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A MOST UNSCIENTIFIC SCIENCE


NEO-DARWINISM


On Wednesday the 10th of December 2003, I posted my response - message number 28307 - to the Evolutionary Psychology list, in the thread "Oxford Scientist Launches Sharp Critique of Religion":

Obviously we can concur with much of Dawkins' reasoning about religion. It never ceases to amaze me how adults often live and die for the religion they were inculcated with from childhood on no basis other than it was the belief with which they were inculcated at childhood. How can these people so arrogantly dismiss the rest of humanity as stupid and misguided - for that is indeed the implication of their narrow-mindedness. Only recently I was involved in a “discussion” with a fully grown adult who kept on referring to the bible to substantiate his beliefs, in complete shutdown with respect to my disputations that the bible was written by people with human hands and minds.

However.... I also have difficulties with an unproven life science devoid of general principles. Isaac Newton managed to put together a compelling model of nature, and we see and live with the power of his genius every day, in the cars we drive and the buildings we work in. Where’s an analogous sweeping vision for a life science that can account for something as fundamental as animal consciousness or gender roles? Where’s the vision that can wrap it all up, to combine philosophy with psychology with politics and biology and physics with mathematics and logic and rigour…. into a single, hard-hitting vision that can put us all at peace?

Let’s take, for example, something as fundamental as gender. There is a simple fact about gender roles, that came out in a recent thread here (refer to “the opt-out revolution”, message 27965). Lisa Belkin asks the rhetorical question "Why don't women run the world?" Her answer is "Maybe it's because they don't want to". What is it that we have not been getting for so long, in this long-running gender debate? The answer - choice. Women don’t WANT to run the world. Can the answer really be this simple? If the genius of Newton is evident in our daily lives as we drive to work, the bankruptcy of our life sciences is evident in our politics and our policies that have failed to account for the choices that people make and the shaping of desire.

How primitive is our understanding when, for example, we so confuse equal outcome with equal opportunity? We congratulate ourselves for our progressive, liberal values. But what is it that we are not apprehending, for example, in this era of sexual “enlightenment”, where by implication, our “unenlightened” ancestors must have been desperate, misguided misfits with unresolved yearnings? Like the arrogant religious, we condemn as ignorant and illiterate, our previous generations that have failed to live up to our progressive, enlightened ideals. Can we moderns really be held to be superior to our ancestors? Just like Christians or Muslims hold themselves to be superior to the heathen or the infidel. What is it that we have trouble wrapping our brains around?

Dawkins may have made many of us basking in the sunshine of his secular anti-religiosity feel comfy, but he has really failed to provide a compelling alternative. Indeed, what he proposes is itself a form of religion. It must be, by virtue of its refusal to confront inconsistencies - just like my friend’s refusal to confront the inconsistency that God's Holy Bible was written by human hands and minds. For example, the belief in evolution by way of dumb luck (with natural selection as the “filter” of random accidents) refuses to confront an inconsistency that many of us feel to be self-evident - the humungus improbability of complex entities such as eyes (Dawkins’ explanation of the Nautilus’ pinhole eye notwithstanding) as the outcome of a progression through natural history of happy accidents. The potential inconsistencies implied in back-mutations, for example, or in mutations as increasing disorder (not order), all these very serious concerns are devoid of the analytical rigour that we routinely apply to mathematics and engineering. We are simply expected to buy the mutation-as-source-of-variety myth (even though Charles Darwin probably never even heard of the genetics of his young contemporary, Mendel) and accept it as a given, in this non-Darwinian interpretation of Darwin’s natural selection. The most damaging aspect of this hyper-secular, extremist view is its impact on our understanding of desire and the importance of the choices that we and other organisms make from our respective ecologies.

So while we can rightly applaud Dawkins for his commonsense views on mainstream, established religions, we must surely have cause to question an equally subjective account that fails to apprehend the brick wall of impossibility that confronts our modern life sciences. Where’s the life-science of general, simple principles that provides the rock whereupon we can build a theory as compelling as that provided by Isaac Newton in the physical sciences?


THE RESPONSES


Among the mix of good and bad responses that I received, both on and off list, there were those provided by Professor Paul R Gross (Professor Gross is well-known academic, critic, curmudgeon and author of such books as Higher Supersticion, Creationism's Trojan Horse, and Flight from Science and Reason). The moderator's (Ian Pitchford) method of dealing with the ensuing debate was disappointing - in sum, my subsequent compelling responses were not posted to the group, while all except one of Professor Gross' were (at least before he started frothing at the mouth).

We can appreciate Mr Pitchford's role as moderator in keeping the peace. However, when he used the words "silly" and "tripe" in explaining why my subsequent posts did not make it to the list, I developed a sense of unease as to what we are dealing with here. We are dealing less with scientists, than with an established order dedicated to retaining their hold on power.

The Evolutionary Psychology list has a good reputation and following. Mr Pitchford as moderator of the Evolutionary Psychology list has license to direct it wherever he wishes to take it. And that is exactly what he is doing. But in the process, it is clear that he is not employing the time-honoured principles of scientific enquiry, at least as established in the original scientific method. Dismissing compelling responses that demand a resolution as "tripe" simply because it is embarrassing to the established order, is not on. Indeed, it must be read as a sign that the established order is in trouble.

In having previously held in high regard the Evolutionary Discussion group under the guidance of Ian Pitchford, on the belief that lively debate was encouraged, we need to reconsider. Lively debate is indeed encouraged, so long as the established order is seen to hold sway. Debate that is "too lively" (threatening to the Priesthood) is promptly silenced, such that no-one else (beyond the combatants embroiled in argument) is any the wiser.

So let us take a look at the posts that Ian Pitchford rejected. Professor Paul Gross responded to my post above with the following:


Paul Gross - Wed Dec 10, 2003 9:29 pm - posted to list


Refer to EP message number 28324
In a message dated 12/10/2003 12:08:42 PM Eastern Standard Time, tramont@iinet.net.au writes:

So while we can rightly applaud Dawkins for his commonsense views on mainstream, established religions, we must surely have cause to question an equally subjective account that fails to apprehend the brick wall of impossibility that confronts our modern life sciences. Where’s the life-science of general, simple principles that provides the rock whereupon we can build a theory as compelling as that provided by Isaac Newton in the physical sciences?

Whatever makes you think that there HAVE to be "general, simple principles" of anything? Whatever makes you think that Newtonian physics is simple and compelling today, since it is clearly not general? Elegance is an epistemic virtue; but it is not obligatory for truth-indicativeness. Newtonian mechanics is useful still, to be sure, and elegant; but it applies to a limited part of reality. If you want a general, simple theory of life, specifically, you need only to read the bible -- or the scriptures of any other religious grouping. Back to square one.

PRG


I responded - Fri Dec 12, 2003 9:43 pm - refused by moderator


Newtonian physics is not confined to a limited "part" of reality. Rather, it is a macro-statistical manifestation of the micro dynamics occurring at the quantum level - that is to say that a zillion atoms doing their own thing can manifest themselves, macroscopically, as a block of concrete. Newtonian physics therefore looks at one PERSPECTIVE of the physical world. And so at this perspective, it is a most general and compelling synthesis. Tunnelling, non-locality, etc., cannot be accounted for at the macro level, but this should not diminish the importance of Newton's work in any way. More importantly, there is something of great value to be learned in how all the confusions of canon-ball trajectories and other physical "explanations" of Newton's time have come to be resolved and understood in the generality of Newton's principles.

Whatever makes me think that there have to be "general, simple principles" of anything? Whatever makes you think that we can get away WITHOUT the "general, simple principles" by which we might infer the propositions that enable us to understand how things work?


Paul Gross - 13 Dec 2003 09:25:24 am - posted to list


Refer to EP message number 28358:
In a message dated 12/12/2003 8:45:56 AM Eastern Standard Time, tramont@iinet.net.au writes:

Whatever makes me think that there have to be "general, simple principles" of anything? Whatever makes you think that we can get away WITHOUT the "general, simple principles" by which we might infer the propositions that enable us to understand how things work?

We undertand as well as we do (perhaps not very well) in the life sciences how things work pretty much without those grand unifying principles you were emoting about. Except, of course, for evolution, which is both a fact and a simple general principle, as general as f=ma, and whose underpinnings are (given the current unpeavals in quantum gravity) rather firmer at the moment than those of gravity. The search for a theory of everything is the noblest human adventure; but to knock existing science from an Olympian perch, just because we don't have one yet, seems to be just slightly pretentious.

PRG


I responded - Fri Dec 12, 2003 9:43 pm - refused by moderator


Darwin's natural selection is indeed a fine principle. It is a sound and important mechanism that is well established. It's the source of the variety that is the problem. Darwin never accounted for mutations as the source of variety - he couldn't have, because, to begin with, it is unlikely that he had even heard of the ideas of his young continental contemporary, Mendel. At certain points in his career he even looked to Lamarckian adaptation to account for the source of variety. Applying mutations as the source of variety is clumsy and unscientific because it is fraught with very fundamental problems that have not been tackled in any serious manner of scientific rigor or analysis. More to the point, we are not being scientific enough.

Stephen


Paul Gross - Fri, 13 Dec 2003 - refused by moderator


At this point, Paul Gross emailed me a surly response that was appropriately not posted to the EP list. As it was not published on the EP list, it would be inappropriate of me to publish this on my website, without Mr Gross' consent. Suffice it to say that Mr Gross concluded his rant by spitting the dummy with the comment "That is just nothing I care further to argue about." To this, I provided my response to the Evolutionary Psychology list, as follows.

I responded - Fri Dec 12, 2003 9:43 pm - refused by moderator


PRG has spat the dummy and doesn't want to play any more. I was hoping to explore some further problems with the life-sciences that he is so eager to defend. Oh well, perhaps someone else might like to contribute.

THE PROBLEM WITH MUTATION AS THE SOURCE OF VARIETY

The following website has been taken from the Institute for Creation Research. The commonsense analysis of geneticist R.H. Byles speaks for itself, independently of any religion or agenda:

http://www.icr.org/pubs/imp/imp-166.htm

Byles covers the sorts of things that should have occurred to many of us, as far as macro mutations are concerned. For example, the conflicts between mutation rates (back-mutation, forward-mutation, etc). Some of the sorts of questions that are relevant in this debate (macro AND micro mutations):

  1. Is the mutation rate volatile enough to enable change? Is it stable enough to maintain form and consistency?
  2. How significant must a change be, in order to impact on survival and thus, subject the organism to the influence of natural selection?
  3. Are the required states “logically inconsistent” - that is, can there be a mutation rate that satisfies the mix of stability and volatility required for evolution by mutation?
  4. Aren’t the vast, overwhelming majority of mutations, as an expression of the inexorable march of entropy, detrimental to survival and prone to inefficient formlessness, rather than efficient, purposeful form?
  5. Can evolution by micro-mutations occur if the changes aren’t significant enough to be noticed by natural selection, bearing in mind the organism’s very real capacity to adapt to minor limitations?
  6. How significant must a micro-mutation be before it swamps an organism’s motivation to adapt? And if a micro mutation is not significant enough, won't the equal likelihood of back-mutation annihilate any desirable, chance, positive increment?

And so on.

Byles’ analysis renders the whole notion of macro-evolution-by-mutation as simply impracticable. He provides a compelling argument against mutation as the source of variety in Darwinian natural selection.

I expect that a position on micro-evolution (evolution by micro-mutations) might be more difficult to prove, so I'll state my case here…. Micro-mutations will fail to provide the extent of variation required to enable natural selection to rank fitness. (Let us distinguish here between micro-mutations as random processes - mini mutations - versus the more gradual processes suggestive of Lamarckian type mechanisms). An organism’s will to survive will off-set micro variations and render them statistically insignificant. Not to mention genetic plasticity further complexifying matters.

The bottom line is, if mutations played a significant role in life processes, shouldn’t we expect our ecologies to be comprised of grotesquely deformed mutants - if they can live long enough - tending towards the disorganized formlessness of cancer, rather than the efficiencies and varieties ensuring survival, that we observe around us?

GENETIC SOFTWARE AND THE COMPUTER REQUIRED TO RUN IT

Genes are, of course, very important in living systems. But we have to get away from the notion of genes-as-information and DNA as biological blueprint. Genetic determinism’s notion of genes-as-information implies the existence of an information-processing unit. It implies that a computer is required to process the genetic program. So where’s the computer? If you have a data stream, as you do for a program, it must be processed somewhere. Where does THIS computer exist? Within each and every cell? In the pituitary gland? How many angels are there on the head of a pin?

And once we’ve located said computer…. How did it get there? What sort of program is this that can create the computer on which it runs? Was it programmed into the genetic code? That is, must we imply that the genetic code accounts for the mechanism of its own interpretation? That is, that the computer that processes the genetic code is built from the genetic code? Now that’s one powerful kind of bootstrapping if ever I’ve seen one! I bet that Bill Gates would be interested in that kind of operating system. Think of the savings in shipping, storage and manufacture.

Clearly, such a “computational” approach to genetics would seem to be intuitively bizarre. Another way of stating the same problem is that a natural “computer” would violate the natural laws of entropy, probability and inevitability. There is just no way that the complexity of a computer can spontaneously self-generate in the natural environment (brains are complex, but they are nothing like computers).

Do we see the analogy that this elusive “computer” has with creationism? Creationists explain the whole of existence by attributing everything to God. But they conveniently overlook a most crucial question… Who, or what, created God? Same thing with genetic determinists, who explain the whole of biological life by attributing everything to the genetic “information”. But they conveniently overlook a most crucial question… a program implies a computer - where is said computer to give meaning to all this genetic software?

The bottom line is, if we wish to apply the DNA-as-program assumption, then give us that goddamned computer upon which it is purported to run. Unveil it. Put your finger on it. Let it show its face. Without that computer in evidence, any talk of genetic information is pseudo-scientific Creationism.

Stephen


Moderator responded


At this point Ian Pitchford responded by saying that what I wrote was "silly", clarifying his view that my argument was "tripe". Perhaps he thinks it tripe to identify the parallels between genetic determinism and Creationism? For just as Creationists turn to God to explain the existence of all things without having to account for how God got here, so too, Genetic Determinists and neoDarwinists turn to the genetic "software" to account for the existence of all things without having to account for the computer that said software is supposed to run on.

I had anticipated that, no matter how much the scientists of the Establishment disagreed with certain views, they would not resort to insults in dispensing with serious issues that will not and should not go away. For some considerable time I had thought that my provocative ideas were welcome and that we were as one, a lively group striving for understanding. Perhaps not. Perhaps they have more in common with the Church of the Dark Ages than they might care to realize. I am reminded of how Copernicus was ridiculed by the Establishment.

The parallels between our modern life sciences and religion are complete. Today, we have a new kind of "science" where rigour is defined almost exclusively in terms of empirical evidence. Just as the fundamentalists of religion adhere rigidly to their catalogs of rules of proper behaviour because the Bible tells them so, so too, our modern priests in lab-coats are devote number-crunchers. For them, vision has little part to play. Forget about general principles. Provide the numbers and you've got the proof, and you might even win a seat in Academia. But real science requires thinking through the possibilities, considering options and planning strategy - these are essential in deciding what empirical evidence you are to employ. Observation has always been a key part of the scientific method. "Just so" stories accounting for biological phenomena in terms of the "expression of genes" or "genetic software" or mutations is not science. It is unsubstantiated speculation. Empirical evidence, on its own, is not science. Empirical evidence without forethought or purpose is meaningless. Empirical evidence without rigor in analysis and interpretation is not evidence. Empirical evidence in the absence of vision or observation is the preserve of lab technicians.


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Last updated January 2005
Stephen Springette