Esteemed Czar of Muscovy:
I hope you will indulge me with something of an answer to your recent piece on natural selection. I too find it refreshing to discuss the issue using familiar products.
The chief objection I would have is the way that evolution by natural selection goes from “possible” to “fact” via some metaphysical base stealing. To put your argument in Underpants Gnomes:
1) Natural selection can be observed in nature
3) All life must be explained by reference to evolution by natural selection (a.k.a. Profit!)
Your argument is a Point 1 argument, but the argument between evolution and intelligent design is fought not on Point 1 but on Point 2. Typically, Point 2 is filled in with a reference to the idea that no other explanation for life meets the criteria to be science, because science must only invoke natural explanations. That may be good metaphysics; I am not intending to argue it here. But I will note that this definition of science is an axiom and cannot itself be proven by invoking only natural explanations (i.e. as Godel showed, knowledge is not closed).
To put it another way: Monsanto has some bright scientists who have genetically engineered soybeans that they are resistant to Roundup. This is a Point 1 argument for the existence of intelligent design. If I were then to argue that all life must therefore be explained by intelligent design, you would likely ask if we could examine my premises.
My next objection can be illustrated with another Point 1 argument. It has been known for some time that when chloroquinine is used extensively to treat malaria, malaria develops a resistance to chloroquinine. This is another example of natural selection in action. But what is also known is that when chloroquinine treatment stops, malaria over time loses its resistance. So it turns out that chloroquinine resistance does not make malaria objectively “tougher”, since in the absence of chloroquinine the resistant strain loses to the “normal” strain. The point here is that natural selection is a random walk, not a forward progression. And as we know very well from statistics, the only way to show that a random walk continues in a certain direction as n goes to infinity is to evaluate probabilities. (Interestingly, we can also see that the overall fitness landscape is a non-convex multidimensional surface, which means we must allow for the possibility of local maxima, meaning that further increases in fitness would be prevented by natural selection itself.)
When we evaluate probabilities, we see very few species gaining resistance to Roundup despite its wide use over decades and the number of individual weed organisms given the ability to evolve resistance. (In the case of malaria resistance to chloroquinine, the WHO estimates that it takes about 10^19 organisms to produce resistance, as resistance is conferred by multiple independent mutations.) To make the mind-bending leap to evolution of the huge amounts of new functionality needed to produce even the simplest cell requires even more staggering numbers.
This is a probabilistic argument, not a proof, so my and your willingness to draw conclusions from these probabilities will be based on our prior probabilities of intelligent design. Which means, with all the best will in the world, proponents of evolution and proponents of intelligent design are unlikely to convince the other anytime soon. Not because one side or the other lacks rationality; just because they start with different axioms.
GD wrote in with a similar concern about conflating natural selection with evolution. In the context of our essay on weeds, we have an example of both.
Not that this was your observation. Your observation is correct that two incompatible axioms are unlikely to meet in the middle, since neither starts from the same logical starting point.
Another of your concerns was extrapolating evolution from an example of natural selection. In our response to GD, we discuss exactly that: we are losing body hair to natural selection, but that can all come back in a few generations. That is not evolution but natural selection, just as malaria can resist chloroquinine over time, but lose invincibility to it over time just as easily. However, this can become an evolved state if all malaria appear to develop a permanent resistence to chloroquinine as a fundamental part of their biological structure. Remember that RoundUp affects plants at a core enzymatic levelnot just behavioral or environmental, but at the fundamental molecular level. That is a significant development, and technically challenges one of the classical definitions of what makes a plant a plant! And of the 300 species Monsanto claims success with, one third of them have already developed full or partial immunity. This is a big wow.
We do not think AH objects to this last point. The Czar might also be reluctant to say that natural selection is a random walk (sometimes that implies infinite possibilities for survival which simply is not realistic…sorry, X-Men, but humans will not sprout wings), but in fact, AH is correct. Natural selection is a roll of the die: you might have only six possible outcomes, but you never know which of the six will come up. hence, probabilities are valuable in assessing possible mutations.
Perhaps a revised syllogism:
- Natural selection can be observed in nature
- Natural selection can result from mutations
- Mutations that become normalized into a species are no longer mutations by definition
- Species that normalize their mutations across all members over generations have changed over time
- As evolution is defined as change of a species over time, therefore the uniform normalization process can be included as a form of evolution
However, this statement is puzzling: To make the mind-bending leap to evolution of the huge amounts of new functionality needed to produce even the simplest cell requires even more staggering numbers. This statement needs clarification, because it sounds quite a bit like the irreducible complexity fallacy in another form.
Божію Поспѣшествующею Милостію Мы, Дима Грозный Императоръ и Самодержецъ Всероссiйскiй, цѣсарь Московскiй. The Czar was born in the steppes of Russia in 1267, and was cheated out of total control of all Russia upon the death of Boris Mikhailovich, who replaced Alexander Yaroslav Nevsky in 1263. However, in 1283, our Czar was passed over due to a clerical error and the rule of all Russia went to his second cousin Daniil (Даниил Александрович), whom Czar still resents. As a half-hearted apology, the Czar was awarded control over Muscovy, inconveniently located 5,000 miles away just outside Chicago. He now spends his time seething about this and writing about other stuff that bothers him.