Towards A Good Samaritan World

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A great post on evolution at Brothers Judd: THEY WOULDN'T EVEN HAVE 13% WITHOUT THE COERCION THE MONOPOLY PROVIDES. Brothers Judd often takes potshots at evolution, but this post is more substantive. They quote an article "Why Do We Evoke Darwin?" from a magazine called The Scientist: Magazine of the Life Sciences:

Darwin's theory of evolution offers a sweeping explanation of the history of life, from the earliest microscopic organisms billions of years ago to all the plants and animals around us today. Much of the evidence that might have established the theory on an unshakable empirical foundation, however, remains lost in the distant past. For instance, Darwin hoped we would discover transitional precursors to the animal forms that appear abruptly in the Cambrian strata. Since then we have found many ancient fossils – even exquisitely preserved soft-bodied creatures – but none are credible ancestors to the Cambrian animals.

Despite this and other difficulties, the modern form of Darwin's theory has been raised to its present high status because it's said to be the cornerstone of modern experimental biology. But is that correct? "While the great majority of biologists would probably agree with Theodosius Dobzhansky's dictum that 'nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,' most can conduct their work quite happily without particular reference to evolutionary ideas," A.S. Wilkins, editor of the journal BioEssays, wrote in 2000.[1] "Evolution would appear to be the indispensable unifying idea and, at the same time, a highly superfluous one."

I would tend to agree. Certainly, my own research with antibiotics during World War II received no guidance from insights provided by Darwinian evolution. Nor did Alexander Fleming's discovery of bacterial inhibition by penicillin. I recently asked more than 70 eminent researchers if they would have done their work differently if they had thought Darwin's theory was wrong. The responses were all the same: No.

I also examined the outstanding biodiscoveries of the past century: the discovery of the double helix; the characterization of the ribosome; the mapping of genomes; research on medications and drug reactions; improvements in food production and sanitation; the development of new surgeries; and others. I even queried biologists working in areas where one would expect the Darwinian paradigm to have most benefited research, such as the emergence of resistance to antibiotics and pesticides. Here, as elsewhere, I found that Darwin's theory had provided no discernible guidance, but was brought in, after the breakthroughs, as an interesting narrative gloss.

In the peer-reviewed literature, the word "evolution" often occurs as a sort of coda to academic papers in experimental biology. Is the term integral or superfluous to the substance of these papers? To find out, I substituted for "evolution" some other word – "Buddhism," "Aztec cosmology," or even "creationism." I found that the substitution never touched the paper's core. This did not surprise me. From my conversations with leading researchers it had became clear that modern experimental biology gains its strength from the availability of new instruments and methodologies, not from an immersion in historical biology.

The genuine scientific contribution of Darwinian thinking can be separated from Darwinist ideology/creation-mythology by substituting the "Darwinian theory of evolution" with a "Darwinian theory of imperfect ecosystemic homeostasis."

Homeostasis is a property of living organisms, namely that the atoms of which they are physically comprised at any given time cycle in and out of them, yet the form of the organism maintains a high degree of continuity. As organisms exhibit homeostasis with respect to the atoms that comprise them, so ecosystems exhibit homeostasis with respect to the organisms that comprise them: trees, birds, insects, mammals are born, grow, and die, but the forest remains. This may be called ecosystemic homeostasis.

The Darwinian theory sheds light, both on (a) why the forest is able to maintain homeostasis, and (b) why the homeostasis is imperfect, i.e., the forest will not stay exactly the same forever (even putting to one side exogenous climatic or geological changes). The forest maintains homeostasis because organisms are adapted to their environments and achieve a sort of equilibrium; but it can change over time because the Mendelian genetics that underlies the forms of organisms, combined with natural selection and (very rarely) advantageous mutations, can enable organisms to upgrade, or to find new niches, creating ripple effects throughout the ecosystem. Experimental evidence that this kind of evolution can occur is not really needed; once the truths of Mendelian genetics (plus the possibility of mutation) are established, logic alone is enough to show that evolution is at least a possibility, though perhaps a vanishingly rare one. We don't know, based on logic alone, whether it has played a significant role in natural history or not. Perhaps fossil evidence suggests that it has played at least some role. (I'm not a paleontologist.)

That's as far as science, properly understood, can go. The unwarranted and superfluous further claim that this is how all life originated is our civilization's reigning creation-myth but is not science. We don't know how all life was created, and we probably never will. The evidence is just too scanty.


  • To somewhat abuse the old "finding a watch on the beach" scenario:

    A person walking on a beach comes upon a watch. It's clearly a watch, but it's very old and the places where a manufacturer or watchmaker might stamp their insignias has worn away. The person knows, logically, that watches can be made by watchmakers, but what is to lead the beach-wanderer to assume that the watch was made by a human watchmaker? The evidence is just too scanty to be sure.

    By Blogger Nato, at 11:37 AM  

  • We know from other sources that watches are generally made by human watchmakers, so we have a basis for inference.

    We have not observed, directly or indirectly, other natures being made by evolution.

    By Blogger Nathanael, at 11:51 AM  

  • Actually, all the major mechanisms of which "evolution" is composed have been observed - thus is "microevolution" routinely allowed even by young Earth creationists. The fight is over if the observed mechanisms are sufficient. The mechanisms so far described are probably truly insufficient in some respect, but what would a beechwalker versed in the electrical engineering of 1970 say of a found 2007 PDA? One might expect them not to be too confused by the inability of known EE designs to produce the found object.

    Such a person might speculate on aliens or visitors from the future, of course, but I don't think they would suspect that electrical engineering principles don't apply.

    By Blogger Nato, at 2:32 PM  

  • ... except with fruit flies, and virii, and bacteria, and hybridization of plants and animals, etc. I guess you mean we've never observed a lump of clay turn into a person before our very eyes. Yes, it's a shame we can't have that sort of evidence. Even if we created perfect labratory conditions to create life from raw materials, you would no doubt claim that evolution wasn't the cause of the life, but rather we were the cause by fabricating the conditions. It's true, we can't know for sure what started it all, because none of us was there to observe it. But we do know life can start from non-living ingredients, and therefore we can infer that it has happened in the past. On the other hand, we do not know if life can be created through mythological and mystical means, so why should we expect that to be the case? Are there any other alternatives?

    Evolution is not just a good idea, it's a majestic and beautiful one too. Up in the mountains there are trees that seemingly take root in solid granite. Isn't that amazing? That's how evolution works. Even in less than ideal conditions, evolution still manages to grow life into the cracks. Evolution actually prefers less than ideal conditions for life, assuming biological complexity is your metric. What doesn't kill (all) the organisms, makes (the rest of) them stronger and consequently more complex. Evolution makes the best of what it has, through sheer trial and error over an epic time-frame. Humanity is evolution's greatest work of art to date. It's ironic that the glory and beauty of Humanity makes people skeptical that anything as stupid and mindless as evolution could possibly be responsible for its existence. The only thing that people see is the best that evolution has to offer, the other vast countless numbers of other experiments having been failures and un-noticed by time. Evolution is the room full of chimps writing Shakespeare by chance. It just keeps writing and writing, and only the best poetry remains to this day. If only we could read what is yet to be written! What glorious works will exceed our standard?

    Evolution is not a religion, but it should be, because its simplicity and beauty is unrivaled. It is the foundation of creation and creativity, love and passion, all that is good and wonderful in the world. People could have a much deeper understanding of spirituality, love, and the Human condition through evolution than they ever could through their own imaginary play things. They just have to open their hearts and minds to it. You don't even need the evidence to know it's true. Just look in your heart.

    By Blogger Thomas, at 2:34 PM  

  • oops! Nato snuck in right before me. my response was to Nathanael.

    By Blogger Thomas, at 2:36 PM  

  • Is Tom's ode to evolution ironic, I wonder? I could hardly have asked for a better illustration of what I mean when I call evolution a "creation-myth." Yes, "evolution is a majestic and beautiful idea," I couldn't agree more. The best myths always are! But does Tom really imagine that "[evolution] is the foundation of creation and creativity, love and passion, all that is good and wonderful in the world" is the type of statement that can be experimentally tested?

    Or can Tom possibly imagine that when he interprets his admiration of trees taking root in solid granite as admiration of evolution, he is not wearing ideological lenses? People have admired the beauty of nature for millennia. In the past they made poetic allusions to the seven days of Creation.

    Let me make it clear that I don't use the word "myth" as a synonym for "lie" or "error." Myths are metanarratives which often have a good deal of truth in them, but which do not lend themselves to proof in the scientific sense. Darwinian theory contains a good deal of truth, and that is precisely why I am taking the trouble to frame the Darwinian theory of imperfect ecosystemic homeostasis-- to capture the truth in Darwinian theory, and the wonder of it, if you like, while cutting loose the unjustified extrapolations.

    Yes to both Tom and Nato: microevolution has been observed. And indeed, it doesn't even need to be observed: the simple facts of Mendelian genetics and differential survival allow us to infer through logic that it must occur. But the fact that microevolution occurs is extremely weak evidence about its strength as a force in natural history. It's very romantic, in a way, to imagine that these simple forces could achieve the miracle of creation we observe around us, but that doesn't mean it's true.

    This is amusing: "we do not know if life can be created through mythological and mystical means, so why should we expect that to be the case?" What?! I have a sense that there's some sort of half-baked straw-man argument lurking somewhere in that sentence, but I don't really know what it is.

    In any case, please note that I have not proposed an alternative to evolution. My contention is that we do not know. I recognize that that is not a very emotionally satisfying position, but whether it's emotionally satisfying or not is irrelevant to its truth.

    By Blogger Nathanael, at 3:36 PM  

  • I was actually immitating deist sentiments in a sort of satirical way. I was intentionally trying to be ironic. The real irony is that you attack my deification of evolution, and yet still cling to your own ideological vagaries.

    Am I attacking a straw man? Hey, if the shoe fits... All arguments in support of deism are straw men in my opinion: they are fashioned to be struck down and lit on fire. Religions and people are very adaptive, though, and they evolve bigger and better straw men constantly, some more flame-retardant than others. But history has shown that in all of the battles between physicalism and mysticism over the years, physicalism has won out eventually every time. Physicalism is a gravity well of Truth, and all falsehoods are drawn to it, spiriling closer and closer, unable to break free of its pull. It's so beautiful and spiritual, maybe there should be a Church of Physicalism too?

    By Blogger Thomas, at 4:26 PM  

  • Perhaps its more awe-some spiritual aspects can exand evolution's explanitory power to address one more important phenomenon: the intuition that the world is sacred.

    Luckily, many find its almost incomprehensibly complex answer affirmational rather than eliminatory.

    By Blogger Nato, at 9:35 PM  

  • re: "intuition that the world is sacred..."

    Sanctity is ruled out by evolution of course, and by any kind of monism, but yes, the intuition that sanctity exists tends to survive...

    re: "All arguments in support of deism are straw men in my opinion..."

    Are you paying attention to the discussion here, Tom? I wasn't defending deism in this post.

    re: "history has shown that in all of the battles between physicalism and mysticism over the years, physicalism has won out eventually every time..."

    This is a factual claim. It is false. The vast majority of humanity believes in non-physical entities, including God.

    re: "Physicalism is... so beautiful and spiritual, maybe there should be a Church of Physicalism too?"

    Been there, done that. It was called the Soviet Union.

    Seriously, though, Tom, you need to try to be cogent here. The most generous thing that can be said for a claim like "physicalism is... spiritual" is that it is a paradox; but to qualify for that description some elucidation of the meaning of terms is needed so that a reader can justifying regarding the claim as something other than simple nonsense.

    By Blogger Nathanael, at 8:51 AM  

  • I think I'm beginning to see the fundamental fissure in our underlying logic.

    "Sanctity is ruled out by evolution of course, and by any kind of monism"

    Why? One might say that the corpuscular nature of matter and the imperfect flatness of spacetime rules out true Circles (because any attempt at physical instantiation will always depart from a definitionally pure geometry), but the mistaken essentialism of the claim is obvious. I don't feel that anyone thinks I'm taking a liberty by calling the rings left by my coffee cup "circles" after all. Moreover, even if by some accident we lived in a world in which nothing very circular existed, a person wouldn't be wrong in saying that the line of intersection between a zero curvature plane and the set of points equidistant from a centerpoint point really does make a circle. Thus, circles exist, despite not having a physical basis in the same sense that an illatum like adnine does.

    Sanctity, it would seem, has approximately the same ontological status as circles, though the degree of complexity between circles and sanctity may approximate that between adnine and the biological machine we humans inhabit.

    In any case, if one believes all monism must be "hard" monism in which nothing but illata have any reality, then yes, sactity is incompatible. I don't think there's many serious hard monists out there.

    By Blogger Nato, at 9:24 AM  

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