Jul 31 2014

Just Asking Questions – Creation Edition

One of the strategies of denying established science is to “just ask questions” (affectionately known as JAQing off). The point is to undermine the science by probing for things that don’t appear to make sense, but not in a sincere attempt to understand. Rather, the idea is to ask questions that have already been answered, or that are based upon false assumptions or straw-man distortions of the science.

Recently I was sent this article by Fred Reed in which he asks questions about evolution. He writes:

To this end, I submit a few questions which have strained my admittedly paltry understanding for some time. They are not new questions, but could use answers. I agree in advance to accept his answers (if any be given) as canonical.

The “his” refers to John Derbyshire, who is an author and journalist. I am not sure why Reed directs his questions toward him or would consider his answers “canonical.”

I don’t know how sincere Reed is in his questions, but I would suggest if they are sincere that he read a few books by biologists. Answers to all his questions are out there, or at least the information necessary to determine why his questions are naive.

Since I like answering questions as a format for explaining complex science, I thought I would take up Reed’s questions myself.

(1) In evolutionary principle, traits that lead to more surviving children proliferate. In practice, when people learn how to have fewer or no children, they do. Whole industries exist to provide condoms, diaphragms, IUDs, vasectomies, and abortions, attesting to great enthusiasm for non-reproduction. Many advanced countries are declining in population.   How does having fewer surviving children lead to having more surviving children? Less cutely, what selective pressures lead to a desire not to reproduce, and how does this fit into a Darwinian framework?

Reed’s first question illustrates what I mean. There is no direct answer to his question, because the question itself contains false premises. His question cannot be answered, only deconstructed.

His primary fallacy is that of hyperadaptationalism. This is common enough, even among people who accept evolution, and so in itself is understandable.

Basically, not every single trait of every organism needs to have a specific adaptive advantage. Evolutionary theory does not require nor predict that. Many changes in species occur through genetic drift, not direct selective pressure. Or they arise as a consequence of other changes.

For example, one might ask why humans evolved to play the piano. What was the selective advantage? The question assumes that the ability to play the piano arose under specific selective pressure, when it didn’t. Music in general and piano playing in particular are consequences of human intelligence combined with culture.

That people generally have a desire to have sex and to reproduce (which are not the same thing) are certainly adaptive traits specifically selected for. However, those traits are embedded in modern human culture, which include many other factors and influences that do not derive from Darwinian selective pressures.

You can’t boil down complex human behavior and culture to simplistic and specific adaptive pressures.

There is another assumption in the question – that species will only behave in a way that is in their long term evolutionary advantage. This assumes a purpose to evolution that does not exist. Populations merely adapt to their immediate environment, based on available raw material and the quirkiness of random mutations and other complex factors in their environment. Sometimes species evolve themselves into a corner and doom themselves to ultimate extinction.

2) Why should I not indulge my hobby of torturing to death the severely genetically retarded? This would seem beneficial. We certainly don’t want them to reproduce, they use resources better invested in healthy children, and it makes no evolutionary difference whether they die quietly or screaming.

This question is good evidence that Reed has not seriously looked for answers to his questions. The question of morality has been so picked over by philosophers Reed could avail himself of countless articles and books on the subject. Here are three right here on Neurologica (here, here, and here). The quick version is that we do not have to obtain our morality from what happens in nature or from which behavior is evolutionarily advantageous. A philosophical moral system can be based upon fairly universal moral principles with carefully thought through implications. Philosophers have been doing this for centuries.

For example, it is reasonable to argue that it is better to live in a society that takes care of its members who cannot be productive, and that every person has basic rights, such as the right not to be tortured. From a practical point of view, anyone might end up in the non-productive category (through age, illness, or injury). Also, Reed may have noticed that atheists don’t go around torturing people. It’s not exactly wholesome for one’s emotional well-being.

3) It seems to me, though, that the more complex one postulates the First Critter to have been, the less likely, probably exponentially so, it would have been to form. The less complex one postulates it to have been, the harder to explain why biochemistry, which these days is highly sophisticated, cannot reproduce the event. Question: How many years would have to pass without replication of the event, if indeed it be not replicated, before one might begin to suspect that it didn’t happen? For all I know, it may be accomplished tomorrow. But the check cannot be in the mail forever.

There are two reasons that new life is not arising on the Earth today. The first is that evolution of life from prebiotic chemistry likely took hundreds of millions of years. Even if it only took millions of years, it’s not exactly something we would see happening today.

But more importantly, the conditions on the Earth today are very different from what they were 3.5 billion years ago. In the early Earth there was the so-called “primordial soup” with lots of raw material and no existing life to use up those raw materials. Today, life would not have the chance to evolve because the world is already filled with life, greedily using up any organic molecules and other raw material.

If Reed wants to understand the basics of abiogenesis he could start with the Wikipedia entry.

His next question is simply the irreducible complexity question with insect metamorphosis as the specific example. These are all tired old creationist canards that have been answered endlessly.

4) It is difficult to see how the evolution from insect to caterpillar could occur at all, or why. But if it did, it would lead to a free-standing race of caterpillars, a new species, necessarily being able to reproduce. Then, for reasons mysterious to me, these would have to decide to pupate and become butterflies. Metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly is enormously complex and if you don’t get it right the first time, it’s curtains. Where would it have gotten the impossibly complex genetic blueprint of the butterfly?

Among intellectual loin-cloth-wearers like me, there seems no answer. I do not doubt that Mr. Derbyshire can provide one. Upon receiving same, I promise to shut up.

I want you to do more than shut up. How about admitting that you were wrong, or engaging with the actual answers that are already available. The creationist strategy here is to point to complex biology and naively ask, how could that have evolved, what would the intermediate stages be? He is also laboring under a false notion (further evidence that he lacks a basic understanding of evolutionary theory). His attempt to understand butterfly evolution is like asking how we developed a tractor from a plow. At some point were farmers dragging half a tractor around their fields?

Specifically, he is trying to imagine that an insect evolved into a caterpillar, and then caterpillars evolved the ability to undergo metamorphosis into butterflies. Rather, as he himself notes in the lead up to his question, insects generally go through young and adult stages. He gets the details wrong, however, which calls into question just about every aspect of his scholarship. A moment on Google results in good resources to explain the process. 

Insects are divided into hemimetabolous, which have egg, nymph, and adult stages, and holometabolous, which go through egg, larva, pupa, and adult stages. Here we see the transitional stage Reed wants to see. Some nymph stages of insect look almost identical to their adult forms, except the wings have not fully developed yet. With the holometabolous insects, however, the transformation is more profound.

Of course, all of the DNA for every stage is present in each individual. The larva contain so-called “imaginal discs”  that contain the genes for the adult form. These activate in the pupa stage, creating the adult insect.

More complex transformations evolved from simpler, but still fully functional, transformation. So there never was a caterpillar that wasn’t the larva stage of a butterfly. Caterpillar and butterfly evolved from insects with simpler larval and adult forms and simpler transformations.

5) But again, does one not have to accept the consequences of one’s suppositions? A physical (to include chemical) system cannot make decisions. All subsequent states of a physical system are determined by the initial state. So, if one accepts the electrochemical premise (which, again, seems to be correct) it follows that we do not believe things because they are true, but because we are predestined to believe them. Question: Does not genetic determinism (with which I have no disagreement) lead toa  paradox: that the thoughts we think we are thinking we only think to be thoughts when they are really utterly predetermined by the inexorable working of physics and chemistry?

Really? The free will question? This is a bottomless pit of philosophical musings, and yes there are those who feel that because our brains must follow the laws of physics, we do not truly have free will. Others feel that it all depends on how you define free will. Everyone agrees we do make choices and decisions, it’s just a matter of how determined those choices are.

In any case, this is all entirely irrelevant to the question of evolution.

6) Here I sink into a veritable La Brea of incomprehension.  Genes already exist in populations for extraordinary superiority of many sorts—for the intelligence of Stephen Hawking, the body of Mohammed Ali, for 20/5 vision, for the astonishing endurance in running of the Tarahumara Indians, and so on. To my unschooled understanding, these traits offer clear and substantial advantage in survival and reproduction, yet they do not become universal, or even common. The epicanthic fold does. Question: Why do seemingly trivial traits proliferate while clearly important ones do not?

Reed – please read some basic texts on evolution and population genetics (before challenging journalists on the internet). This stuff has been sorted out decades ago.  First, not all traits provide a specific advantage (see above). There is something called genetic drift. Traits arise at random, and spread through populations at random. Sometimes there is a founder effect, where a small number of individuals become the progenitors of a much larger population, and the traits they happen to have become widespread. There is no generally accepted adaptive advantage to the epicanthic fold, just speculation. It may not have one, nor does it need one.

Further, Reed assumes that the epicanthic fold must have arisen gradually. While the genetics in this particular case are not all sorted out, it is likely that the epicanthic fold arises from a pleiotropic gene, a gene that controls the expression of a suite of other genes. Single mutations can cause significant morphological changes all at once. Not every change has to be imperceptibly gradual.

The other part of Reed’s question is why aren’t all humans supermen with the brains of Einstein and body of Arnold? There are so many false assumptions in this question it’s hard to know where to begin. First, these are complex traits (not like the epicanthic fold) resulting from many genes. Second, traits often involve tradeoffs. Having a large powerfully built body takes up a lot of energy, and the advantages would have to justify the increased energy need, for example. In other words, the genetics are complex, and the selective pressures are complex.

Further, Reed is simply taking specimens from the extreme end of the Bell curve and asking why everyone isn’t at the extreme end. There’s always going to be a Bell curve, however. If the average person were as smart as Einstein, he could ask why we aren’t all as smart as whoever would be at the smart end of that Bell curve.

7) Sensing pain clearly has evolutionary advantages. If you fall on your head, it hurts, so you are careful not to, and thus survive and have more children (though frankly I have sometimes thought that it might be better to fall on one’s head). Wounds are painful, so you baby them, letting them heal. But, Question: What is the reproductive advantage of crippling pain (migraines can be crippling) about which pre-recently, the sufferer could do nothing?’

Reed is asking – why don’t our bodies function perfectly? Why are there tradeoffs. Why hasn’t evolution solved every problem with optimal solutions?

Because biology is complex. Everything that can go wrong, does. Evolution involves tradeoffs. Pain is an advantage for survival, to warn us about injury, and motivate us to avoid worsening an injury (walking on a broken leg). But the system does not always work perfectly. Sometimes pain can be pathological, and exist without serving a useful function. Reed may as well ask, why are there diseases?

8) Question: If one believes in or suspects the existence of God or gods, how does one exclude the possibility that He, She, or It meddles in the universe—directing evolution, for example?

You can’t prove a negative. All we can say is that there is no evidence for any intelligence directing evolution, other than natural evolutionary forces themselves. Reed finishes:

Though this column is not about me or my beliefs, to head off a lot of email let me say that I am not remotely a Christian but a thoroughgoing agnostic, more so it seems than Mr. Derbyshire, and my suspicions regarding Intelligent Design—suspicions is all they are—are not deductions from Christianity but inferences from observation. To my eye, the damned place looks designed. By what, I am clueless.

It looks designed because it was designed by evolution. But it is a bottom-up design, not a top-down design. All the messiness of biology, the compromises, trade-offs, imperfect solutions, indirect functions, anatomical quirks, developmental twists and turns all scream – bottom-up messy happenstance design, i.e. evolution.

I don’t know if Reed is disingenuous or just profoundly intellectually lazy. I never fault people for asking questions, but to structure those questions as a challenge, as if the answers are elusive and the questions devastating, is misleading. The answers he seeks are a mouse-click away if he truly wanted the answer.

Evolutionary theory is conceptually complex, when you dig down to the nuances. But there are many books that do a great job of making evolutionary thinking understandable to the interested lay audience. If you don’t understand how evolution could work, read a book or two about it. Or, spend a little time searching on the internet for reliable and readable sources. They are there.

Don’t presume that your questions are weaknesses in the theory rather than weaknesses in your own understanding.

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