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  #1  
Unread September 2nd, 2006, 03:46 PM
James Brody James Brody is offline
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Default Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple

Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple

Coulter wrote a best seller, Godless: The Church of Lliberalism. She's also a skinny attorney who hates most liberals and rants as if still married to six of them. She also dislikes Darwinism and the preferential treatment that it gets in some public schools. The distinguished evolutionary scholar, William Provine, agrees that the standard edition of evolution has some moth holes but he probably likes more liberals than does Coulter. In some respects, they complement each other and I have a perverse twitch when I read them back to back...

ANN

Coulter believes in IQ, capital punishment, and extending to unborn children the protections that we give to Illegals and criminals. (Hoorah!) And in treating criminals and illegals like we now treat unwanted fetuses. (Hoorah, again!) She makes her case on contemporary social issues for 198 pages but saves the last 100 for her thoughts about us Darwinians. I enjoyed the first part but felt "unfair" and sometimes embarrassed in the second. I also enjoyed some of her comments about my less-gifted contemporaries: "No one disputes that a monkey looks like a human, especially in the case of Al Franken." WOW!

Her wit and arguments impress me, she knows our flaws:

1) She accepts the notion that time and genes produce incremental changes but the random mutation into desirable traits seems implausible: many of us ordinary folks agree, always have, and don't see a need for much else. On the other hand, the cognitive types in California argue that adaptations are needed because random experiments at birth by neurons should lead only to dolts. Gould's idea was that "constraint" describes boundaries and opportunities for genetic changes and becomes plausible in the frameworks now offered by statistical physics. Design, maybe yes, and one that accelerates its skills with each generation; designer, no.

2) Selection is a tautology. So what. Tautology is an equal opportunity whore who, for some cash and a little respect, will do anything. Evolutionists are neither her first nor last customer.

3) We can't find new species and Darwin's Origins claimed to be about new species. Even the Galapagos started with 17 kinds of finch and 150 years later, Coulter finds that 17 are still there. MacArthur & Wilson, however, found that acreage determines the number of species but I'll go along that the magic 17 may be the same 17. Want more birds? Give me more land! (I understand that cichlids speciate within an African lake but I need to check on that fact.)

As for the lack of transition species in the fossil record, a) mothers eat deviants, and probably before any of them turns to rock, b) mutants need to reproduce with something and most critters, not just Tommy Cruise, are picky breeders, c) some of us argue that behavior changes occur before those of bones, and d) given the mutual resonance between critters and the worlds they make, very little might change until a rock falls. (I understand that heat shock proteins restore protein functions after a toxin or mutagen but, given enough exposure, stabilize the deviant forms into something reproducible. The deviations, however, tend to be throwbacks to earlier forms! (Lots of "maybe" here: Raff, for example, suggests that earlier DNA sequences can be active for 5 million years after their last expression. Want to see an anthropologist's ancestor?)

4) She's unrelenting. She found out about the bogus moth data and that Dawkins' story is untrue: there is no computer simulation that makes an eyeball. I suspect that she is correct that teachers still tell these stories. I also agree that a lot of evolutionists use them as examples because the story is so damned convenient. But so was the tale of Jesus walking on water. And even John Donne viewed the crucifixion as a suicide.

WILLIAM PROVINE

Provine sits in an endowed Chair in biological sciences at Cornell. He wrote a magnificent history of Sewall Wright and tells some of the debates that Wright had with Ron (RA) Fisher. (For those of you in Limbaugh's Riolinda: Wright was one of three - Fisher, Wright, & Haldane - who integrated Mendelian genetics with natural selection. Wright also gave us the foundations for path analysis, used widely in modern behavior genetics, and his model of evolutionary change is still with us and doing well.)

His "Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics" is short, rich, and surprising. Provine gave us a fine history of the debates between Darwin and Thom Huxley and Frank Galton. The former was usually an incrementalist, the latter two saw evolution as sometimes taking giant steps. Provine follows the debate up through Haldane's contributions but it continued for another 60 years. Gould is dead and Ed Wilson seems to be quieter: "All my rowdy friends done settled on down..."

Surprise! Darwin had his own problems with Coulter's intellectual forebears: many of them liked the idea of evolution but couldn't appreciate Selection. Some of them had no sense of deep time, some of them (by an instinct that Coulter shares?) needed a Designer. That is, cathedrals need architects but no one remembered that architects learned from millennia of smaller churches that grew from caves.

Provine's Afterword, however, is the big story. It was written about thirty years after the rest of his book and, except for a phrase on the cover, hides behind the bibliography. Provine lists ten domains where he no longer believes as he once did. For example::

1) Selection accomplishes nothing; it an outcome, not a mechanism.

2) The evolution of ears, proteins, and genes do not necessarily parallel each other.

3) Gene pool, random drift, genetic homeostasis, species, microevolution vs. Macro...all illusory unless approached so carefully as to make them almost useless!

Darwinian theory can be a Cheshire Cat.

BOTTOM LINES

I grew up in the United States of Toby Keith, conceived by a redneck southern mother and a stoic military father. I can't stand most liberals, love evolution, and resonate with much of what Coulter and Provine say. Coulter, however, does collages, Provine lays bricks. Coulter tries to be the older sister from hell, Provine the calm uncle. Both create magnificent works. On the other hand, my mother's genes, in spite of my father's gentle manner, hunt for narcissists with whom to fight. Coulter is a natural whose talent deserves better coaching in evolutionary theory!

1) She wants equal time for Intelligent Design (ID). I don't. I spent three years of my childhood in swampy south Georgia. School opened with bowed head and mumbling lips but my grit serotonin allele,* the one my feuding mother supplied, is still pissed.** And, today, I want neither my cart nor my country to follow only one horse, reared by a fundamentalist nag.

2) The teachers that Coulter rips for messing up math and grammar do no better when they teach evolution. They would also make a mess of ID. ID is no cure for evolutionary mistakes, a more humble appreciation for what we don't know probably is.

3) We evolutionists need a good predator to keep us lean, smart, and awake. Coulter is one such. Meanwhile, she should know that most academics in the social sciences distrust people who believe in human instincts and in IQ. The faculty who don't like her also don't like us; on the other hand, Coulter and we evolutionists could sometimes get along, at least those of us who are not liberals!

4) Statistical physics, especially as translated by Philip Ball, Steven Strogatz, Duncan Watts, and Albert Barabasi, show us structures evolve and explore, structure that guide genes. Still the odd kid on the playground, I search within the boundaries of "maybe" rather than imagining someone who laid kindling and lit a fuse for the Big Bang. Did the BB left us debris that, examined with the right questions, reveals conditions in place before it happened and that, if reinstated, will make another Big Bang? My own descendants, every one of them selection's child, will figure it out...

James Brody

"5HTTLPR S, correlated with neuroticism, lower NEO scores, and greater risk for suicide or aggression, particularly if impulsive. See Lesch, KP (2003) Neuroticism and serotonin: A developmental genetic perspective. In Plomin, R., DeFries, J. Craig, I. & McGuffin, P. (Eds) (2003) Behavioral Genetics in the Postgenomic Era. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Assn. pp. 389-424. 5HTTLPR S is one partner in psychiatry's recognition that environments interact with genes. (Christ had the same short allele that I do?)
**Janisse Ray came from a people whose members often courted jail and early death. Her magnificent book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, details 1) her rearing in south Georgia and life with her bipolar father and grandfather and 2) the swampland ecology of that region and the stubborn people who settled it.

JimB

References:
Coulter, A. (2006) Godless: the Church of Lilberalism NY: Random House.
MacArthur, Robert & Wilson, E.O. (1967/2001) The Theory of Island Biogeography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
Provine W (2001) The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics. (Revised Ed.) Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press.
Raff, Rudolf (1996) The Shape of Life. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Copyright, 2006, James Brody, all rights reserved.

Last edited by James Brody; September 10th, 2006 at 05:25 PM.
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  #2  
Unread September 4th, 2006, 09:22 AM
Fred H. Fred H. is offline
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Default Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple

From JimB’s post:
Quote:
Provine's Afterword, however, is the big story. It was written about thirty years after the rest of his book and, except for a phrase on the cover, hides behind the bibliography. Provine lists ten domains where he no longer believes as he once did. For example::

1) Selection accomplishes nothing; it an outcome, not a mechanism.
Yeah, well put—selection isn’t really even a “mechanism," as I, carelessly perhaps, in some of my posts have occasionally indicated (although I at least always noted its circularity), but it's actually more an “outcome.” Hope Carey and some of others here are listening and learning.

Last edited by Fred H.; September 4th, 2006 at 04:08 PM.
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  #3  
Unread September 4th, 2006, 03:56 PM
Fred H. Fred H. is offline
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Default Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple

Here’s something Provine said/wrote last year regarding a debate that he apparently had with some ID guy (Stephen C. Meyer, apparently at the National Press Club), from http://www.evolutionnews.org/2005/04/) :
Quote:
Steve Meyer’s criticism of neo-Darwinism was surprisingly narrow, emphasizing natural selection acting upon mutations. I have a far deeper quarrel with the evolutionary biology of the 1960s. I no longer see natural selection as a mechanism, or an active cause of evolution. Natural selection (or adaptation) is a result of many interacting ecological and genetic causes and does not “work upon” individual genes. I reject random genetic drift and see the movement of neutral DNA by hitchhiking with pieces of chromosome with high or low survival rates. I reject gene pools, genetic homeostasis, am critical of the biological species concept and all hopes of generating robust phylogenetic trees older than 700 million years ago because of the wide exchange of DNA and RNA between one-celled organisms. Thus I turn out much more critical of neo-Darwinism than does Steve Meyer. None of my criticisms, however, suggest a ID creator, but a more lively and realistic view of evolution than I learned in graduate school.
So there you have it my atheistic Darwinian friends—a highly credentialed Darwinian acknowledging that he no longer sees natural selection as a mechanism. Now if Provine (and the others) would just gain a bit of appreciation for the absurdly low entropy at the beginning of our universe, 14 billion years ago, then maybe he (and the others) wouldn’t be so damn negative regarding first cause thing. Oh happy day.
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  #4  
Unread September 9th, 2006, 07:52 AM
ToddStark ToddStark is offline
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Jim,

This is one of my favorite of your essays, it's very clear and pointed as well as candid.

I have just enough "liberal" in me to find it difficult to get through Ann Coulter's rants in anything but abstract format, so your summary was immensely helpful for me. Calmer, somewhat more diplomatic conservatives like Rick Santorum are much easier going for me, but they tend to have a duller, more equivocal appreciation of the issues that doesn't touch on the real (meaning technical) issues as well I think.

Provine is a sharp guy, I can buy the argument that selection isn't a mechanism in the same sense that Peter Corning argues against selection being a force and against Stu Kauffman's 4th law of thermodynamics. It's hard to see it being a "driver" of specific change in the sweeping sense that Dawkins sometimes seems to imply when he waxes philosophical.

It's just plain annoying though that people who need to see a "designer" hiding among the shifting clouds will take that as an excuse for supernaturalism. The point of natural science to me is admitting that there is a lot we don't know and then exploring it. Pointing out that many of the details are still missing should be a positive thing, not an excuse to burn textbooks. The mentality that slips in between political ideologies here is very frustrating to me.

I don't see natural selection being the last word in biology at all, I see it as the first step in the exploration. It is the reason why it makes sense to look for natural explanations of biological function, not the answer to their details. I doubt that the realities of biology could ever fulfill the need people have for simple explanations, so it's unavoidable that we end up inserting metaphysics at the points where we get frustrated with the limits of the explanations.

kind regards,

Todd
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Unread September 9th, 2006, 06:26 PM
Fred H. Fred H. is offline
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Default Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple

Quote:
Todd: Provine is a sharp guy, I can buy the argument that selection isn't a mechanism….
Wow Todd, I’m impressed. I hope Carey is listening and learning.
Quote:
Todd: It's just plain annoying though that people who need to see a "designer" hiding among the shifting clouds will take that as an excuse for supernaturalism.
Well Todd, what I find rather annoying are the Darwinian atheists who, OTOH, seem to “need to see” a universe that has, using Dawkins’s characterization, “the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference,” and that such folk use “natural selection”—what Provine now acknowledges is not even a mechanism—as an excuse for their atheism.
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Unread September 9th, 2006, 06:53 PM
Carey N Carey N is offline
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Default Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple

You memory fails you, Fred; I actually articulated the point that natural selection is an outcome, not a force, quite a while ago.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Carey, more than a year ago
Natural selection is not a force in the way you conceive it but simply a consequence of the fact that some mutations (rare though they may be) happen to increase the reproductive output of the organisms in which they have occurred. The imagery created by terms like "selection pressure" is misleading . . . nobody and nothing is applying any pressure. [Adaptive evolution simply follows] from the connection between differential reproduction and heritable variability.
Remember now? You scoffed at this when I first wrote it.

Todd's note on this was really great, so I'm just going to quote it for you; read it again:
Quote:
Originally Posted by Todd
I don't see natural selection being the last word in biology at all, I see it as the first step in the exploration. It is the reason why it makes sense to look for natural explanations of biological function, not the answer to their details. I doubt that the realities of biology could ever fulfill the need people have for simple explanations, so it's unavoidable that we end up inserting metaphysics at the points where we get frustrated with the limits of the explanations.

Last edited by Carey N; September 9th, 2006 at 07:09 PM.
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Unread September 9th, 2006, 10:02 PM
Fred H. Fred H. is offline
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Default Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple

Carey, you’re in denial. Here’s what you said at http://www.behavior.net/bolforums/sh...6&postcount=31 :
Quote:
Natural selection is the mechanism by which adaptive evolution occurs; it is not, and was never intended to be, a mechanism by which replicators originated. As soon as those replicators arose, however, natural selection kicked in and contributed to their refinement.
And here's what you said at http://www.behavior.net/bolforums/sh...08&postcount=5 :

Quote:
That the theory of natural selection works is undisputed among people who actually study this subject (and other people who don't study this subject professionally but are willing to honestly address it), both theoretically and empirically.

2b) Think again about gravitation. That gravity exists is indisputable, just like evolution. As to what causes gravitation - we have only theory, albeit very strong and well-supported theory. Guess what? The state of affairs with natural selection is similar: it is a theory regarding what causes adaptive evolution to occur, and it is supported by a massive amount of evidence. I think the NY Times author's comparison is pretty tight.
Etc., etc. But if denial makes you feel better, fine.
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Unread September 9th, 2006, 10:35 PM
Carey N Carey N is offline
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Default Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple

That's the thing . . . this guy Provine establishes that selection is an outcome (something we already knew and agreed upon) upon which adaptive evolution depends, and then proceeds to say that it is not a mechanism. I don't see why selection cannot be both an outcome (of an association between differential reproduction and heritable information) and a mechanism (of adaptive evolution) at the same time.

Of course, you can't provide an actual argument to the contrary . . . you can only cite others and rely on statements/implications along the lines of "This person proclaims that selection is not a mechanism; therefore selection has nothing to do with evolution, and God must be responsible instead."

Last edited by Carey N; September 9th, 2006 at 10:47 PM.
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Unread September 10th, 2006, 08:30 AM
Fred H. Fred H. is offline
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Default Re: Ann Coulter & Wm. Provine: Evolution's Odd Couple

Carey, read what Provine said:
Quote:
I no longer see natural selection as a mechanism, or an active cause of evolution. Natural selection (or adaptation) is a result of many interacting ecological and genetic causes and does not “work upon” individual genes.
See that? He’s equating natural selection with “adaptation,” and he’s saying that adaptation (or natural selection) is, duh, the “result of many interacting ecological and genetic causes.” IOW, life (like the universe itself) simply evolves.

And indeed Carey, I’m inclined to agree that life, like the universe, evolves, and that this evolution is the result of many interacting causes. And I’m delighted that a Darwinian with Provine’s credentials has enough sense to acknowledge that “natural selection” is not a meaningful theory, or as he says, a “mechanism” or “active cause,” of evolution . . . unlike, say, the superb theory of gravity is indeed a meaningful “mechanism” or “active cause” of the evolution of cosmological things that we observe in our universe.

And so there you have it Carey—evolution is the result of many interacting causes, but “natural selection” is not truly a meaningful theory or mechanism or active cause of evolution.
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Unread September 10th, 2006, 05:33 PM
James Brody James Brody is offline
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Default Coulter & Provine: Evolution as Exploration

"I don't see natural selection being the last word in biology at all, I see it as the first step in the exploration."

Todd,

Thanks for your kind remarks: pairing Provine and Coulter was one of those accidental things that kindled an "oh shit!" reaction.

Religion converted fireside terrors to assurance: we heap up like cold rats but with words instead of body mass.

Folks who represent the supernatural get a bit huffy when displaced. They sometimes toast evolutionists but such are the risks of being an outlier in a herding species.

I'm grateful for my freedom to wander as I wish...

Jim
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