Chapter 6. The Demon of Determinism


Canadians seem to suffer a little less from Puritan paranoia than Americans. In spite of the "blue laws" (making it hard to buy booze on Sundays) that were in place until the mid-1980s, alcohol consumption is less of a taboo. Beer was plentiful, but there seemed to be less college binge drinking. The UBC campus was well supplied with watering holes, including the Graduate Student Centre, with a full bar on each of its three floors. One of the finest traditions at UBC was the Friday afternoon beer garden, an activity that took place in many of the academic departments, including Botany. The sharing of beer, hard cider or soda, plus junk food and conversation among many of the students and some of the staff and faculty encouraged socializing and the exchange of ideas. During the summer, those students who were on campus writing or working on their research often found their way to the Grad Student Centre on Fridays. Grills would be set out on the patio and the burgers and hot dogs sold raw - the customers had to cook their own food, but it was cheap.

I first attended a beer garden shortly after arriving at UBC, at the very beginning of the school year. Some of the botany grad students had just finished a softball game against the biochemistry grad students (I don't remember who won), and they had set up a long table in the Grad Student Centre for after game refreshments. I enjoyed meeting other students and the beer was good, but it was my first experience with salt and vinegar potato chips and I thought they had gone rancid. In those days smoking was still permitted inside buildings, but soon smoke of a different fragrance drifted toward the botany students from the biochemistry end of the table. Someone had fired up a bowl of hashish and sent it along through the group for those who wished to partake. We had several secret smoking places at Davis, but these guys were right out in the open about it. I was impressed. It wasn't legal in Canada, but law enforcement apparently had more serious things to do and didn't pay much attention. agreed with this - there is always an element of surprise Many natural systems are organized, but this doesn't make them machine-like. We can't predict the next speciation event. If we plant an acorn, we'll get an oak of a known species, but we can't predict the exact form. We can predict a hurricane, but its behavior may be partly unknowable.

Another popular gathering place was the Pit Pub, especially on Tuesdays when the dinner special was a cheeseburger basket with fries for $1.49. The Pit was in the basement of the Student Union Building. It was large, windowless, and rather dark and curved in shape. It was equipped with big television screens for sports or music videos of the mid-1980s, and an area that was sometimes used as a dance floor. I think it was the first time I had seen two adversaries compete at foosball, which I guess I didn't notice in Davis.

Most people who decide they want a graduate degree in something like botany are in it because they find various aspects of plants so interesting. Most of us never expect to make a huge of money (though a little would be nice), but aspired to such careers as research scientist or professor. In more recent times, the focus has become ever more molecular and centered on profits, but the turn to such fully capitalist motives wasn't quite so pervasive at that time. When we went out drinking, we talked shop - it was almost always about research. We were generally familiar with each other's studies and projects - what was going well, what research snags had been encountered. We argued, sometimes loudly, about things philosophical and theoretical while Michael Jackson's Thriller played on the screens in the background. We contributed to the beer fund, to buy the next pitcher (a jug in Canada) and sometimes kept the discussion going until the Pit closed and the bouncer threw us out at 1:30. Fortunately, the last city buses didn't leave campus until 1:45, and the journey from the Pit to the complex of bus stops was just a short stagger.

One of the botany students, and a frequent guest of the Pit, Peter S., was working on some fascinating doctoral research at the molecular level. He was looking for multiple levels of information on strands of DNA, levels in addition to the triplets of nucleic acids that coded for the amino acids needed to produce proteins. Information that is mostly about the making of proteins hardly seems enough to generate an entire, functional organism, and Peter wondered what other, less obvious, patterns there might be. In the mid-1980s we had not yet accumulated a vast pot of DNA alphabet soup. Since then, the sequencing of the genomes of everything seems to have produced many patents, a fair bit of "genetically modified" delusion, but not a whole lot of enlightenment. Peter had only a couple of sequenced genomes to work with - a green alga and corn, Zea mays. He knew there were patterns to be seen when nucleic acids were looked at in threes, the codes for protein-generating amino acid sequences, so he re-analyzed these sequences, looking for other groupings. He found that another deviation from random occurs with pairs of nucleic acids, suggesting that one source of information for an organism is laid over the top of another. Reading the summary of Peter's work made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. It was so exciting, and I thought his research was just what a doctoral dissertation should be - a way of looking at a problem in a new, but entirely rational way. Jack Maze thought so too, but some of the cowards on Peter's committee were alarmed (maybe jealous) by such an innovative study, and Peter had to fight all the way to the finish. The market for good jobs in the sciences and in academia continued its downward spiral, as we witnessed the apparently inexorable ascendancy of the shallow and mean-spirited, the money-grubbing and (to borrow a favorite phrase from Cy Finnegan) the "invincibly ignorant." I don't think Peter had the opportunity to really pursue this research in such a conformist environment.

I always enjoyed drinking beer and talking about esoteric, theoretical stuff with Peter, but there was one subject we never could agree on - determinism. Is our inability to fully predict the exact outcome of everything just a lack of knowledge on our part, or is unpredictability an intrinsic characteristic of nature? Peter still insists it is a lack of understanding that leads to unexpected outcomes, and I still disagree.

The worldview that includes western science (and perhaps economics and other areas of study) has inadvertently misled us, I think, by a long-held (though often unstated) belief in the idea of La Place's Demon. This demon is one of several imaginary creatures of science that are used to illustrate points or concepts, most often to students. But this particular demon may be more misleading than the others. La Place's Demon is a creature with a perfect knowledge of the present and an equally perfect knowledge of the past. And so, it follows, he has a perfect knowledge of the future. Able to predict any event, the demon gives determinism the form of a mythical being. Determinism says that the imperfection of our present knowledge is the only reason that we cannot fully predict events in the future. There is no reason to think that our "dataset" will ever be complete or our knowledge ever perfect, so this assertion is a bit hard to test, but our admiration for this demon says a lot about our basic assumptions of a mechanistic universe. The demon also remains mythical because, as Jack liked to note, time prevents us from ever compiling a complete dataset. Furthermore, biology isn't just a matter of the parts of organisms, but also of their organization. Perhaps it would be impossible to know when or if a dataset was complete. "And it's interesting," Jack added, "that the powers granted to La Place's Demon are the same as those granted to the omniscient God of monotheism."

Jack and Cy cautioned: "But one should not take this to mean we live in a completely chaotic world; this would preclude doing science. There is a level of predictability in the universe. The earth circles the sun and tides rise and fall in regular cycles. A hurricane that starts in the Atlantic Ocean will not suddenly appear in a different ocean. If a white oak acorn is planted, a white oak tree will grow, even though its exact form cannot be known. Should a species of white oak undergo speciation, the products would look like (and also not look like) the original white oak, but just how is beyond knowing." Perhaps this is because species and individuals are only partly "pre-formed" and the capricious or chaotic or unpredictable aspects don't happen until they happen.

To many, prediction and not explanation is the central theme of science. But what if nature is not like this, not fully cooperative in terms of predictability? What if the fundamental behavior of the universe is to be partly unpredictable? We can still approach our universe scientifically and generate increasingly accurate and inclusive explanations as our understanding grows, even when prediction is limited to the more general "if-then" role suggested by Jack and Cy. The purpose of science is to accurately describe, and then try to explain, the universe around us, whether the phenomena, the events, are fully predictable or not. I think this is a realistic view, but it does make things a bit more difficult, or at least tidy.

Can we predict the next speciation event? No. Can we know all the features of a mature plant when we sow the seed and observe the seedling? We can predict what species or variety the plant will be (unless it mutates in some new way), but beyond that, not fully, no. Will we ever be able to fully predict the weather? I'm doubtful, but that doesn't make meteorology any less of a science. The surprising behavior of weather is something worth explaining in itself. Absolutely exact forecasts may be impossible by the very nature of weather. Satellite imagery allows us to monitor the formation of a hurricane, and meteorologists may have a good idea of the general direction of its path and the strength and direction of associated winds, if all their models tend to agree. Hurricanes, tornadoes and other storms can often change dramatically and unpredictably, with an element of surprise that counters the idea of a fully predictable orderliness. Perhaps we lack the environmental details or instrumentation necessary to predict just when and where a storm will form, or where it will go next, but those assumptions reject the idea of self-organization, of emergence as a typical property of energized systems in nature. Maybe some of the behavior of storms goes beyond temperatures, pressures and water vapor, becoming something not fully predictable in form or behavior; something more than the sum of its underlying parts.

Another concept, reductionism, is related to determinism. Think of a human zygote, a newly fertilized egg, with DNA from each parent, plus cytoplasm, mitochondria and other cellular components from the egg. We could possess detailed knowledge of this zygote's ancestry. We could also have a profound understanding of this zygote at the molecular level, including its genetics. There are some well-known events clearly linked to genetics that we could know - her gender, her eye color, and certain diseases she may have inherited. But would we ever be able to fully predict what she'll be like at fourteen? At forty? A reductionist, for whom the explanation for everything resides in the molecular minutiae, might say yes, eventually we can know these things, but we don't because at this time our knowledge is imperfect. Given even the most detailed, "perfect" information about the past and present, I say no, we will never be able to fully predict the outcome of her development for the very reason that this phenomenon, ontogeny, is emergent. It hasn't happened yet and many details are not fully predictable by the nature of the phenomenon. The outcome of the being will depend on the girl's development, her becoming, and will be very much more than the sum of her parts; her DNA, cells and organ systems. All of these molecular, cytological and anatomical parts share vast numbers of interactions we don't yet understand. Even so, even if a La Place's Demon has a perfect grasp of all interactions, past and present, the complete outcome would remain unknowable until it comes into existence. The demon is mythical because new, surprising properties appear from interactions at smaller scales, but they are not describable and not always expected based solely on information from those lower levels of organization.

Biologically, a single cell of a multicellular organism is alive in the sense that it is taking in nutrients and oxygen; it is metabolizing and responding to its surroundings; it may even divide through mitosis. However, single mammalian cells and zygotes are not free-living entities like bacteria or algae, and they are not able to survive outside of the larger organism or an artificial life-support system. Zygotes, cell clusters and embryos are just that; they contain the necessary information, but these stages are far too early in development to manifest many properties of the formed human.

A few centuries ago, in the days of early microscopes, biologists believed that fully formed humans, homunculi, existed in miniature form within single cells. Scientists once imagined that these little beings inhabited sperm cells (of course!) and directed gestation and development. With technological advances, including better optics, scientists found that there were no little people within sperm cells, but the idea of some sort of controlling intelligence directing the development of the embryonic organism, didn't go away. For modern genetics and molecular biology, the "vital force" or the "ghost in the machine," the source of biological "purposive change" was all too often moved out of imaginary miniature people residing in sperm cells, or mysterious forces or fluids, and down into the smaller units of molecules, especially DNA. This was not a conceptual improvement. There is no little director inside of a set of chromosomes, or inside of a zygote, or inside of a ball of cells organizing itself to become a vertebrate. A zygote has the capacity, given proper internal and external conditions, to grow into a free-living human organism, but this can only happen through the phenomenon of ontogeny, or development. The outcome is predictable to a large degree, but never fully so.

These days you can scrape a few cells from the inside of your cheek and send them to one of several genetic testing companies. In exchange for a fee, you can get information on ancestry, the groups of humans you share the most similarities with. You can get information on possibly aberrant genes, genes that may correlate with developing a particular disease (without a specifically causal explanation). You can also get bogus statements about your personality. The information housed in genes and expressed by organisms isn't so tidy; their behavior isn't so well known. Each human can be reduced to, and explained by, a sequence of nucleic acids, we have been told for many years. Those ruthless, selfish genes - in Richard Dawkins' world they are all that really matter, and they have enslaved the organisms, us helpless blobs of "protoplasm," to use us for their own ends. They make organisms have sex so they can get themselves replicated. Reductionism and determinism have been sold as realistic views of the universe, but they are really not accurate. Meteorologists often get it wrong not because they're bad forecasters, but because weather doesn't always cooperate in its predictability. Biological systems are similar.

If we accept the idea of non-determinism, then the surprising, the variable, the unpredictable aspects of nature may have important implications. It may be an important "hint" in understanding evolution and many other natural phenomena. Another aspect of accurate description is the self-organization that is obvious during the development of both humans and storms. Self-organization and unpredictability are related to the idea of emergent properties - more complex forms or levels of organization arise from simpler conditions, and the complex levels can't be fully predicted or even described in terms of the lower levels. This generalization applies to many events in nature, from convection currents and hurricanes to developing humans or plants. In spite of his complete and perfect knowledge, La Place's Demon would be unable to fully prognosticate because the past and present can't completely foretell the future.

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