Sunday, July 15, 2012

The gang's all here: a killer thread

Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Jerry Coyne, Stewart Brand.
These are just a few of the intellectual heavy-hitters you will find in one of the best conversations I have ever witnessed on the web. While most blog comment threads quickly degenerate into ad hominem mudslinging and and worthless tangential banter, the comment thread I speak of is a well curated invite-only debate about one of the most perplexing ideas in natural philosophy - the evolution of altruism. 

Here are some rousing excerpts from the conversation - 

In which philosopher Dan Dennett proposes using intellectual judo against intelligent design proponents by co-opting the very word "design" to explain the intricate molecular machines produced by natural selection.
I recently overheard a conversation among some young people in a bar about the marvels of the nano-machinery discovered inside all cells. "When you see all those fantastic little robots working away, how can you possibly believe in evolution!" one exclaimed, and another nodded wisely. Somehow these folks had gotten the impression that evolutionary biologists thought that the intricacies and ingenuities of life's processes weren't all that wonderful. These evolution-doubters were not rednecks; they were Harvard Medical students!  They hugely underestimated the power of natural selection because they had been told by evolutionary biologists, again and again, that there is no actual design in nature, only the appearance of design. This episode strongly suggested to me that one of the themes that has been gaining ground in "common knowledge" is that evolutionary biologists are reluctant to "admit" or "acknowledge" the manifest design in nature. I recommend instead the expository policy of calling nature's marvels design, as real as any design in the universe, but just not the products of an intelligent designer. There could be a good use for "designoid," to refer to the truly only apparent design manifest, for example, in all the complicated chemical apparatus that cartoonists draw when they need to illustrate a laboratory—it looks impressive to the naïve eye, but is just a nonsensical hodgepodge of tubes, bunsen burners, retorts and the like. That is apparent design; the design in nature, in contrast, is typically as good as, or even much better than, the designs we "intelligent" artificers have yet devised. They work really well, which is as good a criterion of design as any, in my opinion.
And in prophetic sweep Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, predicts horizontal gene transfer will be found to have broader influence on evolution than previously thought. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of horizontal gene transfer just think of updating your iPhone apps but on a genetic level.
My prediction is that new research in microbial ecology and evolution will change everything in how we think about genes and evolution. Because of the prevalence of "horizontal" gene transfer (by six different ways) in micro-organisms, they don't have Darwinian species, and their evolution looks Lamarckian—traits are acquired on the fly and passed on to offspring.
"Multi-level selection" is likely to extend downward below Darwinian species as well as upward into groups. Like everything in biology it will be messy and squishy. Simplistic Darwinian selection-by-mutation got pummeled by sexual recombination, chromosome doubling and tripling, kin selection, extended phenotype, endo-symbiosis (Margulis), regulatory genes, mitochondrial genomes, transgenic gene flow, and doubtless more to come.
The longer and closer you look, the gnarlier it gets, so far.

You can read the entire thread at The Edge where Steven Pinker started this particular conversation.

I have written about this debate here on Tom Paine's Ghost and for the World Science Festival.

One of the best summaries of the debate was written by my colleague Eric Michael Johnson for the Scientific American Blog Network. It is titled The Good Fight. Read it here

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