By Kalev Pehme
This piece is dedicated to my friend Bill Oates, who asked me to write something on evolution
Evolution is so accepted to be true that it cannot be questioned without social backlash. Well, there is an exception to that: fundamentalist Christians and other religious groups. My questioning of the theory evolution has nothing to do with “intelligent design.” I think that approach is just as dreary as evolution. More about that below.
Let us begin with a logical problem: Can we observe evolution or species? The short answer is no. The reason is very obvious: What is observed and said to be species change is nothing more than the observation of individual change. No individual is a species. In nature, we have observed that even the closest of twins are still different. Everything in physical nature is an individual, not a species. The classical approach is that an individual, i.e., an existing physical being, has an essence, i.e., has something that makes it what it is and which it would not be that thing if it is absent. A grouping of these similar essences form a class, whether it be species or genus, while individuality is what makes it different from others in the same class. One class usually is a part of a greater class, which in turn belongs to an even wider class, the species or genus. The species, in the classical view, is a class made up of individuals that have the common essence or nature. Man, for example, is a species or class to which President Obama, Osama bin Laden, Charles Darwin, Jane Austen, Hypatia, Maimonides, and every other man, woman, and child belong because they all have the same essence or nature, a commonality without which they would not be a man or human being. For Aristotle, the species and genus are fundamentally fixed and cannot be altered.
The old meaning of evolution before Darwin was that living things have a preformed genesis and development to a proper, natural end. The individual is generated out of parents or some means of reproduction that insures that the individual is more or less like the parents through heredity. Evolution before Darwin was simply the growth process of the individual.
The only thing I remember from my high-school biology textbook was a ridicule of Aristotle’s theory of spontaneous generation. The book maintained firmly that spontaneous generation, like mice that are generated in and found in a shirt found in a barn, is impossible. What struck me at the time was that someone who was one of the great minds of all time (I did not know who Aristotle was in the 10th grade) would not know that mice come from mice. Now, we know that spontaneous generation is impossible, so biology says, except that in modern evolution it occurred at the time when the inorganic became alive, however it happened. Forgetting that if it happened once, then could occur again and often, modern evolution assumes that unaided matter in a chaotic disorder suddenly became alive. The lifeless suddenly and for no reason becomes alive. From then on, this life evolved in an ever increasing dendrite pattern of increasing complexity. The very simple becomes more and more complex, while the more complex descendants still retain structures of all the branches of life that it belongs to going back to the first life, as in the myth of man’s reptile brain, for example. The very primitive becomes very sophisticated through no sophistication at all.
The problem here is also very simple: Because evolution is a historical process common to all life, it has to have an internal set of natural rules, so to speak, by which it evolves. That of necessity entails that when life first emerged from the inorganic it had have within it all these rules. The first life also would have to embody what a species is and, in truth, how all species are to change and perhaps a blueprint of all species to come until the end of this planet. In other words, the very first primitive life oddly enough is more complex than the complex living beings to come. This individual cell or whatever the first life was was an individual and had no species or genus at all and yet it had all the means of creating a species and genera. Moreover, modern evolution does accept that anything has an essence. But as we know, the individual and the species and genus cannot be logically speaking the same. An individual cannot be a class. What modern evolution does is to collapse these logical distinctions for the first life, while at the same time historicizing this first life in a way that goes to no formal end. It is just a process towards to no known end. The first life evolved without any reasoning or reason whatsoever. The process is irrational.
The problem of origin is truly a problem here in another decisive way. Contained in the first germ of life must be our ability to discover evolution. For me, the true problem of evolution or some other understanding of how life diversifies is about our thinking and thoughtfulness, not a matter of mechanics. As the first life occurred by chance in a chaos of infinite of chances, our abilities to reason must come out of an inorganic world that is totally random. What is chaotic and random gives birth to a tentative but fundamentally unknowable order. While there are many metaphysical schemes where the world comes out of chaos, modern evolution’s approach is not cosmic.
Instead, modern evolutionary theory adopts the Cartesian duality and mechanical view of what a living being is that Descartes gave us. Modern evolution assumes that a living being is a machine whose structure determines it function. Outside of this machine when it comes to man is a mind, which can only know what it makes, technology, and what can be translated into mathematics. All of modern science requires this duality between what is extension (all that is not mind) and the mathematical mind. But modern evolution has inherent in it the historical possibility that in the future evolutionary changes in man can make man no longer believe in evolution. In fact, in the future, man may not have any thoughtfulness at all. If that were to happen, is evolution true for all time? What is this privilege that evolutionists give their reasoning that they right for all time? There are no experiments to demonstrate evolution and we cannot observe species change by looking at individuals. The fragility of this mind and machine duality is, moreover, is set against an environment. The machine is able to be influenced and changed by the mindless environment. In other words, there is not only a mind-machine duality, but there is a duality between the machine and the environment that it is in. The mechanical view of evolutionary life is at odds completely with the natural order of things which we call ecology. The interdependence of all life and all nature is not mechanical unless we assume that all of nature is just a large machine and all its parts cogs. What is the genesis of this machine? The big bang, a chance occurrence that comes of nothing generating a chaos generating a space and time and matter and everything else which is still in flux.
What we have here is modern existentialism made physical: Heidegger made biological. Evolution which mechanically moves out of nothing to an undetermined acosmic future continues to change not through individual change, but though species change seen in populations. Evolutionists speak of populations of various living beings, many more or less machines, that change because of the machines interact with the environment. As the machines change, some of these individual machines can no longer replicate with the others in the same population and hence a new species. The difficulty with this reasoning is very obvious: A population is not a species. It is an aggregate. The women of Los Angeles are an aggregate of individuals who belong to the same species, but they are only a part of the species, because this aggregate is an accidental group existing in a single time. An aggregate is simply consisting of two or more individuals. An aggregate cannot be a species.
In the classical sense, we can see the difference: Essence is what makes a thing what it is. A species is a class made up of individuals that have the same specific essence. A genus is a wider class of two or more species. An aggregate is a group of two or more individuals. Modern evolutionary theory collapses these distinctions. Because life comes out of the inorganic through chance and only one instance of spontaneous generation, life cannot have an essence. What is an essence is treated by evolutionists as a species, but the species is actually a population of machines. That evolution is chaotic, needless to say, gives evolutionists the right to be illogical.
Another problem we have is the problem of DNA, which does not participate in metabolism or in evolution. Remarkably enough, DNA which all living beings have does not evolve. It is always the same chemicals and the same number and same configuration. In evolution, there is a massive and perpetual turnover of physical parts as there is nothing that can stay the same. But DNA does not evolve. Why doesn’t DNA become a triple helix and develop another chemical structure? This problem is even more acute when we realize that the evolutionary changes must occur on a cellular level as well. The means by which cells are what they are and do and what the identity of the organism is is governed by something that doesn’t evolve and doesn’t participate in metabolism at all. Moreover, one cannot say that DNA on its own is alive; yet, it bestows life identity and passes it along from generation to generation. If DNA doesn’t evolve, how is it that everything else does?
Recently, studies by biologists have stated that some significant portion of living things do not evolve, as I remember it in the New York Times it was something like 18 percent or more. The problem here is that evolution is supposed to universal to all life as it emerged from simplicity to complexity. Because all life has a single source and because heredity, which at one was the way generations were kept in the same species and now is the way to making sure that they evolve and change, all life must be evolving all the time. Either there is universal evolution or there is no evolution. If there is a single species that does not evolve, then evolutionary theory cannot be correct. Of course, we frequently hear that evolution comes to an end in man. If it does, then why does evolution end in man while everything else remains evolving?
Modern evolutionary theory, like a lot of theoretical physics, is a muddle of illogic and tends to be incoherent. But that doesn’t deter its adherents to call it a scientific fact. What has sadly happened is that evolution has come into conflict with the “intelligent design” adherents and thus has become a battle of science against religion. First of all, we must address this problem squarely. Intelligent design assumes that an extra-mundane god who is perfect, omniscient, and omnipotent creates the universe and everything in it, but in a completely acosmic way because god is not a part of that creation. The problem here is that this god retains all that wisdom and does not impart that wisdom to anything in this universe, including man who must rely on faith, a radical form of ignorance. So, this universe is not one of intelligent design, but our universe and everything in it and how it is constituted is stupid. The religionists are for stupid design and have the same faith in that stupid design that the evolutionists have in evolution, which technically speaking is also a stupid design. In other words, both sides of this debate believe that man cannot have any measure of wisdom. Both sides are wrong and arguing one to be better because it is scientific is really just as stupid as saying the other side is right because they have faith in a god. Faith is no substitute for knowledge, whether that faith be for science or religion.
There is another problem that evolution does not address: It is death. Yes, species die, we hear. But life that dies is a contradiction that must be explained and cannot be explained by evolution. Either life is immortal and continuing or it is not living. There is death in life and life in death, yes, but life is living at all times. The big problem, then, is not the validity of the incoherence of evolution, but what is the alternative to it that is not stupid design of the religionists. I would suggest that our anti-Platonic prejudice that is so ingrained in modernity and modern science must be re-examined. Let me put it this way: If we look all things as a cosmic whole of some kind, then our reason is essentially a necessary part of that whole and as such life and reason are in accord and necessary to each other, not in conflict as it is in evolution. Individuals do die, but life which is imbued in everything in the universe is alive all the time. All individuals and their species are simply modes of being, a mode of Being writ large. The diversity of life is because what gives all things being is manifested in a constant and manifold way, everything happening all at once, not in an unnatural linear progression that we find in evolution. The world is not stupid, but is well-ordered as well as chaotic, but on the whole orderly and that order is available to us because we who reason and think are an essential part of the whole of things. If there is a reason built into the whole of things, then man was meant to be free and has a cosmic support for his ethics that he cannot have in evolution or any other stupid design theories. Living beings are not mindless machines that mechanically change with contact with the environment. We need to reexamine what life is and how it came to be with more metaphysical rigor than we find in modernity. If we did, we would not accept the incoherence of modern evolutionary science and rethink biology.