The Mystery of Life

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 17 1996 3:30 AM

The Mystery of Life

Darwinism doesn't solve it.

Climbing Mount Improbable

By Richard Dawkins

(W.W. Norton & Co.; 288 pages; $25)

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Last month, the New York Times reviewed a book by Michael J. Behe, a biochemist from Lehigh University. Titled Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, the book contended that the molecular machinery of living things works too well to have been produced by chance alone. Life must have been designed by some intelligent being, possibly one that was divine. Reading the review--surprisingly respectful, considering that its author was a science writer--I had to smile imagining the vein-popping fury that it would arouse in Richard Dawkins. Fools! he would mutter. I am surrounded by fools!

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Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist at the Oxford University, is "the most brilliant and compelling propagandist of Darwin today," as Wired recently put it. He is also an adamant atheist. His work is basically one long argument that natural selection, and natural selection alone, is sufficient to explain the seemingly miraculous variety, beauty, and ingenuity of living things. The mystery of life, he declared in his 1986 best seller The Blind Watchmaker, "is a mystery no longer because [Darwin] solved it."

Dawkins is one of those rare scientists whose writings both persuade his peers and charm the public. He excels at coining pithy phrases and metaphors that express anew the power of Darwinian theory. In his first book, The Selfish Gene, published in 1976, he set forth his brutally reductionist view that all organisms are vehicles created by genes seeking to make copies of themselves. In The Extended Phenotype (1982), he introduced the notion that culture consists of self-replicating ideas called "memes." As many profilers of Dawkins have remarked, Dawkins himself is one of the most successful meme-propagators on the planet.

His latest book, Climbing Mount Improbable, is erected around yet another compelling meme. Dawkins asks us to imagine the myriad forms of life inhabiting a vast mountain. At its foot are the least complex--and hence most probable--organisms, such as bacteria and algae. On the peaks are species that seem least likely to have been produced by happenstance, such as spiders, whose webs are marvels of engineering.

Dawkins reminds us that natural selection produces such creatures through a series of incremental steps that "smear out" their improbability over long periods of time. To reinforce this point, he tells us how he constructed a computer program that, with only a few rules for guidance, could "learn" to construct webs remarkably similar to those built by real spiders.

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A >s in his previous books, Dawkins' tendency toward donnish didacticism is more than counterbalanced by the transparency of his prose and his genuine delight in the intricacies of nature. His description toward the end of Climbing Mount Improbable of wasps enmeshed in Byzantine power struggles with fig trees is a model of nature writing, at once lyrical and lucid.

In an era when even reputable scientists indulge in mysticism, Dawkins' rejection of intelligent design is also bracing. He openly loathes those who discern divine intentions behind natural phenomena, such as fundamentalist Christians who view the AIDS virus as divine punishment for sodomites. Dawkins spares no one. He describes a conversation in which his 6-year-old daughter speculated that flowers were put on earth to "make the world pretty." "I was touched by this," Dawkins recalls, "and sorry I had to tell her that it wasn't true."

Despite its blunt charms, however, Climbing Mount Improbable strikes me as being the least convincing of all of Dawkins' books. In focusing on the notion of life's improbability--or lack thereof--Dawkins has inadvertently drawn attention to the greatest weakness of Darwinian theory. There has always been something disturbingly retroactive, after-the-fact, about natural selection as an explanation of life, even when propounded by someone as eloquent as Dawkins. Life, explained by natural selection alone, just does not seem inevitable enough.

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Addressing this issue, Dawkins sometimes resembles a flack for Lotto assuring us that winning the big one is easy. He allows that at first glance, it seems almost miraculous that Joe Blow would win the $10 million jackpot. But by retracing the steps that culminated in Joe's good fortune--the printing of the fateful ticket, Joe's purchase of it at his local liquor store, the selection of that number by Lotto officials--Dawkins demonstrates that each conforms to well-understood principles of physics, biology, and social science; no miracles were required. Well, true enough. But that does not make Joe any less lucky.

It is not only religious creationists who are bothered by this problem but also some prominent scientists. At the Santa Fe Institute, biologist Stuart Kauffman claims to have glimpsed--deep in his computer simulations--a mysterious "antichaos" force that counteracts the tendency of all physical systems to drift toward disorder. This force supposedly makes stars "self-organize" into galaxies, and inanimate molecules, into living cells.

Other theorists, notably David Sloan Wilson of the State University of New York at Binghamton, have proposed that natural selection may sometimes favor "altruistic" individuals, who sacrifice their own selfish interests for those of their herd, or their species, or even the entire ecosystem in which they are embedded. The most extreme version of this concept, called "group selection," is Gaia, which suggests that all of life cooperates so as to ensure its continued survival.

Dawkins has rebutted these notions convincingly, showing that the phenomena they attempt to explain can all be accounted for with conventional Darwinian theory. But his defenses of natural selection sometimes lend it more power than it really has. In one passage, for example, he likens it to a force or "pressure" that "drives evolution up the slopes of Mount Improbable." This image offers a grossly distorted view of evolution. For roughly 85 percent of life's 3.5 billion-year history, it was entirely made up of single-celled organisms, such as bacteria and algae. Then, for some reason--we will probably never know precisely why--the era of trilobites, triceratops, and other multicellular creatures commenced. Viewed this way, the ascent from the foothills of Mount Improbable to its multicellular aeries hardly seems inevitable.

Dawkins' own honesty and thoroughness undermine his case in other ways as well--for example, when he brings up the origin of life. "My guess is that life probably isn't all that rare and the origin of life probably wasn't all that improbable," Dawkins remarks. "But there are arguments to the contrary." There certainly are. Dawkins himself notes that after decades of searching, scientists have found no conclusive evidence that life exists elsewhere in the universe. (The discovery of organic matter in a meteorite, reported in early August, represents at best an extremely circumstantial piece of evidence for life on Mars.)

Moreover, as far as we know, life emerged here on earth only once. In spite of the immensely powerful tools of modern biotechnology, scientists still cannot make matter animate in the laboratory. They really have no idea how exactly life began, or whether its emergence was in some sense inevitable or simply a prodigious bit of good fortune.

Theorists also disagree over why, once life began, it was able to persist for so long and to proliferate into such an astonishing variety of species. Dawkins enjoys pointing out that among all the possible variants of a given species, the vast majority never reproduce; they are failures, dead ends. There are many more ways to be a loser in the game of life, he asserts, than to be a success. Surely that holds true for all of life, not just for its constituent parts. The essence of the selfish-gene model is that each individual pursues its short-term interests regardless of the long-term consequences for life as a whole, or even for other members of the species. Given that premise, why couldn't one species--a bacterium or virus, perhaps--run amok and destroy all other life on earth before finally succumbing itself? But life has managed, nonetheless, not only to endure but also to produce spiders, newts, and congressmen.

I know Dawkins knows how utterly improbable we are, because I have discussed the matter with him. Yet he seems to think that if he allows us weak-minded mortals to perceive that naked truth too directly, we will succumb to creationism or mysticism or theories such as Gaia, which is wishful thinking dressed up as science. Of course, most of us will succumb. But Dawkins should at least give us the chance to savor one of the great paradoxes of our era before we slip into darkness: The more that science explains our existence, the more implausible we seem.

John Horgan is a senior writer for Scientific American and author of The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age,published last June.

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