Before my question, I'd like to express some gratitude for the influence of your work on my life. My first experience of your ideas was through your book Infinite In All Directions which I purchased when it was newly published (circa 1990). On the front cover my edition there is a blurb from the Washington Post Book World which reads:
The bedazzled reader emerges feeling like he's been in a metaphysical Maytag on spin cycle—his perception on man, God and the cosmos permanently altered.
That's not how I experienced it. I experienced it as having taken a delightfully straight-forward day trip on a paved highway away from my mundane reality in the metropolis of small minds where discourse obeys speed limits seemingly devised to protect muddled adults from clear-minded children. I wanted to crawl into the Maytag and live there.
The blurb finishes:
Dyson's language, reminiscent of Orwell's, is eloquently plain, wrought with the unaffected grace of a man certain he has something to say. [An] exuberantly stimulating book."
This came across most strongly for me in the chapter Quick is Beautiful and your discussion of space butterflies. I was still too callow to appreciate how much an educated person must unlearn to return to plain language. I became angry that so many other books are written less well. From your example, it didn't seem so hard. Looking back, that ease seems to derive from a mental rigour in attending your point of departure and keeping it clearly in view: it's not so much a clarity of language (though this is present), as a clarity of frame.
That exact moment, finishing your book on that porch on that June afternoon I still recall so clearly, and then flipping it closed to contemplate that exact blurb, remains with me as the first conscious seed of my own "geek manifesto", reminding me always that there is the hard word of having an idea, and the harder work of not having an idea (but pretending you do). Thank you so much.
Continuing in that vein for a moment longer, I was also deeply struck by a passage early in the book about the Shotgun Seminars and the anecdote about Jan Oort.
At our Institute in Princeton we sometimes organize meetings which are announced as Shotgun Seminars. A Shotgun Seminar is a talk given by an Institute member to a volunteer audience. The subject of the talk is announced a week in advance, but the name of the speaker is not. Before the talk begins, the names of all people in the room are written on scraps of paper ... ceremoniously ... picked out at random. The unbreakable rule of the seminar is that nobody whose name is not in the box may listen to the talk. This ensures that everybody does the necessary homework. The audience is at least as well prepared as the speaker. The audience is ready to argue and contradict whenever the speaker flounders. Anybody who has not given serious thought to the subject of the seminar has better not come.
I loved that passage. Upon reading that passage I had the first clearly articulated moment of regret of my adult life. Why didn't someone tell me this when I was fourteen and still in school so that I could have at least enjoyed a clear notion of what the entire system was shirking? This has remained my private useful definition for the phrase "doing your homework" ever since; that other loathsome scholastic busywork formerly known as such shall remain nameless, having been donated to a better cause.
The associated anecdote from your book is that Jan Oort at the age of eighty-two drops in unexpectedly and pronounces himself fit to participate "on the stability of stars revolving around the center of galaxy" on no advance preparation whatsoever, saying "no problem, I stay" and though he doesn't become the speaker, he does give the most lucid recap. This was inspiring to me at the time, and it still is.
Here begins my question
I've been pondering for the last while the notion that perhaps one of the biggest mistakes of science is that while we have special and general theories of relativity, we haven't clearly distinguished special and general theories of evolution.
In my pondering I tend to ascribe the special theory to the natural selection part. The general theory (which in my opinion we do not yet have) then concerns how systems defined by random variation and natural selection accrue complexity (the mysterious man behind the curtain of the "ascent of man" iconography Steven J. Gould so deeply despised). Can the fossil record even speak to the question of "Why not something else?"
This strikes me as unfortunate because the special theory is entirely pedestrian (once you have it) and the entire theological fracas lies on the general side of the ledger, high and dry above the rising GenBank tide which brooks no sane opposition. The special theory of evolution becomes essentially a descriptive (and not terribly contentious) claim about the combined fossil and genetic records: wherever the mesh is revealed, all the gaps will be mutation small (for non-theological values of "random"), the dispersions geographically plausible, and the phenotypes viable in their environments. Whether to view this colossal descriptive back-story of life on earth as natural history or Slartibartfast's imprimatur is another matter. A descriptive theory need not concern itself with what actually "happened", but merely with whether observational constraints are satisfied, which greatly constricts the scope of debate (so, too, with electrons). There's also a forward prediction in the special theory, which will pack a wallop four generations from now when a young child first receives his "mutation tree" dating back to his great great grandparents and then confronts their views on this matter encapsulated in their Facebook memorials (as excerpted in their own words, plus the algorithmic digest truer than true).
You write yourself in your small book The Origins of Life that:
How did it happen that, as life evolved, death continued to be commonplace while resurrection became rare? What happened was that the catalytic processes in the cell became increasingly fine-tuned and increasingly intolerant of error.
This is posited within the frame of a "toy model" about which you say:
The general theory of molecular systems obtained in this way allows us to define what we mean by the origin of metabolism but does not allow us to predict under what conditions the metabolism will occur. The second stage consists of the reduction of the general theory to a toy model by the assumption of a simple and arbitrary rule for the probability of molecular interactions.
In light of your profound mathematical metaphor of symmetry breaking (death cleaves from resurrection by enzymatic first principles), would you not concur that we've somehow unnecessarily entangled the public debate by lumping "how it goes" (natural selection) with "where it goes" (arriving by some mysterious means at the complexity of life as we know it)—all this flying under a single banner? Speciation would be a far less interesting phenomena if it consumed so much evolutionary "heat" that the entire system went cold. Yet, somehow, it doesn't seem to. There's a pump somewhere, or some diagram of combinatorial fecundity with an under-cusp labeled "cold chicken soup".
Optional: Is it even fair to claim that we have a theory for the magic evolutionary metabolism of complexification, beyond these suggestive hints from toy models such as your own? If our complexity surfeit (under some view I couldn't begin to articulate) equals or exceeds one non-blind watchmaker, we're right back to theology again.