15 Mar 2015

Reprint From 2006: Judging the ID / Darwinian Debate

Evolution, Religious 32 Comments

Editor’s Note: Someone recently asked me about William Dembski (one of the leaders in the Intelligent Design [ID] movement) and so I dug up this old article from 2006 that I originally wrote for LewRockwell.com. Since we’ve been discussing this debate on and off here recently, I thought some of you would enjoy this. To provide the context, back in 2006 (when I was a college professor at Hilldale) I really immersed myself in this area, reading a lot of material pro and con regarding ID.

One minor set of edits is that I thought Eugenie Scott was a man when I originally wrote this article. I think I changed it all (“him” to “her” etc.) in the text below, but let me know if I missed any.

Judging the ID/Evolution Debate

Bob Murphy

January 2006

 One of the most unfortunate aspects of the controversy between proponents of modern, orthodox evolutionary theory (to which I shall simply refer as “evolution” from now on) and Intelligent Design (ID) theory is the sloppy argumentation. Perhaps this is because biology is a hard science, and hence the experts in this field are not as well trained in rhetoric as, say, people with PhDs in philosophy or even economics. In any event, in the present article I analyze an excellent summary of the dispute hosted by Natural History magazine. Three major figures in the ID movement give short position statements, followed by responses from proponents of evolution. I rate these exchanges and also the introductory and concluding portions of the special issue. (Disclaimer: I believe that the allegedly overwhelming case for evolution is overrated.)


Dembski vs. Pennock: Very Good

In this exchange concerning information theory, Dembski and Pennock do a wonderful job of clearly stating their positions. As we shall see, Dembski starts with a very strong case, but Pennock impressively rebuts.

Dembski starts by reminding his readers that explanations relying on intelligence are certainly not alien to unquestionably “scientific” disciplines:

But how do we know that nature requires no help from a designing intelligence? Certainly, in special sciences ranging from forensics to archaeology to SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), appeal to a designing intelligence is indispensable. What’s more, within these sciences there are well-developed techniques for identifying intelligence. Essential to all these techniques is the ability to eliminate chance and necessity.

Hoping to draw the reader in with an obvious (and popular) example, he then refers to a movie:

 For instance, how do the radio astronomers in Contact (the Jodie Foster movie based on Carl Sagan’s novel of the same name) infer the presence of extraterrestrial intelligence in the beeps and pauses they monitor from space? The researchers run signals through computers that are programmed to recognize many preset patterns. Signals that do not match any of the patterns pass through the “sieve” and are classified as random. After years of receiving apparently meaningless “random” signals, the researchers discover a pattern of beats and pauses that corresponds to the sequence of all the prime numbers between 2 and 101.…When a sequence begins with 2 beats, then a pause, 3 beats, then a pause…and continues all the way to 101 beats, the researchers must infer the presence of an extraterrestrial intelligence.

After illustrating his basic approach with this example, Dembski then gets a bit more rigorous and explains the process by which one can operationally define information. Finally, because (Dembski claims) DNA is, among other things, a huge repository of information, it is evidence of intelligence. To switch examples: If two guys are hiking in the woods and discover some rocks arranged to spell out, “WARNING SNAKES AHEAD,” then there would be no doubt in their minds that something intelligent had deliberately designed this arrangement. All Dembski has done is to systematically explain how it is that we make such an evaluation all the time (in our everyday lives) and how to apply it to the biological context.

As I said earlier, Pennock does a great job meeting Dembski’s challenge. He first claims (plausibly) that “the odd sequences found within DNA are quite unlike a series of prime numbers. Dembski has no way to show that the genetic patterns are ‘set up in advance’ or ‘independently given.’” In other words, Pennock is challenging the analogies. If I may put words in his mouth, I think Pennock is arguing that the only reason we think DNA contains information is through our understanding of the evolutionary process; it’s not analogous to our understanding of mathematics which then could provide independent evidence for extraterrestrials.

Next Pennock challenges Dembski’s “law of conservation of information.” Basically, Dembski argues (in his work, not in this short piece) that if you see a system with a certain amount of information, it must have gotten “in” from somewhere, and more important it must have been caused by an intelligence. Pennock counters this superficially plausible claim by pointing out that “researchers are beginning to use Darwinian processes, implemented in computers…to evolve complex systems and to provide solutions to design problems in ways that are beyond the power of mere intelligent agents.”

This may sound hokey to the average person, but (at least for those readers who are familiar with economic theory) we should be careful. One of the biggest mistakes (which Friedrich Hayek spent much of his career attacking) we can make in the social sciences is to assume that a complex order (such as a monetary economy) must have been deliberately designed by someone or some group. Now of course, one could argue from a certain point of view that the intelligence of all actors in a market taken together gives rise to the complex economic system, but in the same way the evolutionary theorist could argue that the ecosystem as a whole had all the information from the beginning, which only manifested itself in particular strands of DNA billions of years later.


Behe vs. Miller: Fair

Behe is the most famous of the ID proponents, and I’ve heard his standard case so often that I’ve lost the ability to disinterestedly evaluate it. As we shall see, I think the evolutionist response (at least in this exchange) is fair at best, and really doesn’t help the intelligent layperson evaluate Behe’s argument.

Behe first reminds us of Darwin’s own criterion for success or failure:

 How can we decide whether Darwinian natural selection can account for the amazing complexity that exists at the molecular level? Darwin himself set the standard when he acknowledged, “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”

Quite simply, Behe thinks he has taken Darwin at his word and offers the examples of the bacterial flagellum, the blood clotting mechanism in humans and other animals, and the system of protein distribution in cells. But Behe’s famous illustration of his idea is the mousetrap analogy:

Some systems seem very difficult to form by such successive modifications—I call them irreducibly complex. An everyday example of an irreducibly complex system is the humble mousetrap. It consists of (1) a flat wooden platform or base; (2) a metal hammer, which crushes the mouse; (3) a spring with extended ends to power the hammer; (4) a catch that releases the spring; and (5) a metal bar that connects to the catch and holds the hammer back. You can’t catch a mouse with just a platform, then add a spring and catch a few more mice, then add a holding bar and catch a few more. All the pieces have to be in place before you catch any mice.

In case it’s not clear, the reason Behe added the last sentence above was to show that an “irreducibly complex” system (such as a mousetrap) cannot arise through the Darwinian process of mutation and natural selection. The evolutionary account makes perfect sense when explaining, say, how a giraffe’s neck got to be so long; over time those giraffes with slightly longer necks produced more offspring than those with shorter necks, etc. (And the reason that a giraffe doesn’t have a neck sixty feet long is also easily explained by the larger requirements of calories, loss of speed, etc.)

But, according to Behe, when it comes to something even as (apparently) simple as a single celled organism, we see an astoundingly complex machine that consists of numerous parts, many of which are crucial to the success of the organism as a whole. Unlike the giraffe story, it is impossible (according to Behe) to come up with an account of how a cell could have arisen step-by-step through gradual mutation and natural selection, because gaining just part of (say) the system for protein distribution wouldn’t be advantageous; only getting the whole system in one fell swoop would be. Thus, if life evolves only through unguided or “blind” processes, the (alleged) irreducible complexity of cells is a serious problem.

Miller’s response to Behe is very pithy and no doubt caused great mirth in the evolution camp, but I shall argue that it is rather weak indeed:

 Ironically, Behe’s own example, the mousetrap, shows what’s wrong with this idea. Take away two parts (the catch and the metal bar), and you may not have a mousetrap but you do have a three-part machine that makes a fully functional tie clip or paper clip. Take away the spring, and you have a two-part key chain. The catch of some mousetraps could be used as a fishhook, and the wooden base as a paperweight; useful applications of other parts include everything from toothpicks to nutcrackers and clipboard holders. The point, which science has long understood, is that bits and pieces of supposedly irreducibly complex machines may have different—but still useful—functions.

As I said above, Miller’s response is clever, but does it really hold up? Let’s forget the biological context for a moment (because one’s own position on evolution versus ID will certainly cloud one’s judgment) and imagine that we’re really in a situation involving a “mousetrap,” and I put that word in quotation marks because to label it as such begs the question of what this thing’s purpose is.

Okay, so you and I walk onto a porch and see, perhaps in the corner, a flat piece of wood with a spring, a hammer, etc. You claim that it is a mousetrap, by which you mean that it is a device that someone with intelligence deliberately designed, for the purpose of catching mice. In contrast to your assertion, I maintain that there is no reason to invoke an unseen designer. After all, it’s possible that those components came together in some other way.

You of course are astounded by my position. Although it’s difficult to even set up the scenario for calculations, you feel quite sure that my explanation is astronomically improbable.

Now—and here’s the rub, folks—suppose I say, “Hold on. My story isn’t nearly as improbable as you think. I don’t need to assume, for example, that a tree got hit by lightning and a flat board was produced, and that an earthquake caused an iron deposit to eject a spring, etc. Those individual components could have existed for other reasons. For example, maybe someone was using the wooden base, the hammer, and the spring as a three-part tie clip, and maybe someone else was using the catch as a fishhook, and finally maybe a third person was using the metal bar as a nutcracker. So it’s not unreasonable to suppose that those components all existed. All my explanation needs, in terms of random chance, is that some event occurred in which all three of these components come together accidentally to form a functioning mousetrap, which a human then placed in the corner of his porch.”

Does the reader see where I’m going with this? It is a very weak response to Behe to argue that each of the components of an allegedly irreducibly complex system could exist in some other capacity. First, why would natural selection have those components exist in the proper state long enough for the random coupling to occur? To go back to the mousetrap analogy, even though you could use the wooden base+hammer+spring as a tie clip, you wouldn’t do so for very long. Maybe you’d use it once in an emergency, but you would discard it after that use because it wouldn’t be a very good tie clip. Second, even if we concede that it’s possible that each of the numerous components could exist on its own, it would still take a complicated story to explain how they all came together at the same time. To go back to the mousetrap analogy, even if we did have people using each of the components for the uses Miller suggests, it would still be a ridiculous claim to say that they all came together to form a mousetrap without someone’s deliberate design.

Of course, the proponent of evolution will argue that this isn’t the case in biology, and that there are plenty of plausible accounts by which (say) something like the human eye could have evolved step-by-step. All I’m trying to do above is show that Miller’s response to the mousetrap analogy isn’t very good at all; what he should have done instead is simply say that it’s a bad analogy.


Wells vs. Scott: Poor

In his contribution entitled, “Elusive Icons of Evolution,” Jonathan Wells is taking the modest position that two of the allegedly great pieces of evidence for evolution are, in fact, nothing of the kind:

Scientific theories, however, must fit the evidence. Two examples of the evidence for Darwin’s theory of evolution—so widely used that I have called them “icons of evolution”—are Darwin’s finches and the four-winged fruit fly. Yet both of these, it seems to me, show that Darwin’s theory cannot account for all features of living things.

Regarding the finches, Wells points out that the supposedly important work on this (by Peter and Rosemary Grant) doesn’t demonstrate what the evolutionists think it does:

In 1977 the Grants watched as a severe drought wiped out 85 percent of a particular species on one island. The survivors had, on average, slightly larger beaks that enabled them to crack the tough seeds that had endured the drought. This was natural selection in action. The Grants estimated that twenty such episodes could increase average beak size enough to produce a new species.

When the rains returned, however, average beak size returned to normal. Ever since, beak size has oscillated around a mean as the food supply has fluctuated with the climate. There has been no net change, and no new species have emerged.

Wells then tackles another oft-cited piece of evidence in the alleged mountain of confirmation of evolution, the four-winged fruit fly:

 Normal fruit flies have two wings and two “balancers”—tiny structures behind the wings that help stabilize the insect in flight. In the 1970s, geneticists discovered that a combination of three mutations in a single gene produces flies in which the balancers develop into normal-looking wings. The resulting four-winged fruit fly is sometimes used to illustrate how mutations can produce the sorts of anatomical changes that Darwin’s theory needs.

But the extra wings are not new structures, only duplications of existing ones. Furthermore, the extra wings lack muscles and are therefore worse than useless. The four-winged fruit fly is severely handicapped—like a small plane with extra wings dangling from its tail. As is the case with all other anatomical mutations studied so far, those in the four-winged fruit fly cannot provide raw materials for evolution.

Admittedly, Wells doesn’t spell out quite clearly what his overall point is. We must remember what he (and many other, though not all, ID proponents) thinks is true in the Darwinian story: Wells believes that there is genetic variation within species, that this can lead to phenotypic differences, and finally that environmental change can favor or hinder the different groups, such that the proportion of a given species having a certain trait can change over time. However, what Wells denies is that this “microevolution” can lead to the formation of entirely new species. He admits that “large” changes are possible, particularly if humans deliberately alter the genetic code, but he claims that such large changes would never be beneficial, and so cannot explain the complexity of life.

Now that we understand the view of Wells, and how it differs from the standard Darwinian story, we can better understand his short piece. Wells is pointing out that two of the most popular pieces of evidence that allegedly make the case for evolution do no such thing, when contrasted with Wells’ own story. In other words, if one is trying to decide between Wells’ view and that of an orthodox evolutionist, one would have to conclude that the work of the Grants and the research on fruit flies either was neutral or helped Wells.

So how does Eugenie Scott respond to these claims? It would have been ideal to either contradict Wells’ claims (i.e. to say that the finches really did experience a permanent deviation in beak size or that the fruit flies really did improve after the mutations), or to offer other examples where these phenomena occurred. But Scott does nothing of the kind. Regarding the study of finches:

Reading Wells, one might not realize the importance of the Grants’ careful studies, which demonstrated natural selection in real time. That the drought conditions abated before biologists witnessed the emergence of new species is hardly relevant; beak size does oscillate in the short term, but given a long-term trend in climate change, a major change in average size can be expected.

 Do you see what Scott has done here?? She has said that the mere fact that the example doesn’t illustrate what people typically claim—and that, in contrast, it illustrates only the weaker claim of Wells and other IDers—is irrelevant, and that the very thing under dispute “can be expected.” That’s the whole point, Dr. Scott—Wells and others are saying it can’t be expected, and they challenge you to show a counterexample. (Note that I’m not saying no such counterexamples exist; the talkorigins site claims that there are observed cases of speciation. I’m just pointing out how silly Scott’s response is.)

Now what about the fruit fly? Again, in light of Wells’ position—that major mutations are harmful and so can’t explain the diversity of species—Scott should’ve (ideally) given an example where it was helpful, or acknowledged the empirical gap in the theory that perhaps would be filled over time. Instead she cavalierly says:

 Wells admits that natural selection can operate on a population and correctly looks to genetics to account for the kind of variation that can lead to “new features in new species.” But he contends that mutations such as those that yield four-winged fruit flies do not produce the sorts of anatomical changes needed for major evolutionary change. Can’t he see past the example to the principle? That the first demonstration of a powerful genetic mechanism happened to be a nonflying fly is irrelevant.

Scott then goes on a long (relative to her whole piece) discourse on how many researchers are working in this area (and this, presumably, is evidence for its validity) but she doesn’t tackle Wells’ point head on. Finally, she demonstrates that her own a priori views make it impossible for her to agree with Wells, regardless of the empirical evidence:

 Wells argues that natural explanations are inadequate and, thus, that “students should also be taught that design remains a possibility.” Because in his logic, design implies a Designer, he is in effect recommending that science allow for nonnatural causation. We actually do have solid natural explanations to work with, but even if we didn’t, science only has tools for explaining things in terms of natural causation.

In light of this conclusion, it’s not surprising that Scott (apparently) put such little effort into understanding Wells’ position. Since Scott can reject Wells’ theory on methodological grounds, the alleged problems with the finch and fruit fly studies really are (in Scott’s worldview) irrelevant.


The Introduction and Conclusion: Horrible

Finally, let us briefly analyze the setup and concluding remarks for the above three exchanges. First, if you click on the link I provided, you’ll see that the website places at the top the label: “evolution: science and belief.” This is a very typical move, illustrated by Futuyma’s book, Science on Trial. Rather than treating PhDs such as Behe, Dembski, and Wells as peers who espouse very bad theories, they are classified as being opposed to science itself.

Before I continue, let me make one thing clear: I completely understand that the overwhelming majority of biologists, chemists, and other relevant experts support the theory of evolution, and think Behe et al. are crazy. I don’t expect the ID proponents to be published in mainstream journals or to be featured at major conferences. But when their peers elect to address their views, they could at least offer them the basic respect of treating them as fellow (misguided) scientists.

(For an analogy, I have participated in a forthcoming Journal of Libertarian Studies symposium on a book that deplores capitalism. Let me admit upfront that the journal editor selected participants whom he knew would criticize the book; the purpose of the symposium was not to really consider the possibility that our worldviews were totally wrong, but rather to demonstrate to the faithful how right we are by gang-criticizing this particular book. Nonetheless, the symposium will not be entitled, “Capitalism: Economics and Emotion,” where our views correspond to the former and the mutualist’s to the latter.)

The concluding “Overview” by Barbara Forrest is, to only slightly oversimplify, one long ad hominem attack. She tells us, for example, that, “At heart, proponents of intelligent design are not motivated to improve science but to transform it into a theistic enterprise that supports religious faith.”

Now yes yes, I understand what makes her say that, and I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of people who get excited by the IDers with PhDs do so for religious reasons. Nonetheless, her impugning of the motivations of thousands of people (based on the behavior of, shall we say, a subset of that group) is not only classless, not only irrelevant (because you evaluate a theory on its merits, not the motivations of its proponents), but it’s not even sensible. If someone really believes, say, in the Genesis account, then that person thinks the Darwinian story is just plain wrong. It’s not merely that this person objects to the theory of evolution because it offends his religious sensibilities, no, this person objects because he thinks it makes false claims about the natural world. Now if that really were somebody’s view, wouldn’t the ID movement be a necessary step in improving science?

32 Responses to “Reprint From 2006: Judging the ID / Darwinian Debate”

  1. Silas Barta says:

    Heh — I remember reading this when it originally came out, and your “Capitalism: Economics vs Emotion” satire, then eagerly anticipating the JLS issue where you all respond to Carson. But it later turned out, the two of the authors (Block and Reisman, not you) *did* reply with extreme condescension!

    I agree with you about much of the debate being laced with non-responsiveness. A better way to settle this would be to take lessons from computational complexity (great intro) and use that as the yardstick to measure how much “optimization power” evolution has relative to beings we consider intelligent. For example, given n generations, do organism populations improve in fitness/complexity by log(n)? n? n^2? n^4? exp(n)?

    • Tel says:

      That would be more interesting, but what you find is that these Darwin debates never focus on tangible outcomes, useful tools, nor testable theories. What they focus on is a feeling of comfort and righteousness (both sides do this) being able to support their world view and explanation for complex events.

      They aren’t looking for something useful, they are seeking self justification. I’d put a lot of evolutionary biologists into that basket.

      Here’s my favorite example: a bit of thinking about the feedback process should convince most logical people that altruism in the natural world cannot remain for many generations (I mean altruism in a serious sense such as giving up resources that reduce an individual survival without any return, not trivial stuff like standing up on the bus which doesn’t have any effect on survival either way).

      Evolutionary biologists are almost all tied to “progressive” institutions (you know the sort I mean) so they went in search of altruism, not in order to test the theory (only religious zealots would question Evolution, we don’t go testing theories around here) but because for them being a do-gooder was and is and article of faith, if anyone started thinking they were supporting big government mostly because it was supporting then, the roof would fall down.

      So when incentivated social scientists go in search of a result they always find it, and indeed the biologists found “altruism” but mostly they found individuals supporting their next of kin, or at least a close cousin. This sort of clannish “altruism” can easily be explained as a way to improve reproduction of that particular family. Not exactly real altruism, but just normal evolutionary process operating at a clan level rather than an individual level. Not sufficient comfort factor in that.

      Then they had to go searching again, and once again found what they were looking for: individuals doing favours for other individuals without a strong family connection. At last! Progressive policy is justified, by nature itself!

      However, on closer inspection they found individuals paying each other back, they even found what looked like mechanisms for prevention of exploitation… so an individual who felt he/she had contributed but got ripped off with no repayment would react adversely in various ways (breaking off association for example). They called this (wait for it) “reciprocal altruism”.

      Yeah, that’s right, it’s the charitable thing you do from the goodness of your heart… with expectations of repayment.

      Anyone else would have called it “trade” but for a biologist to do that would be admitting that a lot of highly non-progressive dry traditional economists were right… and worse, got there hundreds of years earlier. So “reciprocal altruism” must never be allowed to have anything to do with trade.

      Could God have designed something as complex and surprising as the Progressive mindset?

      • E. Harding says:

        “That would be more interesting, but what you find is that these Darwin debates never focus on tangible outcomes, useful tools, nor testable theories. What they focus on is a feeling of comfort and righteousness (both sides do this) being able to support their world view and explanation for complex events.”
        -Agree, Tel. Most evolutionary biologists probably aren’t like this, but most Internet Darwin debates have exactly the motives you describe.

      • Harold says:

        Do you consider biologists to be social scientists? Generally that is reserved for studies of human societies.
        “altruism in the natural world cannot remain for many generations. I mean altruism in a serious sense such as giving up resources that reduce an individual survival without any return.” Individuals give up resources with no return to that individual frequently. This is altruism, and widely exists in nature, as you acknowledge with your reference to family selection. By your definition altruism is common. It promotes survival of the same genes possessed by the individual, but not individuall survival.

        “but because for them being a do-gooder was and is and article of faith, if anyone started thinking they were supporting big government mostly because it was supporting then, the roof would fall down.”

        This is not a story that reflects the facts. Darwin recognised a problem with altruism evolving, yet altruism was observable in nature. He suggested group selection as a mechanism. This was refuted by William Hamilton in 1964 who showed that kin selection was possible, but group selection was not except in highly specific environments not likely to be found in nature. For the next few decades altruism was viewed almost exclusively by biologists as an evolutionary mechanism to promote survival of genes among close relatives. This story of a quest to find the elusive altruism by biologists is simply not true. Altruism was easy to observe and the quest was to explain it in evolutionary terms.

        More recently the idea of group selection has become more acceptable, and with it the concept of what I think you would call “genuine” altruism. Group selection allows altruism to evolve, but the concept remains controversial, and may be indistinguishable from kin selection in all practical situations

        As for reciprocal altruism, it is not something “anyone else” would call trade. One could call it trade, but there is no requirement to do so. Trade implies a simultaneous exchange, whereas these exchanges are very much not simultaneous. “but for a biologist to do that would be admitting that a lot of highly non-progressive dry traditional economists were right… and worse, got there hundreds of years earlier.” There is not a conflict with economics. It was far from certain that these animals had the attributes required – multiple interactions and the capacity to remember or otherwise punish cheaters. The concept was developed in 1971 to explain apparent altruism among non-relatives because it was recognised that there was no known mechanism for altruism to evolve in the absence of kin selection. It was and still is widely accepted among biologists. There was no expectation among biologists that animals did anything “from the goodness of their heart”

        The most important point is that biological altruism is not the same as altruism the everyday vernacular sense. Biological altruism is defined in terms of fitness consequences, not motivating intentions. It is you who have introduced a spurious quest for animal motivation on the part of the biologists.

        • Tel says:

          Biologists who work as zookeepers have a tangible success/failure criterion… if their pets die and the zoo is left empty, then they need to improve their techniques. Same with biologists working on farms, or plant breeders, or in medicine looking to cure disease. These are applications of “hard science” where there’s nothing wishy washy about whether you got it right or not. Very clearly measurable outcomes result in a good discipline and quality science.

          Evolutionary biologists come up with a plausible explanation for something that happened long ago. The success criteria is merely whether other evolutionary biologists like the sound of it. It’s basically a well funded dinner party conversation. It’s never going to get tested in any meaningful way, and everyone knows there won’t be a test.

          Look at the mousetrap example, have you ever seen someone using a mousetrap as a tie clip? I’m aware it’s only intended as an illustrative example, but the fact that we take an object that we know has been deliberately designed, then find it can still be given a plausible sounding “evolutionary explanation” should I think give pause as to whether those explanations prove anything.

          Getting onto altruism…

          There’s no species where individuals are immortal, all individuals survive by having children. One strategy is to have a small number of children and invest a lot of effort into them, another strategy is to have many children and invest a little bit of effort, but all species have children, it’s the only known survival option. Calling this “altruism” is ridiculous, and in no sense related to what any normal person would call “altruism”. They might call it looking after you family, or clan allegiance, but not altruism.

          It’s this business of finding things to call “altruism” in order to be able to observe altruism that annoys me. Other science doesn’t feel the need to doublespeak like that.

          As for reciprocal altruism, it is not something “anyone else” would call trade. One could call it trade, but there is no requirement to do so. Trade implies a simultaneous exchange, whereas these exchanges are very much not simultaneous.

          Really? When buy lunch and pay in cash, does the guy in the lunch shop start eating the cash? Mostly I think he would put the cash in the cash register and buy something with that sometime later. No one calls this “altruism”.

          What about working a job and getting paid at the end of the week, more “altruism”? No, just normal employment, about 50% of the population do it. Pretty sure that comes under the name of “trade”.

          You probably think that banks are the most altruistic of all institutions, they give out money from the goodness of their hearts, only expecting to get paid back in 20 or 30 years.

          Thing is, normal people call this “trade” or “commerce” or “business”, it’s only biologists that would call it “altruism”. Almost every transaction in the entire economy is non-simultaneous. Biologists happily invented their own names for things that already had names, confusing themselves and everyone around them.

          • Anonymous says:

            Evolutionary biologists come up with a plausible explanation for something that happened long ago. The success criteria is merely whether other evolutionary biologists like the sound of it. It’s basically a well funded dinner party conversation. It’s never going to get tested in any meaningful way, and everyone knows there won’t be a test.

            Tel, I wouldn’t say there aren’t tests. The types of things they look into are how the number of mutations in non-functional areas of critical proteins such as hemoglobin compare across genomes to phylogenetic classifications of these organisms.

          • Ken P says:

            Evolutionary biologists come up with a plausible explanation for something that happened long ago. The success criteria is merely whether other evolutionary biologists like the sound of it. It’s basically a well funded dinner party conversation. It’s never going to get tested in any meaningful way, and everyone knows there won’t be a test.

            I would not say they don’t use tests. They look at things like how well the mutations in non-critical regions of molecules like hemoglobin correlate to the phylogenetic tree.

            As for altruism… that is a pet peeve of mine. Conflating self-interest with selfishness and trying to say the existence of “altruistic” behavior (as well as similar “studies”) is a ploy by social scientists to justify their economic beliefs. Personally, I think there is altruism – we are social creatures – and I see it in how I’m guessing Adam Smith views it in Theory of Moral Sentiment (being more relevant in personal interactions and not being a game theory trade perspective). I believe this gets baked into our economic decisions and therefore strongly accounted for in a free market.

            • Ken P says:

              Tel, I should have said not “just” a game theory trade perspective. I agree with you that altruism is often motivated by expectation of reciprocation. Whether by generating reciprocation or just plain making us feel good, it benefits us and therefore is self-interest based.

              • Tel says:

                If it is motivated by expectations of repayment, then there’s no good reason to call it “altruism”. Banks are not regarded as “altruistic” by any normal person, generally not even by themselves. Economists don’t study “altruism”, they study “trade”.

                To borrow from Romano Prodi “… you can call it Margaret, you can call it Mary-Ann”. Thing is, sensible people only need one commonly used name for the one thing they are talking about, and that would be the oldest name, and the name the majority of people would recognize.

            • Tel says:

              This seems to be the crux of it as far as I can see:

              It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

              Adam Smith

              Or if you prefer,

              Natural justice is a pledge of reciprocal benefit, to prevent one man from harming or being harmed by another.


              There’s a bunch of other translations from Epicurus, but they all cover the same idea: morality exists as an agreement between men.

              Biologists simply don’t want to find this answer, even when humans have understood it for a very long time.

              • Harold says:

                “Biologists who work as zookeepers have a tangible success/failure criterion…” Zookeeping is a separate job from biologist and does not require any biology qualifications. Physicists who work as plumbers have a tangible success/failure criterion, but that does not help us much.

                “It’s this business of finding things to call “altruism” in order to be able to observe altruism that annoys me.”

                Tel, I repeat this bit: “The most important point is that biological altruism is not the same as altruism in the everyday vernacular sense. Biological altruism is defined in terms of fitness consequences, not motivating intentions.”

                The real story is the opposite of the one you describe. You say biologists have sought examples of altruism in order to justify their idealogical viewpoint. Actually, they observed what appeared to be altruism in nature, and spent their wits to explain how this could occur, since on first examination (from Darwin onwards) altruism is a trait that could not evolve. By and large, the last thing biologists want is an example of “genuine” altruism, since that would require re-writing the theories they mostly subscribe to.

                “and everyone knows there won’t be a test.” It was partly due to mathematical modelling in the 1960’s that the idea of group selection fell out of favor. This was very much a test. Whether vampire bats were able to punish defaulters is a test of altruism. This was a test. There are lots of tests. So far these tests have come out in favor of kin selection, but there is some room opened up for group selection. These hypotheses are being tested and contested. Evolution of non-kin, group selection appears possible if certain criteria are met. Whether those criteria are ever met in practice is testable, at least in principle. One way for altruism to evolve for groups to form and split, with altruists ending up overrepresented in some groups. These groups then have more individual offspring. Within every group, competition and selection ensures that altruists will be out-competed by selfish individuals. However, even as the proportion of altruists in every group declines, the total proportion of altruists in the population increases. This is similar to Simpsons Paradox.

                “morality exists as an agreement between men.
                Biologists simply don’t want to find this answer,”

                I agree entirely, because biologists do not generally concern themselves with morality. They do not want to find this answer because they are simply not looking for it. One or two might be, but they are the exception.

              • Ken P says:

                Tel, This Adam Smith quote is more aligned with what I was referring to:

                How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.

    • S.C. says:

      But it later turned out, the two of the authors (Block and Reisman, not you) *did* reply with extreme condescension!

      To be fair, Block is not exactly a model libertarian.

  2. Harold says:

    Behe vs Miller: “Okay, so you and I walk onto a porch and see, perhaps in the corner, a flat piece of wood with a spring, a hammer, etc. You claim that it is a mousetrap, by which you mean that it is a device that someone with intelligence deliberately designed, for the purpose of catching mice”

    No, I claim that it is something which I intend to use to trap mice. If I found a natural arrangement of things that could usefully serve to trap mice, and I placed it in my porch to trap mice, I would say it was a mousetrap, although I make no claim about the intelligence of its designer.

    Now if this was a metal and spring mousetrap, I do not need to speculate about how it came to be. I have ample evidence that it was manufactured. I saw it on “How Things Are Made”, I have read about it. I can look it up on the internet. It is absurd to say in this instance that maybe it just came together, because we have no reasonable mechanism whereby such a thing is likely, and very strong evidence that it is manufactured. Given two competing hypotheses about the origins, the manufactured one wins hands down.

    If the mousetrap was an arrangement of twigs and thorns that mice could enter but not leave, that would also be a mousetrap. I have no evidence that this was manufactured. I hypothesise that it just grew that way, either by chance or through pre-programmed genetic mechanism in which the plant benefits from trapping mice, like a venus fly trap.

    The flaw in your counter argument is rather like the flaw in the analogy about the rocks arranged to spell “danger snakes ahead”. If such an arrangement were to exist, an intelligence would be a good hypothesis. But if an arrangement of rocks were to exist, such that one could say “this part could be a letter “S”, these three rocks could code for “n” etc” until you have spelled out the sentence, then intelligence would not be a good hypothesis.

    Natural processes will not reproduce the exact same arrangements of components that intelligences will use. Thus a metal and spring mousetrap is vanishingly unlikely to evolve. Just like the exact arrangement of rocks will spell out a sentence in an existing language. However, that is not to say mousetraps and complicated arrangements of rocks will not occur. Just that they cannot be the same arrangements of things that we design, because they have occurred via a different process.

    Someone could use the arrangement of rocks in the example to develop an alphabet. The pattern of those three rocks could become the symbol for “S”. Someone going back later may wonder how these rocks arranged themselves to spell a warning, but of course they had done no such thing.

    Finches. What was demonstrated was natural selection. It is straw man to say that this did not demonstrate speciation, since that was never the claim. This is clear. Fruit flies- the mutation was not beneficial, but it is a straw man to claim it did not demonstrate useful large scale mutation, since that was never the claim. It is true that these isolated examples do not prove evolution, but nobody has claimed they do, as far as I know. They are just more examples in the mountain of evidence that supports it. Darwin observed the different species of finch. He suggested a mechanism of evolution through natural selection. Many were convinced by the evidence of the finches that were there. Then the Grants actually observe exactly this type of natural selection in action. This supports the hypothesis, but it is not central to it.

  3. Harold says:

    I am not quite sure what is the ID position on the Galapagos finches. The evolutionary claim is that that the finches developed from a common ancestor, and developed longer, shorter or different shaped beaks and other shape changes in order to exploit different food supplies present on different islands. This seems consistent with the ID position that relatively small changes are possible, but not changes that significantly increase complexity. Do ID proponents deny that these changes occurred, and that each finch was designed to have the specific beak and shape they now have? Or are they quite happy with this sort of speciation?

    If you accept morphological changes, then surely it is not difficult to accept “de facto” speciation, since animals will favour those animals like themselves, so they will find the big-beaked monstrosities from the next island distinctly unattractive. These populations will not interbreed in the wild. This is how we usually define species, but in this context, it may be better to define it as animals incapable of producing viable offspring. Certainly some Galapagos finch species can produce viable offspring. Could this be the criterion? Ligers and Tigons can be fertile, so we would have to conclude that lions and tigers were the same species by this definition.

    If the development of different species of finches on the Galapagos islands is consistent with ID, the picking holes in the proposed observations supporting it does not help the case. If speciation of finches is not consistent with ID, then lets say so, and we know where we stand. If we demonstrate such speciation we can close the argument.

  4. Ken P says:

    So what counts as a designer? Is a person a designer? Is an enzymatic pathway a designer? Using the “I pencil” analogy, does anyone know how to make a mousetrap? How long and how many iterations of trial and error did it take to figure out how to harvest trees, mine and shape the metal? How many of the processes that are required to create the individual parts are now dependant on other processes? And like many biological processes in cells, how many of the mousetrap making processes have now lost the ability to operate without the aid of a computer?

    An interesting thing about molecules is that once they become necessary for survival they can no longer be selected away… or at least the part of the molecule that is critical to the function – typically binding sites, with haemoglobin being the classic example. That is kind of an aside but descriptive of the way things can become “permanent fixtures” in living processes.

    Now you could argue that there is a true designer of the “I mousetrap”, but I can’t envision that designer being an individual. Civilization as a whole or God are possible answers, but I don’t think either would fit as designer of the mousetrap in the way that Behe means by Intelligent Design. It seems more like emergent patterns.

    There are numerous patterns that emerge in parallel across different civilizations: Metalwork follows pottery.. etc. even though no reason is apparent for this.

    To me, what I’ve written above is more compatible with a process being placed into motion in an emergent fashion than one that is planned.

    • guest says:

      “To me, what I’ve written above is more compatible with a process being placed into motion in an emergent fashion than one that is planned.”

      The emergent property of being capable of breaking causal chains …

      • Harold says:

        “The emergent property of being capable of breaking causal chains …” The existence of such a property is speculative.

        • guest says:

          “The existence of such a property is speculative.”

          Speculation implies deliberation and therefore logically requires such a property.

          • Harold says:

            Not sure I agree, but OK, the existence of such a property is indistinguishable from speculation, or it is uncertain if you prefer.

    • Harold says:

      I think we can make a clear distinction between the design of a pencil and the allocation of resources to manufacture a pencil (or a mousetrap).

      • Ken P says:

        What you are referring to as allocation is full of design and designers. The methods for finding, obtaining and processing the raw materials are prerequisites that evolve a certain way and lay the foundation for subsequent progress. Even the ideas that lead to the final design follow such a process being built upon previous ideas. Inventions often occur simultaneously and independently which is what one would expect from an emergent process.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Ken P. if you’re using the language such that you will not agree that a pencil in the school supplies aisle at Walmart is designed, OK fine, but that’s not lining up with the evolution debate.

      • Ken P says:

        Bob, I was trying to demonstrate by analogy what I believe happens biologically. My point was the large number of random paths in the process that takes place to get there. The final product does not tell the story of how it came to exist.

        If you took the mousetraps to an island where metal and wood had never been seen, and tried to explain to the natives how the whole process required to make a mousetrap had come to exist they would probably not believe you.

        While I’m not impressed with Miller’s argument, what he is getting at is that the components have utility independent of the completed mousetrap. The same is true with the proteins encoded by genes. Primitive flagella would not have needed to work great. Any motility would be an advantage and it may have had another use prior to becoming a flagella.

        • guest says:

          “… what he is getting at is that the components have utility independent of the completed mousetrap.”

          Oh, you mean like in MacGyverisms.

    • Tel says:

      What counts as intelligent?

      Maybe God is not too bright, but surprisingly good with his hands. I mean, just putting that out there, can happen.

  5. E. Harding says:

    Has anyone read Hoppe’s new book yet? Is it any good? Just skimming it, he’s certainly read his share of genetic determinist authors (e.g., Cochran, Clark, Hart), so he fits well with them.

    • Major.Freedom says:

      Which new book is that?

      • E. Harding says:

        It’s newly published as a book, but the three topic-related essays in it are a few years older. Link here:

        • Harold says:

          Thanks for the link. Having a quick look, and am surprised by this line in the first few paragraphs: “Without language, human coordination had to occur via instincts, of which humans possess very few,” On what basis does he say humans have very few instincts? If the arguments rest on this assumption I think he is on very shaky ground. Will read on to see.

          “Because hunters and gatherers (like all nonhuman animals) only depleted (consumed) the supply of nature-given goods, but did not produce and thus add to this supply” What about the bee and butterfly that pollinate the flowers? The earthworm that mixes and aerates the soil? The ant that distributes seeds? The dung beetle that places the nutrients in the soil? It is not true to say that all non-human animals only deplete the supply of nature given goods.

          His explanation of why humans form cooperative groups is sadly lacking. “The answer to this is: because of the recognition that cooperation was more productive than isolated, self-sufficient action.” Animals seem to achieve the same thing, presumably without any such recognition. He quotes Mises “The animals too join together in mating, but they have not developed social relations.” This is just wrong – animals do have social relations.

          “by the time of the European rediscovery of America some 500 years ago all large domesticable mammals (except for the llama in South America) had been hunted to extinction.” What about bison? They were nearly eradicated in 1890, but there were huge herds in 1490. They are domesticable because most of the bison in the world are reared for human consumption. This is not central to his argument, and most megafauna were apparently hunted to extinction, but seems a glaring and unnecessary error, and does not inspire confidence.

          The ownership bit does not seem to make sense. By his definition, you cannot own land by putting a fence around it. This land at that time has not been improved by you, so you do not own it. Any land you intentionally alter however slightly becomes yours. So a gatherer who trims a branch to gain access to another branch forever owns the plant and all the future produce from it. However, the tribe do not collectively own the land even if they prevent trespass and maintain a territorial exclusion around its borders. .

          On animal ownership: “as soon as he actively tried to control the movements of the herd…he thus became also the owner of all future offspring naturally generated by the herd.” So banging drums and causing a herd to move towards the hunters gives you ownership of the herd, even when they wander off outside the area you defend. This is incoherent.

          “Herdsmen did not interfere with the land itself, however. They did not interfere with the land in order to control the movements of the herd” How does he know that! If a herdsman moves a rock or a branch out of the way to facilitate the passage of his flock – no matter how small- he has interfered with the land in order to control the movement of the herd. It is vanishingly unlikely that herdsmen do not interfere with the land at all in order to facilitate the movements of the herd. So do we have to have some criterion of significance? You can interfere this much and not own something, but more than this you own it?

          I have gone on longer than intended, but this sucks me in like watching a slow motion car crash.

  6. S.C. says:

    …“Capitalism: Economics and Emotion,” where our views correspond to the former and the mutualist’s to the latter.

    I know you’re saying you didn’t, Bob, but what kind of asterisking juxtaposition is that? Economics is a positive social science. Whoever says this kind of stuff (not necessarily you) is talking nonsense.

  7. Gil says:

    I.D. is the last-ditch, straw-clutching desperate attempt to make Creationism relevant in the modern era and it’s failing because it’s nothing.

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