There is no "Theory of Evolution"

March 22, 2007 § 23 Comments

The following are quotes from famous physicists about a body of research in physics called String Theory (well, the last is technically about an intellectual precursor to String Theory):

Actually, I would not even be prepared to call string theory a “theory” rather a “model” or not even that: just a hunch. … Imagine that I gave you a chair, while explaining that the legs are still missing, and the seat, back, and armrest will perhaps be delivered soon; whatever I did give you, can I still call it a chair? – Gerard ‘t Hooft

I don’t like that they’re not calculating anything. I don’t like that they don’t check their ideas. I don’t like that for anything that disagrees with an experiment, they cook up an explanation — a fix-up to say “well, it still might be true.” – Richard Feynman

This is to show the world that I can paint like Titian. Only technical details are missing. – Wolfgang Pauli, caption for a blank square

Does this sound familiar?

(Source: Not Even Wrong by Peter Woit)


§ 23 Responses to There is no "Theory of Evolution"

  • Mathew Valamparampil says:

    Sorry Zippy this is a little off topic but are you scientifically opposed to evolution OR are you against the fact that evolution seems to be nothing more than ideological atheism? Just wondering because I think it is still possible to have evolution and teleology co-exist. But I’m a history guy not a biologist (nor am I a theologian for that matter). By the way you should join facebook. There are alot of interesting discussions going on there. You’d add alot to those discussions. Peace

  • zippy says:

    Mathew,I agree that it is possible for a theory of evolution (that is, for some kinds of theories of evolution) to coexist with teleology. But I think neodarwinian evolution – that is, the hunch that (as a matter of efficient cause) unguided mutation and selection explains to any significant extent the diversity of life on earth – is only considered “proven” (or even plausible) because of (erroneous) ideology. It would not represent a threat to the Faith if such a thing had been shown, but after centuries of highly motivated work it hasn’t in fact been shown. Evolutionary theory is one of t’Hooft’s “chairs”, or one of Pauli’s “Titians”.That doesn’t mean that the Discovery Institute’s story is any better, that Bill Dembski’s use of Darwin quotations is forthright, or anything like that. I think a lot of the criticisms of the DI are on target; but those same kinds of criticisms often apply to pro-evolution theorists with just as much validity. Origins theory is a mess precisely because far too few people are willing to admit the fact of the matter: that we know very, very little about what actually happened, that we may never know much about what actually happened, and that theistic inferences are actually <>better<> supported by reasonable <>philosophical<> inferences from the data than atheistic or agnostic ones.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    I’m interested and pleased to see you say this, Zippy.Bill Dembski and I have a long-standing disagreement over probability theory. But I think there are good inferences to be made from the specific engineering details of biological machines–i.e. that they were probably designed by an agent who could plan and put multiple aspects in place at once to make the whole thing work. As, indeed, agents often do. This is not only argued well by Behe, IMO, but also by a guy that almost no one has heard of named Scott Minnich, from Idaho. I’ve been trying to get Scott to publish his thoughts on the way reverse engineering thinking in biochemistry involves ineliminable thinking in design terms, but he has appeared to be discouraged and not to want to publish it. He himself made a particular discovery about some aspect of biochemistry by thinking, “How would I do it?” It was a fascinating story to hear him tell in detail, but I didn’t get it recorded or written down, unfortunately.

  • mathew valamparampil says:

    sorry I don’t know much about this stuff but when you say “that theistic inferences are actually better supported by reasonable philosophical inferences from the data than atheistic or agnostic ones” is this just the “gap of God” or something a little more concrete? Just because we don’t know something does not necessarily mean we should attribute it to God. I’ve had debates with atheists before and they always accuse me of taking the “easy” way out. Its an appeal to ignorance and that doesn’t wash with these folks. But again I know next to nothing about this stuff…so I’m probably wrong

  • zippy says:

    Mathew, you asked:<>… when you say “that theistic inferences are actually better supported by reasonable philosophical inferences from the data than atheistic or agnostic ones” is this just the “gap of God” or something a little more concrete?<>I think the kind of inference that infers an aircraft designer behind every 747 is more than just an appeal to ignorance. “An appeal to design is just an appeal to ignorance” is a convenient straw man for materialists, is all. I discussed that in a < HREF="" REL="nofollow">post<> on chance or randomness as a proximate cause some time ago.And I’ve tried to summarize what I think of the “you are invoking a God of the gaps” argument < HREF="" REL="nofollow">here<>. In a nutshell, the accusation rests on an epistemic fallacy so it isn’t even coherent. But good luck getting anyone (Including me I am sure) to relenquish his favorite epistemic fallacies.As a history oriented person you might enjoy the recent book <>Incompleteness<> (by Rebecca Goldstein IIRC); a biography of sorts of Kurt Godel. It isn’t about evolutionary theory at all; but it is at least indirectly about the epistemological errors that your gappy interlocutors are making.

  • zippy says:

    Lydia,Scott Minnich sounds like an interesting guy with some interesting things to say. I hope you are ultimately successful getting him to say them.One of the criticisms of ID that I agree with is that there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of positive research coming out of it. It seems to me that there are some fairly obvious areas for concrete research though, and I may even (if I can find the right collaborators) go get some of it done myself. For example some basic mathematical theorems governing the permutation space of linear chains of molecules assembling into well-defined three-dimensional native states would (at least in theory, but that is why there is a lot of work to be done) permit us to reach definite and very general conclusions about what can and cannot be accomplished in terms of nontoxic proteome modification via undirected genome modification. If you know anyone interested and qualified to collaborate on that kind of research I’m open to discussion.

  • William Luse says:

    <>nontoxic proteome modification via undirected genome modification.<>Is there an English translation for that?

  • William Luse says:

    <>But I think there are good inferences to be made from the specific engineering details of biological machines–i.e. that they were probably designed by an agent who could plan and put multiple aspects in place at once to make the whole thing work.<>I want to draw Lydia out on this, but not yet. I want to wait until that new thing is up and running.<>“An appeal to design is just an appeal to ignorance” is a convenient straw man for materialists…<>Isn’t it also just a sly attempt to trick people like Mathew into accepting the basic evolutionary premises, which then forces him to ask you that question? It’s an attempt, in other words, to eliminate the “philosophical inference” from the discussion.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Zippy, I believe Mike Behe and some friends were working on something along those lines for a while, and if I’m not mistaken, they published it “under the radar” in Protein Science. I’ll try to find you the link. Mike has a new book that has just come out, I think, but I’m ashamed to say that I’ve read only the chapters he sent me for preview, and those were pretty strongly in philosophy rather than science. This bugged me a little, because his strength is in biochemistry; that’s his specialty. I’d just like to see him go out there and do more in the way of naming IC systems and machines and leave the discussion of whether front-loading everything is philosophically respectable and the like to the philosophers.You might have heard about Jon Wells’s work on spindles (of the mitochondria? I am _not_ a scientist and get my terminology messed up at times) and their possible ramifications for cancer research. This should have been a pretty big thing, and Jon was explicit that he was motivated by design-theoretic thinking in it.I think the research you’re thinking of is on the “probabilities on chance” side of it. And there is indeed a lot to be done there. Even more, I think, is simply to insist on identifying the implicit design reasoning that lies behind so much reverse engineering work. For example, knocking out a single thingy in the DNA and seeing where we get to the point that the system doesn’t work involves the notion of a minimal set of parts necessary for the operation of the system. In so many cases design research is being done by biochemists who assume Darwinism and hence don’t really realize their own assumptions. This was part of why Wells’s revelation about the spindles was brushed off. It was said, “You don’t have to assume design to get that.” Well, in one sense, no. You don’t _have_ to assume definitely _anything_ about origins to do research on how a system actually works _now_. That’s one reason people are so wrong about the vast importance to current biology of the origins debate. On the other hand, it is relevant to the question of what is the best explanation in origins if we’re constantly saying, “How would that be likely to work if it was designed to do X? Where might it break down first?” And so forth.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Here’s the Protein Science abstract. It’s focused on gene duplication and, I gather, the question of how much this actually helps the evolutionary theory.

  • zippy says:

    <>Is there an English translation for that?<>Not a short one ūüôāBasically, we know that proteins start out as straight strings of beads (“polypeptide chains”) manufactured by the cell. There are twenty different kinds of beads with various attractions for and repulsions of each other – think of each bead as having one of twenty different shapes of magnet built into it. The DNA of the cell codes for the precise sequence of beads that is added to the string for any particular protein.When a protein “folds,” the string of beads bunches up into a three-dimensional structure. Think of tossing it into a bucket of boiling water (hot enough to make the beads dance around) and watching it bunch up into a wad that stays stable in the boiling water as the magnets latch onto each other. (Proteins are astonishingly useful “wads” because they form the molecular components of the tiny machines that make up the cells and other components of the body).Now one of the interesting things about proteins – which typically have hundreds or thousands of beads on them – is that they have a “native state”. That is, they have a particular way that they pretty much always bunch up rather than bunching up into a different tangled mess each time. If they didn’t then they couldn’t form consistent components for the tiny molecular machines in the body. But each one with the same sequence of beads that comes off the ribosomal “assembly line” folds up into exactly the same shape. You can stretch the protein back out into a string (“denature” it), and it will bunch back up into exactly the same “native state” every time. (Well, not <>every<> time: Alzheimer’s disease is thought by some to be the result of some tiny number of proteins occasionally failing to fold properly, and because they don’t fold properly they “stick” to other proteins that didn’t fold properly, and over the person’s lifetime the “stuck together” proteins accumulate into what are called “amryloid fibrils” which are toxic to the body).One of the things we “know” as an empirical matter is that <>random<> chains don’t fold up into a well-defined native state: they just wad up, well, randomly; and random sticky stuff floating around in a cell is toxic, like gravel in a crankcase. But we only know this as a matter of observation: the math behind it is not well-defined, though simplified forms of it could (I conjecture), with a bit of work, be well-defined. And doing so could constrain our understanding of what is possible in general for one-dimensional strings of beads which spontantously fold into three dimensions. To make a long story less long, the mathematical properties of strings of beads which wad up with attractive and repulsive forces can probably (though I haven’t shown this, at least not yet, and it is always possible that someone has done it and I am unaware of it) be well-defined in a very general way. And once they are well-defined in a very general way, the properties of these native states can possibly also be well-defined, including an understanding of the constraints on one non-toxic form (that is, a form with a stable native state) changing into another through alteration of the original string of beads. (Note that this only concerns whether or not they are toxic; forget about them being actually useful for anything).In a nutshell, it may well be possible to <>prove<> that the “random mutation to create nontoxic proteins starting from preexisting protein codings” is simply impossible (other than in contrived degenerate cases), or that it is implausible to a quantifiable degree, or even that it is quite plausible to a quantifiable degree. (If you are gonna do real reasearch, a counterintuitive result is always a possibility).This is really only a hunch at this point, but that is how research programs always start out, and I think it is a well-founded hunch. But even if there is something stupid about this particular proposal, it is the <>kind of thing<> that represents a concrete research program of the sort that I think ought to be done by ID institutions. Research programs are always a matter of exploring the ramifications of metaphysical intuitions grounded in current knowledge.

  • zippy says:

    Thanks for the link Lydia, I’ll have a look!

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Thanks for the explanation on proteins, Zippy. _And_ I didn’t know that about Alzheimer’s.I will say that I don’t think the truth or falsehood of a theory about origins can be rightly judged by whether it generates a highly active research program. That’s a place where I disagree with the whole Popper-Lokatos (sp?) view. I tend to think of origins more in relation to the fact that origins are over. They happened, what, X millions of years ago. So finding out the truth of the matter is more like solving a mystery or doing archeology–it’s about, as it were, an historical event. One could have (and I fear we do have) lots of paper-wasting wild conjecture along the wrong lines that gets labeled as a “research program” because proceeding on completely wrong assumptions. And it could be that the true explanation _doesn’t_ generate a lot of new research. But the important question for origins is what really happened, after all. If you had a bunch of robots on a planet, you might be able to generate a “research program” trying to conjecture how they’d arisen from the sludge by unguided processes, but it would be all hooey, so who should care that it kept scientists interested and busy?

  • William Luse says:

    <>Thanks for the explanation on proteins, Zippy.<>Yes. I should thank him too. So thanks. It’s all crystal clear now.

  • I think you’ve got a sympathetic ear from < HREF="" REL="nofollow">this Catholic neurobiology student<>, who dislikes the research methodology in molecular biology. I concur with your read regarding the probability of the development of “useful” proteins, and it only gets worse when the fundamental physics is taken into account (Stephen Barr covers several examples, although one might bear in mind the caveat from < HREF="" REL="nofollow">“Lawrence Gage”<>. I think there’s a good case to be made for the fact that the random chemical collection model doesn’t even take into account all of the <>physical<> components the equation (suggested in the Nanopoulos articles I linked at AG’s blog), and that says nothing of the considerable philosophical difficulties with < HREF="" REL="nofollow">determinism<> and < HREF="" REL="nofollow">eliminativism<>.On the whole, I think the superstring analogy is apt. Evolution might be “more than a theory” in one sense, but it is less than an explanation.

  • Tim J. says:

    Heh.When I first read those quotes, I thought that the non-theory you were setting up for critique was Man-Made Global Warming.I’ve made the comparison between MMGW and string-theory group-think recently. For that I was called a conspiracy theorist.

  • Forget about the whole evolution angle… the quotations on string theory are precious in themselves.Thanks for posting them!LG

  • BTW on groupthink, check out < HREF="" REL="nofollow">Michael Crichton<>‘s January 2003 speech: “Aliens Cause Global Warming.”He’s got a precious section on “consensus” beginning “Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus” and extending several paragraphs.(I had hoped to quote this passage on my blog, but Crichton, Inc. isn’t forthcoming about granting permission.)LG

  • zippy says:

    <>Thanks for posting them!<>My pleasure. It was a lot of fun discovering them in the Peter Woit book.

  • […] to be such a deeply rooted need for comfort in knowledge that we find it impossible to concede the depth of our ignorance. ¬†So people do what people have always done: create just-so stories consistent with known facts […]

  • […] Reductionism is great, though, because all the cool kids these days are reductionists. ¬†And adopting evolutionary narratives is a great way for modern people to signal status, despite the fact that evolutionary theory is a bunch¬†of question-begging pseudo-metaphysical tommyrot. […]

  • […] criticism of evolutionary “theory” which goes by the name “intelligent design”, the tip of the spear of which was […]

  • […] First¬†assume that any theory is better than no theory at all; even when the theory in question is manifestly and demonstrably destructive, evil, deceptive, and just plain wrong. ¬†The important thing is that in the hierarchy of answers we accept, admitting ignorance and expressing a willingness to accept reality as it is, is at the bottom of the list. […]

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