Ted Dace

Michael Shermer and Reductionism’s End


Michael Shermer and Reductionism’s End


Analysis of a Conversation with Michael Shermer, Positivist

by Ted Dace


Though Michael Shermer edits and publishes Skeptic magazine,
he’s not so much a skeptic as a positivist.

He certainly seems positive about a lot of things,
in particular that life is purely a matter of mechanism.

In January of 2007, I conducted an hour-long telephone interview with Dr. Shermer, a psychologist by training who nonetheless revealed maybe a little more about himself than he intended. Our discussion, which was sponsored by the Skeptiko website, kicked off with an audio clip featuring the world’s most creative and challenging biological theorist, Rupert Sheldrake.

“There’s much more to evolution than just natural selection, which weeds out organisms that don’t do too well under a given set of conditions. It doesn’t explain creativity in the first place. Chance mutations don’t explain it very well. What explains it much better is the inherent creativity in living organisms.”

Shermer was baffled by Sheldrake’s comment. “What do you suppose he means by creativity in animals?”

I explained that animals creatively develop new behaviors, which give rise over time to new bodily forms. Darwin himself illustrated the idea with land mammals that took to the waters in search of food millions of years ago and transformed, over many generations, into “fully aquatic” sea mammals.

Shermer called Darwin’s hypothesis “kind of a stupid example,” a startling judgment about the man who created the first viable theory of evolution. Alas, evolution has evolved since Darwin’s time, and as the late Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, it doesn’t always mean progress. At one time we had a commonsense theory in which the source of evolutionary novelty was the day-to-day decisions made by organisms responding to challenges to their survival. New behaviors that succeeded in the context of the environment were selected, so to speak, while adaptations that failed were rejected.

But in the last 70 years, we’ve been told a very different story about the origin of living forms subject to natural selection. Turns out it has nothing to do with the actions of the whole organism in its environment but involves only the occasional replication error of nucleic acid chains deep in its chromosomes.

You’d think a self-identified skeptic like Shermer would be, well, skeptical of an idea so antithetical to all sense and reason. But he prefers this view because, as he told me, “At some point, you have to have a stepwise, bottom-up, natural, self-organized complexity out of simplicity.” When I pointed out that the creative adaptations of living creatures provide a more plausible basis for novel forms of life than a purely blind, chemical process, Shermer gave a very telling response.

“What does this mean, internal creativity? Positing some sort of metaphysical thing or something. At some point we’re gonna ask, well, what is this internal creativity? Quit using that word. Give us something that we can actually test in the lab. What are you talking about – genomes? Protein chain things? What is it you’re talking about?”

You know you’re dealing with a positivist, and not a true skeptic, when you hear the term “metaphysical” being wielded like a club. Positivist pioneer Auguste Comte argued that a belief is metaphysical, and therefore unscientific, if it involves anything other than observable phenomena under the control of “immutable laws of nature.” Despite the fact that many researchers have subscribed to this philosophy down the years, positivism is perfectly at odds with the spirit of science, a kind of mutant skepticism that disbelieves whatever it fails to comprehend, stifling inquiry to the point where we can’t even utter the wrong words. As Shermer put it, “instead of speculating about some inherent force at work, let’s just don’t call it anything.”

Though often confused with a belief in the supernatural, metaphysics is simply the age-old attempt to define what is intrinsically real as opposed to merely apparent. As long as you posit an underlying reality that gives shape to the world of phenomena, such as “immutable laws of nature,” you are burdened with metaphysics.

Like any positivist, Shermer is a true believer in the metaphysics of reductionism, which treats all things, including organisms, as if they were machines “reducible” to their material parts under the control of abstract physical law. If it works, it must work like a machine. Since creativity is not something you find in machines, it must not be real. And even if it was, organisms would have no means of transmitting their adaptations to their offspring, for the only conveyor of biological inheritance is the genome, and genes, we are told, cannot mutate except by accident. Thus we are left with random genetic mutation as the sole means of producing new instincts and anatomies that can be passed on to descendants.

In response to my questioning on the tyranny of the random mutation, Shermer appealed to the revolutionary findings of “evo-devo,” a new field of study concerning the twin questions of evolution from bacteria and development from the egg. Shermer claims that evo-devo is “really opening our eyes about the power of the interaction between environments and genomes.”

“Well, frankly, I think evolutionary biologists have for the longest time placed too much emphasis on random mutation. I don’t think that’s where the action is. I do think it’s on this whole business of genome mixing through sexual reproduction and especially the whole evo-devo stuff. I think that’s gonna turn out to be a much greater source of diversity than mutations.”

Setting aside sexual remixing of genes, which only emphasizes or diminishes pre-existent traits, we are left with evo-devo as the savior of mechanistic evolution. In his 2005 book, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, molecular biologist Sean Carroll explains the principles of evo-devo and why radical change in body plan doesn’t require radical genetic change.

Genes that are most active during embryogenesis are roughly the same for all species. Flies and people, for instance, emerge out of the same sets of developmental genes. We don’t grow up to be flies because, fortunately, most of these genes are preceded by “switches,” strips of DNA which, instead of coding for a protein, activate and deactivate genes at appropriate times. It’s the switches that have evolved since the time of our common ancestor with the fly some 500 million years ago.

Thus the chief innovation of evo-devo is that the key mutations triggering speciation take place in noncoding strips of DNA rather than the genes they switch on and off. In other words, we’ve gone from random genetic mutation to random DNA mutation as the source of novelty in life. Not much of a revolution.

Nonetheless, evo-devo has opened up a new window onto the cell. At the level of the genome, observes Carroll, development is “one hell of a movie with nonstop action,” every bit as complex as the patterned activities of tissues, organs and organ systems. This is indeed revolutionary but not in the way Shermer thinks. In place of the reduction of the organism to its genome, we now have two equally complex, parallel processes with no clear causal relationship between them.

If bodily development is caused by the unfathomable combinatorial complexity of “tens of thousands of switches being thrown in sequence and in parallel,” what gives rise to this genetic symphony in the first place? That gene switches are controlled by proteins produced by genes controlled by gene switches is clearly not getting us anywhere. It goes without saying that the point of reductionism is to render a complex process in terms of a simpler, more basic one. The illusion that DNA could provide this simpler level of organization has now been definitively dispatched. Biological reductionism is finished.

But it’s easy to miss niggling little details like that when you’ve got Carroll fresh out of the lab evangelizing rhapsodically on evo-devo’s “powerful explanatory vision,” gushing over its multiple “ahas” and its “powerful – indeed, beautiful – discoveries,” and trembling before its revelation of “deep, unexpected connections among different forms.” Yes, it’s one “surprising twist” after another as reductionist chestnuts fall by the wayside. Of course, in the old days this was called falsification.

Evo-devo represents the undoing of reductionism at the hands of molecular biology. Like Frankenstein confronted by his own monster, it’s just too much irony to bear. The critical faculty snaps off. When you’ve been positive too long, the forest remains invisible even as it leaps out from the trees.

Shermer caught me off guard when he claimed that arch-reductionist Richard Dawkins “fully admits the evo-devo stuff is the hottest thing around.” Surely Dawkins, of all people, can hold his own against the allure of the camp Kool-Aid. But there’s no way out. The research underpinning evo-devo is rock solid. To his credit, Carroll leaves no doubt that what matters is not so much the genes themselves but how they’re used. For Dawkins, who once snickered at the very idea of a “built-in wisdom” capable of operating genes and producing beneficial mutations, this is a hard pill to swallow.

In his 1996 release, Climbing Mount Improbable, Dawkins confidently assures his readers that everything from vision to flight to spider webs to insect fungi farming came into being “without brainpower or intelligence of any kind.” By contrast, Darwin felt a “cold shudder” when he considered the evolution of the eye, and that was with the assumption that creative adaptations can be inherited. A skeptic even when it came to his own conclusions, Darwin went so far as to argue, in The Origin of Species, that the theory of evolution by natural selection “must stand or fall” according to the ability of organisms to inherit and build on adaptations undertaken by ancestors. Despite rejecting out of hand the inheritance of acquired traits, Dawkins, ever the positivist, seems undisturbed by such doubts.

Darwin cited numerous clear-cut examples of the inheritance of living adaptations among farm animals and transplanted flora, but it wasn’t until 1957 that the phenomenon was demonstrated in the laboratory. While directing Russia’s prestigious Zoological Institute of the National Academy of Sciences, Georgii Shaposhnikov divided a population of aphids into three groups, the first sequestered in a normal habitat, the second effectively killed off by a toxic habitat, and a third that endured a barely suitable environment. This third group quickly adapted to their conditions and thrived. Their new traits were preserved, and after only eight generations, they were no longer able to survive in their normal environment or even mate with the aphids that had remained there. In short, a species was born.

Since then, scientists have observed at least one more example of rapid speciation – a new breed of sockeye salmon in Lake Washington that took 13 generations to emerge – as well as numerous smaller instances of evolution at breakneck speed, most recently the blue moon butterfly of the South Pacific, which abruptly developed a new gene for repelling a parasite. Though we can always write off such examples as just another lucky mutation, according to Miroslav Hill, who studied the effects of toxins on mammalian cells, what we’re actually witnessing is purposive, “adaptive” mutation, just as Darwin foresaw in the middle of the 19th century.

As Director of Research at France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in the 1980s, Hill was trying to cultivate mammalian cells resistant to a lethal drug called thioguanine. The standard method in such situations is to bombard cells with mutagens, which promote random mutations in DNA, in hopes of hitting the jackpot. Skeptical that this would yield any results, Hill instead simply exposed successive generations of cells to the toxin to see if any would adapt. After three weeks of watching a lot of hamster cells bite the dust, the mutants began to appear.

What Hill didn’t expect was that each time he poisoned another batch of cells, a larger proportion adopted the key mutation and survived. The same thing happened when he repeated the experiment with a different drug, ethionine, and again with high temperatures. Each generation of exposed cells was smarter, i.e., more adaptive than the previous batch.

According to Rupert Sheldrake, this result indicates the influence of “morphic resonance.” From chromosome to cell to organ to animal, living structures resonate with morphologically similar predecessors. When cells are assaulted en masse, subsequent cells under the same conditions survive in bigger numbers because they gain from the knowledge of the first batch. Morphic resonance is thus a mechanism of collective memory.

If organisms resonate with predecessors on the basis of similar form and experience, it’s no longer necessary to assume that phenotype reduces to genotype, as both types are merely tracks running parallel beneath a memory-driven locomotive of development. Genomes resonate with previous genomes of the same kind while developing organs resonate with previous organs of the same kind. The purpose of the switches that keep the genes pumping out the right proteins at the right times is to provide the emerging organic intelligence with the tools it needs to churn out a person or a carrot or a bee or whatever it’s of a mind to make.

Of course, Michael Shermer wouldn’t be skeptic-in-chief if he didn’t bust a blood vessel when he hears terms like morphic resonance. Indeed, Shermer got defensive whenever he sensed I was steering our discussion in an unorthodox direction.

Dace: “I think the problem, the reason we have this intractable debate regarding evolution is that there’s got to be intelligence in there somewhere. Now, if it’s not going to be an intelligent deity, shouldn’t it…”

Shermer: “This is not a debate in science. No one has this debate. I’ve never heard this debate before, and I go to all these evolution conferences. Nobody debates this. This is an outside of science debate. This is a Rupert / Deepak Chopra debate. It’s a different kind of creationism. But it has nothing to do with science.”

Positivists love creationism because they think it’s the only alternative to their own take.

As long as every dissenting view can be lumped in with creationism, the reductionist status quo remains unchallenged. While Shermer did eventually admit that morphic resonance, if it exists, is a natural phenomenon, his concession came with a caveat. “At some point, to be considered part of rigorous science, there has to be some way to test it, or else it’s my opinion and your opinion.”

The irony here is not just that morphic resonance is testable – as Hill and other researchers have inadvertently shown – but that Shermer’s favored view is not. When Walter Elsasser, a nuclear physicist accustomed to the mathematical rigor of Boltzmann, Einstein and Schrödinger, decided to find out for himself if biology can be brought under the disciplined yoke of physics, he ran headfirst into what can only be described as Mount Impossible.

Small-scale physics depends on the fact that elements of a given type are identical. Quantum mechanics works because electrons, for example, are all interchangeable, as are protons, neutrons, photons and so on. The same goes for each type of atom and molecule. But biological compounds are classed together on the basis of similarity, not identity. Examine blood, bone, muscle, brain, gland, etc., and the ratios of its chemical constituents will vary wildly from person to person, including genetically identical twins. In the face of infinite shades of sameness and difference, the methodology of physics is useless. We are real. We cannot be abstracted. Such is life.

No living creature will ever be reduced to physics. There will never be a nice set of equations to solve in order to predict the overall workings of a cell, much less the vast structures it weaves as it duplicates during development. Though biophysics can account for a variety of discrete cellular processes, a point-to-point causal explanation of how DNA builds bodies is beyond the reach of physical analysis. By making the safe assumption of a strictly chemo-mechanical emergence of the body from its DNA, biologists placed themselves beyond testability and therefore beyond science. It’s not so much that reductionist theory is dead but that there was never a theory to begin with. From the day it hatched from the positivist mind of August Weismann, mechanistic biology was a chimera.

This is not the first time Shermer has been taken for a ride. In his youth, he climbed out from the intellectual vacuum of evangelical Christianity only to fall face first into a vat of New Age superstition. Yet he was evolving all along and soon found his way into the blinding light of positivism. Perhaps he’ll emerge from this trap as well. I couldn’t help but be encouraged when he made something of a peace offering near the end of our talk.

“Let’s take a slightly different topic of self organized complexity, Stuart Kauffman’s research on complex, adapted systems, and there does appear to be something sort of inherent in systems. I’m not quite sure what it is. Languages evolve a certain way. Writing systems evolve. The law, the economy, marketplaces, cells, water, consciousness, these appear to be self-organized emergent properties of simpler systems.”

This sort of insight bodes well for Shermer’s progress. It is, after all, exactly where Rupert Sheldrake was 30 years ago.

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