Theologians Lobby Successfully to Change Definition of Evolution

By Sean Carroll | February 21, 2011 6:53 am

If anyone wants an example of why some of us object strongly to the “accommodationist” strategy of downplaying the incompatibility of science and (many types of) religious belief, Jerry Coyne’s blog post will help you out. A bit too much, actually — the more you really think about it, the angrier it will make you feel. No wonder why these atheists are all so strident!

Apparently the National Association of Biology Teachers characterizes used to characterize the theory of evolution in the following way:

The diversity of life on earth is the result of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.

That’s a good description, because it’s true. But some religious thinkers, along with their enablers within the scientific establishment, objected to the parts about “unsupervised” and “impersonal,” because they seemed to exclude the possibility that the process was designed or guided by God. Which they do! Because that’s what the theory of evolution says, and that theory is far and away our best understanding of the data. (Dysteleological physicalism.)

The shocking part of the story is that the objectors won. The National Association of Biology Teachers officially changed their description of evolution, to better accomodate the views of theologians.

This isn’t a brand new story, but I had never heard it before. Jerry seems a lot more calm about it than I am, so you should read his post for more. I’ll just quote one short paragraph from him:

In my classes, however, I still characterize evolution and selection as processes lacking mind, purpose, or supervision. Why? Because, as far as we can see, that’s the truth.

The truth still matters.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Science, Top Posts
  • David George

    Truth?

    I thought the school of physics favors dealing with consistency with evidence rather than “truth”, which is more like “proof”. Is “truth” now in the realm of the school of physics?

  • mandeep

    Sean- good points, but i find this a somewhat incomplete post — what *was* the final version of that passage? I would’ve liked to compare it exactly. Did they only take out those two words (which i agree, is quite a backwards step indeed), or do further damage?

    I couldn’t find the changed passage in Coyne’s post either, though the way he describes it makes it sound like that’s exactly what they did, just remove the two ‘offending’ (in their alernate-multiverse world) words, but your description above is not as clear about this.

    Just wondered — thx for the heads up (and all the posts in between too — i tend to be more of a reader than poster of late, though i do skim most all your fine posts — but you guys get plenty of responses all around i see, so i don’t think you’re hurting for that, for sure, and i think i just happened to catch this one at the right moment to be the first responder.. :-) But i do btw “digg” many of the pieces, so i guess that’s gotta be helpful and supportive of you guys in some quiet implicit way.. ).

    -M

  • chris

    David,

    it is simple historic truth that the *theory of evolution* implies undirected, impersonal change. whether this is actually the truth in the sense of being realized in nature is up to scientific discussion, but the very definition of the theory of evolution just does not have a god in it. period.

    or how would a creationist react if the definition of creationism is modified from “god created all species” into “god or Chuck Norris or the spaghetti monster created all species”?

  • Katharine

    I find it bizarre how these people think life has no meaning without their deity. Very cultish.

  • http://madsoftware.blogspot.com Mike

    I believe in science, I believe in religion and I believe in evolution. But I have a hard time understanding why it’s so important to some scientists to make sure that not only do we not mention God in science, but we must specifically reject him outright. I agree that there is no evidence that God is there. If there were evidence, then it would be pretty easy to believe in God. I’ll accept that. I don’t expect you to believe in God. But since there is also no evidence that he doesn’t exist, then I expect science to leave the topic alone. Let the Atheists discuss the absence of God. Science is about evidence, not belief.

    But I do expect you to state conclusions based on good evidence. There is no evidence that God didn’t have some small hand in the evolutionary process. Perhaps evolution is the mechanism by which he created a diverse ecosystem on this planet. That’s what the theologians are asking for. The National Association of Biology Teachers is overstating what science knows about evolution.

    The words unsupervised and impersonal are quite problematic. “Unsupervised” implies the absence of some intelligence involved. Well, what is intelligence? Once humans showed up did evolution stop? We can discuss a number of situations where humans had a clear hand in the evolutionary process. What about other possibly intelligent animals? How much intelligence do you need before you’re a “supervisor”? And “impersonal”, which would mean that no person was involved. Well, since humans didn’t show up until pretty late in the game, that’s sorta obvious, but has the same problems as “unsupervised”.

    I’m really getting tired of two things in the scientific community. One, the alliance with the atheists which some in science seem to think is the only way it can be. Science and religion can coexist peacefully you know. And two, the accusations of stupidity at anyone who doesn’t accept everything a scientist says without question. I understand you’ve studied your field in more depth than anyone else, but that doesn’t alleviate the need to explain your reasoning to those you’re speaking with.

  • valatan

    @Chris:

    While I agree with you, your counterfactual pretty much is intelligent design.

  • Mike 2

    “There is no evidence that God didn’t have some small hand in the evolutionary process. ”

    And what would that evidence be? What could it be?

    There’s no evidence that my great grandfather didn’t have some small hand in the evolutionary process, and I can’t think of any evidence that could even be presented and would settle the issue.

    Please, if you want to believe in superstitions, feel free to do so; but don’t try and make arguments for them based on any thing other than superstition itself.

  • Norm

    Mike:

    There is no evidence that God didn’t have some small hand in the evolutionary process.

    True, but there’s also no evidence that “X” didn’t have some small hand in the evolutionary process (where “X” can be anything you want). Why mention something for which there is no evidence?

    On the other hand, I don’t fully see the need for including terms like “unguided” or “purposeless”. These terms are implicit in our understanding of the process. For example, if I were to explain how ice crystals form, I certainly wouldn’t expect anyone to suggest that somehow God directs the formation of ice, nor would I feel it necessary to explain that the process is blind and unguided. Having described the process and the mechanisms behind it, it should be obvious that it’s not “guided” in any meaningful sense. Same goes for the mechanism of natural selection.

  • http://windoffthehilltop.com Earl Wajenberg

    That the theory of evolution describes a process that is unsupervised and impersonal is undoubtedly true. But the statement is not describing the theory. The statement is making a claim about the cause of the diversity of life on Earth, with no disclaimers about “as far as we can see” or “within the empirical evidence.” The upshot is that, in its original form, it is making a religious statement. So, I grant you, is a statement about the rotundity of the Earth (flat-earthers) or the germ theory of disease (Christian Scientists). But this particular religious statement comes up against a constituency too big to dismiss. It’s probably a constituency that includes some biology teachers who do not want a religious (or anti-religious) position made a part of an organizational statement.

    Frankly, you should be grateful they ascribe the diversity to evolution at all.

  • Chris

    Who do you think threw that asteroid at us 65 million years ago?

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/sedary_raymaker/ Naked Bunny with a Whip

    Science and religion can coexist peacefully you know.

    There is no evidence that God didn’t have some small hand in the evolutionary process.

    The second statement demonstrates why you think the first one is correct.

  • David George

    chris,

    So the truth is found not in the theory but in the historical fact that it implies something. So the atheists are not saying that the “theory of evolution” is true. I have no problem with that. But the implication of undirected, impersonal change is hazy, as others note. Would a self-directed system undergo “undirected” change? What if the method of self-direction is by the favoring of harmony over chaos? So “evolution” is directed by the achievement of harmony. But the “theory of evolution” doesn’t seem to recognize any such harmonic principle.

    It is also a fact that the Big Bang cosmology purporting to describe the evolution of the universe (of which the “theory of evolution” would presumably be a class) does not have a god in it. So no god is included in any physics-based “theory”. Perhaps this is because T = 0 is specifically excluded from consideration in any physics-based “theory”. The “physical” universe begins a short time after its own creation. It doesn’t make much sense. Maybe that’s why people who don’t believe in tribal myths don’t believe in such “scientific theories” either. It’s the nonsense factor.

  • http://madsoftware.blogspot.com Mike

    @Norm I think we generally agree here. A scientific statement doesn’t need to make religious statements, either for or against.

    @Naked Bunny with a Whip The first statement is a belief. The second is a statement of fact that you’re welcome to falsify. Why don’t you try instead of being dramatic?

  • http://www.home.earthlink.net/~rjfrye/ Robert Frye

    I was drawn to this blog by the rather inaccurate headline of a change in the definition of evolution. After reading the blog I see they are not talking about the definition of evolution but a description of possible outcomes of evolution. Sean, there is no theory of evolution, rather biological evolution is a phenomena of nature like gravity. Biological evolution is simply a change in gene frequencies in a population over time. We see it everywhere, dogs, cats, corn, wheat and countless other species humans have changed over the years. We can also see evolution occurring in the laboratory, in nature, and even in humans. Natural selection is a theory and when evolution occurs through natural selection it is the environment and/or its change that is directing or supervising the evolution.

  • Jason Dick

    @Mike,

    That evolution has no purpose whatsoever is absolutely central and essential to understanding evolution. Fail to understand that crucial point, and you are bound to make many mistakes regarding evolution. Furthermore, it is also a point that can be and has been directly tested in the lab: mutations are random with respect to selection. That simple fact is all you need to know to understand that evolution is undirected. If you want to talk about some god stepping in and changing something, then that is not evolution. The salient fact of the matter is that evolution, without any magic man, explains all of the diversity of life that we see.

    So no, dropping that language is an absolute bastardization of the very meaning of evolution that should not be allowed. If it conflicts with your religious views, then your religious views are wrong. Deal with it.

  • Charles Schmidt

    Your idea that your truth equals proof, without giving that proof is just an opinion and we all have one. Will you next tell us that yours is the only view that counts? That is not to say that I do or do not agree with the idea but telling me what you think with out giving any proof does not make it a truth just your opinion.

  • Katharine

    Mike, teleological assumptions contradict the evidence around evolution: traits have appeared and disappeared in varying lineages as the environment changes. Animals have gained legs; animals have lost legs. From whence do you suppose tetrapods came, and alternatively, from whence do you suppose cetaceans came? Cetaceans are a group that evolved from animals who evolved bony limbs (it is alleged that the ancestor of tetrapods was a lobe-finned fish), which then lost its legs when it re-entered the water.

    You can’t prove a negative, either. The burden of proof is always on the person who makes the positive claim, and ‘positive’ in this situation means someone claiming something is, rather than is not.

    You presuppose the existence of a deity. The probability of your deity existing is approximately as likely as the existence of a giant invisible-to-humans-and-their-technology cosmic lobster, and why you pick one absurd imaginary entity over another I don’t know.

    To everyone else, I think it is a sign that the world needs to do a lot of growing up when people’s feelings and insecurities get bandied around in talk of whether something exists or in talk of scientific facts. We can talk about facts compassionately and tactfully, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are what they are.

  • Katharine

    Your belief in a deity without concomitant evidence is patently nonsensical.

  • germanman

    There’s no evidence that my great grandfather didn’t have some small hand in the evolutionary process

    Mike2, arkward as it may seem, your great grandmother might want to argue that point.

  • David George

    Jason Dick wrote,

    “That evolution has no purpose whatsoever is absolutely central and essential to understanding evolution. Fail to understand that crucial point, and you are bound to make many mistakes regarding evolution. Furthermore, it is also a point that can be and has been directly tested in the lab: mutations are random with respect to selection. That simple fact is all you need to know to understand that evolution is undirected.”

    If we look back at the path of evolution, with ourselves at the current “end” of it, we can identify ourselves as the purpose of evolution; i.e. the end of the process so far. If “purpose” does not require some “end”, how would you define “purpose”? Then what distinguishes us from the creature we evolved from? For one thing, we are immensely complex; for another, we are conscious of immense complexity that has evolved in the course of evolution. So one purpose of evolution is the evolution of complexity and consciousness. Do you seek some “higher” purpose?

    Mutations are not random. (I don’t know what you mean by “with respect to selection”.) I believe it is now recognized that cells operate not by simply following instructions emanating from DNA. Their component systems send signals back to the DNA in response to environmental conditions, and the DNA changes in response to their signals. Would you still call mutations “random” if they are the result of a conversation between DNA and cell systems?

  • surprised_to_agree

    I thought I would be up-in-arms together with Sean here, but I find myself in favor of the change in language, if that change is limited to removing the words ‘impersonal’ and ‘unsupervised’. (I might also remove ‘natural’). The words are irrelevant qualifiers.

    This is because these words are unnecessary to convey the essence of evolution: it doesn’t actually matter whether it is occurring under the aegis of some omniscient being. Just as that being is not required (under the old or new language), it is not excluded either. Evolution just doesn’t have anything to say about its own impersonal nature or supervision. It just is (removing the ‘natural’ which is also imho editorializing):

    an unpredictable process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.

    and it leads to:

    The diversity of life on earth

    Perfect!

  • Jason Dick

    @David,

    We are not at the “end” of evolution in any way, shape, or form. Evolution is an ongoing process that will still occur long after we are all dead and gone. We are just a single species among a great many species, and a single snapshot of that species. We are no more the “purpose” of evolution than snow in winter is the purpose of summer.

    But the more important point to make is simply that the future does not affect the past.

    The rest of your post is pure anti-science creationist claptrap. You could really stand to learn what actual mutations are.

  • Lord

    Does that mean artificial selection is not evolution?

  • V. Abbass

    Mike says

    “I believe in science, I believe in religion and I believe in evolution.”

    Is this a mantra you repeat daily?

    Of course you believe in science, religion and evolution; science, religion and evolution are nouns. Could you be more specific: do you believe what science and evolution teach us about the world? If so, how can you believe what religion teaches about the world?

  • http://www.themultiversalnews.com gregg leinweber

    It’s too bad that God won’t appear for us and settle this question once and for all. It would be great if I could get him to be a guest on my talk show “the multiversal news” but he’s kind of shy. Maybe we could conduct an experiment that would show “the hand of God” changing a chromosome. We have never seen that happening in a lab even though we have been witness to changes in microbial DNA.

    Maybe God decided in his infinite wisdom not to do one damn thing at all or influence us in any way what so ever. He was so smart that he created a universe {or multiverse} that created itself and saved him the trouble of constantly having to monitor everything and nudge cue balls one way or the other.

    I think it is a blasphemy against God to pretend to speak for him or ascribe a behavior for him when you really don’t know if it’s true or not. Scientist merely make judgments based on observable data. This empirical evidence may not agree with your view of God and if it doesn’t, maybe your view of God is at fault here and not the observable data.

    If you say to us that God has to make “adjustments” in order for his plan to be complete then you would have to admit that God was too incompetent to make it right at the beginning, and that is blasphemy.

    Leave science to the scientist and go back to your church and pray for wisdom.

    Oh and by the way why don’t you watch Buddy Ratner on my talk show.
    http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/12721719

  • KWK

    Sean (and most of the rest of the commenters),

    I’ll go 50% of the way with you…it is accurate to describe the process itself as “impersonal”, just as any other natural process is (unless one adheres to pantheism, I suppose…). But “unsupervised” is definitely more of a philosophical/theological statement that simply goes beyond the available evidence. In the absence of positive evidence that the process includes no supervision (have you seen God *not* supervise it?), it is better to make no claim one way or the other. So while it seems that there is no need to invoke God’s direct involvement in the process of evolution, neither (as far as the science of evolution is concerned) is there a need to invoke God’s lack of involvement.

    In short, the right question to ask in this case is “If there were a God supervising evolution, is it possible that the Universe could look the way it does now?” Only if we could categorically answer that in the negative would we be justified in saying that evolution is unsupervised. Also notice that this is a different question from “Is there independent evidence for the existence of God?”

    I fear you’re letting your philosophical preconceptions lead to a conflation of one question with the other, and that is interfering with your analysis of the care with which the NABT is making its claims.

  • http://qpr.ca/blogs/2011/02/21/defining-evolution/ Alan Cooper

    The theory of evolution does have some predictive capability (though albeit of a stochastic nature). So the unqualified use of ”unpredictable” may be inappropriate.

    Also, although it does not require supervision or purpose, the theory of evolution makes no statement regarding their absence. So to include the word “unsupervised” in a definition of the theory is indeed just plain wrong.

  • chemicalscum

    Since I suspect I have been banned by Jerry from his blog for puking at Frank Sinatra, I will post here. I suspect I will also be regarded there as soft on accomodationism and peddling quantum woo.

    As Jason Dick wisely pointed out about an earlier poster “The rest of your post is pure anti-science creationist claptrap. You could really stand to learn what actual mutations are”. The stochastic nature of mutations is very important for biology. Schrödinger pointed out in his book “What is life” (1944) that since gamma radiation causes mutation then mutation is a quantum mechanical process and the genetic material must be molecular not super-macromolecular as was thought at the time. His view was amply by the later discoveries about the genetic role of DNA.

    On this basis the NABT description of evolution as unpredictable arises directly from mutation being caused by QM processes rather than deterministic chaos. Therefore if we take the Everett interpretation of QM then apply it to evolution all possible outcomes of evolution really exist at least in a modal realist sense. That is the interpretation I favour. However you can take “xian” interpretation of QM that a measurement does not just tell which branch of the wavefunction we are on or to stochastically collapse it as in the Von Neumann/Copenhagen interpretation, rather they can assert “God” chose it.

    This allows for “God” to direct the course of evolution without violating the laws of physics. So I see no reason why theists can’t assert that evolution is directed as long as they do not claim it is necessary. Of course there is no evidence why this should be the case, but we cannot disprove it on the basis of evidence, unlike creationism and ID.

    What religious fundamentalists object to is that evolution by natural selection makes “God” unnecessary. Jerry refers to the passage in his book :

    “Laplace answered, famously and brusquely: “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothese-la,” “I have had no need of that hypothesis.” And scientists have not needed it since.”

    Laplace made consistent Deism possible, Darwin made consistent atheism possible and preferable.

  • http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org Ophelia Benson

    The truth matters? Oh surely that can’t be right!

  • David George

    Jason Dick wrote,

    “We are not at the “end” of evolution in any way, shape, or form. Evolution is an ongoing process that will still occur long after we are all dead and gone. We are just a single species among a great many species, and a single snapshot of that species. We are no more the “purpose” of evolution than snow in winter is the purpose of summer.

    “But the more important point to make is simply that the future does not affect the past.

    “The rest of your post is pure anti-science creationist claptrap. You could really stand to learn what actual mutations are.”

    This is from Shapiro, 2009, Annals of N.Y. Academy of Science, “Revisiting the Central Dogma in the 21st Century”, p. 23:

    “If we are to give up the outmoded atomistic vocabulary of 20th-century genetics, we need to develop a new lexicon of terms based on a view of the cell as an active and sentient entity, particularly as it deals with its genome. The emphasis has to be on what the cell does with and to its genome, not what the genome directs the cell to execute. In some ways, the change in thinking reverses the instructional relationship postulated by the central dogma. The two basic ideas here are:
    “1. Sensing, computation, and decisionmaking are central features of cellular functions; and
    “2. The cell is an active agent utilizing and modifying the information stored in its genome.”

    You might benefit by reading the entire paper. Ignore it and you are at the risk of spouting anti-science claptrap yourself. I am not “creationist” and I don’t think this is claptrap. But I see a lot of claptrap as I read these threads. Do you think I presume we humans are the end of evolution? Of course it is a process, the process of growth of complexity and consciousness. There is no “end” to it; the process is the purpose. Do you have difficulty understanding that concept?

    As for the future affecting the past, I suppose that depends on how you perceive time. Sequentially, if you put the cause in the future, the effect in the past, then the future does indeed affect the past. If you want to argue the point, I can say that we live in the past relative to our own sensations, since it takes a finite length of time for our brain to register what we sense. Our senses are always a moment “ahead” of us. Now are they “ahead” in the future, or in the past? I think it is a matter of opinion.

  • Nick Matzke

    Someone should point out that this NABT dispute happened back in the 1990s, and that there haven’t been any issues with the new definition at NABT since then, excepting carping from those who really do think it’s scientific to say that evolution disproves God.

  • Katharine

    “If we are to give up the outmoded atomistic vocabulary of 20th-century genetics, we need to develop a new lexicon of terms based on a view of the cell as an active and sentient entity, particularly as it deals with its genome. The emphasis has to be on what the cell does with and to its genome, not what the genome directs the cell to execute. In some ways, the change in thinking reverses the instructional relationship postulated by the central dogma. The two basic ideas here are:
    “1. Sensing, computation, and decisionmaking are central features of cellular functions; and
    “2. The cell is an active agent utilizing and modifying the information stored in its genome.”

    Er, this has no connection to your previous argument about some teleological component to evolution. Refer above to the point I made vis-a-vis cetaceans; they had legs then lost them.

    You might benefit by reading the entire paper. Ignore it and you are at the risk of spouting anti-science claptrap yourself. I am not “creationist” and I don’t think this is claptrap. But I see a lot of claptrap as I read these threads. Do you think I presume we humans are the end of evolution? Of course it is a process, the process of growth of complexity and consciousness. There is no “end” to it; the process is the purpose. Do you have difficulty understanding that concept?

    Don’t confuse evolution with extropy. If it turns out that our mental and behavioral complexity and the degree of human consciousness is ultimately beneficial for us as a species in the long run, it will persist and probably increase. If not, we will probably get dumber as a species.

    Our species’ mental and behavioral complexity tends to serve those with more of it better than those with less of it. (A whole different topic is how medicine and social norms have affected the species and its evolution; it adds a cultural and mental layer to the biological.)

  • Katharine

    It’s funny that a consistent feature of many religious/teleological arguments is some notion that humans are separate from animals and that our mental and behavioral complexity is given some sort of special separation from other animals’ adaptations.

    Granted, humans’ brains, I would say, are a fairly special adaptation as far as we know, because we have added whole new facets of existence to our lives as a species – we are able to manipulate our own genes and we have an astronomically higher grasp of technology and science and cultural development (I can’t say for definite, but let’s just say I’d put a big sum of money on this) than any other species on the planet.

    This does not make our brains and what we can do with them any less of a property that can be affected by evolution.

    We are still animals, albeit the ones who as far as we know broke the barrier of sapience and civilization first.

  • Katharine

    Have we asked these religious weirdos to prove their deity exists yet?

  • Eric Habegger

    “The diversity of life on earth is the result of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.”

    Is it only the two words “unsupervised” and “impersonal” that were removed? I think if there had not been any previous controversy, that is creationists had not objected to evolution in the first place, no one in the scientific community would have even thought of putting in the words unsupervised and impersonal. They are just two extraneous non scientific words added because of the creationist pushback. Don’t get so overwrought and reactive because then you end up playing in the creationists’ ballpark. I really think if creationists didn’t exist those two words wouldn’t have been put in simply because they have a pejorative tone to them. It may not be so hard to accept their redaction in that light.

  • Jason Dick

    Sorry, David, but understanding more about the complex interrelationship between the genome and the cell in no way, shape, or form undermines the randomness of mutation.

    The statement that mutations are random with respect to selection, by the way, is just a statement that the physical processes that underly mutation have nothing whatsoever to do with the processes that drive selection. Now, there are certain forms of plasticity which allow a degree of adaptation without any change in the genome, but in general these are evolved responses to various environments, and are extremely limited in scope. Cells also have control over the rate of mutations (as evidenced by somatic hypermutation in our own white blood cells). But the idea that cells can actually initiate specific mutations is extraordinarily implausible.

    What’s more, it has been demonstrated in the lab that the way in which evolution most frequently works is not by any sort of “on the fly” mutation, but rather by selecting pre-existing variants within the genetic pool. So even in the extremely unlikely event that any organism out there has the evolved ability to modify its own genome in a very specific manner, the evidence is absolutely conclusive that this is a strongly subdominant process in biology.

  • David George

    Katharine wrote,

    “Don’t confuse evolution with extropy. If it turns out that our mental and behavioral complexity and the degree of human consciousness is ultimately beneficial for us as a species in the long run, it will persist and probably increase. If not, we will probably get dumber as a species.”

    I do not presume humans to be the end of universal evolution. Who plans to quantify “dumbness”? Is a virus “dumb”? I am only saying that the path of evolution appears to be one of inexorable increase of complexity and consciousness: from atoms, to molecules, to catalyzed reactions, RNA, etc. to cellular organisms, to multi-cellular organisms, to — what? Is it somehow a requirement of science to ignore what is staring you in the face? I do not argue that there is some “final cause” (see below) embodied in humans — the universe has no final cause in my book, it simply grows, and there is a harmonic principle at work. I am simply saying, look at the historical path of natural growth. I am not going to argue with someone purporting to understand a word like “extropy”.

    From Wikipedia: ‘Extropy, as coined by Tom Bell (T.O. Morrow) and defined by Max More in 1988, is “the extent of a living or organizational system’s intelligence, functional order, vitality, energy, life, experience, and capacity and drive for improvement and growth.” Extropy is not a rigorously defined technical term in philosophy or science; in a metaphorical sense, it simply expresses the opposite of entropy.’

    And for that matter, I never realized my argument was “teleological”:

    (Wikipedia) “A teleology is any philosophical account which holds that final causes exist in nature, meaning that design and purpose analogous to that found in human actions are inherent also in the rest of nature. . . .
    Final cause, or telos, is defined as the purpose, end, aim, or goal of something.”

    (Then gives an example, that final cause of seed is grown plant.) Regarding that “philosophy”, I would say that it may be an error to equate “purpose” with some specific “end, aim or goal”. Maybe the philosophers should think in terms of process. A never-ending process could not be said to have any end, aim or goal, but the path reveals a purposeful process. Is that too hard to figure?

    Jason Dick wrote,

    “The statement that mutations are random with respect to selection. . . is just a statement that the physical processes that underly mutation have nothing whatsoever to do with the processes that drive selection. Now, there are certain forms of plasticity which allow a degree of adaptation without any change in the genome, but in general these are evolved responses to various environments, and are extremely limited in scope. Cells also have control over the rate of mutations (as evidenced by somatic hypermutation in our own white blood cells). But the idea that cells can actually initiate specific mutations is extraordinarily implausible.”

    I disagree entirely. Processes underlying mutation have nothing to do with processes driving selection? It seems to me they are intimately connected. A temperature change forces a cell system to change — to adapt. Is that not a process driving selection? The temperature change may be unpredictable by the cell, but it responds to it. Unpredictability does not require “randomness” (indeed, you might have a problem defining “randomness”, since mathematically “pure” randomness does not exist). The cell systems then initiate specific mutations to their DNA to respond. But again I don’t believe you could call the change “random”. With regard to mutation “by selecting pre-existing variants within the genetic pool”, in what way would such mutation be “random”? It sounds just the opposite. That is the entire point: the central dogma, that a cell is simply a “dumb” animal following its DNA instructions, is false! Again I recommend the Shapiro paper. What may be “extraordinarly implausible” to you appears to be at work. Maybe it is just a matter of overcoming preconceptions.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Others have said it better already: Evolution has nothing to say about the very presence or absence of supervisory persons or otherwise. The theory provides no obvious role for such, but it is simply beyond the scope of the theory to exclude all possible explanations for the origin of species. Instead it advances the most plausible explanation we have, which is plenty good enough. I haven’t got a spiritual bone in by body, and I object to that definition on the simple grounds that it oversteps its mandate as a definition of a scientific theory.

    It’s true that our sundry creation myths are excluded, most certainly in a literal sense, and in seemingly all but the most contorted metaphorical senses. It’s true that if there is a designer, it’s not at all obvious. It’s true that we don’t need a designer to explain what we see, and hence it’s more parsimonious to assume there isn’t one. But it is NOT true that evolution tells us there is no designer. Period. We don’t know, probably can’t know, and in any event likely never will know. End of story.

  • chemicalscum

    @David George

    DNA is a molecule. The structure of molecules are determined by quantum mechanics. Changes in single molecules (i.e. a DNA strand) occur at the quantum level. The only truly random processes that occur are quantum mechanical. QM only predicts probabilities of events. The evolution of the wavefunction is deterministic, the outcome of observables are probabilistic.

    Single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP) are one of the most common types of genetic variation and they arise from QM effects. Typically radiation or the presence of reactive molecular species. Evolution by natural selection operates on genetic variation. As has been mentioned much of this operates on an existing pool of genetic variation. The mathematical description of this is what the original evolutionary “modern synthesis” is about. However the source of new SNP’s and other mutations, that is new genetic variation, are quantum mechanical and thus are random.

    Ultimately even when dealing informatics approaches, horizontal gene transfer and epigenetics, evolution is operating on genetic variability produced by random mutation.

  • Mike 2

    chemicalscum:

    That sounds right. Random mutation is at the heart of genetic transitions. And, the evolution of the wave function is, as far as we can measure, deterministic.

    Mike 2

  • réalta fuar

    I have to agree with Low Math, Meekly Interacting on this one: I found the original statement to be just purposely obnoxious and apparently designed just to piss off the religious among us. (to make things clear, I’m not one of those). Occam’s Razor clearly cuts to removing the words “unsupervised” and “impersonal”. There’s nothing anti-science or anti natural selection in the statement without those words. It’s easy to see examples of evolution around us where neither of those words can be considered at all accurate. Take a look at a dog or horse some time. As the saying goes, absense of evidence is not evidence of absence.
    Apparently, the bulk of the membership of the NABT thinks similarly, as I don’t remember any great hubbub over this in the last decade.
    Finally, saying “theologians” in the title is every bit as ignorant as saying “scientists” and then adding some phrase denigrating ALL scientists as a monolithic block. Frankly, I expect better than that here.

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  • David George

    chemicalscum wrote,

    “The only truly random processes that occur are quantum mechanical. QM only predicts probabilities of events. The evolution of the wavefunction is deterministic, the outcome of observables are probabilistic.”

    QM predicts probabilities because QM cannot predict the outcome of a measurement – although it appears to me that sometimes QM does predict an outcome, with 100% certainty. If an entangled pair of electrons is measured on the same axis, and electron A is spin up on that axis, electron B will be spin down on that axis with 100% certainty.

    But unpredictability does not require randomness. It seems to me that the word “randomness” is charged with a property that it does not have. The property in question is unpredictability.

    Wikipedia again: “In probability theory, a stochastic process, or sometimes random process, is the counterpart to a deterministic process (or deterministic system). Instead of dealing with only one possible reality of how the process might evolve under time (as is the case, for example, for solutions of an ordinary differential equation), in a stochastic or random process there is some indeterminacy in its future evolution described by probability distributions. This means that even if the initial condition (or starting point) is known, there are many possibilities the process might go to, but some paths may be more probable and others less so.”

    If that is the “truly random” process you are talking about, I suggest it is simply unpredictability. And QM, an incomplete description of physical reality, does not know the machinery behind a process that appears “probabilistic”. So you know where I am coming from. And yes, I believe I could describe a hidden variable by which Alice and Bob would find the probabilities they do. And I believe it would agree with the QM prediction. That does not mean that the wavefunction becomes obsolete. If you wish to follow this to its conclusion, feel free. But I do not believe that your assumption that quantum mechanical processes are “truly random” is true. It is an assumption.

  • AJKamper

    I’m with LM, MI as well. Yeah, I totally believe that the evidence points to a stochastic development of evolution. There’s no way to take the sum total of development of species over time and derive any sort of reasonable purpose from them other than, “Oh, hey, we’re here now!” But that truth is contained in the definition without the offending language in there. Once you’ve stated that it’s unpredictable, natural and directed by chance, why do you need to add “impersonal” other than to piss off the religious?

    Adding those words (even though I personally agree with them) is just rubbing their face in their wrongness.

    I might add that I think it’s a mistake to confuse QM unpredictability with the simpler, chaos-theory-style “We can’t figure out any pattern to the elements that went into this phenomenon.” When that happens, even a completely deterministic event (say, flipping a coin) is effectively random for our purposes.

  • http://sites.google.com/site/russabbott Russ Abbott

    Seems to me you are being overly sensitive. Removing “unsupervised” and “impersonal” does no obvious harm. The back story may suggest a problem, but the definition without those words seems no different from the definition with them. Even without those words it says that evolution is a natural process. So what’s the big deal? Actually, I don’t like the word “descent” and would prefer something less directional. But that’s not the main point here.

  • tim rowledge

    Mike:
    There is no evidence that God didn’t have some small hand in the evolutionary process.

    Oh, balls.

    In particular, eyeballs and, well, balls. Testicles.

    The sheer idiocy of the ‘design’ for these two common items (humans average just below 2 for the first and slightly below 1 for the second) is staggering. No point in listing all of the problems here since it is so easy to work them out. Any supposed deity that manipulated an evolutionary process with the said items as a result is pretty much by definition a failure at basic biology. So much for omnipotence and omniscience. And omnibenevolent, come to that.

    We should also be clear about the god in question; even when being all waffly about it pretty much all the writers you will see on the English speaking parts of the net are assuming that there is only one possible god involved. Simple logic and science are all you need in order to rule out that one.

    The only god thing about the religionists constant attempts to fudge things is the implication that science has in fact won, since the efforts are to try to persuade people that somehow some aspect of goddiness can be squeezed into place without looking immediately insane.

    It’ll all end in tears.

  • http://www.themultiversalnews.com gregg leinweber

    Hello everyone I was able to get God himself as my guest tomorrow on the Multiversal News here in seattle. I will interview him streaming live on the internet location listed below. We are going to be talking about evolution so this should settle the matter once and for all. So tune in at 6pm pacific time and go ahead and ask your questions in the chat room and God will answer them.
    http://www.ustream.tv/ITVNW

  • Nigel

    I wonder what your views are on the work of Professors Rushton and Lynn, Cochran and Harpending, all of whom have applied standard evolutionary thinking to human cognition – and have been widely demonised for it. You correctly argue that sometimes science goes against strongly-held populist views (and wasn’t it always so)? But don’t we have to defend work which is important, in the right paradigm but deeply unpopular?

  • benjdm

    Mike:
    There is no evidence that God didn’t have some small hand in the evolutionary process.

    There’s also no evidence that God didn’t predict how evolution would go – we’ll have to get rid of ‘unpredictable’ as well. I don’t know how we can call the process ‘natural’ if we suspect God had some small hand in it – that will have to go too. You’re left with:

    The diversity of life on earth is the result of evolution: a process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments, and supernatural agents.

    There. That should do it.

  • http://madsoftware.blogspot.com Mike

    Wow. The amount of rudeness thrown at me is amazing. It’s no wonder that many people in the United States are so antiscience. With that lack of tact and maturity, I wouldn’t want to listen to many of you either.

    I would like to explain my statement that, “I believe in science, I believe in religion and I believe in evolution.”

    I believe in science because I believe that science is a valid and useful way to discover things about the world. It’s been astoundingly successful at doing so. I don’t feel I can reject it, nor do I want to. I benefit from it every day.

    I believe in religion because I believe that religion is a valid and useful way to discover things about the world. I believe that spiritual experiences are real and I can reconcile them with the things I learn from science. It may not be in the way that some scientists may think I should, but I do it all the same.

    I believe in evolution because science has shown that there’s little chance that it happened any other way. I’m not going to reject the evidence that is clear as day. However, just like a scientist cannot reject “uncomfortable” evidence when it contradicts a pet theory, I cannot reject my spiritual experiences. They are as real to me as any evidence that science can provide. Are they perhaps nothing more than my brain being affected by too much dopamine? Perhaps. And I may reject them if sufficient evidence is presented to me. But sufficient evidence has not been presented to me. So, until that time, I must reconcile the evidence with which I am presented.

    Just because I see some conflicts between science and religion doesn’t mean that I reject either one. General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics have conflicts. I don’t just blindly throw one out. They both have some of the truth. One day, we’ll understand how they fit together. I’m okay with some conflicts. I know they’ll be resolved eventually.

    When I have a scientific discussion, I don’t bring my religion into it since it’s irrelevant to everyone else. Some scientists are atheists and they should do the same. Scientific statements should be scientific. There’s no place for statements that God doesn’t exist when there’s no evidence for that statement. If we want the world to accept evolution, then please stop overstating the case for it. The evidence is convincing enough without saying things we don’t really know.

    “Is there any conflict between science and religion? There is no conflict in the mind of God, but often there is conflict in the minds of men.” — Henry Eyring, developer of the Transition State Theory of Chemical Reactions

  • http://www.themultiversalnews.com gregg leinweber

    I will be forever grateful that empiricism is not a democratic process. The truth dosn’t change by popular consent. Our understanding of the truth will change over time as we use observable data to disprove old assumptions that were based on less complete observable data.
    However 2+2 is always going to equal 4 and God is never going to tinker with his finished artwork.
    Saint Augustine himself said that God exists outside of time therefor he is not going to be watching his clock and making select mutations as if he were baking a pie.
    If God wants to argue with scientist why don’t you let him make that arguement himself and if he doesn’t, take his silence for what it really means, which is that he agrees with them. {or that he doesn’t exist}

  • AJKamper

    Mike (#50):

    Honestly, I think the only good reason to be religious is because of personal spiritual experiences. And I won’t tell you to disbelieve your own experiences. That way lies madness–literally.

    But it’s an entirely different thing when you assert, as if it has some relevance, “There is no evidence that God didn’t have some small hand in the evolutionary process.” First, you should know that this is sort of a silly “God-of-the-gaps” argument, reminiscent of the cliched old invisible pink unicorns of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. We shouldn’t design our discourse around all the counterfactuals that could possibly be true, because they are simply infinite in number. If there is really no evidence for God in evolution, we shouldn’t act as if there were.

    Moreover, there’s a ton of evidence for a hands-off, purposeless process of evolution. Things like the multiplicity of species and lines that go nowhere, or comparative difference in actual fitness are probably best equated to “intelligent design”–it sure doesn’t LOOK much like chance. More persuasive are the stochastic development of mutations generally, the rather muddied nature of the DNA molecule, for example; I have little doubt I could find many if I wanted.

    Moreover, if you really believe that science is a valid way of going about things, and that evolution is basically true, why would you bother to believe that God had “some small hand” in things? Was one of your spiritual experiences a chitchat where God said, “I decided to go with thymine instead of uracil for the last amino acid in DNA because, well, what the hell”? Given that there sure isn’t any semblance of actual divine fiddling in speciation–that any fiddler God sure looks a lot like random chance–why would you construct your beliefs in a way that the two conflict? What sort of experience requires a God that meddles?

  • sailor1031

    Given that evolution has 4 – 5 bilion years to go on planet Earth why would anyone assume that humanity, as it is now, is the “end” of evolution? Who knows what that last entity will be before the sun becomes a red giant and absorbs planet Earth? Who says humans are the forerunners of that being? And, one wonders, why would an omnipotent deity put itself and its creation through all that sturm und drang when it could just as easily create the world and the desired species from nothing at any time? No evolution, no geological timeline; a simple act of creation once and for all…………just asking!

  • Truly Anomalous

    There is absolutely no evidence that Odin didn’t have a small (or large) hand in the evolutionary process; don’t discount Odin from your so-called scientific discussions. How can you scientist be so closed-minded?

  • David George

    Quoting Shapiro again (p. 12):

    “Underlying the central dogma and conventional views of genome evolution was the idea that the genome is a stable structure that changes rarely and accidentally by chemical fluctuations or replication errors. This view has had to change with the realization that maintenance of genome stability is an active cellular function and the discovery of numerous dedicated biochemical systems for restructuring DNA molecules. Genetic change is almost always the result of cellular action on the genome. These natural processes are analogous to human genetic engineering, and their activity in genome evolution has been extensively documented.”

    It sounds to me like there is some kind of consciousness at work, in the form of a two-way conversation. And what is this conversation about? It is about adapting to environmental changes. You might get away saying such a process would be “unsupervised” – it is more like “self-supervised”. But any supervision is supervision. You might get away saying it is “impersonal”, but then when and where does “personality” emerge out of a sensing system? Is human “personality” simply due to random, impersonal processes? Maybe we only think we have personalities!

    So say evolution is “impersonal” and “unsupervised”. Then ignore any possibility of an overarching principle by which evolution would take place, and teach facts of “natural selection” by random mutation. Then you will be “scientific”, is that right?

    Here is an interesting article:

    http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/45152

    “In principle, only electrons with their spin pointing in the “up” direction can pass through the filter, but the currents obtained by the device are never entirely pure, with a significant fraction of the electrons emerging spin “down”.
    ….
    “Now, however, Ron Naaman and colleagues at the Weizmann Institute in Israel and the University of Münster in Germany have found that a 60% spin polarization at room temperature can be achieved by passing free electrons through a gold surface covered with a densely packed layer of DNA strands.”

    If DNA manages to outdo a manmade filter (I have to wonder what the “significant fraction” of spin down electrons is – 50%, maybe?), maybe DNA knows something humans don’t about the structure of an electron.

  • David George

    Again from the Shapiro article, I will paraphrase from page 12, in which Shapiro writes that the genome has been considered as a stable structure that changes rarely and accidentally by chemical fluctuations or replication errors. However, it appears that maintenance of genome stability is an active cellular function, and numerous dedicated biochemical systems for restructuring DNA molecules have been discovered. He states that genetic changes is almost always the result of cellular action on the genome, analogous to human genetic engineering.

    So I must say that there is at least a two-way process at work, with the result that the cell responds to environmental changes. In other words, the cell “supervises” itself. I do not believe this process can be called “unsupervised”. And a two-way communication indicates some kind of consciousness at work. Maybe you could say it is “impersonal”, but then at what point does “personality” emerge? Is human “personality” the result of a random, “impersonal” process?

    So say evolution is “impersonal” and “unsupervised”. Then ignore any possibility of an overarching principle by which evolution would take place, and teach facts of “natural selection” by random mutation. You will be wrong.

  • Keith Bowden

    Okay, can we continue the conversation without willful misconstruing of each others’ statements? (It’s a lively and interesting thread, bogged down by some minor nastiness…)

    (The single most annoying part of the thread has been harping on David’s unfortunate phrasing in post #6: “If we look back at the path of evolution, with ourselves at the current “end” of it…” [emphasis added]. At no point did he claim to think that evolution in general or specific to humans had reached some nadir, he was simply saying “If we look at the whole of evolution up to this point…” Even David seems to have forgotten he wrote that because he never rebutted it.)

    Likewise, my 2&cent on the original post, the phasing that included “unsupervised” & “impersonal” is awkward in the definition; I view it as a violation of literacy and clarity, not semantics. Additionally, including them implies that there’s a question as to whether the process is actually supervised and personal, which there is from a philosophical standpoint but not a scientific one, so the words are unnecessary. (I’m quite comfortable in my conclusion that there are no gods and those who believe in any are quite welcome to follow the process under the assumption that one or another started the process rolling.)

    Otherwise, I’m having a fine time with this thread :) and coincidentally I’m currently rereading Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth.

  • Brian Too

    @15. Jason Dick,

    I’m not sure I understand your statement “That evolution has no purpose whatsoever…”. It’s my understanding that evolution that evolution is entirely purposeful!

    The purpose is, of course, to produce adapted organisms. Increase their survival rates, their offspring, their longevity, and so forth. It is not a directed process and it has no logical endpoint. The subtext behind the word ‘purpose’, that of will and intelligence, is missing.

    However if there were no purpose at all, then I suspect that evolution itself, and evolution-enabling (or at least permitting) mechanisms (sexual reproduction, DNA mutations) would be powerfully suppressed. If that makes any sense (can evolution select against evolution)?

  • AJKamper

    @57, Brian Too:

    You’re making the mistake of thinking of evolution as a “thing,” a phenomenon that takes actions (the technical term is “reifying”). In reality (such as it is), all we have is what you call the mechanisms… the mechanisms of sexual reproduction, mutation, selection and just plain time. Things just happen. But because of the nature of things happening, complexity grows in an open system. We call that “evolution,” but it’s not a thing in and of itself. So we can’t call this a purpose.

    @ 56, David George:

    Waitaminute. You’re saying because there may be a feedback mechanism in cell behavior, this constitutes consciousness and therefore purpose? Even if we were to concede for the purposes of this debate that the feedback mechanism is the dominant mechanism by which DNA changes result, that’s about a dozen steps removed from any kind of “intent.” It’s pretty easy to develop feedback mechanisms that are complex, yet don’t meet any kind of what we’d call consciousness and purpose. The food chain comes to mind, just off the top of my head. I think Shapiro’s theory is provocative, but in the end more an argument by analogy than anything substantive.

  • rgb

    Mike (#5),

    I don’t think that the point about “unsupervised” and “impersonal” is to deny the existence of (G/g)od. Indeed, evolution being unsupervised and impersonal does not provide evidence against a divine being, but implies that the process by itself produces the results we see, without it being necessary for someone to tweak things.

    We understand how, given the laws of physics, a car works when you start it up. This does not provide
    evidence against divinity either. However, it is important to point out that once you accept the laws of physics you do not need to invoke anything else to explain observed results. If we still needed something supernatural, along with scientific principles, the scientific principles would not be very useful. A similar point needs to be made about evolution: once you agree with the tenets of evolution you do not need to invoke any further supernatural intelligent entity to produce the patterns in life that we observe. You might feel that other words may suit this purpose better (there truly may be); or you may feel that this is not necessary since it is obvious but I think it is important to emphasize given the current situation.

  • David George

    #56 Keith Bowden – I see what you mean — I’m simple that way, respond to most recent stimulus, forget the past! A valid point on a “philosophical” doubt — yesterday I wondered whether to insert a suggestion that maybe schools, when “evolution” comes around, need to put science in its proper place as a school of knowledge within a larger school of thought. That might then put the evolution debate in a clearer context. Because, whether we are godfearing or godless, physics does not tell the whole story, and I think a lot of physicists would agree with that.

    #57 Brian Too – Another good one — purposeful evolution of purposelessness! (Or is it the other way round?) “Evolution” seems to beg for a definition of “purpose”.

    #58 A.J.Kamper – There is a problem with the idea that “things just happen”, yet “complexity grows”. Why should complexity grow? Does it not suggest some purpose-in-process? Once again, purpose is limited by association with “end, goal, aim”, etc. Aha! Here is another word, “intent”.

    “. . . feedback mechanisms that are complex, yet don’t meet any kind of what we’d call consciousness and purpose. The food chain comes to mind, just off the top of my head. I think Shapiro’s theory is provocative, but in the end more an argument by analogy than anything substantive.”

    I’m not sure where the food chain fits into a feedback mechanism, unless you mean that we eat the worms and then they eat us, and then we eat them, etc. But that is not a feedback mechanism within a single organism. A single organism that talks to itself — I suspect that very mechanism is at the root of “consciousness”. Maybe we cannot imagine a cell having a human-type internal debate, but at its root isn’t our human thought just a process of internal and external signals feeding back on each other? Ours is more complex – or is it? Maybe just a wide-area version with fewer “dedicated” systems, yet growing out of immensely complex interrelated “dedicated” systems. Then with our wide-area brain applied to our complex senses, we make further – internal – sense. At this point, you could say the purpose of evolution is to keep making more sense! If “science” now requires some definition of purpose, I think there is plenty of food for the school of thought, of which knowledge is a class.

  • AJKamper

    @ #60 –David

    There is a problem with the idea that “things just happen”, yet “complexity grows”. Why should complexity grow? Does it not suggest some purpose-in-process? Once again, purpose is limited by association with “end, goal, aim”, etc. Aha! Here is another word, “intent”

    Because when there is a lower limit to complexity, then TOTALLY random changes will lead to a growth in overall complexity. Take, for example, the statistical model of the Drunkard’s Walk. A simple coin-flipping mechanism will, given enough time, lead to massive growth, even before any selective pressures exist. There is no need to impute purpose to a flipping coin.

    A single organism that talks to itself — I suspect that very mechanism is at the root of “consciousness”. Maybe we cannot imagine a cell having a human-type internal debate, but at its root isn’t our human thought just a process of internal and external signals feeding back on each other? Ours is more complex – or is it? Maybe just a wide-area version with fewer “dedicated” systems, yet growing out of immensely complex interrelated “dedicated” systems. Then with our wide-area brain applied to our complex senses, we make further – internal – sense.

    This is simply wild speculation–or, more accurately, analogy run rampant. Because two things (human thought and cellular mechanisms) have one category in common (self-feedback) does not make them usefully identical for the purposes of saying that both must, therefore, have a similar meaningful concept of “intent.”

  • chris

    @57, Brian Too:

    there is no final purpose in a physical theory up to now. that Aristotelian concept simply has no place. All purposes are initial, causal.

    it’s not the purpose of evolution to make a creature more long-lived. it may just so happen that this is a good fit for the environment. and we as humans perceive it as something resembling a final cause.

    it is not. and that is really essential.

  • David George

    #61 AJ Kamper – Let’s see — you characterize my assertion as “simply wild speculation – or, more accurately, analogy run rampant.” How would I characterize that? How about “argument by groundless accusation”? Or maybe “argument by assumed superiority”? I am more interested in the content of your assertion than in your argument by wild accusation – or, more accurately, by analogy run rampant.

    “. . . when there is a lower limit to complexity, then TOTALLY random changes will lead to a growth in overall complexity. Take, for example, the statistical model of the Drunkard’s Walk. A simple coin-flipping mechanism will, given enough time, lead to massive growth, even before any selective pressures exist. There is no need to impute purpose to a flipping coin.”

    You appear to be saying that a type of random walk as described in Wikipedia (in which I see no sign of complexity whatsoever, merely a random walk) will lead to “massive growth”. What do you mean by “growth”? (I can supply a definition, if you would like to argue about it.) My first reaction on seeing the kinds of “random walks” described in Wikipedia was that they take place on a pre-existing, and seemingly unchangeable, pattern-board. The “random” choices then produce some kind of outcome on this predefined board. But what if the “random” choices change the board? Is mathematics capable of formulating changes to the board based on the “random” choices, so that each “move” influences a change to the board? Then you might get my attention – because that is what a cell does, and that is what we humans do, when we interact with our environment (including our internal environment). So show me some massive growth in functional complexity, and we can talk. Because “evolution” is not mere structural complexity, it is complexity of process, leading to structural change, leading to functional change, leading to structural change, etc.

    So I find that your analogy does not fit. I also wonder what you mean by “a lower limit to complexity”.

    I also find your use of the word “analogy” confusing. Are you referring to argument by analogy, or are you arguing that feedback is a case of biological analogy? Quoting from Wikipedia again: “A homologous trait is any characteristic of organisms that is derived from a common ancestor. This is contrasted to analogous traits: similarities between organisms that were not in the last common ancestor of the taxa being considered but rather evolved separately. As defined by Owen (1843), a homology is a “structural correspondence”, whereas an analogy is a “non-correspondent similarity”.”

    I do not regard the evolution of the process of intra- and inter-cellular feedback, existing in every cell in our body and each cell in our body having evolved from a common ancestor, into the intra- and inter-cellular feedback existing in our brains, as being in any way disconnected. They are the same. There is no “analogy” here, but (as I understand the above) both a direct structural correspondence, i.e. a homology, and a functional correspondence – which is where I believe the unrecognized overarching principle is found.

    I am not a philosopher, hence I hesitated to suggest “philosophy” in schools. Seeing the “philosophy” appear, my hesitance is reinforced. Word salad won’t cut it. “Science”, or knowledge, is a school of thought. It is not the only school of thought. How can it be, when what is “known” is both limited and subject to change? What worries me is that the sociopathic powers pretend to employ “science” for some human “good”, when in fact they employ “scientists” to further their own interests.

  • Katharine

    Mike, here’s why we threw a bunch of ‘rudeness’ at you: Your arguments are horrible.

  • Katharine

    David George, I don’t think my construing of the definition of extropy in any way conflicted with what you said.

  • Katharine

    Mike, let’s turn the argument around:

    If your supposed deity exists, prove it.

  • Cameron

    Isn’t the very fact of biologist saying something in nature is “unsupervised” or “impersonal” making a direct statement that a deity (whether it be the God of the bible or the Flying Spaghetti monster, I care not) did NOT have any affect in it? This to me seems like a very philosophical statement in what should be an area of pure science.

    The fact that you link to an article at the end which clearly states science should not try to make philosophical statements and vice-versa is ironic, since you are indeed making one in this very article (albeit indirectly and perhaps without realizing it).

    There’s nothing wrong with scientists assuming there is no deity in their observations, there is something very wrong with them claiming such as science.

  • AJKamper

    #64 DG:

    By analogy run rampant, I thought I made my argument quite clear: in order to claim that cellular feedback is equivalent to consciousness (as compared to having one similar factor analogous), you need to know a lot more about consciousness. It’s not enough to say that the existence of a feedback mechanism is necessarily indicative of consciousness. The Shapiro paper goes much too far in this aspect, as do you. When you write, “There is no “analogy” here, but (as I understand the above) both a direct structural correspondence, i.e. a homology,” you are simply asserting without proof. Mere faith. It has no place in a scientific discussion.

    As for the Drunkard’s Walk, this is explained very well in Stephen Jay Gould’s Full House. What it shows is that you don’t need purpose or intent to create complexity–you don’t need anything “modifying the board” (to use your analogy) to do it. As long as there is a lower limit to complexity (Gould points out that there’s a minimum amount of complexity for something to be self-replicating in the Earth environment), then ever-increasing complexity will result without any intent whatsoever.

    Thus–here’s the important part–life’s increasing complexity on their planet does NOT suggest any kind of purpose at all. It’s not a datum in your favor. Could some sort of purpose account for it? Sure–but there ain’t evidence for it.

  • David George

    #69 AJ Kamper – “. . . you are simply asserting without proof. Mere faith. It has no place in a scientific discussion.”

    I would say the proof is in the pudding. A cell evolves by inter- and intra-cellular communication. We are evolved communities of cells. This is evidence, not faith. I would say you are simply asserting by ignoring evidence. And I have a feeling this is not a scientific discussion.

    “Thus–here’s the important part–life’s increasing complexity on their planet does NOT suggest any kind of purpose at all.”

    Since you fail to give any context, perhaps you could explain what you mean by “purpose”. And then, does “purpose” exist?

    I have read some of Gould also. I have no faith in Gould.

  • AJKamper

    #71: DJ

    I would say the proof is in the pudding. A cell evolves by inter- and intra-cellular communication. We are evolved communities of cells. This is evidence, not faith. I would say you are simply asserting by ignoring evidence. And I have a feeling this is not a scientific discussion.

    If you define cause-and-effect as “communication,” and any multicellular entity as a “community,” and you can define an internal feedback mechanism as “consciousness, then yes, you can define your way all the way to saying that cells are Just Like People! But the rest of us, who have real work to do, will simply ignore you. You’re playing a semantic game, not a useful one–not one that has any predictive value. So you’re right, it’s not a scientific discussion, because you aren’t playing with data, you’re playing with language.

    “Since you fail to give any context, perhaps you could explain what you mean by “purpose”. And then, does “purpose” exist?”

    Fair question. When we speak of purpose, there are two main quantities. The first is something that has the power to make choices–either free-willed, or at least the illusion thereof. The second is a goal in mind. In my view, real purpose does not exist–what appears to us to be purpose is merely our reflection on our determined brain activity. But even if you broaden the definition of purpose to mean the apparent achievement of a goal, not free will per se, that behavior isn’t exhibited in cells! The individual cell strives merely for survival, not growing complexity; that’s an epiphenomenon. If there is “purpose” there–for example, if we ascribe purpose to the mechanistic attempts of an amoeba to find and devour food–then it still doesn’t correspond to a broader purpose in evolution.

    As for your lack of faith in Gould as a way to dismiss arguments that destroy your point, well, I appreciate your signaling that your faith is immovable and that any actual discussion is probably pointless. That tells me a lot.

  • David George

    #71 – AJ Kamper

    Don’t let me interrupt your work (unless it involves teaching children). It appears from the evidence that cells are Just Like People! And people are systems of communicating cells. Pretty simple to understand. And (in case you’ve forgotten), language must be a good way to communicate, since humans appear to be wired for it.

    So – when you speak of purpose, there are two main quantities. Are those physical quantities?

    “…the power to make choices…” Would that be, to choose a path?

    “…a goal in mind.” Would that be, to choose a path leading to a specific end?

    “real purpose does not exist-” So, according to your own “quantities”, when a human makes a choice with a goal in mind – say, to walk around a pile of dung – that action does not represent “real purpose”, but an illusory reflection on our determined brain activity. Sorry, you lost me there. Could you maybe quantify that?

    “But even if you broaden the definition of purpose to mean the apparent achievement of a goal, not free will per se, that behavior isn’t exhibited in cells! The individual cell strives merely for survival, not growing complexity; that’s an epiphenomenon.”

    It looks to me like you are playing with language here, but I will try to follow.

    From Wikipedia: “An epiphenomenon (plural – epiphenomena) is a secondary phenomenon that occurs alongside or in parallel to a primary phenomenon.” Okay, growing complexity is a “parallel” event in the striving for survival. Sort of like collateral damage?

    But you say the individual cell “strives” for survival. Could you define “striving”? Does that include some kind of conscious activity? Or is it more like “blind” striving? Is there some quantifiable physical “striving” property associated with cells?

    I would say an individual cell strives for nothing. It simply responds to its internal and external environment, and in this way harmonizes itself with its environment. In other words, it fits itself to its environment. It has no goal in mind; it does not choose some particular path; it merely senses its harmonic state. And by this mechanism of sensing its harmonic state, it does not merely survive, but creates new systems (a process of growth) – or, if its sense fails, it dies. And, strangely, cells operate in such a way as to die – intentionally? – after passing on their operating information to new generations. And they do this entirely without any intention to choose some particular path. And over evolutionary time, all the multitude of living creatures appears, and passes information to new generations.

    Where, then, is “purpose”? As I said in an earlier post (this thread is too long for me to find it), we have to look from the current end of the path of evolution toward the beginning of that path. And if we have the imagination power to place ourselves there, and look forward toward the present, we find a path leading to an (illusory) goal, the current end of the path of evolution. There is no choice involved, simply a process of harmonic sense of increasing complexity. (And I should note that humans have a well developed sense for musical harmony, which can be traced to physical harmonic frequency. And we also have a well developed sense for linguistic harmony: we can tell which words “fit” – which make sense -and which do not. So the sociopathic powers have to be very sophisticated to fool us, but they do, given control of the means of mass communication.)

    It is in the evolutionary process that we find “real purpose”, not in some foolish set of “quantities” that a “scientist” tells us about. There is a purpose for life in this process, if we care to look at it staring us in the face. Otherwise we can pretend there is no purpose for life, and carry on unconsciously, ignoring the consciousness that nature has provided for us.

    I must say I have no faith, either in God, or in Gould, or in any of the current generation of “wise men” who have been shown recently to be utter fools, confirming my youthful idealistic belief that the system within which I toiled was on the utterly wrong path. And here I recall the saying: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Maybe what humans need is the harmonic sense to sense the chaos in the human social systems created by sociopathic powers served by “wise men”, including the sense to sense when we are being fooled.

    This is my last post in this thread. I am starting to get irritated by the low quality of the “debate” (and takes too long for my dial-up connection).

  • AJKamper

    @ 72, DG:

    Yeah, probably best we let this drop, because I don’t see minds changing any time soon. I guess I feel like you’re making two mistakes:

    1) You’re saying that, since cells are like people in ONE aspect, they must be “just like people” for a whole variety of useful aspects. The evidence absolutely does not suggest that. You gotta go a lot further… and in general, WE need to understand a lot more about consciousness before we draw out those analogies. Otherwise, it’s navel-gazing.

    2) If you flip a coin enough times, eventually you’ll get a string of a hundred heads in a row. You are looking back from that point and saying, “My goodness, a HUNDRED times in a row! This must be purpose!” I’ve taken a few shots at trying to understand what you mean by purpose, by “striving,” but if you mean no more than the end result of a series of coin flips, then I see no point in attributing that to some cosmic, unprovable, untestable purpose.

    It may not seem like it, but I do appreciate your giving us some new ideas to think about. I just don’t think this is science anymore; it’s not testable, it’s not predictive, it’s just a philosophy. Which doesn’t do a lot for understanding evolution.

  • slw

    That original description was just bad. Why would anyone object to changing that into something a bit more succinct and readable, even if for the wrong reasons?

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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