Why do people give Evolution a Telos?

What is evo­lu­tion? Seri­ous­ly. Think about what that word is sup­posed to mean. It means grad­ual change over time. It usu­ally refers to the process which life on Earth has gone through over the past some­thing odd mil­lion-­bil­lion years. Now think about what we sup­pos­edly know about evo­lu­tion. It works by ran­dom muta­tion and nat­ural selec­tion, mean­ing small changes accu­mu­late in dif­fer­ent species and changes which improve the odds of repro­duc­tion of an indi­vid­ual or pop­u­la­tion rel­a­tive to other pop­u­la­tions will be prop­a­gated and con­tribute to long-term, sub­stan­tial change. That is, it’s driven by nat­ural forces and ran­dom chance. So why do peo­ple insist on assign­ing tele­o­log­i­cal pur­pose to a mate­ri­al­is­tic phe­nom­enon like evolution?

Seri­ous­ly? Why do peo­ple do this? To be clear on what I’m talk­ing about, it’s when peo­ple say things like: “Hu­man­ity today is not highly evolved enough to live together peace­ful­ly,” or, “Those peo­ple are not evolved enough to share our sen­si­bil­i­ties.” The prob­lem is when you use phrases like ‘evolved enough’ you ascribe a direc­tion to evo­lu­tion. But evo­lu­tion is not directed except by nature and cir­cum­stance. So it makes no sense to say this.

To clar­ify what I mean: Let’s say man domes­ti­cates dogs. Now let’s say man prefers very tame lap­dogs and so he breads the ani­mals until they are small and tame. Now let’s say that man’s taste have changed and he now prefers hunt­ing ani­mals and so he breads dogs so they are more like wolves again. Bread­ing is a form of arti­fi­cial selec­tion so these ani­mals have evolved from wolves to lap­dogs to wolves again. At which point are they more “high­ly-e­volved?” Does that even make sense in this con­text? No, of course not because to say some­thing like this is to assume that there is a final end towards which the dogs were evolv­ing, but direc­tion of the arti­fi­cial selec­tion kept chang­ing so there was no high­est form.1

Evo­lu­tion is the process by which life changes to suite the cir­cum­stances which nature cre­ates for it and unless you have an intel­li­gent force direct­ing it (such as breed­ing by human­s,) there can be no pur­pose, no telos to it. A stupid man is nei­ther more nor less highly evolved than an intel­li­gent one. If his stu­pid­ity holds a repro­duc­tive advan­tage at the time at which he pos­sesses it,2 then he is per­fectly evolved for his cir­cum­stance regard­less of soci­ety’s prej­u­dice against stupid peo­ple.

So, why do peo­ple ascribe pur­pose to evo­lu­tion? Well, aside from reli­gious belief,3 I think I have a rea­son. It has to do with human ten­den­cies to make their own val­ues sys­tems uni­ver­sal. With overt reli­gious belief, peo­ple gen­er­ally can ref­er­ence a supreme being or karmic force which can impress its val­ues on mankind uni­ver­sal­ly, but a true materialist4 has to accept a world devoid of uni­ver­sal moral­ity and tele­o­log­i­cal pur­pose. How­ev­er, pro­jec­tion of one’s own val­ues is nat­ural and logic has never pre­vented any­one from doing so and it’s nat­ural that peo­ple would then project them onto the clos­est thing to a uni­ver­sal val­ues sys­tem of which they can con­ceive, the unfor­giv­ing forces of nat­ural evo­lu­tion.

This is why peo­ple ascribe traits which are per­ceived as neg­a­tive to “lower stages of evo­lu­tion.” Arbi­trary things like skin color and per­sonal appear­ance, to things which are clearly val­ues judg­ment, like propen­sity to vio­lence or prej­u­dice are then ascribed to evo­lu­tion­ary sta­tus. Despite the fact that killing one’s genetic rivals presents a clear advan­tage in evo­lu­tion­ary terms, we still sit in smug supe­ri­or­ity to those “unevolved” sav­ages who com­mit geno­cide or engage in long term feuds. Our stance is fun­da­men­tally ridicu­lous but we hold on to it any­way.

All in all, I guess it’s to be expect­ed, but why does it mean I have to exposed to such stupid PSAs?

  1. Natural selection doesn’t have a purpose but artificial selection by its nature does. Artificial selection doesn’t need to maintain the same purpose for long however. 
  2. Seeing as people with higher IQs or more education tend to have few children than people with lower IQs or less education, this is likely the case in our own society. 
  3. Which doesn’t usually manifest itself in such banal phrases such as “more highly evolved.” 
  4. or physicalist more properly 

Last update: 23/10/2011

blog comments powered by Disqus