Wednesday, 2 October 2013

An example of transdisciplinarity: expert systems and evolutionary cladistics 2. DNA -- under new management

RNA and DNA differences
 Sponk  Source: Wikimedia Commons
While Wolfgang Pauli was commenting about the lack of supporting mathematics for random mutations being able to produce the evolutionary changes that occurred in its timeline, Crick and Watson had just published the news of their discovery of the DNA molecule . RNA's history goes back as far as 1868. Although the concept of epigenetics dates to 1942, the structures and mechanics of the subject were not first described until more recent times -- long after the death of Pauli, and they are still being charted today.

The source I am using for Pauli's misgivings about the scientific basis for random mutations in evolution is: Pauli’s ideas on mind and matter
in the context of contemporary science, by: Harald Atmanspacher, Institut fur Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene, Freiburg Parmenides Center, Capoliveri, Italy, and Hans Primas ETH-Zentrum, Zurich. We will return to this paper for other topics in this series.

Pauli probably knew very little about DNA, and he could have known nothing of the workings of epigenetics. He did understand, though, that the proponents of random mutations as being the only driving force in evolutionary changes were promoting something which was highly unlikely and, more importantly, no attempt to calculate the chances had ever been made. He summed it all up nicely (Atmanspacher and Primus op. cit. p. 27-8):
“In discussions with biologists I met large difficulties when they apply the concept of ‘natural selection’ in a rather wide field, without being able to estimate the probability of the occurrence in a empirically given time of just those events, which have been important for the biological evolution. Treating the empirical time scale of the evolution theoretically as infinity they have then an easy game, apparently to avoid the concept of purposesiveness. While they pretend to stay in this way completely ‘scientific. and ‘rational’, they become actually very irrational, particularly because they use the word ‘chance’, not any longer combined with estimations of a mathematically defined probability, in its application to very rare single events more or less synonymous with the old word ‘miracle’.”
We can only imagine what he might have said about Intelligent Design had he lived in our day. He knew that if you wanted to claim something as fact, and if any numbers were involved in this fact, then science required that they be properly addressed. Failing that, you would have only an account of a belief. Today, he would put random mutations in the same box as intelligent design.

As the paper shows, Pauli knew that the position, with regard to mathematical probability theory, had not been scientifically supported. But he also knew that the numbers were indicating that some form of "purposiveness" had to exist. While he could not define this scientifically, he could scientifically refute randomness and there appeared to be no third alternative at all. This last sentence foreshadows what I will later have to say about transdisciplinarity, but we have a number of other topics to discuss first.

Pauli was known to his peers as the "conscience of physics" and the quotes from him in that link section give a very clear picture of what he demanded from scientific research. If he had lived to hear about the recent advances in epigenetics, he might have said the same as he did for the eventual telegram confirmation of his ideas about the existence of the particle later called the neutrino: "'Thanks for message. Everything comes to him who knows how to wait.' Pauli.". The Wikipedia article does not mention what he said when he first reasoned its existence: "I have done a terrible thing, I have postulated a particle that cannot be detected".

Tomorrow's episode will be about the sorry state of modern expert system technology, and then we will connect expert systems with epigenetics through transdisciplinarity which will reveal a serious flaw in evolutionary cladistics.


  1. After 'the old word 'miracle', Pauli's letter continues (‘natural+selection’+in+a+rather+wide+field,&source=bl&ots=HJjOtjGNlY&sig=ctXVspVCkKui1OsdXWVDYzydM84&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwihs5aJgevWAhXEvRoKHXdbB2YQ6AEILjAB#v=onepage&q&f=false)

    'I found for instance H. J. Muller very characteristic for this school of biologists .. but also our friend Max Delbruck. With him this is combined with vehement emotional affects and a permanent threat to run away which I interpret as obvious signs of overcompensated doubts'.

    1. Thanks for this addition, Andrew. I love the phrase "overcompensated doubts" and undoubtedly will have occasion to borrow it in the future.

      (For anyone following the link and getting a blank page in Google Books, just substitute .ca or .com for (or whatever is appropriate to your location) Google Books is funny that way.)