Monday, July 30, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“LIFE’S X FACTOR – The Missing Link in Materialism’s Science of Living Things” by Neil Broom (Steele Roberts, $NZ29:99)

            In The Blind Watchmaker, one of his works of materialist propaganda, Richard Dawkins records an experiment he performed which he believes confirms his world view. He had a simple graphic design installed in a computer, and then had the computer programmed to modify the design randomly, one small line at a time. In no time, the simple graphic design began to look, in Dawkins’ eyes, like an insect or a bird or a Spitfire or any number of other things. Perceiving some of the shapes to be like living things, Dawkins invented the term “biomorphs” and – voila! – he was at once explaining to his readers that this little experiment showed how random and unplanned and undesigned the emergence of life on Earth must have been. No need to think anything transcendent or immaterial was involved in the process. Life simply appeared by random chemical and physical changes in molecules, just like the random shape changes in his “biomorphs”. Of course it required lots of time to do this (millions of years), but each “generation” of the computer model was achieved in a matter of seconds.

            Unfortunately, as Neil Broom patiently explains in Life’s X Factor, there are a number of things radically wrong with the conclusions Dawkins reaches. First, one-dimensional graphic designs, which look vaguely like living things, are nowhere near the complexity of real living things. Second, Dawkins’ “biomorphs” randomly mixed nonsense shapes (looking like nothing in particular) with shapes of non-living things (note the Spitfire) as much as they produced shapes that looked vaguely like living things. Certainly the undirected forces of nature can produce an infinite variety of shapes – like the wind sculpting sand dunes, or dripping chemical-charged water producing statue-like stalagmites  -  but this has nothing to do with explaining how living organisms appeared. Third, the whole experiment took place in the sophisticated, organized and definitely designed context of a computer. Fourth, the experiment proceeded according to a purposeful computer programme – that is, it was designed.

            If Dawkins wished to draw conclusions about the origins and development of life from his observation (and in fact he had little ground to), then they should have been the very ones he wished to deny – that life is purposeful and designed, within a designed context, just like his “biomorphs”.

            Professor Neil Broom, head of the Chemical and Materials Engineering Department at the University of Auckland, and Fellow of the Royal Society, is running a great risk in arguing like this. Such is the dominance of biological-materialist propaganda now, that anyone who suggests there is something transcendent, designed and purposeful in life will be classified as a religious nutter lacking the sophistication of a true scientist. On the level of insult, talk of “design” is automatically countered with images of American Protestant fundamentalist advocates of nonsensical “Creation Science”.

            Broom (pgs.83-84) specifically dissociates himself from such pseudo-science, noting that “Creationists” (who would have us believe the Earth is only a few thousand years old) are as ignorant of modern scholarship concerning the Bible as they are of how to do science. Broom is careful to note that he accepts fully the story of evolution as the best hypothesis we currently have for the development of life. But this is not the focus of his argument. As he states :

            “It should be stressed here that I am not attacking the reality of biological evolution. I am not even attacking the key mechanism that underpins neo-Darwinism, namely natural selection. Rather, I am asking a much deeper question – is natural selection as material as its proponents proclaim it to be?” (Pg.34)

            Later he adds: “As a descriptive account of life’s probable pattern of unfolding, the evolutionary narrative seems alive and well. There is quite simply too much carefully catalogued evidence unearthed by a multitude of scientific disciplines to deny that life began ‘simple’ and ascended the ‘Everest’ of increasing complexity and sophistication over an immeasurably vast period of time.” (Pg.163)

            In one chapter, he lays out his six “approximate facts” of life, viz. life is very ancient (we are talking many millions of years); life has structural unity (different species replicate the same or similar functions); life is plastic (it mutates and changes); life is “pro-life” (living organisms cling to life); life is upwardly mobile (in the development of life forms, there is a progression towards greater complexity and ultimately consciousness); and the process of evolution leaves some redundancies in animals (such as, apparently, the human appendix).

            With the possible exception of the fourth (“life is pro-life”) none of these “approximate facts” would be disputed by any evolutionary biologist, regardless of his/her extra-scientific ideology.

            In Life’s X Factor, then, we have a sophisticated and well-informed modern scientist taking issue not with the best modern science, but with the ideology of biological materialism which now dominates ‘pop science’ items and articles in newspapers and magazines and TV shows.

            It is important to emphasise”, says Broom, “that biological materialism is a philosophy that draws an all-embracing explanatory circle. In principle, if not in detail, it claims to provide the answer to life’s mystery. Given only the material laws of physics and chemistry, life had to happen – or so we are told.” (Pg.15)

            In reply to biological materialism, Broom observes that there is absolutely no demonstrable chemical or physical reason why less complex chemicals and organisms should ever develop into more complex ones. Further,  he notes (with many examples) that having asserted the blind purposelessness of the development of life, biological materialists nevertheless deploy language that suggests ordering and purpose, and then attempt to evade the obvious conclusion that there really is ordering and purpose.

            Refuting William Paley’s famous 200-year-old analogy of the watchmaker God, Richard Dawkins (quoted pp.51-52) may write: “Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparent purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no reason, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.”

            Dawkins’ reasoning here is similar to that of the materialists John Avise and Jacques Monod, or the Oxford chemist Peter Atkins who, in his book Creation Revisited, claims that chemicals assemble themselves randomly and the development of higher organs is purely a matter of chance.

            Yet, says Broom, having dismissed the idea of an organizing mind “Richard Dawkins’ popular exposition of modern evolutionary theory doesn’t just contain the odd careless lapse into mind-laden language; it is in fact ridden with the most blatantly purposeful elements” (Pg.57). Further “the narrative line of the materialist all too frequently lapses into a kind of personified, anthropomorphised depiction of nature, giving minds to molecules which they do not appear to have” (Pg.67).

            Of course Broom anticipates the obvious objection that Dawkins et al. are simply speaking metaphorically. But, as he asks, if their purpose-and-design-laden language is simply metaphorical colouring, then why are they never able to expound their materialist conceptions in “neutral” language without such metaphor? When Dawkins speaks of the “smooth upward pathway” in the development of the eye, or even when he refers to a gene as “selfish”, he is producing what Broom calls “unintended intentionality”.

            Later, Broom has great fun taking to task such tele-popularisers as Jacob Bronowski, David Attenborough, Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and Robert Winston, in their various programmes, for assuming that the limited (and, of course, designed) 1953 Miller-Urey laboratory experiment “proves” an entirely materialistic conception of how life began. Says Broom: “Materialistic science has produced not one shred of evidence demonstrating that meaningful codes can arise by entirely material means. And yet meaningful codes lie at the heart of all living systems.” (pg.130) Among much else, Broom also takes on what he calls “genetic reductionism” – that is, the modern superstition that the gene (which is essentially a system for transmitting information) is the basis of all life.

            Having made very clear what Broom opposes, it’s also necessary to show what he is promoting. He endorses the work and science of Michael Polanyi, who warned of the type of reductionism that omits mind and purpose from its explanation of life. He follows the English zoologist Alistair Hardy in seeing purposeful changes in animal behaviour as being one of the triggers of animal evolution (i.e. not purely mechanical mutation). Above all, he argues throughout for a “primary non-material or transcendent dimension or guiding presence”. Call it God if you will. Or a Life Force or élan vital (and in the process incur the wrath of materialists, who will accuse you of the heresy of “vitalism”). But at the very least, it is an awareness that, in a scientific description of the processes of life, there is a middle ground between unscientific biblical literalism and mindless materialism, no matter how much the latter has captured the high ground of publicity in recent years. En route, Broom goes so far as to suggest that there might be something to be said for Lamarck’s (pre-Darwinian) concept of the role of animal intentionality in evolution. And there might even be something to be said for a form of Paley’s watchmaker argument, no matter how much Lamarck and Paley must now be read in the light of subsequent science.

             Life’s X Factor is a spirited, lively and sophisticated argument. Of course it will not convince everyone, but nobody can deny both the depth and breadth of Professor Broom’s scientific knowledge. Nor can one deny that (unlike Dawkins, for example) he treats his ideological opponents with courtesy. I was particularly taken by the two chapters in which Broom chronicles the “Birth of a Big Idea” by recapitulating the development of the theory of evolution (Lamarck; Wallace; Spencer; Darwin – and Mendel, without whose genetics there would be no synthesis into neo-Darwinism); and then points out that there are “establishment” neo-Darwinists who believe in steady, progressive incremental evolution, and “revisionists” who emphasise “jumps” when there are periods of rapid speciation, probably triggered by climatic trauma etc.

            This is very good popular science writing.

            He is also on very firm ground when he shows how the reductionist mindset of materialism always has a hard time dealing with causality. This leads him to consider the whole matter of cause in philosophic writing, from classic Aristotlean teleology to Bacon’s and Descartes’ desire to look at the specific rather than the general causes. Here he notes, correctly, that all the foundational scientists of the early modern world (Galileo, Newton, Pascal etc.) were profoundly religious, and when they began to see the universe as a mechanism, they were in effect saying it was designed by God. Only later did this concept of a mechanistic universe, coupled with the discovery of  how vast the  universe actually was, appear to dethrone God. But in the process humanity was also de-throned (being no longer seen as at the centre of things) and classic humanism ended.

            An awareness of the inadequacy of materialism is probably our best path back to a true humanism.

            Life’s X Factor is a good start.


  1. Of course there is yet another reason for Dawkins discovering Spitfires and birds in his graphics. The Italian psychologist Manfredo Massironi created a delightful game with pencil squiggles which demonstrates that practically any closed curve will be perceived by a human observer as a drawing of a bird. We are primed to interpret shapes as creatures everywhere we look ...

  2. I look forward to your equally glowing review of this book http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/6624320/Egyptians-Greeks-came-to-New-Zealand-first-book
    It is equally well researched as Broom's book, and just like Broom... the writers haven't been held back by any of the overwhelming evidence that they are wrong.
    I'm not a fan of Dawkin's and I always thought his "biomorphs" were silly. However he's at least half right when it comes to evolution. Broom is just wrong, wrong, wrong. He obviously doesn't even understand what modern evolutionary theory is. Almost everyone working in genetics today believes Lamarck to have a more accurate model for evolution than Darwin. Lamarck didn't know it, but he was describing the feedback genetic loop which we now know is mostly passed down via the female egg (in human's anyway).
    As for evolution always resulting in more complexity... well that's just plan wrong. There are hundreds of examples of life becoming less complex through evolution. Take for example the Flatworm.
    I could go on, but really, this is like trying to disprove the work of a climate change skeptic. There's so much which is inaccurate that it's hard to know where to begin.
    From your review it seems that Broom's book basically covers the same ground as many "Intelligent Design" writers. This is the highly funded American anti-evolution movement. And it's a pity that so much effort is being put into this area from obviously intelligent people.
    That said, I agree, science works best when there is room for disagreement. That's why Dawkins gets up my nose... he presents his (largely correct) views in an extremist fashion. George W Bush-style, he says "You're either on our side or your against us." But calling his book The Blind Watchmaker "materialist propaganda" is simply childish. The Blind Watchmaker is a pop science book trying to explain cutting edge evolutionary thought in the early 90s. It's very out of date now, but it wasn't "propaganda". The God Delusion? Sure, that's propaganda. Propaganda so badly written that it could be mistaken for most of the pro-religion books that it was attacking.

    1. Thanks for your forthright opinions, Ben. I was fairly certain this posting would receive some extreme reactions.

  3. Yeah yeah, it was magic what made it all happen. Call it God if you will. Or a Life Force or élan vital (and in the process incur the wrath of materialists, who will accuse you of the heresy of “vitalism”).
    But magic is the honest term.

  4. Giving something a mocking label is not an argument Richard.