Tipping our hats to our relatives

What amazes me about humanity is our ability to come together as a species to understand our species. We are our greatest mystery. We perceive our surroundings, we adapt to many climates, we are capable of perpetuating a record of our species from generation to generation. It’s never been clear that any other species does that as readily as we do (although I am certain my cats understand every single word I say, and fake ignorance in the hope of cheating their way to a free meal).

It warmed my heart, and tickled my scientific mind, to learn today of the “results, printed in Nature, of an international collaboration’s effort to sequence the chimpanzee genome”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4197844.stm. We diverged from chimpanzees a long time ago, but we share a great many fundamental genetic characteristics in common. This scientific endeavour is the first to completely lay bare the genetic code of the chimpanzee; our own was only laid bare a half-decade ago. Like humans, chimpanzees have complex social structures and demonstrate a clear range of emotion very like our own expressions. Indeed, chimpanzees have been shown to pick up our language – the vector of communication is sign language – and carry on whole conversations with us. They have taught us a great many things about what they think about in the course of a day, how they feel about their surroundings and their families and friends. They are remarkable, like we are remarkable.

Yet we are clearly distinct from them in many ways. We spread much further than our chimpanzee cousins, we developed an advanced usage of tools and construction that is not rivaled by another large primate (termites are excellent contractors, however!). We keep a record, first oral and later written, of our own history. Whether this was the result of advantageous genetic differences, or other adaptations that resulted in our parting ways with chimpanzees, is not clear.

There are many who say that without religion, without a God to hold over our heads the constant threat of punishment, that human civilization would break down. Morality would become arbitrary and relative. I have felt for a long time, since first I learned of the closeness of our own species with many others on Earth, that it is this connection to the planet and the universe that gives us a separate morality. We are part of a great and complex machine, a chapter, perhaps, in a long tale whose end is far away. It is the love and respect that I feel from a long life spent with my fellow Man that gives me the guidance I need to run my life, and respect the lives of others. I have always felt that understanding this universe brings us closer to the act of its creation, whatever the cause, and that alone is enough for me to gain morality. What are the whims, desires, and needs of a single human being when so much time slipped by before we were awake, and so much time is yet to come? How can I place myself above other people, above other animals, when we share so much experience and raw material in common.

I believe that our closeness to other life, our connection to the firmament of the universe through our fundamental particles, is a guiding force enough to shape my choices. Call it God. Call it whatever you want. I know what it is.

The “Intelligent Designer” has something to answer for…

NPR commentator “Daniel Schorr had a thought-provoking piece tonight on the cultural and religious implications of the debate about injecting non-scientific intelligent design into U.S. education”:http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4826756.
Framing the “will of a designer” in the context of huge natural disasters, Mr. Schorr hits on an important philosphical question that you must face when you decide that a greater intelligence is responsible for the complexity of Nature. Such a designer is, by definition, “interfering”. But who are we to tell the designer to stop interfering at the level of motor protiens? Why can’t the designer willy-nilly choose to eradicate an entire city (witness Sodom and Gamorrah)?

That’s the problem with injecting metaphysics into science. You run the risk of aligning yourself with a religious viewpoint that then has implications for some apparent “will of the designer”. I have never believed in a vengeful God, if there is a God at all, and I have always taken to heart the “Father God” of the New Testament. But where does the interference stop, once you posit an interferer?

Tough issue. But this is just the kind of chaotic thought that will enter U.S. science should “intelligent design”, or “teach the controversy”, is forced on educators and students. Certainly anybody who believes that only a designer could have interfered to create complexity in nature must admit this is a supernatural creature, capable of great and terrible things. It seems that this designer has a lot to answer for in this world, if this is how they interfere, and Katrina is only the latest case where this would be true.

That’s why I choose to put my efforts into understanding the rational world, a world where terrible things can happen as a natural consequence of the wonderful and complex structures in Nature. At least there is sanity, and a freedom from paranoia, in such thought. I don’t believe anybody did any punishing to New Orleans; I believe she was the victim of many things, not the least of which was the regular cycle of hurricanes and inevitable bad luck.

Origins, a Nova Miniseries

Hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, a renowned astronomer, NOVA is exploring the origins of the universe and life in a series called “Origins”. I watched tonight’s episode on the origin of life and the debt we owe to the early and long rule of cyanobacteria. Fascinating. What I really enjoyed was the “comet impact” experiment, wherein primitive amino acids on Earth, struck by a comet, fused into very complex proteins. It was the impact energy that did the work, forcing the amino acids into lower entropy states by the addition of a tremendous amount of energy. This paints quite a picture that argues against the need for some higher intelligence to “overcome” the laws of nature to make life possible.

Good science!

Physics Today weighs in on the “Evolution Wars”

This month’s issue of Physics Today contains an article entitled “Evolution Wars Show No Sign of Abating”:http://www.physicstoday.org/vol-58/iss-8/p24.html. It’s free on the web, for all you non-subscribers (and I know there are just a few of you!). It’s a nice, but (as usual) scary, overview of this confusing mess into which the U.S. has gotten itself.

I got to thinking. What happens if you take a bunch of randomly cut paper shapes and throw them repeatedly onto the floor. Then, snap a picture of the pattern they make. Take the photos – say, 100 – and show them to a random set of Americans. Ask them the question, “Which of these patterns was designed by an artist?” Determine what fraction of people say that they see design in any of them. That would be a very interesting experiment.

Intelligent design advocates always say they can see, touch, and smell the design in nature. I agree that the laws of nature create order from relative disorder, and that understanding those laws is critical. But I don’t ascribe them to a designer. However, they never argue that. They argue that micro-motor assemblies in cells are evidence of design. I wonder if it’s just that they’ve had their noses in too close to the petri dish, and every complex structure that’s the result of thousands or millions of years of selection makes them see the shadows of design?