Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Simon Conway Morris at Norwich Cathedral. Part 2

Getting ready for the lecture

In spite of its billing Conway Morris’ lecture didn’t contain a great deal about the Christian implications of his content. However, I myself was very interested to hear his remarks on convergent evolution and the high optimization of functionality. These two facts alone suggest that whatever the engine driving evolution may be it has a startlingly high probability of generating an extremely unrepresentative class of structures. Perhaps Morris was using extraordinary facts like this to quietly argue for themselves.

I was also interested in Morris’ brief excursion into mysticism toward the end of his lecture when he referred to the mysteries of traits like the love of music and the mythopoeic nature of human beings. (In this connection see this post of mine on William Irwin Thompson) Although Morris didn't explain the significance of these traits, in some ways his was a classic response. If the world of scientific logos doesn't argue explicitly for the existence of God then one is very much thrown back on the mood of mythos that the findings of sciences invoke.

Scientific establishment figures like Conway Morris stand for a mechanism of evolution that the homunculus IDers will claim does not work. Whether or not the science behind homunculus ID is correct, this claim appears to have an underlying motivation based on a misreading of evolution as a “blind and mindless process”, incapable of creating anything. Under this assumption an intervening homunculus is needed to make good the failure of evolutionary theory. The view of evolution as a “blind and mindless process” is, ironically, also endorsed by many an atheist: That the setting up a physical regime where evolution works is in itself a task that is highly computationally complex appears not to be factored in by either party. Although I have lot of respect for the opinions of some homunculus IDers and feel that their work is often under-appreciated,  polarization has spoilt their chances of making a worthwhile contribution to the debate.

At the heart of the dispute between the evolutionists of the academic establishment and the homunculus IDers is, I suspect, a humanly insoluble problem.  To illustrate let’s start by taking a single organism. Are we able to enumerate and evaluate all the possible heritable mutations it might undergo and determine what percentage of these mutations on a per environment basis will give rise to a stable population that has the mutant gene? Even if we were able to do this for a single organism we still have to face the wild card of a changing environment. Some otherwise viable mutations may not work in a changed environment. Even with a single known organism the possible evolutionary increments it could undergo are very difficult to catalogue and evaluate. So now imagine trying to catalogue the huge open ended vistas of configuration space and attempting to determine whether the juxtaposition of possible configurations fall into relationship with one another in a way that facilitates evolution.*1

My own guess here is that exploring configuration space is all but beyond our current computational technology with its use of linear computational streams. In fact I suspect that the problems of exploring configuration space, especially when we factor in possible environments, is computationally irreducible*2 and therefore there is no quicker way of analyzing this space apart from actually designing a simulacrum with the task of trying to get evolution to work (or not work as the case may be).*3. Until then we are very much dependent on the observational sciences of molecular and paleo biology; in this sense the simulation has been done for us! 

Thanks from the clergy at the end of a fascinating and stimulating evening.

*1 There is also another question that considerably complicates this picture even further. This is what I can best describe as “informational cross fertilization”; almost a kind of “interspecies sex” if you like. In the above text I have imagined an organism undergoing an incremental change. However, if this organism exists in an environment of other organic innovations, it is conceivable that it could make a step change by somehow receiving information (via virus infection?) about these innovation, information that could be used to take its development forward by a quantum leap. This co-option process certainly happens in technological development but as I'm not a biologist I've no idea how important it is in biological evolution. If this kind of cross fertilization exists then we will have a non-linear system of change which may account for the jumps we see in evolution.
*2 The idea of computational irreducibility comes from Stephen Wolfram.
*3 Relevant to question of whether something can be rendered using analysis is the work of John Holland. See here

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Simon Conway Morris at Norwich Cathedral. Part 1

Prof David Andrews introducing Simon Conway Morris at Norwich Cathedral

The following are notes I made during a lecture at Norwich Cathedral on the evening of 16th October by Simon Conway Morris Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology at Cambridge University. The lecture was entitled “The Evolution of Intelligence – Christian Implications?” and organized by the Norfolk Science and Faith Group. (For comparison see my blog post on John Polkinghorne’s visit to Norwich Cathedral)
Prof Morris is a member of the Faraday Institute. The bill advertising the event told us that “He is best known for his work on the Burgess Shale Fossils and on evolutionary convergence. He frequently appears in public debate, arguing for evolution but against atheistic materialism”. The notes below must be treated with caution as they represent how I personally heard Morris.

Conway Morris in full flow.

David Andrews, professor of quantum chemistry at the University of East Anglia, introduced Simon Conway Morris. Morris Started his lecture by saying that he is not interested in Intelligent Design because ID is not science.

My Comment: Bad start in my opinion. I suspect that The Faraday Institute, like Biologos in America, wants to distance itself from the poor image that “ID” has amongst scientists. There seems to be a bit of playing to the gallery here as this sort of statement puts the scientific establishment at ease, something that Morris, as an establishment figure, is destined to do. My own opinion, as I have said before in this blog, is that ID is science (after a fashion) but it is not hard science. Many of the challenges to standard evolutionary theory coming from the homunculus ID community need careful consideration and should not be treated in an offhand way; but then I'm not part of the establishment so this is easy for me to say! But having said that I'm not happy with the way the de-facto ID community are handling the subject of ID; they seem to be working from a 'God did it' vs. 'Evolution did it' dichotomy. American ID seems to be motivated by an eagerness to promote a kind of 2001 Space Odyssey theory of evolutionary change. Moreover, there are times when it appears to be uncomfortably close to the crank science of the fundamentalists.

Darwin became centre stage in the science vs. evolution debate. Huxley (and others) seized on these ideas to bash the church, although Darwin himself was more cautious. Metaphysical interpretations were made of evolution e.g. that life is one big accident. Some thought evolutionary randomness implies that re-running the tape of evolution again would produce a completely different end result.
Morris said that he thinks the generation of life has a relatively high probability and therefore with the discovery of many new planets we are in for a major surprise within the next 30 years. (Presumably he means the discovery of alien life forms!)

My Comment: If he wants to stick his neck out this far it’s up to him!

Morris is optimistic about the likely evolution of intelligence because evolutionary convergent demonstrates that the independent evolution of “life’s solutions” can happen many times. However, Morris does concede we may be alone in the universe thus indicating that he actually doesn’t know, and that the foregoing is really just a gut feeling of his. The basic building blocks of life are a product of a fairly unremarkable chemistry and therefore they are likely to be universal. “Self-organization” may be a factor – consider for example the mathematical shell of the ammonite.

My Comment: Dodgy! The basic building blocks of life may not be a problem, but the apparent combinatorial explosion in the configuration space of these building blocks could be a huge problem for the evolutionary search engine unless somehow physics constrains this space considerably.

Convergence example: Dinosaur feathers have evolved at least three times on different branches of the evolutionary tree. For example; Archaeopteryx, microraptor and another dinosaur whose name I didn’t pick up all evolved feathers but all are on very diverse branches of the "tree of life".

My Comment: This is where Morris’ knowledge comes into its own: He knows the accepted evolutionary tree and what’s on it. If bog standard evolutionary processes have done as Morris suggests (i.e. produced the same solution several times) then this would require a configuration space that is highly constrained and appropriately organized.

One might expect that evolution would work well enough if organic functions were just good enough to get by, but examination shows that organic adaptations are highly optimized and not “just good enough”. They are finely tuned to “perfection”. However, in some cases the opposite seems to be true. A particular protein enzyme used in photosynthesis is very inefficient: The oxygen that the enzyme helps produce poisons the enzyme! There may be limits to evolution.

My Comment: If evolution is happening we might expect some functions to be on the road to perfection, and not yet at their optimum. However, perhaps evolution quickly finds the optimum solution and then stasis reigns from there on. This scenario is not unlike technological change where  one reaches a point of diminishing returns with the development of a particular technology as its room for improvement "maxes out"; an extrema is then reached and stasis is assumed.

Other examples of convergence: The bacterial flagellum (the ID icon) has evolved twice. The sabre tooth cat  parallels the marsupial sabre toothed “cat”. The camera eye has evolved separately in octopus and man. There are 40 different types of eyes. The camera eye has evolved 7 times. The compound eye has also evolved more than once.  The compound eye would have to be proportionally too large for a man sized animal and therefore the conclusion is that it is likely that man sized aliens would have camera eyes.
Ears and eyes have reached physical limits and therefore have reached optimum. The eye can detect one photon and ears are as sensitive as the noises created by thermal molecular motions allow.
On Intelligence: The part of the bird’s brain that deals with bird song has similarities with the part of our brain that deals with language – convergent evolution again! Dolphins and Man have similar neurological set ups but these have evolved on different parts of the evolutionary tree. Birds and apes use sticks as tools – once again a mental adaptation that has evolved in entirely different parts of the evolutionary tree.
When did we become human? When and why did we start liking pets, poetry and music?
Is there directionality in evolution? Consider mushroom genes: 30% of the genes that the nervous system uses can be found in mushrooms. Mushrooms are organisms that evolved long before the nervous system.

My Comment: How does this last comment by Morris differ from the following: One could argue that 50% (or whatever the figure is) of the elements in the periodic table can be found in the human body and these elements existed long before there were any living things. If one is to think of evolution as a case of constructing using a set of components then of course a large proportion of those parts must pre-exist prior to the structure's existence. Perhaps Morris is using this argument to hint at some kind of predestination. A retrospective view often gives one the subjective feeling of predestination; antecedents, in retrospect, somehow feel as though they are being put in to place for what the future is known to bring.

The question of consciousness – this has not been sorted. Materialism doesn’t work.

My Comment: On consciousness see here, for example. Consciousness is not just another observable object; it has an entirely different logical character in being the observer rather than the observed. Materialism is in one sense a department of conscious cognition in as much as materialism is a construct made within conscious cognition.

The humpback whale uses “music” – another convergent trait. There is a universal music. We discover music and mathematics rather than invent them.  Evolution discovers things.

My Comment: With this I would very much agree: Our world uncovers and reifies the potential objects taken from the platonic realm of possibility.

The imagination: Barfield and Tolkien talked about a mythopoeic humanity. We use Christianity to make sense of life.  We look at beauty and it somehow resonates with our emotions.
During the question and answer session Morris talked about the landscape of evolution and the fact that stable structures are few and far between. But he was reminded of the organization of the periodic table where the rules of physics imply a set of stable atoms. He also responded to one questioner by saying he had no idea where evolution is taking us.

My Comment: Morris response during Q&A was the nearest he came to talking about one of the themes of this blog. Viz: the question of the arrangement of viable organic structures in configuration space and the critical dependence of this arrangement on the given physical regime.


What was Morris trying to say and what are those Christian implications? One got the feeling he was trying to tell us something important but he was doing it implicitly rather than explicitly, perhaps hoping that his audience would draw out these implications. Consequently, there are issues with the above that I want to take a bit further and I hope to do so in my next post.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Through the Portal of Death and Beyond?

Did academic neurosurgeon, Eben Alexander get a quick demo of life beyond the grave?

In a blog post entitled Newsweek-panders to the deluded again we find atheist PZ Myers foaming at the mouth over a reported case of Near Death Experience. What may have particularly annoyed PZ in this case is that the person who is using his NDE to make claims about a heavenly realm is academic neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander, a lecturer at Harvard’s medical school. Now, you don’t get much more academic establishment than that and yet here is Alexander leading us “astray” with his scientific authority – or at least PZ Myers thinks so!

One might expect that of all people Alexander would at least have a modicum of neuro-psychological theory, and therefore something to say about the functioning of the brain (or lack of it) near death. So instead of giving us a first person account of the truly incredible why isn’t Alexander explaining his NDE in third person neuro-psychological terms, terms that PZ is predisposed to prefer? Instead Alexander stresses the reality of his experience and this clearly riles Myers.

But first let me concede this: From the perspective of Myers and myself Alexander’s affirmation of a world beyond the grave is hardly logically binding; it is certainly evidence relevant to the question of life after death, but it is not strong evidence, no stronger than the evidence we get about alien abductions. From a third person perspective there are likely to be a thousand and one explanations that can concocted and which are consistent with this perspective, but which make no recourse to life after death, starting, for example, with the explanation that conceivably the whole story is bogus (although some checking with sources might at least quickly eliminate that one from the inquiry)

Myers himself attempts to explain Alexander’s account in terms of confabulation:

These were stories that he built later, as he was coming to grips with that past trauma, and they were a means of coping with a huge painful gap in his memory. We know that this is what our brains do; it fills gaps in our knowledge with imaginary events to maintain continuity, a process called confabulation.

Here Myers requires the highly intelligent and critical Alexander to sit on a huge empty hole in his experience as it slowly gets filled in over a period of time and yet be unaware that it’s happening; is Alexander likely to be any less intellectually aware of this possibility than Myers? Rather than positing that Alexander had no experience while he was under, (As Myers suggests) more likely, I feel,  is that Alexander had some initial fragmentary experiences thrown up, perhaps, by a sensory deprived brain (not unlike Charles Bonnet syndrome). These fragments were then given some kind of continuity through further confabulation. Perhaps....

But in any case there is, I feel, something unsatisfactory about these attempts to explain away Alexander’s experience: Why hasn’t Alexander thought of this kind of thing himself? In fact, it is likely he has thought of it, but may be his first person “epiphany” was far more compelling and coherent than any explanation coming from third party observers like Myers or myself. As the saying goes: The man with an experience is never at the mercy of man with an argument! . Science depends on a dialogue that brings theoretical narratives and experience into a contention that seeks ultimate synthesis but allows neither theory nor experience complete dominance.  Therefore I'm prepared to at least give Alexander the credence of a doubt.

The big gripe I have with people like Myers is that one gets the impression they are unable to entertain a measure of self-doubt in their explanations. They live in the service of a particular, exclusive and ulterior ontological outlook, an outlook that is so thoroughgoing as to exclude even a small degree of reasonable doubt. Whilst an explanation of Alexander’s narrative in terms of confabulation built on fragmentary experience may be the best shot explanation from third parties such as myself there seems to be no accompanying leeway in Myers epistemology which allows him to simultaneously host alternative explanations; anyone who so much as courts a contradiction of Myers' ulterior metaphysical ontology is regarded by him as a mental cripple.

How PZ Myers habitually sees those who are less than enthusiastic about his ulterior ontology. (Dr Eben Alexander is pictured on the  right)

EbenAlexander's neurosurgeon mates are queuing up to operate on PZ Myers' brain.