Richard Dawkins on Intelligent Alien Design

May 2008, Conclusion added July 2013, Last edit 30 Jan 2015

Intelligent Alien Design? You can't be serious? Well actually I am. Richard Dawkins, one of the world's most famous champions of Darwin's Theory of Evolution and a staunch atheist, has recently been discussing the possibility that life on Earth could be the result of advanced alien engineering.

Dawkins has said that he still believes that life most likely originated on earth, but he has also said than an alien designed start is an "intriguing possibility". Intelligent life, he has explained, could have evolved elsewhere in the universe according to modern Darwinian theory, and this intelligent life could have eventually learned to engineer new life, and an engineered seed could then have ended up on earth and subsequently evolved into to all the life found here today.

Dawkins appears quite serious about the possibility of Intelligent Alien Design and has mentioned it on a number of occasions. From a recent documentary called "Expelled" we have:

BEN STEIN: What do you think is the possibility that Intelligent Design might turn out to be the answer to some issues in genetics or in evolution?

DAWKINS: Well, it could come about in the following way. It could be that at some earlier time, somewhere in the universe, a civilization evolved, probably by some kind of Darwinian means, probably to a very high level of technology, and designed a form of life that they seeded onto perhaps this planet. Now that is a possibility, and an intriguing possibility. And I suppose it's possible that you might find evidence for that if you look at the details of biochemistry, molecular biology, you might find a signature of some sort of designer.

Why on earth would someone who vehemently argues against the existence of God by quoting Occam's Razor talk about space aliens designing and seeding life on planet earth???!!! In order to answer question that we are going to have to talk rather philosophically and psychologically about what bad thinking is and where it come from...

Arguably the world's top natural scientist today is the Theoretical Physicist and Mathematician Roger Penrose. In the preface and conclusion of his book The Emperors New Mind Penrose talks about how scientific theories can appeal to us philosophically and emotionally, and as a result we can get trapped on the wrong side of an issue. For example, in the great changes of the 1920s, Einstein's philosophical assumption "god doesn't play dice with the universe" drove him to fight rather emotionally against quantum physics, much to the amazement of the small clique of brilliant men who worked with him, because on the contrary they felt no internal resistance to the new ideas and instead embraced them rather enthusiastically. And today we talk about that as example of how even the world's most brilliant thinkers can get caught out by what modern psychologists today call cognitive-dissonance. Of course, it's an exceptional case, and Einstein eventually backed down, but it very much demonstrates how, more generally we have the famous observation:

Natural science is extremely politicised because it has neither the transparency of mathematics nor the philosophical emptiness, rather it is inherently speculative and only a handful can follow the technical debates but lots of people take an interest in its theories and are changed by its theories, so while scientific knowledge is asymmetrically distributed, scientific opinions permeate across the whole system, and sometimes the knowledge of the few is happily married to the consensus of the many, but sometimes they are at war and the consensus is both wrong and reluctant to change, and the Herculean expert who tries to correct everyone is attacked vehemently, and certain types of cliquish people defend the consensus in certain ways and have to be dealt with in special ways, like the legend of Jason fighting off the harpies. And Galileo's excommunication by the Catholic Church for impiety is often cited as an example of how science is deeply politicised— the charge against Galileo was political not technical, Church officials accused him of promoting scientific theories with philosophical or moral implications that insult the gods and overturn the divine word order, creating godlessness, barbarism and slavishness in mankind.

And some famous examples of cognitive dissonance in the scientific community include: fashionable operator types inciting people to turn away from the top thinkers and indulge their own egalitarian fantasies with right on theories like the feminists in the 1970s who ridiculously claimed that men and women are philosophically / psychologically identical by nature and only differ by nurture, and bull dog orators or lonely nerds exploiting communal weakness such as conspiracy filled Bobby Fisher and the Tea Party Climate Scientists, also crazy Grigori Rasputin types who think they have become a god exploiting people's wild hopes of a better world and false confidence in their own reasoning power with perpetual motion or energy teleportation machines, like Nikola Tesla in later life. Of course, in Fisher's and Tesla's case, they lost all their followers when they went mad, instead the dissonance was all internal with no impact on the world at large, but the claim is that the process of an individual going mad inside himself is just like the process of a nation state failing or a large corporation failing because the consensus goes haywire.

For example, how did the multi billion dollar company Microsoft create the train wreck called Windows 8, a product so bad even kids ridiculed it? Think about it, Microsoft's CEO has untold riches, he can call up anyone in the world and pay him to give him advice and review his products, but when Windows 8 was realised only a tiny tiny number of ultra-hardcore gadget magazine geek types took any pleasure in it, every other person in the world was pained and horrified, and the more Roger Penrose like the individual the more pained and horrified they were. Don't many people people say business is smart because it is meritocratic and well paid, but government is stupid because it is democratic and badly paid, yet here is an example of one of the word's richest companies demonstrating no more talent than the tin pot President of a South American banana republic! Isn't that amazing? How is that possible? Figure it out by thinking of Microsoft as society with experts in different things and enthusiastic workers who know nothing unique etc, ie as the Ancient Greeks put is there is always true expert knowledge, and sometimes correct and sometimes incorrect irrational instinct, and these two different concepts are entangled in everything that comes to be, so when Steve Ballmer scrambled the organizational chart and filled everyone with kool-aid everything failed. Indeed philosophers talk about how Microsoft started to go mad when it turned away from power users and began chasing Apple with non-expert populist GUI, and how this detached it from expertise and manliness and turned it into something like one of those American Congressmen swimming around in a tacky mindless political soup. You see unlike Steve Jobs, Microsoft did not have that elitist perfectionist taste that can thrive in a liberal arts culture because it devotes both its mind and heart to the study of human nature and the building of beautiful civilization, like the proverbial computer geek who takes up some cultural pursuit, without in a sense either a god to love, or real work to do, Microsoft's simple-mindedness fell for the crass and childish, ultimately culminating in ridiculously nerdy dysfunctional Fisher Price GUI.

And all this has been said for the sake of this: Understand what we call the psychological dysfunction of a bad CEO, or a bad specialist, or a bad worker, as a microcosm of these organizational examples, so cognitive-dissonance is a sort of being bad at running a community or participating in a community concept, ie an idiot is a politically incompetent person. Furthermore, understand that this idiocy stems from an inability to differentiate expert knowledge and opinionated instinct, created not just by lack of intelligence, but also a corrupt spirit that falls in love with shameful things. For example, the 1970s feminists we spoke of, also the Tea Party climate scientists, all these examples were created by people confusing knowledge and opinion, and allowing opinions that they wanted to believe for political or personal reasons to hijack their mind making them think they know what they do not know. For example, because saving the world needs patriotic sacrifice, the wanton-individualist denies climate change. For example, because saving the world needs trust in leadership, the feckless-libertarian denies climate change. In both cases it's not lack of knowledge that's dragging the individual down, because knowledge belongs only the climate science expert anyway, rather it's a sort of corruption in the individuals heart that falls in love with the wrong knowledge source and turns him into a politically incompetent person filled with dumb dreadful opinion, and if this incompetence is allowed to fester, he gradually becomes utterly unfit for citizenship. And wherever a person's heart is corrupt, his opinion are bent out of shape. For example, the left winger filled with patricide and cowardice may not deny climate science, but he supports all the wrong technological solutions, grasping for ‘nice but useless’ windmills instead of ‘nasty manly’ nuclear plants. Do you understand all this? It's the first thing you learn in Ancient Greek Philosophy 101 at MIT!

The snake oil orator becomes in a sense the evil lord who rules over such incompetent weak people and drags them to hell, because he uses his knowledge of human weakness to manipulate the herd, thus peddling whatever mad theories give pleasure to the corruption inside his audience and reduce the pains of self-development. So he is a sort of expert in politics who studies the psychological origins of things such as right and left wing politics, and understands how cat vs dog type irrational fighting about everything partisanship is created out of sickness in the mind and aberration in spirit taking hold of the various personality types in different ways, so for example instead of the primarily ego people and primarily id people working together properly they split apart over everything, and he uses this knowledge to plant dragon seeds in the masses and turn them into zombies. Of course, what we are talking about here is the proverbial Phoenician Sorcerer type who consciously manipulates and destroys humanity because he enjoys the power thrill or the riches or just wants to depopulate the earth etc, but in reality many of the people who work the general public are more like Bobby Fisher and Nikola Tesla, they are just sick corrupt little people who may happen to become famous in the same sort of way a person can carry typhoid and pass it to others. But as Plato explains in the Sophist dialogue, as their fame brings them into contact with others who argue with them, even the dumb ones soon start to realise their ideas are nonsense, so they become like as Plato put its ‘fractured iron’. For example, the live with one part of themselves crying out in pain, and another part terrified of future judgements, and they know they should stop but they just can't help themselves. And you can tell such people because they run away whenever they see a man like Socrates or Roger Penrose coming toward them, because they know they are talking nonsense and real philosophers and scientific experts will cut them down in serious cross examination, and instead they pursue the simpleminded masses in touchy feely BBC style round tables or raging FOX News interviews. The famous allegorical image of this sort of person is the paedophile picking up children with bags of sticky sweets, because even though his victims may be old, their bad education and weak spirit makes them in a sense children. And the problem of bad education is enormous today, whereas back in Ancient Greece a liberal arts education was designed to prevent you becoming a sucker, eg the famous ‘laconic arrows’ of Sparta, and the ‘non-being nothingness’ of noble Parmenides, today, however, the liberal arts has turned upside down and indeed promotes precisely the sort of stupidity of the 1970s feminists with their mindless 'emotional coherence' arguments, also the sort of hand waving journalistic pseudo-science of boy's club books on Capitalist Economics or Environmental Catastrophe Denial.

We are saying that the scientific consensus can come unstuck, and it occurs because Karl Popper's theories about transparent open societies and empirical proof making everything clear to everyone are laughable, in the real world asymmetries of understanding combine with problems of human nature, so the communal consensus is prone to error and volatility. But today, of course, nobody takes Karl Popper seriously in political science anyway, because people have realised that, for example, economics depends on human factors and any economist who doesn't realise that is a dismal scientist. For example, wise economists now realise that Margaret Thatcher's economic revolution wasn't successful because laissez-faire always works, but rather because she used those policies to attack the sloth and indolence that had infected British society in the 1970s. Indeed Thatcher herself said "Economics are the method: the object is to change the soul". So like the Puritan's tough love strategy, laissez-faire worked because it made ordinary people "get on their bikes" and it prevented cowardly politicians protecting inefficient industries and outmoded working practices. However, as people change and adapt to laissez-faire, so the need for a whole new set of empirical polices may emerge, like the old John Wayne films in which he so often played the upstanding tough little guy fighting against the greedy fancily dressed Boston Lawyer types buying up all the land and cutting off or poisoning everyone's water. Thus laissez-faire is sometimes good and sometimes bad, indeed the need for it swings back and forth like a pendulum, or think of a sailing boat tacking periodically as it heads up wind, and so the economics text book of the Karl Popper style empirical positivist becomes a ridiculous thing because the surface things it talks about have no stability, and if the economy is to be run well we have to find real experts in human nature not kids filled with empirical statistics and equations, and finding experts in human nature is extremely hard because large numbers of people are so politically incompetent that they can not be easily persuaded by the subtle structural and psychodynamic generalizations wise leaders extract from the minefields filled with cognitive dissonance all around us.

For example, although the philosophical / psychological ideas we are talking here are laughably simple compared to a Platonic dialogue, nevertheless the vast majority of people would have to work extremely hard to follow what we are saying and many would feel their eyes glassing over, and even lots of masters of the universe types who are used to following complex arguments about human nature might find it extremely hard to follow what we are saying because truthful meaningful words shatter bad philosophies and opinions, so the words might sting them and numb them and the temptation is to run away. But of course, the proverbial popular sophist does the opposite of what we are doing here, instead of stretching people and stinging people with the truth he delights and pleasures them by appealing to whatever the crowd enjoy hearing rather than refuting them or teaching them. For example when they have a sweet tooth the demagogues that rise to power are famous for feeding the masses delightful sugary nothings like New Age Prophets, then when the masses are sick of those ineffective things and start hungering for more manly ideas, a new set of demagogues take over and start promoting terrifying class warfare and conspiracy theories and foreign invasions like Mao and Hitler.

But because natural science, as a general rule, is not like politics— for example Einstein did his best work at age 22 when he neither knew nor cared at all about human nature, and in fact his incredible youth worked spectacularly to his advantage because its sharpness and distain for tradition allowed him to come up with something really radical and revolutionary that nobody else had though of—  because of this a lot of people do still take Karl Popper seriously in natural science, believing that for example if you gather a large group of scientists together from many different fields, they will easily arrive at perfect intelligence and unanimity in everything the community specialise in. However, what we are saying is that is nonsense, Einstein's Relativity was just a special case, even leaving aside profound political questions about the way we should educate our children and run our science departments, many of the seemingly simple technical decisions scientific committees have to make often become bogged down in minefields of cognitive dissonance, so often times the joint statement will be so bland it's useless, and sometimes it's even just plain wrong. Instead getting the right opinion out of a meeting of scientists depends perhaps on the chairman having some kind of philosophical wisdom. And woe will betide the committee that chooses a shallow disaffected youth such as Karl Popper as its chairman instead of a grand old man who rose to the top of science and then developed a love of meaningful philosophy in old age like Roger Penrose today and Niels Bohr in the 1950s.

Therefore, considering the world at large today, it is possible that if you track down the worlds top man in Theoretical Physics, namely Roger Penrose, and ask him whether or not he agrees with some opinion on Theoretic Physics which is widely believed not just by almost all the worlds journalists, but also even the vast majority of the scientific community, he may well say they are all hopelessly wrong. It gets even worse, in the conclusion of his book Roger Penrose talks about how sometimes even young children can somehow sense that a certain fashionable theory widely believed by the elite is quite ridiculous, which reminds us of course of those strange stories in the Bible about those who declare they know nothing and open their hearts like children being saved while all the adults around them are destroyed. Anyhow, all this, of course, explains why Penrose choose the book title The Emperors New Mind, and how it relates to the famous story about The Child Who Cried The Emperor Is Wearing No Clothes, and why even though Penrose is the word's top natural scientist today, you will find many stupid and disgraceful articles on the internet which call him not the King of Theoretical Physics, but rather a dope talking nonsense.

Now ask yourself the question: if there is a sort of schism developing in the scientific community, with world experts such as Roger Penrose on one side, and the 'scientific bourgeoisie' and 'geeky personality disorder types' on the other, where specifically should we look for the cracking ground and emerging earthquakes? The answer is obvious: In neuroscience and evolutionary biology, which are course packed with philosophical and emotional connections to human value systems and moral sensibilities. We will talk evolutionary biology in moment, let's talk for a moment about neuroscience.

The majority today believe that the human mind is what we call Turing Machine Compatible, and this is an enormously powerful argument in favour of the liberal atheistic post-modern world view. Yet Roger Penrose not only refutes the Turing consciousness hypothesis with Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, he goes on to talk about lots of other problems with it, and he ultimately concludes that the prevailing hypothesis is so cartoonish that even when he was a child he could see it was political witch-doctoring not science. In other words, the seismically shocking news is that Roger Penrose claims the scientific community since the 1960s & 1970s has become as dopey as it was back in 1600s when Thomas Hobbes published his ridiculous book leviathan which imagined a mechanical machine composed of wheels and levers ruling over humanity as a King, calculating how to distribute food and drink and so forth, like an awkward nerd smoking sci-fi drugs who has no understanding of philosophy or psychology whatsoever (and for that many commentators called him a great philosopher!).

Does Penrose have any alternative ideas of his own in neuroscience? Yes, he talks tentatively about quantum consciousness, which is the idea that our minds are not self contained algorithmic processes, but rather holistic nebulous things entangled with all other minds, so what goes on in one person's head can get into other people's heads as well. So, as Penrose explains in the last chapter, we are perhaps something like sparks of consciousness surfing around in a vast sea of consciousness, explaining perhaps strange things such as the universal archetypal images of Carl Jung's collective unconscious.

And what we are talking about now is the speculative new world of quantum mysticism, but it's not a world many journalists or geeks or scientific bourgeoisie currently connect to, on the contrary they seem to sort of sense it out there and hate it with a passion because it conflicts with everything they think they know, rather it's a rarefied world inhabited by only a few great men such as Penrose. So, as Socrates might say stingingly, all the people in the world apart from Roger Penrose who think they know something about the human mind actually know nothing, and the vast number who claim to think that the human mind is a computer and artificial intelligence is right around the corner not only wrongly think they know what they don't know, even their opinion about what they don't know is completely wrong because they have fallen in love with popular opinion instead of Penrose opinion, and when they attack Penrose for not sharing their opinion and claim he is the one who doesn't know and they are the ones who do know, they commit an injustice.

But what about the subject of this article, namely evolutionary biology? In fact, I guess that's what you have really come here to read about, and you will be pleased to hear that I am going to spend the rest of this article talking about it, and I apologise for the long cognitive introduction, but I don't think we could have really done our main topic justice without talking about it. Now as with neuroscience above, top thinkers are indeed increasingly turning away from the popular evolutionary biology consensus and saying scientists have absolutely no idea what caused life on Earth to originate, evolve and develop consciousness. In other words, whilst Richard Dawkins is still selling a record number of pro-Darwinian books to the public, in the upper echelons of the scientific community support for evolution is undoubtedly in decline. There are several major problems with Darwin's Evolution but for the sake of brevity I will detail here only the most popular one. Some notes on other problems can be found at this footnote.

At the heart of Darwin's Theory is random change and natural selection. Computer Scientists have been experimenting with "Genetic Algorithms" for a long time now, and its clear they have enormous limitations. A computer program to play chess, for example, looks several moves ahead and chooses the move that will lead to the strongest position in the future. The power of a chess playing computer is determined by the number of moves it can look ahead. Any modern computer can beat the average human chess player, but it took a massive supercomputer to beat Kasparov in 1997. As the computer looks further into the future the number of combinations it must analyse increases exponentially. Chess playing algorithms regularly make short term sacrifices for longer term goals. Genetic Algorithms, however, can not do this because they are concerned only with the strength of the next generation. It does not matter how large the population or the length of time, Genetic Algorithms just can not solve Chess problems. Genetic Algorithms are also unable to build a structure such as a bridge which is only useful once it is complete and requires a complex series of meanwhile wasteful steps.

Can we tie objections to
Darwin's Theory into visions of quantum mysticism allowing us to fight like the men who hurl a spear and then go in with a sword? Of course we can! Unlike the probability density function of quantum wave phenomena, in Darwin's Theory there is no invisible hand working to establish a pattern over successive random manifestations, all the probabilistic events must contribute to the final product along a self-contained monotonic logically evolving path, but those who believe in quantum phenomena manifesting at the macro not just micro level call this completely ridiculous, and say that for everything that comes to be the model is outside the emerging pattern, the progress is not monotonic, the path is not singular. Biologists, on the other hand, tended to wave Darwin's Theory theory through - but recent scientific advances in microbiology have been changing that.

Since the discovery of DNA Biologists have been gradually learning that the basic cellular unit underlying all known life on Earth is enormously complex. Far more complex than the latest Intel CPU for example. It's so highly mechanised with concepts such as hardware and software that many at the forefront of microbiology believe a genetic algorithm could not possibly have produced it. Time does not help, its technical structure, they say, simply exceeds what genetic algorithms are capable of ever producing. So the realization of the microscopic complexity of the cellular unit, which began dawning in the 1950s, is building toward a sort of Copernican revolution in biological science, and the revolutionaries tend to be theoretical physicists and microbiologists, and the defenders of the status quo tend to be ordinary biologists specialising in the habitat and lifestyle of chimps and chimpanzees etc.

Indeed so controversial has the theory of evolution now become that the famous philosopher Anthony Flew, who for many decades flew the flag for atheism, recently declared himself a believer in, well, something. In Feb 2008 (about 7 years after rumours of his 'conversion' first surfaced) he said at interview:

FLEW: I think that the most impressive arguments for God’s existence are those that are supported by recent scientific discoveries. I’ve never been much impressed by the kalam cosmological argument, and I don’t think it has gotten any stronger recently. However, I think the argument to Intelligent Design is enormously stronger than it was when I first met it.

HABERMAS: So of the major theistic arguments, such as the cosmological, teleological, moral, and ontological, the only really impressive ones that you take to be decisive are the scientific forms of teleology? [teleology is the philosophical study of design in nature]

FLEW: Absolutely. It seems to me that Richard Dawkins constantly overlooks the fact that... the findings of more than fifty years of DNA research have provided materials for a new and enormously powerful argument to design.

Dawkins condemned his old friend's volte-face as the "senile" thinking of an old man. Nevertheless, deep down and away from the public eye, perhaps Dawkins is beginning to believe that Anthony Flew and other critics have a strong case. Indeed what else can he have meant by: "I suppose it's possible that you might find evidence for that [Intelligent Design] if you look at the details of biochemistry, molecular biology, you might find a signature of some sort of designer".

What Dawkins means by the "signature of some sort of designer" in the "details of molecular biology" is the idea that microbiologists might find, or have found, a level of complexity in the basic cellular unit underlying all life on Earth which is completely incompatible with Genetic Algorithms. If an intelligent alien came across a human satellite floating through space he would immediately recognise it as a machine not a living thing. But imagine humanity designing a satellite so complex it could reproduce itself. Imagine an intelligent alien coming across a satellite which had been 'born' in space, which had never been touched by human hand. Even in this hypothetical case, the alien could see that an intelligent designer had made the satellite possible if he noticed in the details of its construction certain types of structure, such as the bridge mentioned earlier, which can not evolve under the monotonically improving random mutations of Darwinian theory. Does Dawkins believe that elite scientists are now beginning to reach the same conclusion concerning the life on Earth? Is is not clear how speculative Dawkin's sentence "you might find evidence for that if you look at the details" is, but clearly he does not really think Flew's design point is at all "senile".

Dawkins didn't invent the Alien Design theory himself. During the 1960s the molecular biologist Francis Crick who won the Nobel Prize for discovering DNA in 1953 became concerned with the origins of life. Crick believed the DNA molecule was too complex to have evolved in a Darwinian way, and must have been intelligently designed. In 1973 he, along with Leslie Orgel, proposed the theory of "directed panspermia" which is the alien design and seeding of Earthly life. Crick was criticised as a militant atheist whose inability to explain the origin of life had driven him to make speculative and unscientific conclusions. Crick dropped the theory and later said he may have been overly pessimistic about the chances of abiogenesis on Earth. Alien Design then mostly disappeared from the radar, now Dawkins appears to be reviving it.

Dawkins once said Darwin enabled the intellectual atheist to sleep at night, now the Alien Design theory can step into the breach. Even if Darwin doesn't work on earth, Dawkins can now sleep soundly dreaming of godless evolution elsewhere followed by alien design. What's more, no one can ever prove him wrong, the goal posts, so to speak, have been moved to outer space where the opposition can never reach them. He could point out that today's earth scientists are experimenting with making new life. If godless evolution does work, intelligent engineered life seems an inevitable outcome, and to that life it would appear as if god had made it. It's a shame we have no evidence of aliens, advanced or otherwise. Still, they could be so far away we haven't noticed, or they could have died out long ago. Nevertheless, no matter how well these ideas would work in Hollywood, or how many books they might sell, this is science fiction, not science fact.

This brings me perfectly to my favourite quote on evolution. It's from Michael Denton's book "Evolution A Theory in Crisis" which, incidentally, is a famous book about the subject (footnote). I love this quote because, leaving aside the implications for the existence of God, it sums up what I find so fascinating about the wrongness of Darwin's Theory- it's one of my favourite topics- the enormous irrationality of the human race.

The truth is that despite the prestige of evolutionary theory and the tremendous intellectual effort directed towards reducing living systems to the confines of Darwinian though, nature refuses to be imprisoned. In the final analysis we still know very little about how new forms of life arise. The “mystery of mysteries” is still as largely enigmatic as it was when Darwin set sail on the Beagle.

Ultimately the Darwinian theory of Evolution is no more nor less than the great cosmological myth of the twentieth century. Like the Genesis based cosmology which it replaced, and like the creation myths of ancient man, it satisfies the same deep psychological need for an all embracing explanation for the origin of the world which has motivated all cosmogenic myth makes of the past, from the shamans of primitive people to the ideologues of the medieval church.


Philosophical Conclusion

As well as describing Darwinian's evolution as "the great cosmological myth of the twentieth century", Michael Denton described how this myth came to be embraced. He said biological science at the time was extremely limited, and it was a sort of highly speculative journalistic theory without any scientific rigour that caught the public's imagination and quickly turned into an enormous political football, so crowds of ordinary people who knew nothing about science felt qualified to ridicule world experts, perceiving before them not a battle between scientists but a battle between religion and science, putting enormous psychological pressure on the scientific community, forcing the worlds finest minds to embrace the popular fashion or go into hiding. So perhaps we can forgive the scientific community in the late 19th and early 20th Century to some extent, but the discovery of DNA, computers, optimization and game theory etc means that we are in a vastly stronger position to judge the theory today. What then is the most obvious conclusion? Surely the affair emphasises how extraordinarily stupid human beings have become since Plato's time; how politics, populism and pseudo-science has tuned us into hippies, drunks and witch doctors. Notice this not like the right wing journalist's belief in the non-existence of climate change, it is not the sort of childish delusion and conspiracy theory we associate with untended herds of sheep emoting what they want to believe, it makes a mockery of the elite who claim to reason. Everyone talks today about the corruption of the liberal arts which has turned away from proper philosophy to embrace populism, but what we are saying now is that the corruption goes further, running through not only social sciences such as economics which is now ridiculed for building sand castles on top of the cartoonish philosophies of rational expectations and invisible hand, but even running though the hard core sciences, so that even the hardest science of them all, namely Theoretical Physics, is for example today filing up with absurd but fun things such as Many Worlds Theory. 

But from a philosophical perspective this evolution debate is also interesting because it is a good example of how earthly things are proven backwards. For example, if you know any pure mathematics, think about the theory of continuity, the thing you learn on the first day of your first analysis class, it's a simple idea that we grasp as a whole, but when we come to define it, we have to turn around away from poetry and find a certain angle, and define what conditions it must fulfil in order to be true. So we move from the mathematical archetypes which exist in of themselves, through the mathematical universes such as topology and analysis, ending up in a shallow nebulous world of transparent algorithmic conditions defined negatively not positively, such as the continuous line is spatially impenetrable, or functionally gapless. And in the same way, for example, atheists who seek to prove existentially that god doesn't exist, go about it by proving that god can't exist by the problem of evil, which depends on the assumption that they know what god being evil means across some region, and can translate it into algorithmic conditions (both of which are in fact absurd). Philosophers, on the other hand, seek to prove that god does exist by proving that god can't not exist thus refuting atheism. In both cases everything is done by refutation not the persuasion Parmenides talked about. And that, by the way, is easily done, and I don't mean by intelligent design, rather, much more powerfully, synchronicity. If we accept the definition of synchronicity as an acausal connecting process, it immediately proves, if you like the image, that we are inside some kind of matrix which is not causal, but rather appears to us to be controlled by a sort of mysterious invisible hand with meaningful purpose. Carl Jung & Wolfgang Pauli (and to a lesser extent Einstein) are examples of famous men who advanced this argument. But the golden crown goes surely goes to Charles Sanders Peirce who predicted, long before Jung and quantum physics, that the mechanical world view of his time would give way to a new probabilistic understanding of the universe, because he said it's into this mysterious gap that the interface between the divine and earthly, which he regarded as self evident even to a well brought up child, must clearly step. Poor Peirce, he was hailed as a mathematician, but when he turned to philosophy in later life nobody could understand a word he said, and he died a bankrupt lonely misanthrope. To reach the masses one has to hold their hand and lead them with arguments of persuasion not refutation, because they have in general only the power of imaging not construction. So instead of proving god can't not exist like an invisible philosopher you have to persuade them god does exist like a radiant messiah, and in Plato's Republic that's done by the Myth Of Err, which is what we call today an "Out Of Body Near Death Experience".

Speaking of Plato's Myth of Err- which describes heaven for the good, hell for the bad, and reincarnation for the rest- it's most of all a warning to the elite who rule the world and shape public opinion- because Plato said hell is full of politicians and sophists. In a beautifully synchronistic sort of way, Richard Dawkins tells a moving story that occurred to him in his youth and which has remained in his mind ever since. He said he once saw a University Lecturer explaining a scientific theory he had been working on, and a member of the audience stepped up to the front and comprehensibly disproved his argument by refutation, and the slightly shell shocked but strangely happier lecturer shook his hand and said "thank you my good man for disproving something I have believed all my life". Dawkins said it summed up for him the difference between what he called science and superstition, or we philosophers might call the Promethean language used by the struggling human beings that walk on the land, and the sometimes beastly and sometimes divine noises made by all god's other creatures, such as the wonderful fish who swim in the sea. Think of Anthony Flew, he was another Oxford academic with a life long die hard belief in atheism, but like the wonderful professor in the story, he walked away from his cherished theory when someone refuted him no matter how emotionally attached he was too it. Well in truth, Flew kept his change of mind secret for many years, but like the story in Plato's Republic about the way old man toss and turn in their sleep at night dreaming of the injustices they committed during their lives, he eventually felt a terrible shame and made a great public admission of his mistake, which almost had a great impact on public opinion. Imagine on the other hand a professor who refuses to face refutation, he becomes like those proverbial Austrian Economists such as slavish Ludwig von Mises and mad Murray Rothbard, unlike Horatio Nelson he can't turn a blind eye and thrive, he is forced to defend his position with ever more cliquish simpleminded and zealotous put downs, and like the wicked witch of Oz he becomes immune to fiery logical arguments and can only be killed by dowsing him with a bucket of water, which causes him to shrivel up and disappear shrieking. Think of the idea the gods make mad those they wish to destroy, also of Plato's story in the Theatetus, "But there is one accident to which the unjust man is liable. When it comes to giving and taking an account in a private discussion of the things he disparages; when he is willing to stand his ground like a man for long enough, instead of running away like a coward, then, my friend, an odd thing happens. In the end the things he says do not satisfy even himself; that famous eloquence of his somehow dries up, and he is left looking nothing more than a child." But think too of Plato's Myth of Err which describes the terrible fate of sophists who turn away from enlightenment like, as the Bible puts it, strange children whose mouth speaketh vanity and their right hand is the right hand of falsehood. But let's not forget Plato's Menexenus, no matter how worthless a fellow may be when he joins up and fights for the good he is given a glorious eulogy when he dies and sent to Elysium instead of Hades, even if he is old and infirm and has a spent a lifetime spreading poison Flew style. What about the legend of the Trojan Horse? We might say, if you can't bring yourself to face the truth either for the gods or for the love of fellow men such as ourselves, well then dear Richard why not do it for yourself, think how many tweets you would get if you did a u-turn and said you have woken up and realised unthinking spontaneous evolution is, as Plato puts it, the sort of absurdly improbable explanation for the wonders of the cosmos only those with "an axe to grind against the gods" propose.


Footnote 1 of 3 - "Evolution, A Theory in Crisis", 1985 Michael Denton

The classic book which really started the debate raging within the scientific community. I think the layman should read one or two populist pro-evolution books before Denton's more involved work. Eg I already mentioned the "Blind Watchmaker" by Dawkins. Wiki is hopeless on evolution- you just get the old fashioned consensus which is vehemently opposed to ID.

Denton (PhD Biochemistry King's College London, later Medical Doctor & Microbiologist) did a great job but I think he misunderstands pleiotropy. Surely it's precisely our failure to build pleiotropic like features that hinders our progress in genetic algorithms and AI. For example, you can't create a better jumbo jet by making a random change to the empirical plans because it would obviously crash. But if we try to imagine DNA as not describing physical form like an architectural blueprint, but rather some kind of transcendent psychodynamic Platonic Form, well then random change would make more sense. Obviously pleiotropy suggests this is how DNA works, and I am not saying it does anything to swing the debate, but it isn't one of the many holes in the consensus as Denton suggests.


Footnote 2 of 3 - Problems with Evolution

(*) Homogeneous Fossil Records (A modern take on Darwin's Missing Link). If creature A evolved into creature B by the process of small random change then, if we had a time machine, we could go back and examine the skeletons to watch the evolutionary process occurring. It would be hard to classify the skeletons exactly, some would be mostly A, some mostly B, some in between etc. Of course we don't have any time machines and must therefore rely on the hugely imperfect fossil record. However, even after all these years the fossil record still looks completely homogeneous not heterogeneous. Although we can see some changes occurring within some species (eg the gradual development of the modern horse from the fox-sized, forest-dwelling Hyracotherium) it's really not enough. The 1972 theory of punctuated equilibrium argued that the degree of gradualism championed by Charles Darwin was virtually nonexistent in the fossil record, and that stasis dominates the history of most fossil species. The theory hypothesised that evolutionary changes could occur fairly rapidly after, for example, climatic change and finding the records from this relatively short transitional time period is therefore less likely. Although this theory improved the mathematics, the problem has not gone away and just keeps getting worse as more and more homogeneous records turn up.

(*) Computer Scientists have found Genetic Algorithms Failing. We talked about this problem above but I am including it again here for completeness. Remember the problem of finding the roots of n degree polynomials using numerical algorithms? The algorithms get suck in local maxima/minima. Genetic Algorithms have the same problem - all small changes have a negative impact. If that makes no sense: Try to imagine a bridge developing under Darwin's Theory. Until you can walk across the bridge the wasted structure detracts rather than add to its success, yet the bridge is far too complex to be built in a single generation. Now if Genetic Algorithms can't even build a simple bridge how could they possible build the human eye? Biologists sometimes struggle with this argument, but for hard core scientists with mental discipline it completely undermines the entire theory.

(*) Related to the question above but more popular with the life scientists: All life on planet earth is proven to have evolved from a single cellular ancestor (all cells have common physical and chemical systems and identical molecular handedness which is a random property). Yet there is no explanation of how such a hugely complex 'device' could have come into existence. No simpler forms of life have ever been found but they would have had to exist. This argument is currently getting a lot of attention because in the past biologists just waved the original cell into existence with stories about some lightning and some soup, but now they are really marvelling at how absolutely mind bogglingly complex cells really are. Forget all the rest, many say, how on earth could a random gradual change have ever produced a device like this even in a zillion years? It's so highly mechanised with concepts such as hardware and software that many find it impossible to believe that it has not been 'designed'. You have to do a bit of studying to appreciate the scale of this problem, but it's huge.

(*) Also related to the above some instinctive animal behaviour appears too complex to have arisen according to random genetic mutation. Remember that animal behaviour is determined mostly by instinct rather than by education. From 'The Blind Watchmaker' by Dawkins we have this description of how Beavers evolved to build big dams instinctively: "when mutation affects this particular part of the brain's wiring it has a specific effect on behaviour. It causes [perhaps] the beaver to hold its head higher out of the water while swimming with a log in its jaws. This makes it less likely that mud attached to the log will wash off during the journey. This increases the stickiness of the log, which in turn means that, when the beaver thrusts it into the dam, the log is more likely to stay there. This will tend to apply to all logs placed by this beaver... makes the lodge more secure against predators... increases number of offspring successfully raised... eventually becomes the norm." With a wave of the hand he thus explains the evolution of complex instinctive animal behaviour, but many find this improbable. Rupert Sheldrake has suggested a novel theory by which behaviour could be passed between generations without recourse to random genetic change. Although his controversial theory solves this and the following point, it does not solve all the problems here. I quite like this problem, but it's not that popular.

(*) Many biological structures must have evolved independently in different species and yet show improbable similarities for a random process. The famous example of the Octopus and Man having similar eyes but no common sighted ancestor. This problem has been kicking around forever, but its a hard one to analyse since biologists actually have so little idea about what came from what or how.

(*) The failure to observe species change in the world today. Scientists have tried to exploit the short life cycle of Drosophila to reproduce evolution in laboratory but without success. Due to population growth there are more humans alive today that every before in history, if a few Cro-Magnons could evolve into modern humans surely we should see more mutation in our enormous population today. The changes we do see today, eg people getting taller, are small and do not even appear to have a link with natural selection. Likewise enormous populations of domestic animals and breeding programs that encourage change have produced lots of new types of dog but no proper species change. Real world examples of evolution, such as London's Peppered Moths and Darwin's Finches, although much celebrated, are very unimpressive. These points have also faded into the background as the battle over the original cell rages.

(*) Molecular Equidistance and the failure of biologists to build Phylogenetic Trees etc (don't worry I won't even try and explain these pretty recent and involved arguments)


Footnote 3 of 3 - My New Cosmogenic Myth inspired by the Dawkins Alien Design Theory

Once upon a time Aliens planted an engineered seed cell on earth which gave rise to all life here. Now every living cell on earth contains a communication system which allows the Aliens to control them from their spaceship which remains hidden but still close by. This communication system also accounts for the occasional incidences of telepathy known to occur from time to time between some humans. The creatures the aliens guided into existence on earth reflected psychological forces. For example, the slow moving turtle sporting a totally impractical huge shell on it's back was not designed for maximum efficiency. Instead the turtle embodies a stubborn, grumpy and short sighted love of home and solitude.

In a stroke of pure genius the Aliens found a way to embody a number of different vital psychological forces even within each species. By creating the active, or male, and passive, or female, duality they captured a variety of ideas including power-love, intellect-emotion, idealism-materialism, master-slave. The Aliens were rightly proud of this invention because they themselves were sexless.

Eventually they developed a single supreme intelligent species for this world which is of course the human. Because the inside and outside are all linked, the humans naturally became less hairy and more fragile as their minds developed. The active male naturally came with a phallus, and the passive female with the opposite. These humans were in fact the only real reason the Aliens embarked on this long process in the first place. Because the humans had self awareness they could gradually break free of their lowly nature and collective. Gradually the humans are moving from primitive tribal people barely much more advanced than the monkeys that once gave birth to them, toward hugely sophisticated and rational self aware spiritual beings who transcend earthly instincts, emotions and sexual physicality. Today most humans are still a very long way from that ultimate goal, but the pace will pick up dramatically in the mid 21 Century when the Chinese begin making wide scale changes to their offspring using genetic engineering. Once the humans have completely perfected themselves and achieved total power over life on earth they will have become like the Aliens themselves. They will have completed their long quest to turn a hellish little world into a paradise fits for gods. At this point they will then be ready to join their equals up in space.

Until that time comes the Aliens keep themselves mostly hidden so the humans have to find the path to enlightenment themselves. The humans masses have, on the whole, almost no idea of what they are and where they are going. However, a few lucky ones with superior powers enjoy a degree of contact. The world the Aliens created for the humans was no paradise but rather a "dog eat dog" Darwinian place. Pain, competition, constant change and pragmatism would, the Aliens reasoned, provide for a much more effective education. The human wretches of today often wonder why anything would condemn them to such a sorry life, but like children at school, they can't see the final outcome nor understand the timescales their parents work in. At this early stage their little human lives are worth almost nothing to the enlightened Aliens, only the endpoint of their evolution matters to them. An eternal paradise will come to the humans one day, and the thousands of years of struggle will pale into insignificance.

After a few tens of thousands of years the Aliens think we have made reasonable progress, especially in Germany, but our theories on evolution are, they tell me, laughable :-)