April 05, 2004



Evolution: We Ignore It At Our Peril

Matt of mattandnancy.org wrote the following in a comment to "It's Life Jim:"
Evolutionary theory has the same problem [it cannot be observed or subjected to experiment]. We have NEVER witnessed an organism going from simple to more complex, i.e., the generation of new DNA information, we have only witnessed speciation (Darwin's finches). We witness destructive evolution, not creative evolution. In thermodynamics would be called entropy...

It takes as much faith (I would argue that it takes more) to believe in evolution as it takes to believe in creationism.
I disagree. Scientists today can actually watch evolution take place in front of them. There are experimenting with its mechanisms everyday in the lab.

When Darwin first published his theory he assumed that it would always be impossible to watch evolution take place. He assumed that evolution occurred at such a slow pace that it was the biological equivalent of geology - that it was such a slow process that it could only be appreciated by examining the fossil record.

Even back then there were some famous examples of quick change though. There was a species of moth in England that was a light gray that matched the brick of homes and buildings. As the industrial revolution piped black soot into the atmosphere (and blackened the buildings), the moth became dark as well. It turns out that the moth was depending upon camouflage to allude their predators birds. As the buildings darkened, those moths that were born a little darker had a better chance of surviving to reproduce thus passing along the darker trait. This way each generation (and the generations come very fast with moths) quickly became darker.

As fast as generations come with moths, they are nothing in comparison to bacteria. Now, biologist who examine microscopic life can watch evolution take place very quickly in their laboratories. Everyone is familiar with how flu changes every year thereby alluding last year's flu shot. And crops that were once protected by certain pesticides now require more pesticide (both in quantity and in toxicity) to provide the same protection.

One benefit of accepting evolution and coming to understand how it works will be in finding better solutions to these arms races (the disease v. vaccine or antibiotic race; and the crop pests v. pesticide race). Carl Zimmer gives the following example in his book "Evolution." There is a group of ant species that are fungus farmers. These ants have been farming fungus for millennia. Scientists know this has been going on a long time because the original fungus-farming ant has now split into several fungus-farming subspecies.

Here's the point some of these species protect their fungus crop with their version of a pesticide a bacteria which is carried on the ant's legs. This bacterial pesticide has provided protection of fungal crops for millennia (enough generations for the fugal farming ant to split into different species that all use the same bacteria). The ant's bacteria is still providing crop protection after all these years while we humans are having problems with pesticide resistance after a single human generation. What gives?

Well, unlike a toxin, bacteria are alive. The bacterial pesticide is evolving along with the pest. If the pest adapts to the bacteria, the bacteria adapt to the pest. Around and around it goes.

We should protect our crops with a similar strategy. Of course moving to this sort of crop protection will require a general acceptance of the rationale behind the move evolution. The alternative is bleak. The alternative is to continue to lose more crops every season to pests while using more and more toxins against them.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at April 5, 2004 10:46 AM | TrackBack
Comments

Stephen,

This is the reply I expected, and they are all WONDERFUL examples of MICRO evolution. Selection of certain traits (darker moths) that become common because other traits (lighter moths, lactose intolerance in bacteria).

I guess I wasn't clear enough in my statement on evolution. Absolutely it happens, on a regular basis. But never on a creative level.

We never see a NEW trait being "born" due to environmental circumstances (we can argue genetic mutation later if you wish). Example: what would the intermediate stages of echolocation look like in dolphins, bats, etc? And how would it be of any use to the species such that better echolocation systems were selected for? How would anything but a fully functional echolocation mechanism be of any use? So did dolphins suddenly sprout an echolocation part of their brain?

We never see creative evolution (worm -> mammal). We only ever see selection (bird -> slightly different bird that exhibits a pre-extant trait to a greater degree).

Posted by: Matt at April 5, 2004 03:03 PM

Matt:

If you buy microevolution, you get macroevolution for free! Eventually. :-) An accumulation of subtle changes over a long period of time produces large scale differences.

You characterized micro-changes as noncreative. I find these micro adaptations very creative. Problem: Our species is no longer camoflaged against these darkening buildings so we're getting eaten more often. Solution: Get darker.

An intermediate form of echolocation would simply be a less efficient form of echolocation. Both dolphins and bats live in environments where their eyes are less efficient. Bats are in the dark and dolphins are in the ocean. Since these environments challenge the ability to see, there was a need for the development of echolocation. There they were, muttering to themselves as they swim/flew along never knowing that they were about to run into a wall. They had grown accustomed to the sounds of their environment, including the sounds of their echoes. Then the echo sounded differently. Somewhere in their brain was the memory of what an echo near a wall sounded like. They swerved and avoided a serious collision. No broken nose or dental injuries means they could continue to hunt which means they could continue to live to reproduce another day.

Other individuals may have had less acute hearing, less piercing voices, or lacked the brain capacity to remember the echo sound of an approaching wall. These individuals had traits that were selected against. They were slightly less likely to reproduce. Given time, echolocation became so advanced that it could even help the animals locate game. This helped bats move into darker parts of a cave and hunt on darker nights and dolphins could hunt at night or in deeper parts of the ocean.

Of course you and I have no need for echolocation. Our eyes were efficient enough to allow us to hunt and gather. Echolocation would have been of little or no benefit on our sunny savannas and, therefore, never developed. You know why dogs lack color vision? They have no need to see when fruit is in season. We do, and so we've got it.

You are correct that we haven't seen a worm become a mammal. We never will because it takes too long, but we can examine the fossil record. We can see that the lowest levels of sedentary rock contain no fossils, then as we move up the record we find simple fossils, then slightly more advanced forms, and so on.

And now we are examining the genome of animals. We can see from the code that there is a family resemblance between even the most diverse animals. The eyes of fruitflys and mice could hardly be more different, but when the gene for the mice eye position was introduced into the fly, the fly was given normal functioning eyes.

http://users.rcn.com/jkimball.ma.ultranet/BiologyPages/H/HomeoboxGenes.html

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at April 5, 2004 04:32 PM

Yes, this is a great explanation of the THEORY of macro-evolution.

"An accumulation of subtle changes over a long period of time produces large scale differences."

Perhaps, however, it never leads to new genetic information. The DNA code for darker wings already existed in the moths, but were recessive traits that were eventually selected for! Where did the code come from in the first place? The same is true of darwins finches.

There is no complete "fossil record" anywhere. The only place it exists with enough contininuity and completeness to make any scientific observations about it is in a text-book.

What you have just described above is SPECULATION (which is extremely appropriate for this site, and I appreciate it. :)).

Nice explanation about echolocation. Again however, it is simply speculation. We have never witnessed it, have not (cannot) recreate it in a lab, and therefor it is UNSCIENTIFIC! It is simply a theory, like creationist theory, or the aquatic ape theory (which as evolution goes, blows the savannah theory out of the water for the evolution of humans); and one that has far too many holes to hold any water.

This debate will get interesting when it comes to the question of the original generation of life.

Origins is outside of the realm of science. Speculation is the sole proprietor of this debate :)

Posted by: Matt at April 6, 2004 06:43 AM

"Perhaps, however, it never leads to new genetic information. The DNA code for darker wings already existed in the moths, but were recessive traits that were eventually selected for! Where did the code come from in the first place?"

The ultimate source of all genetic variation is mutation. Mutation, a random process, is the fuel for selection. I.e., the 'dark wing' allele existed because a previous mutation had created it, purely as a result of random chance. It is only once it became selectively beneficial that it became predominant.

This is what people mean when they warn against making teleological evolutionary arguments. It would be incorrect, for example, to state that, "the 'dark wing' allele evolved because it conferred a selective advantage," because the actual arising of the trait is due to mutation, a random process. This sounds very pedantic, but it is actually quite important.

Posted by: George at April 6, 2004 09:37 AM

My reply turned into a rather long post at "http://beyondwords.typepad.com/beyond_words/"

It's mainly for Stephen, but anyone can visit.

Posted by: Kathy at April 6, 2004 12:32 PM

And here is where we take the innevitable turn in the conversation into mutation.

Now we are talking about chances and improbabilities that take more faith for me to believe in than a creator. This was the end of the line for me and where I became convinced of a creator.

However, I realize that is not the case with everyone.

Tell me, what are the odds of a random genetic mutation bringing about a beneficial trait, rather than a relatively benign one (brown v. red hair); or catastrophically damaging one (many fetuses that are aborted naturally by the body's systems because they are inviable); or even slightly less damaging one (a good friend of mine's son who has a "genetic disorder" that has caused him MANY, MANY health problems throughout his short 6 year lifetime (which thankfully is still going on)); or even slightly less damaging still (Down's syndrome).

I will tell you: very very very very slim.

You need much more than a couple million years (even much more than 5 billion) for these "chance occurences" to fall into place as they currently are.

In fact the odds are so slim as to be scientifically infeasable.

Posted by: Matt at April 6, 2004 12:49 PM

George:

You are right. I made the mistake in my last comment of suggesting that human's don't have echolocation because we don't need it and we have color vision because we do need it.

That's arguing from hind sight. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that an environment or niche can offer an opportunity that may or may not be taken advantage of depending on whether a random mutation appears that takes advantage of the opportunity.

Matt:

what are the odds of a random genetic mutation bringing about a beneficial trait, rather than a relatively benign one (brown v. red hair); or catastrophically damaging one...I will tell you: very very very very slim.

I agree.

You need much more than a couple million years (even much more than 5 billion) for these "chance occurences" to fall into place as they currently are.

I disagree. Every individual organism is a mutant in some way. We are all experimental models. Most of our mutations are so benign that we live a lifetime without noticing. Some are harmful (thereby reducing our chances of reproducing) and some are beneficial.

A individual does not amount to a roll of a single die. Rather, a bucketful of dice are thrown. This means that evolution can move very fast when opportunities present themselves (as when the dinosaurs were wiped out).

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at April 6, 2004 01:15 PM

Matt:

Darwin explained the operation of evolution with these three points:

1. Each generation of a species consists of some individuals that successfully reproduce and some that don't.

This is an obvious truth. Life is risky and there is always a period of time between birth and reproduction, so there will always be individuals that do not survive the interim. Also, an individual could live a long life but fail for some other reason to reproduce.

2. All individuals within the species differ from one another in small ways. A difference can confer an advantage or a disadvantage to successful reproduction.

A mouse born with slightly heavier fur than average might have an advantage in a cooler climate or be disadvantaged in a warmer climate.

3. Offspring tend to carry the traits of their successfully reproducing parents.

All individual organisms alive on earth today descend in an unbroken chain from an original form of life. Our genes document reproductive success, never failure. If the parents are sufficiently adapted to their environment to reproduce, then the child has a good chance of being sufficiently adapted to the environment to reproduce.

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at April 6, 2004 01:36 PM

These turn out to be circular arguments, or parallel arguments. They are irreconcilable because each starts with a different premise. The only way out is for someone to give up on his/her original premise. This is so fun. I'm so enjoying all the viewpoints.

When you say that our genes document reproductive successes rather than failures, and that parents have to be sufficiently adapted to their environment to reproduce, you are entirely correct. But that doesn't mean the adaptations started with a single cell that successfully mutated for a couple of billion or so years. It doesn't exclude intelligent design at all.

Posted by: Kathy at April 6, 2004 02:29 PM

"Tell me, what are the odds of a random genetic mutation bringing about a beneficial trait, rather than a relatively benign one (brown v. red hair); or catastrophically damaging one (many fetuses that are aborted naturally by the body's systems because they are inviable); or even slightly less damaging one (a good friend of mine's son who has a "genetic disorder" that has caused him MANY, MANY health problems throughout his short 6 year lifetime (which thankfully is still going on)); or even slightly less damaging still (Down's syndrome).

I will tell you: very very very very slim."

It's not as slim as you might think. You're correct in your assertion that any particular mutation is likely to be deleterious rather than beneficial, but what you're ignoring is that selection provides a mechanism by which any beneficial mutation that does occur will remain in the gene pool. It is simple to see how this process can lead to geometric spread of a mutant allele. Because evolution has a memory in this sense, the rate of beneficial mutations does not have to be high in order for there to be massive accumulations over billions of years. Keep in mind, as well, that this is a self-reinforcing process: as evolutionary biologists are fond of pointing out, organisms have 'evolved to evolve.' The particularly salient point here is that genetic sequences which tend to be able to sustain mutations and keep functioning, or which are structured in a way that tends to minimize the damage and maximize the potential benefits of mutations will tend to remain in the gene pool. How this works may not be immediately obvious, but consider an example: one interesting consequence of this process is that gene duplication provides excellent material for mutation to work on, because it produces redundant genes that can be altered with a much smaller chance of producing a seriously damaging or lethal phenotype.

"When you say that our genes document reproductive successes rather than failures, and that parents have to be sufficiently adapted to their environment to reproduce, you are entirely correct. But that doesn't mean the adaptations started with a single cell that successfully mutated for a couple of billion or so years. It doesn't exclude intelligent design at all. "

This is correct, but it is not an argument for the acceptability of intelligent design, either. As with any hypothesis, you must argue for it; making assertions and demanding that others provide evidence against them is, to put it lightly, certainly not how science normally works.

Posted by: George at April 6, 2004 05:45 PM

Stephen -

To your second post I would ask, where did the original traits come from?

-Mutation is the answer which brings me to your first response:

"A individual does not amount to a roll of a single die. Rather, a bucketful of dice are thrown. This means that evolution can move very fast when opportunities present themselves (as when the dinosaurs were wiped out)."

How many buckets full of dice need be thrown in order to get the genetic information that is contained in Human DNA? Follow up ?: What are the odds that [necessary number] of dice thrown end up as a human?

Strike that. Lets break it down to make it very easy on the evolution camp. Going WAAAAY back to the beginning... *flashback music*

How many buckets full of "dice" would it take to randomly come up with the necessary ingredients that would form a SINGLE PROTIEN by chance? What are the odds of those dice being thrown?

Do you see how far we are outside of the realm of science? We are SPECULATING (i'm beginning to love that word, and hence, the concept of this site) about possibilities (rather, impossibilities). Lets not even get to the number of dice required to come up exactly correct for the big bang to have happened correctly!!! (we are approaching incomprehensible numbers here...)

And to your disagreeing with my "millions of years isn't enough time" argument... going strictly by the numbers, and at the rate we currently witness speciation happenening (which we need to do to stay within the realm of science, remember?) we need FAR MORE than millions and millions of years to get the current biosphere we have.

The only way around this, and still stay within the realm of science, is to allow for a infentesimally large number of attempts (infentesimally large number of parallel universes with infentesimally large number of big bangs, with infentesimally large number of evolutionary progressions, and we are just the one that happened to work out right). Are you prepared to go there in this discussion?

Posted by: Matt at April 6, 2004 05:55 PM

. . . where did the original traits come from?

This is a fascinating question, but one for which biologists currently have no good answers. You're getting into the realm of abiogenesis here, which one intelligent design advocate has called Darwin's Black Box.

But let's keep something straight. As much as biologists would love to have an explanation for how life first arose, no such explanation is required to demonstrate the fact of evolution. Darwin's theory reasonably presumes the existence of life as an extrinsic factor. Where life exists (and it indisputably does), and the three conditions described by Stephen Gordon are in place (and they indisputably are), evolution will occur (as it indisputably does).

Note that the failure of biologists to come up with an adequate explanation for how life first arose is not an argument against evolution or for creationism. We simply don't know. There are many potential explanations, some are more plausible than others given what we know about the laws of physics and chemistry and prehistoric conditions. In any event, the proper response to ignorance is humility and continued research - not advocacy of [insert your favorite supernatural explanation].

Posted by: Zarathustra2101 at April 6, 2004 06:40 PM

"Macroevolution vs. Microevolution"

Whenever these words are used, you can safely bet next month's paycheck that the person using them is a creationist. Real biologists don't use either term very often. That's not to say they aren't useful terms though, so long as they're used properly.

"Microevolution" indisputably happens. It has been observed in the lab and in the field. It is the inevitable result of the three conditions listed by Stephen in his post above. "Macroevolution" is what you get after lots and lots of microevolution.

The theory of evolution emphatically does not require echolocation or eyeballs or any other complex trait or feature to spring forth fully formed like Athena from the brow of Zeus. Not only that, but the truth of the theory of evolution does not require any biologist to come up with a reproducible, verifiable, minutely-detailed, step-by-step explanation of how any particular complex trait evolved. It is only necessary to suggest a plausible sequence of events. More than one explanation might be plausible, given the available facts. Some explanations might be patently implausible. Any plausible explanation is prefered to any implausible explanation. Yes, this too is part of the scientific method - and it is why evolutionary biologists "just-so stories" are infinitely preferable - from a scientific standpoint - to supernatural explanations.

Posted by: Zarathustra2101 at April 6, 2004 06:59 PM

Matt, I noticed in one of your posts up there that you put the words "theory," "speculation," and "unscientific" in ALL CAPS. In light of the context, and drawing on my extensive experience dealing with creationists, I am going to infer that you have no idea what is meant when scientists use the word "theory." Please forgive me if I'm wrong about that. At any rate, coincidentally, I wrote on this exact topic today on my own blog. I encourage you to read it and follow the links.

Posted by: Zarathustra2101 at April 6, 2004 07:07 PM

Zarathustra

A theory is not science, a theory is a possible explanation to which science is applied to try and disprove it.

Most of the time theories are not shots in the dark, but educated best guesses.

I am a sciences major. I spent the better part of my college career learning about theories and how to properly go about testing them, analyzing data collected from experiments, and drawing logical conclusions.

I forgive you.

"It is only necessary to suggest a plausible sequence of events. More than one explanation might be plausible, given the available facts. Some explanations might be patently implausible. Any plausible explanation is prefered to any implausible explanation."

I agree three thousand percent. It is simply the case that the current evolutionary theory of origins is 'patently implausible'.

"This is a fascinating question, but one for which biologists currently have no good answers"

Thank you. You have made my point.

Posted by: Matt at April 6, 2004 07:28 PM

But that doesn't mean the adaptations started with a single cell that successfully mutated for a couple of billion or so years. It doesn't exclude intelligent design at all.

Kathy --

Even if the adaptations started from a single cell, even a single cell that generated spontaneously, intelligent design is not excluded. In his book Biocosm, James Gardner argues that intelligent life is an inevitable result of the laws of physics. Maybe. It's certainly an elegant idea. Of course, it raises the question of how intelligence came to be encoded in the laws of physics in the first place.

One answer would be that God put it there. Gardner's answer is different -- he theorizes that the universe itself is the product of an almost inconceivably vast evolutionary process, in which over the eons, universes have slowly become more hospitable to life. To me, that has a kind of "turtles all the way down" ring to it.

But I like the scale of it!

Posted by: Phil at April 6, 2004 10:19 PM

Getting back to the comment at the top about evolution violating the 2nd law of thermodynamics... I've seen this argument before.

My comment: The second law requires the disorganization of the system to increase over time. A fallacy I've seen bandied about by creationists is that evolution violates the 2nd law because evolution drives creatures to become more complicated over time as they evolve... thus violating the 2nd law; thus evolution by design must be driving the violation of entropy.

The fallacy exposed: Creationists are not choosing the boundaries of the "system" correctly. The overall system MUST increase in entropy to comply with the 2nd law, but some areas can INCREASE in organization at the expense of the total system. The earth doesn't exist in a vacuum. Entropy is running in reverse on the Earth because sunlight is falling on the Earth. The sun is hugely increasing entropy as it releases energy. Energy falling on the earth locally allows organization to exceed disorganization via evolution.

The problem creationists have is choosing the boundaries of the problem correctly.

Posted by: Leigh at April 7, 2004 02:56 AM

Leigh:

I completely agree with your argument, but I'm going to have to file "The earth doesn't exist in a vacuum" along with "Hey don't waste those! Apples don't grow on trees you know!"

;-)

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at April 7, 2004 09:07 AM

I'll conceed the entropy point. It was a minor issue anyway. Origins people! Where did it all come from???

Posted by: Matt at April 7, 2004 10:12 AM

Matt,

A theory is not science in the sense that rhythm is not music. The invention and testing of theories certainly are part of the scientific enterprise, otherwise you would not have spent the better part of your college career as a sciences major learning about theories. Theories provide context and meaning to facts. Facts without theories are useless. But a theory need not explain all facts. The facts are: life exists and life evolves. The theory of evolution explains how life evolves. It does not (currently) explain how life came to exist.

If you premise your critique on the shortcomings of the theory of evolution and ignore it's strengths, then you're not going to get much accomplished. Moreover, displacement of a dominant theory is not accomplished by trying to poke holes in it. A dominant theory can only be displaced by the advancement of a better and more complete theory.

Posted by: Zarathustra2101 at April 7, 2004 10:41 AM

I don't need to poke any holes in evolutionary theory. It has enough of its own :) I simply want to point them out.

One characteristic of a (good) theory (as opposed to just a wild-hair idea) is that it can be falsified. (i.e. If [X] is true, then [the theory] isn't true). If a theory cannot be falsified, then it is not actually a theory at all. Can someone think of a falsifier for evolutionary theory?

"The theory of evolution explains how life evolves. It does not (currently) explain how life came to exist."

Thank you. This is my entire point.

The thing is, we are discussing here how life came to exist. Anyone have any ideas?

Posted by: Matt at April 7, 2004 01:14 PM

"One characteristic of a (good) theory (as opposed to just a wild-hair idea) is that it can be falsified. (i.e. If [X] is true, then [the theory] isn't true). If a theory cannot be falsified, then it is not actually a theory at all. Can someone think of a falsifier for evolutionary theory?"

A few of the most obvious: if it could be shown that mutations did not occur, then evolutionary theory would not be true. If it could be shown that mutations were not heritable, then evolutionary theory would not be true. If it could be shown that beneficial mutations were impossible, then evolutionary theory would not be true.

You are trying to argue that evolutionary theory is unfalsifiable. It is not. It has not been falsified, but this is because it is a solid theory, not because it is unfalsifiable.

Incidentally, should I infer from your silence that you have conceded the point about mutations?

Posted by: George at April 7, 2004 02:03 PM

George-

I was not silent about mutations...

Posted by: Matt at April 7, 2004 02:35 PM

The falsification criterion works better for hypotheses than entire theories, because hypotheses are narrower and can be tested one at a time. A theory is built up of many confirmed hypotheses. Most of the writing on scientific method/philosophy of science (e.g., Popper) generally discusses falsifiability in the context of hypotheses. And anyway, strict falsifiability hasn't been the sine qua non of true science for decades, if it ever was. The more modern approach is relative explanatory power in light of known facts. Relative to what? To competing theories.

That being said, falsifiability continues to be important in the formulation of hypotheses, because it remains a handy way to weed out potential components to an overall theory. Interestingly, in his academic discussions of falsifiability, Popper was not presenting an accurate picture of how science is ever actually practiced. Popper himself acknowledged this, but for some reason, creationists continue to revere Popper (the evolutionist!) as the last word on scientific method. Has this ever struck you as odd?

The theory of evolution - as a whole - yields many, many falsifiable hypotheses. In fact, many of Darwin's own hypotheses have been falsified. But the falsification of any hypothesis put forward by an evolutionary biologist does not invalidate the theory as a whole, so long as the theory has better explanatory power than it's closest competitors. (And by the way, you can't have it both ways - you can't say the theory of evolution is unscientific because it's not falsifiable, and then turn around and say the theory is invalid because portions of it have been falsified).

Reviewing our little exchange here, I'm noticing two trends: First, I don't think you know nearly as much about scientific method and the status of evolutionary theory as science as you should, given your education. That's not meant to be a personal jab - just a suggested area of improvement for your future forays into this very fascinating topic.

Second, I've noticed that every time I admit that evolutionary theory has no adequate explanation for how life first arose, you suggest that I've proved your point for you. This is tantamount to suggesting that because we have no single, clear picture of how the universe started, or of how to reconcile quantum physics with general relativity, that everything we know about physics can be safely dismissed as hooey. If you are to have any success in future debates (or in your ministry, if you choose to use creationism as an evangelical tool), you will have to come to grips with the truth that the mechanisms of evolution and the origin of life are overlapping, but distinct subjects.

Posted by: Zarathustra2101 at April 7, 2004 02:38 PM

I should have said, "A theory is built up of many as-yet-unfalsified hypotheses."

My bad.

Posted by: Zarathustra2101 at April 7, 2004 02:39 PM

Matt:

Value choices. Value choices at such a fundamental level that it would appear to be be merely a chemical reaction. At some point some complex amino acids sitting in a hydrothermal vent choose to merge to create a more complex entity. Is there proof of this? Have we ever observed it to happen? No, but we have seen this drive towards greater complexity throughout the evolution of life on our planet. You might even say that the purpose of life seems to be to create greater and greater complexity.

For me, this is a belief. It's a matter of faith because there is no 'proof' of this concept - that of going from 'inorganic' to 'organic'. However the logic behind this process is a lot more believable than that of some all powerful God descending from an unknown plain of existence and creating the spark of life, or of creating us in his image. The rational behind current religions comes from a two thousand year old understanding of the Universe which compared to our current understanding is incredibly primitive and more along the line of wishful thinking than any actual logic or rationality.

Posted by: ChefQuix at April 7, 2004 03:29 PM

ChefQuix-

Thank you for getting to the heart of the matter.

Your belief in abiogenesis is as much a faith based belief as creationism. Thank you for your honesty.

Now to your "my faith is more logical than your faith" remark, I will say "nuh-uh!" :)

Elaboration later. It's time to go home.

Posted by: Matt at April 7, 2004 03:44 PM

Ok, back up your 'nuh-uh' claim with some arguments. I'm willing to listen if you are.

Posted by: ChefQuix at April 9, 2004 03:04 AM

Okay, sorry, have been away for a few days. To back up my "nuh-uh"... Let me ask a question:

How is the logic behind and as-of-yet unobserved process (creative evolution) "a lot more believeable" than an all-powerful God sparking everything into existence?

We have no scientific evidence for either. Why is a naturalistic explanation more reasonable than a supernaturalistic explanation?

AND if you get down to the brass tacks of the "naturalistic explanation" it borders on the supernatural anyway!

"The probability of life originating at random is so utterly minuscule as to make the random concept absurd." - Fred Hoyle

Read this fascinating article:
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/10.12/convergence_pr.html

Posted by: Matt at April 10, 2004 09:53 AM

AND, I'm always willing to listen. If I hear a reasonable explanation, I will definitely change my mind! It was the reasonableness of creation, and the absurdness of the universe being a random event that changed my mind from evolution to creation in the first place.

I do not fear truth. I welcome it with open arms. I am on a constant quest for it. The trick is recognizing it when you hear/see it.

Posted by: Matt at April 10, 2004 09:54 AM

How is the logic behind and as-of-yet unobserved process (creative evolution) "a lot more believeable" than an all-powerful God sparking everything into existence?

I suspect I'm beating my head against a brick wall here, but to repeat:

"Creative evolution" is mutation combined with subsequent selection. Mutation is an extremely well-documented phenomenon. So is selection. What exactly do you find so unbelievable about either?

Posted by: George at April 10, 2004 05:17 PM

My beef with the whole "intelligent designer" theory is that it depends on a host of things being impossible. For example, it is "impossible" (not just unlikely!) that the intricacy of life could have developed by chance. The thing about impossibility claims of unobservable phenomena is that they are impossible to disprove. I can't disprove the existence of a designer intelligent or otherwise. I can't disprove that it is impossible for random factors to result in multicellular life (until it is done in the lab I suppose but how do you keep that meddling designer from interferring with the experiment?).

On the other hand, I haven't seen real evidence presented for an intelligent designer. If such a being exists, has the attributes you think that being(s) has, and wants us to know that they're around, then where's the reproducible experimental evidence?

Evolution has considerable evidence in its favor. First, we have evidence that unlikely events occur (eg, people winning lotteries, large asteroids hitting the Earth, etc). Second, we have a mechanism by which evolution can occur - mutation and selection. Both have been observed in the lab and we can even characterize the mutation rate of a strand of chromozome (or of mitichrondial DNA) from one generation to the next pretty accurately.

One key piece of fossil evidence is that we can trace most modern (and ancient) organisms back along an apparently "family tree". There appear to be common ancestors so that even a human and a grape vine have a common ancestor and common traits.

If we look at the best known examples of intelligent design in the world (animal and plant breeding) we see an interesting common feature. Many animals have been bred for specific characteristics. In fact, this breeding takes a surprisingly short period of time. All animal and plant breeding seems to have taken place since the last ice age (around 14,000 to 12,000 BC). All the domesticated species we see came about in a period of 14,000 to 16,000 years. Many of these species (eg, dogs, corn, and wheat) are far more adapted for human use than their ancestors. So given how short a time it took to accomplish this using primitive breeding methods, then why does it take a hypothetical intelligent designer so long to create humanity? Namely, we run into the opposite problem. If we no longer are the product of random processes, then the designer seems to be unusually sluggish given the results.

Further, there is the matter of what characteristics we're bred for. Physical prowess is obviously not it. We have unusual endurance for animals (not that many land animals despite their greater speed and efficiency can run a 26 km marathon in a few hours without rest), but our other physical attributes are extremely weak. Even chimpanzees, a near relative have far greater gripping strength than we do. And locomotion using just two legs is pretty slow (though apparently efficient in some way).

Our senses are pretty weak except for vision. Why shouldn't our other senses be as well developed as vision? We digest food rather poorly (I seem to recall that a significant portion of the calories and nutrition in the food are excreted). Why isn't our digestive system better? We're highly susceptible to various toxins, radiation, extremes of temperature, and other non-living dangers in our environment. Why hasn't this been fixed? We're beset by a host of diseases and parasites (some scientists as I recall estimate that the average human body hosts dozens of known parasites). Isn't that a pretty rude for an intelligent designer to leave the Black Death, AIDS, or Ebola lying around? I see plenty of room for complaint here if we're "designed".

The only other obvious aspect of human beings is their large brains, the highly useful hands, and their language capability. Hands and brains have been around a long time though it's taken hundreds of million years to get a good brain. Language capability seem to be a lot quicker to pick up. If I were an intelligent designer actively breeding animals for something like humanity, it sure wouldn't take me five hundred million years - even if I eschew biotech and direct germ line alterations. Finally, there's the matter of the quality of mental processes here. I won't go into details, but I've noticed all sorts of non-rational processes in my mind. Seems half-baked to me even if it is a "first version".

So it appears that if we accept your theory, then we're reduced to saying that there's no way for evolution to work over the span of hundreds of millions of years (though fossil evidence indicates otherwise), and to accept an "intelligent" designer that either deliberately or accidentally does a poor (and very slow) job. Then there's the question of mechanism. How does this being operate? Probability manipulation (making those very very very very unlike events occur)? ET's modifying the germ line with high tech labs?

Posted by: Karl Hallowell at April 11, 2004 02:03 PM

Even if there was an intelligent designer, who designed the intelligent designer?

Posted by: ChefQuix at April 12, 2004 11:35 AM

We have no scientific evidence for either. Why is a naturalistic explanation more reasonable than a supernaturalistic explanation?

We have evicence consistent with both. The difference is that a natural explanation is at least testable in principle (if not in fact), whereas a supernatural explanation is by definition beyond inquiry to scientists.

AND if you get down to the brass tacks of the "naturalistic explanation" it borders on the supernatural anyway!

In what way? Science axiomatically excludes supernatural explanations. A real scientist would rather simply say "I don't know," or posit a tentative or incomplete (maybe even untested/untestable) naturalistic explanation.

Way back when science was first distinguishing itself from superstition and apologetics, a few brilliant (mostly Christian) men adopted the (to them) false premise that God takes a hands-off approach to natural phenomena. By limiting their thinking in this way, these guys were able to learn that a whole lot of events, previously chalked up as acta deii, are in fact understandable in terms of natural processes (even if they continued to believe they were acta deii). This is called methodological materialism, and it has proved more effective at producing useful knowledge of the universe than all of the prayer, revelation, or introspection in all of history. Methodological materialism is distinct from (but consistent with) metaphysical materialism - the belief that only the material exists. It is, however, possible for a methodological materialist to hold supernatural beliefs, you just shouldn't pretend that these beliefs have a scientific basis.

"The probability of life originating at random is so utterly minuscule as to make the random concept absurd." - Fred Hoyle

If evolution worked the way Hoyle (and you) suppose it does (i.e., as a whirlwind assembling a fully functional jumbo jet out of a pile of junk), then nobody would take it seriously. The problem with Hoyle's conclusions about evolution is that he never really understood evolution. I suspect you don't either, otherwise you would not have brought up Hoyle's famous fallacy. The fact that a vast majority of serious scientists accept evolution in spite of the objections a of famous Nobel Prize-winning physicist ought to prompt you to do some further reading.

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