Guest Contributor Archives

by Joe Felsenstein

http://evolution.gs.washington.edu/felsenstein.html

Over at Uncommon Descent, Eric Holloway has declared that the critics of William Dembski’s 2002 book No Free Lunch actually accept that the No Free Lunch Theorem applies to evolution. He uses as his evidence the replies to Dembski’s use of the NFLT by Allen Orr and by David Wolpert (who co-wrote the original NFL paper). They had argued that evolution was a more complicated process than the simple model used in the NFLT, a model that for evolution would associate fitnesses with genotypes in a simple search for the genotype of highest fitness. So aren’t computer scientists (Wolpert) and biologists (Orr) implicitly acknowledging that the NFLT theorem applies to any such simple model, and prevents it from searching effectively?

But there have been other criticisms of Dembski’s use of the NFLT, and Holloway does not cite them. I summarized them in a 2007 article I wrote in Reports of the National Center for Science Education. And in the matter of the use of the NFLT my criticisms were actually not new — as I noted there, the fundamental point had been made many times since 2002, originally in a 2002 article by Richard Wein, and also in articles by Jason Rosenhouse (2002), Mark Perakh (2003), Jeffrey Shallit and Wesley Elsberry (2004), Erik Tellgren (2005), and Olle Häggström (2007). I will immodestly claim that my article is the clearest of these many clear articles.

So what is this oft-repeated criticism? When we have a simple model of evolution with genotypes and phenotypes, the NFLT argues that if we average over all the ways that set of fitnesses could be associated with the genotypes, that a simple model of search that climbs uphill on the fitness surface cannot do any better than a random search by pure mutation (one which is unaided by natural selection). That is disastrously bad. It sounds like it says that natural selection in such a model cannot work at all.

But notice the averaging part. It is critical to Wolpert and Macready’s theorem. In effect, it says that we are dealing with an infinitely rough fitness surface. If we change a genotype by making one mutation — changing a single position in its DNA — we arrive at a genotype whose fitness is randomly chosen from the whole set of possible fitnesses. In effect, a single mutation has the same effect as mutating every site in the genome simultaneously. (I apologize for shouting, but the point is not being noticed over at UD).

Of course real biology doesn’t work like this. Mutations are on average worse, but they mostly don’t instantly reduce the organism to rubble. In the real world, nearby genotypes are usually similar in fitness — often a bit worse but sometimes a bit better. In the NFLT world essentially all mutations are disastrous, and evolution would not work. So the No Free Lunch Theorem does not model real biology, not even in a simple model of evolution searching for genotypes of higher fitness on a fitness surface.

So far Holloway has not cited any of these criticisms, and when asked by a polite commenter whether there are any such criticisms, he has simply declared that

I spent some time reading the critics, and this bore [sic] my frustration. I could not find one author who treated Dembski’s work fairly! If someone could fairly refute Dembski’s work I’d be all over it, but I haven’t found anyone! Instead its all passive aggressive ad homineum [sic] and brow beating, with ample burning of strawmen, very tiring to read.

So the discussion at UD continues, hermetically sealed in a self-reinforcing bubble (though I notice now that in that discussion Elizabeth Liddle has tried to raise the relevant point).

by Joe Felsenstein

http://evolution.gs.washington.edu/felsenstein.html

Not only was he one of the most interesting evolutionary biologists, he was really the first major biologist to not only say that evolution happened, but to provide a mechanism to explain adaptation (albeit a wrong mechanism). He was born on August 1, 1744 in Bazentin-le-Petit, France. So if he had lived, he would be 267 years old today. He coined the term “invertebrate” (because he did brilliant work on them), and, for that matter, he coined the term “biology”! He did not invent “Lamarckian inheritance”, he just used it in his evolutionary mechanism – everyone back then already believed in it.

So happy birthday, Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck! here and here are my previous birthday postings for him, with interesting discussion over such issues as whether his evolutionary tree can really be regarded as an historical genealogy.

Editor’s Note: We are giving away copies of The Way of the Panda in our photography contest.

What is a panda? Ever since the French naturalist-priest Armand David “discovered” the panda in 1869, this question has fascinated people the world over. In The Way of the Panda: The Curious History of China’s Political Animal (Amazon), Henry Nicholls explores the development of natural history knowledge about the panda as well as how politics and popularization shape science. The panda’s distinctive markings, scarcity, and relative mystery have made it useful as a symbol, and few other animals are as closely identified with a particular nation. In other words, a panda bear is often not just a panda bear.

Written in three parts, The Way of the Panda covers a lot of ground from bringing pandas into the consciousness of the world outside China to the future of pandas and people. It sometimes wanders a bit from its focus on pandas, such as when the reader learns about a hullabaloo raised over the remains of a beloved London Zoo gorilla. Overall, though, it seems to be a thorough history of pandas and what we’ve made of them.

WayPandaCover_600.jpg

A Thank You from TOAF

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On behalf of the TalkOrigins Foundation, I would like to thank everyone who contributed to our campaign to bid on the motion picture “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.” Unfortunately, we were unable to bid high enough to purchase the film.

The response to this last-minute campaign was overwhelming. I had expected we might raise about $5,000. If we had raised $8,000, I would have been very pleased.

Instead, between Thursday (June 23), when we announced the campaign, and yesterday (June 27), we received 394 donations through our Paypal account, totaling $16,152.66. We also received pledges of funds from several individuals, including Professor Richard Dawkins, totaling another $32,200.00.

Combined with the funds the Foundation already had on hand, we had just over $50,000 available to bid on the film (and pay the 10% buyer’s premium). The winning bid, however, was $201,000. Because all of the bidders were anonymous, we do not know identity of the winning bidder.

Although we were unsuccessful in purchasing the film, I do not believe this campaign was a waste of time. If nothing else, it demonstrated the commitment so many of you have to the tenets of scientific inquiry.

The Foundation’s directors have discussed what to do in the event we were unsuccessful in purchasing the film. We had stated in our fundraising solicitation that we could not guarantee a return of any donations. That said, it has been our intent from the beginning to return all of the donations to this campaign, if that could be done. It appears that Paypal will allow us to refund contributions made by credit card or from a Paypal balance. (I do not know yet about those few eCheck transactions we received, but we will attempt to refund those as well.)

It will take some time for the refunding to be completed. We cannot even begin refunding donations until we can transfer funds back from the Foundation’s bank account to Paypal, which will take a few days to clear. Rest assured, however, that we will move as quickly as we can to complete the refunds.

Many of you have stated that you were happy with the Foundation keeping your donation in the event we were not successful in bidding on “Expelled.” Although we greatly appreciate the sentiment, it will be simpler for us to return all donations made since June 23 than to sort out who does and who does not want their donation returned. Our thanks again to all of you who contributed to this campaign.

Kenneth Fair
Secretary/Treasurer, TalkOrigins Foundation, Inc.

by Joe Felsenstein,
http://evolution.gs.washington.edu/felsenstein.html

There’s a remarkable statement over at Uncommon Descent right now. Gil Dodgen is, as always, drawing dramatic conclusions that Darwinism has collapsed and that scientists refuse to recognize it (he’s very good at drawing that conclusion - evidence is another matter).

Anyway, he opens with a statement that, for once, evolutionary biologists can agree with:

At UD we have many brilliant ID apologists, and they continue to mount what I perceive as increasingly indefensible assaults on the creative powers of the Darwinian mechanism of random errors filtered by natural selection.

I really can’t think of anything to add to that.

99.9% Wrong

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by Joe Felsenstein,
http://evolution.gs.washington.edu/felsenstein.html

Over at Uncommon Descent, “niwrad” is back with more calculations showing that conventional figures for comparing sequences of genomes are all wrong. Last time “niwrad” showed that humans and chimp genomes match only about 62% of the time. The usual figure given is 98.77%. Niwrad did this by taking 30-base chunks of one genome, finding the best match in the other genome, and then asking what fraction of the time there was a perfect match of all 30 bases. That’s where the 62% figure comes from. I immediately pointed out here at PT that this was expected and did not represent some insightful new way of calculating these figures.

Now Niwrad has turned to comparing two human genomes. The figure for 30-base perfect matches is about 96%. The conventional figure is about 99.9%. Let’s see what is expected. If a single base position has a 0.999 probability of matching, two bases have a 0.999x0.999 probability, three bases a 0.999x0.999x0.999 probability. 30 bases then have a probability that is 0.999 raised to the 30th power. Which turns out to be (ta-da!) 0.97. Not a bad fit.

Niwrad proudly notes that in the previous discussion

it seemed to me that the general feeling at the end was that my statistical method for performing genome-wide comparisons might have some merit, after all.

(Niwrad must have missed the discussion over here).

It does have merit: It’s a way of taking a close match and making it sound much less close – without changing anything. I have a suggestion: why not try 100-base chunks? That way human/chimp match will drop to only about 29%, while human/human will drop to 90%. Or how about 1000-base chunks? (human/chimp would be only about 0.00042 of a percent, and human/human would be down to about 37%). Where will this all end?

by Joe Felsenstein,
http://evolution.gs.washington.edu/felsenstein.html

Granville Sewell is a mathematician at the University of Texas, El Paso, who is an expert on numerical solution of differential equations. He is also the author of repeated arguments that the Second Law of Thermodynamics makes it impossible for evolution to improve living organisms.

The obvious reply is that the biosphere is not an isolated, closed system, that to come near having one, we must also include the sun which undergoes a huge increase of entropy as it radiates energy, that more than compensates for the much smaller decrease of entropy involved in the evolution of life.

William Dembski, at Uncommon Descent, has announced that a paper by Sewell is in press at Applied Mathematics Letters. Sewell makes available a preprint version here. It is the same argument Sewell has been making lately:

Thus the equations for entropy change do not support the illogical “compensation” idea; instead, they illustrate the tautology that “if an increase in order is extremely improbable when a system is closed, it is still extremely improbable when the system is open, unless something is entering which makes it not extremely improbable”.

And Sewell does not think that anything has entered the Earth that explains the decrease of entropy by evolution of life because, as he said in a paper in The Mathematical Intelligencer in 2001:

if all we see entering is radiation and meteorite fragments, it seems clear that what is entering through the boundary cannot explain the increase in order observed here.

We should be grateful to Sewell: he has apparently proven something astonishing.

A year ago, I pointed out here at Panda’s Thumb that if true, Sewell’s arguments showed that weeds could not grow in a garden – that a few weed seeds could not turn into weed plants bearing many of the same seeds. All we see entering the weeds is (mostly) radiation from the sun, carbon dioxide, water, and a few minerals. Following Sewell’s logic, this is not enough to explain the decrease of entropy involved in the growth of the weeds.

Sewell continues to make the same arguments. If not only the Discovery Institute, but also William Dembski and, now, Applied Mathematics Letters [1] validate Sewell’s arguments, who are we to resist? We must get the word out, especially to gardeners. Sewell’s formulation of the Second Law proves conclusively that:

* Weeds can’t grow in your garden

and for that matter

* Flowers can’t grow either.

Granville Sewell may have saved gardeners a huge amount of wasted effort.

Notes

  1. Editor: Reports indicate that the Applied Mathematics Letters has rescinded the acceptance.

by Paul S. Braterman, University of Glasgow; Professor Emeritus, University of North Texas

As you know by now, Behe has actually had a paper published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal (Behe M.J., Quarterly Review of Biology 85(4), 2010, 419-415). Well, not exactly a paper, more of a literature review. Well, not exactly a literature review, more a review of previous reviews, reinterpreting their findings according to his own criteria. The publication itself is shoddy piece of work. I have written numerous reviews myself, and would never have dreamed of basing them on earlier reviews, rather than my own up-to-date literature search. But let that pass.

Behe constructs an elaborate apparatus for classifying mutations as “gain”, “modification”, or “loss” of what he calls a Functional Coded Element (FCT). The definition is skewed to make “gain” as difficult to prove as possible. The process needs to be understood at the molecular level, rather than simply in terms of phenotype expression. This enables him to dismiss as of unproven relevance the Lenski group’s famous demonstration of E.Coli acquiring the ability to metabolise citrate under anaerobic conditions. Moreover, advantageous removal of inhibition is treated as “loss”, but advantageous disruption of a function by IS duplication and insertion is classified as “modification”, rather than “gain”. Using these restrictive and asymmetric criteria, Behe classifies most sufficiently well-understood mutations in laboratory-bred bacteria as loss or modification, although he does recognise a few gains.

Why bother with this eccentric-seeming enterprise? Here we need to look at the broader context of Behe’s involvement with the Discovery Institute.

Kentucky Jumps the Ark

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by Daniel Phelps

Answers in Genesis ministries has partnered with Ark Encounters, to build an 800 acre theme park in Grant County, Kentucky (a rural part of the north central Bluegrass). The theme park will feature a “full scale replica” of Noah’s Ark as well as other “attractions” as proposed here.

The project has received support from the highest levels of the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s government. On Wednesday, December 1, Governor Beshear held a press conference with officials from AIG and Ark Encounters to announce that the state is giving the creationists a tax incentive to bring jobs to the cash strapped region. Up to $37.5 million of the $150 million total cost could go to the creationists in the form of tax breaks under Kentucky’s Tourism Development Act. Apparently, the theme park can withhold 25% of the sales tax it collects up to 25% of the total cost for building the park under the Tourism Development Act.

98.77% Wrong

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by Joe Felsenstein,
http://evolution.gs.washington.edu/felsenstein.html

Over at Uncommon Descent (in this thread) “niwrad” presents a calculation, lengthily explained, showing that the assertion that human and chimp genomes differ by 1% in their base sequence is wrong.

What “niwrad” does is extraordinary. Choosing random places in one genome (doing this separately for each chromosome) “niward” takes 30-base chunks, and then looks over into the other genome to see whether or not there is a perfect match of all 30 bases. This turns out to occur between 41.60% of the time and 69.06% of the time in autosomes (it varies from chromosome to chromosome). The median is about 65%.

So the difference is really 35%, not 1%, right? Not so fast. If two sequences differ by 1.23% (the actual figure from the chimp genome paper), a one-base chunk will match 98.77% of the time. A two-base chunk will perfectly match (0.9877 x 0.9877) of the time. And so on. A 30-base chunk will match a fraction of the time which is the 30th power of 0.9877. That’s 0.6898 of the time.

So the 65% figure is pretty close to what is expected from a difference of 1.23% at the single-base level. However the penny hasn’t dropped yet over there (as of this writing, anyway). One commenter (“CharlesJ”) has asked whether there isn’t about a 1 in 4 chance of a 30-base mismatch if the difference is really 1%. That’s correct, and “niwrad” has (somewhat incorrectly) replied that it’s actually 1 in 3. This is a bit wrong but one way or the other the whole article goes up in smoke. “niwrad” has not figured that out yet.

Of course what creationists never do when they get upset about the 1% figure and claim it is Much Higher Than That is to compare that figure with the percentage difference with the orang genome or the rhesus macacque genome (gorilla isn’t available yet). Those are of course higher yet, no matter how you calculate the figure, leaving the chimp as our closest relative.

by Ken Miller, http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/

Two years ago, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA) into law, as noted on The Panda’s Thumb.

When the law was being considered in the Legislature, its proponents were adamant that it wasn’t about “creationism” or “intelligent design.” Folks from the Louisiana Family Forum and the Discovery Institute backed the LSEA, of course, but all they were interested in was good critical thinking, right?

Well, not so much. Now the Livingston Parish School Board is openly using the LSEA as legal justification to implement the teaching of creationism in their public schools. Barbara Forrest, one of the expert witnesses in Kitzmiller v. Dover exposes the maneuverings and alliances of anti-evolution forces in here state in a post at the Louisiana Coalition for Science.

Predictably, the Discovery Institute is now doing the same thing it did back in 2005 to the Dover School Board. They’re turning on their own supporters, and asking how anyone could possibly confuse their ideas with creationism. In this American Spectator article, Bruce Chapman, President of the Discovery Institute, now states that the very people who supported his efforts to get the LSEA passed are “ignorant” of the content of intelligent design theory. Darn. I wonder how those poor folks managed to think that ID equals creationism?

Somehow, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Could it be that the next Kitzmiller Reunion will be in Louisiana?

Happy Lamarck Day

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by Joe Felsenstein,
http://evolution.gs.washington.edu/felsenstein.html

August 1 is the 266th anniversary of the birth of Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck, born in 1744. Let us all celebrate the birthday of the first evolutionary biologist (and a great pioneer of invertebrate systematics as well). For more information on him see my post a year ago.

Below is a photo I took of the plaque on the back side of the statue of Lamarck in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. His daughter is shown assuring the aged and blind Lamarck, who died in relative obscurity, that “Posterity will admire you, and she will avenge you, my father.”

lamarckplaque.jpg

More DI Word Games

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by Mark Farmer, http://www.uga.edu/cellbio/people/farmer.html

Intelligent Design Creationism has evolved yet again. In preparing for a discussion last month (May) with Charles Thaxton I went to the DI’s site to see what their definition of ID was. What I found was this:

Intelligent design is a scientific theory which holds that certain features of the universe and living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, and are not the result of an undirected, chance-based process such as Darwinian evolution.

OK so what does the same site say today, a month later?

Intelligent design refers to a scientific research program as well as a community of scientists, philosophers and other scholars who seek evidence of design in nature. The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.

Notice the two important differences? 1) Apparently ID is no longer a “scientific theory” instead it now refers to “a scientific research program” and 2) ID is no longer contrasted with “chance-based process such as Darwinian evolution.” but rather is now compared to “an undirected process such as natural selection.”

It makes one wonder whether this is simply the natural evolution of ID as it continually adapts to an ever changing environment or whether recent court defeats, rejections by state school boards, and continued lack of intellectual advancement have brought about their own form of punctuated equilibria for intelligent design.

by Joe Felsenstein, http://evolution.gs.washington.edu/felsenstein.html

Cornelius Hunter collects phenomena that he argues represent “failed evolutionary predictions”. He also argues that evolutionary biologists are making a “religious presupposition” when they insist that science must use methodological naturalism. When asked what supernatural methodology he would have us use instead, he admits that methodological naturalism is “generally a good way to do science” [in his comment on that post of January 29, 2010 11:05 PM], and says that he’s only complaining that we’re being unclear about the matter.

But his bottom line is that he wants to test evolutionary predictions without his ever putting forth any alternative scientific theory for comparison. Now, however, there are signs that he may have such a theory. In a post at his blog he invokes Bayes’ Theorem for an observation (O) and a theory (T):

P(T|O) = P(T) * P(O|T) / P(O)

Bayes’ theorem gives us a way to evaluate a theory given a series of observations. A difficulty, however, is that the probabilities are difficult to gauge. What is P(T), P(O|T) and P(O)? What we can do is use a conservative computation, giving evolution favorable treatment at every turn.

For instance, let’s assume we start out with a very high probability that evolution is true. Next, consider the ratio P(O|T) / P(O). If an evolutionist is certain that observation, O, will not be observed, then the numerator should be quite low, say one in a million or one in a thousand. If P(O) is 0.5 then the ratio would be 0.000002 or 0.002, respectively. But to be conservative, and give evolution favorable treatment, let’s set the ratio to 0.2, orders of magnitude greater than is reflected in the evolutionists expectations.

For our 14 falsified predictions, using these extremely conservative values, Bayes’ theorem tells us that evolution is a one-in-a-billion shot (0.000000000164 to be exact).

This is quite correct — if Cornelius Hunter can calculate the overall probability of the observation. He states it as 0.5 in his hypothetical case. But there is simply no way to calculate a value like 0.5 unless you have a non-evolutionary theory as well as the evolutionary theory. If Hunter thinks that such a calculation can be made, he must have his own theory. Let me explain why.

by Joe Felsenstein, http://evolution.gs.washington.edu/felsenstein.html

The Discovery Institute Press has published a book by Granville Sewell, a mathematician at the University of Texas at El Paso. Under the title of In The Beginning And Other Essays on Intelligent Design, it apparently consists of previous writings of Sewell, some in revised versions. I hasten to say that I do not have a copy of the book, and have not read it. However Sewell makes it clear that its basic arguments can also be found online in earlier versions of these essays. The one that interests me is his argument that evolution contradicts the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which will be found online here, here, here, and here.

Now the statement that evolution can’t have occurred because it contradicts the Second Law is one of the hoariest old creationist myths. When you hear it you know you are dealing either with someone who does not understand science, or else someone who does understand science but is actively, and dishonestly, trying to get you not to understand science. It is easily answered, and has been, many times: in a closed system entropy does increase, but the biosphere is not a closed system — it is utterly dependent on inflows of energy, mostly from the sun, and the entropy increase from the outflow of energy from the sun far exceeds the decrease of entropy by reproduction and by evolution.

by Joe Felsenstein http://evolution.gs.washington.edu/felsenstein.html

In a discussion here of the views of the creationist Cornelius Hunter I posted a comment with a summary of his views about Bad Design arguments. I argued that

what he has just done is to admit that the hypothesis of a Designer is not science, as it predicts every possible result. If you predict every possible outcome, the ones that are seen and the ones that are not, then you have not predicted anything!

At his own blog Hunter objected strongly, saying that

Unfortunately these misrepresentations are typical of evolutionists. Not only are evolution’s metaphysical arguments from dysteleology, or bad design, perfectly valid, they can also be quite powerful. Felsenstein’s strawman that we say otherwise would be bizarre if it wasn’t so common.

Was I wrong?

by Eugenie Scott, Director of the National Center for Science Education

The new movie Creation (movie website, Adobe Flash 10 required | IMDB | Rotten Tomatoes), a British drama about of key moments in Darwin’s professional and personal life, just opened at the Toronto Film Festival and will soon be released in the UK. NCSE staff were invited to a pre-screening of the movie. Genie Scott’s review and commentary are below.

Update: Roger Ebert has posted some comments on his online journal (and I guess he’s quite the Darwin fan!).

I and NCSE staff were invited to view the new Jon Amiel movie, Creation, starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connolly. I believe it to be a thoughtful, well-made film that will change many views of Darwin held by the public—for the good. The acting is strong, the visuals are wonderful, and it treats with loving care the Victorian details of the furnishings at Down house and other sites (such as Malvern), and the local church.

The movie takes place after Darwin has returned from the Beagle voyage, and has settled down with his wife, Emma. It concentrates on their relationship, on the growth of their family, and of course, on the production of his most famous scientific work, On the Origin of Species. It looks hard at Darwin’s growing disenchantment with Christianity, especially the concept of Providence, and how poorly it fits Darwin the naturalist’s knowledge of a very unpeaceable kingdom. Darwin’s frequent illness is portrayed with brutal honesty. Sometimes pale, nauseated, unable even to eat dinner with his family, much less work on his science, Darwin is shown suffering from vague symptoms which he attempts to cure with what we would recognize as quack treatments.

A centerpiece of the movie is the death of Annie, the Darwins’ beloved 10 year old daughter, and how it affected the relationship of Charles and Emma. Much of the movie takes place as flashbacks to when Annie was alive; much takes place after her death, when her father imagines conversations with her. In some reviews the later Annie is described as a ghost. Not really. Creation is not a ghost story. Rather, the filmmakers are taking dramatic license to make Darwin’s thoughts about her visible to us. Also given much attention is Darwin’s reluctance to set down his scientific ideas on evolution and natural selection for fear of upsetting the devout Emma, and society in general. Huxley and Hooker encourage him to publish, but Darwin procrastinates.

As someone with a stake in how the public understands evolution and its most famous proponent, the bottom line for me was that the science be presented accurately. The second was that the story of Darwin’s life be presented accurately.

By Joe Felsenstein, http://www.gs.washington.edu/faculty/felsenstein.htm

In a previous thread here, and in other blogs, there have been many people arguing that William Dembski and Robert Marks’s recent “pro-ID” paper isn’t really pro-ID, that it is equally compatible with theistic evolution or even nontheistic evolution. William Dembski has now replied at his Uncommon Descent blog to these comments.

He argues that

The key contention of ID is that design in nature, and in biology in particular, is detectable. Evolutionary informatics, by looking at the information requirements of evolutionary processes, points to information sources beyond evolution and thus, indirectly, to a designer.

and

Theistic evolution, by contrast, accepts the Darwinian view that Darwinian processes generate the information required for biological complexity internally, without any outside source of information. The results by Marks and me are showing that this cannot be the case.

Dembski and Marks’s argument is (in effect) that smoothness of the adaptive landscape means that information has been built into the situation, and that natural selection does not create new information, but instead transfers this existing information into the genome. To Dembski, the Designer acts by creating this information.

There is no requirement that this creation of information happen multiple times. A Designer (or just the laws of physics) could set up the world so that it is one in which adaptive surfaces are smooth enough that natural selection succeeds in bringing about adaptation. That setting-up could have happened back before the first living organisms existed.

Should other supporters of ID be happy with such a picture? It certainly does not argue for the fixity of species, or against large-scale evolutionary change. But I suspect that many theistic evolutionists would find it consistent with their views.

Evolutionary biologists may prefer a different definition. Intelligent Design only differs from existing theories on evolution if it involves a Designer who intervenes at least once after the origin of life. If ID advocates want to argue that there is something wrong with evolutionary biology, they should put forward a theory that makes some different prediction about what happens during evolution after that origin.

Dembski draws the distinction as involving where the information comes from. Evolutionary biologists will probably prefer to focus on whether there is evidence for interventions by a Designer.

By Joe Felsenstein, http://www.gs.washington.edu/faculty/felsenstein.htm

William Dembski and Robert Marks have published what Dembski describes as a “peer-reviewed pro-ID article”. It is in the computer engineering journal IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics A, Systems & Humans in the September 2009 issue. In a post at his Uncommon Descent blog (where a link to a PDF of the article will also be found) Dembski describes it as critiquing Richard Dawkins’s “Methinks it is like a weasel” simulation and that “in critiquing his example and arguing that information is not created by unguided evolutionary processes, we are indeed making an argument that supports ID.” But what does it really say about ID?

The article does not mention ID directly, but defines a quantity called “active information” in search problems. Basically, it measures how much faster the solution can be found by a search in a problem’s space than by looking for the solution by drawing points from the space in a random order — how much faster one finds the solution than a monkey with a typewriter would. In Dawkins’s Weasel case, a monkey with a typewriter finds the solution after about 1040 tries, while one version of Dawkins’s program would take only about 728 tries. The active information is the log of the ratio of these numbers, about 124 bits.

In effect, the picture the article paints is that information is out there in the shape of the fitness surface — the way fitnesses change as we move among neighboring genotypes. So, on this view, natural selection does not create information, it just transfers it into the genotype. The information is out there already, lying around. Dembski and Marks at one point say that “the active information comes from knowledge of the fitness”. If the fitness surface is smooth, as in the Weasel case, natural selection will readily be successful. D&M would then regard the information as provided by a Designer in advance.

In that case natural selection works. If a Designer has structured our genotype-phenotype space so that fitness surfaces are often smooth, if mutations do not typically instantly reduce the organism to a chaotic organic soup, if successful genotypes are often found to be close in sequence to other successful genotypes, then the Designer is not designing individual organisms — she is leaving natural selection to do the job. Dembski and Marks’s argument would then at most favor theistic evolution and could not be used to favor ID over that.

One can wonder whether one needs any particular Designer to structure reality in that way. The laws of physics do not make all objects interact intimately and strongly. When I move a pebble in my back yard, the dirt, grass, trees, and fences do not instantly reorder themselves into a totally different arrangement, unrecognizably different. If they did, of course natural selection would not be able to cope. But as they interact much less strongly than that, only a few leaves of grass change noticeably. I can cope, and so can natural selection. Does the smoothness of fitness surfaces come from this weakness of long-range interactions in physics? If so, then Dembski and Marks’s argument ends up leaving us to argue about where the laws of physics ultimately come from, and most evolutionary biologists will not feel too worried.

Happy 265th Birthday

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By Joe Felsenstein, http://www.gs.washington.edu/faculty/felsenstein.htm

265 years ago today was the birth of the first major evolutionary biologist. On 1 August 1744, in Bazentin-le-Petit, France, Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet was born into the impoverished minor nobility.—Who?—He is best known by his title, the Chevalier de Lamarck.

He was the first major biologist to argue that organisms had evolved, the first to suggest a mechanism for the evolution of adaptations, and the first to draw an evolutionary tree that branched. He is also unfairly criticized by many biologists.

Two misconceptions:

  • He was not a pseudoscientist or a quack, but was the great figure of invertebrate biology (he coined the word “invertebrate” and the word “biology”).
  • He was not the originator or major advocate of inheritance of acquired characters (miscalled “Lamarckian inheritance”). He accepted it and used it in his mechanism, but he had nothing to do with its wide acceptance.

His mechanism for evolution turned out not to be right, but he does deserve the designation on his statue in the Jardin des Plantes; “Fondateur de la doctrine de l’Évolution”.

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