I am not usually known for my orthodox thinking about evolution, and yet in this case I have to reject the premise of the current exercise: no, evolution is not a conscious process, and to think so is an example of what philosophers call a category mistake, predicated on a fallacy of equivocation, to boot. How 20th century of me.
Let’s parse this out a bit. First off, consciousness is a complex and inherently fuzzy concept, and Wittgenstein taught us that such concepts are best described by example or by a lose series of characteristics (a “family resemblance”), not by rigid definitions based on a small set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions. Wittgenstein’s famous case study was the concept of “game.” You may think it is trivial to give a good definition of what counts as a game, but that’s far from the reality. There is no necessary and sufficient set of conditions that clearly rules in the astounding variety of games — from chess to soccer — while simultaneously ruling out everything we don’t consider a game. Instead, there are various threads running through many, but not all, games (e.g., competitiveness, featuring rules, done for fun, etc.), and the best we can do is to form a search image for the concept, based on the enumeration of examples that do or do not fall into its domain. So, taking on board Wittgenstein, and in agreement with the Introduction, I think of conscious processes as being also described by any or all of the following attributes: deliberate, intentional, purposeful, calculated, planned, volitional.
Notice that one attribute prominently not featured in this list is directional, and another one is non-random. So to suggest, as some do, that evolution is a conscious process because some mutations are not random, or because natural selection clearly imposes a (local, both in time and space) direction to the evolutionary process is a non sequitur, it doesn’t follow. Yes, 21st-century biology is discovering that things are a heck of a lot more complicated than either Darwin or the architects of the Modern Synthesis ever thought possible and that inheritance — which for Darwin was a mystery — needs to be understood as far more encompassing than just genetics. There is epigenetics, niche construction, and cultural evolution, just to mention three phenomena that have deservedly attracted a lot of attention of late. But this conceptual enrichment in evolutionary biology still does not make the teleonomic process of evolution into a teleological one. Teleological processes have a purpose, teleonomic ones, by contrast, appear to have a purpose, but they don’t. Human conscious decision making is teleological, while natural selection is teleonomic. That was Darwin’s crucial insight, which spelled the death of natural theology, and it makes no sense to attempt to resurrect the zombie now.
The Introduction mentions two examples of conscious evolution: genetic algorithms and human decision making. I would add a third one (which is actually a subset of the second one): artificial selection, Darwin’s own analogy for natural selection, which is likely to blame for the unhappy consequence of a continued confusion between teleology and teleonomy. But this is entirely uncontroversial: of course, human beings make conscious decisions, and it is human beings that design computer genetic algorithms (and computers, for that matter), so it is no surprise at all that these are (partly) conscious processes.
But it is a fallacy of equivocation to suggest that, because human conscious decision making results in directional, non-random evolution, therefore natural instances of directional, non-random evolution are further examples of consciousness at play. Whose consciousness anyway? Is the suggestion that a natural process such as evolution is itself conscious? What would that even mean? Or are we conjuring a 21st century variant of William Paley’s idea of an intelligent designer? Or what else?
(Incidentally, and I write this parenthetically because it’s about science communication, not science per se, do we really want to go down that road again, confusing people with talk of conscious evolution? I mean, Intelligent Design creationism is already always lurking in discussions about public education, ready to take advantage of legitimate scientific debates such as this one in order to further their ideologically obscurantist agenda. If there are strong reasons to talk about conscious evolution, by all means. But to do so on the basis of superficial analogies simply plays into the unscrupulous hand of apologists for creationism.)
If my criticism is correct, then to talk about conscious evolution is to make a category mistake. This was a concept introduced by 20th-century philosopher Gilbert Ryle to describe situations where one applies one attribute (e.g., conscious) to a category of objects or phenomena (e.g., evolution) to which it clearly does not belong. The classic example is that of a visitor to Oxford University (where Ryle taught). The visitor is shown the campus, the buildings, the faculty, the students, the administrators, and so forth. But at the end of the visit he asks: “okay, but where is the university?” thus betraying a fundamental misunderstanding: “the university” is the thing constituted by the campus, the buildings, the faculty, and so forth. There is nothing above and beyond that.
Similarly with evolution: outside of the well known instances of human-directed evolution (like artificial selection, computer programming, and the like), we are talking about a natural process characterized by certain properties (non-randomness), made possible by certain processes (natural selection, biased mutation pressure, developmental constraints, niche construction, epigenetic inheritance, etc.), resulting in a teleonomic pattern. To additionally apply the property of consciousness to it — thus making it teleological — is a category mistake because natural processes are not conscious, though some results of a subset of natural processes (namely, us) happen to be.
Of course, what appears to be a category mistake based on current science may turn out not to be in the light of future science. It is conceivable that biologists will discover really solid reasons to think that evolution itself is conscious. Frankly, I can’t even imagine what the pertinent evidence would look like, yet I’m open to the possibility. But we have certainly done nothing remotely like that as of now. Indeed, let us remember that in the past we thought that natural processes were teleological in nature, just think of Aristotle’s classification of causes, and in particular of his final cause. Within the framework of Aristotelian biology, it would make perfect sense, and it is not a category mistake, to think about evolution in terms of consciousness (of course, Aristotle didn’t really think in terms of evolution in the first place, but rather talked of the natural unfolding of things). But the rejection of the Aristotelian approach, which natural theologians during the Middle Ages and until the 19th century turned into the famous argument from design, is precisely one of the greatest accomplishments not just of Darwin, but of modern science. Before we attempt to reverse it, we better get both our logic and our facts very, very straight.
Read the entire “Conscious Evolution” series:
- Can Evolution Be Conscious? Introducing a Collection of Commentaries Published on This View of Life by David Sloan Wilson, Mel Andrews, and Maximus Thaler
- Cultural Evolution, Insight, and Fundamental Theories of Consciousness by Liane Gabora
- Conscious Evolution is a Category Mistake by Massimo Pigliucci
- The Origins and Evolutionary Effects of Consciousness by Eva Jablonka and Simona Ginsburg
- The Evolution of Consciousness Enables Conscious Evolution by Steve Hayes
- Welcome to the Noösphere by Alice Andrews
- The Consciousness of Detachment and the Detachment of Consciousness by Lenny Moss
- Can Evolution Be Conscious of Itself? Yes, It Can! by Joe Brewer
- One Culture, Two Cultures? How Many Cultures, How Long? by Kurt Johnson
- Can Evolution be Understood as a Conscious Process? by Stanley N. Salthe
- Why Teleology is the Elephant in Evolutionary Theory’s Room by Felipe A. Veloso