Selection Implies A Selector

A while back I debated making a post about an old canard that had popped up once or twice in debates. It was usually one of the red herrings that one learns to avoid if you want to try and actually stay on topic so it’s something that I never really confronted directly. I eventually decided that it was so idiotic that I changed my mind about posting at all on the subject. I decided that no one actually takes the idea seriously.

Then a couple of days ago a post showed up on UD highlighting two different articles, and wouldn’t you know it one of the main ideas brought up in one of the articles was exactly the one that I had deemed too idiotic to be taken seriously. In the article the author summarizes an argument made by Jerry Fodor, co-author of the book “What Darwin Got Wrong“.

Before I continue allow me to clarify that I haven’t read What Darwin Got Wrong, and I’m not sure whether this is an argument put forward in the book itself. The author of the article states that the particular point being made was arrived at in a personal conversation with Fodor. As such this post is aimed not at Fodor, but the author of the article itself who for all I know may have completely mangled Fodor’s point.

Anyway back to the original theme. Here’s the relevant portion of the article:

As far as I can make out, [Fodor’s point] can be summarized in three steps. Step one: Fodor notes – undeniably correctly – that not every trait a creature possesses is necessarily adaptive. Some just come along for the ride: for example, genes that express as tameness in domesticated foxes and dogs also seem to express as floppy ears, for no evident reason. Other traits are, as logicians say, “coextensive”: a polar bear, for example, has the trait of “whiteness” and also the trait of “being the same colour as its environment”. (Yes, that’s a brain-stretching, possibly insanity-inducing statement. Take a deep breath.) Step two: natural selection, according to its theorists, is a force that “selects for” certain traits. (Floppy ears appear to serve no purpose, so while they may have been “selected”, as a matter of fact, they weren’t “selected for”. And polar bears, we’d surely all agree, were “selected for” being the same colour as their environment, not for being white per se: being white is no use as camouflage if snow is, say, orange.)

Step three is Fodor’s coup de grace: how, he says, can that possibly be? The whole point of Darwinian evolution is that it has no mind, no intelligence. But to “select for” certain traits – as opposed to just “selecting” them by not having them die out – wouldn’t natural selection have to have some kind of mind? It might be obvious to you that being the same colour as your environment is more important than being white, if you’re a polar bear, but that’s because you just ran a thought-experiment about a hypothetical situation involving orange snow. Evolution can’t run thought experiments, because it can’t think.

This final step is the idea that I thought too idiotic to warrant comment before now. The idea that a selection of one thing instead of another requires someone to make that selection is ridiculous on the face of it. “Selection implies a selector” is just as flawed as “creation implies a creator”.

A bunch of seeds are blown by the wind so that some land in your yard and some land on the road. The ones in your yard are much more likely to be able to sprout and grow while the ones on the road are much less likely to be able to do so. A selection was made as to which ones live and which one’s don’t, so who decided it? No one, of course! When something dies or is prevented from reproducing it doesn’t mean that someone somewhere made the determination that that should be the case. It just means that something died or didn’t get to reproduce.

The problem here, as is usually the case, is one of sloppy use of language. The phrase “select for” implies an active role in selecting one trait over another. This error is highlighted in the quoted section with the sentence: “But to “select for” certain traits – as opposed to just “selecting” them by not having them die out…“. This implies that there are two different things happening depending on which phrase you are using. To “select for” something is to actively decide that the trait will help survival so that trait is “allowed” to propagate. To simply “select” them by not having them die out is to passively do nothing while that trait is propagated.

In reality the phrase “selects for” is not descriptive of whether selection is active or passive as implied in the article. It is descriptive of the trait being selected and whether the same passive selection which is always present is likely to result in greater prevalence of that trait. An adaptive trait is one that increases the likelihood of survival, therefore we say that it is “selected for” because that trait is likely to become more prevalent over time due to the advantages it confers on the owner of that trait. Other traits are simply “selected” because they are just along for the ride and do not affect the survivability of the owner of that trait. If they are tied to an adaptive trait they may become more prevalent over time as well, but they are by no means guaranteed to do so. Both types of selection are passive in the sense that traits were only “selected” by not having them die out. The difference is that adaptive traits modify the likelihood of survival itself by simple virtue of their existence…without needing to have anyone or anything dictate that fact.

Having said all of that, I understand that, at least in the authors eyes, the fact that some traits which are “selected for” are inextricably linked to others which are not is an important point. The question seems to be essentially “how does it know whether to select for the adaptive trait and not the non-adaptive trait?” or possibly “how does it know to select the non-adaptive trait along with the adaptive trait?” (a quick reminder that I’m referring only to what I’ve read in the article, so if I’m misstating Fodor’s original thesis please forgive me…I’m working with essentially a summary) The answer is that it doesn’t know. It doesn’t have to know.

For any single organism, it’s survivability can be thought of as the sum of all of it’s traits whether they are positive, negative or neutral. If a so called adaptive trait reduces it’s chances of dying by 3 (to throw a ridiculously random number at it), and it’s inextricably linked to 2 otherwise neutral traits, the simple fact that it’s more likely to survive because of the one adaptive trait automatically means that the other two are coming along for the ride. So are any other traits which may have no relation whatsoever to any other trait, but which by pure accident happen to be present in that creature. The adaptive traits drive natural selection not because anything is actively causing them to do so, but because that is the simple result of the trait making survival more likely.

One final note, which has little to do with the rest of the post, but which just plain bugs me. Why the sarcasm after pointing out the traits of “whiteness” and “being the same color as its environment”? There are three main options that I can think of. One, he thought the two separate traits were in fact one single trait described separately, rendering it a non-statement like “It’s white and also it’s white.” This doesn’t seem likely since he describes exactly why this isn’t the case in the very next aside. The other option is that he believes it’s so obvious that even feeling the need to point it out is worthy of ridicule. But then why describe exactly why they are different right afterward? The last option is simply that I’m reading more into it than intended. Maybe it’s much more innocent than it seems (like faux sarcasm between friends) and only seems mocking because of the lack of context which is a constant problem in written works.

Paleyism Will Never Die

The design argument relies on ignorance to work. This was just as true for Paley’s watch as it is for current Intelligent Design theory. The basic thought process is this (for the design argument known as the Watchmaker Analogy):

  1. The complex inner workings of a watch necessitate an intelligent designer.
  2. As with a watch, the complexity of X (a particular organ or organism, the structure of the solar system, life, the entire universe) necessitates a designer.

Step 1 relies on our knowledge of the watch and how it was designed and created. Step 2 relies on our ignorance of X and how (or even if) it was designed and created. The idea is that we should explain what we don’t know in terms of what we do know, and since we know that the watch was designed, we should be able to explain what we don’t know about X as the product of design as well.

I’m not here today to argue the merits of this. Rather I wanted to point out the simple fact that such arguments will never go away.

“But Venture,” I hear you say, “as we learn more we’ll be better able to explain X as a result of natural processes, thereby chipping away at this argument!” There is one glaring problem with that view. History has shown us that the more we come to know, the more we also come to know how much we don’t know. It’s not that ignorance increases along with knowledge but that our awareness of our ignorance increases. The sophistication of the Intelligent Design arguments are a testament to that. Scientists such as Michael Behe use our ignorance to great effect by providing very detailed explanations of exactly what it is that we don’t yet understand and making a design inference from that.

The fact is that the design inference will never go away because it relies on our knowledge of one thing to explain our ignorance of another thing, and as science progresses we will always become more and more aware of both.

So Clever It Circles Back Around To Stupid

Here is the truly mind boggling hypothesis thrown out by GilDodgen over at UD:

I would like to offer the following hypothesis: The universe was rigged. It was designed for discovery (a thesis put forward in The Privileged Planet), but also designed in such a way that there would always be an escape clause in the contract for those who are committed, for whatever reason, to reject the obvious.

This is such an amazing hypothesis because it is necessarily and provably true. Any evidence that the universe is designed obviously supports it since “It was designed for discovery…”. On the other hand, lacking that evidence, or any evidence that it was not designed also supports it since such evidence (or lack thereof) is the “escape clause” that is hypothesized. So you see all evidence either for or against the hypothesis as well as a complete lack of evidence all end up proving the same thing: that this hypothesis is true.

Don’t think about it too much. Your head might explode.

Intelligent Design – Establishing A Fact?

I’ve spent a good deal of time, too much in fact, banging my head against the wall of Intelligent Design (ID), and I had an epiphany the other day. While it certainly isn’t a theory, ID could be legitimately considered an attempt to establish the scientific fact that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.” (from Wikipedia). Any subsequent theories must then take this fact into account and explain it. Indeed, if one could establish that fact it would be a true revolution in that theories explaining such a fact would almost certainly have to differ fundamentally from current scientific theories.

Looked at in this way, there are a couple of questions which seem to lie at the heart of the debate. First, can such a fact ever truly be established with sufficient certainty? Second, assuming that it can, has it been established? Most debates/arguments seem to revolve around one or the other of these questions.

Creationism = Dishonesty

A while back I happened upon a collection of really great videos on YouTube known as the Foundational Falsehoods Of Creationism made by a guy names Aron Ra. Unfortunately after loving them dearly for awhile, I got side tracked by such stupid things as work and marriage and a blog and I kind of forgot about them, and him.

Then recently I found this video floating around the blogofractal and it reminded me of why I loved those original videos.

Aron has the rare ability to explain things with such clarity that thereafter you can’t help but think that it’s just obvious. For example, Nick Matzke over at Panda’s Thumb said this about this particular video:

Everyone liked the immune system cross of Behe during the Kitzmiller case, but Aron-Ra has got the point so well he gets all the way down to the 3rd– and 4th-level emergency backup-backup excuse arguments Behe brings out to attempt to explain why his statements about the failure of the peer-reviewed literature were not refuted. And all in just a few minutes.

A Golden Age (Of Sorts)

I used to comment pretty often over at Uncommon Descent, in part because I really enjoyed those moments of pure cognitive dissonance that I caused when I made a really good point. I used to make predictions about the responses to those comments to my wife, and I was rarely wrong (and she rarely wanted to hear it, being entirely uninterested in the whole endeavor).

Then one day I was simply banned. Mid-debate, of course. In the end it was a good thing, because I tend to obsess over things, and frankly I had obsessed over ID for far too long. However, I still check in every once in awhile and it’s fun sometimes to write up comments that I’ll never actually be able to post. I always just delete them, even though I could post them here if I felt like doing so.

The problem is that there just isn’t the same level of debate that there was when I used to post there. When I first started commenting on that site there were ID folks lamenting and anti-ID folks praising the new more lenient moderation policies that had come into being since Dembski had moved on. Not knowing anything about that I just jumped right in and starting commenting and frankly it was quite stimulating. I had to learn so much about both ID and evolution just to be able to keep up with many of the debates. I would literally spend hours researching and crafting a comment for the greatest effect, much like I don’t do here on my blog.

Then one day I noticed some posts that were authored by Dembski himself and slowly things began to change. Over time I noticed that many of the anti-ID regulars were no longer posting. Sometimes I would see a comment here or there asking why someone was being moderated, and soon after I’d never see another comment by that person. More often a regular would simply disappear. It was a slow enough process that I didn’t notice much difference at first, but eventually most of the dissenters were gone. And then one day so was I.

Looking back I think I was commenting during a kind of golden age of UD debate if such a thing could be said to have ever existed. The moderation policy was still heavily weighted against non-IDists, but as long as you were absolutely respectful at all times you were allowed to make your point. (Of course, if you were pro-ID you could be as disrespectful and rude as you wanted without consequence, but what are you gonna do…it’s their site).

Now there is almost no real debate. It has truly become an echo chamber, and it shows in the pure inanity of the comments that are there now. Ridiculously definitive statements are thrown around almost without dissent, and are more often than not simply reinforced by other commenters. Of course, those kinds of comments were always there, but they used to fade into the background as people who actually knew what they were talking about would debate this or that point. It’s clear that most of the commenters over at UD don’t actually know or understand what ID is actually about. All they know is that it’s a way to believe in God while still claiming scientific validity.

It’s really quite sad to see. I enjoyed UD, but I don’t think I’d want to go back now, even if I could.

While I’m Away

I’m out of town on family business, so I haven’t had much of a chance to post anything lately. Here’s a few things that have interested me in the last week. I’m not gonna elaborate much, but here they are:

  • Obama Team Continues Effort to Isolate Fox News – Of course Obama isn’t saying anything that isn’t known by pretty much everyone anyway. However, I’m not sure if this is the way to handle it. First pass impression is that this will backfire. However, what are the alternatives? Simply ignore it? Maybe. I don’t know. I’ll give it some thought and get back to you.
  • Intelligent Alien Intervention Institute – A very good spoof on ID and their quest to work their way into the US schools.
  • Futurity – I heard about this site from an NPR story. I’m not sure exactly what to make of it yet. So far it seems great. However, since the stories are direct from the sources, rather than being vetted by a professional Science journalist (a dying breed), they may not be as accurate as one would like. I’m keeping an eye on this one, and I may be making posts about stories found here soon.
  • New view reveals how DNA fits into cell – I want to make a post about fractals soon, and I think this might be a good jumping off point.

That’s all I really have time for at the moment. I’ll try and get back to this as soon as I am able.

Intelligent Design Is or Is Not Creationism

There is yet another debate about Intelligent Design Creationism over at Panda’s Thumb and I figured I’d put in my two cents (yeah I said I’d stay away…so sue me). The debate apparently happened over at some blog that I’d never heard of called Thinking Christian. In the comments for the original post I think Nick seems to make a lot of good points, but he’s missing the main focus of the debate, which is really easy to do depending on how you’re introduced to the debate. As with many of these kinds of debates it really comes down to definitions. It is apparent to me that people on either side of the debate are using different definitions of the word “creationism”.

One restricts the term to the narrowest possible definition: what is commonly referred to as Young Earth Creationism. This definition states that a theory can only be considered creationist if it relies entirely on the book of Genesis for it’s premises and conclusions. Without that key ingredient a theory must be considered something other than creationism. It’s clear that this is the definition that TC is using. According to the TC post: “Creationism begins in Genesis and argues for certain conclusions based on a certain understanding of the Scriptures.” By this definition ID is certainly not creationism because belief in a literal interpretation of Genesis is not required to believe that ID is accurate.

The other broadens the definition to include any hypothesis/theory that requires some independent act of creation to occur, whether that be the creation of the entire universe in 6 days by The Almighty, the creation of each individual species over time, or the creation of each individual beneficial mutation in our DNA. There are many theories that fall under this definition (Young Earth Creationism, Progressive or Old Earth Creationism, Day-Age Creationism, etc…). The common thread is that they each state that creation occurred, but they each differ on exactly when and where. By this definition ID is certainly creationism because it requires multiple independent acts of creation to account for the existence of “certain features of the universe and of living things” (from the Disco Tute’s FAQ).

The real argument in the end is over which definition is the more accurate one. In my personal opinion the less restrictive definition is the more accurate one since it encompasses all acts of creation, not just the literal 6 days of Genesis. That is, after all, why it’s called “creation”-ism and not “biblical-literal”-ism. On the other hand, I can understand why ID proponents try so hard to enforce the more restrictive definition. The term “creationism” has immediate and well deserved negative overtones. TC admits as much in the original post: “It is known for its persistence in seeking scientific data that fits that interpretation of Genesis, and for finding creative but irregular interpretations to help in that search. As such it has gained an unsavory scientific reputation.” It is imperative for ID to distance itself as much as possible from the term, and using the most restrictive definition possible ensures that ID is left far outside of the creationist sphere. For that reason I doubt that ID proponents will ever admit to any other definition, whether they believe it to be the better descriptor or not.

House Cleaning

I’ve finally been defeated by that impregnable wall of ignorance. I made what I thought was a decent point over at UD. The response, as usual, had little to do with the actual content, though it was quite verbose and chock full of definitive statements. That way if you refute any one point, there are 5 other points that you didn’t address. Then they can simply claim you were avoiding those points because you are unable to address them, meaning you don’t know what you’re talking about, meaning the point you made is necessarily invalid because it was obviously made by an ignoramus.

Anyway, I’m getting off track here. I spent a good deal of time addressing every point that he raised, demonstrating clearly why it was off topic or just plain wrong. I hit the submit button and……….nothing. Doh! The page timed out while I was typing my response. Fortunately I did most of the editing in a separate text file. Copy, paste, submit and………nothing. Compose a test post saying only “Testing”, hit submit and………nothing. I look back at the thread and most of my posts have been deleted. Only one remains, and that’s the one that was supposedly refuted. And of course the so called refutation remains on the page with no way for me to rebut. That’s how they work. And they claim that they are the ones being oppressed by inappropriate censorship.

I’ve given up altogether, which is what I should have done long long ago. I’m deleting all my past posts on Intelligent Design and letting the IDiots stagnate in their own echo chamber. After all, if no one says you’re wrong, then obviously you must be right, right? And if you get rid of everyone that says you’re wrong, then no one will say your wrong and you’ll be right, right?

Yeah, right.