Evolution and the culture war

On November 24, 2009, I attended an event held at the New York Academy of Science honoring Charles Darwin. The program included a question and answer period with three prominent evolutionary biologists: Gerald M. Edelman (1972 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology), Paul Ekman (1971 Research Scientist Award from the National Institute of Mental Health), and Terrence Deacon (Professor of Biological Anthropology and Linguistics at University of California-Berkeley).

After telling the panel of experts I made a YouTube video titled “The Truth About Evolution and Religion,” I asked if they agreed with these two propositions: 1. Evolution applies only to the bodies of humans, not their souls. 2. Natural selection only explains the adaptation of organisms to their environment, not the increase in the complexity of organisms as they evolved from bacteria to mammals (common descent).

The panel did not respond to the first question. I can guess why. If they agreed, it would anger those who think the human soul is just an idea and humans are collections of molecules. If they disagreed, I might have asked if they thought free will and human consciousness evolved. I might also have asked them to define human consciousness and ask them about the relationship between the mind and the brain.

Professor Deacon responded to the second point ambiguously.  He certainly did not say, “We don’t know enough about the innovations natural selection acts upon to understand how bacteria evolved into mammals in only 3.5 billion years. However, this does not mean I advocate the theory of intelligent design.” My guess is that he didn’t say this because it would sound like he was soft on intelligent design.

Advocates of intelligent design and mainstream biologists give the impression that there is a disagreement among evolutionary biologists about the limitations of Darwinism. The Design Institute, for example, asks scientists to sign the following statement:

We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.

The number of signatures on the list is very few. This causes laymen to think natural selection does explain the complexity of life, notwithstanding how absurd that idea is. The author of the following quote has a Ph.D. in linguistics. Pinker is Steve Pinker (Ph.D. in linguistics), and Bloom is Paul Bloom (Ph.D. in psychology). Notice that Charles Darwin (Ph.D. in biology) doesn’t think natural selection explains the complexity of the human eye:

They [Pinker and Bloom] particularly emphasized that language is incredibly complex, as Chomsky had been saying for decades. Indeed, it was the enormous complexity of language that made is hard to imagine not merely how it had evolved but that it had evolved at all.

But, continued Pinker and Bloom, complexity is not a problem for evolution. Consider the eye. The little organ is composed of many specialized parts, each delicately calibrated to perform its role in conjunction with the others. It includes the cornea,…Even Darwin said that it was hard to imagine how the eye could have evolved.

And yet, he explained, it did evolve, and the only possible way is through natural selection—the inestimable back-and-forth of random genetic mutation with small effects…Over the eons, those small changes accreted and eventually resulted in the eye as we know it. (Christine Kenneally, The First Word: Search for the Origins of Language, pp. 59–60)

The following quote from Kenneth Miller is an example of how mainstream biologists muddy the water. Miller is responding to Michael Behe’s observation that there is no evidence natural selection can create the complex molecular machinery found in cells:

In Behe’s view, these are examples of nothing more than a kind of “trench warfare” in which the two species have progressively disabled or broken parts of themselves in order to survive. Nothing genuinely new, novel, or complex has resulted from this struggle, and we shouldn’t expect otherwise. The reason, according to Behe, is that the sorts of changes we see in this well-studied interaction represent the limit, the “edge” of what evolution can accomplish. They can go this far and no further. A line in the sand is drawn, and the other side of that line is intelligent design. …..How does Behe know where to draw that line? (Kenneth Miller, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for the American Soul, p. 67)

Miller pulled a switcheroo. Behe didn’t say intelligent design succeeded on the other side of the line. He only said Darwinism failed. There is no disagreement between Miller and Behe about evolutionary biology. What divides these two is a conflict about intelligent design. I call it a conflict, not a disagreement about scientific evidence, because neither of them I am quite sure can define or explicate the word intelligent. They are both fighting about something they don’t understand.

In trying to understand evolution, the authors of an award-winning book use as a model for the primary structure of a protein the English sonnet, the 26 letters taking the place of the 20 amino acids in a protein. They said it would be impossible for all the computers in the world to generate an English sonnet by the random selection of letters even if the computers were running since the time of the Big Bang.  (Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart, The Plausibility of Life: Resolving Darwin’s Dilemma, page 32).

The primary structure of a protein (there are three higher structures) doesn’t even begin to describe the complexity of life. The dozens of proteins that make the flagellum of a bacterium rotate presents a static kind of complexity, like the primary structure of a protein. By contrast, genetic engineering is the ability of cells to detect changes in the environment and create new proteins in response to the change. The ability of a fertilized animal egg to develop into a multicellular animal, the instinctual behavior of animals, and the knowledge of grammar that human infants possess are other examples of complexity.

I’m not saying there aren’t scientific disagreements between evolutionary biologists. James Shapiro and Jerry Coyne are both evolutionary biologists at the University of Chicago. According to Shapiro, the paradigm that biological innovation is caused by random mutations is out of date (James A. Shapiro, Evolution: A View from the 21st Century). Shapiro argues that innovations are caused by genetic engineering. Coyne doesn’t think much of this idea, and I’m certainly not qualified to take sides. But I suspect, because of Coyne’s reputation as an opponent of intelligent design, that Coyne just doesn’t like the word engineering because it implies that there is an engineer. This smacks of intelligent design, and Coyne hates intelligent design more than he loves scientific truth.

There are a number of scientific articles and books that discuss evolution and thermodynamics. The second law of thermodynamics states that there is a tendency in nature for disorder (high entropy), the very opposite of what happens in evolution and the formation of stars and large nuclei. A gas will fill up the entire container because that is the most probable distribution of molecules and represents the highest degree of disorder or the least amount of knowledge about the location of the gas molecules.  You can, of course, increase order (decrease entropy) by compressing the gas into a smaller volume. The idea that nature goes from order to disorder only applies to closed systems of non-interacting molecules. The second law does not apply to hydrogen clouds in outer space because gravity causes stars to form and nuclear forces cause complex nuclei to form. The second law also does not apply to evolution because evolution is not a process involving non-interacting molecules. This is not the same as saying evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics.

Nevertheless, many scientific articles and books state that the second law is not violated by evolution because the earth, exposed as it is to the sun, is not a closed system. This makes no sense because the sun tends to heat things up and causes molecular disorder, not order. In my opinion, what motivates this nonsense is that saying the second law doesn’t apply to evolution sounds like saying evolution violates the second law. And saying that evolution violates the second law sounds like advocating creationism and intelligent design.

A particularly egregious example of this reasoning is an article published by the American Journal of Physics (“Entropy and evolution,” Vol. 76, No. 11, November 2008, DOI: 10.1119/1.2973046). The article quotes creationist Henry Morris, and claims to refute the idea that evolution violates the second law. The article calculates the entropy of the biosphere during evolution using the Boltzmann constant. Using the Boltzmann constant in this way is nonsense.

Thermodynamics is a macroscopic branch of physics. Entropy is a thermodynamic variable derived from the variables heat and temperature. Temperature is measured with a thermometer. There is a connection between temperature and the microscopic concept of the average kinetic energy of molecules: KE = 3/2 kT. The constant k is the Boltzmann constant = 1.38 X 10 (-23) joules /degree. There is a similar equation for entropy: S = k log W, where S = entropy and W = thermodynamic probability.

These equations only apply to molecular systems. The probability of shuffling a deck of cards and getting them back into their original factory order is 1 in 52 X 51 X 50… = 52! You can’t rationally plug this number into the equation for entropy to calculate the entropy of a deck of cards in joules per degree. Likewise, if you shake a big box of ping pong balls, the average kinetic energy of the balls can be measured. But if you use this measurement and the Boltzmann constant to calculate the temperature you get a gazillion degrees.

Believe it or not, this is precisely what the AJP article does. It estimates that the thermodynamic probability of the biosphere changes by a factor of 1000 every hundred years. The author uses this number and the Boltzmann constant to calculate the change in the entropy of the biosphere. Wikipedia cites this article to prove evolution does not violate the second law of thermodynamics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Objections_to_evolution). As the great Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton said, “People who don’t believe in God, don’t believe in nothing. They believe in anything.”

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