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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The rock, the clock, and organismal complexity

Honeybees, photo by Will Ratcliff

Recently reproduced (swarmed) honeybees.
Photo by Will Ratcliff

Scientific articles can be dry, technical, and, yes, boring. They aren’t always, though. Now and then you come across a gem, as I did this morning while searching for some background for a manuscript I’m working on. In 2007, Joan Strassmann and David Queller wrote, in a section titled “The rock, the clock, and organismal complexity,”

Darwin built his theory of descent with modifications from many quarters. He took uniformitarianism from the geologist Charles Lyell, the struggle for existence from the economist Thomas Malthus, and homology from a number of continental biologists. Perhaps most surprising is his debt to a theologian, William Paley. At university, Darwin had Paley’s Natural Theology almost by heart. Paley pointed to the complexity of organisms and claimed that such complexity required a supernatural intelligence. Darwin’s chief achievement was to provide a scientific explanation for adaptive complexity.

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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…]

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.”

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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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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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A helpful translation

I’m never sure whether I should be amused or horrified to see intelligent design’s PR firm, the Discovery Institute, trying to pose as a scientific organization. Right now I’m tending decidedly towards amusement, as their inept aping of the scientific process only serves to reveal how fundamentally they misunderstand it.

As always, I’m here to help.

Recent posts from members of the Discovery Institute show that their authors have learned to imitate the language of science without actually understanding it. I’m going to do my best to translate a few things. For example, when David Klinghoffer (who is, in a sense, a ghost) says,

I’m currently seeking to place an awesome manuscript by a scientist at an Ivy League university with the guts to give his reasons for rejecting Darwinism. The problem is that, as yet, nobody has the guts to publish it.

what I think he means is

our manuscript has so far failed to pass peer review.

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