Aug 28 2009

A Few Questions on Evolution

Evolution and its pseudoscientific denial is a topic that comes up often on this blog. The comments to those posts, as well as e-mails resulting from my podcast, provide good fodder for discussion. I also think that confronting misconceptions is a very effective way to teach science, because it invariably involves exploring logic, evidence, and how we know what we know.

Here are a few recent tidbits I thought I would weave into a post.

Punctuated Equilibrium

SGU listener Michael Morrison e-mailed me about a discussion with his uncle, stating:

He stated that many scientists believe that there is not enough time in the history of the world for the current complexity of life to have developed through evolution.  He stated that this problem was the impetus  for developing the punctuated equilibrium theory and was just another example of scientists trying to explain away God.  He referenced Frances Crick and his alien seed hypothesis as proof that even noted scientists recognize that lack of time is a problem for the theory of Evolution.

First, let me correct the misconception about punctuated equilibrium (PE) – it has absolutely nothing to do with there being enough time for evolution to have occurred. PE was developed by Gould and Eldridge to explain the apparent stability of species in the fossil record. Species do not constantly change, as Darwin surmised, but rather remain at rough equilibrium with their environment, punctuated by relatively rapid speciation or extinction events.

What PE means is that evolutionary changes tend to be compressed into short bursts, rather than occurring constantly and uniformly throughout nature. In the decades since the 1972 publication of PE, much evidence has emerged to support it, but also to show that there is no one mode or pace to evolution. Slow change also occurs within many species.

Alien Seed

Francis Crick’s alien seed hypothesis also has absolutely nothing to do with the question of whether or not there has been enough time for evolution. Rather, this hypothesis deals with the origin of life on earth (a very common creationist mistake). Crick hypothesized that the precursors to life, or even dormant cells, could have been carried to the early earth in frozen water – by comet impacts, for example.

In fact an extension to this theory is called panspermia – that once life forms its seeds can be spread throughout the galactic material that later forms into solar systems and planets – life’s seeds may rain down on many planetary systems – at least those that form from material from older stellar systems that had planets with life.

Panspermia has nothing to do with the subsequent evolution of life or its pacing.

Time Enough for Evolution

But let’s get to the core question here – has there been enough time for evolution to have occurred. Well, three plus billion years for all life on earth and 600 million years for multi-cellular life is an awfully long time. But is it enough?

Here is one of the better examples of this argument, from Laurence Smart, author of Unmasking Evolution. He makes a calculation concluding that there has not been enough time for an ape to have evolved into a human. Smart is an educator, but not an evolutionary biologist, and he displays multiple misunderstandings of evolutionary theory – but I will focus on this one argument.

His calculations are based upon a number of absurd assumptions. First, that all mutations are point mutations – one nucleotide changing at a time. Second, that it takes 300 generations for a new mutated form of a gene (allele) to completely replace the previous gene allele. And third, that only one mutation can be selected for at a time. None of these assumptions are well founded.

There are multiple mechanisms of genetic change, including those that involve entire genes or even entire chromosomes.The “one nucleotide at a time” assumption is patently false. Here is a list:

  • Endosymbiosis
  • Whole genome duplication (polyploidy)
  • Chromosomal rearrangements
  • Gene duplication
  • Hybridization
  • Gene displacement
  • Horizontal gene transfer
  • Jumping genes
  • Sexual recombination
  • Retrotransposons (Alu sequences)
  • Exon shuffling and domain exchange
  • Repetitious DNA and repetitious peptides

Further, there is no reason to assume one change at a time. Suites of mutations may be selected for, and there can be multiple overlapping selective processes happening at the same time. There is also no reason to assume that one mutation must reach 100% replacement before the next mutation can be selected for.

Further, Smart assumed a population of 100,000 individuals. The evidence suggests, however, that our ancestors passed through a time when the population was restricted to about 2,000 individuals. The smaller the population, the more quickly a new mutation can dominate the population. And in fact it is likely that most speciation events take place in small isolated populations.

So Smart’s calculations are worthless, and in the end there is no legitimate line of argument or evidence to suggest that there has not been enough time for evolution to have occurred.

I will add that if this were true – that current calculations show there has not been enough time for the evolutionary changes we observe to have occurred – this would not be evolution’s “dirty little secret” but rather a major focus of research. Scientists love when something does not fit, because it means we have a false assumption, which further means there is a major discovery waiting to be made. Evolutionary scientists are not tripping over themselves to solve this apparent anomaly, because it does not exist.

Evolution as a Designing Force

Commenter Sylvester left a rather incoherent comment on an older post, so I will reply here. He wrote (quotes are from my original post):

“Evolution is a designing force”= Who or What, and where is that force coming from?

“it has been shown that complex information can emerge spontaneously out of blind”= Out of blind??? wow! That sounds lke magic. Sorry but there is not hard evidence to support such claim.

This seems to be a real sticking point for most evolution-deniers – the notion that complexity can spontaneously emerge out of simple processes. Like Sylvester, they make what amounts to an argument from personal incredulity combined with a simple denial of evidence.

We talk of “forces” and “pressure” in evolution, but the terms are not meant to refer to physical forces – they are metaphors for evolutionary processes. An environmental condition can produce a “selective pressure” – meaning that there will be differential survival in a population (as opposed to random survival). Differential survival results in changing gene frequencies over time.

This is an internal process. Sylvester seems to think (I have to infer, as his comments are almost devoid of specifics) that by using the term “creative force” I was implying an outside force – I was not.

Information

He continues:

“If you start with one version of a gene and then it mutates in one offspring but not in another – now you have two versions of that gene. That represents an increase in information”= Not at all. Duplication of information is not an Increment of information. You are misusing the meaning of this word. To increase information is to obtain more complex information from previous information sources. Not duplication.

Sylvester misunderstood my point and misunderstands the concept of “information” – as do Intelligent Design proponents. First, I did not say that the mere duplication of the gene results in an increase in information. Rather, I very specifically said that the duplication followed by differential mutations results in increased information – because now we have two different versions of the gene, where there was one version before.

That is, by definition, more information. It would take more information to completely describe the two genes that it would their single parent gene. Sylvester simply missed what I wrote.

But further he then equates information to complexity – another common mistake of the ID crowd. Information has a mathematical meaning, and it has nothing to do with complexity. In fact, randomness can be very information dense.

The now common example is to take a Word document with 1000 random characters, 1000 letter As repeated, and an essay with 1000 characters. If you then compressed these three documents (compression is the process of representing the document with the least amount of information possible) you will find that the random characters has the most “information” from a mathematical point of view – it does not compress as much as the other two.

This may seem counterintuitive, but it comes from using a sloppy definition of “information”, or casually switching among several operational definitions of “information.”

But, no matter how you slice it, two different genes is more information than either gene alone.

Thermodynamics

He then finishes with this point:

“there is nothing in thermodynamics that states that the Earth cannot use energy to create a local decrease in entropy.”= Perhaps a local decrease in enthropy but increasing the overall enthropy elsewhere. It seems like is a hard concept for you to digest. You still do not get it.

Huh? I am not even sure what he is saying here. My original point is that the decreasing entropy (or increasing complexity, order or information – however you want to say it) in the biosphere over time does not violate the laws of thermodynamics, as many evolution deniers still amazingly contend. This is because the earth is receiving energy, and that the process of life uses that energy to do work, and the result of that work can be a decrease in entropy.

Put another way, the earth is not a closed system – it is an open system receiving energy. Thermodynamics only states that in a closed system (not receiving energy) entropy must increase.

Earth’s local decrease in entropy is more than offset by increases in entropy elsewhere in the universe – for example in our own sun, which is increasing its entropy as it spews out energy.

What creationists are essentially saying is that (for example) an electric train cannot run by itself without an energy source, therefore the train is not running. Despite evidence that the train is in fact running, I can also point out that the tracks are plugged into the wall where they are receiving a steady 220 volts and using that electricity to run the electric trains. Sylvester’s response to this is typically incoherent. (And of course the irony of his final sentence is classic.)

Conclusion

Readers might think I am being unfair picking on Sylvester and Michael’s uncle – but their questions really are typical of the average creationist. In fact (although not as verbose or eloquent) this is typical of the best arguments from the leading lights of creationism and ID.

Creationist arguments are logically flawed, factually challenged, and often border on incoherent. What is worse, you can make a very plain and straightforward argument and they will often find someway to misinterpret it.

In fact I predict that very statement will be misinterpreted as an ad hominem against creationists, even though I specifically wrote “creationist arguments.”

But they are amusing, and can be a very useful tool for improving the public understanding of science.

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44 responses so far

44 Responses to “A Few Questions on Evolution”

  1. Plittleon 28 Aug 2009 at 8:13 am

    I was just discussing your first point with someone yesterday. I think that one of the people largely responsible for spreading the “not enough time for evolution” meme was Fred Hoyle, who’s steady state cosmology model seemed to be an attempt to make the universe much older than it is estimated to be in order to provide more time for the evolution of elementary biochemical substances. Hoyle, like many scientists before and after him was guilty not of poor cosmology, but of dipping into a branch of science that was not his specialty (biology), and formulating opinions based upon an incomplete understanding of evolutionary theory.

  2. NaonTiotamion 28 Aug 2009 at 8:18 am

    Excellent post, Steve. You truly are a credit to the skeptical movement and science education in general. :D

    These arguments against evolution, I feel, cannot be refuted enough. Evolution-deniers will continue to use these arguments in conversation, so it’s up to the defenders of science to put the refutations out there, as far reaching as possible. They should not be given even one iota of space in which to move without coming up against intellectual resistance.

    Cheers,
    Jack Scanlan

  3. Joe Bon 28 Aug 2009 at 9:31 am

    If you want to see a origins “theory” that actually doesn’t have enough time you’ll have to go to Ken Ham’s creation museum and check out the exhibits that promote the idea of super-evolution after the flood.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mPPnN1c0jk

  4. Scott Youngon 28 Aug 2009 at 9:32 am

    I would second Jack Scanlan’s comments and add that you are also a credit to evolution!

  5. superdaveon 28 Aug 2009 at 9:41 am

    Here is an easy science experiment for a creationist. Take some salt water, and put it in a cup, then let it evaporate slowly over the course of a week. Observe the results of a spontaneously self assembled system.

    I think one of the most beautiful lessons of cell biology and biochemistry is examining just how nature solves the entropy problem. If anything, analyzing the entropy of living organisms proves evolution is true. Cells routinely rely on self ordering systems which require very little external energy (just enough to allow for Brownian motion) and also there are many systems which take advantage of amplification such that small changes in the input result in large changes. The cell clearly evolved in conditions where maximizing the use of energy and minimizing loss due to entropy (or even taking advantage of entropy in the form of diffusion) were absolutely necessary. I am sure there are more examples but biochemistry is not my area of expertise.

  6. Daniel Keyseon 28 Aug 2009 at 9:47 am

    Hey Steve,

    Just wanted to let you know that I just started classes again and I was thrilled that my Zoology teacher in the first day said, if you have a problem with Evolution you will have a problem with this class. And when we were reviewing the Second Law of Thermodynamics he said exactly what you said. Paraphrasing he said, This law is often used by opponents of the theory of evolution, but it is falsely used due to the fact that the earth is not a closed system. It is constantly receiving a source of energy from the sun.

    Needless to say, best first day of a class ever.

  7. Mark Entelon 28 Aug 2009 at 10:03 am

    Dr. Novella, Fine post (as always), though a bit of simple target practice for a man who can spot a logical fallacy at 10 paces with the naked eye.

    Just thought I’d share my experience, which usually involves arguments from personal incredulity. I find it useful, and at least a little persuasive, to discuss just how ginormous geological timescales are (forget cosmic timescales). I have had people at least consider that a hundred million years (or a billion) is not just a long time but an obscenely long time. It is a good way to crack open a person’s incredulity, though I would never expect a truly hard-boiled history-denier to be swayed.

  8. CrookedTimberon 28 Aug 2009 at 11:30 am

    Great post as usual.

    In my amateur debates with evolution-deniers I often find that they are willing to concede many details about evolution. Once explained they will say that yes, they can understand the process at the “micro” level. The major impasse seems to be that they cannot grasp how simple organisms became so complex. The standard reply of billions of years and incremental steps, while true, they find unpersuasive. I’ve heard the smarmy Ken Ham respond to this in debates as “see, your god is time”.

    Does anyone know of a good example to illustrate this point with more clarity? It often seems to be one of the last hurdles to change someone’s mind.

  9. Eternally Learningon 28 Aug 2009 at 11:31 am

    Hi Steve, this is Michael Morrisson (two ‘s’s by the way :-) ) and I just wanted to say thanks for addressing my email. As always, this was a great post and has given me new directions to do my own amateur research. I continue to be impressed by your professionalism, patience, and the way in which you allow schmucks like me to understand very complicated concepts.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the conversation with my uncle and first wanted to say that the sheer fact that he was calm, collected, fair, reasonable (within his own sphere of facts that he was aware of), and concise in the face of what was essentially (though respectfully and calmly composed) a refutation of his most cherished experiences and beliefs makes me have an insurmountable respect for him. This is not the typical experience for me when having this type of conversation with other friends, family and acquaintances. I just wanted to get that out there before any assumptions are made about the type of conversation we had and the type of character he has.

    Secondly, to expand on an thought expressed by the SGU many times over, that science prompts us to question everything and faith prompts us to question nothing, I commented to him that I was confused as to his parameters as to where to draw the line between trust in established fact and faith and at one point he feels that he should stop questioning and just say, “God did it.” The Bible tells us that universe was created in 6 days, science demonstrably refutes this and my uncle accepts that refutation and posits that Genesis is using metaphors. Why then is Evolution so critical to “debunk” to his faith? He concedes that the Earth is as old as science says it is. What hypothesis is there that includes god, billions of years, progressively more complex life, but NO Evolution? Why does there need to be one for faith in the supernatural to remain? I also asked him how many more natural explanations for the supernatural did he need before he would start to question whether or not the supernatural even existed. That is when we started talking about private revelation.

  10. mannik5000on 28 Aug 2009 at 12:33 pm

    “Time Enough for Evolution”

    If this was a Heinlein reference, kudos :)

  11. Zelockaon 28 Aug 2009 at 12:33 pm

    “many scientists believe”

    Frankly I consider this to be one of the worse things about current science. Belief is to science as a hairpiece on the moon is to a cow eating of grass. They have no connection. It’s either proven using experimentation or observation or it’s not. The belief that a scientist has is no more valid than any others persons belief.

    The entire argument of trying to combine evolution and god did it for kicks, just doesn’t have any logic. If god controlled the entire evolutionary process then why have short cuts to start with? You don’t build a life sized replica of the eiffel tower out of toothpicks and then just have a couple random prefabricated pieces in there. You do it all one way or the other or else the entire project looks stupid. That is especially true if you’re working under the assumption that god is so anal that he is controlling every aspect of the entire process. How do you explain all the evolutionary dead ends? Does God suck at pre-planning or was there an instruction book he didn’t read?

  12. cuervoon 28 Aug 2009 at 2:07 pm

    Nice post Steve.
    Last week I was chatting with some young creationists that had set up a stall in the local high street [in UK] … quite depressing to hear them trot out these same old canards triumphantly knocking down evolution. So hard to get through past their Stepford smiles though… I just hope I planted a couple of seeds. They had all the Hovind DVDs and even some Ham Banana “atheists nightmare” pamphlets.

    The thing that interested me though, apart from a billboard saying “beware Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witness, don’t be fooled, they’re cults” which was ironic, but that they had a load of conspiracy DVDs, a bunch of Alex Jones docs among others. Interesting in that I hadn’t seen the two so obviously hand in hand before, although of course they seem to propagate in the same way… by appealing to or prehaps creating a narcissistic mental environment – the ‘secret knowledge/reality’, the valiant minority fighting against a controlled majority.
    Is this sort of thing not a recognised mental disorder already?

  13. artfulDon 28 Aug 2009 at 3:15 pm

    ‘In fact, randomness can be very information dense.’

    Excellent point.

    ‘–you will find that the random characters has the most “information” from a mathematical point of view – it does not compress as much as the other two.’

    Not that excellent a followup.

    Without an effective selection process that makes the best use of the randomly supplied data, the 1000 character essay alternative has the potential of being more instructive. Without an interpretive and instructive function, the fact that there is more data from a mathematical point of view is irrelevant.

    It shouldn’t be about how randomness shapes the organism but about how the organism reacts to the plethora of random data to serve its own purposes.

    Not that creationists will be amenable to either approach, but at least it helps to put the ball in the right court.

  14. Steven Novellaon 28 Aug 2009 at 4:47 pm

    artfulD – you are correct, but are also confusing different definitions of the word “information.” That is why it is critical to use a specific operational definition when making statements such as an “increase” in information. When information theorists use the concept of information content they are generally referring to the minimum amount of information necessary to completely describe a system.

    You are referring to is more like conceptual complexity.

  15. artfulDon 28 Aug 2009 at 5:48 pm

    Yes, but randomness is information dense both in a mathematical context AND one of causative complexity. You seemed to be arguing that the mathematical information is sufficient for the purposes of natural selection, whether the organism “understands” its nature or not. Thus opposing the creationist view that there was a sublime method behind the apparent madness.
    But unless there’s a method that resides instead with the organism, it would seem there’s a functional element gone missing from your argument, regardless of how you define information.

  16. HHCon 28 Aug 2009 at 11:53 pm

    Regarding Ken Ham’s evolution comment about “your god is time”, I would suggest replying that time is simply a co-therapist.

  17. davidsmithon 29 Aug 2009 at 5:29 pm

    Steve said, “but let’s get to the core question here – has there been enough time for evolution to have occurred.”

    The question should be – has there been enough time for evolution to have occurred only by mechanisms described by current theories of natural selection? Given that the complexity of life on earth is so vast, I doubt that anyone could come up with a calculation based on assupmtions that are agreed upon by all parties.

    Perhaps a more direct approach is necessary.

    For example, is it possible that teleological mechanisms might be operating that would speed up the process of evolution?

    Have any experiments been done that test the idea of teleological adaptation?

  18. artfulDon 29 Aug 2009 at 6:34 pm

    If within teleological mechanisms you would include those for self-directed adaptations, those tests are ongoing.

  19. HHCon 29 Aug 2009 at 7:29 pm

    How can a philosophical purpose posited by man speed a biological evolution of all species. The glory of such a system then goes to man. Within this belief system, only his mission can lead the creation process forward. What backwards thinking is this? What level of social and moral development drives this thinking process?

  20. artfulDon 29 Aug 2009 at 7:32 pm

    Apropos of nothing and yet perhaps of everything that matters, I sit here now watching the progress of Senator Kennedy, now lifeless in a coffin, honored through this series of rituals as never before when alive, fitting with the irony of that life as one of three brothers, all with feet of clay, who nevertheless excelled at the honorable exercise of power.

  21. weingon 29 Aug 2009 at 9:01 pm

    I’ll go with the former.

  22. artfulDon 29 Aug 2009 at 9:11 pm

    Well, that figures. Kennedy did say that congress is the only contraption that can fly without a fully functional right wing.

  23. weingon 29 Aug 2009 at 9:46 pm

    Congress can design something that flies? Seriously doubt it.

  24. artfulDon 29 Aug 2009 at 9:51 pm

    Well according to the dixiecrats, their God designed it.

  25. artfulDon 30 Aug 2009 at 9:03 pm

    To further respond to davidsmith’s question about teleological mechanisms (and studiously ignore the incoherent jabbering of HHC), check out the following:

    Excerpt from Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, by Elliott Sober and DavidSloan Wilson:
    ‘Those organisms with sophisticated cognitive abilities have greater capacity for, and reason to, act upon pluralistic motivations. “The obvious evolutionary strategy for an organism that can form reliable beliefs about its own body and about the welfare of relevant others,” conclude the authors, “is for it to set its eyes on the
    prize.” The organism’s “ultimate desire should include a concern for something that is far more important in terms of evolutionary success than the states of its own consciousness” (324).’

    Just one example of many available as to how evolutionary biologists propose that humans and their antecedents played an intelligent role in the evolution of their own behaviors – yet with most being careful not to directly contradict any of the traditional tenets of natural selection theory.

    Then we have evolutionary psychologists such as Cosmides , who, to quote a review, “offers some arguments that the “learning” involved here has occurred on an evolutionary time scale, rather than (or at least in addition to) on the scale of each individual’s life. What has evolved here, if she if right, is not a hoof or a horn or an eyeball, but a complex and abstract behavioral propensity. Nevertheless, it has arguably been shaped by selective forces as precisely as physical characteristics of the phenotype have — it is just harder to characterize, because we can only discover its properties by doing experiments, rather than by simple dissection of physical objects.”
    What Cosmides and others don’t explain is how these and numerous other more situational behaviors evolved thousands of years ago, yet don’t seem to have evolved since, therefor being maladapted to modern society. Thus it would seem that the rules of natural selection were bent a bit at the time, but then we had not yet “discovered” the nature of the mechanism. Now that we have found it out, it has ceased to allow our intelligence to interfere with the selective process.
    And here’s what Wilson says in another paper on EVOLUTIONARY SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVISM:
    “The cognitive revolution in psychology tended to focus on basic faculties such as vision, hearing, memory, language, and so on. These traits (with the exception of language) are obviously required for survival and reproduction, but what about other traits such as mating, foraging, cooperation, aggression, and migration? According to evolutionary psychologists such as Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, these traits are like vision in their requirement for an elaborate innate circuitry. Just as different circuits are required for vision and hearing (although they must also be integrated with each other) different circuits are required for the evaluation of long-term mates, the evaluation of short term mates, response to infidelity, the detection of cheaters in social exchange, and so on. The list of specialized cognitive adaptations is not endless but runs into the hundreds and thousands, covering all of the important behaviors that helped us to survive and reproduce in ancestral environments.”

    There’s your evidence that people, correctly or not, are making serious proposals that smack of teleological mechanisms hard at work.

  26. weingon 31 Aug 2009 at 12:09 am

    I still think you are putting the cart before the horse.

  27. HHCon 31 Aug 2009 at 12:56 am

    artfulD, Sounds like Wilson is inventing circuitry which would work for a type of evolved robotic sexual reproduction. Wilson compartmentalizes sexuality into separate categories instead of viewing it as innate, instinctual behavior. Try studying the connection between sex and aggression. Begin your studies with the amygdala.

  28. artfulDon 31 Aug 2009 at 1:04 am

    Both of you tell it to Wilson.

  29. davidsmithon 31 Aug 2009 at 6:36 am

    Thanks artfulD for your thoughtful replies. Although I’m not sure whether we’re talking about the same idea.

    I’ve heard about ‘direction adaptation’ before, and there seems to be controversy over the experiments investigating this phenomenon. I found a nice definition of adaptive mutation (can we agree that the terms ‘direction adaptation’ and adaptive mutation refer to the same phenomena? – it seems so in the literature):

    “directed or adaptive mutations are ‘mutational events that occur more frequently under selective conditions, when the resulting genetic changes are adaptively useful, than during normal growth’.” (from: Zheng, Q. (2009). On a logical difficulty in the directed mutation debate. Genet. Res., Camb., 91, 5-7).

    From this definition, it seems that one could postulate an underlying mechanism responsible for the ‘directed mutations’ that involves some kind of immediate feedback from the environment to the organism that is able to target the genetic loci that result in mutations that are beneficial to the organism under those environmental conditions. Is this kind of mechanism teleological? I’m not so sure. I suppose it depends on your definition of teleology.

    What I was getting at is more along these lines: If an experiment could demonstrate the occurance of these kinds of ‘adaptive mutations’ independently of feedback from the environment, would that be a more appropriate definition of teleological adaptation? Perhaps this could be tested for by looking for adaptive mutations before the organism encounters the selective conditions, as a kind of anticipation.

    That would imply some kind of retro-causality, which I realise is quite far-fetched, but I was wondering if any experiments have been done to test the idea?

  30. daedalus2uon 31 Aug 2009 at 8:28 am

    Sexual selection of sexual dysmorphic features such as the peacocks’ tail are examples of this. A peahen chooses a male with a large tail. This selects for a large tail in her sons, and an attraction to large tails in her daughters. There is no inherent advantage to a large tail, other than that peahens like it.

    Any type of mate preference that has a component that is genetically determined will be heritable and will drive evolution. There are likely zillions of such mate preferences, many of which are not under conscious control, but are mediated through what humans call “chemistry”.

  31. [...] if you’re like me, a good pick-me-up is always to be had when I discover something like a nice list of counters to “intelligent” design arguments. Read and watch reason [...]

  32. artfulDon 31 Aug 2009 at 1:47 pm

    davidsmith, while it seems the whole process of evolution requires that an organism anticipate possibilities, I’m not aware of any speculation as to there being a mechanism that has produced solutions to anticipated adaptive problems independent of any feedback that assisted the mechanism in each step of the process.

    Unless you would regard tentative solutions as somehow fitting your concept of retro-causality. Otherwise you are perhaps searching for solutions that have come from afar looking for anticipated problems that will justify their purpose for existence.
    Such are the natures of our gods, and there is plenty of speculation out there on that stuff and nonsense.

    As to tentative solutions, you might look at papers such as this on Amplification–mutagenesis, http://www.pnas.org/content/99/4/2164.full

  33. SteveAon 01 Sep 2009 at 7:07 am

    cuervoon: “They had all the Hovind DVDs and even some Ham Banana “atheists nightmare” pamphlets.”

    Next time you see them give them a ‘creationists nightmare’ – a pineapple.

  34. [...] A Few Questions about Evolution (Steven Novela, 8/09) [...]

  35. Seadiveron 04 Sep 2009 at 4:53 pm

    Hi, responding to your point on the earth being a closed system, and “(for example) an electric train cannot run by itself without an energy source, therefore the train is not running. Despite evidence that the train is in fact running”. Your example of what a creationist would say seems to beg the question. The sun’s energy by itself is not constructive, but destructive. The exception is if you have a mechanism like photosynthesis to constructively use the energy. But like a train, photosynthesis is a (far more than a train) complex mechanism, and ought not to be thought of arising without thoughtful effort.

    [on a different topic, the animal carved on the old Cambodian temple at http://www.bible.ca/tracks/tracks-cambodia.htm looks just like a protoceratops, if you disregard the ornamental 'fins'.]

  36. Steven Novellaon 05 Sep 2009 at 9:33 am

    It is not a scientific statement to say that the sun’s energy is “destructive” – it’s energy. That energy can heat a system, giving the environment energy that can be used for chemical reaction or for life.

    And again – Seadiver confused the origin of life with the evolution of life. Once the system of life is present, it can use energy to live and evolve. It is a non sequitur to conclude from thermodynamics that life could not arise. There are viable hypotheses about how life could have arisen from chemical precursors.

  37. Seadiveron 05 Sep 2009 at 1:58 pm

    Thank you for responding Dr. N. Isn’t unmechanized energy always destructive? Is that another way to state the second law, or a correlate? True ‘that energy can heat a system’, but that is the point, the need for a system. How do you get a system without a greater system to make it?
    Both the origin of life, and what is thought to be its evolution, would be subject to the same physics.
    Even if there are hypotheses about how life could have arisen from chemical precursors, it does not follow that it is a non sequitur to conclude from thermodynamics that life could not arise. The force of the second law does indicate life could not arise without intervention, and that is so whether one has a hypothesis otherwise, because a mere hypothesis does not undo the direction or strength a universal law.
    No thoughts on the Cambodian protoceratops?

  38. weingon 05 Sep 2009 at 6:21 pm

    “Hi, responding to your point on the earth being a closed system….”

    I double checked. He said, and correctly, that the earth is not a closed system.

    Both the origin of life and its evolution are subject to the same physics. Just like the airplane is subject to the same gravity that keeps you on the ground. It doesn’t violate any laws of physics.
    Just because you don’t understand how an airplane flies, doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. Just because you don’t understand how life started and evolved, does not stop it from happening.

  39. artfulDon 05 Sep 2009 at 6:45 pm

    “Once the system of life is present, it can use energy to live and evolve.”
    Only the God of the Zaps could account for both the genesis of life and the need for further assistance in the mechanisms presently invoked for life’s use of that energy to evolve.

  40. HHCon 06 Sep 2009 at 12:10 am

    Seadiving Bird: Interesting Cambodian pictures. The artists seem to confuse reptiles and birds in their swan mix photos. Not sure how you want to “disregard” those fins, I think those Khmers wouldn’t approve. Its amazing how quickly humans cartoon into protoceratops over there.

  41. dmorrissonon 14 Sep 2009 at 9:19 pm

    First, I commend my nephew, Michael Morrisson, for his well-thought comments. It is always a pleasure to speak with him on matters of common interest. It is clear that his mind has benefited from his experience with your blog and other sources of intellectual input.

    As Michael mentioned, he and I were discussing my concern that there has not been enough time to support the number of mutations required to evolve life as we know it. I understand the point you made that punctuated equilibrium and alien seed theories are not founded in scientific concerns about the element of time. However, I am confused by your statement: “if this were true – that current calculations show there has not been enough time” for evolution, then at THAT point the subject of time would become a major focus of research. I have two concerns here:

    First, isn’t time a foundational element to any theory of evolution? Please explain to me the way scientific theory works in regard to foundational elements and to what degree they must first be examined before corollary elements are examined.

    And second, are you asserting that there ARE “current calculations?” Can you point me to a comprehensive line of study that attempts to calculate the number of mutations that would be required to evolve all of life as we know it? Can you point me to a comprehensive line of study that attempts to calculate the time it would take for that number of mutations? Indeed, the foundational element of time is so central that one would expect an entire branch of science to be dedicated to the subject already. I am not satisfied with 600 generations of bacteria.

    If there is anything less than at least a dedicated journal attempting to reach “current calculations,” then evolutionists are not “dancing around” an issue—they are by and large ignoring it.

  42. dmorrissonon 29 Sep 2009 at 8:11 pm

    Anybody out there?

  43. Draalon 29 Sep 2009 at 8:26 pm

    Evolution is not based solely on point mutations (a single nucleotide change). There are are numerous ways DNA changes. How would you explain that a bacteria lie E. coli has a single circular piece of DNA only 2 million nucleotides long, while a human has 48 chromosomes (not circular) containing some 3 billion nucleotides? A particular example is how bacteria share DNA and allowing the transfer of antibiotic resistance between different species.

    Per your questions: There are models that attempt to correlate the “Divergence time” between two species that share a common ancestor. It assumes that point mutations occur every X amount of years. By comparing two nearly identical species’ DNA, you can get a ball park estimate of when the two species diverged from their common ancestor.

  44. [...] has features of intelligent design have failed – irreducible complexity is not irreducible, and information theory favors evolution, not [...]

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