About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Wednesday, September 05, 2007
Dembski's friend gets it spectacularly wrong, again
So, what I actually said of Lynch's book is that it is a must-read for anyone interested in genomics, which is the major topic of the book itself. However, I concentrated my review on the final chapter by Lynch, because it is the most controversial, as he himself clearly says at the beginning of it. That chapter essentially claims that current efforts at significantly expanding the Modern Synthesis (the standard version of evolutionary theory) are misguided because we've got all the theoretical arsenal we need to explain evolution. For Lynch natural selection is but one of several evolutionary “forces,” and not even as central to the evolution of genomes as most people seem to think. Once we add genetic drift, mutation pressure, and all the other staples of population genetics, we've got a pretty complete theory. Lynch dismisses references to newly studied phenomena such as evolvability and modularity, and does not think that evolutionary biologists will uncover any additional organizing principles affecting the history of life.
While Lynch is in very good company, I and several others have in fact called for major expansions of the Modern Synthesis during the past decade or so. Authors such as Mary Jane West-Eberhard, Stephen Gould, Eva Jablonka, Stuart Kauffman, Gerd Muller, Gunter Wagner and many more have pointed out that there are major features of evolution (especially of the evolution of development) that are compatible, yes, but not satisfactorily explained by the Modern Synthesis. Contrary to Lynch's complaints, we have pointed toward several fruitful venues of investigation (including complexity theory, a revised role of constraints in evolution, phenotypic plasticity, and the very same modularity and evolvability referred to above) that might, in our judgment, eventually lead to an Expanded Evolutionary Synthesis.
What has any of this to do with ID? Nothing, of course, since we are talking about a genuine scientific debate which will be settled by the usual means of science: a give-and-take between theory and empirical evidence. But Dembski's blog instead talks about the dangers of reductionism (neither Lynch nor I are reductionists by any stretch of the imagination), and how it does not make any sense “to try to understand a library by studying the alphabet” (has anybody actually suggested that? Besides, surely knowledge of the alphabet is in fact quite important in understanding books, if not libraries...). The post on “Uncommon Descent” shows two pictures of living organisms, a caterpillar and a butterfly, and labels them as two different “proteoms” (i.e., two distinct ensembles of proteins), pointedly asking how can evolution explain the fact that one genome (that of the caterpillar/butterfly) can produce two distinct proteoms.
First off, those are pictures of organisms, not proteoms. Second, there is no mystery: if the author of the post had bothered to read Lynch's book (instead of just my review of it) s/he would know that we have detailed knowledge of how the same genome can produce different proteoms at different developmental stages. And by the way, what would ID's “explanation” be? “God did it?”
“Uncommon Descent” turns into all too common stupidity (or at least intellectual laziness) when the same post pronounces with pseudo-profoundity: “Trying to explain proteomics in terms of genomics is like trying to explain a spacecraft merely as a conglomeration of atoms. It simply fails and is an abysmal category error.” OK, to begin with, the analogy makes no sense: an understanding of genomes (as given by genomics) is a necessary part of the explanation for proteoms (the object of study of proteomics), together with insights provided by other biological disciplines, such as developmental biology. There is no conceptual error at all here, let alone an “abysmal” one. It is just the way science works, and abysmal is only the ignorance of the contributor to that blog. Moreover, the correct philosophical term is “category mistake” (not category error), and it actually means something completely different. The classic example of a category mistake in philosophy is of a fellow being shown the grounds of Oxford University, meeting students, faculty, and administrators, visiting the labs, classrooms and libraries, and at the end of the day saying: “Very interesting, but where is the University?” Clearly he had (mistakenly) thought that the University was something above and beyond the collection of buildings, resources and human beings that make up Oxford. It is, ironically, a mistake that creationists make very readily.
But no bad article on creationism/ID (there is no intellectual difference thereof) would be complete without the most classic of blunders by these pseudo-intellectuals, and I quote: “Trying to comprehend engineering wonders in terms of random accidents makes no sense.” Indeed, it doesn't. But when will you people get it into your thick and ideologically damaged skull that the theory of evolution (even the standard Modern Synthesis version) is not at all based on randomness? What is it in the phrase “natural selection” that makes you think of randomness? “Selection” ain't clear enough for you folks?