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Friday, August 08, 2008

Thoughts toward an intelligent design textbook ...

Warwick U sociologist Steve Fuller, author of Dissent over Descent, and I have been corresponding about how scientists who are sympathetic to intelligent design can make a bigger impact, and what the next generation of ID textbooks should look like.

Me: So what should the ID guys do? Create a complex life form from scratch in under 100 days? That would show that intelligent design is required. Nature never done that. But if they can't do it, does that prove intelligent design is not necessary? I don't think so.

He: First, ID needs to stop living up to its critics’ image of the movement as purely negative, i.e. ‘not-evolution’. Because ID has been largely cultivated in a US context, ID supporters have been reluctant to admit theology’s role in informing ID’s scientific imagination.

As a result, and especially when under pressure, ID has tended to focus exclusively on the very real problems in Neo-Darwinism. But not surprisingly, to a disinterested observer, this looks opportunistic and even disingenuous, as it suggests that ID is justified simply if Neo-Darwinism has enough holes it can’t plug.

Me: Yes, I see what you mean. Bear in mind, however, that the icons of evolution I grew up with are mostly exploded now. For example,

- The Viceroy butterfly "evolved" to mimic the Monarch, which is poisonous, to avoid birds

- The peacock's tail "evolved" to attract peahens

- The eyespots of butterflies and moths "evolved" because their resemblance to eyes scared off bird predators.

All nonsense. Birds do not think the way we do. Yet these fraudulent icons of evolution - alleged living shrines to Darwin - linger in popular imagination. They are the chief reason that many people honestly believe neo-Darwinism to be resoundingly confirmed, with no need to consider an alternative.

He: The deeper problem with this negative strategy is its implicit concession that all current biological knowledge belongs exclusively to Neo-Darwinism. This then leads the anti-ID brigade to bray, ‘Stop complaining and do your own research!’

A better tack would be for ID simply to systematically reinterpret existing biological research in ID-friendly terms and shift the burden of proof to the Neo-Darwinists by insisting that they come clean on what exactly they mean by continuing to speak in design-laden terms.

Design talk has only increased – not decreased -- with the revolutionary impact of molecular biology on genetics. While Richard Dawkins may blithely speak of ‘design without a designer’, philosophers agonize over this problem in their more esoteric publications without clear resolution. (And I mean here pro-Darwin philosophers, e.g. Tim Lewens, Organisms and Artifacts, MIT Press, 2004.)

Me: Yes, I agree. I would love to work on such a textbook myself.

He: Neo-Darwinists should not be allowed to get away with saying that ‘design’ is a metaphor, especially if they can’t conceptualise in more ‘literal’ terms what they’re talking about.

Me: Well, metaphors become costly when they are maintained only to prop up an existing theory that doesn't really help us understand.

Here’s an example: People sometimes talk as though computers think.

Sometimes that idea does no harm, as in “The machine thinks you want American spelling because that is the default. If you want Canadian spelling, you have to tell the machine by selecting it in Tools, Spelling, Language.”

Explaining it that way helps the person understand, even though the machine isn't really thinking. The metaphor does no harm.

But sometimes, the metaphor does harm. The user thinks the machine IS thinking. He gets frustrated because he thinks he is interacting with a person. So one must take him aside and explain:
The machine does not think anything. The thoughts are those of the software engineer who has encoded them in the program. But that’s all in the past. If the engineer did not think to provide a given option, we just can’t do it, I am afraid. We will have to think of something else ourselves.

And then there are the people who imagine that “soon machines will think like people!” They promote vast, cranky attitude changes. They do not seem to have gotten the memo: The human brain does not work like a machine. It is not going to start working like a machine. Not now. Not ever.

If the only purpose of insisting that design is merely a metaphor rather than a reality is to prevent anyone from making a connection between intelligence and design, we will soon not bother with that distinction. Only an ideological atheist crank would even care.

He: By the same token, ID may also need to take its own design talk more literally. I notice that Dembski and Wells have a book due out in the autumn that purports to explain ‘why intelligent design is necessary to explain the high-tech engineering inside the cell’. Well, I hope that this turn of phrase isn’t simply a marketing device because it captures really well how ID differs from Neo-Darwinism.

My fantasy ID textbook would actually treat biology as a branch of engineering – i.e. God’s engineering.

The phylogenetic tree would be treated as purely a taxonomic device to show how certain bio-machines result once certain changes are made to their structure. The book would be completely neutral on origins, in terms of either when or how the various bio-machines we call species were produced. These would be matters treated separately – as it were, in another course.

Me: Yes, I look forward to a textbook that rethinks the conventional approach too.

See, one warp that neo-Darwinism has created is this: So often “how it is” has come to mean “how it evolved” – which in turn comes to mean “what story can we tell, given that we don’t really know how it evolved?”

That of course means that the “how” gets all mixed up with the “why” – as in, we know WHY the peacock has a huge fan tail – to attract peahens! – and therefore we know HOW it came to exist – it evolved through a long, slow process of natural selection acting on random mutations.

Now suppose we just put all that into the recycler and say “We don't know for certain either what function the peacock’s tail serves or how it arose. Birds are not feathered people, so what matters to a bird may be different from what matters to us."

No doubt, if we get beyond our preconceptions, we can find out. That's what research is for, not telling stories that garland the tacky local shrine to Darwin's bogus miracles.

Here’s an example of where my suggested approach might help: A Darwin myth, exploded recently, is “Butterfly eyespots deter bird predators because they look like the eyes of the bird’s own predators.”

After 200 years, some enterprising scientists actually decided to test that, and discovered that birds do not much care whether the spots are round or square - or just bars. Birds avoid colourful patterns generally.

Humans thought some patterns looked like eyes and made up a Darwinian story about it. And, inevitably, because we knew “why” the spots looked like eyes, we also knew “how” they came to look that way – that ol' Darwinian magic - natural selection acting on random mutation!

In reality, it may turn out that patterns in butterfly wings follow certain rules – in that case, if we look for those rules, we will probably find them. So natural selection would play only the limited role of selecting out butterflies that don’t have any clear pattern.

But we won’t begin looking for the rules that govern the patterns as long as Darwinian fairy tales offer us an easy “explanation” - one that no one ever thought to test for two centuries!

By the way, it occurs to me that if a bird waited until he could see the cat’s eyes, it would be too late. He probably wouldn't be contributing genes to future bird generations - more likely nutrition to future cat generations.

He:The point of this fantasy textbook is to highlight a profound sense in which I believe ID does change the ground rules of how biological science is conducted: It keeps separate at least three questions that the Neo-Darwinists want answered as package deal:

1. When species were formed?

2. In what order were they formed?

3. By what means were they formed?
A Young Earth Creationist may have no problem adopting my fantasy ID textbook, while contesting when and by what means species were produced.

Me:Yes, as I tried to hint above, it does change the rules. For one thing, we stop telling stories and start looking for patterns. It is less like history, more like geography.

One thing that helps is the discovery of gene swapping. Gene swapping, if widely practiced among plants and bacteria (and even fish?), makes ancestry irrelevant.

Similarly, the fact that genomes may change during an individual’s lifetime means that the history of a genome does not equal the history of fertile matings – that turns out to be only part of the story. And if it’s only part of the story, it makes the neo-Darwinian history of life even less useful as a science-based account. Maybe, Darwinism is just how an Anglo-American capitalist would explain life?

He:Finally, I would say that the perverse science-religion politics in the US should not be taken as a global model for the reception of ID. This has only led ID supporters to undersell the value of ID as a positive guide to scientific research. I mean here how ID gets scientists to define their scientific problems differently.

For example, the book you authored with Beauregard illustrates well how a scientist sensitive to the potential role of God in nature would do research to establish how we might know such a thing in empirically valid terms. It is not so very different from how scientists in the past have tried to get a grip on features of reality that cannot be easily explained by the usual naturalistic explanations.

Me:Well, keep in mind that non-materialist neuroscientists tend to be a practical lot. They mostly come from medical science. They are interested in treatments that work. Drugs are okay for augmenting or reducing a function that is out of control, but you can't keep people on drugs all their lives and expect them to be happy and healthy.

To use the language of non-materialist neuroscientists, when people change their minds, they change their brains. So the goal is to encourage them to make the changes that are good for mental and physical health.

In The Spiritual Brain, we did not try to “prove” our point - that the mind is a real, though immaterial thing, and not the same thing as the brain. We wanted to assemble the evidence that we think reasonably supports that view.

(Darwinbot alert!: Get busy, Darwinbots, and oppose this idea. Your opposition helps sales. I would like my tax money to go toward you doing something besides lay nosegays on Darwin's grave. )

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Fish swap genes? Or Darwinists swap stories?

A research scientist friend writes to tell me about yet another example of Darwinism as a science stopper:
These scientists found that the antifreeze proteins of diverse species of fish are nearly identical. But they don't share a recent common ancestor. So even though they say that the chance of such similar proteins emerging in unrelated species is "vanishingly small" they would not think of seeing this as evidence for design; no, they propose another option. They think the genes for antifreeze proteins jumped from one species to another.

[ ... ]

And why is the Economist promoting Evolution?
Well actually, friend, The Economist is promoting magic.

Increasingly, as far as I can see, evolution is treated as magic. It is the all-purpose explanation whenever we come across anything in the world whose origin we don't understand: Evolution" (an immense, undefined power) dunit.

While plants and bacteria do swap genes, the idea that fish would swap them is certainly novel. From the article:
Fish species swap genes in a way that looks a bit like genetic engineering

SOME fish have special proteins in their blood to stop them from freezing to death—a remarkable evolutionary trait made no less so by the fact that biologists have known about it for some time. How this trait spread, though, turns out to be even more remarkable. If Peter Davies of Queen’s University in Ontario and his colleagues are right, it demonstrates in fish an evolutionary mechanism hitherto seen mainly in bacteria, viruses and genetic-engineering laboratories.
But okay, let's go there for a moment.

The male fish typically fertilizes the eggs after the female lays them. So gene swapping via escaped sperm is theoretically possible. (Whether it ever really happens is another story. )

If genes can truly jump between fish, as they can between plants, that would make ancestry irrelevant - hardly good news for the Darwinism the researchers are trying to save!

Think how much effort goes into tracing the ancestry of various fish species from earlier species. But gene swapping/protein swapping - assuming it actually happens in fish - would make such efforts irrelevant or time wasting. The occurrence of common traits between species of fish would not be proof of their common ancestry.

One reason that Darwinism is approaching a crisis is that Darwinists can only fend off design by adopting ideas that are almost as damaging to their basic thesis.

I wonder when they will try to tell me that park pigeons and dumpster raccoons swap genes without mating ... which is why [insert just-so story here .... ]

Another scientist friend has just (11:15 a.m. EST) written me to draw my attention to this article:

EVOLUTION: Taking the Long View

Laura M. Zahn

It can be difficult to establish the phylogeny of microorganisms because they are composed of genes that have moved vertically (via inheritance) or horizontally (via lateral transfer mechanisms such as conjugation) or both. Dagan et al. have applied a network analysis approach to estimate the cumulative impact of lateral gene transfer in the genomes of 181 fully sequenced prokaryotes. By examining the presence or absence of all genes and by tracing the evolutionary history of these genes on the basis of genome size, they were able to calculate the rate of lateral gene transfer and have concluded that approximately 80% of the genes in each genome appear to have been involved in lateral transfer at some point in their history. Hence, well-defined phylogenetic trees, which describe genetic relationships accurately on short-term evolutionary time scales, become rather less clearly delineated when looked at over very long time periods. -- LMZ

Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 105, 10039 (2008).

Remember this when some Darwin fanatic demands that you "accept" commmon ancestry, as if it matters.


Roundup, plus, Focus, guys, focus: To restore civil rights, get our laws changed, don't attack individuals

The current "human rights" complaint against Alberta publisher and lawyer Ezra Levant has been dismissed, pending a possible appeal. The Ez writes, among other things, "I'm not Muslim, but I cringe for my Muslim friends":
If I was a Canadian Muslim, I would weep at being "represented" by such buffoons.
Yes, exactly, Ez.

I have often thought, if I were a Muslim, I would be furious that so many well-meaning salaried ninnies think that crackpots and extremists speak for me. ("They claim to respect me, and yet they think I listen to these goofs ... ?")

As a Christian, I am annoyed when people suppose that any crackpot with a Bible speaks for me. Or the woman who claims to have seen the Virgin Mary in her cheese sandwich, even ...

However, we should not consider The Ez's dismissal evidence that the civil rights problem is solved. As I mentioned to a friend recently,
The religion censor backed down in the face of organized opposition, but the censor should actually be told to look for another job. We are all better off without a religion censor.
We should NOT want the "human rights" commissions to go back to their usual tack of oppressing little people who, unlike The Ez, are not defamation lawyers.

Levant also notes the recent Jesus Sucks complaint to the BC Human Rights Commission.

Basically, someone hired a plane to fly past Toronto with a banner “Jesus Sucks!” A BC resident filed a complaint with the BC Human Rights Commission (yes, I know, it is 3000 miles away – but that is how goofy things are here). Levant comments:
The stunt was part of a television contest to see who could be the most offensive. Hotz claims he originally wanted to have a banner saying "Heil Hitler" or "Guys are stupid", but the airplane banner company refused, saying those messages were too offensive. Apparently "Jesus sucks" isn't.

The whole joke rather imploded on itself. It wasn't funny, but it wasn't even daring -- saying "Jesus sucks" is about as banal as it comes, especially in pop culture or "the arts". I mean, after Piss Christ or even the Da Vinci Code, is a two-word childish insult really that edgy? I thought Charles Lewis had a good treatment of the failed stunt, but he downplayed the timidity of taking on Jesus. Heil Hitler would have been edgier -- and perhaps even funny, coming from Hotz, a Jew himself. But that would likely have meant a tearful phone call from his mother, and Hotz isn't quite that brave. A human rights complaint or three might have emanated from that, too, not to mention trouble from the CRTC for airing same. So Jesus sucks it had to be.

"Mohammed sucks" wouldn't be funny, but it would have truly shown guts -- both as a political statement and as an act of personal courage -- it was precisely the sort of thing that got Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh murdered, and van Gogh was more nuanced.

Christians have turned the other cheek to this kind of things since, well, Jesus's time. He put up with rather more execration than a two-word insult. But Skoreyko is making an important point: if Canada's human rights industry will protect every other group from hurt feelings -- gays, Muslims, blacks, etc. -- will it also protect Christians, from such a clear and explicit attempt to offend them?

Hotz precisely meets the test of Canada's hate speech laws: what he did was "likely to expose a person to hatred or contempt". That's the wording in the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Alberta code, the B.C. code and other provincial HRCs. If Hotz was a skinhead, and the banner said "Jews suck", he'd already have had a human rights officer at his door, and probably a policeman, too.

I don't know Skorekyo, but I'm pretty sure he doesn't actually believe that he can get "justice" from the BCHRT. I don't think he wants it. I think he wants the opposite: he wants his case to be thrown out, so that he can prove what we all know to be true. In Canada's human rights industry, only certain political and religious views are protected from hurt feelings -- and Christians aren't one of them.
As a Christian, I strongly discourage Christians - in principle - from bringing complaints to these illiberal commissions - the "human face" of fascism.

But if Skoreyko intends what The Ez thinks he does, I agree that his complaint could serve as a useful demo of what the commissions have really degenerated into.

Another upcoming battle doesn't involve the "human rights" commissions; it involves an author, Howard Rotberg, who is suing Chapters because he says that smeared him as a racist when a reading turned unruly.

We'll see what the court says. But, I must say, smearing people as haters of whatever variety is very easy in the "human rights" commission environment. Haters, in the current environment, are people who say something negative about a person who has claimed "victim" status. Neither truth nor fair comment, nor good intent are relevant, and accumulating evidence for one's position is merely further evidence of "hate."

Also, Mark Mercer of the St. Mary's Department of Philosophy points out,
One effect of our laws and policies against hate speech has been to chill and deform public discussion of controversial or sensitive matters.

That wasn’t the intention behind these laws and policies, at least not among those who first drafted them. Members of the Cohen Committee, way back in 1966, were seriously concerned that their recommendation to make unlawful the wilful promotion of hatred against identifiable groups would catch only the haters and leave the rest of us alone. Some members of the committee were prepared to abandon recommending any law, even at the cost of letting neo-Nazis speak freely, if they thought a law would put non-hateful speech at risk.

But times have changed, and with them have changed intentions and purposes. Nowadays it looks as though the main purpose of laws and policies in Canada against hate speech is precisely to make people think twice before offering their opinions or expressing their emotions.
And that suits some people very well indeed. Everyone's private beliefs become public business. So they get to run Orwell's dystopia, Nineteen eighty four, or better yet, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World - with no risk, no fighting.

Focus, guys, focus: To restore civil rights, get our laws changed, don't attack individuals

Meanwhile, I really hope that the discussion can be kept on track. That is the key to restoring civil rights. Recently, I wrote to Blazing Cat Fur blog about that very thing:
Hi, I'm Denyse O'Leary, Toronto, and I blog at The Post-Darwinist , as well as The Mindful Hack and Colliding Universes.

I think our joint concerns are better served if we keep in mind that neither [complainant] Soyarwardy nor any other Muslim immigrant invented the system that oppresses Canadians today.

He and others simply use the system that WE put in place.

I wish people would stop directing any attention - let alone attack - against the people who provide employment for liberal fascists merely by using the system. Direct it - please! - at the government in Ottawa that continues to uphold the system.

Suppose I belong to a religion that says cats are unclean. I charge the makers of a famous brand of toilet paper for offending me by their "fluffy white kitten" ads ...

The appropriate response is not to slang my religion but to assail the government for permitting a situation where my ideas suddenly acquire such power in the land - in a normally functioning country they never would.

One outcome of freedom of religion (= believe what you want, but obey the laws) is that people will believe a variety of things. The government of such a country must avoid becoming the judge of religion that the Human Rights Commissions clearly wish to be.

If only, every time we got mad at a foolish complainant, we directed our attention to demanding that the system be dismantled instead!

Absent the system, the foolish complainant is just someone with an opinion, and we've always allowed that.

See also: Liberal fascism: A survival manual for non-fascists in Canada and Europe

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