The Arrival of the Fittest: a book review

Andreas Wagner’s book,The Arrival of the Fittest has been mentioned many times (just try a site search as I’ve just done) since it was published. Petrushka pointed it out in a comment

For anyone interested in whether RMNS can create stuff, I recommend a relatively new book, Arrival of the Fittest. I just bought the Kindle version an haven’t finished, but it has a lot to say about how goldilocks mutations occur.

Much later Mung writes:

Reminds me of petrushka, who is always plugging Andreas Wagner’s Arrival of the Fittest, but will never post an OP on it for discussion.

So I’ve taken the hint and bought the book at last. I can see why people have recommended it. Continue reading

The Glories of Global Warming and the Faint Young Sun Paradox

It is a little known fact that scientists who argue that the paleontological record of life is hundreds of millions of years old, when confronted with astrophysical facts, must eventually rely heavily on the hypothesis of finely tuned, large scale global warming. The problem is known as the Faith Young Sun Paradox. A few claim they have solved the paradox, but many remain skeptical of the solutions. But one fact remains, it is an acknowledged scientific paradox. And beyond this paradox, the question of Solar System evolution on the whole has some theological implications.

Astrophysicists concluded that when the sun was young, it was not as bright as it is now. As the sun ages it creates more and more heat, eventually incinerating the Earth before the sun eventually burns out. This is due to the change in products and reactants in the nuclear fusion process that powers the sun. This nuclear evolution of the sun will drive the evolution of the solar system, unless Jesus returns…
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There have been a number of interesting comments lately here at TSZ that referred to viruses.

Are viruses pre-biotic entities, and did they contribute to the origin of life?

Are viruses alive?

Do viruses evolve?

Are viruses an example of what evolution is capable of?

Did viruses contribute to the evolution of life?

Should be fodder for some discussion.

Evolution Skeptics!

In a recent post here at TSZ, participant Alan Fox made some comments and asked some questions which might make for interesting discussion, but first I need to challenge some of his assumptions.

First, his claim that I find evolutionary theory unbelievable.

Second, his claim that I find a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life theory unbelievable.

Third, his his claim that I mock attempts at scientific hypotheses.

Fourth, I thought being skeptical is a good thing.

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Thorp, Shannon: Inspiration for Alternative Perspectives on the ID vs. Naturalism Debate

The writings and life work of Ed Thorp, professor at MIT, influenced many of my notions of ID (though Thorp and Shannon are not ID proponents). I happened upon a forgotten mathematical paper by Ed Thorp in 1961 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that launched his stellar career into Wall Street. If the TSZ regulars are tired of talking and arguing ID, then I offer a link to Thorp’s landmark paper. That 1961 PNAS article consists of a mere three pages. It is terse, and almost shocking in its economy of words and straightforward English. The paper can be downloaded from:

A Favorable Strategy for Twenty One, Proceedings National Academy of Sciences.

Thorp was a colleague of Claude Shannon (founder of information theory, and inventor of the notion of “bit”) at MIT. Thorp managed to publish his theory about blackjack through the sponsorship of Shannon. He was able to scientifically prove his theories in the casinos and Wall Street and went on to make hundreds of millions of dollars through his scientific approach to estimating and profiting from expected value. Thorp was the central figure in the real life stories featured in the book
Fortune’s Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System that Beat the Casino’s and Wall Street by William Poundstone.
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Biology as viewed through 19th Century Lenses

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.

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Organisms and Machines

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”.

Spontaneous Generation

A century later we know that the overwhelming obstacle facing spontaneous generation is probability, or rather improbability, resulting from life’s enormously complex phenotypes. If even a single protein, a single specific sequence of amino acids, could not have emerged spontaneously, how much less so could a bacterium like E. coli with millions of proteins and other complex molecules? Modern biochemistry allows us to estimate the odds, and they demolish the spontaneous creation of complex organisms.

Looks like IDists aren’t the only ones to appeal to probability arguments. How does Wagner know what the probabilities are, or that spontaneous generation is even within the realm of what is possible?

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The Reasonableness of Atheism and Black Swans

As an ID proponent and creationist, the irony is that at the time in my life where I have the greatest level of faith in ID and creation, it is also the time in my life at some level I wish it were not true. I have concluded if the Christian God is the Intelligent Designer then he also makes the world a miserable place by design, that He has cursed this world because of Adam’s sin. See Malicious Intelligent Design.
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