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Evolving without a Plan

hayley reed's picture

Hayley Reed

Biology/English 223

February 16th, 2007

Evolving Without A Plan: A Critical Analysis of What Evolution Is 

"Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.

 -Siddhartha Gautama (The Buddha), 563-483 B.C

What is evolution? Are our ideas about evolution derived from a textbook or our own observations? These are questions that would have been encouraged by Siddhartha Gautama and actually lead to more questions then answers. The story of evolution is an extensive, intricate, and complex web of observations but, it is one that needs to be told. In order to work through this web it is helpful to separate lies from truth. However, upon analyzing the different stories of evolution it become difficult to separate observations from each other. There is no one truth that summarizes all of evolution. Each observation about evolution is true to the person who made the observation. In this sense, science is incredibly subjective. Though many people can experience the same event they will each have their own slightly different story to tell. For example, thousands of women have given birth but, every mother has had a completely different experience and as a result will have a different story to tell.

In addition, a summary may be considered valid at this moment in time because it summarizes all observations but, that summary only includes observations to date. An observation can be shown to be false later in time when new observations are collected. Stories change all the time because of new observations and the practical usefulness of other stories. So where does this leave us? Science is actually not a collection facts. Rather, it is a process and act of telling and revising stories. Essentially all we can know about evolution are stories summarizing an array of observations. Evolution is an open-ended cycle of observations, interpretation, and creation. Evolution just unfolds and there is no intention or objective involved.

The skeptics who were ahead of their time were able to recognize this and realized that everything is constantly evolving and changing. This idea is in accord with the second law of thermodynamics which states that things will spontaneously get more and more random all the time.[1] Absolutely nothing on this planet remains the same! Current life forms are simply variants of previously existing life forms. But, the main difference between the person I am and the person my grandmother was is random assignment. Variation is not predictable and “In reality, the evolution of organisms does not entail objective improvement; advancements are only situational.” [2] Ultimately, evolution doesn’t maximize efficiency it just is whatever works. Even if it was possible to play the evolution tape backwards, stop it, and then re-start it again, life as we know it would not be the same. Life would not come into being the same way it did and the organisms that we all know and love might never have existed. There is not even proof to know that human beings would exist as they do now or even exist at all. Essentially, nothing would happen the same and an entirely different story would unfold.  In addition, one of the properties of change is that it involves irreversible steps. Once evolution has begun there is not turning back.  There is no objective to evolution but, there are only so many steps that can be taken to reverse the process of evolution. Once the ball starts rolling and cells begin to become more specialized it becomes harder to go back to step one when cells were unicellular. In general, the longer evolution has gone on the harder it becomes to re-trace evolution’s foot prints to take a new route.

This idea of constantly ever changing evolution directly contradicts the idea of finalism. Finalism argues that everything changes towards something it is trying to reach. According to this school of thought, it may not always be clear why evolution moves in a certain direction but, God has an overriding plan for everything. In 1802, William Paley used the analogy of watch to prove the existence of a creator. He argued that an individual can assume if he sees a watch that there must be a watch maker.[3] From this analogy he concluded that a design implies that there must be a designer. However Dawkins argues in his book, The Blind Watchmaker, that "All appearances to the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics, albeit deployed in a very special way... it is the blind watchmaker." [4] The process of evolution is unplanned and unguided. Evolution is not attempting to do anything but, to playfully experiment. The meaning of evolution is not pre-determined but, rather it comes into existence when people study and respond to it. This idea upsets a myriad of people because it means that there is no planner or intention to things. It is comfortable to think that God has a specific plan for all of us. Knowing that everything about the life that we live is completely random can produce insecurity and uncertainty

Though Mayr would strongly disagree, there are other observations not discussed in What Evolution Is that present other valid interpretations of evolution. Mayr wants to believe that he is telling the real “truth” in his novel. As Mayr writes in the preface of his book, “There are also splendid defenses of evolutionism against attacks by creationists, as well as excellent volumes on the special aspects of evolution… but none of them quite fills the niche I have in mind.” [5] But, there is no single truth that holds true for all things and can be applied to all situations. Truths expressed as narratives can be expressed in two main ways. The first type of narrative is a story that is dependent on the history of a time. A non-narrative story is a story with eternal patterns that does not value the concept of change. Often, narrative stories will be turned into non-narrative stories. For example, teachers share with their students stories about evolution as if they were non-narrative stories. In addition, in telling stories individuals often exhibit a strong inclination to want to ignore observations. Individuals may ignore observations because they want to believe their theory is the truth. Often pressure and expectations can lead to scientists claiming that their observations are “the truth”. Scientists can also forget that a theory is derived from observations and that observations don’t come out of a theory.

 After critically analyzing evolution it becomes apparent that science is not as black and white as it appears to be. It can become confusing distinguishing a collection of stories from one another. But, if an individual actively attempts to look for observations that do not fit the traditional story they will begin to challenge the idea that evolution has a single objective and that there is only one interpretation of it’s events. 

[1] Isaack, Mark. “Five Major Misconceptions about Evolution.” Updated 1 October 2003. <>[2] Taubman, Rod. “Biology: Is the human race evolving or devolving?” <> [3] Paley, William. Natural Theology. 1800.[4] Dawkins, Richard. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design (Taschenbuch). New York: Norton, 1985. 

[5]  Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. New York: Perseus Books Group, 2001.


Leonid Ge's picture

Is it good to know what you are looking for?

It seems, that a world driven by a final idea is a very restricted world. It sounds like we are all closed in some box.

But let's ask the following question: which way is better for an invention, for creativity, for doing something that has never done before?

Is it better to know a priori what you are doing? Or maybe it is better just to try things without a stamped AIM in your mind? One who exactly knows what he is looking for, will probably find it. But what he finds - was already preprogrammed in his head! So he has not created something really complex! It was predicted.

But someone who has not exact idea in his mind, but is just experimenting with things - he may discover, invent, create something really good! And really complex.

Restricting the Evolution to come to some fixed idea is restricting its freedom. OK, maybe the earth is not free and all we are just experimental rabbits and evolve to some a priori known target.

But doesn't it sound very sad? I wouldn't like to be one of such rabbits! I would like not to go to a target which is predefined for me by somebody. Even if this somebody is very mighty.

It is hard to know where our universe evolves to. But it is easy to analyze how human-made things evolve. Let's have a look of computer programs (or a software) evolution. Does this evolution have a predefined aim? Doesn't seem so! Some programmers write programs just for their fun, some earn money and some want to be famous. But the result of the 50-year evolution of the software is Windows Vista, UNIX, Internet Explorer, Adobe Photoshop, Skype and other very very complex and good programs!

Where is the aim of this evolution?

Paul Grobstein's picture

Implications of evolution for human story telling

I'm struck by the similarities/differences between your paper and Elise's (at /exchange/node/151 ; see also my reaction to hers at /exchange/node/151#comment-954). Both of you key in on ongoing somewhat unpredictable change as the significant distinctive feature of the story of evolution. Appropriately, I think. Elise characterizes that as something that humans can accept or not, based on personal inclinations. You seem to suggest that it applies to stories themselves (including the story of evolution), whether one wishes it to be so or not, and that humans ought in fact to themselves challenge the past and use it to go beyond it (your quotation from Buddha and "if an individual actively attempts to look for observations that do not fit the traditional story ..." which seems to me what you are recommending). This is indeed what you offer as a way to deal with the conclusion that "science is not as black and white as it appears to be"? And that "Though many people experience they same event, they will each have a different story to tell"? You're suggesting that meaning is not in the observations themselves but rather in the sense people make of them? That this itself evolves, and that's ok? Hmmmm .... You realize the number of cans of worms you might be opening, and are prepared to address what comes out?