What’s Humpty Dumpty and Kinder surprise got to do with science?
Let’s have a look at poor old Humpty first. What happened? He fell of the wall, and despite their best efforts, all the very learned people around, including Kings (I’m not sure where the horses come in but we’ll skip that)…they just couldn’t patch him back together again.
Fast forward to our current age of reductionist science – the idea that the whole organism can be explained by crunching it up and studying the parts; the aim being to show how life works. But consider this…if I smash your TV up, and, after you’ve gotten over the shock, wouldn’t you enquire, ‘my dear sir, why on earth did you smash my TV into tiny pieces???‘
How would you react if I told you, in a rather smitten voice, ‘don’t fear, you will be more than adequately reimbursed in the future, because I am developing a sophisticated science…I will take all these TV pieces, put them back together again and accurately predict what you were watching on the box last night…in the future also I will be able to determine what you will watch! Now behold my splendor‘.
You’d rightly consider me a crazy person, and politely ask me to leave the TV alone, and just leave. Well, if you’re not involved in big science nowadays, I’ll inform you that this is how we do it. We break up stuff that was alive, look at the small bits, give them names, study the interactions, and then feel pretty good about ourselves. I’ve been a slave to this way of thinking, and it’s very appealing because ‘we’re getting somewhere.’
But we have a slight problem – we can’t piece Humpty back together again…it is becoming obvious after raiding the genome (and now the epigenome), the nervous system and pretty much any living thing that we can get our hands on…it’s all like sand slipping through our fingers and we haven’t got a scooby doo where life is actually coming from. Basically, the whole is more than sum of the parts.
Let’s leave Humpty alone now, poor guy. Imagine that you’re a big scientist, and after breaking life apart countless times, it’s really not obvious how life can come of out combining parts that aren’t alive. What would you do in such an embarrassing situation? I mean you promised the poor lady that you’d deliver interest as a result of smashing her TV, and now you can’t even put it back together again, let alone predict what she was watching on the box last night.
This is where good old Kinder egg comes in (see Lego Life post).
Lucky you, you’ve opened the chocolate egg, and inside is what looks like a couple of wheels and a frame…could be a bicycle. So on their own these parts are just that…parts. But when arranged in a specific way, these parts make a functional whole. Or, one could say that because ‘bicycle function‘ wasn’t present in the parts, then the whole is more than the sum of the parts.
This is how most modern scientists explain life…’emergent properties‘, which aren’t obvious by looking at the parts alone.
So let’s try to apply it in life…we have a lot of parts, subcellular, tissues and organs, which on their own aren’t always useful, but when they come together they make a functioning body.
So it sounds great, right? Everything adds up and it’s a good hypothesis…
But Houston, we have a problem…and it’s a big one. I hate to point it out, but Kinder eggs have a designer…and surprise… it’s got a capital ‘K‘! Evolution supposedly happens by pure chance, without an end goal in mind. That is, the modern theory holds that nothing in nature has intention/purpose, on any level…even you! Yes, everything is predetermined, including your brain convincing you that you are actually real (see Blue Skies post).
I won’t rattle on about this, but suffice to say that if you have ever studied intracellular signalling pathways or animal/plant development, you’ll appreciate the inconceivability of pure chance in forming functional structures is.
Next, we’ll move from ’emergent properties‘ philosophy onto ‘linguistic malfunction‘ philosophy, leaving Humpty and Kinder behind, and getting to know a bit better, Seb, the selfish gene.
“Shallow men believe in luck; strong men believe in cause and effect.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson