Re: [asa] Jerry Coyne's Confused Attack on Religion

From: Nucacids <>
Date: Wed Jan 28 2009 - 23:43:29 EST

Hi Randy,

Good points. Since it's late, let me just throw this out there. Going back to Conway Morris (thanks, Steve):

“There is no simple answer to the question about the stage at which something like ourselves becomes overwhelmingly probable. To provide a focus, however, much of this chapter will concentrate on those elements that we might regard as the hallmarks of the humanoid – large brain, intelligence, tools, and culture – all of which, needless to say, show examples of convergence.” (p. 234)

If these hallmarks are "inevitable," then a front-loading proponent might very well note that the biosphere is poised to evolve a humanoid. Thus, the convergence argument may not get us to humanoid - it may get us to the needed precursor state. From there, the deck is stacked. Convergence stops just short so only one species is likely to make the next step.


PS: I do not advocate the front-loading of humans, as my focus has always been much more modest. But that doesn't stop my brain from contemplating tantalizing thoughts.

  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Randy Isaac
  Sent: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 11:09 PM
  Subject: Re: [asa] Jerry Coyne's Confused Attack on Religion

    That is a good line indeed. But it seems to me that it may not actually reflect Coyne's message and may be a straw argument. Though I certainly disagree with Coyne on many points, this is one where I think his comments deserve more consideration. Let me try to restate his message and hopefully avoid building still another straw target.

  1. Convergence in evolution means a common trait that has evolved in multiple independent lineages. The problem I have with convergence is the definition of "common trait". It clearly doesn't extend to identical genetic sequences in DNA. That is taken as proof of the same lineage since it is so improbable. On the other hand, if the trait is defined in too general a manner, then it becomes meaningless, almost to the point of a tautology. Like "it is alive". So a streamlined body shape for minimizing water drag or aerodynamics can be observed in multiple lineages. That is convergence but not a very surprising one. Intelligence, as I stated in a previous thread, can be defined in such a way that all plants and bacteria also have intelligence. Whether dolphins have the same type of intelligence as humans depends on how narrowly one wishes to define intelligence. Coyne is saying, I think, that humanoid intelligence is a concept that distinguishes humanoids from all other creatures by a gargantuan gulf. Call it what you want, humans have a lot of characteristics that distinguish us from others and serves to define what it means to be human. Again, if defined too narrowly or too broadly, it would become meaningless. But as it is, that distinctive characteristic cannot be said to be convergent because we have observed only one lineage in which it has evolved.

  2. If a trait is convergent, then we know that there are multiple ways in which that trait can arise. Thus the probability of its occurence in nature is much greater than a trait which is not convergent. I suspect that Coyne uses the term "inevitable" more in the sense of "likely" rather than must happen. Convergent traits could then be thought of as occurring inevitably in nature while one cannot make that point for a non-convergent trait. It may or may not be likely.

  3. A non-convergent trait is not inevitable but is a random, contingent occurrence that could not have been foreseen or predicted. That is, if it is not a likely result from several possible paths, then one cannot expect it to occur a priori. Hence, it was not intended. Or at least we have no indication that a "front-loader" designed it to be likely to occur.

  I think Coyne's fundamental error is analogous to confusing material causes with final causes--he is confusing material intent with divine intent. I think he is right that if 600Mya we wanted to identify the material causes to be put in place to make it likely that humanoid intelligence would evolve, we'd come up empty. That does not, however, rule out divine intent.

  As for your statement, Coyne is not saying that humans would be special if they weren't special. He is saying that they would be likely to occur if they weren't unique. That would mean that the universe was created in such a way that humanoids were likely to evolve. He does not claim that if there were multiple lineages of self-aware intelligent species that humans would be "intended" but he does say that such an occurrence would be more consistent with a creator who intended to have humans evolve.


        Coyne is basically saying that in order to show that humans are special, they shouldn't be special. If the planet was populated with two or three other species of sophisticated, self-aware intelligent species, would this really make it clear that humans were intended? Heads I win; tails you lose.

        - Mike Gene


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Received on Wed Jan 28 23:43:56 2009

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