April 12, 2005

IS IT SELF-PARODY OR JUST LACK OF SELF-AWARENESS? (via The Other Brother):

Life's top 10 greatest inventions (NewScientist.com, 09 April 2005)

invention, innovation

a creation (a new device or process) resulting from study and experimentation


Posted by at April 12, 2005 2:51 PM

  

That guy Life shure was smart. But then it's nothing compared to the trick he pulled by inventing himself.

Posted by: Luciferous at April 12, 2005 2:59 PM

The cover of the mag describes the list as "Evolution's Greatest Inventions".

Posted by: John J. Coupal at April 12, 2005 3:08 PM

Hey, New Scientist believes in Intelligent Design!

Posted by: David Rothman at April 12, 2005 3:18 PM

Too much grant money and too much time on their hands. It's sad to see such intellegence wasted on such idiotic pursuits.

Posted by: Dave W. at April 12, 2005 3:22 PM

The use of words in the headline ain't perfectly elegant (though one could easily argue that natural selection is a process of experimentation by trial and error) but the article itself is interesting.

It's pretty typical that because you can't attack the substance of the article, you have to nibble at something like this. Enjoy.

Posted by: creeper at April 12, 2005 3:38 PM

creeper:

The latter?

Posted by: oj at April 12, 2005 4:21 PM

Orrin,

The latter.

Posted by: creeper at April 12, 2005 4:40 PM

I sure do agree with that Anna Gosline that superorgasms are Life's greatest invention.

creeper:

"...though one could easily argue that natural selection is a process of experimentation by trial and error."

Indeed. One could. Easily. Very easily.

Posted by: Peter B at April 12, 2005 5:20 PM

"Indeed. One could. Easily. Very easily."

I'm not sure if that's intended to connote sarcasm or just confirming how obvious this is.

Posted by: creeper at April 12, 2005 5:51 PM

Oh, I'd go with your first thought. Can you tell us how a natural, non-directed, non-teleological, purposeless process suddenly got the wherewithall to start experimenting?

Posted by: Peter B at April 12, 2005 6:23 PM

The process doesn't 'start experimenting' nor does it experiment in a conscious way, but when you have a few elements in place, such as:

- a recursive process, as in organisms reproducing, forming one generation after another,
- there being variability of traits among offspring,
- and offspring inheriting traits from their progenitors -

- that amounts to a process of trial and error, repeated gazillions of times under all kinds of circumstances. It is similar to an experiment, but without the forethought and expected outcomes implied by the word 'experiment'.

In nature we have something similar to experiments, but as it happens, no conscious intelligence is required to weed out the results of each recursion in nature. Simple survival is the criterion already in place.

Posted by: creeper at April 12, 2005 6:58 PM

"when you have a few elements in place"

The latter.

Posted by: oj at April 12, 2005 7:30 PM

No, it's not like an experiment at all. It is a lot of different things happening. Some favour survival, some do not and most are neutral. That pretty much covers all possibilities, no?
Does your recursive system develop so as to increase the recipe for survival mutations in a measurable way? If it were like trial and error, we'd discern some improvement in survival efficiency over time, wouldn't we? We'd see progressively more pro-survival mutations and fewer destructive and neutral ones, no? But, according to Mayr, man isn't even evolving anymore and hasn't for a few hundred thousand years. Can you tell us why modern man and elephants are genetically more likely to survive than the Neanderthals and dinosaurs?

Nothing is controlled, nothing remains constant and you can't identify what the variables are or how they interact or state that any organism's chances of survival have improved over time. So where is the trial and error? Are you sure you shouldn't look for another metaphor?

Posted by: Peter B at April 12, 2005 7:39 PM

Why wasn't the human thumb among the top 10?

Posted by: Dave W. at April 12, 2005 9:45 PM

"Some favour survival, some do not and most are neutral. That pretty much covers all possibilities, no?"

That's right, with the ones favoring survival being more likely to propagate. This becomes a more effective factor in small populations and when the organisms are under pressure to survive.

"Does your recursive system develop so as to increase the recipe for survival mutations in a measurable way?"

Not as far as I know. From any given position, there is a small range of possible change, and that range is random and not in some way predisposed to changes already optimized for survival; there is no ulterior 'learning process', if that's what you're getting at, that allows the process to become more efficient at only opting for mutations that favor survival; it's only sorted out in hindsight, according to what worked best.

"But, according to Mayr, man isn't even evolving anymore and hasn't for a few hundred thousand years."

Evolution moves very slowly or not at all both in large populations and when there is little or no survival pressure. Which pretty much describes modern man from a certain point in time.

"Can you tell us why modern man and elephants are genetically more likely to survive than the Neanderthals and dinosaurs?"

Each organism's survival chances have to be viewed in the context of the environment at any given time, including all the other creatures it is competing against. Is an elephant today more likely to survive than a Tyrannosaurus Rex in his time? Speculation has it that dinosaurs were done in by a natural disaster, yet before that happened, dinosaurs ruled the Earth. They were pretty well suited to survival in their environment - but then the environment changed.

For argument's sake, let's say we have a string of nuclear disasters, causing man's extinction but allowing only cockroaches to survive. Would you then say that cockroaches are genetically superior to human beings? It all depends on the environmental factors (including competing organisms) at any given time.

(There was a previous post on here regarding the speculation that Neanderthals became extinct as a result of modern man's superior organization as a community, allowing him to specialize and trade. Homo sapiens was more intelligent, improving his odds when competing with others for survival.)

"Nothing is controlled, nothing remains constant and you can't identify what the variables are or how they interact or state that any organism's chances of survival have improved over time. So where is the trial and error? Are you sure you shouldn't look for another metaphor?"

Like I said above: "It is similar to an experiment, but without the forethought and expected outcomes implied by the word 'experiment'." Not a perfect fit, but I specified the differences. It's mostly the 'trial and error' that I see as describing natural selection very well, not so the 'experimentation' part. If you would like, I'll amend my statement from "(though one could easily argue that natural selection is a process of experimentation by trial and error)" to "(though one could easily argue that natural selection is a process of trial and error)".

Posted by: creeper at April 13, 2005 2:07 AM

"Why wasn't the human thumb among the top 10?"

Perhaps the list should have gone to 11.

Posted by: creeper at April 13, 2005 2:08 AM
"when you have a few elements in place"

The latter.

The latter?

Posted by: creeper at April 13, 2005 2:09 AM

creeper:

process (n)-A series of actions, changes, or functions bringing about a result: the process of digestion; the process of obtaining a driver's license.

One objection we simply can't get you or your evolutionary teammates to address squarely is your insistence that evolutionary theory is comprehensive and self-contained, and is composed both of what it "wants" or is trying to do and it's opposite--i.e. its failure to do it. We understand natural selection, but when you then introduce notions of randomness and neutral and destructive mutations to explain things like extinction, stasis and punctuated equilibrium, you are just playing logical games and hiding behind Greek-rooted abstracts to make the evidentiary gaps and inconsistencies in the theory all part of the theory. The "process" of building a car does not include diversions to build a barbeque instead or slack off in a tavern. To use the dictionary illustration above, the "process" of digestion does not include the failure to digest the indigestible.

You are like one who advances an economic theory that says all man's actions are motivated by economic self-interest except when they are not, and then argues defiantly that both when they are and are not are equally part of your economic theory. Or a psychologist who says man's actions can all be explained by subconscious factors except when he is guided by whimsy or the Holy Spirit, and all those factors are part of his comprehensive psychological theory. It won't work, because in the end all you are doing is trying to construct a grand abstract edifice into which you can place everything that ever happened, including things that are apparently contrary to the main thrust of the theory.

It can't be analagous to trial and error, because there can't be any error, which by definition means an undesirable result. If you focus on survival as "success" and extinction as "error", you have to state why survival is any more desirable than extinction, which you can't do, and also explain how survivability will increase over time, otherwise it isn't a process, which you will see from the definition above implies "bringing about a result". Just "stuff happens."

Posted by: Peter B at April 13, 2005 6:42 AM

creeper:

Perhaps the list should have gone to 11.

Good one!

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 7:20 AM

Peter:

Hello.

A strange objection that, if you'll forgive me. A sort of general rant against the fact that evolution is complicated.

It would be nice if we could wrap everything up in a neat little package. It's not like that. Adding, for example, genetic drift to natural selection as explanations for evolution was not 'cheating.' It was progress. It was(hopefully) part of our gradual inching towards understanding. Happens in all science.

Darwinism/Modern synthesis/evolutionary science will accomodate any observed processes. It is not tied to only natural selection, or only genetic drift. It is only tied to accepting what it observes.

It is, however, bound by this notion, which is common to all science, and which sets it apart from superstition or religion: it is founded on the assumption that the causes of its subject (evolution) are natural, not supernatural.

Posted by: Brit at April 13, 2005 8:38 AM

It was an admission that the theory had failed. Drift denies the process.

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 8:49 AM

Brit:

Welcome back. Yes, I know, any criticism of Darwinism is by definition either: a) a rant; or b)based on a misunderstanding of the theory. Saves time in responding, I suppose, but I truly am grateful you didn't go on to suggest books I should read to set me straight. :-)

Darwinism/Modern synthesis/evolutionary science will accomodate any observed processes

You mean it's sort of like a theory of baseball that will explain the outcome of every game? Or a medical theory that explains the health of everyone in the world? You guys really are so clever.

Posted by: Peter B at April 13, 2005 9:17 AM

No, I'm not clever. I've just read some books.

Not all objections to evolutionary science are rants or based on misunderstandings, but most of yours seem to be.

You still think of evolutionary science as something like "the theory of the four humours", when in fact it is something like "medicine".

Posted by: Brit at April 13, 2005 9:42 AM

Cupping.

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 9:47 AM

Peter,

"We understand natural selection, but when you then introduce notions of randomness and neutral and destructive mutations to explain things like extinction, stasis and punctuated equilibrium, you are just playing logical games and hiding behind Greek-rooted abstracts to make the evidentiary gaps and inconsistencies in the theory all part of the theory."

It's hardly my fault that what happened on this planet over the course of hundreds of millions of years can not be summed up neatly in a page or two. Yes, it's complicated, and no, it didn't all proceed with perfect uniformity. Many factors were and are at play.

"The "process" of building a car does not include diversions to build a barbeque instead or slack off in a tavern."

When one sets out to build a car, one has an end result in mind. In nature, all that matters is what works right now. If that turns out to be the equivalent of a barbecue instead of the equivalent of a car, who are we to say that the process was supposed to result in the equivalent of the car? If the barbecue is more suitable, then the barbecue it is.

"You are like one who advances an economic theory that says all man's actions are motivated by economic self-interest except when they are not, and then argues defiantly that both when they are and are not are equally part of your economic theory."

No, because I do not say that natural selection accounts for everything, or that nothing else can ever be a factor; it's the Darwin fetishists around here who would like their perceived opponents to hold such simplistic views, so that they can pretend to win arguments on such a basis. It is, however, no more than a strawman argument; not that that hasn't been pointed out before.

"It can't be analagous to trial and error, because there can't be any error, which by definition means an undesirable result."

The theory of natural selection is trial and error: variability of traits, some more desirable than others. The less desirable traits, ie. those less suited to survival ('errors') are not propagated.

"If you focus on survival as "success" and extinction as "error", you have to state why survival is any more desirable than extinction, which you can't do"

What is alive today is that which has evolved and survived to this point. You can interpret continued existence as desirable or not, but it's not particularly relevant to impose such a judgement.

Yes, a lot of evolution is stuff happening, with organisms sometimes under pressure to evolve in order to survive and sometimes not, bringing about results, those results being us and everything we see around us today.

Perhaps you read something more into "bringing about a result" than the plain meaning of those words - something like "desired result", "planned result", "preordained result", or "expected result".

"and also explain how survivability will increase over time, otherwise it isn't a process"

Does survivability increase over time? After all, organisms compete with other organisms, who also evolve.

Hey, Brit, welcome back.

Posted by: creeper at April 13, 2005 11:31 AM

"Drift denies the process."

Which process and how so?

Posted by: creeper at April 13, 2005 11:32 AM
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