Thursday, October 14, 2004

Arnold on Wright/Dennett

Blogger Geoff Arnold has some insightful comments on the whole Wright/Dennett affair. Start here and follow the links contained therein. I especially liked Arnold's concise summary:

The obvious solution would be for Wright to simply state:

“When I wrote the Beliefnet piece, I believed that Dennett's statements during our interview constituted an acceptance of a 'higher purpose' viewpoint. However it is clear from what Dennett has said, in that interview and subsequently, that he does not hold this viewpoint. I therefore recognize that my inference must have arisen from a mutual misunderstanding.”

Would that be so hard?

Exactly right.

In this post Arnold mentions that Robert Wright's website has a wide selection of interesting interviews with various prominent scientists and theologians. I am happy to concur with this assessment. I'm disappointed with the way Wright handled his interview with Dennett, but with this one exception (well, OK, two exceptions. That article about Stephen Jay Gould was pretty weak) his writing is always interesting and thoughtful. His website has a lot of food for thought.

Kramnik 5.5-Leko 6.5

Two more draws in the World Chess Championship. With twelve games down Kramnik still trails by one point, meaning he must win one of the remaining two games to keep his title.

Game eleven was another quick draw. Leko had white and showed no desire to extend his lead. I still think this is a mistake; sitting on a one-point lead sounds like a recipe for disaster.

In game twelve Leko whipped out the Caro-Kann Defense for the first time in the match. It was a good choice. Unlike the Ruy Lopez that has shown up in every other game where Kramnik had white, the Caro is passive but solid. Kramnik managed to generate some pressure, but Leko's defensive skills were up to the task.

Leko will have white in game thirteen, which is likely to end in a draw. If that happens then Kramnik will be in a must-win situation in the final game of the match.

Loyal chess fans will no doubt remember the conclusion of Karpov-Kasparov IV from 1987. After 22 games of a 24 game match the score was tied. Karpov then brought his A-game to game 23, broke through Kasparov's beloved Grunfeld Defense, and pulled into the lead. This left Kasparov having to win game 24. Could he pull it off? Yes! Kasparov won game 24, tied the match, and kept his title. This cemented Kasparov's reputation as not only one of the greatest players of all time, but also as one of the most mentally tough.

Will Kramnik be able to do the same? Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Discovery Institute Responds to Wired Article

Recently Wired magazine published this article, by Evan Ratliff, about the attempts by ID proponents to get their thinly-veiled religious agenda into high school science classes. The article was notable for it's clearly skeptical view of ID, and also for Ratliff's journalistic integrity in not blindly accepting ID propaganda. For example, one of the highlights of the article were these three paragraphs:

Meyer hands me a recent issue of Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews with an article by Carl Woese, an eminent microbiologist at the University of Illinois. In it, Woese decries the failure of reductionist biology - the tendency to look at systems as merely the sum of their parts - to keep up with the developments of molecular biology. Meyer says the conclusion of Woese's argument is that the Darwinian emperor has no clothes.

It's a page out of the antievolution playbook: using evolutionary biology's own literature against it, selectively quoting from the likes of Stephen Jay Gould to illustrate natural selection's downfalls. The institute marshals journal articles discussing evolution to provide policymakers with evidence of the raging controversy surrounding the issue.

Woese scoffs at Meyer's claim when I call to ask him about the paper. “To say that my criticism of Darwinists says that evolutionists have no clothes,” Woese says, “is like saying that Einstein is criticizing Newton, therefore Newtonian physics is wrong.” Debates about evolution's mechanisms, he continues, don't amount to challenges to the theory. And intelligent design “is not science. It makes no predictions and doesn't offer any explanation whatsoever, except for 'God did it.'”

For those not familiar with Woese's work, basically he has shown that lateral gene tranfer, in which genes from one organism are inserted directly into the genome of another, is a particularly important mechanism of evolution for microorganisms. This makes it effectively impossible to resolve genealogical relationships between various species of bacteria. Two species may have similar genes because they inherited them from a common ancestor, or they may be similar as the result of direct transfer.

Consequently, Woese will occasionally say something like “Biologists must move beyond the idea of common descent” and ID folks will twist this to mean that we should abandon the idea of evolution. In reality, Woese's work is far more damaging to ID folks, since gene transfer is yet another method by which genetic complexity can increase by natural causes.

Anyway, the Discovery Institute was not happy with the Wired article and have now posted this response. After a smug, snarky opening in which they accuse Wired of making forays into science fiction, they make a number of bullet points relating to “obvious fictions” included by Ratliff in the article. I will respond to them here:

Ratliff repeatedly conflates creationism and the theory of intelligent design. Yet intelligent design differs from creationism in both its content and methodology. Intelligent design is inference based on data from biology, chemistry, physics, and astronomy not a deduction from religious authority. It provides an explanation for the complexity of life, not a theory about the age of the earth or the days of creation in the book of Genesis.

There is no such conflation in Ratliff's article. He is quite clear that ID proponents claim to base their work on scientific evidence, not revelation, and in several places points out ways that ID differs from creationism. For example, early in the article he writes:

And so, the theory goes, we must be products of an intelligent designer. Creationists call that creator God, but proponents of intelligent design studiously avoid the G-word - and never point to the Bible for answers. Instead, ID believers speak the language of science to argue that Darwinian evolution is crumbling.

Actually, though, it should be pointed out that creationists claim to base their conclusions entirely on scientific evidence as well. That was the whole point of “scientific creationism”. The criticisms of evolution made by ID proponents differ from those of creationists only in their level of sophistication.

Here's the next bullet point:

Ratliff claims falsely that Ohio public schools will now include intelligent design in high school biology lessons. Instead, Ohio biology students will be required to “critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.” In practice this will mean knowing the scientific strengths and weaknesses of the theory.

No such claim is made in Ratliff's article. Instead, here is what Ratliff actually wrote:

Several months after the debate, the Ohio school board voted to change state science standards, mandating that biology teachers “critically analyze” evolutionary theory. This fall, teachers will adjust their lesson plans and begin doing just that. In some cases, that means introducing the basic tenets of intelligent design.

Exactly right. ID is nothing more than a handful of crticisms of current evolutionary theory coupled with the assertion that a higher intelligence (God) exists. In many Ohio school districts, the phrase “critically analyze” will be interpreted to mean “parrot ID's criticisms of evolution&rdquo. These criticisms are the basic tenets of ID.

Here's the next criticism:

Ratliff claims incorrectly that Ohio’s model lesson teaching students to critically analyze evolution is “based on ID literature.” Instead the scientific criticisms of Neo-Darwinism enumerated in the lesson are based on criticisms of the theory found in peer-reviewed biology journals. This can be verified by checking the references in the model lesson on the State of Ohio Department of Education website.

Typical ID sophistry. Listing a handful of references at the end of your lesson plan does not mean that the content of that lesson is based on what those references actually say. In this case, the content of the lesson plan is based on the interpretations (and massive distortions) of ID proponent Jonathan Wells as presented in his book Icons of Evolution. This was the piece of ID literature Ratliff has in mind in the quote above. Wells' pathological dishonesty has been amply documented elsewhere (see this article for example).

Discovery's next point is that Stephen Meyer is identified in the article as a professor in the School of Ministry at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Actually, he is a Professor in the Conceptual Foundations of Science. Point to Discovery! But if this is their fourth-best criticism of Ratliff's article, I'd say he did a very good job.

Their final criticism is:

Ratliff claims that design theorists have made no progress in their publishing program since the publication of Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box in 1996 and William Dembski’s The Design Inference in 1998. Yet design theorists have published numerous articles in peer-reviewed or peer-edited scientific books with publishers such as Michigan State University Press, Wessex Institute of Technology Press and Cambridge University Press.

Yawn. Once again, Ratliff makes no such assertion. Here's what he actually said:

For Discovery, the “thin end” of the wedge - according to a fundraising document leaked on the Web in 1999 - is the scientific work of Johnson, Behe, Dembski, and others. The next step involves “publicity and opinion-making.” The final goals: “a direct confrontation with the advocates of material science” and “possible legal assistance in response to integration of design theory into public school science curricula.”

Step one has made almost no headway with evolutionists - the near-universal majority of scientists with an opinion on the matter. But that, say Discovery's critics, is not the goal. “Ultimately, they have an evangelical Christian message that they want to push,” says Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science at Florida State. “Intelligent design is the hook.”

It's a lot easier to skip straight to steps two and three, and sound scientific in a public forum, than to deal with the rigor of the scientific community. “It starts with education,” Johnson told me, referring to high school curricula. “That's where the public can have a voice. The universities and the scientific world do not recognize freedom of expression on this issue.” Meanwhile, like any champion of a heretical scientific idea, ID's supporters see themselves as renegades, storming the gates of orthodoxy. “We all have a deep sense of indignation,” says Meyer, “that the wool is being pulled over the public's eyes.”

So what about the books from Michigan State, Cambridge, and Wessex? The Michigan State anthology was edited by Stephen Meyer and John Angus Campbell, and was entitled Darwinism, Design, and Public Education. It was published as part of a series on Rhetoric and Public Affairs. The articles were not peer-reviewed for their scientific content. The Cambridge anthology was entitled Debating Design, edited by William Dembski and Michael Ruse. The point of this volume was to give ID folks a chance to make their case. The pro-ID articles in the volume were not put through a conventional scientific peer-review process. As for the Wessex volume, I'm afraid I don't know that one. Anyone have any idea what they're talking about here?

Having run out of alleged errors of fact, Discovery turns to errors of omission. I won't bother to address those here.

The reason Discovery finds it impossible to deal honestly with Ratliff's article is that they are used to journalists rolling over for them in the name of journalistic objectivity. Someone like Ratliff, who actually bothers to check out what he is told by partisan sources, is new to them.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Alternate Reality from Breakpoint

One of the frustrating things about dealing with religious conservatives is their ability to exist, in perfect happiness, in an alternate reality of their own creation. A glorious example of this is available in this article from Breakpoint.

The column's author, Allan Dobras, is trying to undertand why there is so much animosity towards George W. Bush. He begins with:

The scorn and vitriol heaped upon President Bush by his detractors during the three years plus of his presidency go far beyond political disagreements over how to best answer the pressing needs of the nation. There is little doubt that the president elicits a genuine and personal hatred from his critics, not only in this country but abroad as well. The question is, why?

In a strange dichotomy, President Bush is arguably one of the most decent men to have ever occupied the White House. He rarely has an unkind word to say about his critics even when they go after him with swords drawn. Insiders in the White House have nothing but good things to say about him and he comes from a respected, religious family that has endured decades of public life with nary a hint of scandal.

Wow. He rarely has an unkind word to say about his critics? Perhaps, but only because he has surrgoates willing to do that work for him. Ask John McCain if Bush had any unkind words to say about him during the 2000 Republican campaign. Ask Paul O'Neill or Richard Clarke how they were treated when they publicly criticized the President. Ask General Erik Shinseki what happened to him after suggesting, in Congressional testimony, that controlling Iraq after overthrowing Saddam Hussein might require more troops than Bush seemed to think. And that doesn't even consider all the people who have been told since 9/11 that they were on the side of the terrorists, or that Osama Bin Laden wants Democrats to win. It sure seems to me that Bush has had a few unkind words to say about John Kerry! Can Dobras actually believe what he is writing here?

And the Bush family has endured decades of public life with nary a hint of scandal? What? The first President Bush was intimately involved in the Iran-Contra scandal. Neal Bush ran one of those failed Savings and Loans his father had to bail out early in his Presidency. Jeb Bush allowed thousands of elgible, mostly minority, voters to be expunged from the rolls in the 2000 election, thereby handing his brother the Presidency. George W. Bush's tenure at Harken Energy was investigated by the SEC. Nary a hint of scandal?

Finally, we should not let slide the implication that since the Bush family claims publicly to be religious we should somehow give them a presumption of great moral integrity.

President Bush lifted himself up from an impetuous youth to the highest office in the land in no small part due to the mentoring of evangelist Billy Graham—one of the most admired men in the world—and his personal faith is a cornerstone in his life. This story alone should be the source of great praise and admiration, not derision. So why then is there so much hatred for George Bush?

Note once more the implication that religious people are entitled to some sort of presumption of good character. As for lifting himself up from an impetuous youth, Mr. Graham's mentoring was a very small piece of the puzzle. His family's vast wealth and political connections had far, far more to do with him becoming President.

Although some may say the hatred stems from the controversy over the Florida vote during the 2000 election, the reality is that the final analysis of the vote shows that George Bush won the election under any conceivable recount circumstance. Actually, the Gore campaign can be more faulted for its attempt to manipulate the Florida vote by insisting on a recount limited to three heavily Democrat counties.

First of all, Florida law had no provision for demanding a state-wide recount. The law was quite clear that challenges to election results had to be made on a county-by-county basis. Of course Gore chose Democratic counties, but the fact remains that he had to work within the confines of what Florida law allowed.

More to the point however, this idea that Bush won the election under any conceivable recount scenario is laughably false. In fact, the only scenario under which Bush would have won is the one Gore requested: recounts in the four primarily Democratic counties. Under every other recount method proposed Gore would have won. Most significantly, the state-wide recount of the “undervotes” demanded by the Florida Supreme Court would have led to a Gore victory. Follow this link, for more information.

In fairness, conservatives were aided in this delusion by the awful reporting of many news outlets. But for anyone willing to read past the headline, it's a simple fact that Gore would have won the election had the U.S. Supreme Court not intervened. But as should be clear by now, Breakpoint columnists routinely prefer comforting delusion to grim reality.

Dobras continues:

Whether it is opposition toward some domestic political issue, his handling of the war on terror, or the war in Iraq, none can rationally account for the intensity of personal hatred leveled at President Bush as he seeks reelection. The answer to the “why,” is really part of an issue that simmers just below the surface but nonetheless evokes a level of hatred—and fear—that can only be understood in the context of the conflict between enduring truth and spiritless relativism. That is, a clash between two mutually exclusive worldviews—one driven by religious faith and the other driven by secular humanism.

He just keeps topping himself! Opposition towards the decisions made by the Bush administration is can not rationally account for the level of personal animosity toward the President? The fact that every justification for the war that he provided has turned out to be false is not adequate justification? The fact that he cherry-picked which pieces of information to consider and release to the public? The fact that his deputies told the country we faced the risk of Iraqi nuclear weapons if we didn't go to war? The fact that he sent his Secretary of State to deliver a pack of lies to the United Nations? The fact that he has favored economic policies that favr the rich at the expense of future generations who will have to pay down the massive debt he has created? None of this, or coutnless other similar decisions, is sufficient justification for hating our President?

Apparently not? Apparently it is only hatred for Bush's faith that can explain the animosity levelled against him.

Of course, this is ridiculous. But it is another nice example of just how badly the religious right needs to believe that they are an oppressed minority, uniquely good in an ocean of secular rotteness.

The column goes on for a few more paragraphs. Frankly, I stopped here.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Prayer Studies

Have a look at this properly skeptical article from The New York Times about studies into the healing effects (or lack thereof) of prayer.

In 2001, two researchers and a Columbia University fertility expert published a startling finding in a respected medical journal: women undergoing fertility treatment who had been prayed for by Christian groups were twice as likely to have a successful pregnancy as those who had not.

Three years later, after one of the researchers pleaded guilty to conspiracy in an unrelated business fraud, Columbia is investigating the study and the journal reportedly pulled the paper from its Web site.

No evidence of manipulation has yet surfaced, and the study's authors stand behind their data.

But the doubts about the study have added to the debate over a deeply controversial area of research: whether prayer can heal illness.

Critics express outrage that the federal government, which has contributed $2.3 million in financing over the last four years for prayer research, would spend taxpayer money to study something they say has nothing to do with science.

“Intercessory prayer presupposes some supernatural intervention that is by definition beyond the reach of science,” said Dr. Richard J. McNally, a psychologist at Harvard. “It is just a nonstarter, in my opinion, a total waste of time and money.”

Prayer researchers, many themselves believers in prayer's healing powers, say scientists do not need to know how a treatment or intervention works before testing it.

Dr. Richard Nahin, a senior adviser at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, said in an e-mail message that the studies were meant to answer practical questions, not religious ones.

“We only recently understood how aspirin worked, and the mechanisms of action of various antidepressants and general anesthetics remain under investigation,” Dr. Nahin wrote.

He said a recent government study found that 45 percent of adults prayed specifically for health reasons, and suggested that many of them were poor people with limited access to care.

“It is a public health imperative to understand if this prayer offers them any benefit,” Dr. Nahin wrote.

Some researchers also point out that praying for the relief of other people's suffering is a deeply human response to disease.

I think a distinction needs to be made between studies where the patients know they are being prayed for and those where the patients do not know this. There is some evidence that prayer provides some benefit in the former case, but the effects are small enough that they are almost surely explained as the result of a placebo effect. It would be interesting to see a study in which the patients are divided into those who believe that prayer is effective and those who do not.

Anyway, the more interesting situation is when the patients do not know they are being prayed for. There are a handful of studies suggesting that prayer is effective in this case as well. Sadly, all of them reside under dark, stormy clouds. One common flaw is described in the article:

In the experiments, the researchers did not know until the study was completed which patients were being prayed for. But experts say the two studies suffer from a similar weakness: the authors measured so many variables that some were likely to come up positive by chance. In effect, statisticians say, this method is like asking the same question over and over until you get the answer you want.

“It's a weak measure,” said Dr. Richard Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia who has been critical of prayer research. “You're collecting 30 or 40 variables but can't even specify up front which ones” will be affected.

The article also points out that if a properly conducted study does eventually show a connection between prayer and healing, some serious theological problems would be raised:

Either way, even many churchgoers are skeptical that prayer can be subjected to scientific scrutiny. For one thing, prayers vary in their purpose and content: some give praise, others petition for strength, many ask only that God's will be done. For another, not everyone sees God as one who does favors on request.

“There's no way to put God to the test, and that's exactly what you're doing when you design a study to see if God answers your prayers,” said the Rev. Raymond J. Lawrence Jr., director of pastoral care at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center. “This whole exercise cheapens religion, and promotes an infantile theology that God is out there ready to miraculously defy the laws of nature in answer to a prayer.”

Exactly right. It's hard to see how such studies could actually end up benefitting religion. If they are unsuccessful, that would be evidence that prayer is ineffective. But if they are successful, you are left with a fickle God who makes life and death decisions based on who asks him nicely for intervention.

The article contains several other interesting nuggets. Definitely worth your time.

Kramnik 4.5 - Leko 5.5

Ten games down in the World Chess Championship. Four more to go.

Leko had white in game nine. Kramnik switched openings once again, this time trotting out the Queen's Indian Defense. The players bashed out fifteen moves of a trendy variation, and looked to be settling down to a nice long game. Sadly, the players signed the peace treaty a few moves later; another draw. This was very disappointing for all the fans watching the game live on the internet. It was also a serious strategic error for Leko. He had the momentum coming off his crushing win with black in game eight. If he had won game nine, or at least put Kramnik under serious pressure, it would have solidified the psychological shift in the match. Letting Kramnik off with a quick draw effectively came him an extra day to recover.

It was a mistake Leko nearly came to regret in game ten. After an early queen trade out of a Ruy Lopez, it quickly became clear that Kramnik had a significant advantage. Not quite enough to win, perhaps, but Leko was definitely back on his heels. Sadly, Kramnik played too quickly, bashed off a series of careless moves, and allowed Leko back into the game. Leko didn't need to be asked twice and showed some good technique to reach a drawn position.

Since Kramnik retains his title if the match ends in a tie, Kramnik only needs one win and three draws in the remaining four games. Will he be able to pull it off? Or will we see our first non-Russian world chess champion since Bobby Fischer? Stay tuned!

Sunday, October 10, 2004

The Wright-Dennett Affair

Robert Wright is well-known as a political commentator for magazines like The New Republic and Slate. He has also written two books on evolutionary biology, The Moral Animal and Nonzero. The former dealt with evolutionary psychology. The latter was a defense, contra Stephen Jay Gould, of the idea of progress in evolution.

Anyone interested in evolutionary biology will know who Daniel Dennett is. He is the author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea among many other important books. He is also quite open about his atheism. He is typically mentioned in the same breath as Richard Dawkins by creationists looking for an evolutionist bogeyman to flog.

Wright maintains this website where you can find numerous interviews with various scholars addressing The Big Questions of human existence. Recently, Wright interviewed Daniel Dennett. That interview can be viewed by following the link above.

After conducting the interview Wright posted this article describing a supposed concession made by Dennett during the interview, and that is where our story begins.

Wright's Characterization of Dennett

Wright's article is smug and self-congratulatory throughout. The truly remarkable passage occurs early on:

I have some bad news for Dennett's many atheist devotees. He recently declared that life on earth shows signs of having a higher purpose. Worse still, he did it on videotape, during an interview for my website (You can watch the relevant clip here, though I recommend reading a bit further first so you'll have enough background to follow the logic.)

Dennett didn't volunteer this opinion enthusiastically, or for that matter volunteer it at all. He conceded it in the course of a dialogue with me—and extracting the concession was a little like pulling teeth. But his initial resistance makes his final judgment all the more important. People who see evidence of some larger purpose in the universe are often accused of arguing with their heart, not their head. That's a credibility problem Dennett doesn't face. When you watch him validate an argument for higher purpose, you're watching that argument pass a severe test. In fact, given that he's one of the best-known philosophers in the world, it may not be too much to say that you're watching a minor intellectual milestone get erected.

There are two especially important points here. First, note that Wright is quite explicit that Dennett has said something that should make atheists uncomfortable. The second is that Dennett was forced to this concession as a result of Wright's ingenious and persistent questioning. We will be revisitng both of these points later.

So what was the big concession? Well, first we have to take a moment to understand the argument Wright was making to Dennett:

In short: Dennett has long believed that William Paley was right to look at organisms and surmise that (a) they had a designer (in some sense of the word); and (b) this designer had imbued them with goals, with an overarching purpose (however ignoble a purpose genetic proliferation may seem to us).

The gist of the argument I made to Dennett was this: What if you took this part of Paley's logic—the valid part—and applied it not to individual organisms, but rather to the whole system of life on this planet? Doesn't it suggest that the whole system had a designer (again, in some sense of that word). To see what I mean, let's look again at an organism through Paley's eyes, only this time let's look at its whole life span, starting at the very beginning.

Wright goes on to make an analogy between ontogeny - i.e. embryonic development - and the history of life on Earth. Just as ontogeny begins with a single fertilized egg that subsequently becomes more complex and diversified, so too does life on Earth apparently being with a single bacterium, from which life evolves to become more diverse and complex. He then writes:

In other words: If you watched evolution on this planet unfold from a distance (and on fast forward), you would find it strikingly like watching the maturation of an organism (“epigenesis”). So why can't the part of Paley's argument that can be validly applied to an organism's maturation—the idea that it suggests a designer of some sort—be applied to the whole system of life on earth?

This was the argument Wright was trying to get Dennett to agree too. Wright then characterizes Dennett's remarks in a series of numbered points:

1) Dennett's climactic concession may not sound dramatic. He just agrees reluctantly with my assertion that “to the extent that evolution on this planet” has properties “comparable” to those of an organism's maturation—in particular “directional movement toward functionality”—then the possibility that natural selection is a product of design gets more plausible. But remember: He has already agreed that evolution does exhibit those properties. Ergo: By Dennett's own analysis, there is at least some evidence that natural selection is a product of design. (And this from a guy who early in the interview says he's an atheist.)

Notice that Wright is once again rubbing Dennett's concession in the faces of atheists. Also, notice that Dennett's remarks are clearly described as being hypothetical. If the evolution of life is comparable in significant ways to the process of embryonic development, then the possibility that natural selection is the prduct of design goes up. Thus, there is nothing here for atheists to get worked up about until we come to Wright's next assertion: that Dennett has conceded the validity of the analogy.

Sadly, Dennett made no such concession. And with that simple realization, Wright's triumphalism is shown to be unwarranted.

Wright's next statement is this:

2) Again: to say that natural selection may be a product of design isn't to say that the designer is a god, or even a thinking being in any conventional sense. Conceivably, the designer could be some kind of natural-selection-type process (on a really cosmic scale). So Dennett might object to my using the term “higher purpose” in the first paragraph of this piece, since for many people that term implies a divine purpose. But “higher purpose” can be defined more neutrally. You can say that organisms have a “higher purpose” in the sense that (a) they have a purpose (genetic proliferation) and (b) the purpose was imparted by a higher-level process (natural selection)—so much higher, in fact, that all organisms on earth were oblivious to it until revelation came in the form of Charles Darwin. Analogously, once you accept the argument that Dennett has now accepted, you can say that evolution's directionality is evidence of “higher purpose.”

This is an important and accurate paragraph. Dennett is quite clear elsewhere in the interview that terms like “designer” and “purpose” do not necessarily have supernatural overtones. Quite right. But since Wright understands this, why does he think that Dennett's remarks provide anything for atheists to get worried about? It is Wright, not Dennett, who is making a concession here, and that concession completely undercuts his earlier bloviations.

Wright goes on to make some further points, but since they do not relate directly to what Dennett said I will not address them here.

Is Wright's Argument Any Good?

Before continuing on with the discussion of what Dennett said vs. what Wright said he said, let's pause to consider whether Wright's argument is actually any good.

We have already seen that Wright's argument depends critically on the analogy between embryonic development and the evolutionary process generally. The analogy is roughly that in both cases we go from simple beginnings to functional complexity and diversity. If there is anything more to the analogy than that I'm not sure what it is.

The trouble is that there are obvious differences between ontogeny and evolution. In ontogeny we see the unfolding of a genetic program. Thus, the embryo goes from uniform simplicity to diversified complexity because of the instructions encoded in the genes and the cellular machinery that exists for decoding those instructions.

The process by which natural selection crafts complexity is entirely different. Natural selection does not represent the unfolding of a preordained program. Rather, it represents the end result of many years of trial and error. There is no guarantee that his process will lead to anything more complex than you started with. And even if you do, there is no guarantee that complexity will not increase for a while, and then plateau, having reached an evolutionary cul-de-sac. There is definitely no guarantee that anything like higher intelligence will emerge.

Now, elsewhere in the interview Wright expresses his belief that intelligence was indeed inevitable as a result of the evolutionary process. This assertion imparts a clear directionality to evolution. Dennett, by contrast, was far more circumspect about the sense in which evolution leads to complexity. He points out that over the “long, long, long haul” we can say that evolution will probably lead to human-like intelligence but that it is not guaranteed to do so in any finite length of time. He also describes the evolutionary process as being like a sawtooth function. Complexity will steadily increase for a while, but then the whole thing might come crashing down, say as the result of some natural catastrophe. But then it will start building up again.

So I think the analogy breaks down completely.

There is another point to be made. In embryonic development we do not have a single natural law or process causing a particular effect from a given cause. It is not comparable to saying that a rock released close to the surface of the Earth falls to the ground because of the effect of gravity. Rather, the process of development is itself so complicated that it needs to be explained in terms of something else. Most biologists would answer that the processes of development are themselves the product of natural selection.

For Wright's analogy to be valid we would now have to argue that evolution by natural selection is so complicated a process that we can not think of it as a simple natural law in the same sense that the law of gravitation is such a law. Rather, it had to emerge as the result of some sort of design process.

But this doesn't seem right. Evolution by natural selection is a simple consequence of having imperfect replicators competing for resources. That this process can, in some cases, lead to great complexity does not mean the process itself is incredibly complex. I think this is another point where Wright's analogy breaks down.

What Did Dennett Actually Say?

There is no transcript of the interview, though Wright does transcribe certain portions of it here. That is why I have not reproduced portions of that transcript here.

I e-mailed Dennett to find out what he had to say about this. He was kind enough to forward to me an e-mail that he sent to Robert Wright. He confirmed my impressions both of what he had said during the interview and what is a good way of thinking about Wright's analogy. I reprint it here with his permission:

OK. Bob, I just reviewed the video clip, and here is what you say, and
what I say:
Wright: “To the extent that . . . evolution on this planet turned out to
have comparable properties [as embryogenesis, development, epigenesis],
that would work at least to some extent, to any extent, in favor of the
hypothesis.. . ”
DCD: “Yeah, I guess. . .” (and then you cut me off and 'declare victory'.)

But all I am granting in this acquiescence is that IF evolution
exhibited the properties that embryogenesis exhibits (which it doesn't,
as I've kept insisting) this would work to some extent in favor of your
purpose hypothesis. That is, embryogenesis is not just in itself an
“evolutionary” process in that there is massive excess generation pruned
by cell death, etc., but it is also a DESIGNED evolutionary process--the
very process has itself evolved by natural selection. But there is no
evidence that the same is true of natural selection viewed from the
widest perspective. As I have argued for years. So all I am agreeing to
here is the HYPOTHETICAL, and I've rejected the antecedent of that
hypothetical all along. You draw attention to an interesting avenue of
argument that has not been particularly well explored so far as I know,
but I don't think it is a winner. It reminds me of the Gaia hypothesis.
If life on our planet really WERE designed to be in homeostatic,
self-sustaining balance, then the Gaia freaks would be on to something,
but there is no reason to believe this.

So you forget that you'd posed a hypothetical to me, and run off with my
answer without giving me a chance to elaborate. This after a most
concerted effort to get me to agree with you that I steadfastly resist
to the point of tedium! To my ear, this is what happens:

“Wright. blahblah, Dennett, NO. Wright, blahblahblah. Dennett, No
again. Wright, blahblahblahblahblah, Dennett STILL NO. Wright, But
won't you agree that IF blahblahblahblahblah, Dennett, Well, yes, .if
all you mean is . . . . Wright, TaDAA! Dennett agrees with me!”

Not good ground for your rather inflammatory interpretation--would you
agree? I am not impressed.

What Dennett says here conforms exactly to the impression I had watching the interview.

Wright, neither in his original article nor in his reply to Dennett's e-mails (see next post) denied that Dennett was speaking in hypotheticals. The confusion seems to revolve around whether Dennett had conceded the validity of the analogy between ontogeny and evolution. Wright seemed to think that he had made this concession earlier in the interview. Dennett says he did not.

Having watched the entire interview, I'm with Dennett. It seems to me that the validity of the analogy was never discussed in any depth. Wright made the vague point that both lead to complexity from intial simplicity and Dennett is plainly uncomfortable with this analogy. But I for one didn't feel they really cleared up this point. I think this reflects badly on Wright as an interviewer.

Wright Replies

Robert Wright has posted this reply to Dennett's protestations. There are a few points in this reply relevant to my discussion so far.

Wright begins by pointing to his statements, which I quoted in an earlier post in this series, that words like “design” and “purpose” do not necessarily have supernatural overtones. He then writes:

However, I added these important qualifiers many paragraphs later, after explaining the logic of the argument for design. So readers who quit reading my piece part-way through it may have been left with the impression that Dennett had renounced his atheism or had made a more dramatic concession than he in fact made (though I still consider his concession quite dramatic, given his previous position). In retrospect, I think I should have added these qualifiers higher in the piece. In other words, I am arguably guilty of “sensationalizing” the news.

As I have pointed out in earlier posts, Wright made it very clear that Dennett had said something in his interview that should make atheists uncomfortable. But since Wright agrees that “purpose” and “design” do not necessarily have supernatural overtones, there was absolutely no justification for this assertion. In other words, even if Wright had accurately characterized Dennett's remarks during the interview, he still would not have been justified in writing what he did. Wright is not “arguably” guilty of sensationalizing the news, he is flat-out guilty of doing so.

Furthermore, Dennett conceded nothing during the interview, and the opinions he expressed there were in no way different from what he has said previously. In the sense that Wright attributed views to Dennett that Dennett does not hold, it is clear that Wright misrepresented Dennett's views. The only issue is whether Wright could have, in good faith, believed that Dennett had conceded the validity of the analogy Wright was making.

To address that charge, Wright transcribed certain portions of the interview. You can find these excerpts here. These excerpts are fairly long and really have to be read in their entirety. So I won't print an excerpt here. Here is what Wright said next, however:

In a reply to Dennett, I quoted stretches of the interview that showed the following: Not only had he not “kept insisting” on relevant differences between evolution and embryogenesis (sometimes referred to as “ontogeny” in the video clip); he had in fact spent much time agreeing with me on the similarities. If you want to read these parts of the transcript, see this excerpt of my e-mail to Dennett.

In reply to my e-mail, Dennett wrote, “I can see why you think you have me granting you your key premises, but I didn't see it that way, and still don't.” In elaborating, he slightly amended, or at least clarified, his position. He no longer denied that he had acknowledged various similarities between evolution and embryogenesis (or ontogeny--an organism’s maturation). But he said that the similarities he had acknowledged weren’t the kind of similarities that would qualify as evidence of design.

Now, Wright has a fair point that Dennett was not so insistent about the differences between evolution and embryogenesis during the interview. He was clearly uncomfortable with the analogy, but does not clearly articulate many objections to it. So Wright scores a small point here.

But I'm afraid the rest of this paragraph leaves something to be desired. Wright is responding here to the e-mail I reprinted in the previous post. Nowhere in that e-mail does Dennett deny having acknowledged certain similarities between embryogenesis and evolution. It's not as if our only choices are that evolution and embryogenesis are identical or completely different. There are clearly similarities between the two, but such similarities as they have are not adequate for drawing the conclusions Wright wants to draw. Just as Dennett says.

By all means follow the links and read the transcripts. As I've already remarked, my response to Wright's argument was precisely the one Dennett is making here. It also seems clear that the legitimacy of the analogy between natural selection and ebryogenesis was explored only in the most cursory terms during the interview. I think Wright was so interested in getting Dennett to concede something that he failed to make sure he was really giving an accurate account of Dennett's beliefs.

Wright goes on to respond to this charge at some length. I think these posts have gone on long enough so I will simply note for the record that I don't find Wright's reply convincing. There is no doubt that anyone reading either the original article or Wright's replies to the ensuing controversy will come away with a wrong impression of what Dennett believes. Wright really ought to say that forthrightly.

The Fallout

A while back Robert Wright wrote this article criticizng Stephen Jay Gould. Wright's charge was that Gould's overly dramatic writings challenging various esoteric items of orthodox evolutionary theory provided ample fodder for creationist misrepresentation. He wrote:

In truth, though, Gould is not helping the evolutionists against the creationists, and the sooner the evolutionists realize that the better. For, as Maynard Smith has noted, Gould “is giving nonbiologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory.”

Over the past three decades, in essays, books, and technical papers, Gould has advanced a distinctive view of evolution. He stresses its flukier aspects—freak environmental catastrophes and the like— and downplays natural selection's power to design complex life forms. In fact, if you really pay attention to what he is saying, and accept it, you might start to wonder how evolution could have created anything as intricate as a human being.

Wright is being very unfair towards Gould here. Nothing Gould ever wrote downplayed natural selection's power to design complex life forms. If you asked Gould where eyes or wings came from, he would give the same answer as every other biologist: the prolonged action of natural selection acting on chance vairations. He does precisely that during the PBS Evolution series, among other venues.

But what is relevant here is that Wright, in his overly sensational mischaracterization of Dennett's views, has done exactly what he accuses Gould of doing in this article. He has provided creationists with new ammunition to use.

For example, here's how the ID proponents at Access Research Network have characterized Wright's article:

Philosopher Daniel Dennett, who, in 1995, published a book called Darwin's Dangerous Idea is now reluctantly admitting that life on earth shows “signs of having a higher purpose.”

Totally false, but totally justified by Wright's article.

I'm sure we'll be seeing more of this in the future.


Here's is what it comes down to, as I see it:

  1. Daniel Dennett conceded nothing during his interview with Robert Wright, and he has not changed his views in any way regarding the existence of a “higher purpose” to evolution.

  2. Wright's argument in this regard, briefly, is that there is a strong analogy between the processes of embryonic development and the process of evolution by natural selection. Just as the processes of development require a design explanation, so too does the process of evolution by natural selection.

  3. Wright's belief that Dennett was agreeing to this argument was based on some ambiguity (and some wishful thinking) during the original interview. Dennett agreed only to some superficial similarities between development and evolution, while Wright interpreted this to mean that Dennett was granting his argument.

  4. Wright's original article implies that atheists should be disappointed by things Dennett had said during the interview. This implication was entirely unjustified by anything Dennett had said, even given Wright's misinterpretation of Dennett's intentions. Ditto for the tone of smug triumphalism Wright employed in that article.

  5. Both his original article and his subsequent reply have given readers a false impression of Daniel Dennett's opinions on this matter. Wright should say this unambiguously. I don't believe Wright intended to misrepresent Dennett's views, but the fact remains that he did so and needs to come clean about it.

  6. Wright's argument fails because the analogy between development and evolution is too weak to sustain the conclusions he is drawing.