Sunday, May 31, 2009

On the discussion of the language of design in biology

The Maverick Philosopher is examining the notion of design as used by Dawkins in particular, and evolutionary biologists in general, in what seems to be either an argument that design requires a designer, or an objection to the terminology of design being used absent a designer and the assignment of purpose requiring an intention, maybe a little of both. Personally, this seems to me to be trying to force evolutionary biology into creating highly technical jargon for no particularly useful purpose. We have no common English words to describe the overall shaping action that selection places upon living things, but I don't see how abandoning the terminology of design improves the understanding of these actions. Details below the fold.

Our starting point must be ordinary language. As David Stove points out, "it is a fact about the meaning of a common English word, that you cannot say that something was designed, without implying that it was intended; any more than you can say that a person was divorced, without implying that he or she was previously married." (Darwinian Fairytales, p. 190, emphasis added.) In other words, it is an analytic proposition that a designed object is one that was intended in the same way that it is an analytic proposition that a divorced person is one who was previously married. These are two conceptual truths, and anyone who uses designed object and divorced person in a way counter to these truths either does not understand these concepts or else has some serious explaining to do.

We can put aside for the moment that biologists have actually written multiple volumes to do this serious explaining. Perhaps this work is not serious enough for Dr. Vallicella, as most of the work is written for the popular audience. The first step, I think, is to acknowledge that no individual book, no matter how well or carefully written, would suffice to introduce an entirely new vocabulary, one that has no real equivalences into English, as a part of a discussion on a topic that already requires years of post-graduate study and work to understand, and result in something that a person with high-school education, or even a degree in philosophy, will understand. Scientists spend years learning to adjust and adapt their understanding of the English words, any new vocabulary would merely occupy an academic niche that has no need for it.


1. Mayr tells us in the chapter on Natural Selection that "Every species produces vastly more offspring than can survive from generation to generation." (117) Sorry to be such a quibbler, but is this true? 'Every' includes homo s. Does our kind produce vastly more offpsring than can survive from generation to generation?

Yes, we do. This restraint has been lifted in the last 10,000 years or so since the discovery of agriculture, and in that time our population has grown exponentially (which is the alternative when a species is temporarily unable to fill its niche). However, we will at some point exceed the ability of our environment to support our numbers. China is already experiencing a version of this issue, hence their official policy of couple being allowed one child. Eventually every culture will be facing this issue.


Then we read: "All the individuals of a population differ genetically from each other. They are exposed to the adversity of the environment, and almost all of them perish or fail to reproduce." (117) Really? Almost all of the members of our species perish or fail to reproduce?

Again, this was historically true. In pre-industrial times, it was commonplace to lose more children before puberty have children reach puberty.

Quoting Mayr, with interspersed comments, he says:
Selection is not teleological (goal-directed). Indeed, how could an elimination process be teleological? [It can't be, my man!] Selection does not have a long-term goal. [Or a short-term one either!]

This seems to be odd position. As was pointed out twice in the comments, there are several ways to design by elimination.

The following three positions need to be distinguished:

1. There is design in nature, and a complete account of it is impossible without recourse to a cosmic designer such as God.
2. There is intrinsic design in nature, and it is wholly explainable in naturalistic terms.
3. There is no intrinsic design in nature: all features that exhibit design, purpose, function are observer-relative, and the only observers are themselves denizens of the natural world.

Theists who rely on design arguments subscribe to (1), while some naturalist philosophers come out in favor of (2). (2), however, involves the claim that there is intrinsic design in nature, a claim that is far from obvious, and is arguably inconsistent with Darwinism.

...

So it looks as if (3) is the correct view. The following considerations will be based on passages from John Searle's The Construction of Social Reality (The Free Press, 1995). We consider the case for the contention that there are no intrinsic design features in nature, equivalently, that biological functions are observer-relative.

Again, we see an example of a trilemma, one that is played subtlety and much more carefully than the ham-fisted approach outlined by Cothran. The very first question I would have regarding these is why the designer must be cosmic and singular, as opposed to highly limited and plural. The other is the restriction of purpose to designers and other external agents.

2. Searle's point about functions is that they are never intrinsic but always observer-relative. Functions are assigned or imposed by us. A burro (my example) is not intrinsically a beast of burden but is susceptible to having that functional role imposed on it. Or else we fabricate a mechanical 'burro' to suit our purposes. Similarly, cats and dogs are not pets intrinsically: the pet role is imposed by us.

There are no functions in the natural world: "nature knows nothing of functions." (14). Hearts occur in nature, and it is an observer-independent fact that they cause blood to course through the bodies that house them. But the function of the heart to pump blood is not intrinsic to nature.

This is a very human-centric position. Does a bird, or even an ant, assign a function to it's own heart? You can make arguments about degrees of consciousness, but I don't think anyone understands consciousness well enough to give a precise degree as to the level needed to say something has a function. Remove the ant's heart, and it is dead. I don't know as much about intention, consciousness, or the philosophical discussions thereof to claim any sort of expertise, but I know enough to be fairly sure that there is no universal position on whether an ant can assign purpose, on some level, to its own survival, and by extension its own heart.

So although one does discover how the heart works -- its mechanism -- one does not discover any teleology. Searle:

It is because we take it for granted in biology that life and survival are values that we can discover that the function of the heart is to pump blood. If we thought that the most important value in the world was to glorify God by making thumping noises, then the function of the heart would be to make a thumping noise, and the noisier heart would be the better heart.

To the organisms involved, survival is a value, at least in the sense that their reactions to stimuli are those that developed to ensure survival. The language confusion here, to the degree it exists at all, is quite small.

4. Compare airplane wings and eagles' wings. The wings of an airplane are designed by human engineers for a purpose: to generate lift so that a heavier-than-air craft can become airborne. They are for flying. Now it might seem that the same is true of eagle's wings: they too are for flying. This is true, but only relative to us. Because we value mobility and survival, we project onto the eagles' wings the function of being for flying and escaping predators. Searle's point, however, is that nothing in nature intrinsically has a function. He is not saying that airplane wings have a purpose while eagles' wings don't: they both have a purpose, but it is observer-relative. In a world without beings like us, bird's wings and birds' nests would exist and have causes and effects but lack functions.

The eagle will likely interpret this differently.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

One Brow said: "I don't see how abandoning the terminology of design improves the understanding of these actions."

I do. Using confused (and confusing) language greatly enhances widespread misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the concepts involved. Eric, you have stated, for example, that "natural selection" is creative in the same sense that a sculptor is creative. My response was that, if that were true (i.e. "in the same sense") then there is in fact both design and a designer being posited (goin by the name of "natural selection"). A sculptor's action are inherently teleological (goal-oriented).

The goal of Dawwinsim, and, to an even greater extent, neo-darwinism, was to rule out any and all notions of teleology a priori.

Despite this purpose and goal, explications of both darwinism and neo-darwinism often run rampant with teleological notions. This does not help explain the basic concept. On the contrary, it greatly distorts it.

One Brow said...

do. Using confused (and confusing) language greatly enhances widespread misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the concepts involved. Eric, you have stated, for example, that "natural selection" is creative in the same sense that a sculptor is creative. My response was that, if that were true (i.e. "in the same sense") then there is in fact both design and a designer being posited (goin by the name of "natural selection"). A sculptor's action are inherently teleological (goal-oriented).

I don't think you are confused by my word usage. The whole point of my post was that there are no non-teological alternatives available. Does it becomemore meaningful for me to say "natural selection glomnags a species just like a sculptor shapes marble", even if I make an initial definition of "glomnag" as "the unintentional alteration of a thing toward one of a handful of specific results by the process of elimination"? Even then, doesthat definition really serveto reduce the teleology involved?

The goal of Dawwinsim, and, to an even greater extent, neo-darwinism, was to rule out any and all notions of teleology a priori.

Your really pulling out the crank now. The goal was to find natural explanations to the development of life. Natural explanations do not remove teleology, they can only push it back a level.

Despite this purpose and goal, explications of both darwinism and neo-darwinism often run rampant with teleological notions. This does not help explain the basic concept. On the contrary, it greatly distorts it.

I await your alternative vocabulary.

Anonymous said...

"Your really pulling out the crank now. The goal was to find natural explanations to the development of life."

So you say, but anyone familiar with the history and development of darwinsim and neo-darwinism knows better. It's most prominent proponents clearly suggest otherwise, as do all the philosophers and historians of science that I'm familiar with who have analyzed and reported on the theory and it's history.

As quoted by Vallacella, Mayr, for instance, claims: "Selection is not teleological (goal-directed)." Of course, this is because, according to Mayr: "chance rules supreme." (119) This step is where new variation is produced and includes "all the processes leading to the production of a new zygote (including meiosis, gamete formation, and fertilization). . ." (119).

Notice the strict genetic determinism here, where all possibility of the production of variation stops the instant fertilization occurs (and is strictly chance-driven prior to that). As I have often noted, and as many of the commentators on Vallacella's blog have also, this is strictly a metaphysical superimposition on a so-called "naturalistic" theory made by it's neo-founders, and it has promulgated as gospel ever since.

The stated goal of Dawkins is to refute the appearance of design--he is no different from his predecessors in this respect. Apparently because you see that this is a superfilous addendum, Eric, you are unable to acknowledge that it is, and always was, a fundamental aspect of neo-darwinism. The fact that you don't share that view cannot rewrite history or change the views of others (prominent neo-darwinists).

One Brow said...

I don't want to get too extensively into a discussion in this post overlapping the other, so I will address a small portion in here.

The stated goal of Dawkins is to refute the appearance of design--he is no different from his predecessors in this respect.

This is Dawkins stated goal in his attempt to show that his preferred metaphysical framework is correct, but it is false that this means the Theory of Evolution actually does support Dawkins. Well-known theists (such as Ken Miller) make arguments they find complelling that the exact same biological facts and theories are signs that point to God. Each side claims the other is missing the point, neither side has a convincing argument the other must be incorrect. Dawkins can show design is not needed, and the appearance of design is emergent, and then apply a version of Occam's razor, but Occam's razor is not a scientific principle.

Apparently because you see that this is a superfilous addendum, Eric, you are unable to acknowledge that it is, and always was, a fundamental aspect of neo-darwinism.

Given that there are, and have been since its inception, men of faith who completely accepted modern evolutionary theory and also that the process has a teleology not revealed by the science, that the design comes from manipulating chance in undetectable ways for even from an intial startpoint that deterministically resulted in humans, any claim that the science has tried to or been able to remove teleology completely is just overblown rhetoric (finger pointing more to Dawkins than to you).

The fact that you don't share that view cannot rewrite history or change the views of others (prominent neo-darwinists).

Whatever the views of other people may be, the science dioes not argue, and is not capable of arguing, that there is no teleology. People who use evolutionary theory to justify atheism (or theism) have no more basis than those who use(d) it to justify racism, the rmoval of racism, eugenics, the right of everyone to breed unfettered, unhindered capitalism, unmitigated central economies, and dozens, perhaps hundreds, or other points of view. That people continue to use this theory, or other theories, to justify thier points of view is not necessarily a reflection on the theory. Much more often, it is a reflection on how wistfully the person speculates.

Anonymous said...

"Does it becomemore meaningful for me to say "natural selection glomnags a species just like a sculptor shapes marble", even if I make an initial definition of "glomnag" as "the unintentional alteration of a thing toward one of a handful of specific results by the process of elimination"?

No, it doesn't become more meaningful (it is still self-contradictory) but it becomes clearer as to what you really intend to say (and therefore the inherent contradiction becomes clearer). A sculptor, by definition, does NOT "glomnag" a statue.

One Brow said...

Well, similes are never exact.

Is your contention of contradiction motivated by more than the simile? If so, do you have a better definition for "glomnag"?

When writing popular books, do you think using "glomnag" is a viable solution to this issue?

Anonymous said...

"Whatever the views of other people may be, the science dioes not argue, and is not capable of arguing, that there is no teleology. People who use evolutionary theory to justify atheism (or theism) have no more basis than those who use(d) it to justify racism, the rmoval of racism, eugenics, the right of everyone to breed unfettered, unhindered capitalism, unmitigated central economies, and dozens, perhaps hundreds, or other points of view. That people continue to use this theory, or other theories, to justify thier points of view is not necessarily a reflection on the theory. Much more often, it is a reflection on how wistfully the person speculates.'

Well, we agree 100% on this, and I know that has been your considered view for some time. I don't think all of your statements and claims clearly reflect this view, though, and sometimes I think that you have temporarily forgotten about it.

Whether that is true of you or not, I think it is clearly true of many leading mouthpieces for neo-darwinism. No matter how much they may, in quiet reflection, concede that such assumptions are purely metaphysical in nature, their rhetoric and arguments in debate and so forth often suggest otherwise (they speak and argue as though they regard their concededly metaphysical presumptions as both scientific and factual. This is the problem Vallacella is addressing with respect to Dawkins, for example.

Anonymous said...

One Brow asked: "Is your contention of contradiction motivated by more than the simile? If so, do you have a better definition for "glomnag"?

Well, yeah, I think it is. As I recall, the prelude to your original use of that simile was my objection that is a clear confusion (of language if not thought, but probably both) to claim that natural selection is a "creative force."

I can recall a time when I went to a darwinist board and saw a great number of posters strongly castigating a close acquaintance of Gould's for suggesting that Gould did not believe natural selection was a creative force. This was a year or two back when you and I had another discussion along these lines.

Needless to say, these posters "responses" were rife with selective (and inclusive) quotations of Gould purporting to refute the friend's claim, and vicious disparagment of the IQ, integrity, and general character of the friend.

In response (as I have done more recently on this blog) I quoted at length from a section of Gould's book which was entitled, as I recall, "natural selection as a creative force."

Likewise, I have seen theorists like Margulis ridiculed by these kinds of confused posters when she claims, for example, that natural selection is merely a culling force and no more (as Mayr himself claims). Of course, as I have said before, I view such "darwinists" as mere cheer-leaders, not as knowledgable or sophiticated theorists by any means. As Vallacella says about Dawkins: They are, first and foremost, ideologues, which (like myself) Vallacella finds "offensive."

I know nothing of Vallacella's religious convictions (or lack thereof) but his tone suggests to me that he is from far devoutly religious. His objection is not on religous grounds, but rather the grounds upon which I object, i.e., philosophical ones coupled with an aversion for glib propaganda backed by sophistry.

Anonymous said...

edit: selective and "inconclusive" is what I meant to say in the last post.

One Brow said...

Having read his blog for a while, Vallicella has painted himself, in my eyes, as a thoughtful, careful, precise person of very strong, typical evangelical beliefs, and someone who values the respectful discussion of the these beliefs highly.

Skeptico said...


We have no common English words to describe the overall shaping action that selection places upon living things..


Yeah we do. That word is “evolved”. I’m sorry but I don’t really see the point of this post. The word “designed” does imply some purpose decided upon before the thing is built. Nature builds things, it doesn’t design them. What’s so hard about using the word “built”?

One Brow said...

Skeptico,

Thanks for the comment, but "evolve" is intransitive and "build" implies more intent than many alternatives. For example, who would say a snowflake has been "built"?