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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Sunday, May 1, 2016

You Can't Spoon-feed This Guy Your Shaky Explanatory Dogmas

Given its subtitle, you might not expect too much from John Hands' 2015 tome entitled Cosmo Sapiens: Human Evolution From the Origin of the Universe. In my mind the subtitle suggests the idea that humans have been around from the time of the origin of the universe, which is not at all an idea that Hands actually advances. But despite its unfortunate subtitle, and despite a few analytic missteps here and there, this large volume is overall a first-rate work offering an astounding breadth of learning, combined with some penetrating insights that puncture the explanatory pretensions of quite a few contemporary scientists.

The task that Hands takes upon himself in writing this book is an enormous one: that of considering all of the great origin questions (such as the origin of the universe, cosmic structure, life, and the human mind), without taking any stock assertions for granted, trying to accept nothing on the basis of authority. Hands basically tries to take an approach like this: don't trust any of the generalizations of scientists, but always attempt to probe into the evidence claimed to support such generalizations, and attempt to see whether this evidence justifies such claims. Hands also seems to take an approach like this: always thoroughly examine alternative explanations besides the explanations generally recommended by scientific orthodoxy. This is a very refreshing approach, much better than the standard science-writer approach of trustingly regurgitating whatever “official party line” is fashionable among a particular group of scientists.

Hands first looks at the question of the universe's origin. He looks critically at the Big Bang theory and the supplementary "cosmic inflation theory" created later mainly to try to explain enormous fine-tuning of the universe's expansion rate at the very beginning of time. Quite rightly, Hands punctures the case for this cosmic inflation theory, pointing out that there is no adequate evidence for it. Hands seems to suggest that various problems with the Big Bang mean that it is not a solid theory of the universe's origin. But I think as long as we are willing to accept fine-tuning at the very beginning, and keep things as theoretically simple as possible, without cluttering things up with ornate speculations like the cosmic inflation theory, then the Big Bang idea works pretty well as a basic description of the universe's beginning – just a description, not an explanation. Hands is correct, however, when he says this on page 102: “Neither science nor reasoning offers a convincing explanation of the origin and form of the universe, and hence of the origin of the matter and energy of which we consist.”

Hands then has a chapter entitled “The Evolution of Matter on a Large Scale.” Hands punctures some holes in claims that modern cosmology can explain the large scale structure of the universe. He notes that while cosmologists claim that gravitation caused density inhomogeneities to grow into galaxies, the cosmic background radiation indicates that 300,000 years after the Big Bang, matter was uniform to one part in 100,000, “which is far too little density variation for gravitational instability to cause any structures to form,” says Hands (page 117). Hands concludes on page 126 that “neither cosmology's orthodox...model nor any alternative model currently provides a scientifically robust explanation of the evolution of matter on a large scale.” 

How did we go from the Big Bang to something this ordered?
On page 156 Hands makes this complaint:

Cosmologists often make assertions that have little scientific justification. Their language frequently reflects that of a belief system rather than that of a science, and the response of institutional cosmology to reputable scientists who have different interpretations of data or who advance alternative conjectures is too often reminiscent of a Church dealing with dissenters.

Hands later notes, “The way in which the biology establishment treats dissenters from within and questioners from without is all too reminiscent of that shown by the cosmology establishment.”

Turning to the origin of life, Hands shows how weak are all current conjectures as to how life first appeared. He concludes on page 245, “It is very probably beyond the ability of science to explain the origin of life.” On page 411 he notes, “No scientific hypothesis explains why proteins..form from combinations of up to only 20 different amino acids out of some 500 known amino acids.” He also notes, “Biochemistry's orthodox account of how life emerged from a primordial soup of such chemicals lacks experimental support and is invalid because, among other reasons, there is an overwhelming statistical improbability that random reactions in an aqueous solution could have produced self-replicating RNA molecules.”

On pages 344 to 349, Hands discusses a rather long list of things that NeoDarwinism orthodoxy fails to explain. The items listed by Hands include these (among others):
  1. Stasis and rapid speciation (the fact that species tend to appear quite suddenly in the fossil record, and then often show no signs of evolution for very many millions of years).
  2. Speciation (Hands says “No studies of living species show the evolution of new species according to the NeoDarwinian mechanism.”)
  3. Organismal enbryology and development. Hands notes that the orthodox model does not explain the mystery of morphogenesis, how a very tiny fertilized ovum at the moment of conception is able to progress into a human embryo and then into a human baby.
  4. Progressive complexification. Hands notes that NeoDarwinists often find themselves claiming that there is no arrow of progress in evolution, despite dramatic evidence of exactly such a thing, most notably in the origin of humans.
This phrase “progressive complexification” is one that we might actually use as a two-word summary of the history of the universe. But our scientists have no unifying principle to explain such a thing. They have a unifying principle to explain how a universe might gradually fall apart (the idea of entropy), but no unifying principle to explain how the universe could go from super-dense particle soup to civilized beings. Isn't it time they started to suspect that the same thing driving the complexification of lifeless matter may be driving the complexification of biological organisms?

Hands draws little in the way of original new conclusions, but that's no problem. His main job seems to be to show that our scientists know much less than they often claim to know, and that the great origins questions are mainly unanswered and still deeply mysterious. At this job he has succeeded admirably.