Flies disprove evolution!

Or at least "Darwinism" whatever the hell that means these days. I guess they couldn't keep quiet all day. UD's new argument is an easily dismissed straw man. It goes like this.

Scientists discover fruit flies put in a sensory-deprivation chamber,instead of flying around randomly, or in a rigid pattern, fly in a pattern with both random and non-random properties. (PLoS one article)
Uncommon Descent which should have its RSS feeds revoked, says it's proof of design! Darwinism requires there is no free will! This is apparently based on a stunning misunderstanding of Dawkin's ideas by dacook.

Of course standard Darwinian orthodoxy denies the reality of free will. Though many Darwinists shy away from the implications of their beliefs as they apply to ascribing responsibility for human behavior, their position demands that all behavior is determined by the genetic heritage of selfish genes.

Then we hang our heads and sigh.

First, let's quote from the abstract of the PLoS One paper:

Brains are usually described as input/output systems: they transform sensory input into motor output. However, the motor output of brains (behavior) is notoriously variable, even under identical sensory conditions. The question of whether this behavioral variability merely reflects residual deviations due to extrinsic random noise in such otherwise deterministic systems or an intrinsic, adaptive indeterminacy trait is central for the basic understanding of brain function. Instead of random noise, we find a fractal order (resembling Lévy flights) in the temporal structure of spontaneous flight maneuvers in tethered Drosophila fruit flies. Lévy-like probabilistic behavior patterns are evolutionarily conserved, suggesting a general neural mechanism underlying spontaneous behavior. Drosophila can produce these patterns endogenously, without any external cues. The fly's behavior is controlled by brain circuits which operate as a nonlinear system with unstable dynamics far from equilibrium. These findings suggest that both general models of brain function and autonomous agents ought to include biologically relevant nonlinear, endogenous behavior-initiating mechanisms if they strive to realistically simulate biological brains or out-compete other agents.

Wow. Lots of interesting things in there. Like, these behaviors being evolutionarily conserved. It's really just evidence that even the most basic forms of cognition seem to be based on a mixture of random behaviors and predetermined instinctive behaviors determined by circuitry. These behaviors are potentially beneficial to the organism because entirely random or entirely programmed behavior would make organisms inflexible in response to changes in their environment, so a mixed program of random and instinctive behavior would lead to better survival of the individuals.

UD of course, with their reading comprehension problems, ignore all the evolutionary implications and instead settle on this bizarre straw man that Darwinism requires no free will (which ignores this paper didn't really show free will so much as neural circuitry which creates a mixture of random and prescribed behaviors).

Huh? Even so, this is a pretty poor form of free will, it would suggest that we're just a mixture of a program and a random number generator, with our behavior falling into patterns but generally unpredictable. It's not exactly a ringing endorsement for what I would call "free will" in cognition, which might be an entirely different kind of emergent property, but where the hell did they get the idea in the first place that "Darwinists" think that humans are just robots? Yes, many human behaviors are very prescribed, there is a range which we consistently fall into, and clearly there are failures of organization of brains which lead to specific and functional deficits. But where is this requirement of evolutionary science requiring no free will? Who said that? If anything, based on this research, and well, common freaking sense, a rigid program of behavior with no capacity for variation would be generate organisms that would be terrible at adaptation (although the authors point out why for some organisms it would be an advantage). This paper finds a biological basis and adaptive advantage of neural circuitry which generates a mixture of random and non-random behaviors, so what exactly about this disproves evolution? If anything it's a beautiful example of problem-solving by natural selection. Rigid programs are maladaptive to change, and random programs are inefficient. What does nature come up with? Behavioral programming combined with some randomly generated behavior.

Clearly we don't fully understand cognition of even very simple biological organisms, but I can find no proof of a requirement of "Darwinism" that complex or emergent "free will" is proscribed. This is such a boring straw man, and sad misinterpretation of very interesting research. If anything this is further evidence that complex cognition is favored for certain niches in nature, and would be selected for in our ancestors as it would allow them to adapt to many environments, so I think dacook also gets selectivity for ignoring all the evolutionary implications and arguments in both articles.


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Uncommon Descent which should have its RSS feeds revoked ...

I guess UD RSS feeds are deliberately dead. This forces viewers to enter UD. Otherwise, DaveScot couldn't run his "Another record months" series which reminds me of the propaganda style of the SED in East Germany.

Are they seriously arguing that the "free will" exhibited by these flies is not due to biology/chemistry or random effects? that the flies have souls?

By G. Shelley (not verified) on 16 May 2007 #permalink

note: Note to be picky or anything, because picking on Uncommon Descent can be an art form, BUT your abbreviation of choice for their site should be "UD", not "UC". To me, "UC" = University of Chicago, which is a WHOLE lot different than Dembski, DaveScot and the usual morons at UD...

Please keep the good work!

"Darwinism" is what creationists and Johnsonites call the scientific theory of evolution.

The clear semantic intent is to reduce a working scientific theory to a cult of personality.

I think it only fair to refer to the followers of the religious concept, intelligent design, as Johnsonites. This not only returns the favor but pisses off Bill Dembski who is left to wonder why the movement isnt' named for HIM!

By Jim Ramsey (not verified) on 16 May 2007 #permalink

Argh, the stupid burns!

So these flies exhibited both random and prescribed behaviours? Where exactly is the free will there? If you do something randomly, by definition you have no control. If you do something prescribed, then again you have no control. Indeed, it's hard to think what sort of process could exhibit free will (which is why I don't believe in it!). A computer linked to a radioactive decay monitor can generate both random and prescribed behaviours, and that doesn't have free will (by any common understanding). And fractal patterns can be generated by very simple deterministic algorithms.

Do these guys look at a paper, then close their eyes and pretend it says what they like?

By Tryptamine (not verified) on 16 May 2007 #permalink

Great post Mark! Very intelligent and scholarly. Being the cynic I am, I expected the majority of posts to be like the UD post (where I have now also left a comment) or some other nonsense like that. However, the vast majority of bloggers taking the story up are (similar to most of the professional journalists I talked to) extremely bright, read very carefully what they write about and have a degree of knowledge about these subjects that shows their familiarity with them. I'm thoroughly impressed and must revise my otherwise rather negative image of the general public.
With the majority of people (at least in the blogosphere) being bright, open-minded and undogmatic, how can ID be so strong in the US? I assume it's probably because the part of the blogosphere commenting on science news is such a severely skewed sample of the general population, lol :-)
Keep up the good work!



I've asked many Darwinists about free will, and the fact is that a large proportion of them denies it is real, and all of them do not support knowledge about any kind of free behaviour. This is simple really, for when you talk in terms of freedom, you have alternatives and a decision made on them. The fruitfly can go left or right, so you can't make a logical progression that any kind of material caused the fruitfly to go left in stead of right or vice versa. That's what Darwinists don't like. Decisions then are not materially owned, so they are spiritually owned. So to say love or hate is a spiritual property that owns a decision. What is even worse for Darwinists is that it is impossible to establish objectively the spiritual owner of a decision (for instance whether or not a decision was hateful or loving), because the only way to approach the spiritual owner of a decision is by decision itself. So to say; "It was a courageous decision of Bush to go to war", is a decision of me, relating to a decision of Bush. No way we can objectively measure courage, it is a spiritual property. Now have you ever seen a Darwinist acknowledging the spiritual as true and real? It's not a strawman that Darwinists are against free will, not at all.

And this is not a case of Darwinists not accepting "my" particular ideas about free behaviour, this is a case of Darwinists not having any knowledge about it of their own, and being beliggerent, aggressive, and in total denial of *any* knowledge that is not in the form of material cause and effect.

By Mohammad Nur Syamsu (not verified) on 25 May 2007 #permalink