Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

The many meanings of the word “evolution”

This is from an essay by Stephen C. Meyer and Mike Keas. (H/T Justin Taylor)

Meyer and Keas caution people about answering questions about evolution until the term is clearly defined.

Here are their 6 meanings of the word:

  1. Evolution as Change Over Time
  2. Evolution as Gene Frequency Change
  3. Evolution as Limited Common Descent
  4. Evolution as a Mechanism that Produces Limited Change or Descent with Modification
  5. Evolution as Universal Common Descent
  6. Evolution as the “Blind Watchmaker” Thesis

Here is one that everyone accepts:

2. Evolution as Gene Frequency Change

Population geneticists study changes in the frequencies of alleles in gene pools. This very specific sense of evolution, though not without theoretical significance, is closely tied to a large collection of precise observations. The melanism studies of peppered moths, though currently contested, are among the most celebrated examples of such studies in microevolution. For the geneticist, gene frequency change is “evolution in action.”

And one that is controversial:

6. Evolution as the “Blind Watchmaker” Thesis

The “blind watchmaker” thesis, to appropriate Richard Dawkins’s clever term, stands for the Darwinian idea that all new living forms arose as the product of unguided, purposeless, material mechanisms, chiefly natural selection acting on random variation or mutation. Evolution in this sense implies that the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection acting on random variations (and other equally naturalistic processes) completely suffices to explain the origin of novel biological forms and the appearance of design in complex organisms. Although Darwinists and neo-Darwinists admit that living organisms appear designed for a purpose, they insist that such “design” is only apparent, not real, precisely because they also affirm the complete sufficiency of unintelligent natural mechanisms (that can mimic the activity of a designing intelligence) of morphogenesis. In Darwinism, the variation/selection mechanism functions as a kind of “designer substitute.” As Dawkins summarizes the blind watchmaker thesis: “Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye.”

For discussion purposes, I accept 1-4, which I think are consistent with the evidence. I deny 5 and 6 because they are inconsistent with the evidence.

It’s a good article to read to prepare yourself to discuss this with someone who is antagonistic to design. They may offer evidence for one definition of evolution that everyone accepts, then take it to be proof of a much more controversial definition of evolution. You have to get the definition clear first.

One last piece of advice. If you ever get asked this “do you believe in evolution” question – say, by a secular leftist anxious to label you as a moron – then you might consider going on the offensive, using this list of alternate science-related questions that actually affect public policy from David Harsanyi. Put your questioner on the defensive.

Filed under: Polemics, , ,

Stephen C. Meyer lectures on intelligent design and the origin of life

A MUST-SEE lecture based on Dr. Stephen C. Meyer’s book “Signature in the Cell“.

You can get an MP3 of the lecture here. (30 MB)

I highly recommend watching the lecture, and looking at the slides. The quality of the video and the content is first class. There is some Q&A (9 minutes) at the end of the lecture.

Topics:

  • intelligent design is concerned with measuring the information-creating capabilities of natural forces like mutation and selection
  • Darwinists think that random mutations and natural selection can explain the origin and diversification of living systems
  • Darwinian mechanisms are capable of explaining small-scale adaptive changes within types of organisms
  • but there is skepticism, even among naturalists, that Darwinian mechanisms can explain the origin of animal designs
  • even if you concede that Darwinism can account for all of the basic animal body plans, there is still the problem of life’s origin
  • can Darwinian mechanisms explain the origin of the first life? Is there a good naturalistic hypothesis to explain it?
  • there are at least two places in the history of life where new information is needed: origin of life, and Cambrian explosion
  • overview of the structure of DNA and protein synthesis (he has helpful pictures and he uses the snap lock blocks, too)
  • the DNA molecule is composed of a sequence of proteins, and the sequence is carefully selected to have biological function
  • meaningful sequences of things like computer code, English sentences, etc. require an adequate cause
  • it is very hard to arrive at a meaningful sequence of a non-trivial length by randomly picking symbols/letters
  • although any random sequence of letters is improbable, the vast majority of sequences are gibberish/non-compiling code
  • similarly, most random sequences of amino acids are lab-proven (Doug Axe’s work) to be non-functional gibberish
  • the research showing this was conducted at Cambridge University and published in the Journal of Molecular Biology
  • so, random mutation cannot explain the origin of the first living cell
  • however, even natural selection coupled with random mutation cannot explain the first living cell
  • there must already be replication in order for mutation and selection to work, so they can’t explain the first replicator
  • but the origin of life is the origin of the first replicator – there is no replication prior to the first replicator
  • the information in the first replicator cannot be explained by law, such as by chemical bonding affinities
  • the amino acids are attached like magnetic letters on a refrigerator
  • the magnetic force sticks the letters ON the fridge, but they don’t determine the specific sequence of the letters
  • if laws did determine the sequence of letters, then the sequences would be repetitive
  • the three materialist explanations – chance alone, chance and law, law alone – are not adequate to explain the effect
  • the best explanation is that an intelligent cause is responsible for the biological explanation in the first replicator
  • we know that intelligent causes can produce functional sequences of information, e.g. – English, Java code
  • the structure and design of DNA matches up nicely with the design patterns used by software engineers (like WK!)

There are some very good tips in this lecture so that you will be able to explain intelligent design to others in simple ways, using everyday household items and children’s toys to symbolize the amino acids, proteins, sugar phosphate backbones, etc.

Proteins are constructed from a sequence of amino acids:

A sequence of amino acids forming a protein

A sequence of amino acids forming a protein

Proteins sticking onto the double helix structure of DNA:

Some proteins sticking onto the sugar phosphate backbone

Some proteins sticking onto the sugar phosphate backbone

I highly, highly recommend this lecture. You will be delighted and you will learn something.

Here is an article that gives a general overview of how intelligent design challenges. If you want to read something more detailed about the material that he is covering in the lecture above related to the origin of life, there is a pretty good article here.

UPDATE: There is a good breakdown of some of the slides with helpful flow charts here on Uncommon Descent.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

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Five current scientific problems with Darwinian evolution

This is from the Intelligent Design FAQ at the Discovery Institute. (H/T Justin Taylor tweet)

Here are the 5 points:

  1. Genetics: Mutations cause harm and do not build complexity.
  2. Biochemistry: Unguided and random processes cannot produce cellular complexity.
  3. Paleontology: The fossil record lacks intermediate fossils.
  4. Taxonomy: Biologists have failed to construct Darwin’s “Tree of Life.”
  5. Chemistry: The chemical origin of life remains an unsolved mystery.

Let’s look at the first one:

Mutations cause harm and do not build complexity.

Darwinian evolution relies on random mutations that are selected by a blind, unguided process of natural selection that has no goals.  Such a random and undirected process tends to harm organisms and does not improve them or build complexity.  As National Academy of Sciences biologist Lynn Margulis has said, “new mutations don’t create new species; they create offspring that are impaired.” Similarly, past president of the French Academy of Sciences, Pierre-Paul Grasse, contended that “[m]utations have a very limited ‘constructive capacity’” because “[n]o matter how numerous they may be, mutations do not produce any kind of evolution.”

It’s a nice little overview, and all the sections are short like that – it’s just an introduction to each area.

There are lot more questions answered in the FAQ. It’s a good resource.

Filed under: Polemics, , ,

New study: another example of convergence, this time for geomagnetic navigation

We have to start this post with the definition of convergence in biology.

In evolutionary biology, convergent evolution is the process whereby organisms not closely related (not monophyletic), independently evolve similar traits as a result of having to adapt to similar environments or ecological niches.

It is the opposite of divergent evolution, where related species evolve different traits.

On a molecular level, this can happen due to random mutation unrelated to adaptive changes; see long branch attraction. In cultural evolution, convergent evolution is the development of similar cultural adaptations to similar environmental conditions by different peoples with different ancestral cultures. An example of convergent evolution is the similar nature of the flight/wings of insects, birds, pterosaurs, and bats.

All four serve the same function and are similar in structure, but each evolved independently.

And now, Evolution News has a story about a new discovery.

Turtles have the ability to navigate by sensing magnetic isolines:

Science Magazine gives a brief review of the findings:

Much like shifting sand, magnetic fields slide slightly over time, and their strength also increases as one moves away from the equator, akin to latitude.This property gives each stretch of coast a unique geographic marker, known as an isoline. The team found that in years when these magnetic isolines moved apart, the turtle nests spread out over a larger area — by 1 or 2 kilometers. Conversely, when isolines converged, the nests squeezed into a smaller patch of beach, suggesting the turtles follow shifting magnetic tracks to their favorite nests. The findings also argue that a magnetic address is imprinted on loggerhead turtles at birth to point the way home.

But so do salmon, and other birds, fishes and mammals:

Remarkably, salmon show this same ability. Brothers and Lohman write:

In a previous study, the migratory route of salmon approaching their natal river was shown to vary with subtle changes in the Earth’s field. Whereas the endpoint of the salmon spawning migration was presumably the same regardless of route, our findings demonstrate for the first time a relationship between changes in Earth’s magnetic field and the locations where long-distance migrants return to reproduce.

Joining the contenders for this skill set are more unrelated animal types:

… our results provide the strongest evidence to date that sea turtles find their nesting areas at least in part by navigating to unique magnetic signatures along the coast. In addition, our results are consistent with the hypothesis that turtles accomplish natal homing largely on the basis of magnetic navigation and geomagnetic imprinting. These findings, in combination with recent studies on Pacific salmon, suggest that similar mechanisms might underlie natal homing in diverse long-distance migrants such as fishes, birds, and mammals.

So here we have a highly-precise navigational ability, able to cue on very faint properties in the earth’s magnetic field, then on olfaction, and possibly on “other supplemental local cues” to find home across thousands of miles. The sensory “instruments” involved are integrated so that they are able to coordinate their functions for the same goal. Furthermore, the baby turtles, with their tiny brains, must have the ability to memorize the natal signatures of odors and magnetic field properties at birth, then recall those memories years later as large adults. (Sea turtles return about every two years to lay eggs.)

That would be a conundrum enough to explain by unguided processes like natural selection. But then, adding to the difficulty for Darwinism, similar abilities are found in distantly related animals like fish, birds, and mammals. Even if a Darwinian could show a possible line of descent from fish to mammal, the abilities involved would have been lost and regained multiple times, because not all fish, birds, and mammals use magnetic navigation. Given the complexities of the sensory systems involved, this would represent a case of “convergent evolution” on steroids. If the origin of this capability in one type of animal is highly implausible by mutation and selection, how about four times or more?

A design perspective, by contrast, would expect that unrelated animals on a common planet would share similar capabilities for their needs. The earth’s magnetic field is global. It isn’t surprising that very different animals would be designed to use that feature of the earth.

How can it be that animals that have no recent common ancestor can have evolved this remarkable ability independently? The best explanation of this convergence is common design, not common descent.

More posts on convergence

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Can a person believe in God and evolution at the same time?

Was Mount Rushmore designed?

Was Mount Rushmore designed?

Here’s a post on Evolution News that explains what theistic evolution is:

Three geologists stand at the foot of Mt. Rushmore. The first geologist says, “This mountain depicts perfectly the faces of four U.S. Presidents, it must be the work of a master sculptor.” The second says, “You are a geologist, you should know that all mountains were created by natural forces, such as volcanoes and plate movements, the details were then sculpted by erosion from water and wind. How could you possibly think this was the work of an intelligent sculptor? Only a person completely ignorant of geophysics could think those faces were designed.”

The third geologist says to himself, “I don’t want to be seen as ignorant, but the faces in this mountain sure do look like they were designed.” So he thinks a moment and says to the second geologist, “Of course you are right, these faces were sculpted by natural forces such as erosion. Only an ignorant person would think they were designed.” Then he turns to the first and says, “But what a magnificent result, there obviously must have been a master sculptor standing by and watching.”

The third geologist is a theistic evolutionist. Someone who thinks that God did nothing detectable by science in the whole history of the universe, but who also loves to talk about their religious experience and what hymns they like to sing in church. Synonyms for this definition of theistic evolution are “supernaturalist naturalism” and “theistic atheism”. I like the latter, myself. Theistic atheism. Atheism at work for my colleagues on Monday, and theism in the church for my pastor on Sundays.

Now if you call yourself a theistic evolutionist, but you think that intelligent design is detectable in nature by non-theists doing ordinary science with ordinary scientific methods, then you are not a theistic evolutionist according to this definition. This post is not describing you.

You can listen to a debate on theistic evolution between Michael Behe and theistic evolutionist Keith Fox right here to decide if theistic evolution is true. A summary is provided for those who prefer to read instead of listen.

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