An Alien God

“A cu­ri­ous as­pect of the the­ory of evolu­tion,” said Jac­ques Monod, “is that ev­ery­body thinks he un­der­stands it.”

A hu­man be­ing, look­ing at the nat­u­ral world, sees a thou­sand times pur­pose. A rab­bit’s legs, built and ar­tic­u­lated for run­ning; a fox’s jaws, built and ar­tic­u­lated for tear­ing. But what you see is not ex­actly what is there...

In the days be­fore Dar­win, the cause of all this ap­par­ent pur­pose­ful­ness was a very great puz­zle unto sci­ence. The God­dists said “God did it”, be­cause you get 50 bonus points each time you use the word “God” in a sen­tence. Yet per­haps I’m be­ing un­fair. In the days be­fore Dar­win, it seemed like a much more rea­son­able hy­poth­e­sis. Find a watch in the desert, said William Paley, and you can in­fer the ex­is­tence of a watch­maker.

But when you look at all the ap­par­ent pur­pose­ful­ness in Na­ture, rather than pick­ing and choos­ing your ex­am­ples, you start to no­tice things that don’t fit the Judeo-Chris­tian con­cept of one benev­olent God. Foxes seem well-de­signed to catch rab­bits. Rab­bits seem well-de­signed to evade foxes. Was the Creator hav­ing trou­ble mak­ing up Its mind?

When I de­sign a toaster oven, I don’t de­sign one part that tries to get elec­tric­ity to the coils and a sec­ond part that tries to pre­vent elec­tric­ity from get­ting to the coils. It would be a waste of effort. Who de­signed the ecosys­tem, with its preda­tors and prey, viruses and bac­te­ria? Even the cac­tus plant, which you might think well-de­signed to provide wa­ter fruit to desert an­i­mals, is cov­ered with in­con­ve­nient spines.

The ecosys­tem would make much more sense if it wasn’t de­signed by a uni­tary Who, but, rather, cre­ated by a horde of deities—say from the Hindu or Shinto re­li­gions. This hand­ily ex­plains both the ubiquitous pur­pose­ful­nesses, and the ubiquitous con­flicts: More than one de­ity acted, of­ten at cross-pur­poses. The fox and rab­bit were both de­signed, but by dis­tinct com­pet­ing deities. I won­der if any­one ever re­marked on the seem­ingly ex­cel­lent ev­i­dence thus pro­vided for Hin­duism over Chris­ti­an­ity. Prob­a­bly not.

Similarly, the Judeo-Chris­tian God is alleged to be benev­olent—well, sort of. And yet much of na­ture’s pur­pose­ful­ness seems down­right cruel. Dar­win sus­pected a non-stan­dard Creator for study­ing Ich­neu­mon wasps, whose par­a­lyz­ing stings pre­serve its prey to be eaten al­ive by its lar­vae: “I can­not per­suade my­self,” wrote Dar­win, “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, or that a cat should play with mice.” I won­der if any ear­lier thinker re­marked on the ex­cel­lent ev­i­dence thus pro­vided for Man­ichaen re­li­gions over monothe­is­tic ones.

By now we all know the punch­line: You just say “evolu­tion”.

I worry that’s how some peo­ple are ab­sorb­ing the “sci­en­tific” ex­pla­na­tion, as a mag­i­cal pur­pose­ful­ness fac­tory in Na­ture. I’ve pre­vi­ously dis­cussed the case of Storm from the movie X-Men, who in one mu­ta­tion gets the abil­ity to throw light­ning bolts. Why? Well, there’s this thing called “evolu­tion” that some­how pumps a lot of pur­pose­ful­ness into Na­ture, and the changes hap­pen through “mu­ta­tions”. So if Storm gets a re­ally large mu­ta­tion, she can be re­designed to throw light­ning bolts. Ra­dioac­tivity is a pop­u­lar su­per ori­gin: ra­di­a­tion causes mu­ta­tions, so more pow­er­ful ra­di­a­tion causes more pow­er­ful mu­ta­tions. That’s logic.

But evolu­tion doesn’t al­low just any kind of pur­pose­ful­ness to leak into Na­ture. That’s what makes evolu­tion a suc­cess as an em­piri­cal hy­poth­e­sis. If evolu­tion­ary biol­ogy could ex­plain a toaster oven, not just a tree, it would be worth­less. There’s a lot more to evolu­tion­ary the­ory than point­ing at Na­ture and say­ing, “Now pur­pose is al­lowed,” or “Evolu­tion did it!” The strength of a the­ory is not what it al­lows, but what it pro­hibits; if you can in­vent an equally per­sua­sive ex­pla­na­tion for any out­come, you have zero knowl­edge.

“Many non-biol­o­gists,” ob­served Ge­orge Willi­ams, “think that it is for their benefit that rat­tles grow on rat­tlesnake tails.” Bzzzt! This kind of pur­pose­ful­ness is not al­lowed. Evolu­tion doesn’t work by let­ting flashes of pur­pose­ful­ness creep in at ran­dom—re­shap­ing one species for the benefit of a ran­dom re­cip­i­ent.

Evolu­tion is pow­ered by a sys­tem­atic cor­re­la­tion be­tween the differ­ent ways that differ­ent genes con­struct or­ganisms, and how many copies of those genes make it into the next gen­er­a­tion. For rat­tles to grow on rat­tlesnake tails, rat­tle-grow­ing genes must be­come more and more fre­quent in each suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tion. (Ac­tu­ally genes for in­cre­men­tally more com­plex rat­tles, but if I start de­scribing all the fillips and caveats to evolu­tion­ary biol­ogy, we re­ally will be here all day.)

There isn’t an Evolu­tion Fairy that looks over the cur­rent state of Na­ture, de­cides what would be a “good idea”, and chooses to in­crease the fre­quency of rat­tle-con­struct­ing genes.

I sus­pect this is where a lot of peo­ple get stuck, in evolu­tion­ary biol­ogy. They un­der­stand that “helpful” genes be­come more com­mon, but “helpful” lets any sort of pur­pose leak in. They don’t think there’s an Evolu­tion Fairy, yet they ask which genes will be “helpful” as if a rat­tlesnake gene could “help” non-rat­tlesnakes.

The key re­al­iza­tion is that there is no Evolu­tion Fairy. There’s no out­side force de­cid­ing which genes ought to be pro­moted. What­ever hap­pens, hap­pens be­cause of the genes them­selves.

Genes for con­struct­ing (in­cre­men­tally bet­ter) rat­tles, must have some­how ended up more fre­quent in the rat­tlesnake gene pool, be­cause of the rat­tle. In this case it’s prob­a­bly be­cause rat­tlesnakes with bet­ter rat­tles sur­vive more of­ten—rather than mat­ing more suc­cess­fully, or hav­ing broth­ers that re­pro­duce more suc­cess­fully, etc.

Maybe preda­tors are wary of rat­tles and don’t step on the snake. Or maybe the rat­tle di­verts at­ten­tion from the snake’s head. (As Ge­orge Willi­ams sug­gests, “The out­come of a fight be­tween a dog and a viper would de­pend very much on whether the dog ini­tially seized the rep­tile by the head or by the tail.”)

But that’s just a snake’s rat­tle. There are much more com­pli­cated ways that a gene can cause copies of it­self to be­come more fre­quent in the next gen­er­a­tion. Your brother or sister shares half your genes. A gene that sac­ri­fices one unit of re­sources to be­stow three units of re­source on a brother, may pro­mote some copies of it­self by sac­ri­fic­ing one of its con­structed or­ganisms. (If you re­ally want to know all the de­tails and caveats, buy a book on evolu­tion­ary biol­ogy; there is no royal road.)

The main point is that the gene’s effect must cause copies of that gene to be­come more fre­quent in the next gen­er­a­tion. There’s no Evolu­tion Fairy that reaches in from out­side. There’s noth­ing which de­cides that some genes are “helpful” and should, there­fore, in­crease in fre­quency. It’s just cause and effect, start­ing from the genes them­selves.

This ex­plains the strange con­flict­ing pur­pose­ful­ness of Na­ture, and its fre­quent cru­elty. It ex­plains even bet­ter than a horde of Shinto deities.

Why is so much of Na­ture at war with other parts of Na­ture? Be­cause there isn’t one Evolu­tion di­rect­ing the whole pro­cess. There’s as many differ­ent “evolu­tions” as re­pro­duc­ing pop­u­la­tions. Rab­bit genes are be­com­ing more or less fre­quent in rab­bit pop­u­la­tions. Fox genes are be­com­ing more or less fre­quent in fox pop­u­la­tions. Fox genes which con­struct foxes that catch rab­bits, in­sert more copies of them­selves in the next gen­er­a­tion. Rab­bit genes which con­struct rab­bits that evade foxes are nat­u­rally more com­mon in the next gen­er­a­tion of rab­bits. Hence the phrase “nat­u­ral se­lec­tion”.

Why is Na­ture cruel? You, a hu­man, can look at an Ich­neu­mon wasp, and de­cide that it’s cruel to eat your prey al­ive. You can de­cide that if you’re go­ing to eat your prey al­ive, you can at least have the de­cency to stop it from hurt­ing. It would scarcely cost the wasp any­thing to anes­thetize its prey as well as par­a­lyze it. Or what about old elephants, who die of star­va­tion when their last set of teeth fall out? Th­ese elephants aren’t go­ing to re­pro­duce any­way. What would it cost evolu­tion—the evolu­tion of elephants, rather—to en­sure that the elephant dies right away, in­stead of slowly and in agony? What would it cost evolu­tion to anes­thetize the elephant, or give it pleas­ant dreams be­fore it dies? Noth­ing; that elephant won’t re­pro­duce more or less ei­ther way.

If you were talk­ing to a fel­low hu­man, try­ing to re­solve a con­flict of in­ter­est, you would be in a good ne­go­ti­at­ing po­si­tion—would have an easy job of per­sua­sion. It would cost so lit­tle to anes­thetize the prey, to let the elephant die with­out agony! Oh please, won’t you do it, kindly… um...

There’s no one to ar­gue with.

Hu­man be­ings fake their jus­tifi­ca­tions, figure out what they want us­ing one method, and then jus­tify it us­ing an­other method. There’s no Evolu­tion of Elephants Fairy that’s try­ing to (a) figure out what’s best for elephants, and then (b) figure out how to jus­tify it to the Evolu­tion­ary Overseer, who (c) doesn’t want to see re­pro­duc­tive fit­ness de­creased, but is (d) will­ing to go along with the painless-death idea, so long as it doesn’t ac­tu­ally harm any genes.

There’s no ad­vo­cate for the elephants any­where in the sys­tem.

Hu­mans, who are of­ten deeply con­cerned for the well-be­ing of an­i­mals, can be very per­sua­sive in ar­gu­ing how var­i­ous kind­nesses wouldn’t harm re­pro­duc­tive fit­ness at all. Sadly, the evolu­tion of elephants doesn’t use a similar al­gorithm; it doesn’t se­lect nice genes that can plau­si­bly be ar­gued to help re­pro­duc­tive fit­ness. Sim­ply: genes that repli­cate more of­ten be­come more fre­quent in the next gen­er­a­tion. Like wa­ter flow­ing down­hill, and equally benev­olent.

A hu­man, look­ing over Na­ture, starts think­ing of all the ways we would de­sign or­ganisms. And then we tend to start ra­tio­nal­iz­ing rea­sons why our de­sign im­prove­ments would in­crease re­pro­duc­tive fit­ness—a poli­ti­cal in­stinct, try­ing to sell your own preferred op­tion as match­ing the boss’s fa­vored jus­tifi­ca­tion.

And so, am­a­teur evolu­tion­ary biol­o­gists end up mak­ing all sorts of won­der­ful and com­pletely mis­taken pre­dic­tions. Be­cause the am­a­teur biol­o­gists are draw­ing their bot­tom line—and more im­por­tantly, lo­cat­ing their pre­dic­tion in hy­poth­e­sis-space—us­ing a differ­ent al­gorithm than evolu­tions use to draw their bot­tom lines.

A hu­man en­g­ineer would have de­signed hu­man taste buds to mea­sure how much of each nu­tri­ent we had, and how much we needed. When fat was scarce, al­monds or cheese­burg­ers would taste deli­cious. But if you started to be­come obese, or if vi­tam­ins were lack­ing, let­tuce would taste deli­cious. But there is no Evolu­tion of Hu­mans Fairy, which in­tel­li­gently planned ahead and de­signed a gen­eral sys­tem for ev­ery con­tin­gency. It was a re­li­able in­var­i­ant of hu­mans’ an­ces­tral en­vi­ron­ment that calories were scarce. So genes whose or­ganisms loved calories, be­came more fre­quent. Like wa­ter flow­ing down­hill.

We are sim­ply the em­bod­ied his­tory of which or­ganisms did in fact sur­vive and re­pro­duce, not which or­ganisms ought pru­den­tially to have sur­vived and re­pro­duced.

The hu­man retina is con­structed back­ward: The light-sen­si­tive cells are at the back, and the nerves emerge from the front and go back through the retina into the brain. Hence the blind spot. To a hu­man en­g­ineer, this looks sim­ply stupid—and other or­ganisms have in­de­pen­dently evolved reti­nas the right way around. Why not re­design the retina?

The prob­lem is that no sin­gle mu­ta­tion will reroute the whole retina si­mul­ta­neously. A hu­man en­g­ineer can re­design mul­ti­ple parts si­mul­ta­neously, or plan ahead for fu­ture changes. But if a sin­gle mu­ta­tion breaks some vi­tal part of the or­ganism, it doesn’t mat­ter what won­der­ful things a Fairy could build on top of it—the or­ganism dies and the genes de­creases in fre­quency.

If you turn around the retina’s cells with­out also re­pro­gram­ming the nerves and op­tic ca­ble, the sys­tem as a whole won’t work. It doesn’t mat­ter that, to a Fairy or a hu­man en­g­ineer, this is one step for­ward in re­design­ing the retina. The or­ganism is blind. Evolu­tion has no fore­sight, it is sim­ply the frozen his­tory of which or­ganisms did in fact re­pro­duce. Evolu­tion is as blind as a halfway-re­designed retina.

Find a watch in a desert, said William Paley, and you can in­fer the watch­maker. There were once those who de­nied this, who thought that life “just hap­pened” with­out need of an op­ti­miza­tion pro­cess, mice be­ing spon­ta­neously gen­er­ated from straw and dirty shirts.

If we ask who was more cor­rect—the the­olo­gians who ar­gued for a Creator-God, or the in­tel­lec­tu­ally un­fulfilled athe­ists who ar­gued that mice spon­ta­neously gen­er­ated—then the the­olo­gians must be de­clared the vic­tors: evolu­tion is not God, but it is closer to God than it is to pure ran­dom en­tropy. Mu­ta­tion is ran­dom, but se­lec­tion is non-ran­dom. This doesn’t mean an in­tel­li­gent Fairy is reach­ing in and se­lect­ing. It means there’s a non-zero statis­ti­cal cor­re­la­tion be­tween the gene and how of­ten the or­ganism re­pro­duces. Over a few mil­lion years, that non-zero statis­ti­cal cor­re­la­tion adds up to some­thing very pow­er­ful. It’s not a god, but it’s more closely akin to a god than it is to snow on a tele­vi­sion screen.

In a lot of ways, evolu­tion is like unto the­ol­ogy. “Gods are on­tolog­i­cally dis­tinct from crea­tures,” said Damien Brod­er­ick, “or they’re not worth the pa­per they’re writ­ten on.” And in­deed, the Shaper of Life is not it­self a crea­ture. Evolu­tion is bod­iless, like the Judeo-Chris­tian de­ity. Om­nip­re­sent in Na­ture, im­ma­nent in the fall of ev­ery leaf. Vast as a planet’s sur­face. Billions of years old. It­self un­made, aris­ing nat­u­rally from the struc­ture of physics. Doesn’t that all sound like some­thing that might have been said about God?

And yet the Maker has no mind, as well as no body. In some ways, its hand­i­work is in­cred­ibly poor de­sign by hu­man stan­dards. It is in­ter­nally di­vided. Most of all, it isn’t nice.

In a way, Dar­win dis­cov­ered God—a God that failed to match the pre­con­cep­tions of the­ol­ogy, and so passed un­her­alded. If Dar­win had dis­cov­ered that life was cre­ated by an in­tel­li­gent agent—a bod­iless mind that loves us, and will smite us with light­ning if we dare say oth­er­wise—peo­ple would have said “My gosh! That’s God!”

But in­stead Dar­win dis­cov­ered a strange alien God—not com­fortably “in­ef­fable”, but re­ally gen­uinely differ­ent from us. Evolu­tion is not a God, but if it were, it wouldn’t be Je­ho­vah. It would be H. P. Love­craft’s Aza­thoth, the blind idiot God bur­bling chaot­i­cally at the cen­ter of ev­ery­thing, sur­rounded by the thin monotonous piping of flutes.

Which you might have pre­dicted, if you had re­ally looked at Na­ture.

So much for the claim some re­li­gion­ists make, that they be­lieve in a vague de­ity with a cor­re­spond­ingly high prob­a­bil­ity. Any­one who re­ally be­lieved in a vague de­ity, would have rec­og­nized their strange in­hu­man cre­ator when Dar­win said “Aha!”

So much for the claim some re­li­gion­ists make, that they are wait­ing in­no­cently cu­ri­ous for Science to dis­cover God. Science has already dis­cov­ered the sort-of-godlike maker of hu­mans—but it wasn’t what the re­li­gion­ists wanted to hear. They were wait­ing for the dis­cov­ery of their God, the highly spe­cific God they want to be there. They shall wait for­ever, for the great dis­cov­ery has already taken place, and the win­ner is Aza­thoth.

Well, more power to us hu­mans. I like hav­ing a Creator I can out­wit. Beats be­ing a pet. I’m glad it was Aza­thoth and not Odin.