February 25, 2008

Karl Ernst Ritter von Baer, Edler von Huthorn was arguably the first proponent of what has recently been revived under the rubric of ‘intelligent design’.  Yet he doesn’t even get a walk on in Expelled. What gives?  In his last book,  Studien auf dem Gebiete der Naturwissenschaften,  this utterly respectable Victorian scientist took a swipe at Darwin’s newfangled evolutionary theory: “for a true understanding of nature, we cannot dispense with a governing intelligence,” comparing life to a self-constructing machine or a laboratory that synthesizes its own chemicals.

The trouble this precocious paragon of Creationist thought poses for ID enthusiasts is that he was a developmental biologist famed for discovering things so basic and central to modern embryology that post-modern biologists simply take them for granted, the way 80% of Americans accept that the Earth revolves around the sun. Biology 101 stuff, like the blastula stage, the notochord, the mammalian ovum, and how the germ layer theory of development explaining these fundamental structures as layers of cells in sheets.

By the time of his death in 1876, his published and peer reviewed polymathy extended to taxonomy, entomology ichthyology anthropology, geology ecology, and arctic exploration, and his name live on in four fundamental principles that remain sound to this day in explaining development as a divergence into diverse forms, rather than adherence to a historical pattern. Today we recognize them as arising from DNA’s equally amazing capacity for information storage—and mutation:

         1. General characters appear earlier in development than specialized characters.
         2. Less general character appear later (and build on) the general framework of earlier stages.
         3. The embryo of any organism, rather than passing through the stages of other forms, tends to progressively differentiate itself from them.
         4. The embryo of one animal form never resembles the adult of another, but only its embryo.

     He used these strong and valid rules to argue strongly against Charles Darwin’s theory, even while accepting Darwin’s evidence. Which may be why the syndics of the Discovery Institute shun his memory This guileless Estonian nobleman’s reliance on rigorous and inclusive interpretation of actual evidence clashes baldly with the Neo-Creationist strategy of obfuscation and selective citation in the scientific arena and their encouragement and promulgation of ignorance in the public sphere

Von Baer’s thinking rested on belief in an archetype for each species, an ideal pattern from which only limited deviation could occur, but that never lead him to subordinate evidence to theory. On examining some unlabeled embryos of species unknown to him ,this is what he had to say:

“I am quite unable to say to what class they belong. They may be lizards, or small birds, or very young mammalia, so complete is the similarity in the mode of formation of the head and trunk in these animals. The extremities are still absent, but even if they had existed in the earliest stage of the development we should learn nothing, because all arise from the same fundamental form.”

The convergence of diversity into embryological similarity, stunningly evident before the developmental unfolding of the protean depth of information DNA conveys,   is something creationists abhor. That it was discovered by an unimpeachable anti-evolutionist can only amplify their discomfort, and their desire to conceal it. Small wonder some try to pin the observation on Haeckel, instead, and call it a “forgery.” or point to how various embryos differ in the earliest stages of meiosis – but Karl Ernst von Baer, who discovered the blastula stage, also described the earliest embryonic membranes and was perfectly was well aware of the early differences.

What he lacked was an inkling of what they meant, for Mendelian genetics, let alone DNA was unheard of in his day.Yet this Napoleonic warrior- as a volunteer army surgeon he resisted the little Emperor’s invasion of Prussia needs no apology. In contrast to the creationists”€™ criminal indifference to scientific evidence, von Baer is a worthy example of how ignorance of natural laws is a perfect excuse for incomplete understanding of Nature.

But that was two centuries ago- today molecular biology is an open book, and these who refuse to read it do so at authentic risk of the justified contempt of their scientific contemporaries. If the Discovery Institute can”€™t stand the heat, maybe The New Atlantis should devote an issue to the last grand old man who thought he had a better idea than Darwin.

The predictable response of the disinformed to a von Baer revival will be to field an argument they understand even less well – one ostensibly based on statistics- Michael Behe’s computerized variation on the Monkeys and Typewriters theme, to the effect that no way Jose, can random processes overcome the ten to the umpteenth power or higher odds against anything happening developmentally to molecular soup in so short a time as the age of the universe. I shall be thinking fondly of them as I engage in friendly disputation with Christopher Monckton next week,  over the gobstoppingly oversimplified excuse of a climate model he has adduced in an effort to derail the reality of climate change. 

His last 15 minutes of fame arose from posing a mathematical puzzle as seemingly daunting as the origin of emergent complexity in biology. In 1999 he offered a million pound reward to any who could assemble the 209 bewilderingly random pieces of his ’ Infinity Puzzle, ’ that goodly sum being guaranteed by some of his houses and lands- the greatest living Sudoku master is incidentally Viscount Monckton of Brenchley. He’s not the first old Harrovian to bump the Wykhamists in the run for mathematical gold- Lord Rayleigh of Blue Sky fame was another, though Monckton seems unaware of the hazards of applying his work on black body radiation to planets sporting such complications as clouds and oceans.  Not being of a mathematical bent, I”€™ll leave the details to John Derbyshire, but I infer the puzzle in question derived from the “€˜complex tiling in the plane”€˜work of bona fide math whiz , Sir Roger Penrose FRS.

Alas for lord Monckton,  the plastic platter proved no match for a couple of spotty Cambridge ubergeeks, who took up the cryptic challenge, and demonstrated that ten to the ninety-fifth power is not what it used to be in the face of algorithms that learn from experience. They ended up with the puzzle in one piece and the money in several- contrary to web legend,  Viscount Monckton’s house never ended up in their greedy hands—in fact he’s back with a more insoluble puzzle, with a two million pound prize. If it sells well, and he perseveres in setting Sudoku for the generous editors of The Daily Telegraph, who have also published his vigorous dissent from the notion we”€™d notice a doubling of CO2,  a few thousand puzzles hence , who knows who might own Huthorn? 


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