|Magic words: teleology|
Today I want to zero in on one of the more detailed reasons why the myths persist.
I mean the usage of "magic words" on the part of science writers and/or scientists plagued with the teleology bug.
Those who have not disciplined themselves into a solid nomenclature.
More on that later in this post, after we consider a very recent scientific paper.
That recent scientific paper confirms, in part, a line of reasoning that was set forth in a hypothesis presented in the Dredd Blog series: On the Origin of the Genes of Viruses, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.
A day after the first post in this series was published here on Dredd Blog, a paper came out in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, authored by Dr. Meredith Root-Bernstein:
"When organic chemists anthropomorphize molecules, they say that molecules “want to be in their lowest energy conformation”. This means that when they have energy molecules can move into different conformations, but they have a resting position that they come back to."(The Selfish Ribosome, emphasis added). The author's use of "anthropomorphize" is a misnomer or perhaps a mistranslation:
anthropomorphize: to ascribe human form or attributes to (a ... material object ...)(Dictionary, emphasis added). There is a proper term that has arisen for describing, more exactly, those instances when science writers and/or scientists improperly use magic words:
My interpretation of that statement is that Dr. Penrose thinks that evolutionary biologists utilize too much teleological language, and other observers agree with Penrose:(The Uncertain Gene - 2, emphasis in original). Teleology concerns word genies and the word magic in scientific writing and/or thinking that has caused mountains of problems.
Since at least the 17th century (and mostly because of Newton), natural scientists have stopped using formal or final causes to explain natural phenomena ... except in biology. This was first pointed out by Colin Pittendrigh (Pittendrigh, C. S. Behavior and Evolution) (ed. by A. Rose and G. G. Simpson), Yale University Press, 1958), who coined the term "teleonomy" to refer to the kind of teleological phenomena observed in biological processes.(Teleological Explanations in Biology, emphasis added). The piece "Teleological Notions in Biology" adds further insight.
This teleological factor lingers in the literature even after many years have passed since "the modern synthesis":
The modern evolutionary synthesis is a 20th-century union of ideas from several biological specialties which provides a widely accepted account of evolution. It is also referred to as the new synthesis, the modern synthesis, the evolutionary synthesis, millennium synthesis and the neo-Darwinian synthesis.(Wikipedia, emphasis added). That has led me to zero in on 1) teleology, 2) the modern synthesis, and 3) the issue of the impact of quantum mechanical concepts on evolutionary biology.
The synthesis, produced between 1936 and 1947, reflects the consensus about how evolution proceeds. The previous development of population genetics, between 1918 and 1932, was a stimulus, as it showed that Mendelian genetics was consistent with natural selection and gradual evolution. The synthesis is still, to a large extent, the current paradigm in evolutionary biology.
The modern synthesis solved difficulties and confusions caused by the specialisation and poor communication between biologists in the early years of the 20th century.
Neither genes, molecules, nor atoms want or feel, including a feeling of selfishness, because they have no self, they are abiotic molecular machines, i.e., they are not selves which are alive.
That now having been said, let's move on to the paper which has a lot of interesting merit to it:
We suggest that a ribosome-like entity was one of the key intermediaries between prebiotic and cellular evolution. Ribosomes are prerequisites to all cellular life, ubiquitously conserved, with genetic roots that pre-date LUCA, and therefore entities that had to evolve prior to cellular life itself (Mushegian, 2008; Wang et al., 2009; Fox, 2010). While the ribosome may not be capable of the broad metabolic processes that characterize cellular life, the ribosome is a self-organizing complex composed of both polynucleotides and proteins that could link RNA-world to compositional replication concepts in the origins of life. Moreover, ribosomes carry out some of the most fundamental processes characteristic of living systems, including a coordinated series of chemical reactions capable of translating genetic information into functional proteins. What ribosomes are not thought to do is to carry genetic information, and in particular the genetic information required to encode their own structures and functions. But what if ribosomal RNA (rRNA), which is generally considered to be simply a structural component of ribosomes, actually represents a primitive genome encoding the genetic information needed to direct ribosomal replication, translation and self-organization?(Journal of Theoretical Biology, 367, (2015), pp. 130–158, at p. 131; PDF). This is the same idea I talked about in a post last year:
Today, we take a first glance into the evolution of the ribosome, which is a sophisticated molecular machine that makes and/or assembles other molecular machines, such as RNA and/or DNA, and the like (Wikipedia).(On the Origin of the Genes of Viruses - 4). Either molecular machines evolved or they did not.
The ribosome has also been called a molecular factory that perhaps can be envisioned metaphorically by the photo to the left.
In this hypothetical look at the evolution of the ribosome (perhaps we should call its earliest manifestations a "robosome"), let's first remember one principle we talked about yesterday, which is that evolution in general is said to proceed from simple to complex.
So, let's boil this down and apply it to molecular machine evolution with this basic principle: all parts of a machine must actually exist before the complete machine itself can actually be made to exist (i.e. assembled).
Whether you are building a model car or a model airplane, or even real ones, you must first have all the parts before you can assemble those parts into a complete vehicle.
The factory in the photo at the top of this post could not assemble a complete entity, in this case an automobile, if any part was missing or did not yet exist.
That is the hypothetical model I am following to articulate how the "robosome" / ribosome must have incrementally evolved part by part, piece by piece, and simple to complex (some viruses still have molecular motors that help with genetic work -- see this).
Likewise, either cells evolved from those molecular machines or they did not.
So, let's not be afraid to discuss abiotic evolution, without teleology or teleonomy, because abiotic evolution is the big picture (Weekend Rebel Science Excursion - 27).
And, let's not make up magic words with which to construct magic ideas about "selfish" entities that cannot be selfish, because they have no self to be selfish with.
They are merely abiotic molecular machines which evolved into more complex biotic entities, or they didn't.
The next post in this series is here, the previous post in this series is here.
Dylan and Donovan ... ("let's get together and I'll turn you on to some things ...")