Darwin's Worst Nightmare
Darwin's Worst Nightmare
Design of all kinds worried Darwin. A year after The Origin of Species first appeared in 1859, he wrote: "The eye to this day gives me a cold shudder." What disturbed him about the eye was its perfection of design. But the eye should not have been his worst source of anxiety. For it is merely part of a larger picture. It is just one of the avenues of intelligence. Yet Darwin scarcely appreciated the greater difficulty his theory would have to face.
A hundred and twenty-nine years have passed since the Origin was published, and yet today, evolution's workshop still remains almost empty. It has just two clumsy tools: accidental change and selection. The question is, how could such blind methods create something as perfect as the binocular eye? Our visual system codes color, shape, size, distance, movement, speed, texture, density, and perspective dynamics (motion toward, away from, and alongside) in a richness of detail that fairly laughs out loud at chance.
But, as we noted already, Darwin's worst problem lay ahead.
In the middle of the twentieth century, as science peered dimly into the tiny world of molecules, ever more perfect designs yielded up their secrets. The purposive brilliance of complex organs, became more and more difficult to deny as the broader scope of the whole genetic program began to come into view. Consummate intelligence was everywhere evident.
It had been popular from the late 1800s into the middle of the twentieth century to poke fun at the biblical claim that "in the beginning was the Word..." (John 1:1). However, since the 1950s the truth of that statement has echoed again and again from every determinate outcome of molecular biology. The story has unfolded in atoms, nitrogenous bases, DNA, RNA, amino acid sequences in proteins, the ribosome, the two thousand or so enzymes it uses in building itself, them, and all the other proteins. One after another, perfect solutions to unthinkably complex puzzles have appeared.
In a poor defense of dumb luck, blundering its way through the biosphere, making a human eye here, and a Panda's thumb there, the Harvard naturalist, Stephen Jay Gould, has whined that every living thing is just a "quirky mass of imperfections." The sidewise slur that God must be deaf, dumb, and illiterate, or altogether non-existent, is a brassy boast considering it comes from a little man who stands on two shaky legs for such a short time, and can achieve nothing worthy of comparison.
But Gould's faith in blind luck is boundless. To explain the absence of any gradual transitions in the fossil record, he proposes saltations (or "jumps"). If evolution has not made small steps forward, then, he concludes, it must have made giant leaps, the sort that would produce a "hopeful monster" every now and then.
His enthusiasm for dumb luck leads him to postulate huge constellations of simultaneous or cumulative mutations that express themselves all at once so as to sail across the chasms everywhere apparent in the biological hierarchy. As evidence for his faith he has only the absence of transitional forms in the fossil record. For a mechanism? Nothing but more dumb luck than even Darwin was ever able to believe in because Darwin explicitly rejected saltations.
Molecular biologist, Michael Denton, himself a secularist, sums up evidence that should give Gould a doubtful moment or two, if not a cold Darwinian shudder. In a chapter called "The Puzzle of Perfection" Denton writes of DNA:
So efficient is the mechanism of information storage and so elegant the mechanism of duplication of this remarkable molecule that it is hard to escape the feeling that the DNA molecule may be the one and only perfect solution to the twin problems of information storage and duplication for self-replicating automata.
He points out that the ribosome, the protein factory of all living cells not only can build any protein called for by the DNA, but also builds itself. Yet it weighs less than 10-16 grams. This makes it, he says, "about a thousand million million times smaller than the smallest piece of machinery ever constructed by man." Yet this little factory can build all the proteins of the biosphere ranging from the clear cornea of the eye to the fibrous material of a redwood.
Is it really credible that random processes could have constructed a reality, the smallest element of which — a functional protein or a gene — is complex beyond our own creative capacities, a reality which is the very antithesis of chance, which excels in every sense anything produced by the intelligence of man?
The question is how chance might arrive at such perfect design. Darwin's mechanisms yield such mathematical disasters that mathematicians have all but given up on the subject. The difficulty is how to achieve unbelievably improbable arrangements of words. The problem is not merely to string words together — whether we are speaking of nitrogenous bases, amino acids, or human words — the problem is to arrange them in structurally complex and coherent patterns. The trouble is that the patterns required are so delicate and articulate that they defy chance. They challenge the limits of human intelligence.
Words and arrangements of them are the central issue. Therefore, the ultimate difficulty for evolution is the intelligence that makes the theory itself possible. The ultimate design to be explained is man's language capacity. It is our ability to represent, through words, that makes possible all of the quandaries of science and all of the proposed solutions. This ability is critical even to those proposals that are fantastic beyond imagination, such as the notion, contrary to all logic, that blind chance could produce such an ability.
Language is Darwin's worst nightmare. Words and sequences of words appear as limits at the beginning and the end of the biological story.
In a lecture on cosmology, William James ran into an opponent who capsulized the character of the problem. This opponent, the proverbial little old lady, said,
"Your theory is wrong, Mr. James. The world is not hanging in empty space."
"Then what holds it up?" James asked.
"A turtle," she said.
He had her now for sure. "And what holds up the turtle?"
"Give up, Mr. James," she said.
"It's turtles all the way down."
Darwin's difficulty is similar. At the beginning of the biological sequence, we find the words of DNA. Without them no living thing could exist. And, in biology at its maturity, we find man, the rational, talking organism. It's a problem of words from the beginning, all through the middle, and at the pinnacle of creative design, we find more words.
For Darwin, the language problem is the worst imaginable nightmare.
With reference to human language, even the non-specialist knows that words are made up of sounds, that they combine to form phrases, that phrases combine to form sentences, and sentences to form larger units of discourse. This awareness forms a crude basis for an appreciation of grammar in the technical sense of the term.
But combinatory potential per se is not the main design feature of language. The main feature, though obvious, is difficult to appreciate, even for the specialist. It is that language can be linked via intelligence to the world of experience. This is its most important design feature, and without which it would be utterly useless.
Concerning man's quest to understand the universe, Albert Einstein said, everything depends on the degree to which words and word-combinations correspond to the world of impression.
In another place he wrote: The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility. He contended:
The concepts which arise in our thought and in our linguistic expressions are all — when viewed logically — the free creations of thought which cannot inductively be gained from sense-experiences. This is not so easily noticed only because we have the habit of combining certain concepts and conceptual relations (propositions) so definitely with certain sense-experiences that we do not become conscious of the gulf — logically unbridgeable — which separates the world of sensory experiences from the world of concepts and propositions.
Without departing at all from Einstein's idea, we can sum up the problem of human intelligence as shown in Figure 1. The left side represents the facts, events, relationships, etc., of ordinary experience. On the right side, word sequences, discourses, texts, are represented. The fundamental problem of intelligence is how a sequence of words (the right side) can be set in correspondence with an arrangement of events or facts (the left side)
EVENTS, FACTS, etc.
TEXTS, DISCOURSES, etc.
Figure 1. Relating language to experience: the main problem of intelligence.
When a text (or representation) is well-fitted to a certain constellation of facts or events, we say the text is true, or correct, or appropriate. This is the same as saying that the representation is intelligent or intelligible. These two are opposite sides of the same coin.
The question, as Einstein and other perceptive thinkers saw it, is how such correspondences could ever be established. How is it possible to represent anything aptly, well, or intelligently? Or, putting the same question in a slightly different form: what makes a representation intelligible?
Herein lies the mystery of intelligence with which science must come to grips. This is the language miracle. Noam Chomsky, professor at MIT and leading authority on linguistics, notes that the rules of language systems are normally beyond conscious awareness. In fact, the average user has only a vague idea about the layers of structure that comprise his language. As Solomon put it, To man belong the plans of the heart, But from the Lord comes the reply of the tongue (Proverbs 16:1). Moreover, Chomsky sees the language ability as innate and unique to human beings. He says,
...some intellectual achievements, such as language learning, fall strictly within biologically determined cognitive capacity. For these tasks, we have "special design," so that cognitive structures of great complexity and interest develop fairly rapidly and with little if any conscious effort. Elsewhere he said: Human language appears to be a unique phenomenon, without significant analogue in the animal world.
Concerning the possibility of a transition to human language from animal communication systems, Chomsky wrote:
There is no reason to suppose that the "gaps" are bridgeable. There is no more of a basis for assuming an evolutionary development of "higher" from "lower" stages, in this case, than there is for assuming an evolutionary development from breathing to walking.
More recently, in 1988, he contends that as the study of primates has advanced, it has become even more certain that their symbolic systems are unlike human language. In 1980, concerning man's mathematical ability, he wrote: ...the number faculty could not have been known or the capacity exercised until human evolution had essentially reached its current stage.
The same, of course, could be said, for exactly the same reasons, of the capacities involved in music, and art, and human language.
Ultimately, design implies a Designer, and chance doesn't fill the job description. At the front end of the problem, the difficulty is to explain the accidental emergence of the genetic code in its pristine perfection, followed by the first organism, and the rest of the biosphere.
Consider the protein factory — the ribosome. It consists, according to molecular biologist Michael Denton, of over a million atoms some 50 macro-molecules, mainly proteins, tightly integrated into a coherent and delicately organized whole. What is the chance of getting such a structure by accident?
Slim, no matter how the calculations are done.
But take a simple problem at the other end of the biological spectrum. Take a human language text such as this one. This article consists of about 20,000 characters.
Suppose we try to get this text by generating characters at random. Counting just the main keys on a modern IBM keyboard there are 47 keys times 2 (upper and lower case). This comes to a total of 94 possibilities in each of the 20,000 positions occupied by the characters and spaces of this text. Logically there are 94 possibilities in the first position, times 94 in the second, and so forth, or in all, 9420,000 texts of this length are mathematically possible. The odds of hitting just this text on any given try would be one in 9420,000.
The extremity of this improbability is difficult to comprehend. It is so much less than the likelihood of randomly selecting a particular electron out of all the particles in the universe, estimated at about 1080, that the two numbers can hardly be compared. Imagine a ruler a million miles long. Let this represent the number of randomly generated texts the length of this one. On the same ruler, the number of particles in the entire universe would appear as so much less than a trillionth of an inch as to be altogether unnoticeable even when magnified trillions and trillions of times.
Another way of looking at the problem is to ask how long it would take to get a text like this one by accident? Suppose we cranked up a super-Cray or some future model and zapped off a text this length every thousandth of a second. By this method we could turn out nearly 90,000,000 per day. In 20 billion years there are 6.3 X 1020 thousandths of seconds, so this sets the maximum number of texts we could generate in the estimated age of the universe. However, to arrive at this text by accident would take many trillions and trillions of orders of magnitude more micro-seconds than are available in 20 billion years. All the stars would burn out and grow cold before we made any progress toward achieving this text. If we compared the age of the universe to the time required, 20 billion years would appear as a negligible instant.
Nor is the problem solved if we generate texts by the word. There are thousands of words in any language. The Oxford English Dictionary has almost half a million entries for English. The problem only gets worse by using phrases or sentences since their number in any language is demonstrably a non-denumerable infinity.
"But," the diehard says, "there are many meaningful texts, so the chance of hitting one by accident becomes highly probable."
The number of meaningful texts that could be generated by chance is so small in comparison to the number of nonsense strings that the universe would grow cold before the first meaningful text were hit upon by any imaginable approach. Nor is there any method by which a single meaningful text might be found among all the garbage that would be created by chance. This is why scientists like Francis Crick and Fred Hoyle are turn into fantasies about extraterrestrials. They put off consideration of the problem by saying simply that life originated elsewhere. Like Scarlet O'Hara, they'd prefer to think about it tomorrow.
Darwin failed, and his cold shudder at the perfection of the eye was a mere hint of what lay ahead. It may be, as some biologists and physicists have speculated (Michael Denton and Fred Hoyle, among them), that genetic structure implicates the whole of the universe. Or, seen from the other end, the universe itself may come into focus in the words of the genetic language. In either case, the entire space-time continuum would turn out to be a perfect story — a coherent text created by a Supreme Eternal Intelligence, complete with a full cast of characters at risk, with plenty of conflict, and chronological development.
Whether we look toward the beginning or the end of the story, we see the same Alpha and Omega. Unless we choose to deny what is plainly before us, we see Intelligence through and through.
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