Intelligent Design

Dennett’s Strange Idea is a Bad Idea for Recognizing Biological Function

Spread the love

Question:

When does adaptationism stop being a useful research strategy and start being a silly exercise?

Allen Orr
Dennett’s Strange Idea

Answer: pretty much all the time.

In Dennett’s book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea Dennett argued:

“[Darwinism] eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.”

But in my earlier blog posting Survival of the Sickest, Why We Need Diseases, I put forward reasons why Darwin’s “revolutionized world-view” perverts and twists reality. This “revolutionized world-view” goes against accepted conventions in medical science and Systems Biology.

In Survival of the Sickest, I listed several “features” which Darwinism sees as “functional” but which medical science sees as disease: sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, hemochromatosis, high cholesterol, early aging, favism, obesity, blindness, winglessness, etc. Sure these diseases “function” to increase reproductive success in certain contexts, but is that how we really want to go about defining function? Hence, I agree with Allen Orr’s essay that Dennett’s “revolutionized world-view” is in reality Dennett’s Strange Idea.

Because Darwinism sees everything in terms of reproductive advantage (aka fitness), it is limited and often misleading in attempts to identify and characterize working biological systems. We have various systems in biology, for example : the digestive system, the immune system, the respiratory system, the visual system, the reproductive system, etc. Did we need Darwinism to elucidate these systems? No. Do we need Darwinist story telling in the growing field of Systems Biology to elucidate future discovery of other biological systems? Probably not.

In practice, how do systems biologists persuade themselves that a system actually exists? Do they have to concoct some evolutionary narrative of how a system will lead to reproductive advantage? No.

So what is the accepted strategy for identifying and describing systems? Andreas Wagner in his book Robustness and Evolvability in Living Systems (Princeton Studies in Complexity) describes how in practice the fitness-based, Darwinist world view is supplanted in favor of a more effective methodology:

However, fitness is hard to define rigorously and even more difficult to measure….An examination of fitness and its robustness alone would thus not yield much insight into the opening questions. Instead, it is necessary to analyze, on all levels of organization, the systems that constitute an organism, and that sustain its life. I define such systems loosely as assemblies of parts that carry out well-defined biological functions.

Andreas Wagner

but Wagner’s definition of “system” sounds hauntingly similar to Michael Behe’s definition of Irreducible Complexity:

A single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function of the system

Wagner is not alone in pointing out the problem of defining and measuring “fitness”. In addition to Wagner, Allen Orr highlights the problems of using fitness to define functional designs.

Dennett is fond of speaking of selection as leading organisms through “Design Space”: Selection “lifts” organisms along “ramps” of good Design. The first is that natural selection cares about Design. In reality, selection “sees” only brute birth, death, and reproduction, and knows nothing of Design. Selection — sheer, cold demographics — is just as happy to lay waste to the kind of Design we associate with engineering as to build it. Consider the eyes of cave organisms who live in total darkness. If eyes are expensive to make, selection can wreck their exquisite engineering just as surely as it built it. An optic nerve with little or no eye is most assuredly not the sort of design one expects on an engineer’s blueprint, but we find it in Gammarus minus. Whether or not this kind of evolution is common, it betrays the fundamental error in thinking of selection as trading in the currency of Design.

Second, hazy imagery of selection lifting organisms along Design ramps makes it hard to see that selection sometimes moves individual traits down ramps. But this surely occurs.

It’s not that we can’t say that such and such a trait is reproductively fit in such and such a context. The problem is we can’t universally relate fitness to function, and Darwinism relies on universally tying fitness to function.

Orr relates the problem by the example of Gammarus minus. In one context the ability to see is “fit” yet in another it is “unfit”. But how can such a fluid, unstable, incoherent definition of fitness be useful for identifying and characterizing function? Answer: it can’t.

In light of this we might ask, if a theory like Darwinism can’t define or measure it’s most fundamental quantity in relation to its major claim (namely evolution of function), should Darwinism be given the status of science, much less hailed as a cornerstone of science? I think not.

So if Darwinism is too incoherent a world view for defining function and identifying systems, what is a better way for identifying functions or systems? The better way is via pattern recognition.

For example, we might find a car in ravine. How do we know it ‘s function? Being in a ravine, the car is clearly not in a context where it can demonstrate its function, but we recognize it is a car and we can recognize its function because we have in our minds templates and patterns for what cars look like. Even if the car is broken, we can still recognize function in its broken parts through pattern recognition.

Likewise we use patterns to recognize copiers, computers, software, operating systems, control systems, transportation systems, communication systems, energy conversion systems, navigation systems, memory systems, sensory systems, etc. But all these systems are found in biology. How do we recognize these systems? Not through the “silly exercise” of adaptationist stories, but through our study and knowledge of patterns in human intelligent activities.

Thus, the study of patterns is superior to Dennett’s Strange Idea when we attempt to identify and characterize systems and function. This idea also accords well with what someone else once said:

Intelligent Design is the study of patterns that signify intelligence.

Bill Dembski

NOTES:

1. Kevin Anderson demonstrated that a large fraction of anti-biotic resistance occurs through loss of function in bacteria. See: Is Bacterial Resistance to Antibiotics an Appropriate Example of Evolutionary Change?. This further adds support to Orr’s claims.

2. Sanford in the book Genetic Entropy relates the problem of selection interference where on favorable trait destroys another favorable trait. For example a stupid but fast individual might be differentially favored over a not-so- fast but intelligent individual. Thus the favorable trait of intelligence is eliminated in a strongly selective environment, when in reality both traits (speed and intelligence) are favorable. This also supports Orr’s claim.

3. In addition to Wagner and Orr, Lewontin describes in more technical detail the problem of defining and measuring fitness as it relates to characterizing systems and functions in Santa Fe Bulletin 2003.

Unfortunately the determination of fitness is a great deal more complicated than is usually supposed. It is easy to say that fitness of a type is its “relative probability of survival and reproduction” but turning that phrase into a coherent measure that can do work in evolutionary explanation is not so easy.

First, it is obvious that the fitness of a type depends on the environment in which the organism lives. But the environment is not independent of the organism. Organisms, by their biology, determine what aspects of the external world are relevant to them and constantly change their environment by their life activities. That means that as a collection of organisms evolves, their environment evolves with them.
….
The problem is that it is not entirely clear what fitness is. Darwin took the metaphorical sense of fitness literally. The natural properties of different types resulted in their differential “fit” into the environment in which they lived. The better the fit to the environment the more likely they were to survive and the greater their rate of reproduction. This differential rate of reproduction would then result in a change of abundance of the different types.

In modern evolutionary theory, however, “fitness” is no longer a characterization of the relation of the organism to the environment that leads to reproductive consequences, but is meant to be a quantitative expression of the differential reproductive schedules themselves. Darwin’s sense of fit has been completely bypassed.

How, then, are we to assign relative fitnesses of types based solely on their properties of reproduction? But if we cannot do that, what does it mean to say that a type with one set of natural properties is more reproductively fit than another? This problem has led some theorists to equate fitness with outcome. If a type increases in a population then it is, by
definition, more fit. But this suffers from two difficulties. First, it does not distinguish random changes in frequencies in finite populations from changes that are a consequence of different biological properties. Finally, it destroys any use of differential fitness as an explanation of change. It simply affirms that types change in frequency. But we already knew that.

Lewontin said: “It is easy to say that fitness of a type is its ‘relative probability of survival and reproduction’ but turning that phrase into a coherent measure that can do work in evolutionary explanation is not so easy.” How about downright impossible, right up there with finding square circles!

4. It should be worth mentioning, there isn’t much selection operating in the wild on most of the genome. This is well known from the works of Nei, Kimura, Jukes, King, Pagels. So Dennett’s strange idea is a moot point since selection isn’t a major force in biology anyway.

5. HT: Bradford at TelicThoughts who inspired this thread: De Facto Intelligent Design in Biology

11 Replies to “Dennett’s Strange Idea is a Bad Idea for Recognizing Biological Function

  1. 1
    scordova says:

    There are some painful readings in adaptationist interpretations of function and behavior.

    Let me start with Darwinists like Larry Moran criticizing fellow Darwinists:
    Evolutionary Psychology

    The majority of evolutionary biologists know full well that pop evolutionary psychology is a farce. For most biologists, it’s an embarrassment.

    Moran criticizes David Buss for arguing that Murder serves function.

    In addition to Buss, others like Thornhill and Palmer argued rape serves reproductive function as well.

    Below is a more technical article that can’t seem to decide if something functions unless they have an adaptationist story to go along with it.

    It was tortorous read of confused logic mixed with real facts:
    MIMICRY AND OTHER CONTROVERSIAL TOPICS IN EAST AFRICAN LEPIDOPTERA

    They define function in terms of evolutionary history. Since the speculated evoulutionary history keeps getting re-written, the function gets re-written as well!

    Why should evolutionary history be that relevant. The functioning of a car’s spark plug is known whether we find the spark plug in a junk yard or in a working car.

    In terms of determining function, the history of an artifact is realtively un-important versus the organization of the parts!

    Evolutionary history might be relevant in helping us decide if we are looking at broken functions. But usually we would likely recognize broken function first and then deduce an evolutionary history afterward.

  2. 2
    above says:

    I believe evo psych is just a waste of effort and money. It provides no utility to society. It’s just adult, cynical myth-making.

  3. 3
    gpuccio says:

    Sal:

    Very interesting post about a fundamental issue.

    I have always been convinced that the absolute supremacy darwinists give to fitness and reproductive advantage is a major cognitive bias. I don’t believe that to be the only or the most important principle which drives evolution.

    The supremacy of fitness is, like many other things, an “a priori” assumption, necessary to “try” to validate the darwinian cusal model, and in particular its necessity algorithm, NS.

    But it is really difficult to consistently affirm that complexity has evolved with the only purpose to confer greater reproductive advantage. I have always wondered why. if that is true, evolution had any real motivation to go beyond that level of prokaryots at all.

    Bactyeria and archea are still, at present, the most numerous class of living beings on our planet, the one which reproduces by far most quickly, where “egoist genes” can survive in perfect tranquility: IOW, an astounding success for life and fitness.

    The point is, complexity is acquired at great prices for fiteness. Complex beings are weaker under many aspects, more subject to errors even at the basic information level, and need even more complex structures to defend their complexity. They are progressively slower in reproduction, up to the amazingly dumb rates of humans. Even in computer programming, we are often sadly aware of how more complex software is often less stable, compared with simpler software of old days.

    So, why do we write more complex software, and then have to support it with greater complex structures to ensure its stability? Well, the answwer is simple: because it can do new things, more things, and do them better.

    In other words, new function is the immediate reward of greater complexity, and not stability alone.

    The same is true, IMO, of evolution of biological complexity. Function is the real, immediate goal. Part of that function is certainly aimed also to ensure fitness, otherwise the project could not be implemented, but it is wrong to affirm that all function can be explained in terms of fitness.

    IOW, biological evolution can be seen as the progressive development of one or more programming plans, whose main goal is to explore and implement new functional spaces, to realize a project centered on life and its potentialities, and whose highest target could well be the appearance of conscious intelligent beings. Fitness is a necessary technical requisite of the project, but not its only explanation.

  4. 4
    scordova says:

    Bactyeria and archea are still, at present, the most numerous class of living beings on our planet, the one which reproduces by far most quickly, where “egoist genes” can survive in perfect tranquility: IOW, an astounding success for life and fitness.

    The point is, complexity is acquired at great prices for fiteness. Complex beings are weaker under many aspects, more subject to errors even at the basic information level, and need even more complex structures to defend their complexity. They are progressively slower in reproduction, up to the amazingly dumb rates of humans. Even in computer programming, we are often sadly aware of how more complex software is often less stable, compared with simpler software of old days.

    Exactly! And what you state leads to a testable hypothesis. We should see a decline in the number of multi-cellular species (like mammals and birds) over time. And this is exactly what we observe in real time. The number of bird species dying in just the last 100 years is horrifying. The number of plant species is dying at an alarming rate. Direct empirical observation shows nature is certainly under no obligation to preserve and build more complex species.

    Darwinists argue that the more complex multi-cellular Eukaryotes filled a niche. But that is just story telling, it is not rooted in rigourous theory and empirical measurement, it was rooted (to quote Orr) in a “silly exercise”.

    Finally, Kevin Anderson, Molem and Orr point out that Natural also Selection destroys function.

    If anything NS selects for the more simple organisms (as you observed) like bacteria, not higher organisms.

    Let me offer a speculation: Natural Selection in general tends to select for simplicity, not complexity, therefore NS cannot do what Darwin claimed, since over time Natural Selection is the enemy of complex evolution! I’d say there is plenty of field and lab observation to back up that claim. It is a testable speculation.

  5. 5
    uoflcard says:

    In light of this we might ask, if a theory like Darwinism can’t define or measure it’s most fundamental quantity in relation to its major claim (namely evolution of function), should Darwinism be given the status of science, much less hailed as a cornerstone of science? I think not.

    But they do have a definition of fitness: What survives? If it is selected, it is fit. This is extrapolated to “It exists because it was advantageous” and finally to the dogmatic conclusion of “It evolved in a Darwinian fashion because it exists”. Sure this is the exact equivalent of the prosecutor in a murder trial accusing John Doe strictly with the following argument: “John Doe killed Jane Doe because Jane Doe is dead”. Eh but who cares about monotonous details. Darwinian evolution of all of biology is a fact because it happened, and it happened because biology exists. Therefore it did it. You are religious if you believe otherwise.

  6. 6
    wagenweg says:

    In the review it says, “He devotes two chapters to defending the view that “Biology is Engineering”

    I think it’s interesting that Dennett uses intelligible concepts such as engineering to explain his perspective. i would like to see him express his thoughts by randomly selecting words from the dictionary and writing them in sequence.

  7. 7
    uoflcard says:

    wagenweg,

    I’ve realized lately that the naturalist position of “law and chance made things that only appear designed (which also are beyond the current understanding, much less design and construction capabilities, of human engineers and scientists)” is strikingly similar to the paradoxical belief of theistic evolutionists. That is, “God created life through a process that appears to be explicable through pure law and chance without any intelligent intervention” (i.e. I designed that patch of sand, which happens to be completely indistinguishable, in any way, from the surrounding thousands of square miles of sand in this desert).

    Neither make much sense, although I will say that at least the naturalist position doesn’t fall flat on its face from the onset, although it seems to be an odd conclusion to reach without evidence. Unfortunately, the more we learn, the less likely it is that law and chance are capable of producing what we find in nature within even the most hopelessly optimistic probabilistic resources, relegating the naturalist position to near equal footing of theistic evolution.

  8. 8
    bornagain77 says:

    Here is a new short video by Dr. Meyer that just came up on ENV laying out exactly what Intelligent Design challenges:

    What is Intelligent Design and What is it Challenging?
    http://www.discovery.org/v/1971

  9. 9
    DATCG says:

    Bravo Sal,

    Now, write a book 🙂 A Survey of Theoretical Positions in Origins and Biology, Genetics and Code. their differences, strengths and weakness moving forward in 21st century science.

    Maybe consider it an educational Primer for what is discussed in public and private. Using current text, publications, and even journalist like the wonderful australian interviews not long ago.

    I think you could give an objective view to all sides.

    Maybe consider a collaborative series with other authors, adding to it, Function and Information, Chaotic Emergence or Prescribed Diversity. Maybe a trilogy of sorts. A history, immediate past, today and the future.

    I know you’ve been hard at hard sciences, but you have a gift for writing, breaking down complex subjects and getting at the core of known problems, uncovering known fallacies and keeping after bluffers. Great science takes great detective work. A winnowing process.

    The desire to know the truth is fundamental to telling what we currently know on both sides. Which in reality is not being told today.

    I’m no one special so my opinion counts for little, but I hope you consider writing. Or, if not, that DI would take up such an Educational Series. I know much of this has been covered, but I think a Programmatic Educational look, w/possible Database web site of hierarchial releationships would be of trememdous help for new and continuing educations. Something that could be rolled out to universities in the future.

    What we thought we knew – Darwinism
    What we truly know – things do change –
    What we can observe changing
    What we are still learning – how they change
    What we can do to objectively detect truth in science going forward – a review of scientific methodology, a “baloney detector” review of sorts(of bad science, propaganda, etc) and examples of good theory, bad theory, hypotheses, inferences, etc., and why observation, testing and repeat testing matters.

    For example, why did Darwinist miss the boat on Vestigial organs and Junk DNA?

    Are the function(s) of Bacteria fundamentally different from those of a Human? A butterfly? A snail? A sponge?

    If we seperate “time” from the equation, what do we see? Function and Order? Or, chaotic emergence?

    Thanks to everyone at UD for doing such a great job and persevering.

  10. 10
    gpuccio says:

    DATCG:

    Are the function(s) of Bacteria fundamentally different from those of a Human? A butterfly? A snail? A sponge?

    Good question. While some certainly are, many are not.

    For instance, let’s consider the fundamental structures for protein translation, t-RNAs and aminoacyl-tRNA synthethases. I quote from:

    Aminoacyl-tRNA Synthetases, the Genetic Code, and the Evolutionary Process

    Carl R. Woese, Gary J. Olsen,Michael Ibba, and Dieter Söll

    Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, March 2000, p. 202-236, Vol. 64, No. 1

    “Individually, the synthetases represent universal, constant, and ancient functions, which are defined mainly by the tRNAsby all accounts among the most ancient and structurally constant of molecules in the cell.”

    So, many complex and fundamental functions are common to all known life, and appeared at OOL.

  11. 11
    scordova says:

    Bravo Sal,

    Now, write a book A Survey of Theoretical Positions in Origins and Biology, Genetics and Code. their differences, strengths and weakness moving forward in 21st century science

    I know you’ve been hard at hard sciences, but you have a gift for writing, breaking down complex subjects and getting at the core of known problems, uncovering known fallacies and keeping after bluffers. Great science takes great detective work. A winnowing process.

    Thank you for the kind words. Actully, as time and money are available, I’d like to create a video series, comic strips, audio dramas with good drama and humor to illustrate concepts.

    UD has been a place to put forward ideas and have them improved and cleaned up. For example, here is an animation I created where the critics of ID unwittingly gave me some good pointers to improve the presentation.

    Nachman’s Paradox Defeats Darwinism

    We can surely imagine a satire of “Survival of the Sickest” to highlight the problems of defining fitness. A Jon Stewart character would be perfect to highlight some of the intellectual fumbles of Darwinism, and there are many!

    Then we can show the superiority of pattern recognition in elucidating function. Like say discovery of a computer never seen before. (Ah, cells are computers!).

    But it takes time and money, but it will be a useful educational tool. We have to bring to life a dull topic in a short time.

    If we only had the time and money, eh?

    The animation (Nachman defeats Dawkins) I created was a first cut. It needs a little explanation, then sound effects for the exploding gingerbread men (screams and explosions), then diploid models, etc. We then have the counterpart of Jon Stewart mocking the “brilliance” of Darwinian theory.

    I thank the critics for showing up at UD and providing (unwitting) constructive criticism to improve the animation and the message it was trying to communicate. What we need now are the resources to bring it about.

    PS
    We ought to have one about junk DNA. Matheson is at it again in “Introns Part II” where he says DNA is longer than it needs to be. How does he know that?

    We need a cave man holding a radio with long complex antenna in one hand instead of a club (like in this comic):

    See:
    http://agsblingblog.files.word....._woman.jpg

    Then we have the caveman complaining: “This club is longer than it needs to be”.

    The problem is that he obviously doesn’t recognize that the antenna serves a different function than a club!

    Such a cartoon would illustrate the sort of reasoning Matheson and company resort to frequently!

    We also need a cartoon of someone pulling out spare tires from a car and then arguing “see the runs without spare tires, even better since there is less weight, therefore the car designer is incompetent” to illustrate some of the other nonsense that biologists have in there head when they report the results of “knockout” experiments. This nonsense exsists partly because of Darwinism!

Leave a Reply