs? where shall I go to lay my eggs? and so on.
Mechanistic biologists tend to resist incursions of another model into their domain. This is understandable. After all, the mechanistic method has been highly successful. But its great success, as Levins and Lewontin (1985 p. 2) point out, is in part the result of an historical path of least resistance. Problems that yield to the attack are pursued with vigor, precisely because the method works there. Other problems are left behind, ‘walled off from understanding by commitment to Cartesianism’ (p. 3). No doubt the ready road to success is to follow well-trodden paths that have worked in the past. It has also brought forth the remark that the eminence of a scientist is measured by the length of time that he holds up progress in his field! The new dialogue with nature involves some radical breaks with the past which will be resisted by the unimaginative. It is easy to fall into the prosaic fallacy (see Chapter 5), which is to suppose the world is as tame as our sluggish convention-ridden imaginations imply. The biologist J. B. S. Haldane (1927) said: ‘Now, my suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose (p. 268).
Why is it, one might ask, as does Needleman (1988 p. 64), that the science of biology has been so mute when we ask it about the meaning of human existence. The answer lies in the sorts of causes biologists tend to recognize and investigate. For the most part they regard mind and purpose as epiphenomena, which means they are recognized as effects only and not as causes and so are not studied as causes. This disenchantment of nature by traditional science is the denial of subjectivity, feeling and experience. Sir Fred Hoyle (1989) goes so far as to comment: ‘by eschewing issues that most people feel deeply about, science has produced a situation in which it has few friends outside itself (p. 24).
The Unity of Life
In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals Darwin (1872) developed his conviction that the sentient quality of humans has its origins in that of our forebears. The world of nature was for Darwin a world of intense feeling which gave him a sense of unity with the whole creation. In recognizing this Hartshorne (1984b) wrote:
One of Darwin’s deepest convictions, overlooked by many, was that all life is somehow one and that human attributes, such as sentience, are not to be supposed (as Descartes taught) abrupt supernatural additions to a merely mechanical nature. Darwin was troubled by his inability to see how there could be feeling in plants, thinking that this weakened his evolutionary argument. Somehow he did not realize the importance of the idea of cells, invisibly small individuals making up a vegetable organism and far better integrated than the entire [plant] . . . Darwin would have liked Whitehead . . . so far as this problem is concerned. (p. 129)
In the ecological model we recognize in all those entities we call individuals some measure of responsiveness and freedom which we share. In addition to individuals there are aggregates of individuals such as rocks and stars. Plants seem to come into a category between. They are not simply aggregates of individuals (their cells) because there is a high degree of coordination between the parts. This is achieved through hormones and other means. But the plant lacks a nervous system which is the basis of the unitary feeling of the animal. A plant is not an individual in the sense we have defined this term. Nor is it simply an aggregate of individuals. Whitehead preferred to refer to a plant as a democracy of individuals. The distinction between individuals, aggregates of individuals and democracies of individuals, which of course includes human societies, is important. It avoids the pitfall of the ‘pathetic fallacy’ which is the attribution of feelings to things like rocks that don’t feel.
Because of the unity of life, human love is something that can be extended to the whole creation. The humanist loves his fellow humans and appreciates nature. The ecological model of life implies that human love is to be extended to the rest of nature in the sense of sympathetic identification with the life of other sentient organisms. The greatest scientists were not simply curious about nature. They too loved nature. Darwin loved animals as fellow creatures. We too can make the attempt to identify with them, though this can never be complete. I cannot know what it is to be a tiger. I would have to be a tiger. But I may begin to understand something about what it is to be a tiger. The physicist J. J. Thomson said he couldn’t really know what an atom was unless he could be one. He regretted his inability to identify with the world of atoms to that extent.
To really know is to be at one with that which is known. Perfect knowledge is perfect at-one-ment. Maybe God has that knowledge of tigers and atoms. The ethical consequences of extended love are enormous. Some of them are explored in Chapter 5.