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Can They Be Reconciled? 2 Positions On Evolution: Bottom-Up & Top-Down

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

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[There’re two distinct positions on evolution: by chance (bottom-up) and by design (top-down). Reconciling them isn’t easy.

Even Darwin - the father of the evolutionary theory of natural selection – was puzzled. Closer to death, he said "If we consider the whole universe, the mind refuses to look at it as the outcome of chance--that is, without design or purpose. The whole question seems to me insoluble.”

I believe that humans are the only species on earth able to embody and reconcile both positions.

This article looks closer]

Do you believe that evolution is blind, or that it’s unfolding according to some “grand design”?

There’re two main approaches to evolution

a) Biological – Bottom-up, by chance

Evolution is “blind.” There is no purpose and no direction.

Natural selection spontaneously self-selects adaptive traits of plants and animals in response to the environment, the way Darwin theorized – and proved.

The process is causal, and chance is the determining factor. There is no “goal” to life apart from survival and procreation, which are achieved through gradual adaptation to the environment.

When we take humans out of the equation (more on that later), we could say that the process is unconscious.

For example, plants have a variety of scents and colours in their flowers. These scents and colours attract various pollinators.

But the scents and colours have evolved gradually, from none to faint to strong, from pale to bright over millions of years.

It’s not that the plant “needed” to attract pollinators and therefore – in order to - developed this colour and that scent, because that would imply consciousness and intention.

Wolves have sharp teeth allowing them to bite deep and tear off the flesh of their prey. But the teeth developed gradually, from none to small to big and sharp. It’s not that the wolves needed to bite and kill their prey, and therefore developed their teeth. That too would imply intention, consciousness.

We could call this approach bottom-up. From more primitive to more complex.

b) Teleological – Top-down, by design

Evolution has a final goal, end-point, purpose, direction, and objective towards which it progresses. It is not random.

There is intention, consciousness, and progress.

For example, if we say that the plant developed scent and colour in its flowers - so that it can attract pollinators, we are implying a purpose, intention, and consciousness.

Or, if we say that wolves developed big sharp teeth to kill prey, we’re also implying a conscious, goal-orientated function of an evolutionary process (from wolves -> sharp teeth in order to kill prey).

This approach contradicts the biological position because it puts a “decision-maker” above the processes of natural selection.

It assumes a design in nature, a perfect state towards which species progress via their “lower” stages (faint scent, small teeth, etc.).

We could call this approach top-down. It’s goal, purpose-driven, progressive, and conscious.


Now, animals and plants are easy – Darwin proved the type a) biological evolution.

He also proved that humans are descendants of apes.

And that’s where things got complicated

There’s no doubt about our descent from apes; we’re a result of a “blind,” bottom-up evolutionary process.

But, at the same time, we’re conscious, planning, and goal-oriented creatures (I believe that human life, at least mine, without purpose, direction and goals would be miserable). We can imagine a future in five years and work towards that goal. We want progress.

How do you explain our unique ability to plan and have goals – if we are the result of a “blind” evolutionary process like millions of other species? Where is the need for “purpose” and “progress” coming from?

In contrast, how do you account for brute, binary, reptilian, primitive, reactive drives inside us – if we’re so purpose, goal-driven, ever-progressing?

Both positions, biological and teleological, seem contradictory.

Yet, courtesy of our powerful brains, we’re the only species on earth -

constantly reconciling and embodying both positions.

This process, I believe, hasn’t stopped since we jumped off the trees. It’s dynamic, in motion all the time.

It’s the constant dance – sometimes ballet, often breakdance - between the bottom-up baseness and top-down purpose-driven, “higher” side.

To illustrate the differences further, let’s now look at both sides from historical perspectives.

Starting with the bottom-up …

Social Darwinism and Eugenics

In the early decades of white settlement / invasion of Australia, Aboriginal people were considered an inferior race, even subhuman.

According to Harris, “Darwinian evolution lent scientific respectability to the belief in European superiority. The rise of evolutionary theory coincided with the availability of data on Aborigines so that the world’s scientific and anthropological journals abounded with evidence of their cultural and intellectual inferiority. Anatomical measurements were widely used to demonstrate Aborigines to be ape-like. Compared to Europeans they were invariably found to have smaller skull capacity, larger pelvises, longer arms, longer vertebral disks, vestigial tails and so on”.

Since the evolutionary theory maintained the survival of the fittest, and Aboriginal people were considered physically, culturally and intellectually “unfit,” their extinction was simply a natural progression of evolution, according to the early (pre-missionary) settlers. The settlers were keen on speeding up that extinction.

Nazis too used a “scientific” approach for justifying killing of millions of “inferior” people, e.g. Jews, Roma, Slavs. They too measured people’s skulls.

But they weren’t Darwinists.

Darwin maintained a natural selection of species - his major book is called ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’.

What the early settlers of Australia, Nazis, Ku-Klux-Klan, and many others were doing wasn’t a natural selection. (You can’t “do” natural selection.)

They did the OPPOSITE. They appointed themselves to do the selecting, declared other humans inferior, and justified the atrocities by misconstruing Darwin’s theory.

And they got away with it because it was accepted as scientific and rational at the time.

Now, on to the opposite position …

The end justifies the means

The teleological (top-down) position assumes an end-point, design, and goal.

It’s the you-have-to-break-eggs-to-make-the-omelette analogy.

It could, but doesn’t have to be, a religious position.

For example, the Crusades of medieval Europe were religious wars fought over the dominance of Christians over Jews, Muslims, and pagans.

The Crusaders wanted to maintain their territory, claim more land, and kill infidels.

Their religious belief, e.g. promise of rewards in heaven, atonement, and purgatory were strong motivators to fight and die in the battle.

They were working to fulfill God’s “grand design,” spelled out in scripture, they were executing His plan.

After all, “God created man in his own image” (Genesis), so how could they doubt themselves? It was written in the book.

The Spanish Inquisition, or, more recently, ISIS embodied that position.

But ‘the end justifies the means’ top-down position isn’t limited to religion:

· In the 1920s, the U.S. Government wanted an alcohol-free society (the end). They banned alcohol, raided pubs, and all found alcohol was poured down the drain (the means). But people distilled their own alcohol; the black trade flourished and the mafia got rich. The result? Alcohol was re-legalized in 1933, ending the prohibition.

· War on drugs. Governments (e.g. in the U.S., Australia) want a drug-free society (the end). They fight against drug trade, monitoring airports, chasing dealers, busting meth-labs, searching cargo containers, and harassing people at music festivals (the means).

But people use drugs anyway, their illegal status makes them more appealing (mainly to teenagers). The drug trade flourishes, while governments waste money. Evidence, e.g. from the Netherlands shows that the war on drugs does not work.

But back to evolution:

a) driven by chance – bottom-up

b) driven by design – top-down

Reconciling these positions isn’t easy

Darwin himself was puzzled – here’s what he said closer to his death:

"If we consider the whole universe, the mind refuses to look at it as the outcome of chance--that is, without design or purpose. The whole question seems to me insoluble.”

It seems crazy to believe that the entire world, the whole universe, from an anthill to a galaxy, is a result of chance, causality, and blind natural selection. It’s way too overwhelming and complicated.

At the same time, if there is a supreme intelligence, e.g. God, either kicking the whole thing off or pulling some invisible strings from God knows where – how do you explain the undeniable process of natural selection?

Could it be the union of both positions – by chance and by design together?

Could humans be those who embody and reconcile both positions …

in a perpetual dance – ballet, tango, breakdance?

God knows :O


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