Sunday, August 31, 2008

On Evolution, Part I

This is the first in what I hope becomes a series of blathers on the topic of Evolution. Fortunately everyone is of like minds on this topic. But I’ll give it a go anyway, as I am not hearing discussions that hit the key points that I’d like to hear. It’s not that I will only listen to people who agree with my conclusions, rather, I would like to hear certain sub-topics on evolution discussed, whereas they are “tip-toed” around, or worse yet, omitted.

Whenever I start a conversation on Evolution, I am always “forced” to make a couple of preamblic statements, primarily to keep from being summarily ignored, secondarily to keep me from being drawn and quartered.

First off, I do not believe in the literal interpretation of the olde English version of the bible, as translated from Latin, as translated from Ancient Greek, as translated from Hebrew. Call me nuts, but I never believed the bible was meant to be taken as a video-tape-accurate journal of events. And since the Genesis of the Universe was populated by relatively few historians, it would be asking quite a bit to have an accurate play-by-play.

Second, I do not believe that Charles Darwin fabricated a tale of lies simply as an anti-religious manifesto. Actually, there is quite a lot in the theory of Evolution that seems to hold up well to scrutiny. [Here is where I am usually referred to as a bible thumper, knuckle-dragger, flat-earther, or worst of all, a creationist!] But I am convinced the theory itself is deeply flawed, and this defect is made painfully obvious by fossil evidence and observation.

This next statement is another one that brands me a heathen in the scientific community: there is much about living organisms that strongly suggest, or force the conclusion of, Intelligent Design. Whenever I mention “Intelligent Design”, I am officially labeled a “creationist” and summarily tarred and feathered without a trial. But by “Intelligent Design”, I simply identify things that are obviously engineered, not random occurrences. For example, take the DNA molecule. This is really quite incredible. It is the largest known molecule of any kind, far more complicated than any plastic, any medicinal compound.

DNA is not just a molecule. First, it is a storehouse of information. As a brief refresher, the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) resembles a twisted ladder. From my buddies at Wikipedia:

Chemically, DNA consists of two long polymers of simple units called nucleotides, with backbones made of sugars and phosphate groups joined by ester bonds. These two strands run in opposite directions to each other and are therefore anti-parallel. Attached to each sugar is one of four types of molecules called bases. It is the sequence of these four bases along the backbone that encodes information. This information is read using the genetic code, which specifies the sequence of the amino acids within proteins.

Let’s say in the near future we will have fully understood everything about E. Coli -- the simplest single-celled organism we are aware of, with only one chromosome (we humans have 23 pairs). This means we can identify the cell’s internal chemistry, interactions of constituent components, susceptibility to heat, light, gravity, radiation, etc. And further, the interaction of the cell with other E. Coli as well as different organisms…namely its behavior. We would understand every who, what, when, where, and why of the organism and its behavior. If we were to document this bacterium fully, it would take something on the order of 1,000 encyclopedic volumes. And let’s not forget, unlike the first publishing of our future book-of-the-month club underseller, the E. Coli DNA is absolutely complete and correct. We could only hope this would be true with our hypothetical library.

The E. Coli DNA is a bit more efficient at documenting itself, as it is truly microscopic, versus our theoretical “Encyclopedia Escherichia Coliannica”, which would fill a wing of the local library. But even that comparison is misleading, as the DNA does not simply record the information, and do it in incredibly compressed format. Oh, no, it does far, far more than just that. For starters, the data is encrypted in such a way that our greatest minds and most powerful computers still are struggling to understand the most basic information, often incompletely or totally incorrectly. At this point, I like to ask a key question: why encrypt the information? For argument’s sake, let’s posit that somehow DNA was assembled at random. How can it be that nature favored encoding the information stored in the DNA molecule over a straightforward, easy-to-read version. The way the organism deftly deals with its own genetic information, it has no problem whatsoever with encoding and decoding the molecule. Seems to me, the only people who have trouble with this encryption is…US! But the DNA molecule was created literally billions of years before there were human beings around to annoy with an infinitely challenging encrypted, compressed, complex treasure chest of single-cellular information.

...the odds against DNA assembling by chance are 10^40,000 (that's 10 to the power of 40,000 LOL) to one [according to Fred Hoyle, Evolution from Space,1981]This is true, but highly misleading. DNA did not assemble purely by chance. It assembled by a combination of chance and the laws of physics. Without the laws of physics as we know them, life on earth as we know it would not have evolved in the short span of six billion years. The nuclear force was needed to bind protons and neutrons in the nuclei of atoms; electromagnetism was needed to keep atoms and molecules together; and gravity was needed to keep the resulting ingredients for life stuck to the surface of the earth.

--Victor J. Stenger*

But wait, there’s more to DNA than just a compressed, encoded, complete description of the organism. DNA is a mechanism, and an incredibly complicated one at that. It takes the information about the organism and causes the proteins and other molecules that get the organism formed and functioning in the first place. Think of it as the engineering blueprints that create the assembly line. The molecule even creates proteins on its surface that adds another layer of encoded instructions, called epigenetics, just in case you felt the DNA molecule was just too simple! So the molecule isn’t just the rulebook but the rule engine. And here’s where it wins the Ronco multifunction seal of approval…the DNA molecule replicates itself, checks for errors, and corrects itself, too!

Now, let’s look beyond a single celled organism. In a multi-celled organism, like YOU, the same exact DNA is in each cell, telling that cell to be a skin cell, a neuron, a nipple cell, whatever. This DNA molecule is the supercoach, understanding every possible function of the whole organism, and telling each individual cell how to do its job… and not just telling it, but actually setting up the whole environment for it, by producing the proteins that make the cell function. So not only does the DNA molecule tell the liver cell to do liver-type stuff, it tells the whole organism to do stuff…tells the robin red-breast to have a red-breast, tells it what songs to sing, how to build a nest, what to feed the chicks, to beware of cats, what a darkening, humid sky means…it knows EVERYTHING!

And it happened by accident. No, I’m sorry, I cannot even pretend to believe that. The DNA molecule is an extraordinary bit of engineering, far beyond humankind’s ability to replicate. If you watch Star Trek and marvel at the futuristic technology of phasers, transporters, and warp speed, this double helix must really blow you away! It is perfectly descriptive, highly compressed, brilliantly encrypted, self-replicating, self-repairing, and hundreds, thousands, or millions of years more advanced than anything we have developed with any of these attributes. No scientist or technologist can honestly say he is not humbled by the engineering genius of DNA. What tends to steer the scientific community away from admitting the obvious nature of DNA is the resulting question: “if it was engineered, then by whom?”

Monday, August 25, 2008

Hope, Change, and Critical Thinking

I have long maintained that there are two distinctly different approaches at making decisions, in personal life, business, and politics. Understanding these widely different processes is key to understanding people’s values, philosophies, aspirations, and general make-up.

First is critical thinking. The first step in critical thinking is to identify the decision issue(s) in precise, objectivewho the decision impacts (i.e., who the players are); what the decision involves; when the decision is applicable relative to other factors that frame the decision (e.g., gulping in air is only appropriate before diving under water); where the decision is applicable (e.g., deciding whether to fight or flight only having relevance when confronted by a threat); how the options differ, and why the decision is to be made (motivation). terms. This includes understanding

Next, the decision options are analyzed to outline the key variables involved, contributions of each variable to the issue, relative importance of variables, sequence of events for the decision to be effective, etc. Most importantly, the different options of a decision must be analyzed to identify cause/effect relationships, and results of decisions.

Finally, a judgment must be made as to which decision options are preferable, based on objective criteria. In other words, a measurement of some sort must be made to see which outcome is best. Of course, defining what constitutes an outcome is of great importance, as it must be complete. For example, jumping off a cliff may be a good choice of ways to get a nice, scenic view, but the analysis must go beyond the first few feet of the fall, as the last few feet of the fall include data that may change one’s mind (or smash it!).

As you can see, critical thinking requires some effort, some discipline, and thought, which may not be desirable for some.

The second approach to decision-making is Intuition, aka Feelings, Inspiration, Emotion etc. This approach is appropriate in circumstances where objectivity is neither possible nor desirable, such as in artistic efforts, or when there is no time to make any other kind of decision, such as whether to duck or block a punch. When the issue being evaluated does allow for a critical analysis, it is easy to see where intuitive decisions lack the accuracy, specificity, repeatability, and justification of decisions arrived at by critical thinking processes. It must be admitted that sometimes better outcomes are arrived at by intuition than through critical thinking, but this can only be due to happenstance or faulty assumptions/processes/analysis.

Critical thinking is basically a means of avoiding error in decision making, but cannot guarantee errors are eliminated. Intuitive decisions are not concerned with error, as accuracy, propriety, quality are not even considered. And here is where I enter into the political realm.

Politically, some generalities: conservatives are more likely to employ critical thinking in decision-making, while liberals are more likely to employ intuition, feelings, and emotion. Case in point: Barak Obama’s slogan of “Hope and Change”. This mantra has been used repeatedly by Obama in every speech, interview, debate, advertisement, bumper sticker, and baby kiss in his campaign. But what does it mean? He has never said. There is no “there” there.

What hope? Hope for what? What kind of change? Change from what current condition to which future state? Without any details, and numbers, processes, metrics, or specific, critically arriving at any decision to support Obama is impossible. The only way an individual is allowed to decide to support Obama is emotionally -- which may arguably be fine in selecting a boyfriend, or a high-fashion model, or even a puppy. But to select the Leader of the Free World and Commander-In-Chief of the most powerful military in the history of history? I would imagine that this kind of decision is worthy of more thought and effort.

John McCain’s campaign has not revealed very much about his positions. Whether you agree with him or not, here is what we do know: he has stated that life begins at conception and he is committed to a pro-life presidency; he wants to cut everyone’s income taxes; he wants to eliminate earmarks and other pork-barrel spending; he wants to be assured of victory in Iraq before removing troops; he recognizes the threats of Iranian nukes and the Russian invasion of Georgia; and on and on. In other words, McCain welcomes critical thinking by providing the necessary information.

That is where we are with this campaign. Obama is committed to a liberal mindset to the extent that it would never even occur to him, or to his advisors, to provide the information necessary for critical thinking. His “Hope” is that the majority of voters will decide in his favor base solely on feelings, so Obama is only providing imagery and hyperbole to support that. McCain is confident that his ideas will stand up to the scrutiny of analysis by the majority of voters who will decide that his ideas are well-founded, well-thought-out, and will produce the desired outcomes for our nation.

Making important decisions based solely on emotion and intuition is potentially dangerous, because the conclusions are of unknown validity. This results in activated ignorance. To quote from Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life by Richard Paul and Linda Elder:

Some people believe, through activated ignorance, that they understand things, events, people, and situations that they do not. They act upon their false ideas, illusions, and misconceptions, often leading to needless waste, pain, and suffering. Sometimes activated ignorance is the basis for massive actions involving millions of people (think of the consequences of the Nazi idea that Germans were the master race and Jews an inferior race). Sometimes it is an individual misconception that is acted on only by one person in a limited number of settings. Wherever activated ignorance exists, it is dangerous.

Politically savvy people, such as campaign organizers and consultants, are very much aware of this. When Obama’s campaign structures their campaign to promote non-critical thinking, are they doing this just to get Obama elected and end there, or is this just the start of their means of communicating, managing, and ultimately, of governing?

I have a gut feeling, or a hunch, that everything will be all right. Even so, how will you decide come November?