Wednesday, April 3, 2013

What Darwin Didn't Know- Ch 1 - The Scope of Challenges Pt 4 - Whole-Package Problem Pt 2

Book cover: What Darwin Didn't Know
I've dove into Geoffrey Simmons' "What Darwin Didn't Know" (2004), to evaluate an anti-evolution book.

I'm maintaining an index of my responses here.

Today's Chapter - 1: The Scope of Challenges - Part 4: The Problem of the Whole-Package Phenomenon - Pt 2

I don't know how detailed I'll dig into this, but rather look at it at a more meta level.

Argument from Authority

An Argument from Authority, simply put, is when something is asserted to be true because an authority says so, outside of the expertise of the authority. For instance, Einstein may be an expert at physics, but he was not an economist, so quoting Einstein on some economic argument is invalid.

One (one) of the things that bugs me about this book is Simmons' tendency to make assertions without backing them up.

He's a self-proclaimed medical doctor... not an evolutionary biologist. That makes him not an expert, and not an authority, on evolutionary lineages. He may be good at stitching people up, or identifying diseases/medical problems, but that doesn't magically give him insight into evolutionary theory in itself.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. He could be a high school drop-out sentient potato for all I care, but it does place more of an burden on him to actually supply the reasoning behind his claims.

In this section of the "whole package problem", he frequently fails to do this.

Irreducible Complexity - Blood Clotting

Let me digress for a moment and introduce you to the "problem" of blood clotting. 

Here's an article written by Ken Miller about this topic. Here's a referenced/cited quick response as well. To the right is an excerpt from a lecture he did.

This should probably provide enough context.

Of course, if you're interested, dig more into what he's saying, evaluate the arguments, etc.

Have a blast (I find this a bit dry).

Claims claims claims...

Simmons discusses what would be necessary to set up an immune or blood clotting system, basically trying to make the point that it couldn't have happened through evolution.

Take the body's ability to fight infections. A dirty would might contain billions of microorganisms, yet every step in the body's system for protecting us from intruders - even those never before encountered - has to have been in place beforehand. Or take the hemoglobin molecule. Hundreds of amino acids have to be put in the right order and configuration, or else the molecule cannot carry oxygen.  
It's the "failure of imagination" again. Maybe the beginnings of the hemoglobin go back to single-celled organisms where they could get away with simpler mechanisms. We don't know.

That's not a bad point to reiterate - we don't know (as far as I know). That cuts both ways. We don't know how it naturally happened, but on the other hand, we don't know that there wasn't some perfectly logical and simply natural path for this either. We do know that there's overwhelming evidence of common ancestry, and that's not invalidated by pointing at a gap in our understanding and saying that we don't know that bit yet.

He's coming dangerously close to an argument from ignorance here.

While the evolutionary assertion for this problem has a burden of proof, he's trying to establish a model, make it sound as complicated as possible, and merely declare that it couldn't have happened. This is not how science works. Since we don't know how this came about, it also means he's building an uninformed model of the problem.

Could there have been a species with only intermediate, useless molecules of hemoglobin floating around in this bloodstream? It didn't happen.
Okay - how do you know? Please show your work. Unfortunately fossils don't typically retain little iddy bitty blood fossils complete with organelle fossils.

Six billion years doesn't even come close to the time needed to evolve a ten-trillion-plus-cell body.
How do you figure? Can you please show your work? There isn't that much of a difference between a mouse and a human... just quantity of cells, which is more a question of cell growth.

Does the author think that the shortest adult in the world has 1/8th the DNA as the tallest adult? Typically, differences in quantity of cells within humans, for instance, is a question of whether the growth hormones are released appropriately (pituitary gland, etc). The number of cells is not actually that relevant... not when we're talking about a repeatable/scalable structure (programmers/coders are familiar with this concept).

Also, when we've got large chunks of the DNA for basic cell operation evolving at ultra-high generational rates, across unfathomable quantities of individual organisms across the planet's surface, there's a lot of progress that can be made - fast.

He... attempts... to backup this claim, actually. Kind of.

To start, the active amino acids in the primordial soup would have had to link up in such a way that they could reproduce, protect themselves, find nourishment, and add new functions as needed.
Actually, no. He doesn't get what abiogenesis would have produced at first, either. Also, there was no time-argument here... it's almost a digression.

  • Linking up in such a way that they could reproduce isn't really a question of time, but rather conditions and context. It'd be like arguing that icicles would have taken 20 billion years to come about - it's kind of a nonsensical claim. It's a question of chemistry and physics.
  • "Reproduction" would have been on the level of simplicity of crystal growth - simple chemical reactions where simple cell walls create a protein bubble, with one-way entrance of water, until the bubble splits, and the process repeats.
  • No initial self defense is necessary. There are other ways for a lineage to survive - sheer numbers. He needs to look up shrimp reproductive cycles (I think it's shrimp). By producing 50 brazillion baby shrimp, it's just statistically likely that some will survive to adulthood. That's all the new life would need to do - reproduce like mad.
  • Nourishment would simply be absorbed from the environment. It's not like algae swims around and sets up traps for fish, or whatever. Algae floats around, and either gets nourishment, or not.
It's true, we don't know how DNA started, or what "early" DNA was like. It could have been RNA, actually, initially.

Again, we don't know. That means he can't say it didn't happen, any more than we can say it did. It's the same reasoning error over and over and over.

The likelihood of that happening is akin to having a swimmer from England meeting a swimmer from Florida in the middle of the Atlantic without a GPS system.
How did you come to that probability calculation? What are the numbers? What are you basing it on...? Your egregious misconceptions of both evolution and abiogenesis? I read his description above and can't fathom how it applies to abiogenesis.

If the swimmers are to survive beyond that, they would also need to build shelter, catch food, and reproduce - or else they would perish.
Actually, it'd be more like quintillions of "swimmers" existing all over the oceans, floating around, asexually reproducing by themselves, not needing shelter, and absorbing nutrients from the waters around them.

I don't know how he's coming up with this stuff. He's arguing against some demented version of evolution/abiogenesis that I have no clue about.

If that analogy wasn't bad enough, he tries with another:

... imagine a prehistoric blind man called Gene who started building a wooden bridge off Key West. Although he could not see and lacked knowledge of any distant lands, he added one seemingly "useless" plank after another, aiming directly for Portugal. One day when he was extremely old, he completed the ten-million-plus plank connection. He accomplished this task despite lightning strikes and hurricanes, without making any significant errors. And so it goes with human evolution.
I really don't know why he thinks this is an accurate description (even in analogy form) of human evolution.

Let's try to fix this a bit. This may start to get a bit weird.

[my version] ... imagine a world covered in planks, where, due to how the universe works, they have a tendency to chain along end-to-end (kind of like magnetized paper clips, or how crystals form). Since the world is covered with them, it's only a matter of time before one chain forms that happens to reach from Key West to Portugal. While the vast majority of the chains failed to form into anything significant, the one that "made it" spawned the next generation of Key-West-Portugal chains, and the others died off, whether they failed due to lightning strikes, hurricanes, etc.
There's many things he's forgetting (or not knowing) here:
  • Over 99% of all species that have ever existed have gone extinct. That's normal.
  • The number of simultaneous "experiments" at high generational rates is truly mind boggling ... getting close to the infinite monkeys typing up Shakespeare. 
  • The whole point behind natural selection is that the favorable traits are selected for, and negative traits are selected against. It'd be more like having 10 billion "Genes" branching off Key-West, with needing only one of them to reach Portugal... not to mention several steps along the way where new generations branch out.
  • He's apparently assuming humanity is special - that our form was some pre-destined purpose... or something. He's basically looking at it backwards.
Pile of dice
He's looking at it backwards in the sense that lineage, going back to that convoluted "trunk of  life", wasn't special. Going back to my dice (woo, my dice!) analogy. It'd be like going through an iterative process of casting all 100 dice, setting aside the ones that are 6s, and then repeating for the remaining.... and being astonished that all 100 were 6s some time later.

That's what the selection process does.

I am the product of 3.5 billion (or so) years of an unbroken chain of reproduction. That doesn't make me or my form special. Of course all the other possibilities aren't around. They died. If anything, it's difficult to stop life from reproducing once it starts. It'd be like casting that 100 dice, getting a combination (any combination), and marveling at how remote the chances were that the particular combination arose... and we just think that whatever the combination turned out to be was "special" and "meant to be." It's bias.

If we modify his analogy some more, it'll make more sense. Instead of a pre-destined Portugal as the destination, it was any land mass. That would be much more apt comparison to evolution, because every currently existing species on the face of the planet can claim that same level of "special" as me, based upon having an unbroken lineage.

Of course it'd seem really unlikely if it was one guy named Gene who started at Key West, and just happened to land at Portugal. It makes much more sense when it was 10,000 guys, who branched off in different directions, and every 10-15 miles out, would reproduce another 10,000 guys each, who would then branch out from that point... and repeat. It becomes inevitable, that one lineage would land at Portugal under that model. The human lineage is the one that happened to land there, where the rest of the tree of life landed everywhere else - even if 99% of all lineages didn't make it, for one reason or another.

It's a cognitive error to think that our particular lineage is special, and therefore, the rest doesn't count.

I'm not sure what else to say (as though I haven't said enough) - just that this argument of his is combating a Godzilla-sized straw man of evolutionary theory.

The rest of this section continues like this... one big whopping argument from big scary sounding numbers. There's no evidence problem here. It's an understanding and clouded-mind problem.


It seems that this has just degenerated into Rhetoric Wars - where he spins it to sound as unlikely as possible (after all, his only goal probably is to "deconvert" people from accepting that evolution is true), and I'm doing the best I can to explain how feasible it is.

Don't just take my word for it. Do the research - learn what evolutionary theory and abiogenesis actually say - and then see which of our versions matches up better.

And better yet, withhold judgement either way until we get sufficient empirical evidence that supports something... even if it's not what either of us said.

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