Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Barking at the Moon

OK, my last post was a bit of a Richard Dawkins bash. I make no secret that I personally don’t buy into his Darwinist message but that’s not my issue. It’s the arrogant, fundamentalist nature of his approach. An approach that deliberately stifles debate over important questions about origins and purpose that hacks me off.

There are other populist proponents of evolutionary theory out there who manage to communicate their message without resorting to intellectual fascism; Professor Steven Jones and the late Stephen Jay Gould come to mind.

(that’s the British Professor Steven Jones not the American Professor Steven Jones who released a scientific paper last month that suggested the three WTC towers were taken down by explosives)

History teaches us, quite emphatically, that we can be sure that today’s scientific certainty will be tomorrow’s superstition. And, for the life of me, I’ve seen no evidence that the Theory of Evolution will be any different.

I mention all this because I tried taking a couple of photos of the full Moon last weekend and I got round to thinking about a paper I’d read a few weeks ago.

The Moon is a most excellent and coincidentally useful lump of rock. The moderating effect it has on the Earth’s rotation and the role of tides make a key contribution to life on Earth. Professor Dawkins would dismiss the significance of the Moon as being one of those things. Me, I’m not so sure.

But anyway, the Lunar quirks and coincidences that intrigue me most at the moment are those that apparently have no impact on life on Earth. My two favourite are:

Lunar maria, the large dark basaltic plains visible on the Moon’s surface, are almost entirely restricted to the near-side, visible from Earth. The few maria on the far-side are much smaller, being mostly very large craters. This bias of distribution is thought to have assisted in the tidal locking of the Moon's rotation to its orbit. This results in only one side of the Moon being visible from the Earth. The reason the maria have assisted in tidal locking is that they are denser than much of the rest of the surface and are therefore more strongly attracted towards the Earth by gravity. Over millennia, the Moon's rotation has slowed so that the heaviest side of the Moon with the maria on it faces constantly towards the Earth.

Now the phase locking explanation is all very well and good but it doesn’t do anything to explain why one side of the Moon was splattered so badly in the first place. Given that the Moon is rotating, dismissing the skewed distribution of Lunar maria as being one of those things doesn’t really cut it.

My second favourite Lunar coincidence is the fact that the Moon and the Sun appear to be exactly the same size in the sky...

What’s that all about? This coincidence isn’t fixed in time. The distance between the Earth and the Moon is changing gradually. Near perfect Solar eclipses have only a limited run which coincides neatly with our own existence.

Once again, Dawkins fans would dismiss this coincidence as being one of those things. Proponents of Intelligent Design, at first sight, would seem to be stuck for an explanation. What Earthly point is there to designing Solar eclipses into the grand scheme of things?

Which gets me back to the paper I was thinking about. Guillermo Gonzalez, a US based astronomy professor has put forward the idea that we are part of a designed system that is designed for habitability and observability. In this kind of designed Universe the Solar eclipse coincidence makes perfect sense as its existence allows us to make all sorts of scientific observations which we would otherwise be unable to perform.

This is an absolutely fantastic hypothesis and it promises to drive Dawkins-esque types mental. Sure, it’s a bugger to prove experimentally and so cannot honestly be considered a theory but, if we’re being honest here, nor can Evolution (if anyone knows of an experiment that validates the Theory of Evolution I’d love to hear about it).

I’m particularly tickled by Gonzalez’ hypothesis because it turns the discredited notion of Mankind being at the Centre of Creation, an idea once supposedly as ‘certain’ as Evolutionary Theory, completely on its head...

We are not located at the centre of the Universe because it’s a really crap place to be, both in terms of habitability and for the scope it offers us to observe the Universe.

If you’re interested in this kind of material I recommend reading through Gonzalez’ stuff. Some of it is quite dry and academic but some of it is really amusing, particularly when you think about the potential implications if any of it is true.

Of course, Richard Dawkins and most of his fans wouldn’t bother reading material like that. They know he’s right.


de said...

Oh Richard! What a pain that man can be.

What scientists have found over the years is that "democracy" in ideas can pollute understanding quite a bit. We've seen how people take Evolution V Creationism to be two competing scientific ideas, which of course they are not.

Media savvy scientists just smile and repeat themselves when faced with the wild stuff. Most are sensible enough to realise that even a good theory is still subject to improvement, and a bad one may have something to it. I guess when a kid asks a vicar "who would win a fight between Jesus and Santa Claus?" the same thing happens.

Dawkins seems to have fallen into stridency. I suspect its desperation, not bravado - either way it doesn't look too good. Doesn't mean he's wrong of course..

The Anthropic Principle (i.e. a universe for the me generation) is quite intriguing. An offshoot of it is that we have been "planted" here from a former colony. In this case, Earth would presumably have been chosen for its friendliness to life. Far from being unprovable, investigation of the other planets may well provide more clues as to how special Earth is.

Daniel said...


So your saying Dawkins has forgetten how to be a pragmatist?

Daniel said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Stef said...

I was reading through a few articles written by Dakwins a few days ago and came across this 'Review' of an anti Darwinist book a few days ago


What is it people say about ad hominem attacks? What do they tell us about the people who make them?

de said...

Pragmatism gets you fifteen minutes on radio 5 explaining science between reviews of last weeks Eastenders and Freddy Flintoffs lastest half century.

At least people read Dawkins books.

de said...

Again, the review is a case in point. Dawkins could say the material is creationist and thus subject to an orthooxy he doesn't agree with - but that puts ballast on a scientific footing. If the author is a moron, by all means tell us. Saves everyone time.

Stef said...

I've read the book in question and don;t believe the author to be a moron. I could also point out that Dawkins conspicuously fails to address the questions presented in the book in question. The material isn't actually creationist at all and simply identifies weaknesses in existing theory.

My point is that resorting to calling people fruitcakes or shuysters is not really a substitute for reasoned debate and when I see people behaving like that, particularly scientists, the old alarm bells start ringing

de said...

I suspect this isn't the first time he has had to face down this sort of material. So perhaps add irritation to desperation.

However, if he going to review a book he should do the decent thing and argue the case properly. So no excuse really.

Obviously the age of the Earth is a sensitive topic. Evolution needs millions of years, and the bible claims this is a much younger planet. Blundering into this territory is serious red flag waving for both camps.

Stef said...


Frank O'Dwyer said...

Dawkins does go a bit far sometimes, however I think Douglas Adams dealt with the ID/anthropological viewpoint best:

". . . imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for."

de said...

I have had a look at Gonzalez' stuff, and it is interesting. I like the fact that he has seen little intelligence in the SETI community.

If you alone survive a disaster, some will call you lucky, some may call you special. One could reasonably use history to prove either idea.

Frank O'Dwyer said...

Sure, it’s a bugger to prove experimentally and so cannot honestly be considered a theory but, if we’re being honest here, nor can Evolution (if anyone knows of an experiment that validates the Theory of Evolution I’d love to hear about it).

Stef, the problem with Gonzales' theory is not that it isn't provable, it's that it is not falsifiable. Evolutionary Theory is - and it has so far survived every empirical punch thrown at it.

Not only that but Evolutionary Theory has known mechanisms for how it works, not just evidence to support that it works.

I'd recommend you to check out the talk.origins archive on the net - it's got some good answers to frequently asked questions on this type of thing.

The newsgroup of the same name used to be pretty good too, if you want to get into some unmoderated debate on this with some people who actually know the field (and many others who don't :-). Don't know if it still is any good - still it might be worth checking on google groups. Probably there is a lot of quality stuff about gonzales theory on there also (but you'd need to wade through a lot of crap to find it).

kt said...

Agreeing very much with Frank here. It's a peculiar thing, that a bunch of low-probability events swung into place and resulted in us. Looking for reasons other than "Well, if they didn't happen that way we wouldn't be here to ponder and observe them" seems kind of pointless. That puddle analogy was great!

It's true, a theory has to be falsifiable in order to be so labelled.

Stef said...

Ok, I was a little sloppy with my language back there. When I said 'provable' I was referring to falsifiable - both sides of the same coin and all that

Gonzalez' maintains that his ID theory is falsifiable though I have to agree I'm not convinced about that

But here's my question

In which way is evolutionary theory falsifiable?

If someone would be so kind as to direct me to a Dawkins friendly summation of what exactly is meant by the theory of evolution and a couple of experiments that open it up to falsification I'd be really grateful


Frank, I did hang around talk.origins some time ago but kept bumping into all sorts of fundamentalist crazies who, sooner or later, would revert to shouting in place of informative discussion. That's round about the time when it dawned on me that these guys were as religious as any born again Christian

Evolutionary theory has most certainly not handled every punch thrown at it. The theory is morphed. Its more zealous adherents resort to word play, deceptive information (untruths about peppered moths, horses and all the other old chestnuts) and bullying. And the normal response to anybody critical of the theory is to damn them as religious crackpots rather than deal with the real questions

Off the top of my head, a few examples of questions that have most certainly not been dealt with

- how did life start in the first place? Not strictly a question for Darwin but of key significance to the ID debate. Right now there's no viable mechanism on the table. Believe in the spontaneous generation of cellular life is a fine example of science of the gaps

- what's the response to the concept of irreducible complexity as championed by Michale Behe. Take a look at the reviews of 'Darwins Black Box' in Amazon if you want to see examples of fundamentalism (from both sides) in action

- the guy who taught me palaeontology/ evolution at graduate level made a career out of tracking beetle fossils and using them to map ancient climates. At the same time as teaching us Darwin his work was based firmly on the fact that beetles have not evolved at all for 1 million plus years. That's 2/3rds of all insect species and an awfully large number of generations

- it's not just beetles is it? How much grading between species do we see in the real world or fossil record? A dog is a dog. A brontosaur is a brontosaur. Evolutionists weedle around this question in all sorts of ways but the bottom line is, if evolution is a constant process where's the gradation? And yes, I do know all about hopeful monsters but that hypothesis is an example of wheedling. How many lay people who have been conditioned into believing evolution know what a hopeful monster is?

Re. the puddle argument. Hmmmm, that's just another way of saying 'it just happened' isn't it? That's not very scientific is it?


Why are bananas that curvy shape?
They just are

Enlightening stuff. The puddle story is no more valid, or invalid, than Paley's watch argument.

The list of fine tuned universal variables and 'local' happy accidents in the solar system necessary to support life is huge. And growing constantly. Yet guardians of orthodoxy insist that this is of no significance whatsoever. At the very least, it demonstrates that the Earth might be an incredibly rare kind of place but even that notion gets blown off as heresy.

God might have absolutely nothing to do with it. A previous commentator has already mentioned the idea but I'll restate a hypothesis

Life on this planet was seeded by a tremendously capable alien intelect. Our planet. Our social system. All were geoformed to provide a safe environment in which intelligent live would survive and learn.

How is that not a scientific hypothesis? What empiracle observations disprove it?

Ah , but it's not phrased in a falsifiable way is it? Probably not, but nor is the hypothesis of evolution


Thanks to all for chipping in with their thoughts

de said...

Evolution looks simple but isn't. I don't know whether there are simple and accurate explanations on the net of different examples. I assume there are.

Evolution is easy to falsify in one way: reduce the time for life on Earth and its impossibile. Or prove inheritability is not as linear as it appears.

I have inidcated directions to look at your questions, but don't fall into the "evolution is simple" trap:

- how did life start in the first place? Simply Beyond the scope of Evolution.

- irreducible complexity: an attempt to infer design of course. Try Dawkins River out of Eden.

- non evolved beetles: I would suggest they are in an unpressured niche. I would also suggest there may have been plenty of genetic non visible change.

- dogs are dogs: I think the "successful" or unpressured point again. But there is probably more to all this.

- curvy bananas: Maybe the wrong question. Is there an environmental pressure to select against curvy bananas? Is there an internal mechanism that has a side effect of curving bananas?