Evolution and Knowledge

In the famous watchmaker analogy, William Paley said that if you find a watch on a heath (area of uncultivated land), you can tell the watch had a designer because of its complex inner workings. He further argued that the complex inner workings of human beings imply that they had a designer too (God).

This is an important problem and a good question. There are several other formulations: Where does "apparent design" come from? Where does complexity come from? Where do adaptations come from? Where do useful or purposeful things come from?

All of these questions are fundamentally asking roughly the same thing: Where does knowledge come from?

One place Paley said knowledge does not come from is randomness. We need a genuine explanation. I agree with him.

Everyone agrees that people can create knowledge. We can be designers, and invent watches as well as nuclear power plants. But where did people come from originally? And where did animals come from? People didn't invent penguins.

Paley answered that people were designed by God. This is a bad answer. God, like a person, is a complex, intelligent being. God contains knowledge. So where did God come from? Paley hasn't solved the problem, he's just added a layer of indirection.

Besides the God answer, which doesn't work, there were no obvious answers to Paley's problem. It's a hard question.

Today, we have found one and only one answer to the question. It's conceivable there are others which we haven't discovered yet, but no one is even close to finding another answer. There are no breakthroughs on the visible horizon.

We found a mechanism by which knowledge can be created which does not assume any knowledge as a premise. It's called evolution.

Evolution was originally used as an answer to where humans and animals came from, just like Paley's problem focussed especially on humans. But just like Paley's problem, it applies equally well to knowledge in general.

Many people say we should accept evolution because it's good science, and there is overwhelming evidence for it. They are mistaken. Primarily, evolution is good philosophy, and should be accepted because it solves an important philosophical problem: Paley's problem. Further, there are no outstanding philosophical criticisms of evolution or other known problems with it.

The empirical evidence for the role of evolution in certain areas, such as the history of life on earth, is a secondary matter. This evidence is important because the theory of evolution is consistent with the evidence, and any rival theory would have to be consistent with the evidence too. That makes it a tougher challenge to come up with viable alternative theories than if there were no evidence. For more information on this subject, you can read books by Richard Dawkins.

Applied to biology, the theory of evolution goes like this:

Imagine a population of animals (or bacteria, or plants). They are replicators: they create copies of themselves (offspring). (Actually, it's the genes that are replicators, not the animals themselves, but we'll overlook that.) Suppose the offspring were perfect copies. Then nothing would ever change. Thousands of years later, the animals would be exactly the same as now.

Real animals do not make perfect copies. There is a little bit of change each generation. Offspring are mostly, but not entirely, the same as their parents. This means that over a long period of time there is the potential for a large amount of change.

So far, it sounds like the changes would be random. But there is another factor. Some animals die before they have offspring, or fail to attract a mate, whereas others have more offspring than average. The result is that over time the population of animals will become more like the animals that are the best at creating offspring, because more of the new animals will be fairly accurate copies of those animals.

So we have copying, with small changes, and then selection according to some criteria. And the result is that the group better meets the criteria over time. And that is the explanation of how adaptations are created, which is called the theory of evolution.

When something is well adapted, that means most random changes would make it worse, and very few would make it better. Better or worse for what? For whatever criteria, or problem, it is adapted to.

An adaptation is a solution to some problem. Knowledge is useful information, or in other words solutions to problems. They are the same thing.

Evolution of animals cannot create all kinds of knowledge. The problem animals become good at solving is, roughly, having lots of great grand children. That's it. However, solving that problem can have wider consequences. To be good at having offspring, an animal needs more than genitals. It needs to be able to acquire food, acquire a mate, avoid dangers such as predators, and so on. This can lead to the creation of knowledge of optics (to better see predators or prey), knowledge of aerodynamics (to fly faster, using less energy), knowledge about chemistry (to create harder substances for claws or teeth) and so on. In each case, it would not be accurate to say the animal knows this knowledge. It's not a human and doesn't understand anything. A fly contains knowledge of aerodynamics in the same way an airplane contains knowledge of aerodynamics. A bear contains knowledge of chemistry in the same way my toothpaste does.

The philosophical theory of how knowledge is created is the same as the biological one. It's all about evolution. As before, the key elements are copying with small changes and selection according to some criteria. When a human creates knowledge, that's what he does. He takes some ideas, and he considers them. That means making various ideas and making changes to them to get new ideas. Next, the human thinks about whether each of the ideas solves the problem he's interested in. In other words, he rejects or criticizes any ideas which don't solve the problem. Ideas which don't work die off, just like animals which don't work. So the ideas which best solve the problem are selected. Then more copies of those are made, with more small changes, and then more selection, and over time the result is ideas that are adapted to solving the problem. Remember that adapted means that making random changes will make things worse not better, so you can see why this would work. We've just been making random changes and keeping the ones that made things better, and we kept doing that until we got to the point when either it was good enough or it became really hard to make things better.

That is how people create knowledge: by the evolution of ideas. This isn't an analogy. It's literally the case. The philosophical explanation in both cases is identical. In both cases there is replication and variation (combined these create new animals or new ideas), and selection (criticism).

The theory of evolution solves Paley's problem by giving an explanation of where knowledge comes from. And it does even better than Paley asked for. It doesn't just explain where the knowledge contained in humans and animals could have come from, it also gives a general explanation that works for watches and skyscrapers. The theory of evolution can account for all knowledge: it is a general purpose theory.

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By Elliot Temple, Feb 2010 | Join the discussion group, receive the newsletter, or send comments to

Acknowledgments: some ideas presented are modified from, or inspired by, ideas from Karl Popper, Ayn Rand, David Deutsch and William Godwin. Thank you!