Sunday, January 31, 2010

Guest Post: ‘Avatar’ and the Evolutionary Discussions in France

This is the second guest post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his first post here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah.

by Nidhal Guessoum:

The Double-Anniversary Year of Darwin is certainly not over, not in France at least! As in the (most of) the rest of the world, throughout 2009 France had its share of magazine cover stories, newspaper articles, and “dossiers” (special sections) in various publications. But what seems to have characterized the discussions around Evolution in France is not the clash with creationism that manifested itself in other parts of the world (the US, the Muslim world, and to a lesser extent the UK), but rather a new, more technical and nuanced debate about Darwinism (the current standard theory of evolution) vs. non-Darwinian Evolution (other theories, sometimes small variations and other times radically different ones).

First, Jean Staune, the multi-faceted thinker (philosopher of science with a degree in paleontology, among several others), published “Beyond Darwin – for a new vision of life” in October, wherein he argued that new evidence, and new work published in Nature and Science, from the past few years seem to have given an impetus to the theories of biological organisms advocating either adding new factors to Evolution besides natural selection or viewing things in a fresh new way, particularly the fact that there may be (so-far hidden) laws of nature which push for the emergence of particular biological features or organisms. People interested in the whole subject of Evolution should remember the new buzz word “structuralism”, which succinctly represents the idea that forms are more important than “functions” in determining which organisms will emerge and have a chance to prosper and which will be disfavored (in an inherent manner).

A one-day conference was organized on this theme at (but not by) the UNESCO (the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in Paris in late November 2009. In it took part some important Non-Darwinian Evolutionists, including Michael Denton, the British-Australian geneticist at New Zealand's University of Otago, who is quite famous with his book “Evolution: A Theory in Crisis” (and others) but is somewhat controversial (wrongly, in my view).

Last but not least, ‘Avatar’ came out and gave a new impetus to these discussions. Why? Because the Na’vis (the aliens) looked “structurally” very similar to humans, though they had other features that were quite different (their abilities to “connect” and interact with other life forms through their threads), and their biology was perhaps different too (Sigourney Weaver’s character said “there’s something biologically very interesting down there…”). Now the fact that aliens are portrayed as very similar to humans is nothing new in Science Fiction. But in the case of ‘Avatar’ there was a twist: most other animals had six limbs instead of four, which seemed to make the Na’vis fundamentally different.

And that prompted discussions on whether James Cameron was doing a disservice to Evolution by not espousing a very randomly evolutionary view of nature. That debate appeared in blogs around the world, in English as well as in French, and probably in other languages, though not Arabic (not surprisingly). And then it was taken up by Le Monde (the intellectuals’ newspaper), which published an opinion piece on January 17-18, 2010 by Thomas Hearns titled “James Cameron: a bit more effort to be Darwinian”, which was rebutted by Jean Staune a few days later with a piece titled “The visionary non-darwinism of James Cameron”. The two articles remained among the top-10 most-viewed and most emailed articles from the Le Monde website for several days…


Snuze said...

Watching the Avatar creatures, I laughed at the sheer improbability. Yeah, yeah, alien world comes with freaky physics. Really? *snort*

The animators are to be applauded for making the anatomically improbable happen. There is a reason why a horse has only 4 legs and not 6 and that has everything to do with form meeting function.

But then, adhering to basic anatomical and physiological rules won't make for a wondrous world, would it?

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Thanks for the comment.

Yes, that's at the same time the whole debate and the object of an important line of new research. People are debating or at least correcting the view that "evolution is totally random", which of course is only half the theory, the other half being the environmental conditions which select the advantageous traits and which are then subject to the pre-existing laws of nature.

It is also important to point out the recent line of research attempting to explore the physical mechanisms underlying evolution or at least morphogenesis (Fleury in France, Gordon in Canada, Newman in Arizon, etc.) which might explain, among other things, why most animals (and the Na'vis) ended up with four limbs...