Home » Intelligent Design » Jerry, PZ, Ron, faitheism, Templeton, Bloggingheads, and all that — some follow-up comments

Jerry, PZ, Ron, faitheism, Templeton, Bloggingheads, and all that — some follow-up comments

PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne both commented on the Numbers-Nelson Bloggingheads exchange. Some comments on their comments:

1. “It’s…bizarre,” Coyne writes, “that Numbers would give credibility to Nelson, a young-earth Discovery-Institute creationist, by debating him.”

Well, Jerry — you’ve debated me too, for nearly an hour, on Canadian television. How naughty of you.

2. Coyne bashes Bloggingheads.tv for inviting me on, and speculates that the blame should be placed on the Templeton Foundation, one of the site’s sponsors: “shame on Bloggingheads t.v.,” he writes, “for putting on a young-earth creationist on Science Saturday. (Bloggingheads t.v. is sponsored by The Templeton Foundation; could this have something to do with it?)”

But Bloggingheads has also hosted outspoken atheists, such as PZ Myers (Pharyngula) and Abbie Smith (ERV). In fact, most of the science-related guests are atheists or agnostics of one flavor or another — Sean Carroll, John Horgan, Carl Zimmer, etc. — with occasional theism-friendly types thrown in for spice, such as Karl Giberson, Jeff Schloss, or Bob Wright (the site’s co-founder). I’m a Bloggingheads fan precisely because I can expect to hear strong challenges to theism, which, while painful, make me think. Thinking is good.

3. Coyne and Myers both say the imperfection argument — i.e., an intelligent designer wouldn’t have done it this way, ergo, the undirected processes of evolution are responsible — isn’t theological.

Both need to think about this more deeply. Here is how Coyne expresses the imperfection argument in Why Evolution Is True:

What I mean by “bad design” is the notion that if organisms were built from scratch by a designer — one who used the biological building blocks of nerves, muscles, bone, and so on — they would not have such imperfections. Perfect design would truly be the sign of a skilled and intelligent designer. Imperfect design is the mark of evolution; in fact, it’s precisely what we expect from evolution. (p. 81; emphasis in original)

To make this argument work, one needs to know what an intelligent designer would have done, and some metric for assessing whether the actual biological feature in question hits, or fails to hit, that target. Coyne leaves these assumptions implicit in his book, but they play a role in his argument nonetheless. The designer Coyne thinks his examples refute is a Paleyesque optimizer, which means the whole of Coyne’s “bad design” argument is conditioned (logically) on that theological construct. Change the theology, and the argument miscarries.

The reader can see this for himself by swapping in, as intelligent designer, not a Paleyesque optimizer, but a deity with limited power (á la John Stuart Mill), or a “malevolent” deity (e.g., Kali). The range of logically possible designers requires that one fix the meaning of “intelligent designer,” either by using one’s own theology (or philosophy), or borrowing the same from one’s interlocutor.

But Coyne is arguing against American creationists and IDers, not John Stuart Mill or the neighborhood Kali-devotee, the reader is doubtless thinking.

Yes, and that’s just the point. As I said in the Bloggingheads segment, the content of evolutionary biology, at least as Jerry Coyne explains it, is thus conditioned on some local variant of intelligent design, as understood by Jerry Coyne. Paradoxically, ID ends up inside biology because Jerry brings it there to make his case for undirected evolution.

I encourage the reader to find a copy of Why Evolution Is True, and read it with this paradox in mind. Its implications are far-reaching.

4. Lastly, a comment about Ron Numbers and what Myers and Coyne see as his unwarranted civility towards me and the topics discussed in the Bloggingheads segment.

Ron and I have been close friends since 1983. Until his untimely death from colon cancer in March 2000, the science writer and atheist Bob Schadewald and I were also close friends, staying in each other’s homes on visits, talking on the phone regularly, sharing research materials, and so forth. Bob was a former president of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and an unflagging critic of “creationism” and intelligent design. His criticisms could peel the paint off any poorly-formulated idea.

But Bob, like Ron (and Michael Ruse) was also a mensch: a person of humanity who valued friendly opposition for the insights it gave. Without civility, there can be no reasoned disagreement; without reasoned disagreement, no painful struggling towards knowledge.

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26 Responses to Jerry, PZ, Ron, faitheism, Templeton, Bloggingheads, and all that — some follow-up comments

  1. Paul,
    where does this quotation come from?

    “It’s…bizarre,” Coyne writes, “that Numbers would give credibility to Nelson, a young-earth Discovery-Institute creationist, by debating him.”

    I don’t see it on the Coyne post you link to.

  2. never mind, i see it’s in the comments on PZ’s post. you might want to clarify that.

  3. It is on the Myers’s website.

  4. So does Young Earth Creationism – or intelligent design – have any explanation for the recurrent laryngeal nerve? In giraffes the nerve is fifteen feet long, even though the brain and larynx are about a foot apart.

  5. Paul,

    Perhaps, Coyne and Myers are upset because you came off a lot more informed and reasonable than Numbers who obviously does not understand the issue. Numbers as I said on the other thread comes off as a very nice person but confused when he actually tries to make a point and ends up just making arbitrary statements that you are wrong.

    There was a discussion over at ASA that when you take the religious reasons out of the pro Darwinian evolution argument you are left with nothing but micro evolution and no real trail of anything producing macro evolution. Apparently Numbers is not aware of this and just assumes it exists. He certainly would not bite on showing anything to support his view of evolution.

  6. 6

    #3 comment:

    then why didn’t they just say so in their post instead of what they did say?

  7. 7

    err, I mean #4 from jerry.

  8. 8

    PaulBurnett,

    ——-”So does Young Earth Creationism – or intelligent design – have any explanation for the recurrent laryngeal nerve? In giraffes the nerve is fifteen feet long, even though the brain and larynx are about a foot apart.”

    If you want to know how YEC would answer that question then go to a YEC blog. Unless you’re equating ID with YEC, in which case, you shouldn’t be commenting on this blog.

  9. Paul Burnett,

    See this ICR page for an ID interpretation of the RLN:

    http://www.icr.org/article/1742/

    Why did the Creator design the loop of the RLN? To the secular biologist, it is both strange and unnecessary, basing these judgments on the corrupt philosophy of Darwinism (macroevolution). But creation scientists and medical doctors are investigating and have several ideas. There are branches of the RLN going above and below the larynx (both branch off the vagus) that would allow some preservation of function if either one is severed. The RLN passes tightly under the aorta (the large, main artery coming from the left ventricle of the heart). Perhaps variation in the diameter of the aorta could alter the function of the RLN.

    A little perspective here—at least we have an alleged case of poor design to discuss! That wouldn’t be the case under a Darwinian scenario, in which the most that could be hoped for would be an ocean full of Miller-Urey soup.

  10. Paul -

    In your exchange, you all talked about what made science (and I would think, by extension, most of scholarship) work. While testability is certainly a noble goal, I would say that it is actually unwarranted civility towards disagreeing ideas. Testing is useful precisely because it gives extreme credence to disagreeing ideas, such that they require testing to refute. Thus, science progresses not by ignoring harsh criticism, but by taking all criticisms seriously. That’s precisely what a test is – taking a criticism seriously enough to investigate its truth.

  11. “Why did the Creator design the loop of the RLN? To the secular biologist, it is both strange and unnecessary, basing these judgments on the corrupt philosophy of Darwinism (macroevolution). But creation scientists and medical doctors are investigating and have several ideas. There are branches of the RLN going above and below the larynx (both branch off the vagus) that would allow some preservation of function if either one is severed. The RLN passes tightly under the aorta (the large, main artery coming from the left ventricle of the heart). Perhaps variation in the diameter of the aorta could alter the function of the RLN.”

    Redundancy. That’s great, but wouldn’t it be greater to have some redundancy for some critical human organs; the heart, lungs, brain etc. I suppose you could argue that the kidneys as an example of redundancy, but then again they don’t exactly self-extract if they do happen to fail.

  12. The length of nerves has to do with timing.

    Also one has to remember that the organisms we are observing today are not the originally designed organisms. Rather what we observe today are the effects of random processes on that original design.

  13. And a note to Coyne and PZ:

    If you really want ID to go away then just start substantiating your claims.

    Evolutionists have no one but themselves to blame for ID’s rise as they have been unable to substantiate anything that is being debated.

  14. I’ll just quote several ID proponents on the topic of the RLN. BTW, this keeps coming up on UD even though it’s been answered before. I’m sure the same argument will be regurgitated within a couple weeks…

    The vagal nerve splits off early to provide some innervations to the larynx. This is called the superior laryngeal nerve (left and right). After looping around the aorta, the recurrent laryngeal nerve comes back up and also innervates the larynx. I thought that these were going to different areas, but there is much more too it.

    The superior and recurrent laryngeal nerves reconnect in what is called Galen’s anastomosis. This is odd in the sense that there are nerves that split off early and provide direct innervations while there are others that are taking the circuitous route. Neuroanatomists describe the innervation of the larynx as “complicated” and they are still trying to work out exactly what the specific targets are of the nerves. Apparently there is also some overlap.

    I had strongly suspected that there were developmental reasons for the circuitous route. There still may be, except now I am suspicious that there are some potential benefits in an overlapping sensory and motor innervations with some of the nerves being slightly longer. I would even go out on a limb to predict that when we find out what is really going on with the laryngeal innervation, there will be a phenomenal necessity for the slightly longer route for the nerve.

    Here is something that is odd. With superior laryngeal nerve paralysis (this is the one that comes off and is not circuitous) people have difficulty increasing loudness and getting a high pitch. They also have vocal fatigue and an inability to sing. The vocal folds lack their normal tone and will not lengthen sufficiently. In contrast, paralysis of the recurrent nerve results in a weak voice that can sound like Mickey Mouse.

    and

    The answer relates to its developmental history. Check a human embryology text book for a detailed answer.

    It’s been argued that the looping spermatic chord (ductus deferens) is overly long as well, although descent from its point of origin in the abdomen appears to be the reason. Likewise, the recurrent nerve, part of the vagus bundle looping under the posterior sides of the aorta may have a similar cause, since the heart descends during late embrogenesis, bringing the nerve bundle with it.

    But there may be other reasons for its placement, i.e. auxiliary functions: (from Gray’s Anatomy, Henry Gray and Henry Carter:)

    “As the recurrent nerve hooks around the subclavian artery or aorta, it gives off several cardiac filaments to the deep part of the cardiac plexus. As it ascends in the neck it gives off branches, more numerous on the left than on the right side, to the mucous membrane and muscular coat of the esophagus; branches to the mucous membrane and muscular fibers of the trachea; and some pharyngeal filaments to the Constrictor pharyngis inferior.”

    So according Henry Gray’s description, nerve filaments emanate along its length from the cardiac plexus to the esophagus, which if accurate might well dictate its positioning.

    Whether due to a requisite embryogenic sequence, for optimal nerve routing, or even an evolutionary carryover, it is a workable routing in all mammals, and therefore lacks substance as an argument against design.

    My thoughts on the topic. Albeit from a non-expert, and before I was aware that its gives off filaments to the heart, to the mucous membranes and to the
    muscles of the trachea. It provides multiple functions, not just one.

    The new school has the front loading being the genetic algorithm embedded in/ on the DNA and other cellular components.

    That’s why there’s all this talk of “active information” and “intelligent evolution”. Then there’s fractals and the fractogene concept. But personally I would think that a limited set of components would need to be explicitly predefined. Otherwise I would presume you’d run into the same problems of gradually traversing indirect pathways.

    Also, even if we presume that evolution via algorithms is not true we at least know that in modern creatures that complex morphological features are constructed algorithmically. Like plants and the repeating pattern of the leaves (the name for that escapes me at the moment). I’ve read that nerve and blood vessel growth in limbs is supposedly derived algorithmically. Darwinists will also cite the anterior and recurrent laryngeal nerves of the giraffe as an example of “poor design” since it loops ~15 feet around the neck and back from the brain to the larynx, presumably resulting in ~13 feet of “waste” (although I should note that there’s potentially other functional reasons for this design I’m not aware of). Well, sure, that does not seem to make sense if it’s body plan was statically defined like blueprints for a house. But it makes perfect sense if it’s partially defined algorithmically in order to compensate for variations in body shape [or size].

    Oh, and I thought this interesting:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/cul.....ories.html

  15. To Paul Burnett,

    About the recurrent laryngeal nerve (RLN) — Jerry Coyne writes, in Why Evolutions is True (p. 82):

    One of nature’s worst designs is shown by the recurrent laryngeal nerve of mammals. Running from the brain to the larynx, this nerve helps us to speak and swallow. The curious thing is that it is much longer than it needs to be.

    What is the evidence for that last claim? — namely, Coyne’s assertion that the RLN “is much longer than it needs to be”?

    One can, of course, trace a more direct path from the brain to the larynx. But that’s not what Coyne is claiming. He’s saying there’s no functional reason for the RLN’s route.

    What’s the observational support for that claim?

  16. 16

    Paul Nelson (#15) wrote: “One can, of course, trace a more direct path from the brain to the larynx. But that’s not what Coyne is claiming. He’s saying there’s no functional reason for the RLN’s route. What’s the observational support for that claim?

    This was explained rather clearly in Dr. Neil Shubin’s book about Tiktaalik, but here’s another:

    Matt Ridley explains the course of the RLN as follows (from his textbook Evolution):

    The laryngeal nerve is, anatomically, the fourth vagus nerve, one of the cranial nerves. These nerves first evolved in fish-like ancestors. … [S]uccessive branches of the vagus nerve pass, in fish, behind the successive arterial arches that run through the gills. Each nerve takes a direct route from the brain to the gills. During evolution, the gill arches have been transformed; the sixth gill arch has evolved in mammals into the ductus arteriosus, which is anatomically near to the heart. The recurrent laryngeal nerve still follows the route behind the (now highly modified) gill arch: in a modern mammal, therefore, the nerve passes from the brain, down the neck, round the dorsal aorta, and back up to the larynx.

    Hundreds of millions of years ago, when our ancestors were fish, the RLN path through the gill arch made design sense. But as tetrapods evolved from fish, they grew a neck (fish don’t really have much of a neck) and became air breathers (gill arches became other things). That’s the functional reason for the RLN’s route.

  17. Bob, like Ron (and Michael Ruse) was also a mensch: a person of humanity who valued friendly opposition for the insights it gave. Without civility, there can be no reasoned disagreement; without reasoned disagreement, no painful struggling towards knowledge.

    I think so too, but Ruse is peeved at you for allowing him to be ambushed on Expelled. I wonder if you think it was worth that, Paul. Michael is light years from Dawkins. I don’t think they should be treated equally.

  18. Concerning pontifications about bad or suboptimal design: I can’t count the number of times I’ve modified another programmer’s code (and even my own code that I had not visited in a long while) and thought, “That’s a dumb way to do it. There’s a much simpler and more efficient approach.” I then modify the code and watch the program go down in flames.

    Upon further study and reflection I discover that there is a not-immediately-obvious or even counterintuitive reason why the original approach was the only one that would work.

    So when Darwinists make claims about bad or suboptimal design in biology I tend to be skeptical. It is only with a complete and detailed understanding of how a complex, functionally integrated system works that such claims can be made with assurance. I’d be willing to bet that if the RLN were redesigned according to Darwinist specifications, some really bad things would happen and it would become apparent why it is the way it is.

  19. “Redundancy. That’s great, but wouldn’t it be greater to have some redundancy for some critical human organs; the heart, lungs, brain etc. I suppose you could argue that the kidneys as an example of redundancy, but then again they don’t exactly self-extract if they do happen to fail.”

    How about this example?
    http://www.newscientist.com/ar.....ision.html

  20. To Paul Burnett,

    I think you misunderstood my question.

    The passages you quoted give an evolutionary scenario for the length and position of the RLN (a scenario with which I’m familiar). Coyne, however, claims that the RLN is a “poor design,” because an intelligent designer should have routed the nerve directly from the brain to the larynx. Coyne says the RLN is thus “much longer than it needs to be” — and his evolutionary scenario is then offered to explain the putative suboptimality of the nerve.

    What I’m asking for is the evidence that the RLN is suboptimal, and that a shorter path would be better.

    Not an evolutionary scenario. The observational evidence for suboptimality.

  21. 21
    CannuckianYankee

    Gil,

    “So when Darwinists make claims about bad or suboptimal design in biology I tend to be skeptical. It is only with a complete and detailed understanding of how a complex, functionally integrated system works that such claims can be made with assurance. I’d be willing to bet that if the RLN were redesigned according to Darwinist specifications, some really bad things would happen and it would become apparent why it is the way it is.”

    So one could imply from this that ID is really not a science stopper, but advancer. Rather than assume that a particular anomaly is an error, we can advance that it is not necessarily, but may have been designed that particular way for a purpose. When we do this, we don’t go down a false road of either ignoring the particular functional purpose, or attempting to determine a Darwinian flaw. What is now considered vestigial can then be determined (or at least allowed) to have a function even if we don’t currently know exactly what that function is.

  22. PaulBurnett,

    What is the evidence that an accumulation of genetic accidents can account for the transformation from fish to terrestrial animal?

    Or do you just believe that it happened?

  23. Paul Nelson,

    “What I’m asking for is the evidence that the RLN is suboptimal, and that a shorter path would be better.”

    Well, Paul Burnett may feel that sounding like Mickey Mouse is optimal…after all, Mickey always seems to be so happy, so it’d be better to be like him! ;)

  24. Paul Nelson,

    You’re asking for empirical/observational evidence from a darwinist to support their claim. That’s just not fair.

    Gil also brings up a very good point- there’s no way to truly test the quality of the design without a surgeon to reroute that nerve in the giraffe according to what it “should” look like and see what happens. For all we know, something catastrophic could happen, as the overall structure and systems in a giraffe happen to maintain somewhat of a delicate balance.

  25. I remember reading something about nerves playing a big role in embryo development. Something about they send impulses even before nerves are complete. If this is true then is it possible this nerve has a role in shaping the neck or/and aorta?

  26. Can the theory of evolution even explain the existence of nerves?

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