Approximately
Posted by aogWednesday, 13 September 2006 at 23:56 TrackBack Ping URL

I have been thinking on and off about evolutionary theory since this post, which I think set a record for comments. It struck me when I read this post that it would serve as the basis for a proper critique of modern evolutionary theory (as opposed to the non-sensical one I complained about in my earlier post).

The basic gist of Howard’s post is that social science suffers from its simultaneous desire to emulate the precision of the physical sciences and its inability to do so because of the complexity of its units of study. I.e., electrons can be completely characterized by a small set of properties all of which can described with reliably measured numeric values1. In contrast, people are the units of the social sciences and they have few properties that are as quantifiable and no important ones that are. Attempts to treat social science as if it could be done like physics leads to bad science.

It seems to me that both strong evolutionists and detractors both treat evolutionary theory in this incorrect way, that it is deterministic and complete (i.e. has an explanation for any physical feature). In practice, due to the complexity of the basic units, evolutionary theory has neither of these properties. It is a statistical theory, one in which things are more and less probable but nothing is ever certain2.

Critics attempt to discredit evolutionary theory by citing counter examples or improbabilities, but of course those are mere evidence, not disproofs (and generally weak evidence at that). The pressure of evolution isn’t the hard, intense pressure of how we humans do things, but a slow and patient one. That shouldn’t be surprising, since evolution is part of Nature and that’s how Nature does things. Evolutionary pressure cannot operate on time scales much smaller than a generation, since reproduction is the central engine of the process and that’s a rather slow time scale.

On the other hand, I see quite a few “supporters” of evolutionary theory make the same mistake, which leads to some of the rather silly “just so” stories mocked at Brothers Judd. It’s random, sometimes odd things just happen for no good reason. It doesn’t have to explain everything and it certainly doesn’t have to explain every little aspect of every little detail of every creature.

Just as annoyingly, very often even valid evolutionary theory is presented in a teleological manner, which of course is wrong (evolution isn’t teleological, it’s random). E.g., “the environment got colder so the rabbits evolved longer fur”. Uh, no3. Perhaps it’s just too hard to avoid anthropomorphizing but it certainly doesn’t help present an accurate view of the actual theory.

Overall, though, I don’t worry about it much. Surveys of how few people believe in evolutionary theory don’t concern me. Normal people don’t really need to know or believe it to get through life, even if it’s true. There are so many other wells of ignorance in the general population that one must either give up or accept that we can survive such4. It’s not even clear that it can be properly taught, except in catch phrases, to students in primary education (especially not if we are currently failing to teach them simple algebra, grammar, and basic history). It does provide some nice, soft, rhetorical targets from time to time which is my reason for wading in.


1 There’s a serious physical theory that this is because there is only one electron, we just see it a lot. When it goes back in time, it is percieved as anti-matter, but if you trace out every collision in the history of the universe, you see that in the end it’s all the same particle. Although there’s no obvious reason in physics that couldn’t be true, it remains a non-mainstream theory.

2 This makes arguments via the Second Law of Thermodynamics amusing, because the law actually reads

the total entropy of any isolated thermodynamic system tends to increase over time, approaching a maximum value [emphasis added]

Thermodynamics is also a statistical science and so it has no certainties either, not even the increase of entropy. Few people that I see use this Law, for good or ill, seem to grasp this point.

3 “The decrease in average temperatures created a preferential survival rate for long hair rabbits which, over the course of a number of generations, lead to a predominance of long hair rabbits”. The dryness of this may explain the anthropomorphizing, but it also ties in to the later point of trying to teach this kind of abstract theory as basic science.

4 Look at all the people who believe in Socialism, when it doesn’t even comport with their personal experience and knowledge of the world. That’s why it has to be sold by “experts”.

Comments — Formatting by Textile
Peter Burnet Thursday, 14 September 2006 at 07:38

The problem with both sides is hubris—the refusal to countenance the idea that what we know or may know is just a tiny sliver of what there is to know. We seem to be hard-wired (!!) for that, at least in youth. That is why both sides are often so easy to make fun of. Neither side tells a story that is consistent with what we live and experience every day.

But certainly evolutionists fall into the error described so well by Howard. Biologists may be engaged in hard science when they are studying plants and critters, but the minute they try to extrapolate onto humans they become social scientists with all the limited, warped perceptions that implies. They make sense most of the time with the former because we can only conceive of them as having objective existences. We can’t imagine an ant or bee behaving like Tom Sawyer and trying to slack off and let the others do the work, nor a bird embarassed to sing because his friend is so much better at it. The biggest weakness in evolutionary theory is that last step in the ascent/descent chart that adorns the walls of science classes, and that is also the source of most of the anger and political opposition. Not surprisingly, it’s also the thing evolutionists tend to froth most defiantly about and invent very unscientific fantasies like memes to explain.

BTW, for those collecting just-so stories, I learned the other day that primitive man associated the wind with crop fertility. He invented dance to mimic the wind and thus improve the harvest. Some dumb crops, eh?

Brit Thursday, 14 September 2006 at 09:35

I suggest we refer to the ‘just so stories’ field as ‘evolutionary psychology’.

Most evolutionary biologists are content to put the oddities and complexities of human behaviour down to our big brains, and let the shrinks scrap over the details.

So it’s true that all sorts of would-be Freuds have come up a stream of theories to explain human behaviour by imagining what our ancestors got up to in caves with caribou (as I phrased it somewhere else), often with patently absurd or at least unprovable results.

But it is equally absurd for the ‘other side’ to draw any conclusions about the fact of evolution from the excesses of the psychologists.

Annoying Old Guy Thursday, 14 September 2006 at 09:42

Perhaps we need to distinguish between supporters of evolutionary theory (like me) and “evolutionists”, just as we distinguish Muslims and Caliphascists. I think that evolutionary theory has a strong attraction for militant atheists and other types who have psychological issues with religion and Christianity in particular. The fact that it sets off the religious whackos is no small part of that attraction. Such people become evolutionists and treat the theory as a world explaining paradigm instead of what it is, a theory with applications in the biological sciences.

Brit Thursday, 14 September 2006 at 10:05

I don’t see the need for arbitrarily splitting those who accept the fact of evolution into two camps. You could split that vast number of people a million ways.

We only need to point out that the absurdity of some of the claims of evolutionary psychologists does not affect the validity of evolution itself, which is what Peter is trying to do when he argues that “the biggest weakness in evolutionary theory is that last step in the ascent/descent chart that adorns the walls of science classes” - as if evolution came ready-made as a Theory Of Everything, with anthropolgy being a weak point that could bring the whole tumbling down.

That’s the wrong way of looking at it - evolution is established fact, but we’re only just now thinking about what that fact might mean. So the reason Peter looks at it like that is precisely because evolution does indeed have consequences far beyond what you call “a theory with applications in the biological sciences.”

These include unavoidable consequences for anthropology and psychology. The problem is that those disciplines are in their infancy, and psychologists are wont to get ahead of themselves in their rush for the just-so speculations so beloved of the mainstream media and the religious bloggers.

Peter Burnet Thursday, 14 September 2006 at 11:26

No Brit, you misunderstood. Without agreeing with your use of the word “fact”, what is offensive about the chart is not what it implies about genetic mutation but what it implies about man just being a continuam in a process in which we expressly exclude the subjective or consciousness, even though we all think that is what defines who and what we are (although, like Dr. Phil, we don’t necessarily attribute it to others).

Most evolutionary biologists are content to put the oddities and complexities of human behaviour down to our big brains…

Are we supposed to be impressed with that? You mean if we had smaller brains we might be able to survive and adapt but not be able to fall in love or start a civil war? Done your sums on that one, have you?

Brit Thursday, 14 September 2006 at 11:38

Why would the fact of man’s evolution from other primates preclude consciousness? Apes and dogs are conscious, so far as we know, and we’re much more conscious.

But here’s the point: what the fact of man’s evolution might or might not imply about what you do or don’t find offensive is simply not Darwin’s fault.

cjm Thursday, 14 September 2006 at 14:05

evolution strikes me as working like the early, brute force, chess programs. you generate lots of candidates over multiple levels/generations, until a winning combination is encountered/created. people get hung up on agendas and semantics and lose sight of the actual processes involved (if they ever cared in the first place).

Annoying Old Guy Thursday, 14 September 2006 at 14:57

Yes, but evolution is playing millions of chess games at the same time with the same moves. In some games the combination wins and in others it loses. The “best” move is the one that wins the most (and to make it even more challenging, every game counts for a different number of points). One example that comes to mind is horse motion, which has to play the effeciency, speed, and maintenance games all at the same time. What wins in one may lose in others, creating a dynamic tension rather than a clear winning design.

cjm Thursday, 14 September 2006 at 18:28

then you add in the time and geographic location dimensions, and things get really interesting :) apparently, evolution can also “unwind” and you get individuals who exhibit signs of evolutionary regression.

Peter Burnet Friday, 15 September 2006 at 03:34

Brit:

Consciousness in this context means more than just being sentient and having memory and instinct. Call me when your cat asks you what it is all about or your dog decides to leave you to find himself.

But fine, we differ. I look at Chartres or Shakespeare or the Manhatten skyline or Auschwitz and it boggles my mind to see serious people trying to posit a natural continuum by either reducing man or celebrating the putative ability of animals to emulate our higher achievments. You, on the other hand, observe Fido getting all excited when you pick up his ball and a straight line to Pilgrim’s Progress unfolds before your eyes. Or a mangy dog growls at you for no reason and you are inspired to write a poem. Bully for you and bully for me, the point is that neither of us is engaged in science and neither of us can relate all this to the physical evolution of anything. I confess to being unable to conceive how it ever could no matter what part of my brain is lighting up or how many neurons are merrily firing away. Then there is the little problem you have with Mayr having proclaimed physical evolution over for man a couple of hundred years ago. Our brains haven’t grown a centimetre for a very long time but our capacity for poetry, architecture, killing and despair is very different. Does it make any scientific sense at all to try and use natural selection to explain non-physical evolution? It seems to be more a matter of aesthetics.

But I have a question for AOG. Do you think it is intellectually respectable as a matter of logic to say that the synthesis must be incomplete—that random mutation, natural selection and genetic drift are indeed forces in play, but they can’t be the only ones?

Peter Burnet Friday, 15 September 2006 at 03:36

Sorry, that’s a couple of hundred thousand years ago.

Brit Friday, 15 September 2006 at 04:45

I’m not sure if it makes any sense to explain ‘non-physical evolution’ by referring to natural selection - by which I guess you’re talking about memes. I think the idea of memes does have some things going for it, but it’s just a tool for describing how ‘bits’ of information spread and become popular and attain longevity, or don’t.

It seems to me that the difference between us is really only in that I don’t have an aesthetic problem with human consciousness having a physical component. That a physical brain can be the delivery mechanism for Paradise Lost and Handel’s Messiah is a source of mystery and wonderment to me, and I don’t pretend to understand how it works, but I accept that there is a physical delivery mechanism, and that it perishes on the death of the brain.

Peter Burnet Friday, 15 September 2006 at 05:24

No, I’ve left the sixteenth century behind and can accept there is a physical component to consciousness—neurons apparently do fire. I actually rather like the idea of a gorgeous fireworks display going off inside every time I think of something clever. But how does that speak to cause, i.e. randomness or design?

Brit Friday, 15 September 2006 at 07:01

I don’t really know how to answer that question, I can’t grasp what you’re getting at.

But my question would be: if you accept the correlation between physical brain items and ‘non-physical’ mental items, why do you need something more, eg. something that survives death?

Michael Herdegen Friday, 15 September 2006 at 07:08

Our brains haven’t grown a centimetre for a very long time but our capacity for poetry, architecture, killing and despair is very different.

I don’t think that such is true. It’s just that we have better tools and more examples now.

In fact, considering what the ancients came up with despite their lack of technology, one could argue that we’ve regressed on the architectural front. (And some people do, at great length).

Peter Burnet Friday, 15 September 2006 at 07:50

Brit:

The idea that people are religious because they “need” something comforting is very modern and actually originated with you guys trying to explain why so many folks rejected what seemed obvious and exciting to you. So is the sugary notion that we are all going to drift off directly to a nice warm place for eternity regardless of who did what. There is an element to that for many, but I’d wager more in history experienced faith as an unwelcome knock at the door they daren’t ignore and a irksome restriction on what they really wanted to do.

You can’t have it both ways. You can reject religion as just a comforting fairy-tale for life’s losers or you can reject it as an oppressive method of social control that warps us through guilt and terrifying harangues on sex and death. But both at the same time?

Michael:

Arguably regressed on a lot of fronts, including art and survivability in nature unaided. But as Mom always told me to take my Darwinism straight-up and non-teleological, what do such musings mean to a man of science?

Brit Friday, 15 September 2006 at 08:38

You can reject religion as just a comforting fairy-tale for life’s losers or you can reject it as an oppressive method of social control that warps us through guilt and terrifying harangues on sex and death. But both at the same time?

Sure, both at the same time. CofE is the former, Rome the latter.

Annoying Old Guy Friday, 15 September 2006 at 09:06

Do you think it is intellectually respectable as a matter of logic to say that the synthesis must be incomplete—that random mutation, natural selection and genetic drift are indeed forces in play, but they can’t be the only ones?

No, I don’t think that is intellectually responsible. First, it’s not a matter of logic, because logic leads to things being possible or not possible — probability doesn’t figure in to it, hence the CYA phrase “it’s logically possible” to describe something extremely unlikely to occur.

Second, the statement makes a very strong assertion, for which there is no compelling evidence. If you changed it to be “they are unlikely to be the only ones” you could defend it scientifically.

Finally, this brings us right back to the thesis of the original post, which is that evolutionary theory is an approximate / statistical theory and therefore lacks the precision and completeness which would enable one to make such a deduction. In physics, because it starts with the the assumption that we can enumerate all effects and properties, if the sums don’t add up we can (logically) deduce that the synthesis is incomplete. Evolutionary theory can’t cover everything therefore “missing” is probabilistic, not determinative.

As for your other points, I really need to write a post I have been thinking about for a year or two now which lays out the basic conceptual framework I use to think about such problems. I know it’s powerful because even a casual description of it really ticked off OJ.

Annoying Old Guy Friday, 15 September 2006 at 09:17

Mr. Burnet;

Oh, I have to write one more thing.

OJ’s theory is that micro-evolution is valid but that speciation requires divine intervention. Evolutionary theory cannot disprove that. It is simply not complete enough and, IMHO, fundamentally incapable of becoming so. Theory could show that divine intervention isn’t necessary but that is not at all the same as proving that it did not happen. It is also not the same as proving divine intervention wasn’t necessary in the particular instance of human evolution. “Could” is not “did” or “will”. Critics who claim otherwise are making precisely the mistake you did and attributing a completeness to the theory that just isn’t there.

“But, but”, many will sputter, “what’s the point of it then?”. All I can say is, welcome to reality where none of your tools are perfect. You make do with what you have or rail against the injustice of physical reality. I am a tool user, myself.

Brit Friday, 15 September 2006 at 09:48

AOG:

OJ’s theory is that micro-evolution is valid but that speciation requires divine intervention. Evolutionary theory cannot disprove that. It is simply not complete enough and, IMHO, fundamentally incapable of becoming so.

I would disagree. It can (and already does) prove or at least provide strong evidence that speciation does not require divine intervention, since the distinction between micro-evolution and speciation is a red herring.

What it cannot and will never be able to do is prove that divine intervention does not occur. It just removes the necessity to believe that it does.

Annoying Old Guy Friday, 15 September 2006 at 10:03

Brit;

I need to drink more coffee before posting in the morning. You are correct, evolutionary theory could disprove my phrasing of OJ’s thesis. It could not disprove that his thesis, as a scenario, did not occur.

It does leave me wondering, though, if we consider OJ’s view that there is no such thing as a species, then wouldn’t it follow that speciation doesn’t occur and the point is moot?

Brit Friday, 15 September 2006 at 10:15

It’s afternoon here, so I have an unfair advantage.

Yes, that’s another reason why his theory of evolution is so bizarre. I can’t see how ‘there is no such thing as species’ fits in without contradicting what appears to be his sole objection to Darwinism - namely, that it can’t explain speciation.

But his theory is so slippery, transparently intellectually dishonest, and make-it-up-as-you-go-along, that arguing with it is like nailing jelly to a ceiling, as we all know.

Peter Burnet Friday, 15 September 2006 at 10:19

AOG:

Thank you very much. I can go with “unlikely”. In fact, the reason I should have seen the error myself is that in all our debates over the years I’ve been intrigued by what I call “the problem of plausibility”. Science may not have disproved scripture as natural history in the strictest sense (mainly because history can’t be observed), but it has rendered it so highly implausible that one can confidently reject it on the Samuel Johnson “I refute it thus!” principle, as most religious folks do in the West. The creationist activists who insist young earth theories are possibly true rely on the same argument doctrinaire evolutionists use to defend just-so stories—they “could have happened” and can’t be disproven. But of course both sides have an agenda that goes far beyond the specific assertion. And both sides end up asserting things that ordinary folk not in the grip of fear or ideological paradigms think are crazy. I can’t count the number of times I’ve shaken my head at our friends around here when they scoff at traditional scriptural accounts of natural history and then, without even pausing for breath, go through such mental hoops to lend credence to some wild, wild tales of their own.

This is the essence of both scientism and theocracy—the denial of the individual, especially the untrained one, not just the right to exercise critical judgment based upon experience, but also the authoritative capacity to do so. Theologians fall back on mystery and evolutionists on the counter-intuitive. The haughty rejection by Darwinism’s leading lights of the criticisms of non-biologists simply because they aren’t biologists recalls the prohibition of the Church against reading the Bible.

Of course, the real problem comes, as every Protestant knows, when you realize there are indeed mysteries and counter-intuitive truths and that study must confer authority of some kind. At that point the only thing left to say is: “Thank God it’s Friday”.

I look forward to that post.

cjm Friday, 15 September 2006 at 15:36

what’s really interesting, and i thnk counter to what MH posted, is that human knowledge has not accumulated continuously — it exploded from almost nothing about 7000 or so years ago. you can quibble with the details but we have been biologically stable for at least severall hundred thousand years, but all real progress has been in the last 1%+ of that period. what changed and was it internal or external ? having no idelogical axe to grind, and enough science classes to follow a theory and make my own mind up, i can enjoy both sides of the argument. clearly religion is a necessary component of human existence, and just as clearly not all religions are equally beneficial.

Annoying Old Guy Friday, 15 September 2006 at 15:56

Here’s one theory.

Michael Herdegen Saturday, 16 September 2006 at 08:48

Well, no, human knowledge didn’t “explode from nothing” - it’s just that it’s easy to take for granted such breakthroughs as controlling fire, domesticating animals, agriculture, constructing effective, durable shelters, fashioning pottery, art, and making edged tools, including weapons.

Humans didn’t come into the world with those skills, but some cultures had all of those attributes 15,000 years ago, and many cultures had some of them as early as 50,000 years ago.

cjm Saturday, 16 September 2006 at 13:22

that would explain all he progress in the first 300k+ years…oh wait, there wasn’t any. if you think the difference in human knowledge between 50k years ago, and say 3k years ago, isnt’ signifigant then more power to you, but the graph of progress is anything but linear. chimps use and make tools, and have done for over a million years, but they have never made the jump we have. i can’t help thinking you just like to argue for its own sake, because this is not a topic that is in dispute, the record is perfectly clear.

Michael Herdegen Saturday, 16 September 2006 at 19:21

Perhaps I don’t understand what your point is.

You seem to believe that early humans didn’t innovate or learn anything. I pointed out that that’s not true.

Are you saying that early humans were like monkeys, with a limited and static skill-set, but then something happened ?

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