Detecting design (2): A reply to John Loftus
|December 1, 2012||Posted by vjtorley under Intelligent Design|
I’d like to thank skeptical philosopher John Loftus for his prompt reply to my post, Detecting the supernatural: Why science doesn’t presuppose methodological naturalism, after all. In his post, which is titled, Heads I Win Tails You Lose: Another Christian Apologist’s Trick, Loftus zeroes in on what he sees as the fatal weaknesses in my argument. Let’s take a look at them.
(The image at the top, by the way, is of a humpback whale breaching, courtesy of Whit Welles and Wikipedia.)
When discussing biological Intelligent Design, I calculated that by a very generous estimate, there had been perhaps 10,000,000 “acts of intervention” (to use Loftus’ term), during the 4,000 million year history of life on Earth. I also emphasized that an act of intervention need not be miraculous, as it may or may not violate a law of Nature. But even granting that all of these “interventions” were miraculous, I argued that these miraculous interventions were still relatively rare events, and therefore posed no threat to science. As I wrote in my post:
The point I wanted to make is that even if we postulate 10 million separate interventions in the 4,000 million-year history of life on Earth, that would still work out at only one act of Divine intervention every 400 years. If I were a scientist, I wouldn’t be too troubled by that… Why, then, should scientists be perturbed by supernatural events that occur once every 400 years, especially when these miracles don’t affect their laboratory experiments?
Torley is contrasting the past, which presumably could represent 10 million divine interventions, with present day laboratory experiments that are taking place between these supposed interventions. But that’s not representing science accurately. For if there have been 10 million divine interventions in the past then astronomy would not be possible, nor would geology, paleontology, or plate tectonics, since if God had intervened in these areas those sciences would not be possible. He admits there is a 4 billion history of life on earth. Science can investigate earth’s history, and the history of galaxy, star, and planet formations. Since these sciences have produced a massive amount of knowledge God did not intervene in the past in these areas. Torley must therefore arbitrarily exempt these sciences from God’s invisible intervening hand. Upon what basis can he do this? … Torley needs to show why the science of astronomy, geology, paleontology, and plate tectonics detects no divine intervening hand but that when it comes to biological evolution there is one.
There are two issues which Loftus is conflating here. First, would 10 million divine interventions in the past pose a threat to the sciences of astronomy, geology, paleontology, or plate tectonics? Second, why do I confine my “divine interventions” (as Loftus describes them) to biology?
According to Seth Lloyd’s paper, Computational capacity of the universe (arXiv:quant-ph/0110141 v1), the universe can have performed no more than 10^120 operations during its long history. I’ll take that as a working approximation of the total number of events that have occurred during the 14 billion-year history of the observable universe. 10,000,000 is 10^7 – an insignificant figure by comparison. So even if there had been 10,000,000 “divine interventions” in the areas of astronomy, geology, paleontology, and plate tectonics, they would likely have no impact on the reliability of scientific predictions made in these fields (e.g. regarding the dates of eclipses, or the time taken for the continents to move from one point on Earth to another).
I should add that I do not by any means wish to exclude the possibility of “divine interventions” in the fields of astronomy, geology, paleontology, or plate tectonics. Indeed, I am very impressed by the arguments put forward by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards in The Privileged Planet showing that not only is our universe fine-tuned for life, but our Earthly location is extraordinarily well suited to allow us to make scientific measurements of the cosmos and discover its origin and history. The Earth appears to have been tailor-made for intelligent beings, so I would not be at all surprised to find evidence of a “divine intervening hand” manipulating the events leading to the formation of the Earth and Moon, as well as the initiation of plate tectonics on Earth. As Gonzalez and Richards state in their book, our planet is the only one in the solar system known to have plate tectonics at all. Recently, scientists have learned that tectonic movements occur on Saturn’s satellite Titan, but NASA admits that “they do not happen in the same way as plate tectonics, which is a process unique to Earth.” The possible occurrence of plate tectonics on exoplanets outside our solar system remains scientifically controversial.
Nevertheless, I would be the first to acknowledge that the case for “divine interventions” (to use Loftus’ term) in the fields of astronomy, geology, paleontology, and plate tectonics is much, much weaker than the case for intelligently guided events in the history of biological evolution on Earth. Why is that? In a nutshell, because specified complexity is a hallmark of life. As origin-of-life researcher Leslie Orgel put it in his work, The Origins of Life (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1973):
In brief, living organisms are distinguished by their specified complexity. Crystals are usually taken as the prototypes of simple well-specified structures, because they consist of a very large number of identical molecules packed together in a uniform way. Lumps of granite or random mixtures of polymers are examples of structures that are complex but not specified. The crystals fail to qualify as living because they lack complexity; the mixtures of polymers fail to qualify because they lack specificity. (p. 189)
Proteins are highly specified biomolecules, and living things are even more so. And as Jonathan McClatchie points out in his 2011 post, Michael Behe Hasn’t Been Refuted on the Flagellum, “The synthesis of the bacterial flagellum requires the orchestrated expression of more than 60 gene products.” I should add that McClatchie’s 2012 paper, The Bacterial Flagellum: A Paradigm of Design is well worth reading, and makes an excellent case that the flagellum is indeed the product of intelligent design, contrary to the claims of Professor Behe’s critics.
…[I]f God had intervened as often as Torley supposes then evolution would never have come to be established as the fact it is. He disputes this but I don’t see how. Since evolutionary science is a science then it could not have won over so many scientists if God intervened so many times.
Left: Indohyus major, an alleged whale ancestor from the Middle Eocene of Kashmir. Image courtesy of Nobu Tamura and Wikipedia.
Right: Pakicetus innachus, a whale ancestor from the Early Eocene of Pakistan, after Nummelai et al., (2006). Image courtesy of Nobu Tamura and Wikipedia.
A diagram showing the evolutionary history of cetaceans. Image courtesy of G1noah and Wikipedia.
But as I argued in my post, even 10,000,000 acts of biological Intelligent Design amount to no more than one every 400 years, and if we divide that by the number of families that have ever lived (which I calculated as 10,000 x 100, or 1,000,000), we get 10 “divine interventions” in the history of each family. To see how this is compatible with evolution, I’d refer Loftus to my post, Darwinians concoct a whale of a tale about the evolution of the ear, in which I accepted the scientific reconstruction of the family tree of whales (which I believe are descended from land-dwelling animals), while arguing at the same time that there was powerful evidence for intelligently guided evolution in the lineage leading to modern whales. As I wrote:
…[W]hen I investigated the evolutionary transformations of the ear bones in the lineage leading from the earliest whale-like creatures to modern whales (see the chart above), I was surprised to find that each of the alleged evolutionary intermediates appeared to have undergone not one but multiple modifications from its predecessor, in the design of its ear. A striking illustration of this can be found in Figure 7 on page 282 of Dr. Zhexi Luo’s article, “Cetacean Ectotympanic Structures” in The Emergence of Whales: Evolutionary Patterns in the Origin of Cetacea edited by J.G.M. Thewissen (Plenum Press, 1998) and also in Figures 27 and 28 on pages 77 and 78 of the (dauntingly technical) 1999 monograph by Zhexi Luo and P. D. Gingerich, entitled Transition from terrestrial ungulates to aquatic whales: transformation of the basicranium and evolution of hearing in Papers on Paleontology (Monograph) 31: 1-98, Museum of Paleontology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Even if you don’t understand most of the anatomical terminology in Dr. Zhexi Luo’s articles, two things stand out at once.
First, if you examine the evolution of hearing in whales, it is immediately apparent that each of the alleged evolutionary intermediates is strikingly different from its predecessor, in structure. This may simply be because there are many intermediate forms which scientists haven’t yet discovered. But my point is that given what we know, the evolutionary “stepping stones” are still very far apart from one another.
Second, hearing in whales is a very complex process, which requires the co-ordinated interaction of multiple parts. I am not saying that the ear of whales is irreducibly complex, in the sense defined by Professor Michael Behe. What I am saying is that the sheer complexity of the cetacean ear and the inter-dependence of its many parts renders the claim that an unguided process could transform the ear bones of (say) Indohyus or Pakicetus into those of a modern whale highly implausible. It is incumbent on those making such a claim to “show workings” – that is, put forward a plausible step-by-step pathway, showing how it could have happened.
Third, a lot of evolutionary innovations (or apomorphies) seem to have occurred over a very short period of evolutionary time, in the lineage leading to whales. For instance, Zhexi Luo, on page 274 of his article, “Cetacean Ectotympanic Structures” in The Emergence of Whales: Evolutionary Patterns in the Origin of Cetacea edited by J.G.M. Thewissen (Plenum Press, 1998), listed the following six apomorphies in the ear bones as hallmark traits of the “post-Pakicetidae” Cetacea – in other words, creatures in the whale line after Pakicetus, which means the Protocetidae, as well as their descendants, the Basilosauridae and the Dorudontidae, the latter of whom gave rise to modern whales, which fall into two groups – baleen whales (Mysticeti) and toothed whales (Odontoceti):
(a) An incipient conical apophysis.
(b) The tympanic opening for the external meatus is reduced.
(c) The sigmoid process is twisted and has involuted margins.
(d) Elongate posterior process of the ecotympanic to cover the entire length of the mastoid process of the petrosal. The posterior portion of the posterior process is a horizontal plate (not vertical).
(e) A median furrow on the ventral surface of the bulla.
(f) Double pedicles for the posterior process of the tympanic bone…
So there were six evolutionary innovations which appeared for the first time in the protocetids! That’s a whole lot of evolution going on, and all in the one organ: the cetacean ear.
To be clear, I’d like to point out that Dr. Zhexi Luo is no friend of Intelligent Design: he discusses the homologies between whales and their near relatives within a Darwinian framework, and he also invokes embryology to explain some of the distinctive traits of whales. That’s fine, but I have to say that I found no detailed explanation for the origin of any particular structure in the ear of whales.
Comparison of skeletons of Ambulocetus (above) and Pakicetus (below). Image courtesy of Thesupermat and Wikipedia.
It is therefore perfectly consistent to argue (as I do) that the fossil evidence for the common descent of whales and land mammals is very strong, while at the same time maintaining that the transformations which are known to have taken place over a relatively short 15-million-year period, from an animal resembling a mouse-deer to modern whales, appear to be beyond the reach of chance and necessity acting in tandem. Towards the end of my post, I concluded:
I conclude that it is time for neo-Darwinists to show some intellectual modesty. The intricacy of the cetacean ear should fill us all with awe. While there might turn out to be a matter-of-fact explanation for its development, which does not invoke Intelligent Design, I’ll believe it when I see it – with quantitative calculations attached. Until then, color me a Darwin skeptic.
Neo-Darwinians are fond of citing a recent paper by Herbert S. Wilf and Warren J. Ewens, entitled, There’s plenty of time for evolution (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, December 28 2010, vol. 107 no. 52, pp. 22454-22456, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1016207107), which claims to show that there’s plenty of time for Darwinian evolution to occur, even if multiple mutations are required. Most of them will not have read the response to Wilf and Ewens’ paper by Dr. Douglas Axe, of the Biologic Institute. In a short post, which is mockingly titled, Breaking News from the Academy: There’s Plenty of Time for Evolution! (January 14, 2011), Dr. Axe points out the fallacious logic employed by Wilf and Ewens in their paper:
So here we have a new research paper that reads very much like a mathematically embellished version of the simplistic “METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL” argument put forward twenty-five years ago by Richard Dawkins.
In case you missed it the first time around, here’s my two-sentence synopsis. Although it would take eons for unassisted random typing to generate the Shakespearean line METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL, the task becomes very manageable if something can select the best line from among the many lines of random gibberish, where ‘best’ means most resembling METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL (however slight that resemblance may be). Couple this with the ability to breed slight variations on what was just selected, and voila! – a line from Shakespeare materializes right before our eyes.
It’s an old argument with an embarrassingly obvious flaw. Yes, meaningful text can evolve very rapidly if selection has foresight or (equivalently) if miraculously helpful fitness functions can be assumed. But alas, neither of these happy circumstances follows from the impersonal kind of selection that Darwinists are committed to.
In the end, whether evolution has plenty of time or not depends on what you want to ascribe to it. It copes well with the most favorable adaptations conceivable (those offering substantial benefit after a single nucleotide substitution), but even slightly more complex tasks involving just two or three mutations can easily stump it. The key question, then, is this: What, of all life’s marvels, can be accounted for in terms of the single-change adaptations that Darwinism explains? And the answer, if we take Dawkins’ illustration seriously, is: Nothing that approaches the complexity of a six-word sentence.
You don’t need a biology degree to see that this leaves Darwinism in a difficult position. In fact, oddly enough, it seems that biology degrees only make it harder to see.
The real problem for neo-Darwinian evolution, as I pointed out in my post, is that “scientists currently have no way of calculating the probability of a complex structure arising by Darwinian processes within a population, over a specified period of time.” For that reason, they typically cover up neo-Darwinism’s lack of mathematical rigor (which I highlighted in my post, At last, a Darwinist mathematician tells the truth about evolution) by employing the twin devices of rhetoric (“What more evidence of evolution could you possibly want?”) and ridicule (“You’re making an argument from personal incredulity! Besides, why didn’t your Designer make whales instantly, instead of taking 15 million years to do it?”) In the face of such bombastic rhetoric, Intelligent Design proponents should stick to their guns, and continue to insist that even if we don’t know the Designer’s modus operandi or possible motives for taking 15 million years to produce modern whales, the evidence for design needs to assessed on its own scientific merits.
Loftus: “Go with the probabilities!” – Sure, why not?
This is what a real protein looks like. The enzyme hexokinase is a protein found even in simple bacteria. Here, it is shown as a conventional ball-and-stick molecular model. For the purposes of comparison, the image also shows molecular models of ATP (an energy carrier found in the cells of all known organisms) and glucose (the simplest kind of sugar) in the top right-hand corner. Courtesy of Tim Vickers and Wikipedia.
Near the end of his post, Loftus responds to my criticism that he employs a question-begging uniformitarian postulate when he argues that if God doesn’t intervene in the world at present, then probably He never did in the past either. In my post, I had asserted that miracles are by definition singular occurrences, which don’t happen with a set frequency, at predictable intervals. Loftus replied:
If miracles are by definition singular occurrences, without any statistical probability to them, the question becomes whether they have ever occurred at all. Sure, God may have done a plethora of them in the past and will do so in the future, but we live in the present where they don’t occur. He’s certainly not miraculously healing any amputees, that’s for sure. Reasonable people must go with the statistical probabilities and the probabilities are that miracles by their nature are improbable to the point where they are impossible on natural grounds.
Well, I’d certainly dispute Loftus’ claim that God doesn’t heal amputees (see here and here), but let’s leave that aside. The point is that there’s an important difference between the alleged one-off healing of an amputee in Spain in 1640 and biological Intelligent Design: the latter is a phenomenon which applies to a whole class of occurrences. For instance, it is claimed that all organic molecules belonging to the class of proteins could only have originated as a result of intelligently guided agency; or that all functional modifications occurring in living things which require seven or more mutations are beyond the reach of unguided natural processes. These are scientifically testable and falsifiable claims that are being made by Intelligent Design proponents.
Finally, I’d like to turn Loftus’ argument on its head, by substituting “Mother Nature” for “God,” and replacing “miracles” with the term, “mouse-deer-to-whale transformations”, which will serve as a convenient short-hand for the alleged 15-million-year evolution of a creature resembling a mouse-deer (Indohyus, or a near-relative) into a modern whale, as a result of unguided natural processes:
If “mouse-deer-to-whale transformations” are by definition singular occurrences, without any statistical probability to them, the question becomes whether they have ever occurred at all. Sure, Mother Nature may have done a plethora of them in the past and will do so in the future, but we live in the present where they don’t occur… Reasonable people must go with the statistical probabilities and the probabilities are that “mouse-deer-to-whale transformations” by their nature are improbable to the point where they are impossible on natural grounds.
See what I mean?
Loftus will of course respond that we need more time to observe something as improbable as the six evolutionary transformations which suddenly occurred within the ear of the ancestral whales that followed Pakicetus – never mind the rest of their anatomy. Maybe we do and maybe we don’t. But there’s one thing I do know: no-one has any doubt that an Intelligent Agent could easily have wrought such a transformation. The causal adequacy of intelligent agency is not in question. By contrast, the causal adequacy of neo-Darwinian evolution to bring about evolutionary transformations beyond the level of the species or genus remains to be demonstrated. Until neo-Darwinian evolution (or any of its naturalistic alternatives) can be mathematically quantified at this higher level, skepticism regarding its adequacy as an account of life is not only legitimate; it is a scientific obligation.
Loftus concludes his post with a paragraph that is long on passion but short on logic:
The lack of divine intervention in our world is counter-productive for a God who wants us to believe or fry in hell. We are supposedly created as reasonable people. Reasonable people need evidence. Reasonable people must go with the statistical trends. Reasonable people must compare comparables. Given the fact that science works precisely because God does not intervene, then it seems to reasonable people that he doesn’t intervene at all. And if that’s the case it’s reasonable to think he didn’t raise Jesus up from the dead either. It’s also a good reason to think he doesn’t exist at all.
So Loftus rejects the notion of an “interventionist” Creator because he thinks it would be wrong of such a Creator to fry non-believers in Hell, given the evidence available to inquiring minds. That may be so, but perhaps someone should tell Loftus that those are not the only two alternatives. Loftus is projecting a particular personality – one he utterly abhors – onto the Creator, and he finds the result so hideous that he feels compelled to argue the Creator out of existence. Loftus seems to have had the unfortunate experience of being told as a child that “the overwhelming majority of Jews will go to hell, where Judas is right now”; happily, I – and, I suspect, most other Uncommon Desecent readers – didn’t have that experience.
Let me be clear. If life was designed by a supernatural Agent, it in no way follows that this Agent expects us to believe this fact, given the present state of the evidence. (For instance, the Agent may be happy for us to go on collecting more and more scientific information about the limits of evolution for the next 200 years, before coming to a firm decision on the question of a Designer of Nature.) Still less does it follow that the Agent Who designed life on Earth wishes to punishes those individuals who disbelieve in His existence – let alone fry them forever. Loftus’ animosity towards the idea of Intelligent Design appears to be the result of failing to keep his science and his theology in separate boxes. The former relies on publicly verifiable evidence and logical reasoning; the latter on private revelations. The hypothesis of a Designer of Nature, like the hypothesis of Darwinian evolution, needs to be assessed on its scientific merits, independently of the ways in which that idea may be abused by its adherents.