Saturday, August 11, 2012

Hambourger's design argument

Hambourger argues that even if there is no evidence of interference by a designer in the course of evolution, we have to consider the fact that living creatures are made up of genetic material that reproduces after its kind, but not exactly. We could have reproduction that only produces exact duplicates, in which case evolution would be impossible, since there would be no variation. We could also have genetic material that changes very rapidly, in which case speciation would be chaotic, and evolution would also be impossible. That fact that genetic material changes gradually is the only scenario that makes evolution possible. But why did we happen to have genetic material that mutates at just the right pace? Doesn't that imply a background designer?

For some critical comment, see here. 

29 comments:

im-skeptical said...

This argument indicates a profound ignorance of the science. Mutations don't happen at just the right place. They are random. Natural selection favors the ones that produce beneficial results.

Crude said...

I strongly suggest anyone who wants to criticize this paper actually read it before doing so. Victor's summary is very general, and as near as I can tell, this paper is not at all claiming that mutations 'happen at just the right place', as in targeted mutations in a single generation.

im-skeptical said...

Sorry. Point well taken. I should have said 'question' instead of 'argument'.

Victor Reppert said...

Not only that, but my statement didn't say that mutations happened at just the right place. What I said was that the genetic material that creates variations could vary at different paces. We could have invariant reproduction, we could have widely divergent reproduction, or we could have somewhat divergent reproduction. Why does the genetic code allow for slight variations but not big ones. Thus, a father's son looks like a chip off the old block, (more so than the other kids in school), but doesn't grow up to look exactly like his dad. The overall mutation rate (as opposed to targeted mutations) seems to be just a contingent fact about the way things are, and not itself a product of evolution, and it could have been otherwise. So, why is it just the way it is? Dumb luck, or maybe design.

Victor Reppert said...

Not only that, but my statement didn't say that mutations happened at just the right place. What I said was that the genetic material that creates variations could vary at different paces. We could have invariant reproduction, we could have widely divergent reproduction, or we could have somewhat divergent reproduction. Why does the genetic code allow for slight variations but not big ones. Thus, a father's son looks like a chip off the old block, (more so than the other kids in school), but doesn't grow up to look exactly like his dad. The overall mutation rate (as opposed to targeted mutations) seems to be just a contingent fact about the way things are, and not itself a product of evolution, and it could have been otherwise. So, why is it just the way it is? Dumb luck, or maybe design.

Crude said...

I'm still absorbing this paper, but I'd point out one thing as well.

Humans use evolution in design as well. Evolution - variation and selection - are demonstrably processes and methods that a mind could use to achieve a goal.

Victor Reppert said...

And let me reiterate Crude's point: there is far more to the article that I was able to summarize in one paragraph.

im-skeptical said...

"But why did we happen to have genetic material that mutates at just the right pace? Doesn't that imply a background designer?"

Victor, sorry if I misinterpreted this. I'm not here to throw stones, but when I see something that if strongly feel is wrong, I feel the need to point it out. My hope is that we can learn something from each other.

im-skeptical said...

Regarding evolution of design, human designs do evolve ... by design. Natural selection is ... natural.

Crude said...

Regarding evolution of design, human designs do evolve ... by design. Natural selection is ... natural.

Either that's just a statement of definitions (which wouldn't resolve the question) or it's just question begging.

The point is that saying "it evolved" is compatible with "it was designed". Entirely compatible. You need to do a lot more work to argue that the particular evolutionary process/history in question was not itself designed. Hambourger seems to be moving in the direction of arguing along these lines - what he may be saying is the evolution as we know it has a fine-tuning problem. It's not enough to say it's natural selection, since the "natural" part is what's being questioned by me.

Elliot Sober's paper about guided mutation is useful here.

im-skeptical said...

Again, with my apology to Victor, since I have stepped into this, allow me to address what Hambourger is saying. His point is not so much about the pace of evolution as it is about the improbability of the outcome, which, he concludes could only have happened by divine intention. He is correct that the probability of the particular sequence of events and conditions was extremely small, but what he misses is that we humans are not the inevitable outcome of the process.

If the grass had been shorter when we came out of the trees, we would not be the same as we are now. If we hadn't had to struggle so much to feed ourselves, we wouldn't have developed the intellect we have. And, no doubt, we wouldn't be having this discussion. The same can be said about billions of individual developments in our evolutionary history. We are what we are because of everything that led up to this point.

The evolutionary process doesn't always produce the best possible result. There are many 'kludges' and dead ends. Some biological structures might have been designed in a much better way if they were designed by an intelligent entity. Sometimes a biological structure no longer serves the function that it originally had, but then becomes adapted for some other function. Some biological structures no longer have any known function at all, but they were useful at some time past. If it was the work of a designer, these things wouldn't make any sense, but as a result of natural evolution, they have a perfectly good explanation.

Crude said...

His point is not so much about the pace of evolution as it is about the improbability of the outcome, which, he concludes could only have happened by divine intention.

He nowhere makes this claim. Really, nowhere.

If it was the work of a designer, these things wouldn't make any sense,

This isn't true whatsoever. Sometimes, a designer makes bad design decisions. Other times, they intentionally make design decisions that are inferior. Still other times, they design for art, not engineering.

But again, Hambourger does not anywhere claim that the outcomes of evolution could only have taken place by divine intervention.

im-skeptical said...

"One might wonder how so many different sorts of occurrences could have an explanation in common and, indeed, have an explanation in common with the fact that they would lead to the evolution of beings capable of reason, unless they were produced by design?"

He doesn't state it as definitive proof, but that is the thrust of his argument. If you are saying that you think the designer need not be divine, I think you are being dishonest about it.

Crude said...

He doesn't state it as definitive proof, but that is the thrust of his argument.

There's a big, big difference between "we should infer this was the result of design" and "the only possible explanation here is design". In the latter case, all I have to do is provide a hypothetical (even ridiculously unlikely) explanation in terms of chance to refute the claim.

If you are saying that you think the designer need not be divine, I think you are being dishonest about it.

Alright: why? And if the argument as given doesn't claim to prove the designer is divine, what would honesty have to do it with anyway? The argument establishes what it establishes, and no more (or less).

im-skeptical said...

Crude, the argument doesn't need to state who the designer is. That is implicit. If you can postulate that there is a designer, who do you suppose that designer is? Is there any question in your mind or anyone else's about it? The argument is carefully crafted by ID proponents to sound secular in nature, mainly so that they can justify teaching it as a theory in science classes in the public schools. But not a single one of these people thinks that God isn't the designer. Do you think it is someone other than God?

Victor Reppert said...

That's funny, because ID proponents from the Discovery Institute do not favor teaching intelligent design in public schools, and if they had had their way, the Dover case would have never gone to court.

Crude said...

Crude, the argument doesn't need to state who the designer is. That is implicit.

No, it's really not. Not in the argument itself. Maybe it's implicit in the mind of whoever's offering the argument - say, maybe it's one more step in a series of steps.

But the argument is the focus. Isn't it?

If you can postulate that there is a designer, who do you suppose that designer is? Is there any question in your mind or anyone else's about it?

On the basis of the argument? Yes, there really is. You're talking to someone who regularly engages everything from multiverse speculation to Nick Bostrom speculation to John Gribbin's to otherwise.

The argument is what it is. Why speculate beyond that? Why try to argue against something other than the argument?

The argument is carefully crafted by ID proponents to sound secular in nature, mainly so that they can justify teaching it as a theory in science classes in the public schools. But not a single one of these people thinks that God isn't the designer.

And PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, etc see evolution as an atheist apologetic. So what? Evolutionary theory is what it is, and can be separated from such ideas or intentions. As can other arguments.

Do you think it is someone other than God?

I think the argument doesn't establish God. And I believed in God before even reading about Hambourger's speculations.

Why is the ability to understand the limitations of a given argument regarded as some kind of threatening, dishonest maneuver? Why can't you just engage and take the argument as it is, and argue on those terms?

Crude said...

Victor,

That's funny, because ID proponents from the Discovery Institute do not favor teaching intelligent design in public schools, and if they had had their way, the Dover case would have never gone to court.

I'm not up on my ID politics on that end, but there's something funny going on here.

It used to be that the big concern with arguments like these was claiming too much - saying "This argument shows the Christian God exists!" when in reality, it proved something lesser (say, a bare deistic/theistic God, or even multiple gods, or even simply powerful natural beings, or...) was what everyone guarded against.

But now, if you guard against that and rightly state the limitations of your argument... now you're being dishonest because what you REALLY mean is God, or maybe even the Christian God. Even if you don't! Being honest about the limitations of an argument is now seen as some kind of step in a master plan.

im-skeptical said...

Nevertheless, I believe that ID proponents do want to teach it in the public schools. But that's getting a bit off track.

I realize that I need to be much more careful in how I say things in this forum. It's not like having an ordinary conversation. There seems to be a tendency to quibble over the nuances of phrasing. That's fine, but it's something I need to get used to. Using the word divine wasn't essential to the point I was making, but it became the focus of the discussion, and apparently, my point was not made effectively.

However, even if this designer were someone other than God, there are certain aspects of the 'design' that leave much to be desired. No mere human could design and implement anything approaching the tremendous complexity of biological structures, yet we can see obvious problems with the design that surely wouldn't be overlooked by a greater intelligence. So why shouldn't these designs be more perfect?

Crude said...

However, even if this designer were someone other than God, there are certain aspects of the 'design' that leave much to be desired. No mere human could design and implement anything approaching the tremendous complexity of biological structures, yet we can see obvious problems with the design that surely wouldn't be overlooked by a greater intelligence.

For one thing, we've also had instances where we assumed something was a design flaw, and it turned out not to be. I remember when the appendix was viewed as an open and shut case of a useless vestigial organ. That example's gone.

Junk DNA comes to mind as well. And yes, I know, some junk DNA is still touted to be exactly that. But a lot of what used to be considered junk, now isn't. That alone should at least give someone pause - in addition to the other problems I mentioned.

So why shouldn't these designs be more perfect?

For one thing, the imperfections may be part of the process. Keep in mind that the whole 'but why isn't it more perfect if it was designed!' response was largely given in response to flat out creationist claims. When it comes to design through evolution? That becomes much more complex to discuss.

As well, I already mentioned some limitations we run up against with these kinds of complaints. Something may be a bad decision from an engineering point of view, but make complete sense from another point of view. Think of another design instance - art, for example. To use a video game example: for any given game you can think of, you can mount a million suggestions for how to make the player's task easier.

Oh, I'm supposed to kill boss X? This was the intention of the designer? Then why do I have to hit him 1000 times in a particular spot? Why can't I hit him once and kill him? Hell... why do I have to hit him?

You could see why that's not a good argument against the game being designed, even the particular features. Now, if you knew the intentions of the designer (This boss is supposed to be easy!) you could find a flaw (It's not!)

Crude said...

BTW, im-skeptical.

Don't take the very dry, laser-like nitpicking around here personally. This blog is philosophy oriented, so a good share of the regulars are anal about being very specific and getting a meaning across because the distinctions end up becoming extremely important as a conversation goes on, because a seemingly small detail gone wrong can have a major impact on the entire argument.

Philosophical discussions are kind of annoying that way.

Mr Veale said...

I wouldn't conflate this paper with the concerns of the ID movement and it's opponents.

It's very important to realise that Hambourger allows that Darwinism has solved what Dawkins calls the central problem of evolutionary biology - that is, Darwin explained the existence of organised complexity: "Each successive change in the gradual evolutionary process was simple enough, relative to its predecessor, to have arisen by chance." Blind Watchmaker

However, what Darwin has not explained is the diversity, abundance, and beauty of organised complexity on Earth and Darwin has not explained the existence of conscious observers.

To quote Elliott Sober review of Life's Solution"- "Even if each transition in this chain -- from the first to the second, from the second to the third, and so on – were highly probable, it would not follow that the transition from the first to the last is highly probable. The problem is that probabilities multiply; multiply a big probability like 9999/10000 by itself enough times and you obtain a probability that is very small indeed."

And Dawkins points out that some of the transitions in the chain are incredibly improbable

"Mark Ridley … has suggested that the origin of the eucaryotic cell … was an even more momentous, difficult and statistically improbable step than the origin of life. The origin of consciousness might be another major gap whose bridging was the same order of improbability. (The God Delusion p. 140)"

Mr Veale said...

Following the treatment given by Robert Hambourger , we can say that part of the reason certain complex facts are produced by agents is that the complex fact brings a state of affairs that an agent would value.

It seems plausible that certain values supervene on certain complex facts. Roughly, no two identical complex facts could differ in the values they exemplify (or that they fail to exemplify). However the value in question could be exemplified by different complex facts.

And we say that the value only partly explains the why the complex fact exists as, on its own, it is not sufficient to explain the complex fact. An agent’s casual power would also be required for a complete explanation. The value partly explains the complex fact in that it gives an agent a reasonto bring the complex fact about.

Think about a painting, a Cathedral or a novel. Patterns, parts or sentences are arranged into a whole so that some aesthetic or utilitarian purpose can be realised. There is some property about the whole state of affairs, over and above the parts that make up the whole, that would impress an agent, and that would give an agent a reason to bring the whole about.

And it is the value that partly explains why the complex fact exists. The beauty of the “Lady with Ermine” is part of the reason that Leonardo da Vinci put various complex coloured patterns on a canvas. The beauty gives the designer a reason to bring about the complex pattern

Theists need only argue that God is likely to create worlds that contain objective values, and that some values can only be realised by certain complex facts - like the outcomes of evolution on Earth.

It does seem to follow from conceptual considerations alone that God is more likely than chance to bring about objectively valuable states of affairs. Some valuable states of affairs, like certain kinds of beauty, seem to require certain complex facts. So it is also reasonable to assume that God is more likely than chance to bring about complex facts that realise valuable states of affairs.
This seems to follow directly when hypothesis of Theism is conjoined with the hypothesis of objective moral values. We do not need independently justified auxiliary hypotheses for the claim “God is more likely than chance to bring about complex facts that realise valuable states of affairs”.

In the absence of an argument for moral scepticism, it is probable that humans would recognise some of the values that God recognises. God having maximal knowledge would know these values. God having Maximal Freedom (no external constraints on his will) would wish to bring about these values. And some types of value require intricately ordered – that is to say complex –states of affairs

Mr Veale said...

The diversity and level of complexity exemplified by life on earth brings about values, like beauty and consciousness, that a rational agent would value.

So the diversity and beauty of life on earth, the incredible organised complexity of some organisms on earth, and the existence of conscious observers are more likely on design than chance.
Now Darwinian evolution is not equivalent to chance, if chance is defined as a purely random process.
But the testimony of Dawkins and Sober seems to indicate that the outcomes of evolution - the end results that we now observe -are extremely improbable. But they seem somewhat more probable on theism.
If (E) is life on earth, we could say that P (E | evolution & design) > than P ( E | evolution). So there is no imcompatibility between design and evolution, even leaving aside considerations like cosmic fine-tuning and the laws of nature.

Graham

Mr Veale said...

Hambourger makes these points at the end of his paper -

"Simplified accounts of the theory of evolution might make it appear inevitablethat creatures evolved with the sorts of impressive and obviously adaptivefeatures that might otherwise be thought to have been designed. For over a
sufficient period, one might think, a few individuals would develop such features by chance mutation, and once some creatures had them, the obvious desirability of the features would be enough to explain their proliferation. However, this impression of inevitability, I think, is quite misleading....

But then, one might ask, again, whether it could have been simply by chance that so many seemingly unconnected occurrences came together in just the way thatwould lead to the evolution of creatures capable of reason, and I think that one might well conclude that it could not have been. At least, it would be very strange, if the myriad occurrences needed to produce human beings came about in just the right way simply by chance and equally strange if the occurrences had an explanation in common, but the fact that they would produce intelligent beings had nothing to do with the fact that they came about."

im-skeptical said...

There seems to be something wrong with stating that it is highly improbable that we should arrive at this outcome (creatures capable of reason) unless a designer guided the events along the way. First of all, humans are but one of millions and millions of species that have come and gone in the history of our world, including other hominid species. Those species have achieved various degrees of cognitive function. It is not at all improbable (in fact it is certain) that one of them would be the highest on the scale. We have seen that animals show some ability to reason, but we don't know much about the specific nature of their mental function. I suspect that the difference between theirs and ours is more a matter of degree than of kind.

In other words, we are not really so special as we would like to imagine. And I doubt that all of creation was guided along in a very specific way just so that we humans (as imperfect as we are) could finally come to be.

Syllabus said...

"I suspect that the difference between theirs and ours is more a matter of degree than of kind. "

And therein lies the controversy.

Mr Veale said...

I'm-skeptical

Dawkins testimony is that self-aware rational creatures are extremely improbable (-assuming life exists on one planet! Dawkins "solution" is to assume that there are "billions and billions" of Earth-like planets on which life evolved. But see John Gribbin's The Reason Why and this - http://www.lydiamcgrew.com/PhilChristiLikelihoods.pdf)
And Dawkins also believes that the existence of self-aware rational creatures is a good state of affairs.

Now it isn't necessary to argue that humans are the paragon of rationality. In fact the Christian tradition assumes that we are not - it believes in angels. It is only necessary to believe that we have a valuable state of affairs more likely on (evolution & design) than (evolution & chance).

Finally, I did not merely appeal to humans, but also to the diversity of life on earth, with its breathtaking beauty and incredible organised complexity.

Graham

Ben Grant said...

Definitely commenting a little late in the game here, but my understanding is that natural selection is NOT random, according to the majority of evolutionary biologists today. Cf. this note from UC-Berkley; also this excerpt from a Dawkins debate; and this write-up in Biology Direct from 2013.