Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Questions about Evolution (Fred Reed)

Re-posted by Nicholas Stix

I thank the old buddy, who just sent this to me.

Me, Derbyshire, and Darwin
An Excavation
By Fred Reed
July 28, 2014
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Over the years I have occasionally expressed doubts over the tenets of
evolutionism which, perhaps wrongly, has seemed to me a sort of political
correctness of science, or maybe a metaphysics somewhat related to science. As a
consequence I have been severely reprehended. The editor of a site devoted to
genetic expression furiously began deleting any mention of me from his readers.
Others, to include Mr. John Derbyshire of Taki's Magazine, have expressed
disdain, though disdaining to explain just why.

In all of this, my inability to get straight answers that do not shift has
frustrated me. I decided to address my questions to an expert in the field,
preferably one who loathed me and thus might produce his best arguments so as to
stick it to me. To this end I have settled on Mr. Derbyshire.

He has the several advantages of being highly intelligent, an excellent writer,
ardent of all things evolutionary and genetic, and well versed in them. I would
profit by his instruction in things in which I am only an amateur-should he be
so inclined. (He may well have other things to do.) To this end, I submit a few
questions which have strained my admittedly paltry understanding for some time.
They are not new questions, but could use answers. I agree in advance to accept
his answers (if any be given) as canonical.

(1) In evolutionary principle, traits that lead to more surviving children
proliferate. In practice, when people learn how to have fewer or no children,
they do. Whole industries exist to provide condoms, diaphragms, IUDs,
vasectomies, and abortions, attesting to great enthusiasm for non-reproduction.
Many advanced countries are declining in population. How does having fewer
surviving children lead to having more surviving children? Less cutely, what
selective pressures lead to a desire not to reproduce, and how does this fit
into a Darwinian framework?

Two notes: (1) The answer cannot rely on contraception, which is not a force
imposed from outside. Just as people invented spears because they wanted to kill
food and each other, they invented condoms because they wanted not to have
children. The question is how that desire evolved. (2) The non-evolutionary
explanation is clear and simple. "We could have two children and a nice condo,
or fifteen and live in a shack."

(2) Morality. In evolution as I understand it, there are no absolute moral
values: Morals evolved as traits allowing social cooperation, conducing to the
survival of the group and therefore to the production of more surviving
children. The philosophical case for this absence of absolutes usually consists
in pointing out that in various societies everything currently regarded as
immoral has been accepted as acceptable (e.g., burning heretics to death).

I cannot refute the argument. However, I thnk it intellectually disreputable to
posit premises and then not accept their consequences.

Question: Why should I not indulge my hobby of torturing to death the severely
genetically retarded? This would seem beneficial. We certainly don't want them
to reproduce, they use resources better invested in healthy children, and it
makes no evolutionary difference whether they die quietly or screaming.

(3) Abiogenesis. This is not going to be a fair question as there is no way
anyone can know the answer, but I pose it anyway. The theory, which I cannot
refute, is that a living, metabolizing, reproducing gadget formed accidentally
in the ancient seas. Perhaps it did. I wasn't there. It seems to me, though,
that the more complex one postulates the First Critter to have been, the less
likely, probably exponentially so, it would have been to form. The less complex
one postulates it to have been, the harder to explain why biochemistry, which
these days is highly sophisticated, cannot reproduce the event. Question: How
many years would have to pass without replication of the event, if indeed it be
not replicated, before one might begin to suspect that it didn't happen? For all
I know, it may be accomplished tomorrow. But the check cannot be in the mail

(4) You can't get there from here. Straight-line evolution, for example in which
Eohippus gradually gets larger until it reaches Clydesdale, is plausible because
each intervening step is a viable animal. In fact this is just selective
breeding. Yet many evolutionary transformations seem to require intermediate
stages that could not survive.

For example there are two-cycle bugs (insects, arachnids) that lay eggs that
hatch into tiny replicas of the adults, which grow, lay eggs, and repeat the
cycle. The four-cycle bugs go through egg, larva, pupa, adult. Question: What
are the viable steps needed to evolve from one to the other? Or from anything to

Here I am baffled. As best I can see, the eggs of the two-cycler would have to
evolve toward being caterpillars, which are enormously different structurally
and otherwise from adults. Goodbye legs, chitinous exoskeleton; head, thorax,
and abdomen, on and on. Whatever the first mutation toward this end, the
resulting newly-hatched mutant would have to be viable-able to live and
reproduce until the next mutation occurred.

It is difficult to see how the evolution from insect to caterpillar could occur
at all, or why. But if it did, it would lead to a free-standing race of
caterpillars, a new species, necessarily being able to reproduce. Then, for
reasons mysterious to me, these would have to decide to pupate and become
butterflies. Metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly is enormously complex
and if you don't get it right the first time, it's curtains. Where would it have
gotten the impossibly complex genetic blueprint of the butterfly?

Among intellectual loin-cloth-wearers like me, there seems no answer. I do not
doubt that Mr. Derbyshire can provide one. Upon receiving same, I promise to
shut up.

(5) You can't get anywhere else from here. Mr. Derbyshire believes strongly in
genetic determinism-that we are what we are and behave as we do because of
genetic programming. I see no flaw in this. From the baby's suckling through
walking and talking, the adolescent's omniscience, making love and war, and
cooling off with age things seem undeniably genetic.

Behavior less obviously biological also seems built-in. Political orientation,
for example. Note that conservatives usually see the world as dangerous and
life as struggle; to have intense loyalty to the pack (patriotism), to reverence
the military, to feel empathy for members of their tribe (our fallen heroes,
etc.) and none at all for enemy dead; to favor capitalism; and to be hostile to
or disdainful of other racial and ethnic groups. That these traits tend strongly
to appear together though they are logically independent suggests a genetic

In his book, We Are Doomed, Mr. Derbyshire describes the brain, correctly as far
as I can tell, as an electrochemical mechanism, and somewhat delicately hints at
chemical determinism in that organ. I see no way of avoiding this conclusion.

But again, does one not have to accept the consequences of one's suppositions? A
physical (to include chemical) system cannot make decisions. All subsequent
states of a physical system are determined by the initial state. So, if one
accepts the electrochemical premise (which, again, seems to be correct) it
follows that we do not believe things because they are true, but because we are
predestined to believe them. Question: Does not genetic determinism (with which
I have no disagreement) lead toa paradox: that the thoughts we think we are
thinking we only think to be thoughts when they are really utterly predetermined
by the inexorable working of physics and chemistry?

(That was fun. I recall Samuel Johnson's remark on the existence of free will:
All theory is against it, but all experience is for it.)

(6) The evolutionary noise level. In principle, traits spread through a
population because they lead to the having of greater numbers of children.
Consider the epicanthic fold, the flap that makes the eyes of East Asians seem
slanted. In evolutionary writings this is often described as an adaptation
either to save energy or to protect the eyes from icy winds. We will here assume
that actual studies have shown that it actually does so.

I do not understand how the fold evolved.

Unless it results from a point mutation, (and I do not think it does), it must
have evolved gradually. This means, does it not, that even a partial fold
conferred so great an advantage in survival that the possessor had more children
than their unfolded relatives.

Being as I am untutored in these matters, the idea seems ludicrous. Did the eyes
of the unfolded freeze, leaving the Folded One to get all the girls? Did the
folded conserve so much energy that they could copulate more vigorously?

While grounds can doubtless be found for dismissing the example of the
epicanthic fold, countless instances exist of traits that become universal or
nearly so while lacking any plausible connection to greater fecundity.

Here I sink into a veritable La Brea of incomprehension. Genes already exist in
populations for extraordinary superiority of many sorts-for the intelligence of
Stephen Hawking, the body of Mohammed Ali, for 20/5 vision, for the astonishing
endurance in running of the Tarahumara Indians, and so on. To my unschooled
understanding, these traits offer clear and substantial advantage in survival
and reproduction, yet they do not become universal, or even common. The
epicanthic fold does. Question: Why do seemingly trivial traits proliferate
while clearly important ones do not?

(7) The universality of the unnecessary. Looking at the human body, I see many
things that appear to have no relation to survival or more vigorous
reproduction, and that indeed work against it, yet are universal in the species.
For example, the kidneys contain the nervous tissue that makes kidney stones
agonizingly painful, yet until recently the victim has been able to do nothing
about them. Migraine headaches are paralyzing, and would appear to convey little
advantage in having more children. ("No, honey, I have a violent headache..")
Sensing pain clearly has evolutionary advantages. If you fall on your head, it
hurts, so you are careful not to, and thus survive and have more children
(though frankly I have sometimes thought that it might be better to fall on
one's head). Wounds are painful, so you baby them, letting them heal. But,
Question: What is the reproductive advantage of crippling pain (migraines can be
crippling) about which pre-recently, the sufferer could do nothing?

(8) Finally, the supernatural. Unfairly, as it turned out, in regard to religion
I had expected Mr. Derbyshire to strike the standard "Look at me, I'm an
atheist, how advanced I am" pose. I was wrong. In fact he says that he believes
in a God. (Asked directly, he responded, "Yes, to my own satisfaction, though
not necessarily to yours.") His views are reasoned, intellectually modest, and,
though I am not a believer, I see nothing with which to quarrel, though for
present purposes this is neither here nor there. Question: If one believes in or
suspects the existence of God or gods, how does one exclude the possibility that
He, She, or It meddles in the universe-directing evolution, for example?

A belief in gods would seem to leave the door open to Intelligent Design, the
belief that the intricacies of life came about not by accident but were crafted
by Somebody or Something. The view, anathema in evolutionary circle, is usually
regarded as emanating from Christianity, and usually does.

Though this column is not about me or my beliefs, to head off a lot of email let
me say that I am not remotely a Christian but a thoroughgoing agnostic, more so
it seems than Mr. Derbyshire, and my suspicions regarding Intelligent
Design-suspicions is all they are-are not deductions from Christianity but
inferences from observation. To my eye, the damned place looks designed. By
what, I am clueless.

To close, I ask these questions in a spirit of inquiry, not of ideological
warfare. Mr. Derbyshire is far deeper in these matters than I, who can barely
distinguish a phosphodiester bond from a single-nucleotide polymorphism. All I
seek are clear, straightforward, unambiguous answers devoid of the evasion I
have so often encountered. I do not doubt that he can help me if so inclined.


John Derbyshire said...

Fred: You've been posing these questions for as long as I've known you (15 years?). You posed the question about insect evolution back in 2005, for example. Here's Gary Hurd responding. Oddly, I don't see a response from you in the comment thread.

True, Hurd's response is snarky and ill-spelt, but he provides a sheaf of books and papers where you can find answers. Did you read them all?

What did you think, for example, of Truman & Riddiford's ENDOCRINE INSIGHTS INTO THE EVOLUTION OF METAMORPHOSIS IN INSECTS in the Annual Review of Entomology Vol. 47: 467-500? Did it commit logical errors? Beg questions? Leave important things unsaid? Hm?

Back in the early 2000s when Intelligent Design was having its little vogue the National Council for Science Education started the TalkOrigins website, providing both concise refutations and massive reading lists for all creationist claims. Here's their section on abiogenesis, for example.

If you sincerely want to educate yourself in biology, there's plenty of material available on the internet, like the items I've just cited, to give you a start.

Since this stuff's easy to find, and since you are still asking the same questions now as you were asking ten or fifteen years ago, is it unreasonable of me to conclude that you're not deeply interested in learning the answers? That you just get some kind of psychic reward from repeatedly asking the questions?

If I'm wrong, and you are sincerely trying to acquire understanding, I could draw up a study plan for you, though it might take me a while.

For these kinds of consultancy services I normally bill $150 an hour, but for auld acquaintance I'll drop it to $133 for you.

Let me know.

Anonymous said...

"Oh God, not this s[tuff] again. Mr Derbyshire, you posted a polite, reasoned reply when the temptation to do otherwise is probably great.

Odd, I think, that those who want to use scientific facts and arguments to prove the existence of God, don't rally to the 'oddity' of how fine tuned the parameters of physics need to be to allow life.


The argument here is more subtle and fun.