Tuesday, September 24, 2013

If Cosmology Is "Off," How Can Biology Be "On?"

"Survival of the fittest"
Two physicists gave me the idea for today's post.

I thought of a couple of things the two scientists have said, and just had to write some more about that.

To give some context, my recollection of their statements happened while I was thinking once again about cosmology in terms of abiotic evolution (see e.g. Putting A Face On Machine Mutation - 3).

These two physicists I am writing about are two prominent scientists.

At least in the sense of having wide ranging impact on modern scientific theory, if what they say is true, with some of that impact causing worldwide controversy as well as lots of conversation back and forth.

The first one is Roger Penrose who we have quoted before on this blog:
Quantum mechanics is an incredible theory that explains all sorts of things that couldn’t be explained before, starting with the stability of atoms. But when you accept the weirdness of quantum mechanics [in the macro world], you have to give up the idea of space-time as we know it from Einstein. The greatest weirdness here is that it [quantum mechanics] doesn’t make sense. If you follow the rules, you come up with something that just isn’t right.
(The Memes of Penrose). The second one is Dr. Lee Smolin, who mentions some basic science in the same vein as the quote of Dr. Penrose:
This is said to be the golden age of cosmology and it is from an observational point of view, but from a theoretical point of view it's almost a disaster. It's crazy the kind of ideas that we find ourselves thinking about.
And the metaphor here—which comes from atomism that comes from Democritus [c. 460 – c. 370 BC] and Lucretius [c.99—c.55 BC] —is that physics is nothing but atoms moving in a void and the atoms never change. The atoms have properties like mass and charge that never change in time. The void—which is space in the old days never changed in time—was fixed and they moved according to laws ...
Why are we confident of that? We're confident of that because we have a kind of metaphysical belief that there are laws of nature that are outside time and those laws of nature are causing the outcome of the experiment to be what it is. And laws of nature don't change in time. They're outside of time. They act on the system now, they acted on the system in the same way in the past, they will act the same way in a year or a million or a billion years, and so they'll give the same outcome. So nature will repeat itself and experiments will be repeatable because there are timeless laws of nature.

But that's a really weird idea [for scientists] if you think about it because it involves the kind of mystical and metaphysical notion of something that is not physical, something that is not part of the state of the world, something that is not changeable, acting from outside the system to cause things to happen. And, when I think about it, that is kind of a remnant of religion. It is a remnant of the idea that God is outside the system acting on it.
(Weekend Rebel Science Excursion - 20). Ok, that brings in some of the controversy on the physics side, so now let's tie in with the title of today's post by fitting biological evolution into today's thought storm:
There have been five mass extinctions, and we are well into the sixth mass extinction, the Anthropogenic Mass Extinction.

One interesting aspect of the recent asteroid impact science is that Darwin was unaware of it.

He did not know that most of the life forms existing 65 million years ago did not become extinct by failing to adapt via natural selection.

An abiotic cosmic catastrophe of non-biological proportions rendered those millions of species extinct, even though they were dominating and successful in their environment.

Something just as interesting, with just as much surprise, is that Darwin was not aware of genes either.
(The Evolution of Anthropogenic Extinction by Catastrophe). Darwin did not know about natural selection asteroid-selected extinction or genes, human or otherwise.

Currently, some geneticists have been rocked back on their heels by challenges to what was once thought to be knowledge.

The cult hero Dr. Dawkins is even being called an asshole after having theorized as if we knew it all about genes.

But Dawkins pontificated what we "know" about genes in vain, because we now know that we knew lots less than we thought we knew:
... some 90 percent of the protein-encoding cells in our body are microbes ... 99 percent of the functional genes in the body are microbial ... exchanging messages with genes inside human cells ... microbes cohabitating our body outnumber human cells by a factor of 10, making us actually “superorganisms” that use our own genetic repertoire as well as those of our microbial symbionts ... We just happen to look human because our human cells are much larger than bacterial cells ... no matter how you look at it, it’s high time we acknowledge that part of being human is being microbial ...
Microbes may indeed be subtly changing our brain early on — and for what purposes we cannot yet say ... the mere fact that microorganisms can shape our minds brings up many more questions about how humans develop their identity ... these findings call for a complete re-examination of human physiology and immunology. Attributes that were assumed to be human traits have been shown to result from human–microbe interactions.
Some would say that genomics has been able to distil some humility into humankind. The finalised version of the human genome deprived us of the illusion that we are one of the most complex creatures on Earth — an illusion that was at the basis of some guesses that Homo sapiens was expected to have at least 100,000 genes. When we look at a table of genomes by species, and specifically at the number of genes that have been counted or estimated for each species, we notice that humans are surpassed by several plants and invertebrates.
(The Human Microbiome Congress). This is more serious than a simple or even a complicated academic exercise, because human lives and systems are now implicated in potentially troubling ways:
From biology class to “C.S.I.,” we are told again and again that our genome is at the heart of our identity. Read the sequences in the chromosomes of a single cell, and learn everything about a person’s genetic information — or, as 23andme, a prominent genetic testing company, says on its Web site, “The more you know about your DNA, the more you know about yourself.”

But scientists are discovering that — to a surprising degree — we contain genetic multitudes. Not long ago, researchers had thought it was rare for the cells in a single healthy person to differ genetically in a significant way. But scientists are finding that it’s quite common for an individual to have multiple genomes. Some people, for example, have groups of cells with mutations that are not found in the rest of the body. Some have genomes that came from other people.
Medical researchers aren’t the only scientists interested in our multitudes of personal genomes. So are forensic scientists. When they attempt to identify criminals or murder victims by matching DNA, they want to avoid being misled by the variety of genomes inside a single person.

Last year, for example, forensic scientists at the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory Division described how a saliva sample and a sperm sample from the same suspect in a sexual assault case didn’t match.
(The "It's In Your Genes" Myth - 2). Can you imagine the furor within the criminal justice system in both state and federal courts, if it turns out that the human DNA science which has been used to put people to death in gas chambers, or to free others from that fate, is found to be not so trustworthy?

That human genetics has been revolutionized since The Selfish Gene, and still is being revolutionized, leaves us wondering why even The Primal Soup has fallen by the scientific wayside (Soupy Sales & Evolutionary Tales).

Anyway, at the heart of cosmology is the physics of Dr. Penrose and Dr. Smolin who are intellectually honest enough to say that our sciences are off track in some places.

That would seem to implicate our science about intelligence as well (see e.g. What Kind of Intelligence Is A Lethal Mutation? and Did Abiotic Intelligence Precede Biotic Intelligence?).

The next post in this series is here.

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