If you had a conventional biological education, then you were taught that evolution is not a conscious process. Giraffes that stretch to reach high foliage do not mysteriously cause their offspring to be taller. Instead, their offspring are both taller and shorter and it is differences in their fitness that cause the giraffe population to become taller over time. More generally, you were taught that genetic variation is random with respect to what is selected by the environment, which makes evolution blind rather than conscious.

If you were so foolish as to think otherwise, you would be guilty of errors associated with Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Herbert Spencer. You would be wrongfully invoking orthogenesis. You would be thinking in terms of teleology, when you should be thinking in terms of teleonomy.

How very 20th Century.

As we approach the one-fifth mark of the 21st Century, the concept of conscious evolution is becoming respectable again. Before proceeding, let’s demystify the concept of “conscious” by listing some of its synonyms: deliberate, intentional, purposeful, calculated, planned, volitional. All of these words imply directionality in the actions of an agent, who works toward a goal rather than behaving randomly with respect to the goal.

To see how an evolutionary process can be directional, consider genetic algorithms in computer science. Some problems, such as how a traveling salesman should minimize the length of his path through different cities, are notoriously difficult to solve because there are so many combinatorial possibilities. One way to proceed is to represent different options (i.e., each path through the cities) as a string of information, like genes on a chromosome, and to select them on the basis of path length. Then variation is created by mutating the strings and recombining them with each other, emulating the process of genetic recombination. Numerous “generations” of this process do a good job of finding the shortest paths. The whole process is consciously (=intentionally) designed to solve a specified problem, but it still counts as an evolutionary process.

Or take conscious human decision-making as a second example. There is a clear objective for evaluating alternative options, which is the target of selection in evolutionary terms. The variation part of the evolutionary process includes both a directed and undirected component. We don’t suggest options at random; typically, we are guided by one set of expectations or another. On the other hand, some options do appear to “come out of nowhere” and these are often the ones that are chosen. That’s what brainstorming is all about. One way to demonstrate the importance of the random component is by giving the same problem to a number of decision-making groups. They usually come up with different solutions, just as different populations of bacteria subjected to the same selection pressures respond by genetic evolution in different ways, based on different mutations that arise by chance.

In short, while an evolutionary process has a component that is random with respect to what is selected, it can also have components that are directed, such as the target of selection and variation that is decidedly nonrandom with respect to the target of selection.

These two examples of conscious evolution are so clear-cut, at least in retrospect, that you might think I am misrepresenting the orthodox view, which treats the concept of conscious evolution as a heresy. In a sense, I am, because the orthodox view confines itself to genetic evolution. Yet, this by itself is highly problematic. Darwin defined evolution in terms of variation, selection, and heredity, which is a resemblance between offspring and parents caused by any mechanism. Once genes were identified as one mechanism of inheritance, they rapidly became treated as the only mechanism, as if the only way that offspring can resemble their parents is by sharing their genes. This is patently false. Only toward the end of the 20th century did evolutionists start going back to basics by defining evolution in terms of heredity, not just genes, and by identifying other mechanisms of heredity, such as epigenetics, forms of social learning found in many species, and forms of symbolic thought that are distinctively human. If evolutionary biologists previously missed forms of evolution that are obviously directed due to their narrow focus on genetic evolution, that is something to be corrected, not perpetuated.

Moreover, even genetic evolution can be more directed than previously thought. For example, an environmental change might trigger an increase in mutation rates in genes especially relevant to adapting to environmental change. This kind of directed genetic evolution is (or should be) uncontroversial because it can easily be shown to evolve from an undirected process of genetic evolution.

To make the concept of conscious evolution fully respectable again, TVOL is pleased to feature this collection of commentaries by leading evolutionary scientists and philosophers. Each will be published individually over the next few weeks and the collected links will appear below. All mechanisms of inheritance will be featured, including genetics, epigenetics, forms of social learning found in many species, and forms of symbolic thought that are distinctively human. In addition, authors were chosen who could speak to the practical implications of regarding evolution as a conscious process, in addition to basic scientific implications. Each author was asked to address the following questions:

  • Is conscious evolution a legitimate concept?
  • If so, what are some examples?
  • How does the concept of conscious evolution change our basic scientific understanding of evolution?
  • How can we use the concept of conscious evolution to accomplish positive change in the real world?

Hopefully, this collection will go a long way toward returning the concept of conscious evolution to normalcy.