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No. 56: Mar-Apr 1988

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The new holism -- but is it whole enough?

In the short space of two weeks, the New Scientist printed two articles that confront the obvious complexity of nature. Not only is this complexity persistent under the attack of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but it seems to actually increase with time. Do formative or guiding principles exist that science does not take into account? The two articles have very different answers.

The creative cosmos.

"Most people accept without question that the physical world is coherent and harmonious. Yet according to the traditional scientific picture, the Universe is just a random collection of particles with blind forces acting upon them. There is, then a deep mystery as to how a seemingly directionless assembly of passive entities conspire to produce the elaborate structure and complex organisation found in nature."

The author of this introductory paragraph, P. Davies, asks, as we all do, "What is the origin of this creative power?" In groping for an answer, he presents first a common example of "blind" organization: the hexagonal convection cells in a pan of heated water. Using for a stepping stone the cooperative action of atoms in a laser, he leaps to the development of an embryo from a single strand of DNA! All such systems are "open"; that is, energy can flow in and out. They are also nonlinear, which means that chaotic, unpredictable action may occur. Davies implies that such action can be "creative," almost as if they possessed free will!

His final example is that of the network with large numbers of interacting sites or nodes. With random inputs, large networks do exhibit self-organization. Network theory is now very popular in the field of artificial intelligence. (Remember the computer Hal in 2001?) Davies's conclusion: "...Neo-Darwinism, combined with the mathematical principles emerging from network theory and related topics, will, I am convinced, explain the 'miracle' of life satisfactorily." (Davies, Paul; "The Creative Cosmos," New Scientist, p. 41, December 17, 1987.)

The superorganism. One week later, O. Sattaur expanded on the Gaia concept. He quotes J. Lovelock's definition:

"...the physical and chemical condition of the surface of the Earth, of the atmosphere and of the oceans has been, and is, actively made fit and comfortable by the presence of life itself...in contrast to the conventional wisdom which held that life adapted to planetary conditions as it, and they, evolved their separate ways."

Mainstream science has shown scant love for the Gaia concept, probably because of its holistic nature. The idea of the earth being greater than the sum of its organic and inorganic parts -- a superorganism -- is foreign to reductionistic science. In Gaia, our planet is a giant, self-regulating entity, something larger than and independent of humanity. Is this scientific?

D. Abram deplores modern, mechanistic, reductionistic science as "immature." He thinks that the Gaia hypothesis may well signal the growing up of science. Sattaur concludes the article with Lovelock's assertion that the fate of humanity is interlocked with that of the earth, and that we are not the masters. If we reject Gaia's imperative, she may retaliate! (Sattaur, Omar; "Cuckoo in the Nest," New Scientist, p. 16, December 24/31, 1987.)

Comment. God is not mentioned in either article. Extrapolating the Gaia hypoth esis to cosmic dimensions, we get closer to God. At the reductionist end of the spectrum, we could assume that everything the universe (life and all) is and will be is encoded into the smallest par ticles known -- the quarks. The properties of the quarks, after all, must be consistent with the development of the cosmos. Here, God would be only a quarksmith, and everything would evolve from them!

From Science Frontiers #56, MAR-APR 1988. 1988-2000 William R. Corliss