Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Natural selection is empty

Jerry Fodor's and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini's book What Darwin Got Wrong is a masterpiece. Fodor is a leading philosopher, and Piatelli-Palmarini is a leading cognitive scientist. Their analysis of natural selection is meticulous and devastating. They are both atheists-- they do not come to this debate with theistic presumptions. They demonstrate that natural selection is, in their word, empty. It's a meaningless concept, that should be abandoned.

I'll try here to give a precis of their argument. I heartedly recommend buying their book-- it's available on Kindle, and although it's not an easy read, it is written with as much clarity and brevity as the subject permits. The last chapter is a very nice summary of the argument. This post is a summary of the summary.

F&P-P begin their argument with the observation that phenotypic traits on which natural selection acts are often linked at the genetic level. It is unusual to find a specific trait that can be selected without selecting for other traits. Cellular genetics is a complex inter-connected affair. A change at the level of the gene generally has complex effects on phenotype.

When we say that natural selection acts, how do we know which phenotype is the object of selection, and which are free-riders? Preservation of one trait also preserves linked traits. Gould and Lewontin recognized this dilemma. In their paper The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme they take to task the adaptationist (strict natural selection-ist) view that natural selection can select for specific phenotypes that are linked to other phenotypes. They call the ostensibly selected phenotypes arches, and the free-rider unselected phenotypes spandrels, referring to the difference between the structural arches in cathedrals and the decorated spandrels-- the spaces between the arches-- that serve an artistic, but no structural, purpose. Gould and Lewontin point out, correctly, that phenotypes in nature are composed of arches and spandrels-- traits that enhance survival, and traits that are linked to survival traits genetically, but which provide no survival advantage themselves. They argue that adaptationist (natural selection-ist) explanations fail to take into account that fact that natural selection cannot distinguish between arches and spandrels, and that therefore invocation of natural selection, which is blind to the arch/spandrel dichotomy, is often an inadequate evolutionary explanation.

F&P-P unpack Gould's and Lewontin's critique, and provide logical rigor. They point out that genetically linked traits are coextensive. Ya' select for one, ya' select for the other. They come as a package. F&P-P ask:

How can natural selection distinguish between, on the one hand, phenotypic traits that affect fitness and, on the other hand, their endogenously linked phenotypic correlates... selection [cannot] apply differentially to coextensive properties.

So merely invoking "natural selection" fails to provide an explanation for the survival of a trait, because natural selection is blind to the difference between traits that enhance survival and traits that are free-riders and irrelevant to survival, as long as the traits are linked.

F&P-P propose that there are two ways in which natural selection could be a genuine explanation: if natural selection can be understood as acting on counterfactuals, or if natural selection can be understood as acting according to physical laws (of evolution).

A counterfactual is a statement of what would be the case if something untrue happened. An example of a counterfactual is: "If I were PZ Myers, I wouldn't say such silly things on Pharyngula". I'm not P.Z. Myers, but if I were... . For natural selection to be a genuine explanation for the survival of a specific trait that is linked to other traits, it would be necessary to invoke a counterfactual about natural selection-- "It the selected trait were not linked to free riders, it would still be selected." Which is the way that we generally try to invoke natural selection of linked traits. Selection is for the pumping function of the heart (selected trait), not for the sound it makes (linked free-rider). If pumping and noise-making weren't linked, it is the pumping, not the noise-making, that would be selected.

But F&P-P point out that counterfactuals are intensional statements-- they refer to concepts in a mind, not to external physical things. And of course natural selection has nothing to do with a mind. That is the whole point of natural selection-- it pays no mind at all.

So natural selection can't select according to counterfactuals. "If these traits weren't linked, this is the trait I'd select for" is specifically denied to a blind watchmaker.

Natural selection is mindless, and is blind to counterfactuals.

F&P-P point out that the other way that natural selection could provide an evolutionary explanation is if selection followed a natural law, like a law in physics. If there is a law-like correlation between a type of trait and selection for that trait, then a correspondence between natural selection and one of several linked traits could be established.

But F&P-P point out that there seem to be no laws of selection:

[T]he problem is that it's unlikely that there are laws of selection. [I]t's just not possible that there are laws that relate phenotypic traits per se to fitness. What (if any) effect a trait has on fitness depends on what kind of phenotype it is embedded in, and what ecology the creature that has the trait inhabits.

The adaptive value of a phenotype depends critically on its ecological niche. Fins help if you live in water. Fins don't help if you live in the desert. Are fins adaptive? It depends. There is no "Law of Fins" that determines the adaptiveness of fins, independent of the ecological niche the finned critter inhabits.

F&P-P put it succinctly:

[I]f you wish to explain the effects that a phenotypic trait as on a creature's fitness, what you need is not its history of selection but its natural history. And natural history offers not laws of selection but narrative accounts of causal chains that lead to the fixation of phenotypic traits. Although laws support counterfactuals, natural histories do not; and, as we've repeatedly remarked, it's counterfactual support on which distinguishing the arches from the spandrels depends. 

The explanation for a critter's phenotype vis-a-vis its fitness is its natural history, not its history of natural selection. But natural history is a narrative, not a law.

Natural history is just one damned thing after another. This should seem, on reflection, unsurprising since, to repeat, natural history is a species of history, and history is itself just one damned thing after another... Darwin made the same sort of mistake that Marx did: he imagined that history is a theoretical domain; but what there is, in fact, is only a heterogeneity of causes and effects. 
F&P-P sum up their argument:

What's essential about adaptationism, as viewed from this perspective, is precisely its claim that there is a level of evolutionary explanation. We think this claim is just plain wrong. We think that successful explanations of the fixation of phenotypic traits by ecological variables typically belong not to evolutionary theory but to natural history, and that there is just no end of the sorts of things about a natural history that can contribute to explaining the fixation of some or other feature of a creature's phenotype. Natural history isn't a theory of evolution; it's a bundle of evolutionary scenarios. That's why the explanations it offers are so often post hoc and unsystematic.
Natural selection is not a level of explanation. In F&P-P's cogent phrase, natural selection is empty.


So how do we understand evolution?

Evolutionary science is (in part) natural history, and in natural history real evolutionary understanding can be found. But we must keep in mind that natural history is history. It is the recounting of real events, which are generally "one damn thing after another". True things, and important things, but narrative, not law. Natural history is not law-based science. It is narrative science.

And there is another way to understand evolution:

There aren't, and never were, pigs with wings. That there aren't and weren't needs to be explained; but the explanation surely cannot be selectionist. Mother Nature never had any winged pigs to select against; so pigs not having wings can't be an adaptation. We think such considerations strongly suggest that there are endogenous constraints-- quite possible profound ones-- on phenotypes. As far as we can tell, this is slowly becoming the received view in evolutionary biology. 

F&P-P are surely right. Endogenous constraints are profoundly important to phenotypes and to adaptation, and much of the rational study of evolution is properly the study of endogenous factors that establish adaptation.

Endogenous constraints, of course, raise the specter that haunts evolutionary biology. Endogenous constraints are front-loaded. Evolution hews to ends. Teleology.

If we are to provide real explanations for evolution-- natural history and teleology-- we need now to go to the closet and get out the dust bin. We need to discard some junk.

Natural selection is empty junk, and no explanation at all. 


  1. I'm hardly surprised that a philosopher and a neuroscientist are clueless about biology. After all, I know of a particular neurosurgeon who is similarly clueless about biology. And many other things, such as history, neuroscience, meaning of words, etc. and who actually thinks 'teleological evolution' is a better theory. 'God did something somewhere somewhen for completely unknown reasons and by completely unknown mechanisms' to adapt a species to some changed circumstances in the future, not present in the present.

    Unless, again for unknown reasons, God decides not to benefit the species with the necessary adaptation and it goes extinct. As do 99.9% of all species, eventually.

    Why did the authors write their book? Perhaps they realised that if they were going to write a book on evolution, they'd be better off going for the larger market. And in America, the 'stupid' is a very big demographic. They were probably going for the science illiterate population who doesn't even know how long the Earth takes to orbit the Sun. And who think that if they don't understand a book, then it must be correct.

    1. Bach,

      Insult the Doctor, insult the authors integrity, insult the entire American populace... and that makes NS all better.

    2. Crusader Rex,

      Egnor doesn't have much credibility, with the howlers he's written recently (eg the 'Dark Ages' happened before the coming of Jesus, sensory perceptions are antedated by the brain to the time the nerve endings are stimulated).

      Authors always have motives - mainly to sell their books.

      I wasn't insulting the entire American population. Just the stupid ones. Which unfortunately makes up around half the population. And which tend to be conservative voters.

  2. What a rubbish.

    Natural selection is empty junk, and no explanation at all.

    Really? Let's consider an example - the geographic distribution of sickle cell anemia. How do you explain that, if not by natural selection?

    1. Troy,

      That's easy. Egnor would 'explain' it by claiming that sickle cell trait was God's way of endowing some resistance to malaria. Which he himself created 500,000 years ago. Of course, it's a necessary part of Christian eschatology that all benefits have to be accompanied by a sacrifice. Which in this case are the poor individuals who are homozygous for haemoglobin S.

      Although, as Philip Kitcher has noted, haemoglobin C provides just as much resistance. And homozygous HbC is the trait and heterozygous HbC is the disease, the fatal anaemia. And unfortunately, God couldn't work out a mechanism to introduce HbC into a population without it being eliminated immediately by natural selection before any homozygous HbC individuals would be produced.

    2. @troi:

      The correlation between sickle cell trait and endemic malaria is reasonably good in Africa (with some regional exceptions), but it fails in other parts of the world (South and Central America, South Asia and Indonesia) where malaria is endemic but trait is unusual.


      Selecting Africa to "prove" your point, but ignoring the rest of the world (which does contradicts your point) is called "cherry-picking", a common illness among Darwinists.

      The heterozygous form of cherry-picking must help Darwinists survive.

    3. Megnor (I take it you're not Egnor, because you're not signed as mregnor),

      I take it you're aware that there are 5 species, at least, of plasmodium that cause malaria in humans.

      Plasmodium falciparum is the usual form in Africa, which causes severe disease and for which sickle cell trait gives some resistance. In other parts of the world other mutations led to resistance and were favoured by natural selection. Such as thalassaemia in Mediterranean populations. Or glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency (with sensitivity to certain beans with favism).

      Other species led to other mutations.

      The question wasn't why sickle cell trait is present mainly in Africa. The question was why sickle cell trait is favoured and persists. And the answer is natural selection.

      And anyway. Sickle cell trait (and anaemia) exists in the Americas. The Christian slavers who abducted west Africans not only took sickle cell trait into the Americas but also took the anopheles mosquitoes and the malaria parasites there too.

    4. Selecting Africa to "prove" your point, but ignoring the rest of the world (which does contradicts your point) is called "cherry-picking", a common illness among Darwinists.

      Where did I mention Africa? Hint: I didn't.

      Despite the absence of the sickle cell allele HbS in regions outside of Africa, the only known cause that can explain the high frequency of the debilitating disease sickle cell anemia is the the protection it provides against another deadly disease - malaria. In other words, natural selection. So your claim that natural selection is no explanation at all has been soundly refuted. And that's just one example off the top of my head. There are many more well-known examples of natural selection providing a good explanation for observed trait distributions.

    5. bach:

      What you are providing as an explanation is natural history of pf, sickle cell trait and the relevant ecology, and intrinsic constraints.

      Any adaptationist inferences you draw from this are ad-hoc and offer no real rigorous scientific explanation. Natural selection predicts nothing here, and it offers no coherent explanation for the world-wide distribution of sickle cell trait.

      It's not that natural selection is wrong. It's that natural selection is banal and vague, a narrative gloss that means very little when you examine it critically. It makes explanatory claims that fall apart when examined closely.

      Eg: if natural selection explains sickle trait in malaria-endemic areas of Africa, how does it explain the paucity of sickle cell trait in South and Central America, South Asia and the Pacific Islands, where malaria is also endemic?

      It's story-making time, bach. I'm sure you'll think of something.

      Natural selection is simply a poor scientific hypothesis. It is empty, as Fodor pointed out.

    6. Megnor,

      So what's your explanation for sickle cell trait? That's the question you were asked and the question you refused to answer.

      Natural selection explains the distribution of sickle cell trait perfectly. Modern humans left Africa around 70,000 years ago. Malaria wasn't much of a problem until humans went from hunter-gatherer societies with small bands and little chance of malaria being passed from one individual to another via the mosquito.

      It was only when humans settled in villages in larger populations that transmission of malaria became a problem. And the new mutation of HbS occurred. Which occurred after the migration out of Africa, so the emigrants didn't have the mutation. The humans who crossed the Baring Strait into the Americas didn't take malaria with them, so the Americas were free of malaria (and many other diseases such as smallpox and measles). And after Columbus, Europeans introduced many diseases, such as malaria, smallpox, measles, yellow fever, which wiped out many Indian populations.

      Evolution isn't directed. One adaptation in one population need not necessarily occur in a different population, as the occurrence of thalassaemia and glucose 6 phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency shows. It would be surprising if it did.

      As an aside, Stephen Meyer made exactly this claim in 'Darwin's Doubt' claiming that Antarctic and Arctic fish developed exactly the same gene for a glycoprotein antifreeze widely separated in time and space, sort of citing a paper in a journal. But if you go to the original paper, the two genes are COMPLETELY DIFFERENT - they just produce a vaguely similar glycoprotein. Lying about science is a creationist tactic.

      If sickle cell trait had occurred in the Americas before Columbus then that would be evidence for Egnorian teleological evolution and against Darwinian evolution. But it didn't. You're engaging in the standard creationist tactic of asking for the evidence that would actually disprove Darwinian evolution. A slightly more sophisticated version of expecting to see a dog give birth to a cat.

    7. HbS is just one of many known examples of naturally selected resistance against disease. Or vice versa, the evolution - again, by natural selection - of pathogens resistant against host defenses. If not natural selection, what explains the spread of multi-resistant bacterial strains all over the world? For a physician, Egnor is remarkably ignorant about diseases.

      But the cause of Egnor's malady is well known: religion, the mental disease that spoils everything.

    8. troy:

      [If not natural selection, what explains the spread of multi-resistant bacterial strains all over the world? For a physician, Egnor is remarkably ignorant about diseases.]

      Bacteria have mutations and exchange plasmids, some of which confer resistance to specific antibiotics. Bacteria that aren't killed by an antibiotic proliferate.

      There's your "natural selection". Do you really think that if Darwin hadn't done his amaaazing research, we wouldn't have figured it out all by ourselves.

      And actually antibiotic resistance isn't natural selection, anyway, even in Darwinland. It's artificial selection ( antibiotics are man-made)

      Antibiotic resistance is really unintentional breeding.

    9. "It was only when humans settled in villages in larger populations that transmission of malaria became a problem..."

      Cute story bach. The best part is that it's fact free, and facts always slow stories down.

      Do you agree with the evolutionary theory that diabetes is relatively common because high blood sugar makes men less likely to freeze in winter, like anti-freeze?

      I love evolutionary theories.

    10. Michael,

      The fact that humans didn't live in villages till about 8000 years ago is fact.

      Do you have any evidence that humans have always lived in villages (or larger settlements)?

      No, I don't agree with your theory of why there is an increasing incidence of diabetes. It's due to increasing obesity and sugar intake in sedentary society. As in the Australian Aborigines.

    11. Michael,

      And anyway, antibiotic resistance in bacteria is actually 'natural'. All our antibiotics were derived from biological sources, such as other bacteria and moulds, which produced antibiotics against competitors. Which then were able to develop resistance.

      We've just intensified the process by our profligate use of antibiotics in agriculture and for infections that don't respond to antibiotics.

      Artificial selection is just natural selective written large.

      You still haven't given your explanation for sickle cell trait. Refusing to answer questions doesn't win debates, except in creationists with motivated reasoning and confirmation bias.

    12. Bach,

      Of course there is evidence of people living in settlements prior to 8,000 years ago. Some of them are quite popular. I am surprised you have never heard of them?

      Do a search on Göbekli Tepe.
      Organized, industrious, religious, scientific, artistic peoples settled somewhere between 8000 and 10,000 BC (that's 10-12,000 years ago).

      Further, cultures did not and do not exist in a vacuum or 'emerge' out of thin air. In plain English: They had predecessors who where builders/masons, artists, farmers, breeders (stock and crop), ad who could presumably transmit there skills in some manner (writing? glyphs?). It is also evident (by their security measures) that they had contemporaries. Likely even regional rivals.
      To get to this stage 10,000 BC is evidence of older less advanced peoples from whom they inherited their skills and tools. That is, unless you think gods or 'aliens' taught them.
      Not a Von Danikenite are you?
      Look into it. You'll see Göbekli Tepe is just one of several complexes in the Anatolian and Med regions being excavated.
      Then there is the recent finds in the Indian Ocean and Northern China.
      Then there is the GLOBAL mythology of ancient high civilizations being smote by natural disasters for various reasons.
      I know you don't put much stock in our ancestors beliefs or means of transmitting and interpreting history, unless they happen to be 19th century in-breeding elitists with a thing for beaks- but there it is.
      You have the digs, the evidence, the traditions to back them.
      It is NOT a 'fact' that humans were not settled 8,000 years (approx). Not even close. The date is much older than that.
      The hunt is still on and the various disciplines of history and it's dirty daughter archaeology are unearthing more and more evidence of older and older cultures ALL the time. While it is true this stuff always meets resistance, it eventually gets through. The dogma usually gives way to the actual field work. If it does not jive with Darwin that just TFB.

      Here's the FACT: There are neolithic ruins and art all over the world that indicate settled peoples prior to the the magic date of 8,000 years ago.

      When you state your 'fact' to defend the Darwinian theme, you sound like the 19th century idiots you admire so much - who denied the existence of Troy till it was dug up in front of them.

      And just a thought. I have had some of the nastiest bites and infections (never malaria or dengue, thank God) from mosquito, ticks, fleas, and all sorts of nasties when i have been on a (very) long trek. What makes you think malaria only effects sedentary peoples?

    13. Crusader Rex,

      I plucked the figure of 8000 years because I didn't have the time to find the actual figure.

      But anyway. My point remains. A lot of infections are diseases of civilisation. Of crowding. A lot of infections don't take hold because they kill the victims in small groups before they have the chance to spread.

      Egnor thinks that sickle cell trait should have developed in all places with malaria. It developed once in Africa after humans left Africa 70000 years ago.

      If you catch a nasty exotic disease on one of your treks, it's not going to be much of a problem. You'll die before you transmit it to the rest of the population. If you contract the same nasty exotic disease in a community, you might still die, but you'll pass the infection on to others, some of whom may die, but others will survive. And some will have resistance such as the fortuitous sickle cell trait.

      Anyway. How much older is civilisation? The last glacial maximum was about 12500 years ago, which provides an upper limit.

    14. Bach,

      First off, we are talking about malaria here, right? Malaria is an insect borne disease. Unless it is a pregnant mother (or cannibal) the disease requires an insect host (mosquito, usually) to pass onto humans.
      No village required.
      No geographical limits to be found. The 'story' about cell dysfunction and malaria does NOT account for why there is a lack of such dysfunctions in the Americas or Asia.

      Secondly, I evidently survived my own infections. So, even if such pathogens (some can) be passed between people, I could have brought it to several other groups of travellers BEFORE heading back to my home. Hunters hunt (and make war) together, in groups (with dogs and other animals even!) and have for countless centuries.
      Nomadic people trade and mix for social functions (marriage, councils etc).
      As for upper limits, they do not exist in reality. Such limits are only limits of our own discovery.
      The settlements (cities, actually) found in the Indian Ocean and the Black Sea clearly indicated there was settled people BEFORE the water levels rose and that they, in fact, settled the coastlines (probably for trade and fishing) that are now subsumed.
      How long would I peg it back? It would depend on definitions. If by 'civilization' you mean settled, trading, tool using, semi agrarian people with a common language and traditions, well then - if I had to guess - I would say somewhere in the order of 30 or 40,000 years. That would be a guess based on the presumption that these very early (12,000 years +) peoples had predecessors and parent groups. I could be off. It could be much older than that. I seriously doubt it is much younger.

      As for Africa, how do you reach a 70,000 number? Population genetics?

    15. Crusader Rex,

      The 70,000 year figure for out of Africa is also based on the fossil record, including the time it took the Australian Aborigines to reach Australia (50-60,000 years BP).

      Of course, anyone can catch malaria. All it takes is one person and one mosquito with the parasite. That's the way the 5th malarial parasite, Plasmodium knowleseri, is in the process of jumping from monkeys to humans - someone staying out in the Malayan jungle and getting bitten by a mosquito which was looking for a monkey to bite, and by accident...

      But you're not going to get a genetic mutation to give resistance to malaria unless a lot of people are contracting malaria. A settled village with a nearby breeding ground for mosquitoes, so malaria gets transmitted from person to person via the mosquito over time.

      A nomadic group, with few people, will outrun the malaria. It's the reason why the Americas were malaria were malaria free until Columbus, or rather the West African slave trade. Sailing ships transport their drinking water in wooden barrels, which eventually became a putrid mixture, including mosquito larvae, over a hold packed with immobile closely packed slaves.

      Your guess as to when villages arose is completely wrong. The last glacial maximum was 20,000 years BP, and it was a hard time for humans to survive. Not a time to settle down and farm.

      The assertion that sickle cell trait should have developed elsewhere other than in Africa is just silly. Other defence mechanisms developed elsewhere. Thalassaemia, glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase and loss of the blood group Duffy antigen (as a defence against Plasmodium vivax, one of the other malarias).

      Egnor wants exactly the thing that would disprove evolution - the development of exactly the same defence against malaria in different locations independently. Whereas, what happened is consistent with evolution - different defences in different locations.

    16. I've just noticed I've given the date of the last glacial maximum in a previous comment as 12,500 years BP - that's actually when the last glaciation ended roughly - save for the 8,200 years BP event, which was the last gasp of the glaciation.

    17. Egnor:

      Bacteria have mutations and exchange plasmids, some of which confer resistance to specific antibiotics. Bacteria that aren't killed by an antibiotic proliferate.

      There's your "natural selection". Do you really think that if Darwin hadn't done his amaaazing research, we wouldn't have figured it out all by ourselves.

      Who gives a shit who figured it out? The fact remains that natural selection explains something very important: the spread of resistant pathogens - which you denied in your stupid post.

      And actually antibiotic resistance isn't natural selection, anyway, even in Darwinland. It's artificial selection ( antibiotics are man-made)

      Hahaha. Only in the demented minds of the religious zealots humans aren't part of nature.

      Antibiotic resistance is really unintentional breeding.

      WTF? You're an idiot, Egnor.

    18. Troy,

      Notice how Egnor still refuses to give his explanation for sickle cell anaemia? I laughed at his claim that bacterial antibiotic resistance was artificial selection. It's obvious isn't it? We deliberately set out to selectively breed hundreds of dog breeds, so we also deliberately set out to breed antibiotic resistant bacteria by profligate use of antibiotics. It's obvious this must have been some benefit for us, isn't it?

  3. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavySeptember 3, 2013 at 8:07 AM

    backfire: "I'm hardly surprised that a philosopher and a neuroscientist are clueless about biology."

    As I am hardly surprised that an Australian pathologist is totally clueless about biophysics, perception, memory, cognition, philosophy, American politics, and climate.

    No surprise there, eh? :-)

    1. Georgie,

      You really need to stop playing with your toy plastic battleships and get out of the bathtub. Your brain is getting waterlogged so you're prone to your simplistic ideas.

    2. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavySeptember 3, 2013 at 9:33 AM

      I know. It's late there. And the invisible gorillas are out and about.

    3. Georgie,

      I know it's late here. I'm reading a fascinating book 'Greenhouse of the Dinosaurs. Evolution, Extinction, and the Future of Our Planet' by Donald Prothero.

      I'd recommend that you should read it, but perhaps you should wait till the YouTube version comes out - it'll be less taxing for your waterlogged brain.

    4. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavySeptember 3, 2013 at 10:15 AM

      How exciting. "[F]irst-person narratives of discovery, injecting warmth and familiarity into a profession that has much to offer nonspecialists..." Fossil News says it's a "gripping tale" (#1,117,635 in Books). Pity the author is so disconnected from reality by old memories injected into cognitive gaps created by unavoidable information losses inherent in his digital cameras.

      But I'm glad to hear you're cuddled up with a good story. It's always fun to find some old bones or buried artifacts and make up stories about them. More interesting than making up stories about tree rings, that's for sure.

      How's the weather down there? I'm buying property inland, waiting on the vast coastal flooding to turn it into beachfront property. Because it's a sure thing now:

      Warming hits 'tipping point'
      --- The Guardian (2005)

      Hurricanes and tornadoes are down this year, but that's perfectly consistent with predictions that adverse weather events will go either up or down. Useful theory, that!

    5. Georgie,

      How's the bathtub? Is the water getting cold yet?

      Good to see you rely on publisher's reviews of books. The Prather book you mentioned wasn't published a few years ago. It was published in 1989.

      The Prothero book is interesting because it gives a first person account of how science is done, not the dispassionate passive voice account used in scientific papers and textbooks.

      In the account on punctuated equilibrium, he notes that it's what would have been expected in the geological record, because if species gradually changed over time, then there wouldn't be strata with abruptly different species. But palaeontologists were wedded to the idea of gradual change so that's what they observed.

      He notes his work in the North Dakota Badlands on the mammals spanning the Eocene/Oligocene boundary 34 million years ago address this problem. This was a time of climate change with atmospheric CO2 levels decreasing from high levels in the Eocene and its hothouse climate to today's lower levels and ice age. The Antarctic started to acquire its ice sheets. The local climate changed from forests to drier grasslands.

      The standard explanation of punctuated equilibrium is that speciation is allopatric (occurring in a different place - different fatherland). A species is divided by a new geographic feature - a river, a mountain range, a sea, whatever - and the smaller population is able to diverge (smaller populations evolve faster than larger ones because it's easier to fix changes in a smaller gene pool). Which is well adapted to its climate. And then the geographic barriers fall due to climate change and the new species is able to mix with the parent species again. And it's better adapted so the parent species abruptly goes extinct and the new species abruptly appears in the geological record.

      It's been a contention that speciation could be abrupt, not gradual as Darwin thought. Darwin had thought that the fossil record should show a continuous gradual variation in a species, which the fossil record doesn't show.

      Prothero notes that the mammals in the badlands over the climate change 34 million years ago went from browsers to grazers with the appropriate changes in their teeth (the degree of wear and the isotope ratios reflecting the change in diet). But the species didn't change. Browsers just went on to being grazers unchanged for long periods of time.

      I think that this is evidence against evolution being abrupt and for it being gradual, as Darwin thought, but for different reasons. Species don't always track a changing environment. There has to be sufficient genetic variation within the species to begin with. For a species to be replaced by a new one, the new species has to have already evolved (and the Eocene was a hot wet period with forests not grasslands).

      Darwin thought selection acts on the individual. Dawkins thinks it acts on the genes. One interpretation of punctuated equilibrium is that it acts on species, with species going extinct rather than forming new species, which is what usually happens. 99.9% of species go extinct.

      But anyway. Arguing that just because Darwin was wrong about something, means that Godddidit is just silly.

      The weather in Australia this Winter has been beautiful. It's been 1 degree Celsius warmer than average Australia wide. In Perth, I have been able to sit outside most mornings in shorts and t-shirt reading (I'm not going to lose my tan this year). Pity it's been so dry though - I expect there will be water restrictions again next Summer.

      I'm safe from rising sea levels being 5 kilometres from the coast and 30 metres above sea level. I've always wanted ocean views, but I won't get them till mid 22nd century (I doubt I'll be around then).

    6. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavySeptember 3, 2013 at 6:16 PM

      I can see you had a good night's sleep. "Arguing that just because Darwin was wrong about something, means that Godddidit is just silly."

      I agree. Who's doing that?

    7. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavySeptember 3, 2013 at 6:30 PM

      backfire: "The Prather book you mentioned wasn't published a few years ago. It was published in 1989."

      I know. It's sitting here on my desk. I think discrete mathematical structures (e.g., lattices) are pretty much the same now as they were then. Given, of course, the intellectual jitter induced by gigantic lumbering DNA-controlled meat robots (a la Dawkins) whose brains are constantly injecting memories to substitute for lost data (a la batfark).

      Since your boi Troi was so amazed that someone hadn't read a previously published book, I thought he might comment on a chapter from a previously published book he's had more than ample time to read. Sorry you missed the point.

    8. Georgie,

      'Arguing that just because Darwin was wrong about something means Goddidit is just silly' 'I agree. Who's doing that?'


      Anyway. Troy was making the point that 'What Darwin Got Wrong' was published 3 years ago. And it's been rejected comprehensively. It's old material.

      Bringing up an older book on a completely different subject is just stupid. Profoundly. At least my book was actually on topic, dealing with evolution and natural selection. And climate.

    9. Indeed, that was my point. I thank Adm. Draft Dodger for making me laugh at his pathetic attempt to look smart by mentioning he has a book on discrete mathematics on his desk. With stuff on lattice models and Chomsky grammars. Wow. Hahaha.

    10. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavySeptember 3, 2013 at 7:36 PM

      blinkfast: You are mischaracterizing, misreading, or misunderstanding Egnor's argument. Egnor is agreeing with the argument that natural selection is a meaningless concept with little or no predictive power. God doesn't enter into the argument until you raise teleological issues. Nagel handled teleology without reference to God, in fact. I'm surprised you don't get it.

      And Troi's comment that the book was published three years ago was, at minimum, pointless, and at most, stupid. What does it matter whether it was published three years ago or yesterday? The reviewer I mentioned, Coyne, published his panty-wetting review in The Nation, a rag reserved for the loony left. Hardly a place where one goes to find serious reviews of scientific works. PZ Meyer's review was in a blog. His blog. Do you have any of the "comprehensive" set of negative reviews that weren't published in political magazines, blogs, or newspaper screeds?

      As I noted below, it was like tossing a snake in the powder room. Still is, apparently. :-)

    11. Admiral: "Do you have any of the "comprehensive" set of negative reviews that weren't published in political magazines, blogs, or newspaper screeds?"

      Heh, you couldn't find your ass with both hands, admiral. Here are some negative reviews published in respectable outlets:

      What Darwin's Doubters Get Wrong. Michael Ruse, Chronicle of Higher Education.

      It Got Eaten. Peter Godfrey-Smith, London Review of Books.

      A Misguided Attack on Evolution. Massimo Pigliucci, Nature.


    12. MOAR negative reviews.

      Not So Natural Selection. Richard Lewontin, New York Review of Books.

      Darwin Tried and True. Robert Richards, American Scientist.


    13. An excerpt from Richards' review:

      The authors finally make a confession: “It’s only fair to acknowledge that the majority of biologists whom we have cited here, including several of the discoverers of these quite intricate levels of endogenous regulation, still today endorse natural selection as the determinant par excellence of the course of evolution.” “Fair” is hardly the term I’d apply to this admission. Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini are conceding that what they take as evidence against neo-Darwinism is regarded by the scientists they cite as simply the normal development of evolutionary theory within the boundaries of neo-Darwinism.


  4. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavySeptember 3, 2013 at 8:24 AM

    Interesting. It should be noted that Fodor is more than a philosopher. He is, and has been for quite some time, a significant figure in the field of artificial intelligence.

    But Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini tossed a snake in the powder room with this one. Jerry Coyne is already micturating in his unmentionables, and they're preparing the fainting sofa. Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini will probably get Nagelized for heresy.

    1. Dumbass. F&P-P was published several years ago and has already been thrashed by numerous reviewers - biologists and philosophers alike.

    2. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavySeptember 3, 2013 at 9:30 AM

      Oh gee whiz! Did I miss the publication of a book! I'm so embarrassed. Stupid of me, really.

      But while you're here, Dhim, what's your opinion of Discrete Mathematical Structures by R.E. Prather? It was also published several years ago. I'd particularly like to see your comments on his treatment of Chomsky grammars.

  5. “They are both atheists-- they do not come to this debate with theistic presumptions.”

    Atheists you say; why that does give them an air of credibility. Thanks for once again implicitly acknowledging the intellectual superiority of atheists.


    1. "Thanks for once again implicitly acknowledging the intellectual superiority of atheists."

      Thanks for once again explicitly demonstrating the crippling inferiority complex that gives rise to your personal atheism.

  6. He's not implicitly acknowledging the intellectual superiority of atheists, of course. That's another deranged fantasy from KW's sick mind. Rather, he's undercutting the atheist's most often-used debate tactic: The dreaded ad hominem fallacy.

    We've all seen it, over and over again. "X's opinion doesn't count because X is a theist!" That doesn't apply to Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, obviously. Kudos to Dr. Egnor for rubbing it in the atheists' dishonest, acne-prone faces.