Metaevolution, or, the evolution of evolution

August 25, 2016 § 40 Comments

Like all dynamic things which persist over long periods of time, evolution has had to adapt to survive.

Darwin: Very gradual change combined with natural selection sufficiently explain the origins of new cell types, organs, tissues, and species.  (Falsified by scientific evidence).

Neodarwinian synthesis: Random mutations in the genome combined with natural selection sufficiently explain the origins of new cell types, organs, tissues, and species.  (Falsified by scientific evidence).

Stanley Miller: Lightning strikes catalyzed the production of amino acids into ponds of primordial soup, which organized themselves into the first cells.  (Cool story bro).

Haeckel: Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. (No it doesn’t).

John Scopes: Teaching kids evolution forms them into better and more critical thinkers. (This is far from clear).

Gould: Gradual changes plus selection cannot explain the origins of new cell types, organs, tissues, and species.  (True).  Radical and fast changes – saltation – actually occurred and this occurrence is supported by the fossil record. (Probably true: see e.g. the Cambrian Explosion. However, what is descended from what in the fossil record is not established either by fossil or genetic methods).

Margulis: New cell organelles originate when one life form colonizes another.  Example: mitochondria are the vestigial remains of ancient prokaryotes which colonized host cells. (Makes a nice story.  Might even be true in some cases).

Dawkins: Material cause and effect alone explain the origins of new cell types, organs, tissues, and species. (Statement of religious/metaphysical faith).

Behe: Mutation and selection are insufficient to explain the origins of irreducibly complex biological structures such as bacterial flagella and the blood cascade. (True). This leads us to conclude that these were the product of ‘design’ understood as something at least analogous to human beings designing artifacts.  (Metaphysical/religious claim).

Kenneth R. Miller: Legitimate practice of science requires the adoption of methodological naturalism in order to demarcate scientific knowledge from other knowledge. (False). Methodological naturalism is not incompatible with belief in God. (Keep telling yourself that). Methodological naturalism is rationally coherent. (False).  If we are critical of evolution we won’t get invited to cocktail parties with respectable people. (Probably true: ask Michael Behe).

Bioinformatics: Database driven statistical correlations in gene sequences strongly imply similar protein structures (could be), biological functions (also could be), and phylogeny (cool story bro).

Evolutionary psychology: The stories we tell about how certain human behaviors might have supported the successful reproduction of previous generations of human beings explain the psychology of human beings today. (Probably belongs in the literary class ‘historical fiction’).


My comment: One question is whether anything important about evolution has survived other than the label and its associated self-congratulatory attitude.

§ 40 Responses to Metaevolution, or, the evolution of evolution

  • buckyinky says:

    My comment: One question is whether anything important about evolution has survived other than the label and its associated self-congratulatory attitude.

    The Just About the Greatest Discovery Ever label that John Horgan gave to Darwin’s work in The End of Science had me scratching my head more than anything else in that book. I was like Wut?

    I’m still not convinced I’m not missing something.

  • Zippy says:

    buckyinky:
    Horgan is one of my favorite atheists, but like all of us he is deeply attached to his metaphysical priors.

  • PB says:

    Zippy: Evolutionary Psychology, like psychology generally, seems replete with unproven or unprovable claims. I’m not sure I would call it historical fiction though. I am not especially informed on the matter though. If possible in the confines of the combox would you like to elaborate?

  • Zippy says:

    PB:
    I suppose “historical fiction” might be granting evo-psych too much credit, since it is based mostly on fictional historical accounts not established historical accounts.

    Any number of modern supposedly science-based disciplines do tend to be long on modernist metaphysics posing as neutrality while remaining impervious to facts or extra-disciplinary critique. Evolution and psychology certainly both qualify. Combine the two together and you get the solipsistic fact resistant defense mechanisms of each combined into a discipline super extra double blinded from reality.

  • donnie says:

    Not following you here, Zippy.

    I am not a scientist by any stretch, but here is how I was taught about the theory of evolution way back when, and how I have understood it:

    The theory of evolution does not explain the origin of life. Anyone claiming that evolutionary biology is flawed because it cannot explain how the very first replicator came into existence is posing a straw man; that’s not what the theory of evolution is for. The theory of evolution is not supposed to to be able to explain the first replicator, because the first replicator does not come from another replicator.

    What the theory of evolution is good for, and why it is considered so important, is describe statistical trends in replication. It describes how complex organic structures arise either incrementally, or by adapting previous complex organic structures for a new purpose. It describes how the first replicator could give rise to all the complexities of organic life that we observe today, given a few billion years. It does not describe how the first replicator came to be, that was an anomaly (dare I suggest, a miracle?). But it only needed to happen once, and there presumably a lot of tide pools.

    What am I missing?

  • My comment: One question is whether anything important about evolution has survived other than the label and its associated self-congratulatory attitude.

    I think you’re asking the wrong question here.

    The self-congratulatory attitude is a feature.

    One could say that the very nature of knowledge and understanding, without proper godly (or metaphysical) context, fosters pride and arrogance. Any methodology based solely on naturalism and/or materialism will have this feature. There is a reason we all know what someone means when they’re labeled a “know it all.”

    1 Corinthians 8:1 Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge [a]makes arrogant, but love edifies.

  • Zippy says:

    donnie:
    I am aware that evolution pretends to account for the origin of species – more generally of previously nonexistent cell types, tissue types, organs, and species – not abiogenesis.

    So far it has failed to do so, spectacularly.

  • Aethelfrith says:

    Darwin of the gaps.

  • donnie says:

    Zippy,

    Maybe you can help me grasp this better. But again, I am not a scientist, so it would be great if you could explain this as you might to a young child. Or a golden retriever.

    Here’s what little I understand:

    DNA durably stores biological information in sequences of four bases of nucleic acid — adenine (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C) and guanine (G) — which are strung along ribbons of sugar- phosphate molecules in the shape of a double helix. Storing the information this way is fantastic, as it allows for identical duplication. A ribosome turns that biological information into a sequence of amino acids (protein) which folds up into a range of chemically active shapes. Together the combined DNA and ribosome system can build all sorts of complex proteins.

    So an evolution-skeptic might look at the combined system and ask, what good is DNA without a ribosome that turns DNA into proteins? What good is a ribosome, without DNA to tell it what proteins to make? How could this system ever have evolved incrementally? How could you ever have one without the other?

    This is just one example I’m aware of, and I’m sure there are plenty more. Organisms don’t always leave fossils, and evolutionary biology can’t always figure out the incremental pathway. But in this case my understanding is that there is an explanation, and it applies to more than just this example.

    Both RNA and DNA share the property of being able to carry information and replicate itself, but RNA is less durable than DNA and copies less accurately. RNA also shares the ability of proteins to fold up into chemically active shapes, though it’s not as adaptable as the amino chains of a protein. Therefore it is probable that a simpler, far less useful version of RNA predates the mutually dependent DNA and ribosome we know today.

    That’s how it starts, from a single mutation. First comes a new gene which is simple, but at least a little useful on its own (gene A) so that over time, through natural selection, this gene is universally present in the gene pool. Along comes another mutation (gene B), creating a gene that is only useful in the presence of gene A, but since gene A is now reliably present in the gene pool, there is natural selection pressure in favor of this new gene B. Next a modified version of the original gene arises (gene A*), which is dependent upon gene B, but doesn’t break gene B’s dependency on gene A or A*. Then along comes a new mutation (gene C), which depends on A* and B, and then next comes B*, which depends on A* and C, and so on and so forth. Pretty soon you’ve got complex organic machinery (e.g. DNA and ribosome) that breaks if you take out any single piece. And the beauty of all of this is that the process is painstakingly slow, unbelievably inefficient, and mind-numbingly stupid. But it works anyway. Wait a few billion years and you’ll find replicators so complex they can land one of their own on the moon.

    What I hear you saying is that all of that explanation above is nothing more than a “cool story, bro” with spectacularly little compelling evidence backing it up.

    Is that correct?

  • Zippy says:

    donnie:

    What I hear you saying is that all of that explanation above is nothing more than a “cool story, bro” with spectacularly little compelling evidence backing it up.
    Is that correct?

    It is true that there is basically no concrete evidence in favor of that story.

    On top of that, there are buckets of contrary evidence.

  • donnie says:

    Got any links to those buckets?

  • Zippy says:

    Did you read the OP?

  • donnie says:

    Of course. But links to outside sources would be helpful where your comments indicate ideas that are disproven. This stuff is all news to me and, I imagine, many others.

  • Zippy says:

    donnie:

    This is a blog. The OP is not the opening salvo in a rehash of the terabytes of easily-searchable arguments on the Internet and popular books about biological origins theory.

    In order to reach my own conclusions I read probably twenty or thirty books, took several graduate classes (molecular biology, bioinformatics, biophysics), and argued with hundreds or thousands of interlocutors.

    There are enough ‘name drops’ in the OP for people to get started on their own due diligence — and take it to whatever degree they want.

    Darwin’s prediction of a gradual fossil record has been falsified.

    The neodarwinian prediction of a substantial body of beneficial mutations has been falsified.

    Every time evolutionary theory has made a prediction which was concrete and specific enough to count as an actual test of evolutionary theory, it has been proven false.

    The following is from Lynn Margulis’ and Dorian Sagan’s book Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of the Species — the authors are Carl Sagan’s ex wife and son, no friends of religious creationists:

    We agree that very few potential offspring ever survive to reproduce and that populations do change through time, and that therefore natural selection is of critical importance to the evolutionary process. But this Darwinian claim to explain all of evolution is a popular half-truth whose lack of explicative power is compensated for only by the religious ferocity of its rhetoric. Although random mutations influenced the course of evolution, their influence was mainly by loss, alteration, and refinement. One mutation confers resistance to malaria but also makes happy blood cells into the deficient oxygen carriers of sickle cell anemics. Another converts a gorgeous newborn into a cystic fibrosis patient or a victim of early onset diabetes. One mutation causes a flighty red-eyed fruit fly to fail to take wing. Never, however, did that one mutation make a wing, a fruit, a woody stem, or a claw appear. Mutations, in summary, tend to induce sickness, death, or deficiencies. No evidence in the vast literature of heredity changes shows unambiguous evidence that random mutation itself, even with geographical isolation of populations, leads to speciation.

    Original Darwinism is false and disproven (Cambrian explosion, etc).

    Neodarwinism is false and disproven: “No evidence in the vast literature of heredity changes shows unambiguous evidence that random mutation itself, even with geographical isolation of populations, leads to speciation.”

    What is left over of ‘evolution’ given that that is in fact decisively the case is the subject of the OP.

  • donnie says:

    That’s a remarkable quote from the Sagan’s. Thanks for that.

    Looks like I have plenty of digging to do.

  • Todor says:

    I wonder if somewhere in our subconcious the idea that horrible little brown people have evolved into beautiful white people play a role in all this. Evolution makes things better: Just look at us!

  • Mike T says:

    donnie,

    When you consider what higher intelligence “does,” it is even more stark. Look around the room and ruminate on how rapidly your brain identifies at least a few things:

    1. Millions of colors.
    2. Depth.
    3. Individual objects.
    4. Instantaneously knows not just what every object is, but the relationships between objects, what thy are used for, etc.

    We are just now approaching the point in machine learning where facial recognition is getting to human-level accuracy and that’s with Facebook putting trash dumpsters of cash into solving such problems.

  • Mike T says:

    Evolution makes things better: Just look at us!

    Our ancestors’ penchant for screwing Neanderthal and Denisovan chicks likely had way more to do with it.

  • PB says:

    Zippy: Thanks for the response. I think I incorrectly conflated ideas about the influence of genes on personality with evo-psych. Not that problems don’t arise with genetic theorizing too.

  • GJ says:

    Aethelfrith:

    Darwin of the gaps.

    To be precise, Deep Time of the gaps. With enough Time anything can happen!

    Ergo comments like donnie’s “Wait a few billion years and you’ll find replicators so complex they can land one of their own on the moon”.

  • Jill says:

    I lived for a long time in a “science city.” There was a thriving time when (I think) a Catholic student organization brought a bunch of the ID men, such as Behe, to town to give talks. I would read the books and go to the talks–but I quickly noticed that the talks brought out a lot of heavy emotion from the local scientists. It was then I realized the science community was no place for a calm, rational religionist like myself. Kidding. Kind of. Information is always good if you can get to it on your own, without having to cope with angry, red-faced, almost-reduced-to-tears experts. But then, maybe my local community isn’t the best representation of scientists. It could be something in the water or air of the desert.

  • Scott W. says:

    Lightning strikes catalyzed the production of amino acids into ponds of primordial soup, which organized themselves into the first cells. (Cool story bro).

    I recall being taught this in high-school biology in the ’80s (and I’ve noticed it in pop-culture such as “The Genesis Tub” in The Simpsons) and my teacher even declaring he could create life in the lab. He didn’t demonstrate but I kind of wish he had because I suspect it was much like the story Dr. Feynman told about an artist who declared he could make yellow paint by mixing only red and white paint. After mixing the two and (of course) only yielding pink, he said that all he needed now was a little yellow paint to “sharpen it up a bit” and then it would be yellow!

  • DeNihilist says:

    Nice Op Bro. Aboot 2 years ago I was stunned to read an article that biologists were stunned to realize that the human brain was still evolving.

    All I could think of was “well if evolution is real, why would it stop?”

    Even these knowledgeable experts had believed that the human race had reached the end of its’ evolution.

    That to me was proof enough that evolution was just a belief.

  • RichardP says:

    Re. the cliche – With enough time, anything is possible:

    1. If true, that means God is possible and creation is possible, given enough time. Those who won’t accept that as true put the lie to the cliche “with enough time, anything is possible”. So we limp along with the subset cliche: with enough time, some things are possible, but not others. That works as a predictive model, right?

    2. Where in the fossile record do we find skulls with only one eye socket, or three eye sockets? The skeletons with three legs? Or five? The skeletons with one arm with two hands on it. With enough time, all of these are possible. So where are they in the fossil record.

    Darwin stressed that evolution does not act with intent; it has no purpose. Evolution is simply the happy accident of mutation interacting with environmental changes. So we have to accept that the fossil record will show evidence of the non-optimal (three legs; three eyes; one arm with two hands) that arose on the way to being exterminated in favor of the optimal. Except that it doesn’t. Strange, that.

    And where is it written that evolution through mutation modified by environmental change cannot go backwards, but always goes forward? If evolution has no intelligence, no intent, no agenda, we could assume things would go backwards as often as they go forwards, developmentally, over time. We do see evidence of that process happening in Darwin’s finches – where the beaks get shorter and stouter during prolonged drought, and tend to become longer and thinner when the drought ends.

    Then there is that small matter of how the enzymes in the primordial pond managed to survive the atrocious radiation bombardment long enough to develop the cell walls that are essential to the survival of any life form. Plus the pumps in the cell walls that expell waste from inside the cell and bring nutrients in from outside the cell. All had to develop before the radiation killed off the enzymes.

  • Step2 says:

    @RichardP
    That works as a predictive model, right?

    Not at all. God (as traditionally understood) isn’t a possibility, God is a necessity. On the same traditional understanding, creation is creation from nothing and cannot have a preexisting time dimension “before” which is considered an abstract something.

    So we have to accept that the fossil record will show evidence of the non-optimal (three legs; three eyes; one arm with two hands) that arose on the way to being exterminated in favor of the optimal.

    Not necessarily. In general the mutations are very incremental especially for animals, and if they are maladaptive (as most of them are) then there is a high chance they will be miscarried naturally in mammals or otherwise die very young in other animals. Also, talking in terms of optimal or optimization is misleading, since the results of evolution typically include a diversity of traits to allow functionality for various environments – not just a single environment.

    And where is it written that evolution through mutation modified by environmental change cannot go backwards, but always goes forward?

    It isn’t written anywhere, but there is what I would call a general but not always sustained “direction” towards greater complexity. This mostly comes from the increasing nature of competition caused by the eventual scarcity of resources, various adaptations to predators and disease, or most commonly expansions into empty ecological niches. However the “rebooting” which occurs after ecological catastrophes is a sign that evolution can go backwards.

    @GJ
    With enough Time anything can happen!

    I personally prefer the Game of Thrones version: “A lot can happen between now and never.”

  • Zippy says:

    It might be worth reiterating the question posed by the OP in a slightly different form:

    IF original Darwinian evolution has been falsified by the fossil evidence AND the neodarwinian synthesis has been falsified by the microbiological evidence, THEN what is left of ‘evolution’ other than the label and the self-congratulatory attitude?

    I suppose someone who suspected that original and neodarwinian evolution have not been falsified by the evidence could still agree that the answer to the question is “not much” or “a bunch of cool storytelling”, stipulating the premises.

    And of course his ignorance of the state of the evidence could always be corrected by enough due diligence on his own part.

  • Step2 says:

    Zippy,
    As if people don’t view the evidence of theism through a lens that allows for development of doctrine and paradigm shifts (Old/New Covenant). Or that some people can manage to convince themselves that the world really is flat (I especially enjoy the notion they have their own dismissive lingo for us delusional Round Earthers as balltards and globeheads).

    I will return the criticism and say that even if you are convinced that evolution has been falsified, you still have to come up with a much better story to explain the evidence than what is found in creationist literature.

  • Zippy says:

    Step2:
    I imagine that there is probably a happy swath of common ground between us in assessing the quality of what passes for “creationist literature”.

    Your comment reminded me of an old clash I had with Lawrence Auster over “randomness”. A quick google brings up one discussion: http://www.amnation.com/vfr/archives/001172.html

    Good times.

  • Zippy says:

    On the other hand we may disagree over the epistemology of “if you can’t come up with a better fairytale that I like, my fairytale is true despite all the evidence that it is false.”

  • Hrodgar says:

    On the subject of randomness, have you read William Briggs on the subject? His most pertinent articles are here: http://wmbriggs.com/classic-posts/#ps.random

    One of his contentions is that chance and randomness are measures of knowledge, not reality. When we say chance caused something, what we are saying is we do not know the cause. When we call the result of a coin flip random, all we are saying is that it cannot be predicted by us given our present knowledge.

  • Zippy says:

    Hrodgar:
    I’ve read some of Briggs’ stuff but I don’t remember reading that in particular. It sounds like he is taking Einstein’s position that “God does not play dice”: there must be hidden variables in there, and we just don’t know what they are or what values they take on.

    In those old VFR discussions (and elsewhere) I distinguished between epistemic randomness (imperfect knowledge) and ontological randomness IIRC.

    It turns out that if the standard model of quantum mechanics is right you have to – contra Einstein – accept either ontological randomness (the Copenhagen interpretation) or “spooky action at a distance” (the Bohm interpretation). Other google search terms include Bell’s Theorem and the Aspect experiment.

    There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

  • Step2 says:

    Zippy,
    Over at VFR you wrote: If a theory metaphysically allows for ONLY randomness and immutable laws it has excluded intelligence and agency by definition: its just turtles all the way down, as the saying goes.

    If you are suggesting evolutionary theory makes cosmological demands which cannot allow for an intelligence who made those laws and random inputs then you are mistaken. If you are talking about something else I’m not clear what it is.

    Isn’t the issue really that the philosophy of science (in whatever discipline) sometimes manifests as naturalist religion by claiming to be epistemically and ontologically comprehensive?

    If Darwinism and evolution are sometimes, or even frequently, used incorrectly to imply the origins of life or a completely naturalistic worldview it isn’t much of an issue except for those misusing the terms.

    Among other things [naturalism] has to deny manifest realities such as conscience experience, morality, love, loyalty, the good, and the beautiful.

    If you are attacking evolutionary psychology in the OP as bad science, which you should because it is so speculative, then it seems weird to claim that naturalism denies conscience experience. As for morality and the rest, I don’t believe naturalism denies them – although it does downplay them as means of gaining objective knowledge.

  • Zippy says:

    Step2:

    I do have vague memories of arguing at least by proxy with a self described evolutionary psychologist at an Ivy League university approximately when I wrote those comments thirteen years ago. Evo-psych takes the dumbest parts of psychology and combines them with the dumbest parts of evolution, so it might be stretching things to expect anything consistent enough to even critique.

    It may be worth pointing out that I took those graduate classes I mentioned upthread years later than when I made those remarks at VFR.

    My considered view today is that qua empirical science, both versions of evolution which are concrete enough to count as science have been decisively falsified. (The presence or absence of alternate explanations of the data has no epistemic bearing on this: we can know that a particular theory is decisively, stupidly wrong without necessarily having in hand an alternative theory). What remains is metaphysical hubris of a particularly narrow-minded sort combined with some nice imaginative stories.

  • I think most men believe in the myth of progress when it comes to man; that he began as an idiot living in a cave etc and slowly progressed to the point where he became Joe Biden.

    The very little I know has me rejecting that myth for I think that Adam was the smartest man who ever lived and we have devolved since his death.

    O, and I am living proof of that devolution.

  • […] are getting somewhere.  If evolutionary theory is true, as opposed to merely sophistry which has evolved as a political defense of metaphysically naturalist hubris, then the humans who evolved to become evolutionary theorists ‘see none of […]

  • […] precepts had to be in place for this development, and how this development has been altered since. Zippy has some good ones regarding Darwin, but the same can be done with physics, chemistry, math, and […]

  • what’s your own position on the matter (I imagine it’s related to Behe’s)?

  • Zippy says:

    cyborg_nomade:

    My position is that:

    1) I don’t really have a metaphysical or religious objection to either darwinian evolution or neodarwinian evolution, described in the OP, as scientific hypotheses.

    2) However, both of those scientific hypotheses have been decisively falsified by empirical evidence.

    3) What is left of “evolution” after taking away the falsified scientific hypotheses is a bunch of question begging self contradictory metaphysical naturalist de-facto religious garbage.

  • Scott W. says:

    Just FYI, I linked this entry in the combox of an article at Crisis on intercommunion here: http://www.crisismagazine.com/2016/intercommunion-next-step-theological-ambiguity

    when someone (who elsewhere represents himself as a priest) declared that evolution disproves transubstantiation. Ahh…Christmas presents. 🙂

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