Link Roundup and Facial Hair Update

As regular readers may remember, when our team of underdog bloggers triumphed last month in a fund-raising contest for Camp Quest, I vowed to grow a beard so as to prove that PZ Myers wasn't the only atheist overlord out there who could boast of manly facial hair. Well, that experiment is underway as we speak.

At the end of the month, I'll post before-and-after pictures with the results. In the meantime, the beard is still in an incomplete state, and I don't want it seen by the prying eyes of search engines until it's in its full glory. But if you want to see updates, I've been posting them every week or so on my Facebook wall - so if you're a fellow user of that sinister privacy-robbing corporate behemoth, why not send me a friend request? My friends list is sadly short compared to some of my fellow bloggers, and I'd like to take steps to rectify that.

And you know, it's the strangest damn thing, but ever since I started growing this beard, I've begun to find marine invertebrates unaccountably fascinating. Here's a mini-link roundup of some stories I've come across that I thought were worth sharing:

June 18, 2011, 5:22 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink9 comments

Darwin's Long Regret

Since we've been reading a lot lately about scientists pandering to religion, it's worth remembering that there's nothing new under the sun. As long as there's been science, there have been believers who fought fiercely to prevent their god of choice from being dislodged from a gap, and there have been scientists who felt obliged to placate them. Even some of humanity's greatest scientists felt this pressure, and bowed to it on occasion. Here's one example, which I first read about in Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale.

The final page of the first edition of Origin of Species, published by Charles Darwin in 1859, concludes with this eloquent statement:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

But the second edition, published a year later, makes one small but significant change, which you can see highlighted in the online variorum:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

The phrase "by the Creator" was added by Darwin as a sop to religious people who were upset by the implications of his theory. But though the change persisted in later editions of Origin, he was never happy about it. In a letter three years later to his colleague Joseph Hooker, Darwin expressed regret for having inserted it:

But I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion and used the Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant "appeared" by some wholly unknown process. It is mere rubbish thinking, at present, of the origin of life; one might as well think of the origin of matter.

I can't help being reminded of similar scientific regrets, like when Albert Einstein added a fudge factor, the cosmological constant, to general relativity to counterbalance the force of gravity and accommodate the then-fashionable belief in a perfectly static universe. If he'd left it out, he would have been able to predict from his own equation that the universe was dynamic, as Edwin Hubble proved just a short time later with the discovery of galactic redshifts. He later called this his biggest blunder, and it seems Darwin viewed this change in a similar light.

In Darwin's writing, we see both of the threads that the scientific community has been wrestling with ever since: the desire to tell the truth, no matter what, and the desire to pay tribute to people's preexisting beliefs to make them see scientists as friends and not enemies. If there's a lesson to be drawn here, however, it's that this sort of clumsy pandering rarely works (as Darwin himself would have agreed). The theistic language Darwin added, of course, did nothing to placate the religious groups who saw uncomfortable implications for their beliefs in his theory. Neither did it stem the creationist backlash that's still going strong.

With that in mind, shouldn't modern scientists take the lesson that they should speak the truth as they see it above all else? Watering down a theory by finding gaps to insert God into will only decrease its scientific merit, without making any difference to the diehard fundamentalists who will never accept any idea that challenges their beliefs. It's better to disregard religion altogether: study the world and learn what it has to teach, and don't worry about the fleeting superstitions that cry objection when their self-proclaimed fields of sovereignty are infringed.

June 4, 2011, 5:59 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink7 comments

The Language of God: Micro vs. Macro

The Language of God, Chapter 5

By B.J. Marshall

Before tackling the gritty details using DNA evidence to support human evolution, Collins addresses Darwin, mutations, and the "rather arbitrary" distinction between microevolution ("incremental changes within a species") and macroevolution ("major changes in species") (p.131-2). In my discussions with Creationists, the micro- v. macro-evolution thing always comes up. So I was pretty excited to see how Collins would cover this topic.

He does a fairly decent job mentioning how we've seen lots of changes within species, such as finch beaks changing shape over time. He also discusses saltwater v. freshwater sticklebacks and rapid variation in viruses. He even brings stickleback evolution into a DNA setting by stating that the specific gene - EDA - has repeatedly and independently appeared in freshwater, resulting in sticklebacks losing their plates. Oh, but it gets better, because humans also have an EDA gene, and "spontaneous mutations in that gene result in defects in hair, teeth, sweat glands, and bone" (p.132). So, Collins adds as he tries to connect sticklebacks to humans, it's not tough to see how the differences between sticklebacks could be extended; "larger changes that result in new species are a result of a succession of smaller incremental steps" (p.132). And that's fine for highlighting "microevolution," which is something Creationists can believe anyway. And it's even good for alluding to macroevolution given his "succession of smaller incremental steps." But he only ever leaves it at the hypothetical.

He does his readers a disservice when he claims "we haven't seen new species arise" without expanding on what speciation is (p. 132). Additionally, he leaves the door open to Creationists by saying macroevolution only consists of "major changes" in species. Speciation is kind of a vague line but is usually delimited by two species' ability to interbreed; they usually can't or, if they do, their male offspring are sterile. And the fact is that we have observed speciation in a number of instances. One example is in polyploidy organisms that contain a multiple or combination of complete genomes; these usually result in new organisms that, due to the number of chromosomes, can't reproduce with their originating species. It's called allopolyploidy if genome duplication happens through crossing two different species. Another way speciation can occur is through sexual isolation, such as in ring species such as the Ensatina eschscholtzi salamander.

But, regardless of whether we've observed speciation, Collins gives Creationists a foothold by leaving it up to interpretting what constitutes "major changes" in species. For example, perhaps the inability to breed isn't too bad, because all those salamanders still look very salamandery. It's not like you get a crocodile and a duck together!

Other posts in this series:

January 16, 2011, 4:30 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink8 comments

Evolution Isn't a Moral Theory (Except When It Is)

A Review of When Atheism Becomes Religion, Part I

At the beginning of chapter 2, Chris Hedges says that science is a "morally neutral discipline" (p.45) which offers potential for both good and evil. He goes on to assert:

Evolution is a biological theory that helps us grasp descent, with modification, within living species. It is not a theory about economic systems, government, morality, ethics or the behavior of nations. [p.46]

So far, so good - there's nothing in that paragraph that I disagree with. But a little later on that very same page, Hedges excoriates people who believe in moral progress as follows:

Darwinism sees our animal natures as intractable. It never attempts to argue that human beings can overcome biological limitations and create a human paradise. It infers the opposite. The belief in collective moral progress is anti-Darwinian. [p.46]

So, evolution isn't a theory about morality, and yet belief in moral progress is contradicted by evolution. I scarcely need to point out that these statements can't both be true.

This sloppy, careless self-contradiction reminds me of Francis Collins and John Haught, both of whom said that it's a misuse of science to make statements about whether the universe has purpose - unless you're arguing for purpose, in which case appealing to science is totally legitimate. It's only the conclusions they disagree with that they think science can't legitimately be used to defend. Hedges is doing the same thing.

So, who are these evil scientists who misuse Darwinism to argue for moral progress? Hedges' villain of choice is Richard Dawkins, whom he quotes as follows:

He writes that the human species, unlike other animals, can transcend its biological map: "We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."

...Wilson and Dawkins build their vision of human perfectibility out of the legitimately scientific theory that human beings are shaped by the laws of heredity and natural selection. They depart from this position when they assert that we can leave that determinism behind. There is nothing in science that implies that our genetic makeup allows us to perfect ourselves. (p.53)

Hedges is sparring with his own fantasies, since none of the atheists he quotes ever use the word "perfect". That was his choice of words, not theirs. It's a bad sign when the linchpin of your argument depends on putting words in your opponent's mouth.

What Dawkins was actually saying, and which should be obvious, is that human beings can evaluate the reasons for or against acting in a certain way and then choose on that basis - even if those choices contradict the instincts instilled in us by our evolutionary past. For example, we can choose to never have children - or adopt and spend our lives caring for a genetic stranger's children - in spite of the overriding evolutionary imperative to pass on one's genes. We can choose not to eat sugary and fatty foods, despite our appetite's subconscious promptings to store up calories for the next dry season. We can choose to suppress territorial and xenophobic urges and settle conflicts peacefully with diplomacy. Atheists' pointing out these incontrovertible facts of human nature become, to Hedges, further proof of our complete depravity.

The interesting follow-up question this raises is, what does Hedges believe we should do? Later in the chapter, he declares his opposition to "memetic engineering", which he defines as the process of "disseminating good memes and curtailing bad ones" - i.e., trying to teach people to behave morally. He calls this plan "a new variation of thought control" and fulminates that "it would result in anti-intellectualism, a war on science and democratic freedom, and a silencing of those who fail to conform" (p.66). We should steer clear of it because evolution teaches us that "human nature is fixed and irredeemable" (p.67).

The idea that anything about us is "fixed" is a laughable distortion of evolution, and "irredeemable" is one of those value judgments which Hedges earlier told us has no place in science, though he seems to have forgotten that. But what he's really saying, it seems, is that people will never be any better than they are now, so we should give up trying. Moral education, in his eyes, is "thought control" and "anti-intellectualism", and it's more important that we not silence those who urge us to do evil. Is this man an exemplar whose views we should prefer to those of the New Atheists?

Other posts in this series:

December 10, 2010, 6:43 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink14 comments

Movie Review: Creation

Last night I had a chance to see Creation, the independent film by British director Jon Amiel that presents an account of the life of Charles Darwin and his struggle to write his great work, On the Origin of Species, while mourning the death of his beloved daughter Annie. The movie is based on Annie's Box, the biography of Darwin written by his great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes.

The movie opens promisingly, with Darwin's eldest daughter Annie asking him to tell her a story. He obliges her by describing how Robert FitzRoy, captain of the H.M.S. Beagle, kidnapped four children from the "savages" of Tierra del Fuego and brought them to England to be raised as Christians. On the Beagle's second voyage (the one Darwin joined as ship's naturalist), FitzRoy returned the children to their tribe with the intent of having them act as missionaries, but the outcome wasn't at all what he had expected. (This is a true story, if you were wondering.)

Back at Down House, Darwin's home in the English countryside, he's visited by his friends Joseph Hooker and Thomas Huxley. Both of them are aware of the theory Darwin has been working on for years, and both of them urge him to collect and publish all his research. Huxley, a firebrand agnostic, is gleeful at the prospect of striking a fatal blow against religious orthodoxy, while Hooker is less anti-clerical and motivated more by what he sees as the scientific merit of the idea. Darwin himself is conflicted, recognizing his theory's potential to undermine religious belief, but far less certain that this would be a good thing. As the movie goes on to show, this is due mainly to the influence of his staunchly Christian wife, Emma.

As the backstory expands, we learn more about why Darwin has delayed publishing his theory for so many years. He's been grappling with a mysterious illness that renders him an invalid for long periods; his family life is increasingly strained and his wife increasingly distant; but most important, we find out, is the death of Annie. She died at the age of ten, and her absence still hangs like a shadow over the household. Of all Darwin's children, she was his favorite, and he's wracked by grief over her passing and tormented by the thought that he was somehow responsible. In repeated flashbacks, we see his affection for her, her budding talent as an amateur naturalist, and her clashes with her mother and the local vicar as she begins to speak up for her own father more passionately than he ever did for himself. Her spirit still haunts Darwin - literally, as she pops up throughout the movie, whether as memory, ghost or hallucination, to converse and at times to argue with him as he puts off writing and agonizes over whether to set pen to paper. Of course, we know how this story ends!

If there's anything I didn't like about Creation, it was its tendency to veer into melodrama. The middle third of the movie seemed overwrought to me, in particular an especially silly nightmare sequence where Darwin dreams that his stuffed and pickled lab specimens come alive and attack him. And while Darwin's imagined conversations with Annie's ghost were acceptable as a narrative device, it got excessive in some places. There's more than enough genuine dramatic gold in the historical details of Darwin's grief over his daughter's death, his struggling with his loss of faith, and his clashes with his devout wife over whether he was jeopardizing his eternal fate by publishing his theory. And the movie did touch on all those points, but I really don't think it was necessary to have a scene where Darwin dashes through the grounds of Down House, shouting out to a hallucination of Annie, while his servants look on in horror. The movie also makes very frequent use of flashbacks, and at times I found it hard to tell whether a scene was supposed to be occurring in the present or the past.

That said, there was much to like about the movie as well. It was extremely well cast: Paul Bettany, who plays Charles Darwin, gives a brilliant, deeply human depiction of a man who is tormented, fallible, but bears a deep love for his family and a fierce devotion to the truth. Jennifer Connelly, Bettany's actual wife, is fully believable as the straitlaced Emma, who loves and fears for her husband but ultimately comes around, to an extent, to his point of view. ("You have made me an accomplice," she says in one of the movie's most memorable lines.) Jeremy Northam, who plays the local reverend, serves as a dramatic foil to Darwin in some extremely effective scenes. And Martha West, who plays Annie, is a treasure.

The movie was also gorgeously shot, giving a strong sense of time and place to the story. The scenes of nature, whether in Darwin's cabin on the Beagle or the forests of the English countryside, were well chosen to complement Darwin's unfolding ideas and to give a sense of where he got his inspirations. And it was a very smart touch to have Bettany narrate parts of the story by reading actual passages from Origin of Species. Charles Darwin wrote some true poetry, and his words are mesmerizing when spoken aloud.

The last third or so of the movie was especially powerful, with some outstanding scenes that more than made up for the weaker ones earlier on. When Darwin pleads in prayer for Annie's life, there wasn't a dry eye in the theater, including mine. And that, I think, is Creation's greatest strength: it shows Darwin not as a stuffy, gray-bearded scientist or a Christian-hating polemicist, but as a human being, a father and husband, who's deeply conflicted about what he's about to unleash on the world but ultimately must go ahead because of his devotion to the truth. This nuanced, sympathetic portrayal of Charles Darwin the man could be just the kind of thing we need to increase public acceptance of his theory (and if you need any further proof, consider that the Christian reviewers loathed it). If this is a subject that appeals to you, Creation is definitely worth your time to see.

February 6, 2010, 10:25 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink20 comments

The Case for a Creator: Complexity Is Scary!

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 8

In the previous installment, I discussed how creationists steer well clear of doing any real science. We can see another example of this in, ironically, the way Strobel falls all over himself lauding Michael Behe as a Real Scientist:

He has authored forty articles for such scientific journals as DNA Sequence, The Journal of Molecular Biology, Nucleic Acids Research, Biopolymers, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Biophysics, and Biochemistry... He is a member of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution, and other professional organizations. [p.196]

(Side note: Why is Behe a member of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution?)

But never mind that parentheses. Just take a look at Michael Behe's impressive scientific track record! See how many prestigious peer-reviewed journals he's published in! Just try to refute the ID-supporting scientific arguments of... but wait a minute. Strobel has swiftly stepped around a very obvious question. How much of that vaunted publication record actually supports the arguments of ID?

The answer, if you don't stop at Strobel's glossy superlatives and actually go on to look at the papers, is: not much. If you look at Behe's CV, you can see that most of his work is about technical aspects of DNA and protein structure (with scintillating titles such as, "Quantitative assessment of the noncovalent inhibition of sickle hemoglobin gelation by phenyl derivatives and other known agents"). And if you look a little more deeply, you'll notice an even more interesting fact: Behe's already modest scientific output nosedives in the early 1990s. Not by coincidence, I'm sure, his much-hyped Darwin's Black Box was first published in 1996. Perhaps that was when he found out that working the creationist lecture circuit was a much easier, and far more profitable, line of business. (There was one new paper by Behe in 2004 - the only exception to what's otherwise a decade-plus publication drought. We'll come to that in a later post.)

There may be another reason for this, and we'll see it in the first section of this chapter. Guided by Strobel, Behe begins the conversation by talking about how simple Charles Darwin and his contemporaries thought that cells were.

"In Darwin's day, scientists could see the cell under a microscope, but it looked like a little glob of Jello, with a dark spot as the nucleus... Electricity was a big deal back then, and some believed that all you had to do was to zap some gelatinous material and it would come alive. Most scientists speculated that the deeper they delved into the cell, the more simplicity they would find." [p.196-7]

This claim, which apparently originated with Behe, has become a touchstone of creationist literature. Many prominent ID advocates, all using each other as their only sources, have spread the claim far and wide that early Darwinists thought cells were extremely simple. The trouble for them is that this claim is utterly false. Darwin himself (who was a skilled microscopist), wrote about the "astounding complexity" implied by what he could see of cells' organization and behavior. For details, see this post by Wesley Elsberry, which also catalogues the sloppy anti-evolutionists repeating this falsehood.

I'm sure you've guessed Behe's motivation for making this false claim: so he can dramatically whisk the curtain back and proclaim (much to Darwinists' imagined horror) that no, those tiny little cells are really complicated!

"We've learned the cell is horrendously complicated, and that it's actually run by micromachines of the right shape, the right strength, and the right interactions." [p.197]

This is Behe's cue to launch into a description of some of the molecular processes that operate within the cell. I'll spare you pages of verbiage about mousetraps and highways and motors - ID advocates still love these cartoonishly simple, Paleyesque analogies - except to note that Strobel chimes in on cue, gasping theatrically at the "stupefying complexity" [p.209] of this processes that stand revealed.

All this buildup is just so Behe can get to his overall point, which can be summed up thusly: "Look how complicated this is! Look how many different parts it has and how well they have to work together! I just can't imagine any way this could have developed gradually through evolution, can you? Let's just give up, say it must have been intelligent design, and then go home."

Lest you think that I'm being unfair to Michael Behe, he actually says something like this in this book, and in very nearly these words. Here's how he puts it:

"Now, does this microscopic transportation system [Behe is speaking about the endoplasmic reticulum —Ebonmuse] sound like something that self-assembled by gradual modifications over the years? I don't see how it could have been. To me, it has all the earmarks of being designed." [p.209]

"I don't see how it could have been": this is the argument of intelligent-design advocates in a nutshell.

I do wonder if this way of thinking is partly responsible for creationists' near-total lack of scientific output, even those who were actual scientists before joining the ID movement. Their argument is based on treating the complexity of the living world as utterly intractable and inexplicable. Is it not likely that this attitude discourages them from trying to study it? When your theology teaches you that science is a futile pursuit, why even attempt to do science?

The error at the root of this complexity phobia is the belief that evolution is incapable of creating complex things. This is implied in Behe's arguments throughout this chapter, though it's never explicitly spelled out. But why should we believe this? Evolution has been running on this planet for billions of years. It's not at all surprising that, with so much time to accumulate beneficial mutations and acquire new genes, the end products that we see today would be very complex indeed. And those molecular systems that Behe is so awed by? Many of them are found in bacteria, which number in the trillions and have generation times measured in hours. If evolution were a contest, bacteria would be the undisputed champions. Is it any wonder that there's so much complexity down at the bottom?

Other posts in this series:

January 29, 2010, 6:45 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink19 comments

A Sense of Kinship

This past summer, I was visiting the New York Botanical Gardens when serendipity struck: this beautiful little creature alighted on a stone railing around the edge of a pool, staying just long enough for me to snap this shot:

I think, though I'm not an expert, that this is a blue dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis.

I don't usually like close-up photos of insects - they have an eerie, alien feel that I find disturbing. (I admit it, I'm a mammal chauvinist.) But this one is one of the rare exceptions. Looking at it again, it's hard for me not to feel admiration for this sleek, graceful creature.

With its iridescent blue scales, its impossibly frail and transparent wings, its delicate jointed legs, it scarcely seems to belong to nature at all. It looks almost like a device, a tiny whirring clockwork machine made by some detail-obsessed jeweler - except, of course, that we humans haven't yet learned to make machines of such fine and precise workmanship, nor any that pack so many marvelous capabilities into such a small package.

So much of its head is taken up by those huge, gorgeous compound eyes, it seems it has scarcely any room for a brain to process the information they take in. Yet dragonflies have keen eyesight, and are blurringly fast and acrobatic fliers - and imagine how well-tuned their organs of balance must be, to control their pitch, roll and yaw in three-dimensional space at such speeds, a task that would overwhelm a human vestibular system. And though they seem so clumsy, so fragile - adult dragonflies can only fly, not walk, and their wings can't be folded in like a beetle's but must be held out at all times - on their own small scale, they are fearsome and effective predators. And of course, like all living things, dragonflies have one more astounding ability that human-designed devices can't match: they can make copies of themselves from the raw materials of their environment!

All in all, despite all our brains, we humans can't create anything nearly as clever, as intricate, as adaptable, or as beautiful as a dragonfly. But we shouldn't feel too bad: when it comes to forging machines, we've had barely a few hundred years of practice. Evolution has had hundreds of millions of years to refine its designs, to hone and sharpen them against the ruthless grindstone of natural selection. With that much of a head start, and with all the resources of a planet to use for trial and error, it's no wonder that even this blind algorithm produces results of a beauty and craftsmanship we can't match.

And yet, the stunning truth is that we ourselves are products of the same evolutionary process. Look at your hands, your arms, and imagine tens of millions of years of natural selection pushing and tugging on them like a sculptor kneading clay, slowly molding flesh and bone into new shapes. Imagine the skeins of DNA coiled in your cells, woven out of evolution like a tapestry from a loom. Imagine the unbroken chain of your ancestors stretching back into the misty recesses of time, each one only subtly different from the last - but even subtle changes add up, until you reach a point, untold millions of generations ago, where the ancestral lines of human and dragonfly merge into the same track.

This knowledge should fill us with awe. The fact of universal common descent via evolution means that I and this glittering blue dragonfly, no matter how distant the links, are related. When I snapped that picture, it was a family reunion, of sorts - and the admiration I felt for its intricacy and beauty is the same kind of admiration I'd feel for any talented relative whose glory reflects, even if only a little, on his siblings and cousins.

The human species is like a hiker who, having scaled a long and arduous path, can finally stop at a vantage point and look back on the journey he's taken. Looking out across the landscape, we can see our fellow travelers, each one taking a different course from all the rest, all of them spreading out from a single point of origin in the far distance. Why should we not feel a sense of kinship for all the other beings who are traversing life's winding, contingent paths along with us? And why should we not marvel all the more that our astonishing existence is not the result of deliberate planning, but of a glorious, messy, freewheeling cauldron of chance?

November 23, 2009, 6:51 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink16 comments

The Case for a Creator: The Ultimate 747

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 6

In his frequently-maligned (but less-frequently read and understood) book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins offers what I think is an underappreciated argument against all varieties of supernatural design, the "Ultimate 747" argument.

Briefly stated, it goes like this: If we accept ID advocates' reasoning, complexity and organization require a designer. Yet it stands to reason that any designer that could create a complex, organized thing must be an even more complex and organized being in its own right, and therefore even more in need of a designer of its own to explain its existence. If we consider it unlikely that creatures as complex as human beings simply exist by chance, requiring no designer, a fortiori we should consider it even more unlikely that a supernatural, human-designing deity could just happen to exist with no outside explanation. Why do we need a human-designer, but not a human-designer-designer? (The allusion, of course, is to the infamous creationist argument that evolution is like a tornado blowing through a junkyard and assembling a 747 jumbo jet.)

This argument applies with a vengeance to the claims made by Lee Strobel and Robin Collins in this chapter. Collins claims that it's absurd to invoke as-yet undiscovered laws of physics to explain why the universe (or the multiverse) exists, when we already have a perfectly suitable candidate:

"We see minds producing complex, precision machinery all the time. So postulating the existence of a supermind - or God - as the explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe makes all the sense in the world. It would simply be a natural extrapolation of what we already know that minds can do." [p.146]

Similar to William Lane Craig's argument from the last chapter, this innocent-looking paragraph smuggles in all kinds of Christian presuppositions.

First of all, it is not a natural extrapolation from "intelligent beings can create machines" to "intelligent beings can create universes". The former entails working within the cosmos and the laws of physics to shape matter to our advantage. The latter entails actually creating that matter and those laws of physics. These are completely qualitatively different abilities. One is a natural endeavor, following the principles of natural law; the other transcends natural law, by definition making it a supernatural power.

But more importantly, look carefully and you'll see where the theistic presuppositions try to slide past. Human minds are also contingent entities, brought into existence by prior causes and existing on a material substrate. Are these also traits that we should apply to God? If not, why not, since we have no experience of any mind for which these two conditions are not true? Would this not also be a "natural extrapolation" from what we know of minds?

The thread of Strobel's reasoning, if followed consistently, leads inescapably to the conclusion that God, no less than human beings, needs a prior cause and a designing intelligence of his own to "fine-tune" the conditions for his existence. Of course, this leads to absurdity, for how do we explain the existence and fine-tuned nature of that designing intelligence? These 747s just keep getting bigger and bigger the more we try.

The only way to escape an infinite regress of ever-greater intelligent designers is to assume that, at some point, complexity arose from simplicity. And we know of only one algorithm capable of doing that: the algorithm of evolution, which has amply demonstrated its ability to create marvelously complex, intricate and well-adapted systems from simpler precursors. But once you admit that this can happen, what need is there for a designer at all? Why not follow the (abundant) evidence, conclude that human beings arose from a process of evolution, and cut off the recursion at the earliest possible step?

Other posts in this series:

November 9, 2009, 6:55 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink32 comments

Another Branch on the Human Family Tree

I haven't written about any new transitional fossils in a while, so it's a great pleasure for me to mention this one: a hominid skeleton nicknamed "Ardi", a specimen of Ardipithecus ramidus. This species was known from other fossil fragments, but Ardi is one of the oldest and most complete hominids found so far, and may give us the most insight yet into what the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees looked like.

Image copyright 2009, Jay Matternes.

Ardi lived about 4.4 million years ago (by comparison, Lucy and her fellow australopithecines are about 3.4 million years old), in the Middle Awash region of modern-day Ethiopia. Today it's an arid badlands, but in that era, it was a lushly forested woodland, cool and wet but geologically active, with frequent volcanic episodes (a great boon to biologists, since volcanic rock and ash strata are easily dated with radiometric methods and give us good estimates of when a certain fossil lived). Primitive elephants, giraffes, horses, antelope, rhinos and monkeys are well-known from this area, as are other hominid specimens.

The fossil itself is believed to be a female. The bones were so poorly fossilized, according to the Science paper by Tim White and colleagues, that they would crumble if touched. The researchers painstakingly chipped them free of the rock they were encased in with dental picks, bamboo, and porcupine quills (!). From the fossil's discovery to its publication took nearly 15 years of preparation and study - but from all accounts, it was worth the wait.

In life, Ardi would have stood just under four feet tall and weighed about 110 pounds. The skull was small, about 325 cc, about the same size as a chimp's. Ardi's teeth suggest she was an omnivore, and from comparing other A. ramidus teeth and bones found in the region, White and his colleagues found little difference in tooth size or body size between male and female individuals. This suggests that their mating style was relatively peaceful, with little competition for mates (as compared to chimpanzees, who have massive canine teeth which are used to intimidate potential rivals) and possibly more stable pair-bonding and group cohesion.

Ardi's hands, feet and pelvis tell us a lot about how she got around. Hominids like Lucy show a mosaic of bipedal and arboreal adaptations - as Laelaps puts it, they "had their hands in the trees and their feet on the ground" - and Ardi shows a more primitive version of the same pattern, much as we'd expect from an ancestor of that age.

She stood and walked upright, though not as well as Lucy or as us, and her feet were becoming more rigid like ours, except that she also had an opposable big toe useful for grasping. Her arms were long enough to reach to her knees when standing upright, but her hands were not adapted for knuckle-walking. Nor did they have the specializations for climbing and hanging from trees that we see in modern apes. She still lived in the trees, but would have moved through them more slowly and carefully than chimps or orangutans, and was capable of descending to the ground and walking. This refutes the once-popular belief that bipedalism first developed when human ancestors left the forest for the savanna and adapted to stand upright so as to see over the grass - as shown by species like Ardi, bipedalism evolved before we left the trees.

Another popular but erroneous idea that Ardi refutes is that the common ancestor of humans and chimps looked basically like a chimp, and that humans have changed significantly while modern chimps are little different from our common ancestor. This is probably tied to the misconception of the "great chain of being" that sees humans as the highest or most advanced form of life on Earth. Ardi, who probably lived relatively near the time when our two lineages split, instead shows that both humans and chimpanzees have evolved and specialized since the time of our common ancestor, becoming adapted to two very different ways of life.

Other articles:

Ardipithecus: We Meet At Last. The Loom, 1 October 2009.

Tim D. White, Berhane Asfaw, Yonas Beyene, Yohannes Haile-Selassie, C. Owen Lovejoy, Gen Suwa, and Giday WoldeGabriel. "Ardipithecus ramidus and the Paleobiology of Early Hominids." Science, 2 October 2009: 64, 75-86. (full text online, requires free registration).

October 3, 2009, 3:18 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink6 comments

The Case for a Creator: Dysteleology

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 4

In the last section of his interview with Stephen Meyer, Lee Strobel brings up the dysteleological argument, asking how intelligent design can account for the faults and imperfections in the natural world that would seem to cast doubt on the wisdom or benevolence of the designer. He begins with a classic argument, the inverted retina. Quoting Ken Miller:

"We would have to wonder why an intelligent designer placed the neural wiring of the retina on the side facing the incoming light... This arrangement... produces a blind spot at the point where the wiring is pulled through the light-sensitive retina to produce the optic nerve that carries visual images to the brain." [p.86]

Meyer waves this off, claiming (without further explanation) that this arrangement is "a tradeoff that allows the eye to process the vast amount of oxygen it needs in vertebrates" [p.87], which Strobel accepts without qualm. He admits that this arrangement produces a blind spot, but "that's not a problem because people have two eyes and the two blind spots don't overlap". I'm sure the families of people killed in car accidents because they didn't see the other car in their blind spot will be relieved to hear that.

Although Meyer doesn't go into any more detail about what he means, I'm assuming it's the same argument as given here by Michael Denton. But even if one accepts the creationist argument that the retina needs extra blood supply, that still doesn't explain why there has to be a hole in it for those vessels to pass through. (It also doesn't explain why octopuses do just fine with a non-inverted retina and no blind spot - unless the designer liked them better than us.)

Moving on from this point, Meyer tries to ward off the dysteleology argument by claiming that all design has "inevitable tradeoffs and compromises". This is true, but misses the point. We're not faulting adaptations for being less than theoretically perfect, but for being demonstrably suboptimal, such that they could have been unequivocally improved by an intelligent designer without making any tradeoffs. The inverted retina is one. Another, possibly even better example is the human appendix, which in the absence of modern surgery results in about 1 in 15 people dying slowly in great pain from peritonitis. If this is the result of design, one shudders to consider the intelligence of the designer.

We move on to another classic evolutionary exaptation:

"For instance, Gould claimed the panda's thumb looks jerry-rigged and not designed. Well, experts on the panda say it's a pretty efficient way of scraping the bark off bamboo." [p.88]

Again, Meyer has obscured the argument here. It doesn't matter how efficient the panda's thumb is: the point that matters is what the panda's thumb is.

Like most vertebrates, human beings have five digits - in our case, four non-opposable fingers and one opposable finger, the thumb. Pandas have the same five digits, but they are all non-opposable. The panda's "thumb" is a sixth digit, a pseudo-finger created by enlarging and extending a wrist bone called the radial sesamoid.

The panda's thumb. On the left is the hand of a modern giant panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca. Note the five digits and the enlarged radial sesamoid. On the right is the hand of an extinct carnivorous mammal, Simocyon batalleri, a possible panda ancestor (source).

The panda's thumb is not an example of dysteleology in the sense that the inverted retina is. It's an example of evolutionary tinkering - the haphazard, jury-rigged kind of adaptation that we see again and again in the natural world, what led Richard Dawkins to call evolution a "blind watchmaker". Because of the random nature of mutation, it's to be expected that evolution would sometimes solve the same problem in different ways. On the other hand, if there is an intelligent designer, why didn't he just give the panda four fingers and an opposable thumb, the way primates have?

The jury-rigged, ad hoc nature of adaptation is just what we would expect from evolution. ID, on the other hand has no explanation for this, other than postulating a capricious, whimsical designer who repeatedly reinvents the wheel rather than reusing his own solutions from other lineages. In other words, ID advocates have to assume a designer whose work looks like the product of evolution.

To close out the chapter, Meyer resorts to another all-purpose excuse to explain any examples of dysteleology he might have missed:

"The Bible says there has been decay or deterioration because evil entered the world and disrupted the original design... Based on the biblical account, we would expect to see both evidence of design in nature as well as evidence of deterioration or decay - which we do." [p.88]

In other words: everything good can be credited to God, everything bad can be blamed on sin (although it's not explained why human sin resulted in "deterioration or decay" among other species - this is something that Christian apologists since Milton have had difficulty with). One wonders if the appendix represents "deterioration or decay", and if so, from what. Did pre-Fall humans have an herbivore's cecum filled with cellulose-digesting bacteria? Did Adam and Eve browse on grass in Eden?

On that note, it's worth pointing out that this statement seemingly places Meyer in the camp of the young-earth creationists, those who believe in a literal Garden of Eden, a literal serpent tempter and a human race descended from just two people. If that's the kind of outright nonsense that Strobel is endorsing, his claim to be presenting the latest cutting-edge science goes up in smoke. We'll get more into this topic in the next chapter.

Other posts in this series:

August 24, 2009, 7:02 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink24 comments

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