Thursday, February 12, 2009

Dar winner and Still Champion

Nothing gives Darwinism, AKA the Theory of Evolution, a bad name like self-styled “Darwinists” who are non-scientists and don't know what they're talking about. Start with the fact that evolution is a theory, not a fact. Yeah, I know, it's been said a million times, but, on this auspicious occasion, i.e. Darwin's 200th birthday, allow me to be the million and first. A theory is a framework of speculation having to do with causal links among various observed phenomena. It may include, on a tentative basis, non-observed phenomena as well – processes and entities of all sorts, to fill in the gaps until direct evidence is obtained. But these “filling-in” things may be essential to the coherence and, as far as possible, completeness of the theory. One always hopes for more data which will reveal more of these processes and entities, and thus clarify those links. And of course, one is also highly likely to encounter data which contradict one or more elements of the theory, in which case – if it's science we are practicing and not a degenerate form of religion – the theory is modified, rather than denying or suppressing or “adjusting” the data to fit. And it should go without saying that all data acquired in the pursuit of a theory should be acquired in as strict a scientific manner as possible, according to the “rules” -- which means, among other things, data should not be made up out of whole cloth or “cherry-picked” in order to use only data that fit, and discard or ignore data that don't. And! Most important of all! No one should ever use the word “data” as a singular noun. : )

Having said all of this – and much more could be said about the scientific method, its uses and abuses – there's no reason not to acknowledge that an enormous amount of genuinely scientific work went into the development of the Theory of Evolution; it wasn't just some guy sitting in his study, puffing on a pipe, and theorizing. And I don't think any reasonable person would have a serious problem accepting the mechanisms of evolutionary theory as at least a partial explanation for the diversity of species we see today, and their development out of a different array of species that existed at an earlier time. Aye, but there's the rub – that word “partial”. Because, as with so many other issues, the debate typically divides people into two camps. One contends that evolutionary theory is not only a necessary, but a sufficient, explanation for the origin and diversity of life forms; the other contends that evolutionary theory is a form of heresy and there is no truth in it -- that it's part of a sinister plot against the Church and all that is good, along with communism and Freudianism. The strict “creationists” belong in the second camp, for example... and the public education establishment, the scientific establishment, the mainstream media, the literati and commentariat, Hollywood personalities, and all political liberals belong in the first.

Now, we can excuse public school teachers and administrators because they aren't scientists and don't pretend to be. Their job is to take the wisdom of the established order, like manna from on high, and pass it on to unwary children and youth. Their approach to scientific questions is: If it can be demonstrated in a high school science laboratory in one class period, great – if not, it simply has to be accepted as an article of faith. So the result is that most of what is “taught” is taught as an article of faith: Someone discovered it, we believe it, case closed. (What if a smart high school biology student wanted to do a science fair project on Intelligent Design? How far do you think he would get? Probably no farther than the principal's office and an accusation of "making terroristic threats".)

As to the mainstream media and political liberals, and other people who have pretenses as to their own intellectual merit, their embrace of what they consider the “fact” of evolution is, in truth, not based on scientific considerations at all, but on the neat fit (or so they believe) of evolution with their pre-existing political, psychological, and humanistic prejudices. It's for the same reason Darwinism was embraced in the first place, by the secularists of his time – because it “disproved” the Christian account of the origin of species – especially Man – and thus cast serious doubt on the veracity of all other Christian teachings, which, in turn, let everyone off the hook since that meant there was no such thing as sin, not to mention Hell, and that questions of right and wrong were merely relative, if worthy of debate at all. (Note that the liberals re-discovered sin, in at least one form, once fascism and national socialism came along... but for a while it was like a vacation from moral history.)

But what of actual scientists? Why have they been so quick to almost universally embrace Darwinism when they are well aware (or should be) of the limitations imposed – by science – on scientific theories, and the strict criteria for scientific proof? In fact, a scientific theory can never be “proven”. Never! All we can ever say is that we don't, as yet, have evidence that contradicts it – i.e. a “disproof” that is fatal to the theory. Now, what we can, and do, have, for nearly any theory you can name, is an aggregation of “facts” -- findings, data, observations, etc. -- that are repeatable (again, in conformance with the strict, classical scientific paradigm) and that either support or at least do not contradict the theory. All well and good – accumulate enough facts that support a theory, and the chances are you've got a pretty good theory, with ample explanatory and/or predictive power. But the theory itself, in its entirety, can never be “proven” in a final way – because more data are just over the horizon, and who knows? Not only that, but even a theory that shows great robustness can never be said to be “complete”. It may account for all the observable data, but does that mean that there are no other factors entering in, and influencing the results? If we dig down deep into the matter, with ever-finer observations, might we not find things that are “theory-neutral” in terms of the model we are working from, but nonetheless reflect the operation of some other set of variables? This is, in effect, the argument of “Intelligent Design” theory – not that Darwinism is “wrong” vis-a-vis its theoretical mechanisms of evolution, but that those mechanisms are not sufficient to explain all of the observations.

Now, you would think that a good scientist would be highly intrigued – excited, even! -- by the data and ideas coming out of Intelligent Design (ID) work. But no! They have circled the wagons and are prepared to repel all boarders (if you'll excuse the mixed metaphor). They have pronounced the ID work beyond the pale, and accused its practitioners of the worst sorts of "superstition”, “Medievalism”, “Creationism”, religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, racism, sexism, “hate”, “homophobia”... you know the drill. (Well, I'm not sure about those last few, but I can't imagine they haven't come into the argument at some point.) Now, does this mean that the ID people are bad scientists? No – actually, they are very good scientists, much better than their accusers in most cases, and certainly far more honest and courageous. Then does it mean that their accusers – the scientific establishment – are bad scientists? I would say, rather than a blanket condemnation of them as being “bad” in the technical sense, that they (1) are “politicized”, and (2) have vested interests – their “rice bowl” -- consisting of academic hierarchies, tenure, journals, books, students, assistants, laboratories, grants, followers and fans of all sorts, and even, in some cases, popular fame and fortune. And they see ID as being a threat to all of this – and they're right, up to a point. If all they have to lose is their scientific integrity in order to preserve all of these other things, most of them seem willing to do it. So their own research tends to be taken over, as time goes on, by their personal agenda, to the point where they cannot, or will not, see what is right in front of their nose, and will resent anyone who tries to point it out.

The bottom line to all this is that Darwinism, from the very outset, has been riding a wave of political liberalism, humanism, agnosticism, and atheism, and has evolved (so to speak) into a weapon with which these forces can assault the counter-forces of conservatism and faith. The result is that the real science has gotten lost in the muddle. Your garden-variety fundamentalist refuses to see, or acknowledge, all of the things Darwin did do, and your liberal who waves Darwin's books in the air like the Red Guard waved Mao's believes that he can do no wrong. And “believe” is the word for it, since the vast majority of self-styled Darwinists will say that they “believe in" evolution – using the same word (not to mention the same degree of zeal) with which a “believer” will characterize his belief in a religious creed. And this particular creed has all the earmarks of fundamentalism, in that it entails not only embracing a creed, but demeaning and persecuting all those who do not... not allowing them to have a voice in public education or the media... and suppressing, when possible, their work and their publications. Is this the earmark of science? I should think not. So while it is simplistic to call Darwinism a “religion” in its original manifestation, it is not off-base to say that it has become a religion of sorts, i.e. it forms the basis for a “secular religion” -- that one that dominates the media and the educational system in this country, the rest of the English-speaking world, and most of Europe, at the very least.

Which brings us up to today, and the triumphalism that is seen and heard across the land. It is once again – as if it were even necessary! -- announced that Darwinism has won out over “superstition” and “religion”... and that it is the only, and sufficient, explanation (it's seldom referred to as a “theory” any longer) for everything that has happened since the first living cell was formed when a bolt of lightning struck an ancient swamp... and that anyone who thinks otherwise ought to be silenced, because they are fools and the truth is not in them... besides which, they irritate the media and the school teachers. (Am I imagining things when I detect an eerie resemblance to the "global warming" controversy here?) In fact -- they will point out -- Darwinism is such a fruitful approach to things that it is even being extended into cosmology, and subatomic physics. Who knows what the future will bring? Why, some day we might have something called “social Darwinism” that will clarify the mechanisms for the “survival of the fittest” out of various human racial groups, and... um... oops. That's already been done, and what we got out of it was “eugenics” and the Third Reich's racial purification programs. Oh well, can't win 'em all.

But in the meantime, the party goes on unabated, and just as a sample, MSNBC today offers a slide show of what they call “7 signs of evolution in action”. These are cases where at appears that, right before our very eyes, one species has evolved into another. No, wait, that's not it. It's that a single species has evolved a trait it didn't have before. No... that's not it either. It's that a single trait of a single species has shifted in distribution because of changing environmental factors. Ah, yes, that's it! And this, friends, is “evolution in action”. What more proof can one want? But look at the expressions they use to describe this evidence:

o “The medium ground finch (Geospiza fortis) recently downsized its beak to exploit small seeds more efficiently after a larger finch arrived on its island and began competing for food.” OK, that makes perfect sense. But wait! The medium finch downsized its beak TO exploit, etc.? So some medium finch, or group of medium finches, took a look at the situation and said, hey, we've gotta downsize these beaks of ours, or else! (And how is a single finch going to downsize its beak? This obviously had to be a group effort.) Notice how readily statements of purpose insinuate themselves into the discussion. This is totally non-Darwinian! Random mutations have no “purpose”. If they did, they wouldn't be random! And if environmental conditions shift to favor a certain trait, it's not because that trait had a “purpose”, or that some birds developed the trait “in order to”... whatever. They just got lucky. This is strict Darwinism – and it's the most difficult to grasp by the people who consider themselves faithful Darwinists and “supporters of evolution” (like it needs their support).

o Well OK, maybe I'm being too harsh and judgmental here. Let's try another: “Human preference for trophy game such as big fish and caribou is driving these species to become smaller and reproduce at younger ages.” This isn't quite as bad, but think about fish and caribou becoming smaller and reproducing earlier in order to avoid hunters and fishermen. That's what's being implied here. But no, it's the smaller and earlier-reproducers – normally not a desirable set of traits, I would think – who survive as a genetic/behavioral line. The hunters and fishermen aren't “driving” any species to do anything – they're only changing survival probabilities and thus changing the calculus of survival of certain traits.

o But surely Darwin has something to say about the human species, right? I mean, we really can adjust our behavior according to environmental conditions in many more subtle ways than animals can, for example. We can, in fact, if we desire, program our own evolution. (Uh oh – the Nazis again. But let's go on.) So another caption states: “Humans appear to be evolving more rapidly than in the distant past, according to scientists.” This is based on data regarding migration patterns, foodstuffs, and various physical traits over the past 10,000 years. But don't forget that the Theory of Evolution is absolutely dependent on a time frame of millions of years; ten thousand is nothing at all. Plus, again, they're calling a gradual morphing of traits “evolution”, when the main point of evolutionary theory was not to talk about gradual morphing of traits but actual changes from one species into another. Has this been demonstrated for human beings over a span of 10,000 years? No. (Has it been demonstrated for human beings at all? I'm not entirely convinced.)

o OK then, what about this “toxic toad” introduced into Australia that evolved longer legs “to help it hop across the country at an ever-increasing clip”? (And no, I'm not talking about Madeleine Albright. Shame on you!) What is the advantage thus gained? It permits the long-legged toads to “secure the best habitat at the newly conquered terrain”. (This is assuming they're out there “conquering terrain”. What they're doing is spreading out.) Well, fair enough, but did the toad really develop longer legs “to help it hop”, etc.? Did a group of toads gather around a... toadstool? ... and work this plan out? Well, no. Once again, it seems that, in Australia at least, the longer-legged toads had an advantage that they did not have in their country of origin (the caption doesn't say where this was).

o Sticking with Australia for a moment, it seems that “Australian lizards called skinks are dropping their limbs to become more like snakes.” This has been going on for 3.6 million years, and you would think that, by now, all of the skinks would have “gone snake”. But apparently not. At least there are enough skinks still around that it's possible to identify them as proto-snakes... and to ask them, one at a time, what's the hold-up? It sounds like it's taking these critters 3.6 million years to even decide whether they want to become snakes or not... or, perhaps the optimum proportion of skink vs. snake has been reached and we won't see any more converts. The whole thing is very confusing, and as an air-tight confirmation of Darwinism as one of the world's great religions it leaves much to be desired.

0 But let's shift to a subset of the whole evolutionary question, namely that of “intermediate forms”. One of the first scientific (vs. religious) objections to evolutionary theory was that the mechanisms involved should have produced a wide variety of not only “dead end” specimens (i.e., mutations that didn't pan out as being more adaptive) but also of “intermediate forms” between frequently-encountered fossils and the living species of today. Note that this argument was perfectly consistent with the long time frames presumed to be needed for one species to evolve into another – i.e., this is not something that could be expected to happen overnight. So the argument was made within the terms of evolutionary theory; this “gradualism” is one of its pillars, and is, in fact, the only way things could have happened given that the only mechanism available is random genetic mutation, with superior survivability of only a very small proportion of mutations (most mutations being destructive either to the individual or to the group that shares them – once again, based on sheer probability). So let's consider the “intermediate form” that scientists have dug up, namely that of the flatfish, whose two-eyes-on-the-same-side-of-the-head arrangement is not present from hatching. “The transition happens in the youth of flatfish, one eye migrating up and over the top of the head. Opponents of evolution argued that this curious anatomy could not have evolved gradually, as suggested by the theory of natural selection. That's because there would be no advantage for an intermediate form – a fish with an only partially migrated eye. But now scientists have found those intermediate forms in museum collections. The 50 million-year-old fossils have a partially displaced eye.” Well, to begin with, “opponents of evolution” (note the wording here, as if to say “even if it did happen, we're agin it!”) do not, invariably, argue that intermediate forms, by definition, have no advantage. Some might, and some might not. By definition, any intermediate form that survived long enough to yield up today's form (not necessarily the “final” form) had to have some survival value – and it may not be obvious what that was, when all we have to refer to is a fossil. Or, just possibly, an intermediate form did not have enhanced survival value per se, but was “survival neutral”, and served as a sort of workbench upon which further developments could be tried out – and some of those were of sufficiently significant value that the original intermediate form died out from sheer competition. What I'm saying is that the finding of what appear to be intermediate forms does not negate the overall skepticism as to the usual survivability of said forms. Nor does it negate the ID arguments based on the infinitesimal likelihood of species evolving based only on Darwinian mechanisms. ID proponents don't say that the Darwinian mechanisms don't exist or never happen – only that they are not sufficient to account for the observed results.

Well... all the arguments I can make are not going to rain on the evolutionary parade. But it is funny how, every time you get down to the nuts and bolts of strictly evolutionary arguments, you start to feel like you're in Looney Tunes land, and start listening for that boisterous theme song – either that or a circus tune ground out on a calliope. The pity is that there is so much elegance to evolutionary theory... but it just seems to be way too simplistic. Compared to the real, observed diversity of species, and the complexity of various organs and organ systems -- not to mention the incredible complexity of the "simple" cell! -- it seems naive and puny. (And we see, on a regular basis, evolutionists pumping the theory full of steroids in order to sustain it in the face of new discoveries in cellular biology, for example.) In this, it resembles so many other theories across the spectrum of science, that have had appealing simplicity but have eventually been found wanting. (It also calls into question the universal applicability of Occam's Razor, which basically states that the simpler explanation is preferable, other things being equal. But in this case, it appears that other things are not equal.)

So... just like the infatuation with Obama, if you can see through the Church of Evolution and take a good, hard look at that is being discussed, and the actual scientific basis for the statements that are being made, you're in for some very interesting discoveries. And with any luck, you'll come to appreciate Darwin for his actual contributions, and not as the messiah of a secular religion. But you'll also appreciate that, as brilliant as he was, he did not have (nor did he intend to, I suspect) the last word... and that there is work going on today that goes way beyond where Darwin stopped, and into places where his so-called followers fear to tread. Somehow, I think that if he came back to life on his birthday, he'd be a lot more interested in talking with the Intelligent Design folks than in schmoozing with all of his obsequious, sheep-like “believers”.

No comments: