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Would You Like Fries With That Theory? Part Three

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July 19, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

Would You Like Fries With That Theory? Part Three

We often hear about the virtue of “teaching the controversy” when it comes to origins. The strategy is to lay out various options to students--options on which “experts” disagree--and let them make up their minds. This proposal appeals to America’s sense of fair play. America, from the days of its founding to its dynamic entrepreneurial culture of today has always celebrated the ability to break free of traditional ideas and boldly go where nobody has gone before.

The anti-Darwinians would have us view evolution the same way the founding fathers viewed the yoke of British colonialism. Just as the heavy hand of Britain had to be removed, so the yoke of Darwin must be cast aside as well, if we are to be truly liberated to find the truth. And what better way to find the truth than to have the options laid out in front of us, like the entrees on a menu waiting to be selected, or the candidates on a ballot waiting to be elected to office?

Despite the generous tone of such a proposal, it is a recipe for the production of widespread scientific illiteracy. Sending the message that we can “choose” our preferred science from a roster of options undermines the entire concept of science for it makes science seem like politics. Science is nothing like politics. Politics, at its best, is all about trying to create a society where people will be happiest. And the criteria for that change from time to time. Once upon a time women could not vote and that seemed OK. Now it is not OK. Once upon a time, education was not universally available and now it is. Politics is all about figuring out how things should be, based on how we would like them to be.

Science is the opposite of this. Science is about finding out how the world is whether we like it or not. And the lesson of history is that science is often not what we want it to be. Galileo’s arguments for the moving earth were not greeted with a chorus of “Amens” by his colleagues in Rome. John Donne expressed the concern of that generation when he wrote that this “new philosophy casts all in doubt.” Galileo’s ideas became the consensus slowly because they were true, not because they made people happy, or got selected by the majority from a roster of options.

The same thing is true of the Big Bang theory. Countless scientists went on record opposing the strange idea that our universe emerged in some kind of transcendent explosion beyond the reach of science. The Steady State Theory was developed by some leading cosmologists specifically to oppose the Big Bang because many scientists did not like it and wanted it to be false. But facts are facts and gradually a consensus emerged that the Big Bang was true.

In a more interesting development, we have watched “scientific racism” gradually be undermined by advances in genetics. It was once believed that certain races, like Australian aborigines, Africans, or Native Americans were demonstrably inferior. The textbook from which John Scopes supposedly taught evolution made this claim explicitly. But scientific advances in our understanding of human origins destroyed the foundations of these racist notions. All scientists though, did not welcome these advances. Racism runs deep and it was hard for some people to accept that their racism was based on an irrational and ultimately immoral prejudice and not on science.

But, once again, a consensus emerged that “race” does not have a biological basis. Many scientists are justifiably proud that science has dealt such a blow to humanity’s greatest social plague. This happened, though, through the achievement of consensus, as opposing viewpoints were undermined and the reluctant holdouts gradually came on board.

The same is true for evolution. Darwin’s ideas were not met with universal and unbridled enthusiasm. In fact, his key idea of natural selection was ignored for decades because most biologists thought it was too feeble to do the work Darwin assigned to it in The Origin of Species. The consensus about evolution that exists among biologists today took about a century to achieve. Thousands and thousands of reluctant, often brilliant, frequently cranky, scientists had to “come around” to Darwin’s view.

This is the meaning of “consensus” in science. Thomas Cudworth, on the Uncommon Descent blog, describes the embrace of consensus as “prostration before a self-selecting clique of experts.” This he says, “is repugnant to good science, to good philosophy, to the ideal of the university, and to the ideal of an open, free and democratic society.”

This does not make sense to me. Tens of thousands of biologists at thousands of universities spread around the planet are hardly a “self-selecting clique of experts.” And what does “self-selecting” even mean in this context? I would love to “select” myself to a tenured position at Harvard but I am unaware that such an option is available to me. The claim that the standard methods of science are “repugnant” to a “democratic society” is, alas, completely true. If only we could “vote” on what we wanted to be true, rather than have it imposed on us by the way things are.

Science is anything but democratic. Mother Nature casts the only vote and it is the job of science to determine how she voted. She votes only once and never changes her mind.

The scientific community is filled with creative, obstinate, and highly independent personalities. Anyone who attends a scientific meeting can see this clearly. Scientists dress strangely, have irregular hair, and are often socially odd. They can be abrasive and obnoxious. They despise convention and disrespect tradition. If there is any group that would be unwilling to bow before a “self-selecting clique of experts”, it is scientists.

A scientific consensus represents a hard-won victory over every imaginable sort of opposition. We should not set aside such consensus just because a tiny group of articulate outsiders offer us some ideas that we might like better. The ID movement has people with Ph.D.s to be sure. And a few of them have conventional scientific posts. But their pleas that we set aside scientific consensus must be ignored.


Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

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John - #23540

July 26th 2010

Rich wrote:
“That isn’t the case with Darwinian evolution.  If I start with a hippo, and add 9,000 random mutations over 9 million years, I don’t have the slightest idea whether that hippo will become a whale,…”

I do. That hippo will be dead. That hippo will have many more than 9000 mutations in only 9 years, too.

Your evasion of Argon’s point is painfully obvious. Non-Darwinian mechanisms are going to contribute, but you can’t bring yourself to abandon the “Darwin” label.

“On the theological side, the Bible doesn’t say that God gives two hoots over one radioactive emission or one molecule of water vapor in a cold front, but it does say that he intended and produced man.”

So you’ve got a gap to shoehorn God into. I don’t do that to God.


Gods Own DNA - #23541

July 26th 2010

Rich

You say “Your physics envy is showing.”

I love physics. In fact, my high school teachers urged me to go into physics. I don’t envy physics. I respect it. Although I might not be able to understand parts of it completely and to the level a practicing physicist might, I don’t trash physicists or the work they’re doing if I don’t understand the details of some theory of theirs. For example, my friend is a researcher in the field of quantum computing and I love to poke at him with quips such as “Quantum mechanics - the dreams stuff is made of.” But its all in good humor. Beyond a point, I take their word for it because I trust they do quality research. I also trust that if the entire community of physicists reaches a consensus on something, the data they’ve generated must support their claim even though I don’t understand every aspect of it. I accept what they say with humility because I don’t know as much as they do about their subject and will not be able to think deeply on the matter in a manner similar to theirs.


Gods Own DNA - #23542

July 26th 2010

You say “I don’t disrespect *biologists* as such.  Good empirical biologists I respect very much.” So you’re basically calling an overwhelming majority, if not all biologists as “bad bluffing biologists”?

You say “The main point about mutations in neo-Darwinism, for me, is that the mutations are unguided.  Thus, since in the neo-Darwinian scheme, major changes in form must trace back to mutations, the direction of macroevolution is not “tilted” in any way.  (By contrast, in some of the newer evolutionary views, there is a tendency for evolution to move in certain directions, because biological form is not exclusively or even primarily a product of mutations to the DNA, but is governed by more general laws”


Gods Own DNA - #23543

July 26th 2010

Your reasoning is flawed. Let me show you how. First of all, evolution in itself is not “unguided” or random. Survival and reproductive fitness of an individual organism directly correlates with the relative function of its inherited phenotype (trait) in its specific local environment. Genetic variation, yes, is random and unguided. However, you cannot extrapolate this to say that genetic variation is random, hence evolution is random. What most of the biologists here are trying to say is that mutations on genes (such as those concerned with development) could yield large-scale effects in successive generations. And given an enough number of generations, what started out as a random genetic mutation or sets of mutations coupled to the individual organisms’ local environmental changes could yield a evolutionarily “directed” path from one form to another.


Gregory - #23544

July 26th 2010

HenryD,

A bit of a delayed reply…

“Why focus on ‘Darwinism’?” – Argon

“In practice, it’s not a term that I’ve ever applied to myself…It’s been my observation that few biologists refer to themselves as “Darwinists” or “neo-Darwinists”.” – HenryD

Thanks for clarifying this & for your observation.

“when I see these terms being used, more often than not, that’s usually a sign that the person using the term is opposed to one aspect of evolutionary biology or another.” – HenryD

Not sure I understand what you mean here. If a person calls them-self a Darwinist or neo-Darwinist, you see them as opposed to evolutionary biology? How?

I was under the impression that evolutionary biology is one type of biology, & that Darwinism is one type of evolutionary biology. Am I confusing something?

In other words, if I understand you, HenryD, you claim to be a biologist who is *more-than-Darwinian,* i.e. that you use ideas & methods & study phenomena that weren´t in Darwin´s reperatoire.

While we´re at it, do you call yourself an ´evolutionist´ or ´neo-evolutionist,´ HenryD? Just curious. This is helpful for me, as I know people who feel compelled to take these labels.

Thanks, Gregory


Gregory - #23546

July 26th 2010

Rich,

You wrote,
“I use neo-Darwinism to refer to “the modern synthesis”, which is associated with a whole bunch of names”

If you were to start speaking of *more-than-Darwinian* evolution, would this improve your view of whatever strides have been made in biology, not just evolutionary biology, over the past 60+ years since the ´modern evolutionary synthesis´ was formed? Maybe Darwin is getting in the way?

I get the impression sometimes that you´re trying to re-bury a man who is already dead and buried!

I try not to let the smoke without heat or light (or grace) coming from the new atheist camp (i.e. among few who speak of ´Darwinism´) on this topic bother me, & instead carry on with my own scholarly work. Have you thought to publish about ID as science, philosophy or religion?

“I think it’s possible that evo-devo may someday prove compatible with design theory” – Rich

Which design theory? Whose design theory?

It sounds to me like neo-cybernetics. Maybe this book might be interesting for you: “Evolution Guided by Design: A Systems Perspective” by Bela Banathy. Maybe design-systems science?

“the mutations are unguided” – Rich

How could we ´measure/know´ them if they *are* guided?


Gods Own DNA - #23550

July 26th 2010

You say “If I see a cloud of thirty billion particles, each of which moves according to “chance” (not really, but as far as I can tell), I can still predict the overall behaviour of the cloud.”

OK, lets break this down. Clouds are composed of microscopic particles of water. Although the movement of the particles is random, functionally, how many variables would you attribute to each particle? Even for something as “simple” (the cloud is all water) as this, simulation models require the use of super-computers to predict with some accuracy cloud behavior. This because the fluid dynamic equations used in these models are non-linear and inherently chaotic - which means a definitive answer cannot be predicted. An evolutionary simulation model which predicts which genes were mutated and how one form came to be from another would have to be “insane” because 1. there are so many genes and so many points at which mutation can occur and 2. Genes interact with one another and proteins interact with genes and other regions in the DNA.


Gods Own DNA - #23551

July 26th 2010

Add to this epigenetic changes and geophysical constraints and you have Mt.Impossible in front of you which means that its almost(?) impossible with the kinds of tools we have now to predict even a hypothetical evolutionary path with molecular detail between a cetacean and a artiodactyl. Hence your request is unreasonable and shows an utter lack of knowledge in molecular biology.


HenryD - #23552

July 26th 2010

Gregory,

Just to clarify…

“Not sure I understand what you mean here. If a person calls them-self a Darwinist or neo-Darwinist, you see them as opposed to evolutionary biology? How?”

When I said “when I see these terms being used”, I was not referring to the specific case in which an individual would describe themselves using the term “Darwinist”.  I was referring to any random person who injects these terms into the conversation.  Most likely this person would not describe themselves as being a “Darwinist”.  In fact, I’ve noticed over time that said random person is not likely to be a biologist or anyone actually doing research in evolutionary biology.  I don’t have hard data on this, it just seems to me that the term “Darwinist” or “Darwinism” is more likely be used to those with some bone to pick with evolution than by those doing or teaching biology.


Rich - #23553

July 26th 2010

DNA:

You’re not understanding a number of the arguments I’m making, and I don’t have time to sort them all out.  I’ll make one point for now:

I’ve known many biologists, and while most of them, if pressed for an opinion, would say that they accepted some version of Darwinian evolution, the fact is that (a) the overwhelming majority of biologists don’t specialize in the field called “evolutionary biology”; (b) most of them research and teach in genetics, cell biology, ecology, physiology, embryology, anatomy, etc.  And in a huge number of cases their research doesn’t depend on evolutionary theorizing.  You don’t need to know a thing about evolution to measure the mercury level in a carp or to find out what fish are in the stomach of a seal or to explain the mechanics of meiosis or photosynthesis, or to splice a gene or sequence a genome.  Thus, the overwhelming majority of work done by biologists is much less speculative than evolutionary theory, and much more useful, and I respect it.  I don’t respect dogmatic neo-Darwinists, that’s all.  If you personally are offended because I don’t accept the theory you prefer, there’s little I can do.  But you have no right to infer that I disrespect biologists as such.


HenryD - #23554

July 26th 2010

Gregory,

(Contiued)

Personally, I just call myself a biologist.  Even that’s being generous to myself, because I don’t do research anymore, so I’m really a biology lecturer and not an active biological scientist.  Now, If I did research that was focused on something like natural selection or some other aspect of evolution, I guess I’d call myself an evolutionary biologist or maybe something more specific like developmental biologist or geneticist, depending on the work I was doing.  “Evolutionist” isn’t the worst label in the world, but it still sound clunky to my ear.  I prefer biologist.


Rich - #23559

July 26th 2010

DNA:

I said that the mutations were unguided.  You have not contradicted that.  And natural selection can only prune.  It creates nothing.  (A sculptor can take away from the stone, but can add nothing.)  The mutations are the key—in fact the only—source of novel biological form in neo-Darwinian theory.  (Evo-devo may be another matter; I’m discussing orthodox N-D—Ken Miller, Dawkins, Coyne, Eugenie Scott, the NCSE, etc.)  Thus, no matter how neo-Darwinans bluster about the creative powers of natural selection, in fact—in their theory—the mutations must do all the heavy lifting.  Natural selection can confirm the steps, but the steps are built randomly.

You still need to show that morphological change X could have been achieved in time Y via random mutations, acted upon by natural selection.  I don’t care what example you pick, as long as it involves major morphological change (eye, cardiovascular system, winged flight in birds, bat’s sonar and wings, whale from artiodactyl, etc.).  I need to know how many mutations it would take—at a minimum—to make all the necessary morphological changes.  If you don’t know that, or can’t even give a ballpark estimate, then you’ve got no testable model.


Argon - #23560

July 26th 2010

Rich - #23530: “If I see a cloud of thirty billion particles, each of which moves according to “chance” (not really, but as far as I can tell), I can still predict the overall behaviour of the cloud.”

The decay of an atom is either random with respect to God’s providence or not. That one cannot predict the trajectory of a species or the precise patterns of local weather over centuries is irrelevant. There are any number of systems which are extremely sensitive to initial conditions. The development of cancer in a person also cannot be readily predicted even though cancer cells do appear to ‘evolve’ over the course of their replication. But it’s either under God’s dominion of not.

Again, so why pick out evolution specifically and not weather or radioactive decay? Radionuclide decay at least provides a simpler conceptual system. To expand it to macro-scale objects consider a case where the spacing between decay events determines whether a TV is turned on. If the TV is on, you stay to watch it. If not you go to church. There’s a single outcome—Is God involved or not? If a stochastic process eventually and (to us) unpredictably leads to the evolution of humans, does this mean God had no role?


John - #23561

July 26th 2010

Rich wrote:
“I’ve known many biologists, and while most of them, if pressed for an opinion, would say that they accepted some version of Darwinian evolution,…”

I suspect I’ve known far more than you, and all of them, without any hesitation, accept modern evolutionary theory.

“... the fact is that (a) the overwhelming majority of biologists don’t specialize in the field called “evolutionary biology”…”

And yet they accept modern evolutionary theory.

“...And in a huge number of cases their research doesn’t depend on evolutionary theorizing.”

Did you see Rich’s hands move there? His clumsy trick was to add the word “theorizing,” because they produce data that fit in an evolutionary context and often constitute tests of evolutionary theory.

And what does a “huge number of cases” mean in this context, when you’re trying to convince your audience about the ratio?

“You don’t need to know a thing about evolution to measure the mercury level in a carp or to find out what fish are in the stomach of a seal or to explain the mechanics of meiosis or photosynthesis, or to splice a gene or sequence a genome.”

But to make sense of all those things, you do, particularly the genomics.


John - #23563

July 26th 2010

Rich wrote:
“And natural selection can only prune.  It creates nothing.  (A sculptor can take away from the stone, but can add nothing.) “

So a sculpture does not involve any creativity.

Does that make any sense at all?


Argon - #23564

July 26th 2010

Rich - #23530 “On the theological side, the Bible doesn’t say that God gives two hoots over one radioactive emission or one molecule of water vapor in a cold front, but it does say that he intended and produced man.  Whatever degree of “chance” God allows, he doesn’t allow it to affect the major desired outcomes of creation. “

Matthew 10:27-31
“What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

Could be allegory, but what does it say about God’s will in even common events?


Rich - #23565

July 26th 2010

DNA:

The problem is not my lack of knowledge of molecular biology.  The problem is the neo-Dawrinians’ lack of such knowledge.  As Argon admitted, we don’t know nearly enough to model evolution at the molecular level.  That’s why neo-Darwinists should offer their theory tentatively, rather than arrogantly.  But have you ever read or heard Ruse, Dawkins, Coyne, Scott, Myers, Miller, etc?  Would they say they write or speak with great scientific caution?

Your discussion of complex computer models misses the main point.  I’m saying that if provided with even a crude, oversimplified hypothetical pathway, I suspect that a good biologically-informed probability theorist would calculate the the odds of the whale transition (on pure N-D grounds, remember) to be so low as not to be taken seriously.  And adding in the other factors to make the computer model more complex would quite possibly lower the probability still further, since *more*, not *fewer*, conditions might have to be met to get to the whale.  So the appeal to complexity may not be your wisest course.  In any case, when knowledge is limited, science must use simple, crude approximations.  So, ballpark figure—how many mutations from artiodactyl to whale?


Gods Own DNA - #23568

July 26th 2010

Good point John.

Reiterating what John said, Isn’t a sculpture created in the end? If you refer to the created order as the sculpture, doesn’t that show that selection can do what it claims it can do?

You say “The mutations are the key—in fact the only—source of novel biological form in neo-Darwinian theory.” and “Natural selection can confirm the steps, but the steps are built randomly.” Again, does that mean that evolution itself is random? You yourself concede that in the modern synthesis aka Neo-darwinian synthesis, “two crucial points are “random mutation” (where “random” means that the mutations occur without respect to their ultimate fitness; nothing prejudices them in the direction of increasing fitness, and therefore the overwhelming number of them are either harmful or useless), and “natural selection”, whereby harmful mutations are eliminated from the population because they handicap the creature and make it unlikely that it will survive to reproduce.”

Natural Selection acts on genetic variation. This means that even if a mutation is random, the outcome is correlated to how that organism in its specific local environment will function with its inherited phenotype.


Gods Own DNA - #23569

July 26th 2010

OK Rich, If I did give you a “ballpark-estimate”, what would you do with the information? What is the end of asking such a question?


HenryD - #23571

July 26th 2010

” I don’t care what example you pick, as long as it involves major morphological change.”

How about snakes evolving from lizards?


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