The Bugs in Darwin
And Other Raptures
November 18, 2013
This is atrociously long by internet standards but I post it anyway. My childhood made me do it. Apologies.
The intent of this essay is not to debate with the ardent of evolutionism, which is the Political Correctness of science. To do so would be pointless. The greatest intellectual divide is not between those who believe one thing and those who believe another, but between those who have an emotional need to believe something fervently and those who can say, “I don´t know.” The former group comprises those tedious Darwinists and Creationists who robotically hurl imprecations at each other like fans of rival football teams. Each blockheadedly refuses to concede the slightest possibility that its doctrine might be other than infallible. To my mind they constitute the best evidence that we did not descend from monkeys, but have not yet ascended to them. Stupidity beyond a certain point is intractable.
I write here for those who can look at the world with curiosity and calm, divining what can be divined and conceding what cannot, without regarding themselves as members of warring tribes. To judge by the writing on evolution in the public prints, there may be as many as three of these.
"The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose."
J. B. S. Haldane
“Queer”: Exactly the right word, suggesting more the world of Alice in Wonderland than the crisp, clean-edged, perfectly ordered and causal world of physics.
Humans today are a puffed-up and overconfident species. We know everything, we believe, or shortly will. We have a sense of near-omniscience equaled only by that of teen-agers. For do we not have have smart phones and Mars landers and PET scans, and do we not all speak wisely of DNA? We are, if not gods, at least godlings on the way up. If you don’t believe this, just ask us.
It was not always so. A thousand years ago, mankind cast a small shadow on the earth and lived in a dark and mysterious world. Little was known, about anything. Gods of countless sorts walked the earth. Spirits inhabited sacred groves. Lightning, the moon, the stars were…what? We had no idea. This brought humility.
We now believe that that nothing is or can be beyond our powers. A contemplative skeptic might advert to a few remaining details: We don´t know where we came from, why we are here, where “here” is, where we are going, or what we ought to do. These are minor questions. We only think about them when we wake up at three a.m. and remember that we are not permanent. We are kidding ourselves.
When people become accustomed to things that make no sense, they begin to seem to. Though we no longer notice it as we peck at tablet computers and listen to droning lowbrow shows about the conquest of nature, we still live in a weird and inexplicable universe, an apparently unending emptiness speckled with sparks of hydrogen fire. It is wicked mysterious. More things in heaven and earth, indeed.
We are not as wise as we think. I reiterate Fred´s Principle: The smartest of a large number of hamsters is still a hamster.
If you look at evolution from other than the perspective of an ideological warrior who believes that he is saving the world from the claws of snake-handling primitive Christians in North Carolina, difficulties arise. Chief among these is the sheer complexity of things. Living organisms are just too complicated to have come about by accident. This, it seems to me, is apparent to, though not provable by, anyone with an open mind.
Everywhere in the living world one sees intricacy wrapped in intricacy wrapped in intricacy. At some point the sane have to say, “This can´t be. Something is going on that I don´t understand.”
Read a textbook of embryology. You start with a barely-visible zygote which, (we are told) guided by nothing but the laws of chemistry, unerringly reacts with ambient chemicals to build, over nine months, an incomprehensibly complex thing we call “a baby.” Cells migrate here, migrate there, modify themselves or are modified to form multitudinous organs, each of them phenomenally complex, all of this happening chemically and flawlessly. We are accustomed to this, and so think it makes sense. The usual always seems reasonable. I don´t think it is. It simply isn´t possible, being a wild frontal assault on Murphy´s Law.
Therefore babies do not exist. Quod erat demonstrandum.
Unless Something Else is involved. I do not know what.
Complexity upon complexity. In virtually invisible cells you find endoplasmic reticula, Golgi apparatus, ribosomes, nuclear and messenger and transfer RNA, lysosomes, countless enzymes, complex mechanisms for transcribing and translating DNA, itself a complex and still-mysterious repository of information. Somehow this is all packed into almost nowhere. That this just sort of, well, you know, happened is too much to believe. It began being believed when almost nothing was known about the complexity of cellular biology, after which, being by then a sacred text, it could not be questioned. And cannot.
The foregoing is only the beginning of complexity. The many organs formed effortlessly in utero are as bafflingly elaborate as cells themselves. Consider (a simplified description of) the parts of the eye: The globe of three layers, sclera, choroid, and retina. Cornea of six layers, epithelium, Bowman´s membrane, substantia propria, Dua's layer, Descemet´s membrane, endothelium. Retina of ten layers. Lens consisting of anterior and posterior capsule and contained proteinacious goop. The lens is held by delicate suspensory ligaments inside the ciliary body, a muscular doughnut that changes the shape of lens so as to focus. An iris of radial and circumferential fibers enervated competitively by the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems in opposition. A pump to circulate the aqueous humor. On and on and on. And equally on and on for all the other organs, which last for seventy years, repairing themselves when damaged.
I can´t prove that this didn´t come about accidentally. Neither can I believe it.
At every level, complexity mounts. The following simplified description of the biochemical functioning of the retina is from Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution by Michael Behe. The book, which I recommend, is accessible to the intelligent laymen, for whom it is written. The author includes the following technoglop to give a flavor of what is involved. The sensible reader will skip through most of it.
When light first strikes the retina a photon interacts with a molecule called 11-cis-retinal, which rearranges within picoseconds to trans-retinal. (A picosecond is about the time it takes light to travel the breadth of a single human hair.) The change in the shape of the retinal molecule forces a change in the shape of the protein, rhodopsin, to which the retinal is tightly bound. The protein’s metamorphosis alters its behavior. Now called metarhodopsin II, the protein sticks to another protein, called transducin. Before bumping into metarhodopsin II, transducin had tightly bound a small molecule called GDP. But when transducin interacts with metarhodopsin II, the GDP falls off, and a molecule called GTP binds to transducin. (GTP is closely related to, but critically different from, GDP.)
GTP-transducin-metarhodopsin II now binds to a protein called phosphodiesterase, located in the inner membrane of the cell. When attached to metarhodopsin II and its entourage, the phosphodiesterase acquires the chemical ability to “cut” a molecule called cGMP (a chemical relative of both GDP and GTP). Initially there are a lot of cGMP molecules in the cell, but the phosphodiesterase lowers its concentration, just as a pulled plug lowers the water level in a bathtub. Another membrane protein that binds cGMP is called an ion channel. It acts as a gateway that regulates the number of sodium ions in the cell. Normally the ion channel allows sodium ions to flow into the cell, while a separate protein actively pumps them out again. The dual action of the ion channel and pump keeps the level of sodium ions in the cell within a narrow range. When the amount of cGMP is reduced because of cleavage by the phosphodiesterase, the ion channel closes, causing the cellular concentration of positively charged sodium ions to be reduced. This causes an imbalance of charge across the cell membrane that, finally, causes a current to be transmitted down the optic nerve to the brain. The result, when interpreted by the brain, is vision. If the reactions mentioned above were the only ones that operated in the cell, the supply of 11-cis-retinal, cGMP, and sodium ions would quickly be depleted. Something has to turn off the proteins that were turned on and restore the cell to its original state. Several mechanisms do this. First, in the dark the ion channel (in addition to sodium ions) also lets calcium ions into the cell. The calcium is pumped back out by a different protein so that a constant calcium concentration is maintained. When cGMP levels fall, shutting down the ion channel, calcium ion concentration decreases, too. The posphodiesterase enzyme, which destroys cGMP, slows down at lower calcium concentration. Second, a protein called guanylate cyclase begins to resynthesize cGMP when calcium levels start to fall. Third, while all of this is going on, metarhodopsin II is chemically modified by an enzyme called rhodopsin kinase. The modified rhodopsin then binds to a protein known as arrestin, which prevents the rhodopsin from activating more transducin. So the cell contains mechanisms to limit the amplified signal started by a single photon. Trans-retinal eventually falls off of rhodopsin and must be reconverted to 11-cis-retinal and again bound by rhodopsin to get back to the starting point for another visual cycle. To accomplish this, trans-retinal is first chemically modified by an enzyme to trans-retinol— a form containing two more hydrogen atoms. A second enzyme then converts the molecule to 11-cis-retinol. Finally, a third enzyme removes the previously added hydrogen atoms to form 11-cis-retinal, a cycle is complete.
I can perhaps imagine an Airbus 380 assembling itself. I cannot begin to imagine the foregoing evolving on its own.
If in an unexplored region of the Amazon Basin you find a grass hut next to a dugout canoe, you may not know who made them, but you suppose that someone must have. This is the theory of Intelligent Design. When you find in nature systems of unfathomable complexity that nonetheless work flawlessly, it is not unreasonable to suspect that they were designed, and perhaps sustained, by someone, or something. I have no idea who or what or why.
Equally mysterious—equally impossible, I would say—is how biological systems can function at all, no matter how they came into being. The workings of every detail of, say, a human body can indeed be explained mechanistically, and this is the result that comes out of experimentation. In the laboratory you can show, or seem to show, that enzyme A binds to enzyme B, activating enzyme C and allowing enzyme D to do whatever enzyme D does. (You can show that a massive federal program makes sense in detail. But does it work in pactice?)
But to believe that 180 pounds of infinitely complex, interacting chemical reactions (me, for example) can go on for seventy years without utter collapse requires powers of belief beyond the wildest imaginings of religious faith. The whole is less possible than the sum of its parts. Something is going on that we do not understand.
Consider a plane geometer. He deals with a limited domain of planes, lines, points, and angles, and nothing else. These produce elegant mathematics and useful results. He cannot deal with volumes, momentum, or tailgate parties, because these cannot be derived from the elements of his domain. They are beyond the scope of his subject.
The domain of the sciences is physics, its elements being space, time, matter, and energy. Everything in science ultimately reduces to physics. There was the (putative) Big Bang, which produced subatomic particles obeying the laws (more correctly descriptions) of physics. Chemistry then appeared, which is roughly the physics of interactions of atoms. Next came biochemistry, a subset of chemistry and thus of physics. Evolution is the physics of interactions of biochemical systems with their physical environment over time, and thus also is a subset of physics. Nothing can happen in evolution that does not derive from and follow the laws of physics.
Just as a baseball game cannot be derived from or be explained by plane geometry, which does not contain matter, energy, time, or space of three dimensions, neither can such things as thought, consciousness, morality, volition, or exaltation be explained by physics. The desire to strangle your mother-in-law does not fall out of the equations of motion. When evolutionists try to explain behavior such as altruism in terms of physics (which is what they are doing, though most of them don´t know it) they are like a plane geometer trying to explain a cheese soufflé in terms of lines and angles in a plane. It can´t be done. The trouble with the sciences (though not of all scientists) is exactly this, that they try to explain within the domain of physics things that are outside of its purview.
The sciences get into particular difficulties when they try to explain the explainer, which is to say us. Consider the brain which, we are told, is just an electrochemical machine. Everything that happens in the brain, we are told, follows the laws of chemistry and physics.
And this certainly seems to be the case. For example, neurotransmitters diffuse across the synaptic gap: pure chemistry and physics. They bind to receptors on the other side: pure chemistry and physics. Enzymes like acetylcholinesterase clear the residue from the gap: pure chemistry and physics. The resulting nervous impulse sails down the distal fiber as it depolarizes, sodium in, potassium out: pure chemistry and physics. It is as mechanical as a 1901 typewriter.
Which means that the brain cannot, and thus we cannot, make choices. Physical systems cannot choose what to do. A bowling ball dropped from the top of the Washington Monument cannot decide to fall up, or sideways, instead of down, nor choose how fast to fall, nor how far. Similarly, the end point of chemical reactions is determined by starting conditions. A molecule of a neurotransmitter binds ineluctably to a receptor because of stereochemistry and charge. It cannot not bind.
It follows then that we cannot choose one action over another. Our thoughts are predetermined by the physicochemical states of our brains. We think what we think because it is phhysically impossible to think anything else. Thus we cannot think at all. QED.
Unless Something Else is going on. I don´t know what.
Paradox is a consequence of domain bloat. Descartes famously said, “Cogito ergo sum.” Ambrose Bierce less famously but more insightfully said, “Cogito cogito, ergo cogito sum. Cogito.”
Most peoople think that, "fitness" meaning “suitability for a purpose,” survival of the fittest means that the smarter, stronger, and faster survive and reproduce. It does not. The study of such things is called population genetics and, as a professor of it says, “In population genetics, fitness means the rate of successful reproduction, nothing else.” That is, fitness does not promote survival, but is inferred from it. The circularity is well known: Why do they survive? Because they are fit. How do you know that they are fit? Because they survive.
If fitness means the rate of successful reproduction, we encounter the interesting conclusion that a woman with an IQ of sixty and twelve retarded children by forty-five drive-by fathers is more fit than a Harvard math professor who runs Triathlons but has two children.
If instead of "fitness" with its almost inescapable overtones of physical superiority, we used "reproduction rate," clarity would follow. Perish forbid.
A staple of evolutionism is that evolution works to maximize the number of offspring, thus passing on successful genes. This is plausible but, in the case of us, counter to observation (but why let facts debilitate a perfectly good theory?) The populations of advanced countries, all of which could easily support larger numbers of people, are actually falling. For example, Japan, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Russia. In Mexico, as the standard of living rises, the birth rate falls sharply. How one passes on one´s genes by not passing them on is a mystery of population genetics.
Meanwhile the populations of black Africa and the Moslem world, the civilizational equivalents of the unwed mother with an IQ of 60, grow rapidly. Which is to say that in advanced countries, reproduction of individuals is inversely proportional to circumstances favoring it--intelligence heañth, wealth, and education. Among nations, as noted, a similar phenomenon exists.
When this is pointed out, evolutionists hem and haw (or should I say hem and her?), and then often blame falling populations on contraception, as if this were an outside force, like drought or a new predator. But saying that contraception causes falling populations ls like saying that spears cause hunting. People wanted to eat, so they invented spears. They wanted not to have children, so they invented contraception. Not passing on one´s genes is now almost a preoccupation.
And so evolutionists per force have to concede that Darwinism does not apply to all of life. Other things then must. What fun.
It is easy to imagine how a complex system, once in existence, can, within limits, evolve under the influence of selective pressures. Any dog breeder can demonstrate this. Or think of the path from Eohippus to Clydesdale. The difficulty lies in knowing how the system came about in the first place.
Consider the Tarantula Hawk, a gigantic wasp that begins life as an egg inside a paralyzed and buried tarantula, where its mother put it. This may seem unmotherly, but there is no accounting for taste. The egg hatches. The larva feeds on the spider, somehow knowing how to avoid the vital organs so as to keep the monster alive and fresh. It pupates and then, a new adult, digs its way out of the burrow.
Off it flies. Never having seen another wasp, or anything else, it finds one, and knows how to mate. (Mating, if you think about it, is a rather more complex process than it may seem to high-schoolers. Some insects mate while flying, which compounds the trickiness. Think airline pilots and stewardesses.) Never having seen a tarantula, it knows how to find one, knows that it needs to attack it, knows exactly how to sting it, knows that it must drag it to its burrow, which it knows it has to dig, knows how to lay its egg on the tarantula and how to bury it.
Now, some of this may be imagined as evolving by gradual steps (emphasis on “imagined,” which in matters evolutionary is good enough) as required by Darwin. All it takes is enough time. In enough time, anything desired will happen. (A diffuse cloud of hydrogen, given time, will turn into San Francisco.) Of millions and billions of eggs deposited in unfortunate tarantulas, over millions of years, some larvae ate the spider´s vital organs and so died in a rotting spider, not passing on their genes. Others pupated but tried to dig out by going downwards or sideways, thus dying and not passing on their genes. Only those with don´t-eat-the-important-parts mutations and this-way-is-up mutations survived, and so their geneses became universal. This we are told.
But…but knowing what a tarantula looks like when you have never seen one, or seen anything, knowing that you need to sting it and just how, that you need to dig a burrow and drag the spider to it, and cover it up, when all of this has to occur simultaneously or the whole process fails….
You have to be smoking Drano.
The Bot fly is a squat, ugly, hairy fly that catches a mosquito, lays its eggs on said mosquito after positioning it correctly, and attaches them with a kind of glue. It releases the mosquito. When the little feathery syringe lands on, say, a human, the eggs drop off, hatch, and burrow into the host. These make nasty raised lumps with something wiggling inside them. Later they exit, fall to the ground, and pupate.
How did this evolve? Did a grab-a-mosquito gene occur as a random mutation (assuming that a single mutation could cause such complex behavior)? It would have to be a grab-a-mosquito-but-don´t-cripple-it gene. That is an awful lot of precise behavior for one mutation. At this point the bot fly would have a mosquito but no idea what to do with it. It would need simultaneously to have a stick-eggs-on-mosquito mutation. This would seem to require another rather ambitious gene.
Catching the mosquito without laying the eggs, or squashing the mosquito in the process, or laying eggs in mid air without having caught the mosquito, would seem a losing proposition. Yet further, the glue mechanism for making the eggs drop off onto the host instead of before or not at all, would also have to be present, caused by yet another complex simultaneous mutation. None of these awfully-lucky mutations would be of use without the others. How do you evolve this elaborate dance by gradual steps?
There´s not enough Drano.
Human beings are conspicuous in the natural world for being weak and slow, and for having poor senses of smell and hearing. Why? Evolutionists have multiple stories. One is that because humans walk upright, they can see farther on open veldt and thus have substituted vision for other senses that just are not necessary.
This makes no sense which, as so often in matters evolutionary, doesn´t matter. Obviously being able to detect approaching predators at night by smell would be a great advantage. Lions are the color of dirt and dead vegetation and take advantage of both. Horses, which have good vision, and eyes at about the level of a human´s, have an excellent sense of smell. This story doesn´t live up even to the usual evolutionary standard of vague plausibility.
Another explanation of the poor olfaction of humans is that a more acute sense would require larger olfactory regions in the brain and, since a surprisingly large proportion of the body´s energy is expended by the brain, these larger olfactory regions would increase the need for food and cause starvation in time of famine.
Does this make sense? No.
Consider. Rats have a much better sense of smell than do humans, which they use in finding what they regard as food. A rat´s brain weighs two grams, a human´s about 1350. Let us assume that a rat´s entire brain is dedicated to smell, which of course it isn´t. Adding all of a rat´s brain to the human would increase its size from 1350 to 1352 grams, an increase of 2/1350 or .15%, Since the brain uses 15% of a human´s energy budget, the overall increase in energy requirements is 2/1350 X 100 X .15, or .02%. Not 2%, but .02%. This minute increase cannot possibly offset the advantages of an acute sense of smell.
The same reasoning applies to other sense, such as hearing. And of course people already have olfactory regions. They just don´t do much.
When people have engaged in bitter ideological war over a creed held dear, they tend to overlook the warts and stains and leaks in the planking. Evolutionism is full of such. An unaffiliated skeptic can point them out in droves.
In evolution, traits which conduce to survival, and thus to the passing on of genes, are supposed to flourish, while traits that work against this happy passing on, or simply do nothing, are supposed to be eliminated. Does this happen?
An obvious problem is male homosexuality. How does not copulating with women pass on one’s genes? The condition would seem to be a prime candidate for elimination by evolution, yet it has apparently been with us forever.
Here evolutionists fall back on their Maginot Line, vague plausibility. For example Greg Cochran, a physicist of immoderate pomposity but undeniable intelligence at the University of Utah, says that a virus causes homosexuality. The chief characteristic of this virus is that no one has been able to detect it. The evolutionary problem is that if homosexuality is genetic, the fact that homosexual men do not have children should cause homosexuality to die out. It doesn´t. Therefore a viurs must, must, must exist. We infer reality from the needs of our theory.
Next, consider evolutionary psychologists. They believe that our behavior is determined by adaptations selected for tens of thousands of years ago. Yes, no, and maybe. A lot of our behavior is clearly biological in nature, which is not quite the same as evolutionary (note the discovery by adolescent boys that girls are not as yucky as they had previously supposed). Yet a lot of behavior isn´t explainable in evolutionary terms.
Examples abound: what is the reprocuctive value of suicide, masochism, sadism, schizophrenia, and so on.? Should these not be filtered from the gene pool? A Neanderthal who thought that the CIA put transmitters in his teeth and tried to shake hands with Kodiak bears might limit his reproductive opportunities.
Again, the problem is Domain Bloat, insisting thet one´s theory explain what it can explain but also what it can´t.
Consider pain. If you step on broken glass, it hurts, so you stop doing it, and don´t end up crippled and eaten by wolves, and so you can pass on your genes upon encountering an amiable maiden. This makes sense. Whether it happens is another matter, but it does make sense.
What doesn´t make sense is the agonizing pain caused by many circumstances about which, pre-medicine, the victim could do nothing. Kidney stones, for example, are paralyzingly painful. A choroidal hemorrhage, behind the retina, is hideous. The agony has no utility since the sufferer can do nothing about it. For that matter, the contribution of migraines to survival is not apparent, as a person rolling on the ground and clutching his head would seem vulnerable to ingestion. On and on. Why the abundant pain receptors with no function? Why do they not, like Marx´s state, wither away?
Perhaps instead of asking, “How does evolution explain a thing?” we should occasionally ask “Does evolution explain it?”
Living things are impossible, but some are more so. Consider brains. Larger brains supposedly allow more-complex behavior. In a laptop civilization, we refer to this as “processing power.” But consider hornets, cautiously. These have very complex behavior but almost no brains or other nervous tissue. Yet their unbrains control six multiply-joined legs (any robotics engineer will tell you that this is a massive problem), and allow them to fly precisely, also a very difficult problem. They know just how to chew wood fiber to make a paste from which they know how to construct complex nests. They know how and when to mate, which is not as simple a processs. The same barely existent nervous system operates various senses and interprets the resulting data, which also isn´t easy. They find food, inform the others of its location, and navigate effortlessly over long distance.
Yet hornets are pointy-headed intellectuals compared to pharaoh ants, those super-tiny picnic abominations of which several would fit on a hornet´s eye. They too have complex social organization and so on—with hardly any neurons. In general, the behavior of social insects is probably more complex than that of whales. It is inexplicable, or at least unexplained.
One of the more evolutionarily preposterous mysteries is metamorphosis in four-cycle insects. Some bug-like critters are two-cycle. For example, a spider´s egg hatches into a tiny spider which grows into a big one. Many, such as butterflies, are four-cycle: egg, larva, pupa, adult.
A butterfly´s egg hatches into a caterpillar, which has no resemblance at all to a butterfly. In physics, butterflies and caterpillars would be anti-particles. This soft, legless, wingless gelatinous tube then pupates and, through a fantastically complex series of physical rearrangements, turns into a fantastically complex butterfly (look at butterflies in detail: they are fantastically complex). Unless something we don´t understand is going on, the likelihood of this happening at all is essentially zero.
The probability of its evolving seems less. How do you get by gradual steps from arthropods that do not have four-cycle lives to those that do? I cannot come up with even the vague plausibility required by Darwinism. Did a pre-existing arthropod shed its exoskeleton, lose its jointed legs, merge head, thorax, and abdomen to become a caterpillar? What selective pressures would cause this? But if it did do this, would not the result be a free-standing species of caterpillar? How do you get by gradual steps from caterpillar to pupating into a butterfly? Pupation is phenomenally complex. You either get all of it right the first time, or you don´t get another chance.
You can believeit if you want.
Clear examples of things outside the domain of physics are morality, right and wrong, Good and Evil. A Darwinist cannot say that some things are intrinsically wrong. “Wrong” cannot be derived from physics. Instead he must show that moral behavior exists because it promotes the passing on of genes. Thus I nurse my brother back to health when he has a broken leg because together we can protect ourselves and our women better and thus pass on our genes.
But suppose a Darwinist found out that my hobby was using a blow torch to torture to death children with severe congenital retardation—vegetables, in the unkind vernacular. He would be horrified.
“Why?” I would ask. “We certainly do not want them passing on their extremely defective genes. Caring for them expends resources that would be better spent in raising more children to pass on our genes. Torturing them has no more evolutionary meaning than simply killing them instantly. What then is your objection?”
His objection would of course be that torturing children is wrong. But “wrong” doesn´t exist within the domain of physics, and so of Darwinism. Thus we see that he doesn´t really believe what he says he believes. Domain bloat.
There is Something Else involved. I do not know what.