Re: evolution archive list

Brian D Harper (
Thu, 27 May 1999 16:19:47 -0700

I tried posting this yesterday, apparently it didn't
make it to the list. Apologies to anyone who gets
a duplicate.

At 10:16 AM 5/26/99 EDT, Bertvan wrote:
>I am trying to post on the evolution archive list. My submission follows. Is
>there some other procedure for this?

Looks like you made it :). If you want to receive messages to the
group by e-mail, as opposed to reading the archives, you'll need
to subscribe (if you haven't already).

>Berthajane Vandegrift
> I am an observer of the evolution debate and an expert on nothing. In
>spite of hostile reactions, I have persistent questions about evolution. I
>often hear that "ignorant laymen" have no right to opinions on scientific
>matter--that we should merely accept whatever the Darwinists say. Yet the
>criticisms of "creationists" often seem far more reasonable to me than the
>passionate attacks and denials of Darwinists. The attitude of theists
>appears more tolerant than that of science on this issue. An agnostic
>(definitely not a Christian), I am skeptical that gradualism and "random
>mutation and natural selection" are adequate to explain macro evolution. I
>have read biologists who confessed the same skepticism, but to most people
>publicly defending "Darwinism", such skepticism is usually enough for a label
>of "creationist". (with assorted added derogatory epitaphs.) Nevertheless
>some of my questions are:

Some excellent questions, I'll do my best :).

>Question no. 1:
> Is belief in evolution specifically the equivalent of belief in Darwinism
>(random mutation and natural selection)? What is wrong with admitting no one
>knows the mechanism of macro evolution? In which case, aren't theists are as
>justified in speculating as any one else--until details of specific
>mechanisms are known?

Answer to the first is no. Darwinism is one of many possible
theories that attempt to explain the observed facts relating
to evolution.

Your second two questions are interesting. First, there are
many mechanisms proposed for macro evolution, though exactly
how they work would still be in doubt in many (most?, all? :)

As to the last question, anyone can speculate as much as they
want. But one must be cautious, as not all speculations are
equally appropriate.

A good role model might be Newton and his universal law of
gravity. Newton provided no mechanism for how gravity actually
worked and was greatly criticized as a result. For example,
Leibniz accused Newton of introducing occult qualities into
science. Also, Newton refused to speculate publicly about
what the mechanism might be. "hypothesis non fingo" he wrote
in <Principia>, "I feign no hypothesis", which would roughly
translate "I will not speculate wildly".

IOW, uncertainty about (or lack of) a mechanism is not a
license to speculate wildly.

As examples of two different types of speculations with
varying degree of legitimacy:

1) gravity is caused by vortices in the aether (Leibniz, Descartes).
2) gravity is caused by angels flapping their wings :).

>Question no 2:
>Since there is great uncertainty about how mutations of macro evolution
>arose, how can anyone be certain they were "random"? Isn't an insistence
>upon "randomness" merely a question of ideology, reinforcing the suspicion
>that Darwinism has become an anti-theist religion?

IMHO, creationists are most likely to be guilty of propagating
confusion about randomness. Whenever I've seen the issue of
the randomness of mutations discussed in evolutionists'
writings it is always emphasized that "random" in the context
of "random mutations" means that mutations do not anticipate
the needs of an organism. It does not mean random in the
usual statistical sense of the word.

BTW, are you proposing that randomness automatically implies

>Question no 3:
>I've heard "common ancestor" written in the plural, conceding the possibility
>of more than one. If there could be 2, or 5, or 10 common ancestors, why not
>100--or 1000? Where would biology set the limit? Does one common ancestor
>insist that life arose only once--and everything descended from that one
>unique event? What if life is discovered to be common in the universe?
>Similar DNA apparently results in similar morphology, but is that necessarily
>proof of common descent?

I'm not sure how best to answer this one, I'll let someone else
give it a shot. :)

>Question No.4:
>Rich Daniel asks: "If there is a vast gulf between humans and chimps, where
>else could it be but in the genes?" What is wrong with "we don't know"?
>I've read that a population of fruit flies can be bred without eyes. However
>after a few generations the genes for eyes reappear. Wouldn't that suggest
>there might be something more involved than genes? Isn't the insistence that
>instincts and behavior are specified in the genome based upon the fact that
>we merely don't know what else might control them? Is there any reason to
>believe a "alltruism gene" exists--other than faith that there is a gene for

I'm also not sure the best answer to this due to my lack of
expertise. Let me just warn you that evolution is not
equivalent to genetic reductionism.

>Question No.5:
>New genes are sometimes said to be the result of gene duplication.
>(transposons) The duplicate gene "decides" or "is recruited" to perform a new
>function. Is anything really explained by that language? What or who does
>the "recruiting"? (Sounds supernatural to me.:-))

The problem is only one of language. Of course, genes do not
decide nor are they recruited. Nevertheless, gene duplication
is real.

Brian Harper
Associate Professor
Applied Mechanics
The Ohio State University

"All kinds of private metaphysics and theology have
grown like weeds in the garden of thermodynamics"
-- E. H. Hiebert