Monday, February 21, 2005

On Kooks

Caterpillar at Tallgrass Prairie Preserve
Is this what's next for Kansas?

All cells come from other cells, and all cells inherit fields of organization. Genes are part of this organization. They play an essential role. But they do not explain the organization itself. Why not?

Thanks to molecular biology, we know what genes do. They enable organisms to make particular proteins. Other genes are involved in the control of protein synthesis. Identifiable genes are switched on and particular proteins made at the beginning of new developmental processes. Some of these developmental switch genes, like the Hox genes in fruit flies, worms, fish and mammals, are very similar. In evolutionary terms, they are highly conserved. But switching on genes such as these cannot in itself determine form, otherwise fruit flies would not look different from us.

Many organisms live as free cells, including many yeasts, bacteria and amoebas. Some form complex mineral skeletons, as in diatoms and radiolarians, spectacularly pictured in the nineteenth century by Ernst Haeckel. Just making the right proteins at the right times cannot explain the complex skeletons of such structures without many other forces coming into play, including the organizing activity of cell membranes and microtubules.

I suggest that morphogenetic fields work by imposing patterns on otherwise random or indeterminate patterns of activity. For example they cause microtubules to crystallize in one part of the cell rather than another, even though the subunits from which they are made are present throughout the cell.

Morphogenetic fields are not fixed forever, but evolve. The fields of Afghan hounds and poodles have become different from those of their common ancestors, wolves. How are these fields inherited? I propose that that they are transmitted from past members of the species through a kind of non-local resonance, called morphic resonance.
I can barely stop quoting. Every paragraph drags you deeper into the unholy madness of Rupert Sheldrake, and his theories of morphic resonance. Eventually he shows that the mind itself is shaped by this morphic resonance, and that explains telepathy. This is some crazy, crazy stuff.

A few years back, PBS had a special by Wim Kayser called A Glorious Accident. My impression matched pretty well with this review. In addition to some smart, creative guys (Stephen Jay Gould, Freeman Dyson, Daniel Dennet), they threw in Rupert Sheldrake, and then lobbed idiotic, softball questions at each for an hour or so.

The last episode was a round table, and most of the time was spent whaling away at Dr. Sheldrake and his bizarre ideas. In the aftermath, Sheldrake published some books describing how Skeptics and The Man keep him down.

When you step away his nonsense and the New Age junk, you get a weak form of the Design hypothesis. Why do crystals form? Morphic resonance. Why are poodles different from bulldogs or fruit flies? Morphic resonance. Why? Because developmental biology, like physical chemistry, is hard. So hard, he can't get his mind around it. And if he can't understand it, there must be a simpler explanation. He doesn't imply a Designer, just that Nature magically “learns.”

What evidence is there for “morphic resonance?” None, other than its intuitive appeal. It gives the impression of parsimony, even though it throws out all of modern science.

Intelligent design creationism, like “morphic resonance” and conspiracy theories about HIV-OPV, relies on people's willingness to believe that science is a secretive priesthood. That scientists are just imposing their world-view, and that different theories should be evaluated independent of their broad context. Should we ignore unpleasant truths? No. But we should adhere to the Skeptic's Motto: “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof.”

Extraordinary claims are those that, like Sheldrake's or Calvert's, would tear down all of modern knowledge in one fell swoop. We would go from understanding crystals and developmental biology and genetics to this state of confusion. We gain a fuzzy theory of psychic powers, but lose everything else. What an awful trade-off.

Where Is My Mind?” by The Pixies from the album Surfer Rosa (1988, 3:53).