Posted tagged ‘“Appearance of design”’

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.


ID’s problem is not particularly poor design, but the evident cause of “poor design”

October 23, 2008

…The key to intelligent-design theory is not whether a “basic structural plan is the obvious product of design.” Behe, DBB, 223.

Let’s try this idea out on real science:  The key to evolutionary theory is not whether a basic structural form is the obvious product of evolution.

What?  Could anything be less scientific than claiming that finding the “obvious product” of design (or evolution) is not the key to ID (or to evolutionary theory)?

The context indicates that Behe just wants to insist over and over again that “irreducible complexity” is evidence for design, which, if it was, would mean that intelligent people would never have accepted evolutionary theory.  More importantly, if “irreducible complexity” indicated any sort of design, surely it would be accompanied by the obvious products of design–if by “design” we mean anything that is at all within our sphere of observation.  Back when ID was honest, if not especially coherent or cogent, Rev. William Paley wrote something quite the opposite of what Behe wrote:

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… Natural Theology

But you know, since design is not a comprehensible explanation, Behe et al. have to reverse Paley, and insist that the incomprehensible (as they portray the mere gaps in our knowledge) is the mark of design, thus easily putting ID into the same category as “internal moulds” and Lamarckist conceptions of evolution.

A little later than the quote that begins this post, Behe is complaining that Ken Miller demands perfection from “the designer,” and suddenly finds human design to be analogous (showing how incoherent he is).  That is, humans often make designs which are not optimized, so why not build the retina of the eye backwards in vertebrates (Miller was arguing that the backward retina is contrary to design), even though it is the “right direction” in cephalopods?  Well, apart from the fact that the IDists’ “designer” is God, clearly any entity having the intelligence to design the immune system could surely think well enough to put the retina in properly, instead of backwards.

Nevertheless, I do not especially like the “backward retina” argument against design, mainly because that fact means almost nothing except that the eye was not designed.  While it is well and good to point out that life was not designed, ID has never once had any scientific argument, nor any realistic shot at fooling more than a few biologists into thinking that it was.  Both for public relations, and for maintaining the integrity of science, what we have to do is to show that evolutionary theory explains life.  The “backward retina” is not readily shown to be the result of evolution (evidence from the time when it was fixed is scant, at best), while other “poor designs” are.

 In this linked post I made the point that pterosaur and bat wings are “poorly designed” next to bird wings. Again, though, that is only the minor issue pointing to the greater issue, which is that, for example, bat wings are simply the way that they are because of the constraints imposed by (unguided) evolution upon the modification of mammal forelimbs into wings.  The problem that IDists need to explain is why “design” follows constraints of evolution, not the constraints of any known intelligence, when it produces bat wings.  Any number of factors might cause a designer to produce a less than stellar design, of course, so the important question is why the only identifiable factors behind “poor design” in organisms are the constraints of unintelligent evolution.

Moving beyond that post, however, it is important that “poor design” is found rather more often just where one would expect in evolution, during the transitional periods.  Archaeopteryx has many of the advantages of birds, including the feathers which are sculpted into the wonderful avian aerfoil wing.  Yet it is not at all as efficient or “well designed” as modern birds are, whether because of its heavy teeth and jaw (by comparison to modern birds’ light bills, that is), its bony tail, or the fact that it lacked the “ligament-based force balance system” (Nature) that makes modern bird flight less work than it was for Archaeopteryx.

One could look at any of the major changes in form and lifestyle and see there fulfilled the predictions of evolution that “incomplete optimization” during the transitional period of complex is inevitable, whether it is the transition of fish to tetrapod, tetrapod to whale, or dinosaur to bird (actually, genetic evidence suggests that bats flew prior to evolving sonar, so this too would be an incomplete transition at least for the sonar-using bats.  Without fossils of the transition, though, I only include this likely example parenthetically).  Obviously I could belabor the point and dig up the details of the transitions, however these would not add much to the argument. 

The fact is that while human designs do undergo transitions in which they are not optimized, there is nothing in human design like the millions of years of suboptimal “design” which afflict evolutionary transitions.  Their designer-God certainly would not be expected to be troubled by the trial-and-error methods that humans utilize.  Only evolution is expected to transition between modes of life via often-poor, evolutionarily constrained “body plans,” and only it could predict that bat wings will not show any kind of “common authorship” with bird wings subsequent to bird and bat lines diverging.

It is no wonder that Behe tries so hard to ignore the many practical tests of evolution, and to replace these with impractical tests which require lost evidence in order to work.  What else can he do?  He cannot point to any “obvious product of design” in life (save what we have genetically or otherwise modified), nor can he explain anything via “design” that evolution not only explains, but predicts–from the lack of common authorship of changes after divergence in (primarily) vertical-inheritance organisms, to the enduring “poor design” of bat wings, and on to the “poor designs” of Archaeopteryx which are based on the fact that it was still a dinosaur that was yet evolving its flight abilities.

There does not seem to be any other pseudoscience which tries so hard to bypass all of the reasonable tests of both itself and its “rival.”  Perhaps this is because no idea held by millions of people has been debunked in so many ways, and with so many examples, as ID/creationism has been.

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.

In criticizing Dawkins, Behe conflates Paley’s “design” with his own

September 17, 2008

NOTE: This was first published here on 8.14.08, and is simply being re-published as a separate post now.

About a year and a half ago, I heard two lectures by Behe, and went to a question and answer session, at a religious college. Behe said at one point that ID was not, in fact, a dead end, for if one found some designed machines on a planet somewhere with none of their creators in sight, one would still be interested in trying to figure out why the machines were made, and who the designers were. This begs a good many questions, like how he can compare the alien designs that we could hope to understand, with his supernatural “design” that he insists cannot be understood regarding purpose and means of designing. However, the question I wanted to ask him was, how does he even distinguish between machines and life, considering that his lectures suggested that he saw life as a collection of machines which are quite analogous with our own designed machines.

I didn’t get to ask that, though, because the college students were allowed first dibs on asking questions, and one ignorant loudmouthed “social work” student ranted on for a considerable period about how dishonest scientists were to deny design when, as Behe had claimed, all scientists admit that aspects of life appear to be designed. Unsurprisingly, not all scientists do so:

However, where a creationist sees a design or plan, a scientist sees merely order, or regular arrangement.… The fact is, order in nature is no evidence of design.

Douglas Futuyma. Science on Trial. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983. p. 114

How many scientists do or do not agree that aspects of life appear designed I wouldn’t presume to even guess, but a lot of Behe’s “argument” for design rested on the “fact” that all agree with that claim. Hence a single example (of a well-known evolutionary biologist) suffices to demonstrate that Behe confuses the universal with the specific, as well as relying on Dawkins’s authority (a fallacy onf Behe’s part) to make his generalization. It is, indeed, true, as one reads in Darwin’s Black Box, that Dawkins does understand life to have the appearance of design. Here is one of Dawkins’s strongest statements on the issue:

Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose. p. 1 Dawkins The Blind Watchmaker New York: Norton, 1987

In light of the quote above, I would have to ask Dawkins, along with Behe, for what purpose do liver flukes appear to have been designed? Aristotle, thanks to his philosophical viewpoint, could believe that the organism is the end or telos of the parts of which it is made, but it makes no sense in the philosophy of science nor in Christian philosophy to make the same assumption of “purpose” of parts when the whole organism (or ecology) has no discernable purpose. Paley waffled on this issue, sometimes suggesting that “design of the parts” was sufficient evidence of design, yet always looking for a purpose beyond mere metabolism and reproduction.

With that caveat out of the way for now, here is what Behe makes of Dawkins’s various statement about the “appearance of design”:

A crucial, often-overlooked point is that the overwhelming appearance of design strongly affects the burden of proof: In the presence of manifest design, the onus of proof is on the one who denies the plain evidence of his eyes. DBB (copyright 2006) p. 265

Of course Dawkins is not saying that design is manifest, particularly with close study. What really makes Behe appear hypocritical, however, is that Dawkins’s various statements regarding the “appearance of design” are largely focused on Paley’s macro-scale “case for design” (“The analogy between telescope and eye, between watch and living organism, is false. All appearances to the contrary…” The Blind Watchmaker, p.5) and Behe himself warns against assuming design on the macro-scale:

So those who labor in the fields of paleontology, comparative anatomy, population genetics, and biogeography should not invoke design until the molecular sciences show that design has an effect at those levels. DBB 230

Behe himself is saying there that Paley’s examples, to which Dawkins is referring in the main, should not be accepted as having been designed, unless molecular science indicates that it was (by confusing function and purpose, in Behe’s scenario). Behe himself is stating that Dawkins is wrong to infer design in Paley’s examples, and yet in the earlier quote he was placing the burden of evidence on Dawkins (the context for the quote from page 265) to show that Paley’s examples are not designed. Talk about double-speak!

I am not claiming that Dawkins does not also accept that the appearance of design exists at the molecular level, for evidently he does. My only point on this specific matter is that Behe hypocritically chides Dawkins for denying that the “appearance of design” indicates design, when Dawkins is mostly discussing examples in which Behe himself denies that the “appearance of design” actually indicates design–until it is “shown” to exist on the molecular level.

I will not speculate on whether Behe deliberately confuses the “appearance of design” that Dawkins discusses, with his own “proof of design,” or if he is simply that bad at arguing evolution and ID. It suffices to say that he is wrong on this, as he is on most issues (at least regarding some aspect or another of an issue). He has no business trying to make a big deal about Dawkins’s claim that life “appears designed,” since he himself denies that most of the examples of “appearance of design” to which Dawkins refers actually do (by themselves) indicate design.

Again, I make this post not only because this issue matters in Behe’s case, but also because it indicates how sloppy (at best) he really is in his argumentation. There is little point in moving on to more specific problems of DBB before demonstrating how contradictory, incoherent, and just plain wrong his argumentation is in general.

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.