25 July 2007

Crichton is a Family Values Conservative!

In transcribing Michael Crichton's views on the problems of evolution (here), I reread the entire chapter and I found something very interesting. In the later part of that chapter he describes a theory of the evolution of humans that went as follows: Primates move out into the savanna. They start standing more to see over the tall grass. This leaves both hands free. This causes more use of tools and more complex tools. This causes the brain to expand rapidly to manipulate these more complex tools. This causes a cycle of more advanced brain function feeding more complex tools and vice-versa. This causes children to be born with larger heads. This causes the children to be born earlier (so they'll fit through the birth canal) and more helpless for a longer time. This causes humans to develop society to support the now necessary teaching and protection of these children. (Whew!) And, he concludes with something along the lines of "You might say that the whole purpose of civilization is to raise children."

By itself, this is not so exceptional. But, we've got to interpret it against the backdrop of the entire book ("The Lost World"). In this book, Ian Malcom goes back to the (other) island where the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park fame had been hatched and now many are living in the wild. Malcom also has a specific, primary interest in extinction and the subject is raised throughout the book. Some extinctions can be connected to cataclysm, but many cannot. Malcom has theories about extinction based on complexity theory. Basically, I'd put it as evolution going awry or maybe even as a species evolving itself into a corner. Somewhere in the highly complex and non-linear interplay between biological evolution and social behavior something goes wrong.

There is one more episode which completes the picture. It is with the velociraptors. They are observed eating a kill and the young raptors are being pushed at and bitten when they try to eat. They are also noted to be too thin for their height. Also, the nest area is dirty and badly tended, with surprisingly few eggs. This also stood in sharp contrast to the well maintained and protected nest of the Tyrannosauruses. Crichton really doesn't develop or directly address the ideas implied by these observations. But, there they are nonetheless: these raptors are on the road to extinction.

When we put this altogether, I think there is a clear message coming through. The survival of our own species is not guaranteed and our own civilization is showing disturbing signs of dysfunction. What are the velociraptors above but an allegory of failing human civilization? Absorbed in our own avarice, we neglect our young and fail to give them what they need. That is, when we even bother to have children at all. (Consider "The EU's Baby Blues," for example.)

I don't want to put words in Crichton's mouth (... just thoughts in his head, as in my outlandish headline). So, I'll use my own perspective to expound this idea. We're in trouble. We're extincting ourselves via childlessness, poor family environments (like single parents or both parents working), and abortion. We're forgetting what is one of the main purposes of life, to have children and to have them thrive. It doesn't matter if you're religious or not. "Be fruitful and multiply," or "Pass on your DNA," take your choice. Furthermore, society and culture is like a great ship whose course cannot be changed quickly. The cultural and economic biases against having children and in favor a childless, care-free life are going to be very difficult to overcome. Or impossible.


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19 July 2007

"More scientists are admitting it"

Below is a short excerpt from Michael Crichton's fine book "The Lost World" that touches on the evolution-ID debate. What I liked about it is that he has no problem at all in describing some of the problems with evolution. (The chapter is entitled "Problems of Evolution".) You should know that Ian Malcom, the main speaker below, is an archetypal scientist-oracle whose words can be fairly construed as Crichton's own. The below starts on page 205 (hardback). I make no further comment at the present and all that follows is from the book (heavily edited for space).

... "I think it's fair to say that every scientist in the world agrees that evolution is a feature of life on earth," Malcom said. "And that we are descended from animal ancestors. Yes."
"Okay," K. said. "So, what's the big deal now?"
Malcom smiled. "The big deal," he said, "is that everybody agrees evolution occurs, but nobody understands how it works. There are big problems with the theory. And more and more scientists are admitting it."
[Discovery of extinction precedes theory of evolution.]
"Then along came Darwin, .... The implications ... upset lots of people. But [Darwin] ... made an overwhelming case. So gradually his idea ... was accepted .... But, the question remained: how does evolution happen? For that, Darwin didn't have a good answer."
"Natural selection," A. said.
"Yes, that was Darwin's explanation. ... But as many people realized, natural selection isn't really an explanation. It's just a definition: if an animal succeeds, it must have been selected for. ...."
"But it's genes," K. said.
"[History of subsequent rediscovery of genes and discovery of DNA.] ... , evolution is just the result of a bunch of mutations that either survive or die. right?"
"But there are problems with that idea," Malcom said. "First of all, there's a time problem. A single bacterium - the earliest form of life - has two thousand enzymes. Scientists have estimated how long it would take to randomly assemble those enzymes from a primordial soup. Estimates run from forty billion years to one hundred billion years. But the earth is only four billion years old. So, chance alone seems too slow. Particularly since we know bacteria actually appeared only four hundred million years after the earth began. Life appeared very fast - which is why some scientists have decided life on earth must be of extraterrestrial origin. Although I think that's just evading the issue."
"Second, there's the coordination problem. If you believe the current theory, then all the wonderful complexity of life is nothing but the accumulation of chance events - a bunch of genetic accidents strung together. Yet when we look closely at animals, it appears as if many elements must have evolved simultaneously. Take bats, which have echolocation -- they navigate by sound. To do that, many things must evolve. Bats need a specialized apparatus to make sounds, they need specialized ears to hear echoes, they need specialized brains to interpret the sounds, and they need specialized bodies to dive and swoop and catch insects. If all these things don't evolve simultaneously, there's no advantage. And to imagine all these things happen purely by chance is like imagining that a tornado can hit a junkyard and assemble the parts into a working 747 airplane. It's very hard to believe."
"Next problem. Evolution doesn't always act like a blind force should. Certain environmental niches don't get filled. Certain plants don't get eaten. And certain animals don't evolve much. ...."
T said, "Are you saying evolution is directed?"
"No," Malcom said. "That's Creationism and it's wrong. Just plain wrong. But I am saying that natural selection acting on genes is probably not the whole story. It's too simple. Other forces are also at work. ... And it turns out, again and again, that living things seem to have a self-organizing quality. ... From complexity theory, we're starting to have a sense of how this self-organization may happen, and what it means. And it implies a major change in how we view evolution."


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