Monthly Archives: November 2011

Prior commitments – 1: atheistic

In some e-mail correspondence over the weekend I mentioned the unwillingness of biologists to engage seriously with mathematical challenges to random mutation in protein synthesis. My correspondent replied that he didn’t share a theist’s need to prove the biologists wrong. I answered that the issue might equally involve materialist biologists’ need to prove the mathematics wrong. The exchange got me to thinking about prior commitments in relation to evolution, especially as I happened to turn up the original source  for Richard Lewontin’s much-quoted statement on the matter. Indeed, only today it is cited in an excellent article by David Berlinski .

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Spotting design

I caught the last few minutes of The Natural World on BBC Radio 4 as I woke up yesterday morning. The naturalist being interviewed was talking about the way a species of ladybird only reaches sexual maturity after several days of cold weather. He explained that it was an evolutionary strategy, for a purpose I didn’t quite catch. But “evolutionary strategy” is surely an oxymoron. The whole point of evolution is that it has no strategy. So did he intend to say that the behaviour pointed to evolution, or that it was a strategy? It can’t be both if Neodarwinism is true. The context actually made it clear that he … Continue reading

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Here’s who

The quote in the previous post is actually by zoologist and leader in the field of population genetics, Richard Lewontin. It comes from Testing the Theory of Natural Selection  published in Nature on  March 24, 1972,  p.181. Lewontin’s other famous quotation about science’s prior commitment to materialism comes from a book review of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan, which is posted in full  at It says quite a lot about Neodarwinism, quite a lot about Lewontin, a fair bit about Sagan and even a little about Richard Dawkins. I’ll return to it in a future post.

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Who said this?

“Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection in particular is hopelessly metaphysical, according to the rules of etiquette laid down in the Logic of Scientific Inquiry and widely believed in by practicing scientists who bother to think about the problem. The first rule for any scientific hypothesis ought to be that it is at least possible to conceive of an observation that would contradict the theory. For what good is a theory that is guaranteed by its internal logical structure to agree with all conceivable observations, irrespective of the real structure of the world? If scientists are going to use logically unbeatable theories about the world, they might as well … Continue reading

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Genesis, genre and Paul Simon

A recent documentary on the making of Bridge Over Troubled Water. Paul Simon talks about writing Cecelia. I’ve always thought this was a great song with a fantastic groove, but with uncharacteristically tawdry lyrics which I found vaguely embarrassing. Why would far-from-simple Simon write a typical “adolescent sex” song? And then Simon has a throwaway line: “St Cecelia is, of course, the patron saint of musicians.” And suddenly it falls into place, after 40 years – it’s not a song about the traumas of adolescent lust at all, but about the fickleness of the creative muse. It’s part of a small but distinct genre: “Laments of Songwriters Seeking Inspiration”. This … Continue reading

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Philosophy and the ship of fools

Here’s my last comment (for now at least) on Gordon & Dembski’s The Nature of Nature. The last chapter is by William Lane Craig, who starts uncontroversially enough by noting the decline of scientific naturalism in philosophy. He catalogues the ascendancy of positivism and verificationism in the field throughout the middle of the twentieth century, and particularly notes the influence of A J Ayer’s book, Language, Truth and Logic. In this Ayer developed (though he didn’t invent) the concept that any sentence not subject to empirical verification is simply meaningless. Thus any statement dealing with “God” is not simply untrue, but devoid of any significance. Craig indicates, and there seems … Continue reading

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There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards

Another set of artistically-minded visitors this weekend, and another trip to our nearest Jurassic coast village and its small art galleries. For my wife and I another look at nice stuff we can’t afford, and probably wouldn’t if we could because we’d only come back next time and want something else. There aren’t enough walls in the house. It never ceases to amaze me how much variety and ingenuity is on display in such places. There are dozens of different visions even of the local landscape, but beyond that a plethora of approaches to interpreting reality, to representing the human form or to abstract expression. Photographic realism, hazy impressionism, bold … Continue reading

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How much does the Modern Synthesis explain?

This  is a thought-provoking review article by Jonathan Bard of Oxford on both James Shapiro’s Evolution – a View from the 21st Century  and Transformations of Lamarckism: from Subtle Fluids to Molecular Biology edited by S.B. Gissis & E. Jablonka, which is a historical assessment of Lamarck and his intellectual successors. Those of my acquaintances who struggled to understand Shapiro will be comforted that Bard agrees you need a biology degree to make much sense of it. After succinctly describing the Evolutionary Synthesis in classical population genetics terms, Bard says this: The enormous amount of molecular information that has emerged during the last couple of decades is making us review … Continue reading

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Nothing in biology makes sense…

Announcements on the making of a new film about the Scopes Trial of 1925, Alleged, got me thinking about the history and mythology of evolution. The popular version is that since Darwin nothing has made sense in biology without evolution, despite the more entrenched parts of the Church, who were feverishly working away to develop Creationism and persecuting people like Scopes. Anyone who knows some of the history has heard that by the end of the nineteenth century  Darwinism was actually in some disarray under the influence nof Mendel’s genetics, aretreat it only really overcame with the advent of the Modern Synthesis in the 30s.

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More Multiverse musings…

My last-but-one post reminded me of Eugene Koonin’s invocation of the multiverse to explain unlikely events such as the development of DNA replication. In my first post on this I hinted at some absurdities inherent in this idea, in that one ought to expect far more instances of unlikely events than we see if all things are possible in an infinite many-worlds multiverse. Blow the irreducibly complex biology – where are the unicorns and spontaneous transmutation of lead to gold? Nevertheless, one might conclude that a more mainstream view of the multiverse (if “mainstream” has any meaning in gauging pure speculation) could still help explain highly contingent events. After all, … Continue reading

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