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George Dyson and critics of Darwin

I’m at the Aspen Ideas Festival and still trying to get a sense for how this conference works. I arrived late last night and spoke in one of the early sessions this morning, along with Brooke Gladstone and Clive Thompson. Good fun, but it means I’ve only experienced the conference as a speaker, not as a guest.

There are competing sessions during lunch, and I passed through a standup routine by Louis Black to make it into the basement to hear George Dyson talk about Darwinian critic, Samuel Butler. The Butler in question is a somewhat obscure Victorian figure. He wrote novels, translated, and engaged in a fierce, lifelong debate with Charles Darwin. Dyson tells us that George Bernard Shaw observed that a man who managed to alienate both Darwin and the church wasn’t goint to make a lot of friends.

Dyson sees a lot to like in Butler’s view of the world. When Butler fled England – and a debate with his father over the value of baptish – he found himself in New Zealand and was fascinated by a telegraph line that connected a harbor and the town of Christchurch. The experience of being able to transmit news to town that a ship had been sighted radically changed the life of the town, and Butler reflected on the development in a way that anticipated much of the contemporary internet, including e-commerce. His observations were wide-ranging, including reflections on the possible evolution of machines, including the idea that machines might reproduce through humans, much as humans use biological subsystems to reproduce. His critiques of Darwin focused on the question of how Darwinian processes actually came about. He ended up postulating a form of intelligent design that was bottom up – based on the motivations of cellular and molecular mechanisms, rather than on a top-down intelligent designer. In his work, Dyson sees anticipation of Dawkins and the idea of the selfish gene.

Darwin and Butler sparred throughout their lifetimes, though Darwin didn’t directly address Butler’s critiques – his advisory board, however, wrote ferocious criticism of his work, including a memorable passage where Butler is refered to with the drawing of a dog. Dyson worries that we dismiss his thinking, especially about bottom-up strategies of evolution, at our peril.

Asked who’s the most important critic of Darwin today, Dyson cited Carl Woese, who discovered Archaea, a new kingdom of life that includes extremophiles, life that thrives in deep undersea events in environments that appear unsustainable. Woese sees a great deal of genetic transfer across species within the Archaea kingdom – deeply separated orders or families might manifest large, similar sequences. This suggests a model of genetic spread that’s different from conventional Darwinian evolution. It might look more like the way languages borrow from one another. Woese – and Dyson – speculate that Darwinian evolution might just be one possible ways in which organisms share genetic information. It might be have been an earlier form of evolution, and perhaps horizontal genetic transfer, as we see in virii and in Archaea might be more common.

Dyson ends with a slide of his father, poking at eddies in a British stream. “You can poke an eddy with a stick and it will just reform. Perhaps species are like this – we somehow eliminate lions, but we see similar prey behavior in housecats. Maybe species are like eddies, emerging through Darwinian selection, through horizontal gene sharing… but the behaviors inevitably emerge.

Asked about his feelings on intelligent design, Dyson admits that he dislikes the dogmatic response the scientific community tends to have to the line of thought. Intelligent design, he says, shouldn’t be taught as a theory equivalent to Darwin’s, but no scientist should dismiss something entirely out of hand.

Dyson offers the idea that Richard Dawkins errs in believing that you need to be an atheist to be a good scientist. There have been many excellent scientists who are “dual citizens” of the world of science and faith.

The questions close with queries to Dyson about how science should be taught in schools. He remembers a science class where he and fellow students were given a year to study the Grand Canyon and try to determine how old they thought it was. They ran experiments to test erosion, built instruments to test mass, and generally learned how to do science. There were some parents who disliked the class – they pointed out that students didn’t learn much about grods. “But you were extremely well prepared to learn about frogs.”

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