So somewhere, somehow some chemicals started replicating. It’s no shame that science hasn’t cracked this yet. There are some great hints starting to become manifest, maybe RNA started it, but how is actually irrelevant to our metaphysical quest. Somehow it got started, is a perfectly acceptable beginning to our quest at this stage of the science. But we want to be careful about just saying “God did it” because when science figures this out we don’t want to have hung our hat on this lack of explanation as a coat hook for our belief. (See my “God of the Gaps” post for more on this.)
So we have replicating molecules in the universe, with sequences that specify the attributes of those entities. Now we are up and running with a system with enough variability to kick start natural selection: variation in traits, inheritance of traits from parental types, and differential survival based on those traits: selection. That variation is the stuff that evolution uses as raw material. It is based upon mutations. Mutations that are random with respect to whatever nucleic sequences were inherited from a thing’s parents.
Life is a way of connecting the wildly random world of quantum mechanics and the tick-tock functioning of the macro world. Life is a bridge, which allows genuine novelty and creativity to come into play in the design of organisms. The space of design however is not heading towards some goal or preferred type; it is a solution to the immediate problem of surviving better than your neighbor. Mutations are just changes that occur in nucleic acids (the stuff of heredity) randomly. Mutations can be caused by lots of things (and the subject is too complex to really go into here without laying out the bio-chemical properties of DNA and such), but one way is through the exposure to radiation; of which there are abundant sources all over the universe. These radiation events have their source in the quantum world’s unwieldy randomness (and note this is not just unpredictability-type-randomness like you get when you flip a coin, which is structured by largely deterministic forces many and varied working on the spinning coin (like friction, wind, forces applied unevenly by the fingers, etc.) that we could probably never model or gain epistemological purchase with a predictive model because it is just too complex. This quantum-type stuff is real randomness, ontological randomness, in the dirt of reality randomness.
Most mutations are bad, bad, bad. And our DNA has to be good at repairing most of these, or it may just cause the life-form to fail. However, some mutations in an organism’s genetic code make the thing the gene codes for just a little better than that gene had in their fellow organisms—in the current environment it’s living in. That’s important. Natural selection is always contextual. Organisms are always imbedded in an environment where these advantages and disadvantages play out.
But suddenly, the universe is no longer deterministic! Real randomness has just bubbled up and there is no longer just one-way things can play out. Things are no longer strongly teleological. They are not heading anywhere in particular. Random variations are allowing life to test different options by random mutations.
Life allows for an escape from a purely deterministic universe. Novelty, creativity, and design suddenly are possible. But purpose? Not yet. We need something else.
And have we completely lost teleology? Is there no direction life is heading? Well, clearly not completely, because complexity is at least is increasing—that is a direction. But can we say more?
Next time: Teleology-lite (Now With Added Purpose, for a new fresher scent!
(And fear not, those of you still with me, we are going to get back to Faithful evolution. I’m setting the stage.)