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Serious challenge to Evolution?

  1. Aug 19, 2004 #1
    Could one of you scientists out there help me?
    A friend of mine is reading a book called 'Uncommon Dissent', which she says makes a serious claim for doubting the basic tenets of the theory of natural selection.
    I suspect that this book and its claims might be flat-earth stuff, easily debunked by those in-the-know.
    Could anybody confirm or deny this suspicion? Are there any serious scientific reasons for questioning the theoretical grounds of evolution?
    Thanks very much for any help you can offer.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 19, 2004 #2
    Search for the thread in this forum called "is evolution real?". It should be on the first page.

    Natural selection is observable. Evolution is observable.

    If any book was published that actually made scientists cast doubt onto evolution, it would be huge.
  4. Aug 19, 2004 #3


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    A google search reveals http://www.arn.org/arnproducts/books/b093.htm [Broken] description of the book (its a collection of anti-evolution essays).
    I read "Darwin's Black Box," perhaps the best known intelligent design book, and was unimpressed. The argument boils down to 'life is complex, therefore I believe God created it.' That's not science.
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  5. Aug 19, 2004 #4


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    The majority of the scientific community strongly supports the theory of evolution. There's no question that evolution happens. There are questions about the mechanisms at work and the history of it.

    However, there is a big debate in the public forum (especially regarding public schools), mainly led by non-scientists and directed at other non-scientists (i.e., it's a religious/political agenda). There are many Creationist organizations that are well funded, very vocal, and politically active.

    As Russ said, this new book is a collection of essays by some of the leading Creationist (anti-evolutionist) writers. (Yes, some of them are scientists.) Scanning the author list (I have not read the book), I see that these are not likely to be flat-Earth arguments. Someone who reads this book without any insight into the theory of evolution will find their arguments interesting/serious. But someone more familiar with the science of evolution will see that their arguments just don't hold up to the actual evidence (or what the theory actually says, since many Creationist arguments misrepresent the theory) or that their arguments are based on faith rather than evidence.

    The most recognizable names are Behe (who says biochemistry is "irreduceably complex" and could not have happened without a designer), Dembski (similar argument to Behe's), and Johnson (a lawyer who tries to cast "reasonable doubt" on the theory by questioning the evidence).

    As aychamo said, there are many discussions here about the creation vs evolution debate. Take a look. Also try www.talkorigins.org.
  6. Aug 19, 2004 #5


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    For review of the book, see http://www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archives/000428.html#pings [Broken] .
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  7. Sep 9, 2004 #6
    A rather interesting paper can be found online at http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php?command=view&id=2177.

    Its title and author are:
    The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories
    Stephen C. Meyer

    and it was published in a peer-reviewed journal:
    117(2):213-239. 2004

    Stephen makes the claim that a valid theory of microevolution exists on the basis of genetic variation and natural selection, but that this theory cannot be extended to macroevolution where entirely new species supposedly arise from accumulations of micro changes. He focuses on the Cambrian explosion of new species, and says:

    "The following information-based analysis of the Cambrian explosion will support the claim of recent authors such as Muller and Newman that the mechanism of selection and genetic mutation does not constitute an adequate causal explanation of the origination of biological form in the higher taxonomic groups. It will also suggest the need to explore other possible causal factors for the origin of form and information during the evolution of life and will examine some other possibilities that have been proposed."

    "The “Cambrian explosion” refers to the geologically sudden appearance of many new animal body plans about 530 million years ago. At this time, at least nineteen, and perhaps as many as thirty-five phyla of forty total (Meyer et al. 2003), made their first appearance on earth within a narrow five- to ten-million-year window of geologic time "

    Meyer uses Information theory to determine if these forms could arise on the basis of mutation and selection alone. To wit:

    "Since the 1960s, mathematical biologists have realized that Shannon's theory could be applied to the analysis of DNA and proteins to measure the information-carrying capacity of these macromolecules. Since DNA contains the assembly instructions for building proteins, the information-processing system in the cell represents a kind of communication channel (Yockey 1992:110). Further, DNA conveys information via specifically arranged sequences of nucleotide bases. Since each of the four bases has a roughly equal chance of occurring at each site along the spine of the DNA molecule, biologists can calculate the probability, and thus the information-carrying capacity, of any particular sequence n bases long."

    This is a very long paper. But in short, he first suggests that the mechanism of mutation/selection could not possibly explain the origin of new forms of life in so short a time.

    He then examines Kaufman’s self-organizing theory of evolution. In this theory, biomolecular systems produce new forms of life at critical levels of complexity. I do not think that Meyer can dismiss Kauffman's theory. He said it best himself:

    "Even so, Kauffman suggests that his self-organizational models can specifically elucidate aspects of the Cambrian explosion. According to Kauffman (1995:199-201), new Cambrian animals emerged as the result of “long jump” mutations that established new body plans in a discrete rather than gradual fashion. He also recognizes that mutations affecting early development are almost inevitably harmful. Thus, he concludes that body plans, once established, will not change, and that any subsequent evolution must occur within an established body plan (Kauffman 1995:201). And indeed, the fossil record does show a curious (from a neo-Darwinian point of view) top-down pattern of appearance, in which higher taxa (and the body plans they represent) appear first, only later to be followed by the multiplication of lower taxa representing variations within those original body designs (Erwin et al. 1987, Lewin 1988, Valentine & Jablonski 2003:518). Further, as Kauffman expects, body plans appear suddenly and persist without significant modification over time."

    Yet Meyer rejects Kauffman's theory. Here is the key statement by Meyer in that rejection:

    "Yet developmental biologists know that these are the only kind of mutations that have a realistic chance of producing large-scale evolutionary change--i.e., the big jumps that Kauffman invokes. "

    I believe that Meyer totally misses the point here. The big jumps come from rearrangements, not from mutations according to Kauffman. Self-organization is a mechanism for producing new information. Meyer seems to miss that point as he goes on to examine many other proposals for understanding the evolution of life, and dismisses them all primarily on the basis that their is no way to create new information so fast.

    It seems that he cannot conceive of self-organization as producing new information. Indeed he goes on to explain how design can solve this problem, and he naturally assumes the design must be intelligent. Yet the entirety of his argument for intelligent works, in my opinion, for self-organizing design.

    Here he is specific about self-organization:

    "Self-organization theorists argue that natural selection acting on self organizing order can explain the complexity of living things--again, without any appeal to design. "

    Self-organization produces new designs according to Kauffman. It seems that Meyer has blinders on. But then he needs to eliminate all materialistic sources of design, so that he can invoke other worldly intelligent sources of information and design. But he has not done so.

    Bottom line, I agree that design is required and that mutation/selection alone is insufficient. But it seems to me that Kauffman's theory of self-organization is the most likely source of such new designs. Most important it includes the mechanism by which design happens.

    The problem with intelligent design is that no mechanism by which an external intelligence could influence biological life is offered. The only external source of information or design that I could accept is life being introduced to earth from outer space by way of meteorites. But I find the idea of a nature that is self-organizing much more appealing. Perhaps you could say that nature herself is intelligent. But there is no need for a God, even if one does exist.

    Finally, Meyer is not a creationist. He is supporting the theory of evolution, but just claiming that some mechanism of top down design is required to explain the Cambrian info explosion. To be a creationist, you have to believe that creation is instantaneous, or at least took 6 days. However, Meyer's paper is fatally flawed just because he cannot believe that design comes from natural self-organization
  8. Sep 10, 2004 #7
    "The only external source of information or design that I could accept is life being introduced to earth from outer space by way of meteorites"

    Dun tink that is valid, since the next question will be where did life on that meteorite come from?
  9. Sep 10, 2004 #8
    Please let's not sidetrack this discussion with a discussion of panspermia (origin of life from space) which can be found all over the internet, and for example at: http://www.panspermia.org/index.htm

    The main import of my original remarks is that bioinformation can increase discretely due to the self-organizing mechanisms proposed by Kauffman, which occur according to computer experiments at certain levels of complexity, and which introduces a redesign of the complex system. There is no need for external interference to introdice new designs. They happen naturally in nature and are a product of the emergent laws of nature. You may call this intelligent design. But most scientists would call it natural redesign as intelligence design implies a human-like cosmic intelligence underlying the design.

    So intelligent design is not even a theory, barely a hypothesis because the mechanism of information transfer is not specified; whereas design by critical self-organization is a theory, at least a mathematical theory (like all theories), which specifies the mechanism of redesign and is backed up by computer experiments. I wonder if there is observational data to back up the theory.

    Anyway, this is the answer to those who propose intelligent design as a necessity. It is not necessary. Seemingly spontaneous new-body design is a consequence of the laws of nature and mathematics regarding emergent biological systems. The Darwinian mutation/selection mechanism is not sufficient to explain the Cambrian explosion. Design is needed, but it all comes from nature.
  10. Sep 10, 2004 #9


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    The Biological Society of Washington (i.e. the governing board of the journal where it was published) has issued a http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/news/2004/ZZ/608_bsw_repudiates_meyer_9_7_2004.asp [Broken] which repudiates Meyer's paper, and indicating that the society endorses the view of an AAAS resolution which states that Intelligent Design has not so far given an account of its ideas that would justify it being accorded any status as an established theory.

    Apparently the paper was never seen by the Society's board before it appeared in the journal...
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  11. Sep 10, 2004 #10


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    The Meyer paper is certainly interesting!

    Could I ask someone more familiar with the field than I am, how accurate is the first part (where he discusses the problem, the approach wrt several different biological and evolutionary models and theories, and summarises some of the results from direct experimentation)?

    Meyer seemed to be a little inconsistent in his critiques too - ostensibly he is examining just the Cambrian explosion wrt multi-cellular animals, but several times he writes as if larger implications are more relevant (e.g. if it's difficult to account for several new body plans in the Cambrian, he seems to say, it's also difficult to account for structure in complex single cells too).

    I also got a sense that work in this area is quite difficult - not only is the fossil record sparse, but our understanding of the molecular biology of the organisms which preceeded those of the early Cambrian may also be rather preliminary (so the extent to which experiments on modern genes, proteins, structures, etc are relevant to the pre-Cambrian hard to assess).

    Finally, why do you think he chose to ignore the evolution of plants?
  12. Sep 10, 2004 #11


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    The Panda's Thumb has a http://www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archives/000484.html [Broken] of Meyer's paper.

    The Intelligent Design argument is not unsophisticated, but it does not adequately confront the evidence that exists.
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  13. Sep 10, 2004 #12
    Id suggest you read the book... maybe you would surprised. I have only read a small part of this thread but id like to thank russ for pointing out the obvious. There is NO way to prove anything outside our perception which includes other dimensions, Gods, anything that we cant see. Everyone knows this. That is why people attack the random luck theories. There are only 2 possibilities: creation, and random luck. Seeing all the things that random luck cannot explain, id say it takes more faith to believe that we are here for no reason at all than to believe creation. Information (DNA) from nothing? Conciousness? Making a cell from nothing? Cambrian Explosion? I dont even want to argue with you because its been my experience that many athiests simply have a grudge against theists and will never look at it with an open mind, they are too set on trying to prove that we are luck to escape the duties of a God. :frown:
  14. Sep 10, 2004 #13
    That's a false dichotomy. Your argument is fallacious.

    Your lack of knowledge in science leads you to faith.
  15. Sep 10, 2004 #14
    I dont know what "dichotomy" or "fallacious" means but im pretty sure i can assume they are not supporting what i said. Please feel free to explain how random luck and evolution managed to create any of the things i pointed out that you (conviently?) missed when you replied to my post.

    "Imagination is more important than intelligence."
  16. Sep 11, 2004 #15
    Imagination is intelligence if it can be applied.

    You said yourself musky_ox, that nothing can be proven outside of your own perception (or more precisely, nothing can be proved except that you exist).

    And you are correct, scientists still cannot show anything close to (protein) life appearing from nothing .. they've tried mixing together basic inorganic molecules, zapping them with electricity, and chemical precusors of life did form spontaneously. But seeing as I don't think anyone has the patience to wait a good billion years or so to see what happens.. its all just theory.

    And when you think about it, exactly what is it to be "Created"? What is random? Random is simply a pattern that we cannot understand..
  17. Sep 11, 2004 #16


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    Then perhaps you could take the time to read more of it, and also the Meyer paper
    This is a *science* site, not a philosophy one; it seems that you are confusing the two ... AFAIK, nothing can be 'proven' in science, the best you can do is something like "this theory is internally consistent, consistent with other relevant theories, and (the most important of all) consistent with good observations and experimental results within the theory's domain of applicability". In this sense, the various theories of evolution are certainly very good theories.
    There was a time when 'everyone' knew the Earth was flat too.
    How do you know who among the posters to this thread are atheists? theists? And what does one's personal beliefs - religious or otherwise - have to do with theories of evolution?

    musky_ox, it may be that you have not understood what this PF website is all about, would you mind please reading again the relevant guidelines?
  18. Sep 11, 2004 #17
    "Worthless quotes don't prove a point."
  19. Sep 11, 2004 #18


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    At this point, it's important to distinguish between the origin of life on Earth and the Theory of Evolution. Evolution addresses speciation events. Once life existed, evolution addresses how that life changed and developed into the species currently existant on Earth. How the first life formed is much harder to determine. Evolution also isn't arguing "random luck." The monkeys typing example is a misconception promoted by Creationists to refute evolution, but has no real basis in evolutionary theory. Natural selection is, well, selective, and is the underpinning of evolutionary theory. These concepts are really horribly misunderstood, and even frequently taught incorrectly in US secondary schools due to the misunderstandings of the teachers. Teaching of Creationism in schools has everything to do with politics and nothing to do with science, so just because it is taught, and those who believe in it call it a theory, does not make it a theory in the true scientific meaning of the word.
  20. Sep 11, 2004 #19
    The theory of the evolution of life is not a theory that can answer all kinds of very to the point questions, such as how did life exactly originate or why did so many species originate in the Cambrian. There must have been a certain situation back then that made it happen. The fact that we cannot replicate (or understand) that situation does not refute the theory of evolution. The theory of evolution describes how it probably went:

    It starts with a planet on which different kinds of chemicals interact forming all kinds of molecules. Then some molecules turn out to be self-replicators, that is they participate in reactions that generate copies of themselves. These copies may not be perfect but resemble the original more or less, so these copies will also be replicators. This process (a positive feedback loop) will lead to more and more of these replicators. When there are many of those, not all of them will come in contact with the right molecules to generate a replica of themselves, these will be annihilated in reactions with other molecules before this happens. So there is now some form of selection: the ones that come into contact with the right building blocks will replicate and the ones that do not will not. Because the replicas are not perfect some of them will be better equipped to come into contact with the needed molecules. For example by becoming more chemically stable so that they exist longer, or by being able to use other molecules to replicate themselves than the large majority, or by attaching to other molecules that move more, or ... Anyway the ones that are equipped best will produce more copies, which in turn will also produce more copies etc.

    Because of the competition over the available building blocks the replicators will become better and better at replicating (the ones that are not good at it will disappear because they do not succeed in replicating themselves). These early replicators are supposed to have changed into the things that we know call the body of an animal, a virus or a plant.

    The mechanisms by which the replicators work is off course very complicated. Chemist and physicists do not know in every detail how chemical reactions works, certainly not when large sets of complicated molecules interact. We do not know how ontogenesis exactly works, but it is clear that a small change at an early stage can have large consequences for the body that is generated. Also we know that by selecting you can go from a wolf to a poodle, that by selecting the seed from the best crop you will get crop that gets exceedingly better and that viruses like the Influenza or AIDS virus change enormously as a result of different selection pressure. Perhaps self-organizational models turn out to be a major step into understanding the mechanism by which changes in body plans originate, but is does not refute the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. It only gives an explanation of how new forms arise. I believe that the idea of calculating the amount of information in DNA does not give much insight into these matters as it is already clear that with the amount of base pairs in the human genome you can “make” a human and also a mouse, a spider, a snail, grass or an oak. The information to do that is there, we just do not now how/where exactly.
  21. Sep 13, 2004 #20
    Please excuse a bit of philosophy, but I cannot help but respond to musky_ox seeming suggestion that scientists are atheists. I am a retired scientist and definitely a theist. I both believe in science and in the supernatural. I am not sure that there is a single all knowing cosmic intelligence. However I do believe that there is a supernatural world containing intelligent beings, and I soon expect to be one.

    Now it is clear to me that nature acts as if it were intelligent. The redesign of replicators through critical self-organization is one example of what I would call the intelligence of nature. The selection process is another. As I mentioned above, intelligent design is not a theory as it lacks an operative mechanism. My suggestion to the likes of Meyer and musky is that they incorporate critical self-organization into their thinking on intelligent design and thereby make it into a theory. That is, make self-organization the mechanism of intelligent design.

    The result will of course be ambiguous as to the existence of god. Intelligent design could no longer prove the existence of god. But it seems to me that if god and 'free will' both exist, and if a basic principle of religion is to freely choose to believe in god, then it has to be impossible to prove the existence of god. The ambiguity may be deliberate. If nature was created by some sort of cosmic intelligence, and if that intelligence were to continue to operate, then it would have to operate through natural phenomena, not outside of it. So when science develops explanations for biblical miracles like the parting of the Red Sea, that is not a proof that god does not exist. The ambiguity goes both ways. (Moses did not part the Red Sea. It happened by coincidence)

    Finally, it seems to me that if there is an operative cosmic intelligence, then the most likely part of the process of evolution for it to opreate in- is in the selection process, rather than the design process. Like the mutation process, it may be that the designs produced by self-organization are somewhat random. But then the selection process keeps only the best designs.

    If a cosmic intelligence is involved in the selection process, then I suggest that the mechanism of interaction would be coincidence. One of the many things that makes me a theist (or at least a supernaturalist) is the unreasonable amount of coincidence in my life. Young scientists lead such controlled lives, as I did, that the mechanism of coincidence does not have the opportunity to operate. But as they age many of them begin to see the process of coincidence operating in their lives. I and my friends do. So if it can happen in our lives, and each of you can answer that for yourself, then it could be operative at all levels, including the the selection process at the molecular level that gerben so aptly described.

    Perhaps a moderator on this thread could move this discussion to a philosophy thread if it is to continue in this vein. Ambiguity is allowed in philosophy. In physics it is called duality- the same physical process can often be predicted by rather different theories, especially on the quantum level.
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