This essay argues against the notion that evolution is a blind process
with no foresight.
The blind watchmaker
The argument that the evolutionary process is blind has been
made by many - notably Dawkins:
Paley's argument is made with passionate sincerity and is
informed by the best biological scholarship of his day, but it is
wrong, gloriously and utterly wrong. The analogy between telescope and
eye, between watch and living organism, is false. All appearances to
the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of
physics, albeit deployed in a very special way. A true watchmaker has
foresight: he designs his cogs and springs, and plans their
interconnections, with a future purpose in his mind's eye. Natural
selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin
discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence
and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It
has no mind and no mind's eye. It does not plan for the future. It has
no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play
the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the
However, the idea is not really correct. It is a mischaracterisation of
the evolutionary process. As a metaphor, it is fundamentally
Evolution waking up
Evolution can be characterised as a process of iterative
reproduction with variation and selection.
When evolution started, it really did deserve the "blind" moniker - both
variation and selection lacked vision and foresight.
However, after a while, sensors and eyes evolved, and then
the process of selection was able to work with observations of the
world. After that, brains evolved. The main function of brains is
predicting the future - so that organisms may understand the
consequences of their possible actions - so that they may choose
With the advent of brains, the selection process literally involved
making predictions of the future - due to the process of sexual
selection in which female choice decides which genes survive, and
which do not. For many of our ancestors, intelligence was a
fundamental part of female choice - not an incidental aspect of it.
Who to mate with is an important and difficult decision for many
females, and their intelligence is definitely engaged in the
The next major development in the mechanics of evolution was the
development of engineers, and intelligent design. That introduces vision,
intelligence and foresight into the process of variation.
With that development, the symbolic representation of the process
of evolution now looks like this:
Dawkins uses the term "blindness" rather metaphorically - and it's
possible to claim that his use is too vague to be incorrect. However
evolutionary "blindness" has been championed in recent times by Donald
Campbell - and he means something specific by it.
Campbell argues that even scientists and engineers are blind.
In going beyond what is already known, one cannot
but go blindly. If one can go wisely, this indicates already achieved
wisdom of some general sort [...] which limits the range of trials.
This idea involves a redefinition of the term "blindness".
As Cziko says:
But we must be careful to make clear what is meant by blind in this
context. First, blindness does not imply that all variations are
equally probable. For this reason, the word random is probably not a
suitable descriptor since to some it may carry that connotation.
Second, blindness does not mean that the process of producing
variations of ideas, theories, and experiments for testing is
necessarily unconstrained. Our superconductivity-seeking scientist is
not likely to throw just anything into her concoction of chemicals,
such as some of last night's leftover soup. Instead, she will
rationally try out those substances in those proportions and under
those conditions that, based on her knowledge of previous research and
current theory, she believes have the greatest chance of success.
So it cannot be denied that previously achieved knowledge has an
important role to play in constraining the variations to be
investigated. Nonetheless, the new concoction is still a blind
variation in the sense that the scientist does not know, and cannot
know, if the resulting material will be an improvement over previous
ones. It is in this important sense that the variation, although far
from random and unconstrained, remains blind. The manner in which you
grope about in a dark room to find the light switch changes
significantly after making contact with the wall on which the switch
is located. What were three-dimensional gropings now become
two-dimensional ones. And as you encounter the molding along which you
know the switch is located, your gropings become further constrained
to just one dimension. But although they may become progressively and
usefully constrained over time, an unavoidable blind component exists
in your gropings until you actually find the switch.
The idea here is that any lack of knowledge is blindness.
Conventionally, blindness means not being able to see
anything. But Cziko and Campbell are redefining the term
blindness to mean: not being able to see at least one thing.
This is henious abuse of terminology, in my book. Taking a common,
well-known word and giving it a technical meaning which totally
contradicts the standard usage in almost every context is not a
Cziko's example of a man in a dark room seems designed to mislead.
Likening a man groping in a darkened room to someone who is blind
sounds reasonable. However the man finds the switch
because he has other ways of sensing besides vision - an idea
which totally violates the spirit of the analogy between vision and
the seeking of knowledge. To preserve that analogy, the man
should have stumbled across some matches - and then located a
torch - before finding the light switch. Of course, then the idea that
the man with the torch was "blind" would sound totally ridiculous.
Astronomers are not "blind" because they cannot see the far side
of the moon. Ornithologists are not "blind" because they cannot
observe the behaviour of the Dodo.
"Blindness" does not mean that there is
something you cannot see. It means that you cannot see
Scientists are not "blind". A sensible term would be "not omniscient":
scientists are not omniscient. If you want to stick to a
visual metaphor, they are not all-seeing. The notion that
they are blind is a ridiculous one.
What about the idea that wholes do not necessarily display the
properties of their components? A box of red and shiny toys is not
necessarily itself red and shiny. A flock of seagulls does not have
legs and a beak. So why should evolution as a whole exhibit
foresight simply because it is partly composed of intelligent
organisms who can predict the future?
The trait we are talking about is foresight - the ability to predict.
What if all organisms made different predictions, and the results
cancelled out? It is not hard to imagine something like this
happening: when squirrels on one side of the planet preparing for
sleep, squirrels on the other side are waking up; when squirrels on
one half of the planet are busy preparing for winter, squirrels on the
other half are celebrating the coming of spring. Don't most
predictions of meteorological cycles - which are an important
thing which organisms need to predict - actually cancel out?
This is like arguing that the meteorological office can't predict the
future because it predicts all types of weather all the time - but in
different places. You cannot average together predictions of snowing
in England and Australia - those are different predictions.
In practice, a great number of individuals predicting events normally
do a lot better than any individual manages - so evolution
can be expected to predict the future rather well.
How about the idea that predictions by intelligent agents are not the
only force present in evolution, and they do not represent a
very strong force - and so any resulting effect is
typically swamped by other factors.
This seems like a not-unreasonable objection for the early history of
life - though probably the effect of intelligence would be
diluted, rather than eliminated.
However, with the rise to dominance of the planet by brainy organisms,
this case has become increasingly difficult to make. In the case of
modern humans, we may not be in complete control of the path
evolution takes - but at least we have a significant say in
the matter - and, for example, if we see a meteorite coming Earth's
way, a significant fraction of the planet's resources can be mobilised
What about the claim that physics consists of inanimate molecular
interactions and thermodynamics means that past events cause
future ones, and material causation has no foreknowledge?
This is of course correct - but I don't think this type of lack of
foreknowledge is what most people who say evolution is "blind" mean.
For example, Dawkins says evolution "does not plan for the future".
There is nothing about planning for the future that
contradicts materialism. If evolution featured an "
invisible sky-daddy" - who got to decide who lived, who died, and
who reproduced - the claim that "evolution is blind" would be widely
recognised as being wrong - even if the selective agent in question
followed the material laws of the universe, and had its actions
determined by past events.
So, the idea that causal laws always use past events to predict future
ones is trivially true - but it should not be seen as the basis of the
idea that evolution is blind.
I have not seen it argued, but possibly it might be claimed that the
term "evolution" does not refer to the process associated
with the term, but rather to the abstract idea of the
iteration of variation and selection. The idea being that you can
abstract the ideas of selection and variation away from the
mechanics of the processes that are performing those tasks.
If you do that then evolutionary blindness becomes trivially true -
simple, abstract ideas cannot possibly make predictions or have
However, as far as I can tell, nobody who defends the idea of
evolutionary blindness has ever actually adopted this position.
Proponents are all promoting the idea that the evolutionary
process is blind to the future. They literally
think that evolutionary systems cannot make plans or anticipate
Evolution is not blind
Evolution is not blind. Brains and sexual selection introduced
intelligence into the selection process. Engineering introduced
intelligence into the process responsible for the production of
Evolution was blind in the beginning. Back then, the metaphor
of a blind idiot god
would have been an appropriate one. However, as with the
development of animals, it has gradually acquired the power of sight.
With the origin of brains, evolution turned into a kind of
partial vision. Now, with the origin of engineers, evolution can now
see even more clearly.
To think of the process of evolution as a blind process is an
impoverished view, which represents a fundamental misconception
of its character.
Human beings are largely the product of choices by intelligent agents,
capable of predicting the consquences of their actions, and are
not - in any reasonable sense - the product of "blind" selective
- Richard Dawkins - The Blind Watchmaker, 1982;
- Donald Campbell - Evolutionary Epistemology, In The philosophy of Karl R. Popper edited by P. A. Schilpp, 1974, p. 442;
- Gary Cziko -
- Daniel Dennett - Darwin's Dangerous Idea;