On hearing that I didn’t believe in God, a nephew once asked me if I thought the purpose of our existence was evolution, by which I think he meant the biological process of evolution by natural selection. This struck me as a strange question, like asking if the purpose of galaxies is gravity. Natural selection is a really elegant mechanism, but I don’t see where purpose comes into it, any more than with gravity–they are just patterns in how the world works.
As I understand it, the basic principle applies to anything that knows how to copy itself, whether a living organism or a piece of computer code. If A makes more copies of itself than B, and ensures that its copies can make copies, then someone who comes back after some period of time will find more things that look like A than things that look like B. This seems incontrovertible and obvious, but there is nothing within the scenario that says that this means A has succeeded and B has failed–we can impose that judgment if we decide that A and B are playing a game whose object is to have lots of things like yourself around at some later time…or not.
In the case of humans, the A and B that know how to copy themselves are not the entire organism so much as the DNA, or if you like, the egg and sperm cells. We are, from the point of view of natural selection, delivery vehicles for our germ cells, and though you and I both know guys who act like that’s their purpose in life, it is surely dotty to claim that it forms the basis for any kind of meaningful values.
And yet people can’t resist, from the out-and-out evil of social Darwinism, which sets up exploitation as a moral good, to the naivete of intelligent-designers who can only understand evolution as the working-out of a brilliant plan, to people who should really know better. I once read a novel by an award-winning SF writer named Greg Bear, who said he took great pains to get the science right. The book, which was named for some appliance (Darwin’s Toaster, Darwin’s Answering Machine, I forget), involved a sudden and massive mutation, evidently meant as the next step in human evolution; the two main characters decide to have a next-gen baby partly as an evolutionary experiment. You get the idea, the whole thing is stupid and creepy, but the funniest part for me was the nature of the ‘advance’: the new kids are super-good at symbol manipulation and seem to learn foreign languages easily. This will look great on their resumes, but does Bear think that software engineers have a tremendous reproductive advantage over, say rock stars or football players? I don’t think it ever occurred to him to ask the question, he just thought’evolution’ meant getting better, like introducing a new cell phone with extra features.
Actually I would say that, under the current circumstances, evolution and human progress are enemies. The greatest contributor to differential rates of population growth is that some people have access to birth control and some people don’t, either because they are too poor or because their culture regards women more as reproductive machines than autonomous human beings. I would like to see both of these obstacles removed, which would coincidentally work against the current evolutionary trend. This is kind of a risky thing to say, because the current trend happens to involve more brown people and proportionally fewer white people: I have no problem at all with the trend itself, I just would like to combat the inequality that is its cause.
There was more that I was going to say, but I’m sure this post is already trying your patience. I’ll just mention that this stuff has been in my mind again since reading the excellent Life Ascending by Nick Lane.