Monthly Archives: February 2015

Looking at Evolution, Part 3: Evolution of the Human Person

Today’s Post

Previously, we saw that after identifing the main thread of evolution as ‘increased complexity’, Teilhard went on to identify the key branch as the one eventually leading to the most complex product of evolution known.  This is the human brain, located in the entity of the (currently) highest complexity, which is the human person.  Teilhard concludes that consciousness is the latest manifestation of the phenomenon of complexity.  Put another way, the evolution of complexity is the single thread which leads from the big bang to the appearance of human consciousness and therefore unites the three stages of cosmological history.

Today we will continue to pursue Teilhard’s unique vision of human evolution and open the inquiry into how such complexity manifests itself in the human neurological system.

The Thread of Evolution Through the Human Person

Teilhard’s vision neatly resolves the missing pieces of Darwinistic evolutionary theories:

  • It identifies the increase of ‘complexity’ as the thread for understanding the evolution of inorganic matter throughout the universe, as opposed to the Darwin keys of ‘reproduction’ and ‘survival’.
  • It shows how this thread can be seen to continue through living things. Yes, Darwin’s Natural Selection, but now understood in service to the rise of complexity.
  • It incorporates the human person into the warp and woof of cosmological evolution as the next step of complexity.

Teilhard sees development of complexity through the tangle of cosmic evolution as the thread which not only opens a fresh perspective on the evolution of ‘pre life’ but also on human evolution.  In keeping with his new perspective which views all entities evolving through the increase of complexity, the phenomenon of the human person as well as the activity of his relationships can now be seen in a new and clearer light.  This view of evolution as a process in which entities have relationships which lead to the creation of more complex entities sees this process as eventually leading to the appearance of entities of persons united by the energies which bind them.

He observes that evolution speeds up as complexity develops:  billions of years are spent at the level of gravity, atomic and electronic fields, millions of years at the planetary/biological level, and thousands of years at the level of personal, cognitive, and social development.

At the human level, evolutionary changes no longer require anatomical and neurological development to increase complexity.  As contrasted to the process of mutation of the ‘lower’ forms of life to gain complexity, in the human, complexity increases as understanding matures and relationships develop, as humans begin to understand their potential and play these potentialities out in their relationships

This activation of potential in turn spurs the development of the person, increasing his potential for relationship.  In other words, physical manifestations of change are no longer necessary in the human person to increase his complexity.

There is a tendency to see the process of evolution as coming to a halt in the present day; that humans have “arrived”.  The process of evolution seems to have stopped, and it is difficult to see the chance of any further substantial changes.

It’s much more probable that the process of evolution which got us here isn’t going to stop, but will instead continue.  This shouldn’t be a surprise: if you draw a line between two points, past and present, the slope of the line in the future isn’t going to change unless something drastically changes in the underlying process.  Therefore we can expect the process of evolution to continue through the human person and the energies which unite him.

Ian Barber echoes Teilhard’s thinking in his recent book, “Religion and Science”, in which he recognizes both the continuation of evolution through the human person as well as the “change of state” that we saw in the last post:

“Today we can see that in the long history of the world, the emergence of humanity marks a genuinely new chapter- not one disconnected from previous chapters and yet one that involves factors not previously present.  Something radically different takes place when culture rather than the genes becomes the principal means by which the past is transmitted to the future and when conscious choice alters that future.”

If we see the evolutionary process of entities and energy through Teilhard’s eyes, as leading from more simple things to more complex things which have more capacity for interconnection, then we can extrapolate this continuation of evolution to ever more complex human persons and more comprehensive compliance with the energies of human connection.

The Advent of the Human Person

So, what’s really different about the human person?  Considering the materialistic belief that “we are all molecules”, and the atheistic belief that “there’s nothing special about humans, they’re just a different form of animal”, what really changes (if anything indeed does) in the transition from ‘pre-human’ to ‘human”?  Are not animals conscious?  Are they not aware?  And if so, how can it be said that humans are different?

Teilhard observes that the single most important characteristic which separates humans from their non-human ancestors is their ‘redundant awareness’, which he refers to as “reflexive consciousness”.  In simpler terms, humans ‘know that they know’; they are aware of their awareness.

His use of the word ‘reflexive’ also indicates the ‘rebounding’ effect that such consciousness has on the human person.  Knowledge of one’s knowledge contributes to personal growth, enhancing his capacity for relationship, which enhances his knowledge.  Each loop of the spiral towards increased consciousness, which is increased complexity, adds to potential for the next loop.

Then the question can be asked: what sort of physical change can be seen in the fossil record that would reflect such a monumental change?  The answer, of course, lies in the growth of brain capacity as measured in cranial size.

Each onset of three major stages of evolution (pre-life, life, conscious life) is marked at the beginning by characteristics of the previous stage.  The primitive cell emerges as a more complex molecule, the primitive human as simply a more complex animal.

Life at its onset is overwhelmed by the characteristics of pure matter. In the earliest stages the activity of primitive cells is heavily influenced by the laws of chemistry and physics which dominated the stage of ‘pre-life’.  Eventually Natural Selection becomes more powerful and accounts for successful replication and survival of successful mutations.

Beneath Natural Selection, however, the biological entity continues the increase in complexity that we saw in the era of ‘pre-life”, but at a substantially increased rate.  Complexity in the evolution of animals is marked by such characteristics as increased sensory capacity leading to increased awareness, social behavior, and the size of brains.

At the onset of those animals which are conscious of their awareness, humans, the laws of Natural Selection which had such success governing the development of ‘pre-human’ entities can be expected to initially be the primary influence.  In the same way as activity of the earliest cells could be barely distinguished from that of the more complex nonliving entities which preceded them, the earliest humans would have been barely distinguishable from their ‘pre-human’ ancestors.

The Next Post

The next post will continue to examine this perspective and take a brief look at how science sees evolution proceeding through the human neurological system.


Looking at Evolution, Part 2, Teilhard’s Perspective

Today’s Post

In the last post we began looking at the concept of evolution itself, and saw how Teilhard understood evolution in its full cosmic context as opposed to just an action prevalent in biological life.  Today’s post will continue looking through the eyes of Teilhard in order to begin to see the universe as ‘unified’ by the concept of evolution.

Teilhard’s Observations on Evolution

Teilhard did not limit his vision of evolution to the era of life, and hence makes very several straightforward observations about the nature of the universe and its process of becoming:

Simplicity and Time: Simpler entities always correspond to an earlier era of time.  The simplest and smallest came first in what came to be called “The Big Bang”.

Complexity and Time: Over time, new manifestations of matter appear in forms more complex than the previous.  This increased complexity results in an increased capacity for union, and produces an increase in the complexity of the products of the new unions.  Teilhard saw this in the basic evolution of protons and neutrons, then atoms, then molecules over long periods of time.  Since Teilhard’s time, as he predicted, science has continued its search ‘downwards’ (towards simpler entities) and ‘backwards’ (towards earlier periods of time), and has seen this same process to hold for even the simplest forms of matter, such as in the evolution from quarks and leptons to protons and neutrons.

Entities, Energies and Forces: All of these unions take place under the influence of forces: initially such forces as seen in the Higgs energy field and the strong and weak nuclear forces, then as the particles gather mass, the forces found in gravitational fields.  All the steps in evolution can be seen to take place between increasingly complex entities joined by new and more comprehensive forces.

Discontinuities: Such steps in evolution aren’t necessarily continuous, but can be distinctively discontinuous.  Such is the case of the evolution of simple atoms (helium and hydrogen, in abundant supply in the gaseous clouds which populate the universe) to more complex atoms (such as oxygen and carbon), as the basis of molecular development in planets.  The simpler gasses become stars by being drawn into smaller and smaller volumes by gravity, compressed into nuclear infernos in which electrons are stripped and nuclei enriched, and resulting in more complex atoms.  When the star explodes (a cosmic discontinuity), these heavier atoms are strewn into surrounding space, where the force of gravity again pulls them in to form the many molecules (such as air and water) which make up planetary systems.

Evolution of Living Things: This process continues through the development of biological life, and is well described by Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection in which living things evolve through the process of replication and survival.  Having gone through yet another ‘change of state’ with the appearance of the cell, cosmic evolution continues the production of more complex entities whose increase in complexity comes about through the influence of new forces.

Human Evolution: This process continues on through, on one hand, the development of very complex brains in which consciousness emerges (another change of state) and, on the other, influences of new forces which promote further complexity.

Hence the history of the universe can be summarized as the appearance of more complex entities under the influence of increasingly comprehensive fields of energy:

  • Atoms, molecules, cells, brains and consciousness, all bursting forth newly formed with new potentialities and subject to new forces.
  • Three waves, or stages of evolution: the stage of physics, the stage of biology and the stage of consciousness, each delineated by a step change of complexity in which the newly formed entity can now cooperate with a more sophisticated energy to continue the rise to increased complexity.

On the Evolution of Life

Science does not have a ready explanation for the appearance of life on Earth.  Some see life as “imported” from elsewhere in the solar system (or perhaps in surrounding space) but this only begs the question of its appearance elsewhere.  Others see life as accidental, occurring only once under conditions that will never again be replicated.  The advent of living entities seems to represent an absolute and unbridgeable discontinuity between cosmic and biologic entities, in the same way that the appearance of reflective (human) consciousness still holds much mystery to science.

This brings to mind the old joke about the astronomer lecturing the Women’s Club.  He was explaining about the Earth being kept in orbit around the Sun by the force of gravity.  He is confronted by an elderly woman in the front row:

Woman:  “Young man, my grandfather told me that the Earth is supported in its orbit on the back of a large turtle”.

Astronomer: “Ah, yes, Madam.  But what does the turtle stand on?”

Woman:  “It’s no use, young man, it’s turtles all the way down.”

Replaying this interchange on the subject of cellular evolution, with a biologist explaining that the advent of the cell was accidental:

Woman:  “Then, young man, where did the components of the cell come from?”

Biologist: “It’s no use, Madam, it’s accidents all the way down.”

Teilhard’s Different View of the Advent of Life

Teilhard also observes that since life did emerge from cosmic pre-cellular materials, these materials, by definition, must have possessed the potential for life.  In his view, life is a potential property of matter.

Noting that the complexity of entities rises with time and the influence of fields of energy, Teilhard expects to find the pre-cellular ladder of complexity continuing through highly complex molecules evolving on Earth, effectively constituting “pre-life”.  He uses viruses, with their simple RNA and molecular composition of millions of atoms, as an example of such “mega-molecules”.  In many ways, viruses, which are non-cellular (hence non-living), exhibit “behavior” similar to cell-based entities, and could be candidates for the last step of “pre-life” prior to the discontinuous step of increased complexity represented by the cell.

In Teilhard’s view, the advent of such an entity of higher complexity is to be expected: if matter has been increasing in complexity for billions of years, where could this process be most likely to lead?  Like the advent of complex atoms via the explosion of stars, the discontinuous step change resulting in the cell is not without precedence, nor to be unexpected.

Teilhard sees this increase of complexity passing through the atomic, to the molecular, to the cellular rungs of existence, opening at each stage new potentialities for growth and manifesting itself in new and profound ways.  Simple atoms become complex atoms which become large types of molecules which become seemingly limitless types of cells.  And at each step, the resulting entity is not only more complex, but even more capable of complex interactions than that of the last step.  And at each step, the new entities are capable of responding to new forces which usher them into new states.

Of course, this process is neither linear nor continuous.  At the molecular level, there are many branches of pre-living evolution in which increased complexity occurs without the eventual evolution to a higher level.  Such a substance can be seen in the crystal, which has “found” a way to grow, but is quickly limited by its structure.  At the cellular level, many more branches can be seen. Each branch does not fold back into other branches but remains distinct, leading to the “tree of life” so familiar to us all.

The Axis of Evolution

Having identified the main thread of evolution as ‘increased complexity’, Teilhard identified the key branch as the one eventually leading to the most complex substance known.  This is the human brain, located in the entity of the (currently) highest complexity, which is the human person.  Teilhard’s point is that consciousness is the latest manifestation of the phenomenon of complexity.

Put the other way around, the evolution of complexity is the single thread which leads from the big bang to the appearance of human consciousness and unites the three stages of cosmological history.

Teilhard’s vision neatly resolves the missing pieces of Darwin’s evolutionary theory:

  • It identifies the increase of ‘complexity’ as the thread for understanding the evolution of inorganic matter throughout the universe, as opposed to ‘survival’ as the thread of Natural Selection.
  • It shows how this thread can be seen to continue through living things. Yes, Darwin’s Natural Selection, but now understood in service to the rise of complexity.
  • It incorporates the human person into the warp and woof of cosmological evolution as the next step of complexity.

The recognition that the true metric of evolution can be found in the increase of complexity of entities as they emerge offers the opportunity to understand the concept of evolution in a new and more comprehensive way.

In keeping with the underlying subject of this blog, “The Secular Side of God”, this concept of evolution is key to understanding the phenomenon of creation, and complexity is key to understanding evolution.  The complex realities of the universe and of the human person can begin to be understood in the single context of Teilhard refers to as “complexity consciousness”, and this single context is a major step in our journey towards a new and more comprehensive understanding of God.

The Next Post

The next post will continue to examine this perspective in the light of its impact on the continuation of evolution through the human person, and look at some of the problems it raises with the atheistic position.