Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Evolution and Computation


I was alerted to the video above by its appearance on atheist Larry Moran’s blog. It is part of an interview with John C Sandford, a plant geneticist, who is billed on his Wiki page as a onetime atheist, but who is now an intelligent design creationist. In the interview the following points are mooted: 

 1. There is a process of gene death going on involving a bit by bit corruption of the genetic code – Sandford calls this the “trade secret” of genetics. Organisms are going “down” and not “up” he says. 
2. These myriad small genetic mutations are too small in benefit for selection to get hold of. 
3. If we project this degeneration back in time it implies that the human race is younger than we thought. (In fact on his Wiki page Sandford is quoted as jumping to the unwarranted conclusion that the Earth, (that is, not just this or that organism) is less than 200,000 years old! - ed)
4. Eugenics as a philosophy is just under the surface as a possible remedy to genetic entropy; the evolutionary community is thinking about eugenics but doesn’t want to talk about it. However, increasing selection pressure doesn’t stop the degeneration. (There's a good hook for conspiracy theory here! - ed)
5. The genetic degeneration in our bodies means there is no prospect of extending life. 
6. “Genetic entropy” (that is, the decay of all genes in the body due to many small random mutations) is a fact no scientist can deny. Hence aging and death. Some of these mutations transmit to offspring and hence the whole race goes downhill. 
7. We are a perishing people living in dying world. This is the downward spiral as described in scripture from which only Christ can save us. 

I have doubts about conventional evolution as the engine that has driven natural history as it is observed in the fossil record. But I would nevertheless want to distance myself from people like Sandford. 

There are at least two distinct ways life could have formed. 

a) Living configuration have a realistic probability of forming in the life time of our universe given the providences of our physical regime (bearing in mind that it is very unlikely we have fully grasped all the provisions of the cosmic physical regime (PR) and its implications). This is the so called self organisation scenario, which in less generalized form is the requirement of evolution as traditionally conceived. 

b) The history of life is a product of the technological model of development. That is, some level of intelligence is posited allowing jumps to be made between biological innovations. This will lead to a history of change with development gaps between organisms. These gaps represent leaps between “islands of configurational self-sustainability”. These islands are separated by a considerable measure of computational complexity. Therefore they are traversed by computations done in background; that is, the computations necessary to traverse these islands are not reified on any medium we are familiar with and leave no trace in the fossil record; what we might refer to as a "computational complexity hiatus".

Amongst the homunculus ID community (b) is likely to be preferred. I’m not sure that I can respect the reason for this preference because I think it arises out of the 'God did it' vs. 'evolution did it' paradigm. It is ironic that option (b) is in fact a form of evolution that requires a level of reducible complexity - we have to assume that the islands of functionality are close enough for “island hoping” to take place given the quantum of intelligence available; this is true of human technological development. I have been actively considering (b) as an option since the 1990s. This is all part of a general theory of mine that intelligence is a generalized form of “evolution” involving searching, rejecting and selecting on some medium of computation.

But let me run with option (a) for bit: If the content of a PR can be embodied in a relatively small set of mathematical functions (such as the laws of physics) then we can frame the following question: What is the fraction of life favoring PRs to the total number of PRs? I suspect (although I certainly have no proof!) that this fraction is very small. If so, then assuming the principle of equal a-priori probabilities it follows that life has very high information content. 

But the information content of life has the potential of being higher still if (b) is true. Using the Church-Turing thesis it follows that if a PR can be expressed as set of mathematical functions then it can be reduced to algorithms. These algorithms can in turn be expressed, perhaps, as a few thousand bits of information. But if long  "living" configurations are to be generated in some form of “background processing” by an intelligence, such configurations may not be reachable in algorithmically realistic times: If we are limiting the algorithmic expression of a PR to a few thousand bits then it follows that there simply aren’t enough PRs to map to all the complex configurations that are much longer than a few thousand bits. In short, the computational complexity of at least some living forms could exceed what is possible algorithmically in a realistic time. 

The rules of chess considerably constrain the possible chess games, but not to the extent that moving the chess pieces around at random within those rules will produce a coherent game; the set of coherent games is only a small subset of the number of games that the bare rules of chess allow and therefore a coherent game is a highly improbable outcome given these rules alone. Likewise, our particular PR may not be enough to sufficiently enhance the probability of life forming by self-organisation in realistic cosmic times. In  fact  Sandford, who is effectively seeing the practical outcome of our particular PR at the molecular and genetic level, simply can’t see and can’t envisage how self-organization could happen; someone of Sandford’s experience is worth taking note of on this score. 

However, if Sandford is right he is right, I suspect, for some wrong reasons. Amongst the homunculus ID community evolution is being rejected within the context of a 'God did it' or 'evolution did it' dichotomy. It is perhaps no surprise that Sandford was once an atheist occupying the opposite polarity and who presumably believed "evolution did it!".

If our cosmic PR has been selected to favour self-organization then this self-organization takes place for the very reason that Sandford wrongly thinks of as a downward spiral: Random thermodynamic agitations are the very engine of progress; increases in thermodynamic entropy entails a filling out of the maximum available states within the constraints of the PR. This random seeking process is necessary if the cosmos is to find the quasi stable configurations of life and expand into them as does a gas into a volume. Thus, the formation of life is seen to be a result of a kind of morphological disequilibrium. Thermodynamics, then, is computation at work. As I have remarked before some people in the homunculus ID movement have a poor understanding of the second law of thermodynamics and Sandford shows it. However, I must qualify myself here. Thermodynamics may be computation at work, but if our PR is not sufficiently constrained that computation is then easily overwhelmed by the size of the search space. For this reason consideration must be given to those who challenge evolution; but I’ve never needed people like Sandford and others in the homunculus ID community to tell me this.


Physics Major said...

Err... 2nd law of thermo as computation??? When I was searching google for refutation of Lisle's ASC, I thought you got the credentials. But that statement totally gave you away. Err...

Timothy V Reeves said...

Start thinking about it rather than gut reacting; What do algorithms do?.... Many have a search, reject and select structure.... The question of the size of the search space in relation to the computation time is an important question...... Disorder is a pattern of data that can be used to search ... does our physics sufficiently constrain the space to make evolution viable? Perhaps not, but by thinking in algorithmic terms we start asking some relevant questions. So unless you start thinking rather than gut reacting I would drop that physics major if I were you.

Timothy V Reeves said...

...perceiving isomorphisms is the stuff of theorising. This guy is arguing with his guts. People who argue with their guts need gurus.

Timothy V Reeves said... can hardly blame this guy; his need for credentials is his way of saying that he needs a guru to solve his problems for him.

Timothy V Reeves said...

Now "physics major", so called, run along now like a good boy to one of your gurus and do as he says. That’ll save me a bit of time rather than waste it talking to an underling; I'm targeting the organ grinders, not the ignorant monkeys with just enough wit to believe as they are told.