Evolution and the Freedom to Love
Contemporary theories in biology rely heavily upon the role of genetics. Genetic-oriented theories tend toward describing organisms as programmed or controlled by genes. If we want to affirm evolution and yet affirm the freedom to love, we must overcome the view our genes control us entirely.
Biologists rarely attribute freedom and spontaneity to the organisms they study. They do not, in large part, because biological theory is thought to be based upon examining external results while ignoring possible internal experiences. Yet some theories in biology support the view that organisms have the spontaneity or intentionality required for freedom.
Freedom and the Baldwin Effect
An often-overlooked theory in contemporary biology is the Baldwin effect. Named after James Mark Baldwin and first proposed at the turn of the 20th century, this theory says that the sustained behavior of a species or group in response to its environment is gradually assimilated into the group’s genetic structures.
Learned behaviors cannot be directly inherited, said Baldwin. But the initiatives of organisms can be a factor in the establishment of random genetic changes and thereby affect the direction of evolutionary change. The behavior of thriving organisms can be imitated by others and transmitted socially for a long enough period that random genetic mutations support that beneficial behavior.
Science-and-religion scholar, Ian Barbour, uses bison and horses to illustrate the Baldwin effect. The common ancestors of bison and horses may have either charged their enemies or fled them. The survival of those who charged would have been enhanced by strength, weight, strong skulls, and other bison-like qualities. Those who survived by fleeing enemies, however, would have benefited by speed, agility, and other abilities we see in horses. “The divergence of bison and horse,” suggests Barbour, “may have arisen initially from different responses to danger, rather than from genetic mutations related to anatomy.” Barbour argues, “organisms participate actively in evolutionary history and are not simply passive products of genetic forces from within and environmental forces from without.”
The novelty of Baldwin’s argument is that creaturely agency plays a role in evolution. The Baldwin effect offers a way to account for the initiatives of organisms to have significant long-term consequences. Barbour speaks of creaturely “interiority” that evolves “starting from rudimentary memory, sentience, responsiveness, and anticipation in simple organisms, going on to consciousness with the advent of nervous systems, and then self-consciousness in the case of primates and human beings.”
For the sake of metaphysical consistency and generality, Barbour argues that minimal interiority can be postulated even at more basic levels of existence. “Our categories must also represent the continuity of developmental processes and of evolutionary history,” argues Barbour, “and the impossibility of drawing any sharp lines between stages.”
While it is not difficult to attribute self-determining agency to complex creatures like humans, chimps, canine, and dolphins, most biologists are reluctant to infer that less complex creatures also possess a measure of self-determining agency. There are some, however, who believe that such inferences are appropriate.
Freedom at the Molecular Level
Biochemist Ross Stein suggests that spontaneity arises in the evolutionary history at the molecular level, which is a degree of complexity preceding the emergence of autonomous cell-like structures. Stein argues that we should not think of molecular entities as mere objects. Rather, they “possess a subjective nature that allows them to experience and respond to their environment.” Stein says that “a molecule’s interiority and ability to respond to its environment can account for seemingly diverse chemical phenomena including molecular change, molecular complexification, and, ultimately, the evolution of life.”
To argue that organisms at varying levels of complexity exhibit self-organization, spontaneity, or self-determination does not require one also to argue that less complex creatures are free to the same degree as more complex creatures. Nor does it require one to deny the powerful influence of a creature’s genes. Instead, one can appeal to the possibility that creatures of varying complexity possess varying degrees of freedom, interiority, or self-organization.
The late biologist, Charles Birch, suggests that degrees of creaturely freedom are of great importance. “Determinism by genes is not an all-or-none affair,” says Birch. “There can be different degrees of freedom. There is all the difference in the world between 100 percent determination and 99 percent determination. One provides no room for choice and purpose. The other does not.” The power of the genes may be more determinative for less complex creatures, but it need not be considered all determining.
Speculating that organisms at all levels of complexity possess some measure of spontaneity does not, of course, scientifically demonstrate that freedom is present throughout existence. “That entities at many levels seem to take account of their environment and to act in appropriately responsive ways,” says Birch, “will never prove that they are not in fact machines.” But speculation that creatures are robots blindly programmed by their genes is also not scientifically demonstrable.
Identifying apparently self-organizing activity at various levels of creaturely complexity, however, provides grounds for plausible inferences about self-determination at the biological level. Identifying apparent self-organizing activity will, as Birch puts it, “make clear that the reason for viewing [organisms] as machines, rather than as agents, is metaphysical, not empirical.”
Freedom and Emergence
It may be that the capacity to act freely as an agent is not a capacity present in nascent form at even the least complex levels of existence, however. It could be that freedom and self-organization emerged at some point in the evolutionary process. Relatively simple organisms may not possess self-determination, but self-determination emerged as creatures increased in complexity. This view, often called “emergence,” is attractive to those who wish to acknowledge the freedom apparent in human experience and apparently present in other complex creatures. This version of emergence also allows one to resist the claim that the least complex entities of existence, atoms for instance, are to some degree free.
Theologian and philosophers of science, Philip Clayton, advocates this emergent view of creaturely self-determination. Clayton speculates that “living systems first display purposive behavior not found in more simple systems, and then gradually manifest higher degrees of self-monitoring and internal (neural) representation of their environment, until the internalized world of symbols and intentions that we associate with consciousness emerges.” Clayton argues that human freedom should be “understood in terms of a developmental story that includes the role of physical laws, biological drives, and the increasing latitude of behavior in more complex organisms – features both shared with other animals and distinguishing us from them.”
In contrast to Clayton, Ian Barbour argues for an emergent view that posits a minimum of interiority at even the most basic levels. Barbour’s argument is partly for “the sake of metaphysical consistently and generality. New phenomena and new properties emerge historically,” says Barbour, “but we should seek fundamental categories that are as universal as possible.” Barbour says that we ought to generalize from the human experience of freedom. “We are part of nature,” he argues, and “even though human experience is an extreme case of an event in nature, it offers clues as to the character of other events.”
Which version of emergence – the one Clayton advocates or the one Barbour advocates – best accounts for biology is debatable. But as creatures increase in organizational and mental complexity through evolution, the importance of self-organization, freedom, and interiority arises.
If humans share significant continuity with their nonhuman companions, it seems plausible that freedom and intentionality are present in the earlier biological stages of evolutionary history. And it seems plausible that humans are not the only creatures on planet earth capable of love.