Things That IDers Don’t Understand, Part 2a – Evolution is not stranded on ‘islands of function’

Intelligent design proponents make a negative argument for design.  According to them, the complexity and diversity of life cannot be accounted for by unguided evolution (henceforth referred to simply as ‘evolution’) or any other mindless natural process.  If it can’t be accounted for by evolution, they say, then we must invoke design. (Design, after all, can explain anything.  That makes it easy to invoke, but hard to invoke persuasively.)

Because the ID argument is a negative one, it succeeds only if ID proponents can demonstrate that certain instances of biological complexity are beyond the reach of natural processes, including evolution.  The problem, as even IDers concede, is that the evidence for evolution is too strong to dismiss out of hand. Their strategy has therefore been to concede that evolution can effect small changes (‘microevolution’), but to deny that those small changes can accumulate to produce complex adaptations (‘macroevolution’).

What mysterious barrier do IDers think prevents microevolutionary change from accumulating until it becomes macroevolution?  It’s the deep blue sea, metaphorically speaking.  IDers contend that life occupies ‘islands of function’ separated by seas too broad to be bridged by evolution.

In this post (part 2a) I’ll explain the ‘islands of function’ metaphor and invite commenters to point out its strengths and weaknesses.  In part 2b I’ll explain why the ID interpretation of the metaphor is wrong, and why evolution is not stuck on ‘islands of function’.

Read on for an explanation of the metaphor.

The ‘islands of function’ metaphor

The ‘islands of function’ metaphor is a variation of another metaphor, the ‘fitness landscape’.  If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of fitness landscapes, I encourage you to do some Googling before reading on.

For those who are familiar with fitness landscapes, a brief review. Imagine a three-dimensional landscape, similar to a terrestrial landscape.  There are mountains and depressions, ridges and valleys, plains and plateaus.  An organism occupies a particular spot on the landscape.  Nearby spots represent organisms that are similar, but with slight changes.  As you move further away from the spot, in any direction, the organisms represented become less and less like the original organism.

Evolution can be visualized as a journey across such a landscape.  Individual organisms don’t move, but their offspring may occupy different nearby spots on the landscape.  So too for their offspring’s offspring, and so on.  Thus successive generations trace out a path (or paths) on the fitness landscape as changes accumulate.

Clearly, not all paths are possible.  Many mutations are deleterious, causing their possessors to die young or to otherwise fail to reproduce.  Paths going through such points on the landscape will end abruptly. Other mutations are beneficial, neutral, or only slightly deleterious.  Paths going through those points may continue.

Now let’s bring in the third dimension, height.  The height of a point on the landscape is an indication of the fitness of the corresponding organism, where fitness equates to the organism’s ability to survive and reproduce. Greater heights correspond to higher fitness, lower heights to reduced fitness. Offspring that move downhill from their parent(s) are less fit,  and therefore tend to leave fewer offspring of their own.  Offspring that move uphill from their parent(s) are more fit and tend to leave more offspring.  Over time, then, a population tends to shift in an uphill direction as the offspring become fitter.

Eventually the population may reach the tip of a peak and get stuck there.  From the peak, movement in any direction results in less fitness.  Thus the mutants will tend to die off and the population will remain at the tip of the peak.

So far we’ve been imagining a dry landscape.  Now suppose that it rains for 40 days and 40 nights. The rain fills up our landscape, forming a vast sea.  Only the mountain tops remain above the water as islands – the ‘islands of function’ that IDers are so fond of.

Our populations occupy the islands.  Sea level indicates the minimum fitness at which mutants remain viable. Small changes will create viable descendants at different spots on the island, though the population as a whole will gravitate toward the high spots. Larger changes will put the mutants underwater, where they will die out.

The idea, according to ID proponents, is that populations remain stranded on these islands of function.  Some amount of microevolutionary change is possible, but only if it leaves you high and dry on the same island.  Macroevolution is not possible, because that would require leaping from island to island, and evolution is incapable of such grand leaps.  You’ll end up in the water.

There is some truth to the ‘islands of function’ metaphor, but it also has some glaring shortcomings that ID proponents almost always overlook.  I will mention some of the strengths and  shortcomings in the comments, and I know that my fellow commenters will point out others.

I may add them to the OP as they come up in the comments.  If I do this, I will note that I am doing so and I’ll include a link to the place in the comments where each one is discussed.

Have at it!

338 thoughts on “Things That IDers Don’t Understand, Part 2a – Evolution is not stranded on ‘islands of function’”

  1. Mung

    Continuing with ‘fitness landscapes’ and Douglas Axe:

    But there’s something suspicious about this story, as a number of careful observers pointed out long before Dr. Gauger and I did our experiment. It has to do with the wide disparity of distance scales. The scale of the landscape, which is characterized by the extent to which dissimilar genomes differ, is very large by any reasonable calculation. On the other hand, Darwin’s engine moves in steps that can only reach points a tiny distance away from the prior point. In one step it can move a genome to the highest point within this reach, but further progress would require a still higher point to fall within reach once that move is made. That might happen every now and then, but it would have to happen in an amazingly consistent and helpful way to explain how the enormous distances were traversed from the point marking the first primitive organism to the millions of points marking the great variety of modern life forms.

     – Science & Human Origins, p. 37-38

  2. Mung


    Mung’s confusion increased exponentially with the number of dimensions.

    Well darned. That’s  major malfunction. It was supposed to increase logarithmically. More useless ad hominem from keiths. He has no argument, so ad hom has to suffice.

    Let’s review:

    IDers believe in islands of function.

    It’s up to IDers to prove that evolution is stranded on islands of function.

    IDers cannot possibly prove that evolution is not stranded on islands of function.

    Therefore evolution is not stranded on islands of function.

    Therefore IDers are mistaken.

    Brilliant, just brilliant. Turns out the number of dimensions is just a red herring.

  3. Mike Elzinga

    Doubling down and trying to word-game away the issue only compounds your original display of stupidity.  If that is what you want to do, then flail away.  You can’t hide what you have already revealed – and have just now reaffirmed – about your total ignorance.

    You have no clue about how to do a simple calculation that a high school chemistry or physics student can do; and even when given the answer, you have absolutely no clue about what it means.

    You are really pathetic.

  4. Mung

    Mike Elzinga:

    You are really pathetic.

    At least I have an argument. You have nothing but name calling.


  5. keiths


    Regarding your Axe quote:

    1. Axe claims that “Darwin’s engine moves in steps that can only reach points a tiny distance away from the prior point.”  I suppose this depends on what he means by “tiny”, but the distances bridged by mechanisms such as frameshift mutations or recombination are arguably not tiny at all.

    2. Axe claims that “further progress would require a still higher point to fall within reach once that move is made.”  This is false.  Evolution can also make moves that are neutral or even slightly deleterious.

    3. Axe also fails to recognize a fact that we’ve been highlighting throughout this thread:  The number of directions in which motion is possible increases exponentially with the number of dimensions in the fitness landscape.  With so many directions to choose from, it is not surprising at all that evolution, operating across entire populations and long timespans, is able to find directions that lead to higher fitness.    

  6. Mike Elzinga

    Wallow in your delusions; you still don’t get it.  As everyone here noticed, it went right over your head.

    Go grovel to your overlords at UD to explain it to you.  They will generate some more fresh feces right on the spot for you to hurl.

  7. Allan Miller

    What is the dominant force at the nano-scale?

    The electromagnetic force. And the Pauli exclusion principle – not a ‘classical’ force.

  8. OMTWO

    At least I have an argument. You have nothing but name calling.

    So go make your “argument” in the literature, where everybody else already has. There are lot of ID journals *desperate* for content, I’m sure your “argument” would fill a few pages. What are you waiting for? Publish or perish!

  9. Allan Miller


    Axe’s analysis is decidedly hand-wavy. Which, I guess, is true for all verbal analyses of unknown, generalised fitness landscapes, but he is not describing a realistic scenario. He describes a kind of landscape that can exist – a static, rugged  landscape, where populations can climb a smooth slope but cannot cross the many ‘downhill’ stretches due to the steepness of the slope leading into them. On empirical grounds, it bears little resemblance to the landscape that real DNA-organisms traverse.

    This landscape is ever-shifting. The environment – which includes every other gene in the genome, and every other evolving and migrating species in the ecosphere – changes continually. And ‘real’ fitness differentials tend to be rather small, rendering random drift a powerful force. Drift is much more ‘exploratory’ than NS, precisely because it is not anchored to peaks/islands.

    And most importantly, he completely forgets about recombination. This, if you could be bothered to write a GA and investigate the various parameters, provides a massive rate-change to ‘Darwin’s engine’, and brings points notionally ‘distant’ on a point-mutation scenario into very close contact. Sexual individuals are not one tiny SNP step away from their parents. They can’t be a tiny step from both. Their distance actually depends on the relatedness of the parents, plus mutations. They are each a combination of half the sequence from two different points in the space, comprising segments that have already proven their worth in that milieu by surviving up to the point they were recombined. The many differences between two parents and their individual offspring do not constitute wild, hopeful leaps into uncharted waters.

    The sequences must be similar, in order for the progeny to be fertile. But this is a way of ‘distributing’ the problem, gene by gene, within the population, and networking the ‘solutions’ – genes that are better in the recent environment. This ramps up the rate, which means that everything with which the species in question interacts also finds its environment – and hence its fitness landscape – perturbed. See: coevolution.

  10. petrushka

    All this verbiage, and it still boils down to gaps. That’s the entire ID argument. No evidence for a designer. No methods, means or motive. No times or places.

    Gpuccio does come closest to times and places with his protein domain poofery. His non-material designer does contradict UprightBiped on the ability of information to be transferred by non-material means, but then magic can do anything.

    I suppose the ID advocates think they are safe in using sequence gaps. No chance of finding fossil sequences. I wonder why Behe doesn’t make gpuccio’s argument regarding protein domains.   My own guess — just speculation — is that Behe knows it is a stupid argument that would damage his reputation. He knows that proteins can drift.

    I also wonder why gpuccio and UprightBiped don’t publish their theories in BioComplexity. Surely they would recognize a killer argument.

  11. DNA_Jock

    Mung wrote (on the Semiotic Thread):

    No one is saying it’s a vertical cliff. In fact, he [gpuccio] is saying the opposite.

    And no one is saying each ‘island of function’ is only one amino acid in width. In fact, he [gpuccio] is saying the opposite.

    Here’s evidence from a GA that there are in fact islands.

    Is this stuff even in the right thread, lol?

    Thank you Mung for the link, which provides some nice examples of [hypothetical] landscapes, and their properties, which I would like to explore with you. As an aside, I don’t see how this could be “evidence” that there are in fact islands; perhaps you meant that this page illustrates that landscapes have local peaks. Agreed.

    Let’s get our nomenclature straight first: these landscapes have two dimensions  (x,y) that represent “genotype”, while “fitness” (or some other function of genotype) can be represented vertically. Since we could simply use shades of grey (or temperature, etc.) to represent “fitness”, I will refer to this as a “two-dimensional landscape” with height used to represent “fitness”. You could think of it this way : No tunneling or flying allowed, thus critters are restricted in their movement to a (wiggly) sheet, and two values (x,y) are sufficient to describe a location.

    Now let us consider the behavior of Strict Hill Climbers (SHC) on the landscape of Figures 2.1 – 2.3. An SHC is a searcher who

    • Only moves in tiny increments, never hopping or jumping
    • Never moves down, only up or sideways
    • Moves over an invariant landscape

    [Topic for Landscapes 201, to be covered later: none of these conditions are true for Biological Hill Climbers]

    We release a population of SHCs at (1,1) and see what happens:: they wander aimlessly around the swamp until they happen upon the “basin of attraction” of “Peak” or of “Local Peak”. Because they are SHCs, they will move inexorably to the peak of the basin they found first (Fig 2.3). We end up with two quite separate populations.

    A researcher (let’s call him “Dr. A”) arrives at this stage, sees the two populations, draws a straight line from “Local Peak” to “Peak”, and confidently declares “You can’t get there from here, there’s a valley in the way!” You, Mung, politely point out his two errors :

    1. He needs to consider all paths, not just the most direct one, and more importantly:
    2. He’s answering the wrong question: he should be asking “Are both peaks accessible from the swamp?

    At least I hope you would point these errors out to Dr A.

    Moving on. Let’s take a look at Fig 2.5

    If you release a population of SHCs onto this landscape they will all move inexorably to the single, highest peak, following a spiral path as they do so.

    This allows us a beautiful demonstration of the effect of dimensionality:

    If you reduce the dimensionality of genotype, your view of the landscape will be wrong. Draw a straight line on the xy plane. Any straight line. If we restrict genotypes to the one dimensional space represented by this line, then what does the fitness function look like? It looks like an AM radio signal, with many local peaks. Clearly this one-dimensional landscape cannot be traversed by any SHCs!

    Real fitness landscapes are highly multidimensional, a fact which makes local maxima rarer. The question about these landscapes is how sparsely connected they are, how ‘navigable’. We can cover that in Landscapes 301, [McLaughlin et al. looks at connectivity in an 83-dimensional landscape]

    But before we cover that, we need to be sure 101 (dimensionality for SHCs) was understood, and cover 201 (Biological Hill Climbers).

    Are you able to follow this?

    If there are parts that you do not understand, please be very specific.






  12. petrushka

    Dimensionality is complicated. There are many factors affecting the fitness of a living thing, but selection compresses all of them into the single factor of relative reproductive success. What this hides is the many possible roads to any given position, including flat roads. What McLaughlin demonstrated is that most directions of change are flat.

  13. Allan Miller2

    Dimensionality is complicated. There are many factors affecting the fitness […]

    That’s true, but fitness really can be reduced to a single dimension – Up/Down; more or less fit – whereas sequence can’t. The dimensionality of mutation relates to the amount of ‘lateral’ movement – the wiggle room of the population. Every time you add an amino acid, you add a dimension.

    We are stuck with a maximum two dimensions for visual or visualisable models, but the actual number of dimensions relates to the number of permutations the same ‘distance’ from a current point, regardless of fitness.

  14. Mike Elzinga

    This Mung character didn’t show up here to learn science or carry on any kind of adult conversation; he came here to taunt and get in some punches at some smart kids.  This is a manifestation of the emotional scars he has retained and continues to nurture in the comfort of his sectarian community over at UD.  In his emotional world, he is beating up on some smart kids to get the approval of his equally ignorant, authoritarian parents.

    His knowledge of math and science is considerably below the level of middle school; and given his emotional scars and cognitive level of development, he is not capable of conversing as an adult in these areas.  It’s all rope-a-dope.

  15. Mike Elzinga

    Here is a specific example of the games our Mung character is playing. He asks:

    What is the dominant force at the nano-scale? The scale of what takes place inside a cell?

    What does this say about the person asking such a question? What high school student wouldn’t know the answer to these questions or recognize that the person asking them is either playing games or really just that ignorant? What high school student wouldn’t recognize the awkward wording of those questions?

    One can easily look up on line the state standards for math and science for just about any state in the US. For example, here are the state standards for California. Check out the standards for biology, chemistry, and physics. They are quite explicit.

    In fact, look also at the elementary and middle school standards. Most middle school students in the seventh and eighth grades will have a pretty good idea of what the answers to those questions are.

    Do ID/creationists understand science at the high school level? Do any of them really understand concepts learned by elementary and middle school students?

    Where do ID/creationists stop learning science? It doesn’t take a huge amount of effort and searching to discover exactly where their understandings of science go completely off the rails.

    Their pretenses at analyzing the research papers in peer-reviewed journals is a ploy that they think makes them look knowledgeable about science; but it is all fakery. All you have to do is check their understanding of middle school and high school science to uncover the game and the fakery. They don’t have a clue.

    The obvious question this raises about the science educations of fundamentalist sectarians is what stops it and why. I think we already know.

  16. Allan Miller2

    In his emotional world, he is beating up on some smart kids to get the approval of his equally ignorant, authoritarian parents.

    The science kids and the religious kids beating each other up! Meanwhile, the girls are going off with the popular kids. I wonder how I can get to be popular …

  17. Mike Elzinga

    The science kids and the religious kids beating each other up! Meanwhile, the girls are going off with the popular kids.

    Yeah; kinda puts things in proper perspective, doesn’t it? 🙂

  18. Allan Miller

    Don’t be dense, Mung. Of course he can. And I did – electrostatic interaction. Something you don’t get much in tornado-whipped junkyards. You never explained why it was relevant.

  19. Mike Elzinga

    It’s an elementary calculation that any high school chemistry/physics student can do. The answer is that 1 electron volt at separations on the order of a nanometer scales up to energies of interactions on the order of 1010 megatons of TNT between kilogram sized masses at separations on the order of a meter.

    From there one can get order-of-magnitude estimates for scale-ups of lots of interactions. The bottom line is that one is dealing with energies of interaction on the order of many megatons of TNT.

    But I have no intention of spoiling the entertainment value of watching the bunch of you over at UD making complete fools of yourselves. Get some high school physics and chemistry textbooks, learn some algebra and math, learn how to calculate, and then do the calculations yourself.

  20. Mike Elzinga

    It appears that the kairosfocus character over at UD is reading this thread; and he still thinks he can portray himself as an expert on thermodynamics by doing one of his copy/paste dumps of material about which he has no clue.

    I stand by what I said; not one ID/creationist can pass a basic concept test on entropy and the second law, and just to prove it, here is the concept test again. Kairsofocus has no clue how to do it or what it means.

    The following is an elementary concept test.

    Take a simple system made up of 16 identical atoms, each of which has a non-degenerate ground state and a single accessible excited state.

    Start with all of the atoms in the ground state.

    1. What is the entropy when all atoms are in the ground state?

    2. Add just enough energy to put 4 atoms in the excited state. What is the entropy now?

    3. Add more energy so that 8 atoms are in the excited state. What is the entropy now?

    4. Add still more energy so that 12 atoms are in the excited state. What is the entropy now?

    5. Add more energy so that all atoms are in the excited state. What is the entropy now?

    6. Rank order the temperatures in each of the above cases.

    After completing the test, generalize the number of atoms to and arbitrary size N and plot the temperature versus energy.

    Explain what is “ordered” or “disordered” and what is “information” in the above calculations.

    He also can’t do that little scaling-up exercise that high school chemistry/physics students can do; namely scale up the energies of interaction among kilogram sized junkyard parts separated by distances on the order of meters by giving them the same charge-to-mass ratios as protons and electrons. Give your answer in joules and in megatons of TNT.

    Justify the ID/creationist’s tornado-in-a-junkyard argument against evolution in the light of the answer you just obtained.

    High school kids can do this exercise. Kairosfocus can’t.

  21. olegtolegt


    The nanoscale, as commonly defined, is the length scale of a few nanometers. Some people might stretch that to 100 nanometers.

    Characteristic sizes of cell structures are larger: a micron or so. Forces that tend to operate on those length scales are different from the forces that dominate the nanoscale. They would be associated with thermodynamic physical variables such as gradients of entropy, concentration, or electrostatic potential.

  22. olegtolegt

    Kairosfocus writes a long-winded comment, in which he defends “islands of function” using the example of a periodic pattern of 899 symbols, namely * – * – * . . . – *. He concludes that it is astronomically unlikely that a blind search can find such a sequence.

    I wonder what he thinks of crystal growth. 🙂

  23. petrushka

    DNA was first analyzed in its crystalline form. It doesn’t exactly grow spontaneously like a crystal, but it seems likely that one of its ancestors did.

  24. olegtolegt

    Kairosfocus seems unhappy with my criticism. He only has himself to blame.

    He argued that his sequence (periodic, like crystals) is hard to find by blind search. True. But evolution, like crystal growth, is not a blind search.

  25. Mike Elzinga

    The usual response from ID/creationists goes all the way back to Gish and Morris. Crystals have some “natural” or “mechanical” tendency to fall into periodic arrangements. The morph to intelligent design “theory” simply added that there is “no function” or “complex SPECIFIED information” in crystals.

    When one asks an ID/creationist where along the chain of complexity of atomic and molecular assemblies the “natural” and “mechanical” tendencies stop and “programs” and “information” take over, one never gets an answer.

    Somewhere along the chain of complexity – they never say where – physics and chemistry are superseded by a “program” or “information” that somehow pushes atoms and molecules into SPECIFIED arrangements. Somehow, somewhere along the chain of complexity, molecular assemblies become so improbable that “programming”, “information” and “intelligence” are needed to get the job done.

    The probability of these SPECIFIED arrangements is determined by breaking down the specification into enough fine details with many possibilities for each specified detail. Raise the number of possibilities to a power equal to the number of SPECIFIED details, multiply all the categories of SPECIFIED details together, take the reciprocal, and you have the probability of that SPECIFIED assembly; and, by the way, “proof” that these assemblies are too improbable to happen by “chance and necessity.”

    In the ID/creationist’s understanding of physics and chemistry, atoms and molecules at this level of complexity – they never say what that level is – are inert and don’t do anything unless a “program” or “information” places them in their SPECIFIED arrangements.

    It is not possible to explain real chemistry and physics to an ID/creationist. They have spent their entire lives slashing through science texts, popularizations, and abstracts of papers in order to quickly quote mine and cobble together a pseudoscientific argument against evolution. They don’t read science textbooks and materials for comprehension; only for quote mines.

    That is why people like that kairosfocus character can’t recognize an explanation from science or pass a concept test in any area of science. He makes up his own stuff as he goes; and he expects everyone to answer him in the language of his pseudoscience. He has never read for comprehension any of the textbooks and papers he quote mines; and it shows.

    No one is obligated to adopt his cobbled-together pseudoscience in order to argue against it.

    His excuses are getting pretty pathetic.

  26. Mike Elzinga


    Kairosfocus has become a nothing more than an automatic copy/paste dumping machine. He doesn’t even know that his own intellectual genealogy and tactics are rooted in the Gish Gallop.

  27. petrushka

    I don’t understand the more and more part of your post.

    The only variation I have seen in his routine is when he pastes in the name of the latest public enemy.

    I do take pride in being among the first to be singled out and honored with a thread title at UD. It seems to be a tradition now.

  28. Mike Elzinga

    Petrshka notes:

    I don’t understand the more and more part of your post.

    Perhaps I’m being too kind? 😉

  29. keithskeiths Post author

    Poor Mung doesn’t understand the difference between “every configuration is functional” and “evolution is not stranded on ‘islands of function'”:

    TSZ got hacked.

    They are attempting to crawl out of an ocean of non-function back on to an island of function.

    Yet they deny such islands exist.


  30. Allan Miller

    And on a point of order, the hacked configuration was functional – just not what certain intentional individuals would wish, due to the action of other intentional individuals. Not a great analogy.

  31. hotshoe

    And the odious William J Murray goes on to add:

    “Hacked? How can they possibly know they were hacked unless they know the identity of the hacker? How unscientific, to assign “design” to what should be explained as a coincidental accumulation of random errors emerging as what only appears to be deliberate hacking.”

    Yeah, as if that weren’t the very substance of the argument we’ve been having with IDists for years: that we can (usually) detect human design because we know what kinds of evidence human design leaves behind – tool marks, sketches, fingerprints, addresses, similar series of works – so, no, we aren’t unskeptically assigning “design” to what should really be explained as random errors.

    But neither are we unskeptically assigning “design” to an evolutionary biology which shows none of the hallmarks of what we recognize as design – no toolmarks, no fingerprints, no similar series of work by the same known designer. And man, does that chap their hides, that we don’t automatically believe in their designer the way they do.

Leave a Reply