consciousness, evolutionary theory, intelligence

“The DNA record does not support the assertion that small random mutations are the main source of new and useful variations.” [UPDATED!]

At last! Actual scientists are saying what I’ve thought, unauthorized, for years, and stated in sometimes poetic, metaphorical language:

DNA is a brain, and we (living beings) are its dreams.

Maybe DNA is an information storage and manipulation system analogous to a brain, but in a different dimension. Maybe it receives information from the environment through mechanisms other than, and faster than, the birth and death rates [the only drivers of fitness as the theory of evolution by natural selection would have it], and maybe it responds to environmental changes and challenges with variation and even innovation.

Maybe it even has some kind of consciousness associated with it, as material brains do. That question aside, the impression is inescapable that mutation is responsive and the resultant variation . . . inventive. The riot of variation and the intricacy of adaptation could not have been hewn out by so crude an axe as chance mutation, even given infinite time. The concept of an anthropomorphic creator is also far too crude and childish. But that there is intelligence (intelligences?) afoot intrinsic to the molecular processes of life itself is a growing suspicion provoked by scientific evidence.

**UPDATE! One of those “actual scientists” thinks I’m wrong . . . that the “brain” is DNA.  See the end of this post!

Thoughts I had well before the first mechanism was discovered by which DNA is, in fact, “informed” of changes in the environment: epigenetics. Some have said epigenetic marks may even bias mutation.

You will NOT find fanciful speculations about molecular “intelligence” at The Third Way of Evolution (at least, not yet; you WILL find hypotheses that the experience and purposive behavior of organisms can influence their evolution, through molecular cascades Lamarck never dreamt of). The site is for credentialed scientists and scholars only, and contributors are by invitation only.

The goal is to focus attention on the molecular and cellular processes which produce novelty without divine interventions or sheer luck.

Evolution is a complex subject, and projections and hypotheses will need to be based on documented empirical results. This site will make it easier for all those interested in evolution to find new hypotheses, theoretical arguments, and well-documented observations. The site provides a resource for those who wish to explore experimental research and theories that do not fit easily or at all into current mainstream thinking. . . .

Membership to the site is by invitation only. . . . The site is open to established scholars in the sciences, philosophy, history and related humanities who have published work related to THE THIRD WAY. . . .

We intend to make it clear that the website and scientists listed on the web site do not support or subscribe to any proposals that resort to inscrutable divine forces or supernatural intervention, whether they are called Creationism, Intelligent Design, or anything else.

But some of the molecular and evolutionary evidence, and some of the systems- and computation-informed hypotheses it has generated, are pretty wild in their own sober way. Here are some of the heavy hitters involved in aspects of the new thinking, For example:

With neither natural selection nor creation by a higher intelligence offering a sensible answer to evolution, [Raju Pookottil] tries to offer a hypothesis to how organisms could effectively design themselves over many generations. . . . [u]sing emergence, swarm intelligence and signal networks. [His book is] BEEM: Biological Emergence-based Evolutionary Mechanism: How Species Direct Their Own Evolution.

It’s still early days. But the techniques of scientific discovery have been outpacing theory, and now theory is beginning to rise to the challenge. The “binary” in which you either “believe in” (note those words) neo-Darwinism or you are a supernatural creationist is being shattered by the evidence itself.

**Raju Pookottil e-mailed me:

Great to see that you are receptive to the idea that organisms could be directing their own evolutionary path. I see you writing about the possibility of the DNA having ability to make decisions. My humble opinion would be that it’s the cytoplasm that does that part. The DNA structure is probably too simple to be able to carry out that process. The cell cytoplasm has a very complex protein network and to generate intelligence, you need some very complex networks. My interpretation is that the DNA is simply an instrument used by the cell to record crucial and repetitive information – codes that could be used to produce protein molecules. But the actual decision making process happens outside of the DNA. The cell is indeed an intelligent unit. You can take the nucleus of a cell (along with the DNA) out and the cell will still carry our some limited function. But if you try it the other way round, the DNA is just a long strand of complex molecule. It can do nothing without the cell around it.
* * *
Lots of interesting stuff happening. I feel that we are round the corner from making some radical changes on how we think about evolution. I keep saying that natural selection has an effect on evolution but it is not the mechanism. There are lots of reasons why NS is a compelling argument but flawed right from the start. If you look for it, you will not find a single experiment validating NS in the wild on higher organisms. They are all based on single cell organisms. The assumption that NS is capable of “seeing” and being able to select or rather eliminate minor variations in phenotype is just not true.

He also let me know there’s a forthcoming meeting at the Royal Society in London on “New trends in evolutionary biology,” November 7 through 9, 2016.

complexity, intelligence

Where Angels Fear to Tread

As a nonscientist with one big toe in advanced science (I have copyedited everything from molecular genetics to quantum physics, don’t ask me how), I get to make a fool of myself by talking about things I really don’t understand very well. Here’s one of them.

One of the limitations on our thinking about molecular biology may be that we have to give things discrete names to think about them, whereas “in nature” there are just various molecular modules that are repurposed, reassembled, “decorated,” and recycled in myriad ways. Many molecules that to us are distinct named entities serving distinct purposes are really very, very similar to each other, differing just by a methyl group, a charged side group or tail that makes the molecule interact or fold differently, a joining of peptides into a dimer or polymer, or . . . That means in a way the molecular traffic in cells may be LESS complicated than it looks to us. We envision many more distinct entities than there actually are in the protean stuff that multitasks the maintenance of life. The process of learning biochemistry and molecular biology may be a process of first identifying distinct molecules and later reconstructing the cross-functional kinships among them, which is at best backwards from the way life does it (and even “backwards” is too two-dimensional). Life is so much smarter than we are!

climate change, diseases, extinction, intelligence, Whither Homo sapiens?

Are We As Smart As Cancer?

I have a split reaction to the rapid spread of Zika virus.

On the one hand, it’s terrifying, especially for the young and fertile. (I don’t have grown children hoping to reproduce, but I do have many nieces and nephews in that demographic.) Our natural self-interest as living organisms and members of a beleaguered species makes it imperative that we understand and control this threat: through immunization, genetic mosquito control, whatever it takes.

On the other hand, through a cold eye, such outbreaks, as well as the cancer plague that now afflicts about one in three Americans during their lifetimes, look like Earth’s immune system trying to control the cancer that is us — sometimes with whatever blunt instrument comes to hand, sometimes with an uncanny laser-guided focus: Zika targets the brain, which is, after all, the source of the trouble. It also appears to be transmitted by sex, the other source of the trouble (being, as it is, what makes more of us).

This leaves me, as a childless human who’s had my three score and ten — so anything more is gravy — feeling that if one of those natural killers came for me, I could have no hard feelings. Why me? Why not? From the host organism’s point of view, I’m one more cancer cell, or locust, or virus. Nature doesn’t care whether you hold environmentally correct views (which would make a difference only if they actually became widespread enough to re-subordinate our collective behavior to the health of the whole and rein in the metastatic human impact). It doesn’t discriminate one human from another. To the ecosystem equivalent of a natural killer cell, it’s not who you are, it’s what you are.

I fear for the young, for whom the stakes are so much higher. Owing their existence to our explosive success as a species, they are also slated to pay its price. They place their hope and faith in the continuing acceleration of our success — specifically, in science’s ability to shield us from Earth’s immune system long enough for us to proliferate and innovate towards some kind of breakthrough. Can we ever be as smart as cancer, which does such a brilliant job of outwitting OUR immune system? Can we be even smarter — figure out how to be fruitful and multiply and still keep our host alive?

We can now say that we HAVE scratched the surface. That is something. But that’s about it.



exoplanets, GMO, intelligence, space, transgenic organisms, Whither Homo sapiens?

Where Is Everybody?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb on the Fermi Paradox and the Hubris Hypothesis, which add up to the theory that the reason we haven’t met anyone from another planet is that advanced life forms, full of themselves and their new powers, tend to destroy themselves before they are advanced enough to launch forth—if they are anything like us, that is.

The Fermi Paradox and the Hubris Hypothesis.
The great Enrico Fermi proposed the following paradox. Given the size of the universe and evidence of intelligent life on Earth making it non-zero probability for intelligent life elsewhere, how come have we not been visited by alliens? “Where is everybody?”, he asked. No matter how minute the probability of such life, the size should bring the probability to 1. (In fact we should have been visited a high number of times: see the Kolmogorov and Borel zero-one laws.)
Plenty of reasons have been offered; a hypothesis is that:
+ With intelligence comes hubris in risk-taking hence intelligent life leads to extinction.
+ As technology increases, misunderstanding of ruin by a small segment of the population is sufficient to guarantee ruin.
Think how close humanity was to extinction in the 1960s with several near-misses of nuclear holocausts. Think of humans as intelligent enough to do genetic modifications of the environment with GMOs but not intelligent enough to realize that we do not understand complex causal links. Many like Steven Pinker are intelligent enough to write a grammatical sentence but not intelligent enough to distinguish between absence of evidence and evidence of absence. We are intelligent enough to conceive of political and legal systems but let lobbyists run them. Humans are like children intelligent enough to unscrew a computer but not enough to avoid damaging it. And we are intelligent enough to produce information but unable to use it and get chronically fooled by randomness in some domain (even when aware of it in other domains). +
Acknowledgments: I thank Alessandro Riolo.

A Facebook commenter adds:

  • Fredrik Sveen Maybe this could be simplified a bit. What if travelling at light speed or beyond is simply impossible? The closest galaxy is approx 26k light years away… it doesn’t matter how intelligent other life out there may be if they can’t get here.
    Nassim Nicholas Taleb One of the proposed explanations.
consciousness, evolutionary theory, intelligence, scientific arrogance, skepticism

The New Dark Ages

If you’re a regular scienceblog reader, you may think that by that title I mean something like Carl Sagan’s “demon-haunted world”: the return of superstition (if it ever went away) in the form of New Age spiritualism, with its wishful thinking and willful ignorance.

Actually, I mean a Dark Age of science.

Now that may drive you straight to the other extreme of dismissing me as a New Age crank. In fact I probably have almost as little patience with that worldview as you do. But I do think (and have said repeatedly here) that dogmatic materialism, which persists in biology even as physics has blown past it, will look as brute and dark as Ptolemaic cosmology when we look back from a vantage point to which science itself is taking us.

A friend, no conventional believer, who nonetheless wrecked his knees sitting zazen and is an admirer of Simone Weil — both examples of what used to be called “mortification of the flesh” in quest of the “spirit” — wrote that a Jesuit monk he visits “made the point that the Hebrew Bible turns the creation myths of the ancient near east on their collective head by presenting a creator God who requires the assistance of human beings to continue the process of creation. There is no expiration date on that role in the individual’s life.  That is, old people aren’t excused from being co-creators because they’re receiving social security payments.” This (slightly edited) was my response:

I desperately need to hear ideas like that about co-creation. The reductiveness of science — that every human motive is just glorified, self-deceiving biology — has burrowed deep into my mind like the parasite in Alien, from where it mocks me to prove it wrong. It was to avoid this that I rejected science for the arts and humanities in the first place. I’ve joked that my later-life immersion in science editing is “the revenge of H.L.” [early biophysicist boyfriend], but maybe it’s no joke. I found the scientific view of the world (which he exemplified) deadening then, and now it threatens to deaden me. The sorta-scienceblog I occasionally write in is all about just that — protesting the reductiveness of so much science and science-centered culture, and predicting that science itself, if it pursues the truth, is going to blow that view out of the water. The so-much-more-than-needed-to-get-the-job-done extravagance of creation — from the birds of paradise (Natural History is doing a special issue on Alfred Russel Wallace) to the human brain — suggests that creativity and even consciousness permeate nature [can we entertain this possibility without shutting down inquiry by defaulting to a god?] and that the random collision and mutation of molecules that accidentally confer a survival advantage is as inadequate to explain nonhuman phenomena as human ones. But it’s a Dark Ages in that regard right now.

intelligence, the brain

Notes for a Neurological Theory of Evil

Our symbolic capacity makes us dangerous in a way no other animal is. We do the most and the worst of our killing for ideas—ideas of “us” and “them,” of our god vs. their god, of purity, of beauty, potency, power, revenge, immortality. We value symbols more than realities—a discussion I had recently with a friend who’s trying to fund scientifically based nutritional approaches to cancer prevention and longevity (many of which wind up confirming in molecular terms the wisdom of traditional approaches). There’s no profit in it, and therefore little interest. Money is a symbol of immortality and people would rather have the symbol than the (modestly attainable) reality, maybe because the symbol imposes no such limits. The funders of research, who are as vulnerable and mortal as anyone else, act as if they personally would rather have money than health. They’d rather pursue an exciting, profitable drug that doesn’t work than a boring dietary modification that does. If you want to state it in scientific terms, the harnessing of the dopamine reward system to the symbolic capacity says a whole lot about the pros and cons of Homo so-called sapiens.

extinction, Whither Homo sapiens?

Apoptocalypse Now

Finally starting to read that Atlantic article on “What ISIS Really Wants.” The subhead says the group has “carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.”

It strikes me that the resemblance between the words “apocalypse” and “apoptosis” is not coincidental. Life forms have an instinct to destroy themselves when they detect their own defectiveness. Thus it seems to be with the human species. The subjective aspect of this instinct is rage which, whatever its purported target, is actually provoked by the unbearable frustration and torment of being human.