Monday, June 11, 2007

George Gilder's Take on Evolution

Realising somewhat after the fact that the George Gilder article is a year old and still not quite sure why my "up to the minute" search strategy retrieved it, it did provide an interesting, if somewhat disappointing read.

He makes a number of peculiar errors that, had he actually been familiar with either the literature of evolution or the workings of the biological world, he likely would not have made. For example, he states that evolution (what he calls "Darwinism," which ought to be a red flag right there) is "...tautological. What survives is fit; what is fit survives." This is too simplistic a criticism to be useful. It is like saying "he burns easily because he has red hair; he has red hair, so he burns easily." It is only tautological on the surface. It doesn't change the fact that people with red hair burn easily. He continues:

As an all-purpose tool of reductionism that said that whatever survives is, in some way, normative, Darwinism could inspire almost any modern movement, from the eugenic furies of Nazism to the feminist crusades of Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood.

One wonders why he did not include Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood under the umbrella of eugenics, which it certainly was/is. Indeed, "Darwinism" could, and perhaps did inspire these movements. That does not make it bad science.

His arguments against the science of evolution take the form of those of William Dembski, the mathematician that is attached to the Discovery Institute:

I came to see that the computer offers an insuperable obstacle to Darwinian materialism. In a computer, as information theory shows, the content is manifestly independent of its material substrate. No possible knowledge of the computer's materials can yield any information whatsoever about the actual content of its computations.

He then notes about DNA:

But even here, the deoxyribonucleic acid that bears the word is not itself the word. Like a sheet of paper or a computer memory chip, DNA bears messages but is chemistry is irrelevant to its content.

This is patently silly. He is arguing that the computer can be used to convey content of any conceivable kind and it is irrespective of the content itself. The problem is that the computer hardware is more than one level removed from the content. I have used the hardware to open a web page so I can type this post. There is no biological analogue to this. The closest thing might be the world/universe in which organisms (programs) reside. At the content level, however (the web page) every single word that I have written on this page results in a message. Indeed, if you reorder the words or sentences or even letters, the message is very different. At times, if I have mistakenly ordered a word ('osme' instead of 'some'), the resulting meaning is gibberish (can you say 'mutation?'). This is a mathematical, not biological understanding of reality. The world as a whole, does not care a whit whether a particular organism does or does not survive. It simply exerts the influence on that organism that either helps or hinders its survival. At the informational level, this is an elementary biological concept: the difference between genotype and phenotype. Genotype is the genetic underpinning of the organism, phenotype is how it is expressed in the organism (what it looks like). The organism, if it survives, then reproduces, imparting its genotype to its offspring, which will partly code for how the offspring will look, warts and all.

Over an over, he retreats to mathematical models to state that 64 codons cannot result from 20 amino acids, despite clear evidence that that is exactly what happens in the biological world. He states:

DNA can inform the creation of a brain, but a brain as an aggregation of proteins cannot generate the information in DNA. Wherever there is information, there is a preceding intelligence.

This is something along the lines of Romans 9:

But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?' "

The catch is that Gilder is using an either-or argument when there is no a priori reason for doing so. DNA is perfectly capable of coding for the formation of a brain. It does so with ease. Whether or not there is a guiding intelligence behind this coding is a theological question, not a biological one. In this sense, like the arguments of William Dembski, the use of mathematics is just a smokescreen to sidestep proximate causation versus ultimate causation and is poor model for the biological world.

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