Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Rosh Hashanah in Jersey

I'll be driving out to New Jersey tomorrow to spend Rosh Hashanah with the 'rents. Blogging is good, but Mom's chicken soup is even better! Regular blogging resumes on Monday.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Calming the Debate

In last Thursday's post I mentioned this book review that appeared in the magazine Christianity Today. The same issue of the magazine contains this article from John Wilson suggesting ways to calm the debate between evolutionists and ID folks.

The article is a mixed bag. At times, Wilson hits it out of the park. After a brief discussion of recent work on the evolution of the immune system, he writes:

But that's the stuff of science. Built into this research are many assumptions based on the latest generation of evolutionary theory, ranging from fundamental governing assumptions to those more specific to this branch of study. So, for example, on a basic level, there's the assumption of common ancestry (hard to deny, it seems to me, though most of the ID people disagree, as does the formidable philosopher Alvin Plantinga) and an evolutionary conception of the family history of vertebrates.

How would an ID immunologist interact with this material? What assumptions would he accept? Which ones would he reject? What sort of work might he be doing alongside or in contrast to the research reported here? Those are the kinds of questions that need to be answered in the next stage, if ID is going to do science. “Design” needs to be fleshed out.

Exactly right. What Wilson overlooks though, both here and elsewhere in his article, is that ID isn't really about science at all. ID proponents don't answer the sort of questions Wilson is asking because they are far more interested in gaining political power than they are in furthering scientific inquiry.

Elsewhere, Wilson mostly hits it out of the park (a ground-rule double, perhaps):

Neither Intelligent Design nor theistic evolutionism, alas, is the most influential position among the evangelical rank and file, where Young Earth creationism still holds sway. Hence another unsatisfactory aspect of the current debate is the strategic refusal of the ID movement to engage in constructive criticism of the Young Earth view.

But haven't I just been calling for mutual recognition among Christians of their unity in affirming God as Creator, and for mutual respect? Yes, and there's no contradiction here. What is needed from the ID movement is principled disagreement. Whereas whole books published by various ID figures have been devoted to meticulously unpacking some of the errors perpetuated in the Darwinist literature (see for example the work of Jonathan Wells), they are virtually silent about the egregious intellectual errors that abound in Young Earth literature. By contrast, Hugh Ross, who has some affinities both with ID and with the theistic evolutionists, has been more forthright; his work could serve as a model in this respect.

As I have mentioned before, Jonathan Wells has unpacked nothing in his work. Far from exposing errors in Darwinist literature, Wells merely exposed his own propensity for intellectual dishonesty and his lack of understanding of very basic points of evolutionary biology. Also, I think Hugh Ross' work is itself so filled with errors that I would not hold him up as an example of anything to emulate. But Wilson's broader point is spot-on. ID folks will pounce on anything they can use as part of a rhetorical gambit against evolutionists, but they willfully ignore the blatant scientific errors coming from the Young-Earthers. And kudos to Wilson for recognizing that this failure to criticize the YEC's is strategic.

In other places, sadly, I think Wilson gives the ID folks too much credit:

At the moment, at least, there are no signs that the debate is cooling down—on the contrary. And there is a good deal to celebrate in that. In particular, the ID movement has performed an invaluable service in highlighting the way in which much Darwinian thinking rests on philosophical assumptions that have no scientific warrant. At the same time, the aggressive ID attacks on Christian scientists who have not rejected evolutionary theory lock, stock, and barrel—"accommodationists," as they are called in ID literature, where they are treated rather like collaborationists with the Nazis during World War II—have pushed theistic evolutionists to formulate their own views more cogently. And of course the attention garnered by the ID movement has also provoked a vigorous range of responses from hardcore Darwinians that are often inadvertently revealing—especially of the extraordinary arrogance that still infests the field—but which also at times score telling points against ID weaknesses.

Well, I like the last part of that last sentence, but otherwise I find little to admire in this paragraph. The words “ID movement” and “invaluable service&rdquol should not be appearing in the same sentence. This is not the place to rehash all of the philosophical balderdash ID proponents have come up with over the years, but I would say that ID defenders have contributed nothing of any worth to any scientific or philosophical discussion. No doubt I am one of those arrogant, hardocre Darwinians Wilson criticizes. But what he calls arrogance, I call telling it like it is.

As for prompting theistic evolutionists to formulate their views more cogently - please. That's like thanking criminals for forcing the rest of us to formulate our views against crime more cogently. The fact is that theistic evolutionists are living proof that a sincere and meaningful Christian faith can coexist with modern scientific thought. To the extent that this viewpoint gains traction, it becomes more difficult for ID proponents to achieve their political goals. That is why they attack theistic evolution with such venom.

The whole article is worth reading, and I recommend following the link. However, there is one blatant error in the article which we really ought to correct. In a paragraph critical of biologist Richard Dawkins, Wilson writes:

It was Dawkins who notoriously wrote in his bestseller The Blind Watchmaker: “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane—or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that.” There is a good deal of this ritual strutting in the Darwinist camp.

Actually, Dawkins made that statement in an op-ed piece he wrote for The New York Times some years ago. He did not include it in The Blind Watchmaker.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Finley's Comment

If you go well into this thread over at ISCID (it's the one started by Cornelius Hunter in response to my criticism's of his essay in Uncommon Dissent) you will find this comment from Darel Finley, reproduced here in its entirety:

I think that it might be legitimate for Rosenhouse et al to cite the universality of the DNA code as powerful evidence of common ancestry, while keeping OOL (origin of life) separate. This is because DNA code universality could illustrate the common descent of all existing organisms from the first microbe to use the DNA code, without regard to how that microbe came to be.

That said, I still agree with pretty much everything you are saying, and I think that the evolutionary community is obligated to address OOL as long as they insist on a purely naturalistic worldview in general.

And while we're on the subject, I would also like to stress that Behe's irreducible complexity is sometimes dismissed as an OOL issue, but it is much more, since the first microbes would not have any use for blood clotting, immunity, vision, and other systems Behe examines.

Of course, I agree completely with the first paragraph, and I appreciate Finley's clear statement of what I consider to be a very sensible position.

Alas, we run into trouble with the second paragraph. “Insisting on a purely naturalistic worldview” is not something “the evolutionary community” does, at least not in their roles as evolutionary biologists. There is no shortage of sensible people who adhere to various forms of theistic evolutionism. They are certainly part of the evolutionary community, but they do not adhere to a fully naturalistic worldview. People like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are certainly not bashful about expressing their atheistic sympathies, but they are not speaking on behalf of the evolutionary community when they do so.

As it happens, I number myself among those who believe that a fully naturalistic worldview is the one most likely to be correct, but I hold that view for reasons having almost nothing to do with evolution. I would certainly be happier if we had a more persuasive explanation for how life came to be. But even if we had a good explanation for how life emerged from simpler components, Finley could still challenge naturalists to explain where the simpler components came from. The infinite regress beckons...

I do think we know enough about the origin of life to say that it is unnecessary to invoke supernatural entities to explain it. And for those theists inclined to thurst the origin of life in the face of atheists, I would simply point out that I have yet to meet the theologian who can explain where God came from.

As for the third paragraph, perhaps Finley could provide an example of a scientist dismissing irreducible complexity as an OOL issue. To the extent that Behe applies his argument to the origin of the first cell, it is an OOL issue. But the answer to Behe's claims about blood clotting, immunity and the like comes in two parts: (1) Behe is wrong as a matter of logic, since there are plenty of scenarios through which natural selection can craft IC systems in a gradual, step-by-step manner. This point is strengthened by the fact that IC structures routinely appear in the course of artificial life experiments. (2) For many of the systems Behe cites, blood clotting and immunity among them, rather a lot is known about how they evolved.

Hunter in Wonderland, Part 2.7

My reply to the third part of Cornelius Hunter's essay, available here, will be up shortly. In the meantime, Hunter has posted some further comments (scroll down) on my recent posts. I will not do a point-by-point rebuttal of this latest missive - because, you know, enough already - but there is one point Hunter makes repeatedly that I feel I must respond do.

Hunter accuses me of knocking down strawman arguments in replying to him. He writes:

Rosenhouse's strawmen all follow the same pattern. It is a common pattern in these discussions, and goes like this:

1) Skeptic is told X is powerful evidence for the theory.
2) Skeptic explains why X is not powerful evidence.
3) Skeptic is told that the theory can explain X so therefore skeptic has failed to falsify the theory. Point #2 is obviously invalid and this reveals that skeptic fails to understand the theory.

In this strawman, the skeptic's point is overstated. His explanation that X is not powerful evidence is interpreted as an attempt to falsify the theory. Since the skeptic failed to falsify the theory, he must be all wrong, and the ridicule follows. Here's how Rosenhouse uses the strawman three times in the blog.

As a specific example of me using this style of argument, Hunter writes:

Next, Rosenhouse has claimed that the fossil record is strong evidence for evolution. True, the fossil evidence provides evidence, but I also point out that the evidence has substantial problems and must be seriously caveated. The fossil record has substantial gaps and convergences. And when something as phenomenally complex as the trilobite eye appears abruptly in the fossil record, that is not exactly “powerful evidence” for evolution. Evolution has no explanation of how it could have arisen.

Now, I think Hunter's writing strongly implies that we should reject common descent. But since he insists that was not his intention, I will take him at his word. In the comments section to my earlier posts Richard Wein asked Hunter to clarify just how, exactly, he explains the various lines of evidence cited by evolutionists if not by common descent. Perhaps he will tell us in some later post.

Sadly, Hunter uses the strawman charge to avoid responding to the arguments I actually made. Nearly all of the arguments I made in response to Hunter related to the fact that what he considers caveats to the evidence for common descent, are, in reality, not caveats. They are simply mistaken points. Again, borrowing a line from Richard Wein, some people might argue that the fact that the moon does not fall into the ocean challenges the law of gravitation. But those people are simply mistaken.

His characterization of our dispute above is itself a strawman. Line two should read: (2) Skeptic asserts that X is not powerful evidence. And line three should read:

(3) Skeptic is told that the theory can explain X so therefore skeptic has failed to explain why X provides any reason to challenge common descent. Therefore, Point #2 is obviously invalid. Since the observation that X poses no difficulty for a hypothesis of common descent relies on an elementary understanding of the theory, skeptic's understanding of that theory is called into question.

A good example of this is the paragraph I quoted above. It is my assertion that the fossil record provides strong evidence for common descent. No caveats. No ambiguity. The phenomena that Hunter cites as difficulties for common descent are, in fact, not difficulties.

He then simply repeats the charge that the convergences documented in the fossil record are a challenge to common descent. As I explained in a previous posting, they are not. He gives no consideration to the fairly obvious evolutionary mechanisms that not only show how convergences can happen, but also provide conditions under which convergence is likely to happen.

He then points to gaps in the fossil record, but discusses neither that this reflects the improbability of any particular organism fossilizing, nor the fact that modern theories of speciation suggest that a pattern of stasis and relatively rapid change is what we should expect from the fossil record.

And he once again talks about “phenomenal complexity” in the fossil record as if that term means anything. His assertion that this complexity is a caveat is simply false, as is his assertion that evolution has no explanation for the trilobite eye. As I pointed out earlier, the period between the origin of multicellular life and the appearance of the eye spans 200 million years. That's plenty of time for natural selection to produce all sorts of complexity.

This point is especially important in light of what Hunter writes next:

So again, Professor Rosenhouse places me in the position of arguing that it is impossible for such complexities to arise via evolution. He argues that “A process in which random variations are sifted through a non-random selection process can lead to outcomes far more complex than what you started with,” as though I had said it cannot. The problem is not that complexities falsify evolution, the problem is that complexities caveat the evidence for evolution. We cannot simply ignore the fact that evolution cannot explain how these designs arose. Rosenhouse wants to obviate the problem by pointing out that degrees of complexity are difficult to define. Agreed, but that misses the point. The complexities in question here are beyond the explanatory power of evolution, that is the point.

I'm sorry, but I think Hunter is tying himself into knots here. He begins by agreeing that natural selection can craft complex structures. He goes on to agree that complexity is difficult to quantify or describe precisely. But then he simply asserts that his preferred examples of complexity are beyond the explanatory power of evolution. Everything he said earlier in the paragraph explains why, to put it kindly, he really needs to elaborate on that last point. If standard evolutionary mechanisms can produce complex structures, why do his specific examples challenge the explanatory power of evolution? Actually, the complexities he cites are not caveats at all.

As I also pointed out in earlier posts, this is something that ID proponents like Michael Behe and William Dembski are quite clear about. That is why they don't talk about complexity per se, but rather try to identify special kinds of complexity evolution can not account for. Their arguments fail for other reasons, but at least they recognize what sort of argument is needed here.

Hunter points to various places where I wrote things like “Hunter claims that observation X condemns common descent” and protests that my language is too strong. Fine. Change “condemns common descent” to “should make us skeptical of common descent”. My argument goes through unchanged.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Adams on Evolution, III

Leaving aside the business about micro vs. macroevolution, it was really the first paragraph of Adams' column that caught my eye. Let me remind you that the column begins with this statement:

Recently, a reader wrote to tell me that he had lost all faith in my intelligence because I made a derogatory remark about Charles Darwin in one of my recent editorials.

What was the remark? I mean, c'mon, you just have to be a little curious, right?

So I went pawing through Adams' old columns back to the beginning of June. I found three references to Charles Darwin and - surprise! - all of them are candidates for the one that so irked Adams' reader.

Since two of these columns refer to PETA, let me mention that the reference is to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. I have some serious problems with PETA myself, so my comments below should not be construed as a defense of the rather militant tactics they sometimes defend.

In this column from August 6, entitled “Noah Responds to PETA” (yes, that Noah), Adams quotes the opening verses of chapter nine of Genesis, which recount a conversation between God and Noah after the waters of the flood had receded. After quoting these verses, Adams has Noah say:

You should listen carefully to everything Moses says because he was able to list the exact order of the emergence of all major forms of life in the first chapter of Genesis. That was long before science came about. In fact, it was written over 3000 years before the birth of Darwin, the man that is worshipped more than any other in America.

Darwin is worshipped more than any other man in America? Darwin? We are talking about Charles Darwin, the evolution guy, right? Well, I guess my work is done here. Somehow I had gotten the idea that Mr. Darwin wasn't too popular in most parts of American society.

And, by the way, the first chapter of Genesis does not accurately describe the order in which all major forms of life came about. According to Genesis, God created various sorts of plants on day three, various birds and sea creatures on day five, and land animals and people on day six. This is hardly what the fossil record tells us about the first appearances of major groups.

Then comes yet another PETA themed column, this time from July 30. Adams offers a list of questions he wants PETA activists to answer. I reproduce question two here:

2) Do you believe in evolution as described by Darwin? If yes, do you find it at all hypocritical to prefer one life form over another (e. g., mice over alfalfa sprouts), considering that Darwin's theory states that we evolved from a common life form? Doesn’t that mean we are all related and deserving of equal treatment?

I think the suggestion here is that if you are both an evolutionist and a vegetarian, then you are being a hypocrite. The logic behind this escapes me. Believing that humans, mice and alflafa sprouts all share a common ancestor somewhere in the distant past implies that it is morally permissable to eat whatever the heck you want? Huh???

PETA is not the only group of people prompting Adams to make insipid references to Charles Darwin. Gay activists bring it out in him too. Have a look at this column from June 21. In it, Adams offers up a collection of “myths” about gay activism. Here's myth number eight:

Myth #8. Because they are all very rational intellectuals, campus gay activists fully understand the problems associated with espousing a belief in a) the “gay” gene, b) a growing gay population, and c) the Darwinian notion of “survival of the fittest.”

Oh, brother. I think I just broke both my jaw and my keyboard.
Suffice it to say there is no contradiction between evolutionary theory and the idea that homosexuality has a genetic component.

In many of his columns Adams laments the fact that there aren't more right-wing academics. I think his own columns provide us with ample explanation for why that is so.

Adams on Evolution, II

The column discussed in the previous entry comes on the heels of this column from September 7. It opens with the following thoughts about evolution:

Recently, a reader wrote to tell me that he had lost all faith in my intelligence because I made a derogatory remark about Charles Darwin in one of my recent editorials. The reader seemed to suggest that IQ could be measured with a single question. Apparently, his question was “do you believe in evolution?”

Of course, that is not a good question to use on a single-item IQ exam. Intelligent people know that, since it was created, evolution has evolved into two theories. Micro-evolution tries to use Darwinian principles to explain variations within species over time. Macro-evolution tries to use Darwinian principles to suggest that all species have evolved from primordial soup.

The latter theory is less than unproven. In fact, it isn’t even scientific. I believe that it is nothing more than the new religion of pseudo scientists who think that they are atheists. It is easy to fall prey to the mistaken belief that you are an atheist in the protected environment of academia. Trust me, I’ve been there.

I think it will come as news to biologists that “evolution has evolved into two theories”. And I have no idea what he means by “Darwinian principles” here. Usually when one talks about a Darwinian explanation for something, the intention is to explain how the prolonged action of natural selection led to the formation of a complex structure through a process of gradual accretion. The idea that all modern species are related by common descent rests not on some vaguely-defined Darwinain principles, but on the accumulated evidence from paleontology, anatomy, genetics, embryology and numerous other branches of biology. The primoridal soup has nothing to do with evolutionary biology, as I have discussed in several previous postings.

Evolution is a new religion? Seeing as how it's been around for a century and a half, I think Adams uses a funny definition of “new”.

Things get weirder in the next paragraph. “Pseudo scientists who think they are atheistis”? Huh? I know scientists who are atheists and I know scientists who are not atheists, but I don't know any who are confused about the question.

Also, the sheer lack of respect for scientists here is remarkable. Adams is surely aware that virtually every university in the country either has a department of evolutionary biology, or a division of the biology department specializing in evolution. I'd be very surprised if Adams could give any coherent account of what sort of research goes on in these departments, yet he feels no shame in dismissing it all as some elaborate smokescreen for propping up an atheist worldview. In his previous column we saw that he senses nothing strange in the proposition that logical fallacies obvious to any high school student have somehow eluded the finest biological thinkers for more than a century. Do you think Adams ever pauses to say to himself, “ Maybe this subject is a bit more complicated than I'm presenting?”

Pharyngula offers some additional comments on this article here. He doesn't like Adams as much as I do...

Adams on Evolution, I

Town Hall columnist Mike Adams has been pounding the anti-evolution drum quite a bit lately. In this column, dated September 10, he demonstrates his ability to crib anti-evolution talking points from the Young-Earth literature. His column takes the form of an imagined question and answer session between a biology class and a substitute teacher. The “Ms. Derwin” referred to is supposed to be the regular teacher of the class. We'll take it one question at a time:

Q: Ms. Derwin told us that the fittest individuals in the population will leave the most offspring. When I asked her to define “fittest individuals” she said that they are the ones who leave the most offspring. Can you elaborate on that? I mean, if I told someone that the Pizza Hut is located next to the Wal-Mart they might ask me where the Wal-Mart is located. Shouldn’t I be prepared to tell them something more than “next to the Pizza Hut?”

A: I’m afraid I really don’t know the answer. It’s outside my area of ex …

The substitute teacher in this scenario, who Adams cleverly names Ms. Merx, is described as a sociologist. I think she showed impressive modesty in admitting that the definitions of technical terms within evolutionary biology are outside her area of expertise. Adams is himself a sociologist. If only he had shown similar modesty.

The answer to Adams' question is that it is not correct to say that “the fittest individuals will leave the most offspring”. It is equally incorrect to define the fittest indviduals as the ones who leave the most offspring. Rather, the fittest individuals are the ones who are expected, based on their various physical characteristics, to be more fecund than other individuals in the population. Fitness is an inherently probabilistic concept. As Stephen Jay Gould once pointed out, the fastest, smartest, sexiest, most cunning individual in the population might get struck by lightning before reproducing.

Much of what evolutionary biologists do is to try to understand how and why the incipient stages of traits found in modern organisms were likely to have been adaptive. There is nothing tautological in this. But, seriously, do you get the impression that Adams cares too much about what biologists actually do?

Q: I have a question about our reading from Richard Dawkins. He stated that an animal might have a need for five percent of an eye because it might provide him with five percent vision. Wouldn’t five percent of an eye produce zero percent vision?

A: Well, I’m afraid that it is purely a matter of speculation. I think that maybe …

Do you think maybe Adams is being a bit literal here? That when Dawkins talked about “five percent of an eye” he wasn't talking about taking a modern eye and arbitrarily removing ninety-five percent of its mass? Dawkins' point, obviously, was that possessing a structure that provides any vision at all, no matter how rudimentary, is still a big improvement over having no vision at all. In his book Climbing Mount Improbable, Dawkins elaborates at great length about what he thinks those early stages of eye evolution looked like. If Adams finds Dawkins' scenario implausible, he is free to tell us why. But presenting absurd caricatures of the arguments of people who know vastly more biology than he does really ought to be beneath him.

The column continues in this vain, with Adams repeating some more of the hoariest cliches in the anti-evolution literature. It doesn't start to get interesting again until the very end, where we find this:

Mike S. Adams ( recommends “Darwin on Trial” by Phillip Johnson and “Total Truth” by Nancy Pearcey to those who are struggling with their faith. This editorial was inspired by both.

I find it interesting that Adams recommends Johnson and Pearcey, who are themselves purveyors of some of the vilest anti-evolution rhetoric on record, to people who are struggling with their faith. The implication is that coming to believe that evolution is a dying theory should bolster your religious beliefs. I always find it a bit depressing when people suggest that it is nature's mysteries, and not our ability to unravel those mysteries, that is supposed to make us aware of God's glory.