Last night I watched a program (SBS Tues 5th April 2011, 830pm) which would left have creationists fuming, or at least a little confused.
It was all about the way in which ordered structures can appear in unexpectedly. In fact the narrator must have used the word ‘unexpected’ a million times.
The reason the outcomes are unexpected is due to chaos theory, which applies in many dynamic natural systems which are supersensitive to initial conditions – the weather is just one example. The result is that for different initial conditions, you can get widely varying outcomes, and in unpredictable ways. This has been referred to as the ‘butterfly effect’, originally coined by Edward Lorenz, to refer to how a small effect as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings could, in a sensitive system, result in an unexpected outcome.
This phenomenon also explains how seemingly unintelligent components can organise themselves into regular and useful patterns and structures. A key example of this is morphogenesis, the process by which our cells differentiate to take on different roles, and build different body parts. This is also at work in familiar items from the natural world, such as leaves, coastlines, river beds, spots on cows and so on.
This is not new; it’s just seems not to have gone under the radar as a piece of science.
Since the development of this branch of mathematics, we’ve been able to demonstrate how to generate complex forms from quite simple mathematics. The most famous example is the Mandelbrot set. Computers are used to generate all sorts of forms using different initial conditions. Here’s a nice one: a 3d journey though a fractal – which is a figure which consists of multiple versions of itself at varying scales. Remember, this is generated from quite a simple equation. Sit back and enjoy the journey, and don’t forget to turn the volume up.
The reason for my gentle dig at creationists is that they have historically relied on these ordered forms as proof of the existence of god, and so if any other explanation is found, it is a blow to their belief system. What fractals and the mathematics of complexity tell me is that it is possible to create very complex things (like brains) from simple building blocks and simple rules, and hence there is no need to postulate a creator.
Cosmologist Paul Davies speculates that our consciousness (or mind) is a direct result of similar processes – that at some point self-awareness just happens (he calls this an ’emergent property’), analogous to the way the fractal ‘world’ in the video above is created. I don’t think this idea is far-fetched, and in fact is a simple extension of what we already know.
You might say that chaos theory and fractal geometry are a reality-based creation science.
And now I have an excuse to use this cartoon…