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Ramón Moliner wonders how philosophically inclined snakes would explain the Universe

WHAT are we to make of the fact that the Universe has evolved the way it has, producing just the right conditions for us to live in? One faction of cosmologists, including John Barrow, Frank Tipler and Brandon Carter, argues that an anthropic principle is at work: the Universe must be such that it allows, and perhaps even favours, the presence of human beings.
This notion may seem to be a return to the pre-Copernican view that humans are at the centre of the Universe. The cosmologists deny this, and say that many universes were initially possible, each with its own laws and physical constants. But we live in the only Universe that turned out to be compatible with our presence. They also try to word their view in the sense that "what you see is what you beget". That is, if the world were not discoverable by conscious beings, we would not be here to discover it. But the anthropic principle, they insist, should not be equated with the belief in any "cosmic purpose".
Such absence of purposiveness also seems to apply to biology. Darwin hinted that humans exist, not because they were the goal of Creation, but because nature has tried and discarded countless evolutionary experiments. It seems that even in cosmology, some kind of Darwinian selection can be invoked. One way to interpret the anthropic principle is that some universes are more "fit" than others in being compatible with our inquisitive presence. One of them was the "fittest" for us.
Most scientists dislike the notion of cosmic purposiveness. We may be happy to assume an inventive principle in human affairs, but we cannot imagine the presence of something in nature capable of "imagining" evolutionary objectives. When people invent anything, they start out by having a representation of what they want to improve, or the function that the invented item will have. But we cannot conceive how nature could have a representation or "idea" of the biological characteristics that she "wants" to develop or improve. In fact, this could explain why scientists feel so comfortable with the Darwinian theory of natural selection.
Yet something nags at the back of the mind: the only way to make this view consistent is to exclude humans from nature. If Darwin was right, either humans continue to be an unsuspecting and non-foresighted product of past interactions between mutations and natural selection, or things drastically changed with their arrival. To build an aeroplane, the conscious brain of a foresighted engineer is necessary. But, we are told, nothing of the kind is needed to create the gliding skill of an albatross: blind natural selection will suffice. Darwin's hidden message is that human creativity and inventiveness constitute totally novel processes in the history of the Universe. It is not easy to accept this hidden message, but it is equally difficult to propose a general mechanism to account for both human and non-human inventiveness. Is it reasonable to admit that the conscious intervention of humans represents a phenomenon that was absent in nature prior to their advent? The age of the oldest human civilisation is less than one millionth the age of the Universe. Do we have to accept that during that fleeting instant something happened that had never occurred before? That humans can achieve highly improbable feats thanks to their capacity to plan ahead is self-evident. For example, two teams of workers can start tunnels on opposite sides of a mountain and meet exactly in the middle after months of drilling in the dark. Without foresight this would be impossible.
Many cooperative adaptive features found in the living world are equally amazing. Take the fangs of a viper, which have evolved with a canal inside them; an adjacent gland that secretes the poison; a reservoir to store the poison; a membranous duct connecting the reservoir to the canal in the fang; an intricate osteomuscular system that erects the fangs before they strike; an enveloping muscle system that contracts the poison reservoir at the right time; a nervous system that sends the signal for contraction, also at the proper time; and the instinct to use the fangs against prey and not against mates.
It is easy to visualise how random mutations followed by natural selection could lead to the right curvature of the fangs for better grasping of prey. But what would have been the selective advantage of the rest of the poison system if just one of its components had failed to evolve? To claim that it can be achieved through unbiased evolution is like expecting that nine independent miners can attack the core of Mount Everest from various points at the foot of the Himalayas and meet exactly in the middle without the guidance of a surveyor. If snakes could worry about cosmological issues, I wonder how they would view the evolution of the Universe. They would probably end up postulating an "ophidian principle" at work.

Lila: An Enquiry into Morals by Robert Pirsig p170

Those who rejected natural selection on religious or philosophical grounds or simply because it seemed too random a process to explain evolution continued for many years to put forward alternative schemes with such names as orthogenesis, nomogenesis, aristogenesis or the 'Omega Principle' of Teilhard de Chardin [Ref:AOLQ&A2;[Maths3] D.Zohar "The Quantum Self";Davis & Gribbin "The Matter Myth" p302], each scheme relying on some built-in tendency or drive toward perfection or progress. All these theories were finalistic; they postulated some form of cosmic teleology or purpose or program. The proponents of teleological theories, for all their efforts, have been unable to find any mechanism (except supernatural ones) that can account for their postulated finalism. The possibility that any such mechanism can exist has now been virtually ruled out by the findings of molecular biology. Evolution is recklessly opportunistic: it favors any variation that provides a competitive advantage over other members of an organism's own population or over individuals of different species. For billions of years this process has fueled what we call evolutionary progress. No program controlled or directed this progression. It was the result of spur of the moment decisions of natural selection.


Ramón Moliner is a former professor of neurobiology at the University of Sherbrooke Medical School, Quebec





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New Scientist 11 November 1995 File Info: Created 3/2/2002 Updated 4/1/2010  Page Address: