Pharyngula

Multi-component, schmulti-component

I’m having a light dinner while traveling off to a visit with Humanists of Minnesota, and I thought I’d deal with a little email. I got a request to address a fairly common creationist argument–here’s the relevant part of the claim.

As a member of the Greater Manchester Humanists I was recently involved in a discussion with the Ahmadi sect of Islam with regards to evolution. They had asked me to look at a couple of chapters in a book entitled ‘Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge and Truth by their prophet Mirza Tahir Ahmad. One of those chapters was called ‘The Blind Watchmaker who is also Deaf and Dumb’ – riffing badly on Dawkins’s book, of course. Suffice it to say, there was very little of any of that in the book, but during the discussion one of their number said he did not believe in neo-Darwinism because he could not see ‘how all the supporting and connecting mult-component systems could all have evolved as, for example, the eye, as it progressed through geological time.’

He quoted the hagfish and work done by Prof Trevor Lamb to show ‘just how complex those multi-component systems are’ – but when I looked up Lamb’s work it is quite obvious that he is a supporter of evolution, and that he in no way suggests that such complexity is divine in nature….!

Yep, he’s got us. If evolution were sequential, linear, and goal-directed, this would be a serious problem. If you’re used to imagining that the only way complexity can possibly emerge is by purposeful, serial action to build an end result, rather like putting together your furniture from Ikea or building a model airplane, then gosh, it all seems so impossible.

Unfortunately for the follower of Mirza Tahir Ahmad, none of that is true, and this is just a variant of the “it’s too complicated to evolve” argument, with more sciencey sounding words and references to misinterpreted fragments of the scientific literature.

Let’s consider the major misconceptions in the question.

  • Evolution isn’s sequential. It’s massively parallel. Massively. Humans have about 20,000 genes, and all of them are evolving at once, with trial runs in about 7 billion individuals. New variants are arising all the time, and then they’re tested to destruction in multiple combinations over time. Scrap your weird idea that the pieces of a complex system must be developed one at a time — they can’t, and all of them are being constantly tinkered with. It is the most badly designed scientific experiment or engineering program ever, with no controls and every variable getting randomly tweaked at random intervals. So don’t be surprised that multiple elements are getting juggled.

  • Evolution doesn’t care how it arrives at a solution — all that matters is the final effect on the organism. In the case of the eye, the viable end result is an organ with sufficient resolution and contrast, and various special purpose detectors for things like motion or looming. The organism doesn’t know or care how that comes about — it is born with a combination of attributes, and lives or dies by their success. It may have accomplished its end by, for instance, refining the lens, or fine-tuning the receptor, or building in secondary signal processing elements…or all of the above and more. The organism doesn’t care and doesn’t have any control. And in a massively parallel system, probably every level is being tinkered with, and the final solution is going to be multi-component. It would be weird if it wasn’t.

  • Evolution is not teleological. An organ like the eye is not being assembled to a set of specific, detailed instructions — it just has to work, or the organism is at a disadvantage to other organisms with better eyes. So a hodge-podge of solutions is accumulated, and the end result has all kinds of complexity. But you don’t get to argue after the fact that the details imply some specificity of purpose.

    For example, here’s a number: 343767. It’s kind of big, you might be tempted to argue that it’s a fancier or more complex number than, say, 300000 (you’d be wrong), or you might want to argue for the significance of individual digits, or find a pattern in it. Humans tend to do that. But the reality is that I just went to a random number service and asked for a 6 digit number. Similarly, eyes wandered through a random space constrained by functional requirements and ended up at a somewhat arbitrarily complex configuration — and different lineages followed different paths.

OK, that’s my off-the-cuff explanation scribbled up while I nibble on a fruit salad at a cafe in Minneapolis. The whole multi-component problem is a red herring contrived by inadequate minds that can’t see beyond their preconceptions.

Comments

  1. […] By PZ Myers […]

  2. #2 Balim
    http://www.balim.net
    June 10, 2014

    This control seems like a great tool. The problem I am having is that I cannot get the jpg to render. I followed the instructions from version 1.1 and the postcomment.aspx as well as the DLL from version 1.2. There was no readme

  3. #3 Vince Badrum
    North Carolina
    June 11, 2014

    Oh looky, now my alter-ego has taken to quoting fictitious people (Dr. Tahmisian). Time for more Loxitane!

  4. #4 Milo Milo
    June 11, 2014

    Vince, you appear to have bifurcated.

  5. #5 David Marjanović
    Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
    June 11, 2014

    chance mutations, which happen to be deleterious

    Wrong twice over.

    First, whether a mutation is deleterious depends on the environment; the same effect can be an advantage and a disadvantage in different environments.

    Most mutations are neutral ( = have no effect whatsoever), and most of the rest are nearly neutral ( = their effects are too small for natural selection to work on them in the environment the organisms in question happen to live in). PZ blogged about this not long ago.

    Second, mutation is random, but selection is not – it’s determined by the environment.

    You only listed the need, not the mechanism by which that need is to be satisfied. Dreaming of a hodge-podge of solutions that materialize for no reason, resulting in a complex end result is wishful thinking, pure fantasy. FAIL.

    The argument from personal incredulity is a logical fallacy. It belongs on Failblog.

    ‘The whole multi-component problem is a red herring contrived by inadequate minds that can’t see beyond their preconceptions.’ Lousy dodge, just like the problem of the Emperor wearing no clothes was some bullshit contrived by inadequate minds that couldn’t see past the Emperor’s nakedness. FAIL.

    So… you have no argument, and can only resort to another angry argument from personal incredulity.

    FAIL.

    Dr. Newton Tahmisian, Atomic Energy Commission said “Scientists who go about teaching that evolution is a fact of life are great con-men, and the story they are telling may be the greatest hoax ever! In explaining evolution we do not have one iota of fact.”

    Ooh! Big Random Authority said stuff, so we must all fall to our knees in awe!

    Why do you expect a nuclear physicist – atomic energy commission of which country, BTW? – to understand biology?

  6. #6 Vince Badrum
    North Carolina
    June 11, 2014

    I have not bifurcated, it’s just some that sometimes I feel OK and sometimes I feel like Mr. Hyde or the Hulk. On more rare occasions, I feel like Dr. Jeckyll or David Banner.

  7. #7 Milo Milo
    June 11, 2014

    My mother’s demonstrated preference is actually knives. Still, you’re quite spot-on about her current mental capacity. I try to visit her at least once a month. At least, I’m fairly certain it’s me visiting her— I reason that I must be the one on the outside since I have internet access which, while not physically lethal, seems to be very effective at extinguishing hope for the human race.

    Also, I own a toaster.

  8. #8 Vince Badrum
    North Carolina
    June 11, 2014

    TOASTERS DON’T EXIST! YOU HAVE BEEN DECEIVED! HAR HAR HAR! PWNED!

  9. #9 Vince Badrum
    North Carolina
    June 11, 2014

    Oopsie! Wrong login! Let me see if I can fix that and put that under the right name.

  10. #10 Johnny B Good
    california
    June 11, 2014

    PZ’s comparison of a random number generator and complexity of living systems is bit too tidy. I have heard that same argument before – “well someone wins the lottery against very long odds – hence evolution of complex living systems over time is similar or plausible”. Reminder – a DESIGNED random number generator and/or a lottery system GUARANTEES an outcome each time, no one is surprised when Mildred in Ohio wins this saturday, despite the long odds for each ticket. Comparing these number-generated systems to evolution is basically nonsense. I’m surprised a PHD in science would try that one.

  11. #11 Chris Jauer
    Halifax, Canada
    June 16, 2014

    Awesome concluding sentence on this concise rebuttal.

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