Sunday, December 11, 2005

ID, Sex Combs, and Theodicy

Harry Eagar, staff columnist at The Maui News, recently wrote this column (quoted in full here with the author's permission), which has a curious hook at the end.

In 49 other states, many eyes are turned to Dover, Pa., where the school board wants to teach the kiddies intelligent design.

This is hardly an issue in Hawaii. I blame the Buddhists for depriving us of this sport.

I am not a Buddhist, but my understanding is that they are pretty relaxed about how we got here, possibly because they believe we are coming back again.

Whatever the merits of that, the presence of about 15 percent highly respectable Buddhists has done wonders for the manners of the Fundamentalists in Hawaii. Down South, where I grew up, the preachers could -- and did -- preach that anybody who didn't subscribe to the views summarized in the Schofield Reference Bible was an agent of Satan.

Since there was no identifiable body of well-behaved non-Fundamentalists willing to challenge the preachers, they were able to bully everybody else on evolution and other subjects, like beer. The Buddhists don't have to say a word to abash our local Fundamentalists, though. Their presence is enough.

I was in Houston the week after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, where I amused myself by watching televangelists preach that God was sending a message and a chastisement to the notorious sinners of New Orleans. Skeptics (none seen in Houston but I found some on the Internet) noted that Bourbon Street was not flooded, while dozen of churches were. Go figure.

I was never exposed to the evidence for evolution through natural selection in school. Roman Catholics in those days were nearly as relaxed about evolution as Buddhists. At St. Pius X High School the biology teacher was also, and primarily, the assistant football coach. Each day, he would come into the classroom, sit on the edge of his desk and tell us, "Take out yer books and I will give youse some biology notes."

He wasn't a native Southerner.

He then read from the textbook, leaving out all the a's, an's and the's, and we were supposed to copy it out. We didn't get very far into the book before the year ended.

I don't know what the girls were taught. We were separated in biology class.

So, deprived of the fine public school education that I might have had, I've had to teach myself biology.

Recently I learned that we humans have a gene called SCML.

What it does for us, if anything, is not yet discovered, but it turned up along with the 30,000 or so other genes in the Human Genome Project. This particular gene was already known, and had a name, because it had been discovered in fruit flies.

It is often said that we share 99 percent of our genes with chimpanzees, or 45 percent with bananas.

I don't know what the antievolutionists make of this sort of statistic. They seem to just ignore it. I have read the principal papers of the leading Intelligent Design Creationists, like Alvin Plantinga, Michael Behe, Philip Johnson and William Dembski, and they do not have anything to say about it.

They should, because the fact that living things share so many genes seems to require some explanation.

Take those little plastic necklaces that you perhaps bought for the keiki at the county fair. The power that makes them glow is adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is coded for by the ATP gene.

You could say that we share the ATP gene with bananas (and every other form of life) because ATP is the only practical way to transfer energy inside a cell. (That wouldn't be precisely correct, but it's the best molecule for it, and every cell uses it.)

The fact that you and your peanut butter and jelly sandwich both have (or had) ATP genes does not in itself prove that you and peanuts shared a common ancestor that had the ATP gene and passed it down both ways. It suggests that, but it does not prove it.

SCML, though, does more than suggest.

We got it in one of two conceivable ways: Either a common ancestor of us and flies provided it to both, or a designer gave it to humans and to flies independently.

The second alternative is possible, I suppose, but it does raise the question of why a designer, intelligent or otherwise, would give you a gene that carries instructions to make a sex comb on your midleg.

Because that's what SCML does for fruit flies.


There are a few noteworthy things here.

First, the humor element. One technique for eliciting a laugh, with the possible additional payoff of putting a hook in your memory, is misdirection: effective and easy to describe, yet difficult to put into practice. Here Mr. Eagar tosses SCML onto the table early on, then draws the reader elswhere in a path that ultimately leads us right back to SCML and the punchline. No, it isn't an earth shaking thing, I just happen to enjoy analyzing effective writing, deftly done.

Second, Mr. Eagar's hook, and flooded churches in New Orleans, lead the reader to think about what ID, in its entirety, entails. When ID provides credit to some yet to be named designer for Nature's complex wonders, all the way down to bacterial swim-fins, that Anonymous Designer similarly deserves credit for everything where the God-of-the-Gaps argument resides.

Can you spell Theodicy? (No fair looking.)

Theodicy is a branch of theology that seeks to reconcile the existence of evil with a benevolent God. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, and last year's tsunami, as well as human nature in general, have each served to raise this apparent conundrum. I say apparent, because there is far less conundrum here than meets the eye.

Natural disasters don't qualify as evil, because they are part and parcel of a world operating without continuous Godly intervention: an earth without earthquakes is an earth without vulcanism, which is a dead earth. Looked at in this way natural disasters are a feature, not a bug; they have no moral component. (Credit here goes to David Cohen, in some -- typical for him -- particularly insightful posts at BrosJudd immediately following the tsunami.)

Human nature presents its own conundrum, but also one that is more apparent than real. If humans are to be other than automatons, they require free will, which, by definition means the capacity for evil.

Again, but through a different path, feature, not bug.

ID, a Two Letter Acronym for Irony

Intelligent Design, in crediting a deus ex machina for natural history's unexplained features means that deus, the Designer, gets credit for all of them.

In addition to bacterial swim fins and hemoglobin, the Designer also gets credit for:

The pelvis, which slopes sharply forward, and lower back, both designed for knuckle walking. The only reason we are able to walk upright is the sharp bend at the base of our spines, making the lower back a notoriously weak part of our anatomy.

Teeth. The human muzzle is flatter than other mammals, with a corresponding reduction in space for teeth, particularly the ironically named wisdom teeth.

Sinuses. We have the same bones in our faces as other mammals, just shaped differently. But the drainage system, which came along for the ride, is a dog's breakfast.

Prostate gland. This has design failure stamped all over it.

Giving credit to some Designer for otherwise unexplained features of life means giving that designer credit for all such features, including ones that would shame any first year engineering student. The list above, far shorter than it could be, contains (at least before modern medicine) the cause of early death and agony simultaneously widespread, prolonged, and random.

None of them are essential to life or humanity. None of them are the result of "intelligence." Thre is no more intelligence in this list than the likelihood someone will ever get a Nobel for inventing the artificial appendix.

This is where ID collides with theodicy, taking it, and irony, to a whole new level.

Thanks to ID, the question "Why does God allow evil?" has now morphed into "Why is God evil/incompetent/ignorant?"

The question, the inevitable consequence of taking ID at its word, is fair, obvious, and resistant to any answer consistent with Christian notions of God. ID, in attacking naturalistic evolution as destructive of faith in God, has replaced it with an idea far more destructive of faith in general, and Christianity in particular, than evolution could ever be.

It is a doddle to encompass naturalistic evolution within Christian theology; Catholicism has done so without so much as a ripple. In contrast, making God responsible for every jot of natural history makes Him responsible for all the tittles as well.

If there has ever been a case of being careful what one asks for, ID certainly presents it.

104 Comments:

Blogger Bret said...

Very nice post. I'm not exactly sure what a sex comb is, but hey, it sounds like fun!

I'm going to take the side of ID once again, though it takes a lot of effort since I'm a non-christian, non-theist kind of guy who agrees that ID isn't science and that the body of knowledge regarding evolution forms a very good explanation of observed and observable phenomena. Nonetheless, the presentation of evolution in schools reeks of dogma to me, and as such, has totally lost the moral high ground (so to speak) in the debate with ID, as far as I'm concerned.

Let me offer a different perspective on the SCML gene being present in flies and humans. That seems to me to be little different, in and of itself, than the vsnprintf routine being present in apache (one of the most commonly used http servers) and mingetty (a daemon that waits for someone to login). In addition, mingetty has vsnprintf code present, but never uses it. Yet, because completely different groups wrote those programs for completely different purposes, we can be pretty sure that neither evolved from the other in any sense of the word. Nor can we conclude that the designers of mingetty are incompetent, unintelligent or even imperfect. It would simply have been more effort than it would have been worth to try and strip out a few extra bytes of unused code from a standard library. (By the way, I'm making up the details here, but I assure you that even if this particular example isn't accurate, the gist is repeated millions of times over across all software).

As a result, I'm not finding the SCML (or pelvis, teeth, etc.) example a compelling argument. These are nits compared to the much more difficult thing to explain regarding a Creator - He (supposedly) created man in his own image, but man was terribly flawed and sinned and had to be expelled from the garden. That's quite a whopping blunder - all these other examples pale in comparison. And yet, the vast majority of Americans still believe the story.

But again, these are all minor details in my opinion. The bigger question, in my mind, is should people have the freedom to raise their own children according to their own beliefs, or should the state intervene and raise our children for us and indoctrinate them with the knowledge and belief systems that the state thinks is best?

I think choosing the latter puts us well on The Road to Serfdom.

December 14, 2005 10:57 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Good post, Skipper, but is not the flaw in your argument that you appropriate the authority to pronounce on design failures and successes and relate them to some perception you have of what it's all about? You don't need to find weird things like sinus' and sex combs--anything will do. Can you imagine a deity saying that he will give man eyes to perceive the wonders of creation, but only with a 60 degree range? How about death? Isn't that the ultimate design failure?

I think the question you are posing is why He would create anything at all. Can't help you there.

December 15, 2005 2:55 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Bret:

Thanks. A sex comb is a toothed ridge running down the back of the mid-leg in fruit flies. It is reminiscent of a comb when viewed from the side, and occurs only on males.


The point about the sex comb gene, and, by extension, many others, is that the dissimilarity between two genomes is a function of time since the last shared ancestor, and is nearly completely consistent with the previously existing Linnean classification. Mr. Eagar could just has well have mentioned, but with less comedic impact, the mutation that prevents humans from synthesizing Vitamin-C.

Which happens to be precisely the same mutation as in chimpanzees. At the same place.

What's more, even apparently non-functioning stretches of human DNA nearly precisely match chimpanzee DNA.

I'm not finding the SCML (or pelvis, teeth, etc.) example a compelling argument. confuses me. Not a compelling argument for what?

It is, in my mind, a compelling argument for common descent of all life, and a compelling argument against the ab initio creation of two adult humans without navels.

But in this post I wasn't trying to substantiate the validity of naturalistic evolution; rather, I intended to raise the likelihood that ID advocates are unwittingly acting against interest.

ID at one time based its case on anatomical features that could not have any use in anything but their fully fledged form -- the bird wing being the premier example. However, subsequent fossil discoveries slammed shut that particular God-of-the-Gaps argument.

ID then took the same reasoning, only this time to the molecular level. In so doing, they made God liable for a whole host of design idiocies in all animals, not just humans, ranging from the comical (look at the routing of the pharyngeal nerve sometime) to the lethal.

So they have created for themselves a theodicy problem. The Christian God has certain characteristics -- loving but stern father is probably a reasonable metaphor. These characteristics must be comprehensible to humans, otherwise the words in the Bible would have no meaning.

It is child's play to list the design deficiencies responsible for random excruciating suffering and death (many of which dwarf what Jesus endured on the cross). Random being the operative term here. For it doesn't matter what one's religion is, or how well one has lived. One's appendix might blow. Or it might not.

This does not lead to an argument about God's existence. It will, however, force people to reconsider, in a very material way, whether the God Christians worship bears any resemblance to the God responsible for creation.

The Theodicy question becomes not "Why does God permit evil?" to "Why is God evil?"


The bigger question, in my mind, is should people have the freedom to raise their own children according to their own beliefs

In The Argument Clinic, I discuss the disparity between the two points of view.

The US is ostensibly a non-sectarian country. Your position seems to be that no sect should have its beliefs contravened by sect-independent curricular content.

The immediate comeback is that Naturalistic Evolution is a sect. I think that is disingenuous, because, unlike a religious sect, the goal of evolutionary theory is to conform with sect-independent first order information. (The Vitamin-C mutation exists regardless of the religion of the person doing the measuring.)

Further, your argument is just as valid for geology and astronomy, because there are Creationist claims against them, too.

Is your answer that teaching about all sciences -- first order knowledge based disciplines -- include sect dependent explanations? If so, which ones?

I have read the Road to Serfdom -- one of the most prescient works I have ever seen.

But I don't think there is a connection here, or if there is, it is opposite of what you suspect. The goal of ID/Creationism is an attempt by a given sect to impose its particular understanding of a single text upon the entire society. It goes far beyond just "equal time" in science classes.

It is rooted in the Christian Reconstruction movement. Google "Christian Reconstruction" to find out the theological road to serfdom.

December 15, 2005 5:26 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

My reply to Bret sort of addressed your comment.

The question ID poses -- not I -- is not why He would create anything. Instead it is: "If God can create flagellum on a bacteria, why the heck do I have an appendix?"

The Catholic Church's approach to naturalistic evolution has squared that circle without giving any believer any additional reason for doubt.

It is my contention that biblical literalists, the driving force behind Creationism/ID, have made the core truths of Christianity hostage to implementation details in such a way as to give believers plenty of additional reasons for doubt.

And that doubt won't be about the existence of God, but rather whether Christianity's concept is anywhere close to the mark.

You may not believe me, but I do not welcome this.

December 15, 2005 5:32 AM  
Blogger David said...

Skipper: Doesn't this just bring us back to the fact that the god in whom atheists don't believe is a very specific god.

December 15, 2005 9:16 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

No, it doesn't.

The popular Christian impression of God's characteristics includes many qualities, but none of them are "randomly tortures his creation."

December 15, 2005 9:56 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Bret, if the schools are to educate rather than merely indoctrinate, then the curriculum ought to be based on something other than mere opinion.

The standard would be something close to 'preponderance of the evidence.'

We do not argue whether children should be taught the germ theory of disease in health class, even though something like a quarter of American parents believe disease is caused by demons. (Whether they simultaneously believe some disease is caused by germs is something you'd have to ask them.)

The same people who promote the demonological view of disease are the ID people.

Both views have similar preponderance of evidence bases, but one is obviously lunatic and the other, given the prejudices Americans absorb, not so obviously lunatic.

There are certainly examples in public schools of curriculum items that do not meet the preponderance of evidence standard.

In California, for example, the kiddies are taught that the Chinese built the Central Pacific Railroad, a myth.

There are people -- not a majority, but numerous -- who think that the U.S. Constitution was derived from the Iroquois Confederacy.

This is not generally taught in lower schools (though it can be encountered in leftist history courses in college), and it is susceptible to a preponderance of evidence test. It's a myth.

But suppose opinion changed and this entered the wider field of common myth, along with the common but nutty beliefs about the assassinations of Kennedy and Lincoln?

Would you then advocate changing the curricula?

December 15, 2005 11:12 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Harry & Skipper,
Great article & post.

I think Bret is on to something with the software analogy. Maybe God is just re-using the same code for each new creature He creates, but since He can create the world and everything in it Ex Nihilo, the re-use scenario doesn't seem to convincing. It does fit in very well with evolution, though.

Peter, yes we do presume to pronounce on design failures of God. But isn't it likewise presumptuous of theists to pronounce on the beauty and majesty of His design? You can't know any better than we what His intent and purpose is in creating this universe. Maybe this universe is residing in His Dustbin as we speak.

December 15, 2005 5:57 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

Hey Skipper wrote: "Not a compelling argument for what?"

Not a compelling argument for common descent via naturalistic evolution. A fly and a human share code, apache and and mingetty share code. I read your post as implying the first was evidence for common descent (because they shared code), yet the second case didn't involve evolution of any sort which seems to refute the concept that sharing code in and of itself is evidence of evolution. If I misread your post, sorry for the confusion.

Hey Skipper wrote: "The Theodicy question becomes ... "Why is God evil?"

Sometimes (be a non-theist) I get my gods confused, but isn't the Christian God omnipotent and omniscient? In which case even if He just waved his magic god wand and created the universe via the big bang and then stood back and let it happen without intervening, wouldn't He have known that all of this suffering and "evil" you're describing would have happened ahead of time? So I can't see how being non-intervening helps such a God be less evil. So he might as well meddle in the classroom too - no downside as far as I can see.

Hey Skipper wrote: "The goal of ID/Creationism is an attempt by a given sect to impose its particular understanding of a single text upon the entire society."

I know that's the goal of the Christian Reconstruction movement. But, in my opinion, they won't ever be a big factor in this debate. On the other hand, I don't believe that's the goal of the Kansas School Board. They are primarily concerned with what is taught to their children. I can relate to that. Because there's a flip side. If I insist the the federal government ram a certain curriculum down their throats, one day, and maybe soon, they'll decide to ram some curriculum I don't like down my throat. I'm concerned that trying to limit the good people of Kansas from teaching ID can cause a backlash resulting in the following constitutional amendments:
1. The U.S. is a christian nation
2. All non-christians are barred from voting
3. All schools will be christian.
They have the votes to do that - let's not force them to think it necessary.

December 15, 2005 6:51 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

Harry Eagar wrote: "[I]f the schools are to educate rather than merely indoctrinate..."

Whoa, let's nip that one in the bud. I don't even vaguely believe that the purpose of schools is to educate. Their primary purpose (or at least the only thing they're good at) is indoctrination. They are a tool to help parents and society to raise children with a specific belief system.

Certainly you'd agree that the primary activity of being a parent is to indoctrinate one's children with the values and belief system required to get through life (in the parent's opinion)? So why should the schools not participate in helping with that indoctrination where they can?

Learning? Kids learn. That's what humans do. They can't help it. The kids will learn plenty in the schools even if a little (or a lot of) indoctrination is thrown in.

So, your final question - "Would you then advocate changing the curricula [to teach nutty beliefs if widely held]?"

At the community level? Yes.

At the nationwide level? No.

December 15, 2005 7:12 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Skipper: Great post.

Harry: Thanks for the article - good to see some of your spiky writing again.

Bret:

The question for me is this: why should evolution get special treatment in education when no other branch of science does? You could (and some do) make an 'ID' style case and ID style objections about all sorts of things, from astronomy to medicine. Yet nobody bothers with warning stickers on those textbooks.

I'd prefer it if the ID brigade ceased pretending that they object to the theory of evolution in the name of scientific impartiality - which is clearly nonsense - and admitted that they are doing it because they feel it threatens the widespread acceptance of certain religious tenets.

Skipper argues that a better tack for the believer is to accept that evolution and God are compatible.

While that is true so long as you define God in certain ways (eg. a non-interfering Originator), I do understand why IDers reject this. All science has been corrosive is to religious belief, but evolution is more corrosive than any other science.

That said, I don't take your point about indoctrination at all. In the long term, it isn't feasible in the world of instant and global information-sharing to teach science as non-science, and nonsense as science.

December 16, 2005 5:31 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Bret:

Not a compelling argument for common descent via naturalistic evolution.

You are right, SCML, in and of itself, is not a compelling argument of common descent via naturalistic evolution.

But your response is really composed of two ideas, whether common descent is objectively true, and, if so, whether the stochastic processes posed by naturalistic evolution are sufficient to explain the observed common descent.

Absent Bible literalists, I don't think anyone contests the objective reality of common descent.

This most definitely includes ID advocates.

Further, naturalistic evolution relies on life's inherent recursion being something other than completely random (i.e., not all organisms produce descendents; which ones do not is not entirely due to chance).

So does ID.

So the only point of contention between ID and naturalistic evolution is that some features of some lifeforms had no other means to come into existence other than out of whole cloth. This required moving so many DNA molecules at one time that the odds of such a thing happening, even once, within the lifespan of the universe are nil.

Hence the requirement for a deus ex machina, one that consciously, and more less continuously, intervenes in natural history. By posing Godly intervention in such a way, God becomes liable both for things done, as well as undone.

Which leads to why I said "The Theodicy question becomes ... "Why is God evil?"

I beg forgiveness in advance if my response here sacrifices clarity on the altar of brevity.

The Catholic Church's attitude towards naturalistic evolution runs something like this:

God is responsible for general creation, knowing that in the fullness of time eventually, with a Godly Cosmic Ray here and a Divine Meteor there, His Creation would yield a being capable of marvelling at God's works, while simultaneously autonomous and fully part of the greater panoply of life around him.

The Bible is God's revealed word, but had to be conveyed in such a way that it was comprehensible to those receiving it. The Bible is an allegorical vehicle for conveying the core truths of God's direction for mankind.


That is how a non-intervening God becomes something other than a God of the Gaps, and avoids the theodicy problem.

In contrast, in making God liable for something on the order of bacteria flagella, God is stage managing evolution at the most minute level of detail. which puts the theodicy question front and center.

My point here is not to impose upon God my definition -- a nullity, imposition upon which is singularly difficult -- of what He must be like. Rather, I am hypothesizing that ID will ultimately impose upon its target audience's definition in such a way as to provide a case study for those who have problems understanding irony.

And the result will be destructive of belief, as has been the case everytime religion has rested upon God-of-the-Gaps.

I know that's the goal of the Christian Reconstruction movement. But, in my opinion, they won't ever be a big factor in this debate.

I think your conclusion is too benign. The stated goal of the Discovery Institute, which is (IIRC) the largest organization advocating ID, is to rid society of naturalistic rational inquiry. The Kansas School Board even rewrote its definition of science to include supernatural causes as explanations for natural phenomena. BTW, your list of potential Constitutional amendments is precisely what the Christian Reconstructionist movement hopes for in the event they can't get rid of the Constitution entirely.

I understand, and sympathize with, parents not wanting their children to be exposed to things contradictory to the parent's beliefs, particularly when the parents are paying for the privilege. But their alternative is to impose sectarian beliefs on inherently non-sectarian theories about first order information.

Perhaps you would prefer a different approach to providing science classes. One class would teach natural history as a product of ID, or OEC, or YEC, etc (we'll let the parents fight this one out ...), and the other teaching naturalistic evolution. Parents can choose to which they send their kids -- kind of like the sex-ed opt out.

Will universities be required to treat both equally?

Will schools be required to teach Creationist geology and astronomy?

And what is your argument against teaching Ebonics as an acceptable alternative to English?

Apologies for the lengthy response, but the boss is on vacation today, and I'm otherwise ahead of the power curve.

December 16, 2005 5:36 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'Spiky writing'?

I like that. Maybe I'll put it on my tombstone: He was a spiky writer.

Or my business card: Spiky writing to order.

Whether school turns out to be mostly indoctrination or not, the goal ought to be education. And the standard for curriculum ought to be preponderance of the evidence. I don't care how comfortable parents are about teaching 2+2=5, it's not useful.

December 16, 2005 11:32 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Harry:

Better watch it. Brit is an editor.

December 16, 2005 11:36 AM  
Blogger David said...

Skipper: Exactly. The god in which you don't believe is the popular American Santa God. No skin off my teeth if you don't believe in Him. I don't either.

As I've said before, the great gift of science to religion is the knowledge that G-d doesn't sign his work. All we have is faith. In that regard, the persistence of the SCML gene, despite being both useless and logically inconsistent with design, proves G-d's existence.

And, of course, the SCML gene is further proof, if any more were needed, the natural selection is, at best, a weak force.

Harry: How are you! Long time, no cross comment.

"Useful" begs the question. It is useful to take citizens at a young age and convince them of the value of getting up in the morning, getting to where they need to be on time, sitting quietly when appropriate and doing their homework. It is useful to convince them that there society is just and exceptional. Knowing that all life descends from some spontaneously reproducing single-celled organism is significantly less useful.

As before, I note that the Catholics can be proud of the job they did with you, regardless of the quality of their biology class.

December 16, 2005 12:21 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

In that regard, the persistence of the SCML gene, despite being both useless and logically inconsistent with design, proves G-d's existence.

Well, no.

For one, no one knows what, if anything, it does. So it might be persistent becuase humans have co-opted it for something else as yet unknown.

If that turns out to be the case, does SCML no longer prove God's existence?

Second, even if it turns out to be wholly useless, as so much other DNA seems to be, it still doesn't lead to your conclusion so much as its consistency with mere statistics.

(Also, what does our apparent planned obsolescence say about proving God's existence ...)

And, of course, the SCML gene is further proof, if any more were needed, the natural selection is, at best, a weak force.

Huh?

Question for you: is ID acting against interest?

December 16, 2005 12:37 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

David, I am fine and am going to assume you are not the same guy who keeps offering to sell me autographs at bargain prices.

Besides the fact that SCML may perform some useful function in humans, as Skipper says, even if it doesn't, that doesn't prove that selection is weak, only that SCML was weakly selected against.

(Or, even more complicated, the possibility that SCML is sometimes beneficial, sometimes not, so that it can persist in populations even if it is bad news for some individuals.)

If you think selection is weak, try drinking some cholera vibrios. (I pick this example because last night I read Gerald Weissmann's essay, 'Daumier and the Deer Tick' in his 'Darwin's Audubon.' Who suspected that the intensity of French popular revolts can be correlated to the cleanliness of the water in the Seine?)

December 16, 2005 4:20 PM  
Blogger David said...

If that were the case, then the French would be permanently revolting... Hey!

(To the best of my knowledge, I've never tried to sell autographs to anyone.)

December 16, 2005 8:01 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Skipper:

Of course I believe you. And while David somewhat condescendingly gives all credit to the Catholics, I would like to express my personal thanks that you've worked so hard to get them out of a tight spot.

Your critique is so effective because it takes ID right out of science by showing how it relies on certain implied assumptions about the nature of the Divine Will and how those assumptions stretch the boundaries of not only rationality but reason itself. This is indeed a huge problem for the religious, particularly Christians, because when you posit a god that is omnipotent, omniscient and loving, you've got a lot of tough questions to answer about what actually happens to us and around us. I've always thought Judaism was much more "eyes-wide-open" about this, and also about the reality of human nature and psychology. Anyway, you struggle between admitting certain things are unknowable while assuming we at least have access to hints and that there is a certain underlying sense and benvolence to it all. We say it is a mystery and unknowable, but still reject the possibility that we have prostates and bad backs because He decided to amuse the angels with an elaborate game of Mr. Potato Head.

So, serious religious people struggle with these kinds of questions all the time and, contrary to the paternalistic secularist charge that it is all so comforting, the conundrums are disturbing, sometimes to the extent of emotional risk or damage--it's not a voyage to take lighly or alone. But what is not disturbing to anybody is that science and logic can't solve it, and we just smile at the secularists who demand that it be. That is understood and what faith is all about. And why ID is skating on such thin ice.

Now, reviewing your eloquent arguments, it's hard to avoid the suspicion that they are so effective because they mirror the same charge against darwinism. Throughout our many fascinating debates, I've often wondered why you cling so tenaciously to natural selection and why you don't just say it is all random, at least as far as you know. There is obviously so much evidence against natural selection (extinctions, the absurd human anatomy, evolution away from survivability unless you get a huge brain to do clever things in order to survive, etc.etc.) My guess is that you want to avoid complexity and probability challenges, so you need some driving force and, frankly, can't think of anything else.

Now, I trust you will agree that it is outside the purview of scientific inquiry to decide why a given mutation takes place, as opposed to how. You simply cannot predict, repeat or test the whys, so any conclusions, no matter how erudite, informed, considered or whatever, are outside of scientific observation unless those observations rest on non-scientific assumptions about evolution's direction and animating force. Nor is the argument that nobody has a better idea the least bit scientific. Which is why, although evolution obviously happened, natural selection is a matter of faith that stems more from a rejection of religion than from scientific inquiry. Which is why you're critique of ID is also an effective critique of darwinism as science. Which is why, ultimately, Orrin is right that neither belongs in a science class.

Hey, I've an idea. How about in the spirit of a grand reconciliation, we call for a compulsory metaphysics course in high school and throw it all in there? I'll bet your pals in the Vatican would go for that.

Harry:

French civil disorder correlates to water quality in the Seine? Boy, until now I never realized how much I missed you.

December 17, 2005 5:09 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Harry,
Is that because whenever the water quality is bad the Parisians drink more wine and are thus driven to belligerence by their drunkenness?

I had assumed that their drunkenness/belligerence was a permanent condition.

December 17, 2005 8:35 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Peter:

There is obviously so much evidence against natural selection (extinctions, the absurd human anatomy, evolution away from survivability unless you get a huge brain to do clever things in order to survive, etc.etc.)

Oh, Peter, my dear old thing.

After all this time, how on earth have you contrived to conclude that those things are evidence against natural selection?

December 17, 2005 2:05 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

That's Weissmann's idea, I don't know if I buy it or not.

His argument is that when the Seine was particularly filthy, everybody got cholera and felt especially aggrieved and the normal level of civil discontent in the capital rose to new heights of intransigence.

There's a good history, without political speculations, of the struggle to clean up Paris' water, 'Paris Sewers and Sewermen.'

I am willing to bet that not one person in 10,000 knows that the concept of purifying municipal drinking water is just 100 years old. And originated in Trieste.

December 17, 2005 2:52 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Brit:

Faith...and also the objective, rationalist, empirical evidence before my very eyes.

Harry:

Interesting. I just hope flu season doesn't erupt this year because otherwise we Canadians may hit the streets in a collective paroxym of rage. Scary.

December 17, 2005 7:09 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

Boy, you miss a day and the conversation gets way ahead you.

Brit asks: "why should evolution get special treatment in education when no other branch of science does?"

Because that's what the kids' parents want. There's no other reason.

But you can also look at it from the other side. There's a huge body of scientific knowledge and only a tiny, tiny fraction is taught. So why is it that evolution gets the special treatment that it's taught instead of something else? From my perspective as a roboticist and employer, why not more math? More Physics/Mechanics? Logic? Statistics? Other aspects of Biotech? Common Descent has no value at the high school level while math, etc. do.

December 17, 2005 11:09 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

Hey Skipper wrote: "Parents can choose to which [Id, etc. vs. naturalistic evolution] they send their kids -- kind of like the sex-ed opt out."

Sounds reasonable to me. Vouchers would almost inherently do that automatically.

Hey Skipper asks: "Will universities be required to treat both equally?"

By the time someone goes to university, they are an adult, so no. Also, anything we're talking about is local. What the Kansas School Board does should not be allowed to have any direct impact on what anybody else does.


Hey Skipper asks: "Will schools be required to teach Creationist geology and astronomy?"

If the local community wants it - fine.

Hey Skipper asks: "And what is your argument against teaching Ebonics as an acceptable alternative to English?"

Well, fine, but that wasn't what you seem to think it was. Ebonics was a bunch of educators trying to figure out how to get more money for teaching and came up with the clever ploy for getting money under the second language program. They didn't actually want to teach anybody Ebonics.

I hope your boss goes on vacation more often.

December 17, 2005 11:18 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

Hey Skipper wrote: "Absent Bible literalists, I don't think anyone contests the objective reality of common descent."

I contest the objective reality of everything not in the present. Since common descent is in the past, I don't find it part of objective reality. You know, the "I think therefore I am" thing. It's not "I think that I thought therefore I was". As far as I'm concerned, it might be like "The Matrix" where we booted up into revision 5.2 just yesterday!

December 17, 2005 11:27 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Bret:

It might, but that's not a reason to think that it is.

I just watched a BBC documentary featuring an Australian Creationist called Ken Ham, who is building a massive anti-science museum in Kentucky. The exhibition, which includes life-size T-Rexes shown living alongside man in the Garden of Eden, states the Genesis interpretation of the origin of life as if it were fact. This poor deluded Quixote talked with a straight face about how Noah was able to fit the larger dinosaurs on board the Ark by making sure he captured only the juvenile brontosaurus.

It would be funny - well, it was funny - but it was also profoundly sad. This Ham is spending millions of dollars making a mockery of hundreds of years of hard-won scientific research, by men using their God-given brains to work out how the world worked. He is an intellectual pygmy standing on the shoulders of giants and pissing on them.

I don't care whether the parents in Kansas want their kids taught nonsense. They absolutely should not be allowed to arbitrarily bastardise science classes in public schools. They can take their offspring to church and Sunday school, and there they will be told, as if it were absolute fact, that God made them and all the birds and fishes, and that He loves them and sent his son to die on the cross for them.

But let us leave at least some small window of sanity open, even if it is one lesson a year which 99% of the kids sleep through. A nation's education left in the hands of Ken Ham doesn't bear contemplating.

December 18, 2005 12:15 PM  
Blogger David said...

Harry: If I drink cholera vibrios I'll probably get very sick and might die. If my children drink it, they'll probably get very sick and might even die. If my grandchildren drink it, they'll probably get very sick and might even die. If my greatgrandchildren .... As far as we know, cholera has been killing people for as long as there have been people, and we haven't mutated resistance yet.

This is, of course, not surprising because natural selection is a very weak force that has no feedback mechanism. If I start out with one hundred quarters and I discard one every time it flips tails, it doesn't mean that, when I'm down to one coin, that coin has developed a means of flipping heads.

December 18, 2005 12:19 PM  
Blogger David said...

Peter -- I'm never condescending. It wouldn't be reasonble.

December 18, 2005 12:20 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Peter:

Natural selection is not a divine force acting to preserve a species.

Natural selection is the observable naturalistic process by which an inheritable characteristic which gives an individual in a population an advantage in the environment - in terms of survival and/or reproduction - will become more prevalent in that population over the succeeding generations. The net result is that the appearance of the population will vary from generation to generation.

The scientific theory of evolution posits that evolution has happened by naturalistic processes, the most important of which is natural selection as described above.

So how do you think extinctions and the human anatomy are evidence against either the validity or veracity of the process of natural selection per se, or the theory of evolution by natural selection?

December 18, 2005 12:24 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

Brit wrote: "A nation's education left in the hands of Ken Ham doesn't bear contemplating."

I couldn't agree more. Where we disagree is if some community in Kansas chooses to teach such nonsense. If that's what they want to teach, I say go for it.

Indeed, it provides a type of insurance. If we all agree that local curriculum is out of the hands of the federal government, then it helps ensure that such nonsense is never taught in my kids' school because my local community wants evolution and common descent taught.

December 18, 2005 12:38 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

David

Jeez, haven't you even seen War of the Worlds?

Do you think humans have evolved no resistance to any kind of germs or something?

And do you think, as Peter seems to, that natural selection is some kind of benign supernatural force hanging around and seeking clever ways to preserve a species from doom, and thus the very existence of death itself is evidence against it?

If cholera vibrios, or anything else you care to name, killed enough people in every generation before they reproduced, except those who had a genetic resistance to it, then that resistance gene would rapidly become more prevalent in the population, because obviously only those with it would have children. In other words, the selective pressure in favour of resistance would be very strong.

But if it doesn't kill a very big percentage of people before they reproduce, then the selection pressure in favour of it is weak. That's why natural selection deals in fitness, not perfection.

December 18, 2005 12:40 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Natural selection is the observable naturalistic process by which an inheritable characteristic which gives an individual in a population an advantage in the environment - in terms of survival and/or reproduction - will become more prevalent in that population over the succeeding generations

Brit,how can you possibly say whether a given mutation you observe gives an advantage or not?

December 18, 2005 2:47 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Brit:

Yes, down with Mr. Ham. By all means, let us ensure our museums and zoos are based on the hard, empirical, objective science bequeathed to us by all those intellectual giants.

December 18, 2005 3:20 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

Your critique is so effective because it takes ID right out of science by showing how it relies on certain implied assumptions about the nature of the Divine Will and how those assumptions stretch the boundaries of not only rationality but reason itself.

Harry's column points out two things: ID's complete theoretical emptiness, and its unique implications for theodicy.

While I clearly think ID's vacuity goes without saying, what I think is far less important than assessing the consequences of taking ID as stipulated.

I think ID is suffering from what we in the flying business call "target fixation," which means getting so focussed on one thing that you fail to notice some other thing going all to heck. All too frequently, terra very firma interrupts the analysis process before discovering the error of one's ways.

Similarly with ID. I contend that ID/Creationists are so wrapped around the axle of teleology they are unwittingly painting themselves into a very nasty corner. My contention, BTW, has (or should have, if I have successfully uncoupled my beliefs from the argument) no particular viewpoint component.

I understand that positing a God that is omnipotent, omniscient and loving presents problems. However, until ID, it has always been possible, with some mildly deft theological footwork, to finesse those problems. ID, I believe, presents a theodicy problem that is uniquely insurmountable.

All the other theodicy problems I mentioned contained illusory conundrums (once again, I must credit David Cohen for setting me straight on this).

In contrast, the theodicy conundrum ID presents is far from illusory, and far more destructive of fundamentalist Christian belief than naturalistic evolution could ever be.

Now, I trust you will agree that it is outside the purview of scientific inquiry to decide why a given mutation takes place, as opposed to how.

If by that you mean science is almost exclusively descriptive, and only rarely explanatory beyond, say, fourth order effects, then you are right.

However, within the context of naturalistic evolution, I think it is sufficiently explanatory to note that no natural process is error free, because of that, mutations clearly happen, and are random. Why are no natural processes error free, who knows?

You simply cannot predict, repeat or test the whys, so any conclusions, no matter how erudite, informed, considered or whatever, are outside of scientific observation unless those observations rest on non-scientific assumptions about evolution's direction and animating force.

That is wrong, unless you think continued respiration until having offspring is a non-scientific observation about evolution's "animating force."

... natural selection is a matter of faith that stems more from a rejection of religion than from scientific inquiry.

The moment you throw "rejection of religion" into the ring, you have stepped into the realm of attacking the arguer, not the argument. In order for natural selection to not exist, you must make the case that the occurrence of successful parents in any generation is absolutely, completely, irrevocably random; that known variations between organisms within a population can never, ever, under any circumstances, have any effect on reproductive success.

That is a heck of a lot of absolutes to deal with.

David elsewhere says natural selection is weak to non-existent. Near as I can surmise, if everything else is equal, then that seems a pretty sound conclusion. However, everything else is not equal. As I have mentioned numerous times, plate tectonics is the elephant in the tent. All land masses have moved through all climatological zones throughout geologic -- and evolutionary -- time.

Unless you are willing to invoke a deus ex machina continually micro managing life, then there is no way for terrestrial life to exist.

Which is why Orrin's critique of "Darwinism" is so empty, when it isn't downright dishonest -- it requires a continuous stage manager every step of the way because he essentially asserts that life's most salient characteristics, recursion and variation, simply do not exist

There are no known recursive systems that are incapable of astonishing self organized complexity. Why should natural history be any different?

December 18, 2005 4:04 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Bret:

You seem to take a very libertarian approach to education.

In general, I'm a libertarian. However, I'm always wary of getting what I ask for. With respect to education, simply leaving it up to local communities to decide content, absent any accreditation process or standards, risks balkanization.

I work in Dearborn, the largest Muslim community in the US. While we have collectively done a far better job of assimilation than France, do you really want to run the risk that vouchers and community standards will result in teaching an Islamic science that proves Muslims are destined to rule the world?

Middle and High School science pretty much, if superficially, covers the territory. Some astronomy, some geology, some biology, etc. Including evolution as the explanation for the change in life forms over time is no more granting it special privilege than is teaching the heliocentric structure of the solar system in biology.

December 18, 2005 4:15 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

I neglected to mention in my post above that ID is completely happy with natural selection.

It is the notion of random mutations they can't stand.

December 18, 2005 4:17 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Skipper:

In order for natural selection to not exist, you must make the case that...

You know, when I argue with you guys, I feel a little bit like a citizen of the Middle Ages who is skeptical about the theory of the four humours. I know there is something generally commonsensical about it, but when I watch my child die of plague or see folks afflicted in ways that have no bearing on their emotional dispositions, I think: "Hey, something ain't right here." Then your precedessors in scientific orthodoxy tell me that it order to challenge the theory I HAVE to prove a completely different theory of health that is consistent with contemporary "physick". "Microscopic bugs? Ha ha. Let's see them."

Skipper, I don't have to prove anything. It's your theory.

Brit:

Ah, here we go again. When challenged, you modestly disclaim that natural selection is just a sometimes-strong, sometimes-weak, sometimes -absent force that makes little survival adjustments... or maybe doesn't. But when we slip away to the bathroom, we come back to discover you are touting it as the driving force of all existence that took us from one cell in the primal goop to Beethoven. With huge periods of stasis to boot.

And, of course, the fact that homo sapiens is woefully incapable of surviving in nature and obviously descended from the common ancestor in terms of survivability and fitness is completely beside the point. Or even proves the theory. After all, that big, cuddly, big-brained fellow is still here, isn't he?

December 18, 2005 6:22 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

You were the one who said there is obviously so much evidence against natural selection (extinctions, the absurd human anatomy, evolution away from survivability ...)

The first supports natural selection, the second common descent, and the third is an assertion you repeatedly make, but never substantiate.

As you do here:

And, of course, the fact that homo sapiens is woefully incapable of surviving in nature and obviously descended from the common ancestor in terms of survivability and fitness ...

How do the opposable thumb, extremely accurate binocular vision, and the most efficient form of locomotion that doesn't involve wheels constitute evolution away from survivability?

Heck -- if you can prove your assertion, there is a Nobel in it for you.

So, you do have to prove something; it is your theory that humans "evolved" away from survivability, and your theory that natural selection is fictitious.

If you can't pose a fatal contradiction to the existing theory, or present something that explains the available first order knowledge better than the existing theory, then you have objections that may eventually prove valid, but at the moment simply don't fill the bill.

But I'm more interested in what you think of my theodicy objection to ID.

December 18, 2005 7:12 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Peter:

'When challenged...'???

You seem to think that I'm making some out-there mad professor claims for natural selection. But I'm just stating the bleedin' obvious. As Skipper says, even ID proponents and Orrin Judd don't deny that natural selection is the mechanism for change in populations. They just insist on inserting an interferer every now and again, eg. in speciation.

Natural selection is just the name we give to what happens over generations when you get variation in a reproducing population. It's not even remotely controversial.

You need to stop thinking of natural selection as a positive force purposefully acting on things.

Selection pressure can be strong or weak or virtually non-existent. In a particularly demanding or a rapidly changed environment, some inheritable characteristics might suddenly prove to be the only things keeping their owners alive, while huge swathes of the population without that characteristic are cut down before reproducing. In that instance, the succeeding generation will look very different from the previous, and we would describe the selection pressure as being strong.

In other instances, such as benign unchanging environments, all the individuals might have a decent or equal shot at reproducing, despite their variations. In that instance, the next generation will look pretty similar to the last, and we can describe the selection pressure as weak. This is where you get 'stasis'.

As I said, none of that is controversial even in the darwinism vs ID debate. What is controversial is whether anything else has been needed to account for the evolution of life on earth, and if so, what that something might be.

Like Skipper, I'm intrigued to know in what sense you think man can have 'evolved away from survivability'. What does that mean?

December 19, 2005 6:06 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Brit, Peter:

There is another curious element of "natural selection" that is beyond dispute: statistics.

One of the big differences between that strawman called "darwinism" and naturalistic evolution is seeing how the dice roll.

Given a sufficiently small population, it is possible for a given allele to completely disappear in one generation, even while the child generation is the same size as the parent.

I don't remember the numbers exactly, but for a population with 25 breeding pairs, there is roughly a 5% chance that an allele will disappear from one generation to the next.

Nothing supernatural about it (and nothing speculative, either). It is common among reproductively isolated human populations.

December 19, 2005 9:02 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

Brit wrote: "do you really want to run the risk that vouchers and community standards will result in teaching an Islamic science that proves Muslims are destined to rule the world?

Do I want that? No.

Would I accept it? Probably - logically yes, but it's admittedly awfully easy for me to say that sitting 2000 miles away. I'm curious what David and Peter B. would answer?

December 19, 2005 10:33 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

How do you tell whether a mutation is helpful or harmful?

Observe the organism.

It's all relative to the environment. In some circumstances, being homologous for the aPoe4 (I think that's the name, don't have the reference in front of me now) gene seems to enhance human longevity, sometimes not. (See Nick Lane, 'Oxygen.')

Single lethal genes are relatively uncommon (for obvious reasons) but often spectacular when present: think Huntington's chorea.

The lethal gene for Huntington's is not highly selected for, however, because the bad effects do not manifest themselves until the carriers' breeding cycle is more or less complete.

Unlike Tay-Sachs.

I have seen it said (but do not know whether it is true) that Tay-Sachs gene has been artificially selected out of existence, or nearly so, in just a few years by screening and genetic counseling.

Selection for or against, say, hair color is weak, although if you have a population with very uniform hair color, that may be an indication of a high selection (bottleneck) event.

If all the people on the first canoe to Hawaii had black hair, then dozens of generations later, (almost) all the people would have black hair, without any selection pressure at all.

Add in a few blondes, and within one generation, hair color starts varying. Again without any noticeable selection pressure.

You have to know (or be able to surmise) the history.

December 19, 2005 10:36 AM  
Blogger David said...

Natural selection is just another name for dumb luck. It just sounds better in Nature than saying that all of natural history was shaped by dumb luck.

So, Darwin's theory is the theory of dumb luck; the modern synthesis downplays the role of dumb luck; and you guys think that it is apocalyptic if high school studets aren't taught about the important role dumb luck plays in biology.

Skipper: You bring up continental drift quite often, but I've never understood what you find so compelling. If you would, I'd like to try to understand why, from your point of view, it is of such central importance.

December 19, 2005 11:04 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

David:

Don't pooh-pooh it. It took an extraordinary intellectual leap for humans to grasp the importance of dumb luck in shaping life on earth.

Many people still can't conceive of it. The application of teleology is hard-wired into our brains.

December 19, 2005 12:13 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Bret:

I've asked these guys many times, if they mistrust local democracy, what authority they would like to decide ultimately what gets taught to the kids. And answers come there none. If they were French, they would be honest and say something forthrightly elitist like Mais, L'Academie Francaise, bien sur, but being good Anglospherics they can't be so so openly aristocratic. Hence their tortured talk about the tyranny of theocratically-inclined, uneducated majorities who must be checked by unelected, unaccountable judges pronouncing on rational, scientific orthodoxy pursuant to impeccable constitutional grounds.

Harry:

Word games. Not one argument that this or that mutation is conducive to survival couldn't be met by another arguing why it is the opposite. Good times, fun times and sometimes even probative, but not science or even rationalism.

Brit:

even ID proponents and Orrin Judd don't deny that natural selection is the mechanism for change in populations...It's not even remotely controversial.

Mom always told me I was special. I could give a lengthy reply, but seeing as you appear to be agreeing with David that natural selection is just a synonym for dumb luck, I'm reconsidering everything. Gotta wonder, though, what that makes random mutation.

Skipper:

Give me a day or two on that one. I'm hung up on how we all tend to mix up the hows and the whys and am trying to think it through in a very busy week.

December 19, 2005 5:03 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Ouch, Peter.

I can think of at least one: the Tay-Sachs mutation, a lethal, single-allele mutation.

No upside to that one.

Before coming to work today, I was reading Chapter 3 of Dawkins's 'Climbing Mount Improbable,' which has a very clear explanation of why dumb luck is, although not a requirement for darwinian explanations, perfectly compatible with them.

Nothing new there. Francois Jacob said the same in 'Chance and Necessity' a generation ago.

You are making, though, the mistake that
Dawkins is particularly insistent upon -- assuming, incorrectly, that dumb luck operates at every stage of the process.

It doesn't and no scientist says that it does, although most antiscientific critics end up saying so sooner or later.

December 19, 2005 5:38 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

Skipper: You bring up continental drift quite often, but I've never understood what you find so compelling.

I do so, repeatedly, for several distinct reasons.

First, both naturalistic evolution (NE) and plate tectonics (PT) are historical sciences. The time spans for both processes are such that we may as well be mayflies observing the fall of communism -- the period of live observation is so vanishingly small compared to the phenomena itself that we simply can't point at anything but the tiniest changes as evidence of what we expect to find. No one has ever seen a continent divide, or a mountain range get heaved up, yet no one who is not a YEC doubts plate tectonics has happened, is ongoing, and that the materialistic explanation is generally correct, while undoubtedly incomplete in the specifics.

As well, plate tectonics isn't "good" for much, unless you need to understand geology, and it has zero predictive power.

Comparing plate tectonics and evolution in this way thereby raises this question: the nature of the evidence is the same, the time spans are the same, the changes within human reference time scales are the same. On what basis, then, can one accept plate tectonics on one hand, whilst rubbishing NE on the other?

Second -- and here is a bit of irony -- many people had noted some coastlines were suspiciously mirror images of each other, leading to the obvious surmise that the Earth's crust was not fixed for all time. The first conclusive evidence that such is the case is based on one of NE's binding deductive consequences. ALL isolated populations diverge over time. IIRC, sometime in the 1950's paleontologists working on both sides of the Atlantic south of the equator found that, below identical strata, the fossils were identical. Above that layer, they diverged, and the divergence became more pronounced over time.

If other methods had proven PT, but the fossils did not display the required divergence, NE would have been holed below the water line.

ID is utterly silent on this; it has not one word to say about how life would respond to practically the most pivotal element of the earth's history. That should shame ID advocates. Unfortunately, it does not.

Finally, I suspect it is statistically provable that, given populations of sufficient size and environmental stasis, evolution would slow to a crawl, if not a dead stop (ignoring for the moment the ongoing battle between pathogens and hosts).

But that isn't the way the world works. While there are other things that give natural selection something to work with (free atmospheric oxygen leading to UV shielding ozone; the first flowering plants, the first trees, meteors, climatic change), plate tectonics is an implacable force that life must deal with. As I have repeatedly noted, essentially all life forms are climate specific, yet in geologic time, plate tectonics has ensured that all land parcels have transited all climatological zones.

Slowly, but most surely, PT has isolated terrestrial populations and subjected them to stress to which they had to adapt or become extinct.

Unless God is continuously micromanaging natural history, the only way there is any terrestrial life at all is through natural selection. Mutations are random, but the recursive sieve through which they have to pass is not.

Which leads to this: you guys think that it is apocalyptic if high school studets aren't taught about the important role dumb luck plays in biology

To which I can only say: Huh? Those of us who find NE a likely candidate for explaining Natural History have long since taken on board that dumb luck, and an environmentally imposed bias, tiny and glacial at human time scales, are part and parcel of natural history.

While "apocalyptic" wouldn't be my first word choice, I do think it is a perversion of intellectual standards to place something in a science class that does no research, has no binding deductive consequences, and is completely silent when it comes to the most salient points of Earth's history.

Sorry for the long reply, but your question did not allow for a simple answer.

December 19, 2005 5:44 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

But Peter B., you didn't quite answer the question. The question Brit put forth was "do you really want to run the risk that vouchers and community standards will result in teaching an Islamic science that proves Muslims are destined to rule the world?"

What's your answer to that?

December 19, 2005 10:24 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Bret:

Actually, that was Skipper's question.

Peter and David:

Much of the problem here is in communication.

David writes, As far as we know, cholera has been killing people for as long as there have been people, and we haven't mutated resistance yet...If I start out with one hundred quarters and I discard one every time it flips tails, it doesn't mean that, when I'm down to one coin, that coin has developed a means of flipping heads.

That last line hits the proverbial nail. Being killed by cholera will not produce a genetic mutation to resist cholera. Being killed by cholera produces death. As does being killed by any other disease, or a predator, or a climate change.

Virtually every species that has ever lived is extinct.

One way of looking at it is that natural selection doesn't work 'top-down'. It isn't there, waiting to produce helpful mutations. It works 'bottom-up'. Where a helpful mutation arises that gives an individual a survival or reproductive advantage over his fellows in a population then he might have a greater number of children also with that mutation, and thus the population at generation z will look different to the population at generation x.

Where David makes his mistake is to say that "natural selection is a very weak force".

It is a only a very weak force if there is not much selection pressure on a population. But in a small, isolated population, where the success of a few individuals makes a big difference to the make-up of the population, it might be an incredibly strong force in changing that population.

The problem with the word 'evolution' is that it is associated with progressing towards a goal. But it's really just change according to the environment.

The 'dumb luck' is merely in having a helpful mutation, or perhaps avoiding being eaten long enough to drop some sprogs. Thereafter, a better expression might be 'nature takes its course'.

December 20, 2005 1:24 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Bret:

Darwinism in the front lines of the war on terror, eh? I don't know why Brit uses the phrase "Islamic science"--I knew there was a problem in their religion classes, but their biology classes, too? I'm pretty worried about some of the things being taught in the schools Brit might approve of, but I'm not sure I would blame "secular science" and call for top-down enlightened religious supervision over local school boards.

The issue of subversive minorities is a real one that confronts all democracies from time to time. It's answer lies in the realm of the political, legal and constitutional based upon core moral values and historical experience, not by designing politics around putative scientific truth. Brit is making a very European argument that the well-educated, mainstream elites must have some supervisory control over truth and knowledge, or all those excitable masses may succumb to fantasy and superstition and havoc will reign. Well, it could and sometimess does, but protection against that and the rules of the civil order are not based upon scientific inquiry and shouldn't be. Do you want democracy or rule by the "brights".

My view is that there is far too much fear-mongering about what religious instruction and teachings will mean to public life in a pluralistic society, even with regards to Islam. For several hundred years Catholics en masse went to parochial schools and learned that Protestants were going to Hell, but we still managed to muddle along in North America. There are indeed concerns about what might be taught in Islamic schools these days, and good reasons to keep our eyes peeled, but the bare teaching that Islam is truth and will prevail someday is not one of them.

Brit:

I believe I do understand what natural selection is, or is supposed to be. But, when combined with random mutation and genetic drift, it all collapses into the tautological banalities that David describes so well--i.e. the fact of survival proves the survival imperative. I have no problem with the idea that some genetic mutations occur in response to survival imperatives. Bully for them. But I have a great deal of trouble with the idea that is all we need to explain the voyage from one cell in the primal goop to Bach. You don't, but surely you aren't going to tell me that your belief in that is a matter of proven, objective science.

Skipper:

OK, so continents shifted, glaciers melted and genes mutated. Gotcha. Is that all?

December 20, 2005 3:27 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Peter:

As I said above, that was Skipper's question, not mine.

Forgive me, but I don't think you do understand what natural selection is supposed to be.

"some genetic mutations occur in response to survival imperatives" is not right.

Some genetic mutations become prevalent in response to selection pressures.

December 20, 2005 4:11 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Pedant. How about, nature selects with varying degrees of strength that depend upon survival pressures for those mutations that advance fitness and survival? Am I close?

December 20, 2005 5:24 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

It's not pedantic, it's crucial to the non-teleology.

Selection pressures do not cause beneficial mutations.

December 20, 2005 8:29 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

How about:

Mutations (and random viral genetic engineering) happen continuously and randomly.

Not all mutations are equally helpful in all environmental circumstances, which are not random.

All life is recursive (remember that next time you hear an ID charlatan make an analogy between a cell and Mt. Rushmore).

The exception being life that does not yield further life.

The membership of the two groups is, therefore, not completely random.

It is that deviation from randomness which is the source of life's change over time.

Above I mentioned that claiming natural selection doesn't exist requires a whole series of absolutes.

In contrast, what I have described above contains a series of statements defining a classic feedback loop.

It would be extremely "unscientific" to conclude that this particular example of a feedback loop, in contrast to all other known examples, fails to function.

It would be especially "unscientific" to make that conclusion, despite many known examples of changes in allele frequencies because of that feedback loop.

BTW -- there was an item in the paper last week regarding the human genome. Apparently melanin-challenged skin is the result of a single point mutation that occurred in a small group of people migrating out of Africa; the same group that became Europeans.

Several things are noteworthy. First, even a small genetic change can make a big difference.

Second, for whatever reason, and, if the group was small enough, sheer chance may be sufficient cause, all Europeans are melanin challenged because many more of them than their melanin enhanced counterparts had offspring.

Finally, if God made us in His image, all the paintings depicting Adam and Eve as melanin challenged (never mind navels) are wrong.

December 20, 2005 9:19 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Peter:

You may wish to read Skipper's explanation again, because it seems as though you didn't quite grasp the import.

Asking OK, so continents shifted, glaciers melted and genes mutated. Gotcha. Is that all? is like looking at E=MC^2 and asking "is that all ?", or looking at the 40' seabed shift which caused the Indian Ocean tsunami and asking "is that all ?".

If you don't know what you're looking at, any of those could seem insignificant, but they all led to enormous upheaval.

December 20, 2005 9:21 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

"Explanation of why continental drift is very important in explaining the 'why' and 'how' of our world", to be clearer.

December 20, 2005 9:28 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Hear hear.

Skipper: at the risk of coming over all tag-teamy, that was a terrific post.

December 21, 2005 1:32 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Oroborous:

How so the why?

December 21, 2005 2:50 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Peter:

Not "why" as in "the meaning of life", that's a philosophical or theological question.

But, now that we're here, whatever the spark was, "why" as in "why life looks like it does - varied, odd, and with 99.9% of species extinct".

One could just say that God changes designs as required, but then we have to ask why the God that created the Universe can't come up with a self-repairing system of biology, especially since humans can design such systems ?

(We're communicating via one right now).

Anytime a theory has to postulate that God's an idiot, it loses credibility.

December 21, 2005 10:52 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

Anytime a theory has to postulate that God's an idiot, it loses credibility.

Which returns full circle to my original point: ID leads directly to that conclusion (or worse), making ID a far worse enemy of Christianity than Darwin ever could hope to be.

On this I base what could be a foolproof zealot test: a person's zealotry on any topic is inversely proportional to their ability to detect irony surrounding that topic.

IDists are irony proof.

This is a very interesting article on this subject.

The reply contains a barking mad error. Perhaps you can spot it?

December 21, 2005 11:43 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Peter even I could outdo Bach if given enough iterations; if nothing else, I could generate all possible fugues, some of which would be better.

Evolution by natural selection has offered an awful lot of iterations. Who knows how many? At least as many as the number of fundamental particles multiplied by itself.

That's a bunch.

Also, you are making an argumentative leap from one proposition (that school curricula should be based on well-attested sources) to an unrelated proposition, which is, in fact, the one being pushed by the Discovery Institute (that schools should teach according to authority [and it better be theirs]).

The second went out among educated people around 1500, but the news hasn't filtered all that far in the past 500 years.

December 21, 2005 5:44 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Skipper:

Thanks for the links. I’m not sure which bit you think is more barking than the rest, but the Archbishop doesn't grasp that while mutation is random, selection is non-random. He gets himself into a pretty pickle with his solution to the number plate analogy, leading him to produce this passage:

The Darwinian biologist looking at the history of life faces a precisely analogous question. If he takes a very narrow view of the supposedly random variation that meets his gaze, it may well be impossible to correlate it to anything interesting, and thus variation remains simply unintelligible. He then summarizes his ignorance of any pattern in variation by means of the rather respectable term “random.” But if he steps back and looks at the sweep of life, he sees an obvious, indeed an overwhelming pattern. The variation that actually occurred in the history of life was exactly the sort needed to bring about the complete set of plants and animals that exist today. In particular, it was exactly the variation needed to give rise to an upward sweep of evolution resulting in human beings. If that is not a powerful and relevant correlation, then I don’t know what could count as evidence against actual randomness in the mind of an observer.

Why is it so tricky for so many otherwise intelligent people to get it?

December 22, 2005 3:06 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Brit:

The barking mad error I was referring to is this, to which you alluded:

And natural selection is also random: The properties of the ever-changing environment that drive evolution through natural selection are also not correlated to anything, according to the Darwinists.

Make that two barking mad errors.

So the properties of the ever-changing environment are not correlated to anything? Balderdash.

Where ever you are, this second's weather is extremely highly correlated to the previous second's weather. This hour's somewhat less correlated than the previous hour's. Today's reasonably correlated to yesterday's.

Not a whole lot of correlation, though, between this week's and last week's.

But a heck of a lot of correlation between, say, this winter and last winter, because winters are highly correlated with the tilt of the earth's axis.

Never mind the correlation between, say, a mountain range and rainfall on the leeside of that mountain range.

How the Cardinal has the ability to string together complete sentences, yet is unable to detect the central, obvious, nonsense at the core of them leaves me gob smacked.

December 22, 2005 4:49 AM  
Blogger David said...

Skipper: Thanks for the explanation, although it still doesn't sing to me.

Regardless of how powerful natural selection is, there is no feedbook loop. Ever faster lions aren't created to chase ever faster antelope.

Harry: We're backing into the one world problem (as we only have one world, it's hard to know what should surprise us and what should not) but the diversity of life seems to argue against strong natural selection, not for it. So long as a mutation can survive and reproduce, it seems to have a good chance of making it. There are just too many keys to that lock for it to be hard to open.

Brit: All the things we've agreed on here (random chance and dumb luck and one mutation skin color) demonstrate why the naive theory of natural selection in which so many people believe, along with the Just So stories so-called "scientists" concoct, are nonsense.

December 22, 2005 2:47 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

there is no feedbook loop. Ever faster lions aren't created to chase ever faster antelope.

No feedback loop? Life is the perfect example of a feedback loop, as only the survivors get to have another round. The only way that feedback loop does not exist is if the survivors are completely random. Even the tiniest deviation from randomness, taken over enough generations, is adequate.

As for lions and antelope, you certainly don't believe there are no physical constraints, or that emphasizing one aspect invariably results in the compromise of another, do you? (human infant brain size, prolonged childhood, maternal mortality and maternal mobility are together an excellent example of such tradeoffs. No matter how much we might benefit from a larger brain, there is no way to get there from here because of the other constraints)

Finally, you failed to grasp the primary proof of natural selection: plate tectonics, which set up the experiment within which we live. If there is even a remotely plausible alternative to natural selection in explaining why there is any terrestrial life at all, I'm all ears (okay, mixed metaphor, under the circumstances, I am all eyes).

And I'm not the least sure what you are contesting, the "naive" theory of natural selection, or the "informed version."

December 22, 2005 4:56 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

David:

I don't really have a clue what you mean by the 'naive' version of natural selection, but if it's nonsense, then I'm certainly agin it.

Genetic mutation is random, but selection is not.

It's true that to some degree the one world problem is a problem. But even in this one world we have what is known as 'convergent evolution', where natural selection has independently come up with similar solutions for similar problems.

New World vultures (sharing common ancestry with storks) and African vultures (sharing common ancestry with eagles) evolved identical lifestyles separately.

Ant eating animals in Australia, South America Africa and Asia all evolved long sticky tongues separately (anteaters, pangolins, armadillos).

Selection pressures are not random - they are determined by the world we inhabit.

The 'just so' stories are OJ's favourite target. But what does that amount to? Scientists speculate and guess and posit theories all the time. Nothing wrong with that at all, it's how most science starts. Sometimes their guesses can sound pretty crazy, and the mainstream media pick up on the craziest and hype them up for a quirky news story. Orrin then posts the quirkiest he can find on his blog and holds it up as evidence of the craziness of evolutionary science. Big deal.

December 23, 2005 1:18 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I added this thread to the "Ongoing Discussions" menu.

December 24, 2005 10:53 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I don't have a 'one world' problem.

Whether an observation 'surprises' me or not seems irrelevant.

You are saying that mutations easily survive, a value judgment. Let us step back from mutations to whole organisms.

The Hawaiian islands are about 75 million years old and, before the advent of modern transportation, had acquired about 10K species -- 9K small arthropods.

Some evolved in the islands -- the 27 species of greenswords and silverswords from a parent, the California tarweed, for example.

Taking all this into account, the colonization rate for all metaflora and metafauna is calculated at 1/35K years.

So you can get a large amount of diverse organisims even if survival rates are very low, if you allow enough time.

75 my is trivial in the context of Earth, so the large number of existent species could as equally be marveled at on the grounds that so few made it through.

Then there are parasites. I cannot see how you get parasites without natural selection.

And they outnumber all non-parasitic species by some huge amount. Carl Zimmer (not an authority I admire) says 4:1 among the metafauna.

That must be an underestimate, perhaps by another order of magnitude.

Here we get back to my favorite parasite, the human eyebrow mite.

December 24, 2005 11:26 AM  
Blogger David said...

Naive Darwinism is that in which natural selection acts: Natural selections creates...; natural selection hones...; natural selection designs...; natural selection explains...; etc. The problem with the Just So stories is the naive Darwinist assumption that every aspect of every creature (including those that are not genetic) must be explainable in terms of relative advantage. That doesn't mean that none are, but it can't simply be assumed.

Skipper: Lions eat old and sick antelopes. Having old and sick antelopes is how the herd deals with lions. Are we therefore to conclude that natural selection selects for age and illness?

But there is no feedback loop in a much more fundamental sense: each act of genotype extinction (that is, the death of each individual) is entirely independent. Almost all deaths have no effect, whatsoever, on the genotype of the species, to the extent that it makes sense to speak of such a thing.

December 27, 2005 7:13 AM  
Blogger David said...

Harry: Indeed. The human eyebrow mite is a perfect example of the weakness of natural selection. Even the most preposterous mutations survive. It's as if coins started landing on their sides a third of the time and you pointed to that as proof of randomness.

December 27, 2005 7:15 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

What's preposterous about a human eyebrow mite?

Mites are extremely common and diverse. It was almost inevitable that some would colonize our eyebrows, and -- given that eyebrows are a low stress environment -- do well there.

If preposterousness were enough to win in the game of natural selection, there would still be lots of species of elephants instead of just two.

December 27, 2005 10:00 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

Lions eat old and sick antelopes. Having old and sick antelopes is how the herd deals with lions. Are we therefore to conclude that natural selection selects for age and illness?

Speaking of naive.

It is impossible to talk intelligently about natural selection without some notion of population statistics. That is both a truism and a caveat, since it has been years since I took statistics, and I'm not terribly well read on population statistics.

The element you are leaving out is chance. And, no, that isn't a self-defeating admission.

It is more accurate to say that unlucky antelopes get eaten, and that being slow increases the chances of unluckiness.

But enough exposure to risk will eventually lead to becoming a victim of that risk. I don't care how good a driver you are, if you drive enough, you will eventually get a ticket, or be involved in an accident.

Similarly for animals. No matter how fast an antelope, or how well it eludes lions, disease and mishap, also functions of exposure, will eventually cause mortality.

So natural selection doesn't select for age and infirmity; rather, enough mishaps happen over time so there is insufficient selection against infirmity.

This is not a just so story. The linkage between body size, mortality rates and longevity are statistically ironclad, and precisely what population statistics based upon natural selection predict.

Absent modern medicine, dentistry, and sanitation, the average human lifespan was roughly 40, driven largely by exposure to various risks. Because increasingly few individuals are alive at ages beyond that, any genetic advantage for longevity is increasingly unlikely to make it to the next generation.

But there is no feedback loop in a much more fundamental sense: each act of genotype extinction (that is, the death of each individual) is entirely independent.

In a static environment, probably true.

But as I mentioned above, that is not the way the world works. Because of that, genotype extinction is no more independent than genotype survival.

As an example, investigate the evolution of sea turtles, driven by the increasing separation of their nesting islands from the neighboring continental landmass.

Which is driven by plate tectonics.


It is perhaps helpful to keep in mind that Natural Selection is the part of naturalistic evolution that seems utterly beyond contention. Even ID/Creationists talk about an Intelligent Mutator, not an Intelligent Selector.

I understand that reeks of argument by authority, but if natural selection was that easy to poke holes in, it would have happened long ago.

December 28, 2005 4:51 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Harry:

Human lice are just as fascinating, for largely the same reasons.

For their evolution completely mirrors that of humans.

They are completely environment specific, and their genomic changes parallel humanity's.

ID is completely silent on this, as well.

December 28, 2005 4:53 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

That's easy enough: God wants us to itch.

December 28, 2005 5:35 PM  
Blogger David said...

I've apparently lost track of what we're talking about, because you guys keep making my arguments for me. I'll I'm saying is that the phenotypes we observe in the world around us are almost entirely the result of chance. Natural selection is just another word for dumb luck. Once we understand that, we understand that it is banal and fundamentally uninteresting.

December 29, 2005 1:00 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

the phenotypes we observe in the world around us are almost entirely the result of chance.

Sounds right to me.

Natural selection is just another word for dumb luck.

That's an extremely parsiminious characterization of a theory noteworthy for its parsimony, but not quite right. For it it was nothing but dumb luck, meaning everything involved was completely random, and there was never any correlation to anything gone before, then nothing would have ever happened.

Once we understand that, we understand that it is banal and fundamentally uninteresting.

To you, maybe.

To pick just one example, I don't see how the apparent existence of a point mutation creating melanin challenged skin, and the manner of its propagation, is either a matter of nothing but dumb luck, or at all banal or uninteresting.

To me.

And, presuming it is truly banal and uninteresting, that scarcely accounts for the reactions of the theologically exercised.

December 30, 2005 7:01 AM  
Blogger David said...

Skipper: Genetics is fascinating. Dumb luck isn't. That a point mutation may be responsible for skin color variation is interesting -- not least because it makes nonsense of all the Just So stories that have been told about skin color mutation. Instead of Natural Selection carefully calibrating skin color to climate (which was always a little weird because it put darker skin in hotter climates), it might turn out to be a combination of simple mutation and founder effects. In other words, one of the seemingly most important shaper of the modern world (the interaction of skin color and xenophobia) turns out to be dumb luck.

December 30, 2005 8:28 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

The point mutation is dumb luck.

Which is why I don't find the naive genetics end of this question particularly interesting. (BTW, I say naive because I am convinced that naturalistic evolution is completely, and knowingly, naive with respect to DNA.)

Because the pure, dumb, memoryless, uncorrelated with anything, luck is on the genetic side.

To me the point mutation that led to melanin challenged skin is a mere dice roll. Why it so completely propagated within certain populations is the fascinating question.

The Just So stories you criticize are a product of naturalistic evolution. As such, they are potentially vulnerable to eventual discoveries, such as this.

As opposed to any alternative to naturalistic evolution, all of which are hopelessly silent on anything like this.

Anyway, your response seems inverted.

The mutation was dumb luck.

Why it became something other than a one off (overcame Vitamin-D deficiency, allowing population of previously sun deprived environments; female mate choice; type your just so story here), is the truly interesting question.

To me, anyway.

December 30, 2005 2:00 PM  
Blogger David said...

Or it was just dumb luck. Which is the problem: once we move away from the genetics, dumb luck is as plausible as every other explanation. The story of evolution is not that a few mutations survive because they confer a benefit, it is that only a few expressed mutations don't make it, sometimes because they confer a handicap and mostly because of dumb luck.

December 30, 2005 7:48 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

For various reasons, that we can explore more fully if you like, and that were touched on by Skipper, dark skin is beneficial near the Equator, and fair skin becomes an asset towards the poles.
Further, fair skin is a liability near the Equator, and dark skin is the same, when far north or south.

The story of evolution is not that a few mutations survive because they confer a benefit, it is that only a few expressed mutations don't make it...

No, that's exactly opposite.

Only a few expressed mutations survive, and most DO NOT, even when they do confer a benefit.

We know this because we can track the rate of change within the human genome, and it changes VERY SLOWLY, which is the opposite of what one would expect if, with every generation, some random mutations were conserved and henceforth spread.

As an example of a beneficial mutation that hasn't had a large impact, consider that approximately 1% of people descended from Northern Europeans are IMMUNE to HIV.

This apparently occurs due to a mutation that originally occured in response to the Black Plague.

Now, one might think that such a mutation would confer an enormous benefit during those tormented generations of human existence when total population dropped by a third, but still the mutation almost didn't get conserved.

Mutations happen all the time; rarely do they get propogated.

December 30, 2005 11:03 PM  
Blogger David said...

O: You might want to check the northernmost and southern most latitudes of Africa.

December 31, 2005 6:54 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Do you mean the brown peoples of the Mediterranean, and the light immigrants from Northern Europe, who suffer from much higher rates of skin cancer than do the blacks ?

December 31, 2005 3:37 PM  
Blogger David said...

Natural selection won't have any effect on skin cancer, which mostly effects people after the child-bearing years. Plus, we need to balance skin cancer against the cancer preventive effects of Vitamin D.

We watched March of Penguins tonight. It is more "suggested by actual events" than documentary, but nonetheless is a slam against the strong theory of natural selection.

December 31, 2005 7:09 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

but nonetheless is a slam against the strong theory of natural selection.

You better explain that.

Penguins, among other animals, are pretty good examples of how continental drift is the ongoing stress life must deal with.

Unless penguins are a case of special creation, just how else do you figure they came to be?

January 01, 2006 1:42 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

[W]e need to balance skin cancer against the cancer preventive effects of Vitamin D.

The need for Vitamin D is exactly why Northern Europeans are pale white.

January 01, 2006 7:07 PM  
Blogger David said...

Skipper: Penguins are the result of evolution, I assume, but certainly couldn't have survived the savage winnowing of nature red in tooth and claw.

O: White skin apparently results from a one-time random point mutation. It happened to catch people on their way to, or newly arrived at, Europe. My hypothesis is that it probably made little difference either way.

January 02, 2006 1:28 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

Penguins are the result of evolution, I assume, but certainly couldn't have survived the savage winnowing of nature red in tooth and claw.

OK. What did they survive, then?

January 03, 2006 3:17 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Ahem.

Ok. Why did they survive, then?

January 03, 2006 8:17 AM  
Blogger David said...

Because nothing killed them.

The least that I'm saying about natural selection is that the usual formulation -- mutations survive if they provide some advantage -- sets the default the wrong way. Mutuations survive unless something kills them off is more to the point.

January 03, 2006 12:25 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

Mutuations survive unless something kills them off is more to the point

Ummm, think, think, must take up contrary position.

Sorry, can't.

Presuming you are absolutely correct, an easy presumption to make, that still leaves the core proposition of naturalistic evolution completely intact:

The biosphere completely contains all the requirements for self organized complexity. Once the ball got rolling, there was absolutely no need for a deus ex machina, or a plan.

That life changes over time is a certainty. That life assumes any particular form, including man, is a fluke.

January 04, 2006 5:30 AM  
Blogger David said...

Skipper: Sure, but that's easy for us to say as we accept that the evidence is consistent with evolution.

Of course, I also accept that, once we've agreed that a substantial part of the process entails dumb luck, we've opened the door for G-d.

January 04, 2006 10:26 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

I also accept that, once we've agreed that a substantial part of the process entails dumb luck, we've opened the door for G-d.

I bet you would also accept that if we discovered that a substantial part of the process entailed God's guiding hand at every turn, that also would open the door for G-d.

Which means any conclusion you might arrive at on this subject ends up in the same place.

No problem with that. However, in so doing you single-handedly gut any claim that naturalistic evolution is inherently atheistic.

And you also substantiate the notion that insisting upon some scriptural account (or any account that nature itself does not reveal) is to put G-d in a box of man's making.

January 04, 2006 4:53 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

While what has been revealed to us, and that we can sense with our feeble carnal selves, and dope out with our intensely limited brains, is all that we know of God, that's not all of God.

Any concept that we have of Her is necessarily framed by our limitations of perception and conception - the human-box.

Which doesn't help us much with the evolution question, except in the sense that it means that we can never definitively know, until after death.

January 04, 2006 10:32 PM  
Blogger David said...

Skipper: I don't believe that evolution, or any materialistic theory about nature, is inherently atheistic. There is no discovery that could be made about the natural world that would negate my conception of G-d as author, just as nothing Stephen Maturin could discover about the natural world would effect the existence of Patrick O'Brian.

Evolution is consistent with the evidence and what is known about genetics and the physical world. It is consistent with G-d. It is consistent with no god. When it comes to the meaning of life, evolution is simply not a powerful explicator.

It does, however, make one wonder whether those atheists who are such enthusiastic Darwinists are driven by their love of science or their hatred of G-d. (OK, so it doesn't really make me wonder.)

January 05, 2006 7:27 AM  
Blogger David said...

Actually, prompted by the thread at brothersjudd about consciousness, I realize that consciousness and free will is an exception to my last comment. An entirely materialistic explanation of consciousness would be troubling. Good thing that, as of now, it seems unlikely.

January 05, 2006 8:01 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

There is no discovery that could be made about the natural world that would negate my conception of G-d as author, just as nothing Stephen Maturin could discover about the natural world would effect the existence of Patrick O'Brian.

That is the sort of thing that makes it clear you are a naturally gifted writer.

It does, however, make one wonder whether those atheists who are such enthusiastic Darwinists are driven by their love of science or their hatred of G-d. (OK, so it doesn't really make me wonder.)

But are you wondering about the right thing?

Once again dipping into the irony ocean, I strongly suspect that many enthusiastic Darwinists are also on the left, and simultaneously hold that Scriptural explanations, which hold human nature to be fixed, are wrong.

In contrast, the naturalistic explanation, since it is correct and negates Scripture, somehow means human nature is malleable, subject to the whims of social engineering.

In other words, they make the same mistake as ID/Creationists, who routinely hold the negation (even if true) of a competing theory confirmation of theirs.

They completely fail to understand that to the extent they find naturalistic evolution true, they are conservatives.

Oh, BTW, I suspect that, to the extent they are exercised, atheists direct their ire at religion, not G-d.

I think it is a peculiar blind spot of religionists that they are simply incapable of comprehending that what is so important to them is simply a nullity to others.

An entirely materialistic explanation of consciousness would be troubling. Good thing that, as of now, it seems unlikely.

You are right; however, even if such a thing was to happen, I strongly suspect that people will continue to happily entertain simultaneously mutually exclusive ideas.

Even now I suspect one now, the closer one gets to defining Free Will, the further away it gets. As an objectively true matter, it may well not exist.

But subjectively it is a very useful fiction, one we will never discard.

January 07, 2006 5:55 AM  
Blogger David said...

I think it is a peculiar blind spot of religionists that they are simply incapable of comprehending that what is so important to them is simply a nullity to others.

Really? I had always thought that to be essentially human. Who among us doesn't, upon discovering some new recipe/movie/book/restaurant, immediately want to tell others about it? Which of us doens't overhype our new discovery while feeling an absurd sense of ownership? Aren't we all secretly crushed when the experience doesn't live up to our hype.

January 07, 2006 2:42 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Who among us doesn't, upon discovering some new recipe/movie/book/restaurant, immediately want to tell others about it?

While that's certainly a very common human reaction, (and one that has a huge evolutionary benefit), I think that what Skipper was getting at is that religionists are sometimes like a person enthusiastically hyping a great Italian place to a person who doesn't eat carbs.

January 07, 2006 7:39 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

You are right, it is very human to share a some new recipe/movie/book/restaurant, even to the point of, possibly, over egging it.

The difference, though, as that most people sharing that kind of information can easily comprehend someone else not experiencing that enthusiasm in full, or even at all.

And they do so without trying to attribute such deviant thinking to family trauma, or harboring a hatred of chefs, or insisting that such people have a chef-sized hole in their hearts.

January 08, 2006 3:06 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

And they do so without trying to attribute such deviant thinking to family trauma, or harboring a hatred of chefs, or insisting that such people have a chef-sized hole in their hearts.

LOL. Glad to see you take on all those tiresome pop psychologists, Skipper.

January 08, 2006 7:55 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

David, have you read Francois Jacob's 'Chance and Necessity'? You should.

It does no good to raise objections based on randomness to the non-random part of the explanation.

And you seem to misunderstand the fate of mutations. They do not survive if not selected against. Over time, neutral mutations are elided out of the genome, because of the energy cost.

The recent (apparent) discovery that plants respire methane is causing biologists furiously to think. What function is being conserved?

It ought also to be giving global warmers furiously to think, as the until now unaccounted for methane is likely to be more than enough to swamp the alleged signal confirming anthropogenic GW.

January 15, 2006 5:25 PM  
Blogger David said...

They do not survive if not selected against.

This is, of course, tautological and thus buttresses my point.

January 16, 2006 1:39 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Not tautological at all.

There is a difference between being selected for and not being selected against.

The difference is measurable. In fact, that's what molecular clocks do measure.

January 16, 2006 3:53 PM  

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