Thursday, May 27, 2010


The Ultimate Pareidolia

From The Athens (Georgia) Banner-Herald comes this about Charles Gordon, a Texas neurosurgeon who had a "crisis of faith" because of the death of a friend at a young age from cancer:

God is manifest in all creation, so says Romans 1:20 in the Bible. Gordon found God in the similarities and beauty that is all around the world.

"The harder I looked, the more it occurred to me that these striking similarities I was seeing had to be more than just coincidence," Gordon said. "They suggested there was a super-intelligence behind it all."

Similarities like the blood vessels in the eye's retina looks just like lightning striking in the night sky. Or the spiral, which is found in something as grand as a galaxy, as small as a grain of sand or sea shell, or inside our bodies like the cochlea.

"It's a very elegant, beautiful pattern, and no one can explain why," he said. "Our spirits are immediately attracted to things of beauty, things that have nothing to do with procreation or extending our lives.

"It's a universal response, and I think it's because God created it and said it was good, and we have in our spirits that attraction to beauty."

So he wrote a book, In Plain Sight, to supposedly show that God's signature is all over creation. Some other examples he's drawn from his blog:

"A girl in Nashville sent in similar pictures of a mushroom and a jellyfish, and how they look similar," Gordon said. "A fifth-grader pointed out brain coral and how it looks just like a human brain. ... We've found some really cool stuff."

Far be it from me to denigrate anyone's attempt to understand and cope with the brutal fact of people dying of cancer at age 31 leaving behind a young family, but really! ... is it so amazing that a species such as H. sapiens, whose survival is so tied to pattern-recognition, would see similarities everywhere? And the evolution of an aesthetic sense, while not as obvious, is hardly beyond all understanding. To see "beauty" in symmetry when, for example, that tends to indicates health in a potential mate, or in vibrant colors when that tends to indicates ripeness in the fruit we might want to eat, seems hardly surprising.

And what, exactly, would a God be trying to tell us by causing polyps to group together in colonies that, very superficially, resemble vertebrate (not just human) brains?

And why would a neurosurgeon fail to see how superficial the resemblance is?

Yes, we are much better served by looking for neuroanatomy in Michelangelo's secret messages encoded in the images of the Sistine Chapel:
Cue: All Things Dull and Ugly
There's a better demolition of Mr Gordon's simple-minded thinking: we actually have a very good idea why most of the things you mention bear a resemblance and it's the physics.

Those galaxies that spiral (and not all do) do so because of the way gravity, rotation and uneven distribution of matter work together. Cochleasand 'sea shells' are similar because the math underlying the physics of sound and of packing in growth have similarities that make spirals optimum patterns given constraints they are under. Brain coral and our brains are subject to the same utility in maximizing their outer surface area (coral because that's where the food is, brain because underneath is where the wiring goes), and those convolutions are a good way to do the job when you can't fully use 3 dimensions. Retinal capillaries and lighting bolts both have wandering paths because their paths are determined through exploratory 'behaviour' with each seeking its goal (lightning a path for electrical discharge, capillaries regions of cells with low oxygen) by whatever is the easiest route at that instant without the planning that would result in an overall shortest path That's why they meander.

It's not really about seeing patterns or similarities where they don't exist, but rather of seeing similarities that do exist but attributing them to God putting a thumb in when it's actually due to the natural workings of physics on different scales and types of organisms and organs.

Mr Gordon's thinking is about at the level of that fifth-grader he refers to. It's about as profound as proclaiming wonder that both feathers and bowling balls fall when you drop them without wondering if instead of intelligent falling what you've got going on is gravity.

The exploratory behaviour of blood vessels is something I picked up thanks to Kirschner & Gerhart' excellent and thought-inducing 'The Plausibility of Life' which gets into a lot of the mechanics behind how we get from DNA to actual bodies. They tie the physical mechanisms of development, like how blood vessels 'know' where to go, in with the mechanisms the body uses to maintain and repair itself so that you can see that the elaboration of our genetic code seems less unlikely and how it is that genetic variation can be accomodated in actual bodies. Because much of the development is done by exploratory behaviour, if the genes say to grow more bones somewher (like an extra finger), the nerves, muscles and blood vessels are likely to just follow along, supply a biochemically signalled need induced by the bone growth. I'm sure I'm doing it no justice, but it's the most profound of the evo-devo books I've read, all IMHO.
Sure, there may be underlying natural laws that result in similarities but that's not what he was arguing. He began and ended with "they look alike therefore they're designed." It would actually be a (slightly) better argument to say that such similarities are due to "common design." But then he'd have to answer why all coral aren't brain coral.
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