Moderator Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the museum’s Hayden Planetarium, put the odds at 50-50 that our entire existence is a program on someone else’s hard drive. “I think the likelihood may be very high,” he said…Somewhere out there could be a being whose intelligence is that much greater than our own. “We would be drooling, blithering idiots in their presence,” he said. “If that’s the case, it is easy for me to imagine that everything in our lives is just a creation of some other entity for their entertainment.”
Evolution is Nature’s design process. The natural world is full of wonderful examples of its successes, from engineering design feats such as powered flight, to the design of complex optical systems such as the mammalian eye, to the merely stunningly beautiful designs of orchids or birds of paradise. With increasing computational power, we are now able to simulate this process with greater fidelity, combining complex simulations with high-performance evolutionary algorithms to tackle problems that used to be impractical.
I was like great! A book that will finally tell me how Evolution designs such magnificent designs. But there’s that “problem” word again. Is Evolution faced with design problems that it then solves? And I wonder if, over time, Evolution has learned how to make better designs, advances in evolutionary design. Some folks certainly seem to think so.
Most modern readers have difficulty appreciating the resilience of spiritual or metaphysical overtones to 19th Century scientific thought, alternatively referred to as “vitalism” & “teleology”. At this point, a quick historical digression is in order.
What exactly is life?”! Traditional education systems were well-grounded in the classics, and many 19th Century naturalists could relate to an ancient Greek philosopher named Aristotle who was convinced no real boundary existed between “living” and “non-living”. According to Aristotle, non-living matter could give rise to living things because our universe possesses some vital life force or soul, “anima”, which could “animate” non-living matter. In Aristotle’s view: the universe, as a whole, had its own soul. In modern terms the universe could be considered as some giant fractal and we are all but elements therein. Even today, various mystical traditions hold similar ideas.
Historically and conceptually, modern Genetics and modern Evolutionary Theory are closely intertwined. Mendel and Darwin both published their masterpieces in the mid-1800s and both were promptly misunderstood and discounted for half a century. Both theories required several more “kicks at the can” before final acceptance. Put simply: the Theory of Evolution itself evolved in response to an emerging understanding of Genetics.
Some quick questions:
Question: Name the scientist that first suggested “the effects of use and disuse” were passed from one generation to the next?
Answer: Charles Darwin and NOT Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who actually had a somewhat different theory.
Question: Name the scientist who first to employed the term evolve/evolution while also suggesting human beings had “evolved” from apes?
Answer: That would be Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. (Lamarck in fact invented the word “evolution”, a word which never appeared in Darwin’s Book “Origin of the Species”). Continue reading
In the “The Disunity of Reason” thread, Mung suggested that “the typical non-theist will insist that organisms are machines, including humans.” And there is a long tradition of mechanistic metaphysics in Western anti-theism (La Mettrie is probably the most well-known example). However, I pointed that I disagree with the claim that organisms are machines. I’m reposting my thoughts from there for our continued conversation.
A machine is a system with components or parts that can be partially isolated from the rest of the system and made to vary independently of the system in which they are embedded, but which has no causal loops that allow it to minimize the entropy produced by the system. It will generate as much or as little heat as it is designed to do, and will accumulate heat until the materials lose the properties necessary for implementing their specific functions. In other words, machines can break.
What makes organisms qualitatively different from machines is that organisms are self-regulating, far-from-equilibrium thermodynamic systems. Whereas machines are nearly always in thermodynamic equilibrium with the surrounding system, organisms are nearly always far from thermodynamic equilibrium — and they stay there. An organism at thermodynamic equilibrium with its environment is, pretty much by definition, dead.
The difference, then, is that machines require some agent to manipulate them in order to push them away from thermodynamic equilibrium. Organisms temporarily sustain themselves at far-from-equilibrium attractors in phase space — though entropy catches up with all of us in the end.
It is true that some parts of an organism can break — a bone, for example. But I worry that to produce a concept general enough that both breaking and dying are subsumed under it, one can lost sight of the specific difference that one is trying to explain.
Indeed, that’s the exact problem with Intelligent Design theory — the ID theorist says, “organisms and machines are exactly the same, except for all the differences”. Which is why the ID theorist then concludes that organisms are just really special machines — the kind of machines that only a supremely intelligent being could have made. As Fuller nicely puts it, according to ID “biology is divine technology”.
TSZ has made much ado about P(T|H), a conditional probability based on a materialistic hypothesis. They don’t seem to realize that H pertains to their position and that H cannot be had means their position is untestable. The only reason the conditional probability exists in the first place is due to the fact that the claims of evolutionists cannot be directly tested in a lab. If their claims could be directly tested then there wouldn’t be any need for a conditional probability.
If P(T|H) cannot be calculated it is due to the failure of evolutionists to provide H and their failure to find experimental evidence to support their claims.
I know what the complaints are going to be- “It is Dembski’s metric”- but yet it is in relation to your position and it wouldn’t exist if you actually had something that could be scientifically tested.
Michael Behe is best known for coining the phrase Irreducible Complexity, but I think his likening of biological systems to Rube Goldberg machines is a better way to frame the problem of evolving the black boxes and the other extravagances of the biological world.
Throughout the history of evolutionary biology, as well as many other sciences, there has been a conflict between two styles of thinking. One is conventionally called functionalism, although in evolutionary biology the term “adaptationism” is more frequently used today because a trait’s “functional fit for it’s office” is produced through adaptation by natural selection (i.e., function is explained by adaptation through natural selection). The functionalist stance is one that explains organismal traits through their functional and adaptive values.
The alternative style of thinking does not have a generic name in biology, although in other areas of study it is called “structuralist.”
Michael Denton in Evolution: Still A Theory In Crisis or Gunter P. Wagner in The Intellectual Challenge of Morphological Evolution: A Case for Variational Structuralism?