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May 04, 2008


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In a evolutionary-centered paradigm, isn't the purpose of life simply survival?

Hence the need for evolutionary adaptation: To ensure life continues.

The move to more complex structures tend to create better capabilities for ensuring this purpose. For example, if evolution doesn't produce an intelligence capable of thwarting the inevitable extinction level event (e.g. asteroid), then life ends.

(Great blog, BTW.)

federal way flowers

that is the question...

it's quite perplexing to know for sure, especially when there are a lot of sides willing to share their "findings."

all i know, and what i choose to believe in is that we're supposed to live as positive and as happy as possible :)

George Mobus

Hi Noema.

In the standard evolutionary biology the purpose might be construed to be survival. But the picture I would like to paint is one of progress, a no-no for those biologists.

Life seeks to regenerate itself in our progeny. It seeks to expand and explore new states of the universe. This seems to me to be more purposeful than mere survival. Of course living things have to survive to be in a position to meet this purpose. But I just don't think of survival as the ultimate purpose.

So for me, survival capabilities evolve, true enough, to serve expansion and increasing complexity. Then that complexity generates the next level of need to find better survival capabilities.

Isn't it a wonder that evolution has produced a species whose intelligence is such that it can learn what process produced it? This alone make me think that humanity is worth saving as the progenitors of a future, wiser hominid.


George Mobus

I share your sentiments FWF.

Mike Mortier

Great stuff! I totally agree with you regarding the evolutionary importance of the increasingly higher levels of information processing. In fact, as the Santiago cognitive theory suggests, evolution is basically a cognitive process involving increasing awareness. Learning to distinguish between prey and predator (or, stated less aggressively, between food and fate) was essential for the survival of the early cells. This was probably followed by learning that getting together with friendly colleagues could lead to attractive consequences (such as sex) and that cooperation in general vastly improved the individual’s chances of survival. Awareness of choices (e.g. between sex and cooperation) led to the third level.

Awareness is the prerequisite to learning. Evolution then becomes a growing ability to learn. The meaning as well as the purpose of life lies what is learned: does it increase our individual and collective chances of survival? Does it increase our ability to cooperate with each other? Does it help us to learn how to learn?

I therefore also agree that evolution has indeed had a direction: an increase in the capability of becoming aware and therefore an increase in the capacity to learn. I therefore find the argument that it is “directionless in that types can revert if the conditions of their environment revert to favoring a previous type” to be invalid. Such reversion is quite simply the flexibility inherent in the evolutionary process. After all, if I have taken the wrong fork in the road and, having driven back to the fork, take the right turn, it doesn’t mean that I have lost direction. It means that I have learned from my mistake!

One of the most interesting concepts regarding the ability to learn is Paul D. MacLean’s theory of the ‘triune brain’. This theory – which MacLean based on 50 years of comparative anatomical research – says that our brain is the result of three distinct evolutionary stages: the amphibian/reptilian stage (reflected in our brain stem), the paleomammalian stage (reflected in our limbic system) and the neomammalian stage (reflected in our neocortex). In line with their evolutionary development these three stages are responsible for our autonomic survival modes, our instinctive emotional/social modes and our rational modes. Although his theory unfortunately been ignored by many neuroscientists, Kent G. Bailey, Professor Emeritus of psychology, Virginia Commonwealth University, in my opinion correctly finds that it goes a long way to explain why we act the way we do and why so many find it so difficult to achieve wisdom: Under pressure we tend to regress to the earlier evolutionary levels (his fascinating study can be found in Human Paleopsychology: Applications to Aggression and Pathological Processes, Laurence Erlbaum Asociates Inc., 1987).

A final comment on some scientists’ irrational rejection of a higher intelligence: in view of the thousands of years of experiential reports from every corner of the earth it is obvious that human awareness is not restricted to observable, measurable phenomena. It is therefore sheer arrogance (or worse) to deny that a higher-than-human intelligence may exist. The ancient Greeks cautioned against this arrogance, which they called hubris. It seems to me that in view of the problems we are facing and the ease with which we regress to our ancestorial reptilian level we had better remember the warning of our predecessors.


George, you write:
"Of course, the potential for complexity was inherent in the starting material. Atoms have to be capable of forming molecules and some special kinds of molecules have to be capable of interacting to produce life. At the higher level of society, humans have to have the capacity to interact to produce families, tribe, villages, etc. This inherency might be argued to be a kind of teleological argument. In a very real sense, life and intelligence were inevitable from the start."

I don't know if I'd go so far as to say "inevitable". After all, as the cosmologists tell us, most of the conceivable universe configurations would've been inhospitable to life, at least as we know it.

Which leads to my second point. I agree that life is simply a higher order form in an ever-increasing sequence of complexity. However, it follows from this that the organic is not qualitatively different from the inorganic, and that the force which drives conception, gestation, birth etc., not to mention which was involved in whatever congealing of amino acids created "life" in the first place, is the same as that which accumulates a stalactite.
This leads to the question, what is life anyway? I've never seen a definition which didn't have some arbitrary element. I imagine it's not really important how you define life. Jeffers wrote a poem called "Animals" where he said there are animals in the sun as well, just a kind different from those we have here. That sounds about right to me.

Incidentally, what you write about this force toward complexity is a science-oriented parallel to what Nietzsche philosophically explicated as the will to power. Many of your posts make me think of it.

George Mobus

Hi Russ.

You are right, of course, about the issue of inevitability. I should have been more careful to specify that given the conditions of earth as it evolved, life was inevitable (and assuming no planet-killing asteroid hits!) But, by extension, in any planet where conditions are roughly similar in terms of physical properties and chemical composition, I expect life to emerge. The question of how complex that life might evolve is dependent on how much energy flow is available. Also, there may be different chemistries that work well, but I'm betting it's hard to beat carbon.

The best starting point for me regarding what is life was the monograph by Harold Morowitz, "Energy flow in biology". He followed on the heals of Erwin Schroedinger who wrote a book by the title, "What is life?" More recently a book by that same title was penned by Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan.

In all of these the role of energy flow through a system is the main theme. Life gets its purchase as an auto-catalytic process driven by the flow of high potential energy through a materially semi-closed system. Life is dynamic and the chemical reactions that go on internally are entropy reducing. The stalactite example is a case of simple aggregation (through evaporation). It may represent a form of order (in the sense of the 3rd Law of Thermodynamics) but it is not organized dynamic work.

I'd recommend the book by Margulis & Sagan as a comprehensive view. What did you mean by an 'arbitrary element'?

You are going to force me to study more Nietzsche! But that is a good thing!



George, I always found it difficult to answer a question about a process as varied as life from a point of view that is offered by a single species. Therefore I think that there are at least two ways to ask the question.
One would be to ask, what is the meaning of life from a human perspective and allow for the myriad of opinions that ensue to serve as an illustration that there is no one answer that satisfies everyone. The futility of the exercise may point us towards the realization that, it is not that our grasp on what life is that is deficient or wanting but rather our understanding of more fundamental layers of the question of what life is at a universal level. Otherwise it is likely that we will argue this point right up to the moment when we and most other life become extinct unless we take the next step and evolve out of this rut.
Another way would be to ask, is life the universe’s way of expressing the dynamic probability of its essential make up?
If one can embrace that thought, then life can be a progression of expressions where the fundamental laws of this universe, aggregate information into dynamic constructions which constitute a flow of material and energy that characterizes life at each and all of its expressions on a vast canvas of possibilities and time scales.
Therefore the question, what is the meaning of life may be approached from a universal point of view and be answered as the dynamic result of the entire architecture of matter and energy as expressed by the information that forms their symmetric structures and the sufficiency of their operative synthesis in spacetime.
Does life have a purpose?
One can say that it does, without ruffling anybody’s evolutionary feathers; life’s sole purpose is to preserve itself. How you or an angler fish interprets such an act of preservation amounts to contemplating in varying degrees the whole idea behind evolution. That is if we can think of evolution as life’s own preservation strategy.
Humanity is at the edge of a new enlightenment where our conceived notions about life and the universe are about to be plotted against a larger and more universal frame of reference where the arguments about life and evolution can be liberated from myth on one side and from scientific stasis on the other. Chance and necessity as evolutionary mechanisms are merely temporary place holders for a more robust and productive mechanism that provides quantifiable parameters for change and adaptation.
Intelligence is a factor of the cognitive ability to process information, however, I’m not sure that at least for now, we need more intelligence as much as we need a new idea that allows us to connect information to a larger frame of reference and thereby generate a worldview to suit current conditions.
For now I will concur with George that our search for the substance of these questions has been based in profound ignorance but things are changing faster than one may suspect, like it or not, Homo sapiens is now a global species whose diversity is geographically globally integrated and whose awareness of this fact, is suggesting that our future depends on how fast we can learn to work together as a species. That, I will think, will be a measure of human intelligence since the contrary will only illustrate why the species is doomed.

George Mobus


Your comment: "One of the most interesting concepts regarding the ability to learn is Paul D. MacLean’s theory of the ‘triune brain’."

The triune brain has been a help to me in understanding the hierarchical control theory WRT the human brain/mind. The evolution of each layer of control, operational (brain stem), coordination, especially tactical (limbic and ancient cerebral cortex with cerebellum), and strategic (prefrontal neocortex) control has helped me understand human behavior immensely. I will have to look into Bailey's work. Thanks for the pointer.


George Mobus


I think your second option on how to ask the question comes closest to what I was trying to express. In my own approach to things, which is essentially a general systems theory approach, I tend to look for the universals rather than try to, for example, average the surficial manifestations.

But when you say: "’s sole purpose is to preserve itself," I am puzzled. To my mind, this might better be characterized as the mission rather than the purpose. In other words, in order to serve a purpose you need to do something, a mission involving action. Life as a fundamental process has adopted survival and procreation as the mission, to expand the genetic endowment in a way that allows evolution (extended neo-Darwinian) to work its 'magic'. In my phraseology the mission is what gives rise to fulfilling the purpose. And, for me that purpose transcends life itself giving rise to sentience and eventually sapience. As you know I think we are in the midst of the emergence of sapience right now. Our current species is the next step toward that end.

Now this sounds teleological I suppose. But it really isn't. I don't presume to know an end point, if there even is one. I am simply observing a trajectory and hypothesizing about the next phase based on where we've been and where we seem to be evolutionarily.

But to summarize, my observation is that the evolution of life has produced sentient mind, and in man, a very high level of sentience. It has also produced the first inkling of sapience as a cognitive process. This much is in the evolutionary and historical records. My conjecture regarding what comes next, Human 2.0 to put it in techno-speak, or Homo eusapiens, is based on a conviction (call it) that life will continue its mission and humans will survive whatever evolutionary selection tests await us in the disruptive changes our world is about to undergo. Evolution will continue to work its 'magic', and true sapience will emerge. Of course I've opened the possibility that our level of sentience might allow us to be active agents in that magic trick through genetic manipulations. But that is just a thought on feasibility, not a specific proposal. It is based on the observation of how much knowledge about genetics and gene expression control we've garnered in such a short time. What else might we learn if we have a few more years to study?



I must admit that I chose the word “purpose” instead of “mission” aware that perhaps neither is fundamental enough to suit a description about life’s private intentions. The word “aim” may have been more productive since my intention was to stretch the idea of life to embrace the whole of animated activity stemming from the interaction of matter and energy.
The thought behind it being, that if we can conceive of the universe as one giant living system whose aim is to preserve itself by persisting as it does through means that we understand and through means that remain a mystery to us.
Then, it will not be so difficult to consider that the spectrum of life begins at the particle level and moves through the entire interactive complex up to us and life on earth, and thence, beyond into other manifestations of the universe’s life as a single independent entity, perhaps somewhere in the company of other universes.
My purpose is to push our ideas about life beyond the human comfort zone in the hope that we become more comfortable with an elastic consciousness that can embrace level variations of a common theme (life.)
Like you, I do not presume to know an end point but I value the idea of throwing the ball towards the goal post in order to increase the chances of a touch down. I agree with you that evolutionarily we are at a point of transition which becomes evident just by your mention of human 2.0 or Homo eusapiens (true wisdom) as the calling card.
Our species and the world are in real trouble, the challenge is to find the cultural via that will be most time effective to push humanity towards the level of sapience that can redirect the species and the environment towards a mutual survival sufficiency.
My concern is whether we may be able to evolve fast enough in as little a time as possible to score a goal before our game time is over. I’m convinced that we still have time I’m also convinced that the arts can play a hugely important role in conveying the science and also that science can benefit hugely from art. Let’s not forget that we are the dreamers of most of what science has pursued, and that nothing that is within your line of sight at this moment was even possible before an artist drew it on a piece of paper or computer.
In reality we are both in trouble so let us believe in each others sapience, let science guide the aesthetic of dreams and allow the dreams to guide the science. Do you think that we can get this job done together?

Mike Mortier

The new science of Transpersonal Psychology suggests that the question “what is the meaning of life” cannot be answered through the ordinary state of consciousness, because that state is only the tip of consciousness as a whole.

As a graduate in chemistry and a student of history and human nature I can understand why many Western scientists react allergically to the faintest suggestion that after centuries of domination by the Catholic Church they may once again have to “subjugate” themselves to any religion. Nevertheless, these scientists risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater. As Stanslav Grof, co-founder of Transpersonal Psychology and possibly one of the most brilliant minds in psychology today, states in his book The Holotropic Mind, “our current scientific models of the human psyche cannot account for many of the new facts and observations in science. They represent a conceptual straightjacket and render many of our theoretical and practical efforts ineffective and, in many instances, even counterproductive. Openness to new data challenging traditional beliefs and dogmas has always been an important characteristic of the best of science and a moving force of progress. A true scientist does not confuse theory with reality and does not try to dictate what nature should be like. It is not up to us to decide what the human psyche can do and what it cannot do to fit our neatly organized preconceived ideas. If we are ever to discover how we can best cooperate with the psyche, we have to allow it to reveal its true nature to us.”

George Mobus


Your comment: "...I’m also convinced that the arts can play a hugely important role in conveying the science and also that science can benefit hugely from art."

I couldn't agree more. My early life was shaped by science fiction and the wonderful illustrations that went with it.

But here is another aspect that I wonder if you had in mind saying, "...let science guide the aesthetic of dreams and allow the dreams to guide the science. Do you think that we can get this job done together?" Can art move people to care for what science points to? In my mind the arts (humanities in general) must help create the milieu where people can be motivated to understand what science is telling us.

An example of this is Dan Bloom's conception of polar cities, bolstered by illustrations by Deng Cheng-hong ( ). The combination of speculation based on science and art work that helps convey the sense of reality in the message drew quite a response.

The message that I want to convey to my fellow humans is that we need to be unselfish! We need to think about who our successors will be. We need to understand that our own hands are to blame in the coming crises that will almost surely constitute a selection pressure. We need to come together to prepare the way for our evolutionary children even as we prepare for our own demise as individuals.

This is a very difficult message to convey, especially in words, no matter how much science one brings to bear on it. We all have a sense of personal mortality and a certain ease in the notion of getting our affairs in order for the benefit of our children. How do we apply this same sense to the whole species?

Humanity must evolve, biologically, in order to evolve mentally beyond where we are now. How can we get people who have not even thought this way to start realizing that it is time to set our genetic affairs in order?

I suspect that your project and more art works can have a major role in shifting thinking about the end of Homo sapiens and the beginning of something new and better. Right now people are focused on the crises from their fear of disruption of their comfortable lives. We need to inspire them to something higher.


David Horton

Hi George, an interesting post, as always. But I don't think you can characterise evolution as leading towards greater complexity, and, specifically, greater intelligence. I think we tend to see it that way from the point of view of a naked ape, one of a group for whom intelligence (presumably for reasons of habitat complexity and/or environmental change) was a positive selection mechanism. And a particular species of ape which, perhaps, compensated for other inadequacies (naked skin, useless teeth, poor backbone etc) with positive selection for even greater intelligence. But it is worth keeping in mind that Neanderthals at least had a bigger brain than us.

But other groups had success by concentrating (as it were) on other features - a rumen, fast speed, big teeth, warm coats, adaptation to aridity, deep diving, large size etc. A sheep, a rattlesnake, a whale, a peregrine, would all see the "purpose" of evolution in quite different ways, and see the intelligence of humans as just one more speciality among many.

Two other points. Some groups (notably parasites) have evolved towards greater simplicity (although often with associated greater complexity in some sytems), very successfully. And second, at pretty much any time in the past, evolution resulted in a range of species from simple to complex. The early life of the oceans and the time of dinosaurs for example, both involved the development of complex organisms, many of which subsequently became extinct. We are now looking back at another period of (in a sense) the flowering of complexity, and we are perhaps about to see that complexity lost, and have to start all over again with a new burst of speciation. I don't see (even as a moderately intelligent but otherwise poorly adapted naked ape) any direction in all this, just evolution working with materials at hand to fill niches existing at a particular time.

George Mobus

Hi David.

Well this is why I said it's a good thing I don't make a living as a biologist. Orthodoxy isn't my strong suit!

I've heard this 'objectivist' view many times and I think it is OK to have when doing real evolutionary biology of course. But I have the luxury of stepping back from mainstream view and ask why the world has more information in it today than it did 2 billion years ago.

As you point out, there have been hiccups in the process. The apocalyptic meteor/comet crash in the Yucatan 65 mya being one. And the rapid explosion of speciation following the event certainly attests to the capacity of life to fill a void.

The idea that evolution produces greater complexity and information processing capacity over time doesn't say that the simpler forms of life cannot coexist with more complex forms. Indeed the complexity tends to be concentrated in just a few macro-species. But the fact that where we find complexity today it is significantly greater than it was even in dinosaurian times still begs for explanation.

I think Harold Morowitz and a few other non-conforming biologists got it basically right to point out that complexity (organization and interconnection coupled with higher residence time for energy in high potential chemical bonds) increases as a function of energy flow through the system. This is a real observable phenomenon. Until mainstream evolutionary biology comes up with evidence to the contrary...

Brains have evolved increasing capacity to process and store information (knowledge). To say that the human brain is the epitome of this process is not anthropocentric, it is an observation of fact. If a Martian were to take a sample of animal brains from many species, I suspect they would line them up in order of increasing complexity of circuits, numbers of pyramidal cells per unit volume, and types of behavior supported by them. There is nothing specieist (like sexist only toward other species) in making such an observation.

Even if the worst cataclysm reduces our numbers to a tiny fraction of what they are now, I suspect there will be survivors, an evolutionary bottleneck, through which some form of hominid will emerge. And even if not, if we do go extinct, I'm betting that in several million years, after the earth recovers from our machinations, something else will fill the living-by-cleverness void we will have left behind. Unfortunately neither you or I will be able to collect on that bet!

Meanwhile I will happily explore the notion that evolution does have a direction as long as there is more free energy to glean from the solar influx. One could argue our modern culture is, in fact, a product of evolution due to the tapping of the fossil sunlight in fossil fuels. That will come tumbling down, like the dinosaurs, but some new form of culture based on renewable energy capture will emerge. That gives me an idea for a future post! Thanks!

For everyone else, look for David's blog at or go to his blog at:


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