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The Blind Watchmaker ain't so blind after all.
January 20, 2003 7:32 AM   Subscribe

The "Blind Watchmaker" ain't so blind after all. An article in this week's Journal of Theoretical Biology claims that simple chemistry makes the evolution of complex organisms with nervous systems inevitable. Is random Darwinism being replaced by a more sophisticated notion of "directed evolution"? Could this confirm the "intelligent design" theory of Creation? This may have profound consequences for our understanding of how life has come to be on this planet (and others).
posted by Bletch (40 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

If so how come life is not present (as far as we know) on Mars? At one time it seems to have been hospitable to life and according to the article the organisms would have adapted to the changing environment.
posted by PenDevil at 7:38 AM on January 20, 2003

Could this confirm the "intelligent design" theory of Creation?

Um, no. For starters, intelligent design thery proposes that certain types of complexity cannot come about entirely through the action of natural forces. And Darwinism is not random because some configurations are more stable than others.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:42 AM on January 20, 2003

This is the first paragraph of the original article (the copyright-hungry Elsevier owns it, but it's fair use):

The objective of this paper is to present a systems view of the major features of biological evolution based upon changes in internal chemistry and uses of cellular space, both of which it will be stated were dependent on the changing chemical environment. The account concerns the major developments from prokaryotes to eukaryotes, to multi-cellular organisms, to animals with nervous systems and a brain, and ?nally to human beings and their uses of chemical elements in space outside themselves. It will be stated that the changes were in an inevitable progression, and were not just due to blind chance, so that ‘‘random searching’’ by a coded system to give species had a ?xed overall route. The chemical sequence is froma reducing to an ever-increasingly oxidizing environment, while organisms retained reduced chemicals. The process was furthered recently by human beings who have also
increased the range of reduced products trapped on Earth in novel forms. All the developments are brought about from the nature of the chemicals which organisms accumulate using the environment and its changes. The relationship to the manner in which particular species (gene sequences) were coincidentally changed, the molecular view of evolution, is left for additional examination.

I think that this is going to be the start of a big paradigm shift in our understanding of how we came to be here, and how humans "fit in" to the Universe.
posted by Bletch at 7:45 AM on January 20, 2003

There we go again...
posted by 111 at 7:46 AM on January 20, 2003

Could this confirm the "intelligent design" theory of Creation?

How would it confirm it? It's never been anything more valid than a guess to say that where we see order in nature there must - not might be - but must be some kind of intelligence directing it. Maybe things are ordered in some way because that's the way they are. I'm happy with that kind of universe.
posted by holycola at 7:51 AM on January 20, 2003

That's a fair point KirkJob, but this paper goes way beyond most people's idea of Darwinism as a "random force for generating any kind of life" and shows that the underlying chemistry may force life to eventually evolve intelligence. Leaving boring religious debates aside, this is an interesting philosophical development and is quite distinct from traditional notions of Darwinism.
posted by Bletch at 7:54 AM on January 20, 2003

Thank God the theories of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ never really go out of fashion...
posted by Dagobert at 7:56 AM on January 20, 2003

This is a tremendously dumb article, and it makes some pretty proposterous claims, none of which are substantiated by the evidence. Darwinian evolution argues that organisms change randomly, and *then* that the ones which survive are the ones best-suited to the environment. Nothing these scientists have discovered -- or, really, summarized -- shows that random change did not occur or that the evolutionary change was 'directed.'

Further, the article ignores the billions of evolutionary changes organisms have undergone throughout the history of life; needless to say, it's easy to find a pattern when you focus only on half-a-dozen examples. A trip to any natural history museum will make it clear that there have been many ultimately unsuccessful evolutionary changes which were hardly directed.

Like most 'intelligent design theory,' this article is logically flawed, focused on only a few examples, and, essentially, meaningless.
posted by josh at 7:58 AM on January 20, 2003

If so how come life is not present (as far as we know) on Mars?

Williams and Frausto da Silva have exactly nothing to say about this issue as they take the presence of a self replicating cell as their starting point. A s the presence of such a cell is not currently demonstrable at any time period on Mars, the Williams and Frausto da Silva analysis is not applicable as the initial conditions are not met.

on page 324 the authors state:

"In this article we shall use systems analysis in a simpli?ed manner to examine features of the evolution of organisms (Williams & Frausto da Silva, 1999). This means that we study the introduction of extra components, by reference to element chemistry and compartments not changes internal to large molecules. We are not then concerned with the origin of life, or with the evolution of individual species."

Thus, Williams and Frausto da Silva are not answering "Why is there life present on Earth?" (which is analagous to your question), but are proposing an answer to "How did life on Earth come to take on the general forms that we currently observe, and that have been observed throughout the fossil record?", a question that cannot be asked about Mars.
posted by iceberg273 at 8:00 AM on January 20, 2003

Sounds suspiciously like one of those "eat your cake and have it too" situations. First they condemn evolution for being insufficient to explain complex processes, then when that is rebutted, they turn around and use that selfsame rebuttal as evidence for their case. How can they lose?
posted by RavinDave at 8:07 AM on January 20, 2003

josh, I'm not sure I agree with you 100% on your assessment there. What these scientists have argued is that the simple chemistry of reduction, oxidation, and so on, plays a crititical role in "guiding" evolution. Contrary to your assertion, the article (and its summary in New Scientist) points out a number of common features to many all organisms which are difficult to explain conventionally: common cell structure (nuclear membrane, organelles), complex nervous and muscular systems for animals, woody structures for plants, sodium and calcium used for cell comunication - and they show how these features are neatly explained by taking this chemistry into account. These features are about as non-trivial as you can get!

Moreover, I think you're incorrect in assessing the article as somehow advocating intelligent design theory - it's in a mainstream scientific journal. However, there does seem to be convergence between the article's conclusions and the beliefs of some "intelligent design" advocates - which is why I mentioned this in the first place.
posted by Bletch at 8:12 AM on January 20, 2003

All this proves is that the pathetic fallacy is alive and kicking in the imaginations of people who interpret scholarly papers. So far as I can tell from reading the summary in newscientist, the thrust of the article is simply that certain chemical processes created environments which made it much more likely for other chemical processes to take place. That's hardly a revolution in science. To conclude from this that chemistry "meant" for these changes to take place is wishful thinking on the part of intelligent design "theorists" who would like the existence of God to be spelled out in some clearly legible format.

I've always held that the "intelligent design" model of evangelism is anathema to real faith. It seeks to deny faith by eliminating the possibility of a worldview that does not include a creator God, thereby eliminating the free will of the people who live in such a world. And I've often gotten the sense that those who uphold it do so out of a sense of spite rather than a real desire to bring people to God. "I guess you scientists aren't so smart after all!" they seem to be saying. Please. Trying to use science to prove or disprove the existence of God is like trying to measure the depth of your emotions with a yardstick. Trying to convert atheists with that argument is like wrestling with a pig: you just get dirty, and the pig likes it.
posted by vraxoin at 8:13 AM on January 20, 2003

Uh. From what I can see, Williams and daSilva haven't said anything on intelligent design. I think all of us agree that intelligent design is pretty fallacious -- could we therefore avoid preaching to the choir and have a more interesting discussion? (Not trying to moderate, here -- just a suggestion.)

I'm lucky enough to be on a university computer at the moment, so I snagged a copy of the article, and am currently printing it. If anyone wants the PDF, feel free to e-mail me. (Uploading it would probably violate fair use, but sending individually for the purposes of fostering academic discussion is no more than what professors do when they photocopy articles, so it should be ok.)

Not having read the actual article yet, I think what the authors are suggesting is that Darwinian evolution is sufficiently constrained that evolution must follow a certain path. Am I right?

And Bletch, when you said that the development of complex organisms is inevitable, are you imagining that path starting from simple lifeforms, or the primordial soup? If this theory were to predict that life would inevitably arise given the right mix of chemicals -- now man, that would be interesting.
posted by tweebiscuit at 8:22 AM on January 20, 2003

Hey kids! The Selfish Gene has been out since 1976 and it's still in print in a really cool edition with extra chapters and excellent end notes commenting on the action in evolutionary theory since the first publication. In fact, in the end notes, Dawkins even points out and corrects areas in the original where he was wrong!

Alas for Williams and Frausto da Silva (or, more particularly, the author of the New Scientest blurb on their article), the statistical nature of it all is not one of those areas.
posted by wobh at 8:44 AM on January 20, 2003

The watchmaker is still completely blind, and this article is completely dumb. Evolution is a mechanism for a population's adaptation to its environment; to describe the chemistry of the early oceans and say "see, changes in our environment directed our evolution!" just proves and elucidates Darwin — and Dawkins.
posted by nicwolff at 8:58 AM on January 20, 2003

So you are saying that reporting of academic articles, especially those concerning science, is done poorly by the media? And that findings are sensationalized and over interpreted (or under interpreted, depending)? And that one would be better off actually reading the original article itself (not to mentioning reviewing the relevant literature)?

*falls over in a dead faint*
posted by iceberg273 at 9:06 AM on January 20, 2003

this is similar to kauffman's investigations (not a book i would recommend - it's terribly written and spends an awful lot of time stating the obvious where its supports the case and ignoring it where it doesn't - but i'm only a couple of chapters in, so maybe it'll improve). he's aiming more (so far - see parenthetical comment above) at the chemical processes behind self-replication than cellular chemistry, but it's a similar "order for free via complexity" plus "it has to be like this because that's what works" argument.

incidentally, the selfish gene has to be the best book on darwinism (sez me) and ditto on the "how on earth is this related to intelligent design" comments.

ps and my copy of investigations is now soggy because it's raining! in santiago in the middle of summer!!
posted by andrew cooke at 9:31 AM on January 20, 2003

oops. meant extended phenotype. but they're all good...
posted by andrew cooke at 9:34 AM on January 20, 2003

Support for"intelligent design"? Blech. If anything, I think it supports weak "Gaian" theory.
posted by troutfishing at 9:38 AM on January 20, 2003

I'll say that the development of [simple|complex] organisms is inevitable, given conditions amenable to the process.

I firmly believe that life is opportunistic, tenacious, and inevitable. There are some preconditions, no doubt: can't have radiation ripping new compounds apart as soon as they form, f'rinstance; and perhaps there needs to be a clay substrate to provide a "nest" for the organic molecules.

Consider life to be a series of tall cliffs and plateaus. It's a bitch getting from one plateau to another, but once there it's dead easy to sit and rest and futz about... indeed, it's *far* easier to remain on that plateau than to go back down.

So it's tough to get from organic chemical soup to a self-replicating organic compound, but once there it ain't going back without a fight. Likewise it's tough to get from soup to soup-in-a-baggie (cell), but again, once it's there, it stays.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:39 AM on January 20, 2003

FWIW, I've been suspecting for a while now that the obsession with random selection isn't entirely necessary -- for all the fear of intelligent design, it's worth noting how badly we understand intelligence. AI theory used to boldly claim that simply creating a pile of neurons would unveil the mysteries of all knowledge acquisition; oh boy did that fail.

We can think without thinking randomly, and without our thoughts being projected from some non-corporeal realm. I suspect eventually evolutionary processes may be thought of in the same way -- there's no need for natural selection to be entirely random, not when there's this rather massive intelligent infrastructure growing around it.

Genetics speaks only chemicals. This I grant. But I note that intelligent creatures speak in chemical messengers as well -- they're called hormones. Even a small ability to influence which sperm, or which eggs might eventually be most fit to yield a child would create significant improvement among random chance, which -- lets face it -- is much more likely to yield garbage than gem.

Once it becomes simple to do large scale genome mapping in very short timeframes, I suspect one of the most interesting studies will be an analysis of genetic content of "fit" spermatazoa (defined as those who swam the farthest along an artificial reproductive tract) vs. "unfit" spermatazoa.

As far as I know, nobody's ever proven that the genetic content of sperm is entirely random. I believe the first attempts to do so will yield very interesting results.

Yours Truly,

Dan Kaminsky
DoxPara Research
posted by effugas at 9:42 AM on January 20, 2003

So, tweebiscuit, if we "all agree" that intelligent design (and all points intellectually south) is fallacious, where does that fallacy spring from? Sure, the creationist types are the fault of church, but the intelligent design types aren't so simple. They're actually educated people for the most part and try to express their faith within the rules and language of science. How do they stray so far from reality then?

My feeling (which is skewed by the fact that education is my bread & butter) is that fundamental science education is to blame. School kids are taught the most naive and overly simplified possible version of causality, reducing it to the same sort of black-and-white philosophy as the general Christian worldview. If you glom on to that hobbled scientific worldview (that natural causality is obvious, simple, and linear), then very little of nature can actually make any kind of sense, so you're left to mythologize to fill in the blanks (as people have done for as long as they've been creative enough to invent gods.)

Understanding the profound creative capacity of complex interactions in nature requires a fairly deep understanding of causality at a global, statistical level, as opposed to a local, 1 to 1 level. It is only when you consider many simultaneous channels of (relatively simple) interactions that the emergent behavior (e.g. autocatalytic loops) that gives rise to the natural world's fantastic complexity.
posted by badstone at 10:24 AM on January 20, 2003

An interesting offshoot of this claim: if it's correct, we could expect that life on other planets -- if it exists, and if it uses the same initial chemical basis as life on earth -- would be similar to life on earth at the cellular level. Not that that necessarily means the aliens will be Star Trekkish humans-but-with-bumpy-foreheads, of course: there's a lot of room for variation within those chemical constraints, obviously.

That 'same initial chemical basis' is a pretty big if, though: while DNA is really good at its job, there might well be some other molecule out there just as capable of passing information on from one generation to the next, which would be chemically constrained to evolve in a completely different direction.

effugas, have you perhaps noticed that nobody here uses .sigs but you? Ever wondered why that is?

Yours truly,

posted by ook at 11:17 AM on January 20, 2003

Darwinism as a "random force for generating any kind of life"

I do hope that this is not the prevailing opinion as to what darwin was trying to say in 'on the origin of the species'
posted by johnnyboy at 11:30 AM on January 20, 2003

That's one of the things that has me excited about all this, ook - that if life does arise somewhere, then it's likely to become complex, interesting life. There are certainly other long molecules (like RNA) which can pass information on - in fact, current theories believe that before DNA came along, there was an "RNA world" of life just composed of RNA and membranes. However, the latecomer DNA had some advantages - namely its double-strandedness and ease of replication - so after a few billion years, RNA now has a role only as an intermediary between DNA (information storage) and protein. If this transition happened here, then it can - and will - happen everywhere else.

Sorry to express myself so badly, jonnyboy: I meant to say that Darwinism states that new forms of life arise from the selective inheritance of randomly generated variations. This remains true, but this new paper addresses some fundamental, hidden constraints on the evolution of life - and indicates why these constraints alone might select for intelligent, complex life.
posted by Bletch at 11:41 AM on January 20, 2003

Oh, alrighty. I'll stop using sigs for everything that takes me less than an hour to write.

It's a personal habit, related to the old Usenet rule to Own Your Words...but heh, there's a rather older rule, regarding appropriate behavioral patterns when one finds themself in Rome...

Bletch -- let me reiterate that the entropy of reproductive processes has not yet, to my knowledge, been analyzed yet.

posted by effugas at 12:19 PM on January 20, 2003

badstone :: If you glom on to that hobbled scientific worldview (that natural causality is obvious, simple, and linear), then very little of nature can actually make any kind of sense, so you're left to mythologize to fill in the blanks.

So are you just saying that the makeup of a system is not dependant on local events? Or are you trying to get across something deeper, here?

Also, this might be a good time for all of us to review exactly what Darwinism is. And, also what evolution is.
posted by bshort at 12:42 PM on January 20, 2003

Emergent complexity applied to chemistry. Duh. To the authors of the paper: thanks for reinforcing what we already knew a long goddamned time ago. To the sensationalist media: do f^&* off, won't you?
posted by Ryvar at 12:51 PM on January 20, 2003

Bletch, I am in part responding to your post, which suggests that this article might support the "intelligent design theory" of "Creation" -- and I don't belive it does. Revealing 'hidden constraints' does not in any way support ideas about intelligent design. It supports plain-old Darwinian evolution: organisms evolve to maximize success within the constraints of their environment. To add the word "guide" is to personify a process which is impersonal; to say "constrain" is to be more accurate while clearly placing the article well within the realm of Darwinian thinking.

It seems to me that the scope of this article is pretty much revealed by the last sentence of the first paragraph: "The relationship to the manner in which particular species (gene sequences) were coincidentally changed, the molecular view of evolution, is left for additional examination.". Because this article says nothing about the mechanics of actual evolutionary change, but concentrates only on the (I agree, very non-trivial) development of broad trends, it is hard to see how it can constitute any kind of true revolution or revision. At the level of the species, the article is simply not interested; certainly the New Scientist summary of the article, which suggests that we are looking at a fundamental challenge to Darwinian evolution, is way off-target because the science in question does not really talk about the evolution of particular species.

Taking a "systems view" of evolution is interesting -- but the observations made in the N.S. article are nothing someone who's taken a college evolutionary biology class wouldn't already know. Life on earth's surface is carbon-based because that's the environment it developed in; cells came about because (perhaps) of wave motion in the early oceans; speciation resulted from the 'oxygen holocaust' -- all of this is true, and the fact that life on Earth adapted to these conditions should be of no surprise to anyone. Explaining, in other words, the development of systems in terms of environmental factors is Darwinian evolution. The idea that this thinking is challenging Darwin is a reach; the reason these developments are common to old life is because they are the most successful given the conditions on our planet.

I'm sorry to've reacted so strongly, but it seems to me that the Creationism/IDT/Darwin debate, often, as was pointed out, undertaken by educated folks, is one of the craziest debates now ongoing. Darwin was, by-and-large, completely correct in his ideas about evolution; many theories championed as major revisions, such as Gould's punctuated equiliubrium, have turned out to be simply untrue. Many of these competing theories (again, Gould's) seem to converge with ideas about intelligent design, pointing to evolutionary developments which seem hard-to-explain. Yet these developments are often hard-to-explain simply because the early fossil record, which consists largely of vertebrates and their ancestors, is deeply incomplete. Meanwhile experimenters have been increasingly successful at seeing evolution happen in the laboratory or in the field; yes, in small steps, but visibly and in a way which is rigorous and scientifically meaningful.

In other words, though the original article might be reasonable enough, it is being represented as something very different than what it is -- in fact, very modest, (to my mind) very conventional, and very limited in its application. We might as well add to the list of constraints Earth's distance from the sun, or the meteor impact which might have caused the Cambrian extinction. Somehow those constrains don't instill faith in 'intelligent design,' yet the ones these scientists cite do?
posted by josh at 1:15 PM on January 20, 2003

Well done, Josh.
posted by bshort at 1:33 PM on January 20, 2003

So are you just saying that the makeup of a system is not dependant on local events? Or are you trying to get across something deeper, here?

Actually, I guess what I'm really getting at is that all the cool emergent stuff happens in the spooky world between the local and the global, between the exact and the statistical. You have to work out the problem in a way that science in general (and physics in particular, as the historic leader of scientific advancement) has sort of dropped the ball on.

That is by not ignoring "details" when you scale up. Rather than canceling out and going away, as they might in simple physical systems, small seeming details in chemical and biological systems have a habit of adding up in a big way. The biologists, chemists, evolutionists, etc... have been coping with this problem reasonably well, and now have a good deal of practice at it. Hence, I think physicists are going to fall back as the leaders of fundamental new science (and scientific mathematics), and the biologists will take the wheel for a while in the coming century.
posted by badstone at 1:45 PM on January 20, 2003

The fact that life is delimited by available ingredients implies neither recipe nor cook.
posted by Opus Dark at 1:48 PM on January 20, 2003

No, No, No, a million times no. These chemists have done no more than describe the process. While I use tennis shoes to help me walk down the street, this does not mean that my Nikes invented walking. Nor did they tell me where to go, create the world in seven days, give Moses the ten commandments, part the red sea, or give their only begotten son. They are Nikes. End of story.
posted by charlesv at 1:49 PM on January 20, 2003

Forgot to add:
Thanks for the post, though, Bletch. While I disagree with what the article says, thanks for taking the time to post something genuinely thought-provoking.
posted by charlesv at 1:51 PM on January 20, 2003

and speciation?
posted by Postroad at 2:43 PM on January 20, 2003

and speciation?

I'm a fan of the theory that Lynn Margulis' new book discusses - that speciation is largely a product of symbiogenesis.
posted by badstone at 4:11 PM on January 20, 2003

If the Intelligent Design people wanted to use this as some sort of scientific proof, it would probably be filed under the "fine-tuning" (or strong anthropic) argument. Since atoms that will spawn life exist (as opposed to a universe where the only elements are the noble gasses, or a universe where there's no gravity, or where everything is made of gluons, etc.), they must have been placed here by a higher power.

A nice critique of fine-tuning can be found in Reason Magazine.
posted by LimePi at 7:15 PM on January 20, 2003

Intelligent Design is a code-word phrase for the christian version of reality from the bible. Proponents of this world view stumble when asked if this means we came from extraterrestrials who visited the planet and nudged things along.
posted by atuafiu at 10:59 PM on January 20, 2003

I vote that people yell, bitch, and moan about posting media interpretations of scientific papers with as much zeal as they yell about newsfilter. I want to see a primary paper if it's new. I don't want something explained to me by someone who doesn't understand it.

Alternatively, you could just read the title, "Chemistry guides evolution, claims theory", say "no shit" and continue with your day.
posted by rhyax at 6:07 PM on January 21, 2003

I want to see a primary paper if it's new.

Typically, you can't, unless you have a subscription to the journal (and there's a lot of different journals). Also, a summary is often far more accessible for people who aren't up with the jargon. And for what it's worth, I think the New Scientist article did a reasonable job of summarising the findings. While the general idea of chemistry guiding evolution may well be obvious in hindsight, most people would find it far from obvious to show how basic chemistry has influenced the specific points of evolutionary development the authors bring up. If this really were a "no shit" finding, then would it have made it past peer review?
posted by Bletch at 12:51 AM on January 22, 2003

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