Natural selection and evolution: material, blind, mindless, and purposeless

I’m teaching undergraduate evolution this quarter, and right now am lecturing on natural selection.  As always, I read the textbook along with the students, and this year’s textbook, as usual, is Evolution, by Douglas J. Futuyma.  It’s a superb text, authoritative and well written.  What struck me in this week’s reading were two statements. First this one:

[Darwin's] alternative to intelligent design was design by the completely mindless process of natural selection, according to which organisms possessing variations that enhance survival or reproduction replace those less suitably endowed, which therefore survive or reproduce in lesser degree. This process cannot have a goal, any more than erosion has the goal of forming canyons, for the future cannot cause material events in the present. Thus the concepts of goals or purposes have no place in biology (or any other of the natural sciences), except in studies of human behavior. (p. 282)

(I do take issue with the characterization of goals and purposes as limited to humans: there’s plenty of evidence that some other primates—and perhaps some non-primate animals—have goal-directed and purposeful behavior.)

Here’s Futuyma’s second statement, referring to an experiment in bacteria:

This experiment conveys the essence of natural selection: it is a completely mindless process without forethought or goal. (p. 285)

And, indeed, this is what I teach—that natural selection, and evolution in general, are material processes, blind, mindless, and purposeless. (I also emphasize that—despite our shorthand characterization of selection as “acting” on individuals—it is not a “force” imposed on organisms from the outside, but simply a differential sorting of genes based on their contribution to reproduction.)

But when reading Futuyma’s statements, I remembered that some people object to such a description as a needlessly “theological” assertion: a flat and insupportable claim that natural selection was not designed by, and is not being guided by, gods.  How can you be so sure, some theologians say, that there really isn’t a goal, purpose, or mind behind evolution?

You might remember that a while back the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) persuaded the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) to change its characterization of evolution, which originally read:

The diversity of life on earth is the result of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.

As NCSE Executive Director Eugenie Scott recounts, the words “unsupervised” and “impersonal” led to pushback from the faithful:

As one Christian said to me, defining evolution as “unsupervised” and “impersonal” implied to many Americans that “God had nothing to do with it and life has no meaning.” Reflecting these public concerns, two distinguished theologians, Cornell’s Huston Smith and Notre Dame’s Alvin Plantinga, wrote a polite letter to NABT’s board of directors, asking it to delete the two words “unsupervised” and “impersonal”. They specifically noted that the use of the two words has two unfortunate and unintended consequences. It gives aid and comfort to extremists in the religious right for whom it provides a legitimate target. And because of its logical vulnerability, it lowers Americans’ respect for scientists and their place in our culture.

Scott also considered such language to be a pollution of science with philosophical naturalism.  And so she persuaded the NABT to drop the two offending words. (I’m baffled why they weren’t asked to strike out “natural” as well!)

In my classes, however, I still characterize evolution and selection as processes lacking mind, purpose, or supervision.  Why? Because, as far as we can see, that’s the truth.  Evolution and selection operate precisely as you’d expect them to if they were not designed by, or steered by, a deity—especially one who is omnipotent and benevolent.  And, more important, the completely material nature of selection is of great historical and intellectual importance.  After all, Darwin’s greatest achievement was the explanation of organismal “design” by a completely naturalistic process, replacing the mindful, purposeful, and god-directed theory that preceded it.  That was a revolution in human thought, and students should know about it.  (This achievement is also why Dawkins claimed, in The Blind Watchmaker, that “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”  Perhaps Darwin did not mandate that evolution ineluctably proves the absence of God, but he kicked out the last prop supporting the action of a deity in nature.)

Evolution and selection lack any sign of divine guidance.  Earlier teleological theories based on divine or spiritual guidance, such as orthogenesis, have fallen by the wayside.  Natural selection is a cruel and wasteful process.  99% of the species that ever lived went extinct without leaving descendants.  There is no sign that evolution always goes in a fixed direction.  Do primates always get bigger brains? There is some suggestion that orangutan populations evolved smaller ones.  Fleas lost their wings; tapeworms lost nearly everything when evolving a parasitic lifestyle.  There is no sign that the goal of evolution was Homo sapiens (if that were true, why the virtual extinction of Neandertals or the robust australopithecines)?

Now you can always say, along with many liberal theologians, that god just created the world, knowing that life would eventually arise and evolve largely by natural selection.  If you add the caveat (viz. Kenneth Miller and Simon Conway Morris), that god made sure that evolution coughed up a complex and intelligent primate that would apprehend and worship him, then you have modern theistic evolution.  But even liberal theologians have no explanation why God would use such a wasteful and tortuous process to produce humans. (Curiously, while they claim absolute knowledge that god used evolution to produce humans, these theologians bail when asked why he did it that way).

In the end, the absence of evidence for a godly hand in evolution is evidence of godly absence, for evolution and selection show precisely the characteristics they would have if they were purely material, mindless, and purposeless processes. There is no sign of orthogenesis, directed evolution, or a one-way march to Homo sapiens.  There is no more evidence that god directed evolution than there is that god keeps the engine working in your car—and yet nobody keeps an open mind about the possibility that god is pushing their pistons.

To withhold from students the evidence that natural selection is purposeless—lacking direction, guidance, or goals—is to cheat them of the very essence of that process. It is part of the wonder and beauty of selection that this purely material process can produce species so exquisitely attuned to their environments.  That is why Futuyma—and I—emphasize the undirected, material, and blind nature of selection and evolution.

I close with a quote from WEIT:

In the early 1800s, the French mathematician Laplace presented Napoleon with a copy of his great five-volume work on the solar system, the Mechanique Celeste. Aware that the books contained no mention of God, Napoleon taunted him, “Monsieur Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.” Laplace answered, famously and brusquely: “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothese-la,” “I have had no need of that hypothesis.” And scientists have not needed it since.

264 Comments

  1. Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    You’re right, of course. But I’m sure you can agree with NSCE that it’s probably a good tactical move.

    More importantly, the evidence that evolution happens, is driven by natural selection, etc. is much stronger than the evidence that it’s entirely unsupervised. Nothing we’ve observed rules out JPII’s “ontological leap” to get from ‘animals’ to ‘humans’.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:41 am | Permalink

      Actually—and I thought this was implicit in my piece—I don’t think it’s a good tactical move, for to strip those words from the characterization of selection is to rob it of its essence and intellectual (and biological) importance.

      • Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:48 am | Permalink

        Ah, I see.

        I’m not American, so I’m not really competent to judge what’s best to do in your cultural wars. But… I’m pretty sure you’d agree that we shouldn’t ‘arm-chair it’. That is, to determine what ‘sells best’ to the public, you’d have to do actual experiments, surveys, focus groups, etc. Have these been done?

        • jph
          Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:06 am | Permalink

          Gravity, the electroweak force, the strong force, the Standard Model, both theories of relativity, among countless others are all considered “unsupervised” and “impersonal”. Nobody wrote letters about their characterizations as “unsupervised” and “impersonal”, and nobody has bothered with surveys, focus groups, etc to determine what “sells best” to the public. Why should the theory of evolution be any different? Besides, the truth about evolution goes beyond cultural relevance.

          • Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:56 am | Permalink

            Does anyone explicitly say of gravity etc that it is unsupervised? It seems to me that (these days at least) teleological language — either positive or negative — only comes up w.r.t. evolution. Why should that be?

            • Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:07 am | Permalink

              Simple.

              The Theory of Evolution destroys the notion of a literal Adam and Eve.

              Without Adam and Eve, there’s no Original Sin.

              Without Original Sin, there’s nothing for Jesus to die on the Cross to save us from.

              And if Jesus didn’t die on the cross to ensure us a place in Heaven, then we won’t get a chance to forever fondle his intestines through his spear wound.

              After all, what would life be if you couldn’t look forward to a bit of zombie fondling after you die?

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Dominic
                Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:30 am | Permalink

                Agreed Ben, but I reckon that even without Darwin & Natural selection we could still consign the god/ess hypothesis to the dustbin of history.

              • Posted February 21, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

                “And if Jesus didn’t die on the cross to ensure us a place in Heaven, then we won’t get a chance to forever fondle his intestines through his spear wound.”
                Ben, no need to gild the lily. Isn’t 75 virgins (or white grapes) in Heaven enough for you without posthumous zombie-intestine fondling as well? There’s no promise of PZIF, just one instance of pre-humous ZIF, and it seems a little churlish to harp on that, when it was an example of someone who demanded evidence being given it (or so they say). Also, Thomas was (reportedly) only invited to put his hand in. There is no record of him being invited to wiggle his fingers.

            • Sigmund
              Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

              I guess this comes from the old notion of a chain of being – the idea that some organisms are “more evolved” than others and that the ultimate “aim” of evolution was to produce mankind. This sort of “chain” is very prevalent in public thinking of evolution and is not at all prevalent in thinking about the other sciences.

              • Dominic
                Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:35 am | Permalink

                I am a long standing Devo fan (tough more of a Darwin fan!) – so find the idea of ‘regressive’ evolution – “de-evolution” – fascinating. There are I am sure other example than those JC remarks on of beesties that have lost attributes that their ancestors had. Morlocks?!

              • Jamie
                Posted February 21, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink

                I am also fascinated by those examples of evolution that ‘reduce complexity,’ but to call that ‘de-evolution’ sort of begs the question here. It implies that more complex forms are a ‘goal’ of evolution. Evolving a simpler form is still evolution, not ‘de-evolution.’

              • Dominic
                Posted February 21, 2011 at 9:48 am | Permalink

                I was only joking about de-evolution Jamie withe regard to DEVO –

                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devo

                it was therefore with some surprise that I see it is used by some people – those ‘C’ word ones –

                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devolution_%28biological_fallacy%29

                So I apologize & will go & wash my mouth out! You are of course correct…

            • Posted February 21, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

              No, the physics textbooks do not explicitly say that gravity is unsupervised. The physicists are not always trying to impose their atheism on their students.

              • Nate
                Posted February 21, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink

                Last I checked, moron religionists have left gravity alone and are not lobbying to have schools teach the “theory” that gravity is actually magic Jebus pushing down on us.

                Being honest about evidence is not “trying to impose” anything on anyone–it’s merely presenting evidence (or the complete lack thereof) and allowing others to reach conclusions based upon that evidence. Dogmas are imposed; evidence is exposed.

              • J.J.E.
                Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

                Obvious troll is obvious. And a Schlafly to boot.

              • Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

                “No, the physics textbooks do not explicitly say that gravity is unsupervised.”

                Regardless of whether that’s even true, those books don’t need to say that; the effects of gravity are visible to all through observation and have been well-documented.

                “The physicists are not always trying to impose their atheism on their students.”

                Your first mistake is assuming that all physicists are atheists. Even if that were true it would be irrelevant to the current understanding of physics.

                Your second mistake is conflating the two issues: NO political religionist has ever made a religious issue out of gravity or attempted to teach “Intelligent Falling” as some kind of alternate theory in a state-school science class. It’s only biology – and specifically evolution – that attracts the attention of political religionists. The reason so many atheists and scientists (whether atheist or not) rise up to defend evolution is because religious people can’t seem to get it through their heads that teaching creationism in a state-school science class violates the US Constitution and is ILLEGAL.

                If you were to read a little more about the infamous efforts of religious creationists to attack or undermine evolution in schools, from Scopes 1929 to Dover 2004, you’d realise your comments, and the assumptions underpinning them, are valueless and naive to the extreme.

              • Ichthyic
                Posted February 22, 2011 at 1:50 am | Permalink

                The physicists are not always trying to impose their atheism on their students.

                what about gravity is NOT atheistic, by the very definition of a-theism?

                what, in physics, is equally well explained by incorporating an additional god hypothesis?

                nothing I can think of.

                physics, like biology, like chemistry, like math, is atheistic.

                If ever there comes a time when a theory MUST include a god hypothesis to actually explain any observation, or make any testable prediction, then it would be warranted to say that science is NOT atheistic.

                do you ever see that happening?

                yeah, I didn’t think so.

        • Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:10 am | Permalink

          I suppose we can say “maybe Goddidit” and hope the religious folks later forget we ever said that, after they’ve embraced evilution.

          Then again, it doesn’t sound likely, does it?

          The other approach is to teach the actual TOE (which as a scientific theory does not include God or other supernatural agents) so that students and the general public gradually come to understand it.

        • Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink

          But isn’t Jerry’s point that what sells best isn’t what should decide the issue?

          • Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink

            Drat. I wasn’t replying to Ray. I meant to be replying to “I’m pretty sure you’d agree that we shouldn’t ‘arm-chair it’. That is, to determine what ‘sells best’ to the public, you’d have to do actual experiments, surveys, focus groups, etc.”

      • locutus7
        Posted February 21, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

        WEIT, if I might be so bold as to suggest a modified title for this thread:

        “Evolution, natural selection, and theology: blind, mindless, and purposeless.”

        Sorry, could not resist. L7

        • Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

          Ha!

          To be fair, though, theology does have a purpose: to reinforce belief in the unsupportable by appealing to every possible source of unsupportable belief.

    • Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      Whether or not it’s a good tactic depends on your goal.

      If you want to persuade people to profess faith in evolution, it’s probably not such a bad tactic. But if you’re instead trying to further public understanding of the sciences, it’s a classic “own goal.”

      Nothing we’ve observed rules out JPII’s “ontological leap” to get from ‘animals’ to ‘humans’.

      So what?

      Nothing rules out giant invisible green space monkeys keeping the planets in their orbits with a game of cosmic pinball, either, so long as you posit that the monkeys are really, really, really good pinball players. Do astrophysicists therefore need to “teach the controversy” and alter the equations of orbital mechanics to avoid offending monkeyists?

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted February 21, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

        Actually, there is plenty of evidence against the “ontological leap.” All one has to do is look into the voluminous research into primate social structure and morality to see that morals didn’t appear magically for the first time with humans.

    • H.H.
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      Nothing we observe rules out a chaos demon who corrupts the process of natural selection in an attempt to produce an army of violent mutants, either. But, like the supervision of a benevolent god, the only important fact to science is that we have no such evidence of such interference. Such “ontological leaps” are utterly groundless and antithetical to the scientific method.

      That natural selection is unsupervised is not a claim, it is a conclusion drawn from the evidence (there is none suggesting supervision). This is how science works, and teaching anything less would be a gross misrepresentation.

      • Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:51 am | Permalink

        That’s what I was trying to say.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted February 22, 2011 at 1:52 am | Permalink

        That natural selection is unsupervised is not a claim, it is a conclusion drawn from the evidence (there is none suggesting supervision). This is how science works, and teaching anything less would be a gross misrepresentation.

        well said.

    • Explict Atheist
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

      Michael Meadon said

      “Nothing we’ve observed rules out JPII’s “ontological leap” to get from ‘animals’ to ‘humans’.”

      But natural selection, in and of itself, is evidence against an unnecessary “ontological leap”. Furthermore, the available evidence is strongly against such an ontological leap belief and it is thus irrational to hold such a contrary to the evidence belief on nothing more than the trivial observation that we can never be certain that the available evidence always supports an ultimate truth in some impossible to obtain sense. The issue is never about “ruling out” some arbitrary fantasy in some impossible to achieve absolute sense. The issue is always the weight, direction, consistency, and quality of the evidence. On this question the evidence strongly favors the conclusion that humans are on the animal branch of a tree of life which has a common trunk from which multiple different branches sprouted via undirected chemical activities. The evidence that we have VERY STRONGLY favors this conclusion (in quantity, direction, quality, consistency) and it is simply going contrary to the evidence, and thus it is nothing short of ignorant or irrational, to conclude otherwise.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted February 22, 2011 at 6:01 am | Permalink

      Nothing we’ve observed rules out JPII’s “ontological leap” to get from ‘animals’ to ‘humans’.

      Of course it does, everything we have observed on evolution rules out “leaps” that isn’t part of the process. What you are saying is equivalent to creationists complaining of “missing links”, believing that such would reject the nested hierarchies of fossil traits that we see.

      Maybe humans have specific traits that other animals doesn’t have, but that isn’t unique. Bears have a unique way of hibernating that small animals doesn’t have. Did they make an “hibernational leap”? Likely not.

      And as for an “ontological leap”? Data missing.

      … it’s probably a good tactical move. … I’m not American, so I’m not really competent to judge what’s best to do in your cultural wars. … That is, to determine what ‘sells best’ to the public, you’d have to do actual experiments, surveys, focus groups, etc. Have these been done?

      You are missing the point in the accommodationism debate:

      “Josh should be looking at the science of advertising. If he did, he would discover nuggets like this:

      Other psychologists do basic research on social marketing. Curtis Haugtvedt hopes social marketers in the field will use what he’s learned about persuasion as a result of his laboratory experiments on recycling. So far, he’s found that emotional appeals–like the famous ad showing an American Indian with a tear rolling down his face as he confronts pollution–work better than cognitive ones when it comes to persuading people to recycle. Emphasizing that “everyone else is doing it” also helps. (Emphasis Added)

      And this:

      Repetition is one way to increase visual fluency and hence appeal. The more people see something, the more they like it. “Advertisers intuitively know that exposing people repetitively to the same stimulus increases liking,” says Winkielman. “That’s one of the reasons they show the same ad over and over again.”

      Quite right. Obviously neither of these examples is talking about atheism specifically, but following Josh’s example I think the analogies are pretty clear, especially the part about repetition. As I see it, this is where the New Atheists are making a real contribution.

      A thirty-second spot for Colgate toothpaste is not directed at die-hard Crest users. It is not about making a rational argument that Colgate is superior to Crest. It is not appealing to the rational side of the brain at all. It is about making the Colgate brand so ubiquitous that it gradually seeps into people’s minds that everyone is using Colgate. When you go to the store and see twenty different brands, you will remember that all the cool kids use Colgate.

      Likewise, if you want to mainstream atheism you have to make it visible. You have to make it ubiquitous, so that gradually it loses all of its mystique and scariness and becomes entirely ho hum and commonplace. It is not so much about making an argument that will cause conservative religious folks to slap their foreheads and abandon their faith, as though that were possible. It is about working around them, by making atheism part of the zeitgeist.

      It is a long-term strategy, one starting deep within its own endzone thanks to years of more effete strategies. Will it work? I don’t know. But I am confident that nothing else will.”

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted February 22, 2011 at 6:03 am | Permalink

        Oops, I dropped Rosenhause’s link to the research. Go to his article to pick up the reference trail. The research – been there, done that.

        Now it’s time to apply what has been learned!

  2. Bill
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    Evolution summed up in five words: shit happens…good shit survives.

    • Steve
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:56 am | Permalink

      More accurately:
      shit happens… some shit just happens to survive.

      Mosquitoe survive, and I think under most ethical systems they count as bad shit.

      • Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:31 am | Permalink

        On the Origin of Feces?

      • Dominic
        Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:42 am | Permalink

        Now you are being judgemental on Culicidae! Just because one does not like it, does not make it ‘bad or ‘good’…

      • Posted February 21, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

        Why do you disount mosquito ethical systems?

      • Pierce Nichols
        Posted February 21, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

        I dispute that. Mosquitoes are a key link in many food webs.

        • Badger3k
          Posted February 22, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

          And mosquitos are good at what they do. Plus, don’t they die young?

    • Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:51 am | Permalink

      On a more serious note, I’ve been trying to summarize the Theory of Evolution as succinctly as possible. So far, I’ve come up with:

      Individuals reproduce inexactly.

      Anybody care to one-up me?

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink

        What’s wrong with “descent with modification”?

        • Posted February 21, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

          Because it no verb.

          b&

          • Posted February 21, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

            Also, it implies some external force is actively doing the modifying, and “descent” implies some sort of directionality.

            b&

            • CarlosT
              Posted February 21, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

              The technical issue with “Individuals reproduce inexactly” is that it leaves out half the selection half of the equation. Yes, they reproduce inexactly, but some of them will be more successful at further reproduction, and that’s an essential ingredient in evolution. Otherwise, you don’t get changes that seem to be directed at solving some particular problem.

              • Diane G.
                Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

                Agreed.

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted February 22, 2011 at 6:07 am | Permalink

              Yes, but it is time directionality (having descendants), which most accept. See Futuyama, for example.

      • Posted February 21, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

        This doesn’t automatically lead to natural selection. You need to throw in a struggle for existence to bring about adaptation.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

          Actually you don’t need to throw that in. Natural selection doesn’t care about the struggle for existence. All it cares about is that some genes are better than others at propagating copies of themselves, for whatever reason. Adaptation is a plausible reason, but not an essential one.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted February 22, 2011 at 6:09 am | Permalink

          It is not a struggle for existence, it is struggle for having sex.

          “- What do kids learn these days anyway?”

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted February 22, 2011 at 6:10 am | Permalink

            Or having “asex” for those who reproduce the less exciting way.

      • Mutating Replicator
        Posted February 22, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

        That which replicates best dominates most.

        • Diane G.
          Posted February 22, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

          Nah, don’t like “dominates”–too social-Darwin-y. Needs to be more namby-pamby (unfortunately), such as, “that which replicates best persists.” Or even “…tends to persist…)

      • Vandalhooch
        Posted February 23, 2011 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

        Imperfect replicators in resource shortage

    • Jamie
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 9:20 am | Permalink

      My 2 cents: shit happens… some endures.

      • Bill
        Posted February 21, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

        Neither ‘individuals reproduce inexactly’ or ‘descent with modification’ includes either the ‘non-direction’ of it or the how I.e. Natural selection.

        My version tries to do both. ‘Shit happens’ simply says things happen without any direction or greater meaning. I agree that ‘good shit survives’ involves implies a judgement call, but ‘the best suited shit to the prevailing conditions survives’ is getting long winded.

        If ‘good’ is not an appropriate word, then is there a on word replacement that is more suitable?

        • Diane G.
          Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

          Shit happens; shit that survives keeps happenin’.

          • Bill
            Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

            That I like. Trouble is, some shit keeps happening (for example, crocodiles – largely unchanged for who knows how long) and some shit keeps happening until it changes (which can happen in a single generation)or is wiped off the face of the Earth by who knows what (cataclysm, more successful shit). Close, but not quite there…

            • Diane G.
              Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

              I don’t see how either of your cases presents a problem. The crocs fit perfectly (they survive); that which changes either survives or doesn’t.

              QED
              ;)

              • Solitha
                Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

                Seems like the emphasis is being put in the wrong direction. My own choice would be more like, “Stuff happens; some die.” After all, changes don’t have to be good, just survivable.

  3. bric
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    Thin end . . . wedge . . . (document)

  4. Steve
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    Next were gonna have to develop a way of speaking about consciousness arising soley from the actions of material bodies that won’t offend the faithful.

    • Michael Kingsford Gray
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

      Yeah. It is called “shutting up”, according to those pitifully ignorant dingbats who still hold on to childish sky-daddys.

  5. Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    I realize that right now you are teaching the section on “natural selection” so you want to emphasize that there’s no evidence of purpose in things produced by “natural selection.”

    In my course, I approach this debate by talking about the possibility of purpose in “evolution” and this includes all aspects of evolution. I find it much easier to convince students that evolution by random genetic drift has no purpose. We talk about mutations and how they influence the course of evolution. We then look at speciation events to see if there’s any evidence of purpose or design. Then we discuss the effects of mass extinctions on the history of life.

    By then, we are ready to discuss whether natural selection is an exception to the rule of evolution without purpose. It isn’t.

    I completely agree with you about the NCSE position. The huge majority of evolutionary biologists view the history of life as purposeless. That’s a SCIENTIFIC conclusion based on evidence. It’s not a leap into the dark and forbidden world of metaphysical naturalism.

    As usual, the problem with NCSE is that they don’t recognize the obvious implications of the scientific evidence because it conflicts with their political and “metaphysical” agenda.

    That’s not good.

    • Jamie
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      The huge majority of evolutionary biologists view the history of life as purposeless. That’s a SCIENTIFIC conclusion based on evidence. It’s not a leap into the dark and forbidden world of metaphysical naturalism.

      Hear, hear! Bravo!

      • David
        Posted February 22, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

        A conclusion of purposelessness is not scientific. A conclusion of no evidence for purpose is scientific. Lack of evidence for purpose does not preclude purpose.

    • Posted February 21, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      As mentioned here and in comments below, understanding purpose is central to understanding evolution. The typical non-scientist or evangelical xian conflates purpose with conscious design, and biologic “purpose” with philosophical and theological purpose. If these folks take the time to listen and think, many will understand that the sodium potassium ATPase pump, the glomerulus, skin, etc. all have a “purpose” or more accurately a function important to maintaining life, but they were not purposely designed. Jacob’s “evolution as a tinkerer not an engineer” helps to get across the idea that all organisms are faced with similar tasks, e.g. sensing their environment and surroundings, and that there are many varied solutions, none of which was designed or engineered. Bad tinkering generally disappears, but good-enough tinkering is what we observe. And regardless of the IDiots’ arguments about design, it seems ‘purposeless’ to defend so many obviously bad designs.

      • Posted February 21, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

        I’ve given a lot of thought to the concepts of purpose and function and the differences between them. In fact they’re both teleological, but purpose requires intention by the agent that initiates an event or process, while function is always determined relative to some state or process, without any necessary reference to agents or intentions.

        The heart’s function is to keep blood pumping through the body; this is its role in the body’s being to survive and reproduce. We need not equivocate and call this function a “purpose”. We have both words and the distinction between them is clear and useful.

        • Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

          Completely agree – we understand the difference when we use purpose and function, but many folks don’t. Like you, I have thought about this quite a bit and am trying to figure out the best way to explain such things to my fundamentalist, right-wing, conservative, Zionist xian cousins back in Indiana!

    • Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      “The huge majority of evolutionary biologists view the history of life as purposeless. That’s a SCIENTIFIC conclusion based on evidence. It’s not a leap into the dark and forbidden world of metaphysical naturalism.”

      Spot on.

      But as we all know, even the most mild statement regarding ‘purpose’ is going to step on someone’s precious wee toes. Obviously black holes and tectonics and quanta can be purposeless without offending any fragile metatarsals, but if something deals with life and how ‘special’ humans think they are, it’s tantamount to an anvil and offenders must be burned, either metaphorically or metaphysically, depending on where the offendee lies on the Nu-Framer Fundie Denial Spectrum.

  6. john
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    Oh my, this was a devastatingly awesome piece. I don’t see how anyone can take all your arguments into conaideration and have any sort of reply. +10!

  7. Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    The fact that Paul Montgomery Shore is still getting work in this economy surely constitutes further evidence that evolution is unguided.

  8. Helen Wise
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    But Dr. Scott is not really interested in speaking for “S”cience:

    “Nobody speaks for capital ‘S’ science, neither people of faith nor atheists,” she said. “Science is religiously neutral. Whether you’re religious or not, you use the same method and rationale in the way you do science, and if you don’t, then you’re stepping outside of science.” (quoted from news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow–pick up the link at richarddawkins.net)

    I’ve read this paragraph a couple of times because I can’t comprehend what she’s saying, but, in any case, when the executive director of NCSE says that no one speaks for science, and I’d suppose she’s including herself in that statement, I can’t think of person less suited to a leadership role in an organization whose mission it is is to speak for science.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted February 22, 2011 at 6:18 am | Permalink

      I think she fails in the other direction, she is implicit in that she speaks for science and explicit that no other does. That atheism, skepticism et cetera speaks for science she doesn’t care for, she wants her dogmatic and religiously influenced Science.

  9. Chinahand
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    I presume Dr Coyne knows the quotation from a letter written by Charles Darwin to Charles Lyell on the 11 October 1859.

    It goes to the heart of theistic evolution:

    “I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of Natural Selection, if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent. … If I were convinced that I required such additions to the theory … I would reject it as rubbish.”

    Sidney Harris’s cartoon “Then a Miracle Occurs” is the picture that tells the thousand words on the incompatability of the supernatural and science.

    • locutus7
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      I never understood how theistic evolution squares with Adam and Eve. If the Adam and Eve story is merely metaphor, as some “sophisticated” theologians concede, then how was original sin injected into our souls?

      • Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:03 am | Permalink

        More to the point, what’s the inheritance mechanism?

        For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that Adam and Eve really existed and are the only two universal common ancestors of all humans, and that the both of them sinned. Okay, fine. Whatever.

        How was that sin passed from them to their children?

        If it’s a genetic flaw, why doesn’t Jesus do the same gene fiddling that he does in all these other species to guide their evolution?

        If it’s some sort of metaphysical flaw, why doesn’t Jesus do soul surgery before injecting the soul into the freshly-fertilized ovum?

        If it’s purely cultural, then why the assumption that all have sinned, or that what’s labeled “sin” today even vaguely resembles whatever-it-was that Adam and Eve did?

        If it’s some other mechanism…then what is it?

        Ooops. Sorry. There I go again, being all strident and nasty. I assure you, I’ll do my best to ensure it happens again.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • locutus7
          Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:28 am | Permalink

          And if original sin was also a metaphor, then there was no need for the sacrifice of jesus. The whole narrative structure comes tumbling down. Really odd.

          How do theistic evolutionists explain this?

          • Helen Wise
            Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:37 am | Permalink

            Goddidit?

          • Posted February 21, 2011 at 10:46 am | Permalink

            I’m fine with Christianity as a metaphorical (imaginary?) solution to a metaphorical (imaginary) problem. We don’t really need churches, tithes, clergy, tax breaks, bishops in Parliament, religious interference in politics, the Vatican/Pope, etc. for a metaphor, though.

            • locutus7
              Posted February 21, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

              You may be on to something, Ray. A metaphorical tax-break for metaphorical theists.

              Unfortunately, the metaphorical theists, at least in the USA, are likely in the minority.

            • Ken Browning
              Posted February 21, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

              I’m not fine with liberal, metaphorical theology. Liberal Christianity uses up way too much energy and time focused on old, outdated frameworks.

          • Bryan
            Posted February 21, 2011 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

            “Then” there was no need for the sacrifice of jesus??

            My favorite summary of Christian theology (I think I first read it in the comments at Pharyngula):

            “God sacrificed himself to himself in order to save us from him.”

            Still one of the most fantastically stupid things I’ve ever heard, and I can’t imagine an argument that would make me see the sacrifice of jesus (accepting for the sake of argument that it did actually happen) as “necessary”.

        • Dominic
          Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:59 am | Permalink

          Ben, don’t forget that Eve is made from Adam’s rib so somehow loses her Y chromosome along the way! Otherwise she must be genetically his twin?! Christians love incest as well as child abuse…

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted February 21, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

          There is no inheritance mechanism for original sin. As I understand Christian dogma, ensoulment is not something that just happens as a normal part of human development (because then it would be a natural phenomenon and not divine). Rather, each individual human soul is hand-crafted by God and placed directly by him into the developing embryo. So it follows that the reason we all have original sin is because God wants it that way; he’s still holding a grudge at being dissed by Adam and is taking it out on the rest of us by deliberately giving us flawed souls that make us need his forgiveness.

          • Bill
            Posted February 21, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

            Ummm…how did this all-knowing, all-powerful being fuck up so bad that he made this bloke who dissed him in the first place?

            In otherwords, perfect god = perfect Adam and hence no original sin. Imperfect Adam = imperfect god. I really don’t understand how the god botherers reconcile this fairly obvious conclusion (I do understand that the obfuscate around the notion of free will, but it doesn’t really explain the discordance in their life foundation).

          • Ken Browning
            Posted February 21, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

            “…he’s still holding a grudge….”

            We learned all about this in bible college. It’s called omnigrudgence. :)

      • Sajanas
        Posted February 21, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

        I’m not sure I ever really heard “Original Sin” mentioned in my Protestant upbringing. I’m sure its in there, but I found that in general they merely suggest that all humans are just naturally a little jerkish, and reluctant to follow God’s Law. Adam and Eve are a metaphor that it is humanity’s fault for choosing this path, rather than God, for ‘creating us sick and commanding us to be well’, as Hitchens so nicely put it. Adam and Eve’s non-existence are really secondary, and Jesus redeems humanity’s sin in general, rather than Original Sin in particular. But it was a while ago, and I could be wrong about this, it was just the interpretation I was left with as a kid that read Scientific American through most sermons.

  10. Sigmund
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    The only non-political complaint about the terms “unsupervised” and “impersonal” is that, together, they are somewhat redundant. Neither is ideal by itself and “impersonal”, if one goes by its dictionary definition, doesn’t quite fit.
    Perhaps replacing the two words with the single word “undirected” might make better sense.
    That said, the original objections are nothing to do with logic but rather have to do with political considerations.
    Massimo Pigliucci did a whole section on this kerfuffle a while back as he explained why he had changed his mind about his original objections to the NCSE campaign to change the definition and yet I was none the wiser after listening to his reasoning which seemed to have turned on the most trivial of points (we don’t know if there is a God supervising evolution in such a way that it looks like He doesn’t exist, and thus isn’t supervising anything.)

    • Michael Fugate
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

      “(we don’t know if there is a God supervising evolution in such a way that it looks like He doesn’t exist, and thus isn’t supervising anything.)”

      The problem with taking this approach is we need to consider creationism as equally valid as theistic evolution as scientific evolution. Once you allow nonmaterial, nonnatural entities to play a role, then anything and everything is possible.

      • Badger3k
        Posted February 22, 2011 at 9:57 am | Permalink

        Ah, but there isn’t any evidence that things were intelligently designed by an all-powerful being who designed them to be undetectable….wait, what?

        That’s basically his argument extended outwards. Ever since he said that scientists had nothing to say about Last Thursdayism I lost respect for him (how about – what evidence do you have that suggests this is a viable hypothesis?).

        • Diane G.
          Posted February 23, 2011 at 12:23 am | Permalink

          Precisely. That grown, educated people waste any time throwing around such patently ludicrous ideas ought to thoroughly disqualify them from being seen as anything like critical thinkers.

  11. Søren Mors
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    As a slight aside. Would the book you use be suitable for reading by itself, for the interested non-student (with a masters degree in Computer Science, as it is)?.

    I have read WEIT, and found in enjoyable and instructive.

    • Veronica Abbass
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

      “Would the book you use be suitable for reading by itself”?

      Of course it would be suitable.

      • Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:08 am | Permalink

        Well, the book does presume some knowledge of genetics, and is pitched pretty high. What I would suggest is looking at it first, but also considering Carl Zimmer’s The Tangled Bank, which is designed for nonmajors.

        • Dominic
          Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:25 am | Permalink

          What do you think of Mark Ridley’s book, Evolution? –

          http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/ridley/

          I think it is widely used in the UK as the evolution textbook of coice…?

          • Veronica Abbass
            Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:46 am | Permalink

            Dominic

            Thank you for posting this webite. I was pleased to find three sample chapters and website resources on the site.

            • Dominic
              Posted February 21, 2011 at 9:50 am | Permalink

              I meant “choice”… my mistake comes from lack of caffeine…

          • Vandalhooch
            Posted February 23, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

            That was my undergraduate evolution textbook here in the states as well (University of Idaho in the early 90’s)

        • David Leech
          Posted February 21, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

          Of pandas and people:-)

          Sorry I’ll get my coat:-(

          • Helen Wise
            Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

            Nah, stay. I LOL’d.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink

      I’ve not read it. Perhaps someone who has would clarify the following ? :-

      The 2nd edition gets generally good customer REVIEWS at Amazon (including a general reader comment)

      The two negatives mentioned are these:

      ** Could be better organised in terms of chapter order.

      ** “…many of the “See Chapter ‘X'” comments throughout the text have not been updated with editions, do yourself a favour and look the term up in the back of the book or you’ll spend 20 minutes looking in the wrong place”

      It’s a lot of pages so I would be inclined to get the hardback & not the loose leaf

      Michael

  12. evogene
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    Dr. Scott always mentions that scientists such as Prof.Dawkins confuse philosophical naturalism with science, and I find her accusation very confusing. Science is methodologically and ontologically naturalistic, our method is naturalistic therefore our body of knowledge is also naturalistic. Evolution is not just unsupervised and impersonal, it also shows that if there is a supervisor for life, he must be a moron!

    • Explict Atheist
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 9:48 am | Permalink

      I think her comment that “science is neutral” confuses method and result. Scientific method could be either successful or unsuccessful, and if prayer to a super-intelligent agent were the most successful method for acquiring knowledge than that would be the method favored by science. In that sense, science is neutral because it doesn’t presuppose, assume, or favor, any particular method or result, it is all about just pragmatically following the evidence wherever the evidence takes us. However, the results of science – our knowledge base – cannot be, and in fact is not, neutral regarding claims about the way the world is, and to suggest otherwise is to indulge the worst possible silliness and foolishness.

    • locutus7
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      A red flag (theist alert!) should go up whenever an atheist’s interlocutor, when discussing science, employs the terms materialistic naturalism, philosophical naturalism, or metaphysical naturalism, instead of methodological naturalism.

      Perhaps they truly do not understand the difference, but I suspect otherwise.

  13. Andrew
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    Wow I feel all tingly..nice post! :)

    • Dominic
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

      Perhaps the air around you is carbonated?! oh – it is! ;)

  14. mikeyB
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    Wonder if Jerry has ever considered writing a follow-up to Why Evolution is True, but more in depth on the current state of evolutionary biology (not necessarily a textbook perhaps like Gould’s last one but not necessarily that long). I know he’s co-written a text on Speciation, but given his crisp insights on this blog and elsewhere, we would all benefit from his insights and experience. Why Evolution is True is fantastic, but it leaves me wanting more. And he wouldn’t have to waste more space on creationism.

  15. Curt Cameron
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    “This process cannot have a goal, any more than erosion has the goal of forming canyons, for the future cannot cause material events in the present.”

    That’s an excellent summary that I don’t see how anyone could argue with without exposing the fallacy in their reasoning. Can you imagine anyone arguing with this in any other scientific field?

    • Sigmund
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:23 am | Permalink

      Ha! I can argue with that reasoning.
      I am already feeling annoyed at a gnu atheist bashing article that hasn’t yet been written but will annoyingly be filled with the usual strawmen about scientism, rudeness to religious people and lack of philosophical appreciation.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      Well, as it happens, I’m in the middle of reading Stenger’s Timeless Reality in which he argues that the most useful and intuitive formulation of quantum mechanics is one that allows both forward and backward causality. But obviously that doesn’t apply at the macro level of natural selection and erosion.

      • locutus7
        Posted February 21, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

        Then you will LOVE The Unconscious Quantum.

        I’m a big fan of Vic’s, and find his articulation of QM especially accessible and instructive. But then you gnu that, I’m guessing.

  16. Kevin
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    I’m in agreement with mikeyB.

    I’ve read WEIT, The Greatest Show, Your Inner Fish, Endless Forms Most Beautiful (nice intro to evo-devo), etc.

    I “get” all of those books, and now find that they’re much too superficial. I’m eager to drill down to the next level.

    Suggestions? Motivation to write a follow-up?

    • Sigmund
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      Well, there is a book called ‘Speciation’…

    • SteveF
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      A good follow up is to just start reading the literature. It can be useful to have a textbook like Futayama’s around for background, but the best approach is to just dive into the primary material IMO. Many evolutionary biologists have their own personal websites where papers can be accessed for free, and Google Scholar is a useful resource for finding free copies.

      If a paper is written well (particularly the introduction and conclusions), it’s often going to be pretty accessible to the layperson – I’m not an evolutionary biologist (my expertise is in palaeoclimates) and have little to no background in the subject, but I’ve found it pretty easy to learn from the literature.

      • Sajanas
        Posted February 21, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

        I took several classes on evolution in college and the really required little of the sort of memorization of chemical formulas or jargon that say, getting deeper into biochemistry or neurology would require.

        Another site option is http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Go to PubMed and search for free articles on evolution and you’ll get hundreds.

  17. Posted February 21, 2011 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Gravity, the electroweak force, the strong force, the Standard Model, both theories of relativity, among countless others are all considered “unsupervised” and “impersonal”.

    But nobody actually explictly characterizes them as such. Their impersonal and unsupervised nature is implicit in their very formulation.

    To add those words when, say, describing the Theory of Relativity, is to imply that “unsupervised” and “impersonal” are additional hypotheses (which might be open to question, reformulation or, even, elimination). They are not. They are implications of the existing hypotheses.

    It would be a huge step backwards to add “unsupervised” and “impersonal” to the description of what Relativity is about. Tactics and the “culture wars” aside (not that we can actually put them aside, but let’s try), I don’t see why the same isn’t true of Evolution.

    • Kevin
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      Except that “theologians” like William Lame Craig will argue that the very forces of the universe were fine-tuned by Yahweh in order our solar system would be created so that that Yahweh could then create single-cell life 3.7 billion years ago so that he could direct evolution so that humans would eventually appear on the planet, and then a metaphorical Adam and Eve could be “ensouled”, and then somehow they metaphorically fell from grace.

      Which makes zombie Jesus totally real!

      No kidding, this is their argument. There’s nothing that zombie Jesus’ dad couldn’t do. Nothing!

      • Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink

        Except that “theologians” like William Lame Craig will argue that the very forces of the universe were fine-tuned by Yahweh …

        Well, fine.

        But unless I am particularly interested in arguing against “zombie Jesus”, including “unsupervised” and “impersonal” as additional hypotheses about the force of the universe adds nothing of value.

        I would argue that the same holds true, in the case of Evolution.

        (Again, I’m not taking a position on whether there’s a tactical advantage, in the “culture wars”; evidently, opinions, on tactics, seem to differ.)

        • Kevin
          Posted February 21, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

          The point is that the omission of such words provides the gap wherein “theologians” like Craig and his ilk will drive their Mack trucks of illogic through.

          • Posted February 21, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

            So, you believe that physicists are making a mistake by systematically omitting those words?

            As a physicist, why do I care about the driving habits of theologians?

            • H.H.
              Posted February 21, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

              As a physicist, nothing. As a professor charged with educating students, you might be concerned with dispelling misconceptions.

              • Posted February 21, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

                As a Professor, I have my hands full, trying to educate them about Physics — usually, about some small corner thereof.

                It would be a huge distraction (as well as incredibly presumptuous) for me to attempt to dispel their misconceptions about other subjects (be it history, or theology or …).

              • Notagod
                Posted February 21, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

                [Replying to Jacques Distler]

                Ah yes, but then you needn’t explain that the Earth isn’t the center of the universe to your christian students anymore either (lucky you right?) It could happen, they have the same amount of evidence to support that claim as well.

                If that were the case though, I’m wondering, would that be a distraction for you, in trying to educate them about Physics? Huge distraction maybe?

              • Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

                Ah yes, but then you needn’t explain that the Earth isn’t the center of the universe to your christian students anymore…

                So we’ve gone from William Lane Craig, who at least professes to some sophistication (knows about Friedmann-Robertson-Walker universes), to (mythical, I’m afraid) folks, whose understanding of the world is firmly mired in the 15th Century?

                1) If you’re going to impute, to them, thoroughly implausible levels of ignorance, why stop at the 15th Century?

                2) If their understanding really were mired in the 15th Century, then there would be a heckuva alot of territory to cover, before one could even hope to get to a topic like “Evolution”.

                Frankly, a couple of words, in the definition thereof, would be the least of your worries.

              • Notagod
                Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:17 am | Permalink

                So, I’m guessing, that means you would find it a huge distraction.

          • Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

            Nah, Craig pretty much just denies evolution like any good straight-up creationist.

            The real significance of insisting on words like “purposeless” in the definition of evolution is that it gives a huge opening for creationists to claim that scientists are not careful, sober, workers who stick to issues that are objectively decidable by evidence, but are instead just another religious group with their own dogma, one they are trying to get to students via the authority of the science classroom because it can’t compete for popularity in the general culture. If Coyne’s view ever became dominant amongst science teachers — which will never happen, thankfully, since science teachers know their job is to teach science, not religious or anti-religious indoctrination — they’d have a point.

            • H.H.
              Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

              Since when is honestly assessing the evidence for a proposition the same as mindlessly indoctrinating students? A careful, sober, objective study of the process of evolution does not support the contention that it is directional. The fact that you are too afraid of the reactions of creationists to be open and honest about what the evidence really shows indicates that they still have you dancing to their tune. Is that your real problem with the gnus? We aren’t as sufficiently cowed as you?

        • Posted February 21, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

          As was already stated, evolution by natural selection superseded more “personal” & “supervised” hypotheses like creationism.

          Wouldn’t that make “unsupervised” and “impersonal” some of its key characteristics?

          • Posted February 21, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

            Wouldn’t that make “unsupervised” and “impersonal” some of its key characteristics?

            Its key characteristics are random mutations and differential survival rates.

            “Unsupervised” and “impersonal” are rhetorical fluff that add no new information, not already contained in the above.

            • Notagod
              Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

              “Unsupervised” and “impersonal”, that’s what the evidence shows. Not added fluff because, those words add to a proper description as supported by the evidence. Without those words, much of the evidence would need to be ignored. Ignoring evidence is the wrong way to teach science.

              • Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

                “Unsupervised” and “impersonal”, that’s what the evidence shows.

                I’m sorry, but I think you are completely confused about the respective roles of theory and observation in Science.

                No one has ever observed evolution to be “unsupervised.” What has been observed, is in good agreement with a theory whose hypotheses imply “unsupervised.”

                But that’s quite a different matter, both logically and practically. And it doesn’t help to confuse matters by systematically misstating “what the evidence shows.”

    • Dominic
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      People think of themselves as ‘special’ & extend that to other living things, so they personalise the universe, giving it agency – something built into us as children (see Lewis Wolpert’s Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast). So while they are happy for the mineral to be undirected, they are uncomfortable with the animal & vegetable being so.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted February 22, 2011 at 6:43 am | Permalink

      To add those words when, say, describing the Theory of Relativity, is to imply that “unsupervised” and “impersonal” are additional hypotheses (which might be open to question, reformulation or, even, elimination). They are not. They are implications of the existing hypotheses.

      It would be a huge step backwards to add “unsupervised” and “impersonal” to the description of what Relativity is about.

      Frankly I don’t see how a general description is a definition unless explicitly stated.

      Also, we are talking about biology here, which differs from physics in that the theory is considered inclusive whether we like it or not. Adding mechanisms and hypotheses is permitted, a given (been done many times) and the way forward.

      So it comes down to the two arguments Scott gave.

      1) Is describing the process as ““unsupervised” and “impersonal”” a “logical vulnerability”?

      No, according to what you claim it is implicitly given by the theory. It may be an “empirical vulnerability” because they can (and have) been tested, they are as you say “open to question” et cetera. But then they are observed facts.

      2) Is describing the process as ““unsupervised” and “impersonal”” providing “a legitimate target”?

      No, according to what you claim it is both implicitly given by the theory and so given by all processes. If it isn’t a legitimate target in the Theory of Relativity, why should it be here?

      • Posted February 22, 2011 at 7:02 am | Permalink

        Frankly I don’t see how a general description is a definition unless explicitly stated.

        Then I don’t think you understand the intended role of the paragraph in question.

        Also, we are talking about biology here, which differs from physics in that the theory is considered inclusive whether we like it or not. Adding mechanisms and hypotheses is permitted…

        “Unsupervised” and “impersonal” are not additional mechanisms.

        At least, you seem to agree that the paragraph implies that they are, despite disagreeing as to whether that implication is a bad thing.

  18. Dominic
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Prof says “there’s plenty of evidence that some other primates—and perhaps some non-primate animals—have goal-directed and purposeful behavior” – yes but I would argue that it is as a result of Natural Selection that that is the case – so is still a part of Natural Selection.

    • Posted February 21, 2011 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      Of course I’m not claiming otherwise! There’s a difference between evolved behavioral “purpose” (see Frans de Waal’s books for evidence in apes) and divine purpose.

      • Dominic
        Posted February 21, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

        Didn’t think you were! :)
        Those porpoises again – they get everywhere!

  19. Clayton
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    But not *all* diversity of life on Earth is the process of natural selection. Much of the life I come into conscious contact every day (my neighbor’s domesticated cat/dog, the spring greens I ate for lunch, the hops/yeasts used in the beer after work… myself even) is in fact the process of *artificial selection*, the evolutionary development of which was quite supervised and personal.

    So, OK. Given that, I’m fine with the change.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted February 22, 2011 at 6:48 am | Permalink

      But we weren’t discussing specific mechanisms but the larger theory of evolution, so we are fine on “impersonal” et cetera.

  20. Posted February 21, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Along these lines, the NCSE’s most recent newsletter has a book review for “The Deep Structure of Biology,” which basically argues that evolutionary convergences are evidence of purpose.

    You can read a version of it here:

    http://ncse.com/rncse/30/review-deep-structure-biology

    I was a bit peeved that this review was so positive, when this creative framing of evidence will clearly be usurped by the ID’ers, if it hasn’t already. It might be worth addressing in a future post, Jerry.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      Note who published the book!

      • Posted February 21, 2011 at 10:11 am | Permalink

        How was it that I knew exactly who the publisher was before clicking on the link?

        I swear, if anybody ever had the reverse Midas touch, it was good ol’ John.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Matt Penfold
          Posted February 22, 2011 at 9:30 am | Permalink

          I not only guessed correctly about the publisher, I also was right on who the author was.

          Well OK, only partly right, since he was the editor and not author.

  21. Jeremy Nel
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Yes, for what it’s worth, I agree heartily. It is really important to show that evolution is unguided and purposeless. Take these qualities away from a student’s understanding of evolution (and natural selection) and you’ve simply not explained the mechanism sufficiently. As Larry Moran says, this isn’t a philosophical or theological point. This is the TRUTH.

  22. Adam M.
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    “… and yet nobody keeps an open mind about the possibility that god is pushing their pistons.”

    Now now, my step-dad was just telling me a couple weeks ago how his van’s electrical system died, but God miraculously kept the engine working until he managed to get it close to a mechanic.

    • Notagod
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

      Apparently his god is working for the mechanic then or isn’t fluent in electrical systems.

  23. J.J.E.
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    This comment will inevitably get lost in the shuffle, but here goes…

    The point isn’t whether the “unguided” or “unsupervised” nature of evolution is true or false. Scientists aren’t interested (for the most part) in engaging in pissing matches about what absolute truth is or isn’t. Rather, most scientists construct and test models about the world using various empirical and philosophical tools, including Occam’s Razor. A model including guidance by god adds absolutely nothing to the power of the model we call “evolution”. Therefore, it is fair to describe the best available model of biological evolution as “unguided” or “undirected” as long as everyone is clear that this is a model. Then Genie’s objection goes out the window. She can’t possibly object that a model constructed using the best empirical resources available and the simple application of Occam’s razor is a less appropriate model than one that spares the model an application of the Razor. After all, every added parameter in a model needs sufficient justification before adding it. Thus, a failure to add guidance yields a an unguided model.

    • Posted February 21, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      Well I think that’s a good point, so the comment didn’t get totally lost!

      I wonder if it’s possible to word that version in such a way that it’s acceptable to the NCSE and the theists who live in their heads while also being acceptable to people who don’t have cephalic theists to placate.

      • J.J.E.
        Posted February 21, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        Aw shucks. <blush>

        I wonder if it’s possible to word that version in such a way that it’s acceptable to the NCSE…

        I’ve been wondering this myself. Judging by Nick Matzke’s response below, the knee-jerk reaction is towards placating the faithful, so it may be a long-haul in practice. But in principle, I don’t see why they wouldn’t accept it.

        • Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

          JJE’s suggestion is a decent one, I made a similar point myself in the blog I linked to, that these words have some scientific utility when taken in a non-metaphysical sense.

          However, experience shows they are quite prone to misinterpretation. And I’m also not at all sure that certain people can resist the temptation to interpret them as evidence about the Ultimate Nature of Reality and use them as a club in the theism/atheism wars — as Coyne does here.

          E.g.:

          “Scientists aren’t interested (for the most part) in engaging in pissing matches about what absolute truth is or isn’t.”

          For the most part, they aren’t, but Coyne sure is!

        • Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

          Another wise thing Genie Scott says is, “It’s not what you say that matters, it’s what your audience hears.” If your audience is getting the wrong message from something like the NABT statement, it’s your job to work to clarify matters — at least, if you’re an educator for a living.

          • truthspeaker
            Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

            If what your audience hears is something different than what you say, then that’s the audience’s fault.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

            “If your audience is getting the wrong message from something like the NABT statement, it’s your job to work to clarify matters…”

            The key word being “clarify”. But prohibiting any discussion of the inherently undirected nature of evolution doesn’t clarify anything; it obfuscates, deliberately, in order to avoid offending people.

          • Michael Fugate
            Posted February 21, 2011 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

            In honor of Nick, the NCSE and all of the theistic evolutionists out there, I propose adding onto every scientific concept and theory a disclaimer, “but a supernatural entity, which could be the god you worship, might be responsible for everything and the scientific results reported here might be the ravings of individuals who have restricted themselves to a naturalistic worldview.”
            We do need to teach the controversy – naturalism might not be enough. Oh, it is? It actually works – and there is no need to resort to supernatural intervention? But, what will the theists say? What will be left for their god to do? Won’t they be upset?

    • ritebrother
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      Massimo would argue that the scientist applying Occam’s razor has gone off the reservation and started doing philosophy without a license. It’s this narrow demarcation of the boundaries of science by this viewpoint that allow the continued resistance to an affirmative statement on the undirected nature of evolution. I don’t agree, BTW, and think that parsimony should be available to everyone’s toolkit.

      • Alex SL
        Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, and that is unfortunately where Massimo flies off the rails, as without Occam / parsimony, there would be no science. It is not only part of the toolbox, it is indispensable.

  24. SaintStephen
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Okay, here’s a theory. (C’mon, stop cringing and I’ll tell you.)

    Religious people observe new green sprouts in their gardens and say “See? Divine purpose in action. A plant’s mission is to spread its leaves upward and worship the Sun. Similarly, our mission in life is to spread our arms to the heavens and worship the Lord.”

    Ergo, divine purpose in Evolution. (Sure it’s a flawed analogy, but one can see how a religious mind could easily make the comparison.)

    Now, for something completely different. The Sun’s rays are obviously responsible for this “directed” evolutionary behavior in plants, so what if there exists some sort of ubiquitous cosmic particle, currently undetectable by our best instruments and completely hidden from our best mathematical minds (yes, even Einstein’s and Feynman’s), that is actually “directing” the evolution of brain size and/or consciousness/intelligence itself? Perhaps this I-particle is, completely unbeknownst to modern science, actually the motive force behind all of the seemingly undirected patterns of Evolution…

    God: the undetectable cosmic ray. (Yep. Gonna shaddup now. I’m sure someone like Asimov or Clarke has already explored this turf, anyway.)

    • Posted February 21, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      This might make for a decent scifi story or novel that might also appeal to religious people.

      Pullman had “dark matter” being intelligent in his Dark Material novels, although he had no use for “god”, who was just a fraud in those books.

      • Posted February 22, 2011 at 6:47 am | Permalink

        Yeah, I’m reading the books to my daughter now. On the third one now and disappointed by this intelligent “Dust”.

        • Posted February 22, 2011 at 7:25 am | Permalink

          Yeah, the 3rd book was disappointing to me, too. In the stage version, they pretty much completely changed the story completely, omitting nearly all the stuff from the 3rd book.

  25. jose
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    “Do primates always get bigger brains? There is some suggestion that orangutan populations evolved smaller ones.”

    No need to turn to orangutans. Both neanderthals and cromagnons had bigger brains than us. Our brain has shrunk over time.

    • Sajanas
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      I suspect its a situation not unlike that between dogs and wolves. The domestic dog has a smaller brain than that of a wolf, but it is incredibly more adept at the sort of social intelligence that it encounters in a human environment. I suspect that our brains are getting smaller by mass, but better at reasoning and social interactions, vs say, memorizing a forest for fruit tree locations.

      • jose
        Posted February 21, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

        Okay, but we weren’t talking about what brains do, but how big brains are.

        • Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

          Both cases could just be a byproduct of higher-quality food, thus requiring less massive jaws and jaw muscles, thus giving an advantage to those with smaller heads.

          Just due to childbirth trauma alone there is continual selective pressure for smaller heads, so it’s easy for heads to get smaller if any of the pressures favoring large head size get weaker.

      • Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

        Since size obviously isn’t an indicator of intelligence/social skills/awareness, perhaps the brain of the human – the ape domesticated & socialised by evolution and self-awareness – and the brain of the wolf – the dog domesticated & socialised by the aforementioned ape – are simply _more efficient_ in those areas than those of the respective Cro-Magnon/wolf forebears?

  26. Nick (Matzke)
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Obviously I disagree with the broad points here, but Jerry adequately reviewed Eugenie Scott’s position which is basically mine. Re-reading Massimo Pigliucci’s conversion from the Coynian position to the Scott position on this issue might be beneficial.

    http://www.booktalk.org/july-2005-rationally-speaking-ok-i-changed-my-mind-t2495.html

    E.g., as Pigliucci points out about Scott’s position: “The beauty of this distinction is that it shields science from the creationist accusation of being just another religion.”

    You guys are sneaking metaphysics into science class. The logical support that biology lends to atheism is no stronger than that between, say, meteorology and atheism, yet for basically historical reasons we have some evolutionary biologists who consider it part of their job to issue rulings on imponderable cosmic matters, whereas such things are very rare elsewhere in science (excepting perhaps cosmology itself).

    Narrow point: orthogenesis doesn’t have much to recommend it, but it is flat wrong to say that orthogenesis was a “teleological theor[y] based on divine or spiritual guidance”.

    Gould 2002, Structure of Evolutionary Theory, p. 352, in a section on misconceptions about orthogenesis:

    1. Some prominent non-Darwinians may justly be designated as “theistic evolutionists” — St. George Mivart and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, for example. But orthogenesis does not fall into this category. Rather, and entirely to the contrary, all leading orthogeneticists insisted vociferously that their arguments for internal directionality included no teleological or theistic component. Most leading orthogeneticists held strictly mechanistic views in the mainstream of the highly deterministic late 19th century scientific consensus. They argued that internal channels arose as products of conventional, physical causes, based upon properties of hereditary and developmental systems. (The properties may have been unknown, hence “mysterious” in the vernacular sense, but certainly not spiritual or teleological.)

    Lots more on how words like “random” and “undirected” have several importantly different meanings, and Coyne’s spin on e.g. Futuyma’s statements is not the only conceivable interpretation of either Futuyma’s views, the implications of evolution, etc.:

    http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2010/08/casey-luskin-th-1.html

    • truthspeaker
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      “You guys are sneaking metaphysics into science class”

      What metaphysics?

      • Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

        Statements that there is/isn’t any ultimate meaning to existence, for instance. If science says anything about such questions, it says “Who knows? The question is too poorly constrained by data.”

        • truthspeaker
          Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

          But he didn’t make any statement about ultimate meaning to existence. He said there’s no evolution of guidance or direction in evolution, that all available evidence shows it to be undirected.

          • truthspeaker
            Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

            ^ no evidence of …

        • Matt Penfold
          Posted February 22, 2011 at 9:36 am | Permalink

          So the fact there is no scientific evidence that evolution has a purpose means nothing ?

          There is also no scientific evidence for many things. There is no scientific evidence that Santa Claus exists. However in the absence of evidence he does exist the default position is that he does not. You must follow the same premise, otherwise science becomes impossible.

          Yet when it comes to purpose you want difference treatment. That is simply not philosophically consistent, and nor it is very intellectually honest.

    • Posted February 21, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      we have some evolutionary biologists who consider it part of their job to issue rulings on imponderable cosmic matters

      Issue rulings? Imponderable?

      • Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

        Hi Ophelia — e.g., “the absence of evidence for a godly hand in evolution is evidence of godly absence”.

        That’s not a conservative, qualified, let’s-be-careful-to-not-go-beyond-the-evidence statement characteristic of science, it’s a leap from pedestrian facts about descent with modification and meteor impacts over to a statement about the ultimate nature of existence itself. It’s fine to have such views, it’s just not wise to declare they are simple scientific conclusions on the same level as saying that the KT impact was 65.whatever million years ago.

        • Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

          Hi Nick,

          But you’re mischaracterizing what Jerry said he said:

          In my classes, however, I still characterize evolution and selection as processes lacking mind, purpose, or supervision. Why? Because, as far as we can see, that’s the truth. Evolution and selection operate precisely as you’d expect them to if they were not designed by, or steered by, a deity—especially one who is omnipotent and benevolent.

          That’s not issuing a ruling, it’s saying what he teaches and why, in qualified terms that cite the evidence.

          • Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

            Ophelia, if Coyne said something like “Class, my personal philosophical opinion is that evolution gives good evidence for atheism, but strictly speaking I am going beyond science when I say this”, then that would be fine.

            But saying flat-out to students that science indicates there is no God is issuing a metaphysical ruling, given the hard-won authority that science has in the culture.

            (Science got this authority in the first place by limiting scientific discussion to practical, empirical, testable natural processes, leaving aside the endless abstract philosophical/theological debates about ultimate matters that characterized the Middle Ages. This is another reason it is hazardous to mess with these long-established boundaries, but that’s another discussion.)

            • truthspeaker
              Posted February 21, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

              Which Coyne didn’t do. Ophelia posted a quote of Coyne’s words, and they didn’t say that.

            • whyevolutionistrue
              Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

              Good Lord, Nick, where did you hear that I told students “flat-out” that “science indicates that there is no God”? You didn’t hear it because I didn’t say it. (“Flat-out”, of course, suggests that you’re quoting me directly.)

              Of course you’re going to reply that you’re paraphrasing my words, but at least say that a) I didn’t say that, and b) you’re doing the most extreme paraphrasing possible.

              And it would be nice if you’d actually contribute on this site beyond doing drive-by damage control every time you sense that the NCSE is being dissed.

              • Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

                Good Lord, Nick, where did you hear that I told students “flat-out” that “science indicates that there is no God”? You didn’t hear it because I didn’t say it. (“Flat-out”, of course, suggests that you’re quoting me directly.)

                Let’s not have a retreat to more defensible ground now, Jerry, this was the whole tenor of your post! I quoted the key bit, I’ll quote it again:

                In the end, the absence of evidence for a godly hand in evolution is evidence of godly absence, for evolution and selection show precisely the characteristics they would have if they were purely material, mindless, and purposeless processes.

                If you want to retract that statement, then hey, great, my work is done.

                And it would be nice if you’d actually contribute on this site beyond doing drive-by damage control every time you sense that the NCSE is being dissed.

                It seems like half the posts that aren’t about cats are about dissing anyone and anything insufficiently hostile to even the least threatening forms of religion, even if more moderate positions are widely held by scientists and educators, even if they are held by people who have devoted their careers to science education and public education and have spent decades thinking and writing about these issues. I think a little critical engagement is a useful thing on this topic, just so that readers can see that there are some actual scholarly reasons that not everyone toes the hard Gnu Atheist line on every issue.

                Sadly, I’m not a cat person, so I can’t help you there. :-)

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

                Nick, you’ve accused Jerry of “sneaking metaphysics into science class” and “saying flat-out to students that science indicates there is no God”. But you’ve offered no evidence that he’s actually said these things in the classroom; all you’ve done is quote from his personal blog, where presumably he’s entitled to speak his mind freely.

              • Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

                The post was all about what Jerry tells his students, what he thinks evolution textbooks say, and what he thinks the National Association of Biology Teachers should have said. If you, or Jerry, actually think that evolution instructors should shy away from deducing support from atheism from evolution, well then, that supports the position of me, NCSE, NABT, etc.

              • Ichthyic
                Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:19 am | Permalink

                Let’s not have a retreat to more defensible ground now, Jerry,

                yes, let’s not do what you do in every discussion you ever involve yourself in.

                well, either that, or run away crying after saying how mean we all are.

              • Ichthyic
                Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:27 am | Permalink

                even if more moderate positions are widely held by scientists and educators

                for the last time, Nick, compartmentalization DOES NOT mean compatible epistemologies.

                It’s really quite pathetic that you continue to lie about this, when I KNOW you’ve had this made very clear to you innumerable times.

                you know, creationists often react with denial just like this.

              • Ichthyic
                Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:31 am | Permalink

                shy away from deducing support from atheism from evolution, well then, that supports the position of me, NCSE, NABT, etc.

                again, this is bullshit.

                science does not shy away from testable claims from any source.

                Science is, however, inherently WITHOUT THEISM (hence, atheistic), since it’s the religious themselves, after millenia of trying to say that there IS evidence for their chosen deity, and being shown to be incorrect, BY SCIENCE, that have tried to place their beliefs outside the realm of testability.

                It’s ALL of science that bespeaks to atheism, not just evolutionary biology.

                It wouldn’t DO that, if religion itself had never made entirely testable claims to begin with.

                It’s not science that has made itself atheistic, IT’S RELIGION that has made science atheistic by default, by making testable claims that have been proven false, repeatedly.

              • Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:36 am | Permalink

                The reason I’m here is pretty much because I spent all those years debating creationists.

                They continually sit around and accused me and everyone else associated with evolution of turning science and science education into state-sponsored atheism.

                I can’t consistently oppose them, and then let it slide when people on my side start blurring the boundaries.

              • Ichthyic
                Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:56 am | Permalink

                The reason I’m here is pretty much because I spent all those years debating creationists.

                and evidently, during all those years, failing to see what was at the core of their resistance:

                the very idea that their religion CAN be challenged by science.

                they really don’t care what the truth is, Nick, so long as they can maintain their comfortable fictions.

                but you know it DOES matter, Nick.

                It DOES matter which ideas get preference in our society, and for too long religion itself has gotten unwarranted protection in the realm of ideas.

                you would choose to protect it, in order to try and get the creationists to not attack science?

                it’s a fools gambit.

                you really should know this by now.

              • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
                Posted February 22, 2011 at 7:04 am | Permalink

                I quoted the key bit, I’ll quote it again:

                In the end, the absence of evidence for a godly hand in evolution is evidence of godly absence, for evolution and selection show

                At which point I presume Coyne will pop in and point out yet again (since it’s been done on this thread, to you specifically, and many times before) that this was said about “absence” in evolution and selection as was the class, not “absence” in general.

                That you, and your fellows in the misery of religion, read in this your special pleading that no one should criticize religion isn’t the fault of skeptics and atheists. We would like nothing better than that you stop that specific stupidity and join the species in the human right of freedom of expression.

                But that wasn’t even the point here!

              • truthspeaker
                Posted February 22, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

                @Nick – the statement by Coyne that you quoted does not say what you said it says. Do you think you could possibly restrict yourself to addressing what Coyne has actually said instead of what you imagined he had said?

    • J.J.E.
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

      I don’t see how a parsimonious description of a model describing evolution is sneaking metaphysics into anything. There is nothing in the data that pays the toll for smuggling in the “supervised” parameter. You don’t really think that teaching the principle of parsimony is sneaking in metaphysics of the wrong sort do you? If so, how on earth could you ever TA a Biology class involving phylogenetics in good conscience?

      • Posted February 21, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

        The principle of parsimony is the work of the devil!

      • Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

        I’m a Bayesian phylogeneticist, therefore I know that parsimony is a special case that only sometimes produces the correct result. (In phylogenetics. Although this applies elsewhere, in my experience.)

        Parsimony is a useful rule of thumb that is often a helpful guide in science. This is a long ways from establishing that it is an infallible guide to truth, or even that it allows us to make conclusions with high scientific confidence about matters that are pretty much unfathomable, like why reality itself exists.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:17 am | Permalink

          your point is also entirely irrelevant to the topic at hand, where parsimony does indeed apply.

          The universe is simply more parsimonious than universe + god.

          surely even YOU can admit that?

          • Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:28 am | Permalink

            OK, let’s get serious about parsimony — whoops there goes multiple universes, end of story!

            Gee wasn’t that easy? Where’s my Nature paper?

            Too bad so many Gnus endorse multiple universes as a reasonable possibility, e.g. Dawkins in The God Delusion. I guess they’re all just unparsimonious morons.

            • Ichthyic
              Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:35 am | Permalink

              OK, let’s get serious about parsimony — whoops there goes multiple universes, end of story!

              how much evidence is there for the multiple universe theory, and where does it arise from, Nick?

              now how much evidence is there for ANY deity from any religion you wish to suggest, and where does it arise from?

              You really CAN’T see the difference?

              that simply isn’t possible, Nick. You’re either lying, or insane.

              which is it?

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted February 22, 2011 at 7:09 am | Permalink

              Here is how parsimony is necessary for observing the multiverse:

              “While we didn’t make any clear detections of bubble collisions, we did find four features in the WMAP data that are better explained by the bubble collision hypothesis than by the standard hypothesis of fluctuations in a nearly Gaussian field. We assess which of the two models better explain the data by evaluating the Bayesian evidence for each. The evidence correctly accounts for the fact that a more complex model (the bubble collisions, in this case) will generally fit the data better simply because it has more free parameters. This is the self-consistent statistical equivalent of applying Ockham’s Razor.”

              You really don’t know anything about physics, do you? (Or maybe even bayesian methods outside your own area, but I will suspend judgment there.)

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted February 22, 2011 at 7:14 am | Permalink

              Also, I would like to point to Boussou et al, who makes and test 6 parameters on multiverses using environmental principles (non-anthropic versions of “the weak anthropic principle”) that shores up the idea that multiverses can be observed and exist. Testing is, of course, using parsimony.

        • J.J.E.
          Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

          The parsimony dig vis a vis phylogenetics was just me being cute. All statistical modeling uses a more general version of the principle of parsimony. If you are teaching any class with a modeling component (i.e. definitely any scientific class at college level or above), then you have to discuss why scientists don’t lard up their models with more parameters than they have datapoints, for the obvious limiting example. It is a basic principle.

          The best model describing biological diversity is an unguided model of evolution involving natural selection and genetic drift (among many other things). Ergo, “evolution” (the current model) is “unguided”.

          If, in a very unlikely event, we were to soon discover that god actually did exist* and did indeed guide evolution we would have to change our model from an unguided one to a guided one. I trust at that point you wouldn’t object to classifying the old model (what we believe now) as “unguided” in light of evidence of an evolution guiding god, right?

          * My favorite version is “god” as an alien that evolved billions of years ago (blah blah), and that such an uber alien used directed panspermia or somesuch scifi weirdness to guide life on earth.

    • Michael Fugate
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

      Nick,
      And you aren’t sneaking metaphysics in? This is like saying that not voting is not a political statement. Give me on reason why anyone should consider nonmaterial, nonnatural causation of anything.

      • Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

        Not voting is often some kind of political statement, sure. And so is keeping science metaphysically neutral. It’s a statement that science sticks close to empirically testable hypotheses and avoids as far as possible getting wrapped up in millenia-old, probably unsolvable, matters of philosophical opinion that are at best extremely tenuously connected to any empirical data we have or are ever likely to get. It’s a statement that science is a serious business, open to all in a free society who will accept some very minimal ground rules (e.g. methodological naturalism), and therefore deserving of government support, being taught in the schools, etc.

        If this cultural sense of the authority and objectivity of science were ever completely lost in the culture (obviously it’s already often disputed), it would be extremely problematic — however I don’t think it’s a serious danger that this would ever actually happen, especially because those who love science pretty jealously guard the boundaries of science against attempts (like Jerry’s) to blur them.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

          It’s a statement that science sticks close to empirically testable hypotheses and avoids as far as possible getting wrapped up in millenia-old, probably unsolvable, matters of philosophical opinion

          bah. you mean “philosophical opinions” like those of Aquinas, or perhaps Plantinga? Because those have already been dealt with and can be readily dismissed.

          OTOH, any time the religious make a contention that evidence can bear on, REGARDLESS of what it is, science can effectively weigh in.

          People like you, Nick, will not be satisfied unless the concept of NOMA is somehow artificially propagated as some sort of philosophical law.

          get this straight:

          you want to create an artificial BOX for science to work out of.

          It’s sad that you wish to limit your own field so, when it is entirely unnecessary and actually DAMAGING to do so.

          why do you insist on infantilizing humanity and crippling them with religious ideology?

          why Nick?

          • Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:20 am | Permalink

            you want to create an artificial BOX for science to work out of.

            I didn’t build the box, it goes way back to the origins of natural philosophy in the Renaissance:

            http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2006/03/on-the-origins.html

            …and it’s been a very handy box, allowing science to grow and bloom without getting lost in the metaphysical weeds.

            why do you insist on infantilizing humanity and crippling them with religious ideology?

            why Nick?

            I don’t. Really, just because I think NABT was correct to avoid misunderstandings in its position on evolution, and just because I think atheism is an optional metaphysical position, and not an obligatory objective conclusion of science, doesn’t mean I’m in favor of crippling humanity through religious infantilization.

            Although, really, it’s not very scholarly to characterize religion in the way you do. It’s true that there are annoying or even dangerous fundamentalists in the world, but particularly in the West this is not a fair characterization of religion writ large. You might as well say that the Animal Liberation Front is a fair representation of liberals, or that because some foreigners are dangerous, we should be hostile to Canadians.

            I kind like that comparison. Or maybe the French, if Gnus would like an example of how to have someone be an ally to which they owe a great deal historically, but which they intensely dislike anyway.

            • Ichthyic
              Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:52 am | Permalink

              I don’t

              LOL

              yeah, sure.

              I think NABT was correct to avoid misunderstandings in its position on evolution

              the misunderstandings have clearly all been yours, and have been promulgated by you for some time, and in many places I have noted, sadly.

              AAAS and several other science organizations are simply being reactionary, because they’re rightly scared. they are NOT making a logical or well-reasoned argument, as you yourself are not.

              Although, really, it’s not very scholarly to characterize religion in the way you do.

              Take it up with a theologian, like Hector Avalos then?

              he’s not the only philosopher to have entirely rejected religion has having any remaining issues to rationally debate, btw.

              but particularly in the West this is not a fair characterization of religion writ large

              religion write large is based on a fantasy, nothing more. It hardly matters if you are in the West, the East, or in the bloody center of the earth.

              If it was treated like any other childhood fantasy, like say, Santa Claus, it wouldn’t have ever become the problem it has.

              In essence, you, Nick, are saying it’s just fine and dandy for people to treat fantasy as if it were reality, and everyone should respect them for that.

              sorry, but I have real problems respecting someone who thinks Santa Claus is real, especially when they decide it should affect policy and legislation, and an even BIGGER problem when people like you suggest science should remain “neutral” on the subject of what the evidence suggests as to what we actually understand reality itself consists of.

              If someone suggests the universe was created out of infinitely distributed spaghetti molecules, I’m going to dismiss that as utter NONSENSE and FICTION, based on all the observable evidence available to us. To defer to their “beliefs” because they hold them dear, like a blankie or a pacifier, is not a sufficient argument for me to NOT be entirely dismissive of their claims.

              Religion is the only human fantasy concept that is given so much deference, that it not only can affect policy, but lives, on a daily basis.

              to argue that “some form of it” is just fine and dandy, is to argue that accepting any other delusion as reality is just fine and dandy too.

              • Nick (Matzke)
                Posted February 22, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink

                “If someone suggests the universe was created out of infinitely distributed spaghetti molecules, I’m going to dismiss that as utter NONSENSE and FICTION, based on all the observable evidence available to us.”

                There goes string theory.

              • Ichthyic
                Posted February 22, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

                There goes string theory.

                fail, Nick.

                fail.

            • Ichthyic
              Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:58 am | Permalink

              I didn’t build the box

              that much I’ll give you.

              but that doesn’t mean you have to artificially try to keep on using it, either.

          • truthspeaker
            Posted February 22, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

            “There is no evidence that evolution is directed” is an empirically testable hypothesis.

            • Posted February 22, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

              As I posted above (or below – I can’t remember, it was yesterday for crissakes), the phrase “There is no evidence that evolution is directed” is a simple statement of FACT regarding the current understanding of evolution.

              Anyone who elects to take that as some kind of metafrickingphysical claim is reading into it an intent that is not there.

              Hmmm, finding intent where none is indicated … sounds familiar!

    • Alex SL
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

      Nick, is that seriously so hard to grasp?

      1. Evolution is defined as being unguided. If it were guided, it would be domestication, and we would be talking about artificial selection instead of natural selection.

      2. There is no sneaking in of metaphysics, or at least no more than for any other scientific observation. The gravity example has already been mentioned above, but it is true for everything else: whether you describe plate tectonics, radioactive decay or crystallization, the assumption is always that as long as there is no good evidence for its intervention, the observed processes are best explained without reference to a deity. Evolution is singled out for bullying not because it has any metaphysical assumptions that the rest of science does not have, but because it is particularly problematic for religion (or, to be specific, for the presumed privileged position of humans in the universe).

      • Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

        1. Evolution is defined as being unguided. If it were guided, it would be domestication, and we would be talking about artificial selection instead of natural selection.

        Interesting. At Berkeley they teach that evolution is defined as descent with modification. This was Darwin’s definition, and I think it’s a better one.

        As others have noted, every other science does quite well describing the natural forces at play without belaboring words like “unguided” and “purposeless”. If taken in a modest sense, i.e. “modern evolutionary theory rejects orthogenesis and Lamarkian evolution”, then these statements are unobjectionable, but Jerry has made it clear that he endorses the strongly metaphysical, atheistic interpretation of these words, and on this interpretation, it is at least very controversial to say that they belong in a definition or description of evolution, particularly as the official statement of the National Association of Biology Teachers, rather than as someone’s personal opinion.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:06 am | Permalink

          At Berkeley they teach that evolution is defined as descent with modification.

          red herring.

          YOU damn well know exactly what Alex meant:

          That there is no end goal to selection.

          As others have noted, every other science does quite well describing the natural forces at play without belaboring words like “unguided” and “purposeless”

          again, entirely disingenuous, since even YOU have often made the argument of pointing out that creationists focus on evolution more than say, the theory of lightning formation. I’ve seen you do it. Which means, of course, that you’re well aware of why there is a need for a REACTION to creationists focusing on evolutionary biology.

          you’re a disingenuous hack, and if THIS is truly the way you argue your points at Berkeley, I actually do hope you crash and burn.
          If not, I would weep for the quality of grad education there now.

          you’re a liar, Nick. Plain and Simple.

          I even suspect you may be mentally unbalanced.

          • SteveF
            Posted February 22, 2011 at 3:38 am | Permalink

            Nick comes along, tries to argue his position and gets accused of being a liar and potentially mentally unbalanced. What the fuck is wrong with you?

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted February 22, 2011 at 7:19 am | Permalink

              I would tone it down, but IIRC from a thread a week ago, there was some lying uncovered? So maybe it isn’t entirely taken out of the air.

              • Nick (Matzke)
                Posted February 22, 2011 at 11:53 am | Permalink

                Thanks SteveF!

                Larsson — lying? Eh? What would be the point?

            • Diane G.
              Posted February 22, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

              Have to admit, that was my reaction, too.

              This ain’t Pharyngula.

        • Alex SL
          Posted February 22, 2011 at 5:04 am | Permalink

          At Berkeley they teach that evolution is defined as descent with modification. This was Darwin’s definition, and I think it’s a better one.

          I know that definition, but do you believe that such a pithy formula is all there is to it? I think you may be missing some of the finer details of the Theory of Evolution.

          every other science does quite well describing the natural forces at play without belaboring words like “unguided” and “purposeless”

          Every other science does not have to mention the obvious because they are not under permanent siege from troglodytes. But do go ahead and ask a couple of physicist if they think it remotely likely that gravity is really intelligent falling, so that we should avoid calling it purposeless. And yes, that is the proper comparison. “Guided evolution” is, apart from an oxymoron, ultimately just a variant of intelligent design, with the actual core of Darwin’s idea carefully carved out.

          • Alex SL
            Posted February 22, 2011 at 5:05 am | Permalink

            +s

  27. another commenter
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    To say that natural selection is “undirected”, “unsupervised”, or “purposeless” is scientifically indefensible. These are not only metaphysical claims they also amount to try to proving a universal negative. That’s why they should not be made in science books or in comparable contexts. To scientifically demonstrate these claims you would need to be able (because otherwise you could not exclude them) to detect guidance, supervision or purpose. Sounds familiar?

    • jose
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

      Having more kids than the average in part because of some genetic difference is nothing mysterious. That’s the definition of natural selection.

      We also know what causes mutations. God has no room there either.

      There’s no mysterious, unknown deeper notions here. We can say natural selection is clearly unguided because we know everything about the nature of that process. Besides, we are pretty familiar with how guided selection works, we call it breeding. We can tell the difference.

      In this respect, natural selection is different from, say, the laws of physics. You could ask ‘but how does gravity really work? Why is G that precise number, not more, not less?’, something like that. You couldn’t do that with natural selection.

    • Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

      “To say that natural selection is “undirected”, “unsupervised”, or “purposeless” is scientifically indefensible. These are not only metaphysical claims they also amount to try to proving a universal negative.”

      Incorrect. It’s not metaphysical or unscientific – or even a claim at all – to say “There has been observed NO evidence for X” (which is what those “un-” phrases are actually saying). If, in fact, no evidence has been observed for X, then to say so is a mere statement of fact and completely defensible; what’s more, it still leaves open the possibility that evidence for X may someday be found. However, if you were to say “No evidence has been found for X and ABSOLUTELY NEVER WILL BE”, that would be scientifically indefensible. Even regarding something as plainly ludicrous as Intelligent Design Creationism you must leave open the possibility, however infintessimal, that you have the wrong information.

      Quite simply: no support has been found for and no observations have been made of direction, supervision, guidance or purpose in evolution. To say so is not a claim of non-intervention nor an attempted proof of non-intervention. “Evolution is unguided” is a statement of fact regarding what has been observed; it is categorically NOT a statement requiring absolute knowledge, NOT attempted proof of a negative and NOT anything at all metaphysical. It is nothing more than a statement regarding the current state of understanding on the topic.

      Apologists really need to learn to identify these silly arguments – ideally BEFORE they attempt to use them as A-HA cards.

      • Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

        To say so is not a claim of non-intervention nor an attempted proof of non-intervention. “Evolution is unguided” is a statement of fact regarding what has been observed; it is categorically NOT a statement requiring absolute knowledge, NOT attempted proof of a negative and NOT anything at all metaphysical.

        If it’s not supposed to be a metaphysical statement, then Coyne shouldn’t have brought it up as evidence against God.

        • Notagod
          Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

          Is there any evidence that your god exists, that Dr. Coyne could have brought it up against.

          How can you logically conclude that those statements are against your god? How do you know that your god doesn’t favor those words? What is your source for that “knowledge”?

          • Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:00 am | Permalink

            I’m an agnostic, so I’m not sure what you’re talking about when you refer to “my god”.

            • Ichthyic
              Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:11 am | Permalink

              you speak only in metaphysical gibberish, and have abandoned science, Nick, so why shouldn’t someone who doesn’t personally know your background conclude you’re not a god-bothering tub-thumper?

              • SteveF
                Posted February 22, 2011 at 3:42 am | Permalink

                You appear to be somewhat angry and obsessed by Nick, following him round from post to post angrily berating him like a crazy religious person on the street. I suggest taking a deep breath, stepping back from the keyboard and logging off. It’ll be good for you.

                You’re welcome.

              • Matt Penfold
                Posted February 22, 2011 at 9:43 am | Permalink

                Steve F,

                Clearly you have a thing for Matzke.

                Why do you insist on defending someone as intellectually dishonest as he is ? Are you not aware how that makes you look ?

              • SteveF
                Posted February 22, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

                Hey look, it’s “Matt Penfold”! Doing what he always does in blog comments! Hooray!

                Clearly I have a “thing” about Nick Matzke. You can tell this because I posted a couple of responses to Ichthyic, who has been stalking Matzke in the comments here in an apparently obsessive fashion. That obviously constitutes a “thing”. I’m sure Ichthyic appreciates the support at what appears to be an emotionally fraught time for him.

                Thanks for another typically sparkling contribution “Matt Penfold”!

              • whyevolutionistrue
                Posted February 22, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

                Okay, we’re gonna stop the invective right now. No name calling, imputations of motive, or anything else that’s nasty. I am not going to let this website degenerate into invective in which people call each other names. If you want to attack arguments, fine; people, no.

              • SteveF
                Posted February 22, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink

                Fair enough Jerry and apologies, am perfectly happy to stop the bickering.

                I take it that you won’t look kindly in the future on posters levelling offensive and serious accusations surrounding mental health against other posters, simply because they have the temerity to disagree with them on issues where reasonable people can disagree?

        • Ichthyic
          Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:10 am | Permalink

          If it’s not supposed to be a metaphysical statement, then Coyne shouldn’t have brought it up as evidence against God.

          absolute, jawdropping, bullshit.

          If someone makes the claim that God exists because of a specific piece of proposed evidence, and then I show that that exact evidence doesn’t exist, I’m NOT making a metaphysical statement.

          I can’t believe you are this confused about simple issues, so I can only conclude… you’re insane, Nick.

          seriously, you’ve become JAD.

          it’s sad, really.

        • Posted February 22, 2011 at 3:17 am | Permalink

          If it’s not supposed to be a metaphysical statement, then Coyne shouldn’t have brought it up as evidence against God.

          You’re misrepresenting Jerry’s statement: there is no evidence of God in the evolutionary process. He didn’t say anything about the presence of God in your back pocket.

          The reason it needs to be said is that so many people assert that there is evidence of God’s involvement in evolution, or that there is “plenty of room” for God to be guiding it, or that these religious claims make no difference in understand the TOE or science in general.

          When religionists make similar God assertions about other natural processes, then it will be time to make similar statements about the lack of evidence for divine involvement in other natural processes.

          TBH, you’re a graduate student in science, right? Why is this so hard for you to grasp?

        • truthspeaker
          Posted February 22, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

          He didn’t.

        • Posted February 22, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

          Nick

          I was responding the anonymous God-troll; you bringing up Jerry’s words as some kind of counter to mine is not relevant *at all* to what I said or who it was addressed to.

      • another commenter
        Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

        Maybe my post was not clear or you conveniently over read the last paragraph but the point is the following. If you claim that no observations have been made that evolution is directed the only way you can scientifically claim this is by imagining how directed evolution would look like and compare this to the observations that have been made. But in order to imagine how directed evolution would look like you necessarily have to make metaphysical assumptions about the way it would have been directed.
        But prove me wrong. Make a scientific case about how God would guide evolution.

        • Posted February 22, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

          No imagination or metaphysical assumptions are necessary.

          There is a single, glaring example of “directed evolution” in history: we humans been shaping evolution (descent with modification) – for our own ends by employing artificial selection on plants and animals for thousands of years. With likely few exceptions, every pet you’ve ever had, every farm animal you’ve ever seen and everything you’ve ever eaten is a result of humans actively selecting specific traits to breed for – or breed out. Beagles, bananas & barley are ALL down to humanity employing & directing, to satisfy our own desires, the unstoppable fact of descent with modification.

          Even though they share the basic underlying mechanism, evolution in nature does not resemble humanity’s purposeful interventions; evolution in nature appears, by all observation, to be unguided by any sort of intelligence.

          “Make a scientific case about how God would guide evolution.”

          Why would you ask me to present a case for a how a god I don’t believe in would direct evolution? It’d be pure fantasy. No “scientific case” can be made for something which has no evidence supporting it and you’re foolish in the extreme to present such an obtuse question as another A-HA card.

          • another commenter
            Posted February 22, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

            You are arguing like any Creationist would do. Compare:

            “It looks designed thus it is designed.”

            “Evolution appears to be unguided thus it must be unguided.”

            And you are also trying to sell this to me as a scientific argument.

            • Ichthyic
              Posted February 22, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

              And you are also trying to sell this to me as a scientific argument.

              why not?

              you’re busy trying to sell both a strawman AND a false equivalency as a valid argument.

            • Posted February 22, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

              Where did I say evolution “MUST BE” unguided? Point me to the exact paragraph.

              I’ve said, more than once, only that no evidence has been observed that suggests guidance; it does not necessarily follow that I think it MUST BE unguided. Don’t insult my intelligence (or expose your lack of integrity) by putting words in my mouth.

              Again & simpler: we haven’t observed any evidence for intelligence being involved in evolution; logically we can’t assume intelligence is or was a factor. That doesn’t extrapolate to “INTELLIGENCE MUST NOT HAVE DONE IT”; it’s just a provisional statement that intelligence is, based on current understanding, not a reasonable explanation.

              And, yeah, that IS a scientific argument, if you like. It’s provisional, pending any new information. It’s not dogma, it’s not set in stone, it’s open to falsification/confirmation via new evidence. THAT is science.

              BTW, the specific scientific argument YOU actually asked for was “what would God-guided evolution look like?” Remember “Make a scientific case about how God would guide evolution.”? Your exact words and I told you already: pondering such a thing wouldn’t be scientific, it’d be fantasy. You can’t base a scientific argument on something for which there is no evidence, e.g. your god with the capital “g”.

              And hey, well done for ignoring my example of “directed evolution”, too. Remember? The one you asked me for?

              OK, Nu-Framers – how far should I “accommodate” this anonymous cerebral heavyweight before I mock his rank idiocy and 9th-grade copy-pasted creationist rhetoric?

              • another commenter
                Posted February 23, 2011 at 12:21 am | Permalink

                “we haven’t observed any evidence for intelligence being involved in evolution”

                First, you are making a positive claim that evolution was unguided, so you need positive evidence to support it. Absence of evidence is not a demonstration of absence.

                Second, I’m asking you now for the third time how you determined the absence of evidence.

              • another commenter
                Posted February 23, 2011 at 12:32 am | Permalink

                Maybe a different way:
                “we haven’t observed any evidence for intelligence being involved in evolution”

                implies that you had expectations what evidence to find. And I would like to know where these expectations came from. If you didn’t have any expectations how can you claim that these were not fulfilled?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted February 22, 2011 at 7:24 am | Permalink

      a universal negative

      What has folk science to do with actual science? Even if you gave a reasonable, testable definition of “universal negative”, we have found their like many times over. There are no planets orbiting in square orbits or gravity wouldn’t work, no particles traveling faster than light in vacuum or relativity wouldn’t work, no supernatural agents messing in our observations or science wouldn’t work.

      • Diane G.
        Posted February 22, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

        There are no planets orbiting in square orbits or gravity wouldn’t work, no particles traveling faster than light in vacuum or relativity wouldn’t work, no supernatural agents messing in our observations or science wouldn’t work.

        Definitely one for the quote file! Potential sig material as well. Thanks!

  28. Sarah
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    I wish I could have had you as an undergrad professor! Kent State was not the best place to go for Zoology…

    • Tim Harris
      Posted February 21, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

      Hope that refers to JC and not Nick (Matzke)!

      • Sarah
        Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

        lol yes i meant JC for sure! I should have been more clear!

        • Barry
          Posted February 21, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

          But you were clear – Matzke is not a professor, so you couldn’t have been referring to him.

          • Ichthyic
            Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:12 am | Permalink

            He never will be.

  29. truthspeaker
    Posted February 21, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    Odorless, colorless, tasteless … wait, that’s something else.

  30. Posted February 21, 2011 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Of course, again Jerry,thanks for affriming the teleonomic argument! Our friend, Eugenie,will not acknowledge that this ia a scientific argument as well as a philosophical one: here no line of demarcation exists but rather the weight of evidence as Ernst Mayr in ” What Evolution Is ‘ in noting that no teleology directs natural selection and by implication any natural cause as you state, and G.Gaylord Simpson denies any orthogenesis in ” The Life of the Paat.” They and others find no intent behind natural phenomiena period!
    And I add to postulate God having that intent contradicts rather than complements any science besides violating the Ockham, with His convoluted, ad hoc assumptions so that as usual Alister Earl McGrath errs! No, Alister, He not only is a useless redundancy, but we ignostics find Him factually meaningless, albeit semantically meaningful like a square circle!
    Again ti’s another non sequitur to affirm that because of this purposelessness, we lack ultimate validation. “Life is its own validation and reward and ultimate meaning to which neither God nor the future state can further validate>” Inquiring Lynn
    Even the most liberal of theologians ends up making the that fear of purposelessness,eh?

    Google the ignostic-Ockham.

    • intercostalwaterway
      Posted February 22, 2011 at 1:40 am | Permalink

      “They and others find no intent behind natural phenomena period!”

      How could you possibly find an *intent* scientifically?

      What is meant, I think, is that evolution doesn’t look like some people expect it to — superficially orderly.

      (Also, teleology *really doesn’t mean that*. What people mostly mean when they talk about teleology in evolution is some version of orthogenesis — the idea that later states are inherent in earlier states, implying that you could (at least with perfect knowledge) perfectly predict the course of evolution of an organism’s descendants. Teleology itself is far messier – it’s not, unlike orthogenesis, a scientific position at all, but a philosophical one.)

  31. Posted February 21, 2011 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    And , neither God nor gremlins guide mechanical failure or demons guide my personality disorder, but the most liberal of theologies are no more than dressed-up animism,albeit one Super Spirit behind all natural phenomena!
    Yes, the advancement of theology is a parasite on natural phenomena and a parasite in trying to make teleoloy true. Evolutionary creationism- Ayala, Miller and creation evolution -Behe, both forms of theistic evolution blaspheme reason!
    Maarten Boudry, yes!

  32. Ichthyic
    Posted February 22, 2011 at 12:15 am | Permalink

    OT, but there was a huge earthquake in NZ today (Christchurch).

    65 confirmed dead so far, likely will be hundreds; still many trapped in buildings and under rubble.

    FYI, just in case there are some other Kiwis in the thread.

    http://www.3news.co.nz/Video/3NewsLiveStream/ChristchurchEarthquake/tabid/876/Default.aspx

    If you’re in NZ, please consider donating blood tomorrow!

    • Posted February 22, 2011 at 3:20 am | Permalink

      Nick, is there room for God’s hand in the plate tectonics that caused this tragedy? Some preacher is bound to claim that it’s divine punishment for some supposed moral lapse.

  33. Sigmund
    Posted February 22, 2011 at 4:35 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry all but, having read Eugenies reasoning I am forced to concurr with her logic. In fact the only problem witj her conclusions is that she doesn’t extend them far enough.
    I realize now that one of the key claims of Darwinism – that natural selection consists of random mutation followed by differential survival of the resultant variants – is, in fact an unwarranted philosophical claim.
    How on earth can you KNOW that the mutations are, in fact, random?
    Could it not be Jesus purposefully deaminating that particular cytosine at position 56,673,754 on chromosome 3?
    If you cannot prove that it wasn’t Jesus then it is best to keep your philosophical atheistic assumptions of randomness out of the definition. ;)

    • J.J.E.
      Posted February 22, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      Careful, there Sigmund, my Poe detector almost misfired after that first paragraph!

    • David
      Posted February 22, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      As ridiculous as it seems, this is good reasoning. It is hard to prove the universal absence of an effect. Jesus only needs to deaminate the cytosine _once_ in order to exist. I haven’t watched all the chemical reactions, so… as unlikely as I think it is, it is impossible to completely rule out the event.

      • H.H.
        Posted February 22, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

        Entirely true, which is why absolute certainty is a useless metric for evaluating claims.

        • Ichthyic
          Posted February 22, 2011 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

          absolute certainty is a useless metric for evaluating claims.

          You’re absolutely correct.

          I also expect this to be entirely straw-manned by accomodationists.

  34. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted February 22, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    This process cannot have a goal, any more than erosion has the goal of forming canyons, for the future cannot cause material events in the present.

    Of course one has to be careful with terminology here, a common use of “goal” is to discuss sufficiently constrained processes such as root solvers (root seekers, actually) algorithms as having a goal ahead of time.

    But in the analogy, such canyon forming flood erosion processes have no specified target as such, no set valley floor to work on. I.e. no “purpose”, such as the one IDists erroneously impute. This can simply be recognized by randomly choosing target.

  35. Posted February 23, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    another commenter said:

    Maybe a different way:
    “we haven’t observed any evidence for intelligence being involved in evolution”

    implies that you had expectations what evidence to find. And I would like to know where these expectations came from. If you didn’t have any expectations how can you claim that these were not fulfilled?

    You sure are dedicated, I’ll give you that. Dedicated to ridiculous & childish semantic games & dedicated to making bold assumptions about what I think in a transparent attempt to trip me up so you can claim some kind of victory.

    It’s not a case of my expectations being unfulfilled. It’s simply a case of no evidence being found for the intelligence hypothesis – a hypothesis that’s been around a lot longer than you, me or anyone else alive, as it happens. The fact that I’m aware of Hypothesis X doesn’t imply, at all, that I *expect* to find X.

    Pre-Darwin, intelligence was generally assumed, by clerics, scientists and the public alike, to be the source of both the creation and the diversity of life. However, Darwin’s observations (and the subsequent, repeated, countless confirmations and expansions of his theory) made intelligence nothing more than a redundant notion, a relic of earlier, ignorant times & clung to only by dedicated dogmatists.

    The fact that evolution proceeds in *what, by all observation, appears to be* a completely unguided fashion simply renders the intelligence hypothesis unnecessary. To invoke it is to reveal one’s ignorance of the theory of evolution and the evidence that supports it.

    Again: the fact that I may simply be *aware* of some competing hypothesis for a phenomenon doesn’t mean I expect to find evidence for it. I was made aware of the “alien hypothesis” when crop circles were in the news in the ’90s but I held no expectation that aliens were actually responsible. Why? Because no credible evidence exists that aliens, if they exist, have ever visited Earth. It was not plausible, not supported and was later debunked by the people responsible outing themselves.

    OK. Your turn. Got any more linguistic twists & turns? Any more assumptions you want to make about what I think? Any more “clever” 9th-grade arguments? If you’re a Kooky Kreationist Kollege student gunning for some extra credit, I suggest you go back to your “teacher” for some more talking points.

    • another commenter
      Posted February 23, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

      Although you are still denying that you use hidden assumptions to derive at your conclusions I have to forfeit my claim that saying that “evolution is undirected” is necessarily based on metaphysical assumptions. Another commenter (http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/02/21/natural-selection-and-evolution-material-blind-mindless-and-purposeless/#comment-79916) offered a cop out which is not that convincing and I would still say that as of today the claim that “evolution is undirected” is scientifically indefensible but that would just be my opinion. But I realized that the claim itself does not in principle have to be a metaphysical which was the core of what I was claiming.

    • another commenter
      Posted February 23, 2011 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

      To present a more specific example: Prof Moran is arguing right now with Richard Dawkins (Thttp://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2011/02/dawkins-darwin-drift-and-neutral-theory.html) whether tongue-rolling is a product of natural selection or genetic drift. He has also argued the same concerning human hairlessness. So there is plenty of room for a designer pushing things in a certain direction. I am aware that this is a “god of the gaps” argument. But if you don’t have your own story straight you can’t argue that no other story holds water.

      • Posted February 23, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

        Is it really your position that uncertainty regarding the origin of a specific trait leaves room for a “designer pushing things in a certain direction”?

        I have news for you: “Richard & Larry don’t agree on the specific source of X, therefore God did it” isn’t just a “god of the gaps” argument, it’s also an argument from rank ignorance and incredulity. Perhaps you should read one of Richard or Larry’s books, or just some more of their online work. Do yourself a favour and actually learn about evolution before you presume to disprove it with your oh-so-clever junior-high debating skills.

        Further, the fact that you admit you’re using a GOTG argument makes me realise you’ve heard objections to GOTG before. If that’s the case, why use an argument that in all likelihood won’t be accepted at a venue like this?

        For the record, I haven’t actually changed my “story”; it’s been the same from the beginning. Also, the fact that an evolutionary biologist and an evo-biochemist don’t agree on the origin of a specific trait does not “change the story”, does not invalidate evolution and does not leave a neat little gap for your god to fill.

        You need to abandon whatever hero of apologetics you’re cribbing your arguments from and actually spend time reading some science texts. If your best argument against evolution is “uncertainty = god”, then both your arguing skills and your god are ineffectual, laughably pathetic and not worth wasting any more time on.

        • Posted February 23, 2011 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

          Sigh.

          “I would still say that as of today the claim that “evolution is undirected” is scientifically indefensible but that would just be my opinion.”

          The claim that evolution is undirected is based on the evidence to hand. The reams and reams of scientifically defensible evidence that are available to everyone. The evidence from multiple avenues of inquiry (not just the biological sciences) that cross-confirm each other. The pieces of evidence that have not encountered any serious refuation.

          In contrast: what is your opinion based on? Clearly an insufficient, incomplete understanding of what evolutionary theory says and what it doesn’t say, to start with. Perhaps general ignorance of the concepts of evidence and of science themselves. The naive belief that arguments over specific evolutionary mechanisms between experts in the field implies that the entire field is invalid. Possibly some very shaky and oft-debunked apologetics fed to you by some preacher/teacher. Equally possibly, the narcissistic belief that you’re way too special to have evolved naturally from some ol’ monkey and must be the result of direct godly intervention.

          Yawn.

          • another commenter
            Posted February 24, 2011 at 12:25 am | Permalink

            I don’t know if you have changed your story. The only thing what I’m saying is that there is an important difference between claiming that the current model explains the data sufficiently well so that there is no need for a God and claiming that the current data suggest that there is no God. The former being a benign scientific claim whereas the later being a metaphysical claim.

          • another commenter
            Posted February 24, 2011 at 12:56 am | Permalink

            Since you still seem to be denying your own metaphysics I might as well recommend you something to read. Maybe a good start would be http://darwins-god.blogspot.com/. But you have to ignore the majority of posts and concentrate on the ones tagged with “Evolution’s religion”. Or you could read one of Cornelius Hunters books.

            • Posted February 28, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

              No. If you can’t do anything but contradict me and point me to your heroes’ blogs, this argument is pointless.

              I am not, for the last time, making any metaphysical claims.

              To sum it up very shortly: the evidence points to evolution being a wholly natural process; there is therefore no need to invoke a designer-god.

              I’m not claiming “no designer”, I’m stating a designer is irrelevant. Redundant. Unnecessary. Superfluous. Extraneous. NOT NEEDED.

              That’s it. No absolute statements, no assertions, no assumptions, no metaphysics, just a logical conclusion based on the evidence.

              If the sum of your arguments is going to be ignoring whatever anyone says to you – including direct responses to your own points – followed by “you’re making a metaphysical claim therefore you’re as religious as everyone else therefore Jesus pwns Darwin, now go read Creationist Hero #151243 and you’ll see I’m right” then I’m done. I know about Hunter, I know about who he pals around with, I know that his Creationist arguments are no more compelling than anyone else’s.

              I guess I was right about one thing: none of these arguments are yours; they’re cribbed from creationist apologist blogs and unapologetically regurgitated here.


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