Contra Gelernter on Darwin

David Gelernter recently wrote an essay on Giving Up Darwin that is not obviously stupid. Dr. Gelernter, in many ways an astute thinker, does not commit obvious stupidities – but I have had to call him out before for allowing himself to be blinded by a hunger for epistemic gaps that fit the shape of religion. Apparently it is, alas, time to do that again.

The central argument of Gelernter’s essay is that random chance is not good enough, even at geologic timescales, to produce the ratchet of escalating complexity we see when we look at living organisms and the fossil record. Most mutations are deleterious and degrade the functioning of the organism; few are useful enough to build on. There hasn’t been enough time for the results we see.

Before getting to that one I want to deal with a subsidiary argument in the essay, that Darwinism is somehow falsified because we don’t observe the the slow and uniform evolution that Darwin posited. But we have actually observed evolution (all the way up to speciation) in bacteria and other organisms with rapid lifespans, and we know the answer to this one.

The rate of evolutionary change varies; it increases when environmental changes increase selective pressures on a species and decreases when their environment is stable. You can watch this happen in a Petri dish, even trigger episodes of rapid evolution in bacteria by introducing novel environmental stressors.

Rate of evolution can also increase when a species enters a new, unexploited environment and promptly radiates into subspecies all expressing slightly different modes of exploitation. Darwin himself spotted this happening among Galapagos finches. An excellent recent book, The 10,000 Year Explosion, observes the same acceleration in humans since the invention of agriculture.

Thus, when we observe punctuated equilibrium (long stretches of stable morphology in species punctuated by rapid changes that are hard to spot in the fossil record) we shouldn’t see this as the kind of ineffable mystery that Gelernter and other opponents of Darwinism want to make of it. Rather, it is a signal about the shape of variability in the adaptive environment – also punctuated.

Even huge punctuation marks like the Cambrian explosion, which Gelernter spends a lot of rhetorical energy trying to make into an insuperable puzzle, fall to this analysis. The fossil record is telling us that something happened at the dawn of the Cambrian that let loose a huge fan of possibilities; adaptive radiation, a period of rapid evolution, promptly followed just as it did for the Galapagos finches.

We don’t know what happened, exactly. It could have been something as simple as the oxygen level in seawater going up. Or maybe there was some key biological invention – better structural material for forming hard body parts with would be one obvious one. Both these things, or several other things, might have happened near enough together in time that the effects can’t be disentangled in the fossil record.

The real point here is that there is nothing special about the Cambrian explosion that demands mechanisms we haven’t observed (not just theorized about, but observed) on much faster timescales. It takes an ignotum per æque ignotum kind of mistake to erect a mystery here, and it’s difficult to imagine a thinker as bright as Dr. Gelernter falling into such a trap…unless he wants to.

But Dr. Gelernter makes an even more basic error when he says “The engine that powers Neo-Darwinian evolution is pure chance and lots of time.” That is wrong, or at any rate leaves out an important co-factor and leads to badly wrong intuitions about the scope of the problem and the timescale required to get the results we see. Down that road one ends up doing silly thought experiments like “How often would a hurricane assemble a 747 from a pile of parts?”

To get a better handle on the problem, it helps to ask the kind of question D’Arcy Thompson did in his monumental 1917 book “On Growth and Form”: why is a hen’s egg round?

The shape of an egg can be neatly described by a parametric equation in three variables, but neither that formula nor those parameters are encoded in the chicken genome. The chicken genome describes a relative simple production rule about the timed release of various egg-component chemicals; that rule doesn’t know anything about the spatial organization of the result.

What happens instead is a dance between the construction steps and the diffusion physics of the chemicals. The egg shape is supplied by the principle of least action. The chicken genome’s recipe captures – incorporates – this physics without actually coding it.

Thus, if you derange the egg-formation recipe with point mutations, the outcomes are limited by the physics. You may abort egg formation entirely, or you may get ellipsoids with differing sizes or shapes. What you won’t get is cubes or Klein bottles. Random variation in the egg-production genome doesn’t produce random variation in the shapes of eggs – it produces sharply constrained variation. The design space that mutations of the recipe are exploring is many orders of magnitude smaller and more continuous than you’d expect from a “pure chance” account.

Gelernter makes a similar mistake when he asks “Starting with 150 links of gibberish, what are the chances that we can mutate our way to a useful new shape of protein?” But this is never a question evolution has to answer. The nearest correct question would be “Starting from 150 links of a protein we know is already selected for usefulness because it’s already expressed in an organism, what are the chances we can mutate to something else useful?”

Again…the physics of van der Waals forces mean that a small change in coding for a protein is likely to produce a small change in its folding. As with eggs, point mutations are highly unlikely to jump a large distance in expressed phenotypic design. And – this is the point – they are thus unlikely to jump far away from a design that is productive for something.

The question Gelernter actually asked is a silly straw man that depends for its apparent force on the reader having no intuitions about the effects of a history of successful adaptation – or of the constraining role of extragenetic natural laws – at all.

Gelernter himself is definitely not stupid or ignorant enough to fall into this kind of error when he’s thinking clearly. From which we can only conclude that, on this subject, he refuses to think clearly.

85 thoughts on “Contra Gelernter on Darwin

  1. Pingback:

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  2. This is like the Fermi Paradox. If you work the numbers, and only use Darwinian evolution, you’d have to agree with Gelernter. But once you add in epigenetics and things like viral transmission of genes between species the Darwinian Paradox disappears.

    • Eh. I’m not sure how much help viral transposons are.

      They’re a fun, sexy idea that seems like it ought to be relevant. And yeah, bacteria can get antibiotic resistance that way. But higher organisms with a more complex and intertwingled genome? Color me skeptical – I’ll take some convincing that their effects look like anything but random mutagenic noise, like background radiation.

        • >How does this work for convincing

          Convincing of what?

          Nobody is in doubt that HERVs increase the mutation rate, and that with as many nucleotides as they’ve shuffled around something useful is eventually going to pop out. But increasing the rate of radiation-induced mutation will do the same thing. There’s nothing obviously special about HERVs, nothing that would make their genome editing differentially favorable or unfavorable relative to other mutagens.

      • As I recall, something like 40% of the human genome ultimately traces back to viral inclusions.

        Lately read an interesting paper I’m too lazy to go find again: they’d made protein soup, then stirred it. And found that the proteins unexpectedly started aligning all the same direction, which my inner biochemist thought sounded suspiciously like proto-virus behavior.

    • Amusing that you mention the Fermi Paradox, given that if you’re correct, you appear to be trading the Darwinian Paradox for the Fermian.

      Overall, I get the strong sense that in both paradoxes, we’re simply missing too much data for now. It’s the researchers’ Elastic Clause: “more study is needed…”

      • Just think of this: a little more than a hundred years ago, we did not create any artificial electromagnetic signals. When we started, most of what we transmit today would only have been background noise. And the early transmission methods would only be background noise today, and are therefore not used anymore.
        100 years is not even a wink of an eye in terms of cosmological evolution, so it would be a big coincidence if we found a civilization in our cosmic neighborhood that is (was, when they transmitted) in the same technological time window that we’re currently in.
        If we ever encounter another civilization through space travel, we’ll either find their ruins, or encounter creatures that will build their civilization sometime in the next X million years.

        • That’s generally considered to not be enough, though.

          Sure, it may be that we move beyond EM signals into some sort of meta-quantum signalling paradigm that we currently don’t yet know how to detect, and once we do, we’ll start seeing all the MQ signals the aliens have been passing back and forth. (Or we won’t, because they’ve moved several thousand steps further still.)

          But it’s still considered probable that any sufficiently advanced alien will build probes that will colonize the galaxy, and follow those probes up with actual bodies, and those bodies will be made of matter and be doing all sorts of things that we ought to be able to detect by now. Including having a colony on Earth, that should have flourished long before we were a few shrews shaking off the K-T event, and thus headed off our very existence.

          So where are they?

  3. Just FYI, the href on “10,000 Year Explosion” is closed as a “cite” (which is also there, but there’s two closing “cites” at this point), which prevents the link from being clicked on.

  4. ESR: “Starting from 150 links of a protein we know is already selected for usefulness because it’s already expressed in an organism, what are the chances we can mutate to something else useful?”

    Gelernter explicitly states (a few lines earlier than your excerpt): “Most biologists think that the nonsense sequences are the main source of new genes. If you tinker with a valid gene, you will almost certainly make it worse—to the point where its protein misfires and endangers (or kills) its organism—long before you start making it better.”

    It seems to me that you’re disagreeing with this statement, and not the statement you quoted. But do most biologists actually think that the nonsense sequences are the main source of new genes, or is that a mistake on Gelernter’s part?

    • >But do most biologists actually think that the nonsense sequences are the main source of new genes, or is that a mistake on Gelernter’s part?

      I think it is. He seems quite surprisingly ignorant of modern evo-bio for a person with a STEM background. Reading that essay I felt like the main thrust of the modern synthesis had somehow passed Gelernter right by. I mean, I’m no specialist in the area, but I had no trouble answering his supposedly profound and disturbing questions off the top of my head.

      • The weird thing is that a few paragraphs later he talks about “strategic genes”, so he’s clearly heard of evo-devo at some point, he just rejects the possibility that it (a hugely complex and almost computational system that was only discovered in recent decades) could possibly generate a mutation that he can’t think of.

        It’s also strange that he claims all of the Heidelberg mutants are nonviable; a fruit fly with antennapedia would be less fit than an unmutated version (hence why we don’t find them in the wild), but still perhaps viable enough to outcompete, say, one with no antennae at all. It seems like he is making the unreasonable demand that a genetic screen ought to turn up a single-site mutation that increases the fitness of an organism that has already been optimised by that process; if you want a “promising [candidate mutation] for macroevolution”, you need to specify a different environment to which it’s not already adapted.

        Given that he puts out enough signals that he has encountered the relevant bits of modern evo-bio, I’m inclined to concur with Eric’s analysis of motivated idiocy.

        (That’s so sad; Alexa play Evo-Devo.)

    • >If you tinker with a valid gene, you will almost certainly make it worse

      Thanks to copy mutations evolution doesn’t even have to sacrifice the original gene to tinker with it. So the new gene doesn’t even have to be better than the original in most situations, just in enough that carrying it around in addition to the original is worth it.

      ETA: I see MP already made that argument downthread.

      • > Heh. No.

        Apparently Sir Fred lived in vain. I think Chandra is still alive, I hope someone notifies him. He has some unusual views in this area and the resulting circus could be quite entertaining.

    • If panspermia is true, and I suspect it is, then earthly bacteria arrived from space, and multicellular life forms may well have come from something like tardigrades arriving from space – but this does not change Darwinian evolution, it merely means it takes place in an environment less isolated than a single planet.

      • What it does change is the timescale. Rather than trying to figure out how life originated on earth in the last 4 Gy or so, we have two or three times that after the first supernovae formed and expelled the trans-helium elements needed for life.

      • I think it’s more likely that anywhere with nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen (which is to say, water) is going to wind up with the appropriate chemical soup for generating life, if only because C/O/H is such a reactive mess, and N makes different complexities possible.

  5. AFAIK the most common DNA transcription error is duplication, where a functional segment is transcribed twice by the cell machinery. Because only one segment needs to code for functional proteins, the second set can drift and mutate without necessarily deleterious effects. That’s typically elided in arguments saying that “most mutations are harmful”

  6. That’s a very good critique. I think a big part of the problem with understanding evolution is that most people are so centered on what feels like a long time to them that they can’t really feel what a million years is. If you’re a feral human in a tribal/feudal environment breeding at 16-18 years old, a million years is approximately 58,900 generations. If you’re a cat, it’s a million generations.

    So assume a “background” mutation rate of 1/20,000 (I may not recall my statistics correctly and don’t have time to look them up) and 1/20,000 of those mutations is beneficial, you get 5000 mutants every generation, with only 1 beneficial mutation every 4 generations, which works out to approximately 14,700 beneficial mutations every million years for the human species.

    When we’re talking about billion year time-frames, all Gorrd and Lod* have to do is throw a single cell into the primal soup and come back a cosmic-eyeblink later to find a civilization.

    * Characters from the Stanislaw Lem story “The Eighth Voyage of Ijon Tichy.”

    • If a gene for a protein ceases to be useful, it will over time suffer a lot of random mutation,but it will not degrade into 150 codons of random noise for hundreds of millions of years. So if it randomly becomes a new and useful protein, that new protein will still have a lot of similarity to its ancestor, and will probably be useful for doing something somewhat related to what its ancestor did.

    • If you are a bush baby the size of a cat, you have a lot more generations than either chimpanzee or gorilla. So I think that’s where the population variation that led to hominids happened- some bush babies just needed giantism to be chimps, some just needed giantism to be gorillas, some just just needed giantism to be hominids. If that’s true, the evidence has been leopard poo for ten or twenty million years. Or has it? Bush baby population variation in 2019 could use a hard look.

      John Horner, the dinosaur eggs guy who wants to make a chickenasaurus, thinks the fossil record is about 30% accurate. Yes, that’s 70% wrong. Likewise theories based on the fossil record.

      • Probably the real way to phrase it would be to say that “a bush baby needed giganticism to fill an ecological niche” and to note that only a very small fraction of bush baby spawn survived because there were other species who also had the capability to evolve to fill that ecological niche, thus the competition was very fierce and this resulted in species which are very capable of learning and problem solving.

        • Giantism and dwarfism are pretty easy changes. And you could just as easily argue that competition was very wimpy, living was easy, and this resulted in giant fat-headed bush babies.

    • You don’t necessarily need mutations to continuously occur and continually be expressed. Those mutations that aren’t immediately lethal can silently accumulate, until some selection pressure makes them more desirable than the old type.

      This is essentially how we got 300+ breeds of dogs (and most breeds are less than 200 years old, and some are less than 50 years old) — those genes that distinguish breeds were mostly already in the wolf genome. But when the mutations were selected for (artificially, but natural conditions would suffice) rather than getting eaten, suddenly we got assloads of variation.

  7. Thus, when we observe punctuated equilibrium (long stretches of stable morphology in species punctuated by rapid changes that are hard to spot in the fossil record) we shouldn’t see this as the kind of ineffable mystery that Gelernter and other opponents of Darwinism want to make of it. Rather, it is a signal about the shape of variability in the adaptive environment – also punctuated.

    The fossil record is too fragmentary to observe punctuated equilibrium. If an encyclopedia is reduced to confetti, and you only have a small handful of confetti, you will not be able to say much about the punctuation.

    Where we have a good fossil record, foraminifera and the horse lineage, we see steady, gradual, and continuous evolution, for example on the boundary between three toed and four toed horse ancestors, we see herds with variable numbers of toes.

    Yes, there are periods of rapid evolution, and long periods of stability. But where we have a good fossil record, which we rarely do, “rapid” is mighty slow as humans measure time.

    • ““rapid” is mighty slow as humans measure time.”

      I mean this as an honest question… if you take combine punctuated equilibrium + relatively long lived species, it seems to suggest you can have major structural changes and/or specialization in a relatively small number of generations. Think whales or turtles that live 100+ years.

      If so, I’m surprised that biologists haven’t produced an unambiguous new species (i.e., not the same species with minor differences in traits) all the time in the lab… if for no other reason than to ‘prove’ evolution. Put differently, under intelligently designed conditions, shouldn’t we have a unambiguous new species of fruit fly (1 generation/month?) by now?

      • >I mean this as an honest question… if you take combine punctuated equilibrium + relatively long lived species, it seems to suggest you can have major structural changes and/or specialization in a relatively small number of generations.

        I don’t think this follows at all. Punctuated equilibrium could well be a thing without such differences ever being observable on human timescales.

        The math says you’re most likely to observe significant morphological changes when selective pressures are harsh and generations are short, not long.

        • I recall reading (in Wikipedia) that an animal could evolve from the size of a mouse to the size of an elephant in 60,000 years, but it would still be too slow for anyone to notice.

        • Domestic dogs are, IMO, fairly good evidence for punctuated evolution. (But there’s no rule that says evolution can’t work multiple ways.) I think domestication caught wolves about the same time as a critical accumulation of recent mutations — which normally would have been selected out as nonviable in the wild, but under man’s protection have become the many breeds we know today. Absent that intervention, would wolves have fractured into multiple species? are the numerous interfertile canid ‘species’ (not much further apart than breeds) the result of a previous fracturing?

          You don’t even need harsh selective pressure; any selection will do, and as to short generations… well, back to dogs, and my particular corner of expertise: Labrador Retriever pedigrees.

          American fieldtrial Labs are about 20 generations from the last common foundation stock, and have been under intense selection for performance (and moderate selection for appearance). English-type show Labs are about 40 generations from that same stock, and have had moderate selection pressure for appearance (and none for performance). The American dogs have not significantly changed type, and still largely resemble the foundation stock, while the English dogs have changed a great deal and are barely recognizable as the same breed. Form-follows-function has prevented change under intense selection pressure, while form-wandered-away-entirely under light selection pressure

          Incidentally the same pattern applies in every breed that has separated into American and European lines.

          I know I was going somewhere with this, but I seem to have missed my turn. Oh well, this destination is as good as any. :)

    • I thought all horse ancestors had an odd number of toes…. plus the equivalent of a dew-claw, I guess.

  8. Thanks for writing this. I saw the post at Instapundit about this and read your astute comments. I know Gelernter is in error but didn’t have the patience to explain it to the commenters there.

  9. I think you are too hard on Gelernter regarding punctuated equilibrium. I did not see his essay claiming that evolution had to be gradual and continuous – quite the opposite.

    I think the main failings are two: relying on single nucleotide mutations, and ignoring the functions of gene sharing/mixing – sex, bacterial gene sharing, and all the other ways genetic material can move from one organism to another, or from one part of the genome to another.

    The simplest mutation is indeed a single nucleotide mistake, whatever the cause, but it isn’t the only one. Whole sections of DNA can end up spliced in to other DNA in the wrong place. Also, it is highly unlikely that we even know all the mechanisms that are likely to exist. Biology, unlike the digital world, is amazingly disorderly – even the digital biology of DNA.

    As to gene sharing – you have plasmids that can get into cells and operate independent machinery. We have mitochondria, which were the apparent incorporation of an entire organism as an organelle. Bits and pieces of genetic material float around in the environment and can end up inside the genome.

    BTW, I write these arguments as a believing Catholic. Not all religion rejects science – the Church invented it.

    • >I did not see his essay claiming that evolution had to be gradual and continuous – quite the opposite.

      Gelernter thinks slow uniform evolution is a major prediction of Darwin that has been falsified, and he thinks evolutionary theory as it is now cannot integrate the evidence for punctuated equilibrium.

      He’s completely wrong about the second. He could, charitably, be partly right about the first; it’s not clear whether Darwin himself thought slow and uniform was the only way evolution under selection could work. Probably not – he did observe rapid adaptive radiation in the Galapagos finches, after all.

      But supposing Darwin did, who cares? There’s nothing essential about evolutionary theory that depends on that assumption, and we’ve learned better since.

  10. I think that evolutionary biology stopped developing scientifically the moment the Left grabbed onto it. If the PC POS’s had gotten ahold of Darwin in the late 1800’s, they’d probably have lynched Mendel.

    Interestingly enough, while the Left is screaming that the Right are a bunch of creationists, they themselves have been drifting toward an equally discredited theory: the Lamarckian theory of acquired characteristics. An example is their claim that race has no biological validity, and that all apparent racial differences are really just products of latitude.

    • I don’t think the Left (or at least the educated Left) believes that race has no biological validity. Nobody on the Left would argue against the idea that you have to be Jewish (or descended from Jews) to inherit Tay Sachs disease, or that people descended from Africa are more likely to get sickle cell anemia than those who aren’t.

      The main “racial theory” of the Left is that the racial theories of the Right are wrong, and that when the Right phrases racial differences in terms of inferiority/superiority they cause a lot of unnecessary trouble. (If you believe in White superiority and also know what Simone Biles did recently, you probably have some thinking to do.)

      I’ve also heard Leftists argue that race doesn’t exist. This is probably true in the sense that all the human races can interbreed and that the genetic variation between any one human and any other human are pretty much minuscule as compared to the genetic variations in other species. If you don’t believe that race is, at least in part, a social construct you might consider the “one drop” rule. What race is someone with 15 White great-great grandparents and one Black great-great grandparent? In crazy racist talk they’re a hexadecaroon, though their Black ancestry is probably irrelevant to anything remotely important in their lives.

      Having clarified the position of the Left, I’d be thrilled if everyone left the whole thing alone and we avoided hijacking the thread.

      • Simone Biles is of predominantly West African descent. West Africans dominate sprints (and related sports like basketball, where the same muscles that provide a quick burst of speed running can also provide more altitude in jumping). It is no surprise that she’s able to do things that white women can’t.

        East Africans dominate marathons. East Asians dominate short-track speed skating. And the World’s Strongest Man competition is dominated by people descended from the North/Baltic Sea countries (from Iceland to Russia).

        No one takes these disparate outcomes as some kind of evidence of “de facto racism” (with the possible exception of that last one, since it sounds sort of like White Supremacy if you’re able to detect Dog Whistles like “Flying flags at half staff until 8/8 is a coded message to neo-Nazis”). But if one notes group differences in verbal or mathematical acuity as contributing to disparate economic outcomes, why that’s just DoublePlusUnGoodThink, and can get you fired.

        • But if one notes group differences in verbal or mathematical acuity as contributing to disparate economic outcomes, why that’s just DoublePlusUnGoodThink, and can get you fired.

          And it should get you fired.

          Why? Because the individual is not the group, and the Black person who sits in the cubicle next to yours has the rights to be judged as an individual, or as a member of groups other than “Black,” just as you have those rights. This isn’t Left vs. Right, it’s “Don’t Make Your Co-worker Miserable 101.”

          • >Because the individual is not the group, and the Black person who sits in the cubicle next to yours has the rights to be judged as an individual,

            Stop this right now. “Disparate economic outcomes” is not a phrase about prejudging individuals. You’re imputing to Monster an error I have never known him to make, and one that says more about your fixations than his. You should be ashamed of yourself.

            • I believe that Monster was using the word “you” in a completely generic fashion – as a casual substitute for the word “one.” I was using it in the same sense. Not personal insults were intended, and Monster obviously has my apologies if there were any misunderstandings. I probably should have use “one” instead of “you” just to make sure that was perfectly clear.

              • I’ll charitably assume you missed the key sentence in Eric’s reply:

                “Disparate economic outcomes” is not a phrase about prejudging individuals.

                Monster is correct in his claim that offering genetic explanations for disparate outcomes is a dangerous undertaking, and you should not have tried to morph that into a claim about invidious treatment of individuals.

                Quibbling about whether you meant it as a personal quarrel with Monster is beneath you. Or it should be.

                • Actually most of my unhappiness was with the discussion of “…group differences in verbal or mathematical acuity as contributing to disparate economic outcomes.” I’ve got a long rant on that, but I’ll refrain from posting it so we can get back to discussing evolution.

                  I read Eric’s post above as being unhappy with the idea that I’d specifically meant that Monster should be fired, and of course I have no idea about whether Monster deserves such a thing (and I would assume that s/he does not.)

                  • >I read Eric’s post above as being unhappy with the idea that I’d specifically meant that Monster should be fired,

                    No. It was your unjustified leap from Monster’s talk of population differences to an imputation of prejudice against individuals that made me “unhappy”.

                    • This is a reprise of James Damore’s infamous memo, in which he explicitly stated that it’s stupid to take statements about the medians of two bell curves as providing any information at all about specific people, and the violent reaction to the memo imputed that he had done exactly what he said was wrong.

                      If we can’t say that population differences exist for fear that racists and sexists will use that to further their agendas, then we cede a perverse moral high ground to them by lying about the subject.

                • Note that I didn’t even use the word “genetic”. There are other factors to consider. I think the reasonable position to take is that none of these contribute either 0 or 100% to disparate outcomes, but to say even that is taken as endorsement of the most insane race theories of the actual neo-Nazi crowd.

          • So long as the co-worker doesn’t say “why are males, whites and Indians (India, not native American) statistically overrepresented in IT?”, and is willing to be judged individually, then we’re in agreement.

            But you know damned well that’s not what happens. The Conventional Wisdom takes it that any disparity in outcomes is proof of “de facto [rac|sex]ism”, and refuses to consider any other factors that might be involved. And that means they will never address problems like the higher illegitimacy rates in black and Hispanic communities, which seem to have a high correlation with bad economic performance. To even discuss that factor is to “blame the victim”.

          • >> But if one notes group differences in verbal or mathematical acuity as contributing to disparate economic outcomes, why that’s just DoublePlusUnGoodThink, and can get you fired.

            > And it should get you fired.

            In case others didn’t make it clear enough to you, noting such a fact should not get anyone fired, because noting such a fact does not judge any individual on the basis of their race.

    • Lamarck was not entirely wrong, even if his reasoning was bogus:

      https://bioengineer.org/mice-transmit-acquired-adaptability-to-their-offspring/

      Also, there’s some evidence that lingering immune response from a previous pregnancy (and it may go back all the way to exposure to the male’s body fluids or even pheromones) can influence subsequent offspring.

      And I thought the left claimed that all apparent racial differences are due to privilege or oppression… in other words, to acts of creation…

  11. Trying this again, my math expressions got munged the first time.

    When you refer to the rate of evolution, it seems you actually mean two different things in different places, but it’s important to distinguish between them.

    Take some trait x, it can be a chicken’s egg size for instance; nature works with a vector of all an animal’s traits, but the scalar simplification is useful for understanding the problem. You can imagine plotting evolutionary success as a function thereof, s(x). Take a population with a certain characteristic value of this trait, say x0, and it will experience “selective pressure” ds/dx evaluated at x = x0.

    The rate of evolutionary change varies; it increases when environmental changes increase selective pressures on a species and decreases when their environment is stable.

    The “rate of evolutionary change” here is dx0/dt, which correlates positively with ds/dx. The greater the competitive advantage gained by perturbing x0, the greater the rate at which the perturbation grows.

    Rate of evolution can also increase when a species enters a new, unexploited environment and promptly radiates into subspecies all expressing slightly different modes of exploitation.

    Should the environment change, the dependence of success on the trait will be represented by some new s'(x). If a population is already well-optimised for its new environment, its characteristic x0 will be at a stable peak where ds’/dx is near-zero and d²s’/dx² is negative – that is, it experinces little selective pressure and deviations from x0 tend to produce selective pressure in a restoring direction. When d²s’/dx² is instead sufficiently close to zero what you get is not an increase in dx0/dt, but rather a period of diversification, as the selective pressure is insufficient to constrain the thermal noise of random mutations – the population’s characteristic x0 is static, but variance increases.

    Differentiation of species occurs when you have a sufficiently diverse population and the success curve inverts, so that d²s’/dx² is positive in the vicinity of x0 (the plot has a minimum). The evolutionary environment will reward divergence under this circumstance – but the population must be diverse enough to have viable subgroups on both sides of the minimum. The degree to which the population experiences random mutations is effectively its approach to the explore/exploit process – a highly mutagenic population produces proportionally fewer individuals near the optimum, but can overcome higher selective pressure to explore the domain in search of new peaks. Conversely, a genetically stable population exploits its peak efficiently but rarely reaches the necessary activation energy to traverse regions where the curve is inverted.

    Once species occupy the niches represented by peaks on the success curve, a period of equilibrium occurs, e.g. in the fossil record. Slow change results from the smooth movement of these optima, and it is punctuated by abrupt change when an occupied peak vanishes or bifurcates. Understandably, changes in environmental conditions often lead to similar deformations simultaneously occuring in the success curves of the different species in the shared environment, leading to explosions of diversity when a new profitable peak is accessible and mass extinctions when one is not.

  12. Not quite.

    See https://evo2.org and perhaps read at least the sample from Amazon if not the entire book.

    The problem is that the shape of the egg IS coded. But how does a coding system arise from processes prior to the coding.

    You can have new proteins, but that is irrelevant, you need new DNA to produce the proteins. Fine, that can be incremental, but everything you say ASSUMES there is already a DNA / protein synthesis that can both code and make copies of itself. That is what there are no known processes to produce.

    There is a prize associated if you can come up with a mechanism to produce ANY coding system ex-nihilo.

    I would also differ on some of the science and visible rates of speciation especially the Cambrian explosion, but all that is downstream of having any coding mechanism.

    Once I have an ARM processor, I can build any computer with the rest of the 74 series parts. But creating a CPU isn’t easy, and that is the scope of the problem.

    • Ah, the old “God of the Gaps” gambit. If you define your god by the boundaries of human knowledge, you’re doomed to watch your god shrink year after year.

      True, nobody’s generated a self-replicating chemical system yet, but we also haven’t had a chemistry lab the size of a planet and billions of years to play with either. You’re like the people who said that heavier than air flight was impossible after the Langley Aerodrome crashed.

      • “nobody’s generated a self-replicating chemical system yet”

        Someone lately came close — self-aligning proteins. I’ll have to find the damn article again. (My inner biochemist immediately said, “Of course!”)

    • @tz:

      The problem here is that you’re conceding the epistemological ground to your opponents, then trying to argue with them in that framework.

      It is entirely possible that both of the following are true:

      A) Abiogenesis and evolution is actually what you get when you trace the laws of physics a couple billion years backwards from today, and the big bang is actually what you get when you trace things back 13.7 billion years.
      B) The universe was in fact, however, created by Yahweh 6000 years ago.

      If B is true, it is even *likely* that both are true.

      And If you take the position that the laws of physics map causes to effects 1-to-1, unless interfered with from outside the universe, and if B is true, then even if A is not true, what you see when you trace the laws of physics back will *by definition*, not be B, because the laws of physics cannot accurately tell us about what happened when something external to them was influencing the course of events (or, in the case of the creation of the universe, what happened before they existed).

      The Old Earth / Young Earth question, therefore, has to be answered as a theological question before it is considered as a scientific one. For Christianity, specifically, the question is “Is the creation account in Genesis an exact description of the course of events during creation, or is it a poetic affirmation that God created the universe without getting into minutae that would have been irrelevant until the last century or two?”

      The latter option has to be seriously considered, because if Genesis 1 were replaced with a thousand page textbook on General Relativity, Quantum Electrodynamics, and Big Bang cosmology, few if any people before the last century would have understood it, and you’d still have at least a few skeptics saying “your ‘Word of God’ says that the electron is a fundamental particle with a mass of 511 keV, but modern physics knows that the fundamental particle is massless and that the massive ‘electron’ we observe is a degree of freedom in a low energy effective field theory resulting from the coupling of the fundamental electron to the Higgs, which isn’t mentioned anywhere in the book of QED. Your scriptures have been falsified!”.

      The long and the short of it is: you have to convince people that your religion is true and its scriptures authoritative before you can convince them that those scriptures mean what you believe they mean. Trying to convince them that science shows what you believe your scriptures mean to be true, and to use that to convince them that your religion is true won’t work, because if your scriptures are true, then pure empiricism is unreliable, so science *can’t* demonstrate those scriptures to be true.

      • You have the creation story in Genesis 1. And you have a different creation story in Genesis 2.

        The bible is quite a piece of work. One of my favorite parts is where God tells Abraham(?): “Yeah! You are my chosen people! All you have to do is go into bondage for 400 years, and after that it will be great!” (I paraphrase.) This is an almighty god?

        • Wisdom literature is like that, and the Bible is obviously built out of wisdom literature, whether you believe. Jesus wept.

        • >“Yeah! You are my chosen people! All you have to do is go into bondage for 400 years, and after that it will be great!” (I paraphrase.) This is an almighty god?

          “Yeah, great! (mumbles) Except for the pogroms and genocides and stuff.”

          The God of the Bible is a petty, vicious bastard who would be unworthy of our worship if he existed.

            • >It’s not like bronze age total war was all fun and games until those God-botherers came along.

              Yes, and according to Jewish and Christian belief that god was still running things during the Holocaust.

              Once again, sky-spook superstitions make people into idiots incapable of even basic consequential reasoning. No matter how often I witness this, it never ceases to astonish and disgust me.

              • >Yes, and according to Jewish and Christian belief that god was still running things during the Holocaust.

                You see, I’ve never really understood the classical formulation of the problem of evil as an argument against the existence/goodness/omnipotence of God, which you echo here. The argument is generally phrased “If God exists/is good/is all powerful, why is there so much evil in the world?” But the question I find more troubling is “why is there any evil at all?” If the existence of evil is compatible with the existence and goodness of God in the first place, I have no trouble seeing how it could balloon to arbitrary severity without calling into question the existence or character of God. It’s the first little bit that bothers me.

              • If I had ever been a believer, I would take the history of the 20th century as definitive proof that god doesn’t exist, and that if it did, that it is not good.

              • > Yes, and according to Jewish and Christian belief that god was still running things during the Holocaust.

                The book of Job, often considered to be the first piece of the Bible to be written down, owns up to the gross and often arbitrary evil that plagues this life. As does Ecclesiastes, the Gospels, and Revelation. It’s not exactly news to the faithful.

          • Just to throw in my .02, The Bible is very much like the inner dialogue of a really angry human-being writ large. Sometimes kind and loving, but frequently disjointed and often ranting furiously. Sometimes concerned with family/morality and sometimes concerned with having a good time, and very frequently concerned with smiting and defending territory. Then back to raging again. Not, for the most part, a happy book.

      • What if the Big Bang created Yahweh??

        [I blame this thought on you, but now that I have it, it’s an interesting question, if somewhat self-referential. I’m not a believer, but I do think there are Things Out There that can be confused with gods and spirits.]

  13. We often see the equivalent of “punctuated equilibria” when doing numeric optimization of complex objective functions (such as occurs in training feedforward neural networks.) Why then should we be surprised to see it in natural optimization processes?

  14. I feel like anyone who brings up the old “evolution” == “random chance” thing is either so woefully out of date that what knowledge they might have is almost certainly irrelevant or being dishonestly backward.

    I don’t believe that anyone can honestly argue that they think the evolutionary science community thinks it’s “Just random chance” or has been able to argue that for the last decade. I do believe that people with a religious agenda will bring up an old and irrelevant argument in an attempt to dishonestly sound like they have a point.

    This is like someone saying that Linus obviously copied Linux from Minux because of that one hack job paper so it’s time to give up on Linux. It’s only value is to be provided as a reason why you should take anything they say with more than a few grains of salt.

  15. ESR, you suggested my favorite example of motivated reasoning:
    “it’s difficult to imagine a thinker as bright as Dr. Gelernter falling into such a trap…unless he wants to.”
    The motivations for religion are many and powerful, and science can replace only some of them. “Opium of the people” denigrates religion less than it describes the scale of the pain.

  16. for some reason I remembered this book. the main argument seems to address the idea that evolution through DNA couldn’t possibly be so fast given only random change. the author argues that actually genotypes over-code phenotypes in such a way that genes can freely vary over the coding possibilities searching for fitter phenotypes, without incurring in much deleterious mutations.

  17. That part of his argument where he says “the engine that powers Neo-Darwinian evolution is pure chance and lots of time” stinks to me as though he’s been reading too much Gould. (Which is to say, any Gould at all.)

  18. In the realm of living things, that which works, persists. That which doesn’t work is lost to entropy. Best evidence suggests that life began on Earth about a billion years ago in a primordial soup of liquid water, inert compounds, and geothermal heat. Solution chemistry physics, combined with the Law of Conservation, resulted in replication phenomena for certain reactions, and thus was the genesis of a unique branch of organic chemistry now known as “life.” Random chance played an important role in the earliest of these reactions, but the law of large numbers dominates in a molecular soup. Evolving complexity was driven by a fractal property of chaos theory, and the carbon-hydrogen branch really took off when replication dynamics jumped several orders of magnitude. Everything that has persisted since then has followed a selection path driven by local environmental factors and forces. Last, this reality has been around for a lot longer than our species and our sentience. Reality really doesn’t care what we think about it.

  19. This is an example of foxes being bred for domestication. Physical features changed making them resemble dogs more than their wild counterparts. The researcher could not claim to be studying genetics, as Stalin banned the study of genetics as a threat to the unity of equal people. It’s more likely religious or Marxist ideology ignores genetics as it invalidates their core axioms. It’s just too hard for some to admit they have been wrong for forty years.

    https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/domesticated-foxes-genetically-fascinating-terrible-pets

    • >Stalin banned the study of genetics as a threat to the unity of equal people.

      Shhhh. Don’t say that where the SJWs can hear you. They’ll get ideas.

  20. The correct phrasing of the problem is difficult. The search space is not the product of all of the axes – if it were, the answer would be a trivial “no”. Cue the Schneier quote and keep in mind that biology is to brute forcing a 256 bit key as brute forcing a 256 bit key is to ROT13.

    The correct phrasing is “What is the fractal dimension of evolution?” In other words, what fraction of the search space is connected via a viable mutation to a survivable state?

    As far as I know, no serious work has been done on this. We really have no idea how big the true search space is, and thus have no idea if there has been enough time or not.

    I don’t think we even know how to go about thinking about a first estimate. Maybe find two versions of a protein that are likely to be related but have some meaningful differences and try to figure out all of the the plausible paths from both of them to all plausible common ancestors. This strikes me as being about the same type of calculation that we go through to validate quantum electrodynamics, but with no renormalization to save us.

  21. The 10000 Year Explosion has an interesting recent example showing how fast these things can happen. Giovanni Pomaroli and Rosa Giovane got married in 1780 in Limone sul Garda. One of them had a mutation helping to clean bad cholesterol out of the arteries. Today they have 43 living descendants in that little village of 1000 people with that mutation, not counting those descendants who don’t have the mutation, not counting those descendants who moved out because it is not the kind of place anyone who wants a career wants to live. Despite the fact that heart disease tends to happen in older age when people don’t have more kids. Despite the fact that in the modern era the number of children is largely up to choice. Still the occasional case of a man not having a heart attack at 65 and still fathering a child or two, or perhaps just leaving more money to his children, led to a visible reproductive advantage in mere 200 years.

    My primary argument for evolution is that the eye is such a crappy design, if I wanted to believe in a god, I would want to believe in a god who is not a terrible engineer. Who does not route the cable right through the middle of the field of vision of a camera and then just shrugs, whatever, just shake that cam around the blind spot and assemble the picture in software. This is not intelligent design, this is idiotic design. This was either made by evolution or by a committee of journalists.

  22. The central argument of Gelernter’s essay is that random chance is not good enough, even at geologic timescales, to produce the ratchet of escalating complexity we see when we look at living organisms and the fossil record.

    He’s just wrong, and Dawkins blew away the “irreducible complexity” argument decades ago. Spontaneous mutations happen all the time, and once you have any kind of selection pressure, those mutations will bring about more complexity if there’s a survival advantage to the complexity.

  23. What’s sad for me about Gelernter is that he’s one more example of a person who’s very clever in his own specialty, who tries to misuse that prestige when he’s talking out of his ass about a subject he knows basically fuck-all about.

    I have several friends who are very talented engineers, but are absolute emotional twats when it comes to politics and economics. It’s so disappointing.

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