Space Octopuses and Spaghetti Code

Over the years, I’ve read many critiques of current evolutionary theory, so I was very interested in a recent scientific paper that my son found online: Cause of Cambrian Explosion–Terrestrial or Cosmic?. It does indeed make the argument, familiar to Star Trek fans, that life on earth originated elsewhere. Especially octopuses, which the paper speculates may have arrived as an already developed organism riding a comet or meteor to land on the earth.

In other words, H.G. Wells wasn’t as crazy as everyone thought.

You can find the whole thing here. For a scientific paper, it’s extremely readable. I’m not too enthusiastic about the extraterrestrial panspermia part of the argument–I’m more inclined to believe that the Gods had a hand in it all (and if you make it as far as the appendices, you’ll see a note that at least one of the paper’s authors thinks that life is just too improbable to have originated by chance anywhere in the universe).

For me, the chief charm of the paper is its admission of how huge the problems with neo-Darwinism are (including the lack of what should be abundant transitional forms in the fossil record, and the eponymous Cambrian Explosion, when a huge number of complex lifeforms seems to appear suddenly in said record). The Cause of Cambrian Explosion authors even sound, at points, as if they really feel like saying ‘Look, we explained all this before, now we’re doing it again, and you guys still believe that discredited theory of yours? Seriously?’

In particular, I was delighted with the dismissal of the idea of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ on page 12, noting that the theory really doesn’t explain anything. I remember seeing an interview with Stephen Jay Gould, the theory’s chief architect, in the Seattle Weekly sometime back in the nineties. The admiring journalist said something to the effect of “what used to be one of the strongest arguments against evolutionary theory now becomes one of the strongest pieces of evidence for it!” I’ve never forgotten that stunning leap of anti-logic. Its possible applications are endless. For instance, I could assert that your cat often turns into a frog, but only when you’re not looking…so the fact that you never see it shapechange just goes to prove that it really does!

Anyway, octopuses are apparently the poster children for species that appear suddenly with complex, well-developed features, and no apparent ancestors. Hence their prominence in the paper (and my blog entry title).

On to the pasta course. One of the arguments that I’ve often seen advanced against intelligent design is that our genes are a tangled mess. That often makes it hard to isolate a particular gene that controls some characteristic you’re interested in–there’s cross-influence going on, apparent redundancy, as well as so-called ‘junk DNA’ that plays no known role at all. This is supposedly evidence that our genes just happened (it sounds more scientific to say ‘evolved’, which is why I’m not saying it).

Consider computer programming. It’s considered elegant, if not just basic good form and manners, to have well structured, well commented, easily understandable code. After all, someone else might need to maintain the codebase some day. Or that ‘someone else’ may be you, maybe a couple years down the road, when you’ve gone on to other things in the meantime and completely forgotten this project. The other kind of logic–tangled, obscure, hard to trace–is called ‘spaghetti code’, a term even more derogatory than ‘spaghetti Western’.

So far, so good. But why is it a requirement to structure code so that it can be easily understood? Is it because we have super cognitive powers? I would say no. It’s because in the end, we aren’t that intelligent. We need to make things easy for ourselves.

But if the Designers were more intelligent than humans, and never forgot anything, what kind of code would they naturally write? And what would they see when glancing at what looks, to us, like a hopelessly complicated mess? What designs and patterns would jump out at them, so that understanding the whole design at once would be child’s play?

So long, and enjoy your spaghetti!

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