Home » Intelligent Design » Responding to Merlin Part I – How Merlin’s Paper Validates Several Claims of the ID Movement

Responding to Merlin Part I – How Merlin’s Paper Validates Several Claims of the ID Movement

This is a multi-part post in response to Merlin’s paper, “Evolutionary Chance Mutation: A Defense of the Modern Synthesis’ Consensus View”. See introduction and table of contents.

How Merlin Validates “Teaching the Controversy”

Many people criticize ID for saying that we should “teach the controversy” about Darwinism. There are two sides to the attack:

  1. Darwinism is a made-up word by ID’ers, and
  2. There is no controversy

The Merlin paper, on its own, clearly show that both of these ideas are false.

Many people claim that ID’ers have made up the word “Darwinism” as a straw man which we can easily knock down. Nothing could be further from the truth. ID’ers use the word Darwinism, because it identifies, with technical specificity, what we are objecting to. Darwinism specifically means that the mutations which are selected are happenstance – they are not determined by the needs of the organism. This is specifically labelled as the “Darwinian” view by Merlin (see pg 3 of her paper).

This is important because many ID’ers support many parts of evolutionary theory – myself included. However, most ID’ers think that one particular part of evolutionary theory is fundamentally flawed – the Darwinian view of mutations. Many ID’ers are basically neo-Lamarckians, believing that mutations (at least the biologically beneficial ones) tend to be goal-oriented rather than haphazard.

So it is important to note that the controversies spoken of by IDers which are happening in biology are real controversies. Merlin didn’t write this paper as a critique of a scientist to a non-scientist, but rather a controversy among scientists as to whether or not the Darwinian conception of mutations are valid. Therefore, from this we can conclude that (a) there is nothing wrong with Darwinism as a term for a specific type of evolution, (b) ID’ers use the term Darwinism in its correct, technical sense (in contrast to Lamarckianism), and (c) there is a genuine conflict happening among biologists. I have no doubt that Wright, Jablonka, and Lamb are in the minority. That neither invalidates their work nor the significance of the controversy.

As a side note, if anyone is truly interested in what the Discovery Institute means when they say “teach the controversy”, you should read the book they wrote specifically to cover that topic – Explore Evolution. Most people who complain about “teach the controversy” do so completely ignorant of what the Discovery Institute means – they simply assume that it means “teach ID” (which is not the case). Anyone who wants to criticize the Discovery Institute should read this book first, as it contains precisely what they mean by it.

UPDATE – I have removed the section below. I corresponded with Merlin and my interpretation of her comments in the section below was incorrect. In fact she thinks that the papers of Jablonka, Lamb, and others shows that the literature is open to this kind of experimental research. She thinks that her paper liberates them because they don’t have to spend their time in the chance/directed controversy, and can instead focus on their research.

How Merlin Hints at Exclusion of Research Based on Bias

This section is a bit more speculative, as I’m reading in-between the lines a little on what Merlin is saying. Here is a really interesting excerpt from Merlin’s paper:

Such a conclusion [that modern genetics does not contradict Darwinism] may be of interest to philosophers because of the conceptual clarification it provides. It is also of concern to praciticing evolutionary biologists insofar as showing that recent findings about genetic mutations are less revolutionary than some claim liberates their research from its purported conflict with the Modern Synthesis consensus view. (emphasis and brackets mine)

Excuse me, why does does Merlin (or anyone else) care if an experiment conflicts with the consensus view? Why does this paragraph need to be in the paper at all? Is it possible that Merlin is saying this because people aren’t getting published if they are in conflict with the consensus view, and so Merlin is liberating them by showing potential editors that they are not in conflict with the “consensus”? Why should the consensus matter in the face of an experiment?

So, the paper also provides at least indirect evidence that another claim of ID – that researchers are being systematically excluded if their research conflicts with the consensus – might also be true. If it isn’t true, why does Merlin believe this to be liberating for their research?

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5 Responses to Responding to Merlin Part I – How Merlin’s Paper Validates Several Claims of the ID Movement

  1. However, most ID’ers think that one particular part of evolutionary theory is fundamentally flawed – the Darwinian view of mutations. Many ID’ers are basically neo-Lamarckians, believing that mutations (at least the biologically beneficial ones) tend to be goal-oriented rather than haphazard.

    The problem for Darwinists (and to a lesser extent the ID community) is objectively defining “haphazard” in as a quantity that can be measured empirically (like say energy or force in physics).

    Defining a mutation as “random with respect to fitness” seems difficult. There are an infinite number of possible distributions that could be labeled random!

    The other problem is confusing the notion of fitness and function. The two notions are only sometimes on the same page, and others the opposite. In the Darwinian view, blindness in cave fish is a “function”, sickle cell anemia is a “function”, the propensity to murder and rape is a “function”. I raised this issue in : Dennett’s Strange Idea is a Bad Idea for Recognizing Biological Function.

    Modern Synthesis shouldn’t even be classified as a scientific theory if it cannot measure objectively its most important quantities, such as fitness. Would we even think of doing physics if we could not at least in principle measure certain quantities like force and mass and time?

    The problem with Modern Synthesis and Darwinism is that it can’t define much less measure its most important quantities in an objective manner (see: the discussions by Lewontin and Orr in the blog posting about Dennett’s strange idea to understand the problem).

    A modem signal, to an outside observer would appear to be white noise (in fact, information rich signals should appear to be like white noise). By simple statistical measures, a modem signal is “random” since it looks like white noise. But this characterization is deeply misleading. Such is the problem with Darwinism and the notion of “random”, the notion is deeply misleading.

    Royal Truman pointed out the issue of “random” in B-cell hypermuation by describing the “random” pattern of a shotgun blast. If I shot a rat with a shot gun, and then appealed to the “random” statistics of the shotgun pellet pattern, would that negate the existence of intentionality on my part? If I pointed to the “random” statistics of modem signal (where we can’t make any a priori prediction of the next bit in the bit stream), do I really demonstrate the signal is “random” and undirected in a philosophical sense. Of course not!

    But such flawed equivocations and confused thinking are the staple of modern synthesis and Darwinism, and passed of as truth and science. It’s not really science, and it’s not even a philosophically consistent system of ideas, but confused equivocations!

  2. Sal –

    Your “Dennett’s Strange Idea” post is excellent. I especially liked the linkage of Behe’s concept of IC to Wagner’s concept of biological systems.

    As far as “happenstance” goes, the No Free Lunch theorem actually provides a rather concrete definition for mutations. The NFL theorems state that, on average, most search functions have approximately the same ability to find solutions in a search space as a random search. Therefore, we can consider a mutational process as haphazard if it is no better than picking the mutation at random.. If it has significantly more likelihood than random to pick a correct mutation, then it is non-Darwinian.

    Thus, the fact that mutations have biases is irrelevant – a purely random mutation can still be used as the evaluation point. It will only do significantly better than random if it has a lot of information about the solution space coded within it. In other words, the biases should not match up significantly with organismal need unless there is design involved.

  3. “Many ID’ers are basically neo-Lamarckians, believing that mutations (at least the biologically beneficial ones) tend to be goal-oriented rather than haphazard.” -johnnyb

    “Therefore, we can consider a mutational process as haphazard if it is no better than picking the mutation at random.. If it has significantly more likelihood than random to pick a correct mutation, then it is non-Darwinian.” -johnnyb

    Certain molecules are more likely to combine or replicate themselves than others. Some genes are recessive and others are dominant. That some processes are favored over others due to physical laws is not evidence for an intelligent agent.

    Regarding random processes, the term should be understood to mean pseudorandom. If we could model the precise location of every atom in each molecule in every cell, their momenta, and calculate all the forces exactly, we could predict the outcomes, and they would not appear to be random. But we can’t. However, the lack of accurate measurements for mutations or the interchange of genetic data does not constitute a basis for an intelligent agent. The rest of the world is sympathetic to the possibility that biological processes may be guided, but positive evidence of intelligently directed change is needed.
    And there is still the problem of how an ‘intelligent designer’ came to be …

  4. Jello -

    You should read my comment above yours, as it answers the issues they raise.

    You said -

    “Certain molecules are more likely to combine or replicate themselves than others. Some genes are recessive and others are dominant. That some processes are favored over others due to physical laws is not evidence for an intelligent agent.”

    But that is not what is used as evidence for an intelligent agent. What is used as evidence for an intelligent agent is the very high alignment between the processes favored by the cell’s mutational machinery and the likely needs of an organism facing stress. Not only that, if you disable the machinery, you won’t get the mutations you need!

    It is the alignment between the chemistry and the organismal purpose that speaks to design.

    With a computer, the same thing is true – it is the physics of the computer’s circuits that guide the processing – we know it was designed because of the high alignment between the outcomes of the computer and the usefulness of those outcomes.

  5. Jello -

    You said

    Regarding random processes, the term should be understood to mean pseudorandom. If we could model the precise location of every atom in each molecule in every cell, their momenta, and calculate all the forces exactly, we could predict the outcomes, and they would not appear to be random. But we can’t.

    I can’t even believe in this modern era such a statement is even made. Have you ever heard of the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle?

    The fact that we can not “..model the precise location of every atom in each molecule in every cell, their momenta, and calculate all the forces exactly..” has been shown to be a fundamental property of matter. It has nothing to do with our ability to measure. Quantum mechanics killed determinism a long time ago. Read some physics.

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