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.

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

Still true

True in 1875, true today:

Those who cavalierly reject the Theory of Evolution as not being adequately supported by facts, seem to forget that their own theory is supported by no facts at all. Like the majority of men who are born to a given belief, they demand the most rigorous proof of any adverse belief, but assume that their own needs none. —Herbert Spencer

[Read more…]

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…]

After “clarification”, a false narrative is still false

I’m not an origin of life researcher. I’m not really a biochemist, either, though I have enough background to muddle through talks and papers on the topic. I do go to quite a few origin of life talks, and read the papers, because I’m interested and because the talks are frequently presented at some of the conferences I go to, such as Evolution and AbSciCon (Astrobiology Science Conference).

There’s a formula to scientific papers and talks, though it’s not always strictly adhered to. The classic formulation is Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion: what did we test, how did we test it, what did we find, and what does it mean. A good Introduction includes some background on the question, explaining what is already known and, crucially, what isn’t. For origin of life work, this usually includes a statement to the effect that we really don’t know how life began. Because we don’t.

So I was surprised to see David Klinghoffer, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, say that the mystery of life’s origin is “widely unacknowledged by origin-of-life researchers.”

[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?

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

A clever little two-step

Baym et al. 2016 Fig. 1B

Figure 1B from Baym et al. 2016. Experimental evolution of antibiotic resistance in E. coli bacteria. Bacteria were inoculated at both ends of the plate and evolved to tolerate the initially deadly concentration of antibiotic in the middle.

It’s possible for something to be both true and misleading. Here’s a great example. Frank Sherwin, a Research Associate at the Institute for Creation Research, recently wrote,

Evolutionists list antibiotic resistance as evidence of evolution, but in reality it has nothing to do with the origin of antibiotic resistance genes—let alone novel bacterial species.

Each of those things is true, but the sentence still manages to be misleading. Evolutionary biologists do regard antibiotic resistance as evidence of evolution. Real-time observations of the evolution of antibiotic resistance, like those in Michael Baym’s experiment, demonstrate evolution in action. Those experiments do have nothing to do with the origin of novel genes or of speciation. I’ve just admitted that both parts of the sentence are true, so what’s the problem?

It’s the but.

[Read more…]