Monday, September 19, 2011
The Logic of Chance, The Nature and Origin of Biological Evolution
The Logic of Chance, The Nature and Origin of Biological Evolution By Eugene V. Koonin Everything you think you know about Evolution is wrong. That’s the basic message of the book, which in fact still argues for evolution. Koonin set out to write a book of popular science explaining the current state of affairs in evolution, and the new theories being proposed. He admits himself, though, that the book fails to be popular. It is readable enough, but in some sections the reading gets a bit heavy and involved. A nice corrective to this, aside from Dictionaries and other internet resources, is that each chapter ends with a synopsis that is generally very readable, and overall the book is quite enjoyable. I do imagine that he will perhaps upset many with the honesty with which he approaches the subject, and perhaps some of his bluntness. He is a committed materialist, and even more committed to belief in evolution, but he is honest In showing that currently science just does not have all the answers and perhaps never will, as to how evolution has occurred. He is certain though, that it has not happened the way most everyone has been taught and conceives of it as happening. Scrapping the “Modern Synthesis” which most of us were taught in high school and even intro courses to biology in college, he argues for a “post modern synthesis”. In the first two chapters of this book, and the intro, he argues that Darwinian Evolution and all that it relied on needs to be relegated to the “venerable museum halls where it belongs, so that we can explore the paradigm shift that has happened with the “post modern view of life.” Indeed, the so-called “Tree of Life,” pan-adaptationism” etc, are all shown to be wrong throughout the rest of the book. Even the concept that evolution is a process from simple to more complex life forms is thrown on the scrap heap of discarded scientific theories. For instance on page 399, and 261 he writes “There is no consistent trend toward increasing complexity in evolution, the notion of evolutionary progress is unwarranted.” One begins to ask then, what is even left of the idea of evolution? Indeed, he spends a whole chapter talking about the streamlining of plants and insects, an “evolution” from complex to simple, what he calls on pg. 177 “reductive evolution.” To his credit, he doesn’t try to shy away from the problem of the origin of life. He maintains that problems here “cannot be overstated.” He does not like the idea of “irreducible complexity” and sees intelligent design “malicious nonsense” pg 498, and would rather like to use the term purported or apparent irreducibility of complex structures” but is at pains to find solutions to these problems, saying “All things considered, my assessment of the current state of the art in the study of the origins of replication and translation is rather somber. Notwithstanding relevant theoretical models and suggestive experimental results, we currently do not have a credible solution to these problems, and do not even see with any clarity a path to such a solution.” (Pg. 377) After a long discussion of possible alternatives he hangs his hat on a theory known as MWO or Many worlds in one, maintaining that this “not only permits but guarantees that, somewhere in the infinite multiverse (moreover, in every single infinite universe), such a complex system would emerge; moreover, there is an infinite number of these systems. “ Yet I keep wondering to myself, if there is an infinite chance that something will happen, there is an equally infinite chance that nothing will happen, and you are back at ground zero wondering why there is something rather than nothing. Perhaps it is better for science to contemplate what is rather than why there is an is. And that strikes me as another peculiarity of this book. On pg. 250 You have the curious opening to his synopsis stating “The emergence and evolution of complexity at the levels of the genotype and the phenotype, and the relationship between the two, is a central (if not the central) problem in biology….” One wonders why this complexity has to be a problem, and not just a fact? It’s only a problem because it doesn’t fit with preconceived notions with which Koonin is approaching the information. In the end, one can see why even Atheist Philosophers like Thomas Nagel, remain unconvinced by the propositions of Evolutionary theory. Yet Nagel shares a disposition with Koonin, that is comfortable maintaining his atheism, and waiting for an alternative explanation, to why there is something. And that is more or less what this book is about. Koonin readily admits “given that so much of evolutionary biology is about the unique history of a single instantiation of like know to us and that so much of this history depends on chance and contingency, a concise metanarrative seems to be impossible in principle.” (pg. 422) A point he reiterates elsewhere, such as on pg.418. This book is not about replacing the metanarratives of Darwin and the Modern Synthesis, but rather it “is primarily about concepts, ideas, and models rather than methods.” (pg 410) Yet one wonders then if evolution as a theory isn’t dying a death of a thousand qualifications, indeed if it hasn’t already. When Koonin is done, you begin to think “Evolution” is no longer even a workable theory, but a concept in want of a theory, a theory its proponents are desperately trying to find.