Tag Archives: Evolution

Have We Flown Evolution’s Perch?

The Moral Landscape is one of those books in which you find little gems of insight that are only tangentially related to the main subject. Here is one of them.

As with mathematics, science, art, and almost everything else that interests us, our modern concerns about meaning and morality have flown the perch built by evolution.

Is this true? Have we really flown the perch?

The Goldfinch (Fabritius, 1654)

The Goldfinch (Fabritius, 1654)

In context, Sam Harris was emphasizing that “the view of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ [he is] advocating … cannot be directly reduced to instinctual drives and evolutionary imperatives.” For example, “The temptation to start each day with several glazed donuts and end it with an extramarital affair might be difficult for some people to resist, for reasons that are easily understood in evolutionary terms, but there are surely better ways to maximize one’s long-term well-being.”

The mechanism of evolution is so simple as to be almost tautological: the fittest survive and reproduce. How could we possibly escape it? Are we not chained to our perch just as securely as Fabritius’s poor goldfinch?

Yes and no.

Evolution has bred many strong drives into us, and those aren’t going away. Harris mentions two: eating fats and sweets, and sexual desires that conflict with inbred sexual jealousies and taboos. Like it or not, most of us will be chained to perches like those for the foreseeable future.

Are we utterly stuck, then?

If we were the only ones evolving, we might be. Fortunately, we host a class of parasites that we have met before on this blog: the memes. You’ll recall that a meme is a unit of cultural evolution: a custom, an idea, etc. Like genes, memes are subject to mutation and recombination. The most successful memes drive their hosts to propagate them. An obvious example is a religion that includes a meme for evangelism.

Our bodies have evolved to the point where our privilege to reproduce (if we so wish) is more or less assured. Thanks our well-developed brains, we have pretty much figured out how to stay alive until the age of reproduction. Now, the evolution of the memes we host affects our lives more than any physical evolution we may be undergoing. Certainly our memes’ evolution is much, much more rapid than our continuing genetic evolution.

A clear example of how memetic evolution now overwhelms the physical is the fact that as women in a culture become more educated, their birth rate drops. (No disrespect to large families here. I have one myself!)

Also consider the rapidly expanding acceptance of homosexual and transgender behavior in the First World. If ever there was a meme that was overwhelming genetic evolution’s countermeasures, that is it!

Finally, consider that the warlike behavior that most people identify with “survival of the fittest” is steadily being replaced by cooperation. (Yes, it’s true.) The memes that produce peaceful behavior and human flourishing are winning. One might cite Vladimir Putin’s recent aggression in Ukraine as a counter-example, but the worldwide outrage over what would have been considered normal behavior 150 years ago only proves my point.

I think this is pretty cool. Evolution, mindless though it may be, has made us wings and cut us free.


Information Will Find a Way

In the movie Jurassic Park, chaos scientist Ian Malcolm remarks, “Life will find a way.” The rest of the movie proves him right. A population of dinosaur clones that was supposed to be all-female manages to reproduce anyway, turn aggressive and overrun the island.

That’s not so far-fetched. It’s more or less what has happened with life on our planet, just compressed into a 2-hour plot. As I blogged in the Selfish Gene series, a sterile pool was stirred by Sun and Moon for a few million years until a molecule arose that had the curious property of self-replication, drawing on materials in the surrounding prebiotic soup. Over unfathomable eons, such molecules fell together in increasingly complex but self-sustaining structures until what we would call life emerged. The process was so gradual that an observer would not be able to say, “Here is the first life” but here we are.

To say that “life has found a way” is an understatement. Life has ratcheted its way into the hellish, sulfer-based economy of deep-sea thermal vents; has eked out an existence 2 miles underneath Antarctic ice; and feeds on ammonia on Mount Everest.

Life, based on DNA (or RNA) is essentially information.

Like life itself, information is finding its way into every imaginable intellectual ecosystem. Some habitats are inhospitable, choked with dogma and prejudice. Others are more fertile and welcoming. However, information is resourceful. Its arguments and presentation continually mutate, and will continue to mutate, until truth penetrates every culture and sub-culture.

Why truth and not falsehood? In the world of information, truth is life and falsehood is death. Eventually, falsehood meets reality and is annihilated. The bigot gets to know enough people against whom he is prejudiced, discovers that they are as good as he is, and is forced to revise his views. Circumstances eventually force the biblical fundamentalist to double-check his views and he discovers they are unsupported.

Ways of looking at the world that are dedicated to seeking truth and discarding falsehood advance; backward cultures eventually wither. To see this, one only has to compare the march of science with the retreat of superstition.

This is happening with astonishing speed for, unlike biological life, information can survive and reproduce with almost no raw materials. Furthermore, while biological life consumes what it feeds on, information builds it up: As information is implanted in people, they want more of it, and are better equipped to host it. They even invent and support new habitats for it (the Internet being only the most recent example). The result is a growth of knowledge that is even more rapid than our growth in population.

Books Added to the British Library per Year

Books Added to the British Library per Year

United States Patent Applications

United States Patent Applications

Considered as a life-form, information is unrivaled. It requires almost no natural resources, can reproduce without limit, and re-engineers its hosts to want more of it.

The world of ignorance is doomed. May Truth live long and prosper!

Since Evolution Is Blind, Isn’t Atheist Morality Arbitrary?

Since evolution is blind, isn’t atheist morality arbitrary?

In the last week, two Christians have made that claim in conversations with me: one a highly educated and intelligent engineer who was attending a meeting of a philosophy club; the other a pastor who, as such, probably has at least one post-graduate degree.

I’ll let the pastor speak for both, since I happen to have his thoughts in writing:

On the atheist rubric, integrity is an accidental byproduct of a blind evolutionary process…. There isn’t really a moral anchor for atheism, only an arbitrary preference, subject to every breeze.

Let me begin by saying that I completely understand and even empathize with the pastor’s position. It is exactly the position I maintained for four decades as an evangelical. To me, it was only the grace of God that kept the unbelieving world from descending into moral anarchy.

Imagine my surprise when, after leaving my faith, I discovered that I still wanted to do the right thing! Granted, there was some inertia from my years in the church, but I also discovered an unexpected moral core in myself.

How did this come to be?

I hope to show how evolution can produce a moral sense that is far from arbitrary and, in fact, the “arbitrary” label sticks much more readily to biblical morality than to the core morality that is our evolutionary heritage.

There are just two concepts behind evolution: descent with modification, and natural selection.Those who believe evolution is a “blind” or “chance” process understand descent with modification, but have forgotten about natural selection. Descent with modification is indeed blind. That’s where random mutations happen. Natural selection is ruthlessly clear-eyed. That’s what prevents bad mutations from reproducing, and gives favor to the beneficial ones.

If we stick to the physical characteristics of creatures, it’s easy to see how far from arbitrary natural selection is. We can all imagine how selection pressures could fashion an aquadynamic body shape for fish whose ecological niche involves being good swimmers. In each generation of fish, some are born with more suitable shapes and others are doomed to a life of struggle as they push their ungainly bodies through the water. The former are more likely to eat and reproduce; the latter more likely to be eaten and die without offspring. Over time, the species’ body shape improves.

Not all fish survive by being good swimmers. Some, like this stonefish, have slid into an ecological niche that depends on their camoflauge — looking like the surrounding reef, in its case. There, too, it is easy to imagine how natural selection could, in a far from arbitrary fashion, favor those fish who descended with a modification that helped them to lurk undetected.

There are many ecological niches, but natural selection for each niche is ruthlessly non-arbitrary.

Humans may be the weakest large species there is, in terms of physical strength per pound. Our close cousins, the chimpanzees, are about four times stronger, pound-for-pound. Yet we survive. How?

It happens that the ecological niche into which we’ve slid involves using superior intelligence to cooperate with our own kind. Without cooperation, we perish, just as surely as a stonefish with flourescent polka-dots and no venom would perish.

The ability to empathize is a “descent with modification” from mere cooperation that makes cooperation even more effective. Humans whose cooperation is thus enhanced have a survival advantage.

Empathy is the basis of the Golden Rule, which Jesus said summed up the Law and the Prophets.

From an evolutionary perspective, empathy is self-perpetuating. The wish of every teenager is to be paired with “someone who understands me.” In contrast, who wants to marry a sociopath? It’s easy to see how, especially in the formative years of our species, our morality would be honed toward the Golden Rule just as inexorably as a swordfish’s body would be honed for being a fast-swimming predator.

Thus evolution begets morality, at least in our species.

A morality stemming from cooperation and empathy is far from arbitrary. That’s why nearly all cultures’ moral codes share a core that is based on the Golden Rule and its obvious corollaries. (Granted, some cultures are less morally evolved than others and still tolerate things like slavery — an moral-evolutionary way-station that we have thankfully left behind.)

What is arbitrary is a moral code established on the supposed commands of an invisible god. Examples from the Bible are endless, but just to give you the flavor of it…

  • The Bible says picking up sticks on the Sabbath is an offense worthy of death (Numbers 15:32-36), but you may use a stick to beat your slave so severely that he can’t get up for almost two full days (Exodus 21:20-21).
  • The Bible’s god says that a bride who can’t prove she is a virgin must be stoned to death on her father’s doorstep (Deuteronomy 22:20-21), but the same god gives explicit permission to rape war captives via non-binding “marriages” (Deuteronomy 21:10-14, discussed at length here).

Commands like those, sometimes literally written in stone, are increasingly revealed to be arbitrary, as the optimal shape of real morality is sculpted over time through the natural selection of the memes that form our moral code.

To close, I’d like to recommend this short video of Richard Dawkins responding to the question, “Considering that atheism cannot possibly have any sense of absolute morality, would it not then be an irrational leap of faith … for an atheist to decide between right and wrong?”

Geocentrism and Free Will

The first topic I wrote about in this blog was artificial consciousness. The last post, with its pictures of watches, has me thinking once more about the mechanisms of thought.

Everyone agrees that we think with our brains, but most people believe that there is more to thought than the mechanistic interactions of atoms in our skulls. After all, they argue, we have free will (what could be more obvious?). Nothing that operates solely by the laws of physics could result in free will, so there must be something more — a non-material spirit that superintends our thoughts.

As an aside, I note that some have argued that the randomness of quantum physics gives enough wiggle room in neurochemistry to allow for free will. I don’t buy it. What could be less free than randomness? Randomness might leave room for insanity, but not for the rational free will that most people feel they have.

What most people mean by free will is that they have a free choice in a given situation, and they could truly take one action or the other.

I suggest that there is no evidence for this beyond our strong feeling that it’s true. How could there be any evidence? Once we’ve made one choice, the other is forever unavailable, because that moment in time, with all its conditions, will never exist again. It is beyond the reach of any experiment.

In fact, there is evidence that we do not have a non-material spirit that is able to affect the physical world. I’m thinking of prayer studies, which have failed to demonstrated that prayer has any effect.

We feel that we have free will, but feelings do not constitute reliable evidence. After all, the feeling of knowing is merely a brain state. As I related here, that brain state can be induced by means ranging from drugs to self-delusion. We all know people with strong feelings who are dead wrong.

What makes our feeling of free will so hard to shake is that we are in the middle of it. I am reminded of the geocentrists of old (and today!) who, living on a giant ball hurtling through space at almost 67,000 miles an hour and spinning at 1,000 miles per hour at the equator, were absolutely convinced that the ball was not only stationary, but immovable. (I do not mean to insult anyone who believes in free will. I only mean to say that I see a similarity with belief in geocentrism, which I am about to explain.)

How could geocentrists be so certain? It was because they were on that giant ball, moving with it. Plus, their bodies had evolved to be acclimated to the movement. If survival had depended on evolving sense organs that could detect movement through space, either they would have evolved or we would not be here to know that they hadn’t.

Because they lived on Earth, geocentrists had no clue that it was at the mercy of gravitational forces that were slinging it around faster than anything they had ever conceived of.

I think it’s the same with our perception of will. Because we are glued to our thoughts, we don’t realize that they are at the mercy of the laws of physics. We think we are the center of our will, when in reality we are just part of a much larger, possibly centerless, whole.

Knowing We’re Animals Makes Us More Humane

Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers and Human Friend

Soft-Coated Wheaten Terriers and Human Friend

Friends of the family texted one of my daughters this weekend to say, “Are you sure you don’t want to take our dog? We’re thinking of giving him to a shelter.”

This dog, a six-year-old wheaten terrier, is totally in love with my daughter, and she with him. She will often take him for a weekend just so she can give him some much-needed exercise in the woods near our house. He goes absolutely mental when she picks him up for his visit. Once at our house, he whines pitifully when he is separated from her by as much as a bathroom door, refusing to be consoled by anyone else.

How would he feel if he were in a shelter? Would he wonder what he had done wrong, or why nobody loved him anymore? And how could my daughter bear it? The tragedy would be unfathomable.

We are able to form these deep, empathetic attachments to members of other species because we know they are much like us. We think of them as cousins, and that is what they are.

They may not think as deeply about their attachments to us, but I’ve blogged before about how “selfish-gene” theory explains why one species would evolve loving and even self-sacrificing behavior toward members of a closely related species.

And that brings me to the point of this post. Now and then, we’ll hear someone opine, “When students are taught they are no different from animals, they act like it.” (Although pastor Rick Warren has denied that this Tweet, sent within hours of the Aurora, Colorado school shooting, was an attempt to blame the event on the teaching of evolution, plenty of people gave a hearty “Amen” when they thought it was.)

Rick Warren aside, I have been told personally on multiple occasions that the teaching of evolution is to blame for various ways we treat each other poorly.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Before we humans knew that we were of the same stuff as the animals, we were not only crueler to animals than we are now, but crueler to each other as well.

I think there’s a connection.

When we finally became humane enough to ban bear-baiting in the 19th century, we became more likely to ban gay-bashing and lynching in the 20th.

Our growing empathy with animals has made us better people.

P.S. – Of course we have no choice but to take that wheaten terrier — at least until a good, permanent home can be found for him. We’ll see how that goes — haha!

My Philosophy of Life

Tonight I will attend a party where each person will get the mic for 5 minutes to answer the question, What is your philosophy of life? This is my answer; what’s yours?

* * * * *

What can we aim for if not to be as deeply happy as possible?

Of course, finding happiness is not simple. Doing whatever feels good at the moment is probably the surest way to long-term unhappiness. If you always get what you want right away, you’ll learn why no child is as miserable as the spoiled child. I know I’m happiest when I’m striving for something, not when I’ve got it. I suppose that’s why we never give up striving.

Also, most of us can’t be happy if the people we love are not happy too, so that complicates matters further. The more socially conscious of us are also happiest when we know we have done our part to make society better, even if that involves personal sacrifice.

So things are pretty tangled up. When a string is tangled, it can be helpful to see how it got that way. Same for happiness. How did it come to be so complicated?

I would answer that question with two related ideas: evolution and emergence. I’ve found that those twin concepts are at the root of just about everything. Evolution explains how things developed and emergence explains why they mean what they do.


Evolution is itself built on two ideas: descent with modification and survival of the fittest. In other words, things are always changing and whatever variants work best are the ones that create the next generation. We’ve all heard of evolution as it pertains to living things, but when it comes to a philosophy of life I think the evolution of ideas is even more important.

We humans think we’re smart, but consider for how many millenia we were stumbling around in the dark. People were trying out various ideas and, in hindsight, they weren’t doing much better than trying things at random, each idea a modification of the last. The Earth is the center of the cosmos, it’s flat and the Sun is a god. And let’s kill everyone who disagrees. No, wait — the Earth is a sphere and at the center. Hold on — the Sun is the center of it all. And it’s not a god. But let’s still kill people who believe there are other worlds with life on them. Oh — we just realized that the universe has no center. Or maybe it does. And maybe it goes on forever. Or not. And hey! We now think there are a couple billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone. So chances are good that life has developed elsewhere after all. And maybe there are 10 dimensions, not 3. Or maybe 11…

One idea descends from the next. We’re always pushing the boundaries in one direction or another.

What makes all this randomness converge on something that can contribute to a meaningful philosophy of life? It’s the second component of evolution: survival of the fittest. The closer an idea matches reality, the more firmly lodged it is. It persists to inform the next generation of thinkers. That’s how we got to the scientific method: not because we were smart enough to know that it’s the best way to sniff out the difference between truth and error, but because we were so clueless that we tried just about everything else first.


After all, we are but recycled dust. Recycled star dust, to be sure, but still dust.

And that leads to the second thing that explains everything: emergence. Emergence is when one phenomenon gives rise to a phenomenon at what is in some sense a “higher” level. In most cases, you could study the lower-level phenomenon at a detailed level for a thousand years and never guess what would arise from it.

Who would guess, by studying brain cells, that they are the woof and warp of the very thought you are applying to them?  Who would guess, by studying color or sound as a phenomenon of physics, that it has anything to do with personal pleasure? Who would guess that an economy whose very cornerstone is personal freedom and no central planning, would end up with more of every imaginable good and service, and better apparent planning, than every centrally planned economy that has ever been tried?

These counter-intuitive results pale in comparison to the greatest emergent phenomenon ever: that unconscious genes would “selfishly” maximize their own chance for replication by chemically motivating their hosts to behaviors that are the exact opposite of selfishness, such as altruism and eusociality. The mechanism is a delicious, hundred-layer cake of one emergence on top of another.

And that’s why happiness is so complicated. It arises counter-intuitively from emergent phenomena that, in turn, are the product of random evolution — both biological and philosophical — that isn’t even done yet. Once we understand that, we can relax and enjoy the wonders that are playing out every day.

For those of us who enjoy philosophy, contemplating such mysteries is a large part of what makes life worth living.

Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 1: The Wake-Up Call

A few months ago, I told the story of my becoming a Christian. Today, I’ll begin the story of my departure.

If you know any home-schooling, church-going, large families who earnestly seek God in all they do, you have a good picture of my family in my faith-filled days. Ironically, the chain of events that culminated in my loss of faith began because I took my duties as a Christian father seriously.

It happened when my kids started to progress out of our home-school, and eventually out of the private, Christian high school most of them attended. It was time to think about college. My wife and I wanted to give good advice about colleges, and the question came up: should we endorse only creationist colleges, or a broader array of choices?

In our home-school, we taught that God created man; he did not evolve him. I had some questions about creationism, but my allegiance was still with it. I cheered when creationists scored points and pooh-poohed the arguments of evolutionists.

I realized that not all of my children would take readily to the idea of a creationist, and therefore hyper-conservative, school. If I were going to take a strong stand in favor of creationist institutions, I knew I had to resolve once and for all my lingering questions on the subject. It was my duty as a father. (You might well observe that it had always been my duty, and it should not have taken me so long. As you’ll see in my story, sometimes we need a wake-up call.) I decided to do some serious research.

It’s not like I was totally uninformed. I had been reading creationist books and literature for 20 years. We had subscribed to the monthly publication of the Institute for Creation Research (now available online), and I had devoured each issue.

I had also read a few books by the likes of Carl Sagan, but had been able to chalk up their conclusions to their atheistic assumptions. I had never read a scientific, comprehensive case for evolution by a non-Christian.

And why should I have? Evolutionists were generally non-believers, so they were biased against the truth. Creationists were Christians, so not only could I trust them to present their own case accurately, but they would tell me the real truth about evolution. Right?

Maybe, but with the serious question of college choices in front of me, I decided I should stop and listen to both sides. I browsed the shelves at Barnes & Noble and found a book that seemed germane: Scientists Confront CreationismThe book consisted of essays from scientists in various fields, each explaining how the evidence in his own discipline supported evolution and/or refuted young-earth creationism. 

After decades of creationist input; after countless denunciations of evolution from conservative, Christian speakers; after knitting myself into a culture that was anti-evolution; after most of my close friends were creationists; and most of all after investing my entire adult life building a creationist family — with every motivation not to be convinced of evolution — that one book was all it took to convince me that evolution, including the evolution of humans from non-humans, was a reality.The interlocking, independent lines of evidence were that persuasive.  It was not the conclusion I wanted, but it was inescapable. Either God was deceiving/testing us by planting mountains of evidence that were contrary to what had actually happened (that seemed unlikely), or evolution was a fact.

The truth of evolution was the least of my problems. Plenty of people manage to be both evangelical and evolutionist. Much more serious was the realization that the people I had trusted the most — the conservative, Christian leaders at the top of the young-earth creationist movement — had been lying to me. These men are not stupid, and they are well-read. Even now, about six years later, I cannot make up my mind as to whether they know they are lying, or whether they are just so committed to one point of view that they are beyond the reach of evidence. Either way, I had learned that I could not trust them.

I felt enormously betrayed. I had spent countless hours with my children in my lap, reading creationist books to them, and now I found out that the authors were more concerned with pushing an agenda than with honestly evaluating evidence.

Even more acute than my disappointment with the conservative Christian elite was my disappointment with myself. The evidence for evolution had been there the whole time, but I had chosen not to seek it out.

It was a real wake-up call.

I had managed to maintain an uneasy sleep through many of the questions that bother a lot of believers — why does God allow so much suffering; why doesn’t God grant seemingly worthy prayers; how do we know the Bible is inspired — but I could not sleep through this betrayal of my trust.

Long-dormant questions began to reassert themselves. In most cases, the answers I had been going on were based on the word of evangelical authorities and that was no longer good enough. I had learned that they could be just as untruthful as anyone else. I also realized that I was prone to believe the things I wanted to believe and ignore contrary evidence.

I resolved to do better.

Over a span of four years, I sought answers to my questions. I’ll tell you what they were, and what I discovered, in the next post.