Tuesday, 6 February 2018
Is the earth alive?
Until only the last decade or so there appeared to be a widespread belief among most biologists that life on earth was not really that mysterious. (Many physicists and most engineers did not share this view.)
Admittedly there was much to learn but ultimately it was just a matter of finding the mechanisms by which atoms and molecules had accidently arranged themselves into reproducing entities which by random genetic mutations and natural selection would evolve into a bewildering plethora of competing viable species of bacteria, insects, reptiles, fish, birds and mammals. It all started with 20 different kinds of amino acid molecules (19 of which had to be 'left handed' as opposed to their 'right handed' counterparts) being thrown together by chance to produce the first organisms able to reproduce and with the potential to differentiate into future species in a way which would ultimately lead to the biosphere we know today. There was admittedly a growing recognition that cooperation between species, as in symbiosis, played a role but it was all driven by chance and selection pressure.
The widespread appearance of design was considered illusory - but not even neo-Darwinists ever suggested that design did not seem to be present.
Now this picture is beginning to be recognised by most scientists, even many neo-Darwinists, to be at best inadequate and probably fundamentally wrong.
1.SPECIATION. This is observed mainly in bacteria and some insects but as far as I am aware (I only have the knowledge of the interested layman) no new bird or mammal species has occurred since humans appeared a few tens of thousands of years ago. One occasionally hears about a 'new' species but this always means 'newly discovered', unless it is a bacterium.'
2.MUTATIONS. The so called random mutations which give rise to new species of bacteria while intrinsically stochastic do not occur anywhere in the organism at random - they only happen where they lead to a viable variation of some kind that fits into and integrates with the overall architecture and functional scheme of the new organism, which at some level is 'known' in advance.
3.EPIGENETICS. Learned behaviour and acquired characteristics are passed on down the generations. The gene is not the master. What determines the behaviour and characteristics of an organism is what genes are turned on or off and the instructions for this somehow get passed on (by a by a fairly recently discovered process called methylation) to the offspring. What you learn now about how to cope with your environment can be passed on to future generations. How many generations is not known. I saw one paper recently talking about 18 generations but I can't remember at this moment what kind of life it was.
4.COOPERATION betweeen species seems to be common throughout the ecosphere.This, as far as I am aware, occurs for all types of life, from bacteria to mammals, both within one type of life and between different kinds of life.
5.BIOLOGY AND GEOLOGY INTERACT. For instance, vegetation in prehistoric times lubricated the movements of rocks in a way which led to certain patterns of tectonic activity which indirectly affected earthquakes, volcanoes, vegetation, animal life and human settlements today.
6.INTELLIGENCE is ubiquitous in nature. New examples appear in the scientific press almost daily whether it is insects solving the 'travelling salesman problem' or crows using twigs as tools . A clue as to how this intelligence is achieved may lie in recent quantum biological investigations into photosynthesis and bird migration. Intelligence is being studied at the neurological level, leading to neural nets, deep learning and artificial intelligence.
7.PURPOSE. Everything from an embryonic stem cell to the leader of a lion pack in some sense knows its purpose and behaves accordingly. In his book Improbable Planet the astrophysicist Hugh Ross cites a wealth of meticulously referenced evidence to support the thesis that the entire cosmic history is directed towards the realisation of human civilisation. New discoveries compatible with this hypothesis are appearing frequently in the literature without comment by the popular science media as far as I am aware.
8.QUANTUM ENTANGLEMENT. Physicists since the mid 20th century have been aware that molecules, atoms and other particles are able to interact independently of separation. This interaction is instantaneous, and so independent of time. In principle it is possible for particles on opposite sides of the universe to interact regardless of future, present or past. The controversial reports by Sheldrake et al of learning within a species being passed without human intervention to another in a different part of the world should be seen in the light of this and of the intergenerational information transfer proven in epigenetics (item 3 above).
While not inferring here anything about the philosophical or theological implications of this emerging picture it worries me that many scientists, in particular biologists and cosmologists, are made uncomfortable by it. They also show great reluctance to accept, if not a fear of, the hyperfine tuning of the initial state of the universe for life (e.g. gravitational constant, cosmic constant, dark energy, electromagnetic constant, initial mass and initial entropy, to name only a few, are finely balanced to permit living systems to function). Yet the scientist's role is to discover truths about the world, not pretend they don't exist when they are discovered.
Some cosmologists have been so nonplussed by the Big Bang model (first conceived by a Roman Catholic priest), the fine tuning and the teleological evolution of the universe that they resort to invoking chance under the auspices of parallel or multiple universes which by definition cannot be experimentally verified, rather than focus on understanding the real universe we live in, over 90% of which is a total mystery. Instead of looking for more powerful theories on how our universe operates they arbitrarily invoke new ones. It reminds me of medieval alchemy.
Many young people regard scientists as priests and expect them to be guardians of the search for truth. If humanity is to continue to progress the holding of truth as a sacred target is its most precious resource. Popular science, e.g. BBC's Horizon, or the Discovery Channel or science articles in the press, need to acknowledge and discuss these aspects of the world. Otherwise instead of a new generation of scientists respecting God and truth we risk a descent into alchemy and magi, hopefully not conducted at great public expense.
author, 2077:Knights of Peace