Category Archives: Science

Evolution: a complex systems perspective

The best way to build a large, complex system that works is to evolve it from a small, simple system that works.
— Information technology maxim (cf. Gall’s Law)

The most complex and difficult intellectual work performed by humans to date is the design, development, testing and deployment of large-scale information technology (IT) systems. Such systems can have literally astronomical numbers of discrete internal states, changing through hundreds, thousands, or even millions of such states per second. As such, many such development efforts end in failure [PDF], and the ones that do get deployed always have defects, sometimes very large numbers of defects (think Windows Vista). I know, because this is what I deal with on a professional basis — both helping to rescue large troubled IT projects and acting as an expert witness in lawsuits that involve failed or disputed IT projects. And prior to that, I helped to develop and architect large, complex IT systems.

As such, I have no problem with the concept that God would use various evolutionary mechanisms (including, yes, natural selection, geological time-scales, and random mutations) in preparing a world for us to live in. For me, such as approach is more efficient, less difficult, and less error-prone than an ex nihilo creation of the (quite literally, at least for us) incomprehensibly complex biological/ecological/physical environment in which we live. (In fact, one very fascinating area of computer science uses evolutionary concepts for creating more efficient software and hardware.)

I’m not necessarily arguing for a “fire-and-forget” model (where God kick-starts things and then comes back later when the planet is ready), though I don’t rule it out, either; since God has created “worlds without number“, one would suspect He’s got the process pretty much down pat. Still, I think the creation account found in Abraham, which describes “the Gods” as preparing the earth and the seas to bring forth life at certain stages is as good a description as any in which the creation is shepherded towards a desired end, viz., an environment that is biologically, chemically, environmentally, and genetically compatible with the soon-to-be-mortal bodies of Adam and Eve. And, yes, that would include introducing human-compatible DNA (or that which would evolve into it) into the biological mix as early as necessary.

This is, in fact, why I not only have no problems with the varieties of hominid species in the fossil record, up to and including the emergence of Homo sapiens, but I would expect it. Why? Because a world that actually evolved Homo sapiens would be guaranteed to be 100% compatible with the mortal bodies of Adam and Eve. I could also make the argument (dismissed in some quarters, but still valid I believe) that without such an evolutionary track record, the ‘veil’ over our pre-existence memories would be less effective, since it would be so blindingly clear that we had come from somewhere else. (SF author J. P. Hogan explored this concept a bit — on behalf of an alien race — in his “Giants” series of novels.)

Now, this raises the issue of the “pre-Adamites” that B. H. Roberts and others explored during the first few decades of the 20th Century (and that Joseph Fielding Smith, and later Bruce R. McConkie, fought so hard against). For me, it’s not much of an issue. As Hugh Nibley points out (in “Before Adam“, a BYU talk given in 1980), we as Mormons believe in eternal life for a wide range of animal life — why would we deny it to intelligent, evolved hominids, however much they look like us? As Nibley also points out, the “story” — a written history, a record — doesn’t really start until Adam appears on the scene:

Do not begrudge existence to creatures that looked like men long, long ago, nor deny them a place in God’s affection or even a right to exaltation—for our scriptures allow them such. Nor am I overly concerned as to just when they might have lived, for their world is not our world. They have all gone away long before our people ever appeared. God assigned them their proper times and functions, as he has given me mine—a full-time job that admonishes me to remember his words to the overly eager Moses: “For mine own purpose have I made these things. Here is wisdom and it remaineth in me.” (Moses 1:31.) It is Adam as my own parent who concerns me. When he walks onto the stage, then and only then the play begins. He opens a book and starts calling out names. They are the sons of Adam, who also qualify as sons of God, Adam himself being a son of God. This is the book of remembrance from which many have been blotted out. They have fallen away, refused to choose God as their father, and by so doing were registered in Satan’s camp. “Satan shall be their father, and misery shall be their doom.” (Moses 7:37.) Can we call them sons of Adam, bene-Adam, human beings proper? The representative Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans, to name only the classic civilizations of old, each fancied themselves to be beings of a higher nature, nearer to gods than others who inhabited the land with them (and before them), or who dwelt in other lands. And yet they did not deny humanity to them.

Now we get to the issue of Adam and Eve’s bodies themselves — how were they created, what was their ‘pre-fall’ condition, and how did they transition into mortality? Frankly, the simplest explanation for me would be something equivalent to a combination of cloning (from evolved Homo sapiens bodies) and genetic engineering to induce the ‘pre-mortal’ (anti-aging, infertile, intellectually innnocent) state. The ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’ could itself be genetically engineered to provide, if you will, genetic therapy that would transition Adam and Eve to a mortal, fertile, and intellectually enhanced state.

Which brings me to another issue. I’ve just described a hypothetical mechanism for the creation and fall of Adam and Eve using concepts and technology not that far removed from what we can currently achieve as humans. God, on the other hand, is a being Who created, comprehends, and perceived this entire universe and all that’s in it. I think it’s pretty arrogant for any of us humans — wherever we sit in the creation/evolution debate — to state categorically what God could or could not have done in creating this earth and placing us on it. My own posting here is not to state what God must have done, but what He could have done, and in particular why an evolutionary approach would make a lot of sense.

For exampe, intellectual honesty — and my own belief in God’s power — compels me to also admit that God could well have the cosmic equivalent of a Xerox machine (or, for fellow object-oriented development geeks, a Factory pattern) that He can use to stamp out new copies or instances of worlds — with whatever variations He chooses — at will, working from one or more pre-created ‘template’ worlds (that were indeed evolved). Indeed, I think that a lot of our post-mortal education will consist of unlearning many of our cherished personal beliefs and assumptions, accompanied by a lot of forehead-slapping (“I never even thought of that…”).

In sum, I think we in the Church set up for ourselves some unnecessary dichotomies and dilemmas, particularly on issues for which we have relatively little scriptural information — other than the most critical, namely that “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” ..bruce..

Rethinking the Flood, part III

I had an earlier posting that talked about rethinking the Noachian flood from an LDS perspective, changing the timeframe and location of the Noachian events to North America at the end of the last ice age. In that post, I mentioned growing evidence about a major impact event over the North American ice sheet about 13,000 years ago that may have triggered the Lesser Dryas glaciation, the last ice age event before the current warm period.

Here’s another article that pulls together some of the growing evidence of this impact:

Evidence unearthed at more than two dozen sites across North America suggests that an extraterrestrial object exploded in Earth’s atmosphere above Canada about 12,900 years ago, just as the climate was warming at the end of the last ice age. The explosion sparked immense wildfires, devastated North America’s ecosystems and prehistoric cultures, and triggered a millennium-long cold spell, scientists say.

At sites stretching from California to the Carolinas and as far north as Alberta and Saskatchewan—many of which were home to prehistoric people of the Clovis culture—researchers have long noted an enigmatic layer of carbon-rich sediment that was laid down nearly 13 millennia ago. “Clovis artifacts are never found above this black mat,” says Allen West, a geophysicist with Geoscience Consulting in Dewey, Ariz. The layer, typically a few millimeters thick, lies between older, underlying strata that are chock-full of mammoth bones and younger, fossilfree sediments immediately above, he notes…

Heat from the event would have set off wildfires across the continent, the scientists suggest. The heat and shock from the explosion probably broke up portions of the ice sheet smothering eastern Canada at the time, they add. The flood of fresh water into the North Atlantic that resulted would have interrupted ocean currents that bring warmth to the region, and thick clouds of smoke and soot in the air would have intensified cooling across the Northern Hemisphere.

The inferred date of the event matches the beginning of a 1,200-year-long cold spell that geologists call the Younger Dryas, which in its first few decades saw temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere drop as much as 10°C.

The interesting note (as per the excerpt above) is that the Clovis culture of North America, along with much of the megafauna, appears to have disappeared post-impact. Read the whole article (which includes photographs of the charred layer). ..bruce..

The parameters of reality (ours, at least)

One of the intriguing aspects of reality, as far as we are able to analyze and perceive it to date, is that it depends upon a relatively small set of dimensionless parameters. Here is a listed set, taken from the paper “Dimensionless constants, cosmology, and other dark matters” by Max Tegmark (MIT), Anthony Aguirre (UCSC), Martin J Rees (Cambridge), and Frank Wilczek (MIT) (Phys.Rev. D73 (2006) 023505):

And here are the derived physical parameters:

I got to this paper via an article in New Scientist (subscription required for full article) by one of the paper’s authors (Max Tegmark) who feels that our universe itself is a mathematical construct:

Here, I will push this idea to its extreme and argue that our universe is not just described by mathematics – it is mathematics. While this hypothesis might sound rather far-fetched, it makes startling predictions about the structure of the universe that could be testable by observations. It should also be useful in narrowing down what an ultimate theory of everything could look like….

So here is the crux of my argument. If you believe in an external reality independent of humans, then you must also believe in what I call the mathematical universe hypothesis: that our physical reality is a mathematical structure. In other words, we all live in a gigantic mathematical object – one that is more elaborate than a dodecahedron, and probably also more complex than objects with intimidating names like Calabi-Yau manifolds, tensor bundles and Hilbert spaces, which appear in today’s most advanced theories. Everything in our world is purely mathematical – including you.

Tegmark also feels that this hypothesis leads inevitably to the conclusion that multiverses exist that embody different combinations of dimensionless parameters; we just happen to be in one in which life as we know it can evolve. I’m impressed that Tegmark et al. in the “Dimensionless parameters” paper were willing to include “design” as one explanation for the “fine-tuned for life” values of the parameters, though (rightly) stating that physicists prefer the others:

So why do we observer these 31 parameters to have the particular values listed in Table 1? Interest in that question has grown the the gradual realization that some of these parameters appear fine-tuned for life, in the sense that small relative changes to their values would result in dramatic qualitative changes that could preclude intelligent life, and hence the very possibility of reflective observation. As discussed extensively elsewhere [list of footnotes], there are four common responses to this realization:

  1. Fluke: Any apparent fine-tuning is a fluke and is best ignored.
  2. Multiverse: These parameters vary across an ensemble of physically realized and (for all practical purposes) parallel universes, and we find ourselves in one where life is possible.
  3. Design: Our universe is somehow created or simulated with parameters chose to allow life.
  4. Fecundity: There is no fine-tuning, because intelligent life of some form will emerge under extremely varied circumstances.

Options 1, 2 and 4 tend to be preferred by physicists, with recent developments in inflation and high-energy theory given new popularity to option 2. (Tegmark et al., Phys.Rev. D73 (2006) 023505, pp. 1-4)

No great theological or philosophic intent to this posting, other than I tend to lean towards the “Design” answer. My intended college major during my senior year of high school was astrophysics; that came to a halt upon reading an article about the bartenders and cab drivers with PhDs in astrophysics, but I remain interested in the topic. On the other hand, as someone who has done real-world simulation work (cruise missiles, large space structures, the Space Shuttle flight simulators, and tectonic processes on Venus), I’m keenly aware of how model definition and parameter selection directly leads to your results. ..bruce..