Friday, July 22, 2005
A Can of Worms, Briefly Opened
There is a middle ground.
THE LESSONS OF SCIENCE. Dangerous waters here, perhaps the most dangerous in the whole wide world of the intelligentsia. It's called the Evolution Debate, and it's being fought tooth-and-nail by meticulously educated scientists on the one hand and harebrained religious Luddites on the other. Or so the most illustrious reporters of the conflict would have us believe. They are also the primary source for telling us the available sides of the debate -- that one must choose starkly between the Theory of Evolution as propounded by generations of biologists or the fantasy called Creationism defended by zealots who are armed with nothing but a tattered copy of the Bible. This would seem to make it an easy choice, which is why we get regular little reminders from the intellectual elite about the impossibility of challenging the biologists. A current example of this occurs in a column by Frederick Turner at TechCentralStation. I am moved to write on this explosive subject because the column does a beautiful job of explaining what is at stake and what constitutes the real power of the scientific establishment. I am persuaded that it provides a means of demurring on a few points in a format nearly as brief. Let's see if this is also a fantasy. Turner's piece is a followup to a previous essay that upset both sides, and he recapitulates his own beliefs thus:
In the essay I did state flatly that the theory of evolution had been proved. I wanted it to be clear where I stood. Much of the mail I received protested about that statement. I hold to it, and hold to it not as my own opinion, but as a fact, like the existence of Australia, which is not my opinion but a fact. But I do know that there are many who sincerely, and given their range of knowledge, rationally, do not believe in the theory of evolution.
Like the existence of Australia. Mark that. Turner also does what few others do when manning these particular battlements: he offers us a concise definition of what he believes to be fact:
By the theory of evolution I mean the origination of new species from common ancestral forms by an iterated process of genetic mutation, natural selection, and hereditary transmission, whereby the frequencies of newly altered, repeated, and old genes and introns in a given lineage can cross ecological, structural, and behavioral thresholds that radically separate one species from another. In one sense, this can be summed up in a syllogism, which must be true if we make the basic and essential act of faith that logic itself is true: survivors survive.
Further to his credit, Turner is economical but comprehensive in his assessment of the stakes:
For biology is not the only field for which the theory of evolution is an essential foundation. Geology, physical anthropology, agricultural science, environmental science, much of chemistry, some areas of physics (e.g. protein folding) and even disciplines such as climatology and oceanography (which rely on the evolutionary history of the planet in its calculations about the composition of the atmosphere and oceans), are at least partially founded on evolution.
In other words, the Theory of Evolution really does underlie the whole story we are telling ourselves about who we are and where we came from. The Creationists' dog in this hunt is easy to spot. The biologists tend to be cagier about their agenda, but Turner conveys it clearly:
The angry evolutionists were especially interesting, as they often wound up admitting implicitly that their real agenda was atheism -- while denying that there was any social policy message in that agenda.
It's actually rare for a member of the scientific establishment to come so close to admitting that this has become as much a religious war as a scientific debate: devout theists vs devout atheists. It's no surprise that Turner finishes by handicapping the opponents. The measure he uses, though, is more instructive about the contemporary scientific mindset than it is accurate:
The work of the biological teams is required to be backed up by exhaustive experiment and observation, together with exact statistical analysis of the results. There is a continuous process of search through all these articles by trained reviewers looking for discrepancies among them and demanding new experimental work to resolve them. Since every one of these articles relies on the consistency and truth of the theory of evolution, every one of them adds implicitly to the veracity of the theory. By my calculation, then, opponents of evolution must find a way of matching and disproving, experiment by experiment, observation by observation, and calculation by calculation, at least two million pages of closely reasoned scientific text, representing roughly two million man-years of expert research and perhaps trillions of dollars of training, salaries, equipment, and infrastructure.
This sounds a formidable obstacle, and it would be if the logical error Turner commits earlier in the piece were not an error, but it is. Remember this passage, quoted above, which I have stripped of its obfuscating flourishes: "By the theory of evolution I mean the origination of new species from common ancestral forms by an iterated process of genetic mutation, natural selection, and hereditary transmission... which must be true if we make the basic and essential act of faith that logic itself is true: survivors survive." [emphasis mine].
I would suggest that the fact Turner believes to be as incontrovertible as the existence of Australia is actually "the origination of new species from common ancestral forms," not the precise mechanism by which changes occur. I further suggest that the "genetic mutation, natural selection, and hereditary transmission" part of the evolutionary puzzle is responsible for the religious component of the scientific perspective. Yes, they have a lot invested in their description of the process by which changes occur, but that does not mean that science has actually solved all problems about process. Do not forget that there is still no satisfactory explanation by science about the origin of life on earth in the first place. Nobel prize winner Sir Francis Crick found this riddle so impossible of resolution that he proposed the concept of panspermia -- introduction of life from an extraterrestrial source -- to account for the astonishing complexity and similarity of DNA across species. it would seem there are still some sizable holes on the process side of evolution.
I'll clarify the point I'm making by explaining that I believe the Creationists are dead wrong in their whole approach to the problem, and I believe the evolutionists are substantially wrong about process. And if I'm right, I do not have to disprove each and every experiment performed by biologists since Darwin first stated his theory. What I have to do is discover an additional agency which resolves the logical paradox employed by all evolutionists in their descriptions of adaptive response.
What am I talking about? You can see examples on every nature show broadcast on television. We are shown an example of an attribute some species has developed to better its chances for survival. I saw one last night on the National Geographic Channel in a program titled "Hornets from Hell." The hornets are Japanese, extra large and deadly to humans, smaller hornets, and honey bees. In particular, European honey bees imported to boost honey production are helpless against the super hornets. Thirty hornets can slaughter a hive of 30,000 European honey bees in about three hours. Interestingly, though, the less honey-productive Japanese honey bees have an amazing defense against the hornets, which must send a scout to mark the target hive with a pheromone so that the hornet death squad can find it. The Japanese honey bees detect the scout's arrival and lure it into the hive. When she attempts to leave, the honey bees swarm the invader. Hundreds of bees surround the scout and become a squirming pulsing entity. Are they stinging the invader to death? No. Unlike hornets, honey bees die after they sting. Instead, the honey bees are vibrating their abdomens, increasing the body heat of the mass to precisely 117 degrees. A honey bee can survive temperatures of 118 degrees; a hornet, only 115 degrees. The scout hornet dies, the hive is safe from attack, and no honey bees have perished.
Now when an evolutionist describes this or some other trait or physical characteristic which serves as a defense mechanism, he speaks in terms of purpose. This trait or feature was developed in order to increase the chances of survival against some predator or environmental condition. This makes it easier for us lay people to understand. When we have understood the value of the change, the biologist retraces the steps of his argument and subtracts the purpose from the process altogether, because it must be -- according to current theory -- a blundering series of genetic accidents and a slow cumulative sequence of minor and meaningless changes that eventually add up to a feature which works so well that it has the appearance of design.
This is a bait-and-switch use of logic. Purpose is employed to appeal to native common sense. Then purpose is removed and, along with it, the persuasiveness of the process description.
With respect to our honey bee example, it's important to remember that each bee brain consists of only a few hundred neurons. Actual learning is not a capability of such primitive brains. The behavioral change acquired by Japanese bees to deal with the super hornet must be hardwired into those few neurons. How did that happen?
Scientists love to haul out Occam's razor -- the simplest idea is probably right. I'll haul it out here. It's far easier to explain the process by which Japanese bees acquired this defense mechanism through the inference that some kind of intelligence exists within the species as a whole which does explicitly recognize the hornet threat and responds appropriately by reprogramming the brains of Japanese honey bees.
This kind of intelligence does not have to be God. But the evolutionists resist it because the appearance of any kind of intelligence within their materialistic system opens the door to the possibility that intelligence, and therefore consciousness, and therefore possibly some supreme consciousness, is an intrinsic attribute of the universe. This is unacceptable not for scientific reasons but for religious reasons. The atheists can't stomach it.
It's important to remember that evolution is one of the earliest examples of systems theory -- that is, how minute changes in input change the output of the entire system. Another simpler example is mechanical systems theory, such as the description of how changes in input to a manufacturing system affect changes in output. In the mechanical world, the relationship is linear: increase input by a unit and output increases by a unit. This is the core of the incrementalism which drives the evolutionists' process description of one genetic mutation, one improved unit of survivability, one more generation of improved survivability, and so on.
But now we live in the age of systems theory as it has been changed by computer technology. Our new models, which probably relate better to organic life, demonstrate that tiny changes in system input can result in huge changes in system output. The power of this theory is that it has led to computer simulations of artificial life and artificial intelligence, in which the system begins to write and rewrite its own rules. This has led to new speculations, including one called complexity theory, which proposes that systems are driven to the "edge of chaos," where some kind of capability to receive new information from outside the system is created. This is not a discipline in which the evolutionary biologists have much interest, though, because no matter how independently an artificial system evolves through time, all such computer systems begin with a programmer who writes the initial set of rules and sets the process in motion. Danger, danger, danger.
Note, too, that the basic Darwinian theory is also much older than the field of quantum physics, which is also flummoxed to the point of despair over the seeming evidence that consciousness directly affects outcomes at the particle level.
I am not proposing an answer here. I am proposing that the Creationist vs Scientist debate has been oversimplified to the point of nonsense for the purpose of preventing any reopening of the antique assumptions underlying "state-of-the-art" evolutionary theory. The chief mechanism of oversimplification is an obviously duplicitous bit of illogic which falsely equates the given that "survivors survive" with the still theoretical working explanation offered by science about how survivors get better at surviving.
I'll close with a quick explanation of the graphics at the top of the page, which represent another realm of trickery by evolutionary biologists. They're fond of explaining speciation and adaptive response by using the example of dog breeds, whose stunningly varied attributes reflect changes made through breeding to improve capabilities in certain specific areas. This kind of example is supposed to help us understand the process by which nature makes changes in species, although biologists are always careful to remind us that the difference between dog breeding and nature is that man breeds dogs deliberately and nature breeds species by accident. As if this were a completely trivial difference.
One thing the biologists never talk about is where the vast realm of potential changes in dogs might come from. Oddly enough, members of individual breeds when released to the wild almost immediately revert to a completely standard dog design -- same size, same conformation the world over. So why and how is it the case that it is possible to develop extraordinary capabilities -- of sight, of smell, of fleetness, of intelligence, of strength, of size, of appearance -- if that potential were not already part of the basic dog gene pool? It really does seem as if that gene pool were in existence for the purpose of being invoked in response to the demands of environment and other factors, as if it were a system equipped with all the latent potentials that might be called upon by a conscious reprogramming effort. Cambrian Explosion anyone?
Of course, in a final bit of irony, all dogs are still part of the same species, theoretically still capable of breeding with one another, size discrepancies notwithstanding. Does this make anyone nervous about the scientific definition of what a species is? Why is it that lions and tigers can mate and produce offspring? Are they not different species? Or are all the big cats somehow merely breeds of the same super-species, like Boston terriers and Borzois? And if this might be the case, can we not glimpse the possibility that what the evolutionists call macro-evolution, which is the weakest and most unproven of their theory's components, is really nothing but a radical version of the micro-evolution science has indeed proven to exist?
If there were some middle ground between the two poles of thought on evolution, wouldn't we all benefit from the process of studying it seriously? We might evolve to a better theory that doesn't require such contortions of logic to explain.
POSTSCRIPT: I'll predict that if any evolutionists read this piece, they'll attack me in one or more of three ways. 1) They'll get personal immediately, calling me an idiot, a moron, a religious nut, etc. 2) They'll deny my right to discuss the subject at all because I don't have a degree in evolutionary biology, as if freedom of speech were now subject in the scientific world to a kind of poll tax. 3) They'll find one or several errors, or anything that might be interpreted as an error, to argue that this makes the whole discussion invalid. But it isn't. They can patronize and condescend to me all they want, but not one of them can persuasively explain the process by which wild plants became useful domestic crops. I'll keep my powder dry on that one till later.
UPDATE. Another briefer response to Turner's column can be found at Rand Simberg's site (HT InstaPundit). There's also a considerable body of comments which are amusingly similar to what you'd expect.