Posted by: Dan | December 18, 2006

Non-Telic Thoughts and The Plausibility of Life

Some points recently on Kirschner and Gerhart’s The Plausibility of Life – prompted by a post from MikeGene on Telic Thoughts: Surprise and Reach. MikeGene describes this book as “ID Friendly,” and I strongly suspect that Kirschner and Gerhart would disagree with this sentiment (see below).

MikeGene quotes two segments of the book (you can see them on TT) on the level of meme conservation in molecular biology, and somehow sees this as reflection of a Godly-ordained and “front-loaded” evolving world. Seeing the world through deity-tinted glasses, are we? How on Earth does this logically follow from a “front-loaded” world:

Novelty in the organism’s physiology, anatomy, or behavior arises mostly by the use of conserved processes in new combinations, at different times, and in different places and amounts, rather than the invention of new processes.

Well, maybe MikeGene feels that the origin of life was a moment of special creation, where the first cells were endowed with properties that made the rest of life inevitable. Ok, it’s certainly more palatable than outright creationism or the Discovery Institute’s intelligent design. But it sounds like a detailed rendition of theistic evolution to me. Regardless, TT bills itself not as a theistic evolution blog, but a blog for intelligent design.

Kirschner and Gerhart, however, advance their thesis of “Facilitated Variation” in their book, and read a certain way, I can vaguely begin to see how someone from a telic or theistic viewpoint might see a patterned of pre-destined evolution unfolding through the history of life on Earth. But I didn’t read The Plausibility of Life from such a point of view. Without quoting large sections of the book, I read it simply as a desciption – on the cell and developmental level – of how descent with modification works. And with the advancement of cell and developmental biology in recent decades, our understanding of how genotypes lead to phenotypes, and how phenotypes are acted upon by selection, is becoming richer than ever. It is clear that both adaptive and stochastic mechanisms of evolution are at play, and that these mechanisms follow the laws of complex systems.

MikeGene appears to take the view that all of this was pre-destined by some overarching plan for the Cosmos, or at least Earth. It’s a nice view for the layperson, but baseless according to Kirschner and Gerhart. To wit, they say (page 266):

By arguing for an intelligent designer, creationists have sought a false completion of evolutionary theory, generating for the faithful a sense of satisfaction in what for them was an unexplaiinable system. In this book we have addressed this incompleteness in evolutionary theory by assembling scientific evidence for the causes of variation.

But I won’t claim to understand all the nuances of intelligent design or creationist arguments. Surely, those on the TT forums will argue that I’m misrepresenting them – but one thing is clear – The Plausibility of Life most certainly does NOT argue for a designer. Instead, it attempts to reduce the many ways that variation can be generated on the cellular and developmental arenas to natural and plausible physical/chemical mechanisms.


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