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My God: It’s Evolution!

January 24, 2024

I never thought it would happen to me, but I’ve had a divine revelation, of sorts. Have you heard the good news?

While being brought up in a Methodist church, and educated for 8 years in Catholic schools (where I went to mass five days a week for the first three years), I abandoned Christianity midway through high school—tentatively traversing an agnostic phase on my way to calling myself an atheist. Now I eat babies and make my clothing out of puppy skins. Just kidding: I am playing off childish myths about atheists, though I now recognize how completely ludicrous and backwards this perception is. Atheists actually eat puppies and use baby skin for clothing. Ah—I can’t stop kidding around.

I’ll skip over all the physics training, astrophysics exposure, outdoor experiences, etc. that contributed to my worldview. Suffice it to say that I found no shortage of phenomena in the world worthy of awe and appreciation. It was all the more amazing to reflect on the simple origins of everything and the emergence of astounding complexity—especially in the spectacle of life. To me, the idea that our biodiverse world rests on a relatively simple set of physical laws makes the outcome FAR more interesting and dazzling than does the comparatively unimaginative invocation of a sentient creator.

The revelation at hand did not arrive all at once. An initial grounding is partly contained in the reading journey I laid out some while back. Most importantly, the writings of Daniel Quinn (who lived for a time in a monastery aiming to be a hard-core Trappist monk) played a major role—recently reinforced by Alex Leff’s excellent podcast treatment of Ishmael. The revelation finally matured in the context of my post from last week on free will, and the illuminating responses it generated.

Ishmael’s Gods

Despite my godless orientation, I really loved the metaphorical framing of the Law of Life in Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael as living in the hands of the gods. In this context, plants and animals do not dictate their destinies: they are not themselves gods. The way Ishmael (the gorilla sage) portrays it, the gods aim for balance within the community of life. Sparing the quail from the teeth of the fox is good for the quail and bad for the hungry fox. But sparing the quail is also bad for the grasshopper that is eaten by the quail—yet good for the grass that was about to be munched by the grasshopper.

The gods recognize that one creature’s gain is often (but not always) another’s loss, and that perpetual win-win situations are not possible to contrive: good for one is often “evil” for another. It’s a tough job, being a god.

In the story, the gods debate the best action to take, quickly reaching an impasse in arbitrating who gets stuck with the evil outcome. It is at this juncture that they turn to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, to eat of its fruit and gain the requisite wisdom to make decisions about who shall live and who shall die. The goal of the enlightened gods becomes achieving long-term balance so that no one form of life is systematically favored or penalized. The plants and animals under their care accept that things will sometimes go their way, but not always. The fox may not catch the quail today, but there’s always tomorrow. The plants and animals live in the hands of the gods, who support a diversity of populations in rough balance. Everyone plays by the same rules to the best of their own capabilities: no favorites.

In this telling, real trouble starts when the first humans—Adam and Eve, who heretofore had been content to live in the hands of the gods—defy a commandment and themselves eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. What they fail to realize is that the fruit only works for gods, not humans. The plot twist is that they think the fruit works for them as well, and assume they now have the knowledge of good and evil. They begin acting like gods: deciding which plants and animals live and die to suit their agricultural aims in exile from the Garden of Eden. But they lack the wisdom to actually do this fairly, misconstruing “fair” as “always in our favor.” Does this behavior sound familiar?

Our Gods

So, where are these gods, and how do they work? What phenomenon in nature acts to achieve approximate long-term balance? Why, evolution, of course! Positive feedbacks in either direction (whether decreasing or increasing) are unstable, runaway phenomena that cannot persist. Things that cannot persist are pruned out of the tree of life. The only way to exist within the community of life for durations relevant to evolution is to operate in reciprocity with the rest of it. If the quail always got the grasshopper, then grasshoppers go bye-bye, and probably the quail too, to the extent that they depend on grasshoppers. Thus, it’s not even good for the quail to always get its way!

By the simple fact that the mechanism of evolution selects organisms and relationships with staying power, we might say that evolution IS the wisdom of the gods—balancing good and evil. We (the community of life) don’t need sentient control. We don’t need divine agency. We just need matter, dependable relationships (physics), and the simplest life form to operate within this space subject to slow, random mutation, judged on success or failure based on how it interacts with its environment and eventually with other life. We got to become humans by living in the hands of the gods for millions of years, evolving by the Law of Life. Trying to live by new, self-invented rules is very risky, not time-tested, and nearly certain to fail.

Free Won’t

Last week I posted a piece on free will. Reactions were not particularly surprising, yet still revealing. Some people cannot bear to contemplate life without free will. For them, the resulting world becomes nonsensical, topsy-turvy, and chaotic—and perhaps pointless.  It’s akin to abandonment by the gods who keep the wheels on the cart and the Earth in its orbit.

This reaction is easier to understand under the flawed—but subconscious—model that we are our own gods. The illusion of free will replaces—or in some cases is allied with—belief in god. It becomes scary to consider what would happen in the absence of this imaginary agent of control: people would become irresponsible homicidal maniacs, if they no longer need to account for their actions. Furthermore, without free will, the outcome of the entire universe becomes deterministic and inevitable, so why make any effort at all? Even those who make no room for anything other than material beings that are entirely subject to the laws of physics—and nothing else—find some way to insert free will (pixie dust?) into the mix, while denying the oddness that whatever this agent is somehow has the power to override physics/determinism. For these folks, a world without free will is unthinkable absurdity, beyond the boundaries of their mental cosmology.

When it comes to belief in free will and/or god, a frequent question begins: “How else would you explain…” Hint: the correct answer might not be the one that seems obvious to you—the first thing that pops into your head.  The universe is under no obligation to operate via easily-explained—or even human-graspable—mechanisms. Emergent complexity does not automatically disqualify a concept from being true. So, the challenge is often an unreasonable, hubristic one, intoning: “I will not accept as truth anything that: A) can’t be explained succinctly, and B) that doesn’t fit in my limited brain.” This is not to say that we can’t try to make sense of it, as I do here.  But we need to acknowledge that our brains are limited.

In my responses to comments, I frequently invoked evolution’s role in shaping behaviors. Human cognition is not a blank-slate free-for-all: evolution has our backs—to a point. Our brains have been wholly shaped by evolution, which includes acceptable social behaviors as a social species. Our reflexive behaviors, gut reactions, and even careful deliberations are all completely and inescapably in the context of this evolution. It would be practically impossible for us to all start behaving as unaccountable murderers of our own species. Our brains would recoil at the prospect. Thanks, evolution, for the guard rails! We wouldn’t still be here without them/you! (Note that soldiers in war get a social pass from their in-group, importantly, and that most emerge damaged and less than eager to relive or continue the practice of killing. The tried-and-true coping mechanism is to demonize the enemy as no longer human.)

I can sort-of understand the disconnect. If your implicit assumption is that we are our own rulers, always telling our bodies what to do, imbued with agency that is something more than a meat-brain obeying physics and looking out for its survival and fitness, free will is all we’ve got keeping us in line. Free will is then, for some, a subconscious substitute for god. It outranks nasty, brutish determinism. Surely, our complex actions and ability to choose between various options signals something bigger—something grander—than a collection of atoms interacting via dumb physics. Well, this isn’t wholly wrong in my view: it’s just that the “something bigger”…the missing piece…is evolution. Don’t underestimate its “omnipotence.”

Evolution as God

Evolution at the human (vs. bacterial) scale takes a very long time. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of years, at minimum. But to capture the legacy that humans inherited (countless capabilities from metabolism to cognition) requires far, far longer—stretching to many millions and even billions of years.

I’ll just say it: you have no intuition for what this means. Our fleeting lives are far too short to allow visceral comprehension of such timescales. Sure, we can apply tools to put these long spans in context, but we can’t directly experience or perceive the yawning ocean of past—or future—time.  This is not a movie, or even nature documentary.

As a result, our own experience is very compressed and highly distorted. From our narrow point of view, we each went from a barely-functioning infant—mistakenly imagined to be a blank slate—to a genius in a few short decades. Good on us!  What’s that? We have to count the preceding eons of evolution as part of our development? Well, $#!+—that changes the calculus!

Our mis-impression is that we make ourselves who we are: we are our own masters, in control. That’s not accurate. We can no more decide to format our consciousness into that of a bat than a bat can assume human-level cognition. Just as animals are often born knowing how to live, most human babies raised among their kind can’t be stopped from learning to eat, walk, and talk—and to eventually sing, run, and make more babies. Babies require no taming: they have amazing social skills that start with early smiles. They grow up to become functioning adult humans, independent of culture: never a mental donkey. Nothing outside of evolution has authority over our design plan. We don’t get to shape or dictate what variety of cognitive capacity/style we have by force of will.

In other words, we take for granted the billions of years of preparation that went into making us who we are, wrongly attributing the apparent miracle to more fanciful notions. Our social behavior has always been a part our humanness, stretching much further back to earlier animals. We would not have gotten this far if our collective instinct was to behave monstrously toward each other. Evolution is an unforgiving task-master, whipping up successful organisms by sheer dint of survival. Bad ideas simply don’t last. Maladapted social behaviors don’t survive. Brain designs that operate out of compliance are culled.

In the Ishmael context, the gods gained wisdom after eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Where is the wisdom in evolution, which, after all, knows nothing? It is in deep time. As I said, we cannot fathom such vast tracts of time. Consequently, we cannot fathom the wisdom inherent in a process that plays out in deep time. Dwell on this for a bit: this is the missing piece hiding in plain sight—the central mystery—that even when revealed is nearly impossible to stare down or recognize as special.

How do the gods decide who goes hungry on this day? Whatever works in the long term. The pseudo-equilibrium we find ourselves in only exists because non-compliant processes disqualify themselves from the marathon (ahem: modernity). If the fox is too skillful a hunter relative to the evasion capabilities of the local prey, both the prey and the fox run a serious risk of failure (extinction). The ever-tinkering and patient gods of evolution will land on something sustainable, by construction, discarding mistakes.

So, evolution is our creator—of course. Evolution dictates what our bodies and brains can do, and how they are fashioned and even how we learn and how we react to complex stimuli. We generally know better than to do stupid stuff that will eliminate us from the gene pool. Our decisions may seem like free choice, but evolution is constantly whispering, undetected, literally shaping our every thought. We arrive at decisions that are likely to serve our survival, that of our offspring, our social status, and the health of the social collective upon which we depend. It could not have been any other way, for our species to have lasted hundreds of thousands of years (and much longer, considering inherited traits). Determinism—jolted, of course, by indeterminacy—is effectively harnessed by the design plan, just as a turbulent collection of water molecules bumping off each other by pure physics can be induced to flow through a tube or channel.

I’m reminded of a joke I liked in third grade. Aaron pointed out a fly smugly sitting alone on top of a fresh, steaming cow patty. Jimmy laughed and laughed. Aaron asked: “what’s so funny?” Jimmy said, “Nice try, Mr. Fly, but I know you didn’t make that entire pile!” Just as Newton recognized that he stood on the shoulders of giants, we should recognize that we stand on the unimaginably long history of evolutionary success. Our actions, thoughts, and choices are not truly our own. Don’t be the arrogant fly!

In Evolution We Trust!

If evolution is my new god, what does it mean to worship in this context? Well, luckily evolution is not a vain god, so does not care or even know what I do, because it is not sentient. Nonetheless, I can be in awe of the result. A simple idea pairs with a physical universe to produce this stunning diversity of life, overflowing with amazing tricks! Without possessing any brain (or free will), evolution is the world’s most impressive problem solver, hands-down. It’s not especially elegant: just stubborn, demanding, and patient: the ultimate experimentalist. I respect that.

We should recognize that we are utterly incapable of replicating even the simplest accomplishments of evolution (without any plagiarism). Compared to us—mere crumbs of its making—evolution is omnipotent. We are humble before its feet.

It is not necessary for us to fully comprehend the wisdom embodied in evolution’s products shaped over deep time. We probably just can’t. It’s something of an accident that we can even catch this much of a glimmer. Humility is called for: we have no reason to expect that we will ever master evolution’s holy secrets, or operate with comparable wisdom.

By worshiping evolution, we put ourselves back in the hands of the gods. We accept that we belong to the world, rejecting the modern notion that the world belongs to us, and that we are meant to rule it (a refrain from Ishmael). We place our trust in evolution. It got us this far, in tandem with millions of other species. Deep reverence is warranted.

On the other hand, belief in free will is akin to a direct challenge to the authority of “god”—elevating ourselves to godly status so that we are at the helm and call the shots. The consequences are visible all around us: when we act as the arbiters of good and evil, we do a poor job of it and the community of life suffers to the point of possible collapse. Humility is the antidote for the sin of pride (hubris).

Belief in a mechanistic universe without free will is not to be confused with the unrelated phenomenon I describe as robotic thinking. Quite the opposite, in fact. Such a view requires substantial imagination to break free of the natural (and understandable) left-brain hubristic sensation that we are our own masters. I marvel at the emergent complexity and relationships surrounding me. I do not feel the least bit defeated by the knowledge that I am a pile of atoms. Their arrangement is far from random, crafted by billions of years of relentless trial and error, capable of innumerable impressive feats. So what if physics decides what happens next (with heaps of uncontrollable indeterminacy thrown in)? I don’t know what I’m going to do or what happens next, so my experience cannot possibly feel deterministic or pointless. I’m grateful for the opportunity to play my part, which is apparently pushing for success of the community of life—happily aligned with the emergent aims of my new god. I can take pleasure in a job well done or in doing the “right” thing by fellow humans and the community of life. I don’t need to feel like the exclusive owner or motivating force to value the result. I don’t insist—under threat of tantrum—on being the pilot of the plane that takes me somewhere great.

Being a pile of atoms is only dispiriting if your identity—to your own misfortune—hangs on being more than that: more godly, perhaps. I celebrate the fact that I am no more than “stuff,” as I’m not just any pile of atoms, but a unique one capable of experiencing emotion, enjoyment, love, awe, and all the rest. I get to revel in a marvelous world of other unique creatures. All of this! How can I not worship the result? It’s truly mind-blowing and amazing! Evolution: you’re the best! Praise be unto you!

[Note: next week’s post will be a re-expression of the ideas in this post, but written from scratch for a broader audience. Apologies in advance for rehashed ideas. I hope they complement each other, to some extent.]

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. An amateur astronomer in high school, physics major at Georgia Tech, and PhD student in physics at Caltech, Murphy has spent decades reveling in the study of astrophysics. He currently leads a project to test General Relativity by bouncing laser pulses off of the reflectors left on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts, achieving one-millimeter range precision. Murphy’s keen interest in energy topics began with his teaching a course on energy and the environment for non-science majors at UCSD. Motivated by the unprecedented challenges we face, he has applied his instrumentation skills to exploring alternative energy and associated measurement schemes. Following his natural instincts to educate, Murphy is eager to get people thinking about the quantitatively convincing case that our pursuit of an ever-bigger scale of life faces gigantic challenges and carries significant risks. Note from Tom: To learn more about my personal perspective and whether you should dismiss some of my views as alarmist, read my Chicken Little page.