Such is the history of it.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain by Unknown – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a08820. Public Domain, Link

Tipped off by Dan McShea and Carl Simpson, I went and checked out Mark Twain’s brilliant dismembering of Alfred Russel Wallace’s version of the fine-tuning hypothesis, “Was The World Made For Man?“. Wallace is popular among intelligent design advocates because, after independently conceiving of a theory of evolution by natural selection, he became enamored of some ideas that resonate with them, such as that the universe has purpose and that material causes can’t explain human intelligence.

In his 1903 book, Man’s Place in the Universe, Wallace argued that the purpose of Earth, and indeed the universe, was the evolution and continued existence of humanity:

All nature tells us the same strange, mysterious story, of the exuberance of life, of endless variety, of unimaginable quantity. All this life upon our earth has led up to and culminated in that of man. It has been, I believe, a common and not unpopular idea that during the whole process of the rise and growth and extinction of past forms, the earth has been preparing for the ultimate–Man. Much of the wealth and luxuriance of living things, the infinite variety of form and structure, the exquisite grace and beauty in bird and insect, in foliage and flower, may have been mere by-products of the grand mechanism we call nature–the one and only method of developing humanity.

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Beautiful irony

Uncommon Descent astrologyFrom Denyse O’Leary:

I mean, if you leave out the crackpots, the idea that the stars, which are much more significant in size than Earth, rule our destiny makes sense. It’s beautiful and it was just what court intellectual needed, centuries ago. It doesn’t happen to be true.

The idea that natural selection acting on random mutation could fill the world with exquisitely complex life forms makes sense to fashionable intellectuals today and it doesn’t happen to be true.

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Tautologies

The argument that natural selection is a tautology and therefore lacks explanatory power is one of the silliest tropes that creationists have used to impugn evolution. Here’s a decent explanation of why:

Natural selection is in one sense a tautology (i.e., Who are the fittest? Those who survive/leave the most offspring. Who survive/leave the most offspring? The fittest.). But a lot of this is semantic word-play, and depends on how the matter is defined, and for what purpose the definition is raised. There are many areas of life in which circularity and truth go hand in hand (e.g. What is electric charge? That quality of matter on which an electric field acts. What is an electric field? A region in space that exerts a force on electric charge. But no one would deny that the theory of electricity is valid and can’t explain how motors work.)—it is only that circularity cannot be used as independent proof of something. To harp on the issue of tautology can become misleading, if the impression is given that something tautological therefore doesn’t happen. Of course the environment can ‘select’, just as human breeders select.

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False narrative Inception

Inception, Legendary Pictures.

Inception, Legendary Pictures.

David Klinghoffer has responded to my previous post with a post of his own at Evolution News & Science Today. Right out of the gate, he mischaracterizes the dispute:

Georgia Tech biologist Matthew Herron is still chiding me for sharing synthetic organic chemist James Tour’s statements, a “false narrative,” that we — the public, the media, and yes, scientists too — are “clueless” about how life originated.

It was not Dr. Tour’s statements that I characterized as a false narrative; it was Klinghoffer’s. [Read more…]

Motivated reasoning

Like many pseudoscientists, Denyse O’Leary doesn’t understand how evidence works:

Uncommon Descent screenshot

I’ll bet she’s right, in exactly this sense: if there turns out to be a ninth planet, Denyse O’Leary will interpret it as support for fine tuning. There is very little that advocates for intelligent design don’t interpret as support for their worldview. What do you want to bet that if there turns out not to be a ninth planet, she won’t interpret that as evidence against fine tuning?

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What’s the harm?

Demon-Haunted World cover

“Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.” –Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

I spent half a week in May at the outstanding Evolution of Complex Life conference here at Georgia Tech. The organizers, all grad students and postdocs, put together a fantastic lineup of speakers from a wide range of disciplines, including biochemists, evolutionary biologists, paleontologists, and philosophers.

Friday was devoted to two panel discussions, one (roughly) on interdisciplinarity in science and one (roughly) on science education and outreach. Given the diverse backgrounds of the panelists, there was a surprising amount of agreement on, for example, the costs and benefits of getting involved in research outside one’s own field and the value to society of scientists stepping outside the ivory tower.

I agreed with most everything that was said in these discussions, so of course I’m going to focus on one of the few things I (mostly) disagreed with. In truth, this isn’t so much a reaction to the panelist’s comment as it is an excuse to finally write about something that’s been slow cooking in the Crock Pot that is my brain for quite a while now.

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Michael Egnor doesn’t understand free speech

Censorship

Persecution complex? Image from an Evolution News & Views post on the Discovery Institute’s exclusion from the United Methodist Church’s General Conference in 2016.

In a previous post, I brought up Michael Egnor’s criticism of a blog post by Jerry Coyne. The post in question was criticizing the laughably bad argument by John Staddon that secular humanism is a religion. Tellingly, Dr. Egnor’s post does not address the substance of Dr. Coyne’s criticism at all. Seriously, not one word of Egnor’s response answers a single one of Coyne’s arguments.

The one and only portion of Coyne’s post that Egnor responds to is this:

[T]he editors screwed up by accepting a piece that makes very little sense, and arrives at its conclusion by some risibly tortuous logic… Why did the editors of Quillette publish this odiferous serving of tripe?

Egnor characterizes this as “seeth[ing]”, “rant[ing]”, “hate[ful]”, and “malic[ious]”. I won’t pass judgement on that characterization. The piece does make very little sense, and it does use some risibly tortuous logic, as I’ve previously pointed out. “Odiferous serving of tripe?” I guess you could call that seething and ranting, but it is a few words out of a much longer, mostly impassive post. Anyway, Dr. Egnor is entitled to his opinion, and that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

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Up is down. Black is white. Atheism is religion.

Humpty Dumpty

If you can’t beat ’em, define ’em out of existence!

Some members of the intelligent design community seem to have a genuinely hard time understanding that non-religious people actually exist. They don’t have convincing arguments for their religion, so they attempt an end run around reason by simply declaring that everyone is religious.

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Intelligent design advocates tell me what I believe

Uncommon Descent header

I consider myself a materialist, by which I mean that I believe that I believe the physical universe, that of matter, energy, and spacetime, is all that exists. I don’t, in other words, believe in magic, or in magical beings. I wasn’t always a materialist; I’ve been a Christian, and I’ve also believed some (non-religious) mystical nonsense. If you prefer to classify my beliefs as physicalist, naturalist, or some other category, I don’t mind.

I don’t believe in the supernatural. I’m not too picky about what you call it.

As best I can tell, what most intelligent design advocates call it is materialism, and that’s what is important for the purposes of this post. Because those folks have some strange ideas about what materialists believe.

For example, Barry Arrington says

Staggeringly sophisticated systems such as the blood clotting cascade are not ordinarily assembled through the accretion of random errors.

Yet every materialist believes the claim as a matter of course.

I don’t believe that. I don’t know anyone who does.

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