FRED’S in the house. You heard the Man. If seen, do not approach. Call your local taberna instead
BY FRED REED
In today’s column, we will revolutionize science, and establish that much of what we believe, at least regarding living things, is at best improbable and likely impossible. Science won’t notice, so no harm will be done.
As we explicate the Theory of Impossibility, we must begin with particle physics. This will give the column a touch of class. Specifically, the Fundamental Theorem of Quantum Mechanics states, “If a thing makes no sense at all, wait until you get used to it, and then it will.” For example, the idea that a particle can simultaneously be a wave is absurd, but is now everywhere accepted, like potatoes. The EPR effect, holding that if one of a pair of entangled photons, in Scarsdale, changes polarity, its entangled partner, in Alpha Centauri, will simultaneously change polarity, is ridiculous. How would it know? Neither of these things can happen. But they do, so we regard them as reasonable. Here we enunciate and underlying principle: A thing is not necessarily possible merely because it happens.
Unless something is going on that we do not know about.
Scientists see the universe as if it were a gigantic crossword puzzle. Crosswords are inherently solvable. While the great puzzle of life and existence has not been entirely elucidated, we assume that it can be, given time and effort. We may not know a five-letter word ending in Q that means “seventh-century Persian coin,” but we assume that it exists and can one day be found. But…is this so?
This reminds me that when I was in college, before the invention of fire, sophomores quoted Gödel’s Theorem as saying that in a logical system of sufficient complexity, there were questions that could not be answered within the system. Whether the theorem actually says this, I forget, but we said it said it, and felt very wise.
Here we come to one of my favorite clichés, by the British biologist J.B.S. Haldane, “The world is not only queerer than we think, but queerer than we can think.” Just so. Perhaps there are questions that can’t be answered, and therefore won’t be. This cannot be a comforting thought to a new-minted chemist as he rushes forth from CalTech, which may be why anything suggesting inherent unanswerability is rejected. But it may be that we just aren’t smart enough to understand everything, or maybe even much of it. Here we come to another cliché by my favorite philosopher (me): The smartest of a large number of hamsters is still a hamster.
Now, impossibility. Suppose I showed you a pair of tiny gears and said, “See? When I turn this one, it meshes with the other and makes it turn too.” You would respond with a lack of surprise. Suppose I then showed you fifty such little gears in an old-fashioned Swiss watch in which they all turned to make the hands move. You might say, “Isn’t that ingenious.” Suppose that I then told you that someone had assembled, literally, a cubic mile of such tiny gears and that they meshed perfectly for fifty years to do many complex things. You would ask me what I was smoking.
Even though each step in a cubic-mile process could be shown to be possible—gear A turns gear B, which turns gears C and D—you would sense that the entire complex wouldn’t work, however plausible each sub-process might be. You would be unconsciously applying the law that the improbability of the whole is greater than the sum of the improbabilities of the parts. The improbability is not a linear function of the number of parts but increases without limit as the number of parts goes above, say, one thousand.
Does that sound dreadfully portentous, or what? One day it will be the foundation of ponderous overpriced textbooks to extract money from sophomores. At least I hope so. I could use the money.
To a neophyte of biochemistry, the textbook description of a cell seems the mapping of a robotic Japanese factory onto a swamp. For example, in what sounds like a computer-controlled assembly line, enzymes uncoil the DNA, others unzip it, complementary nucleotides snap into place, a zipper-upper enzyme glues them together, click, click, click, whereupon the mRNA rushes purposefully off to a ribosome where, click, click, click. This is probably AP biology in decent high schools, if any, and has been verified thousands of times by biochemists. But…it sounds like mechanical engineering, not mindless undirected glop in solution.
You say, “But Fred, you don’t know anything about biochemistry.” True, but so what? You don’t have to know anything about it to know that it is impossible. Too many little wheels. You’ve got mRNA and microRNA and rRNA all rushing about, or sometimes holding still, and doing complex and purposeful things, and tRNA codons and anticodons coupling like drunken teenagers, and busybody enzymes editing this or that on the fly in the manner of bioschoolmarms or splicing this and some other thing and ribosomes and lysosomes and spliceosomes and palindromes and maybe aerodromes and really twisty long molecules with names like 2,4-diethyl-polywannacrackerene—and all of this is said to run with the efficiency of a Mexican drug cartel. All of this in a tiny space where everything ought to bang into everything else and just lie there in smoking rubble.
To us barbarians on the outside, the cell looks like a microscopic globule of goop with sticky stuff diffusing mindlessly about. I do not doubt that biochemists, whom I respect, have shown all of this to happen by careful experiments. I just don’t believe it. It’s the cubic mile of gears again. You have hundreds of reactive species in close proximity doing extraordinarily complicated things for sometimes a hundred years with what sounds like precisely coordinated purposefulness–instead of congealing immediately into a droplet of disagreeable mush. I do not doubt that lab folk have proved that it happens. I just don’t think it is possible. Unless something is going on that we don’t understand.
The foregoing is not orthodox biochemistry and may encounter initial resistance in the trade.
A problem of biology for years has been the inability of evolutionists to explain how life or many of its manifestations can have evolved, irreducible complexity and all that, the usual response being ok, we aren’t sure, but any day now we will have the answer. The check is in the mail. But in fact the inexplicability grows ever greater year on year as more and more complexity is discovered, such as epigenetics, and the more complexity, the less likelihood of coming about by chance. But we advocates of Impossibility Theory assert that not only can living things not have evolved, but also that they can’t function. Too many little gear wheels. Therefore life doesn’t exist.
Consider the retina, a very thin membrane consisting of ten distinct sublayers engaging in appallingly complex biochemistry, somehow maintaining position and function for, occasionally, a hundred years. These layers consist of millions of cells doing the impossibly tricky chemical dance mentioned above, more or less perfectly. In the rest of the eye you have the three layers of the eyeball, sclera, choroid, retina, and the five layers of the cornea, epithelium, Bowman’s membrane, stroma, Descemet’s membrane, and posterior lamina. And a lens consisting of a proteinaceous goop contained in a capsule, attached to the muscular ciliary body by suspensory ligaments, and an iris of radial and circumferential fibers innervated competitively by the sympathetic and parasympathetic subsystems of the autonomic nervous system. No way exists of explaining how this purportedly evolved—or how it works for many years without the layers of intricacy, biochemical through mechanical, collapsing. (I know this stuff because I have eye problems connected with Washington’s foreign policy.)
The intricacy of life is layered. We start with a zygote which, being a cell, is bogglingly complex. This little time bomb develops into a baby, which is impossible. If you don’t think so, try reading a textbook of embryology. The migration of cells, this control gradient, that control gradient, DGRNs, perfect inerrant specialization to form implausibly precise and complex things like incus, malleus, stapes, tympanum in the ear and (very) numerous other examples, all impossible individually and more so in aggregate.
Impossible, at least, unless we can come up with an auxiliary explanation. Magic seems a good candidate.
All of the organs of the baby are in varying degrees impossibly complicated and, even more impossible, almost always all of them are perfect at once. Everyone knows Murphy’s Law: If something can go wrong, it will. A baby should bring joy to Murphy because the opportunities of disaster are nearly infinite—yet things almost never go wrong. It is like a federal program that actually works.
The functioning of said baby is as mysterious as its formation. Babies grow. Children grow. How does this happen? For example, the baby has various small, hollow bones which grow year after year into large hollow bones. For this to work, cells (osteoclasts) eat away the bone from the inside, making the hollow larger, while other cells (osteoblasts) lay down new bone on the outside. Complex and wildly implausible communication between blast and clast purportedly makes this work. Medical researchers, honest people, no fools, assure me that this happens, and I believe them. Sort of. The idea that this evolved by random mutation is, if I may use a technical term, nuts. So, according to Impossibility Theory, is its precise, inerrant functioning. We come back to magic.
The whole baby does this sort of thing. The skull grows. Kidneys grow. The heart grows. All, with few exceptions, perfectly. Meanwhile, kidneys excrete, endocrine glands secrete, neurons weirdly but correctly link up, skin grows in perfect layers, nervous system deploys—perfectly. Do you believe this? It isn’t possible.
Unless there is something we haven’t figured out, and perhaps can’t.
I don’t know much about anything (readers delight in assuring me of this). However, I don’t know less about computers than I don’t know about biology. I want an engineering information-flow analysis of cells and a baby. Probably there are courses and books about this, and I just haven’t heard of them.
Consider a drill, perhaps in a factory, controlled by a computer. The total information involved in this transaction presumably consists of information flowing from sensors on the drill to the computer, and from the computer to the drill. Digital bits are easy to understand if you have at least two fingers. Cells are dauntingly analog.
A whole lot of things have to happen in a cell at the right time and produce the right amounts of all sorts of stuff. But to my naïve gaze, not only do processes have to produce things in correct amounts, but the systems that tell them how much to produce have to know how much that is, and these interrelationships all have to interrelate with each other. How much is that in gigabytes? Again, I am a barbarian of such things, but I wish a software engineer would reduce the whole shebang to data-flow diagrams, including how it knows when things are wearing out and the information paths needed to repair them. And why everything doesn’t just stick to everything else.
Thee you have the elements of a theory of impossibility. Doubtless it will rank with general relativity and Watson and Crick. You saw it here first.
FRED REED describes himself as [previously] a “Washington police reporter, former Washington editor for Harper’s and staff writer for Soldier of Fortune magazine, Marine combat vet from Viet Nam, and former long-haul hitchhiker, part-time sociopath, who once lived in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from the Yankee Capital.”
His essays “on the collapse of America” Mr. Reed calls “wildly funny, sometimes wacky, always provocative.”
“Fred is the Hunter Thompson of the right,” seconds Thomas E. Ricks in Foreign Policy magazine. His commentary is “well-written, pungent political incorrectness mixed with smart military commentary and libertarian impulses, topped off with a splash of Third World sunshine and tequila.”
Hardboiled is back! (The exclamation point is to arouse wild enthusiasm int the reader, a boiling literary lust.) Gritty crime fiction by longtime police reporter for the Washington Times, who knows the police from nine years of riding with them. Guaranteed free of white wine and cheese, sensitivity, or social justice.