Does biological evolution tend towards a direction? And does that direction lead to intelligence that enhances survivability? Many scientists have assumed that it does, particularly those involved in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute. However, a recent article casts doubt on the idea that smartness inevitably gives survival advantage. Research has shown that an ability to learn can have dangerous evolutionary side effects, raising questions as to why and how humans paid the hidden costs in order to become super intelligent. One researcher even speculated that some of our diseases are a byproduct of intelligence.
The New York Times article pokes a finger in the soft underbelly of the Darwinian evolutionary model. That is, how to explain the extraordinary technological and rational intelligence of humans. Most naturalists attempt to show that Darwinian evolution leads inevitably to higher and higher intelligence or, in the words of Carl Sagan, to “the functional equivalent of humans.” In the absence of evidence, they apply “Darwinism of the gaps” argument and say that since human intelligence exists, evolution caused it. SETI extrapolates this conclusion across the cosmos by assuming that human functional equivalents are common “out there.”
Even Richard Dawkins assumes this point. In his book The God Delusion, Dawkins says that “a Zeitgeist progression” carries humanity ever upward.1
Unfortunately, the data does not help the naturalists’ cause. Evolution does not exhibit any such directedness. Fazale Rana discussed this problem in a TNRTB article “Evolution Loses Its Direction.” He writes, “Fossil evidence reveals that evolutionary change is seldom directional.”
An Astrobiologyarticle by Charles Lineweaver signals more trouble for the Darwinian model.2 Lineweaver (Australian National University) writes that “the issue of whether intelligence is a convergent feature of evolution is possibly the single most important issue in astrobiology.” Lineweaver points out that the “convergentists” are mostly physical scientists (such as Carl Sagan) whereas the “nonconvergentists” are mostly biologists. Presumably, physical scientists are influenced by their deterministic equations and biologists have a better appreciation of the contingencies of Darwinian evolution.
Lineweaver comes down firmly on the side of the nonconvergentists, calling the idea of convergent intelligence the “Planet of the Apes” hypothesis, after the 1968 movie. He cites a portion of life’s history that can be thought of as a series of experiments carried out over periods of 50 – 200 million years. Those “tests” took place on South America, Australia, North America, Madagascar, and India. Each region was isolated by the splitting of ancient continents, and no “functional equivalents” evolved during the past 50 – 200 million years. However, modern humans popped up in Africa in a relatively short period of time. Lineweaver writes, “There is no evidence for the Planet of the Apes hypothesis. Human intelligence is not a convergent feature of evolution. Rather it is a species-specific trait—like the beautiful yellow crest of a sulfur-crested cockatoo.” He also gives the example of the elephant’s distinctive long nose. The elephant’s ancestors may have had progressively longer noses as they evolved to the present, but this does not mean increasing nose length is a general feature of evolution, much less a feature that should be anticipated throughout the cosmos.
Lineweaver concludes by saying, “The fossil record and the living results of five large-scale, long-term experiments suggest there is no convergence toward human-like intelligence.” This means that, from a Darwinian point of view, human intelligence is no more remarkable or expected than fancy bird plumage or the long nose of an elephant.
There is still no naturalistic explanation for the unique intellect of humanity, except to say “evolution did it.” That intellect is able to uncover the secrets of the 14-billion-year history of the universe as well as probe the interior of a neutron. In an interview with New Scientist magazine, University of Oxford mathematical physicist Roger Penrose expressed astonishment at human intellectual abilities in light of their supposedly evolutionary origins. 3
What I always find is very remarkable is the understanding of mathematics; because most of the mathematics that is done as mathematics is completely beyond any experience. How can people wandering around in the Pleistocene, or whenever they wandered around, how could they have conceivably built up the kind of intellect that enables us to talk about infinite sets, concepts which are completely outside any immediately useful purpose. So there is something there in consciousness somehow that is able to achieve all sorts of things beyond what it was designed for, if you like. And quite why that is the case is a great mystery, but it seems to be the case.
However, all such data is congruent with a Creator God who fashioned man in his image. Current scientific research is also consistent with RTB’s creation model while the contingencies of the Darwinian model give no insight as to why humans are so uniquely endowed.
- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), 271-72.
- Charley Lineweaver, “‘Intelligent Life in the Universe: From Common Origins to the Future of Humanity’ by Peter Ulmscheider,” Astrobiology 5, no. 5 (October 1, 2005): 658-61.
- Podcast from the online edition of New Scientist Magazine, November, 2006. The associated article is in the November 18, 2006, edition.