Questions about natural history, with a brief note on the current state of government

Shrewsbury has written an extended meditation on some problems he finds in Darwinism. The essay comes to no conclusions, and leaves some difficult, or perhaps merely idiosyncratic, questions hanging in midair. Even if the main objection Shrewsbury raises to Darwinism turns out not to be valid (and I am not yet persuaded that it is valid), the essay is engaging and enjoyable to read, conveying a spirit of openness to the mystery of reality which is the very opposite of what the Darwinian/materialist establishment now permits.

Shrewsbury writes:

I am sure this is many more words than you want on any subject from even your vilest and most sycophantic readers, but … well, I wrote it, I guess I may as well send it….

Dear Mr. Auster:

You have doubtless noticed, that the spectacle of the Obama Administration has the same ghastly fascination as a slow-motion movie of a train wreck—to which one can formulate no response but to sit and watch in awe as the colossal, multifarious destruction slowly unfolds. Thus Shrewsbury in these latter days gazes upon the travesty of U.S. politics with a certain apparent serenity, when it may in fact be a paralyzed horror (or perhaps pathological detachment).

Another helpful way to think of our political situation is as if one were viewing some old lampoon on what life would be like in a dystopic future America, long immigrant-ridden and now saddled with a regime of Africans, Latins, Orientals, and silly women. That it is not a tendentious satire, but mere reality, is besides the point, when reality has become absurdity. In short, how can one any longer take the slightest interest in the particulars of the meaningless strutting and fretting in Washington? Other, that is, than to plot some form of recession from it, whether de facto or de jure.

In any case, since it is now pointless (to the extent that it is not impossible) to talk about politics, Shrewsbury wishes to speak instead of evolution and the history of life, especially as it is unexplained by the doctrine of natural selection.

The material which follows, however, is intended neither as a crushing refutation of Darwinism, nor as a prop for any other “ism”; it is adduced merely as aspects of the history of life on earth which are and must be outside the purview of dogmatic Darwinism. If the world in universal chorus demands of the faint-hearted Shrewsbury that he state plainly his opinion of Darwinism, still he will say only that Darwinism and evolutionary theory are not equivalent; and that Darwinism is merely the labored attempt to fit the fact of evolution into a mechanistic philosophy. He can only hope that to suggest that anything is, or ever could be, unexplained by Darwinism, does not instantly brand one as bible-thumping, snake-shaking, glossolallic hillbilly peckerwood trailer trash. [LA replies: “Darwinism is merely the labored attempt to fit the fact of evolution into a mechanistic philosophy.” That is a truly excellent definition of Darwinism.]

Among the many things which particularly amaze Shrewsbury about the history of life on earth, besides the Cambrian Explosion, which has been discussed at VFR, and of course the various irreducible complexities which are with good reason beloved of intelligent designists, he wonders especially at these three imponderables: (1) The immutability of certain creatures; (2) the sudden shifts in what one might call the themes of evolution; and (3) the mathematical impossibility of the continuance of any particular line of descent. Allow him to explain.

Imprimis [in the first place, first in order]: We are told that all life forms live always under the necessity to change and adapt, a pressure exerted upon them continually both by their environment and by other life forms in competition with them; and yet a creature such as the humble opossum has scarcely altered by a whisker on his ugly face since the last dinosaurs bought the farm; whilst, in but a fraction of that time, a small, nondescript mammal took to the ocean, grew to many thousands of times its former size, and became the dread Zeuglodon, colossal scourge of the Eocene seas [from 40 million to 58 million years ago, presence of modern mammals]. If natural selection worked such a transmogrification upon a land-loving little condylarth, which became the first killer whale, how is it that this same ineluctable algorithm, operating upon the humble and invariable opossum, in various climates, in various ecologies, has had virtually no effect at all? How can the equation of natural selection, always operating, fail to work its automatic wonders upon even a single species? How can any creature, which must be part of the same system as all others, the evolution of which, we are informed, is driven by the all-encompassing necessity of natural selection, simply stop evolving? Should that not be impossible? Are we to understand that the “possum long ago reached some pinnacle of genetic excellence such that no improvement was possible? Other examples of creatures that are invariant, or nearly so, whilst their fellows undergo nearly incredible variations, abound: the platypus, the echidna, the octopus, the coelecanth, the gar, the horseshoe crab, etc. [LA replies: The Darwinists’ answer is that evolution is driven by selective pressures presented by the environment; a species may be stable in one environment, then a sub-group of that species moves to a different environment where new selective pressures cause it to evolve, and so the main group of the species remains the same, while the sub-group evolves into a new species. There are problems with this idea, of course, but it’s not as if the Darwinians have no answer to Shrewsbury’s question.]

(However, and at risk of appalling his fellow Darwin-skeptics, Shrewsbury must say that he does not find the supposed lack of evidence for evolution from one species into another to be a fruitful line of criticism. For one thing, it is often difficult, especially with prehistoric creatures, to define where one species should end and another begin. Secondly, and more important, he is aware of fossils that do appear to show transitional forms, such as that of the renowned archaeopteryx. And thirdly, and perhaps most important, since only a tiny fraction of extinct animals have been identified by fossils—he has seen an estimate of one-tenth of one percent—it must be conceded that it would be extraordinary if we had by now found very many obvious transitional forms; and yet, as suggested above, we have found some. He finds all this dispositive, or nearly so, for the case that species can evolve one into another. But enough concession.)

Item. Even more puzzling to Shrewsbury is this. Sixty-five million years ago, with the demise of the thunder lizards, nature threw aside the former model of evolutionary success. Henceforth, for the most part, gone were colossal size, impregnable armor, gaping maws filled with six-inch carving knives. Now cleverness, parental care, fuzziness, and, er, cuteness were the order of the day. Has no Darwinist with children ever looked at his four-year-old daughter and asked, “Is this the result of 542 million years of natural selection, of nature red in tooth and claw? This pitiful, helpless, silly thing? Is this survival of the fittest? Or is it not rather survival of the fluffiest?” Brain size has been increasing in nearly all mammals since the age of the dinosaurs, and, it seems, more and more rapidly as time passes: the brain even of a rhinoceros is eight times the size of the brain of an Uintatherium, a beast of the Eocene of similar proportions. This never happened to the dinosaurs, to say nothing of the reptiles, the amphibians, or their fishy forebears. Their brains attained a certain primitive plateau, and stayed there, world without end. So after the great asteroid strike, or whatever calamity or calamities one may conceive did in the dinosaurs, why did Ma Nature fail simply to resume where she had left off, and start developing stupid sauropod- and therapod-like animals again? She didn’t do that—she completely changed the theme, and neither the mammals nor the reptiles ever resumed the dinosaur scheme. How is this possible if the same equation of natural selection is always at work? How does the same math in a similar environment produce a completely different result? It is as if some variable in the equation of evolution itself had been changed. By who, or what, or how, we know not, but it can hardly fail to appear even to a Darwinist that something was altered. (Darwin, by the way, rejected the possibility of sudden changes, to allow which, he wrote with rather odd syntax, would be “to enter into the realm of miracle, and to leave those of science.” Which of course begs, rather than settles, the question.) [LA replies: But Shrewsbury is leaving out the fact that the environment had changed massively: the dinosaurs and many other life forms were wiped out in the end-of-Cretaceous disaster, resulting, presumably, in mammals being able to spread freely over the earth and increase in size in a way that had not been possible when the ultimate killing machines had ruled the world. At the same time, I’m in agreement with Shrewsbury’s idea of “themes.” The whole “theme” of the Mesozoic Age was different from what came after: dinosaurs instead of mammals, ferns instead of deciduous trees and so on; even the climate, perhaps even the atmosphere itself, was probably radically different. It was in effect a different earth than what it became later. The switch from one earth-life “theme” to another suggests, not a bunch of little changes, but a change that is holistic, and thus implicitly teleological.]

Item. Most puzzling of all to Shrewsbury is this. He has been obsessed with a conundrum of mathematics and evolution for some years now, but his g factor (whatever that is) [LA replies: g is the basic power of a person’s mental machine, his ability to process information] is apparently insufficiently towering to permit him to resolve it. Since VFR has the most sagacious and knowledgeable readership of any site on the Web, he (perhaps presumptuously) offers a brief description of it, in hopes that it will elicit comment, criticism, derision, etc. Unfortunately he lacks the mathematical knowledge even to make his point clear, but kindly bear with him as he fumblingly attempts at least to outline the matter.

We are all vaguely aware that our grandfather x 25,000,000 was, like, okay, a fish. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But we never stop to consider how in Sam Hill 25 million consecutive generations could possibly never fail to reproduce. Indeed, our complete ancestry no doubt extends back much further than 25 million generations. In other words, any creature living today is the result of tens of millions of other creatures who successfully reproduced, without a single failure to do so in the whole 542,000,000-year-old line (reckoning from the start of the Cambrian). This has obviously happened for every single one of the trillions of living creatures on the globe today—and yet with equal obviousness it is impossible. How could even a race with the most advanced science achieve such a feat even for a single species, for instance their own—of continuing many unbroken lines of descent forever? And how far from that ideal was the reality! What was the rate of survival to breeding age, and successful breeding withal, of human progeny until very recently? Fifty per cent or less, we suppose. What was the rate for the tiny, dimwitted primates of the Oligocene [from 25 million to 40 million years ago]? Even less, no doubt. Of the insectivores of the Cretaceous? Of cynodonts in the Triassic, reptiles in the Permian, amphibians in the Carboniferous, fish in the Devonian? We are faced with a simple, astonishing fact: The typical creature is always the last in its 542,000,000-year-old line.

Shrewsbury is too retarded to do the math here, but even the most innumerate person must begin to perceive that the odds against any one line of descent continuing for more than half a billion years must involve some truly intimidating number, one of those astronomical figures such as 1040 or 1060. Well, let’s assume on average over that unimaginable span of years one generation every two years and assume a preposterously high rate of successful reproduction of 50 percent. That would make the odds against any one line of descent continuing from the Cambrian to the present … well, again, Shrewsbury barely graduated high school, but isn’t it 25 to the 49th power? As Winston Zeddmore says in Ghostbusters: “That’s a big Twinkie.”

In short, every single living creature in the world today is as near to impossible as it is possible to be. If Shrewsbury were a creationist he would be shouting, “Eureka!” But in fact he finds the notion that the world is only 6,013 years old to be far from plausible, and he is not a creationist, and is, in fact, left utterly baffled by such a conundrum.

Of course, one would expect this to be dismissed with a snort and a mutter about bible-thumping and “intelligent design creationism” by the impervious tribe of Darwinists. They might, perhaps, point out that, given for instance a city full of people going about their business, some arrangement of pedestrians at the corner of Toidy-Toid and Toid is mathematically inevitable, even whilst any particular arrangement is astronomically unlikely; so is, for another instance, some result of a baseball season, so is some result of anything. But, can’t you see, a thriving ecology is not inevitable in this sense, and such comparisons would not even be apples and oranges, they would be billiard balls and oranges. For in contrast to some result of a baseball season, the infinitely most likely result of creatures attempting to reproduce forever, even as a baseball team were it required to win every game forever, is … failure. What baseball team ever even came close to winning every game of one season? Yet here we are dealing a ratio, not of 162 to 0, but 250,000,000 to 0. And if the adamantine-pated Darwinists insist that some mysterious, wonder-working a priori condition does make a thriving ecology (of some sort) as inevitable as a result of some sort once a baseball season is played—well dear, who’s the creationist now? [LA replies: What then is Shrewsbury saying? It seems to me he’s saying since multicellular life began in earnest 540 million years ago, and since it’s astronomically unlikely for any line of descent to keep going that long, therefore it is impossible that there be any multicellular life on earth. I don’t know how to relate to this, and I don’t know where he’s going with it.]

Indeed Shrewsbury wonders whether the Darwinist will in time be obliged to resort to some biological cognates of the theoretical physicist’s dark matter and dark energy—those astrophantasies the astrophysicist was forced to “discover” to avert what else were the utter ruination of his mathematics. For without such airy fairies, the equations by which the physicist attempts to model the natural universe just didn’t add up, and he was ready to stoop to any intellectual depravity only so that it would balance the sacred equations: anything, anything but a reevaluation of the dogma. Yet the Darwinist has scarcely even reached this point—for the most part he affects to be as yet untroubled by such mysteries as we have adduced above. Scientists are wont to preen themselves over their devotion to the scientific method, the requirement that all theory be testable; and yet in practice they seem less concerned with actually employing it than are we ignoramuses. We ask only that theory be conformable to reality; but they demand that reality conform to theory. When the theoretical physicist’s theories failed to fit the facts, he simply invented new facts; and yet, come to think of it, the Darwinist need not go so far as that, because he does not even have a theory—for, as we have suggested, Darwinism is not a theory, but merely the attempt to fit the fact of evolution into a mechanistic philosophy, and by this sleight of hand claim evolution all for themselves. Does Darwinism predict the Opossum? No? Then what kind of a theory is Darwinism? Manifestly this is doctrine, not science. So who is the Bible-thumper here, and who is the one who gazes ingenuously at the world and merely wants to understand?

Shrewsbury hopes he is not here animated merely by the spirit of controversy, and that he has not set up a straw man in his anticipation of one or two of the Darwinists’ arguments; if they have light to shed, let them shed it. He offers none of this in defense of any particular hypothesis; he merely finds Darwinism inconsistent with nature.

(Oh—by the by, did you know that Alfred Russell Wallace, the fellow whose own natural-selection theorizing caused a panicked Darwin to rush his work into print, himself argued in favor of intelligent design? They always somehow forget to tell us about that!)

I remain,
Yrs. respectfully,

- end of initial entry -

Boris S. writes:

I don’t understand Shrewsbury’s objection that it’s impossible that “any creature living today is the result of tens of millions of other creatures who successfully reproduced,” because, he says, the odds of that happening are vanishingly small. If fifty percent of individuals within a population successfully reproduce, then, in order for the size of the population to stay constant some members have to have multiple offspring. For example, if half of all members of each generation have no offspring while the others have two offspring, then the size of the population will stay constant indefinitely. Then, even though the chance of survival of any particular line reduces by half each succeeding generation, the size of the population doesn’t change, because of multiplicity of offspring. The same can be said for a hypothetical species whose members fail to reproduce 80% of the time, and have five offspring the rest of the time. What counts is not the chance to reproduce of individuals, but the average number of offspring per individual.

If, on the other hand, Shrewsbury is puzzled that one particular set of descendants came about after an X number of generations, as opposed to another entirely different set, then his own baseball analogy is perfectly apt.

Leonard D. writes:

Although Shrewsbury is right in thinking it unlikely that any particular individual’s line of descent will persist over evolutionary time, he is incorrect in thinking that the odds are low for some line of decent to continue basically forever. What he is failing to consider is the size of the population. See Wikipedia on the Galton-Watson process. A particular application that might help Shrewsbury think about the process on a more human time scale is the loss of surnames in China.

Also, he is incorrectly applying a probability post hoc that is only meaningful a priori. Before a random event happens, we can talk about the probability of various outcomes. But after the event happens, the probabilities collapse. The result which actually happened now has probability 1.0. The past does not change. All other outcomes—the stuff which did not happen—have probability 0.0.

Thus, it is no surprise that if we observe something which exists, that events happened (no matter how improbable they may have been beforehand) that made that existence possible. I suppose it is reasonable to have a certain sense of wonder that events broke exactly as they did, and not in any of a million billion other ways. But this is true of almost everything in our world if you think about it. I have revised and rewritten many of the sentences and paragraphs in this message. The odds that I would say precisely this, in precisely this manner, with the exact words and emphases and links, etc., are astronomically low. Each text is unique. And yet… I was going to end up writing something.

LA replies:

Leonard D. is correct in saying that anything that actually exists could be seen as statistically impossible if we were to go far back in time and guess, from the point of view of the distant past, what were the probabilities that this precise thing would end up existing. In that sense, everything that exists is the result of cosmically unlikely chance and is cosmically contingent. This view makes the world seem almost senseless, since it suggests that there is no necessity for the world being the way it is. Indeed, it suggests that the world that actually exists is impossible, which was where I suggested Shrewsbury’s argument ended up.

As another example of this type of reasoning, I once read an author who expressed amazement and wonder at the supposedly pure chance events that had brought him to meet his wife. In reality, both he and his future wife were literary types, they lived in the same city, they moved in similar circles, and it was not at all unlikely that they would meet. But the author was so intent on constructing a cult of chance as the ruling force of the universe that he didn’t see, or rather he blinded himself to, this obvious fact.

Getting back to Mr. D., while he makes a good argument, I find it most amusing that he uses the activity of writing to illustrate Shrewsbury’s error about the chance nature of evolution: “Each text is unique. And yet … I was going to end up writing something.” Mr. D., a Darwinian, has inadvertently relied on an example of pure teleology to demonstrate that life had to be something like the way it is. That’s quite a Freudian slip, if I do so myself, suggesting that Mr. D. is subconsciously moving away from Darwinism toward a view that recognizes intelligence and purpose in evolution.

Leonard D. replies:

I used the example of writing for two reasons.

One is that you are uninterested in further reiteration of my views about evolution. [LA adds: This is true. Leonard and I had gone around the same track so many times that I finally said, “No mas.”] And for the purpose of exemplifying “something that exists”, I see no need to resume that debate.

I chose writing as my exemplar, because it is so teleological. I find it intriguing that even in something as purposeful as my own writing on a particular point, I nonetheless have the strong feeling that this could have been different. I don’t know how you experience your writing, so maybe it is just me.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 16, 2009 01:08 AM | Send

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