That was easy. Guess I’ll just have another cup of tea, sit back, and put my feet up…
Oh, wait. Robert Wright wants to argue otherwise, badly. Guess I’ll gnaw on him for a bit, as long as I’m lacking in biscuits to go with my tea.
Here’s what got him going: he did an interview with William Hamilton, in which Wright asked him if there could be some kind of transcendental purpose to our existence.
He answered: “Yes, yes. There’s one theory of the universe that I rather like — I accept it in an almost joking spirit — and that is that Planet Earth in our solar system is a kind of zoo for extraterrestrial beings who dwell out there somewhere. And this is the best, the most interesting experiment they could set up: to set up the evolution on Planet Earth going in such a way that it would produce these really interesting characters — humans who go around doing things — and they watch their experiment, interfering hardly at all so that almost everything we do comes out according to the laws of nature. But every now and then they see something which doesn’t look quite right — this zoo is going to kill itself off if they let you do this or that.” So, he continued, these extraterrestrials “insert a finger and just change some little thing. And maybe those are the miracles which the religious people like to so emphasize.” He reiterated: “I put it forward in an almost joking spirit. But I think it’s a kind of hypothesis that’s very, very hard to dismiss.”
This gets Wright very excited. It shouldn’t.
This argument no more favors an overall purpose to evolution than the increasing milk yields of dairy cows under domestication, or that the changes in average beak size of finch populations track climate changes. Some aspects of evolution are non-random and responsive to external forces; apply a pressure, and the population will conform. This is not surprising.
Hamilton was making some fanciful speculation that if aliens existed, and if they meddled with life on Earth, then they could be a selective force that imposes a direction on life’s history. That’s it. He is correct. But notice the ifs — he’s also saying he has no evidence for such a phenomenon, and is speaking purely hypothetically.
So yes, if aliens, fairies, gods, or mole people at the center of the earth existed, and if they interacted with humans, they would represent an environmental influence which might affect human history. OK? OK. We’re done. This is compatible with evolutionary theory, it just lacks any reasonable evidence, and is simply yet another possible contingent detail.
This is stupid. Back to my tea.
Wait, oh no, he keeps babbling. Now he claims this refutes a bunch of myths scientists hold.
Myth number one: To say that there’s in some sense a “higher purpose” means there are “spooky forces” at work.
When I ask scientifically minded people if they think life on earth may have some larger purpose, they typically say no. If I ask them to explain their view, it often turns out that they think that answering yes would mean departing from a scientific worldview — embracing the possibility of supernatural beings or, at the very least, of immaterial factors that lie beyond scientific measurement. But Hamilton’s thought experiment shows that this isn’t necessarily so.
Define “spooky forces”. Like Hamilton, I’d say that you can get directional selection if you have an agency or force imposed on a population. So? It’s not the scientists claiming that there are “spooky forces”, it’s merely Wright trying to create a straw man as an alternative to his vague, unevidenced “higher purpose”.
Myth number two: To say that evolution has a purpose is to say that it is driven by something other than natural selection.
The correction of this misconception is in some ways just a corollary of the correction of the first misconception, but it’s worth spelling out: Evolution can have a purpose even if it is a wholly mechanical, material process — that is, even if its sole engine is natural selection. After all, clocks have purposes — to keep time, a purpose imparted by clockmakers — and they’re wholly mechanical. Of course, to suggest that evolution involves the unfolding of some purpose is to suggest that evolution has in some sense been heading somewhere — namely, toward the realization of its purpose.
It’s really hard to drink my tea when my jaw is hanging open like this.
Wright got an interview with William Hamilton 25 years ago; he has to be able to talk with other evolutionary scientists now and then. Does he realize how dumbfounded most would be at this ridiculous claim that evolution’s
sole engine is natural selection?
Maybe he talks to scientists, but he doesn’t listen.
Also, so far all he has proposed as an engine of higher purpose is selection — artificial selection is still selection. It’s rather ironic that he is so unaware of the content of his own “theory” that he’s suggesting that if others were aware of other forces than selection, they’d accept his idea about selection.
Myth number three: Evolution couldn’t have a purpose, because it doesn’t have a direction.
The idea that evolution is fundamentally directionless is widespread, in part because one great popularizer of evolution, Stephen Jay Gould, worked hard to leave that impression. As I and others have argued, Gould was at best misleading on this point. And, anyway, even Gould admitted that, yes, on balance evolution tends to create beings of greater and greater complexity. A number of evolutionary biologists would go further and say that evolution was likely, given long enough, to create animals as intelligent as us.
Speaking of misleading…Gould argued that increasing complexity would emerge out of evolutionary history because evolutionary trajectories, even if purely random, would tend to drift away from minimal functional complexity. He used the analogy of a drunkard’s walk. Imagine a drunkard stumbling along a sidewalk; to the left is the impenetrable wall of the tavern, while to the right is the gutter and the open street. He’s going to bump off the wall and go no further in that direction, but he can freely stagger rightwards, so his overall movement will tend towards the gutter.
He’s right. He’s also not arguing for a force, “spooky” or otherwise, pushing populations in a specific direction towards greater complexity. I rather dislike seeing Wright misrepresent Gould’s views to twist them into supporting Wright’s half-assed argument.
Wright triumphantly concludes:
With these three myths dispelled, you’re left with this philosophically liberating upshot: You can entertain the possibility that evolution has a purpose, a kind of goal (a “telos,” as philosophers say), without departing from a strictly Darwinian view of evolution — without abandoning belief in natural selection as evolution’s only engine, and without surrendering your credentials as a modern, scientifically minded kind of person.
Modern, scientifically-minded people all abandoned the belief that natural selection was evolution’s only engine back in the 1930s, guy. Do you also put on a zoot suit and claim that you’re wearing clothing from the future?
He also hasn’t dispelled any myths, but only exposed his own weird, confused assumptions about evolution.
Now, my tea is getting cold…GODDAMNIT, HE JUST KEEPS ON PRATTLING.
Myth number four: If evolution has a purpose, the purpose must have been imbued by an intelligent being.
Shit. His justification now is that nonsense from Nick Bostrom and Elon Musk that the universe is a simulation, which he somehow thinks is compatible with the idea that the universe wasn’t created by intelligent beings? What the fuck? I’m out. This is too scatter-brained and vacuous to cope with further.
And this got published in the New York Times? Jesus. Don’t they at least have word limits on their opinion pieces?