Darwin’s unfinished revolution

8 02 2009

Via Halewistan

Cambridge paleontologist Simon Conway-Morris has interesting ideas about the tendency of evolution to follow certain overarching pathways. In a recent talk while visiting here on campus, he went on to make some oblique, but fascinating, conjectures about the immanence of phenomena such as complexity and intelligence. The Economist discusses him here:

… Simon Conway-Morris, a palaeontologist at Cambridge University, in England, is the champion of a new interpretation of evolution—one that challenges the view that it is largely governed by the accident of circumstances. Unlike Gould, he thinks that if evolution were replayed from the beginning, a lot of things would turn out the same.

Dr Conway-Morris has arrived at this view from a detailed study of what is known as convergent evolution. Darwin himself was intrigued by this phenomenon, in which different groups of organisms independently evolve similar solutions to similar problems, whether these solutions are teeth, eyes, brains, ecosystems or societies. Where other biologists have noted such convergences as “remarkable”, Dr Conway-Morris believes they actually tell a broader story.

His argument is that, given the nature of physics and chemistry, there may be only a limited number of ways in which things can work. Evolution will be channelled into these successful paths, and thus does have trends. Two of these, he thinks, are towards complexity and intelligence. He adds that things “don’t just happen in chemistry”. They happen because of pre-existing causes. Whether it is the molecules of crystallin that are used to build an eye or the haemoglobin that makes blood carry oxygen, the nature of molecules themselves means that evolution is more likely to follow a path determined by their basic structure. Evolution is a mechanism, and it works within rules.

Dr Conway-Morris’s view of the world may or may not turn out to be correct. If it is, it may prove more palatable to some people than the current interpretation of the biological world as ultimately materialist and purposeless.

Darwin himself was deeply troubled by his materialist thoughts and what they meant. He considered how thoughts and emotions were simply secretions of the brain. From his correspondence it seems his religious beliefs never reached a fixed position, but he was sensitive to the extent to which his ideas could upset others. He even devised a diplomatic answer that avoided challenging the existence of God. When asked about the origins of emotions, instincts and degrees of talent, he noted, “say only they are so because brain of child resembles parent’s stock”.

via Charles Darwin’s revolution is unfinished | Unfinished business | The Economist.

And in audio, here.


A Problem of Knowledge

18 01 2009

ScienceInsider, the science-policy counterpart to the journal Science, has reported that Louisiana state educators may not have the ability to teach Intelligent Design (ID) in schools. Officially, teachers have the ability to teach “controversial” scientific theories, such as evolution, origins of life and global warming. Really? While it pains me that these are considered “controversial” as science, I suppose there’s some morsel of relief that they can now be taught.

What is making many scientists anxious is that this can open the door for the teaching of ID.  Proponents of ID claim it’s a issue of censorship, and that rival ideas to Darwinian evolution deserve strong footing from where a fair comparison can be made. I see this as deceit: the issue with ID is not that it is presented (an issue of censorship), but that it is presented as science (an issue of authority). ID is a religious or philosophical stance, and that stance I cannot revoke (no matter how absurd I may think it is), but it is not a scientific stance. We live in a society that trusts scientific claims to knowledge and religious claims less so. My view of the matter is that proponents of ID want to elevate creationism to a “science” to gain authority for their belief.

There are several reasons why ID cannot be counted as science. The first is that it makes no testible hypotheses. How do you test for a cosmic creator? The second is that it is an empty explanation. You can explain anything by saying “God (…oops, I mean ‘some creator’) made it”.  For each of these points I will defer to the blunt oration of Christophy Hitchens: “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”; “a theory that explains everything explains nothing.” The third reason ID cannot be counted as science (and should not be given equal status with evolution) is that not enough scientists believe it as science. This point may seem strange, but it comes with how humans understand knowlede and truth. Theoretically, truth is indifferent to human views; truth is not democratic. Knowledge is dependent on human perception and the suffrage of those who study knowledge. String theory is an example of science that is not testible but still science because scientists believe it.

ID will require some good arguments and evidence if it should ever be considered scientific. I doubt this will ever happen though. Most arguments for ID seem to involve how incomprehendible the universe is. The problem is that in no way does the observation of incomprehension lead to the sole conclusion of some celestial creator; the problem is that ID simply doesn’t have any good arguments.