About the SA Blog Network



Critical views of science in the news
Cross-Check Home

Dubitable Darwin? Why Some Smart, Nonreligious People Doubt the Theory of Evolution

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

Last year, on the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species, Darwin’s stock soared higher than Apple’s. It’s 2010—time for a market adjustment.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett once called the theory of evolution by natural selection "the single best idea anyone has ever had." I’m inclined to agree. But Darwinism sticks in the craw of some really smart people. I don’t mean intelligent-designers (aka IDiots) and other religious ignorami but knowledgeable scientists and scholars.

Take, for example, the philosopher Jerry Fodor of Rutgers University and the cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini of the University of Arizona in Tucson. In What Darwin Got Wrong (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), these self-described atheists argue that the theory of natural selection is "fatally flawed." Their book, which I reviewed for The Philadelphia Inquirer, is, well, fatally flawed. For example, they air familiar debates over how large a role contingency plays in evolution; whether natural selection operates primarily at the level of genes; why certain clusters of genes persist unchanged for eons. Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini wrap up the discussion of each debate with the same kicker: natural selection must be wrong.

But saying debates over contingency, levels of selection and gene conservation disprove evolutionary theory is like saying debates over the formation of Saturn’s rings disprove heliocentrism. If you’re going to shoot the king, the old saying goes, you had better kill him. Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini don’t even wound Darwin. What Darwin Got Wrong nonetheless serves as a useful reminder of more coherent complaints about natural selection.

I lump Darwin’s secular critics into two camps: Some, such as the left-leaning biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin (who are cited by Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini), fear the political implications of Darwinian theory. If we accept evolutionary explanations of human nature, they suggest, we may come to believe that many insidious modern "-isms"—unbridled capitalism, racism, sexism and militarism—were highly probable outcomes of evolution and thus not easily subject to change. Given how genetic theories have been employed in the past, these concerns have merit.

Other critics object to Darwinism for precisely the opposite reason. They fear that evolutionary theory, even when buttressed by modern genetics and molecular biology, does not make reality probable enough. Reality seems too precarious, too much a product of blind luck. No one has worked harder to solve the improbability problem than the biologist Richard Dawkins. Ironically, Dawkins has also revealed how deep and possibly intractable the problem is.

In Climbing Mount Improbable (W. W. Norton, 1997) Dawkins emphasizes that the vast majority of variants of a given species fail to propagate; there are many more ways to be a loser in the game of life than to be a success. Surely that is true of life as a whole. Of all the imaginable possible histories of life, what is the likelihood that it would persist for billions of years, long enough to produce toads, baboons and Glenn Beck?

Dawkins also notes that "nature, unlike humans with brains, has no foresight." Each individual organism pursues its short-term interests regardless of the long-term consequences for life as a whole or even for other members of the species. Given this fact, it is all too easy to imagine scenarios in which one species—a bacterium or virus, perhaps—runs amok and destroys all life on Earth.

If our past was improbable, our future might be as well. Recognizing this implication of evolutionary theory, some scientists have proposed alternative mechanisms to make life more robust. For example, biochemists such as Ilya Prigogine and Stuart Kauffman (cited by Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini) have postulated "self-organization" forces that made the origin of life and its subsequent history highly probable.

Other theorists have proposed that natural selection may favor not just genes or individuals but populations, species, even entire ecosystems. The most extreme version of this group-selection concept is Gaia theory, which holds that all of life somehow conspires to ensure its continued survival. Self-organization and Gaia are flawed theories that have won few adherents, but that doesn’t mean that the problem they address doesn’t exist.

Early in his career, the philosopher Karl Popper (yes, cited by F and P-P) called evolution via natural selection "almost a tautology" and "not a testable scientific theory but a metaphysical research program." Attacked for these criticisms, Popper took them back. But when I interviewed him in 1992, he blurted out that he still found Darwin’s theory dissatisfying. "One ought to look for alternatives!" Popper exclaimed, banging his kitchen table.

Is it possible that some future genius will discover an alternative that supplants Darwinism as our framework for understanding life? Will we ever look back on Darwin as brilliant but wrong?

Postscript: I’d like to thank my buddy Robert Hutchinson—author, editor, polymath, punster, triathlete—for suggesting that I call this blog "Cross-check". A cross-check is an illegal hit in hockey. I don’t cross-check on the ice, but on this blog anything goes.

Image: John Collier portrait of Darwin from Wikimedia Commons

Rights & Permissions

Comments 50 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. Sez Me 12:47 am 07/8/2010

    You are certainly correct in stating that personal insults have no place in a decent discussion. However, while I cannot find any excuse for calling someone an idiot (or IDiot), I can certainly express my contempt for IDiotic ideas and concepts.
    I hold no contempt for the religious person; I hold every possible contempt for religious ideas. Take care that you discern clearly which it is that is disagreed with and/or attacked. I may have no right to attack you; I have a duty to attack idiocy.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Sez Me 1:00 am 07/8/2010

    Must one believe in Me because I created the universe (so Sez Me) and the universe exists? Yes or No?

    Link to this
  3. 3. oldvic 8:36 am 07/8/2010

    Speaking only for myself, I’ve adopted the following rule: believe as little as you have to in order to achieve knowledge in a skeptical way. God is far too big to fit into this belief.

    Link to this
  4. 4. iCanHaz 11:01 am 07/8/2010

    I happen to believe in a creator. I also believe in the evolution/mutation of species. My belief in evolution is a scientific matter regarding the physical world and my belief in a creator a philosophical matter. (both supported by my own evaluation of the available evidence/arguments)

    These two beliefs aren’t mutually exclusive. Though the veracity of each probably has real implications regarding it’s relationship to the other (also the realm of philosophy), it’s apples to oranges. One is philosophical belief and the other a belief regarding observations of the physical world.

    That said, any science that posits the origin of species/everything is the realm of philosophy and not science at all. Any theory that retroactively applies our current understanding of the physical world to explain the origin of the physical world or of species is pure speculation and should not be regarded as science. We are not able to demonstrate, observe or repeat such speculations regarding the origin of things so all are in the realm of philosophy.

    The mud-slinging towards ‘IDiots’ and ‘religious ignorami’ is unnecessary since their beliefs are not mutually exclusive to our scientific observations of truth in the natural world. Perhaps, one finds their philosophical beliefs to be out of alignment with his/her own, in which case they are both in the camp of ‘quackery’, preaching hypotheses which cannot be proven via scientific methodology.(speculation built on truth is still speculation) A superior understanding of scientific things does nothing to discredit or affirm ANY purely philosophical matter. You ridicule intelligent design yet any alternative offered will be in the same’quack’ camp as it is purely speculative and assumes that we have the capacity to discern the origin of all things, even those based on our best scientific understanding of the natural world.

    This is clearly a blog and I enjoyed reading this post and respect your opinions regarding philosophical things. However ridiculing completely irrelevant things doesn’t make anyone more scientific or their hypotheses more true. For all who jeer IDiots in the camp of ‘quackery’, I am sorry to say you are simply throwing rocks from your own philosophical camp and voluntarily withdraw your argument from the realm of objective science.

    Link to this
  5. 5. leuken 2:15 pm 07/8/2010

    It always makes me laugh when anyone says that they KNOW something. Seriously, can we not take a look at ourselves and realize that we humans have always been wrong about a lot? What makes us different today?

    Yes, we know more than ever, but at the most basic level of existance, we know absolutely nothing. The greatest minds in science today call the origin of the universe the "big bang" and what was before that the "singularity".

    Do you know what "singularity" means? It mean that we have absolutely no idea what was, nor can we even imagine it.

    So we humans resort to childish name calling while boasting that what he/she believes is right. To me, anyone who says that they know they are right have already lost the debate. Nobody is right.

    It sounds like our author would call himself a desciple in the religion of science. People who emphatically believe anything and will attack, name-call, and point fingers at others occupy the same boat as, say, an Evangelical Christian.

    A quick question: Knowing that the crux of evolution says that a species evolves out of a need to adapt to different environments and to give itself an advantage so it can carry on, how about this. Wouldn’t any and every species develop an advanced brain, language, reasoning, consciousness, complex tools, and better means by which to live? Wouldn’t it benefit any species to advance in development? Why do we still have species that are supposedly millions of years old, i.e., alligators or sharks? They haven’t changed. Why are humans the only self-aware and self-conscious beings here? It doesn’t add up.

    Sorry for the long rant. This type of subject is devisive and envokes a lot of strong feelings for a lot of people. I am just tired of the "I’m right and you are stupid" mentality that infiltrates the subject.

    If you are comfortable BELIEVING that everything exists out of random chance, that is fine. But know that all you can do is believe that something is right.

    Link to this
  6. 6. cryofpaine 2:27 pm 07/8/2010

    I find it ironic that the tone of this piece so closely mimics the tone of the very people you so casually denigrate. Stick to the science – cheap insults demean the work as a whole.

    Also, you do realize that Darwin himself was, as you put it, an IDiot. He believed in a diety, and was raised Christian, though had become a self described "agnostic" by the end of his life. He said that it was "absurd to doubt that a man might be an ardent theist and an evolutionist".

    Link to this
  7. 7. cryofpaine 2:35 pm 07/8/2010

    "…"-ism" implies a belief component."
    I hate to break it to you but, although there is a great amount of evidence, evolution is still a theory. No one has been able to conclusively connect a single-celled organism with a human being (for example) in a single unbroken chain. You believe that the missing links exist, but until you can prove it, there is a belief component to the theory of evolution.

    Link to this
  8. 8. clay_k 2:36 pm 07/8/2010

    @TerrorAndHubris: As I read your first paragraph I was about to write… "Then I guess I misunderstood you and I have no problem with that"… and then you kept on calling me a fundamentalist and placing illogical and unfounded beliefs on par with scientific theories.

    This is such a frustrating train of thought in the postmodern world. Not all views merit equal consideration because not all views follow a logical thought process and not all views have evidence to support them.

    If I were simply spouting illogic that I’d heard in some science text book that didn’t make sense but I had canonized it in perpetuity then you’d be right. Maybe some people do that. The author of this blog appears to be doing it in that he claims to believe ‘Darwinism’ is the best explanation and then clearly misunderstands the basics of natural selection.

    I’ve also read responses in this comment section that claim to tear down ‘Darwinism’ by saying things like ‘Ecology’ explains reality on a large scale in ways that disagree with ‘Darwinism’. Natural selection certainly doesn’t say that environmental factors affecting organisms have no role in the survival of the organism carrying the genes. It certainly doesn’t say that cooperative behavior in organisms (which may or may not be caused by mutations in genes) has no role in the survival of those genes. Placing theories at odds with complimentary explanations demonstrates a lack of understanding. Clearly survival of the fittest (which wasn’t Darwin’s first choice of wording but was chosen because it seemed easier to understand… clearly a mistake) implies they are fit for something and that something is the environment in which they inhabit. If that environment changes, say when an asteroid hits the planet, they are no longer the most fit genes. That’s all I’m saying: Most of the arguments against natural selection and ‘Darwinism’ I’ve read aren’t arguments against it all. You have to understand something before you can attempt to refute it.

    The difference between me and a fundamentalist is that, while I clearly don’t have as a great an understanding of evolutionary theory as some, I can at least comprehend it and see that it passes the test of logic. This is not something that can be said for the non-explanation of "God created it." This explanation works right up until the point when you think about it. Then it quickly unravels and has to rely on the pat answer of it being beyond comprehension. It very well may be beyond our comprehension but it seems a lot more likely we’ll understand it if we look at the evidence and use logic than falling back on the explanation people came up with before they knew the Earth was round.

    Link to this
  9. 9. clay_k 2:37 pm 07/8/2010

    Once again someone is misquoting Dawkins, an avid proponent of Neo-Darwinism.

    Link to this
  10. 10. mskele 2:58 pm 07/8/2010

    About the improbability of life: probability has absolutely no meaning for events which have already happened.

    Link to this
  11. 11. clay_k 3:07 pm 07/8/2010

    "A quick question: Knowing that the crux of evolution says that a species evolves out of a need to adapt to different environments and to give itself an advantage so it can carry on, how about this. Wouldn’t any and every species develop an advanced brain, language, reasoning, consciousness, complex tools, and better means by which to live? Wouldn’t it benefit any species to advance in development? Why do we still have species that are supposedly millions of years old, i.e., alligators or sharks? They haven’t changed. Why are humans the only self-aware and self-conscious beings here? It doesn’t add up."

    Seriously? You are misunderstanding how natural selection works. Certain types of creatures, alligators and sharks for instance, haven’t needed to adapt in order to survive because they have been well suited to survival for a long period of time, namely because their environment hasn’t changed that much in millions of years or because they were well suited to survival even after the environment changed. They don’t need to develop advanced brains in order to successfully reproduce and carry on their genes.

    This is really still kind of missing the point though. Genetic mutations aren’t driven by some sort of need to succeed and advance. Genetic mutations happen regardless. These mutations either make the resultant organism more or less likely to perpetuate those genes in the environment they inhabit.

    Another misunderstanding is the belief that just because sharks and alligators were around hundreds of millions of years ago and are still around today that they haven’t evolved. There are likely many branches of modern organisms that have evolved from prehistoric sharks and alligators because in their local environment mutations made their genes more or less likely to survive. Evolution doesn’t necessarily occur on the level of a species. Species often split. Sharks quite likely swim side by side with their genetic ancestors because survival of a genetic mutation doesn’t necessarily imply extinction of it’s predecessor. This is particularly apparent when you consider the modern scientific belief that all living organisms on this planet share a common ancestor, one that probably closely resembles an organism that is still in existence today.

    Lastly, it’s a big assumption based primarily on religious dogma that we are the only self-aware and self-conscious beings here. Considering that Neanderthals wore clothing, used tools, and likely had at least some sort of verbal communication the assumption seems to at least have been dead wrong 100,000 years ago. As far as our modern world goes, how can you look at an Orangutan and tell me it isn’t self aware?

    Link to this
  12. 12. clay_k 4:37 pm 07/8/2010

    "For example, they air familiar debates over how large a role contingency plays in evolution; whether natural selection operates primarily at the level of genes; why certain clusters of genes persist unchanged for eons."

    Then presumably these are vital gene clusters that clearly mutate, just like all genes, but create such undesirable results in the resultant organisms that mutations to these genes never perpetuate themselves, right?

    Link to this
  13. 13. Catbiscuit 10:05 pm 07/8/2010

    When you read articles written by Darwin you will discover there are components of his theories (particularly around the specifics of how, why and when) that are not accepted by science today. Theories of adaptation and evolution existed thousands of years before Darwin (and there are many, including Anaximander, Al-Jahiz, and Zhuangzi). Darwin did a fantastic job of using good scientific observations to create a solid theory. This is why he is credited as the father of the theory, even though modern science has substantially more factual evidence to utilise in explaining the phenomena.
    Science takes an idea and tests it. These tests produce results which can be used as evidence to support, amend, or discredit a theory. This is good science. The exact how, when and why of evolution is still not fully settled. You only have to compare Dawkinss gene-centric approach with that of Goulds. Both camps have different theories but both are supporters of Darwins concepts even though they dont agree with every element of Darwins theories because of additional evidence that has been revealed in the last few centuries.
    Im not sure where Gods come into this, so your example has confused me somewhat. To me personally I don’t see how the theory of evolution relates to a belief in God. There are many that consider evolution to support (rather than contradict) their concept of God or Gods.

    Link to this
  14. 14. mike cook 11:05 pm 07/8/2010

    I am a believer in God which immediately suggests to me, anyhow, that there is no way that natural selec tion operated on fortuitous chemical combinations in an environment in which all parameters and inputs were guided only by random chance and God neither knew nor cared that such things were going on.

    So, a blind watchmaker concept of evolution’s driving impetus is inherently anti-theistic. In fact, if any supernatural or mystical influences go on at all in this universe they kind of blow up the assumption of "randomness" and "chance" being exactly as etiologically pure as they are claimed to be.

    In fact, I don’t believe in randomness and chance at all, considering them to be mere artifacts of human consciousness. The physical world itself is changeless and eternal, with past and future already fixed. All the mysteries and contradictions of quantum mechanics arise from time-confused humans imagining that statistical tables we construct for various events means that there really were allowable choices at even the tiniest crossroad. In reality, everything happens like it was always meant to and Free Will is our greatest philosophical joke on us.

    All that being said, I truly believe there is a Gaia tendency going on in the APPARENT story line being written by life. In fact, the Gaia factor does a lot of work through the mechanism of trans-genic transfers. Individual species are hardly important at all except as incubators of DNA sequences that eventually will be incorporated in superspecies to come that themselves only exist in order to create even more advanced species.

    Whales are pretty advanced creatures themselves but in the 19th century it was the duty of whales to produce the lamp oil so that humans could exchange and process information late into the night.

    Imagine we are walking along an unknowably long marble hallway next to an endless tapestry that tells us the story of how life developed from material driven by p-chem processes and is apparently headed towards the development of a super-intelligence. In fact, we ourselves seem to be part of the tapestry although we may be a thread that has come loose and is now proceeding in parallel with other life forms that communicate DNA info with us by sending over a virus or a bug to make us sicker than hell while actually infecting our chromosomes with info headed into the future via us. Maybe we pass it on sexually, maybe we are just temporary storehouses and carriers and even after we die the bugs that eat the uncremated take away the vital sequences.

    Link to this
  15. 15. Kreegor 1:44 am 07/9/2010

    Before completely dismissing Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s arguments, it worth taking a look at a recent article in New Scientist (Bob Holmes, "Accidental origins: Where species come from", 10 March 2010 –

    Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini contend that evolution is driven more by endogenous factors (such as the recurrent instability of genomes) than by the external forces of natural selection. "&Gradualist-selectivist adaptationism characteristically depicts the evolutionary process as one of hill climbing, not infrequently deploying&pleasant graphic artistry to convey the intuitions behind the model of fitness landscapes and adaptive landscapes&.However, where there have been morphogenetic explosions, fitness relations become surely non-transitive and plausibly irrelevant. There is no hill climbing, not even a smooth path from each level of fitness to the next; only a jumpy traverse of a maze or a ‘glass-like’ surface with a huge number of neighbouring peaks." (Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, What Darwin Got Wrong), p. 53)

    According to New Scientist, "Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading, UK and his team gleaned more than 130 DNA-based evolutionary trees from the published literature [and] ended up with a list of 101 trees, including various cats, bumblebees, hawks, roses and the like."

    "Working with each tree separately, they measured the length between each successive speciation event, essentially chopping the tree into its component twigs at every fork. Then they counted up the number of twigs of each length, and looked to see what pattern this made. If speciation results from natural selection via many small changes, you would expect the branch lengths to fit a bell-shaped curve."

    "Pagel’s team found that in 78 per cent of the trees, the best fit for the branch length distribution was another familiar curve, known as the exponential distribution."

    According to Pagel, "It isn’t the accumulation of events that causes a speciation, it’s single, rare events that falling out of the sky, so to speak. Speciaition becomes an arbitrary, happy accident when one of these events happens to you."

    "I think what our paper points to&is what could be, quite frequently, the utter arbitrariness of speciation. It removes speciation from the gradual tug of natural selection drawing you into a new niche."

    Link to this
  16. 16. bobcris 2:09 am 07/9/2010

    This is a nice may be wrong out of probabilities but other may get ideas from that probablities and in turn formulate better probabilities for others to perceived the right idea.

    Link to this
  17. 17. bobcris 2:29 am 07/9/2010

    It came to my mind that someone greater that anyone with a marvelous mind and hand crafted evolution to what it is now.Like for example, just as someone who have transformed a rock into a magnificent buiding, into a steel products, etc. External energy really effects changes to state of matter. Isn’t it? Evolution as Energy Application & Transformation…might be or may not be…its just an opinion whatever you may think.

    Link to this
  18. 18. macadamia man 2:36 am 07/9/2010



    @ Tucker M

    Cross check your knee-jerks at the door please. The first is an attempt at an amusing aside far less vituperative (and rtather more delicate) than Mr Beck’s own insult technique, the other a pair of terms in common use or reflecting the strength of the writer’s own perspective. Which is what blogs are about, really.

    I hope you are as assiduous in policing the language to be found on blogs published by – for example – News Ltd? Now, that would be a big job . . .

    Link to this
  19. 19. mike cook 10:10 am 07/9/2010

    Hmm, what triggers speciation? Another, really big accident? Another thread is claiming that 4 % of Europeans have Neanderthal genes and this proves that our ancestors interbred.

    No, it doesn’t prove that, because sequences can come in over the transom through the trans-genic route. But when a potential new species gets all the right DNA together to make a transformative jump, what triggers the jump? Blind luck again, as Stephen Jay Gould would argue?

    One thing that mammalian species have to get right in order to interbreed is the gestation period. This suggests that the biochemistry of speciation is quantized. To get real morphological changes in a viable new creature all the sub-programs ruling the busy enzymes in the developing fetus have to time out just so,

    In fact, this may be why Gaia needs to use a lot of different types of living things in order to work up the nucleic acid sequences needed for very special purposes. Gestation periods are important in the real world, and for a new species to emerge it would seem that at some point a female appears that has a significantly longer or shorter average pregnancy than her mother had. Of course, you can argue that human females are really having a lot of 7-month pregnancies anymore and maybe a new species is emerging in pre-natal units and via ever increasing caesarians.

    But getting back to the constituents that assemble during the super busy gestation period, common grass has a lot more chromosomes than us simple humans, but grass is capable of being transformed into a cow and a lot of other animals with stomachs designed to procress it. There is a complete cow present in grass, just add a lot of genetic info and perfectly timed bio-chemical processes to make it come out.

    Gamma rays were blamed for the longest for causing the mutations that result in speciazation. This is kind of like trying to turn the Empire State Building into a clone of the Chrysler building by bombing it from 40,000 feet.

    Buildings are made from plans, and so are all living things. The plans, as far as we can see, seem to assemble themselves from a lot of different sources when the time is right. When a plan comes together, a new species happens. Maybe we should revert to Plato. There is an ideal plan for everything, and when the proper constituents finally come together withing pasting range in the real world, the plan automatically spits out a material product, kind of like a computer applying algorithms and finally deciding a problem is solvable and then voila, it prints the answer.

    Link to this
  20. 20. R118 3:53 pm 07/9/2010

    Ah the ad homs. The hallmark of Darwinism. Moving on. By the way its not our fault that there is not a single experiment which substantiates your claims that microbes can evolve into people. No amount of senseless personal attacks is going to change that. But moving on. Scientists who reject Darwinism do so for good reason. Not only political but scientific reasons.

    "Dawkins emphasizes that the vast majority of variants of a given species fail to propagate; there are many more ways to be a loser in the game of life than to be a success"

    Exactly how does this provide evidence that random mutation can build a heart or a lung. Well not every single material in the world is used to build a 747 but it could still build itself. Its funny the things which is passed of as science.

    "is like saying debates over the formation of Saturn’s rings disprove heliocentrism"

    We observe Saturn’s rings. We observe heliocentrism. We do not observe a flagellum randomly forming. This is based on pure conjecture. Furthermore, debates over how Saturn’s rings came to be, will prove or disprove the origin of Saturn’s rings. Debates over heliocentrism will prove or disprove the origin of said event. We can also debate gravity. But thats ok. Because every time you drop your pen, gravity "happens".

    We are not constantly observing through experimentation the land mammals acquiring fins and are applying this knowledge to theory. This is based on absolutely nothing. We have never seen random mutation form an organ and try to apply this logic to the rest of the organs in all animals in existence. This is based on nothing.

    What we do observe are irreducibly complex structures, the inefficacy of random mutations and creatures remaining within a parameter. This is science. From this we extract the theory of intelligent design. Based on Something. Based on these facts.

    Darwinist didnt have to wait so long to formulate this story. They could have imagined microbes becoming glen beck in the back of a grove in 1312 without any information any experimentation to base it on. The monopolization or attempted hijacking of science today does not negate the fact that it is still done based on no experimentation, no information.

    No wonder you need ad homs. No wonder you need to hide fossils which completely refute your claims What else can you do. And this is a scientific paper on a scientific website? This is personal opinion. A giant rant made evident with things like "IDiots".

    Link to this
  21. 21. ArthurDental 5:34 pm 07/9/2010

    Who’s editing SciAm these days? This kind of story belongs in a religious magazine, not SciAm. Unless SciAm wants to become a religious magazine.

    Link to this
  22. 22. kenspe 5:43 pm 07/9/2010

    Well John Horgan, surely you can do better than this article. You seem to have been in a hurry. Take your time and maybe have someone edit your next piece. Good subject and mercifully short.

    Link to this
  23. 23. Sharkmaster 8:53 pm 07/9/2010

    Why does this blog and comments seem to be name bashing and personal opinion? It is a blog of course, so even if it does come under the name of SA, facts and rational arguments are not required.
    By the way, my personal opinion is that any scientific theory never becomes fact. It is only the best explanation of what we observe that we have at the time. It is good until we get a better theory that better explains what is obseerved.

    Link to this
  24. 24. Sharkmaster 9:06 pm 07/9/2010

    Why is it that this blog seems to contain so much name bashing personal opinion ?
    It is a blog, so I guess that even if it is under the name of SA that logical arguments and facts are not required.
    By the way, my personal opinion is that a scientific theory is never a fact. It is only the best explanation for what we observe that we have at the time. It can always be modified or supplanted by a new theory that better explains what we observe. Newtons theories were good and still explain things very well on some scales. Other theories have come up that do a better job in places where Newtons theories fail. We call the observation of the effects of gravity a "fact". But we still don’t know what causes gravity.

    Link to this
  25. 25. robert schmidt 8:46 am 07/10/2010

    @R118, all that you creationist prove when you comment here is your complete ignorance of the subject. Nowhere in evolution does it state that a genetic mutation will suddenly create a heart. Hearts and other organs evolve over millions of years. Your demand that we witness this change before we can validate evolution is convenient as it is impossible for people to witness things that take many human lifetimes to unfold. " What we do observe are irreducibly complex structures," that is a lie. You have no proof that these structures are irreducibly complex. This is a classic straw man argument. First you claim that single mutations must create complex structure and then state that because this is impossible, it proves that evolution is impossible. Your arguments against evolution are arguments against your own poor understanding of science rather than the facts. Why don’t you take a page from your own book and apply the same standards for proof against your own beliefs. No one has ever seen god. No one has ever seen a being spontaneously created as god is said to have done. For your own hypothesis to have any value it must be proven. You haven’t done that. You wonder why creationists are attacked personally. They have shown time and time again that they are deliberately ignorant of the facts, that are incapable of rational arguments and they come here with one purpose only, to preach. That is indicative of a person of low moral character. You act like a troll you’ll be treated like one.

    Link to this
  26. 26. KDdidit 11:52 am 07/10/2010

    I am only part way through the book, "The Black Swan" which discusses the impact of the HIGHLY IMPROBABLE. As I read the blog and the responses I started to ponder this question:
    Which is more likely to be the HIGHLY IMPROBABLE? A Supreme Being or evolution?

    In my lifetime I have seen changes in species of plants and animals. In my lifetime I have seen the impact of a divine something which protected myself or my family.

    So, as my 7th grade students used to say, "Be patient with me, God isn’t finished with me yet."

    So Whoever, wherever, whenever, however, whatever or how we humans were helped to get here whether it is a God or Goddess OR by evolution as partially defined by Darwin. I am appreciative of the fact that I interact with other humans, I can learn, and I can see the feel the nearest star aka "sun" or "Son" which gives me food, light, life and other amenities.

    So, IF there is a Black Swan, I can believe in both a God or Goddess as well as evolution. He or She as the Supreme Being may still be perfecting what He or She designed and created. After all I edited this several times before I posted it.

    Link to this
  27. 27. mike cook 12:03 pm 07/10/2010

    John Horgan is, of course, a former Sci Am editor and the magazine seems to be struggling to find its identity since him.

    John’s approach to evolution issues is quite fair and open minded. I have debated him in blogs for a number of years now and he is hard to pin down on anything except ardent pacifism, which is OK as nobody wants us to blow up the world totally.

    Now as for me, I am not so much a "creationist" as an "existentialist" in that we know the universe exists with all these incredibly complex and seemingly unlikely processes going on in it. We don’t know enough to speculate why the universe exists. Even believing in God like I do does not supply me with a reason as to why God should exist or would want to design anything.

    String theorists have become a little anthropic because they realize that there are zillions of possible string theories, but maybe only one that works out to produce anything like the extraordinary kind of material complexity exhibited in our universe.

    We sure have a lot of anthropic evidence piling up. Edwin Hubble discovered other galaxies, but at first it seemed the Earth was still at the center of the observable universe, so that had to be explained away by Big Bang theorists conjecturing that there is a lot more universe out there which we can’t see, which is hardly an empirical approach, but they do it.

    Fred Hoyle was amazed at how complex the process of hydrogen burning into helium in the sun really is, which was the first anthropic argument. Then the Big Bang idea created the necessity of how matter exploding uniformly away from a point in a rapidly expanding universe ever managed to come together with enough density and pressure as to manufacture all the heavy elements.

    We are told today that quantum fluctuations meant the explosion wasn’t quite that uniform and that when generation 1 suns formed many were very massive and collapsed quickly into supernovas, which made heavy elements and also provided black holes to help form galaxies.

    Mathematician John Von Neuman worked out that several hundred thousand individual parts would be necessary to form the first metabolic self replicating machine. Some chemicals can copy themselves but unless they have a metabolism that isn’t very interesting.

    Metabolism means the machine takes in energy and raw materials from the environment and excretes heat and waste. A machine with lots of parts needs to be able to find all those parts nearby or to fabricate them easily following a replicatable plan also made of available parts.

    Link to this
  28. 28. comtedelafere 1:41 pm 07/10/2010

    Quoting a college text (University of Oregon);

    "We also know that every living human is the direct descendent of a single Homo Sapian woman who lived in Africa 150,000 years ago (i.e. Eve) based on the matching of DNA from cellular mitochondria in people around the world. Notice that our last common ancestor with apes is Australopithecus ramidus, about 5 million years ago. Also note that many species of Australopithecus and Homo are now extinct. "

    Link to this
  29. 29. robert schmidt 2:26 pm 07/10/2010

    @mike cook, it always seems strange to me that people who believe in god quote scientists when the scientists say something that supports their beliefs but disregard the results of scientific inquiry when it contradicts them. That John Von Neuman was not able to envision how natural processes could give rise to self replicating molecules says more about his understanding of the systems at work and the limits of his imagination, then it does about the processes themselves. As a computer modeller I am constantly struct by how nature finds elegant solutions to complex problems. The people studying genetics were incapable of imaging DNA even though they had some understanding of how it needed to work. Yet, when they first saw it, it became very clear how DNA solved the problems of replication and heredity. Biochemistry is very complex. Nature had a great deal of time and a large number of concurrent experiments running to solve the problem of life. Don’t allow humanities inability to solve the problem within a few decades to cause you to fall into the god-of-the-gaps mindset.

    Link to this
  30. 30. cesario 7:13 pm 07/10/2010

    who is glen beck

    Link to this
  31. 31. notslic 9:06 pm 07/10/2010

    The religious constantly say that evolution is a "theory" which has not been proven. The natural retort is that religion is a "theory" also. The difference is that evolution has been, and is being tested, presently on a genetic level. The observable facts show that evolution is happening. Religion is untestable and the only support for it is a book of stories, re-translated over and over, written by ancient men with little knowledge and much superstition, and reinterpreted by modern men and women who gain an income and some sort of power over others. Those who lie to you are dependant on your willingness to believe the lies, and dependant on the money you give them to support the lies. Religion is simply politics in a different robe.

    KDdidit seems like a very nice person. But the proper retort to a 7th grader who says "God isn’t finished with me yet" is "Neither am I!!".

    Link to this
  32. 32. morp 7:44 am 07/11/2010

    I am convinced scientific facs can be used by anyone to prove his philosophical view.But it is malhonnest to deny scientific reality because of a philosophical conviction.

    Link to this
  33. 33. mike cook 9:57 am 07/11/2010

    The "theory" we should be debating is the theory of probability which lies upon the assumption that events can and do occur for so-called random reasons or for no reasons. If chance is an illusion of consciousness then all the statistical tables you construct on the history of any distribution are just histories, they do not mean that any particular event had a real chance of experiencing an outcome other than what it experienced.

    In other words, I say that the future is as fixed as the past. You say the future is up for grabs, but that is only an assumption on your part (as is my own point of view) and NO, there is no evidence that chance is real.

    In a way this whole argument is only a rephrasing of the ancient Greek debate about whether everything is many or everything is one. If it is many, then there could be branching pathways and unbiased decision points. If it is one, then no choices are available either to conscious agents or unconscious ones.

    And there is no high ground of assumed rational superiority on which to claim that randomness is what it claims to be and not an illusion of mind.

    Glenn Beck is somebody who gets paid a whole lot of money to talk entertainingly for three hours a day on any subject that strikes his fancy. I was interviewed in 1989 by Michael Jackson the LA radio personality on NBC radio which was syndicated nationally. It was the longest 12 minutes of my life. I can’t imagine being able to talk non-stop and yet still manage to be interesting or stimulating enough to an audience that they don’t turn you off.

    Link to this
  34. 34. E-boy 11:08 am 07/11/2010

    I find it interesting that so many folks are taking issue with comments clearly aimed at specific people who object to evolution on the basis that it’s contrary to their literal interpretation of genesis…

    So many religious luminaries, including the late great Pope John Paul have acknowledged evolution (Pope John Paul actually went so far as to endorse it) and done so so publically that most folks making these comments about "religion" are specifically addressing the folks trying to get creationism taught in public schools and actively attempting to expunge evolution from any area that could contaminate their childrens minds and doom them to hell. If you actively chose to broaden context so that you can take offense then I have no sympathy for you, because by doing so you are chosing to step in front of the shot aimed at extremists who are so threatened by evolution that they make up whole new names for creationism in a bid to get it taught in public schools by hook or by crook.

    Sciam has also seen fit to publish a great deal of commentary highlighting potential value in religion by folks like Daniel C. Dennet, as well as a debate between devout a prominent christian scientist (who, GASP, doesn’t take genesis literally) and Richard Dawkins (who is the guy you want to pick on for alienating believers if you want to go that route).

    The fact is, Mr. Horgan actually spelled out the specific target of his epithets with that little ID hint. IDers typically identify themselves as non-religious (lie number one as their funding is a matter of public record) and claim ID is a valid alternative theory (lie number two as ID fails so badly to meet the definition of a workable theory that it clearly demonstrates the ingorance of those who came up with it). Then there are the various forms of creationists who at least are honest about their reasons for objection which necessitate the addition of the "religious ignorami" comment.

    I have no desire to disrespect religious people. I don’t go into churches and start preaching evolution. If as a relgious believer you wish to debate evolution on a science website, no less, I suggest you grow a thicker skin and be prepared to suspend your moral outrage long enough to discern the actual target of the writers ire.

    Link to this
  35. 35. ken-do 1:39 pm 07/11/2010

    Glen Beck is paid to do what he does, he does it well and it is expected of him.

    It is too bad that in this day and age some in Science seem to be confused as to what their priorities should be or how to go about achieving them.

    Having an opinion and expressing it is one thing, but let political pundits be what they are without playing their game, and please keep Science out of the muck.

    Link to this
  36. 36. GeorgeJetson 4:10 pm 07/11/2010

    @cryofpaine: "No one has been able to conclusively connect a single-celled organism with a human being (for example) in a single unbroken chain."
    There is observable evidence that humans grow from single cells and there are specific similarities with other species throughout embryo development. Is that not convincing enough without better evidence for an alternative explanation?

    Link to this
  37. 37. robert schmidt 9:38 pm 07/11/2010

    @mike cook, "I say that the future is as fixed as the past. You say the future is up for grabs, but that is only an assumption on your part (as is my own point of view) and NO, there is no evidence that chance is real.", clearly you haven’t heard of something called thermodynamics. How would you explain Brownian motion, turbulence, and radioactivity in terms of pre-determined events? And where is the screenplay that defines these inevitabilities stored? How is it played out? What force(s) guide the particles to their pre-determined positions in space-time? You’re partly right of course, there is no evidence for your ideas. But there is a great deal of evidence to support chaotic phenomenon and the underlying physics of thermodynamics. Again, the great mysteries that you see are the result of your own ignorance of the subject matter and are not indicative of what is understood by the scientific community. It’s ok to be ignorance. We all are to some degree. The difference is how you deal with it. Do you invent fantasies that make you feel better about your place in the cosmos, or do you take it as an opportunity to learn something new? Personally speaking, self delusion is not a very noble aspiration. And if there really was a god, I don’t think he would reward you for it.

    Link to this
  38. 38. robert schmidt 9:53 pm 07/11/2010

    @cryofpaine: "No one has been able to conclusively connect a single-celled organism with a human being (for example) in a single unbroken chain."

    You are also unable to show an unbroken chain of your own life from conception to the current day. Does that mean you don’t exist? Every field of science relies on piecing together many snapshots of reality to understand the whole picture. Look up the term Straw Man fallacy. Once again, it would be refreshing if a creationist came here with a new argument, that hasn’t already been refuted many times before, that doesn’t derive from a logical fallacy, and that does not demonstrate the extreme ingorance of the person making the statement. Does the US teach science at all?

    Here’s a tip; before posting your comment here seach the web to see if someone else has already made that claim, then look at the arguments against. If you can’t refute all existing arguments against your idea, you aren’t going to have any better luck here. You might as well paint a big L on your forehead and sing, "if I only had a brain!"

    Link to this
  39. 39. ken-do 9:53 pm 07/11/2010

    You seem to be assuming that there can be no evidence for supernatural events, or of God. This seems to me to be illogical.-Ken

    Link to this
  40. 40. mike cook 9:47 am 07/12/2010

    Throw down the Brownian motion gauntlet, Robert Schmidt, like that proves anything. First of all, if you understand theories of chaos they are highly deterministic. In theory, at least, the butterfly flapping his wings in Indiana can change the weather six weeks later in Budapest.

    That is because, in theory, information is never lost, which is where entropy comes in. Nothing in thermodynamics prevents us from unscrambling an egg and even inserting it back into the chicken, because the info of how the scrambled egg came to be on my plate all still exists. At the least, a really intelligent being investigating the scrambled egg could deduce that frying pans exist, as does a poultry industry, and even that feathered dinosaurs once existed.

    Sufficient information destroys the assumption of randomness. It isn’t easy to describe the momentum of every particle jiggling in Brownian motion but there is no theoretical reason it could not be done. Because of Heisenberg’s principle we can not know the position and the momentum of a particle exactly, but we can know extremely exactly how dynamic systems of many particles and interacting forces evolve.

    Suppose I put R. Schmidt on a spaceship and aim him at a supermassive black hole. He is not rent asunder by tidal forces because he is seamlessly converted into a 2-D blogger who despite being smeared out infinitely thinly over a surface still remembers his whole life up to that point. His whole life, in theory, could be reconstructed, even down to details like how many scrambled eggs he has consumed.

    Nothing was random about my scrambled egg arriving on my plate. A lot of deliberate and wanted activity had to put it there done just the way I like it and, in theory, all that history of non-random activity could be thermodynamically reversed, perhaps even to include the evolution of the dinosaur from the single cell microbe that eventually became the chicken.

    Link to this
  41. 41. robert schmidt 10:31 pm 07/12/2010

    @mike cook, "if you understand theories of chaos they are highly deterministic" actually they are chaotic. The fact that the sum of the interactions of a chaotic system can be described by probabilistic models does not mean the phenomenon is deterministic.

    "Nothing in thermodynamics prevents us from unscrambling an egg and even inserting it back into the chicken", well technically the 2nd law of thermodynamics does because in the act of scrambling an egg, energy is lost and cannot be recaptured to unscramble the egg. Sure we can take energy from another system to unscramble the egg but then that system will lose information. This is the law of entropy.

    "there is no theoretical reason it could not be done…we can not know the position and the momentum of a particle exactly, but we can know extremely exactly how dynamic systems of many particles and interacting forces evolve" I count three contradictions in there. If a system is deterministic, then making predictions about those systems should be easy. But the best we can do is describe these systems in terms of probabilities not absolutes.

    "still remembers his whole life up to that point" actually I don’t. I can’t even remember much of what I did yesterday. But that is neuroscience and is really not relevant here.

    Your black hole analogy makes no sense.

    "Nothing was random about my scrambled egg arriving on my plate." I hardly think that the argument of determinism comes down to the fact that you got what you ordered at a restaurant.

    The fact is we are well aware of the randomness of a number of phenomenon. There is no way to determine when a particular atom will decay. If it was deterministic we would be able to find an internal clock of some sort that allowed us to sift the atoms by their clock settings thereby increasing our ability to predict decay. Despite the relative size of these chaotic phenomenon, they can send ripples of effect up into larger scale events, see Schrödinger’s cat.

    The claim that the universe is deterministic is not born out by current scientific evidence, let alone your evidence which is really just silly. Instead of clinging to an idea that you like why don’t you let the evidence lead you too the truth? Reality can be disappointing and scary at times but it can also be amazing. Delusions on the other hand are always just delusions.

    Link to this
  42. 42. RICHARDLLL 10:23 am 07/13/2010

    Darwinism is based on the assumption that changes in the body do not get passed on in the genotype. As the emergence of epigenetics has shown this to be a false assumption, I think it wise to doubt Darwinism based on random changes to the genotype. Richard Lewis

    Link to this
  43. 43. deuron 10:42 am 07/13/2010

    John Horgan’s article seems to express the frustration and apparent mental
    flailing of some "knowledgeable scientists and scholars". Why are they
    frustrated, because "the vast majority of variants of a given species fail
    to propagate"? From the time I started learning anything about evolution,
    I thought that was a given. Perhaps in their frustration, they have equated
    the improbable with the impossible. They need to renew their inspiration,
    take a trip to the Galapagos Islands, find a muse, have a stiff drink.

    Instead of a bacterium or virus running amok and destroying all life on
    Earth, the little things could modify the genome of susceptible species.
    This could have occurred many times (understatement?) during the history
    of life on this planet. This would decrease the improbability of life as
    we know it. The ancient remains of hominids (more primitive the farther in
    the past) isn’t an elaborate joke. Something is happening. The dynamics of
    the phenomenon must be understood more clearly until they correlate with
    the times involved.

    Yes, our existence is based on chance or luck. Any species that can ask
    how did we get here, has luck as an ingredient in their history.

    Link to this
  44. 44. MTB 11:16 am 07/13/2010

    Darwin was a scientist, he collected specimans, made a hypothesis, and tested it – for many years. His theory was based on the data, and I will "assume" that if he could have continued collecting data and found information contrary to his theory – he would have changed it. Our present debate over the "Theory of Evolution" is a social construct that seeks to put homo sapiens on the "top" of an evolutionary mountain – as if we actually have data that proves beyond a doubt that a species that has only been in existence for 2-4 million years is somehow "better" han a species that existed for 200 million years before an asteroid altered the environment. Perhaps "god" made us the last great link in the chain – perhaps not, then what. I’d be willing to bet that if god really did make us in "his" image, she’d enjoy our attempts to make sense out of our situation. Someday we may evolve away from "the theory of evolution" – or maybe we’ll devolve. Chances are we’ll change in the next 50 million years….

    Link to this
  45. 45. robert schmidt 8:05 pm 07/13/2010

    @RICHARDLLL, "Darwinism is based on the assumption that changes in the body do not get passed on in the genotype" well that is certainly a straw man argument if I ever heard one. So epigenetics has now been established as the only means of changing the phenotype and genes no longer have any role? Wow! And your discovery that Darwin’s theories were based entirely on things that he knew nothing about is quite surprising. In fact the term genome and the derived term genotype weren’t even coined until 38 years after Darwin’s death, yet he still based evolution on them, preemptively I guess. You know, I think it is even more wise to doubt someone who has clearly demonstrated that they have no clue what they are talking about.

    Link to this
  46. 46. Potpher 4:29 am 07/15/2010

    I totally agree with you. Its not by confining one’s neighbour that one is convinced of one’s sanity

    Link to this
  47. 47. RICHARDLLL 1:09 pm 07/15/2010

    Re: "Darwinism is based on the assumption that changes in the body do not get passed on in the genotype"
    I have expressed the concept in modern language unknown to Darwin. But check with Dawkins, it is right. The converse, that they are, is called Lamarkism, and Dawkins will tell you that it is not in Darwinism. But, in modern form, it is as epigenetics.

    Link to this
  48. 48. 3:55 pm 07/16/2010

    I actually lost sleep due to the following point last night…

    Gould did NOT "fear political implications of Darwin’s theory". To say "implies", (ahem,) implies intent. Are there political implications of or to Darwin’s theory? Having read nearly all of his books, I believe Gould would choke on his tea to read that.

    Darwin’s theory is (Natural Selection and not Evolution, lets be clear) what it is. A theory has neither intent nor political implications, people do. Gould goes into great lengths to discuss misapprehensions and misapplications of the theory of natural selection and other core tenets of modern science. He warns and gives many historical examples of the tendency of all humans to eagerly transpose existing beliefs on more tangible frameworks, manifested as interpretations of data and stacked experimental design.

    I have not read Richard Lewontin, but I suspect that the author of this piece has not read the entire works of Gould. I’m disappointed that the editorial staff did not pick up on and correct this, as he was such a popular author and this is one of his most emphatically made, exhaustive hair-splittingist discussion woven throughout nearly everything he wrote.

    End Rant.

    Link to this
  49. 49. R118 6:28 pm 07/18/2010

    [***Nowhere in evolution does it state that a genetic mutation will suddenly create a heart. Hearts and other organs evolve over millions of years.***]

    That is not the point. The point is that nowhere has it ever been observed that random mutation can create anything significant. Nowhere has it been observed that bacteria has ever been anything but bacteria. In fact all the evidence points to the fact that they remain. To base a theory on unscientific propaganda is nothing but an agenda based conjecture. Not science. There is no problem for people having their beliefs, which is what Darwinism is. But the assertion of fact is an unfounded baseless claim which could have been dreamt up in a back alley. Whether you thought of it over there or in a scientific setting, the ignoring of plain evidence can and will yield the same results, the same assertions, in both cases.

    [***Your demand that we witness this change before we can validate evolution is convenient as it is impossible for people to witness things that take many human lifetimes to unfold.****]

    We can in fact replicate the process. In science there are things called "models" which are able to simulate a said process. We have computer simulations of random mutation over an extended period of time. We also have real world application to living organisms which simulation the mutation rate of certain organisms over a million year period. In the end, the "IDiots" take home the evidence in their favor.

    [***You have no proof that these structures are irreducibly complex. This is a classic straw man argument. ***]

    Yes we do! We have it in abundance. Darwin said that if an irreducibly complex feature could be found his theory would absolutely break down.. If he had ANY idea of how complex biological systems are, he would NEVER have made that statement. Assuming that he wanted his theory to go on. And if he had the knowledge we do today, one wonders if he would have ever continued. Now YOU as well as your fellowship are left here to defend this against the overwhelming evidence against it in light of 21st Century science. You have no choice.

    [***First you claim that single mutations must create complex structure and then state that because this is impossible.***]

    No, I am asserting that no amount of mutations will make a heart. We have tested it. Animals adapt. The atheistic process of continuous random assembly of life is just the rewording of the tired unfounded argument that a human can be built randomly. But trying the "adaption " pathway this time.

    Link to this
  50. 50. Jan Cosgrove 6:35 pm 07/18/2010

    " it is all too easy to imagine scenarios in which one speciesa bacterium or virus, perhapsruns amok and destroys all life on Earth". Does the agent of doom have to be that small? Do I become one of an army of " ignorami"(or "ignoramuses") if I confess, who’s this ‘Glenn Beck’. Ah I just googled, and, hey, I still don’t know who he is or what he’s doing in such a discussion. Is UK radio missing anything we shouldn’t? Christianity (or christianism maybe) is a belief. Darwin’s scientific theory is not a belief, nor does one ‘believe’ in Darwin. Maybe most people believe the Origin of Species and all the subsequent debate, research and so forth is the best scientific explanation we have at this time. There is always the possibility that someone or more will come along with a more accurate-to-reality theory. I do wonder why that even more controversial theory around the world of the quantum doesn’t attract the ire and angst of the pro- and anti- god brigades. Lots in there, surely, to fuel monkey trials, home-schooling, don’t-sign-the-Convention-on-the-Rights-of-the-Child (such an hysterical campaign in the US), denunciations from the pulpit, a few show trials, wars against heresy, inquisitions – except who’s go the Maths to do it? "Freewill cannot exist in a universe which is non-quantum" – debate. Never mind how many angels on a pinhead, count how many pinheads.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article