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Sunday, February 20, 2011

If You've Never Read Darwin...

you then can just make up what he thought. I'm reading a philosopher right now -- don't want to go into details, as I'm reviewing the book for a magazine -- who declares that it is an implication of Darwin's theory of evolution that all life is the product of chance variations that arise randomly. Well, what did Charles himself say about that idea?

“I have hitherto sometimes spoken as if the variations so common and multiform in organic beings under domestication, and in a lesser degree in those in a state of nature had been due to chance. This, of course, is a wholly incorrect expression, but it serves to acknowledge plainly our ignorance of the cause of each particular variation.” -- Origin of Species, Chapter 5

So Darwin thought the idea that these variations were chance was "Wholly incorrect," a mere product of our lack of knowledge of their true causes.

11 comments:

  1. Huh that's interesting. However, is he saying that there's really no such thing as chance "causing" anything? E.g. would Darwin say, "When discussing rolls of the dice, we gave the impression that the twelve possible outcomes were due to chance, but that is wholly incorrect. We simply don't have enough information to say beforehand what side of each die will face upward when it comes to rest." ?

    If so, then I think the philosopher's not so dumb after all.

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  2. Well, I think that IS along the lines of what Darwin was thinking... but that takes away all of the metaphysical import of this guy's point. Obviously, if genetic changes aren't really random in the same way die rolls aren't really random, than an omniscient, omnipotent creator can set up all of the dice exactly as He wants, and then let these "chance" events realize the design He intended.

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  3. I read more of the chapter and I do think that's what he's getting at, but he seems to be making more of a claim for human ignorance than divine origin.

    The probability associated with a die can emerge simply from our ignorance of the relative complexity of the mechanical processes leading to a particular outcome. As Laplace said to Napoleon, the God hypothesis is superfluous. The same seems to be the case here. God does not seem to be parsimonious (which, to be fair, was never one of the qualities that theologians claimed for him).

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  4. "I read more of the chapter and I do think that's what he's getting at, but he seems to be making more of a claim for human ignorance than divine origin."

    I agree! I was just pointing out that, unlike the contention of the philosopher in question, Darwin's theory is compatible with divine origin, not that it was an "implication" of the theory.

    An analogy: Somebody writes an essay claiming Jesus was an anarcho-capitalist. If I show this is nonsense, it is no response to comeback with, "But you haven't proved anarcho-capitalism wrong!" Yes, I did not set out to do so, and did not claim to do so.

    "As Laplace said to Napoleon, the God hypothesis is superfluous."

    Of course, Laplace meant, superfluous in his system of mechanics -- he was not an atheist!

    But as this post was not offered as a defense of theism, but a critique of a particular argument, I don't want to sidetrack into all that.

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  5. Dear LK,

    This was a post about the implications of Darwin's theory of evolution.

    Therefore, when you point out that there is a modern theory of genetics, as if I were some simpleton who was unaware of this fact, or rant about how hurt you are that God let the dinosaurs die, you are doing what we call threadjacking.

    If you would like to post something about the implications of Darwin's theory of evolution here, please feel free to do so.

    Regards,
    Your Host

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  6. Isn't Mises' opinion on class probability in the same direction as Darwin's?

    But, you couldn't interpret Darwin in the following way? Darwin was arguing within the context that overall changes in traits in species aren't random in the sense that the environment really decides which traits are superior. In other words, what traits are most adaptable to an environment aren't random.

    However, evolution can be considered random (and this was prob. unknown to Darwin, at the time, since DNA was discovered in the mid-20th Century), because don't changes in traits require mutations during transcription/replication (whichever it is), which are basically random? I mean, it's up to chance that a protein should bring the wrong nucleic acid and that the wrong nucleic acid be accepted.

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  7. "However, evolution can be considered random (and this was prob. unknown to Darwin, at the time, since DNA was discovered in the mid-20th Century), because don't changes in traits require mutations during transcription/replication (whichever it is), which are basically random?"

    Well:
    1) Well, I was posting on Darwin's theory, but, since unlike LK you at least diverted from the topic politely...
    2) These changes are random from the point of view of the geneticist. This does not imply that from the point of view of some hypothetical being with greater knowledge of what particles are whizzing about where they appear random.

    Presumably, and omnipotent and omniscient being could set the "dominoes" up so that they would all fall in just such-and-such a way so as to produce... Crash Landing! To us mortals, however, this would appear to be just a bunch of random collisions of dominoes that produced such a wonder.

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  8. "Presumably, and omnipotent..."

    Er, sorry for all the typos... I just woke up and haven't had coffee yet.

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  9. "Darwin was arguing within the context that overall changes in traits in species aren't random in the sense that the environment really decides which traits are superior. In other words, what traits are most adaptable to an environment aren't random."

    And Jon, the above is just wrong. Yes, Darwin thought that, but that was not what he was arguing in the passage I quote... he was discussing the source of variations, not the selection of variations.

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  10. I understand now. Scratch that comment about Mises, then. Is Darwin's argument, then, basically, "We can't say it's a matter of chance, because we really don't know what drives evolutionary changes"? Are you trying to reconcile religion (say, creationists) with darwinism?

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  11. "Are you trying to reconcile religion (say, creationists) with darwinism?"

    Well, if you mean "the earth was created in six days" creationists, I don't think that is possible. But there never has been any conflict between Darwin's scientific theory and theism in general, so there is no need to reconcile them!

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