Mathematician David Berlinski Doubts Whale Evolution by Random Variation and Natural Selection

Whales, obviously, evolved from land mammals. But did they achieve this feat via a blind process of random variation and natural selection?

Mathematician David Berlinski doubts it:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        .

To my mind, the jaw-dropping informational complexity of life is the strict Darwinian naturalist’s Achilles’ heel. Life on earth is about three billion years old, and all organisms share a common ancestor, but it’s by no means obvious that the differences among organisms can be accounted for by invoking this singular overarching principle: random variation accompanied by natural selection.

Something more seems to be going on.

But what?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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8 Responses to Mathematician David Berlinski Doubts Whale Evolution by Random Variation and Natural Selection

  1. Longtooth says:

    Berlinski is a philosopher by deploma, not a mathematician. A critical review of his book The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions is here – http://www.talkreason.org/articles/windmill.cfm

    The quote below is from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/faq/cat01.html

    “Evolution is not a random process. The genetic variation on which natural selection acts may occur randomly, but natural selection itself is not random at all. The survival and reproductive success of an individual is directly related to the ways its inherited traits function in the context of its local environment. Whether or not an individual survives and reproduces depends on whether it has genes that produce traits that are well adapted to its environment.”

    • santitafarella says:

      Longtooth,

      Berlinski wrote a book on the calculus (I thought). And I’ve frequently heard him referred to as a mathematician, but that may be wrong.

      I agree with you that natural selection is not random.

      Evolution is a fact. The earth is old and we share a common ancestor with bacteria. I doubt, however, that random mutation accompanied by natural selection can wholly (or even primarily) account for what we actually observe.

      Do you disagree? Do you think that random mutation accompanied by natural selection is sufficiently established as the primary mechanism for evolution, and it’s unreasonable to doubt it? Do you think it bears the same epistemic status as the fact of evolution itself?

      If so, then answer me a simple question: if variation accompanied by natural selection is invoked to explain how life, once it started, reached its current level of complexity, then how did the first life form ever get to its complexity in the first place?

      Prior to mutation and natural selection, there’s an apparently equally powerful principle of organization at work in the origin of life itself.

      The first life form had to be more complex than run-of-the-mill non-organic chemistry—but that first life form could not have been arrived at by a Darwinian mechanism (for the straightforward reason that you need reproductive life before you can invoke the Darwinian mechanism to act on the variations in the copies).

      Therefore, there must be at least two principles at work in the universe’s ordering of bio-molecules: mutation accompanied by natural selection and an X factor of some sort. Don’t you agree? Otherwise, there would be no first reproductive biomolecules—the ur-biomolecules, if you will.

      I say “biomolecules” as opposed to “biomolecule” because there must have been, in the first reproductive cell, many biomolecular nano-machines functioning. You need molecules chaining the blueprints (that is, something DNA-like); you need enzymes to make the protein machines that will build things and move things about; you need something lipid-like (or outright lipids) for protecting the first cell’s integrity; and you need the ability to capture energy, transform it into something useful, store it, and translate it into work.

      That’s a lot of distinct nanobots working together. It might mean that the first reproductive cell, just to achieve the minimal basics of its life activity and reproduction, had hundreds of working nanomachines doing coordinated things within its cell walls. Maybe thousands of nanomachines—distinct protein types, etc—were present in the first life form. Absent a Darwinian mechanism, how did these nanomachines ever complexify themselves and come into orchestration?

      Or is it your position that the X factor that got life going in the first place was just a combination of lucky accidents? If the X factor was not luck, but something inherent to the universe’s creative powers, then the complex ordering of biomolecules is not reliant on the Darwinian mechanism alone (obviously).

      —Santi

  2. santitafarella says:

    Here’s Berlinski’s mathematics background according to Wikipedia:

    “Berinski was a postdoctoral fellow in mathematics and molecular biology at Columbia University, and was a research fellow at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria and the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques (IHES) in France. He has taught philosophy, mathematics, and English at Stanford, Rutgers, the City University of New York, the University of Washington, the University of Puget Sound, San Jose State University, the University of Santa Clara, the University of San Francisco, San Francisco State University, and taught mathematics at the Université de Paris.”

    • Gato Precambriano says:

      Can we agree that whatever his credentials as mathematician may be, they mean nothing as he’s completely out of his suposed field? I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t take my heart exams to show to my physicist neibhor (yes I have one).
      A for Life Origns Research’s state of art I think that this can be enlightening Exploring Life’s Origins.

  3. Longtooth says:

    –Santi

    “In other words, we all agree that the first life form had to be strikingly complex—far more complex than run-of-the-mill non-organic chemistry”?

    This is reminiscent of the linchpin “irreducibly complex” arguments of the ID camp, masterminded by the likes of William Dembski of Discovery Institute. Anyway, I’m not sure the ‘we all agree’ part is a reliable assumption.

    From Goodsell’s Chapter I.

    “Following our family tree back 3.5 to 4 billion years, we can make an informed guess about what our most distant ancestor was like. A single kind of molecule is thought to have provided the seed for the development of life. One special property set them apart from all other molecules: they could direct the formation of an identical copy of themselves using only the resources available in their surroundings. These molecules, although arguably not alive, stumbled upon a process central to all modern life: the ability to reproduce.”

    So then, couldn’t the first reproductive molecules leading to the first bacteria like life forms have been fundamentally quite basic in composition? I don’t ask this rhetorically. I don’t know one way or the other.

    “but we also agree that the first life form could not have been arrived at by a Darwinian mechanism”

    I think your argument confuses two distinctly different issues: abiogenesis and evolution. Biological evolutionary theory has nothing formal to say about the abiogenesis of life on earth or the ultimate causes behind the existence of anything, only what happened to life since its most ancient identifiable earthly appearance. I’ll expand on this thought a little further down in my responses.

    Do I think that natural selection and some random (unpredictable) component in genetic variation is sufficient to explain biological evolution? Natural selection is particularly notable because its influence is pervasive in spite of whatever else may be in play. In a previous post I quoted several other mechanisms that are well accepted key mechanisms. And the number of possible intervening environmental influences is unarguably quite large. Moreover, just 3.5 billion years or so have passed since our biological beginning, but likely encompassing hundreds of billions if not several trillions of generations back to the first bacterial or molecular offspring of our most ancient ancestor. That would leave a lot of room for detailed change down a path of greater complexity and for a few fortuitous accidents along the way.

    Do I think the description afforded to us by the modern evolutionary synthesis is completely accurate, completely inclusive? Have all pieces of the puzzle been found and accurately fitted together? Almost certainly they have not. Are there things about the events of biological history past that remain a mystery? The answer is unequivocally yes. As time presses on, evolutionary theory will almost certainly be refined and augmented. Still, as a general truth, the vision of the history of life on earth that evolutionary theory has thus far allowed our scientists to produce is the most accurate and substantiated one that humankind has ever possessed. Would you not agree?

    “Or is it your position that the X factor that got life going in the first place was just dumb luck? If the X factor was not luck, but something inherent to the universe’s creative powers, then the complex ordering of biomolecules is not reliant on Darwinian mechanism alone (obviously).”

    I don’t close my mind to the possibility of an X factors. Such informal study as I’ve managed to accomplish has instilled a strong suspicion that life on earth (or anywhere else in this universe where it might have gained purchase) was not necessarily the product of a lucky accident. In fact, I suspect that the natural potentiality for at least carbon based life is so strong that it’s likely to arise spontaneously wherever and whenever environmental conditions are reasonably accommodating. We consequently share some common ground on that point. However, the results of the classic Miller and Urey “primordial soup” experiment and subsequent other abiogenesis type experiments convince me that the odds against the natural occurrence of rudimentary biochemical reproductive capability are really not that long. That is, if accommodating environmental conditions persist long enough the molecular jackpot will be hit. By analogy, it’s unlikely that any given California lottery player will ever hit the top prize, but across the population of all lottery players and tickets purchased, the winning combination of numbers does get hit and regularly. In my view, “Darwinian” type mechanisms of evolution are not be necessary a-priori for abiogenesis to occur. Rather, Darwinian type mechanisms were simply be the natural (and possibly inevitable) consequences of the first spontaneous events leading to reproductive capability.

    “Berinski was a postdoctoral fellow in mathematics and molecular biology at Columbia University, and was a research fellow ……..”

    Okay, I was not aware of all those details in his resume. I lack familiarity with his bio. Does he have any peer reviewed articles published in any accredited biological science journals? Berlinski and Dembski appear to share a few things in common. First they both use math to sell their anti-evolution theses, but neither are credentialed biologists nor credentialed scientists of any specialty. Second, they both like employing William Behe for a stamp of validation on their stuff. Behe is a biologist by trade, but evidently the only one around who will give their speculations any endorsement. He is the very same guy who testified on behalf of ID in the Dover PA trial a few years ago. Wherein, teaching ID in the high school science class was decisively struck down, and by a conservative judge no less. Dembski didn’t even show up to testify and Behe got roasted. The court transcripts and ruling (still available online I believe) make for fascinating reading.

    Dembski is a credentialed mathematician and Dr of Divinity. He has used math and some cleaver examples in an attempt to prove the existence of “irreducibly complex” biological structures, but without adequate grasp of the underlying biological variables. Although enough to convince the uninformed or misinformed, Dembski’s ”proofs” have all been shown to be bogus. I defer to the Dover trial transcripts and the Talk Origins website for particulars. I haven’t reviewed any responses from the experts concerning Berlinski’s whale argument. Still, I suspect he might be guilty of making similar errors of ignorance or omission in his mathematical analyses.

    –Longtooth

    • santitafarella says:

      Longtooth:

      Notice that Goodsell calls a singular reproductive molecule “an informed guess.” Such a molecule, presumably, has to exist for a strict naturalist narrative to ever get started in the first place.

      But, of course, the stupendous complexity of contemporary reproductive cells offers no evidence whatsoever that such a simple and chance-generated reproductive molecule, carrying information and possessing the power to exploit energy and evolve, ever existed or ever could exist. Nothing even close has ever come together in a lab (despite over half-a-century of trying).

      What we know right now is that reproductive life is, by many orders of magnitude, vastly more complicated than what happens at the level of non-organic chemistry. Every cell, even the simplest, is an intricate nanobot machine system. We know of no other kinds.

      Indeed, it appears that molecular reproduction is in need of at least five things: a blueprint capable of being copied (something DNA-like); a lipid-like outer shell (something that protects the molecular integrity of the cell even as it lets things go in and out at its border); a ribosome-like system for making amino acid nano-machines (proteins); the protein machines themselves; and a way to translate, store, and put to use some form of energy (chemical or photosynthetic).

      So, it appears that there is no “spontaneous” emergence of life. It looks like it has telos behind it. It’s more than plausible that what we are witnessing is a universe that “apples” stars, planets, life, and minds in the way that an apple tree bears branches, leaves, flowers, and fruit.

      A program, not mere happenstance, seems to be running.

      —Santi

      • Longtooth says:

        –Santi

        “Nothing even close has ever come together in a lab (despite over half-a-century of trying).”

        It could be considered a long time, but compared to the quest for proof of the existence of God? Maybe it’s more like the blink of an eye.

        Incomplete knowledge about how something happened is not evidence for anything but the subject state of ignorance itself. The scientists’ failure to thus far successfully experimentally produce a fully replicating, metabolizing, living cell from inorganic matter or otherwise decisively show how it came about is definitely a shortfall. However, it does not warrant concluding for a creator god who allegedly long ago interceded and used supernatural powers to perform the decisive biochemical hookups. Visitation from ancient spacemen with advanced skills in biochemical manipulation is a more plausible explanation by comparison. The informed speculations of mainstream science are substantially more credible then either, even with current limitations in successful research. I’ll put my money on the scientific community’s ability to eventually solve the problem, even though it might take awhile.

        Research summary – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abiogenesis)

        “So, it appears that there is no “spontaneous” emergence of life. It looks like it has telos behind it. It’s more than plausible that what we are witnessing is a universe that “apples” stars, planets, life, and minds in the way that an apple tree bears branches, leaves, flowers, and fruit.”

        Yours is a beautiful metaphor, but it does not persuades me that goal directed purpose was consciously designed and programmed into the universe by some supernatural god being. Undoubtedly there are aspects of being and becoming shared by all classes of physical entities. Cycles of birth, continuance, and eventual death for example, which the tiniest of plants and animals share with the mighty stars and apparently even with the universe itself. All material things are composed from the same finite set of elements derived from an even smaller set of basic particles, and constrained in their assemblages by the ubiquitous laws of physics. Great similarities in how and what the universe’s residents “apple” therefore seems an intuitively reasonable consequence. Even so, the commonalities could just as well be the unplanned result of how the universal order of things autonomously settled into place verses a consciously imposed design.

        That said, you may indeed be right. There may be or may have been some great conscious supernatural being that authored the universe and set it into motion, an unfathomable and undetectable life force that acted or continues to act upon the whole. Even if the most persuasive counter arguments do not provide decisive evidence against the existence of such a being. It’s impossible to decisively prove or disprove the matter. “God” the designer, in some sense of the word, might exist, but short of incontrovertible objective evidence to substantiate the designer’s existence, its locus, and then tangibly objective evidence of its participation in biological change, it’s impossible to arrive at any conclusions that have scientific merit. The existence of “God” my be an unavoidable article of faith in the popular religion and a suitable subject of philosophical reflection and debate, but to paraphrase Judge John Jones from the Dover PA ID case ruling, it’s just not science.

        Case Ruling – http://www.pamd.uscourts.gov/kitzmiller/kitzmiller_342.pdf

        –Longtooth

  4. Longtooth says:

    If I had the second to last paragraph back to rewrite, it would read as follows:

    Yours is a beautiful metaphor, but nothing in it persuades me that goal directed purpose was consciously designed and programmed into the universe by some supernatural god being. Undoubtedly there are aspects of being and becoming shared by all ordinary things of substantive mass that occupy the universe. Cycles of birth, continuance, and eventual death for example, which the tiniest of plants and animals share with the mighty stars and apparently even with the universe itself. All ordinary matter (dirt, water, oxygen, plants, animals, stars, etc) are composed from the same finite set of elements derived from an even smaller set of elementary particles, and constrained in their assemblages by the same ubiquitous laws of physics. Great similarities in how and what the universe’s residents “apple” therefore seems an intuitively reasonable consequence. Even so, the commonalities could just as well be the unplanned result of how the universal order of things autonomously settled into place verses a consciously imposed design.

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