Home » Intelligent Design » Neurosurgeon: Evolutionary medicine = ad-hoc and untestable guesses

Neurosurgeon: Evolutionary medicine = ad-hoc and untestable guesses

I recently watched a PowerPoint presentation that neurosurgeon Michael Egnor gave at Birmingham, Alabama last month on “why we got eugenics.” He said pretty clearly something that I have been driving at for some time:

Evolutionary explanations are merely stories appended to the proximate (scientific) explanations. They contribute nothing to the scientific understanding of the disease beyond the contribution of the proximate explanations.

Evolutionary stories are ad-hoc and generally untestable guesses, and offer no meaningful framework for science. The proximate explanations (anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics, microbiology, etc.) are the framework for science.

Strategies for disease treatment and prevention depend on data from the relevant medical sciences, not on speculative stories about origins.

Darwinian medicine is scientifically vacuous, and the Darwinian theory of human origins is the antithesis of human exceptionalism and human dignity.

Of course. The whole concept of evolutionary medicine is a waste of time for a very simple reason:

Medicine can never be a discipline without a subject. Astrobiology can be a discipline without a subject because there are no space aliens to complain that their needs are not attended to. But medicine can’t be a discipline without a subject (conventionally, a patient) because medicine must offer solutions, not just theories.

Supposed ancestors, just like space aliens, are not a subject, as far as medicine is concerned.

If you go to your doctor with severe chest pain, you will hardly wish to hear that some professor somewhere has theorized that Pleistocene man did not suffer from your condition because his selfish genes gave him lots of exercise bopping his numerous squeezes around, so …

So you are supposed to pay for this information, if – out of charity – it can be called information?

Medicine exists, in the words of William Osler to provide cure sometimes, relief often, and comfort always – but never mere theories.

In my view, “evolutionary medicine” is another example of people trying to find a use for something that isn’t really any particular use. 

Interesting, sure. Useful, no.

I will try to get Dr. Egnor’s PowerPoint put up on line somewhere.

Also, just up at The Mindful Hack:

Podcasts with non-materialist neuroscientists (Hear the one on science fiction and whether your mind is real!)

More on Norman Doidge and The Brain That Changes Itself

Neuroscience: Where does it hurt? How?

Consciousness: A physicist on the recent New Scientist flap re non-materialist neuroscience

Neuroplasticity: Growing public recognition greets Norman Doidge’s new book (Secular humanists getting in on the new “mind” thing?)

Albert Einstein College of Medicine: Religious practice prolongs life, unexplained factor cited

The Spiritual Brain: Kind words from a reader (“people magnet?”)

New Scientist publishes non-materialist neuroscientists’ letter

Podcast: Mind over matter: Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Autism: Beware grand theories

Cognitive psychology: Simple test for diagnosing mild dementia

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20 Responses to Neurosurgeon: Evolutionary medicine = ad-hoc and untestable guesses

  1. 1

    Darwinian medicine is scientifically vacuous, and the Darwinian theory of human origins is the antithesis of human exceptionalism and human dignity.

    Someone should have told Kramer this before he took dog medicine.

    But here I am bringing up irrelevant shows from TV’s ancient evolutionary past.

    I am unable to find any podcasts are videos you’ve linked to where Egnor is talking about Eugenics or Evolutionary medicine.

    You say the following:

    I recently watched a PowerPoint presentation that neurosurgeon Michael Egnor gave at Birmingham, Alabama last month on “why we got eugenics.”
    And then later:

    “The whole concept of evolutionary medicine is a waste of time for a very simple reason:”

    But the links on “gave” and “evolutionary medicine” just link to your own article on your site which is very similar to the article you posted here. The only link in that article to Egnor speaking is an interview where he discusses How the brain controls blood flow from the heart, and he doesn’t say anything about evolutionary medicine directly. I listened to the entire 9 and half minutes of it.

    He says that he couldn’t figure out how the brain was doing it until he started thinking in terms of the system being designed, And that was really the salient point for at least the ID interviewer who jumped all over that.

    But let’s talk about design for a moment. Compare the design of cars a hundred years ago to the design of cars today. Why didn’t the intelligent designers back then just design all the optimized subsystems we see today? Why were their designs so primitive in comparison to what we have today. Because physical prototypes have to exist, no matter how primitive, before any kind of design we know of can progress. We actually have to see something running in the actual physical world before design can progress. So that’s why we start with primitive designs and after decades of incremental improvements coming from thousands of sources utlimately there is a much more optimal design in existence. And once certain attributes are actually observed in physical reality to be near optimal, they persist for a very long time without change.

    And further on the subject of design:

    Please let everyone understand the following: If you have a set of criteria and instructions in a program and you give that program a search domain and tell it, “Go find a solution in this domain adhering to the specified criteria” When the computer halts and says, “Here’s what I came up with”, The computer was quite literally designing, and it wasn’t doing that by virture of a “mind”.

    When natural forces of upheaval, erosion and so on create a mountain, we can talk quite literally of how pertinent attributes of that mountains were designed by those natural forces. This is not a figurative way of speaking – it would be literal. This doesn’t have to be debated. Nobody says that wind and erosion can create human beings, but who’s to say what other factors and principle and laws diffused throghout a gargantuan universe operating over massive time scales are capable of.

    So yes what ever proximal causes created mankind in fact designed mankind.

  2. 2

    Note:

    I notice I am still under moderation. I asked you folks politely to remove me from moderation or at least send me a note explaining what the problem was. I explained that I posted for months without any complaints until you put me on moderation without explanation. I also noted that it had been months since I had posted and when you had put me under moderation I was only too happy to take a break for an extended time. I told you previously I would have sent you an e-mail with this request except there is not an e-mail address listed on your site that I can see. I pointed out that another poster only recently posted a comment asking to be taken off of moderation and you cheerfully agreed. I said that if there was something I needed to know about that would explain your actions towards me then the civil thing to do would be to send me a note and explain.

    With apologies for the verbosity, but I’m a human being. You need to say something, e.g “After reading your posts for several months we finally decided your’e not really on board enough with us to be granted regualar posting priviledges”. Or whatever the case may be. If there were some specific post you found highly inappropriate do me the courtesy of pointing it out. I’ve had some problem with hackers, and its not completely impossible that someone posted something in my name.

    Thank you.

  3. 3

    Sorry. Please remove that. No offense.

  4. O’Leary,
    As livespans are generally increasing and certanly considerably longer then only a few generations ago, would you attribute this to medical technology?

    As health is now a marketplace, only products that generate value for the consumer, such as a longer life, will persist.

    One thing that markets are good at doing is weeding out the failures quickly. So if this “evolutionary medicine” fails to deliver then it’ll soon be gone from the “menu”.

  5. 5

    Denyse it looks like there are some links I missed so I’ll go and try to read them all.

  6. JunkyardTornado,

    In regard to your statement:

    Please let everyone understand the following: If you have a set of criteria and instructions in a program and you give that program a search domain and tell it, “Go find a solution in this domain adhering to the specified criteria” When the computer halts and says, “Here’s what I came up with”, The computer was quite literally designing, and it wasn’t doing that by virture of a “mind”.

    Who “told” the computer to “go find a solution”? Wh wrote the program? Who defined the criteria? Who thought this up in the first place? Every design starts with an idea. I don’t exactly know what an idea is, but it isn’t a material object. The idea originates with the programmer. He’s the designer.

  7. Egnor made some blog posts dealing with the underwhelming evolutionary contribution to medicine at http://www.evolutionnews.org/ . These are related to your PowerPoint story Denyse.

    The Mind and Materialist Superstition

    Darwinian Medicine and Military History

    Who Would Connect “the Legacy of Darwin,” Medicine, and Eugenics?

    Bayesian Selection. Trouble Brews.

  8. 8

    I just wanted focus in on a couple of arguments from Egnor from the following which you provided. (Didn’t realize it was written by him previously):
    2) Especially, avoid Daniel Dennett’s ’multiple drafts’ theory that the mind is simply an emergent property of the massive parallel processing in the brain. It leads to the uncomfortable observation that the paradigm Dennett uses to explain the brain (i.e. the computer) is an intricate piece of manufactured hardware run by software that is written by programmers. The computer is a beautiful model of intelligently designed dualism. If anyone in your atheist audience picks up on this, things could get nasty. Even tacit endorsements of I.D. or of dualism are unwise in front of an atheist audience. Atheists seem like an amiable lot, but, as the history of the 20th century attests, they can get a bit…testy. Play it safe.

    3) Avoid any reference to the self-refuting nature of materialist neuroscience. If your mind is merely an emergent property of your brain, then your opinions are completely determined by your neurophysiology. But neurophysiology is determined by physics and chemistry. Can physics and chemistry ascertain truth? Don’t remind your audience that by the very act of asserting your theory you inherently stake a claim to credibility not normally accorded to meat.

    These two arguments are repeated incessantly, I think because people in ID circles think they really really carry a lot of weight. People like me at least don’t even bother responding, and there might be an impression that its because we think these arguments are unassailable and so have nothing but abject humble silence, knowing that we’ve been bested. Speaking personally and honestly, I can tell you that this is most definitely not the case. My personal silence is caused by stunned incredulity how anyone can think these arguments have any merit at all. I’m not being facetious I’m not being sarcastic. In spite of how this might come across, I’m only trying to be self-revelatory about my own feelings on this, I’m not trying to be abusive or mocking at all.

    On the first argument above, there is an implicit assumption that programmers are not mechanisms and he uses that unproven assumption as evidence that a programmer’s brain is not a mechanism. So IOW, Dennett uses a computer as a model for a brain but a computer was designed by a programmer and (as Egnor is apparently confident) a programmer’s brain is not comparable to a computer.

    On the second argument, I guess he must think that computers are unable to ascertain the truth of things as they are just mindless mechanisms. I could probably devote some time to this and try to make a better argument myself, by why is one even necessary? If a ten year old had made this argument I would sigh and say, “It’s OK Timmy – some day you’ll understand…” However its disconcerting because the person making the argument is a Neurosurgeon with a Phd.

    ——————————————————-

    The following are some comments regarding Neuroplasticity: Growing public recognition greets Norman Doidge’s new book from your website.
    There are several anecdotes listed like the following:

    Roger Behm, a blind man who is now able to see via his tongue (and can throw a basketball into a garbage can to prove it).

    Now I would assume there would be some attempt to determine exactly how this is accomplished. And so someone would eventually be able to elaborate a mechanism how it was being done, e.g. “minute pulses of air radiate out in all directions And by continual focussed attention and practice, the subject was able to discriminate in such a way that he could have a very accurate picture of his immediate environment using only his tongue. There were even discernable changes in brain structure to accomodate this new behavior, etc.”

    The only indication that we really understood what was going on there, is when we had a very detailed and lengthy description of the entire process such that the technique could be reliably taught to other people who had the lost their sight. What we would have at that point would be a description of a mechanism.

    But the impression I get (and correct me if I’m wrong) is that you think all these unexplained aptitudes are essentially magic, because to me, anything that is not a mechanism is magic. Furthermore, once something is fully understood, once we can explicate it as a mechanism, you can know longer use it as fodder for the existence of the supposedly magical side of daily existence. What is the “mind” in your conception? What are its definite properties? Do animals possess this nonmaterial mind? I am speaking off the cuff. I am also speaking as a layman. If you’re inclined to set me straight, however briefly, please do so. I won’t turn this into a debate. Admittedly, I am missing something.

    I won’t post a lot here. For the record, I can at times argue successfully against Darwinists myself, and if some of my arguments posted in this forum had been properly understood, they would be seen as attacks on it.

    Thanks for your patience.

  9. 9

    jpg564:

    Who “told” the computer to “go find a solution”? Wh wrote the program? Who defined the criteria? Who thought this up in the first place? Every design starts with an idea. I don’t exactly know what an idea is, but it isn’t a material object. The idea originates with the programmer. He’s the designer.

    The criteria isn’t some whim that the programmer dreamed up usually, it didn’t flow like magic from his subconscious. Usually the criteria were passed along to him or imposed on him from another source, by a boss for example, with very specific and stringent and tangible and specifiable requirements. Is the programmer less human because he was told, “Go accomplish this.”

  10. JunkyardTornado wrote:

    Usually the criteria were passed along to him or imposed on him from another source, by a boss for example, with very specific and stringent and tangible and specifiable requirements.

    Usually is not always. What happens when your scenario is not the case?

    I coded programs without any boss telling me what to program all during high school. Explain how that fits into your “brain = meat computer” hypothesis.

    Is the programmer less human because he was told, “Go accomplish this.”

    No. He is less of a designer.

  11. Dr. Egnor’s PowerPoint presentation is not yet online, which is why my link shows only that he was scheduled to give one. I will try to have it put on line.

  12. This is really impressive. When I first took anatomy and physiology one of the textbooks used had parts on evolutionary medicine in each section on the various body systems.

    Next semester, I had a different textbook with absolutely no mention of evolution at all.

  13. Denyse—of course! Great post, once again.

    The idea that Darwinism has any impact at all on the practice of medicine or even on the practice of medical research is a feverish apparition of those who are cloistered in the academy and know nothing at all about applied science. Nothing.

    And that’s the point, isn’t it? Darwinism is all fine and good in theory—in the classroom and in textbooks, where, after all, it can’t really hurt anybody—where adults have the freedom to perpetuate their childhood. But in the real world, it has no healing impact whatsoever.

    “Physician, do no harm.” A real, live practicing doctor can’t afford the luxury of pristine theories. He has a moral obligation to heal. He must acquaint himself with what is real. And under this obligation, no good or sensible physician—no, not one—ever uses Darwin to aid him in the practice of medicine.

    “What does this mean?”It means there is a disconnect between theory and reality. It means the theory—which, for all we know, may be nothing more than a feverish apparition—has nothing to do with actual, applied practice.

    Synecdoche, Alfred. Yes, the time has come to connect the dots. We can build our castles in the air for just so long. At some point our beautiful theories must stop preening and admiring themselves and reenter the real world.

    And at that point, dear Seinfeld, Darwinism shrinks away to nothing.

  14. JunkyardTornado,

    In #8 you comment on mechanism,

    But the impression I get (and correct me if I’m wrong) is that you think all these unexplained aptitudes are essentially magic, because to me, anything that is not a mechanism is magic.

    Would you then label quantum mechanics as magic? It has no known mechanism (plenty of mathematics, but no mechanism). Furthermore, if relativity is right, quantum mechanics can have no mechanism. Does that mean that quantum mechanics is really magic and not science (at least at present) because we don’t know of a possible mechanism?

    You also write,

    On the second argument, I guess he must think that computers are unable to ascertain the truth of things as they are just mindless mechanisms.

    As a physician I have contact with computers that do such tedious jobs as “reading” electrocardiograms (EKG’s–The German spelling) and monitor strips. They are valuable, as they can point out problems that can slip past us humans when we are insufficiently attentive. However, they have trouble dealing with exceptions, they have no “common sense”, and they are not even close to replacing humans in reading EKG’s or even monitor strips, let alone such complex images as x-rays.

    So, yes, it is fair to say that computers are “just mindless mechanisms” and are “unable to ascertain the truth of things”. I don’t really trust computers to read EKG’s without a competent human to overread them. I certainly would not trust a computer to evaluate a scientific theory of the universe.

    In #9 you say,

    Is the programmer less human because he was told, “Go accomplish this.”

    Have you ever heard of dehumanizing work? It is arguable that the programmer is still just as human, but he/she can certainly feel and act less human if there is excessive management.

    To the rest,
    Be careful how you say that evolution is not relevant to medicine. I agree that the overarching theory, the really important part, is not relevant to medicine. But there are still aspects of the theory that are relevant, as the resistance of microbes to antibiotics. It’s just that, as Behe has pointed out, there is a limit to what evolution can do, and that limit is well below the claims of the grand theory. Be careful not to trash all the theory when you trash the grand theory. (I’m starting to sound like jerry.)

  15. As long as you don’t sound like Tom.

    Two questions:

    1. Why does a doctor have to think of Darwin and his theory to reach the commonsense conclusion that overuse of antibiotics is counterproductive?

    2. Why do Darwin’s apologists always cite antibiotic “resistance” to support their grandiose claim that “nothing in biology makes sense without Darwin”? Could it be that they can’t think of anything else?

    Oops, sorry; third question: Are you aware, Dr. Paul, that the question of antibiotic resistance is actually quite complicated and cannot necessarily be counted as a win for natural selection?

  16. 16

    Why does a doctor have to think of Darwin and his theory to reach the commonsense conclusion that overuse of antibiotics is counterproductive?

    By doctor I assume your meaning is medical doctor and not scientist PhD. Forgive me if I am wrong.

    As a scientist who has worked in both academia and in applied research, I can tell you that Meds don’t come up with any theories on their own, they basically do what scientists tell them to do. It only seems like common sense now because a scientist figured it out.

  17. Winston Macchi (#16),

    There are doctors and there are doctors, whether MD’s or PhD’s. Some MD’s do come up with theories on their own, and even do research. MD’s are not all totally dependent on PhD’s, regardless of your experience. Stick with the arguments, not the ad hominem.

    allanius (#15),

    The antibiotic resistance is constantly dragged out, not just because it is the only really good example of evolution in action, but also because it is partly true. I agree that it is more complicated that that, but there is some truth in it and we should not deny any truth simply because our opponents find it useful. Otherwise we turn the debate into a postmodern power struggle, and I don’t think we should go there.

  18. Paul Giem,

    MD’s are not all totally dependent on PhD’s, regardless of your experience. Stick with the arguments, not the ad hominem.

    I agree with the idea that a PhD is not a meaningful measure of a persons ability to function. I mean, there are plenty of PhD endowed people out there claiming all sorts of absurd ideas are true, not least the idea that a young earth is a plausible possibility, even now, after all that has been discovered.

    It’s my personal belief that for Intelligent Design to even have a chance at being taken seriously it must distance itself, even if that includes ridicule as one of the mechanisms, from young earth creationists and creationism as a whole.

  19. I was reading the recent news about a potential therapy derived from Adeno associated virus:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A.....ated_virus

    And was wondering if you would also consider that to be a waste of time also?

    The recent news of a potential breakthrough using this “evolutionary medicine” appears to belie the main thrust of your blog post, a paper by Dirk Grimm goes into detail:

    http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.g.....d=18400866

    Thoughts?

  20. PhilipBaxter,

    In #19 you ask about research on adeno associated virus, appearing to imply that it was “evolutionary medicine”. I am having difficulty understanding why you would characterize the research in this way.

    First, I do not see how this research gets us closer to understanding how edicaran fauna changed without guidance into trilobites, or starfish, or nautiloids, or even whales from wolves (or was it hippos?). Second, it would appear from the article that intelligent design is being used:

    In order to overcome the constraints of wild-type AAV serotypes, numerous groups have recently begun to develop novel strategies to engineer “designer” AAVs tailored for the therapeutic transduction of clinically relevant organs”.

    Could you please explain briefly why this particular research supports unguided evolution above the family level, or why it was particularly predicted by that theory.

    In #18 you apparently agree with me that the mere possession of a PhD does not guarantee competence, although in fairness it probably does give some kind of minimum. However, you go on to give advice regarding young earth creationism:

    It’s my personal belief that for Intelligent Design to even have a chance at being taken seriously it must distance itself, even if that includes ridicule as one of the mechanisms, from young earth creationists and creationism as a whole.

    So that we can more accurately judge the value of such advice, is it your personal belief that ID at present should be taken seriously? If not, would ID distancing itself from YEC cause you to believe in ID or would there then be merely a “chance” that you would take ID seriously? If you are not a friend of ID, it would be reasonable to take your advice with a bit of skepticism.

    You hopefully are aware that both William Dembski and Michael Behe are on record as disavowing YEC. Why is that not enough? Why should ridicule be used? Isn’t it the mark of a small person to ridicule the beliefs of another? In what other ways should ID distance itself from YEC that it does not already do?

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