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Steven TaylorSteve Taylor is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, and the author of several best-selling books on psychology and spirituality. He is the current chair of the Transpersonal Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society. He is the author of The Leap and his new book Spiritual Science: Why the science needs spirituality to make sense of the world, Watkins Publising, 2018. See: www.stevenmtaylor.com

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Originally published in Paradigm Explorer, 130, Spring 2019

Beyond Neo-Darwinism

An Alternative View of Evolution

Steve Taylor

I'm certainly not the first person to put forward a 'panspiritist' philosophy, or a spiritual view of evolution.

Towards the end of his life, Charles Darwin came to regret that he had placed so much emphasis on natural selection in his theory of evolution. Although he still believed that natural selection was the main way in which variety had arisen in evolution, he harboured serious doubts that it was the only way. He didn't believe that natural selection was sufficient to account for the variety of life forms on Earth, and the seeming ease with which they arise.

Darwin's doubts about the power of natural selection have never been fully resolved. Numerous observers have pointed out that it seems implausible that such a staggeringly positive and creative process could be generated purely by a negative phenomenon such as natural selection, acting on random mutations (which occasionally bring about changes that benefit living beings). It has been estimated that mutations only occur at a rate of about one per several million cells in every generation. However, since only a tiny number create beneficial traits which give a survival advantage, some scientists have doubted that, in the words of Fritjof Capra, 'This frequency [is] sufficient to explain the evolution of the great diversity of life forms.'[1]

This isn't just because mutations happen so rarely, but also because, in order to create significant changes (including the generation of new species) long series of beneficial mutations have to occur in sequence. Mutations have be cumulative, perfectly matched to previous mutations, and occurring at the right place and time. So with every 'matched' mutation, the odds against its random occurrence increase massively. In the words of the eminent French zoologist Pierre-Paul Grassé, mutations only 'occur incoherently. They are not complementary to one another, nor are they cumulative in successive generations toward a given direction.'[2]

This lack of plausibility is highlighted by a mismatch between the frequency of random mutations and the development of adaptive traits. According to the contemporary American biologist Michael Skinner, rates of random DNA sequence mutation are far too slow to account for the development of phenotypes. As he puts it, 'genetic mutation rates for complex organisms such as humans are dramatically lower than the frequency of change for a host of traits, from adjustments in metabolism to resistance to disease. The rapid emergence of trait variety is difficult to explain just through classic genetics and neo-Darwinian theory.'[3]

Another issue is that, in some circumstances, the emergence of “selectable” (or advantageous) functions requires two or more mutations to happen simultaneously. Some molecular systems depend on many interdependent parts, which would have to arise and converge at the same moment—so in these cases, a single mutation obviously wouldn't be sufficient. Although once controversial, this theory of “irreducible complexity” (originally put forward by the Intelligent Design advocate Michael Behe) was scientifically validated in 2014, when a team of researchers studied how the malaria parasite develops resistance to the anti-malarial drug chloroquine. Resistance to chloroquine arises far less frequently than to other drugs, and Michael Behe hypothesised that this was because it depended on more than one mutation in a particular malarial protein (called PfCRT). The researchers verified this, finding that two specific, simultaneous mutations were needed for the protein to transport chloroquine.[4] This is important because the chances of two such complimentary and simultaneous mutations occurring randomly is beyond the bounds of mathematical probability. This obviously infers that mutations happen in a non-random way. Behe believes that this shows evidence of Intelligent Design, but I believe that this is unwarranted (especially since allowing two simultaneous mutations that decrease human resistance to malaria doesn't say much for the benevolence of God!). As I will suggest later—when we consider the idea of non-random mutations in more detail—we should perhaps simply think in terms of an inherent creative and dynamic tendency in living systems, including a tendency to move towards greater complexity.

Another problematic issue is explaining how natural selection can give rise to new structures and features, and especially new species. The standard view is that random mutations slowly create more and more variety over millions of years, and eventually these differences build up into distinct, new species. But it may not be quite as simple as this. As Pierre Paul Grasse pointed out, mutations only cause trivial changes. They are equivalent to 'a typing error made in copying a text' with very little 'constructive capacity' or innovation, so that they cannot create complex organs or body parts.[5] There are invisible boundaries between species which mutations cannot cross, so that they can cause variation but never true evolution. Or as the contemporary evolutionary theorists, Gerd Müller and Stuart Newman, have put it, the Neo-Darwinian paradigm “has no theory of the generative,”[6] and consequently is unable to solve the problems of phenotypic complexity (such as the anatomical and structural features of living beings) and phenotypic novelty (that is, the development of new life forms). In other words, the central tenet of Neo-Darwinism—that natural selection has the creative power to generate novelty—is dubious.

You could frame this issue in terms of the distinction between micro- and macro-evolution. There is no doubt that mutations can cause changes within species—that is, they can cause variation on a micro level. But macro-evolution—the emergence of different species—is much more problematic. The gradual, incremental mutations that supposedly link different species to one another have never been observed or properly explained.

This links to the concept of 'punctuated equilibrium,' based on fossil evidence showing that evolution works through stops and starts, with periods of stasis for millions of years and then sudden bursts of change—which can be as short as 1,000 years—which give rise to new species. This doesn't fit well with the idea of incremental random mutations, since these would surely occur fairly evenly. There would be no reason why some periods would see more change than others.

There is also the problem that favourable mutations would soon be lost by interbreeding with non-mutated members of a species. Darwin himself saw this as the biggest problem of his theory, and Neo-Darwinists have never convincingly solved it. It's easy to see how this 'crossing' might be avoided with animals—they might just physically move away from the species, for instance—but not with the vegetable kingdom.

The Third Way in Evolution

Because of issues like these, it is certainly not just religious-minded theorists—such as advocates of Intelligent Design—who express doubts about Neo-Darwinism. Many mainstream biologists and evolutionary theorists now believe that the standard model of evolution needs to be overhauled. In recent years a large group of eminent scientists—including James Shapiro, Dennis Noble, Eva Jablonka and Evelyn Fox Keller—have formed a “Third Way in Evolution” movement, aimed at developing an alternative to both creationism and Neo-Darwinism. (Sometimes this is referred to as the “extended evolutionary synthesis”). The “Third Way” theorists reject the idea that random mutations are the main source of variation in evolution, and argue that natural selection has “been elevated into a unique creative force that solves all the difficult evolutionary problems without a real empirical basis.”[7] They believe that Neo-Darwinism ignores “much contemporary molecular evidence” and that the idea that hereditary variation arises accidentally is based on unsupported assumptions. They—like Darwin himself—believe that the scope of natural selection is limited, and that evolution must include other important mechanisms, suggesting that these may include processes such as symbiogenesis, horizontal DNA transfer, the action of mobile DNA and epigenetic modifications. As Gerd Muller has written in a recent paper, “a rising number of publications argue for a major revision or event a replacement of the standard theory of evolution, indicating that this cannot be dismissed as a minority view but rather is a widespread feeling amongst scientists and philosophers alike.”[8]

Epigenetics is particularly significant, since it contravenes the Neo-Darwinian principle that the genome is independent of environmental influences. Epigenetics shows that environmental factors—particularly experiences of stress, trauma and deprivation—can cause genetic changes, which may then be inherited by descendants. Environmental factors may 'switch on' genes, which remain active in future generations. This suggests that the much maligned French biologist Lamarck—who suggested that evolution proceeds through the 'inheritance of acquired characteristics'—may not have been wrong. The biologist Michael Skinner—quoted at the beginning of this paper—believes that epigenetic factors can account for the mismatch between the frequency of random mutations and the development of phenotypes, since they can massively increase variation in a population. In this way, Skinner suggests that we need a synthesis of Neo-Darwinism with a 'Neo-Larmarckism.'[9]

A 'Panspiritist' View of Evolution

As the Third Way movement suggests, rejecting the standard materialist explanation doesn't mean we have to accept a religious interpretation. I am certainly not doubting the fact that evolution has occurred, and advocating creationism.

An alternative is to suggest that evolution is not a random and accidental process, but has an impetus behind it, a tendency to move towards increased complexity and increased awareness. In other words, evolution is a teleological process—that is, it moves in a certain direction, with a certain purpose. At the same time, this impetus means that living systems have a inherently dynamic quality, which enables them to respond to challenges with creative flexibility.

Spiritual Science: Why science needs spirituality to make sense of the world

My view here is based on a philosophy I have developed called 'panspiritism,' the basic idea of which is that the primary reality of the universe is a fundamental consciousness (or spirit) which gives rise to material forms and living beings, and pervades them. (More details in my new book Spiritual Science.[10]) I believe that fundamental consciousness (or spirit) has an innate tendency to expand and intensify itself. Once spirit becomes canalised into material structures, and makes them alive, it impels those structures to become complex and highly organised, so that they can support more advanced forms of mentation, greater degrees of sentience, and more intensified and expansive forms of awareness.

An important point to consider is that evolution has an inner dimension. Neo-Darwinists usually see evolution only in its outward, physical expression. But evolution doesn't just bring increasingly physical complexity; it brings increased awareness. As living beings become more physically complex and more highly organised, they also develop more inwardness, a greater degree of inner life. They become more sentient, with a more intense awareness.

In this sense, at the same time as being the one of the most physically complex species on this planet, human beings are probably one of the most intensely aware and sentient species. (I'm being careful to say 'one of' because some species of whales and dolphins have more brain cells than us, and may be at least as conscious as us.) It appears that we have a more intricate and expansive awareness of reality than most other animals.

I'm certainly not the first person to put forward a 'panspiritist' philosophy, or a spiritual view of evolution. Many philosophers have suggested that evolution is a purposeful process of the unfolding and intensification of consciousness, including the German philosophers Hegel and Fichte, the French philosophers Bergson and Teilhard de Chardin and the Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo, and the contemporary American philosophers Ken Wilber and Michael Murphy. Teilhard de Chardin saw evolution as a process of the 'spiritualisation' of matter, progressing towards an 'Omega Point' which is the culmination of the whole evolutionary process. Here matter becomes wholly infused with spiritual energy and all phenomena, including human beings, attain oneness. Teilhard de Chardin believed that the increasing interconnection of the human race was a part of this evolutionary process, and was creating a new domain of reality (the noosphere) which would unite our species into a single interthinking group. (Teilhard de Chardin died in 1955, so it's interesting to ponder what he would have made of the age of the Internet, and all of the increasing interconnection it has brought about. No doubt he would see it as part of the formation of the noosphere.)

There is also a parallel with the concept of emergence. Systems theorists suggest that natural systems and organisms have an innate tendency to move toward greater order and complexity, generating structures which are more than the sum of their parts. Biologists such as Robert Reid and Stuart Kauffman have applied the concept of emergence to evolution, as an alternative to the Neo-Darwinist model. According to this view, order and complexity are not created by genetic mutations, but by self-organisation and the emergent properties of systems. While Robert Reid was doubtful about any role for natural selection in evolution, Stuart Kauffman believes that this spontaneous tendency to order works alongside natural selection.

The only real difference between the theory of emergence and 'spiritual evolution' is that the former suggests that emergence happens spontaneously, as an inherent property of systems, and of life itself. But of course, this doesn't explain where this inherent property comes from, or even what it is. The idea that new levels of order spontaneously emerge from lower levels seems magical, not dissimilar to the 'magic' by which some materialists believe that consciousness arose (and arises) out of complex material structures, such us animal brains.

Perhaps the theory of spiritual evolution provides a little more explanation. The tendency of systems to move towards greater levels of order and complexity stems from spirit itself, which generates greater complexity in order to support its intensification. The dynamic quality of living systems is an expression of the dynamism of spirit itself.

Adaptative Mutation - Non-Random Mutations?

The innate tendency of spirit (as manifested in living beings) to move towards greater complexity perhaps also explains why evolution often appears to operate with a strange degree of creativity.

The paleontologist Simon Conway Morris has written of 'The uncanny ability of evolution to navigate to the appropriate solution.'[11] One example of this is the way that life forms sometimes adapt to changes in their environment with a rapidity that would be impossible through random genetic mutations. The technical term for this is 'adaptive mutation.' In these cases, mutations sometimes occur in a specific response to environmental challenges or stresses, such as changes in temperature, in nutrients or population size. For example, research has found that if a strain of bacteria is unable to process lactose, and then placed in a lactose rich medium, 20% of its cells will quickly mutate into a Lac+ form, so that they become able to process the lactose. The mutations become part of the bacteria's genetic code, and are inherited by following generations.[12] In adaptive mutation, it's almost as if the mutations aren't random at all, but are somehow being 'directed' to react to the situation in the appropriate way, exactly when they are required.

One suggested explanation for adaptive mutation comes from the relatively new field of 'quantum biology.' Quantum biology attempts to explain mysterious biological phenomena in terms of principles of quantum physics such as superposition and entanglement. Applied to the example above, a quantum explanation would be that the genome of the bacteria exists in a state of 'superposition.' That is, it doesn't exist in any one particular state, but in a myriad of possible states, some of them mutated and others non-mutated. But when certain circumstances arise, the genome 'collapses' into the appropriate mutated state.[13]

However, adaptive mutation could simply be an expression of the same creativity that allows life forms to move towards greater complexity and consciousness (and that allows living systems to spontaneously generate new levels of order and complexity). This creativity gives life forms the flexibility to respond to challenges. In the above example, bacteria clearly aren't developing into a more complex and conscious form, but the same creative principle may be at work. There is a dynamic quality in living beings which enables them to develop in the appropriate way.

This also suggests that a spiritual view of evolution doesn't have to dispense with genetic mutations as an important factor. Mutations may still be the main overt way in which change occurs. The only difference is that, according to this view, beneficial mutations don't happen (or at least don't always happen) randomly. (The Intelligent Design theorist Michael Behe has put forward a similar concept of non-random mutation.) Mutations may be generated by the impetus of evolution, as a means of creating change. According to this theory, mutations occur as a part of the unfolding of the process of evolution, generating inevitable changes that lead to more complex and conscious forms.

An Alternative View of Evolution

I believe we are at an important point in the history of our culture, where the materialist metaphysical paradigm is beginning to recede, and post-materialist perspectives are beginning to flourish. The widespread questioning of—and the accumulating evidence against—Neo-Darwinism is a welcome sign of this shift. It is becoming more and more evident that (as with materialism itself) the Neo-Darwinian model of evolution is more akin to dogma that an evidence-based theory. As the eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel has written, Neo-Darwinism is a belief system, little more than 'a schema for explanation, supported by some examples.'[14] It's therefore necessary for us to find an alternative theory of evolution, which can account for its amazing creativity and its tendency to move towards greater complexity and consciousness.

One of the reasons why Neo-Darwinians are so reluctant to acknowledge the weaknesses of the theory is because they think it would open the door to creationism. But as we have seen, there is an alternative to both Neo-Darwinism and creationism. The spiritual view of evolution suggests that there is an impulse in consciousness itself to express itself more intensely within life forms, and to generate more complex forms of life in order to support greater intensities of awareness. There is no reason to try to explain evolution in terms of random mutations because evolution is not a blind and random process, but is impelled by a tendency to move towards greater complexity and more intense expressions of consciousness. Mutations do not just occur randomly, but are caused by this dynamic creative tendency. This tendency may also explain what systems theorists identify as 'emergence'—the spontaneous arising of new levels of order and complexity in systems.

Evolution could be compared to the development of a human being from embryo to adulthood. Here development moves naturally and inevitably from the simplest state (when two cells which meet and merge) through levels of increasingly complexity, as cells split off and organise and start to form different parts of the body. The process unfolds along predetermined lines, following a kind of blueprint or mould which is specific to our species. I think the process of evolution is similar to this, but on a massively extended time frame, unfolding over hundreds of millions of years. Perhaps the only difference is that the direction of evolution may not be as fixed as the development of individuals—perhaps there is a simple tendency to move towards greater complexity and awareness which is broadly directional, without being completely predetermined.

So in my view, to believe that the process of evolution is accidental is as illogical as interpreting human development from embryo to adulthood as a random process. The process of ontogenetic (or individual) development closely parallels the course of evolution itself over the past four billions years, moving from simple cellular structures to increasing complexity and specialisation—and this parallel includes the probability that both types of development are not random, but directional.

It will be interesting to see where this process takes us—and other living beings—in the future.

References

[1] Capra, F., (1996). The Web of Life. New York: Anchor Books, p. 228.

[2] Grassé, P.P. (1977). Evolution of Living Organisms, Academic Press, New York, p. 97.

[3] Skinner. M. (2016.) Unified theory of evolution: Darwin's theory that natural selection drives evolution is incomplete without input from evolution's anti-hero: Lamarck. Available at: https://aeon.co/essays/on-epigenetics-we-need-both-darwin-s-and-lamarck-s-theories

[4] Summers, R.L. et al, (2014). Diverse mutational pathways converge on saturable chloroquine transport via the malaria parasite's chloroquine resistance transporter, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Vol. 111: E1759-E1767.

[5] Grassé, ibid., p. 96.

[6] Müller, G. & Newman, S. (2003). On the Origin of Organismal Form (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 7.

[7] 'The Third Way: Evolution in the Era of Genomics and Epigenetics.' Available at http://www.thethirdwayofevolution.com

[8] Müller, G. (2017). Why an extended evolutionary synthesis is necessary. Interface Focus. 2017; 7(5):20170015.

[9] Skinner, ibid.

[10] Taylor, S.(2018). Spiritual Science: Why science needs spirituality to make sense of the world. London: Watkins.

[11] Conway, S. M. (2006). Life's solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 327.

[12] Foster, P. L. (2000). Adaptive Mutation: Implications for Evolution. Bioessays, 22: 1067-1074. doi:10.1002/1521-1878(200012)22:12<1067::AID-BIES4>3.0.CO;2-Q

[13] Ball, P. (2011). Physics of Life: The Dawn of Quantum Biology. Nature, 474: 272-274; Vedral, V. (2011). Living in a Quantum World. Scientific American, 304 (6), 38-43.

[14] Nagel, T. (2012). Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. https://doi. org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199919758.001.0001, p.6.





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