Archive for the ‘Darwin’s Black Box’ category

Appreciating what intelligence can do that evolution can’t

December 11, 2008

One problem for pro-science forces today is that we’re bored with progress and the “miracles” of technology.  Or at least, mentioning the many ways in which intelligent design far outstrips what “nature” has produced has been done to death, and we have instead turned our minds to contemplating what evolution has done and which design still cannot match.

This is not all bad, of course, since the celebrations of industry, technology, as well as the scientific hubris, of progressives and futurists  tended to ignore the mysteries and exquisite dexterity and control of biological organisms, like the hummingbird.  Computers blow us away at any number of tasks, yet simply driving along the road safely is at best at the limits of today’s computer technology.  And it is nearly certain that no computer enjoys the consciousness that a human knows.

So this post is in no way meant to suggest that we can equal or better evolution in general, let alone can we create the kind of intelligence and creativity that produces our wonderful machines.   As I noted previously, it appears that intelligence evolved to handle what evolution could not directly address, matters of space, time, and rationality. Even then, evolution does not so much give us a rational brain, as to supply the material and organization that allows development, sensory experience, and learning to shape our minds to do what evolution (or God, if you’re an IDist) cannot do directly.

So, while we must appreciate the manner in which evolution deals with tremendous complexity of the sort that our intelligence combined with computation still cannot properly organize, it would do us some good to contemplate once more how much our intelligence has outstripped “nature” in handling materials, in controlling fire, and in producing extremely fast machines and computers that have given us capabilities that “God” either could not or would not give to us.

Even something as simple as fire seemed to be a god-like “element” to the Greeks, as the Prometheus myth tells us.  The cheetah is fast, but topping out at around 60 mph, it runs at less than 1/10th the land speed record.  No bird powers itself to over 100 mph, while experimental hypersonic craft have reached 7500 mph.  New Horizons managed to hit 42,000 mph on its mission to Pluto.  And the internets connect the whole world in what is to humans a virtual instant.

That is what happens when minds make connections between concepts, empirical knowledge, and the recognition of what is needed and/or “cool.”  The simple reason why these phenomena never appeared prior to the evolution of human intelligence, plus a (humanly, not evolutionarily) long learning period, is that there is no intelligence behind biology.  One does not disparage the hummingbird, the ape, or the human by noting that the abilities supplied to these organisms in many areas pale in comparison with the abilities possible through scientific and technological progress.  Indeed, the fact that we now can harness genetic algorithms to partially mimic the capabilities of evolution only enhances what intelligence alone can do, and it does so by recognizing both the possibilities and limitations of the process(es) that gave rise to life, including ourselves.

Surely our understanding of evolution itself speaks well of our intelligence and of our ability to make creative leaps, something that is absent from the various records of evolution.  We have proven ourselves able to extrapolate evolutionary principles into a set of predictions that fit taxonomy, the fossil record, and genetic information (which speak to evolution beyond mere taxonomy), and to recognize how life does not fit with design principles and characteristics.  The proper use of intelligence seems to be what IDists desire to diminish, at least far enough so that we can no longer do proper life science.

Evolutionary theory is the product of intelligence.  ID is the product of anthropomorphization, anthropocentrism, and of superstition.  We have intelligence, no question, but evolution also bequeathed to us the propensities to avoid the use of our evolved intelligence.  Sadly, this is also what we would tend to expect of evolution (precise scientific predictions to this end do not seem likely, however) and not, say, of Alvin Plantinga’s god. 

The evolution of intelligence provided us a kind of “transcendent” capability, which may be seen in our technology, but by no means could it ensure that evolved organisms would make proper use of this capability.  That is the dilemma of evolution, for we only evolved to deal adequately, and often quite falsely, with the world, and not to delve carefully and honestly into what really happened to give us our world.  We have to watch to see if the best that evolution gave to us will win out over the worst that it produced, to see if the lure of intelligence will largely supplant the laziness and lack of thought found in ID and in the other pseudoscience.

This is part of a series of posts that I am combining into one long post, which may be found at Darwin’s Black Box.

Why is there substantial overlap between design results and evolutionary results?

December 2, 2008

There are a number of reasons why ID exists, from an unreasonable desire to hold onto religious myths, to the amazing lack of any sort of scientific rigor in the vast majority of either their criticisms or in their “models” (this statement is not to be confused with their frequent unreasonable demands that we supply rigor where unknowns remain, while they hold themselves to be exempt from any scientific rigor).  This is not the place to delve into the many evolutionary faults in the brain which keep pseudosciences like ID going, however. 

One issue in the constant struggle against ID and other forms of creationism is that the inference to design in life is both an anthrocentric mistake (in that “purpose” is inferred where only evolutionary function can be demonstrated), and sometimes an honest mistaking of exquisite structures and processes as being exactly what a great intelligence would design.

Indeed, if we look at the wings of swallows and of hummingbirds, without any kind of detailed morphological and ontogenetic analysis, one might simply resort to “form follows function,” wholly within the design context in which that statement has typically been made.  Or, if we were to consider the cliche more closely, we might conclude that in our experience function is first considered and analyzed, and form is then designed and specifically articulated in order to fit that function. 

Yes, that is our experience, thus it is not altogether unreasonable for people who know only design processes to think that wing articulations must then have been designed.  But as biologists know all too well, that is not what we see in life.  More than once I’ve brought up the question of why all vertebrate wings are modifications of their ancestors’ legs, while human-designed wings are modifications of bird wings as well as having been partly designed from first principles.  The answer is all too clear, which is that vertebrate wings simply evolved, and were not designed in any manner as we would expect of an intelligence operating to produce them.

Yet the overlap between design and evolution is good enough for us to use bird wings as the basis for design, as the Chinese did with their kites (which is the origin of humanity’s airfoils–or so I have been led to believe), and as the Wright brothers did after adopting previous airfoils, and by studying birds and their flight abilities on their own.  So surely one must address such an overlap, partly to understand evolution, partly to understand design.

The short answer is that intelligence and design expand on what evolution (otherwise) provides.  But this answer itself requires expansion.  Probably a large part of the evolution of logic and rationality comes from the fact that intelligence adapted to an environment which in important ways is not the result of evolution at all.  This goes back to what many people understand, the fact that mathematics–especially geometry–and cognitive abilities such as following straight lines and succession, are to a large extent ways of dealing with space and also with time.  Straight lines happen to be efficient ways to get from one point to another one, hence animals tend to travel in straight lines, and predators learn that this is the case–until avoidance maneuvers kick in, that is.

Primates are believed to have evolved intelligence partly for the sake of spatial (and temporal) understanding, particularly as arboreal organisms operating within 3-D space and dealing with 3-D objects (of course all space and objects are 3-D, but lions do not need to be nearly as aware of the three-dimensionality of their plains and prey).  Social living extended this intelligence to models of complex organisms and their behaviors, so that we became able to understand what another primate (or prey) is likely to do next.  And at some point, primates began to use various spatial items in their surroundings to manipulate their surroundings, and a (usually fairly straight) stick extended the reach of the (usually fairly straight) forearms of the primate.  It should be noted in passing that the fact that we use intelligence to understand other animals and their “purposes” is likely a big reason why many people simply assume that the forms and functions of organisms ought to be understood according to purpose–if not the purpose of an observable being, then the purpose of an unobservable being.

Yet intelligence operates quite differently than evolution, which is why using a stick can effect a quantum leap over what the little primate can do with its arms alone.  Or, more importantly, from understanding evolution and its overlap with design, a stick which evolved simply to uphold leaves above other plants for a competitive advantage eventually becomes an extension of the animal’s spatial capabilities, so that increasing the extension of one’s reach is no longer tied to ancestry and the tedious and slow evolutionary growth of a primate’s arm. 

Oddly (and seemingly cluelessly in the case of Behe), this gets back to what Behe stated in Darwin’s Black Box, that Darwinian evolution requires physical precursors, while design can make do with conceptual precursors.  And indeed, that is exactly why we understand life to be the result of “Darwinian evolution,” for it is incapable of conceptualizing a line, or of taking up a stick to bridge the chasm between two organisms.  Evolution is quite limited while dealing with the geometries of space and of designed machinery (aside from the evolution of intelligence), and it can only respond with logical brains to do what evolution could never do directly.

One could look at evolution as incrementally (if not always incrementally, overwhelmingly so) providing the forms which most animals use, while intelligence evolved to use these forms and abilities well in unevolved time and space.  Thus, intelligence has evolved to understand organisms’ forms and functions (their own, and, in many cases, those of other species) in a spatial and temporal manner that is completely foreign to how evolution processes information, and it can even adopt and extend the spatio-temporal capabilities artificially.  Indeed, intelligence in humans can do what evolution could never do.

The fact is that bird wings have their forms because even legs are plastic over millions of years.  But bird, bat, and pterosaur, could never have come up with wings by rearranging, say, ribs into the proper form to make wings.  We can.  Or, like the Wright brothers, we can take trees (separated from us by hundreds of millions of years of evolution) and saw out exactly the parts needed to make an airfoil, and even to articulate this airfoil so that it can change shape somewhat like a bird wing can.  Rationality can leap past inheritance, in other words, while evolution could never come up with an aluminum engine, or any such thing, yet which the Wright brothers used to power their airplance.

It should be noted also that the aluminum–and the steel–in the engine used to power the Wright brothers’ airplane, along with the design of the engine, come almost entirely from the intellect, with not even an evolutionary conceptual precursor like the wings.  Intelligence evolved to analyze, and even to synthesize, articulations and ideas, so that wholly new things, like aluminum engines, could be thought up in the primate brain.  This is nothing like what evolution does, which is why we distinguish designed objects from living objects both by the formers’ conceptual leaps (which may not be altogether rational), and by the almost inevitable rational aspects which exist within intelligently-designed objects.

Notably, all intelligence of which we know is inextricably tied to evolution.  While evolution itself could never directly supply the leaps of logic and articulation used to analyze a bird carcase, or to create a spear with a pointy stone on the end of it, both evolution and development can shape the rational and communications abilities within animals (primarily humans, on this planet) to actually deal with knowledge of space and of bird articulations, and thus to enhance survival in this world through intelligence.  Intelligence overlaps with evolution both because it is selected to understand animals of one’s own and also of other species, and because it extends and enhances the behaviors of organisms.  This seems to be true to the degree that humans have actually lost many earlier behaviors and even innate capabilities, instead relying more upon intelligence itself to supply behaviors that once evolved to exist and then evolved not to exist.

Another reason for the overlap of the products of design and of evolution is simply that many of the same forms and articulations are needed simply to provide function, or at least to provide function at minimal cost.  While we may have copied airfoils from birds initially, the airfoil on a supersonic airplane owes little to any organism (except for the original idea), rather it is developed from empirical and theoretical studies.  Intelligence did there what evolution could never do, since the latter cannot provide the power needed for supersonic flight.  That said, subsonic planes have airfoils not unlike those of bird wings, not because we’re unable to think beyond copying bird wings for subsonic flight, but because millions of years of evolution, and 100 years of intelligent design, come to basically the same solution–because there really is only one good solution (and varieties of that solution to fit different criteria for flight–which are seen in both planes and in birds).

So one of the main reasons for the overlap between design results and evolutionary results is rather prosaic and probably obvious to most who think about it–good solutions are typically few, and both evolution and design can reach many of these solutions.

Nevertheless, the differences between evolutionary processes and intelligent processes are considerable, and the limitations of evolution are severe.  We can turn a tree into the body (if not the engine) of an airplane.  But only animals with articulated limbs of roughly the right position and tolerably within striking distance of a wing will ever evolve wings.  Even more apparent, evolution will not cause organic life-forms to evolve aluminum wings and piston engines to produce flight, while evolved intelligence has done so.  Likewise, one should remember that evolution has a kind of “parallel processing” power that, albeit only over very long periods, produces wing control that human designers continue to envy.  This seems to be in part because “evolvability evolves,” so that organisms can slowly change to exquisitely fit niches, like those that birds inhabit.

Finally, then, the question in biology comes down not to why evolutionary and intelligent solutions overlap meaningfully, since they would have to in order to produce functional “machinery.”  The real question is why biological solutions are at once so limited when compared to intelligent design, and, very often, so much more exquisite, despite their limitations.  Of course the answer is that the gradual change which predominates over the course of biological evolution can make no spatial, temporal, or rational leaps, while it refines the modifications that it does effect with a profligacy (of offspring), and via excruciatingly fine changes that is not at all easy for our rather blunt rational abilities to effect.

The limitations of evolution and the strengths of evolution are explained only in one way, through the natural selection of variations in organisms, for small modifications of the immediately preceding inheritance of organisms are the mill that grinds bird, bat, and pterosaur wings into such superb and beautiful shapes, while simultaneously preventing the adoption of unrelated forms or with any consideration of first principles.

The only way that evolution could ever produce an aluminum engine, or a wooden skeleton of an airfoil, is by evolving the spatial, temporal, and rational capacities of intelligence.  That is why no vertebrate wing has been anything but the modified forelimbs of its ancestors (unless, again, we count the flying fish, which evolved gliding wings from the precursors to tetrapods’ forelimbs, the pectoral fins), while intelligence–once it evolved and developed culturally and technologically–made a huge number of leaps in capability never before seen in life.  

In addition, this is why most of the ancients differentiated considerably between life and technology, not only because technology is inferior in many ways to life, but because even then technology was startlingly superior in other ways.

Unfortunately for evolution-deniers, exquisite and complex adaptations of a very limited range of forms is exactly what is expected of evolution, and not at all what is expected of design.  Or, to put it into their terms, of course designers adopt and adapt solutions from life, for human intelligence both analyzes and synthesizes.  The insurmountable problem for them is that life never adapts anything from an unrelated and separate (with no, or very limited, lateral transfer of genes) lineages or from first principles, abilities that an actual intelligent designer is expected to have.

This is part of a series of posts that I am combining into one long post, which may be found at Darwin’s Black Box.

Causation without “naturalism” or “materialism”

November 14, 2008

Paley, of course, is to blame for not framing his arguments more tightly.  DBB, 213

Uh, yeah, Behe, then why have you backed away from all of the positive evidence that Paley adduced as being the effect of a mind similar to our own? That Paley lacked tightness of argumentation and exactness of fit between cause and effect I do not doubt, but it is the fact that Paley posited meaningful causation (that is, a mind similar to our own), which Behe completely fails to do, just as the “theories of origin” that Paley rightly criticized failed to do.  The reason glares out at us, of course, which is that evolution explains what we see in life, and design has nothing to explain the slavish copying evident in life, except that, wherever lineages break from each other, there is no commonality of “authorship” in any of the subsequent modifications.  The patterns are evolutionary, and unlike any design causation that we have ever observed.

The childishness, as well as the vacuousness, of ID is transparent whenever they whine about science’s devotion to “naturalism” or to “materialism”.  For, the fact of the matter is that mental causation was understood well before any “naturalistic” or “material” causes were known, and yet we still understand mental causes more commonly according to “non-natural” and “non-material” models than we do according to physics.  Most of the science-oriented types do not doubt that the brain operates according to physics, of course–and for very good reasons, especially the conservation laws, and small-scale cause and effect observations.  Yet we do not hesitate to understand causation outside of precise scientific understandings of the processes underlying our “theories of mind.”

This is all that we demand, all that we have ever demanded.  Let’s let Paley say so once again:

When we speak of an artificer or an architect, we talk of what is comprehensible to our understanding, and familiar to our experience.  We use no other terms, than what refer us for their meaning to our consciousness and observation; what express the constant objects of both; whereas names, like that we have mentioned, refer us to nothing; excite no idea; convey a sound to the ear, but I think do no more.  Natural Theology

How “design” means anything in the passage below I cannot say:

Features that strike us as odd in a design might have been placed there by the designer for a reason–for artistic reasons, for variety, to show off, for some as-yet-undetected practical purpose, or for some unguessable reason–or they might not.  DBB, 223

Yes, that’s why it’s called “design,” not “art.”  Paley was serious about design, which is why he discussed artificers and architects.  Darwin was also serious about design, which is why he noted that life does not look like anything we get from artificers and architects, but rather more like something that reproduced, faithfully for the most part, but with variations which were selected.

Partly I have been recapitulating the earlier, linked post.  But now it is for the additional reason that neither Darwin, nor most other competent scientists, ever hung the arguments regarding design vs. evolution on “naturalism” or “materialism”.  What is more, Darwin himself didn’t have a “natural” or “material” cause of the variations which “nature” selected, instead he was concerned about empirically-known causes matching up with empirically-discovered facts.  The gene fairy might have been responsible for inheritance and variation, for all he knew (by his time such fanciful “causes” were no longer taken seriously, however), but “survival of the fittest” explains (many of) the cumulative effects that we see.

And although he did not use this term, Paley hypothesized “rational choice” as being responsible for the “design” of organisms, exactly what we would expect of an artificer or architect.  His point was certainly not that the “designer” had to be “natural” or “material,” rather that it would be rational, and purposeful. And ultimately, Behe denies everything that we would expect of a designing mind, both purpose and rationality.

We just need causation of any hypothesized design, or in other words, we need to know the limits and peculiarities of a designer if we are ever to be able to identify such a cause.  That is all that Paley demanded of competing origination theories, and he rightly determined that they fell flat when they failed to explain anything by matching up cause and effect.  It hardly needs pointing out that Paley failed to explain much that he claimed to explain, let alone all that ignored.  Yet he at least claimed identifiable causation (or at least he analogized to identifiable causes–depending on what makes of God as a Cause) producing identifiable effects.  As loose as his argumentation was, it was indeed tight enough to be subjected to falsification tests, and thus it failed when organic articulations were shown to be explainable via natural selection, along with a host of data that design never could touch (although Paley tried get his readers to accept morphological similarities as produced by the “designer”).

No more of that from Behe, certainly.  He’s flailing away so badly that he’s bringing up art that is deliberately obscure, in order to avoid the fact that all of his “design” is lacking any of the expected marks of design–particularly rationality and purpose.  He knows that some of Paley’s arguments were poor, indeed, but he will not admit that his principal problem with Paley is that the latter invoked empirically-known causation which was falsifiable and falsified.  Worse, evolution is falsifiable, and has not been falsified, and it explains what his “design” deliberately avoids addressing–such as the aforementioned slavish copying along lines of vertical transmission, and no “common authorship” of modifications in lines which permanently broke away from each other.

We have only demanded that causes should actually produce their expected effects, from Paley, through Darwin, and down to the present day.  The utter lack of rationality and purpose behind organisms is enough to invalidate any “designing mind” worthy of the name (actual reference, as Paley demanded), quite apart from the evolutionary evidence. 

What is more, evolutionary theory has no dependence on the dearth of evidence for “design,” rather it is the match of cause and effect in the patterns of life (“slavish copying along lines of vertical transmission, and no “common authorship” of modifications in lines which permanently broke away from each other”), wherein causes with deep “memory” and no “knowledge of what is happening in unrelated lines” produce just the effects expected (predicted) by those causes.

This is part of a series of posts that I am combining into one long post, which may be found at Darwin’s Black Box.

ID’s volte-face on the importance of meaning and evidence, since the time of Paley

November 4, 2008

IDists like to claim that they have a “new theory” that is being suppressed.  Needless to say, they don’t.  However, when one reads Paley and compares him to the current sorry crop of apologists, one realizes that Paley was genuinely (if not very successfully) trying to explain many aspects of organisms according to a “design” which was close to our actual understanding of what design is, and appears to see the very real flaws in some of the non-creation, including evolutionary, theories of his day.  The lack of supporting evidence for Buffon’s “theory of forms” to explain life, and of what are now called “Lamarckian” theories of evolution came under attack by Paley.

I have discussed the differences significantly in the past, like in this recent post.  However, I would like to quote extensively from Paley’s discussions of the failings of both Buffon’s conception of how life appeared, and the prominent evolutionary idea of his day, to show how he uses fairly competent criticisms, and how he contrasts those to design in life that he really thought was like our own, and thus considered to provide meaningful evidence.  For, altogether, Paley manages to attack pseudoscientific ideas for being meaningless and for being lacking in evidence, while holding ID to the standards of both meaning and evidence like a genuine scientist would do. 

Paley is hardly the person to which a person should turn to understand science.  He calls his output “natural theology,” not to distinguish it from science, but to suggest that science and theology may in fact be the same thing.  I can hardly applaud something like that, nor his many factual errors.  Nevertheless, he is a beacon of science and of good sense compared with the current bunch of IDists, and  I wish to demonstrate this fact through a passage of some of his best thought.  Today’s ID simply withers when one applies Paley’s standards, which should be obvious in the following piece.  The passage begins with Paley criticizing Buffon’s concept of “internal molds” producing life:

Lastly; these wonder-working instruments, these “internal moulds,” what are they after all? what, when examined, but a name without signification; unintelligible, if not self-contradictory; at best, differing in nothing from the “essential forms” of the Greek philosophy?  One short sentence of Buffon’s work exhibits his scheme as follows:  “When this nutritious and prolific matter, which is diffused throughout all nature, passes through the internal mould of an animal or vegetable, and finds a proper matrix, or receptacle, it gives rise to an animal or vegetable of the same species.”  Does any reader annex a meaning to the expression, “internal mould,” in this sentence?  Ought it then to be said that though we have little notion of an internal mould, we have not much more of a designing mind:  The very contrary of this assertion is the truth.  When we speak of an artificer or an architect, we talk of what is comprehensible to our understanding, and familiar to our experience.  We use no other terms, than what refer us for their meaning to our consciousness and observation; what express the constant objects of both; whereas names, like that we have mentioned, refer us to nothing; excite no idea; convey a sound to the ear, but I think do no more.

Another system, which has lately been brought foraward, and with much ingenuity, is that of appetencies.  The principle, and the short account of the theory, is this:  Pieces of soft, ductile matter, being endued with propensities or appetencies for particular actions, would, by continual endeavours, carried on through a long series of generations, work themselves gradually into suitable forms; and at length acquire, though perhaps by obscure and almost imperceptible improvements, an organization fitted to the action which their respective propensities led them to exert.  A piece of animated matter, for example, that was endued with a propensity to fly, though ever so shapeless, though no other we will suppose than a round ball, to begin with, would, in a course of ages, if not in a million of years, perhaps in a hundred millions of years, (for our theorists, having eternity to dispose of, are never sparing in time,) acquire wings.  The same tendency to locomotion in an aquatic animal, or rather in an animated lump which might happen to be surrounded by water, would end in the production of fins; in a living substance, confined to the solid earth, would put out legs and feet; or, if it took a different turn, would break the body into ringlets, and conclude by crawling upon the ground.

Although I have introduced the mention of this theory into this place, I am unwilling to give to it the name of an atheistic scheme, for two reasons:  first, because, so far as I am able to understand it, the original propensities, and the numberless varieties of them (so different, in this respect, from the laws of mechanical nature, which are few and simple,) are, in the plan itself, attributed to the ordination and appointment of an intelligent and designing Creator; secondly, because, likewise, that large postulatum, which is all along assumed and presupposed, the faculty in living bodies of producing other bodies organized like themselves, seems to be referred to the same cause; at least is not attempted to be accounted for by any other.  In one important respect, however, the theory before us coincides with atheistic systems, viz. in that, in the formation of plants and animals, in the structure and use of their parts, it does away final causes.  Instead of the parts of a plant or animal, or the particular structure and use of the parts, having been intended for the action or the use to which we see them applied, according to this theory, they have themselves grown out of that action, sprung from that use.  The theory therefore dispenses with that which we insist upon, the necessity, in each particular case, of an intelligent, designing mind, for the contriving and determining of the forms which organized bodies bear.  Give our philospoher these appetencies; give him a portion of living irritable matter (a nerve, or the clipping of a nerve) to work upon; give also to his incipient or progressive forms, the power, in every stage of their alteration, of propagating their like; and, if he is to be believed, he could replenish the world with all the vegetable and animal productions which we at present see in it.

The scheme under consideration is open to the same objection with other conjectures of a similar tendency, viz. a total defect of evidence.  No changes, like those which the theory requires, have ever been observed.  All the changes in Ovid’s Metamorphoses might have been effected by these appetencies, if the theory were true; yet not an example, nor the pretence of an example, is offered of a single change being known to have taken place.  Nor is the order of generation obedient to the principle upon which this theory is built.  The mammae of the male have not vanished by inusitatem; nec curtorum, per multa saecula, Judaeorum propagini deest praeputium.  It is easy to say, and it has been said, that the alternative process is too slow to be percieved; that it has been carried on through tracts of immeasurable time; and that the present order of things is the result of a gradation, of which no human records can trace the steps.  It is easy to say this; and yet it is still true, that the hypothesis remains destitute of evidence. Natural Theology

One might first ask why ID should be privileged over evolution via appetencies, or Buffon’s “theory of forms,” at least if these were updated to avoid the problems that these ideas had (aside from no evidence).  The flying spaghetti monster is one thing, for even if it has provided a good deal of fun at the expense of IDists, it appears to be yet another “intelligent designer,” thus not an actual competitor with ID.  The ideas that Paley criticizes, on the other hand, were serious ideas a couple of centuries ago (the lack of evidence was not an immediate problem, since no well-evidenced theory–including design–existed at the time, and future evidence might have conceivably supported them).  And if they are seriously devoid of explanatory ability and evidence, so is today’s ID.

Secondly, how could Paley’s complaint about the meaninglessness of “internal moulds” not apply equally to present-day notions of ID?  They do not tell us what “design” means (except by illegitimately conflating what we know, that life is complex, with “design”), nor what “intelligence” is supposed to produce, rather they try their very best to avoid predicting known design principles behind organisms’ forms:

Another problem with the argument from imperfection is that it critically depends on a psychoanalysis of the unidentified designer.  Yet the reasons that a designer would or would not do anything are virtually impossible to know unless the designer tells you specifically what those reasons are.  One only has to go into a modern art gallery to come across designed objects for which the purposes are completely obscure (to me at least).  Features that strike us as odd in a design might have been placed there by the designer for a reason–for artistic reasons, for variety, to show off, for some as-yet-undetected practical purpose, or for some unguessable reason–or they might not.  DBB, 223

I have quoted this previously, but it is a frequent–if intellectually-unsound–excuse trundled out nearly every time we ask for evidence of design.  That it goes against other claims of Behe to find “purpose” in life should go without saying–for anyone who has read his books, that is (he claims that design is visible as the purposeful arrangement of parts–until he denies that we should be able to find purpose, as in the above passage).  But it also goes against a far more honest version of ID, that of Paley, who contrasted the pseudosciences of his day with an ID that appealed to observation and experience:  “When we speak of an artificer or an architect, we talk of what is comprehensible to our understanding, and familiar to our experience” (Paley, long quote above).  Well, Behe most certainly does not, for he is not trying to explain anything, except how it is that he is not required to produce evidence for his statements.

There is not much sense in belaboring these points.  Suffice it to say that, unlike Paley, Behe and the rest of the “DI fellows” do not mean anything more with terms like “purpose,” “Intelligence,” and “design,” than Buffon’s “internal moulds” had meaning (indeed, they really mean less, because Buffon’s terms still have a kind of abstract meaning, while the IDists use terms that do not comport even with abstract meanings of their words), and they are completely uninterested in providing evidence in favor of ID.  They wish to claim that scientific evolution is “insufficient” and to suppose that “design” (of indeterminate meaning) is the only alternative, even though at least several ideas at least as explanatory (that is to say, little if any) and with equal evidence (that is, little to none) have previously been broached.  That an IDist like Paley found fault with the alternatives, often on the exact same grounds with which we fault today’s meaningless and unevidenced ID, is either lost on today’s sorry apologists, or they ignore the fact as asiduously as they ignore virtually all empirical matters.

I would like to point out that both before and after the long Paley quote, the over-reliance upon analogy found in these alternative concepts came under Paley’s fire–just one more case where the old ID would be forced to condemn the new ID, if it were consistent anyhow (I do not say that Paley would denounce today’s ID if he encountered it, or that he would not.  That would be idle speculation).    The issue was too much to discuss here, other than this mention, since Paley’s criticisms of both the meaninglessness and the lack of evidence of pseudosciences (at least later they would be understood as such) of his day were far more important and meaningful.

ID has not always been a vapid attempt to avoid the meanings of terms and of the evidence.  It is not fair to Paley’s legacy for today’s ID to make the “design hypothesis” appear as though it was always a pseudoscience intent on destroying the standard’s of science so that even the most worthless ideas could be given the label of “science.”

This is part of a series of posts that I am combining into one long post, which may be found at Darwin’s Black Box.

How could the molecular clock work with design happening?

October 30, 2008

The molecular clock has been vigorously debated since it was proposed, and many issues surrounding it are still contended.  Overall, however, it remains a viable possibility.  Michael Behe, DBB, 174

He is right both about questions remaining, and that it is a viable possibility.

But how could it be, if ID were correct?  From Aristotle, down to Paley and the creationists, τεχνη or design has always been marked off from “nature” (nature in the exclusive sense) or “physis”.  Indeed, Behe and most of the other prominent IDists like to suggest that the “Cambrian Explosion” is an obvious time when “design” was effected (DBB 27-28).  And yet the molecular clocks (mostly DNA, now) tick through the “Cambrian Explosion” without marking any break from the usual processes, even though it is possible that more refined methods could yet capture an uptick in change (not the break that most would expect from a designer intervening, however).

For so long the various sorts of creationists have tried to argue that intervention by God would be obvious.  Since it never has been, however, Behe increasingly writes as though no intervention can ever be observed, from any sort of mark of design, to any break in the molecular clocks.

This criticism has nothing to do with the accuracy of molecular clocks, which may in fact not be as reliable as some have claimed.  It is that Behe never expects any of the effects of intervention to be visible in life (if these were found, you can be sure that most IDists, probably including Behe, would quickly adopt them, though).  This, perhaps, is the most important change that ID has produced, since the older IDist Paley, and traditional creationists, always expected design to be observable–and generally not by christening complexity as “evidence for design,” like Behe illegitimately does.

As it happens, we could easily apply Paley’s criticisms of the evolutionary concepts of his day (before Darwin came up with a scientific theory) to Behe’s evidence-free designer/evolution-tweaking God, because a major argument of Paley’s book was precisely that design has positive evidence in its favor (arguable then, but not now), while evolutionary ideas were lacking in evidence (not entirely true, since common ancestry did comport well with evolution).  Really, anyone who wanted to show conclusively how ID avoids all legitimate tests (falsification being the best rule-of-thumb) would do so by comparing Paley’s attempts to show that design is falsifiable, with Behe’s never-ending attempts to avoid all reasonable tests of ID.

This is part of a series of posts that I am combining into one long post, which may be found at Darwin’s Black Box.

What is ID’s efficient cause?

October 29, 2008

IDists are keen to return Aristotle’s “final cause” to the sciences, or at least to biology (see Dembski, for example).  Which is rather sad, because they can give us no evidence for the purpose of organisms, instead they wish to insist that life “had to be designed” and thus has purpose.  One has to wonder what good that would be to know, since we would still need to be able to discover purpose for it to impact us, and ID has never been able to demonstrate any purpose (to be sure, nearly all IDists have sacred writings in mind to provide specific purpose, but will not admit it in their supposed science).

So OK, they want final causes (aside from those of animals such as humans), and perhaps formal and material causes as well, but where is their “efficient cause”?  That is the closest that Aristotle’s “causes” (aitia, which probably would translate better as “reasons” than “causes”) come to fitting with scientific causation in the classical realm, they do not deny the importance of efficient causes, and yet they have none whatsoever.

It should be noted that Aristotle was not one who simply called “intelligence” or “design” the cause or the reason (not of a manufactured item, that is), the aition, because intelligence is just a faculty, and design is merely a category of actions or “causes”.  Thought using intelligence might be a cause, and design may be part of a specific process, but simply invoking intelligence, thought, or design would explain nothing by themselves.  There is an apparent exception to Aristotle’s “efficient cause” as a specific cause or set of causes, which is God the unmoved mover–a very indefinite “cause”–but even IDists don’t appeal to such ancient fictions, partly because it would too readily reveal the religious motivation behind ID.

Aristotle has these things to say of the “efficient cause”:

Again (3) the primary source of the change or coming to rest; e.g. the man who gave advice is a cause, the father is cause of the child, and generally what makes of what is made and what causes change of what is changed.

e.g. both the art of the sculptor and the bronze are causes of the statue. These are causes of the statue qua statue, not in virtue of anything else that it may be-only not in the same way, the one being the material cause, the other the cause whence the motion comes.

All causes, both proper and incidental, may be spoken of either as potential or as actual; e.g. the cause of a house being built is either ‘house-builder’ or ‘house-builder building’.

In investigating the cause of each thing it is always necessary to seek what is most precise (as also in other things): thus man builds because he is a builder, and a builder builds in virtue of his art of building. This last cause then is prior: and so generally.

Further, generic effects should be assigned to generic causes, particular effects to particular causes, e.g. statue to sculptor, this statue to this sculptor; and powers are relative to possible effects, actually operating causes to things which are actually being effected.  Aristotle’s Physics

In a scientific sense, this is all rather imprecise.  But even Aristotle’s generic causes, such as “the art of building,” is far more precise and meaningful than anything we have gotten out of ID as an efficient cause.  Dembski even makes “efficient cause” more precise than Aristotle does:

The efficient cause is the immediate activity that produced the statue–Michelangelo’s actual chipping away at a marble slab with hammer and chisel.  Dembski

Dembski’s example of an efficient cause moves us closer to scientific causation, and is a typical example used by those who are explaining Aristotle’s “four causes”.  Despite the fact that he waffles on mechanism in that article–and attacks the strawman of design being “barred from the content of science” (has any archaeologist tried to explain pottery without intelligent agents involved somehow?)–he is still hardly consistent when he makes statements such as this one:

You’re asking me to play a game: “Provide as much detail in terms of possible causal mechanisms for your ID position as I do for my Darwinian position.” ID is not a mechanistic theory, and it’s not ID’s task to match your pathetic level of detail in telling mechanistic stories. Notorious Dembski comment

Ah yes, Dembski has neither evidence for a final cause, nor for an efficient cause.  Likewise with Behe, who pretends to take a more scientific approach than Dembski, he will not even commit to the specificity that an ancient thinker like Aristotle would:

Another problem with the argument from imperfection is that it critically depends on a psychoanalysis of the unidentified designer.  Yet the reasons that a designer would or would not do anything are virtually impossible to know unless the designer tells you specifically what those reasons are.  One only has to go into a modern art gallery to come across designed objects for which the purposes are completely obscure (to me at least).  Features that strike us as odd in a design might have been placed there by the designer for a reason–for artistic reasons, for variety, to show off, for some as-yet-undetected practical purpose, or for some unguessable reason–or they might not.  DBB, 223

What, people refuse to call something like that science?  Notice how desperate he is to claim no distinguishing marks of design (since he knows that these are lacking from life that we have not engineered) that he goes to deliberately obscure art as his “example.” 

Yet in the first and second Dembski links (to the same source), it is argued, against a strawman, that design is readily detectable.  To be sure, he misunderstands his own sci-fi analogy as the search for “complex specified information,” when in fact it was rationality behind the signal that indicated intelligence.  Dembski explaining what was detected in the movie Contact:

In this sequence of 1126 bits, 1’s correspond to beats and 0’s to pauses. This sequence represents the prime numbers from 2 to 101, where a given prime number is represented by the corresponding number of beats (i.e., 1’s), and the individual prime numbers are separated by pauses i.e., 0’s).  Dembski

Yes, that’s right, it isn’t complexity that is discovered (Dembski calls unlikely simplicity by the name “complexity,” a distortion even of the meaning of the term), it is rationality.  Even Behe gets it slightly, and ludicrously brings up rational agents:

Rational agents can coordinate pieces into a larger system (like the ship) to accomplish a purpose.  Edge of Evolution, 168

Yes, and the context from which that comes has any number of rationally-devised artifacts being discovered.  Nevertheless, note how carefully he words it, to avoid the implication that life ought to appear rationally designed if it was intelligently designed.  He’s still relying on evident “purpose,” which he deliberately tried to avoid as a test of “design” in the previous quote.  There, too, he wrote of “reasons” for design, as he denied their visibility, suggesting that he knew very well that he was denying that purpose is evident in life, while in this later quote he is trying to suggest that rationality is found exactly through evident purpose (as he had also done in DBB, prior to denying it in order to avoid predicting evident purpose in life–in response to those who noted exactly the lack of purpose in so many aspects of life).

The fact of the matter is that both Dembski and Behe do not wish “design” to be tested by evidence of purpose, for they know that, for instance, malaria pathogens do not seem to fit any kind of evident purpose.  They bring up purpose in order to ignore efficient causation and the rationality typically evident behind such causation (even if some art is hard to figure out, the rationality of the frames betrays intelligence via rational efficient causation).  Likewise, they totally avoid efficient causation, for as I previously argued, they have no causes at all, only unconstrained accident (or whim).

Evolution is also fraught with accident (see link above), but these are “lawful accidents,” of the kind that are permitted and even (probabilistically) predicted.  We have “efficient causation,” or more exactly, scientific causation.  And what is interesting to note is that while Dembski and Behe contradict themselves and each other with their “arguments,” primarily because they can show no “intelligent design” causation whatsoever, earlier ID really did mean to find the marks of intelligence and rationality in life:

…We allege, that the same principle of intelligence, design, and mechanical contrivance, was exerted in the formation of natural bodies, as we employ in making of the various instruments by which our purposes are served […]. William Paley

Paley was looking for efficient cause (see also pp. 8 & 233 of the above link for his criticisms of explanations lacking in efficient causes), and for observable purpose.  Behe and Dembski contradict themselves on these matters, while generally trying to smuggle “purpose” in via “complexity.” 

Paley’s ID was tolerably close to a scientific hypothesis–which Darwin took seriously.  By avoiding all causes (even the ones they bring up, like “purpose”–Aristotle’s “final cause”), the current crop of IDists cannot even match Paley’s now-failed “science,” nor even keep from contradicting themselves as they both claim that purpose and rationality are evident, and that they are not.

This is part of a series of posts that I am combining into one long post, which may be found at Darwin’s Black Box.

Evolutionary history of tuberculosis deciphered

October 28, 2008

Or more exactly, the evolutionary history of Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex has been deciphered, indicating that there are two clades:

ScienceDaily (Oct. 22, 2008) — The evolutionary timing and spread of the Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex (MTBC), one of the most successful groups of bacterial pathogens, remains largely unknown. Here, using mycobacterial tandem repeat sequences as genetic markers, we show that the MTBC consists of two independent clades, one composed exclusively of M. tuberculosis lineages from humans and the other composed of both animal and human isolates.

The latter also likely derived from a human pathogenic lineage, supporting the hypothesis of an original human host. Using Bayesian statistics and experimental data on the variability of the mycobacterial markers in infected patients, we estimated the age of the MTBC at 40,000 years, coinciding with the expansion of “modern” human populations out of Africa. Moreover, the diversification of the oldest EAI and LAM populations took place during plant and animal domestication. Science Daily

It’s a somewhat interesting story, particularly due to its relevance to understanding tuberculosis as a disease.

One just has to wonder, in addition, how IDists propose to decide that this branch indicates normal processes of evolution (as at least most self-identified “IDists” would), while another branching happens to be due to design, despite the fact that it reveals no substantially different patterns.  Of course I have brought this up several times already, however it’s worth bringing up yet again, because it is important to understanding diseases like malaria (how adaptable are pathogens?), and because this aspect puts IDists squarely in the camp of creationists and their inability to tell “design” apart from “Darwinism.”

To put it more starkly than I have previously–the methods used for determining clades do not differ substantially across the taxa.  Some of the details change, of course, but the principles, the standards, are the same going back to the Cambrian and beforehand.  Furthermore, they do not differ meaningfully for “suddenly evolving” immunity genes like TCR and BCR (at least parts of which exist in the agnathans–hagfish and lampreys, but are much more diversified and important to jawed vertebrates–the gnathostomes–which use them in their adaptive immune systems, unlike agnathans with their adaptive immune systems), or the apparently far more sedately-changing Toll and Toll-like receptor genes.

Surely it is (in any “design” sense) a mystery of how malaria, tuberculosis, and humans, along with their ancestors, can be phylogenetically analyzed in essentially the same manner no matter whether we study their “designed” parts or their “evolved” parts.  Meaning that there is no obvious difference in causation of evolution across the taxonomic groups (and there is no definite way to assign the taxonomic categories, other than species, although the cladistic branches are not at all arbitrary), and no reason at all to think that design makes any difference to understanding the relationships of pathogens and hosts.  This is important to recognize when analyzing disease and our immune system, as well as when we recognize that Plasmodium spp. are vulnerable to certain drugs precisely because of their very different “lawfully accidental” evolutionary history–which means that drugs targeting the Plasmodium apicoplast have a good chance of being non-toxic to humans.

Then again, in a sense it’s somewhat silly to be discussing the IDist inability to distinguish “design” from “normal evolution” when they have no ability even to show that resistance to chloroquine (which Behe goes on about) actually evolved, rather than be the result of a miracle, or a series of miracles.  The fact is that the IDists attempt to empty science of any and all of the meaning that science gains by matching up cause and effect, and by understanding that similar effects have similar causes (unless, of course, another identifiable cause producing similar effects has been found–IDists only claim that it has, by refusing to differentiate the effects of “design” from those of evolution).

So it’s fail all the way, actually.  Of course they can’t say how “designed clades” differ from “evolved clades,” because they can’t ever rule out “design” with their (lack of) standards.