Evolution and the illusion of randomness

Elemente der Naturwissenschaft 96, 2012, P. 56-75 | DOI: 10.18756/edn.96.56


Most of us learned in school that all the beauty, embodied wisdom, and diversity of life on earth have resulted from two driving forces: random variation (genetic mutation) and selection of the fittest organisms. It is recognized today that mutations are, in general, far from random — and are appearing less so with almost every new discovery at the molecular level. But there remains one crucial respect, foundational to current evolutionary theory, in which mutations must continue to be deemed random: they must be random with respect to fitness. In other words, the likelihood of a mutation must be independent of its usefulness to the organism. This assumption underlies remarks by evolutionist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennett to the effect that evolution is an essentially blind, mindless, purposeless, and meaningless process. Yet the current literature powerfully testifies to the fact that (1) mutational processes in general participate in the highly organized and coordinated life processes of the cell and organism — so much so that some researchers now refer to “natural genetic engineering”; and (2) the idea of fitness, which biologists and philosophers have struggled with for decades, remains hopelessly obscure, and its obscurity is widely acknowledged. The claim of meaninglessness is therefore grounded in the wholly unsupported notion that mutations — which in general do not happen blindly at all, but are part of coherent life processes — are random at least when considered relative to a concept (fitness) that cannot be given any coherent or agreed-upon meaning.

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