Sunday, October 25, 2009

Musings on Gould's Wonderful Life

Stephen J. Gould argued in his book Wonderful Life that if you "replayed the tape" of evolution a million times, you would likely never hit on the combination of events which produced humans. Now Gould was a smart guy, no doubt smarter than me (and much more educated and focused), but I think there are a couple of important points to make.
One is that, the more unlikely we are, the more likely it appears that Someone had a hand in our emergence. After all, this is the only planet we know of suitable for higher life forms, and here we are - that's a 100% success rate, albeit one based on our still-limited data set. (Science has confirmed only a few hundred exoplanets, none in the habitable zone. When we know about 10,000 planets, things may look different.)
The other point is that I think Gould took too lightly the fact that that intelligence is always an advantage in evolutionary competition. (Not an unmitigated advantage - intelligence requires support for a large brain, with all the requirements that imposes - but an advantage nonetheless.) In a harsh enviornment like Mars, things may well stop at the microbe level (I won't be surprised if we eventually confirm such life on Mars), but Earth is a big, diverse place, and intelligence has a chance to come into play.
I suspect that, even if no one was influencing evolution, if it ran long enough on a planet of diverse environments like ours, you would eventually produce - every time - a species with an intellectual level sufficient to make the breakthrough to consciousness and an awareness of the spiritual dimension of life. I think the evolutionary game is intended to produce such species - and, even if it's not intended, it will anyway.
So, Gould's admitted brilliance notwithstanding, I think there is something else going on.

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