Dembski’s argument in Chicago – New? Persuasive?

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On August 14, William Dembski spoke at the Computations in Science Seminar at the University of Chicago. Was this a sign that Dembski’s arguments for intelligent design were being taken seriously by computational scientists? Did he present new evidence? There was no new evidence, and the invitation seems to have come from Dembski’s Ph.D. advisor Leo Kadanoff. I wasn’t present, and you probably weren’t either, but fortunately we can all view the seminar, as a video of it has been posted here on Youtube.

It turns out that Dembski’s current argument is based on two of his previous papers with Robert Marks (available here and here) so the arguments are not new. They involve considering a simple model of evolution in which we have all possible genotypes, each of which has a fitness. It’s a simple model of evolution moving uphill on a fitness surface. Dembski and Marks argue that substantial evolutionary progress can only be made if the fitness surface is smooth enough, and that setting up a smooth enough fitness surface requires a Designer.

Briefly, here’s why I find their argument unconvincing:

  1. They conside all possible ways that the set of fitnesses can be assigned to the set of genotypes. Almost all of these look like random assigments of fitnesses to genotypes.
  2. Given that there is a random association of genotypes and fitnesses, Dembski is right to assert that it is very hard to make much progress in evolution. The fitness surface is a “white noise” surface that has a vast number of very sharp peaks. Evolution will make progress only until it climbs the nearest peak, and then it will stall. But …
  3. That is a very bad model for real biology, because in that case one mutation is as bad for you as changing all sites in your genome at the same time!
  4. Also, in such a model all parts of the genome interact extremely strongly, much more than they do in real organisms.
  5. Dembski and Marks acknowledge that if the fitness surface is smoother than that, progress can be made.
  6. They then argue that choosing a smooth enough fitness surface out of all possible ways of associating the fitnesses with the genotypes requires a Designer.
  7. But I argue that the ordinary laws of physics actually imply a surface a lot smoother than a random map of sequences to fitnesses. In particular if gene expression is separated in time and space, the genes are much less likely to interact strongly, and the fitness surface will be much smoother than the “white noise” surface.
  8. Dembski and Marks implicitly acknowledge, though perhaps just for the sake of argument, that natural selection can create adaptation. Their argument does not require design to occur once the fitness surface is chosen. It is thus a Theistic Evolution argument rather than one that argues for Design Intervention.

That’s a lot of argument to bite off in one chew. Let’s go into more detail below the fold …

Dembski and Marks’s argument involves defining a new form of information, showing that it is conserved. Evolution can succeed only if this information is already present, so therefore evolution does not bring about new information. In Dembski’s case he goes on from that to make a theological argument (in his recent book), which I gather is basically “In the Beginning is the Information”.

People like to argue about how one ought to define information, but I’m going to ignore most of those arguments, because I think that there is a simpler problem that undercuts the Dembski-Marks argument. My argument here is not new (it has been given before at Panda’s Thumb (here and also here and here). But with a new wave of publicity for Dembski and Marks’s argument, it’s worth pointing out in more detail the flaw in their argument.

A typical fitness surface?

Dembski and Marks have a simple model with genotypes and fitnesses. Of course it is overly simple, but all models are. It is worth examining, because if evolution is in trouble in such a model, we need to know why. Their computation of information is a measure of how smoothly the fitnesses change as one moves from one genotype to another, where neighboring genotypes are those that can be reached from each other by evolutionary processes such as mutation. If the fitness is smooth enough, one can find neighboring genotypes that are better, and the natural selection will tend to move the population to those.

To figure out how common smooth fitness surfaces are, Dembski and Marks invoke Bernoulli’s “Principal of Insufficient Reason”. That basically says that if we can’t think of a reason to consider probabilities of different outcomes unequal, we should consider the probabilities all to be equal. The use of Bernoulli’s Principle underlies all of Dembski and Marks’s calculations.

In the case of fitness surfaces, the outcomes are all the different ways that fitnesses can be assigned to genotypes. So if we have DNA sequences, and the genome is 1000 bases long, there are 4 x 4 x 4 x … x 4 different genotypes, with 1000 factors of 4 in the product. That is about 10 raised to the 602nd power. If each of these possible genotypes has a different fitness, there are also that many fitness values. The Principle of Insufficient Reason says that, lacking any reason to think otherwise, we should give each of the possible ways that the 10-to-the-602 fitnesses could be assigned to the genotypes an equal chance of being true.

A typical one of this vast number of possibilities has fitnesses randomly assigned to genotypes. If that is the case, then when we change a genotype by making a single mutation in it, we arrive at a new genotype that has a fitness that is, in effect, chosen from all the possible fitnesses, at random.

What a mutation does

What if, instead of changing one base, we took the drastic step of mutating all of the bases in the genotype at the same time? If the Bernoulli Principle applied, we would get to a genotype whose fitness was also chosen at random. So in that case, on average, that would be no better and no worse than changing just one base. In other words, when fitnesses are randomly assigned to genotypes making a single typographical error is exactly as bad as changing every letter in the text .

Real biology doesn’t work anything like that. Making one mutation in one of my genes will on average make it worse, though sometimes not. If it produces a protein, a single amino acid change often leaves the protein still functioning. But making changes in every site of its DNA is the same as replacing every protein by a random string of amino acids. Which will be a complete disaster.

Similarly, in statements in English, one typographical error might change “to be or not to be that is the question” into “to be or not to de that is the question”. Changing all letters would give something like “bdglvwujzib lxmoxg rjdg a ohlowugrbl owj”. It should be obvious that the latter is far less functional. The comprehensibility of English sentences is more like the actual fitness of organisms, and not like the fitness of the organisms Dembski and Marks imagine.

Unbelievably strong interactions

In Dembski and Marks’s “white noise” fitness surfaces, another bizarre property is that every part of the genome interacts incredibly strongly with every other part. If they did not interact strongly, we would get cases like this: we might find that changing position number 834 in the DNA from C to T would make the genome somewhat worse. And changing position 95161 from A to C might also make the genome worse. If those two positions in the DNA underwent both of these changes at the same time, we could reasonably expect that this accumulation of two bad changes would be worse yet.

But if the fitnesses are assigned to genotypes at random, that prediction could not be made. The double mutant would have a randomly-chosen fitness and that would have only about a 1/4 chance of being worse than either of the single mutants. In fact, about 1/4 of the time it would actually be better than the original genotype! We can immediately see that this could only happen if the two parts of the genome were tightly interacting in some way. But in the Dembski-Marks white noise model all parts of the genome interact tightly with each other.

No real organism works that way. And there is a simple reason why.

What physics does

The reason is “because physics”. In the physical laws of our universe, interaction at a distance gets weaker and weaker as the distance increases. This is an everyday fact that we rely on all the time. As I type these words my fingers and the keys move. There is an (extremely) slight gravitational and electrostatic effect of those movements on (say) the food in your refrigerator. That effect declines with distance. As a result, you don’t have to worry that my typing is busy rearranging the food in your refrigerator. The eggs will be right where you left them, and this will not depend on whether I type the letter A or the letter B.

Similarly, in the genome, a gene that functions in the growth of your toenails typically shows no strong interaction with another gene that controls nerve connections in your ear. They are physically far from each other and probably function at different times as well.

In Dembski and Marks’s model universe things don’t work that way. If one particular gene has a mutant, we can’t know anything about what its effect is, until we check all other genes. A change in any one of those others will make a major difference in what the effect of the first mutant is. And this is not just something that happens occasionally. It is always true, for all parts of the genome. Every gene, and every base in every gene, interacts incredibly tightly with all other bases in all other genes.

Why the white-noise model prevents evolution

The fitness surfaces implicit in Dembski and Marks’s argument are known as “white noise” fitness surfaces. White noise has a signal whose values are uncorrelated from one time to another. The white noise fitness function is the same – fitnesses of closely similar genotypes are totally dissimilar. Knowing the fitness of your genotype simply provides no prediction as to what the fitness will be if the base at one point in your DNA is changed.

Natural selection with mutation and recombination can work its way uphill on the fitness surface by putting together individually favorable changes. If the fitness surface does not allow any prediction that such combinations will often be better than either change alone, then this is a big problem for evolution. The evolutionary process will frequently get stuck.

Fortunately, “because physics” white noise fitness functions basically don’t exist.

What Dembski and Marks’s argument doesn’t do

It is notable that Dembski and Marks’s argument is not actually an Intelligent Design argument. It argues that a Designer is needed to explain the shape of the fitness surface, but once that surface is smooth enough, natural selection and other evolutionary forces do the rest. So there is no Design Intervention needed.

Is evolution a search? Is it important whether it is?

The audience at Dembski’s talk in Chicago seemed to think that the crucial issue is whether evolution is or is not a “search”. Strictly speaking, in a model of evolution like the one he is using, I think that the answer is no. But it actually is not important whether it is or isn’t. Given the issue of whether a white noise fitness function is the default, Dembski’s argument is invalid even if one allows him the point that evolution is a search.

Has this criticism of Dembski’s arguments been made before?

Dembski also used a white noise fitness function in his No Free Lunch argument, and in the Search For a Search papers he and Marks acknowledge that connection. In the No Free Lunch argument the performance of the search that moves uphill on the fitness surface is extremely poor if averaged over all possible fitness functions. This is the same as its behavior on a typical randomly-chosen fitness function. At least seven major criticisms of Dembski’s No Free Lunch argument have objected that white noise fitness functions are not realistic (links to their articles and posts are given in my 2007 article and in a summary I wrote here at Panda’s Thumb). The criticism goes back to 2002 and has been voiced by all these authors.

Dieb’s argument with Dembski and Marks’s theorem

Mathematical blogger “Dieb” (Dietmar Eben) has raised the issue (here, here and here) of whether Marks and Dembski have actually proven their Horizontal No Free Lunch Theorem. His arguments are interesting and strike me as cogent. But whether or not that theorem is proven, the point remains that evolution will do badly almost all the time on a white noise fitness function. So a smoother fitness function is required. But, as we have seen, the laws of physics make a white noise fitness function unlikely. This is true whether or not the HNFL theorem can be proven rigorously.

New types of information? Important to arguing for Design?

The point about physics and the unlikelihood of white noise fitness functions is also true however we define information, and it is true whether natural selection “creates” information or whether it takes existing information that is implicit in the smoothness of the fitness surface and repackages it in the genome. I suspect that Dembski and Marks’s “active information” will end up not being a helpful concept, but for the purposes of my present critique that issue is not central.

What Richard Dawkins’s “Weasel” model was not intended to do

One should note in passing Dembski’s use of Richard Dawkins’s “Methinks It Is a Weasel” model. In his Chicago talk, Dembski portrays Dawkins as arguing that the Weasel model shows that natural selection can originate information, and portrays Dawkins as claiming that it is a realistic model of evolution. Dawkins was not arguing that it was a realistic model of evolution, or that this evolution originated new information. Dawkins’s model was a teaching example to show why creationist debaters who argue that natural selection is doing a “random” search are disingenuous. The Weasel search succeeds in about 1000 steps, while a truly random search would take astronomical numbers of steps. Dawkins’s model is an effective teaching device. It is routinely misrepresented in the creationist and ID literature as intended to be a realistic model of evolution, and intended to prove assertions about where the information in life originates. Unfortunately Dembski has followed this sad tradition.

Is Dembski’s theology of information central to his argument about evolution?

No, because he’s got to end up arguing that, for the laws of phyics to be the way they are, requires some active Design. But once the laws of physics are admitted, how they got that way is just not part of any argument about evolution. Biologists will certainly decide not to waste time on the issue and to leave it to cosmologists.

168 Comments

Dembski and Marks argue that substantial evolutionary progress can only be made if the fitness surface is smooth enough, and that setting up a smooth enough fitness surface requires a Designer.

“Come back here and take what’s coming to you! I’ll bite your legs off!”

So it sounds like Dembski finally figured out that evolutionary programs can optimize things in a realistic-looking search space. Which in some sense is progress.

It should be noted that their latest, last gasp is very far from Paley’s original argument. If you accept that a sufficiently smooth search space can result in self-organized complexity, then the existence of self-organized complexity does not require a designer, contrary to Paley. The idea that smoothness requires a designer is just silly, but I guess you have to fight with the reality you have, not the reality you want.

Given that there is a random association of genotypes and fitnesses, Dembski is right to assert that it is very hard to make much progress in evolution

In addition to the problems Joe mentions, there’s another “unrealism” in this model. In real life, genotypes produce phenotypes, and a change in genotype will not change phenotype at all a large portion of the time. Any mutation to a different 3-letter group that codes for the same amino acid will have no effect (example: CCC to CCA). Any change to a non-coding region will likewise not have no effect. So the “fitness surface” for genotypes should consist of large flat regions separated by slopes (which may or may not be steep), not sharp peaks.

Moreover, this has nothing to do with Dembski’s contention that smooth surfaces must come from God. We simply observe that many changes in genotype produce no change in phenotype in fact.

Now that I think about it, this random assignment of fitnesses means that Dembski is making one of the oldest and most naive mistakes in the creationist book, a mistake we commonly hear more from less sophisticated/educated creationists. He is thinking of evolution as a saltational process, where a relatively small change in code has a monkey produce a man or chicken come from a dinosaur. That is, in effect, what a random assignment of fitnesses to codes would model.

I wonder whether they tell what an intelligent designer does to shape a fitness landscape.

What do we know about Intelligent Designers that leads to there being one shape rather than another?

Might there be something, who knows what, that differs somehow from Intelligent Designers, that also leads to there being one shape rather than another?

How are designs - those concepts that Intelligent Designers design - implemented in the material of the natural world?

Is there anything else that the Intelligent Designers do, other than start off the process?

For those with theological interests, compare and contrast Intelligent Designers with the demiurge of Gnosticism, the god of pantheism or of deism, etc.

It may seem too much to ask for unconditional surrender, once there has been retreat on the issue of common descent with modification by natural means of much of the world of life (notably including humans) over billions of years. But it may be needed to advert any possibility of recrudescence.

Joe,

How do you wade through that stuff in detail without flipping out?

It sounds like he’s set up some sort of abstract mathematics that has no grounding in reality. (Kind of analogous to that guy does in one thread over on AtBC.)

On that business of computing “fitness” from the genotype, over all possible genotypes, the next question is - in what environment?. Fitness is after all relative to environment, and that includes what else is living in the same ecosystem.

Henry

Joe,

Thanks for the post. In places you and others use rather mild language to describe Dembski’s work but overall I get the impression that he and Marks have failed spectacularly to produce anything of worth. I’m actually shocked. I would have thought that someone with a phd in math from the U of Chicago wouldn’t waste almost a decade of effort on something so glaringly wrong, no matter how strong his religious bias. It seems like they made no effort at all to realistically consider fitness landscapes. So my question is; am I wrong in this impression? Is there something of worth in his efforts?

You mention you don’t think of evolution as travel on a fitness landscape. Reading about this many years ago (S. Kaufmann?) I got the same impression. I don’t think genotypes move on a landscape- they deform the landscape under them and fitness peaks are rare and are the low hanging fruit of evolutionary studies. Mostly living things evolve not to be dead. So if anything the landscape is flat with lots of pot-holes

So have they ever tried to, you know, actually measure the fitness of any particular genotype? Do they always just make up the fitnesses and expect everyone to play along? Do they have any justification whatsoever for any of their assumptions about fitness, or is it all just a bunch of made up nonsense? Is the whole point that if the world were completely whacky in a special way that only they can imagine, that then evolution might not work, or do they have some other more rational point to make? Do they actually get paid for making up crap that sounds good but actually is a gross distortion of reality, or do they have to do some real science at at some point in order to get paid?

Adding to what Henry said, the environment isn’t white noise, either. Dembski is edging toward “Universe, therefore God”. Which is just silly.

Adding to what Henry said, the environment isn’t white noise, either. Dembski is edging toward “Universe, therefore God”. Which is just silly.

Better.

Henry J said:

Joe,

How do you wade through that stuff in detail without flipping out?

It sounds like he’s set up some sort of abstract mathematics that has no grounding in reality. (Kind of analogous to that guy does in one thread over on AtBC.)

On that business of computing “fitness” from the genotype, over all possible genotypes, the next question is - in what environment?. Fitness is after all relative to environment, and that includes what else is living in the same ecosystem.

Henry

Thank you. I am very interested in this stuff but have no qualfifications. But while reading the OP I kept thinking just the same thing, a population is not reqired to stay in the same environment, not to mention that the environments where real life finds itself are not static.

Plus, we already know that evolution is a fact.

I think it is worth noting that this white noise model doesn’t actually display any of the properties of genetics that we actually observe. Heredity does not exist. Children do not look like their parents, and siblings look no more similar than two randomly selected humans. Genetic diseases do not segregate within families, and cannot be tested for genetically. People from the same ethnic group do not look any more similar than those from different ethnic groups. Breeds do not breed true, and (taken to its conclusion) species do not exist. In general, individuals with more similar genomes do not have more similar phenotypes. A world where the map between genotype and phenotype is random is emphatically not the world we live in.

So basically this guy’s argument is: “If you imagine a theoretical world, where genetics as we know it does not exist, then evolution cannot occur. The fact that we are in a world where genetics does exist must be because an unnamed Designer made the world like this to allow evolution to happen.” Well ok then guy, good work.

OK but what is the evidence that natural selection, drift and/or neutral substitutions are up to the task? Where are the models? Where are the testable hypotheses?

What do you have besides bashing ID with misrepresentations?

There are two simple ways to deal with this kind of crap.

Neither includes semantic wrangling over whether or not something is “random”. A random variable exists when we can know the frequency at which different states can be expected to occur, but can’t predict which will occur next. E.g. rolling a die. E.g. which mutations will occur when a genome replicates; mutation occurences are extremely well modeled as random variables; in fact if they weren’t there would be no field of population genetics. You can make a good argument that “the environment” (local, global, universe, whatever) is well modeled as a random variable as well. Within bounds, it changes. Various states are more likely to occur than various other states but we can’t predict perfectly which will occur next.

When creationists assign wrong probabilities to a random variable, that doesn’t mean that the underlying concept of modelling something as a random variable is wrong.

However, there are some rather blatant problems with Dembski’s nonsense.

1) Okay, so under Dembski’s model, what happened, where, when? Who is the designer? What did the designer do? How did the designer do it? When did the designer do it? How can we test these answers? Etc.

2) Also, where is Dembski’s fair discussion of the theory of evolution, why it seems to work, and precisely which problem his model solves better? That’s how you advance science. Einstein didn’t absurdly create a model that denies known physical observations and claims that Newtonian approximations don’t work where they obviously do work. He expanded a working model to cover the extreme instances where it was not making correct predictions. Dembski is trying to “prove that evolution can’t be possible”, but we already know that the theory of evolution is supported by multiple converging lines of evidence and makes good predictions. He needs to deal with that before claiming that it is “impossible”.

https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/[…]ay2AD7GHQIMo said: So basically this guy’s argument is: “If you imagine a theoretical world, where genetics as we know it does not exist, then evolution cannot occur. The fact that we are in a world where genetics does exist must be because an unnamed Designer made the world like this to allow evolution to happen.” Well ok then guy, good work.

Yes, that’s it in a nutshell. Behe does something similar but not as extreme; if you recall the published work he defended at Dover, that could be summarized as “imagine a world in which there is no exaptation. Now we will calculate probabilities of a multi-mutational benefit occurring in that world…”

To be as charitable as possible and to answer lantog’s implied question about worth, well…their math seems to be internally consistent. IOW they seem to be correctly drawing conclusions about the models they are testing. And many theoreticians in the past have contributed useful information to science by testing out simplified models of things. So their work could be useful in the future - if, for example, we discover some local phenomenon or ecology that has the properties of their model. But these models are not very useful for giving accurate predictions of the speed, likelihood, or capabilities of evolutionary processes in the standard biologial systems and ecologies we see around us.

https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/[…]5cJLbCdN-pWQ said:

OK but what is the evidence that natural selection, drift and/or neutral substitutions are up to the task? Where are the models? Where are the testable hypotheses?

What do you have besides bashing ID with misrepresentations?

Fossil evidence of descent with modification. A common genetic code for all organisms. Multiple, independent cladistics methods that give basically the same results, and which match what we see in the genetic code. Observed speciation. Observation of mutations across generations, yielding novel phenotypic traits. Models of genetic drift.

And that was what I could find in about two minutes. It literally took me longer to compose this message than it took me to find the information you think science doesn’t have. It has that info in volumes, running to thousands or tens of thousands of pages. All you have to do is look.

https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/[…]5cJLbCdN-pWQ said:

OK but what is the evidence that natural selection, drift and/or neutral substitutions are up to the task? Where are the models? Where are the testable hypotheses?

What do you have besides bashing ID with misrepresentations?

I think you miss the point. Dembski is making up crap in order to misrepresent evolution. The point is to show him up for the disingenuous an fundamentally dishonest charlatan that he is. There are many models that show that evolution is possible of producing the diversity of life that we observe, but that is not the point. Dembski ignores all of these without even trying to address them. That is why everyone can easily see through his transparent charade. And of course, even if no such models existed, as eric points out, we would still know that evolution was capable of producing the diversity of life because of the evidence that it actually has done so.

For the moment, I just want to plug shamelessly my blog, where I tried to make a transcript of the video: William Dembski’s talk at the University of Chicago, garnished with some annotations.

callahanpb said:

So it sounds like Dembski finally figured out that evolutionary programs can optimize things in a realistic-looking search space. Which in some sense is progress.

It should be noted that their latest, last gasp is very far from Paley’s original argument. If you accept that a sufficiently smooth search space can result in self-organized complexity, then the existence of self-organized complexity does not require a designer, contrary to Paley. The idea that smoothness requires a designer is just silly, but I guess you have to fight with the reality you have, not the reality you want.

I just wish I knew what “self-organized” meant. However if you replace “self-organized complexity” with “complex adaptations produced by natural selection” there is no disagreement between us.

eric said:

Now that I think about it, this random assignment of fitnesses means that Dembski is making one of the oldest and most naive mistakes in the creationist book, a mistake we commonly hear more from less sophisticated/educated creationists. He is thinking of evolution as a saltational process, where a relatively small change in code has a monkey produce a man or chicken come from a dinosaur. That is, in effect, what a random assignment of fitnesses to codes would model.

I’m not so sure that this is the source of his model. In the white noise fitness surfaces, almost any change will produce, not a dramatically different well-adapted organism, but a dead one. You could climb very local peaks, but just for a modest number of steps, and then you would stall out. The issue of how phenotype would change at each adaptive step is interesting – yes, probably big changes at each step.

But I think that this was not why the surface is used. It is just to show that realistically smooth ones, that do not involve many saltations, require Design Intervention (at least at the beginning of the process).

eric said:

Now that I think about it, this random assignment of fitnesses means that Dembski is making one of the oldest and most naive mistakes in the creationist book, a mistake we commonly hear more from less sophisticated/educated creationists. He is thinking of evolution as a saltational process, where a relatively small change in code has a monkey produce a man or chicken come from a dinosaur. That is, in effect, what a random assignment of fitnesses to codes would model.

Don’t we see both kinds of mutation, with both minimal and large effects on phenotype? That is, small point changes typically don’t have much effect, but occasionally relatively small changes in certain regulatory regions can have dramatic effects, such as adding a whole new body segment in insects, or a sixth finger or extra (or fewer) wisdom teeth in humans.

lantog said:

You mention you don’t think of evolution as travel on a fitness landscape. Reading about this many years ago (S. Kaufmann?) I got the same impression. I don’t think genotypes move on a landscape- they deform the landscape under them and fitness peaks are rare and are the low hanging fruit of evolutionary studies. Mostly living things evolve not to be dead. So if anything the landscape is flat with lots of pot-holes

One can make more sophisticated and more realistic models of evolution, as you have done. But one can’t do much math with them. Fitness surfaces (adaptive topographies, adaptive landscapes, etc.) are useful as models, and no, I have not stopped using them. The Evolutionary Quantitative Genetics tutorial that Steve Arnold and I teach each summer is full of them.

The use of simple models in this discussion is to see whether, even in those simple cases, there is a problem with the ability of natural selection to increase adaptation. At first Dembski’s Design Inference argument seemed to be saying that. Later he clarified that he was not claiming that. A claim that simple models won’t produce adaptation seemed to be a bad bet, because if these models did not produce adaptation, you’d think that RA Fisher, Sewall Wright, and JBS Haldane would have noticed. You had to get up very very early in the morning to outthink them.

harold said:T

1) Okay, so under Dembski’s model, what happened, where, when? Who is the designer? What did the designer do? How did the designer do it? When did the designer do it? How can we test these answers? Etc.

2) Also, where is Dembski’s fair discussion of the theory of evolution, why it seems to work, and precisely which problem his model solves better? That’s how you advance science. Einstein didn’t absurdly create a model that denies known physical observations and claims that Newtonian approximations don’t work where they obviously do work. He expanded a working model to cover the extreme instances where it was not making correct predictions. Dembski is trying to “prove that evolution can’t be possible”, but we already know that the theory of evolution is supported by multiple converging lines of evidence and makes good predictions. He needs to deal with that before claiming that it is “impossible”.

That bears keeping in mind whatever “new” comes from those who voice objections to standard biological science.

It isn’t even a matter of science that we’re talking about.

Let’s say we want to know why Hamlet says “To be or not to be.”

First of all, it isn’t very helpful to say that Shakespeare wrote it. Even though it’s true, it doesn’t answer the question. But it might be part of an explanation involving when Shakespeare lived, where he lived, what other things he wrote. So it does do a little bit. I’m not so informed about literature, but probably some Shakespeare scholar could tell me why. Or maybe Freud would have his way of explaining those words.

But if someone says, “Shakespeare couldn’t have written it, so there must be an intelligent playwright who did write it” - what is the first thing that you think of?

“Who did write it? Tell me something about this playwright. Or playwrights. Was it Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford, or even some Klingon? And, by the way, how do you account for this phrase?”

I will not be satisfied to know that intelligent playwrights are up to the task of writing just about anything, so an IP could have written “To be or not to be”.

No matter how convincing a case that you have for the impossibility of Shakespeare having written it, you haven’t answered the question about that particular phrase.

OK but what is the evidence that natural selection, drift and/or neutral substitutions are up to the task? Where are the models? Where are the testable hypotheses?

The evidence is basically all of mainstream biomedical science. Molecular genetics, biochemistry, cell biology, anatomy, physiology, and paleontology all provide literally thousands of strong independent lines of evidence that support the theory of evolution. They all do so in ways that are compatible with each other and with physics and chemistry. Each time a new biomedical advance has been made since at least the nineteenth century, it has further supported and clarified the role of evolution in biology.

I assure you that this has nothing to do with my personal wishes. It’s simply the way the evidence shows that the world works, to any reasonable observer.

But let me ask you a related question -

Is there any evidence that would convince you, and if so, what evidence for evolution, now lacking, would do so?

What do you have besides bashing ID with misrepresentations?

You claim there are misrepresentations but don’t point out even a single example.

This makes it look as if you saw a fair critique, didn’t like it, and childishly declared it to be a “misrepresentation”.

You can, however, improve this first impression by giving an example, from either the article or the comments section, of an actual misrepresentation, along with a cogent explanation of why it is so.

Also, could you please answer the following questions -

1) Who is the designer? 2) What did the designer do? 3) When did the designer do it? 4) How did the designer do it? 5) Why did the designer make it “look like” evolution? 6) How can we test your answers?

Also, one more question -

Imagine a hypothetical state without First Amendment restrictions. Public school curriculum can be decided entirely by popular vote, without limitations based on either expert opinion or the constitution. In this state, there is a controversy. Some people want to teach Dembski-style ID as science, but others wish to teach outright YEC creation science, with specific reference to a young earth, a Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, the Noahic flood, Jonah in the whale, etc, as literally true scientific fact. Which of these do you favor, and why?

DS said:

So have they ever tried to, you know, actually measure the fitness of any particular genotype? Do they always just make up the fitnesses and expect everyone to play along? Do they have any justification whatsoever for any of their assumptions about fitness, or is it all just a bunch of made up nonsense?

Their point is that among all possible fitness functions, the ones where evolution succeeds are rare and need to be found by a Designer. It’s just that the distribution that they are using ignores physics.

I wince a little when you accuse them of not ever having measured fitnesses of real organisms. After all, I haven’t either. Their argument tries to make a general statement that holds across all possibilities so that we can say something without having available any large generalities about fitnesses. That mode of operation is what theoretical population genetics used to use when I trained in the field 50 years ago. Now, since the availability of molecular data and since the development of more intensive efforts to measure fitnesses in various interesting ways, we are moving away from that, But it is slow going, since we can only measure largish differences in fitness, and the population can respond to much smaller ones.

https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/[…]5cJLbCdN-pWQ said:

OK but what is the evidence that natural selection, drift and/or neutral substitutions are up to the task? Where are the models? Where are the testable hypotheses?

What do you have besides bashing ID with misrepresentations?

If this particular troll has any evidence that I have misrepresented Dembski and Marks’s argument, they should present it here. That would be on-topic.

Otherwise the question is intelligently designed to derail the discussion into an endless roiling discussion in which the troll demands a complete model of everything, is never satisfied with the answers, and (of course) declares victory.

I am going to patro[l]l this thread as aggressively as I can and send off-topic stuff to the Bathroom Wall. That includes all troll-chasing. You have all been warned.

DiEb said:

For the moment, I just want to plug shamelessly my blog, where I tried to make a transcript of the video: William Dembski’s talk at the University of Chicago, garnished with some annotations.

I gave some links to other stuff on your blog, namely the technical arguments that Dembski and Marks’s Horizontal No Free Lunch Theorem has not been proven.

I found the video fairly clear, though not professionally recorded. But your blog transcript will be a useful place to pick up quotes from Dembski’s talk, plus your take on what the problems in his argument are.

harold said:

[-pwQ:] OK but what is the evidence that natural selection, drift and/or neutral substitutions are up to the task? Where are the models? Where are the testable hypotheses?

The evidence is basically all of mainstream biomedical science. … [snipped]

Just to repeat – chasing this argument of this troll will henceforth occur on the Bathroom Wall.

[harold:]

[-pwQ:] What do you have besides bashing ID with misrepresentations?

You claim there are misrepresentations but don’t point out even a single example.

This makes it look as if you saw a fair critique, didn’t like it, and childishly declared it to be a “misrepresentation”.

You can, however, improve this first impression by giving an example, from either the article or the comments section, of an actual misrepresentation, along with a cogent explanation of why it is so.

I agree with this (on-topic) comment by harold.

The rest of harold’s comment is chasing off-topic trollery, and all that will in future go to the BW.

eric said:

[Interesting and relevant stuff snipped – JF]

https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/[…]5cJLbCdN-pWQ said:

OK but what is the evidence that natural selection, drift and/or neutral substitutions are up to the task? Where are the models? Where are the testable hypotheses?

What do you have besides bashing ID with misrepresentations?

Fossil evidence of descent with modification. A common genetic code for all organisms. Multiple, independent cladistics methods … [more snipping – JF]

Again a warning – chasing the troll -pwQ’s “what is the evidence … Where are the models?” argument will in the future go to the Bathroom Wall. The accusation by -pwQ of misrepresentation is on-topic and discussion of it will be allowed.

There are two other huge, unstated assumptions in the Dembski/Marks model that are both pretty easily refuted:

(1) The purported “fitness surface” is a uniform-density, omnidirectional gradient that operates simultaneously in all directions. This is simpler to describe mathematically than a nonuniform or direction-biased gradient… but is inconsistent with the second and third laws of thermodynamics (not to mention the common sense observation that it’s harder to fix a broken simple machine, such as a lever, than it is to break it).

We’ll leave aside for the moment whether a “surface” is a valid mathematical representation of a system that includes both Hermetian and non-Hermetian elements.

(2) Only the net energy cost of a transformation of any kind matters in any sense. The chemical physics refutation is the concept of activation energy… which is confirmed rather emphatically through the action of enzymes, and points out that overall efficiency may not be the Holy Grail objective life-affirming pathway.

For example, the most-efficient way of obtaining energy from, say, simple sugars is simple combustion. That, however, requires a combustion source (usually not friendly to or perhaps even possible for microorganisms living in watery environments)… and produces certain waste products, such as a sudden heat spike, rather inimical to life as we know it. It’s actually fairly easy to determine the input energy and time period necessary to burn glucose in a lab. All of those safety precautions one must take in the lab should be a hint that a necessary precondition for life is that there be an alternative to simple combustion to release stored energy… and that that alternative will not be thermodynamically efficient, but will instead require a number of kludges. (Really: ATP/ADP and the Krebs Cycle?)

We’ll leave aside for the moment whether a “surface” is a valid mathematical representation of a system that includes both Hermetian and non-Hermetian elements.

Not to mention the huge number of dimensions of this so-called “surface”.

In case that particular Masked Panda wishes to reply to my general queries, I have copied and pasted that part of my comment to the BW. I probably won’t have time to keep up with the BW until later, but I’m sure others may be interested in pursuing any line of discussion that ensues.

http://pandasthumb.org/bw/#comment-334106

Frank J said:

Harold Wrote:

Organic and natural types, a group I could be accused of being a borderline member of, do indeed sometimes make absurd, unsupported claims. They are usually well off and usually not hard right wing, so they don’t fit either evolution denial demographic.

I personally know at least one in the “active” group. But I think you underestimate the size and variety of the “passive” group. Many of them say such things as “I hear the jury’s still out about evolution,” and are willing to uncritically believe, and repeat, anything negative said against any kind of science. Politically and religiously they’re all over the map. As you know, the active deniers (anti-evolution activists) and the subset of “passive” that are committed Biblical literalists are almost all far-right authoritarians, which means not necessarily the most conservative on economic issues.

Agreed that a broad definition of evolution denial captures a diverse population - although that population is enriched in the two demographics I noted.

I’m not sure that “natural and organic” types overlap with evolution denial. I might expect them to be, while sometimes having their own issues with some aspects of science, far more likely to accept evolution, at least passively, than the general population.

The typical consumer of organic products is probably more affluent and more educated than the average person, and less likely, relative to income, to be right wing in politics. And probably much less likely to be authoritarian, what right wing tendencies there are in this group slant toward callous libertarianism.

If you look at the controversial science related ideas associated with “hippies” circa 1970, you see that some of them were clearly wrong and silly, but others were, whether or not for a good reason, prescient.

That isn’t the case with authoritarian creationists. “Creation science” from 1970 is just 100% grotesquely wrong.

I think Dembski has made it clear who really understands the mathematics behind evolution.

The argument from labor and authority (only a biologist is qualified to discuss biology) no longer packs the rhetorical punch is may once have had. Its pretty lame to try rebutting Dembski’s argument by claiming it doesn’t represent ‘real’ evolution.

One scotsman is too many. Nothing against Scots, mind you.

Besides, one ought to be rather skeptical of ‘mindless’ arguments, which ironically can only be detected by ‘mindful’ inquiry.

Down the rabbit hole you go, mind-lessness.

shjcpr said:

I think Dembski has made it clear who really understands the mathematics behind evolution.

Indeed, the contrast couldn’t be starker; Dembski loses and real scientists win at every turn.

There are no “rhetorical punches” in real science. Science isn’t done by staged debates; people doing science really do have to know something.

No one in the science community believes that Scrabble letters, dice, coins, and inert objects are stand-ins for the behaviors of atoms and molecules. No calculations in chemistry, physics, or biology look anything like Dembski’s calculations. Calculations in science are actually about the interactions among real things.

Dembski doesn’t know about interactions or condensed matter; his Chicago talk demonstrated that as clearly as anything could. Dembski doesn’t understand science at any level; and he certainly doesn’t do any science. In fact, Dembski isn’t able to get beyond logarithms to base two of the probabilities of the arrangements of inert objects. Even high school students can do better.

But perhaps as an expert yourself, you can explain what Dembski’s methods of calculating have to do with real atoms and molecules in the real world of physics, chemistry and biology.

Well Frank and Harold, it would be interesting enough to do a survey of design deniers like yourself.

…pedantic tendencies, secular philosophical bent, extreme extrapolations from scant empirical evidence, conflate technological advances with scientific advances.…

“Design denial - the flat-earth syndrome of the 21st century”

It appears that we have here a version of Joe G or Mung the Magnificent feces flinger popping in from over at UD to throw taunts here at Panda’s Thumb. Maybe a Steve P?

Anybody see a familiar MO here?

Well Mike, if it was all physics and chemistry, even you would have it licked by now.

Insanity is repeating the same-o over and over expecting a different result. So why do you keep insisting its all physics and chemistry but we keep getting the same result. Nothing. So how long are we supposed to wait Mike? Another 100 years, another 1000???

Even Leo Kadanoff understands that much.

At least Dembski is pushing the envelope in the right direction, trying to break the fruitless design denying cycle of failure.

Yet, Mike would not have it any other way.

Physic…chemistry.…all the way down.

shjcpr said:

Well Mike, if it was all physics and chemistry, even you would have it licked by now.

In fact I and many others have explained it; but you never even got past that little thermodynamics concept test. Crawled away you did.

Are you going to explain Dembski’s calculations for us? We know you can’t.

Writes like Stevie P the Taiwanese rug merchant. Barely coherent fact-free invective that has the effect of expressing generalised scorn for reality.

Dave Luckett said:

Writes like Stevie P the Taiwanese rug merchant. Barely coherent fact-free invective that has the effect of expressing generalised scorn for reality.

That’s what I suspect also. Shouldn’t be too long before he gets shipped off to the Bathroom Wall where he can peddle his rugs in pieces.

I won’t be responding to him any further; I think this short exchange has been enough to identify him.

Reality gets under Luckett’s skin.

He prefers the comfort of mindlessness.

Its easy to pawn off the difficulties onto emergence.

While design stares you right in the face.

Man designs. Where did he get that capability? From nature. How? Well, because nature designs. In fact nature knew long ago all of the design principles Man recently ‘invented’. How do we know?

All you have to do is follow the money.

thats what you expected???? It too easy to find out that it is in fact Steve P.

And I guess Luckett’s darwinian bent lets fact evolve into fiction. But he didnt do that on purpose. NO. Couldn’t accuse him of a lie. He’s just parrotting Stanton is all. No harm done, right.

Of course Mike has no good answer. Just the stock responses. No change here.

[Voice echoes from the sky while lightning bolts flash]

Although shjcpr may well be one of our regular trolls, a quick look at IP numbers finds no match (which doesn’t mean it isn’t one of our regular trolls).

I don’t have the time or energy to move all this exchange to the Bathroom Wall, But further content-free gibes by shjpcr will not remain here and will go to the BW. As will replies to them.

If shjcpr wants to explain, in scientific detail, how Dembski’s argument is supported and his critics in this thread get it wrong, that will be allowed. But just arguing that criiticism here is “stock responses”, “mindlessness”, “design denial” is Bathroom Wall material.

There has to be an actual argument in the comment or shjpcr’s declarations of victory will go there. Without scientific detail they are the usual stupid trollery.

This comment has been moved to The Bathroom Wall. I meant it, folks. One lightning bolt thrown, many more in my quiver. JF

So, Dembski is coughing up another batch of word-hairballs, this time physics-flavored, and still can’t be bothered or trusted to explain how his pseudo-explanation simultaneously prevents evolution from occurring and permits people to detect Intelligent Design (r) ?

*yawn*

This comment has been moved to The Bathroom Wall as will happen to all replies to the contentless trolling by shjcpr. JF

This comment has been moved to The Bathroom Wall as will happen to all replies to the contentless trolling by shjcpr. JF.

This comment has been moved to The Bathroom Wall as will happen to all replies to the contentless trolling by shjcpr. JF.

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This page contains a single entry by Joe Felsenstein published on October 2, 2014 4:46 PM.

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