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Naturalists see evolution as an agent, admit problem, shrug, Part II

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Earlier today, I asked, why do naturalists grudgingly use the word “design”? As it happens, the problem Kirschner and Gerhart acknowledged in 2005 has been discussed elsewhere in the literature.

Here are some notes I made on the subject a while back:

“Evolution” is spoken of as if it were an agent, which it is—precisely—not supposed to be. Stephen Jay Gould exulted that Darwinism was a “fist as a battering ram,” [1] punching out the lights of design in life forms. Well then, consider this from New Scientist (2010):

The remarkable diversity of life on Earth stands as grand testimony to the creativity of evolution. Over the course of 500 million years, natural selection has fashioned wings for flight, fins for swimming, and legs for walking, and that’s just among the vertebrates.

Despite this “active agent” talk, we are elsewhere told that the concept of design is inappropriate in biology and “should be eliminated from all biological explanations.” (2009)

The concept of accident in evolution refers to causes which are stochastic with respect to selective demands arising from the external environment and acting on the organism, while the concept of design refers to causes which meet the requirement of these selective demands. The condition ‘with respect to selective demands’ is generally forgotten so that evolutionary changes are described as being design modifications. Design is an invalid synonym for adaptation. Further it implies a designer and has been used by some authors since before Darwin to argue that design in organisms demonstrates the existence of a designer and hence a plan. Yet if evolution depends on two simultaneously acting causes, one of which is accidental, then the process of evolution and all attributes of organisms are accidental. The concept of design is inappropriate in biology and should be eliminated from all biological explanations.

And informed by Andrew Moore, Editor-in-Chief of BioEssays (2011),

To help address public misunderstanding of evolution, we must find alternatives to anthropomorphic terminology, and I have some suggestions. In this issue Jacques Dubochet asserts that a major reason for the lack of public acceptance of evolution is a fundamental misunderstanding of its core concepts: many people think of evolution producing modifications with an aim, e.g. ‘eyes in order to see’, ‘legs for walking’, rather than in terms of directionless variation, and natural selection without motivation, design or strategy. And yet the latter two concepts are used by many biologists at some point when discussing evolution, be it in the scientific literature or in popular books. The conceptual problem is even deeper: for example Richard Dawkins cast evolution in the guise of a ‘blind watchmaker’ in his book of the same name, a concept that, whilst successfully communicating one aspect of evolution, might reinforce the notion that evolution works towards producing a particular entity with a pre-defined use: in this case a watch. The problem here is that the watchmaker (a defined professional), even if blind, must know the aim to which he is working, in order to be able to assess the success of his, albeit random, work.

So is Richard also among the prophets? (Look, Richard, we think it would be, like, okay, for you to wear your turtleneck. … Could someone please go and fetch the man’s turtleneck?)

Which implies what exactly? The need for linguistic Stalinism? We are introduced to a box explaining Evolution old-speak vs. Evolution new-speak.

And advised,

I believe that a large part of our difficulty in avoiding the invocation of agency and direction in evolutionary processes is our persistent inability to define natural selection in terms of physical laws and processes.

We noticed, actually. And get this:

The spread of information theory into biology would, in my opinion, greatly help.

Yes it would, A demolition team can sometimes do wonders for an unsightly landscape.

Alfred Nigel Burdett takes up the theme in 2012 in a Letter in Science (2012. [2] In 2012, I moved, and stopped keeping up this file, but wouldn’t be surprised if others have.

Give them credit, they mean it. They just don’t do it.

First, they can’t. The back door introduction of design and purpose into their theory is the only way it would make sense.

Second, their friends in media won’t snitch. So they can afford to just agree with the rebuke, fret slightly, and go right on treating “evolution” as an agent.

[1] Stephen Jay Gould, “Darwin and Paley Meet the Invisible Hand,” in Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History, Jonathan Cape: London, 1993, pp.149-150

[2] Alfred Nigel Burdett, “Evolution’s Misleading Language” in the Letters section of Science (9 November 2012): http://tinyurl.com/brvf25s

See also: Why do naturalists grudgingly use the word “design”? Why do naturalists grudgingly use the word “design”? (Little wonder they are not happy with their conventional terminology. There doesn’t seem to be any way to say what they apparently wish to maintain)

and

Talk to the fossils: Let’s see what they say back

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4 Replies to “Naturalists see evolution as an agent, admit problem, shrug, Part II

  1. 1
    mahuna says:

    “if evolution depends on two simultaneously acting causes, one of which is accidental, then the process of evolution and all attributes of organisms are accidental.”

    This is obviously NOT true. It is a VERY common management approach in muddled situations to start multiple alternate solutions to “see what works”. And it is a well known DEFECT of single minded designs that when they fail, they fail completely. Does ANYTHING remain of “New Coke”? I think it failed so completely that only the people who lived through the experience (like me) even know it happened.

    So the fact that birds and bats and insects and flying fish all use DIFFERENT approaches to flight does not eliminate Design as an agent any more than the repeated commercial failures of hard-top convertible cars imply that new hard-top convertibles appear by accident.

    Or more to the point, are dinosaurs, who dominated life on Earth for tens of millions of years, a “successful design” or a “failure”? And what about Neanderthals? How do you score more than 200,000 years of happy hunting while spreading their DNA across the entire planet, excepting only Africa?

  2. 2
    Mapou says:

    “The remarkable diversity of life on Earth stands as grand testimony to the creativity of evolution. Over the course of 500 million years, natural selection has fashioned wings for flight, fins for swimming, and legs for walking, and that’s just among the vertebrates.”

    New Scientist is a pseudoscientific rag, a cesspool of dirt worshippers.

  3. 3
    mike1962 says:

    Topic for a thread:

    Telling the difference between an utterance borne of science and one borne of mythology/ideology

  4. 4

    Compatibilism is now the most popular view in philosophy on the free will issue. It means to use the logic of sorting to mean choosing. With compatibilism a choice is not free to turn out several ways in the moment, it can only turn out the way that is forced by the sorting criteria.

    Under compatibilist rules natural selection is an agent, which is designing things.

    The incoherency in this line of thinking is well hidden, and they can keep this newspeak going forever.

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