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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Intelligent design and high culture: A thoughtful engineering prof skewers the big mantra - "Natural selection does it all"

A friend alerts me to this interesting article, "Does Nature Suggest Transcendence?", by Neil D. Broom in The Global Spiral (a Metanexus publication). Broom is Professor of Materials Science at the University of Auckland New Zealand.

My friend describes the article as "broadly pro-ID" - and I would be inclined to agree, except that I would not want Broom to be assailed by a horde of ass hats demanding that he recant. It's the sort of article you must read to get the benefit of his careful thought, especially because it is adorned by well-chosen photographs and drawings:
... can natural selection be so easily dismissed as a wholly material, unconscious, purposeless process? I think it is fair to say that at one popular level the expression natural selection serves as a kind of mantra, an almost magical utterance that quickly allays any doubts a skeptic might entertain. It is uttered with power and authority when any kind of biological achievement required to be explained, and in the currency of a wholly material world. My argument is that the claim that natural selection explains the extraordinary (read life processes) while drawing only on the ordinary (read material processes), is not only bad science, it is also contradicted by the very narrative the materialist seems compelled to employ to present his or her story of life.
Referencing British biologist's comparison of natural selection to engineers in a soap factory, he writes,

Now Steve Jones should, of all people, know better than to use such a misleading illustration. The trial and error or hit and miss type of process which he claims is analogous to natural selection is actually loaded with intentionality, or to be exact, intelligent scrutiny. Firstly, a better nozzle is being sought. So, a nozzle, said to have been modified at random, is tried and found to do a better or worse job than another. And who decides whether it is an improvement or not? A rather discerning “nozzle operator,” one skilled in the art of recognising whether the change is for better or for worse, one who is able to detect subtle degrees of improvement or deterioration.

Even the expression “trial and error” presupposes an expectation against which an altered performance can be judged. “Hit and miss” is all about a target that is being aimed for. The men on the Liverpool soap factory shop floor knew precisely what end result they wanted (a better performing nozzle) and this surely robs Steve Jones of his convenient metaphor for natural selection. The words “design without a designer” are little more than misleading sloganeering and what he presents to his readers is more a piece of materialistic fiction. Natural selection, even if simplistically illustrated with the soap powder analogy, is a truly intentional process.

But why should Jones "of all people" know better? Steve Jones was the biologist who insisted that, in the dramatic sequence in March of the Penguins where the male penguins are moving slowly in and out of a vast spiral - each taking a turn with his egg in the warmer centre, the penguins are really competing.

A group of penguins standing upright looks like co-operation, but in fact the ones on the outside are struggling to get in and those on the inside are trying to stand their ground: it’s a classic Darwinian struggle.
(The male penguins, left alone with the eggs in a harsh climate while the females return to the ocean to feed, spiral in and out of their “turtle” formation, in a slow and orderly way, taking their fair turn in the warm center of the huddle.)

In fact, there is no struggle, and if there were, the eggs would be the first casualties. The explorers' own account of the scene is:

The males can be aggressive the rest of the year. But they are docile and cooperative now, united to protect the eggs and survive the cold. Each takes turns getting warm by spending time near the center of the turtle. The huddled mass coils around itself in an undulating spiral. The penguins on the outside move in toward the center, the ones on the inside go outward. And this rotation happens very gently in order to safeguard the eggs. (March of the Penguins, p. 75)
Jones is merely repeating his "mantra" about natural selection when he insists that there is a struggle.

About Dawkins's claims that he can simulate evolution on a computer, Broom writes,

... there are glaring conceptual flaws in Dawkins’ whole analogy. Firstly, he has committed a fatal error by mixing his metaphors. In effect he confuses systems that achieve with objects that simply are. What he produces is a series of computer-generated objects, in essence, digital doodles that certainly go through an interesting sequence of transformations resulting from the accumulation of small random alterations in the values of his shape-determining instructional ‘genes’. But they are nothing more than objects and can never be used to explain, in even the simplest analogous sense, how any living system might have arisen.

Dawkins appears to be exploiting the fact that his computer model generates shapes that crudely resemble all manner of objects, both living and non-living, and he even calls them by a name designed, I suspect, to evoke in the reader’s mind a living connotation - biomorphs. An unsuspecting reader might then imagine a plausible connection between these computer-generated pictures and the real thing. But in reality Dawkins' program produces pictorial representations of anything and everything, living and non-living - a great variety of recognisable shapes or ‘digital doodles’, Lego-like biosymbolic fantasy objects, crude and simplistic symbols of reality, but little more.

His computer program is a fantasy-generating machine - of a digital kind!
A computer fantasy in support of a mantra - how bo-bo (= bohemian bourgeois)! Anyway, enjoy Broom's essay.

Find out why there is an intelligent design controversy:

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