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Karl Popper never really retracted his skeptical view of Darwinism

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According to John Horgan, who hates ID types:

In A Dubitable Darwin? Why Some Smart, Nonreligious People Doubt the Theory of Evolution, John Horgan writes (Jul 6, 2010),

The philosopher Daniel Dennett once called the theory of evolution by natural selection “the single best idea anyone has ever had.” I’m inclined to agree. But Darwinism sticks in the craw of some really smart people I don’t mean intelligent-designers (aka IDiots) and other religious ignorami but knowledgeable scientists and scholars.

Horgan goes on to trash knowledgeable scientists and scholars, then notes

Early in his career, the philosopher Karl Popper (yes, cited by F and P-P) called evolution via natural selection “almost a tautology” and “not a testable scientific theory but a metaphysical research program.” Attacked for these criticisms, Popper took them back. But when I interviewed him in 1992, he blurted out that he still found Darwin’s theory dissatisfying”One ought to look for alternatives!” Popper exclaimed, banging his kitchen table.

Time to say it: Popper was a great thinker who lacked the courage of his convictions. He needed reverence more than he needed fact.

15 Replies to “Karl Popper never really retracted his skeptical view of Darwinism

  1. 1
    Mung says:

    I doubt Horgan cares what he says as long as it sells books.

  2. 2
    News says:

    Mung, hi, are you saying that you doubt Horgan’s story? Well, he could be fibbing, but do we have any reason to think so? He has taken a lot of criticism in the past for what he honestly believes.

  3. 3
    bornagain77 says:

    OT: NP-hard control algorithms on top of already NP hard protein folding;

    Now not only is protein folding found to be a NP-hard problem, which means that the most powerful computers in the world couldn’t provide an answer to what a protein will look like, or do, in its final folded state in any reasonable amount of time, but now also, control algorithms, which would allow one to find optimal responses, for say any particular type of protein to various varying environmental inputs, is also found to be a NP-hard problem. i.e. Not only is finding optimal folded proteins found to be a extremely tedious process, which is very antagonistic to any proposed gradual Darwinian scenario, but control algorithms themselves, which would allow one to design proteins on the fly in response to varying environmental stress is also found to be NP hard.

    After almost 20 years, math problem falls – July 2011
    Excerpt: Mathematicians and engineers are often concerned with finding the minimum value of a particular mathematical function. That minimum could represent the optimal trade-off between competing criteria — between the surface area, weight and wind resistance of a car’s body design, for instance. In control theory, a minimum might represent a stable state of an electromechanical system, like an airplane in flight or a bipedal robot trying to keep itself balanced. There, the goal of a control algorithm might be to continuously steer the system back toward the minimum.,,, For complex functions, finding global minima can be very hard. But it’s a lot easier if you know in advance that the function is convex, meaning that the graph of the function slopes everywhere toward the minimum. Convexity is such a useful property that, in 1992, when a major conference on optimization selected the seven most important outstanding problems in the field, one of them was whether the convexity of an arbitrary polynomial function could be efficiently determined. ,, Almost 20 years later, researchers in MIT’s Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems have finally answered that question. Unfortunately, the answer, which they reported in May with one paper at the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) Conference on Optimization, is no.
    http://www.physorg.com/news/20.....falls.html

  4. 4
    bevets says:

    Since making this claim, Popper himself has modified his position somewhat; but, disclaimers aside, I suspect that even now he does not really believe that Darwinism in its modern form is genuinely falsifiable. If one relies heavily on natural selection and sexual selection, simultaneously downplaying drift, which of course is what the neo-Darwinian does do, then Popper feels that one has a nonfalsifiable theory. And, certainly, many followers agree that there is something conceptually flawed with Darwinism. ~ Michael Ruse

  5. 5
    David Tyler says:

    Horgan: “Attacked for these criticisms, Popper took them back.”
    I am not convinced he took back his criticisms. I think he still maintained that falsification issues have to be addressed when advancing natural selection as a causal mechanism; I think he still recognised the metaphysical research programme. What he did do was acknowledge that the hypothesis of natural selection could be formulated in a way that avoids tautology. At the same time, he argued that “not all phenomena of evolution are explained by natural selection alone”. The only people who will argue with that appear to me to be the Neodarwinians.
    We need to keep challenging the assumption that all change is adaptive change – we are in good company with plenty of evolutionary biologists who are prepared to voice their doubts about the ability of natural selection acting on mutations to explain the origin of species.

  6. 6
    Mung says:

    Mung, hi, are you saying that you doubt Horgan’s story?

    No. In fact I think I confused Horgan for someone else. He’s written some interesting books.

  7. 7
    Mung says:

    Let’s not forget that the ultimate reason natural selection is so fundamental to neo-darwinian theory is that it’s the only way to reduce the astounding probabilities involved.

    Without natural selection it’s back to monkeys typing on keyboards and a tornado in a junkyard.

  8. 8
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    Mung:

    Let’s not forget that the ultimate reason natural selection is so fundamental to neo-darwinian theory is that it’s the only way to reduce the astounding probabilities involved.

    Without natural selection it’s back to monkeys typing on keyboards and a tornado in a junkyard.

    Exactly, couldn’t have said it better myself.

  9. 9
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    Theories are usually fairly unfalsifiable.

    What matters is being able to derive from them specific falsifiable hypotheses. These put flesh on the bones of the theory.

    Even then, most science doesn’t proceed by falsification tests but by comparing model fits, which isn’t the same thing.

  10. 10
    bevets says:

    Elizabeth Liddle

    Theories are usually fairly unfalsifiable… most science doesn’t proceed by falsification tests but by comparing model fits, which isn’t the same thing.

    Though Watson and Crick were relatively unknown and certainly undercredentialed, they had solved one of the great scientific mysteries of the ages. Moreover, the achieved this feat not by working their way up through the establishment, which typically involves publishing a series of narrowly focused technical papers based on their own experimental research, but by explaining an array of preexisting evidence in a new more coherent way…Watson and Crick performed many experiments during their long careers. But the work for which they are best known came as the result of building models based on data they acquired almost exclusively from other sources — from scientific journals, other scientists, and other labs.

    Many of the great discoveries in science were achieved not just by experimentalists who produced new factual knowledge, but by theoreticians who taught us to think differently about what we already know. Examples of this kind of scientific work leaped to mind: Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, Netwon’s Principia, and the papers Einstein produce in his annus mirabilis, his miracle year of 1905. While working as a patent clerk without access to any experimental apparatus, Einstein rethought the whole framework of modern physics and, in the process, explained many previously confounding factual anomalies… Darwin’s method of investigation typified that of many other historical scientists who functioned more like detectives solving a mystery by collecting clues and developing a case than like stereotypical experimental scientists who test hypotheses under carefully controlled laboratory conditions. ~ Signature of the Cell 2009 p. 137,138,139

    Scientists committed to philosophical naturalism do not claim to have found the precise answer to every problem, but they characteristically insist that they have the important problems sufficiently well in hand that they can narrow the field of possibilities to a set of naturalistic alternatives. Absent that insistence, they would have to concede that their commitment to naturalism is based upon faith rather than proof. Such a concession could be exploited by promoters of rival sources of knowledge, such as philosophy and religion, who would be quick to point out that faith in naturalism is no more “scientific” (i.e. empirically based) than any other kind of faith. ~ Philip Johnson

  11. 11
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    Brevets:

    I don’t quite understand the relation between my post, the link you added to it, and your response below.

    I think my statement is true – most theories are not readily falsifiable because they are very general explanatory accounts. It is the specific hypotheses they generate that are in principle falsifiable (at least probabilistically), but my secondary point is that in fact, most science does not proceed by a process of falsification (except of the null).

    Instead, model fits are compared.

    Well, I already said all that, I guess 🙂

    Are you disagreeing, or what?

  12. 12
    Matteo says:

    Let’s not forget that the ultimate reason natural selection is so fundamental to neo-darwinian theory is that it’s the only way to reduce the astounding probabilities involved.

    Without natural selection it’s back to monkeys typing on keyboards and a tornado in a junkyard.

    And with natural selection it is the same monkeys, but occasionally you execute a bunch of them, and it is the same junkyard, but occasionally you blow it up.

    All of which–obviously!–can only help.

    Death (aka Natural Selection), is there anything it can’t do?

  13. 13
    Ilion says:

    In fact I think I confused Horgan for someone else.

    Hurlk Horgan?

  14. 14
    bevets says:

    Elizabeth Liddle @ 11

    Agreeing on the ‘comparing model fits’. Also agreeing that evolutionism is ‘unfalsifiable’ (but pointing out that, (especially) in this case, the commitment is metaphysical).

  15. 15
    Popperian says:

    This represents a gross misunderstanding of popper’s view on science. Specifically, the statement that “One ought to look for alternatives!” does not mean Popper found evolutionary theory unsatisfying. In fact…

    IOW, Popper’s suggestion that evolution undergo continued criticism isn’t unique to evolutionary theory. This is because criticism is a key part of Popper’s explanation for how knowledge grows. The lack of a better theory does not mean that evolution hasn’t been criticized.

    From What did Popper really say about Evolution.

    I blush when I have to make this confession; for when I was younger, I used to say very contemptuous things about evolutionary philosophies. When twenty-two years ago Canon Charles E. Raven, in his Science, Religion, and the Future, described the Darwinian controversy as “a storm in a Victorian teacup,” I agreed, but criticized him for paying too much attention “to the vapors still emerging from the cup,” by which I meant the hot air of the evolutionary philosophies (especially those which told us that there were inexorable laws of evolution). But now I have to confess that this cup of tea has become, after all, my cup of tea; and with it I have to eat humble pie. [Popper, 1972, p. 241]

    Evolution became Popper’s “cup of tea” because it falls under the umbrella of his universal explanation for the growth of knowledge. This had not changed since then. Also from the article….

    But in an earlier work, he explicitly identified these “vapors” as “the Great Systems of Evolutionist philosophy, produced by Bergson, Whitehead, Smuts and others” (Popper, 1957, p. 106). He was not speaking, then, of the scientific theory of evolution but of various metaphysical theories. He made a clear distinction between the two.

    And his current support for the Darwinian idea of natural selection is expressed in equally plain language.

    What Darwin showed us was that the mechanism of natural selection can, in principle, simulate the actions of the Creator and His purpose and design, and that it can also simulate rational human action directed towards a purpose or aim. [Popper, 1972, p. 267; see also Popper, 1978, pp. 342-343]

    As for the notion of design as a useful hypothesis:

    His theory of adaptation was the first nontheistic one that was convincing; and theism was worse than an open admission of failure, for it created the impression that an ultimate explanation had been reached. [Popper 1976, p. 172]

    There are scientists who are unfamiliar with or misinterpret Popper. For example, Colin Patterson holds that, if we accept Popper’s distinction between science and nonscience, evolution is not science because it deals with unique historical events. Popper, however, doesn’t agree with this.

    It does appear that some people think that I denied scientific character to the historical sciences, such as palaeontology, or the history of the evolution of life on Earth. This is a mistake, and I here wish to affirm that these and other historical sciences have in my opinion scientific character; their hypotheses can in many cases be tested. [Popper, 1981, p. 611]

    In an earlier work, Popper discussed the historical sciences in which the scientific method of theoretical sciences is used:

    This view is perfectly compatible with the analysis of scientific method, and especially of causal explanation given in the preceding section. The situation is simply this: while the theoretical sciences are mainly interested in finding and testing universal laws, the historical sciences take all kinds of universal laws for granted and are mainly interested in finding and testing singular statements. [Popper, 1957, p. 143ff]

    What Popper calls the historical sciences do not make predictions about long past unique events (postdictions), which obviously would not be testable. (Several recent authors—including Stephen Jay Gould in Discover, July 1982—make this mistake.) These sciences make hypotheses involving past events which must predict (that is, have logical consequences) for the present state of the system in question. Here the testing procedure takes for granted the general laws and theories and is testing the specific conditions (or initial conditions, as Popper usually calls them) that held for the system.

    A scientist, on the basis of much comparative anatomy and physiology, might hypothesize that, in the distant past, mammals evolved from reptiles. This would have testable consequences for the present state of the system (earth’s surface with the geological strata in it and the animal and plant species living on it) in the form of reptile-mammal transition fossils that should exist, in addition to other necessary features of the DNA, developmental systems, and so forth, of the present-day reptiles and mammals.

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