Friday, February 19, 2010

Fine Tuning and Design

There's been an upsurge in talk about the fine tuning argument for the existence of God. This is a favorite of theists since they claim that it is scientific evidence of God.

There's also been some discussion about design in nature. We're familiar with the old theistic claims that design proves God but many biologists also claim that nature looks designed—only they think that natural selection accounts for the appearance of design.

Here's Neil deGrasse Tyson poking fun at both claims and making Richard Dawkins look decidedly uncomfortable. As he says, life doesn't look terribly designed once you start paying attention.

Please, let's stop saying that life has the appearance of design. You can say that there are some features of organisms that are adaptations and these features have the appearance of design but it's silly to say that all life looks designed.

[Hat Tip: Mike's Weekly Skeptic Rant]

Monday, February 15, 2010

Michael Ruse Defends Adaptationism

Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini have just published a book called What Darwin Got Wrong. I haven't read the book but from the reviews I've seen, it's not something that I'm looking forward to. However, their main thesis is that natural selection has been oversold as an explanation for evolution and I have a great deal of sympathy for that point of view. Furthermore, I think that adaptationism—the assumption that adaption is the default explanation for everything that evolves—is a scientifically bankrupt position. I'm a pluralist.

Michale Ruse has reviewed the book for and I'd like to analyze his review in order to reveal where he goes wrong.
Origin of the specious
This new critique intends to rebut Darwin’s ideas but seems largely to misunderstand evolutionary theory.

“What Darwin Got Wrong’’ is an intensely irritating book. Jerry Fodor, a well-known philosopher, with coauthor Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, a cognitive scientist, has written a whole book trashing Darwinian evolutionary theory - the theory that makes natural selection the main force of change in organisms through the ages.
Like I said, I haven't read the book so I can't really comment on the specifics. But I can comment on what Micahel Ruse says about the book.

He begins by claiming that the authors misunderstand evolutionary theory. That may be true but it will become painfully obvious that Michael Ruse is not enough of an authority to make such a claim.

Let's begin by seeing how Ruse describes evolution. He says that "Darwinian evolutionary theory" is the theory proposing that natural selection is the main force of evolution. Strictly speaking, that's correct. What we're interested in debating is whether "Darwinian evolutionary theory" is correct as defined.

The answer is clearly "no." Random genetic drift is the most common mechanism of evolution as long as you define evolution properly. Thus, as a explanation of evolution, Darwinism is not as good as a pluralistic evolutionary theory. Although Ruse isn't clear on this, it's well known from his previous writings that he thinks of Darwinism as the preferred explanation of evolution and not just of adaptation. In fact, he rarely distinguishes between the two.

I conclude, right from the beginning of the review, that Michael Ruse has a poor understanding of evolutionary theory.
You would think that somewhere in the pages there would be one - just one - discussion of the work that evolutionists are doing today to give a sense of how the field itself has evolved. Peter and Rosemary Grant on Darwin’s finches for example; Edward O. Wilson and Bert Hölldobler on ant social structures perhaps; David Reznick on Trinidadian guppies perchance? But no such luck. A whole book putting in the boot and absolutely no serious understanding of where the boot is aimed.
Aren't those interesting examples? Just what you'd expect from a myopic adaptationist. What about studies of molecular evolution which are almost entirely based on neutral changes and random genetic drift. You'd think that someone who claims to be on top of modern evolutionary theory would recognize the growing evidence of non-adaptive change, wouldn't you?
Why write such a book? The authors would respond in two ways. First, in a section that would be better described as “What Darwin Didn’t Know,” rather than “What Darwin Got Wrong,” they tell us that today’s cutting-edge biology has all sorts of explanations of organic origins that make Darwinism otiose. We learn that life is constrained by the laws of physics and chemistry, and that something like natural selection, which supposedly molds organic life into sophisticated bundles of adaptations, simply cannot get off the ground. To the contrary, evolution is all a matter of molecular development, guided by the self-organizing laws of the physical sciences.

To which Darwinians can only respond, wearily again, that they have known about constraints since “The Origin of Species.’’ Because body weight cubes as length increases, you cannot build a cat the size of an elephant. The elegant feline legs needed for jumping must be replaced by tree trunks able to carry many pounds. And examples of plausible self organization have been fitted into the Darwinian picture for many years. A favorite example is the way that many flowers and fruits (like pine cones) exhibit patterns following the Fibonacci series, made famous by “The Da Vinci Code.’’ Chauncey Wright, a 19th century pragmatist, discussed these patterns in detail, showing how formal rules of mathematics can nevertheless yield organisms that are highly adapted and that natural selection is the vital causal element. The rules give the skeleton, and then selection fills in the details. The order of a plant’s leaves may be fixed, but how those leaves stand up or lie down is selection-driven all of the way.
In their various published articles Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini have over-emphasized "constraints" and they come off sounding like some new-agers who have just discovered molecular biology.

But the fundamental point about constraints is interesting and it's true that adaptationists have been forced to recognize it every since Gould and Lewontin published the Spandrels paper back in 1977. Most adaptationist still don't get it and Ruse is no exception, although in this case he probably gets it better than Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini. Ruse admits that there are certain physical constraints on the way plant leaves evolve, for example, but he then goes on to say that everything else is an adaptation. How does he know this? How does he know for sure that the differences in the leaves of red maples, silver maples, and sugar maples are all due to natural selection?
The second half of the book is a frontal attack on natural selection itself. The main argument is very odd. It is allowed that there is differential reproduction. Some organisms have many offspring, and some have just a few. It is even allowed that the reason why some succeed and others don’t might have to do with the superior features possessed by the winners and not the losers. At which point you might think: Darwinism wins, because what else is there to natural selection?

Not so fast, however. Our authors take as gospel the argument of the late Stephen Jay Gould and the geneticist Richard Lewontin that although some features may be adaptive others may not. This argument is then used to say that if an organism succeeds in life’s struggles, you can never conclude that a particular feature was essential for this success, because there may be other features linked to it. Perhaps it was the latter features that were essential. Natural selection fails therefore as a mechanism of change.
I take it as "gospel" that random genetic drift is an important mechanism of evolutionary change. Why do I get the impression that Michael Ruse has doubts about this? Why does he use the word "gospel" to refer to the ideas of Gould and Lewontin but not Dawkins and E.O. Wilson? Isn't that strange?

Hundreds of evolutionary biologists have written about random genetic drift and other possible mechanisms of evolution (e.g., molecular drive, species sorting). They do not claim, as Ruse implies, that non-adaptive traits become fixed because they are "linked" to adaptive ones. Is this how Ruse dismisses random genetic drift—by treating it as a by-product of natural selection?

In fairness, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini do go on about linkage in their published articles so Ruse is right to mock those silly claims. However, I wish he didn't make things worse by implying that hitchhiking is the explanation for drift.

The existence of random genetic drift does not mean that natural selection "fails. " It just means that natural selection by itself is not a sufficient explanation for evolutionary change. Perhaps Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini are confused about this—other reviews suggest that this is the case—but Michael Ruse seems to be trashing the very idea that something other than natural selection could be at play.
I read all of this stuff a couple of times. I am just not used to people giving the opposition everything for which they have asked and then plowing on regardless. But, even if you ignore the apparently shared belief that selection is at work - we may not know which features were crucial, but that hardly stops us saying that there was selection at work - the other points hardly crush the Darwinian. It has long been known that features get linked. And in any case, we can ferret out which features are most useful and which are just along for the ride. Suppose eyes, which are surely necessary, are linked to tufts of hair, which may not be. Well, experiment and see how the organisms get along without eyes and then without hair.
Non-adaptive features can arise even if they are completely unlinked to adaptive feature. Ruse doesn't seem to understand this basic concept of population genetics. And Ruse needs to take his own advice. Rather that just assume that a feature is an adaptation, you need to do the experiments. This applies to the leaves on a tree and the beaks of the finch.
Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini will not allow this, because apparently we are now ascribing conscious intentionality to the nonconscious world. We are saying the eyes were designed for seeing in a way that the tufts were not. And they stress that the whole point of a naturalistic explanation, to which the Darwinian is supposedly committed, is that the world was not designed.

In response, one can only say that this is a misunderstanding of the nature of science. The Darwinian does not want to say that the world is designed. That is what the Intelligent Design crew argues. The Darwinian is using a metaphor to understand the material nonthinking world. We treat that world as if it were an object of design, because doing so is tremendously valuable heuristically. And the use of metaphor is a commonplace in science.
Darwinist are always saying that the world has the appearance of design. Of course it's a metaphor but it's a metaphor based on the idea that natural selection, and not God, is the designer.

Ruse and his fellow adaptationists treat the world as if it were an object of design because they are psychologically committed to the idea that natural selection is responsible for almost everything. They cannot adjust to the fact that much of what we see in living things could be due to accident, or even the fixation of deleterious mutations. That's one of the reasons they have so much trouble with junk DNA and it's why they can't account for so much diversity in populations.

Here's a clue. Life doesn't actually look terribly designed. Get over it. Abandon the metaphor—it just feeds into a false notion of evolution and, incidentally, lends support to the IDiots.
Why then do we have these arguments? The clue is given at the end, when the authors start to quote - as examples of dreadful Darwinism - claims that human nature might have been fashioned by natural selection. At the beginning of their book, they proudly claim to be atheists. Perhaps so. But my suspicion is that, like those scorned Christians, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini just cannot stomach the idea that humans might just be organisms, no better than the rest of the living world. We have to be special, superior to other denizens of Planet Earth. Christians are open in their beliefs that humans are special and explaining them lies beyond the scope of science. I just wish that our authors were a little more open that this is their view too.
This is despicable. Evolutionary psychology is a broken discipline. And it's not because there is no genetic components to behavior—of course there is. It's because the field is dominated by adaptationist explanations and crazy "just-so" stories that would make Rudyard Kipling proud.

If you accept, as I do, that humans do all kinds of silly things just because of their culture and superstitions, and not necessarily because they are adaptive, then that makes us more like the other animals and not more special. If you accept that we are products of evolution by accident and not "design" (metaphorically) then that makes us farther removed from a potential designer and not closer to God as Ruse would have you believe.

Ruse and the adaptationists are the ones who skate close to the edge when it comes to supporting Christian concepts of life. They do this by conceding that we look designed when that's simply not the full story.

[Image Credit: The photo is from Paul Nelson on the Intelligent Design website. It refers to Ruse's idea that evolution is a form of religion. There's something to be said for this idea, especially when it's applied to confirmed Darwinists.]

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The "Ayes" Have It—Science and Religion Are Compatible

Shocking news from England. The General Synod of the Church of England considered the question of science and religion. By an overwhelming vote (241 -2) they concluded that science and religion are perfectly compatible [General Synod says religion and science not mutually exclusive].NCSE and major scientific organizations will be grateful for this show of support.
Launching the debate, a computer scientist, Dr Peter Capon of Manchester diocese, said: "We wish to refute the perception that you have to choose between science and faith … the crude caricature of faith as being blind and irrational. We reject the 'scientism' that claims that, in principle, science can resolve all questions capable of being answered.

"Most scientists accept that philosophy, theology and the humanities are alive and well and give insights and understanding that complement but are not replaced by scientific understanding."
Science is a way of knowing characterized by the use of evidence and rational thought. Modern disciplines like philosophy and the humanities use this approach to gathering knowledge—indeed, philosophy invented it. Thus, neither philosophy or the humanities provide insights and understanding that's outside of the scientific approach to knowledge. They are part of it, as long as they are done properly.

Theology, on the other hand, is definitely not scientific in its approach to knowledge. We'd all like to know the examples that Dr. Capon is referring to. What, exactly, are the examples of insight and understanding (i.e., true knowledge) that theology has given us? Perhaps Dr. Capon and his supporters could give us a short list of these examples, choosing one or two from each of the major religions.

Several theologies promote the existence of multiple gods. Is that insightful? What about reincarnation—is that an example of insight and understanding from theology? It's difficult to claim that theology offers real insight and understanding unless you're prepared to embrace the idea that only your religion is true. This is exactly what the General Synod is doing. They condemn the "insight and understanding" of theologies based on a literal interpretation of the Bible but claim that the Church of England has it right.

That's not rational. It's much more probable that all theologies are wrong because they rely on faith and not evidence. Like it or not, faith is blind and irrational. And that makes it incompatible with science.

Photo Credit: The Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr. Rowan Williams) with a friend.

The Flu Vaccine and Dystonia

This story has been posted on a number of blogs (Skepchick, ERV, Pharyngula) but it deserves even wider coverage.1

Do you remember the woman who claims to have been given dystonia by the flu shot? She had these strange symptoms of uncontrolled movement that were only relieved when she ran or walked backwards. At the time this was advertised as one of the important reasons to be "skeptical" of vaccinations (using the word "skeptical" as a synonym for "gullible"). Some of the students in my class last Fall were impressed enough to quote this case as evidence that there's something wrong with vaccines.

Well, it turns out that TV crews have been secretly taping Desiree Jennings and discovered that she now walks normally and even drives a car! Isn't that amazing! She was cured by some quack who injected her with vitamins and put her in a pressure chamber.

Unfortunately there were some side effects. She now speaks with a strange accent that sounds vaguely Australian—but only if you're not from Australia. This woman needs to see a psychiatrist.

The first video is the report from last October and the second is the recent expose.

1. Orac [Desiree Jennings & Dr. Buttar on Inside Edition] and Steve Novella [Well That Didn’t Take Long – Another Dystonia Case Follow Up] say thorough the scam from the very beginning.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Methodological Naturalism

Here's the abstract from a talk given by Maarten Boudry at the Darwin Conference in Toronto last November (see Good News from Gent).
Maarten Boudry, Ghent University
Methodological Naturalism as an Intrinsic Property of Science: A Grist to the Mill of Intelligent Design Theory

In recent rounds of debate between evolutionists and supporters of Intelligent Design, the principle of methodological naturalism (MN) has been an important battleground. Creationists and intelligent design proponents have previously claimed that the commitment of evolutionists to naturalism and materialism constitutes a philosophical prejudice on their side, because it rules out any kind of supernatural causes by fiat. In response to these charges, some philosophers and scientists have argued that science is only committed to something they call methodological naturalism: Science does not deal with supernatural causes and explanations, but that does not mean that the latter do not exist. However, there has been some philosophical discussion about the correct understanding of MN. The principle of MN is often conceived of as an intrinsic and self-imposed limitation of science, as something that is part and parcel of the scientific enterprise by definition. According to this view (Intrinsic MN or IMN) - which is defended by people like Eugenie Scott, Michael Ruse and Robert Pennock and has been adopted in the ruling of Judge John E. Jones III in the Kitzmiller vs. Dover case - science is simply not equipped to deal with the supernatural and therefore has no authority on the issue. It is clear that this depiction of science and MN offers some perspectives for reconciling science and religion. Not surprisingly, IMN is often embraced by those sympathetic to religion, or by those who wish to alleviate the sometimes heated opposition between the two.

However, we will argue that this view of MN does not offer a sound rationale for the rejection of supernatural explanations. Alternatively, we will defend MN as a provisory and empirically grounded commitment of scientists to naturalistic causes and explanations, which is in principle revocable by future scientific findings (Qualified MN or QMN). In this view, MN is justified as a methodological guideline by virtue of the dividends of naturalistic explanation and the consistent failure of supernatural explanations in the history of science.

We will discuss and reject four arguments in favour of IMN: the argument from the definition of science, the argument from lawful regularity, the science stopper argument, and the argument from procedural necessity. Moreover, we will argue that defining the supernatural out of science is a counterproductive strategy against ID creationism, and, for that matter, against any theory involving supernatural explanations. More specifically, IMN has been eagerly exploited by proponents of ID to bolster their false claims about the philosophical and metaphysical prejudices of evolutionists. As ID proponent Philip Johnson rhetorically noted, if science is about following the evidence wherever it leads, why should scientists exclude a priori the possibility of discovering evidence for the supernatural? Therefore, IMN is actually grist to the ID mill.
We conclude that IMN is philosophically artificial and that its attempt to reconcile science and religion is ill-conceived. QMN, alas, does not provide any such ready reconciliation either, but it does offer a sound rationale for the rejection of supernatural designers in modern science.
Here's the problem. You can't just arbitrarily restrict science to methodological naturalism. That's like ruling out supernatural explanations by fiat and not by logic. If God exists, then there's no reason why supernatural explanations can't be a legitimate part of science. This is one of the arguments made by Philip Johnson and it hasn't been adequately addressed by most philosophers.

But there's another problem with using methodological naturalism as a defense of accommodationism. How do draw the line between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism? Obviously, there's no difference for an atheist; in fact, the distinction seems rather silly. If supernatural explanations are never found to be necessary in explaining the natural world then doesn't it make sense to conclude that fairies and Santa Claus don't exist?

But for theists it's important to make a distinction so that they can adhere to methodological naturalism as scientists without having to abandon their belief in supernatural beings outside of the laboratory.

Where is the boundary and how do you tell when the line has been crossed? Accommodationists are absolutely convinced that they can tell the difference between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism but they are never very clear about explaining this difference to others.

Here's your chance. Let's see if anyone can come up with a good way of telling when the practice of methodological naturalism becomes philosophical naturalism.

Good News from Gent

While in Gent I got a chance to meet up with some members of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Gent. Jan Verbeeren (right) is a regular reader of Sandwalk. Stefaan Blanke (below left) and Maarten Boudry (below right) are graduate students who I met at the Darwin conference in Toronto in November.

It was easy to convince Maarten to join Jan and I for a beer because Jan was buying. Unfortunately, Stefaan couldn't make it so I'll have to go back for another visit.

There are at least 500 different beers made in Belgium—or so I'm told [Belgium beers]. I doubt that I'll be able to sample all of them before I leave. The ones I had in Gent were "Delirium Tremens" and "Tripel Karmeliet." They were excellent.

We talked about adaptationism vs. pluralism. It seems to be a difficult controversy to grasp if you haven't been trained as a scientist. I think the problem is that the concept of random genetic drift as a mechanism of evolution is not widely accepted among philosophers.

We also spent an hour or so talking about methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. This was the subject of Maarten's talk in Toronto last November and I think he's on to something (with Stefaan). I'll write a separate post on this topic.

The title of this post is from How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix by Robert Browning.

I SPRANG to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I gallop’d, Dirck gallop’d, we gallop’d all three;
“Good speed !” cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
“Speed!” echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we gallop’d abreast.