Sunday, November 24, 2013

It's Complicated

If you haven't read it, Fred Reed (Fred on Everything) ventures afield from his usual topics into trying to make sense of evolution vs. intelligent design in an essay he calls The Bugs in Darwin (h/t to DumpDC).  It's long, for which Fred apologizes, but strikes me as the highlight of the weekend on the various blogs.  As usual, I give you a teaser.  Go read the whole thing:
Impossibility Theory

If you look at evolution from other than the perspective of an ideological warrior who believes that he is saving the world from the claws of snake-handling primitive Christians in North Carolina, difficulties arise. Chief among these is the sheer complexity of things. Living organisms are just too complicated to have come about by accident. This, it seems to me, is apparent to, though not provable by, anyone with an open mind.

Everywhere in the living world one sees intricacy wrapped in intricacy wrapped in intricacy. At some point the sane have to say, “This can´t be. Something is going on that I don´t understand.”

Read a textbook of embryology. You start with a barely-visible zygote which, (we are told) guided by nothing but the laws of chemistry, unerringly reacts with ambient chemicals to build, over nine months, an incomprehensibly complex thing we call “a baby.” Cells migrate here, migrate there, modify themselves or are modified to form multitudinous organs, each of them phenomenally complex, all of this happening chemically and flawlessly. We are accustomed to this, and so think it makes sense. The usual always seems reasonable. I don´t think it is. It simply isn´t possible, being a wild frontal assault on Murphy´s Law.

Therefore babies do not exist. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Unless Something Else is involved. I do not know what.
As a Bible reading believer, I think I can answer the "what" question, but I'm happy to see Fred questioning everything.  Questioning is the beginning of wisdom.  Fred links to a book called "Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution", on National Review's list of the 100 most important nonfiction books of the twentieth century, and includes some great things to ponder the complexity of.  

I've written about this topic before, because I believe the complexity of life precludes a Darwinian explanation of how we got here.  I'm not saying Intelligent Design is a provable scientific principle, I'm saying Darwinian evolution is not a provable scientific principle either.  Neither one is what I consider to be hard science.  What experiment could you conduct that would start with pure, inanimate chemicals and end up with Venus flytraps and penguins (flightless waterfowl)?  When a look at any one of literally thousands of known biological systems shows a system that simply could not have evolved through competition of millions of single point mutations, or one that had to spring up at its full level of complexity, the gradualism of Darwinian evolution breaks down.   (Punctuated equilibrium theories don't get you out of the mess, either because they depend on gradual evolution as well)

Go read. 
The bacterial flagellum, simplified view.  The similarity to an electric motor is so strong, some writers even call it a motor, complete with rotor and stator.  And apparently a clutch.  Can you imagine this system working with a hodgepodge of assembly methods and parts in a hundred different orientations?  Would a non-working flagellum provide survival advantage so that the right one could evolve?  National Science Foundation picture.


  1. Great post. Fred is definitely going to have some poo flung his way from the hard-core evolution believers over this. I agree with you; I think I know Who did all that fine work.

  2. I'm just going to leave this here...

  3. Ok, let us suppose that life, the universe, and everything is too complicated to have arisen naturally, and is the result of Something Else. Let's call that something else God, for convenience.

    Who, then, created God? If the complexity of a watch demands an intellegent creator, does not the complexity of the watchmaker?

    If we can say "God has always existed and did not need a creator", then could we not say the same thing about the Universe?

  4. Except... Darwin didn't talk about how life originated from nothing. He talked about how animals adapted to their environments to make new species.

    And he nailed that, otherwise that dog in the living room would still be a wolf and the chihuahua wouldn't exist at all.

    Can we please stop claiming he came up with things he didn't?

  5. Angus is absolutely correct. Organisms evolve, and that is undeniable, and easy to demonstrate. The fact that we are now having to deal with antibiotic resistant bacteria is a great example.
    The other thing that bothers me here is the apparent misunderstanding about how science works. A theory is a scientific principle that is supported by evidence, and has not yet been disproved by contrary evidence. For example, it is a theory that the Earth orbits the sun.
    There is no way to positively PROVE any theory, including evolution, and the best that any honest scientist can say is that the evidence suggests that the theory is correct, and no evidence has yet come to light that would disprove the theory.
    Is there an experiment that would start with chemicals and end with penguins? Maybe, but the experiment would have to replicate the conditions that produced the result, and with a time scale that took over the hundreds of millions of years that the original took.
    Most importantly, we know that evolution takes place, and we know that random mutation is the cause, and that some mutations are better suited for survival and are thus 'selected' to continue the organism.
    The chief problem that we have here is that humans, who mostly live for less than a century, have no concept of what a million years actually means when talking about change.
    Andrew also nailed it: It is a dishonest, circular argument to say that "Since I do not understand how people came to be, they must have been created, and since they were created, there must be a creator."
    It is laughable for someone to say that since something is so complex that they do not understand it, that a deity must be responsible for it. How would an iPad, a modern jet fighter, or even a pocket calculator appear to someone in ancient Rome?

  6. There are people who angrily defend their beliefs right or wrong and those who really don't mind what someone else thinks. The problem comes in when a "believer" in anything insists others must believe in the same thing. This is the fatal flaw in the AGW theory, i.e. "the science is settled". I don't believe in god or the bible or intelligent design, but I don't care that others do. Since my life experience has shown me that almost all of the people I have met who were religious were good people I am more then happy to live and let live. As for the issue of teaching evolution or creationism in school we should always try to stay within the bounds of what we know to be true. Science and the scientific method is not perfect but far better then all the other options. If someday science shows there to have been intelligent design behind life on earth I wil embrace the science. Until then I am a happy agnostic/athiest who does not mind or care what others choose to believe.

  7. Ditto Divemedic.
    The wildly improbable becomes much less so given a billion years and the surface of a planet.
    And failures. Lots and lots of failures. There are the failures we see in the fossil record, and the failures we don't see because one-offs have a way of getting lost in all that space and time.
    Then figure in the weakest anthropic principle: if we hadn't happened, we wouldn't be here to comment on it. And if some other sapient species had emerged, instead, and I were a sort of brainy chicken pecking at the keyboard... well, that would be just about as improbable.
    It's not like evolution has a goal; it's just a process that happens, and we see the critters that managed to survive in the environments in which they found themselves.

  8. Explanatory note: had to work 11 hours yesterday, on a task that makes root canal seem like a pleasant vacation, so that made visiting here impossible.

    Also explanatory: one of the reasons I've rarely posted on this topic is that I've had every single one of these conversations about a billion and six times, so I'm frankly rather more interested in newer ideas. I'm also about as a hard-nosed an empirical physicist as you'll find anywhere, probably more so than any of you. If an experiment can't be done, I can't get too interested in it. It's just that I've spent a 30 year career making elegant circuit models in expensive design software that don't work exactly as simulated - and Maxwell's equations or network analysis are a hell of a lot more defined than evolution. I'm very cautious of mathematical models, although I do make my living from them.

    Ideas like "The wildly improbable becomes much less so given a billion years and the surface of a planet." (not to pick on anyone) are the "big numbers save everything" approach. I need more proof. I need hard numbers. I think if one can state the number of critical reactions that are needed for "life", state a reaction rate and number of molecules available, you could put numerical bounds on that. If the first life on earth appeared a mere 500 million years after the planet cooled, that doesn't leave all that much time for the chemistry to have happened. Although being the only "life form" in an ocean of your food would have tremendous survival advantage - as would being the first predator to feed on that life form.

    While I've seen guys with real academic cred do probabilistic calculations that say the universe isn't old enough for intelligent life to emerge, when I consider how many assumptions must be built into such a calculation, I think it requires as much faith to accept that as any modern religion, so I don't accept it. Then I see "reality TV" and think they're right; intelligent life hasn't emerged.

    1. Part II

      I don't think Fred said selection doesn't happen (and I would absolutely never say such a thing). I understand that Darwin's work was "On the Origin of Species" and not the standard model of cosmology, which gets invoked to get to this point. I've read all of Steven J Gould's books on evolution. And I completely understand the difference between "share a common ancestor" and "developed into". I was "classically trained" in modern evolutionary theory, after all.

      But, on a philosophy of science level, how do you know that organisms are evolving today? If you say you found a new species of something, say a new Finch, how do you know it emerged recently, and not just that it had never been seen in a survey before? Are MRSA - antibiotic resistant staph - a different species? I mean, doesn't the "SA" just stand for "Staph aureus" - the same genus and species as the non-resistant staph? Selection is going on, but it's not a new species.

      I would never say that, "Since I do not understand how people came to be, they must have been created, and since they were created, there must be a creator." I have no qualms about saying I don't understand things, it's that second leap I don't make. I believe we will learn more about how these things happen, and I don't believe that the only justification for believing in God is that there are gaps in your knowledge. I believe that philosophical line is called "God of the gaps". What I'm saying is that we don't have a valid scientific theory that describes the origin of life. If that makes people uncomfortable: oh, well. We're not always allowed to be "comfortable".

      The essence of a scientific theory, vs a "philosophy" is that it is falsifiable. That there is an experiment that can be done that falsifies - not one that proves it. I don't think that either Darwinian evolution or Intelligent Design (or whatever you want to call it) can be falsified by experiment.

      And since I'm boring myself, here, I feel really sorry for you.