Thursday, May 13, 2010
The Mathematics of Miracles, 101
Lunch Break: Just reserving this space for a May 13 entry that I'll post later today. It is prompted by reports on the tragic airplane crash in Libya the other day from which there was only one survivor, a young boy. President of the EU pronounced the boy's survival a miracle. I beg to differ.
4:00 p.pm: Posting three pics I shot on the way home from work, the whole while thinking about this Math of Miracles Idea. They are, from top to bottom, a green racer, Coluber constrictor, a small mushroom farm :), and Blue Camas, the latter growing in a field full of them off Stampfli Lane in Indian Valley.
9:30 p. m.: Reports like the one above about the sole survivor of the plane crash are heart rending, and it's understandable that a word like miracle would get tossed around loosely. However, as a naturalist, I get a bit peeved (understatement) when the religious sense of the word is used in arguments against evolution. It is argued, in a broad sense, that life is so complex, especially certain intricate mechanisms like the human eye or the bacterial flagellum, that they couldn't have evolved or come into existence by accident. People who make a profession of developing these arguments, such as the staff of the Discovery Institute, portray the scientific case for evolution as a simplistic belief that life evolved by accident then tear down a argument that biologists never made in the first place. Here's a little math to help my argument along. It will necessarily be brief. After all, this is just a blog. For a full development of this argument, try Richard Dawkins' "Climbing Mount Improbable."
A female oyster can lay upward of 10,000,000 eggs in her lifetime. On average, only two of these will survive to adulthood and reproduce, or else the ocean would soon be overrun with oysters. If the two surviving oysters could think, and if they thought like humans, one might say to the other, "It's a miracle that we made it old pal!" You and I are each the product of one spermatozoon out of perhaps millions that were once sent in the general direction of the egg that became you. Was it a miracle that that particular one won the race? At a moment prior to conception, that egg was swarmed by spermatozoa, but at the very instant that the winner penetrated the egg, a chemical barrier was set up by the egg to prevent others from entering.
Let's reflect on the tragic earthquake that struck Haiti recently. Several hundred thousand people perished. Days later, a surviving baby here, a teenager there, an elderly person in another spot, were found to have survived. In each case, many people thanked god for the person's survival. Why did they not hold him accountable for the demise of all the others?
In the case of evolution, what gives the appearance of a plan or design or might make the results seem like a miracle is actually the result of the mechanism of natural selection which,given millions of years, can result in the accumulation of small changes and produce complexity. Dawkins' most recent book, "The Greatest Show on Earth," spells out the details of the process wonderfully and is beautifully illustrated. One more example: the odds of winning the California lottery are quite small. Yet, every now and then someone does win. God's doing? I don't think so. Consider the millions of entries. It's inevitable that eventually someone will choose the right numbers. Did the winner have some sort of insight? No. Actually, if everyone fully understood the rules of probability, the Lottery and casinos would go out of business - unless, of course, the entertainment value of throwing away money while watching barely clothed girls dance sufficed. To get back to natural history: I try to cultivate among my students the use of words such as "wonder" and "beautiful" and even "amazing" but rather than see the great variety of living things as miracles try to understand how they are the inevitable result of natural processes given suitable conditions. In a Universe composed of literally billion of solar systems, these conditions are not as rare as you might think.