The Aristotelianism Just Keeps on Getting Stronger
Cells worked together for a common goal of reproducing more cohesive units, and thereby worked in a concerted way toward increasing their fitness.
Conserved non-coding DNA was the result of regulatory innovations.
The genetic code emerged to avoid random protein sequences.
Small-headed snakes rapidly evolved “to probe eel burrows.”
Oxytricha trifallax, a profoundly complex single-cell organism, was “one of nature’s early attempts to become more complex.”
The brittlestar’s distributed and multifunctional vision system was “designed to minimize spherical aberration and birefringence.”
New proteins evolved because “Nature probably uncovers new topologies in order to fulfill new functions, and optimizes existing topologies to increase their performance.”
The amazing leaproache “evolved to do what grasshoppers do—jump between stems.”
The harp sponge evolved its elaborate candelabra-like structure “in order to increase the surface area.”
The list goes on and on and these are but a tiny sampling of the teleological Aristotelianism one finds in the evolution literature (see more details of these examples here, here and here).
So we were not too surprised to see Peter Corning’s 2013 paper on how behavior has shaped evolution. Corning explains that the behavior of organisms has had a significant influence in the evolutionary process of creating new species. There has been, Corning explains, “a flood of research on how behavioral influences contribute to the ongoing evolutionary process but “the theoretical implications of this paradigm shift still have not been fully integrated into our current thinking about evolution.”
Indeed. Gone is the evolutionary notion of random variation subject to natural selection, otherwise known as “chance and necessity.” Instead, organisms, whose behavior is driven by goals, play an active and major role in evolution. Simply put, as Corning concludes, “our species invented itself”:
Behaviour has a purpose (teleonomy); it is ends-directed. Living organisms are not passive objects of ‘chance and necessity’ (as Jacques Monod put it). Nor is the currently popular concept of phenotypic plasticity sufficient. Organisms are active participants in the evolutionary process (cybernetic systems) and have played a major causal role in determining its direction. It could be called ‘constrained purposiveness’, and one of the important themes in evolution, culminating in humankind, has been the ‘progressive’ evolution of self-determination (intelligence) and its ever-expanding potency. I call this agency ‘Teleonomic Selection’. In a very real sense, our species invented itself. For better and worse, the course of evolution is increasingly being shaped by the ‘Sorcerer's Apprentice’. Monod's mantra needs to be updated. Evolution is a process that combines ‘chance, necessity, teleonomy and selection’.
There is, as always, a problem in this Greek drama. Those organisms, and their behaviors, had to be created by evolution. In other words, evolution just happened to create incredibly complex biological agents with incredibly complex behaviors which then just happened to be crucial influences on the evolutionary process. In short, just as Corning concludes that our species invented itself, we must also conclude that evolution invented itself.
Whereas evolution once called on fairly basic mechanisms such as random variation, it now is at the other end of the spectrum, calling on diploid genetics, horizontal gene transfer, etc., and now human behavior—the most complex mechanisms one can imagine. And those mechanisms must have been created by evolution. Perhaps it is time for a Deus ex machine, for this level of serendipity is beyond silly. At least evolution is entertaining.