Skyhooks and Cranes
One should posit, says Daniel Dennett, “cranes,” not “skyhooks” for the building up of evolutionary history (1995, pp. 73-80). That contrast of metaphor seems initially persuasive, appealing to causes more natural than supernatural, more immanent than transcendent. Pinpoint the issue: What is the most plausible account to give of these genes and their genesis? What is the most adequate explanation for the remarkable negentropic, cybernetic self-organizing that characterizes the life story on Earth? Look more closely and the metaphor becomes more pejoratively rhetorical than analytically penetrating.
There is the repeated discovery of information how to re- direct the downhill flow of energy upward for the construction of ever more advanced, higher forms of life, built on and supported by the lower forms. Up and down are rather local conditions (down, up a few miles); it does not matter much which direction we imagine this help as coming from–east or west, from the right or left, below or from above, high or deep, immanence or transcendence, skyhooks or cranes. The Hebrew metaphor was that one needs “wind” as well as “dirt.” The current metaphor is that one needs “information” as well as “matter” and “energy.”
The story in natural history becomes memorable–able to employ a memory–only with genes (or comparable predecessor molecules). The story becomes cumulative and transmissible. The fertility possibilities are a hundred times recompounded. If the DNA in the human body were uncoiled and stretched out end to end, that slender thread would reach to the sun and back over half a dozen times (as estimated from data Orten and Neuhaus, 1982, pp. 8, 154). That conveys some idea of the astronomical amount of information soaked through the body.
In nature, in the Newtonian view there were two metaphysical fundamentals: matter and energy. Einstein reduced these two to one: matter-energy. In matter in motion, there is conservation of matter, also of energy; neither can be created or destroyed, although each can take diverse forms, and one can be transformed into the other.
In the biological sciences, the novelty is that matter-energy is found in living things in diverse information states. The biologists still claim two metaphysical fundamentals: matter-energy and information. Norbert Wiener insists: “Information is information, not matter or energy” (1948, p. 155). In living things, concludes Manfred Eigen, this is “the key- word that represents the phenomenon of complexity: information. Our task is to find an algorithm, a natural law that leads to the origin of information. … Life is a dynamic state of matter organized by information” (1992, p. 12, p. 15). Bernd-Olaf Kueppers agrees: “The problem of the origin of life is clearly basically equivalent to the problem of the origin of biological information” (1990, p. 170).
George C. Williams is explicit: “Evolutionary biologists have failed to realize that they work with two more or less incommensurable domains: that of information and that of matter. … Matter and information [are] two separate domains of existence, which have to be discussed separately in their own terms. The gene is a package of information, not an object. … Maintaining this distinction between the medium and the message is absolutely indispensable to clarity of thought about evolution” (quoted in Brockman, 1995, p. 43).
John Maynard Smith says: “Heredity is about the transmission , not of matter or energy, but of information. … The concept of information is central both to genetics and evolution theory” (1995, p. 28). The most spectacular thing about planet Earth, says, Dawkins, is this “information explosion,” even more remarkable than a supernova among the stars (1995, p. 145). And, adds, Klaus Dose: “More than 30 years of experimentation on the origin of life in the fields of chemical and molecular evolution have led to a better perception of the immensity of the problem of the origin of life on Earth rather than its solution. … We do not actually know where the genetic information of all living cells originates” (1988, p. 348).
When sodium and chlorine are brought together under suitable circumstances, anywhere in the universe, the result will be salt. This capacity is inlaid into the atomic properties; the reaction occurs spontaneously. Energy inputs may be required for some of these results, but no information input is needed. When nitrogen, carbon, and hydrogen are brought together under suitable circumstances anywhere in the universe, with energy input, the spontaneous result may be amino acids, but it is not hemoglobin molecules or lemurs–not spontaneously.
The essential characteristic of a biological molecule, contrasted with a merely physicochemical molecule, is that it contains vital information. Its conformation is functional. With the typical protein, enzyme, lipid, or carbohydrate this is structural, keyed by the coding in DNA. The coding here is information about coping in the macroscopic world that the organism inhabits. The information (in DNA) is interlocked with an information producer-processor (the organism) that can transcribe, incarnate, metabolize, and reproduce it. All such information once upon a time did not exist, but came into place; this is the locus of creativity.
With this “information” as the model for what needs to be explained, return to the “cranes” and “skyhooks” metaphors. Stripped of the rhetoric, what the “skyhook” metaphor means, Dennett says, is explanations that are more “mind-like” and the “cranes” metaphor posits “mindless, motiveless mechanicity.” Dennett holds that Darwinian science, extrapolated philosophically, has discovered cranes upon cranes “all the way down” and building up and up with “creative genius.” “There is simply no denying the breathtaking brilliance of the designs to be found in nature” (1995, p. 76, p. 155, p. 74). But if the secret of such creativity is information possibilities opening up and information searched and gained, then the kind of explanation needed can as plausibly be said to be mind-like as mindless mechanicity.
One might look to the potential deep in matter, “cranes all the way down,” as Dennett puts it. There is a kind of bottomless bootstrapping, as if lifting oneself up and up by one’s own bootstraps was not remarkable, matter lofting itself up into mind. Such cranes, piling up higher and higher, are still pretty “super,” quite imposing with their endless superimposing of one achievement on another. One can just as well look to some destiny toward which such matter is animated and inspired (skyhooks). Even after an infinite regress of cranes, or a regress ending in nothing at all, or in informationless matter-energy, or in a big bang, one might not find that explanations are over. The issue is where the information comes from by which matter and energy become so superimposingly informed across evolutionary history that this brilliant, “sacred” (Dennett) output arises from a beginning in mindless chaos, how “out of next to nothing the world we know and love created itself” (p. 185).
In this “world of propensities,” concludes Karl Popper, the “inherently creative” process with its “staggering” biodiversity is neither mechanistic nor deterministic. “This was a process in which both accidents and preferences, preferences of the organisms for certain possibilities, were mixed: the organisms were in search of a better world. Here the preferred possibilities were, indeed, allurements” (1990, p. 26, p. 20). Cranes or skyhooks, evolutionary development is “attracted to” (in the current “chaos” metaphor) cumulating achievements in both diversity and complexity, and this attraction needs explanation. Attractors, or, at a more metaphysical level, even an Attractor, seem quite rational explanations.
Dennett sometimes finds the process “uncanny” in being somewhat like “mind.” “To me the most fascinating property of the process of evolution is its uncanny capacity to mirror some properties of the human mind (the intelligent Artificer) while being bereft of others” (Dennett, 1987, p. 299). It seems important to Dennett that the design is a mirage. Or, more accurately, the design isn’t a mirage, for there is a designing system, but that there is a Designer of the designing system is a mirage. One needs no supernature, and the evidence for this is that we can plunge into sub-nature, and sub-sub-nature, and sub- sub-sub-nature, simplifying all the way down until there is nothing at all. Although creativity is forbidden from above, it is welcomed from below. But set aside the above-below imagery, still the “attraction” to something out of chaos, the “genesis” of something out of nothing, of more out of less–such brute fact remains as evident as ever, and as demanding of explanation.
The creation of matter, energy, law, history, stories, of all the information that generates nature, to say nothing of culture, does need an adequate explanation; some sources, source, or Source competent for such creativity. In the materializing of the quantum states, bubbling up from below, in the compositions of prebiotic molecules, in the genetic mutations, there are selective principles at work, as well as stabilities and regularities, forming and in- forming these materials, which principles order and order up the story.
There once was a causal chain that led to vertebrae in animals, where there were none before, an incremental chain no doubt, but still a chain by which the novelty of the vertebral column was introduced on Earth. Such a chain is constructed with the emergence of more and more information; this information, coded in DNA, informs the matter and energy so as to build the vertebral cord. The cord is constructed because it has a value (a significance, here a precursor of meaning) to the organism. It makes possible the diverse species of life that the vertebrate animals defend. Continuing the development of the endoskeleton, it makes possible larger animals with mobility, flexibility, integrated neural control. When such construction of valuable biodiversity has gone on for millennia, the epic suggests mysterious powers that might well signal the divine presence.
The question, the biologists will say, is of the selective forces. Yes, but the answer comes, partly at least, from seeing the results, with ever more emerging from what is earlier less and less. One seeking to detect the divine “inspiration” (“information”) will notice how there are occasions–seasons, contexts, events, episodes, whatever they are called–during which critical information emerges in the world, breakthroughs, as it were, incremental and cumulative though these can also be. The could be in some inspiration that first animates matter and energy into life, or launches replication and genetic coding, or eukaryotes, or multicellular life, or sexuality, or energizes life with mitochondria and chloroplasts, or glycolysis and the Krebs cycle, or moves life onto land, or invents animal societies, or acquired learning, or endows life with mind, and inspires culture, ethics, religion, science.
The skeptics reply is always to emphasize that evolution is not elegant. It is wasteful, blundering, struggling. Evolution works with what is at hand, and makes something new out of it. The creatures stumble around, and if there is a God who “intervenes” God ought to do better than that. There is only a “blind watchmaker” (Dawkins, 1986). Still, consider again the remarkable results, and the providence appropriate to a God who celebrates an Earth history, who inspires self-creativity. The word “design” nowhere occurs in Genesis, nor am I using it in this argument, though the concept of creativity pervades the opening chapters. There is divine fiat, divine doing, but the mode is an empowering permission that places productive autonomy in the creation.
It is not that there is no “watchmaker”; there is no “watch.” Looking for one frames the problem the wrong way. Maybe that kind of frame is needed at the big bang with the anthropic principle; it is the right frame for genesis and the genes. In the earthen genesis, there are species well adapted for problem-solving, ever more informed in their self-actualizing. The watchmaker metaphor seems blind to the problem that here needs to be solved: that information-less matter-energy is a splendid information-maker. Biologists cannot deny this creativity; indeed, better than anyone else biologists know that Earth has brought forth the natural kinds, prolifically, exuberantly over the millennia, and that enormous amounts of information are required to do this.
The achievements of evolution do not have to be optimal to be valuable, and if a reason that they are not optimal is that they had to be reached historically along story lines, then we rejoice in this richer creativity. History plus value as storied achievement in creatures with their own integrity is better than to have optimum value without history, autonomy, or adventure in superbly-designed marionettes. That is beauty and elegance of a more sophisticated form, as in the fauna and flora of an ancient forest.
The elegance of the thirty-two crystal classes is not to be confused with the grace of life renewed in the midst of its perpetual perishing, generating diversity and complexity, repeatedly struggling through to something higher, a response to the brooding winds of the Spirit moving over the face of these earthen waters. The genes do bubble up from below (“cranes”–if one insists on looking down) but these genes are lofted higher and higher in their creative genius, resulting in course in the genius of the human spirit, elevated enough to look the world over and ask ultimate questions–debating, as we are doing, the best metaphors for what has been taking place on this Earth.
“Skyhook” is at least an upward looking word. Or if “deep” is your preferred direction, either way there is something “uncanny” about several billion years of continuing breakthrough in achievement and power, made possible by and manifest in the genes.
In the next (and final) Metanexus installment, we return to these themes as the opening up of new possibility space, in which this information explosion can take place–all this raising the possibility of God in, with, and under natural and human history.
Brockman, John, 1995. The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Dawkins, Richard, 1986. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: W. W. Norton.
Dawkins, Richard, 1995. River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. New York: Basic Books, HarperCollins.
Dennett, Daniel C., 1987. The Intentional Stance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Dennett, Daniel C., 1995. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Dose, Klaus, “The Origin of Life: More Questions Than Answers,” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 13(1988):348-356.
Eigen, Manfred, with Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch, 1992. Steps towards Life: A Perspective on Evolution. New York: Oxfo d University Press.
Kueppers, Bernd-Olaf, 1990. Information and the Origin of Life. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. Maynard Smith, John, 1995. “Life at the Edge of Chaos?” New York Review of Books 52(no. 4, March 2, 1995):28-30.
Orten, J. M., and O. W. Neuhaus, 1982. Human Biochemistry, 10th ed. St. Louis: C. V. Mosby Co.
Popper, Karl R., 1990. A World of Propensities. Bristol, U.K.: Thoemmes.
Wiener, Norbert, 1948. Cybernetics. New York: John Wiley.