It’s an appropriate way to start a Monday morning, I think, with a small collection of really badly written articles. It can only go upwards from here!
First, I blame Jeffrey Shallit for introducing me to the glurge of Stephen Talbott. He’s one of those guys who has a nagging feeling that evolutionary theory is inadequate because it doesn’t appreciate teleology enough, and the corrective is to ask sufficiently vague and pretentiously phrased questions. So he asks,
Can Darwinian Evolutionary Theory Be Taken Seriously? (“Yes,” I answer) with this kind of empty noise.
As we have seen, the life of the organism is itself the designing power. Its agency is immanent in its own being, and is somehow expressed at the very roots of material causation. It brings forth this or that kind of growth with no need for the artifice of an alien hand arbitrarily intervening to arrange parts and causal relations this way or that. The choreographing is brought about, it would appear, from that same depth of reality where the causal forces themselves arise, not from “outside”. However we conceive this “inner” place, it is, at least for now, inaccessible to our own engineering prowess.
At the same time, we ourselves possess varieties of conscious activity that other organisms do not. When I refer to the organism’s intelligent agency, or its purposiveness, or its directed coordination of means to serve particular ends, I do not imply anything equivalent to our own conscious purposing or planning. But neither do I suggest something inferior to our particular sort of wisdom and power of action. If anything, we must consider organic life — for example, the life of our cells — to be an expression of a higher sort of intelligence and intention than we ourselves can yet imagine consciously achieving in the technological realm.
You can tell he really wants to sign on with Intelligent Design creationism, but he can’t, because those people are such peasants. He must carve his own bold path through cheesy metaphysics, in which he waves his hands and claims that design is immanent in cells, but doesn’t have to deliver any actual evidence, other than his own feeble intuition.
Oh, hey, as long as we’re talking Intelligent Design creationism, let’s move on to a familiar source of bad writing, the Discovery Institute. In our second case, Matthew Herron points us to Cornelius Hunter, the cocksure ignoramus who at least likes to angrily attack the evidence evolutionary biologists bring up. He never actually levies a substantial criticism, but just the fact that he barks loudly must be proof that it’s wrong, right? His latest is Shared Errors: An Open Letter to BioLogos on the Genetic Evidence, Cont..
In this case, he has a different target, as you can tell from the title: BioLogos, and specifically, Dennis Venema. It’s an endlessly amusing fact of life that many Intelligent Design creationists really despise Theistic Evolutionists, and vice versa, despite the fact that I can’t hardly tell them apart (David Klinghoffer, another thuddingly awful writer, also really hates Venema. Consider yourself lucky that I’m not introducing you to Denyse O’Leary today). The root of the disagreement is that Intelligent Design creationism wants to outright deny evolutionary theory; their main approach consists of arguments from incredulity and claiming that evolution not only didn’t happen, but is impossible. The theistic evolutionists, on the other hand, are willing to acknowledge the evidence and say that organisms actually do evolve, but they want to coopt the theory as somehow, in some fuzzy undefined way, is compatible with invisible supernatural intervention. The theistic evolutionists are undermining the Discovery Institute’s whole strategy while still invoking magical superbeings.
So Venema thinks the plagiarized error argument is good evidence for common descent. This is the observation that many lineages perpetuate historical mistakes; it’s hard to argue that all apes just independently broke the gene for synthesizing vitamin C, and further that they independently broke the gene in exactly the same way. Even if you argue that somehow it was functionally adaptive to give apes scurvy if they don’t eat their fruit, it would be peculiar that a malicious Designer took the gene out with the same deletions and point mutations in every case — the simplest explanation is that the gene was wrecked in a common ancestor, and we all inherited the same damaged copy. Hunter does not like that, so he resorts to the common canard of accusing evolutionary biology of being a religion.
The “shared error” argument is bad science and bad history, but it remains a very strong argument. This is because its strength does not come from science or history, but rather from religion. As I have explained many times, evolution is a religious theory, and the “shared error” argument is no different. This is why the scientific and historical problems don’t matter. Venema explains:
The fact that different mammalian species, including humans, have many pseudogenes with multiple identical abnormalities (mutations) shared between them is a problem for any sort of non-evolutionary, special independent creation model.
This is a religious argument, evolution as a referendum on a “special independent creation model.” It is not that the species look like they arose by random chance, it is that they do not look like they were created. Venema and the evolutionists are certain that God wouldn’t have directly created this world. There must be something between the Creator and creation — a Plastik Nature if you will. And if Venema and the evolutionists are correct in their belief then, yes, evolution must be true. Somehow, some way, the species must have arisen naturalistically.
No, it’s looking at specific genes/pseudogenes and seeing that random chance has caused differences in organisms, that are then inherited by their descendants. It’s an observation that is compatible with and supports evolutionary theory — a naturalistic explanation for the origin of an organism’s features.
It is interesting that Hunter gives away the game in that last paragraph. He is objecting to the theistic evolutionist’s suggestion that the actions of their deity are indirect — God would use evolution to create humans in his image. The Intelligent Design creationists are arguing that the deity acted directly, zapping every novelty straight into the genome. I’ll let them hash out their theological distinctions however they want, in the hopes of a Kilkenny Cats solution.
My third example is the indefatigably incompetent Suzan Mazur. Mazur is a weird case. She clearly aspires to be a real live science journalist, but the science she wants to track down is all this fringey nonsense about undiscovered mechanisms that will revolutionize the theory, and she doesn’t have the intellectual background to discriminate between noise and signal. She’s the one who went into hyperbolic raptures over the Altenburg meetings, which she was sure was going to conclude with Massimo Pigliucci descending from the mountain cradling a revolution in his arms. She was enthusiastic about Fodor and Palmarini’s ill-founded criticisms of evolution. She was an ardent supporter of Stuart Pivar and Vincent Fleury. You get the idea: she loves her them crackpots.
She’s also the worst journalist since Denyse O’Leary. She simply cannot tell a story. Here she is hectoring a guy who edited a book on astrobiology. His sin: he did not pay sufficient attention to her poorly understood obsessions with novel mechanisms in evolution.
Suzan Mazur: The big question is, regarding the discussion of evolution in the Primer, what’s cited is that one of the features of life is “progressive adaptation via Darwinian evolution.” But there’s no mention of any other approach to evolution aside from Darwinian selection. With all the breaking news about alternative evolutionary approaches, why wasn’t there any room for alternatives?
Lucas Mix: To start with, it’s important to recognize that the Primer is an attempt in 81 pages to summarize the background information of all of astrobiology and that what happened was that we solicited input as to what needed to be in the document and then we tried to edit draconianly short descriptions of topics. So the evolution section really is meant to give only the most introductory of remarks about evolution.
Suzan Mazur: But it was introduced in a dogmatic way regarding Darwin. I mean, this is it. This is the way it is.
Lucas Mix: That was not my impression.
Suzan Mazur: But nothing else was offered.
Lucas Mix: A great deal of work was done to ensure that it talked about neutral selection.
Suzan Mazur: There was nothing about self-organization, for instance, in your Primer.
This is her thing. There are Forces out there that scientists do not comprehend — that she doesn’t understand them either is irrelevant — and stuff like selection and nearly neutral theory are dogmatic Darwinism.
But here’s the real shame. For once, Mazur has an interesting story to write up, and she loses it in a disorganized, incoherent mess of a ramble, that just has to touch on her obsessions. This is actually kind of important:
NASA’s Astrobiology Program — headed by Mary Voytek — awarded $1.108M (5% of its annual budget) to the Center of Theological Inquiry, a religious think tank with more than $23M in assets, to investigate how the world’s religions might respond to the discovery of life on other planets. John Templeton Foundation is co-sponsoring the two-year project (2015-2017) with a $1.7M grant to CTI.
Hang on. NASA gave a million dollars to a prosperous theological think tank, which also got a hefty donation from the Templeton Foundation, to do what? We don’t need to investigate how religion will respond, we already know: some will take it in stride and try to incorporate discoveries into their belief systems, and some will actively deny it. Why is a NASA program throwing away 5% of their budget on trying to scry how the irrational will respond to something they haven’t found yet?
That’s a story. Unfortunately, Mazur simply cannot focus on the very subject of her own piece, and buries it in irrelevancies.
Now let’s spend the rest of the week doing better than Talbott, Hunter, and Mazur. At least I’ve set myself achievable goals!