Saturday, August 20, 2005

Inevitable Sequel to the Inevitable Entry About Evolution

One of the problems with blogs is the immediate obsolescence: each new entry demotes the previous entries, such that if the reader comes in during the middle of a continuing narrative, the first chapters appear under the later ones and the thread is lost.

Calvino: That is a problem. If only you knew someone who was in any way computer savvy and could figure out a way to link blog entries together in a linear way on a web page.

The Stoat: The problems of narrative have occupied scholars and intellectuals for millennia. They cannot be solved by mere cascading style sheets.

If you have not read the almost previous entry, click or scroll down and pick up on the thread. Then come back. I'll dee la la...twiddle twiddle. Okay. When we last left our dialog, we were wondering what we were missing when our debate about evolution was framed around whether God was guiding the process or not. Reduced to a debate between intelligent designers not so a priori constrained by a particular notion of the creator, arguing God in and out of the debate is like arguing whether, going back to the market analogy, The Invisible Hand of Capitalism exists. It exists if you use Adam Smith's Wealth Of Nations model. If you don't, it doesn't (and jeez, have you noticed how much harm gets done to humanity because of people acting in their own economic self-interest? I'm not angry, I'm just sayin'...). You could argue about its existence, but you're kind of missing the point.

A kinder summary of the Intelligent Design argument against evolution is the "what good is half an eye?" question. The example I've seen given is the complement system of the human immune response, a collection of 20-odd proteins which attack invading pathogens in combination. Separately, they're immunologically useless, but together they form the body's first line of defense. The question, from an evolution perspective, is how this would evolve. Since an organism would derive no real assistance surviving from having just one or two proteins, there's no apparent evolutionary path to an organism with the full complement that we observe now. That's not to say there isn't an explanation in the evolutionary model, we just don't have one yet (see the link above). On the one hand it's difficult to look at the amazingly unbelievably complex organic machines that we are and not see it as the result of some plan. On the other, as we say here at The Odds Are One, your perspective is a little unreliable because you are that unbelievably complex organic machine. The problem with any model where God created you in His image is that the most cursory examination of the history of creation reveals that life just keeps adapting and/or getting more complex, so there's no good reason to believe it's going to stop with you (no knock against you. You are a fabulous example of organic machinery. Yes you are).

And that's the rub: from the perspective of an outside observer, it looks an awful lot like nature is learning. It doesn't seem that way to us because nature operates on a time scale that we can't fathom. But if we could, and we were watching a small child presiding over the same task we'd immediately acknowledge it as the actions of an intelligent being. Evolution really is the million monkeys typing endlessly on the million keyboards, with one of them eventually accidentally writing Hamlet. The only problem with that analogy is that, in the case of nature, when that millionth monkey types "To be or not to be," somebody is standing right there to grab the manuscript, make copies, distribute them to the million monkeys, and suddenly where before all they could do was pound on the keys, suddenly now they're all making edits to the First Quarto. You could attribute this editorial decision making to god, but nobody out there seems to be doing it--the Intelligent Designers, e.g., would have to acknowledge that God didn't really know what the fuck he was doing and and was in fact a second rate hack plagiarising someone else's work. Anyway, a better explanation seems to be that this property--the ability of nature to editorially recognize genius--was innate from the beginning of the experiment.

So what about that? You could fall back on the weak anthropic principle--we're inarguably here, so the initial conditions of the universe must be such that life could evolve the way it has--but you're still dodging the interesting question: how come those initial conditions create a system that looks like it's behaving intelligently? If you've been reading closely, you already know one answer to this question: it just looks that way to us because we're looking at it from the perspective of beings who are, right at the moment, the end result of this experiment. That's a fine answer, but it brings us to another problem: if this huge jumble of randomness can look like the results of an intelligently guided experiment, what does that tell us about our own human intelligence? We organic machines achieved a certain level of complexity and apparently somewhere along the line achieved consciousness and what we think of as intelligence. But if intelligence is just an attempt to make narrative out of chaos, what have we really got?

1 comment:

sageblue said...

I'm gonna throw down some lyrics from the song, "The Want of a Nail' (soundtrack from Camp, which, sadly, I'm sort of addicted to.

For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost
For the want of a shoe, the horse was lost
For the want of a horse, the rider was lost
For the want of the rider, the message was lost
For the want of the message, the battle was lost
For the want of the battle, the war was lost
For the want of the war, the kingdom was lost

For the want of a nail, the world was lost

Really, apropos of nothing, but you made me think of it.