In part six, Kennedy reflected on the messiness of the natural world and the inability of scientific models to fully reflect it. Today, with the daunting site of Mount Darwin in front of him, he reflects on the writing of two of the most influential reductionist thinkers in today's world--Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.
At Blue Lake we had lunch and rested. The boys were happy. Dave and I chatted. Eventually we gathered our gear and started walking again, Matt up ahead with Steve and me in back. The trail was now less steep.
Richard Dawkins, in Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), creates a parable of a mountain climb to answer the mathematical problem that troubles Darwinian natural history. The mathematical problem of Darwinian natural history is portrayed in Dawkins’ book as a steep cliff that blocks climbers from getting to the top. Dawkins recognizes that genetics may have found DNA and people can watch in laboratories the process of variation and sexual selection, but he also acknowledges a problem with the mathematics. There does not seem to be enough time in earth’s history to allow enough random variation through sexual selection to create complicated things like the human brain. The math in natural history is a daunting problem that he depicts as a steep cliff.
There are various ways to handle this mathematical problem. “Chaos theory” posits the possibility of fast spurts of variation and selection. Theories of multiple universes allow us to spread the mathematics broader so that the calculations of random variation work. The idea that Dawkins likes best emphasizes algorithms. In Dawkins’s parable, an easy trail, the algorithm, winds up the back of the mountain, avoiding the mathematical cliff. The randomness in random variation is not really random, because variation is affected by algorithmic “pressure.”
Daniel Dennett, in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), describes Darwinian evolution as “algorithmic sorting processes which take the probabilities or biases that are due to fundamental laws of physics and produce structures that would otherwise be wildly improbable.”
An algorithm is a closed information system in which infinite possibilities are honed into a finite form by the action of a recurring set of rules. Algorithms domesticate wildness. Modern computers, the World Wide Web, and hopes for continuing development of artificial intelligence are rooted in the wonders of algorithms. Probably nothing in mathematics is so inspirational to futurists as the idea that algorithms seem to make simple the complex. David Berlinski, in his breathless The Advent of the Algorithm: The Idea that Rules the World (2000), writes that after Newton’s calculus, the algorithm “is the second great scientific idea of the West. There is no third.”
Limited time is a problem for natural history. Louis Agassiz, whose mountain namesake is appropriately not in the Evolution Range, could not accept Darwinian evolution because he thought the islands of the Galapagos were geologically too young for the mathematics of chance variations being sexually selected. Dawkins points out that “if Darwinism were really a theory of chance, it couldn’t work.” Dawkins believes “Darwinism is not a theory of random chance. It is a theory of random mutation plus non-random cumulative natural selection.”
The possibility that algorithmic pressures affect natural history solves some problems but raises others. Not the least of these problems is: how did the algorithm get started? If algorithms work from rules, where do the rules come from?
Huffing my way up to Mount Darwin, I was dealing with the real earth and a real mountain. I found little to hold on to in Dawkins’ parable. Sure algorithms might guide selection. Who knows the fullness of creation? As an academic historian, I take heart in Dawkins’ stretch to algorithms. It shows a major problem in natural history that can’t be answered easily. Historians like to remind ourselves about the weakness of our thinking.
Out there on the trail up to a real Mount Darwin, I was free to let my mind wander. Time is a wonder. Math is a wonder. Evolution is a wonder. On the other hand, Steven was having trouble with gravity. He was still having a tougher time getting up the mountain than I had expected. He wasn’t up front as he normally was on backpack trips. He started backpacking when he was five years old. His backpack held only his teddy bear. He and Matt have always been unstoppable. But now he was holding us back. I began to doubt whether we would be able to make it to the top of the mountain. It was cold. The air was getting thinner. We were moving slowly. Time was not on our side.
We arrived at Midnight Lake at 3 pm and found a site for base camp on a rise at the northeast end about twenty five yards from shore. We were alone above tree-line with steep granite all around us except for the canyon through which we had just hiked. We slumped our packs against a rock and surveyed the lake in its rocky basin. Steve hit me with a snowball. I told him he would sleep in fear. The sun would soon be falling behind the high western ridge, so by 3:30 pm I started boiling water while Dave and the kids set up the two tents. After organizing his gear, Dave took over the cooking duties.
With the four of us huddled next to a rock, we discussed the decisions to be made for the next day. We needed to be back to the car before dark because we were not sure it would actually run, given the fact that it wasn’t shifting out of first gear when we parked it. Tomorrow, if we were up and hiking by dawn, we would have four or so hours to climb a little less than three thousand feet. It would be doable if the kids caught the spirit in the morning. We would leave most of our gear here, and the kids would carry nothing. While Dave continued to cook, Matt got the radio out of my pack. We had no idea whether the radio would work in such canyons, but the pre-game chatter should have started. I fiddled with the dials and could not pick up a sports station. Dave, in U.S. Navy mode, taught Matt to say in such a situation, “No joy on the comms!”
After dinner the temperature dropped fast. The shadow of the western ridge climbed the wall behind us as we looked over the lake toward the steep canyon that led up to Blue Heaven Lake, at the base of Mount Darwin. I was anxious to get to the top. I wanted to stand on the summit of Darwin and look over at the other peaks, especially Fiske, one of the few mountains named after an American historian.
Dave, who is the best of hiking buddies, full of wit and energy, wrote in my pocket notebook:
17:02 hrs: NOTE: Previous attempt at comms resulting in no joy was due to operator error. A formal investigation will be conducted at a later time, along with remedial training and disciplinary action.
Matt had found the World Series on the radio. It was now so cold we all decided to huddle into my two-person tent to play cards and listen to the game. My two sons and a good friend and I were deep in sleeping bags playing cards in a tiny tent while listening to the Giants win a well-played game. Cards and baseball are the fun of mathematics combined with the wildness of being human. We laughed and yelled. We shivered. It was great.