Monday, November 30, 2009

Prothero & Shermer vs Meyer & Sternberg in Beverly Hills

Shemer argues that we should reframe the ID/evolution debate from a scientific debate to a skirmish in the culture wars. He does a fairly good job of backing this up, but he is also careful not to commit the genetic fallacy and thereby conclude that his opponents arguments must be faulty because they have an vested ideological interest in fitting the data into a certain model. He also provides a couple of affirmative arguments for evolutionary theory.

Prothero characterizes the central argument from ID something like this:

  1. There are only two explanations for functional complexity: Evolution or intelligent design
  2. We found something functionally complex and we cannot imagine how it evolved naturally
  3. Therefore, it didn't evolve naturally (via argument from personal incredulity)
  4. Therefore, it must have been intelligently designed

He also does a fair bit of prebuttal, briefly addressing some of the common arguments for ID and alludes to arguments for evolutionarily driven abiogenesis.

Meyer starts off by attempting to reframe the debate, he desires not to discuss intelligent design theory, but only to address the question of whether neo-Darwinian theory (including natural selection acting on mutation-induced variations) adequately accounts for the observed pace of evolutionary change. He argues that the trilobite eyes, for example, arose too quickly (a few million years) to be explained by selection acting upon variation.

Sternberg expands on the argument from not enough millions of years, going on at some length about the number of morphological changes necessary to convert land mammals into cetaceans. He then asks “Was there enough mutational grist for the mill of natural selection?” He then does a few maths, waves his hands, and concludes that the answer must be in the negative. All in all this was a very solid presentation, but we cannot evaluate it without seeing the formulae themselves and (damn it) I only have an audio copy of the debate. Perhaps Sternberg published his results somewhere?

Meyer retakes stage and does the maths-heavy hand-waving about functional proteins, apparently assuming that proteins are created from scratch molecule-by-molecule via a uniform random process. It is hard to tell though, since he doesn’t show his work. My maths profs would have flunked him on this part. He does manage to sound smart, though, using hardcore jargon such as “combinatorial sequence space.” Maybe he is hoping to impress the nerdy girls.

Oddly enough, between Meyer and Sternberg I did not hear any arguments about the debate topic, that is, the “adequacy of Neo-Darwinian natural selection and mutation to explain the origin of life.” Perhaps they thought it was supposed to be about the biological origins of aquatic mammals in particular, though it is unclear how they could have made such a mistake.

The rebuttal periods get a bit haphazard, and here I'd like to pseudo-randomly quote from Margaret Atwood, “The chaos smells very bad.” Somewhat surprisingly (to me) the ID guys manage to hold their ground here, but only by first conceding a massive amount of ground to the evolutionists (ancient earth, speciation via by natural selection acting upon mutational variation, etc.) and staunchly defending the notion that one can squeeze God into the very tiny conceptual gap between plenty of mutations not nearly enough mutations. I mean, really, if that is all God has to do was toss in a lucky mutation every so often, why not give Him just a bit less credit? That is so weak tea, it makes Episcopalianism look like an uncompromising theological juggernaut by comparison.

Overall, though, I'd recommend this debate because it is one of the few in which I've heard cdesign proponentists intelligent design advocates giving nuanced arguments which clearly stake out a position between ordinary creationism and scientific theories.

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