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The Dawkins-Dembski Briefwechsel I — “Evolutionary Algorithms”

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Since Richard Dawkins thinks he has the right to reprint my letters to him by posting them over the Internet (go here), I’ll assume the same privilege applies to me. Let’s start with this exchange from the spring of 2000 (the paper in question became chapters 3 and 4 of my book NO FREE LUNCH):

—–Original Message—–
From: Richard Dawkins [mailto:richard.dawkins@SNIP.ac.uk]
Sent: Friday, May 05, 2000 1:13 PM
To: William_Dembski@baylor.edu
Subject: Re: Evolutionary Algorithms Chapter

Dear Dr Dembski

Your paper is quite well written, and is not stupid (like the writings of your colleagues). But you are not saying anything I didn’t say myself, in The Blind Watchmaker, even if more briefly:-

The point about any phrase being equally eligible to be a target is covered on page 7: “Any old jumbled collection of parts is unique and, WITH HINDSIGHT, is as improbable as any other . . .” et seq.

More specifically, the point you make about the Weasel, is admitted, without fuss, on age 50: “Although the monkey/Shakespeare model is useful for explaining the distinction between single-step selection and cumulative selection, it is misleading in important ways. One of these is that, in each generation of selective ‘breeding’, the mutant ‘progeny’ phrases were judged according to the criterion of resemblance to a DISTANT IDEAL target . . . Life isn’t like that.”

In real life of course, the criterion for optimisation is not an arbitrarily chosen distant target but SURVIVAL. It’s as simple as that. This is non-arbitrary. See bottom of page 8 to top of page 9. And it’s also a smooth gradient, not a sudden leap from a flat plain in the phase space. Or rather it must be a smooth gradient in all those cases where evolution has actually happened. Maybe there are theoretical optima which cannot be reached because the climb is too precipitous.

The Weasel model, like any model, was supposed to make one point only, not be a complete replica of the real thing. I invented it purely and simply to counter creationists who had naively assumed that the phase space was totally flat except for one vertical peak (what I later represented as the precipitous cliff of Mount Improbable). The Weasel model is good for refuting this point, but it is misleading if it is taken to be a complete model of Darwinism. That is exactly why I put in the bit on page 50.

Perhaps you should look at the work of Spiegelman and others on evolution of RNA molecules in an RNA replicase environment. They have found that, repeatedly, if you ‘seed’ such a solution with an RNA molecule, it will converge on a particular size and form of ‘optimal’ replicator, sometimes called Spiegelman’s minivariant. Maynard Smith gives a good brief account of it in his The Problems of Biology (see Spiegelman in the index). Orgel extended the work, showing that different chemical environments seleclt for different RNA molecules.

The theory is so beautiful, so powerful. Why are you people so wilfully blind to its simple elegance? Why do you hanker after “design” when surely you must see that it doesn’t explain anything? Now THAT’s what I call a regress. You are a fine one to talk about IMPORTING complexity. “Design” is the biggest import one could possibly imagine.

Best wishes
Richard Dawkins

My reply:

Dear Prof. Dawkins:

I’m puzzled why you mention Spiegelman’s replicase experiments. Just what do you think these experiments illustrate? The replicase protein is supplied by the investigator (from a viral genome), as are the activated mononucleotides needed to feed the RNA synthesis. The whole set-up is as artificial as the WEASEL illustration.

But the real problem is the steady attenuation of information in the experiment. As Brian Goodwin points out:

In a classic experiment, Spiegelman in 1967
showed what happens to a molecular replicating
system in a test tube, without any cellular
organization around it. The replicating molecules
(the nucleic acid templates) require an energy
source, building blocks (i.e., nucleotide bases),
and an enzyme to help the polymerization process
that is involved in self-copying of the templates.
Then away it goes, making more copies of the
specific nucleotide sequences that define the
initial templates. But the interesting result was
that these initial templates did not stay the same;
they were not accurately copied. They got
shorter and shorter until they reached the minimal
size compatible with the sequence retaining
self-copying properties. And as they got
shorter, the copying process went faster. So
what happened with natural selection in a
test tube: the shorter templates that copied
themselves faster became more numerous, while
the larger ones were gradually eliminated.

But lest you stop here idling contentedly, Goodwin continues:

This looks like Darwinian evolution in a test
tube. But the interesting result was that this
evolution went one way: toward greater
simplicity. Actual evolution tends to go toward
greater complexity, species becoming more
elaborate in their structure and behavior,
though the process can also go in reverse,
toward simplicity. But DNA on its own can
go nowhere but toward greater simplicity.
In order for the evolution of complexity to
occur, DNA has to be within a cellular
context; the whole system evolves as a
reproducing unit.

(Brian Goodwin, _How the Leopard Changed Its Spots_, 1994, pp. 35-36; by the way, Thomas Ray’s Tierra environment gave a similar result, showing how selection acting on replicators in a computational environment also led to simplicity rather than complexity — the replicators became simpler.)

Given a realistic pre-biotic background, absolutely nothing is going to happen. RNA replicators will not arise, nor will cells. Their molecular constituents have to be instructed about where to go and what to do, just as the computer needs to be supplied with “Methinks,” etc. Thinking that there is some magical way around this is delusory.

Your ace in the hole argument seems to be a tu quoque move: “Well, *you’ve* postulated a designer. You’re the REAL cheaters!” But this is hardly an adequate response to the information problem. Nor is simply positing smooth gradients — of course the gradients must be smooth if Darwinism obtains; but if Darwinism itself is at issue, then the gradients need to be established empirically. Work like Michael Behe’s suggests that the gradients are anything but smooth. Granted, Behe has published in the popular press. But there’s work by design theorists, now starting to appear in the journals, which argues this with full rigor for specific biochemical systems.

Best wishes,
Bill Dembski

30 Replies to “The Dawkins-Dembski Briefwechsel I — “Evolutionary Algorithms”

  1. 1
    EJ Klone says:

    So we know what were the inputs of information in the WEASEL example and the RNA experiments… so therefore, we should be able to figure out what information was inputted by the designer?

  2. 2
    JasonTheGreek says:

    Canyou imagine the horror of the founders of Oxford if they knew about Dawkins?

    Think about it…a man who says childish nonsense like this:

    “Your paper is quite well written, and is not stupid (like the writings of your colleagues)”

    has a position as the “Professor of the Public Understanding of Science”!!

    Of course many have pointed out the irony in this whole situation, but it’s just too weird. I can’t imagine anyone sending a child interested in science to Oxford, I really can’t. I assume the leaders there have no problem with Dawkins childish and often times hate-filled nature?

  3. 3
    Douglas says:

    Richard Dawkins:

    ““Your paper is quite well written, and is not stupid (like the writings of your colleagues)”

    Scientific genius. Courageous evangelist for atheism. English wordsmith not so good.

  4. 4
    mentok says:

    Those experiments (and common sense) have shown that the 2nd law of thermodynamics is a barrier which the evolutionists refuse to recognize whenever they encounter it’s obvious implications and even when they see it for themselves in action. They labor under the self delusion that the 2nd law doesn’t apply to life because it is an inconvenient truth. But as is shown the facts are that without intervention of some sort all naturally occuring (which can be proven to occur by natural laws e.g. snowflakes) complexity reaches a stage where it can develop furthur complexity no furthur and either doesn’t change or deteriorates. The whole evolutionary schema falls apart before it begins if it’s propounders were not so prone to self deception (in the hope and search for a materialistic ontology) concerning the relevance of the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

  5. 5
    GilDodgen says:

    I will give credit to Dawkins for one thing: He is a reasonably competent wordsmith. But he is hopelessly ignorant about mathematics and doesn’t have the faintest idea about the basics of engineering, especially software engineering as it relates to his blind-watchmaker thesis. His “weasel” program example betrays this ignorance in a loud, clear, piercing voice.

    The fact that this man is honored as a spokesman for the public understanding of science is really pathetic.

  6. 6
    jwrennie says:

    “I will give credit to Dawkins for one thing: He is a reasonably competent wordsmith. But he is hopelessly ignorant about mathematics and doesn’t have the faintest idea about the basics of engineering, especially software engineering as it relates to his blind-watchmaker thesis. His “weasel” program example betrays this ignorance in a loud, clear, piercing voice.”

    Gil I don’t think you should be surprised that he is ignorant in these areas. The man is a zoologist after all. Why would you expect him to be able to follow the maths and the engineering involved ?

    I wouldn’t expect any zoologist to be able to do the work of a mathematician or software engineer because they are out of their speciality. I wouldn’t expect a mathematician or software engineer to be an expert zoologist either.

    It is obvious enough that Dawkins is hopelessly out of his depth in the hard sciences and engineering disciplines and seems to be simply unaware of this.

    What is really strange is that there are lots of supposedly smart people on the anti-ID side that are unable to grasp this extraordinarily simply reality. Yet they do because they complain when a mathamatician like Dembski comments on biology and him being supposedly out of his field.

    I guess it is just a criticism of convenience.

  7. 7
    Michaels7 says:

    For a man who is supposed to be the beacon for public understanding of science, he is an utter failure. His insults are childish. He insulted our entire nation. And then he expects to win converts?

    He and those like him are like the Knights who say Ni! Ni, ni, ni! Except in this case, they do not fear “it”, they fear ID.

    And they still demand their shrubbery!

    No…. no you will not get your shrubbery.

    Oh puhhhleaaaaaaase?

    Meyers publishes peer-reviewed by Smithsonian associate… Ni, ni ni!!!!

    Local school board points to a book that discusses and critiques evolution. Ni ni ni!!!

    Beware the killer wabbit, it lurks in a cave, waiting for an attack and unlike King Arthur, you have no Antioch, because in this case, Arthur is on our side and we have the grenade that goes boooom!

    As for those who would admonish Christians as somehow being above it all. They’re not. They merely have a point of view that moderate, tolerance, humility and appeasement is always the answer.

    So much for Tyndale, Wycliffe, Luther and all the other rebels who ignored the government, the Pope and created the great reformation of the ages.

    So much for John the Baptist who rebuked Herod and likewise Jesus himself who rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees who directly represented Caiaphas. So much for turning the tables over and rebuking the money changers – who were approved by the Temple Priest! And who shared in government with Rome!

    But, even that is not all. An office title alone does not bestow Honor upon the office holder except as an initial swearing in. Daily that honor must be earned by the person holding the title. Honor is based upon merit of ones actions while in that office. If he abuses the office, then he brings disgrace upon the office and he is open for criticism roundly in our society.

    If he then parades around outside the office then he is effectively rendering all his public talks as open season for ridicule, especially when he makes bold claims that are not his original thoughts.

    When a Judge goes outside his office and enters into public forums of self-grandeur, puffing himself up, and gobbling bout like a turkey rutting for the hens, then he should not be surprised when the buckshot of sarcasm ruffles his feathers.

    And the prophets were not only distinctly for Israel, they were for gentile as well and still to this day the whole world groans.

    And prophecy did not end with Christ, or maybe Operdeck wants to call the disciples liars, and the gifts of the spirit dead.

  8. 8
    EJ Klone says:

    Those experiments (and common sense) have shown that the 2nd law of thermodynamics is a barrier which the evolutionists refuse to recognize whenever they encounter it’s obvious implications and even when they see it for themselves in action.

    Mentok, so then by discovering what barriers you are dealing with, you can then figure out what was the likely range of information inputted by the designer. I don’t see why there couldn’t be an experiment that determines this.

  9. 9
    IDist says:

    It is not only that Dawkins is ignorant in mathematics and engineering, but logic too.

    “Why do you hanker after “design” when surely you must see that it doesn’t explain anything? Now THAT’s what I call a regress. You are a fine one to talk about IMPORTING complexity. “Design” is the biggest import one could possibly imagine.”

    This is the argument that Dawkins repeats alot, thinking that it destroys the possibility of design.

    The man is “Top Atheist”, he should at least know about philosophy and logic, but he has no idea about them too.

  10. 10
    Robo says:

    You can hear Dawkins interviewed on Radio New Zealand last week here:

    http://www.radionz.co.nz/audio.....rd_dawkins

  11. 11
    antg says:

    1. Regardless of what Richard Dawkins did, I am not so sure it justifies publishing private emails without his consent.

    2. Notwithstanding the one gratuitous smear, it is good to see a bit of civility between intellectual opponents. Does it still happen? Obviously it doesn’t happen on the net…

    3. Anyway it was an interesting snippet. has the argument moved on from there?

    4. Accusations of Richard Dawkins not having computer expertise are wrong. He was an early adopter of comptuters and programmed them extensivesly for his work. I am sure he was as good as anyone at the time.

    5. Happy ‘winterval’ to all!

  12. 12
    jwrennie says:

    “1. Regardless of what Richard Dawkins did, I am not so sure it justifies publishing private emails without his consent.”

    Actually I think publishing the correspondence himself is pretty much giving permission to do likewise. It seems it would be the height of hypocrisy to object to behavior you yourself have indulged in.

  13. 13
    trystero57 says:

    Michaels7:

    “He insulted our entire nation.”

    Did he? This is intruiging! Do you mean the States? Where and when did he do this? I haven’t heard this accusation before.

  14. 14
    mike1962 says:

    The ability to be a weasle is what sets us apart from the animals….(except the weasles.) — Homer Simpson

  15. 15
    mike1962 says:

    antg, “Happy ‘winterval’ to all!”

    And a Happy Festivus to you.

  16. 16
    PaV says:

    I find this quote from Brian Goodwin’s article (quoted above) to be very interesting:
    “But the interesting result was
    that these initial templates did not stay the same;
    they were not accurately copied. They got
    shorter and shorter until they reached the minimal
    size compatible with the sequence retaining
    self-copying properties. And as they got
    shorter, the copying process went faster. So
    what happened with natural selection in a
    test tube: the shorter templates that copied
    themselves faster became more numerous, while
    the larger ones were gradually eliminated.

    This seems to be a clear indication that RNA (or DNA by extension) would completely fall apart without some kind of error correction system–which, indeed, exists in the case of DNA. We seem to be watching–in the absence of a correction system–the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics having at it with the RNA being duplicated. This means that for DNA to exist (i.e., retain its duplicating powers), it needs a correction system in place. But the problem is this: how can you have a correction system without having a system in place already. IOW, the correction system presupposes the existence of a “code”, and the “code” presupposes the existence of a correction system. As Bill rightly argues, Dawkins’ invocation of Spiegelman’s experiment weakens Dawkins’ argument if anything. But Dawkins doesn’t seem to get it.

  17. 17
    tribune7 says:

    5. Happy ‘winterval’ to all!
    Does ‘winterval” include Wintersonnenwende, the late December celebration the Germans tried to establish in the 1930s and early ’40s?

  18. 18
    HodorH says:

    Since Richard Dawkins thinks he has the right to reprint my letters to him by posting them over the Internet (go here), I’ll assume the same privilege applies to me.

    1. Regardless of what Richard Dawkins did, I am not so sure it justifies publishing private emails without his consent.

    If I recall, unsolicited emails are the property of the recipient, so both public airings are legal, assuming Dr. Dembski didn’t request a reply from Dawkins in his original.

  19. 19
    antg says:

    I use winterval purely as a religiously neutral term. Quite appropriate for an ID blog, I think 😉

    (I think its a terrible word by the way)

  20. 20
    Collin says:

    So what is the relationship between information and order? In other words, does the 2nd law of thermo. apply to information or complexity the same as “order.” A physics teacher told me that the 2nd law is not a refutation of evolution, but I think that he was giving us a conclusion without much to back it up.

  21. 21
    Joseph says:

    EJ Klone:
    Mentok, so then by discovering what barriers you are dealing with, you can then figure out what was the likely range of information inputted by the designer. I don’t see why there couldn’t be an experiment that determines this.

    Perhaps we could determine how much information is capable of arising without any intelligent intervention, and go from there.

  22. 22
    mmadigan says:

    Someone who believes that atoms bumping into each other assembles a human brain is operating on Blind Watchmaker Faith.
    Anyone want to buy stock in the Blind Watchmaker Company?

  23. 23
    kvwells says:

    I think this exchange illustrates the problems in interactions between competing paradigms. Dawkins believes NDE is true in the deepest sense of the word (“…so beautiful, so powerful.”). It is a religious quest for such as he to discover how nature overcame seeming impossibilities to create life. For the NDE biologist discovering how is to be pursued with the same rigor and devotion with which the theologian strives to discover who. But, for such as Dawkins, the how can never possibly indicate a who.
    ID says we can determine that a who did it. It will be a great advance, IMO, when ID will strive to discover (as much as is possible) how the who did it.

    After all, what would a programming language written by God look like?

  24. 24
    Robo says:

    “Happy ‘winterval’ to all!”

    It’s summer in New Zealand, though you would hardly know it. Global warming eh!

  25. 25
    russ says:

    trystero57 // Dec 19th 2006 at 7:16 am

    Michaels7:

    “He insulted our entire nation.”

    “Did he? This is intruiging! Do you mean the States? Where and when did he do this? I haven’t heard this accusation before. ”

    Comment by trystero57 — December 19, 2006 @ 7:16 am

    Go here:

    http://richarddawkins.net/foundation,ourMission

  26. 26
    mynym says:

    The theory is so beautiful, so powerful. Why are you people so wilfully blind to its simple elegance?

    It’s ironic that Dawkin’s appeals to beauty and our awareness of it as an objective fact when he is one of those fighting to reduce beauty to nothing, i.e. to blindness. He “wilfully” seizes on any bit of illusion in order to crawl back into the blind darkness of the womb of his Mother Nature, his Blind Watchmaker. Yet now he appeals to beauty, and sight based on the symbols, signs and designs of insight? Elegance? Why must things have a hidden elegance and why should we assume that beauty is evidence? Especially given the fact that the cold toads who would dissect all are quite fond of citing deformity over form, ugliness as the creator of beauty and so on.

    If there is an evidential power to beauty or elegance, it’s not clear how Dawkins can cite it as something objective. He can’t but others who have a reason to ought to. E.g.

    We have noted that the beautiful is first of all a form, and thus “the light does not fall on this form from above and from outside, rather it breaks forth from the form’s interior.” The outer appearance of this invisible unfathomable mystery “reveals it while, naturally, at the same time protecting and veiling it”. In the beautiful there are both hiddenness and manifestation: the hiddenness of the inner organizing agent, the inner form energy, and the outward appearance stemming from it. This it is that “lends the phenomenon of the beautiful its enrapturing and overwhelming character”. The mere animal hears the Mozart concerto and sees the daffodil, but it is neither enraptured nor overwhelmed. It has no intellect to perceive the inner depth, the form.
    In both the forms of nature and those of art the external manifestation and the inner depths are not separable. Rather, “we ‘behold’ the form; but, if we really behold it, it is not as a detached form, rather in its unity with the depths that make their appearance in it. We see form as the splendour, as the glory of Being. We are ‘enraptured’ by our contemplation of these depths and are ‘transported’ to them.” Form is therefore indissoluble. It cannot be cut and studied in pieces.

    (The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet
    by Thomas Dubay :51)

    Why do you hanker after “design” when surely you must see that it doesn’t explain anything?

    Yet why would beauty? Why does he “hanker” for it, even going so far as to cite it as evidence?

  27. 27
    Michaels7 says:

    t57,

    Watch his documentary on religion when he travels across America, he cannot stand “most” Americans for their religious stance.

    He sneers at most Americans because we are a nation that largely believes in Christ. He sneers at our President, at our towns, churches and yes, he talks down about many Americans.

    He has stated, 6 years after Bush and he thinks Americans are ready to “attack religion”.

    That is an insult to me. And I take it as an insult to my country. You don’t have to agree. In the very same answer he writes of Stalin and Pol Pot like they’re anomalies for Atheism. That is simply not true. And then he refocuses back on religion. A 100 million dead at atheist hands is nothing to him in the large scheme of the Dawksonian world.

    Anyone who believes in a Creator to him is stupid and wicked. Would you like that quote as well which I paraphrased? Its on this site.

    If you want to defend his Stalin like goals to eliminate religion, please share.

    Do you? Do you support Dawkins? Do you support his call to eliminate religious freedoms?

    His arrogance towards Americans clearly came across in his documentary.

  28. 28
    Joseph says:

    Why do you hanker after “design” when surely you must see that it doesn’t explain anything?

    Well Richard, as reality demonstrates, it matters a great deal to investigators whether or not what they are investigating arose via intentional/ intelligent design or via nature, operating freely.

    The theory is so beautiful, so powerful. Why are you people so wilfully blind to its simple elegance?

    Because it is scientifically vacant. Or perhaps Richard could tell us what mutations can account fore what physiological and anatomical differences observed between chimps & humans?

  29. 29
    Rude says:

    Listened to Dawkins on Radio New Zealand (http://www.radionz.co.nz/audio.....rd_dawkins) —mentioned by Robo in 10 above—brings home all the more how that Intelligent Design is our last best hope—for science, religion, honesty, government—because nothing can stand up to Dennett’s “universal acid” but ID. The religious intelligentsia cannot argue with Dawkins because he defines faith just as they do and he makes them look pretty silly.

    Dawkins is an absolutist. There is absolutely no evidence nor could there ever be for design. And faith, by definition, is absolutely evidence free. Makes you wonder where the intelligentsia is headed. Are they hardening their hearts out there? Yes indeed the real war is the culture war and ID is on the front lines.

    Oh! speaking of beauty (mynym in 26), ever wonder why baby animals are cute? Is it because of natural selection—because cuteness tends to assure better parental care? Anyway if this is the case, is it over against some objective standard of cuteness? Or is this just another vicious circle? Those that survive tend to be those the parents think are the cutest, and the ones that the parents tend to think are the cutest are those that survive. There is no objective standard of cuteness?!

  30. 30
    mynym says:

    ….ever wonder why baby animals are cute? Is it because of natural selection—because cuteness tends to assure better parental care?

    It seems that answering questions about reason and “why” with natural selection is almost always a way of merging the subjective and the objective. Objectively, it seems that natural selection is only the observation of variations in rates of reproduction and life expectancy among organisms. It’s not a reason for anything and doesn’t predict anything because it is an observation after the fact. Objectively speaking you’re asking a question of it that cannot be answered unless there is a subjective shift in language. Yet people like Dawkins try to make it answer such questions by shifting to the subjective, assuming it or sneaking little subjects in that do make selections beyond the “natural.” I.e. the type of “natural selection” that Darwinists seek to merge in with a philosophy of naturalism or a spiritual monism in which all selection by agents is actually an illusion of matter in motion or the One/Nature. E.g., Darwin kept focusing on organisms “struggling” to survive as if they, as subjects that must be reduced to matter (to be scientific and objective about things!), supposedly had some say in the matter. Darwinists typically assume that organisms have some say in the matter in order to deny that living organisms tend to be creatures of selection.

    Your question assumes the same: “…cuteness tends to assure better parental care?

    Can organisms strive to maintain their form, select for it or select their progeny based on it? If they can select, then what of the vast explanatory powers attributed to natural selection? If organisms select that would tend to make natural selection an illusion as far as why things do what they do or form as they form. Millions upon millions of embryos unfold into the same general forms and types and organisms select a mate based on their form and so on and on and on, yet all the “overwhelming” evidence favorable to the selection of living organisms and so on tends to be denied by those who are more interested in the type of worldview that has been fused to their professional identity as “scientist” than empirical evidence.

    Generally people care more for their professional identity than the truth or true knowledge/scientia. So if a pseudo-Newtonian worldview and Darwinism were prevalent at the same time as the professionalization of science you can expect many a little fellow murmuring over how “scientific” Darwinism is, even if it is an illusion that always traces back to hypothetical goo that can fit any observation. E.g., there are cute animals….well, that must be from natural selection. There are ugly animals…that’s from natural selection too. Etc., only the mentally incompetent are taken in by the illusion that comes with simply merging the subjective and the objective instead of testing one against the other to try to seek and verify forms of knowledge for a time.

    Ironically, if all embryos began to unfold in new ways tomorrow then that would be cited by Darwinists as evidence for Darwinism even though they’ve consistently argued that change must be gradual for the past century. Every change seems to be evidence for Darwinism or “evolution” because its proponents have merged what they argue with a pollution of language such as “evolution” which is itself then merged with every change that takes place in the Cosmos and every change that can take place. Change from what standard or absolute, one might ask…only to find that change itself has now been changed by those with the urge to merge.

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