Aesthetics and Evolution

Science is often more artistic than many people, both within and outside of the humanities would believe. Physicists and mathematicians in particular look for "elegance" as a key factor in deciding a theories worth. In many ways, this is just an extension of Ockham’s razor: the simpler explanation for the same phenomenon is best. Elegance generally evokes images of clean, simple lines, and so dovetails with Ockham rather nicely.

This sense of aesthetics is a good thing and ties in with human cognition very closely–I doubt that we could purge ourselves of this even if we wanted–but it does get oddly distorted in some debates. For your consideration I present an article on evolution and intelligent design and how some prominent advocates of Darwinism may have gotten in a rhetorical jam over their critiques of, for instance, the eyeball and the panda’s thumb. This is from Touchstone Magazine’s special edition on Darwism and Intelligent Design from this summer.

13 thoughts on “Aesthetics and Evolution

  1. theomorph

    “Rhetorical jam,” huh? Perhaps.

    Maybe the eyeball is wired up backwards because it needs more blood, but only at the expense of its ability to collect photons. That’s what I would expect to see from a process like evolution, which is limited by high costs and low benefits to incremental improvements. But why would an allegedly omnipotent intelligent designer need to worry about such things? Seems to me this omnipotent ID could whip up a way to meet the metabolic needs of sight without hindering its ability to collect photons.

    But let’s see, surely someone will come along and ask how I know a better design could be done, or question whether my argument isn’t just a slippery slope (maybe I could say any improvement could always be better), or allege that I’m contradicting myself somehow.

    Then there’s the panda. So we got versatile thumbs and the panda didn’t. We get to do things pandas can’t do. This would make sense if pandas had evolved to fill a particular niche, and humans had evolved to fill a particular niche (and then stumbled across the kind of versatility that allows us to dominate just about everything). But if an ID made us different, my big question is Why? Why would this ID need an animal that just sits around and eats bamboo? Or why would this ID need humans who spend so much time killing and destroying when the world could be populated by peaceful, bamboo-eating pandas? “Intelligent design” offers no reason for the diversity of life, and why there are so many varied species in so many different niches. However, Darwin proposed his theory to answer exactly that question.

    The problem is not that there are “sub-optimal” designs out there, but that there are different designs out there. ID only revels in diversity–it doesn’t attempt to explain it. ID people look at complexity and say “Wow! That’s cool!” which is a perfectly good response to nature. But the Darwinian looks at complexity and says “Wow! That’s cool! Why is it like that?” That’s the only difference between Darwinism and ID–the former keeps asking questions while the latter is content to have an answer that meshes with his or her theology.

    Okay now, let’s see, someone is going to come along and say that I have made sweeping generalizations of Darwinians and IDers, and say that I have no basis for what I’m saying, that IDers do too keep asking questions, that it’s not about making science align with theology, and so on and so forth.

    Then someone else will come along and berate me for being so cynical and/or audacious and/or disingenuous as to try and anticipate criticism… Someone will say I’m arrogant, someone will say I’m stupid, someone will say I’m ignorant, someone will say I’m a depressed/-ing atheist, someone will say I’m a “materialist” which makes me wrong, etc etc etc…

  2. theomorph

    Oh I’m never hiding. Just too tired to think sometimes. It isn’t easy to work full time, read more books at once than I can count without taking off my shoes, write my own blog, keep up with news, and still find time to watch every last second of special features on the new Star Wars DVDs. 😉

    Of the great popularizers, I have read Dawkins and Sagan more than any others (though I do have Gould’s m a s s i v e Structure of Evolutionary Theory sitting on my shelf. I would have to disagree with you that these two guys in particular are extremists or dogmatists. Dawkins himself has made a career out of his own challenge to the imperfection of Darwinian theory (the whole selfish-gene thing has been enormously influential), and Sagan can get pretty darned mystical at times. I think that a lot of people get uncomfortable with Dawkins, Sagan and their ilk because they have been ferocious in pointing out the problems of their most common and most persistent critics in creationism/ID.

    For instance, if you read Dawkins closely it’s clear that he does a lot more attacking against the particular arguments of creationists/IDers than against the underlying principle that evolutionary theory isn’t perfect. You can come to Dawkins and say “I think evolutionary theory isn’t perfect,” and I have no doubt he’ll say you’re exactly right. But if you say, “Mr. Dawkins, I think evolutionary theory is imperfect because it’s statistically improbable,” he’ll respond with all kinds of arguments showing that the statistics are not in fact insurmountable. (See, for instance, his book Climbing Mount Improbable.) I don’t think Dawkins would look askance on a valid challenge to evolutionary theory, but he will certainly tear apart any challenge if he doesn’t think it holds up to scrutiny. Same for Sagan, if he were still with us.

    I hope that makes sense.

    I think the “dogmatist” label gets applied to these guys because they are so ferocious in their defense of evolution. But in the process people forget to actually read their books and see that they aren’t over-sure of their theory, but they’re entirely (and I think rightly) unimpressed by creationist/ID challenges. There’s a difference.

    By the way, the latest Scientific American has an article on the evolution of DNA, RNA, and complexity in humans. It begins like this:

    “Assumptions can be dangerous, especially in science. They usually start as the most plausible or comfortable interpretation of the available facts. But when their truth cannot be immediately tested and their flaws are not obvious, assumptions often graduate into articles of faith, and new observations are forced to fit them. Eventually, if the volume of troublesome information becomes unsustainable, the orthodoxy must collapse.”

    SA is about as mainstream as it gets, and these guys are discussing problems in the theory–without recourse to creationism or ID.

  3. Jerry Nora

    Once ID has a chance to mature, it will have to explain what’s really going on here if Darwinism’s flunked. I’ll be very curious to see what people have to say about that, and am tempted to take a swing at the issues myself in my copious free time at some point. 😉

    However, it does need to get into the mainstream more, and like any new scientific trend, that’ll take time.

  4. Funky Dung

    The whole Darwinism/ID thing is basically a non-issue for me. I’m cool with evolution. I just happen to believe that it’s an engineered process, rather than an entirely random one. Religion’s role shouldn’t be to tell us how the universe was created, but rather why.

  5. theomorph

    Those are interesting comments Jerry. You’re still within the framework of evolution as an explanation of why things are the way they are without recourse to supernaturalism. If there is a historical explanation for a flagellum, there is no need for an “intelligent designer” to drop that bit o’ hardware into the system.

    IDers seem to think they’re going to change the scientific world, but if you look at their history, going all the way back to old school “creationism,” all they’ve done is get more in line with standard scientific procedures and lingo. They’re still not in the mainstream, but they’re getting there. I mean, if all they’re going to do is suggest that Darwinian theory isn’t a perfect explanation, then heck, they’re no different from most scientists. No theory is a perfect explanation. Any scientist who says otherwise is a quack.

    The real test of the ID crowd is whether they can come up with a theoretical breakthrough instead of just perennially stating the obvious: “evolutionary theory isn’t perfect.” To which anybody who knows even vaguely about evolutionary science will respond, “Duh.” I don’t care if IDers want people to understand that the scientific method is about endlessly working to perfect perpetually imperfect theories. But too often it seems they want to push too far the other way and say science has no authority at all. Then there’s the disconcerting fact that the core of the ID crowd are evangelical Christians. If they’re so scientifically honest, they ought to admit that their sample is skewed, to put it nicely.

  6. Jerry Nora

    Well, a scientific person should say “duh” in regard to evolution’s imperfectionism, but having subscribed to the (ironically named) Skeptical Inquirer for a year, and kept an eye on the likes of Sagan, Gould and other popularizers, I reiterate that many of the big popularizers of evolution are extremists, and yes, some ID people are going over the top, but they are in turn pushing back in order to get some balance in our picture of evolution.

    You are correct in saying that ID is a mainstream, but maybe I could post some citations from an article on ID where scientists and editors blatantly said that if an article doubted neoDarwinism, it went to the circular file. Some of that is no doubt due to the theological bent that ID people have, but while science has no favorites, *scientists* can be as rigid and dogmatic as anyone. I’ve been impressed with your honesty in approaching questions, Mr. Theomorph, but most scientists are not like that.

    Secondly, you are correct in saying that I view ID apart from supernaturalism–I think I mention that explicitly once or twice in previous posts. I think of ID as a gadfly, and I posted this just to help some layman have a little more perspective on evolution when confronted with a exegesis by the likes of a Gould, Dennett or Wilson. That and I wanted to spark some debate–I kinda figured that this post would flush you out of hiding. 😉

  7. theomorph

    Well, forgive the crankiness of my previous comment, but I am really tired of getting the same stuff over and over again no matter where I go. Like I always say, people are free to disagree, but I just wish they would do a better job of it. So many assumptions…

    Speaking of which, Stephen Jay Gould, brilliant guy that he was, had a weakness in his literary, rhetorical, and aesthetic flourishes. Like the Dennett quote at the top of this blog, “There’s nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear,” I feel a similar sentiment about Gould. Why does he get quoted by IDers so much? Why don’t they cite more broadly? Because Gould has this weakness they can feed on, which annoys the hell out of me. Why don’t they find one of those scientists who has no flair for rhetoric and kick on him for a while?

    The biochemical thing is popular with IDers but holds approximately zero sway outside their cohort, if you consider biochemists and scientists (and leave out people like William Dembski’s posse of “intellectuals” who are philosophers, lawyers, and mathematicians).

    The “irreducible complexity” thing just seems bizarre to me. It’s like Behe & co. have found this really great puzzle, which is what scientists love, and all they want to do is sit back and concede defeat. No, we can’t figure out why this thing exists the way it does, so it must have been created whole and bestowed upon the earth as a gift from some intelligence. Huh? How is that science? It’s a hypothesis, sure, which is essential to “the scientific method” as we are all taught in school, but what good does it do? There is no further research once your field has hit that wall. But how can research and inquiry end? This is the real problem of ID, and something that, quite honestly, baffles me. These are supposedly real scientists who want to say that the only explanation is beyond explanation. But why stop where they did? Plenty of scientists put no stock in “irreducible complexity” and keep on working. What are they doing, if not continuing the line of inquiry where Behe & co. refuse to even try?

    Anyway, I just finished reading an article about IDers in the latest WIRED magazine. Pretty interesting, but nothing I didn’t already know: IDers have an agenda, a multi-stage political plot, and the chutzpah and “charm and stage presence” (as the author of the article puts it) to carry it out. But ultimately, all ID does is redirect the line of inquiry into the realm of Pure Speculation. Once you derive everything from an “intelligent designer,” you’re back in the land of theology where anybody anywhere can start making up stories without any kind of accountability whatsoever.

  8. Jerry Nora

    Well, I can only speak to how I’ve seen the lay of the land, and while I’m sure that many a staunch Darwinist will readily grant that Darwinism is not perfect, the heated debate is such that people have taken far harsher stances, certainly due to the metaphysical/theological aspects girding such battles.

    We could chase our tails forever seeing which Darwinist really is inflexible, or which IDer can actually articulate a positive alternative to Darwinism (of course, it took a while for Heisenberg or Schroedinger to work on a coherent, unified theory of quantum physics, and biology is quite messier than that that field). I’ll be glad to follow up on your cited sources at some point, Theomorph.

    I’m glad that SA is reconsidering issues in evolution, and even questioning nonreligious authority (their polemics against Creationists show no lack of doubting religionists!). I grew disappointed with SA some time ago, but perhaps it’s time to look at them again.

  9. Jerry Nora

    Well, maybe someone will throw all those ad hominem attacks at you, Mr. Theomorph, but I have more productive ways to critique, so in a day or two, I’ll work on your points both here on your own blog. Yikes, you’re already defensive and I haven’t had proper time to make a gaffe already! Jeez, give a theist some time. Just ‘cos we believe in an omnipotent doesn’t mean we will do everything at once ourselves. 😉

    But a few quick clarifications:
    you mention that ID theory does not explain why a panda would be some bamboo eating animal. Well, ID does not, but since I don’t stay awake at night in existential dread of the panda’s purpose in life, that is no big deal.

    As I understand it, the article’s point about the panda’s thumb was that Gould admitted that the thumb did its job of stripping bamboo well, but then derided it as less nimble than the human thumb. It’s kind of like blaming a well-made screwdriver for not being as cool as a robotic arm that bolts and welds car parts. And it’s oddly anthropocentric for a defender of a theory that made Man a cousin of apes rather than a creature completely removed from animalkind. At least that’s the description that I read on the wrapper for Darwinism…(my own opinions differ!)

    Now as for the ID movement as a whole. ID’s critiques of Darwinism often are the molecular level rather than the panda’s level (where the variables for a thumb’s development are not easily reduced or quantified)–Michael Behe, one of the founders of ID, is a biochemist by training. One classic is argument for ID is to demonstrate that even a small given RNA sequence’s odds of randomly assembling is vanishingly small. Or, in the case of the bacterial flagellum, a couple dozen proteins must work in concert. Mutate one randomly and odds are overwhelming that the whole structure is useless. Think of a car’s transmission, and what randomly changing the dimensions or tooth-count of just one gear would do the whole thing.

    Now ID theory is in many ways just a critique of Darwinism, and believing in its critiques does not immediately lead to believing in God. Just as some theologians had to readjust their picture of the universe after Kepler and Galileo, perhaps some materialists/atheists/orthodox Darwinists will need to tinker with their theories to make things work. This is scientific progress.

    I value ID as a critique of a theory whose defenders–such as Dennett, E.O. Wilson, Gould, and whoever that fellow who wrote the “Bind Watchmaker”–have gotten a bit too smug and dogmatic. Hence how Gould is talking out both sides of his mouth in passing judgment on the use of a panda’s thumb. I think it’ll help keep people honest in using biology for or against materialism, theism, or whatever ism is on the table for debate that day… I value ID as I value your opinion, Mr.Theomorph: we need intelligent gadflies, and since Socrates drank the hemlock some time, we need new gadflies for

  10. Jerry Post author

    Well, one reason why Gould gets quoted by the IDers is that he gets quoted by the Darwinists a lot. You have good points, Theomorph, on how IDers need to broaden their horizons (which will happen, as I mentioned before, once this upstart movement matures), but skeptics of Darwin have an uphill struggle in that Gould and some of the folks I mentioned have a serious cultural presence.

    I think Darwin made some good first approximations, but ID’s critiques show the need to go further. I don’t think that we will just stop at saying that a flagellum could not have evolved like Darwin said, but there is a big challenge to see what can fill the gap. My analogy to a transmission was to demonstrate to the audience, though, just whatt sort of “finely tuned” (so to speak) systems there are in molecular biology, and the difficulty of neoDarwinism (which incorporates Mendelian and perhaps early molecular genetics) in explaining molecular biological phenomena.

    Perhaps this is all old hat to you–and it’s fairly familiar turf to me in broad strokes–but many people don’t get much meaningful exposure about Darwinism and its more robust criticisms. I thought this would be a good way to stir up discussion about the issues. (I think I was right, too! ;))

  11. theomorph

    Yeah, I appreciate your perspective on that one. I just think there is no why. Or, if there is one, it’s beyond us to figure it out. We can speculate all we want, and I think that’s what religion is all about, but after doing it for so long, I just got tired of making stuff up and knowing it was just made up, because nobody could really know.

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