Discovery Institute: Natural Selection Is a Fallacy

The Discoveroids have been both incoherent and boring lately, but we finally found a post so ludicrous that it merits a brief look. It was written by Tom Bethell. He’s not officially a Discoveroid, but they publish his essays. Wikipedia says he advocates intelligent design and other fringe ideas. The last time we wrote about one of his essays was almost a year ago: Discoveroids and AIG on Extraterrestrial Life.

Bethell’s latest is: Dennett’s Algorithm: An Exercise in Circularity. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (DDI), Daniel Dennett reduced natural selection to an algorithm, or a set of mindlessly repeated steps. But as far as I can see, he never tells us exactly what these steps are. I have looked long and hard. However, the omission is helpfully redressed by a Dennett admirer named Vincent Poirier in an Amazon comment on DDI. He identifies the Darwinian (Dennettian) algorithm as a four-step process:

1. Organisms pass their characteristics on to their descendants, which are mostly but not completely identical to their parent organisms.
2. Organisms breed more descendants than can possibly survive.
3. Descendants with beneficial variations have a better chance of surviving and reproducing, however slight, than those with non-beneficial variations.
4. These slightly modified descendants are themselves organisms, so repeat from Step 1. (There is no stopping condition.)

Here’s the Amazon listing for Dennett’s book: Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life. There are 186 comments, and we haven’t searched for the one that Bethell quoted. Dennett isn’t responsible for it, but it sounds reasonable to us. Bethell doesn’t think so, and he uses it — an Amazon comment! — not only to attack Dennett’s book, but Darwin’s theory in general. This is an extreme stretch, but we’re dealing with a Discoveroid article, so we have to expect such things. Let’s read on:

The beneficial variations are defined in terms of those that survive. Therefore, one might say, Dennett’s algorithm never comes to grips with the real world. “The survival of the fittest” has the same problem. It is circular. Fitness is defined in terms of survival, and there is no independent criterion of fitness.

Aaaargh!! Ah yes, survival of the fittest (which wasn’t Darwin’s phrase) is a wretched tautology — circular reasoning. That’s a classic creationist clunker, discussed in the TalkOrigins Index to Creationist Claims. The process of natural selection can be distorted seem tautological when it’s deliberately expressed as “survivors survive.” Well, yes — survivors do survive. Duh! But “survivors survive” isn’t even close to what natural selection means. As we said before, in Discovery Institute: A Cornucopia of Chicanery:

In any breeding population, some individuals of the current generation will be more capable than others at tasks like finding food, attracting mates, resisting disease, and escaping predators. Those individuals are less likely to die young, and are therefore more likely to be the progenitors of the next generation, which will inherit their parents’ advantageous genetic characteristics. That’s the mechanism Darwin proposed to explain how inherited “individual differences” (he didn’t know about genetics and mutations) can eventually transform a species into one that is better adapted to its environment. … It describes a natural process which isn’t the least bit tautological.

But Bethell says it is tautological. He also confuses the occurrence of mutations with the process of natural selection. We shall watch him as he does so:

No one knows at the time what a “beneficial variation” is. But retrospectively, we do. It is one that survives in offspring.

Aaaargh!! No one knows at the time? So what? No one needs to know! That’s the “natural” part of natural selection. But in the fantasy universe of the Discoveroids, their transcendent designer does know such things, because he designs variations to be beneficial. (He also withholds those variations from individuals he has intelligently decided shouldn’t survive.) Bethell continues:

In The Origin [he means Origin of Species], Darwin gives only one case in which he identifies a variation that is independent of survival. He imagines a wolf endowed with greater speed in an environment where prey are scarce.

That’s not related to survival? BWAHAHAHAHAHA! Here’s Bethell’s analysis:

But obviously stronger leg muscles in a wolf could produce thousands of problems. If you try to guard against all such unforeseen eventualities, you will end up claiming that a mutation that enables a wolf to catch scarce prey will allow it to catch scarce prey.

Aaaargh!! Only the intelligent designer — blessed be he! — can salvage this hopelessly tangled situation. Bethell doesn’t offer any further analysis. His essay ends abruptly, with this:

In short, natural selection makes a circular claim, Dennett does his best to skirt the problem, but no one has been able to get around it.

So there you are. Like a good creationist, Bethell claims that natural selection is merely a tautology, and the only way out of his phony conundrum is to invoke the intelligent designer — an imaginary entity who provides an imaginary solution for an imaginary problem. This is creationism at its best!

Copyright © 2014. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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21 responses to “Discovery Institute: Natural Selection Is a Fallacy

  1. I’m not surprised that Bethell based his argument on a comment about Dennet’s book. I’ve always thought the most (all) of the IDers have never read any serious book on evolution. For that matter, I’m pretty sure most of them never read the entire set of bronze age myths allegedely given to them by the sky fairy. Either that, or they’re incredibly bad at comprehending what they read.

  2. intelligent design and other fringe ideas.

    Cold fusion is a fringe idea. Birds Are Not Dinosaurs is a fringe idea. Intelligent Design is not an inhabitant of the fringe.

    Quoting Bethell:

    he never tells us exactly what these steps are

    That is Chutzpah.

  3. Headache evolutionists

    “There are people spouting off as if we know the answer. We don’t know the answer” (Stuart Kauffman, p. 54).

    “Do I think natural selection should be relegated to a less import role in the discussion of evolution? Yes I do” (Scott Gilbert, p. 221).

    “She [Lynn Margulis] sees natural selection as ‘neither the source of heritable novelty nor the entire evolutionary process’ and has pronounced neo-Darwinism ‘dead’, since there’s no adequate evidence in the literature that random mutations result in new species” (Mazur, p. 257).

    “At that meeting [Francisco] Ayala agreed with me when I stated that this doctrinaire neo-Darwinism is dead. He was a practitioner of neo-Darwinism but advances in molecular genetics, evolution, ecology, biochemistry, and other news had led him to agree that neo-Darwinism’s now dead” (Lynn Margulis, p. 278).

    “The point is, however, that an organism can be modified and refined by natural selection, but that is not the way new species and new classes and new phyla originated” (Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, p. 314).

    😀 😀 😀

    Source

  4. I think our friend is back. But he won’t stay.

  5. Charles Deetz ;)

    Is that a real live Gish Gallop?

  6. Poor Tom Bethell is just boring. I doubt that the man has ever had an original idea based in reality. But oh, how I long for those mystical, magical, wackadoodle doo musings of O’Leary or the lovely alliterative stylings of Klingklepooper!

    Still, our Curmudgeon continues his selfless public service by keeping us up to date on the best that the Discoveroids have to offer.

  7. Jim Thomerson

    Simple Darwinian Fitness is a measure of how successful, in comparison to the rest of the population, one is to raising offspring to sexual maturity. Fitness is not a measure of survival, but a measure of reproductive success. The phrase should be, “reproduction of the fittest”. Our views on how important natural selection is in speciation seem to me to run in about a ten year cycle. I think speciation processes are, so to speak, site specific, and natural selection might be very important in one speciation event, and not very important in one next door.

  8. Other than showing the world he doesn’t understand natural selection what was Tommyboy’s point?

  9. Okay, I give up. What is a “headache evolutionist”? Sounds like the name of punk garage band, or maybe a grunge one.

  10. Gary, I think it’s a pathetic attempt at humor by a dimwitted troll we had infesting the place yesterday.

  11. You know what else is a tautology and therefore impossible? Getting a glass of water.

    Seriously. I mean, you have to put water in the glass in order for it to be a glass of water, right? But – and here’s the thing the hydrophagilists don’t want you to pay attention to, a glass of water must also be filled with water. It’s a circular definition, and therefore glasses of water are a logical fallacy.

    Pardon me, need to get a can of Coke from the vending machine. I am parched something fierce.

  12. Our anonymous friend may have caught up to the fact that natural selection isn’t the whole game anymore. At least he would if he understood what the people he quoted were saying.

    I googled the quotes he used, and they seem to only occur on creationist websites. In addition to it’s use on creationist websites, one can also find the Lynn Margulis quote in an one interview by Susan Mazur, but then you have to ignore the fact that Margulis also said in the same interview that evolution is absolutely true, but that natural selection is only one of a number of factors contributing to it.

  13. Oh, cut him some slack. It’s hard work pulling high quality gems out of the quote mine.

  14. @Ed
    But if natural selection is a tautology, how can it be that it is not the whole game in town?
    And as for the provenance of those quotes, are you suggesting that our correspondent has not be reading through all those sources about evolution, but is only relying on a secondary source

  15. To paraphrase…
    The stoopid is great within him!!

  16. Rikki_Tikki_Taalik

    Headache creationists

    “There are people spouting off as if we know the answer. We don’t know the answer” (Stuart Kauffman, p. 54).

    I neither know nor spout off as if I know … uh … wait, what’s the context here ? What the hell are we discussing ?

    Ah well, I’ll just make up whatever context confirms my biases. I do not know how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pop. There, I said it. *heavy sigh*

    “Do I think natural selection should be relegated to a less import role in the discussion of evolution? Yes I do” (Scott Gilbert, p. 221).

    This is not attributable to Scott Gilbert. This is taken from the same interview Susan Mazur held with Lynn Margulis (to which I have linked below) and Mazur does not say Gilbert says this, she claims that it is fact Stuart Newman’s view. You can read her actual interview with Stuart Newman here. The Origin of Form Was Abrupt Not Gradual Yet another demonstration of the “stalwart scholarship” of creationists.

    I wonder, has “Anonymous” bothered to track down this orginal information and read it in context? I have a shiny new nickle that says no. And really, “a less important role in the discussion“? *sigh*

    “She [Lynn Margulis] sees natural selection as ‘neither the source of heritable novelty nor the entire evolutionary process’ and has pronounced neo-Darwinism ‘dead’, since there’s no adequate evidence in the literature that random mutations result in new species” (Mazur, p. 257).

    “At that meeting [Francisco] Ayala agreed with me when I stated that this doctrinaire neo-Darwinism is dead. He was a practitioner of neo-Darwinism but advances in molecular genetics, evolution, ecology, biochemistry, and other news had led him to agree that neo-Darwinism’s now dead” (Lynn Margulis, p. 278).

    The two “quotes” shown above can be read in their full context here where Susan Mazur writes about her interview with Lynn Margulis. I have another brand new shiny nickel that says “Anonymous” has never read it.

    “The point is, however, that an organism can be modified and refined by natural selection, but that is not the way new species and new classes and new phyla originated” (Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, p. 314).

    This is yet another quotemine swiped from Susan Mazur’s website. Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini immediately goes on to say …

    “For that, major changes in regulatory genes and in gene regulatory networks have to occur. All this is perfectly naturalistic and now well documented. Minor changes in the order of activation of master genes can create vast discontinuous morphogenetic changes. Very similar (in the jargon orthologous) genes in insects and in vertebrates produce an inversion in the development of the nervous system.”

    I’m shocked, shocked I tell you! that yet again, some “quotes” are dishonestly taken out of context and do not say what the copy/paster intends them to convey.

    😦 😦 😦

  17. craigshearer

    I’m listening to DDI at the moment – it’s a very good book!

  18. @craigshearer IMHO better than The Blind Watchmaker

  19. Bethell’s latest is: Dennett’s Algorithm: An Exercise in Circularity. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

    In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (DDI), Daniel Dennett reduced natural selection to an algorithm, or a set of mindlessly repeated steps. But as far as I can see, he never tells us exactly what these steps are. I have looked long and hard. However, the omission is helpfully redressed by a Dennett admirer named Vincent Poirier in an Amazon comment on DDI. He identifies the Darwinian (Dennettian) algorithm as a four-step process:

    1. Organisms pass their characteristics on to their descendants, which are mostly but not completely identical to their parent organisms.
    2. Organisms breed more descendants than can possibly survive.
    3. Descendants with beneficial variations have a better chance of surviving and reproducing, however slight, than those with non-beneficial variations.
    4. These slightly modified descendants are themselves organisms, so repeat from Step 1. (There is no stopping condition.)

    This is a problem how, exactly? Especially since there is a “stopping condition”—when the lineage of organisms runs into some set of conditions to which it cannot adapt, so that there are no further generations of descendants. This is called “extinction.” According to creationists, this happened to all sorts of creatures (dinosaurs, etc.) in, I believe it was, 2348 B.C., when they couldn’t fit aboard Noah’s Ark.

  20. C’mon, guys, let’s stop letting them get away with their red herrings.

    Creationist, if you seek a tautology, look around you. God/Intelligent Designers could do such-and-such because they are defined to be able to do anything. And, in the case of IDers, that is all that we know about them.

    Creationist, if you seek missing steps, look around you. Creationism/Intelligent Design is missing several flights of stairs. No, a whole stairway.

  21. No one knows at the time what a “beneficial variation” is. But retrospectively, we do. It is one that survives in offspring.
    In common usage of the word, “knowing” means “having information.” The creationists seem to assume that only sentient beings (and their sky-god) are capable of knowing. But the interaction between a population of organisms and their environment creates new information , namely, what traits of the various individuals in the population are beneficial for survival in that environment. And if we accept the premise that natural selection creates information we have another answer to creationists who claim that the second law of thermodynamics makes evolution impossible. Natural selection increases information, and decreases entropy.