There can be no chance, no junk, no purposelessness, or God is dead

Over at the Panda's Thumb, there is a sharp rebuttal of the creationists' complaint about junk DNA. Read it, it's useful. It leads to a bothersome and more general point, though.

Despite its connotations, the phrase “junk DNA” (originated by Susumu Ohno in 1972) does not intend to convey an absolute and irreversible lack of function. Indeed, as it is often noted, had that been the case “garbage DNA” would have been a better term. In fact, “junk” is what accumulates in people’s basements and attics, not immediately useful but not nasty or burdensome enough to be quickly discarded – indeed, something that may occasionally be found to be of use (at least, that’s what I tell my wife). Another problem with the term is that it is unfortunately often misused (in the lay press and especially by Creationists, although some scientists are guilty as well) to simply denote DNA that does not directly encode any protein sequence - which is absolutely wrong. It has long been known, in some cases even before the term was coined, that DNA contains important non-coding elements involved in gene transcription (e.g. the promoter and enhancer elements mentioned above), RNA splicing and polyadenylation, chromosome dynamics, etc. In addition, instances exist where the sequence of a particular stretch of DNA is irrelevant, but its presence may be important, as in the case of introns, certain “spacer’ regions, and so on. Still, while it is clear that the term “junk DNA” should be used advisedly (if at all) there are good reasons to think that large swaths of the genome of most eukaryotic organisms are indeed non-functional, in part because these stretches of DNA accumulate mutations neutrally, and diverge much faster than known functional elements, and also because vast differences in DNA amount, presence of large duplications/deletions of intergenic regions, as well as gain and loss of specific pseudogenes are often observed in closely related organisms (see again Ian’s piece).

There's something about the whole concept of junk DNA that sets creationists to gibbering; it's something of a touchstone subject. Similarly, vestigial organs and the whole idea of chance playing a role in biology are offensive to them and will set them off, because the idea that there exists things without intent or purpose is anathema. That Collins interview in Salon has something similar:

Well, this gets at what I think is actually the more serious challenge that evolution poses to religious faith -- the whole business of random genetic mutations. Certainly, many evolutionists have argued that there is no inherent meaning to the course of evolution. It could end up any which way, and the fact that human beings ever evolved was blind luck. Without the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, it seems unlikely that large mammals, and eventually humans, would have ever evolved. Isn't this a problem for religion?

I don't think so. I can see the arguments that you just voiced and why they trouble people. But they are based upon the idea that God has the same limitations that we do. We cannot contemplate what it is like to be able to affect the future, the present and the past all at once. But God is not so limited. What appears random to us -- such as an asteroid hitting the earth -- need not have been random to Him at all. And in that very moment of creation, being as He is, outside of the time limitations, he knew everything, including our having this conversation. As soon as you accept the idea of God as creator, then the randomness argument essentially goes out the window.

The fear that the purpose in your life is your responsibility, that it is your job to provide intent and meaning and that there is no higher being who will tell you what to do, is one of those defining differences between theists and atheists, I think. I embrace the idea that I must find my own purpose; Christians like Collins dread it, and it leads them to invent ridiculous ideas like his all-knowing god and a predestined universe, where every coin flip is predetermined and lorded over by the all-knowing eye of an omnipotent sky-father. It's rather disturbing to see an eminent molecular biologist and geneticist retreating so fearfully from the notion that genetic mutations are random.

More like this

Dan Graur has suggested some changes to the classification of DNA. It's one more pile of terminology to keep straight, but the distinctions are conceptually useful -- I particularly appreciate literal vs. indifferent DNA as subdivisions of functional DNA. The pronouncements of the ENCODE Project…
I rarely laugh out loud when reading science papers, but sometimes one comes along that triggers the response automatically. Although, in this case, it wasn't so much a belly laugh as an evil chortle, and an occasional grim snicker. Dan Graur and his colleagues have written a rebuttal to the claims…
Since we still have someone arguing poorly for the virtues of the ENCODE project, I thought it might be worthwhile to go straight to the source and and cite an ENCODE project paper, Defining functional DNA elements in the human genome. It is a bizarre thing that actually makes the case for…
The Institute for Creation Research has a charming little magazine called "Acts & Facts" that prints examples of their "research" — which usually means misreading some scientific paper and distorting it to make a fallacious case for a literal interpretation of the bible. Here's a classic…

It's one of those things the religious seem to have a serious glitch in understanding.
Their brain just won't wrap around it. Or they push the concept so far away that they won't even discuss it.

Without the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, it seems unlikely that large mammals, and eventually humans, would have ever evolved. Isn't this a problem for religion?

Actually, this question is incredibly stupid. No fact is a "problem" for "religion" generally because "religion" is simply a collection of made-up crap designed to make people feel better about their fate as human beings.

Because of this incontrovertible fact, "religion" generally is immune to fatal attack from rational argument based on pesky facts, just as the invisible undetectable space bats that control all our thoughts is immune from such attack.

To the extent that Collins himself does not believe in the literal truth of the Book of Genesis (scientifically, anyway), and the Bible does not mention dinosaurs or their fate, the fact that an asteroid hit the earth millions of years ago is irrelevant.

A bigger "problem" for Collins' religion would be that every time a human being on earth has been tortured and killed and buried, they tend to stay dead. But we already know that Collins is happy to play the mindgame and promote his religion.

I would be interested to hear/see Collins defend his statements from the criticisms leveled against those statements by PZ and others. They are reasonable criticisms. Collins is confused but -- like all evangelical Christians -- he doesn't give a shit as long as it puts a smiley face on his deity and his religion.

Has anyone asked Collins if he is an anti-gay bigot? i.e., are gays going to hell for eternity? What about Jews? Those are good questions to ask a Bible thumper.

By Great White Wonder (not verified) on 07 Aug 2006 #permalink

I have had religous folks tell me that I must be "scared to embrace god". What they don't seem to realize is that it is easy to lean on the idea of some all-powerful being taking control of my life. What actually requires strength is knowing that the only being responsible for what happens to me is me. My successes and failures are up to me and only me.

Since Collins believes that his god knows everything, I'd like to see what he thinks about humans having no free will, and therefore no responsibility for their actions, since a consequence of said deities foreknowledge is a set future (and therefore a god who punishes people for "choices" that they cannot help but make). Somehow I doubt he has ever thought any of his beliefs through in a rational manner, but has instead believed what he wants to believe because (as stated elsewhere) it feels good to him.

If you want to hear answers that will just blow away a rational thinking person, ask a religious person why god allowed 250,000 or so people to die terrible deaths in the last tsunami, or if you want to get closer to home, the dead of hurricane Katrina. Why wouldn't that supposed loving god do something to protect those innocent people. What will he do to prevent the next disaster?
The answers I've recieved have been telling, always "gods will" or some such swill. Some people cannot accept they are not the center of the universe.
Like past, and probably future extinction events, the the lesser clamities of life on earth, we are just along for the ride.

I don't get the big issue with 'junk' or 'garbage' DNA. Surely this is another argument FOR evolution. With random mutations occurring I would expect there to be lots of useless or neutral sequences in there. If all of the DNA was arranged in a perfect sequence with no wastage at all, then I would suspect a designer at work.

By Tom McCann (not verified) on 07 Aug 2006 #permalink

Having been raised by an atheist (and biologist) and an agnost, and a graduate student in a biological field, I'm rather new to the actual debate (if you can even call it that; 'debate' would imply reason, which many if not all creationists seem to lack).

The comment that strikes me as strange is human beings evolved as a result of blind luck. It is my understanding that is wasn't simply blind luck. The individual mutation might occur randomly, but there is a "drive" for the direction evolution ultimately takes, and that is increased fitness, survival rate, reproductive rate, etc.. Not all mutations are beneficial, or have an immediate effect at all. It might be an accumulation of a number of seemingly inconsequential individual mutations that provides a distinct advantage. But there is certainly a direction to evolution. Or am I looking at this wrong? Why is this such a key point for creationists to make? And even if there was no direction, I personally have absolutely no problem with my life not having a "purpose". The purpose I give it, that's what's important, not what some other entity had intended.

Actually I think theists themselves do not agree on fate vs. free will. For example, many theists believe you are put here to do the work (generally described as "good", or, pro-humanity) that your chosen god expects of you as His recognizing follower. They believe that you have the free will of choosing to do good or evil, and within that, to follow Him or your own choices.

The other side of the religion coin is those that believe that God controls everything, which basically automatically dooms so many people, it's impossible to count. It also provides a neat little reasoning for such otherwise intractable views such as racism ("well you were born a Jew so you're screwed when Jesus comes"), believing people were destined to get diseases, and any other such horrible thing that can, has, or will happen to individuals or groups.

Now, the theists that don't subscribe to fate can also fall into the summary judgement line of reasoning. Who here hasn't heard a story of someone praying from them or a friend because they somehow made a wrong choice in life and God struck them down with cancer?

Religion itself in my opinion can't even agree on the question of fate versus free will. But then again, none of them can summarily agree on what God is/is not, what he/she/it looks like, when he/she/it will return, which god is the REAL one, etc. etc. etc, ad infinitum, et al, ad nauseum.

By BlueIndependent (not verified) on 07 Aug 2006 #permalink

... ask a religious person why god allowed 250,000 or so people to die terrible deaths in the last tsunami ...
The answers I've recieved have been telling, always "gods will" or some such swill.

actually, the Bible says its Deity creates evil, per Isaiah 45:7. it's telling that many Christians want to badly gloss that or reinterpret it, since it does not fit well with their Manichean tendencies.

the Jewish model is Job, and i can't say that's admirable, but that should be kept straight, too. Job's friends get slammed and told they are completely wrong, and they are espousing the "Oh, you'll be better for it" line.

can't really speak to Islam, except that given their interpretation of the Akedah,
i'm not optimistic about their having a good reason, either.

AFAICT the "truth in the book" approach to religions begins with that, and then applies epicycle after epicycle of patch and correction when more and more evidence is encountered which makes the book version a hard read.

makhita is exactly right...the process of natural selection may rely on random events, but itself is directed.

PS - is this site about science or christian bashing?
PPS - I am not a creationist
PPPS - I may be an anti-gay bigot.

J

By John Evens (not verified) on 07 Aug 2006 #permalink

"The fear that the purpose in your life is your responsibility, that it is your job to provide intent and meaning and that there is no higher being who will tell you what to do, is one of those defining differences between theists and atheists, I think."

Rather a hasty generalization, I fear. A common thread in many forms of religion, but not a universal one. See Richard Holloway, one of whose books is titled "Godless Morality," for an example. He has actually gotten on quite well with Dawkins.

By frank schmidt (not verified) on 07 Aug 2006 #permalink

I didn't have to ask a neighbor why God killed all those people in New Orleans... he volunteered it. Discussing current events, he shook his head sadly and said "God must have been very angry at those people..."

It doesn't have to make sense, it's religion.

I don't think he means directed the way you do.

Directed by evolution itself.

PS - is this site about science or christian bashing?

Yes. It's actually about religion-bashing, but in the US Christianity is the most popular kind of religion, so it tends to get the most attention.

By somnilista, FCD (not verified) on 07 Aug 2006 #permalink

makhita:

"But there is certainly a direction to evolution."

It seems to me it depends on context. If one look at an unconstrained basic evolutionary algorithm as a local hill climb (or as a pet tool of computer scientists, a graph problem) it is a local search. (That due to coevolution changes at every step which destroys any remaining illusion of a global goal.) It may also be a good picture of a finegrained look at small variations of some more independent genes.

On the other hand in a realistic situation the organism has genetic and functional constraints, for example hox genes and current limb function. So the local search becomes more directed. It may also be a good picture for a more coarsegrained look at some groups of genes over longer time.

And finally it is observed that evolution adapts with both simpler and more complex solutions. So on the most coarsegrained level there is again no real direction.

Replaying the history of evolution would result in other species. Perhaps the only "direction" is the trivial one with increased number of species?

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 07 Aug 2006 #permalink

PS - is this site about science or christian bashing?

Don't you know that this sort of question just feeds into the stereotype that Christians have a persecution complex?

By Great White Wonder (not verified) on 07 Aug 2006 #permalink

The apparent simple --> complex "direction" of evolution is an illusion. When there were only "simple" unicellular organisms there was nowhere for the average level of "complexity" to go but up simply because there was a lot of as yet unused territory in the multicellular portion of design space. With that territory now filled up, it's if anything more likely that you'll see complex --> simpler lineages, as is typical in the evolution of parasites.

By Steve LaBonne (not verified) on 07 Aug 2006 #permalink

"Nietzsche had his own take on the matter. If one's personal relationship to God is the important thing, how about if I relate to God as if he were past tense? "God is dead," Nietzsche wrote, doing a little Snoopy dance on the grave still haunted by the Holy Ghost. Nietzsche had mastered the art of being both humorous and serious at the same time.

Or, as I like to think of it, he had his own perspective on Author Omniscient and he was going to follow it to the vanishing point."

--from http://webnews.sff.net/read?cmd=read&group=sff.people.james-killus&artn…

Direction does not equal purpose. I would even be careful when using the term 'direct' because it seems to suggest there is a (supernatural) force that knows where things are headed. Natural selection is a mechanism, not a 'director'.

Is an evolutionary biology course required at a lot of universities or is mine just special? It's a requirement for the biology/pre-med students and really informative. Not only did I learn the basic stuff about evolution, but also how to counter creationist arguments.

I'd guess yours is special Rachel, or a function of your major. When I was at Caltech (mid 90s) we didn't even have to take a biology course, period. Lots of math and physics and some chemistry, yes.

'Racheted' might be better than 'directed'. Useful mutations are amplified and preserved, and provide context and constraint for the usefulness of future mutations.

Uh-oh. Teleological thinking rears its ugly head. Let me make a few comments.

1) Evolution is neither random or non-random, but stochastic. When and where mutations concerned is largely (though not completely) random, yes, but selection is demonstrably non-random. If we come upon a hungry bear in the woods, I don't have to outrun the bear. I have to outrun you, and which of us survives to (perhaps) pass on our genes is non-random. In fact, in the long run the genes which are passed on carry information of a sort about the environment which 'selected' them.

2) Whether or not some DNA is 'junk' or not has no bearing on the question of whether or not the genetic copying system could've been produced by natural selection, contrary to the assertion of creationists, since no party in either side of the so-called 'debate' has sufficient knowledge to specify the level of functionality we should expect in the genome.

If you're a Darwinian, you would expect some parts to be functional, the product of selection, and other parts to be dysfunctional. If you're a creationist, you would expect every part to have originally been designed, I suppose, but you could explain away defective genomic elements as a consequence of increasing entropy since the moment of Creation. Either way, we don't know enough about the constraints to assign a number to the question of how much 'junk' we should expect to find.

3) The question of 'progress' in evolution is a tricky one, with the received wisdom for many being (after Gould) that evolution is almost entirely a historical, contingent process that if we 'rewound the tape of life', nothing like humans or human intelligence is likely.

I'm not so sure. While others have pushed this view (notably Simpson), we owe Gould for its popularity at the moment, especially the Gould of "Wonderful Life" who argument from Simon Conway-Morris's work on the Burgess Shale seems the best-known discussion of this issue. I can't help but notice that this interpretation of Gould's does more than argue for purposelessness in evolution per se. It was also intended as part of an attempt to salvage Marxism, which had at the time Gould entered academia had rejected mainstream evolutionary biology as 'bourgeouis' and poisoned by its association with a 'survival of the fittest' capitalism. Gould wanted to emphasize that biology was not an exercise in dialectical materialism, that Lysenkoism was a fraud, that the hoped-for Lamarckian ideas of intellectuals like Arthuer Koestler were so much wistful thinking. Gould, a Marxist, wanted to purge Marxism of these associations in a foundational way, and so in memorable prose he emphasized a contingent process that could not be equated with any sort of progress, even toward the 'dictatorship of the proletariat.' This motivation may come as a shock to some of you and seem entirely quaint to many, but it's there for anyone who wants to examine it. I, for one, have no interest in holding to an interpretation of the fossil record for such a motivation.

This says nothing about the correctness of Gould's overall view, I suppose, but notions of either a deity or a Hegelian dialectic aside, this characterization seems premature to me for the same reasons that arguments about the 'junkiness' of DNA are premature: we simply don't know enough about the possible constraints at work, especially at the molecular level. It may well be that the hyperspace of possible species is very large, but then again, it may not, and we will not be able to answer the question of the size of that hyperspace until we know quite a bit more about the constraints.

Finally, I'm in the process of digesting Conway-Morris's book "Life's Solution", which argues from the fact of convergence on many levels in the history of life to the notion that the hyperspace is very constrained, and that something like 'progress' is indicated by the fossil record. The book is long and the prose style is not all that user-friendly, and it is clear from reading it that much of it is a challenge to the contingent view championed by Gould, with whom the author had an apparently nasty academic feud. Having said that, I am impressed by the sheer weight of the many convergences brought out by this book, and I would be interested in the impressions of any others who may have read the work.

Cheers...Scott

By Scott Hatfield (not verified) on 07 Aug 2006 #permalink

I didn't mean director in a sense that anything is making decisions or going down a decided path in the future.

The comment that strikes me as strange is human beings evolved as a result of blind luck. It is my understanding that is wasn't simply blind luck. The individual mutation might occur randomly, but there is a "drive" for the direction evolution ultimately takes, and that is increased fitness, survival rate, reproductive rate, etc.

Humans are not the most fit, prolific, etc., species, so yes, you are looking at this wrong. The evolution of human beings is "blind luck" in the sense that it's a contingent consequence of a series of arbitrary historical events, including big ones like meteor strikes and billions of little ones. The "drive" to fitness is entirely local; fitness is only defined relative to the environment of the moment. The DNA of a human, like the DNA of any organism, is a map of sorts of the sequence of historical contexts that its predecessors lived through. Each different chain of historical contexts results in a different set of DNA and a different organism.

By truth machine (not verified) on 07 Aug 2006 #permalink

The book is long and the prose style is not all that user-friendly

You might try Dennett's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea", which makes the same argument in a more pop-sci fashion.

By truth machine (not verified) on 07 Aug 2006 #permalink

Pseudogenes: wasn't that the name of the Greek historian who invented fake documents?

No, Sid. Someone else invented fake documents. But Pseudogenes plagiarized them.

Human beings as a small twig on the bushy tree of life does not seem, at least to me, an accident, or directed. It's the natural outcome of primate encephalization for reasons now being investigated, i.e., upright stance, free hands for tool making. We acknowledge we have conciseness, but are other animals, like apes, elephants, dolphins and whales, octopuses, and possibly even birds like parrots conscience of themselves? (I love that question, because it may lead to possibilities for dinosaurs).
The wonderful mollusca line, like octopi, near and dear to PZ's heart lead to higher levels of brain development, which seem to have been around since the Jurassic period, don't seem to have whatever is needed to further their development. (My very uneducated opinion is because of a short lifespan, I'd love PZ's opinion on that). In any case, many scientific discoveries still to be made, but no religious mumbo-jumbo needed to explain the great web of life on earth.

Too bad Zero Mostel isn't still alive to play Pseudogenes in the movie version.

By Steve LaBonne (not verified) on 07 Aug 2006 #permalink
[on Life's Solution] The book is long and the prose style is not all that user-friendly

You might try Dennett's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea", which makes the same argument in a more pop-sci fashion.

The same argument - which one? I don't recall Dennett arguing for "inevitable humans in a lonely universe" or other wishy-washy God stuff.

Steve:

Yes, and what you are describing may be properly thought of as the initial response of your mainly diffusive looking system. Come to think of it, it is symmetric and unpriviliged too; if it had started with complex organisms it had gone complex --> simple direction instead.

Scott:
"if we 'rewound the tape of life', nothing like humans or human intelligence is likely.

I'm not so sure."

I'm not so sure either. A nervous system seems like multicellular life if not inevitable so at least a fairly small stretch and practical at some time.

In any case, I think exobiologists and SETI workers would like to know the likelihood of intelligence.

By Torbjörn Larsson (not verified) on 07 Aug 2006 #permalink

...for reasons now being investigated, i.e., upright stance, free hands for tool making.

One theory is that an upright bi-petal stance freed us to run.
Running needed specialized feet. The high intensity activity needed sweat for cooling. Sweat needed surface area causing loss of hair.

By NatureSelectedMe (not verified) on 07 Aug 2006 #permalink

It seems to me that any implied direction for evolving organisms is that of sentient intelligence. It could be argued that intelligence, i.e. clever manipulation of natures assets, leads to success. Clearly, humans are quite feeble physically when compared to other creatures both great and small. It's our intelligence that has enabled us to sit at the top of the food chain and dominate the resources. Furthermore, it is our lack of intelligence that could easily erase us from existence.

Truth Machine, Windy:

I've read Dennett's book. He was not so much making an argument against Gould's emphasis on the contingent nature of evolution as arguing against Gould and Lewontin's famous criticism of adaptationist explanations in biology found in the article "The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm" (1979), Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B. 205, pp 581-598

A PDF file of that article is available here:

http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/ridley/classictexts/gould.asp

Dennett argued that Gould and Lewontin were holding out for what he called invisible 'skyhooks' to limit the explanatory power of 'Darwin's dangerous idea', which is to say, evolution. This was part of another Marx-inspired crusade of Gould's, the one against Harvard colleague E.O. Wilson and sociobiology, a controversy that seems pretty settled in Wilson's favor at this moment.

It's another reason why I tend to view one of the great popularizers of biology with a jaundiced eye, but other than that the argument Dennett was dissecting is different from the one Conway-Morris takes issue with. Dennett would certainly be non-plussed at being described as advocating a notion of 'guided' evolutionary progress; he is an atheist.

Puckishly....Scott

By Scott Hatfield (not verified) on 07 Aug 2006 #permalink

I suspect some features of our biology and anatomy are so constrained as to be near inevitable, while others are more or less accidental.

For example, our intelligence represents a major investment of resources and a source of various liabilities. We wouldn't have kept it if it weren't pretty damn useful -- and in fact, it is. At the same time, if conscious, then linguistic, intelligence hadn't appeared among apes, it might well have emerged from another mammallian branch, such as rodents. On the other hand, if reptiles (or, presumably dinosaurs) had developed greater brain complexity, they might well have picked a different path than the mammal-style cerebral cortex. The results could be as alien to us as an octopus, but still grant dramatic advantages over other lifeforms.

By David Harmon (not verified) on 07 Aug 2006 #permalink

i read that collins interview at salon and I've been thinking about it for a while, and I guess, eventually what I came up with is this: "If you have to believe in god, if you absolutely must be a christian, please, follow the example of collins."

cause first of all collins denies "god in the gaps". That is ID people say there is something that isn't explained by science so if we dunno what it is well, it must be god! collins denies this. He gives all the natural world over the science. All biology, all evolution, all physics, all chemistry, he believes that there is no place for god in science, that we can use science to predict the world, that intelligent design is a flawed philosophy, that the only place for god is where science can never ever reach.

So far so good. As far as I can tell Collins believes in a clockwork god. A god that starts teh whole thing in motion, and then doesn't do anything. He's not answering our prayers, he's not on earth or under the earth or in the clouds, he make universe with the big bang and that was enough, he tuned the physical constants. God could intervene if he wanted, and in Collins' view (because he's a christian) he has god intervene in the form of jesus, but that's pretty much it. He doesn't believe in the literal interpretation of the genesis, he's a staunch advocate of evolutionary theory, a much stronger advocate of evolutionary theory by the way than an atheist could be.

Collins subscribes to the view that religion is really a place to find ethics. I dont disagree with this. Science is basically immoral, when a lion kills an antelope, there is nothing moral about it. When one human being kills another human being and eats it, there is no particular moral value that science ascribes to it, all says does is say why, when and how, science doesn't judge. The universe itself doesn't have moral qualities, when the sun burns bright and you see it rise over the beauty of the earth, the sun doen't have a moral quality of good or evil, those are qualities that humans have, qualities we have evolved.

There is one single troublesome spot I find in all of collin's beliefs and that is his view that humans are special and better than animals. That's wrong. We are no better or more special than an octopus, it's merely a matter of circumstance and luck that gave the primates the large brains and tool making capacity that allow us to lord it over the rest of the creatures on earth, but that doesn't make us better than them.

Overall, though, compared to all the nasty version of fundamentalist christianity, in america today, francis collins has a faith which is about as tolerable as one can expect. The thing I like most about francis collins' faith is that he demands that christians learn more about science. That has to be good.

By eric taylor (not verified) on 07 Aug 2006 #permalink

eric taylor--well said. You should post this on the previous thread (the Ubiquitous Francis Collins) as well, as they are in the midst of asking the question "why beat up on Francis Collins?"

well igor he does deserve to be beat up, not necessarily for being a clockwork god christian, but because he got his faith from cs lewis. seriously. he should be ashamed of himself.

By eric taylor (not verified) on 07 Aug 2006 #permalink

Eric, I suppose as a Christian I find Collins less obnoxious than, say, Philip Johnson is concerned but for most of the folk here that is definitely damning with faint praise. The principle at stake here is not whether or not Collins affirms evolution (as a scientist, how could he do otherwise?) but whether or not his work gives the impression that scientific evidence leads specifically to Christianity. It seems to me that the book has been sold as such and Collins has sent some mixed signals, and that angers quite a few folk here.

Me? (shrug) I'm a Christian, as well. I believe in a personal God, but I also am convinced that when we engage the world we better bring our best arguments and the appeal Collins makes to our moral sense is not terribly well-informed. You are right, Eric, when you say that science (though I think you meant Nature) is basically amoral. But that's not the claim that Collins was trying to make! He wasn't saying that the institution of science is incapable of providing us with a moral compass on its own, which is inarguably true. He was arguing that Nature could not have produced our moral sense, which essentially undercuts much of his affirmation of evolutionary biology.

Collins doesn't appear to have even heard of Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, Wynne-Edwards, Hamilton, Wilson, Trivers, etc. or even be aware that there are evolutionary models for kin selection, altruism, language acquisition, gender differences and morality. And this is really an inexcusable lapse, for someone who is supposed to be at the very top of the biology game, MD or no.

Sincerely...Scott

By Scott Hatfield (not verified) on 07 Aug 2006 #permalink

We cannot contemplate what it is like to be able to affect the future, the present and the past all at once. But God is not so limited.

How could someone pretend to know this and then go on and on about it as a form of knowledge with a straight face?

You are right, Eric, when you say that science (though I think you meant Nature) is basically amoral.

He was arguing that Nature could not have produced our moral sense, which essentially undercuts much of his affirmation of evolutionary biology.

This is false. We are a part of nature, we have morals. Hence nature has something to say about morals and in fact they can be studied. It's a completely bogus religious claim that religion has something different or better to offer in this area. We need to start a counter meme.

To me Collins undercuts his argument here as well, saying science has the natural world but that a God outside this world produced our moral sense. If so how could we know this ever? If we have morals now it is quite clear they are biological in nature and form. He wants it both ways.

or even be aware that there are evolutionary models for kin selection, altruism, language acquisition, gender differences and morality.

Knowing this to be true then why do you have a belief in a personal God?

For GH, in brief:

How an empirically-determined fact about the natural world (evolution) can be used to explain the history of the lineage leading to one particular species (us) is an altogether different question from that of whether or not God exists, or speak to God's purpose, etc. Explaining what Collins calls the 'moral sense' by appealing to natural causes only fills in the gaps about the 'how'. It does not address the 'why' of it.

I'm sure you and I would probably disagree over whether the latter is a meaningful question (it certainly isn't a science question, that I can see) but I again have to stress that I'm not comfortable spending any time trying to unpack my theological baggage here. It doesn't feel appropriate in this forum, because it might be perceived as proselytizing. If I were to be characterized that way, that undercuts my ability to participate in the way I desire. To put it another way, I'm not here to tell others what they should believe; I read this blog and make comments to learn what other people think and exchange views. That's it.

Sincerely...Scott

By Scott Hatfield (not verified) on 07 Aug 2006 #permalink

Way down the list, so who's to hear me? But...

Let's embrace Collins because his existence refutes the standard Fundamentalist screed that "You can't be a Christian and believe in Evolution too."

Although this buffoonery is aimed at Christians (to keep them in line) and not at scientists, it deserves to be demolished.

djlactin, atheist

Let's embrace Collins because his existence refutes the standard Fundamentalist screed that "You can't be a Christian and believe in Evolution too."

That would be great except that Collins does not appear to "believe in evolution", he believes in some caricature of evolution (has ceased in humans and can't explain altruism, etc etc)

For example, our intelligence represents a major investment of resources and a source of various liabilities. We wouldn't have kept it if it weren't pretty damn useful -- and in fact, it is. At the same time, if conscious, then linguistic, intelligence hadn't appeared among apes, it might well have emerged from another mammallian branch, such as rodents. On the other hand, if reptiles (or, presumably dinosaurs) had developed greater brain complexity, they might well have picked a different path than the mammal-style cerebral cortex. The results could be as alien to us as an octopus, but still grant dramatic advantages over other lifeforms.

As I understand it, bird brains, especially those of corvids, have a part that's arranged in clusters that seem to be analogous to the layers of the mammalian cerebrum. I don't have the link ready to hand, but do a search on "crow brain" or something similar.

God kills hundreds of thousands in a tsunami. 'His' apologists suggest it's God's will, and we're incapable of understanding his actions, and it's all for some higher purpose.

Is it just me, or does this sound like the ultimate abusive relationship to you, too?

"He means well and he loves me, officer, he just loses control sometimes."

Yes, of course. Not only is Christianity the very picture of abusive relationships, it is founded on child abuse.
We try people like Andrea Yates for killing their children to save them from hell, but we are to worship, love, and obey god, who killed his child to save everyone from hell.
Honorable? Hah. Moral? Pfeh.
Christianity elevates child abuse to the level of a perfect act, and so disgraces itself through and through.

hugs,
Shirley Knott

By Shirley Knott (not verified) on 08 Aug 2006 #permalink

Rachel: I've never heard of a place that makes it required for all students. That would be remarkable. The closest I know is here in Quebec, where a student doing her education all here takes a required general university-level biology course if she does the sort of equivalent of freshman science (in places where there are 4 year undergrad degrees, etc.).

Mike Nilsen: Having never been in an abusive relationship (fortunately!) I have no first hand experience with such matters. But you're right, it does sound that way. Moreover, Michael Scriven has an interesting argument from many years ago that suggests that any minimally powerful god (i.e. one with more power than about a human 10 year old) is refuted by such calamities. (See his Primary Philosophy,)

Speaking of natural disasters, in this case about the ice storm that hit southeastern Ontario and Quebec in the late 90s:

-"My mother says natural disasters are God's punishment for our carnal sins."
-"In that case, Montreal must be the debauchery capital of the world."
-"The ice storm also hit Kingston."
-"Well there goes that theory."

cause first of all collins denies "god in the gaps". That is ID people say there is something that isn't explained by science so if we dunno what it is well, it must be god! collins denies this. He gives all the natural world over the science.

Does he? How is his "moral sense" argument not a God of the gaps argument?

All biology, all evolution, all physics, all chemistry, he believes that there is no place for god in science, that we can use science to predict the world, that intelligent design is a flawed philosophy, that the only place for god is where science can never ever reach.

Read the Collins article again. Tell me his fine-tuning argument is not about physics.
On the contrary, Collins believes it is inappropriate to use science to attack religion, as Dawkins, et. al. do, but it is perfectly alright to use science to defend religion. Collins is a hypocrite.
Moreover, his attempts to do so are logically fallacious.

Would one consider erased files on a hard disk, junk space? After countless reads and writes, some of the space may become the residence of a new working program, while other spaces may become 'free disk space' yet still containing residue of once essential and working programs.
Shalom,
Bro. Bartleby

Since the Collins article is discussed in this thread as well, I'll pass on the following here:

For those of you who still might be interested in Collins' views and how he presents them to a body of fellow believers (as opposed to the general public), you can read his address to the American Scientific Affiliation here:

http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2003/PSCF9-03Collins.pdf

There are also apparently videos of his address available on the ASA home page in more than one format.

Hoping to be helpful....Scott

By Scott Hatfield (not verified) on 08 Aug 2006 #permalink

One theory is that an upright bi-petal stance freed us to run.
Running needed specialized feet. The high intensity activity needed sweat for cooling. Sweat needed surface area causing loss of hair.

Well, of course, we could never have run if we were stuck on four legs like horses, antelopes or cheetahs. Good thing for those species that they don't engage in any high-intensity activity, or they'd have to be even more hairless than we are.

Because, of course, mammal hair is completely waterproof, preventing sweat from functioning on hairy skin.

About the only part of this that *isn't* nonsense is that running bipedally requires feet that are specialized for bipedalism (instead of what they were specialized for before - maybe brachiation?).

One theory is that an upright bi-petal stance freed us to run.
Running needed specialized feet. The high intensity activity needed sweat for cooling. Sweat needed surface area causing loss of hair.

Well, of course, we could never have run if we were stuck on four legs like horses, antelopes or cheetahs. Good thing for those species that they don't engage in any high-intensity activity, or they'd have to be even more hairless than we are.
Because, of course, mammal hair is completely waterproof, preventing sweat from functioning on hairy skin.

You're not getting it. The sweat glands & low body hair mean that humans can lose more heat faster during sustained extertion than the animals that they're chasing. Cheetahs can run real fast, but they absolutely cannot keep it up for very long - and it's not from exhaustion, but from overheating.

On the other hand, a small band of 3 Kalahari bushmen, who prepare beforehand with lots of water, and run in shifts pacing themselves, can run down an antelope:

"The animal will either just completely collapse, or it will actually slow down to a point where it just stands there . . . with sort of glazed-over eyes," Liebenberg says. "Essentially, you're pushing the animal to overheat."

There's other appropriate adaptations described as well, such as the nuchal ligament to keep the head steady (which all animals that run a lot have - including humans)(and which incidentally, apes don't have and australopithecus didn't have), and the fact that the gluteus maximus keeps the human body steady and balanced during running.

It's a pretty nifty theory.

http://www.discover.com/issues/may-06/features/tramps-like-us/

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 08 Aug 2006 #permalink

He was not so much making an argument against Gould's emphasis on the contingent nature of evolution

Perhaps you need to read more closely. For instance,

Gould does not deny convergence--how could he?--but he does tend to ignore it. Why? Perhaps because, as Conway Morris says, it is the fatal weakness in his case for contingency.

By truth machine (not verified) on 08 Aug 2006 #permalink

Dennett would certainly be non-plussed at being described as advocating a notion of 'guided' evolutionary progress; he is an atheist.

That's a false dichotomy. Dennett writes

Replay the tape a thousand times, and the Good Tricks will be found again and again, by one lineage or the other. Convergent evolution is not evidence of global progress, but it is overwhelmingly good evidence of the power of the underlying algorithms, mindless all the way down, but thanks to the cranes it has built along the way, wonderfully capable of discovery, recognition, and wise decision. There is no room, and no need, for skyhooks.

"wise decision" but without "mind".

By truth machine (not verified) on 08 Aug 2006 #permalink

Truth Machine:

Well, I sit corrected. I did not recall this linkage being made in Dennett's book, but merely the exhaustive dissection of the famous 'spandrels' critique of adaptationist explanations. Nor did I mean to imply a false dichotomy with respect to your views, but others on this thread had implied 'guidance' by something like God.

Nevertheless, thanks for setting me straight.

Scott

By Scott Hatfield (not verified) on 08 Aug 2006 #permalink

Owlmirror: "the gluteus maximus keeps the human body steady and balanced during running" - so THAT'S what our rear ends are for? Who would have thought?

One theory is that an upright bi-petal stance freed us to run.

Of course. Nothing is faster than Flower Power.

(Emphasis mine.)

I embrace the idea that I must find my own purpose; Christians like Collins dread it, and it leads them to invent ridiculous ideas like his all-knowing god and a predestined universe, where every coin flip is predetermined and lorded over by the all-knowing eye of an omnipotent sky-father. It's rather disturbing to see an eminent molecular biologist and geneticist retreating so fearfully from the notion that genetic mutations are random.

I'm quite sure you do embrace that idea, and you think it is something noble. You are lord of your universe, and that is somehow better than submitting to the will of the actual Lord of the universe? The balance seems a little off here -- flawed, random human versus all-knowing, omnipotent God.

By M Petersen (not verified) on 14 Aug 2006 #permalink

No one is lord of their universe. Only a member of it. No one said they were.
Finding our own purpose is being a lord of one's self. Which is all you really can be.

Finding our own purpose is being a lord of one's self. Which is all you really can be.

My apologies for using an inaccurate word 'universe' to describe being 'lord of one's self'. It is delusional to think that you can even be lord of yourself.

By M Petersen (not verified) on 14 Aug 2006 #permalink

That's not delusion. It's reality.

Just not part of reality you can precieve apparently. It's your glitch.