The Evolutionary Design of Charles Sanders Peirce

On January 17, 1884 Charles Sanders Peirce presented a paper called “Design and Chance,” to the members of the Metaphysical Club, an organization that he had founded during the brief time that he taught at Johns Hopkins University.  The brief essay is strikingly original and deeply compelling because it gives us a snapshot of the method of inquiry that Peirce was using as attempted to understand the evolutionary principle of everything. In the essay Peirce questions the fundamental categories of reality and in particular some of those imagined by Immanuel Kant. And he did so in light of the new understanding of evolution that Darwin’s recent publication of “On the Origin of Species” had brought to the world. The Kantian categories included space, time and causality, and together, so Kant proposed, they create an ontological framework or container for our interpretation of reality. Holding this view of the world would imply that this container pre-existed the universe and the universe, therefore, would have evolved within it. In this way of thinking the universe would be seen to grow in time and space the way a baby grows in the womb. Peirce took exception to this notion. Certainly time, space and causality are part of the universe, he reasoned, and since it is the entire universe that is evolving not just things in it, then time, space and causality must also have evolved. The same, he reasoned, would be true of all of the so called universal laws of science. An evolutionary theory of reality must account for not only the development of species, but the development of time, space, causality and all of the physical laws of the universe as well.

As an example of Peirce’s thinking we can take the notion of time. Why must moments in time be ordered sequentially? Maybe the first moments appeared in random order – one appears now in the year 2010 – the next ten days in the past – then one four months in the future – then one a thousand years in the past and on and on. Perhaps those moments that happened by chance to appear in sequential order had a “survival advantage” and so through the process of natural selection all of the non-sequential moments eventually died out of existence. Maybe that is why we only find sequential moments in the universe today. Finding the universe in that state we imagine that it must always have been that way. Peirce was comfortable with the fact that things were in the past, and would be again in the future, more different than we could necessarily imagine.

To account for the evolution of everything Peirce believed that the universe had to have started with a minimum of two absolutely essential and required characteristics. The first of these characteristics is the ability for spontaneous creation, pure chance or absolute novelty. In order for evolution to occur, Peirce realized, there must be at a bare minimum the possibility that something can appear from nowhere and out of nothing. If this were not the case nothing could possibly have ever arisen in the first place and the universe would never have come into existence. The possibility of the purely novel is not enough to account for evolution because any universe that contained only the ability for novelty and nothing else would erupt into total chaos as ever new and unrelated events would continually explode into existence in a never ending cascade of confusion. So Peirce evokes a second characteristic that completes the minimum requirements for evolution to occur. This characteristic is the ability to form habits. It is the tendency for something that has already happened once to be more likely to happen again. This tendency toward habit assures that some amount of order will result in the universe. An evolving universe, Peirce surmised, requires only two elements: the ability to change and the tendency to stick. An evolving universe is created from change that sticks and nothing else. Out of pure possibility some things bursts into being. These occurrences once in existence become more likely to happen again. Thus the universe begins its evolutionary flow consisting of events that happen initially spontaneously and then tending to happen again and again and again.