Steve Bougerolle steveb at
Mon Jun 17 01:06:54 PDT 2002

On Mon, 2002-06-17 at 06:26, Albert Wagner wrote:

> I suppose I need to apologize then for my previous post;  you really accept 
> evolution as the most likely explanation for speciation.  As far as I know 
> that is as far as the theory of evolution goes.

That's all right, I read your second post here before my flame thrower
was fully charged :-)

> > My religious interest only kicks
> > in at this point, and as I said I am concerned with ethics, not
> > interested in any sort of creationist debate; I don't like this view
> > because I see it leading to a gross lack of respect for life and a
> > dangerous overconfidence in how much we know. 
> This is an ENTIRELY different topic. And one that you would find many 
> evolutionists agree with you on.  Why did you not say so sooner.  Playing the 
> devils advocate?

I did say so, way back in my first post!  I expect that I am not the
only person here who likes to argue, and that's why this debate has gone
four or five rounds.

> > Thanks for the reference.  I brushed up on the latest from
> > last night, reviewing punctuated equilibrium and genetic drift and so
> > on.  All nice to read, but all just word games.
> ALL theories arise out of such "word games."  Such games are a necessary part 
> of deciding where to focus ones efforts.

My point there is the standard criticism that we physicists tend to make
of other areas: the logical argument behind macro-evolution is all well
and good, offers insight, and has much of value to commend it.  However,
logical arguments are in no way a substitute for numerical predictions
which can be verified.  (The ensuing rant is not directed personally at
you, Albert, I just want to make my objections as clear as possible now
to everyone, so I don't have to make them again).

Of course, it is logically true that random mutations (almost a
redundancy) can combine to give you the shape of life as we see it.  It
is also logically true that random mutations could result in creatures
with two pairs of eyes, one on each side of their head.  It is also
logically true that given enough time and enough undirected genetic
change, nature should produce a one-eyed one-horned flying purple
eater.  However, I haven't seen any.  

Why not?  Well, the purple people eaters (or any other such extreme
creature) might not be viable for all sorts of complex reasons, most
likely involving behavioural difficulties and the necessity of fitting
them into an ecosystem with suitable amounts of prey.  The four-eyed
all-seeing creatures might not exist because it requires a much less
probable chain of events to evolve them.  However, neither of these
answers are evident in the simple catch-all reply that "the species we
see evolved because of accumulated genetic changes".  A proper answer
requires more thought.

Having made that point (I hope):

It is logically true that single-celled organisms could gain some
advantage and eventually evolve to become a complex organism like an
ostrich.  It is also just as logically true that all the radioactive
Uranium nuclei in the world could spontaneously decay at the same time,
causing all sorts of interesting and unpleasant phenomena. Nevertheless,
it doesn't happen and nobody who studies the matter expects it to happen
*because of the probabilities involved*.  Why should we apply less
strict standards to evolutionary arguments than to those in nuclear
physics?  Are evolutionary theorists excepted from having to make sense
or offer arguments acceptable to other scientists trained in numerical

Of course, atomic nuclei are easier to study than life forms in many
ways.  However, this is much less true now than it was, say, fifty years
ago.  With advanced modelling capabilities afforded by computers, and
better data from genetic investigation (among other things) it should be
possible to come up with some sort of vaguely reasonable set of
probabilities related to these evolutionary events.  We have years of
medical studies on the toxicity of endless many substances, abundant
data on cosmic rays and radiation effects on life, and computer
simulations of subjects as basic as protein folding.  I'm not too
demanding in the quality of answers, either, I don't think.  The answers
could be uncertain by, say, five orders of magnitude and I'd still be
happy to hear them, as long as they explained the parameters involved in
them and which assumptions led to which extremes.  If at least a
half-baked numerical answer can't be concocted now, it'd be nice to hear
why it can't be done.  

Perhaps it HAS been done, but I haven't found any such answer despite
(admittedly somewhat brief) searches, and nobody seems interested in
offering one.  It might well be true that this argument isn't really
part of evolutionary theory, as biologists define that.  However, the
political reality is that most people consider evolution does explain
these problem areas, and as we've seen biologists too often don't seem
interested in correcting that misapprehension. 

I think the entire debate over evolution could be made a lot less
incendiary if biologists would start answering these sorts of questions
with more respect than they usually do.  One doesn't need to be an
expert in biology to see problem areas.

Steve Bougerolle
Creek & Cowley Consulting

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