Monday, February 21, 2005

In Defense of Darwinism: The Ignorable Berlinski - part 1

David Berlinski, author of A Tour of the Calculus and The Body Shop, has taught Mathematics and Philosophy at the university level. His article "The Deniable Darwin", published by Commentary magazine in June of 1996, is trumpeted widely by the anti-Darwinist community as a compendium of the theory's philosophical and scientific shortcomings. As a case study in the dialectical mode of argument employed by proponents of Creationism and Intelligent Design, it is a worthy subject for examination by the Daily Duck's Darwinian brain trust. It's sheer length, and density of fallacious argumentation, begs for a multi part treatment. In part 1, I will tackle some of the "low hanging fruit".

CHARLES DARWIN presented On the Origin of Species to a disbelieving world in 1859 - three years after Clerk Maxwell had published "On Faraday's Lines of Force," the first of his papers on the electromagnetic field. Maxwell's theory has by a process of absorption become part of quantum field theory, and so a part of the great canonical structure created by mathematical physics.

By contrast, the final triumph of Darwinian theory, although vividly imagined by biologists, remains, along with world peace and Esperanto, on the eschatological horizon of contemporary thought. "It is just a matter of time," one biologist wrote recently, reposing his faith in a receding hereafter, "before this fruitful concept comes to be accepted by the public as wholeheartedly as it has accepted the spherical earth and the sun-centered solar system." Time, however, is what evolutionary biologists have long had, and if general acceptance has not come by now, it is hard to know when it ever will.

IN ITS most familiar, textbook form, Darwin's theory subordinates itself to a haunting and fantastic image, one in which life on earth is represented as a tree. So graphic has this image become that some biologists have persuaded themselves they can see the flowering tree standing on a dusty plain, the mammalian twig obliterating itself by anastomosis into a reptilian branch and so backward to the amphibia and then the fish, the sturdy chordate line - our line, cosa nostra - moving by slithering stages into the still more primitive trunk of life and so downward to the single irresistible cell that from within its folded chromosomes foretold the living future.

This is nonsense, of course. That densely reticulated tree, with its lavish foliage, is an intellectual construct, one expressing the hypothesis of descent with modification. Evolution is a process, one stretching over four billion years. It has not been observed. The past has gone to where the past inevitably goes. The future has not arrived. The present reveals only the detritus of time and chance: the fossil record, and the comparative anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry of different organisms and creatures. Like every other scientific theory, the theory of evolution lies at the end of an inferential trail.


Berlinski first uses the argument from public acceptance against the ToE. "They've had 145 year, for Cripes sakes", he cries, "how much more time do they need?". The opponents of ToE smell blood in the water. Here is a dottering old theory, long in the tooth, ready for a takedown. It is interesting that Berlinski positions his first argument against the theory's public acceptance. Is he making public acceptance the ultimate arbiter of the theory's validity? If science and philosophy are endeavours in pursuit of truth, then an appeal to popularity should be of no consequence. But it appears that Berlinski's goal is not so much to establish the theory's truthfulness or lack thereof as it is to remove the theory from popular consideration. He would rather be a manager of public opinion than a seeker of truth.

Berlinski also exaggerates the unpopularity of the ToE. A recent poll conducted by Gallup shows that 35% believe that the ToE is well supported by the evidence, 35% believe it is not, and 29% don't know enough to say either way. You can look at it as a glass half empty or a glass half full, but with a solid 1/3rd of the population in support, and close to another third undecided, the ToE is definitely "in play" in the United States.

And that only speaks to America, where traditional religous opinion is decidedly hostile to Darwinism. In secular Europe, and in non-Christian, non-Muslim Asia, Darwinism has no doubt a much higher popular acceptance ratio.

SWIMMING IN the soundless sea, the shark has survived for millions of years, sleek as a knife blade and twice as dull. The shark is an organism wonderfully adapted to its environment. Pause. And then the bright brittle voice of logical folly intrudes: after all, it has survived for millions of years.

This exchange should be deeply embarrassing to evolutionary biologists. And yet, time and again, biologists do explain the survival of an organism by reference to its fitness and the fitness of an organism by reference to its survival, the friction between concepts kindling nothing more illuminating than the observation that some creatures have been around for a very long time. "Those individuals that have the most offspring," writes Ernst Mayr, the distinguished zoologist, "are by definition . . . the fittest ones."

And in Evolution and the Myth of Creationism, Tim Berra states that "[f]itness in the Darwinian sense means reproductive fitness-leaving at least enough offspring to spread or sustain the species in nature." This is not a parody of evolutionary thinking; it is evolutionary thinking. Que sera, sera.



Berlinski makes this curcular reference between fitness and surival sound foolish, and by extension implies that the ToE has nothing important to say. But he's throwing a curveball.

Fitness, as used in the above sentence, is a proxy for survivability, but it is not the same as using two words to say the same thing. Survivability, by nature of the fossil record, is an aspect of an organism that we can measure. Fitness is that quality that is assigned to long-surviving organisms that accounts for its survivability. Fitness is a concept that is positively correlated with survivability according to the theory.

By attempting to parody this use of terms, Berlinski is being a little dishonest. The proponents of ID would use a similar conceptual quality to measure survivability and create a similar circular reference. Subsitituting the word "adapted" with the word "designed" in the sentence above would yield an equally circuitous reference, but one that any ID'er or creationist would find totally acceptable: The shark is an organism wonderfully designed for its environment. .. after all, it has survived for millions of years.

This conflation of terms by evolutionists is nothing out of the ordinary and exhibits no fallacious qualities. The ToE is about how species evolve over time, it describes a mechanism that accounts for the variety of organisms we see in the environment today, how the form of the organism is related to the type of environment it inhabits, and how changes have occured over time. Fitness is a term that quantifies the success value of each of the myriad adaptations that the organism displays in its native environment. It can be enumerated for any given organism for which sufficient data has been gathered, just as the technical statistics for a designed artifact, such as an airplane, can be quantified and combined to determine an overall "airworthiness" index. Fitness has a distinct meaning, and is not merely a proxy for survivability. Fitness contributes to survivability, it is not the same as survivability.

DARWIN CONCEIVED of evolution in terms of small variations among organisms, variations which by a process of accretion allow one species to change continuously into another. This suggests a view in which living creatures are spread out smoothly over the great manifold of biological possibilities, like colors merging imperceptibly in a color chart.

Life, however, is absolutely nothing like this. Wherever one looks there is singularity, quirkiness, oddness, defiant individuality, and just plain weirdness.



Red herring alert: this is NOT a logical consequence of the theory. By Berlinski's view, we should have creatures in every level of variation between a pig and a seagull: lithe pigs with vestigial wings, and portly seagulls with curly tails. It is a naive conceptualization of how incremental evolution would progress. The pressures of fitness would rule out such maladapted intermediate branchings.

Berlinski is ignoring the matter of fitness landscapes and ecological niches. Organisms don't have the run of all of the food resources in the environment, they must compete with other organisms. There are a finite set of ecological niches, and they are taken by those organisms that evolve into the niche "the firstest with the mostest", much as chairs are occupied in a game of musical chairs. The niches in an ecological sytem can be mapped out in a similar manner to a topographical map. There are peaks in the landscape representing optimal niche designs, and valleys representing the "no man's land" where suboptimal combinations of features present little or no survival benefit.

The idea of fitness landscapes was first proposed in 1932. Berlinski's failure to vet his objections against such widely available answers just reinforces the fact that he is engaged in dialectical obstructionsism and not serious inquiry.

31 Comments:

Blogger Peter Burnet said...

"The shark is an organism wonderfully designed for its environment. .. after all, it has survived for millions of years."

Hold on. Far be it from me to engage in dialectical obstructionism, but it isn't the same thing. A theist or creationist or IDer or whatever might well say that, but without necessarily drawing the same causal or defining connections. The key phrase is "for its environment". Natural evolutionists define fitness by adaptation to environment and consequent survivability, which is why it is tautological or circular, but a theist could well just be expressing wonder. If I say: "What a beautiful gift from God that rose is", I'm not trying to say divine gifts are defined by their beauty or that ugly things aren't gifts. Now, if you can show that Berlinski has asserted somewhere that survivability is the objective of design, then you have him, but if he doesn't say that he has you. The problem isn't in the two words, it is in the opening premise of natural evolution.

Granted that popular opinion is not a logical indice of truth, but surely the issue is why evolutionists cling so tightly to the theory despite all the evidentiary disappointments, although I confess there are so many conflicting views on this that I'm way out of my league. One day we are told the evidence is overwhelming and the next we have biologists saying: "Don't worry, we'll find it." Which is it?

Finally, Duck, I was going to try and tackle fitness landscapes, but when I opened your link and saw that cute little diagram at the bottom, I started giggling uncontrollably and realized it was time to go play with my son. I guess it was because it reminded me of the first drawing he brought home from kindergarten. :-)

February 22, 2005 3:17 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

"Natural evolutionists define fitness by adaptation to environment and consequent survivability, which is why it is tautological or circular ... "

That is a misconception. Fitness is species' change in quantity over time. If the slope of that curve is negative for long enough, the population will eventually decrease to zero. The species was ultimately inadequately fit.

Those species whose population growth curve is stable or growing are, by definition, fit.

The definition of fitness is purely mathematical--if all you were provided was a time series of a species population, you could decide whether that population was fit, without knowing anything about that population or its environment.

Now, as it turns out, there are no known populations that are both fit, and whose characteristics are not consistent with their environment.

In other words, the correlation between mathematical fitness and adaptation is, as far as we know, 100%. That does not make the definition circular in any way; rather, one should note the extremely high correlation between definition and observation.

This is what makes Berlinski's quote you cited so astonishingly dishonest. (Actually, it is dishonest on more than just this level)

It ignores environment--if the oceanic environment hasn't changed substantially over the same period, why is it an embarassment that the shark has remained largely unchanged?

It completely ignores the fact that there was a period in Earth's history without sharks.

And it completely ignores that there are many different species within the shark family.

Which means he is deliberately obfuscating the distinction between different taxa.

In my book, that makes him a multi-dimensional liar, regardless of whether you think Evolution is more or less correct.

With regard to "popular opinion," did you note that Berlinski is comparing scientific acceptance of Electromagnetic theory, with public acceptance of Evolutionary theory.

That is disgusting.

Why do you suppose he didn't compare like with like?

Regarding fitness landscapes. One of the ways to determine the explanatory power of a theory is its applicability in areas outside the theory's original problem space. One real-world example are networks designed using computer simulations based upon evolution and the concept of fitness landscapes.

As it turns out, the results are better than can be achieved by Intelligent Design.

February 22, 2005 5:31 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Skipper:

"Those species whose population growth curve is stable or growing are, by definition, fit."

Which I thought was my point, and perhaps Berlinski's. My, goodness, you are getting positively Dawkinsesque with your rhetoric. Why can't you be content with arguing that he is wrong or foolish. Liar? Disgusting?
Steady on, now.

February 22, 2005 6:05 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

Because Berlinski's definition includes the word "designed" and imposes upon Evolutionary Theory something which it does not contain: that evolution is necessarily continuous, and therefore excludes the existence of a Family continuing with significant morphological continuity over extremely long periods.

How else could sharks be an embarassment to Evolutionary Theory?

Now I would be happy to say Berlinski is incorrect, or foolish, but that would imply he doesn't know what he is doing.

When someone makes--repeatedly--the sorts of mistakes I highlighted, I can only conclude they are intentional. Comparing scientific community acceptance with public acceptance as if they are the same is a perfect example of attempting to demonstrate a conclusion by deceit.

As is talking about sharks as if they are a species, when they are a family.

Maybe I should put it differently. Were my criticisms of Berlinski accurate?

If not, why not?

And if so, then should I conclude unintentional error, or overt deceit?

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