I listened online to a recent Radiolab show from WNYC called Stochasticity
, which is just another word for randomness.
(BTW...if you don't know about Radiolab, this is a fantastic weekly hour-long program on a wide range of scientific topics done in a very compelling manner. I highly recommend it.)
The last of this hour's program's three stories was centered on the idea put forward in a book by Carl Zimmer called Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life
. I have not read this book, but the ideas that Zimmer outlined in this interview are intriguing. There is a NYTimes book review available
For years, there has been a thread of scientific thought that genetic determinism is what drives human behavior. But the discoveries outlined in his book provide "a warning to those who would put human nature down to any sort of simple genetic determinism.”
Basically, what was discovered during studies of e. coli is that cloned copies of the bacteria did not produce proteins identically. Even though they are genetically the same--being cloned copies--the genes did not act the same. The story made a big deal out of Zimmer's frequent use of terms like 'random,' 'sloppy,' 'noise,' etc. to describe what was going on. The output was chaotic and surprisingly so.
There was a discussion--but no determination--about how any
organism made up of identical genes all over its body with such random behavior at the micro level could produce an orderly macro organism, like humans. Is there some sort of filtering mechanism that throws out the 'noise'--the unneeded or harmful output created by such randomness? Zimmer doesn't think so, but there's no real answer yet.
However, it got me to thinking that this is very similar to the issue being studied by physicists when it comes to quantum mechanics. Behavior at the quantum level is also extremely random. Everything is described in probabilities because there is nothing that will produce the same outcome every time. That's not true at the macro level. We can make very accurate predictions of the universe's behavior at the macro level. Physicists are looking for the 'theory of everything' to explain both on a single theory, which is an ongoing and difficult quest.
What are we to make of this idea that seems to have been confirmed again: the very small is random and unpredictable while the large is not. How does one lead to the other? What is the force or logic that makes this happen? I don't have an answer, but I thought it was an interesting idea to throw out there now that something in biology seems to confirm something in physics in a very basic way: order and predictability is built on, or the result of, randomness.
Also, what are the implications of this on religion? There is religious thought that claims that things would fall apart without god keeping it all together, which is a type of "order from randomness" assertion. I could see a theist coming up with a claim that god is the thing that sits in between the chaotic and the orderly. That may already be the case and I just haven't been exposed to the claim.
I think it's fascinating that scientists keep coming up with more and more evidence about what's really out there. What we think should happen is often proven wrong and giving us new insights into the universe. Who knows if it'll ever end!