Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Response to Another Blogger

As you may have noticed from this post, Tom Sheepandgoats and I have been engaged in an ongoing debate. I have to say the debate has been quite civil so far, which I'm very glad for. I've enjoyed it. Tom recently posted on his own blog a bit of a response to the debate as a whole, and specifically about some things that Okada said. I responded, and as the response was really long and deals with several issues that I've been meaning to cover here, I'm going to repost my response below the fold.

So, go read Tom's post, or re-read the original debate, and then come back.

Back? Good, here we go:


I, likewise feel compelled to respond to this, though probably not for the same reason that Okada has.

First off, I think it is entirely a false premise to say that we, as atheists, or even just as human beings, do not object to the types of things that parents indoctrinate or inculcate in their children. You list a large array of things that children apparently pick up from their parents. Let me also include racism, fanaticism, hatred, bigotry, zeal, jihadism, strong nationalism, etc, etc.

I indeed object to indoctrination in all of the above cases, as well as in those cases where parents teach their children to not value education and learning, or curiosity, or creativity. I am disappointed in quite a lot of things about the way that children are raised. Religious indoctrination is merely one item. Do I speak for all atheists? No, certainly not, just as I assume that you do not presume to speak for all Jehovah's Witnesses. Most of the atheists that I know, however, would like to not even have to argue about modern religion, much in the same way that we don't have to argue about unicorns, leprechauns, Thor, or Zeus (most of the time). We would like not even to have to label ourselves atheists, in the way that I imagine you do not label yourself an atheist for all the gods that you do not believe in (although, technically, you would be defined as such.)

In fact, I am horribly disappointed my a lot of other atheists, as I am disappointed by my fellow Americans, and my fellow human beings. Atheism is merely one part of my identity, and it is in no way consuming of most of my thought. Unfortunately, however, I feel the need to continually bring it up and argue from the non-religious point of view because religions, now more than in a long time, are encroaching more and more in our laws, government, and public life. Also, there is a very strong belief prevalent in at least America that atheists are somehow sub-human and not to be trusted or sometimes, even allowed to live. That is a viewpoint that I will argue against for as long as I am able. But, likewise, I argue just as strongly against alternative medicines, legal issues, especially those involving the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and scientific topics.

Another important distinction to make about religious indoctrination is that the consequences for disagreeing with your parents is much greater than for other things. My father was very much a Ford man for most of his life. I like Jeeps, and now whatever gets better mileage and will get me where I need to go. Dad has in fact changed his mind as the years passed, and he hardly gave me any problems for not agreeing that Ford made the best cars in the world. I am not as conservative as my parents, as we do debate certain issues, but I have not been disowned for not agreeing with them. However, religion is another matter entirely. There tend to be much more significant consequences, both in the family and in the larger community, for leaving a religion or disagreeing with it. This can range anywhere from constant shame and guilt, to disfellowshiping, to a death penalty. If there are any other groups out there that are willing to kill or completely disown their children just for forgiving them, then I am equally against them. I do not think that any child should have to live with the fear of losing their parents' love, or losing their life, because they disagree with their parents, either on religious topics or otherwise. That is my stance, and hence, one reason that I argue against the religious indoctrination of children.

Likewise, sometimes it in fact is the case that people other than the child's natural parents have their best interest at heart. This is why we have social services, to take children out of homes where they will be abused or neglected. Natural parents do not, always, mean the best parents.

Also, as to:

"With religious yearnings nearly universal throughout human experience, it really is a fantastic idea to suggest that failure to break that pattern amounts to child abuse!"

Racism, for most of human history, has been nearly universal. Should we have, likewise, thought it ignorant, arrogant, or terribly wrong to try to teach children differently? You yourself have often said on your own blog that religions throughout the world have promoted divisions and hatred. I would find it odd that you call yourself an evangelical and yet would not say that you want the very same thing that we do? To "break the cycle" of most of this indoctrination? You want converts to your religion, we want converts out of religion. Whether that means atheism, agnosticism, or just a strong appreciation for humanity, it doesn't really matter to me. I am not horribly tied to my atheism, and if someone could actually convince me of the existence of a god, I would certainly change my mind.

And yes, let me use some buzz words: critical thinking and scientific evaluation. Presumably you want those you are evangelizing to think critically about their own faith. We want people to think critically about everything - not just their religion, but their political leanings, their ideas about medicine, and every scientific study that comes out. No one should get a free lunch.

I completely disagree with the statement that you are not "invited to consider" the fantastic improbability of evolution. In fact, evolutionary biologists, including Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, have written entire books on this topic, and mention it quite frequently in their books. However, there is another important fact to consider. Let us consider a crystal - any crystal is an incredibly highly ordered arrangement of atoms. Statistically, that any crystal at all should exist by chance in the state it exists is vanishingly improbable - impossible by any stretch of the imagination, you might say. But, the crystal exists. And it has to exist in some state. Therefore, no matter how unlikely any one state is (and they are all equally implausible), one of them has to be correct. There is an entire field of chemistry and mathematics dedicated to this: statistical thermodynamics. I encourage you to read some non-technical treatments of it, as it is quite fascinating. There is another important point, however - crystals, as well as organic compounds like DNA, and evolution, is not governed entirely by chance. Crystals, molecules, and evolution are all guided by physical laws - the laws of physics and chemistry, and by natural selection. Mutation only allows for new variation, as does sexual recombination (otherwise, your children would be nearly perfect clones of you. I assume that you are willingly to admit that your children vary to some degree from you and your wife, and it is that range of variation upon which natural selection acts - as well as numerous other factors. Genes are one level of abstraction back from what selection typically operates on - it is the ultimate cause of evolution, but most often we do not directly see selection happening on the genome itself.)

Are mutations rare? Certainly. I take issue with the rest of this paragraph, however - "Gene replication seems accurate almost to perfection. "Typically, mistakes are made at a rate of only 1 in every ten billion bases incorporated," states the textbook Microbiology. (Tortora, Funke, Case, 2004, pg 217)"

I do not know of any case where only a single gene is replicated. I am forced to guess among several options of what you mean - translation from a gene to mRNA? There are errors that can occur here, certainly. Replication of all the chromosomes when a cell divides in mitosis? There are errors that can creep in here as well. However, the most important one, for the sake of evolution, is the process called meiosis, where germ cells split into gametes, and yes, mutations, as well as recombination, happens here as well, producing a large amount of variability. As for your quote that mutations occur only in 1 for every ten billion base pairs incorporated, this possibly a true but misleading statement, in the same way that moon hoaxers say that Hubble has never imaged the moon to search for the landers or rovers (completely true, but misleading, as Hubble cannot resolve that small of a detail, purely do to the laws of optics). The human genome has about 3.5 billion base pairs. Imagine, for a moment, all the eggs and sperm that are created over a lifetime - each one with another splitting of the genome. At least one mutation, statistically, would have to occur for everything three eggs or sperm. I don't think I need to remind you of the vast number of gametes that are in a typical man's ejaculation. Thus, it is statistically likely that every child (or every other child) will have at least one mutation. However, in fairness, I would like to see the entire context of the quote that you pulled this from, as it seems like a very isolated fact. Is this on average? An average rate for humans? In what kind of cells? Without this kind of information, this fact, in isolation, cannot be evaluated accurately or fairly.

Indeed, a fair amount (perhaps a great amount) of mutations are at least slightly deleterious. The majority of sexual acts do not lead to viable children, and the female body aborts a great number of fertilized embryos before they attach to the uterine wall, after they have attached, or at some time during the progression of the pregnancy. Miscarriages are the most spectacular example of this, but the rate of successful reproduction is statistically quite low. Nevertheless, if you have children, I feel that you will agree that children are born because people keep trying, and those mutations that are only slightly deleterious, or only cause harm later in life, or are completely neutral, or are slightly beneficial, or are very beneficial all get through. Slightly deleterious does not equal inviable, and sometimes, these can lead to beneficial traits depending on the environment. What's the evidence for this, you might ask? Sickle-cell is the most well known. A single mutation that causes anemia, but protects the body against malaria. All those children who did not die of malaria lived long enough to reproduce, and now in areas of the world that are heavily infested with malaria-carrying mosquitoes there are populations where sickle-cell anemia is ubiquitous, despite the costs of anemia.

Thus, "So such errors are not only extraordinarily unusual, but also only a similar infinitesimally tiny proportion of such errors are beneficial....that is, useful for evolution. And any winning mutation has to be beneficial enough to confer upon its recipient a significant trump in the "struggle for survival."" is completely inaccurate. A mutation need not be obviously beneficial to be useful for evolution. We recognize now more than ever the influence of genetic drift - that is, the random drift of genetic differences in a population that can lead to speciation. Likewise, "significant" is a misleading word. Any population model will show you that even a marginal benefit can exponentially spread through a population because reproduction, and things like the weather, are iterative functions, and small differences add up over the long run (this, by the way, is why predicting the weather more than a few days in advance is mostly a futile effort. Initial factors are hard to assess, and any small change can very rapidly spread through the whole system.)

If you need some more evidence for this, I suggest looking up Richard Lenski's most recent paper on his 20 year experiment with E. coli bacteria. He evolved one population to feed on citrate, a trait which no E. coli ever has done before. The process took about 20 years and 44,000 generations, and it only happened in one of his twelve populations. It came about through three mutations - one that was slightly deleterious and decreased the overall fitness of the bacteria, another that was entirely neutral, but set the stage for a third mutation, which in combination with the previous two, allowed the bacteria to create an enzyme to digest citrate, leading to the run-away reproduction of that population of bacteria. And yes, he has documented and copies of every generation of each population for the entire twenty years. He's even willingly to loan out populations, if you would like to run the experiment yourself.

I am not calling you, or anyone else, a "superstitious ignoramus." I think you are probably ignorant of advances in the field of evolutionary biology, but I am likewise. As I've stated on my own blog, ignorance is forgivable. Refusing to educate yourself (and I'm not saying that this applies to you), and then arguing against a position, is entirely unforgivable.

"These “probability” arguments, however (and there are many of them) are entirely inadmissible to science! Not because they are not weighty, but because science has no way to weigh them. They don’t adapt themselves to the scientific method, with its insistence on repeatable experiments." Again, wrong. Science is entirely a probability argument. We are sure that our standard models of physics are probably right, at least mostly. We are sure that our understanding of gravity is probably right, as we as we have been able to study it. We are sure that our understanding of evolution by natural selection is probably correct, due to the evidence that we have thus far, and its strong predictive value. All of these things, as all scientific theories are, are probability assessments of the likelihood of the theory being correct. Every experiment that is conducted, every prediction that turns out to be right (and in the case of evolution, I highly recommend that you look up Neil Shubin's finding of Tiktaalik for such a case), every time we make a prediction into a new area on which we have no previous evidence and it turns out to be right, every time we find new evidence that we previously had no idea about and it falls in line with our theory...these are all cases in which we are made more confident that our theories are correct. But they are always falsifiable, and we are always willingly to give them up (and yes, indeed, sometimes grudgingly) when new evidence comes around that contradicts our theories. Do not take this to mean that a single experiment with a negative outcome will completely overturn a scientific theory. There are a thousand reasons why an experiment could come up with a negative result, and most of them are due to experimenter or methodological errors. If you want to overturn a scientific theory, you have to do it the hard way, the scientific way, and establish a literature as strong (indeed, stronger) than the literature that precedes it. Einstein was not immediately accepted - he had to prove his case. What he had an advantage in was that relativity resolved several problems with observed celestial phenomena, such as the erratic orbit of Mercury. Likewise, Darwin was not immediately accepted - but he had the weight of evidence, a plausible mechanism, and strong predictive value on his side. This is not to say that evolutionary theory has not changed - in fact, Darwin may recognize only a little of it by now, especially since he had no understanding of genetics. The point is that every time we test evolutionary theory (and we do, daily), we find more supporting evidence for it.

Does this mean it is dogma? No. It is always possible to overturn. This is a problem that I often have when arguing with people who are not in the sciences - they think that scientists are all dogmatic thinkers and just toeing the party line. I think this shows that the person has not met too many scientists, been to any scientific conventions, or watched debates. We're contentious people. We love arguing. We love proving other people wrong. If nothing else, you could appeal to human greed - we'd all love to win that Nobel Prize. And how do you do that? Mostly by proving older scientists wrong. Science advances in this way. When you're constantly getting more evidence that you're correct, it gets boring. Every time we confirm Einstein, we're glad to have that confirmation, but we're all a little sad too - they're nothing new to learn. We don't appreciate "Eurekas!" or "Just as I expected" anywhere near as much as we love to hear a "Huh, that's interesting..." or "Man, I don't get this at all!" There's something new for us there, something else to figure out. Plus, it keeps us employed. Trust me, if anyone out there could actually disprove evolution, they would be jumping at the bit - a Nobel Prize, a new field of biology, and all the fame they could ever want. You say most people are guided by their lower emotions and desires, but you don't think that scientists, some of the most contentious people out there, don't want to be right about what they're studying, or to prove someone else wrong? I'm sorry, but it seems that you're arguing for a conspiracy theory involving every scientists who lives. That, I find highly implausible. But, if you have evidence, please show me. That's all I'm asking.

This is also not to say that there are not some major problems with evolutionary theory, but it is incredible to say that the people working in the field do not know of these. In fact, it is the scientists working in evolution who are the most vocal about these problems. Find any debate by scientists in evolutionary theory - read any book about it - read any paper published in the field. They are all quite aware of problems, and are all willing to work on them, or are already busy with it.

As to your example of Thomas Huxley - please. First, will you please find the actual reference of that quote? It is possible that he said it at some point, but most people credit it to him during an 1860 debate. The first commercial typewriter did not come on the market until years after. This is a pedantic point, and really is not the main point of my argument against this. The idea actually goes back as far as Aristotle, and has been very popular throughout the years.

My main point of argument against this point is thus: the example is intended as a thought experiment of an infinitely running random string generator. It is almost tautological that eventually, some string of Shakespeare will emerge from it. Indeed, computer models have already done just that. In mathematical terms, we call this "almost certain." Given an infinite amount of time, a random string generator will almost certainly come across a given string (e.g. "To be or not to be, that is the question.") If you increase the number of random string generators, the statistical time required goes down in relation to a very simple mathematical formula.

But, as I've said before, evolution is not a matter of pure chance. When you take out the purely "random" factor, the time required to match any string drops to quite a low amount.

Another point, though, to what are you comparing the improbability? To the probability of humans arising? Well, it's true that if you run back the evolutionary clock that humans may not ever emerge. No evolutionary biologist argues that humans have to arise from evolutionary principles. It is indeed an incredibly "lucky" happenstance that we are sitting here to argue today. That SOMETHING would evolve out of the chemistry of life is much more probable, and that, at heart, is all that evolutionists argue.

I also find it highly ironic that you take the "infinite monkey theorem" so literally when in the very next paragraph you chastise others for the same error. First off, the "experiment" when you cite was more of a performance art piece, and in no way replicated any of the conditions of the thought experiment. Likewise, it is a thought experiment, and one that can be confirmed mathematically. It also helps that we actually have evidence for evolution and speciation. I suggest you check out the literature, a lot has changed in the past 50 years, and a lot of really exciting stuff has happened in the past decade or less. If, on the other hand, you have some firm evidence that evolution is wrong, please present it. If, however, you merely find it highly implausible, well, I'm sorry, but that is never an acceptable answer. That the speed of light is a universal constant, no matter the frame of reference from which you measure it, seems equally implausible to many people. Unfortunately for them, every bit of evidence we have confirms it.

@ Vargas:

I feel like I've already dealt with most of your argument in what I've said to Tom. I would like to say, however, that biologists and chemists are indeed working on the issues of abiogenesis, and recently there have been many advances here. Please, again, as I would tell anyone, check the literature. Lastly, no scientist claims that life appeared "BLAM", just like that from nothing. That, in fact, is the creationist stance. Scientists are working out all the numerous complex pathways through which life comes about. Creationists are quite happy to say "There was nothing, then God did it, then life!"

@ Showme:

It's funny that you do bring up the fossil record, which is far and away one of the most constant proofs of evolutionary theory. Please, explain to me why you feel it is not. Likewise, Peking Man, and several others, were indeed hoaxes. But, it was other scientists who figured it out when they finally got to look at the actual bones (everyone was given only plaster casts originally, which significantly limits the amount of evidence that you have). Scientists figured out that Peking Man and other hoaxes were completely unbelievable, due to overwhelming evidence of the actual evolutionary pathways of humans. Another major disadvantage to early researchers was they they did not have the use of molecular biology - that is, DNA. If someone tried to hoax us again with bones, it is a relatively simple matter to sequence the DNA and judge just how related the bones actually are. Again, I will ask you as well to check the literature, and tell me what you have problems with.

@ Tom, again,

Again, please, tell me why you feel it is so uncompelling, and we can argue that. Personal incredulity does not mean much to me, one way or the other.

Likewise, I would agree that Jehovah's Witnesses probably have an internally consistent position. But, I would argue, so do most religions, and so do conspiracy theories. Once you allow the premise of a conspiracy or a supernatural entity, ~anything~ can be brought in as internally consistent with a little thought. This is why science is committed to methodological naturalism - if you accept the supernatural position, there is no way to distinguish between various hypotheses for their likelihood of being correct. Consider medicine: it is entirely possible that God or demons are the root cause of AIDS, diabetes, or any number of diseases. However, we have no way to prove this or distinguish between God, a demon, or pixies causing illness. Instead, we search for natural mechanisms and effective treatments (often, effective-enough or what we can do presently to alleviate suffering while we continue to do research). This is the only way science can progress, and I hope you will at least recognize this point. Once science allows for a supernatural explanation, any supernatural explanation, all bets are off for any progress. And this is not an argument against Jehovah. It is equally an argument against Hindu gods, homeopathy, therapeutic touch, chi, etc. I hope we're at least somewhat in agreement on this point.

Lastly, I severely disagree with this: "I think there is strong evidence for God. This post presents some of the probability sort….by smashing one position, it leaves the other one to stand." I think this is a false dichotomy. Even if you could completely disprove evolution (which, again, I'm willing to hear what evidence you want to bring), this does not leave God as the only other hypothesis, much less Jehovah of the Jehovah's Witnesses. It is merely one other possible answer. I think this is a major distinction between scientists and religious people. The scientists job is to come up with as many possible explanations as possible and test each one for plausibility. God is a possible explanation, but only if absolutely nothing else could possibly account for the data. Thus far, we have not run into that point. The religious person typically jumps directly to God as the explanation, without considering all the other innumerate possibilities in between.

Finally, I want to tell you that I'm also posting this reply on my own blog, because it deals with several issues I've been meaning to get around to writing a post for. I also realize this comment is ridiculously long, but I want to be thorough, and I'm certainly willing to continue this conversation here, or on my blog.

As always, I am eager to hear back from you.



Okada said...

Without out a doubt worth the read, I agree 100% with everything you said and I would like to add it is very worthless to try and argue a religious argument in a scientific realm. Which is why most of the scientific community is dumbfounded that ID even gets a chance to be science. So if that is what is going to be the goal it might as well end now, they are apples and oranges.

Ragoth said...

Quick change which I'll make later in the post. "Peking Man" should be "Piltdown Man." "Peking Man" is indeed a Homo erectus fossil remain.

Sorry for the confusion.