Rethinking Evolution A Review of Simon Powell's Darwin's Unfinished Business: The Self-Organizing Intelligence of Nature
In Simon G. Powell’s Darwin’s Unfinished Business: The Self-Organizing Intelligence of Nature (Park Street Press), the author comes out swinging. He may not agree with intelligent design supporters who have challenged Darwin’s evolutionary explanations, but nor can he get behind the classic definition of evolution, i.e., that it represents “a change in gene frequencies over time.” He calls that a “lame definition” and argues “people are perfectly correct to infer some sort of intelligent design (albeit natural) throughout the tree of life.” Intelligence is the element that’s been lacking in evolutionary discussion, and it’s a word, Powell argues, that is fraught with controversy when used to describe anything in the natural world apart from human beings.
Beginning from this premise—that there is a bridge between evolution and intelligent design—natural intelligence—Powell proceeds to walk readers through a fascinating look at the vastness of the universe, the gift of consciousness, our role in nature and, most importantly, the way that intelligence is an intrinsic part of the organization and evolution of the natural world. He makes a strong case for the fact that such intelligence does not need to be conscious, but rather that “natural intelligence adequately explains the emergence of evolutionary processes, the complex organisms so produced, the continual refinement of organisms, as well as the subsequent emergence of human consciousness.
Powell devotes a chapter to artificial intelligence, and later notes that we are quite eager to grant intelligence to computers, but shockingly reluctant to grant the same to organisms. His many examples of the complexity and organization of nature point again and again to this underlying, unconscious intelligence. Taking a tree for example, Powell argues: “Trees and plants, or at least specific parts of them, are quite literally built around, and upon, the sensible order inherent within light energy. One kind of order feeds upon another kind of order…Moreover, considering that sunlight depends upon a stable star and that stable stars depend upon stable laws, it seems logical to infer that everything is tied together into one eminently sensible system.”
Whether you agree or disagree with Powell’s reasoning, it’s quite likely you’ll see nature—and evolution—in an entirely new light.