Friday, July 14, 2006

Intelligent Denial

John Derbyshire takes down George Gilder, The Discovery Institute and Creationism/Intelligent Design in grand style:
It’s a wearying business, arguing with Creationists. Basically, it is a game of Whack-a-Mole. They make an argument, you whack it down. They make a second, you whack it down. They make a third, you whack it down. So they make the first argument again. This is why most biologists just can’t be bothered with Creationism at all, even for the fun of it. It isn’t actually any fun. Creationists just chase you round in circles. It’s boring.

It would be less boring if they’d come up with a new argument once in a while, but they never do. I’ve been engaging with Creationists for a couple of years now, and I have yet to hear an argument younger than I am. (I am not young.) All Creationist arguments have been whacked down a thousand times, but they keep popping up again. Nowadays I just refer argumentative e-mailers to the TalkOrigins website, where any argument you are ever going to hear from a Creationist is whacked down several times over. Don’t think it’ll stop ’em, though.**

...

Well, here is George Gilder, taking up the challenge. He offers us a complete metaphysic. He then makes the very large claim that science cannot (or will soon be unable to — I am not clear on this point) progress any further unless it abandons its present materialist assumptions and takes up this new metaphysic of his. What can we make of this?

First let’s take a look at George’s metaphysic. It is pluralistic, which is to say, it argues that the basic substance of the universe is of several different kinds. In George’s schema there are three kinds of stuff: intelligence, information, and matter.

...
Information, says George, is by definition intelligently organized. If it were not, it would not be information, only random static. Further, information needs some material substrate on which to be inscribed, so that matter (understood in the modern sense of matter-energy) is the carrier of information.

Information is thus at the center of his schema, standing between matter, the substrate on which it is inscribed, and intelligence, which organizes it.

...

There is a hierarchy of being, with insensate matter at the bottom, carrying very little information, up through living creatures, which carry immensely more, having far more complex material substrates, to a supreme intelligence which (I think) has the entire universe as its substrate.

Information, designed by intelligence, makes everything happen. The information in a computer program makes your phone bill happen (and the programmer’s intelligence makes the program happen); the information in DNA makes proteins happen. This is a one-way process: Your phone bill can’t make the computer program happen (nor can the program make your intelligence happen), a protein can’t make a gene happen, etc. Nothing at the lower-information level — a phone bill, a protein — can make anything at the higher-information level — program, gene — happen. This refutes materialism’s assertion that higher information-bearing structures can arise from lower ones. It also refutes evolution, which has high-information-bearing substrates arising out of low-information-bearing ones.

...

We then proceed to George’s main point, which is, that science cannot (or will soon be unable to) progress any further unless it abandons its present materialist assumptions and takes up this new metaphysic. What can be said about that?

I think the main thing to be said about it is, that George’s metaphysics is going to be a tough sell to scientists. This is important, because science is a very important part of our culture — “the court from which there is no appeal” (Tom Wolfe). If you can’t sell your metaphysic to scientists, George, then it is just an intellectual curiosity, headed nowhere.

There are two reasons why George’s ideas, as presented in this essay, are a tough sell. First, he loses biologists right away with his Creationist patter. Second, George’s Discovery Institute and his Center for Science and Culture don’t discover things and don’t do any science.

First, the Creationist stuff.

Creationists seem not to be aware of how central evolution is to modern biology. Without it, nothing makes sense. I recently, here on NRO, reviewed Nicholas Wade’s book about human origins. We have known a good deal about human origins for a long time, from researches in archeology and zoology. Darwin himself wrote a book on the topic back in 1871. Now, with the tools of modern genomics at our disposal, we are finding out much, much more. None of this would be possible, none of it would make any sense, if speciation by evolution were not the case. A research program in paleoanthropology premised on the idea that speciation by evolution is not the case, would have nowhere to go, nothing to do, and nothing to tell us. It is hard to see how any such program would be possible; though if George will tell me, I’ll be glad to broadcast his idea.

It’s not just paleoanthropology. Speciation via evolution underpins all of modern biology, both pure and applied. Note that in the latter category fall such things as new cures for diseases and genetic defects, new crops, new understandings of the brain, with consequences for pedagogy and psychology, and so on. To say to biologists: “Look, I want you to drop all this nonsense about evolution and listen to me,” is like walking into a room full of pilots and aeronautical engineers and telling them that classical aerodynamics is all hogwash.

Biologists are of all scientists least in need of a new metaphysic. Neurophysiology aside, it is in the “hard” sciences that our epistemological underwear is showing. When physicists have to resort to explanations involving teeny strings vibrating in scrunched-up eleven-dimensional spaces a trillion trillion trillion trillionth of an inch across, or cosmologists try to tell us that entire universes are proliferating every nanosecond like bacteria in a petri dish, there is a case to be made for a metaphysical overhaul. Not that work in these fields has come to a baffled dead stop, as George seems to imply. Far from it; the problem in fundamental physics and cosmology is not so much that we have run out of theories, as that we have too many theories. I’ll grant that there are epistemological issues, though.

Biology, by contrast, really has no outstanding epistemological problems. With the tools of modern genomics at its disposal, it is in fact going through a phase of great energy and excitement, so that biologists are much too busy to be bothered with epistemological issues. To modify the simile I offered above: Creationists are walking into that room full of pilots and aeronautical engineers right at the peak of the Golden Age of flight, around 1930. “Hey, those machines of yours don’t really fly, you know…”

Another turn-off is the blithe way George makes pronouncements about the limits of our understanding. Doesn’t he know the track record here? I think the star of this particular show is Auguste Comte, who declared in 1835 that we could never possibly know the composition of the stars. The spectroscope was invented in 1859.

Not deterred by Comte’s example, George writes that: “This process of protein synthesis and ‘plectics’ cannot even in principle be modeled on a computer.” You sure about that, George? “Even in principle”? How do you know that? Computer modelers are awfully ingenious and creative people. Are you quite sure that you are ahead of all of them? Even that team of 19-year-old, 190-IQ whiz kids in that Microsoft-funded lab in Shanghai, whose heads are full of amazing new ideas? Oh, you’ve never met them? Perhaps you should. And that other team over here, and that one there, and the folk in Bangalore, and the guys in Stuttgart, and that great new institute in Budapest... Never met them either? Oh.

If, five years from now, one of these innumerable teams of researchers develops a really good computer simulation of protein synthesis, will George discard that metaphysic of his, that told him it couldn’t be done? I hope he will.

George’s attitude here is anyway at odds with his “social” arguments. He cannot imagine that anyone could come up with a computer model of protein synthesis because... well, no one ever has. Similarly, Michael Behe of Darwin’s Black Box fame, back in the 1990s, could not imagine that anyone could come up with an evolutionary pathway for the bacterial flagellum, because... no-one ever had. They since have. So George’s assertion that “Behe’s claim of ‘irreducible complexity’ is manifestly true” is manifestly false. Yet these are the people who lecture us on Establishment Science’s reluctance to countenance new ideas!

That brings us to the second problem that scientists have with George’s system: After being around for many years, it has not produced any science. George’s own Discovery Institute was established in 1990; the offshoot Center for Science and Culture (at first called the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture) in 1992. That is an aggregate 30 years. Where is the science? In all those years, not a single paper of scientific standing has come out of (nor even, to the best of my knowledge, been submitted by) the DI or the CSC. I am certainly willing to be corrected here. If the DI or CSC have any papers of scientific standing — published or not — I shall post links to them to NRO for qualified readers to scrutinize.

Scientists discover things. That’s what they do. In fast-growing fields like genomics, they discover new things almost daily — look into any issue of Science or Nature. What has the Discovery Institute discovered this past 16 years? To stretch my simile further: Creationists are walking into that room full of pilots and aeronautical engineers right at the peak of the Golden Age of flight, never having flown or designed any planes themselves. Are they really surprised that they get a brusque reception?

(I should say here that the handful of Creationists who are themselves professional working scientists produce papers that are, I am told, scientifically valuable. None of those papers are premised on Creationist principles, however, and none have appeared under the aegis of the DI or CSC. The Creationism of Creationist scientists like Michael Behe is extramural — a sort of spare-time hobby. The same can be said of the militant atheism of Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, incidentally.)

Creationists respond to this by telling us that they can’t get a hearing in the defensive, closed-minded, “invested” world of professional science. Creationist ideas are too revolutionary, they say. The impenetrably reactionary nature of established science is a staple of Creationist talk. They seem not to have noticed that twentieth-century science is a veritable catalog of revolutionary ideas that got accepted, from quantum theory to plate tectonics, from relativity to dark matter, from cosmic expansion to the pathogen theory of ulcers. Creationism has been around far, far longer than the “not yet accepted” phase of any of those theories. Why is the proportion of scientists willing to accept it still stuck below (well below, as best I can estimate) one percent? The only answer you can get from a Creationist involves a conspiracy theory that makes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion look positively rational.

Three or four paragraphs into George’s piece, seeing where we were headed, and having accumulated considerable experience with this kind of stuff, I did a “find” on the phrase “scientific establishment.” Sure enough, there it was: those obscurantist, defensive old stuffed shirts of “consensus science” — the Panel of Peers, George calls them — keeping original thought at bay.

In George’s example the original thinker was Max Planck, whose first publication on his revolutionary quantum theory of radiation was in 1900. Poor Max Planck was so thoroughly shunned and ostracized by that glowering, starched-collar Panel of Peers for daring to present ideas that violated their settled convictions, that five years later they made him president of the German Physical Society, and in 1918 gave him the Nobel Prize for Physics! Those mean, blinkered scientific establishmentarians!

Creationism has been around in one form or another for well over a century, which is to say, more than 20 times longer than the interval between Max Planck’s first broadcasting of his quantum theory and his election as president of the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft. The fact that Creationism still has no scientific acceptance whatsoever — no presidencies of learned societies, no Nobel Prizes, not a bean, not a dust mote — does not show that the science establishment is hostile to new ideas, it only shows that scientists cannot see that Creationism has anything to offer them.

What gets the attention of scientists is science. Scientists do not shun Creationism because it is revolutionary; they shun it because Creationists don’t do any science. They started out by promising to. The original plan for the CSC (then CRSC) back in 1992 had phase I listed as: “Scientific Research, Writing & Publicity.” The CSC has certainly been energetic in writing and publicity, but if they have done any scientific research, I missed it.

* * * * *

Look at the last paragraph of George’s piece. It is a call to science to: “grasp the hierarchical reality [that the summit of the hierarchy, a.k.a. God] signifies,” to transcend “its [i.e. science’s] materialist trap,” to “look up from the ever dimmer reaches of its Darwinian pit and cast its imagination toward the word and its sources: idea and meaning, mind and mystery, the will and the way.” Science, says George, must — must! — “eschew reductionism — except as a methodological tool — and adopt an aspirational imagination.” (Isn’t that one humongous big “except” in that last sentence there, George?)

A scientist, reading those words, might reasonably ask: “Why? Why must I do those things you urge me to do? I’m getting along just fine as I am, discovering new things about the world, pushing the wheel of knowledge forward a few inches every year. Did you see that groundbreaking paper of mine in Developmental Biology last month? No? Well, everyone in the field is talking about it. So why should I buy into this metaphysics you’re selling? What’s in it for me? What’s in it for science at large?”

Replies George, from that same closing paragraph: because “this is the only way that science can ever hope to solve the grand challenge problems before it, such as gravity, entanglement, quantum computing, time, space, mass, and mind.”

The scientist will then say: “The only way, you say? But look, I’m not doing too badly generating scientific results — uncovering new facts about the world — by following my current way, from down here in my ‘Darwinian pit’. So right off, I can’t agree with you that this new way of yours is the only way. I have no feeling whatsoever that I am stuck, and looking for a way. I have a way — orthodox scientific method. It works. It generates reproducible results, and suggests testable theories. Possibly this essay of yours offers a better way, but yours sure isn’t the only way.

“And why should I think your way is even a better way to tackle the problems you listed? After all, you, with your ‘only way,’ and your institutes with high-sounding names and lavish funding, and all your decades of being in operation, have not generated any scientific results at all. If someone like you, with a radical new outlook, grounded in a radically new metaphysics, starts providing solutions to difficult problems like those in your list, of course I will be impressed. Of course I will take you seriously; I will adopt your methods; I will transcend materialism and eschew reductionism and all that good stuff you exhort me to do. Of course I will! I will come to you humbly to learn how to do the prescribed transcending and eschewing. I’ll be among the first to come knocking on the Discovery Institute’s door, I guarantee. I want to advance knowledge, along whichever path looks most promising. That’s why I’m a scientist.

“As it is, though, you have nothing to show me. Has your Institute, or your Center, actually come up with a new, testable theory of, say, gravity? Where can I read about it? Oh, you haven’t? Has your Discovery Institute, since its founding in 1990, actually, er, discovered anything?

“No? Well, look, no offense, George, but I’ll tell you what. Go back to your Institute, hire some bright new researchers, teach them your metaphysics and your new methodology, buy them some computers and lab equipment, and let them loose to do some science. When they’ve got testable theories and reproducible results, I’ll pay attention. Until then, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to my own lab.”

What would you say to this guy, George?


I'll have more to say on this later, but if I were George Gilder, I'd be sweeping up the shreds of my intellectual project with a broom right now.

24 Comments:

Blogger Brit said...

Your title hints at the interesting question. A 'debate' about whether Creationism (under which heading, like Derbyshire, I include Intelligent Design) has any scientific merit is no more interesting or purposeful than a debate about whether those TV spiritual mediums really are talking to the dead.

So the question is psychological: why would (admittedly small numbers of) otherwise reasonably intelligent (ie. not complete dicky dumb redneck pondlife, but at least literate) people purporting to belong to the 'scientific community', decide to label themselves as Creationists?

The (anti-)Discovery Institute would be deemed too obvious in a sitcom or pantomime. When, after weeks of beavering away in the 'labs', one of its members appears at a press conference to announce to the world that "this time, biological science really is stumped", he really ought to drive onto the stage in an exploding clown car and be accompanied in his speech by the music of parrumphing tuba.

Yet there they are, these chosen few, pretending not to be old-fashioned God-botherers at all but disinterested folk bravely fighting the good fight for truth and honesty against the big, sinister conspiracy that is The Scientific Consensus.

Come on, chaps, the fact that you have to set up a big expensive Institute with a sole purpose to 'disprove' evolution is a bit of a giveaway.

So why? I can think of a few possible answers:

1) the Honest Fool theory: they're genuine believers whose strong faith really does blind them to the glaring, on-the-face-of-it nonsense of an anti-scientific science project.

2) the Fear of Consequences Theory: they know, in their heart of hearts, that evolution is a fact, but they genuinely believe that widespread acceptance of that fact would be harmful, lead to genocide/the collapse of western civilisation etc. (in which case they are unintentionally doing more harm than good to their cause by making such a hash of it)

3) it's a straightforward con job, designed to wheedle money in the form of 'research grants' out of the lucrative US evangelical market

July 14, 2006 8:55 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Or all three simultaneously, brit. After all, these people are not constrained by logical contradictions. They can believe anything they want.

I thought Derbyshire's piece was very good, though it reminded me a an identical argument I had read somewhere. O yeah. The one I wrote for brothersjudd.

However, in a part duck didn't pick up, Derbyshire said something I think was all wrong, about the difficult question for materialists of what underlies materialism.

For a materialist, that is not merely an unanswerable question, it is an unaskable one.

July 14, 2006 10:25 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Brit:

2) the Fear of Consequences Theory: they know, in their heart of hearts, that evolution is a fact, but they genuinely believe that widespread acceptance of that fact would be harmful, lead to genocide/the collapse of western civilisation etc.

As mentioned in The Argument Clinic

The book "Forbidden Knowledge" (Shattuck?) takes the position that even, or especially, if naturalistic evolution is true, we shouldn't know about it.

I think that, at heart, a great many religionists desire to control other's lives.

By undermining scriptural inerrancy, naturalistic evolution in particular, and materialism in general, thwarts that desire.

I have spent some time reading the ID website Uncommon Descent, which, in one way or another evinces every point Derbyshire makes.

In particular, I enjoy the emphasis placed upon the mathematical proof that natural processes simply can't account for natural history in all its complex glory.

Even ignoring the logical problems rampat in such an assertion, I note that no adherents have mentioned that at one time it was mathematically proven that bumble bees can't fly.

I also can't help but notice that there seems to be a real pattern with creationist/ID websites: heavy handed moderation, deletion of opposing viewpoints, and taking as true that which is far from proven.

July 15, 2006 10:03 AM  
Blogger David said...

Of course, the problem with relying on Derbyshire's support for Darwin is that Derbyshire is quite upfront about the fact that his Darwinism supports his racism.

July 17, 2006 7:39 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Well, if anyone was relying on Derbyshire for anything that might be a problem, except it wouldn't.

July 18, 2006 1:11 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

Hmmm. I don't see any reliance on Derbyshire in my response. Did I miss something?

July 19, 2006 8:21 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Skipper:

"...heavy handed moderation...

Beats light-hearted extremism every time.

July 20, 2006 10:53 AM  
Blogger David said...

I'm sorry, but isn't this a post that simply quotes Derbyshire and notes that he has devastated Gilder's theory? Duck's only contribution is:

John Derbyshire takes down George Gilder, The Discovery Institute and Creationism/Intelligent Design in grand style:

and

I'll have more to say on this later, but if I were George Gilder, I'd be sweeping up the shreds of my intellectual project with a broom right now.

How is that not relying on Derbyshire?

July 22, 2006 8:47 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

David:

No doubt the answer would be that Derbyshire's racism is "incidental" to his belief in evolution (once again fudging the meaning of that term), just as Dawkin's atheism is supposedly "incidental" to his belief that all life is a "purposeless", blind reponse to the single-minded but random struggle (what a combo!) of unconscious genes to reproduce and his public calls to eradicate any religious challenge to this thinking.

Scientists discover things. That’s what they do. In fast-growing fields like genomics, they discover new things almost daily — look into any issue of Science or Nature.

Behold the noble scientist! This makes me think of all those medieval paintings of sinless saints beaming serenely beneath their halos. Talk about pedestals! Actually, what scientists do is observe things very methodically and then try to deduce general patterns and conclusions. If these are testable and thus prove to be predictable and repeatedly substantiable, they get the gold star. If not, they rely on pre-existing theory, without which their observations are incoherent, to validate their claims. Even a faulty or bad theory will do if none better is available. That is why Darwinists keep repeating that Darwinism is the best natural explanation for natural history we have, which is true. Few seem to have the courage or wit to see that that itself has no rational connection to truth (Four humours, anyone?)and does not in anyway foreclose criticisms of the theory, especially one that runs counter to human history and experience in so many ways. That's why Darwinists from Dawkins to Duckians always deflect critisms with "Got a better (natural) idea?" ripostes. Good rhetorical tactics, but nothing to do with validating Darwinism.

July 23, 2006 4:32 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

David:

It seems to me that Derbyshire did, in fact, gut Gilder's offering. Not a terribly difficult thing, considering that

Information, designed by intelligence, makes everything happen. The information in a computer program makes your phone bill happen (and the programmer’s intelligence makes the program happen); the information in DNA makes proteins happen. This is a one-way process: Your phone bill can’t make the computer program happen ... This refutes materialism’s assertion that higher information-bearing structures can arise from lower ones. It also refutes evolution, which has high-information-bearing substrates arising out of low-information-bearing ones.

makes the depressingly common ID mistake of using non-living, non-reproducing systems as a basis for argument by analogy as to why naturalistic evolution is all wrong.

Surely, you can see the problem with that.

Peter:

No doubt the answer would be that Derbyshire's racism is "incidental" to his belief in evolution ...

I have no first hand knowledge of Derbyshire's "Darwinism" derived racism, but I have read in several places that it is so. Based upon that, I shall take your assertion as stipulated. In and of itself, that has absolutely nothing to do with whether naturalistic evolution is objectively true. We could simultaneously conclude that NE is objectively true, and that this particular aspect of it is extremely regrettable.

I have referred several times to Forbidden Knowledge which you really should read. Not because it substantiates my position, but because it does precisely the opposite. Shattuck's position is that while some things may be objectively true, subjectively we simply should not know them. He includes "Darwinism" in that list. I will happily send you my copy.

That is why Darwinists keep repeating that Darwinism is the best natural explanation for natural history we have, which is true. Few seem to have the courage or wit to see that that itself has no rational connection to truth ...

Has no rational connection to truth? It has been sometime since I have brought this up, but Naturalistic Evolution is a classic example of a hypothetico-deductive theory. That is, there are many deductive consequences attending NE. If first order knowledge contradicts even one of them, NE collapses.

I won't burden you with restating those consequences. Suffice to say that in every instance, first order knowledge has substantiated NE. So, for you to conclude that NE has no rational connection to truth seems a bit bold.

Which is why I deflect criticisms with the "got a better idea" riposte. First order knowledge fails to contradict NE; further even where NE has deductive consequences far removed from NE itself, first order knowledge in those areas substantiates NE.

That argument does not validate NE. But in order to dispatch with NE, one of two things is required: an irreconcilable contradiction, or a different explanation that better encompasses both direct first order knowledge and deductive consequences.

So far, no such contradiction or candidate exists, at least so far as I am aware. ID as it is currently constituted relies on obfuscatory sham-mathematical embellishment claiming to comprehensively disprove Darwinism.

Unfortunately, they neglected to mention that while mathematics can usefully model, with respect to biological systems it simply cannot disprove (See Goedel incompleteness theorem).

ID singularly failed to learn from my bumble bee example: mathematics comprehensively proved bumble bees can't fly.

Do they? If so, is it because an intelligent designer is holding them up, or is it because the supposed proof is lacking something(s) important?

July 23, 2006 10:59 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Skipper:

Thanks, I have read Forbidden Knowledge and enjoyed it very much.

That argument does not validate NE. But in order to dispatch with NE, one of two things is required: an irreconcilable contradiction, or a different explanation that better encompasses both direct first order knowledge and deductive consequences.

A few comments:

A)I am assuming you are defending the functional proposition that we should accept NE as a practical matter, rather than asserting that it is proven as objectively true the way, say, germ theory has been. That isn't unreasonable, because we all know there are "truths" within NE and as you guys repeat ad nauseaum, it is the best we've got so far. It is the comprehensivity and exclusivity that is at issue, not whether there is anything useful in it. Frankly, your modest, diffident statement, so becoming to classical truth-seekers, hardly sits well with your unyielding opposition to including critiques of NE in schools. Obviously there are limits to your believe that truth will emerge from an unrestricted free flow of ideas.

B) There are endless numbers of conflicts between NE, both classical and neo, and human history and experience. What seems to work so well with plants and little icky things looks absurd as an explanantion of humans. (Please don't say "Where?" or I will just refer you to three years of arguments). Indeed, Darwinism hinges completely on the theory that humans are just one end of a continuum and are not qualitatively different than the rest of life. Without that article of faith, the whole project would be laughed out of court. But so strong and unquestionning is that belief that all the unique differences are either ignored or marginalized as problems-on-the-side (eg. altruism) or biological errors (eg. mercy)--just little anomolies to leave for the next generation of Darwinists to work out rather than major distinctions of kind. That is absurd and that is what divides us, not your ceaseless baiting me about ID, which I have told you many times I decline to rise to.

C) The key word in your statement is "irreconcilable". It allows you (and all Darwinists) to take what actual physical evidence exists in favour of NE and then resolve the lacunae, conflicts and conundrums by theorizing without evidence. Darwinists do a lot of this, Dawkin's memes being perhaps the best example. Think of it, Skipper, in one fell swoop the theory of memes gained intellectual credibility even though no one ever saw one (first order evidence, anyone?)and they left no physical trail whatsoever. It goes something like this:

i) There is lots of physical evidence that supports genetic change and evolution that is consistent with Darwinism;

ii) There is no other credible, comprehensive natural theory that challenges Darwinism;

iii) it is therefore plausible, according to the rules of scientific inquiry, to accept the general tenets of Darwinism as a functional hypothesis until something better comes along;

iv) having done so, we are now free to hypothesize wildly about how gaps or problems could be resolved in a way consistent with Darwinism, whether we have any evidence or not or whther or not in violates common sense and human experience. In other words, we don't have to pay any mind to tiresome old farts like Burnet who keep throwing up all these specific inconsistencies. Until he comes up with a full-blown alternative natural theory to the history of life (and be assured we'll keep tight control over the definitions), he is just a pesky gadfly and not worth taking seriously. Darwinism has freed us to conjecture and hypothesize at will. Hence all the just-so stories that "could" have happened, and hence also the spectacle of brilliant fools like Dawkins professing to be genuinely puzzled when a mother get upset if some othe woman snatches their baby.

So, Skipper, the charge that Darwinists force the facts to fit the theory is more than fair, and I believe a problem that is getting much worse (especially with sociobiology and evolutionary psychology)as NE circles its wagons. Don't let it trouble you too much, though. It happens to the best of religions.

July 24, 2006 4:23 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Just to continue a bit, it is striking how Darwinists seem compelled to defend their theory by painting their challengers as IDers, creationists (which always seems to mean biblical literalists by definition) or whatever. The man Darwinists really seem to despise is the one who says "You haven't proven anywhere nearly as much as you say you have. When you insist Darwinism is true, all you really mean is that the theory is more plausible than the competition in the area of natural history. Maybe, but as a comprehensive answer, it is still full of glaring holes built on very dicey suppositions you cannot defend and that conflict directly with human experience. I don't know the answers, but neither do you". They may do battle with the young earthers in court and on school boards, but a special fierce contempt is reserved for the Berlinskis.

But another way, you are like a fervent, radical germ theorist of the 19th century who argued that all afflictions are caused by bacteria and who, when faced with evidence to the contrary, thought he was defending that proposition effectively by saying: "So, are you saying all disease is caused by sin?"

July 24, 2006 5:16 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...

Having done an undergrad degree in biotech, it is quite depressing to always hear creationists bring up "But what about the fossil record?" and all the other half-baked holes they try to point out. Mention mitochondria and the Y chromosome and it's hands over the ears.

Plus as a believer, I really don't think you should be looking to science to support your faith in a deith anyway. Chalk and cheese.

July 24, 2006 2:07 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

I am assuming you are defending the functional proposition that we should accept NE as a practical matter, rather than asserting that it is proven as objectively true the way, say, germ theory has been.

I am defending the proposition that NE is an internally consistent hypothetico-deductive construct that is not contradicted by any first order knowledge and is falsifiable. Therefore, it is as soundly based as germ theory, plate tectonics, or the Theory of Relativity.

My unyielding opposition to critiques of NE is that they are factually vacuous -- no extant "critique" has any supporting evidence, nor any ongoing research, nor even so much as one peer reviewed paper. (Last year, a conservative foundation, whose name escaped me at the moment, offered no small amount of money as a research grant for ID, or indeed any "critique" of NE; the offer was never taken). Within the context of rational inquiry, the "critiques" are complete non-entities relying solely upon God-of-the-gaps arguments.

So you mischaracterize my position: should a critique of NE ever have a sound basis in rational inquiry, then it most assuredly needs teaching. Until then, it does no one any good to pretend that hand waving and tarted up mathematics constitutes scientific reasoning. What's more, your statement is soundly contradicted by the history of NE itself: it isn't what it was 150, or even 20 years ago, and it won't be the same in 20 more years. Why? Because soundly based critiques have, and will, cause the theoretical basis of NE to change.

Indeed, Darwinism hinges completely on the theory that humans are just one end of a continuum and are not qualitatively different than the rest of life.

I suspect your word choice isn't quite what you might have wanted on further reflection. NE must view the appearance and continued existence of humans as the consequence of the same recursive process affecting all other life. In that regard, the existence of humans, or any other specific life form, is, well, accidental. However, to state that humans aren't qualitatively different from other life forms, or that any life form isn't "qualitatively" different from all other life forms is to deny any meaning to the term.

If someone discovers that there were ever humans without parents, or that some continual guiding hand was required in order to keep humans from becoming extinct, then NE is holed below the waterline. Until then, absent any evidence to the contrary, upon what basis, other than distaste for the conclusion, do you assert that somehow the appearance of humans is unexplainable within NE?

Your i) - iii) are largely sound. However, when you italicize natural, you give the game away. The attractive thing about naturalistic theories is that it is possible to assign relative truth values to them. With supernatural "theories," not only is it impossible to distinguish between competing variants, it is just as impossible to distinguish between the actions of a supernatural agent, and mere ignorance.

Of course NE allows all kinds of wild hypothesizing. Why is that a problem? At one time it was a wild hypothesis that a meteor killed off the dinosaurs ...

In other words, we don't have to pay any mind to tiresome old farts like Burnet who keep throwing up all these specific inconsistencies. Until he comes up with a full-blown alternative natural theory to the history of life (and be assured we'll keep tight control over the definitions), he is just a pesky gadfly and not worth taking seriously.

Hardly. Should you come up with a true inconsistency (as opposed to an unknown, or unknowable, or inconsistency presumptively labeled as such) then that needs taking on board.

Discovering a contradiction of NE is sufficient for its demise, regardless of whether anything is around to explain it. However, so far as I know, that contradiction has yet to be discovered. So, absent a contradiction, then the task really is to come up with something better.

I will be the first to admit that sociobiology/evolutionary psychology often, if not nearly always, goes far beyond what the evidence allows. However, I think it is singularly counterintuitive to presume that NE can have molded our bodies while leaving the brain untouched.

NOW is exhibit A of that sort of nonsense.

, you are like a fervent, radical germ theorist of the 19th century who argued that all afflictions are caused by bacteria and who, when faced with evidence to the contrary

No, I'm not. I am well and truly opposed to Cargo Cult science getting awarded what it hasn't earned. I know you probably don't believe this, but if NE was to get overturned tomorrow afternoon, I wouldn't lose a second's sleep tomorrow night.

BTW -- what evidence to the contrary?

July 24, 2006 11:01 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Peter:

Your position looks very much like: "the scientific validity of darwinist evolution is established for explaining all life forms except human beings."

Is that right? It will give us a starting place, anyway.

July 25, 2006 4:11 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

BTW -- what evidence to the contrary?

Well, if you are a classical Darwinist who believes individuals are impelled by nature to strive to maximize fitness, defined as survivability through propagation with consequent adaptations driven by natural selection (well, the synthesis):

1)alcohol and other vices, suicide, contraception, abortion, fidelity, voluntary sexual abstinence (including the universal practice of postponing child-bearing among women until well after puberty), caring for the elderly, altruism, etc.

2)the fact that evolution, although a universal, timeless biological imperative guiding all life, seems to have stopped dead in its tracks in man when consciousness appeared;

3)the fact that evolution to humanness was away from survivability and adaptability in so many ways(spend a cold night naked in the woods to test this.) We can't survive except by artifical means.

4) alienation (and the consequent striving for accomplishments unconducive to survival, like married men racing cars), art, religion, justice, loyalty, mercy, etc, etc.

5) the Great Trek out of East Africa--fantastic in itself, but even more so when you think no other species took it, and many of them seem to have done just fine.

Or, if neo-Darwinism is your thing and it is all in the genes:

1)the fact that there are so many exceptions and qualifications to altruism/loyalty based upon genetic proximity as to make the idea laughable, and that anyway even Dawkins admits it may be based more on beliefs about genetic proximity than the real thing, which takes the whole show right out of biology;

2) the fact that we and we alone of all the species have the ability to overrule our genes. Indeed, Dawkins and others say we should. Where the heck could that have possibly come from within NE?

3) # 1 and 4 above. What could those genes be thinking?

4) meme nonsense (ok, not strictly speaking evidence, but then "Here is a cool idea that could happen even though there isn't a whit of evidence for it, but which is consistent with NE" isn't evidence either and it isn't science.

5) Gross confusion and illogic about causal issues as opposed to mechanical ones. A good example is altruism. Darwinists seem to spend 50% of their time explaining where it comes from and the other 50% explaining why it cannot exist.

That's just for starters, Skipper, but I think they encompass quite a lot of what we experience every day of our lives. In my view, they are more than enough to show that NE could not possibly be a complete, self-contained explanation for humans. If you choose to see them all as just a bunch of little riddles on the edge requiring a little patchwork here and there to make it all fit, then that is where we part company. But I do hope you will answer with evidence, not ex post factotheory or conjecture about what "could" explain all this.

July 25, 2006 4:17 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Brit:

Well, I can't judge the evidence, but I am aware that, as Ali says, skeptics carping ceaselessly about lack of evidence is getting a little tiresome. Darwinism is certainly more plausible the further down you go, but I'm not how much of that is objective scientific validation and how much the fact that we cannot conceive of consciousness or the subjective in the lower animals and not much in the higher either and so are prone to gross simplification. The idea that their lives are 100% in the grip of external forces of which they are unaware is what we see, so Darwinism is plausible and unexeptional. But it simply doesn't work for humans any more than Freudianism and Marxism did, and for the same reason--wherever we come from, we are not of that order. But it can and does do a lot of damage in the meantime. And, as I said above, it is why Darwinism hinges so shakily on the continuum of ape to man. If you say our evolution was qualitatively different, the fat is in the fire, isn't it?

The appeal is that the ideas of NE are obviously not totally wrong when applied to humans (likewise with Marx and Freud). Genes mutate and we had to come from somewhere. No sane person would say we are free of objective forces and that the subjective governs all. But that is a far cry from a Dawkins telling fairytales about memes and inclusive fitness and screaming down naysayers who outnumber him by far. I do not know what the answer is, but that is why I think Skipper and Harry are the ideological fanatics. Not because they are all wrong, but because they insist on comprehensivity and exclusivity and are blind to the fact that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than this world dreams of.

July 25, 2006 4:38 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Peter:

I don’t think any of those problems are problems, but I’ll let Skipper deal with those.

A big issue here is the problem of extrapolating from observations about human psychology and anthropology to conclusions about natural evolution in general. Not least, from a natural history point of view, humans are very recent, small in number and statistically insignificant. From an evolutionary success point of view, you could say that the story of life is mostly a story about bacteria.

But it is true that humans are uniquely complex and that we know very little about how they work. But it’s reasonable to take a guess that the key to understanding humans will lie in understanding human brains, which are material.

I also can’t see any reason for the claim that the human brain is different to the chimpanzee brain other than in its superior complexity and sophistication. If the chimp brain, the mouse brain, the lion brain and the dolphin brain are products of material natural evolution, why not the human brain? I have yet to see a compelling argument for the necessity of something non-material being artificially ‘injected’ into humans to explain their behaviour or their creativity or their sexual perversions or anything else.

The conclusions from even the most hardcore materialism are far less politically extreme and aesthetically shocking than you might imagine, or than religious opponents of evolution like to portray them.

For example, here’s the anti-Christ himself, Richard Dawkins, giving his answer to the question ‘what is the meaning of life?’:

There are two very different kinds of meaning to life. First, there is the meaning that individual people find in their lives, and it is not too dramatic to say that it is what makes life worth living — music, say, or sport, or nature, or a loving family. But that is a private matter for each individual, and is not something others should pontificate about. My life gains meaning from my struggle as a scientist to understand the meaning of life in the second sense: the meaning and significance of the phenomenon of life on this planet — or, indeed, on any planet, for I believe it is the same for all.

Living things are machines, programmed to preserve and propagate the genes that ride inside them. Genes that have what it takes to survive are — obviously — the ones that do survive. They do it by programming the development of living bodies, which is why bodies are so good at surviving and reproducing. Every species has its own way of surviving, and they are very varied. But, whether it grazes or hunts or soaks up the sun, whether it runs or flies, swims or stands planted in the soil, every living creature is engaged upon the same fundamental enterprise: working hard to survive, reproduce and pass on the genetic instructions for doing the work. That is the meaning of life in the scientific sense.

Among the organs that evolved originally to assist in survival and gene propagation was an on-board computer, the brain. In humans, probably uniquely, the brain has become so big that we are capable of emancipating ourselves from our original Darwinian meaning. With our big brains we can seek our own meanings and enrich our own lives.

July 25, 2006 5:23 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

But it’s reasonable to take a guess...

I also can’t see any reason for the claim...

I have yet to see a compelling argument for the necessity...


Boy, you scientific types are just so rigourous.

the brain has become so big that we are capable of emancipating ourselves from our original Darwinian meaning. With our big brains we can seek our own meanings and enrich our own lives.

You've got to be kidding me!

July 25, 2006 10:49 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Peter:

I was being rigorous. It would be less rigorous to claim "We know for sure that..."

Or is it the moderate tone you object to? Would you prefer it if I went back to 'only a complete intellectual pygmy could argue...'

July 25, 2006 11:10 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

Well, if you are a classical Darwinist who believes individuals are impelled by nature to strive to maximize fitness, defined as survivability through propagation with consequent adaptations driven by natural selection (well, the synthesis)

Beware the strawman. Stripped of the overburden, what you meant to say is: Individuals vary within a population, variation is heritable, and there is some small, non-random, component of reproductive success associated with those variations.

Right?

the fact that evolution to humanness was away from survivability and adaptability in so many ways(spend a cold night naked in the woods to test this.) We can't survive except by artifical means.

Virtually without exception, all organisms are climatologically specific. Including humans. You are right, if we were forced to doff our clothes, humanity would cease to exist anywhere except for places with an average daytime high of about 84 degrees, and no winter to speak of.

Which makes your statement self contradicting. If we had not "evolved away" from survivability, then humans would be a niche species. But because we "evolved away" from survivability, we are all over the place.

Which leads to

the fact that evolution, although a universal, timeless biological imperative guiding all life, seems to have stopped dead in its tracks in man when consciousness appeared

Well, besides the fact there are at least two errors in that assertion, let's take it at face value. Perhaps you might agree that possessing enough intellect to make clothes out of other animals skins led to a great many more humans than would otherwise be the case. Okay. How is it that possessing this ability, which, much to our advantage, insulates us from environmental vagaries, represents a contradiction? If I get you right, the most singular aspect of humanity, which is solely responsible for our great numbers, contradicts the notion of reproductive fitness.

Apologies, Peter, but that doesn't seem to follow.

(Also, it is appearing increasingly likely that the human Y chromosome is on a one way road to oblivion. What do you suspect the evolutionary impact of that might be?)

the Great Trek out of East Africa--fantastic in itself, but even more so when you think no other species took it, and many of them seem to have done just fine.

Migratory Birds. Monarch Butterflies. Salmon. Frigate birds. Whales. Elephants.

No other species?

alcohol and other vices, suicide, contraception, abortion, fidelity, voluntary sexual abstinence (including the universal practice of postponing child-bearing among women until well after puberty), caring for the elderly, altruism, etc.

NB: humans are not the only species to practice altruism. Chimps and meercats do, among others. So do bird parents feigning an injured wing to lure predators away from a nest.

Above you said that humanity had brought evolution to a stop, yet here you contradict yourself. It seems pretty clear that, given a brain and a choice, women prefer to have far fewer children than they could. Ignoring for the moment the many examples of birth spacing that produce a few viable offspring over many starved ones, it may very well be that given wealth enough and time, humans will become extinct because of insufficient reproductive fitness.

Sounds like evolution in action, to me.


the fact that we and we alone of all the species have the ability to overrule our genes. Indeed, Dawkins and others say we should. Where the heck could that have possibly come from within NE?

It seems pretty clear that a big brain offers some significant survival advantages, along with some disadvantages. No one said evolution is perfect, after all. But for as long as the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, humans will be around. Otherwise, game over.

IIRC, there are no "novel structures" separating us from chimpanzees, and only a small genetic gap. Can you think of any reason why NE couldn't toss up a big brain, or having been tossed up, why that brain wouldn't be a slave to genetics?


There is simply nothing about your assertions contradicting NE; in fact, at least a couple strongly substantiate it. And I hope my rebuttal stayed away from just so stories: either a big brain allowed us to live outside our climatological niche, or it didn't. If it did, then it was to our reproductive advantage. Humans can insulate themselves from the environment (thought experiment: all the oil in the world runs out tomorrow; how does our insulation hold up -- are we still outside of NE?), but that doesn't mean we aren't still subject to evolution.

The Pill changed the environment, possibly in a way that we can't keep up with. If not ...

July 25, 2006 5:15 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

I think Skipper and Harry are the ideological fanatics. Not because they are all wrong, but because they insist on comprehensivity and exclusivity ...

Let me set the record straight: I do not insist on comprehensivity or exclusivity. NE is by definition incomplete. Any competing idea with an evidentiary basis is in the game, incuding an idea that constitutes nothing more than an immovable contradiction.

However, no such thing exists, and it would be an act of intellectual affirmative action to pretend otherwise.

... and are blind to the fact that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than this world dreams of.

That is OT.

July 25, 2006 5:26 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Skipper:

Hey, have a heart. I'm on holiday here in the Berkshires, heading to Maine, and blogging time is limited. Do you have to pack the Skipper theory of everything into each comment?

OK, let's see if I understand:

a)The evidence supports the theory of NE on some things;

b)There is no theory to explain (naturally) the other things;

c) therefore, you choose to believe NE can explain everything.

Cool.

But let's get back to big, big brains and the Brit/Dawkins liberation theory. A few questions:

1)Did our breaking out of our genetic shackles happen gradually or all at once? Did we slowly develop the ability to trump the little tyrants or was there a critical point when the brain hit a certain size, the chains burst and man started singing: "Free at last, free at last...'? What does the evidence tell us? First-order evidence only, puleeze!

2) I note Dawkins says we have the capability to break the Darwinian bonds. Presumably that means not everyone has done so. Is this ability spread evenly throughout the species or is it more pronounced in, say, Oxford professors, secular libertarians and human rights activists? Do Muslims, remote New Guinean tribes and those crazy creationists you are always going on about share it? If we exercise this capability, has it anything to do biology?

I'll stop there and hold my inquiry about the Great Trek of the elephants all over the globe until later. But I must allow that all this talk of yours about big brains and emancipating ourselves from our Darwinian fate answers another puzzle for me concerning the aesthetics of Darwinism. You know those evolutionary charts on every schoolroom wall that show the successive, evolved gradations from little incredibly ugly things to man? I've never been able to figure out why they always stop at some hideous caveman hulk. I've have always thought there should be one more figure--modern man--but I've never been able to decide whether Dawkins or Paris Hilton would best bring the point home. Now, I understand. Gentic determinism is all over, especially for the elect who are above all that stuff and are now running around making free choices not to have children and everything. As Nietzsche might have said: "The genes are dead!"

July 26, 2006 4:14 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

I think if you re-read what I wrote, you will see there isn't much theory there at all, but rather a strong suggestion that what you pose as contradictions simply aren't, except where they are self contradictory.

a)The evidence supports the theory of NE on some things;

b)There is no theory to explain (naturally) the other things;

c) therefore, you choose to believe NE can explain everything.


Not exactly. Rather, NE is completely consistent with those things for which there is sufficient available evidence, and there is nothing categorically different about those things for which there isn't sufficient evidence to invalidate NE as an explanation.

You have aptly illuminated the core of my opposition to all Design arguments of which I am aware: they all reside in ignorance, and use the absence of information as information.

You're therefore should read like this: therefore, I choose to believe NE will very likely be consistent with any further evidence.

1)Did our breaking out of our genetic shackles happen gradually or all at once?

What do you mean by gradually? IIRC, the last shared ancestor with the other primates was about 6 million years ago, and a near-human, near-intelligent species existed in Europe until a couple hundred thousand years ago. Since there is more than intelligence at play here (women pelvises have to accommodate larger brained babies) I suspect gradually, but I really don't know.

2) I note Dawkins says we have the capability to break the Darwinian bonds. Presumably that means not everyone has done so. Is this ability spread evenly throughout the species ...

As I understand it, we have the capability to remain married. Presumably this means not everyone has done so. Is this ability spread evenly throughout the species, or is it more pronounced in, say, people with deep religious convictions?

I am caricaturing your question because the antecedent doesn't really justify the question.

If we exercise this capability, has it anything to do biology?

I think one has to ignore all the consequences of all the varieties of brain injury to discount the idea that, fundamentally, all human consciousness is about biology.

I understand this is a deeply troubling conclusion for most people, and many might consider that this should be a form of Forbidden Knowledge.

Which is really what this is all about, isn't it? Not whether it is objectively true, but rather the consequences of widespread acceptance.

Fascinating discussion -- thanks for taking the time. It keeps the brain juices flowing. But I'll be off line for a couple days -- my kids are in town (LA) at my Dad's house, so my next couple of days off (tomorrow and Friday) will be otherwise occupied, so I won't be able to respond until Saturday.

July 26, 2006 7:20 AM  

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