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The Blind Watchmaker
The Blind Watchmaker 6
How bats avoid being jammed by other bats is not well understood, but an interesting clue comes from experiments on trying to put bats off. It turns out that you can actively deceive some bats if you play back to them their own cries with an artificial delay. Give them, in other words, false echoes of their own cries. It is even possible, by carefully controlling the electronic apparatus delaying the false echo, to make the bats attempt to land on a ‘phantom’ ledge. I suppose it is the bat equivalent of looking at the world through a lens.
It seems that bats may be using something that we could call a ‘strangeness filter’. Each successive echo from a bat’s own cries produces a picture of the world that makes sense in terms of the previous picture of the world built up with earlier echoes. If the bat’s brain hears an echo from another bat’s cry, and attempts to incorporate it into the picture of the world that it has previously built up, it will make no sense. It will appear as though objects in the world have suddenly jumped in various random directions. Objects in the real world do not behave in such a crazy way, so the brain can safely filter out the apparent echo as background noise. If a human experimenter feeds the bat artificially delayed or accelerated ‘echoes’ of its own cries, the false echoes will make sense in terms of the world picture that the bat has previously built up. The false echoes are accepted by the strangeness filter because they are plausible in the context of the previous echoes. They cause objects to seem to shift in position by only a small amount, which is what objects plausibly can be expected to do in the real world. The bat’s brain relies upon the assumption that the world portrayed by any one echo pulse will be either the same as the world portrayed by previous pulses, or only slightly different: the insect being tracked may have moved a little, for instance.
There is a well-known paper by the philosopher Thomas Nagel called ‘What is it like to be a bat?’. The paper is not so much about bats as about the philosophical problem of imagining what it is ‘like’ to be anything that we are not. The reason a bat is a particularly telling example for a philosopher, however, is that the experiences of an echolocating bat are assumed to be peculiarly alien and different from our own. If you want to share a bat’s experience, it is almost certainly grossly misleading to go into a cave, shout or bang two spoons together, consciously time the delay before you hear the echo, and calculate from this how far the wall must be.
That is no more what it is like to be a bat than the following is a good picture of what it is like to see colour: use an instrument to measure the wavelength of the light that is entering your eye: if it is long, you are seeing red, if it is short you are seeing violet or blue. It happens to be a physical fact that the light that we call red has a longer wavelength than the light that we call blue. Different wavelengths switch on the red-sensitive and the blue-sensitive photocells in our retinas. But there is no trace of the concept of wavelength in our subjective sensation of the colours. Nothing about ‘what it is like’ to see blue or red tells us which light has the longer wavelength. If it matters (it usually doesn’t), we just have to remember it, or (what I always do) look it up in a book. Similarly, a bat perceives the position of an insect using what we call echoes. But the bat surely no more thinks in terms of delays of echoes when it perceives an insect, than we think in terms of wavelengths when we perceive blue or red.
Indeed, if I were forced to try the impossible, to imagine what it is like to be a bat, I would guess that echolocating, for them, might be rather like seeing for us. We are such thoroughly visual animals that we hardly realize what a complicated business seeing is. Objects are ‘out there’, and we think that we ‘see’ them out there. But I suspect that really our percept is an elaborate computer model in the brain, constructed on the basis of information coming from out there, but transformed in the head into a form in which that information can be used. Wavelength differences in the light out there become coded as ‘colour’ differences in the computer model in the head. Shape and other attributes are encoded in the same kind of way, encoded into a form that is convenient to handle. The sensation of seeing is, for us, very different from the sensation of hearing, but this cannot be directly due to the physical differences between light and sound. Both light and sound are, after all, translated by the respective sense organs into the same kind of nerve impulses. It is impossible to tell, from the physical attributes of a nerve impulse, whether it is conveying information about light, about sound or about smell. The reason the sensation of seeing is so different from the sensation of hearing and the sensation of smelling is that the brain finds it convenient to use different kinds of internal model of the visual world, the world of sound and the world of smell. It is because we internally use our visual information and our sound information in different ways and for different purposes that the sensations of seeing and hearing are so different. It is not directly because of the physical differences between light and sound.
But a bat uses its sound information for very much the same kind of purpose as we use our visual information. It uses sound to perceive, and continuously update its perception of, the position of objects in three-dimensional space, just as we use light. The type of internal computer model that it needs, therefore, is one suitable for the internal representation of the changing positions of objects in three-dimensional space. My point is that the form that an animal’s subjective experience takes will be a property of the internal computer model. That model will be designed, in evolution, for its suitability for useful internal representation, irrespective of the physical stimuli that come to it from outside. Bats and we need the same kind of internal model for representing the position of objects in threedimensional space. The fact that bats construct their internal model with the aid of echoes, while we construct ours with the aid of light, is irrelevant. That outside information is, in any case, translated into the same kind of nerve impulses on its way to the brain.
My conjecture, therefore, is that bats ‘see’ in much the same way as we do, even though the physical medium by which the world ‘out there’ is translated into nerve impulses is so different — ultrasound rather than light. Bats may even use the sensations that we call colour for their own purposes, to represent differences in the world out there that have nothing to do with the physics of wavelength, but which play a functional role, for the bat, similar to the role that colours play to us. Perhaps male bats have body surfaces that are subtly textured so that the echoes that bounce off them are perceived by females as gorgeously coloured, the sound equivalent of the nuptial plumage of a bird of paradise. I don’t mean this just as some vague metaphor. It is possible that the subjective sensation experienced by a female bat when she perceives a male really is, say, bright red: the same sensation as I experience when I see a flamingo. Or, at least, the bat’s sensation of her mate may be no more different from my visual sensation of a flamingo, than my visual sensation of a flamingo is different from a flamingo’s visual sensation of a flamingo.
Donald Griffin tells a story of what happened when he and his colleague Robert Galambos first reported to an astonished conference of zoologists in 1940 their new discovery of the facts of bat echolocation. One distinguished scientist was so indignantly incredulous that
he seized Galambos by the shoulders and shook him while complaining that we could not possibly mean such an outrageous suggestion. Radar and sonar were still highly classified developments in military technology, and the notion that bats might do anything even remotely analogous to the latest triumphs of electronic engineering struck most people as not only implausible but emotionally repugnant.
It is easy to sympathize with the distinguished sceptic. There is something very human in his reluctance to believe. And that, really, says it: human is precisely what it is. It is precisely because our own human senses are not capable of doing what bats do that we find it hard to believe. Because we can only understand it at a level of artificial instrumentation, and mathematical calculations on paper, we find it hard to imagine a little animal d
oing it in its head. Yet the mathematical calculations that would be necessary to explain the principles of vision are just as complex and difficult, and nobody has ever had any difficulty in believing that little animals can see. The reason for this double standard in our scepticism is, quite simply, that we can see and we can’t echolocate.
I can imagine some other world in which a conference of learned, and totally blind, bat-like creatures is flabbergasted to be told of animals called humans that are actually capable of using the newly discovered inaudible rays called ‘light’, still the subject of top-secret military development, for finding their way about. These otherwise humble humans are almost totally deaf (well, they can hear after a fashion and even utter a few ponderously slow, deep drawling growls, but they only use these sounds for rudimentary purposes like communicating with each other; they don’t seem capable of using them to detect even the most massive objects). They have, instead, highly specialized organs called ‘eyes’ for exploiting ‘light’ rays. The sun is the main source of light rays, and humans, remarkably, manage to exploit the complex echoes that bounce off objects when light rays from the sun hit them. They have an ingenious device called a ‘lens’, whose shape appears to be mathematically calculated so that it bends these silent rays in such a way that there is an exact one-to-one mapping between objects in the world and an ‘image’ on a sheet of cells called the ‘retina’. These retinal cells are capable, in some mysterious way, of rendering the light ‘audible’ (one might say), and they relay their information to the brain. Our mathematicians have shown that it is theoretically possible, by doing the right highly complex calculations, to navigate safely through the world using these light rays, just as effectively as one can in the ordinary way using ultrasound — in some respects even more effectively! But who would have thought that a humble human could do these calculations?
Echo-sounding by bats is just one of the thousands of examples that I could have chosen to make the point about good design. Animals give the appearance of having been designed by a theoretically sophisticated and practically ingenious physicist or engineer, but there is no suggestion that the bats themselves know or understand the theory in the same sense as a physicist understands it. The bat should be thought of as analogous to the police radar trapping instrument, not to the person who designed that instrument. The designer of the police radar speed-meter understood the theory of the Doppler Effect, and expressed this understanding in mathematical equations, explicitly written out on paper. The designer’s understanding is embodied in the design of the instrument, but the instrument itself does not understand how it works. The instrument contains electronic components, which are wired up so that they automatically compare two radar frequencies and convert the result into convenient units — miles per hour. The computation involved is complicated, but well within the powers of a small box of modern electronic components wired up in the proper way. Of course, a sophisticated conscious brain did the wiring up (or at least designed the wiring diagram), but no conscious brain is involved in the moment-to-moment working of the box.
Our experience of electronic technology prepares us to accept the idea that unconscious machinery can behave as if it understands complex mathematical ideas. This idea is directly transferable to the workings of living machinery. A bat is a machine, whose internal electronics are so wired up that its wing muscles cause it to home in on insects, as an unconscious guided missile homes in on an aeroplane. So far our intuition, derived from technology, is correct. But our experience of technology also prepares us to see the mind of a conscious and purposeful designer in the genesis of sophisticated machinery. It is this second intuition that is wrong in the case of living machinery. In the case of living machinery, the ‘designer’ is unconscious natural selection, the blind watchmaker.
I hope that the reader is as awestruck as I am, and as William Paley would have been, by these bat stories. My aim has been in one respect identical to Paley’s aim. I do not want the reader to underestimate the prodigious works of nature and the problems we face in explaining them. Echolocation in bats, although unknown in Paley’s time, would have served his purpose just as well as any of his examples. Paley rammed home his argument by multiplying up his examples. He went right through the body, from head to toe, showing how every part, every last detail, was like the interior of a beautifully fashioned watch. In many ways I should like to do the same, for there are wonderful stories to be told, and I love storytelling. But there is really no need to multiply examples. One or two will do. The hypothesis that can explain bat navigation is a good candidate for explaining anything in the world of life, and if Paley’s explanation for any one of his examples was wrong we can’t make it right by multiplying up examples. His hypothesis was that living watches were literally designed and built by a master watchmaker. Our modern hypothesis is that the job was done in gradual evolutionary stages by natural selection.
Nowadays theologians aren’t quite so straightforward as Paley. They don’t point to complex living mechanisms and say that they are self-evidently designed by a creator, just like a watch. But there is a tendency to point to them and say ‘It is impossible to believe’ that such complexity, or such perfection, could have evolved by natural selection. Whenever I read such a remark, I always feel like writing ‘Speak for yourself’ in the margin. There are numerous examples (I counted 35 in one chapter) in a recent book called The Probability of God by the Bishop of Birmingham, Hugh Montefiore. I shall use this book for all my examples in the rest of this chapter, because it is a sincere and honest attempt, by a reputable and educated writer, to bring natural theology up to date. When I say honest, I mean honest. Unlike some of his theological colleagues, Bishop Montefiore is not afraid to state that the question of whether God exists is a definite question of fact. He has no truck with shifty evasions such as ‘Christianity is a way of life. The question of God’s existence is eliminated: it is a mirage created by the illusions of realism’. Parts of his book are about physics and cosmology, and I am not competent to comment on those except to note that he seems to have used genuine physicists as his authorities. Would that he had done the same in the biological parts. Unfortunately, he preferred here to consult the works of Arthur Koestler, Fred Hoyle, Gordon Rattray-Taylor and Karl Popper! The Bishop believes in evolution, but cannot believe that natural selection is an adequate explanation for the course that evolution has taken (partly because, like many others, he sadly misunderstands natural selection to be ‘random’ and ‘meaningless’).
He makes heavy use of what may be called the Argument from Personal Incredulity. In the course of one chapter we find the following phrases, in this order:
… there seems no explanation on Darwinian grounds … It is no easier to explain … It is hard to understand … It is not easy to understand … It is equally difficult to explain … I do not find it easy to comprehend … I do not find it easy to see … I find it hard to understand … it does not seem feasible to explain … I cannot see how … neo-Darwinism seems inadequate to explain many of the complexities of animal behaviour … it is not easy to comprehend how such behaviour could have evolved solely through natural selection … It is impossible … How could an organ so complex evolve? … It is not easy to see … It is difficult to see …
The Argument from Personal Incredulity is an extremely weak argument, as Darwin himself noted. In some cases it is based upon simple ignorance. For instance, one of the facts that the Bishop finds it difficult to understand is the white colour of polar bears.
As for camouflage, this is not always easily explicable on neo-Darwinian premises. If polar bears are dominant in the Arctic, then there would seem to have been no need for them to evolve a white-coloured form of camouflage.
This should be translated:
I personally, off the top of my head sitting in my study, never having visited the Arctic, never having seen a polar bear in the wild, and having been educated in classical literature and theology, have not so f
ar managed to think of a reason why polar bears might benefit from being white.
In this particular case, the assumption being made is that only animals that are preyed upon need camouflage. What is overlooked is that predators also benefit from being concealed from their prey. Polar bears stalk seals resting on the ice. If the seal sees the bear coming from far-enough away, it can escape. I suspect that, if he imagines a dark grizzly bear trying to stalk seals over the snow, the Bishop will immediately see the answer to his problem.
The polar bear argument turned out to be almost too easy to demolish but, in an important sense, this is not the point. Even if the foremost authority in the world can’t explain some remarkable biological phenomenon, this doesn’t mean that it is inexplicable. Plenty of mysteries have lasted for centuries and finally yielded to explanation. For what it is worth, most modern biologists wouldn’t find it difficult to explain every one of the Bishop’s 35 examples in terms of the theory of natural selection, although not all of them are quite as easy as the polar bears. But we aren’t testing human ingenuity. Even if we found one example that we couldn’t explain, we should hesitate to draw any grandiose conclusions from the fact of our own inability. Darwin himself was very clear on this point.
There are more serious versions of the argument from personal incredulity, versions which do not rest simply upon ignorance or lack of ingenuity. One form of the argument makes direct use of the extreme sense of wonder which we all feel when confronted with highly complicated machinery, like the detailed perfection of the echolocation equipment of bats. The implication is that it is somehow self-evident that anything so wonderful as this could not possibly have evolved by natural selection. The Bishop quotes, with approval, G. Bennett on spider webs:
It is impossible for one who has watched the work for many hours to have any doubt that neither the present spiders of this species nor their ancestors were ever the architects of the web or that it could conceivably have been produced step by step through random variation; it would be as absurd to suppose that the intricate and exact proportions of the Parthenon were produced by piling together bits of marble.