Archive for July, 2009

Designer Evolution? Or new wine in old….!

24 July 2009

God created the world in 7 days. Actually in 6 days, then he rested on the 7th. Even god, who is all powerful, all knowing, requires rest. So goes the story of creation in genesis. Idea of covenant is common to 3 major Semitic religions, Judaism – Christianity – Islam and among the three the later versions are compatible with earlier ones on account of their acceptance of predecessor prophets, albeit with the proviso that later prophets are better. Surprisingly however, there is no unity on such a non-controversial issue as the day of weekly rest that is to be spent in devotion to god. Sabbath for Jews principally lies on Saturday (so also for Christian denomination of Seventh Day Adventists), on Sunday for Christians, & the Muslims observe it on Friday. While such differences abound, all three adhere to one overriding feature – all 3 are prescriptive religions. By prescriptive I mean that they have strict & rigid doctrine & rules governing even daily conduct that decide what food can be eaten, dress can be worn, when & how to pray, how to arrange social intercourse, and so on. There are certain rites of passage and some rituals & duties to be observed at the minimum without exception to qualify as a member of that religion. Since all believe that what they have received from their prophets is the word of god and the version heard by a particular prophet is final for his followers, the obvious conclusion is that their respective Religious Procedure Codes (RPC) are immutable, pure & absolute. In fact, like them all other religions or for that matter even earliest proto-religions too have some story or the other to tell about creation. Obviously the need for explaining material manifestations & the life around bothered ancient humans even when they lived peripatetic existence to hunt & gather food and eventually ended populating the entire earth. However, in a remarkable departure from this prescriptive tradition, other religions are descriptive in nature. By descriptive I mean that while they do have interpretation of phenomena of life coalescing into a religious worldview along with concepts of gods & deities representing observable & hidden forces of nature, it does not translate into a god-given immutable & fixed system of RPC that is sacrosanct. Take the case of Hindu tradition. True, it is claimed that Vedas are ‘apaurusheya’ (not written by man), but they are not taken as absolute & final, though somewhere vaguely recognised as fundamental to Hinduism. There have been successive interpretations, and different schools of thought are often at great variance with each other, but all of them are somehow considered part of Hindu tradition. One recognizable code of conduct in Hinduism is of course the ‘Manu Samhita‘. It does lay down prescriptive rules of dos & don’ts. Yet, the text is not taken as a word of god to be obeyed at all times. In fact, it looks like an afterthought. Afterthought in a sense its overriding purpose seems to be to protect ‘Varna ashram Dharma’ or caste based society, which seems to be well entrenched by the time of its formulation. While Semitic religions have a contract that is to be fulfilled by both men & god with obligations & rewards and that terminates on a judgement day; non-Semitic religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism etc. have a cyclical view of destruction & regeneration that allows space for failures & improvements and are solely based on individual’s efforts at realizing the ultimate reality. In conclusion it may be surmised that while prescriptive religions are a ‘Final Product‘ – finished in its perfect glory not amenable to improvement, the descriptive religions represent the ‘Work In Progress (WIP)’ attitude allowing space for evolution.

It would be instructive to discover this dichotomy in a totally different setting. Children today in Indian cities & may be everywhere in the developed world are left to rely on entertaining themselves with beautiful toys easily obtainable from shops at a price. Indulgent parents suffuse the childhood of their progeny with a bewildering array of toys. While a child is often happy to play with it, the product comes as a ‘Finished version‘. When it breaks, which eventually it would, it goes to the garbage bin. Another finished product takes its place. Those who grew up away from this market economy, at least so far as it concerned toys, would remember the time when they were left to their own devices to explore the world around & fashion their own toys to amuse themselves. Thus old discarded socks were stuffed with crumpled news paper or dried sugarcane leaves, were shaped into a ball, stitched to retain shape & then used for playing volleyball. A crude device, but it was certainly very enjoyable. When broken it was not discarded but mended as necessary. Balls were also fashioned out of a sticky bean like fruit of a tree by deseeding, by pulping the fruit by pounding with a stone, shaping it into a ball, and then sun drying it to allow a very satisfying game of cricket. Tops too were chiselled from dried wood. They came in an array of finishes from crude to refined & decorative, but all of them worked with lesser or greater finesse. Act of creativity was no doubt enjoyable to these children, but they also learnt very useful lessons. They learnt about ‘accretive nature of transformations‘, ‘the workings of physical principles‘, ‘stages of development‘, ‘improvisations‘, ‘causation‘ and such other useful & fundamental characteristics of natural world. For them nature & life became Work In Progress. (However, most, if not all, were corrupted by the misguided education later – an education that presents natural laws & entities as self evident truths, which are to be accepted unquestioned not unlike religious diktats. But that is another story).

Having covered this ground, one is now equipped to understand the issues raised by a friend after he watched a TV show called Boston Legal. A state in USA has brought a case before a judge against members of a school board who want to teach ‘Intelligent Design (ID)’ hypothesis as a part of the course on theory of evolution, which is not permissible under existing laws. The judge delivers the verdict thus (a rough narration of actual script by him).

Judge: I’ve heard all the arguments. Now…. its clear that religious beliefs should not interfere with a secular education…
Prosecution eyes light up, confident congratulatory glances exchanged… Defendants look glum.
Judge: …But its also clear to me that secular education should not completely erase the role of religion in our lives…
Prosecutors shake heads with an air of resignation, Defendants look much more cheery..
And then this eye popping piece of legal reasoning..
Judge: Haven’t all of us wondered at one time or the other…don’t we all have a sense of wonder and awe when holding a new born baby that there must be something more to life .. a higher mystery… than science can explain…. So I am ruling that ID should be taught alongside evolution… Case dismissed!!

ID advocates push the agenda of creationists. Creationists simply believe that debate about creation is debate about god. If there is a creation, then there must be a creator responsible for that creation. Suppose that origin & diversity of life are explained satisfactorily without recourse to god as a creator. Suppose further that a few definite rules explain all the wondrous capabilities of life & its amazing variation. Where does it then leave the creator? Nowhere, except perhaps he is rendered jobless & redundant. This is precisely what Darwin’s theory of evolution has accomplished. Random mutations produce variability in genetic material. A few of which bestow competitive advantage on organisms that happen to possess it. They are more successful than other individuals in struggle for survival. They pass on this genetic variation to their offspring through inheritance. This reproductive success over time establishes beneficial variation in specie. Many such benign variations over time through accretion entail so great a change as to transform it into new specie. In 150 years since the publication of Darwin’s seminal work ‘Origin of Species..’, his ideas & observations have been vindicated again & again as well as further advances have been made in the theory of evolution. Yet ID is being resurrected once more in modern times, especially in USA, though the idea itself predates even Darwin. An English theologian William Paley, propounded in 1802 that if we were to find a pocket watch in a field, we would immediately infer that it was produced not by natural processes acting blindly but by a designing human intellect. Likewise, he concluded, the natural world contains abundant evidence of a supernatural creator. More or less the same theme throughout all ages & climes is recurrent in the arguments of those who favour presupposing the god as the best & only possible explanation for creation. ID proponents are attempting a resurrection of their pet obsession by advancing what appears to unwary eye as ‘scientific arguments‘. Their agenda at the moment is focused on having ID included in a course on theory of evolution taught in schools. Idea is to give scientific respectability to ID through association with a well established branch of science.

Irreducible minimum complexity” is what is at the minimum required by natural selection to work, avers Michael J Behe – a biochemist. He adds, “We now know that, far from being formed from a kind of simple, uniform protoplasm (as many nineteenth-century scientists believed), every living cell contains many ultra sophisticated molecular machines. Darwinian theory cannot account for this irreducible minimum complexity”. Another argument begins that special sciences like Forensic, Archaeology or SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) etc. have a design element inbuilt that precludes their development merely through chance or necessity. Why shouldn’t same be true for origin of species? Its author, William Dembski – mathematician & philosopher, characterizes the central theme as “specified complexity“, which is contingent (upon ID-he implies) rather than necessary. Jonathan Wells – molecular & cell biologist – concedes that mutations do supply the variations required to explain changes at cell chemistry level, but finds paucity of evidence or in fact negation of their role in accounting for anatomical changes. The background of these worthies is so formidable coming as they do from scientific community as to be taken as proof of their positions. Arrayed against them are equally formidable reputations, who have debunked these propositions. Evolutionists have clearly triumphed over creationists (ID adherents) in my assessment. Arguments on either side are rather dense, accessible to only those with keen interest & patience to read & to understand. Those interested in following this very lively debate are encouraged to ActionBioScience website. Creationists have chosen a ground of their liking, where they feel strongly that Darwinian Theory is weak, to attack. Evolutionists have vigorously rebutted the claims standing on the very same ground while enlarging the debate to show that theory has moved beyond Darwin through study of biological processes such as gene transfer (including Horizontal), symbiosis, chromosomal rearrangement, and the action of regulator genes (ex. Hox genes). My own approach will rest upon invoking macro perspectives to make a case that creationism or intelligent design is an unnecessary adjunct to evolutionary theory at best and in fact very arguments used to further ID cause are self destructive at worst. Each of the concepts I present is capable of being worked upon in detail. Here I present them in brief to invite further discussion & criticism.

  1. Evolutionary time vs. Human life. : Individual human life span of say 100 years & civilization’s timeframe of say 4/ 5 thousand years is far insignificant when compared to 3 billion years that took for the origin & evolution of life on earth, a process that even today unfurls. Time & Efficiency, both so important in the context of humans in view of their ephemeral lives, lose their urgency and role absolutely in the evolutionary scale. Yet, seen from this twin perspective, the role of designer or creator becomes crucial for economising on time & for expanding the scope of efficiency. Once creator is deemed crucial on these grounds, then inventing a purpose for the creator’s job inexorably follows suit. Once purpose surfaces in the scheme of things, then anthropo-centric perspective comes to dominate. Whole purpose of creation is then seen as to put mankind at the centre of everything. This view is undoubtedly flattering & satisfying to us, but has no role to play in nature’s scheme of things. Crucially, no positive evidence has yet been put forward to support creationism. Use of analogy can hardly be considered evidence. Genesis is so obviously an anthropomorphic projection having such distinguishing ingredients as purpose, timeframe, and finality (or perfection). Finality is an often overlooked attribute, but so revealing in testing the humanity of a system or process. The evolution is a work in progress as pointed out right at the beginning & it shall remain purposeless in the sense of being not preordained. So long as natural selection continues to work on variations produced through mutations and so long as adaptation continues to work through inheritance, evolution will continue unabated. Purpose is irrelevant and so is designer or creator, which are the constructs arising out of the briefness of human lifespan & the need for self-assurance. As Darwin himself declared in 1860 that “there seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows.” However, to reach these seminal conclusions requires assiduous study, deep contemplation, & a bit of luck through flash of insight. Or at least one needs patience & application to follow the theory & accumulated evidence. Else, one has to rely on magic or creator to meet a satisfying explanation.
  2. Finished product or WIP. : We had a look at what market economy did to toys as a second theme at the beginning. Studying humans as toy designed & created on purpose would prove instructive here. A priori conclusion would be that humans should be an impeccably finished product in every respect with perfect fit of each & every part. Isn’t that the purpose of every designer or creator? What is the fact? Humans have shown great ingenuity in understanding the laws of nature, in inventing ways to harness those laws & natural resources – living or non living – to fulfil their needs & comfort, and by generally shaping the environment around them on such a staggering scale as to render it unnatural in many ways. It certainly shows unusual mastery without even a remote equal in the entire living world. Yet, this intellectual virtuosity is married to bewildering emotional dwarfism. The causes for this strange marriage are found in the anatomy of our brain. Human brain is a product of successive accretions & shares characteristics in common even at the level of vertebrates. It broadly comprises of 3 evolutionary components named R-complex (or Reptilian complex), Limbic system & neo cortex. Carl Sagan describes their functions in Dragons of Eden : “The R-complex is considered the most basic and primal part of the brain, having evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. In fact, humans share the R-complex region with all other mammals and reptiles. It plays an important role in aggressive behaviour, territoriality, ritual, and social hierarchies. Physiologically, it is involved in some of the most basic brain-regulated functions, such as breathing and control of heart rate. The limbic system, which encapsulates the R-complex, evolved around 150 million years ago, and is fully developed only in mammals. The limbic system is responsible for the strong and vivid emotions that are most often associated with humans, but are also characteristic of other primates and mammals. The newest region of the brain, having evolved only 10 million years ago, is the neocortex. The neocortex is only found in the “higher” mammals, including primates and humans. All advanced brain functions, including language, anticipation, vision, and fine motor skills, are processed and controlled by the neocortex“. Put simply, while all our achievements mostly stem from neocortex; emotions and their pernicious consequences stem from R-complex & partially from limbic system. Such an arrangement of doubtful utility of the pivotal organ that defines our very humanness hardly inspires confidence in purposeful design theory or does credit to its designer. (As a wicked aside compare this with the situation where outdated & outmoded legacy software resides within & interacts with the latest in software development. Recall the ubiquitous Windows operating system carrying within it the 20 years old DOS kernel that gave rise to many celebrated as well as anecdotal anomalies during its usage. May be Windows OS evolved rather than was designed).
  3. Designer or Bumbler : Proponents of the hypothesis that put designer or creator at the heart of origin of life & species do grave injustice to his reputation. Even to a casual observer of a visual depiction of evolution of species as a tree, an inescapable feature would be its utter barrenness. Barrenness in the sense innumerable abrupt endings that are just left dangling meaninglessly in midair. Tree of life project of Arizona University is an interesting starting point to circumvent the effort involved in visualization. I have chosen a particularly barren patch of the tree of life to drive home the point, though it may not be representative of all regions. If this is how the designer or creator has gone about his task of creating life, then it strikes as particularly wasteful, senseless & erratic method. I would doubt if such a designer or creator would hold his job even for a day in any modern corporation. Only a purposeless evolution acting out a few immutable laws of nature is capable of indulging in such mindless monstrosity. Of course, through all this it is ably aided by a willing accomplice, the climate. Creationists often sight 2nd law of thermodynamics – Entropy in any closed system always rises – as proof against evolution, since it supposedly (by crucially forgetting closed system injunction) violates this law by leading to order in nature. But in their misplaced enthusiasm they forget to notice that by letting creator bumble along with his creation, he too is made to look foolish through compounding the entropy by his disorderly conduct.
  4. Simple mechanisms but complex outcomes. : Still it is difficult for most to believe that such complex & intricate web of life can be produced by so few & simple laws working without any consciousness. To see a simple proof of initial simplicity giving rise to awesome complexity, one has only to take recourse to recursive functions such as those generating fractals. Recursive functions are those where earlier state of the system or equation acts as a seed for the subsequent stage. When used for exploring space mathematically they give rise to the property of self-sameness wherein individual part looks like the whole. Mandelbrot, who coined the term fractal to indicate fractional dimension, was exploring a function z ß z2 + c (where both z & c are some complex numbers & minute variations in their initial value can perturbate the function to deviate widely) when he noticed patterns being generated of immense complexity. In the universe, a portion of the universe has similar schema to the whole. Each segment of a cauliflower is similar to the whole. Similarly, we find few simple bases combine together obeying a few laws that give rise to immense variety of life forms of untold complexity. Consider the blue print of every organism. Adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine are the four chemicals that make up the nucleotide bases of the DNA.
    A,T, G and C are the ‘letters’ of the genetic code. Discrete combinatorial system they follow for coming together has infinite possibilities of sequences & in turn give rise to vast variety of genomes. A complex outcome doesn’t have to have complex precursor. Chaotic systems in nature, such as climate, are closely mimicked by fractals and have following common distinguishing characteristics : simple rules govern their behaviour, very sensitive to initial conditions, and may appear disorderly or random are not. Their behaviour is different from that of evolution, but the feature of immense complexity arising out of a few simple building blocks & the rules to manipulate them is palpably outstanding.

After presenting this broad survey of why available gross evidence mightily militates against introduction of designer or creator in an evolutionary scheme as proposed by Darwin & Wallace and later vastly expanded & complimented by many others; we return to causation of episodic attempts made to revive creationism or intelligent design. Attempt here is not to cover each & every individual’s motivation, but discover the broad climate sustaining this interest. Right since the time of Copernicus Christianity has found itself at loggerheads with science & scientists. Vatican enjoyed paramountcy in the Roman Catholic world and fast emerging facts & theories of science were in head on collision with Roman Catholic doctrine. It began with Copernicus, but hasn’t ended with Darwin. That hurt has never really died down. Add to that the prescriptive doctrinal nature of Christianity in general & Catholics in particular and we have a sustained interest in overturning science wherever & whenever it is not in agreement with dearly held precepts. Modern science on the other hand came to places like India as an external graft. Moreover, descriptive or interpretative nature of indigenous religions here with no hegemonic authority holding exclusive doctrinal rights made it easier for science to live in relative peace. Scientific truths never were seen as mortal threats to religious discourse. However, that is not to claim that tolerance to scholarship & truth is pervasive in India. On the contrary it may be as thin & fragile, and counter attacks really vicious, if any emerging evidence is seen even remotely as a threat to some cherished dogma.

Does it mean creationism or intelligent design should not be taught? No, not in a secular educational space and certainly not alongside a course in evolutionary theory. That is an attempt to gain backdoor entry & respectability on the back of spurious arguments & no evidence. An attempt that sights Darwin’s quotation, “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down” to signal that it has bested evolutionary theory. But sighting Darwin’s willingness to stand corrected if evolutionary theory cannot account for any complex organ is no evidence to support intelligent design;
but a clever subterfuge that uses absence of evidence that could have negated the existence of creator as an evidence of his existence. I hope I have passed on the flavour of ID reasoning.

While human brain is often described as general purpose learning machine, a claim hotly contested by neuro-linguists like Steven Pinker – who incidentally hold that language is an instinct hardwired in the human brain; I dare to hypothesize that human brain is hard wired to seek explanations – why, how, when, where etc. – from life & universe all the time. If science can satiate this curiosity, so be it. When not, a creator explanation will do.
But an explanation is an absolute must.

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