Barry Arrington digs up the ‘tautology’ argument

Barry Arrington should stick to what he’s good at — banning blasphemers.

Instead, he has disinterred the corpse of the “natural selection is a tautology” argument, propped it up in a chair, and is now attempting to engage it in conversation.

Trust me, Barry – that corpse is dead, dead, dead.  Among the coroner’s findings:

1. Even the dimmest of IDers and creationists accepts that “microevolution” occurs.  Insects become pesticide-resistant. Finch beaks change in response to drought conditions.  Microbes acquire antibiotic resistance.  How does this happen?  Through natural selection.  It ain’t a tautology.

2. The tautology mongers miss a basic point about fitness.  Fitness is <i>not</i> defined in terms of the reproductive success of an individual. An unfit individual who gets lucky and reproduces successfully does not get reclassified as fit.  A fit individual who gets hit by a meteorite isn’t reclassified as unfit. To claim that “the fittest” are “those who survive”, as the tautology mongers claim, is ridiculous.

Back to hunting down blasphemers, Barry.  Leave the science to those who understand it.

268 thoughts on “Barry Arrington digs up the ‘tautology’ argument

  1. the bystander: … and create some super phenotype which will help them attack Humans and destroy us all

    Ebola?

    Pretty much every animal is more reproductively successful than humans so are all species more Fit than humans in our present environment ?

    I’m not sure where you get that. Human population size is still increasing. For most other species, population size is decreasing.

  2. empaist: I see that the 44 in the first factor is canceled by the 44 in the denominator of the second factor.

    Real arithmetic

    Yup. The 44s definitely cancel. I was leaving both 44s in so the logic was clear.

    However as the product of any number by its multiplicative inverse is by definition 1 we also still have a tautology involved, just not the one from BA. Accordingly I am taking 10% from your score since it is evident in this recipe that survival and reproduction can be simply replaced by reproduction alone. Thus we have in the spirit of this discussion: “The reproduction of the fittest”. Now the question is: is that a tautology?

    I appeal against that loss of 10 points and explain thusly: Sure, for any set of fitnesses you can make up fecundities that give those fitnesses, by taking 1 as the viability for all those genotypes.

    But changing to the phrase “reproduction of the fittest” would be a very inadvisable thing to do. An experimental evolutionist or a field observer of natural populations might be misled by that phrase into studying only the fecundities and not observing the viabilities.

    That’s why the people who actually estimate fitnesses tend not to use the phrase “survival of the fittest”. Nor would they use the suggested replacement. They just talk about, and estimate, fitnesses, and then use those inferences to make predictions and test hypotheses about how the fitnesses vary through time, vary geographically, and to what extent they depend on observable phenotypes.

  3. banning blasphemers … I was the one banned over at UD because I used the phrase ‘… your god Dembski …’. This, apparently, is blasphemous.

  4. Neil,
    Ebola is a virus. It can live only in a host. It’s host is fruit bat – not humans. A virus which kills it’s host is not a fit case of evolution-it is the worst example of evolution!
    Human population is growing morevthan other species ? What do you think is the reproductive rate of humans?

  5. Joe Felsenstein,

    Right Joe, of course a researcher can study what survives and what doesn’t and can even make a prediction about what might survive and what might not. You seem to think some have suggested that it is not possible to study what survives.

    The problem which seems to elude you (and not just you here obviously) is that being able to study what survives is the same as studying what is fit. They are the SAME THING!

    And that is the reason why survival of the fittest is a silly concept, because all it is saying is survival of the survivors. That problem is not overcome by throwing in the caveat, well, no, its the ones MOST LIKELY to survive. That’s like saying, the ones most likely to be fit.

  6. phoodoo:
    Steve Schaffner,

    Oh come on Steve. You can’t even give a definition.

    I gave a definition. I gave an example of its application. Here it is again: Fitness is the expected (in the statistical sense) fraction of all offspring contributed to the next generation. (To be more precise, the expected fraction of all offspring contributed to the next generation, relative to the fraction in the current generation.) That’s the definition I use.

    So tell me, using that definition, is it true that parasites with mutant pfcrt genes are more fit or not? Is that a tautology or not?

  7. Theory of Evolution is a Picasso painting.Everyone is attributing some meaning to it -there is none.

  8. Steve Schaffner,

    Steve,

    I don’t think you understand where the tautology exists (Keiths shares this unawareness) , the tautology resides not in determining if something is fit, but in the notion that this fitness is something different from surviving. You can call something fit all you want, but all you are saying when you say this, is that is survives better than something else. If natural selection is a form of saying survival of the fittest, all this is saying is survival of the survivors. It has no explanatory power as such.

    And if natural selection is not saying survival of the fittest, but rather survival of those most likely to survive, you still haven’t really said anything. That is just saying, those that are likely to survive are likely to survive.

    Now, of course you can study what is likely to survive all you want, (Joe, Keith, are you following?) , but that does nothing to rescue you from the tautological observation that those that are likely to survive are those that are likely to survive. Is a person with one arm and one leg likely to survive and reproduce? Well, it depends if we test and see if people with one arm and one legs are likely to survive and reproduce. If its not likely then its not likely. If it is likely, then it is likely.

    The test for fitness is the same as the test for survival, THERE IS NO difference!!

    So the question, “Are parasites with mutant pfcrt genes more fit or not, is the same question as Are parasites with mutant pfcrt genes more likely to survive and reproduce?”

    And the only answer to this is: They are more likely to reproduce IF and ONLY IF they are more likely to reproduce!!!!!

  9. phoodoo,

    Besides avoiding my questions, you’re still completely confused, so let me try to simplify it even further for you.

    Consider three scenarios, A, B, and C:

    A1. We want to test the effectiveness of program P in improving high school graduation rates.

    B1. We want to test the effectiveness of drug D in curing illness I.

    C1. We want to test the effectiveness of genotype G in getting itself into future generations; that is, we want to measure its fitness.

    A2. We design and run an experiment to measure the effectiveness of P.

    B2. We design and run an experiment to measure the effectiveness of D.

    C2. We design and run an experiment to measure the effectiveness of G.

    A3, B3, C3: The experiments confirm the high effectiveness of P, D, and G.

    A4, B4, C4: We use the results of the experiment to make further predictions, like good scientists do. The predictions are confirmed.

    A5, B5, C5: We celebrate, because we have learned something useful about the world: we’ve demonstrated the effectiveness of P, D, and G, which is something we didn’t know before.

    A6, B6, C6: A rather slow fellow comes along and says, “But the effectiveness of program P is just the effectiveness of program P, and the same goes for D and G. It’s tautological!”

    A7, B7, C7. We roll our eyes and continue celebrating. Later, we ask ourselves: Is it really possible for someone not to see the scientific value of testing the effectiveness of education programs, drugs, or genotypes?

  10. Short version:

    The best hitters are the best hitters. That’s a tautology. Does that mean that batting averages are meaningless? Of course not.

    Understand that, and you will understand where your thinking went off the rails, phoodoo.

  11. keith,

    I am sure in your own head you think these analogies you are making are stupendously brilliant. You keep repeating them over and over again like, “Look look, I made an analogy. An analogy, don’t you get it, its an analogy! Can’t everyone see my amazing analogy??”

    Yes, you can test the effectiveness of drugs. Congratulations Keith, you got that one right.

    We can also test to see if counseling for kids to stay in school actually makes them stay in school. Two for two, way to go Keith!

    And, and, wait for it……We can also test for survivability! And do you know what, when we test for fitness, that is what we test for!

    The tautology is not in testing for a cancer drug. The tautology would be if we said, we have tested for the effectiveness of cancer drugs, now we want to determine which one works best. So to test the ones that work best, we test for their effectiveness. As it turns out the ones that work the best are the ones that are most effective!! And do you know which are the most effective? Guess Guess? The ones which work best. Whoohoo! Awesome Keith.

    Oh, wait, I should amend that for Steve and Joe. The cancer drugs that are LIKELY to work best are the ones that are LIKELY to be most effective. Its statistical!

  12. phoodoo,

    1. We test the educational program’s effectiveness. We learn something that we didn’t know before. It’s good science.

    2. We test the drug’s effectiveness. We learn something that we didn’t know before. It’s good science.

    3. We test the genotype’s effectiveness at getting into future generations — it’s fitness, in other words. We learn something that we didn’t know before. It’s good science.

    Three examples of good science. Yet you see a problem with #3. What is it? Why isn’t #3 good science just like #1 and #2?

    ETA: Note to onlookers — I’m not expecting phoodoo to admit his mistake, but it’s fun to see him dance.

  13. the bystander: Ebola is a virus.

    You don’t recognize humor?

    What do you think is the reproductive rate of humans?

    It is not the reproductive rate that matters. What matters is the contribution to the next generation (measured in terms of mature reproducing members of the next generation). So rate of population increase is a better measure for a population. Insects reproduce at a high rate, but most of the offspring die before reaching maturity.

  14. phoodoo:

    So the question, “Are parasites with mutant pfcrt genes more fit or not, is the same question as Are parasites with mutant pfcrt genes more likely to survive and reproduce?”

    And the only answer to this is: They are more likely to reproduce IF and ONLY IF they are more likely to reproduce!!!!!

    I asked whether they are more likely to survive and reproduce. That’s a simple yes or no question about objective reality. The words “fitness” and “selection” do not appear in it. Can you answer it?

    The Zambian minister of health phones you. They’ve been treating malaria patients with chloroquine, but now there are reports that pfcrt-mutant parasites are spreading in the country. He wants to know whether chloroquine will be less effective with the mutant parasites. Thousands of lives are on the line. So when he asks you, “Do mutant parasites survive and reproduce better than non-mutants?” you tell him, “The only answer is, they are more likely to reproduce IF and ONLY IF they are more likely to reproduce!!!!!” Seriously? You’re going to let those thousands die because you can’t answer a simple question?

  15. Steve Schaffner: I gave a definition. I gave an example of its application. Here it is again: Fitness is the expected (in the statistical sense) fraction of all offspring contributed to the next generation. (To be more precise, the expected fraction of all offspring contributed to the next generation, relative to the fraction in the current generation.) That’s the definition I use.

    You are doing real science. Shame on you. 🙂

    I see you are taking estimates of relative fitness, taking them relative to the average fitness. That is what the experimental evolution people do here.

    How small a selection coefficient can you reliably infer? There are folks here doing computer simulations to check that. I have doubts that anything below 1% can be repeatably detected in experimental evolution studies. However I see that you are doing observational work on nonsynonymous/synonymous ratios. Does that work better?

    (Sorry to intrude on this discussion, but as the others have phoodoo well in hand, I can’t resist asking about actual science).

  16. phoodoo:

    I don’t think you understand where the tautology exists (Keiths shares this unawareness) , the tautology resides not in determining if something is fit, but in the notion that this fitness is something different from surviving.You can call something fit all you want, but all you are saying when you say this, is that is survives better than something else.If natural selection is a form of saying survival of the fittest, all this is saying is survival of the survivors.

    Please, don’t ignore me, Phoodoo. I know you are very pleased with your strawman, but at least have the guts to look at it.

    This debate started with “survival of the fittest”. Fit in that phrase is not biological fitness, as Steve defined it. It means “adapted to the environment so as to be capable of surviving” (Merriam Webster).

    So, no, we are not saying “the survival of the survivors”. We are saying “the survival of the adapted to the environment”.

    With regard to biological fitness, you are making the same mistake. Science does not state “the fitter reproduce more”. Science says “certain traits/phenotypes/genotypes are fitter”.

    phoodoo:

    So the question, “Are parasites with mutant pfcrt genes more fit or not, is the same question as Are parasites with mutant pfcrt genes more likely to survive and reproduce?”

    Are you really that lost? We are stating a relationship between a characteristic of an organism and its chances of reproduction. Where is the tautology?

    phoodoo:

    And the only answer to this is: They are more likely to reproduce IF and ONLY IF they are more likely to reproduce!!!!!

    NO!!!! The answers are “Yes, parasites with mutant pfcrt genes are more fit” or “No, they aren’t.” – which means mutan genes increase chances of reproduction or they don’t!!!!

  17. William J. Murra

    My statement about evidence was not in relation to it’s value in an argument, but rather in relation to how I live my personal life – as I suspected.

    I see. It’s in your mind that empirical evidence doesn’t matter.

    Note: I did not say it would be impossible to assign a probability to it raining on a particular day in new york city. In fact, my coin-flip statement set the probability from my point of view at 50%.

    Audaciously pedantic. Your POV established, we can move on.

  18. Davehooke said:

    I see. It’s in your mind that empirical evidence doesn’t matter.

    I really have explained all this before here, and quite thoroughly. I believe what I wish regardless of what the evidence would seem to indicate. That frees me up to admit when the evidence or logic indicates something that doesn’t line up with my beliefs because my personal beliefs don’t require evidential or rational support.

    I don’t argue for what I believe, but rather for what evidence and logic indicates.

  19. phoodoo: The problem which seems to elude you (and not just you here obviously) is that being able to study what survives is the same as studying what is fit. They are the SAME THING!

    And that is the reason why survival of the fittest is a silly concept, because all it is saying is survival of the survivors. That problem is not overcome by throwing in the caveat, well, no, its the ones MOST LIKELY to survive. That’s like saying, the ones most likely to be fit.

    Thus it is settled that the hated evolutionists have actually NEVER SAID ANYTHING AT ALL! Incredible that so many anti-evolutionists have disagreed with evolutionary theory, since, as phoodoo has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, that (so-called) theory is nothing but the statement of a tautology.

    Alas, so much money has been wasted by the scientists, and so much breath by their opponents. Let us just now agree that the theory says no more than that those who survive, survive and we will all live amicably, hand-in-hand, now and forever after, with nobody wasting anything.

    Amen.

  20. Do you believe that?

    William J. Murray:
    Davehooke said:

    I really have explained all this before here, and quite thoroughly.I believe what I wish regardless of what the evidence would seem to indicate.That frees me up to admit when the evidence or logic indicates something that doesn’t line up with my beliefs because my personal beliefs don’t require evidential or rational support.

    I don’t argue for what I believe, but rather for what evidence and logic indicates.

  21. graham2a,

    Graham2, under a different name I was also recently banned for what I can only think was blasphemy. Barry accused me of using a tu toque argument. When I told him that I was in good company because used a tu toque argument when he said “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, he banned me. But to avoid questions, he announced my banning, and that he had removed all of my comments and his responses to them.

    I also find Barry to be hypocritical. When ever anyone even suggests that he is lying, he demands an apology. Yet when he banned me as William_spearshake, he insisted that he didn’t ban me.

  22. The thing I don’t get is this. If they are right, and we are wrong about (insert your own topic here) then how come they are obsessing on us being wrong and not out there doing whatever it is they are right about in a superior way to how we could do it, being wrong and all?

    You’d think that doing it right would be more in demand then in actually seems to be.

  23. Wjm:
    I don’t argue for what I believe, but rather for what evidence and logic indicates.

    Why don’t you believe what evidence and logic indicates if it is worth arguing for?

  24. phoodoo,

    The fact that you can’t seem to distinguish between practitioners of evolutionary biology and its leading propagandists, together with a very “blogocentric” picture of the latter, is hardly helping your case.

    For my part, I don’t really know much about any of the people you mentioned and I don’t much care about what they say or don’t say. Dawkins I find quite repulsive, for all the reason that Terry Eagleton makes perfectly clear, and I don’t know enough about the others to have an opinion one way or the other.

    My grasp of evolutionary theory was shaped by reading a lot of Gould when I was younger, and by Eldredge, and also by Blueprints by Edey and Johanson. Later on, I read Lewontin and Lewin’s The Dialectical Biologist, Oyama’s The Ontogeny of Information and Evolution’s Eye, Varela’s The Tree of Knowledge and The Embodied Mind, Kaufman’s At Home in the Universe, Investigations, and Rethinking the Sacred, Goodwin’s How the Leopard Changed Its Spots and Thompson’s Mind in Life. Deacon’s Incomplete Nature will be my next major big book in this area. (Of these, it’s only The Dialectical Biologist that has any overt political commitments.)

    Hence I think Steve Talbott is precisely right in his criticism of both “Darwinism” (as he uses the term) and intelligent design. I don’t know what that makes me, except someone who is somewhat cavalier about labels and ideologies.

    In any event, I’ll return to my main point in this conversation: since all definitions are tautologies, if someone says that a term is meaningless because its definition is a tautology, then she is committed to the view that all terms are meaningless. It is not hard to see what has gone wrong here: it’s that there is more to conceptual content than definition alone. But to see what that more is, one has to know how to use the term.

    I’m reminded of a lovely conversation that the philosopher Jonathan Dancy had with Craig Ferguson on The Late Late Show. Ferguson wanted to have a bit of a philosophical discussion with Dancy, and started off with definitions. Dancy interrupted and said, “no, you can’t begin to understand something with a definition. A definition only tells you want you already understand, and it won’t help you understand what you don’t yet understand.” I find that very helpful and share that with my students.

  25. William J. Murray:
    I don’t argue for what I believe, but rather for what evidence and logic indicates.

    So when you stated that “fitness” and “natural selection” had nothing to do with the conduct of science, were you expressing one of your unfounded beliefs, or arguing for something indicated by evidence and logic? If the former, why did you bother telling us about it? If the later, why have you not introduced any evidence or logic to support your statement?

  26. Joe Felsenstein
    I see you are taking estimates of relative fitness, taking them relative to the average fitness.That is what the experimental evolution people do here.

    How small a selection coefficient can you reliably infer?There are folks here doing computer simulations to check that.I have doubts that anything below 1% can be repeatably detected in experimental evolution studies.However I see that you are doing observational work on nonsynonymous/synonymous ratios.Does that work better?

    (Sorry to intrude on this discussion, but as the others have phoodoo well in hand, I can’t resist asking about actual science).

    Yes, I’ve only had occasion to use relative fitness. With natural populations, there are far too many factors influencing population size to isolate individual genetic contributions to it. dN/dS I think we’ve only used a few times, in getting an overall picture of selection; P. falciparum is the only place I remember using it.

    When I’ve worked on selection, it’s mostly been to identify individual loci, and eventually individual alleles, that have likely experienced recent positive selection, using patterns in genetic diversity. Much of that work has been in humans. Given the approaches we take, we would have reasonable power to detect selection coefficients down to something like 0.5% in those studies– still quite strong as things go in nature. We can’t detect weaker selection because of time and allele frequency limits. We look for signals of selection present only in subset of modern populations, meaning that the selection has to post-date the out of Africa migration. Since we can only detect selection in alleles above about 20% MAF, the combination puts a lower bound on how strong the selection had to have been, for the allele to be at a usable frequency since OoA.

    These days, I’m more involved in getting biological insights from the presence of selection. For example, this paper (which I had only a small part in) used loci under positive selection in Bangladesh to help identify pathways involved in protection against cholera. We’re also looking at the gene LARGE, to see whether it experienced positive selection recently in West Africa because there is a protective allele against Lassa fever there.

    Right now we’re accumulating Ebola sequence data. Hopefully we won’t find any evidence for recent positive selection there, and will never get enough samples to have power to find anything interesting.

    It’s a remarkably fruitful approach, considering it’s all based on a tautology.

  27. Steve,

    It’s a remarkably fruitful approach, considering it’s all based on a tautology.

    Indeed. Let’s see if any of this penetrates the crania of Barry, Eric, and phoodoo.

    Since we can only detect selection in alleles above about 20% MAF, the combination puts a lower bound on how strong the selection had to have been, for the allele to be at a usable frequency since OoA.

    I’m guessing that the AF in MAF stands for “allele frequency”, but what is the M?

  28. MAF means “minor allele frequency”. You have a locus with two alleles, with frequencies 0.10 and 0.90, and you want to describe the gene frequencies, so the convention is to pay attention to the smaller number and say you have 0.10 MAF.

    Of course, you could do it the other way, but with more than one allele, some of which may have low frequencies, MAF is more useful.

  29. velikovskys asks:

    Why don’t you believe what evidence and logic indicates if it is worth arguing for?

    Because I enter arguments for one set of reasons (such as, to discern likely true statements) and I hold beliefs for a different reasons (such as: to live an enjoyable life as a good person via a set of necessary premises). Finding true statements about the universe and accepting necessary beliefs in order to achieve a certain kind of life can be two entirely different things.

    Steve Schaffner said:

    So when you stated that “fitness” and “natural selection” had nothing to do with the conduct of science, were you expressing one of your unfounded beliefs, or arguing for something indicated by evidence and logic? If the former, why did you bother telling us about it? If the later, why have you not introduced any evidence or logic to support your statement?

    It doesn’t really require much argument. Besides survival & procreation (which is defined as “survival” in “survival of the fittest”), how is relative fitness determined? Is there any independent/objective criteria other than “survival and procreation”?

    If not, then “fitness” is nothing but the materialist version, psychologically-fulfilling re-imagination of righteousness. Same mythic commodity, variant storytelling premise.

    Survival of the fittest, indeed. Survival of whatever the environment doesn’t happen to kill off is the only true evolutionary zeitgeist actually available to materialists.

  30. KN, to phoodoo:

    Dawkins I find quite repulsive, for all the reason that Terry Eagleton makes perfectly clear…

    Eagleton’s review of The God Delusion was titled “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching”, though that describes Eagleton’s review far better than it does Dawkins’s book.

    Hence I think Steve Talbott is precisely right in his criticism of both “Darwinism” (as he uses the term) and intelligent design.

    What does Talbott get right, in your opinion? I found very little to agree with in his article.

    In any event, I’ll return to my main point in this conversation: since all definitions are tautologies, if someone says that a term is meaningless because its definition is a tautology, then she is committed to the view that all terms are meaningless.

    Right. It’s amazing to me that phoodoo et al. can’t see it, particularly when you can apply their faulty logic to everyday scenarios and see that it leads to absurdities.

    1. GPAs are defined as averages of grades. People with high GPAs get good grades. Therefore, people who get good grades get good grades. Tautology! GPA is meaningless.

    2. Batting averages are defined as hits divided by at-bats. People with high batting averages get a lot of hits per hundred at-bats. Therefore, people who get a lot of hits get a lot of hits. Tautology! Batting averages are meaningless.

    3. Fitness is defined by how well a given genotype gets itself into future generations. Genotypes with high fitness produce lots of future progeny. Therefore, genotypes that produce a lot of progeny produce a lot of progeny. Tautology! Fitness is meaningless.

    It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that the reasoning is bogus in all three cases, yet somehow phoodoo, Barry, Eric and William can’t manage it.

    I’m reminded of a lovely conversation that the philosopher Jonathan Dancy had with Craig Ferguson on The Late Late Show. Ferguson wanted to have a bit of a philosophical discussion with Dancy, and started off with definitions. Dancy interrupted and said, “no, you can’t begin to understand something with a definition. A definition only tells you want you already understand, and it won’t help you understand what you don’t yet understand.” I find that very helpful and share that with my students.

    That isn’t an argument for not starting with definitions — it’s an argument for not ending with them.

  31. Joe Felsenstein: Yup.The 44s definitely cancel.I was leaving both 44s in so the logic was clear.

    I appeal against that loss of 10 points and explain thusly:Sure, for any set of fitnesses you can make up fecundities that give those fitnesses, by taking 1 as the viability for all those genotypes.

    But changing to the phrase “reproduction of the fittest” would be a very inadvisable thing to do.An experimental evolutionist or a field observer of natural populations might be misled by that phrase into studying only the fecundities and not observing the viabilities.

    All is fine. In the end it is the ratio of generation to generation increasee/decline relative to the whole population (or other subsets) that is being estimated. I was really poking fun at the fact that what makes the exercise an estimate of fitness is not the computation of survival and reproductive ratios per se, it is the prior categorization that allows a particular subpopulation to be compared to others which makes the exercise a measure of differential reproductive success and thus of relative fitness and accordingly not tautological. Reproductive success is not all that is measured, what comes first is to divide the populations into variants with/without the feature(s) whose fitness is being tested.
    I would like to say that sufficient emphasis on this point would dispel phoodoos et al’s charges of circularity but judging from KeithS attempts my confidence is waning.

  32. OMagain said:

    Which, presumably, is why you’ve not provided one.

    No argument or evidence can penetrate the denial upon which materialist worldview rests.

  33. William J. Murray: No argument or evidence can penetrate the denial upon which materialist worldview rests.

    Yes, because the definition of “fitness” is related to the “materialist worldview”.

    You do not make an argument simply because you don’t actually understand what is being discussed. There’s no shame in that.

    Rather, the shame comes from not understanding something yet feeling able to comment on it anyway and saying things like the quoted text.

    So, William, as you presumably do not have a materialist worldview, how do you define fitness?

    Would it be that which the designer has designed to be fittest?

    Do tell..

  34. empaist,

    Its amazing to me, that after just having read what William wrote, you can still write this paragraph.

    William just got done asking what else is measured other than survival and reproduction rates when measuring fitness.

    So when you said: “Reproductive success is not all that is measured, what comes first is to divide the populations into variants with/without the feature(s) whose fitness is being tested.” , what in the heck were you trying to say?

    What else besides reproductive success is measured- Your answer to that is that they are divided into groups first? You didn’t name a single other thing that is measured. You just said they make a ratio out of the measurements. Right, they make a ratio- from the reproduction rates!

    Anyone who can still deny that fitness is just another way of saying survival rates is just being willfully ignorant.

  35. keiths,

    I don’t want to side-track this conversation with everything I dislike about Dawkins. It’s not just that he doesn’t have a nuanced understanding of theology (as Eagleton points out), but that he doesn’t have a nuanced understanding of what religious commitment is like for “ordinary folks”. In fact, he seems to have a good deal of contempt for “ordinary folks,” in that affable upper-class style of noblesse oblige that is simply baffled as to why those workers are going on strike all the time.

    What Eagleton correctly notes, in my view, is that Dawkins is disdainful of religion not because of his commitment to “reason” or “science”, but because of his class position. Dawkins is too Oxbridge to go in for religion for the same reason he won’t go in for Lacanian psychoanalysis, surrealism, or pataphysics — because that’s just not the sort of thing that one does. (It might help to point out that Eagleton is that exceedingly rare and delightful combination of Catholicism and Marxism. I do recommend his Reason, Faith, and Revolution or Culture and the Death of God but not both — they are largely redundant.)

    As for Talbott, what I appreciate about his essays is that he has an organism-centered biology rather than a gene-centered biology. The rise of population genetics put biology through a re-orientation from organism to gene, and that leaves embryology out in the cold. (It also makes paleontology the odd man out in the modern synthesis, as Gould noted many years ago.)

    Taking the organism as the basic unit of biology forces us to be realists about teleology or purposiveness. What’s needed is not an account that sweeps teleology under the rug, as biology from Monod to Dawkins has done — what’s needed is a scientific explanation of what teleology really is. And that, I think, is largely accomplished by Varela’s theory of autopoiesis. (For many years Varela denied that autopoiesis was a theory of teleology, but apparently he changed his mind shortly before he passed away.)

  36. William J. Murray,

    No argument or evidence can penetrate the denial upon which materialist worldview rests.”

    This statement says more about creationists than it does about materialists.

  37. Kantian Naturalist,

    I’ll just comment that I share KN’s view of Dawkins and of natural selection.

    I usually say that I am not a Darwinist, and my reason is that I want an organism-centric account of evolution, rather than a gene-centric one. I see Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” as a “tail wagging the dog” kind of account.

  38. william_spearshake: This statement says more about creationists than it does about materialists.

    It also says a lot about their arrogance. They assume their “evidence” has not been accepted due to a problem with the person they are presenting that evidence to, rather then the evidence itself. There could never be anything wrong with their evidence, oh no!

  39. The comparison of “fitness” with “batting averages” or “GPAs” is very helpful, and it’s worth taking a moment to think about why it works.

    A GPA or batting average is a statistical measurement of relative performance with regard to a specific task. In that way it conveys information about the causal nexus that led to that performance. It is not itself a causal factor but a reliable measurement of causal factors. It can therefore allow us to pose better questions about causal histories (what’s the correlation between GPA and parents combined income? what’s the correlation between batting averages and resting vs. practicing pre-season? etc.), and that in turn allows us to build up a more fine-grained account of the different causal factors and how they interact.

    Keiths’ suggestion — and I take it that this is, in fact, standard practice amongst practicing evolutionary biologists — is that fitness is a meaningful term in precisely the same way that GPA and batting average are meaningful terms: because they are statistical measurements of causal histories. The fact that one can embed “fitness” in a tautological definition is irrelevant, since one can do the same for GPA or batting average.

    In other words, we can happily concede that yes, one can treat fitness as tautological — for precisely the same reason that we can also do so for GPA, batting average, or drug effectiveness. The reason why we don’t take GPA, batting average, or drug effectiveness to be tautological is because we understand that they meaningful terms insofar as they are statistical measurements of causal histories. But anyone who acknowledges that point should also acknowledge that fitness is a meaningful term for precisely the same reason.

    And now for something completely different:

    Kantian Naturalist is especially reprehensible, because he is smart enough to know that keiths’ work is shoddy and gives him a pass. Also, his “Arrington steals this thought from Talbott” is beyond outrageous. I gave full attribution to Talbott; linked to his article; and included lengthy quotes from the original. In what sense is this “stealing”? KN should be ashamed. I doubt that he is.

    My restatement of keiths point here makes it perfectly clear why it is Arrington’s critique that is shoddy, and not keiths, and why keiths was quite right to claim that the “natural selection is a tautology” objection is dead on arrival. As for my use of “stealing” rather than the less pejorative “borrowing”, I plead mea culpa.

  40. Neil Rickert:
    Kantian Naturalist,
    I’ll just comment that I share KN’s view of Dawkins and of natural selection.
    I usually say that I am not a Darwinist, and my reason is that I want an organism-centric account of evolution, rather than a gene-centric one.Dawkins’ I see “The Selfish Gene” as a “tail wagging the dog” kind of account.

    One view being valid doesn’t exclude another view from being valid.I’m pretty sure Dawkins covered the issue of viewpoint.

  41. William J. Murray:

    No argument or evidence can penetrate the denial upon which materialist worldview rests.

    I don’t have a materialist worldview, and your argument also failed with me. According to you, I don’t understand the ideas my own work is based on — but you seem to be unable to explain why. Call me unimpressed.

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