Biology is truly unique among the branches of modern science. Biologists study life and living systems. It is unique because the torch of rational enquiry is now turned to life itself. The boundary between observer and observed becomes a minefield of ambiguities. Life is observed and measured as in any other scientific investigation. Living things are considered as survival machines. Infinitely more complex than any machine existing today but machines nevertheless. The observer generalizes that he too must be a machine because other living things are machines.
A lot of biological research today is aimed at understanding life at the molecular components level. While such research is valuable in finding solutions such as medical cure, this could hardly be called study of life. Why not the life scientist begin his study with himself? Can the biologist conclude that he is a machine if he begins with the thought process of observation?
Let us begin with the undeniable fact of our existence. Why are we here? What are the secrets behind our being? We must turn to science for answers because as seen earlier, rational knowledge is our safest ally. Science has a beautiful explanation for life in the theory of evolution. Truth of evolution as a fact can hardly be denied. There is irrefutable evidence to establish that evolution has actually occurred. Life began on earth roughly three and half billion years ago. After that there was a slow process of evolution, single cells to multi-cells and huge colonies of cells, to flowering plants and flying insects, land dwelling mammals and man.
How did life evolve? Let us consider the Neodarwinist explanation.
It all began with primitive self replicators – complex molecules that could copy themselves. (How these clever molecules came into existence is still a mystery, but let us ignore this problem of origin). These primitive molecules incessantly made copies of themselves, giant molecular machines churning out more giants. Often there were copying errors resulting in mutant replicators or copies that were not exact. Some of these mutants turned out to be more efficient in the copying act. The game was all about making maximum number of copies in minimum time utilizing available resources. Successful mutations spread like wild fire in this struggle for survival. More copying errors and more powerful survival strategies, a series benevolent errors building upon each other, relatively simple chemical systems evolved into monstrously complex trees and animals.
The story thus told is too short and simplistic, but this is the crux of Neodarwinism. Cumulative random mutations, together with struggle for existence, brought about the variety and splendor of biosphere existing today. There was a kind of ‘natural selection’, where blind modifying influences of nature, over geological time periods, fulfilled the role of a purposeful designer. What appears as design and purpose on hindsight is nothing but the result of random variations and natural selection.
This immensely powerful doctrine cuts deep into some of the very basic instincts of man. Declaring that science cannot find any purpose or meaning behind human existence, Neodarwinism brands such concepts as unscientific. ‘You exist because your ancestors were successful in reproduction’, to quote Richard Dawkins. Life is nothing but a property of an accidental collection of atoms. No purpose in evolution, no guiding force except the necessity born out of countless random fluctuations.
This is one of the most powerful ideas created by man. While philosophers are arguing about the verifiability of this theory, vast majority of the scientific community has no doubt that available proof settles the matter conclusively. This doctrine is believed to be true, and often defended with vehemence, like religious faith.
The strongest argument in favor of Neodarwinism is that there is no other scientific explanation for biological evolution. Creationists can see divine purpose in the design of living machines, but where does the designer come from? A supernatural God of dubious origins has no place in scientific enquiry. Can there be an alternate explanation for life without invoking a mysterious God perilously hanging from nowhere?
It is possible if we realize that creativity is a fundamental property of the stuff we call matter. Creativity is ever at work transforming material systems into higher levels of creative existence. There are four such levels relevant to the status of our universe. Inanimate, Live, Conscious and Self-aware. Creativity is confined to regular patterns of behavior at the level of inanimate matter. Structural and behavioral patterns discovered by sciences of inanimate matter are the projections of such behavior onto our rational frame of reference. The fact that human mind could discover these wonderful patterns is an enormous puzzle in itself. Why is the universe comprehensible? How are we able to discover meaningful laws behind natural processes? We will come back to this question later.
Material systems, in their inherent drive to be creative, devised various organs of creativity. Physical survival is the greatest of creative needs for every organism. The earliest organs were therefore meant for increasing the organism’s survival value. There is a hierarchy of creative needs in more complex life forms. Evolution is coming up with fresh demands with every leap forward. Self-actualization may not mean much to bacteria, but is a creative need in human beings. Thus we have a living system, over the span of millions of generations, developing an optimal set of creative organs. This is the process of biological evolution seen in the fossil records.
Philosopher Daniel Dennett describes the theory of natural selection as a ‘universal acid’ that eats through traditional belief systems. It would be more appropriate to call this theory a ‘logical black hole’. By introducing elements of chance and randomness into the most beautiful of creative activities, this hypothesis has brought modern civilization into a grave crisis, threatening to suck up the work of 3.5 billion years. The future of human species, and hence the whole of life, will depend on our success in realizing the true nature of creative becoming.
Such an explanation based on creativity hypothesis may appear trivial. What do we achieve by stating that living things evolve because it is their nature to evolve? How can scientists study life if they begin with introspection? Science is after all meant to be objective. Well, this is where we come to a road-block. There is nothing wrong in scientists studying living things or their component parts objectively. Such studies could produce many useful results. But these can not be generalized into sweeping theories of life without devastating consequences. Life itself is perhaps not a subject for science as we understand it today.
The ‘why’ of evolution is best explained using metaphors. Evolution is like a pilgrimage, fundamental substance’s journey of self-discovery. We know this fundamental substance as matter. Matter was forced on this journey by its own creativity. Primary substance wanted to see itself, hear itself and know itself. Billions of years elapsed in instinctive gravitational expansions, before a concentrated brew of carbon compounds could be prepared here, on earth, to usher into a new phase of the expedition. Life emerged from the magic of concentrated irrationality. Consciousness developed from life as a tree would grow from its seed, and self-awareness is the flowering of the tree of consciousness. Human beings arrived on the scene. Why are we here? Why, if not to take part in the pilgrimage?