Friday, December 09, 2005

Intelligent Intelligent Design

I've finally gotten through reading an interesting blog on Intelligent Design at Carl Zimmer's The Loom. Carl starts it off by quoting someone name David, and responding. The rest follows.

In it, someone named John A. Davidson explains his Prescribed Evolutionary Hypothesis (PEH), which says that evolution happened at one time, but has stopped. In particular, PEH predicts that no new information is added to genomes, only subtraction is possible. Presumably, this allows for a creator to have put all the information into the DNA of all species, but no further information will ever become available. This is a testable hypothesis, and is the first I've encountered from the Intelligent Design group.

Unfortunately, John A. Davidson states the evidence that would be required for PEH to be falsified, which just isn't how science works. He suggests that one would have to find a mammal species that is new since historic times. Such a species would be considered new if hybrids between it and a related species produces sterile offspring.

With this criteria, one would not expect John A. Davidson, who says he's had that name since 1928, to survive long enough for the evidence he seeks to become available. He asks for hard work. And, if restricted to working with mammals, it could take a very long time.

I haven't read John A. Davidson's published papers. Still, it seems odd that he presents no evidence for offering this hypothesis. Evolution appears in the fossil record, and is shown to take a long time. One wouldn't expect much speciation in the relatively short span of human history, even from a large pool of species. Since absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, it seems clear that something more convincing is required. After all, since the fossil record indicates continuing evolution for the entire history of life on Earth, it seems odd that it would come to a stop in modern times, just for humans to witness. What, exactly, is the proposed mechanism? Well, that there is a Designer, who designed all life, and has stopped working at it. If true, and there is no evidence that it is, what evidence is there that the Designer has stopped designing?

There was a complaint on the blog on why only mammals are considered, to no response. Mammals typically have long generations. For example, humans require nearly 20 years for a generation. Microbes have been shown to adapt to new hostile environments in just 600 generations. But that would require 12,000 years for humans, which makes it unlikely that speciation would happen in the small window made available. Now, many bacteria divide asexually, which has not been shown to generate new genetic information as quickly. And, you can't call the new bacteria a species, and certainly not with the reproductive test proposed. For asexual bacteria, each individual with a mutation can be thought of as a new species. Scientists don't do that, as it isn't a very useful definition. Also, 600 generations yields small changes, and no one would consider the result as a new species.

So, when sea snakes were proposed as a newly recent species, it was ignored.

Dogs and cats were dismissed, too. Dogs were dismissed as wolves. However, wolves may just be feral dogs. Recent evidence suggests a northern Mongolian wild dog species as the origin of domesticated dogs. Is there any hybridization information?

Yet, a paper on gerbils (later referred to as voles) was proposed, and it looks as if it should be a nail in the coffin for this hypothesis. It looks to be time to admit it, and move on to another hypothesis.

Yet the lid should be closed only by showing that there is indeed new useful information produced for the genome of some organism. This wasn't discussed. At least for microbes, every time a microbe becomes resistant to some new antibiotic, one could argue that new useful information is gained. One must, however be careful that it isn't just old information that was turned off, and is now switched back on. So, the critter should be sequenced before the experiment begins, and when it becomes resistant, it should be sequenced again. We might even learn what allows the resistance, which could be quite valuable. Perhaps this has been done.

As a computer nerd who has worked with very simple genetic algorithms, it is pretty clear to me that new information can be generated by simple mutation. Genetic algorithms are very good at searching for solutions to problems. One only needs a test for goodness of a solution. The more sensitive the test, the more efficient the search. The solutions represent new information in the genome.

Yet life doesn't just use random mutation. The complexities are numerous. For example, genetic information can be moved from one species to another by viruses. Also, since DNA operates at the molecular level, it has access to the molecular machine. It appears to be able to find novel ways to interpret the genetic information available, by altering the interpreter. My computer doesn't do that, because I didn't tell it to.

The complexity of life puts the Evolution debate out of the depth available in the thinking of popular culture. It is desirable that reliance on some authority is poor, so what it takes is an experiment anyone could perform at home with inexpensive equipment, in kit form. Ideally, one could put methane, argon, and some other gunk in a sealed test tube, heat it, cool it, zap it with electricity, etc., and in a few days at most, life would exist, where there was none before. And, this life would be detectable unambiguously. Anyone could do it. And even this would be an incredible stretch for popular culture. Since such an accessible experiment won't be available any time soon, the popular culture is effectively shut out of any such debate. Since it appears that the Intelligent Design debate is squarely pointed at popular culture, and lacks the depth needed for science, that it was never intended to be or become science.

One last point. In the referenced blog, there is some name calling. It starts soon in the blog, but no one took the bait. At post 17, John A. Davidson refers not to Darwinism, but NeoDarwinism as the rival hypothesis. This is quite an insult for someone born in 1928, but probably not for anyone much younger. It refers to Eugenics, with all the racial prejudice and such, and which was used by the Nazis to justify the slaughter of millions in gas chambers. Nice. This was John A. Davidson's second post to this thread, and no one had yet responded to his first. So, it was an unprovoked personal attack. There are actually two attacks here. The second is that he uses the word Darwinism as an ideology. But Darwinism isn't an ideology. Science isn't based on faith, it is based on evidence.

If one edits out the name calling and follows the scientific arguments, there does seem to be real value here. Some of the more subtle Intelligent Design arguments are presented and refuted. One might post such an edit, but one would be in constant fear of misrepresenting someone. For myself, the content is good, but not worth that much effort and risk.


JohnADavison said...

It is John A. Davison, not Davidson and I recommend that you do read my papers and the works of my predecessors before dismissing the Prescribed Evolutionary Hypothesis.

Stephen said...

I didn't mean to offend. I'll be happy to correct my error once John A. Davison admits and apologizes for the unprovoked offense made on the Loom.

These are open comments. Feel free to leave a reference on where PEH can be found. A web link, a reference to a journal article. Whatever. Why not make it easy?

As for dismissing the PEH, from the description so far, I've already described why it it is silly. Why not refute my argument?

xub said...

I haven't read ... straight to proposes no proof.


Stephen said...

I've now read John A. Davison's PEH paper, on his web site. It reads as if it was published in a peer reviewed journal. However, it doesn't appear that it would survive peer review. He cites no compelling evidence for his hypothesis, and there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. If it were submitted to my class as other than a bad example, i'd have to give it an 'T' - for 'Troll'. See, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" for details on the grade.