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Evolution and the Illusion of randomness.
December 2, 2011 6:41 AM   Subscribe

Evolution and the Illusion of randomness. (By Steve Talbott at netfuture.org)
posted by seanyboy (44 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's a bit of a long read, but I thought it was really interesting.
posted by seanyboy at 6:43 AM on December 2, 2011


Cranks gonna crank.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 7:10 AM on December 2, 2011 [9 favorites]


Some of the problems concern the implicit "agency" that humans see everywhere (which would appear to be an evolutionarily adaptive neurological development). For example, when two dots are randomly moving around on a computer screen, humans usually describe one dot as "chasing" the other, eventually.

The other concern about the apparent paradox in the article (yep, a fun read), is the religious one, only remarked upon in the footnotes:

Notes
1. Dawkins and Dennett seem preoccupied with design as a result of their severely constraining preoccupation with religion and with the “creationism” or “intelligent design” promulgated by some religious folks.


By religion, they mean, especially, Christianity. I don't see any contradiction with Buddhist theology here.
posted by kozad at 7:15 AM on December 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think a short summary of the ideas in the paper might make more people (like me) willing to spend the time and effort to read it.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:16 AM on December 2, 2011


This author is very confused on the terms "meaning," "meaningful" and "purpose." He thinks that because he sees intricate, complex functions at the molecular level that he sees "meaningful" activity. And then goes on to thoroughly jumble this up with all our other uses of the word "meaningful" and, by careless association, with "purpose" and so on. And so open the doors to spiritualist hooey which has no business in a serious description of biology or epistemology.

In other words, this is a fervid and confused piece of work.
posted by argybarg at 7:20 AM on December 2, 2011 [11 favorites]


Author is confused by the typical use of the passive voice in journals. He shouldn't worry about it so much.
posted by clvrmnky at 7:48 AM on December 2, 2011


If mutations aren't random, what are they exactly, and how do they come about? The author doesn't explain. Does he think they are purposeful (surely absurd)? Or is he questioning the mechanism of mutations being how evolution works (rather a bold claim, requiring some justification). There doesn't seem to be much justification of the conclusions here, just a lot of sophism.
posted by iotic at 7:50 AM on December 2, 2011


I think a short summary of the ideas in the paper might make more people (like me) willing to spend the time and effort to read it.

Actually, the more accurate and succinct a summary you read, the less interested you would be.
posted by nicwolff at 7:56 AM on December 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


"random" here seems to mean "crapshoot." When we think of "meaning" we believe we can both impose it upon life and have us of "free will."
posted by Postroad at 8:07 AM on December 2, 2011


I haven't made it very far, but the first two paragraphs are problematic in and of themselves. Does Talbott believe that Glider Guns act purposefully?
posted by muddgirl at 8:08 AM on December 2, 2011


Actually, the more accurate and succinct a summary you read, the less interested you would be.

I got through about the first 40% before getting to the sentence "Where, then, do we find dumb, lifeless mechanisms blindly engendering new life forms?". But by then I was already pretty worn out by the self-congratulatory style. It's a pity -- for a little while I thought there might be some interesting points in there about our views on emergent complexity.

I don't think this is a coincidence; when I try to read pro-ID writing, I tend to feel like I'm getting caught up in a maze of smoke and mirrors, because the arguments won't stand up to clear theses, good data, and straightforward summary. It's like the point is to obfuscate until the audience agrees from sheer exhaustion.

I also basically find it hard to take an intelligent design-ist seriously when he sets his argument up against a couple of people primarily known for their work in popular science writing and New Atheism, instead of arguing with, y'know, Darwin, and Fisher, and Wright and Wallace. I am seriously dubious of anyone's understanding of the state of the field of modern evolutionary biology if they think Dawkins is driving the field.
posted by endless_forms at 8:15 AM on December 2, 2011 [5 favorites]


Or in other words, I have a huge problem with the conflation of "meaning" and "mind," or with "meaningless" and "mechanistic."
posted by muddgirl at 8:17 AM on December 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't know about Dawkins, but he seems unfair to Dennett, whose views on intentionality and the rest are much more sophisticated (and reasonable) than he gives them credit for.
posted by Segundus at 8:19 AM on December 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think he starts going wrong at the beginning that a chaotic, random system cannot be made up of individuals acting purposefully - the phrase "like herding cats" comes to mind.
posted by Zalzidrax at 8:20 AM on December 2, 2011


In other words, this is a fervid and confused piece of work.

It's evolving.
posted by chavenet at 8:20 AM on December 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


If mutations aren't random, what are they exactly, and how do they come about?

Well, what I managed to skim (I really couldn't make myself read the whole thing), the author seems to be supporting a Lamarckist view of evolution, stating that "The genome of every organism is actively and insistently remodeled as an expression of its context. Genetic code gets rewritten, reshuffled, duplicated, turned backward, “invented” from scratch, and otherwise revised in a way that prominently advertises the organism’s accomplished skill in matters of genomic change," but he doesn't quite commit to it, either.
posted by daniel_charms at 8:21 AM on December 2, 2011


However, the author's biography is an entertaining example of a crank grasping for credentials:
After being named a Presidential Scholar by Lyndon Johnson (1964), graduating from college, and serving in the army as a draftee (1968-1970), I edited a popular-scientific journal, Pensée, whose aim was to re-examine the catastrophism of Immanual Velikovsky (1972-1975).
[...]
There followed a period during which I managed an experimental organic farm in the Portland, Oregon area (1975-1981). An automatic transplanter developed on this farm was subsequently adapted for large-scale farming in California, where it has seen extensive use.
[...]
In a feature article on my work, the New York Times (Nov. 25, 1999) termed this newsletter "a largely undiscovered national treasure".
(Actually of course the Times only quoted a friend of Talbotts: ''It's a largely undiscovered national treasure,'' wrote Peter J. Denning, a computer science professor at George Mason University in Virginia, in an e-mail message about the newsletter.)
posted by nicwolff at 8:28 AM on December 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


Oh, dear. Where to start? Having a knowledge of molecular biology apparently doesn't automatically confer an organized philosophical approach to, well, anything outside of that area. I mean, just what the hell does

"The genome of every organism is actively and insistently remodeled as an expression of its context."

mean?
posted by Mental Wimp at 8:35 AM on December 2, 2011


"Is the universe so schizoid or compartmentalized that any truth we observe at the “bottom” (whatever that means) must be proclaimed real, while the truth at other levels is unreal and illusory?"

This is a very tricky question indeed.
posted by quoquo at 8:47 AM on December 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Talbott, an adherent of Rudolph Steiner’s Goethe-inspired anthroposophy, makes use of the work of Adolph Portmann, who is responsible for the idea self-representation. See Talbott’s “Can the new science of evo-devo explain the form of organisms?” (and my previous post here).
posted by No Robots at 8:47 AM on December 2, 2011


If mutations aren't random, what are they exactly, and how do they come about?

There is confusion about the word "random," which can apply to events like mutations from ionizing radiation that rains down on us continually. However, the probability distribution's parameters are determined by the environment. The level of exposure determines the rate of mutations, which can influence the rate of evolution. The response of the organism and of the population is not random because it is guided by biology and selection. The author is terribly confused by all this and mixes in teleology blindly, so that there is little intelligible in his essay.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:00 AM on December 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


My head just exploded, seemingly at random but actually with great meaning and purpose.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:07 AM on December 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


Once again, thanks to all the mefi readers who plowed through this thing and commented wisely, thereby saving me the time and effort. Seriously.
posted by charlesminus at 10:19 AM on December 2, 2011 [5 favorites]


This guy's mission is to make science something it isn't, can't be, didn't work when it was, and wouldn't work if it were. This is someone trying to do philosophy of science without an adequate understanding of either philosophy or science. Or the history of either philosophy or science.

The paper is confused and you can't get all the above from it; but if you look at his homepage you can see what's going on.

Here's his argument boiled down: evolution is in some sense teleological. Why? Because it sure looks like it is, that gut intuition must be right, and so maybe if we redefine "intention" and "purpose" in some way, we can reach teleology.

It's not an explicitly ID argument, although it's a half-step away from it. What it is, is an argument that is so pre-modern that it wants to argue from quality. That is, it begs the question of qualia in the context of natural philosophy. Which is why I say that this didn't work very well with regard to the natural world when people thought this way, and it doesn't work now.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:45 AM on December 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


The opening paragraphs suggest very strongly to me that the author is one of those people who confuses, "Wow, this is a complex process/condition" with "OMG purpose and meaning!"

I've had a very hard week and I'm too tired to plough through the rest of this right now. If someone feels indulgent, could they just confirm or deny my initial impression so that I know whether or not it''ll be worth making the effort to read the rest when I'm more rested? Thanks.
posted by Decani at 11:24 AM on December 2, 2011


On cursory glance, this seems to be a slightly jargon-ridden overview of the quite interesting evo-devo view on genetics, and the related developmental systems theory of Susan Oyama. There seems to be a certain amount of scientistic hubris in many of the comments. Issues of agency and intentionality, and metaphysical positions more akin to Buddhist thought are all thoroughtly worthy of discussion. But you gotta learn a lot of jargon.
posted by stonepharisee at 1:32 PM on December 2, 2011


There seems to be a certain amount of scientistic hubris in many of the comments.

WTF? Ad hominem?
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:36 PM on December 2, 2011


Why does an article about metaphysics have to start by positing straw-biologists and straw-materialists? Personally I'm quite uninterested in metaphysics, so I generally wouldn't have commented on this article, but I was fooled by the author's technique of pretending this is part of a larger scientific conversation, rather than a theological one.

Relatedly, is 'evo-devo' the new relativity?
posted by muddgirl at 1:38 PM on December 2, 2011


WTF? Ad hominem?--posted by Mental Wimp
Epon-hysterical.
posted by No Robots at 1:41 PM on December 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


My apologies - not theological, but philosophical.
posted by muddgirl at 1:43 PM on December 2, 2011


On cursory glance, this seems to be a slightly jargon-ridden overview of the quite interesting evo-devo view on genetics, and the related developmental systems theory of Susan Oyama. There seems to be a certain amount of scientistic hubris in many of the comments. Issues of agency and intentionality, and metaphysical positions more akin to Buddhist thought are all thoroughtly worthy of discussion. But you gotta learn a lot of jargon.

My problem with that article is not "evo-devo" jargon, because I understand evo-devo jargon, and, frankly, I have absolutely no idea what it has to do with that article. Meanwhile, I spend a lot of my free time with philosophers, and they have an extraordinary ability to express complex ideas and arguments with such clarity and precision that even this untrained person can follow them. Throwing a fancy buzzword at something and passing off obfuscation as "jargon" does not constitute and argument.

Or maybe I'm just hungry and it's time for my bus.
posted by endless_forms at 2:33 PM on December 2, 2011


You could well be right. I'll pay full attention to it tomorrow. Like many others here.
posted by stonepharisee at 3:11 PM on December 2, 2011


seemingly at random but actually with great meaning and purpose.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 1:07 PM


eponysterical?
posted by benito.strauss at 6:04 PM on December 2, 2011


I get the feeling the Talbott isn't banging on an Intelligent Design drum. I never even saw this the first time round, and after a quick reread, I'd say that if you're reading Intelligent Design motives into the work, then that's a naive interpretation.

I'm eager to be proved wrong though. A cursory search brings up this quote from Talbott.

The only way out of the ill-tempered and lightless debate between the two sides [ID vs Darwin] is to recognize that the intelligence we see in the world is not imposed from the outside upon pre-existing material, in the way we impose our design upon a machine. The intelligence in nature works always from within.

I've got a few problems with the article. For example, His contention that proofs of fitness are tautological seems to miss the point in exactly the same way as people who say the anthropic principle is tautological.

My feeling on Talbott is that he does try to straddle the philosophical and the scientific. He gives me the impression that he's a man who tries to think deeply on broad subjects.

On a personal note, It's a shame that so many of you are far too clever to be bothered with this article or dismiss without explanation his observations as invalid science. I would have hoped that you'd be able to at least explain why the science is bad rather than ad-hominem attacks (crank) and vague assertions that it's rubbish for unspecified reasons. Slightly disappointed right now. I don't know. It's possible if I've misjudged the commentary here and I'm just not smart enough to see the truth in it.
posted by seanyboy at 4:22 AM on December 3, 2011


The discussion here should not be dismissed. The article gives a slightly wrong impression of being the insight of the author, when in fact the issue under discussion, teleology and natural purposes, is widely discussed, and does, indeed seem to point to the need for a qualitatively different kind of explanation in biology, compared with the sciences of the inanimate. A good paper on the topic is Life after Kant, by Weber and Varela (2002) (posthumous in the case of Varela).
posted by stonepharisee at 4:28 AM on December 3, 2011


Ivan Fyodorovich: If you think that's what his argument is, you should read it again. It's a shame that you start with the insistence that he has a mission, that you go on to say that evolution is in some sense teleological, and then you blame the guy for having little understanding.

From here, it looks like you've read what you wanted to read, you haven't understood it and you've topped it off by accusing the author of being biased and not understanding stuff. Pretty ironic all things considered.
posted by seanyboy at 4:29 AM on December 3, 2011


Actually, I may have misunderstood IF's usage of teleological. I thought he meant it in the same was as "Teleological argument" which seems to be generally used to mean an argument for the existence of god.

If it's more about teleology, kant, etc. then that's a wee bit out of my scope. A bit of light reading may be in order.
posted by seanyboy at 4:37 AM on December 3, 2011


Teleological argument (arguing that X is for Y) is foreign to the physical sciences. We do not ask what gravity is for. Feynman describes this nicely in this 14 second clip. (Appeal to teleological argument does not make us theists. That is a misreading.)

But biology cannot avoid this issue. What is a heart for? If we disallow a framing of its activity with respect to the overall persistence of the viability of the organism, we can not begin to understand hearts. And so in studying life, we are forced to tread a fine line. To ignore the self-directedness of the activity of natural beings is to miss out on the nature of life itself.

Aristotle is not solely of historical interest. The former, he termed formal causation. The latter, is appeal to final cause. But most poorly informed scientific discussion appeals instead to efficient cause (billiard balls, X causes Y if it happens before Y and X comes in effective contact with Y and Y doesn't happen without X, and Y does happen if X). Efficient causal stories provide local forms of explanation that necessarily entail vast amounts of framing presuppositions. Efficient causal explanation is what people bray for, but is weak and insufficient for the big questions.
posted by stonepharisee at 6:05 AM on December 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's a shame that so many of you are far too clever to be bothered with this article or dismiss without explanation his observations as invalid science.

It's not that it's invalid science, it's invalid reasoning.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:55 AM on December 3, 2011


"I thought he meant it in the same was as 'Teleological argument' which seems to be generally used to mean an argument for the existence of god."

The Greek root of teleology is τέλοϛ (telos), which is often translated as that for the sake of which.

It's worth mentioning that the other root in that word, λόγος (logos), is one of the most important words in Greek and variously can mean everthing from word, to meaning, to reason, to language. Students of the New Testament, which was written in koine Greek, are very familiar with logos's frequent biblical usage as Word of God. Scientific disciplines mostly take either -logy or -nomy as suffixes—νόμος (nomos) means habit, law, custom. (It might seem like there's an important distinction between -logy and -nomy, and occasionally there is. The latter might be more a codification of practice or a taxonomy, where the former might be more deeply descriptive and involving causal relationships. But don't count on it.)

Thus, a teleology explains something by way of intention, purpose, or design. An argument is teleological when it has the characteristics of a teleology. Yes, this comes up straightaway with any sort of creationism, including intelligent design. But a theoteleology (or, if you prefer, teleotheology) is just a special case of a teleology.

Science is empiricism. Empiricism is essentially descriptive. It's quantitative. In contrast, when a teleology privileges purpose/intention/design, it is assuming that this quality—this which makes a thing what it is; that is, its purpose—exists and is knowable. But how is it knowable? Even in the absolutely most simplified and everyday example—why did you drink that coffee?—intention and purpose and design remain mysterious, elusive. We can see this conundrum played out here at MetaTalk when people argue about what a troll is and how one can be recognized.

Nevertheless, teleological reasoning is the primary mode of human cognition. And there's a good reason for this: much of our cognition is social in nature, and specifically involves theory of mind. We understand ourselves, and we understand others, in terms of motivations and intentions and goals. This causes problems when others are sufficiently unlike us—and that should be cautionary, given that in the grand scheme of things, people are far more like each other than they are like non-people. (Including, arguably, divine beings.)

Early philosophers, like the priest caste they came from, attempted to comprehend the cosmos in this fashion. Why are things the way they are? What is that thing for? Why do we love?

But this proved deeply problematic. When you try to understand the world by reasoning backward from a purpose you assume and (at best) intuit, you find yourself repeatedly backed into cul-de-sacs.

Stonepharisee mentions Aristotle. What's interesting about Aristotle is that despite his infamous failures of empiricism, he was actually more an empiricist than those who came before him. In fact, he tended to mix-and-match teleology and empiricism, though like most of the Greeks, he privileged telos over everything else.

You see, the Greeks were fundamentally interested in qualia. They reached incessantly toward what they felt was the deepest truth of things. For this reason, the closer they were to the context of pure reason and the further they were from natural philosophy, the more fabulously successful they were. But they failed miserably at natural philosophy. (We'll ignore the minority faction of Democritus and the Epicureans for the purposes of this argument. But it's worth imagining what the world might have looked like had their school won the argument.)

With regard to science, the modern revolution really began with Galileo and eventually Newton, both of whom explicitly described how bodies fell under gravity while disregarding why they act the way they do.

Our common language blurs the distinction between those two words and most people, and students, and even scientists, will talk about the science of something as "why" something is the way it is or "why" it behaves the way it behaves. But if you consider the Galilean and, especially, Newtonian descriptions of gravity, you'll see that they were successful because they simply characterize their observations according to a regularized mathematics.

And here we also come to the similarly difficult notion of causality. Causality, like purpose, is elusive. However, unlike teleology, it doesn't back you into dead-ends. Instead, it just leads you to think you've fully characterized relationships when you really haven't. And that greater level of detail tends to reveal itself as time goes on, for reasons I won't go into.

The point is that both cause and purpose are fundamental to human cognition but are, perversely, problematic for natural philosophy. And I mean "problematic" in the fullest sense. This is a pragmatic argument—science's success is in its proven utility, not its pure rational elegance. This is why the schism between philosophy and science happened.

But the descriptive nature of science, which is in fact an essential characteristic of empiricism, is deeply off-putting to many people. Socrates would be appalled, for example. (Though, weirdly, he seemed to have a deeply pragmatic side. He was a study in contradictions, really.) Plato, then. Plato would absolutely despise science.

What's happening here is that there's a small and diverse group of people who share two important characteristics: they are drawn to science in some respect while at the same time they are repulsed by its lack of attention to qualia. This group, then, attempts in some form to square the circle. Or, related, exactly measure the side of a square by its diagonal. They reverse that initial break with tradition that began the Enlightenment: they reinstate the qualia and purpose that Newton discarded because, basically, they know it exists because in their view, nothing means anything without it. And they feel it.

Talbott is trying to find a way to shoehorn telos into biology. What's odd is that even as epistemology his stuff is naive. Within the context of epistemology, pure philosophy, qualia and telos are elusive. Yet, of course, we experience it at least within ourselves. I know I do. I assume you do, too.

Which brings me to what is my core objection to his (and many related) arguments within the context of epistemology...I will mostly leave the biology alone because, frankly, the biology is window-dressing for his argument. My problem is that he doesn't seem to understand, like many people don't, that all sufficiently complex systems have what must be understood as distinct descriptive contexts. Yes, human cognition is teleological. Human experience of cognition is teleological. That doesn't mean that natural selection is then necessarily teleological by causal relation. Nor does it mean that human society is necessarily teleological by causal relation.

But he's not saying anything interesting about biology. One part of his argument is built upon asserting that natural selection isn't "random". Well, I don't even know where to start with that. I don't know what "random" means in this context.

"Efficient causal explanation is what people bray for, but is weak and insufficient for the big questions."

Sure, but teleology is insufficient for the big questions, too. Because it's invariably tautological. That's the real problem with these big questions. They cannot be answered with rigor.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:59 PM on December 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


Wonderful contribution!

> Sure, but teleology is insufficient for the big questions, too. Because it's invariably tautological. That's the real problem with these big questions. They cannot be answered with rigor.

Which leads me to surmise that we need to live with incomplete explantations. Its the fundamentalists on all sides that worry me, insisting that there is a best description of reality.

Nobody's mentioned Hans Jonas yet.
posted by stonepharisee at 3:28 PM on December 3, 2011


For those who asked, here's my summary(-ish) from my reading of the OP:

In the first section, the author makes some claims about the beliefs of Dawkins and Dennett, and mainstream evolutionary biologists in general. He seems to claim that, in noting that complex, self-aware organisms have evolved from purely reactionary/mechanistic chemicals, proto-organisms, and simple organisms, that Dawkins and Dennett (and mainstream evolutionary biology by extension) believe that the observed self-awareness of some more complicated organisms (eg. humans) is illusory, not really there. In my opinion, the author seems to exhibit a lack of understanding of emergent phenomena in this section. As well, the author seems to be under the mis-understanding that evolution by natural selection selects for helpful traits, rather than selecting against harmful traits.

In the second section, the author seems unaware of experiments in which molecules capable of self-reproduction have been created in vitro from constituent chemicals. He claims that scientists have only ever observed life created from other living organisms. The author also seems to be confusing anthropomorphic language in scientific papers that talk about biological processes as if cells and such have goals, with that "agency" actually existing. He is very concerned with "agency" (as well as "purpose," though it's not yet clear to me what he means by "purpose" -- if that be just questions of function as opposed to form, or if that be tied in with "agency" or self-awareness of organisms). The author seems to think that, because cells and living organisms accomplish tasks that turn out to be useful for sustaining life and for reproducing, then this end result must in fact be a goal, and there must be some intentionality or "agency" directing cells and organisms toward this observed end result.

In the third section, the author seems somewhat aware that there has been a progression in the understanding of the mechanisms of biological mutation and evolution. Initially, there was this model of completely random mutations, eg. radiation-induced, most of which would be harmful or fatal to an organism, but a few of which would survive and be replicated in future generations. The author notes (though explaining it differently than me) that this model was challenged with work on epigenetics and environmental influences on gene expression, and on probabilities of gene transferal to the next generation (eg. environmental factors can influence the probabilities of father of many species contributing an X chromosome versus a Y chromosome and thus the sex ratios of their children). The author notes that these environmental factors don't result in "random" mutations in the sense of the original, eg. radiation-induced, genetic mutation model -- that the mutations thus induced can be viewed as a more direct response to the organism's environment. He also notes that even radiation-induced mutations aren't uniformly distributed among all theoretically possible mutations of DNA.

The author uses "random" rather naively, however, seemingly only to mean uniformly distributed random events (where the probability of any one event occurring is the same as the probability of any other event occurring), rather than considering the possibility of other probability distributions (like weighted dice: eg. it takes different amounts of energy, even with radiation-induced mutations, to make mutation of some bases in DNA than others, and the folding and configuration of DNA and its surrounding proteins can affect which sites are more likely to experience mutation when ionizing radiation is applied -- this doesn't make the mutations not random, but it does affect the probability distribution for which mutations are more or less likely to occur). The author seems to want to attach "meaning" to these observed probability distributions, beyond what can be explained through form as in my parenthetical comment.

In the fourth and fifth sections, the author notes that figuring out the fitness value of a mutation -- that is, whether the mutation will be helpful or harmful to an organism in the long run, and to what degree -- is complex and difficult to nigh-impossible. He rightly points out that many attempted explanations have been given, even by respected biologists in earlier times, for the fitness of observed mutations or traits of animals (eg. long necks on giraffes). This section, though the author doesn't seem to be aware of it, is actually a pretty reasonable take-down of the misconception that evolution through natural selection works by selecting for helpful traits, and the (imo rather obnoxious) evolutionary psychology or armchair evolutionist habit of trying to make up scientific-sounding just-so stories. He has even found some quotes from sloppy evolutionary biologists (mostly from before the time that Barbara McClintock's work and similar were more widely accepted into the cannon of molecular biology, not surprisingly) who have fallen into this misconception, for example by trying to posit some external measure for the fitness of traits and mutations.

In the sixth section, the author is either unaware of or ignores the model of evolution through natural selection in which harmful traits are selected against (rather than helpful traits being selected for). Instead, he seems to conclude that evolution can't be random, and that there must be some "meaning" and goal to mutations. I agree with other commenters' reading that this article supports a Lamarckian view of evolution, not an Intelligent Design viewpoint. It also seems to be stuck in a half-century old understanding of molecular biology, though, except for the select counterexamples used to argue against the idea of helpful traits being selected for under evolution by natural selection. The author does seem to have some belief that all living organisms somehow intentionally direct their development and evolution, though this feels to me to be more reminiscent of Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis. However, the author doesn't develop these ideas sufficiently in this article for me to take more than a guess at his beliefs in this respect.
posted by eviemath at 3:54 PM on December 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


That's a nice summary, eviemath.

It's interesting to me that the problem with selection for versus selection against is, in my opinion, a synecdoche—it's the telology problem writ small. I'd argue that for and against are loaded words that bias comprehension in a way that causes misperceptions and then misconceptions. All there is, really, is a relative metric, not an absolute one. Selection pressure is neither positive or negative, it's merely relative.

Even so, asserting negative selection as valid as opposed to positive selection has the great benefit of making teleological reasoning about natural selection much more difficult. There is an asymmetry between the two because thinking in terms of positive selection encourages people to think in terms of an ideal fitness metric that's being approached. In more crude terms, it's why people wrongly think that evolution trends toward "improvement" and aims at perfection and increased complexity.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 4:11 PM on December 3, 2011


You can't classify the hacking of existing RNA molecules so they can self replicate as creating life. I imagine Talbott is aware of the existence of RNA experiments, and has listened to those that created the experiments when they say that it's interesting, but its not the creation of life.
posted by seanyboy at 3:14 AM on December 4, 2011


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