Friday, March 26, 2010

Now this is a shocker to me! My prof introduced me to a lot many good books and thinkers, some of whom now seem to be misusing science and masquerading as scientist-philosopher mystics. One such thinker was the French priest-paleontologist, Teilhard De Chardin. I did flip through his Phenomenon of Man and before I read Carl Zimmer’s Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, I did believe in Teilhard’s view of evolution as a race towards super-consciousness. And who shocked me: it was Peter Medawar, the brilliant biologist who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for solving the problem of grafts, transplants of say organs that are shunned by the body’s immune system as it thinks they are foreign bodies trying to hijack the body. Medawar outright calls Teilhard a “pious bunk” who “dared to write an equation so explicit as Evolution = Rise of Consciousness”.

Teilhard’s essays are hard reads with esoteric jargon that is justified as reflecting the profundity of his thought. “But he seems to accept the idea that evolution is probationary and exploratory and mediated through a selective process, a 'groping', a 'billionfold trial and error”. Medawar goes on to say that this way of de(popularizing) evolution by unleashing its complexity does no good:

"Unhappily Teilhard has no grasp of the real weakness of modern evolutionary theory, namely its lack of a complete theory of variation, of the origin of candidature for evolution. It is not enough to say that 'mutation' is ultimately the source of all genetical diversity, for that is merely to give the phenomenon a name: mutation is so defined. What we want, and what we are slowly beginning to get, is a comprehensive theory of the forms in which new genetical information comes into being. It may, as I have hinted elsewhere, turn out to be of the nature of nucleic acids and the chromosomal apparatus that they tend spontaneously to proffer genetical variants --- genetical solutions to the problem of remaining alive --- which are more complex and more elaborate than the immediate occasion calls for; but to construe this 'complexification' as a manifestation of consciousness is a wilful abuse of words.”

“What Teilhard seems to be trying to say is that evolution is often (he says always) accompanied by an increase of orderliness or internal coherence or degree of integration. In what sense is the fertilized egg that develops into an adult human being 'higher' than, say, a bacterial cell? In the sense that it contains richer and more complicated genetical instructions for the execution of those processes that together constitute development. Thus Teilhard's radial, spiritual or psychic energy may be equated to 'information' or 'information content' in the sense that has been made reasonably precise by modern communication engineers. To equate it to consciousness, or to regard degree of consciousness as a measure of information content, is one of the silly little metaphysical conceits…”

This band of thinkers see “scientists… as shallow folk skating about on the surface of things” . They don’t dig deep into the matter, something that the mystics do all the time and complement scientific thought with. But hardly do they know that the depth of scientific thinking is not all that parsable for those dabbling in words to describe their thoughts. Symbolic notation, like equations, and ingenious intuition are some of the ways science takes to, to routes its ideas. And this hardly requires any words, except to elaborate them in an expository essay.

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