Razib and Me and Darwin Makes Three, and Some Insect Parts

What Are Murder Hornets? Asian Giant Hornet In Canada

Many years ago I was on an email list dealing with human biodiversity until dropped, I think, for apostasy. The members  were of academic distinction, including many with degrees in the sciences  from such schools as CalTech, Harvard, and Berkeley. They were interested in how humans are and how we got that way. As their chosen explanation, they espoused orthodox Darwinism. I had my doubts, as some of their theories sounded cockamamie.

I was surprised to find how furiously they reacted to questions regarding evolution. One was Razib Khan, a gifted geneticist, who was so incensed with what I thought were innocent doubts that he furiously forbade mention of my name by commenters at GNXP.com, his own website. This intrigued me. Given his intelligence and academic credentials I figured that, if he couldn’t answer questions, probably nobody could.

The anger of some went beyond the civil, odd since they were not uncivil people.  One Said that I “was trying to pull down science.” which I would have thought beyond my power. Apparently if one asked questions about a scientific theory, one wanted to pull down science. I was however flattered to think they believe me able to do this.

Razib described me as “arrogant,” (I had always wanted to be arrogant, but couldn’t find a convincing pretext). Again, I was taken aback. I was asking questions, which are admissions of ignorance. How was that arrogance.

But they never answered my questions. They still don’t. Is this how science works?

Why the anger  at Darwinian irreverence? I can only speculate. The sensitivity suggest uncertainty. Biology depends on evolution as its framework and substructure: without it, the field would become chaotic, a collection of unrelated observations. Large egos have been committed to the theory. Evolution in the broad sense, from Big Bang through Darwin, provides an overarching explanation of everything, a sort of religion manque, preventing some from waking at three in the morning and wondering, “Where the hell are we?”

Please note that I did not invent the following questions regarding evolutionary mechanisms, though I may have come up with the particular example. For at least a couple of decades serious skepticism has  arisen, sometimes from molecular biologists and their ilk and often from mathematicians, who are less emotionally attached to Darwin. Perhaps the first of well known skeptics was Dr. Michael Behe, professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University whose book, Darwin’s Black Box, was  the first exposition both technically impeccable and accessible to the average reader. I recommend it.

Here, an example of the kind of question which Darwinists shy away from. I beg forgiveness of regular readers, if I have one, having used it before because of its sharp-edged  comprehensibility. I hope this will make sense for those not familiar with the ideas, politics, and evasions shrouding Darwinism.

Briefly, the basic idea of evolution: Suppose that for some reasons seeds eaten by birds are replaced by plants having larger seeds. Darwin (more correctly, the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis) says that, those birds with slightly larger beaks will be better able to eat them and, being better able to survive, will produce more offspring, passing on their genes. Those of-their  young with yet slightly larger beaks will survive better than their parents. Eventually you end up with a breed with larger beaks. This, by Darwin, must proceed by small incremental steps, each being beneficial. This actually works with such cases.

However, there are many examples of biological features that depend for functioning on several parts, all of which must simultaneously be present for the feature to work and none of which would be of any use without the presence of the others. These cannot have evolved by incremental, beneficial steps. All would have to appear at once. This is usually called “irreducible complexity.” While people unfamiliar with evolutionary theory may find this a new idea, biologists certainly know of it. And they dodge questions.

For example, consider the sting of a hornet. To function it needs a biochemical mechanism to produce the venom, a sac to hold it, the stinger itself, muscles to express the venom into the stinger, muscles to force the stinger into the victim, muscles to retract the stinger if it is to be used more than once, and nerves to control both muscles. If any of these is missing, the entire system has no function.

Thus the stinging mechanism  cannot have evolved by gradual accretion of beneficial mutations. Biologist, understanding this well, will not admit it. Note that the example of the hornet  is a question of lucid clarity. Grasping it requires no knowledge of biochemistry or entomology. Asking how the sting could work without the stinger is as straightforward as asking how an automobile could work without the motor.

Some of the individual elements of the hornet pose questions of their own evolutionary provenance. The stinger, for example. It is long, slender, and hollow If it were not hollow, it would be useless (and where would the venom go?). Since no one knows what or how many mutations would be required to produce such an elegant object, or how each of these would be beneficial, the whole question is one of vague metaphysical faith. Which is true of a great deal of evolution.

The response of Darwinists to the example of the sting will be hauteur, outrage,  silence, or slipping away into discussion of something else. If you know one, ask him. Try to pin him down. Good luck.

(Perhaps worth mentioning: Darwinists sometimes insist that the sting evolved from the ovipositor, a long tube used by some insects to insert eggs in desired places. Since both stinger and ovipositor use tubes to put something somewhere, it is reasoned that the stinger evolved from the ovipositor. This is obvious nonsense. For a fly, say, with an ovipositor to evolve a stinging mechanism, it would have to evolve, with no selective pressures favoring it, a biochemical mechanism to produce the venom, probably requiring more mutation than are mathematically possible. This would be useless and probably dangerous without simultaneous evolution, without selective pressure, a sac to hold it. Then, for no reason, the insect would simultaneously evolve a way of connecting the venom sac to the ovipositor, at which point the bug could not lay eggs…. It is nonsense.)

Note that much of evolutionary faith involves assertions that unspecified numbers of unspecified genes assumed but not shown to exist, mediated by selective pressures assumed but instrumentally neither detectable nor measurable produce outcomes uncorrelatable with the pressures. When I was on the aforementioned email list, there was much of this. For example, highly intelligent, formidably educated people insisted that blue eyes evolved because, when visibly dilating, they exxpressed a woman’s sexual interest in a man and led to greater fecundity. No evidence, no research. Can anyone over twelve believe that dark-eyed women have the slightest difficulty in expressing sexual interest? Why are there so many of them?

Whether a thing evolved is a question of fact: it did, or it didn’t. if it cannot have evolved, how it came about is a matter not of logic but of speculation. Various avenues of thought are possible: seeding by space aliens, creation by any of at least several hundred gods, or (my preference) something we haven’t thought of and perhaps can’t. (Actually I am a secret adherent of the Cargo Cult,and believe that existence gestated in the hold of a C-130 cargo plane and was disgorged by the Great Pilot, blessed be he. This makes as much sense as most of evolutionary belief.)

Note that no logical link exists between irreducible complexity and religious faith. Many of the religious cleave to irreducible complexity because  they think  it establishes belief in God or gods. Strictly speaking, it does not. On the other hand, Darwinists use foolish religious antagonism to evolution to distract attention from their inability to explain irreducible complexity.  They are smoke-screening.

Two streams of evolutionism exist, the first scientific and  held by real scientists such as molecular biologists, and the second liberal arts evolution ism, more vaporous and metaphysical and sometimes held by actual dimwits.

In the liberal-arts variety, it is common to look at a feature, invent some barely plausible explanation, and casually accept it as fact, no matter how silly. For example, the Chinese have smaller and flatter noses than whites. I have seen it said that the flatness evolved to prevent frostbite. This may or may not sound plausible But is there any evidence that frostbitten noses reduce reproduction? How would such noses do it? By leading to gangrene and death? Nowhere, so far as I am aware, in Beowulf or the various Nordic Eddas is there mention of frozen probosces, much less consequent death or infertility.

My own theory, which I regard as established fact, is that in the windy north of Asia, large noses act as sails, causing a tendency to face downwind and thus become vulnerable to predators evolved to hunt from upwind.

While we are in China, we may as well look at another favored toy of pop-evolution, the epicanthic fold that makes many Asians “slant-eyed,” I have seen it said, solemnly and with  no apparent expectation of disagreement, both that it evolved to protect the eyes from frigid winds and that it conserves energy. Is there research to show that it does either of these things? Show me. Is it a single-nucleotide polymorphism? Show me the evidence. Did it require one mutation, or thirteen?

What beneficial effects did each of these have, sufficient to provide advantage in survival? Do we really believe, assuming that the fold appeared all at once, that it produced sufficient benefit to result in more offspring? If not, then evolutionarily it doesn’t exist, and amounts to hobbyist speculation.

The curious reader may find it interesting to ask not how but whether things evolved. For example, skunks have dedicated glands to produce and eject their noisome defensive material. How did this evolve by small beneficial steps? Did simple flatulence in some primordial skunk with hereditary intestinal problems save its life by revolting a predator of delicate sensibilities…..? Is this not silly? On and on.

But (politely) ask your scientist friend how the sting evolved. Be wary of a flow of mush (“In billions and billions of years, it stands to reason that….”) and changes of subject. See what you get.

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Comments 15

  • While I agree on the whole, I would point out that not all mutations HAVE to be beneficial, they just have to be not TOO detrimental. Otherwise, humans would be able to synthesize Vitamin C.

  • This book first published in 1994…..


    ….provides some useful insights on this matter – alongside other issues such as the “laws” of thermodynamics which the reductionist approach to science gets mangled up because it ignores context.

    As the wikipedia review implies the first half of the book can be heavy going because it assumes no scientific knowledge and therefore attempts a Janet and John approach to set the context before neatly switching to challenge some of the sacred cows of scientific reductionism with far more convincing examples and explanations.

    I tend to re-read it every three to fours or so just to keep me sane.

  • I always thought it was our higher order brains that enable and encourage us to ask why and how? Now I just want to ask why and how to piss off self important people who can’t answer. I don’t think that is higher order, but it is fun. Thanks for the ammo.

  • Bees and Hornet stingers are evolved ovipositors (the tube insects use to lay eggs). That explains why they are hollow, and why they have muscles to push the toxin through the stringer (muscles are need to push the egg through the tube). Note also, that only female bees and hornets can sting — only they have ovipositors. Now, you might wonder, where did the hornet’s venom come from? Interestingly, it is acetylcholine that causes the severe pain of a hornet sting. This is the same neurotransmitter that stimulates those muscles in the ovipositor. So, this complex mechanism actually has a very simple evolutionary path.

    • From whence came the DNA coding for all the various proteins that make up the ovipositor? What was the specific mutation that rearranged all the various components to change it from a reproductive organ to a defensive weapon?

    • I find it unsurprising, and amusing that someone with the username “ruralguy” can easily supply a coherent, logical explanation to a question. Whereas the dedicated academic will usually provide bluster, deflection, and insults. Quite amusing.

  • ‘Razib described me as “arrogant,””: Mr Pot meet Mr Kettle.

    I think you are probably wrong, Mr Reed, but I take a dim view at the doctrinaire way your doubts were dismissed.

    As a complete amateur, let me have a go. Consider: “biological features that depend for functioning on several parts, all of which must simultaneously be present for the feature to work and none of which would be of any use without the presence of the others. These cannot have evolved by incremental, beneficial steps.” The trouble with that is that it seems to me to include assumptions that may simply be wrong. In turn:

    “examples of biological features that depend for functioning on several parts”: that must be true (if only because it’s almost a tautology).

    “all of which must simultaneously be present for the feature to work”: suppose that’s true now. But was it always true throughout the evolution of those features? If you say “yes” I ask how you can possibly know that.

    “and none of which would be of any use without the presence of the others.” Same objection: now is not the only time of interest. In fact if you’re thinking about evolution now may not even be a particularly important time.

    “These cannot have evolved by incremental, beneficial steps.” Again, how do you know? You are effectively saying “My imagination cannot explain how these things might have evolved” but that’s as much a criticism of your imagination (or mine) as it is a criticism of Darwin.

    I can sympathise with your reservations about incremental steps but I suspect (I confess it’s years since I read the book) that Darwin’s point is that incremental steps will often have been enough – there’s often no need to assume dramatic discontinuities. I don’t myself see why there can’t also be dramatic discontinuities; I’m happy to assume that Darwin had simply realised that they might have been exceedingly rare.

    Not only will we typically have little or no idea of the course of evolution of many features but I suspect most of us (including me) have no intuitive grasp of just how long evolutionary time scales are.

  • The ovipositor story makes no sense. A bug with an ovipositor suddenly, under no selective pressure, evolves the biochemistry to make venon, and dies because the venom is loose in its body. So it needs simutaneously to evolve a sac to hold the vennom, which conveys no benefit unless it also evolves simultaneously a connection with the ovipositor, whereupon the insect becomes extinct because it cannot lay eggs, unless it siumltaneously evovles another way of laying eggs. Any slight grasp of the mathematics of multiple simultaneous mutations, or knowledge a mutation is, would reduce nonsense greatly.

    • The typical evolutionist argument. Something that has never been observed is repeatedly averred as fact. Over and over. The Emporer’s New Clothes.

  • They should not have gotten upset with you Fred. It’s just that you obviously have been a writer all your life and not an engineer. If you had been you would realize the answers to your questions. You’re approaching your questions with deterministic logic and math sort of approach. Once you have looked at the world from a stochastic math’s point of view long enough like I have ….one just understands your assumptions of how the world works are mostly wrong – about nature.

  • My thoughts on the wasp.
    Suppose the wasp had a fixed stinger, used for eliminating other wasps from a different nest.
    The wasps own flight provided the momentum for this by pitching its tail forward.
    Then evolved with glands producing venom which tricked down the side of the stinger but never entering the bloodstream of the wasp.
    Then sacs formed to contain the venom which contracted when attacking prey and injected it in an inefficient (yet effective enough) manner.
    Then evolved with a tube down the center as a channel for the venom.

  • We will only be able to settle this argument when our detailed knowledge of biology and our computational power have evolved far enough to allow us to propose a plausible evolutionary path for complex organs which seem — to our present level of understanding — to involve ‘irreducible complexity’ — or to safely assert that no such pathway exists.

    At the moment the strongest argument in favor of evolution — unless you believe in the Invisible Man in the Sky — is that no other rational explanation exists.

    Of course, this assumes that our social evolution, as a species, keeps up with our technical evolution. At present, there seems to be good reason to doubt that it has, as we appear to stumble toward the extinguishing of civilization, like an extinct line of wasps whose ovipositor/stings turned inward.

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