Reviewing the negative reactions to yesterday's post, I was struck that both "secular humanists" and fundamentalist become extremely emotional when the debate on evolution is brought up. However, new ideas are attacked with emotional vehemence some times and then turn out to be right. Darwin was a classic example in his day, but recently one only has to review the ridicule that greeted three novel ideas: 1.We live in an expanding universe. Einstein himself disbelieved that one. 2. Birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs and therefore dinosaurs were probably warm-blooded. 3. A major cataclysm, such as a massive meteor strike, destroyed the dinosaurs practically overnight. These ideas have gone through the whole cycle from derisory attack to general acceptance.
If you are opposing my comments with passionate vehemence, I'd suggest that you are not friendly to the open discussion of evolution, no matter which camp you belong to.
As for those who cite Richard Dawkins as holy writ, may I point to his heated debates with Stephen Jay Gould, an equally reputable theorist of evolution? May I further point out that evolutionary biology has been considered dubious by a wide range of scientists (they criticize it for having a weak experimental foundation and a wealth of assumptions that seem like post hoc thinking--that is, a trait is given a rationale only after it survives, which is like saying that driving a Mercedes Benz makes you wealthy, as opposed to saying that wealthy people tend to buy Mercedes Benz) and current evolutionary theory in general can't be proved experimentally. If tempers can settle a bit, I'd like to pursue this discussion further. Evolutionary theory is very much up in the air.
Current news stories make it seem that "intelligent design" is non-scientific piffle, motivated by ulterior motives to preserve God and Jesus in the face of Darwin. Yet design and intelligence are far from that. We find ourselves in a period of fascinating transition. Darwinian evolution has proved an enormously fruitful theory, but like all theories its weaknesses have showed up over time. Darwin did not know that genes existed, a gap repaired by Gregor Mendel. In an earlier post I pointed out 12 other gaps that still need repairing. I hope you consult them before reading on.
A new evolutionary theory, should it arise, would have to begin with quantum physics. Biology is simply physics taken to unbelievably complicated lengths. In a physics lab one can experiment with oxygen atoms in isolation. Inside a cell, the same oxygen is beyond experimentation. We can only think about its complex reactions and then ask ourselves if our speculations answer questions better than older speculations. Theoretical physics proceeds exactly along the same lines--first Einstein dreamed up relativity, then he put it into mathematical language, and finally he matched the math against real phenomena. He tells us that he was amazed when Nature turned out to agree with his original dream.
The raw facts in this case are simple, insofar as cosmology has anything simple about it: Nature evolves. Rudimentary forms become more complex. The war between chaos and orderliness is never won by either side. They coexist. To a physicist, life is "negative entropy," that is, an exception to a universal rule. Entropy, the tendency for energy to disperse, is the basic rule in the universe. When any system can preserve energy instead, it stands out as an "island" of negative entropy. (consult Erwin Schrodinger's paper, "What Is Life?" which is readily available on the Web.)
You and I are such islands, and there is no reason on the face of it why we don't blow away and disperse in waves of radiating heat the way a rock cools off after a hot day, the same way a star eventually expends its heat and dies.
The force which apparently preserves negative entropy is one chief aspect of evolution. Evolution is the enemy of energy dispersion, or "fast decay," to use a favored term from physics. It keeps energy intact for long periods of time--say, billions of years in the case of life on Earth. Evolution has even found ways to gain new energy, for example, when creatures eat and drink. We probably have to grant that evolution isn't accidental. Of course there is huge debate over this, but setting all prejudice aside, the simple fact is that the universe could have remained an inchoate mass of heated gases moving relentlessly toward their fate of becoming cool gases. The universe took another route, one which involves negative entropy.
The very same basic atoms of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen that float in interstellar space took the alternate route of evolving into the building blocks of life. Physics cannot explain this simultaneity of entropy and its opposite without tentative recourse to the notion that something like design is at work. Until physics can explain apparent design and why entropy developed evolution as its enemy when there was no need to, biology is helpless to explain life, since there is no such thing as Darwinian "survival of the fittest" among atoms. All atoms survive unless they undergo thermonuclear change inside stars or devolve through proton decay. There is no such thing as competition among atoms, because atoms are not sentient and have no needs to compete over. There is no such thing as passing a trait along to the next generation of atoms, since atoms don't have sex or reproduce except as individuals (one must make exceptions for cooperative structures like crystals, which is why the physics of crystals has traditionally come closet to theorizing how DNA came to be).
Physics is an experimental science, and there are few workers in the profession who think about the origins of life, except as speculation, since there aren't many viable experiments to run. True, some researchers have done rudimentary experiments with the early components of the Earth's atmosphere, such as methane gas, to see if the addition of electricity (to imitate lightning storms) might give us a model for the "primordial soup" out of which life emerged. But this is far, far from an experiment which could show us how DNA learned to replicate itself. The theory that DNA was brought to Earth via asteroids from elsewhere in space merely sidesteps the whole question.
Since physics doesn't need a theory of life to go forward with its main research, most of which is on the quantum level, biology has been given a faulty, indeed nonexistent theory to build upon. Darwin's theory of evolution is ten or twenty steps higher than subatomic physics on the chain of knowledge, and Darwin jumped aboard without any of the previous steps being filled in. So it's a wonder that Darwinism succeeded. To skip so many steps of explanation and still turn out to be right is astonishing. Medicine hasn't been so lucky. For hundreds of years its explanations of mental disorders, for example, were totally faulty until the recent discovery of basic chemical imbalances in the brain, and those discoveries in turn depended on the discovery of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. Until basic mechanisms were uncovered at the molecular level, explanations for psychosis on the macro level (the level of behavior, speech, and thinking) had no basis.
What we need, therefore, is an explanation that can fill in the missing steps that Darwin leapt over. Hundreds of theorists have seriously worked at this problem, well outside the current debate ignited by religionists who demand that Genesis must be defended. Here are some leading principles that I personally support:
1. Intelligence doesn't "appear" at a late stage of evolution. It seems to be inherent in nature.
2. Before there is intelligence in action, there is the potential for intelligence. This must precede the Big Bang and still exists at a subtle level of Nature.
3. The primary evidence for intelligence in the universe isn't design but consciousness. In some mysterious way Nature knows what it is doing.
4. Chaos and orderliness coexist, one being necessary for the other.
5. Evolution manipulates chaos the way an artist manipulates paint, to turn basic ingredients into complex forms.
6. Consciousness may exist in photons, which seem to be the carrier of all information in the universe.
7. The creative principle is eternal.
Using these as working principles, we might make tremendous progress in explaining the missing gaps in evolutionary theory. But will we? I don't know, since too few minds are occupied in such theorizing. But the notion of intelligent design will surely survive, because the greatest project of all--explaining the existence of human intelligence--is never going to go away. Current religious opinion is a blip on the screen compared to the centuries-long quest to understand ourselves, and although current science is more fruitful and valid, it too is only a passing phase.