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Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Biologist Sean Carroll in Toronto

Biologist Sean Carroll of evo-devo fame was in Toronto last Friday as part of the 2013 Science Festival. I had a chance to talk to him in the afternoon at an event organized by the Centre for Inquiry. There were about a dozen people there.

Sean is the Vice President for Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Washington DC (USA). We talked a lot about science education. One of the issues he brought up was The Clergy Letter Project. According to Sean, this is an important example of co-operation between scientists and religious leaders to support the teaching of evolution in American public schools.

I understand the politics but I find it ironic that scientists seek out religious leaders to support the teaching of evolution in the public schools. These same scientists are the first ones to trot out the US Constitution whenever Christian fundamentalists try to teach creationism. You can't have it both ways. Either religious leaders have no say in what is taught in science classes or they do.

Sean Carrol gave a talk in the evening to an audience of about one thousand. His subject was Jacques Monod and the role of chance. Coincidentally, that's also the subject of his latest book, Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize.

Sean emphasized the role of chance and accident in evolution, picking up on Monod's seminal work Chance and Necessity. From studying biology you reach the inescapable conclusion that life is the product of blind chance. It has no meaning or purpose. Monod was not the first person to recognize this but he's the one who made the best case back in 1971.

After his talk I reminded Sean that this conclusion puts science in conflict with almost all religious beliefs making it difficult for clergy to support the correct teaching of science and religion in the public schools.

"Hey, what can you do!" he said, just as someone took our picture.1

I have a signed copy of his book.

1. Not really. We were actually discussing something else.


Newbie said...

Larry wrote,

"From studying biology you reach the inescapable conclusion that life is the product of blind chance. It has no meaning or purpose."

If that is true that life has no meaning or purpose, what are you doing here? Your blog is a part of (your) life, so it also has no meaning or purpose...doesn't it?

steve oberski said...

Eating babies with shellfish in mothers milk while wearing mixed fabrics.

I'm still torn on whether that goes best with a red or white wine.

Any thoughts ?

Unknown said...

The only "meaning in life" they (atheists) have is when they get a high from their prideful boasting. You can observe it here if you look carefully. It doesn't matter to Larry or Coyne what the mechanism of evolution is. It only matters the mechanism they promote and believe in. This is all they have..".I'm in charge" If someone disagrees, he is an idiot or an IDiot, depending on their beliefs...

Chris Caprette said...

"I understand the politics but I find it ironic that scientists seek out religious leaders to support the teaching of evolution in the public schools. These same scientists are the first ones to trot out the US Constitution whenever Christian fundamentalists try to teach creationism. You can't have it both ways. Either religious leaders have no say in what is taught in science classes or they do. "

I don’t think that they are trying to have it both ways. There is nothing ironic about seeking support from one group of religious leaders that are in favor of the teaching of actual science in science classes while opposing other religious leaders that seek to teach sectarian doctrines in science classes. There is nothing hypocritical (which I think is what you are implying here) about scientists who use US constitutional prohibitions against the teaching of sectarian religion in public school science (or any) classes fighting alongside religious leaders that feel the same way.

steve oberski said...

I think we should exchange recipes.

I've heard that it's OK to pair a Cabernet Sauvignon with fish.

As an xtian what's your call on that ?

steve oberski said...

It's analogous to seeking support from homeopaths who are in favour of teaching actual chemistry in the classroom.

At the end of the day you have aligned yourself wackaloons who aren't honest enough to consistently apply their belief system.

Unknown said...

Yes, I have one. You are an uneducated and ignorant moron, who will believe in anything as long as it not an uncomfortable truth.

I have a question for you though: Explain to me again where the bases come from? What about the ribose? Where does that come from? Did someone "poof" it into existence? How about nucleotides?

Now, Would you like to "eat it" red or white wine?

Unknown said...

You are brainwashed. Who says I can't have fish with Molson Canadian? Is it going to upset my stomach? Cabernet Sauvignon can as it is often very dry especially if it is a mix of cheap and shitty vines. Ask Larry, he drinks diet coke with his fish and he is fine... Why not? YOU only live once.

Chris Caprette said...

I think that this is a bigger problem for the clergy than for scientists. It is their (the clergy's) beliefs that cannot hold up to scientific scrutiny. Your homeopath example is analogous in that it is the homeopaths that would face a decreasing population of marks were they to take the approach you describe in your analogy.

Chris Caprette said...

No, you are an idiot if you willfully ignore evidence that does not support your favored supposition. Larry Moran for instance favors chance and contingency over selection as the major driving force in evolutionary history and he marshals substantial evidence and solid arguments in favor of that. Others favor natural selection and they have evidence supporting their view but it is weakening as we learn more about molecular evolution. Neither of these positions is defended by argument from authority. One collection of conjectures, however, have no evidence in support and are exclusively defended by argument from authority: all flavors of creationism.

Unknown said...

Did I hear evidence? Finally! Just present the evidence that, I'm sure should, and it always does, eliminate personal preferences... I'm also sure that you will not disappear after this post because your arm will get immobilized or your are not going on a vacation and you don't know when you are coming back? Let's see the evidence!

Mikkel Rumraket Rasmussen said...

Life has no intrinsic meaning or purpose. Meaning and purpose is something we construct for ourselves, find find our own meaning in life, we set ourselves to our own purposes. We're human beings, that's what we do.

We don't have to have meaning handed down to us from on high, we have the freedom to construct our own meaning and purpose.

It doesn't in this respect matter whether you think a god has somehow thought up a purpose for you, or if you invent one yourself. Whether through god or your own mind, your purpose and meaning is still just the construction of some guy's opinion.

Too bad, get over it and enjoy your life.

Larry Moran said...

Champagne goes well with babies. I prefer Veuve Cliicquot [see Reims].

mregnor said...

Larry said:

"From studying biology you reach the inescapable conclusion that life is the product of blind chance. It has no meaning or purpose."

Probably the most dense stupid I've read in the entire Darwinism debate. Are you kidding Larry? Live is saturated with purpose and teleology. You can't even discuss biology without incessant relevance to purpose-- DNA is for coding, the heart is for circulation, white blood cells are for defense, glucose is for energy.

The statement that the study of biology reveals an absence of purpose borders on mental illness. You've f***ing crazy.

Mikkel Rumraket Rasmussen said...

Wow are you dumb. All these things happened to evolve into doing what they do, they're not FOR anything. They're no more purposeful than melting snow on top of a mountain range is intended to create a river at the base.

Purpose and teleology implies foresight and intent, none of which exists in evolution.

Just because it's possible for you to construct a grammatically correct sentence that declares certain biological structures have purpose doesn't magically transform that statement into a fact. You're making shit up.

Of course, all you're realling telling us is that you don't understand the concepts of a random walk, geological time and natural selection.

And no, before your tiny creationist brain blows another fuse, natural selection does not imply intent either. The hydrodynamic drag imparted on a physical structure with volume and surface area, no more intends to shape an evolving aquatic mammal into the shape of a dolphin than, again, that snow on top of the mountain intends to form a flowing river in summertime. The fact that it happened doesn't mean it was ever intended.

Get over it.

mregnor said...


The heart is not FOR anything?

Walter Bock at Columbia has suggested that biologists stop using the language of purpose to describe biology. It's a fool's errand.

You can't say anything coherent about the structure and function of living things without incessant reference to purpose.

Describe what enzymes do without invoking the purpose-- increasing the speed of chemical reactions. Describe what lungs and kidneys do without invoking respiration and excretion.

Biology is saturated with purpose.

Mikkel Rumraket Rasmussen said...

They do what they do, that doesn't mean they were intended for it. Why can't you fathom this elementary fact?

The snow analogy should make it obvious to any thinking person with more than 3 braincells. The fact that some particular entity exists and does something doesn't mean it is intended for it. Is it sinking in yet?

Doing something =/= evidence of intent/purpose.

This is elementary logic, Egnor.

Yes, I'm perfectly capable of describing what takes place inside living organisms without invoking purpose and intent. I simply describe the actions that take place. Enzymes catalyze chemical reactions. There, I've described what they do. That still doesn't mean they somehow intend to do ir, or that something else intends for them to do it.

Action =/= intent.

The heart pumps blood. There, that's what it does. No intent implied.

Snow melts in warm sunlight. Intense sunlight melts snow. It's what happens, it doesn't imply intent.

No, biology is not saturated with purpose. What is saturated with purpose is the taint of your religious goggles than you somehow just can't seem to look beyond. This failing is yours.

Again, the fact that you can construct a meaningful sentence in english doesn't mean that it amounts to a statement of fact.

steve oberski said...

Take this opportunity to review Michael Egnor's entry at American Loons to help you put his illuminating commentary into perspective.

Michael has his very own blog now (his mom would be so proud) but remember to update you tetanus shots before visiting and and don't forget to rinse your brain in bleach after leaving.

Robert Byers said...

AMEN and more. I agree with the equation.
Either religious leaders can or can not have a say in what is taught in science class!!
As a YEC we would say their purpose is to get "religious" people against creationists and so they are forced, again, to be inconsistent in their actions.

YEC don't want religious leaders either dictating science class but we do want the people to decide about these things as otherwise someone else is deciding and censoring what we think is true.
Its also a equation that censoring creationism in science class is saying officially its NOT true.
If so who says! If they say its religious then they are saying religious doctrines are false on these matters. So breaking the very law they invoke for the censorship.
Seems that way from suburban Toronto here.
Evolution is not the only thing that fails under close analysis.

mregnor said...


The heart does many things. It makes noise, pumps blood, fills the space between the lungs so they don't bump each other when you breathe, keeps your esophagus from sagging forward, gives your aorta something to attach to, provides a nice income for heart surgeons, etc...

Only one of these things is genuinely relevant to biology. The heart has a purpose, and the scientific study of the heart depends critically on the fact that it has a purpose and that we understand its purpose.

Whether the heart's purpose is evidence for God is another debate. But the assertion that biology/the heart manifests no purpose is mind-numbingly stupid.

Anonymous said...

Bobbie, whether as pretence or as an authentic creationist, you have elevated stupidity to an undeniable artistic level.

Mikkel Rumraket Rasmussen said...

Egnor, you skipped the lesson on logic back in school.

performing an action =/= intent

Why can't you just get this? It's like you're incapable of grasping basic logic. Things do what they do, this doesn't mean, nor entails, that they're meant to do so by anything.

I know your religious halluscinations keeps you from even entertaining the thought of this, but this is your problem not mine. I can only repeat logically elementary statements of fact and hope you somehow wake up and have an epiphany of understanding.

No amount of blindly claiming and declaring that biology is laden with intent - is going to make it into a fact, as if merely speaking the words entail their truth.
You can tell me a trillion fucking times that the heart pumps blood, it still does not entail that it is meant to.

It is nothing short of a miracle of nature that a grown man is incapable of fathoming something so elementary.

Stay dumb.

mregnor said...


I haven't made the case here that there is an intent behind the heart. Of course there is, but that is not now my argument.

My argument is simple: the heart does many things-- fills space, makes noise, pumps blood, looks red and meaty.

Only one of those things is its purpose. Biology is saturated with purpose.

Denying it is idiotic.

Diogenes said...

Smegnor, don't you have something better to do, like falsifying medical records or something? You know, like your hero, space traveller and record falsifier Dr. Eben "Proof of Heaven" Alexander, whose fraudulent travels in outer space you courageously celebrated.

Now Smegnor equivocates between the meaning of "purpose" and "intent." Now he says he never claimed "intent" but he did claim "purpose." In his original comment, he actually said "teleology."

Imagine that Phil Spector is found in a locked room with a dead blonde with a gunshot in her head, and Phil has a smoking gun.

Judge: Did you intend to shoot her?

Spector: I had purpose, but not intent.


What we want to know today is: How can you define teleology?

Smegnor: "Describe what enzymes do without invoking the purpose-- increasing the speed of chemical reactions."

This is the kind of ignorance about enzymology that I expect from a creationist MD.

Most enzymes, like most Christian preachers, are promiscuous. In the case of preachers, it means they're bonking the church secretary. In the case of enzymes, promiscuity means that they interact with a broad range of substrates. Most things that interact with ATP will interact with GTP or ADP or sometimes NADH, or vice versa.

This is from Smegnor's first comment:

"Live [sic] is saturated with purpose and teleology."

Teleology is the cutting edge science of the twelfth century. It's monastic, or more specifically scholastic, theology.

Smegnor is predictable and he will respond by listing the names of some dead white Christian philosophers so as to establish his intellectual bona fides.

We don't care. We kicked his ass in the hilarious thread where he boldly claimed no atheist could understand the oh-so-sophisticated "proofs" of God's existence, which we then refuted-- every one-- and and he misspelled "Leibniz" 11 times, and we finally got Michael Egnor to admit his God does not exist. That thread is still there, and still funny!

Teleology: If glaciers melt, their purpose is to melt. If the moon reflects light, its purpose is to reflect light.

Those are real creationist arguments, not parodies of creationism.

Now here is a parody of creationist arguments: if priests molest kids, their purpose is to molest kids.

If object Q interacts with X, Y and Z, which interaction is its "purpose"?

Mikkel Rumraket Rasmussen said...

Only one of those things is its purpose. Biology is saturated with purpose.
You're back to just claiming this blindly into thin air. Once again, you have done nothing to substantiate it as being true, only declared it and then dressed it up with the additional claim that to deny it means one is an idiot.

Wow, that's so clever Egnor. *facepalm*

The heart does something =/= the heart was intended to do it.

Logic, Egnor, LOGIC.

The whole truth said...

mregnor, as with most other words, purpose, or 'a' purpose, or intent, or teleology, or function can be interpreted in more than one way.

Based on what you've said on the internet it's obvious that you imagine purpose or 'a' purpose (a function) on the scale/degree of a so-called god, and specifically the alleged christian god. That so-called god is alleged to be omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, eternal, infinite, perfect, etc. The 'ultimate' purpose of that so-called god is usually alleged to be the special creation of humans so that it has something to worship it, and to have obedient worshipers spend eternity with it in something called heaven, while torturing the non-worshipers for eternity in a lake of fire.

Do you believe that the alleged christian god created and determines purpose, or 'a' purpose (a function), of/for every biological thing? By biological thing I mean even the parts of parts of parts of parts of biological, or 'living' things.

Do you believe that the alleged christian god has an 'ultimate' purpose of/for every biological, or living thing? What do you imagine that ultimate purpose to be? Is there anything in the universe that is not created or determined (intended) to have purpose, or 'a' purpose (a function) by the alleged christian god? Does evil have purpose, or 'a' purpose (a function), including an ultimate purpose? Where did/does evil come from? Where did 'God' come from?

un said...

That's not how I understood Larry's statement. It seems from the overall context that Larry meant to say that the study of biology reveals that there's no (ultimate) purpose or meaning in life. In other words, we're discussing purpose and meaning in the philosopher's sense, and not from the point view of an engineer. And this idea stems directly from the discussion about contingency and necessity, which is the basic theme that Monod discussed in his famous book. The same idea was also extensively discussed in Gould's writings (especially in his book Wonderful Life).

The heart, the liver, and enzymes in the cell do serve functional requirements (which we may liberally call a purpose), but that has no bearing whatsoever on the question of whether life has an ultimate meaning or not. If the evolutionary process is contingent, and (for the most part) subject to random influences, then we can't really speak of any ultimate cause for our existence or for the existence of any organ or functional biological entity. If we or those organs that we're speaking of didn't evolve, something else would have evolved. It's perfectly conceivable to imagine our world still dominated by single-celled organisms, life forms that you wouldn't even recognize, or no life at all.

Anonymous said...

Hands are wonderful things with many purposes. One of those is sticking fingers in one's ears so that you don't have to listen to reason.

mregnor said...


Biological structures and processes have purposes. It can be said that the definition of biological science is that it is the study of purposes in living things.

The question of ultimate purpose is another matter. My point here is that it is moronic and dishonest to deny purpose in biology.

The link between purpose and God is a matter of dispute. Aristotle seemed to believe that teleology (which loosely corresponds to what we call purpose) does not necessarily point to God's existence (he demonstrated God's existence by an argument from change, not teleology)

Aquinas believed that teleology pointed to God (the Fifth Way). I believe that Aquinas was right.

There is purpose in biology, and the onus is on the metaphysician who believes that natural purpose can arise without ultimate purpose.