Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Tim Sandefur has a “guest blogger” making entries on his blog by the name of Matt Dunn. Dunn is a dentist and no doubt a very bright guy, but he has been making comments about evolution that I can’t help but respond to. It began with this post about a dentist’s convention he attended and the keynote speaker referring to the design of the jaw as evidence for Intelligent Design (ID):

I asked Dawson if he could expand on his “creator” reference. He obliged by offering a philosophical comment: “The more you understand about the human masticatory apparatus, the harder it becomes to remain an atheist.”

Dawson would likely approve of this passage from Robert Bork’s Slouching Towards Gomorrah, on the subject of ‘Intelligent Design’: “Scientists at the time of Darwin had no conception of the enormous complexity of bodies and their organs. Behe [Michael Behe, microbiologist] points out that for evolution to be the explanation of features such as the coagulation of blood and the human eye, too many unrelated mutations would have to occur simultaneously.” (p.294)

Though I’d be dismayed to have one of my eyes ‘coagulate’—an unpleasant mutation there—I’d say it’s progressively tempting to agree with Behe, and Dawson, at the four-year point of my masticatory studies. The deeper the science, the greater the inclination to marvel.

My initial reaction was incredulity at the notion that one would quote Robert Bork, of all people, on the impossibility of evolution. I’ve made no secret of my distaste for Bork even on matters of law where he does have legitimate expertise, but I would no more consult him on the subject of molecular biology than I would consult Stevie Wonder on the techniques of oil painting. My second reaction, probably far more reasonable than the first, is to point out to Dr. Dunn that the inclination to marvel at the complexity of life – an inclination that I share with him wholeheartedly, by the way – is not evidence against evolution or for ID. Tim Sandefur seems to have had the same reaction later that day when he referred to this as the “argument from wow” (I love that phrase and I fully intend to steal it and pretend that I invented it from now on), and he provides links to a couple of articles by Richard Dawkins on the evolution of the eye.

On Thursday, Dunn wrote a brief post rejecting the idea of memes. He says he’s not convinced that the notion of memes gives us anything useful with which to understand the world. For the record, I agree. I’ve never found the analogy between ideas and biological organisms to be terribly convincing, but then I’ve never really taken the time to give it much thought either. But what Dunn appears to be saying is, “Here’s an idea that Dawkins advocates that I don’t like much, so therefore I can dismiss what he says about the eye.” He doesn’t say that explicitly, but that’s how I’m reading it. It seems all the more odd that in this post he quotes David Stove also rejecting the idea of memes, which Dunn introduces as hitting a “fairly convincing stride” – but the quote from Stove doesn’t actually say anything about why the idea of memes is false. It’s just a description of what Dawkins says, with no substantive critique offered whatsoever. Perhaps there is something in the rest of the essay that is “fairly convincing” of why we should reject memes, but that purely descriptive passage doesn’t say anything at all.

Ah, but then he is back about 15 minutes later with another post about Dawkins and memes. This one again quotes David Stove approvingly, but this time it seems there is a bit more substance. Stove, in a passage I would generally tend to agree with, places Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene in the same category with a wide range of other books claiming that human beings are “the helpless puppets of something or other: God, or God and demons, or History, or Race, or the Unconscious, or Aliens from Outer Space, or whatever.” Only Dawkins argues that we are the helpless puppets of our genes and their perpetual struggle to beat out other genes. Here I would tend to agree. The Selfish Gene is hardly Dawkins’ most compelling work, nor is it really all that relevant to the study of evolution. But here again, Dunn seems to be taking a couple of Dawkins’ more fanciful and esoteric ideas, pretending that they are relevant to the question of evolution, rejecting them, and therefore implying that evolution is likewise injured. It suddenly occurs to me that perhaps I am misreading this series of posts; perhaps I’ve simply stumbled onto an exchange between Dunn and Sandefur on a subject they’ve argued in private a hundred times before. Perhaps Sandedur is a big advocate of memes and Dunn is simply poking a little fun at him and this really has no relationship to the other posts on evolution and ID that Dunn has made.

But then Dunn is back a mere 5 minutes after the last post with a post that seems to tie it all together. In this one he is back on the evolution of the eye, but this time with a quote from yet another lawyer – Phillip Johnson, the Grand Poobah of ID:

“The fallacy in that argument is that ’5 percent of an eye’ is not the same thing as ’5 percent of normal vision.’ For an animal to have any useful vision at all, many complex parts must be working together. Even a complete eye is useless unless it belongs to a creature with the mental and neural capacity to make use of the information by doing something that furthers survival or reproduction. What we have to imagine is a chance mutation that provides this complex capacity all at once, at a level of utility sufficient to give the creature an advantage in producing offspring.”

Again one wonders why on earth Dunn insists on consulting lawyers on the subject of evolution. The absurdity of doing so is demonstrated perfectly by this silly quote. When Johnson says that a “complete eye” requires “the mental and neural capacity to make use of the information”, he is doing what lawyers do – make the best case for the position he’s advocating without concern for whether that best case is actually true or not. Of course it’s true that the brain must be able to make use of the information given by even 5% of an eye. But with only 5% of an eye – say a light sensitive spot – the capacity to use that information probably amounts to no more than the capacity to flee at the sign of a shadow cast by a predator. It’s not a coincidence that the most complex eyes tend to exist in animals that have the most complex brains, or vice versa – they probably evolved together to a great extent. We know that the amount of visual and other sensory stimulation an infant gets, the more neural connections are made in their brains.

On the question of whether any of the hypothetical stages of eye evolution would give enough of an advantage to be selected for, nature provides the obvious answer. All of those probable stages – photosensitive cells, aggregates of pigment cells without a nerve, an optic nerve covered by pigment cells and translucent skin, pigment cells with a depression, depressed pigment cells with skin taking a lens shape, muscles capable of adjusting the lens, etc – do exist in various species in nature, and they serve those species just fine in their environments. If they didn’t confer a survival advantage, the animals that use them would have gone extinct. Phillip Johnson doesn’t understand this because he’s an attorney who fancies himself on a crusade, tilting at the materialist windmill. That’s why he continually makes statements about science that are silly at best and downright dishonest at worst.

Comments

  1. #1 Eli
    February 27, 2004

    Great stuff. I just wanted to say, you are quickly becoming one of my favorite bloggers. It’s great to see someone keeping up the good fight!

    I love that “argument from wow” phrase. I may steal it too.

  2. #2 Ed Brayton
    February 27, 2004

    Thanks for the kind words. How did you find me, may I ask?

  3. #3 Eli
    February 27, 2004

    Honestly, I don’t exactly remember. Might have been linked from another blog, or someone might have sent me hear from EVC.

  4. #4 ilona
    February 28, 2004

    Ah yes. you definitely are a worthy opponent:)

    Just a short comment to say that while you make a good point on the eye argument and its weakness, you stepped into the evolutionists great weakness: the “they probably” part of your reasoning.

    Both arguments in the “they probably” sort of premises are mainly in the realm of opinion and not in that of factual science.

    And this is the great protest that many die-hard theists ( like myself) have with the evolution model. It is not hard science in the sense of replicable method, it is theory. The manner in which many scientists piece together and interpret what they have to work with in the way of facts is not air-tight fact, as often presented against ideas of Intelligent Design.

    Give me some time and maybe I could formulate something on the idea of comparing materialist theory to the windmill.

    The weakness of evolutionary model is not in the strength of the oppositions arguments… it is in its own base of being conjecture. There are no real proofs for origin.

    We all operate on faith at some level, Ed.

  5. #5 Ed Brayton
    February 28, 2004

    Ilona writes:

    Just a short comment to say that while you make a good point on the eye argument and its weakness, you stepped into the evolutionists great weakness: the “they probably” part of your reasoning. Both arguments in the “they probably” sort of premises are mainly in the realm of opinion and not in that of factual science.

    But this simply isn’t true, and it betrays a logical fallacy called a false dichotomy. It assumes that there are only two possible types of explanations, those that are absolutely certain and those that are “opinion”. In reality, certainty is a continuum and nothing in science is ever considered to reach the “absolute certainty” stage. The statement that the eye and the brain probably evolved together, both within the same lineage and within the natural history of life on earth in general, is neither a “fact” nor a “mere opinion”, it is a logical inference drawn from several lines of evidence.

    Studies in cognitive neuroscience have shown that the amount and variety of visual input that an infant receives has an enormous impact on the development of the brain. An infant who gets consistent and varied visual inputs develops a brain with more neural connections than one who gets less and the result is a more efficent brain and a higher IQ.

    Far more could be said on the evidence for the evolution of the eye that could demonstrate that the inference that it evolved step by step is not merely an opinion, but a well supported conclusion. The existence of obvious design flaws in the eye are in fact powerful evidence of evolution, as Ken Miller points out:

    Evolution, unlike design, works by the modification of pre-existing structures. Intelligent design, by definition, works fresh, on a clean sheet of paper, and should produce organisms that have been explicitly (and perfectly) designed for the tasks they perform.

    Evolution, on the other hand, does not produce perfection. The fact that every intermediate stage in the development of an organ must confer a selective advantage means that the simplest and most elegant design for an organ cannot always be produced by evolution. In fact, the hallmark of evolution is the modification of pre-existing structures. An evolved organism, in short, should show the tell-tale signs of this modification. A designed organism should not. Which is it?

    The eye, that supposed paragon of intelligent design, is a perfect place to start. We have already sung the virtues of this organ, and described some of its extraordinary capabilities. But one thing that we have not considered is the neural wiring of its light-sensing units, the photoreceptor cells in the retina. These cells pass impulses to a series of interconnecting cells that eventually pass information to the cells of the optic nerve, which leads to the brain. Given the basics of this wiring, how would you orient the retina with respect to the direction of light? Quite naturally, you (and any other designer) would choose the orientation that produces the highest degree of visual quality. No one, for example, would suggest that the neural wiring connections should be placed on the side that faces the light, rather than on the side away from it. Incredibly, this is exactly how the human retina is constructed.

    What are the consequences of wiring the retina backwards? First, there is a degradation of visual quality due to the scattering of light as it passes through layers of cellular wiring. To be sure, this scattering has been minimized because the nerve cells are nearly transparent, but it cannot be eliminated, because of the basic flaw in design. This design flaw is compounded by the fact that the nerve cells require a rich blood supply, so that a network of blood vessels also sits directly in front of the light-sensitive layer, another feature that no engineer would stand for. Second, the nerve impulses produced by photoreceptor cells must be carried to the brain, and this means that at some point the neural wiring must pass directly through the wall of the retina. The result? A “blind spot” in the retina, a region where thousands of impulse-carrying cells have pushed the sensory cells aside, and consequently nothing can be seen. Each human retina has a blind spot roughly 1 mm in diameter, a blind spot that would not exist if only the eye were designed with its sensory wiring behind the photoreceptors instead of in front of them.

    There is far more to be said on this issue. There has been an enormous amount of research done on this issue and we have now even identified the specific genes that control the development of the rods that allow color vision. It simply is not true to pretend that merely because one does not have absolute certainty(something science never claims) that a well-supported explanation is merely a guess or an opinion that is no better than any other and can be dismissed.

  6. #6 ilona
    February 29, 2004

    “Both arguments in the “they probably” sort of premises are mainly in the realm of opinion and not in that of factual science.”-me

    “But this simply isn’t true, and it betrays a logical fallacy called a false dichotomy. It assumes that there are only two possible types of explanations, those that are absolutely certain and those that are “opinion”. In reality, certainty is a continuum and nothing in science is ever considered to reach the “absolute certainty” stage. The statement that the eye and the brain probably… -Ed”

    Again, the argument relies on the “probably”, not in the mathematical sense, but in the conjecture of opinion sense.

    and then “logical inference” is cited.

    Logical inference is only so good as the truth of the premises. And many of the ideas such as this:

    “In fact, the hallmark of evolution is the modification of pre-existing structures. An evolved organism, in short, should show the tell-tale signs of this modification. A designed organism should not. Which is it?”

    are not grounded in factual truth. This was a logical fallacy in itself….. using two different definitions of evolution interchangeably.

    There is the idea of evolution within a species such as is found in the changes of genetic material or viruses…. and there is the evolution as proposed in the theory of different species evolving into others.

    They are not interchangeable or identical.

    Evolution theorists or materialists cannot logically conclude anything on origin. They have to construct their own model of explanation for that and what is here, now. It is opinion. Without replicable science to substantiate it.

    It is rather “false dichotomy” to have stated that intelligent design should not allow for change.["An evolved organism, in short, should show the tell-tale signs of this modification. A designed organism should not."]

    It depends on what kind of change you are talking about. Changes that we see could well have been built into the system. It makes sense for them to have been built in, given the great variations of creation.

    “Quite naturally, you (and any other designer)”

    This implies that we are the highest form of designer… and that we understand the eye and visual matters completely. We don’t. It might have been intelligent conjecture to think that – but just why would the eye need to perform in the manner that we superficially theorize? And how does that negate intelligent design?

    “absolute certainty” is something newly interjected. I simply said fact, as it is now recognized by our present scientific methods.

    Evolutionary theory and the materialists don’t have that. That was my point.

    Not “absolute certainty”..
    Would love to discuss the idea of “absolutes” with you. There are very few things that qualify. I would certainly not include man’s perceptions and knowledge base.

    “a well-supported explanation”

    It is exactly my contention that it is not so well supported as it is purported to be.

    I would say it is more “widely accepted” than “well-supported”.

    It is one idea that is widely held and has many problems. It is not fact, nor proven, nor even well supported in the macro orientation.

    “Evolution, on the other hand, does not produce perfection.”

    No, I can see that it would not -as you have explained it; the greater difficulty is that it cannot produce order either. So how does one get order from chaos? Why is there a return to order? And how is it that everything works toward homoestasis?

    This is accidental? This is chance? what are the mathematical models on this? And doesn’t that boggle your mind?

    Materialists are left with faith. Their faith… that this is the wonder of it all and that this accidental wonderfulness of order in the midst of chaos just happens. Because it does.

    Kind of sounds like a faith argument. Only without a god/God.

    So while the arguments of evolution might work well on the details, I still contend that there are problems in the larger views of origin and how we got to where we are now.

    I am not sure I would let it be a given that evolution works so well on the details either…. but we haven’t discussed that.