Re: Why Phillip Johnson is a Dangerous Man 1/2

From: Chris Cogan (
Date: Mon Jan 17 2000 - 23:19:58 EST

  • Next message: Chris Cogan: "Part II of reply to Stephen on my remarks about Johnson"

    From: Chris Cogan <>
    To: Stephen E. Jones <>
    Subject: Re: Why Phillip Johnson is a Dangerous Man 1/2
    Date: Thursday, January 13, 2000 7:39 PM

    > >SJ> May I also take the opportunity to bring to the List's attention some
    > >>other recently webbed articles by Johnson:
    > >>
    > > "Phillip
    > >E. Johnson is a dangerous man." ....
    > CC>He is a dangerous man, in the same sense that all rabble-rousing
    > >are, in a culture already overrun with superstition for people like him
    > >tap into and seemingly justify.
    > Chris is an atheist so he has no option but to believe in naturalistic
    > evolution. Given that metaphysical starting point, Chris views anyone who,
    > like Johnson, believes that God is real and that naturalistic evolution is
    > false, as guilty of "superstition".

    False. Naturalism does not imply naturalistic evolution. I can think of at
    least one naturalist explanation for life as it is today that would work.
    It's not supported by the evidence, but it is still at least possible that
    it's true.

    Johnson is guilty of superstition not mainly because of the theistic aspect
    of his metaphysics, but because of his rejection of basic rules of rational
    thought. One example is his attempt to pretend that naturalism and
    non-naturalism are on the same *epistemological* level. But, as I've pointed
    out before, even non-naturalists agree that the natural world exists, so
    there is no comparative burden of proof for naturalism or non-naturalism in
    this respect. But, non-naturalism goes *radically* beyond naturalism,
    proclaiming the existence of another metaphysical realm, and this *does*
    impose a comparative burden of proof -- on non-naturalism.
    Further, because any non-naturalistic explanation that *is* an explanation
    can be "naturalized" (by trivial means), there simply is no need for a
    non-naturalistic explanation for things. Non-naturalism does not give us any
    real explanatory power than we already have via naturalistic means.

    As a naturalist, I *don't* have to believe in evolution, at least on Earth.
    I could believe, for example, that the universe is *so* huge (perhaps
    infinite) and that, therefore, though the chances of intelligent life
    arising by chance in any small area and time are virtually infinitesimal, if
    the universe were large enough this would increase the probability that such
    life would arise by chance to nearly one, and that, perhaps, this accidental
    life then seeded life on Earth and has been watching over it and causing
    "macroevolutionary" genetic changes from time to time.

    I don't believe any such thing. But, if I did, it would *still* be vastly
    less of a violation of Occam's Razor than Stephen's own non-naturalistic
    theory, *despite* how far-fetched it is. That is such a theory is *still*
    less far-fetched than Stephen's!

    > If Chris's metaphysical starting point is wrong, and that of Johnson is
    > then it is *Chris* who is believing in "superstition"!

    Not necessarily. Superstition is an epistemological concept. It has to do
    with the method of establishing belief. Non-naturalism is superstition even
    if it happens to be true, because there is no cognitive basis for it. I'm
    merely refusing to believe in something for which there is no evidence, no
    epistemological need, no philosophical need, no *objective* value whatever.
    I refuse to believe in non-naturalism for the same reason that you
    (probably) refuse to believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. How is
    that superstition?

    > CC>Everyone on this list should read the above
    > >interview, to see the demagogue at work. His lies begin in his first
    > Chris is like Dawkins, who is so convinced that his own metaphysical
    > starting point of atheism is right, that he assumes that anyone who
    > believe in its corollary, evolution, simply *must* be guilty of telling
    > (or worse):

    I believe Johnson is telling lies because I don't believe he can be *that*
    stupid. It's a matter of whether I believe someone can be so grotesquely
    irrational and anti-factual in his beliefs as Johnson is and yet still be
    honest. Do you *really* think that he has had *no* significant opportunity
    to read the research papers demonstrating that at least some microorganisms
    exhibit increases in genetic information? Do you *really* believe that the
    *only* kind of chemical changes that genes can undergo are those that either
    lose or merely rearrange information? How would that be possible without a
    *massive* violation of ordinary laws of chemistry?

    No, Johnson is either knwoledgeable and dishonest about what he knows, or he
    is wilfully keeping himself monstrously ignorant of his own topic, which is
    another form of dishonesty.
    > "It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to
    > believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or
    > but I'd rather not consider that)." (Dawkins R., "Put Your Money on
    > Evolution", Review of Johanson D. & Edey M.A,, "Blueprints: Solving the
    > Mystery of Evolution", in New York Times, April 9, 1989, sec. 7, p34).

    I think this is literally true. Let me paraphrase, to make the point:

    Paraphrase of Dawkins: It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet
    somebody who claims not to
    believe that 2+2=4, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked,
    but I'd rather not consider that).

    Would Stephen disagree with the point that someone who does not believe (or
    who claims not to believe) that 2+2=4 is at least ignorant? (I count
    stupidity as the expression of a certain kind of either ignorance or mental
    disorder (or both)).

    I think roughly the same can be said of evolution. It's easy to prove that
    Stephen is ignorant of evolution and/or the evidence for it, for example (or
    that he is misrepresenting his own knowledge to make himself *appear*
    ignorant of evolution).

    > >From my perspective Chris' (and Dawkins') violent overreaction to anyone
    > who seriously challenges his basic atheistic metaphysical assumption,
    > to be a case of a deep-seated insecurity that he might be betting his life
    > the wrong horse!

    Why is Stephen characterizing Dawkins' remark as "violent overreaction"?
    Since when did stating a simple truth become "violent overreaction"? As to
    my own views being characterized as "violent overreaction," I fail to see
    how my view that Johnson is a dangerous man because of his demagoguery is a
    violent overreaction. As I said before, it's not his non-naturalism as such,
    or even his rejection of evolution that makes him dangerous, but the fact of
    his rejection of *reason* in favor of cheap lies and sophistries. If he was
    out to rationally discuss his views, that would be a different matter. But,
    he isn't. He's out to promote his superstitions, beliefs that he has *no*
    evidential basis for, despite a huge burden of proof.

    > CC>when he claims the physically demonstrable falsehood that mutation and
    > >selection cannot create genetic information.
    > Chris needs to read *carefully* what Johnson said again. First he said it
    > was his "starting point". That is, it is his opening claim, which he is
    > prepared to discuss and modify based on the evidence presented.

    No, that's *not* what he said. It is opening claim, alright, but it is not
    something that he is prepared to modify based on evidence presented. Perhaps
    *you* should read his remarks more carefully. How do we know this? Because
    much of the evidence for the creation of genetic information has been around
    for quite a while (ever since the discovery that bacteria have a much
    shorter genome than human beings, for example). More recent information has
    been published elsewhere and even on this list.
    > Second, Johnson did not say that "mutation and selection cannot create
    > genetic information", but that "there is no scientific factual evidentiary
    > to believe that ... mutation and selection-has ... the power to create
    > information"

    And, coming from Johnson, this is a lie, because he surely has access to
    this list and to the papers referenced in Steve Shore's piece on genetic
    information and complexity. Thus, if he is claiming the lack of evidence for
    genetic information increase as knowledge, he is lying because he is
    claiming something that he has not bothered to check out. Further, the
    statement, "It doesn't have the power to create genetic information" is not
    a statement that is open for discussion; it is a flat-out factual claim,
    with no reference at all to any lack of evidence for the power to create
    genetic information. He is claiming his own positive knowledge that the
    replication process does not create genetic information. Where is the proof?

    > Johnson is summarising a complex issue for a *newspaper* interview. I
    > cannot speak for Johnson but I believe, from discussions in another forum,
    > that he would probably concede that mutation and selection might be able
    > to create small amounts of information in a specialised, technical,
    > Information Theory sense. For example, when a gene is duplicated,
    > according to Information Theory, there is no new information *content*.
    > But then if one of the pair of genes subsequently mutates, that is
    > the production, of one new bit of information content, in an Information
    > Theory sense.
    > But such a process is equivalent to our local Sunday Times newspaper
    > printing one million copies of its front page as normal and then
    > one "Sundry" for "Sunday". The one million identical copies contain zero
    > new information content. But the one misprinted copy is, in a technical
    > Information Theory sense, one new bit of information content. But such a
    > process would never accumulate enough meaningful information to write
    > sentence, let alone a new newspaper!

    This is misleading, but it is actually, in one sense, better for my argument
    than what you might have said. The one with the misprint does not contain
    more information than the ones without the misprint, most likely. This is
    because all that has happened is that one letter has been replaced by

    Since genetic modifications are often vastly more extensive than the
    changing of one letter in a newspaper, and because sexual DNA recombination
    almost *always* produces new information in the sense Stephen is using here,
    this whole line of reasoning is silly.

    Further, not only is new information created in Stephen's sense of "new
    information," but new information is created in a much more radical sense as
    well. For example, if a section of a genome is replicated, this is an
    increase in information content because even a highly compressed version of
    the information would *now* have to include the information that this
    section was present twice. But, much more importantly, genetic information
    is contextual, so the duplicated section may produce *different* results
    from those of the original section.

    Further still, if in a later generation, some chunks of the duplicated
    section are removed (and perhaps others added and some replaced), you have a
    completely different gene, *even if* the original duplicate did nothing or
    merely needlessly duplicated the work of the original section.

    And, further still, it has been demonstrated in laboratory work with
    bacteria and yeast that entire new functioning genes can be created
    (possibly in this way) in as few as 400 generations. That is, a bacteria
    that had a gene *removed* was able to recreate it or create a substitute for
    it when put in an environment where this gene (or one like it functionally)
    was needed. This is a clear case of the creation of genetic information in a
    sense that not only goes beyond what Stephen is willing to acknowledge, but
    in a sense that *empirically* falsifies Johnson's claim.
    > Similarly, Johnson would probably say (as I do say) that there is no
    > evidence that such a process can produce new genetic information content
    > of: 1) the quantity; 2) the quality; and 3) in the time-frame available;
    to turn
    > "a bacterium into a butterfly", any more than misprints in a newspaper's
    > can write a new newspaper.

    As to quantity, that's simply a matter of the number of times you do it. In
    a large population of fast-reproducing bacteria, you will get large amounts
    of new information like this in every generation. Since such information
    changes, unless they are disadvantageous, will tend to stick around until
    some further accidental change eliminates them, there is plenty of time for
    *cumulative* changes to take place (particularly since some bacteria "trade"
    bacteria with each other, thus spreading and recombining changes, even
    without actual sexual reproduction.

    > CC>That this is false has been
    > >demonstrated in laboratory environments, and it can be demonstrated in
    > >natural conditions as well (it's easy, really: Take a bunch of organisms
    > >their offspring and you will find that some of the offspring do in fact
    > >*more* genetic information than their parents. QED).
    > Chris would need to produce *evidence* that just having offspring can
    > "create" *new* "genetic information", rather than just shuffle existing
    > genetic around.

    First, I wasn't talking about merely *shuffling* information, but, yes it
    can. It's a rather mathematical argument, but, basically, the *amount* of
    information in a string is a measure of the *compressibility* of the string.
    A string consisting of the letter "a" repeated 1000 times followed by the
    letter "b" 1000 times can easily be compressed into a description such as
    the one I have just given. But, if the letters of the entire 2000-letter
    string are *shuffled*, there will nearly always be only a comparatively
    slight compressibility. In effect, the shuffling process introduced new
    information. It may not be *meaningful* information but it is new
    information nevertheless.

    What * was* talking about was the *addition* of new information (as by
    adding new codons to the end of a genome, or inserting them somewhere in the
    middle, etc.). Nearly every time a new gene appears in a genome that is
    otherwise a duplicate of its parent genome, new information is added.
    Information content is *increased,* not merely shuffled around.

    > And then even if Chris could show that, he would then need to show that
    > such creation of new genetic information would be of the: 1) quantity; 2)
    > quality; and 3) within the timeframe, necessary to transform one species
    > into something qualitatively different taxonomically (e.g. turning an
    > ancestral small rodent-like land animal into a whale in only 10 million
    > years). That is, with only *10-15 species* between the ancestral
    > land mammal and a whale:

    Since the genetic information increase possible in sexually recombining
    genetic replication is *vastly* beyond that of simple replication such as
    occurs in bacteria, and since the amount of information is less important by
    the time we have rodents than what that information "says," I don't see any
    problem with achieving the required (or greater) quantity in 10 million
    years. As to quality, that is part of the function of sexual DNA
    recombination: It greatly increases the probability that new combinations of
    genes will be viable because they have already passed a "survival" test in
    at least one of the two mating organisms. This means that there is more of a
    chance that they will work together than there would be if we just randomly
    selected two genes that had not been tested at all and put them into a new

    Further, whether there is 10-15 species or 1000-1500 species between an
    ancestral species and a later species is relatively unimportant, because
    speciation is merely the establishment of an interbreeding barrier between
    two organisms. If all of what are considered to be the species separating
    the rodent and the whale could easily and viably interbreed, they would
    really be only *one* species, with several varieties.

    Finally, the amount of *difference* between the rodent genome and the whale
    genome is what would make the process questionable, if anything. I'd be
    willing to *bet* that the whale would have a *lot* of genes in common with
    the ancestral rodent, or even another rodent *descended* from that same
    ancestral rodent. That is, if we look at the rodent genes and modify and add
    only those needed to make a whale out of it, you'd find that it's a
    surprisingly small amount of the genome. *Much* (if not most) of what is
    needed to make a rodent genome into a whale genome is a few modifications
    hear and there, and some rearranging, etc., in order to bring about the
    required morphological changes. Ten million years may be way *more* than
    enough, given all these factors and the richness of the sexual DNA
    recombining process.

    To re-use the newspaper analogy: It would be like taking two different
    Sunday papers and creating a whole new paper by recombining them in various
    chunks, sometimes down to the sentence or letter level: this would produce a
    newspaper with *much* new information (in Stephen's sense of "new"). If some
    of the information from two articles on the same topic got mixed together as
    well as used separately, we would also get new information in the stronger
    sense. If the recombining of the two papers was done in a systematic way (as
    DNA recombining is), the new newspaper could conceivably be better than
    either of the originals (it might, for example have the articles of each
    that covered topics not covered at all in the other, which would *also* be a
    form of creating "new" information (in that the new paper would have more
    information than *either* of its parent papers).

    Notice something important here. Though no new information would be added to
    the *world* by this process, since at least one copy of the information
    would be present in at least one of the parent papers, the *new* paper would
    have *new* information in it relative to the parent papers. It would be the
    equivalent of a new and larger genome created by combining parts from
    existing genomes.

    > "Let us suppose that we wish, hypothetically, to form a bat or a whale
    > without invoking change by rapid branching. In other words, we want to
    > see what happens when we restrict evolution to the process of gradual
    > transformation of established species. If an average chronospecies lasts
    > nearly a million years, or even longer, and we have at our disposal only
    > million years, then we have only ten or fifteen chronospecies to align,
    > to-end, to form a continuous lineage connecting our primitive little
    > mammal with a bat or a whale. This is clearly preposterous. Chronospecies,
    > by definition, grade into each other, and each one encompasses very little
    > change. A chain of ten or fifteen of these might move us from one small
    > rodentlike form to a slightly different one, perhaps representing a new
    > genus, but not to a bat or a whale!" (Stanley S.M., "The New Evolutionary
    > Timetable", 1981, pp93-94)

    Poor Stanley. He's confusing major *visible* change with major *genetic*
    change. Further, if the population of the rodent species is large and
    varied, there may be relatively little change between it and the next
    species, but there may be a *lot* of variation *within* the species, thus
    providing a large genetic "library" upon which to draw in adapting to
    successive environments on the way to becoming whales. In short, Stanley's
    still thinking in terms of gross morphology, rather than in terms of genes
    and genomes.

    I personally don't know if whales are even *supposed* to have come from a
    rodent-like critter; I'm assuming what you say for the purposes of
    discussion. But, in any case, if Stanley wants to debunk the idea, all he
    has to do is show that there is too much (or the wrong *kind* of) *genetic*
    change between the rodent-like creature and the whale. Again, the number of
    "chronospecies" is irrelevant. What is relevant is whether they do in fact
    lead from the one to the other. Since rodents, bats, and whales are all
    mammals, and since the differences are not in basic morphological
    organization (the bat's mouth, like the rodent's and the whale's, is on the
    front end, etc.), it does not seem too much to think that a rodent (or
    rodent-like animal) *might* indeed have evolved into a bat or a whale. Try
    this: Imagine the entire bodily structure of the rodent-like creature in
    some detail, do the same for the whale, and then mark *all* the points in
    each that have a corresponding point in the other (where rodent-toes match
    to whale-flipper skeletal joints, for example). Now take the rodent image
    and "slide" it toward the whale image, the way Michael Jackson "morphed"
    into a leopard (or whatever) in that video. If you do this for both visible
    and invisible aspects of each, you will see that there is a *lot* in common
    between the whale and the rodent-like creature. In effect, they are
    *topologically* very similar even if they are not perceptually similar. The
    one can be made by "stretching" the other into a new shape, while adding
    relatively little.

    More later. G'night.

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