Re: [asa] philological notes on randomness (was: Re: What my tiny little brain was thinking...)

From: Cameron Wybrow <wybrowc@sympatico.ca>
Date: Mon Nov 16 2009 - 17:12:35 EST

Richard, you wrote:

***

Here's the strawman

the vast majority of evolutionary biologists do not share his view

And the argument against this strawman is very easy to defend.

Here's the NAS on this:

  Contrary to a widespread public impression, biological evolution is not random, even though the biological changes that provide the raw material for evolution are not directed toward predetermined, specific goals.
***

Richard, West spoke of "evolutionary biologists" not "the NAS". "Evolutionary biologists" has a specialized meaning. It doesn't mean scientists generally, or even biologists who happen to believe in evolution. It means biologists who specialize in hypothesizing about evolution. A biology department may have 30 professors, but it might be that only one or two or three of them are evolutionary biologists in this sense. Evolutionary biologists in this sense are George Gaylord Simpson, Ernst Mayr, Jerry Coyne, H. Allen Orr, and Richard Sternberg. (Ken Miller and Francis Collins are not evolutionary biologists in this sense; Miller is, I believe, a cell biologist, and Collins is a geneticist). The NAS, on the other hand, is a self-selecting body of eminent scientists in general, having no particular connection to the subject of evolutionary biology as such. So why you are quoting a body which does not represent even biologists in particular, let alone evolutionary biologists in the sense that West means, is beyond me. What you need to refute West is a statement from the AEB (Association of Evolutionary Biologists), if such an organization exists.

Note also what the NAS statement said: "... the biological changes that provide the raw material for evolution *are not directed toward predetermined, specific goals*. [emphasis added]

First, how does the NAS know this?

Second, does this statement not violate precisely the distinction that you and Randy and several others here are trying to uphold between "metaphysical" and "scientific" statements?

Third, this statement hardly helps your case. So what if evolution isn't "random" in some technical sense used by biologists? The statement clearly rules out the possibility that God is "the great Mutator" (to use a phrase of Jerry Coyne's). So how then does God exert control over the evolutionary process? Your view of how God and evolution work together is muddy, to say the least.

You also quoted Gaylord Simpson, but your quotation is a cherry-pick, a "proof-text" (like your proof-text of "at random" from the 2 Chronicles passage). It doesn't indicate any real interest in understanding Simpson's thought overall, as a scholarly approach to Simpson would display. For one thing, it doesn't explain the (much clearer) quotation from Simpson of the opposite purport which is given by West. You have to explain the passages from an author that count against your interpretation; you can't just ignore them. Second, let's look carefully at the passage that you do choose:

This sort of limitation and the fact that different mutations may have widely and characteristically different rates of incidence show that mutations are not random in the full and usual sense of the word or in the way that some early Darwinists considered as fully random the variation available for natural selection. I believe that the, in this sense, nonrandom nature of mutation has had a profound influence on the diversity of life and on the extent and character of adaptations. This influence is sometimes overlooked, probably because almost everyone speaks of mutations as random, which they are in other senses of the word.

He says the mutations are "not random in the full and usual sense of the word", but he doesn't specify what "the full and usual sense of the word" is, so it is difficult to know whether he supports your position or not. But he does say, at the end, that mutations are random "in other senses of the word" -- well, what are those other senses? It is at least possible that "other senses" include "unguided, not directed by any intelligence, including God's". That this is likely his meaning can be confirmed from a cursory study of some of his summary statements on religion and teleology (which I don't claim to be adequate as a scholarly statement of his views, but which give some indication of what one might find if one read his books in detail). A list of such statements can be found at:

http://bing.search.sympatico.ca/?q=%22George%20Gaylord%20Simpson%22&mkt=en-ca&setLang=en-CA

Note also that, in your quotation, he acknowledges that at least "some early Darwinists" considered variations to be "fully random", and surely "fully random", means at a minimum "unguided", so you can't completely divorce Darwinian theory from unguidedness. And you would find, if you read a number of neo-Darwinian theorists from about 1926-1986, that it was not merely "some early Darwinists" who believed that the variations were unguided by any intelligence. I would be very surprised if you found that anything other than a decisive majority thought that the variations were unguided. But I await your report.

Cameron.

  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Rich Blinne
  To: Schwarzwald ; Randy Isaac
  Cc: asa
  Sent: Sunday, November 15, 2009 10:16 PM
  Subject: Re: [asa] philological notes on randomness (was: Re: What my tiny little brain was thinking...)

  On Nov 15, 2009, at 7:35 PM, Schwarzwald wrote:

    Rich,

    No, I'm not asking about strawmen here. You've spent a great part of this discussion insisting that the problem with ID people is that they believe evolution as a rule must be unguided and purposeless as a scientific theory. Quoting you, "When ID tells scientists that evolution is random they laugh because it is when you see non-randomness is when evolution via positive selection is occurring."

    Again, John West, ID proponent and member of the DI, on "random": "Barr first claims that Joe Carter and I ďare trapped in a false dilemmaĒ because we wrongly think that random processes cannot be directed by God. Barr points out that even random events, properly defined, are part of Godís sovereign plan. Just because something is random from our point of view, doesnít mean that it is outside of Godís providence. Barr may be surprised to learn that I agree with him. Indeed, most, if not all, of the scholars who believe that nature provides evidence of intelligent design would agree with him." --- Well, Rich, is John correct about randomness here?

    Now, John West on what the "problem is", again: "The problem with Barrís argument is not with his understanding of the proper meaning of random, but with his seeming blindness to the fact that the vast majority of evolutionary biologists do not share his view. Barrís ultimate disagreement here is not with me or Joe Carter, but with the discipline of evolutionary biology itself." --- Rich, do you see here that West's problem is not that he thinks any evolution must be "unguided and without purpose", but specifically that this is what evolution means to Dawkins, Simpson, and many other biologists, and is taught by them? You apparently agree with as much, since you claim that Dawkins specifically is guilty of this, and that there is a "growing movement who are very much opposed to what Dawkins and company have done." Though frankly, I have serious questions about the size of this "movement" and what, if anything, they're doing in this regard (they've certainly taken their time, since Dawkins has been at this crap for decades.) Last I checked, the main movement banging this drum is, to be dead honest, primarily the ID movement (for all their faults).

    Rich, you are making the argument that "first commitment is not being pro-intelligent design or even being anti-unguided -- read atheistic -- evolution. Rather, they agree with Dawkins claiming his extra-scientific conclusions are the warp and woof of evolutionary theory because their first commitment is anti-evolution." But here we have John West explicitly saying that his problem is *NOT* with evolution, that he understands and agrees that the "seemingly random" can still be guided, that the proper view of "random" is the one Stephen Barr gives, etc. Instead he argues that the view of evolution that Barr regards as incorrect and unscientific happens to be the view most evolutionary biologists are committed to, and the view presented in the mainstream.

    Frankly, West seems to be echoing you here in large part: He explicitly defends the compatibility of design with evolution. He points out the problem of evolution being warped to include unscientific claims (that it is "unguided" and "purposeless"), which again you acknowledge in the case of "Dawkins and company". About the only thing you two seem to disagree with here is just how much of the scientific mainstream accepts this warping - and I think, between Darwin's own writings and the writings of many well-known evolution boosters since his time (Mayr, Simpson, etc), the claim that "unguided and purposeless" as being part of the orthodox theory is not a popular association made by scientists is a very hard argument to defend.

  Here's the strawman

  the vast majority of evolutionary biologists do not share his view

  And the argument against this strawman is very easy to defend.

  Here's the NAS on this:

    Contrary to a widespread public impression, biological evolution is not random, even though the biological changes that provide the raw material for evolution are not directed toward predetermined, specific goals.

  Steven J. Gould said the following in Wonderful Life (showing why Miller said Levine made an error in the H.S. biology text book):

    "In ordinary English, a random event is one without order, predicatability or pattern. The word connotes disaggregation, falling apart, formless anarchy, and fear. Yet, ironically, the scientific sense of random conveys a precisely opposite set of associations. A phenomenon governed by chance yields maximal simplicity, order and predictability--at least in the long run. ... Thus, if you wish to understand patterns of long historical sequences, pray for randomness."

  And even Richard Dawkins (when he isn't playing atheistic apologist) doesn't really disagree with Barr either. Note this from The Blind Watchmaker

    It is grindingly, creakingly, obvious that, if Darwinism were really a theory of chance, it couldn't work.

    ...
    Darwinism is widely misunderstood as a theory of pure chance. Mustn't it have done something to provoke this canard? Well, yes, there is something behind the misunderstood rumour, a feeble basis to the distortion. one stage in the Darwinian process is indeed a chance process -- mutation. Mutation is the process by which fresh genetic variation is offered up for selection and it is usually described as random. But Darwinians make the fuss they do about the 'randomness' of mutation only in order to contrast it to the non-randomness of selection. It is not necessary that mutation should be random for natural selection to work. Selection can still do its work whether mutation is directed or not. Emphasizing that mutation can be random is our way of calling attention to the crucial fact that, by contrast, selection is sublimely and quintessentially non-random. It is ironic that this emphasis on the contrast between mutation and the non-randomness of selection has led people to think that the whole theory is a theory of chance.

    Even mutations are, as a matter of fact, non-random in various senses, although these senses aren't relevant to our discussion because they don't contribute constructively to the improbable perfection of organisms. For example, mutations have well-understood physical causes, and to this extent they are non-random. ... the great majority of mutations, however caused, are random with respect to quality, and that means they are usually bad because there are more ways of getting worse than of getting better

  This all goes back a long, long time. GG Simpson who was a key player in the modern evolutionary synthesis in 1953 wrote this.

    This sort of limitation and the fact that different mutations may have widely and characteristically different rates of incidence show that mutations are not random in the full and usual sense of the word or in the way that some early Darwinists considered as fully random the variation available for natural selection. I believe that the, in this sense, nonrandom nature of mutation has had a profound influence on the diversity of life and on the extent and character of adaptations. This influence is sometimes overlooked, probably because almost everyone speaks of mutations as random, which they are in other senses of the word.

  Rich Blinne
  Member ASA

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Received on Mon Nov 16 17:12:54 2009

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