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Darwinism Needs Laws to Look Scientific; Cronin and Hazen Stand Ready to Serve

Image source: Illustra Media.

The debate over the scientific legitimacy of Darwinism has never stopped since Darwin proposed the “law of natural selection” as a scientific theory. His “law” was immediately criticized as a personification of nature (i.e., a religion) when he compared it to artificial selection. No less it was criticized as a rhetorical device (i.e., a con job) that opened a host of just-so stories (see Doubts About Darwin, by Dr. Thomas Woodward). Desperate to justify their worldview as scientific, some Darwinians are making up new “laws of nature” to appear welcome inside the big tent of science.

Invisible Bridges Across a Chasm

In the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Indy stands at a precipice, a yawning chasm below him, blocking his approach to the Holy Grail. A cryptic text tells him he must make a leap of faith to prove his worth. With great trepidation, he puts out his foot, closes his eyes, and a bridge appears! It was there all the time, but invisible. The memorable scene is a piece of moviemaking magic, but science must deal with some conceptual chasms, the biggest of which is the gap between life and non-life. The Darwinians, looking into their cryptic text (The Origin of Species), have faith that a bridge exists across this chasm. When they make their leap of faith, can they trust that invisible laws of nature suggested in cryptic clues from their prophet will save them?

The Constructal Law

An earlier attempt at formalizing evolution as a law of nature was proposed in 1996 by Adrian Bejan. He called it the Constructal Law: “for any finite flow system to persist… it must evolve in such a way that it provides easier and easier access to its currents.” I critiqued this “law” back in 2014, which was not hard to do, since a reporter summarized it this way: “The view that emerges is that the evolution phenomenon is broader than biological evolution. The evolution of technology, river basins, and animal design is one phenomenon, and it belongs in physics.” It was quite a trick. Bejan bridged the chasm by eliminating it conceptually, pretending that airplanes, rivers, and animals belong in one category: systems that evolve! I concluded that the Constructal Law was “a mental imposition on nature that allows Bejan to salvage mindless Darwinism by making it appear law-driven.” Four years later, we found Bejan had elevated his Constructal Law to a new law of thermodynamics, leading one of his disciples to commit Berra’s Blunder.

Assembly Theory

Lee Cronin’s entry into the contest of searching for laws to make Darwinism scientific was published by Nature earlier this month. With five co-authors, he proposed a new “Assembly Theory” that claims biological evolution is governed by laws of physics. The paper argues that Cronin and his colleagues were not proposing a new law of physics:

Scientists have grappled with reconciling biological evolution with the immutable laws of the Universe defined by physics. These laws underpin life’s origin, evolution and the development of human culture and technology, yet they do not predict the emergence of these phenomena. Evolutionary theory explains why some things exist and others do not through the lens of selection. To comprehend how diverse, open-ended forms can emerge from physics without an inherent design blueprint, a new approach to understanding and quantifying selection is necessary. We present assembly theory (AT) as a framework that does not alter the laws of physics, but redefines the concept of an ‘object’ on which these laws act. AT conceptualizes objects not as point particles, but as entities defined by their possible formation histories. This allows objects to show evidence of selection, within well-defined boundaries of individuals or selected units. We introduce a measure called assembly (A), capturing the degree of causation required to produce a given ensemble of objects. This approach enables us to incorporate novelty generation and selection into the physics of complex objects.

According to the University of Glasgow, where Cronin teaches, Assembly Theory promises a magnificent bridge between nonlife and life, if you will accept Cronin’s promissory note:

Assembly Theory provides an entirely new way to look at the matter that makes up our world, as defined not just by immutable particles but by the memory needed to build objects through selection over time,” said Professor Lee Cronin, a chemist from the University of Glasgow and co-lead author. 
With further work, this approach has the potential to transform fields from cosmology to computer science.It represents a new frontier at the intersection of physics, chemistry, biology and information theory.” [Emphasis added.]

Sara Walker, a co-author, added that Assembly Theory as “a completely new lens for looking at physics, chemistry and biology as different perspectives of the same underlying reality.” Chasm? What chasm? Take a leap. Trust that “selection” (Darwin’s genie) will assemble simple things into complex things, whether nonliving or living. 

The new study introduces mathematical formalism around a physical quantity called ‘Assembly’ that captures how much selection is required to produce a given set of complex objects, based on their abundance and assembly indices…. 

“With this theory, we can start to close the gap between reductionist physics and Darwinian evolution – it’s a major step toward a fundamental theory unifying inert and living matter.” 

Writing last week for Evolution News, Tova Forman reported that other Darwinian evolutionists were outraged by Professor Cronin’s Assembly Theory, some even calling it a “Trojan horse for creationism.” Why? They already believed there was no chasm! Calling attention to a gap, they alleged, opened the door to intelligent design. 

Since Assembly Theory is not gaining traction among Darwinists, let’s move on to the next Law of Evolution — a “missing law” that its proponents claim to have discovered.

Law of Increasing Functional Information

A more impressive search team for laws to make Darwinism scientific announced their discovery in PNAS. News from Carnegie Science proclaims, “Authored by a nine-member team — scientists from Carnegie, Caltech, and Cornell University, and philosophers from the University of Colorado — the work was funded by the John Templeton Foundation.” Robert Hazen and Michael Wong from Carnegie were leaders of this effort with two other colleagues, assisted by philosophers Carol Cleland, Daniel Arend, and Heather Demarest from Colorado, Stuart Bartlett from Caltech, and planetary scientist (expert on Saturn’s moon Titan) Jonathan Lunine from Cornell. 

Michael Wong and a colleague at Carnegie had proposed in February that cells could be considered the first data scientists (Royal Society). Robert Hazen, who recorded a course “Origins of Life” for the Teaching Company along with two other courses about science, has lately been cataloging hundreds of minerals that he believes “evolved” on the Earth by the same forces of selection that caused organisms to evolve and diversify. Jonathan Lunine was a strong proponent of life on Titan during the Cassini mission (2004-2017) but was baffled by the low quantity of methane detected, which should have formed a global ocean on the large moon but was not seen by the Huygens Probe that landed on the surface in 2005 nor by radar maps. In this paper, he revisits the bizarre chemistry of Titan without answering where the global ocean went.

This interdisciplinary team positioned itself in the long tradition of scientific discovery of the laws of nature. One hundred fifty years after the last laws of physics were formalized, they have a new one to offer!

The new work presents a modern addition — a proposed macroscopic law recognizing evolution as a common feature of the natural world’s complex systems, which are characterized as follows:

  • They are formed from many different components, such as atoms, molecules, or cells, that can be arranged and rearranged repeatedly;
  • Are subject to natural processes that cause countless different arrangements to be formed;
  • Only a small fraction of all these configurations survives in a process called “selection for function.”  

If Cronin’s theory flopped, it’s not apparent why this one should do any better. Both rely on “selection” as a fundamental property — the same personification fallacy in Darwin’s “law of natural selection” that was based on an illogical comparison with artificial selection. Who is the selector in Cronin’s or Hazen’s theory? This is especially odd in Hazen’s proposal, where “selection for function” is a key concept. Cronin only viewed selection in terms of objects allowed to exist that retain a memory of their history, such as a metabolic reaction network or a genome. Hazen’s selection for “functional information” can be anything living or nonliving, including a star, a mineral, or the neck of a giraffe. But then, what is a function?

Insofar as processes have causal efficacy over the internal state of a system or its external environment, they can be referred to as functions. If a function promotes the system’s persistence, it will be selected for.

This leads to the classic tautology within Darwinism: if it survives, it was selected. If it was selected, it persists (survives). This truism explains nothing. According to this loose definition, boulders that pile up on the bottom of a cliff or sand grains that pile up in dunes were “selected for function.” By this reasoning, anything that persists was selected!

The authors frequently conflate abiotic patterns like these with biological phenomena, such as enzymatic reactions. In life, though, functional molecules depend on highly specific sequences of building blocks encoded elsewhere by separate information-rich genetic molecules. The transcribed information is then translated into a separate code of twenty amino acid “letters” that are assembled in a specified order by additional information-rich entities (molecular machines, like ribosomes). The machines do error checking and require a host of auxiliary enzymes. Products of nucleosynthesis in exploding stars, and mineral products in geological layers, have nothing resembling coded information. It is a wild extrapolation to conflate these physical processes with life as “systems that evolve toward greater degrees of functional information.”

The Missing Mind

A weird aspect of the paper is how they integrate human technology into evolving systems. Like Bejan, who committed Berra’s Blunder by considering airplanes and engineers as a single evolving species, Hazen and his colleagues leapfrog from mindless evolution to mind-directed activity. Society, to them, consists of interacting subunits subject to selective pressures. The subunits, which we could give the Trekkian designation of “carbon units,” explore configuration space to find stable arrangements that increase functional information. In their view, this includes human art, music and language, which they reduce to “ancillary functions” — 

Ancillary functions may become so distant from core functions that it is difficult to understand their connections to the survival of the larger system. For example, the creation of art and music may seem to have very little to do with the maintenance of society, but their origins may stem from the need to transmit information and create bonds among communities, and to this day, they enrich life in innumerable ways. Perhaps, like eddies swirling off of a primary flow field, selection pressures for ancillary functions can become so distant from the core functions of their host systems that they can effectively be treated as independently evolving systems, perhaps eventually generating their own core functions….

In the Darwinist mind, it’s evolutionary turtles all the way down. Understandably, they use the word “imagine” and other speculative expressions throughout the paper. To them, the human ability to reason about counterfactuals is simply one more “core function” that emerged by selective pressures that explore possible configurations in an unguided law that favors the increase of functional information. Evolution searches configuration space for novelties that persist. It’s no different in principle from a stellar interior exploding to produce all the novel elements of the periodic table, or a volcano selecting all the possible configurations of elements to form novel minerals. Once biological evolution began, the sky was the limit.

One distinction with respect to life is the fact that biological evolution appears to be “open-ended,” forging adaptations and constructing new possibility spaces in an unpredictable and undecidable manner. In contrast, abiotic examples seem bounded. Recent work has estimated the combinatorial phase space of Earth’s present-day biosphere vastly outweighs the combinatorial phase space of the abiotic universe. Furthermore, biological and technological evolution seems to increase in its pace of innovation as a function of time. At the very least, life on Earth has evolved the ability to tune its evolvability.

Where will evolvability lead? At one disturbing point, the authors speculate that selection will take humans beyond individuality toward a collectivist ontology. The wording recalls to mind some historically distasteful utopian regimes:

The prevailing model of life as a collection of well-defined individuals may need revision. We anticipate a biological paradigm shift analogous to the leap between classical mechanics and quantum mechanics: just as we replaced localized individual particles and discrete electron orbitals with wavefunctions and electron clouds, we may one day replace biological individuals with a “fuzzier,” networked picture of life. Such a view might still permit the existence of individual units but would stress the relationality among them in a process-based ontology.

Circular Law

The concept of “selection” drives both papers. It is the favorite word used by Cronin’s team and Hazen’s team. They assume that anything that exists was selected by some unknown force and use their existence as evidence of selection. They then exalt selection as a law of nature. In this way they Darwinize the entire universe. But is this a legitimate way of reasoning about nature? Suppose a charlatan concocts a theory that galumph is a mysterious force that explains everything. Is he allowed to call galumph a fundamental law of nature alongside the classical laws painstakingly derived by Newton, Maxwell, and the other great founders of science? If sufficiently clever, the charlatan could write equations that quantify the degrees of galumphity that explain minerals and planetary interiors, and that lead to chemical evolution, multicellularity, and technology. He might even use his law to predict that the next discovery will be explainable with galumph. Behold: a theory of everything! It bridges the chasm between nonlife and life. Galumph is a designer substitute. It has given mankind enlightenment! Is not “selection” like this? Who or what is the selector? Hint: it’s what the ancients used to call an idol.