Evolution Has No Goal

February 27, 2024 • #

There’s a common misconception that evolution is “seeking” fitness — that there’s some inherent motivation in the process pushing toward a particular objective.

But evolution is an undirected process of mutation, testing, and accidental discovery of fitness. Within the genes of an organism, there is no memory acquiring feedback from these experimental genetic guesses. Genetic drift, mutation, and natural selection are evolution’s conjecture and criticism. But the criticism feedback loop doesn’t close in a single generation.

Evolution’s feedback loop is survival. If a gene survives, it will replicate. If it doesn’t, that mutation is “found” not to have worked (though the genes themselves never receive the message directly)1. A gene’s only goal (if one can call it that) is to copy itself. The environment provides the pressure to select one mutation over another. But the environment has no goal either. It merely is, and genes have evolved to continually mutate, then poke and prod at the environment to perpetuate their replication.

DNA replication

Though from the Big Bang to now it appears evolution is seeking ever-higher forms of intelligence, this too is deceiving. There are no steps on a ladder, no “global maximum” on offer. Further complexity often confers an advantage, but not always. This fact fools us into believing evolution is in search of higher-order complexity on purpose.

We’re fooled into believing there’s an objective because humans have a tendency to seek patterns. Because we ourselves can conceptualize abstract goals and proceed incrementally on a planned path, we imbue evolution with a similar characteristic.

Evolution is a soup of primitive ingredients being continually mixed, matched, and tested against the chaotic environment around it. When thought of as its own form of knowledge creation distinct from the way human-created knowledge works, it’s a helpful mental model for thinking about all forms of complex adaptive systems.

  1. The theory that genes receive feedback within a single generation is called “Lamarckism”, a fascinating subject in itself. A story of humans projecting our own means of knowledge creation on evolution’s purely undirected, emergent process. 

Topics:   evolution   knowledge   epistemology   biology   nature