The Evolving Nature of Evolution: Blind Men, Elephants and Evolving Cars

This is the third in a series about the debate between Darwinian evolutionists and advocates of Intelligent Design. In part 1, I used President Bush's statement that the debate should be "properly taught" to point out that no one (at least, no leading figure in the debate) is presently advocating that ID be taught with the same weight as Darwinian evolution. Rather, the case that is being made is that it should be introduced and taught fairly so that students can understand the controversy. In part 2, I pointed out that statements to the contrary notwithstanding, the central hypothesis of Darwinian evolution has not actually been tested. That doesn't mean that there isn't a lot of evaluating of the evidence and placing the evidence into the Darwinian evolutionary framework. The fact that the evidence fits so nicely (much of the time) into that framework provides evidence that the framework is true. But the problem is that the framework itself remains untested and unproven. In this part, I want to elaborate on the second part by using two analogies. First, however, I want to use a comment from part 2 to try to clarify what I was saying.

Testing, Conclusions and Reasonableness

I found it interesting that in response to my last entry, one reader named "a hermit" commented with respect to evolution that "there is no way to do one single test that confirms the theory as a whole, but the accumulation of many smaller tests which each confirm different aspects of the theory make for an even stronger case for confidence in the theory as a whole." I mostly agree. I don't know that there is no way to do one single test that confirms the theory as a whole, but I certainly believe that to be true. And I agree that smaller tests would build confidence that the theory as a whole is true.

Nevertheless, I have a problem with the implications of the comment: there are not that many smaller tests that can and have been run. In reality, the vast majority of Darwinian evolutionary "testing" consists of looking at the evidence that is uncovered and shoe-horning it into the evolutionary framework. Sometimes (most of the time, in fact) the new evidence slides in quite nicely. But on occasion the framework has to be adapted because the facts don't meet what is expected. The fact that the evidence can fit into the framework does lend credence to the idea that Darwinian evolution is true --- in fact, as I pointed out, I am not in these posts asserting that Darwinian evolution isn't true. A person can reasonably conclude from the evidence that Darwinian evolution is true. But merely because someone can rationally arrive at a conclusion that something is true doesn't make it true in actual fact.

After all, at one point in time a person examining the evidence could reasonably conclude that the universe had alwasys existed (the steady state theory) while others were concluding that the universe began with a big bang. It wasn't possible that both could be true, but the evidence was such that scientists, based on the evidence available, could reasonably conclude that either could be correct. However, more recently new discoveries have made it much more difficult to believe that the steady-state theory of the universe has merit. I would argue that the Darwinian evolution is very much like the steady state theory -- it is an framework for understanding the evidence that is consistent with what can be observed and which it is rational for people to accept. However, it may turn out that Darwinian evolution is as wrong as the steady state theory when tests are developed that can actually test the central hypothesis of Darwinian evolution.

Allow me to give two analogies that may help explain what I mean when I am talking about the testing the central hypothesis. But before I do, let me explain something about how analogies should be evaluated. (A fuller discussion of analogies, their use and limits, from which the following has been taken can be found here.) First, look at the context in which the analogy occurs. In other words, what is the purpose of the analogy. What is the main point that the analogy is intended to make or illustrate? Once that purpose or point is identified, then the second step is to see whether the analogy differs in any substantive respect from the analog that would make the intended analogy inapplicable. Simply pointing out differences between the analog and the analogy that don't go to the point of the analogy is nothing more then pointing out that an analogy isn't an identity.

The Blind Men and the Elephant Analogy

To give an analogy (keeping in mind that no analogy is an identity and no analogy will be an exact parallel the original), consider the old Indian fable of the blind men and the elephant. In the story, the blind men are all feeling a different part of the elephant and concluding different things about the elephant based on what they happen to be feeling. Thus, one blind man feels the trunk and says, "the elephant is like a snake." A second man feels the tusk and concludes that the elephant "is like a spear." Ultimately, none of them knows what the elephant is really like.

Now, take that same story and assume that the blind men have a theory about what the elephant is like -- they believe that the elephant is similar to a road-tractor with an attached semi-trailer. Now, the person grabs the trunk and feels that it is snake-like and assumes that he has grabbed some type of hydraulic hose. Another grabs the tusk and feels that it is spear-like and assumes that he has grabbed some bull's horns that someone has mounted as decorations on the front end of the truck. Someone else touches the side which feels wall-like and assumes that they are touching the flat, hard side of the semi-trailer. And on and on. Admittedly, they don't have all of the evidence, but the blind men are finding that by touching the elephant the evidence supports their hypothesis that it is like a road-tractor with attached semi-trailer.

What happens if someone shows that the trunk isn't quite the same as what would be expected if the elephant were a tractor-trailor? Does that disprove the theory? Not necessarily. The blind men, after all, only said that the elephant is like a tractor-trailer and admitted that they didn't have all of the details. So, when this is pointed out, the blind men simply note that the elephant is like the tractor-trailer, but that the hydraulic hoses are not as they originally hypothesized. The idea of what the elephant is actually like is adjusted and the belief that the elephant is a tractor-trailer is maintained despite the new evidence.

In effect, all the blind men have done is to demonstrate that the evidence can be manipulated in such a way that it fits into their belief framework. They haven't shown that their theory that the elephant is similar to a tractor-trailer is, in fact, true -- only that what they are touching is consistent with that central hypothesis. They have done little to prove that the elephant is actually a tractor-trailer in the first place, and new evidence that is inconsistent with the cental hypothesis changes but never disproves the central hypothesis.

The Evolving Cars Analogy

Allow me to give a second analogy (again, keeping in mind that no analogy is an identity and no analogy will be an exact parallel the original). Suppose that we are 10,000,000 years in the future, and we have somehow lost all records of what life was like in the 20th and 21st Centuries. Archaeologists dig up the remains of various automobiles. After a time, they put together a pretty good time-line for determining exactly how each car followed from the other. They are able to examine, for example, how the fuel-injection engines seem to build on the simpler carburator-based engines. Someone suggests that the remains of cars found are the remains of some metal-life creatures that evolved as the result of natural selection. This theory is widely accepted because these future scientists are able to track the evolution of the automobile over time.

Does the fact that it appears that some cars followed from other cars mean that the underlying idea that all cars evolved by natural selection has been proven? Of course, I recognize that some will argue that the analogy fails because cars, being inorganic, wouldn't evolve. I agree that cars, being inorganic, wouldn't evolve (although some seem to suggest that evolution of inorganic molecules is part of the whole evolutionary story), but the point of the analogy is not that scientists would make such a mistake, but rather to show that the fossil record only maps out what lived -- not why or how the changes occurred. Those are both speculations based on the assumption that the central pole is correct, and the speculations are applauded if they correspond with the overall framework created by the central hypothesis. However, the central hypothesis itself remains unproven.

My point is this: the majority of the evidence for Darwinian evolution is the fossil record. Darwinian evolution is the framework or central hypothesis that is used to explain the evidence discovered. I certainly accept that the evidence shows fossils starting with simple organisms at the earliest time which are followed in the record by more complex animals (although there are people who make a pretty good case that the dating of the fossils is also the result of the Darwinian evolutionary framework). Usually, these fossils fit into the framework quite easily. But occasionally, they don't.

The lastest example of not fitting so nicely is the ancient 20 pound frog named Beelzebufo or 'the frog from Hell' the fossils of which have been found in Madagascar. The article notes:

"The finding presents a real puzzle biogeographically, particularly because of the poor fossil record of frogs on southern continents," said Stony Brook University paleontologist David Krause, who led the research. "We're asking ourselves, 'What's a 'South American' frog doing half-way around the world, in Madagascar?'"

The answer? Well, it certainly isn't possible that Darwinian evolution is wrong, so the speculation is that there was a land bridge between Madagascar, Antartica and South America that allowed the biologically similar frogs to live so far away from each other. As a result, once a reasonable adjustment is made to the overall creation myth of Darwinian evolution by adding a land bridge to the continental drift theory, Beelzebufo is now going to be catalogued as further evidence of Darwinian evolution.

But that's the problem -- there is never any proof that evolution is wrong because the theory is infinitely malleable on the edges and the central core is never tested.

Next time: Counter-Example


Anonymous said…
"Well, it certainly isn't possible that Darwinian evolution is wrong, so the speculation is that there was a land bridge between Madagascar, Antartica and South America that allowed the biologically similar frogs to live so far away from each other. As a result, once a reasonable adjustment is made to the overall creation myth of Darwinian evolution by adding a land bridge to the continental drift theory, Beelzebufo is now going to be catalogued as further evidence of Darwinian evolution."

This is just silly; the fact that other accepted scientific theories can help explain the observation actually strengthens the case for evolution.
No one just "added a land bridge" here; continental drift is well established theory, and the time frames involved fit the observation.

The rest of this post is just rhetorical hand waving. There isn't enough time in any high school science curriculum to include such nonsense...;-)
Anonymous said…
A Hermit wrote: This is just silly; the fact that other accepted scientific theories can help explain the observation actually strengthens the case for evolution.

An interesting comment... but why should we trust the man who shot J.F.K.?!?

What's that--you find the idea that Mr. Hermit is the assassin who killed President Kennedy in the '60s a little far-fetched? Well, some might find the idea that all life "evolved" from non-living materials "far-fetched", but I have SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE.

You see, it is a fully-accepted Scientific Theory that the shooter on that fateful day had opposable thumbs. It is also widely accepted in the scientific community that creatures who post comments on weblogs--just like A. Hermit!--also have opposable thumbs. All this Scientific Evidence helps explain my theory that Hermit is the killer.

But wait, there's more! I have yet another Scientific Theory that presidential assassins don't like presidents very much. And a Theory that people who support the cited statements criticizing George Bush's comments about evolution don't like him very much. Thus Hermit's posts help explain why he doesn't like the President, and thus why he fits the profile for presidential assassins! You can see how all these pieces of Scientific Evidence support each other, which only strengthens my case. Once you start putting all the evidence together, there's so much strengthening going on, it's inconceivable that any right-minded person could draw any other conclusion!

And if you dare to cast the slightest doubt on this position, you must be a superstitious, science-hating, George W. groupie whose voice must be censored for the sake of the children! Won't someone please think of the children!?!

A Nonymous
Jason Pratt said…

Incidentally, I wouldn't have considered the Beelzebufo frog a problem in the fossil record for Darwinism (NDT or otherwise). As Krause said, it's a biogeographical puzzle. Whether or not a landbridge from (what is now) Madagascar through (what is now) Antarctica to (what is now) South America is feasible (and I'm willing to suppose it is via continental drift, until someone shows me why I should have problems with drift at all or that particular arrangement obtaining in the timeline being talked about), I don't see how fossils of the same species have anything to do with being a problem for the "Darwinian evolutionary framework" or "further evidence of Darwinian evolution" per se.

Actually, I'm coming up a bit dry as to what problems the fossil record could ever possibly have for NDT, per se, short of disconfirmation of speciation altogether via a complete fossil record (which we don't remotely have and can't ever expect to have much better than we do now.)

Jason Pratt said…
That being said (I had to go do something else for a minute {g}), Bill's actual point was about the theory being malleable on the edges and not testable at its core.

I should perhaps point out that neither of these is actually much of a problem for me. Back in the comment thread of Bill's first part (iirc), I linked to a discussion I had a while back with Blue Devil Knight on Victor's DangIdea journal, where I exonerated NDT from having a non-testable core (per se), unlike (as my other example) Lamarckism; I didn't hold that against it. (Amusingly, this was ignored or misunderstood, to be an attack on NDT. {wry s} But the formatting had disappeared from my post to Victor, which made for one giant multi-page run-on paragraph, so there was perhaps some excuse for the misunderstanding there.)

Similarly, when a hypothesis is being abductively tested in a theory, it isn't unusual or improper that the hypothesis should be modified in various ways according to how the data comes out. Sometimes (borrowing an evolutionary analogy {g}) the modifications stay in the same family, and sometimes they result in a rather different theory result altogether. That's just normal.

The key here, in Bill's argument--and I think the other issues he's bringing up for example are perhaps distracting from it--is to rebut against an impression of evolution as a static theory which as such has survived extensive testing and repeated verification.

I'm not altogether sure that this is what Spilhaus meant to mean (and personally I'd've concentrated more on other parts of that statement); but there's some value in trying to eliminate a (somewhat mythic, on either side) misconception about evolution being some monolithic hypothesis set that as a similarly monolithic theory has defeated all challenges.

Heck, NDT itself only was synthesized in response to extremely strong challenges to Darwinism. Darwinism per se failed; that's why NDT was proposed instead. But it would be silly to simply think of them as unrelated hypotheses that were just sort of spitballed randomly and either survived or didn't.

It would also be historically incorrect to be taught that there was clear and strong experimental data upon which NDT was originally founded. (I've mentioned that elsewhere in a previous thread.) But the synthesizers did, in effect, modify the Darwinian hypothesis based on disconfirming evidential data, and on positive evidential data which (at the time) they thought would be promising for experimental confirmation.

That's just normal procedure; it isn't something to be held against NDT, including where people continue to make modifications (where they think it applicable based on the data as it comes in). Neither, though, is it the mythical monolithic victor people can sometimes get the impression it is. That's important to teach, too, completely aside from any question of ID.

BK said…
A hermit,

Sorry you think it's silly, but you simply are skipping around the point. Claiming that my point is merely rhetoric is simply rhetoric itself.

I certainly accept the idea of continental drift -- it is an observable phenomenon. The "adding in" comes from deciding to add a land bridge where there was none before simply to accomodate a frog that is where it shouldn't be in the pre-discovery ideas of evolutionary theory.
BK said…

I don't know what to make of your joking. Is there some deeper point you are trying to make or are you just joking around?
Anonymous said…
BK: Ah, I was just pointing out Hermit's silly "reasoning" by applying it to the most ludicrous example I could think of.

I get that some people find evolution an appealing theory, and I get that some people have lots of reasons to stick to it regardless of how much can or cannot be proven; what boggles my mind is those fanatics who rant that any doubts about evolution are "anti-rational" or "anti-intellectual" and then demonstrate such a feeble grasp of logic.

After all, my new theory that God created the whole universe ten minutes ago just as handily explains the mystery frog -- but I can't see anyone concluding that this "strengthens" my theory in any way.

A Nonymous
BK said…
A Nonmymous,

Okay, I understand. Thanks for slowing it up for me. :)
BK said…
I just read through Jason's comment a bit more thoroughly, and I wanted to add to it. Jason is picking up on my point precisely. He said I am challenging the idea as stated by Dr. Spilhaus that evolution is "a static theory which as such has survived extensive testing and repeated verification." He is absolutely correct that that is the main point of my post.

Jason, who is much more knowledgeable about the history behind the theory (especially the time that Darwinian Evolutionary Theory was abandoned in place of Neo-Darwinian Theory [NDT]) than I am, is making the point that evolutionary theory (as a whole) is, primarily, a guess about the data, based primarily on the ideological agenda of the people making the guess. When the evidence didn't originally fit the data that was pouring in, they had to change the theory to NDT to stay consistent with their ideological core. The change to NDT wasn't prompted (as I understand it) from evidence confirming Darwinian evolution -- just the opposite. It was done because Darwinian theory wasn't working, so a revamping had to be done to keep the untested core believe in random selection.

But note what's going on: If legitimate science can be done from that beginning, then at worst it's too early for anyone to be dissing ID for (at worst) doing the same thing. If no legitimate science can be done from that kind of beginning, then the history of NDT itself toasts NDT as ever being a science.
BK said…
(I want to add that some of the language in my last comment -- especially in the third paragraph -- comes directly from an e-mail conversation that I had with Jason over this post. I don't want to be accused of being Obama and using someone else's words without appropriate attestation.)
BK said…

Finally, on the frog issue: the point is simply that this is one of the many anomalies that doesn't quite fit what's expected. You have a frog that is found in Madagascar -- half a world away from its supposed biological cousins from which it would have descended under the standard theory. The question is how did it get there?

I am perfectly willing to accept the idea that there could be a landbridge. I said in a prior comment that I actually have no problem with tectonic plate theory (I have written on it in the past). The problem I have is this: the landbridge seems to be created specifically to explain how the frog could have gotten to Madagascar. Do we have any other information that supports such a landbridge? The article is unclear. However, if the theory is so malleable that a huge new landbridge linking two continents can be created merely to solve a "biogeographical puzzle", then it seems to me that Darwinian evolution is way, way too malleable.

Keep in mind, this is just one of the problems with NDT that arises almost monthly (or at least which has new articles written about monthly) that NDTers have to explain away. I'm not saying that there explanations aren't rational, I am saying that they merely show the creativity of the scientists to think of new ideas to explain the evidence without ever reaffirming that the central core belief of Darwinian evolution is true (as Spilhaus claims).
Jason Pratt said…
{{You have a frog that is found in Madagascar -- half a world away from its supposed biological cousins from which it would have descended under the standard theory.}}

Ah! I actually hadn’t thought of that. {abashed g}

Strictly speaking, populations at two fringes of a range could survive when middle populations of the same species go extinct; which is what I was thinking of. (Assuming we’re sure we _are_ looking at the same species and not mirrors such as horses/liptopterns.) But yes there would need to be a plausible land link for a plausibly protracted period of time between the fringe populations. (Or some plausible method of getting the species from one place to another, like weather systems carrying insects and birds out to islands.)

Now the next question is: did they wonder about a landbridge and then check to see if such a thing existed, discovering that it did? Or are they just supposing a landbridge existed because that’s the only way for their theory to work? If it’s the former, that’s just normal operating procedure. If it’s the latter, that could very well be a serious methodological fallacy.

It’s the latter, though, that would count as creating a landbridge specifically to explain the frog in Madagascar. The former wouldn’t. The article might be unclear because they assumed it to be common established knowledge that the continents were in conjunction (perhaps with lowered sea levels) in that timeframe. Or it might be unclear due to sloppy writing. But, perhaps it’s unclear for other reasons. {shrug}


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