Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Existence Is Scientifically Inexplicable

Darwin Unhinged: The Bugs In Evolution

This is atrociously long, criminally even, by internet standards but I post it anyway because I get occasional requests. Few will read it, which is understandable. Apologies. The Devil made me do it. Regular readers, if there is one, will have seen most of it before since in large part it is a gluing together of several columns.

“A scientist is part of what the Polish philosopher of science Ludwik Fleck called a “thought collective”: a group of people exchanging ideas in a mutually comprehensible idiom. The group, suggested Fleck, inevitably develops a mind of its own, as the individuals in it converge on a way of communicating, thinking and feeling.

This makes scientific inquiry prone to the eternal rules of human social life: deference to the charismatic, herding towards majority opinion, punishment for deviance, and intense discomfort with admitting to error. Of course, such tendencies are precisely what the scientific method was invented to correct for, and over the long run, it does a good job of it. In the long run, however, we’re all dead, quite possibly sooner than we would be if we hadn’t been following a diet based on poor advice.”

How the following Came About

I was in high school when I began to think about evolution. I was then just discovering the sciences systematically, and took them as what they offered themselves to be, a realm of reason and dispassionate regard for truth. There was a hard-edged clarity to them that I liked. You got real answers. Since evolution depended on such sciences as chemistry, I regarded it as also being a science.

The question of the origin of life interested me. The evolutionary explanations that I encountered in textbooks of biology seemed weak, however. They ran to, “In primeval seas, evaporation concentrated dissolved compounds in a pore in a rock, a membrane formed, and life began its immense journey.” Still, I saw no reason to doubt this. If it hadn’t been true, scientists would not have said that it was.

Remember, I was fifteen.

In those days I read Scientific American and New Scientist, the latter then still being thoughtfully written in good English. I noticed that not infrequently they offered differing speculations as to the origin of life. The belief in the instrumentality of chemical accident was constant, but the nature of the primeval soup changed to fit varying attempts at explanation.

For a while, life was thought to have come about on clay in shallow water in seas of a particular composition, later in tidal pools with another chemical solution, then in the open ocean in another solution. This continues. Recently, geothermal vents have been offered as the home of the first life. Today (Feb 24, 2005) on the BBC website, I learn that life evolved below the oceanic floor. (“There is evidence that life evolved in the deep sediments,” co-author John Parkes, of Cardiff University, UK, told the BBC News website.”)

The frequent shifting of ground bothered me. If we knew how life began, why did we have so many prospective mechanisms, none of which worked? Evolution began to look like a theory in search of a soup. Fifty-five years later in 2015, it still does.

What Distinguishes Evolution from Other Sciences

Early on, I noticed three things about evolution that differentiated it from other sciences (or, I could almost say, from science). First, plausibility was accepted as being equivalent to evidence. And of course the less you know, the greater the number of things that are plausible, because there are fewer facts to get in the way. Again and again evolutionists assumed that suggesting how something might have happened was equivalent to establishing how it had happened. Asking them for evidence usually aroused annoyance and sometimes, if persisted in, hostility.

As an example, consider the view that life arose by chemical misadventure. By this they mean, I think, that they cannot imagine how else it might have come about. (Neither can I. Does one accept a poor explanation because unable to think of a good one?) This accidental-life theory, being somewhat plausible, is therefore accepted without the usual standards of science, such as reproducibility or rigorous demonstration of mathematical feasibility. Putting it otherwise, evolutionists are too attached to their ideas to be able to question them.

Or to notice that others do question, and with reason. They defend furiously the evolution of life in earth’s seas as the most certain of certainties. Yet in the November, 2005 Scientific American, an article argues that life may have begun elsewhere, perhaps on Mars, and arrived here on meteorites. May have, perhaps, might. Somewhere, somewhere else, anywhere. Onward into the fog.

Consequently, discussion often relies on vague and murky assertion, or ignores obvious questions. Starlings are said to have evolved to be the color of dirt so that hawks can’t see them to eat them. This is plausible and, I suspect, true. But guacamayos and cockatoos are gaudy enough to be seen from low-earth orbit. Is there a contradiction here? No, say evolutionists. Guacamayos are gaudy so they can find each other to mate. Always there is the pat explanation. But starlings seem to mate with great success, though invisible. If you have heard a guacamayo shriek, you can hardly doubt that another one could easily find it. Enthusiasts of evolution then told me that guacamayos were at the top of their food chain, and didn’t have predators. Or else that the predators were colorblind.

On and on it goes. On any coral reef, a scuba diver can see, or rather not see, phenomenally good camouflage in creatures such as octopuses, said to prevent their being eaten. It does. But many fish are garishly colored. What is the advantage?

Second, evolution seemed more a metaphysics or ideology than a science. The sciences, as I knew them, gave clear answers. Evolution involved intense faith in fuzzy principles. You demonstrated chemistry, but believed evolution. If you have ever debated a Marxist, or a serious liberal or conservative, or a feminist or Christian, you will have noticed that, although they can be exceedingly bright and well informed, they display a maddening evasiveness. You never get a straight answer if it is one they do not want to give. Crucial premises are not firmly established. Fundamental assertions do not tie to observable reality. Invariably the Marxist (or evolutionist) assumes that a detailed knowledge of economic conditions in the reign of Nicholas II substitutes for being able to answer simple questions, such as why Marxism has never worked. This is the Fallacy of Irrelevant Knowledge. And of course almost anything can be made believable by considering only favorable evidence and interpreting hard.

Third, evolutionists are obsessed by Christianity and Creationism, with which they imagine themselves to be in mortal combat. This is peculiar to them. Note that other sciences, such as astronomy and geology, even archaeology, are equally threatened by the notion that the world was created in 4004 BC. Astronomers pay not the slightest attention to Creationist ideas. Nobody does—except evolutionists. We are dealing with competing religions—overarching explanations of origin and destiny. Thus the fury of their response to skepticism.

I found it pointless to tell them that I wasn’t a Creationist. They refused to believe it. If they had, they would have had to answer questions that they would rather avoid. Like any zealots, they cannot recognize their own zealotry. Thus their constant classification of skeptics as enemies (a word they often use)—of truth, of science, of Darwin, of progress.

This tactical demonization is not unique to evolution. “Creationist” is to evolution what “racist” is to politics: A way of preventing discussion of what you do not want to discuss. Evolution is the political correctness of science.

The Lair of the Beast

I have been on several lists on the internet that deal with matters such as evolution, have written on the subject, and have discussed evolution with various of its adherents. These men (almost all of them are) have frequently been very bright indeed, often Ivy League professors, some of them with names you would recognize. They are not amateurs of evolution, or high-school principals in Kansas eager to prove their modernity. I asked them questions, such as whether we really know what the primeval seas consisted of, etc. I knew the answers; I wanted to see how serious proponents of evolutionary biology would respond to awkward questions.

It was like giving a bobcat a prostate exam. I got everything but answers. They told me I was a crank, implied over and over (again) that I was a Creationist, said that I was an enemy of science (someone who asks for evidence is an enemy of science). They said that I was trying to pull down modern biology (if you ask questions about an aspect of biology, you want to pull down biology). They told me I didn’t know anything (that’s why I was asking questions), and that I was a mere journalist (the validity of a question depends on its source rather than its content).

But they didn’t answer the questions. They ducked and dodged and evaded. After thirty years in journalism, I know ducking and dodging when I see it. It was like cross-examining hostile witnesses.

This is the behavior not of scientists, but of advocates, of True Believers. I used to think that science was about asking questions, not about defending things you didn’t really know. Religion, I thought, was the other way around. I guess I was wrong.

A Preamble

The intent of this essay is not to debate with the ardent of evolutionism. To do so would be pointless. The problem is one of underlying set of mind, of why people believe and disbelieve things. The greatest intellectual divide is not between those who believe one thing and those who believe another, but between those who have an emotional need to believe something fervently and those who can say, “I don’t know.” The former group comprises those tedious Darwinists and Creationists who hurl imprecations at each other like fans of rival football teams. Each blockheadedly refuses to concede the slightest possibility that its doctrine might be other than infallible. To my mind they constitute the best evidence that we did not descend from monkeys, but have not yet ascended to them. Stupidity beyond a certain point is intractable.

I write here for those who can look at the world with curiosity and calm, divining what can be divined and conceding what cannot, without regarding themselves as members of warring tribes. To judge by the writing on evolution in the public prints, there may be as many as three of these.

On Arrogance

“The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose.” J. B. S. Haldane

“Queer”: Exactly the right word, suggesting more the world of Alice in Wonderland than the crisp, clean-edged, perfectly ordered and causal world of physics. This paradigm holds that existence is like a vast crossword puzzle. Some parts we have filled in, others we have not, but by its nature the puzzle is solvable, and it is only a matter of time before we know everything. This is awfully optimistic.

Humans today are a puffed-up and overconfident species. We believe that we know everything, or shortly will. We have a sense of near-omniscience equaled only by that of teenagers. For do we not have have smart phones and Mars landers and PET scans, and do we not all speak wisely of DNA? We are, if not gods, at least godlings on the way up. If you don’t believe this, just ask us.

It was not always so. A thousand years ago, mankind cast a small shadow on the earth and lived in a dark and mysterious world. Little was known, about anything. Gods of countless sorts walked the earth. Spirits inhabited sacred groves. Lightning, the moon, the stars were…what? We had no idea. This brought humility.

We now believe that nothing is or can be beyond our powers. A contemplative skeptic might advert to a few remaining details: We don’t know where we came from, why we are here, where “here” is, where we are going if anywhere, or what we ought to do. These are minor questions. We only think about them when we wake up at three a.m. and remember that we are not permanent. We are kidding ourselves.

When people become accustomed to things that make no sense, they begin to seem to. Though we no longer notice it as we peck at tablet computers and listen to droning lowbrow shows about the conquest of nature, we still live in a weird and inexplicable universe, an apparently unending emptiness speckled with sparks of hydrogen fire. It is wicked mysterious. More things in heaven and earth, indeed.

We are not as wise as we think. We are just smarter than anything else we know about. I reiterate Fred’s Principle: The smartest of a large number of hamsters is still a hamster.

Where Evolution Fits In

The Theory of Evolution is not just about biological evolution. It is part of a grand unified theory that seeks to explain everything (except things that it can’t explain, which it ignores). It runs briefly as follows: First came the Big Bang. Subatomic particles flew in all directions, coalesced into atoms and into molecules and stars. Planets formed, then oceans, and then life came about by chemical inadvertence. Evolution produced trilobites, dinosaurs, mammals, and us. In the popular version, though not in the scientific, evolution produces ongoing betterment.

It is not particularly plausible. As someone said, evolution writ large is the belief that a large cloud of hydrogen will eventually turn into Manhattan. But, like a religion, it provides an overarching explanation of origins–the Big Bang–and destiny–we are getting better and better–and gives us a sense of understanding the world.

In this it serves the purposes of a religion and is treated as such by its adherents. They react to questioning with anger and they see their hated opponents as Creationists–that is, adherents of another religion. Note that while in the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, Christian fundamentalists tried to outlaw Darwin, today evolutionists appeal to the courts to outlaw mention of Creation in the schools. This is not rational. Can anyone believe that describing Creation in high schools will deter students from studying biochemistry, and turn them into intellectual loin-cloth wearers burning textbooks?

Interestingly, atheism has to be part of the evolutionist’s mental equipment since if any sort of god exists, or if there is life after death, or anything beyond the laws of physics, then these things might influence existence in a way outside of physics–and this cannot be allowed.

Before going further, let us look at some of the questions ignored by evolutionism.

In Evolution Writ Large nothing exists but physics. The Big Bang was physics, chemistry is the physics of the interactions of atoms, biochemistry a subset of chemistry and therefore also physics. Everything that happens in a cell is physics (to include biochemistry). Everything that happens in a living body, from movement to thought, is physics. Mutations are physical events. The behavior of DNA follows the laws of physics.

Note that biological evolution is always regarded as an indivisible entity, yet in fact it consists of several distinct components that are logically separable. First, that life came about accidentally in the ancient seas (highly shaky and certainly not demonstrated). Second, that evolution occurred (as the fossil record would seem to show beyond reasonable doubt). Third, that natural selection drove evolution (demonstrable in some cases, plausible in a great many, and highly unlikely in yet others). Fourth, that random mutations drive natural selection (very shaky, but crucial to evolutionism). Fifth, that nothing else drives it.

The unwillingness to recognize that these are separable leads to a tendency to believe that when one of them can be demonstrated–natural selection, say–it is regarded as confirmation of the whole edifice. It isn’t.

An Embarrassing Necessity Before Getting to the Meat of Things
Inevitably one who writes of evolution without being a PhD at CalTech is assaulted on grounds that he must be ignorant of practically everything. I claim to be an expert on nothing. However, I subscribe to the principle that most problems can be solved by the application of modest intelligence and obsessive-compulsive disorder. A fact forgotten today is that one can learn things by reading books. By doing so I have learned enough to talk about at least a few things, such as:

Basophils, eosinophils, neutrophils. Descemet’s membrane, ciliary body, suspensory ligaments, retinal pigmented epithelium (the eye being of evolutionary interest). Peptide pituitary hormones, vasopressin and oxytocin. Osteoclast, osteoblast. Nephrons, glomerulus, Loop of Henle. Axon, dendrite, sodium in-potassium-out depolarization, neurotransmitters, receptor sites. Rough and smooth endoplasmic reticula, Golgi apparatus, lipid bilayers, hydrophobic and hydrophilic tails, lysosomes, ribosomes, epitopes, m-RNA, t-RNA, transcription, translation. Restriction enzymes, DNA polymerase. The Breeder’s Equation, selection differential, pleiotrophy, epistasis, narrow heritability.Purines adenine and guanine and pyrimidines cytocine and thymine (well, uracil in RNA). Degeneracy of the codon alphabet. Nucleotides, nucleosides, adenosine triphosphate, indels, mitochondrial cristae, single-nucleotide polymorphisms, polymerase chain reaction, restriction-fragment length polymorphism, electrophoresis. Luciferin, (and Luciferout?) luciferase, ATP. X chromosomal and mitochondrial DNA. Peptide bonds COOH to NH 2, water molecule extruded. Socially important compounds like 2, 4, 6- trinitrotoluene, toluene being benzene with a CH 3 group, bond resonance in benzene, pH, the negative log of the hydronium ion content. Levo- and dextro- isomers. Alkanes, alkenes, alkynes, al gore. Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, Permian. Purported transitional forms: The Ichthyostegids of, if memory serves, upper Permian sediments of eastern Greenland; Archaeopteryx, Bavaria 1861; coelacanth, Marjorie Latimer, sort of 1937 I think; and my favorite, Piltdown Man. The amniote egg. Saurischian and Ornothiscian dinosaurs. Sauropods, pseudopods, copepods. Etc.

Eyeing the Argument from Time

A matter that needs to be gotten out of the way before continuing is the insistence that, given billions of years–more accurately, about four billion–life had to from just because of all that time. This is by no means clear. In questions of the probability of complex events, time can mean surprisingly little. Consider the assertion famously made by James Jeans, often cited in connection with evolution, that a monkey typing randomly at a keyboard would eventually write all the books in the British Museum. This sounds plausible and, in a purely mathematical sense, is true. What are the odds?

Consider a fair-sized book of 200,000 words that, by newspaper average, would contain about a million letters. To make it easy on the monkey, we will ignore upper case and punctuation and let him work with an alphabet of 26 letters. What are his prospects of getting the book in a given string of a million letters?

The chance of getting the first letter correctly is 1/26 times the chance of getting the second letter, 1/26, and so on, making the chance of getting the entire book 1/261,000,000. Since 26 equals 10log 26, (log 26 being about 1.41) the chance of getting the entire book is 1 in 10log 26 x 1000,000 or about 101,400,000. Innocent looking numbers like this are remarkably intractable. For example, a billion billion monkeys (more monkeys than Iwant) typing a billion billion characters a second for a billion billion times the estimated age of the universe (1018 seconds ) would have essentially zero chance of getting the book.

To give our monkey a fighting chance, let’s ask whether he would get even the title of a book, for example On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, which Microsoft Word tells me contains 119 characters. The monkey’s chance of getting the title in a give string of 119 is one in 10119 x x 1.41 or 10168 Thus our billion billion monkey at a billion billion characters a second for the life of the universe is essentially zero.

Is the chance of accidentally forming a living Crittter a similar problem? We don’t know, especially since evolutionists cannot tell us what the First Critter was. But it is their responsibility to tell us, first, what of what complexity formed and, second, why the odds are not astronomically against it. The point to take away is that the invocation of long periods of time can mean little when speaking of the probability of complex yet unspecified events.

A Few Early Questions

(1) Life was said to have begun by chemical inadvertence in the early seas. Did we, I wondered, really know of what those early seas consisted? Know, not suspect, hope, theorize, divine, speculate, or really, really wish. Bear in mind that chemical reactions depend crucially on molarity, pH, temperature, half-life of intermediates, and so on.

The answer is, “no.” We have no dried residue, no remaining pools, and the science of planetogenesis isn’t nearly good enough to provide a quantitative analysis.

2) Do we know what conditions would be necessary for a cell to come about?

No, we don’t.

(3) Has the creation of a living cell been replicated in the laboratory?
No, it has not. Here the evolutionist will say, “But, Fred, how can you repeat in the laboratory something that took millions and millions of years and billions and billions of gallons of sea water?” 

You can’t, but am I to believe it happened on the grounds that it can’t be proved?

(4) Could it be shown to be mathematically probable that a cell would form, given any soup whatever?

No, it couldn’t, and can’t. (At least not without cooking the assumptions.)

(5) Have biochemists designed a replicating chemical entity that plausibly might have evolved into organisms such as we now have?


6) This next I ask, knowing that no answer is possible, to make a point: The more complex we postulate the First Critter to have been, the less likely that it would form accidentally. The less complex, the harder to explain why such a Critter has not been designed in the laboratory. With every passing year, the difficulty grows.

In sum: If we don’t know what conditions existed, or what conditions would be necessary, and can’t reproduce the event in the laboratory, and can’t show it to be statistically probable, and can’t construct something that might have evolved—why are we so very sure that it happened? Would you hang a man on such evidence?

A Surfeit of Soups

To see the desperation of the search for plausible beginnings of life, look at this list, from the Wikipedia, of the wildly differing hypotheses, guesses, theories, and lunges, none of which have worked out. Does it give you a sense that evolutionists know what they are talking about?

Current models

  • 3.1 Origin of organic molecules
  • 3.1.1 “Soup” theory
  • Reducing atmosphere
  • Monomer formation
  • Monomer accumulation
  • Further transformation
  • 3.1.2 Eigen’s hypothesis
  • 3.1.3 Hoffmann’s contributions
  • 3.1.4 W√§chtersh√§user’s hypothesis
  • 3.1.5 Zn-World hypothesis
  • 3.1.6 Radioactive beach hypothesis
  • 3.1.7 Ultraviolet and temperature-assisted replication model
  • 3.1.8 Models to explain homochirality
  • 3.1.9 Self-organization and replication
  • 3.2 From organic molecules to protocells
  • 3.2.1 Deep sea vent hypothesis
  • 3.2.2 Coenzyme world
  • 3.2.3 RNA world
  • 3.2.4 “Metabolism first” models
  • Iron-sulfur world
  • Thermosynthesis world
  • Bubbles
  • Pumice raft
One hypothesis, as mentioned before, is that life swooped in from outer space on carbonaceous chondrites, or began on Mars (where it conspicuously has not been discovered by a platoon of itinerant Mars landers) and drifted to the earth. That is, life began where apparently there has never been life. The flexibility of evolutionary thinking is greatly to be admired.

Here a point worth making briefly: The press often excitedly reports that “organic compounds” have been found on meteorites, or comets, or interstellar space, or in bottles of chemicals through which an electric spark has been passed. The unfortunate name “organic” suggests origins in living creatures, or the likelihood of turning shortly into living creatures. Actually, “organic chemistry” is, roughly, the chemistry of carbon chains. No living origins nor living intentions are implied. DDT is an organic compound, as is 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene, TNT.

While evolutionists couldn’t demonstrate that life had begun by chemical accident, I can’t show that it did not. An inability to prove that something is statistically possible is not the same as proving that it is not statistically possible. Not being able to reproduce an event in the laboratory does not establish that it didn’t happen in nature. Etc. I didn’t know how life came about. I still don’t. Neither do evolutionists.

Impossibility Theory and Common Sense, If Any

If you look at evolution from other than the perspective of an ideological warrior who believes that he is saving the world from the claws of snake-handling primitive Christians in North Carolina, difficulties arise. Chief among these is the sheer complexity of things. Living organisms are just too complicated to have come about by accident. This, it seems to me, is apparent to, though not provable by, anyone with an open mind.

Everywhere in the living world one sees intricacy wrapped in intricacy wrapped in intricacy. At some point the sane have to say, “This didn’t just happen. Something is going on that I don’t understand.” But an evolutionist cannot say that there is anything he can’t understand, only that there are things he doesn’t yet understand.

Read a textbook of embryology. You start with a barely-visible zygote which, (we are told) guided by nothing but the laws of chemistry, unerringly reacts with ambient chemicals to build, over nine months, an incomprehensibly complex thing we call “a baby.” Cells migrate here, migrate there, modify themselves or are modified to form multitudinous organs, each of them phenomenally complex, all of this happening chemically and flawlessly on autopilot. We are accustomed to this, and so think it makes sense. The usual always seems reasonable. I don’t think it is. It simply isn’t possible, being a wild frontal assault on Murphy’s Law.

Therefore babies do not exist. Quod erat demonstrandum. Unless Something Else is involved. I do not know what.

Complexity upon complexity. In virtually invisible cells you find endoplasmic reticula, Golgi apparatus, ribosomes, nuclear and messenger and transfer RNA, lysosomes, countless enzymes, complex mechanisms for transcribing and translating DNA, itself a complex and still-mysterious repository of information. Somehow this is all packed into almost nowhere. That this just sort of, well, you know, happened is too much to believe. It began being believed when almost nothing was known about the complexity of cellular biology, after which, being by then a sacred text, it could not be questioned. And cannot.

The foregoing is only the beginning of complexity. The many organs formed effortlessly in utero are as bafflingly elaborate as cells themselves. Consider (a simplified description of) the parts of the eye: The globe of three layers, sclera, choroid, and retina. Cornea of six layers, epithelium, Bowman’s membrane, substantia propria, Dua’s layer, Descemet’s membrane, endothelium. Retina of ten layers. Lens consisting of anterior and posterior capsule and contained proteinacious goop. The lens is held by delicate suspensory ligaments inside the ciliary body, a muscular doughnut that changes the shape of lens so as to focus. An iris of radial and circumferential fibers enervated competitively by the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems in opposition. A pump to circulate the aqueous humor. On and on and on. And equally on and on for all the other organs, which last for seventy years, repairing themselves when damaged.

From Fred On Everything (September 8, 2016)

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