Thursday, October 07, 2004

The Design of Natural Selection

I came across this dicussion between Robert Wright, author of Non-Zero, and Daniel Dennett, chief proponent of the view that evolution is fundamentally purposeless, via Andrew Sullivan. I found it very edifying to read and watch (a portion of the filmed interview is available through the article) an exchange on this topic. Of late it has been gratifying to see any discussion of a contentious issue without one side trying to shout down the other. It would seem that the current political environment selects toward obnoxious boors at this point.

Back to my main point, I find it interesting of how the development of the entire biosphere is likened to the development of a complex organism from it's initial germ cell. One of the key points of Chaos Theory is the idea of similarity across scale. If one were to look at a mountain chain from a distance of twenty miles it would have a similarly rough outline to a single mountain peak which in turn would be similar to a single outcropping upon that one mountain. The images remain highly similar to one another despite the distance (space) at which one views the images. Their is a similar pattern if one were to look at a graph of stock prices over a year, month, week, or day. In this case, it is similarity across the scale of time.

What Wright proposes, and Dennett reluctantly agrees to, is that there are clear signs that there are clear parallels between the gestation of a complex organism and the development of the biosphere. That one is a lower level component of the other is a strong indicator that there is a similarity across scale in both space and time. It follows that if there is a design behind the gestation, then there might also be a design behind the development of the biosphere.

As it was used in the article, I use the word "design" to indicate that there is a strong direction in the expression of species and the biosphere as a whole, not that there is a divinity shaping His will upon the world. The analogy runs more on the line that species, in finding their niches within the environment, function within the biosphere much as specialized cells function within each organism. Humanity is evidently becoming the nervous system of the biosphere. I can imagine that some in the environmental movement would seize upon this analogy to push their agenda. For my point of view, I no more want to see humanity actively trying to manage the environment than I would want a homo erectus to perform an appendectomy on me. We just aren't at the level of awareness or understanding yet to accomplish something so bold.

Update: I meant to bring this up during the main body of the post, but Andrew Sullivan really overstated the matter in his original post. The way he phrased it made it seem that Daniel Dennett had recanted his atheism. Far from true, as the concession that Dennett had allowed was in no way was on the existence of God. The concession was that there might be an ultimate design to Natural Selection. The idea that intelligence is behind natural selection was never even considered.

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