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July 22, 2016

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Rossiter's identification of "the fact of evolution" with the mechanism of mutation/natural selection is inaccurate and misleading.

Ernst Mayr, in One Long Argument, characterized Darwin's theory of evolution as consisting of "a whole bundle of theories". Quoting Mayr:

... I consider it necessary to dissect Darwin's conceptual framework of evolution into a number of major theories that formed the basis of his evolutionary thinking. For the sake of convenience, I have partitioned Darwin's evolutionary paradigm into five theories, but of course others might prefer a different division. The selected theories are by no means all of Darwin's evolutionary theories; others were, for instance, sexual selection, pangenesis, effect of use and disuse, and character divergence. However when later authors referred to Darwin's theory they invariably had a combination of some of the following five theories in mind:
(1) Evolution as such. This is the theory that the world is not constant or recently created nor perpetually cycling, but rather is steadily changing, and that organisms are transformed in time.
(2) Common descent. This is the theory that every group of organisms descended from a common ancestor, and that all groups of organisms, including animals, plants, and microorganisms, ultimately go back to a single origin of life on earth.
(3) Multiplication of species. This theory explains the origin of the enormous organic diversity. It postulates that species multiply, either by splitting into daughter species or by "budding", that is, by the establishment of geographically isolated founder populations that evolve into new species.
(4) Gradualism. According to this theory, evolutionary change takes place through the gradual change of populations and not by the sudden (saltational) production of new individuals that represent a new type.
(5) Natural selection. According to this theory, evolutionary change comes about through the abundant production of genetic variation in every generation. The relatively few individuals who survive, owing to a particularly well-adapted combination of inheritable characters, give rise to the next generation.

Rossiter gives the impression that natural selection is the whole ball game, and if that mechanism is shown to be inadequate to explain the whole range of evolutionary change (something Darwin and evolutionists never claimed) then the theory of evolution falls, and therefore it would not be an established fact that evolution has occurred. But even if the mechanism of natural selection were in as much trouble as he says (I think he paints an extremely distorted picture of the field) that would be only one of the above five theories called into question. The other four are not in any doubt.

So even if we had no idea at all what the mechanisms driving evolution are, we would still have overwhelming evidence to support the theory that life on earth is a single tree (although it is more like a web at its base), that it evolved from simple to complex, that man is related to all of life by descent with modification, and consequently that humans arose from something simpler and less capable, they did not fall from a state of perfection.

Hi Gerald Lame. Wayne here. I think you should listen again. I think I said quite the opposite. I emphasized that the 'fact of evolution' most refer to is the patter, not the process. In public discourse, skeptics of Darwin are treated as if they're flat-earth cavemen for not 'accepting evolution.' But, few ever press what is meant by the term 'evolution.' It's an equivocal term.

For example, even Young Earth Creationists like Ken Ham believe that God made 'kinds' (baramin), which went on to radiate into the diversity we see today. He thinks Adam needed to name about 2500 kinds of animals. Obviously, there must also be a massive radiation of diversity post flood. Now, I don't hold the young earth view, but my point is that even this 'literalist' view contains biological evolution and diversification. The grand questions are, what mechanisms are at play and do they require agency or guidance?

But let me be clear, I feel there are many competing mechanisms (even within secular science). Take care.

Wait a sec, Man, or The Adamic, reduces to covalent and ionic bonds and maps to physics?

If so, how did God build the Immaterial out of the Material? How does the Immaterial outlive the Material? With covalent bonds?

Several conflations and category errors abound.

Hi Wayne. Thanks for your reply. I did listen to the podcast twice and took notes the second time. But I admit that I was somewhat confused by your exposition of the concept of evolution. For instance, when you referred to "patterns", I wasn't clear whether you meant patterns of fossil evidence only, or whether you meant patterns of inferred organic evolutionary change, including speciation.

Before I go on, let me make clear that I am an atheist, and Darwinian evolution is central to my worldview. I'm here because I sometimes like to play the role of a gadfly to Christian apologists. You are the first Christian I've interacted with who really is an expert on evolutionary theory and yet who evidently rejects the central tenets of the science he's trained in (though I'm not clear just what you believe the truth is about how we got here.)

(At first I wrote "the central tenants" above, and then realized "tenant" was the wrong word, which reminds me, you seem to have a little quirk. You use the word "acribe" when you mean "subscribe". One subscribes to (supports, sides with) an idea, but ascribes (attributes) a property to an individual.)

To Greg's question of "what evolution is", you replied (this is from ~5:35 to ~8 in the podcast, my own transcription -- emphasis is mine):

Wayne – Whenever you hear ‘evolution’ you must ask the question “What do you mean by that?” Just as you’ve taught. What do they mean by evolution. And what they mean, within the context of theistic evolution, it is equivalent to the Darwinian mechanism. Now there are probably a dozen other vying hypotheses and mechanisms that we could call evolution. And many of those are very compatible with the Christian worldview. And you know you also must indicate, we’re talking about a mechanism, not the pattern. Because they’ll say, there’s the fact of evolution, and they’ll just point to the pattern. But it’s the mechanism that must explain that pattern, that’s the evolution. And so they’re really deeply entrenched in the Darwinian explanation.
Greg – By the way, let me just pause for a moment and underscore what you just said. If I understood it correctly, the scientists are pretty consistent, at least as they represent to the public their field of evolution, in saying that evolution is a fact. And here they’re largely referring to the Darwinian system, the ... mutation, natural selection, whatever.
WayneRight.
Greg – And uh, yeah, we all agree it’s a fact. But when you get down to the particulars, and the details, it turns out there is a tremendous amount of dispute about the details.
Wayne – Yeah, right. So, two things. First of all, I’m not denying the existence of a Darwinian mechanism, and I don’t think most sophisticated thinkers are.
Greg – Like natural selection.
Wayne – Obviously, this exists. The question is whether or not it’s capable of producing the patterns it needs to explain. The other thing I would say though is, you take a very classic sort of catch phrase you see on the internet a lot, “We have the fossils, we win.” That is an appeal to the pattern: “Hey, there are fossils, therefore evolution.” That is not an explanation as to how you get that fossil record. And so I just want to make a clear distinction between what we’re trying to explain – that is the data themselves – and the mechanism we’re invoking to explain it. And sort of pull all the way back around, if you’re talking about theistic evolution, that is almost entirely reliant on the Darwinian mechanism, which is natural selection acting on random mutations, and by random I don’t m.... It’s a lottery, it’s a chance event. They often get upset about the use of the word 'random', but for our intents and purposes we mean that it was not intended, it could not be foreknown.

I want to make a couple points about this.

First, you distinguish "the pattern" from "the mechanism", and you refer to the fossil evidence, "the data themselves", as the pattern, and mutation plus natural selection as the mechanism (or one among several mechanisms.) But this leaves out an intermediate level, the evolutionary history of species on earth, which corresponds to Darwin's theories (1)-(4) above. This history of organic change, of descent with modification, can be soundly inferred from the data (found both in the earth and in DNA) without reference to the mechanisms (Darwinian, Lamarckian or whatever) which drove those changes. You agreed with Greg that when scientists talk about "the fact of evolution" they are referring to the mechanism, Darwin's theory of natural selection. But this may leave the impression with listeners that, if the adequacy of the mechanism is called into doubt (which you do near the end of the podcast), so is "the fact of evolution," and we can go back to Genesis. But no scientists, to my knowledge, have published any research in scientific journals calling into question the relatedness of all life on earth by more-or-less gradual change over generations, beginning with the simplest of organisms and culminating with ones like us. Would you agree? I think when people refer to "the fact of evolution" this is the primary fact they are referring to, that established evolutionary history. Darwin's theory of natural selection is one very well supported theory which explains much, but not all, of that history. But even if the neo-Darwinian synthesis needs to be "extended", the fact that evolution has taken place and is the source of our existence is not being debated by scientists.

So none of these additional mechanisms that some scientific dissidents are advocating (the book by Jablonka you mentioned, Evolution in Four Dimensions, is described in a review as "tendentious (exercising affirmative action on behalf of minority/iconoclastic ideas)") would save Christians from the problem you point out, that we arose from chaos imperfect beings, we did not fall by choice from perfection.

Second, I am puzzled by your definition of 'random' as "it was not intended, it could not be foreknown." I thought God was supposed to be omniscient. True, this leads to moral difficulties for God, especially given that he is supposed to be omnipotent too. But that has not dissuaded theologians from asserting this divine perfection. So for instance, if a gambler wins at roulette, that was caused by a random event, but God knew it from eternity. That goes for people's choices too, whether or not we have free will.

Maybe this is irrelevant, but it's an interesting fact that the digits of pi are random. If you are given some sequence of digits of pi after the decimal point, they will not help you predict the next digit. Yet they have been certain and fixed from eternity. We learn them one at a time, but God knows them all at once, so to speak. So... could God's creation of the world be like his choosing a number, like pi? Sticking with a mathematical theme, it could be "open" in the same way those wonderful videos of fractals like the Mandelbrot set are open, always exploring new forms and new variations on a theme, yet in a sense knowable from eternity. But I agree with you, that's not a Christian God, fixed as he is on his morality play in three acts.

I was also under the impression (perhaps this is just my theological ignorance) that divine providence meant that God intends what happens to happen. I get that this also presents us with moral difficulties in understanding the goodness of God when bad things happen, but... I have always thought, as an atheist, that, although it is irrational and morally questionable, it is also often a comfort and a benefit to people of faith to be able to believe that whatever calamity has befallen, it is part of God's plan. It may help them make the best of it.

One more thought about intention. You seem to think that, if God just sets things in motion, and then they carry on on their own, this means he is not doing anything, that he is absent. But what if you thought of it like throwing a ball? When you throw a ball and it flies through the air and reaches its intended target, that's something you did. All of it. As you watch it complete your action, you may be putting a little body English on it too.

Strange musings for an atheist. But I can afford them. I have nothing at stake.

Wayne and Greg both got quite exercised over "God of the gaps" arguments. These were presented as something unfair, a heads-I-win tails-you-lose situation, which rules out supernatural explanations whether or not a naturalistic explanation is available.

I disagree.

On the one hand, if no naturalistic explanation is currently available, it does not follow that no such explanation exists, and that consequently the answer must be supernatural. To argue so would be to argue from ignorance, a fallacy. Especially when we're talking about a problem like the origin of life on earth, involving events and environments lost in the mists of time, it is not surprising that the search for a solution would be long and difficult. It is something like looking for a path through a mountain range, but a mountain range that no longer exists, and must be reconstructed by guesswork.

On the other hand, I do believe that explanations involving supernatural agents can compete with naturalistic ones, but only on one condition: they must be constrained. The hypothetical supernatural agent must predictably do certain kinds of things and not do other kinds of things.

For instance, if it were claimed that a god of tornadoes spared worshipers who called on him by name, this could be easily tested. Or if lightning struck churches which performed same-sex weddings more frequently than it struck other churches (controlling for other factors) that would be empirical evidence for an angry God. Or if gravity acted on all masses equally, except for human beings falling out of windows or off cliffs, in which case they decelerated and landed gently, this would be good evidence for a supernatural being who cared about humans, and did not let the laws of physics act on them as if they were mere stones.

Or if the work of a hypothetical designer of organisms had some characteristic that could identify his work as his, distinguishing it from the results of mere chance, that constraint might be sufficient to test the hypothesis. For instance, it might be supposed that a supernatural designer's designs would always be the most elegant and the most efficient solutions to any problem facing an organism.

I argued once, on this site, on the basis of the kinds of facts evinced in Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish (for instance about the paths of the cranial nerves, which are needlessly convoluted, but are explained by our fishy heritage, or men's regrettable but evolutionarily explainable susceptibility to hernias) -- that we are cobbled together by trial and error, so to speak, by Darwinian evolution; we're not designed. But I was scolded thus: you are presuming to know the mind of God. You don't know that he wouldn't design us this way. What you regard as clumsy, needlessly error-prone, is merely a subjective judgment on your part. That is, this hypothetical agent/designer is UNCONSTRAINED. There is NOTHING which you could not ascribe to him. So the hypothesis is unfalsifiable. Therefore it cannot compete in the contest for best explanation, because it can "explain" anything, so it explains nothing.

There is a lesson here that people who insist that God can compete with scientific explanations often overlook. In order to compete as an empirical explanation, a hypothesis must be falsifiable, which means you must be able to identify and be ready to accept evidence against your hypothesis. What evidence would you accept that God did not create us?

The reason that supernatural agents do not figure in scientific explanations is not because of "methodological naturalism." It is because they have not been detected. They have not left an identifiable footprint or stray hair (at least one that can be replicably verified by the public methods of science). I would say that is because they do not exist, but that would be to argue from ignorance, wouldn't it? On the other hand, it does seem to be an excellent explanation of the lack of evidence.

What has all this heat to do with The Adamic, itself void of that which maps to physics? I thought we were talking about Christianity?

Just one more comment for now. Wayne mentioned in the interview an article in an astrophysical journal that estimated that earth was "one in 700 quintillian." I took this to mean, in context, that earth was a very rare kind of planet -- that the odds were against finding another, meaning it was very special, and consequently that the odds of life like ours in the universe was likely to be low. I was surprised at this, since astronomers have been finding exoplanets left and right.

I found an abstract of the article (arxiv.org/abs/1602.00690), and it turns out that the meaning was just the opposite. The estimate was that there are around 700 quintillian "terrestrial" planets in the observable universe. No one can even estimate yet just how probable or improbable a natural emergence of intelligent life is on earth-like worlds, but this study suggests that there is no dearth of planets holding lottery tickets, which makes it less surprising that we should find ourselves on a winner.

The Adamic vis-à-vis Christianity doesn't map to planets.


Hi Gerald. You've offered quite a bit to discuss. Not that I don't want it to be public, but it might be a bit much for the comment sections of the STR website. I'm not looking for a bunch of junk-mail, but you're welcome to contact me at wrossite@waynesburg.edu and we can talk about these things in some detail. In general, I think you have most of the context correct. Take Michael Behe (who's views I don't entirely overlap with). In Edge of Evolution, he suggests,

"One afternoon the uberphysicist walks from his lab to the warehouse, passes by the huge collection of possible dead universes, strolls into the small wing, over to the small room, opens the small closet, and selects on the extremely rare universes that is set up to lead to intelligent life. Then he 'adds water' to activate it. In that case the now-active universe is fine-tuned to the very great degree of detail required, yet it is activated in a 'single creative act.' All that’s required for the example to work is that some possible universe could follow the intended path without further prodding, and that the uberphysicist select it. After the first decisive moment the carefully chosen universe undergoes 'natural development by laws implanted in it.' In that universe, life evolves by common descent and a long series of mutations, but many aren’t random. There are myriad Powerball-winning events, but they aren’t due to chance. They were foreseen, and chosen from all the possible universes."

So far as I can see, the only difference between what Behe is suggesting here and what a guy like Ken Miller holds is that Miller believes the creation is open to unfold in ways the designer could not know. But, in both cases, you have the pattern of evolution (descent with modification as inferred from the fossil record, genetic data, etc.). I suppose a second major divide between these two views is the fact that Miller believes natural selection + mutation can get the job done (and Behe thinks such a mechanism is impotent). That's noteworthy, because it demonstrates that we can explain the same pattern using various alternative mechanisms.

Such a discussion is precisely what is at play in the scientific community. Agnostic/atheist biologists and scientists are increasingly skeptical of the efficacy of the Darwinian mechanism alone. James Shapiro, Marc Kirschner, John Gerhart, Jerry Fodor, Melanie Mitchell, Simon Conway Morris, Charles Marshall, the list just goes on an on. I cover a good many in my book, but many more people/references are possible.

While I wouldn't say it's a mainstream thought just yet, a couple of other items have existed in the literature for some time (and seem to be gaining in interest). Long before Behe was blasted for his "irreducible complexity" claim, Michael Polanyi (1968) was writing "Life's Irreducible Stucture" in Science magazine. Likewise, Raup and Valentine (1983) suggested "Multiple Origins of Life" in PNAS. That is, our best science journals have been publishing stuff counter to the classical Darwinian account for a long time. Heck, Craig Venter recently suggested that his findings are indicating perhaps more than a thousand unique origins of life. So, perhaps even the interpretation of the pattern is not overly clear.

Anyway, I'm not one to just run to "God did it" when such things happen. What I would argue is that the "theory of biological evolution" has grown into a giant blob of sub-theories attempting to make sense of the data. Many things are up for grabs. I'm content to wait it out. I don't anticipate science saying "God did it." But, many of the theories coming from science today fit nicely within a theistic (at a minimum, deistic) worldview. That's significant.

Wayne

Just real quick, this is a recent article of interest.

http://arxiv.org/pdf/1606.07184v1.pdf

Because the origin of life gets more difficult (if not more mysterious), I feel very comfortable saying it's an incredibly rare event, and that a bottom-up materialism cannot provide such an event.

Hi Wayne. Sorry for the delay. I’d like to respond to your last link -- arxiv.org/pdf/1606.07184v1.pdf – “The ‘Hard Problem’ of Life”. If it’s all the same to you, I think I’d prefer to continue here (STR is really very generous about allowing lengthy discussions to play out), as long as we’re not disrupted by interlopers . (scbrownlhrm, please hold your piece. You can talk about “the Adamic” on another thread.)

I was a little shocked by the paper “The ‘Hard Problem’ of Life” by Walker and Davies, because there IS no hard problem of life. I agree with Chalmers that there is a hard problem of consciousness, epitomized by the existence of qualia. But the last time a major faction of mainstream scientists and philosophers argued for the notion that the phenomenon of life was irreducible to the material was a century and more ago, in the conflict between mechanism and vitalism. Hans Driesch argued that there must be a top down principle of life, an “entelechy”, in charge of embryonic development. Mechanism, he purported to prove, was incapable of explaining the data. But things went badly for the anti-mechanist view, culminating in the discovery of the structure of DNA and the genetic code, and then the explosion of knowledge with the advance of molecular biology. The thousands of pages of research on molecular biology and genetics and physiology that are churned out every month these days are all about mechanisms, networks of mechanisms, and the flow of information in the networks. This is all progressing as a muture science does, without any hint that at its core there is a “hard problem”, some conundrum that cannot be solved with the ample means at hand.

Walker and Davies seek to convey the impression that there is such a conundrum by lumping “living and conscious systems” together, and then calling them “highly remarkable and very special states of matter.” This is like saying about life, “Gee whiz!”, and then setting out to solve this serious problem of the Gee Whiz factor. They say “the emergence of life and mind from non-living chemical systems remains one of the great outstanding problems of science,” describing it as “a transition from the mundane to the extraordinary.” From the blah to the gee whiz -- this must be serious.

The emergence of life and mind are very different events. (Actually, “emergence” is ambiguous here. Are we talking about synchronic or diachronic emergence? That is, either 1) at a single time, the transition from non-living or non-conscious parts to living or conscious wholes, or 2) the historical advent of living structures arising out of some pre-biotic matrix, or the evolution of conscious from non-conscious beings.) There is a hard problem about mind (at least about consciousness; arguably not about all mental phenomena), but it does not follow that life is also hard to explain. I think it is explained just fine by molecular biology.

Walker and Davies say “the hard problem of life is the problem of how ‘information’ can affect the world” and “ ‘the hard problem of life’ is the identification of the actual physical mechanism that permits information to gain causal purchase over matter,” adding that “This view is not accommodated in our current approaches to physics.” In their conclusion they claim, “Here we have attempted to identify a core feature of life that won't ... be solved based on current paradigms – namely, that life seems distinct from other physical systems in how information affects the world (that is, that macrostates are causal).”

Maybe I’m being dense, but I did not see any point at which they demonstrated the need for a new understanding of the role of information in living systems. On page 3 they purported to do so:

An example from genomics is an experiment performed by the Craig Venter Institute, where the genome from one species was transplanted to another, and ‘booted up’ to convert the host species to the foreign DNA's phenotype – quite literally re-programming one species into another. Here it seems clear that it is the information content of the genome – the sequence of bits – and not the chemical nature of DNA as such, which is (at least in part) `calling the shots'. Of course, a hard-nosed reductionist might argue that, in principle, there must exist a purely material narrative of this transformation, cast entirely in terms microstates (e.g. events at the molecular level). However, one might describe this position as “promissory reductionism”, because there is no realistic prospect of ever attaining such a complete material narrative, or of its being any use in achieving an understanding of the process even if it was attained.”

This is just nuts. OF COURSE it is the sequence of bits, and not the chemical nature of DNA as such, which is “calling the shots”. Just as, when you play a CD, it is the sequence of bits, not the physical nature of the pits on the disk’s surface, that ‘calls the shots’. Maybe there is a need for physicists to better formulate the relationship of information to the physical, but that does not mean that there is anything essentially problematic or mysterious about biological as opposed to any other kind of information. What the experiment accomplished was perfectly predictable from a conventional understanding of the genetic code, how genetic information is encoded in the DNA, and how the information encoded there is translated to RNA and then to proteins by molecular machines that are more or less well understood. There is nothing promissory about this reductionism. It is an amazing accomplishment of modern science that we understand how a species’ genetic inheritance is physically stored and expressed, and even how it can change by tiny incremental steps unlimited by any species essence, as Darwin’s theory required. That, I think, deserves a hearty “Gee whiz!”

As for macrostates being causal, that is a general feature of our world. Why can a four-legged chair wobble while a three-legged stool doesn’t? If you solve the physical equations for all the atoms composing a particular chair and a particular stool you will get the right answers about possible movements, but it is the macrostates alone – the furniture-scale spatial relationships, the four- or three-leggedness – that will explain intelligibly the propensity to wobble. It is the number of legs (and their rigidity and arrangement) that is “calling the shots” in this respect, not the chemical composition of the wood. There is nothing special about this. Macrostates are causal wherever you look.

Maybe it is pointless to have these discussions. Christians are committed to particular answers to questions about life, as am I. But what I object to is the confusion of what Christians want and believe to be true with what science is telling us.

Christianity is suffused with all kinds of mystical ideas about life which don’t align with modern biology. Eternal life, abundant life, resurrection, souls dying and being reborn, Jesus being “the life”. And order as a top-down thing, the logos, as opposed to bottom up, is baked into the Christian worldview. God imposed order on chaos, on tohu vabohu, with his word. In the beginning was the Word. So it is understandable that Christians would want to understand life as form/information being imposed on matter, instead of arising naturally from it. But “The ‘Hard Problem’ of Life” is little more than wishful thinking in this respect, as is, I believe, your portrayal of Darwinian evolution as a crumbling paradigm. Natural selection is being supplemented by other naturalistic mechanisms, but chance, not agency, continues to play a central role. I’m not a biologist, so perhaps I’m mistaken, but I believe your attempt to give STR listeners the impression that Darwinian evolution is no longer the central, dominant paradigm among working biologists in the field, or that it is wobbling and about to be toppled, gives them a distorted view of reality. A century ago people were making the same predictions: Darwinism was on the way out, vitalism and goal-oriented evolution was the future. But few theories have been more successful than Darwin’s, and data supporting it continue to pour in.

Gerald,

It's important to figure out which mode of causation and which mode of "particles cascading" through "temporal becoming" are or were in play. Was it path A? Path B? C? The (your, etc.) discussion in this thread is therefore not only interesting, but worthy.

The concern isn't that. That's all fine for the Christian, whichever path, whether A or B or C. The concern, rather, is that you seem to think that on Christianity Man reduces to covalent bonds, that God built that which outlives, outdistances, covalent bonds using covalent bonds.

But that's impossible.


Hi Gerald. I promised you some response. Sorry for the wait. You're going to be disappointed (sorry for that too). I've had a read of your second set of concerns. I am disappointed to see that they don't deal with any of the papers or evidences I brought to the table in my first response. But, I will respond to a couple of your new points:

//I was a little shocked by the paper “The ‘Hard Problem’ of Life” by Walker and Davies, because there IS no hard problem of life.The thousands of pages of research on molecular biology and genetics and physiology that are churned out every month these days are all about mechanisms, networks of mechanisms, and the flow of information in the networks. This is all progressing as a muture science does, without any hint that at its core there is a “hard problem”, some conundrum that cannot be solved with the ample means at hand.//

Again, I just offered you several biologists who have argued quite the contrary. Your reference to vitalism is irrelevant to the discussion. The issue is whether or not we have a mechanism for the origin of life, and whether or not that mechanism requires agency. You seem to act as if Walker and Davies are somehow going to bat for theism, and making a problem where none exists. Davies is a renowned physicist who claims agnosticism. He has no axe to grind, and he's been invited to speak at atheistic meetings (like the "Beyond Belief" meeting at the Salk Institute).

Now, you can say that there is no hard problem to the origin of life. That's quite different than showing me that their is no problem (we can just say ANYTHING). Especially given that many biologists DO think there's a real problem.

Consider the words of the late Frank Salisbury (a plant physiologist from Utah State):

"It's nice to talk about replicating DNA molecules arising in a soupy sea, but in modern cells this replication requires the presence of suitable enzymes. ... [T]he link between DNA and the enzyme is a highly complex one, involving RNA and an enzyme for its synthesis on a DNA template; ribosomes; enzymes to activate the amino acids; and transfer-RNA molecules. ... How, in the absence of the final enzyme, could selection act upon DNA and all the mechanisms for replicating it? It's as though everything must happen at once: the entire system must come into being as one unit, or it is worthless. There may well be ways out of this dilemma, but I don't see them at the moment."

Or Harvard Chemist George Whitesides (2007):

"The Origin of Life. This problem is one of the big ones in science. It begins to place life, and us, in the universe. Most chemists believe, as do I, that life emerged spontaneously from mixtures of molecules in the prebiotic Earth. How? I have no idea."

Massimo Pigliucci has written, "it has to be true that we really don't have a clue how life originated on Earth by natural means."

In 2004, writing in Cell Biology International, Trevors and Able conceded (in fact the article was titled) "Chance and necessity do not explain the origin of life." They too open the door for alien seeding of life.

Notice that all of these (with the exception of Pigliucci) are people IN ADDITION to the ones I've already offered. The problem is real. And it gets worse every day.

//Maybe I’m being dense, but I did not see any point at which they demonstrated the need for a new understanding of the role of information in living systems.//

The point is not whether we need a new understanding of the present workings of these things. The problem is that, as we increase in our knowledge of those workings, it all the more adds to the difficulty of how they arose in the first place. Explaining the origins of "globules of plasm" (as the cell was frequently referred to in the 19th century) would be easy. Explaining the cell that we know today is seemingly impossible.

//It is an amazing accomplishment of modern science that we understand how a species’ genetic inheritance is physically stored and expressed, and even how it can change by tiny incremental steps unlimited by any species essence, as Darwin’s theory required. That, I think, deserves a hearty “Gee whiz!”//

This is where I start to get nervous about your approach. I feel compelled to ask, how many examples contra your quote above would be necessary for you to abandon it? I've already offered quite a few. You act as if the discovery of DNA was the final culmination of Darwin's theory. It was a more detailed description of Mendel's. But, it was (and is) a sore spot for reductionist theories like Darwin's, because it introduced both self-referencing and "other than" referencing in the basic architecture of life. It was information-containing structure that contained unexpected contingency, even as chance could not explain it. And of course, the last 15 years has re-ignited the discussion of what really is doing the work in producing a species' essence. Epigenetics has us all harkening back to Lamarckism (http://www.nature.com/news/epigenetics-the-sins-of-the-father-1.14816). Your comment about gradualism also concerns me. The vast diversity seen in both genetics and the fossil record looks nothing like a gradual process.

With that, I'll step out. The stuff about Christian mysticism and modern science is a red herring. It wasn't the point of discussion. We can go there, but this was a discussion about the process of biological evolution. Take care.

Wayne

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