Non-Crazy Questions (From Here To Eternity)

Science, after all, is only an expression for our ignorance of our own ignorance.

—Samuel Butler

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, writing in the mid-twentieth century, declared the world’s nascent telecommunications infrastructure "a generalized nervous system" that was giving the human species an "organic unity." Increasingly, humankind constituted a "super-brain," a "brain of brains." The more tightly people were woven into this cerebral tissue, the closer they came to humanity’s divinely appointed destiny, "Point Omega."

What exactly was Point Omega? Hard to say. Teilhard’s philosophical writings are notable about equally for their poetry and their obscurity. As best I can make out, at Point Omega the human species would constitute a kind of giant organic brotherly-love blob.

Teilhard’s superior in the Catholic Church hewed to a more conventional theology. They forcefully encouraged Teilhard, a trained paleontologist, to confine his published pronouncements to the subject of fossils.

After Teilhard’s death in 1955, his most cosmic writings were finally published. They generated buzz in some avant-garde circles, but they never gained mainstream acceptance, either in the church or the wider world. Why? In part because his notions of how evolution works were mushy and mystical, and never earned the respect of the scientific establishment. In part because Point Omega meshed so poorly with extant theology. And in part, perhaps, because comparing societies to organisms had not-so-long-ago been a pastime of European fascists, who had justified murder and repression in the name of superorganic vigor.’

It’s amazing how fast a viewpoint can move from radical to trite. Today, with fascism seeming like an ancient relic, and the Internet looking strikingly neural, talk of a giant global brain is cheap. But there’s a difference. These days, most people who talk this way are speaking loosely. Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, has noted parallels between the Web and the structure of the brain, but he insists that "global brain" is a mere metaphor. Teilhard de Chardin, in contrast, seems to have been speaking literally: humankind was coming to constitute an actual brain—like the one in your head, except bigger.

Certainly there are more people today than in Teilhard’s day who take the idea of a global brain literally. But they reside where Teilhard resided: on the fringe of opinion.

Are they crazy? Was Teilhard crazy? Not as crazy as you might think. And once you understand how relatively non-crazy it is to call humankind a giant brain, other aspects of Teilhard’s worldview begin to look less crazy as well. Such as: the idea that there is a point to this whole exercise; the idea that life on earth exists for a purpose, and that the purpose is becoming manifest.

I’m not saying these things are true—at least, I’m not saying it confidently, the way I’ve been saying that organic history and human history have a direction. I’m just saying these things can’t be dismissed with a wave of the hand. They don’t violate the foundations of scientific thought, and they even gain a kind of support, here and there, from modern science.


There are various reasons that, at first glance, you might be skeptical of this giant global brain business. One is that a real, literal brain belongs to a real, literal organism. And the human species isn’t an organism; it is a bunch of organisms. But before dismissing the possibility that a bunch of organisms can themselves constitute an organism, we hould at least get clear on the definition of an organism. That turns out to be harder than it sounds.

Consider the "colonial invertebrates." As Edward O. Wilson has noted, some come close to qualifying as "perfect societies"—so close, in fact, that "the colony can equally well be called an organism." The awesome, sixty-foot-long Portuguese man-of-war, for example, certainly looks like an organism—like a giant, colorful jellyfish—and indeed is usually called an organism. But it evolved through the merger of distinct multicelled organisms, which grew more specialized as they grew more interdependent: some paralyze fish, others eat the fish and then share the nutrients. Among other colonial invertebrates that blur the line between organism and society are our old friend the cellular slime mold (which vacillates between autonomous cells and unified slug) and corals (including, aptly, the "brain coral").

For that matter, even things that we all agree are organisms—such as ourselves—can have their colonial aspects. Remember the discussion of our cells and our organelles— formerly distinct creatures that merged? There is a little Portuguese man-of-war in all of us.

Indeed, as we’ve seen, cells and organelles have not only distinct roots, but distinct routes: different pathways that their genes take into the next generation, and hence somewhat different Darwinian interests. The organelle’s DNA, relying on maternal transmission, might profit by biasing reproduction in favor of females—and in some plant species it does exactly that. So one criterion you’d think might serve as a clear-cut distinction between organism and society—complete unity of purpose among the organism’s constituents—won’t work.

In fact, even if we leave organelles aside, and look only at the nuclear genes—at the chromosomes constituting the genome—all is not peace, love, and understanding. The reason is that, though the genes in a genome would appear to be in the same boat, there is a brief but crucial period when they aren’t. When it comes time to send a boat to the next generation—when an egg cell is created and sets sail hopefully—half of the genes must be left behind, to make room for genes that come from the sperm. Likewise, only half of a male’s genes will, via sperm, make it into that egg during fertilization. As a rule, genes are assigned to eggs in an even-handed way, so that a given gene, whether from male or female, has a fifty-fifty chance of winding up in a given intergenerational boat. But if a gene could find a way to bias the assignment process, placing itself in most or all of the boats, it might proliferate by natural selection.

This has actually happened—in mice and fruit flies and, no doubt, other, less studied species. A type of gene called a "segregation distorter" has only one apparent function: distorting segregation—slanting the sorting process so that it can sneak onto the intergenerational ship time and time again. It is a professional stowaway.

There is also a bigger genetic stowaway—a whole chromosome called a B chromosome that appear in lots of organisms, including people. Like a stowaway who steals food from the crew at night, a B chromosome is a parasite; it can hurt the organism’s chances of reproducing, delaying the onset of fertility in females. But from the point of view of genes on the B chromosome, that’s okay; if they slightly reduce the number of hips that set sail, but manage to sneak onto all of them, they will do better than genes that play by the rules, getting excluded from half of the ships. It is these law-abiding genes that suffer from the shrinkage of the overall fleet.

Generally speaking, law-abiding genes do a good job of solving such problems— preserving the rule of law, foiling would-be parasites in various ways. The reason is that if they don’t solve such problems, and parasitism runs rampant, natural selection casts the whole lot of them aside—parasites and law abiders alike—in favor of genes that run a tighter ship. (In cultural evolution, analogously, societies that don’t solve the "trust" problem, that don’t discourage rampant parasitism, have tended to lose out to societies that do.) This ability of selection at the level of the organism to override selection at the level of the gene is the reason these examples of conflict of interest within an organism are, in the scheme of things, small potatoes. Even people with parasitic B chromosomes—around one in fifty of the people you see each day—have an air of organic unity about them.

Still, the fact remains that one of the things you might expect to be a clear, bright line between society and organism—internal unity of purpose—isn’t clear or bright. As the zoologist Matt Ridley has put it, "What is the organism? There is no such thing." Each so-called organism, he notes, "is a collective." And not a wholly harmonious collective— at least, not by definition.

If the line between organism and society isn’t the distinction between complete and incomplete unity of purpose, then what is the line? That’s the problem: lacking a clear boundary, biologists are free to differ. In 1911 the great entomologist William Morton Wheeler published a paper called "The ant colony as an organism"—a title that, he stressed, was not meant as mere analogy; an ant colony, in his view, was a type of organism, a "superorganism." This view gained favor for a time and then fell out of fashion, but lately it has made something of a comeback. One reason may be the growing awareness of conflict within organisms—the growing sense that all organisms are in some sense societies.

You may, of course, disagree with William Morton Wheeler and his contemporary defenders. You may insist that a society consisting of distinct organisms cannot itself qualify as an organism. Still, given that the notion of the superorganism is at least seriously entertained by people whose business it is to think about such things, you can’t dismiss it as out-and-out crazy.

Suppose we grant Wheeler’s claim for the sake of argument: an ant colony is an organism. Then why can’t we call a human society an organism? Is the key difference the extreme interdependence of ants—the fact that some castes of ants would perish were it not for the food-gathering castes? That seems a dubious distinction, given the current interdependence among humans. I depend for my nourishment on the labor of many people I’ve never met. If you dropped me in the Rocky Mountain wilderness, without anything made by other people—no pocket knife, no clothes—I’d wind up as bear chow.

There is one other salient objection to taking the phrase "giant global brain" literally. Namely: brains have consciousness. They don’t just process information; they have the subjective experience of processing information. They feel pleasure and pain, have epiphanies of insight, and so on. Are we really to believe that, as the Internet draws billions of human minds into deeper collaboration, a collective, planetary consciousness will emerge? (Or even fragmented planetary consciousness? Will General Motors feel spiteful toward Ford?)

Far be it from me to make this argument. My aim is more modest: to convince you that, if I did make this argument, it wouldn’t be a sign of insanity. The question of transcendent planetary consciousness, whatever the answer, is non-crazy.

Oddly, the key to granting the question this legitimacy is to hew to a soberly scientific perspective. Indeed, the more scientific you are in pondering consciousness, the more aware you become of the limits of science; the more inclined you become to approach cosmic questions in general with a touch of humility.


In the 1963 science-fiction story "Dial F For Frankenstein," by Arthur C. Clarke, the world’s telecommunications system comes to life. With a global network of satellites having just interlinked the planet’s telephone switching systems, all the phones start ringing at once. An autonomous, thinking supermind has been born.

When college students sit around late at night and wonder whether a giant global brain could ever be conscious, they usually have a scenario like this in mind. The assumption is that when something reaches consciousness, it starts acting like other conscious things we’re familiar with—capriciously. But the fact is that, for all we know, the giant global brain—the intercontinental web of minds and computers and electronic links—already is conscious. At least, that prospect is left distinctly open by the view of consciousness that underlies mainstream behavioral science today. For according to this view, we can never know whether any given thing possesses consciousness.

By that I don’t just mean that you can’t know what it’s like inside someone else’s head unless you’re that someone (though that’s of course true, and it’s part of what I mean). I mean that, according to this mainstream scientific view, consciousness—subjective experience, sentience—has zero behavioral manifestations; it doesn’t do anything.

Sure, you may feel as if your feelings do things. Isn’t it the sensation of heat, after all, that causes you to withdraw your hand from the surprisingly hot stove? The answer presupposed by modern behavioral science is: no. Corresponding to the subjective sensation of heat is an objective, physical flow of biological information. Physical impulses signifying heat travel up your arm and are processed by your equally physical brain. The output is a physical signal that coerces your muscles into withdrawing your hand. Here, at the sheerly physical level, is where the real action is. Your sensation of pain bears roughly the relation to the real action that your hadow bear to you. In technical terms: consciousness, subjective experience, is "epiphenomenal"—it is always an effect, never a cause.

You may disagree. You may think consciousness is some kind of ethereal yet active stuff. But if that’s your view, then you’re probably already tolerant of weird scenarios such as Teilhard’s; you may well have already concluded that we live in a strange universe, that science can’t illuminate all its dimensions, and that there is thus room for conjecture about higher purpose and higher consciousness.

What’s interesting—and underappreciated—is that you could reach the same conclusion if you accept the hard-core scientific view that consciousness is a mere epiphenomenon, lacking real influence. After all, if consciousness doesn’t do anything, then its existence becomes quite the unfathomable mystery. If subjective experience is superfluous to the day-to-day business of living and eating and getting our genes into the next generation, then why would it have ever arisen in the course of natural selection? Why would life acquire a major property that has no function?

People who claim to have a scientific answer usually turn out to have misunderstood the question. For example, some people say that consciousness arose so that people could process language. And it’s true, of course, that we’re conscious of language. As we speak, we have the subjective experience of turning our thoughts into words. It even feels as if our inner, conscious self is causing the words to be formed. But, whatever it may feel like, the (often unspoken) premise of modern behavioral science is that when you are in conversation with someone, all the causing happens at a physical level.f That someone flaps his or her tongue, generating physical sound waves that enter your ear, triggering a sequence of physical processes in your brain that ultimately result in the flapping of your own tongue, and so on. In short: the experience of assimilating someone’s words and formulating a reply is superfluous to the assimilation and the reply, both of which are just intricate mechanical processes.

Besides, if conscious experience arose to abet human language, then why does it also accompany such things as getting our fingers smashed by rocks—things that existed long before human language? The question of consciousness—as I’m defining it here, at least—isn’t the question of why we think when we talk, and it isn’t the question of why we have self-awareness. The question of consciousness is the question of subjective experience in general, ranging from pain to anxiety to epiphany; it is the question of sentience. To phrase the matter in the terminology made famous by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, the question is: Why is it like something to be alive?

You might think that this question would get answered in the course of a tome called Consciousness Explained, the much-noted topic written by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. But when people such as Dennett try to "explain" consciousness, they usually aren’t tackling the question we’re asking here. They are trying to explain how a brain could generate consciousness. Whether they succeed is debatable, but in any event our question here isn’t how brains generate consciousness, but why—why would an aspect of life with no function be an aspect of life in the first place?

The mystery of consciousness has lately been underscored by computer science. Though artificial intelligence hasn’t advanced at breathtaking speed, there has been progress in automating sensory and cognitive tasks. There are robots that "feel" things and recoil from them, or "see" things and identify them; there are computers that "analyze" chess strategies. And, clearly, everything these robots do can be explained in physical terms, via electronic blips and the like. "Feeling" and "seeing" and "analyzing," these machines suggest, needn’t involve sentience. Yet they do—in our species at least.

Faced with the mystery of consciousness, some people—including such philosopher a David Chalmers, author of The Conscious Mind—have suggested that the explanation must lie in a kind of metaphysical law: consciousness accompanies particular kinds of information processing. What kinds? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? But a not uncommon view is that the information processing needn’t be organic. Consciousness may reside in computers, networks of computers, even networks of computers and people. The philosophers who hold this view aren’t fuzzy-minded New Agers or reactionary Cartesians or mystical poets like Teilhard himself; they are people who accept a basic premise of modern behavioral science—that all causality happens in the physical world— and who also appreciate the weirdness that emerges from this premise upon sustained contemplation. Basically, their answer to the question "Could the giant global brain become conscious?" is: We wouldn’t know if it were, and for all we know it is.

Teilhard considered the idea of global consciousness not just conceivable, but compelling. The reason lies partly in his broad definition of evolution. Though he saw the difference between biological evolution and what we’ve been calling cultural evolution, he tended to think of them as a single, continuous creative act, with the upshot in both cases being "complexification." And if cultural evolution is indeed a nearly seamless outgrowth of biological evolution, then you would expect it to evince the same basic properties as biological evolution. One of these properties, Teilhard surmised, was growth in consciousness, occurring in lockstep with growth in complexity.

How did he reach this conclusion? Aside from mystical revelation, the only possible answer is guesswork. After all, since subjective experience is only accessible to the experiencer, we can never know for sure that anything other than ourselves is conscious—not even our next-door neighbor, much less a chimpanzee. On the other hand, most people who have watched chimpanzees as they suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune suspect that they can experience things like pain and hunger and excitement. Dogs, too, seem capable of pain and hunger and excitement (not to mention shame). Cats, too (except for hame). For that matter, lizards and snakes recoil from heat. And can we really rule out the possibility that bacteria feel some tiny, crude dose of pain? They do recoil from electric shock, after all. And they do have a brain. At least, they have a "brain"—their DNA, the onboard computer that controls their behavior.

Whether or not you think bacteria are sentient, Teilhard de Chardin did. And, in his view, when individual, mildly entient cells merged into multicelled organisms, and then acquired a collective brain, consciousness took a great leap forward. And when brainy multicelled organisms—us—merge into large, thinking webs, constituting another collective brain, a comparable leap could presumably take place. After all, the fact that the connective tissue is now made of electronic stuff, rather than gooey organic stuff, doesn’t matter so much if you consider biological and technological evolution part of the same creative process. Writing in 1947, Teilhard marveled at computers and said that radio and TV "already link us all in a sort of ‘etherized’ universal consciousness." But this was nothing compared to the future, when the links among human minds would grow denser and become truly global, as the "noosphere" matured. He asked: "What sort of current will be generated, what unknown territory will be opened up, when the circuit is suddenly completed?"


Teilhard’s conviction that biological and cultural evolution are a single creative process no doubt drew strength from his a priori faith. If you begin with the assumption that the history of this planet (indeed, of the universe) has an unfolding purpose, then you naturally see continuity in the unfolding. But uppose we proceed in the reverse direction. Suppose we try to examine the mechanics of evolution—biological, or cultural, or both— with no a priori assumptions and ask: Do they how signs of purpose? Philosophers call this the question of teleology—the question of whether a system seems built to pursue a telos, an end, a goal.

Of course, we’ve already established (or, at least, I’ve argued) that biological and cultural evolution move in a direction—toward broader and deeper complexity. But that doesn’t mean they are moving toward a goal, an end. Only if evolution was designed to move in a particular direction does that direction qualify as a telos.

What may be the most famously wrong teleological analysis in history was performed by the British cleric William Paley. Writing just before Charles Darwin was born, he used the evident functionality of plants and animals to argue for the existence of a grand designer, a God. If you come across a rock, he wrote, you have no reason to conclude that it was made for a purpose. But if you come across a pocket watch, you know that it was made by a watchmaker, for the purpose of keeping time. Plainly, living things are more like watches and other artifacts than like rocks; animals are evidently designed to eat, to breathe, to do other things. "There is precisely the same proof that the eye was made for vision, as there is that the telescope was made for assisting it," Paley wrote.

Of course, after Darwin, Paley’s stock fell. But let’s be clear on why. Paley wasn’t wrong to say that life is evidently functional. And he wasn’t wrong to say that this functionality strongly suggested a designer. He was just wrong to assume that the designer was a being rather than a process. The eye was made for vision—it just wasn’t handcrafted by God.

Sure, you could quibble about whether the eye was made for vision, since natural selection didn’t et out with vision in mind and then build the eye to perform this preconceived function. Still, eyes, like telescopes, exist by virtue of their contribution to vision; if they didn’t facilitate vision, they wouldn’t be here. Compare that to a rock that is used to build a wall. Sure, the rock winds up with a function, a purpose, but it didn’t come to exist by virtue of its contribution to that function. Rocks aren’t evidently designed to do something; eyes, like telescopes, are. In fact, evolutionary biologists often use the words "designed" and "purpose" in talking about organisms and their organs. As in: designed by natural selection for the purpose of processing visual information about the environment.

One thing evolutionary biologists don’t generally do is talk about natural selection itself having a "purpose" or being a product of "design." That sort of philosophical speculation isn’t part of their job description. But there is no reason in principle that we can’t inspect natural selection for signs of purpose, of telos.

Before doing so, though, we should recognize that we’re operating under a large handicap. The reason biologists can so confidently say that animals (or plants) have a purpose is because they know what process created animals and plants. These biologists don’t just inspect a few animals and say, "Hmm, they all seem bent on reproduction, so maybe transmitting genetic material is their overarching purpose; and maybe clear vision via eyesight is a subordinate goal, a purpose that serves the overarching purpose." The biologists know that genetic transmission is the goal an organism is designed to pursue, because they know about natural selection.

In contrast, when we inspect evolution itself for signs of purpose, we don’t have the advantage of knowing what thing or process created it; this is the mystery, after all, that inspired our inspection in the first place. In other words, we’re in the position of William Paley: examining something for signs of purpose without knowing what, if anything, designed it. Indeed, we’re in even worse shape than Paley. He had lots of organisms to inspect: Exhibits A, B, C, ad infinitum. When we inspect natural selection, we have only one exhibit.

Now, duly warned about the overwhelming difficulty of our task, and the necessary sketchiness of our conclusions, we can proceed to inspect evolution for signs of overarching purpose, of design.

How do we proceed? For starters, let’s try to get clearer on what would qualify as evidence of purpose in the first place. And to do that, let’s return to the William Paley problem, the problem of examining a single living thing—a cell, an animal, a plant—for signs of design. Suppose you are an extraterrestrial version of William Paley, sent to Earth to see if it has any objects that seem teleological, any things that seem to pursue a goal. Suppose you happen to land in a greenhouse. After a few weeks you notice that the green objects surrounding you tend to get taller. Can you conclude that these green things indeed have at least one goal—to grow?

No. Directionality in the narrowest sense isn’t evidence of telos. Water flows from high to low, but we don’t think of water as being imbued with purpose.

Plants, though, do more than move directionally. Suppose that, while in the greenhouse, you use your awesome extraterrestrial powers to relocate the sun. You notice that within a few days the plants have reoriented themselves so that their leaves face it. And another obervation: if you cut off the end of a branch, a new twig sprouts. These plants seem hellbent on growing upward—and, in particular, orienting themselves toward light. All told, they seem to meet what the philosopher Richard Braithwaite proposed as a rough-and-ready criterion of teleological behavior: "persistence towards the [hypothesized] goal under varying conditions."

On the other hand, by that criterion, rivers might qualify as teleological; erect a hill in their path, and they meander around it. No, there must be some other diagnostic sign of teleology—something plants and animals have that river don’t. What is it? Philosophers have nominated various properties for this honor. What I consider the best candidate emerged in the mid-twentieth century, amid excitement over cybernetics, the study of feedback systems. Here it is: The plant adjusts to varying conditions by processing information. It has sensors that absorb information reflecting the state of the environment—where the light is coming from, for example—and this information guides the plant’s growth accordingly. And so too with every other form of life that pursues goals under varying conditions (which is to say, every other form of life). All plants and animals sense environmental change by processing information, and this information leads to appropriate change in the plant or animal.

Does evolution itself pass this test—persistence toward the hypothesized goal under varying conditions by processing information? To answer this question, you must now become a different extraterrestrial visitor. You are extremely long-lived. To you, a billion earth-year is a week. You arrive on Earth in the year 1 billion B.C., and your mission is to see whether organic evolution seems to be a goal-seeking process. Right away, you come up with a good candidate for the goal—the creation of organic complexity, in several senses: broadening the diversity of species, raising the average complexity of species, expanding the outer limit of complexity, and expanding the outer limit of behavioral flexibility—that is, of intelligence.

What’s more, as you observe this movement toward complexity, you notice the same sort of stubbornness that the other extraterrestrial scientist had noticed about plants: if you "prune" the tree of life, evolution regenerates branches. The branches may not look exactly like the ones pruned. (Even real branches don’t, viewed up close.) But they’re certainly reminiscent. If you prune the tree by wiping out all life on an island, the island gradually gets repopulated and, with time, the previously filled niches get filled, even if not by the exact same species that filled them before. If you prune the tree by wiping out all life that can fly, flight gets reinvented, again and again, until the air is once again full of flying objects. If you prune the tree by wiping out the most complex life, or the smartest life, replacements are forthcoming.

And, rather as a plant reorients itself when the source of light moves, evolution channels life toward the most benign environments. If lush lands, dense with flora and fauna, dry up, while dry lands become wet, the balance of the biomass shifts accordingly.

Of course, some life stays behind in the newly dry lands, adapting, managing to thrive in barren terrain. Indeed, in general what is striking is the varying conditions under which evolution creates complex life.

There is no doubt, all told, that evolution by natural selection fulfills the rough-and-ready criterion of goal-directed behavior: "persistence toward the goal under varying conditions." But what about the further condition, the one that separates living things from rivers? Does natural selection adjust to varying conditions by processing information?

Yes. It sends packets of information—genes—into the world. If they proliferate, this positive feedback signifies an environment with which they are adaptively compatible. (In fact, their proliferation constitutes adaptation to this environment; through this positive feedback life "senses" and reacts adaptively to environmental change.) Of course, sometimes new genes don’t proliferate. This negative feedback signifies a lack of adaptive compatibility with the environment. Trial and error is a system of information processing—even if, as here, the trials are randomly generated.

Teilhard de Chardin used to speak of evolution a groping its way along a changing landscape. God forbid that we use Teilhard as a guide to evolution’s ways; his mysticism often clouded his scientific vision. But on this one point—the validity of the "groping" metaphor—he was defended by no less an authority than the noted geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky. Natural selection indeed "gropes"—blindly ends out feelers. It assimilates the feedback into amendments of design that allow it to keep generating complexity amid varying conditions.

You might say that genes which spread by natural selection are meaningful in the same sense. The genes for the "sweet tooth"—the genes we all seem to have, inclining us to like sweets—reflect the fact that, in the environment of human evolution, sweet fruits had nutrition. And, in addition to reflecting this fact about the environment, the genes motivate behavior appropriate to it (or, at least, behavior that was appropriate before candy bar showed up). As Dobzhansksy once wrote, "natural selection is a process conveying ‘information’ about the state of the environment to the genotypes of its inhabitants."

To say that natural selection "senses" the local environment isn’t to say it has subjective experience. Then again, a radar-guided gun that automatically tracks and fires at its target doesn’t (so far as we know) have subjective experience—yet we commonly say that such a gun "senses" movement.They put servomechanisms, next to plants and animals, on one side of the divide and rocks and river on the other. I contend that evolution by natural selection belongs on the first side.

Let me reiterate the meagerness of my aspirations. I’m not aying there is proof that biological evolution has a purpose and is the product of design. I’m just saying that it’s not crazy to believe this. Biological evolution has a set of properties that is found in such purposive things as animals and robots and is not found in such evidently purposeless things as rocks and rivers. This isn’t proof of teleology, but it’s evidence of it.

Or, to put the point another way: It may indeed be that evolution is not teleological. But if that’s the case, then evolution is the only thing I can think of that exhibits flexible directionality via information processing and isn’t teleological.


Even if there were proof that evolution is teleological—a product of design, a process with a purpose—we would still be a long way from Teilhard de Chardin’s worldview, complete with a God and a happy ending. The moral of the William Paley story, after all, is that something designed and possessing purpose needn’t have been designed by a being, much less a divine one. Indeed, it’s possible—not likely but not quite impossible—that organic evolution, like individual organisms, was imbued with purpose by a Darwinian process; that, just as the blossoming of a flower is the product of natural selection, the blossoming of planet Earth’s global organic web was the product of a kind of higher-order natural selection.

Sound crazy? Well, consider the hypothesis of "directed panspermia," proposed by the presumably sane Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. Crick’s conjecture is that the seeds of evolution—bacteria, say—were sent to our solar system from a civilization far, far away that wa itself the product of biological and then cultural evolution. Let’s grant Crick this flight of fancy (a privilege we grant Nobel laureates) and combine it with a second flight of fancy: Meanwhile, in some other faraway place there had been a process of evolution that proved less fertile. It failed to generate animals clever enough to build spaceships with which to fling forth primitive life.

If you put these two flights of fancy together, you have a kind of meta-natural selection. Seeds of evolution, such as bacteria, are planted on planets and either flourish fully— yielding clever creature with high technology and a penchant for inseminating other solar systems via rocketfuls of one-celled life—or don’t. The seeds that do create fertile civilizations are the "fittest." They propagate. So, 3-billion-year generation after 3-billion-year generation, fitter seeds—seeds conducive to the evolution of clever, adventurous species—evolve, or, rather, metaevolve. And presumably our civilization is on the verge of a new generation—poised to load up a rocket with bacteria any decade now. (Why not put people instead of bacteria on the rocket? Crick ay a planet’s rockets would presumably be able to travel farther with primitive life onboard than with complex life onboard.)

I don’t recommend thinking about the meta-natural-selection scenario for very long, because complications quickly set in. And, though some of these kinks can be ironed out on sustained reflection, some can’t. For example: Assuming evolution typically takes as long as it took on this planet, there could have been only a few meta-life cycles in the 12-billion-year history of the universe. That wouldn’t seem to allow for very sophisticated design.

Still, even if meta-natural selection itself isn’t a scenario I’d bet money on, it has its virtues as something to ponder. In particular, it implies an intriguing reconceptualization of life on earth. In this view, the entire 3-billion-year evolution of plants and animals is a process of epigenesis, the unfolding of a single organism. And that single organism isn’t really the human species, but rather the whole biosphere, encompassing all species. The human species—not to belittle the job—is just the biosphere’s maturing brain. (Teilhard coined "noo-sphere" with "biosphere" in mind.) Just as an organism’s brain, upon maturing, has stewardship of the body, the human species has now been given—for good or ill—stewardship of the biosphere.

This view may seem bizarre at first, but it would probably seem less strange if you adopted the vantage point of that hypothetical extraterrestrial—watched earthly evolution in time lapse, from a sufficiently great distance. The biosphere’s persistent growth, crowned by the human species’ sudden transfiguration of the landscape, might seem as relentlessly directional as a flower’s life. And, if you buy the arguments for directionality in parts I and II of this topic, you have to concede that the unfolding of this "superorganism"—biosphere plus noosphere—did indeed have a powerful impetus; like the growth and flowering of a poppy, it was all along highly likely, assuming a certain fertility of local circumstance, and assuming disaster wasn’t inflicted by some outside force. In this narrow, probabilistic sense, we can say that, just as a poppy seed’s destiny was to become a poppy, the primordial DNA’s destiny was to become (loosely speaking) a global "superorganism," complete with a species sufficiently intelligent, and sufficiently high tech, to qualify as a superbrain.

If you go further—buy not just the arguments in earlier topics, but the argument in this topic—we can start talking about destiny in a less narrow sense. We can say that evolution has not just highly probable directionality, but evidence of purpose; that maybe life on earth writ large, like the poppy seed, heads not just in a direction, but in a direction it was designed to head in.

Big deal. Remember: the direction a poppy was "designed" to head in—toward flowering—is subordinate to a "higher" purpose that isn’t terribly inspiring: transmitting genes. To be sure, the "higher" purpose of the global superorganism is unlikely to be analogous; the meta- natural-selection cenario is too wobbly to convince me that our ultimate purpose is to spread genetic information intergalactically. Still, the larger point stands: "higher" purpose needn’t be very high. If evolution indeed has a purpose, that purpose may, for all we know, be imbued not by a divinity, but by some amoral creative process.

In hort, this topic, even if you buy its logic, leaves us in William Paley’s shoes: having validly found evidence of design, yet having failed to find genuine evidence of the kind of designer that offers even a granule of spiritual reassurance. But there’s still a slender thread of hope: there’s one topic to go.

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