"Science": The Religion, evolutionary theory, intelligence

Science is the religion of our time

I’ve said this before; I hereby repeat myself.

Eliezer Yudkowsky on his blog Less Wrong wrote (in 2007),

Probably an actual majority of the people who believe in evolution use the phrase “because of evolution” because they want to be part of the scientific in-crowd—belief as scientific attire, like wearing a lab coat. . . . Its only purpose, for them, is to identify with a tribe.

My comment was:

Much deeper than attire, it’s folk religion. “Science” is to our time what the One Church Catholic and Universal was to the fourteenth century — the source of cosmology, explainer of existence, consoler for mortality, generator of culture. The people you cite are analogous to those buying saints’ amulets, genuflecting in church on Sundays, hanging a cross over their bed, reflexively repeating the prayers. They do not have the profound understanding of the “theologians” — the scientists. (How many peasants do you think could explain transubstantiation?) In fact, they have all kinds of wild and superstitious misunderstandings.

Of course, one of the functions of religion IS to delineate, consolidate, and perpetuate a tribe. (As an aside, what was unique about Christianity was that early on it became—as far as I know, which admittedly is not very far—the first predominantly multicultural, multiethnic tribe, united, and later divided, by ideas.) True believers in capital-S Science associate with and even marry fellow atheists and “skeptics.” Many actual small-s scientists are much more eclectic.
Speaking of religion, I had a notion of Eliezer Yudkowsky as the John the Baptist of the AI Singularity, a.k.a. “the Rapture of the Nerds.” Maybe I was confusing him with Ray Kurzweil. If Yudkowsky ever was that prophet (notably, he disowns his own pre-2002 thinking), he is now more of a meta-theologian. He did opine, also in 2007, that there’s nothing wrong with the scientific quest for immortality in principle, and healthy superlongevity in practice. If life is good, what’s better? More life! My point is that many people now believe (not hypothesize, like actual scientists) that science holds the power, in principle, get us there—to a heaven on earth—and that the older conception of a supernatural Heaven was an expression of impotence.

Cold Eye for the Little Guy

Of all the places I could choose to write this, A Cold Eye is plainly the one.

I’m reading this morning about California’s new “apocalyptic” climate change assessment. As temperatures continue to rise, heat smothers cities, wildfires devour the countryside, and rising sea levels and storms consume the coast, no one will escape—everyone has to breathe smoke-laden air, for one—but the burden, especially of heat waves, will fall most heavily on “the state’s most vulnerable residents”: the elderly, the poor, the more than 100,000 homeless.


It struck me that as we as a species struggle to cope with a burgeoning population and a deteriorating environment, one of the “solutions” we will find can already be seen in the making: human life will become cheap again.

Of course, it already is, probably always was, but we protest this strenuously. We still cling to the originally religious, then democratic, principle that every human life, every soul, has absolute value and deserves to be fostered and sheltered, not neglected, exploited, and abused. The struggle to hang on to this principle, however, becomes increasingly exhausting as the flood tide of humans and of human suffering, waste, and malfeasance rises to our nostrils. We mourn, we deplore, we protest and donate, but there is the sense that at some point we will let go and let our humanism drown.

You can see it on the Right, in the tendency to blame the poor and ill for their “bad choices.” (And this is not always entirely wrong.) You can see it on the Left, in the extension of compassion to other species at the expense of that for humans, who have forfeited it by the sins of our species. (Nor is this entirely wrong.) Compassion goes to the innocent, the sinless—on the Right, to fetuses who haven’t had the chance to make any bad choices yet; on the Left, to animals and plants (and colonized, indigenous or displaced minorities), the purportedly noble, unfallen victims of our rapacity. On both sides, our small store of compassion also goes out to “our kind, the good people.”

After all, you can’t care for everybody.

But the abstract notion that there is anything sacred and savable in principle about any human being just by virtue of being human—without being saved by Jesus Christ, without losing weight, without kicking heroin, without raking in billions for your IPO—that’s already gone.

If it ever really existed.

What’s important about this shift is that it opens the door to unbridled exploitation of and indifference to other humans. Not giving a shit may even be a factor in fitness, an advantage in the struggle to survive.



complexity, diseases, scientific arrogance, Whither Homo sapiens?

Cancer is the Devil at the Door.

The avenger of hubris. Every time we aspire to pry into the cell nucleus and pry out immortality, beauty, genius, perfection, cancer, the fear, the suspicion, the specter, the threat of it, bars our way. Like Lucifer serving God, cancer, that twisted gargoyle double arising out of self, steps into the path and says, Not so fast, Louie. It ain’t that simple.

The schadenfreude of being sure (I’d bet my nonexistent billions on it) that the tech billionaires working so feverishly on the research to immortalize themselves (and apotheosize their offspring) are going to die despite their best efforts is worth the price of having to die oneself.


quantum weirdness, skepticism

The Observer Effect: A Rejoinder to Skeptics

To rest and unfocus my mind, I found myself earlier today idly reading this article, linked in a newsletter I get, which asserted that “astrology isn’t fake—it’s just been ruined by modern psychology.”

I found it a failed article. The author claimed that new translations of fragmentary manuscripts revealed hitherto unknown techniques and insights that enabled ancient astrologers to understand the correlation of cosmic motions (only apparent cosmic motions, such as retrogrades, at that) with grand human events. But she revealed nothing of what those techniques and insights might be, or what made them any better  than the chart reading astrologers already do. She also seemed to privilege the public life over the personal, to be saying (not in so many words) that predicting the assassination of Caesar was somehow nobler and “realer” than grubbing for guidance in the backyard of your own psyche. Finally, having dissed the use of astrology in the service of personal psychology, she came back around to it and admitted it was one of the reasons astrology was valuable. Huh??

The article went nowhere, and it left me saying, “If that’s the best you can do, then, yes—astrology IS fake.”

Astrology, which doesn’t interest me much, is a systematic (psst—that’s why it doesn’t interest me) subset of the “significant coincidence” mindset that skeptics are always at great pains to mock and debunk. They are particularly hard on birthday coincidences, which I’ve written about—the uncanny thrill of meaningfulness we feel when someone important to us turns out to share our birthday., or some other significant date in our lives. The skeptics find it laughable and contemptible the way new age–leaning types take this as emotional proof that the universe cares about them and has lovingly lit their backyard walkway with its mighty stars.

Skeptics’ main weapons for destroying this puerile wishful thinking (which they seem to find a threat, the way bullies are enraged by vulnerability) are based on 1) statistics: they show that sharing a birthday with someone or other in a random roomful of strangers is so common as to be almost inevitable, and 2) confirmation bias theory: you encounter at least as many people who share your birthday who mean nothing to you, but like a scientist deep-sixing negative experimental results, you just don’t notice them.

There’s one trouble with these arguments, and that is what quantum physics calls the observer effect. The observer, the act of observing, detectably displaces the observed. You can’t catch reality not being looked at, because you’re always peeking, however indirectly. The most august and monumental instruments, standing cold and alone in their sterile fastnesses in the night, humming dispassionately, are projections of the “vile jellies” of our eyes; they are cartoon crab eyestalks goggling at the galaxies or the gluons. And seeing participates in the ordering of the seen.

So maybe there really is meaning in the universe—because we see it there.

But, but, but—sputters the skeptic—it isn’t really there! It’s a fantasy! The reality behind the colorful backdrops we hang to hide it is indifferent, unknowable, colorless, tasteless, formless, qualityless, a droning Brownian vibration like the snow and static on a 1950s TV screen after hours.

And I say that, too, is a fantasy. And a faith. A heroic faith in ourselves, that cast away in the subatomic pablum of a senseless universe, with sufficient unsentimentality we can harness its blind powers for our own, and bestride the cosmos, and conquer death.

We’ll see about that.

There IS no “really.” Every attempt we make to peel away another layer of contingent appearances, to strip ourselves out of the equation, we do with and from within a human mind. In a perishable human body.

There’s no escape.

Whatever we imagine, including an inviolate cosmos of physical and mathematical laws unsmeared by the toddler’s applesauce of human imagination, we see . . . through a human imagination. Pure abstract rationality is a highly trained and specialized form of human imagination, a clear plastic lens inserted to improve on nature’s more flexible but occluded one. Does it discover truths, proven as such by their predicted and stupendous success at manipulating matter and energy, our technology that Arthur C. Clarke called “indistinguishable from magic“? Oh my, yes! And of course these discoveries are driven by an ulterior motive: to become more powerful, less vulnerable, to build ourselves a safe and stylish home in this dangerous place—and also, if this is our faith, to feel superior to other primates whose gods are less potent. So sue us, we’re alive.

And so-called superstitions about synchronicity and meaning are also attempts to make ourselves more significant, safer, and more at home here. They don’t have the power to discover and create structures in the material world, but they do have power to discover and create structures in the emotional world, laws of wisdom based on centuries of shrewd observation, by which we can navigate with more confidence and orientation through our lives, and accept the things, like mortality, we cannot change (yet—I’ll toss the ardently believing “skeptics” that bone).

If the way that something is proven “true” and “real” is that it works, there are structures in thought and feeling that work and don’t work, too. Addiction is based on an untruth: it doesn’t work. The twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous manifestly do work. The “Logotherapy” of Viktor Frankl, finding motivation through finding meaning, works. The detached equanimity of Stoicism works. The skeptics say that synchronicity isn’t “true” even if it warms our “hearts” as surely as infrared radiation warms our skins—both essential for survival. The counterskeptics might rejoinder that, you know . . . hubris doesn’t work.

Just sayin’.


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.