Field of Science

On math and magic

I've been on a kick lately of re-reading my old favorite fantasy novels. I started with some of Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, and am now going back through Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea Trilogy. I haven't touched this books—or anything in the fantasy genre—since my early teens, and its been interesting to see how differently I relate to them now.

...from another former obsession
One moment in particular struck me. In LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea, there's a scene in which a young apprentice-mage sneaks a look at his master's dusty old spellbooks and becomes transfixed by the ancient runes inside. I realized that the visceral feeling evoked by this passage (and others like it throughout the fantasy genre) is exactly what I felt as a college freshman exploring the math section of my undergraduate science library. I would spend hours at a time browsing dusty old math books, the more arcane the better, trying to decipher their internal logic. Yes, I wanted to learn new math, but I was also hooked on the feeling of being lost in these mysterious tomes. Like the mage's spellbooks, these math books contained strange symbols describing deep and powerful truths, which could only be understood through long, deep study.

A sample from a recent article of mine. Doesn't math look cool?
Reflecting back on these moments highlights how my relationship to mathematics has changed.  I was initially drawn to math because of its beauty, elegance, mystery, and because it contained a kind of absolute truth.  But after teaching for three years and studying differential geometry for one, I found that abstract beauty and truth were no longer enough to sustain my excitement.  I wanted to discover and describe important patterns in the world, not just relationships between abstract constructs.  Metaphorically speaking, I wanted to work my magic in the world, not just study it for its own sake.  This lead me to study study of complex systems and eventually evolutionary dynamics.  Mathematics has lost none of its beauty or mystery for me, but my focus now is on its connection to the world rather than its absolute, self-contained truths.

This parallels, in some ways, the differences I've noticed in the way I approach these fantasy novels now.  As a hyper-imaginative pre-teen, I wanted to lose myself in these fantasy worlds, to blur the lines in my mind between these worlds and my own.  Re-reading them now, I have no desire to escape into these worlds.  Rather I look for metaphors and themes connecting these worlds to mine. These books (and the genre as a whole) seem obsessed with the idea of power: discovering one's own power, learning about different sources of power, coming to grips with the dangers and limitations of power, avoiding the temptation to use power for evil.  As a researcher, a future professor, and simply an adult actor in this world, I have a certain measure of real-world power now that I lacked as a bookish pre-teen. In these books, I'm finding an opportunity to reflect on how to wield that power, and the responsibility that comes with it.

Perhaps the larger theme is this: I used to think I needed to escape from the world in order to be myself.  Now my goal is to connect to the world, as much as possible, while still being deeply, authentically, myself.

Can we find meaning in evolution?

I'm a mathematician who studies evolution. I'm also a person who thinks about how people can find meaning and purpose in their lives. And so, combining these, I've spent a fair bit of time thinking about what, if anything, evolution can tell us about the meaning and purpose of human life.

My friend Connor Wood recently wrote on this topic. Specifically, he probed the question of why, precisely, many conservative religious traditions find the idea of evolution so objectionable. His argument is encapsulated in this quote:
I strongly suspect that evolutionary theory makes people so uncomfortable, not because it disagrees with Genesis (lots of things contradict Genesis), but because it presents a vision of a natural world whose “values” are fundamentally opposed to those of our religious cultures.
By "values" (in quotes because evolution is an amoral process), Connor is referring to the often violent struggle to survive and reproduce one's genes, which includes such behavior as infanticide in some mammals and birds. While I agree with Connor's basic argument, I think it's not primarily the violence and struggle that offends some religious sensibilities (the Old Testament and many other religious texts are full of violence) but rather the inherent randomness and lack of ultimate purpose in the process.

Even though scientists generally don't intend it as such, evolution fills the role of a creation story. Like other creation stories, it explains where we came from and how we got here. But unlike other creation stories, it gives us few clues as to where we're going or what we're supposed to do. In fact, it tells us that we're the product of random events. If this randomness had gone differently, we might not be here at all. I think the randomness and lack of purpose implied by this story is why many people—including some who believe it as a scientific hypothesis—find the idea of evolution disturbing.
Where did all this come from??  What does it mean??

Interestingly, several thinkers have tried to turn this equation around, claiming that evolution can, in fact, satisfy our deepest psychological/spiritual needs. One of these is Stuart Kauffman, one of the biggest names in complex systems. Kauffman's latest book, Reinventing the Sacred, argues that evolution is such a creative and fundamentally unpredictable process that it can provide us with all the divine-like inspiration we need.

Unfortunately, Kauffman's idea doesn't quite get there for me. It's true that the variety of life is awe-inspiring, with more and more surprises the closer one looks. However, I think that just being awestruck by the beauty and creativity of nature is insufficient: it doesn't satisfy the questions of why we're here or what we should try to do with our lives.

Another approach is to focus on the potential of evolution to produce cooperation, creativity, and complexity. These aspects of evolution are highlighted in Supercooperators, the new book by my boss and mentor Martin Nowak. I think one of the reasons for the past few decades' surge of research into this side of evolution (the "snuggle for existence") is that it changes the story evolution tells about us, allowing us to understand how love, empathy, and compassion are also products of our evolutionary history.

But I don't find this to be of great philosophical comfort either. First, for every example of the evolution of cooperation, there's a complementary example of evolved selfishness and violence. Second, knowing that my feelings of love and empathy exist because they were successful traits in my ancestors doesn't make me feel better about them. In fact, it makes me feel worse. I want to think of these as fundamental to who I am, not some ploy to reproduce my genes. Every time I try to think about all my love and altruism as being a product of evolution, I become sad and want to stop thinking about it. Perhaps I'm just not thinking about it right, but I imagine others may have this difficulty too.

I made a handy (oversimplified) chart to summarize what I think evolution can and can't do for us in terms of filling philosophical/spiritual voids:
In short, my answer is that no, I don't think evolution can provide us with satisfying answers to many of our deepest questions.

Some atheists/materialists argue that the conversation should end here: There is no larger meaning or purpose to life, and any quest for such is a waste of time. But these questions are a real part of who I am, as real as love or anything else I feel. Doubtless, such searchings are products of evolution themselves. Yet to rationalize them away would be to deny a fundamental part of myself. Besides, if life truly has no purpose, then what would my time be better spent doing? Reproducing my genes? Why should I care about that either, if that's also just another artifact of evolution?

My approach is to grapple with these questions head on, knowing that there are no easy answers. Evolution—the most credible scientific theory as to how we got here—doesn't tell us where we're going or what to strive for. And yet it has implanted us with a deep need to plumb these questions. One could, I suppose, see this as a cruel joke that our evolutionary history has played on us. But I think these questions are as real and important as anything else we experience in life, and there is fulfillment and self-knowledge to be found in exploring them, even if we strongly suspect that satisfying answers will never be found.