I had a random thought today while showering. I don’t know why, but you don’t hear much about dandruff these days. At least I haven’t. When I was growing up dandruff was a major topic of discussion. It was something that everyone with a modicum of social concern ought to have been worried about. I remember the bathrooms of friends, cousins, and various random people always had a bottle of Head and Shoulders sitting in the shower. It was as common a constituent of a bathroom as striped toothpaste. The TV warned you of the danger and tacky faux pas of appearing in public with such unseemly flakes flecking your clothes (and worst of all, forcing someone to brush the offense from your back). The messages were clear: Dandruff could strike at anytime and you had better take some action to ensure this isn’t something that happens to you. Yes back in the day dandruff was of major cultural concern. And even now the word horrifies me. Dandruff, like bad breath, was shudderingly terrible thing to contemplate having. But now I don’t seem to sense in it the social force that dandruff once carried. Why? (and my apologies to those who are still the victim of this malady and for belittling this important topic). I actually remember spotting the white snow of dandruff dusting people. But it’s been years since I’ve noticed it on anyone. Has my search image just disappeared as dandruff ceases to command the media attention it once had? Have modern conditioners plastered it to our heads so we don’t flake like we used to? Do we just not care anymore?
A Random thought.
Random thought? What did I mean by that? And a little earlier I said, ‘random people.’ What did random in that case mean? Randomness in evolution confuses people more than anything else about it. I hear more outrage over the randomness of evolution that I suspect there must be some vast and dark creationist literature throwing smoke so thick that evolutionary biologists are stuck looking like someone at a party covered with dandruff when they stand there looking confused at the ‘randomness’ line of attack on evolution. “God does not use randomness in his creation!” is a common complaint against evolution. What is this randomness that has everyone so worked up? Is it of the same sort that Einstein complained off when he said, categorically, and wrongly apparently, “God does not play dice with the Universe.” In what ways is evolution random? What does that mean? The next three posts are going to explore this in some detail. We need to sort out where randomness occurs in evolution and how it plays out in evolution through natural selection. Darwinism isn’t just about randomness (although it uses it). (Also, Some one is bound to point out to me how unlikely a strand of DNA is or that mutations are random, yes, yes hold your horse will get to that)
So what did I mean up there, “Random thought?” Did I mean that there was some quantum mental event in the Universe, that like a proton decaying, this thought just appeared full blown de novo into my head? That seems like a pretty strong claim that doesn’t feel quite right. I mean, the random thought does feel conditioned on my past history with dandruff. Also, that this happened while in the shower where once the blue shampoo stood proudly and conspicuously in the corner and was now missing, seems telling. Maybe my old brain just missed the cute little bottle. The thought does seem to call for some sort of appropriate explanatory hand-waving. There would seem to be something that might be said to have caused the thought, although what this is I can’t even begin to imagine and given the state of Neuroscience I doubt anyone really could. But the random thought just appearing out of nowhere like a gamma ray emitted in radioactive decay seems wrong.
Also I could have chosen to think about dandruff. Did I wake in the morning and think ‘Make a note to think about dandruff today in the shower”? No it seems to be a completely unpredictable event (although if you had predicted it and told me about your prediction, it might have caused me to think about it and then it would have been anticipated and not a random thought at all (especially if you count the thought, ‘Don’t think about dandruff’)). But this plays into freewill and I’m not going there, even though I think it’s a major player in the stuff that happens in the universe.
So there seems to be two kinds of randomness that could play a role in evolution. A sort of raw brute randomness that the universe throws around every once in a while like in radioactive decay, and a sort of unpredictability based on our own inability to predict things (follow that?). Largely, because they are just too complicated and involve too many things. In the next blog we’ll focus on the second of these kinds and see if we can sort out a little more clearly how randomness plays out in natural selection. Of course, in the unlikely, (well, very, very, very unlikely but still not infinitely impossible) event that all protons decay everywhere at once, we won’t be able to finish this conversation. But wouldn’t it be nice if all the protons making up dandruff and bad breath decayed at once? It could happen.