neutrality, evolution and ID

| 26 Comments

Note: Much of the introduction has been rewritten to correct some errors about the nature of the blog and the name of the blog (PvM)

Allen MacNeill, who has announced the Cornell Course “ Evolution and Design: Is There Purpose in Nature?” has a personal web blog called “The Evolution List”. In a posting titled Where The REAL Action Is In Evolutionary Biology MacNeill addresses the role of neutrality in evolution.

Since ID activists seem to have some problems understanding the importance of neutrality, such as the fact that neutraility is a selectable trait, I responded as follows: Various people have pointed out that the language used in my response is overly technical. I will attempt in a future posting to address the various concepts in more detail and hopefully make them more accessible to all interested parties

Neutrality in evolutionary theory is quite exciting and has little relevance to Intelligent Design, other than showing that natural selection is not the only player in evolution. For those interested in neutrality, I would like to point out that neutrality is an essential component for evolution to be evolvable, and even more shocking: neutrality is a selectable trait.

Neutrality has two ‘side effects’ which both are relevant to evolution, the first one is robustness to mutations, the second one is improved evolvability (neutrality basically flattens the landscape).

Various scientists have done some wonderful work in the area of neutrality and the relevance to evolution.

Marc Toussaint especially his paper M. Toussaint, C. Igel (2002): Neutrality: A Necessity for Self-Adaptation [ps.gz]. Congress on Evolutionary Computation (CEC 2002), 1354-1359.

Then there is the concept of cryptic genetic variation, yet another major source of variation for selection to eventually act upon.

Both cryptic variation as well as neutral variation can be seen as a form of ‘diffusion’ through the sequence landscape while remaining static in phenotype space. In other words, stasis and quick morphological evolution follow naturally from these concepts.

In fact recent work has shown how cryptic genetic variation significantly affects the calculates by Snoke and Behe, making evolution of binding sites far more likely than in their ‘strawman-evolution’ scenario.

In addition, Peter Stadler, Peter Schuster, Walter Fontana have done research on scale free networks, neutrality and RNA space showing how evolution on such networks is ‘inevitable’.

People interested in these topics should check out keywords such as ‘scale free network’ ‘RNA’ ‘evolvability’ ‘cryptic genetic variation’ etc

None of this has much relevance to Intelligent Design. But then again, ID does not present much of any scientific theory.

While ID activists seemed to be excited about this course offering, Allen MacNeill makes clear that he is not a proponent of ID

As to the question of whether “intelligent design theory” is worthy of study (and is especially appropriate for a science-oriented seminar course), I have several reasons to believe that it is:

Allen goes on to explain why

First, by clearly drawing a distinction between the traditional scientific approach (i.e. “methodological naturalism”) and the “supernaturalist” approach, we can clarify just what science is capable of (and what it isn’t).

Interestingly he argues that “I believe that we do have the ability to recognize design and purpose in nature (and to act purposefully ourselves), and that this ability is the result of natural selection.?”

his second reason is

Secondly, by studying what I believe to be a flawed attempt at identifying and quantifying design or purpose in nature, we may be able to do a better job of

Indeed, the scientifically vacuous approach of ID needs to be replaced by a more promising approach.

Allen’s third reason is

Thirdly, the recent resurrection of “intelligent design theory” has historical and political, as well as scientific roots. By studying these, we can learn better how science proceeds, how scientific hypotheses are tested, and how scientific theories are validated (and invalidated). In my opinion, “intelligent design theory” as it is currently promulgated falls far short of the criteria for natural science, but is very useful at demonstrating how to distinguish between science and pseudoscience

26 Comments

It’s what one of my teachers told me back in grammar school over forty years ago: “No one is worthless: You can at least serve as a bad example to others.” That statement of hers was pre-adapted to Intelligent Design, which has now sprung up to fit the bill exactly: an example of extremely bad science.

PvM Wrote:

While ID activists seemed to be excited about this course offering, Allen MacNeill makes clear that he is not a proponent of ID

Hardly surprising. Andrea Wolfe teaches a similar class at Ohio State, which I took–very enjoyable–and she considers ID scientifically vacuous as well. That’s sort of what happens when such a class is taught by a practicing biologist.

If anything, MacNeill’s probably consciously trying to sound as unbiased and interested in ID as possible, so that creationist/ID-friendly students won’t be scared away from the class. Most of them seem to expect to get tied down and sacrificed to the FSM–or even worse, laughed at–if they try to discuss the issue openly. It takes a lot of hand-holding to get them talking in the first place; they’re not used to the “I’m not saying this to attack you, but you are wrong” attitude necessary in science.

While this post is very interesting, it illustrates a problem that frequently occurs when we science-types try to communicate with ‘other’ groups of people: we often use words in ways which differ from common usage.

In this case, I want to focus on ‘landscape’ and ‘space’, as in this Dawgawful eruption of jargon:

…’diffusion’ through the sequence landscape while remaining static in phenotype space.

To scientists, ‘landscape’ is a convenient shorthand for (Sewall Wright’s?) term “adaptive landscape”, which is in turn a metaphor describing a hypothetical surface, mapped to cartesian coordinates representing genetic variants, with the third (or higher!) dimension representing the (relative) ‘adaptiveness’ of the combinations at a specified time and place. To a non-scientist, ‘landscape’ means mountains and trees and lakes…

Similarly: ‘phenotype space’? I’m sure that even an intelligent non-scientist would be baffled by co-option of a word which most use to mean ‘open area’. Add in a coined pseudo-greek term and you produce what seems like gibberish to the uninitiated.

(And ‘diffusion’? Don’t get me started, but at least the writer has placed it in quotes to indicate that it is non-standard usage!)

When I read such bafflegab, I’m not surprised that many people conclude that scientists are incomprehensible and more than a little arrogant…

The DI folk, and Answers in Genesis, while sadly uninformed about evolution, at least produce literature which non-scientists can understand.

I leave it to others to pretend that you’re journalists who want to translate that presentation into a form that an intelligent non-scientist could understand. (I’ve tried, and mostly succeeded. It was a great exercise in sympathy and humility.)

Anton Mates Wrote:

Most of them seem to expect to get tied down and sacrificed to the FSM

*shifty eyes*

Inform Dr. MacNeill that someone knows too much.

To scientists, ‘landscape’ is a convenient shorthand for (Sewall Wright’s?) term “adaptive landscape”, which is in turn a metaphor describing a hypothetical surface, mapped to cartesian coordinates representing genetic variants, with the third (or higher!) dimension representing the (relative) ‘adaptiveness’ of the combinations at a specified time and place.

Ah! so that’s what he meant ( I studied evolutionary biology as part of an Ecology Degree - but that was twenty years ago and I’m obviously not up to date - any suggested reading?)

First, by clearly drawing a distinction between the traditional scientific approach (i.e. “methodological naturalism”) and the “supernaturalist” approach, we can clarify just what science is capable of (and what it isn’t).

While I think this is a noble idea, it places a great burden on the educator (not that that is a problem) because the well demonstrated pull of ideology over science has been creating a problem for addressing this type of issue for thousands of years. If students are in the least bit religious and have had little scientific education, ID seems like a reasonable explanation for why things are the way they are. Finding the way to break through the barriers that familial traditions construct in the terms of religion is the hard part. Getting to students early so as to explain the importance of observation and experimentation over “it is because our preacher tells us so” is important. I was lucky to be raised by a family who respected science (my grandfather was an entomology professor and researcher) but I know peers of mine who were not, and almost everyone of them gives ID and creationism some credence. In putting ID alongside science in the classroom you run the risk of reinforcing those beliefs.

djlactin wrote:

I leave it to others to pretend that you’re journalists who want to translate that presentation into a form that an intelligent non-scientist could understand.

A reasonable goal, to be sure, but it wasn’t at all unreasonable for Pim to use terms like “landscape” and “phenotype” while commenting on Allen MacNeill’s blog. The blog is oriented towards a science-savvy readership.

I would hope that people here are willing to take time to explain biological vocabulary to interested non-biologists, and that readers new to the vocabulary will feel free to ask questions.

If anything, MacNeill’s probably consciously trying to sound as unbiased and interested in ID as possible, so that creationist/ID-friendly students won’t be scared away from the class.

It seems that way, which means that he will probably face a class full of people who have consistently proven themselves immune to reason. I do not envy him.

I saw a comment over on Telic Thoughts about “teaching people how to think, not what to think”, but if you teach a group of people how to think about geology for an entire semester and they come out the other end still believing in a flat earth, it is apparent that they cannot be thinking correctly.

djlactin you make a very valid point.(That science jargon is too obscure for the lay reader and religious post modernist pseudoscience gibberish sounds to that same crowd equally valid)

Orwell’s prescience never ceases to amaze me, his prediction that by 2050 CE the English language (in the form of Newspeak ) would have completed the split into the separate species of Ingsoc A,B,C vocabulary. And like our evolutionary cousins be completely unmateable. He also said the very concept of science and its methods for testing the truth were completely removed as a useful tool in general society because of that speciation. The “anti Darwinists” know that to remove the scientific method as a reliable means for testing b*llsh*t philosophy anything goes.

The ‘man in the street’ has no hope of untangling reconstructed pseudo language without a course in the comparative usage of terms, the history words (Oldspeak) and the history of the enlightenment (crimethink).

The scary thing is that the current administrations ‘truthiness wonks’(Frank Luntz) think of Orwell as a kind of post Goebellian guiding light and truth something one constructs to suit oneself,google GOP Orwell if you dare.

Truth lies, if Truth is owned by liars. And no I don’t mean just one political party but anyone who promotes a personal untestable reality as truth for political purposes.

The scary thing is that the current administrations ‘truthiness wonks’(Frank Luntz) think of Orwell as a kind of post Goebellian guiding light and truth something one constructs to suit oneself,google GOP Orwell if you dare.

So (according to you) they think Orwell was advocating double-speak, not warning against it? Shades of Pianka!

Just a quick correction–

PvM Wrote:

Where The REAL Action Is In Evolutionary Biology is a web blog to discuss the Cornell course “ Evolution and Design: Is There Purpose in Nature?” offered by Allen MacNeill

Allen MacNeill’s blog is called The Evolution List; the title you are referring to is the title of one particular post.

It also is not a blog to “discuss the Cornell course ‘Evolution and Design’”. It is Allen’s personal blog, with a stated purpose to be a “forum for commentary, discussion, essays, news, and reviews that illuminate the theory of evolution and its implications in original and insightful ways.” In fact, it’s been around for a very long time as an email list, and just got online as a blog.

It may be used this summer to publish essays from the evo course for non-majors and “Evolution and Design”, or there may be a specialized blog for that.

When considering ID just ask this simple philosophical question: If ID where completely accurate would it provide any real scientific value?

“Of Pandas and People”: Things are what they are and what they have always been, exactly as designed. Species do not undergo any significant changes, and any apparent evidence to the contrary is just being misinterpreted. So it predicts what? Nothing. It is little more than a giant “Nothing to see Here” sign hanging over our past.

“Darwin’s Black Box - Irreducible Complexity”: At least this admits evolution happens. It just that occasionally a designer comes along and nudges things in a new direction. So it predicts what? At unknown intervals for unknown reasons a non-random mutation occurs. Its unknown because the designer is beyond our ability to predict. Guess what, there not much difference between random and the inability to predict when or what the mutation will be. This has the same scientific value as saying some mutations are really lucky.

Thanks passerby for the corrections and additional information.

djlactin Wrote:

The DI folk, and Answers in Genesis, while sadly uninformed about evolution, at least produce literature which non-scientists can understand.

You were doing great except for the word “uninformed.” We can’t rule out that they are simply acting uninformed. And with DI folk, that seems the more likely case.

Speaking of “dawgawful eruption of jargon” you must have loved Stuart Kauffman’s “The Origins of Order.” In fact, after reading it (and yes, I did not follow anywhere near all of the math and jargon) I often thought that this book, more than anything, convinced Michael Behe that he could get away with misrepresenting evolution to a general audience.

I’m glad to see the concrete statements the course makes about ID.

I live here in the home of the DI. I also work at the Pacific Science Center. Unfortunately, we have recently adopted a new official motto- ‘Discover Pacific Science Center.’ Discover is not a bad word, but when you learn that the board of the Pacific Science Center shares members with the board at the DI, it gets a little dicey. When you also consider that we will not publicly make a statement against the DI because of the board membership, it gets even trickier. A couple of years ago, the DI used the Pacific Science Center as a speaking location. That was disappointing.

I am growing concerned about this cross-pollination of board members.

Otto:

I don’t know if you should call it cross-pollination. I would diagnose an infection. Call for some antivirals now.

Indeed. If the board uses one dollar pf public funds to support or endorse ID (in any way shape or form), send lawyers, guns and money.

Otto informed the PT readership that “when you learn that the board of the Pacific Science Center shares members with the board at the DI, it gets a little dicey.”

I’m curious to know the which board members serve both the DI and Pacific Science Center? Why is there this cross fertilization? Is there some lack of qualified individuals in the area to act as board members to oversee the Science Center? Does the Science Center receive funds from DI or a common supporter who may have suggested DI board members also serve as Science Center board members?

It would be interesting to see if there is a change tone and tenor in new exhibits. Will fine tuning arguments creep into exhibits or something like a simple lack of discussion of certain topics.

I’m starting to sound like a conspiracy theorist.

Delta Pi Gamma (Scientia et Fermentum)

Bruce Thompson Wrote:

Does the Science Center receive funds from DI or a common supporter who may have suggested DI board members also serve as Science Center board members?

It’s not uncommon among such organizations to have a donation requirement for board membership, or to reward large donors with board membership. You may find the following useful (hint: managing directors of successful venture funds have deep pockets)…

“Tom Alberg is a Managing Director with the Madrona Venture Group. Mr. Alberg currently serves as a director for Madrona portfolio companies including Mercent, Impinj and Wireless Services. In addition, he serves on the boards of two public technology companies, Advanced Digital Information Corporation and Amazon.com. Mr. Alberg served as President of LIN Broadcasting Corporation and Executive Vice President of McCaw Cellular Communications, Inc. prior to co-founding Madrona Investment Group in 1995. Previously, Mr. Alberg was Chairman of the Executive Committee and Partner in the Northwest’s largest law firm, Perkins Coie, and was previously an attorney with Cravath, Swaine & Moore in New York.

Mr. Alberg is Chairman of the Washington State Technology Alliance, past Chairman of Discovery Institute, past Chairman of the Pacific Science Center and past President of Intiman Theater in Seattle. He was co-chairman of the capital campaign for the Computer Science Department of the University of Washington. A graduate, cum laude, of Harvard College, Mr. Alberg received his law degree from Columbia Law School where he was an editor of the Law Review.”

Just another creationist lawyer, it would appear :)

ust another creationist lawyer, it would appear :)

And of course, we ALL know how, uh, successful creationist lawyers have been in court. :)

PvM - the comment of mine that you deleted, while trite, wasn’t a slight on Lenny. It was another reference to the Warren Zevon song, from where he got his line “send lawyers, guns and money”

Cheers

K1W1 I was wondering where that came from

hence the tease But somehow I got stuck Between Iraq and a hard place

..delete away…just couldn’t resist

PvM - the comment of mine that you deleted, while trite, wasn’t a slight on Lenny.

Nor did I take it as one.

It was another reference to the Warren Zevon song, from where he got his line “send lawyers, guns and money”

“The sh-t has hit the fan”.

:)

The Fellowship of the Thumb comes through again!

k.e. ROFLMAO. Now I’ve got to get back up on my chair.

Lenny, k.e., I think that there has to be a research paper here for the journal Improbable Research on the correlation between those PT followers who think ID is a crock of rose fertiliser and taste in music, movies, sense of humour etc. We could have almost as many authors and be cited as many times as that seminal demographic study on the Steve’s in Project Steve.

A worrying trend for non-US citizens (and scientists) is the non-critical acceptance of ‘everything’ that comes out of the good old USA. Defining ‘everything’ in terms of evolution means including all press statements etc etc from DI and CRA, but not promoting any other viewpoint, or reporting accurately mainstream scientific research or Christian teaching. As the great mass of ‘Christian’ literature emanates from the US, similarly it is not critically scrutinised for theological innovation (creationism is an innovation in theology, not mainstream, just as flat-earthers were innovators, not mainstream within mainline Christianity), or for scientific or historical accuracy.

The scariest thing of all is the suppression of criticism, of source research, or even scholarly accuracy in so much of ‘shop front’ Christianity. Yet, this seems to have all the media attention, and therefore, attracts all the reactions from secularists. This only promotes extremism on both sides, with no one left in the middle to conduct raitonal discussion!

Fergus, my old friend. How is Muswellbrook treating you?

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This page contains a single entry by PvM published on April 13, 2006 1:49 PM.

Sobering thoughts on ID was the previous entry in this blog.

Creationist Responses to Tiktallik Roseae is the next entry in this blog.

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