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A great introduction on the nature of DNA, and the evolution of species. It was a fascinating insight to find out how digital the genetic system actually is. In essence, we are all survival machines programmed to propagate the digital database which did the programming.

The Digital River

  • Genes are digital, otherwise the signal they produce would fade over distance and time.
  • The machine code of genes look uncannily computerlike.
  • Molecular biology and computer engineering starts looking very much the same.
  • When analog Information is recopied it loses its quality over time
  • 1953 was the year the double helix was discovered

    • Darwinians see it as the year when their subject went digital
  • A device is brittle if it must be perfect in order to function at all

    • An airplane is not brittle.
    • Escalators are also not brittle, even when failing they still work.

Don’t miss the intermediates

  • There is always a gradual scale between being fooled to not being fooled

    • It’s not just one way or the other
    • Distance for instance provides a gradient of visibility
  • The end product of evolution seems so complex and far removed from anything we would ordinarily expect, which makes it hard to imagine the intermediates

Reverse Engineering

Reverse engineering is a technique of reasoning. When you are confronted by an object you don’t understand, you make the working assumption that it was designed for some purpose. You analyze the object by working out what problem it would be good at solving.

Reverse-engineering the behavior of a country’s government, you may conclude that what is being maximized is employment and universal welfare. Homo sapiens is a deeply “purpose ridden”-species.

Utility functions

The true utility function of life, which is being maximized in the natural world, is the survival of DNA. There are also other forms of utility functions like for example, aesthetic beauty. It may not seem to make a straightforward economic sense, but genes making males attractive to females automatically finds themselves passed down the digital river to the future.

Nature’s utility function never values longevity for its own sake, but only for the sake of future reproduction.

Inheritance of the common

Everybody is descended from an unbroken line of ancestors who were all young, but many of whom were not old. So we tend to inherit what it takes to be young, but not necessarily what it takes to be old.

  • Genes don’t care about suffering
  • Nature’s only interest is in the survival of DNA
  • The cell is put together by a consortium of hundreds of genes

Replication bombs

A replication bomb is when a solar system starts spilling over its information to neighboring solar systems. It’s been taking our solar system a few billion years to create an organism complex enough to establish radio communication, and shower other solar systems with pulses of meaning. These “information explosions” probably passes through a series of thresholds.


It is not success that makes good genes. It is good genes that make success, and nothing an individual does during its lifetime has any effect whatever upon its genes.

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Each generation is a filter, a sieve: good genes tend to fall through the sieve into the next generation; bad genes tend to end up in bodies that die young or without reproducing.

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In every one of your cells, half your mother’s genes rub shoulders with half your father’s genes. Your maternal genes and your paternal genes conspire with one another most intimately to make you the subtle and indivisible amalgam you are. But the genes themselves do not blend. Only their effects do.

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To be good at surviving, a gene must be good at working together with the other genes in the same species—the same river. To survive in the long run, a gene must be a good companion.

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There are now perhaps thirty million branches to the river of DNA, for that is an estimate of the number of species on earth.

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What is truly revolutionary about molecular biology in the post-Watson-Crick era is that it has become digital.

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The genetic code is not a binary code as in computers, nor an eight-level code as in some telephone systems, but a quaternary code, with four symbols. The machine code of the genes is uncannily computerlike.

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Our genetic system, which is the universal system of all life on the planet, is digital to the core.

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We—and that means all living things—are survival machines programmed to propagate the digital database that did the programming.

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Only a digital genetic system is capable of sustaining Darwinism over eons of geological time.

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When an embryo begins, a single cell, the fertilized egg, divides into two; each of the two divides into four; each of the four divides to make eight, and so on. It takes only a few dozen generations to work the cell numbers up into the trillions, such is the power of exponential division.

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Individuals vary because of differences in quantitative details in their total embryology.

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Science shares with religion the claim that it answers deep questions about origins, the nature of life, and the cosmos. But there the resemblance ends. Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and they get results. Myths and faiths are not and do not.

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We have proved that if we travel sufficiently far back in time, every individual we encounter must be the ancestor either of all of us or of none of us.

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It doesn’t matter which bucketful you haul out of a well-churned river; it will be representative of the water of that river.

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A single animal or plant is a vast community of communities packed in interacting layers, like a rain forest.

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The river of DNA has been flowing through our ancestors in an unbroken line that spans not less than three thousand million years.

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Male sticklebacks have red bellies, and they will threaten not only other males but also crude dummies with red “bellies.”

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we must beware of using human intuition to conclude that “in order for that reproductive strategy to have worked at all, it had to be perfect the first time.”

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Never say, and never take seriously anybody who says, “I cannot believe that so-and-so could have evolved by gradual selection.” I have dubbed this kind of fallacy “the Argument from Personal Incredulity.”

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An airplane is not brittle, because although we’d all prefer to entrust our lives to a Boeing 747 complete with all its myriad parts in perfect working order, a plane that has lost even major pieces of equipment, like one or two of its engines, can still fly.

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Distance, in one way or another, provides a gradient of visibility.

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For any degree of resemblance between a model and a mimic, there is likely to be an eye that will be fooled and an eye that will not be fooled.

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There is a gradient, a continuum, of tasks for which an eye might be used.

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There is a continuum of tasks to which an eye might be put, such that for any given quality of eye, from magnificent to terrible, there is a level of task at which a marginal improvement in vision would make all the difference.

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(Unlike human designers, natural selection can’t go downhill—not even if there is a tempting higher hill on the other side of the valley.)

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Evolution is very possibly not, in actual fact, always gradual. But it must be gradual when it is being used to explain the coming into existence of complicated, apparently designed objects, like eyes. For if it is not gradual in these cases, it ceases to have any explanatory power at all. Without gradualness in these cases, we are back to miracle, which is simply a synonym for the total absence of explanation.

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Cheetahs give every indication of being superbly designed for something, and it should be easy enough to reverse-engineer them and work out their utility function. They appear to be well designed to kill antelopes. The teeth, claws, eyes, nose, leg muscles, backbone and brain of a cheetah are all precisely what we should expect if God’s purpose in designing cheetahs was to maximize deaths among antelopes.

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Genes that cause individuals to maximize their descendants are the genes we expect to see in the world. The animals we are looking at inherit the genes of successful ancestors.

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The optimum sex to choose for a child is male if males are in a minority, female if females are in a minority. If neither sex is in a minority, there is no optimum: the well-designed parent is strictly indifferent about whether a son or a daughter will be born.

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A beehive is, in many ways, like a single individual. It grows to maturity, it reproduces, and eventually it dies. The reproductive product of a beehive is a swarm.

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Beauty is not an absolute virtue in itself. But inevitably, if some genes do confer on males whatever qualities the females of the species happen to find desirable, those genes, willy-nilly, will survive.

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The players in chemistry are atoms and molecules.

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Books I’ve read.

Johannes Holmberg

Tiny summaries on books I’ve read. Sorted by latest read. But you can also sort on top recommendations. Highlights and covers are copyright to their respective authors.