A quick post here and now on an important topic. The NYT had a column 2 days ago about a famous biologist/geneticist, William Hamilton, who speculated half in jest that life on earth might be an entertainment powerful aliens set in motion. Okay then, this is the guy Richard Dawkins cited so much and with so much respect in his book, The Selfish Gene, showing how evolution progresses in a random manner (sort of, I know that is too simple, but at least without a guiding purpose to an end point). The columnist for the Stone, Robert Wright, properly points out that this similar to the thought some of our intelligentsia endorse that we are actually a simulation in some being’s supercomputer and to the notion of God as in intelligent design. (Link here, I hope: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/12/opinion/can-evolution-have-a-higher-purpose.html?). I will throw in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, an unusual Jesuit born in 1881 who pursued studies in geology and paleontology and developed the idea of the Omega Point. Evolution and Gaia, he thought, were progressing to the point where life would become so conscious and complex that we would join with the universe or god. For such ideas and others on original sin, the Catholic church exiled him to China where he participated in the discovery of the Peking Man (from 700,000 years ago roughly).
I am getting ready after all these long years to re-read one of the seminal books in our history, Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity. A couple of weeks ago I found an old copy (there are none new) and glanced through it at some of my favorite topics, including teleonomy, the notion that life evolves with purpose, that it progresses. Human attempts to understand our place in the universe most often devolves into misunderstanding that we are the crown of creation. Ain’t we grand to figure that out? So life science with the advent of Darwin and evolutionary genetics generally frowns on such notions that God or aliens or whatever directs evolution from some supernatural place or, if alien, some supernormal one.
One of the more agreed upon findings is that life on Gaia has evolved to greater complexity, though any understanding why is more speculative. Monod focuses some on another of my recent favorite topics, invariance. Life is life because it reproduces itself invariantly and evolution ‘progresses’ because of random imperfections in the invariant reproduction that contribute to or detract from the organism’s adaptive success in its current environment. And it does seem to be true that this increased complexity has engendered greater minds. (I am looking at you, Mammals).
My own thought here is that life began some 3.5 billion years ago as a self-sustaining chemical conflagration. To maintain itself invariantly (its soma) until reproduction, life must solve the world problem (SWP) of finding sustenance in the environment for its biochemistry. This SWP in a more powerful way is the essential path evolution leads us on (along with CR or conspecific relations but that comes some billion years or so later). Monod’s book is important because he lays out life’s great genius or better, daemon, as he explicates the title, Chance and Necessity. From this perspective, life’s evolution of intellect is part and parcel of just this, to manage and minimize exigency and to exploit chance. Remember you read that phrase here first, and as H. L. Mencken said, “We are here and it is now. All other human knowledge is moonshine.” Travel on.