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The Darwinian Mechanism as the Grammar-Checker of Biology

After giving his famous METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL computer analogy to evolution in his book The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins remarks, “Life isn’t like that. Evolution has no long-term goal. There is no long-distant target, no final perfection to serve as a criterion for selection.” I would dispute that there are no targets. Certainly no human has imposed biological targets on nature. But the fact that things can be alive and functional in only certain ways and not in others indicates that nature sets her own targets. The targets of biology, we might say, are “natural kinds” (to borrow a term of use from philosophy).

But let’s grant that the evolutionary process, as governed by the Darwinian selection mechanism, is not goal directed, i.e., that it is not seeking targets (which, of course, leads to the question how a non-directed process is, nonetheless, finding targets in nature). In that case, it makes sense to think of Darwinian mechanism as a grammar-checker — living things must pass the grammar-checker if they get to survive and reproduce.

Now it’s possible to program a grammar-checker to try to generate sentences while at the same time rewarding complexity. One of my colleagues has actually done this (the dismal pattern of anonymity continues since to reveal his identity could undermine his career). As he ran the simulation, he found that the first grammatical sentences he tended to get were swear words (these are one word interjections that pass the grammar-checkers). As he ran the simulation he got more complicated sentences. But not much more complicated and nothing resembling the works of Shakespeare.

No doubt, this negative result is not surprising. But it points up that just as grammars are not sufficient to generate meaningful texts, so the Darwinian mechanism is not sufficient to generate the functional complexity of biology.

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27 Responses to The Darwinian Mechanism as the Grammar-Checker of Biology

  1. William Dembski writes:

    No doubt, this negative result is not surprising. But it points up that just as grammars are not sufficient to generate meaningful texts, so the Darwinian mechanism is not sufficient to generate the functional complexity of biology.

    This conclusion is a nonsequitur.

    The success or failure of a Darwinian system depends utterly on the shape of the fitness function and the range of the variations generated.

    What is the evidence that your friend’s program is equivalent to biotic reality in these respects?

  2. And in order for the simulation to reflect what is found in nature, the letters the program picks from should be rotated on their axis in varying degrees. To preserve meaning, the letters would not only have to be in the correct order but align vertically. Vertical letters, English words, meaningful messages – the evidence for design (not appearance of design) stockpiles.

  3. skeech: Yes, you need some form of fitness. But where does the fitness function come from? Consider the following comment by Stuart Kauffman: “The no-free-lunch theorem says that, averaged over all possible fitness landscapes, no search procedure outperforms any other…. In the absence of any knowledge, or constraint, on the fitness landscape, on average, any search procedure is as good as any other. But life uses mutation, recombination, and selection. These search procedures seem to be working quite well. Your typical bat or butterfly has managed to get itself evolved and seems a rather impressive entity. The no-free-lunch theorem brings into high relief the puzzle. If mutation, recombination, and selection only work well on certain kinds of fitness landscapes, yet most organisms are sexual, and hence use recombination, and all organisms use mutation as a search mechanism, where did these well-wrought fitness landscapes come from, such that evolution manages to produce the fancy stuff around us?” To this Kauffman adds, “No one knows.”

  4. Dawkins admits that his ‘weasel’ program is contrived and doesn’t reflect actual biology; he only uses it to illustrate the difference between pure chance and random mutations guided by selection. I doubt he would draw any sweeping conclusions from it. And he also provided the exact algorithm he used so anyone can replicate his results. Would you provide the algorithm that is being used here? I’m curious how ‘complexity’ was defined.

  5. The success or failure of a Darwinian system depends utterly on the shape of the fitness function and the range of the variations generated. What is the evidence that your friend’s program is equivalent to biotic reality in these respects?

    Shouldn’t you take up the issue with Dawkins? He’s the one who brought grammar and letter variations to the evolution debate? Well, to be fair the infinite number of monkeys and infinite number of typewriters preceded it.

  6. Hey, we have a new form of evolution. The Weasel program discussion keeps morphing from thread to thread.

  7. Bill,

    You’ve raised a different issue, which is the question of how natural fitness landscapes ultimately arise.

    Before we move on to that point, do you concede that your conclusion (below) does not follow from its premise, unless you can provide evidence for an equivalence between your friend’s program and biotic reality?

    No doubt, this negative result is not surprising. But it points up that just as grammars are not sufficient to generate meaningful texts, so the Darwinian mechanism is not sufficient to generate the functional complexity of biology.

  8. Every new species started off “fit.” That is why we can find them in the fossil record. Very few remained “fit” for very long which is why they became extinct, most of them little changed from the time of their first appearance. Their failure to remain “fit” is probably due to the accumulation of deleterious mutations which natural selection is not efficient at eliminating, especially in diploid sexually reproducing organisms.

    I have offered an hypothesis for why new species start out “fit.” The semi-meiotic mode of reproduction exposes lethal and semi-lethal mutations as homozygotes every time it takes place, thus ridding an evolving sequence of deleterious genes and giving the survivors a fresh start as it were. Animal and plant breeders are well aware of this which is why they periodically inbreed their stocks which also exposes shared deficient genes and can serve to rejuvenate the survivors.

    Outbreeding is not always a good thing as it can introduce new deleterious genes into the population and, theoretically at least, hasten extinction.

    Arnold Toynbee had an interesting comment on this matter.

    “We have been God-like in our planned breeding of our domesticated plants and animals, but we have been rabbit-like in our unplanned breeding of ourselves.”

    Amen.

  9. No doubt, this negative result is not surprising. But it points up that just as grammars are not sufficient to generate meaningful texts, so the Darwinian mechanism is not sufficient to generate the functional complexity of biology.

    This sounds like another argument from analogy and, as we all know from the example of Paley’s watch, they need to be treated with caution if the fallacy of selective reporting is to be avoided.

    In this case, the meaningfulness of a phrase to an observer is equated with fitness function in terms of chances of survival within a given environment. The problem with this is not just that meaning only exists in the mind of an intelligent beholder but that, as this nice little discussion on John Wilkins blog Evolving Thoughts of the phrase “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” illustrates, meaning can be abstracted or constructed around supposedly random phrases. In the theory of evolution there is no requirement for the environment to arrange itself around a random mutation so as to increase its fitness or chances of survival.

  10. 10

    Nowhere is the accumulation of defective genes more apparent than in those humans living in civilized societies where natural selection is relaxed. Modern medicine has kept many of us alive who would have died in a natural environment. Every person who has had an emergency appendectomy would probably have died without it. The same can be said for severe tonsil related strep infections.

    I can cite my own history. Chronic infections necessitated tonsilectomy when I was an infant and again when I was eighteen. (infant tonsils are capable of regeneration.) In the meantime, at the age of ten, I would have died of a ruptured appendix which thankfully was removed in time.

    We spend enormous amounts of money trying to cure diseases for which no cure may even exist and we keep many alive who would have died in the preindustrial environment. It is only in the last two hundred years that we have come to understand the basis for disease.

    Why can’t we do what animal and plant breeders have always done and simply prevent defective individuals and those known to carry defective genes from reproducing? We all know the answer to that don’t we so I will not carry my critique any further. I have enough enemies already!

    Fortunately, enlightened individuals, aware of their genetic predispositions, are able to choose not to pass on their genetic problems to future generations. But do they? Sadly not always.

    Homo sapiens constiutes a monoculture of nearly 7 billion with another species monoculture of chickens of about the same number. Large monocultures are especially vulnerable to pandemic disease as history has repeatedly demonstrated. We have been very fortunate that pandemic disease has not yet overwhelmed our capacity to control it with constantly improved antibiotics.

    One thing is certain. There are far too many human beings on this earth and sooner or later our numbers will be drastically reduced. The only unknown is when.

    I hate beimg right.

  11. Just a quick return to congratulate Dr. Davison on his return to Uncommon Descent. It does make my earlier flounce out look a little silly now that i see this site is still accepting comments from such a wide range of viewpoints.

    So, John, you are in favour of eugenics, but only if it is voluntary?

  12. skeech

    [...]Before we move on to that point, do you concede that your conclusion (below) does not follow from its premise, unless you can provide evidence for an equivalence between your friend’s program and biotic reality?

    Was Bill’s statement a conclusion or an indicator regarding the viability of [hereafter: macro-] evolution? I’d say that it reads as an indicator – rather than conclusion. However, Bill would have to clarify that if really needed.

    But let’s say it is a conclusion for now.

    Then before we go any further…

    For what purpose did Richard Dawkins use his “METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL” analogy?
    …WITH THAT…
    Did Dawkins make a conclusion about the viability of evolution?
    ..or..
    Did he use it as an indicator of the viability of evolution?
    ..or..
    Did he just go on a rambling (useless) tangent?
    ..or..
    What?

  13. Alan Fox has never contributed anything of substance anywhere and I have no intention here or anywhere else of ever responding to him again. He is little more than a one man goon squad for Wesley Elsberry, P.Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins.

  14. 14
    AmerikanInKananaskis

    John, to be frank, your comment sickens me.

    When I realized that the Darwinist lobby was ultimately pushing a pro-eugenics, pro-genocide agenda, that’s when I stopped believing in naturalistic evolution.

    I’m disheartened to see that some people in the ID camp are also in favour of such vile notions.

  15. 15

    AmerikaninKansas

    Where in my comment did you get the notion that I was promoting genocide? Is contraception genocide? Is voluntary sterilization genocide? I have simply offered my views based on what animal and plant breeders have been doing successfully for centuries. I know that will never be tolerated in a free society and indicated as much. The simple truth is that Homo sapiens, like virtually every other sexually reproducing organism has proven to be, is running down hill genetically and is probably doomed to ultimate extinction.

    For that matter, I believe the whole present biota is doomed to extinction, never to be replaced.

    Is that grounds for banishment too? Nothing would surprise me any more.

    Furthermore, I am in no ones camp. I am an independent investigator and always have been.

  16. What is the evidence that your friend’s program is equivalent to biotic reality in these respects?

    Skeech, you, Bill and his friend are “biotic reality.”

  17. Bill,

    In a comment I made in the previous thread, I was alluding to semiosis, and not unrestricted language.

    Agents in environments are typically modeled as finite-state systems. This implies that the environmental language is regular — that no recursion is required for prediction of environmental states. I don’t know of an environment that requires recursion from an organism. Do you? (Even humans have difficulty in processing sentences with deep parse trees.)

    Jimmy Durante declared, “I don’t just break the rules of grammar. I smash them into itsy-bitsy pieces.” Yet everyone understood him as he smashed away. The environment does not “punish” all behavioral errors with death.

    A simple and interesting variation on the Weasel fitness function: Specify lethal characters in some positions. The fitness of a sentence is zero if it contains a lethal character.

  18. BILL, when it comes to form, and organization, the material naturalist think “they JUST exist.”

    That there is nothing more to the world than what we see. They say, “it is what it is.”

    Now in one sense they are absolutely right- we do in fact see life- death- structure- and all those things. And we do not in fact see any “designer” in the material world.

    The philosophical problem is with the term “thing.” The materialists define things as objects which must be physical in nature- that is empirical or tangible.

    But the concept of God can be a “thing” – in fact is a thing-, as concepts in the materialist world view are “electrical” (thing) impulses in the “brain” (thing)- hence God at the minimal level is the result of the relationship between two objects- the brain and electrical pulses. Hence God’s transcendence can be easily inferred simply buy looking at the matter which results in his existence and seeing that there is not physical explanation of how his concept can be produced- especially by random search.

    SO God is not just a thing- but a transcendent concept. So in light of the possibility- and infeasibility of transcendent things (concepts that transcend physical things) we see that there is another logical possibility that the Designer may not be “a thing in it and of itself” but the resultant of the relationship of things- that is a thing which exists in the mind but in matter comprises any things.

    So the designer could be all of things that most people think – transcendent, all powerful, goal oriented, incomprehesible, simple and complex- etc.

    It was Ayn Rand who once defended terms like honor and morality – claiming their existence based on that fact that to disprove them you must first except them as concepts. Even though Ayn was a miserable Atheist the same can be said for the concept of God or a transcendent designer- to claim this entity cannot exist one must first accept it as a sensible idea or concept. Then it immediately exists and can exist as a possible explanation. The point was that concepts like these are so simple and rudimentary that they exist at the very foundation of understanding. God is no less real that the number 1 – or than the color green- or than the smell, taste, or feeling of love.

    I think this is what Aquinas was getting at with his proof- and Godel too- but i wonder if they truly understood or believed what they were saying.

    It is often said as a rebuke that a flying spaghetti monster could exist too therefore it is a possibility- but the problem is that spaghetti does exist and so we would in that case be able to actually see the God – but a transcendent God is a possibility that does not require independent physical verification- as it is not a single physical thing- but a multitude of things, ideas, concepts, and relationships- and “spirit” which is another rudimentary term.

    So where DO those fitness functions come from?

    Any thoughts on my thoughts, Bill.

  19. I would like to rephrase this paragraph Above-

    “But the concept of God can be a “thing” – in fact is a thing-, as concepts in the materialist world view are “electrical” (thing) impulses in the “brain” (thing)- hence God at the minimal level is the result of the relationship between two objects- the brain and electrical pulses. Hence God’s transcendence can be easily inferred simply buy looking at the matter which results in his existence and seeing that there is not physical explanation of how his concept can be produced- especially by random search.”

    What i mean to say here is that since the concept of God is a thing (a concept) it is in the physical world understood as a “relationship” between thing(s) the brain and electrical current etc. So we can see that at a fundamental level the object thing of God comes from a “relationship” (not a thing) impacting on things- hence God’s transcendence is easily seen just by looking at how God’s concept is conceived- transcending any one thing.

    This shows a praxis of where actual existence and transcendent existence meet into one object “the concept of God.”

  20. John,

    My dad has polycystic kidneys, which is a hereditary disorder. In your opinion, he should not have had me or my two sisters. I am only 23 and have not yet been tested to see if I have polcystic kidneys (50% chance that I do). But whether I do or not, I am grateful that I was born.

  21. I happened across your article on Dawkin’s Weasel program and found it very interesting. I Googled around and read up on it.

    It haven’t decided for myself if it is demonstrating something important or not.

    It appears to say something either about evolution or just getting something out of a random process.

    Am I wrong or is it just a trick?

  22. 22

    uoflcard

    I am not a Nazi. I am a scientist. I come to forums like this to enlighten, not to persuade. I learned long ago that much of what we believe as adults was determined at our conception or perhaps even long before that. Don’t take my word for it. Read William Wright’s book – “Born That Way” and draw your conclusions as I have drawn mine.

    Thanks for the comment, thereby giving me the opportunity to respond.

  23. 23

    But will I be allowed that opportunity? If not, it will become a matter of record.

  24. JAD:

    Alan Fox has never contributed anything of substance anywhere and I have no intention here or anywhere else of ever responding to him again. He is little more than a one man goon squad for Wesley Elsberry, P.Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins.

    Alan Fox like a one man comedy show- with a very bad comedian.

  25. thread no 4 . . .

  26. ….unless you can provide evidence for an equivalence between your friend’s program and biotic reality?

    Since when have proponents of Darwinian theory been interested in biotic reality? After all, this post began based on something Dawkins did which may have little to do with it. Meanwhile proponents often fall into imagining things about the past with little regard for what can be observed biologically here. Many often slip into focusing on skeletal remains rather than biotic reality. For example, in a recent thread I asked: “What sort of biological observations would falsify theories of evolution in general?” to which the answer was the old canard: “Rabbits in the pre-cambrian.” Yet that isn’t a biological observation. Is there a biological observation which falsifies “evolution,” whatever you may mean by that?

    Now you are asking for an equivalence between biotic reality and arguments against Darwinism when Darwinism generally has not been based on biotic reality in the first place. To the extent that Dawkins’ program has something to do with biotic reality (DNA is a code, i.e. language) it tends to falsify the Darwinian ideas about natural selection and the origins of the species, specification and form observed in biology.

    The success or failure of a Darwinian system depends utterly on the shape of the fitness function and the range of the variations generated.

    Your “theory” is receding back into the hypothetical goo from which it arose, despite Dawkins’ mental illusions. If his program had little to do with biotic reality then why do you suppose he made arguments about biology based on it?

  27. 27

    “A past evolution is undeniable, a present evolution undemonstrable.”

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