Life’s processes are often mischaracterized as a simple reductive scheme that misses some of life’s most astonishing features. Bergson criticized this as finalism in which the whole was given. This ‘whole’ can be seen in Philosopher Daniel Dennett idea of a design space. He uses it to argue for a deterministic universe, but the idea is that there are only so many possible combinations of DNA that produce viable ‘creatures.’ From a given starting point, the unfolding of different life forms, must wander around on this space, driven by local selection regimes, but the set is finite, and the steps must be small ones. Richard Dawkins uses the same notion in his view of ‘climbing mount improbable’ in which he demonstrates how evolution can completely explain the designed complexity of life on earth. They are right that evolution completely explains complexity, but the question that deserves some consideration is can we ask where the design space comes from? Of course that is in principle unanswerable from a scientific perspective.
One of the interesting things about the flat naturalism that is rarely commented on, is the ‘given all at once’ as Bergson called it, nature of the static landscape. In a flat world of with all the possibilities stretched out, it seems to me from one perspective in which we look at the entire landscape from above in a God’s eye view, time as it were where the landscape over which life wanders is given, the question of the source of the landscape seems odd from the point of view of a strict naturalism. It assumes, and it seems to me must assume a metaphysics in which the marvelous landscape of bacteria, beavers, eyeballs, ecological niches are given in the entire extent landscape. What unfolds, must be conditioned on this landscape which must be given a priori to the universe’s unfolding for it is on that that the universe unfolds, sharing a stance with naive creationist views that assume that the entire landscape is handed. This would suggest that ontological materialism actually embeds a cheep creationism.
The other thing that this idea a ontological design space approach misses, is the very point that Bergson laid out and that has yet to be addressed is where does creativity and complexity come from in the design spaces conjured to explain the evolution of life? This brings up a related question what aspects of Life (as opposed to lifeforms) seem to be those that give us broad scale principals of what life is.
To explore these two questions let’s look at brief history of life and point out some key aspects of its evolution that I think highlights some of these features that argue against these disenchanted reductive views and perhaps even suggest a very Bergsonian view of creative evolution. I will suggest an ecological emergent view helps us see life as a non-essentialist unfolding that acknowledges the establishment of dynamic networks of cooperating entities that allow for further creativity, innovation and freedom in the universe. I would then like to touch on why I think these might be theologically relevant.
I assume first that the universe is structured such that, as Latour (Harman 2009) p. 23, suggests, that “entities (as broadly construed) have struck a hard bargain with reality to allow stable configurations of chemicals that allow life to get started.” How life got started on Earth from its chemical precursors remains an open scientific question, upon which progress is being made. As we learn more about early planetary environments, and as we discover how frequent life is in the universe through surveys of distant solar systems, the question of how life begins will likely become more clear. Once life is off the ground there seem to be repeated patterns. While there is nothing, specifically teleological about life on earth in the sense that there are specific platonic forms to which life is heading, there are repeated strategies that evolve independently, that seem constitutive of how life proceeds biologically on Earth. This is different than the question of how evolved-life solves engineering problems, which under similar circumstances, arrive at similar solutions.
For example, life on Earth has had multiple species evolve to solve the engineering problem of swimming in the sea. Fish from chordate ancestors evolved the form of a torpedo shape, terminal tail movements to produce forward thrust, and fins to stabilize the motion. In addition to the initial evolutionary radiation of the fishes, this strategy for living in water has also evolved at least twice from vertebrate terrestrial organisms. In looking at three body ‘designs’ from dolphins and plesiosaurs, say, their similarities are immediately apparent. Thus, solving engineering problem solving can create some startlingly specific designs. Another example is found in saber-toothed ‘cats’ that evolved independently from rat-like mammalian precursors from both marsupial and placental lines. Biologist Conway Morris speculates that given this propensity may mean that the human shape and form may be inevitable in the universe similarly constituted planets with similar ecological underpinnings.
This allows us to ask about specific lifeforms that have evolved and gestured to the idea that all life evolves in a context. But I would like to explore, not specific engineering solutions, but to look at processes that seem to be repeatedly repeated in vastly different organisms and seem to underpin what makes life a successful enterprise in increasing complexity and innovation in the universe. And while specifics are non-essentialist and lack formal (in the Platonic sense) underpinnings, there are repeated patterns that allow for increased complexity.
To explore this, let’s look at attributes that organisms closer to the chemical underpinning of life like bacteria (There would have been a temptation in previous eras, when a Great Chain of Being was seen to structure life, to call these simpler, or even more recently ‘less evoloved’ but given the complexity we are discovering in the micro world in biology we are abandoning such notions). These are representative of the first instances of life and these organisms have continued from the time of life’s emergence on Earth to be successful contenders in the struggle of existence on this planet.
To be continued . . .