"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.
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.

evolutionary theory, transgenic organisms

Natural Chimeras: Speciation through Horizontal Genome Transfer

A while back I posted about a crackpot scientist who speculates that humans could be hybrids of chimpanzees [sic] and pigs. What a crock! Everyone knows that the barriers to reproduction between such remotely related species are way too high at the chromosomal level for such a hybrid, even were it ever so briefly conceived, to be viable.

Except it turns out plants do just that—and in more ways than one. Not only does sexual hybridization happen between plant species; now it turns out that plants of different species exchange not just genes, but whole genomes, at graft sites, creating new species that are “allopolyploid” without the need for sex.

This was just published in no less than Nature, so it is not heresy. It has received science’s rabbinical kosher stamp.

Did you know grafting was a spontaneous natural process? I didn’t, but it makes perfect sense. If a growing tree trunk can incorporate a fence or an abandoned bicycle, plants could surely merge with each other where their trunks press together or their stems or branches intertwine. (Humans may well have gotten the idea of grafting from observing this natural occurrence.) It turns out they don’t just physically surround one another’s substance, but get promiscuous on the organelle and molecular scales. Like sexual alloploidy in plants, or even more so, this process might enable the formation of new species “from more distantly related progenitor species belonging to different genera or even different tribes.”

Polyploidy is far rarer in animals than in plants, but some evolutionary theorists have hypothesized that it may have played a pivotal role at key points in the evolution of vertebrates. In prokaryotes, horizontal gene transfer, at least, is accepted as a mechanism of speciation, and I found at least one paper that ends with the speculation that eukaryotes, up to and including yours truly, could have diversified in part with the help of this mechanism:

It can therefore be concluded that eukaryotes possess the same capacity and similar mechanisms for effective HGT as prokaryotes do, and laboratory experiments have shown that these mechanisms are functional. Given the instruments and the opportunities, is it possible that they are not being extensively used? It is only 98% true that the genomes of humans and other primates are 98% identical – they are almost 100% identical in almost every gene, and the process of speciation probably consisted of the acquisition of one or several sets of new genes by HGT. To mention just a single example, Alu sequences are very successful transposable elements that entered the ancestral primate germ line ~60 million years ago (by HGT?). They might have played a pivotal role in the speciation of primates. Which are the ‘human-specific’ genes? Are there humanization gene islands? Our prediction is that they will be found.

It’s an impossibly big jump to pigs and apes. Vertebrate animals have much higher barriers to genome-mingling—skins, immune systems, membranes—and now we’re talking about not just different tribes but different orders, a taxonomic gulf that (as far as I know) not even plants are known to cross. And at first glance, no asexual mechanism comparable to grafting exists that could ever bring mammalian genomes into such close contact with each other.

Except possibly . . .


I’m not arguing for porcine ancestry. Just pondering the increasing evidence that no species, and no individual, is an island, and that boundaries—lines drawn in the cytoplasm—are more provisional and permeable than we supposed.

climate change, evolutionary theory, extinction, intelligence, Whither Homo sapiens?

Our Schizzy Worldview

The worldview of the scientific era (something quite different from “the scientific worldview”), the popular aura that reverently surrounds science as the universal and catholic church of our time—the provider of origin myth, the promiser of redemption from death—this mythos of our time consists of two contradictory parts, as oxymoronic as matter and antimatter.

One part says that we came on the scene some two million years ago as a unique evil, the destroyers of the biosphere. The green stain of human self-hatred that welled up in the Deep Ecology movement has slowly spread to infect all sincere nature lovers, climate Cassandras, devout recyclers, carbon Puritans, alternative-energy evangelists, believers that we’ve destroyed the original biodiverse Eden and that The World Without Us was and would again be a better world. In this religiomimetic myth, becoming human was the Fall. Our drive to be fruitful and multiply, to prevail, to consume, to transform as much as possible of the planet’s biosphere into a pullulating mass of Us, our greedy Willen zur Macht, exceeds that of any other predator or pest, said drive having lost its innocence when it became coupled to an insatiable imagination, a clever pair of hands and a scheming prefrontal cortex. The tone of this dark half of our myth is mourning, self-abnegation, penitence, and shame.

The other part of our era’s myth, perhaps nurtured orclike in the egg of science fiction, asserts that we’re the only intelligence on this planet, if not in the universe, and that now that we have discovered the scientific method, we with our technology-enabled reason will eventually create a better world than blind, bumbling nature ever could. We will become functionally immortal, will banish illness and death, grow wings if we want to, create artificial life-forms to serve us, spin protein out of sunlight to feed billions more of us, and take charge of our own evolution into a godlike superintelligence ourselves. The tone of this bright half of our myth is triumphalism, bravado, and delusional optimism.

At first glance these two halves of our worldview appear to have nothing in common, but they do in fact share one major theme: a comical overestimation of our own importance and power, for good or for ill. Maybe these inflated worldviews arise just now as a defense against the realization of how infinitesimally tiny we are in both time and space. We’ve been Hubbled, but good. How do we square our huge, myopic importance to ourselves, our “It’s the biggest thing in the universe!” grasping after goods and wins and mates, with this mind-boggling insignificance? Every animal (and for all we know, every plant) is caught up in the huge drama of its own survival and self-perpetuation. It’s how life’s drive is experienced by those who enact it. But let’s have some perspective, people. We can’t have much, but let’s have a little.

Earth has seen worse than us. It (or She) will survive; it’s we who won’t, in large numbers, if we temporarily tip the environmental balance against the conditions we ourselves need to survive. Our sudden shock and sorrow at the disappearance of other species (which I certainly share; I’m the one who won’t go to China because of tigers, and this book broke my heart) is, unavoidably, sorrow at our loss—of what we in the developed world have only realized they meant to us now that they’re mostly just being beautiful screensavers and not eating us or competing with us. The species we mourn are proxies for ourselves. When any creature reproduces too successfully in the absence of predation, it consumes its food supply, exceeds the carrying capacity of its environment, and experiences a population crash. We’re as blameless as a plague of locusts in this respect. Though technology buys us time, enabling us to stretch the envelope quite a lot, the ocean, for instance, is not infinite, and that’s what we’re really afraid of—with reason. Other species are collateral damage.

As vain as it is to fancy ourselves the most destructive force evah (you wanna see destructive?), it’s equally preposterous to presume we are the only locus of intelligence on this planet, let alone others. Just the “backstage” intelligence running our own cells, for starters, is far more complex than the content and operations of our own intelligence. As for sentience and strategy, communication, love, and humor, they are constantly bubbling up—in forms as alien to us as birds, cetaceans, and cephalopods. Every species has an intelligence fitted to (or overflowing) its niche and its way of living, and every species, including us, lives sealed inside its own sensorium, as if its world were THE world. (“How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,” wrote Blake, “is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your Senses five?”) The process of evolution itself may turn out to be drenched with intelligence, able to perceive and respond to environmental conditions, to remember, and to improvise. (Just read this.) The intricacy and interconnectedness of life at the molecular level makes it overwhelmingly likely that much of the crude tinkering we do will backfire, and we will be lucky if it is not in spectacularly Faustian fashion. We may do ourselves some good, but at a high risk of far more harm, because our minds at their best are many orders of magnitude simpler than the phenomena they are attempting to manipulate.

This world is magnificent, and in a sense it’s tragic to damage any of its amazing creations—but that is also nonsense, because they are all merrily eating each other all the time, and the whole shebang is constantly revising and trashing its own creations. We’re just its latest way of doing that, as well as part of the dispensable raw material. This is not to say we’re wrong to try to rein in our collective voracity and use our ingenuity to figure out ways to live and let live—for our own sake, our own physical and psychic survival. The life-forms with which we happen to coexist in this geological eyeblink will be collateral beneficiaries in the unlikely event that we can actually manage to do that. But let us admit we’re doing this for our own sake, adapting in a bid to survive. And let it be for the sake of pure curiosity and wonder, possibly the only real value added we bring to the game.


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.

evolutionary theory, Quotes & Aphorisms


George Orwell would have loved this: an immodest proposal that humans are hybrids . . . of chimpanzees and pigs. (Let’s be charitable and take “chimpanzees” as shorthand for “an apelike common ancestor of chimps and humans.”)

No, it’s not a joke, though you might at first mistake it for Orwellian or Swiftian satire. Nor is it just an isolated, fantastic assertion. It’s built on a thoroughly researched and carefully argued, if far-fetched, alternative theory of the origin of new species, in which hybridization plays a significant part and is claimed to be more common and more possible across wider taxonomic gaps, with only partial loss of fertility, than commonly thought. (The uniquely dysfunction-riddled quality of human sperm is offered as one piece of evidence.) The theory’s progenitor, geneticist Eugene M. McCarthy, is a “saltationist” (from the Latin for “leap”)—a proponent of the concept of sudden, major evolutionary change—and he annotates his theory with a history of the argument between saltationists and gradualists, claiming that Darwin was and became more of a saltationist behind the scenes than he let on in the Origin.

 An immodest proposal that humans are hybrids . . . of chimpanzees and pigs.

The argument is long and complex and, frankly, I haven’t gotten very far into it yet. And I may yet be persuaded (comments are open—have at it!) that it is too crackpot to be worth the time. Suffice it to say that the argument about pigs is supported by a long list of features we have in common with pigs but not with any primate—among them a prominent, cartilaginous nose, naked skin with a thick layer of subcutaneous fat, multipyramidal kidneys, and “glabrous mucous membrane bordering lips.” But note that when it comes to skin, at least, lean, hairy wild pigs don’t have these characteristics, so you might as plausibly argue that a human mated with a wild pig to produce the domestic pig—thus creating dinner in our own image.

(Our noses, naked skins, and subcutaneous fat are at least as well accounted for by Welsh feminist Elaine Morgan’s aquatic ape theory. I’ve long been fond of this one, which receives support from every trip to the beach or the pool where you see that beatific, homecoming smile on faces of all ages. That link is a very entertaining video of Morgan challenging evolutionary dogma—”Charles Darwin must be spinning in his grave!”—but if you’re like me and don’t have time for a video, here’s a written summary.)

So why is this weirdness worth posting about? Because challenges to evolutionary dogma, which are increasing in number and  coming from increasingly respectable scientific quarters, are a symptom that the theory as it stands is too stiff and tight to contain the facts we are discovering and is about to split like a chrysalis (even if “about to,” in mental geological time, is measured in decades). Two examples are the exploding field of epigenetics, which raises the possibility that mutation could be creatively responsive to rapid environmental change, and eminent mathematician Leslie Valiant’s provocative book Probably Approximately Correct, which I capsule-reviewed here. The review was unkindly cut, and it’s short, so here’s the original:

A winner of the Turing Award, a.k.a. the “Nobel of computing,” Leslie Valiant celebrates Alan Turing as the progenitor of a third scientific revolution, potentially as profound as Newton’s and Einstein’s in transforming our understanding of the world. Why not “fourth revolution”—why omit Darwin? Because—it’s the bombshell of this slim, math-heavy book—Valiant dares to say Darwin’s theory is radically incomplete, that until it is equipped to make quantitative, verifiable predictions, evolution by natural selection cannot account for the complexity of living things and is not “more than a metaphor.” That amounts to saying the emperor is naked, but Valiant offers no drop of succor to creationists. Rather, he seeks to arm neo-Darwinian theory against their onslaughts by elucidating the mechanistic, quantitative basis it must have in a world “without a designer.” The algorithms of computational learning theory, he posits, will be key—a special kind he calls “ecorithms,” that incorporate information gathered from the environment to improve an organism’s “performance.” Nature and nurture—evolution, civilization, and individual experience—thus form one continuous learning curve, and Turing’s heirs have only just begun to plot its equation.

These challenges invite thinking outside the box, sketching out novel pathways for investigation—like the first strands of spider’s silk flung into the void—many of which will prove dead ends, but a few of which may take hold and begin to thicken and glisten with evidence, revealing a new pattern that reorganizes all that was known and thought before. McCarthy writes of an “unknown force” that some nineteenth-century biologists sensed at work in evolution. This sounds like a hidden religious agenda; probably in the nineteenth century it sometimes was, and I can’t yet tell whether McCarthy has such an agenda or not. But taken straight, those words reveal a refreshing humility: much about what we life forms (“all my relatives”) are, and how we got here, is in fact unknown. My own sense is that what science itself is discovering is fixin’ to blow both conventional science and conventional religion out of the water.

I’ll leave you with two nineteenth-century quotes from McCarthy’s website, macroevolution.net:

Every great truth begins as heresy and ends as superstition. —T.H. Huxley

There may be an unknown factor that will cause quite as great a surprise as Darwin’s.
—Henry Fairfield Osborn