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Friday, November 17, 2006

Thinkquote of the day: On randomness and Darwinian evolution

The Discovery Institute's John G. West has an interesting opinion piece on conservatives who promote Darwinism as an explicitly conservative cause, in which he addresses the curious avoidance of the meaning of "randomness" as in "natural selection acting on random mutations":
For example, physicist Stephen Barr has argued in First Things that neo-Darwinism, properly understood, need not require a process that is “unguided” or “unplanned.” “The word ‘random’ as used in science does not mean uncaused, unplanned, or inexplicable; it means uncorrelated,” he writes.

The problem is not that Barr is wrong about the appropriate meaning of “random” but that mainstream Darwinists do not accept his point and never have. Darwinism from the start has been defined as an undirected process. That is its core, and that is why Darwin himself emphasized that “no shadow of reason can be assigned for the belief that variations ... were intentionally and specially guided.”

In the Darwinian view, biological structures such as the vertebrate eye, or the wings of butterflies, or the bacterial flagellum, “must have” developed through the interplay of chance (random mutations, according to modern Darwinists) and necessity (natural selection or “survival of the fittest”). The same holds true for the higher animals, including human beings. In the words of Harvard paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”

Barr may be correct that a more modest Darwinism that does not insist on evolution’s being undirected would be harmless, but then it also no longer would be Darwinism. Conservatives cannot resolve the problems with Darwinian evolution merely by offering their own idiosyncratic definition of the term.

Yes indeed. A curious psychological force seems to be at work now, where some pundits who do not know what to do about intelligent design theory attempt to rejigger Darwinism from the outside, to make it a little nearer to their hearts' desire.

Of course the major Darwinists could espouse what Barr is suggesting, but they don't believe what he believes, and never have. But you know, everything old is new again. When I was younger, I used to hear these same issues around communism. In 1966, well-meaning socialists would assure me that there was a brand of communism that did not mean the invasion of Czechoslovakia. All I could ever think of to say in response was - yeah, really.

My other blog is the Mindful Hack, which keeps tabs on neuroscience and the mind.

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

Are you looking for one of the following stories?

My backgrounder on proposed new directions in peer review

My U of Toronto talk on why there is an intelligent design controversy, or my talk on media coverage of the controversy att he University of Minnesota.

A summary of tech guru George Gilder's arguments for ID and against Darwinism

A critical look at why March of the Penguins was thought to be an ID film.

A summary of recent opinion columns on the ID controversy

A summary of recent polls of US public opinion on the ID controversy

A summary of the Catholic Church's entry into the controversy, essentially on the side of ID.

O'Leary's intro to non-Darwinian agnostic philosopher David Stove’s critique of Darwinism.

An ID Timeline: The ID folk seem always to win when they lose.

O’Leary’s comments on Francis Beckwith, a Dembski associate, being granted tenure at Baylor after a long struggle - even after helping in a small way to destroy the Baylor Bears' ancient glory - in the opinion of a hyper sportswriter.

Why origin of life is such a difficult problem.
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