Imagine humans one day fulfill what is currently only a dream for the discipline known today as synthetic biology: to create a whole new species from simple organic molecules. No, not by combining biomolecules, or larger structures we obtained from living systems. Imagine we create at some point a new life form from scratch. As any other, this life form will be able to self-sustain and to self-reproduce with variation, and thus able to undergo evolution by natural selection. We will have a new species on our planet — whatever our definition of species, it will be indisputably new.

This species would deserve a place in the history of life on Earth. So, how do we explain its evolutionary debut using concepts from classical evolutionary theory? Was it natural selection? No. Was it allopatric, parapatric, or sympatric speciation [1] —phenomena at the geographical level? No. Was it lateral gene transfer, [2]  polyploidization, [3] or hybridization [4] —phenomena at the molecular level? No.

We may try with less standard concepts. Was it the Baldwin effect? [5]  No. Kin selection? [6]  No. Group selection? [7]  No. Multilevel selection? [8]  No. Epigenetics? [9]  No. . .

This thought experiment is, of course, beginning to get as silly as the brilliant Monty Python’s Cheese Shop skit — only not funny, so I should stop. In lay terms, we would simply and finally say that humans made new life come into being. (Let’s try for now not to make matters worse by saying that humans consciously  made new life come into being.)

That said, one may argue the thought experiment is pointless. Not because creating life from scratch is a fundamental impossibility — that’s a tough case to make — but because we’ll never be smart enough to do it or, rather more cynically, we’re already stupid enough to destroy ourselves before we do it. Granted.

Imagine then the first system able to self-sustain and self-reproduce to have ever existed. Beyond reasonable doubt one such system, however simple, did exist. It turns out that here — apart from the half-suppressed adverb “consciously” — the answer to all explanations suggested in the thought experiment will be the same: No. That first system spontaneously came into being. In other words, it somehow emerged.

Charles Darwin was fully aware of this issue, as evidenced by the wonderful, triumphant, and no less intellectually honest last paragraph of On the Origin of Species. [10]

Yes, at least one agent did emerge spontaneously in the history of the Universe, and another (conscious) agent could figure out how to elicit the spontaneous emergence of a new agent — with no standard (or not-that-standard) evolutionary mechanisms involved whatsoever in either case. The common denominator here is not consciousness, but the spontaneous emergence of systems that are agents, systems with teleological properties: the “end-directed” properties that unequivocally characterize life.

This common denominator is, I suggest, the substantial update evolutionary theory currently lacks. Note, however, that to say even an individual cell is an agent or, in other words, an autonomous, causally efficacious system in the world, is a huge claim. The dynamics of the individual cell, for it to be an agent, must be to some extent indecomposable in a fundamental sense — otherwise said dynamics are only the effect of what molecules, inanimate and purposeless, do. Interestingly, “individual” comes from individuus, which is the Latin for the Ancient Greek átomos, or indivisible.

In this respect, I have argued that a necessary condition for individuation — specifically, for the multicellular individuation unique to eukaryotes — is a regime underpinned by “self-organizing” systems [11]  whose dynamics are statistically independent [12] from each other (at least within certain critical regions in space). [13]

When two statistically independent “self-organizing” systems found in chromatin [14] become coupled across the extracellular space such that the constraints — understood as the thermodynamic boundary conditions that allow energy to be released as work [15] — required by each system are generated by the others, the multicellular individual emerges. And it does so as an intrinsic (with respect to the whole cell population), higher-order constraint on lower-order cellular dynamics. [13]  There is also compelling evidence for aging at the multicellular-individual level explained as a direct byproduct of this emergent higher-order constraint. [16]  (The consensus evolutionary account is that aging is the result of hundreds of millions of years of relaxed selection on late-life maintenance traits.) [17]

The concept of emergent and intrinsic higher-order constraints on lower-order dynamics, or simply teleodynamics, was pioneered by T. Deacon [18–20] and has been followed up by others like M. Montévil & M. Mossio, [21]  R. Logan, [22]  J. Sherman, [23]  S. Kauffman, [24] and myself.

What to call a teleodynamics-updated evolutionary theory? I’m not sure “conscious evolution” is a helpful term, because consciousness is usually associated with the mind, and most living systems don’t have one. “Teleological evolution”, on the other hand, suggests (at least to me) the wrongful notion that natural selection is purposeful. Whatever name it will bear — one hopefully descriptive, yet not misleading — we surely need it.

Otherwise, biology will forever be the reverse-engineering of uber-fancy organic robots that get imperfectly replicated — and thus overhauled — throughout the eons by a process we call evolution. Even sillier than Monty Python’s Cheese Shop, and making no one laugh. A bad joke within an increasingly science-distrusting society [25]  that seems to long for any everyday life purpose, if not explained, at least acknowledged by science. Because teleology does exist. You — not the roughly 134 trillion trillion atoms in your brain [26,27] — purposefully decided to read this commentary, didn’t you?


I wish to thank David Sloan Wilson, Maximus Thaler, and Mel Andrews for inviting me to contribute to this commentary.


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