Planet with a Purpose
If Earth is an organism getting ever more complex, doesn't that mean humans might have been made for a reason?
BY: Robert Wright
One lineage-let's call it homo sapiens-is particularly good at thinking. It thus launches a whole new process of evolution, called cultural evolution, that leads to the invention of wheels and legal codes and microchips and so on. Humans use the fruits of cultural evolution to organize themselves on a larger and larger scale. As this social organization reaches the global level, and features a richer and richer division of economic labor, the whole thing starts to resemble a giant organism. There's even a kind of planetary nervous system, made of fiber optics and other stuff, connecting the various human brains into big mega-brains that collaborate to solve problems. (And some of the problems are global-how to head off global warming and global epidemics, for example.)
Meanwhile, as the human species is becoming a global brain, gradually assuming conscious control of the planet's stewardship, other species-also descended from that single primitive cell that lived billions of years ago-perform other planetary functions. Trees are lungs, for example, generating oxygen.
In other words: If you watched evolution on this planet unfold from a distance (and on fast forward), you would find it strikingly like watching the maturation of an organism ("epigenesis"). So why can't the part of Paley's argument that can be validly applied to an organism's maturation-the idea that it suggests a designer of some sort-be applied to the whole system of life on earth?
Convinced? Even if not, you're at least ready to
go to the videotape
. After viewing it, you can come back here to read the findings of my post-mortem:
1) Dennett's climactic concession may not sound dramatic. He just agrees reluctantly with my assertion that "to the extent that evolution on this planet" has properties "comparable" to those of an organism's maturation-in particular "directional movement toward functionality"-then the possibility that natural selection is a product of design gets more plausible. But remember: He has already agreed that evolution does exhibit those properties. Ergo: By Dennett's own analysis, there is at least
evidence that natural selection is a product of design. (And this from a guy who early in the interview says he's an atheist.)
2) Again: to say that natural selection may be a product of design isn't to say that the designer is a god, or even a thinking being in any conventional sense. Conceivably, the designer could be some kind of natural-selection-type process (on a really cosmic scale). So Dennett might object to my using the term "higher purpose" in the first paragraph of this piece, since for many people that term implies a divine purpose. But "higher purpose" can be defined more neutrally. You can say that organisms have a "higher purpose" in the sense that (a) they have a purpose (genetic proliferation) and (b) the purpose was imparted by a higher-level process (natural selection)-so much higher, in fact, that all organisms on earth were oblivious to it until revelation came in the form of Charles Darwin. Analogously, once you accept the argument that Dennett has now accepted, you can say that evolution's directionality is evidence of "higher purpose."
3) How much evidence? I want to stress that Dennett isn't saying he thinks evolution's directionality constitutes anything like a strong case that natural selection was in some sense a product of design. He's just conceding that (a) to the extent that evolution exhibits directionality of the kind I've just described, there is at least some evidence of design; and (b) evolution does exhibit some of this directionality. Anyway, however strong you deem the evidence, I contend that it's growing. Over the last few years alone, cultural evolution-notably the mushrooming of the internet-has made the term "global brain" less of a stretch.
4) If there is indeed a "higher purpose," what would it be? Answering that question would be a little presumptuous. For all we know, the "maturation" of the ecosystem is in an early phase, nowhere near manifesting any ultimate purpose it may have (just as, say, a three-year-old human is nowhere near manifesting the "purpose"-genetic proliferation-for which natural selection "designed" it). But if you're interested in theological speculation, you might check out the recently re-released collection of essays The Future of Man by the mystical Jesuit priest (and paleontologist) Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard deserves credit for seeing and grappling with the direction of cultural evolution early on; he was writing about the emerging giant planetary brain more than half a century before I had heard of the internet. (But note: Unlike Dennett and I, Teilhard wasn't a strict Darwinian; he didn't believe that nuts-and-bolts natural selection is the sole propulsive force of evolution. And as long as I'm distinguishing myself from others who see the possibility of purpose in evolution: I'm not part of the "intelligent design" school; like Teilhard, intelligent design theorists, such as
, see forces other than natural selection at work, whereas I'm just saying that natural selection, though able to do all the work of designing organisms, may itself be a product of design.)
5) If we don't know what the purpose of life is, can we at least say whether it's something we should be happy about-whether any "designer" of natural selection would merit the term "divine"? Well, natural selection is in some ways a horrible creative process; much past death and suffering are the price paid for the evolution of our species. So it isn't easy to argue that natural selection's creator would be a wholly good being (or process)-just as thoughtful Christians, for example, don't find it easy to reconcile all the suffering in the world with their notion of a benevolent, omnipotent deity.
Still, one could mount an argument that evolution on this planet has at least some of the hallmarks of the divine-a directionality that is in some ways moral, even (in some carefully delineated sense of the word) spiritual. In fact, I've mounted such an argument in the
of my book Nonzero. But Dennett hasn't signed on to that one. Yet.