Re: Confusing Definitions (was Re: Chance)

David Bowman (
Mon, 25 May 1998 0:37:26 EDT

Regarding Erich Hurst's request concerning his latest formulation
marshaling the experience of physics to bolster his argument concerning
biology against common descent/macroevolution:

>What do you think? Is this any better, or have I really done a hatchet
>job on physics -- again! ....

It seems to be somewhat of an improvement. It could be significantly
improved further though.

The way I would argue Erich's case (*if* I was so inclined) would be to
appeal to the experience of physics as a warning to biology regarding
wild extrapolation of a theory which is successful in one well-verified
regime/domain to another one which is much less experimentally
accessible. In the late 19th century many influential physicists thought
that the recent marriage (or new synthesis, if you will) of Newtonian
mechanics with Maxwellian electromagnetism (a marriage made possible by
the hypothesis of the luminiferous ether) supplemented with Boltzmann's
statistical mechanical explanation of thermodynamics was the sufficient
last word on how nature really worked. The only work left for future
physical scientists would be a minor mopping-up operation involving mere
extension of the precision of previous calculations and experiments. For
instance, in 1871, J. C. Maxwell stated,

"... that, in a few years, all great physical constants will have been
approximately estimated, and that the only occupation which will be
left to men of science will be to carry these measurements to another
place of decimals." Scientific Papers 2, 244, October 1871.

And a couple of decades later (in a speech dedicating the University of
Chicago's Ryerson Physics Lab in 1894) A. A. Michaelson confidently
assured his listeners of the position of physical theory saying,

"The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science
have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that
the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new
discoveries is exceedingly remote.... Our future discoveries must be
looked for in the sixth place of decimals."

Although one could easily forgive Maxwell of his naive optimism, it is
ironic that in Michaelson's case Michaelson is most remembered for an
experiment that he did some seven years *earlier* (than the occasion of
his above speech quotation) with Morley which failed to detect any motion
of the Earth through the luminiferous ether. With historical hindsight
we see it was the null result of this experiment along with a few
stubborn other effects that ended up crashing the theoretical house of
cards that was this 19th century version of a theory of everything called
classical physics. Some of these other stubborn problems/results/effects
were the lack of a convincing model for the structure of the atom (even
after Rutherford demonstrated the nuclear structure of the atom there was
no theoretical way to prevent the orbiting electrons from radiating away
their energy and collapsing into the central nucleus), the photoelectric
effect, the behavior of black-body radiation, etc., etc. Instead of
proving to be relatively minor anomalies whose explanation would, with
further study and work, yield to application of the classical physics
synthesis, it was these very stubborn facts that proved to be the
*undoing* of classical physics as a comprehensive theoretical explanation
of nature. Out of this demise grew the (fraternal) twin theories of
relativity and quantum mechanics. (The union of these twins into a single
unified theoretical framework has proven to be most difficult. Maybe
there are yet surprises for us in this area. In light of this history
it is somewhat surprising that J. Horgan thinks the theoretical "End of
Science" is at hand. Maybe it is sort of an end-of-the-century sort of

Now classical physics *still* works quite well for everyday-sized
phenomena. But when the characteristic motions involved in a phenomenon
begin to become comparable with the speed of light then a proper
relativistic theoretical formulation must be used. Also, when the action
of the phenomenon becomes so small that it begins to be comparable to
Planck's constant then a proper quantum mechanical formulation must be
used. Physicists discovered the hard way that mere extrapolation of
the physical understanding developed for everyday-sized phenomena does
*not* work when applied to the (hard to observe) world of the very small,
the very fast, or (in the case of general relativity) the very large.

So the warning, by way of analogy, for Biology is that a mere
extrapolation of the Darwinian mechanisms, that are seen to be so
adequate in explaining microevolutionary phenomena, might prove to fail
when applied to the (nearly unobservable by direct means)
macroevolutionary scale. Also, just like there were some stubborn
results in physics that later proved to be the undoing of classical
physics, there seem to be some stubborn results/facts in biology for
Darwinian theory as well. Among these are the famous instances of what
Behe calls "irreducible complexity" in various biochemical systems and
the particular patterns of stasis punctuated by discontinuity in the
fossil record--patterns that seem to show that even major evolutionary
changes tend to be too fast to show up in the fossil record. The
confining of major changes to such geologically brief intervals tends to
rush the Darwinian mechanisms that require enough time for the necessary
sequence of genetic variations & mutations to appear and then to be
pruned and fixed in the populations by natural selection, drift, etc.
so the transitions can be completed without resulting in extinction
from selection against too-drastic yet non-viable (because of a partial
transition through an irreducibly complex systemic change) variations
occurring from one generation to the next.

I said I would argue this way *if* I was so inclined to defend Erich's
thesis. But I am not so-inclined. This is mostly because, not being a
biologist, I do not have the necessary background or expertise to
properly evaluate the real situation concerning these (and other)
famous anomalies for macro-evolutionary theory. Such arguments would
amount to nothing more than an argument from personal incredulity. I
just do not know whether or not the currently accepted biological models
really are sufficient or not to explain all the various macroevolutionary
changes and jumps seen in the fossil record. It is just such ignorance
that prevents me from taking a side in this debate. I have no scientific
means to discriminate between some version of a PC scenario or a TE
scenario for the history of life on this planet. The TE position is the
more scientifically elegant (esp. concerning the patterns of genetic
similarities and differences among different taxa, and even theologically
elegant using a "functional integrity"-type of formulation) one. OTOH,
the PC position seems to be the one which makes God most responsive to
the contingencies of His creation, and this would be most comforting when
one wants to believe that one's prayers are both heard and make a real
difference regarding a given situation at hand. Not being a biologist, I
have the luxury of being able to remain agnostic on the issue. I would
like to have a theological position that can accommodate either answer to
the TE/PC question.

David Bowman