neutrality, evolution and ID

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