March 22nd, 2002

The first part of this essay from a future chapter of UnCommon Science was posted yesterday.

Synergic Evolution (II)

Timothy Wilken, MD

Unfortunately, today many humans hold the belief that evolutionary science has refuted the very concept of ‘purpose’ in Universe. And, a universe without purpose is perhaps even more pernicious than a universe without God.

However, evolution does not prove a purposeless Universe.

Recall from our earlier discussions that reductionistic science focuses on ‘parts’, energy, and entropy. Remember entropy is the trend towards disorder that dominates the simpler processes of light, particles, atoms, and simple molecules. Reductionistic science is insensitive to ‘wholes’, synergy and syntropy. Syntropy is the trend towards order that dominates the more complex processes of complex molecules, plants, animals, and humans. Remember further that while entropy dominates simpler processes syntropy is found at every level of process. And while syntropy dominates complex processes, entropy is found at every level of process.

Reductionistic science focuses on ‘parts’ and not on ‘wholes’. Purpose is found in the ‘wholes’ and not in the ‘parts’. Reductionistic science is blind to purpose.

Evolution is a synergic phenomenon, however it was discovered and first described by Darwin, Wallace, Spencer, and Huxley. These classical scientists were of course time-binders and also bound in time. They lived and thought in the 19th century when reductionistic science ruled.

The belief that purpose cannot be found in universe is a reductionistic error that persists even today among many evolutionary scientists. Young writing in 1976 commented:

Process is defined as a series of actions or operations taken to reach an end, therefore process projects a goal. The notion of purpose or teleology is forbidden in science, among biologists especially, who, while they must be strongly tempted to invoke it at every turn, avoid it as reformed alcoholic avoids a drink. (4)
Richard Dawkins is perhaps one of today’s (2002) best living scientists. However, he is ignorant of synergy, and so makes the mistake of ‘either/or’ thinking. He is caught up in the ‘evolution versus creationism’ trap. His failure to find evidence of a designer and his desire to be a ‘good’ scientist—true to his intellect—compels him to deny God. It should therefore come as no surprise that he is an avowed atheist. However, if we step carefully to avoid his mistakes, he has much to teach us. I will quote extensively from his writings a little later, but first lets examine what he has to say about purpose: 
Charles Darwin lost his faith with the help of a wasp: I cannot persuade myself, Darwin wrote, that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars. … The macabre habits of the Ichneumonidae are shared by their cousins the digger wasps. … A female digger wasp not only lays her egg in a caterpillar (or grasshopper or bee) so that her larva can feed on it but, according to Fabre and others, she carefully guides her sting into each ganglion of the prey’s central nervous system, so as to paralyze it but not kill it. This way, the meat keeps fresh. It is not known whether the paralysis acts as a general anesthetic, or if it is like curare in just freezing the victim’s ability to move. If the latter, the prey might be aware of being eaten alive from inside but unable to move a muscle to do anything about it. This sounds savagely cruel but, as we shall see, nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous — indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.

We humans have purpose on the brain. We find it hard to look at anything without wondering what it is for, what the motive for it is, or the purpose behind it. When the obsession with purpose becomes pathological it is called paranoia — reading malevolent purpose into what is actually random bad luck. But this is just an exaggerated form of a nearly universal delusion. Show us almost any object or process, and it is hard for us to resist the Why question — the What is it for? question.

The desire to see purpose everywhere is a natural one in an animal that lives surrounded by machines, works of art, tools and other designed artifacts: an animal, moreover, whose waking thoughts are dominated by it own personal goals. A car, a tin opener, a screw driver and a pitchfork all legitimately warrant the What is it for? question. Our pagan forebears would have asked the same question about thunder, eclipses, rocks, and streams. Today we pride ourselves on having shaken off such primitive animism. If a rock in a stream happens to serve as a convenient stepping-stone, we regard its usefulness as an accidental bonus, not a true purpose. But the old temptation comes back with a vengeance when tragedy strikes — indeed, the very word strikes is an animistic echo: Why, oh why, did the cancer/earthquake/hurricane have to strike my child? And the same temptation is often positively relished when the topic is the origin of all things or the fundamental laws of physics, culminating in the vacuous existential question Why is there something rather than nothing? …

The mere fact that it is possible to frame a question does not make it legitimate or sensible to do so. There are many things about which you can ask, What is its temperature? or What color is it? but you may not ask the temperature question or the color question of, say, jealousy or prayer. Similarly, you are right to ask the Why question of a bicycle’s mudguards or the Kariba Dam, but at the very least you have no right to assume that the Why question deserves an answer when posed about a boulder, a misfortune, Mt. Everest or the universe. Questions can be simply inappropriate, however heartfelt their framing.

Somewhere between windscreen wipers and tin openers on the one hand and rocks and the universe on the other lie living creatures. Living bodies and their organs are objects that, unlike rocks, seem to have purpose written all over them. Notoriously, of course, the apparent purposefulness of living bodies has dominated the classic Argument from Design, invoked by theologians from Aquinas to William Paley to modern scientific creationists.

The true process that has endowed wings and eyes, beaks, nesting instincts and everything else about life with the strong illusion of purposeful design is now well understood. It is Darwinian natural selection. Our understanding of this has come astonishingly recently, in the last century and a half. Before Darwin, even educated people who had abandoned Why questions for rocks, streams and eclipses still implicitly accepted the legitimacy of the Why question where living creatures were concerned. Now only the scientifically illiterate do. But only conceals the unpalatable truth that we are still talking about an absolute majority.

Actually, Darwinians do frame a kind of Why question about living things, but they do so in a special, metaphorical sense. Why do birds sing, and what are wings, for? Such questions would be accepted as a shorthand by modern Darwinians and would be given sensible answers in terms of the natural selection of bird ancestors. The illusion of purpose is so powerful that biologists themselves use the assumption of good design as a working tool. Zoologist and Nobel laureate Karl von Frisch discovered, in the teeth of strong orthodox opinion to the contrary, that some insects have true color vision. His clinching experiments were stimulated by the simple observation that bee-pollinated flowers go to great trouble to manufacture colored pigments. Why would they do this if bees were color-blind? The metaphor of purpose—more precisely, the assumption that Darwinian selection is involved—is here being used to make a strong inference about the world. It would have been quite wrong for von Frisch to have said, Flowers are colored, therefore bees must have color vision. But it was right for him to say, as he did, Flowers are colored, therefore it is at least worth my while working hard at some new experiments to test the hypothesis that they have color vision. What he found when he looked into the matter in detail was that bees have good color vision but the spectrum they see is shifted relative to ours. They can’t see red light (they might give the name infra yellow to what we call red). But they can see into the range of shorter wavelengths we call ultraviolet, and they see ultraviolet as a distinct color, sometimes called bee purple.

When he realized that bees see in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, von Frisch again did some reasoning using the metaphor of purpose. What, he asked himself, do bees use their ultraviolet sense for? His thoughts returned full circle—to flowers. Although we can’t see ultraviolet light, we can make photographic film that is sensitive to it, and we can make filters that are transparent to ultraviolet light but cut out visible light. Acting on his hunch, von Frisch took some ultraviolet photographs of flowers. To his delight, he saw patterns of spots and stripes that no human eye had ever seen before. Flowers that to us look white or yellow are in fact decorated with ultraviolet patterns, which often serve as runway markers to guide the bees to the nectaries. The assumption of apparent purpose had paid off once again: flowers, if they were well designed, would exploit the fact that bees can see ultraviolet wavelengths.

When he was an old man, von Frisch’s famous earlier work on the dance of the bees—was called into question by an American biologist named Adrian Wenner. Fortunately, von Frisch lived long enough to see his work vindicated by another American, James L. Gould, now at Princeton, in one of the most brilliantly conceived experiments of all biology. I’ll briefly tell the story, because it is relevant to my point about the power of the as if designed assumption.

Karl von Frisch had made the epoch discovery that honeybees tell each other the whereabouts of flowers by means of a carefully coded dance. If the food is very close to the hive, they do the round dance, This just excites other bees, and they rush out and search in the vicinity of the hive, not particularly remarkable. But very remarkable is what happens when the food is farther away from the hive. The forager who has discovered the food performs the so-called waggle dance, and its form and timing tell the other bees both the compass direction and the distance from the hive of the food.

Wenner and his colleagues did not deny that the dance happens. They did not even deny that it contains all the information von Frisch said it did. What they did deny is that other bees read the dance. Yes, Wenner said, it is true that the direction of the straight run of the waggle dance relative to the vertical is related to the direction of food relative to the sun. But no, other bees don’t receive this information from the dance. Yes, it is true that the rates of various things in the dance can be read as information about the distance of food. But there is no good evidence that the other bees read the information. They could be ignoring it. Von Frisch’s evidence, the skeptics said, was flawed, and when they repeated his experiments with proper controls (that is, by taking care of alternative means by which bees might find food), the experiments no longer supported von Frisch’s dance-language hypothesis.

This was where Jim Gould came into the story with his exquisitely ingenious experiments. Gould exploited a long-known fact about honeybees. Although they usually dance in the dark, relying on their gravity sense to detect differences between the direction of the dance and the straight-up direction in the vertical plane that stands as token for the sun’s direction in the horizontal plane, they will effortlessly switch to a possibly more ancestral way of doing things if you turn on a light inside the hive. They then forget all about gravity and use the lightbulb as their token sun, allowing it to determine the angle of the dance directly. Fortunately, no misunderstandings arise when the dancer switches her allegiance from gravity to the lightbulb. The other bees reading the dance switch their allegiance in the same way, so the dance still carries the same meaning: the other bees still head off looking for food in the direction the dancer intended.

Now for Jim Gould’s masterstroke. He painted a dancing bee’s eyes over with black shellac, so that she couldn’t see the lightbulb. She therefore danced using the normal gravity convention. But the other bees following her dance, not being blindfolded, could see the lightbulb. They interpreted the dance as if the gravity convention had been dropped and replaced by the lightbulb sun convention. The dance followers measured the angle of the dance relative to the light, whereas the dancer herself was aligning it relative to gravity. Gould was, in effect, forcing the dancing bee to lie about the direction of the food. Not just lie in a general sense, but lie in a particular direction that Gould could precisely manipulate. He did the experiment not with just one blindfolded bee, of course, but with a proper statistical sample of bees and variously manipulated angles. And it worked. Von Frisch’s original dance-language hypothesis was triumphantly vindicated.

I didn’t tell this story for fun. I wanted to make a point about the negative as well as the positive aspects of the assumption of good design. When I first read the skeptical papers of Wenner and his colleagues, I was openly derisive. And this was not a good thing to be, even though Wenner eventually turned out to be wrong. My derision was based entirely on the good design assumption. Wenner was not, after all, denying that the dance happened, nor that it embodied all the information von Frisch had claimed about the distance and direction of food. Wenner simply denied that the other bees read the information. And this was too much for me and many other Darwinian biologists to stomach. The dance was so complicated, so richly contrived, so finely tuned to its apparent purpose of informing other bees of the distance and direction of food. This fine tuning could not have come about, in our view, other than by natural selection. In a way, we fell into the same trap as creationists do when they contemplate the wonders of life. The dance simply had to be doing something useful, and this presumably meant helping foragers to find food. Moreover, those very aspects of the dance that were so finely tuned—the relationship of its angle and speed to the direction and distance of food—had to be doing something useful too. Therefore, in our view, Wenner just had to be wrong. So confident was I that, even if I had been ingenious enough to think of Gould’s blindfold experiment (which I certainly wasn’t), I would not have bothered to do it.

Gould not only was ingenious enough to think of the experiment but he also bothered to do it, because he was not seduced by the ‘good design’ assumption. It is a fine tightrope we are walking, however, because I suspect that Gould—like von Frisch before him, in his color research—had enough of the ‘good design’ assumption in his head to believe that his remarkable experiment had a respectable chance of success and was therefore worth spending time and effort on. (5)

And, so we see that like many evolutionary scientists Dawkins adds the denial of purpose to his denial of God. Dawkins and company are indeed walking a fine tightrope. He begins the preceding discussion with strong denial of purpose, but then almost immediately finds it necessary to qualify his denial with a number of permited exceptions to the exclusion of purpose. His reductionistic bias forces him to lock the front door to purpose, but expediency requires that he let it in the back door in a special, metaphorical sense.(6) Young could have been describing Dawkins when he said: The notion of purpose or teleology is forbidden in science, among biologists especially, who, while they must be strongly tempted to invoke it at every turn, avoid it as reformed alcoholic avoids a drink.(7)

So we see that even today 2002, Dawkins like many evolutionary biologists is under the influence of the reductionistic bias and cannot acknowledge the role of purpose in universe, and yet he invokes it at every turn, but hides it by speaking of ‘good‘ design rather than ‘purposeful‘ design.

We cannot criticize Dawkins for invoking purpose. Evolution cannot be explained without it. However, his need to deny and hide purpose is a scientific mistake resulting from his ignorance of synergy and his commitment to the reductionistic bias. Recall reductionistic science focuses on ‘parts’ and not on ‘wholes’. Purpose is found in the ‘wholes’ and not in the ‘parts’. Reductionistic science is blind to purpose.

Little Purpose

When evolutionary scientists do allow themselves to speak of purpose they are never speaking of big purpose—the ultimate purpose for the universe or the goal of Nature, or the Why of life, or the Why of humanity. To do so might require an acknowledgement of ‘God’. So when they speak of purpose—it is always of little purpose. By this I mean they are willing to admit purpose in their special, metaphorical sense. Why do birds sing, and what are wings, for? They are willing to admit purpose to explain eyes, beaks, nesting instincts, color vision in bees, and the communication dance of the bees. (8)

Synergic science focuses on ‘wholes’. And purpose is found in wholes. Synergy scientist Arthur Young lets purpose in the front door. He found purpose begins within the first stage of process — light and is found as well at all other stages of process — particles, atoms, molecules, plants, animals, and humans.

Recall from my earlier discussion of action in the basics section. We can view universe as action — universe as dynamic. Action implies motion, movement, animation — by definition process.

Now recall action, is always accompanied by two other phenomena—the reaction, and the resultant. Recall further that actions can not and do not occur in isolation. If they impinge on the environment or on others, they will effect or impact on the environment — they will effect or impact on others. The environment or other reacts at the beginning of the action. And the effect or impact on the environment or other at the end of the action produces a resultant.

Process is then action-reaction-resultant. Now recall that process is either random or controlled, and actions, reactions and resultants are also either random or controlled.

Imagine you are throwing a ball. There is a target on the wall at the end of the room. Now lets imagine you are just throwing randomly. You have no intention to hit the target. You are not avoiding the target. You are ignoring it. Perhaps to keep yourself honest you cover your eyes with a blindfold. When we analyze your throws we will discover that the few times the ball struck the target would be no more frequent then the times the ball struck any other area of equal size on the wall. This finding would correspond to the probability of a random event. This is what we would expect if you had no purpose.

Now lets imagine you are throwing a ball, and this time you are throwing with the goal of hitting the target. Your eyes are not covered and it is your intention to hit the target every time if possible. When we analyze your throws this time we discover that the ball is striking the target more frequently then it is striking other areas of equal size. This finding would correspond to the probability of a controlled event. This is what we would expect if you had purpose.

There is nothing mysterious about purpose. We can easily detect it by simply examining process to determine if a non-random pattern exists. Non-random pattern is evidence of control. Evidence of control is by definition goal seeking behavior, and that by definition requires purpose.

How do you determine if a non-random event has occurred?

This is a question that requires temporal intelligence. Events by definition occur over time. Only Time-binding intelligence can analyze process. We humans see purpose everywhere not because we are surrounded by machines, works of art, tools and other designed artifacts and not because our waking thoughts are dominated by our own personal goals. (9) But because we humans are time aware — we humans are the only class of life capable of detecting purpose.

Understanding purpose also requires perspective. Imagine you live along a road. Everyday you observe a blond man drive an automobile past your house at about 8:00 am. Later in the day the same man drives past your house again, but this time in the opposite direction and always at about 5:00 pm. This happens nearly everyday Monday through Friday. You can see that this behavior represents a non-random event. There is a regular pattern here. There is order here. You know that this pattern of behavior represents purposeful behavior. But from this perspective you can’t discover what that purpose is. You cannot answer the question, Why does the blond man drive past your house?

Now imagine one day a friend of yours picks you up in his helicopter. You are now able to observe the same man in his automobile from a different perspective. With your new ability to observe from above and to follow the man in his automobile, you soon discover that he is traveling from a nearby residence in the morning to a factory in the next town, and from that factory in the evening back to the nearby residence.

With your new perspective you can determine the purpose of the behavior that was hidden from you when you watched the road only from your house. The ability to determine purpose is dependent upon the perspective available during observation.

The history of scientific advancement can now be seen in many ways to be the result of improving perspective. The invention of telescopes and microscopes gave the observer new perspective from which to view process.

Big Purpose

Science has no answer to the the questions of who or why universe. Science has made no attempt to define or describe the source of Universe. Science seeks rather to understand how the universe works — to understand the mechanism that the source uses to create Heaven and Earth — to create Life and Human — to create the Universe itself.

Neuroscientist William H. Calvin writing in 1996 discusses the scientific how as used to try to understand human intelligence: 

Answering the how questions is often our closest approach to answering a why question. Just remember that the answers to how mechanisms come in two extreme forms, which are sometimes known as proximate and ultimate causation. Even the pros sometimes get them mixed up, only to discover that they’ve been arguing about two sides of the same coin, so I suspect that a few words of background are needed here.

When you ask, How does that work? You sometimes mean how in a short-term, mechanical sense — how does something work in one person, right now. But sometimes you mean how in a long-term transformational sense — involving a series of animal populations that change during species evolution. The physiological mechanisms underlying intelligent behavior are the proximate how; the prehistoric mechanisms that evolved our present brains are the other kind of how. You can sometimes explain in one sense without even touching upon the other sense of how. Such a false sense of completeness is, of course, a good way to get blindsided.

Furthermore, there are different levels of explanation in both cases. Physiological how questions can be asked at a number of different levels of organization. Both consciousness and intelligence are at the high end of our mental life, but they are frequently confused with more elementary mental processes — with what we use to recognize a friend or tie a shoelace. Such simpler neural mechanisms are, of course, likely to be the foundations from which our abilities to handle logic and metaphor evolved.

Evolutionary how questions also have a number of levels of explanation: just saying that a mutation did it isn’t likely to be a useful answer to an evolutionary question involving whole populations. Both physiological and evolutionary answers at multiple levels are needed if we are to understand our own intelligence in any detail. They might even help us appreciate how an artificial or an exotic intelligence could evolve — as opposed to creation from top-down design.(10)

Is Dawkins right in his belief that it is a vacuous existential question to ask why? Is he right when he says, Before Darwin, even educated people who had abandoned Why questions for rocks, streams and eclipses still implicitly accepted the legitimacy of the Why question where living creatures were concerned. Now only the scientifically illiterate do. But only conceals the unpalatable truth that we are still talking about an absolute majority?(11)

Is Dawkins right that there is no big purpose? That nature, universe, life, and humanity have no purpose? Perhaps the absolute majority of scientifically illiterate humanity are wiser than trained evolutionary biologists when it comes to understanding purpose.

Contrary to Dawkins, I believe that it is completely legitimate to ask the Why questions. I believe there is big purpose in the universe. However, we may not yet have the necessary perspective to answer the big questions. Why Nature? Why Universe? Why life? Or, why humanity? But the lack of the necessary perspective to answer those questions does not mean that Nature, Universe, life, and humanity are without purpose.

While we humans are time-binders, and the only class of life that asks or answers questions, we have not been asking and answering questions for very long.

Modern humanity—Homo sapien sapien—only appeared on Earth 90,000 years ago, and the most ancient human civilization known began only 5500 years ago. Gutenberg only invented the printing press 543 years ago. And, the Wright brothers invented the airplane less than 100 years ago. We have only had the personal computer for 25 years. If we represented the 3.4 billion years that life has existed on Earth by a yearly calender with the beginning of life occurring on January 1st, then humanity does not appear until one minute before midnight on December 31st.


So while we humans may not yet be able to answer the big Why questions, this fact in no way invalidates those questions. We may need a better perspective. We may even have to get off the planet and explore the Universe before we have the necessary perspective to answer the big questions.

Why Nature?

Why Universe?

Why life…? And, why humanity?

Levels of Purpose

Purpose works at many levels. In my example of throwing the ball without intending to hit the target, we could say at the level of the target there was no purpose, but at level of just throwing the ball there was purpose.

Once you start looking for purpose you will find that like syntropy — it is everywhere in universe. Simple processes have simple purposes. Complex processes have complex purposes. Purpose simply implies a ‘goal’. Purposeful behavior is just goal seeking behavior.

Reductionistic science — the science of the ‘part’ has been responsible for most of the past advances in human knowledge. However it is an incomplete picture of universe. Reductionistic science suffers from an ignorance of the ‘whole’ — from an ignorance of synergy. This ignorance produces errors of ‘either/or thinking’ and ‘mixing levels of organization’. As we review the current thinking of evolutionary biology, we must step carefully to avoid these errors.

Do not view my comments as critical of Dawkins. They are not. If I had lived his life and had his life experiences, I would most sincerely believe as he does. I am writing later, and I have the benefit of the synergic perspective.

In future chapters, I will demonstrate that synergic science 2002 finds purpose omnipresent in universe.


 4) Arthur Young, The Reflexive Universe, Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 1976

5)  Richard Dawkins, RIVER OUT OF EDEN—A Darwinian View Of Life, BasicBooks, New York, 1995

6)  Richard Dawkins, RIVER OUT OF EDEN—A Darwinian View Of Life, 1995, ibid

7) Arthur Young, The Reflexive Universe, 1976, ibid

8) Richard Dawkins, RIVER OUT OF EDEN—A Darwinian View Of Life, 1995, ibid

9) Richard Dawkins, RIVER OUT OF EDEN—A Darwinian View Of Life, 1995, ibid

10) William H. Calvin, HOW BRAINS THINK—Evolving Intelligence, Then and Now, BasicBooks/HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1996

11) Richard Dawkins, RIVER OUT OF EDEN—A Darwinian View Of Life, 1995, ibid

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