The Wonder of Evolution

The wonder of evolution is that it works at all.

I mean that literally: If you want to marvel at evolution, that's what's marvel-worthy.

How does optimization first arise in the universe? If an intelligent agent designed Nature, who designed the intelligent agent? Where is the first design that has no designer? The puzzle is not how the first stage of the bootstrap can be super-clever and super-efficient; the puzzle is how it can happen at all.

Evolution resolves the infinite regression, not by being super-clever and super-efficient, but by being stupid and inefficient and working anyway. This is the marvel.

For professional reasons, I often have to discuss the slowness, randomness, and blindness of evolution. Afterward someone says: "You just said that evolution can't plan simultaneous changes, and that evolution is very inefficient because mutations are random. Isn't that what the creationists say? That you couldn't assemble a watch by randomly shaking the parts in a box?"

But the reply to creationists is not that you can assemble a watch by shaking the parts in a box. The reply is that this is not how evolution works. If you think that evolution does work by whirlwinds assembling 747s, then the creationists have successfully misrepresented biology to you; they've sold the strawman.

The real answer is that complex machinery evolves either incrementally, or by adapting previous complex machinery used for a new purpose. Squirrels jump from treetop to treetop using just their muscles, but the length they can jump depends to some extent on the aerodynamics of their bodies. So now there are flying squirrels, so aerodynamic they can glide short distances. If birds were wiped out, the descendants of flying squirrels might reoccupy that ecological niche in ten million years, gliding membranes transformed into wings. And the creationists would say, "What good is half a wing? You'd just fall down and splat. How could squirrelbirds possibly have evolved incrementally?"

That's how one complex adaptation can jump-start a new complex adaptation. Complexity can also accrete incrementally, starting from a single mutation.

First comes some gene A which is simple, but at least a little useful on its own, so that A increases to universality in the gene pool. Now along comes gene B, which is only useful in the presence of A, but A is reliably present in the gene pool, so there's a reliable selection pressure in favor of B. Now a modified version of A* arises, which depends on B, but doesn't break B's dependency on A/A*. Then along comes C, which depends on A* and B, and B*, which depends on A* and C. Soon you've got "irreducibly complex" machinery that breaks if you take out any single piece.

And yet you can still visualize the trail backward to that single piece: you can, without breaking the whole machine, make one piece less dependent on another piece, and do this a few times, until you can take out one whole piece without breaking the machine, and so on until you've turned a ticking watch back into a crude sundial.

Here's an example: DNA stores information very nicely, in a durable format that allows for exact duplication. A ribosome turns that stored information into a sequence of amino acids, a protein, which folds up into a variety of chemically active shapes. The combined system, DNA and ribosome, can build all sorts of protein machinery. But what good is DNA, without a ribosome that turns DNA information into proteins? What good is a ribosome, without DNA to tell it which proteins to make?

Organisms don't always leave fossils, and evolutionary biology can't always figure out the incremental pathway. But in this case we do know how it happened. RNA shares with DNA the property of being able to carry information and replicate itself, although RNA is less durable and copies less accurately. And RNA also shares the ability of proteins to fold up into chemically active shapes, though it's not as versatile as the amino acid chains of proteins. Almost certainly, RNA is the single A which predates the mutually dependent A* and B.

It's just as important to note that RNA does the combined job of DNA and proteins poorly, as that it does the combined job at all. It's amazing enough that a single molecule can both store information and manipulate chemistry. For it to do the job well would be a wholly unnecessary miracle.

What was the very first replicator ever to exist? It may well have been an RNA strand, because by some strange coincidence, the chemical ingredients of RNA are chemicals that would have arisen naturally on the prebiotic Earth of 4 billion years ago. Please note: evolution does not explain the origin of life; evolutionary biology is not supposed to explain the first replicator, because the first replicator does not come from another replicator. Evolution describes statistical trends in replication. The first replicator wasn't a statistical trend, it was a pure accident. The notion that evolution should explain the origin of life is a pure strawman—more creationist misrepresentation.

If you'd been watching the primordial soup on the day of the first replicator, the day that reshaped the Earth, you would not have been impressed by how well the first replicator replicated. The first replicator probably copied itself like a drunken monkey on LSD. It would have exhibited none of the signs of careful fine-tuning embodied in modern replicators, because the first replicator was an accident. It was not needful for that single strand of RNA, or chemical hypercycle, or pattern in clay, to replicate gracefully. It just had to happen at all. Even so, it was probably very improbable, considered in an isolated event—but it only had to happen once, and there were a lot of tide pools. A few billions of years later, the replicators are walking on the moon.

The first accidental replicator was the most important molecule in the history of time. But if you praised it too highly, attributing to it all sorts of wonderful replication-aiding capabilities, you would be missing the whole point.

Don't think that, in the political battle between evolutionists and creationists, whoever praises evolution must be on the side of science. Science has a very exact idea of the capabilities of evolution. If you praise evolution one millimeter higher than this, you're not "fighting on evolution's side" against creationism. You're being scientifically inaccurate, full stop. You're falling into a creationist trap by insisting that, yes, a whirlwind does have the power to assemble a 747! Isn't that amazing! How wonderfully intelligent is evolution, how praiseworthy! Look at me, I'm pledging my allegiance to science! The more nice things I say about evolution, the more I must be on evolution's side against the creationists!

But to praise evolution too highly destroys the real wonder, which is not how well evolution designs things, but that a naturally occurring process manages to design anything at all.

So let us dispose of the idea that evolution is a wonderful designer, or a wonderful conductor of species destinies, which we human beings ought to imitate. For human intelligence to imitate evolution as a designer, would be like a sophisticated modern bacterium trying to imitate the first replicator as a biochemist. As T. H. Huxley, "Darwin's Bulldog", put it:

Let us understand, once and for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.

Huxley didn't say that because he disbelieved in evolution, but because he understood it all too well.

82 comments, sorted by
magical algorithm
Highlighting new comments since Today at 9:06 PM
Select new highlight date
Moderation Guidelines: Reign of Terror - I delete anything I judge to be annoying or counterproductiveexpand_more

Caledonian, in reply to the first half of your post: some of evolution's designs are quite impressive, yes. They took billions of years to produce. Just wait until we've had a billion years to design stuff - then you'll be really impressed.

Also, your taunting is not useful. Stop it.

What evolutionary algorithm, operating over a non-immense period of time, even comes close to what a talented human is capable of? It wasn't evolution that built your computer, although small parts of it (that humans are unusually bad at designing) may have been constructed by evolutionary algorithms.

Humans are also functions of reality, unless you're a dualist. We have imperfect models, but evolution doesn't have a model at all, which is why it's stupid. Even if it did inerrantly respond to the immediate environment (and it doesn't - look at the effect of a sense of taste adapted to a very different environment, for instance), it necessarily can't plan for the future. You really sound like you're genuflecting at a sacred mystery, not being rational.

Re specialness: it's annoying to smugly point out things that people are already perfectly aware of.

"Because my human-built computer is inferior is virtually every way to the one evolution produced."

From LOGI:

"Current computer programs definitely possess these mutually synergetic advantages relative to humans:

  • Computer programs can perform highly repetitive tasks without boredom.
  • Computer programs can execute complex extended tasks without making that class of human errors caused by distraction or short-term memory overflow in abstract deliberation.
  • Computer hardware can perform extended sequences of simple steps at much greater serial speeds than human abstract deliberation or even human 200Hz neurons.
  • Computer programs are fully configurable by the general intelligences called humans. (Evolution, the designer of humans, cannot invoke general intelligence.)"

"Its stupidity is still smarter than the most brilliant human."

Taking the earlier example of the eye, we've already surpassed it in just about every way. We have cameras which can see in much dimmer light, and cameras which can look directly at the Sun without getting fried. We have cameras that can see in radio and gamma rays and everything in between. We have cameras with higher resolution and better-quality optics. We have cameras that can actually detect the wavelength of every incoming photon, rather than being limited to the three-axis human color system. And so on and so forth.

"If you've ever dealt with fitting of really complex data, a random walk is often suprinsingly more efficient than any of the refined fitting algorithms."

See http://sl4.org/wiki/KnowabilityOfFAI. Only in AI would people design algorithms that are literally stupider than a bag of bricks, boost the results back towards maximum entropy, and then argue for the healing power of noise.

Would it be too hard to believe that the very first replicators actually went extinct several times before the right accidents occurred in the right circumstances to give rise to sufficiently hardy descendants?

Certainly, the first replicator that gave rise to us might be seen as marvelous - but the first replicator //period// may have been plain pathetic.

If all science must be in theory falsifiable, and evolution is good science, can you give me some parameters or predictions that if they were found to be true would hurt the theory of evolution?

What would scientists need to find in the future that would seriously do damage to the theory?

The standard snappy answer to this one is "fossil rabbits in the precambrian".

More generally, if we found fossils of organisms with complex adaptations which reliably dated to a time before those adaptations could plausibly have occurred (because the necessary precursors didn't exist,) then that would be a strong indication that our understanding of the development of species is wrong.

There is at least some sense in which the general pattern of evolution is not falsifiable - but to precisely that extent, it's not science. There is a mathematical certainty that an evolution-like process would occur in a system with random heritable changes that can selectively help or hinder reproduction. For a theist to deny evolution exists in general, they would have to insist God actively stops it from happening every day (or deny that random heritable mutations occur, or deny that they can help or hinder reproduction).

There is a mathematical certainty an evolution-like process would occur in a system with random heritable changes that can selectively help or hinder reproduction

But this doesn't make it unfalsifiable, strictly speaking, because it can still be tested like any other empirical claim, similar to how one might "test" 2+2=4.

Thus, finding some evidence that random mutations are not actually random, but part of some global pattern, might reduce our confidence in the theory of biological evolution (as per Ghazzali's original challenge, above).

Discovering evidence for some sort of Lysenkoism would also work, but might be harder to achieve, since all the evidence we'd found so far points in the opposite direction.

That depends on how you define 'system'. Is 'system' the entire biological existence of earth? In that case, yes evolution would be a mathematical certainty eventually. But is system a specific species? In that case evolution would only occurr within those species. Defining all biological existence on earth as part of a system that would fit that mathematicl certainty would definitely be a scientific claim and could be falsifiable.

Also, time is another factor. Your explanation logically does not necessitate that evolution has already happened, only that it will eventually happen.

That depends on how you define 'system'. Is 'system' the entire biological existence of earth? In that case, yes evolution would be a mathematical certainty eventually. But is system a specific species? In that case evolution would only occurr within those species.

He goes on to tell you exactly what systems: any with random heritable changes that can selectively help or hinder reproduction. This would mean both all life on earth that fits within that definition, and any particular species also under that umbrella.

It seems to me like you're trying to make a distinction between "microevolution" and "macroevolution" here, but I may be misreading you. If you are, however, notice that thomblake's process makes no distinction between them; to suppose one but not the other could occur, you'd need a specific mechanism or reason.

Also, time is another factor. Your explanation logically does not necessitate that evolution has already happened, only that it will eventually happen.

No, it necessitates that it is happening and has happened in any such system. The process, that is. You're correct if you're just saying that the process may not have resulted in any differentiation at any given time.

I think that is where we differ, it is in the macro-micro evolutionary distinction. That mathematical model does not hold any water if you distinguish between species.

Also, I would say that the word 'random' is in essence a philosophical term, not scientific. It is a term of interpretation.

I think that is where we differ, it is in the macro-micro evolutionary distinction. That mathematical model does not hold any water if you distinguish between species.

Speciation is a well-established result. See for example this not at all exhaustive list. Simply noting that species is a term that exists doesn't break the models. Moreover, the lines between many species are quite blurry, exactly as one would expect if evolution were correct. This has gotten to the point where the evidence for speciation is so overwhelming that Answers in Genesis, one of the world's largest young earth creationist ministries, lists the claim that speciation doesn't occur as an argument not to use.

Also, I would say that the word 'random' is in essence a philosophical term, not scientific. It is a term of interpretation.

Shannon and Kolmogrov among others would disagree with you.

For what it's worth, I used to draw a distinction between macro and micro evolution. I always argued that it made little to no sense for species to evolve sexual reproduction - and how would that work anyway?

But I remember exactly when I changed my mind. I was in a genetics class, and we were learning about sex pili - they're basically channels that bacteria can form to pass DNA between themselves. I realized that life (and evolution) are a whole hell of a lot more complicated than I gave them credit for, and that perhaps evolution is the tiniest bit more creative than I am.

You have to at least recognize that you are looking at science using a world-view (philosophy). In this case you see the amazing complexity of life as a product of chance/random events and not because of some genius unseen designer. The beautiful world you are describing could be interpreted as being the product of either, and the science itself would not change. You have chosen to see it through a particular lens. Both lenses are fundamentally not scientific in nature, they are belief structures.

So there's some seed of a potentially valid point here. Phrased in a Bayesian fashion, if one assigns low enough priors to certain hypotheses, one isn't going to practically consider those hypotheses unless one has ridiculous levels of evidence. So is something like that happening here?

I think the conclusion is "no". There are many religious individuals who have no objection to evolution. The objections stand essentially from religions which have creation stories which are important to the theology. For example, in Christianity, the Fall is very important, and you get a lot of Christians who object to evolution. Islam and Judaism have as important theological points that there deity is the creator, but the method of creation isn't as important, and one sees less objection to evolution in those religions. Among some religions which don't have any issues of this sort, or have very weak or very seldomly directly intervening deities (such as some forms of New Age religions) one sees close to no objections to evolution (although there are some prominent exceptions such as Deepak Chopra). But in all these cases, there are people who adopt an essentially similar theological standpoint and yet accept evolution, and this includes full-out major denominations such as Roman Catholicism. Now, it is possible that they simply haven't really adapted a consistent world-view (consistency isn't a human strongpoint), but that's an argument that would need to be made in detail.

In this case you see the amazing complexity of life as a product of chance/random events and not because of some genius unseen designer. The beautiful world you are describing could be interpreted as being the product of either, and the science itself would not change.

So this actually isn't the case. Evolved life doesn't look like what you might expect from a designer. When we looked at designed objects we see all sorts of commonalities that make sense from a design standpoint: we see efficiency, modularity, and reuse of parts between designs. We don't see any of those in evolved life.

Large amounts of life-designs are highly inefficient, almost as if they were added haphazardly by evolution. The giraffe's nerves which loop all the way from the head down through the neck and then back up again to the head are a good example.

We don't see modularity- pieces don't develop and integrate separately except at a very weak level. Thus birth defects that cause one organ to not grow frequently cause problems throughout the body or at very minimum in neighboring organs.

And we don't reuse of design pieces except for the very basic aspects that form a perfect nested hierarchy. This is in contrast to for example computers. This would be akin to having only mice on one type of computer, and only joysticks on another, and the only computers with USB drives were a subset of the computers with mice that didn't overlap at all with some subset of computers with mice with CD drives. But we don't see that with computers, or cars, or any other designed object that has many different designed versions. They reuse the same ideas and technologies. This is something designers do for obvious reasons: you don't need to reinvent the wheel. But evolution (aside from some very tiny examples of horizontal evolution where a single gene or small number of genes has been copied over due to viruses and a few neato parasites like my favorite parasite, Wolbachia) doesn't have that option. Pandas would have a much easier time if they had a real thumb instead of an inefficient bone spur. A direct design would have copied over the great ape thumb over or use a very similar design.

So this really is an example where one can look at what one would expect from design and from evolution and conclude that evolution makes more sense in context. This doesn't rule out less direct intervention, say a deity setting up life on the planet, letting it evolve and then showing a few thousand years ago to talk to a desert tribe and tell them not to eat shellfish. But that's a distinct issue from evolution except in so far as that if the same text that claims this deity did intervene also claims that the deity did design everything from scratch, then that's a reason to maybe doubt the text. But this has nothing to do with belief structures or as the Bayesian would say, extreme priors. This is about evidence.

Islam and Judaism have as important theological points that there deity is the creator, but the method of creation isn't as important, and one sees less objection to evolution in those religions.

I don't think this is actually true of Islam. Muslims in America rank behind mainline protestants in terms of acceptance of evolution, and as far as I've been able to determine, majority Islamic countries tend to fall behind even the US in terms of acceptance of evolution.

Yes, that's a good point. In the rank-and-file there's a lot lower acceptance of evolution in Islam. This undermines my point somewhat. I suppose one could point out the general lack of acceptance of science and more reactionary settings of a lot of Islam, or point out that anti-evolution sentiment is less major among prominent Muslim scholars and the like, but that's a much weaker argument, and wouldn't change the fact that my statement as stated is empirically false.

Large amounts of life-designs are highly inefficient, almost as if they were added haphazardly by evolution. The giraffe's nerves which loop all the way from the head down through the neck and then back up again to the head are a good example.

IAWYC, but I've seen pieces of computer code written by humans which do stuff nearly that bad.

Very nice comment, giraffe example is especially appreciated.

The beautiful world you are describing could be interpreted as being the product of either, and the science itself would not change.

I think this part of the objection warrants specific attention.

Yes, the belief could be interpreted that way, and there would still be wonder. But we would have lost something else, which is accuracy. If the only thing we used to evaluate arguments was wonder, then both would be equally valid, but using wonder and not accuracy as a tool of argumentative evaluation doesn't make much sense. You're not wrong to point out that other belief systems allow for wonder, and indirectly, this remark leads me to wonder (pun always intended) whether or not it might have been better to use a different word without emotional connotations, because I don't really see past evolutionary processes as something we should develop emotional attachments to. But don't mistake wonder for a justification for logical belief.

To claim that the world is not designed because, based on your knowledge of design, it is not a good design is a very weak argument. If the world was designed by a supreme being, your knowledge and His knowledge would be like comparing the intelligence of a rock to a human being. It simply does not compare. All the supposed weaknesses you claim in the design of the cosmos comes from your extremely limited knowledge of reality and cannot compare to the wisdom behind the design of the Creator. Now, this is all the case only if you concede there is a grand designer. If you do not hold that view, then of course this argument does not hold. But as long as you do hold the view, even as a devil's advocate, you must concede that judging the 'quality' and nature of the design as being below standards is rather incoherent. In other words, there may be reasons to those imperfect designs that you are pointing towards that you do not understand. You are not the supreme designer of the universe.

On top of that, it amazes me that a person who knows science will actually think in this way to begin with. That the complexity of a cell, let alone the entire brain, let alone the entire body, would not put you in awe over their design is beyond me. To focus in on those sporadic examples of design that we do not understand and to leave everything else that seems so complicated and fine tuned for life is the ultimate example of how a philosophy is driving your view of science and the world around you.

At this point, your argument really doesn't amount to anything other than apologetics. In this context, we've looked at every single thing that we know for sure is designed, and we can see simple common patterns (which moreover are patterns that make sense for designers to use). It is possible that you are missing part of the point so lets make it clear: most of what I've talked about above has nothing to do with "good" or "bad" design. Products that really suck (e.g. Windows ME) show the same basic patterns. The only one of the above that hits on the quality of the design is efficiency. Things like reuse are simply habits of design.

At this point, you are claiming that something is a philosophical presupposition, but even without that class of presupposition, we get the same result by simply looking at the designed objects around us. To then claim that no matter what we see it may or may not be designed makes the claim unfalsifiable.

To focus in on those sporadic examples of design that we do not understand and to leave everything else that seems so complicated and fine tuned for life is the ultimate example of how a philosophy is driving your view of science and the world around you.

They aren't sporadic examples, they are the entire tree of life. To use just one example from my list- we see essentially no examples of reuse of the same designs or parts of designs. And this is true not just for examples in specific body parts (such as the panda's thumb, or the mammalian eye) but for whole species. In isolated areas like Australia and Madagascar, species have filled nearly identical niches to the niches filled in much of the rest of the world, exactly as you'd expect from evolution, and not what we see human desigers do.

At that point, you have a deity who is not only making things not as a designer would be likely to make them, but you have a deity that is making things in a way that is actively deceptive. The deity has made life which down to the last detail looks old and evolved.

It may help to ask yourself what it would take for you to accept evolution. Is there any evidence that would do so? If not, the problems of philosophical presuppositions would seem to be if anything an issue of projection.

In isolated areas like Australia and Madagascar, species have filled nearly identical niches to the niches filled in much of the rest of the world, exactly as you'd expect from evolution, and not what we see human desigers do.

This isn't a great argument; human designers actually do this all the time. We call it "reinventing the wheel." We do it often when we're constrained against merely reusing parts of the same designs — for instance by copyright or personal pride.

Clearly the designer of the octopus eye was forbidden from just ganking the design of the mammalian eye, or vice versa. This is an argument for Semi-Intelligent Design By Committee, and thus for polytheism: the sea-god was either disallowed from copying the design done by the god of beasts, or was too damned proud to do so.

My point is that you can argue rationally about whether there is design in the universe, but you cannot argue whether the design is good or bad. The later is incoherent. Maybe the Grand Designer does want to make things confusing? Maybe he has put evidence of design in the universe, but not absolute evidence for whatever reason He wants? You can make the point that the design is good or bad, but that point has no real consequence to the question about whether there is design in the first place. Thats my point.

Another interesting point;

Do you agree that design does indeed exist anywhere in the universe? Lets say in the form of human design? If you do believe that humans actually do design, and it seems like you do because you are judging the design in nature based on human experience of design, then you have to come up with an explanation of how purely mechanical/physical beings produced this design to begin with?

I'm not arguing about whether design is "good" or "bad"- reuse for example isn't an aspect of good or bad design. It is an aspect of design, period.

. Maybe the Grand Designer does want to make things confusing

Sure, and maybe the Grand Designer deliberately made all the evidence look like there was no designer, and then the designer is going to reward people in the afterlife who looked at it logically and came to that conclusion.

Or maybe this entire discussion is actually occurring in a simulation in some future transhumanist utopia, after Ghazzali made a bet with a friend that he'd be logical enough that even if placed in the benighted 21st century he'd still reach correct conclusions about the nonsense that is religion. (Apparently you were wrong.)

Or maybe this entire conversation hasn't occurred, and this message is the last fraction of coherent apparent input to you before your Boltzmann brain dissolves back into chaos.

Etc. Etc. Do you see why this isn't a useful game to play?

You can make the point that the design is good or bad, but that point has no real consequence to the question about whether there is design in the first place. Thats my point.

It does though. Absence of evidence is evidence of absence. That you can construct other hypothetical deities that are more and more convoluted in their behavior says more about your imagination than the likelyhood of their existence. This is especially the case because the deities as described in most classical religions (e.g. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism) are explicitly highly interventionist.

then you have to come up with an explanation of how purely mechanical/physical beings produced this design to begin with?

I'm not sure what you mean by this. Are you asking how humans come up with new ideas? There's ongoing research by psychologists and cognitive scientists on this, but it isn't an area I know much about. My understanding is that the current hypotheses suggest that some of it is random borderline nonsense bubbling at a barely conscious level, and that part of the difficulty is recognizing the good ideas and bringing them out to full attention. But again, not my area.

You didn't address whether there's any amount of evidence that would convince you that evolution was correct.

First of all, what are you defining as a "world view" and why is that a useful definition to have? It seems like you're trying to say "You believe things, beliefs are dogmas, you're being dogmatic". That is whole manners of cheating.

Secondly, you're right. It is possible that the universe was intelligently designed. But the Kolmogorov complexity formulation of Occam's Razor necessarily requires I assign that a very small probability prior. In order to simulate a universe designed by God, a computer must first simulate God, including why ey would create the universe the way that it is, then simulate that universe, as opposed to just simulating the universe.

FWIW, I have heard a more generalized version of Ghazzali's argument, which goes something like this:

The way a person sees the world is colored by his preferences and biases. We all have them. You personally place a very high value on empirically reproducible results; this is what you call "truth", and you are strongly biased in favor of it; your insistence on proper logic and evidence stems from this core belief. There's nothing wrong with that, but I personally don't value this specific notion of "truth" as much as you do. Instead, I place a higher value on personal happiness/simplicity/social approval/niceness/whatever. Thus, I choose to believe in an unseen designer/universal consciousness/karma/etc., and it doesn't matter to me whether there's any evidence for it or not. Evidence is your thing, not mine.

I'm not endorsing this worldview (and I'm probably not even rendering it properly here), but I do believe it to be pretty much argument-proof. You can't have a rational discussion with someone who denies the value of rational discussions.

You can't have a rational discussion with someone who denies the value of rational discussions.

That's not quite true. You can't use evidence to convince a machine that runs on anti-induction, but luckily humans are at least somewhat intuitively swayed by evidence, even when they claim not to be.

That's a good point; humans are not perfect "anti-induction machines". That said, each person who'd presented this argument to me had spent a lot of mental effort during his or her life to embrace and perfect this worldview. In the same way as a rationalist would train himself to use Bayesian reasoning and distrust his biases, the anti-rationalist trains himself to trust his faith/emotions/ESP/etc., and ignore scientific evidence. Thus, even when the anti-rationalist feels the intuitive sway of evidence, he or she will strive to ignore it.

BTW, I'm using slash-separated lists in my posts because I'd heard this argument multiple times, from multiple people, each of whom had a different set of ancillary beliefs. Thus, it seems like this worldview is not tied to any particular religion or philosophy.

Not quite what I am saying.

I do believe in the truth of empirically reproducible results. However, other than stating facts I do not see how these results force me to believe in anything. It is my belief system or personal philosophy that makes me conclude a interpretation of those facts.

For example:

Evolution is seen by many people through the lens of materialism/atheism. That means that while studying evolution these people ASSUME the world has no creator and and is purely physical and closed system, free from anything super-natural....and so on.

In that way, any discovery in biology is treated in this interpretation and millions of dollars of research money is used to search for evidence in that way.

Something as so fundamental to us as consciousness and free will is ignored as illusion because it doesnt fit into these peoples world view of a purely mechanical universe. Where did they get this idea that the universe is purely mechanical and material?? NOT from science, it is from their personal philosophy or belief system. Everything in science is interpreted towards that end.

Those who believe in intelligent design also have their assumptions, and will look at evolution in that way. They will tend to be looking for evidence of a super natural involvement in biology, and dedicate their research dollars in that direction.

For you to accept the intelligent design bias and not see your bias is amazing.

Science is neutral, it is your belief system that interpretes these 'facts'. The real argument is in the varying philosophies, not in the actual data of science.

Where did they get this idea that the universe is purely mechanical and material?? NOT from science...

Let's imagine that there exist two universes, M and E. Universe M is purely material. Universe E contains etherial things in addition to material ones. However, the material things that E contains are exactly identical to the material things that M contains, down to each individual quark or cosmic string or whatever everything material is made of. The material objects in two universes are perfectly synchronized; for example, whenever a drop of water falls into a pond in universe M, and identical drop falls into an identical pond in E, etc.

If you were accidentally transported into one of these universes, is there any way you could tell which of them you ended up in ?

Evolution is seen by many people through the lens of materialism/atheism. That means that while studying evolution these people ASSUME the world has no creator and and is purely physical and closed system, free from anything super-natural....and so on.

In that way, any discovery in biology is treated in this interpretation and millions of dollars of research money is used to search for evidence in that way.

If we found in every single mammal a long conserved sequence in its genome which had its own extra code to help conserve it and it spelled out in easy substitution code the entire text of some religious text, you can be very sure that every biologist would stand up and take notice. Moreover, your claim doesn't really follow since there are many religious biologists (like Ken Miller, a very religious Catholic) who are perfectly ok with evolution and the entire standard understanding of biological history.

Your extreme example of evidence in a creator is a valid point, but only to a certain limit. Maybe the grand creator does not want to make things that obvious? Maybe he puts just enough evidence in the universe for people of sincerity for the truth to be lead to the conclusion of design, and not an inch more? The point is we dont know, and the fact that God is not coming down from heaven and telling us he exists is NOT rational evidence that he does not exist and is not the designer of the universe.

As to those Christians who believe in evolution, they have simply developed a personal theology and see science to that end. They are no different from the other religion views, or no religious view.

The real battle is not in science, it is in these 'world-views' that cause us to see science in a particular way. I'm not saying we cannot debate what is the truth, only saying that the debate is a little deeper than saying 'sciences says this' or 'science says that'. The debate is more abstract and rational than it is empirical.

The point is we dont know, and the fact that God is not coming down from heaven and telling us he exists is NOT rational evidence that he does not exist and is not the designer of the universe.

Then you think that God coming down from heaven and telling us he exists is rational evidence that he does not exist or is not the designer of the universe? See Absence of Evidence Is Evidence of Absence.

Your extreme example of evidence in a creator is a valid point, but only to a certain limit. Maybe the grand creator does not want to make things that obvious?

Sure, that is possible. Then, in the absence of overwhelming evidence for a designer, we have at least two possible explanations for the evidence that we do possess:

1). Cellular replication in general and DNA in particular is a result of natural processes, specifically {insert long explanation here}.
2). Cellular replication in general and DNA in particular is a result of both natural processes, as well as supernatural intervention by an intelligent designer for whose existence we have no evidence.

Which explanation is more likely to be true, Bayesically speaking (yes I know that's not a word) ?

I don't think you need to invoke any sort of Bayesian issues there. Just ask which is simpler. You also are going one step ahead of what is necessary because as far as I can tell, Ghazzali isn't even ok with theistic evolution.

Just ask which is simpler.

I want to taboo the word "simpler", because its meaning is vague. "God did it" is certainly a simpler statement than "Here, read this 500-page biology textbook and find out".

because as far as I can tell, Ghazzali isn't even ok with theistic evolution

I think my example still applies, though. Ultimately, we still have purely physical things like fossils, DNA molecules, etc. etc.; as far as I understand, Ghazzali doesn't dispute the fact that these items exist, only the conclusions we can draw from their existence.

Mathematically you have the same problem whether you believe in God or you don't. If you say that there is no God you must still account for these two questions:

  1. How did the universe begin from nothing, and why?
  2. If the universe did not begin from nothing, what did it begin from and why is it not considered part of the universe so that we say it is the creator of the universe but not an extension of it?

And if you say 2. you still have to go back to one.

The same mysteries are there whether you believe in God or not. It is your world-view, your faith that leads you to conclude in God, not science. For a Muslim, for example, it is his belief in the words of Prophet Muhammad that he is really communicating with God, and so on. For the atheist/materialist it is his world-view that he rejects any kind of notion that a human being has these powers. And so on...

Science itself is neutral on these issues, it must be seen and interpreted by philosophies and beliefs.

The consistent downvoting of your posts should give you some indication that your arguments are not going to be well received here. I don't intend to continue this discussion further for the following reasons:

  • I don't believe you're here to genuinely arrive at truer beliefs. I think you're here to try and convert us.
  • You did not answer the one direct question I asked you to answer (which, among other things, leads me to conclude the above.)
  • Other people on this site are far more willing to refute your arguments and will do a better job, and have been doing so.
  • I don't think you have enough background (have read enough of the sequences) in why I (or LW in general) believes what we believe for you and I to be able to have a conversation productive enough to be enjoyable to me. Most of the ensuing discussion would probably consist of me spending 15 minutes looking up exactly which of Eliezer's posts refuted the point you made in your most recent post, and linking you to it, at which point, you probably wouldn't read what I linked to anyway.

That mathematical model does not hold any water if you distinguish between species.

That is a factual claim which most here will think incorrect, by default. It should be backed up by evidence and argument rather than simply asserted.

Any number of things. One example would be traits appearing in advance of conditions that would make them favorable e.g. a deep ocean fish developing legs or a reptile developing wings while it is too heavy for the wings to increase the length of its jumps. Another would be one species adopting traits of another through direct transfer of genes, rather than through separate evolutionary lines e.g. a snake using a variety of venom that was previously only in spiders.

I could probably come up with several hundred examples, if you really needed that many. None of them are particularly likely though: there is a huge weight of evidence behind modern evolutionary theory, which means it is almost certainly true.

There is a problem of threshold in this debate. There have been anomolies found in the fossil record that don't seem to make sense, but they are not deemed extreme enough by the scientific community to warrant any damage to evolution. The hypotheticals you have suggested are very extreme, do they have to be that extreme to warrant a hit on evolution or can less extreme finds also warrant questioning? I would like to see the scientific community come up with more specific parameters as to what would be considered: A. minor damage to the theory, B. major hit on the theory, and C. evidence that would make the theory most likely untenable. We do this for almost every other science, except evolution.

My suspicion comes down to the fact that evolution is the natural conclusion of a world view that is part of a necessary dialectic. Either existence happened by chance, or by design. There seems to be no third or fourth way. We are limited to these two conclusions and nothing else. Therefore any hit on a theory that advocates one, is a support for the other. I think this pushes scientists (even sub-consciously) to view evolution almost as a belief system rather than a science.

I addressed this here, but I missed a few things. For one, I address the extremity of the hypotheticals in the linked post, but I didn't point out, also, that these things seem extreme because we're used to seeing things work out as if evolution were true. These things wouldn't seem extreme if we had been seeing them all along; it's precisely because evolution fits what we do find so well that evolution-falsifying examples seem so extreme. Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian would probably not seem so extreme to a creationist; it's what they'd expect to find (since all species supposedly lived alongside one another, AFAIK).

For two:

We are limited to these two conclusions and nothing else. Therefore any hit on a theory that advocates one, is a support for the other.

I don't think that follows. A hit on a chance-favoring theory could be a "hit" in such a way as to support a different chance-favoring theory, rather than any favoring design.

I think this pushes scientists (even sub-consciously) to view evolution almost as a belief system rather than a science.

Can you point out some ways that scientists view evolution as a belief system rather than science?

"Only in AI would people design algorithms that are literally stupider than a bag of bricks, boost the results back towards maximum entropy, and then argue for the healing power of noise."

I do not have the time to go through it now (which probably means I never will remember to do it) but I can offer a small observation.

When training neural networks, there is a very good reason why adding a random element improves the performance: it avoids getting stuck in suboptimal local minima. Training a network can be seen as minimizing errors on a surface in weight-space. This surface usually is littered with local minima of various sizes, so a deterministic training rule gets stuck while a stochastic one can get kicked out of them. Of course, one has to be careful not to add too much of a random element; this is usually done by using small steps in the training.

I do not know if this adds anything as once the training is complete, the net constitutes an algorithm that is deterministic. The point however is that optimization methods that (necessarily) rely on local information usually performs better with an element of noise.

To stay unbiased about all of the commenters here, do not visit this link and search the page for names. (sorry, but - wait no, not sorry)

So it seems to me that the smaller you can make a quine in some system with the property that small changes in it mean it produces nearly itself as output, the more likely that system is going to produce replicating evolution-capable things. Or something, I'm making this up as I go along. Is this concept sensical? Is there a computationally feasible way to test anything about it? Has it been discussed over and over?

Maybe we can do far better than evolution, but if we could design a good parallelizable "evolution-friendly" environment and see whether organisms develop that'd still be phenomenal.

There's a useful metaphor for this process, from a computing technique mathematicians sometimes use to find approximate solutions to numeric problems called "simulated annealing". Consider a graph with high points (called "maxima") and low points (called "minima") like this one:

IMAGE

Sometimes you know the equation, and can just solve it. But, at other times, the situation is like having a black box with some dials to twiddle, and a single output (which you want to be as big as possible). One way to search for the dial setting that produce the biggest output would be to set the dials all to zero then start systematically searching through all the possible settings, but that might take years. If the graph is simple, you can usually find the answer much faster by noting how large the output is for ten different random settings, then concentrating your search near the random setting that had the largest output and making some smaller random changes, narrowing down on the best of those, and then making some last very small changes to fine-tune your solution. This process is known as "simulated annealing" and the amount of random noise you use to vary the solution at each stage is known as the 'temperature'. You start off at a high 'temperature', making big random jumps, then slowly cool things down, making smaller and smaller changes:

IMAGE

If you lower the 'temperature' too fast, you can get stuck at a local maxima. To make the shift to a different maxima (perhaps a higher one), you'd have to increase the 'temperature' again.

Dawkins goes into details in his book "The Greatest Show on Earth" about how DNA isn't a blueprint - rather it is a series of instruction on how to do 3D origami. And the earlier an instruction is in the sequence, it harder it is to vary yet still come up with a functional end shape. (This is why there are local maxima that evolution finds it difficult to vary away from to perhaps better solutions that a designer could have found - such as not routing a nerve in a Giraffe's neck down via the heart before returning half way back up it again.)

Interesting series of articles. I like the theme.

Just a small observation-- you may define the origin of life outside the domain of evolution, but I think you could just as easily bring it under the umbrella of evolution, with discussion of replicator precursors such as chemical epicycles and whatnot. I see your point, but I think distancing evolution from such a question might be seen as 'passing the buck'.

First comes some gene A which is simple, but at least a little useful on its own, so that A increases to universality in the gene pool. Now along comes gene B, which is only useful in the presence of A, but A is reliably present in the gene pool, so there's a reliable selection pressure in favor of B. Now a modified version of A arises, which depends on B, but doesn't break B's dependency on A/A. Then along comes C, which depends on A and B, and B, which depends on A* and C.

Can anybody point me to some specific examples of this type of evolution? I'm a complete layman when it comes to biology, and this fascinates me. I'm having a bit of a hard time imagining such a process, though.

But to praise evolution too highly destroys the real wonder, which is not how well evolution designs things, but that a naturally occurring process manages to design anything at all.

Yes, but this "naturally occurring process" suits itself very well to automation and discovery.

So let us dispose of the idea that evolution is a wonderful designer, or a wonderful conductor of species destinies, which we human beings ought to imitate. For human intelligence to imitate evolution as a designer, would be like a sophisticated modern bacterium trying to imitate the first replicator as a biochemist.

It's certainly not a wonderful designer. But it can be an efficient way solve problems without human decisions. Human intelligence should not imitate evolution as a designer, but machine intelligence may well benefit.

Dawkins agrees with Huxley.

He describes nature as "the ruthlessly cruel process that gave us all existence", and describes the process that made us as "wasteful, cruel and low".

He says that nature gave us a brain capable of "understanding its own provenance, of deploring the moral implications and of fighting against them".

He describes humanity as: "the only potential island of refuge from the implications of [evolution]: from the cruelty, and the clumsy, blundering waste."

However, there is no special reason for thinking these guys are right - either about the desirability or the realistic possibility of rebellion.

Evolution resolves the infinite regression, not by being super-clever and super-efficient, but by being stupid and inefficient and working anyway. This is the marvel.

Stupid and inefficient is sometimes much better (and faster) than a meticulously designed process. If you've ever dealt with fitting of really complex data, a random walk is often suprinsingly more efficient than any of the refined fitting algorithms. In itself it's just stupid "trial and error" in endless repetition, just like evolution, with a little bit of organizing in the background.

Even so, it was probably very improbable, considered in an isolated event—but it only had to happen once, and there were a lot of tide pools.

isn't it more likely that the "first replicator" was not a single event, but that it started multiple times and failed to survive in the vast majority of cases?

Interesting. However, I seem to be confused reading your posts on evolution by statements like "Squirrels jump from treetop to treetop using just their muscles" - obviously they use at leat their bones, too; so maybe there are other cases where you use 'compression to obvious', and I begin to be afraid that I missed them. That I cannot understand your meaning in fullness when you begin talking about things that I know poorly. As to incremental evolution, we already know there are genes controlling development, and they are highly conserved. Evolution can happen when one such gene accidentally mutates, and the resulting monster turns out to be viable. It would have many different traits, not just one.

caledonian

evolution is contingent. so are we. what's your point?

Eliezer,

Could you -- perhaps in another thread -- discuss how "The Evolution of Cooperation" (as Robert Axelrod put it) fits or does not fit with Huxley's comment. Can Axelrod and Huxley both be right?

John

It wasn't evolution that built your computer

Which one? Because my human-built computer is inferior is virtually every way to the one evolution produced. The only real advantages the electronic model has are that it's easy to make backups for it, and people have been writing viruses for it for a shorter period of time.

We have imperfect models, but evolution doesn't have a model at all, which is why it's stupid.

Its stupidity is still smarter than the most brilliant human.

it necessarily can't plan for the future

True. But it never fails to react appropriately to the local conditions, which humans are actually quite bad at doing. Neither are we very good at planning for or anticipating the future. But perhaps you don't consider triggering the Sixth Great Extinction to reflect poorly upon humanity's ability for forethought.

it's annoying to smugly point out things that people are already perfectly aware of

It is very important to point out things that people are already perfectly aware of but choose to ignore. The annoyingness is just a bonus. And as the readers of this site are already quite aware, the methods that make thought most powerful are those that are most antithetical to natural human modes of thought: logic and mathematics. Bayes' Theorem is smarter than the humans that use it. Funny, that.

Evolution is biased at genes replication routes, at their alternative-splicing-steps junctions

A. A reply to one of my posts:

"Dov, you write: Life's evolution is not random. It is biased, driven by culture.

Be sure you understand that Darwin did not say that evolution is random. He said that evolution is not random. It is driven by natural selection."

B. I never wrote anything that Darwin said. Here, again, is what I say and wrote:

Culture is the universal driver of genetic evolution

The major course of natural selection is not via random mutations followed by survival, but via interdependent, interactive and interenhencing selection of biased genes replication routes at their alternative-splicing-steps junctions, effected by the cultural feedback of the third stratum multicells organism or monocells community to their second and prime strata genome-genes organisms."

Dov Henis (Comments From The 22nd Century) http://blog.360.yahoo.com/blog-P81pQcU1dLBbHgtjQjxG_Q--?cq=1

Life's Manifest http://www.the-scientist.com/community/posts/list/112.page#578

The wonder of evolution is that it works at all.

It's a process that, given certain rudimentary facts about existence, MUST occur. It's totally mindless, relies on trial-and-error, and is unspeakably powerful. You can't make designs better than it can - you can't even make designs as well as it can. At most, you can take incredibly complex systems it's created and point out a few places where you could put a patch to make things even better. You can do this by using a brain evolution is responsible for.

Evolution doesn't recognize your inherent 'specialness' at all. Nothing in the universe does, come to think of it, except a few other people. Almost the entirety of the universe is utterly indifferent to your existence: no stars in the sky heralding your birth, no suns dimming at your passing, no cosmic phenomena that mirror what you think, what you feel.

How that must vex you!

I beg forgiveness but I am taking advantage of an aggressive mood after reading a few pages of the "evolution" track, to state my criticisms with some punch - as I think there is some worth to letting punch go.

First, I find the views expressed around here somewhat ethnocentric : the battle between evolutionism and creationism is an alien story to me, and evolutionist rallying cries I tend to perceive as a disagreeable form of representation of creationism - comparable, say, to how the typical aggressive tone of US rappers doesn't translate to my distant ears as rebel or anti-establishment but as directly representative of generic US arrogance as expressed in finance or military matters for instance. Speaking of US military matters, an issue I have with the dominance of fitness coefficients over explanations of evolution, is that fitness coefficients refer to exactly the same abstraction that failed to be spotted while it meant observing as severely pathological the differential of mortality as a function of side in war at the moment victors made Broadway.

I mean, twenty some years ago, at the end of operation Desert Storm.

I beg forgiveness again, punch :)

What this means on the face of it is that US and allies harbor an extended school of scientific thought inspired by economics that finds good enough the huge simplification of believing in fitness coefficients when the purpose is to criticize (with an eye on usefully controlling) the marvelously creative process of evolution, but not good enough when the purpose is to criticize (with an eye on usefully controlling) the disgustingly destructive process of war. (Double standard !)

One obvious abstract feature of the most regular type of war is that it distributes casualties over sides, in the minimal case, two sides. This is formally the same thing as a locus with two alleles. The relative fitness coefficients express the skew in casualties depending on side or allele.

For the sake of completeness and courtesy, I'll complement the above with an independent criticism tabooing the notion of criticizing military behavior.

The way population genetics results get threaded into your (I guess standard) exposition of evolution quite mixes levels when it starts with assuming differential fitness coefficients as if they were objective and stable quantities generally measurable in the wild. They aren't. I do not deny that in extreme cases natural evolution processes are streamlined to the point that population genetics models become a fit and explain observed quirks of evolution, but in the general case if you tell me evolution needs be viewed as blind, slow and stupid because of what population genetics tells us about it, my reaction is that this appears to be an artifact of investigating the prowesses of evolution only downstream and not upstream of those fitness coefficients that supernaturally enter your models just like Adam and Eve supernaturally learn morals from the forbidden fruit.

You obviously don't know much about about the US and its politics, since roughly 50% of the American population agrees with you about the terribleness and destructiveness of war, and seek to eliminate it as quickly as possible. Part of the reason Obama's ratings are so poor in the US at the moment is because he has not pulled the troops out of Iraq/Afghanistan quickly enough.

It would be worth spending some time in different parts of the US for a while, or even just reading news from multiple news agencies to get a better picture of the opinions of the American people. Pretty much all of the wars the US has ever been involved in have had this duplicitous nature. It's not so much a double standard as it is multiple personalities.

Also, even after reading your post I have no idea what the US's position on war has to do with this discussion on evolution. I don't see why a discussion on evolution should necessarily contain within it any discussion on US military policy. Is there some reason we can't discuss evolution without discussion modern military activities? If so, I don't see it, and you didn't really point it out to me.

Lastly, I don't see how we can have a discussion that doesn't involve population genetics, considering it is a critical component of modern evolutionary theory. It's like saying we shouldn't talk about space-time when discussing General Relativity. It really doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

I'm curious how a process that takes billions of iterations over millions of years to produce anything interesting can reasonably be considered anything but blind and slow. Trying new things at random is kinda the definition of blind in these situations (regardless of how efficient the selection mechansim may be), and taking three and a half billion years to great humans seems pretty slow, subjectively. What alternative process is it quicker and more insightful than? Certainly not a designer that did the job in 6 days (aka Intelligent Design/Creationism).

As for the ethnocentricity, ID is largely a problem in the US, so that shouldn't be a surprise. Other countries have done a pretty good job of figuring out how well evolution works, and that it is therefore probably correct. We still have 50% of the population here holding us back in that regard (evolution is winning anyway, though - it's pretty hard to deny it).

Certainly life has been evolving for billions of years, and there's no way to guess at what humans might design over a similar period of time.

So let's look at evolutionary algorithms - specifically, those implemented in computers and used to generate microchip designs. What human designer even comes close to what a repeated cycle of mutation and selection has been demonstrated to be capable of?

Our models of the world are necessarily imperfect approximations of the underlying reality. Evolution is a functio nof the reality itself, not an approximation of it, and as such it will always have a power that no amount of rational analysis can even approach. It's like flowing water - unable to look at the surrounding territory and adjust its behavior accordingly, but unerring in responding appropriately to its immediate environment.

The most sophisticated information-processing device in the known universe was not only designed by evolution, but operates on evolutionary principles. If you insist upon attempting to impose design, you will never accomplish what letting order arise from chaos can.