How Might Cooperation Play a Role in Evolution?

Evolution is a fundamental organizing principle of the living world. It is a theory that permeates all of biology. Evolution can explain the relationship between organisms and how biological traits arose. Evolution is a powerful and correct scientific approach. Yet our current understanding of evolution is incomplete. We are confronted with many open questions. I will discuss some of them in this article. I will also argue that a purely scientific interpretation of evolution does not constitute an argument against Christian theology, which holds that God is creator and sustainer of the universe. Science and religion are fundamental components in the search for truth. They should work together to solve the challenging problems that mankind is facing.

What is Evolution?

The basic idea of evolution is surprisingly simple. For evolution to occur we need a population of reproducing individuals. These individuals can be molecules, cells or multi-cellular organisms. During reproduction they pass on their information from parent to offspring. The information is encoded in form of a genetic sequence. Sometimes mutations occur and offspring end up with a slightly modified genome. Mutation generates novel variants and thereby produces genetic variation. The population does not consist of identical individuals, but instead there are different types. If some of those types reproduce faster than others, selection operates.  The faster reproducing types increase in relative abundance. They outcompete the slower ones, which might face extinction.

Mutation and selection are the key components of any evolutionary process.

Time Line and Major Steps

Our universe originated 13.7 billion years ago. Our solar system is 4.6 billion years old. Most scientists believe that there was an origin of life on earth and that this happened about 4 billion years ago.

The earliest traces of bacterial life (procaria) on earth are 3.5 to 3.8 billion years old. Higher cells (eucaria), with a nucleus, more complex genetics and organelles, emerged around 1.8 billion years ago. About 600 million years ago these higher cells discovered complex multi-cellularity and gave rise to animals, fungi and plants. A few million years ago, one animal species discovered human language.

I would consider these to be the five major steps in evolution: (i) the origin of life; (ii) the origin of bacteria; (iii) the origin of higher cells; (iv) the origin of complex multi-cellularity and (v) the origin of human language. Bacteria discovered most of biochemistry, higher cells discovered unlimited genetics; complex multicellularity discovered intricate developmental processes and animals with a nervous system. Humans discovered language.

Human language gave rise to a new mode of evolution, which we call cultural or linguistic evolution. The enormous speed of human discovery and invention is driven by this new mode of evolution. An idea or concept that originates in one brain can quickly spread to others. Structural changes (memories) are imprinted from one brain to another. Prior to human language the most crucial information transfer of evolution was mostly in terms of genetic information. Now we have genetic and linguistic evolution. The latter is much faster.  Presumably the collective information in human brains evolves at a much faster rate than any previous evolutionary system on earth. The growing world wide connectivity speeds up this linguistic evolutionary process.

Mutation, Selection and Cooperation

Mutation generates diversity, and selection acts on diversity. Selection is based on competition, but in the living world we also observe cooperation. Cooperation means that individuals help one another. A cooperator pays a cost for another individual to receive a benefit. Cost and benefit are measured in terms of fitness, which is rate of successful reproduction. Cooperation can occur among replicating molecules that form complex organizations such as the first cell. Cooperation can occur among cells. For example, in filaments of cyanobacteria some cells give up reproduction (they die) in order to feed others with nitrogen. Multi-cellular organisms are based on cooperation among individual cells. Cancer is a breakdown of cooperation, where cells revert to their primitive program of selfish replication. Eusociality is an important phenomenon where some animals become `workers’ or `soldiers’ in order to help other animals to reproduce. Human society is based on cooperation. We need the good will and help of others.

Therefore, cooperation is an important phenomenon in biology. I would argue that without cooperation there is no construction of higher levels of organization. Therefore, I  propose to add cooperation as a third principle of evolution, besides mutation and selection.

The question arises: Why would natural selection favor cooperation? Why should one individual reduce its own fitness in order to augment that of a competitor? Natural selection should oppose cooperation. It turns out that specific mechanisms must operate for cooperation to be favored over defection. At present we know five such mechanisms.

(i) Direct reciprocity: there are repeated encounters between the same two individuals. I help you today, you help me tomorrow. (ii) Indirect reciprocity: there are repeated encounters in a group of individuals. Cooperators gain a good reputation and will receive help from others. (iii) Kin selection: cooperation occurs between close genetic relatives. (iv) Multi-level selection: competition occurs not only between individuals but also between groups. Cooperative groups might outcompete less cooperative ones. (v) Spatial selection: individuals interact in spatial situations, social networks or sets. Cooperators prevail by forming clusters. Neighbors help each other.

The recent appreciation of the importance of evolution of cooperation shifts the perspective of evolution from a purely competitive scenario to one that includes the possibility of cooperation and altruism. Cooperation is crucially involved in the construction of higher levels of organization in the biological world.

Some Open Questions in Evolution

Similar to most other scientific endeavors, our current understanding of evolution is incomplete. This statement is not meant as a criticism of the approach, but rather as an impetus for further work. I will list three interesting open questions.

1. The origin of life and the very beginning of evolution

Life can be defined as that which evolves. Living systems are the product of evolution and are capable of undergoing further evolution. But how does evolution begin? Evolution requires populations of reproducing individuals? But how do we obtain individuals that have the ability to reproduce? This question concerns the transition from chemistry to biology, from “prelife” to life.

Scientific explanation for this transition have been proposed, but they are not based on standard evolution. Evolution presupposes reproduction and therefore cannot lead to the origin of reproduction.  Therefore, evolution is not a theory that explains the origin of life.

2. Why is evolution constructive?

Imagine our planet 3 billion years ago when it was populated by bacteria. How do we get from such a world to what we have now? Which properties of the bacterial cell suggest that there is “open ended” evolution ahead? An evolution that would lead to higher cells, complex multi-cellularity and even to intelligent life? What makes evolution constructive on large time scales? Where in the mathematical formalism of evolutionary dynamics, do we find its constructive power?

3. The search space

Evolution is a search process that explores a huge space of possibilities. But what generates that search space? Is a theory for that space not a deeper description of biology, than a theory which only describes the search process. You can say evolution discovers intelligent life, but it does not generate the possibility of intelligent life. What generates the possibility of molecules that store information, of cells that can divide, of multi-cellular organisms of human language? Ultimately the answer must come from the laws of physics and chemistry, but no scientist can do this right now.

God and Evolution

In Christian theology, God is the creator and sustainer of the universe. According to St. Augustine, God is atemporal and created the world ex nihilo (out of nothing). According to St. Thomas, God is the ultimate cause for everything that exists.

God has chosen to unfold his creation in time according to laws of nature. Humans, created in the image of God, have begun to understand some aspects of these laws of nature. Evolution is an organizing principle of the living world. God uses evolution to unfold life on earth. The creative power of God and the laws of evolution are not in conflict with each other. God acts through evolution. God is the ultimate cause for evolution. In this world view, without God there would be no evolution at all.

Similarly, God uses gravity to organize the structure of the universe on a large scale. Without God there would be no gravity. Neither gravity nor evolution constitute challenges for Christian faith.

A purely scientific interpretation of evolution does not lead to an argument against the existence of God. Scientific atheism is a metaphysical position, which goes beyond a scientific interpretation of the available evidence.

God is not only creator, but also sustainer. God’s creative power and love is needed to will every moment into existence. God is atemporal. In my opinion, an atemporal Creator and Sustainer lifts the entire trajectory of the world into existence.  For the atemporal God, who is the creator and sustainer of the universe, the evolutionary trajectory is not unpredictable but fully known.

Discussion Questions

1. What makes evolution constructive?

2. Evolution is a search process.  In order to succeed every search process requires a restricted search space.

What is a theory of the space that is being searched? Should we search for a “universal grammar” of life?

3. Evolution presupposes reproduction. Which process leads to the origin of reproduction?

Discussion Summary

 My essay contained two parts. The first, longer part was about evolution and the role of cooperation in evolution. I discussed five mechanisms for the evolution of cooperation. I also pointed out some open problems in evolution, which are areas for current research. The second, shorter part was about the dialogue between Christian theology and evolution. Here I described God as the ultimate cause for everything that exists.
Fifteen comments were written, some of them were quite long. Important questions were raised.  Several readers wrote more than one comment.  George Gantz argued for a “cooperative rather than a confrontational dialogue” between science and theology, which I like very much.

A recurring question was whether cooperation requires intention. Intention is an important aspect of human cooperation. People distinguish between intention and outcome of an action. But intention is not really a concept, when cooperation occurs between cells. One cell produces a costly substance, which benefits other cells. Evolutionary game theory does not require intention. In this approach, “strategy” means behavior, but there need not be strategic thinking or intention behind it.

There was a discussion about protocells and whether our current understanding already explains the origin of life. For me the main open question is the following: evolution acts once we have reproduction with inheritance. Reproduction at different rates leads to natural selection. Inaccurate reproduction leads to mutation. But what is the organizing principle that operates prior to reproduction? What mechanism leads to the emergence of reproduction, to the onset of evolution? My research under the heading “prelife” is devoted to this question. Here I have formulated a generative chemistry that leads to the production of information prior to the emergence of reproduction (replication). Prelife is associated with “revolutionary dynamics”; there can be blunt selection in the sense that some information carriers become more important than others; there can be catalysis and mutation. Prelife is a system that seeks to explain the transition from chemistry to biology (evolution). We also study evolutionary dynamics in protocells and explore how protocells can select for enzymatic activity in RNA molecules.

An intriguing question was: what kind of matter can undergo evolution? My proposed answer is that currently we know of two types of evolutionary processes: genetic evolution and cultural evolution. Thus, the biological material in biopolymers, viruses and cells is subject to evolutionary change and also the products of human inventions, such as behaviors, tools, ideas and machines. I think the mathematical understanding of genetic evolution is more advanced than that of cultural evolution. There are many research opportunities in formalizing cultural (or linguistic) evolution.

Finally, I was intrigued by “blindboy’s” philosophical position that “existence needs no explanation”. I find it a calming position, an acceptance of facts. But is it compatible with the searching human mind? Is it not the case that we constantly seek for explanations that are of the form “why does X exist?”. Is the scientific quest not driven by the question why something exists? Why are there cells, viruses, animals, plants? What leads to the evolution of those structures? Why do planets and stars exist? What leads to their formation? Blindboy continues and says “… because non-existence does not exist.” But for certain mathematical equations there exists no solution. Proving the non-existence of solutions for certain equations can inspire mathematical research for centuries. In my experience, searching mankind continuously seeks to explain both existence and non-existence. Nevertheless, I find the question intriguing, because even the most critical mind takes many things for granted without being aware of them.

Two New Big Questions:

  1. Which matter in the universe can undergo evolution?
  2. Does existence require an explanation?

26 Responses

  1. George Gantz says:

    Martin – Thanks for the courage to speak of faith on a topic (evolution) that seems to be dominated by atheists.  Darwin himself was troubled by the apparent implications of his theories relative to the religous dogma of the times and reportedly delayed publication as a result.  You have correctly identified the demarcation between scientific inquiry and metaphysical (or theological) inquiry and noted several areas where the two are intertwined.

    In physics and in biology, there are key unresolved questions about the apparent directionality and purpose in the way our universe behaves.  Both are areas where scientific and theological inquiry are relevant and useful.  Cooperative rather than confrontational dialogue would be helpful.  As you have noted in your work, colonies, communities (and perhaps even countries!) that learn to cooperate have distinct advancement and survival characteristics.

    While much is being done on the scientific front on these questions, there is less activity it seems on the theological front.  My sense, derived in part from the teachings of Emmanual Swedenborg, is that there is a mathematical form for the universe (corresponding to universal Divine Wisdom) and then a direction or propensity corresponding to Divine Love that provides the substance that flows in that form.   Both are necessary to creation and sustenance of reality.  Ian Thompson’s book Starting Science from God is an excellent introduction to the concepts but there is much yet to be done on this topic.

    May we look forward to much cooperative inquiry on these topics!

    • Martin Nowak says:

      Dear George – Thank you for this comment and book recommendations.
      I agree that philosophy, science and theology are different components
      in the search for understanding the world. A cooperative dialogue is very
      much needed. I love your term “cooperative inquiry”.

  2. blindboy says:

    In all probability reproduction arose in proto-cells; the non-living precursors of true cells. In these systems purely physical processes lead to growth and division.  Under the right circumstances lipids will spontaneously form microscopic spheres of differential permeability. Substances enter and the sphere grows until surface tension and other molecular effects cause it to divide. Numerous experiments have demonstrated these processes. Similar processes can be observed in soap bubbles. True reproduction can then arise by natural selection acting on these structures. 

    I think the attempt to link evolution to religion is completely misguided and adds nothing to the discussion. As stated in the article the origin and development of life on Earth are questions for science.  Introducing religion into the discussion merely invites useless metaphysical speculation.

    • Martin Nowak says:

      Your remarks about protocells are correct. I am also working on the evolutionary dynamics of protocells. One paper is published and several others are in the making. Please check out my website at Harvard. The problem is as follows: if you assume reproduction, then natural selection can operate in the standard way. If you do not assume reproduction, then how does natural selection operate? I have tried to address this problem in a number of papers, coining the term “prelife”. 

      I would not “link” evolution and religion in order to discuss scientific questions. All I want to say is that evolution is not more mysterious than, for example, gravity. Neither evolution nor gravity constitute arguments against Christian theology. No choice is necessary between “faith” and evolution.

      • blindboy says:

        Thanks Martin,

                                 I am not sure that I see the difficulty here.  If protocells can grow and reproduce then they are open to processes of selection analogous to natural selection.  Obviously there is a long way to go to achieve a true self-replicating system that passes on complex metabolic information as it reproduces but I cannot see any fundamental barrier to that occurring sequentially.  As you would know there is not only abundant time but the size of the systems allows for countless trillions of structures to exist simultaneously.  I will have a look at your website at a more convenient moment.

        • Martin Nowak says:

          I am also fully in favor of a sequential, mechanistic process. What I wish to discover is a “continuous” origin of life. I am studying how a generative chemical system (which I call “prelife”) can give rise to structures that can undergo reproduction (in the biological sense – that is transmitting information to their offspring). Once we have reproduction we have the the full power of mutation and selection. 

          • blindboy says:

            Good luck with that work Martin. Thinking sequentially though, any system that grows and divides into identical units which then themselves grow and divide can be said to be passing on “information”. Slight variations in the chemical composition form a basis for selection from which primitive “metabolisms” can arise, which in turn form the basis for further selection. The point at which I assume you are looking is the point at which one molecule stores information that can lead to the production of other molecules. I think the amazing thing is that we have the knowledge, technology and skills to begin understanding all this given the incredible complexity of even the simplest lifeforms.

  3. Meyer1953 says:

    Evolution has two distinct parts, so these must be looked at to decide anything at all about it. Part one is, natural selection. This is the ever-evident aspect of evolution, that nearly all sides of study would agree upon. The Bible, for instance, in 1 Cor 11: 18-19 literally describes supernatural selection. Part two is, random mutation as the identical source of that from which nature selects. This does not at all find universal agreement – just look at the raging disputes between the camps of Darwin and Lamarck that flared in the nineteenth century. Presumably, the questions about evolution are centered in the random mutation camp of Darwin.

    The important thing about evolution is, that a novelty is coined (e.g. Darwin), then that novelty is exploited within its immediate generations, and is then incorporated as reproduction into distant generations. Those distinctions that are favorable – and this does never mean only numerically favored – power evolution.

    So we have three distinct phases of evolution: coining, exploitation, and incorporation. The major candidate among these for constructivity is, clearly, exploitation. Coining, in Darwin, is merely a toss of dice and has no constructivity; incorporation is the result of a success and thus not the source of it. So coining that finds excellence in its exploitation produces a gradient of selection.

    The exploitation of a coining is altogether a matter of context, with life (in general, nature) about a one the context. So the life about a one provides the relationship according to which strength the distinction is successful. Hence, the whole question of what makes evolution constructive lies in the relationships of a generation’s life, and the reaches of that life into context that may be beyond that specific generation.

    And it seems much less of a mystery to address the problem as simply, what does one generation do within its relationships that yields a constructive outcome.

    • Martin Nowak says:

      Thank you very much for your thoughts on the question “What makes evolution constructive?” We have precise mathematical equations that describe the process of evolutionary dynamics: how mutation generates new variants and how selection modifies the existing variants in a population. What is still lacking is a clear mathematical description how evolution constructs higher levels of organization. For example, how do we move from single cellular organisms to multi-cellular ones, or from animal groups to human society. What are the mechanisms that make evolution constructive and creative? Why does evolution over time lead to more complicated structures?

  4. DBallam says:

    This is an interseting collection of issues, but it isn’t at all clear how one is to begin. The title is “How might cooperation play a role in evolution?”, yet a) Professor Nowak offers five clearly-stated mechanisms (The question therefore, at at least a rudimentary level, is answered.), and b) the article itself is not centred on this issue; cooperation forms only a single section, and none of the open questions or discussion questions address cooperation at all. The real questions seem, from the Christian apologia at the end, to be geared towards the role of God in evolution (and gravity and pretty much everything else). 

    So, forgive me opening with a kind of meta-discussion; however, for any kind of coherent and or constructive conversation, it might be useful to have a dominant and coherent theme with which to begin. Are we to ignore the title and discuss the utility of the god hypothesis?

    Thanks in advavnce!

    • Martin Nowak says:

      Please feel free to ask any question you like. At the end of my essay there is a list of three suggested questions for discussion. But I am most grateful for other questions, too. 

  5. TG says:

    Thank you for article. I appreciate your inclusion of cooperation and the benefits it brings about. I am wondering about the differences between the cooperative behaviors of humans/animals and bacteria. It strikes me that these are different things, and I’m not entirely sure that the nitrogen-producing death of some bacteria is properly understood as coopertation. Do these bacteria intend to die and give off nitrogen? I would think that the types of organisms that did this would outcompete the types of organisms that do not, but this seems different than the reciprocity and selection you refer to later in your article. Thank you!

    • blindboy says:

      I think you are correct TG. “Co-operation” covers a lot of behaviours and in terms of thinking clearly about the evolutionary processes involved, loathe as I am to disagree with an eminent scientist in the field, I think they need to be studied individually.   The biochemical compatibility that enabled the formation of eukaryotic cells would seem to me so utterly different from cooperation between humans that it is only a linguistic fluke that they can be described by the same word.

    • Martin Nowak says:

      I discuss five mechanisms for the evolution of cooperation. Some of those mechanisms, such as direct and indirect reciprocity, apply more to humans than to simpler animals or cells. Bacteria can certainly cooperate in the following sense: one cell produces a costly substance which augments the reproduction rate of another cell. The cooperating cell reduces its own fitness and augments the fitness of another cell. This behavior can evolve, for example, by spatial selection. Cooperating cells form clusters that prevail when surrounded by defectors. Cooperation does not require intentionality.

  6. TheMatrixDNA says:

    Mr. Nowak: – “Evolution is a fundamental organizing principle of the living world. It is a theory that permeates all of biology. Evolution is a powerful and correct scientific approach. Yet our current understanding of evolution is incomplete. We are confronted with many open questions.”

    Yes, evolution is a correct scientific approach, but, I think, the scientific approach is being driven by a non-complete world-view which is the cause of the majority non solved questions we have today.  Mr. Nowak points out that ” Evolution is a fundamental organizing principle of the living world.” This is just a statement as sample of this reductionist world-view.

    It leads to lots of questions that could be solved by another approach and method of investigation, like my own job: comparative anatomy between living and non-living natural systems. I am alone using this method, working in the middle of the Amazon jungle, with no technical resources more than cheap microscope and telescope, but, the unusual circumstances, isolated environment and philosophic naturalist approach, I have obtained hundreds of explanations about evolution still unknown by scientific community, explanations that must be “hypothesis” and “theories” by the Greek definition, lacking the opportunity for testing these possibilities.  

    My first question to the scientific thought expressed by Mr. Nowak here should be: ” Evolution of the living world? Do you thing that evolution emerged, was created and invented here at the terrestrial living world? Have not you considered that evolution is a universal process, itself under evolution, then, the basics for understanding biological evolution lays on prior non- biological evolution?”

    Comparative anatomy between living and non-living systems leads us to results where there is no such division in Nature. There are natural systems, all with internal dynamics and must with external projections, ones less evolved, other more evolved, but, evolution has not created natural systems since the Big Bang: we known different shapes of a unique universal system under evolution by the same process that a human body evolves under the process of a life’s cycle, which produces these different shapes. Is it a blastula, a fetus, a living being? This question is about the evolution of a human body. The same question, applied to the Universe as a whole, should be: is an atom system, a stellar system, a galactic system, living beings? If you answered “yes”to first question, you must answer yes to the second. My theoretical results lead me to re-calculate the current models of atoms, galaxies, because these systems must have the principles of biological evolution, as the principles of forces and elements that produced the shape of biological systems, aka, living beings. The ancestors “non-biological systems” are electro-magnetic and mechanical thermo-dynamic system that shows a clear process of evolution, inclusively showing the three variables that is the whole body of Darwinian Theory (VSI – Variation, Selection, Inheritance), but, at these non-biological systems we learn that their evolution have more 4 variables, totaling 7. When we come back to biological systems and applies those ignored 4 variables, lots of questions, if not all, are answered. I would be very grateful for any criticism about my suggestions here.

    • Martin Nowak says:

      You raise a number of fascinating questions. For a long time I have been intrigued by the thought that evolution could apply to a much wider range of phenomena than what we consider now. Could there be other matter (or energy) in the universe that undergoes evolution in a meaningful sense? Do stars or galaxies evolve by mutation and selection? As of now there is no clear suggestion that this might be the case. Stars are born and they die, but do they pass on their information? Do new stars inherit the properties of their parents?

      I agree that evolution is a universal process. Our biology here on earth is one instantiation of an evolutionary process. I have also suggested to use evolution as a definition of “life”. Life is that which evolves.

      • TheMatrixDNA says:

        Thanks by the answer. Yours question, “Do stars (…) evolve by mutation and selection?”, could leads us to another question: Do stomachs or livers evolve by mutation or selection? These questions are wrong and they shows a lacking of systemic vision, or thought, and this is a big problem of Sciences today. Stars are parts of a system, then, we see systems evolving, not their parts. But, I thing that the Standard Theory suggests that yesm stars alone, has evolved: first there were atom’s nebulae, where the atoms were gaseous, lighters atoms; them, these atoms were grouped into stars, which could be very different than new stars today; then, those systems with those lightest stars produced the heavy atoms, which worked as feedback producing heavy stars… I think that it is an evolutionary process, with mutation, selection, etc.  In relation to galaxies the Standard Theory has its interpretation but I am the unique that is suggesting this other interpretation: there were two process for galaxies formation. LIke there is two process of cell;s system formation: first, the symbiotic process that produced the first original cell; second, the reproductive process, when the cells learned how to replicate. So, my theoretical models are suggesting that the first original galaxies were produced also by symbiotic process, and the new galaxies does not are reproduced, but they are self-recycling. Self-recycling was the mechanism at astronomical systems that evolved into reproduction process at biological systems.

        Yours second question: “stars are born and dye, but do they pass on their information?”… I ask you: Which material produces new stars? If my astronomical model is right, stars dies, the whole system becoming interstellar dust. As the galaxy is rotating around an axis, any internal cloud of dust will rotate also, creating its own axis, like any vortex. I can’t describe here the whole process but, a new system arises from this dust, does not arises any other thing, only and just a new system equal the one that died. How and why… it is because the old system passed the information on… the particles of dust worked like genes, they were trained before for building the same old system. If the new environment is exactly equal the old one where was born the died star, I think there will be no mutations, it will receive the same properties. The Matrix/DNA”s astronomical models are suggesting that at Cosmological Evolution, from elementay particles to galaxies, yes, informations were passed on from system to system, but, this line of evolution has stopped at galactic systems; then, happened the Fall, where bits-information from galaxies are the seeds of biological systems… a very complex process. My big surprise seeing these final results is that it is  similar to the Bibble accounts in Genesis. 

        Yours thoughts placing evolution with life definition is a brilliant intuition, if the theoretical models of Matrix/DNA are right. They are suggesting that this Universe is a kind of womb where is occurring internally a process similar to genetic reproduction of the ex-machine system that produced the Universe through the Big Bang. I have no idea who or what is this creator system, but, it is very similar to the idea of Jesus Christ, when He look down to humans and said “the son…” and then look up to the sky and said “… the Father”. If there is father and son, there is a genetic process shaping the son. And Matrix/DNA Theory, when found the evolutionary link between cosmological and biological evolution was obligated to re-calculate the universal history, from consciousness here and now till the Big Bang: the final meaning of this version of Universal Natural History is a genetic process.  Evolution seems similar to life because the universal evolution obeys a process of life’s cycle, as any human body. The force that is pulling this evolution process is merely seen at any natural lightwave, then, I am thinking that light is the hands and arms of that unknown ex-machine creator.

        Mr. Nowak: I would appreciate very much if you look the graphic showing the electromagnetic spectrum of lightwave, at my website. The graphic si suggesting that the different frequencies and vibrations are equal the sequence of any life’s cycle. If this theory is right, it means that natural light – like the lightwave emitted at the initial Big Bang – is the first element in this Universe that brought the code for life. This lightwave was materialized, producing a kind of universal matrix, which is the same shape and functioning of the DNA.  Of course, we have theories, which can be falsifiable like Matrix/DNA, but… if this theory is right, be sure that God ( for you, I don’t know the name and I call it the unknown ex-machine system that triggered the Big Bang), first did the light, then the dark matter, and left the process working by itself, because in that light was His genetic code, the force that ( you said it) that undergoes evolution in a meaningful sense, and the whole plan for tunneling this Universe like a womb, to produce by evolution process a final product: His own Son. Now, ask to all other theories, let’s bring on only the known real facts, and real proved scientific data, over the table… and try to debunking Matrix/DNA Theory. I am searching this “destroyer scientific fact” because I am after the Thru and not after to prove a theory, for 30 years and never found it. 

      • DBallam says:

        I’ve long been inclined to consider a continuum between ‘life’ and ‘nonlife’, based on a universal evolutionary process of the kind TheMatrixDNA outlines (mostly, admittedly, from popularisations such as Dennett’s notion of natural selection as a “universal acid”). 

        My short response here would be a kind of set-theoretic query about your definition of life:  if “life is that which evolves”, is also everything that evolves – which *could conceivably* include atomic or cosmological structures – alive? (which seems to be the broad implication). Or would ‘life’ best be considered a subset of those things that evolve?

        Relatedly, if we are to consider evolution as a universal process in the sense which you seem to advocate in your reply to TheMatrixDNA, I think you need to make a stronger case here for why reproduction is still a problem or an ‘open question’.  In your responses to blindboy, I don’t think you’ve yet made a case for what is special, unique, or distinct about “reproduction” over and above a non-life or prelife process of “replication”.  You talk about reproduction making available the “full power” of mutation and selection; you seem here to want to distinguish, qualitatively rather than quantitatively, between replication and reproduction?  

        Given that you are also interested in the continuum between life and nonlife, and the universality of evolution, I’m curious to know whether you think that reproduction, life, and evolution as we know them in a biological sense are qualitatively or (merely?) quanitatively different from those seemingly analogous processes that could take place in other structures. And also, if you think the difference is qualitative, given what we already know about the ways in which non-living systems can be shown to self-replicate, where you would draw that line, and in what that qualitative difference consists.

        Thanks in advance. 

        • blindboy says:

          In your essay you state that scientific atheism is a metaphysical position which goes beyond a scientific interpretation of the available evidence. I accept that this is true but believe it is a little disingenuous since it implies that it is no more valid than other metaphysical positions. Scientific atheism may indeed go beyond the evidence but the evidence gives it significant impetus.  Ockham’s Razor suggests that in the complete absence of scientific evidence for the existence of any kind of god, the default position is atheism.  If we further consider the dictum that extraordinary claims, such as those made by religion, require extraordinary evidence, then scientific atheism is strengthened further.

          In order to exist, by any reasonable definition of the word, something must leave some kind of measurable trace. This is as true of abstract concepts and emotions as it is of more immediately accessible physical phenomena. So to say that god exists is in fact a testable hypothesis, since if god exists, god should be detectable. To propose that there is some level of “existence” too subtle for us to detect is, in terms of the available evidence and the sophistication of our science, extremely hard to take seriously.  This may sound like an update on doubting Thomas, but Thomas, according to the legend, was provided with evidence.  We have not been unless you want to resort to some form of scholasticism and look to the authority of ancient texts. Beyond that we encounter sophisticated arguments for gods existence, but the more I see of them the more they reek of simple obscurantism. Further the god they postulate is not the god in which the vast majority believe.

          The god hypothesis seems to be related to a search for a “first cause”. Yet as we learn more about the universe, this seems less and less necessary. All science is based on observation and the most fundamental observation is that things exist and interact. Nothing more than this is needed. To put it bluntly since non-existence does not and cannot exist no cause for its existence is necessary. This is not some clever linguistic twist, the evidence clearly points towards it. Even in “empty” space particles constantly pop into existence.

          I am not one of those atheists who blame religion for the failings of human nature. Unfortunately our darker aspects seem able to pervert even the most benign philosophy. My fundamental concern with religion is that it undermines what I believe are the most fundamental and important human values. It should be our first priority to preserve human life as far into the future as possible and enhance the quality of that life. Any religion preaching an afterlife is in direct conflict with that value since it assigns a greater value to that afterlife. In our present environmental circumstances this is suicidal……unless of course you believe in some sort of mythological fairyland to which you will be transported when you die.

          • Martin Nowak says:

            I respect your views and must think about them very carefully. I can only give a partial reply here. In my view, God does not exist as an object in the universe. God is outside the universe. God is the reason for the existence of the universe. Science studies the instantiated world. Science studies the universe. But there is no scientifc test of God. Therefore we cannot demand scientific evidence for the existence of God.

            Religion is an analysis of human life and an attempt to help. Religion is also a meditation of ultimate reality. Underneath this world of change there is an unchanging reality. Mathematics is part of that unchanging reality. 

            For me, religion is not primarliy about the after life. It is about here and now. It is an advise for how to lead a good life that is aligned with the eternal law of goodness. For me, religious idease are amazingly beautiful and full of hope and love.



          • blindboy says:

            Thanks Martin. My fundamental point is that existence needs no explanation since non-existence cannot exist. The usual response I get to this point is to treat it as a verbal trick so I really appreciate your respectful attitude. I agree that religion can have great cultural value but as our understanding increases it needs to accommodate that understanding if it is to continue providing that value. My wife is a Buddhist and the priests at her temple see no contradiction between their beliefs and mine.

        • Martin Nowak says:

          I believe there are qualitative differences. Biological (Darwinian) evolution occurs in populations of reproducing individuals. These individuals are of a certain type. They carry information which determines this type. For example, cells carry a genome. Reproduction occurs with mutation: the type can change. But some information is retained. Different types reproduce at different rates, and hence we get natural selection. When I look at the mathematical equations of evolutionary processes, they are different from mathematical equations that describe chemical reactions. But trying to understand this difference exactly is an open research problem, in my opinion. Irene Chen and I wrote a review article on this question. Please take a look at publication 331 on my website.

          Chen I, MA Nowak (2012). From prelife to life: how chemical kinetics become evolutionary dynamics. Acc Chem Res 45 (12): 2088-2096.

  7. abed.peerally says:

    Excellent article on an eternally intriguing topic. My own research deals with the integration of science, philosophy and religion which I firmly believe was, since the creation of the universe,  meant to become the basis of mankind’s ultimate guide.  Evolution is in everything that happens in existence. There is evolution in physical reality leading to quantum reality and macro-universe reality, there is some kind of chemical evolution, and of course biological evolution. This present paper on God and Evolution convinces me that there is also a process of evolution in terms of knowledge creation. Atheism in my opinion is due basically to our current state of knowledge acquisition and so is the controversy about religion to believers. Knowledge about the realities of the universe and of existence will evolve. Why then this ubiquitous nature of evolution in everything about the universe. This is because the whole universe, in its origin and development, in its every aspect, follows a process of entropy, which is the raison-d’etre of evolution. I have so far some four papers on the nature of the universe and two of them are in press. What I have been saying above will be clarified as I publish my remaining papers on topics like what is the nature and reality of gravity, of the origin of the universe, of the importance of entropy and on the relationship of the origin of the universe to the kind of realities of existence we have. The ultimate conclusion will be that origin of the universe was achieved by the Creator in such a deliberate manner to expressly produce a universe in which science, philosophy and religion constitute an integrated knowledge. Sadly where we are currently is so topsy-turvy that we have an awful lot of confusion, division, incomprehension and strife about our presence here and about our origin and existence. We are destined for a much much better and fulfilling life and the new knowledge ahead will be our best hope.

    • Martin Nowak says:

      I agree that science, philosophy and religion are fundamental components in our search for meaning. Science provides no argument against well-formulated theology and vice versa. 

  8. wondering14 says:

    I was surprised to learn that “Bacteria discovered most of biochemistry, higher cells discovered unlimited genetics…” Can bacteria discover something it doesn’t understand or conscious of? Or higher cells unlimited genetics?

    Why is genetic information still not more crucial than human language? Development, or should one say “discovery” of human language, is a speck on the universe’s time scale. Over the next billion years, is biology or linguistics more likely to prevail?

    How does one differentiate between cooperation and competition, or determine whether they are independent? “Cooperation can occur among cells. For example, in filaments of cyanobacteria some cells give up reproduction (they die) in order to feed others with nitrogen. [Dying is cooperating?] Multi-cellular organisms are based on cooperation among individual cells. [Does this mean that cooperation can be reproduction; when man and woman marry and produce a baby, they have “cooperated”?] Cancer is a breakdown of cooperation, where cells revert to their primitive program of selfish replication. [Couldn’t an organized attack by cancer be termed cooperation, as they compete against human life?] Eusociality is an important phenomenon where some animals become `workers’ or `soldiers’ in order to help other animals to reproduce [Whose “Eu”? This sentence clangs of eugenics.] Human society is based on cooperation [what would cooperation look like if there were not intramural competition involved also?] We need the good will and help of others [What will out as good? Are people biologically good or not, or does human language and “reason” determine goodness?].

    In the last section, God and Evolution, the author has paralleled God’s work with the work of evolution. I suppose one could develop a parallel of the Devil’s work with evolution also, and cooperation and good would be of a different character. Has not God evolved along with human evolution?

    • Martin Nowak says:

      I see no problem using the word “discover” in these contexts. No intentional process is implied. One could also use “find”.  The meaning is clear.

      The evolutionary processes based on human language and learning are hugely important, because they operate on a much faster time scale. They also lead to a scientific understanding of the universe. They can help life to leave a particular planet and populate others. 

      God, in the classical Christian view, is  unchanging. Therefore does not evolve. Our ideas and descriptions of God have changed over time.