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.