“Deep Waters Trust” out of its depth

Darwin in Shrewsbury [BPSDB] You might think that if creationists want to criticise the theory of evolution by natural selection, as understood and used by the overwhelming majority of biologists, then they would try to understand the theory. Especially as the series of meetings in Shrewsbury, Darwin’s birthplace, was billed as “an assessment of the evidence for design which has emerged through the advances in science since publication of his [Darwin’s] On the Origin of Species in 1859”.

I have already commented on the fact that there didn’t appear to be any books explaining evolution on the bookstall at the Meyer meeting. Perhaps the organisers were afraid that if they understood evolution they may come to be convinced by it.

That the Shrewsbury Deep Waters Trust misunderstands the theory is clear from the press release put out before the meeting. Obviously, to understand the theory properly, and how it agrees with the evidence, you need to read a lot more than I can write here.

1. Because we are based in his birthplace we see a need for a different approach to Darwin from the extreme positions of devotion and hostility that are commonly adopted: while we don”t accept the conclusions of modern neo-Darwinians about evolution we respect Charles Darwin himself – both for his theory of Natural Selection and for his honesty in acknowledging the possibility that evolution might be proved false. There is evidence in his writings and those of his contemporaries that shows where he believed his theories were in need of confirmation by future research.

Scientists are not “devoted” to Darwin, although admittedly there appears to be a lot of hostility to him in some quarters. The commemoration honours a great scientist – but scientist is the word.  All scientists expect that their theories (if important) will be tested and questioned in the future. This questioning and testing is called “research”. In the case of Darwin’s theory – evolution by natural selection – the theory was vitally important and had implications over a wide range of science.  It could have been disproved by discoveries, not only in natural history and paleontology (the study of fossils) but also by discoveries in geology and astronomy and even physics. And, especially, by discoveries in the new science of genetics which was just beginning, unknown to Darwin, during his lifetime.

All this evidence has tested the theory to the maximum, and it has survived, improved, since Darwin’s day. It’s the only theory that matches the vast amount of evidence that has been collected. And it is still being tested.

2. Christians believe that God, not random mutations, is responsible for the design that underlies the world we live in. Particular recent evidence of design of which Darwin was not aware is in DNA – the genetic code: it is a language, containing information that controls the formation and operation of cells. It exists independently of the material from which the cells are made.

It may come as a surprise to the Deep Waters Trust that evolutionary scientists, even the most atheistic ones, do not believe that “random mutations” are responsible for design, or the appearance of design, in living organisms. Darwin’s insight was the selection of particular organisms by the environment – those that reproduce most successfully in the environment – enabling their genetic material to persist and become predominant. This is called “natural selection”. Darwin knew nothing about the genetic mechanism, of course, but the fact that it is consistent with evolution in all respects is one of the successes of Darwin’s theory.

3. Evolution involves progress “up” the evolutionary tree, each step requiring the addition of information to the genetic code.

No, it doesn’t! This is a serious misunderstanding. Evolution is about adaptation, not progress. The outcome of evolution, as it has happened, is that there are some complex organisms (a few of which think they rule the world), but simple organisms are just as evolved. Think of the bacteria – they live and exist much as the earliest of their kind, but they have evolved to live in all sorts of ecological niches.  There is possibly a larger mass of bacteria on the planet than of all other organisms put together. And loss of function is common in evolution – think of flightless birds.

Random processes do not produce meaningful information. Some Christians believe God used evolution to bring about his purposes, producing more complex designs progressively by stages. Others believe the DNA evidence is better interpreted as demonstrating a gradual loss of information as species change through Natural Selection. (Loss of genetic information produces greater variety in sub-species, but not the ability to change from a simpler species into a more complex one.) The ancestors of today’s species would have been fewer, more elaborate, forms containing all the genetic information from which present day life has descended.

Creationists abuse the idea of “information” and “complexity” (which seem to be interchangeable to them) by using the words in different ways so that you think they are talking about the same thing when, really, they are changing the meaning as they go along. In fact, there does not seem to be any generally accepted definition of either “information” and “complexity” that applies in understanding evolution. Dr Stephen Meyer, in his lecture, used the Shannon definition of information (as was clear from the slides he displayed). This definition specifically relates to understanding the transmission of information down a predefined communications channel. What relationship it has to evolution needs to be demonstrated. Dr Meyer’s use of it seemed to be mainly to give an apparently scientific appearance to a non-scientific argument.

4. The debate is sometimes portrayed in terms of a conflict between science and religion, where science suggests that life has evolved as a result of random processes, while religion claims God has brought it about deliberately.

Some believe both these views can be held at the same time; others that they are mutually exclusive, and that only with “blind” faith – faith despite evidence to the contrary – can one claim that both are true. We believe there is a third position that needs to be explored: the possibility that the scientific evidence is best interpreted as confirming design, not randomness.

No, as I said before, no scientific theory holds that life evolved purely as a result of random processes. That makes a difference.

To make ID (or creationism) scientific, what you have to do is show that it makes specific predictions about the evidence (fossils, genetic makeup of species, or whatever) that are different from (the real) theory of evolution by natural selection. And then show that the actual evidence agrees with ID (or creationism) and not with evolutionary theory. This is the challenge to the Discovery Institute or anyone else. And ID and creationism have always failed this challenge.

5. We believe there is not one debate but two: one debate about interpretations of the scientific evidence – what has come to be known as Intelligent Design versus random processes – and another between two faith positions: an originally good world which has been in decline as a consequence of human wrongdoing, or an originally simple and amoral world which has been evolving into something more complex and better.

These are both false dichotomies – a logical error. Are there really only two possible positions in each argument? I can think  of many positions in each case. I won’t bore you with mine, except to say that my position is emphatically not a “faith” position, as I would change it if any convincing contrary evidence was presented.

Stephen Meyer’s book

Dr Meyer’s book has now been published. I shall not be buying a copy, as his lecture suggested that there was nothing in it that is both significantly new and interesting. Other people, better qualified than I am to do so, will no doubt be reviewing it in time, and I shall look forward to reading their reviews.

Dr Meyer’s main theme in the lecture was a bit like the following argument. Suppose he had claimed that it was impossible to create a baby, because it is highly improbable that all the chemical components of a baby could come together in the right combinations.  We would surely argue that he is wrong, because babies are not made by the process of assembling all the chemicals at once. In fact, a baby is assembled slowly by processes in which the baby’s genes interact with his environment (including the mother’s womb and the outside environment). Similarly, the evolved biosphere is a product of continual processes of interaction between the organisms’ genetic materials and their environments.

Update

The Deep Waters Trust seems to have gone into hibernation since the event. There is no sign of the recordings promised from the February event. The aims of the charity are given as “The advancement of education in the public arena of the relationship of belief in a creator god based on the Holy Bible and scientific discovery, philosophy, theory and investigation”.

See also

Creationism in Darwin’s birthplace

Not quite so honest to Darwin (or anyone else)

More about Stephen Meyer’s lecture on Intelligent Design

Other creationists who crashed the Darwin party

More about Stephen Meyer’s lecture on Intelligent Design

[BPSDB]Rather late, this is my comment on the lecture given in Shrewsbury (Darwin’s birthplace) in late February 2009 by Dr Stephen Meyer from the Discovery Institute. This was billed as reviewing “Darwin’s life and theories from a new perspective – an assessment of the evidence for design which has emerged through the advances in science since publication of his On the Origin of Species in 1859” . It was also advertised as Dr Meyer’s first public lecture on the theme of his new book, “Signature in the cell: DNA and the evidence for Intelligent Design”.

The book has not yet been published, so I can’t yet compare it with the lecture. However, it did seem to me that there was very little in the lecture that was actually new – I have been following the debate between biologists and ID proponents for some years now. It wasn’t possible for me to take notes fast enough to give a point-by-point analysis of the lecture.

The lecture was divided into two halves, with a short break of five minutes. The crucial argument was presented early in the second part. I’d almost call it a “climax”, because Dr Meyer is a showman: he knows how to ramp up the excitement and carry the audience with him. Of course, in this case the audience was largely sympathetic to his aim and uncritical towards his arguments.

There was, in reality, very little mention of evolution in the lecture – mostly quotations from Darwin and other scientists – although the whole thing was carried off so that I suspect that most in the audience really believed that they were witnessing a powerful critique of evolution.

The lecture began with a few comments about Darwin and evolution, there was some talk about “chemical evolution” and the work of Oparin and Miller, and then much of the first part was given over to explaining the basics – what seemed to me to be perfectly acceptable explanations of the shapes of DNA and proteins, and how the functions of proteins depend on their shapes. Then he went on to more contentious matters, including the ID proponents’ favoured idea of “specified complexity”.

The climax came after the break. Dr Meyer took the audience through the calculation of the probability of a protein (of 150 amino acids) assembling itself from its units – vanishingly small, of course. I could feel the excitement of the audience close to me as he approached the result and there was laughter as he calculated the final result. They must have felt that Dr Meyer had delivered the coup de grace to evolution by natural selection.

This was really the core of the lecture. The rest consisted largely of unsupported assertions of ID dogma, for example, that undirected natural processes do not produce large amounts of “specified complexity”, that creation of new information is habitually associated with conscious activity, that the functional integration of proteins, DNA and ATP is evidence for design, and that ID has been justified by predicting that so-called ‘junk DNA’ would be found to be functional (I’m not a biologist, but my understanding is that some noncoding DNA is known to have important functions, but that there is good evidence that much DNA has no function).

The lecture depended largely on what might be compared with a David Copperfield illusion: Dr Meyer did not demonstrate what the audience were no doubt expected to think he had demonstrated, and the whole effect depended on the audience seeing what it wanted to see and not questioning what they believed they had seen and heard.

The calculation of the improbability of a protein is irrelevant, because it entirely omits the very process that ID-ists claim to question – evolution by natural selection. The evolutionary process is what made it possible to observe the proteins we see today carrying out the functions that they do. No evolutionary biologist imagines that any functional protein somehow had to be assembled all at once out of its individual amino acids. Proteins evolved in organisms, through relatively small changes in the genetic material (changes that accorded with the laws of chemistry and physics), and were selected for or against by the environments prevailing at the time. No step required any probability that was unreasonably small in the available time frame.

What’s more, to look at the protein and its function the way Dr Meyer did is to get the whole thing backwards. The protein and its function were not “specified” first and the evolutionary process tailored to creating it. Both the protein and its function are as they are because they are the outcome of a whole series of changes that were possible at each step. They may not be the best possible way to carrry out the function, but they exist both because they are the result of a series of physically and chemically possible changes and they enable the organism to function in its current environment – specifically, to reproduce successfully. In many cases, it is now possible to trace the steps by which the current system and its function came about – see, for example, the debate between biologists and ID-ists over the biochemistry of blood clotting.

Creationism in Darwin’s birthplace

The creationists are in town this week in Darwin’s birthplace. I have been out of town myself so could not attend any of the weekday sessions, but I do hope to get to the Saturday lecture, which stars Stephen C. Meyer, one of the founders of the Discovery Insitute, the begetters of the “Intelligent Design” (ID) idea. If I can get there, I’ll report back to the local humanists and comment here.

Interestingly, although the Disco people like to promote ID as a “scientific” theory, without actually doing any science,  the inspiration behind the programme in Shrewsbury appears to be religious, and specifically Christian. The event information (not on line, as far as I can find) says: “We believe there is not one debate but two: one debate about interpretations of the scientific evidence – what has come to be known as Intelligent Design versus random processes – and another between two faith positions: an originally good world which has been in decline as a consequence of human wrongdoing, or an originally simple and amoral world which has been evolving into something more complex and better.” No room allowed here for any other interpretations, apparently, particularly the possibility that you can have a view on evolution that is not a “faith position”.

There is the common straw man version of evolution: “Evolution involves progress “up” the evolutionary tree, each step requiring the addition of information to the genetic code. Random processes do not produce meaningful information.”

If anyone has any information about the weekday presentations, I’d be interested to hear about them.  [bpsdb]

Evolutionary theory is much more than one man

There is I think something a little special about living, as I do, in the town where Darwin was born and spent his formative years, exploring the fascinating geology and natural history of the local area. The local authorities clearly think so too, and this is good, because some years ago members of the local geological society were complaining that local tourism was putting too much emphasis on a person who never existed and ignoring the connection with one of the greatest of all scientists.

Nevertheless, the Darwin celebrations make me a little uneasy. Celebration of someone’s life can spill over – or seem to spill over – into adulation. This makes it easy for creationists and the unintelligent “design” proponents (like these local jokers who think that they are offering Darwin’s home town “a balanced discussion of the science”) to misrepresent evolutionary theory as “Darwinism” and pretend that scientists are following a body of knowledge laid down for all time by its founder, as in religion or homeopathy.

Evolutionary theory is not the invention of one mind. I’m not just thinking about the people on whose work Darwin drew, although I feel that Alfred Russel Wallace may have been unjustly neglected. Most of all, in all the things I have seen, heard and read so far in this Darwin celebration there has been a lack of emphasis on the fact that evolution is an active research programme, more vital to science than ever, rather than just a discovery. It is essential to research in biology, geology and the human sciences, and advanced by hundreds of thousands of researchers, many of them working actively today.

Over the past few months I have written several times in answer to creationists in newspapers and elsewhere (for example, here)  and have tried to emphasise the research that is going on, the new knowledge that is always being found and the questions that are being answered. There is just nothing to compare with this on the creationist side, but most of the general public has no idea of this. Evolution is not simply Darwin, but many, many others. How can we put this across, particularly that the unanswered questions are not a weakness but the sign of a scientific field at its most vigorous? There are many exciting blogs, but these are unlikely to come to the notice of most non-scientific members of the public.  [bpsdb]

The Atheist Thirteen

I saw this on jdc325’s blog. I dare say few of the bloggers that are participating will have heard of me, but I thought I’d make my own contribution.

Q1. How would you define “atheism”?

I don’t like the word. It’s defined by theists, to imply an opposition to their own point of view, regarded as some kind of standard. My own lack of belief in any god or supernatural power is exactly the same as my lack of belief in fairies, tree-spirits, ghosts or interstellar teapots. What all these have in common (apart, perhaps, from the teapot) is that people have expressed a belief in them, without presenting any evidence at all. But I don’t call myself an ‘afairyist’ or ‘aghostist’.

I guess that, like most people, I could describe myself using various terms. I don’t believe any ontological claim without good evidence – that probably makes me a ‘sceptic’ (note that this is different from denying that something exists, either without evidence or disregarding good evidence). My positive views on morality are probably best described as ‘humanist’. My attitude to discovering what exists is both ‘popperian critical rationalist’ and ‘scientific’. To the (considerable) extent that religious people try to force their beliefs on others, I am a ‘secularist’, that is, someone who thinks that people should be entitled to their beliefs, but that no religion should be an organising principle for society.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

My parents sent their children to a Congregational Sunday school, but they never showed any evidence of religious belief and I think that was mainly to get us from under their feet on Sunday morning. (This was in the days when children could be trusted to walk a couple of miles by themselves.) And, conveniently, we could collect the ice cream for Sunday lunch from the sweetshop on the way home. I can remember very little of that experience that had anything to do with religion, although I enjoyed the social side of it (including quizzes led by our young teacher instead of bible lessons!) and discussions on all sorts of things, including psychic phenomena. I had a sort of kind of type of vague 60s view of a supernatural being until my late teens. And then it just went.

Q3. How would you describe “Intelligent Design”, using only one word?

ID stands for Intellectual Dishonesty (sorry, those are two words). There seem to be no more than maybe one or two dozen people actively promoting ID, and they do this through subverting education and the law and doing PR stunts. They do no science. The aim is just to present to the public the image of a scientific controversy, with the apparent ultimate goal of suppressing the real science. Most of them seem to know this. Behind it most of the people involved really seem to be creationists.

Q4. What scientific endeavour really excites you?

I perhaps ought to say ‘chemistry’, as it was the field of my first degree and PhD, but I sometimes wish I’d been a geologist. I think the discovery of earth history is one of the most interesting topics in science. Philosophers of science seem to ignore it and have a distorted view of science through thinking of physics and science as more or less the same thing.

Q5. If you could change one thing about the “atheist community”, what would it be and why?

For a short time I followed some of the groups that called themselves ‘Brights’ but I was very put off by their attitudes to others.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said “I’m joining the clergy”, what would be your first response?

I’d be very surprised. But what he does is his choice.

Q7. What’s your favourite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

All the arguments for the existence of God, whatever their merit, are really irrelevant to the real world. People do not practice ‘faith’ or believe in ‘God’ – they practice specific religions, which make very specific assertions about what their god is and what he wants from humans: he was crucified and rose again, he wants you to fast every year and to pray five times a day, or not to work on a Saturday. As far as I know, no theologian has ever been able to make that leap by argument from ‘God’ to any specific god that people really believe in. There is only one argument that really matters in religion, and that is ‘my revelation is better than your revelation’. It is at root the most stunningly self-centred attitude.

In organised religion, this is backed up by force and ultimately violence: ‘God’ threatens retribution if you don’t behave as he wishes, but since he unaccountably fails to do this, it must be enforced by old men, often with beards. And, if that doesn’t work, the young men will come and get you on their behalf.

Q8. What’s your most “controversial” (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

I don’t know.

Q9. Of the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?

I have not read most of these. I’ve read most of Dawkins’s God Delusion, but the arguments have not really changed since I read Bertrand Russell on the same things as a youth. Where Dawkins scores is in being (mostly) right and writing it so well. (Dennett is still waiting to be read.)

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

I would like to think that one need not be concerned about convincing people to abandon their beliefs, only to convince them not to force the beliefs on other people. However, in view of my answer (7) above, I am not sure that is possible – because of the nature of theistic belief, anyone who believes something different, even another theistic doctrine, will always be a threat and a source of ‘offence’. So, in that case, convincing just one theist, any one, coul be regarded as an improvement in the human condition.

The other three items are to invite other bloggers to do the same. I don’t feel able to do that.