Mailvox: an evolutionist response to Fred

An anonymous response to Fred’s long piece concerning his skeptical perspective on evolution by natural selection:

First let me say that while I do believe life on earth has evolved over a large period of time, I am not a militant supporter of TENS. Thus, I read the piece you linked to about evolution written by the gentleman Fred.

In summary, he appears to believe humans and other creatures are too complex to have – and here he repeats a sentiment that I can only assume stems from true ignorance or willful ignorance – “arisen by accident.”

Furthermore, he states something like “it would be easier for me to believe that a 747 assembled itself.” Again, a statement like that implies ignorance at best and use of a strawman at worst.

I’ll assume he is making the common mistake of confusing machines and organisms (life). While life and machines appear to be very similar, they are very different.

Organisms are complex systems which independently adapt and change over time. On the other hand, machines are systems designed and assembled by an intelligent being to accomplish a task. They (currently) lack the ability to independently adapt and change over time. (Is it possible that DNA and RNA were machines that were designed by an intelligence and loosed on Earth? Perhaps.)

So while both possess complexity, a human and a 747 are categorically different. A better comparison might be between a human and a city such as London or New York.

Like a human, a city is a mindbogglingly complex system (made up of millions of smaller, complex systems) capable of adapting and changing independently over time. And like a human, a city didn’t just pop into being one day. One can ascertain this by studying the city and discovering that buildings are built on top of roads that were built on top of canals that were dug through ancient farm land that was cleared from forests by farmers. Farmers that were merely being farmers and had no intention of building a city.

No one person (unit) did or could have conceived of and built the current cities of London or New York, as is, from scratch. More importantly, the “evidence” indicates they weren’t built as is from scratch, but rather “assembled themselves” gradually, and in many ways messily, over time. Furthermore, it would be absurd to claim that New York arose and evolved into its current form “by accident.”

Likewise, a human appears to be a complex system made up of billions of smaller, complex units, each of which is quietly going about its business with no awareness of the bigger – or future – picture of which it is apart, much like the New York farmers.

Could a theoretical super intelligence have built a human, as is, from scratch? Sure, just as one could have built New York or London, as is, from scratch. The evidence, in my opinion, indicates otherwise.

This is an unusual defense of TENS. It is also ineffective because it utilizes an example that is undeniably the product of intelligent design in an attempt to refute the concept of intelligent design. As it happens, one need only read a little about Christopher Wren to understand that the current city of London was, in fact, the result of not only intelligent design, but purposeful design.

The emailer makes two mistakes here. The first is his confusion of two distinct concepts, intelligent design and purposeful design. While there was never a single complete master design for London, and the current city is the unpredictable result of millions of different decisions, there was still intelligence behind every single decision. While the overall result was not designed, every element that comprises it was. I recognize that the emailer was only intending this as an analogical example of the concept of emergent design, not as a literal counterexample, but it is still misleading.

The second, and more important mistake is the claim that Fred is ignorant in pointing out that evolutionary theory requires the assembly of living beings by accident. While Richard Dawkins has convinced many superficial science fetishists that “natural selection is the exact opposite of random”, this is obviously and entirely false because the vast quantity of mutations upon which natural selection repeatedly relies are, insofar as anyone can tell, random.

Many people, both those who subscribe to the theory evolution and those who reject it, appear to be under the false impression that evolution happens in response to environmental pressure. But this is not the case; the famous Leiderberg experiment demonstrated that the mutations precede the exposure to the environment that causes the selection process to take place.

From “Understanding Evolution” at UC-Berkeley: “Mutations are random. Mutations can be beneficial, neutral, or harmful for the organism, but
mutations do not “try” to supply what the organism “needs.” Factors in
the environment may influence the rate of mutation but are not generally
thought to influence the direction of mutation. For example, exposure
to harmful chemicals may increase the mutation rate, but will not cause
more mutations that make the organism resistant to those chemicals. In
this respect, mutations are random — whether a particular mutation happens or not is unrelated to how useful that mutation would be.”

So, given that the causal factor is random, Fred is entirely correct to say the subsequent process is accidental. It cannot be anything else.