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The Blind Watchmaker

The Blind Watchmaker

The Blind Watchmaker 3


  Now, hitting upon the lucky number that opens the bank’s safe is the equivalent, in our analogy, of hurling scrap metal around at random and happening to assemble a Boeing 747. Of all the millions of unique and, with hindsight equally improbable, positions of the combination lock, only one opens the lock. Similarly, of all the millions of unique and, with hindsight equally improbable, arrangements of a heap of junk, only one (or very few) will fly. The uniqueness of the arrangement that flies, or that opens the safe, is nothing to do with hindsight. It is specified in advance. The lock-manufacturer fixed the combination, and he has told the bank manager. The ability to fly is a property of an airliner that we specify in advance. If we see a plane in the air we can be sure that it was not assembled by randomly throwing scrap metal together, because we know that the odds against a random conglomeration’s being able to fly are too great.

  Now, if you consider all possible ways in which the rocks of Mont Blanc could have been thrown together, it is true that only one of them would make Mont Blanc as we know it. But Mont Blanc as we know it is defined with hindsight. Any one of a very large number of ways of throwing rocks together would be labelled a mountain, and might have been named Mont Blanc. There is nothing special about the particular Mont Blanc that we know, nothing specified in advance, nothing equivalent to the plane taking off, or equivalent to the safe door swinging open and the money tumbling out.

  What is the equivalent of the safe door swinging open, or the plane flying, in the case of a living body? Well, sometimes it is almost literally the same. Swallows fly. As we have seen, it isn’t easy to throw together a flying machine. If you took all the cells of a swallow and put them together at random, the chance that the resulting object would fly is not, for everyday purposes, different from zero. Not all living things fly, but they do other things that are just as improbable, and just as specifiable in advance. Whales don’t fly, but they do swim, and swim about as efficiently as swallows fly. The chance that a random conglomeration of whale cells would swim, let alone swim as fast and efficiently as a whale actually does swim, is negligible.

  At this point, some hawk-eyed philosopher (hawks have very acute eyes — you couldn’t make a hawk’s eye by throwing lenses and light-sensitive cells together at random) will start mumbling something about a circular argument. Swallows fly but they don’t swim; and whales swim but they don’t fly. It is with hindsight that we decide whether to judge the success of our random conglomeration as a swimmer or as a flyer. Suppose we agree to judge its success as an Xer, and leave open exactly what X is until we have tried throwing cells together. The random lump of cells might turn out to be an efficient burrower like a mole or an efficient climber like a monkey. It might be very good at wind-surfing, or at clutching oily rags, or at walking in ever decreasing circles until it vanished. The list could go on and on. Or could it?

  If the list really could go on and on, my hypothetical philosopher might have a point. If, no matter how randomly you threw matter around, the resulting conglomeration could often be said, with hindsight, to be good for something, then it would be true to say that I cheated over the swallow and the whale. But biologists can be much more specific than that about what would constitute being ‘good for something’. The minimum requirement for us to recognize an object as an animal or plant is that it should succeed in making a living of some sort (more precisely that it, or at least some members of its kind, should live long enough to reproduce). It is true that there are quite a number of ways of making a living — flying, swimming, swinging through the trees, and so on. But, however many ways there may be of being alive, it is certain that there are vastly more ways of being dead, or rather not alive. You may throw cells together at random, over and over again for a billion years, and not once will you get a conglomeration that flies or swims or burrows or runs, or does anything, even badly, that could remotely be construed as working to keep itself alive.

  This has been quite a long, drawn-out argument, and it is time to remind ourselves of how we got into it in the first place. We were looking for a precise way to express what we mean when we refer to something as complicated. We were trying to put a finger on what it is that humans and moles and earthworms and airliners and watches have in common with each other, but not with blancmange, or Mont Blanc, or the moon. The answer we have arrived at is that complicated things have some quality, specifiable in advance, that is highly unlikely to have been acquired by random chance alone. In the case of living things, the quality that is specified in advance is, in some sense, ‘proficiency’; either proficiency in a particular ability such as flying, as an aero-engineer might admire it; or proficiency in something more general, such as the ability to stave off death, or the ability to propagate genes in reproduction.

  Staving off death is a thing that you have to work at. Left to itself — and that is what it is when it dies — the body tends to revert to a state of equilibrium with its environment. If you measure some quantity such as the temperature, the acidity, the water content or the electrical potential in a living body, you will typically find that it is markedly different from the corresponding measure in the surroundings. Our bodies, for instance, are usually hotter than our surroundings, and in cold climates they have to work hard to maintain the differential. When we die the work stops, the temperature differential starts to disappear, and we end up the same temperature as our surroundings. Not all animals work so hard to avoid coming into equilibrium with their surrounding temperature, but all animals do some comparable work. For instance, in a dry country, animals and plants work to maintain the fluid content of their cells, work against a natural tendency for water to flow from them into the dry outside world. If they fail they die. More generally, if living things didn’t work actively to prevent it, they would eventually merge into their surroundings, and cease to exist as autonomous beings. That is what happens when they die.

  With the exception of artificial machines, which we have already agreed to count as honorary living things, nonliving things don’t work in this sense. They accept the forces that tend to bring them into equilibrium with their surroundings. Mont Blanc, to be sure, has existed for a long time, and probably will exist for a while yet, but it does not work to stay in existence. When rock comes to rest under the influence of gravity it just stays there. No work has to be done to keep it there. Mont Blanc exists, and it will go on existing until it wears away or an earthquake knocks it over. It doesn’t take steps to repair wear and tear, or to right itself when it is knocked over, the way a living body does. It just obeys the ordinary laws of physics.

  Is this to deny that living things obey the laws of physics? Certainly not. There is no reason to think that the laws of physics are violated in living matter. There is nothing supernatural, no ‘life force’ to rival the fundamental forces of physics. It is just that if you try to use the laws of physics, in a naïve way, to understand the behaviour of a whole living body, you will find that you don’t get very far. The body is a complex thing with many constituent parts, and to understand its behaviour you must apply the laws of physics to its parts, not to the whole. The behaviour of the body as a whole will then emerge as a consequence of interactions of the parts.

  Take the laws of motion, for instance. If you throw a dead bird into the air it will describe a graceful parabola, exactly as physics books say it should, then come to rest on the ground and stay there. It behaves as a solid body of a particular mass and wind resistance ought to behave. But if you throw a live bird in the air it will not describe a parabola and come to rest on the ground. It will fly away, and may not touch land this side of the county boundary. The reason is that it has muscles which work to resist gravity and other physical forces bearing upon the whole body. The laws of physics are being obeyed within every cell of the muscles. The result is that the muscles move the wings in such a way that the bird stays aloft. The bird is not violating the law of gravity. It is constantly being pulled downwards by gravity, but its wings are performing a
ctive work — obeying laws of physics within its muscles — to keep it aloft in spite of the force of gravity. We shall think that it defies a physical law if we are naïve enough to treat it simply as a structureless lump of matter with a certain mass and wind resistance. It is only when we remember that it has many internal parts, all obeying laws of physics at their own level, that we understand the behaviour of the whole body. This is not, of course, a peculiarity of living things. It applies to all man-made machines, and potentially applies to any complex, many-parted object.

  This brings me to the final topic that I want to discuss in this rather philosophical chapter, the problem of what we mean by explanation. We have seen what we are going to mean by a complex thing. But what kind of explanation will satisfy us if we wonder how a complicated machine, or living body, works? The answer is the one that we arrived at in the previous paragraph. If we wish to understand how a machine or living body works, we look to its component parts and ask how they interact with each other. If there is a complex thing that we do not yet understand, we can come to understand it in terms of simpler parts that we do already understand.

  If I ask an engineer how a steam engine works, I have a pretty fair idea of the general kind of answer that would satisfy me. Like Julian Huxley I should definitely not be impressed if the engineer said it was propelled by ‘force locomotif’. And if he started boring on about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, I would interrupt him: ‘Never mind about that, tell me how it works.’ What I would want to hear is something about how the parts of an engine interact with each other to produce the behaviour of the whole engine. I would initially be prepared to accept an explanation in terms of quite large subcomponents, whose own internal structure and behaviour might be quite complicated and, as yet, unexplained. The units of an initially satisfying explanation could have names like firebox, boiler, cylinder, piston, steam governor. The engineer would assert, without explanation initially, what each of these units does. I would accept this for the moment, without asking how each unit does its own particular thing. Given that the units each do their particular thing, I can then understand how they interact to make the whole engine move.

  Of course, I am then at liberty to ask how each part works. Having previously accepted the fact that the steam governor regulates the flow of steam, and having used this fact in my understanding of the behaviour of the whole engine, I now turn my curiosity on the steam governor itself. I now want to understand how it achieves its own behaviour, in terms of its own internal parts. There is a hierarchy of subcomponents within components. We explain the behaviour of a component at any given level, in terms of interactions between subcomponents whose own internal organization, for the moment, is taken for granted. We peel our way down the hierarchy, until we reach units so simple that, for everyday purposes, we no longer feel the need to ask questions about them. Rightly or wrongly for instance, most of us are happy about the properties of rigid rods of iron, and we are prepared to use them as units of explanation of more complex machines that contain them.

  Physicists, of course, do not take iron rods for granted. They ask why they are rigid, and they continue the hierarchical peeling for several more layers yet, down to fundamental particles and quarks. But life is too short for most of us to follow them. For any given level of complex organization, satisfying explanations may normally be attained if we peel the hierarchy down one or two layers from our starting layer, but not more. The behaviour of a motor car is explained in terms of cylinders, carburettors and sparking plugs. It is true that each one of these components rests atop a pyramid of explanations at lower levels. But if you asked me how a motor car worked you would think me somewhat pompous if I answered in terms of Newton’s laws and the laws of thermodynamics, and downright obscurantist if I answered in terms of fundamental particles. It is doubtless true that at bottom the behaviour of a motor car is to be explained in terms of interactions between fundamental particles. But it is much more useful to explain it in terms of interactions between pistons, cylinders and sparking plugs.

  The behaviour of a computer can be explained in terms of interactions between semiconductor electronic gates, and the behaviour of these, in turn, is explained by physicists at yet lower levels. But, for most purposes, you would in practice be wasting your time if you tried to understand the behaviour of the whole computer at either of those levels. There are too many electronic gates and too many interconnections between them. A satisfying explanation has to be in terms of a manageably small number of interactions. This is why, if we want to understand the workings of computers, we prefer a preliminary explanation in terms of about half a dozen major subcomponents — memory, processing mill, backing store, control unit, input-output handler, etc. Having grasped the interactions between the half-dozen major components, we then may wish to ask questions about the internal organization of these major components. Only specialist engineers are likely to go down to the level of AND gates and NOR gates, and only physicists will go down further, to the level of how electrons behave in a semiconducting medium.

  For those that like ‘-ism’ sorts of names, the aptest name for my approach to understanding how things work is probably ‘hierarchical reductionism’. If you read trendy intellectual magazines, you may have noticed that ‘reductionism’ is one of those things, like sin, that is only mentioned by people who are against it. To call oneself a reductionist will sound, in some circles, a bit like admitting to eating babies. But, just as nobody actually eats babies, so nobody is really a reductionist in any sense worth being against. The nonexistent reductionist — the sort that everybody is against, but who exists only in their imaginations — tries to explain complicated things directly in terms of the smallest parts, even, in some extreme versions of the myth, as the sum of the parts! The hierarchical reductionist, on the other hand, explains a complex entity at any particular level in the hierarchy of organization, in terms of entities only one level down the hierarchy; entities which, themselves, are likely to be complex enough to need further reducing to their own component parts; and so on. It goes without saying — though the mythical, baby-eating reductionist is reputed to deny this — that the kinds of explanations which are suitable at high levels in the hierarchy are quite different from the kinds of explanations which are suitable at lower levels. This was the point of explaining cars in terms of carburettors rather than quarks. But the hierarchical reductionist believes that carburettors are explained in terms of smaller units …, which are explained in terms of smaller units …, which are ultimately explained in terms of the smallest of fundamental particles. Reductionism, in this sense, is just another name for an honest desire to understand how things work.

  We began this section by asking what kind of explanation for complicated things would satisfy us. We have just considered the question from the point of view of mechanism: how does it work? We concluded that the behaviour of a complicated thing should be explained in terms of interactions between its component parts, considered as successive layers of an orderly hierarchy. But another kind of question is how the complicated thing came into existence in the first place. This is the question that this whole book is particularly concerned with, so I won’t say much more about it here. I shall just mention that the same general principle applies as for understanding mechanism. A complicated thing is one whose existence we do not feel inclined to take for granted, because it is too ‘improbable’. It could not have come into existence in a single act of chance. We shall explain its coming into existence as a consequence of gradual, cumulative, step-by-step transformations from simpler things, from primordial objects sufficiently simple to have come into being by chance. Just as ‘big-step reductionism’ cannot work as an explanation of mechanism, and must be replaced by a series of small step-by-step peelings down through the hierarchy, so we can’t explain a complex thing as originating in a single step. We must again resort to a series of small steps, this time arranged sequentially in time.

  I
n his beautifully written book, The Creation, the Oxford physical chemist Peter Atkins begins:

  I shall take your mind on a journey. It is a journey of comprehension, taking us to the edge of space, time, and understanding. On it I shall argue that there is nothing that cannot be understood, that there is nothing that cannot be explained, and that everything is extraordinarily simple … A great deal of the universe does not need any explanation. Elephants, for instance. Once molecules have learnt to compete and to create other molecules in their own image, elephants, and things resembling elephants, will in due course be found roaming through the countryside.

  Atkins assumes the evolution of complex things — the subject matter of this book — to be inevitable once the appropriate physical conditions have been set up. He asks what the minimum necessary physical conditions are, what is the minimum amount of design work that a very lazy Creator would have to do, in order to see to it that the universe and, later, elephants and other complex things, would one day come into existence. The answer, from his point of view as a physical scientist, is that the Creator could be infinitely lazy. The fundamental original units that we need to postulate, in order to understand the coming into existence of everything, either consist of literally nothing (according to some physicists), or (according to other physicists) they are units of the utmost simplicity, far too simple to need anything so grand as deliberate Creation.