Unification News for January 1995
Another Assault on Classical Darwinism
How The Leopard Changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity by Brian Goodwin, Scribner's 1994, $23, pp. 252. ISBN: 0-02-544710-6
As we are all too well aware, there is a spiritual war raging all around us. One of the pitched battles in this warfare is the struggle over what we tell our kids when they eventually insist on knowing where they came from.
This book, How The Leopard Changed Its Spots, is but the latest in the ongoing assault on the citadel of Darwinism as the received view of the Origin of Species. Thanks to the attacks of such high-profile groups as Creationists, it is in the public consciousness that all is not decided and that "survival of the fittest" is under its own evolutionary pressures to survive.
No one in their right mind, of course doubts for a moment the proposition that-in the vast, intricate complexity of life-systems that do better at living do better. And the preeminent characteristic of life is reproduction, the creation of a lineage in time. Systems that do better at living will have more descendants in the long run than systems that do living less well.
The questionable idea is that "survival of the fittest" is sufficient to explain the complexity of living systems. Where does all that complexity doing the struggling come from?
The author begins by establishing his `gripe' with Darwinism. Modern biology, he makes a good case for in the opening chapters, places too much emphasis on the genetic material and too little on the organization of the cell that makes it all possible.
Preparing the way, he first critique's Darwinism not for its scientific inadequacies but for its cultural and philosophical baggage--even going so far at one point as the equate the "selfish gene" perspective of Richard Dawkins-in which the gene is everything and a human being is a gene's way of propagating itself-with the great themes of original sin and redemption straight out of Christianity.
"So we see that the Darwinism described by Dawkins " has its metaphorical roots in one of our deepest cultural myths, the story of the fall and redemption of humanity". The "point of this exercise," the author avers, "is not to conclude that there is something wrong with Darwin's theory because it is clearly linked to some very powerful cultural myths and metaphors," but "is simply to help us stand back, take stock, and contemplate alternative ways of describing biological reality".
This passage, by the way, is typical of the calm and measured voice in which the author speaks, a cadence which makes even the challenging passages a pleasure to read.
Spots on leopards.
The `spots on the leopard' in the title, it seems, are metaphors for the parts of Darwinism that put all the responsibility for organisms in the DNA and, as these spots are debunked, the leopard changes into a spotless one (a lion?) "The brilliant light that shines on the genes as the most distinctive spot on the Darwinian leopard begins to fade into the context of the whole organism, which now emerges more clearly as the living being" (p. 39).
The author, quite correctly to my mind, points out the fatal flaw in Biology and Evolution as currently accepted. "Unlike the other sciences, in which principles of organization allow one to understand the structure of the physical and chemical world in terms of regularities and general principals, the phenomena of biology are unintelligible in such terms, and survival is the only law. This is why natural selection has become so important in biology: it is the only `force' that is used to explain what has happened during evolution (p. 88)."
Clearly, the author has that survival, in and of itself, is insufficient to account for the complexity found in living systems.
So, if survival is not the origin of complexity, what is. Well, as we shall see, he never really tells us. But, what the book really excels at is tying together complexity at one level to a similar complexity at a very different level; in the bringing together of a remarkable diversity of phenomena and highlighting the common principles that are at work.
The list starts with the mathematical structures such as the Golden Ratio -a mathematical ratio that the Greeks used in making beautiful buildings-which is found in growing plants and the similarity of the patterns formed to those in totally unrelated phenomena such as magnetized drops.
He starts with the zebra-pattern making forms of simple chemical reactions-the Beloussov-Zhabotinskyreaction if you must know- and the similar patterns produced by single cells in culture.
Next he looks at the genetic patterns and how the various specific forms of living systems are variations on the same generic form- "examples of homeotic transformations (homeo means "similar") because one organ is replaced by another structure that belongs to the same natural set of forms". He then develops the discussion to embrace gene activity in development using limb formation as an example and concluding with an overview of eye development.
In each case, the author points out the deep, underlying generic form that underlies all these systems. He calls these principles that pop up all over biology, and their expression in the origin of species, the Evolution of Generic Forms.
It is this expression of these principles tying together such diverse complexity that is missing from classical Darwinism. Why should natural selection like the Golden Ratio?
"This is a principle reason organisms cannot be reduced to their genes or their molecules. The particular type of organization that exists in the dynamic interplay of the molecular parts of an organism, which I have called a morphogenetic or a developmental field, is always engaged in making and remaking itself in life cycles and exploring its potential for generating new wholes ."
But, for all this fascinating description of generic forms as expression of a morphogenetic principle or field, we are left hanging when we start wondering just what the morphogenetic field actually is.
The author early on introduces the concept that natural law as where we might locate the morphogenetic field. In talking about the fabled vortex of bathwater draining, he mentions that the "properties of fluids are described by particular equations"" and that "when these are solved for the particular conditions of water flow from a bath " out pop clockwise and counterclockwise spirals as stable solutions of motion".
This line of thought, unfortunately, is not developed as a major theme in the discussion, as the physics level is not fully explored. We do encounter the fundamental levels again when the insights of the new physics are introduced, But the author does not take a clear position as to what insights quantum mechanics has to offer in our search for the source of complexity. "Whichever of these views one adopts, or indeed any of the other contenders in the field, the undeniable consequence is that the old mechanical view of causation, of external forces acting on inert particles of matter, is dead. Physics recognizes that natural processes cannot be described in these terms, and that the phenomena we see in nature are expressions of a deeper reality".
The question now is, of course, what does the author suggest to supplement natural selection as the force driving evolution.
"The main proposal is that all the main morphological features of organisms-hearts, brains, guts, limbs, eyes, leaves, flowers, roots, trunks, branches, to mention only the obvious ones-are the emergent results of morphogenetic principles."
And it is this emergent result that is the key element missing in Darwinism.
"The shift of focus in the new biology that is developing out of the sciences of complexity has its focus on the origins of emergent order in complex dynamic systems. ... The dramatic shift emphasis that accompanies this reorientation in biology merits a new name; a Science of Qualities" (p. 194).
How does evolution work in this Science of Qualities. We do, for all the earlier protestations, get back to genetics. Here we encounter the constant permutation of combinations that occurs in sex, how genes get mixed up during heredity-the creation of offspring and the driving force of evolution.
"This mixing of the gene pool results in an effective search through the potential space of morphogenetic trajectories, an exploration of the possible forms in some of which the living state can be expressed as robust and viable species in suitable habitats."
Now one of the great mysteries of evolution is its tempo-how long it takes to happen. Strangely enough, it seems that it took the primordial earth-and it was sterile since the planet went through a period of being totally molten-only the relatively brief period of 100 million years to go from the formation of the oceans to life of the level of bacteria. Less surprisingly, it took another 1,500 million years to get as complex as a yeast and another 1,000 million years to get up to the worm. But then it only took another 50 million years to establish all the basic levels of sophistication we see today in all plants and animals-the so-called Cambrian Explosion of life. The last 500 million years of evolution-including us-are all variations on the themes introduced in the Explosion.
Some attribute the Explosion to the discovery of sex. It is a mechanism, par excellence, for exploring all the possible permutations of inheritance relatively quickly; each new generation is a new experiment. And the results of the experiment are propagation of a lineage or extinction of the lineage.
But we are not taken on an extensive overview of sex and its role in exploring the variations in the generic forms, rather the author proceeds to examine development and behavior.
Couched in the modern mathematics of chaos and catastrophe, he look at a variety of situations, such as the behavior patterns of ants and the role of play in human development. We explore the remarkable longevity qualities of the North Pakistan Hunza and a lengthy discussion of the Peckham Experiment on the role of social conditions on health. Then a discussion of the ecological versus the monoculture approach to agriculture (I skimmed all this , I must confess.)
These examples, among many others, are fascinating but they do not really throw a lot of light of the evolutionary process per se. While this last section of the book is interesting, it does not illuminate the concept of the morphogenetic field introduced in the initial discussion.
Unfortunately the path the author takes gets philosophical rather than taking a `hard science' route. This is a shame because the `deeper structure' that is a source of form, and hence complexity, is already well established in modern science.
Nature of Morphogenetic field
Because, we wonder (at least I did), just what are these morphogenetic principles. I mean, as far as objective reality is concerned-the reality that is established in the modern physics and chemistry we all seek to emulate.
Well, unfortunately, it all gets a little vague.
He makes it clear that these morphogenetic principles are not the same as the morphogenetic field of Sheldrake-the proposal of which "A New Science of Life" prompted the prestigious science journal Nature to call for a book burning.
Well, is the morphogenetic field like the Platonic Absolutes? If so, they are not the clear-cut forms of the regular polygons but rather they are fuzzy forms. This should have, at least, have led into a brief discussion of the new mathamatical discipline called fuzzy logic with its rejection of the black-and-white for the perhaps-and-maybe.
A discussion-perhaps introducing the new mathematics of fuzzy logic to highlight its broader scope than classical true-or-false logic-of this as the stuff of the morphogenetic field would have been intriguing but, unfortunately, this is not addressed.
The most effective way of making a case for a morphogenetic field would have been if the author had related it to something already accepted in physics and chemistry. And, although it is not addressed, physics and chemistry accept that the form-and complexity-of atoms is derived from a probability form.
This aspect of modern chemistry is derived directly quantum mechanics, the undisputed worldview that rules in modern physics. Its technical name is an "orbital" but most readers will probably feel more comfortable if we generalize it as a probability form.
In a common sense sort of way, modern science measures the external aspects of things-such as location in time and space, energy, speed etc. etc. Now most people, if they think of it at all, probably associate quantum mechanics with uncertainty-that on a microscopic level, there are no precise laws that determine what is going to happen. And this is not correct.
There are precise natural laws-accurately described in a small set of daunting equations-in modern physics but they only work if we allow that the external aspects are not sufficient to describe the state and behavior of something like an electron. There is another aspect which, for simplicity, we can call internal distinguishing it from the external ones.
The author does flirt with this modern concept of seeing the objective reality of systems as being described as the movement in an abstract phase space but he does not take the next step, as some have done-such has Oxford Professor Roger Penrose in his The Emperor's New Mind-and accept that this abstract aspect of systems is as real as the time- space-energy aspects that all scientists agree are "objectively real" (but please don't ask for definitions of the terms real, time, space, and energy in terms of more basic concepts because they will either change the subject or else start talking about superstrings).
It can only be put down to a conceptual preference for the external world of matter. While all modern physics is based on the quantum state as being the best description of the objective reality of electrons and atoms, very few accept this abstract aspect as being "real"-with Penrose and others being the exceptions.
In modern science, the external history of an electron is not deterministic, it has a "mind of its own" so to speak. The internal history, on the other hand, is fully and completely deterministic-the preciseness that is captured in the quantum-mechanical equations. The external history reflects this history in terms of probability-all anyone can know, and this includes God if the physicists are correct, is the probability of finding an electron in a particular state. It is from the internal aspect of the electron that the orbital of modern chemistry-the probability form of an atomic electron-is directly derived.
But, just as if you throw a coin often enough you will see the pattern of 50% heads, 50% tails emerging, so an electron will exhibit the form to its internal aspect if it does the same thing enough times. And an atomic electron orbits the proton billions of times a second. The abstract form to the orbital is expressed in this way over time.
So, to simplify matters, we can equate the morphogenetic field or principle of the author with the internal aspect inherent already in modern physics-the forms inherent to the internal, probability orbitals of the quantum physicists.
Here we again join the stream of the book. These probability forms are those that he describes as being expressed in the evolutionary exploration.
It would have been nice if the author had taken a look at form in the realm of the atom. his-but he doesn't.
So where does he think the morphogenetic field is in terms of objective reality-which is, after all, what scientists are after understanding.
Rather than going backwards (downwards?) into the realms where chemists have a good grip on things, the author proceeds to higher sophistication with the fascinating generic forms we have already commended the author for documenting.
So we could rephrase the author with the advantage of having the support of physics and chemistry: The Science of Qualities involves a morphogenetic or a developmental field that is the form to a probability field. Systems are always engaged in making and remaking their interactions with their environment and exploring the potential for generating new wholes.
With this addition I have no hesitation in recommending this book for those who wish to keep abreast in the struggle for the soul of evolution.
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