The Blind Watchmaker

The Blind Watchmaker

The Blind Watchmaker 19

  In modern organisms we see them all the time. They are eyes and skins and bones and toes and brains and instincts. These things are the tools of DNA replication. They are caused by DNA, in the sense that differences in eyes, skins, bones, instincts, etc. are caused by differences in DNA. They exert an influence over the replication of the DNA that caused them, in that they affect the survival and reproduction of their bodies — which contain that same DNA, and whose fate is therefore shared by the DNA. Therefore, the DNA itself exerts an influence over its own replication, via the attributes of bodies. DNA can be said to exert power over its own future, and bodies and their organs and behaviour patterns are the instruments of that power.

  When we talk about power, we are talking about consequences of replicators that affect their own future, however indirect those consequences might be. It doesn’t matter how many links there are in the chain from cause to effect. If the cause is a self-replicating entity, the effect, be it ever so distant and indirect, can be subject to natural selection. I shall summarize the general idea by telling a particular story about beavers. In detail it is hypothetical, but it certainly cannot be far from the truth. Although nobody has done research upon the development of brain connections in the beaver, they have done this kind of research on other animals, like worms. I am borrowing the conclusions and applying them to beavers, because beavers are more interesting and congenial to many people than worms.

  A mutant gene in a beaver is just a change in one letter of the billion-letter text; a change in a particular gene G. As the young beaver grows, the change is copied, together with all the other letters in the text, into all the beaver’s cells. In most of the cells the gene G is not read; other genes, relevant to the workings of the other cell types, are. G is read, however, in some cells in the developing brain. It is read and transcribed into RNA copies. The RNA working copies drift around the interior of the cells, and eventually some of them bump into protein-making machines called ribosomes. The protein-making machines read the RNA working plans, and turn out new protein molecules to their specification. These protein molecules curl up into a particular shape determined by their own amino-acid sequence, which in turn is governed by the DNA code sequence of the gene G. When G mutates, the change makes a crucial difference to the amino-acid sequence normally specified by the gene G, and hence to the coiled-up shape of the protein molecule.

  These slightly altered protein molecules are mass-produced by the protein-making machines inside the developing brain cells. They in turn act as enzymes, machines that manufacture other compounds in the cells, the gene products. The products of the gene G find their way into the membrane surrounding the cell, and are involved in the processes whereby the cell makes connections with other cells. Because of the slight alteration in the original DNA plans, the production-rate of certain of these membrane compounds is changed. This in turn changes the way in which certain developing brain cells connect up with one another. A subtle alteration in the wiring diagram of a particular part of the beaver’s brain has occurred, the indirect, indeed far-removed, consequence of a change in the DNA text.

  Now it happens that this particular part of the beaver’s brain, because of its position in the total wiring diagram, is involved in the beaver’s dam-building behaviour. Of course, large parts of the brain are involved whenever the beaver builds a dam but, when the G mutation affects this particular part of the brain’s wiring diagram, the change has a specific effect on the behaviour. It causes the beaver to hold its head higher in the water while swimming with a log in its jaws. Higher, that is, than a beaver without the mutation. This makes it a little less likely that mud, attached to the log, will wash off during the journey. This increases the stickiness of the log, which in turn means that, when the beaver thrusts it into the dam, the log is more likely to stay there. This will tend to apply to all the logs placed by any beaver bearing this particular mutation. The increased stickiness of the logs is a consequence, again a very indirect consequence, of an alteration in the DNA text.

  The increased stickiness of the logs makes the dam a sounder structure, less likely to break up. This in turn increases the size of the lake created by the dam, which makes the lodge in the centre of the lake more secure against predators. This tends to increase the number of offspring successfully reared by the beaver. If we look at the whole population of beavers, those that possess the mutated gene will, on average, tend therefore to rear more offspring than those not possessing the mutated gene. Those offspring will tend to inherit archive copies of the self-same altered gene from their parents. Therefore, in the population, this form of the gene will become more numerous as the generations go by. Eventually it will become the norm, and will no longer deserve the title ‘mutant’. Beaver dams in general will have improved another notch.

  The fact that this particular story is hypothetical, and that the details may be wrong, is irrelevant. The beaver dam evolved by natural selection, and therefore what happened cannot be very different, except in practical details, from the story I have told. The general implications of this view of life are explained and elaborated in my book The Extended Phenotype, and I shan’t repeat the arguments here. You will notice that in this hypothetical story there were no fewer than 11 links in the causal chain linking altered gene to improved survival. In real life there might be even more. Every one of those links, whether it is an effect on the chemistry inside a cell, a later effect on how brain cells wire themselves together, an even later effect on behaviour, or a final effect on lake size, is correctly regarded as caused by a change in the DNA. It wouldn’t matter if there were 111 links. Any effect that a change in a gene has on its own replication probability is fair game for natural selection. It is all perfectly simple, and delightfully automatic and unpremeditated. Something like it is well-nigh inevitable, once the fundamental ingredients of cumulative selection — replication, error and power — have come into existence in the first place. But how did this happen? How did they come into existence on Earth, before life was there? We shall see how this difficult question might be answered, in the next chapter.


  Origins and miracles

  Chance, luck, coincidence, miracle. One of the main topics of this chapter is miracles and what we mean by them. My thesis will be that events that we commonly call miracles are not supernatural, but are part of a spectrum of more-or-less improbable natural events. A miracle, in other words, if it occurs at all, is a tremendous stroke of luck. Events don’t fall neatly into natural events versus miracles.

  There are some would-be events that are too improbable to be contemplated, but we can’t know this until we have done a calculation. And to do the calculation, we must know how much time was available, more generally how many opportunities were available, for the event to occur. Given infinite time, or infinite opportunities, anything is possible. The large numbers proverbially furnished by astronomy, and the large timespans characteristic of geology, combine to turn topsy-turvy our everyday estimates of what is expected and what is miraculous. I shall build up to this point using a specific example which is the other main theme of this chapter. This example is the problem of how life originated on Earth. To make the point clearly, I shall arbitrarily concentrate on one particular theory of the origin of life, although any one of the modern theories would have served the purpose.

  We can accept a certain amount of luck in our explanations, but not too much. The question is, how much? The immensity of geological time entitles us to postulate more improbable coincidences than a court of law would allow but, even so, there are limits. Cumulative selection is the key to all our modern explanations of life. It strings a series of acceptably lucky events (random mutations) together in a nonrandom sequence so that, at the end of the sequence, the finished product carries the illusion of being very very lucky indeed, far too improbable to have come about by chance alone, even given a timespan millions of times longer than the age of the universe so far. Cumulative selection is
the key but it had to get started, and we cannot escape the need to postulate a single-step chance event in the origin of cumulative selection itself.

  And that vital first step was a difficult one because, at its heart, there lies what seems to be a paradox. The replication processes that we know seem to need complicated machinery to work. In the presence of a replicase ‘machine tool’, fragments of RNA will evolve, repeatedly and convergently, towards the same endpoint, an endpoint whose ‘probability’ seems vanishingly small until you reflect on the power of cumulative selection. But we have to assist this cumulative selection to get started. It won’t go unless we provide a catalyst, such as the replicase ‘machine tool’ of the previous chapter. And that catalyst, it seems, is unlikely to come into existence spontaneously, except under the direction of other RNA molecules. DNA molecules replicate in the complicated machinery of the cell, and written words replicate in Xerox machines, but neither seem capable of spontaneous replication in the absence of their supporting machinery. A Xerox machine is capable of copying its own blueprints, but it is not capable of springing spontaneously into existence. Biomorphs readily replicate in the environment provided by a suitably written computer program, but they can’t write their own program or build a computer to run it. The theory of the blind watchmaker is extremely powerful given that we are allowed to assume replication and hence cumulative selection. But if replication needs complex machinery, since the only way we know for complex machinery ultimately to come into existence is cumulative selection, we have a problem.

  Certainly the modern cellular machinery, the apparatus of DNA replication and protein synthesis, has all the hallmarks of a highly evolved, specially fashioned machine. We have seen how staggeringly impressive it is as an accurate data storage device. At its own level of ultra-miniaturization, it is of the same order of elaborateness and complexity of design as the human eye is at a grosser level. All who have given thought to the matter agree that an apparatus as complex as the human eye could not possibly come into existence through single-step selection. Unfortunately, the same seems to be true of at least parts of the apparatus of cellular machinery whereby DNA replicates itself, and this applies not just to the cells of advanced creatures like ourselves and amoebas, but also to relatively more primitive creatures like bacteria and blue-green algae.

  So, cumulative selection can manufacture complexity while single-step selection cannot. But cumulative selection cannot work unless there is some minimal machinery of replication and replicator power, and the only machinery of replication that we know seems too complicated to have come into existence by means of anything less than many generations of cumulative selection! Some people see this as a fundamental flaw in the whole theory of the blind watchmaker. They see it as the ultimate proof that there must originally have been a designer, not a blind watchmaker but a far-sighted supernatural watchmaker. Maybe, it is argued, the Creator does not control the day-to-day succession of evolutionary events; maybe he did not frame the tiger and the lamb, maybe he did not make a tree, but he did set up the original machinery of replication and replicator power, the original machinery of DNA and protein that made cumulative selection, and hence all of evolution, possible.

  This is a transparently feeble argument, indeed it is obviously self-defeating. Organized complexity is the thing that we are having difficulty in explaining. Once we are allowed simply to postulate organized complexity, if only the organized complexity of the DNA/protein replicating engine, it is relatively easy to invoke it as a generator of yet more organized complexity. That, indeed, is what most of this book is about. But of course any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein replicating machine must have been at least as complex and organized as that machine itself. Far more so if we suppose him additionally capable of such advanced functions as listening to prayers and forgiving sins. To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer. You have to say something like ‘God was always there’, and if you allow yourself that kind of lazy way out, you might as well just say ‘DNA was always there’, or ‘Life was always there’, and be done with it.

  The more we can get away from miracles, major improbabilities, fantastic coincidences, large chance events, and the more thoroughly we can break large chance events up into a cumulative series of small chance events, the more satisfying to rational minds our explanations will be. But in this chapter we are asking how improbable, how miraculous, a single event we are allowed to postulate. What is the largest single event of sheer naked coincidence, sheer unadulterated miraculous luck, that we are allowed to get away with in our theories, and still say that we have a satisfactory explanation of life? In order for a monkey to write ‘Methinks it is like a weasel’ by chance, it needs a very large amount of luck, but it is still measurable. We calculated the odds against it as about 10 thousand million million million million million million (1040) to 1 against. Nobody can really comprehend or imagine such a large number, and we just think of this degree of improbability as synonymous with impossible. But although we can’t comprehend these levels of improbability in our minds, we shouldn’t just run away from them in terror. The number 1040 may be very large but we can still write it down, and we can still use it in calculations. There are, after all, even larger numbers: 1046, for instance, is not just larger; you must add 1040 to itself a million times in order to obtain 1046. What if we could somehow muster a gang of 1046 monkeys each with its own typewriter? Why, lo and behold, one of them would solemnly type ‘Methinks it is like a weasel’, and another would almost certainly type ‘I think therefore I am’. The problem is, of course, that we couldn’t assemble that many monkeys. If all the matter in the universe were turned into monkey flesh, we still couldn’t get enough monkeys. The miracle of a monkey typing ‘Methinks it is like a weasel’ is quantitatively too great, measurably too great, for us to admit it to our theories about what actually happens. But we couldn’t know this until we sat down and did the calculation.

  So, there are some levels of sheer luck, not only too great for puny human imaginations, but too great to be allowed in our hard-headed calculations about the origin of life. But, to repeat the question, how great a level of luck, how much of a miracle, are we allowed to postulate? Don’t let’s run away from this question just because large numbers are involved. It is a perfectly valid question, and we can at least write down what we would need to know in order to calculate the answer.

  Now here is a fascinating thought. The answer to our question — of how much luck we are allowed to postulate — depends upon whether our planet is the only one that has life, or whether life abounds all around the universe. The one thing we know for certain is that life has arisen once, here on this very planet. But we have no idea at all whether there is life anywhere else in the universe. It is entirely possible that there isn’t. Some people have calculated that there must be life elsewhere, on the following grounds (I won’t point out the fallacy until afterwards). There are probably at least 1020 (i.e. 100 billion billion) roughly suitable planets in the universe. We know that life has arisen here, so it can’t be all that improbable. Therefore it is almost inescapable that at least some among all those billions of billions of other planets have life.

  The flaw in the argument lies in the inference that, because life has arisen here, it can’t be too terribly improbable. You will notice that this inference contains the built-in assumption that whatever went on on Earth is likely to have gone on elsewhere in the universe, and this begs the whole question. In other words, that kind of statistical argument, that there must be life elsewhere in the universe because there is life here, builds in, as an assumption, what it is setting out to prove. This doesn’t mean that the conclusion that life exists all around the universe is necessarily wrong. My guess is that it is probably right. It simply means that that particular argument that led up to it is no argu
ment at all. It is just an assumption.

  Let us, for the sake of discussion, entertain the alternative assumption that life has arisen only once, ever, and that was here on Earth. It is tempting to object to this assumption on the following emotional grounds. Isn’t there something terribly medieval about it? Doesn’t it recall the time when the church taught that our Earth was the centre of the universe, and the stars just little pinpricks of light set in the sky for our delight (or, even more absurdly presumptuous, that the stars go out of their way to exert astrological influences on our little lives)? How very conceited to assume that, out of all the billions of billions of planets in the universe, our own little backwater of a world, in our own local backwater of a solar system, in our own local backwater of a galaxy, should have been singled out for life? Why, for goodness sake, should it have been our planet?

  I am genuinely sorry, for I am heartily thankful that we have escaped from the small-mindedness of the medieval church and I despise modern astrologers, but I am afraid that the rhetoric about backwaters in the previous paragraph is just empty rhetoric. It is entirely possible that our backwater of a planet is literally the only one that has ever borne life. The point is that if there were only one planet that had ever borne life, then it would have to be our planet, for the very good reason that ‘we’ are here discussing the question! If the origin of life is such an improbable event that it happened on only one planet in the universe, then our planet has to be that planet. So, we can’t use the fact that Earth has life to conclude that life must be probable enough to have arisen on another planet. Such an argument would be circular. We have to have some independent arguments about how easy or difficult it is for life to originate on a planet, before we can even begin to answer the question of how many other planets in the universe have life.