The Incredible Hulk – a view from the 21st century

 

I find it fascinating how popular fiction unconsciously picks up the tenor of the times. The Incredible Hulk, though first appearing in 1962 and based, its creators say, on Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and the Jewish Golem myth, embodies some popular science as well. In particular, as a textbook case of the cliché of “scientist transformed in laboratory accident,” he embodies the hopeful monster hypothesis of Richard Goldschmidt’s 1940 book. This in turn reflected the early optimism of the modern synthesis about the role of newly-discovered mutations in long-term evolution. But in fact it’s an anachronism – modern science explains the Hulk far better. ShapiroIn the story, Scientist Bruce Banner is hit with a gamma blast to become the Hulk, reflecting the fact that when ionising radiation was found to cause genetic mutations, this was hailed as the obvious mechanism for replenishment of the gene pool in Darwinian evolution.

A huge (and expensive) program of mutation experiments was undertaken both to confirm the evolutionary role, and practically, to provide useful improvements to crops and livestock. But radiation was soon found invariably to cause deleterious or fatal mutations in animals, and as Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig  describes in this paper, after much effort and expenditure almost no useful improvements were found, and the work was abandoned. Indeed, there was a tendency for the same mutations to recur repeatedly.

This is now comprehensible in the light of what is now known about such mutations being caused not directly by radiation damage, but as a specific, if desperate, stress response to damage by the organism, as described by James Shapiro in Evolution – a View from the 21st Century.

So the science of The Hulk is just the wishful thinking of mid-twentieth century biology. We have the intriguing situation where random mutation is considered the main innovator in evolutionary theory, whereas in practical breeding programmes it has little or no role. Banner would have died of leukaemia or something decades ago, and never turned green and mean at all.

There are, however, processes becoming clearer to science within the epigenetic realm that are remarkably similar to the comic-book hero’s case. This rather light journalistic article (good news to the less scientific reader!) deals with the work of Mary Jane West-Eberhard on phenotypic plasticity, and other proponents of the extended evolutionary synthesis.

Such work is still controversial, as the buckets of water thrown on it in the comments show, but if I may be allowed to predict trends from the character of the various contenders, I have a sense that such processes are destined to become central, rather than being footnotes to classic Neodarwinian genocentric ideas.

locustWest-Eberhard points to examples like the complete, rapid, transformation of grasshoppers into marauding locusts, under the trigger of population stress and mediated via the hormone serotonin. This occurs by wholesale changes to gene expression through altered methylation and other epigenetic mechanisms and, morphologically and behaviourly, effectively transforms them into a new species with exactly the same genome – or back again, when population stress is relieved.

It is evident that this is a whole suite of physiological changes – yet only employed at rare times of stress. An even more intriguing case is that of the lizards of Pod Mrcaru, which in just 36 years since their introduction from another island have radically changed their morphology and physiology – including a redesigned gut with new valves. The article says that “tail clips taken for DNA analysis confirmed that the Pod Mrcaru lizards were genetically identical to the source population on Pod Kopiste.” In other words, the changes must have been epigenetic, and are so far proving to be heritable and stable.

West-Eberhard proposes how such changes might modify the accepted story of evolution. Under some stress, she suggests, epigenetic changes of the sort described rapidly lead to significant transformation of the whole population, by the co-ordinated suppression and activation of many genes. The behavioural changes induced by this, eg being able to run faster or climb better, consolidate these changes through the differential reproduction of micro-evolution (natural selection, if one can apply that passive term to changes produced physiologically). Finally, as a third stage, mutations of the newly-expressed genes, that would have had no effect before, now affect significant structures and functions, leading to a rapid new phase of variation and selection.

But the initial, extensive changes would be those built into the epigenome already, mediated by complex hormonal and other feedback loops. If it happens at all (and it has in the case of the Mrcaru lizards, at least) it’s an astonishing and powerful evolutionary mechanism based on an observed process (unlike genuinely creative mutations, which are found to be exceptionally rare if they have been observed at all).

We can see how such a process could produce the Hulk, down to the last detail. We have the endocrine mediation – Banner only changes when he gets angry, so raised catecholamine levels or perhaps corticosteroids are quite plausible mechanisms. We have the extreme behavioural and morphological changes that we see in the the locust Schistocerca gregaria, and the same reversibility, too – impossible under a genetic mutation model. The only real catch is the regeneration of his invariably torn clothes, which I’ll attribute to poetic licence.

Just one issue remains for me regarding the Hulk, but also Schistocerca and the lizard Podarcis. These epigenetic changes are manifestly in no sense random or “trial and error” – they are developed suites of targeted physiological adaptation. In the locust they appear regularly – but too rarely to be considered part of the normal life cycle. The locust swarm occurs only once in a number of generations.

As far as I know the changes in lizards have never been observed before – the mechanism has been in place, perhaps, ever since they came to their original island. There is even evidence that Darwin’s famous finches are to a significant extent exhibiting cyclical epigenetic changes in a coordinated response to environmental variation: gene expression, not gene frequency, may be the key factor.

I’ve read a certain amount about the exceedingly complex mechanisms (themselves involving genes, in most cases) that control the processes of epigenetic change, that affect histones, gene expression and suppression and so on. What I haven’t seen is a plausible explanation of how such physiological mechanisms arose. If they only come into play under conditions that are sometimes separated by many generations, why have they not been lost? And how did they arise in the first place?

If a gamma blast is, as we now know, an impossible explanation for the origin for the Incredible Hulk’s metamorphic ability, what more robust account can be given of his evolution? Once we know that, locusts, lizards and finches may make more sense too.

hulk

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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74 Responses to The Incredible Hulk – a view from the 21st century

  1. Lou Jost says:

    That’s actually very interesting. One important caveat, though. The statement you quoted from the linked lizard article is incorrect. No test was done to see if the transplanted lizards were genetically identical to those of the source population. The test actually done involved only two tiny regions of mitochondrial DNA (nuclear DNA was not examined) and the purpose of the test was to only to make sure the lizard IDs were right (via a phylogenetic tree constructed from mitochondrial DNA of this and other lizard species).

    So the case provides no evidence of epigenetics. I agree that the time span involved is too short for mutations to have led to all of the new adaptations, but many of those adaptations could have been contained in left-overs in the genome, from ancestors who earned those adaptations the hard way. I don’t know the phylogeny of these lizards so I can’t speak more about that. But small variations in regulatory genes, which can be due to recombination (fast) as well as mutation (slow), could uncover these previously-unexpressed features. This would be like the occasional expression of vestigial organs in other animals– eg, whales sometimes grow actual feet, not due to de novo mutations that happen to produce feet, but due to tiny variations in regulation allowing ancestral feet genes to be expressed.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Ah – I didn’t clock the limitations of the genetic typing of the lizards. If that’s the case, one would therefore want to see full sequencing to determine what factors actually are involved – epigenetic or genetic.

      If genetic it’s kind of a non-story, really. The appearance of extremely rapid evolution is purely a population-genetics phenomenon of recombination, with the development of these traits perhaps being a gradualist scenario in some indeterminate past, with the changes suppressed when the environment changed back in the day, but preserved to re-emerge within decades of a change in environment… the evolution happened somewhere else again.

      Or more plausibly, the whole suite of changes accumulated apart from phenotypic changes under the radar of selection – perhaps largely by neutral mutation – but was ready and waiting to burst forth and change the whole population in a coordinated way within a few generations.

      Either way, it would suggest that the complete fossil record would be more likely to show a stasis/saltation pattern than gradual “Darwinian” change – maybe that’s a good thing for ET.

      • Lou Jost says:

        I think the more plausible scenario is the first one you mentioned, the one I described in my comment. Neutral accumulation of so many correlated adaptive characters would not be expected. I see that one closely related lizard eats seeds, so maybe this lineage did have herbivorous ancestors in the past.

  2. pngarrison says:

    I saw a quote from someone the other day, Jerry Coyne I think, that he knew of no instance in the literature where an epigenetic change led to a permanent genetic change. As far as I know, all epigenetic changes are reversible, even if some may persist for multiple generations. One conceivable mechanism for an exception might be that methylcytosine deaminates at an elevated rate to thymine, so that if thymine had the same effect as methylcytosine in the position, a methylation effect might occasionally become permanent, if replication occurs before mismatch repair, but this is a big stretch. Anyone know of any real evidence for epigenetic change becoming permanent?
    I’m looking at a recent article, Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance- More questions than answers. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2989988/?report=reader (it’s freely available)
    I’m guessing the title says it all at this point.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      pngarrison – I’m not sure if Coyne is a really independent witness in this, is he?

      Nevertheless, “more questions than answers” seems about right – the article I read was this one. The studies on trangenerational changes in mice seemed to end on “still haven’t reverted” – so follow-up seems to be warranted.

      Nevertheless, in the case of the Hulk the question of permanence doesn’t arise. Everyone knows the changes are cyclical in his case – my query was more how such global suites of seldom-implemented changes arise in the first place.

  3. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Interestingly concessionary summary quote from P Z Myers:

    The new idea that Dobb’s describes, and that is actually fairly popular with many developmental biologists, is that phenotype comes first: that organisms are fairly plastic in response to the environment in ways that can’t be simplified to pure genetic determinism, and that the genes lag behind, acting to consolidate and make more robust adaptive responses.

  4. pngarrison says:

    There is yet another possible complicating factor in apparent environmental genetic effects – buffering of the effect of pre-existing genetic variants by chaperone proteins such as Hsp90, so that they remain cryptic until some change in conditions overloads the chaperone system and allows phenotypes to be expressed. Variant proteins that are unstable or otherwise suboptimal can be “rescued” by chaperone refolding systems.
    http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2013/12/12/how-a-fish-unleashed-its-evolutionary-potential-and-went-blind/
    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/342/6164/1372

    If the subsequent generation stays in the new environment, it could look like the environment induced the genetic change, when in fact the variants had been there all along.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Nore astonishing stuff – so how much do we really know?

      I assume cryptic variations can’t be subject to selection, so these traits (some, it seems, quite significant) developed blind. It does seem surprising that it would ever produce useful phenotypic traits that way, given the overwhelming ratio of deleterious or mildly deleterious mutations to useful ones. And if that be the case, the evolution of the mechanism itself is another mystery to solve.

    • Lou Jost says:

      Jon, yes, you’d be right to be surprised if these kinds of uncovered variations were often adaptive. In fact they usually aren’t. In Drosophila “virtually all of the traits that Hsp90 unleashed were defective rather than adaptive—broken-veined flies are hardly evolution’s next breakout stars.” (Yong) The only example of an adaptive result was in cave fish where it was advantageous to have small, poorly-functioning eyes. A fish’s investment in its eyes is wasted in the dark, so fish that waste less leave more offspring.

      So, another neat genetic tool leading to faster evolution; no teleology.

  5. Crude says:

    So, another neat genetic tool leading to faster evolution; no teleology.

    Interesting claim. Do you have evidence to back it up?

    ‘Genetic tool leading to faster evolution’ is entirely compatible with ‘teleology’ – in fact, arguably indicative of it – so it’s not as if that data in and of itself supports your view. So, I presume you have more.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Good to see you here, Crude. You’ll see you’re referenced in the latest post (and on a few other posts over the last couple of years).

      Stick around. But don’t expect too much evidence from Lou – for him, the fact that there is hypothetically some kind of efficient causation for something is hard evidence that there’s no final causation. A case like that is unanswerable.

      • Crude says:

        Jon,

        Hey there. So I saw – I’m glad my exchange was of some intellectual use to someone. I thought it was pretty telling about Biologos, if ultimately unfortunate.

  6. Lou Jost says:

    Crude, my last phrase was short for “no evidence for teleological causation required”. Just ordinary local causation with no reference to future states or goals. The process described doesn’t rule out teleological causation, but teleological causation is not needed; local non-teleological causes are sufficient to completely describe it (not just individual instances of the phenomenon, but also the statistical distribution of the outcomes of the ensemble of instances of the phenomenon).

    Jon is almost right about my position: if local non-teleological local causation is sufficient to completely explain a phenomenon, then that phenomenon presents no evidence for teleological causation.

    But contrary to Jon’s insinuation, this view does not rule out the detection of teleological causes. For example, the probability distribution of mutations might be skewed to favor the development of humans, even though each mutation has an efficient cause. Or, as Jon implied in his post on mimicry, mutations might be skewed to produce some effect beyond what natural selection could account for. This could in principle be detected (and that is why I think calculations like Demski’s are actually scientific, even though wrong for technical reasons).

    Now in Jon’s universe, and perhaps yours, it seems to me there are no accidents and everything is teleological. A view like that makes everything teleological by definition. That’s not very useful.

    • Lou Jost says:

      Oops, “Dembski’s”, not “Demski’s”.

    • Crude says:

      Crude, my last phrase was short for “no evidence for teleological causation required”.

      ‘Required’? That’s a red herring. A little like how a solipsist is never ‘required’ to infer the existence of other minds – an alternative explanation is always available. But the existence of an alternative explanation goes very little in the direction of showing said explanation to be correct.

      local non-teleological causes are sufficient to completely describe it

      Not at all, which is precisely what’s under issue: if there was teleology at work, then you haven’t completely described it – and whether you’re completely describing it is precisely what you’re trying to figure out.

      That’s exactly why I’m waiting to see your evidence for your claim of zero teleology. (Putting aside for a moment that regularity in the universe is just yet another teleology, though an imminent sort rather than mechanically applied.)

      You have some, right?

      For example, the probability distribution of mutations might be skewed to favor the development of humans, even though each mutation has an efficient cause. Or, as Jon implied in his post on mimicry, mutations might be skewed to produce some effect beyond what natural selection could account for. This could in principle be detected (and that is why I think calculations like Demski’s are actually scientific, even though wrong for technical reasons).

      ‘Alternate explanations’ are available in each of those cases. (They damn well better be in the case of mutations, as we already know that ‘natural selection’ is not at all the whole story with evolution.) Skewing could have been a happy accident, a brute fact, an expression of a bias in one or another of our universe’s laws with our universe’s being only one of a number – the list goes on.

      Now in Jon’s universe, and perhaps yours, it seems to me there are no accidents and everything is teleological. A view like that makes everything teleological by definition. That’s not very useful.

      Truth doesn’t always require pragmatic utility. Sometimes it’s desired for its own sake.

      Maybe there are no accidents. Maybe everything is an accident. Maybe some things are accidents, and some things are teleological. But you’ve claimed that there is no teleology, at least in the operations of nature.

      Wonderful: your evidence, please? If your only evidence is ‘Well I can imagine this all taking place without teleology’, I’m afraid you’re coming up a bit short.

      • Lou Jost says:

        You have misunderstood my response, which was poorly expressed. You make the same mistake as Jon. I do not claim that the mechanism under discussion (or any other mechanism) disproves teleological causation. My claim is that teleological causation is not needed in order to fully explain the mechanism.

        The evidence could in fact have pointed to teleological causation, under the scenario that Jon mentioned: “It does seem surprising that it would ever produce useful phenotypic traits that way, given the overwhelming ratio of deleterious or mildly deleterious mutations to useful ones. And if that be the case, the evolution of the mechanism itself is another mystery to solve.” If complex adaptive traits that had never been exposed to natural selection should suddenly appear fully formed, this might suggest that the local causal model is insufficient and final causes might be operating. (There might also be other explanations.)

        However, as the articles cited by PNG explain, it was not the case that complex adaptive features arose fully formed.

        You said “if there was teleology at work, then you haven’t completely described it – and whether you’re completely describing it is precisely what you’re trying to figure out.” If you think the process is not completely described by ordinary efficient causes, I will be eager to see your evidence for that.

        I gave some examples of what evidence for teleology could look like. You responded “‘Alternate explanations’ are available in each of those cases. Skewing could have been a happy accident, a brute fact, an expression of a bias in one or another of our universe’s laws with our universe’s being only one of a number…”

        You surely know the difference between proof and evidence. I claimed only that there could be evidence of teleology, and indeed it is easy to imagine such evidence. If there were enough of it, and if it led to a fruitful science, it might be convincing. It was convincing once, back in Aristotle’s time. Get to work on it if you really take it seriously. Show us some evidence.

        I wrote “A view like that makes everything teleological by definition. That’s not very useful.” You responded “Truth doesn’t always require pragmatic utility. Sometimes it’s desired for its own sake.” So I guess you are happy with a notion of teleology that is vacuous and automatically true by definition. Meanwhile I’ll stick with theories that have something substantive to say.

        Incidentally, as I think I mentioned once here, I don’t discard teleological causation; there are interesting purely naturalistic physical theories that are teleological. In principle one could empirically distinguish such “mindless” teleology and the kind you guys like, theistic teleology.

        • Crude says:

          I do not claim that the mechanism under discussion (or any other mechanism) disproves teleological causation. My claim is that teleological causation is not needed in order to fully explain the mechanism.

          And I’ve pointed out the problem with that: it gets you nowhere, because it’s always possible to aver to the non-teleological in any conceivable case. I’ve got a a computer sitting to the left of me – you don’t need reference to teleology to explain absolutely anything going on in there in terms of ‘mechanism’. If you want to say you’ve fully explained everything about the mechanism by doing so – ‘without teleological causation’ – go right ahead. But you haven’t fully explained it, because there’s more to explain than the operations of the mechanism.

          If complex adaptive traits that had never been exposed to natural selection should suddenly appear fully formed, this might suggest that the local causal model is insufficient and final causes might be operating. (There might also be other explanations.)

          In other words, no, ‘teleological’ causes wouldn’t have been needed even then, accent on the needed. There’d be other explanations, and there always will be. And “final causes” are a different thing than the kind of mechanical teleology we’re talking about. Aquinas and company didn’t look to the complex to cite final causes – they looked to the boring, regular, simple and reliable.

          If you think the process is not completely described by ordinary efficient causes, I will be eager to see your evidence for that.

          Easily done, because the issue here is conceptual: ‘Ordinary efficient causes’ can be and regularly are used by intelligent agents. You can completely* describe the efficient causes at work in an explosion in a factory, and still have that explosion be an act of sabotage.

          (‘Completely’ isn’t right, since complete explanations would go right on down to the quantum level and who-knows-what. Which makes for a good question: if your complete explanation contains brute facts or the unexplained at its bottom, is it really an explanation at all?)

          You surely know the difference between proof and evidence. I claimed only that there could be evidence of teleology, and indeed it is easy to imagine such evidence.

          Indeed, so easy, some claim it actually exists. You surely realize that you can have evidence even in the presence of alternate explanations of that evidence.

          But, here’s the thing: I’m not the one claiming that we have a demonstration of teleology in nature. You are claiming there is no teleology. Alright – scientific evidence, please? Responding to that by trying to task me with a claim I haven’t taken on ain’t impressive.

          You say that there’s no teleology in nature? Fine. I’d like the experiment, the research. Where did you test for the presence or lack of intentions in such and such evolutionary event? How did you do it? Shouldn’t be hard to turn up a little peer-reviewed research on this front, should it?

          So I guess you are happy with a notion of teleology that is vacuous and automatically true by definition.

          Nowhere. I simply pointed out that ‘useful’ is a strange way to look at truth. If you only prefer truths you can find a use for, you’re going to quickly find that their actually being ‘true’ often doesn’t matter. Maybe that’s the point, eh?

          In principle one could empirically distinguish such “mindless” teleology and the kind you guys like, theistic teleology.

          Oh good. That means you may have research to back up your claim! I look forward to seeing it.

          I will be seeing it, right? You wouldn’t be bluffing and abusing science here, trying to pretend that we have scientific tools to investigate not just teleology of the relevant sort, but ‘theistic theology’ – for example, the actions of an omnipotent, omniscient God – when you really don’t, would you?

          Because it bothers me when people hate science so much that they’re willing to be dishonest about it in the pursuit of their pettier goals.

          • Lou Jost says:

            “You are claiming there is no teleology.”
            Not exactly. I am claiming that there is no evidence for teleology, no demonstrated need for it.

            “…‘teleological’ causes wouldn’t have been needed even then, accent on the needed. There’d be other explanations, and there always will be.” Again, you are confusing evidence and proof. Teleological causation could be the best explanation even if there were alternative explanations.

            “…here’s the thing: I’m not the one claiming that we have a demonstration of teleology in nature.” Good for you. My argument is with people who do claim it.

            “If you only prefer truths you can find a use for, you’re going to quickly find that their actually being ‘true’ often doesn’t matter. Maybe that’s the point, eh?” That’s pretty funny. I was arguing that a claim that is true by definition is without substance. It is you who are arguing for empty claims whose ‘truth’ is determined by definition.

            “You wouldn’t be bluffing and abusing science here, trying to pretend that we have scientific tools to investigate not just teleology of the relevant sort, but ‘theistic theology’ – for example, the actions of an omnipotent, omniscient God – when you really don’t, would you?” I already told you how one might distinguish these two possible kinds of teleology; one would be value-neutral and blind to the effects on humans, while the other would not be. I leave it to you to fill in the characteristics of your favorite teleological causal agent. Although I suspect you’ll do the typical evasive move and refuse to say what you think the final causes actually are. That way, no matter what we observe, you’re right. Nice trick. If only real science were so easy.

            • Crude says:

              Not exactly. I am claiming that there is no evidence for teleology, no demonstrated need for it.

              “Demonstrated need” is a red herring, after all – you can forever imagine alternative explanations for any case of teleology (save for the regularity.)

              “No evidence” for teleology? Oh, there’s plenty. Maybe you mean “no evidence for teleology for which there is not another possible explanation” – which is a different standard altogether. “No scientific evidence for teleology”? Sure, that I could agree with – because teleological questions aren’t scientific questions.

              But you don’t seem to want to say that there is no teleology, because you can’t support that burden. You also don’t want to make the claim that there’s evidence that there is no teleology – again, a burden you don’t want to take on.

              Which leaves us with ‘science has no evidence either way about the presence or lack of teleology’. Quite fine by me for the purposes of this conversation.

              Again, you are confusing evidence and proof. Teleological causation could be the best explanation even if there were alternative explanations.

              Again, I am doing no such thing. And your answer is of no use – what is ‘the best explanation’ would be up in the air. You go from arguing ‘Ah ah ah, that’s not evidence for teleology, because I can imagine an alternative explanation’ to ‘That would be evidence for teleology even if there was an alternate explanation possible’. Take your pick.

              Good for you. My argument is with people who do claim it.

              That’s fine, because my argument is with people who claim that there is no teleology, or there is evidence that the processes are ateleological. So far every time I’ve asked you for evidence to support your claims that the processes lack teleology in the relevant senses, you’ve backed off. I’m more than happy to continue that pattern, lucky you!

              By the end, you’ll be agnostic and we’ll all be in agreement.

              That’s pretty funny. I was arguing that a claim that is true by definition is without substance. It is you who are arguing for empty claims whose ‘truth’ is determined by definition.

              That’s precious and adorable of you. Please show me where I argued for these things at any point. Oops, I’m asking you for evidence to support your claims again – best get those running shoes on…

              I already told you how one might distinguish these two possible kinds of teleology; one would be value-neutral and blind to the effects on humans, while the other would not be.

              And on what scientific ground do you base ‘If there is teleology, it would be biased in such and such a way with regards to humans’? And why should the bias be in terms of idealized calculated odds as opposed to actual outcomes?

              Why are you pretending that your imaginations about God and god-like beings are scientific, as opposed to subjective murmurings that have as much to do with science as unicorns do?

              Although I suspect you’ll do the typical evasive move and refuse to say what you think the final causes actually are.

              I already cited Aquinas to explain my views about final causes. And nowhere have I advanced the idea that ‘trying to detect teleology’ is scientific, since I don’t think it is.

              You’re the only one abusing science here, Lou – not me. See, I’m not wedded to an ideology that demands I misrepresent science to make myself feel better – I’m quite content to recognize it’s limitations. You should find such peace.

  7. James says:

    Lou wrote:

    ” … this view does not rule out the detection of teleological causes. For example, the probability distribution of mutations might be skewed to favor the development of humans, even though each mutation has an efficient cause. Or, as Jon implied in his post on mimicry, mutations might be skewed to produce some effect beyond what natural selection could account for. This could in principle be detected (and that is why I think calculations like Demski’s are actually scientific, even though wrong for technical reasons).”

    I’m glad to hear that Lou thinks that Dembski’s approach is scientific in principle, and disagrees only over the execution. I’m also glad to hear that Lou recognizes that, even if each individual mutation could be accounted for without reference to teleology, the distribution pattern of mutations might require a teleological explanation. Very, very few critics of ID (whether atheist or TE) on these matters have been willing to make such concessions.

    But suppose that more of the anti-ID crowd were willing to grant such concessions, i.e., to grant in principle that teleology might be inferrable. I think that in practice most of them would nullify the effect of the “in principle” concession. I think that if a pattern of mutations could be documented that prima facie looked suspiciously as if it were “reaching for” some goal, the vast majority of biologists, ID critics, etc. would try extremely hard to find some blind, unconscious natural mechanism that only gave the appearance of teleology; i.e., they would try to explain the teleology away. (Whereas, on the other hand, if the pattern of mutations prima facie looked random, unguided, unplanned, etc., they would not make a corresponding effort to show that underneath the apparent lack of direction or guidance there was really a subtle invisible hand.) That’s what I’ve observed in 99% of the internet debates where ID people propose teleology, whether the debates take place on Panda’s Thumb, Pharyngula, Uncommon Descent, Skeptical Zone, BioLogos, etc.

    So the concession Lou makes, while welcome (and I think in line with a fuller and richer conception of natural science), is not likely to make much difference in the practice of anti-ID folks.

    I wonder if it would ever make much difference even in Lou’s own scientific practice. I wonder how often he has, in his published articles, considered, even in a very brief paragraph or even in just a sentence, even just a sentence in a footnote, the possibility that a certain observation might be best explained by teleological rather than non-teleological means. Even if only to quickly dismiss the suggestion. And I wonder how often he has seen such suggestions (again, even brief, quickly dismissed suggestions) in the writings of others in the mainstream evolutionary biology literature. It seems to me that evolutionary biology has been unofficially a teleology-free zone for some decades now, and that when anyone violates the unofficial ban by speculating about possible teleology (e.g., Denton), he is quickly met with scorn if not outright hostility.

    I don’t see this changing any time soon; or, if there some are some slight signs of change, they certainly aren’t coming from the population geneticists (who still appear to make up the largest cohort of evolutionary theorists); they are coming, perhaps, from developmental biologists or molecular biologists who have taken an interest in evolutionary theory, and whose base disciplines aren’t as inherently ill-disposed toward teleological explanation as population genetics has traditionally been.

    • Lou Jost says:

      Hi James,
      Thanks for the questions. No, I have never mentioned teleology in my papers describing new species or discussing biogeography, because frankly there is no hint of teleology there, and no one has seriously suggested that there is. (My ecology and population genetics papers are mainly mathematical, with no reason to bring up the subject of teleology.) I do recall seeing rebuttals of Behe and Dembski in the mainstream literature. I can’t recall any favorable mention of teleological causation in the literature, though. The reason is pretty clear: this is an issue that had been resolved to nearly everyone’s satisfaction in physics many centuries ago. You would surely not expect to see physics papers today regularly adding paragraphs in their discussion sections explaining why Aristotelian physics was not a good explanation of whatever. Granted, new evidence could come from biology to reinstate some kind of final cause, but you are right, claims to that effect would be treated very skeptically.

      And the skepticism would be legitimate, since this would seem to violate current physics. Imagine if a biologist claimed that some biological phenomenon implied the existence of a perpetual motion machine. Everyone would be skeptical, and rightly so.

      Teleology has to earn its seat at the conversation table. Believers such as Jon and Sy don’t help the situation by their unwillingness to make concrete empirical predictions from their beliefs. You can’t expect others to take your hypothesis seriously if you don’t take it seriously yourselves.

      Having said that, I actually think I can prove that a kind of naturalistic teleological causation (probably very weak) follows from the multiverse theory and the existence of intelligent life in this universe. So I think the debate about teleological causation is not whether it exists, but what are the actual final causes involved. Maybe I’ll write an article on naturalistic teleology for some journal….it might be an interesting experiment to test your “no-teleology” theory. (My guess– you will be right, it will be very hard to publish such an article! Mostly because it addresses a phenomenon for which we have no empirical evidence.)

      • James says:

        Well, Lou, one empirical prediction that a design thinker would make is that, as time goes on, we will find more and more functionality in parts of the genome that many scientists have declared “junk” or otherwise non-functional. And over the past decade or so, that prediction appears to be increasingly confirmed.

        It seems to me that your argument for dismissing teleological explanations (to the point of not even thinking them worth taking up and rejecting) is based on pragmatism: for the past few hundred years, science has done pretty well by staying away from them. Well, I actually have some sympathy with that. But on the other hand, the reaction to proposed teleological explanations in the blogosphere goes far beyond such a pragmatic one; the idea of teleology frequently meets with a reaction that can only be called “visceral”; anger, hostility, indignation, etc. are often expressed. A purely pragmatic scientist would not react in this way. Something else is going on.

        • Lou Jost says:

          James, I think the main reasons biologists strongly resist teleological causation of the kind advocated by Dembski, Behe, and many other IDers are that (1) it has no obvious grounding in current physics, and (2) there is no clear evidence in its favor. The combination of those two things is decisive for most scientists.

        • Lou Jost says:

          The junk DNA prediction is a mixed bag. First, there still seems to be lots of junk and disabled genes in the genome, and knockout experiments show much of it really is dispensable. People like Jon and Crude will excuse that, or any other possible result, by claiming that you are making unwarranted assumptions about the kind of design god would use.

          Second, no matter which side we are on in this debate, we’d predict the amount of apparent junk should go down as we learn more about the genome.

          Third, the most Darwinian prediction would have been “Very little junk”. Since carrying junk has a cost, natural selection should tend to eliminate it. Biologists were actually surprised by how much apparent junk there is in genomes.

  8. GD GD says:

    A discussion on Aristotle causation can be found in “Teleology and Final Causation in
    Aristotle and in Contemporary Science” by M Chase, Dialogue 50 (2011), 511– 536. The overall ‘goal’ of this paper is to argue however, that such causation would provide a scientific explanation for the origins of life, i.e. “Life is a process that explains itself, and final causation may still have a role to play in this process.”

    It should be obvious by now that the argument would run two ways:

    1) There is no teleology so science is not required to look for it, nor seek additional explanatory insights by considering such, and thus there is no God (or He is unnecessary).
    2) There is teleology, but science shows that this also proves that an external agency (God, or aliens, or whatever) is unnecessary, because such teleology is part of the origins of life, and after that, Darwinian natural selection has ‘taken over’.

    In other words, science can prove anything they wish for, as long as it ends up with, “there is no God”, or there is no need for God, cause science has provided the evidence for our conclusion.

    If a theological argument were presented in this way, we would hear the cries of ‘contradictions’ and ‘made up stuff’ from the North pole to the South pole.

    • Lou Jost says:

      No, science can’t prove anything it wishes, and it certainly could conclude that there is a god, if there had been evidence for mind acting on the day-to-day workings of the cosmos. If healing miracles regularly happened when someone prayed to God X but not when they prayed to God Y, and if hurricanes swerved around devout religious cities but tended to hit Sodoms and Gomorrahs, the evidence for a god in the operation of the universe would be overwhelming. Science does not reject the god hypothesis by definition or fiat, but rather because there does not seem to be a need for that hypothesis.

      • GD GD says:

        Once again you change things to suit yourself – I stated that they claim “science can prove anything they wish ….” It must be more then a Freudian slip on your part to equate yourself with science … and how in heaven do you go from an article I site to miracles X and Y? Make an effort to focus Lou! That author has written a paper that seeks to argue for teleology (and also Jon’s favourite point) that nature has autonomy (and that science according to him, has ‘evidence’ for this as teleology) – quite a mouthful. Try to address that point.

        • Lou Jost says:

          I wasn’t addressing the article, I was addressing your claim about science.

          • GD GD says:

            This is obscurantism at its worst – the article is showing that people are using scientific ‘evidence’ to argue for teleology – you have been harping against this for how long? A long, long, time. Now you are defending science against claims? Science is not your to defend – again, the paper refers to numerous scientific investigations with all that entails. Clearly you are, once gain, obsessed with your anti-Christian, anti-theistic prejudices which are blinding you to what science is all about.

      • Crude says:

        If healing miracles regularly happened when someone prayed to God X but not when they prayed to God Y

        And what if they sporadically happened, because God is not a vending machine?

        and if hurricanes swerved around devout religious cities but tended to hit Sodoms and Gomorrahs,

        And why should being devout spare one from suffering?

        Science does not reject the god hypothesis by definition or fiat,

        That’s fascinating, once again! So you really ARE saying that God’s existence is a scientific question – and that research and experiment has concluded the lack of the existence of God or gods!

        Please, hook us up with the peer reviewed research and experiments showing this!

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

          Crude

          Your error is is thinking that science is a human activity designed by people in particular societies with all the personal prejudices that entails. It’s the same mistake made by all those historians and philosophers of science.

          What you have to understand is that science is just out there, a bit like a perfect platonic form. And it’s when you go out and look for the science that’s not been tainted by humans that you find it has shown infallibly that it does not need the hypothesis of God.

          Individual scientists are sometimes biased to believe in God – or alternatively to have atheist prejudices. Why, some haven’t even the educational background to grasp why they can’t see final causation by looking at efficient causation – can you believe that in these days of the Internet?

          That’s why the papers you’re demanding don’t exist – “papers” are in the human realm, not the platonic realm of Pure Science where the Truth lies.

          • Lou Jost says:

            Jon, you and other religious people love to trot out this trope. But I don’t claim science is unbiased or uninfluenced by culture, and i don’t think many other scientists claim this either.

            What I do claim is that science tries to do something about those biases, by exposing its ideas to tests, across cultures.

            And we try hard to disprove our own beliefs, because we know they can incorporate unwarranted cultural bias. We don’t insulate them by claims of textual inerrancy, like you do, nor do we think unchanging orthodoxy is a virtue.

            Cultural biases are far more in evidence among religious sects than they are in science.

          • Lou Jost says:

            “Why, some haven’t even the educational background to grasp why they can’t see final causation by looking at efficient causation – can you believe that in these days of the Internet? ”

            When I am discussing teleological causation here, I am talking about the claims of Dembki, Behe, and you that there is some goal-directed cause above and beyond the ordinary non-teleological processes of population genetics plus natural selection. E.g. you said in your mimicry post: “If we believe it’s an adaption for mimicry, though, some teleological component certainly seems more plausible, to me, than random variation alone, whether that be internal or external.”

            • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

              That statement, Lou, was on the inherent inadequacy of the concept of efficient causes beingt free-standing when function exists. Though in that instance it might also have been on the inadequacy of randomness as an efficient cause of anything.

              The point about final causation, as also formal causation, is that they are not substitutes for efficient causation, but necessary prerequisites for efficient causation.

              Throughout, you seem to have assumed that, if one has a complete chain of efficient causation (which unfortunately you’ve not actually been able to supply in any evolutionary case, but it makes no difference), then final causation has been excluded as unnecessary. The Hendrix article was intended to point out that that is simply not to understand the differemce.

              • Lou Jost says:

                As I read it, your complaint in the mimicry post was that natural selection on random variation would not, by itself, be likely to produce such good mimicry (“some teleological component certainly seems more plausible, to me, than random variation alone”). When there is good mimicry, some teleological force must have acted to skew probabilities or individual outcomes over the course of the organism’s evolution in order to achieve that goal. This is also the kind of claim that Dembski and Behe make. It is only this kind of claim that I was addressing in my comments here.

      • James says:

        You are talking here about evidence for certain specific Gods, e.g., the Christian God, the Vaishnavite God, etc. But most discussions of “God” in relation to intelligent design do not have so ambitious a goal. They are content to establish some sort of mind behind biological phenomena or the tuning of the cosmos.

        If I were arguing that you ought to believe in the Christian religion because God has wrought great miracles in answer to prayer, and will give you and all Christians whatever you want if you are faithful, then you would be right to ask me for evidence of the miracles and questions about their timing and their beneficiaries; but if all I’m arguing for is some sort of designer, your objections, being far too specific, miss the target.

        There is also the further point, set forth by Crude, that even if we are talking about the specifically Christian God, it is by no means clear that your are characterizing that God accurately. It is by no means clear that the Christian God generally acts so as to obviously punish the wicked and obviously reward the God. It is by no means clear that either the Bible or the tradition has claimed that we should expect this from God. The book of Job would indicate that the religious believer should not look for crude empirical confirmations of a personal providence, and the book of Job is not the only thing in the Bible or tradition which points to a more refined understanding. Indeed, what is the Crucifixion if not a clear indication that sometimes the good guys lose?

        Certainly there have always been shallow Christians, and so we have in the USA perversions such as the “prosperity gospel”; but I for one was not taught that Christian faith would make one healthy, wealthy, safe, or happy in a worldly sense. If Christianity taught that, it would be manifestly false. But no serious Christian teacher endorses such a Polyanna theology. To attack Christianity on such grounds is to attack a straw man.

  9. Lou Jost says:

    James, Jon, Crude, GD

    You seem to have missed the point of my example about hurricanes and miracles. Some of you insisted earlier that science, by definition, could never detect evidence for gods, or upon doing so, would always find a naturalistic explanation. I gave an extreme example to show you that, if the evidence were very clear, science would indeed include this kind of god in its explanations.

    I was not claiming that any god should actually behave that way. Go back and read my paragraph again. Your responses had nothing to do with my argument.

    So can we agree on my point? If the evidence were strong enough, science would include god. This refutes the claim that science excludes gods by definition.

    Crude ends (yet again) by repeating the same thing I corrected for him several times now:

    “So you really ARE saying that God’s existence is a scientific question – and that research and experiment has concluded the lack of the existence of God or gods!”

    Yes, depending on what kind of god is hypothesized, a god’s existence can be a scientific question. But no, research does not prove there is no god of any kind. I’ve repeatedly acknowledged that we can’t disprove the existence of a sufficiently vague or non-interventionist kind of god. Science just shows that, so far, there is no positive evidence for a god. This is not the same as saying science disproves all gods. Crude must know that, but he can have more fun if he misrepresents what I said.

    • James says:

      Lou:

      The problem with your position lies in the way it is likely to be read. You wrote:

      “If the evidence were strong enough, science would include god.”

      This could mean:

      “If the evidence were strong enough, I would admit god into my science as a legitimate cause of events.”

      But it could mean:

      “If the evidence were strong enough, the enterprise of science as understood by most of its practitioners today would admit god.”

      I accept your statement in the first meaning; in the second meaning, it’s very much contestable. Many anti-ID and anti-creationist scientists have either ruled out “god” explanations in principle in science (on the grounds of “methodological naturalism”), or have admitted them in principle (not wanting to seem dogmatically committed to atheism) but would never consent to them in practice.

      Even a non-miracle-doing god, a god who does not intervene in chains of causation but who sets up the universe that is finely tuned for life, is regarded as not a proper inference of science by most of the aforementioned people. Such inferences, where they are not mocked or attacked in fury, are regarded as “philosophical” or “theological” and therefore outside the proper sphere of science. Thus, some TE scientists allow fine-tuning arguments as long as they are understood to be private faith-statements or philosophical conclusions, but will on no account admit them as part of science.

      Again, I appreciate your openness to empirical data, your willingness to throw aside arbitrary definitions of science to admit, at least in principle, arguments from nature to God or some sort of active intelligence. But I don’t think “science” generally — as exemplified by the rank and file of working biologists, or by the ranking scientists (NAS, etc.), by the philosophical champions of science (Dennett, Ruse, Forrest, etc.), or by popular oracles claiming to speak for science (Chris Mooney, etc.) — has your kind of openness.

      • Lou Jost says:

        James, I actually intended my statement about science to be read in terms of science as an enterprise (your Sense 2), rather than as my personal science. And as I’ve said before, many scientists agree with me that gods should not be excluded by definition. Nobody believes me here, but scientists really are philosophical opportunists, and are quite capable of ditching their most deeply held beliefs if doing so leads to better-supported, more powerful theories. Quantum mechanics and relativity are strong testaments to that metaphysical flexibility.

        • James says:

          Lou, “many” may be right concerning physicists, but even for the physicists I doubt that “most” would be right, and “many” would almost certainly be wrong with reference to the biologists. Most biologists of my acquaintance, and most that I have read, are not “philosophical opportunists” because they are not philosophical at all — the average biologist is philosophically speaking a Philistine. I can have a philosophical conversation with some physicists, but I’ve never had one with a biologist (or biochemist for that matter). And to the extent that most biologists have a philosophy of nature — conscious or unconscious — it’s materialistic-reductionist. Most of them aren’t “open” in the way you’ve described yourself to be.

          Even in physics, you’ve picked the areas of physics which most tend to attract the philosophical sort of mind — quantum mechanics and relativity. I wonder if your statement would be true of solid-state physics or engineering physics etc.

          I think you are simply idealizing “scientists.” Yes, they should be exactly as you describe them, but, having spent a good part of my life in an around universities, and having interacted with many scientists (and having taken courses from many of them as well), I find scientists to be more or less like other academics — they have strong biases in favor of certain views, and resist changing their views to about the same degree that professors in the humanities and social sciences do. They may concede small points where it is simply a question of experimental data, but they resist change in their bigger conceptions, even where God or final causes etc. are not involved. And this is understandable. If a scientist concedes he is wrong about a big thing, it may amount to a concession that the guiding principle of his last 15 or 20 years of research — the research which has made his name — has been erroneous; few scientists — few human beings of any kind (politicians, etc.) — are big enough to swallow their pride in such cases. The natural tendency is to hang on to one’s position somehow, for as long as possible. Hence the famous wisecrack that science doesn’t change when young scientists persuade old scientists; science changes when the old scientists die off. No doubt the wisecrack is not entirely true, but it’s true often enough — and not just in science but in every human endeavor.

          Again, you are idealizing. The conception you are promoting — the conception of scientists I was brought up with, incidentally — is a wonderful conception. If only it were an accurate depiction, more often than it is. It ignores the fact that scientists are human and have the same human pride in their own constructs, the same reluctance to “back down” on something they’ve championed for years, that other mortals have.

          When you look at the blogs of Moran, Coyne, Myers, etc., you can see that these are guys who have their minds made up on all the big issues, and are not going to budge. They offer their opinions on evolutionary mechanisms as if they are Moses speaking from the mountain, not as the very tentative views of humble investigators who consider their knowledge of evolution infinitesimally small in relation to all that needs to be known. If you think that such people are philosophically “open” then we have such very different ideas of what it means to be “open” that further conversation is not likely to be productive. If Moran and Coyne and Myers have minds that are “open,” I’d hate to have to read a scientist whose mind is “closed.”

          • Lou Jost says:

            James, science as an enterprise doesn’t depend on individuals changing their minds. New scientists are born every day. And they will be drawn to radical new theories just like rebellious youths in any other field. If new theories work better than the old ones, they’ll be irresistable to next generation. You may think I am idealizing science, but it looks to me like science has been very fast-paced and dynamic for the last couple of centuries.

            • James says:

              What you’re apparently admitting is that science advances despite the pride, narrowness, and stubbornness of individuals, and sometimes even the collective stubbornness of a “consensus” — which can be as wrong as the views of an individual can. If you’re admitting that, then we have no disagreement.

              • Lou Jost says:

                Yes, we agree here (with the proviso that many scientists do indeed change their minds about quite fundamental things when new evidence comes along).

    • GD GD says:

      This constant repetition about science supposedly seeking evidence for gods is tiresome. Such ‘evidence’ can only be valid if scientists have an object that can be subjected to examination. Anyone can obtain a wooden figure, or marble, and examine it to be satisfied that it is an idol. If such a god were available, it is just that, an object. I cannot fathom this constant parroting – the Christian faith clearly and unambiguously discusses the attributes of God – that is not a debate, nor should anyone feel they must accept or reject these attributes. It is just that. Scientists are, like all other human beings, free to make up their own minds. Why keep prattling on about what science is supposed to be regarding this matter.

      The second tiresome parroting is on miracles. We have instances where various people have testified to such events, and on occasions, these have been examined and testimony given by professional people regarding their authenticity. If atheists cannot live with this evidence, so be it. Just why should these events also become scientific projects where subjects must be given over to atheists who can then experiment to satisfy their odd outlook?

      I cannot be patience when confronted with this endless prattle that science is the servant of atheists and it must address their angst regarding the Faith. It is not so – get used to it.

  10. Lou Jost says:

    Ted Davis’ latest BioLogos post on Robert Boyle is related to some of the issues we have been discussing in these comments:
    http://biologos.org/blog/the-miraculous-meniscus-of-mercury

  11. Lou Jost says:

    Crude and Jon, non-dualist scientists treat (natural) final causes as mere shorthand for a much longer chain of efficient causes. “The water is boiling because John wanted tea” is shorthand for a long chain of statements about the history and arrangement of a set of organic and inorganic molecules.

  12. Lou Jost says:

    James, check out Ted’s post on Boyle. Boyle’s answer to those who invoked miraculous intervention above the meniscus of mercury in a vaccum pump is not much different from the answer a modern scientist would give to IDers.

    • James says:

      Boyle spoke against invoking miraculous interventions; he didn’t speak against design. In fact, he thought the world showed strong signs of design; he, more than Newton, is responsible for the clockmaker image — as Ted Davis has stressed.

      I argue for design in nature. I don’t argue for miraculous interventions. For all I know, the universe is completely governed by natural regularity from the Big Bang forward, and God never intervenes. That’s compatible with a universe whose basic design aims at the production of intelligent life. I think that if Boyle had heard of the Big Bang or evolution and assented to them, he would simply have updated his image of the universe from that of a clock to that of the progressive output of a cosmic-scale computer program that has been running for 14 billion years. God would become a programmer, rather than a clockmaker. Either way, it’s design; in the modern scenario, the design is of course far more subtle and intricate. Boyle would probably think this was even worthier of God than the clockmaker scenario.

      I’m talking of course merely about the creation and sustaining of nature here. Biblical miracles are another subject entirely. I would guess that Boyle accepted all or most of the Biblical miracles in a straightforward sense; but that is neither here nor there for my purpose.

      • Lou Jost says:

        I’m glad to hear you aren’t a fan of the Discovery Institute brand of intelligent design, which does claim that naturalistic causes are inadequate to explain things like the Cambrian explosion.

        • James says:

          Lou, I’m agnostic regarding “special divine actions” in the cosmic and biological evolutionary processes. God may well have done some serious manipulation of mutations or environmental conditions. But we can’t directly observe or calculate such things, whereas design, in principle, can be detected. So it seems to me that the argument for design should be separated from claims of miraculous intervention.

          I don’t think that Discovery’s official position is that supernatural intervention has occurred, but I do think that a number of people associated with Discovery have blurred the distinction between affirming design and affirming supernatural intervention, and this has greatly weakened the claim of ID to be different from creationism. Poor Michael Behe took a beating at the Dover trial even though he, of all the Discovery people, has been the most careful not to insist on supernatural intervention, but only on the presence of design, and even though he is a Catholic who accepts evolution, not a Protestant fundamentalist who rejects it. This is a classic example of how people are judged by the company they keep.

          • Lou Jost says:

            James, it is hard for me to see an important difference between Behe’s argument and someone who claims major miracles were needed to create life. Behe has argued that natural laws are not sufficient to explain the rapid evolution of malaria resistance today (not even in the distant past). This has to mean that his god is tinkering even now, if only to systematically skew certain random processes. And since resistance has evolved repeatedly, there are enough instantiations that this tinkering could be detected with high reliability, if it were real.

            It seems to me that design implies some tinkering, else the “designed” feature could have arisen by unremarkable instantiations of natural causes, which would not be design except in a deistic sense. If “design” means that a god designed prescient physical laws that were likely to lead to life, but did not interfere afterward, that kind of deistic god is indistinguishable from no god (unless more specific goals were attributed to the god, eg that humans were the intended outcome).

            • James says:

              Lou:

              Behe does not say that “natural laws” per se are inadequate for such-and-such an evolutionary change; he says that “Darwinian processes” (or “neo-Darwinian evolution,” or some such variant) are inadequate for such-and-such an evolutionary change. It is a particular conception of evolutionary change — one heavily dependent on chance and natural selection — that is his target.

              Sometimes Dembski and Johnson and others from the DI say that “natural laws” or “natural causes” are incapable of this or that. Behe is narrower and more precise in his criticism. He’s targeting the classical 20th-century view of evolution — Mayr, Dobzhansky, etc. — not “evolution” per se.

              No, design does not imply tinkering, and I don’t believe you will find any policy statement by Discovery that says so. In fact, you yourself have just provided an example of a scenario with design but no tinkering — and the scenario you have described is the position of Michael Denton in his second book. Interestingly, Behe wrote a dust jacket endorsement for that book. So Behe is at least open to such a non-tinkering design scenario.

              I’m not proposing to start a debate about Behe’s criticism of neo-Darwinism or Behe’s arguments for design; my point is that, whether his arguments are good or bad, he differs from many of the DI people on some important points, and that it is wrong to simply lump him together with others, without adding the necessary qualifications. You did that, when you spoke of the Discovery Institute in a monolithic way.

              Behe has not committed himself on the question whether the implementation of design requires “tinkering.” He has argued for design without trying to settle that question. He certainly leaves open the possibility of tinkering; but he leaves open the possibility of non-tinkering alternatives.

              In fact, the Discovery Institute isn’t a monolith, it is more like a political party; and a political party generally embraces different “camps,” some of which have serious differences with other camps. (Think of the different factions within the Republican or Democratic parties.) Michael Denton, for example, has no use at all for the conservative evangelical religion of many of the DI fellows. Also, some Discovery people (including Behe) are Catholics and their understanding of many issues is quite different from that of their conservative Protestant evangelical colleagues. There are Jewish and agnostic fellows as well.

              For this reason, I don’t think it is useful to argue about the “Discovery Institute position.” It is better to argue about the positions of particular ID proponents; in that way, distortion of individual positions due to some preconceived notion of a collective position is avoided.

              • Lou Jost says:

                Yes, certainly the DI position in not monolithic.

                Do you think that evidence of (non-interventionist) design is necessarily evidence of an intelligent creator? I’d claim not.

  13. James says:

    Lou:

    To your skinny post immediately above, to which there is no “Reply” button, I’m starting a new sequence.

    It depends on how you are using the word “design.” I have read atheists saying that there is intelligent design in nature — intelligent design supplied by Darwinian natural selection. What they mean is that random mutations can “feel out” a direction, guided by natural selection which prunes away the destructive mutations and cultivates and promotes the constructive ones — all blindly, and with no end in mind. Natural selection becomes a designer-substitute. Well, if someone wants to say that there is “design” in nature in this sense, then obviously “design” does not provide evidence of an intelligent creator. That was exactly Darwin’s point, that you didn’t need that hypothesis, when natural selection is so effective at mimicking conscious design.

    However, I try to use “design” in the strict sense, to mean, not merely a striking pattern or complex organization of parts that is as admirable in its structure and functions as the things designed by actual minds, but something that someone intends. We might speak of a woman as having “designs” upon a man, or of a Shakespeareian villain as having “evil designs.” We speak of “set design” for stage and film, of an architect’s or engineer’s designs, etc. “Design” here means something thought out in advance, plotted, schemed, reasoned out, intended in the heart or mind, and later produced or realized in the external world. So in this usage, if there is evidence of “design” in nature, then obviously there is evidence for a designer, i.e., an intelligent being.

    There is of course the question of who the designer is. It might be God, it might be Satan, it might be Prometheus, it might be an alien biochemist doing a post-doc project on planet Earth. The designer of life on Earth, therefore, need not be the Creator of the entire universe. But the designer would still be an intelligent being of some kind.

    The debate, of course, is over what counts as evidence of “design” in my sense. What for Behe counts as evidence of “design” in the strict sense is not for Dawkins, Darwin, etc. evidence of design at all, but only evidence for the proposition that random mutations filtered by natural selection can produce a darned good substitute for design.

    Since we don’t have an exhaustive list of all the things that random genomic events plus natural selection can do, and almost certainly never will have such a list, it’s always possible to argue that what appears to be real design is based on our ignorance of the powers of nature, and may therefore be just apparent design. Therefore, “apparent design” always wins and “real design” always loses. But this is a cheap, shoddy way of arguing. When we are seeking the “best explanation” we have to go on what we know of nature’s powers currently. And if it looks currently as if organizational pattern X could have arisen only as a result of real design, then that should be accepted as the best explanation at the moment. If later on someone shows that nature’s powers are greater than was previously known, and that yesterday’s “design” is today’s “random mutation plus natural selection” or “chemical evolution from a primordial soup,” then fine; in that case, design would cease to be the best explanation. I have no problem with learned opinion changing back and forth between design and no-design ten or twenty times in a century, if that’s the way the evidence shifts. I see no need to invoke closure on the debate and declare a final victor.

    • Lou Jost says:

      James, you wrote “When we are seeking the “best explanation” we have to go on what we know of nature’s powers currently. And if it looks currently as if organizational pattern X could have arisen only as a result of real design, then that should be accepted as the best explanation at the moment.”

      The point is that no one has made even a tentative case that X could only have arisen by design. Behe, Dembski, etc made mistakes in their arguments. Without that, there is no reason to make extravagant claims about unseen nonphysical entities or new laws regarding the behavior of matter.

      • James says:

        I’ve made no extravagant claims regarding nonphysical entities or new laws of matter. I’ve simply stated a principle that everyone employs in everyday life (and which even biologists employ in all their living and thinking when they aren’t engaged in defending unguided evolution or the accidental origin of life): whenever we see something with an extremely complex structure of nicely integrated parts, multiple feedback mechanisms, etc., we quite reasonably infer that the thing was designed — until the person who denies design can supply a detailed set of steps by which the complex structure in question could have arisen by chance and necessity alone.

        If a team of biologists got home from the lab and found their drawers and desks in their homes had been rifled, they would never suggest that some freak wind or other natural cause had done it. They would argue that no known wind or other natural cause does things as specific as opening drawers and envelopes etc. They would infer design. Similarly, no set of chemical processes known to science produces living cells from simple molecules (not even with considerable human manipulation, let alone by chance and without prompting), and living cells are more complex and brilliantly integrated than anything man has ever engineered (including an apartment-rifling job). The most reasonable inference (given current knowledge) is that cells are designed.

        No claim for or against “nonphysical entities” or “new laws of nature” is being advanced in such an inference. Indeed, the inference rests on nothing more than common sense and common experience. When one comes to explaining the origin of the design, then perhaps (but not necessarily) one might be led to speak of nonphysical entities and broken laws of nature, etc. But the claim of ID is that we can, in principle, detect design when it’s there, even if we can’t always explain how the design was put into effect. I see nothing extravagant in that.

        • Lou Jost says:

          ” …whenever we see something with an extremely complex structure of nicely integrated parts, multiple feedback mechanisms, etc., we quite reasonably infer that the thing was designed.”

          After Darwin, that is just not true. We now know that such things can arise without design, though we do not know the limitations of this process.

          Design beyond “front-loading” does break known laws of nature. Behe’s malaria drug-resistance example requires new laws of physics with a peculiar teleological component (which is usually left too vague to test). There is no independent evidence for that. Weigh that against the standard evolutionary explanation, which can also make successful ancillary predictions about the rate of evolution of drug resistance, kinds of paths taken, etc.

          Let’s apply your argument to the physical sciences to get some perspective on what you are doing. What would be the reaction of physicists if you claimed that snowflake shapes required a new teleological law of physics, whose goal is to make them look pretty? In fact there are lots of mysteries about snowflake formation, and they do look pretty, and the particular shape of any individual snowflake is impossible to explain in detail. Yet nobody doubts that the known laws of physics apply. You’d be laughed out of the room if you claimed that a teleological explanation was more reasonable. Now, you could still be right, and have the last laugh, but the burden of proof is clearly on you to demonstrate that known laws are not sufficient, and that the teleological explanation does make accurate predictions about the details of the process.

          • James says:

            Hello, Lou.

            Hope you had a Merry Christmas, after your fashion.

            I find it hard to argue with most people about Michael Behe. Most internet critics of Behe appear to know of his views only by hearsay, or from quoted snippets. I myself have not just read but studied the works of Behe, almost his entire published corpus on ID — books and articles, plus all the negative book reviews published in print journals and all of Behe’s responses to those reviews; and I’ve listened to a dozen or more radio interviews, podcasts etc. where he is speaking. After all of this, it strikes me that you are attacking Behe without a well-rounded view of this thought. It is as if you took one or two ideas out of his writing and pounced on them for what strike you as technical errors, rather than really tried hard to get at the larger problems he is addressing and his approach to them. It is as if you are interested only in finding flaws in Behe, and won’t even consider the possibility that he might have a new angle or conception that could be scientifically useful. (Many scientists publish work with errors in it, but their ideas are still fertile and productive.) It is as if you don’t read Behe with an open mind, but with your arms crossed, a glare in your eyes, and a deep “Harrumph!” just ready to be released. It is as if you don’t want to have a conversation with Behe, as one scientific colleague with another, but as if you stand in judgment on Behe, as the expert to the untutored freshman, ready to show him why he’s all wrong. I find this ultra-critical, non-dialogical attitude to be highly non-constructive.

            Let’s take an example. You write about snowflakes and beauty, as if that is what Behe and I are talking about. Well, Behe explicitly distances himself from most forms of teleological argument. He even criticizes Paley for using a lot of “soft” teleological reasoning that doesn’t withstand rigorous scrutiny. Behe would never argue “snowflakes are beautiful and we don’t know what causes all their shapes, therefore something supernatural must be involved, or some cosmic teleology must be involved.” He limits his arguments for design to systems that are (or contain) units where there is apparently a purposeful arrangement of interacting parts. That doesn’t include snowflakes, pretty patterns in crystals, etc. He’s not trying to prove that all beautiful or interesting patterns in nature imply teleology or the existence of any mind. So let’s take that objection off the table right away — an objection which should not have been raised by anyone who had actually taken the time to read Behe.

            Now, next point. Please give exact quotations and page numbers for “Behe’s malaria drug-resistance example” and show by stepwise argument how it “requires new laws of physics”; and please indicate also whether you think that Behe is actually calling for new laws of physics here, or whether his argument implicitly requires them though he is not aware of that.

            Finally, regarding the main point, your response is:

            “After Darwin, that is just not true. We now know that such things can arise without design, though we do not know the limitations of this process.”

            I reject your word “know.” Philosophers apparently have much higher epistemological standards regarding the use of this word than biologists do. You do not “know,” nor does anyone on the planet “know,” that the cardiovascular system could have arisen from a primitive sea-worm that had no such system, by mechanisms such as are proposed by most evolutionary biologists. Rather, you “speculate” or “conjecture” that the cardiovascular system arose in such ways. And you are entitled to your conjecture. What you aren’t entitled to do is to foist that conjecture upon humanity as “knowledge.”

            No one has ever witnessed the creation of a complex, integrated system, complete with feedback loops, etc. via the means proposed by evolutionary biologists. The most that has been observed is relatively small modifications of existing systems (beak length, moth color, antibiotic resistance, etc.). It is therefore reasonable to remain skeptical about the power of unguided changes to produce complex new systems. The onus is on the person who thinks that unguided changes can do this. And no one, from Darwin to the present, has met that challenge. And what is true of macroevolutionary change is equally true, or more true, regarding the origin of life itself.

            Therefore I hold my ground: we (where “we” means the great bulk of the human race, including all scientists on all occasions when they are not defending their pet theories) infer intelligent design when we see complex systems with feedback etc. And we are right to do so. The onus is on the person who holds the counter-intuitive position to show how complex systems can arise — and show it in detail, not by invoking sweeping generalizations such as “selection” or “drift” or “mutation” but by giving the steps one would find, say, in a Lego or Meccano set manual — without any intelligent involvement. Once this is done, I’ll believe that blind chemical and biological evolution can achieve what is claimed for them.

            I hope it is clear by now that it is not “evolution” which I am criticizing; indeed, as far as I can tell, there are no columnists on this site, and precious few commenters, who are opposed to “evolution”; I’m quite content with some notion of “evolution”; what I don’t accept is that there was zero intelligence involved at any point in the process. That is where we disagree.

            Behe, of course, is also an evolutionist. His alleged “offense” against good science is not rejection of evolution (which he accepts, including human evolution, along with an old earth etc.), but in daring to criticize neo-Darwinism. But of course many scientists have criticized aspects of neo-Darwinism, from Gould through Margulis to contemporary evolutionary biologists such as many of the Altenberg people and Shapiro. And some of those people (atheists or agnostics all) have said directly that, while they don’t share the conclusions of the ID people, the ID critique of neo-Darwinism is partly justified. So the critique cannot be dismissed as something coming only from religious cranks who reject evolution. It has to be dealt with.

          • Lou Jost says:

            James,
            Thanks for the holiday greetings, and likewise to you.

            I’m disappointed by your comment. You are doing to me what you accuse me of doing to Behe. You are not looking at what I wrote. Most of your comment is directed at straw men. Not constructive at all.

            My comment was not specially about Behe. I only mentioned his malaria drug resistance example to show that many ID examples require violation of physical laws. He claims that this resistance repeatedly happens too fast for it to be due to random mutations. This implies some kind of teleological effect on physical material, does it not?

            My snowflake analogy was directed at the logic of your argument, to help see where the burden of proof lies. I know very well that “beauty” is not the criterion you or Behe use for detecting intelligent design; I just gave that as a hypothetical goal for snowflakes, so I could look at the logic of teleological explanations. It doesn’t matter what the goal is, for the sake of this particular argument. I could have made up any goal at all.

            Then I said that after Darwin, we know evolution can produce things that look designed. And I said we don’t know what the limitations of that process are. You just ignored that last qualification and decided to get angry at me for claiming that we know everything that looks designed was produced by evolution.

            After that undeserved bluster at straw men, you say again that “The onus is on the person who thinks that unguided changes can do this.” My snowflake analogy applies—you find natural explanations implausible, so you think it is rational to suppose the existence of strange new kinds of physical laws to explain something that does have a potential natural explanation. As with the snowflake example, that conclusion would only be reasonable if you had a pretty solid proof that the potential natural explanation was insufficient. Your personal incredulity is not enough, any more than it would be enough in the case of a particular snowflake (whose detailed origin we cannot currently explain). The burden of proof is on those who invoke dramatic new kinds of physical causation to explain snowflakes, or life.

            That’s really where the meat of the argument is– you have to move from “This seems implausible to me” (like Jon in his mimicry post) to real arguments, like Behe and Dembski tried to make. You have to show that teleological mechanisms are needed. Once you have that, there would be something real to discuss. (And this is not the same as criticizing some particular brand of evolution.)

            • James says:

              Lou:

              You speak of anger, but you are the one whose tone sounds angry. I wasn’t angry at all when I wrote my post; in fact, I was in a jolly Christmas mood.

              Just for the record, though, will you confirm for me what works of Behe you have actually read (not glanced at or skimmed or seen quotations from, but actually read from start to finish)?

              Regarding your question about Behe and random mutations and teleology, I thought that we had already discussed this elsewhere on this site, maybe even directly above under this column, but I’ll state my view again: Behe has never said that supernatural activity is necessary in order for there to be design in nature, and therefore he has never said that any physical law would have to be violated. He has said that the particularly neo-Darwinian natural-selection-acting-on-random-mutation mechanism is not adequate to explain macroevolutionary change; that is not the same thing as saying that there cannot be a natural explanation of macroevolutionary change. Further, as I thought we already discussed, “explanations in accord with natural laws” need not be in conflict with teleological explanations, if the natural laws are set up properly in the first place. There is a big difference between randomness/chance and natural laws/necessity, and the difference between the evolutionary theory of Denton and the evolutionary theory of Dawkins or Ken Miller is that in Denton’s case much more weight is placed on natural laws/necessity, which in principle (I don’t say in practice, because that must be determined empirically rather than speculatively) could produce a teleological evolutionary pattern. Behe has never denied that Denton-like evolutionary schemes are possible and he has endorsed Denton’s second book — a book which invokes no breaking of physical laws.

              In short, the fact that Behe does not think that X could have happened in the case of malaria due to random mutations doesn’t commit Behe to supernatural intervention. There may be physical laws pertaining to evolution that we have not uncovered, and those laws may be vehicles of some greater teleology that we have not yet grasped.

              I never said that I found “natural explanation” as such implausible for anything. You keep reading me as if I were some sort of creationist, when I’m not. I said that I found certain particular natural explanations implausible; I have not ruled out other natural explanations that have not as yet been advanced by the community of evolutionary biologists. And in any case “teleological” and “natural” are not inherently opposed terms; a teleological scheme might be worked out through natural means.

              You wrote:

              “And I said we don’t know what the limitations of that process are. You just ignored that last qualification”

              No, I didn’t; in fact, I meant to comment specifically on it, but my reply went in another direction, and my comment was never written. But I did mentally note the qualfication. Sorry for not mentioning that.

              In fact, however, as far as I can tell, it is a purely formal qualification which you have issued in order to cover yourself against the charge of dogmatism; but in actual practice, you don’t believe there are any limitations to the process; you believe that an amoeba or bacterium can become a man, given enough time and enough mutations. So while you humbly admit that science doesn’t “know” if there are any limitations, you in fact think that scientists should keep working as if there are no limitations, with the goal of eventually explaining everything from the first simple molecules to man in terms of accidental combinations of molecules, accidental mutations, fortuitous combinations of mutation and selection, etc.

              So when you say, “We don’t know” you don’t mean what I mean by “We don’t know.” By “We don’t know” I mean “We don’t know whether evolution can get you from bacterium to man without a plan” whereas you mean “We don’t yet know the detailed mechanisms by which evolution got us from bacterium to man without a plan.” So your qualification, your “humility” doesn’t really amount to any real humility in the epistemological sense. It’s a formal humility, to be sure, but underlying your whole position is the old positivistic and scientistic agenda, which is anything but humble; it’s intellectually imperious and relentless.

              You know, Lou, you are an odd duck. If you were writing to a site run by Ken Ham or some Old Earth Creationists, etc., I could understand your almost militant urgency. But here you are writing to a site where all the columnists accept an old earth, organic evolution, and even the whole macroevolutionary ball of wax. One would think that your differences with the people here would be minor differences in emphasis, rather than major ones. But you regard them as major — that’s the only way to explain your pressing persistence, and the sheer amount of time you spend here. And since that can’t be explained by any reluctance on the part of most people here to accept an old cosmos, an old earth, or macroevolution, it must be something else that is driving you.

              I submit that what is driving you is the fact that the people here don’t go all the way with you in rejecting not only supernatural but even non-supernatural teleological possibilities regarding the causes or direction or purpose of evolution.

              So what we really have here is not a scientific conflict, but a metaphysical one. You don’t want to convert us only to your science; you want to convert us to your world view. And you won’t rest until we either convert, or “admit” (note scare quotes) that our world view is really anti-scientific or irrational or emotionally-based, as opposed to your world view which is (of course) entirely based on reason and evidence and has no personal or emotional or non-rational element in it at all (a claim upon which I’ve already expressed my views at length). But we aren’t likely to convert to your world view, Lou, any more than you are likely to convert to ours.

              The difference is that we aren’t spending hundreds of hours posting on your website (or any atheist website), trying to get you (or other atheists) not to be an atheist, whereas you are spending that kind of time here, trying to get us not to be Christians or theists or believers in teleology in evolution. Amazingly, you are more “evangelical” — more zealous to convert others — than we are. And I find this is not uncommon in this era of the New Atheism. Perhaps that is food for thought for you.

  14. Lou Jost says:

    I didn’t say I was angry, just disappointed. I’m also puzzled by the frequent attempts here (not just by you, James) to psychoanalyze me. When people on this site misrepresent science (not necessarily intentionally), why should it surprise anyone that a scientist or two might speak up? My comments on this post are a good example. Jon thought that the lizards he discussed were evidence of permanent epigenetic effects. This was a quite understandable conclusion based on the popular article he cited, but it was wrong, as going back to the original article showed. Would yo prefer I didn’t point that out?

    Similarly I commented on Sy’s recent surprising claims that humans aren’t destroying the planet’s ecosystems, and that animals do not discover, innovate, learn, create, or teach. The latter claim is contradicted by a large swath of ethological literature.

    Jon’s mimicry post got comments from me because it was a hodgepodge of half-hearted misleading claims about evolution. There was a claim that hypotheses of mimicry are hard to test (not so), that detailed refinements of mimicry would not be beneficial enough to get selected for (quantitative population genetics shows exactly when and how such refinements are to be expected, and to what degree), and that teleological explanations were more plausible. Why should it surprise you that a biologist might argue with such claims?

    If I had a website about the folly of religious beliefs, I’d hope that intelligent people like you would push back. That’s what makes the difference between an echo chamber and a real discussion. Why don’t I spend my time criticizing Ken Ham-style YECs instead of you guys? Because they are willfully ignorant, and want to stay that way. In contrast, this is a place where people accept that we’ve learned a few things in the last two or three thousand years, and productive discussions could happen.

    Back to the meat of your comment. You are right, I am no expert on Behe. The snippets I have seen of his work were not impressive. Years ago I read “Darwin’s Black Box.” My reaction was similar to that of Dennis Venema, who wrote about his reaction to Behe’s “Edge of Evolution” here:
    http://biologos.org/blog/from-intelligent-design-to-biologos-part-4-reading-behe
    The thing that most stuck out for me in Behe’s arguments was his lack of knowledge of population genetics, as Venema also noticed. And his arguments for irreducible complexity were not convincing to me. But again, my comment is not really about Behe but about where the burden of proof should lie.

    You say Behe doesn’t argue for supernatural intervention in the malaria case. You say it could have happened by some new natural laws, and that “those laws may be vehicles of some greater teleology that we have not yet grasped.” But this is an admission that I was correct when I said “This implies some kind of teleological effect on physical material, does it not?” So my snowflake analogy applies.

    • James says:

      Hi, Lou.

      I didn’t say that you said you were angry. I said: (a) that you said that I was angry, and that this was incorrect; (b) that you sounded as if you were angry. But if you weren’t angry, then neither of us is angry, so that’s a good thing.

      I have no objection to the fact that you offer correction or criticism of scientific statements. My main complaint is that some of your own broader statements, which you present as the findings of “science,” presumably hoping we will simply defer to them, are highly speculative, and that you use the word “know” too generously. Certainly Sy here is a well-trained scientist — I would guess with as many peer-reviewed publications as you have — and he does not always agree with you on what “science” has to say. A bit more tentativeness in expression would go a long way with me.

      I don’t know what you mean by “teleological effect on physical material”; it sounds — in the context of several of your other puzzling remarks about breaking natural laws — something like “supernatural effect on matter,” and I’ve not heard Behe speak in those terms. But if all you mean is that matter may have built-in (and natural) tendencies to arrange itself into certain structures (as opposed to occasionally “fluking” into certain structures and then being secured in those structures by natural selection), then, yes, Behe’s understanding of ID is compatible with that; I’ve never said otherwise.

      The problem is that you keep speaking of Behe as requiring the breaking of natural laws. I’ve seen no place in his writing where he says that ID needs this. If you can point out where he does so, I’d be glad to have the references. More probably, you mean that Behe’s understanding of ID requires breaking natural laws even if Behe himself does not realize that; but if that’s what you mean, I wish you would say it explicitly, and then give specific statements of Behe showing that a breaking of natural laws is implied, and what natural laws are broken.

      Incidentally, one thing I find frustrating about such discussions is that different purported experts on science say different things. I’ve from time to time spoken of natural laws and been reprimanded by atheists, Darwinists, etc., for using outdated 19th-century language, for not realizing that there are no laws, but only statistical regularities, etc. I’ve even been told that there is no “law” that would prevent a statue of Julius Caesar from getting up and walking across the Roman Forum, that it’s just statistically very unlikely that the atoms would all move in that way. Yet you speak of “natural laws” in an unqualified way, as if there are fixed rules that can’t be broken, rather than more likely and less likely outcomes. So who is right, the guy who says that it’s impossible for the statue to walk across the forum, or the guy who says it’s only unlikely? If I could quote you against some other internet debating partners, I’d feel a lot more secure in having a scientist on my side.

      I still don’t know what your point about snowflakes is. I agree that there are all kinds of snowflake patterns that we can’t explain. I have no reason to doubt that they can in principle all be explained by the electronic aspects of water molecules. But even the most intricate snowflake is not a “machine” like an organ, organelle, cell, etc. I still maintain that we know (and remember my stringent requirements for the use of “know”) of no examples in nature where a “machine” has arisen out of its parts without an intelligent plan behind the operation. We seem to have examples of a machine being slightly adjusted without an intelligent plan — longer finch beaks, for example. But I don’t know of any examples (non-speculative) where the machine is built up from parts that don’t even exist in the earliest stages. If I knew of even one example, then “evolution without a plan” or “origin of life without a plan” would seem more intuitively plausible to me. But I know of none.

      Again, I am speaking of a plan or design of some kind. I am not insisting on miracles or interventions. I have no dogmatic position on whether or not it takes miracles to assemble the first life from molecules or create the Cambrian explosion. What I do think is that these things could not have occurred without, at a minimum, a plan embedded in the properties of the first matter and/or the contents and structure of the first living cells. In other words, I think that at a minimum, something like the view of cosmic and biological evolution of Michael Denton must be true. It is also possible that the view apparently held by Meyer and Dembski, i.e., that an intelligence actively intervened beyond the initial set-up, is true. I am not pushing for that; I merely remain open to it.

      As for Behe, he straddles the gap between Denton on one hand, who wants no truck or trade with an intervening deity, and Meyer and Dembski on the other, who insist that front-loading can’t work and that an intervening deity would be required to make chemical or biological evolution work. Behe keeps both possibilities open, neither requiring nor ruling out special divine interventions. I find that admirably open-minded.

    • James says:

      Lou, regarding this statement:

      “In contrast, this is a place where people accept that we’ve learned a few things in the last two or three thousand years, and productive discussions could happen.”

      Well, I suppose it’s flattering that you rank the people here higher than Ken Ham etc., but I still wonder. What sort of “productive discussion” are you hoping for? As far as I can tell, the only result that you would consider acceptable is: “We concede you are right, Lou. In addition to accepting an old earth, chemical evolution of life from non-life, and macroevolution from bacterium to man, we now see that we have been foolish all along to think that there needs to be any intelligence behind such processes. We now admit that neither intervention nor planning of any kind was needed to produce all that we see, and that it all happened by chance and the laws of nature which just happen to exist. We now admit that it was foolish ever to think that God had anything to do with it. We hereby renounce our Judaism, Christianity, and all other forms of theism, and convert to atheism.”

      It seems to be, Lou, that if we stopped anything short of the above, you would continue to tell us that we are scientifically backwards, don’t understand population genetics or the laws of physics, etc. So it seems to me that “productive discussion” for you means “discussion that leads everyone else to concede that I am right” rather than “discussion that leads to a middle position which surprises the participants on both sides and requires adjustments from both of them.” I see no room for flexibility on your side, and you give every impression of thinking that all the movement ought to be on our side. But that’s not what dialogue is.

      Indeed, one of the things I always disliked about Christian evangelism (in the form it usually takes, that is) is that there was no dialogue between the evangelizer and the to-be-evangelized. There was never any sense that the preacher (lay or ordained, trained or self-appointed) at the front of the room might be partly wrong about the Bible, about God, about Jesus, about heaven or hell, about sin, etc. The understanding was that the preacher or evangelist possessed certainty and that all the motion had to be on the side of the unconverted. This drove me away from churchgoing and religious activities for many, many years, because I wasn’t about to knuckle under to preordained intellectual conclusions without a discussion — especially since it was clear to me that in most cases I was far beyond the preacher in intellectual ability, historical knowledge, scientific knowledge, etc.

      Your own writing reminds me of those preachers of old. I don’t get the sense that you regard the great questions (as opposed to minor scientific questions about this or that evolutionary mechanism) as truly open; I get the sense that you think of religion in all its forms as part of the benighted past of humanity and that you regard it as your duty as an enlightened scientist to cure humanity of this illness. As such, “discussion” can for you only be creative ways of showing religious people — even religious scientists like Sy — their errors. It isn’t something in which you open your soul and take the same risk that you are asking religious people to take.

      You may object to this characterization. It may be unfair. I’m just telling you how you come across. Obviously I can’t read your mind or heart in any direct way, and it may be that your words typed on the internet are misleading me. But this is how your words read, and I get the impression from the replies of others here that I’m not the only one who reads your words in this way.

  15. Lou Jost says:

    Oh no, more psychoanalysis! I’ll have to come back in a few days to answer this, I have too much work to do right now…..have a happy new year, Lou

    • James says:

      Not psychoanalysis — I haven’t asked you about your childhood! :-) I offered merely a description of your conversational stance as it appears to me.

      I’m not keen on continuing this conversation into the New Year; new years are time for new beginnings. I think we have pretty well covered everything regarding Behe, teleology, etc. Besides, I may not be around here much longer; I have other commitments that will prevent me from very much future involvement here. But a happy new year to you as well.

  16. Lou Jost says:

    James, a few parting thoughts. First, regarding your criticism of my tone. Of course I think I’m right about my positions, otherwise I wouldn’t comment here. But I expose myself and those opinions just as much as anyone else who comments here. And yes, I do think I can speak for the majority of biologists on certain issues. Many of the ideas presented by the posters here represent extreme fringe positions, as you can confirm by looking at journal articles and textbooks. And posters here (especially Sy) have sometimes made very inaccurate claims about current science.

    “I get the sense that you think of religion in all its forms as part of the benighted past of humanity…”

    You are partly right. I do regard certain kinds of religious beliefs as absolutely bonkers. Ken Ham’s beliefs are nuts- there is no polite way to say it. However, the key element of Ham’s delusion (and also of Muslim and Hindu extremists’ delusions) is unfortunately one that Jon and Sy apparently also share: the belief that an old book, if properly interpreted, is inerrant. I’ve never understood how people like that can be such ruthless critics of scientific reasoning and evidence, but can be so credulous with regard to their own core belief.

    Your beliefs, or those of commenter Eddie on BioLogos, have a different character, and I truly respect that kind of search for truth.

    • James says:

      Thanks for your kind words about me, Lou. In defense of Sy and Jon and the others here, I think that they are not imposing their view of the Bible on others, but rather think that this view can be defended against attackers. So they are not saying, “You gotta accept the Bible as the true word of God!” but only arguing that one who does so accept the Bible can still be a good scientist, medical doctor, etc.

      I know that you are worried about the US situation, where there are a few extremists who would like to make the Bible into the official religious teaching of the country, but the Hump is based in Britain where the social situation is different, and I don’t see what Sy and Jon are doing as any different from what Augustine, Aquinas, etc. were doing — accepting the Bible as essentially true (while of course allowing for intelligent and nuanced interpretation beyond what US fundamentalism often allows) and trying to integrate that truth with other areas of human knowledge. I don’t think that’s a bad thing for a Christian to attempt, in principle, though of course you and everyone else has the right to question particular argumentative moves as they try to carry out that project. But if you reject the Bible from the outset as simply false (as opposed to maybe true, maybe false) then it is not likely that you will get very much out of their writing.

      I myself don’t hold to “inerrancy” as the phrase is usually meant in the USA, because I think it tends to commit Christians to views they don’t need to hold, views that aren’t necessary to being a Christian, views that are tangential rather than central. I think that the Bible can be broadly true while containing some wrong dates, some geographical errors, etc. I think that the Bible can be broadly true while containing some metaphorical language, etc.

      Of course Christians can and will continue to debate among themselves what are the core beliefs that cannot be surrendered, with the fundamentalists making those core beliefs many and the liberals making them few or none. It appears to me that Jon and the others here sit in the moderate middle, trying to maintain a belief in the overall truth of the Biblical teaching and in historical Christian doctrines, while being open-minded regarding how these things are to be integrated with what we learn from science, history, etc.

      If someone thinks that historical mainstream Christianity is simply false, then he will necessarily think that any attempt to integrate historical mainstream Christianity with modern knowledge is a waste of time, and I can’t imagine that such a person would want to spend much time engaging with the columnists on this site. But if someone is open to the possibility that historical mainstream Christianity (albeit with this or that slight modification) could be true, then the columns here should be of some interest.

      I find this site more “open” than most other sites on this subject on the internet: BioLogos, Uncommon Descent, and the various creationist sites have their pet positions to uphold, but this site seems to allow for a variety of combinations of various Christian and other theistic theologies with various versions of evolutionary theory, various versions of intelligent design, etc. For those who are open to some form of theistic religion but are tired of the orthodoxies of the other creation/evolution/design/atheism sites, this place is a pleasant haven for civilized discussion. I wish it long life.

      • Lou Jost says:

        What puzzles me is the selective skepticism of Christians here. Even if they thought there was convincing evidence that Jesus was divine, they still have a long way to go before they could conclude that the Bible is inerrant (in any sense at all). The Bible could just be a cultural document written about the events observed, without any divine influence. The evidence favors that interpretation, even if Jesus were divine. And of course the evidence for Jesus’ divinity is terrible. Yet they buy the whole package, while being hyper-skeptical of scientific conclusions that are on much more solid ground than any of their own beliefs. I can’t understand that.

        • GD GD says:

          Remarks such as these are provocative but also interesting; I favour a sceptical approach to just about every subject (with the exception of intent by human beings). I make a distinction however, between an approach to faith, in that the maxim is to search all things and accept what one concludes is the truth of any faith, and scientific enquiry in which tests and (perhaps harshly) examines data, methods, and theories, before one considers any scientific claims based on such data.

          The notion of so called evidence strikes me as an amateurish approach – as if a person adopts the stance of a detective searching evidence for a crime.

          I also find it odd that you assume “yet they buy the whole package …” It is odd that an atheist will be critical of debate and disagreements amongst various Christian traditions, and then in the same breath, state they are blind and willing to accept anything put before them.

          So I guess it is a matter of searching with a clear conscience and seeking understanding – if science provides the grounds for your beliefs, my astonishment is real, in that you spend so much time discussing matters of belief that does not seek its ground(s) in the sciences – this is not the same as disregarding science, although I think you believe that it is that.

  17. Lou Jost says:

    One more response, on Behe. After your comment, I looked up his paper in Protein Science, where he shows how unlikely it would be to get a novel protein that requires three separate mutations. Taking his numbers at face value, and considering the number of bacteria in the world, his results show that such novelties will arise practically every day! So I don’t think they say much about the difficulty of evolving novel proteins. Do you know how he responds to that observation?

    His simulation excluded recombination and sex, so it doesn’t apply to multicellular life. It would be interesting to include those processes. I am writing a simulation program for my own population genetics work, and it will then be easy to run this problem, so some day I’ll update you on the results when sex and recombination are included.

    • James says:

      Hi, Lou, and Happy New Year again.

      Regarding Behe, I’m not expert enough in the science to guess what he might say in response to you, but I have found that he responds very well to critics when they avoid the polemics and the personal insults and discuss only the science with him. (In fact, he goes out of his way to respond fairly to critics even when are personally nasty to him, which is fairly often, but that’s a side point.)

      You can see his both his manner and his arguments in response to critics if you go to his blogsite at Uncommon Descent — there he has stored all his former Amazon.com responses to critics of The Edge of Evolution, and a number of other things that he has written more recently. In any case, I think that if you wrote to him privately about his Protein Science article, in a friendly and collegial tone, he would respond to you in like manner. He is that kind of guy. He might not respond the very next day — he gets immensely large correspondence — but I feel pretty sure he would reply, and reply fairly, to any genuinely scientific critique from someone who appeared to be interested in following the evidence wherever it leads. Of course, if you take the Panda’s Thumb or Pharyngula approach — i.e., “You’re a scientific fraud, Behe, and I can prove it!” you will be met with silence. But I don’t think you would do that.

      • Lou Jost says:

        I strongly agree that these kinds of questions, and serious attempts to answer them, are legitimate and useful. I’ll enjoy seeing what my own simulations do. Meanwhile I’m reading Lynch’s response to Behe in the same journal, and Behe’s response to that.

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