What would constitute evidence for God?

As a so-called New Atheist, one of the cornerstones of my worldview is that evidence is absolutely key in coming to any sort of important conclusion. To believe otherwise is to believe dangerously, at least when it comes to anything important. (Our belief that, for instance, a bridge isn’t going to collapse beneath us is an assumption, and so I exclude such beliefs when I use the word “important”.) That is, to believe something without evidence is to believe on faith. And, of course, that is entirely random; faith is not a method of belief by any means, but rather an arbitrary basis that can lead a person to absolutely any conclusion, including abortion clinic bombings, giving a homeless person a dollar, and committing war atrocities. In short, faith is the worst thing the world has ever seen.

So all that said, I reject faith fully. This is why I call myself an atheist: I am without any form of theism because there is no evidence in its favor. Indeed, there is no good evidence in favor of even deism. (I’m also an anti-theist, but for different reasons.) But I’ve often wondered, what sort of evidence would I accept as pointing towards a knowing, intervening creator? I recall Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers having a back and forth prior towards everyone in the New Atheist movement, including Coyne, shunning Myers for various reasons, so it was a civil exchange, but I don’t recall the details. All I remember now is that Coyne said there is possible evidence whereas Myers took the faith-based position in saying that no evidence could convince him. I won’t bother finding those posts since they aren’t especially relevant here. What is relevant is this B-level Onion article:

Researchers at Harvard University announced today that they have found what appears to be a message from God written inside the human genome.

In a little-explored section of non-coding DNA, a team of top geneticists discovered a 22-word snippet of ancient Aramaic in which God confirms his existence and his role in creating life on Earth.

The stunning finding represents nearly irrefutable evidence of God’s existence and his role in creating the process of evolution by natural selection.

The message was discovered when researchers noticed strange mathematical patterns appearing within a certain section of the genome.

“Hello my children. This is Yahweh, the one true Lord. You have found creation’s secret. Now share it peacefully with the world.

Again, this is an article in the style of TheOnion, a tongue-in-cheek piece meant to be funny. It comes from The Daily Currant, which has had some success in fooling people with its articles (not that that was their intention), but I’m not a big fan.

At any rate, this is a perfect example of what it would take to show me evidence God exists. It isn’t that if we find there are no hidden messages in our DNA we’ve falsified the God hypothesis. No, rather it’s that something like this would be strong evidence for the existence of a creator, I think. The odds that natural selection would, by chance, produce something so precise as this is very, very small.

Of course, let me take this moment to point out that natural selection is not actually a chance process. I only describe it as such in the above instance because natural selection acts to increase an organism’s ability to survive – it does not act to produce linguistic codes that translate into multiple sentences in order to form a coherent message. That is, natural selection is not a chance process, but for it to produce a lengthy message would be insanely freak chance since no part of its regular process leads to anything like messages. That old creationist chestnut about a tornado producing a 747 would actually have some applicability here.

So there we have it. There certainly is possible evidence for the existence of God, and I think this brings us to an important conclusion: God is a refutable hypothesis that can be subjected to the rigors of science just like anything else postulated to exist and/or have an affect on the Universe. The problem for theists is that they’ve never been able to present a test their particular, cultural god could pass.

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Natural selection is a serious problem for theism

Natural selection is the process by which different traits and, ultimately, alleles spread or shrink throughout a population over time. It is a key mechanism in evolution and an understanding of it is necessary to knowing anything important about life itself. It demonstrates how we can have such a long history with so many seemingly lucky ancestors, culminating in such a massive variety across the planet. But perhaps most importantly, it sheds light on some of our most fundamental questions about existence.

I’ve spoken in the past about Richard Lenksi’s E. coli experiment. He has been tracking a dozen different lineages of the bacteria for the past 25 years, carefully cataloging the genetic changes that take place and when they happen. What he has found is that mutations are often contingent, meaning that for Mutation #2 to happen, Mutation #1 is first needed. However, in his most interesting finding, it turns out that neither of these mutations will necessarily be useful at first. That is, they are neither advantageous nor deleterious, instead merely being neutral, as is so often the case. Yet they persist. It is only by chance, so it is a lucky persistence, but it happens. And, with time, Mutation #3 (or 4 or 5, etc) happens, and it is that mutation which is advantageous. Here natural selection goes to work, causing the new allele to near or reach fixation. But this does not happen in every lineage. Indeed, when Lenski re-runs his experiment using generations he had frozen earlier, he has found that sometimes the mutations all happen again, but more often they fail to occur. The reason is clear: there is nothing but chance that can maintain a neutral mutation. (This is why microsatellites are great for studying short-term generational changes, but not deep evolutionary time.)

I bring this up because Lenksi’s work crystallizes in experiment the words of Stephen Jay Gould:

Replay the tape a million times from a Burgess beginning, and I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again.

Gould went further, however, than us. No single trait, and certainly no entire species, is inevitable in evolution, he rightly said. Perhaps some features are more likely than others – the eye is said to have evolved independently 40 different times – but no specific feature (such as wings or bipedalism) can be firmly predicted. Indeed, Gould spent much of his time arguing that evolution drives not towards complexity or specificity, but rather diversity; life finds itself at many forks, but it never ‘knows’ which road it will take.

This presents a significant problem for theists. For the young Earth variety, the issues are glaring. That group of people is nothing but woefully ignorant, denying even the most obvious and established science. They don’t deserve any more of my time here. For the older Earth variety that opts for theistic evolution, however, the problems they face are merely buried just far enough away from mild, easy thinking to be ignorable for most. That is, they’ve admitted to the fact of evolution, but they are necessarily ignoring that if humans evolved just like everything else, there was a point where our ancestors weren’t human; we were no different from any other mammal in the distant past. (It is only time and space which allows us to define a species.) That destroys any argument that says, in the eyes of some deity, we might be more special than, say, a giraffe.

The counter to this, as per the Catholic Church and others, is to simply declare that we were infused with souls at some unknown point in our evolutionary history. This isn’t much of an answer: No member of a species gives birth to a different species; evolution is continuous. So to believe the theist’s argument, we must conclude that at some point in our ancestry, a mother with no soul gave birth to offspring that did have a soul. That is, one was not essentially human while, magically, the other was.

The one version of theism that gets around some of this is where it is declared that all of life is equally special, so it doesn’t matter that no particular species or even traits are inevitable. This, however, has its own problem. Namely, it makes the given deity (or deities) entirely superfluous. It’s no more a viable position than seeing a door blown inward from the wind and declaring that there was also a ghost pushing from the outside.

For me, I find it far easier to simply accept natural selection and its clear implications. I have no need to make seemingly comfortable lies comport with contradictory facts.

Datechguy does not grasp evolutionary theory

I mentioned a little while ago that the Internet became a better place when Roxeanne de Luca ceased her blogging activities. As it turns out, her old website is gone, but she is still blogging at some site called Datechguy. I don’t care to read anything she has to say given how uniformly uninformed she is on all issues (not to mention the fact that she is crazy), but I did poke around her new location. In doing so, I came across this atrocious piece by the owner of the blog, Datechguy himself:

I think people often confuse “natural selection” and survival and the fittest, which is certainly scientifically sound and full blown evolution the creation of one species from another.

The second has several problems the biggest of which for me is the math.

What makes this interesting is that Datechguy spent a good portion his post disowning creationist arguments, including young Earth creationism. In fact, he is a member of the Catholic Church, a group that claims to embrace the theory of evolution. (The reality is that the Church rejects what the theory actually says, but they still claim to embrace it, at least superficially.) So there is no reason one should expect him to go on about “the math” since that’s nothing more than code for common creationist canards. Yet here we are:

Here is what you need for evolution of that nature to work:

  • You need some kind of mutation.
  • Said mutation needs to be a beneficial mutation so it doesn’t increase the likely hood of the creature caught by a predator.
  • You need a mutation that doesn’t prevent breeding with a similar creature
  • The result of that breed must carry said mutation so it has to be dominant trait
  • Continual breeding has to take place so that dominant trait spreads until all members of the species without that dominant trait disappear.

I really should just point to The Blind Watchmaker and call it a day, but I’m a sucker for punching bags, so let’s get started. First Datechguy says mutations are necessary for speciation. This isn’t all that far off from the truth, but it isn’t exactly accurate. Mutations are going to happen – each one of us has about 150 in our DNA right now – but they are not entirely necessary. All that needs to happen for a speciation event is for enough time, space, and natural selection to take place. That is, natural selection is a honing process, so it is theoretically possible for it to promote some alleles while eliminating others in a way which prevents breeding between two populations that once were able to produce offspring.

The second point is myopic in nature. Datechguy appears to be implying that mutations are for the sake of prey. I never realized that predators and organisms without predators were not involved in evolution. But I digress. We see beneficial mutations all the time. For example, humans which began to utilize animal milk once we started to create civilizations had their lactase producing gene left on after childhood, thus enabling the break down of lactose. That legacy continues in many Europeans and those of European descent. Datechguy has not made a significant point here.

The third point is plainly weird. This guy is saying that for a speciation event to happen, a mutation cannot cause a breeding split within a population. That is false. As we see with human chromosome 2, one very plausible way that it spread throughout the population was that it separated our ancestors with 48 chromosomes from those with 46 chromosomes. That is, a small number of individuals had a mutation which prevented breeding with other members of their population. (It is worth noting, however, that many speciation events are merely a matter of time and the breeding is continuous. That is, a population may be considered one species at Point X, it continues to breed in a way which causes no distinct split (e.g., no division that is present in a single generation), then after, say, 100,000 years, it is considered a different species.)

The fourth point is another weird one. A mutation needs not be dominant to be carried throughout a population. If it did, Mendel never would have had green or wrinkly peas.

The final point – that “continual breeding has to take place so that dominant trait spreads until all members of the species without that dominant trait disappear” – is my favorite. Datechguy is arguing that fixation is necessary for speciation to occur. As we saw with the 2010 Burke paper, evolution still very much occurs with or without complete fixation. In fact, allelic fixation varies between sexually and asexually reproducing populations, so it is improper to speak of it in blanket terms.

The rest of Datechguy’s post is a mix of the Boeing 747 creationist canard and the creationist intelligent design irreducible complexity argument. For instance:

It doesn’t mean it can’t have happened. In theory I can roll snake eyes 50000 times straight

Or to put it another way, if you saw me roll snake eyes 10 times in a row, what would be the first logical thought? Luck or fixed dice? How about 100 times? How about 1000?

(That comes from the comment section on the post.)

It’s a common mistake to believe that any given trait or characteristic needs to evolve in either one giant leap or through a series of perfectly coordinated mutations. Fortunately, that isn’t how evolution works. Natural selection operates via incredibly tiny steps, one by one. When looked at over the course of hundreds of thousands of years or more, we have a huge number of mutations and allelic changes that appear impressive, but the reality is that virtually all of those changes were individually likely. And, just as importantly, each one of those changes is individually useful. (I’m ignoring historical contingency for the sake of brevity.) For instance, an eyespot won’t enable any creature to see danger or prey from miles away, but it is useful for detecting light and dark and, eventually, color, shape, and size.

I imagine Roxeanne and Datechguy will be very happy together at a site that, as with her last one, entirely lacks all scientific value.

The genius of Charles Darwin

By the time that an animal had reached, after numberless generations, the deepest recesses, disuse will on this view have more or less perfectly obliterated its eyes, and natural selection will often have affected other changes, such as an increase in the length of antennae or palpi, as compensation for blindness.

The above quote comes from On the Origin of Species. It is just one of the numerous instances where Charles Darwin, on the basis of his theory, makes a wonderful prediction that comes true so many years after the fact. In this case, his prediction has been shown to be true over and over; species which have gone millions of years in the dark lose their eyesight again and again. We see this especially in many species of cave fish, but it isn’t limited to the oceans:

With a leg span of only six centimetres and a body size of around twelve millimetres, the spider Sinopoda scurion is certainly not one of the largest representatives of the huntsman spiders, which include more than 1100 species. However, it is the first of its kind in the world without any eyes.

“I found the spider in a cave in Laos, around 100 kilometres away from the famous Xe Bang Fai cave,” reports Peter Jäger, head of the arachnology section at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt. “We already knew of spiders of this genus from other caves, but they always had eyes and complete pigmentation. Sinopoda scurion is the first huntsman spider without eyes.”

One prediction the theory of evolution allows us to make today that Darwin couldn’t make in his lifetime is that the genes for vision in these now-blind species should exist but be broken. If they do not exist, then either there is some really funky timeline and divergence activity (that is, these are old lineages that evolved before their sighted brethren) and we should see a lot of other genetic differences or evolution just isn’t true. Neither one of those options is very likely, of course. What we observe instead is that, indeed, the genes for vision are a broken, jumbled mess. That isn’t the case yet for the above spider because, as far as I know, no such studies have been carried out, but it is the case wherever else these sort of species have had their genes analyzed.

One point I think that needs to be made sure with Darwin’s quote here is this: Natural selection is unlikely to be the only factor in the disappearance of eyes among these species*. In fact, it could have little to nothing to do with the process at all. Vision in the dark is a useless thing, so natural selection may obliterate it for the sake of saving energy or preventing potential injury to a sensitive body part, but I believe it is much more likely that it simply did nothing. It neither selected for nor against vision. As a result of the lack of positive selection, mutation and genetic drift took over and vision in these species simply faded away.

*I really have two points here. First is the one I just made in the above paragraph. Second is the fact that Darwin was referencing natural selection in regard to it creating some compensation for blindness, not in regard to it directionally causing the blindness.

“Is natural selection random?”

One of the most common series of search terms that gets people to FTSOS is the title of this post. Most people end up clicking my article on why natural selection is not random; I’m not a huge fan of that piece. It was originally written for a local weekly paper (which changed ownership as I finished), not a blog. What’s more, it is very far from being succinct. I want to rectify that issue in this post.

So is natural selection random? No. Why not? The answer is simple: Natural selection is the pressure placed on a population and the change that happens in response to that pressure. Whereas the exact pressure is in part random in regards to any given population, exactly how a population responds follows some basic rules. Now, the reason I say the pressure is only random “in part” is because first and foremost I’m referring to changes in the environment that happen without regard to life. The rising of a mountain range is one example. But at the same time, other changes that might occur are in response to the direction of a population. For instance, it often pays to be the biggest and baddest member of a species for males, but instead of responding by becoming all the bigger and badder, some members might just become tricky. Some octopi, for example, will trick guardian males into believing they are just another female, gaining them access to the real female. This pressure isn’t entirely random since it is a response to the evolutionary state of a population. That is, becoming tricky is a response to being big and bad, and becoming big and bad was not itself random. But why? Well, I’m glad you asked:

Selection is a biased reaction to a given environment. This is specifically with regard to life: those that are able to exploit their environment best (and I really just mean ‘well enough’) are the ones that are going to survive. If it was all just random, then we would see no bias: We wouldn’t see a species trend in one way or another, beneficial genes would hardly ever become common, and we would never be able to make predictions. But what we see are trends and an increase in beneficial genes (and the elimination of deleterious genes) and we make predictions all the time. It is because of biased genetic reactions in populations that we call natural selection non-random.

I wouldn’t mind going on and on, but I said I want to make this succinct, so I will end with just one final but important point: The non-biased genetic reactions that happen because of natural selection must be measured across a population and through generations. If a creationist someone starts talking about natural selection being random and pointing out individual responses to the environment, then we might not be talking about the same evolutionary mechanism anymore. Everything that happens within evolution is happening to populations. Individuals do not evolve. So natural selection is the differential survival of individuals (or genes, depending on your perspective), but it is measured through time and within the context of a population.

GE Salmon may gain FDA approval

The FDA is considering allowing a company to market a fish that has been genetically engineered.

If the FDA approves the sale of the salmon, it will be the first time the U.S. government allows such modified animals to be marketed for human consumption. The panel was convened by the agency to look at the science of the fish and make recommendations on its safety and environmental impact.

Ron Stotish, chief executive of the Massachusetts company that created the salmon, AquaBounty, said at Monday’s hearing that his company’s fish product is safe and environmentally sustainable.

FDA officials have largely agreed with him, saying that the salmon, which grows twice as fast as its conventional “sisters,” is as safe to eat as the traditional variety. But they have not yet decided whether to approve the request, saying there is no timeline for a decision.

One of the chief concerns most people have about genetically altered food is that it contains DNA. I kid you not. That concern is more prevalent where cloned animals are in question, but it’s just as incoherent.

But there are more reasonable concerns.

Critics have two main concerns: The safety of the food to humans and the salmon’s effect on the environment.

Because the altered fish has never been eaten before, they say, it could include dangerous allergens, especially because seafood is highly allergenic. They also worry that the fish will escape and intermingle with the wild salmon population, which is already endangered.They would grow fast and consume more food to the detriment of the conventional wild salmon, the critics fear.

There’s really no reason to suspect any extra allergies. These fish are being caused to grow faster through the use of hormones they already regularly produce; they’re just producing more hormones than they would without the inserted gene and regulator. If someone doesn’t have an allergy as a result of these hormones now, they won’t have an allergy to these new salmon.

As far as contamination is concerned, I doubt there will be any intermingling, but if it does happen, it seems unlikely the new fish will out-compete the current wild population. Natural selection could act to increase the frequency of hormone production relatively easily. It hasn’t. It’s unlikely the new population would be more fit in the given wild population’s environment.

I foresee this getting approval, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the FDA acquiesced to critic’s demands and forced a ‘warning’ to be placed on the fish listing it as genetically altered. This would be unfortunate since there is no effective difference between eating a wild population salmon and a genetically altered salmon. But it’s the FDA. There will be an unnecessary warning added; it’ll probably be removed in 5-10 years when it becomes even more clear that this fish is very safe to eat.

Water on the Moon

NASA discovered there is plenty of water on the moon.

Experts have long suspected there was water on the moon. So the thrilling discovery announced Friday sent a ripple of hope for a future astronaut outpost in a place that has always seemed barren and inhospitable.

“We found water. And we didn’t find just a little bit. We found a significant amount,” Anthony Colaprete, lead scientist for the mission, told reporters as he held up a white water bucket for emphasis.

He said the 25 gallons of water the lunar crash kicked up was only what scientists could see from the plumes of the impact.

This is equivalent to roughly a bathtub’s worth of water from this double-impact.

One part of me wants to endlessly speculate at the possibility of microbial life. But all reason and rationality tell me to be cautious. Water does not automatically mean life (especially when its frozen).

…but what if it does mean life, at least in this case? Would the world realize the utter significance of this discovery? Not since Darwin described evolution by natural selection has there been such an important find.