Saturday, February 11, 2006

Can Evolution Have Purpose in the Absence of a Creator?

Justin's post on evolution this morning at American Buddhist Perspective gave me the kick in the arse that I've been needing to do my own post on evolution. So here it is. I'm not going to try to introduce mind into evolutionary dynamics, as Justin did. Worse, I'm going to try to introduce awareness.

I believe in evolution--mostly. The part that bothers me are the Darwinian assertions of random variation, natural selection, and continuation, basically the foundation of the whole theory. Natural selection offers several possibilities for the evolution of new traits and/or new species, but for the most part, they are all based on randomness. I don't accept that evolution is random. But I also don't accept that there is a divine architect guiding the whole Kosmic process.

Any attempt to remove the randomness from evolutionary progress is labeled orthogenesis, the belief that evolution moves forward due to some unseen internal or external force or drive.
Orthogenesis, orthogenetic evolution or autogenesis, is the hypothesis that life has an innate tendency to move in a unilinear fashion due to some internal or external "driving force". The hypothesis is based on Essentialism, finalism and cosmic teleology and proposes an intrinsic drive which slowly transforms species. George Gaylord Simpson (1953) in an attack on orthogenesis called this mechanism "the mysterious inner force". Classic proponents of orthogenesis have rejected the theory of natural selection as the organising mechanism in evolution, and theories of speciation for a rectilinear model of guided evolution acting on discrete species with "essences". The term orthogenesis was popularised by Theodor Eimer, though many of the ideas are much older (Bateson 1909).
The only real objections to the randomness element have been in the form of untestable hypotheses involving some variation of essentialism. But what if evolution isn't random, and what if the source of the evolutionary drive is not some "unseen force"?

I tend to believe that evolution is directional (toward greater complexity) and that it is not random. As a way to explain this stance, I am positing the possibility that DNA is "intelligent," that it is aware of its environment, and that it is the source of the evolutionary drive on Earth.

Before I try to offer proof of that idea, let me give an example.

Coyotes are one of the most adaptable creatures on the planet. When the population density of coyotes in a given area is low, litter size increases. When the population density is high, litter size decreases. The proposed mechanism for this adaptability is availability of resources. But resource availability can only influence survival rate, not conception rate. How might a female coyote "know" to drop a smaller number of eggs for fertilization during times when population density is high? Clearly, this is an adaptation to the immediate environment that is not random. I'll come back to this example in a moment to see if I can make sense of it.

Back to the intelligent DNA idea. Every molecule of DNA emits tiny pulses of light called biophotons. Most scientists make no distinction between all other photons and those emitted by biological systems, but Fritz-Albert Popp, a German researcher, does make a distinction:

In the 1970s the then assistant professor Fritz-Albert Popp, and his research group, at the University of Marburg (Germany) offered a slightly more detailed analysis of the topic. They showed that the spectral distribution of the emission fell over a wide range of wavelengths, from 200 to 800 nm. Popp further proposed the surprising and unprecedented hypothesis that the radiation might be both semi-periodic and coherent in the quantum mechanical sense. This hypothesis is still regarded as an outsider hypothesis in the scientific community.
Popp is not alone in his views. Other prominent scientists have proposed meaningfulness for biophotonic emissions. Karl Simanonok (proposes coherent light as basis of consciousness) and Mitsuo Hiramatsu (showed that our hands, feet, and foreheads emit light) have done useful research into the activity of biophotons. Other examples include the finding that cancerous cells emit biophotons at higher levels than healthy cells (Popp had already proposed this, but many recent studies have confirmed it), and that bioluminescence, the light generated by biophotons, is thought to be responsible for communication between bacteria, as well as for the attraction between deep sea-fish.

Popp has offered proofs that biophotons are coherent light and convincing evidence that a significant portion of biophotonic activity originates from DNA. "Ordinary light is not coherent because it comes from independent atoms which emit on time scales of about 10^-8 seconds." Coherence in this context suggests that "emitted photons are 'in step' and have a definite phase relation to each other," or that biophotons carry information about their source.

Popp and Mae-Wan Ho have proposed a unified theory of biophysics and ecology, Gaia and the Evolution of Coherence, that attempts to make sense of biodiversity and evolution using the foundation of biophotonics that both Popp and Ho have been studying for years. Looking at both the storage of solar energy by biological systems and the transmission of bioluminescence between systems, they have reached these conclusions:
[T]he fact that there is always enough energy available in the biological system confers on it the following properties:

1. Optimal signal/noise ratio for communication,
2. Existence at a phase threshold between a chaotic (S - , N - ) and a coherent (S - 0, N - 1) regime, where S is the entropy, and N is the number of degrees of freedom, and
3. The possibility to extend energy storage, or the f(l) = const. distribution to longer and longer wavelengths in the course of evolution, and hence to expand the range of communication from distances between molecular within the cell all the way to distances between individuals in a population.
Their third point is crucial. If cells emit biophotons throughout the spectrum of wavelengths described, they are communicating internally, among themselves within the organism, and externally, between themselves and other organisms.

How might this determine evolution?

Returning to my favorite canines, when the DNA cells of a female Coyote do not detect a large number of biophotons in the environment from other coyotes, her body might respond by increasing the number eggs dropped during ovulation so that litter size will increase. Likewise, if the environment is swimming in biophotons from other coyotes, her body might respond by limiting the number of eggs dropped so that litter size decreases. In essence, such a system will maintain a relatively stable coyote population. [This is why efforts to cut coyote populations through hunting invariably result in a population explosion.]

So what if other organisms, such as humans, also interact with the environment at the biophysical level? Let's say some early humans have migrated out of Africa and are encountering unique environments that test their skills as hunters and gatherers. Natural selection would posit that these humans would experience random mutations in their DNA that might make some of them smarter than others. The smart ones might decide to eat some of the creatures swimming in the rivers they have been crossing. These individuals would survive better and pass on their genes to the next generation. Through this process, brain size and complexity would grow over time.

For me, the problem with this theory is that it assumes such evolutionary adaptations are random. What if they are not at all random but are instead the result of "intelligent" DNA interacting with the environment and changing the organism accordingly? What if the biophotonic information available in the environment is the trigger that generates evolutionary change, both within an organism and in the diversity of existing organisms? This may help explain punctuated equilibrium and quantum evolution.

A right quadrants approach (the science of "its") would not attribute any awareness or intention to this hypothesis, if it could even entertain the possibility (so far it hasn't). But a left quadrants approach (interiority's need for meaning) might seek some sort of meaning to explain this process.

I do not pretend that my hypothesis is the answer, but I think it is testable. Escherichia coli populations have been observed evolving over a human time scale as a result of food availability. In the absence of sufficient food, they have evolved to reproduce twice as fast as their ancestors did and have grown twice as big (conserving size in the absence of sufficient food). Similar experiments can be performed using fast-reproducing species, such as fruit flies. By exposing different populations to different biological variables, we might see what effect they would have on the evolutionary patterns of E. coli.

Nearly all existing examples of evolution have shown movement toward greater complexity. This implies, but does not necessarily prove, directionality--what some of us might call intent. In the absence of proof, I prefer to err on the side of Spirit. I wouldn't make a good scientist.

My theory in summary: If evolution has directionality, or intent, and if the primary mechanism of evolution is the ability of DNA to communicate with its environment through biophotons, both internally and externally, it becomes impossible to reduce the whole of evolution to random mutations. It also doesn't require an omniscient old, white-bearded man in a robe running the whole show.


Anonymous said...

Intent/directionality is the key concept here in my mind.
Intent is essentially IMO the being moving towards its bigger story/system/self. This gives it direction and trajectory.
This IMO can happen either via natural selection or via sexual selection i.e. the being chooses its own path to evolve.
The missing key in consioussness IMO

nice write up


Anonymous said...

Stuart Kauffman and the systems theorists at the Santa Fe Institute would probably clarify some of the issues raised by MH in this blog. See, for example, Kauffman's "At Home In The Universe."