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Darwin’s Unfinished Business

A Conversation with Simon G. Powell


Saturday, June 2, 2012

All things flow.” ~ Heraclitus, circa 400 BCE

All things do indeed flow, change, evolve. The modern debate about evolution is simply a continuation of this age-old idea – how do things flow, change, evolve? And why?

The modern debate about evolution, both in its mainstream scientific version, and the cultural debate between evolution and creationism or intelligent design, can quickly become horrendously complex and disputatious. Many people who are not trained in biology, or come to the debate because of strong religious views, are quickly turned off because of these features.

Tam Hunt

The big picture of this debate is fairly simple, however, and can be summarized with two questions: 1) Is life in all its glory here because of a creator or due to unconscious natural processes? 2) If life has come about due to unconscious natural processes, how do these processes work?

There is a third question that arises naturally, but is often left out of the debate: 3) Is there a middle ground between the notion of a supernatural creator of all life and the notion of unconscious natural processes behind evolution?

What follows is a dialogue with Simon G. Powell, a British writer, musician, and film-maker, and author of a new book, Darwin’s Unfinished Business: The Self-Organizing Intelligence of Nature, which attempts to explore these questions, arguing for a pervasive “natural intelligence” that is both the process and backdrop of evolution.

What’s your main point in your new book?

The main gist of the book is that our interpretations and appraisals of biological evolution are poor and misguided—in as much as they fail to capture what life actually is, and what kind of process evolution actually is. I make the case that evolution is a naturally intelligent process that weaves together naturally intelligent systems of bio-logic. I suggest this because evolution is an information-gaining process whereby life learns to make more and more sense of the larger environment in which it is embedded. Hence my repeated use of the term ‘natural intelligence’ in the book. This is not simply a case of words, but rather the call for a new relationship with Nature based upon a new attitude towards life. How we view the significance of life will determine how we live life. If we think evolving life is a sort of accident, or that the genetic code was a sort of lucky creative break, or that we are consciously pondering around inside a vast accident, this will invariably affect our cultural behavior. That we are now compromising the integrity of the biosphere shows that our concepts and ideas about life on earth need to be overhauled sharpish.

What’s your personal and academic background and how did you get inspired to write this book?

My academic career only got as far as a psychology degree from University College London. My primary inspiration for all my work derives from a deep love of Nature and certain profound psilocybin experiences, along with the conviction that our current paradigms of life are misguided and having unhealthy biospherical consequences. I always felt that people like Richard Dawkins were right, but not right enough, that they were missing something very important. I have since realized that they are rather blind to context, that context is everything. Nothing makes sense without a context. DNA is meaningless unless it is embedded within a sensible context that both fostered its arising and gave it meaning. And when you begin to think about environmental contexts, along with the role of such contexts in making interesting things happen, then you can start to divine intelligence. It is not that this contextual intelligence is ‘outside’ of Nature—rather it is Nature.

You say that biology needs to go beyond natural selection, but how exactly do we need to go beyond this key mechanism for evolutionary change?

We need to expand our view of natural selection and see that it is the intelligent characteristics of the whole system of Nature that foster and nourish the learning process evinced by biological evolution. In other words, you need intelligence in one form to generate intelligence in another form. Life is smart because the environment is smartly configured. What we call ‘natural selection’ is the continuous step-wise methodology of what I call ‘natural intelligence.’ Life and its surroundings are different aspects of one interconnected system whose inherent intelligence is feeding back on itself.

You focus on “natural intelligence,” which you argue is evident through the biological achievements we see all around us, such as an octopus’s ability to change its skin color to camouflage itself, the chimp’s ability to use simple tools, or the design of the amazingly complex and adaptable human brain. But when you describe these as examples of natural intelligence, how is this different than saying that evolution is good at solving problems that the environment presents?

If you ask biologists whether evolution is an intelligent process, you will get frowns and often scorn. So whilst orthodoxy might concur that evolution is ‘good at solving problems,’ this initial appraisal is shallow and is not taken further. And it is precisely the use of the word ‘intelligence’ that causes uproar. This is why I see the Intelligent Design (ID) movement as barking up the wrong tree. They are right to call into question our appraisals of life, but they infer a supernatural intelligence rather than seeing evolution itself as having intelligent characteristics. Also, it is not simply overt behavior that is naturally intelligent (like your aforementioned examples) but the bio-logic that underlies all that. In other words, life consists of multiple layers and networks of intelligence, all embedded within, and upon, one another. Any other view of life simply doesn’t cut it.

Your point about evolution displaying intelligence, defined most simply as problem solving, seems to me to a point that most biologists could get behind, especially because you also state that intelligence doesn’t require consciousness. But later you add that this intelligent process is an indication of a purpose behind evolution and the universe more generally. This is a far more controversial claim. Could you elaborate?

Yes, the notion that evolution is the operation of an unconscious intelligence might be more acceptable to some as opposed to it being a conscious intelligence. After all, biological evolution functions in the living moment and is not like conscious human intelligence that can plan and look way ahead. But just because biological evolution is an unconscious intelligence does not make evolution purposeless. One can talk of the natural purpose and natural intent of Nature. This natural intent is embedded in the laws of Nature and the forces of Nature, which ensure that that life happens and that life gets more and more adept at making sense of the larger environment. This gives evolution a direction. One can then see life as fulfilling a function or ‘cosmic imperative’ as Nobel Prize winning biologist Christian De Duve calls it. As far as I can see, this natural function, or inherent purpose, pertains to self-knowing. Which means that Nature is in the business of knowing itself, or waking up to itself. All this may start out unconscious, but it is becoming conscious through evolved cortices. Moreover, this awesome process can’t be stopped.

You state that in evolution we “need something smart to get something smart,” but isn’t the point of evolutionary theory to show how complexity can arise from simplicity? Isn’t suggesting that all of the amazing biological solutions we see around us could only arise from what is already complex in many ways antithetical to the goal of naturalistic explanations, of explaining how complexity arises from simplicity?

This idea that something is coming from nothing, or that the complexity of life comes from something very basic, is misguided and shows how we are curiously blind to intelligent contextual forces. The best way I know of highlighting this it to think about genetic algorithms. These are simulations of evolution that are run on computers. Such genetic algorithms are informative in many ways. Not only do they provide evidence that evolution can be modeled and can happen (which may be annoying to anti-evolutionists), they also highlight that smart things can only arise from something else that is smart. Indeed, genetic algorithms, just like all computer programs, reflect human intelligence. To be sure about it, human intelligence is evident in the hardware of the computer system as well as the software. Once human intelligence has organized and configured the simulation, then evolution can occur and highly complex things can emerge. But it is a big mistake to see these complex things as coming from nothing. Intelligence in one form (clever computer software and clever hardware) is needed to provoke intelligence in another form (highly evolved virtual entities/programs). It may look like smart complexity is arising from great simplicity, but this ignores the smart contextual environment running the show. The same unsung principle applies in the real world. You need intelligence in one form (unconscious) to beget intelligence in another form (conscious). That is why I see the ultimate source of natural intelligence as lying in the specific forces and specific laws of Nature, along with the specific Lego-like building blocks of Nature. It’s intelligence all the way up and all the way down.

If the source of natural intelligence is the “specific laws and forces of Nature,” and it’s all about this context when we are examining how nature’s wonders have evolved, is it fair to describe your views as a type of pantheism? That is, you urge us to look at the broader context of evolution and suggest that intelligence can’t evolve from something which isn’t in some way already intelligent. If so, isn’t there some kind of design going on here?

I suggest in the book that the laws and forces of Nature represent natural intelligence in its primary expression, and that this primary expression gives rise to secondary and tertiary expressions like evolving life and the emergence of consciousness. I guess this is a kind of pantheism, similar perhaps to Einstein’s take on everything. The problem with these ‘isms’ though, is that once a concept gets labeled, we may stop thinking about it. But, yes, I have, on at least two occasions, called myself a psilocybinetic pantheist. Or something like that. As for the ‘design’ question, it seems to be buck-passing if we opt for a supernatural designer. It seems to me that Nature must be both designer and designed. Mind is like that. Mind can think of designs and then explore those designs within itself and is therefore both creator and created. You know Nikola Tesla could apparently invent things solely in his mind. He could build things bit by bit within his imagination, test the designs, and then disassemble them—all done within his creative mind. Tesla’s mind was both creator and the created—all in one.

You criticize Intelligent Design proponents and Creationists as begging, or begging off, the question of complexity and order in evolution by simply pointing to a supernatural designer as the source of life – but isn’t your argument regarding Natural Intelligence fairly viewed as a naturalized version of this argument? That is, isn’t all of Nature substituted in your arguments for a supernatural Designer? Doesn’t your argument still avoid the question of where this initial complexity, this “sensibleness,” as you describe it, came from in the first place?

But Nature is not supernatural, is it? Nature is what we know to be real. In any case, it boils down to how something can always have existed without a prior cause. Even modern reductionistic physicists talk of ‘quantum foam’ or curiously potent quantum systems from which the entire Universe sprang. So whatever scenario you opt for, it will always require a certain definite timeless something, or some timeless uncaused potential. It seems silly to me to see this timeless principle as being devoid of intelligence and intent given its fantastically creative potential. Thus, there has always been a meaningful something. But it changes itself over time—it converts itself from one form into another. That is what we are part of. It is not supernatural. It is real and it is what scientists study. That is why I talk a lot about the need to reinterpret the findings of science. Because all the data can be reinterpreted. One can, in fact, see the whole system of Nature as evincing intelligence. One does not need to invoke supernatural designers, or whatever. The ‘will to design’ is naturally inherent in the whole system. So one can see all of reality, the entire reality flow, as a natural unfolding intent.

Similarly, you suggest that there may be an underlying purpose to the evolutionary process, and you also suggest that the evolution of advanced minds like our own may somehow have been planned. How can purpose and planning be part of an unconscious, albeit intelligent (as you have defined it), process? Where is the line between purpose, planning and conscious agency, i.e., design? In general usage, terms like purpose and planning require a conscious agent.

I think natural intelligence goes through cycles of consciousness and unconsciousness. I see the Cosmos, or Nature, as a kind of vast unconscious that is becoming conscious via the evolution of advanced nervous systems (wherever they should arise). Maybe one can think of the original singularity that birthed the Universe as embodying conscious will/intelligence, the resulting expanding Universe as a rebirth process, and that the Universe will return to a singularity state in the future by way of evolving networks of conscious intelligence. From one to one via a vast period of diversity. Or akin to immense cycles of sleep and awakening described in ancient Hindu creation myths. Of course, none of this is provable in the conventional sense. But getting back to the notion of unconscious intelligence, this is a very interesting concept. I came across experiments recently that showed how we can spot patterns unconsciously. Card sequences (with a subtle underlying pattern) were shown to subjects. Even though subjects could not consciously divine a pattern, they would guess correctly. This showed that unconscious intelligence was at play. Similarly, we can learn to swing or to ride a bicycle without consciously knowing all the complex equations required. And then there are the clever robots of the artificial intelligence (AI) community. Their intelligence is not deemed to be conscious. Of course, AI intelligence derives from conscious human intelligence and is really a reflection of human intelligence. Again, this supports the notion that, in the natural world, the intelligence of Nature reverberates through different forms and expressions.

The Anthropic Principle holds that our universe is far too finely tuned, in terms of the many constants and laws of nature, to be accidental; it may, instead, be one of an infinite number of universes that have an infinite combination of constants and we just happen to live in the one with the right types of laws and constants. It is because of this good luck that we exist and can reflect on our good luck. Or we may live in a designed universe, as the Strong Anthropic Principle suggests. How do your views on natural intelligence mesh with the Anthropic Principle?

Well, that is buck-pushing again. Buck-pushing is rife and has become a sort of professional hobby for many academics. It shows how keen we are to avoid the invocation of intelligence and purpose within the reality process. Invoking an infinity of universes really just makes the Universe bigger and then you have even more stuff to explain! Also, the term ‘anthropic’ means man (as far as I know). As I say in the book, the natural intelligence paradigm is not anthropocentric, rather it is ‘mindocentric.’ What is important is consciousness, in whatever species it should arise. Consciousness is the highly evolved means by which natural intelligence comes to know itself. In other words, we are the means by which this intentional ‘thing’ we keep talking about wakes up. Indeed, we are it. We just don’t know it yet.

I find a lot of what your write here and in your book appealing and representative of real progress in evolutionary theory. But I’m still hung up on your use of terms like “purpose,” “design,” and “intent” in discussing the evolutionary process, while you also suggest that consciousness itself (generally considered to be a necessary precursor for purpose, design, and intent) evolved very late in the history of the universe, at least here in our corner of the universe. Wouldn’t your message be more effective if you suggested that the universe itself, in its full context of laws and regularities, has allowed evolution to happen until recently in a blind process, but that this process has now led to the awakening of the entire cosmos due to the evolution of advanced consciousness in beings like us?

The problem with the term ‘blind’ (and bear in mind the importance of words) is that it is pejorative. Like the term ‘selfish.’ Pejorative words like this seem to be quite fashionable in evolutionary science these days, but they can be misleading and their usage likely tells us more about our attitudes than it does the ‘truth’ at hand. Think of a genetic algorithm that evolves, say, an ultra-smart AI program. The evolution process inside the computer running the genetic algorithm is ‘blind’ inasmuch as it is autonomous and just goes ahead on its own. But it would be a mistake to think of it as no more than a ‘blind’ process. An evolution process transpiring inside a computer system is actually a direct reflection of the human intelligence that set it all up and intended upon a specific kind of information flow. That is why I keep talking about intelligence in one form begetting intelligence in another form. In other words, with genetic algorithms running on computers, it is clear that there is ‘purpose,’ ‘design’ and ‘intent’ in terms of the specific way that these computations unfold. The same applies to the whole system of Nature. It is what it is, and it does what it does, because intentionality is built into it. Or rather, the Universe is intentionality writ large. But it is an unconscious intentionality, just like a clever computation lacks consciousness (at least to begin with…). ‘Blind’ is both a right and a wrong appraisal of the Universe—if you get my drift. Unconsciously intelligent is much closer to the mark in my opinion. At least that is what I am banging on about in the book. We have this longstanding idea that intelligence can sort of come out of nothing. This is incorrect. Intelligence of one kind is needed to drive the emergence of other forms of intelligence.

I like your use of the term “mindocentric” in describing your views. As you know, I’ve written some on the need to incorporate mind and agency far more into evolutionary theory than is currently the fashion. Does this mesh with your ideas: that evolutionary theory needs to more explicitly acknowledge the role of mind in nature? In other words, shouldn’t “agentic selection” be placed in parallel with natural (non-agentic) selection? More generally, do you find a panpsychist approach (all matter has at least some rudimentary mind associated with it, and as matter complexifies so mind complexifies) to evolution helpful in any way?

Well, as I alluded, I am thinking that consciousness only arises when nervous systems evolve a certain level of complexity and that when they do this new potential emerges—just like laser light emerges when laser systems come into being (a metaphor I use in the book). On the other hand, I often muse that the coherency of the whole system of Nature might well have a conscious aspect to it. That would be akin to what Aldus Huxley called Mind at Large. But it is so vast that it would surely be beyond our ken. As for the role of mind in evolution, for sure it is important in sexual selection. As to whether it has a role in other aspects of evolution, I do not know.

Then again, never underestimate the power of unconscious intelligence! How much of our behavior is at the behest of smart unconscious processes? If life is a kind of flowing unconscious intelligence (instigated by an even larger field of unconscious intelligence) then who knows all its ins and outs? As I say at the start of my Manna film: “DNA moves in mysterious ways.”

Back to the Anthropic Principle and what you describe in your book as the “multi-Universe” theory, which Daniel Dennett suggests as the basis for the finely tuned laws of nature we see around us. You strongly criticize Dennett for suggesting infinite universes in order to escape further explanation for our finely tuned laws. This gets to the issue of brute facts. If we accept that there have to be some brute facts in order to have anything at all, let alone to have a system of thought explaining the universe around us, how do we decide what those brute facts are? Shouldn’t they be as simple as possible?

Brute facts are axioms, principles that are taken as given and a priori. It is curious how we generally accept them tacitly and do not ponder much over them. But even if these axioms seem simple—and the fundamental laws of physics are usually portrayed as simple—this may not be the case. I mean, we may find them simple once we have worked them out. But when you compare the existence of a definite specific law with its non-existence, it is a bit like comparing one with zero. The difference between one and zero is actually massive! So this implies that what we call simple laws may actually be compressed embodiments of immense amounts of information that just seem simple to us at this stage of their ongoing expression. Indeed, when, with hindsight, you think of the unbelievable creative potential of the Universe at the very beginning of time, you can see that such a creative potential was embodied in a seemingly simple system. But maybe not so simple!

Shifting gears a little, you discuss life as the opposite of entropy, as dissipating heat through this process. Isn’t the presence of life and the very likely “en-lifing” of the universe over ensuing eons now showing that entropy as a law of the universe is in fact wrong? Isn’t the actual tendency over appropriate time scales for the universe to become more orderly as life spreads?

It is often thought that life contravenes entropy. Which is to say that the evolution of biological complexity seems to go against the general tendency of the Universe to run down. But this is a mistake. Actually, life depends upon entropy. Entropy means that there is a robust and reliable current, or flow, to energy. Thus, river water will always flow downhill. Life is like a watermill that can tap in to that flow and then divert it into delicate metabolic cycles and such. So life is not contrary to entropy but rather an active extension of it that enables a move back against the general current of Nature, a bit like learning to swim against a tide, or using a system of sails to sail into the wind. Moreover, it seems likely that life and conscious intelligence will continue to spread and thus the cosmos might eventually become saturated with it. In any case, it is clear that those depressing sentiments you sometimes hear in response to entropy are misguided. You need a sensible flow of energy if you want to make interesting things happen. As James Lovelock once pointed out, if you want to use a torch to see in the dark, you need to use up some batteries. So, by evolving life and consciousness, the Universe is running up as well as down!

Last, you are a musician and film-maker, which is an unusual set of skills to combine with writing books on evolutionary theory. How do you fit these parts of your life together? What’s your basic motivation in all of your work? Is there a consistent theme?

We live in an ultra-fantastic Universe. Mother Nature is an ultra-fantastic genetic engineer and an exquisite weaver of DNA. Our existence as a conscious witness to all this biospherical and cosmic majesty is equally as fantastic. That’s what drives me and what goes through all that I do—whether writing books, making films, or making music. Having had a number of deeply inspirational experiences I feel obliged to give back using all and any means necessary. It can be a tough job—but someone’s got to do it!

Actually, one last question: do you have anything else you want to add in closing?

Darwin’s Unfinished Business is available everywhere that books are sold. And my website is simonpowell.com.

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