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The Amazing Meeting 2011: Richard Dawkins vs. Chuck Norris

On Saturday, I was trapped for an hour in a room with British evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins and 1,600 skeptics. By Chuck Norris. Yes, the Chuck Norris. I am not making this up.

The scene: we’ve seen signs around for martial arts training, or perhaps Fight Club, taking place in our hotel the same days as The Amazing Meeting. Turns out that it’s the annual tournament of the United Fighting Arts Federation, and on Saturday, several hundred contestants were dressed to the nines and standing in a Disney-style line that filled the entire hallway outside of Richard Dawkins’s keynote address. What they were waiting for: to shake the hand of Chuck Norris, one by one, as they entered their banquet across the hall.

When you’re releasing 1,600 people into the same hall, all heading to the single escalator to dinner, what you do not want is several hundred more martial artists waiting in line, and causing a potentially dangerous traffic problem. So you solve the problem by giving Richard Dawkins a very long Q&A session, and hopefully glue everyone to their seats.

Chuck Norris Fact: Chuck Norris can shake hands so quickly that his fingers create tiny sonic booms. But it still takes him over an hour to work through a reception line.

Dawkins’s speech was taken from his next book, due to be published later this year, called “The Magic of Reality.” It’s a “graphic science book,” written for children and young adults, and poses a large number of “big questions,” which it answers first with a summary of the world’s myths and religious beliefs about the question, followed by the scientific answer. Sample questions:

  • Who was the first person?
  • Why are there so many different kinds of animals?
  • What are things made of?
  • What is the sun?
  • When and how did everything begin?

With this format, Dawkins proposes that the scientific stories behind these questions are more awe-inspiring and esthetically beautiful than their historical non-scientific counterparts. This has been similarly stated before by Carl Sagan in his book, “The Demon-Haunted World,” but Dawkins is the first, to my knowledge, to attempt to demonstrate the argument in book form with numerous examples.

Dawkins took a single such question for his talk: “Are we alone in the universe?” It’s a unique question in his book, as there are no prescientific beliefs about extraterrestrial life, although medieval legends of demons and succubi show remarkable similarity to “aliens among us” stories told today. In Dawkins’s view, it is vanishingly unlikely that extraterrestrials have been here physically, but searching for communications through projects like SETI is a good idea.

The primary argument in favor of E.T.’s existence: there are 1022 stars in the universe (for those who haven’t done scientific notation in a while, that’s a 1 followed by 22 zeros, or 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 — in other words, a truly vast number of stars). If life arises once per star, that’s 1022 examples of biogeny. But even if it occurs only once per galaxy, then life on Earth is one of 1014 such examples. If, on the other hand, you choose to believe that life on Earth is alone in the universe, then you must also believe that life is so “stupefyingly rare” that our being here is far more unlikely than most events that we would colloquially refer to as “impossible.” (For a more
nuanced argument, check out the Wikipedia entry on the Drake equation.)

If we’re going to interact meaningfully with these life forms, then they must have some kind of intelligence. This, too, could be unique to Earth life, but that would then raise the same paradoxical issues as the previous question.

From the diversity of life found on Earth, we can make educated guesses about what alternate forms of intelligent life might be, by asking which universal statements about Earth life are applicable to life elsewhere:

  • Does life have to be Darwinian? Dawkins sees no alternative to evolution as a way of developing intelligent life. Complexity such as ours cannot spontaneously arise out of nothing; it has to develop in a non-random and competitive fashion over a vast period of time. Alternative explanations involving supernatural direction, such as intelligent design, explain nothing scientifically, so in Dawkins’s words, they are not a serious candidate. Anything is theoretically possible with the will of a divine power, so therefore nothing can be predicted from such a hypothesis.

  • Does life have to have a genetic code? Evolution in turn requires a high-fidelity replicator similar to our DNA, but not a perfect replicator or it will exclude the possibility of mutation, which would seem necessary for adapting to changing environments. This replicator is most likely digital, like ours is (through the nucleotide bases adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine that are the building blocks of DNA), because while analog methods are possible, they are unlikely to replicate with as much fidelity as a digital code.

  • Does life have to be based on carbon? Carbon has several unique properties, as do the proteins made of carbon that form the basis for Earth life. Life here stems from the double act of interactions between proteins and DNA; this was necessary for our complexity, but the existence of alternative means of life such as RNA retroviruses leaves the door open for other kinds of evolution.

  • Do they need to have sex? Obviously not; that’s not universal here, either.

  • Do they need to be multicellular? Perhaps not; it may be possible for intelligence to arise in large unicellular life forms.

Another way of approaching the question is with a thought experiment: If we were to re-run the evolution of life on Earth, how similar would the outcome be to what actually did occur? In other words, how predictable is life on Earth given our starting conditions? The more predictable we are, the more you can say about life elsewhere; however, if each grand experiment on Earth has a completely different outcome, we must also assume that we cannot say much about our neighbors.

One way to approach this question is through “experiments” run for us, by evolution on land masses separated by continental drift. Marsupials and mammals are completely separate branches of evolution, but there are dog-like marsupials that require dissection to prove they are not dogs; if you’re going to be a running predator, a dog’s structure is a rather efficient way of going about things. Marsupials and mammals have each produced nearly identical flying squirrels; likewise, there are three different branches of evolution that created a sabertooth tiger.

Life seems to be “eager” for some kinds of adaptations, as some structures arise repeatedly. Eyes developed independently more than forty times, often enough to draw a conclusion that where there’s light, life will learn to see it. Echolocation, a useful adaptation for dark places, has arisen only four times. Winged flight developed four times; jet flight twice (both in mollusks). A biological wheel has only occurred once, in bacteria, perhaps due to the difficulty of running nerves or control mechanisms through an axle structure.

Finally: are there “gods” out there? Dawkins believes that it is likely that there are hyper-advanced species and cultures whom would certainly appear to be godlike compared to us, much as we might appear to our ancestors. However, these must also be evolved creatures. Our solar system has only been around for 4.7 billion years, in a universe that is 9 billion years older, so there are many ways other civilizations could have a substantial evolutionary and cultural development head start over us. But just as intelligent complexity must evolve from simpler structures, this is also true of whomever else is out there, no matter where their evolution has presently led.

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