Sunday, October 11, 2009

Wonder of Wonders!


Clive Cookson, commenting upon Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, writes:

Two chapters caught my imagination. One describes recent work on the way evolution influences embryonic development - a field sometimes known as evodevo. As Dawkins shows, the widely used analogy of DNA as a "blueprint" for the organism is misleading.

There is no overall plan of development, no blueprint, no architect's plan, no architect. Rather, the embryo grows according to local rules encoded in the genes of individual cells interacting with neighbouring cells. Genes are switched on and off by local biochemical signals. As Dawkins says, "this way of generating large and complex structures by the execution of local rules is distinct from the blueprint way of doing things."

The second high spot is Dawkins' description of the way every organism has its evolutionary history written all over it. This produces many internal structures that are less efficient than they would be if they had been "designed". An example is the "recurrent laryngeal nerve" that links the brain and the voice box. This take an astonishing detour in mammals, via the chest and heart, because it has evolved from more primitive ancestors. In giraffes that means a 15ft diversion down the neck and back again.

When Dawkins watched the laryngeal nerve being dissected in a giraffe, he realised the external elegance of animals is an illusion. A real animal is a criss-crossing maze of blood vessels, nerves, intestines, fat, muscles and more.

I generally find Cookson a sensible writer, so we shall accept his acceptance of the factual accuracy of Dawkins' account. (Likewise, we shall accept Cookson's summation as an accurate representation of Dawkins' thought.) What struck me, however, is that even allowing for this factual correctness, Dawkins fails to see the wonder of it all, or wonders improperly.

If embryos grow due to local conditions, rather than with a central "blueprint", this is a greater, not lesser, cause for amazement. Imagine that a group of construction workers just appeared at an empty lot one day and began building, without any plan or foreman. Each just did his own thing, only stopping or modifying his actions when he bumped into another worker. Each called in friend or associates to aid him in this way or that, as befitted his own little project. And somehow, all these workers, without any coordination, managed to build a complete home. Moreover, this is no mere four walls and a jagged roof: a home which will last for decades, accept expansions, and continue to look beautiful and function properly with only minor maintenance.

Such an occurrence would be exceedingly rare, nigh impossible. Indeed, if it did happen, could we blame anyone for looking for a blueprint, asking if there was an architect or some coordinating genius, some foreman who stepped forward and organized it all? Wouldn't we expect an awe-struck onlooker to ask not once but several times about these things? And if we finally discovered, some how, that a single person had indeed called together these construction workers and started them on their labors, would we not laud him even more than the conventional architect? This man was somehow such a master of human psychology and complex planning that he didn't even need blueprints. Wow.

Dawkins errs widely when he assumes that "no blueprint" means "no architect"; perhaps it means an Architect far greater than any he is willing to acknowledge.

Likewise, it seems to me that Dawkins has missed a key point in his consideration of the internal inefficiencies of animals: these inefficiencies work. He concludes that "the external elegance of animals is an illusion", but this is not the case, seeing as how the "criss-crossing maze of blood vessels, nerves, intestines, fat, muscles and more" on the inside actually does support the beautiful creature we see on the outside. If somehow animals were a scam, if they did not really eat and breathe and run and fly and reproduce and do all the amazing things they do, well, then Dawkins would have good reason to feel cheated. But as long as "external elegance" is real, perhaps we should approach the internal "maze" with a little more wonder, even if some things, like the giraffe's laryngeal nerve, are not as efficient as they could be.

In the end, Cookson concludes that Dawkins has been blinded by his own hatred of religion, reducing what could have been an excellent book to only a mediocre one. Nevertheless, those who do not share Dawkins' fiercely anti-Christian bias ought not dismiss his work simply because of this animosity. Indeed, it seems to me that Dawkins has opened up to the scientist of faith new and exciting ways to marvel at the Maker's handiwork, for which I thank Mr. Dawkins. No doubt to his chagrin.
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