Chapter 5

Adaptation and evolution

And this leads into the second aspect of repair, which is very interesting, and because of its mechanism has as much to do with reproduction as with the individual organism. Living bodies have defense mechanisms built into them against possible attacks, and also mechanisms by which they attract organisms which can help them perform some task that they can't do by themselves.

Thus, the rose has thorns, which make it unattractive to plant eaters like sheep; but at the same time, it has flowers with nectar to attract insects which will pollinate them.

And this is true of all organisms. Every one of them "knows," as it were, what its environment is likely to be like, and is admirably adapted to it, taking advantage of whatever can be helpful to it, and seeing to it that harm to it is reduced to a minimum.

Interestingly, the organism whose body is least well adapted to its environment is the human being; there is no fur coat to keep off the heat and the cold, no sharp teeth or claws (though we are in part carnivores), no great speed in running, a poorly developed sense of smell and hearing, and so on. All we have going for us are opposable thumbs and the ability to understand; and the latter seems to have served us very well. Some scientists have made a great deal of the opposable thumb, as if our understanding evolved somehow from it; but people who have lost their thumbs learn quickly how to do quite well without them, and monkeys that for practical purposes have them (in addition to prehensile tails) don't seem on the road to the leap forward that we made. No, apparently with human beings, our understanding is pretty much all we need; and the human body seems, with its hair in strange places, to be constructed with a view to esthetics more than practicality. But we will say more of this later.

In any case, this adaptation of living bodies to possible environments is something that is in the genetic structure; and its presence there is "explained" in some sense by chance interference with the genes by cosmic radiation, heat, and other sorts of accidents, plus natural selection (if the mutant happens to be better adapted to its environment, then it thrives and passes on the mutated genes to its abundant offspring, while the less well adapted organisms die off).

All well and good, but (a) there has never been a laboratory case of a new species emerging, in spite of how often fruit flies reproduce. The changes reach a certain point, and then the organisms die, or they revert back to the old form. (b) Many of the organs that were supposed to have developed in this way are extremely complex (like the eye), and simply don't work at all unless everything is there and working right; and this involves not one but undoubtedly hundreds or thousands of genes. Development of an organ like an eye out of chance mutation and natural selection would involve millions and millions of minor changes giving the mutated organisms an organ that was totally useless--and why should they all be "better adapted" than those who weren't encumbered with this useless part that would only be useful (though supremely so, perhaps) a million generations down the pike? And if there are a million generations involved, this would mean that a million organisms with a useless appendage would by chance be better adapted to the environment than their predecessors.

Of course, you can take Stephen Jay Gould's view and speculate that some terribly drastic change occurred in the genes, giving the body the whole working organ all at once; and then it would be obviously better adapted and could survive. But that, of course, makes the probability against it so high that astronomical numbers are just elementary arithmetic. Further, this explanation entails some other improbabilities: First of all, we would have to add that it had to happen with every organ of the body, if we evolved from protozoa; and that makes the probability even more fantastically small. Probabilities do not just add up, you know: the probability of the "one" coming on top on one die is one in six (because of six sides); but the probability of two "ones" coming up on two dice is not one in twelve, but one in 6 x 6 = 36 (because there are now 36 possible combinations, only one of which is two ones).

Secondly, there is the further complication that apparently a given gene may belong to several clusters (determining different organs) at once. That is, there is not just one set of genes that determines skin color and another completely distinct set that determines hair texture, and another eye color and so on; some of the genes that are involved in skin color may be the same genes that are involved hair texture with other genes that have nothing to do with skin color. This intermixture of the genes, of course, makes forming a new organ all that less likely.

Not only that, but in the third place, these chance mutations of excessively complex organs produce organisms that all fit together in the ecological situation remarkably--astoundingly-- well, so that the waste of one nourishes the other, the predatory tendencies of one are used by its victim, and so on. To achieve a "balanced" ecology like this is horrendously complicated, even on a very small scale, as we are discovering to our sorrow; and anything like what nature has done with such ease in every corner of the world is far, far beyond the feeble human intellect.

No, something extremely fishy is going on here. The fossil evidence seems to indicate quite conclusively that evolution did in fact take place; the evidence of different sorts of organisms in different rock layers is if anything harder to explain on any other assumption than evolution than the difficulty of explaining evolution itself by chance mutations and natural selection.

So we have an effect. The changes in genetic structure apparently did in fact take place. But chance interference with the genes and natural selection--let us face it--simply does not work as its mechanism; it would predict that there might be some simple organisms, but not this tremendously intermeshed system of organisms the complexity of each of which is so great that we can't begin to understand it.

We are left with three possibilities: either (a) there is something in the organism itself that knows its situation somehow (How else can you put it?) and itself interferes with the genes in a constructive way, or (b) there is Divine Providence, or (c) there is a combination of the two. Against the first view is that Lamarck's "transmission of acquired characteristics" seems to be just as devoid of empirical verification as chance mutation and natural selection, if not more so. But perhaps it wasn't an acquired characteristic. Perhaps it is more like what Hegel called the "cleverness of the concept"--the form of the unifying energy--giving itself a mutation in a positive direction.

We have seen already that the form of the unifying energy of a living body makes the body exist at an energy level that is too high for its nature as a physical system; hence, it has control over the body, and can wrench it into a constant unnatural condition. Perhaps it is not totally without control over its own genetic pattern--or at least the genetic pattern of its offspring. We do know this: in some sense it can pick out what part of the genetic information it is going to use to determine itself, as when the caterpillar develops as a caterpillar, and then shuts down those genes as operative and makes itself a butterfly.

Could it be that the living organism, faced with a challenge from the environment, could not only read the genetic pattern, but write to it as well? Not for itself, but for its offspring? When you put the analogy that way, as if the genetic pattern were a program in a computer, it doesn't sound quite so fantastic as otherwise.

But we still have to face the fact that the living being is an essentially higher kind of being than inanimate beings, because it maintains this super-high energy level. But since inanimate beings' natural tendency it to go downward to their ground state, how did the first living being(s) emerge out of them? What is less cannot of itself give rise to what is greater.

Furthermore, as we will see in subsequent chapters, when you get to conscious beings (sentient and intellectual ones) you encounter an act that in some sense (and in man in a true sense) is spiritual: without any quantity at all, and infinitely beyond the whole quantitative realm. How can this arise out of what is infinitely beneath it? How can the effect be superior to its cause? And in this case, the sperm and ovum before uniting are living a purely vegetative life, which, even if it is life, doesn't have a spiritual dimension to it.

I don't see how, then, that the total cause of an essentially superior effect can be what is inferior (more limited). Hence, it seems to me that we have only part of the cause here.

And the other part would have to be what is responsible for the living body's being the finite being which it is. After all, the problem in the living body is that its essence is beyond (even infinitely beyond) its constituent parts and the capacity and tendency of the bodies whose activity went into its makeup.

Thus, it seems that we are forced into the following conclusion:

Conclusion 12: God is the cause of the living being's being superior to the bodies it arose out of.

But how can God be this cause, if different causes have different effects, and God is the cause of the general fact of a body's being finite?

I think we have to say now that "God" is the causer of these different effects. Insofar as the fact that the living being is less limited than the bodies it arose out of, then the cause of its being able to be this has to be an aspect of the being that caused it to be finite in the first place. He causes it to be the finite being which it is, but does so in such a way that the finite being which it is is not totally dependent for its specification on the causes in this world.

Apparently, then, the parents (or, if you will, the sperm and the ovum) produce a body which is capable of supporting a unifying energy that is somehow "beyond" the quantitative limitation which it has; and at this point God limits the body with this kind of unifying energy.

This means not only that every advance to a higher stage of being (inanimate to life, vegetative to sentient life, etc.) is a miracle, but that the emergence of every single organism is one also, if by "miracle" you mean something involving the actual intervention of God in the act, and not simply his "cooperating" with it as "ratifying," the laws of nature by causing the finite being to be what it is, leaving its specification totally up to the this-worldly causes.

But if this occurs with each individual organism, and if evolution shows a definite progression toward these higher and more complex beings, and if this progression runs counter to what you would expect from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, then it seems that we can draw another conclusion also:

Conclusion 13: God must in some sense be aware of what is happening in the world.

That is, if God did not know what was going on, how could he engage in this active intervention as occasion offered? The Enlightenment's "cosmic watchmaker" who supposedly "wound up the world" in the beginning and gave it its laws, wouldn't have to know what was going on once he gave it its initial push. But it seems that things don't work that way. If this were the way things were, then (a) the emergence of the superior out of the inferior would be inexplicable, and (b) things would have followed the Second Law of Thermodynamics and not have organized themselves into more complex bodies.

That is, when St. Paul said (In Romans, I), "[God's] invisible presence from the creation of the world can be seen from what he made by anyone who puts his mind to it," he was apparently right, if the reasoning above is true; but you have to "put your mind to it" very carefully to see that God's active presence in shaping the evolution of the world is really the correct explanation and not a simplistic cop-out.

But a still closer look at evolution seems to indicate that God is intervening where the worldly causes leave loopholes because of the chance operation of their laws. That is, the laws of the creatures that are evolving are left intact; but these laws involve an element of chance (which of the pair of chromosomes get passed on to the offspring, how the chromosomes get damaged by outside energy, etc.); and it is within this chance element that God apparently arranges things so that a body will be formed which can support the less limited unifying energy of the next higher level of being; and when such a body is present, as I said, he supplies the less limited unifying energy.

This would even be true if organisms can "write to" their chromosomes and alter their genetic programs in definite ways, depending on outside challenges. The ecological cooperation would still not occur by itself on this assumption.

In this regard, the rather dismal failure of Adam Smith's "invisible hand" in economic matters is instructive. His idea was that if each person followed his self-interest, then there is an "invisible hand"(1)

that would arrange matters so that everyone's interest would be served; or in other words, if human beings behaved economically the way lesser forms of life behave ecologically, then economic cooperation would parallel ecological cooperation.

But in spite of what libertarians say, this is only true up to a point. It seems in the real world, the ones who have the greatest economic power tend to link it to the self-interest of those with political power, and the result is exploitation of the ones who have no power. And the reason here, I think, is that human beings are not blind to the consequences of their acts, as all lower forms of life are; and hence, they can foresee and choose acts that cause destruction as well as development: can enhance their own interests consciously at the expense of others'.

And as nineteenth-century England shows, there is nothing automatic about everyone's prospering under such a system. Hence, the ecological cooperation of nature is not the automatic result of each organism's seeking its own advantage. What reason would expect to happen would be that organisms would destroy each other (and, of course, in the long run themselves) by seeking short-term gains at the expense of very complex long-term ones; and what happens in economies that approach the laissez-faire ideal seems to bear this out.

What this implies is that the extremely intricate cooperation of organisms, each of which is seeking its own advantage, must be brought about by God, even if the organisms do have some way of altering their offsprings' genetic structure. God, apparently in deference to the greater power human beings have over their environment, withholds his manipulation once this stage of development is reached; and so we are left with the prospect of wrecking our world if we don't take into account the environmental consequences of our actions. We have certainly taken steps in that direction.

But this allows us to draw a reasonable and very interesting conclusion about God and his world.

Conclusion 14: God's active intervention in the world respects the reality of the creatures in it.

That is, insofar as creatures have the power to do something, God does not interfere with the operations of their nature. In the world that is lower than human, he manipulates the chance element built into the laws of their nature in such a way that (a) self-centeredness is "cheated" into cooperation, and (b) the possibility for higher forms of organization emerge, at which point he supplies the body with the higher unifying activity. But when the creatures can foresee the consequences of his acts and choose them, then God does not cheat them into producing benefits by their destructive acts, whether these destructive acts are deliberately so, or are destructive side-effects that weren't, but could have been, foreseen.(2)

Before we leave the subject of evolution, it would be well to debunk two myths connected with it. Evolution is not "open-ended," as Henri Bergson thought it was.

In the first place, the population of a given species rises toward a definite equilibrium where losses are compensated for by births, and where there are enough resources to feed the population. If a given species of animal multiplies to the extent that the animals encroach on each others' feeding areas, then hostility and tension as well as starvation bring the population down to the level at which the animals that remain have enough food to thrive.

This is true even when animals seem, when taken to a new ecology, to overrun the land, as rabbits have in Australia. There, it is just that the vegetation can support enormous numbers of rabbits, if not other species along with them (not to mention human-grown crops). Here we have a beautiful example of what happens, by the way, when humans try to "manage" ecologies which nature manages so well and so easily.

This limit of population, by the way, does tend to affect human beings also, but not in the same way, since we care for the weak, and don't just let nature take its course. But human beings do tend to have fewer children when it is reasonable to have fewer for themselves. One of the problems with "population control" in poor countries like India is that there is a high mortality rate, which means that if a person is to have children to take care of him in his old age, he had better have quite a few. That this makes the situation worse for the culture as a whole has understandably little motivating force for the person who is concerned about his own future. But as countries become prosperous and people are not concerned with having children to support them, children become a burden, and their numbers tend to diminish.

In any case, we can draw this conclusion:

Conclusion 15: The growth of the population of a given species tends toward an equilibrium, after which the number of members of the species in the ecological situation stabilizes.

Actually, in most ecologies, this population stabilization has taken place; the numbers of members of all the species in the ecology "hovers around" a given value.

In the second place, the natural tendency of genetic mutations is conservative, not "creative"; the organism changes only to fit into a changing environment, not because it is like Toad of Toad Hall seeking "Adventure! Change! Excitement!" To show what I am saying, imagine a perfectly stable ecological environment, in which there is only one organism capable of evolving by genetic mutations. Obviously, as the generations go on, this organism would evolve in the direction of greatest adaptation (You see, I am not denying mutation and natural selection; what I am saying is that of themselves they don't explain evolution as we see it); and once this point of greatest adaptation is reached, any mutation would necessarily make the organism less well adapted than its parents, and so mutants from this time on would die out, leaving the organism stable.

Once again we have a confirmation of what was said in the previous part about process: this one, like all processes, tends toward a purpose, where the process stops.

In the real world, of course, the organisms in the ecology are all changing, forcing adaptations on the part of those affected by them, and in turn causing changes in the ones doing the affecting. But this does not alter the fact that the changes tend toward maintaining the organism and are responses to (a) ill-adaptation toward the environment, or (b) a change in the environment. Hence, there is a goal for all of this, just as there is with the heavenly bodies in their movements, as we saw in the preceding part; and the goal is an environment in which all the organisms are optimally adapted to each other. If this is ever reached, then mutations would necessarily involve worse adaptation, and hence they would not survive.

Hence, we can say this:

Conclusion 16: Evolution tends toward an equilibrium of optimum mutual adaptation; and once this is reached, (if ever) evolution will stop.

All this is by way of saying that the processes of living bodies are not processes for their own sake; they are all (growth of the individual, growth of the population, and changes in species) headed toward a definite equilibrium, and from then on activity continues, but the changes cease.



1. I am aware that he only used this term once, and didn't make much of it, though subsequent people did. But he did use it.

2. If Christianity is true, what I just said is still the case. In one sense, God used the destructive choice of the people (Jew and Pagan--there is Pilate, after all, who could have prevented everything) to work toward the salvation of the world; but there are three observations worth making here.

In the first place, if certain passages of John's Report of the Good News reflect what Jesus was actually saying, it seems to have been Jesus' intention to do away with death ("Anyone who is alive and believes in me will not die ever."). This implies that if he had been officially accepted, then not only would he never have died, but neither would anyone who accepted him.

In the second place, Jesus' death did not save the world; what his death did was provide the opportunity of escaping the (eternal) consequences of our acts if we take advantage of it. The mess we have made of our lives can be undone for us, if we are willing to accept the conditions for this; but if we choose not to accept them, then our sins and their consequences remain with us. He "saved" the world in that without him it would not have this opportunity. He did not save it in the sense that those who sin are manipulated somehow into repentance. Even the "grace" by which we repent, though it comes from him, and without which we cannot repent, is a removens prohibens more than a bite from the Hound of Heaven. Note: it is not that we save ourselves; He saves us if we (with his help) let him.

In the third place, as our world shows, the temporal, this-worldly consequences of our acts have their natural effects, whether these are intended to ruin the world and others, or whether the destruction is an unchosen (and even unnoticed) side-effect by the perpetrator. As Revelation says, "If anyone is taken captive, he will go into captivity."

So the great blessing of Christianity still respects the reality of human beings; what it did is make possible what would have been impossible without it; and it did so because people's minds are clouded enough so that they unwittingly could get into an intolerable situation that they could not get out of by themselves.