Monday, September 24, 2007

I can only blame the Rev for this post

It's sorta his fault. And after all we've been through together!
A little while back the rev posts this over at his Woodshed and I couldn't help pondering a certain question: Where have I heard this name before? Kirk Durston. Where indeed?
And that lead to searching on the Intertubes. Which brought me to the old Pharyngula site:

Pharyngula::Creationist genetics
It's not just the US that is infested with creationists; take a look at Canadian Christianity. Like their southern brethren, they seem to be greatly concerned about homosexuals and evolution; I'm always astounded at how much conservative Christian identity is tied to the denial of civil rights and opposition to science. There are several juicy tidbits of benighted ignorance there, but I'm going to focus on one incredible claim made in an interview with a Kirk Durston, who is apparently a director of some Campus Chrusade for Christ ministry...which, apparently, means he is now a fully qualified creationist biologist.

What happens that gets ol' P.Zed's dander up? This:

Pharyngula::Creationist genetics
Durston, of course, obligingly buys into the interviewer's phony claim, but goes a little further and says something astounding.

It is very important to make a distinction between micro-evolution and macro-evolution. Micro-evolution has been known for thousands of years, with the first documented case occurring in Genesis, when Jacob [manipulated] his father-in-law's sheep and goat herd so he could get more striped and spotted livestock. Any examples of evolution we observe today fall into this category.

I quite agree that the breeding of domesticated animals is an excellent example of the transformation of populations with evolutionary consequences. Darwin himself wrote extensively about domesticated animals in his books, and considered them good supporting evidence for his ideas. But have you ever read the story of Jacob and his microevolutionary research program in genetic manipulation? It's amusing. Here it is:

"What should I pay you?" Laban asked. Jacob answered: "You do not have to pay me anything outright. I will again pasture and tend your flock, if you do this one thing for me:
11 go through your whole flock today and remove from it every dark animal among the sheep and every spotted or speckled one among the goats. Only such animals shall be my wages.
In the future, whenever you check on these wages of mine, let my honesty testify against me: any animal in my possession that is not a speckled or spotted goat, or a dark sheep, got there by theft!"
"Very well," agreed Laban. "Let it be as you say."
That same day Laban removed the streaked and spotted he-goats and all the speckled and spotted she-goats, all those with some white on them, as well as the fully dark-colored sheep; these he left. . . in charge of his sons.
Then he put a three days' journey between himself and Jacob, while Jacob continued to pasture the rest of Laban's flock.
Jacob, however, got some fresh shoots of poplar, almond and plane trees, and he made white stripes in them by peeling off the bark down to the white core of the shoots.
The rods that he had thus peeled he then set upright in the watering troughs, so that they would be in front of the animals that drank from the troughs. When the animals were in heat as they came to drink,
the goats mated by the rods, and so they brought forth streaked, speckled and spotted kids.
The sheep, on the other hand, Jacob kept apart, and he set these animals to face the streaked or fully dark-colored animals of Laban. Thus he produced special flocks of his own, which he did not put with Laban's flock.
Moreover, whenever the hardier animals were in heat, Jacob would set the rods in the troughs in full view of these animals, so that they mated by the rods;
but with the weaker animals he would not put the rods there. So the feeble animals would go to Laban, but the sturdy ones to Jacob.
Thus the man grew increasingly prosperous, and he came to own not only large flocks but also male and female servants and camels and asses.

This is the biblical science creationists want to put in our schools. How do you breed striped livestock? You let them look at striped sticks while they are mating, and then their offspring will be striped. Under this logic, we'll have to assume that white ceilings are a racist plot to breed more Caucasian children. And yet this creationist, in all seriousness, suggests this ridiculous story as an instance of Biblical microevolution and genetics.

I won't even get into the ethical lesson here, which seems to be that it is OK for Jacob to cheat his father-in-law, and that his reward is to own servants.

That helped me narrow it down, but I still didn't feel satisfied. So I put on my iPod and went to one of the lectures I downloaded from iTunesU (when was the last time I used the fracking thing to actually listen to music?) and, behold, I found my answer: the Does God Exist? debate from Queen's University. And that's when I knew this post was coming.
And that's when I started procrastinating. And I took a Japanese course. But I knew I'd be back to this.
Damn you, Rev, for hanging out red meat!
When I first started making notes about the debate I secretly hoped that I'd be able to relate that Adele Mercier (siding with Enlightenment) handed Rick Durston his ass. Alas, said ass-handing never came. Both sides made some decent points as well as their fuck ups. Durston's up-fucking was the usual litany of classics. Mercier's were tactical, with some nice heaping of straw making enemies.
The Debate Itself
There was a general introduction and welcoming of the speakers. There's really nothing to report here.
Opening Statement - Adele Mercier
Mercier's tone was one that seemed quite thoughtful at first. She had arguments from a philosophical point of view. This would haunt her later. Wait for it.
Mercier's opening salvo was on the dangers of faith; an all good, all knowing, personal God is incompatible with free will. Faith teaches you to accept easy answers. Thinking is hard and people are lazy.
On an unrelated point, any evidence for a god is evidence for all gods.
Mercier moves on to some of the leaps in logic that theists use.
First: if there is a god, the Bible was written by that god. If there is a god, this should have an impact on how you live your life.
Second: being good means following God. This is illustrated in the retelling of what Christopher Hitchens calls Abraham's long and gloomy walk with his son. It's a little hoary now, but it's a perfect illustration of what the problem is with the God-says-I-do-it's-all-okay mentality.
To illustrate that God cannot be all good and involved in the world Mercier chooses the example of Paul Bernardo (and there's your CanCon for the Canucks listening; for the non-Moosehead-drinking-frostbacked-Laura-Secord-eaters out there, Bernardo is the most notorious rapist-murderer in recent Canadian history)
The point is that God, knowing how he would turn out, created Paul Bernardo. Now the theist response is that God gave Bernardo free will. He could have chosen not to murder and dismember. Mercier considers this an insufficient response; God had a choice in how to make Bernardo. God could have aided a different sperm so 'Saul Bernardo' would have been born without Paul's proclivities.
Her next point was to that the theist response is always the same: Given that God is good, there must be a reason for this; there must be unforeseen eventual consequences that contribute to a greater good in the long run over the short term evil.
Indeed, as she points out this is the theme of a philosophy paper that Durston wrote. Durston later disputed her characterization of this paper saying it was merely beyond our knowing how it would turn out in the long run, so we have to reserve judgement on the overall goodness or badness of any action. I had to get out my TurboHairSplit-o-Matix 2000 to give a shit about the difference. While I do agree with Mercier that this attitude has a devastating effect on free will, I don't agree with her straw-man version of the article that in order to do good, we must do evil. Certainly we are not able to pass an opinion on actions as good or evil (walks just become long and gloomy) but it doesn't follow that doing evil has the opposite effect in the long term.
Anyway, disagreement over...
Mercier's conclusion is this: a god who is good, but doesn't do good is like a round square or gold not made of gold -- an impossible object.
Opening Statement: Kirk Durston
Durston starts with the idea that if we resulted from blind, material processes then life has no meaning. (It seems a leap to then say that if there is a meaning to life then God exists)
Durston leads in with his 2 basic arguments: first, the argument from SecY protein; second, the argument from personal experience.
SecY is a protein found in all life composed of 340 amino acid sequences. This protein could not have originated naturally thus opening up the possibility of God. Durston uses 5 propositions related SecY to prove this.
1) Intelligent agents can produce sequences requiring more than 50 bytes of information to encode.
2) Nature cannot produce information carrying sequences requiring more than 50 bytes.
3) SecY requires 84 bytes of information to encode.
4) SecY was sequenced by nature or intelligent agents
5) SecY must have been created by something - this something is God.
Durston says a lot of stuff about how if the universe were a quantum computer it would not be able to create SecY as it still would not have a sufficient number of cycles, based on this paper by Lloyd. I'm not sure that the universe is a computer, however.
I can't argue with much of his info as it just comes down to a bit of big number booga-boo.
I'll quote here and let someone else get shit off the shelves for me... Forum • View topic - Kinda weird ID question...
His argument here seems to be along the lines of 'well the sequence as it stands is highly complex and couldn't have arisen outside of a designer's intervention'. The hemoglobin superfamily (including most globin carrying proteins) displays very little sequence homology across the entire family yet almost all of them still manage to transport oxygen. Consequently, there are many ways to perform the same function and arguments about "the odds against" need to consider all possible proteins that can perform the same or similar function. Once you consider that sequence space then the 'complexity' required drops dramatically because any one of the sequences is interchangeable with any other for the purposes of a starting point for evolution of the protein. To clarify, the ancestral hemoglobin protein probably looked virtually nothing like the modern ones, it's only property was that it had a heme centre and could carry oxygen to some degree or another. Natural selection could then easily operate to improve that into the 4-part wonder that exists in all our red blood cells. For a far better rebuttal of such arguments than I could possibly hope to write, please consult Talk Origins link here starting at section 1.2.2. Specifically note that a simple gene can rapidly increase in complexity by duplication with subsequent divergent mutation. In summary, our friend Mr Durston hasn't come up with anything new. He has merely presented a slight variation on the old complexity canard and added a healthy dose of argument from personal incredulity. The fact that he does not personally know of a natural agent that can produce a sequence with more than 50 bits of information does not mean it does not exist and, additionally, his estimate of '50 bits of information' does not take into account all possible protein sequences that can perform the same or similar function. Hope that helps somewhat. Forum • View topic - Kinda weird ID question...
I heard this debate too and this Sec Y point drove me insance, it was handled badly by the opposition and no one in the audience picked up how ridiculous it was in the question time. Durston tried to get all hocus pocus with his protein sequencing jargon and pull the wool over everyone's eyes, but regardless of any scientific information, this set of propositions just doesn't hold up as anything vaguely logical. Durston seemed like an intelligent guy, so I was kind of disappointed when he brought this up. The first mistake he makes is by drawing his conclusion. He's basically saying (although not explicilty): -nature cant make anything requiring more than 56 bytes of information -intelligent beings can -sec y requires 86 bytes of information -therefore god exists. This is a total non sequitur. And also it's an argument from ignorance. Durston is basically saying just because HE can't work out how this protein is produced, God must have done it. The jump made in logic is ridiculous. The proposition could equally read: -nature cant make anything requiring more than 56 bytes of information -sec y requires 86 bytes of information -therefore nature CAN make protein sequences requiring more than 56 bytes of information My point is that it's quite likely that either Durston is oversimplifying his first proposition, or he doesn't fully understand it himself. To make Durston's argument, you would have to assume a God-like knowledge of protein sequencing, which we just don't have.

For a similar issue with molecular evolution, look here or here. While there's always another protein or gene to sequence, the basic pattern has been established as solid.
Durston's other proof was the weakest thing I had heard in years.
If one person has actually (in the philosopher's sense of real contact with a real thing) experienced God then God exists. This, I don't think, can be disputed. But, he's not going to...
So, of course, he has actually experienced God. But wait there's more...C.S. Lewis more...
He challenges the audience to assess whether he's lying, insane or truthful.
Keep in mind, he goes on to say that he's most meaningful relationship has been with God, not his wife. He goes on at length about this relationship.
But if you call now you get:
Everyone in this room has experienced God, when you appreciate something beautiful, or decry injustice. That's a taste of God.
Of course, the experience of God is never really explained beyond the I-got-a-warm-fuzzy level.
Advantage: Mercier - straw man version of Durston's sense of moral judgement aside, she never said anything as mind-numbing as the you've all had a "taste of god" thing.
20 Minute Rebuttals
Mercier in her rebuttal took the bait: Okay, Dirk (she'd taken to calling him 'Dirk' at this point), you're insane. Although she tried to bring in ideas about induced religious experiences in the lab and disturbances in the right temporal lobe and...aww there was no rescue. It was cheap and was beneath anyone.
Her response to the SecY (whatever the heck that is!) argument was dismissive. Again, she tried to mention incremental changes but was hand waved away by Durston without any real challenge from Mercier. It was a lapse on her part to not have researched anything about this beforehand, especially considering that his debating style and most of his points are out there:

ACA: Online Articles
Report on Intelligent Design Debate
Debate report: "Does God Exist?" - IIDB
Debate report: "Does God Exist?"
Although she did try to attack one of the premises behind the limiting of the number of operations the universe could have generated were it a computer by pointing out that the universe isn't a computer. It was obvious enough but she allowed him to hand wave the criticism away.
Philosophers should consult the biology department before walking headlong into some of these shots. It's always the same thing: like this comic.
Just another report on the whack-a-doodles out there. Listening to mind-numbing crap so you don't have to...

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the rev. said...

sorry to leave the bait on the hook for you EG, but you sure took you time rising to it. Nice post btw.

The Eternal Gaijin said...

I have some excuses lined up about taking my dear sweet time, but most of them amount to handwaving and the Chewbacca defence. The truth lies at the nexus of lazy, distracted and procrastinating.
Thanks for stopping by.