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
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, um, 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?! Well, Darwin's Theory, although still hugely popular with the scientific masses and the educated public, is coming under increasing attack. A few very eminent and very serious scientists, including Nobel Prize Winners, are arguing that Darwin's Theory just doesn't work (eg Roger Penrose, probably the world's top scientific mind today). These scientists are not necessarily saying that this proves the existence of God, they are just saying scientists have absolutely no idea what caused life on Earth to originate and evolve. 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. Most of the scientific resistance to evolution in the past has come from mathematicians and engineers who have complained about this truly enormous problem. Biologists, on the other hand, tended to wave the 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.
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” – the origin of new beings on earth – is still as largely enigmatic as 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.
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 riddicule 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 current or go into hiding. So perhaps then we can forgive the scientific community in the last 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 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 expert scientific elite who claim to reason. By the way, in case you're one of the extraordinary unusual exceptions to the general rule, and you pay close attention when you read, and consequently bristled a moment ago at an overgeneralization made for poetic effect, we'll come to your aid and defend the creation myths of ancient man against Michael Denton by saying that there is a great deal of difference between useful thought provoking allegory and mindless perverting superstition, for example in the Timaeus Plato used the wonderful legend of Atlantis to teach the idea of a Promethean cycle of philosophical decline and renewal, but modern evolutionary theory is perfectly ghastly and destructive. But we shouldn't blame Michael Denton for the mistake, writing poetically about human affairs is like that, by bringing things down to earth from up above and making them move non-philosophers, they inevitably involve flux geometrisations, which can be attacked by ignoble sophists as overgeneralizations, but which more importantly and dangerously can have the opposite effect on other people different from the ones the author was thinking about when he wrote it. For example, let's take the example of contraception and abortion. A person who heard a song about Platonic love might ban contraception in order to stop the children debasing themselves with sex for pleasure, which in the old days when a family had a fixed allocation of land, would have the Darwinian effect of deselecting sex for pleasure by starvation, thus building a more godly society. But if families were allowed to expand, a ban on contraception would have the opposite effect, it would build a word in which the beastly types thrive and the godly types shrink by proportion. Thus as Homer said the preservation of society depends on the "golden chain of philosophy holding", or what the Yogis call the "living master", neither science nor scripture can prevent civilization crashing into naive empiricism on the one hand and once nice but now dim moral laws on the other, and the final implosion obviously occurs when both science and scripture are overthrown in the unlimited madness of whatever people want to believe. So if you're reading this long after my death, don't take it too seriously, because it wasn't written for you, it was written for someone else entirely, and the universal timeless truth that both you and I have in common can't be written only hinted at, and without the ability to question me you are very likely to get comply the wrong impression of both me and my work, and if I had anything brilliant to say, which as I write this today I think the jury is still very much out on, it would take another brilliant fellow to cross through time and recover it.
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 pragmatic conditions it must fulfil in order to be true, like a King converting his principles into moral laws for his warriors to measure a particular herd with. And in the same way, for example, atheists seek to prove god doesn't exist by the problem of evil, by refutation we call it. 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 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, 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 sophists and politicians who rule the world and shape public opinion. 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 we philosophers might call white hot science and muddy wet primitive religion, or the difference we might sway between nobility and slavishness. 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 poision 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 oursevles, 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 there. 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 :-)