The Other Universe

The nice thing about having a blog is that one can write and publish whatever one wants to, without having to go through peer reviewers, editors, or publishers. The bad part of that is that one can end up posting garbage. I don’t think I have posted too much garbage to date, and this is mostly because of the fact that I pass everything through one judge, my wife and chief editor, Aniko Albert. She has (always wisely) discouraged me from posting quite a few essays that were not really up to par. So this means if you don’t like something here, don’t blame me, blame Aniko.

I fully expected her to nix this post, since its pretty silly, and has some stuff toward the end that’s probably not only scientifically absurd, but pretty bad theology as well. But she just made a few comments, and let it go. She did point out that I should re-read NT Wright’s Simply Christian, which provides a convincing debunking of my entire premise. My response was, when it comes to theology, who are you going to believe, NT Wright or me? She laughed appropriately.  So, here it is, for better or for worse

I think this is not the only universe. So far I am merely in stride with modern scientific theories (the multiverse and all). Except I am not thinking so much of a multiverse as maybe a duoverse. Maybe there are more, but let’s stick with two for the moment.

Our universe is one of them of course, and the other….(well, goodbye science, here is where we part company) the other one is the Kingdom of God. Or Heaven.

Just as some folks think that the laws of physics might be different in other universes, the laws of physics are also different in the Kingdom. There are none. No laws of physics, no laws of anything except the law of God.

Genesis starts with “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”. It has struck me that this a remarkable sentence. I have heard it said that God is timeless, but if that were true then the sentence would read “At some particular time, God created…’ By specifically identifying the time of creation as “in the beginning,” the author is assuming a beginning of time, before which there was… well, there was no before which. This is consistent with the scientific cosmological approach to time and the origin of the universe. God was not around either “before” the creation, since there was no before, so then the question (often asked by atheists) is where did God come from?

There is only one answer:  somewhere else, another universe that existed before the creation of this one. And despite the scientific fact that universes are wholly independent of each other (at least in theory), somehow God reached out from His universe, the Kingdom of Heaven, and created this one.

We know a lot about our own universe, even though the amount of stuff we still don’t know is vastly greater than what we do know. The main thing we know about our universe is that it is lawful. Nothing can happen in our universe that goes against the laws. Light cannot go faster (or slower) than its fixed speed, time cannot go backwards, and we cannot travel in time. (Sorry, Syfy fans.) Heat cannot flow from cold to warm, and you cannot make a perpetual motion machine. And so on.

I believe that this universe of natural and moral laws was created by God, and so did all the early scientists, most of whom believed that by probing into those laws, they were learning about God’s creation.

As far as the Kingdom of Heaven (KOH) universe, we cannot know anything, so whatever I say about it is pure speculation. And since my theory is that the KOH is devoid of natural laws, there is nothing at all scientific about these speculations. In the KOH, God rules by fiat. Whatever God chooses to happen happens. Water can flow uphill (no law of gravity), living beings in that universe can live forever (no second law of thermodynamics), and miracles are simply part of the natural order.

So aside from God, who else lives in the KOH? We do, of course, after we die. There is plenty of room, since there are billions of planets in the KOH, each just like Earth, or to be more precise each just like California (without the earthquakes and drought). Paradise, in other words. Perfect weather all the time. No disasters (no tectonic plates), no harmful germs, no poisonous snakes or spiders. Everything is perfect, because God continually makes it so.

If this seems like a foolish fantasy, of course it is. OTOH, consider some resorts here on Earth. With enough resources of energy, labor, money, etc. we mere humans can easily build centers of paradise, where all desires and needs are met, and where people can escape the dangers and hardships of the “real” world. With a magical universe like the KOH, with a loving all-powerful God in charge, such a paradise can be real and unending.

Mark Twain, as brilliant as he was skeptical, would have had (and did have) something to say about the KOH. In his story “Captain Stormfield goes to Heaven,” Twain mused about how people would pass the time in a paradise, where everything was perfect, forever. Twain had some humorous ideas about this “problem,” but never came up with a good solution.

I think that the actual reality of the KOH is beyond our grasp. My guess is that when we arrive there, we will find that our souls and minds and even our bodies were operating on a tiny fraction of what they can do. And whatever that might be, in the KOH we will finally be able to do, see, understand, appreciate, and enjoy all of the hidden splendors of our existence and of God’s amazing gifts.

Getting back to Professor Wright, I will admit that his ideas about Jesus Christ bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to be built by us right here on this planet in this universe are probably a lot better than my duoverse idea, which has a lot of holes. I guess we will need to wait (hopefully for quite some time) to find out which of us was wright…(I mean right). Until then, all I can say is the next post will be better (I hope).

 

 

 

 

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Advice to a Reluctant Agnostic

The following is from the Biologos website. A reader posted  a poignant question about a month ago, which I (and others) answered. My answer seemed to be well liked by many of the Biologos Forum participants, and I thought I would repost it here. You can find the original (along with some other answers to the question posed) at the Biologos.org site.

The following is unedited from the original, except for correction of a few typos.

 

Are there any former militant atheists on this forum? If so, how and why did you convert to Christianity? I’m a reluctant agnostic. I long to believe in God and to follow Christ, but I’m plagued with relentless doubt. I’m always worried that materialism is right and that nothing beyond the norm exists. If that is correct then there is no point in anything at all and I find that thought bleak and depressing. The idea of the Christian God comforts me deeply and I really want to let go and believe but I dont know how to.

Wow, that sounds exactly like me about 20 years ago. I grew up as a militant atheist, and gradually decided that what I was learning in science (I am a biologist) wasn’t consistent with a purely philosophical naturalistic view point. I began to see that even science, (the observer effect in QM, and other facts of physics, as well as some of the immense complexities of biology) was suggesting something more than a perfectly rational, logical world. I was also curious about beauty, love, art, and all the human essentials, that seemed to be outside of pure naturalism.

And like you I longed for some kind of spirituality (which I had been deprived of growing up). I investigated some religions, including some new-agey stuff. Nothing satisfied me. I had had such negative training about Christianity that I never considered it.

But then a friend brought me to a Church. I was amazed at the love and kindness I found there. I felt myself moved, but still couldn’t bring myself to believe. I was “plagued with relentless doubt”.

How Christ finally found me is a long story, but it involved some personal experiences that convinced me that Jesus was real, and was trying to reach me. It was like a building pressure, which I finally surrendered to, and the dam burst. When that happened, when I could actually say to myself “I believe” my whole life changed.

I still have doubts. Sometimes when I first enter my Church, I think “What am I doing here?” But that goes away pretty quickly. Now my faith is a central part of my life, even though I still do science and will never lose my scientific worldview, which now includes the knowledge that everything I study is part of God’s creation.

I found this Biologos Web site when it first began, and it has been an enormous help to me over the years. I even wrote a blog post back in 2010 called Stochastic Grace that talked about my journey (I think you can find it if you search for it). My suggestions are to look around and read some of the blogs. Here you will find people who have no doubt that naturalism is the best way to understand the world as God created it, and who also deeply believe in God, and in Jesus as their personal savior.

I also suggest you not worry about finding God, because if you let him, he will find you. The key is to be open and to listen closely for his call. It could come in a dream, or in a coincidence, or in the touch of a loved one, a smile from a stranger. And when it does come, and you recognize it for what it is, allow yourself to accept it. You will know it when it happens, and you will pray your thanks for the gift of faith you have been given. Until then, love the world and the people in it, and know that even if you don’t know God yet, he knows and loves you. Peace.

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Credo. And Non Credo

When I decided to become an official, professing Christian, I was thrilled to see that I could honestly say that I believed in every word of the Apostle’s Creed.

I am very grateful that the creed I had to believe in was not the following:

I believe in one specific interpretation of the Bible, and reject all others.

I believe the Bible in its English translation of the Hebrew and the English translation of the Greek translation of the Aramaic is literally true in every word, and no interpretation is necessary. Ever. Except for the parables of Christ, of course. And, um, some other stuff (see below).

I believe that some things about the Bible that are not actually in the Bible are also infallibly true. For example, I believe that the calculation of the age of the Earth based on the Biblically stated generations and ages of the lineage of Adam is correct. In fact, I believe that the truth of that calculation, with all of its assumptions, extrapolations and sources of error is more infallible than any conclusion of modern geological, biological, paleontological, archeological or any other branch of modern science.

I believe that the story of the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 is an expanded and more detailed version of the sixth-day creation of humans in Genesis 1. It doesn’t actually say that in the Bible, but I believe it anyway, because, well, that’s what the interpretation I believe in says.

I believe that incest was not a sin for Adam and his children, because….well, that’s the only way Cain and the others could have found wives, and for my interpretation of Genesis to make sense.

I believe that when Genesis uses the phrase “And God saw that it was good,” the word good actually means “perfect”.

I believe that this way of reading the Bible is not only the only true way today, but has always been the only way real Christians have ever interpreted the Bible, going back to um, well over a hundred years. Maybe a bit more.

I believe in some very special scientific ideas. These include that after the flood, about 4000 years ago, there was a hyperfast period of evolution in which all the modern species of living things arose from their original Ark-bound kinds.

I believe that mutations cannot produce new information, because that’s what I have been told by a couple of  Bible-believing scientists. All the other so-called scientists, including so-called Christians, are wrong.

I believe that light traveled a lot faster in the old days, and radioactivity doesn’t really allow for age calculations, and….OK, enough.

If that had been the creed I was supposed to follow to be a Christian, I would still be searching for some religion to follow. Do we wonder why the children of fundamentalists are dropping out of the Church as soon as they begin to get an education and learn how to think? Are we surprised that the number of young people with no religious convictions or interest is continuing to climb? And that so many people lose their faith, simply because they cannot reconcile what their Church tells them they must believe with what they know to be true?

I am aware that some people have pointed out the danger of abandoning the central messages of the Christian faith. Accepting the idea of evolution and of a metaphorical interpretation of some biblical passages does not constitute an abandonment of the central messages of Christianity. If you are not convinced by my statement, watch the talk by Jim Stump at the recent Biologos Conference.

In fact, the false creed that I listed above is NOT the orthodox traditional Christian view at all. It is a modern kind of fundamentalism borrowed from 19th century Seventh-Day Adventism, mixed with some pseudo-scientific “evidence” from a book written in the 1960s. Many mainstream Catholic and Protestant theologians – including two popes – and renowned Biblical scholars have spoken and written against the YEC interpretation  of the Bible, so the idea that this interpretation is in any way representative of Christian theology is simply untrue.

I have argued on this topic before, and I will simply close with one point that I think bears repeating often. Acceptance of evolution has nothing to do with rejection of God, Christ, the Old or New Testament, or any truly fundamental aspect of Christian faith. On the contrary, an understanding of the beauty and wonder of the lawful evolutionary process that produces all the magnificent forms of life we know about, leads to a deeper knowledge and worship of the majesty of the Creator.

 

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It All Started with Paul

No, this is not about the origins of Christianity. The Paul in the title is not the Apostle, but Sir Paul McCartney, former Beatle. Back 1969, rumors on some American college campuses that Paul McCartney had died in a car crash began to spread. Radio DJs and talk-show hosts expanded and elaborated the hoax. The details can be found here. For years, very serious, thoughtful people compiled and presented “evidence” that Paul was dead. Such evidence included clues one could hear by playing some of the Beatles records backwards and the fact that Paul is not wearing shoes in one of the album cover photos. At the time I was a science student, and several friends wondered why I was skeptical about the story. “You are a scientist,” they said. “You must believe in evidence.”.

This story is a good way to illustrate what science is not. Science is not about amassing evidence to prove a point. That’s what lawyers do. That’s what advocates do, and scientists are not supposed to be advocates. One can always find evidence for or against anything. As a counter to this rumor, I began to accumulate a great deal of evidence that the Beatle John was really a woman. I even convinced a couple of poor souls.

I once watched a crazy lady on the news holding up evidence for yet another “Paul is dead” story. This was the one about President Obama being a fraud and a liar (her words) and that he was born outside of the US. Oh yes, she (and other people) presented a lot of evidence. Did that make it true? No. I have seen tons of evidence that US intelligence and/or the Israeli military blew up the Twin Towers on 9/11. There is evidence that vaccines cause autism, that GMOs make you sick, that the Holocaust never happened, that Elvis lives, that we never landed on the moon, that fluoride kills, that AIDS is caused by drug abuse, and so on.

And of course, when I say that I don’t believe it, the believers always counter, “look at the evidence”.

So let me say this. Evidence is cheap. You can find evidence to support or refute any statement. Evidence is not the way to establish the truth. Evidence is important, but by itself is useless. Now I can hear the computer keys clicking away. “SCIENCE IS BASED ON EVIDENCE. YOU ARE ANTI-SCIENCE!!”

Actually, that is a common misconception. Science is not based on what you might call evidence. Scientists are not juries. They do not reach a conclusion about truth by hearing arguments from many sides, and weighing the evidence. The scientific process is quite different from what people generally think. For most tough scientific questions, where there is evidence pointing to different answers, scientists will usually say “We don’t know yet. I favor this answer, but it could be the other one.” Eventually, as more data comes in, one answer becomes obviously correct to everyone (sometimes with exceptions).  That can take years or decades.

Experimental science is not set up to answer big questions, but very small ones. No scientist goes into a lab ready to prove that evolution is true or false or to cure cancer, or to learn how life began. No experiment or observation could do that. What they do is set up an experiment to measure the enzymatic activity of an extract of one species of yeast cells by determining the rate of disappearance of a particular metabolite labelled with radioactive phosphate. And 9 times out of 10, the experiment doesn’t work: the controls show the wrong values, the replicates give wildly different answers, nothing makes sense. After several months, usable data finally comes out. It’s usually not very impressive or interesting. The measured enzymatic activity is pretty much zero, which means either that this yeast species doesn’t degrade the metabolite, or the extract didn’t have the enzyme in it, or there is no such enzyme, or who the hell knows. That is what really happens in science labs, folks.

Sometimes we get lucky and we make a real finding. Something that can be published. Something that might mean something interesting. But proof? Truth? Sorry, no. At best we have an experimental result or an observation that is factually true (because we did the experiment according to the rules). But that fact by itself could mean any number of things. Scientifically defined evidence for a hypothesis, especially for a major important hypothesis, comes very slowly and from many different approaches.

This is why I am not interested in evidence for or against the reality of God or Jesus Christ. LaPlace famously said “I have no need of that hypothesis” when asked about God – well, I have no need of that evidence, because I know that “that hypothesis” cannot be tested by any manner of experiment, and that evidence can be presented by both sides ad infinitum.

Some people still think that the original Paul McCartney is dead. During the height of the hysteria, one addled reporter challenged Paul to prove he was the real deal. Of course, he couldn’t. How would you go about proving you are really you, and not a very clever impersonator who has learned all of the life story of the real actual you? How do we prove that Shakespeare wrote his own plays? Obama showed his birth certificate and Trump declared it a forgery. Christians point to historical documents, and skeptics say they were forged or not early enough. None of this is science, people. It’s politics, and its fake.

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Evo Psycho

A popular approach to explaining consciousness and other attributes of the human mind and soul is to attribute all of it to evolutionary mechanisms. The purpose of the new field of evolutionary psychology (EP, or Evo Pyscho, my own invention) is to find “scientific” explanations for human characteristics within the context of evolutionary adaptation. The field is based on the premise that all human behaviors and characteristics are the result of evolutionary adaptations to survival conditions during the evolution of humanity. Sociobiology is a related area of study that also incorporates this premise and strives to find evidence for it.

There is of course, plenty of evidence to be found. Sexual jealousy, hunger for sweets, even altruism toward kin can all be “explained” as adaptations to primitive conditions. The problem with this approach is that it isn’t always scientific, since the evidence used is sometimes a “just so” story that sounds logical and meaningful. In these cases the premise is a more of a faith statement with no basis of proof. And it may not be falsifiable. There is no possible human trait, real or imagined, that cannot be postulated to result from some evolutionary selective advantage.

Take, for example the well-known human tendency to bite one’s fingernails when nervous. We could say that long finger nails present an impediment to manual dexterity, which is needed to properly wield a weapon, and therefore when nervous the human tends to be sure that his/her fingernails are as short as possible. This is complete nonsense which I just made up without more than a moment’s thought. But it sounds like it makes sense..

Or take a fictional trait, like the urge to urinate when undergoing high-speed movement. That arose because humans never moved at high speeds unless they were being dragged away by a large carnivore, and urination was a useful way to signal distress to any other human passing by and also disgusted the animal enough to let go. Before you laugh, read some actual examples and explanations given for real human behavior by the “science” of evolutionary psychology.

Here are few quotes:

Physically more attractive parents are more likely to have daughters than physically less attractive parents…

It is therefore reasonable to infer that our ancestors must also have limited their daily activities to daylight, and sustained nocturnal activities are largely evolutionarily novel.  The hypothesis would therefore predict that more intelligent individuals are more likely to be nocturnal than less intelligent individuals.


Black women have lower average level of physical attractiveness net of BMI. Nor can the race difference in intelligence (and the positive association between intelligence and physical attractiveness) account for the race difference in physical attractiveness among women.

Satoshi Kanazawa

To be sure, the entire field of evolutionary psychology should not be judged by the writings of one controversial individual. Some EP ideas are more logical, some have some degree of reliable data, and some are undoubtedly correct. But often there is no actual evidence for any of the claims made, other than that they sound logical.

Modern humans have been around between 50 and 100,000 years (according to the cultural evidence of anthropology) and emerged as a biological species about 100,000-200,000 years before that. These are extremely short time spans for any kind of Darwinian evolution, and the idea that somehow there was enough time for humans to evolve all the traits we see in thought processes, sexual activities, child rearing, thinking, language, art and so on, is not compelling. If, however, these traits evolved in earlier hominin species, we need to be sure that the environment and behavioral selection pressures for those earlier ancestors were equivalent to those of early H. Sapiens. This may or may not be true, depending on the particular situation.

Lets take a closer look at a couple of mainstream EP claims brought to my attention by Ben Goldacre writing in his blog Bad Science. “Women walk more sexily when they are at their least fertile,”  according to a study in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior. The finding might be true, based on survey research, but the explanation for something that seems counter intuitive is one of those things that only an EP mind set could produce. In reporting on this “Science” the Daily Mail reports “The apparently contradictory finding – which belies earlier evidence that women’s behaviour becomes more alluring around the time of ovulation – amounts to an evolutionary con-trick on men, scientists said yesterday. Genuine signals of sexual availability, such as subtle changes in smell and facial expressions, can be detected only close up. If she flaunts herself too openly at fertile times, she could be made pregnant by an unsuitable man,”

Well, that makes sense, right? And if it isn’t true, we can always think of something else.

In another EP study, published in the respected journal Current Biology, scientists found that girls prefer pink or reddish hues, compared to boys who prefer blue. Again this was the result of a survey. But the conclusion, based on nothing, was this was probably due to female humans gathering berries, while the men hunted. Sounds logical until we find out that the female preference for pink is a modern Western cultural concept, and that a bit less than 100 years ago pink was considered a masculine color compared to the softer, more feminine blue. Oh well.

Lurking behind evolutionary psychology is a theological statement which is as follows: “There is no God, and therefore ALL human characteristics must be explainable by scientific (evolutionary)  principles”.  The converse of that statement is “Humans are NOT totally explained by evolutionary principles” which leads to the question of what other explanations for human behavior and human nature could there be? There are many answers to this question, some of them theological, others not.

The purpose of my argument here is not to suggest that the failure of Evo Psycho leads to a conclusion that humans were created by God (although I do believe that humans were created by God). What I am trying to suggest is that it is a bad mistake to allow a religious view (there is no such thing as a god) to lead to the acceptance of pseudoscience. It isn’t Christian theology, but the reputation of science that suffers from this error.

 

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How do Biological Robustness and Innovation go together? (Part 2 of 2)

Andreas Wagner and his research  group found, both in laboratory experiments and using computer models, that there is not just one way to build a protein with a particular function. There are millions (at least) of ways to do it. The same is true of gene regulatory control circuits and metabolic pathways. Wagner uses an analogy to explain the concept: a universal library containing every possible book, some of which, while containing different words, have the same meaning.  We can explore the idea using a simple English sentence as a model.

Everyone knows that life is complex.

Human language is robust: making small changes in a sentence often does not change its meaning. If we substitute just one word for another, creating a one-step neighbor (a good analogy for a mutation), some of these neighbors will retain the meaning of the original. For example: Everyone understands that life is complex or Everyone believes that life is complex.

Of course, because there are so many words, we can imagine that there are a vast number of neighbors that will not make sense, or will simply make the meaning unclear: Everyone corrosive that life is complex.   

Unlike human language, computer code is not robust at all. Leave out a semicolon or change a letter, and either nothing works, or it all works wrong. So how robust is life?

Wagner found that life is surprisingly robust. In life there are a lot of one-step neighbors. Most proteins, for example, are at least 100-400  amino acids long. An average protein would have almost 5000 neighbors (i.e. proteins with one amino acid changed). While a large fraction of a protein’s neighbors did not work well or at all, Wagner discovered that many of the neighbors produced the same phenotype as the original sequence. The same was true for regulatory networks and metabolic pathways.

Wagner’s research group then did an experiment that gave them an unexpected result. They continued to make single amino acid changes in the functional neighbor sequences, in a stepwise manner, and looked at all the neighbors (over 22 million) of the original neighbors.  They found that even after many steps, there were still plenty of sequences that retained the original function.  In fact, to their surprise, they could replace up to 80% of the amino acids in a protein structure and still get a few that worked as well as the original. Talk about robustness.

But, most importantly, they found that this process is also the source of innovation.  After many steps, when the protein has a number of amino acids that differ from the original but still has the same function, just one more change can produce a protein with a brand new useful function.

Let’s get back to our sentence analogy. Here is a pathway of sentences in which each sentence is the one-step neighbor of the one before. Sentences 1, 2, and 3 have essentially the same meaning. But in sentence 4, a single word change creates an entirely new meaning:

  1. Everyone knows that life is complex.
  2. Everyone thinks that life is complex.
  3. Everybody thinks that life is complex.
  4. Everybody thinks their life is complex.

We call a one-step change in the amino acids of a protein a mutation, and we know that such mutations happen all the time. How likely is it that a mutation in a protein would produce a novel function?  If there were just one protein that could perform the original function and keep the organism alive, it would be very unlikely – a miracle. But with many different candidates around, it could happen frequently. The more robust a protein is, the greater the possibility for innovation. A high degree of robustness allows for many different structures doing the same thing, and also allows for innovation through a small change in one of those robust alternative structures. Complexity leads to robustness, which leads to innovation.

So that is how the fittest arrive. Some evolution-deniers make the argument that the probability of getting a particular protein by chance is so small that it could not happen naturally. But one does not need that particular protein structure to carry out a function: there are many possible protein structures that can do the same thing. And the argument that mutations are always destructive and cannot lead to new information is also wrong, because many of these changes have no negative effect (the definition of robustness); and eventually, one change in one of the possible alternative structures can lead to an innovative function.

Andreas Wagner’s robustness/innovation hypothesis could be the basis for a new way of thinking about evolution. It provides a mechanism for innovation to occur quickly and doesn’t require the gradual accumulation of small changes, each with an adaptive advantage, of traditional Darwinism. It has the ring of truth, since it is both elegant and simple yet requires innate complexity as a prerequisite for the evolution of life.

While some traditional Darwinians insist that chance events are the dominant source of variation among individuals, there are new findings from evolutionary biologists suggesting that this might not be entirely true. Wagner’s theory adds evidence to the possibility that there is a degree of inevitability, or at least a direction, to how new life forms arise, and thus reduces the role of blind chance in evolutionary outcomes. Simon Conway Morris’ book Life’s Solution: Inevitable humans in a lonely universe describes the myriad examples of evolutionary convergence – how the same very complex features, from wings and eyes to eusociality, have evolved many times in different biological lineages. Wagner’s work could supply a mechanism to explain these observations on convergence.

I don’t know if Wagner is a Christian, although the last sentence of the book is intriguing:

And we learn that life’s creativity draws from a source that is older than life, and perhaps older than time.

Wagner’s explanation for the arrival of all of life, including us, seems to fit in quite well with the Christian belief in a Creator God who knits all creatures together, and who created all living creatures to be fruitful, robust, and innovative.

 

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White Knights and Genotypes (Part 1of 2)

Everyone knows that life is complex, but what does that really mean? Take the following fact: we can throw away a large fraction of the genes of most organisms (up to 80% in some cases), and they will live and function just fine. In science, when a fact doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, it’s a good clue that we are dealing with deep complexity.

Andreas Wagner, one of the leaders of the new generation of evolutionary biologists, quotes Lewis Carrol’s Through the Looking Glass in a recent paper about his “White Knight hypothesis”:

“You see,” he went on after a pause, “it’s as well to be provided for everything. That’s the reason the horse has all those anklets round his feet.” “But what are they for?” Alice asked in a tone of great curiosity. “To guard against the bites of sharks,” the Knight replied…

Wagner’s hypothesis is that while we might laugh at the folly of the White Knight, his approach to life is actually used by life itself. In his book, The Arrival of the Fittest, Wagner describes the importance of robustness in our understanding of how life survives, evolves, and creates new functions and features. While a shark bite seems an unlikely problem for a land animal, if by some strange scenario the White Knight’s horse found itself surrounded by sharks, it would probably have a better chance of surviving than any other horse. He is one robust horse!

That is the explanation, Wagner proposes, for the fact that so many organisms harbor genes that are not necessary and are not generally used. A typical bacterium, living happily in your gut, munching on an unlimited supply of the sugars in your diet, has no need of genes that allow it to live on acetone, butane, or glycerol, but it has them. Just in case. Being robust means being able to survive tough challenges, no matter how unlikely – like a sudden loss of sucrose to live on, or being plunged into shark-infested waters. It means being adaptable to unexpected changes in the environment, being able to adjust and survive.

Wagner is working  on one of the long-standing mysteries of evolutionary biology: how do biological innovations arise? The early 20th century biologist Hugo de Vries pointed out that while natural selection can choose which of many variant forms of life (or enzymes, genes, or metabolic pathways) works best, natural selection cannot innovate. It was De Vries who coined the term “arrival of the fittest”, to distinguish innovation from the better understood survival of the fittest.

In several publications over the past decade or so, Wagner and his team have proposed a very exciting answer to this question – one related to the White Knight’s horse. Their hypothesis also resolves the apparent paradox of how robustness and innovation can happen at the same time.

Robustness is conservative; it maintains a homeostasis in the face of external change. This is accomplished by lots of duplication and overlap of critical functions, so that biological processes are immune from damage to any one part. That is one reason that most organisms can do just fine after losing so many of their genes. Innovation, on the other hand, is revolutionary; it implies large-scale change. How can these two opposite impulses be connected? The genius behind Wagner’s answer is the discovery that biological innovation requires robustness, and robustness leads to innovation.

In the next post we will take a closer look at how that works.

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