An Alien God

"A curious aspect of the theory of evolution," said Jacques Monod, "is that everybody thinks he understands it."

A human being, looking at the natural world, sees a thousand times purpose. A rabbit's legs, built and articulated for running; a fox's jaws, built and articulated for tearing. But what you see is not exactly what is there...

In the days before Darwin, the cause of all this apparent purposefulness was a very great puzzle unto science. The Goddists said "God did it", because you get 50 bonus points each time you use the word "God" in a sentence. Yet perhaps I'm being unfair. In the days before Darwin, it seemed like a much more reasonable hypothesis. Find a watch in the desert, said William Paley, and you can infer the existence of a watchmaker.

But when you look at all the apparent purposefulness in Nature, rather than picking and choosing your examples, you start to notice things that don't fit the Judeo-Christian concept of one benevolent God. Foxes seem well-designed to catch rabbits. Rabbits seem well-designed to evade foxes. Was the Creator having trouble making up Its mind?

When I design a toaster oven, I don't design one part that tries to get electricity to the coils and a second part that tries to prevent electricity from getting to the coils. It would be a waste of effort. Who designed the ecosystem, with its predators and prey, viruses and bacteria? Even the cactus plant, which you might think well-designed to provide water fruit to desert animals, is covered with inconvenient spines.

The ecosystem would make much more sense if it wasn't designed by a unitary Who, but, rather, created by a horde of deities—say from the Hindu or Shinto religions. This handily explains both the ubiquitous purposefulnesses, and the ubiquitous conflicts: More than one deity acted, often at cross-purposes. The fox and rabbit were both designed, but by distinct competing deities. I wonder if anyone ever remarked on the seemingly excellent evidence thus provided for Hinduism over Christianity. Probably not.

Similarly, the Judeo-Christian God is alleged to be benevolent—well, sort of. And yet much of nature's purposefulness seems downright cruel. Darwin suspected a non-standard Creator for studying Ichneumon wasps, whose paralyzing stings preserve its prey to be eaten alive by its larvae: "I cannot persuade myself," wrote Darwin, "that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice." I wonder if any earlier thinker remarked on the excellent evidence thus provided for Manichaen religions over monotheistic ones.

By now we all know the punchline: You just say "evolution".

I worry that's how some people are absorbing the "scientific" explanation, as a magical purposefulness factory in Nature. I've previously discussed the case of Storm from the movie X-Men, who in one mutation gets the ability to throw lightning bolts. Why? Well, there's this thing called "evolution" that somehow pumps a lot of purposefulness into Nature, and the changes happen through "mutations". So if Storm gets a really large mutation, she can be redesigned to throw lightning bolts. Radioactivity is a popular super origin: radiation causes mutations, so more powerful radiation causes more powerful mutations. That's logic.

But evolution doesn't allow just any kind of purposefulness to leak into Nature. That's what makes evolution a success as an empirical hypothesis. If evolutionary biology could explain a toaster oven, not just a tree, it would be worthless. There's a lot more to evolutionary theory than pointing at Nature and saying, "Now purpose is allowed," or "Evolution did it!" The strength of a theory is not what it allows, but what it prohibits; if you can invent an equally persuasive explanation for any outcome, you have zero knowledge.

"Many non-biologists," observed George Williams, "think that it is for their benefit that rattles grow on rattlesnake tails." Bzzzt! This kind of purposefulness is not allowed. Evolution doesn't work by letting flashes of purposefulness creep in at random—reshaping one species for the benefit of a random recipient.

Evolution is powered by a systematic correlation between the different ways that different genes construct organisms, and how many copies of those genes make it into the next generation. For rattles to grow on rattlesnake tails, rattle-growing genes must become more and more frequent in each successive generation. (Actually genes for incrementally more complex rattles, but if I start describing all the fillips and caveats to evolutionary biology, we really will be here all day.)

There isn't an Evolution Fairy that looks over the current state of Nature, decides what would be a "good idea", and chooses to increase the frequency of rattle-constructing genes.

I suspect this is where a lot of people get stuck, in evolutionary biology. They understand that "helpful" genes become more common, but "helpful" lets any sort of purpose leak in. They don't think there's an Evolution Fairy, yet they ask which genes will be "helpful" as if a rattlesnake gene could "help" non-rattlesnakes.

The key realization is that there is no Evolution Fairy. There's no outside force deciding which genes ought to be promoted. Whatever happens, happens because of the genes themselves.

Genes for constructing (incrementally better) rattles, must have somehow ended up more frequent in the rattlesnake gene pool, because of the rattle. In this case it's probably because rattlesnakes with better rattles survive more often—rather than mating more successfully, or having brothers that reproduce more successfully, etc.

Maybe predators are wary of rattles and don't step on the snake. Or maybe the rattle diverts attention from the snake's head. (As George Williams suggests, "The outcome of a fight between a dog and a viper would depend very much on whether the dog initially seized the reptile by the head or by the tail.")

But that's just a snake's rattle. There are much more complicated ways that a gene can cause copies of itself to become more frequent in the next generation. Your brother or sister shares half your genes. A gene that sacrifices one unit of resources to bestow three units of resource on a brother, may promote some copies of itself by sacrificing one of its constructed organisms. (If you really want to know all the details and caveats, buy a book on evolutionary biology; there is no royal road.)

The main point is that the gene's effect must cause copies of that gene to become more frequent in the next generation. There's no Evolution Fairy that reaches in from outside. There's nothing which decides that some genes are "helpful" and should, therefore, increase in frequency. It's just cause and effect, starting from the genes themselves.

This explains the strange conflicting purposefulness of Nature, and its frequent cruelty. It explains even better than a horde of Shinto deities.

Why is so much of Nature at war with other parts of Nature? Because there isn't one Evolution directing the whole process. There's as many different "evolutions" as reproducing populations. Rabbit genes are becoming more or less frequent in rabbit populations. Fox genes are becoming more or less frequent in fox populations. Fox genes which construct foxes that catch rabbits, insert more copies of themselves in the next generation. Rabbit genes which construct rabbits that evade foxes are naturally more common in the next generation of rabbits. Hence the phrase "natural selection".

Why is Nature cruel? You, a human, can look at an Ichneumon wasp, and decide that it's cruel to eat your prey alive. You can decide that if you're going to eat your prey alive, you can at least have the decency to stop it from hurting. It would scarcely cost the wasp anything to anesthetize its prey as well as paralyze it. Or what about old elephants, who die of starvation when their last set of teeth fall out? These elephants aren't going to reproduce anyway. What would it cost evolution—the evolution of elephants, rather—to ensure that the elephant dies right away, instead of slowly and in agony? What would it cost evolution to anesthetize the elephant, or give it pleasant dreams before it dies? Nothing; that elephant won't reproduce more or less either way.

If you were talking to a fellow human, trying to resolve a conflict of interest, you would be in a good negotiating position—would have an easy job of persuasion. It would cost so little to anesthetize the prey, to let the elephant die without agony! Oh please, won't you do it, kindly... um...

There's no one to argue with.

Human beings fake their justifications, figure out what they want using one method, and then justify it using another method. There's no Evolution of Elephants Fairy that's trying to (a) figure out what's best for elephants, and then (b) figure out how to justify it to the Evolutionary Overseer, who (c) doesn't want to see reproductive fitness decreased, but is (d) willing to go along with the painless-death idea, so long as it doesn't actually harm any genes.

There's no advocate for the elephants anywhere in the system.

Humans, who are often deeply concerned for the well-being of animals, can be very persuasive in arguing how various kindnesses wouldn't harm reproductive fitness at all. Sadly, the evolution of elephants doesn't use a similar algorithm; it doesn't select nice genes that can plausibly be argued to help reproductive fitness. Simply: genes that replicate more often become more frequent in the next generation. Like water flowing downhill, and equally benevolent.

A human, looking over Nature, starts thinking of all the ways we would design organisms. And then we tend to start rationalizing reasons why our design improvements would increase reproductive fitness—a political instinct, trying to sell your own preferred option as matching the boss's favored justification.

And so, amateur evolutionary biologists end up making all sorts of wonderful and completely mistaken predictions. Because the amateur biologists are drawing their bottom line—and more importantly, locating their prediction in hypothesis-space—using a different algorithm than evolutions use to draw their bottom lines.

A human engineer would have designed human taste buds to measure how much of each nutrient we had, and how much we needed. When fat was scarce, almonds or cheeseburgers would taste delicious. But if you started to become obese, or if vitamins were lacking, lettuce would taste delicious. But there is no Evolution of Humans Fairy, which intelligently planned ahead and designed a general system for every contingency. It was a reliable invariant of humans' ancestral environment that calories were scarce. So genes whose organisms loved calories, became more frequent. Like water flowing downhill.

We are simply the embodied history of which organisms did in fact survive and reproduce, not which organisms ought prudentially to have survived and reproduced.

The human retina is constructed backward: The light-sensitive cells are at the back, and the nerves emerge from the front and go back through the retina into the brain. Hence the blind spot. To a human engineer, this looks simply stupid—and other organisms have independently evolved retinas the right way around. Why not redesign the retina?

The problem is that no single mutation will reroute the whole retina simultaneously. A human engineer can redesign multiple parts simultaneously, or plan ahead for future changes. But if a single mutation breaks some vital part of the organism, it doesn't matter what wonderful things a Fairy could build on top of it—the organism dies and the genes decreases in frequency.

If you turn around the retina's cells without also reprogramming the nerves and optic cable, the system as a whole won't work. It doesn't matter that, to a Fairy or a human engineer, this is one step forward in redesigning the retina. The organism is blind. Evolution has no foresight, it is simply the frozen history of which organisms did in fact reproduce. Evolution is as blind as a halfway-redesigned retina.

Find a watch in a desert, said William Paley, and you can infer the watchmaker. There were once those who denied this, who thought that life "just happened" without need of an optimization process, mice being spontaneously generated from straw and dirty shirts.

If we ask who was more correct—the theologians who argued for a Creator-God, or the intellectually unfulfilled atheists who argued that mice spontaneously generated—then the theologians must be declared the victors: evolution is not God, but it is closer to God than it is to pure random entropy. Mutation is random, but selection is non-random. This doesn't mean an intelligent Fairy is reaching in and selecting. It means there's a non-zero statistical correlation between the gene and how often the organism reproduces. Over a few million years, that non-zero statistical correlation adds up to something very powerful. It's not a god, but it's more closely akin to a god than it is to snow on a television screen.

In a lot of ways, evolution is like unto theology. "Gods are ontologically distinct from creatures," said Damien Broderick, "or they're not worth the paper they're written on." And indeed, the Shaper of Life is not itself a creature. Evolution is bodiless, like the Judeo-Christian deity. Omnipresent in Nature, immanent in the fall of every leaf. Vast as a planet's surface. Billions of years old. Itself unmade, arising naturally from the structure of physics. Doesn't that all sound like something that might have been said about God?

And yet the Maker has no mind, as well as no body. In some ways, its handiwork is incredibly poor design by human standards. It is internally divided. Most of all, it isn't nice.

In a way, Darwin discovered God—a God that failed to match the preconceptions of theology, and so passed unheralded. If Darwin had discovered that life was created by an intelligent agent—a bodiless mind that loves us, and will smite us with lightning if we dare say otherwise—people would have said "My gosh! That's God!"

But instead Darwin discovered a strange alien God—not comfortably "ineffable", but really genuinely different from us. Evolution is not a God, but if it were, it wouldn't be Jehovah. It would be H. P. Lovecraft's Azathoth, the blind idiot God burbling chaotically at the center of everything, surrounded by the thin monotonous piping of flutes.

Which you might have predicted, if you had really looked at Nature.

So much for the claim some religionists make, that they believe in a vague deity with a correspondingly high probability. Anyone who really believed in a vague deity, would have recognized their strange inhuman creator when Darwin said "Aha!"

So much for the claim some religionists make, that they are waiting innocently curious for Science to discover God. Science has already discovered the sort-of-godlike maker of humans—but it wasn't what the religionists wanted to hear. They were waiting for the discovery of their God, the highly specific God they want to be there. They shall wait forever, for the great discovery has already taken place, and the winner is Azathoth.

Well, more power to us humans. I like having a Creator I can outwit. Beats being a pet. I'm glad it was Azathoth and not Odin.

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I wonder if anyone ever remarked on the seemingly excellent evidence thus provided for Hinduism over Christianity. Probably not.

Well, David Hume did. In the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Although not with a totally straight face.

The best book-long treatise about your points is probably Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. But you probably know that.

I started on The Selfish Gene recently and it is a real revelation. It's going to take a lot of getting used to to think of myself as a "mere" machine to ensure the continuation of my genes. Once humans cease to be special, somehow above and apart from the world that built them you have to start rethinking a lot of your assumptions.

The human retina is constructed backward: The light-sensitive cells are at the back, and the nerves emerge from the front and go back through the retina into the brain. Hence the blind spot. To a human engineer, this looks simply stupid - and other organisms have independently evolved retinas the right way around. Why not redesign the retina?

Some of the biggest jaw dropping comments I hear have to do with taking something that is an obvious flaw and bending over backwards to come up with a reason that it isn't flawed. Instead of saying that old elephants starving is cruel and a flaw* they say that there is a deeper purpose or design that can explain away the cruelty.

Instead of calling out a nasty thing for being a nasty thing they try to claim that our understanding is flawed. and the nasty really isn't all that nasty. This is fuzzy enough on topics like retinas and dying elephants to trick people who don't know much about retinas or dying elephants. But what happens if I point at something like Cerebral Palsy and say, "Explain that!"

The typical next step is to add an intelligent Super Nasty that ruined the perfectly nice world. If we keep pushing Explain we delve into huge swaths of arguments about good, evil, gods, and devils but are still left with hospital wards packed full of children inflicted with Cerebral Palsy. At some point, most people push Ignore. And then their child is born with Cerebral Palsy. It is kind of hard to ignore that. When they complain that something nasty happened, someone nearby tells them that there is a deeper purpose or design.

I can understand why people aren't big fans of this.

And... reading back over my comment I forgot to make the point I going to make and made a different one in its stead. Ah well.

Jacob Stein: Oy Vey, since you insist, here's some evolved watches: (it's about ten minutes long, btw, and a bit slow at the start. But if evolved watches you must have, evolved watches you will get.)

You're welcome, and thanks - this is one of the most interesting sites I've ever found. Up there next to TED talks :)

Shameless nitpick: There's nothing wrong with the logic that "radiation causes mutations, so more powerful radiation causes more powerful mutations." If you expose yourself to a thousand rads, you will get a heck of a lot of mutations. The logic breaks down when you expect these mutations to give you super powers, rather than a big mess. It sounds like you've got the superhero logic backwards: people did not look at evolutionary theory, understand it incorrectly, and then hypothesize that superheroes should be an expected outcome. They first made up the superheroes, and then looked for anything which might plausibly explain them.

The logic also breaks down when you expect your offspring to get exactly those mutations, some of which will be somatic:))

Maybe predators are wary of rattles and don't step on the snake. Or maybe the rattle diverts attention from the snake's head.

The point of a rattle, as I understand it, is that it's metabolically expensive, and time consuming, to produce poison. A snake that can chase off a dozen threats a day by wagging its tail is much better off probability-of-producing-offspring-wise than one that can only bite and poison three threats before being left defenseless for a few days.

It does leave me wondering what benefits the intermediate mutations provide though, since going from a normal snake tail to a rattle seems like it would take more than one step.

I have observed that more ordinary snakes that have not developed a rattle often vibrate their tail in a similar manner, which often makes a warning buzz that is merely somewhat quieter than a rattlesnake's rattle. So incremental improvements to this rattling mechanism, which started with a regular tail, would just slowly increase the loudness, and thus warning ability, of a snake's tail.

Alternatively, maybe the buzz attracts attention away from the head of the snake, making it easier to attack.

Yes, and it would sustain less critical damage. I'm sure that both benefits contribute to the preservation of tail-rattling traits.

All of these sound like a posteriori justifications than a priori predictions. Good ones. But still.

That's kind of the point of this article. Evolution doesn't "choose" something, it just has changes happen, and if, like a rattle happening to scare off threats or reduce lethal damage, it aids survival, then it increases in the population.

even if poison were cheap, every fight has a risk. better to neither fight nor flee.


It really bothers you that a mindless, unthinking process is smarter than you, doesn't it.

I wouldn't go that far! But I do think you bias towards Faith in Flawlessness and against anything that involves randomness.

Foxes seem well-designed to catch rabbits. Rabbits seem well-designed to evade foxes... When I design a toaster oven, I don't design one part that tries to get electricity to the coils and a second part that tries to prevent electricity from getting to the coils.

Toasters are designed for simpler problems. When you need to survive overwhelming complexity/unknown unknowns/fog of war, designs relying on Feedback/Checks and Balances often survive where designs without it fail spectacularly. Examples: US founding father's design for a government; various engineering control systems; successful economic systems; protocol about feedback in science.

Human beings fake their justifications, figure out what they want using one method, and then justify it using another method.


A gene that sacrifices one unit of resources to bestow three units of resource on a brother, may promote some copies of itself by sacrificing one of its constructed organisms.

Haha, genes follow UDT!

I've been thinking on eerily similar lines for the past couple days. And then I found out that green-beard effects have actually been found in nature. For something so stupid, evolution sure does some smart stuff.

Selfreferencing, I'm a Bayesian. I assign probabilities, not "believe". I penalize hypotheses by their unshared complexity and update based on evidence. If probabilities come out even, then I don't "suspend judgment", I judge that the probabilities are even, and plan accordingly. It's just as much a belief as anything else, and just as mandatory or prohibited based on a given body of evidence.

Celeriac: Sigh. Gating the flow of electricity and the function of the toaster, is not the same as having two parts at flow with each other. When I open the latch, the power circuits don't try to reroute electricity to the coils, or fuse the latch...

Recovering: Don't know where you're getting the "faith in flawlessness" part. Did you read the part about the retina?

When I design a toaster oven, I don't design one part that tries to get electricity to the coils and a second part that tries to prevent electricity from getting to the coils.

Er, yes you do. There is a latch to hold the contact closed, there is a thermostatic switch to dislodge the latch. It is such with many designed control mechanisms.

When I design a toaster oven, I don't design one part that tries to get electricity to the coils and a second part that tries to prevent electricity from getting to the coils. It would be a waste of effort. Who designed the ecosystem, with its predators and prey, viruses and bacteria? Even the cactus plant, which you might think well-designed to provide water fruit to desert animals, is covered with inconvenient spines.

I understand your point and your examples, but it is wrong to infer that conflicting subsystems are evidence of poor design or no design at all. For instance, in CMOS design of logical ports, we use PMOS(es) to pull-up and NMOS(es) to pull-down the output voltage(s). More generally, when we want to design something able to change its state in a certain state-space, we often put sub-systems which go one against the other and let the contour conditions decide where the balance will be (in the CMOS example, the contour conditions are the input(s) of the logical gate). We as human designers do this a lot, actually.

I agree with all you other points, though.

To actually explain an outcome, you must only be able to make-up-a-plausible-sounding-explanation-for that outcome, and not make-up-a-plausible-sounding-explanation-for zillions of other possible outcomes. Evolution does this, successfully, for millions of species, which is good.

The more actual outcomes a scientific theory explains, the better; the more potential outcomes it could have explained just as plausibly, the worse.

Sorry if this wasn't clear.

Allow me to clarify douglas a bit if I can. Correct me if I'm wrong.

What douglas is (I think) invoking here is a phenomenon called the evolution of evolvability. Essentially the idea is that evolution is not quite as blind or random as pure classical Darwinism would have it, but that it evolves. Evolution evolves, recursively. Lineages that do a better job exploring fitness landscape space do a better job surviving, and so therefore their genes tend to do a better job surviving as well. Evolution therefore favors the emergence of genetic systems that aid evolution.

Competent cells are an example of this. Competence (the ability to take up naked DNA) is likely an evolvability adaptation. Having it turned on in all cells would be disasterous since the entire population would be virus fodder. But having genes in there that cause this phenomenon to happen and having them activate occasionally is good for all genes involved since under stress it greatly increases the likelihood of major discontinuities that might propel the lineage out of a valley in fitness landscape space.

If you want a really far out and extreme take on this, read this:

Stewart crosses over into evolutionary romanticism on occasion, so I don't buy everything he says. But he does have a grasp of just how big an idea the evolution of evolvability is. I admire visionaries with the courage to write like this, even if some of what they write strays a little into la-la-land. That the price you pay for getting excited about the new. We have far too few of such people these days.

Evolutionary theory with the evolution of evolvability is to classical Darwinism what Einsteinian and Quantum mechanics are to classical Newtonian physics. All the responders are right in that this stuff is a part of modern evolutionary theory, but it's not really a part of "Darwinism." Darwin didn't predict this. Calling modern evolutionary theory "Darwinism" is like calling physics "Newtonism." Darwin was Newton, but evolutionary theory did not end with him.

Now for an annoying Google suggestion: go to or arXiv and search for "evolution of evolvability" as a phrase.

Calling modern evolutionary theory "Darwinism" is like calling physics "Newtonism."

Well, I'd rather name it after Galileo, but otherwise I'm happy with that. Galileo invented the field of endeavour that we know today as ‘physics’ (a term which Aristoteles used for something rather different), and Newton brought his ideas to fruition, even though they have subsequently been improved upon. ‘Newtonian physics’ is one thing, but ‘Newtonism’ is another; all modern physicists are Galileo's and Newton's disciples.

The problem with evolving evolution is that the search space becomes exponentially larger every time you go up a level of evolution.

Eliezer- Your point about Darwin having found God --just not the one anybody was hoping for-- is brilliant. The problems evolution poses for religion are obvious, but thats the first time I've seen it framed that way. Great post.

Though one nitpick I would offer: (which might be helpful if you're planning on referencing this post in the future?) Saying your sister shares half your genes is a bit off. If your sister shares only half your genes that would make her something closer to an earth worm or perhaps a house plant (I forget exactly how the commonality of genes among organisms breaks down). I think if you clarify it with 'your sister shares half the genes that differentiate you genetically from the human race', this might be more correct. Or perhaps its that half her DNA is sequenced exactly like yours? Point is, if you're endeavoring to clear up some of the misconceptions about evolution, you might want to be a little more exacting with how you talk about genes.

Eliezer, out of curiousity did you include the Azathoth references because of my earlier comments here or were you already thinking of it?

Mencius Moldbug has also used the idea of an alien's perspective on earth in order to break out of conventional wisdom. In his case it was named Beatrice. I think it was a good idea (I suggested something like it earlier) that he executed poorly.

douglas, I don't think you understand transitional fossils all that well. No Darwinist thinks there's any problem or unexpected gap in the record. Also, some quick googling and wikipediaing didn't turn up anything about a different form of evolution for tubercolosis strain w, provide some links.

DaCracka, Dawkins is not at all pissed off by the Platypus. He makes it one of his high-lighted examples in The Ancestor's Tale.

If you look at the ecosystem as a designed work of art rather than a designed mechanism to accomplish a purpose, rabbits and foxes competing isn't so much of a problem. Still, it's not very plausible; while there is beauty (as humans see beauty) in nature, as a whole there's not much of a consistent aesthetic.

Gotta love that watchmaker analogy. Turns out the human circadian (sleep-wake) rhythm is a little bit over 24 hours long - more like 24:11, so your body is always pushing you to go to sleep 11 minutes later every day. (Thankfully it tends to synchronize with light and darkness, so it doesn't get too far off schedule.) That's some nice watchmaking there, God.

Is that 24:11 a literal figure for every single person, or is it just an average, over a a group of individuals?

Since the day/night cycles vary all around the planet, it would make far more sense, from a design standpoint, to worry more about the synchronization mechanism, than to get the exact sleep-wake rhythm correct.

It isn't literally that for every single person, but assuming you don't have a mutation in your chronobiological genes it is pretty close to that.

People with mutations in various regulatory genes end up with significantly different sleep-wake cycles. The reason that our bodies reset ourselves under sunlight is probably to help correct for our clocks being "off" by a bit; indeed, it is probably very difficult to hit exactly 24 hours via evolution. But 24:11 plus correction lets it be off by a bit without causing a problem.

Good enough is probably better than perfect in this case, both because it means that mutations to the clock are less deleterious (thus those who have mutated clock genes are more likely to survive if they have said adjustment capability, meaning that the adjustment gene is even more strongly selected for) and because it means that we can travel and adjust to new time zones. For most creatures, this doesn't matter, but for creatures which travel long distances, this is a real advantage for staying on the proper day/night cycle.


You say: "if you can invent an equally persuasive explanation for any outcome, you have zero knowledge."

You'll want to read Quine on this. Quine thought that for nearly any sufficiently large data set there were an infinite number of theories that could accurately explain it. Now, granted, some theories are better than others, but many theories are harder to compare with others. Here are some examples:

Suppose you have three theoretical values: simplicity, coherence, and accommodation of the data. Different parts of a given scientific community may have distinct value rankings; they may consider some values more important than others. As a result, they end up gravitating towards different classes of theories.

Further, different scientists may start trying to explain different parts of the data than other scientists, leading their theorizing to be path-dependent. This may also change outcomes of belief in ways that are not rationally objectionable.

Even without the above two problems, theoretical ambiguities present themselves all the time in scientific and every day belief.

Given these considerations, I think that your statement above must be wrong. Certainly you can have a justified belief in one equally good explanation over another. And if that belief is true, you have knowledge (if you meet the completely inscrutable fourth condition; and nobody knows what it is.).

You seem to think that if two equally good explanations present themselves to us, the proper response is to claim suspend judgment, or at least take one judgment on board tentatively, making no knowledge claim. I'm not sure that's right. It seems like we could be justified in taking either one as justified in that case. And thus if we believe the proposition (we do), it's justified (it is), it's true (it might be), and it's X (don't ask me; ask Gettier), then you know it. Justification, to my mind, doesn't always select the one and only one best option. You seem to think it does, and so if there isn't one best explanation you don't have justification. Is that what you think?

A lot of people, including me, seem to have been brought to this old discussion recently, and I think it's an interesting coincidence that I just today made this comment, which doubles as a response to selfreferencing here.

I would add that "simplicity, coherence, and accommodation of the data" are not independent -- they can all fit into one metric, that of the shortness of the message needed to reproduce the data. Coherence is accounted for by how you have list any contradictions as exceptions to posited rules. Accommodation of the data is accounted for in that you have to reproduce all of the data, via generating algorithm or by restating it. Simplicity, of course, is inherent in the requirement of minimal length.

If evolutionary biology could explain a toaster oven, not just a tree, it would be worthless.

But it can, if you consider a toaster to be an embodied meme. Of course, the evolution that applies to toasters is more Lamarckian than Darwinian, but it's still evolution. Toaster designs that have higher utility to human beings lead to higher rates of reproduction, indirectly by human beings. The basic elements of evolution, namely mutation and reproduction, are all there.

What's interesting is that while natural evolution of biological organisms easily gets stuck in local optima, the backwards retina being an example, artificial evolution of technology often does not, due to the human mind being in the reproductive loop. This is, in part, because we can perform local hill-climbing in the design space after a large potential improvement is introduced, much as described in this article on the use of hill climbing in genetic algorithms. For example, we can imagine making the change to the retina to fix its orientation, and then, holding that change in place, search for improvements in the surrounding design space to make it workable, thereby skipping over poorly designed eyes and going straight to a new and better area in the fitness landscape.

My first comment ever on this site promptly gets downvoted without explanation. If you disagree with something I said, at least speak up and say why.

I am the downvoter, although another one seems to have found you since. I found your comment to be a mixture of "true, but irrelevant in the context of the quote", and a restatement of non-novel ideas. This is admittedly a harsh standard to apply to a first comment (particularly since you may not have yet even read the other stuff that duplicates your point about human designers being able to avoid local optima!), so I have retracted my downvote.

Welcome to the site, I hope I haven't turned you off.

I guess relevance is a matter of perspective. I was not aware that my ideas were not novel; they were at least my own and not something I parroted from elsewhere. Thanks for taking the time to explain, and no, I feel much better now.

you're not really wrong but you're missing the point

I didn't miss the point; I just had one of my own to add. I gave the post a thumbs-up before I made my comment, because I agree with the overwhelming majority of it and have dealt with people who have some of the confusions described therein. Anyway, thanks for explaining.

When someone tells me, 'Nature is cruel and controversial - look how foxes devour hares', I think that the problem is not the particular case of X eating Y, but that everyone eats something. Where is any controversy, if it is in fact the rule?

Also, while I agree with your general idea, you are too gentle in execution. The idea that 'Nature' is really, horribly accidental doesn't come through clearly. You say only the genes matter, and it is just another reduction of the case. People will suspect that if something alive lives in some medium, than the medium must have a say in its evolution (and they might think themselves part of the medium). Try including a story where a volcanic eruption wipes out a patch of unsuspecting lichen. Drama, pointlessness, no anthropization. See if they can muster a similar degree of righteous fury:))

So basically the bottom line I'm getting from this a kind of variant of Occam's Razor: Evolution is unlikely to produce solutions that include complexity or considerations it doesn't need.

Or more specifically, and with an example, there are probably a lot more ways to get to taste buds that give good results in environments and contexts the organism is likely to encounter than ways to get to taste buds that give good results in both environments and contexts that the organism is likely and unlikely to encounter.

This post is awesome in so many ways. Needs more up-votes.

As an actually related point, you mention that if evolution could explain toaster ovens as well as trees, it would be worthless. And I've read enough of your work to understand why that is.

Well... I worry we may already be there. On one site I've seen someone respond to a typical creationist nonsense - that the mouse trap is irreducibly complex and until scientists show it isn't, the ID points stands - by linking to a step-by-step visualization of a mousetrap evolving from some wire - of course with the (so false it should not have been assumed even hypothetically) assumption that it has successive generations and selection based on catching mice. It actually seemed to work.

And I first thought of it, "that's pointless, but cute". And then the next moment: "Hold on! That's not evidence for evolution! If anything, it actually weakens our case!". This made me suspect that, given enough motivation, we could show almost anything to have a plausible evolutionary route. We need to be very careful of this sort of thing, because if there happens to be anything that had actual intelligent intervention in its evolution, we'd be very hard pressed to notice. In hindsight, it would seem obvious: Of course that particular step couldn't evolutionarily happen! Of course our theories were getting weird trying to explain it!

We must keep evolution falsifiable, or we stand the risk of one day being subject to a fairly rude awakening.

I wouldn't get so worked up about it. The point of these demos is not to claim that evolution explains mousetraps - it doesn't - but to undermine the irreducible complexity argument. It's quite capable of accomplishing that.

Almost anything could have a plausible evolutionary route in the presence of an arbitrary selecting force. But evolution by natural selection does not provide arbitrary selecting forces. Natural selection doesn't build better mousetraps and clocks and such because those aren't capable of providing the machinery (i.e. being alive) that makes natural selection work.

I agree almost completely. Just note that being alive isn't the relevant criterion for natural selection. It is being an imperfect replicator. An imperfectly replicating machine could just as well be subject to natural selection. This brings up issues of what we mean as alive but I think that most people would not consider for example computer viruses as alive, but in the very long run they should be subject to natural selection.

You'd think this would be uncontroversial, but I often have great difficulty explaining what it means for evolution to not have a purpose. "But if it's just random, then how does it work?"

The evolutionary process is poorly characterised as being blind or idiotic:

Human beings are the product of choices by intelligent agents, capable of predicting the consquences of their actions, and are not - in any reasonable sense - solely the product of "blind" selective forces.

Douglas, you already know what your main point is, and you already believe it, whatever it is, so you have two advantages over us in looking at a random Google hit and turning it into perceived evidential support for your points. The reason why others haven't been impressed by your saying "google tuberculosis strain w" isn't that we're too lazy to type that into Google (though, speaking only for myself, once you've clearly already done that and found what seems to you a good page, it seems odd that you're so reluctant to say what it actually is).

When you want to point to a particular piece of information on the web, there's a thing called a URL you can use. It's both less effort and more useful than giving a vague description of how to find something using Google.

What do you think "the current model" is? Are you saying it doesn't include horizontal gene transfer? (I;m not a biologist, but I'd thought such things were common knowledge among evolutionary biologists.) A great deal of evolution has been observed and fits the current model very well. What on earth are you on about when you say "the only actual evolution that has been observed does not fit this model"?

The question about human life on earth versus other life on earth was "postdated by more than a week". There is a reason for that.

As for appropriateness in this venue, that would be a question for the people who run it. I suppose alleged biases involving evolution are fair game in comments to a post about evolution here. If you ever actually said what those alleged biases are and why they constitute biases rather than mere disagreements, though, it would be less unhelpful.

Douglas, what's the relevance of the fact that you're an independent research and consider your methods not-ordinary to what Pete, TGGP, and I have said to you?

You are extraordinarily reluctant to be specific about either your evidence or your conclusions from that evidence. You say that you want Eliezer to "update [his] thinking re: evolution", but any time you're asked specific questions about what sort of position you think preferable you clam up and offer only vague references to other people's work.

So far, you've offered a pointer to one source that says that horizontal gene transfer has been important in bacterial evolution.and maybe in evolution of other organisms. OK, fine; what's supposed to be the problem here? What reason do you have to think that Eliezer's thinking about evolution ignores horizontal gene transfer?

And you've given a 12-page section of a book that supposedly gives "the original discussion about TB". Well, that's nice, but since you refuse to tell us what about TB constitutes what evidence in favour of what ideas about evolution and why, it's not much use. Especially to those of us who happen not to have the book. (Your track record does not encourage me to go to much trouble or expense to find it.)

It appears from some things that you've said that you actually want to promote some view radically at odds with the current scientific consensus, featuring the belief that "life can only come from life", some sort of central irreducible causative role for consciousness, etc. Well, all these things could be true. But if you are trying to get people to believe them rationally, you need to offer some actual evidence comparable to the amount of evidence that has led most scientists to think that such ideas aren't helpful. You don't seem to be interested in doing that; rather, you keep asserting without evidence that the consensus view is a matter of "bias".

This is not helpful.

(And I'd still be interested to know your estimate of the probability that human life postdated other life on earth by less than a week.)

Most of the essay is thoughtful and interesting as usual - good points about laypeople uttering "evolution" with the same semantic force with which others utter "god". But why bring up that god stuff at the end? Doesn't it just create confusion to stretch metaphors this way? You have only to look at how religionists have seized on Einstein's and Hawking's metaphorical use of the word "god" to suit their purposes.

Evolution isn't "god", it's just what happens when you have competition between replicators. Trying to use "theology" and "god" and "Judeo-Christian deity" (whatever that means - I don't think Judaism calls it a "trinity", for example) when talking about evolution only makes things murky.

douglas -- it's "Johnjoe", not "Joejohn", and as a molecular biologist myself I will say I do not in the least consider it an oversight on my part never to have read his book. The idea of DNA being in quantum superposition is hard enough to swallow - then you realize that for it to work the way he wants it to (to have a differential effect on survival), the entire cell needs to be in superposition since it isn't just the DNA itself, but the mRNA that gets transcribed, and the proteins that get translated, that determine the cell's response to the environment. So every relevant molecule in the cell is in one giant superposition?? This idea is an extremely bizarre, profligate wasteful hunch, but worse, it fills no conceptual gaps. Whether there are any out-of-the-ordinary phenomena going on in bacterial adaptation is itself controversial and not agreed on. If there is ever any consensus that there is a phenomenon that needs explanation, may some scientists have the humility to test something more mundane before trotting out the word "quantum" along with the idea that we have to rethink almost everything.


  1. You have not explained how anything to do with tuberculosis poses any difficulties for orthodox evolutionary biology. Gesticulating vaguely at a book that, on the face of it, looks mildly crankish is not an explanation. Repeatedly saying "Google for tuberculosis strain w" is not an explanation. I may quite possibly be being dim, but you aren't showing any sign of actual willingness to help correct my dimness.

  2. When Dennett uses the term "universal acid" (not "universal solvent", IIRC) he is not claiming that evolution, or "gradualism", solves every problem. Saying things like that just increases my suspicion that you are, in the Frankfurtian sense, bullshitting.

  3. If you think that the fact that some cells can take up DNA from their environment is some kind of problem for orthodox evolutionary biology, then I would like to know why. No, of course what they do is not a matter of random point mutations; so what? Sexual reproduction isn't a matter of random point mutations, either.

  4. I'm not sure why you bother mentioning that you're reasonably sure that humans haven't been around since the beginning of life (reasonably sure?!). Just out of curiosity, could you give me your probability estimate for their having been around for more than, say, a week after the beginning of life?

  5. You haven't stated anything definite enough to bet on, but I think it's well established that foreign DNA can get into the germ line of multicellular organisms ("endogenous retroviruses") so (a) I'm not inclined to bet against that and (b) it doesn't seem credible to claim that it's incompatible with currently-orthodox biology.

"In microbiology, genetics, cell biology and molecular biology, competence is the ability of a cell to take up extracellular ("naked") DNA from its environment."

I don't see what problem this causes for evolution.

douglas, I googled tuberculosis strain w evolution of and it didn't give me the result you were thinking of for quite a number of pages, so then I just searched amazon for "Quantum Evolution", which revealed a number of titles other than the one by Johnjoe McFadden. There still wasn't that much information there, so please give a web address (you did not in fact give me one before, I should be able to click on it or copy-paste it into the url bar of my browser). To me right now "quantum" is just serving as a magic word, I'd like a (likely simplified) explanation as to how quantum mechanics patches a hole in evolutionary theory and what that hole is in the first place.

Douglas, you've said more than once now that evolutionary biology, when applied to tuberculosis, "predicts a cure and produces an incurable disease". Maybe I'm being dim, but this seems to me to be absolute rubbish.

  1. Antibiotics did and do cure a whole lot of TB, and have saved an enormous number of lives by doing so.

  2. Evolutionary biology, so far as I know, didn't have anything to do with the development of antibiotics as TB treatments nor with the way in which they were used.

  3. So far as I'm aware, orthodox evolutionary biology doesn't make any predictions that contradict what's actually happened with TB antibiotic resistance.

Do you have an argument here that makes more sense than "Antibiotic-resistance in TB is bad. It has something to do with evolution. Therefore evolution is bad"?

(Oh, and while "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" is certainly very gung-ho about evolution, it does not in fact say that evolution is the explanation of everything. I have never heard anyone say that evolution is the explanation of everything.)

I was nodding in agreement up until the end there. "Evolution is bodiless"? "Evolution" describes certain features of a physical process, a chemical process specifically, stretching from the beginning of life until the present day. The entire ecosystem of the Earth is, at any given moment, a time slice of this single chemical process. It isn't abstract in the least. Various sorts of selection are abstract but only in the sense that they describe aspects of this chemical process at a high level.

Well, in a lot of senses I treat them as having a probability of ~1. But not literally 1, because when you assign a probability of 1 to something, you can't change your mind about it, ever.

There's also the whole distinction of viewing "belief" as a primitive, rather than viewing it as a derived behavior of a system that happens to be assigning probabilities close to 1.

But then my brain doesn't actually work by Bayesian probabilities, so, yes, I believe gravity, and that if I don't eat I'll die of starvation, and many similar things whose opposites I don't bother to consider.

I aspire to perfectionism, but you can't go from there to my thinking that any given system is already perfect. Especially not evolution!

I didn't think you thought evolution was perfect, quite the opposite. I thought you disliked it partly because of its random element.

As for black swans, you need more cognitive complexity, not less, to handle them

Of course, all else equal. That's like saying don't spend cash on a smoke alarm because if you're the victim of a house fire you need more money, not less.

I'm saying a little feedback might be worth the cost to perfection. It might even make that toaster of yours a bit safer.

Noise doesn't help with black swans; a random key does not fit a random lock.

I argued for "Feedback/Checks and Balances", not random noise. With clever use of these a key could indeed open many random locks.

Evolution in particular does very poorly with black swans.

Worse than a process with zero intelligence that doesn't have feedback and checks and balances?

[via link] Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

Until you need that last little thing you burned to get the "100% efficiency" certificate.

I hope you don't think I'm having a go. I really did like most of your post :-)

I aspire to perfectionism, but you can't go from there to my thinking that any given system is already perfect. Especially not evolution!

As for black swans, you need more cognitive complexity, not less, to handle them; Gaussian randomness is easy by comparison. Noise doesn't help with black swans; a random key does not fit a random lock. Evolution in particular does very poorly with black swans. All this will be one or more separate posts at some point.

Rooney, the difference is between a qualitative view and a quantitative view. If you assign a 90% probability to one belief and a 10% probability for another, you can search for a plan with a decent expected utility - a decent weighted combination of probable results given both beliefs. That really isn't the same as believing some things, and not believing others. It's a distinction with a difference.

Eliezer said:

I'm a Bayesian. I assign probabilities, not "believe". I penalize hypotheses by their unshared complexity and update based on evidence. If probabilities come out even, then I don't "suspend judgment", I judge that the probabilities are even, and plan accordingly.

For an avowed admirer of Orwell's famous essay on English, I am surprised to see you resort to distinctions without differences. Whatever you call it (n.b. the euphemism "judge" in the last sentence quoted above), you draw a line between some claims you work with and your motor cortex acts on, and other claims you don't. That is, in plain English, you believe some claims are true and others are false.

Jannia, the poison-delivery-method is pretty complex, too. It's amazing they didn't develop a stinger, or legs, as well. They had to have a gland to produce the poison, a sac to store it, and the hypodermic needle-like teeth to inject it.

I can't imagine any of them serving a function alone.

Perhaps the rattles started appearing, and snakes started shaking them. Or perhaps they started using a shaking tail to distract predators and prey, and then those wierd mutant rattles came in handy.

We still see genetic mutations, and should one of them prove more useful, eventually, it will become dominant and more pronounced.

Reading "The Evolution Of Desire" was a huge turning point in my thought process.

Either way, it's fascinating.

P.S. I've been lost on this blog at work for the last week or two. Great work, even the commentors have more interesting thunks to think than most blog authors.

I'm not convinced that evolution is closer to "god" than to pure entropy. Really, the Tegmark big universe seems much closer to both "god" and pure entropy than evolution does, and may be a necessary creator for life as well, though it's still possible the evolution can do the whole job itself. Evolution has this whole "embedded in time" schtick going on that definitely makes it more like "gods" than like "god", as you observed.

There was an early Christian named Marcion who said that the creator god was a cruel nutcase who shouldn't be worshipped.

Today, there's a subculture of Christianity that believes in "process theology", that the universe is not governed by a god of love, but we are part of the process of making it that way.

These watch- and machine-analogies floating around are quite amusing. I remembered this video I watched when I was 15. It gives some good examples of why toasters and watches don´t evolve by themselves in our environment.

I really enjoyed this article. Well written as always.

This essay is wonderful. It is the first coherent and plausible defense of polytheism I've ever read. It is a much more intellectually satisfying version of creationism than monotheism.

And all just as an aside too, off the cuff. Kudos Mr. Yudkowsky. It really is a pleasure to read your work.

TLDR: We describe evolution as the collective pressures that cause creation of new species, similar to gravity and water carving out various canyons. It is incorrect to react to canyons in the following way: "Canyons are they way they are for no reason?! ha! I know that they are the way they are because the goddess Erosia likes them in that shape."

Well wrote, many quotes from mindful people from past history.. I still feel a strong rhetorical question here... Why? I think the question will remain unanswered for many years to come. But I agree with what you say, I rather be in spirit of knowledge, then ignorance in bliss :). As far as a deity goes, my family and I still believe with diminishing returns. All I know is life is a trip. I ask the author is this, are you children on bored with this idea??

John Carey

Your brother or sister shares half your genes.

This is rarely true, you share 50% of your genes with your mother an father each, but you can theoretically share anything from 0%-100% (Probably normal distribution curve), since your mother/father has 46 (23 pairs) chromosomes and you receive a single random chromosome from each pair (total 23 singles), that are then paired with 23 singles from your father/mother.

Note that I have not taken Chromosomal crossover into account.

For a given rare genetic difference from the population at large, you have roughly 50% chance of sharing it with your sibling, a child of yours, or a given parent of yours. Absent some sort of green-beard effect, the effect of selection on each will be approximately the same and thus (getting poetic) similarly guide the hand of the Alien God.

Yes I agree and that was not something I was disputing. From one gene's point of view there is a 50-50 probability that your sibling carries that exact same gene.

I only pointed out: That you do not always (or even often) share 50 % of ALL your siblings genes. Edit: (From an organisms point of view)



To me the biggest problem with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is that they do not seem to provide one clear answer as to why God created the universe in the first place. Given this, I have no way of changing probabilities when the world seems cruel or contradicting, since they do not claim the world as perfect. This of course doesn't depend on what my prior is.

For evolution, I find a weakness (I am not an expert on the subject) that related to being able to explain all outcomes equally. If an animal feature seems in perfection with survival, this is due to evolution, if a feature isn't, this is a proof of no God, hence evolution. Shouldn't an imperfect human featuring a blind spot eventually get extinct? Not necessarily. What if it was extinct? Then it's evolution.

I find explaining by evolution is not disprovable, at least of the (seemingly infinite) millions and millions of years.

Agreed that if a theory T can explain both actual and counterfactual events equally well, then that's a huge weakness in T. (In fact, it makes T pretty much useless.) This is both true and important.

That said, your understanding of what kinds of explanations "evolution" provides is deeply confused.

If people find the rabbit and fox analogy not close to home, they should look at modern evidence on psychopathy. If true, it seems to indicate that significant (2-3 %) part of human population has absolutely no compassion for others. This trait also appears genetic. We are rabbits, they - foxes.

"The main point is that the gene's effect must cause copies of that gene to become more frequent in the next generation. " Pah! I disagree. The gene's effect must not cause copies of that gene to become less frequent in the next generation is the very best you can hope for. More accurate still is that in conflict and cooperation with other genes in the organism the genes effect must not afford less of a chance of being given a free ride.

Isn't the vast majority of DNA just genes that don't do any harm? Evolution is not the thrusting, carving, shaping force depicted so often, it is (as usual) the work of a small (say 20% (a guess)) of genes and the rest just don't compete so get a free ride.

In fact, transposons can get away with actually causing harm while still becoming more prolific in a species.

So basically you're saying that evolution follows the idea of "a million chimps in a room will eventually write Shakespeare"? That its a matter of the number of times a new structure appears in each generation, rather than the quality of the structure itself? I agree with the idea of randomness being the source of creation. Being an artist there often seems to be no correlation with my ideas and the act of actually thinking them into being, they just sort of aggregate into a whole concept. In fact more often then not a bad idea usually occurs when i force myself to design it. Maybe theres a similar process going on with evolution, there is no purpose to the events that occur but chaos can gain an apparent rhythm that gives rise to function.

good essay. i especially like the bit about Azathoth.

Ia Ia,

Venger As'Nas Satanis
Cult of Cthulhu High Priest

"It really bothers you that a mindless, unthinking process is smarter than you, doesn't it." Up: Caledonian

Taken into effect that the "blind watchmaker" has been working on every organism on earth for billions of years, the complexity and diversity of the same environment, it is no surprise that humans would want to take the quick and easy path. The outcome will probably be disastrous which is kind of amusing.

I agree with everything you said except this, "It's not a god, but it's more closely akin to a god than it is to snow on a television screen."

Snow in a tv screen is not random, but in fact a fractal image made up of multiple intruding signals, the strongest ones having the most to do with the seemingly random image. So that seems a lot like evolution to me.

Fell free to correct me if I'm wrong, just throwing out my two cents.