The Plausibility of Life

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[From a colleague:] Marc W. Kirschner and John C. Gerharrt are important players in the evo-devo movement. They have a new popular book that is just out titled The Plausibility of Life (Yale, 2005). It summarizes a good deal of work in their earlier textbook and several important articles. In the new book, the authors go much further here in admitting that life and evolution are indeed implausible on the standard neo-Darwinian interpretation. They call their own position “facilitated [meaning non-random] phenotypic variation” (as opposed to facilitated genetic [neo-Lamarckian] variation, which they deny). They hem and haw to a certain extent, and try to soften the blow to their neo-Darwinist colleagues, but in many places they say that non-random, functionally adaptive variation is required to make sense of life and evolutionary change. They present their work as “completing” the Darwinian revolution. But of course it also shows beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Modern Synthesis is radically incomplete as it stands. Kirschner & Gerhart do not pause to consider how phenotypic adaptability is possible in the first place. And needless to say, they never utter the word “teleology,” and they even expressly disavow ID in a sort of political coda. In short, they are extremely naive philosophically, invoking teleology freely without realizing that that is what they are doing. At a minimum, it demonstrates the state of ferment within evolutionary biology at present.

16 Replies to “The Plausibility of Life

  1. 1
    Barrett1 says:

    It seems that much of this debate is really about how we go about conducting science. Unfortunately, the conflict is being played out in the public schools (as it often is).

    It is true that the modern practice of science denies and even discourages discussion of the role of spirits or ghosts in explaining how the world works. The Intelligent Design group feels this is a mistake for a variety of reason, some of which (I believe) are valid.

    I am not a fan of Intelligent Design as currently set forth by its proponents. However, it should be obvious that the debate itself has traction and will have no satisfying end. As a fan of conservative economist Milton Friedman (“Free to Choose” and “Capitalism and Freedom”), I am wondering if a partial answer to some of the friction surrounding this debate is to abolish the public school system. This is not as radical an idea as may seem on the surface. We are moving toward privatization already with voucher programs.

    It seems this would lower the temperature on this debate, reduce hard feelings, and free up more time and energy of scientists to explore their respective naturalistic or spiritualistic explanations of how the world works. How about it?

  2. 2
    mtgcsharpguy says:

    “The Plausibility of Life”

    More additions to my Amazon.com cart! My head is going to explode!!

  3. 3
    arcturus says:

    Ferment. What a perfect analogy. Particularly in that their “leaven” is hypocrisy, in its own right.It is quite a sight to behold to what great lengths they will go, what incredible contortions of logic and common sense these men will enlist to buttress their non-scientific a priori commitments to materialism.

  4. 4
    Benjii says:

    A christian creationist website e-mailed me this.

    Answer: The Intelligent Design Theory says that “intelligent causes are necessary to explain the complex, information-rich structures of biology and that these causes are empirically detectable.” (William Dembski, Intelligent Design, Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1999, p. 106)

    Certain biological features defy the standard Darwinian “random-chance” explanation. They appear to have been designed. Since design logically necessitates an intelligent designer, the appearance of design is cited as evidence for a Designer. There are three primary arguments in the Intelligent Design Theory: (1) irreducible complexity, (2) specified complexity, and (3) the anthropic principle.

    (1) Irreducible complexity is defined by Michael Behe in his book “Darwin’s Black Box” as “…a single system which is composed of several well-matched interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.” Simply put, life is comprised of intertwined parts that rely on each other in order to be useful. Random mutation may account for the development of a new part, but it cannot account for the concurrent development of multiple parts necessary for a functioning system. For example, the human eye is obviously a very useful system. Without the eyeball (which is itself an irreducibly complex system), the optic nerve, and the visual cortex, a randomly mutated eye would actually be counterproductive to the survival of a species, and would therefore be eliminated through the process of natural selection. An eye is not a useful system unless all its parts are present and functioning properly at the same time.

    (2) Specified complexity is the concept that since specified complex patterns can be found in organisms, that some form of guidance must have accounted for their origination. The specified complexity argument states that it is impossible for complex patterns to be developed through random processes. For example, a room filled with 100 monkeys and 100 typewriters may eventually produce a few words, or maybe even a sentence, but it would never produce a Shakespearean play. And how much more complex is biological life than a Shakespearean play?

    (3) The anthropic principle states that the world and universe are “fine-tuned” to allow for life on earth. If the ratio of elements in the air of the earth was altered slightly, many species would very quickly cease to exist. If the earth were a few miles closer or further away from the sun, many species would cease to exist. The existence and development of life on earth requires so many variables to be perfectly in tune that it would be impossible for all the variables to come into being through random, uncoordinated events.

    While the Intelligent Design Theory doesn’t presume to identify the source of intelligence (whether it be God or UFOs, etc.), the vast majority of Intelligent Design Theorists are Theists. They see the appearance of design which pervades the biological world as evidence for the existence of God. There are however a few Atheists who can’t deny the strong evidence for design, but aren’t willing to acknowledge a Creator God. They tend to interpret the data as evidence that earth was seeded by some sort of master race of extraterrestrial creatures (space aliens).

    The Intelligent Design Theory is not Biblical Creationism. There is an important distinction between the two positions. Biblical Creationists begin with a conclusion: that the Biblical account of creation is reliable and correct; that life on Earth was designed by an Intelligent Agent (God). They then look for evidence from the natural realm to support this conclusion. Intelligent Design Theorists begin with the natural realm and reach their conclusion subsequently: that life on Earth was designed by an Intelligent Agent (whoever that might be).

    Recommended Resource: The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design by William Dembski .

    For more information about Intelligent Design, we also recommend – http://www.allaboutscience.org.....design.htm – and – http://www.allaboutthejourney......design.htm


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  5. 5
    jimbo says:

    I was flipping through this book in the store the other day. While interesting, it seemed to me to be a rehash of some of the arguments put forth in Denton’s “Nature’s Destiny” (minus the heretical teleological thinking, of course) I checked, and sure enough Denton was nowhere to be found in the index…

  6. 6
    Alric says:

    The argument concerning evolutionary cassettes or “evonomes” has been previously discussed. I would not call this line of reasoning as leading to the conclusion that evolutionary theory is “radically incomplete” but could be yet nother refinement of the theory. It certainly does not suggest. even if true, that an intelligent designer is necesary. It could actually explain in part why organisms appear superficially to be “designed” to fit their environments. Certainly evonomes are evident in development when you consider branchial arches, somites and neural tube among others to be developmental organizers that can be co-opted for use in many different body plans.

    Looking for chinks in the armor of evolution is getting old. I keep waiting for the papers describing the Law of Conservation of Information to be published, if you want to move this thing along.

  7. 7
    DaveScot says:

    “Looking for chinks in the armor of evolution is getting old.”

    Sort of like looking for wet in water… 🙂

  8. 8
    DaveScot says:

    Eric Schneider: “I tend to come in charging on a horse.”

    A horse running backwards, maybe… 😉

  9. 9
    DaveScot says:

    Oops – last comment posted in the wrong article. My bad.

  10. 10
    tautologydna says:

    Speaking of chinks in the armor.


    This is an interesting review of a book written by a physicist that is trying to resolve quantum mechanics with general relativity.

    Why is no one claiming the end of quantum mechanics because it can’t explain general relativity ? And vice versa ?

  11. 11
    tautologydna says:

    I’m totally confused by this comment. Kirschner is pointing out things that we still don’t know about evolution. There are many mysteries (the evolution of sex, for example). How this represents support for tossing the whole pursuit off the boat is completely unclear to me. Are you saying Kirschner should just give up his effort ? That’s total scientific cowardice ! If people dropped everything at the first sight of a challenge, where would we be today ?

  12. 12
    DaveScot says:

    “Why is no one claiming the end of quantum mechanics because it can’t explain general relativity ? And vice versa ?”

    Because both theories make predictions to 10 decimal places that have been repeated many times in both experiment and observation.

    Why would you even need to ask such a stupid question?

  13. 13
    PjB says:

    “Because both theories make predictions to 10 decimal places that have been repeated many times in both experiment and observation.”

    That’s the real issue isn’t it? Even naturalists have problems with the neo-Synth (e.g., the book under discussion). Darwinism doesn’t have the kind of experimental verification that physics (even as incomplete as it is) has. It seems that if Darwinists could demonstrate their theory as more than “natural history”, it would not be in the condition it is in today. Well, maybe it would be, but at least real scientists are more tentative in their scientific claims.

  14. 14
    DaveScot says:


    Yup. Evolutionary biologists are historians, they’ve constructed an elaborate narrative of biological history, and are trying to peddle it today as experimentally demonstrated fact. It fact it’s really a narrative that doesn’t align with the indisputable testimony of the fossil record nor with modern genetics, biochemistry, or the general study of living tissue. Every day it fails more. It began with Darwin as a real scientific hypothesis but as its assumptions and predictions failed, instead of being abandoned, it was propped up by a series of increasingly incredible and unlikely ad hoc modifications. Today it’s a huge mess of conflicting data and contradictory narratives. I’m reminded of the old saw – “Oh what a tangled web we weave…”

    In the meantime, Paley’s watchmaker argument gains nothing but support as new and greater (unexplainable by chance) complexity is discovered in the machinery of life. The battle in science and reason is over. ID won. The only remaining battle is political and it won’t be long before that is won too. As soon as the ACLU, who 80 years ago sued so that both viewpoints could be taught, is defeated in their anti-American wrong-headed modern effort to sue to censor one viewpoint, the neodarwinian narrative can finally be put to rest and the search for truth continued.

  15. 15
    Lurker says:

    “Oh what a tangled web we weave…”

    That instantly reminded me of the “Tangled Bank”, that PZ Myers promotes via Panda’s Thumb. I haven’t read it, but the Tangled Bank might also be a huge mess of conflicting data and contradictory narratives.

  16. 16
    DaveScot says:

    I actually have quite a bit of respect for PZ Myers as a scientist. He’s one of the few on Panda’s Thumb writing about real work in biology and making it interesting. Tara Smith is another rare exception although she’s not as good at making it interesting. It’s too bad they insist on wearing their anti-religious zealotry on their sleeves (especially Myers) but at least they’re actually doing real work in the field as opposed to buffoons like Ed Brayton, Nick Matzke, Wesley Elsberry, Mark Perakh, Reed Cartright, and the rest of the Panda Circus Blowhards who are just incompetents with anti-religion chips on their stupid stooped shoulders.

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