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.

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.

consciousness, cosmology, Quotes & Aphorisms


[I]f anything, science is moving toward a retrieval of older understandings of the sacramental nature of the Real. . . .

“There is entropy and chaos and then there is the Logos; there is noise and there is information and organization, which are deep linguistic structures, the codes at the heart of the universe. This is an idea that has been a part of modern and postmodern thinking at least since the time of Charles Peirce whose semiotics laid the foundations for Heisenberg and Bohr, Crick and Watson. Everything is code, signs working with other signs. Everything is Word. More on Charles Peirce’s semiotics in the future, but for now let’s hear what Toolan has to say:

We no longer need to carry the physicist’s energy and the humanist’s signs and symbols in separate accounts. One balance sheet will do. Information physics has given us back a semiotic universe, a nature that–like the medieval sacramental universe–gives signs. University divisions of the natural sciences and divisions of humanities while working at different parts of the spectrum, need not figure themselves as concerned with utterly disparate matters. The natural sciences, we may now say, deal with primitive sign systems and their protolanguages and protogrammars, whereas the humanities deal with the more developed sign systems and meanings of the animate star dust we call human cultures.

“There is a telos, an Omega point, toward which all creation groans, and this telos is the slow, eons-long process of a largely unconscious, inarticulate Natura becoming aware of itself. The human being is the ‘warp’ in the cosmic flow where this ‘becoming conscious’ occurs and through whom this awareness is given a voice.”

~ Jack Whelan, After the Future

consciousness, cosmology, extinction, origins of life, the universe, What is life? What is death?, Whither Homo sapiens?

The Race Between the Two Human Drives

To understand life, and to destroy it. Which will prevail?

Well, to destroy life isn’t entirely a drive. It’s a side effect, a byproduct of our drive to expand our own life, to aggrandize ourselves, to make more of us, to get bigger, stronger, live longer. As the Olympics have it, Citius, Altius, Fortius. This is the drive that powers all life. It’s very strong, and very wily, but not very bright. That is, it’s instrumental; it lights up a tunnel of vision to immediate advantage, and that with hyperreal clarity, but to everything outside that laser beam the life force is myopic and blinkered. The long term, the feedback loop, the butterfly effect, all are far outside its ken. The law of unintended consequences is the consequence.

So we destroy life, amazing life, in our greed to feed and gratify and multiply our life, which in the last analysis is rather dull and one-note: we want sex, and status, and possessions, to reproduce ourselves, and not to die. There’s nothing terribly unique about this: any life form can do it, and does. Life forms are generally constrained only by the limits of the carrying capacity of their environment (the food supply) and the checks of predation and parasitism, and by the ritualized limits that have evolved to paradoxically protect life forms from the excesses of their own life force by constraining them, from gene silencing and apoptosis to estrus to social hierarchy.

If we are uniquely destructive it’s because, collectively and individually, we’ve conquered or rejected so many of those imposed constraints. And because we have the devil’s gift, imagination, which empowers us to outwit environmental limitations (at least for a while, a long while) and also adds half-conscious envy and spite to our more innocent forms of self-interest. We don’t only kill to eat, or to protect ourselves, or to enlarge our territory; we kill to appropriate the magnificence of life forms we envy — to adorn our females with egret feathers, to ingest the power and male potency of the tiger. These may be degraded forms of what once passed for worship when we were the minority animal and humbly thanked our beautiful, powerful big siblings for magnanimously sharing their surplus meat, might, and magic with us.

The awareness that we are going to die often only spurs these pursuits on and makes them more frantic: only in the throes of acquisition or orgasm or intoxication can we forget death, an escape that has to be endlessly repeated; or else we believe deep down that the next billion or the next scientific discovery is the one that’s going to make us immortal. But the awareness of death is also a pivot. It can become a turning point. If we realize that however much we may reduce disease, prolong life, and ameliorate suffering, we are not ever going to (and shouldn’t) defeat death, then the blind striving we share with all the rest of life becomes, for us, just a little bit pointless. Then what is the point?

* * *
I started to write this because, as usual, I was copyediting science. I happened, in particular, to be reading about the zeal with which archaeologists pore over bone fragments and debate just when and why the first hominids became bipedal. What does it matter? And I became fascinated, not for the first time, by this hunger to know, because it’s excessive, obsessive. It cannot be entirely instrumental. Sure, archaeologists care about their reputations, and very young scientists set their sights on the Nobel. And of course much, maybe most, science (and certainly most science funding) is driven by instrumentality — by goals ranging from survival (defeating disease and hunger) to domination (what we call “defense”) to the profit motive, or some mixture of all three. But to know, to find out, to understand — what we are, what life is, what kind of astounding cosmos kindled it — still seems like a burning drive all its own. It’s a startling diversion of life force ninety degrees away from “more of the same,” off the grid, out of this world, out of the “Will to Power” world in which our power will always be either pitifully limited or annihilating, into the world of thought which (thanks to the material mastery of science) can see to the beginning of the universe.

We will always have mixed motives, and that’s as it should be: the drive to live powers the drive to know. But the latter seems like the only larger purpose for “a human incarnation,” as the Buddhists put it, the best reason to live longer, and the only real consolation for death.

consciousness, evolutionary theory, intelligence, skepticism, Whither Homo sapiens?

That’s Deep.

David Brooks—a pundit turning philosopher, who seems to have wearied of the merely topical—makes a case that where we come from does not entirely determine or limit where we go:

Our origins are natural; our depths are man-made — engraved by thought and action.

This amendment seems worth making because the strictly evolutionary view of human nature sells humanity short. . . .

While we start with and are influenced by evolutionary forces, people also have the chance to make themselves deep in a way not explicable in strictly evolutionary terms.

So much of what we call depth is built through freely chosen suffering. . . . Often this depth is built by fighting against natural evolutionary predispositions. . . .

Babies are not deep. Old people can be, depending upon how they have chosen to lead their lives. Babies start out very natural. The people we admire are rooted in nature but have surpassed nature. Often they grew up in cultures that encouraged them to take a loftier view of their possibilities than we do today.

It’s very hard for people to hear or pay attention to what we don’t already think. I am grateful to David Brooks for striking out at an angle to today’s roads most traveled, even though his gentle, humanistic rebuke to scientistic reductionism will be scoffed at by “skeptics” as wishful thinking and by religious conservatives as wimpy appeasement. (They’re much more Manichaean: it’s salvation or it’s sin.) It’s a little sad, too, that to many, Brooks will seem to be making tracks in new snow, when it’s really only a thin layer of amnesia over the well-trodden paths of the past 5,000 years. I’m still glad he’s saying it, even if (or maybe just because) he may be speaking too softly to be heard by many, even from his political pundit’s bully pulpit.

The more I immerse myself in science and the culture surrounding it, the more the territory not ruled by biology seems to shrink, and the more cheered I am by the rare exceptions, those evaporating puddles of freedom from the totalitarianism of the selfish gene. Almost everything can be, and is, reduced to the marionettery of those coiled strands of DNA: any altruistic impulse can be, and is, explained away by kin selection or group selection, any creative impulse by competitive sexual display, attachment by its advantages for survival, most of high culture (literature, philosophy, faith) by the denial of death. At least one pair of thinkers has posited that evolution eliminated advanced intelligence until H. sapiens came up with denial: no other species had found a way past the threshold where the dawning awareness of mortality brings on such a sense of futility that it kills the impulse to reproduce.

That’s debatable—as one Amazon critic of that book wrote, “the fact that I know that I am going to die some day … and even obsess about it from time to time … hasn’t prevented me from having a family”—but what seems undeniable is that all this reductionism kills the impulse to transcend, possibly justifying “low” behavior, tearing the clothes off any “pure” motive, and certainly lowering expectations of oneself and fellow humans. This began with Freud, who saw everything but sex as sublimated sex; he and his iconic cigar have now been replaced by an inflatable Darwin parade float.

To be immersed in the world of science-think, which extends well beyond science into its cultural corona, is to be almost brainwashed by this reductionism. I play this game with myself: a thought or emotion comes up, and I slot it into its biological context. Of course my family is all excited about the newborn twins, my parents’ third and fourth great-grandchildren: we’re programmed to ooh and ahh over little bundles of our own genes. As the only childless one in this fecund family—not by choice—I’m a loser in the only game that counts, lamely serving the germline from the auntly sidelines. Whatever I do or write will no longer boost my reproductive success by attracting attention, resources, and mates (if it ever would have—even now it doesn’t work quite like that for females, which helps explain our divided motivation), so what’s to drive it?

Which brings me back to David Brooks’s point: the only qualities, motives, and acts that are uniquely human are those that can’t be reduced to biological utility, that even defy it. They are few, and they compose a thin layer of human life—the new snow of the neocortex falling on deep reptilian ruts of rutting and brawling. They are the rare and precious things that cheer me up. Empathy, the ability to imagine another’s subjectivity, sometimes to the point of one’s own disadvantage. Witness, the way we are the universe’s way of looking at itself, wanting to know out of wonder and curiosity and not only for advantage. Love, what happens AFTER (in Brooks’s words) “we’re aroused by people who send off fertility or status cues,” when we’re living with another individual, getting bruised by the rough edges and gazing into the depths. Creation, a transaction of witness between you and the universe whether a fellow primate ever praises it or not.

What Brooks says is that is that this thin layer of human existence is what we experience as “depth.” The depths of our biological heritage, on the other hand, feel driven, propulsive, powerful, intoxicating . . . and ultimately stereotyped, fleeting, and shallow.

Later: That isn’t stated right. Most of what makes our lives meaningful is biological, starting with . . . um . . . being alive. Most of our strongest emotions are about staying alive, passing life on, and protecting it.

But. It’s that extra dimension that gives those emotions depth, much as shading a line drawing of an apple makes it look three-dimensional. That added dimension of stopping and wondering and imagining What is this? WTF is all this?—the gaze of that third eye, neither predatory nor desirous, with no agenda but astonishment, opened by language and death—may be the thinnest veneer on our consciousness, but as the Higgs boson gives every other particle its mass, this is what gives everything its depth.

Later still: In the course of a dialog with commenter realpc at my other blog Ambiance, it struck me that nature is not reductive (as scientists keep finding out to their fascination and chagrin). Our current popular concept of it is. The culture that has grown up around science, crafted by certain popularizers—the Pinker-Dawkins-Dennett axis, the aggressive “skeptic” blogs (a culture which I think misrepresents and undersells science itself)—is proudly reductive, billing materialism and evolutionary psychology as the antidote to sentimentality for the tough-minded. It’s very macho (which is not to say women can’t play), and a good part of what drives it is pleasure in feeling superior to and putting down others who are soft-minded enough to see any sign of meaning, purpose, or mystery in nature. If you traced this ‘tude’s cultural history, it might lead you back to the French existentialists, particularly the trousery swagger of Sartre and his compatriots, who billed themselves the only ones tough enough to look a meaningless universe in the eye and to emblazon their will on the void . . . boys peeing their names on blank snow.

consciousness, skepticism, What is life? What is death?

A Mechanism of Immortality

. . . that even a materialist could love?

I’m not a convinced materialist (that takes belief, and I am not a believer of any kind—I’m as pure an agnostic as you’ll find), but I’m immersed in science all day long and so I am conversant with its core belief, which is—crudely put—that only what has a demonstrable physical, material basis is real. Let’s take that as our premise just for the moment, without taking it as truth or untruth.

We all have odd thoughts sometimes, and what follows was one of mine. It was spurred by hearing about someone who, late in his own life, had quite convincing hallucinatory conversations with his deceased wife. And more than one person my age who has said that it was only when their second parent died that they lost them both. And the truism, maybe especially a secular Jewish one, that memory is our immortality.

What if that’s literally true?

Another ingredient in this thought is having copyedited a book about the Singularity, the techno-geek fantasy that machines will bring us immortality (it’s been called “the Rapture for nerds”). Various mechanisms are imagined, but one of them is transferring our consciousness into a silicon substrate, a deathless machine. I am extremely skeptical of this and think it’s basically a religious hope of escape from death transferred lock, stock, and barrel onto science, but that’s beside my point here.

Which is: What if we actually transfer at least a part of our consciousness into another brain?

That seems less of a stretch than transferring it into the alien medium of silicon. And love is the technology of transfer. Longtime couples, besides sharing a lot of experiences, certainly incorporate parts of each other’s outlook into themselves. “Becoming one flesh” might be a metaphor not only for feeling one another’s joy or pain, but for an identification intimate enough to incorporate some of each other’s cognitive traces. When one dies, then, maybe some aspects of their consciousness literally live on in the other’s brain.

Just putting it out there. When I listen to jazz, it feels like Jacques is listening through me.

Cross-posted on Ambiance