Intelligent Design Irreducible Complexity Naturalism

Minnich and the Materialism

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Denyse recently linked to a presentation by Scott Minnich regarding the bacterial flagellum.  Minnich is probably among the dozen or so leading experts in the world on the bacterial flagellum.  Much of the information in his presentation will be familiar to followers of the issues, but a few points bear further examination.

First a couple of bench-science items that jumped out at me:

Minnich and his team discovered that DNA has a regulatory function in the form of a temperature switch.  Let me be clear, it is not that DNA codes for some molecular machine that is a temperature switch.  The DNA itself is the switch.  In simple terms, the coding portion that codes for a particular protein is bounded by stretches of DNA that are arranged in such a way that they do not permit transcription.  However, when the temperature reaches 37 degrees, those DNA stretches change their configuration and permit the coding section to be transcribed and the protein to be produced within the cell.

Despite the empirical evidence Minnich and his team presented for this mechanism, it was initially dismissed by the healthcare community because it didn’t line up with the normal dogma: namely, that DNA just codes for stuff, the old “DNA makes RNA”.  The evidence has now accumulated to the point of vindicating Minnich’s early research and a greater understanding of one of the controls for bacterial activity is now more widely accepted, thanks to Minnich’s failure to bow to the traditional evolutionary dogma and thanks to his persistence in the face of institutional and intellectual inertia.

How many times have we seen this before?  Science professionals refusing to consider evidence that contradicts their current dogma.  In his presentation Minnich also mentioned in passing that evolutionary theory is essentially useless to the work he is doing.  “We are doing reverse engineering,” he notes.

Second, Minnich discussed the many proteins involved in constructing and operating the bacterial flagellum and noted that essentially all of the proteins have been discovered through knockout experiments.  This, in and of itself, isn’t particularly surprising.  But, he pointed out, this is precisely what Mike Behe was referring to in the first place, namely that an irreducibly complex system requires particular parts to operate and that the system breaks down without them.

Without getting into an angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin debate about the definition of “irreducible complexity,” it is valuable to remember this key point: knockout experiments are both based upon, and confirm, the irreducible complexity of biological systems.  One can still fantasize about various hypothetical indirect pathways to such a system, but that it has an irreducibly complex core, in the here and now, is an established fact of bench science.

Now, to the main item that really jumped out at me.

Holding Out for a Materialistic Explanation

After discussing the bench science behind the bacterial flagellum and the irreducible complexity of the current system, he argued that the bacterial flagellum was a problem for the Darwinian paradigm and that the Darwinian explanation of mutations and selection was a poor explanation.  After the lecture he took questions from the floor.  One of the questions asked by a student was essentially as follows:

“Even though Darwinism doesn’t explain something like the bacterial flagellum, shouldn’t we keep looking for a materialistic explanation, rather than jumping to a conclusion of design just because we don’t have a materialistic explanation?”

At this point I actually sat up in my chair and exclaimed out loud to my computer monitor: “C’mon Scott!”  This was a great opportunity to hit it out of the park.

Minnich offered a soft answer, acknowledging the student’s right to be conservative and withhold judgment, and then the questions moved on.

What he should have said, is something like what follows.

Now, first let me say that I have taught enough classes, given enough discourses, and presented enough lectures to know that one rarely gives an optimal answer in the heat of the moment.  Rarely have I come out of a class or a lecture without wishing I had explained something better, answered a question with more clarity, or had a quicker wit and a more persuasive response to an inquiry.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing.  So in offering the following, I am in no way impugning Minnich for his presentation, the substance of his lecture, his skill as a presenter or otherwise.  He did a wonderful job.

So with the benefit of ample opportunity to think through the issues, enough time to articulate a response, and the exceedingly helpful benefit of hindsight, let me offer the following as a response to the question.

Again, just for convenience, here is the essential substance of the question:

“Even though Darwinism doesn’t explain something like the bacterial flagellum, shouldn’t we keep looking for a materialistic explanation, rather than jumping to a conclusion of design just because we don’t have a materialistic explanation?”

There is a good scientific answer to this question, the one that I thought Minnich might offer.  Yet there are also important philosophical issues raised by the question itself, and the question is problematic in a couple of its assumptions.  Let’s start with the philosophical issues.

The Philosophical Issues

Problem #1: Materialism is Preferable

The student’s question assumes that a materialistic explanation is preferable, before even looking at the evidence.  If we have competing explanations, we should weigh them, see which one explains the evidence better, which one is more consistent with our understanding of how the world works, and then we choose the better explanation.  That is how we search for truth.  We don’t just assume that a materialist explanation has some inherent value or is inherently preferable over a non-materialistic explanation.

But what about the great success of materialist explanations in accounting for natural phenomena?  Sure.  But why were those explanations accepted in particular cases?  Because they explained the evidence better than other competing explanations and because they were more consistent with our understanding of how the world works.  Not because they were materialistic.  Furthermore, the “success” of materialist explanations for things in biology like the bacterial flagellum has not been great.  It has been terrible.  As in non-existent.  We don’t need to defer to materialistic explanations in this arena just because they have been good at explaining other natural phenomena.  Such an approach commits a category mistake.

So the focus needs to be on weighing and examining the competing explanations, just as Darwin said in The Origin.

Some people, unfortunately, who recognize the lack of a good materialist explanation will say, “Well, we should reserve judgment about inferring which explanation is better, because we might find a materialist explanation.”  In other words, they are really saying that even though there is not a good materialist explanation, they are going to withhold judgment about which explanation is preferable.  And they are going to withhold judgment until a materialist explanation is found, at which point they will choose the materialistic explanation.

That isn’t science.  That isn’t an objective search for truth.  That is philosophy.  It essentially says, I will only accept a materialistic explanation, even though there isn’t a good materialistic explanation, and even though there is a competing non-materialistic explanation that is preferable to any materialistic explanation we currently have.*

Problem #2: Distinction between function and origin

We are all seeking a natural explanation, in the sense that we expect to find, within the organism, systems and DNA and structures and switches and feedbacks that, within the parameters of physics and chemistry, will explain how the organism functions on an ongoing basis, how the flagellum, for example, operates.

We do not expect that there is no natural explanation — that God or the angels or the demiurge of ancient philosophy are personally intervening to cause the flagellum to spin . . . constant intervention, on trillions of flagella, all around the world.  No.  We expect to find a way to explain the flagellum, based on what we see in nature and what we find in the organism.**

Let me state this again, because it is important: We expect to find a natural explanation, and to be able to successfully reverse engineer the flagellum, and to understand which molecules are involved and what they do.  We hope to be able, eventually, to write a complete engineering-level set of specifications for the bacterial flagellum, specifications that could be used to create our own bacterial flagellum using nanotechnology.  All without even mentioning God or deity or anything beyond what is “natural.”

So there is no question that when looking at how the flagellum functions, how it works, how the principles behind it can be utilized for future engineering, there is no question that we are looking for a natural explanation – natural in the sense of something that can be understood, documented, analyzed, and repeated.

However, something functioning within the parameters of natural laws and processes and something being the product of purely natural and material forces are two very different things.  In that sense, we have to distinguish between finding a natural explanation for how something currently works and assuming a naturalistic or materialistic explanation for its origin.***  Conflating the two is a serious logical error.

The materialistic claim goes beyond the science.  It claims that not only does the flagellum operate in a natural way within the parameters of physics and chemistry, but that the flagellum came about through purely natural and material processes.  That is a very different claim.  That is a claim that goes beyond the bench science and the reverse engineering.  That is a claim that is contrary to the evidence and what we know about how the world works.

The Scientific Explanation

This brings us to the scientific explanation for the design inference, the scientific explanation Minnich could have offered the student if he had had more time.

We aren’t concluding design just because Darwinism doesn’t have a good explanation.  Yes, that is part of it.  Any time we have competing explanations we need to weigh them.  So, yes, we do weigh the Darwinian explanation as part of our analysis and when we find it completely lacking in substance we reject it.  But that isn’t why we accept design.  Someone could, and many do, reject the Darwinian explanation without inferring design.  Indeed, the questioner seemed to do so.

(Let me add in passing that the negative case isn’t a negative case against Darwinism alone.  There is a strong negative case against a materialistic explanation generally.  Law-like processes are anathema to what we need to produce in biology.  And random processes also cut against what we need in biology, in addition to not having the available resources.  So we aren’t just rejecting Darwinism as a poor explanation, we have good reason to reject materialism generally, including the various self-organization theories.)

Yet in addition to the negative case against the competing Darwinian and materialist explanations, there is a positive case for intelligent design.  When examining a possible explanation we look at the evidence we do have and what we do know about how the world works.  What we are dealing with in something like the bacterial flagellum is a highly-complex, functionally-integrated, information-rich system.  Based on our uniform and repeated experience, across billions of known examples, every time we see this kind of system it has arisen from an intelligent agent, from a mind.

So, no, dear student.  In the case of something like the bacterial flagellum, we aren’t just going to naively hold out for a materialist explanation with the false pretense that we are being “objective”.  When the numerous materialist explanations have completely failed and when, based on the best science and evidence we do have, design is the more likely explanation, we are fully justified in drawing a reasonable inference to design.  Any demand to hold out for a materialistic explanation in the face of such evidence is really more about a philosophical stance than about an objective search for the truth.

—–


*   We can agree that the non-materialistic explanation is tentative, like all things in science.  But, once we examine in detail the evidence in a case like the bacterial flagellum, we need to be clear that it is tentative in the sense that our appreciation of physics is tentative, that our understanding of chemistry is tentative.  This isn’t some wild unsupported guess.  It is a thoughtful inference based on extensive experience and careful analysis.

**   Design theorists absolutely include natural laws and principles in their explanatory toolkit and look to them whenever possible.  One of the rhetorical cultural myths regularly put forward by materialists is that people who are open to any kind of non-materialist explanation will “abandon science” and stop looking for natural explanations.  That is nonsense, as demonstrated historically and currently.  A design theorist certainly isn’t going to invoke design to explain things that can be readily explained by purely natural laws and principles.

Furthermore, beyond the objective scientific approach of design theory, even religious people who believe in miracles expect things to generally operate according to natural laws and would look for that kind of explanation in doing science.  Ironically, in contrast to the materialist’s rhetorical talking-point, the very concept of miracles assumes that nearly all the time things do work according to natural laws and principles.

***   For the most part, science can proceed quite nicely without an origins story.  Bench science, applied science, and reverse engineering do not depend on origins.  They are concerned with what is, with how it works.

45 Replies to “Minnich and the Materialism

  1. 1
    rvb8 says:

    [EA: Note for readers:

    rvb8 has posted the below comment, apparently without any awareness of Minnich’s work or expertise in the field. rvb8 has utterly failed to engage in the issues raised in the OP, and has instead used his ability to post here solely to cast aspersions on an excellent and dedicated researcher who has been instrumental in advancing our understanding of the biological system in question.

    I am willing to put up with significant mud slinging in my direction, but will not tolerate this kind of mud slinging and lies directed toward someone like Minnich, who is a quiet, humble, and skilled researcher.

    rvb8, this is your only and final warning on this thread. Further comments of this kind will be deleted.]

    —–

    “Much of the material in his presentation will be familiar to followers of the issues….”

    Correct! It is ‘familiar’. Never alters, advances, or comes up with new avenues of research.

    It’s really complicated, therefore designed; yawn!

    “probabbly among the dozen or so leading experts in the world on the bacterium flagellum….” Huh???

    I know it’s important, but there are a ‘dozen’ scientists working solely on the flagellum?

    If so, the other eleven are looking into evolutionary pathways to its present state. What’s Minnich’s research involve?

    Does he stare through a microscope, make a gob smacked statement like, ‘oooh that’s complicated’, clap his hands to his face, sit down and say, ‘isn’t the designer marvellous, blessed be He.’?

  2. 2
    Origenes says:

    Eric Anderson,

    Very well argued article. One issue that I would like to see clarified is “materialist explanations.” What are they?
    In my view, in order for materialist explanations to be coherent there must be a bottom-up explanation for the laws of physics. And as I have argued elsewhere, there is no such thing. The materialist has no idea how the laws came into existence, how or where they exist and how they operate.

    There has long been a tacit assumption that the laws of physics were somehow imprinted on the universe at the outset, and have remained immutable thereafter…
    Where, then, do these laws exist? Perhaps they occupy some abstract Platonic mathematical realm…
    The origin and form of those laws remain unexplained. One just has to accept them as “given.”
    [Paul Davies]

    Considering this tremendous failure of materialism, one must conclude that what is offered as “materialist explanations” are, in fact, not materialist explanations at all.

    But perhaps this is a discussion for another day.

  3. 3
    rvb8 says:

    EA,

    “knock out experiments are both based upon, and confirm, the irreducible complexity of biological systems.”

    Says who? You?

    You, making a new catch phrase, ‘knockout experiments’, defining it, and using it as proof of something, is by definition pure invention.

    I have read enough court transcripts to know that the flagellum, immune system, blood clotting, and innumerable other examples of your ‘irreducible complexity’, are very well understood. And as evidence mounts clear evolutionary pathways are explained. I only have to mouse click to get the rudimentary facts; where do you do your evidence hunting?

    Answer me this; If your claim is correct, and this is indeed irreducibly complex, what is the ID researcher’s next move? Giveup, and have an early night? Move on to the next irreducibly complex system they know they will fail to explain?

    Where is the curiosity in a researcher who knows in advance that they will fail to explain a system? Why bother in thefirst place?

  4. 4
    LocalMinimum says:

    rvb8:

    You, making a new catch phrase, ‘knockout experiments’, defining it, and using it as proof of something, is by definition pure invention.

    I can Google ‘knockout experiments’ and get immediate relevant results, with Wikipedia at the front with everything you need to know. I could also relate it to trial and error within slicing which is software reverse engineering technique. I’m sure there are plenty more analogies in other fields of engineering and research, too.

    A little typing in the search field would save you a lot of typing in the comment field.

  5. 5
    rvb8 says:

    LocalM,

    Wiki tells me, ‘knockout experiments’ has no entry and I can ask for it to be created.

    ‘analogies in other fields of engineering’; why is engineering, and software design, the go to analogy for the biological sciences at UD?

    The number of times biologists have to refute this false analogy is amazing.

    From Paleys watch to the supposed designed motor that is the flagellum, people here look for and find design in Nature; biologists don’t.

    It has been pointed out many times that the jury-rigged features found in nature point to poor design at best, no design in actuality.

    We are evolved to see patterns, and are attracted to beauty, and repulsed by ugliness. One day I hope an IDist will say look at the marvellous design of the tapeworm, or mosquito, gum maggots, etc.

  6. 6
    hgp says:

    rvb8 @5:

    Wiki tells me, ‘knockout experiments’ has no entry and I can ask for it to be created.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gene_knockout

    Took me about 5 seconds to find.

  7. 7
    rvb8 says:

    An apology to LocalM,

    I simply typed ‘knockout experiment’. I have realised my very silly mistake.

    The article on ‘gene knockout’ experiments is quite clear.

    I apologise.

  8. 8
    Bob O'H says:

    Without getting into an angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin debate about the definition of “irreducible complexity,” it is valuable to remember this key point: knockout experiments are both based upon, and confirm, the irreducible complexity of biological systems.

    No they’re not, and no they don’t, as anyone who has played Jenga (or similar games) can attest.

  9. 9
    kairosfocus says:

    BO’H: Nope — and on SM, cf here. KF

    PS: Note SM’s specific testimony on his experiments with flagellar proteins:

    “One mutation, one part knock out, it can’t swim. Put that single gene back in we restore motility. Same thing over here. We put, knock out one part, put a good copy of the gene back in, and they can swim. By definition the system is irreducibly complex. We’ve done that with all 35 components of the flagellum, and we get the same effect.” [Dover Trial, Day 20 PM Testimony, pp. 107-108.]

  10. 10
    LocalMinimum says:

    rvb8:

    It’s not a worry for me. I offer very little, and I know better than to get offended. I think you owe Minnich, though.

  11. 11
    Eric Anderson says:

    Bob O’H @8:

    I don’t understand your comment. What is the relevance of Jenga? Are you suggesting that knockout experiments are not geared toward uncovering the underlying function of the knocked out gene or sequence?

  12. 12
    Eric Anderson says:

    LocalMinimum @10:

    He owes me one too. 🙂

    Waiting patiently . . .

  13. 13
    Eric Anderson says:

    Origenes @2:

    Good point. It is indeed incredibly difficult to pin down any well-described material mechanism. Even setting aside for a moment the issues you raised with the ultimate source of material reality, when we take that reality as a given, the material mechanisms within our universe don’t seem particularly helpful.

    The alleged Darwinian mechanism of chance + natural selection, for example, really just collapses to chance, upon closer inspection. That said, I’m not sure I’m ready to completely abandon the concept of natural selection — I’m getting close, but I’m still trying to think of some cases in which it might actually be meaningful.

    On the other side of the coin, non-chance material mechanisms would presumably just be law-like processes. These are real processes. They do exist. Maybe we could even call them “mechanisms” in some broad sense. However, law-like processes are useless for explaining the key features of biological organisms and are specifically anathema to producing the central feature: information.

  14. 14
    Origenes says:

    Eric Anderson @13

    … I’m not sure I’m ready to completely abandon the concept of natural selection — I’m getting close, but I’m still trying to think of some cases in which it might actually be meaningful.

    The only way selection can be meaningful is that it can focus a search in a certain direction — meanwhile abandoning search in other directions. The underlying assumption is that functional innovations are to be found in all directions.

  15. 15
    rvb8 says:

    I offer Scott Minnich, and EA,

    an apology. If they accept it or not is up to them.

    I completely got the meaning of, ‘knockout experiment’ wrong. I actually took it for meaning literally, a ‘knockout’, (destroy the oppositions) argument, experiment. Not its real meaning of removing, excluding, taking out genes.

    I did not read the article fully, and made a mistake in meaning; I apologise; sorry.

  16. 16
    LocalMinimum says:

    rvb8:

    My brain has a liquid core (figuratively), so I can fully empathize with that.

  17. 17
    Bob O'H says:

    Eric @ 11 – in Jenga you build a tower, and then find that if you take out one part, the whole thing falls down. That does not mean that the tower cannot have been built. Similarly with knockout experiments, they show that one protein (or other product from the DNA) is necessary, but doesn’t show how the whole process came about.

  18. 18
    Origenes says:

    Bob O’H: … in Jenga you build a tower, and then find that if you take out one part, the whole thing falls down.

    That can only be true for lower parts, partly true for middle-parts and is certainly not true for top-parts of the tower.

  19. 19
    Bob O'H says:

    Origenes – you’ve clearly never seen me play Jenga. 🙂

    You’re right, of course, but the point remains that just because taking out one piece of the puzzle makes the whole thing fall down doesn’t mean that it wasn’t built up piece by piece.

  20. 20
    Origenes says:

    Bob O’H: … the point remains that just because taking out one piece of the puzzle makes the whole thing fall down doesn’t mean that it wasn’t built up piece by piece.

    You are arguing a strawman. The argument is neither that there is one essential part to the system nor that there are multiple essential parts. The claim is that each and every part is essential for the system to function.
    This is obviously not true for the top-parts of your Jenga tower, so this comparison fails.

  21. 21
    groovamos says:

    RVB One day I hope an IDist will say look at the marvellous design of the tapeworm, or mosquito, gum maggots, etc.

    Oh really now, an appeal to aesthetics from meat puppet dude who thinks aesthetics really don’t exist, only chemicals in the human brain could give the illusion of aesthetics to the meat puppets. So all he (if a meat puppet can be called a ‘he’ nowadays) has to do now is point us to the research all about how aesthetics are generated by action potentials, neurotransmitters, sodium pumps and such, as triggered by sensations of mosquitoes, maggots and such and cannot really otherwise objectively exist as something independent that we are deluded into perceiving as ‘aesthetics’. This research will show how meat puppets and meat robots have no choice but to respond to the action potentials conducted along the nerves from the senses that cause the illusion of aesthetics, and such illusion of the memories of illusion to aesthetics actually applied by meat puppet philosopher RVB experiencing the illusion of alarm at his (if one can say ‘his’ nowadays) philosophical straitjacket being ripped up by meat puppets on here.

  22. 22
    Eric Anderson says:

    rvb8: apology accepted, thanks.

  23. 23
    Eric Anderson says:

    KF @9:

    Thanks. Good citations.

    Incidentally, I was leafing through the June 2 Science issue last night and noticed an article on knockout experiments that are being used to try to elucidate the function of some ultra-conserved elements. Specifically, they are trying to tease out the function in the face of what appears to be redundant systems — a particularly challenging task.

    On the one hand, the researchers are being quite ingenious in their attempts to figure out which ultra-conserved elements do what. On the other hand, it is hard to avoid the observation that our efforts are still pretty primitive at this point — just attempting to break things and then inferring what role something might have in the organism.

  24. 24
    Eric Anderson says:

    Origenes @14:

    The only way selection can be meaningful is that it can focus a search in a certain direction — meanwhile abandoning search in other directions. The underlying assumption is that functional innovations are to be found in all directions.

    I agree that if there were an underlying mechanism with some directionality, then there could be some meaning. Nothing of this sort is going to be discovered, in my estimation. Thus, the only way to impart directionality to the concept is to fall back to a naked assertion of fitness, which becomes tautological and useless.

    So I don’t think there is any chance of rescuing the concept in terms of natural selection actually being the creative force it is often personified as being in evolutionary theory. It’s not a force. It doesn’t do anything. It imparts no influence or directionality to biology.

    When I say I’m not quite ready to abandon the concept, I’m thinking of a potential utility that is more modest. Namely, is there any way the term “natural selection” can serve as a useful shorthand label to describe a general principle or a general process in nature?

    It seems there are a few legitimate situations in which it might be meaningful. Unfortunately, they are few and far between and in most cases the invocation of natural selection to explain something is just a confession of ignorance. Worse, it gives the false impression that an answer is at hand, when it isn’t. In that sense if often functions as a kind of anti-knowledge.

  25. 25
    Eric Anderson says:

    Bob O’H:

    I understand the point you are making. Yes, in theory, there could be some hypothetical pathway.

    As I said in the OP, “One can still fantasize about various hypothetical indirect pathways to such a system, but that it has an irreducibly complex core, in the here and now, is an established fact of bench science.”

    We could have a nuanced, perhaps even interesting, discussion about the precise definition of “irreducible complexity.” I have written much on this topic myself in the past.

    However, we need not delve into that right now. My subsidiary point in the OP regarding irreducible complexity, and the reason I gave the caveats I did, is that there is an observed irreducible core required for a particular function. That is a simple fact of bench science and is what the knockout experiments focus on.

    I agree with you that this does not, in and of itself, mean that the system could not have been built through some indirect Darwinian or other chance-based evolutionary process. But it does help us understand what is minimally required for a particular function to exist and allows us to recognize the awful probabilities that preclude a direct Darwinian pathway.

    One can, of course, make up various hypothetical scenarios about how such-and-such a system could have been built up through an indirect series of intermediate functions until arriving at the now-observed function with all its necessary parts. Such hypotheticals are a dime a dozen.

    If in the future someone manages to put forward an indirect scenario in some reasonable detail (as opposed to a hand-waving just-so story), then we could take it seriously and could start to analyze whether such a pathway has a reasonable chance of actually occurring in the real world.

  26. 26
    gpuccio says:

    Bob O’H:

    The point is simple enough: if each of the genes is essential to the function as we observe it (as shown by the knockout experiments), then the function as we can observe it is irreducibly complex, because it needs all the genes to be observed.

    What does that mean? Simply that the function as we observe it could have been favored by NS only when all the genes were already present. IOWs, the functional complexity of the whole function as we observe it is much higher than the functional complexity of each gene, and no gene which is at present part of that system could ever have been naturally selected individually for that function as we observe it.

    Of course, you are free to imagine that other, simpler functions we selected in the middle of the process, for one or more genes. You are free to imagine anything you like.

    But the point is, the function we know is the function we observe. On that we can reason objectively. Any imagined intermediate function, or intermediate system, or intermediate functional state of any of the individual genes, necessary to invoke NS, remains only the fruit of your, or anyone else’s, imagination, or wishful thinking, unless and until some real and observable model or evidence of that deconstruction is provided.

    So, the function as we observe it is a fact. An observable.

    The result of knockout experiments, which demonstrates that each single gene is essential for the function as we observe it, is another fact.

    Those facts tell us that the function that we observe is irreducibly complex.

    If you want to argue about that, please bring your facts and your reasonable theories about them.

  27. 27
    Origenes says:

    Eric Anderson @24

    I agree that if there were an underlying mechanism with some directionality, then there could be some meaning. Nothing of this sort is going to be discovered, in my estimation.

    Few things are more variable than the climate, certainly in the context of evolution over eons of time. Even the Artic and the Antarctic were not cold places 40 – 50 million years ago. Not much directionality there.

    Thus, the only way to impart directionality to the concept is to fall back to a naked assertion of fitness, which becomes tautological and useless.

    I agree.

    So I don’t think there is any chance of rescuing the concept in terms of natural selection actually being the creative force it is often personified as being in evolutionary theory. It’s not a force. It doesn’t do anything. It imparts no influence or directionality to biology.

    What it does is reduce variation — which is a hindrance to evolution as a search.

    When I say I’m not quite ready to abandon the concept, I’m thinking of a potential utility that is more modest. Namely, is there any way the term “natural selection” can serve as a useful shorthand label to describe a general principle or a general process in nature?

    It explains ONLY the absence of certain animals. A severe winter explains the absence (elimination) of not-woolly sheep. To say that selection explains the woolly sheep is nonsense. The opposite is true: the woolly sheep are untouched (unhindered) by elimination (a.k.a. ‘selection’). They are the ones who got away. These woolly sheep — like all existent organisms — are those organisms on which “natural selection” has precisely no bearing whatsoever. They are the undiluted products of chance.

    It seems there are a few legitimate situations in which it might be meaningful. Unfortunately, they are few and far between and in most cases the invocation of natural selection to explain something is just a confession of ignorance. Worse, it gives the false impression that an answer is at hand, when it isn’t. In that sense if often functions as a kind of anti-knowledge.

    Maybe you can put up an OP on natural selection one day.

  28. 28
    Origenes says:

    //follow-up #27//

    I’m still looking for an apt metaphor for natural selection — not quite satisfied with ‘fitness landscape.’ Perhaps ‘a maze with shifting panels’ comes pretty close. We have all these organisms produced by sheer dumb luck and next they find themselves in a maze with shifting panels. Many organisms find themselves captured by the maze and subsequently squashed. Sometimes a panel moves out of the way temporarily allowing a forward movement; and so forth.
    Question is: in what way does such a maze help when you want to get from bacterium to man?

  29. 29
    Eric Anderson says:

    Origenes:

    Interesting idea of a maze with shifting panels. I’ll think about that a bit more.

    It might be a metaphor for the underlying randomness of the physical process, but “natural selection” is just a label. (Part of the problem in discussions is that people tend to refer to natural selection as though it were an actual force or an actual process. It is very hard in discussions to keep from doing that; I struggle with it myself if I’m not careful, and I am extremely critical of the idea and attuned to the problems.)

    Maybe we could say that natural selection is the label we use to refer to what is essentially an underlying crapshoot, one that is generally unspecified and unknown — your maze with randomly shifting panels? I like that.

    Question is: in what way does such a maze help when you want to get from bacterium to man?

    Exactly. And it also helps to underscore that the whole random variation + selection “mechanism” just collapses back to random chance.

    —–

    Yet there is still one point of unease I have in completely dismissing the idea of natural selection. Specifically, within a given environment or within given parameters we can see that this essentially random process does result in some change.

    Even if it is as trivial as a change in the ratio of light-dark moths, or as small as the kinds of changes Behe noted in his research on malaria. Particularly in the latter, there were real events that took place, an actual process that could be viewed over time. Yes, it is not particularly impressive. Yes, it underscores the anemic nature of the evolutionary process. But it is something.

  30. 30
    Eric Anderson says:

    It explains ONLY the absence of certain animals. A severe winter explains the absence (elimination) of not-woolly sheep. To say that selection explains the woolly sheep is nonsense. The opposite is true: the woolly sheep are untouched (unhindered) by elimination (a.k.a. ‘selection’). They are the ones who got away. These woolly sheep — like all existent organisms — are those organisms on which “natural selection” has precisely no bearing whatsoever. They are the undiluted products of chance.

    Also, well said.

    This brings up an important point. People tend to see natural selection as “selecting” the beneficial organisms. Indeed, this is exactly how Darwin described it and why the idea is so captivating. He also personified it by comparison with human breeding, which does, in fact, select for desirable traits.

    I agree with you that natural selection doesn’t explain the arrival of the fittest, a point long noted by Darwin’s critics. But if it doesn’t, then what else produces the arrival of the fittest? Pure chance?

  31. 31
    Mung says:

    gpuccio:

    The point is simple enough: if each of the genes is essential to the function as we observe it (as shown by the knockout experiments), then the function as we can observe it is irreducibly complex, because it needs all the genes to be observed.

    That doesn’t matter. And even if it did matter, it still wouldn’t matter. IC can be evolved.

  32. 32
    Seversky says:

    Origenes @ 27

    It explains ONLY the absence of certain animals. A severe winter explains the absence (elimination) of not-woolly sheep. To say that selection explains the woolly sheep is nonsense. The opposite is true: the woolly sheep are untouched (unhindered) by elimination (a.k.a. ‘selection’). They are the ones who got away. These woolly sheep — like all existent organisms — are those organisms on which “natural selection” has precisely no bearing whatsoever. They are the undiluted products of chance.

    Do people here really believe that evolutionary biologists are unaware of the fact that natural selection alone is purely eliminative, that for adaptive evolution to happen a source of variation on which selection can operate is also required?

    Do you really think they don’t understand that a population of very woolly sheep on cold uplands is best explained by both that harsh environment and the capacity of the sheep to grow coats of varying thicknesses, such that the very woolly sheep were able to occupy and exploit a niche that was too inhospitable for their less well protected brethren?

  33. 33
    Origenes says:

    Seversky @32

    Sev: Do people here really believe that evolutionary biologists are unaware of the fact that natural selection alone is purely eliminative, that for adaptive evolution to happen a source of variation on which selection can operate is also required?

    In what way does selection — in our example the elimination of the not-woolly sheep — explain the very woolly sheep?
    Do you agree with my following statement?

    To say that selection explains the woolly sheep is nonsense. The opposite is true: the woolly sheep are untouched (unhindered) by elimination (a.k.a. ‘selection’). They are the ones who got away. These woolly sheep — like all existent organisms — are those organisms on which “natural selection” has precisely no bearing whatsoever. They are the undiluted products of chance.

    If you do not agree, why not?
    What is Darwin talking about when he says:

    Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. [C. Darwin]

    Are evolutionist aware of the fact that selection is only elimination? Well, sometimes they are:

    . . . it is indeed the animal or plant breeder who selects certain superior individuals to serve as the breeding stock of the next generation. But, strictly speaking, there is no such agent involved in natural selection. What Darwin called natural selection is actually a process of elimination.
    [Ernst Mayr, ‘What Evolution is’, (117)]

  34. 34
    EugeneS says:

    Origenes @33

    Exactly! Natural selection does not create information. Natural selection has no capacity for it. It can only reduce information.

    For eagle-eyed interlocutors like Jeffrey Shallit it should be emphasized that natural selection does not create functional information, not Shannon information. Shannon information is largely irrelevant to biology, as Howard Pattee points out.

    Consequently, the sole source of functional information in an evolutionist paradigm, whatever it is, Darwinist, neutral or something else, is chance! And that is their Achilles’ heel, because there is no evidence whatsoever of natural regularities alone (i.e. without goal-oriented decision making) producing functional information in statistically significant quantities. On the other hand, positive evidence suggests that only intelligent agents capable of goal-setting, planning and decision making to pursue and achieve a goal state, are also capable of generating functional information.

  35. 35
    EugeneS says:

    Eric Anderson,

    It is a very good OP.

  36. 36
    Origenes says:

    EugeneS @34

    Nobel Prize-winning chemist Jacques Monod wholeheartedly agrees with you:

    We call these [genetic] events accidental; we say that they are random occurrences. And since they are the only possible source of modifications in the genetic text, itself the sole repository of the organism’s hereditary structures, it necessarily follows that chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere. Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution …

    [Jacques Monod — emphasis in the original]

  37. 37
    hnorman5 says:

    Eric Anderson @29

    “… People tend to refer to natural selection as an actual force or an actual process…”

    This is something I realized from my struggles with “What Darwin Got Wrong”. I’m not saying I fully understood the argument with regards to intensionality but I did come away with something. We can say that natural selection by definition cannot mimic a contingent decision – and it’s a perfectly valid statement. We would be justified in laughing if somebody said that a tornado by definition could not do something. That’s because a tornado is an observed phenomenon and we fit a definition to it as well as we can. A definition does not necessarily exhaust the properties of an observed phenomenon. Natural selection, by contrast, is nothing but definition.

    Before reading WDGW I would have said “so you say that natural selection can’t assemble multiple parts to create a new function. Well, the peppered moth shows us that natural selection EXISTS. So who’s to say that if we let it stretch its muscles a little bit it won’t create contingent structures.” Or something like that — it would be wrong anyway.

  38. 38
    EugeneS says:

    rvb8,

    From Paleys watch to the supposed designed motor that is the flagellum, people here look for and find design in Nature; biologists don’t.

    I wonder if you have ever spoken to a biologist.

    Why do you think that the analogy between biology and technology is fundamentally flawed?

    The idea itself to reverse-engineer and reuse biological solutions has been around for decades, at least since the inception of cybernetics. It works, doesn’t it? Now, given that it works, why can’t it be that biological systems, too, have been designed?! And, taking an even broader scope, if human mind using reason can model and predict the behaviour of the world (at least to the minimal extent of allowing humanity to explore space), why can’t it be that the world itself as a whole is a product of Intelligence?

    What is fundamentally wrong about such an inference?

  39. 39
    EugeneS says:

    rvb8,

    Biochemist Bruce Alberts, president of American Academy of Sciences (1993-2005):

    We need revamp the curriculum in molecular biology and include a design engineering component.

    Why do you think he might have suggested that?

  40. 40
    rvb8 says:

    EugeneS,

    thankyou for the single quote I won’t even bother researching.

    However if this is the Bruce Alberts who is Editor in Chief of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s most important publication, ‘Science’, I wouldn’t be holding him up as a standard barer for psudo-design science; he may dissapoint you with his Darwinian proclivities.

  41. 41
    rvb8 says:

    EugeneS,

    ‘Why do you think the analogy between biology and technology is fundamentally flawed?’

    Well that’s easy. One process is intentional, planned, and with malice aforethought; the other is not, it has no intention, or purpose.

    The other, is guided not by intention, or will, but by gravity, strong and weak nuclear forces, the interaction and attraction of atoms, molecules, and ultraviolet radiation, heat and light; there is no intention.

    It’s actually very simple. Like Leibnitz mocking Newton for postulating a God who pops up to put things right, evolution mocks designers for postulating that which is unnecessary.

  42. 42
    Seversky says:

    Origenes @ 33

    In what way does selection — in our example the elimination of the not-woolly sheep — explain the very woolly sheep

    Obviously, my previous comment was a little too oblique so let me be more direct. No, natural selection does not create anything new, it simply tends to eliminate what is less fitted to a particular environment. The novelty or variation in living things has its origin in genetic mutations.

    In the case of the woolly sheep, we would assume that genetic mutation led to some sheep being able to grow thicker coats than others. They would then be better able to survive and thrive in a harsh, upland environment than their less fortunate brethren. If the thin-coated sheep were unable to find a habitat in which they could live comfortably they might well become extinct. That is all Darwin’s theory was about.

    What is Darwin talking about when he says:

    Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. [C. Darwin]

    Darwin was simply pointing out that it was the process of evolution that had led to human beings emerging as a species. But I suspect it was also a nod towards the Christian belief that mankind was the pinnacle of God’s creation.

  43. 43
    Origenes says:

    Seversky @42

    Sev: natural selection does not create anything new, it simply tends to eliminate what is less fitted to a particular environment. The novelty or variation in living things has its origin in genetic mutations.

    So selection does not create anything new and on top of that it reduces information. Okay. Here is the question:

    How does selection/elimination help evolution to find innovations?

    Follow-up questions:

    If selection is not creative why is it not true that “the whole random variation + selection ‘mechanism’ just collapses back to random chance”, as Eric Anderson states in post #29?
    Finally if selection ONLY reduces information, per EugeneS #34, then why is selection not a hindrance — instead of an asset — to evolution as a search for innovations?

  44. 44
    Eric Anderson says:

    Well that’s easy. One process is intentional, planned, and with malice aforethought; the other is not, it has no intention, or purpose.

    I love that answer.

    Exhibit A on assuming the very point in question. Great example of circular reasoning.

    Nice try, though.

  45. 45
    Eric Anderson says:

    hnorman5 @37:

    Thanks for commenting and for the good thoughts.

    One of Darwin’s genius moves was personifying natural selection to make it appear that he had identified a causal mechanism in nature. This was incredibly seductive and has caused no end of confusion over the century and a half since. Many, many people have fallen for this rhetorical ploy.

    When pressed on the point, some Darwinists will back down and admit that natural selection isn’t really a force, doesn’t really cause any innovative changes, isn’t really a creative process. This is often coupled with an “Of course we know that!” snort, similar to what we have witnessed on this thread.

    And yet, it is trivial to find examples of scientists referring to natural selection as though it were a creative force driving evolution forward. This is very common — and utterly mistaken.

    More importantly, once natural selection is recognized as not being a force or a creative cause, what is left of the Darwinian mechanism? Monod correctly explained (h/t Origenes @36) that the real “mechanism” behind evolution turns out to be chance: nothing more than blind, dumb luck. As I have pointed out previously, the underlying “explanation” behind Darwinian evolution ultimately boils down to:

    Stuff Happens.

    It is really no more substantive than that.

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