Good Stuff for Free

I’m putting the finishing touches on the first installmentof my response to R P‘s assertion that creationism could never qualify as science (see last paragraph) due to its appeal to the supernatural. It’s taking a bit longer than I first thought it would. That, and I’ve been a bit lazy about it, but it’s almost done. In any case, I’ll be posting it within the next couple of days.

In the meantime, I’ve found some good free stuff I thought I’d pass along for anyone who’s interested. Apple’s iTunes U has two universtiy courses on evolution free for the downloading. The first, from Open Yale Coursesis Professor Stephen C. Sterns’ Evolution, Ecology and Behavior.

Description

(EEB 122) This course presents the principles of evolution, ecology, and behavior for students beginning their study of biology and of the environment. It discusses major ideas and results in a manner accessible to all Yale College undergraduates. Recent advances have energized these fields with results that have implications well beyond their boundaries: ideas, mechanisms, and processes that should form part of the toolkit of all biologists and educated citizens. This course was recorded in Spring 2009.

The course is available in both video and audio formats. I’m on part 6 or 7 right now and I like it; Sterns is a good teacher. On some of the genetics stuff, he is referring to diagrams and charts he has on the board, so it probably helps to have the video, but otherwise the audio has been sufficient for me.

The second course is Biology Concepts: Cells to Evolution with Kelly Carrier courtesy of Michigan’s MI Learning.

Description

These videos are introductions to the following biology concepts: Structure and Function of Cells, Reproduction of Cells, DNA, Proteins Synthesis, Ecology/Population Ecology and Evolution.

This one is available in video format only.

Enjoy…

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Published in: on March 10, 2011 at 1:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Plausibility of Theological Naturalism Part III

In part II of this series, I directly challenged Kirschner & Gerhart’s ‘killing blow’ against the design argument. Among evolutionists, it is a very common argument that boils down to a claim that if life was designed, all of its underlying biomolecular machinery would be as varied and unique as the different organisms that inhabit earth. In short, they claim that ‘God wouldn’t have done it this way!’ This is a metaphysical claim – one that they don’t even attempt to justify. The closest they get is this:

Thus, the circadian clock is not like a brass watch, where each component is made for just one purpose. The human-engineered clocks use different techniques to achieve the same result; the circadian clocks use a common set of techniques. Novelty in human clocks requires independent acts of invention. Novelty in biological clocks seems more suited to iterative modification from a common origin. (p. 7)

Contrary to this assertion, I demonstrated that the use of common sets of techniques and/or components for numerous and varied purposes is a widely acknowledged principle of design. In fact, it is recognized as an indicator of superior design:

[The practice of “commonization”] distinguishes great companies from the mediocre.

On the one hand, Kirschner & Gerhart offer no justification, reasonable or otherwise, for their position. On the other hand, I have made a positive, practical and evidence-based case to the contrary.

At this point, the authors’ pivotal argument against design and for evolution has been decisively rebutted. The underlying biomolecular unity of life does not ‘tip the balance’ in favor of evolution; in fact, a strong case can be made that this pervasive feature of life favors a design explanation. At the very least, parity is restored between these competing explanations of life and design cannot be rightly denied its place at the table.

The case for design vis-à-vis the biomolecular unity of life I made in the previous post, while metaphysical in some respects, also had a very practical aspect: employing the fundamental design principle of commonization simply makes objective sense – both in terms of economics and efficiency. We will now move on to explore other responses to Kirschner & Gerhart’s challenge that, while decidedly more metaphysical, remain focused on the central question of WHY a Designer might have designed life as we find it.

As they are apparently unable to reconcile the biomolecular unity of life with the idea of design, the likes of Kirschner & Gerhart might ask the following question:

Why would an Intelligent Designer – God* – employ commonization when He didn’t have to? He is, after all, omnipotent isn’t He?

This is a fair question; and one there are at least a couple of answers to.

One answer as to why a Designer might have designed life as we find it comes courtesy of creationist Walter ReMine. In his 1993 book, The Biotic Message, ReMine advanced his comprehensive theory of life: Message Theory. In a fairly recent post at UncommonDescent, ReMine lays out the fundamental premises of his theory:

Life was reasonably designed to meet three simultaneous goals:

  1. Survival
  2. To look like the product of one designer (or unified design team acting together as one), and unlike the product of multiple designers acting independently.
  3. To resist all other explanations of origin. (emphasis added)

The important one for our present purpose is number 2. ReMine expands on this point:

Goal 2 – design to look like the product of one designer – is a plausible goal for a message sender. Remarkably, this message was even conveyed to low-tech civilizations. For example, the ancient Greeks had a pantheon of many gods, but they allowed that only one of them created life. They saw the unity of life displayed: within the embryos of diverse lifeforms; within life’s coherent patterns of theme and variation; and within the ability of diverse lifeforms to function together as a system of life. Although numerous ancient civilizations developed in isolation around the world, I am aware of none that attributed known lifeforms to the actions of multiple designers acting independently. Our modern biochemical-genetic laboratories now make this point indubitable, and falsify the notion that life came from various interstellar astronauts (or high-tech civilizations) acting independently. All life had but one designer.

Applying that principal to the issue at hand – the underlying biomolecular unity of life – ReMine writes in a follow up post:

If you were to design elephants and yeast to look like the product of a single designer, you might try putting tusks on yeast. But that isn’t reasonable design for survival, which is another goal claimed in Message Theory. Shared complexity at the biochemical level is the only practical way to unify any two lifeforms. [Note: Where practical, the unity of life is also signaled in additional ways, including morphology and embryology.] (bolding added)

This is a powerful design-theoretic explanation for the biomolecular unity of life made all the more powerful by virtue of its being an integral part of a comprehensive alternative to Darwinism.

My own suggestion is that the Designer employed the principle of “commonization” in order to set an example for us. There is biblical precedent for this notion; God took six days to create the cosmos though He could have done so in an instant. Exodus 20:9–11 tells us why:

Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, not thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

In the course of creation, God deliberately ‘paced Himself’ so as to set a pattern for his finite creatures. He designed us for a seven day week and gave us an explicit example to follow.** In a similar way, I suggest that God tailored his creation strategy with us in mind. He created us in His image and part of that ‘image’ is the creative urge/capacity. Being the Designer par excellence, He would be in a position to set a perfect example for his creatures; having endowed them with a spark of His creative energies He would sensibly desire to provide us with such an example.     Further, God expects us to exercise good and responsible stewardship of His creation. As can be seen by the quotes above from design professionals, the principle of design commonization certainly qualifies as exercising good stewardship of resources. Thus, while God had no need to so limit Himself, He knew that we would and so set for us a supreme example to follow.

Some might object to my ‘bringing God into it’ or my quoting the bible; but remember Kirschner & Gerhart – following in the footsteps of their forebearers – have made a metaphysical argument. I am simply responding in kind. Our authors’ fundamental argument is that ‘God wouldn’t have done it this way!’ My response is ‘Of course He would have – and here are a few reasons why!’

This suggestion is less potent that ReMine’s as it wasn’t applicable before the advent of genetic and biomolecular science and is thus ‘time-dependent’. In contrast, the ‘message’ of ReMine’s ‘Message Theory’ was capable of being discerned by pre-technological peoples. Nevertheless, genetic and biomolecular science have increasingly brought the field of biomimetics (follow the biomimetic chain-links) down the to biomolecular level – with its tantalizing possibilities of  co-opting and/or mimicing the designs found as bases for our own nanotechnology. And here, as elsewhere, the Designers superb implementation of design principles – among them “commonization” – will have much to teach us.

I’m sure there are other possibilities, but these two are those that occur to me at the moment. In any case, it is abundantly clear that the underlying biomolecular unity of life is eminently compatible with, and rather favorable to, a design explanation. This is not to say that the design explanation is thereby proven, just that it is by no means disqualified by such considerations.

In the next post, I’ll wrap up this topic by considering a few of the ostensible difficulties Kirschner & Gerhart posed for a design explanation in the course of the introduction and offering a few concluding observations.

* I will refer to the Designer as [the Judeo-Christian] God for two reasons: 1) as a Christian/creationist, that is who I believe the designer to be; and 2) it is this Designer who draws the most vociferous fire of the evolutionists. Thus, I will be engaging their ‘worst-case scenario’ in my responses.

**Interestingly both France and the former Soviet Union, in the past, have attempted to abolish the seven day week, establishing ten and five/six day weeks respectively. It didn’t work.

The Plausibility of Theological Naturalism Part II

In part I of this series, we analyzed Marc. W. Kirschner’s and John C. Gerhart’s central argument against design in biology as presented in the introduction to their book, The Plausibility of Life, and found it to be thoroughly metaphysical. Following Dobzhansky, they assert that the biomolecular unity of life admits of only one explanation: ‘plausible creation by natural means’. They observe, for instance, that the same proteins are used for different purposes in many different contexts and write:

How can [the] differences of anatomy, physiology, and behavior [among widely disparate organisms] be explained when many of their genes are so similar?

The answer, the young Paley infers, lies in the multiple use of versatile conserved components. It is not the clock in particular that is so remarkable, but the multifunctioning protein components and their forms of regulation that allow them to be easily connected in many ways toward various ends. The living organism is certainly more complex than the brass watch in terms of the number of components and the variety of their interactions, but it is complex in unusual ways appropriate for versatility and modification rather than for dedicated single use. In the end, the young Paley would conclude that biological clocks do not imply a human creator or a divine Creator, but something else—call it a creation of biological novelty through natural causes. (p. 8 )

Indeed, by their own account, it is this fact of biology that decisively closes the case against design:

All he saw in common was their complexity, not the nature of the complexity, and it is that nature that tips the balance between acceptance of evolution and the alternative deism that Paley chose. (p. 2, emphasis added)

Beginning with this post, we will examine how well this argument stands the light of scrutiny. Before we begin, remember that this is not a scientific argument – it is a metaphysical one. Likewise, rebuttals to it will necessarily be, for the most part, metaphysical. Regardless, it is very telling that the ‘knock-down’ argument in favor of evolution, given by two scientists in a scientific book, is not scientific but metaphysical.

Presently, we will discuss this ‘biomolecular unity’ of life in light of design theory. Contrary to common evolutionary assertion, I will argue that this underlying unity of life is in fact strong evidence in favor of the design hypothesis.

My first defense is something I alluded to in the previous post when I observed that robust, flexible, multipurpose components capable of modular, scalable construction practically scream ‘design’. In my job as a mechanical designer, one of the first things I do when tasked with designing a new part is to search our current database of parts to see if an already existing design will do the job. If I find such a part, my task is done. The old adage applies: why reinvent the wheel? Many times, however, I find a part that is almost, but not quite, what I need. I then use that existing design as a starting point, making the necessary changes to suit the new part to its purpose. In the first instance, we would have a part serving two [possibly] different purposes in two different contexts. In the latter case, we would have two similar parts serving two [possibly] similar functions in two different contexts. Analogies to evolutionary theory readily suggest themselves; identical parts (i.e. genes) used in different contexts (i.e. organisms) call to mind ‘convergent evolution’ while similar parts (i.e. genes) used in different or the same contexts (i.e. organisms) evince ‘common ancestry’. Already, we can see that such observations are in no way antithetical to design theory.

Further, a simple Google search on design commonization or “design principles” + commonization reveals a wealth of material on the subject. For instance, a paper by Qin, Zhong, Xiao, and Zhang, Product platform commonization: platform construction and platform elements capture, states in the abstract:

Platform-based product family design is an effective means for mass customization. Platform commonization is one of the key problems in developing product platforms. Through discussion on the relevant problems of platform commonization, this article presents a framework of layered constructing platform architecture to improve commonality of platforms. Subsequently, an approach to capturing platform elements, viz. Graph theory-based clustering analysis (GTBCA), is proposed, which illustrates the construction of platforms through analyzing the commonality and standardization on a set of existing similar products of a company. The method can be used to help designers plan and design product platform rationally and develop a product family effectively for mass customization. In the end, a case study of a pumping unit product family is presented to illustrate the feasibility and validity of the approach. (emphasis added)

A Siemens PLM software whitepaper addresses a similar theme; the title itself speaks volumes: Enabling global innovation through commonization and re-use. Note that commonization and re-use are seen as enabling innovation. The subtitle continues the theme:

Maximize value creation through proactive commonization, modularization and re-use across the product portfolio.

…as does the title of the executive summary:

Proactive commonization and modularization create value across the product lifecycle

Inside the mind of Toyota: management principles for enduring growth By Satoshi Hino contains the following:

A quote from the director named to the chairmanship of the 1977 Parts Commonization Committee (Sachio Fukushima, 1978. Toyota Parts Commonization from the Parts Planning Stage, supplemental edition of the journal IE) further illustrates this commitment to Toyota’s management style:

The purpose of this committee is not limited to minimizing, through standardization and commonization, the number of parts existing at this particular time. It is to establish a system for managing the work of design so that true standardization and commonization can be accomplished on a permanent basis.
We need to satisfy the demands of performance and durability on the basis of
fundamental design principals of lightness, compactness, low cost and commonization.
Commonization should proceed from current designs. Our basic approach should be to select from what we currently have. But we should also be willing to use new designs if they result in parts that are lighter or more compact.

Words such as these can only proceed from one accustomed to developing solutions and policies.

The administrator of the Commonization Committee responded:

These [i.e. the Chairman’s] words were harsh ones, but they gave us a point of reference for making decisions in situations where we were grappling with conflicting demands. This was enormously helpful in giving designers a positive understanding of parts commonization activities.

It is obvious that Toyota’s monolithic management has taken shape on a foundation resting on this paradigm of leadership initiative. (pp. 87-88, emphasis added)

The practice of commonization was as regarded important enough to have its own committee. Futher, the ‘harsh but helpful words’ on this count are said to be those of experience.  Indeed, where I work, we have an ongoing ‘parts commonization’ project to reduce redundancy, waste and unnecessary inventory. Note particularly that commonization is listed specifically as a fundamental principle of design.

An auto-trade article on BNet entitled Common systems = common sense opens with this:

It distinguishes great companies from the mediocre. It’s strikingly simple in concept. Still, companies that haven’t been doing it regularly, however, find it extraordinarily difficult to begin and maintain. The practice is “commonization.” Commonization greatly reduces unnecessary proliferation and replication of work. While requiring more initial effort, commonization accelerates and streamlines latter routine work. Common information systems, in particular, greatly help a company act as one company. (emphasis added)

Note the bolded text.  The practice of commonization distinguishes the ‘great’ from the ‘mediocre’; it can be ‘extraordinarily difficult to begin and maintain‘; it ‘greatly reduces unnecessary proliferation and replication of work‘; it ‘requires effort‘ and ‘accelerates‘ &  ‘streamlines work‘. It also promotes [company] unity.

Thus, oftentimes commonization isn’t employed because it is difficult and it takes tremendous foresight, experience and effort. In other words, the practice of commonization displays wisdom and discipline.

Now recall Kirschner & Gerhart’s ‘uniqueness criterion’. According to this benchmark, the utility of designed objects is expected to be limited to ‘single, dedicated use’ functionality while undesigned objects are seen to demonstrate ‘flexible, multipurpose functionality. And their basis for so regarding designed objects is a limited examination of a single class of man-made objects: clocks.

In light of all of the above, their assessment is revealed for the non sequitur that it is:

[A biologist] would not find a boundless variety of completely different objects performing complicated activities, of the sort that demand a supreme Intelligent Designer to explain their origin. She would not even be tempted to follow the trail in that direction, so enthralled would she be by what organisms have managed to do with the limited cellular components at hand. (p. 7)

In the end, the young Paley would conclude that biological clocks do not imply a human creator or a divine Creator, but something else—call it a creation of biological novelty through natural causes. (p. 8 )

Indeed, contrary to what the authors imagine, perhaps ‘she would be compelled to follow the trail in the direction of design, so enthralled would she be by the wisdom, mastery and sophistication demonstrated by the Designer in what He had managed to do with the limited cellular components He chose to create’.

In the next post, we will explore the biological implications of the design principle of commonization.

The Plausibility of Theological Naturalism Part I

or, A Tribute to Cornelius G. Hunter

In the next few posts, I’m going to take a short break from reviewing River Out of Eden to make some observations on another book. I recently began reading The Plausibility of Life by Marc. W. Kirschner and John C. Gerhart. The book comes highly recommended by some evolutionists and a few creationists, so I’m really looking forward to digging into to it – plus, I like the cover art :-). On the other hand, some evolutionists aren’t all that impressed with the book.

The title of this post arises from the fact that I owe the observations I make in this post largely to having read Dr. Hunter’s three excellent books and regularly following his blog. Those familiar with his work knows that his bailiwick is exposing the theological underpinnings of evolutionary theory, past and present. Some might be taken aback by the notion that evolutionary theory is undergirded by a theological framework; for such people I heartily recommend his books and his blog. In this post I will demonstrate, as Hunter tirelessly does, that modern evolutionists are just as dependent on their theology as are those whom they dismiss (e.g. creationists, ID theorists, etc.). Now, on to the task at hand…

What stunned me is how soon – and how clearly – Kirschner and Gerhart  tip their hand. Right out of the gate they    demonstrate that their belief in evolution is firmly grounded in metaphysics rather than science. They don’t put it quite that way, but it is indeed the crime to which they confess. Following is

The introduction opens with a retelling of William Paley’s famous design argument, after which the authors write:

Paley compared the complexity of the watch, which he could understand, with the complexity of life, which in 1802 he could not, as a measure of their creators. However, such comparisons look different today. Where he would have seen an earthworm and a skylark each as a unique and complex design, we now see underlying similarities; they have the same system of heredity, the same genetic code, the same cellular makeup, the same subcellular components, largely the same metabolism, and many of the same processes of embryonic development. Paley was on a firm footing in distinguishing the stone and the watch, but not in comparing the watch and the skylark, the worm, or the eye. He had every reason to see each as an independent act of creation. (p. 2)

There is an unstated assumption in the argument here: that pervasive, underlying similarities between widely disparate organisms preclude independent acts of creation. This principle, which I shall dub the ‘uniqueness criterion’, presumes to plumb the motives, means and methods of the Intelligent Designer. In other words, they proclaim to know the mind of God (should He exist). Needless to say, this is a purely metaphysical benchmark, not a scientific one. The ‘uniqueness criterion’ is the unifying theme of authors’ argument.

The authors close this bit on Paley with the following:

All he saw in common was their complexity, not the nature of the complexity, and it is that nature that tips the balance between acceptance of evolution and the alternative deism that Paley chose. (p. 2, emphasis added)

Here, the authors deliver what they plainly regard as the ‘killing blow’ to the design argument. Kirschner and Gerhart conjure the image of a scale weighing the evidence – one the one side is the evidence for design, on the other the evidence for evolution. A crucial piece of evidence comes to the fore – the nature of biological complexity – and the scale is tipped decisively in favor of evolution. So what is it about the nature of biological complexity that demands an evolutionary interpretation? They alluded to it in the first excerpt above; the pervasive, underlying biomolecular similarities shared by all of life.

This notion is not original to these authors; in fact, it has a long and venerable pedigree in the history of evolutionary theory. For instance, see these two posts by Dr. Hunter. A fairly recent example is given by evolutionary geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky in his 1973 paper, Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution:

The unity of life is no less remarkable than its diversity. Most forms of life are similar in many respects. The universal biologic similarities are particularly striking in the biochemical dimension. From viruses to man, heredity is coded in just two chemically related substances: DNA and RNA. The genetic code is as simple as it is universal

[…]

Not only is the DNA-RNA genetic code universal, but so is the method of translation of the sequences of the “letters” in the DNA-RNA into sequences of amino acids in proteins. The same 20 amino acids compose countless different proteins in all, or at least in most, organisms.

[…]

What do these biochemical or biological universals mean? They suggest that life arose from inanimate matter only once and that all organisms, no matter how diverse in other respects, conserve the basic features of the primordial life.…. But what if there was no evolution and every one of the millions of species were created by separate fiat? However offensive the notion may be to religious feeling and to reason, the antievolutionists must again accuse the Creator of cheating. They must insist that He deliberately arranged things exactly as if his method of creation was evolution, intentionally to mislead sincere seekers of truth. (p. 127)

Thus, Kirschner & Gerhart are simply reciting a long-held tenant of  faith from the Materialist Catechism.

A bit later in the introduction, Kirschner and Gerhart elaborate on the issue of biological complexity. They start by imagining a modern-day descendent of Paley. While her ancestor meditated on mechanical clocks, she contemplates the innumerable biological ‘clocks’ scattered throughout the natural world.

On her worktable she quickly assembles the clocks of human beings, mice, flies, fungi, and plants. These are known as circadian clocks from the Latin circa, approximately, and dies, day. How are they constructed? Are they fashioned out of special materials, unknowable to humans? Do they work by means beyond her comprehension? Is each a unique event of creation, different from all other circadian clocks? Does their design offer clues about the designer? Does each clock so far exceed human imagination in its uniqueness, complexity, and perfection that it could never have arisen by the gradual modification of parts affected randomly by mutation and then selected? Or might there be a surprise here, an unexpected glimpse of a plausible creation by natural means? (p. 6)

Again, the authors invoke the ‘uniqueness criterion’, along with several other baldly metaphysical assumptions – these being that if these circadian clocks were designed, they must:

  1. be ‘fashioned out of special materials, unknowable to humans’
  2. work by means beyond our comprehension
  3. be utterly unique and distinct from one another, each being a unique event of creation
  4. so far exceed human imagination in its uniqueness, complexity, and perfection that it could never have arisen by the gradual modification of parts affected randomly by mutation and then selected.

They don’t bother to tell us why these things must be true if circadian clocks were designed, they just assert it sans justification.

To underscore their point, Kirschner and Gerhart then make reference to the many unique man-made clocks (e.g. Chinese water clocks, grandfather clocks, brass watches, quartz watches, etc.) each of which employ radically different means to achieve the same end – telling time. They then point out that the inverse is true of biological clocks:

Unlike man-made clocks, circadian clocks from disparate sources share many features of design and materials. Turning to the components of the clock, the modern Paley would find that most are used elsewhere in the organism in other roles having nothing to do with clocks and are far from being unique. They are all made of proteins and most of these proteins resemble other kinds of proteins. Furthermore, when she compares the components of the circadian clock in the fruit fly with those in the mouse, she finds that many of them are the same, but some are used differently in the two circuits. The interactions of the different clock components are not strictly conserved, but they can still generate periodic behavior. It is as if the genes and encoded proteins act as individual transistors suitable for wiring in different ways in the integrated circuit timers of a mouse or of a fly.

Thus, the circadian clock is not like a brass watch, where each component is made for just one purpose. The human-engineered clocks use different techniques to achieve the same result; the circadian clocks use a common set of techniques. Novelty in human clocks requires independent acts of invention. Novelty in biological clocks seems more suited to iterative modification from a common origin.

No matter where she turned, whether to the nervous system, the embryo, or the behavior of cells, young Paley would find examples of multiple and varied reuse of the same components. The properties of components facilitate their reuse, new use, and rampant invention. (p. 7)

This passage contains the strangest premise of their argument. The authors note that the individual ‘clock’ components (i.e. proteins) are multipurpose, being used in widely dissimilar contexts for diverse objectives. This is little more than an extension of their ‘uniqueness criterion’, but the fact that they regard robust, flexible, multipurpose components capable of modular, scalable construction as contrary to the principles of design is simply mind-boggling. As a professional mechanical designer myself, I feel comfortable disagreeing strenuously with Kirschner and Gerhart here. If I came to my boss having designed an array of such components, I would be in for a big promotion.

The authors continue:

She would not find a boundless variety of completely different objects performing complicated activities, of the sort that demand a supreme Intelligent Designer to explain their origin. She would not even be tempted to follow the trail in that direction, so enthralled would she be by what organisms have managed to do with the limited cellular components at hand. (p. 7)

Here, the authors make the connection between their ‘uniqueness criterion’ and the design argument explicit. Only a boundless variety of completely unique objects would justify a design inference. Absent of such plentitude, they insist, one ‘would not even be tempted to follow the trail in that direction’. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, these are metaphysical, not scientific, considerations.

Closing out the introduction, they write:

How can [the] differences of anatomy, physiology, and behavior [among widely disparate organisms] be explained when many of their genes are so similar?

The answer, the young Paley infers, lies in the multiple use of versatile conserved components. It is not the clock in particular that is so remarkable, but the multifunctioning protein components and their forms of regulation that allow them to be easily connected in many ways toward various ends. The living organism is certainly more complex than the brass watch in terms of the number of components and the variety of their interactions, but it is complex in unusual ways appropriate for versatility and modification rather than for dedicated single use. In the end, the young Paley would conclude that biological clocks do not imply a human creator or a divine Creator, but something else—call it a creation of biological novelty through natural causes. (p. 8 )

Mark again the ‘uniqueness criterion’ – a designed object must be fashioned ‘for a dedicated single use’, as opposed to flexible, variable use. Just ask yourself: which design would take more talent, thought and skill to execute? Furthermore, the design of such broadly multipurpose components would require incredible foresight and planning; two concepts anathema to Darwinism yet inherent in design theory. I would thus suggest that what evolutionists, including Kirschner & Gerhart, regard as decisive evidence against design is in fact quite the opposite.

Let’s pause here for a moment and consider the implications of this argument. Evolutionists insist that the biomolecular unity of life is not only antithetical to the design inference, but determinative evidence for evolution. But their reasons for so insisting are thougoughly metaphysical. In short, they proclaim ‘God wouldn’t have done it this way!’ What then if we disagree with their metaphysic? What if substantive and reasoned grounds can be given for rejecting their metaphysical framework in favor of another? Would not parity between the competing claims be restored? Might the balance even be tipped back in favor of design? Whatever else may be the case, design would be [re]established as a legitimate consideration. This will be the subject of the next few posts.

As we close, note that we have pushed off from the shores of science and are sailing in metaphysical waters – all at the behest of our kind scientist-authors. I encourage you to read the entire introduction to this book, available in pdf format here, in preparation for the rest of our journey.

River Out of Eden, Chapter 1 – Gradualism & the Cambrian Explosion

I.b. How Natural Selection works across species to generate fundamentally ‘new’ types of organisms from previous ones.

Part 2 – Dawkins, Gradualism & the Cambrian Explosion

Recall that Dawkins has been laying out his Darwinian vision of life in terms of a long, ever-branching river of DNA snaking through the mists of time. Remember also that the gradual, non-momentous, non-dramatic nature of this ‘branching’ process is central to Dawkins’ vision.

Continuing on, Dawkins underscores the importance of this theme by taking to task zoologists who fail to sufficiently acknowledge it in their work, unconsciously or otherwise. Some zoologists fall into this error, he claims, because modern zoological terminology trips them up. The notions of ‘fundamental body plans’ or Bauplans (a German word meaning blueprint, which has become a technical term in zoology), have misled zoologists into thinking that the divides between major groups of animals were ‘momentous events’. He then singles out an unnamed zoologist who

…suggested that evolution in the Cambrian period…must have been a completely different kind of process from evolution in later times. His reasoning was that nowadays, it is new species that are coming into existence, whereas in the Cambrian period major groups were appearing, such as the mollusks and the crustaceans…[this author] was writing in 1958. Few zoologists would explicitly take his position today, but they sometimes do implicitly, speaking as though the major groups of animals arose spontaneously and perfectly formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, rather than by divergence of an ancestral population while in accidental geographical isolation. (pp. 10-11)

‘The fallacy is glaring!’ declares Dawkins, reminding the reader of the ‘non-momentous’ nature of splits in the river and summarizing that ‘…the major bauplans of the animal kingdom diverged form common origins by gradual degree’.

Presumably, the writer that Dawkins refers to was simply attempting to come to grips with the state of the actual evidence presented in the Cambrian Explosion. Before this ‘event’, life on earth was largely comprised of single-cell organisms. Then, during this relatively brief era of time, all of the major body plans of multi-cellular life arose very abruptly. Wikipedia’s entry on the subject begins

The Cambrian explosion or Cambrian radiation was the relatively rapid appearance, over a period of many million years, of most major groups of complex animals around 530 million years ago, as found in the fossil record. This was accompanied by a major diversification of other organisms, including animals, phytoplankton, and calcimicrobes. Before about 580 million years ago, most organisms were simple, composed of individual cells occasionally organized into colonies. Over the following 70 or 80 million years the rate of evolution accelerated by an order of magnitude (as defined in terms of the extinction and origination rate of species) and the diversity of life began to resemble today’s.

Carl Zimmer, in his book Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, attempting to soften the impact of the Cambrian Explosion, writes:

Darwin’s worries over the Cambrian turn out to be unfounded. Now that scientists can read isotopic clocks and recognize molecular fossils, they have shown that the world did indeed swarm with life for billions of years before the Cambrian, as Darwin proposed. The Precambrian, far from some mysterious prologue to evolution, actually takes up 85% of the history of life. And paleontologists now have a remarkable collection of Precambrian fossils, including bacteria, protozoa, algae, Ediacarans, burrow makers, and animal embryos. But even with a much smoother fossil record, the Cambrian period is clearly the most remarkable episode in animal evolution. No matter how long animals were already lurking in the oceans, their diversification accelerated 535 million years ago in a tremendous explosion. Thanks to precision uranium-lead dating, scientists have determined that the Cambrian explosion took only 10 million years. (p. 69, emphasis added)

To put this in perspective, humans and chimpanzees supposedly diverged from their putative common ancestor about 6 million years ago. So, while it took 10 million years to evolve all of the major animal body plans from relatively nothing, it took 60% of that time over again just to go from one primate to another. Indeed, Zimmer underscores the radical nature of the Cambrian Explosion when he later writes that

Even after the Permian-Triassic extinction, when competition dropped to nearly nothing, evolution did not invent any new phylum of animals. No vertebrate lineage evolved nine legs. After the Cambrian explosion, animals may have become too complex to be radically reworked by evolution. The new evolution that took place in the wake of these extinctions were only variations on these basic plans. (p. 156, emphasis added).

The Cambrian Explosion is thus widely recognized as just that; an explosion of new forms of life in a ‘geological instant’. Evolutionists have theories to reconcile this data with their theory (e.g. ‘genetic toolkits’, genetic duplication – see Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, pp. 122-128), but the point here is the relatively very abrupt appearance of nearly all animal body plans.

This is diametrically opposite to Dawkins’ explicitly gradualistic picture of the ‘river out of Eden’.

In fact, in the quote immediately above, Zimmer seems to implicitly agree with the writer of 1958 that Dawkins took issue with for supposing a ‘completely different kind of process from evolution in later times’ because ‘nowadays, it is new species that are coming into existence, whereas in the Cambrian period major groups were appearing’.

More recently (2007), Eugene V. Koonin proposed a ‘Biological Big Bang model for the major transitions in evolution’ which seems again to be in general harmony with the zoologist that Dawkins scolds. In the abstract of his paper by that name, Koonin writes:

Background
Major transitions in biological evolution show the same pattern of sudden emergence of diverse forms at a new level of complexity. The relationships between major groups within an emergent new class of biological entities are hard to decipher and do not seem to fit the tree pattern that, following Darwin’s original proposal, remains the dominant description of biological evolution. The cases in point include the origin of complex RNA molecules and protein folds; major groups of viruses; archaea and bacteria, and the principal lineages within each of these prokaryotic domains; eukaryotic supergroups; and animal phyla.
In each of these pivotal nexuses in life’s history, the principal “types” seem to appear rapidly and fully equipped with the signature features of the respective new level of biological organization. No intermediate “grades” or intermediate forms between different types are detectable. Usually, this pattern is attributed to cladogenesis compressed in time, combined with the inevitable erosion of the phylogenetic signal.

Hypothesis
I propose that most or all major evolutionary transitions that show the “explosive” pattern of emergence of new types of biological entities correspond to a boundary between
two qualitatively distinct evolutionary phases. The first, inflationary phase is characterized by extremely rapid evolution driven by various processes of genetic information exchange, such as horizontal gene transfer, recombination, fusion, fission, and spread of mobile elements. These processes give rise to a vast diversity of forms from which the main classes of entities at the new level of complexity emerge independently, through a sampling process. In the second phase, evolution dramatically slows down, the respective process of genetic information exchange tapers off, and multiple lineages of the new type of entities emerge, each of them evolving in a tree-like fashion from that point on. (emphasis added)

Later, Koonin has an exchange with one of the reviewers of his paper

In the first two paragraphs of “Background” we see that the tree concept is being contrasted to a rate concept (gradualism). That problem occurs throughout the paper. One cannot easily present rates plus mechanisms (Bangs) as alternatives to shapes (the tree). I don’t really have a suggestion as to how to fix this problem of the present paper except for major recouching of the issues. But I do think that it needs to be fixed.

Author’s response: This is an important point, and I attempted to make it explicit in several places in the revised manuscript. What I mean is not just a major difference in rate but a difference in mechanism. The underlying mechanism in tree phases of evolution is vertical inheritance resulting in cladogenesis. The underlying mechanism in inflationary stages is exchange, recombination etc such that organismal lineages do not exist. The paper is not just about the fallacy of gradualism (something that, indeed, has been emphasized by Gould- Eldredge, Cavalier-Smith and others). The distinction between the two phases of evolution is not one of quantity but one of kind. I agree that this was insufficiently stressed in the original manuscript, and I attempted to rectify this in the revision. (emphasis added)

Koonin writes of the Cambrian Explosion in particular

The Cambrian explosion in animal evolution during which all the diverse body plans appear to have emerged almost in a geological instant is a highly publicized enigma. Although molecular clock analysis has been invoked to propose that the Cambrian explosion is an artifact of the fossil record whereas the actual divergence occurred much earlier, the reliability of these estimates appears to be questionable. In an already familiar pattern, the relationship between the animal phyla remains controversial and elusive. (emphasis added)

The point here is not only that Koonin proposed roughly what Dawkins upbraided the ‘1958 zoologist’ for proposing (i.e. a different kind of evolution), but that he proposed it in 2007 – nearly 50 years later. Worse, Koonin’s proposition isn’t restricted to the Cambrian Explosion; he sees it as necessary to explain ‘each of [the] pivotal nexuses in life’s history‘. This underscores in no uncertain terms the fact that the evolutionary transitions between animals – THE central assertion evolutionary theory – remain, in Koonin’s words, controversial, elusive and undetectable. In other words, there is no evidence of these alleged transitions.* It was a problem in Darwin’s day (see chapter 10 of Origin of Species under On the Sudden Appearance of Groups of allied Species in the lowest known Fossiliferous Strata), it was a problem in 1958, it was a problem in 1995 when Dawkins wrote this book and it is a problem still today. This should tell us something, if only we are willing to listen.

The fact is, the Cambrian Explosion is a direct challenge to Dawkins’ explicitly gradualistic thesis and he inexcusably minimizes it. If Dawkins is going to admonish his fellow evolutionists for not toeing the gradualist line, going so far as to single out a particular zoologist for the heterodox suggestion of a ‘completely different kind of process from evolution in later times’, he needs to grapple with the evidence himself instead of blithely papering over it with mere assertion. If he is going to pick a fight, he needs to hop into the ring and throw down. Instead, he throws a punch and runs for the hills.

Here, Dawkins earns a big fat F; he fails with flying colors.

Dawkins deals with Gould & Eldridge’s theory of Punctuated Equilibrium in much the same way and that will be the subject of my next post.

*Wither, then, the theory of evolution? And what claim should it have on the allegiance of those who seek to ground their beliefs in evidence?

River Out of Eden: Chapter 1 – Natural Selection Across Species

I.b. How Natural Selection works across species to generate fundamentally ‘new’ types of organisms from previous ones.

Part 1 – The Geography of the ‘river out of Eden’

There are two fundamental aspects to Dawkins’ ‘river out of Eden’; the ‘big picture’ of the ever-branching river through time and the forks that generate each of those branches. In this section, Dawkins gives us a tour of his river, explaining each of these features and how they relate to a ‘Darwinian view of life‘. He begins:

There are now perhaps thirty million branches to the river of DNA, for that is an estimate of the number of species on earth. It has also been estimated that the surviving species constitute about 1 percent of the species that have ever lived. It would follow that there have been been some three billion branches to the river of DNA altogether. Today’s thirty million branch rivers are irrevocably separate. Many of them are destined to wither into nothing, for most species go extinct. If you follow the thirty million rivers (for brevity, Ill refer to the branch rivers as rivers) back into the past, you will find that, one by one, they join up with the other rivers. The river of human genes joins up with the river of chimpanzee genes at about the same time as the river of gorilla genes does, some seven million years ago. A few million years father back, our shared African ape river is joined by the stream of orangutan genes. Farther back still, we are joined by a river of gibbon genes – a river that splits downstream into a number of separate species of gibbon and siamang. As we push on backward in time, our genetic river unites with rivers destined, if followed forward again, to branch into the Old World monkeys, the New World monkeys, and the lemurs of Madagascar. Even farther back, our river unites with those leading to the other major groups of mammals: rodents, cats, bats, elephants. After that, we meet the streams leading to various kinds of reptiles, birds, amphibians, fish, invertebrates. (pp. 7-8)

Dawkins then goes on to make an important clarification regarding his river metaphor. He cautions against the temptation to envision the splits in the river leading to the main divisions of life (e.g. fish, reptiles, mammals, etc.) as ‘something on a grand, Mississippi/Missouri scale.’ After all, he continues, since each of these major ‘branch rivers’ itself splits off into the yet smaller branch rivers representing the subdivisions of each group, ‘how could it be other than a massive, roiling torrent?’ What’s the problem with this conception? Dawkins explains

When the ancestors of modern mammals broke away from those that are not mammals, the event was no more momentous than any other speciation. It would have gone unremarked by any naturalist who happened to be around at the time. The new branch of the river of genes would have been a trickle, inhabiting a species of little nocturnal creatures no more different from its nonmammalian cousins than a red squirrel is from a gray. It is only with hindsight that we see the ancestral mammal as a mammal at all.

[…]

The same lack of drama would have attended the earlier splits between the ancestors of all the great groups of animals: the vertebrates, the mollusks, the crustaceans, the insects, the segmented worms, the flat worms, the jellyfish and so on.

I’m going to pause at this point and review this ‘geography lesson’. I think Dawkins does an excellent job in the section of giving the reader a window on a ‘Darwinian view of life‘. First, he gives us an ariel view, as though flying over this ‘river of DNA through time’ in a helicopter. Then he zooms in on the ‘forks in the river’ and explains the undramatic, gradual nature of speciation events. This is a ‘sweeping vision of grandeur’ that even I, as a staunch YEC, can appreciate. To be sure, any comprehensive view of our origins and subsequent history must, by definition, be grand and sweeping; but it must be said that Dawkins has a gift for eloquently communicating his vision. In sum, up to this point, I think Dawkins hits it out of the park. Obviously, I disagree with his vision for scientific (as well as theological) reasons – and I’ll get to some of that in my next post. That said, he delivers on the purpose implied in his subtitle, to present a ‘Darwinian View of Life’ – and he does it very well. How inspirational it is is a subjective judgement, but I can grant that some find it so, so I’ll not dispute it at this point.

Next, Dawkins deals with some of the misconceptions he thinks other evolutionists have fallen into in their own understandings of this Darwinian history of life. In doing so, I think he stumbles rather badly by glossing over important details that undermine his thesis at its foundation. That’s up next…

River Out of Eden, Chapter 1 – Natural Selection Within a Species II

I.a. How Natural Selection works within a species

Part 2

Note: Despite making its appearance in the midst of section 1.a., this section, subject-wise, more properly belongs to section 1.b., which is why I’m putting here, at the end of my review of section 1.a. and immediately before section 1.b.

In the middle of his discussion of small-scale Natural selection in the section, Dawkins takes a short detour; stepping back to take in the ‘bit picture’ of large-scale Natural Selection.

That is why birds are so good at flying, fish are so good at swimming, monkeys are so good at climbing, viruses are so good at spreading. That is why we love life and love sex and love children. It is because we all, without a single exception, inherit all our genes from an unbroken line of successful ancestors. The world becomes full of organisms that have what it takes to become ancestors. That, in a sentence, is Darwinism. (p. 2, emphasis added)

This is where I part company with Dawkins as I believe that the reason that animals are so good at what they do is because they were designed that way.

Far more disturbing, however, is the subtle shift into reductionism he makes in the bolded sentences. After listing the optimized capacities of various animals in terms of purely utilitarian ‘survival value’, he casts human passions in that same light. Note that he did not write of the human capacity for life, sex and procreation; but rather the love of those things. Therefore, from a Darwinian perspective, these aspects of human nature are purely utilitarian, having no intrinsic value themselves. I don’t fault Dawkins for this shift. Indeed, from his reductionist, Darwinian perspective it is not a shift at all. He deserves credit for not flinching from the logical ends of his worldview.

Now Dawkins would no doubt plead that such passions would be ‘selected for’ as they would better enable our species to thrive, but this isn’t necessarily so. First, we have no means of determining that animals love life, sex and their little ones – at least not in the sense that we do*. Dawkins seems to understand this as he only wrote of animal capacity, not passion. Thus, if the vast majority of life thrives largely absent such passion, it is follows that it is not at all necessary for species to flourish. Why, then, did humans develop such passions? Perhaps it became necessary because of the protracted developmental process humans must go through (i.e. childhood and adolescence) before becoming self-sufficient? Perhaps. But what of the fact that, throughout history, humanity has exhibited the capacity for an extraordinarily callous disregard of life, sex and children. Putting all morality aside, what survival value is conferred upon a species by profligate abortion, infanticide, promiscuity or neglect and abandonment of children? And how does Darwinism make sense of the deliberate choice by much of modern Western culture (particularly Europe) to allow their societies to wither away; to have so few children as to knowingly charge headlong towards extinction? And all of this is to say nothing of the mass slaughters visited upon of wide swaths of humanity by tyrants past and present.

If Darwinism is to make sense of these conflicting realities, it must do so exclusively in terms of utilitarian survival value. In other words, Darwinism demands that a given ‘adaptation’ and its opposite must serve one and the same purpose: survival. Worse, since survival is the ultimate ‘good’ from a Darwinian perspective, both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ are, by definition, good.

Any objective basis for morality is thus destroyed.

Darwin skeptic Philip S. Skell, Emeritus Evan Pugh Professor at Pennsylvania State University, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, writes:

Further, Darwinian explanations for [things like human nature] are often too supple: Natural selection makes humans self-centered and aggressive – except when it makes them altruistic and peaceable. Or natural selection produces virile men who eagerly spread their seed – except when it prefers men who are faithful protectors and providers. When an explanation is so supple that it can explain any behavior, it is difficult to test it experimentally, much less use it as a catalyst for scientific discovery.

Likewise, agnostic and Darwin skeptic David Berlinski has observed

Darwin’s theory has been variously used – by Darwinian biologists – to explain the development of a bipedal gait, the tendency to laugh when amused, obesity, anorexia nervosa, business negotiations, a preference for tropical landscapes, the evolutionary roots of political rhetoric, maternal love, infanticide, clan formation, marriage, divorce, certain comical sounds, funeral rites, the formation of regular verb forms, altruism, homosexuality, feminism, greed, romantic love, jealousy, warfare, monogamy, polygamy, adultery, the fact that men are pigs, recursion, sexual display, abstract art, and religious beliefs of every description. (p. 23, emphasis added)

Note the bolded ‘opposites’. A paradigm – a ‘view of life’ – that is as malleable and flexible as this doesn’t explain everything, it explains nothing. This is not to say that Darwinians lack ‘explanations’ for how all of this works, indeed they have a multitude of theories to reconcile these conflicting ‘facts of life’ – theories as contradictory to one another as the facts they seek to explain.

Now, how does a ‘Biblical View of Life‘ deal with all of this? Does such a paradigm not suffer the same, or worse, fate? In a word, no. All of that ‘good stuff’, including the love of life, sex and children are all manifestations of the image of God in man. These human passions are pale reflections of the innate, absolute and pure attributes of God. What then of the ‘bad stuff’? These are the manifestations of human sin; perversions of the capacities God endowed us with at creation. God gave Adam & Eve the ‘good’, but it wasn’t enough; they wanted more. So they grabbed the ‘bad’. Thus the paradox of the human condition – we have true and honest ‘good’ and true and honest ‘bad’ all in one flawed package.

Many reject this ‘Biblical View of Life‘ for whatever reason – it’s regressive, backward, primitive, unscientific, what have you. That’s all well and good, but the biblical view has something the Darwinian view doesn’t – coherence. Whereas Darwinism must explain contradictory states of affairs in terms of one ‘metric’ (i.e. survival), Christianity explains each with respect to its own ‘metric’; Creation explains the ‘good’, the Fall explains the ‘bad’. A metaphor might help illustrate why the biblical view outclasses the Darwinian. Think of these ‘metrics’ as eyes. Darwinism has one eye and Christianity has two; only one has depth perception and thus superior vision.

How did Dawkins fair in this section? Again, it’s a mixed bag. While Dawkins again succeeds in giving us a proper view of Darwinism, we see how the paradigm runs aground on the rocks of reductionism and its resulting incoherence. By my lights, this ‘Darwinian view of life’ is not only not inspirational, it strikes me as terribly ‘lifeless’ as we must regard those things which imbue our lives with such color and zest as mere tricks played on us by our genes to get us to reproduce. How utterly dismal and bleak.

*Some animals do evidence a love of some type for their fellows. For instance, elephants have been seen to mourn when one of their herd dies.

ARiver Out of Eden, Chapter 1. Detour: The Nature of Natural Selection

I.a. How Natural Selection works within a species

Detour: The nature of Natural Selection

In my last post, I discussed the how creationists and Darwinists conceive on Natural Selection in radically different ways. Creationists see it as a conservative/winnowing process while Darwinists see it as a creative process; indeed part of the very engine of evolutionary change. Note that I referred to ‘Darwinists’ as opposed to evolutionists. This is because Darwinism is a particular flavor of evolutionary theory; the dominant flavor to be sure, but not the only one.

So then, which perspective on Natural Selection is correct? Is it strictly conservative or is it innovative? The evidence here is on the side of the former. First, man has been engaged in selective breeding (i.e. artificial selection) of pets and livestock for thousands of years and we have yet to see change on the scale Dawkins writes of above; dogs are still dogs and cows are still cows. Darwinists would insist that such change takes place not over thousands of years, but millions and thus cannot be seen within a human lifetime or recorded history. Perhaps, but that is the point – it is necessarily unobserved extrapolation. If we are to restrict ourselves to empirical evidence and what we know, we must conclude that Natural Selection is not a creative process.

This was recognized by creationist Edward Blyth, the man who first identified the process of Natural Selection (though he didn’t use the term) in 1835, 24 years before Darwin published The Origin and whom Darwin briefly acknowledged in that book.

Moreover, a minority of evolutionists have also acknowledged the limits Natural Selection and seek other mechanisms of change. For instance, here is what evolutionists Lynn Margulis told journalist Suzan Mazur in a recent interview:

Suzan Mazur: …Can you shed some light on what’s going on regarding the status and meaning of natural selection?

Lynn Margulis: What then is natural selection? Natural selection is the failure to reach the potential, the maximum number of offspring that, in principle, can be produced by members of the specific species in question. This has been shown zillions of times in zillions of organisms.

Suzan Mazur: So you don’t agree that natural selection has rarely if ever been demonstrated to have anything to do with evolution in the sense of long-term changes in populations.

Lynn Margulis: Of course not. We have to unpack that misstatement. Growth is not simply enlargement by intake of food. It is no single process. In metazoans growth involves, at least intracellular motility including mitosis, protein synthesis, ATP energy generation, oxygen respiration, water intake and retention, salt balance, development and cell differentiation, and other related processes. The term “growth” tends to be slighted and misrepresented but it is far worse with the word “evolution”. The evolutionary process, intrinsically multi-componented, tends to be misunderstood by most people; it is often not even properly presented by those who purport to teach it! I think I understand it and can unpack it with complete equanimity. Natural selection occurs all the time. But natural selection as an elimination process, as failure to reach biotic potential, is not the issue.

Suzan Mazur: Salthe’s saying natural selection in terms of long-term changes in populations.

Lynn Margulis: I claim that long-term change also has been demonstrated. Such change over time is what the whole fossil record is about.

Suzan Mazur: He said it’s been demonstrated but rarely. . . .

What about Stuart Kauffman? He said natural selection may be “an expression of a more general process.”

Lynn Margulis: They are arguing about the entire evolutionary process. They are confused about its separable, measurable components. Darwin’s claim of “descent with modification” as caused by natural selection is a linguistic fallacy. They talk as if there were one single cause. As if natural selection were the cause…(some emphasis added)

This interview is part of Mazur’s larger project on ‘The Altenberg 16’, a confab of prominent evolutionists who met in Altenberg, Austria seeking to rehabilitate evolutionary theory by, among other things, shedding its dependence on Natural Selection and proposing an ‘Extended Evolutionary Synthesis’. Mazur’s book-length report on the conference The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry is now available.

This would presumably constitute the latest ‘chapter’ in the saga of modern evolutionary theory. The first chapter was Darwinism, introduced by Darwin himself with his books The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. The second chapter was the ‘Neo-Darwinian Synthesis’ that resulted from the scientific establishment’s belated recognition and integration of the creationist monk Gregor Mendel‘s work on genetics and inheritance.

Then there is the new book What Darwin Got Wrong (hint: its initials are N.S.) by Jerry Fodor & Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini. Fodor’s 2007 article Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings in The London Review of Books was in large part the impetus behind the Altenberg 16 conference referenced above. In an interview at Salon.com, Fodor stated:

What is your beef with natural selection?

The main thing Darwin had in mind with natural selection was to come up with a theory that answers the question, “Why are certain traits there?” Why do people have hair on their heads? Why do both eyes have the same color? Why does dark hair go with dark eyes? You can make up a story that explains why it was good to have those properties in the original environment of selection. Do we have any reason to think that story is true? No.

According to Darwin, traits of creatures are selected for their contribution to fitness [likelihood to survive]. But how do you distinguish a trait that is selected for from one that comes along with it? There are a lot of interesting structures in creatures that have nothing to do with fitness.

Some variants in selection are clearly environmental. If you can’t store water you’ll do worse in a dry environment than if you can. But suppose that having a high ability to carry a lot of water is correlated for genetic reasons with skin color. How do you decide which trait is selected for by environmental factors and which one is just attached to it? There isn’t anything in the Darwinist picture that allows you to answer that question.

Adding to the pile, Cornelius Hunter highlights the following from a recent paper by Kerri Smith published in Nature:

New species might arise as a result of single rare events, rather than through the gradual accumulation of many small changes over time, according to a study of thousands of species and their evolutionary family trees. …

“What we’ve shown is that speciation is about happy accidents — rare events that happen in the environment that cause a species to speciate,” says Pagel. These events could include a mountain range being thrust up or a shift in climate, he says.

The team’s findings might stir things up in the world of evolutionary biology. “It really goes against the grain because most of us have this Darwinian view of speciation,” says Pagel. “What we’re saying is that to think about natural selection as the cause of speciation is perhaps wrong.(emphasis added)

Now, to be clear, these scientists (Margulis, Fodor, Piattelli-Palmarini & Smith) are all staunch evolutionists and in no sense creationists or proponents of Intelligent Design; they just have doubts about Darwinism. They imagine the large scale change required of evolutionary theory to have happened by other means. Yet, this makes their testimony all the more powerful; they can be thought of as ‘hostile witnesses’ for the creationist case. The point is that highlighting the limited capabilities of Natural Selection is not simply an obscurantist, creationist canard. Creationists have been saying for decades that Natural Selection is not, indeed cannot, be a creative process, but that it is inherently conservative. In fact, as mentioned above, the creationist Edward Blyth pioneered the concept as an explicitly conservative one that preserved the stability of a species – precisely the opposite of what is needed by Darwinian theory.

River Out of Eden, Chapter 1 – Natural Selection Within a Species I

I.a. How Natural Selection works within a species

Part 1

As seen from the outline of chapter one, the section on Natural Selection is split into two parts. The first part can be thought of as ‘the small picture’ and contains little that conflicts with YEC. It is essentially the process whereby an animal population adapts to its environment over time. Individual variations & adaptations that benefit the animal accumulate while those that disadvantage the animal are ‘weeded out’ of the population. Theoretically, after a number of generations, an ‘optimized animal’ results. In Dawkins’ words

Since all organisms inherit their genes from their ancestors, rather than their ancestors’ unsuccessful contemporaries , all organisms tend to possess successful genes. They have what it takes to become ancestors – and that means to survive and reproduce. This is why organisms tend to inherit genes with a propensity to build a well-designed machine – a body that actively works as if it is striving to become an ancestor. (p. 2)

This, again, is uncontroversial. Creationists believe that God designed his creatures to survive and thrive in a dynamic world, a necessary corollary of which is adaptability. To more clearly understand this, consider Noah’s Flood. This event underscores how important the concepts of Natural Selection and adaptability are to YEC biology. The Flood completely and utterly remade the surface of the earth in addition to profoundly altering the climate. Current YEC research, primarily by Michael Oard and Larry Vardiman, indicate that the Flood would have naturally resulted in an ice age that lasted hundreds of years. For the newly disembarked animals to survive and thrive in an environment so radically different from that which they left a year previous, they must have been genetically capable of extensive adaptation. In fact, it might be argued that Natural Selection and adaptability are in some ways more important in YEC biology than in its evolutionary counterpart. In the YEC model, animal and plant life must have been capable of rapid, efficient and near-immediate change to so quickly adjust to the remodeled earth.

A bit later in the chapter, Dawkins discusses why and how one species splits off from another; citing geological separation as the main driver of such an event. He points to gray & red squirrels as examples of this phenomena.

A gray squirrel in North America would be capable of breeding with a gray squirrel in England, if they ever met. But they are unlikely to meet. The river of gray-squirrel genes in North America is effectively separated, by three thousand miles of ocean, from the river of gray-squirrel genes in England. The two bands of of genes are no longer companions in fact, although they are still presumably capable of acting as good companions should the opportunity arise, They have said farewell, though it is not an irrevocable goodbye – yet. But given another few thousand years of separation, it is probable that the two rivers will have drifted so far apart that if individual squirrels meet, they will no longer be able to exchange genes. “Drift apart” here means apart not in space but in compatibility.

Something like this almost certainly lies behind the older separation between gray squirrels and red squirrels. They cannot interbreed. They overlap geographically in parts of Europe and, although they meet and probably confront one another from time to time over disputed nuts, they cannot mate to produce fertile offspring. Their genetic rivers have drifted to far apart, which is to say that their genes are no longer well suited to cooperate with one another in bodies. Many generations ago, ancestors of gray squirrels and ancestors of red squirrels were one and the same individuals. But they became geographically separated – perhaps by a mountain range, perhaps by water, eventually by the Atlantic Ocean. And their genetic ensembles grew apart. Geographical separation bred a lack of compatibility. Good companions became poor companions…Poor companions became poorer still, until now they are not companions at all. Their goodbye is final. The two rivers are separate and destined to become more and more separate. (pp. 6-7)

Yet again, this presents no problem for the YEC model as such a model recognizes that adaptation and mutation can introduce genetic changes that render two animals unable to successfully mate (e.g. genetic mistakes that ‘break’ the compatibility of genomes).

It is here that a key difference between the YEC and Darwinian conceptions of genetic change comes out in sharp relief. Darwinism relies on random genetic mutations sifted by Natural Selection to drive both small and large scale change. This is a necessarily creative process. The YEC model, in contrast, sees mutation* as an inherently degenerative phenomenon and Natural Selection as a conservative and ‘winnowing’ process. Natural Selection is conservative in that it conserves existing beneficial features while ‘winnowing out’ those that are either unnecessary for, or detrimental to, survival within the animals habitat. A logical consequence of this view is that starting a particular genome and given a span of time, any given animal population descended from that genome will exhibit a subset of that genome. In other words, the genome of the descendent population will have less information than that contained in the ancestral genome. Evolution, on the other hand, requires that mutation and Natural Selection result in genomes of ever-increasing information content. This can be clearly seen in the passage immediately after the above quote and just prior to Dawkins’ more detailed treatment of large-scale Natural Selection:

The same story underlies the much earlier separation between, say, our ancestors and the ancestors of elephants. Or between ostrich ancestors (which were also our ancestors) and the ancestors of scorpions. (p. 7)

Dawkins uses the discussion of gray and red squirrels as the ‘link’ between small & large scale Natural Selection, suggesting that red squirrels are further along the road to becoming ‘something else entirely’ than are their gray cousins on either side of the ocean. Such changes require the addition of vast sums of new information. And this just isn’t something that Natural Selection has been seen to be capable of. See next post for more details on this point.

So how would I score Dawkins on this part of chapter one? Pretty good, I think. He does a good job of explaining Natural Selection on the small scale, where we can observe it; where it is an empirically demonstrable reality. His discussion of the gray and red squirrels was a very helpful illustration of this principle in action. On the other hand, his extrapolation of Natural Selection to encompass the large scale change required of Darwinism has both good and bad aspects. While there is no evidence that Natural Selection can accomplish such change, it is a necessary component of a ‘Darwinian view of life‘ and Dawkins gives us a good introduction to a Darwinian take on the concept.

*Modern Baraminology (creation biology) has recognized that much of the adaptability of organisms is ‘built in’. For example, there is strong evidence emerging that there is a ‘modularity’ to the genome that enables the ‘swapping and switching around’ of ‘genomic modules’ to facilitate adaptation. Though not of the same type as mutations caused by radiation, genetic mistakes, chemicals, etc., these adaptations are still referred to as mutations.

Suggested reading:

For a taste of how cutting-edge research in genomics is being integrated into the YEC model, see the following papers by Peter Borger, published in CMI‘s peer-reviewed Journal of Creation:

Evidence for the design of life: part 1—genetic redundancy
Evidence for the design of life: part 2— Baranomes
The design of life: part 3—an introduction to variation-inducing genetic elements
The design of life: part 4—variation-inducing genetic elements and their function

For a good introduction to the emerging paradigm of ‘genomic modularity’, see Jean K. Lightner’s review of Kirschner & Gerhart’s The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma as well as Alex Williams’ detailed examination of the book’s central thesis, Kirschner & Gerhart’s theory of ‘facilitated variation’, and what it means for both the Neo-Darwinian and YEC paradigms.

Finally, for a fascinating look at the role of randomness and mutation in creation genetics, see Jonathan Bartlett’s paper Statistical and Philosophical Notions of Randomness in Creation Biology, published in the Creation Research Society‘s peer-reviewed journal, CRSQ. For a helpful introduction to the concepts in his paper, see Bartlett’s blogpost on the subject.

A Review of Richard Dawkins’ River Out of Eden: Preliminary Thoughts

The general theme of this book, as the subtitle suggests, is to present a ‘A Darwinian View of Life’. In the preface, Dawkins writes that his purpose is

…to accord due recognition to the inspirational quality of our modern understanding of Darwinian life. (p. xi)

and

…to convince my readers that “ways of making a living” [i.e. the ‘luxuriant diversity’ of life] is synonymous with “ways of passing DNA-coded texts on to the future”. (p. xi-xii)

It should be noted that while a ‘Darwinian view of lifeis fundamentally incompatible with a YEC worldview, neither of the purposes laid out by Dawkins in the preface above are. The first is no more than a subjective emotional judgment that even a YEC like myself can appreciate though denying its validity. The second, on the other hand, is somewhat of a tautology: the fact that life is wildly diverse proves that there are many different ways for organisms to persist through time; it rather goes without saying.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Dawkins’ central concern is to present his Darwinian view of life as superior to any other. Thus, he isn’t so much seeking to ‘make the case for Darwinism’ (as over against creation or ID), but to lay out a view of life that assumes Darwinism as a given. He writes

[When interactions between atoms] chance to put together an object that has a certain, seemingly innocent property something momentous happens in the universe. That property is the ability to self-replicate…What will follow from this singular occurrence, anywhere in the universe, is Darwinian selection and hence the baroque extravaganza that, on this planet, we call life. Never were so many facts explained by so few assumptions. Not only does the Darwinian theory command superabundant power to explain. It’s economy in doing so has a sinewy elegance, a poetic beauty that outclasses even the most haunting of the world’s origin myths. (p. xi)

Thus Dawkins assumes Darwinism throughout the book, drawing out its implications rather than make a case for it. Having pointed that out here, I won’t litter my review by repeating it elsewhere. Nor will I hold this against Dawkins as not only is it a perfectly legitimate approach, it is in keeping with the books subtitle and his stated purposes.

So what is this ‘river out of Eden’? Dawkin’s explains:

My “river” is a river of DNA, flowing and branching through geological time, and the metaphor of steep banks confining each species’ game turns out to be a surprisingly powerful and helpful explanatory device. (p. xii)

Elaborating in chapter one, he writes

The river of my title is a river of DNA, and it flows through time, not space. It is a river of information, not a river of bones and tissues: a river of abstract instructions for building bodies, not a river of solid bodies themselves. (p. 4)

So with those preliminary comments out of the way, by what criteria will I evaluate this book? First, I will judge the book by whether it achieves Dawkins’ own stated purposes. Does he make a convincing case that Darwinism is an inspirational view of life? Does he persuasively demonstrate that biological diversity is synonymous with the mechanics of heredity? More generally, does he cogently present a ‘Darwinian view of life’?

Second I will do my best to analyze it in terms of what I know of science, logic, history and my own worldview. The latter means that I will be highlighting where I believe Dawkins’ ‘Darwinian view of life’ is inferior to a biblical/YEC view and where I think he fails to address yawning gaps in Darwinism’s putative ‘superabundant power to explain’.