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Darwin said there is no Theoretical Biology versus Theoretical Physics

Mark D. Garfinkel mg16 at kimbark.uchicago.edu
Thu Aug 3 09:31:22 EST 1995

In article <3vom5b$cmk at rebecca.albany.edu>,
S. LaBonne <labonnes at csc.albany.edu> wrote:
>(as I have heard his
>Ph.D. mentor Larry Gold put it) living organisms are Rube Goldberg
>contraptions put together by evolutionary "tinkering"; thus, specific
>biological problems (eg.  "coding") are almost never solved in the
>straightforward, rational way in which an engineer would solve them.
	Software engineers don't necessarily solve their code-writing
problems in a rational straightforward manner anymore. "Software evol-
ution by selection" has been tried, quite successfully. See S. Levy's
book "Artifical Life" for a description.

>As a result, only experiment and observation can tell us how things
>_actually_ work. [...]
>Rube Goldberg character of living organisms, derived from the
>contingencies of evolutionary history rather than from rational
>"design", is what makes biology _very_ different from physics, where
>many properties of the physical world can be deduced logically from a
>limited number of basic principles.
	I think you're raising some false dichotomies here. Physics *is*
an experimental science, after all; much of its advancement *requires*
empirical data gathering. Despite the power of mathematical description,
and the logical formalisms arising from it, there remains no substitute
for confirming physical theory with experimental data. Why else was the
cancellation of the superconducting supercollider such a sorrow? While
the mathematics might seem logical & self-contained, I don't think any
physicist would seriously suggest there is evidence of "rational design"
at the root of how physical phenomena work (Hawking's comment at the end
of "A Brief History of Time," about "knowing the face of God" I always
thought was metaphorical at best).

	But your points about historical contingency & accident in evolution
are well-taken. People might like to look at D.C. Dennett's new book,
"Darwin's Dangerous Vision," for a discussion of Darwinism from the (odd,
perhaps) perspective of a philosopher-historian of science.

Mark D. Garfinkel (e-mail: mg16 at midway.uchicago.edu)
(c) 1995; all rights reserved. Permission granted for Usenet quotation
with attribution.

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