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Physicist: Is Darwinian natural selection a “force of nature” like gravity?

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What, the “single best idea anyone ever had” (philosopher Daniel Dennett on Darwin ) is now comparable to gravity? Experimental physicist Rob Sheldon would take issue with that.

Yes, a psychologist seems to think Darwinian natural selection is indeed a force of nature like gravity:

Natural selection, one of the fundamental processes of evolution, has something in common with gravity: A public relations problem. At one level of analysis, natural selection, like gravity, looks like a chump. When you’re looking up close at the tiny bits of stuff that go into making humans—the sequences of DNA that constitute the human genome—and how they came to be arranged in the manner that they are, natural selection doesn’t seem to have done very much. Other evolutionary processes, such as mutation, migration, and drift, seem to have exerted far more powerful influences on our genomes. For that matter, distinctly non-evolutionary events—one-off famines, freezes, floods, and fires—can exert a far more powerful influence on the fate of a species at any given point in time than natural selection can. However, when you zoom out and look at evolution from a high-altitude vantage point, natural selection is the only evolutionary force that matters at all. Michael McCullough, “Evolution’s Gravity: A Paean to Natural Selection” at Nautilus

A perfect item for Nautilus! Rob Sheldon replies:

Michael McCullough, a psychologist, seems to be in a state of what psychiatrists refer to as “physics envy” (a desire to pretend that what they do is some kind of physics). He tries to tell us that Darwinian evolution (aka natural selection) is a force of nature just like the other four elementary forces (strong force, weak force, electromagnetism, and gravity). Not only does he get the physics wrong, he gets the biology wrong. And to top it off, he also gets the physics-biology analogy completely upside-down! It is a good thing he’s an evolutionary psychologist writing for a mainstream blog.

Physics: It is true that the four elementary forces have a wide range of strengths, though Michael would be advised to learn the beauties of scientific notation. It is not true, however, that 100Mass => 10Force, as he states. The equation is F = GMm/r^2, so the force is directly proportional to the mass, not proportional to the square-root of the mass.

And biology? It is true that natural selection will remove non-viable mutations. It is not true, however, that natural selection will provide the slightest help in improving the genome. This job is traditionally assigned to random mutation, which unfortunately, has proven unequal to the task. (See, for example, Edge of Evolution.) So McCullough really should have entitled this piece “A Paeon to Random Mutation.”

Analogy: After these slight mistakes (which nonetheless typefy the carelessness characteristic of profession) we get the really big error. McCullough points out that on small scales, gravity is weak, but on large spatial scales, gravity is large.

He doesn’t know why, he just sees it as a symbolic relationship that can apply to evolution: On short timescales, evolution is weak, but on large timescales it is strong—like gravity. This is a mistake for several major reasons.

a) space is not time. (No, I don’t want to read McCullough’s take on Special Relativity, he’s already bombed his freshman class on Newtonian gravity.)

b) The reason gravity is weak at small scales and big at big scales, is that it can never be shielded. The first three forces (weak and strong forces, electromagnetism) are always shielded. We won’t get into the strong force and asymptotic freedom but electricity has + and – charges, so negative charges balance out the positive charges or “shield” them. Some would say it “must be shielded” because electrons on the other side of the galaxy would arrive to do the job if our local solar system didn’t have enough.

But gravity doesn’t have any “negative” mass particles; there is nothing known that can shield it. That means its strength just grows and grows as you add more mass. There is nothing magic or symbolic about gravity, it is the simple fact that anti-gravity (peace, cosmologists), doesn’t exist.

c) Evolution is supposedly a progressive ratchet that operates in only one direction in time. RM creates novelty, NS filters out the bad stuff, leaving only the good novelty. Rinse and repeat. Isn’t this a good analogy to gravity?

Actually, no. First, RM doesn’t produce any good novelty, only bad novelty. The ratchet does operate, but only downward. Admittedly, there is a lot of hairy math involved but “random” to a physicist means “entropy” and entropy can never produce progress. Never. (Granville Sewell offers mathematical analyses of this point.)

“Mutation,” to a biologist, means a nucleotide substitution in DNA or a peptide substitution in a protein. And given the 64 different possible 3-nucleotide DNA codons with 22 different meanings in protein production, mutations must explore a phase space of a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion options before finding a useful one (see Douglas Axe’s papers). Failure isn’t just an option, it’s guaranteed.

Given that mutations can be both good and bad, we are back to electricity with its positive and negative charges. Unlike gravity, where every step is positive, evolution is like electricity with an average over good and bad steps. But unlike electricity, the bad steps outnumber the good steps by a large margin. So rather than being the weakling on Particle Beach that becomes the Atlas of the solar system, evolution is the bully on Cellular Beach that becomes extinct in the ecosystem.

But don’t archaeology and geology demonstrate that evolution doesn’t become extinct?

No, archaeology demonstrates that life doesn’t become extinct, which proves that evolution cannot explain it. McCullough’s title should have been, “A Eulogy for Random Mutation.”

The Long Ascent: Genesis 1â  11 in Science & Myth, Volume 1 by [Sheldon, Robert]

Rob Sheldon is the author of Genesis: The Long Ascent.

See also: A physicist looks at biology’s problem of “speciation” in humans

and

At Nautilus: Psychology needs evolutionary psychology

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11 Replies to “Physicist: Is Darwinian natural selection a “force of nature” like gravity?

  1. 1
    Ed George says:

    I don’t see how you can equate natural selection to gravity. Gravity acts on every particle in the universe that has mass. Natural selection, for all we know, only exists on earth and, to the best of our knowledge, only results in small changes.

  2. 2
    ET says:

    Actually natural selection only exists at the times when the mutations were accidents, errors or mistakes. And those have to lead to differential reproduction.

    If the mutations arte not accidents, errors or mistakes then you do not have natural selection regardless of the outcome.

    That said, natural selection is not a force, but a result. It is the result of differential reproduction due to heritable accidental change. NS is impotent with respect to universal common descent.

  3. 3
    ET says:

    The Origin of Theoretical Population Genetics (University of Chicago Press, 1971), reissued in 2001 by William Provine:

    Natural selection does not act on anything, nor does it select (for or against), force, maximize, create, modify, shape, operate, drive, favor, maintain, push, or adjust. Natural selection does nothing….Having natural selection select is nifty because it excuses the necessity of talking about the actual causation of natural selection. Such talk was excusable for Charles Darwin, but inexcusable for evolutionists now. Creationists have discovered our empty “natural selection” language, and the “actions” of natural selection make huge, vulnerable targets. (pp. 199-200)

    Thanks for the honesty Will.

  4. 4
    Nonlin.org says:

    Is there even such thing as “natural selection”? No way!
    http://nonlin.org/natural-selection/

    1. Natural Selection concept fails since phenotype does not determine survival which is also tautological with “best adapted”
    2. “Blind, mindless, purposeless, natural, and process” qualifiers fail
    3. Phenotype is an unstable infinite set (hence unknowable and theoretical)
    4. Fitness concept is redundant since never defined independently of survival
    5. “Selection” is Survival
    6. The only selection is Intelligent Selection – always done by an Intelligent Selector
    7. Selection is limited to a narrow set of adaptations – one cannot selected what is not there
    8. Selection and Mutations lack creativity, therefore cannot explain body designs
    9. We do not observe “divergence of character” but ‘limited variations around a mean’ (regression to the mean)
    10. Extinct organism were not flawed and their features were not “selected away”
    11. Intelligent Selection should replace Natural Selection but only if we ever transmutate organisms
    12. Humans do not apply Natural Selection because it doesn’t work
    13. Designs must cross an inevitable optimization gap making evolution impossible
    14. Breeding is much more than “artificial selection” and unrelated to any natural process

  5. 5
    ET says:

    What does determine survival, then? Is there some weird guy walking around with a captive bolt pistol and quarters to flip asking you to “call it”?

  6. 6
    hazel says:

    re 3: I’m no biologist, but I am suspicious of quotes, which upon googling show up over and over in an abbreviated form, as this one does, without further context. They are almost always really followed by qualifications which extend and clarify their meaning. That is the case here. Provine was explaining how some of his thoughts had changed in the past 30 years. Here’s the full quote:

    Review of These 10 Certain Insights in 2001

    1. Natural selection was the primary mechanism at every level of the evolutionary process. This simple statement raises two major problems for me now. As John Endler has argued eloquently in Natural Selection in the Wild (1986), natural selection is not a mechanism. Natural selection does not act on anything, nor does it select (for or against), force, maximize, create, modify shape, operate, drive, favor, maintain, push, or adjust. Natural selection does nothing. Natural selection as a natural force belongs in the insubstantial category already populated by the Becker/Stahl phlogiston (Endler 1986) or Newton’s “ether.”

    Natural selection is the necessary outcome of discernible and often quantifiable causes. Some of these causes produce heritable differences between individuals of most populations, and between populations. The possible production of offspring is immense in any species and a “struggle for existence” occurs. A complicated demographic process follows, resulting in organisms adapted to their environments, as long as the environments don’t change too rapidly. Otherwise, the same basic set of causes results in extinction of the population. Understanding natural selection as the result of specific causes requires the researcher to understand ecological settings, life histories, and development in relation to differential leaving of offspring.

    Having natural selection select is nifty because it excuses the necessity of talking about the actual causation of natural selection. Such talk was excusable for Charles Darwin, but inexcusable for evolutionists now. Creationists have discovered our empty “natural selection” language, and the “actions” of natural selection make huge, vulnerable targets.

    The second major problem concerns natural selection at different levels of the evolutionary process. The rise of understanding of molecular evolution at both the protein and DNA (or RNA) sequence level has challenged the assertion that natural selection is (almost by definition) the most important process in understanding the evolutionary outcomes at the protein and DNA sequence levels (Kimura 1968, 1983; Ohta 1973). The chances are small that a particular DNA sequence in mammals is “adapted through natural selection.” The chances are great that the evolution of selectively neutral factors produced the sequence. Thus at the DNA level, explaining any random sequence invoke selectively neutral or nearly neutral factors as the null hypothesis, an amazing turnabout since the late 1960s. I now argue that each level (phenotypic, protein, and DNA sequence) marches to different drummers.

    I’m interested in this because the key issue here is related to other topics about knowledge that we have been discussing.

    What Provine is saying, I think, is that “natural selection” is not a “thing” – a causative force – in the real world. It is an abstraction that stands for the results of real things that do happen in the real world: “the necessary outcome of discernible and often quantifiable causes.”

    We continually confuse the words and ideas we create to describe the world with the actual world. This is another example. The full quote, as opposed to the abbreviated one, makes this all clearer.

  7. 7
    ET says:

    Color me surprised by the fact that the full quote did nothing to diminish from what I posted. And I don’t see how it made anything clearer.

    In the real world natural selection is impotent with respect to universal common descent.

  8. 8
    jerry says:

    This is off the subject but the The Great Courses (aka Teaching Company) has a new course on evolution this month (http://bit.ly/2AJxPyv). About their 7th depending on how you classify a course. It will be interesting to see just what is said that could be different from their others. No where in any of their course do they provide research or proof for any mechanism for evolution. Will be able to watch it for free next month so do not know what is actually said.

  9. 9
    bornagain77 says:

    as to Hazel at 6

    “I’m no biologist”

    Well don’t feel too bad, neither is the author of the article, Michael McCullough. He is a is a psychologist.

    And a ‘just-so story telling’ evolutionary psychologist at that.

    Michael McCullough the non-biologist evolutionary psychologist who specializes in ‘just so story telling’ appeals to Dawkins’ selfish gene scenario so as to explain how, of all things —”organisms accumulate design.”

    Evolution’s Gravity: A Paean to Natural Selection – Michael McCullough – JAN 08, 2019
    Excerpt: However, when you zoom out and look at evolution from a high-altitude vantage point, natural selection is the only evolutionary force that matters at all. This is because natural selection is the only evolutionary force that can produce design. Natural selection, like gravity, acts uniformly and consistently, through deep time, to sift genes according to one hard-and-fast criterion: It increases the prevalence of genes that are good at increasing their own rates of propagation and it reduces the prevalence of genes that are less good at increasing their rates of propagation.
    As Richard Dawkins has described so brilliantly in so many different ways, genes take actions in the world that alter their rates of replication by cloaking themselves in really cool features and gadgets—mitochondria, ribosomes, specialized cells, arms, legs, eyes, ears, neurons, brains, beliefs, desires. Those features that increase the genes’ replication rates get conserved and elaborated upon. Those that reduce the genes’ rates of replication are shuffled off. As the result of aeons and aeons of a gene-sifting process that operates according to a single criterion—does this gene create phenotypic effects that speed up its propagation in the population, or does it slow its propagation?—organisms accumulate design.
    None of the other evolutionary forces can produce this kind of complex functional design. The result of all of natural selection’s criterion-based gene-sifting is that organisms end up looking like geniuses for thriving in the environments to which they are adapted. Bacteria, birds, bees, bats, bears, boas—and even Bill and Betty—every one is a genius.
    Natural selection, like gravity, is a star-maker.
    Michael McCullough is a psychologist at the University of Miami in Coral Gables Florida, where he directs the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory.
    http://nautil.us/blog/evolutio.....-selection

    Small problem with McCullough’s appeal to Dawkins’ selfish gene scenario to support his ‘just so story telling’, Dawkins’ selfish gene scenario, as far as empirical science is concerned, is dead.

    The ‘selfish gene’ concept is more of less directly based on Darwin’s own ‘survival of the fittest’ thinking about competition. Yet genes are now found to be anything but selfish. Instead of being ‘selfish’, genes are now found to be existing in a holistic web of mutual interdependence and cooperation (the very antithesis of selfishness).

    What If (Almost) Every Gene Affects (Almost) Everything? – JUN 16, 2017
    Excerpt: If you told a modern geneticist that a complex trait—whether a physical characteristic like height or weight, or the risk of a disease like cancer or schizophrenia—was the work of just 15 genes, they’d probably laugh. It’s now thought that such traits are the work of thousands of genetic variants, working in concert. The vast majority of them have only tiny effects, but together, they can dramatically shape our bodies and our health. They’re weak individually, but powerful en masse.
    https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/06/its-like-all-connected-man/530532/

    Theory Suggests That All Genes Affect Every Complex Trait – June 20, 2018
    Excerpt: Mutations of a single gene are behind sickle cell anemia, for instance, and mutations in another are behind cystic fibrosis.
    But unfortunately for those who like things simple, these conditions are the exceptions. The roots of many traits, from how tall you are to your susceptibility to schizophrenia, are far more tangled. In fact, they may be so complex that almost the entire genome may be involved in some way,,,
    One very early genetic mapping study in 1999 suggested that “a large number of loci (perhaps > than 15)” might contribute to autism risk, recalled Jonathan Pritchard, now a geneticist at Stanford University. “That’s a lot!” he remembered thinking when the paper came out.
    Over the years, however, what scientists might consider “a lot” in this context has quietly inflated. Last June, Pritchard and his Stanford colleagues Evan Boyle and Yang Li (now at the University of Chicago) published a paper about this in Cell that immediately sparked controversy, although it also had many people nodding in cautious agreement. The authors described what they called the “omnigenic” model of complex traits. Drawing on GWAS analyses of three diseases, they concluded that in the cell types that are relevant to a disease, it appears that not 15, not 100, but essentially all genes contribute to the condition. The authors suggested that for some traits, “multiple” loci could mean more than 100,000.
    https://www.quantamagazine.org/omnigenic-model-suggests-that-all-genes-affect-every-complex-trait-20180620/

    Gene Pleiotropy Roadblocks Evolution by Jeffrey P. Tomkins, Ph.D. – Dec. 8, 2016
    Excerpt: Before the advent of modern molecular biology, scientists defined a gene as a single unit of inheritance. If a gene was found to influence multiple externally visible traits, it was said to be pleiotropic—a term first used in 1910.2 During this early period of genetic discovery, pleiotropy was considered to be quite rare because scientists assumed most genes only possessed a single function—a simplistic idea that remained popular throughout most of the 20th century. However, as our understanding of genetics grew through DNA science, it became clear that genes operate in complex interconnected networks. Furthermore, individual genes produce multiple variants of end products with different effects through a variety of intricate mechanisms.2,3 Taken together, these discoveries show that pleiotropy is a common feature of nearly every gene.,,,
    The pleiotropy evolution problem is widely known among secular geneticists, but rarely discussed in the popular media. In this new research report, the authors state, “Many studies have provided evidence for the ability of pleiotropy to constrain gene evolution.”,,,
    “Our study provided supportive evidence that pleiotropy constraints the evolution of transcription factors (Tfs).”,,,
    The authors state, “We showed that highly pleiotropic genes are more likely to be associated with a disease phenotype.”,,,
    http://www.icr.org/article/9747

    Such ‘holistic cooperation’ is, needless to say, the exact polar opposite of being ‘selfish’. (And should, if Darwinism were a normal science instead of being basically a religion for atheists, count as a direct falsification of the theory).

    Even James Shapiro himself, who shuns Intelligent Design, admits that “the ‘Gene’ Concept Holds Back Evolutionary Thinking”, and further states that “The modern concept of the genome has no basic units. It has literally become “systems all the way down.”

    Why the ‘Gene’ Concept Holds Back Evolutionary Thinking – James Shapiro – 11/30/2012
    Excerpt: The Century of the Gene. In a 1948 Scientific American article, soon-to-be Nobel Laureate George Beadle wrote: “genes are the basic units of all living things.”,,,
    This notion of the genome as a collection of discrete gene units prevailed when the neo-Darwinian “Modern Synthesis” emerged in the pre-DNA 1940s. Some prominent theorists even proposed that evolution could be defined simply as a change over time in the frequencies of different gene forms in a population.,,,
    The basic issue is that molecular genetics has made it impossible to provide a consistent, or even useful, definition of the term “gene.” In March 2009, I attended a workshop at the Santa Fe Institute entitled “Complexity of the Gene Concept.” Although we had a lot of smart people around the table, we failed as a group to agree on a clear meaning for the term.
    The modern concept of the genome has no basic units. It has literally become “systems all the way down.” There are piecemeal coding sequences, expression signals, splicing signals, regulatory signals, epigenetic formatting signals, and many other “DNA elements” (to use the neutral ENCODE terminology) that participate in the multiple functions involved in genome expression, replication, transmission, repair and evolution.,,,
    Conventional thinkers may claim that molecular data only add details to a well-established evolutionary paradigm. But the diehard defenders of orthodoxy in evolutionary biology are grievously mistaken in their stubbornness. DNA and molecular genetics have brought us to a fundamentally new conceptual understanding of genomes, how they are organized and how they function.
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/.....07245.html

    And again if empirical evidence ever mattered to Darwinists, this should count as a direct falsification of their theory.

    But alas, Darwinists are apparently more interested in telling just so stories than they are in empirical science

    The Third Way – James Shapiro
    Excerpt: Moreover, some Neo-Darwinists have elevated Natural Selection into a unique creative force that solves all the difficult evolutionary problems without a real empirical basis.
    http://www.thethirdwayofevolution.com/

  10. 10
    jerry says:

    Was Provine in the Gould camp? Allen MacNeill who used to comment here was his colleague and I seem to remember that they both were from Cornell and supported Gould’s ideas.

  11. 11
    Nonlin.org says:

    Before Darwin, no one ever needed “natural selection” to explain ‘survival’. Each type of organism has been designed to survive in a certain manner. Extinctions and new organisms are also part of the grand design. If Darwin has an alternative proposal, his theory should AT LEAST make logical sense. But it doesn’t.

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