Monday, May 03, 2010

Steve Matheson, Signature in the Cell and a Persistent Misunderstanding on the Part of the Discovery Institute

Steve Matheson has posted his reviews of chapters 9 and 10 of Stephen Meyer's Signature in the Cell. It does not start well. He writes:
Chapter 9 is called "Ends and Odds." Chapter 10 is "Beyond the Reach of Chance." Between them, they advance a straw man so idiotic that I wonder whether Meyer will be able to reclaim any significant intellectual integrity in the chapters that follow.
Matheson's point is that Meyer has gone to great lengths to argue that complex biological systems are too intricate to have arisen by chance. The problem is that this is exactly what Richard Dawkins argued in The Blind Watchmaker, in 1986. Dawkins wrote in that book that selection doesn't act all at once but rather in steps so that organisms become better adapted to their environments gradually. This is not random and does not happen by chance (Hence the METHINKSITISAWEASEL program). Yet, that is exactly what Meyer is arguing again.

This central failing of the book was addressed by Francisco Ayala, who wrote:
The keystone argument of Signature of the Cell is that chance, by itself, cannot account for the genetic information found in the genomes of organisms. I agree. And so does every evolutionary scientist, I presume. Why, then, spend chapter after chapter and hundreds of pages of elegant prose to argue the point? It is as if in a book about New York, the author would tell us that New York is not in Europe, and then dedicate most of the book to advancing evidence that, indeed, truly, New York is not in Europe.
What, then, is Meyer's point? Is this a misunderstanding of evolution on a phenomenally basic level? Beginning evolutionary biology students are taught that selection is not random and yet this seems to have completely escaped Meyer and the other writers at the Discovery Institute.

This sort of straw man is echoed in William Dembski's writings, in which he he equates genetic variation with a mathematical fitness function to show that evolution cannot create new forms. As I wrote about this:
Basically, he is stating that genetic variation, left to its own devices, won't turn up anything complex no matter how many iterations it goes through. In this instance, all fitness functions are averaged. Here's the problem: in no environment are fitness functions averaged. That is like saying that the earth has one climate all over and that it imposes no selection pressures.
This has been echoed by other writers and Dembski has never responded to this criticism. It is as if the concept of natural selection is completely foreign or is so repugnant as to be unacceptable and therefore, the DI writers continue to misunderstand it.

The problem that I have with this perspective is that this misunderstanding of natural selection has not gone uncorrected. Kenneth Miller, Richard Dawkins, P.Z. Myers, Jerry Coyne, Steve Matheson and Darrel Falk, just to name a few have written treatises strongly rebutting this position held by Meyer, Dembski and Michael Behe. These have been ignored. Therefore, to continue to promote this misunderstanding of natural selection and its role in evolution constitutes, as they say, a terminological inexactitude. This would not be the first time the Discovery Institute was accused of that.

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  1. "Beginning evolutionary biology students are taught that selection is not random"

    I think that is ridiculous - to think that selection can be anything but random.

    I will define 'random chance' here to be forces of nature not guided from outside nature.

    Either you have to say that the natural tendency of nature is intricacy (nature + time = intricacy, or nature + random chance = intricacy)

    Or you have to say that intricacy is not the natural tendency of nature.

    'Natural selection', being a part of nature, can't affect the reasoning here. It doesn't count as a guiding factor, because if it does, you would be saying that nature naturally guides itself, which, by my reasoning, is the same as saying that 'natural chance' creates intricacy.

    So your choice is either that "chance, by itself", MUST "account for the genetic information found in the genomes of organisms", or evolution has an issue. Things like time, guiding forces of nature and natural selection are just terms that can confuse the issue.

    I would find it more reasonable if people just said they thought random chance creates intricacies like DNA. I personally don't think it does, but that is at least a logical claim.

  2. Changes in the environment drive natural selection. These changes are not random. To see this lack of randomness, look at the Australasian biosphere. There are duplicates of wolves, foxes, dogs and other animals that evolved in isolation of other mammals. Obviously there was a niche there and adaptive radiation took over. Selection isn't random.