Dude. You read the wrong books.


I keep hearing that this somewhat well-known computer scientist, David Gelernter, has given up on Darwin. Dude. We moved on past Darwin over a hundred years ago. Just the fact that you think Darwin is still part of the science is revealing how little you know. We know where Darwin was wrong, and where he was heading in the right direction, and how much he didn’t know, and we recognize that he was important in setting us off on an interesting trail, but we’ve learned so much more since then.

So where did Gelernter get this wrong impression that it’s all about “Darwinism”? It’s because he read the wrong books.

Stephen Meyer’s thoughtful and meticulous Darwin’s Doubt (2013) convinced me that Darwin has failed. He cannot answer the big question. Two other books are also essential: The Deniable Darwin and Other Essays (2009), by David Berlinski, and Debating Darwin’s Doubt (2015), an anthology edited by David Klinghoffer, which collects some of the arguments Meyer’s book stirred up. These three form a fateful battle group that most people would rather ignore. Bringing to bear the work of many dozen scientists over many decades, Meyer, who after a stint as a geophysicist in Dallas earned a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science from Cambridge and now directs the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, disassembles the theory of evolution piece by piece. Darwin’s Doubt is one of the most important books in a generation. Few open-minded people will finish it with their faith in Darwin intact.

Just once I’d like to read that one of these creationists started by taking a college-level course in evolutionary biology, and read core textbooks in the field, rather than that they jumped right in with clueless ideologues who don’t understand the science, but are sure it’s wrong, and have produced silly polemics that bamboozle the ignorant. The thing that Berlinski, Meyer, and Klinghoffer have in common isn’t that they understand the basics of evolutionary biology, it’s that they don’t…and they overcome their ignorance with remarkable pomposity and pretentiousness. I’ve read those books, and they’re terrible. The authors ooze self-regard and are remarkably oblivious of the subject they’re opining on.

I didn’t go into science with “faith in Darwin” in the first place, so there was nothing to dismantle. It’s telling that they think evolutionary biologists are engaged in a faith-based enterprise — it’s purest projection.

So what arguments impressed Gelernter? The usual creationist nonsense: the fossils are missing! (Yeah, we know — we never expected a flawless representation of every living creature in the fossil record, since we can see right now in the here and now that most dead things rot and leave no trace). And then he makes an argument from bad math. You would think a computer science guy would know about the Garbage In, Garbage Out principle, but his whole argument is based on trivial, simplistic notions of how molecular biology works, so of course it’s total trash. He makes the old creationist combinatorial argument.

It’s easy to see that the total number of possible sequences is immense. It’s easy to believe (although non-chemists must take their colleagues’ word for it) that the subset of useful sequences—sequences that create real, usable proteins—is, in comparison, tiny. But we must know how immense and how tiny.

The total count of possible 150-link chains, where each link is chosen separately from 20 amino acids, is 20150. In other words, many. 20150 roughly equals 10195, and there are only 1080 atoms in the universe.

Oh god. So tired. This is such a stupid argument. Yes, if you have a specific target string in mind, it’s remarkably unlikely that you’ll get it by pure chance. If you’re blindfolded and shoot a gun at the side of a barn, making a hole in it, it is unlikely that you’ll hit that same hole if you fire a second time. That is not an argument that it was impossible to put the first hole in that specific spot, however. It is not an argument that you can’t possibly shoot the side of a barn.

That attempt to argue that the number of possibilities is larger than the number of atoms in the universe is also silly. Here’s another string of 150 characters:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I…

Do you realize that there are more characters here than there are relevant amino acids — 26 letters, space, and some assorted punctuation? The total count of possibilities of putting that sentence together was more like 30150, or far more than the number of atoms in the universe, so I don’t understand how Melville could have put it together. Then there are those millions of other books, that each start with a different combination of 150 characters, as if there is a whole vast range of different possible combinations. I give up. Literature is clearly a lie. It never happened.

That’s so obviously a bullshit argument, yet Gelernter makes it, as if it is somehow trenchant. Hint: Only creationists think it’s meaningful. Evolutionary biologists see it as a non-problem, and that creationists who make it are notably ignorant, just as professors of literature will shoo away any crackpot who comes to their door with a bizarre claim about the numerology of Herman Melville’s paragraphs.

It’s also so much easier to see the variations extant in biological paragraphs, too. Pick a gene, any gene, and go into the molecular biology databases, and you can find different versions of the sequence in different species and even different individuals within the same species. We have a record of all kinds of random permutations of the equivalent of that introductory paragraph, and they’re all functional — it’s as if Melville published a typo-ridden edition of Moby Dick, and the typos varied in each subsequent edition, but they were all still readable, and no one complained at the sloppiness. As if the code was so slack that we could accept novel versions of the text and new readings could evolve from the differences.

This myth of fundamental errors in evolutionary theory persists in the creationist community, though, because creationists only read other creationists. Gelernter reads Meyer and Berlinski and Klinghoffer, and thinks he now understands evolutionary biology, despite never ever reading anything in the field. Now other people will read Gelernter and think, because he’s a big smart computer scientist, that they have learned something about real problems in the field, instead of the echoes of the same old bullshit plopping out of assholes for the last 60 years.

My recommendation to everyone is that if you think you have some insight to contribute, that you think you are well-informed enough to criticize the field, put Meyer’s awful book down and get down to the basics first. Read Futuyma’s Evolution textbook, or Herron and Freeman’s Evolutionary Analysis. They’re too expensive? (They are.) Get an old edition, that’s good enough, and the price plummets as you get further from the current edition, but the evidence is still solid. Still too expensive? Download Felsenstein’s Theoretical Evolutionary Genetics, it’s free.

None of them are a light read, but you must be a brilliant person if you think you’ve completely demolished evolutionary theory, so I’m sure you can cope with the real thing, rather than those misrepresentations pushed by the frauds at the Discovery Institute. You might be horrified to discover that they don’t anguish over missing fossils or build bogus arguments based on misunderstandings of probability theory, and your simple-minded critiques are totally irrelevant to the science.

In other words, fuck off, David Gelernter, you arrogant clown.

Comments

  1. microraptor says

    Just once I’d like to read that one of these creationists started by taking a college-level course in evolutionary biology, and read core textbooks in the field, rather than that they jumped right in with clueless ideologues who don’t understand the science, but are sure it’s wrong, and have produced silly polemics that bamboozle the ignorant.

    But if they did that, they’d realize that creationism is bullshit and evolutionary biology actually makes sense. And then they wouldn’t be creationists.

  2. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    PZ wrote:

    so I don’t understand how Melville could have put it together.

    I thought that is where the Creationists are leading, that the sequence didn;t occur by random chance, it had to have been written by an intelligence like Melville. QED Gawd didit.
    I kindly suggest dropping this as a counterexample as I see it providing them a rebuttal.
    excuse me for throwing this in

  3. garnetstar says

    None of those creationists are chemists, and, if they were, they would know that chemistry is not random. Amino acids don’t just string together in any possible sequence. An amino acid at the end of a chain has a most-favored amino acid that it will add next, down through the 20 to the least-favored one, and the amino acid then added has a most-favored to a least-favored that it will add next, and so on.

    Even in “proteinoids”, protein molecules that have no biological use that can form spontaneously in the environment from just amino acids, salt, and warm water (aka, a “warm little pond”: Darwin was right about that) show selectivity in teh sequence of amino acids that add to the growing chain (this was confirmed in 1980, no excuse for not knowing it now). This selectively is called “the laws of thermodynamics” (and kinetics), in case the creationists haven’t heard of those.

    Chemistry isn’t random, it is the opposite: chemicals self-organize and self-select their reactions. That’s all they do, actually: no “random” reactions occur. Chemical reactions are the ultimate in what these fools call “design”, but it’s design guided only by the laws of themodynamics and kinetics. If you want to maintain that the world has a “designer”, you have to remain ignorant of how chemisty works, so the creationists do.

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    garnetstar #4: An amino acid at the end of a chain has a most-favored amino acid that it will add next…

    Which is all well and good, but the vast majority of protein chains in biology are not assembled this way. They are put together by ribosomes, which are RNA enzymes. Which points straight in the direction of the RNA World.

  5. expat says

    “Now other people will read Gelernter and think, because he’s a big smart computer scientist, that they have learned something about real problems in the field, instead of the echoes of the same old bullshit plopping out of assholes for the last 60 years.”

    Just did a spit take with this line….now I’ve got coffee dripping down my screen!

  6. Ridana says

    I’m really stupid, so bear with me. He’s saying there are 10^195 possible 150-link chains that can be made from 20 amino acids. So what does the total number of atoms (10^80) in the universe have to do with the probability of getting some useful combinations from among the 10^195 possibilities? I don’t think there’s any known law that says all of the possible combinations must occur before any of them can possibly be useful. From direct observation it’s obvious that tons of those possible combos are useful, and still we haven’t nearly run out of atoms to use in making them in vast quantities yet.

    So why do Gelernter and the people he’s cribbing from think these two numbers are related in a make-or-break fashion?

    Btw and fwiw, I agree with slithey tove @2 that the Melville example leads to creationism.

  7. garnetstar says

    @5, Yes, I know. But what I’m taking issue with is the idea that all chemical reactions are equally likely and equally possible: that throwing a bunch of amino acids into solution, for example, must result in every possible sequence of proteins. That cannot happen, and it doesn’t, even when chemicals react without the presence of catalysts such as enzymes (like the protenoids).

    Also, if these creationist are so impressed by large numbers, chemical reactions happen very quickly. To follow molecules that move together, react, and the products then move apart, takes a picosecond or femtosecond laser (lasers that flash, and take a snapshot of the molecules, every 10 ˆ -13 or 10 ˆ-15 seconds, respectively. That’s how fast reactions happen. (To follow electrons moving takes an umptasecond laser, that flashes every 10 ˆ-18 seconds: this was accomplished only last year.)

    So, I want the creationists to calculate how many possible amino acid addition reactions can have happened over the last 3.5 billion years, and tell me that all sequences aren’t possible.:) That wouldn’t be valid, but it’s just as valid as the calculations they rely on.

  8. PaulBC says

    Just once I’d like to read that one of these creationists started by taking a college-level course in evolutionary biology, and read core textbooks in the field, rather than that they jumped right in with clueless ideologues who don’t understand the science, but are sure it’s wrong, and have produced silly polemics that bamboozle the ignorant.

    Yes, but then they’d start out “brainwashed” by “Darwinists.” That must be pretty effective brainwashing too, since nobody who either took or at least paid attention in a biology class seems to be a creationist.

    Jerry Coyne provides a Gelernter quote that explains a lot about both his tone and content:

    Like so many others, I grew up with Darwin’s theory, and had always believed it was true. I had heard doubts over the years from well-informed, sometimes brilliant people, but I had my hands full cultivating my garden, and it was easier to let biology take care of itself. But in recent years, reading and discussion have shut that road down for good.

    See, Gelernter is a busy man. He had all that pioneering computer science to do. He needed time to write an elegy to the 1939 World’s Fair, etc., etc. Isn’t it good enough that he “always believed”? What more can you ask? I mean, you can’t expect him to be bothered to take a biology class with (gack!) undergrads? As he explains in the next paragraph, evolution is a “beautiful idea” that he has sadly found wanting. And the rest of us really dodged a bullet, since Gelernter might have gone on with his busy life and never taken the time to enlighten us.

  9. says

    So why do Gelernter and the people he’s cribbing from think these two numbers are related in a make-or-break fashion?

    Because big numbers are impressive to people who don’t know what they mean. It’s a hustle, pure and simple.

  10. Deborah Goldsmith says

    I read this book a few years ago, by a mathematician:

    https://www.amazon.com/Proving-Darwin-Making-Biology-Mathematical/dp/1400077982/ref=sr_1_1

    It’s not anti-evolution, but it is by someone from outside the field. I was wondering if any actual evolutionary biologists had an opinion on it. If I remember the book correctly, it examines evolution from an information theoretical point of view and whether it can do the job (and answers yes). If it’s not BS, it seems like a good formal refutation of the naive probabilistic arguments.

  11. garnetstar says

    What I mean is, the creationists treat reactions as if they were throwing dice. If the first die thrown comes up as, say, a 4, that has no influence on what the next die will come up as: all 6 sides are equally likely, and must be accounted for.

    Not at all. In chemical reactions, the first die turning up a 4 makes one of the sides of the next die thrown most likely to turn up (say, 90% probability). And, another side of the next die thrown is second-most-likely (perhaps 5% probability), and another side is third, down to least likely. So, the throw of the first die determines what the value of the next die will be. Therefore, not all possible values of the dice will occur. And, not all amino acid sequences will, or even can, occur either (assuming, as these people do, that amino acids are just reacting on their own, without guidance from enzymes. What enzymes do is make certain reactions faster, so that, say, the 5% probability reaction product appears first, way before the 90% probablity product (or the others), and so that’s the only product that is actually seen. That’s kinetics, the speed of reactions, and what determines the various probabilities is thermodynamics.

  12. Matt G says

    The odds of being dealt all the cards in one suit in bridge are something like one in 26 million. The hand I was just dealt? One in 26 million. It’s a miracle!

  13. chris61 says

    Adding my agreement to those who think using an obvious example of intelligent design (i.e. literature) to counter an argument in favor of intelligent design/creationism may not be the best way to go.

  14. says

    Deborah Goldsmith@11: Gregory Chaitin’s Proving Darwin takes one particular mathematical problem as a close analogy to evolution. He shows that it can succeed. That proves it for that task. However he does not address the more general issue of “evolvability” — what schemes of genes interacting to produce phenotypes allow evolutionary forces to effectively bring about adaptations. I am sympathetic to Chaitin’s desire for a “metabiology” that addresses these more general issues of what types of genotype-phenotype systems evolve effectively, but Chaitin has not given any general argument. Chaitin is rightly famous as a founder of algorithmic information theory. But in this case he seems to have inflated the importance of an interesting case, implying that it generally addresses all other cases. And creationists love to cite Chaitin’s book because it seems to say that the evolutionary biology is at an impasse and needs proving.

  15. MichaelE says

    It’s at times like these I’m grateful for Professor Thrane’s lecture on the validity of opinions and the importance of critical thinking in academia.
    I never finished college and even if I had finished, I’d still be less qualified on this topic than this Gelernter fellow and even I can recognize the smell bullshit in this argument.

  16. PaulBC says

    I agree that the Moby Dick example is not compelling to creationists, but I also have trouble at this point even understanding how the “counterargument from probability” is supposed to make sense to anybody. Let’s try two more: Out of all the ways to arrange beeswax, only an infinitesimal fraction consist of hexagonally packed cells suitable for nurturing larvae. Out of all the ways to crack rocks, only an infinitesimal fraction consist of the regular columns of the Giant’s Causeway. Bees are intelligent designers! Rocks are intelligent designers! I mean, these aren’t quite the same scenarios because both are periodic structures. But it seems that if you really find all the non-uniform structures an indication of intelligence, maybe you should consider some form of pantheism to be a better explanation.

    Another thing. Herman Melville started out as a single cell, just as all of us did (who aren’t mosaics anyway). What process got that cell to the point of writing Moby Dick? A religious person may still believe there’s a soul involved, so it becomes less compelling again, but assuming human thought is embedded in the natural universe, there is a process involved that still requires some explanation better than god-did-it. We appear to be surrounded by processes that take inanimate matter and convert it into poets and savants. It is ongoing and observable. If you’re going to be incredulous, direct your incredulity at that.

    Melville aside and his problematic soul, what about the cell that develops into a squirrel that busies itself reducing the “entropy” of acorns strewn under an oak tree and concentrates them in one location? Is that a natural process? Admitted vitalists are becoming harder and harder to find. So here we have what looks to most reasonable people like a physically realized derandomizing process that works without any divine guidance. If derandomization is a violation of thermodynamics, then how is that possible. Or are certain DNA sequences like the divinely inspired “cheat codes” in a video game.

    Anyone paying attention would conclude that very little of what goes on in nature looks like a uniform random process, and would not require “intelligence” to explain most of them.

  17. Matthew Herron says

    There are no examples of mutations that are not fatal. This Georgia Tech geneticist John F. McDonald calls “the great Darwinian paradox.”

    Spoiler alert: McDonald did not say anything of the sort:

    the results of the last 20 years of research on the genetic basis of adaptation has led us to a great Darwinian paradox. Those loci that are obviously variable within natural populations do not seem to lie at the basis of many major adaptive changes, while those loci that seemingly do constitute the foundation of many, if not most, major adaptive changes apparently are not variable within natural populations.

    https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev.es.14.110183.000453

  18. says

    A) Gelernter is German for educated, which makes this hilarious for me

    B) At this point I find creationists kinda refreshing? At least they recognize that there are actual science that is opposite to them and that they have to argue against it. I currently argue mostly with transphobes, who believe with every fiber that science is on their site and, when shown the opposite, refute to even engage with that at all. Its frustrating while not unexpected.

  19. PaulBC says

    Matthew Herron@19

    If I’m reading that quote correctly, it sounds similar to the “paradox” of the distribution of damage to returning bombers. “The holes in the returning aircraft, then, represented areas where a bomber could take damage and still return home safely. Wald proposed that the Navy reinforce areas where the returning aircraft were unscathed”. I.e., the variable parts of the genome are the ones with the least impact, just like the places where bombers can take damage and still come back.

    But who knows, with enough bomber missions, you might see some that survived in surprising ways, giving you a very different idea of which spots were truly critical. I’m sure most people who buy lottery tickets would have to conclude that there are “no examples” of tickets that hit the powerball jackpot, at least not any that they’ve seen. (For some reason, they still don’t conclude it’s a big scam; go figure.)

    I would guess (as a non-biologist) that a major adaptive change could occur when an adaptation is maladaptive in an ordinary environment, but could provide specific advantages that compensate for it (like, say, sickle cells). It probably takes generations to improve the overall fitness, but the relative fitness in a stressed environment could keep the mutation present in the population. And I suppose a lot of other things could happen.

    There is a major difference between “this never happens” and “this has a one in a million chance of happening.”

  20. mnb0 says

    “So where did Gelernter get this wrong impression that it’s all about “Darwinism”? It’s because he read the wrong books.”
    Wrong answer. Gelernter is a fundagelical lacking any imagination and independent thinking skills. So he assumes that evilutions abide to some authority just like he abides to Lord Jesus. He identifies that authority as Charles Darwin.
    Nothing but willfull stupidity.

    @2 and @7: nope, it doesn’t, because it’s a false analogy. We know what Melville (and others) did, how he did it and which means he used. We can even investigate it. Regarding “goddiddid” we totally can’t.

  21. rockwhisperer says

    Humble trained-as-a-geologist here, with an MS degree and a disability that gets in the way of working in my chosen field. Such is life. I even ducked out on high school biology, needing only three years of science during my four high school years, and took general science, chemistry, and physics. Went off to college to become an engineer, and took a year of physics but only two quarters of general chemistry. So, from a biologist’s point of view, I’m pretty uneducated.

    Fast forward a couple of decades, and I take up studying geology for an MS. Invertebrate paleontology is an optional class, but taught by a beloved professor in his last year of teaching. We students swamp the class, and Cal has to do some fancy finagling to get us all enough lab time. Doesn’t matter. He covers the evolution of marker invertebrate species that geologists use for dating, and I am fascinated. I pore over books with photos and sketches, the work of thousands of paleontologists over many decades, reveling in the intense variety of invertebrate life over the ages. If there is magic in our existence, it is displayed in the perfectly natural exuberance of life on this planet.

    Maybe there are gaps in the fossil record of hominids, but there aren’t many in the record of corals or ammonites.or other splendid invertebrate beasties. The declaration of “oh, but ‘higher’ animals (or hominids) are different!” simply doesn’t ring true to me. We are all products of DNA. There is no special creation of any kind. And I can say this without a scrap of biology in my background.

  22. bcwebb says

    He is a former national fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and senior fellow in Jewish thought at the Shalem Center,

    need I say more?

  23. springa73 says

    This sounds like one of those cases where someone who is an expert in one field thinks that this means they can make authoritative arguments about a completely different field without even bothering to do any serious studying of their new field. I would have thought that scientists and engineers would know better than to do this, but apparently some of them don’t.

  24. consciousness razor says

    garnetstar:

    What I mean is, the creationists treat reactions as if they were throwing dice. If the first die thrown comes up as, say, a 4, that has no influence on what the next die will come up as: all 6 sides are equally likely, and must be accounted for.

    Well, the die you’ve chosen (in this analogy) would need to be fair. Some aren’t.
    To make the very general point, probabilities like this should be determined empirically. Claiming that all possibilities are equally likely is just plain wrong, if that doesn’t agree with our experience of the real world. It very often doesn’t.
    People tend to confuse themselves about this, with simple cases like flipping a coin…. They think “2 sides must mean the chances for each is 1/2”: literally dividing 1 into 2 equal parts, as if that were the only thing you needed to know about such things. But that’s not true. You also need to know about how coins do in fact behave in the real world. You don’t get all of that information for free, simply by learning how to add or multiply or whatever. And you might assume it sometimes. But that’s still another assumption, however reasonable it may seem to you.

  25. consciousness razor says

    Oh, I was going to add that saying a roll of the die “has no influence on what the next die will come up as” isn’t right. We just don’t know (or don’t usually look closely enough to tell) what influence that has on the die’s state later. So some may just pretend like there is no such influence.

  26. DanDare says

    Consciousness razor @27. Bit of a tangent about weather dice rolls really influence one another.
    The point your addressing is that chemistry is not that free and easy. That if you were to model the dice as some chemical like system then if you roll a 3 the next dice has to be a 2 or a 6. That is a better metaphore than the one the creationists are using.

  27. Stuart Smith says

    In related news, I’m starting to get pretty skeptical about Aristotelian physics.

  28. PaulBC says

    Deborah Goldsmith@11

    I went to the Amazon link for Chaitin’s book and the first thing that caught my attention was:

    For years it has been received wisdom among most scientists that, just as Darwin claimed, all of the Earth’s life-forms evolved by blind chance.

    Chaitin is credible in his field, but this description does not reassure me. Evolution is really nothing like blind chance. It’s a feedback process. Some elements are random*, but the randomness is not what leads to adaptation. I think this is really the key misconception that allows creationists to keep using their silly example of independent coin-flips/dice rolls. (Also, sound science does not work from “received wisdom” and actually confirms hypotheses as a matter of routine).

    There is a lot of popular interest in mutations as a source of variability, but (as a somewhat informed layperson) I think the engine of evolution is actually the remarkably faithful replication of genes rather than their infrequent variability. Yes, the increased fitness has to come from somewhere, but what makes it persist is the amplifying effect of replicating it from generation to generation. Without that, you don’t get evolution. This point is never even addressed in silly creationist models.

    Evolution is “blind” in the sense of having no direct plan or way to sense outcome, but it is not chance. It’s the consequence of feedback. Once there is a subset of the population with significantly better fitness than the rest, the process that causes its genes to become more prevalent is not primarily random, but primarily self-amplifying (not guaranteed to do this, but not a dice roll either).

    *Randomness is the source of variability in practice, but there is no reason variability even has to be random. As a thought experiment, imagine you could synthesize every modification to bases along some short stretch of DNA of some organism. Then run an experiment testing them for “fitness”. After that, continue to replicate “fit” organisms. You would observe adaptation despite the fact that you used exhaustive enumeration instead of random selection. Of course, exhaustive enumeration is infeasible beyond a short stretch. You could use pseudorandom mutation (which is actually deterministic, and what genetic algorithm optimizations use, producing useful solutions in a manner somewhat analogous to evolution).
    The point is that randomness is not at all the essential ingredient of evolution. Variability, selection, and reproduction are.

  29. blf says

    The mildly deranged penguin points the determining factor in most chemical reactions are the daemons driving the molecules around. The best ones are said to be supplied by the long-established Maxwell’s Gate labs.

  30. numerobis says

    What a predictable direction for this well-known kook to take. Gelertner has been railing about liberals ruining science forever.

    It’s pretty sad — he hasn’t really published in computer science since the unabomber sent him a bomb. I can see that putting a crimp in my career as well. Just sucks he decided to do the right-wing kook thing after the experience.

  31. numerobis says

    The core of this critique is that Darwin never provided a selection criterion that would chose which random variations to favour and which to reduce.

    Except… that’s exactly what Darwin provides.

    The mechanics and further analysis and lots of details have gotten better known, and Darwin was wrong about some higher level parts, but natural selection is kind of the core of his while shtick.

  32. John Morales says

    PaulBC:

    I went to the Amazon link for Chaitin’s book and the first thing that caught my attention was:

    For years it has been received wisdom among most scientists that, just as Darwin claimed, all of the Earth’s life-forms evolved by blind chance.

    Chaitin is credible in his field, but this description does not reassure me. Evolution is really nothing like blind chance. It’s a feedback process. Some elements are random*, but the randomness is not what leads to adaptation.

    “Blind chance” as in “undirected”, not as in “utterly random”.

    But yes, stochastic processes are not ordinarily random, they rely on previous states. Iterative, they.

    (Or, they’re iterative. Especially over deep time)

  33. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    The replies that brought dice into this discussion brings to mind the precedent that Backgammon was decided by a court of law not to be a game of chance, despite using dice to determine the moves. Perhaps genetics is similar: that even though probability is a big factor, chemical constraints influence the results more seriously, equivalent to rules of moving the pieces, plays a bigger factor than the simple roll of the dice.
    thank you for letting me interrupt

  34. PaulBC says

    John Morales@35

    “Blind chance” is sufficiently ill-defined that I can agree, but I still think that the phrasing (not necessarily Chaitin’s) tends to encourage a naive understanding of evolution. I also think it’s in poor taste to refer to the “received wisdom” among scientists. In fact, every undergrad science lab I can think of (physical not life science) was aimed at reproducing classic results in a controlled experiment. If there’s received wisdom, you’re doing it wrong. There is teaching of known results, but these aren’t intended to be “received” uncritically.

  35. PaulBC says

    I also feel that the emphasis on “blind chance” has a tendency to conflate abiogenesis with evolution. By the time you have a cell with genetic material, there is already a very robust adaptive process in place. When you add sexual reproduction and the ability to hybridize successful adaptations, it is even further accelerated. These processes are nothing like flipping 100 coins and hoping you get a good result. Life on earth is equipped with an algorithm to adapt to changing environments, and it is superior to what a mere human intelligence could come up with. Look at something living in a microscope and the correct answer is “obviously this is not the work of design, because I have never seen a designed object that has anything like this complexity.”

    (I assume abiogenesis occurred on earth rather than life arriving from elsewhere, deferring the question, but it is really not relevant to a discussion of “evolution” and I am leery whenever I see phrasing that opens up the creationist bait-and-switch from natural selection to abiogenesis.)

  36. PaulBC says

    slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem))@36

    But is D&D a game of chance? Maybe we can tie different threads together here.

  37. rietpluim says

    Bertrand Russell once wrote something like: you can’t learn to know someone by reading what his opponents wrote about them. I guess that is all that is to be said about creationist literature.

  38. Pierce R. Butler says

    Just once I’d like to read that one of these creationists started by taking a college-level course in evolutionary biology…

    Well, <ahref=”https://pandasthumb.org/archives/2007/03/jonathan-wells-1.html”>Jonathan Wells started by getting a Yale doctorate in divinity, but later (also at the behest of the “Moonie” Unification Church), he did go to UC Berkeley for a biology degree. It doesn’t seem to have helped his comprehension very much.

Leave a Reply