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Evolution and Me

George Gilder

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The Darwinian theory has become an all-purpose obstacle to thought rather than an enabler of scientific advance.

Excerpt:

I came to see that the computer offers an insuperable obstacle to Darwinian materialism. In a computer, as information theory shows, the content is manifestly independent of its material substrate. No possible knowledge of the computer's materials can yield any information whatsoever about the actual content of its computations. In the usual hierarchy of causation, they reflect the software or "source code" used to program the device; and, like the design of the computer itself, the software is contrived by human intelligence.

As I pondered this materialist superstition, it became increasingly clear to me that in all the sciences I studied, information comes first, and regulates the flesh and the world, not the other way around. The pattern seemed to echo some familiar wisdom. Could it be, I asked myself one day in astonishment, that the opening of St. John's Gospel, In the beginning was the Word, is a central dogma of modern science?

In raising this question I was not affirming a religious stance. At the time it first occurred to me, I was still a mostly secular intellectual. But after some 35 years of writing and study in science and technology, I can now affirm the principle empirically. Salient in virtually every technical field — from quantum theory and molecular biology to computer science and economics — is an increasing concern with the word. It passes by many names: logos, logic, bits, bytes, mathematics, software, knowledge, syntax, semantics, code, plan, program, design, algorithm, as well as the ubiquitous "information." In every case, the information is independent of its physical embodiment or carrier.

... in all the sciences I studied, information comes first, and regulates the flesh and the world, not the other way around ... Could it be, I asked myself one day in astonishment, that the opening of St. John's Gospel, In the beginning was the Word, is a central dogma of modern science?

Biologists commonly blur the information into the slippery synecdoche of DNA, a material molecule, and imply that life is biochemistry rather than information processing. But even here, the deoxyribonucleic acid that bears the word is not itself the word. Like a sheet of paper or a computer memory chip, DNA bears messages but its chemistry is irrelevant to its content. The alphabet's nucleotide "bases" form "words" without help from their bonds with the helical sugar-phosphate backbone that frames them. The genetic words are no more dictated by the chemistry of their frame than the words in Scrabble are determined by the chemistry of their wooden racks or by the force of gravity that holds them.

This reality expresses a key insight of Francis Crick, the Nobel laureate co-author of the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA. Crick expounded and enshrined what he called the "Central Dogma" of molecular biology. The Central Dogma shows that influence can flow from the arrangement of the nucleotides on the DNA molecule to the arrangement of amino acids in proteins, but not from proteins to DNA. Like a sheet of paper or a series of magnetic points on a computer's hard disk or the electrical domains in a random-access memory — or indeed all the undulations of the electromagnetic spectrum that bear information through air or wires in telecommunications — DNA is a neutral carrier of information, independent of its chemistry and physics. By asserting that the DNA message precedes and regulates the form of the proteins, and that proteins cannot specify a DNA program, Crick's Central Dogma unintentionally recapitulates St. John's assertion of the primacy of the word over the flesh.

By assuming that inheritance is a chemical process, Darwin ran afoul of the Central Dogma. He believed that the process of inheritance "blended" together the chemical inputs of the parents. Seven years after Darwin published The Origin of Species, though, Gregor Mendel showed that genes do not blend together like chemicals mixing. As the Central Dogma ordains and information theory dictates, the DNA program is discrete and digital, and its information is transferred through chemical carriers — but it is not specified by chemical forces. Each unit of biological information is passed on according to a digital program — a biological code — that is transcribed and translated into amino acids.

After 100 years or so of attempted philosophical leveling, however, it turns out that the universe is stubbornly hierarchical. It is a top-down "nested hierarchy," in which the higher levels command more degrees of freedom than the levels below them, which they use and constrain. Thus, the higher levels can neither eclipse the lower levels nor be reduced to them. Resisted at every step across the range of reductive sciences, this realization is now inexorable. We know now that no accumulation of knowledge about chemistry and physics will yield the slightest insight into the origins of life or the processes of computation or the sources of consciousness or the nature of intelligence or the causes of economic growth. As the famed chemist Michael Polanyi pointed out in 1961, all these fields depend on chemical and physical processes, but are not defined by them. Operating farther up the hierarchy, biological macro-systems such as brains, minds, human beings, businesses, societies, and economies consist of intelligent agents that harness chemical and physical laws to higher purposes but are not reducible to lower entities or explicable by them.

Materialism generally and Darwinian reductionism, specifically, comprise thoughts that deny thought, and contradict themselves. As British biologist J. B. S. Haldane wrote in 1927, "If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose my beliefs are true . . . and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms." Nobel-laureate biologist Max Delbrück (who was trained as a physicist) described the contradiction in an amusing epigram when he said that the neuroscientist's effort to explain the brain as mere meat or matter "reminds me of nothing so much as Baron Munchausen's attempt to extract himself from a swamp by pulling on his own hair."

Read the entire article on the Discovery website (new window will open). Originally published in National Review (new window will open).

Posted: 08-Aug-06



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