Fisking Dembski: Ulam and the Wistar Conference

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Ever since I read Dembski’s comments on how mathematician Ulam had commented on the low probability of evolution, something kept nagging at me. Familiar with the common creationist affliction of quote mining, I decided to do some additional research.

Remember what Dembski wrote? Ulam wrote in his contribution to the Wistar conference that:

“[Darwinism] seems to require many thousands, perhaps millions, of successive mutations to produce even the easiest complexity we see in life now. It appears, naively at least, that no matter how large the probability of a single mutation is, should it be even as great as one-half, you would get this probability raised to a millionth power, which is so very close to zero that the chances of such a chain seem to be practically non-existent.” (Ulam’s remark on page 21 of the Wistar conference Proceedings.)

As people pointed out already, the phrase, “naively at least”, should have raised some concerns. And for good reasons.

A major problem was my lack of access to the Wistar Monographs, however, Ulam did write a paper soon thereafter in which he revisited some of his earlier work and not surprisingly, the paper paints a very different picture.

The paper is called Some Elementary Attempts at Numerical Modeling of Problems Concerning Rates of Evolutionary Processes Stanislaw Ulam and R. Schrandt (LA-4573-MS, December 1970):

In this report, we shall present an abbreviated account of calculations performed by us in the mid 1960’s. These calculations were preliminary and intended merely as the zeroth approximation to the problem concerning rates of evolution-a process which we have here severely stylized and enormously oversimplified. A mention of the results of such calculations in progress at that time was made at a meeting in 1966 at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia by one of us. The discussion there, as reported in the proceedings of the meeting, was rather frequently misunderstood and the impression might have been left that the results somehow make it extremely improbable that the standard version of the survival-of-the-fittest mechanism leads to much too slow a progress. What was really intended was indications from our computations-simple minded as they were-that a process involving only mitosis, in absence of sexual reproduction, would be indeed much too slow. However, and most biologists realize it anyway, the Darwinian mechanism together with mixing of genes accelerate enormously the rate of acquiring new “favorable” characteristics and leave the possibility of sufficiency of the orthodox ideas quite open. Numerous requests addressed to us for the elucidations and details of the numerical setup made us decide to give this account of our computations.

Seems that creationists have been quote mining the Wistar proceedings and have ignored the circumstances under which the comments were made and the follow-up after the conference.

While browsing the internet I also ran across the following message which addresses similar comments made by Phillip Johnson in his book “Darwin on Trial”

This quotation seems to be typical of the general quality of scholarship Johnson displays in his book. In the first place, he gets the name wrong. Stanislaw Ulam (or S.M. Ulam) was a well-known and highly respected mathematician. He was also the only person with that surname to have presented a paper at the meeting which Johnson was referring to. In the second place, Johnson’s claim, “…Ulam argued that it was highly improbable that the eye could have evolved by the accumulation of small mutations…”, is simply false; Ulam did no such thing.

Not a bad start. But things get better, or should we say worse

Near the beginning of his paper, Ulam explicitly stated that the mathematical models he was going to present were “certainly … not correct in a realistic sense”, to use his own words. His main aim was to present some models which might serve as a starting point for the development of better ones, and to challenge the biologists present to find ways of determining the values of various parameters that would be needed for any such models to be useful.

Since I do not have access to the original proceedings, I have to take the word of this poster at face value and observe how his comments match the description given by Ulam in a later paper.

Of course, it is no surprise that similar claims and arguments can be found in other creationist literature such as the book “ By Design Or by Chance?” written by Denyse O’Leary (p93-94)

Once again we see how a careful checking of the sources, even when lacking access to the original sources, can paint a picture very different from how it is portrayed by creationists. In fact, creationists have often referenced the Wistar proceedings as somehow showing that Darwinian theory was found to be flawed, when in fact, the reality seems to suggest a far different conclusion.

Sadly enough I lack the $170 needed to buy the monograph but I will see if I can get access to the Wistar monographs via a local library.

62 Comments

Of course, it is no surprise that similar claims and arguments can be found in other creationist literature such as the book “ By Design Or by Chance?” written by Denyse O’Leary (p93-94)

I stand in awe that you made in through 94 pages of Denyse O’Leary’s writing. That is dedication beyond the call of duty.

I agree, it’s a painful book to read especially from someone who claims to be a journalist.

tacitus:

Of course, it is no surprise that similar claims and arguments can be found in other creationist literature such as the book “ By Design Or by Chance?” written by Denyse O’Leary (p93-94)

I stand in awe that you made in through 94 pages of Denyse O’Leary’s writing. That is dedication beyond the call of duty.

I’m glad to see a concerted effort to rescue Stan Ulam from the clutches of the prevaricating creationists.

Dembski’s favourite tune is “I heard it on the quote mine”

Checked my institution’s library, but no dice. Maybe other commenters or lurkers could do the same.

Failing that, I’ll chip in to help you purchase a copy if you’d like. Got a PayPal account PvM?

My libary has it somewhere in the dungeons.

Title Mathematical challenges to the neo-Darwinian interpretation of evolution : A Symposium held at the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology, April 25 and 26, 1966 / edited by Paul S. Moorhead, Martin M. Kaplan ; Editorial assistance: Pamela Brown.

Publisher Philadelphia, Pa. : Wistar Institute Press, 1967.

Dembski’s favourite tune is “I heard it on the quote mine”

“…and I’m just about to lose my mind.”

Richard Wein:

Dembski’s favourite tune is “I heard it on the quote mine”

“…and I’m just about to lose my mind.”

“Money, money, YEAH!”

Many thanks for saving Stan Ulam from the crazies. I had always considered him to be full of good sense, as well as math genius.

I’m looking at the original monograph (How to Formulate Mathematically Problems of Rate of Evolution? by Dr. Stanislaw M. Ulam) right now, so a few additional quotes are in order. Needless to say, the stuff Dembski does not quote is far more revealing than the stuff he does.

From the very next paragraph (any transcription errors are mine):

“But, I believe that the comments of Professor Eden, in the first five minutes of his talk at least, refer to a random construction of such molecules and even those of us who are in the majority here, the non-mathematicians, realize that this is not the problem at all.

A mathematical treatment of evolution, if it is to be formulated at all, no matter how crudely, must include the mechanism of the advantages that single mutations bring about and the process of how these advantages, no matter how slieght, serve to sieve out parts of the population, which then get additional advantages. It is the process of selection which might produce the more complicated organisms that exist today.

As for myself, I have done a bit of very schematic thinking on the mathematics of such a process and I want to make some remarks to you which certainly are not, as one of the speakers addressed before, correct in a realistic sense but might be relevant for the approach to some quasimathematical discussion at least. The philosophical and general methodological remarks made by various speakers so far can form the basis of what can be, sometime in the future, mathematized. What I am going to do will consist, as it were, of picking out various items from the comments made so far and try to show how, perhaps in some remote future, mathematical schemata can be formulated.”

Did Dembski give an accurate representation? What do you think?

I wonder if there are some dedicated (perhaps paid?) quote-miners, who toil diligently combing through any possible source of anything that can be taken out of context and misrepresented. Once a single quote has been mined, then it gets copied forever (sometimes with mutations), so it wouldn’t take too many miners.

This presents a hauntingly familiar model: These miner-demons are presented with countless possibilities, but select only those that fit the required creationist environment. These selected quotes get fixed in the population of creationist literature, and gradually change as creationism must keep re-inventing its external appearance to survive.

There seems little chance that Dembski himself ever read the Wistar proceedings or any of the follow-ups. The money quotes were extracted and made available by some ancestor process.

Flint: : These miner-demons are presented with countless possibilities, but select only those that fit the required creationist environment.

We also need to note even when the mined gems don’t fit very well, they have very well trained specialists to make them fit. These master craftsmen use ellipses as a very powerful tool. With nonchalant grace they pick a subject from here, verb from there, two clauses separated by the sea of two paragraphs and whip together a quote that will be to die for. And with some strategic misspellings to thwart googling, and some creative attributions some of these quotes are destined to live forever in the creationist universe.

I say some because only the quotes that produce powerful emotional responses will get copied, and mutated and enhanced and live a long life. The quotes that are seen to be wishy-washy or compromising will die out. There seems to be a selection pressure and adaptive landscape operating even in the life cycle of a mined quote in the creationists’ mindspace. Does any one need any more proof of the power of selection?

Flint…thanks.

A perfectly presented parody of profound prevarication.

I recommend taking a look at the Wistar Proceedings if you’ve got some time on your hands. From what I remember, they are a fairly interesting read, mostly because of the recorded comments after (at least some of) the papers.

W. Kevin Vicklund:

Richard Wein:

Dembski’s favourite tune is “I heard it on the quote mine”

“…and I’m just about to lose my mind.”

“Money, money, YEAH!”

When it comes to Dembski, believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear.

Ulam was great AFAIK, and the bits and pieces of texts presented here doesn’t show the whole argument, but doesn’t he seem a bit naive of biology?

The Math Forum comment reconstructs a model without fixation of selection, and Ulam proposing fitnesses of p*g = 10^-16, instead of the few percent I hear mentioned for illustration. I’m not conversant with the used models, but I can’t imagine that he looked too hard on population genetics before starting to speculate on provocative “starting points”.

Just as someone *cough* Dembski *cough* we know all too well.

When it comes to Dembski, believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear.

That is good to know, as I wouldn’t know if I should listen to the Disco Nits & the Expellers, or the More Than Gay (the Large Sweater edition) version.

PvM quotes from Some Elementary Attempts at Numerical Modeling of Problems Concerning Rates of Evolutionary Processes, Stanislaw Ulam and R. Schrandt (LA-4573-MS, December 1970): “What was really intended was indications from our computations - simple minded as they were - that a process involving only mitosis, in absence of sexual reproduction, would be indeed much too slow.”

Ulam and Schrandt were obviously predicting Dembski and ID.

–my apologies if this has been addressed somewhere in these threads and I just missed it—

I’m no statistician, but can’t Ulam’s rejected argument be run against pretty much everything that exists? Unless the universe is strictly deterministic, every event has a less than 1.0 probability of occurring. Any current state of affairs required many billions of preceding events to bring it about, so if we multiply together all those probabilities, we see that every current state of affairs has a vanishingly small (a priori) chance of occurring.

And if such a small probability should lead us to conclude that the event could not have occurred, then we should conclude nothing in the present has really occurred.

Ummm…I hope that this counts as a simple reductio ad absurdum against any such line of reasoning, not just when it is applied to evolutionary biology.

I still don’t really get their (Dembski, et.al.) point. Even if the possibility for a mutation approaches zero, once the population become sufficiently large, those mutations will happen. I think I have heard the average person has about 100 billion cells in his body. How many single cell organisms could have first populated the Earth’s oceans? If we have trillions (most likely many more) reproductions in a day, that becomes many mutations - every day. Give this process millions or billions of years to happen and things will evolve.

Why can they not see this?

From this book review

In a stimulating discussion of several evolutionary phenomena, Dr. Mayr demonstrated the power of the qualitative concepts developed by biologists in explaining the biological world. It also became clear that the mathematical formulation of these concepts will not be easy. Perhaps the consensus of the conference was best expressed by Dr. Waddington in his closing statement when he said:

I think we have approached each other to some extent. I hope the biologists have shown the physicists that evolutionary theories are not totally vacuous. I think the physicists have shown us that they are certainly as yet very incomplete, and I think we are ready to realize they are very incomplete. Possibly we now know slightly better in which directions they are incomplete.

And Mayr described Wistar as follows

The mathematicians participating in the conference subconsciously made the assumption that individuals of a species were genetically identical, necessitating a long time span before a gene locus could pass from one homozygous to a different homozygous condition. For them, evolution seemed to be “tandem evolution”: the succession of genetic events produces a succession of homogeneous populations or species. They did not consider the possibility of a simultaneous genetic variability of ten thousands of gene loci because it would be impossible to calculate its effects. When they spoke of the evolutionary improvement of “the eye.” they made the silent assumption that all eyes in a species are identical, although there is much reason to believe, as biologists have pointed out, that there may be a billion different eyes in a species with a billion individuals. Physical scientists find such variability quite inconceivable, and yet no one can truly understand the evolutionary process until he accepts the magnitude of genetic variation, Another issue at the conference which prompted a great deal of discussion was that of the “constants” or “parameters” of evolutionary change. If one wants to simulate the evolutionary process on the computer, one must assign a numerical value to the frequency of mutation, selection pressure, population size, fertility, gene flow, and all other biological factors of evolutionary significance. Here again there was a great difference of opinion between mathematicians and biologists. The mathematicians quite naturally wanted clear-cut, hard figures to be inserted into their equations. The biologists, on the other hand, demonstrated that most of these factors varied by several orders of magnitude in different species under different conditions. In other words, if one wants to make computer simulations one must repeat them for the entire range of possible values of the controlling factors. The great range of variation of another factor, the site of populations, must not be overlooked. That even the same population may greatly fluctuate in size was emphasized 50 years ago by Chetverikov and Timofreff-Ressovsky, who further stressed that the total population of a species very often consists of numerous more or less isolated small populations, each of which up to a point can go its own way.

I will expand on this in another article. Dembski’s friend/colleague quote mines surely have revealed a far more interesting story.

Torbjörn Larsson, OM:

Ulam was great AFAIK, and the bits and pieces of texts presented here doesn’t show the whole argument, but doesn’t he seem a bit naive of biology?

Dembski has been informed of the full context of Ulam’s work. Let’s see what happens. My thanks to ‘larrycranston’ for his observation that:

To my admittedly untrained eye, you and/or your anonymous colleague may have “misunderstood” the contents of the 1966 paper.

Would it be possible to get a choice set of creationist mine-quotes and how they have “evolved” as an example. This can be published here at PT or other sites for future references on how evolution applies to creationist propaganda. In addition is a good example of evolution in action.

“Dembski has been informed of the full context of Ulam’s work. Let’s see what happens. My thanks to ‘larrycranston’ for his observation that: …”

And has Larry now been banned from posting at UD?

And has Larry now been banned from posting at UD?

And which is longer, the list of the “banned” or the list of the regulars?

Someone asked larrycranstone for the source of his quote. Sparc linked here. If larrycranston doesn’t get banned he can look forward to davtard scolding him for looking deeper.

And the banned played on…

Here’s a Scout salute of sincere thanks to PvM and those others here who have troubled to track down the actual texts in this interesting case, rescuing them from the creationists.

Do the Homework – “that is the Law,” to paraphrase the chanting demi-men in The Island of Dr. Moreau

A couple of other obvious criticisms that haven’t shown up here…

First of all, neither in 1955 nor even in 1967 were the molecular genetics of cellular reproduction very completely understood.

Second of all, population genetics, which had a lot of development at about the same time, but slightly predates the era, has no problem creating simple but in many cases adequate mathematical models of certain types of evolution, within the context of classical, pre-molecular genetics.

Granted, population genetics, at least when I studied it, treats the “allele” as a more or less invariant entity - it is primarily concerned with changes in the frequency of the alleles that now exist, so to speak, not with the emergence of new ones. Nevertheless, the state of it in 1967 would have made claims of non-existence of mathematical models of evolution a bit tenuous, even then.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_genetics

I note this comment in the UD thread:

Could you provide a reference of that interesting quote? I would like to check it out since it seems to conflict with the general consensus reached by the Wistar attendees.

How do you reckon JPCollado knows what the “general consensus” reached was?

RBH:

I note this comment in the UD thread:

Could you provide a reference of that interesting quote? I would like to check it out since it seems to conflict with the general consensus reached by the Wistar attendees.

How do you reckon JPCollado knows what the “general consensus” reached was?

It is, of course, perfectly reasonable that JPCollado should want to check out the quote for himself. It is, of course, what people are doing the mined quotes.

But saying that the quote “seems to conflict” is a distinct understatement, because the whole thrust of the quote is that the authors are asserting that what they actually said is quite different to what the general consensus appears to have heard.

Does anyone here have the appropriate teaching qualifications to assess the reading ages of the UD mob based on their demonstrable limited abilities in the area of comprehension of a basic English text?

And they claim that Darwinism leads to amoral behavior.

Ah, but if it weren’t for Darwinism, they wouldn’t have to do all that lying and obfuscating. Therefore Darwinism leads them to that behavior. ;)

Does anybody know why Sewall Wright, one of the constructors of neo-Darwinism, did not attend the conference?

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by PvM published on February 21, 2008 8:35 PM.

The continued confusion of Intelligent Design Creationists was the previous entry in this blog.

WΔZ: Evolutionary Equations on the Big Screen is the next entry in this blog.

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