Whatever Works

Why doesn’t anyone speak Esperanto? For the same reason that communism failed, that there are always shortcuts, and that mutations are random.

The answer is that planned, designed systems never work as well as unplanned, natural systems that arise by some form of trial and error, often called natural selection.

Esperanto was a great idea: create a new language that has features of many of the existing language. All people would learn their own language and Esperanto, and everyone could then communicate with everyone else. But it never happened. People preferred to learn English, just as in the past they learned French or Spanish or Latin, or whatever was the dominant language of the times. But, we could argue, isn’t it more sensible for everyone to learn a common language that isn’t chosen because its spoken by some group that has temporal power and dominance? Yes, that makes sense. But so does the idea that its possible to have an economy where the production of cars or rolls of toilet tissue is planned in advance. Or that we should design the best routes so that shortcuts would be unnecessary.

It turns out that solutions that make sense are not always the best solutions. Sometimes this is because “making sense” is often a very complex thing. For example, in today’s world, it makes sense for a Dutchman to learn English, but much less sense for a typical American to learn Dutch (or anything else, except maybe Spanish). Americans, Britons, Canadians,  and other native English speakers don’t really need to learn other languages including Esperanto, so they don’t. Why therefore should a Dutchman or Norwegian who already speaks English bother to learn Esperanto? If a Norwegian wants to speak to an Italian, it’s much more likely that they both know English than that either of them has even heard of Esperanto.

The reasons for failure of planned economies (communism) or designed social structures (like teenage dance parties) is too complex for this discussion, but like language choice, they all stem from the same issue: Planned designs don’t work in complex systems.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in biology. A lot of things make sense when you first learn the details of biology and biochemistry, but just as many things don’t. SJ Gould loved to write about this, and the title essay in his collection The Panda’s Thumb is devoted to a discussion of biological features that really shouldn’t exist.

Most organisms have far more DNA than they need. And it seems very inefficient to keep replicating all of this useless chemical that serves no purpose. Except now we know that some of the “junk” DNA does actually serve some purpose, such as coding for regulatory processes, or as material for new genes. Another example can be found at the post “Occam was wrong”

Does this mean that biological creatures are somehow poorly designed? Yes, it does, and therein lies the strength of life on this planet. If life had been designed according to how we humans think it should have been, it’s very likely that life on Earth would have gone the way of Esperanto, communism, and all the other carefully designed systems of human beings.

Software engineers have learned this lesson and now use genetic algorithms that depend on random changes and a form of natural selection of the most optimum solution to solve very complex problems in software development.

Those who argue against the process of Darwinian evolution because it seems to negate the appearance of the intelligent design of life are therefore missing the point. The most intelligent way to design a well-functioning life form is through evolution by natural selection. It is far more intelligent than attempting to design a well-functioning bird that must also survive in an environment with well-designed insects, worms, trees, hawks, cats and people, If biology (and a lot of human culture) could be summed up in two words, they would be “Whatever works”.

I do believe there is an Intelligent Designer. But His intelligence is as far above the intelligence of the smartest human engineer. God, in His Divine intelligence, designed life not to look efficient to us, but to last. And natural selection was His tool to do it. Every living cell proclaims the Glory of God.

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2 Responses to Whatever Works

  1. resonate47 says:

    Love this! You’ve given me a lot to think about. Happy September. 🙂

  2. This brings to mind the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13: 1-9). The sower does nothing to prepare the soil for the seeds. In fact, he doesn’t limit himself to a field or garden at all. Some fall on the path, some on the rocky ground, some among the thorns–most don’t survive. The sower sows extravagantly–even, a human would say, wastefully–and certainly with no apparent planned economy.
    This parable often is used to teach children a lesson on “being the good soil”–entirely missing the point of what Jesus was telling us about the nature of God. Let anyone with ears listen, indeed.

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