Coyne vs. Nelson

Jerry Coyne has an interesting post up reporting on an e-mail he received from Paul Nelson. Nelson is a prominent young-Earth creationist, though he also circulates freely among the ID folks. Nelson, annoyed by Coyne’s emphasis on the importance of natural selection in evolution, sent Coyne an e-mail, part of which I now reproduce:

Skepticism about the efficacy of natural selection is widespread within evolutionary biology (see below). Jim Shapiro is hardly alone in this regard. So when you tell your WEIT audience that natural selection is the only game in town for building complex adaptations, you can expect two consequences:

1. Readers who already know about the thinking of workers such as Eric Davidson, Michael Lynch, Andreas Wagner, John Gerhart & Marc Kirschner, or Scott Gilbert (all of whom, among many others, have recently expressed frank doubts about selection) must discount what you say about the centrality of natural selection to evolutionary theory — because they know that just isn’t so.

2. Readers who do not already know about Davidson, Lynch, etc. — upon coming across their ideas — must wonder why you told them that natural selection is the sine qua non of evolutionary explanation.

Either outcome is bad.

Now, it just so happens that Jerry personally knows all of the folks whose names Nelson so gamely dropped. So he sent out an e-mail, letting them know that their work was being used in support of anti-evolution arguments. You can find their replies in Jerry’s posts. I’ll let you go to Jerry’s blog to read them, but I’m sure you can guess how things went.

Nelson could not have been more clear that he was talking about the ability of natural selection to account for complex adaptations. And, as is equally clear from Jerry’s reporting, none of the gentlemen Nelson cites challenge the ability of natural selection to craft such adaptations. They might challenge this or that esoteric aspect of modern theory, but when it comes to the points at which anti-evolutionists direct their fire they are in agreement with traditional theory. Complex adaptations arise gradually under the auspices of natural selection.

In some cases what is being challenged is “adapationism.” That is, someone might agree that natural selection accounts for adaptions, but also believe that much of evolution is non-adaptive. In that sense they might be downplaying the centrality of natural selection. In other cases people are suggesting that modern genetics is revealing that variation is a more complex phenomenon than traditional theory allows. However, regardless of the origins of the variations, they must still pass through the sieve of natural selection. Still others are pointing to the renewed emphasis on development (embryology) in evolution, which had largely been ignored by the founders of the Modern Synthesis. But, again, this is an enrichment of textbook theory, not a repudiation of it.

Nelson showed up in the comments thread of Jerry’s post, and an interesting discussion ensued. I recommend browsing through it; it won’t be hard to distinguish the interesting comments from the standard ranting. Nelson produces various quotes from the authors he cites, while others explain patiently why those quotes don’t say what Nelson needs them to say. Throughout the discussion, two points became clear to me.

The first is that, in light of the responses given to Jerry by the scholars whose work Nelson cites, it is clear that they do not at all challenge either the efficacy of natural selection in crafting complex adaptations, or the centrality of selection in evolution in any sense that would be helpful to anti-evolutionists. Any attempt to use their words to make it seem they are saying otherwise must, therefore, be a misrepresentation.

The other point, however, is that it is simply bizarre for an anti-evolutionist to use these authors in the manner Nelson attempts to do. You see, to the extent that they are challenging textbook theory, it is in the direction of saying that the Modern Synthesis unreasonably limited its explanatory options. They are not saying that there are fundamental problems that modern theory can’t explain, and that we must consequently grope around for some new theory. They are saying instead that the palette of evolutionary explanations includes more than the architects of the synthesis realized.

I am not qualified to judge the merits of their claims in that regard, but if they are right that is far worse for ID and creationism than it is for evolution. If the critics are right then natural explanations are even more fecund and productive than previously thought. Accepting all of their arguments does not at all suggest we must resort to the invocation of a designer to account for biological complexity. Quite the opposite in fact.

Moving on, the e-mail Nelson sent to Jerry also includes a link to a talk Nelson recently gave at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. I have now listened to that talk (the video did not seem to be working, so I had to settle just for the audio.) Nelson opens with some bravado about how he is going to present completely incontrovertible evidence of design in nature. In light of the confidence of this opening, it is surprising that he provides only a single scientific argument. He argues that natural selection cannot account for the fundamentally different body plans we see in nature.

Early in the talk he refers to worms, flies and sea urchins as examples of fundamentally different body plans, and says specifically that it is very difficult to “interconvert” between them. His basis for this assertion is that the basic body plans are laid down early in development, meaning that, to alter them, natural selection would need to work on mutations affecting early development. But, as studied in modern organisms, such mutations are nearly always fatal, because their effects cascade throughout the process. Mutations affecting the later stages of development might change incidental characteristics of the organism, but the fundamental body plans will not be altered.

Now, let us leave aside the philosophical dubiousness of presenting a single challenge to one aspect of modern theory as clear evidence for design. Regarding the argument itself, it sure seems to me that Nelson has overlooked something simple. No evolutionist is talking about “interconverting” one modern organism into another. No one is trying to change a fly into a sea urchin. Obviously, if you have a modern, highly complex, organism and start messing with its early development, it’s going to be very difficult to make a beneficial change. But that’s not at all what evolutionists need for the theory to work.

The fundamental body plans were laid down very early in the evolutionary process, and those first mutations that set flies down their paths and sea urchins down theirs would not have looked like dramatic macromutations at the time. In fact, they would have been hard to recognize, at that time, as mutations of fundamental importance. So I don’t see how Nelson’s argument provides much reason for doubting the ability of evolution to account for the various different body plans. Once these plans are in place, fundamental change becomes difficult and evolution inevitably gets channeled into just a few directions. But even large transitions, like those between land-dwelling quadrupeds and whales, or between reptiles and mammals, both well-documented in the fossil record, do not require changes in the fundamental body plans.

Nelson’s talk features a second argument. Early on, Nelson quotes Bertrand Russell as saying that there was insufficient evidence for believing in God. The audience chuckles at Russell, fancying themselves more clever than he. But this leaves the question of why it is that so many really smart, savvy scientists, people who really know their subject, do not find Nelson’s evidence for design to be persuasive. They could all be wrong, but they can’t all be crazy or stupid.

Nelson argues that the commitment of science to methodological naturalism (MN) blinds scientists to what is put so plainly before them. It is a requirement of their profession that only naturalistic explanations are acceptable, you see. We are to believe, apparently, that this requirement is so blinding that they are unable to see things that are obvious to Nelson’s more clear-thinking audience.

This is the standard ID explanation for the popularity of evolution among scientists. It is, sadly, a ridiculous argument. As I explain in Chapter 20 of Among the Creationists, I have my problems with some of the rhetoric people on my side have used in defense of MN. But even if we accept Nelson’s characterization of it as a hard and fast rule, the fact remains that there is no requirement that scientists slavishly accept any old naturalistic explanation that comes along. It’s perfectly acceptable to say we don’t have a scientific explanation for the origin of species.

Moreover, being a scientist is not the entirety of anyone’s life. Scientists could agree that when practicing their profession they accept the constraints of certain conventions, and that invocations of supernatural intelligent designers are not part of their professional lives, while also believing that the evidence points strongly to an intelligent designer. But that is not what is happening. Scientists are not all mopey and dejected because their profession requires them to accept evolution when privately they think it’s a weak theory. Instead it is defended enthusiastically by virtually everyone in the relevant areas of science, while Nelson’s arguments are dismissed angrily not just as unscientific, but as totally worthless on the merits.

There is, I would think, also a theological problem with Nelson’s argument. On the one hand, he claims that the evidence for God’s existence is so overwhelming and unambiguous that anyone who has not been blinded by ideological prejudice can see it clearly. But the fact remains that the evidence Nelson cites is not thought to be persuasive by the vast majority of professional scientists, the folks, mind you, who really understand this subject backward and forward. This includes a great many Christian biologists who, while certainly not laboring under an anti-supernatural bias, nonetheless think the evidence Nelson presents is a poor reason for believing in God.

So what is God playing at? Does He want His existence to be completely obvious or not? If He does, then why does He leave clues that are, for the most part, persuasive only to people who know little about science? And if He does not, perhaps so that we may be said to have a free choice about coming to faith, then why does He leave such powerful clues at all. In his talk, Nelson suggests that all evidence gets filtered through the biases of the person interpreting it, so that mere quantity of evidence is not really what matters. This is fatuous, of course. Yes, we all suffer under the weight of our biases and preconceptions, but most people are not so dogmatic in their beliefs that absolutely nothing can change their minds. Prior to Darwin, most scientists accepted Paley’s design argument as entirely convincing. The evidence presented by Darwin and his successors caused most people to change their minds. If God wants His existence to be completely obvious, I have no doubt he could manifest Himself in ways that would convince virtually everyone. He would not need to rely on clues that are compelling only to those who do not know what they are talking about.

Comments

  1. #1 Charles Sullivan
    December 19, 2012

    Good stuff. But did you say Jerry’s ‘blog’?

  2. #2 The whole truth
    USA
    December 19, 2012

    Jason, I basically agree with the gist of your article but I think that “craft” should instead be ‘results in’, or something similar. I also think that the scientists Nelson quoted should be more clear when they make their points. With all the IDiots out there scanning for something they can use against the ToE, scientists and science writers should be very careful about how they say things.

    I’m curious; why do you capitalize “God” and “He”?

  3. #3 JimR.
    December 19, 2012

    In his new book, “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder”, N. N. Taleb presents his arguments for the economic systems that gain from the failure of fragile systems. The argument is very similar to natural selection in its workings. The difference is in the focus on the “hormesis” effect an antifragile system has when stressed and some components may fail. The other difference is the focus on the positive effect of the failures, not on the win of the survivors which is embodied in ‘survival of the fittest’.

    It is an interesting read with a different viewpoint on essentially the same subject, except economic systems vs, biological. There is also no Intelligent Designer. There is additional discussion at: http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/

  4. #4 MNb
    December 19, 2012

    “scientists and science writers should be very careful”
    No way. Scientists aren’t responsible for the lies of IDiots. This is especially true for scientists living and working in countries where IDiots are a marginal group, like most European countries.
    On the contrary, on Coyne’s site Nelson has done a very good job exposing the dishonesty of IDiots.
    1. I admire Nelson’s courage to defend his lies in front of a hostile audience.
    2. Nelson’s persistence to state that four pro’s don’t understand what they write themselves amazes me.
    3. Nelson’s arrogance to claim that he understands those pro’s better than they do themselves is ridiculous – and unchristian (9th commandment, 1st deadly sin).

  5. #5 Larry Moran
    December 19, 2012

    … when it comes to the points at which anti-evolutionists direct their fire they are in agreement with traditional theory. Complex adaptations arise gradually under the auspices of natural selection.

    If you read the comments on Jerry’s blog you’ll see that Michael Lynch disagrees. He believes that complex adaptations can arise by nonadaptive mechanisms. I agree with him and so do many other biologists (e.g. Eugene Koonin).

    You’ll also see a comment from Paul Nelson where he says, “Seriously, Larry — nowhere did I say that any of the authors under discussion denied (a) the existence of natural selection, or that (b) natural selection produces adaptations.”

    I believe Paul. Nowhere in his writing does he claim that those authors deny the existence of natural selection and it’s important role in adaptation.

    But here’s the question that Jerry asked of those authors,

    I have read the papers of many of you, and while I know that several of you question aspects of modern evolutionary theory, I wasn’t aware that any of you denied the efficacy of selection in accounting for adaptations.

    I’m not speaking here of the prevalence among episodes of evolutionary change of selection versus other mechanisms such as drift, but of the prevalence of selection in explaining obvious adaptations like mimicry, the speed of cheetahs, and so on.

    I don’t think Paul Nelson expressed himself as clearly as he could have but I also don’t think Jerry Coyne represented Nelson’s views correctly in his letter to Eric Davidson, Michael Lynch, Andreas Wagner, John Gerhart, Marc Kirschner, and Scott Gilbert.

  6. #6 Ça alors!
    December 19, 2012

    I’m a neophyte with the Theory of Evolution, I mean with the specific details and mechanisms behind the whole process.

    It looks like there is a debate concerning the importance of Natural Selection in the whole process. The “traditional school” seems to claim it is the main, and by far, mechanism while a “new school” pretends it plays an important role, but maybe not as predominant as we used to think.

    But it is certainly not honest to claim that M. Nelson or M. Shapiro are anti-selectionnists. Not if you read what they wrote recently.

    That M. Coyne knows personally the authors M. Nelson cited changes nothing to the fact that they expressed doubts toward Natural Selection as it is now officially understood.

    Of course, Nelson’s belief diminishes its credibility but this is not the point. What is debated here is the predominance of Natural Selection. It looks like the Theory of Evolution is evolving in new directions that M. Coyne believes to be incorrect.

    But again, I don’t think that those who are questioning the predominance of Natural Selection can be labeled as anti-selectionist as we often read on M. Coyne’s blog. It doesn’t help to understand why many biologists disagree with the “traditional school”, and I’m not talking here about IDist.

  7. #7 Bernard Leikind
    Encinitas, CA (near San Diego)
    December 19, 2012

    Methodological naturalism is not the fundamental assumption of science. It is a conclusion of more than three centuries of research in all areas.

    The belief that is fundamental goes back to the 17th century beginnings of modern science. The founders of the Royal Society chose as their motto, Nullius in verba, which (I have to take their words for it.) is Latin for “Take nobody’s word for it.”

    Put in modern terms, I’d say that this is the idea that to learn the truth about nature, we must ask nature through observation, experiment, and thought. She may be subtle and deep, but unlike some humans she does not make false reports or intentionally deceive us.

    For more than three centuries, scientists have not found a single example when this principal, trust what nature tells us about herself, has led them astray. Of course, scientists have made mistakes and will continue to do so. But the only honest judge of what is correct about nature is nature.

    The application of this principal has shown that other purported sources of truth, revelation and authority, are unreliable.

    For these reasons, modern scientists investigating at the frontiers of our knowledge begin with the assumption (which is really a justified conclusion from earlier research) of methodological naturalism.

  8. #8 Blaine
    December 19, 2012

    As long as presupposionalism ( ala Plantinga ) lives among fundamentalist Christians, there will no end to people like Nelson. Evidence is largely irrelevant to these folks. Evidentialism was killed and buried by the early twentieth century, so we saw the rise of fundamentalism, neo-orthodoxy and presuppositionalism. These Christians just now assume the truth of their positions. Plantinga’s new book, _Where the Conflict Really Lies_ is a case in point.

  9. #9 dean
    December 19, 2012

    I’m not sure what Nelson sought to gain by this. Folks like him typically spew their lies to those already on their side, folks who will not attempt to look for the facts, or don’t have the capability to do so. They get a safe zone in which to speak, or write, and their target audience gets to leave continuing to believe that folks like Nelson are lone candles in the scientific wind, fighting to replace godless evolution with the spiritual truth.

    So why would he send the letter to Coyne – he had to know he’d get shot down. Any idea about an ulterior motive?

  10. #10 MNb
    December 19, 2012

    “I also don’t think Jerry Coyne represented Nelson’s views correctly”
    Bollocks, Larry Moran.
    Jerry Coyne attached Paul Nelson’s mail to his mails send to the five biologists. They all five have read the attachment too. Initially there may have been some kind of misunderstanding, but not after PN has read the reactions of these five biologists. Still PN persists. Just read the comments.

  11. #11 Ça alors!
    December 19, 2012

    @MNb
    The debate here is distorted because Nelson is presented as an anti-selectionnist, which he isn’t. He just doesn’t believe (for obvious reasons) that Natural Selection is the first and main motor that drives Evolution. And to illustrate that, he cites several authors who also believe that Natural Selection doesn’t work like we thought. So I don’t know what is the issue here. What Nelson says could also have been said by an atheist…

    Of course, it may serves well Nelson to believe that Natural Selection isn’t as random as we used to believe. But that Nature may have some kind of self-awareness and reacts to its environment wouldn’t make this process a supernatural one. But nothing there brings justification to Creationism, but yes, this is the closer we could get…

  12. #12 eric
    December 19, 2012

    The whole truth:

    I also think that the scientists Nelson quoted should be more clear when they make their points. With all the IDiots out there scanning for something they can use against the ToE, scientists and science writers should be very careful about how they say things.

    I don’t think there is a “clear enough” that one can’t be quote mined by a creationist. Maybe Larry has a point that the back and forth was a bit unclear on both sides. But does anybody really doubt that (1) Nelson is claiming no evolutionary process can account for different body plans, while (2) Coyne and all the scientist contacted accept that some evolutionary process can account for them?

    Ca alors:

    The debate here is distorted because Nelson is presented as an anti-selectionnist, which he isn’t. He just doesn’t believe (for obvious reasons) that Natural Selection is the first and main motor that drives Evolution.

    I have not listened/watched his church speech, but from what Jason says, you are drastically understating his rejection with modern evolutionary theory. So drastically understating it that I question your motives. Based on Jason’s report, Nelson does not think any evolutionary mechanism can account for different body plans. That is extremely different from merely disagreeing with “Natural Selection is the first and main motor that drives Evolution.”

  13. #13 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 20, 2012

    Larry –

    If you read the comments on Jerry’s blog you’ll see that Michael Lynch disagrees. He believes that complex adaptations can arise by nonadaptive mechanisms. I agree with him and so do many other biologists (e.g. Eugene Koonin).

    You’ll also see a comment from Paul Nelson where he says, “Seriously, Larry — nowhere did I say that any of the authors under discussion denied (a) the existence of natural selection, or that (b) natural selection produces adaptations.”

    I believe Paul. Nowhere in his writing does he claim that those authors deny the existence of natural selection and it’s important role in adaptation.

    Since the comment thread to Jerry’s post is rather long, perhaps you can provide a link to the comment where Lynch says anything like what you are attributing to him. Nelson’s e-mail, in the part I quoted at the start of my post, specifically referred to the ability of natural selection to build complex adaptations. He then talks about how numerous scientists, Lynch among them, have expressed “frank doubts” about selection. If it was not his intention to say that Lynch and the others question the ability of natural selection to build complex adaptations, then that is mighty poor writing on Nelson’s part.

    Lynch, in his reply to Jerry, says specifically, “You are correct that it is wrong to characterize me as someone who doesn’t believe in the efficacy of natural selection. Although I have pushed for a role for genetic drift a good deal more than other folks in evolution, my general stance is that the relative power of drift (and mutation) dictates the paths down which natural selection can (and cannot) proceed in different lineages.” If, in referring to his belief in the efficacy of natural selection, Lynch did not mean that he thinks selection can build complex adaptations, then I would charge him with poor writing as well.

    In the comment that you quote, Nelson says, “(b)natural selection produces adaptations.” That phrasing is too cagey for me. The issue is complex adaptations, like eyes and flagellae and immune systems, and not just adaptations in general. ID folks and creationists don’t have a problem with using natural selection to explain antibiotic resistance or changes in moth coloration. So when a prominent anti-evolutionist opens by talking about scientists expressing frank doubts about selection in the context of building complex adaptations, and then later refers simply to natural selection existing and producing adaptations, I am not satisfied.

    Moving on, you say that you and many other biologists believe that complex adaptations can “arise” by nonadaptive mechanisms. That phrasing is extremely vague. So let me ask you bluntly: Do you believe that complex, functionally integrated, systems of the sort at which ID folks direct their fire, such as eyes and whatnot, arise very gradually as naturally-occurring variations get passed through the sieve of natural selection? If your answer is no then I would find that very interesting. I would also want some specifics about the precise mechanism that you think did build those systems. If you answer yes, as I suspect you do, then I don’t see how Jerry needs to apologize for anything he has said.

    In this comment Nelson quotes Lynch rejecting adaptationism, but since in this quote Lynch says nothing about the ability of natural selection to build complex adaptations I don’t see how it is helpful at all to anything Nelson is saying.

    Later, in this comment he quotes Lynch referring to “recognizing nonadaptive paths to the origin of organismal features,” but that also is not relevant. Various complex systems might have nonadaptive origins, but that in no way implies that their modern, highly complex, functionally integrated form was not built by selection.

    That impression is strengthened by the quote provided in this comment, in which Lynch talks about how protein complexes that might have arisen for nonadaptive reasons can then serve as “launching pads” on which natural selection builds greater complexity. And that is consistent with what Lynch said in his reply to Jerry about how drift dictates the paths down which natural selection can travel.

    I see nothing in any of this that suggests that complex adaptations arise in anything but the gradual manner suggested by traditional theory.

    Nelson has not earned the benefit of any doubts, and he has not earned the right to have his words given their most charitable interpretation. When he speaks publicly, as he did at Saddleback, he is not telling his audiences that biologists argue about the relative roles of drift and selection or that some scientists think non-adaptive aspects of evolution have not been given sufficient attention. Instead he tells his audiences that natural selection is a dead theory, fundamentally incapable of explaining what is sets out to explain. Then he quote-mines scientists to make it appear that they agree. The bottom line is that there is nothing in the work of anyone Nelson cites that is remotely helpful to anti-evolutionism. But in his public presentations he tries to make it appear otherwise.

    A final question: If Nelson has accurately presented Lynch’s views, then why did Lynch get so angry in his reply to Nelson’s e-mail? Jerry showed him Nelson’s e-mail, he did not have to rely on any characterization on Jerry’s part. Lynch could simply have said that Nelson described his views accurately, but that there is nothing in his work to suggest anything that is helpful to ID folks. About that second part he would have been correct, as I pointed out in my post.

  14. #14 MNb
    December 20, 2012

    Which part don’t you understand, Ca Alors?

    Nelson writes: “Readers …. must discount what you say about the centrality of natural selection to evolutionary theory — because they know that just isn’t so.”
    The biologists mentioned in this quote (JR gave the link in his article) explicitly make clear that Newton should not refer to them for this. Now I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt here and accept misunderstanding.

    Davidson: “Of course I would not disagree for one second about the importance of adaptive selection”

    Lynch: “it is wrong to characterize me as someone who doesn’t believe in the efficacy of natural selection.”

    Still in the comments Nelson just maintains that those biologists still have “frank doubts about selection”.
    If that isn’t lying then I don’t know what is.
    I don’t know about Nelson’s speeches either. What has been written on Coyne’s site is clear enough.

  15. #15 Alex SL
    http://phylobotanist.blogspot.com
    December 20, 2012

    Prior to Darwin, most scientists accepted Paley’s design argument as entirely convincing. The evidence presented by Darwin and his successors caused most people to change their minds.

    Well put. This is what happened, as opposed to scientists concluding, with supposed the philosophical purity of metaphysical naturalism, that we don’t know what created biological diversity. Before you have a better explanation, special creation sounds quite reasonable.

    My favourite thought experiment is this: we find an alien planet with many biological species, but no fossil record until about 500,000 years ago, and in those sediments the fossils already look pretty much like the extant organisms. What is more, there is no phylogenetic structure to the species, neither morphologically nor genetically. Once we have studied their mutation rates and population genetics, we also realize that they all have more or less the genetic diversity that one would expect if they started ca 500,000 years ago with perfect genetic health but also complete intraspecific genetic uniformity.

    In that situation, what would be the most obvious conclusion? Intelligent design of course, with some as of yet unknown, terraforming, bioengineering alien intelligence as the prime suspect. But well, our world looks very different, and so a different conclusion is more reasonable. (/understatement)

    I find these discussions about adaptationism a bit puzzling, by the way. Of course it is silly to make adaptation the null hypothesis in every case. As a botanist, I would clearly not assume that all the various leaf shapes exhibited by the species of oaks are the result of adaptation.

    But Larry Moran appears to go a bit to far to the other side. As I wrote earlier elsewhere, what is alive today is but a tiny fragment of what could have survived, and what diversity we see is but a tiny fragment of the possible pheno- or gene-space, if you will. Most conceivable combinations of traits or genes would be instantly lethal. And all that means logically that everything we see alive is adapted to its environment, an environment in which it can live.

  16. #16 ftfkdad
    December 20, 2012

    “why does He leave clues that are, for the most part, persuasive only to people who know little about science? ”
    Brilliant!

  17. #17 Another Matt
    United States
    December 20, 2012

    Larry Moran:

    He believes that complex adaptations can arise by nonadaptive mechanisms.

    Is this even a coherent belief? If something arises through a nonadaptive mechanism how could it possibly still be called an “adaptation?”

  18. #18 The whole truth
    December 20, 2012

    eric said:

    “I don’t think there is a “clear enough” that one can’t be quote mined by a creationist. Maybe Larry has a point that the back and forth was a bit unclear on both sides.”

    You’re right that creationists will quote mine and distort pretty much anything if they think it will further their agenda but I still think that the scientists Nelson quoted (and some others at times) should be careful to make their points as clearly as possible, for a couple of reasons. One, that it would make it easier to refute the ID-creationists’ distortions of what they quote mine, and two, it would make it easier for anyone reading the scientists’ words to correctly understand their points.

    “But does anybody really doubt that (1) Nelson is claiming no evolutionary process can account for different body plans, while (2) Coyne and all the scientist contacted accept that some evolutionary process can account for them?”

    I agree that that’s the bottom line, in all of the arguments between the opposing ‘sides’. I think it really comes down to the acceptance of natural evolution versus special creation and other religious beliefs.

  19. #19 craig gosling
    Indianapolis
    December 20, 2012

    It is a feeble god that leaves feeble clues about his existence, and has not been able to discredit evolution. Why is good evidence of God’s existence non-existent? As J. B. S. Haldane famously noted, “I will give up my belief in evolution if someone finds a fossil rabbit in the Precambrian.” I ask, is there any evidence that would convince Nelson that evolution is true and his God is not?

  20. #20 Kevin
    December 20, 2012

    “The audience chuckles at Russell, fancying themselves more clever than he”

    And you make this comment, fancying yourself more clever than they.

  21. #21 peter
    December 20, 2012

    Kevin comments:

    …“The audience chuckles at Russell, fancying themselves more clever than he”

    And you make this comment, fancying yourself more clever than they. …

    Yes, and the earlier fancying is false, the latter true. Does Kevin think otherwise? Perhaps Kevin thinks himself more clever than all of us. Or maybe I do. So what? The only relevant comment here is Jason’s, because he follows it with something to which the “fancying” is germane. Your remark is childish, as in children thinking they have countered something to which they disagree by simply saying ‘You think you’re sooo smart’, and leaving it at that.

  22. #22 Another Matt
    United States
    December 20, 2012

    I ask, is there any evidence that would convince Nelson that evolution is true and his God is not?

    Perhaps if God came down and told him directly “I do not exist”?

  23. #23 MNb
    December 20, 2012

    Good point, Alex. If any supernatural entity ever had to do with earthly business we sooner or later should find traces we can analyze statistically.

  24. #24 Lou Jost
    December 20, 2012

    Nelson’s original argument claimed flies, worms, and sea urchins have fundamentally different body plans that cannot be transformed into each other.
    Has he not noticed that baby flies are MAGGOTS, wormy legless wriggly things that transform themselves into flies by the millions every day? Does god have to help each one of them? No wonder we can see no other evidence of god acting in the world; the flies will demand his full attention.

    PS Jason, my family in Wisconsin got your book. Thank you.

  25. #25 Larry Moran
    December 21, 2012

    Jason,

    There are several issues at play here. The issue that’s of most interest to me is whether natural selection alone can account for all of the complex features we see in today’s species.

    Michael Lynch is one of those people who argue that complex features that are currently adaptive can arise by nonadaptive mechanisms. The example that came up on Jerry’s blog was the spliceosome . I asked Mike if he would clarify his position and I posted his rely in the comments on Jerry’s blog.

    Here’s what Michael Lynch said,

    In any event, I certainly would say that numerous aspects of the spliceosome Could have arisen by nonadaptive pathways (at least those not involving the emergence of an entirely new function), but that’s not the same as insisting that this is the only way it could have happened. It’s pretty clear that today’s spliceosomes are under selection.
    …Michael Lynch

    In your response to my comment you pull the same trick that Jerry Coyne pulled; namely, shifting the conversation to specific features that everyone agrees are primarily the result of natural selection (e.g. .eyes).

    You ask,

    Moving on, you say that you and many other biologists believe that complex adaptations can “arise” by nonadaptive mechanisms. That phrasing is extremely vague. So let me ask you bluntly: Do you believe that complex, functionally integrated, systems of the sort at which ID folks direct their fire, such as eyes and whatnot, arise very gradually as naturally-occurring variations get passed through the sieve of natural selection? If your answer is no then I would find that very interesting. I would also want some specifics about the precise mechanism that you think did build those systems. If you answer yes, as I suspect you do, then I don’t see how Jerry needs to apologize for anything he has said.

    This is a red herring and you can be excused only because I don’t think you have read and understood what Michael Lynch is saying. Here’s what he writes in “The Origins of Genome Architecture” (p. 379)

    Is there any justification for thinking that nonadaptive processes could have played a role in the evolution of something as intricate as cell architectural or developmental features? Although there is no need to abandon the idea that many of the external morphological or behavioral manifestations of cellular complexity in today’s organisms are adaptive, understanding the roots of the hallmarks multicellularity (e.g. multiple cell types, complex patterns of gene expression, and mechanisms of cell signalling) requires knowledge of the processes that facilitate the prior establishment of the genomic material that makes their evolution possible. The challenge here is that although numerous embellishments of eukaryotic genes are exploited in functionally adaptive ways in today’s multicellular species, most such modifications are mutationally disadvantageous, and there is no evidence that they were of immediate adaptive value to the first unicellular species to harbor them. There are two broad mechanisms by which nonadaptive evolution at the genomic level might precipitate a cascade of events at higher levels of organization, and in both cases, the salient point is that certain types of cellular/developmental architecture are more likely to emerge evolutionarily in some population genetic environments than in others, independent of external selection pressures.

    If you agree with what Michael Lynch say here then that the end of the discussion ’cause that’s the only point I want to debate. By my reading of Lynch, he would not agree with you that all currently adaptive features, “arise very gradually as naturally-occurring variations get passed through the sieve of natural selection.” He, and I, would argue that this is too simplistic a view of evolution.

  26. #26 Larry Moran
    December 21, 2012

    Those who are truly interested in this discussion of evolutionary theory might want to read Eugen Koonin’s book “The Logic of Chance.” Koonin’s name didn’t come up in Jerry Coyne’s article but his views are highly relevant.

    I suggest you start with his chapter on “The non-adaptive null hypothesis of genome evolution and the origins of biological complexity.” Here’s a teaser ….

    The complexity paradox seems to imply that sophisticated features that are present in the genomes of “higher” organisms (large families of paralogous genes, complicated regulation of gene expression, alternative splicing, and much more) probably have not evolved as straightforward adaptations or “improvements.” Explaining the advent of these embellishments is a big challenge to evolutionary biology; an answer (or possibly the answer) came in the form of a new theory of the evolution of complexity proposed by Michael Lynch in 2003 (Lynch and Conery, 2003).

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