Evolution and the why question



Asking why, presupposes rational intelligence with achievable objectives and the means to achieve them. On the part of the asker is also assumes the conscious ability to formulate the question and hold out the hope of receiving an answer that is understandable and useful. All very human abilities.

At the time of writing, evolution is very much in the news. David Attenborough’s and Andrew Marr’s series on Darwin and the evolution of species and arguments by Richard Dawkins against the Biblical creation stories have caught the public interest.

Consider a sequence of things fromstrings and sub-atomic particles, through the worlds of physics, the chemistry of molecules andpolymers through the world of biology ofbacteria,cells and multi-cellular organisms, the emergence of all thespecies and finally toMan (//Homo sapiens//). This sequence covers much more than Darwin’s theory of the origin of species to account for the variation in plants and animals. It reflects our thinking about the order in which various phenomena emerged following the Big Bang in our theory of the origin and development of the universe.

These are theories with a very large body of observational and experimental evidence and with reasoning to support them. This does not make them true, it only makes them the best and most comprehensive explanation of our collective experience that we have. For me this sequence and the phenomena that it encapsulates are the best evidence that we have for the meaning of life, the universe and everything – untainted by our natural humanity, prejudices, subjective feelings and anthropomorphic projections. In one domain of discourse it gives us our best and most profound view of the mind and will of God.


In considering the sequence of things, I noticed several themes that seemed to persist from domain to domain and across the whole sequence.

2.1 Domains of discourse: Systems theory - Universal order

The first thing I noticed about the sequence was that each major and minor step in the sequence is a domain of discourse with its own entities, relationships and dynamics.

This idea is captured in philosophy by Systems Theory. The idea is that the universe is made up of and can be analysed and thought about in terms of interacting systems (mechanisms) within systems. Each system is a unity with a boundary across which it interacts with other systems. Another way of looking at this (but with less precision or thinking power) is that there appears to be a comprehensible order and structure to the universe.

George Fox referred to this as the natural harmony and order that he saw in the Gospel.

One can also think of one domain providing the building blocks for the next and enabling us to explain one domain in terms of the entities in another. Reductionism, if you are looking inwards and downward, building blocks (a sort of mental or linguistic Lego or Meccano) if you are looking up and outward.

2.2 Indeterminacy

The next thing I noticed was the fundamental lack of predetermination in the sequence. There is no evidence that human consciousness and free will was built into the primordial material-energy soup at the Big Bang. It begins with the indeterminacy of the Big Bang itself and continues through the random (undetermined) motions of atoms, molecules and cells to the freedom of action of animals and human beings. The other side of this coin is the lack of absolutes1 and the notions of risk and uncertainty partly addressed by mathematical probability theory.

In terms of our notion of God this means that the creator need only initiate things and set the boundary rules for the subsequent development of the system created. Perhaps the universe is a divine experiment started to see what happens.

2.3 Ubiquitous lifecycles

The third thing I noticed is the apparently ubiquitous operation of lifecycles.2 Particles travel undisturbed for a while, encounter other particles, associate with them for a while and then move on again. At the other end of the scale, human beings are born, live and die. Our bodies fall apart and the molecules go round again.

2.4 Continuity of structures

Fourthly I noticed a number of trends as one moves from end to end of the sequence. There is continuity in the structure of systems. In principle (if we had complete detailed knowledge and the means and time to do it, it would be possible to account for the behaviours of an individual person in terms of the activities of the sub-atomic particles associated with that person.3

2.5 Emergent Properties

As the structure of systems emerged at each stage new properties and capabilities emerged too, which were not previously determined. Each domain is more complex than the preceding stage and required greater amounts of energy and information to sustain it.

2.6 Incomplete sequence

Next notice that the sequence is not complete. There is no reason to suppose that the sequence has stopped as mysteriously as it started.

2.7 Trial and error

One of the principles of the operation of the sequence seems to be trial and error. Any action or behaviour is permitted as long as it is effective (whatever that means) and promotes rather than interferes with the survival of the entity in the domain. There is also an inbuilt preference for efficiency – the optimum benefit for the minimum expenditure of effort.

2.8 Increasing complexity

The final trend that I have noticed so far is that each emerging complex system is more resilient as well as energy hungry, complex, effective and efficient than the last.

One of the emergent properties of complex systems is self-regulation and self-maintenance. Bacteria, fungi, plants and animals are all self-regulating and self-maintaining.

A complex system that is self-regulating needs both energy systems and information systems to maintain and regulate itself. The nature of the systems changes with the domain and new properties emerge in the interactions between the organism and its environment.


Now for a critical and uncomfortable observation. This sequence and the theories that it encapsulates are inherently and necessarily a human perspective, and on a human scale. All other beings, real and transcendental, will have different views and different theories. They might be better of worse than ours, we have no way of knowing.

This observation opens up the charge that our theories and explanations are mere self-serving justifications rather than real truth. Well perhaps they are, but does that matter if they help us live and live together more effectively?4

4 WHY?

Where did these themes, structures, domains and trends come from? Science has no answer because it deals with how explanations, what things are and how they behave but it does not deal with the understanding of why they are and why they behave that way. In the domain of religious discourse one can say that they are the results of the actions of an interventionist God.

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