Sunday, 24 January 2010

The Stupid, It Burns!

Right up front I've got to say I'm no fan of Deepak Chopra. For some reason, his brand of nonsense is a big seller. Even my dear sweet mother asked me to get her Deepak Chopra books for her birthday once. He's a very able snake oil salesman, I'll give him that.

That said, this morning I came across a piece he wrote in the Huffington Post refuting evolution. Which would be fine if he could even grasp the topic, but no. Instead he harps onto intelligent design as an explanatory leap and then gives his account of problems in biology.

1. How does nature take creative leaps? In the fossil record there are repeated gaps that no "missing link" can fill. The most glaring is the leap by which inorganic molecules turned into DNA. For billions of years after the Big Bang, no other molecule replicated itself. No other molecule was remotely as complicated. No other molecule has the capacity to string billions of pieces of information that remain self-sustaining despite countless transformations into all the life forms that DNA has produced.
Nature takes creative leaps by new mutations that allow for new exploratory paths to be explored. The simplest way to think of this is culturally, look at modern electronics. It was only ~65 years ago that the transistor was invented, from there an explosion of advances took place with that at the core. Why is it that for 200,000 years our species didn't invent computers or mobile phones, but in the end of the 20th century there was an explosion of technology?

As for his statement about DNA, how does he know that there wasn't any other molecule that replicated itself? There are something like 1023 stars out there, has he explored everyone from the beginning of time to say that it didn't just happen? Our vantage point is this planet. As for the capacity to explain DNA, there's a lot of stages in between inorganic molecules and DNA, including organic molecules that can be seen forming in space and even in experiments on earth. To go back to the transistor example, the invention of the transistor was not made with mobile phones in mind. Why should we expect DNA to have come about with us and bees in mind?

2. If mutations are random, why does the fossil record demonstrate so many positive mutations -- those that lead to new species -- and so few negative ones? Random chance should produce useless mutations thousands of times more often than positive ones.
And Chopra here shows his complete misunderstanding of natural selection. Mutations are random, but natural selection weeds out bad mutations. Darwin even lays this out in The Origin Of Species, bad mutations that offer a disadvantage to the organism fail to get passed on, while any mutations that give an advantage, however slight, do. It's not that hard to grasp, yet Chopra has taken his misunderstanding of the principle and run with it.

3. How does evolution know where to stop? The pressure to evolve is constant; therefore it is hard to understand why evolution isn't a constant. Yet sharks and turtles and insects have been around for hundreds of millions of years without apparent evolution except to diversify among their kind. These species stopped in place while others, notably hominids, kept evolving with tremendous speed, even though our primate ancestors didn't have to. The many species of monkeys which persist in original form tell us that human evolution, like the shark's, could have ended. Why didn't it?
Evolution doesn't know anything, the pressure to evolve is not constant either. Different selection factors drive different rates of change. And if an organism is perfectly suited to its environment, why should we expect the morphology to change? It's no mere accident that the jaw of a dog and the jaw of the thylacine are almost identical in shape, or that sharks, ichthyosaurs and dolphins have similar streamlined shapes.

4. Evolutionary biology is stuck with regard to simultaneous mutations. One kind of primordial skin cell, for example, mutated into scales, fur, and feathers. These are hugely different adaptations, and each is tremendously complex. How could one kind of cell take three different routes purely at random?
Because natural selection is the opposite of random. Advantageous mutations accumulate.

5. If design doesn't imply intelligence, why are we so intelligent? The human body is composed of cells that evolved from one-celled blue-green algae, yet that algae is still around. Why did DNA pursue the path of greater and greater intelligence when it could have perfectly survived in one-celled plants and animals, as in fact it did?
For design to imply intelligent, it wouldn't actually tell us anything. If an intelligence designed our intelligence, what designed the designer's intelligence? Intelligence was obviously selected for, brain size increased dramatically over the last few million years. And looking at the command of technology in that time, from crude hand axes, to fire, to the development of language, etc. Having a big brain for a bipedal animal comes at a huge cost. Babies are born premature and are more helpless, women die in childbirth. What is 2% of our mass, takes 20% of our oxygen. The brain evolved, it seems ,because the disadvantages of a big brain were outweighed by the advantages it gave.

6. Why do forms replicate themselves without apparent need? The helix or spiral shape found in the shell of the chambered nautilus, the center of sunflowers, spiral galaxies, and DNA itself seems to be such a replication. It is mathematically elegant and appears to be a design that was suited for hundreds of totally unrelated functions in nature.
Why do certain mathematical shapes form? Because these shapes conform to the laws of nature. In God The Failed Hypothesis by Victor Stenger, he shows how such forms appear purely out of the laws of physics. But again, an emergent property is being mistaken for a divine hand.

7. What happens when simple molecules come into contact with life? Oxygen is a simple molecule in the atmosphere, but once it enters our lungs, it becomes part of the cellular machinery, and far from wandering about randomly, it precisely joins itself with other simple molecules, and together they perform cellular tasks, such as protein-building, whose precision is millions of times greater than anything else seen in nature. If the oxygen doesn't change physically -- and it doesn't -- what invisible change causes it to acquire intelligence the instant it contacts life?
Life has had over 3 billion years of adapting to the environment. If it was advantageous for a mutation to give rise to such molecular machinery, then why should we expect anything else?

8. How can whole systems appear all at once? The leap from reptile to bird is proven by the fossil record. Yet this apparent step in evolution has many simultaneous parts. It would seem that Nature, to our embarrassment, simply struck upon a good idea, not a simple mutation. If you look at how a bird is constructed, with hollow bones, toes elongated into wing bones, feet adapted to clutching branches instead of running, etc., none of the mutations by themselves give an advantage to survival, but taken altogether, they are a brilliant creative leap. Nature takes such leaps all the time, and our attempt to reduce them to bits of a jigsaw puzzle that just happened to fall into place to form a beautifully designed picture seems faulty on the face of it. Why do we insist that we are allowed to have brilliant ideas while Nature isn't?
But there are plenty of fossils showing the gradual evolution of birds. There are feathered non-avian dinosaurs. Fossils showing the gradual changing of feet, the development of wings, and the eventual loss of reptilian features such as teeth, claws and tails. This seems to be that Deepak Chopra can't understand the vast time scales and the gradual accumulation of mutations over time. And that he's looking at forms as final products that one must jump from one to the other instead of looking at each form as an intermediate.

9. Darwin's iron law was that evolution is linked to survival, but it was long ago pointed out that "survival of the fittest" is a tautology. Some mutations survive, and therefore we call them fittest. Yet there is no obvious reason why the dodo, kiwi, and other flightless birds are more fit; they just survived for a while. DNA itself isn't fit at all; unlike a molecule of iron or hydrogen, DNA will blow away into dust if left outside on a sunny day or if attacked by pathogens, x-rays, solar radiation, and mutations like cancer. The key to survival is more than fighting to see which organism is fittest.
Natural selection is a metaphor that describes what happens. It's not a tautology, it's in the same sense as Adam Smith's "invisible hand of the market". Coming from the notion of artificial selection where breeders choose traits they think desirable, natural selection is simply describing that in nature those traits that help pass on the genetic code are going to be inherited. Why would we expect anything else?

10. Competition itself is suspect, for we see just as many examples in Nature of cooperation. Bees cooperate, obviously, to the point that when a honey bee stings an enemy, it acts to save the whole hive. At the moment of stinging, a honeybee dies. In what way is this a survival mechanism, given that the bee doesn't survive at all? For that matter, since a mutation can only survive by breeding -- "survival" is basically a simplified term for passing along gene mutations from one generation to the next -- how did bees develop drones in the hive, that is, bees who cannot and never do have sex?
Cooperation can evolve in competitive areas. Under game theory, reciprocal altruism shines as a stable and mutually beneficial relationships between individuals. As for the bees, if the drone bees who cannot have sex aid in the survival of the reproductive process (by gathering material, protecting from predators, etc.) then it fits the evolutionary framework quite well. The problem here seems to be thinking purely in terms of the individual, not on the DNA itself (and what builds on it).

11. How did symbiotic cooperation develop? Certain flowers, for example, require exactly one kind of insect to pollinate them. A flower might have a very deep calyx, or throat, for example than only an insect with a tremendously long tongue can reach. Both these adaptations are very complex, and they serve no outside use. Nature was getting along very well without this symbiosis, as evident in the thousands of flowers and insects that persist without it. So how did numerous generations pass this symbiosis along if it is so specialized?
In Richard Dawkins' new book, The Greatest Show On Earth, he gives a good account on how symbiotic relationships form by looking at "intermediate" stages in constructing a symbiotic relationship. Nature might be able to get along without symbiosis, but again symbiotic relationships can be mutually beneficial. I house quadrillions of bacteria within my digestive tract, and in return they help break down what I eat. Win-win it would seem. Again Deepak's misunderstanding seems to stem from thinking of evolution purely in individual terms.

12. Finally, why are life forms beautiful? Beauty is everywhere in Nature, yet it serves no obvious purpose. Once a bird of paradise has evolved its incredibly gorgeous plumage, we can say that it is useful to attract mates. But doesn't it also attract predators, for we simultaneously say that camouflaged creatures like the chameleon survive by not being conspicuous. In other words, exact opposites are rationalized by the same logic. This is no logic at all. Non-beautiful creatures have survived for millions of years, so have gorgeous ones. The notion that this is random seems weak on the face of it.
Again to point at Dawkins' new book, he gives a good account of an experiment done with guppies. In these guppies, it was to test sexual selection against natural selection. For a good account read the book, but to quickly summarise: predation led to less elaborate displays. Why are there birds of paradise on New Guinea and not in England? I find it hard to believe that Chopra can see that it serves no obvious purpose, just watching a few seconds of an Attenborough doco on them should give away that the elaborate displays are to attract mates. Studies have been done showing that certain birds' reproductive success is related to the size of their tail.

Just to summarise, Chopra offers these words:
I don't know who will bother to read all these points, which I have had to truncate. But if you think the answers are in safe hands among the ranks of evolutionary biologists, think again. No credible scientific theory has answered these dilemmas, and progress is being discouraged, I imagine, thanks to fundamentalist Christians. By hijacking the whole notion of intelligent design, they have tarred genuine scientific issues with the stain of religious prejudice.
Yes, I read all the points. I found that reading a couple of popular accounts of evolutionary theory were enough to see that Chopra doesn't understand even the basics. It's not like this knowledge is hidden in obscure textbooks, it's there on bookshelves in any half-decent bookstore. So before concluding that no scientific theory has answered these dilemmas, perhaps it would be wise of Chopra to actually read up on the matter. If he honestly thinks that he has the insight that demonstrates the cornerstone of modern biology is false, then he is deluded. Though perhaps he does understand them and is just hoping those reading do not. But we'll see.

It seems, like many, he's been caught up in the cultural dispute over evolution. Which would explain him weighing in against those who are Fundamentalist Christians. But therein lies the problem, he's arguing against a straw-man based on popular misconceptions of evolution. The extensive use of the word random and taking on this discrete notion of forms means that once again a false prophet has come foretelling the death of evolutionary theory. Though from a peddler of new-age woo I shouldn't have expected anything else.

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