Evolution seems to be commonly associated with genetic change which leads to the improved reproductive success of a species. This concept has itself evolved with the work of Richard Dawkins and others to possibly include ideas, cultural traits, or even business practices. In this question, I'm making the assumption that either genes, memes, and ideas evolve and produce reproductive success, or they do not.

A key tenet of Darwinian evolution is the random change of genetic material minimally in response to an environment. These changes in genetic make-up can either support reproductive success or reduce reproductive success, but only in interaction with the environment. For example, thick white fur may not be as useful for making babies in the desert.

But ideas are not always random responses to environmental affects. Ideas, cultural traits, or business practices are developed in an attempt to improve reproductive success. They are purposeful.

Is it correct then to claim evolution now, with humans, has a purpose — and therefore a direction?

Edit: In the original phrasing of the question I jumped too quickly from genetic evolution to 'memes' and tie in the word 'purpose'. One idea that generated the question was that the 'purpose' of evolution, for both genetic material and 'ideas-memes' is reproductive success. The goal of evolution is 'more babies.' These can be living babies or ideas.

But as I thought a little futher the 'idea' that memes can evolve and succeed - loosely a la dawkins - also seemed to support the genetic idea. So even though memes do not 'evolve' under the same pressures as genes, they do reproduce in a kind of success pattern of continuing the spread or use of the original idea. I think the question this is leading to: are 'memes' now a 'factor' influencing the genetic evolution of humans like 'hot, cold, wet, dry' were millions of years ago? If so, is evolution still 'random' or directionless - apparently directionless? Then to continue the question, returning to genes, is selecting traits for 'success' another 'influencer' off evolution?


7 Answers 7


This is more of a biology question (or possibly English, if it's a definitional issue) than philosophy, but:

The change in genetic material is still random. Selection has been nonrandom since the beginning: if it's too cold for you, you are unfit; if it's too hot, you're unfit; if it's too acidic, you're unfit; if you can't escape predators, you're unfit; etc. etc..

Organisms all react to their environment in non-random ways in order to try to increase their fitness (this ability having been selected for). Learning Chinese and upregulating your lactose metabolism enzymes are really just two different instances of this. So, no, the mere fact that ideas are important for our reproductive success these days does not fundamentally change how purposeful evolution is.

If we started making genetically modified humans, then one could argue that we're bypassing the random component of evolution and making it purposeful instead. Or if our ideas were focused on how specifically to breed ourselves to encourage certain traits, then one could argue that we are injecting purpose into the process in a novel and nontrivial way that might warrant our changing the way we speak of it. But we're not doing either of those things routinely.

Culture and technology are not (biological) evolution, nor is learning. These things are alternative ways to become better adapted to one's environment than random genetic changes. Biologists maintain a distinction between these concepts (where evolution is restricted to mean change in allele frequencies across time).

  • 4
    @RonMaimon - You mean beyond the classic Luria-Delbrück experiment? And (experimentally determined) nucleotide transition tables under various sorts of radiation? A process that produces multiple different outcomes for which no rule has been found is generally called "random", no? (Certainly not uniformly random, but random nonetheless. If you want to call e.g. differing mutation rates in heterochromatin vs. euchromatin "directed" in that the organism is regulating the condensation of the DNA, okay...but I think that misses the essential point, which is the lack of foresight.)
    – Rex Kerr
    May 2, 2012 at 17:37
  • 3
    "This mechanism is totally wrong" As usual, [citation-required]. I've read countless journal articles that provide lots of evidence for that molecular mechanism. Lots of people think they've found it, and have for years. Point errors are not rare, they occur in the lab all the time, at least with bacteria, which are our best model organism for studying evolution. I'm also going to need a source for the claim that RNA "is not very mutable". What is that in comparison to? DNA? Proteins? Puppies? May 3, 2012 at 4:58
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    You don't cite. Well, that's lovely. Everyone who has ever done research in molecular biology is wrong. I find that hard to believe. You should like science; the "dogma" is overturned regularly. In peer-reviewed journals. No, biologists do not agree that talking out your ass is useful. That's why they conduct experiments and publish in peer-reviewed journals. Mainly that experiment thing, though. That helps keep their claims semi-credible. I'd hate to imagine that you don't believe in experiments, but I'd hate even more to imagine that you have a makeshift lab set up in your basement... @ron May 3, 2012 at 5:06
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    @RonMaimon - You fell victim one of the classic blunders. The most famous of which is "never get involved in a land war in Asia" - but only slightly less well-known is this: "Never go in against biology without citations of experimental results on your side!" More seriously: biology does not have the same level of regularity as, say, physics, as it is high level (compared to fundamental interactions) and highly history-dependent. You may manage to say original things, but they will be hopelessly wrong things, and unless you are very careful, you will have no way to find out.
    – Rex Kerr
    May 3, 2012 at 13:45
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    @RonMaimon - In particular, the Luria-Delbrück experiment has been repeated in several different ways, people have just gone ahead and sequenced huge numbers of bacteria (e.g. in evolution experiments), and while it is true that we do not have as good of an understanding of DNA rearrangements (even transposon insertions/deletions) as we'd like, it seems adequate to explain the observed pattern of changes, and the point mutation rates are roughly consistent with known mechanisms. Mutations in relevant genes (e.g. in DNA repair) give the expected phenotype, etc. etc. etc..
    – Rex Kerr
    May 3, 2012 at 13:51

Perhaps the most basic tenant of evolution is that it is natural, that it is not intelligent or "designed" in anyway for any specific purposes. It is the process of species changing over time in a manner which at it's core is random but on a macro level favors changes which increase the ability for offspring to reproduce. The answer to your title question is absolutely not, evolution does not have a purpose. It is simple the result of our universe giving favor to stable things and rejecting unstable things. You would probably find Chapter 2 "The Replicators" in Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene most illuminating on this subject.

Regarding the details of your question, first of all note that memes as described by Richard Dawkins aren't an exact parallel with genes, so comparing them exactly side-by-side is not useful. Memes are not subject to the same kind of selection pressures as genes, nor do they have any "code script" to draw from.

In an effort to find exactly where your reasoning goes awry, I noticed you write:

But ideas are not always random responses to environmental affects. Ideas, cultural traits, or business practices are developed in an attempt to improve reproductive success. They are purposeful.

Is it correct then to claim evolution now, with humans, has a purpose and therefore a direction?

I don't see at all how you could reach the conclusion you seem to want to reach.

0. [ideas/memes are a form of evolution]  
1. ideas/memes are not always random.  
2. ideas/memes are purposeful.  
3. therefore, [all of?] evolution is now purposeful. ???

Obviously, the only real conclusion this argument makes if indeed all the premises are true is that memes, as a form of evolution, are sometimes purposeful. It no where can speak towards genetic evolution. And what does it mean that an idea is "purposeful"?

  • 2
    I think your last point is on the money; a thought doesn't come because I intend it -- it comes when it wishes. Applying purpose here seems somewhat inappropriate, in other words
    – Joseph Weissman
    May 2, 2012 at 16:41
  • @JosephWeissman - That opens up a tremendously large and complex discussion about what "purpose" even means in the context of modern ideas of cognitive science. I would rather back away slowly and agree that ideas we generate have a fairly strong relation to our goals and goal-directed behavior and not look too closely! Otherwise I fear we will find out that we don't actually know how to think about the topic precisely (and it might take a long time to get back to a rough intuitive view that provides at least some insight).
    – Rex Kerr
    May 2, 2012 at 16:49
  • Stoicfury - I do extend Dawkin's idea memes and genes unclearly. That distinction and then relation needs to be filled in at length. With you breakdown of my final points I too see an error in my phrasing. I have tried to expand and clarify the point in the original question, but I also want to add to your comment. First, memes are subjected to the forces of evolution and are also an influencer or evolutionary force. Under the forces of the scientific method or the marketplace ideas are examined and selected with a purpose. How do these 'purposeful' practices play into evolution?
    – E Toohery
    May 8, 2012 at 3:00
  • The issue I have with "memes" is that I have a hard time distinguishing between what is a "meme" and what is just regular "idea". The fact that we invented the concept of birth control, is that a "meme"? Either way, it surely affected evolution. Typically people use cultural ideas like "we should only have a few children", which clearly affect genetic transmission. The "meme" for the prior example could simply be the idea that "birth control is useful". So, I can't see anything particularly profound with the concept of memes that is different than any other persisting idea [continued]
    – stoicfury
    May 8, 2012 at 16:37
  • and of course ideas affect our reproduction and survival rates, etc. Here are some examples from the wikipedia page.
    – stoicfury
    May 8, 2012 at 16:38

The subject of teleology is given significant treatment in a number of books, including Etienne Gilson's "From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species and Evolution". It's too big a question for a post IMO.


Evolution as described by science lacks direction, or rather it has a direction, but the direction is not consciously plotted. An ancestor of a giraffe did not decide consciously to elongate its neck several millennia later.

That evolution may have a final cause may be tied up with the final cause of the universe. In fact, it is necessarily so. That final causes cannot be discovered by science as done by us is obvious. As science is blind to final causes its theories must necessarily be so, too. That evolution has no final cause is merely the reflection of the same bias in the methodology of science.


I don't see much of a difference between evolution and design. What people call design is an evolutionary process of ideas in the head, while evolution itself is very complicated, consisting of mutations that are directed by sexual selection, crossing over, and complex RNA networks whose computational capacity is in the gigabytes or terabytes (terabytes for an egg-cell).

The question of whether this system strives toward a limit is the question of whether biological entities have tendencies to evolve toward a certain state. It is possible that the answer is yes, but it is difficult to decide when one only sees one planet, since our presence conditions evolution to end on us.

The way to gain evidence for the proposition that evolution has an end state is to simulate a truly evolving system. This is not done with usual selection models, since the evolution in the models is of a very primitive random-mutate/select sort, which does not include sexual selection (which is very high level), directed mutations using RNA networks, and genetic crossing over. Without this, you are missing the most important components.

So the answer must be that we don't know, although my personal feeling is that this is the case, that evolution is directed to maximize the computational ability of the system, by exploiting all possible resources as efficiently as possible to have as much RAM as possible.

  • 1
    Why is having as much RAM as possible of greater survival advantage than, say, reacting twice as fast? I was pretty much agreeing up to that point, but this seems an odd conclusion.
    – Rex Kerr
    May 2, 2012 at 17:40
  • @RexKerr: It isn't the individual that is maximizing the RAM usage, it is the collective of all life on Earth. It is also maximizing the rate and distinctness of computation, and the manifestation of this is in ever more rapid evolution, identical to even more powerful design by a very smart agent. it's strange. I would prefer it if you don't claim to agree with me, because it is very unlikely that you know how heretical what you are agreeing with is. This stuff is believed by me, and maybe a handful of other people (I haven't met any, but its a big world).
    – Ron Maimon
    May 3, 2012 at 4:41
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    I currently do not agree, not because of whether it is heretical or not, but because the claim seems profoundly ill-supported. What is it about the nature of physical reality that rewards "the rate and distinctness of computation" so greatly, so you think? Certainly there are some pressures in that direction because the world is a highly varied place, and specialists at exploiting a particular niche can do quite well for themselves. Part of being a specialist is having specialized computation. Part is not (e.g. having the right level of metabolism).
    – Rex Kerr
    May 3, 2012 at 13:34
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    Has this, by any chance at all, anything to do with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the Omega Point?
    – user1539
    May 5, 2012 at 4:07
  • @user1539: No it doesn't, that's a bunch of quasi scientific musings about the end of time, isn't it? This is just the statement that evolution in the way it happens in the real world is synonymous with design. Design is evolution in your head, evolution is evolution in the world. It is very difficult to find properties of one that are not shared by the other--- design also has difficulties getting over bottlenecks, and it also proceeds by modifying past designs. The agency of the design is natural evolution, but this is a much more complicated process than is advertized to the public.
    – Ron Maimon
    Sep 21, 2012 at 7:01

Because of the forces of mind bearing on human evolution, we should separate to some extent evolution in the natural world and evolution in the human world. Evolution according to Stephen Jay Gould, should not be thought of as a tree growing upwards but should be thought of as a bush, infilling holes, and spreading out laterally as well as vertically. People who think of evolution as going always from lesser to higher (like a tree) have a tendency to see a purpose in it. Read the short novel called "Galapagos" by Kurt Vonnegut for a different twist to human evolution in the near future - very humorous.

To a certain extent modern human evolution is not subject to darwinian forces as we are becoming more influenced by cultural forces. For example, the physically weak don't necessarily die off quickly (think Stephen Hawking) but rather we help them live and they do mold our culture and our species.

  • It's the same old Darwinian forces just a changing environment. We've changed our environment by refining medical knowledge, adding doctors and hospitals, water purifiers, etc. All species interact with and change their environment, I think.
    – obelia
    Feb 9, 2013 at 17:21

No. And no end state.

My feeling is : But may be at some point of time - the time when human beings have the capability to do everything nature can, we might realize something trivial. And that realization might be the end of all. - in a positive way - may be every body will get enlightened.

I feel - the maximum which human beings can evolve is to the limit till which universe is there - we will not be able to create space or time - we might be able to travel to and fro - but not create.

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