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Darwinian Revisionism: Transmuting not only organisms but also the history of the subject

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A week ago I described here at UD my debate with atheist Lewis Wolpert. A blogger who goes by “Manic Street Preacher” sent me three unsolicited emails about his reaction to the debate, which was not positive. Denyse O’Leary briefly adverted to this blogger here.

I finally had a look at what this blogger wrote. I can’t say I was impressed with the argumentation or erudition, but I do have to credit him for chutzpah. He writes (go here):

//////////////////////////////\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\
Dembski repeated the common straw man that scientists in Darwin’s day knew nothing about the inner workings of the cell, and thought that they were mere “blobs of protoplasm”. Well, Dembski should take a look this drawing out, which was made by Darwin himself:

Darwinian Blobs

See, they show the inner workings of the cell and clearly show its complexity. Scientists in Darwin’s time, in fact, had quite a good understanding of what cells were, and they were not simply “blobs of protoplasm”. This is yet another creationist hoax which is easily debunked.
\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\//////////////////////////

I don’t mean to be argumentative, but the insides of the cells depicted here do look to me like blobs. But qualitative interpretations like this aside, the fact is that Darwin had no conception of molecular biology or the intricate nano-engineering that Michael Behe, for instance, describes in the cell. Moreover, it’s straightforward to examine the actual history of the scientific understanding of the cell to realize that the cell in Darwin’s time was conceived as simple, indeed so simple that it could spontaneously generate. Jonathan Wells and I describe some of this in HOW TO BE AN INTELLECTUALLY FULFILLED ATHEIST.

But perhaps the easiest way to see that “Manic Street Preacher” is blowing smoke is to do a search on “Bathybius Haeckelii” — slime dredged up from the ocean floor thought to be the primordial living matter. This proved to be a big embarrassment to Huxley and Haeckel. The details here are unimportant. What is important is that biologist of Huxley’s and Haeckel’s stature thought that life could be so simple as to be the result of this slime.

“Manic Street Preacher” reminds me of Joey Bishop in the movie A GUIDE FOR THE MARRIED MAN. Bishop, caught in flagrante delictu with another woman by his wife, denies all wrong doing (and, if he were a Darwinist, would accuse his wife of infidelity). Eventually, the wife, suitably cowed, accepts the denials and agrees that nothing happened. Well, here at UD we don’t let Darwinists get away with such nonsense. Darwin and his contemporaries didn’t have a clue about the complexity of the cell. History bears this out, Darwinian revisionism notwithstanding.

41 Replies to “Darwinian Revisionism: Transmuting not only organisms but also the history of the subject

  1. 1
    Joseph says:

    Protoplasm.eu says:

    Charles Darwin and his 19th century contemporaries viewed “protoplasm” as the sole content of a cell; in other words, cells were nothing but simple blobs composed of “proto-plasm,” a substance that had the ability of self replication. This simplified view of cell biology circumvented the problem of the origin of life that Darwin and others struggled with. However, that problem was later introduced in the 1950s when the complex molecular structure of DNA was discovered with following research into the complex biochemistry of living things.

    The concept of protoplasm was perceived as the essence of life (“vita force”), being something nearly sacred, induplicable by man as it can evolve into quite a number of other living creatures.

  2. 2
    Joseph says:

    Wikipedia (their gospel) weighs in:

    Protoplasm:

    The word protoplasm comes from the Greek protos for first, and plasma for thing formed. It was first used in 1846 by Hugo von Mohl to describe the “tough, slimy, granular, semi-fluid” substance within plant cells, to distinguish this from the cell wall, cell nucleus and the cell sap within the vacuole.[2] Thomas Huxley later referred to it as the “physical basis of life” and considered that the property of life resulted from the distribution of molecules within this substance. Its composition, however, was mysterious and there was much controversy over what sort of substance it was.[3] Unsurprisingly, attempts to investigate the origin of life through the creation of synthetic “protoplasm” in the laboratory were not successful.[4]

  3. 3
    Mung says:

    See chapter XXVII of:

    The World of Life

    For a good example of what was known about the cell around 1900.

  4. 4
    peachykeen says:

    Mr. Darwin, a lot of people say that you did not regard the cell as complex. What do you have to say to that?

    A cell is a complex structure, with its investing membrane, nucleus, and nucleolus, a gemmule, as Mr. G. H. Lewes has remarked in his interesting discussion on this subject (Fortnightly Review, Nov. 1, 1868, p. 508), must, perhaps, be a compound one, so as to reproduce all the parts.

    http://darwin-online.org.uk/co.....;pageseq=1

    But wait a minute, blobs of protoplasm aren’t “complex structures” that include a “membrane” and “nucleus.” Your own words seem to contradict the claim that you thought these cells were solely protoplasm. Are you saying that these people are wrong?

    Yes. Quit lying about me.

  5. 5
    Barry Arrington says:

    “Each of us was, at the beginning of his existence, a simple globule of protoplasm, surrounded by a membrane, about 1/120 of an inch in diameter, with a firmer nucleus inside it.

    Ernst Haeckel, Last Words on Evolution (London: A. Owen & Co., 1906).

  6. 6
    Graham1 says:

    Jumping Jupiter, why the obsession with what Chuck said 150 years ago? What on earth does it matter ? Evolution is accepted today on its merits, not what was written 150 yrs ago. Why is this so hard to understand ?

    Sure, Darwin got the ball rolling, and is regarded as substantially correct, but weve moved on in lots of the details.

    Its the Origin, not the Bible. Its not meant to be inerrant.

  7. 7
    Cabal says:

    I googled “blobs of protoplasm” and that settled the matter for me. What about you?

  8. 8
    Joseph says:

    peachykeen quotes Darwin:

    A cell is a complex structure, with its investing membrane, nucleus, and nucleolus, a gemmule, as Mr. G. H. Lewes has remarked in his interesting discussion on this subject (Fortnightly Review, Nov. 1, 1868, p. 508), must, perhaps, be a compound one, so as to reproduce all the parts.

    Let’s see- compared to what we now know that description makes the cell appear very simple in comparison.

  9. 9
    Joseph says:

    Graham 1-

    Did you read the OP?

    If you had you would understand that 1- there ain’t no obsession 😉 and 2) it is related to what Chucky said.

  10. 10
    IRQ Conflict says:

    I don’t mean to be argumentative, but the insides of the cells depicted here do look to me like blobs.

    Indeed. Reminds me of grandpas lava lamp when I was a kid.

  11. 11
    landru says:

    Reminds me of grandpas lava lamp when I was a kid.

    Yes, also eerily similar to my daughter’s 2nd grade science project drawings of cells observed in her pond water sample, viewed under a $10 kid’s microscope.

  12. 12
    Collin says:

    I think that we can safely say that Mr. Darwin did not realize how extremely complex the cell was. He might have not revized his theory anyway. I think he would have treated it like the eye though and admitted that it was a challenge to his theory.

  13. 13
    Barb says:

    “Its the Origin, not the Bible. Its not meant to be inerrant.”

    Then what exactly is the point of teaching evolution in schools if it’s ultimately based on a book with errors in it?

  14. 14
    REC says:

    “Then what exactly is the point of teaching evolution in schools if it’s ultimately based on a book with errors in it?”

    Barb,

    I’m not sure that works for me. One could argue the US constitution had major errors-compromises with slavery, and women not recognized as voters, for example. Yet we still use a modified version of it, right? Since Origins is not used as the text, but rather, modern views of Darwinism, I think it is the modern, evidence based-critiques of darwinism that are most salient. The point isn’t what Darwin got wrong, it is what he couldn’t have known: complexity that sets up the modern Design argument.

  15. 15
    Graham1 says:

    To Joseph: This is similar to (many) other threads that agonize over whether Darwin was racist or not, was Darwin a believer or not, did Darwin make mistakes in geological statements, etc etc etc.

    And now this entire thread is devoted to the proposition that Darwin didnt have a detailed understanding of the cell.

    Ok, he didnt. So what ? Evolution is supported by the Science community because it agrees with what we see in the real world (now), not because of some slavish belief in the innerancy of what someone said 150 years ago.

  16. 16
    Mung says:

    Graham1:

    Its the Origin, not the Bible. Its not meant to be inerrant.

    Wow, you coulda fooled me, based on the praise accorded to Darwin, which, one would assume, is in some way related to his Origin.

    Its the Origin, not the Bible. Its not meant to be inerrant.

    What makes you think the Bible was “meant to be inerrant”?

  17. 17
    Joseph says:

    Graham 1-

    This thread is about some imp saying that Dembski misrepresented/ lied when he charcterized the level of knowledge the scientists in Darwin’s day had about the inner workings of the cell.

    My take on that- MY take- is that had Darwin understood the inner workings of the cell he would not have argued against Paley.

    Most likely he would have said he found the confirming evidence for Paley’s thesis.

  18. 18
    REC says:

    Joseph 16-

    “Most likely he would have said he found the confirming evidence for Paley’s thesis.”

    Out of curiosity, what would you take as firm evidence confirming Paley, either in Darwin’s day or today?

  19. 19
    h.pesoj says:

    Joseph

    My take on that- MY take- is that had Darwin understood the inner workings of the cell he would not have argued against Paley.

    Why?

    Most likely he would have said he found the confirming evidence for Paley’s thesis.

    Why?

    And if that had happened, how would our current understanding of biology be compare to how it is now? What would be different?

  20. 20
    Joseph says:

    REC:

    Out of curiosity, what would you take as firm evidence confirming Paley, either in Darwin’s day or today?

    Just for starters:

    Intelligent Design in Biology Textbooks

    Intelligent Design in Biology Textbooks Continued

    Then there is ATP synthase:

    Lau and Rubenstein, “Structure of intact Thermus thermophilus V-ATPase by cryo-EM reveals organization of the membrane-bound VO motor,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, January 6, 2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0911085107

    Then once we get to metazoans- nerves and wet electricty.

    With vertebrates it is the neuro-muscular-skeleton system.

  21. 21
    Joseph says:

    Playing with a troll:

    My take on that- MY take- is that had Darwin understood the inner workings of the cell he would not have argued against Paley.

    Why?

    Because of the intricate complex protein machinery and functionality he would have observed.

    Most likely he would have said he found the confirming evidence for Paley’s thesis.

    Why?

    Same question, same answer:

    Because of the intricate complex protein machinery and functionality he would have observed.

    And if that had happened, how would our current understanding of biology be compare to how it is now?

    I would hope that it would be better- a more thorough understanding.

    But that would all depend on how Darwin’s inference/ confirmation was received.

    What would be different?

    For one in order to understand something you must study in light of how it came to be.

    For example would we have a better understanding of Stonehenge if geologists were studying as a natural rock formation or as we are doing studying it as an artifact?

    And that alone is huge.

  22. 22
    REC says:

    Joseph, I guess I was more interested in Darwin’s time. Darwin states that structures that look designed look that way because of evolution, explicitly rejecting Paley (the original Intellegent Design advocate):

    ” The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.”

    http://darwin-online.org.uk/co.....pageseq=89

    I suppose this is a challenge to ID now-how does one argue that complex things cannot arise naturally.

  23. 23
    h.pesoj says:

    Joseph

    Because of the intricate complex protein machinery and functionality he would have observed.

    Yes, because as we know that’s how Darwin was thinking when he observed the intricate complex organisation of the ecosystems in the Galapagos.

    It makes total sense to me that he would then see the complexity in a cell that we see now and change his entire way of thinking.

    Same question, same answer:

    In fact, your answer was nothing of the sort. Providing a statement noting that cells are complex and including the word because is not an answer.

    For example would we have a better understanding of Stonehenge if geologists were studying as a natural rock formation or as we are doing studying it as an artifact?

    So you can’t give an example of how science or our understanding would have been different then?

    Ok, thanks, thought as much.

    And that alone is huge.

    Indeed it is. And it’s almost has huge as the gap between what ID can explain and what “Darwinism” can exmplain.

  24. 24
    h.pesoj says:

    Joseph at 19

    Just for starters

    Do you have, er, something other then links to your own blog to support your claims?

    Then there is ATP synthase:

    Yes, indeed there is. But I noticed that you forget to type the bit where you explain why that’s relevant, why you are bringing it up, why it is related at all to ID and what it’s got to do with the topic at hand.

    Perhaps you posted too soon. In which case, could you explain again please what ATP has to do with ID?

  25. 25
    Joseph says:

    REC,

    Darwin said that because he didn’t know any better. We know should.

    I suppose this is a challenge to ID now-how does one argue that complex things cannot arise naturally.

    Cannot arise via blind, undirected processes.

    Nature can’t arise naturally- IOW natural processes only exist in nature and therefor cannot account for it.

    Also neither Darwin, nor anyone since has demonstrated any methodology for their claim that NS is the designer.

    IOW just another bald proclamation.

  26. 26
    Joseph says:

    backwards me:

    It makes total sense to me that he would then see the complexity in a cell that we see now and change his entire way of thinking.

    It wouldn’t have been a change.

    Ya see the change happened on his voyage around the world.

    Had he first known of the inner workings of the cell and how sexual reproduction worked he would have looking at nature and try to explain it in that light.

    In fact, your answer was nothing of the sort. Providing a statement noting that cells are complex and including the word because is not an answer.

    It was answer enough to a 5 year olds question of “Why?”

    Also cells are more than just complex. That is the whole point.

    For example would we have a better understanding of Stonehenge if geologists were studying as a natural rock formation or as we are doing studying it as an artifact?

    So you can’t give an example of how science or our understanding would have been different then?

    I just did Erik.

  27. 27
    Joseph says:

    Just for starters

    backwards me:

    Do you have, er, something other then links to your own blog to support your claims?

    Not when someone asks me what I think would be confirming evidence for Paley.

    Ya know something you are just one sick person.

    You can’t follow along.

    You have to jump in to other people’s discussions.

    And you seem totally clueless.

  28. 28
    Graham1 says:

    To Joseph #26: Is this the tone you wish to set for the ID community ? I think you have lost it.

  29. 29
    Graham1 says:

    Joseph: Are you really ‘Joe G’ over at intelligentreasoning ? Yech.

  30. 30
    Joseph says:

    backwards me-

    You clowns can shut me up just by demonstrating tha the transformations required are possible.

    Also you have it wrong- as usual.

    The only thing I am “one of the best” at is recognizing BS artists such as yourself, Zachriel, Graham 1, etc., and I won’t back down from the clowns.

    IOW I am very good at standing up to your empty rhetoric.

    As for making their case- pure BS.

    If you guys could make your case ID would fade away and the vast majority of people would accept your position.

    So have at it- or is something preventing you from doing so?

  31. 31
    Joseph says:

    Graham 1:

    Joseph: Are you really ‘Joe G’ over at intelligentreasoning ? Yech.

    Thank you.

    Thank you very much-
    I must be doing something right 😎

  32. 32
    REC says:

    In response to:”does one argue that complex things cannot arise naturally.”

    “Cannot arise via blind, undirected processes.”

    Yet we know crystallization, for example creates order. Buckyballs (fullerenes) can be produced in ordinary candle soot. Stars and planets accrete from dust, and the stars produce heavy elements from lighter ones.

    Some ID proponents (Behe) even seem to suggest some biological order/modification might be natural. Front-loading would suggest one the design is set into motion, that natural processes play out. It seems like one could discover design against a natural background (see my research proposal in the top thread on 1/16).

    But, how does one discriminate design from non-design in nature, if everything is not blind, i.e. from an act of ongoing non-natural guidance?

  33. 33
    Joseph says:

    REC:

    Yet we know crystallization, for example creates order.

    Not complex.

    Stars and planets accrete from dust, and the stars produce heavy elements from lighter ones.

    Most likely because they were designed to do so.

    But, how does one discriminate design from non-design in nature, if everything is not blind, i.e. from an act of ongoing non-natural guidance?

    It is all about requirements and reduction.

  34. 34
    REC says:

    Joseph,

    So crystallization is not-complex? Is a paperclip? What “requirements and reduction” did you apply to make that decision.

    I favor a simple definition for design that applies to evolution: “cannot arise by natural processes.”

    The laws of physics that account for star behavior may very well be designed, but again, I’m not sure how you convince someone they are not natural.

  35. 35
    Joseph says:

    So crystallization is not-complex?

    A simple pattern, repeated.

    I favor a simple definition for design that applies to evolution: “cannot arise by natural processes.”

    Blind, undirected processes.

    Design is a natural process.

    The laws of physics that account for star behavior may very well be designed, but again, I’m not sure how you convince someone they are not natural.

    Were they produced by nature?

    Can they be explained by natural laws?

  36. 36
    REC says:

    Were they produced by nature?

    I would say the accretion of stars and planets, fusion, etc. are natural processes. Gravity and atomic theory seem to cover it. Yet, they generate complexity (maybe, depending on your definition). If they are natural, by definition, are they not complex?

  37. 37
    Joseph says:

    REC,

    Where did the laws themselves come from?

    They could not have been produced by nature.

    Natural processes only exist in nature and therefor cannot account for its origin.

  38. 38
    vjtorley says:

    Well, I see the name-calling seems to have died down, and the temperature on this thread has chilled, thank goodness.

    The original point of this post was that the origin of species is only a small part of a much greater problem: what kind of complexity, and what degree of complexity, can be explained as a result of undirected natural processes?

    Darwin thought the answer was: all of it. That was the raison d’etre for his book, The Origin of Species. At the time, structures such as the eye were commonly held up as examples of complexity which could only be explained by positing a Designer.

    Darwin’s great achievement was to propose a scientifically plausible, undirected mechanism by which highly complex structures could evolve, step by step, if each step conferred a selective advantage on its possessor. There seeemed to be no reason in principle why this could not account for the evolution of the eye. At the time, many scientists thought that outstanding problems such as the origin of life were much more tractable than the origin of the eye; even in the absence of selection, chance and time alone might do the trick. Hence the “warm little pond.”

    Today, the picture looks very different. Why?

    (1) The emergence of even a single functional protein, let alone a living cell, by undirected processes looks fantastically improbable, given that only a tiny, tiny fraction of all possible 100-amino-acid chains are any good for anything. There doesn’t seem to be enough time available for nature to get the job done.

    (2) We now know that all living things incorporate programs directing their development. Programs are delicate things. You don’t want to mess with them (unless, that is, they were designed to tolerate messing with). The program metaphor highlights the difficulty of undirected evolution: it isn’t just a matter of getting a lineage of organisms to gradually change their shape over the course of time (as we can imagine with the eye). Rather, what is needed is a mechanism whereby a lineage of simple organisms can gradually acquire new instructions to generate more and more complex body parts, over the course of geological time. At the present time, there is no undirected mechanism that is known to achieve such effects. Instead what we have is a piecemeal mish-mash of hopeful suggestions (promissory materialism). But what we no longer have is a comprehensive theory of biological complexity.

    Darwin, to his credit, at least tried to create such a theory, and for a while his ideas seemed to make sense. However, today’s biologists don’t seem to realize what they’ve lost since then: a general theory that accounts for all of the complexity we see in the biological world. The paradigm is gone. The mechanisms proposed by Darwin and his successors are either inadequate to explain either the origin of life or of complex developmental body programs, or they have not been shown to be adequate to generate such large changes. Sure, speciation can occur; but there is no evidence that the process accounting for it, extrapolated over time, generates new body plans, let alone life.

    Now, there are branches of science that have had to cope with problems arising from the lack of a mechanism. We still don’t know how gravity works, and fifty years ago, we didn’t know what made the continents move. But the difference is that these areas of science dealt with effects that could be demonstrated to occur every day – apples do fall from trees every day, after all, even if we don’t know how – or with processes which can be demonstrated to achieve the desired effect, given enough time: we can measure the continents drifting, even if we don’t know exactly what drives the process.

    With living cells and the various phyla of multicellular animals, all we know is that they arose on Earth, somehow, in the very distant past. But no-one has observed the process by which they did so. What’s more, no process occurring today, extrapolated a million-fold or a billion-fold, seems to generate the huge changes that occurred back then. Some scientists have their own pet theory of this or that process which might have done the job, but they are unable to supply a convincing demonstration that their favorite process would have been able to do the job. To make matters worse, they are unable to quantify the probabilities involved.

    So what do they do? A mature, non-theistic scientist would say: “OK, folks. The origin of life and of complex body plans is an unsolved mystery. Back to the drawing board. Paley hasn’t really been refuted.”

    But what do we see instead? The non-hypothesis that SOME undirected process must have done the job has become the new orthodoxy, to the extent that publicly casting doubt on the adequacy of any currently accepted mechanism is seen as giving aid and comfort to “the enemy.” There is an unwillingness to admit to scope of the problem. John and Jane Doe are still largely in the dark about the magnitude of scientists’ ignorance in this arena.

    Like it or not, scientists need to publicly acknowledge that even if undirected naturalistic mechanisms should some day prove adequate to account for the complexity of life, public acceptance of their adequacy rests upon an historical accident. Had Darwin known what we do about the inside of the cell, he would never have dared to publish The Origin of Life – for he would have instantly realized the inadequacy of his theory to account for the microcosm of activity we see inside the cell. Darwin had an easy ride. Too easy. That historical accident has warped the subsequent history of biology, making many scientists in that field self-satisfied and intellectually lazy.

    The worst sin for any scientist is lack of curiosity, but that is what The Origin of Species has wrought. And the irony is that Darwin was a deeply curious man.

  39. 39
    jerry says:

    “I would say the accretion of stars and planets, fusion, etc. are natural processes. Gravity and atomic theory seem to cover it. Yet, they generate complexity (maybe, depending on your definition). If they are natural, by definition, are they not complex?”

    There are zillions of complex natural things in our universe but none of them are FCSI except what is found in life. So the question what is the origin of the FCSI in life since it appears no where in nature except as the result of intelligent activity. And if you want to know what FCSI means, just think the transcription/translation process with its over one thousand auxiliary parts leading to the creation of a protein. No suns, brown dwarfs, planets, comets, plate tectonics, snowflakes, crystals, sand dunes has anything like one intermediary part that takes input A and provides a completely different output B each and every time. But the transcription/translation process does.

  40. 40
    Mung says:

    …what kind of complexity, and what degree of complexity, can be explained as a result of undirected natural processes?

    None. An undirected process is an oxymoron.

  41. 41
    lars says:

    I agree with the big picture conclusion above… that “the cell in Darwin’s time was conceived as simple, indeed so simple that it could spontaneously generate.”

    But if indeed Darwin (at some time) knew that cells were more complex than blobs, wouldn’t it be the honest thing to do to concede that point?

    “I don’t mean to be argumentative, but the insides of the cells depicted here do look to me like blobs.”

    Well sure, but there’s a difference between “a cell IS simply a blob” and “a cell CONTAINS various blobs”, i.e. the difference between simple and complex. Of course the “complexity” that Darwin could see was only the tip of the iceberg compared to what we see today, and he was clearly wrong about spontaneous or chance generation. But let’s give credit where credit is due. Otherwise we run the risk of being called disingenuous, and standing guilty as charged. If some ID proponents have been inaccurate about how they characterized Darwin’s view of the cell, let’s admit it, while *also* moving on to the main point, which still stands.

    Interestingly, “just thinking” asked on the blog where this 1882 sketch was posted (http://scienceblogs.com/afaren.....nt-1463051) whether this represented Darwin’s thinking at the time he wrote Origin, 23 years earlier. He was accused of moving the goalposts, and no clear evidence was given one way or the other.

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