Berlinski in Turkey

On February 24 there was a pro-ID confab. in Istanbul. Among the attendees was David Berlinski, whose boneheaded essays for Commentary appear with depressing regularity. The conference website includes a brief abstract for Berlinski’s talk. So, how about we wrap up the week’s blogging by having a look:

Charles Darwin completed his masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, in 1859. At once, the theory that is introduced became popular. One hundred years later, it was widely celebrated as an outstanding success. Thereafter, the time of troubles began. For the past forty years, the great global vision that Darwin introduced into biology has been dying by degrees.

The abstract does not spell out what is intended by “the great global vision that Darwin introduced.” Presumably Berlinski means the two assertions that (1) Species are related by common descent and (2) Natural selection is the primary mechanism of evolution. If that is correct, then it is simply incorrect to say that Darwin’s vision has been dying by degrees. Common descent is so universally accepted, even the likes of Michael Behe concede the point. And you would be hard pressed to find a biologist who would deny that natural selection is a very important mechanism by which evolution occurs. Berlinski may be unhappy about that fact, but it is true nonetheless.

Critics and skeptics have never been satisfied with Darwin’s theory. Mathematicians have been especially dubious. But now even the biologists have begun to read those alarming medical reports with a heightened sense of concern. At least five fatal maladies are converging on Darwin’s theory.

Of course, Berlinski has no basis for his generalization that mathematicians have been especially dubious. You can find a handful of mathematicians throughout history who have challenged evolutionary theory, but that hardly justifies Berlinski’s assertion. And even the ones who have challenged it have generally only been skeptical of natural selection, not common descent.

And the fact remains that all attempts to provide mathematical refutations of Darwinian evolution have been wildly incorrect. They are invariably based on biologically unrealistic assumptions.

Now let’s look at Berlinski’s five maladies:

In the first place, the theory makes no sense. Either it collapses into triviality or it invokes a force with no known cognate to the forces of physics.

I have no idea what this means. I think, based on other things Berlinski has said and written, that the “collapses into triviality” point is just Berlinski’s version of the tautology objection (go here for a detailed treatment of that bit of nonsense), while the “invoking a force” part has to do with our inability to predict the course of evolution from first principles. He seemed quite keen on this point in the big Firing Line debate just over a decade ago. Needless to say, both of these points are not just wrong, but silly. Natural selection is not a useless tautology and it’s not Darwin’s fault that the course of evolution is unpredictable.

In the second place, the theory lacks for confirmation from the historical record.

By the historical record I assume he means fossils. And since the fact of common descent is amply documented by fossils, I’ll assume he means that natural selection as the most important mechanism is what lacks confirmation.

Now, there are certainly instances where fossils do, indeed, document precisely the sort of gradual change Darwin described. But the simple fact remains that fossils are not the right place to look for data on the mechanisms of evolution. Again, it is not Darwin’s fault that most organisms do not fossilize and that even when they do it is usually only their hard parts that survive. So it is not surprising that the fossils fail to document the efficacy of natural selection.

In the third place, it lacks for confirmation both from laboratory experiments and research into natural selection in the wild.

Laboratory experiments and field research have shown that natural selection can cause considerable change over a small number of generations. That’s the best sort of confirmation you could hope for from such experiments. We also have the even more impressive changes that have been obtained via artificial selection by breeders. I reviewed some of the lines of evidence supporting the importance of natural selection in Wedensday’s post. Once again we see that Berlinski is vamping.

In the fourth place, the theory cannot be simulated by means of computer algorithms. If the simulation honestly uses Darwinian principles, it does not work; and if it works, it does not use Darwinian principles.

It is not clear to me what exactly he wants to simulate. Experiments in artifical life and our experience with evolutionary algorithms have shown that random variations sifted by some consistent selection mechanism can build up into massive evolutionary change indeed. I call that simulating evolution by computer algorithms. The rest of this is too vague to respond to.

And in the fifth and final place, the theory has never been defended in terms that make mathematical sense.

Of course, it was the mathematical work of people like Fisher, Haldane and Wright that revived interest in natural selection in the twenties and thirties. Evolution has a solid foundation of mathematical theory. As I’ve already noted, all attempts to refute evolution mathematically have been abject failures.

So these are the five points Berlinski considers most important in building a case against Darwinian evolution. The fact that the journals seem to be publishing large numbers of papers written from a Darwinian perspective does not impress him. He believes a few moments of armchair theorizing can refute it nevertheless. Charming fellow.

Comments

  1. #1 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    March 2, 2007

    On February 24 there was a pro-ID confab. in Istanbul. Among the attendees was David Berlinski,…

    From a September 27, 2005 Knight-Ridder article:

    But in an e-mail message, Berlinski declared, “I have never endorsed intelligent design.”

    Get it? He doesn’t endorse ID, even as he cashes his DI checks. He justs casts doubt on evolution. Get it? (wink wink nudge nudge)

  2. #2 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 2, 2007

    Actually, Berlinski’s least dopey essay for Commentary involved some pretty cogent criticisms of ID. It also contained a lot of nonsense about evolution, of course. I think Berlinski mostly just craves attention, and his anti-evolution nattering gets that for him.

    You’re right, though, that he has a lot of nerve complaining when people think he is an ID guy. He parrots their criticisms of evolution, sits on their side in debates, contributes chapters to their anthologies, and provides endorsements for their books. As Michael Behe says, if it walks like a duck…

  3. #3 SLC
    March 2, 2007

    1. Dr. Berlinski is not, repeat not a mathematician. His degree is in philosophy. My information is that he has never published a paper in a mathematical journal.

    2. Berlinski actually comes out against ID in an article in Commentary which was, I believe, published in 2003. Berlinski has also come out against the big bang theory and has written a book about astrology, which, while not endorsing it, claimed that it may have made sense at the time.

  4. #4 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 2, 2007

    Berlinski has a PhD in mathematics from Princeton. It pains me to say it, but it is true nonetheless!

  5. #5 Joe Meert
    March 2, 2007

    The reports of evolution’s impending death are grossly exaggerated.

    Cheers

    Joe Meert

  6. #6 SLC
    March 2, 2007

    Re Rosenhouse

    My information is that his PhD is in philosophy. See attached link.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Berlinski

  7. #7 SLC
    March 2, 2007

    As an aside, it is of some interest why Commentary Magazine publishes Berlinskis’ crap. Although I can’t read the mind of Norman Podhoretz, it seems obvious that his motive has to do with the support of the born-agains for the State of Israel. It is evident that Podhoretz can’t publish anti evolution articles by born-again Christians such as Behe and Dumbski and still retain the notion that his magazine is a Jewish publication. However, since Berlinski is nominally Jewish, publishing anti evolution articles by him retains that notion and the same time allows him to suck up to the born-again Christians who he considers the strongest supporters of Israel (e.g. Commentary publishes articles attacking the theory of evolution). The other alternative would be David Klinghofer who is a fellow of the Discovery Institute but, unlike Berlinski, he has no scientific credentials.

  8. #8 MarkP
    March 2, 2007

    Berlinski said: In the fourth place, the theory cannot be simulated by means of computer algorithms. If the simulation honestly uses Darwinian principles, it does not work; and if it works, it does not use Darwinian principles.

    Jason responded: It is not clear to me what exactly he wants to simulate.

    From what I’ve seen of IDer/creationist criticisms of EAs, once you sift through the verbage, they boil down to this:

    1) If it is totally random, then it is Darwinian.
    2) If it is made non-random in any way by the programmers, they are frontloading the solution into the simulation, and therefore contributing intelligence to the process, which supports ID.

    I think of this as the Magic Intelligent Dust Theory, because they seem to want to treat intelligence as something that rubs off from the slightest contact. No reason to bother with any “pathetic level of detail” in figuring out exactly how this would happen.

    That’s being generous. The less generous version is that the IDer/creationists really don’t understand what is going on with the simulations, and that is no coincidence. It’s the same reason they don’t get evolution in the first place.

    I suspect they see the sort of decision-making that EAs do as an intrinsic feature of the soul, thus they cannot bring themselves to acknowledge what is going on. These are the same people who, in the near future, are going to insist that walking talking functioning androids are not “really” intelligent, regardless of what sorts of tests the androids can pass. Soul = intelligence to these people.

  9. #9 Steve Reuland
    March 2, 2007

    I appreciate the effort, Jason, but trying to make sense of Berlinski is like reading bird entrails. His writings are so pretentiously abstruse they’re like the literary equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting, except without the clarity of form. And besides, how else is he supposed to backpeddle when he gets called on his nonsense? Remember his clever beyond measure lie? Even on those rare occasions when Berlinski puts forth a detailed claim in plain English, that’s no reason to think he actually means it.

    Incidentally, on that very same thread Berlinski did us the favor of explaining why he cavorts with the ID movement in spite of not being, technically speaking, an ID advocate:

    “I am associated with the DI JUST BECAUSE they tolerate me when no one else will…”

    Which can either be taken as a damning indictment of Berlinski or the DI, depending on your point of view.

    In the end, the kindest thing that can be said about Berlinkski is that he has nothing of consequence to say.

  10. #10 John McKay
    March 2, 2007

    You didn’t really need to go beyond this sentence:

    Critics and skeptics have never been satisfied with Darwin’s theory.

    If they were satisfied, they wouldn’t be critics and skeptics anymore, would they? Red is a color characterized by its redness. It’s a completely true statement, but so utterly pointless that it’s obvious he’s just making noise for the joy of listening to his own voice. After hearing this silly point mentioned as if it had some argumentative value, we may as well head for the coffee and donut table; it should be clear to any listener that he’s not going to say anything of logical value after that.
    And, as you proved, he didn’t.

  11. #11 waldteufel
    March 2, 2007

    There is a piece about this conference by Anika Smith on DI’s Evolution News and Views today.

    Anika Smith has been posting these days, I think in a bid to see if she can prove herself even dumber that Casey Luskin.

    I can’t tell. Both are pretty clueless.

    Only the DI could claim a great “success” in a creationism conference in Turkey. Just when you think they’ve bottomed out, they find yet a new low.

  12. #12 Tyler DiPietro
    March 2, 2007

    Berlinski said: In the fourth place, the theory cannot be simulated by means of computer algorithms. If the simulation honestly uses Darwinian principles, it does not work; and if it works, it does not use Darwinian principles.

    This is only true if one considers the only extant computer simulations of evolution to be those used in A.) optimization theory and B.) engineering. It is true that neither of the former are purely, but that’s because in both instances Darwinism is pretty much useless. If you look at adaptation as an optimization problem, Darwinian evolution never escapes local optima and produces extremely ad hoc solutions. And in engineering, you (AFAIK) use static fitness landscapes as opposed to dynamic ones that exist in nature.

    But there are plenty of simulations of Darwinian evoluton available. One would not be that difficult to program with a little knowledge of C and OpenGL.

  13. #13 Tyler DiPietro
    March 2, 2007

    It is true that neither of the former are purely [Darwinian], but that’s because in both instances Darwinism is pretty much useless.

    Correction in brackets.

  14. #14 Tyler DiPietro
    March 2, 2007

    If you look at adaptation as an optimization problem, Darwinian evolution never escapes local optima and produces extremely ad hoc solutions.

    For the inevitable nitpickers out there, the above is in jest. The point I’m trying to make is that uses of evolutionary principles in computer science don’t exactly model evolution. Evolution in nature is a perpetual competition for reproductive success, while evolutionary algorithms in computer science are targeted searches for solutions to optimization problems.

  15. #15 Daniel Haston
    March 2, 2007

    Just looks like more hand-waving, obtuseness, and misconceptions/outright falsehoods from the anti-evolution crowd. Old and busted arguments wrapped up in fancy language for the public that doesn’t know any better. They hear someone they think is an “authority” saying “computer simulation does not support evolution” and many swallow it whole. While those who know something about it are stuck trying to correct these misconceptions and sometimes outright lies.

  16. #16 Paul T.
    March 3, 2007

    I’ve often wondered how Berlinski became such a pretentious twit, then I found out he lives in France. Explains everything.

  17. #17 Fred
    March 3, 2007

    Now wait a second. Berlinski obviously places a lot of importance on his “five maladies,” but forget about evolution, ID fails ALL of them!

    1) The theory makes no sense and collapses into triviality (actually, there IS NO THEORY in the first place, but that’s another malady, and one that Berlinski fails to mention).

    2) It lacks confirmation from the historical record. Unless we’ve found packing slips or invoices for mankind.

    3) It lacks confirmation from lab experiments or experiments in the wild. Heck, it lacks RESEARCH period!

    4) It can not be simulated.

    5) It has never been defined in terms that make mathematical sense. Or ANY sense. Or, when you think about it, it has never even really been defined in the first place. No two ID people seem to agree on it. (That alone makes it more like religion than science: no two people can agree on God or on the meaning of Bible passages either.)

    Berlinski is quite typical of anti-evolution whiners: they throw complaints at evolution but never realize (or acknowledge) that ID (etc.) fails them too. (Not that evolution fails them, but they claim it does.)

    Here’s something fun to do with an ID person: When they say “how do you explain E. coli flagellum,” just reply, “how do you explain everything else?”

    Actually, it’s plenty fun just to say “How do YOU explain E. coli flagellum? Please tell me the process by which it came into being. And ‘it was designed’ is not an answer, because that’s not a process or a mechanism or anything. After all, the answer to ‘how was my Honda made’ is not ‘someone designed it.’”

  18. #18 truth machine
    March 3, 2007

    Berlinski has a PhD in mathematics from Princeton. It pains me to say it, but it is true nonetheless!

    Look, you were just told, correctly, that Berlinski’s PhD is in philosophy, not mathematics (as confirmed on the author page of his book Black Mischief). Why, then, do you assert that something false “is true nonetheless”? That sort of stubbornly arrogant certainty in one’s own ungrounded beliefs is just the sort of thing Berlinski displays.

  19. #19 truth machine
    March 3, 2007

    I’ve often wondered how Berlinski became such a pretentious twit, then I found out he lives in France. Explains everything.

    Then you must live in France, too.

  20. #20 Bob O'H
    March 3, 2007

    Say it ain’t so…

    I searched Web of Science for D Berlinski, and found several papers, only one in a maths journal (and that from 1970). I did, however, find this:

    BERLINSKI D
    ‘VIENNA’
    NEW ENGLAND REVIEW AND BREAD LOAF QUARTERLY 12 (2): 157-168 WIN 1989

    We’ll just take the half-baked theory jokes as read, shall we?

    Bob

  21. #21 John Farrell
    March 3, 2007

    Jason, great piece. I continue to be utterly baffled by Berlinski. Of all the pretenders of the DI’s payroll, he is the most confounding. He’s just way too smart to be a shill for such an outfit of chowderskulls.

  22. #22 SLC
    March 3, 2007

    Re truth machine

    In some fairness to Prof. Rosenhouse, Berlinski has lied about his academic credentials in the past, and has claimed to have a PhD in Mathematics from Princeton. It was only fairly recently that he was outed and the truth became known.

  23. #23 Zeno
    March 3, 2007

    Berlinski styles himself a mathematician most of the time, but he’s no more of a mathematician than I am (which is to say that we both have master’s degrees in math, but our PhDs are not). As noted above, he has no significant record of publication in mathematics. Berlinski does, however, possess a refined skill for pretentious nonsense and condescending prose. He mustn’t be taken seriously. Berlinski’s stock in trade is (a) to pretend he’s a mathematician and (b) to pity you because you can’t possibly understand the rarefied truth of what he’s saying. It’s all bosh and blather.

    I have more at So much smarter than you.

  24. #24 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    March 3, 2007

    ARN

    Meet David Berlinski
    Ph. D., Mathematics, Princeton University.

    Anova

    Berlinski (Ph.D. in mathematics, Princeton University)

    Wikipedia

    David Berlinski received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University

    Berlinksi, David, The Well-tempered Wittgenstein, Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 1968.

    Teach the controversy: has Berlinski been misleading people about his degree?

  25. #25 gbusch
    March 3, 2007

    Berlinski’s ‘five maladies’ could as easily be describing the scientific evaluation of intelligent design. He simply reversed the issues.

  26. #26 David Berlinski
    March 3, 2007

    I have a Ph.D. in PHILOSOPHY from Princeton University. I have never claimed otherwise; my resume does not claim otherwise; my eleven published books do not claim otherwise; my twenty or so published essays do not claim otherwise; my ex-wives do not claim otherwise; and the DI does not claim otherwise either.

  27. #27 John Farrell
    March 3, 2007

    The back cover of Newton’s Gift (trade paperback, Touchstone, ISBN 0-684-84392-7, 2000) starts right off with: “David Berlinski is an essayist, philosopher, and mathematician.”

  28. #28 John Farrell
    March 3, 2007
  29. #29 SLC
    March 3, 2007

    Re Berlinski

    The following link assigns Dr. Berlinski a PhD in Mathematics. Since Dr. Berlinski has apparently made no effort to inform the folks who run the web site of their error, I find his assertion that he has never claimed to have a PhD in Mathematics somewhat disingenuous at best.

    http://www.anova.org/bio/berlinski.html

    Re John Farrell

    Richard Dawkins once stated that an individual who rejected the theory of evolution was either ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked (but he would rather not consider that). He then when on to state that Dr. Berlinski was a prime candidate for the fourth alternative as he is neither ignorant, stupid or insane. Since Dr. Berlinski has also written an article published in Commentary Magazine questioning the big bang theory of the origin of the universe (or our universe if one accepts the multiverse hypothesis), which has been the subject of numerous belly laughs amongst cosmologists and astrophysicists, one has to wonder if he really believes any of the crap he writes and is just trying to make it as a comedian.

  30. #30 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 3, 2007

    David Berlinski-

    As others have pointed out, there’s no shortage of sources that either describe you as a mathematician, or state explicitly that your PhD is in mathematics. In addition to the sources others have mentioned, your author bio in the Mere Creation anthology states that you have a PhD in mathematics. One wonders where they got that idea.

    Rest assured, however, that I will happily stop describing you as a mathematician.

  31. #31 Thony C.
    March 3, 2007

    Just to confirm what the man himself has said his PhD is in philosophy, I know I’ve read it! It’s about Wittgenstein’s theory of meaning and is deadly boring. His books on the history of science and mathematics are shoddy, overblown, badly written and full of small and large errors. He is a hack who produces crap.

  32. #32 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    March 3, 2007

    ARN also lists Berlinski as having a PhD in mathematics. There’s a link in a post waiting in the approval queue.

  33. #33 John Pieret
    March 3, 2007

    [Cheap shot on]

    Berlinski in Turkey

    How could anyone tell?

    [Cheap shot off]

  34. #34 Dave Carlson
    March 3, 2007

    Here’s a link to the ARN profile of David Berlinksi mentioned earlier:

    http://www.arn.org/infopage/berlinsk.htm

    No doubt he will be contacting them to make sure their error is corrected with all possible haste.

  35. #35 Dave Carlson
    March 3, 2007

    Here’s another ARN link which claims Berlinkski has a PhD. in Mathematics from Princeton:

    http://www.arn.org/odesign/od181/about181.htm

    My my, they seem to be mounting a veritable disinformation campaign about the guy! ;)

  36. #36 Bryson Brown
    March 3, 2007

    Gotta say I’m not so crazy about having to describe Dr. Berlinski as a philosopher– but I guess I’ll have to live with it. Maybe it isn’t the field so much as the practitioner…

  37. #37 Torbjörn Larsson
    March 4, 2007

    Berlinski’s stock in trade is (a) to pretend he’s a mathematician and (b) to pity you because you can’t possibly understand the rarefied truth of what he’s saying. It’s all bosh and blather.

    Yes. My first contact with Berlinski was on “The Panda’s Thumb” after Mark Chu-Carroll on “Good Math, Bad Math” and Jason had taken Berlinski down.

    First Mark noted on Berlinski’s essay on “On the Origin of Life”: “I’d like to point out a general technique that’s used in this article. It’s very wordy. It rambles, it wanders off on tangents, it mixes quotes from various people into its argument in superfluous ways. The point of this seems to be to keep you, the reader, somewhat off balance; it’s harder to analyze an argument when the argument is so scattered around, and it’s easier to miss errors when the steps of the argument are separated by large quantities of cutesy writing.”

    And he concluded “This is what mathematicians call “slop”, also known as “crap”. Bad reasoning, fake numbers pulled out of thing air, assertions based on big numbers, deliberately using wrong numbers, invalid combinatorics, and misapplication of models. It’s hard to imagine what else he could have gotten wrong.” ( http://goodmath.blogspot.com/2006/03/berlinskis-bad-math.html )

    I was intrigued and quickly reviewed Berlinski’s essay “On the Origins of the Mind” in a comment on Wesley R. Elsberry’s blog, and excerpted the gist to PT.

    Among other things Berlinski likes to suggest that every detail of evolution can entirely be modeled by differential equations, which is not proven.

    On that I noted “Berlinski finishes off this section with an old description of a “well-posed problem” in analysis as physically useful. The fact that the description is really about partial differential equations goes Berlinski by. Not only are ill-posed problems solvable, by regularization for example, but one of his referents, Thom, uses much more common ill-posed ordinary differential equations in his catastrophe theory.”

    As here, Berlinski started to answer some comments: “[...]There are, of course, ill-posed problems both in analysis and in physics, as a study of Tikhonov & Arsenin’s Solutions of Ill-Posed Problems would reveal. It is a point I mentioned in my essay on the origins of the mind. The idea that Rene Thom – of all people – was indifferent to considerations of stability is absurd. I have written at length about catastrophe theory and its applications, and I spent a year at the Institut des Hautes Etudes talking about catastrophe theory with Thom. Thom considered structural stability a normative principle in the sciences; [...]” ( http://www.pandasthumb.org/archives/2006/04/goodmath_bad_ma.html )

    Note that he doesn’t exactly retract the view of “well-posed problems” as the only useful models. (Would stability be a needed property of models of evolution? Observations would say not, I think.) But he takes the opportunity to pound on his supposedly merits as mathematician.

    Do I need to say that I after that place Berlinski and Dembski in the same category, the “have no contact with science and observed reality” category?

    Oh, and I’m not entirely surprised that it turns out that his PhD was not in mathematics.

  38. #38 Torbjörn Larsson
    March 4, 2007

    And in case Berlinski complains about my language, “taken down” is in blog circles a euphemism for “have solidly refuted the claims”. :-)

  39. #39 Blake Stacey
    March 4, 2007

    Mark Chu-Carroll posted an edited and updated version of his old Blogspot essay on Berlinski’s bad math after he migrated to ScienceBlogs. Check it out, yo.

  40. #40 SLC
    March 4, 2007

    Re Thony C.

    In some fairness to Dr. Berlinski (as hard as that may seem), I seem to recall that his biography of Issac Newton did receive some positive critical reviews.

  41. #41 Glen Davidson
    March 4, 2007

    In the second place, the theory lacks for confirmation from the historical record.

    By the historical record I assume he means fossils. And since the fact of common descent is amply documented by fossils, I’ll assume he means that natural selection as the most important mechanism is what lacks confirmation.

    Now, there are certainly instances where fossils do, indeed, document precisely the sort of gradual change Darwin described. But the simple fact remains that fossils are not the right place to look for data on the mechanisms of evolution. Again, it is not Darwin’s fault that most organisms do not fossilize and that even when they do it is usually only their hard parts that survive. So it is not surprising that the fossils fail to document the efficacy of natural selection.

    I like Jason’s essay, however I disagree somewhat with respect to the above. Any evolution evident in the fossil record agrees with “Darwinian evolution” because only “mechanistic” evolutionary theory has any explanatory and predictive capability at the present time.

    It’s the difference between Ptolemy and Copernicus, the fact that Copernicus explained and “predicted” why some of the epicycles exist (though he had no explanation for other epicycles) and Ptolemy’s model was mere description. Berlinski et al. can “believe in evolution” all they want, but it’s essentially meaningless, for they have no cause for the “effect” of evolution. That is to say, Berlinski’s and Behe’s “model” of evolution is a tautology, they “predict” evolutionary consequences only because they are willing to accept that evolution occurred. They have no reason to say why evolution occurs as it does, rather it could happen like language evolution does, or according to Lamarckian means.

    But archaeopteryx follows the pattern expected from RM + NS + …, that is to say, it doesn’t look “designed” nor does it fit Lamarckian concepts (which would be not too unlike “design”), and it doesn’t look like languages do, either (or its bird equivalent). The upshot is that archaeopteryx happens to differ from design in so far as it happens to look like it evolved sans telos and intelligence acting upon it.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/35s39o

  42. #42 Torbjörn Larssona
    March 4, 2007

    I have already made one long comment here, but since I just commented elsewhere in agreement with Glen’s comment, I can quickly make yet another fat ass comment. :-)

    The thread was comparing evolution with physical theories and their accuracy and precision. I noted:

    Both evolution and gravity are such phenomena, birds of the same feather. Gravitation as process is easily seen to exist by observing things falling. In the same way evolution as process is easily seen to exist by observing phylogenetic trees (well defined branching structures) of fossils and genes laid out against time.

    ( http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2007/03/evolution-is-fact.html )

    And another commenter referred to http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/ , where we learn that the branching structure allows for high precision in the analysis:

    “The stunning degree of match between even the most incongruent phylogenetic trees found in the biological literature is widely unappreciated, mainly because most people (including many biologists) are unaware of the mathematics involved (Bryant et al. 2002; Penny et al. 1982; Penny and Hendy 1986). Penny and Hendy have performed a series of detailed statistical analyses of the significance of incongruent phylogenetic trees, and here is their conclusion:

    ‘Biologists seem to seek the ‘The One Tree’ and appear not to be satisfied by a range of options. However, there is no logical difficulty in having a range of trees. There are 34,459,425 possible [unrooted] trees for 11 taxa (Penny et al. 1982), and to reduce this to the order of 10-50 trees is analogous to an accuracy of measurement of approximately one part in 10^6.” (Penny and Hendy 1986, p. 414)’
    [...]
    However, as illustrated in Figure 1, the standard phylogenetic tree is known to 38 decimal places, which is a much greater precision than that of even the most well-determined physical constants. [Bold added.]

    But the accuracy is also good:

    “The current interest in measuring G was stimulated by the publication in 1996 of a value for G that differed by 0.6% from the accepted value given in the previous 1986 CODATA report. To take account of this, the 1998 CODATA report recommends a value for G … with an uncertainty of 0.15%, some ten times worse than in 1986. Whereas the other fundamental constants were more accurately known in 1998 than in 1986, the uncertainty in G increased dramatically. The G community appeared to be going backwards rather than forwards.” (Quinn 2000)

    Nevertheless, a precision of just under 1% is still pretty good; it is not enough, at this point, to cause us to cast much doubt upon the validity and usefulness of modern theories of gravity. However, if tests of the theory of common descent performed that poorly, different phylogenetic trees, as shown in Figure 1, would have to differ by 18 of the 30 branches!

    Some tests of QM gives allegedly precision up to 10^-20 parts. But the precision and accuracy in evolution is overwhelming compared to tests of physical theories, thus addressing both Berlinski’s claim 2 and 5.

  43. #43 Torbjörn Larsson
    March 4, 2007

    The comment box script didn’t like spaces inside blockquotes. I think it is readable anyway.

  44. #44 Thony C.
    March 5, 2007

    “Re Thony C.

    In some fairness to Dr. Berlinski (as hard as that may seem), I seem to recall that his biography of Issac Newton did receive some positive critical reviews.”

    Which just goes to show that the writers of criticisms of popular books on the history of science know even less than the people who write them. Berlinski’s book on Newton contains some real howlers. I can’t give you details as I don’t own a copy and the library copy I read was through inter-library loan and getting it back will take at least a couple of weeks. I also find his attempt to present Newton’s personality extremely anoying as it is pure speculation of the worst sort and is very obviosly based on Berlinski’s own prejudices that he amply displays in his book on the history of calculus. I think the strangest aspect of the book is the extremely long chapter on vector analysis that is obviously only there as padding to fill an otherwise thin book.

  45. #45 Thony C.
    March 5, 2007

    P.S. all of his books get positive reviews as do lots of other popular books on the history of science that are even worse than Berlinski.

  46. #46 SteveF
    March 5, 2007

    Glen,

    I have been pondering recently, whether or not transitionals in the fossil record could, in theory, have been formed by Lamarkian evolution. Wouldn’t the two look fairly similar? What evidence would you look for to choose between the two hypotheses?

  47. #47 SLC
    March 5, 2007

    Re Thony C.

    Not having read the Newton biography, I am not personally in a position to comment intelligently (I have read 2 other biographies, both of which purport to show that Newton was, like the composer Richard Wagner, a throughly unpleasant individual who conducted feuds with a number of his contemporaries such as Robert Hooke, the Bernoullis, Gottfried von Leibnitz, and Christian Huygens).

    Re Torbjörn Larsson

    Dr. Berlinski has on many occasions compared the computational accuracy of evolutionary computations with those of Quantum Electrodynamics (QE), to the alleged detriment of the former. However, Dr. Berlinski has neglected to inform his readers as to the machinations required to arrive at those seemingly multi-significant digit agreements with experimental results (particularly the anomalous magnetic moment of the electron). The computations use the method of Feynman diagrams which provide a method of carrying out perturbation calculations around the fine structure constant. In fact, the entire procedure is, from a strict mathematical point of view preposterous.

    1. The method requires a procedure known as renormalization to remove logarithmically and quadratically divergent integrals. Although the concept of renormalization is valid, the notion of assuming that the so-called bare mass of the electron, and the photon and the bare electronic charge are infinite and can cancel out the divergent integrals by subtraction and division is mathematical nonsense.

    2. The resultant power series in the fine structure constant is an asymptotic series which will eventually diverge if enough terms are included. There is nothing wrong with this as a computational approximation but the claim that the theory is thus mathematically rigorous is preposterous.

    3. The Feynman diagram approach requires that a representation of the wave functions known as the Dirac (or interaction) representation be used. This representation is known to be mathematically nonexistent.

    4. Conveniently enough, QE is the only field theory which provides both accurate computations and is renormalizable (the field theory of strong interactions mediated by pi meson exchange is renormalization but provides no accurate computations as the interactions are too strong for a perturbation computation; the field theory of weak interactions is unrenormalizable).

  48. #48 Raging Bee
    March 5, 2007

    Did that Turkish science-basher creationist Yahya, or his gang of thugs the BAV, have anything to do with this confab?

  49. #49 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    March 5, 2007

    The comment box script didn’t like spaces inside blockquotes. I think it is readable anyway.

    The same applies to most of scienceblogs.com. Try putting a period in otherwise blank lines.

  50. #50 joe
    March 5, 2007

    jason, do you honestly believe that living things could design themselves so perfectly without any intellegince involved?

  51. #51 David D.G.
    March 5, 2007

    Joe, I’m sure Jason can answer for himself, but I’ll just take a preemptive opportunity to point out that your question PRESUPPOSES an existence of design as a hidden premise in the first place — and not just design itself, but “perfect” design!

    First, prove design AT ALL; this has not been done.

    Second, prove that this design is PERFECT; you’ll have a really tough time with this one, considering how many “hardware and software” flaws humanity puts up with!

    Third, prove the existence of any designing agency that would meet the specifics required to qualify under the conditions supported (hopefully) in the first two steps.

    Good luck, Joe. Let us know how you get on with that.

    ~David D.G.

  52. #52 Fred
    March 5, 2007

    Joe, who says living things were designed?

    That’s the whole issue: if ID folks and other creationist people insist that life is designed they’ve got to prove it. Then they have to prove who designed it and how it was created. Evolution has lots of proof, none of which is “well, come on, look at all this, isn’t it amazing?”

    A design requires a designer. But life wasn’t designed. It’s as simple as that.

  53. #53 SLC
    March 5, 2007

    Re joe

    Does Mr. joe consider the human spine to be intelligently designed? I know a number of bridge engineers who design bridges for a living who could design a better spine then we are stuck with.

  54. #54 Glen Davidson
    March 5, 2007

    I have been pondering recently, whether or not transitionals in the fossil record could, in theory, have been formed by Lamarkian evolution. Wouldn’t the two look fairly similar? What evidence would you look for to choose between the two hypotheses?

    It’s hard to discuss what one would expect in Lamarckian evolution, there being no truly analogous process to it that is known. Design isn’t really so tough, not until you encounter all of the weaseling by the IDists, since all we know of intelligent design is quite available. And if an honest ID is not exactly tightly constrained, it is still very different from what we’d expect of evolution in crucial aspects.

    Even so, we can look at what some Lamarckists have thought, and we can attempt to fill in some holes using what seem to be reasonable conjectures.

    For Lamarckism one might also look to Freud and Nietzsche (Nietzsche’s less orthodox in this respect than Freud, yet I’d characterize him as in the Lamarckian vein). An interesting aspect of Lamarckian beliefs is revealed especially in Freud, which is the assumption that evolution took place quite rapidly. Neither Freud nor Nietzsche commits even to a range of time, however you can just see how condensed their notions of evolution are compared with our own view. For example, Freud’s “death wish” is predicated upon life’s “memory” of when life didn’t exist, a bizarre notion in our minds in to many respects, including the fact that life probably began around 4 billion years ago and there may be very little memory of that time at all (organic chemistry might be the only direct connnection).

    Archaeopteryx dates to earlier than what one guesses is the entire age of life in Freud’s Lamarckian evolution (not that he denied natural selection, of course. He didn’t seem to think much about it, however). Therefore, just the ponderously slow (by comparison) RM + NS + evolution exampled by archaeopteryx is one difference from Lamarckian evolution as envisioned by those who actually accepted it as likely.

    We have to guess about what “Lamarckian evolution would really be”, beyond such simple notions held by later-day Lamarckists, since Lamarckism really is not something we can point to as “real”. We might prefer, of course, to be looking at DNA evidence rather than fossils to demonstrate “Darwinian evolution” vs. Lamarckian, it’s just that Berlinski had brought up fossils, not DNA, in that particular “objection” to “Darwinism”.

    One guess I would make is that, since Lamarckism is about organisms striving for advantage, sexual displays would be exaggerated in the extreme. Men’s pants would have “three legs,” one would think, if Lamarckism were the mechanism of evolution. As such it seems unworkable, for survival mechanisms would be ignored as sexuality is enhanced to absurd proportions.

    But okay, we’ll waive that objection to try to get a handle on other “expected differences”. I have to preface this bit with a question — just what sort of “strivings” for internal mechanisms of flight, or liver secretions, could an organism have? One has to again waive such objections to get to the fact that apparently birds evolved efficient flight in a rather piecemeal fashion, as expected by modern evolutionary theory, and as I would not expect of Lamarckism (yes I know that my version might be objected to as “not the real thing,” but as with ID there is no “real thing” to be found in order to guide my speculations, and I think I’m being fairly reasonable in trying to fill the gaps in Lamarckist thought).

    So archaeopteryx was “striving” to fly in the Lamarckian scenario. OK, but was it striving to fly well or poorly? Surely it was striving to fly well, not poorly. And yet archaeopteryx had some fairly good adaptations for flight, without having other adaptations that make modern birds efficient fliers.

    Archaeopteryx was not even thought to fly by some a few decades back, then someone pointed out that flying birds have asymmmetric feathers, non-flying birds have symmetric feathers (unless they lost flight relatively recently), and archaeopteryx definitely had asymmetric feathers which were shaped similarly to those of modern birds. Sure, it “strove” to fly and to fly well, hence it’s feathers are aerodynamically sculpted as we’d expect under Lamarckian ideas.

    Ah, yes, but archaeopteryx lacks a “critical ligamentous mechanism” that allows modern birds to effortlessly balance the forces existing in flying, while apparently archaeopteryx had to use muscles to perform the same function. See “A critical ligamentous mechanism in the evolution of avian flight” by David B. Baier, Stephen M. Gatesy & Farish A. Jenkins Jr. Nature pp. 307-310 v. 445 18 January 2007.

    Why do intermediate ligamentous structures appear in later birds (Ibid p. 308), and not in archaeopteryx? One might even try to manipulate Lamarckism to say that not all mechanisms of flight would change at the same pace (perhaps the “strivings” would concentrate on the more visible wings first), yet I can’t imagine why “strivings” for this ligamentous mechanism wouldn’t appear in archaeopteryx which already has well-formed feathers and wings. Are we supposed to chalk it up to free will, or some such thing, to “explain” why it didn’t enter into the archaeopteryx’s “strivings” earlier?

    By contrast, modern evolutionary theory really does predict a certain amount of unpredictability in evolution, something that seems not to enter much into these discussions. Lamarckism and ID cannot explain why arbitrary responses are made to the environment (note the differences between pterodactyl wings and bird wings, even though they share distant homologies) or why changes occur rather arbitrarily in time (not totally, of course, I’m bringing up the arbitrariness within the range of bird flight evolution). Clockwork change is contrary to evolutionary predictions, while one would tend to think that both ID and Lamarckism would act more regularly.

    Returning to the specific archaeopteryx questions, why did archaeopteryx strive for efficiency in one area and not another? One might ask the same of its having (heavy, especially considering the need for a solid bony jaw in which to socket them) teeth rather than a beak, the bony tail, and the less well-developed keel in archaeopteryx vs. modern birds. Indeed, the fact that in Lamarckian evolution “strivings” would be presumed to work on all of the difficulties of flight at once seems to be one reason why Lamarckians envisioned Lamarckian evolution as being quite rapid.

    IDists and creationists have hang-ups with respect to the “mosaic evolution” known and fairly well expected in “Darwinian evolution”, as they naively suppose that all of the mechanisms of flight would occur together. Likewise, in Lamarckism I have no reason to suppose that they would not, since a kind of intentional and telic purpose is supposed to drive Lamarckism, while in RM + NS + there are impedances both with respect to the available genetic material for change, and in opportunities for that change.

    One problem with Lamarckism, aside from the glaring lack of a mechanism, is that it is seriously lacking in constraints. Hence I would look more to the constrained predictive model, modern evolutionary theory, to see if it is reasonably supported by the evidence, than I would look for predictions from Lamarckism. Of course Lamarckists could look at what is lacking in archaeopteryx flight and say, ‘maybe it didn’t “strive” for better mechanisms because it didn’t need to fly long distances’ or some similar contrived excuse. The trouble is that these kinds of fitting the “predictions” to what we see is precisely that it is contrived and ad hoc, while “Darwinian evolution” does predict patterns which would be expected, and are actually seen according to the resolution that we have (yes I know that our biases are a concern in this area, nevertheless “mosaic evolution” really is expected by modern theory and not really expected via design or Lamarckian “strivings”).

    I should probably add that Lamarckism ought not be constrained by past inheritance like bird and bat evolution are. Presumably, true and abrupt novelty shouldn’t be unexpected in Lamarckism, and by the same token, vestigial structures ought to disappear readily with Lamarckism (I don’t know specifically of “vestigial structures” in archaeopteryx, but archaic structures with even greater disadvantages than most vestigials present certainly exist, notably the teeth and the bony tail). Furthermore, why wouldn’t archaeopteryx look at other animals and “strive” to gain their capacities and structures? In other words, we have some of the same questions for Lamarckists that we have for IDists, like why don’t archaeopteryx’s “copy” pterodactyls, or why don’t bats “copy” birds?

    And of course such “copying” is extremely rare in vertebrates, even if it is well-known and well-explained by processes in the eubacteria and archaebacteria. At the least, Lamarckism has no actual barrier to such borrowing, or to novelty, while vertebrate evolution does according to known genetic processes of evolution. Again, we use the constraints of evolutionary theory to point out that evolution is reasonably well-evidenced both via known processes and the effects expected from these processes, much more than we are able to constrain Lamarckian predictions to rule out Lamarckism.

    It is partly the lack of constraint in Lamarckism that causes us to reject it, vs. the established evolution according to “Mendelian” and “Darwinian” constraints that we happen to see. The problem is less that Lamarckism or ID actually rule out what we see in organisms as that they lack the constraints which would allow them to actually predict what we see. Nevertheless, when we try to reasonably extend either one according to what they say, both seem to actually predict effects which we don’t see (rational design in ID; exaggerated sexual displays, rapid evolution, and concurrent “strivings” toward efficient processes, and novelty in Lamarckism (some of the latter effects would also be expected in an ID evolution). It cannot be denied, however, that it is the close fit of archaeopteryx and modern genomes to the predictions of RM + NS + that truly differentiates the amorphous and fairly unconstrained “predictions” of ID and Lamarckism from the close fit between prediction and evidence in current evolutionary thought.

    The lack of arbitrary effects sensibly rules out the rather arbitrary “models” of ID and Lamarckism. The fit of RM + NS + evolutionary expectations and the evidence supports evolutionary theory, while the broad accommodation of effects by Lamarckism and ID means that these ideas simply claim what they cannot predict.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/35s39o

  55. #55 Glen Davidson
    March 5, 2007

    However, as illustrated in Figure 1, the standard phylogenetic tree is known to 38 decimal places, which is a much greater precision than that of even the most well-determined physical constants. [Bold added.]

    Thanks for the data, it is certainly interesting.

    I wonder, though, if it’s truly comparable to, say, the precision with which Maxwell’s equations describe what is seen. We are able to describe phylogenies quite precisely, but there’s an unpredictability to its historical “creation” that isn’t seen in typical physics equations.

    Regardless of that, I just wonder what goes through the head of someone like Berlinski who likes to bring up supposed improbabilities while neglecting to account for the apparent relatedness of all life. What are the odds that human and chimp similarites arose by chance? I am sure that it is far less likely than the imprecision that exists in predictions using Maxwell’s equations is.

    And we do happen to actually have mechanisms which tell us why humans and chimps appear to be related. They do not differ in kind from the mechanisms used to explain human relatedness, rather they’re essentially only quantitatively different in indicating divergence.

    Had Berlinski or the IDists an actual rival explanation (causes and effects which may be checked both as to cause and to effect) they might have reason to fault current explanations, for the latter are not at all complete. All they are doing at present is telling us that normal mechanisms which apparently explain relatedness and divergence at the “small scale” are not to be trusted at the “large scale”, despite there being no apparent mechanistic differences between the two (OK, there are apparent “macroevolutionary” changes which differ from “microevolutionary” changes, but they’re all part of the known mechanisms, and microevolutionary changes do overlap the macroevolutionary changes).

    The last parenthetical raises a question in my mind. How in the world can they accept microevolutionary changes while denying the microevolutionary changes evident during macroevolution (no matter how they define it)? After all, the DNA clock rests primarily on what are sensibly “microevolutionary” changes, yet apparently we can trust microevolutionary effects only in relatively recent times, not when they indicate that the “Cambrian phyla splits” happened well before the Cambrian documented these via hard body parts.

    Oh well, it’s the IDist (and Berlinskian Platonic) way, to cavil at relatively unproblematic “difficulties”, while they feel perfectly free to rip away any explanation for relatedness and divergence which is so abundantly attested in the fossil record as well as in present-day organisms.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/35s39o

  56. #56 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 6, 2007

    Just spotted this on ScienceDaily, and waiting for the ID folks to mutate it into woo:

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/03/070305202948.htm

    Source: University of Chicago Medical Center
    Date: March 5, 2007

    Two-step Process Filters Evolution Of Genes Of Human And Chimpanzee

    Science Daily � Although the human and chimpanzee genomes are distinguished by 35 million differences in individual DNA “letters,” only about 50,000 of those differences alter the sequences of proteins. Of those 50,000 differences, an estimated 5,000 may have adaptive consequences in the evolutionary divergence between these two species, according to a study published in the March 6, 2007, issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Before such a new and beneficial mutation can take its place in the human genome it has to pass through a rigorous two-step–negative and positive–screening process, say the study authors, evolutionary geneticists from the University of Chicago, the University of Tokyo and the University of Washington. Both steps focus on the most radical changes.

    In step one, mutations, the genetic equivalent of typographical errors, are randomly introduced. When these mutations are still rare in the population, only strongly deleterious ones get weeded out through negative selection. The more radical mutations are more likely to be harmful and quickly removed. For those that are only slightly harmful, neutral or beneficial, the selective forces are weak and luck determines their fates.

    In step two, a new mutation that has been fortunate enough to survive the initial elimination process, and confers some benefit, can then spread quickly through positive selection. The more radical the mutation, at this point, the faster it is likely to spread.

    “We found that the same genetic changes that are unlikely to survive early negative selection are the ones that spread most quickly once they gain a foothold,” said the study’s senior author Chung-I Wu, Ph.D., professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago. “To reach that conclusion, we needed to decouple the two steps of evolution and classify mutations into many different kinds.”

    The researchers used the very large survey of human genetic variation called HapMap for their analysis, which compared human variations with the chimpanzee genome. They focused their analysis on the simplest and most common mutations, those that alter just one letter, a single base pair, of DNA.

    DNA uses a three-letter code to designate the 20 types of amino acids that are strung together in specific order to create a protein. Some mutations alter just one letter of the code, replacing one link in a protein’s amino-acid chain with a different amino acid. While some of those substitutions make only a moderate difference in a protein’s structure or function, others have radical impact on its shape and performance.

    Radical amino acid changes alter protein function. Most of those are deleterious and get removed, but “when a mutation is beneficial, we do not know whether they tend to be the radical or moderate kind of amino acid changes,” Wu said. “Since beneficial changes are the ones that fuel evolution, we wanted to find out if these improvements are smooth or jerky.”

    When Wu and colleagues sorted these changes according to their evolutionary success, they found that radical changes were more harshly screened–negatively and positively–by the forces of evolution.

    When radical changes occurred, those mutations were far more likely to be eliminated by negative selection. But in rare cases, radical mutations escaped elimination by negative selection. Once they had established a beach head, occurring in as little as five percent of a population, these radical mutations tended to spread quickly throughout the species, their survival or reproductive advantage allowing them to gain ground over multiple generations.

    “We found that both positive and negative selection are more effective on the same subset of radical amino acid changes,” Wu said. “If changes from amino acid one to amino acid two are more likely to be deleterious, then some fraction of those very same changes is also more likely to be advantageous. In short, radical amino acid changes have trouble going through the first phase of evolution to reach even five percent in the population, but once they do, they have an easier time going through the second phase to prevail in the population.”

    Although the physical or chemical differences between the various amino acids should provide a straightforward measure of the “radicalness” of amino-acid substitutions, those measures did not correlate well with how these changes fared in evolution.

    “This tells us that we need new measures for how conservative or radical an amino acid change might be,” Wu said. “We need to base that on evolutionary dynamics in addition to biochemical structure.”

    Using these results, the researchers measured how many of the amino acid changes within functioning genes were adaptive–able to survive rigorous negative selection and then spread rapidly throughout a population. They estimated “the proportion of adaptive changes between human and chimpanzee to be 10.4 to 12.8 percent,” similar to previous estimates using entirely different approaches.

    When they multiplied that result times current estimates of the number of functional genes, it came to about 3,000 to 7,000.

    “These are the genetic changes that are possibly adaptive,” said Wu. “Out of those differences, we suspect that some, and perhaps most, are responsible for the most significant changes between human and chimpanzee.”

    The National Institutes of Health funded the study. Additional authors were Jun Gojobori of the University of Tokyo, Hua Tang of the University of Chicago, and Joshua Akey of the University of Washington.

    Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by University of Chicago Medical Center.

  57. #57 Torbjörn Larsson
    March 6, 2007

    SLC:

    In fact, the entire procedure is, from a strict mathematical point of view preposterous.

    I assume that you are not satisfied with the QM precision I mentioned. The reason I call it “allegedly” is because it was a comment that I haven’t checked. Unfortunately, I haven’t studied QFT’s, so I can’t say much here. But it is my understanding that QM quantization isn’t mathematically rigorously defined (nor Feynman path integrals, btw) so in this sense it is less solid. I assume physicists are happy with it.

    Although the concept of renormalization is valid, the notion of assuming that the so-called bare mass of the electron, and the photon and the bare electronic charge are infinite and can cancel out the divergent integrals by subtraction and division is mathematical nonsense.

    My impression is that this canceling can be made precise and method independent by introduction of a UV regulator.

    Anyway, I once read this description of UV and IR physics of field theories: http://motls.blogspot.com/2006/04/detlev-buchholz-algebraic-quantum_21.html . I note that this string physicist discuss effective theories in the light of its scale. He doesn’t care about any breakdown on the scales where he thinks the theory doesn’t apply, say close to the Planck scale, as long as the relevant physics has a finite and robust description at the relevant scale. I think that is intuitively correct.

    Btw, I like his explanation of IR divergences as describing processes with unobservable low-energy particles. “At any rate, if you ask physically meaningful questions with a cutoff, these problems become non-problems. [...] The perturbative expansion in nice theories such as QED works whenever the coupling constant is small and whenever we ask meaningful questions.”

  58. #58 Torbjörn Larsson
    March 6, 2007

    Glen:

    I wonder, though, if it’s truly comparable to, say, the precision with which Maxwell’s equations describe what is seen.

    It seems unfamiliar to me too, since the precision comes from a choice among possible candidates. If there were a physical branching process with identifiable branches that one should choose from, it would presumably yield the same precision.

    Now, that gets me thinking of the Feynman diagrams that SLC just discussed. They are handled differently, which results in lower precision, but it seems to me the comparatively high precision compared to other models have the same source.

    The difference is, as you note, in a probabilistic vs an idealized deterministic situation, here the tree. But the QM stochasticity recurs again in the real outcome of an observed interaction. In the evolution case, it would affect accuracy.

    It seems to me the talkorigin text (but perhaps not the paper) only discusses model error (“if tests of the theory of common descent performed that poorly, different phylogenetic trees, as shown in Figure 1, would have to differ by 18 of the 30 branches!”).

    The measurement error (lack of fossils) weren’t mentioned, nor the contingency of the process you mention. The later should perhaps be modelable in principle, but it seems very hard to constrain the possibilities of characters and speciation. :-)

    Jonathan:

    Now they will start pounding Haldane’s dilemma again.

    Which is interesting, because with such data as you described it is already answered in detail or it could possibly be. The last analysis on ReMine’s claims I know of was giving a general answer with probable mechanisms but noted that with data it should be possible to pin down a definite answer.

  59. #59 Torbjörn Larsson
    March 6, 2007

    SLC:

    I forgot to address this:

    the field theory of strong interactions mediated by pi meson exchange is renormalization but provides no accurate computations as the interactions are too strong for a perturbation computation; the field theory of weak interactions is unrenormalizable).

    You seem to paint a bleak picture, consistent with your analysis on the usefulness of QFT’s.

    QCD theory is as I think you say evidently fine in asymptotic freedom, but hard to calculate for real tests. But as I understand it the individual tests have moved from qualitative to quantitative, ie better than 5 % imprecision in some cases. (It was hard to pin down any recent numbers, so I extrapolate from the text of one presentation here.)

    Electroweak theory has predicted some particle masses, so it can’t be dead in the water either.

  60. #60 SLC
    March 6, 2007

    Re Larsson

    Perhaps I didn’t make my comments clear enough. There is no question that QED provides results which are in agreement with experiment to multiple numbers of significant digits. This is the justification for glossing over the mathematical absurdities involved. The argument is that there must be something to the theory if such agreement with observations is achieved (by the way, the level of agreement with observations exceeds that of virtually every other scientific theory). My argument was that Berlinski, who sometimes purports to be a mathematician, should be aware of the mathematical problems with QED before he beats up on biologists for not having a theory of evolution of comparable precision.

  61. #61 Torbjörn Larsson
    March 6, 2007

    SLC:

    The argument is that there must be something to the theory if such agreement with observations is achieved (by the way, the level of agreement with observations exceeds that of virtually every other scientific theory).

    Yes, and when the physicist adds the knowledge that it is an effective and not fundamental theory it seems it is physically rigorous – it gives robust and meaningful answers to physical questions.

    All physical theories have singularities of course, but I believe quantum field theories removes some of the classical field theories singularities, and string theory removes some of QFT’s.

    My argument was that Berlinski, who sometimes purports to be a mathematician, should be aware of the mathematical problems with QED before he beats up on biologists for not having a theory of evolution of comparable precision.

    Ah. Good point.

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