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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Sunday, November 5, 2017

Their “Darwin's Aliens” Aren't Really That

Recently a scientific journal published a paper entitled “Darwin's Aliens” that was a strange inconsistent mishmash with highfalutin pretensions. The authors claimed in their synopsis that they would “show how evolutionary theory can be used to make predictions about aliens.” But their paper is an odd blend of orthodox recitations from the Darwinist catechism, statements that conflict with Darwinist claims,  misleading graphics, and discussions of marvelous cooperation and sudden transitions that are non-Darwinian or in conflict with Darwinian ideas.

The paper starts out by discussing Darwin's theory of natural selection, but the diagram it gives to illustrate the idea is misleading. We see three animals, one of which has a tiny neck, the other a medium-sized neck, and the third with a long neck like a giraffe. These are given as examples of “variation.” There's some lines under the long-neck giraffe, labeled “differential success," leading to three similar animals with very long necks.

This visual gives the completely erroneous idea that you might see some huge beneficial change in the structure of an organism due to some random variation within a generation. That is untrue. If there were a horse-like species with a small neck, it would need very many muscle and bone changes to become an animal with a long neck like a giraffe – not merely many changes in the neck, but changes in the main skeletal structure to support such a neck. It could never be that some random mutation or variation within a generation would cause such a change. You would need many random mutations across multiple generations, all coincidentally conspiring to achieve the same end – something vastly harder to account for than what is shown in the visual the paper provides. The paper's visual is a kind of visualization of the discredited idea of “hopeful monsters” (also called saltations or macromutations), which many evolution experts have rejected as unrealistic, and which is inconsistent with the Darwinian slogan that “nature does not make leaps.”

The paper occasionally states some standard Darwinist dogma, such as the claim that natural selection can produce design without a designer, something that has not actually been demonstrated as we have no proof that any complex visible biological innovations have been produced by natural selection. And why should we be so eager to believe in design without a designer, like someone believing that the cooking he is served comes from no cook, or that the heat in his apartment comes from no heat source? What is the intellectual virtue in believing that nature is some huge counterfeiter, that has engaged in some gigantic fake-out by making all these thing that look like designs, but are not? You cannot answer with some anti-theistic answer, seeing that you could still postulate a design source for some earthly organism by imagining extraterrestrial visitors as the design source.

The paper contradicts its earlier claims about natural selection and design by stating that “The theory of natural selection itself is silent about whether complexity will arise.” How's that? If natural selection actually could produce design (which is functional complexity), then how could natural selection be silent about whether complexity will arise?

The paper then considers the origin of complexity. It attempts to argue that complexity increases during “major transitions,” an idea that is pretty vacuous. For example, if simple cells evolved into far more complex eukaryotic cells, or one-celled life evolved into multi-cellular life, those would be “major transitions,” but by classifying them as major transitions we are not shedding any light on how such things happened.

The paper also suggests the idea that complexity increases when there is an “alignment of interests.” The authors speak rather like someone describing soldiers selflessly enlisting or September 11th volunteers selflessly sacrificing their individual interests for the common good, in some altruistic way. The paper states this:

For example, the evolution of multicellularity involved a transition from an entity with one part (the single-celled organism) working for the success of itself, to an entity with many parts (the multicellular organism), working for the success of the whole group. The cells can now have very different functions (a division of labour), as each is just a component of a multicellular machine, sacrificing itself for the good of the group, to get a sperm or egg cell into the next generation....The rise in complexity on Earth has been mediated by a handful of such jumps, when units with different goals (genes, single cells, individual insects) became intricately linked collectives with a single common goal (genomes, multicellular organisms, eusocial societies)...Major transitions involve the original entities completely subjugating their own interests for the interests of the new collective. This represents an incredibly extreme form of cooperation.

You will be excused for having a big chuckle while reading this excerpt, which is kind of a sociological-sounding attempt to explain biological organization. Unlike human beings with minds, cells don't have individual goals, interests, or self-interest drives, and don't nobly engage in self-sacrifice. We cannot explain cells entering into fantastically more organized systems as some form of altruistic loss of selfishness, similar to that of volunteers joining up to form a search party looking for lost mountain hikers, or a soldier volunteering to join an army. What we have here is a kind of fallacy of personification, as when the authors say, “Complexity requires multiple parts of an organism striving to the same purpose.”

Not a good explanation for biological organization

Even if there were to be some noble self-sacrifice among cells, that still wouldn't explain biological organization. You may nobly join an army for the common good, but there's always higher planners who come up with a plan, and direct the volunteers into particular functions, telling one volunteer to fly a plane and fight at some location, and another to become an infantryman and fight in some other location. If we had a trillion volunteer self-sacrificing cells, how would we account for their organizational orders directing them to so many different complex specific purposes, according to such intelligent plans?

We may also note that what the authors are talking about sounds like cooperation, goals and purpose within nature, and there's nothing Darwinian about that. Darwin was constantly emphasizing the opposite idea of the “struggle for existence,” in which life is always at war with other life in a dark purposeless struggle. I think the authors have given a title of “Darwin's Aliens” to ideas that are largely non-Darwinian, like a Chinese leader in 1980 saying, “Let's do something very Marxist and Maoist: we'll let people own their businesses, own their apartments, and let many of them become millionaires.”

In their conclusion, the authors (claiming to be using “evolutionary theory to make predictions about extraterrestrial life”) say that “complex aliens will be composed of a nested hierarchy of entities, with the conditions required to eliminate conflict at each of those levels.” But this cannot be claimed as something that Darwinism predicts about alien life.

Life on our planet is organized in an extremely hierarchical way, with the hierarchy going from organelles to cells to tissues to organs to organ systems to organisms, as shown in the diagram below. 

pyramid of life

But such hierarchical organization is a thorn in the sign of Darwinism, which does nothing to explain it. Darwinism is not a theory of organization, but merely a theory of accumulation (that life evolves when favorable variations or mutations accumulate). Organization is something vastly more complicated and hard-to-explain than accumulation. A heap of auto parts in a junkyard is an example of accumulation; your car parked in the junkyard parking lot is an example of organization. As an evolutionary biologist confessed recently, referring to the “modern synthesis” that is Darwinism combined with genetics, “Indeed, the MS [modern synthesis] theory lacks a theory of organization that can account for the characteristic features of phenotypic evolution, such as novelty, modularity, homology, homoplasy or the origin of lineage-defining body plans.”

We can actually imagine a type of alien life-form that would be the most compatible with Darwinian theory. It would be some life form that might have appeared because of gradual accumulations. For example, we can imagine some ocean life form consisting of a giant blob of cells. It might be the size of a dolphin, but consist only of a blob of tiny little units, kind of like the type of rock that is called a conglomerate, and merely consists of an accumulation of little pebbles. There would be no organized body plan like we see in typical mammals, the type of thing so hard-to-explain under Darwinian assumptions. Such an organism would not at all consist of a “nested hierarchy of entities.” We can imagine an organism simply starting out as one tiny little unit, and then simply growing bigger and bigger as more of these units appeared. 

Such an organism would have no organ systems and no appendages, both of which are very hard to account for using Darwinian explanations. The problem is that the first tenth of an appendage or the first tenth of an organ system will always be useless, and Darwin assured us that nature is always discarding useless variations or mutations; hence the difficulty of explaining how a useless tenth could ever evolve into a functional unit by Darwinian natural selection. 

evolution problem

Interestingly, there are very few earthly organisms with such a simple arrangement, even though we can imagine 1001 relatively easy ways for large-scale life to progress to such simple arrangements. The only examples I can think of are jellfyish and sponges, which are pretty simple from a structural standpoint. It is as if earthly life was following some law of maximum complexity, almost always having an arrangement the least likely to be explicable through very simple ideas such as natural selection.

The authors give an illustration of a hypothetical creature they call the octomite. Was this some organism that resulted from a computer experiment they did, an experiment simulating evolution? No, it is merely an imaginary organism they drew (or had drawn) rather like kids doodling a monster picture during a boring class. But that's fine. When a science paper is speckled with dubious logic, it's a nice improvement to add a cool drawing of an imaginary alien creature.

Their imaginary creature has about 12 appendages protruding out of its thorax. Since appendages are hard-to-explain by Darwinian explanations, for the reason previously given, their imaginary organism is exactly not what we should be calling one of “Darwin's aliens.”