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Multi-component, schmulti-component

I’m having a light dinner while traveling off to a visit with Humanists of Minnesota, and I thought I’d deal with a little email. I got a request to address a fairly common creationist argument–here’s the relevant part of the claim.

As a member of the Greater Manchester Humanists I was recently involved in a discussion with the Ahmadi sect of Islam with regards to evolution. They had asked me to look at a couple of chapters in a book entitled ‘Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge and Truth by their prophet Mirza Tahir Ahmad. One of those chapters was called ‘The Blind Watchmaker who is also Deaf and Dumb’ – riffing badly on Dawkins’s book, of course. Suffice it to say, there was very little of any of that in the book, but during the discussion one of their number said he did not believe in neo-Darwinism because he could not see ‘how all the supporting and connecting mult-component systems could all have evolved as, for example, the eye, as it progressed through geological time.’

He quoted the hagfish and work done by Prof Trevor Lamb to show ‘just how complex those multi-component systems are’ – but when I looked up Lamb’s work it is quite obvious that he is a supporter of evolution, and that he in no way suggests that such complexity is divine in nature….!

Yep, he’s got us. If evolution were sequential, linear, and goal-directed, this would be a serious problem. If you’re used to imagining that the only way complexity can possibly emerge is by purposeful, serial action to build an end result, rather like putting together your furniture from Ikea or building a model airplane, then gosh, it all seems so impossible.

Unfortunately for the follower of Mirza Tahir Ahmad, none of that is true, and this is just a variant of the “it’s too complicated to evolve” argument, with more sciencey sounding words and references to misinterpreted fragments of the scientific literature.

Let’s consider the major misconceptions in the question.

  • Evolution isn’s sequential. It’s massively parallel. Massively. Humans have about 20,000 genes, and all of them are evolving at once, with trial runs in about 7 billion individuals. New variants are arising all the time, and then they’re tested to destruction in multiple combinations over time. Scrap your weird idea that the pieces of a complex system must be developed one at a time — they can’t, and all of them are being constantly tinkered with. It is the most badly designed scientific experiment or engineering program ever, with no controls and every variable getting randomly tweaked at random intervals. So don’t be surprised that multiple elements are getting juggled.

  • Evolution doesn’t care how it arrives at a solution — all that matters is the final effect on the organism. In the case of the eye, the viable end result is an organ with sufficient resolution and contrast, and various special purpose detectors for things like motion or looming. The organism doesn’t know or care how that comes about — it is born with a combination of attributes, and lives or dies by their success. It may have accomplished its end by, for instance, refining the lens, or fine-tuning the receptor, or building in secondary signal processing elements…or all of the above and more. The organism doesn’t care and doesn’t have any control. And in a massively parallel system, probably every level is being tinkered with, and the final solution is going to be multi-component. It would be weird if it wasn’t.

  • Evolution is not teleological. An organ like the eye is not being assembled to a set of specific, detailed instructions — it just has to work, or the organism is at a disadvantage to other organisms with better eyes. So a hodge-podge of solutions is accumulated, and the end result has all kinds of complexity. But you don’t get to argue after the fact that the details imply some specificity of purpose.

    For example, here’s a number: 343767. It’s kind of big, you might be tempted to argue that it’s a fancier or more complex number than, say, 300000 (you’d be wrong), or you might want to argue for the significance of individual digits, or find a pattern in it. Humans tend to do that. But the reality is that I just went to a random number service and asked for a 6 digit number. Similarly, eyes wandered through a random space constrained by functional requirements and ended up at a somewhat arbitrarily complex configuration — and different lineages followed different paths.

OK, that’s my off-the-cuff explanation scribbled up while I nibble on a fruit salad at a cafe in Minneapolis. The whole multi-component problem is a red herring contrived by inadequate minds that can’t see beyond their preconceptions.

Comments

  1. Trebuchet says

    And neither evolution nor the organism cares WHAT solution is arrived at. There’s no goal other than surviving long enough to reproduce.

    Creationists are fond of expostulating over the odds of the universe having evolved the way it has. Yes indeed, the chances of this outcome are exceedingly slim. Just like the chances of every possible outcome, and indeed better than some.

    My favorite thought experiment: Toss a coin 500 times, writing down the result of each toss. Congratulations, you’ve just achieved something staggeringly improbable, a chance of one in 3.3E150 for that specific outcome. That’s 33 with 149 zeros after it. And it’s exactly the same probability of any other outcome.

  2. Markita Lynda—threadrupt says

    That is why the repetition of “specified complexity” by Intelligent Design creationists is so moronic: nobody specified it; therefore it’s not specified. Taking what exists as “specified” doesn’t make it so.

  3. says

    “And neither evolution nor the organism cares WHAT solution is arrived at. There’s no goal other than surviving long enough to reproduce.”

    I think you go awry, including organism in that claim. I doubt most organisms have goals. A tree grows not because it wants sunlight, but because that is what its various tissues and organs do. Those that do have goals likely don’t have reproduction as a conscious purpose. Maybe sparrows are wanting chicks. Maybe they’re just wanting sex, and when the chicks show up, they’re thrilled with having chicks, but don’t necessarily connect the sex with the chicks. In many vertebrates, parents seemingly care nothing for their offspring. In some species, parents happily eat their offspring. It matters to the species’ evolution whether its reproductive strategy work. But that doesn’t mean the individuals have any concern with reproduction. Its a strategy in the algorithmic sense, not in the sense that the organisms executing it are consciously doing so.

    And to members of our species, being the sort of animal that does have goals, it does matter what solutions evolution found. We’re continually disappointed in some of them.

  4. PaulBC says

    “For example, here’s a number: 343767. It’s kind of big, you might be tempted to argue that it’s a fancier or more complex number than, say, 300000 (you’d be wrong)”

    I’m not sure this is wrong. 300000 certainly looks more compressible, though both are too short to be very compressible. If you had a 1000-digit number constructed by choosing each successive digit with uniform, independent probability, and a second number consisting of 3 followed by 999 zeros, then the probability would be close to 1 that the latter number was more highly compressible and less “complex” in the sense of Kolmogorov complexity.

    I agree that neither would be especially interesting or significant.

    If you’re saying I’m wrong for even feeling tempted to argue, then I plead guilty as charged.

  5. PaulBC says

    “My favorite thought experiment: Toss a coin 500 times, writing down the result of each toss. Congratulations, you’ve just achieved something staggeringly improbable, a chance of one in 3.3E150 for that specific outcome. That’s 33 with 149 zeros after it. And it’s exactly the same probability of any other outcome.”

    While this is strictly true, it ignores the fact that you can apply statistical inference by grouping outcomes. If you do this experiment and find that less than 100 coins out of 500 are heads, for instance, you already have strong statistical evidence that the coin is biased. While your single outcome is as probable as any other, the set of outcomes with less than 100 heads is very small compared to the 2^500 total outcomes.(This could be made rigorous using a p-value over the binomial distribution.)

    “Specified complexity” is bogus for many reasons, but inferring patterns and making rigorous statistical arguments for their significance is an important tool of science.

  6. Trebuchet says

    I think you go awry, including organism in that claim. I doubt most organisms have goals.

    You are, of course, absolutely correct. I need better wording. “The only definition of success” perhaps?

  7. doublereed says

    Well, 343767 = 3 x 19 x 37 x 163 while 300000 = 2^5 x 3 x 5^5. From a factoring perspective, 300000 is far less complicated than 343767 (as it’s super easy to deal with the three smallest primes). Computationally easier to solve and easier to use.

    But of course, I’m just being annoying and silly.

  8. mikeyb says

    Inadequate minds. Must mean ~80% of the population if you include creationists ~45% and the murky theistic evolutionists. In other words, most Americans flunk understanding the basics of evolution. Or if reality were up for a vote, mythology wins.

  9. vereverum says

    #1 mentioned

    Creationists are fond of expostulating over the odds of the universe having evolved the way it has.

    I’m not really good at math, but I thought that the probability of any already occurred event was 1.

  10. Usernames are smart says

    … he did not believe in neo-Darwinism because he could not see ‘how …

    …could’ve stopped reading at that point.

  11. wcorvi says

    I was in a bar the other evening, chatting with a fellow who brought up the irreducable complexity of the eye as proof of god. I asked him how the eye works, and he muttered something like, “Well, light goes in, and you see.” I pointed out this is not in fact very complicated at all – sounds rather simple.

    The complexity comes from the fact that they are idiots, and ANYTHING seems complicated to them if they don’t understand it, which is pretty much anything. Not from anything god did.

  12. sawells says

    It’s worth considering: what would they say if the eye were very, very simple? They would say that was elegant design. Nobody ever looked at an eye and _concluded_ it was designed.

  13. Nick Gotts says

    Well, 343767 = 3 x 19 x 37 x 163 while 300000 = 2^5 x 3 x 5^5. From a factoring perspective, 300000 is far less complicated than 343767 – doublereed

    Nonsense! 300000 has far more factors ;-)

    It is not only massively parallel but also embarrassingly so. – Who Cares

    You must be very easily embarrassed. Perhaps you should talk to someone about that?

  14. Who Cares says

    @Nick Gotts(#15):
    Nah I relegate those to some form of GPU those are purpose built for that kind of task.

  15. David Chapman says

    If this Ahmadi sect are interested in discussing a book, or book chapter, that takes the piss out of another book — i.e., The Blind Watchmaker — the sensible thing to do would be to read the original book or apposite sections of it as well. Where, of course, this issue is illuminatingly explained.

    8
    mikeyb
    Inadequate minds. Must mean ~80% of the population if you include creationists ~45% and the murky theistic evolutionists. In other words, most Americans flunk understanding the basics of evolution. Or if reality were up for a vote, mythology wins.

    Yeah, but I have to criticize the examination metaphor you use. People in countries with ( relatively) better education systems, less crappy media, less shameless religious organizations tend to have much better insight into natural selection and other important ideas. So it’s the American education system, among other important US institutions, that has flunked this test. Let’s all just hope they don’t turn out to be the final exams.

  16. Nick Gotts says

    I relegate those to some form of GPU those are purpose built for that kind of task. – Who Cares

    What does “those” refer to here? Why is a graphics processing unit relevant? Are you perhaps a poorly-designed chatbot?

  17. says

    Trebucht:
    “Toss a coin 500 times, writing down the result of each toss.”

    Nice Gedankenexperiment.
    One might also point out that that task is easy and you’ve got to have some result so (as someone said above) the probability is one, but that what the creationists are trying to suggest is that, given that list, you have to exactly repeat it by constant tossing or else God…

    Which nicely explains why they are all such tossers!

  18. Anri says

    It’s interesting that the discussion in this thread shows one of the issues with the ‘complexity is proof of design’ business – we don’t have a single universal definition of complexity.

    That’s not a bug, of course, it’s a feature, but it still makes counter-evolutionary arguments about complexity boil down to “’cause I sez so!”

  19. crookedshoes says

    I run into the “life is too improbable to have evolved” argument all the time. I have a simple way of discussing the idea of improbable that usually allows me to get past this nonsense and into a lesson.

    I ask the class to individually calculate how probable it was for the specific sperm (of all the possible sperm that dad could make) to fertilize the specific egg (of all the eggs that mom could make).

    I then have them call out answers. I take it further. I say what, then, is the probability that on Wednesday morning, June 11 at 8:05 am, you 30 improbabilities would be together (I point out that this kid is from Nigeria, that one from Pakistan, this one transferred from a nearby — or far way– school). And add the improbability of being led through this silly exercise by some old fool conceived in 1967!

    We pile numbers onto the board until (invariably) a kid says “Christ, the probability of this class is so close to zero that it might as well be…..

    I wag my finger at them and it dawns on them that, in fact, the probability is pretty damn high. This has all sorts of stop and starts for discussions of different points about evolution.

  20. kenbakermn says

    I have an easy answer to the “I don’t see how …” or “I can’t imagine how …” arguments about how this or that feature could have evolved. I say the things that can happen in nature are not limited by what you or I can imagine or understand.

  21. says

    Evolution is big into jury-rigging. Of course there’s going to be complexity. That also means there’s going to be a lot of needless complexity. Competent engineers usually have a preference for simplicity.

  22. Who Cares says

    @Nick Gotts(#18):
    More a case of talking past each other.
    Embarrassingly parallel is a real term. Used for parallel computing where the separate tasks have close to zero or no interaction with each other. Best known application is the graphics card.

  23. slatham says

    It seems to me that the complexity of a number depends upon the method taken to arrive at it. Some numbers may require much more work, depending upon the method. I suppose that means the method is the complex part, rather than the number, but I’m having an interesting difficulty really separating the two! … This is going to bug me all day….

    Regarding the multi-components’ co-evolving, I think sometimes it’s good to provide counter-examples that can be observed essentially in real time. This can happen sometimes, for example, in hybrid zones that occur at ecological boundaries. I recall reading about hybrids of two morphs of snake (mottled and striped), with one type predominant on Great Lakes islands and the other on the mainland. Migrants into the other habitat may breed, and their offspring may have a mismatch between behavior and color pattern — striped snakes staying still or mottled snakes fleeing (King and Lawson 1995, but I can’t get the document open) have lower survival than striped snakes that flee and mottled snakes that freeze in position. I think this emphasizes that the components are quite independent mechanistically and their evolution is not directed by any conscious entity.

  24. skaduskitai says

    Why is it always the eye creationists go on about? Any individual cell in the retina is like a million times more complex than the eye it is a part of. Or it is some other relatively simple thing they go on and on about, like bacterial flagellata as “complex”, a kinda propeller like thingie. I’m no biologist but it seems to me biologists that deal with the very real complexities in biology can’t be very impressed by this.