Shallow Water

Jerry Coyne just reviewed the books of Richard Dawkins and Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini.  I can’t comment on the books themselves, as I have not read either one.  However, shocking as it may be – are you sitting for this? – Coyne lavishes great praise on Dawkins’ book and sneers at Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s book.  Never saw that one coming, did ya?

In one part, Coyne gushes as follows:

Dawkins describes selection as an “improbability pump,” for over time the competition among genes can yield amazingly complex and extraordinary species. Here’s how he describes the evolution of tigers:

“A tiger’s DNA is also a “duplicate me” program, but it contains an almost fantastically large digression as an essential part of the efficient execution of its fundamental message. That digression is a tiger, complete with fangs, claws, running muscles, stalking and pouncing instincts. The tiger’s DNA says, “Duplicate me by the round-about route of building a tiger first.””

Only Dawkins could describe a tiger as just one way DNA has devised to make more of itself. And that is why he is famous: absolute scientific accuracy expressed with the wonder of a child–a very smart child.

So Dakwins writes yet another book about Darwinian evolution that recycles his signature argument from 35 years ago and Coyne squeals like a young school girl.

Yet this hyper-reductionism does indeed capture the essence of the non-teleological perspective.  And as such, it becomes relevant to our on-going investigation of needless complexity.  For if evolution and biology all boil down to “duplicate me,” why did this process generate such needlessly complex round-about routines?

Take our RNAP examples.  According to Dawkins, archaea are just one way DNA has devised to make more of itself.  Bacteria are another way DNA has devised to make more of itself.  Eukarya are another way DNA has devised to make more of itself.  Quack, quack, quack.  Same story told over again where we just need to dot some i’s and cross some t’s.

But none of this explains why the archaeal version of the RNAP is more complex than the bacterial version.  From this reductionist, non-teleological perspective, the archaeal version is more complex simply because it’s the way archaea execute the “duplicate me” message.  In other words, it just is because it just happened.

And that brings me to my core problem with the non-teleological story.  I cannot say it is fundamentally wrong.  But I personally find it to be quite shallow and bland.  If you really believe the essence of life goes no deeper than “duplicate me,” then there isn’t any deeper and interesting pattern or logic to evolution (which explains why non-teleologists rarely ask the questions I ask).  You believe you’ve already found the logic and the rest of biology is just different ways of telling that same story.  In fact, that various life forms are just different ways devised to spell “duplicate me” means that organisms start to look like different ways to decorate a beer can (round-about routes to spell “buy and drink me” and thus make more of itself). So in a way, the non-telic perspective turns the study of evolution into beer can collecting.  In contrast, the telic perspective, which is happy to incorporate the “replicate me” message as part of the narrative, looks for deeper patterns and connections and a logic that ties the whole show together.  Instead of collecting beer cans, we’re looking for clues.  Instead of showing off the beer can collection, we’re trying to solve a grand puzzle. Instead of knowing how the story will end, we have no idea how the story will end.  Instead of listening to the Duck quack for the umpteenth time, we follow the Rabbit through the maze of his rabbit hole.

Or look at it this way.  From the telic perspective, evolution is like a great work of literature.  From the non-telic perspective, evolution is like a Top 50 list of internet memes.


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