The E Coli Outbreak & Darwin’s Reluctance

The E Coli Outbreak & Darwin’s Reluctance

Time to nudge Darwin to his next logical step before the next bio-panic

NEWTON’s Laws of Motion are not valid when applied to the speed of light. Light simply does not obey them. If you insist on using Newtonian Physics to investigate light, the answers you produce are guaranteed to be wrong, however sophisticated the mathematics. Exactly the same caveat applies to living organisms. Light, especially sunlight, is now inextricably linked to life on earth, so viewing either through Newton’s eyes inevitably ensures disastrous outcomes. But this is chicken feed compared with the hare that Darwin started running, and then tried to stop. For the animate has a decidedly disabling impact on human knowledge – yet, for those prepared to readjust, it also offers a rational, objective, realistic, non-sectarian and sure-footed pathway to what we all desperately need – peace of mind.

Let’s try an Einstein thought-experiment on Darwin’s beloved Galapagos finches. Suppose we arrived on those Pacific islands with the first couple of birds – the pre-finches. Darwin was preoccupied with what happened next. Obviously the ideal would be for sub branches of the species to specialise in different food chains – some eating insects, others seeds and so on. Obvious in retrospect – impenetrable in prospect. And there’s the rub. Whatever else they do, living organisms adapt, they change, they initiate patterns which were never there before. And if you pretend to know which way they will jump, then you are suffering the common human delusion of Absolute Scientific Knowledge, which even Einstein could not sustain.

This is a vital point, and it turns on whether evolution occurs, or not. And it matters. The variant of the E Coli bacterium that has recently killed a score of Europeans had never been seen before. It was unknowable and unpredictable, until it arrived ‘out of the blue’. Living organisms do things which dead ones do not. They adapt, they change, they sprout new capabilities which we humans can never ever predict – and we should stop trying to pretend that we can. Whatever will they do next?

How can living organisms possibly defy the very programming supposedly encoded in their DNA? But they do. Those craving An Absolute Scientific Theory of Everything will find this ability to do things differently from their forefathers, a bane. Like the Catholic Church did to Galileo, they will ignore it as long as they can. But that’s precisely what live things do do, else we would long ago be extinct. Evolution depends on adaptability. New environments open up, as they did for the pre-finches, and life changes itself to take advantage. Those life forms which decline this variability join the Dodo.

So here’s the dilemma. From a comfortable, know-it-all corner, living organisms display faculties which defy human knowledge. Are we going to leave that comfort station, and allow life to blossom in its own unknowable way? Or are we curmudgeonly going to continue to assume that living things are really small robots which always do what they’ve always done – comforting, but wrong. And if living things get it wrong, the consequence is not Divine Wrath or Scientific Ostracism, it is extinction or partial extinction – an iron rule which applies to every living organism that ever existed, including, of course, ourselves.

So let’s get up close and personal. If a humble bacterium can create a new version of itself that was never there before, then what does this imply for our larger multi-cellular selves? We’re hardly likely to change our outward physical form overnight – but that’s not the only thing which characterises a human being. Let’s take a closer look. You are reading this page. Ideas occur to you, some of which have never been there before. Could this be evolution ‘inside’ as it were? Could we be adapting in our heads, before trying it out elsewhere?

Well, it depends how flexible you are. For me, this piece of writing has ‘evolved’. It started with an amorphous notion of where I wanted to go. The first paragraph was re-written a dozen times – for me this is ‘evolution’ in action. I adapted it each time to what I judged would be clearer to the reader. I exercised my ability to respond to different patterns on the page. Like all living organisms, I have this responding-ability – this ‘responsibility’ which if I exercise appropriately will help me and my fellow organisms survive longer or better. Note that if I do not, the penalty for irresponsibility is self-regulating – I will become unreadable, unintelligible and ultimately extinct.

We use words to convey complex meanings – but again over-reliance on defining terms can be counterproductive. Words such as pain, fear and intent have maximum meaning, but zero definition – you either know what they mean, or you don’t believe them. And so we come to the hare that Darwin started. Intent. In describing the mistletoe he declares it to be “preposterous” that such a humble plant should show “volition”. But the plant adapted, it changed – it may not have changed its mind, but it certainly changed its behaviour, as E Coli has just done. You can describe it in whichever terms you prefer. I wouldn’t press for all living things to posses intent – but their ability to adapt in the way that they do, allows me to legitimately claim it for myself, and indeed for all my other sensate fellow humans.

So here’s the prize. If we are allowed to dream up new schemes, new behaviours, new Non-Newtonian patterns, i.e. new ‘intents’, and can distinguish those that are more responsible from those that are less – then we can, like a ping-pong ball atop a water fountain, maintain a stability of purpose, a security of outcome on which we can all rely, and thereby achieve that ever longed-for goal – peace of mind. What’s not to like?

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Dr Bob Johnson

Comments are closed.