Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Genetic Self

Observations on Richard Dawkins's Speculative Fantasy

Richard Dawkins's published and quoted public statements have never impressed me. They certainly don't inspire me to buy his books. He comes across in print like a juvenile who makes provocative statements just to enjoy the anger of those who find him disagreeable. He is probably nothing like that in person. In any case, it is less than credible to make critical remarks about a published author, without actually reading any of his books. So when I saw a copy of The Selfish Gene on sale for 50 cents, about the value of a used-up rapper, I snapped it up.

His Introduction actually suggested some common ground for dialog with Christians, or with Jews or Muslims or any other monotheists. He does not, of course, opine that "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Nor does he say that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, or that there is no God but The God, and Mohammed is his prophet. But he does say "Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly toward a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something which no other species has ever aspired to." Not exactly Original Sin, but a bit of convergence among different philosophies toward the same limited physical truth.

The weakness of his book is that it is entirely speculative, and not very well informed speculation either. The book's Preface announces that this is "not science fiction," and that is true, because good science fiction, unlike fantasy novels set on another planet, contains some sound application of scientific fact and method to create the story line. Then he announces that his book "is science," and this is pompous nonsense. Science is generally absent from the main theme of the book, although there is some sound science in various sideshows offered as examples or analogies.

The entire story rests on Chapter 2, "The Replicators." Dawkins begins with a fairly well established line of research, that if electricity is sparked through a mix of chemicals likely to have been present in the early eons of our planet, complex amino acids will result. Water, carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia are all compounds used in such experiments, and all are present on some of the other planets in our solar system. From this beginning, Dawkins jumps to the idea that free-floating amino acids learned to copy themselves, and filled up the oceans with a soup of mindless strings of complex compounds. New varieties developed due to errors in replication. Then they started eating each other, because there were no more free atoms in the ocean to build copies from.

What led to cells and and complex plant and animal bodies? Oh, these mindless strings of replicating amino acids somehow surrounded themselves with cell walls to protect themselves from each other. They didn't plan to mind you. They had and have no minds. They just did it, blindly and spontaneously. There is, of course, no evidence at all for this vicious amino acid soup, or the spontaneous replication of amino acids floating freely in the ocean. Nor is there any attempt at explanation of how these complex proteins assembled themselves into the much more complex DNA molecule.

Even for nontheistic theories of the origins of matter and of life, this is a very long stretch. Genes do not exist as the code for reproducing life, life exists for the purpose of providing security to our genes... There is a test for this kind of speculation, called Occam's Razor. The test is, the more simply a theory explains the known facts, the more likely it is to be true. Dawkins's speculation on the origin of life fails Occam's Razor miserably.

As it happens, there are other, better supported theories, and not coincidentally, these pose no conflict to the notion that "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth," or that "God said, let the waters bring forth the living thing that hath life." No theory proves or depends upon the existence of God. Those who "live by faith and not by sight" would be profoundly disturbed if sight could provide proof positive of an omnipresent, omnipotent God. What experiment could test for whether God is a reasonable hypothesis? That is why "Intelligent Design" borders on blasphemy, and certainly lacks intelligence. Actually, there is no particular reason that God could not have done things the way Dawkins says they happened, but there is no good reason to think he did. "Let the waters bring forth the self-replicating amino acid" is a long way around when a simpler, better understood, more subtle, but more direct sequence of more likely events is clearly available.

A good alternative scenario was presented in American Scientist, Volume 94, page 32, by Michael Russell, a research fellow at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Center, and at the time of publication, a visiting scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. No doubt this article only scratches the surface of available research and publication. But for the general reader, trying to keep up with what science has to offer, while lacking time to become an expert, it's a good article to check out.

The author may be personally acquainted with Dawkins, or not, may be his close personal friend, or caustic rival. Russell may be a devout Christian, like Cambridge University biologist Simon Conway Morris, or a convinced atheist, like astronomer Fred Hoyle. That really doesn't matter. Science is not a competition between political orthodoxies, although, unfortunately, scientists do engage in political competition. Russell builds his analysis on the previous work of many others, who each have their own beliefs and disbeliefs. Whatever these are, the truth is the truth, however dimly understood. What matters is that "First Life" offers a simpler and more plausible speculation, a more factually-grounded speculation, about the origin of life, than Dawkins's Selfish Gene.

"First Life" begins with the basic chemistry of respiration, not complex genes seeking a fortress to dwell within. At the bottom of every food chain, hydrogen and carbon dioxide are used to synthesize organic compounds. All more complex life depends on it. Organic molecules require other materials: nitrogen, sulfides, phosphates, metals such as iron, nicket, manganese, cobalt and zinc. Where were these found on the newly formed earth? Around deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Deep in the sea was the only place fragile potential for life could have survived in those early times: the oceans were a sterile desert, vaporized frequently by the impact of meteorites, the moon was much closer, causing frequent tides and storms. Dawkins's replicators would have been smashed, physically and chemically, faster than they could form. A warm spring, on the deep ocean floor, protected from raw ultraviolet radiation, never dry, never too hot or too cold, never too acid or too alkaline, was the place for life to survive.

Before life was truly life at all, iron sulfide precipitate naturally formed a gel with pores and bubbles, providing enclosed sites for chemical reactions. This may have been the beginning of the membranes that today surround all living cells. But the first chemical reactions needed a catalyst, and the availability of a mineral called greigite, an iron-nickel sulfide, provided one. There is even a plausible explanation for the emergence of the proteins that contain the genetic codes of all life today, RNA and DNA. The raw materials were freely available in this nurturing environment, but how did molecules so complicated happen to form? What came first? Perhaps adenosine triphosphate, still the engine of every living cell today. It would have played a role in respiration before genetic codes even existed.

For all the details, the article is highly recommended. The plausible scenario of raw materials, sources of energy, increasingly complex chemical reactions started by conveniently available catalysts, could be wrong in one or many details. It probably comes closer to how life began than a soup of selfish genes with no will to be selfish which just happened to surround themselves with living bodies. Either scenario is statistically improbable, but the hydrothermal vent theory corresponds to actual chemistry and real conditions that probably existed. It offers a precise series of chemical reactions. And if a reader happens to have faith that there was a divine purpose, intent, and initative behind it all... it calls to mind the recent worship song "Where would I be, you only know... an empty space, a hopeless place, if not for grace."

Grace is not a necessary hypothesis for this theory to be plausible, but it may be a necessary precondition for all the right materials to be in just the right place, and move through just the right set of opportunities in the face of so many hazards. Perhaps there was a certain grace which provided that a sterile desert of ocean, irradiated by ultraviolet, could bring forth the living thing that has life, from which a God who, as Einstein said, is "subtle, but malicious he is not" could make great fish and every living creature that moves.. .But whether there is a God or no, this is sound science, and Dawkins's fantasy is wishful thinking, conforming a vision of the past to his own didactic polemics in the present.