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. What’s wrong Mike?

    Disappointed that I don’t jump right in and defend creationist nonsense?

     

  2. Bless your heart, Mung.  You’re special, you are.

    Look again.  Here’s what you quoted:

    Real fitness landscapes have hundreds or thousands of dimensions, and the likelihood of getting stuck on a peak diminishes exponentially as the number of dimensions increases.

    And here’s your immediate response, framed as a truly stupid question: 

    So if the genotype distance is along the x and y axis and the reproductive rate is the z axis (height), what are all these trillions and trillions of other dimensions?

    Why did x,y and z axis suddenly appear in your question, when you were specifically told (and you quoted the exact phrase where you were told it) that real fitness landscapes have hundreds of dimensions?  Why did “trillions and trillions” suddenly appear in your question, also?  

    Notice the way you’ve confused yourself (again) with your miserable reading comprehension.  Have you understood a single sentence anyone has written on this thread?  If so, please demonstrate which one. 

     

  3. keiths,

    It sounds like you may be under the impression that the fitness landscape is something that evolution builds, rather than something it navigates.

    Give your own comments, that appears to be your view as well.

     

     

  4. Righto.  No one suspects you of being able to “critique nonsense”. 

    The problem is that you are writing nonsense, not that you are critiquing nonsense.  

  5. Nope.

    That’s your reading comprehension problem again.

    Read more carefully.  Get someone’s help with the big words if necessary.  

  6. keiths,

    Gpuccio doesn’t think B could have evolved, so he infers design.

    That’s not why he infers design. He infers design because of the presence of dFSCI. Your conclusion that his argument is a negative argument again fails due to a false premise, just like your argument in the OP.

    Now suppose that gpuccio is aware of an evolutionary mechanism that can produce A.

    Then it doesn’t have dFSCI, does it. So it’s irrelevant to his inference about B, which does exhibit dFSCI.

     

  7. Get someone’s help with the big words if necessary.

    Words like Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis?

     

  8. Mung,

    You’ve done some programming, right?

    Imagine that you are commenting on a blog where the subject is software development. Someone comes along who has never programmed except for a tiny bit of Commodore BASIC. He doesn’t know the difference between a compiler and an interpreter. Every loop he’s ever written used GOTOs. He’s never even heard of assembly language. He doesn’t know what objects are, and he couldn’t dereference a pointer if his life depended on it. He knows next to nothing about actual programming practice.

    Now suppose that this know-nothing argues with everything you say, raises bogus objections, and completely misses the point of the discussions you are having with other programmers at the blog. He’s clueless, yet instead of politely asking questions, he obnoxiously insists that you’re wrong and that you know nothing about programming. He proceeds to lecture you, yet what he says is pitifully and obviously wrong. You and the other programmers roll your eyes at the guy’s obtuseness.

    You correct a few of his misunderstandings, but he’s clearly only interested in disagreeing with you, not in actually learning anything. In any case, there are simply too many misunderstandings to correct. It would take forever.

    You ask him to go off, learn some programming, and come back when he has at least some idea of what he’s talking about. He ignores you.

    Guess what? You are that guy, only the blog is TSZ and the subject is evolution, not programming. Your comments reveal that you don’t understand evolution. You don’t understand the OP or the discussions that have followed in the comments. You don’t even understand ID. Yet even though you have no idea what any of us are talking about, you’re obnoxiously insisting that we’re wrong and you’re right. People are rolling their eyes at the things you write.

    Is that really how you want to be?

    I will attempt to correct some of your misunderstandings, but that will end very quickly if you persist with the obnoxiousness and the laziness.

    I wrote:

    It sounds like you may be under the impression that the fitness landscape is something that evolution builds, rather than something it navigates.

    You responded:

    I can’t even make sense of that statement.

    A physical landscape exists before you explore it. You follow a path through the landscape, but you don’t occupy every point.

    A fitness landscape exists before evolution explores it. As organisms evolve, they trace a path through the landscape, but they don’t occupy every point. 

    keiths:

    A point on a fitness landscape represents a possible organism, along with its associated fitness.

    Mung:

    Perhaps you need to take a second look at what you wrote in your OP. Maybe revise it in light of your new-found understanding.

    Perhaps you need to consider the possibility that my position hasn’t changed, but that your understanding of it has.

    If the height is reproductive rate, doesn’t it make sense that some reproductive rates are beyond the capabilities of certain genotypes? IOW, certain points can’t be reached.

    No. The fitness of a point on the landscape is distinct from its reachability.

    keiths:

    In fact, many points on a landscape will never be occupied at all — that is, there will never be actual organisms of the specified types.

    Mung:

    So what are you arguing against? I thought that’s the point of view you claim is without merit.

    No. The ID claim is about occupied islands, not unoccupied ones. IDers claim that evolution couldn’t have gotten from a common ancestral state to all the islands that are currently occupied — precisely because (according to IDers) they are islands, and evolution can’t do island-hopping if the islands are far enough apart.

    Since evolution couldn’t have done it, IDers claim that the Designer must have been responsible (there’s that negative argument again). Read all of the comments and you’ll begin to understand just how naive the ID claim really is.

  9. Someone ought to ask gpuccio if he can calculate dFSCI for the protein mentioned in the McLaughlin paper. That might be interesting. It’s only 83 amino acids long though, so I don’t know if it can qualify.

    Alan, I’ll try to look at the paper tomorrow. I’ve been working my way through the thread, slowly. Thanks for the link.

     

     

  10. keiths, if you’re such an expert in ID, then why do you so frequently muck up ID arguments? If you don’t understand them, just politely ask.

    Imagine actually getting your facts straight and putting forth an argument with true premises and a conclusion that followed from the premises.

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the reason you were banned from UD had something to do with you not following your own advice.

     

  11. Guess what? You are that guy, only the blog is TSZ and the subject is evolution, not programming.

    That might be relevant if this were a thread about evolution. Instead you’ve decided to make it about some nebulous “ID argument” about “islands of function” that you’ve failed miserably to clarify. That’s why I’ve gone on to look at what petrushka posted where there’s some actual substance. And I’ve already stated I don’t agree with the creationist comments.

    What claim or claims made by ID’ers are you attacking? Please be as specific as possible. Quotes and or cites would be nice.

    gpuccio has already said he thinks some proteins are related hasn’t he? So who is claiming protein evolution is impossible?

  12. IDers claim that evolution couldn’t have gotten from a common ancestral state to all the islands that are currently occupied — precisely because (according to IDers) they are islands, and evolution can’t do island-hopping if the islands are far enough apart.

    Who are these ID’ers you’re talking about and what evidence do you have to offer that this is what they actually say?

    I don’t say that. I say that intelligently guided evolution can easily go island hopping. We see this all the time in intelligently designed artifacts.

     

  13. Can I make a forlorn plea, in the spirit of Lizzie’s rules, that people try and make their points without excessive snark? I can bitch with the best of ’em, but if there’s a point to be gotten across, it’s more likely to succeed by clear explanation than venting frustration. I’d bet a shovel full of random protein sequence that KF would just love a hostile show (not a big bet; there’s loads more where that came from!).

  14. Funny how Mung only asks questions. 

    Hey, Mung, what’s your opinion on “Islands of Function” and how/if that supports ID?

     

    Disappointed that I don’t jump right in and defend creationist nonsense?

     

    Disappointed that you won’t take a position and defend it, preferring rather to persist with the “tactic” of asking a question on something you’ve deliberately misunderstood to create confusion. But this is not UD. The confusion is clearly on your side.

    keiths, if you’re such an expert in ID, then why do you so frequently muck up ID arguments? If you don’t understand them, just politely ask.

    Dear Mung,
    Please tell me what *your* ID argument is and why you believe that ID is a preferable explanation to, well, whatever it is that you *think* we think happened. 

  15. KF is one example of an IDer who argues that way. A long ‘islands’ of function’ thread at UD had that as OP title, and that (amid the characteristic KF tics) appeared to be his thesis: that evolution cannot cross and needs substantial change, rather than your apparent milder version: that incremental change can cross, but needs guidance.

    One problem with both theses is that intelligence does not appear to be enough to determine where, from a current position, the next ‘island’ might be, due to the complex and chaotic nature of the interactions. You may be offering a milder version of the KF ‘position’, that evolution (as in the long-term process entirely derived from organisms having offspring without anyone in control) can navigate a space, but that function is typically too widespread for such a process to get there unaccompanied. Effectively (though you might not put it that way) a Designer generates a ‘ridge’ in the fitness landscape, by the simple act of favouring one variant over others. The designer becomes another selective agent affecting fitness (and, possibly, engineering mutations). Is that a fair assessment?

  16. Mung,
     

    Instead you’ve decided to make it about some nebulous “ID argument” about “islands of function” that you’ve failed miserably to clarify.

    Yes, they hardly ever mention it over at UD.

    http://tinyurl.com/d3x5otj

    I mean, the exact phrase “Islands of function” only appears 545 times on UD.  

    I can see why you consider that level of support “nebulous”.

    It’s not quite up to the usual standards demanded by ID to support it’s arguments is it? ROFL. 

  17. Mung,

    I say that intelligently guided evolution can easily go island hopping.

    That is trivially true. Yet what evidence do you have that evolution is actually guided? Or is this the latest ID tactic, say that IF this THEN that without showing that your IF is in fact FACT.

  18. sez mung:

    It is not the case that the argument for intelligent design takes the form, evolution can’t do it therefore ID.

    Hm. I’d rather been under the impression that Behe’s pro-ID irreducible complexity cannot evolve, ergo Designer argument took exactly and precisely the evolution can’t do it, therefore ID form which you here assert is not used in pro-ID argumentation. Are you saying that Behe’s irreducible complexity cannot evolve, ergo Designer argument is not an example of not evolution, ergo Designer? Or are you saying that Behe’s irreducible complexity cannot evolve, ergo Designer argument isn’t an example of pro-ID argumentation?

  19. Mung,
     

    I say that intelligently guided evolution can easily go island hopping.

    It seems we may be getting somewhere after all.

    So would you say that your ID position is that evolution can do everything that “Darwinists” claim for it (or whatever non-ID label you want to apply) as long as it has some intelligent guidance somewhere along they way?

    Or is that not in fact a position you actually hold? So when you say “I say that” what you really mean is “I don’t believe this is the case, but I’m throwing it out there to muddy the waters…”?

    As I’m yet to hear what *your* actual case for ID actually is…

  20. Interesting, Mung.

    Having read Mike’s comment that you quote here, I knew that he was “looking for some knowledge of science” to be DISPLAYED by an IDist, rather than for his personal education.

    Which context is really obvious, if you had refrained from clipping his final sentence “But so far there is nothing.”

    So I inferred that the books you cited must be written by IDists, and demonstrate “some knowledge”. Nope. Written by evolutionists.

    So I am left with the conclusion that you must have read these books, and you were trying to display your knowledge of science by citing the books on your shelf. 

    I have therefore two suggestions for you, Mung:

    1. Now would be a good time to re-read those books. For comprehension. Also, learn what a fitness landscape is.
    2. In order to communicate clearly, you should retain the relevant context when you quote someone.

    Of course it is possible that I may have misconstrued your intent here.

     

  21. Since Mung has questioned whether ID is a negative argument, is it snarky to ask him to present a positive argument?

    I feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick a football with Lucy holding. We keep getting promises that there will be a positive argument for ID, as opposed to claims that evolution is insufficient.

    So where are the positive arguments for ID? I don’t consider word lawyering to be an argument.

  22. So where is the evidence for the evolutionary relationships between superfamilies? What sorts of ad-hoc “explanations” can you come up with for the missing intermediates?

    Intermediates get lost. There are no fossil sequences. The Basque language is a good example of a language with no surviving intermediate relationships to other languages. I also published on the gpuccio thread a history of four diverging sequences, showing the actual history of of the intermediates becoming lost. It’s a simulation, but if you are going to argue from mathematics, you are going to get mathematical simulations.

  23. That’s not why he infers design. He infers design because of the presence of dFSCI. 

    And dFSCI is defined as functional information that could not have evolved. I get it.

  24. It’s interesting that “islands of function can be mentioned hundreds of times at UD without ever addressing the recent research that demonstrates it’s a failed concept,

  25. I can’t seem to use the edit buttion, but I wish to add to my previous question to Mung.

    You do understand that when most changes to a coding string are neutral, that the “needle in a haystack” metaphor becomes inappropriate? And islands of function are simply not isolated?

    This is not  rhetorical blathering. It is the result of painstaking research.

  26. A typical case of Mung deliberately misunderstanding something in order to feign disagreement:

    keiths:

    No. The ID claim is about occupied islands, not unoccupied ones. IDers claim that evolution couldn’t have gotten from a common ancestral state to all the islands that are currently occupied — precisely because (according to IDers) they are islands, and evolution can’t do island-hopping if the islands are far enough apart. Since evolution couldn’t have done it, IDers claim that the Designer must have been responsible (there’s that negative argument again).

    Mung quotes me but carefully omits the last sentence, because otherwise he can’t pretend to disagree with me:

    IDers claim that evolution couldn’t have gotten from a common ancestral state to all the islands that are currently occupied — precisely because (according to IDers) they are islands, and evolution can’t do island-hopping if the islands are far enough apart.

    Who are these ID’ers you’re talking about and what evidence do you have to offer that this is what they actually say?

    I don’t say that. I say that intelligently guided evolution can easily go island hopping. We see this all the time in intelligently designed artifacts.

    Pitful and pointless. If you have to pretend to disagree, you’re doing it wrong. Show some integrity, Mung.

  27. Perhaps Mung would care to explain why living things so no trace of island hopping (massive lateral transfer). That was covered in another thread on evidence for common descent.

  28. Any honest discussion between two people having opposing views is likely to involve some snarky comments. Only a couple of things really matter.

    One is whether one side actively censors the other,

    Another is whether people who claim to have evidence ever produce it.

    We have not seen any positive evidence for ID that is not based on the claim of unbridgeable gaps in evolution. dFSCI is simply the latest in a long series of improbability arguments that rest on the claim that functional genomes are too sparsely scattered to be reached incrementally.

    The more actual research done on modification of sequences, the more it becomes apparent that point mutations do not usually destroy function. The water is shallow. One can move in nearly direction and not drown.

    This also speaks to the question of whether there is any direction to evolution. It’s beginning to look like there will be hard evidence that evolution is not constrained to narrow paths. 

  29. Any honest discussion between two people having opposing views is likely to involve some snarky comments.

    Indeed. That is pretty much unavoidable.

    When mung first joined the discussion, there were several posted comments that were almost pure snark. I moved a couple of those. However, yesterday and today there has at least been some discussion. There has been some snark along with that, but not an excessive amount.

    Thanks, everybody, for trying to keep the discussion on track. And please keep trying.

  30. So after keiths has his opening salvo shown to be fundamentally deficient, his response is to resort to ad hominem.

     

     

  31. petrushka,

    Perhaps Mung would care to explain why living things show no trace of island hopping (massive lateral transfer).

    How does one even test your claim to establish that it’s true? How does one quantify “massive lateral transfer” in an objective way?

    The book The Evolution of the Genome has an entire chapter on large-scale gene and ancient genome duplications. But they don’t count?

     

     

  32. I’m not sure why you’re worried about KF’s opinion.

    I couldn’t care less about him, to be honest. He was just a name pulled out of the hat to represent “everyCreationist” – it’s you who are issuing challenges to him! He’s well out on the scale – the hair-trigger by which less sensitive souls would calibrate their “touchy-ometers”.

    I just looked at the overnight discussions and thought that there were useful points buried in bluster. Don’t mind me.

  33. keiths:

    Gpuccio doesn’t think B could have evolved, so he infers design.

    Mung:

    [gpuccio] infers design because of the presence of dFSCI.

    petrushka:

    And dFSCI is defined as functional information that could not have evolved.

    Can you provide any evidence whatsoever that what you have said is true?

    Either of you? Or is the truth irrelevant.

  34. Yes, I understood that Mike was being snarky. I decided to take his content-less ad hom attack and try to turn it into something useful while at the same time taking a jab at him. All three of those books discuss life at the nanoscale. Mike wants to live in a world where no IDer can possibly attempt to actually understand the science, but that’s his problem not mine.

     

  35. OMTWO:

    Funny how Mung only asks questions.

    Funny how that’s demonstrably false.

    Funny how keiths invites me to ask questions and you ridicule me for doing so.

    Very funny.

     

  36. How does one even test your claim to establish that it’s true? How does one quantify “massive lateral transfer” in an objective way?

    Check out the previous thread on common descent.

  37. Again, thanks Alan for the link.

    Statistical analysis of protein evolution suggests a design for natural proteins in which sparse networks of coevolving amino acids (termed sectors) comprise the essence of three-dimensional structure and function

    How sparse is sparse?

    …we show that sector positions are functionally sensitive to mutation, whereas non-sector positions are more tolerant to substitution.

    Is anybody surprised by these results?

    In addition, we find that adaptation to a new binding specificity initiates exclusively through variation within sectorresidues. A combination of just two sector mutations located near and away from the ligand-binding site suffices to switch the binding specificity of PSD95pdz3 quantitatively towards a class-switching ligand. The localization of functional constraint and adaptive variation within the sector has important implications for understanding and engineering proteins.

    So far, the paper appears to support the ‘islands of function’ idea.

  38. So you are not impressed that two mutations — well within Behe’s Edge — can produce an entirely new function?

    Nor are you impressed by the fact that folks calculating dFSCI have been using each base as having equal importance — when apparently only 25 percent are important. That makes quite a difference when using a number as an exponent,

  39. Sorry, does that have something to do with the OP?

    What questions about ID have you answered Mung? Please do link to just, say, 1. 

  40. The past couple of months worth of conversation and Gpuccio’s own words? 

    I guess you’ve not been following along!  

  41. Sigh. Which thread?

    If you cannot define the parameters of your challenge it should surprise no one that I cannot meet your challenge.

    How far away on the landscape is a whole genome duplication?

     

  42. petrushka,

    So you are not impressed that two mutations — well within Behe’s Edge — can produce an entirely new function?

    But it wasn’t just any two mutations, it was two specific mutations. Right?

    What was the probability?

    And did they really produce an entirely new function?

    And if they are well within Behe’s Edge, how do they refute ID?

    Nor are you impressed by the fact that folks calculating dFSCI have been using each base as having equal importance — when apparently only 25 percent are important.

    I need further clarification.

    Do you mean that folks calculating dFSCI base their calculation upon an assumption that each base of a codon has equal importance?

    That would be just silly. We know the code is redundant.

    Or are you talking about amino acids? Only 25% of amino acids are important?

  43. keiths:

    In a two-dimensional landscape, height still represents fitness, but horizontal motion is limited to one dimension — a line, rather than a plane. Motion is limited to two directions, right and left.

    So in a two-dimensional landscape there three dimensions?

    Left, Right. Up. Down.

    Define your terms. Horizontal. Plane. Motion. Landscape.

    In a two dimensional landscape there is no height. In a two dimensional landscape there is no landscape.

    There is no plane, in your two-dimensional landscape. Hah. Unbelievable.

     

  44. OMTWO:

    Yet what evidence do you have that evolution is actually guided?

    What evidence do you have that evolution is actually unguided? What evidence does keiths have? He’s the one who made the claim in the OP.

    What evidence would convince you that evolution is guided?

    Would any amount of evidence convince you that evolution is guided?

     

  45. keiths:

    In a two-dimensional landscape, height still represents fitness, but horizontal motion is limited to one dimension — a line, rather than a plane. Motion is limited to two directions, right and left.

    Mung:

    So in a two-dimensional landscape there three dimensions?

    Seriously, Mung?

    Right-left: first dimension.
    Up-Down: second dimension.

    Two dimensions in a two-dimensional landscape.

    In a two dimensional landscape there is no height. In a two dimensional landscape there is no landscape.

    There is no plane, in your two-dimensional landscape. Hah. Unbelievable.

    Mung, how many dimensions in a vertical plane?

    Out of curiosity, what is your educational background?

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