Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Problem with God: Interview with Richard Dawkins #7

The Problem with God: Interview with Richard Dawkins, Beliefnet, 15 December 2005. The renowned biologist talks about intelligent design, dishonest Christians, and why God is no better than an imaginary friend. Interview by Laura Sheahen. ...

Continued from part #6 with my comments bold and in square brackets and the interviewer's questions bold and in italics.

You talk about how your words have been twisted by religious people in the past. Which words of yours have been twisted?

Whenever I begin an argument by saying something that sounds as though it's creationist, something like "the Cambrian Explosion is a sudden explosion of fossils almost as though they had no history," I'm obviously saying that as a prelude to explaining why. [What Dawkins actually said was:

"Eldredge and Gould certainly would agree that some very important gaps really are due to imperfections in the fossil record. Very big gaps, too. For example the Cambrian strata of rocks, vintage about 600 million years, are the oldest ones in which we find most of the major invertebrate groups. And we find many of them already in an advanced state of evolution, the very first time they appear. It is as though they were just planted there, without any evolutionary history. Needless to say, this appearance of sudden planting has delighted creationists." Dawkins R., "The Blind Watchmaker," 1986, p.229. My emphasis).

The fact that creationists have seized on Dawkins "words" that "most of the major invertebrate groups" appear for "the very first time" in "the Cambrian strata of rocks" when they were "already in an advanced state of evolution" such that "It is as though they were just planted there, without any evolutionary history" is not a case of twisting Dawkins' "words." It is a case of taking Dawkins' words at their face value!

And Dawkins is being disingenuous by calling these "Very big gaps", "imperfections in the fossil record." The latter term was Darwin's and by it Darwin meant that there really was a "finely graduated organic chain" that was "full of ... intermediate links" (i.e. "intermediate varieties"):

"But just in proportion as this process of extermination has acted on an enormous scale, so must the number of intermediate varieties, which have formerly existed, be truly enormous. Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and serious objection which can be urged against the theory. The explanation lies, as I believe, in the extreme imperfection of the geological record." (Darwin C.R., "The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection," [1872], Everyman's Library, J.M. Dent & Sons: London, 6th Edition, 1928, reprint, pp.292-293. My emphasis)

which was the consequence of "natural selection act[ing] solely by accumulating slight, successive, favourable variations":

"As natural selection acts solely by accumulating slight, successive, favourable variations, it can produce no great or sudden modifications; it can act only by short and slow steps. Hence the canon of "Natura non facit saltum," [nature does not make leaps] which every fresh addition to our knowledge tends to confirm, is on this theory intelligible." (Darwin, 1872, p.447)

but the fossil record did not preserve them.

However, if the "geological [i.e. fossil] record" was not as "extremely imperfect" as Darwin's theory required it to be:

"Lastly, looking not to any one time, but to all time, if my theory be true, numberless intermediate varieties, linking closely together all the species of the same group, must assuredly have existed; but the very process of natural selection constantly tends, as has been so often remarked, to exterminate the parent forms and the intermediate links. Consequently evidence of their former existence could be found only amongst fossil remains, which are preserved, as we shall attempt to show in a future chapter, in an extremely imperfect and intermittent record." (Darwin, 1872, p.161. My emphasis)

which even in Darwin's own day, "few" geologists and paleontologists were "inclined to admit":

"That the geological record is imperfect all will admit; but that it is imperfect to the degree required by our theory, few will be inclined to admit." (Darwin, 1872, p.443. My emphasis)

and if there in fact were not "numberless transitional links" then, according to Darwin himself we all should (including Dawkins), "rightly reject the whole theory" (my emphasis):

"He who rejects this view of the imperfection of the geological record, will rightly reject the whole theory. For he may ask in vain where are the numberless transitional links which must formerly have connected the closely allied or representative species found in the successive stages of the same great formation?" (Darwin, 1872, p.343. My emphasis)

And as for Dawkins, "obviously saying that as a prelude to explaining why", here, in his own "words", is what Dawkins continued with:

"Evolutionists of all stripes believe, however, that this really does represent a very large gap in the fossil record, a gap that is simply due to the fact that, for some reason, very few fossils have lasted from periods before about 600 million years ago. One good reason might be that many of these animals had only soft parts to their bodies: no shells or bones to fossilize. If you are a creationist you may think that this is special pleading. My point here is that, when we are talking about gaps of this magnitude, there is no difference whatever in the interpretations of 'punctuationists' and 'gradualists'. Both schools of thought despise so-called scientific creationists equally, and both agree that the major gaps are real, that they are true imperfections in the fossil record. Both schools of thought agree that the only alternative explanation of the sudden appearance of so many complex animal types in the Cambrian era is divine creation, and both would reject this alternative. (Dawkins R., "The Blind Watchmaker," 1986, pp.229-230)

But Dawkins was not telling the truth. The "punctuationists" do indeed "agree that the major gaps are real" but they do not agree that it was due to " imperfections in the fossil record," but rather "the jerkiness ... is not the result of gaps, it is the consequence of the jerky mode of evolutionary change" (my emphasis):

"I'm tired of hearing about the imperfections of the fossil record,' said John Sepkoski of the University of Chicago; `I'm more interested in hearing about the imperfections of our questions about the record.' `The record is not so woefully incomplete,' offered Steven Stanley of Johns Hopkins University; `you can reconstruct long sections by combining data from several areas.' Olson confessed himself to be `cheered by such optimism about the fossil record,' and he listened receptively to Gould's suggestion that the gaps in the record are more real than apparent. `Certainly the record is poor,' admitted Gould, `but the jerkiness you see is not the result of gaps, it is the consequence of the jerky mode of evolutionary change.'" (Lewin R., "Evolutionary-Theory Under Fire: An historic conference in Chicago challenges the four-decade long dominance of the Modern Synthesis," Science, Vol. 210, pp.883-887, 21 November 1980, pp.883-884. My emphasis)

But these people quote selectively. It's a demonstration of their fundamental dishonesty. They're not actually interested in truth, they're interested in propaganda. [All quoting is necessarily "selectively." And if anyone is guilty of "fundamental dishonesty" and "not actually interested in truth" but "interested in propaganda" it is Dawkins. As we see above, he twists the words of "punctuationists" to make it sound like they agree that the Cambrian explosion is merely "due to imperfections in the fossil record" when that is not what they mean.

And what's more (as I have previously demonstrated), Dawkins himself has effectively abandoned Darwin's theory of evolution by the natural selection of random micromutations. Here is another example in his coverage of the Cambrian explosion:

"As we saw at Rendezvous 22, Chengjiang has fossils that appear to be true vertebrates, pre-dating the amphioxus-like Pikaia of the Burgess Shale and other Cambrian chordates. Traditional zoological wisdom never had vertebrates arising so early. Yet Myllokunmingia, of which more than 500 specimens have now been discovered at Chengjiang, looks pretty much like a good jawless fish, such as had previously been thought not to arise until 50 million years later in the middle of the Ordovician. ... The pushing of the vertebrates back into the middle of the Cambrian only strengthens the idea of sudden explosion that is the basis of the myth. It really does appear that most of today's major animal phyla first appear as fossils in a narrow span within the Cambrian. This doesn't mean that there were no representatives of those phyla before the Cambrian. But they have mostly not fossilised. How should we interpret this? We can distinguish various combinations of three main hypotheses ... 1. NO REAL EXPLOSION. On this view there was only an explosion of fossilisability, not of actual evolution. The phyla actually go back a long way before the Cambrian, with concestors spread out through hundreds of millions of years in the Precambrian. ... On this view, fossils were, for unknown reasons, not readily formed before the Cambrian. Perhaps they lacked readily fossilisable hard parts, such as shells, carapaces and bones. ... 2. MEDIUM-FUSE EXPLOSION. The concestors uniting the various phyla really did live reasonably close to each other in time, but still spread out over several tens of millions of years before the observed explosion of fossils. ... 3. OVERNIGHT EXPLOSION. This third school of thought is, in my opinion, bonkers. ... The third school believes that new phyla sprang into existence overnight, in a single macromutational leap. ... We can, then, with complete confidence, reject the third of our three hypotheses, the bonkers one. That leaves the other two, or some compromise between them, and here I find myself agnostic and eager for more data. As we shall see in the epilogue to this tale, it seems to be increasingly accepted that the early molecular clock estimates were exaggerating when they pushed the major branch points hundreds of millions of years back into the Precambrian. On the other hand, the mere fact that there are few, if any, fossils of most animal phyla before the Cambrian should not stampede us into assuming that those phyla must have evolved extremely rapidly. The hurricane in a junkyard argument tells us that all those Cambrian fossils must have had continuously evolving antecedents. Those antecedents had to be there, but they have not been discovered. Whatever the reason, and whatever the timescale, they failed to fossilise, but they must have been there. On the face of it, it is harder to believe that a whole lot of animals could be invisible for 100 million years than that they could be invisible for only 10 million years. This leads some people to prefer the short-fuse Cambrian Explosion theory. On the other hand, the shorter you make the fuse, the harder it is to believe all that diversification could be crammed into the time available. So this argument cuts both ways and doesn't decisively choose between our two surviving hypotheses. ... The most recently available evidence seems to me to favour, even if only slightly, a view closer to a medium-fuse explosion. This goes against my earlier bias in favour of no real explosion. When more evidence comes in, as I hope it will, I shall not be in the least surprised if we find ourselves pushed the other way again into the deep Precambrian in our quest for the concestors of modern animal phyla. Or we might be pulled back to an impressively short explosion, in which the concestors of most of the great animal phyla are compressed into a period of 20 or even 10 million years around the beginning of the Cambrian. ... I wouldn't be surprised to see either of the first two hypotheses vindicated. I'm not sticking my neck out. But I'll eat my hat if any evidence is ever found in favour of Hypothesis Three." (Dawkins R., "The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution," Houghton Mifflin Co: Boston MA, 2004, pp.440-442, 446-448)

As can be seen above from Darwin's own words, Darwin's theory is represented only by "hypotheses ... 1. NO REAL EXPLOSION," which Dawkins tries to pass off as just an "earlier bias in favour of no real explosion." It is quite clear that Dawkins is still hoping against "hope" that "we find ourselves pushed the other way again into the deep Precambrian in our quest for the concestors of modern animal phyla" but he knows that "The most recently available evidence" is on "favour ... [of] ... a medium-fuse explosion" (if not "3. OVERNIGHT EXPLOSION"!) in which case he should (and in fact he effectively has), as Darwin himself said, "rightly reject the whole theory" of Darwinian evolution by the natural selection of random micromuations.

But now Dawkins has the problem of "explain[ing] prodigies of apparent miracle" without the help of the `blind watchmaker':

"To 'tame' chance means to break down the very improbable into less improbable small components arranged in series. No matter how improbable it is that an X could have arisen from a Y in a single step, it is always possible to conceive of a series of infinitesimally graded intermediates between them. However improbable a large-scale change may be, smaller changes are less improbable. And provided we postulate a sufficiently large series of sufficiently finely graded intermediates, we shall be able to derive anything from anything else, without invoking astronomical improbabilities. We are allowed to do this only if there has been sufficient time to fit all the intermediates in. And also only if there is a mechanism for guiding each step in some particular direction, otherwise the sequence of steps will career off in an endless random walk. It is the contention of the Darwinian world-view that both these provisos are met, and that slow, gradual, cumulative natural selection is the ultimate explanation for our existence. If there are versions of the evolution theory that deny slow gradualism, and deny the central role of natural selection, they may be true in particular cases. But they cannot be the whole truth, for they deny the very heart of the evolution theory, which gives it the power to dissolve astronomical improbabilities and explain prodigies of apparent miracle." (Dawkins R., "The Blind Watchmaker," 1986, pp.317-318. My emphasis)

[Continued in last part #8]

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).
"Problems of Evolution"

No comments: