"All the World's a Stage We Pass Through" R. Ayana

Friday, 7 December 2012

Beyond Darwin and Intelligent Design

Beyond Darwin and Intelligent Design

The two-party system (evolution vs. intelligent design) is an obsolete paradigm. Our hypothesis synthesizes the thesis-antithesis of evolution and intelligent design into an expanded model of biology's natural history, its origins and development.

BeyondIf the evolution/intelligent design debate finds a resolution in some middle ground, what might that place look like?

Mainstream thought looks to supernatural design and natural selection as the only viable theories to explain the particulars of biology. So long as this is the case the current stalemate seems likely to persist. But it's not about picking the right candidate. The underlying loyalty to the two-party system is the problem. A little anarchy might be a good thing, to break up the logjam.

Natural Selection and Intelligent Design are competing doctrines. They are two candidates running for the same office. Can we look farther down the ticket?

Or, here’s a modest proposal: Rip open the packaged doctrines and spill their contents on the table. Approach the situation a la carte. Take no prisoners. Discard the untenable bits and keep whatever strikes you as sensible, down to details. Re-assemble the remaining pieces and see what you can create. Can you stitch together an alternative to the orthodoxies, a scenario more satisfying that either Natural Selection or Intelligent Design?



Evolution Pro and Con


A strength to retain from Darwin is the empiricism: the fossils in the rocks. (A trick to test our faith? Scripture mentions no such scheme.) The fossil record tells us that the species took longer than a week to arrive. Scripture flunks the timing test.

But a weakness of evolution theory, to be discarded, is its overdependence on natural selection. Biologists have yet to settle on what it is that nature selects: genes? organisms? traits or whole phenotypes? whole ontogenies? species? some other division of the organic world? The problem of identifying the units of selection is compounded by the inability of biologists to define the foundational terms "gene", "organism", "species", "trait," "fitness," and so on. Each of these terms is highly problematic, even outside the context of evolution, because ambiguous cases arise no matter what definition is adopted. In their introduction to the philosophy of biology, Sex and Death, Kim Sterelny and Paul Griffiths lay out the convoluted difficulties involved in determining which of these terms corresponds to the units of evolutionary selection. If organic nature is a "seamless web," then what discrete features can be "selected"? This critique is elaborated on in a posting on the Star Larvae blog.

Another problem with evolution theory, as currently formulated in the Modern Synthesis, is its implausibility. The theory says that random mutations, the overwhelming majority of which are detrimental to the organisms in which they occur, are the ONLY source of novel DNA sequences, coupled with natural selection and drift, which can ONLY cull genes and concentrate the remainders, account for the panoply of organic life past and present. Is it plausible? Maybe if you squint really hard.

A challenge from another direction targets the conceptual fuzziness of natural selection itself. In What Darwin Got Wrong authors, Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini (avowed atheists we learn), argue that Darwin overstated the power of natural selection, that it cannot account for how organisms got to be how they got to be. The authors just pick away at the putative logic of natural selection until nothing remains but grandma’s common-sense intuitions.

In short, the book attacks the conceptual rigor of the NeoDarwinian model. The Neo- part is important, because the authors support their case with findings from genetic sequencing and analysis. In particular, they lean on a new discipline called evolutionary developmental biology, or evo-devo, which has evolved from the discovery that DNA is conserved during evolution. This means that the genetic makeup of organisms, their genotypes, varies little across species, relative to the great diversity of phenotypes observed across species. How does a relatively limited genetic toolkit translate into so many forms of creatures? That is the question.

The answer apparently lies in the action of "master" genes and their protein-based "switches." These systems control whole suites of genes, turning them on and off during development. The authors cite, for example, a master gene designated Otxi, which influences the development of several seemingly unrelated organs. They point out, ". . . in particular, since the Otxi ‘master’ gene controls the development of the larynx, inner ear, kidneys, and external genitalia and the thickness of the cerebral cortex, selective pressures sensitive to changes in the functions of the kidneys (due to bipedal station, or different liquid intake and excretion resulting from floods or droughts), or the fixation of different sexual patterns, may have had in turn secondary effects on the expansion of the cerebral cortex and the structure and function of the larynx."

They use this example to show that the key theoretical construct of "selected for," such as selection for long necks among giraffes or for a complex cerebral cortex among humans, cannot deliver what it is supposed to deliver. It can't tell an adaptive trait from a trait that coincidentally rides along with an adaptive one. Too few genes, it turns out, are available for selection singly. They tend to come hierarchically bundled.

The authors argue,

"[E]volutionary theory purports to account for the distribution of phenotypic traits in populations of organisms; and the explanation is supposed to depend on the connection between phenotypic traits and the fitness of the creatures whose phenotypes they belong to. But, as it turns out, when phenotypic traits are (locally or otherwise) coextensive, selection theory cannot distinguish the trait upon which fitness is contingent from the trait that has no effect on fitness (and is merely a free rider). Advertising to the contrary notwithstanding, natural selection can’t be a general mechanism that connects phenotypic variation with variation in fitness. So natural selection can’t be the mechanism of evolution."

Whatever plausibility the Modern Synthesis of evolution theory model might have is challenged by new research data. Limiting the available mechanisms to mutation and natural selection makes it hard for evolution theory to account for data that Darwin never had to address. There’s new data that never confronted Mendel. We know things now that no one knew even in the years of Crick and Watson. New technologies are force-feeding evolution empirical data that it will not be able to swallow—if it doesn't adapt.

The new technologies are DNA sequencing and analysis, and they are making trouble for evolution theory. Sequencing and analysis research is turning up genetic anomalies that evolution does not predict and that seem to undermine the assumed mechanisms of evolution theory. The research has turned up genetic sequences that are noncoding (nonfunctional) when they occur in older species but functional (coding) when they occur in newer species. This parsimony is a conundrum for evolutionists, because evolution theory allows no prospect of ancestors anticipating the needs of descendants. Noncoding "junk" DNA has been a puzzle since its discovery.

Why would species harbor long sequences of DNA that seem to serve no purpose? But the discovery that one species' trash is another's treasure, and in particular that junk in older species codes for proteins that only the metabolisms of newer species can use, challenges evolution theory's rejection of an evolutionary program. The discovery suggests that the evolution of species, like the development of organisms, is, at least to a degree, pre-programmed. In both processes environmental contingencies will affect the execution of the program.

A evolutionist response might be that nature is resourceful and makes use of what she is given. But this is just an attempt to use coincidence to plug a hole in the theory, a secular version of the God-of-the-gaps. It remains to be seen, but if the coincidences pile up as a result of ongoing DNA sequencing and analysis, then at some point the house of cards will collapse, and the theory's premises—particularly its restriction to nonteleological mechanisms of evolutionary change—will have to be re-formulated. Such a paradigm shift would fit precisely the process described in Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which Kuhn argues that the major advances in science occur when anomalous data accumulate beyond the capacity of the prevailing theory to contain. At that point a more comprehensive theory will usurp the position of the reigning orthodoxy.

The planfulness of evolution implied by the existence of dormant genes in earlier species that become active in, and are essential to, the metabolisms of later species, does not, however, necessarily mean that intelligent design, in its biblical dress, is the only contender left standing.


Intelligent Design Pro and Con


Intelligent design has its own problems. Evolution at least gives us an account of how it works—how the physical objects it proposes to account for got to be the way they are. Intelligent design doesn't even deliver that much. If an intelligent supernatural designer is behind nature, then how does this designer make the transition to intelligent fabricator? To compete with evolution, intelligent design needs to be about more than design. It needs to explain the implementation. How, specifically, does the design get translated into protoplasm?

By telekinesis — pushing the atoms into place by mind power? Every proton? Every electron? And where did the atoms come from anyway — were they just thought into being — and then pushed by forces outside of physics into DNA molecules — or into whole organisms? Or after the first generation of organisms does the designer-fabricator periodically nudge genes into new configurations—beneficial mutations—to beget new species? The designer-fabricator might still be at work mutating a gene here, unmutating one there—by mechanisms that intelligent design cannot describe.

In other words, intelligent design flunks the specificity test. It is too vague to replace the Darwinian model.


One refrain in response to this point is "teach the controversy," and let students decide for themselves. But why? We don’t teach the controversy in other subjects — or should we? What about the Kennedy assassination? Maybe American history classes should teach about magic bullets that exit bodies, spin around in the air, then go back in. Sounds like intelligent design to me, Martha. Specified complexity, anyone? Maybe Jesus was no man at all, but code for a psychedelic mushroom. Teach the controversy.

Or, maybe the attack of 9/11 was an inside job. An awful lot of security systems had to fail coincidentally on that particular day to produce the effects of the 9/11 attack. A gaggle of unskilled pilots had to steer their hijacked planes awfully precisely. If we’re going to teach intelligent design in science class, then why not teach conspiracy theories in other classes, too? After all, that’s what intelligent design theory is—a conspiracy theory. Things are not as they seem on the surface. Behind the scenes lurks a mastermind who pulls the strings, arranging events ("coincidences") according to a plan.

And yet.

And yet, even paranoids can have real enemies. And even conspiracy theories can predict events that come to pass.

The normal life cycle of an organism from fertilized egg to reproductive adult would seem to be a potential neutral ground for evolution and intelligent design. In the case of the development of each complex organism, events unfold according to a plan. The predictability of the course of development is taken to be an expression of a genetic program, plan, or code. These terms have teleological implications, and science must concede that the developmental process—ontogeny—is an example of teleology operating in nature—of the result being implicit in the process itself.

Teleology is a key concept in understanding the merits and demerits of evolution and intelligent design arguments.




"So, pragmatists transfer to the human future the sense of awe and mystery which the Greeks attached to the non-human; it is transformed into a sense that the humanity of the future will be, although linked with us by a continuous narrative, superior to present-day humanity in as yet barely imaginable ways. It coalesces with the awe we feel before works of imagination, and becomes a sense of awe before humanity's ability to become what it once merely imagined, before its capacity for self-creation."

— Richard Rorty
Philosophy and Social Hope

Intelligent design proponents are keen to point out that the mechanics of the eye, for example, mark the organ as an example of design. But we know where eyes come from—from genes—and intelligent design proponents seem to be content to allow for naturalistic mechanisms taking care of the genetic transcription and translation and the assembly of the resulting proteins into functioning eyeballs during the development of organisms. Or, does the designer nudge the molecules along during every chemical process that occurs during the construction of every eyeball? Again, ID vagueness.

Now, when an eyeball is forming in an embryo, the cells are arranging themselves according to a (genetically influenced) pattern, everyone seems to agree. Science has no problem with such an ostensible design operating in nature—when it comes to the development of an organism. But when applied across generations, design/teleology is disallowed by the prevailing theory of evolution. There is no justifiable reason for such an arbitrary discrimination. It is a point of doctrine. It is an ideological assertion, a posturing forced by theophobia.

The solution to the conflict is a natural teleology, a natural design. We have a model, which is whatever it is that guides each complex organism from fertilized ovum to adult. It is the process of ontogeny. If evolution—phylogeny—is embedded in an organismic life cycle, then there should be no problem adjusting evolution theory to make it conform to a natural teleology with no need to invoke supernatural designers. The stellar life cycle is the ontogeny within which organic phylogenies can be positioned.

The very same system of protein templates—DNA—that is responsible for a caterpillar being able to dissolve itself utterly and reassemble at a cellular level into a butterfly, or for a fertilized ovum being able to develop into an elephant or an acorn into an oak tree, is responsible for species diversifying across generations. Why should we concede that DNA works necessarily according to a program in the one instance, but forbid it from doing so in the other?

After all, what do we want? What do WE — who regard ourselves as moderns, rationalists, scientifically minded (or at least, scientifically indoctrinated) sensible — non-superstitious — people want? We want a natural explanation of the world, one that does not rely on the "God of the gaps." And we crave meaning for our lives, individually and collectively. We want to participate in a historical plot, or telos. Every soul hungers to play a role in a meaningful story. We want a purpose that is not just our say so, our assignation of purpose to what we want to do, or find ourselves doing. We want to make a difference.

The star larvae hypothesis delivers a natural teleology, an account of our purposeful place in nature that dispenses equally with the supernatural and with the nihilism to which materialism is susceptible.

We are neither the crown of Creation nor dust in the wind,
but creatures engineering their own transfiguration.


From Star Larvae @ http://www.starlarvae.org/Star_Larvae_Introduction_Beyond_Darwin_and_Intelligent_Design.html

For more information about varied views of evolution see http://nexusilluminati.blogspot.com/search/label/evolution
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