Maybe rocks have a history but not a story. That fact matters to a discussion of evolution. From an online book in progress by Stephen L. Talbott tentatively titled “Evolution As It Was Meant To Be — And the Living Narratives That Tell Its Story” (Overview) at the Nature Institute:
We heard in “The Organism’s Story” that living activity has a certain future-oriented (“purposive” or “intentional” or end-directed) character that is missed by causal explanations of the usual physical and chemical sort. This is true whether the end being sought is the perfection of adult form through development, or the taking of a prey animal for food.
An animal’s end-directed activity may, of course, be very far from what we humans know as conscious aiming at a goal. But all such activity nevertheless displays certain common features distinguishing it from inanimate proceedings: it tends to be persistent, so that it is resumed again and again after being blocked; it likewise tends to be adaptable, changing strategy in the face of altered circumstances; and the entire activity ceases once the end is achieved.
This flexible directedness — this interwoven play of diverse ends and means within an overall living unity — is what gives the organism’s life its peculiar sort of multi-threaded, narrative coherence. Life becomes a story. Events occur, not merely from physical necessity, but because they hold significance for an organism whose life is a distinctive pattern of significances.
Stephen L. Talbott, “The Mystery of an Unexpected Coherence” at Evolution as it Was Meant to Be: A work in progress
Indeed. What’s wrong with so many discussions of animal intelligence is precisely the loss of this perspective, that the animal or plant is part of a story, the theme of which is its own survival.
Thus, slime molds can replicate a highway map of Canada in search of bread crumbs. Are they smart? No. Do they need to be smart?
No. Similarly, plants can communicate with each other and with animals. Are they smart? No. Not in the human sense of consciousness, reason, or moral choice. And they clearly don’t need that in order to aspire to survive.*
It’s not clear that a wholly naturalist (nature is all there is), often called “materialist” approach to life can address the difference this makes. If all these creatures have purpose, it is reasonable to think that the universe as a whole does. But the truth is, many philosophers of biology don’t even appear to notice the gaping hole.
- Is salad murder? No.
Hat tip: Philip Cunningham
See also: What if there is no genetics apart from epigenetics? Talbott: Not that the gene sequences are themselves mutated in the usual sense. Rather, the researchers found that various epigenetic modifications in the hippocampus alter the way the genes work (Weaver et al. 2004).
Is today’s biology missing a Big Idea? Talbott: Every organism is an entity in which certain ideas and intentions are manifest — observably expressed and realized. We have to be willing to say, as everyone does say, “This cell is preparing to divide.” We would never say (as I mentioned earlier), “This planet is preparing to make another circuit of the sun.”