25 March 2008

Darwin's Place

The theory of evolution, first proposed by Charles Darwin 150 years ago, is arguably the most important and powerful idea in the history of biology. Amongst all the sciences, it is difficult to imagine any idea more revolutionary in its promises, more satisfying in its rewards. Evolution unites the massive quantity of observed facts of the natural world into a whole. It takes modern life, the structure of the cell, the fossil record, etc. and from them tells a story.

Like so many powerful ideas, evolution has been misused, applied where it does belong. The results are not pretty. In particular I'm thinking of Social Darwinism. Essentially, this notion took Darwinian evolution and used it to rationalize prejudices of all varieties. Evolution says nothing about race or gender superiority/inferiority. It is also not hard to imagine evolutionary thought being taken further still, expanded to campaigns of mass euthanasia and sterilization. The history of eugenics in first half of the twentieth century shows clearly the harm that happens when perfectly legitimate ideas (like the natural survival of the fit and culling of the weak) and uses them to rationalize all manner of wickedness. It is the key observation of that doomed campaign of compulsory sterilization that the categories for the procedure were not based in any evidence, nor on any rationally supportable criteria. The poor and the non-white were the victims of this atrocity, instead of those who possessed actual genetic defect.

So what then are the bounds of Darwinism? What line divides legitimate and wicked applications of evolution? Simple. The natural world is Darwinian in structure. Evolution falls under the sphere of biology. This fact we must not lose sight of. Within biological considerations it's power is immense. Outside of the life sciences, it is often a tool poorly suited to the tasks before it. Our political theory ought not to be based upon an idea of evolutionary fitness. Instead we must follow that evolved compass of ours, morality.

To construct a society by Darwinian terms is non Darwinian.

Homo sapiens are communal creatures. The evolved faculties of compassion and morality and our insatiable desire for solidarity serve to unite us to stand together. We must not think of evolution in terms of organism. Rather we ought to think in terms of genes. A parent dying for a child makes sense because the genes will live. Further, it is basic biology that no species can survive or prosper with a too small gene pool. Thus we must (and have evolved to) consider more than our immediate offspring when making moral calculations.

Philosophy, my core discipline, does well to be productive. To return useful and applicable ideas is the greatest triumph the lovers of wisdom can achieve. So allow me to be plain.

We do not need an absolute code, divorced from human hands and minds, to rule us. By this I mean both religious doctrines and misapplications of scientific theories. We are evolved beings. This point is certain. And we will do well to trust those faculties evolution has yielded to us. Further, we should take advantage of the rich heritage available to us. Thinkers of all varieties have pondered over deep, difficult questions for thousands of years. If we trust our own moral sense, if we are honest about who and what we are (mammals capable of both greatness and depravity), and if we stand with each other, upon the shoulders of those who have come before us, then I suspect there is little we cannot achieve. The potential of the human species to better itself and its world is, practically speaking, without limit. We have only to make the choice to move in that direction.

This was the hope of those optimistic and visionary thinkers, like Clarke and Asimov, and it is most assuredly no fool's hope. It is the hope of all those who believe that more than darkness, something wonderful lies in the heart of man.

23 March 2008


Scrolling through Facebook today, most statuses were something to the effect of "thinking about His love" or some other sentimental such.

Personally, I find so much more fulfillment from a song (currently Close to You from Tiesto's album In My Memory) than from reminiscing upon even the idea of redemption through vicarious human sacrifice.

Perhaps when discussing the proposed love of this fictional deity, we would do well to ask ourselves "Whatever happened to all those Canaanites?" Oh yes. God-Is-Love ordered his faithful to slaughter them down every last man, woman, and child, sparing the virgin girls for the butchers. "But save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man." (Numbers 31:18, NIV)

I think I'll stick with chocolate eggs.

22 March 2008

False Causality

Andrew Sullivan informs us today that Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is a Christian. This is all well and good, an interesting piece of information that really doesn't amount to much. I'm sure it will make an interesting chapter in Gorbachev's biography, but does this really matter? Sullivan sure thinks so. He ends his post:
What a lovely final rebuke to Karl Marx.
Karl Marx was, of course, a staunch atheist and opponent to religion. And although the Soviet Union was much more the brainchild of Leninist interpretation of Marxism combined with Stalinist strong-arming, the link to Marxism is undeniable.

So what are we to infer from Sullivan's comments on this "rebuke?" Are we suppose to believe it was Gorbachev's faith in a bronze age myth that convinced him to dismantle the Soviet Bloc? Are we supposed to see this as another example of god striking down the wicked? Sure, Gorbachev's closet Christianity does prove that you can't force someone to not believe, that faith can survive exterior pressure. But that isn't anything new. There's a whole litany of martyrs whose stories make the same point.

Or should we take the rational path and view this information as just that. Information. Gorbachev was a Christian. Big deal. What matters is not which imaginary friend he prayed to at night. Taking down the Berlin Wall (Contrary to popular myth, the Wall was not torn down by Raegan with a axe), dismantling the Soviet Union. These things matter.

Sullivan's post is another example of trying to draw false lines of causality--the same fallacious reasoning that links atheism to Auschwitz and Stalin's gulags. This is a classic move from the believer camp. And it's utter rubbish.

21 March 2008

The Logical Sins of the Intelligent Design Movement

Yesterday evening, Professor PZ Myers reported on his blog that he had been expelled from a screening of the soon-to-debut film "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed", a documentary which argues that Intelligent Design(ID) is presently suppressed in the mainstream by Big Science and which deserves to be taken seriously. In the frenzy of comments to follow this post (1000+) one responder posted a link. The poster offered it, colorfully, with "have you seen this bullshit, btw?" The link led to a supposed list of ID-based research. (Notice the mascot of the ID advocates, the bacterial flagellum, on the flag.) The research offered as evidence illustrates well a common practice amongst the ID crowd. Parading fallacious arguments and capitalizing on general ignorance of logical validity.

Allow me to clarify.

The argument presented on site claims
The following is an edited extract from a Nature paper. It is an example of real ID research. Notice that the designers only used evolutionary techniques to very slightly tweak the enzymes scaffold structure that had been designed with “borrowed components” from existing enzymes tacked together. The novel active site was completely intelligently designed.
Let's translate this to argument form:
(1)The structure created by these scientists was designed intelligently.
(2)This structure is complex and alive.
(3)Therefore, all things which are complex and alive are designed.

It's the watchmaker argument all over again. Essentially, this poster has taken the compositional fallacy and enlarged it to cosmological scale. Both the watchmaker argument and this poster's claim make the same error.
(1)X possesses properties A and B.
(2)Y possesses property A.
(3)Therefore, Y possesses property B.
An absolute, complete non sequitur. By this same fallacious logic, all women are male since they both sexes are human (possess the property of humanity). All arguments based on complexity that intend to prove design--and Percy Bysshe Shelley pointed out in his 1811 essay "The Necessity of Atheism", for which we he was kicked out of Oxford, we cannot even begin talking about a designer until we can prove design--all such arguments eventually break down to this sort of fallacy.

The famous watchmaker argument comes from William Paley. He argued that if one found a watch, one would assume someone had made it. Design was a priori apparent from the structure of the watch. From this we are, by analogy, supposed to move to a conclusion that all complexity requires a designer. This is blatantly fallacious. Just because all watches have watchmakers, and all shoes have shoemakers, does not mean all universes must have universe-makers.

What about the alternative? Does natural explanation fair any better on logical grounds? Unsurprisingly, it does.

The argument against design is founded on a 700 year-old principle called Ockham's Razor. "Given two explanations of a phenommenon, choose the one that entails the least premises." This idea makes intuitive sense to all rational individuals. If I say to you "I can't find my keys. Either I misplaced them, or someone broke into my house, stole the keys, did not take anything else, and perfectly covered his/her tracks" you would tell me I probably just lost them by applying the principles of the Razor.

The Razor is the heart of the argument against design. By explaining the phenomena we observe around us without invoking a god, any supernatural power is rendered an unnecessary premise and is thus removed from the equation. There's no fallacy here.

In its quarter-century (or thereabouts) of existence, ID has never provided evidence for itself. ID advocates constantly try to shoot holes in evolution and then say "See? It must have been God!" Forgetting for a moment that their "holes" have been consistently disproved, there remains a fallacy. Even if an ID advocate could one day dismantle evolution and disprove it, this would do absolutely nothing to advance the cause of ID. To argue:
(1)Theory A and theory B attempt to explain phenommenon X.
(2)Theory A is disproved.
(3)Therefore, theory B is correct.
is a classic example of the false dilemma fallacy, erroneously assuming there are only two possible explanations of a phenommenon. This argument attempts to look like a disjunctive syllogism.
(1)Either X or Y is true.
(2)X is false
(3)Therefore, Y is true.
A disjunctive syllogism only works if that first premise is sound. And in the case of ID v. evolution it most certainly is not sound.

Of course, none of this will ever dissuade the ID fans out there. Despite the mountain of evidence in support of evolution, as compared to the tiny piles of ultimately fallacious arguments against it; despite the continued failure of ID to provide evidence of design; despite the track record of ID advocates for information distortion and general dirty dealing(for example, drawing the false distinction between macro- and micro-evolution)--the movement remains. So long as people continue to believe faith is a good thing, ID will remain credible to some.

And, of course, to those of us of the rational persuasion, it will always remain laughable.