The great challenge to theories of the natural evolution of biological species has always been to explain the development of order and complexity in organisms without resorting to the concepts of purpose and design. The difficulty with purpose and design is, of course, the implication of the existence of a Designer who would have the purposes and designs, namely God. Since philosophy, theology, and popular religion had always relied on the order and complexity of nature as evidence for the existence of God, producing some other kind of theory still seems to many contrary to the obvious.
Now, one might ask, why should anyone want to avoid anything that would introduce God into a scientific theory; and the answer is that God makes a poor addition to any scientific theory precisely because God explains too much. Being omnipotent, God can do anything. Thus, if we ask, "Why is the sky blue?" we could simply say, "Because God makes it blue." Since this doesn't really explain anything, it must be a firm principle of science to exhaust all other forms of explanation before resorting to something that will simply end inquiry. This must be true about life on earth just as much as about the color of the sky.
Early forms of evolutionary theory, like that of Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), simply substituted one form of intention for another, namely that the evolutionary changes could occur entirely because of the needs and desires of organisms, so that as the giraffe wished to stretch its neck, the neck actually would stretch, and that characteristic then was inherited. Since all kinds of acquired characteristics obviously are not inherited, Lamark's theory had serious problems even if individual giraffe's were able to stretch their necks, which of course they are not.
The theory of evolution by natural selection as developed independently by Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and then Alfred Wallace (1823-1913) replaced any kind of intention, plan, or desire with an entirely blind mechanism: the increased competitive edge and so the greater survival of those organisms whose genetic mutations resulted in the most successful adaptations. Darwin and Wallace did not know how genetic mutations occurred, but that didn't matter. The later general adoption of Gregor Mendel's (1822-1884) genetic theory and ultimately the discovery of DNA revealed the physical mechanisms by which mutations would occur.
What evolution by natural selection produces by its blind mechanism may be called a "spontaneous natural order." The view is that events in Nature are not really random, but that many kinds of order and complexity emerge naturally and spontaneously from often apparently very disordered and chaotic kinds of conditions. There is now even a mathematical expression for these ideas in the very new and intriguing areas in mathematics that are called "chaos" theory, which studies how randomness may not be quite so random, and "complexity" theory, which is precisely how unexpected levels of organization emerge from random or at least simpler levels of organization. In chaos theory many natural forms that had always been thought completely random and arbitrary, like the profile and relief of a mountain range, can now be generated with stunning verisimilitude by mathematical equations; and in complexity theory countless forms of self-organizing systems can be studied. This is a development that is impressive, but it should not be too surprising in relation to the older theories and examples of spontaneous natural orders.
For evolution by natural selection is not by any means the only example of a spontaneous natural order. Even in human affairs, where people might think that everything that happens is planned and intended by someone, there are many examples of spontaneous order emerging without either plan, intention, or purpose. One excellent case is in the structure of human languages. Grammar, although it can be consciously described and is often the object of deliberate attempts at control, usually escapes such control and emerges in new forms that no one ever anticipated and that no one, if they had been aware of it, probably would have allowed. A nice example is the auxiliary verb system in English.
Although French and German both have verb systems that extensively use words like have, be, will, should, can, etc. to modify main verbs, English takes this to extremes. An English sentence like, "I am walking home," expresses a present tense and a progressive aspect (where the action is on-going) by using the verb be as an auxiliary, while an English sentence like, "I have walked home," expresses a perfect aspect (where the action has just been completed), which is also a present tense, by using the verb have as an auxiliary. French and German use have to express a simple past tense and do not express true progressive or perfect aspects at all.
This expanded role for auxiliaries in English has resulted in some curious rules. One is that when a sentence is to be negated, the word not must follow, not the main verb (as used to be the case), but the auxiliary. This rule creates an awkward dilemma in the occasional instance when the sentence to be negated actually doesn't have an auxiliary verb. Thus, if I wish to deny the sentence, "I walked home," I must add an entirely meaningless auxiliary from the verb do just to stand as the prop for the word not. The result is the sentence, "I didn't walk home." Now, do and did are often added to show emphasis, but in those cases they are spoken with emphasis. Thus there is a difference between saying "I didn't walk home" and saying "I didn't walk home." The latter sentence expresses emphasis, but in the former sentence the verb "did" expresses nothing at all; it is merely there to hang the not on. If we tried to say, "I walked not home," this would have an unacceptably odd sound to it. It would, indeed, sound archaic. English literature is full of such archaisms, since putting not after the main verb was still good usage in the time of Shakespeare and a century or more later.
I have elaborated this example because most native speakers of English are not even aware of the rules of the auxiliary verb system. They just use the rules constantly without thinking about them. Indeed, the rules came into existence without anyone thinking about them. Nothing could be more obvious than that there never was anyone who planned or intended to produce the forms of the auxiliary verb system that we see in English today. Neither King James nor Samuel Johnson, much as they contributed to the fixing of English usage by the one commissioning a translation of the Bible and by the other compiling a dictionary of English, ever sat down and thought, "Oh! Let's have an elaborate auxiliary verb system in English, expressing things like progressive and perfect aspects!" Indeed, no languages they would have looked to for precedents, German, French, Latin, or Greek, even possessed a distinct progressive aspect as English does possess it; and no other language with a developed aspect system, like Russian, Arabic, or Hebrew, combines this with a complete and distinct tense system as does English. So the English language, regardless of anyone's beliefs, desires, or purposes, actually evolved structures, in a spontaneous and unintended way, that mostly do not exist in languages related to it either genetically, by cultural association, or by artifice. The grammar of all natural languages evolves in a spontaneous and self-organizing way, often in the very teeth of attempts to stop change and freeze grammatical forms.
Apart from language, another system of spontaneous order in human affairs is the economic system of capitalism and the free market. This is spontaneous to two respects: first that capitalism itself emerged from an evolutionary and unintended historical process and second that once capitalism was in place, the free market constituted an on-going means by which new self-organizing effects continue to emerge--for example, that free market prices do not depend on the intentions or designs of anyone and that businesses become successful or fail in the market without anyone anticipating or decreeing which shall be which. This all is with the proviso, of course, that we are talking about a market that is actually allowed to be free and operate on its proper terms, which are respect for both private property and voluntary exchange, and that these are not subverted by political intervention or by the application of private criminal force. Long before Darwin, Adam Smith (1723-1790) captured the essence of a spontaneous order and a self-organizing system with his famous statement that the pursuit of self-interest by individual participants in the free market produces, as if by an "invisible hand," public goods that are intended by no one. Charles Darwin could as easily have said that the mechanism of natural selection similarly produces as if by an "invisible hand" the development of the order, complexity, structure, and adaptation that we see in biological organisms.
The project of understanding biological evolution and the free market in similar terms began with two Anglicized Austrians, the great philosopher of science Karl Popper (1902-1994) and his friend, the great Nobel Laureate economist Friedrich A. Hayek (1899-1992). Popper saw science itself as an evolutionary process because of the way that critical observations contradicted, falsified, and so eliminated scientific theories. Thus for Popper no scientific theory is proven, it merely survives by avoiding falsification, just as a biological species survives competitive pressures, with no certainty that it will continue to survive in the future. This is a key point itself in the debate over evolution because it means that the common hostile locutions that evolution is "only a theory" or "has never been proven" or "can't explain everything" are besides the point when no scientific theories are ever proven, in any absolute sense, and no scientific theory can ever be expected to be the kind of final theory that would "explain everything." Furthermore, Popper's theory can take the history of science itself as a case of spontaneous order, for several centuries now of scientific knowledge have been accumulated without scientists actually being aware of the logical forms of their own method. Like speakers of English who might not think that English grammar is much different from Latin grammar, scientists have ritually invoked the methodological theories of the philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and then immediately broken most of his rules as they went about their discoveries.
It was Friedrich Hayek, however, who took up Popper's ideas and made the explicit connection between evolution and other examples of spontaneous order like natural languages and capitalism. Indeed, Hayek coined the term "spontaneous order" in 1960, long before mathematical chaos or complexity theory. Since no one anticipated, planned, or invented capitalism, it emerged through a random process whereby the historical coincidences of protection for private property, the limitation of traditional mediaeval powers of government, and respect for individual liberty in voluntary private transactions unexpectedly gave tremendous competitive and productive advantages to the 16th and 17th Dutch and then especially to the 18th and 19th century British. Since those advantages translated into real monetary and military superiorities, the Dutch were able to rebel against and defeat the dominant power of their day, Spain, and then Britain became a Power of almost unparalleled status, virtually the arbiter of world peace and prosperity for the entire 19th century.
Hayek also described the spontaneous order within the free market itself. Following in the footsteps of his Austrian economist colleague Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973), Hayek said that the complexity of a modern economy actually cannot be produced or maintained by overall design or planning. That is because it is impossible to marshal in a centralized way all the knowledge that is necessary to produce what is needed or desired, transport it to where it is wanted, to avoid producing surpluses of such goods, and to avoid producing much of what is actually not wanted. With great simplicity, free market prices convey all that information: if demand is high or supply low, or both, prices will be high or rising; and if demand is low or supply excessive, prices will be low or falling. High prices, because they also signify higher profit, thereby attract investment, which both increases supply and competitively drives down prices. In systems that reject prices or the market, or that try to short circuit them for political purposes through subsidies, price fixing, or protectionist measures, surpluses or shortages become endemic.
Now, the characteristic of capitalism and the free market as forms of spontaneous order results in several great political ironies; for many of the same people who reject a spontaneous natural order when it comes to evolution identify themselves with political causes that accept and promote spontaneous order through the free market. On the political side, a conspicuous example of that would be former President Ronald Reagan, who was certainly identified with and promoted capitalism and free markets but who, when he was governor of California, cooperated with an effort to have the State of California mandate that theories of "creation" be taught alongside evolution in the public schools. Similarly, after Reagan was elected President in 1980, he answered a question about evolution at a press conference by saying that he didn't think that scientists believed in evolution as much as they had used to. Embarrassment over this incident resulted in Reagan avoiding the issue from then on, although he did not avoid political allies whose Fundamentalist credo was undoubtedly hostile to evolution and all its works.
While President Reagan betrayed his lack of sympathy and even lack of knowledge about evolution, many of the same people who accept a spontaneous natural order when it comes to evolution, who indeed may regard religious views about order through divine design and creation as absurd and laughable, identify themselves with political causes that reject or even mock spontaneous order through the free market and promote the idea that economic outcomes ought to be the result of design and planning. Indeed, many of the latter might think that economic outcomes can only be the result of design and planning, which means that big business and government, if not an international conspiracy, are already responsible for the results that we see. Thus, as creationists may ridicule the power of Charles Darwin's natural selection to produce the complex organisms that we see in nature, many partisans of evolution may ridicule Adam Smith's "invisible hand" and regard the idea as absurd that competition in a free market could produce public goods unintended by any participants.
A good example of this on the scientific side may be found with Stephen Jay Gould, a brilliant, imaginative, and articulate theorist and defender of evolution whose political preferences nevertheless betray few sympathies for capitalism or the free market. Indeed, one of Gould's popular science essays awkwardly recommends rules of "Dialectics," without bothering to inform the reader that the rules are derived from Joseph Stalin's Marxist theory of "Dialectical Materialism." Nor does Gould mention in what regime, in what manner, or to what effect such rules were applied by the people who originated and subscribed to them. As one critic has remarked, Gould suspends all his understanding of evolution as soon as he comes to human beings. Here, it would be more to the point to say that Gould suspends all his understanding of spontaneous natural order when it comes to matters that he thinks can and should be controlled by human design.
Another layer of political irony in the conflict between advocates of evolution and its opponents is that often creationists reject Darwinian evolution precisely because they say it leads to the application of natural selection to human relationships, resulting in the theory of "Social Darwinism" whereby the "unfit" are expected to simply fail and die in favor of the more successful. On the other side, supporters of evolution who oppose the free market may try to turn this charge around and accuse anyone who advocates anything like Adam Smith's laissez-faire capitalism of believing in and promoting Social Darwinism themselves.
The defense against the charge of the creationists would be that nature is not about morality and that human relationships are a different matter in many respects from what happens in the natural world. Whether evolution occurs or not, or by whatever mechanisms, it is irrelevant to the moral issues that may arise when we are talking about deliberate human action rather than about the blind forces of natural law. Thus, Social Darwinism as a moral or political doctrine is not implied by Darwin's theory of natural selection, or by any other theory about nature.
Advocates of the free market, whether they are creationists or not, can reject the charge that they are Social Darwinists by pointing out that this charge involves at least four different mistakes or misunderstandings:
On the other hand, the political distribution of goods, which is the principle alternative to distribution through the market, requires political competition among consumers themselves and creates winners and losers, not among producers, but among consumers. This is because obtaining benefits through political means requires political success, but not everyone can be politically successful. In every election or any other kind of political process, the winners commonly feel justified in promoting their ideas about to whom benefits should go, mainly to themselves and their supporters, while the losers may become the victims of legal and financial disabilities. Because the free market maximizes production to benefit all consumers, namely everyone, it is the alternative to the free market, politics, that creates the real Social Darwinist situation, where the political losers find their share of goods (even the goods that are their own property) diminished, perhaps, as has often happened, to the extent of poverty and starvation.
A possible objection to this view is that in fact everyone is a producer as well as a consumer in the economy and that it is not merely businesses that feel the effects of failure but the workers in the businesses who are the producers of labor. That ultimately means everyone. This objection is based on a very reasonable chicken-or-egg question about the relationship between production and consumption or supply and demand. There is no doubt, however, about the answer: if every producer is protected from competition and from failure just because it will be hard on employees, this generates costs that must be paid by consumers as a whole; and to the extent that every business and every worker comes to be protected from failure, then the entire process by which productivity is increased, wealth is created, and new products and industries are offered to the public is cut off at the root. A stagnant economy with high unemployment is the consequence, such as is becoming characteristic of Western Europe, where the desire for security has triumphed over the conditions of economic growth.
The pre-Darwinian nature of this view should be evident when we note that it was already expressed by Benjamin Franklin in an essay of 1766 called "The Encouragement of Idleness." Before anyone had even heard of evolution, Franklin said:
I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I travelled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.
Franklin's view certainly has more to do with John Calvin than with Charles Darwin. In economic as well as moral terms, any arrangements for public relief must be regarded as establishing certain moral incentives which, if people are not artificially protected from the consequences of irresponsible behavior, will require everyone to face the most unpleasant consequences of not conducting their affairs prudently.
We might ask why creationists should appear to prefer the free market when evolutionists often don't. The answer, at least in part, is probably that the creationists are usually political conservatives who prefer traditional institutions, which in the United States means the free market. It will also be true that conservatives may have more of a sense of the perhaps Calvinist moral principles that underlie the free market. On the other hand, evolutionists often seem to be the kind of rationalists who like the idea of controlling history and engineering society; and since they cannot be in control of the biological past, they prefer that it take care of itself, without a God who might pose a more general challenge to a rationalistic universe. Furthermore, such rationalists may be determinists who reject the assumption of free will and moral responsibility that would accompany the moral conditions of the free market (although there is actually no need for free will when the free market is analyzed in terms of economic incentives, as David Hume, a determinist, understood). The answer to all this, of course, should be to accept both of the kindred theories of spontaneous order, both evolution and the free market.
In conclusion, it might be said that the theory of spontaneous natural order is not even as new as Friedrich von Hayek, Charles Darwin, or Adam Smith. Hayek himself recognized that it is really as old as the ancient Chinese classic of Taoism, the Dao De Jing, which says that every attempt to control affairs actually results in the worst outcome. The Taoist view was that there was a great source of natural order, called the "Way" (Dao), which would take care of everything perfectly if only we leave it alone to do so. In the Twentieth Century, when tens of millions of people have been murdered by politicians and leaders trying to control history, the idea of leaving things to a natural order must begin to seem more sensible and humane. That we now have great theories of how even human affairs, let alone the history of life on earth, are governed by spontaneous natural order, should be a source of great hope for the future.
Scientific Naturalism and Intelligent Design
Childhood's End, the Mystery of Order
All Living Things, in Seven Kingdoms
Philosophy of Science