Tag Archives: Evolution

Neil Shenvi lectures on the relationship between science and religion

Another great 42-minute lecture by Dr. Neil Shenvi.

Speaker bio:

As it says on the main page, my name is Neil Shenvi; I am currently a research scientist with Prof. Weitao Yang at Duke University in the Department of Chemistry. I was born in Santa Cruz, California, but grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. I attended Princeton University as an undergraduate where I worked on high-dimensional function approximation with Professor Herschel Rabitz. I became a Christian in Berkeley, CA where I did my PhD in Theoretical Chemistry at UC – Berkeley with Professor Birgitta Whaley. The subject of my PhD dissertation was quantum computation, including topics in quantum random walks, cavity quantum electrodynamics, spin physics, and the N-representability problem. From 2005-2010, I worked as a postdoctoral associate with Prof. John Tully at Yale where I did research into nonadiabatic dynamics, electron transfer, and surface science.

Outline slide: (Download the Powerpoint slides here)

Lecture:

Summary:

  • Science is often considered to be in opposition to religion, because it answers all the questions that religion asks
  • Thesis: 1) Science and religion are compatible, 2) Science provides us with good reasons to believe that God exists
  • Definition: what is science?
  • Definition: what is the scientific method?
  • Definition: what is religion?
  • Where is the conflict between science and religion, according to atheists?
  • Conflict 1: Definitional – faith is belief without evidence
  • But the Bible doesn’t define faith as “belief without evidence”
  • Conflict 2: Metaphysical – science presuppose naturalism (nature is all that exists)
  • First, naturalism is a philosophical assumption, not something that is scientifically tested or proved
  • Second, methodological naturalism in science doesn’t require us to believe in metaphysical naturalism
  • Conflict 3: Epistemological – science is the only way to know truth (scientism)
  • But scientism cannot itself be discovered by science – the statement is self-refuting
  • Conflict 4: Evolutionary – evolution explains the origin of life, so no need for God
  • Theists accept that organisms change over time, and that there is limited common descent
  • But the conflict is really over the mechanism that supposedly drives evolutionary change
  • There are philosophical and evidential reasons to doubt the effectiveness of mutation and selection
  • Evidence for God 1: the applicability of mathematics to the natural world, and our ability to study the natural world
  • Evidence for God 2: the origin of the universe
  • Evidence for God 3: the fine-tuning of the initial constants and quantities
  • Evidence for God 4: the implications of quantum mechanics
  • Evidence for God 5: the grounding of the philosophical foundations of the scientific enterprise
  • Hiddenness of God: why isn’t the evidence of God from science more abundant and more clear?
  • Science is not the only means for getting at truth
  • Science is not the best way to reach all the different kinds of people
  • There is an even deeper problem that causes people to not accept Christianity than lack of evidence
  • The deeper problem is the emotional problem: we want to reject God’s claim on our lives

He concludes with an explanation of the gospel, which is kinda cool, coming from an academic scientist.

I am a big admirer of Dr. Neil Shenvi. I wish we could clone him and have dozens, or even hundreds, like him (with different scientific specializations, of course!). I hope you guys are doing everything you can to lead and support our young people, and encouraging them to set their sights high and aim for the stars.

UPDATE: Dr. Shenvi has posted a text version of the lecture.

Related posts

Biomimetics again: scientists reverse engineer the design of snake scales

Apologetics and the progress of science
Apologetics and the progress of science

Today, I have an example of biomimetics.

But first, here’s what that is:

Biomimetic refers to human-made processes, substances, devices, or systems that imitate nature. The art and science of designing and building biomimetic apparatus is called biomimetics, and is of special interest to researchers in nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), the medical industry, and the military.

This is from Science Daily. (H/T Fuz Rana)

It says:

A snake moves without legs by the scales on its belly gripping the ground. It generates friction at the points needed to move forwards only and prevents its scales from being worn off by too much friction. Researchers of KIT have found a way to transfer this feature to components of movable systems. In this way, durability of hip prostheses, computer hard disks or smartphones might be enhanced.

“Friction and wear are two of the biggest challenges in systems of several individual components,” Christian Greiner of the Institute for Applied Materials says. A solution is found in nature: Snakes, such as the ball python, or lizards, such as the sandfish skink, use friction to move forwards, but can reduce it to a minimum thanks to their scales. Together with Michael Schäfer, Greiner developed a process to transfer the scale structure of reptiles to components of electromechanical systems: With a fiber laser, they milled scales into a steel bolt of 8 mm in diameter.

With the help of two different structures, the materials researchers tested whether the distance of the scales influences friction behavior. In the first structure, the scales overlap and are located very closely to each other, such as the scales on the belly of a ball python. The second structure consists of scales arranged in vertical rows at a larger distance, such as the skin of a sandfish skink. “The distance between the rows in our experiment was the smallest possible distance we could produce with the laser. The structure, hence, does not entirely correspond to that of the sandfish skink,” Greiner says. In the future, however, the researchers plan to produce structures that are closer to the original in nature.

[…]To find out whether scales reduce friction, Greiner and Schäfer fixed the structured surface of the bolts to a rotating plate. The experiments were carried out without and with a lubricant (1 ml of mineral oil). For the experiments with oil as lubricant, the scientists used steel disks. Under dry sliding conditions, sapphire disks were applied. The disk diameter was 50 mm.

Experiments under lubricated conditions revealed that both narrow and wide arrangements of the scales increase friction compared to the unstructured bolt: By the wide scales, friction is increased by a factor of 1.6. The narrow scales increase friction by a factor of 3. In the non-lubricated state, the wide scale structure reduced friction by more than 40 percent, while friction was reduced by 22 percent in case of a narrow scale structure.

The finding that the narrow scale structure increases friction under both lubricated and non-lubricated conditions had not been expected by the researchers: “We assumed that the narrow structure is more effective, as it is closer to nature,” Greiner says.

See the related posts for more examples of humans learning from the engineering designs in nature.

Related posts

Can evolution, empathy and well-being account for the existence of moral facts?

J. Warner Wallace: God's Crime Scene
J. Warner Wallace: God’s Crime Scene

J. Warner Wallace is publishing blog posts related to the material covered in his newest book. This latest post is related to that big discussion we had last week about whether atheists can ground objective moral values and objective moral duties.

He writes:

How are we to account for the existence of objective, transcendent moral truths? Some philosophers, like Sam Harris, believe “moral values are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.” Well-being (also described as human “flourishing”) is, according to Harris, the purpose of our existence as human beings. Since human biology transcends human culture, moral truths (if they are rooted in human biology), would also transcend culture. As a result, we can account for the existence of objective, transcendent moral truths without having to ground them in a transcendent moral truth-giver (like God). Harris believes these kinds of truths are simply grounded in the well-being of our entire species, and according to Harris, can be ascertained and apprehended by simply studying the science of human flourishing. Harris argues “that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible. There are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind.” But this attempt to ground objective, transcendent moral truths in human biological flourishing is misguided for several reasons…

Here’s one of the reasons:

This View Assumes a Moral Definition of “Well-Being”
What is Harris’ definition of “well-being” in the first place? Is it merely survival, or is it a particular kind of survival? Even philosophers who hold this view readily admit some behaviors (like subjugating slaves and stealing the resources of opposing groups) can actually aid in the survival of a people group. But these same thinkers simultaneously believe these kinds of behaviors are detrimental to the group’s well-being. This implies, however, there’s a right way to survive and a wrong way. Did you spot the logical inconsistency here? Those who believe the pursuit of human well-being is the origin of moral truth, begin with a definition of well-being already infused with moral truth. Who gets to determine the right or wrong way to survive or flourish? This approach to moral truth argues for something more than mere biological survival of the fittest. It argues for a kind of moral survival (described as “well-being”) before it has adequately explained the source for moral truth.

The minute you are talking about well-being, you have smuggled in a concept of what counts as good, and what counts as evil.

And here’s another reason:

This View Fails to Determine Whose Well-Being Is Most Important
Why would any of us consider the well-being of strangers prior to the well-being of our own families and communities? If history is any indicator, humans are far more inclined to care for themselvesthan for others, even when the activities of their own group may ultimately harm the survivability of the entire species. Who gets to define “flourishing” when cultures and individuals disagree about notions of happiness, compassion, contentedness, or physical and psychological health? When competing interests collide, whose definitions (and whose well-being) warrants our consideration? As philosopher Patricia Churchland observes, “no one has the slightest idea how to compare the mild headache of five million against the broken legs of two, or the needs of one’s own two children against the needs of a hundred unrelated brain-damaged children in Serbia.”

Even if we are only interested in the well-being of an isolated group, should we be more concerned about total well-being or average well-being of the group? Those concerned with total well-being prefer a world in which the most people possible are able to live with at least moderate well-being. Those concerned with average well-being prefer a world in which smaller groups maximize their well-being, even if others suffer, so the average for the species is elevated. If we derive moral value from an action’s impact on the well-being of the entire species, why should I, as a law enforcement officer, care at all about murdered gang members such as Jesse’s victim? Shouldn’t I be more focused on the fate of those better educated, wealthier or more intelligent contributors to our society than those who are actually preying on our society? Aren’t those in the first group more likely to contribute to the well-being of our species than those in the second? Assessing an action’s moral value on the basis of its ultimate consequence is nearly impossible to accomplish and leads to disturbing discrimination.

In fact, the “well-being” view pushed by Sam Harris and others is really just utilitarianism, and I posted something about the many problems with that view previously.

Why does objective morality matter? Well consider a previous post where I looked at a debate between Matt Dillahunty and David Robertson. Robertson asked Dillahunty whether it was an objective fact that Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp, was morally evil. Dillahunty’s reply? “I don’t know”. And that is consistent with his atheistic view. The answer to EVERY question about moral facts for an atheist is “I don’t know”. They have to not know. If they did know, then God would have to exist to ground that moral fact, because it would exist independent of personal preferences and cultural customs.They have to say I don’t know, or give up their atheism. And that’s why moral facts are nowhere grounded in an atheistic worldview. They use the words, but the words refer to nothing that exists independent of personal preferences and cultural conventions – which vary over time and place.  If you agree with Dillahunty’s ignorance about whether concentration camps are moral evils as a matter of fact, then you can be an atheist.

God’s Crime Scene

Some really good blog posts are coming out on Cold Case Christianity blog related to this new book. Just judging from the table of contents and the podcast he did on it, it looks like it covers 8 of the good, substantial arguments for God’s existence. I always like the science arguments more than the history arguments, and history arguments more than the philosophical arguments, because I’m an engineer. Really looking forward to a quiet weekend with this new book. I got the audio edition in addition to the book itself.

Michael Behe and Keith Fox debate theistic evolution vs intelligent design

Two Rams butting heads: may the best ram win!
Two Rams butting heads: may the best ram win!

Michael Behe and Keith Fox debate evolution and intelligent design. (See below for link to video)

Details:

Michael Behe is professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania and the founder of the modern Intelligent Design movement. His book “Darwin’s Black Box” ignited the controversy 14 years ago when it claimed that certain molecular machines and biological processes are “irreducibly complex” and cannot be explained by Darwinian evolution.

Keith Fox is Professor of biochemistry at the University of Southampton and chairman of Christians in Science. As a theistic evolutionist he believes that Evolution is the best explanation going for the complexity we see and that ID is a blind scientific alley and theologically unappealing to boot.

They debate whether micromachines in the cell such as the “bacterial flagellum” could have evolved by a Darwinian process of evolution. When inference to design is and isn’t acceptable in science. Whether random mutation can mathematically stack up to complex life, and whether God is reduced to a divine “tinkerer” by ID.

Here’s the debate:

Summary

Note: the following debate summary is rated “S” for Snarky. Reader discretion is advised.

Michael Behe:

  • ID is not Biblical creationism
  • ID is not religion
  • ID is a scientific research program
  • People refuse to discuss ID because of personal philosophical assumptions
  • ID is like the Big Bang – it is based on evidence, but it has broad religious implications

Keith Fox:

  • ID is not Biblical creationism, but it isn’t science

Michael Behe:

  • ID is compatible with common descent
  • ID is only opposed to unplanned, unguided evolution (Darwinism)
  • ID is not necessarily opposed to long periods of time

Behe’s first book – the bacterial flagellum

Keith Fox:

  • Here are a couple of papers that show how parts of the flagellum evolved
  • They are possible pathways

Michael Behe

  • No, those are studies that show that there are similarities between bacterial flagella in multiple organisms
  • Similarities of proteins between different organisms do not necessarily imply a developmental pathway
  • The problem of having the instructions to BUILD the flagellum still remains

Keith Fox:

  • Maybe parts of the flagellum had other functions before they were used in the flagellum
  • Maybe you can use the parts of the flagellum for other purposes
  • Maybe, one can imagine, it’s possible that!

Michael Behe:

  • No, parts have to be modified and re-purposed in order to be used for other functions

Keith Fox:

  • But maybe the proteins can be used in other systems for other things
  • I re-purpose parts from of designed things to other purposes in my house when I do maintenance

Michael Behe

  • Uh, yeah – but aren’t you an intelligent designer? What does your home maintenance have to do with Darwinian evolution?

Is ID another God-of-the-gaps argument?

Michael Behe:

  • Well consider the Big Bang… there was a build-up of scientific evidence for that theory
  • Just because a theory has religious implications, doesn’t mean that it isn’t true
  • You really have to look at the specific evidence for a theory, and not decide in advance

Keith Fox: (I’m paraphrasing/inventing/mocking from now on)

  • But the Big Bang is based on discoveries, and intelligent design is based on gaps in our scientific knowledge
  • What if I did have evidence of a step by step pathway (which I don’t right now)? Then I would win the argument – what would you do then?

Michael Behe:

  • Well, if tomorrow you do manage to find expiremental evidence of a pathway, which you don’t have today, then I would be wrong
  • ID is falsifiable by experimental evidence
  • But what about your your view? Is that falsifiable by experimental evidence?
  • What if someone goes into a lab (someone like Scott Minnich?) and performs gene knockout experiments, and publishes the results
  • You knock out a gene from the bacterial flagellum, you wait for a large number of generations, and it never develops the missing gene
  • You repeat this with every one of the 50 genes in the bacterial flagellum and it never recovers for any of the 50 genes
  • There is no pathway to build up even one of the 50 genes – according to actual experiments
  • What do Darwinists do with experimental evidence that falsifies Darwinism?

Keith Fox:

  • No, I would not accept that experimental evidence could falsify Darwinism
  • Just because known published experimental evidence that we have today falsifies Darwinism, it doesn’t mean Darwinism is false because it’s not falsifiable
  • We don’t know how Darwinism even works – it happened so long ago, and it’s not repeatable or testable, so how could lab ,experiments falsify it?
  • Darwinism is science and intelligent design is faith, though

Which side has the experimental evidence?

Michael Behe:

  • Consider the largest longest-running lab experiment of evolution, Richard Lenski’s experiments on e. coli
  • Lenski has presided over 50,000 generations, (millions of years of evolution)
  • The bacterium did evolve and they did get better but not by evolving features, but by disabling features

Keith Fox:

  • But those are just LAB EXPERIMENTS! What do lab experiments prove?
  • What if? What if? What if? You don’t know, it happened so long ago, and you weren’t there! You weren’t there!
  • (clutches Flying Spaghetti Monster idol tighter and sobs pitifully)

Michael Behe:

  • See, the thing is that I have actual experiements, and here’s some more evidence that just got published last week
  • So I’ve got evidence and then some more evidence and them some other evidence – experimental evidence
  • And all the evidence shows that adaptation is done losing traits not by gaining traits
  • And the published observations are what we see in nature as well

Keith Fox:

  • But doesn’t Darwinism explain some things that we observe?

Michael Behe:

  • Well, I am not saying that micro-evolution doesn’t explain some things – it explains bacterial resistance, and other micro-evolution
  • it just doesn’t explain macro-evolution, and that’s what the experiments show

Keith Fox:

  • But ID is a science stopper! It stops science! You can’t produce experimental evidence to falsify Darwinism – that would stop science!

Michael Behe:

  • Well, you have to understand that the Big Bang postulated a non-material cause to the entire physical universe and yet the experimental evidence was allowed to stand because it was testable and verifiable evidence, even if the theory does have religious implications
  • All explanations in science are design to settle a question and it stops rival explanations that are not as good at explaining the observations
  • Finding the best explanation stops further study because it is better than rival explanations

Keith Fox:

  • Well you have to come up with a materialist explanation because that’s the only kind that a functional atheist like me will allow

Michael Behe:

  • Well, what if the best explanation for an observed effect in nature is non-material, as with the Big Bang?

Keith Fox:

  • But I have to have a material explanation because I am a functional atheist! (i.e. – a theistic evolutionist = functional atheist)

Michael Behe:

  • Well what about the cosmic fine-tuning argument? Do you accept that?
  • That’s an inference to design based on the latest scientific discoveries

Keith Fox:

  • Well I do accept that argument, but I don’t accept design in biology
  • When you apply it to biology, somehow it’s bad and you can’t do that or you losing research money and get fired
  • Anyway, your argument is based on a gap in our current knowledge

Michael Behe:

  • No, back in Darwin’s time we had a gap in our knowledge – we didn’t know what the cell was – we thought it was jello
  • Now, we know what the cell is really like, it’s irreducibly complex, and you can’t build up those molecular machines in a step-wise manner
  • The inference to design is based on the progress of science revealing the increasing levels of complexity
  • In experiments, Darwinian mechanisms cannot build anything useful, instead genes are disabled or dropped
  • You guys don’t have the evidence to prove your view that naturalistic mechanisms can do the creating
  • You keep issuing promissory notes

Keith Fox:

  • Well, you’re just seeing design subjectively, because you are a non-scientist
  • I’m being objective when I tell you that we will discover a materialist explanation later on – really really soon now, maybe even tomorrow, yeah
  • You won’t accept my speculations and you insist on these published experiments
  • You’re subjective and I’m objective
  • Just give me more research money so I can hide the decline better

Michael Behe:

  • Uh, you’re the one who is subjective – I cited evidence, and you are the one who is speculating
  • You have arguments from credulity, and I’ve got the lab experiments
  • You refuse to be skeptical, I am the one who is being skeptical

Keith Fox:

  • Maybe, maybe, maybe! Maybe tomorrow! Maybe in a parallel universe! Maybe aliens from Planet 9 from Outer Space!
  • Who knows! I certainly don’t know! And that somehow means you don’t know either! See?

Michael Behe:

  • Well, to prove me wrong, go into the lab, and run experiments and evolve some new genes (using Darwinian mechanisms) that have new useful functionality

Are there limits to what evolution can do?

Michael Behe:

  • You need multiple changes in the genome to get a new helpful feature (let’s say two specific mutations)
  • One specific change is possible
  • the odds are against getting multiple beneficial changes are really really small – you need two SPECIFIC changes to occur in order

Keith Fox:

  • Well, lots of things are really unlikely – any permutation of dice rolls is as unlikely as any other

Michael Behe:

  • Well, we are talking about TWO SPECIFIC mutations that are needed to get a beneficial function – lots of other mutations are possible, but we are looking for a specific outcome that requires two SPECIFIC mutations out of the whole genome
  • You aren’t going to get useful outcomes unless you direct the mutations

Keith Fox:

  • But then why does God allow evil!!!!1!1!!one!!!

New study: natural selection can act to impede speciation

Australian Walking Stick
Australian Walking Stick

My friend KL sent me this press release from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

It says:

An intriguing study involving walking stick insects led by the University of Sheffield in England and the University of Colorado Boulder shows how natural selection, the engine of evolution, can also impede the formation of new species.

The team studied a plant-eating stick insect species from California called Timema cristinae known for its cryptic camouflage that allows it to hide from hungry birds, said CU-Boulder Assistant Professor Samuel Flaxman. T. cristinae comes in several different types — one is green and blends in with the broad green leaves of a particular shrub species, while a second green variant sports a white, vertical stripe that helps disguise it on a different species of shrub with narrow, needle-like leaves.

While Darwinian natural selection has begun pushing the two green forms of walking sticks down separate paths that could lead to the formation of two new species, the team found that a third melanistic, or brown variation of T. cristinae appears to be thwarting the process, said Flaxman. The brown version is known to successfully camouflage itself among the stems of both shrub species inhabited by its green brethren, he said.

Using field investigations, laboratory genetics, modern genome sequencing and computer simulations, the team concluded the brown version of T. cristinae is shuttling enough genes between the green stick insects living on different shrubs to prevent strong divergent adaptation and speciation. The brown variant of the walking stick species also is favored by natural selection because it has a slight advantage in mate selection and a stronger resistance to fungal infections than its green counterparts.

“This is one of the best demonstrations we know of regarding the counteractive effects of natural selection on speciation,” said Flaxman of CU-Boulder’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, second author on the new study. “We show how the brown population essentially carries genes back and forth between the green populations, acting as a genetic bridge that causes a slowdown in divergence.”

A paper on the subject appeared in a recent issue of the journal Current Biology. 

[…]“This movement of genes between environments slows down the genetic divergence of these stick insect populations, impeding the formation of new species,” said Aaron Comeault, a former CU-Boulder graduate student and lead study author who conducted the research while at the University of Sheffield.

So, in the past I had read that natural selection can act as a stabilizing force in nature – keeping the organism operating within a type. This study seems to be confirmation of that. But there are other problems with generating macro-evolutionary change.

Also related to the problem raised by the study is this problem of genetic drift, which also works against the preservation of beneficial mutations.

Evolution News explains the genetic drift problem:

Evolutionary biologists often assume that once mutations produce a functionally advantageous trait, it will easily spread (become “fixed”) throughout a population by natural selection. For example, imagine a population of brown-haired foxes that lives in a snowy region. One fox is born with a mutation that turns its fur coat white, rather than brown. This fox now has an advantage in hunting prey and escaping predators, because its white fur provides it with camouflage. The white fox survives, passing its genes on to its offspring, which are also adept at surviving and reproducing. Over time, the white-haired trait spreads throughout the population.

This is how it’s supposed to work — in theory. In the real world, however, merely generating a functionally advantageous trait does not guarantee it will persist, or become fixed. For example, what if by chance the white fox trips, breaks a leg, and gets eaten by a predator — never passing on its genes? Random forces or events can prevent a trait from spreading through a population, even if it provides an advantage. These random forces are lumped together under the name “genetic drift.” When biologists run the mathematics of natural selection, they find that unless a trait gives an extremely strong selective advantage, genetic drift will tend to overwhelm the force of selection and prevent adaptations from gaining a foothold in a population.

This underappreciated problem has been recognized by some evolutionary scientists who are skeptical of the ability of natural selection to drive the evolutionary process. One of those scientists is Michael Lynch, an evolutionary biologist at Indiana University, who writes that “random genetic drift can impose a strong barrier to the advancement of molecular refinements by adaptive processes.”2 He notes that the effect of drift is “encouraging the fixation of mildly deleterious mutations and discouraging the promotion of beneficial mutations.”3

I guess the point of this is that if someone wants to convince you that macro-evolution is possible through the mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection, then they have some work to do. And it’s more work than just asserting that it happened.

People who are technical may benefit from reading Michael Behe’s book “The Edge of Evolution”, which studies how likely it is to get several positive adaptations in a row within a reasonable period of time.

UPDATE: A biologist friend tells me that “whether natural selection is driving speciation or preventing it, in neither case is it explaining how these organisms came to be in the first place. It only explains how existing organisms interact with their environment. And this can be explained at least as well through intelligent design as through naturalistic processes.” She also says that natural selection can drive speciation, but still within a kind.