Michael Crichton and the Irreducible Complexity of the Natural World

 

When he died in 2008, Michael Crichton, the medical doctor-turned novelist, was at work on a new novel, Micro.  Crichton’s publisher hired Richard Preston–best known, perhaps, for his novel The Hot Zone–to complete the manuscript.  Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I started the book, just completing it a day ago.

Preston did such a skillful job that it’s impossible to say where Crichton left off and Preston picked up.  I grant that no one would ever confuse Micro with a work of literature.  In many ways, for that matter, it’s a repeat of Jurassic Park. Whereas in Jurassic Park a cool new technology makes it possible to re-create dinosaurs from ancient DNA, in Micro the cool new technology makes it possible to shrink human beings to height of a couple of centimeters. Instead of ordinary humans fleeing dinosaurs, Micro gives us teensy-weensy humans fleeing wasps, beetles and spiders.  But the natural science is so beautifully deployed–did you ever wonder what it would be like to have a wasp plant her eggs inside your body?–that I just loved it.

micro.jpgYet perhaps the finest passage in Micro comes at the very beginning, before the action proper even starts, in an introduction by Crichton, “What Kind of World Do We Live In?”, that Preston wisely reprints in its original, incomplete form.  An excerpt:

In 2008, the famous naturalist David Attenborough expressed concern that modern schoolchildren could not identify common plants and insects found in nature, although previous generations identified them without hesitation.  Modern children, it seemed, were cut off from the experience of nature, and from play in the natural world….It was ironic that this should be happening at a time when there was in the West an ever greater concern for the environment, and ever more ambitious steps proposed to protect it.

Indoctrinating children in proper environmental thought was a hallmark of the green movement, and so children were being instructed to protect something about which they knew nothing at all….

If you have a chance to play in nature, if you are sprayed by a beetle, if the color of a butterfly wing comes off on your fingers, if you watch a caterpillar spin its cocoon–you come away with a sense of mystery and uncertainty.  The more you watch, the more mysterious the natural world becomes, and the more you realize how little you know….

Perhaps the single most important lesson to be learned by direct experience is that the natural world, with all its elements and interconnections, represents a complex system and therefore we cannot understand it and we cannot predict its behavior. It is delusional to behave as if we can, as it would be delusional to behave as if we could predict the stock market, another complex system….

Human beings interact with complex systems very successfully.  We do it all the time.  But we do it by managing them, not by claiming to understand them.  Managers interact with the system:  they do something, watch for the response, and then do something else in an effort to get the result they want.  There is an endless iterative interaction that acknowledges we don’t know for sure what the system will do–we have to wait and see.  We may have a hunch we know what will happen.  We may be right much of the time.  But we are never certain.

Interacting with the natural world, we are denied certainty.  And always will be.

As representatives from 130 nations meet for climate talks in Durban, attempting, yet again, to impose vast costs and slow growth on the West–as environmentalists once again seek to impose their dubious views on the rest of us–Crichton’s are wise words to ponder.

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  1. Profile Photo Contributor
    @Midge
    Brian Watt

    This conclusion that miracles don’t harm or cause a major rift in time and space only works if you believe in miracles in the first place. The sun stopping in the sky would have had catastrophic consequences for the Earth. So, you can choose to believe that it stopped and caused no harm or that it was merely a fanciful tale devoid of any real physical truth.

    I’m indifferent to the factual value of many miracles in the Bible, or skeptical, if you want to put it that way. To my mind, the Christian story doesn’t need all of the miracles described in the Bible to be literally true in order to work. The Christian story requires that God literally came to earth as man, lived as a teacher and healer, was crucified, and triumphed over death, because that is what the story is about — if that part weren’t literally true, the story would fall apart.

    But as for the rest… We read the Psalms metaphorically, and I don’t see how a literal reading of many sections of the Bible is required for Christian faith.

    • #31
  2. Profile Photo Inactive
    @BrianWatt
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake

    Brian Watt

    Or just sparing in the sense that we haven’t see such violations of the usual laws of nature since Christ’s resurrection?

    I suspect it’s easy enough to rationalize a miracle away. Many of us have had experiences that seem contrary to nature that we’re happy to explain away. I know I have.

    Plus, the point of miracles isn’t to demonstrate God’s power and majesty. Creation in its natural state already does that. The point is communicating something more, like love. Which the Jesus story has already done. · Dec 4 at 6:02pm

    Help me out here…how was it again that God killed the Egyptian first-borns for the sins of their fathers? My recollection is that that infanticide may have been a miraculous occurrence. I have a feeling that this story is more to demonstrate God’s majesty and wrath rather than his love. But I quibble.

    • #32
  3. Profile Photo Inactive
    @BrianWatt
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake

    Brian Watt

    This conclusion that miracles don’t harm or cause a major rift in time and space only works if you believe in miracles in the first place. The sun stopping in the sky would have had catastrophic consequences for the Earth. So, you can choose to believe that it stopped and caused no harm or that it was merely a fanciful tale devoid of any real physical truth.

    I’m indifferent to the factual value of many miracles in the Bible, or skeptical, if you want to put it that way. To my mind, the Christian story doesn’t need all of the miracles described in the Bible to be literally true in order to work.

    You and Thomas Jefferson may have much in common.

    The Christian story requires that God literally came to earth as man, lived as a teacher and healer, was crucified, and triumphed over death, because that is what the story is about — if that part weren’t literally true, the story would fall apart.

    Indeed it would.

    • #33
  4. Profile Photo Contributor
    @Midge
    Brian Watt

    You could have taken the easy way out and simply said that all of creation exists to serve a spiritual purpose; that way you’ve got all your bases covered and you wouldn’t have to deal with that nagging thought about the extent to which miracles exist. :-)

    Well, I do believe all creation exists for a spiritual purpose. It’s one of those things that I apparently can’t help believing, so why fight it? I see natural phenomena, as well as miracles, pointing beyond themselves to God. In fact, by sheer number of instances, I’d say I’ve witnessed nature pointing to God more often than miracles pointing to God.

    • #34
  5. Profile Photo Inactive
    @BrianWatt

    Okay…I’m done with the non-scientific commentary.

    Loved Crichton’s State of Fear and spotted Micro at the store today and almost picked it up. Will make a return visit and do so because Peter has given it a glowing recommendation. I must say I was a tad reticent when I saw another author’s name on the cover.

    • #35
  6. Profile Photo Inactive
    @KCMulville

    Life presents situations that require action, but for which there is insufficient knowledge to recommend one course over another. Which is a fancy way of saying that sometimes we can’t do anything more than guess. We try to improve our chances by studying probabilities, and by referring to past experience through induction … but let’s face it, they’re still guesses.

    Peter’s original post reminds us of the dangers in treating guesses as certainties … and imposing those guesses as expensive laws on the rest of us.

    But it’s one thing to guess about the natural world, where even if the factors involved may be so numerous as to be beyond reckoning, they all still obey immutable physical laws. It’s another thing to claim certainty about human behavior, where the laws of behavior aren’t immutable … and humans often act deliberately against expectation.

    If it’s hubris to claim certainty about global warming, when the factors all obey immutable physical laws and yet we still don’t know, then even more it’s hubris to claim political certainty through socialism or “expert” government bureaucracy.

    • #36
  7. Profile Photo Inactive
    @BrianWatt

    I must say my favorite part in Crichton’s State of Fear was when the presumptuous actor who played the President of the United States on TV was devoured by cannibals. I wonder if Martin Sheen chortled at that one when or if he read it.

    • #37
  8. Profile Photo Member
    @WesternChauvinist

    You know how, when some public figures pass, you have a moment of sadness for them and their families and then you get on with your day? And when certain other public figures die, you feel an empty spot in your life forever, even if its just a small one? I have the latter response to Chrichton’s death.

    State of Fear was a typically good read, but it was the appendices which made a lasting impression. Here was a man who understood the philosophy of science, and how science has become corrupted by agenda driven politics and money. His lectures on the subject, broadcast on BookTV as I recall, were inspired and inspiring. Whenever the subject of AGW comes up, I miss Michael Crichton’s voice of reason.

    • #38
  9. Profile Photo Member
    @

    “Liberty”, I rather believe that Chrichton fully intended that. It is a common theme of his books. One of the things I always enjoy in Chrichton’s novels is that he always puts in a character who serves as the author’s mouthpiece for stating the big ideas and philosophical points. That what makes his stories so enjoyable for me. Great review, Peter.

    • #39
  10. Profile Photo Inactive
    @BrianWatt
    Western Chauvinist: You know how, when some public figures pass, you have a moment of sadness for them and their families and then you get on with your day? And when certain other public figures die, you feel an empty spot in your life forever, even if its just a small one? I have the latter response to Chrichton’s death.

    State of Fear was a typically good read, but it was the appendices which made a lasting impression. Here was a man who understood the philosophy of science, and how science has become corrupted by agenda driven politics and money. His lectures on the subject, broadcast on BookTV as I recall, were inspired and inspiring. Whenever the subject of AGW comes up, I miss Michael Crichton’s voice of reason. · Dec 5 at 7:26am

    Well said!

    • #40
  11. Profile Photo Inactive
    @dicentra

    But we do it by managing them, not by claiming to understand them.

    Just as we manage Yellowstone, right? How well have we done with that?

    Also see Biosphere II (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biosphere_II) for a lesson in what happens when you attempt to build your own complex system from scratch. A better demonstration of the folly of command-and-control economies does not exist.

    • #41
  12. Profile Photo Inactive
    @BrianWatt
    dicentra: But we do it by managing them, not by claiming to understand them.

    Just as we manage Yellowstone, right? How well have we done with that?

    Also see Biosphere II (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biosphere_II) for a lesson in what happens when you attempt to build your own complex system from scratch. A better demonstration of the folly of command-and-control economies does not exist. · Dec 5 at 12:59pm

    Also the point of Crichton’s other works…Westworld, Jurassic Park.

    • #42
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