Non-creationist critiques of Darwinism

Marquette philosophy professor Howard Kainz reviews two new books in which atheist scholars critique Darwinism:

Surprisingly, two recent books by atheist philosophers of science have joined with ID theorists in the criticism of neo-Darwinism.

Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, in What Darwin Got Wrong come at neo-Darwinism from a number of directions. Initially, they draw a comparison with B.F. Skinner’s psychological theory of “operant conditioning,” which attempted to explain changes in human behavior by patterns of stimulus and response. Limitations of that theory have eventually been revealed: it did not take into account internal mechanisms in organisms subjected to external stimuli; and the intention of researchers or subjects affected the results of experiments. Skinner’s behaviorism can be corrected by taking these aspects into account. But no such correction is possible in neo-Darwinism, which has no interest in “the internal organization of creatures . . . (genotypic and ontogenetic structures)” and recognizes no “intentions” in evolutionary processes.

The remaining chapters of their book add qualifications that almost seem like ID arguments: Fibonacci patterns, in which each term is equal to the sum of the two preceding ones, seem to be prior to all evolutionary developments; scaling factors in organisms are multiples of a quarter, not of a third, according to the “one-quarter power law”; computational analysis of nervous systems of organisms show that their “connection economies” are perfect; “cost versus speed” analyses of the respiratory patterns of the song of canaries show the most efficient use of energy; tests of the ratio of foraging honeybees to those staying in the hives show perfect solutions in all situations. There is perfection everywhere. They also offer an example of a type of wasp whose patterns of feeding her young competes with ID theorist Michael Behe’s notion of “irreducible complexity.”

But the major neo-Darwinist problem, they conclude, is that natural selection, in analogy to artificial selection, depends on the existence of a mythical “Mother Nature.” But since there is no Mother Nature, “she is a frail reed for [adaptationists] to lean on. Ditto, the Tooth Fairy; ditto the Great Pumpkin; ditto God. Only agents have minds, and only agents act out of their intentions, and natural selection isn’t an agent.”

Bradley Monton, in Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, in contrast to Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, is not so much concerned with deficiencies in neo-Darwinism, but rather in pointing out unfairness and invalid criticisms of arguments by proponents of ID. Monton maintains he is looking for the truth, wherever it leads.

via Intelligent Design: Atheists to the Rescue | First Things.

Cosmology and the speed of light

We’ve blogged about the discovery of neutrinos that seemed to have traveled faster than light.  As scientists try to replicate and study that event, Joel Aschenbach has a good explanation of what’s at stake if light is not the fastest thing in the universe:

There is logic and beauty in a universe in which space, time, energy and matter are tightly associated with the speed of light. The special status of the speed of light isn’t like an Olympic record, something begging to be broken. Someone could come along who is faster than Usain Bolt, and it wouldn’t change the way we look at the world.

But the speed of light, according to Einstein, is an integral part of the geometry of four-dimensional space-time.

When we discuss the speed of light, we’re not talking about the characteristics of light so much as we’re describing the fabric of the universe. Light speed is the ultimate speed that anything (including things with zero mass, such as light or other electromagnetic radiation) can possibly go.

This also puts a limit on the speed of information, and, as such, helps enforce the fundamental law of causality. There’s an “arrow of time”: Splattered eggs on the kitchen floor don’t reassemble themselves in the shell and leap back onto the countertop.

“The melded nature of space and time is intimately woven with properties of light speed,” Greene says. “The inviolable nature of the speed of light is actually, in Einstein’s hands, talking about the inviolable nature of cause and effect.”

Michael Turner, a University of Chicago physicist, says the universe won’t seem as logical if there are particles that can move faster than light.

“In science we like surprises. We like big surprises. This one is too big to be true,” Turner said. “We really like things that rock the boat and turn us in a new direction, but this one turns the boat upside down and fills it with water.”

via Faster-than-light neutrino poses the ultimate cosmic brain teaser for physicists – The Washington Post.

Perhaps some of you can explain why breaking the cosmic speed limit would undermine cause and effect.  Aschenbach says “that” it would do so, but he doesn’t get into the “hows” and “whys.”

Skeptics find global warming evidence

Often researchers find what they want to find. More persuasive is when researchers find what they do not want to find but report it anyway. A new study of climate change was funded by skeptics of global warming. They took into account the skeptics’ critiques of the methodology and data gathering used by the scientists discredited in the Climategate scandal.  Lo and behold, this new study ended up confirming the earlier research.  Actually, it found slightly higher average temperature increases.  See this report.

So now do you believe in global warming?  If not, what evidence would convince you?

I’ve been skeptical myself, not so much of global warming but of the contention that it is man-made.  Also of the contention that it will prove to be such a big disaster.

Am I reading the chart right, that the rise in temperature over the last century is only 1 degree Celsius?  Is that such a big rise that it would make much of a difference?

But I’m open to correction and enlightenment from my betters.

HT:  Kirk Anderson


In praise of the naked mole rat

Scientists have sequenced the genome of a strange little creature, the naked mole rat.  Why?  Because it never gets cancer, lives an unbelievably long life without mental decline, and has many other amazing powers that may hold clues for human health.

Mole rats are hairless, buck-toothed rodents four inches long that live in underground colonies in arid sections of Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea. Their social structure is the mammalian equivalent of an ant colony. There’s a queen who takes two or three male consorts and is the only female to reproduce. She lords over the rest of the realm — which can be as large as 200 animals — so that the other females cease ovulating and the males give up.

Mole rats can survive in environments low in oxygen (as little as 8 percent as opposed to 21 percent in the atmosphere) and laden with ammonia and carbon dioxide. Unlike other mammals (but like reptiles), they have a hard time regulating their body temperature. They have to move toward the warmer upper reaches of the burrow or huddle with their brethren when they get cold.

But their most unusual features are extreme longevity and apparently complete resistance to developing cancer.

Naked mole rats can live more than 25 years; mice live about four. Buffenstein said she has never found a malignant tumor in a mole rat in her 30-year-old colony, which has 2,000 animals. In a recent experiment, a group of mole rats had patches of skin painted with a chemical carcinogen at a dose 1,000 times stronger than what causes skin cancer in mice. None developed tumors.

A study published in 2009 found that naked mole rats had a molecular anticancer mechanism not present in mice or people. But a first look at the species’ full complement of 22,561 genes shows that’s just the beginning.

There are changes in genes involved in maintaining telomeres, the “tails” of chromosomes that determine how long a cell lives. There are changes in genes involved in marking damaged proteins for destruction. There’s an increase in “chaperone” genes that keep proteins folded into their right shapes. There are genes that appear to let the animals maintain stem cells in their tissues longer than other rodents.

The study looked at 54 human brain genes that become less or more active as a person ages. In the mole rat, 30 of those genes remain stable throughout life, and two others change their activity in a direction opposite to what occurs in human brains.

Mole rats have 96 gene families unique to the species. Interestingly, they and humans also share 178 gene families that neither mice nor other rats have.

via Naked mole rat genome may point way to long, healthy life – The Washington Post.



Breaking the speed limit

Scientists have found neutrinos that seem to be traveling faster than the speed of light, which, according to the laws of physics since Einstein, is supposed to be impossible:

Puzzling results from Cern, home of the LHC, have confounded physicists – because it appears subatomic particles have exceeded the speed of light.

Neutrinos sent through the ground from Cern toward the Gran Sasso laboratory 732km away seemed to show up a tiny fraction of a second early.

The result – which threatens to upend a century of physics – will be put online for scrutiny by other scientists.

In the meantime, the group says it is being very cautious about its claims.

“We tried to find all possible explanations for this,” said report author Antonio Ereditato of the Opera collaboration.

“We wanted to find a mistake – trivial mistakes, more complicated mistakes, or nasty effects – and we didn’t,” he told BBC News.

“When you don’t find anything, then you say ‘Well, now I’m forced to go out and ask the community to scrutinise this.’”

The speed of light is the Universe’s ultimate speed limit, and much of modern physics – as laid out in part by Albert Einstein in his special theory of relativity – depends on the idea that nothing can exceed it.

Thousands of experiments have been undertaken to measure it ever more precisely, and no result has ever spotted a particle breaking the limit.

But Dr Ereditato and his colleagues have been carrying out an experiment for the last three years that seems to suggest neutrinos have done just that.

Neutrinos come in a number of types, and have recently been seen to switch spontaneously from one type to another.

The team prepares a beam of just one type, muon neutrinos, sending them from Cern to an underground laboratory at Gran Sasso in Italy to see how many show up as a different type, tau neutrinos.

In the course of doing the experiments, the researchers noticed that the particles showed up a few billionths of a second sooner than light would over the same distance.

The team measured the travel times of neutrino bunches some 15,000 times, and have reached a level of statistical significance that in scientific circles would count as a formal discovery.

But the group understands that what are known as “systematic errors” could easily make an erroneous result look like a breaking of the ultimate speed limit, and that has motivated them to publish their measurements.

“My dream would be that another, independent experiment finds the same thing – then I would be relieved,” Dr Ereditato said.

But for now, he explained, “we are not claiming things, we want just to be helped by the community in understanding our crazy result – because it is crazy”.

“And of course the consequences can be very serious.”

via BBC News – Speed-of-light experiments give baffling result at Cern.

I know exactly what our readers Webmonk and tODD will say:  The journalists have it all wrong and this is not that big a deal.  Surely a mistake, something that has another explanation.  (I know:  Maybe the neutrinos have just jumped into the future.)  Fine, fine.  I hope they will give us their explanation.  I hope they and other of you science types will allow for a mental experiment and instruct us about what difference this would make if it were, in fact, true that some things can go faster than light.

Christianity & Science

In an article on “Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science,” Hillel Ofek describes and helps account for the great contributions of early Islamic scientists and mathematicians, but he then chronicles how ever-more-absolutist brands of Islam came to shut them down.  Ofek says that civilizations often abandon scientific inquiry–citing China and India–and that the West is the notable exception.  For this he gives Christianity lots of credit:

As a way of articulating questions that lie deeper than the Ash’arism-Mu’tazilism debate, it is helpful to briefly compare Islam with Christianity. Christianity acknowledges a private-public distinction and (theoretically, at least) allows adherents the liberty to decide much about their social and political lives. Islam, on the other hand, denies any private-public distinction and includes laws regulating the most minute details of private life. Put another way, Islam does not acknowledge any difference between religious and political ends: it is a religion that specifies political rules for the community.

Such differences between the two faiths can be traced to the differences between their prophets. While Christ was an outsider of the state who ruled no one, and while Christianity did not become a state religion until centuries after Christ’s birth, Mohammed was not only a prophet but also a chief magistrate, a political leader who conquered and governed a religious community he founded. Because Islam was born outside of the Roman Empire, it was never subordinate to politics. As Bernard Lewis puts it, Mohammed was his own Constantine. This means that, for Islam, religion and politics were interdependent from the beginning; Islam needs a state to enforce its laws, and the state needs a basis in Islam to be legitimate. To what extent, then, do Islam’s political proclivities make free inquiry — which is inherently subversive to established rules and customs — possible at a deep and enduring institutional level?

Some clues can be found by comparing institutions in the medieval period. Far from accepting anything close to the occasionalism and legal positivism of the Sunnis, European scholars argued explicitly that when the Bible contradicts the natural world, the holy book should not be taken literally. Influential philosophers like Augustine held that knowledge and reason precede Christianity; he approached the subject of scientific inquiry with cautious encouragement, exhorting Christians to use the classical sciences as a handmaiden of Christian thought. Galileo’s house arrest notwithstanding, his famous remark that “the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes” underscores the durability of the scientific spirit among pious Western societies. Indeed, as David C. Lindberg argues in an essay collected in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (2009), “No institution or cultural force of the patristic period offered more encouragement for the investigation of nature than did the Christian church.” And, as Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark notes in his book For the Glory of God (2003), many of the greatest scientists of the scientific revolution were also Christian priests or ministers.

The Church’s acceptance and even encouragement of philosophy and science was evident from the High Middle Ages to modern times. As the late Ernest L. Fortin of Boston College noted in an essay collected in Classical Christianity and the Political Order (1996), unlike al-Farabi and his successors, “Aquinas was rarely forced to contend with an anti-philosophic bias on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities. As a Christian, he could simply assume philosophy without becoming publicly involved in any argument for or against it.” And when someone like Galileo got in trouble, his work moved forward and his inquiry was carried on by others; in other words, institutional dedication to scientific inquiry was too entrenched in Europe for any authority to control. After about the middle of the thirteenth century in the Latin West, we know of no instance of persecution of anyone who advocated philosophy as an aid in interpreting revelation. In this period, “attacks on reason would have been regarded as bizarre and unacceptable,” explains historian Edward Grant in Science and Religion, 400 b.c. to a.d. 1550.

via The New Atlantis » Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science.

Augustine indeed, on the basis of the classical science of his day, said there was no need to take the creation account in Genesis literally in every detail, while still affirming the truth of what it means.  Arguably, the worldviews of Christianity and those early scientists were in harmony–indeed, the former made possible the latter–whereas  they started to clash after the Enlightenment and 19th century materialism.  Still. . . .

HT:  Joe Carter