Granville Sewell on the Weaknesses of Darwinism

In view of yesterday’s debate on the subject, this, which is the postscript for University of Texas at El Paso math professor Granville Sewell’s book Analysis of a Finite Element Method: PDE/PROTRAN:

As I begin my 12th year of work on TWODEPEP (now PDE/PROTRAN ), I am intrigued by the analogy between the 11 year evolution of this computer code and the multi-billion year history of the genetic code of life, which contains a blueprint for a species encoded into billions of bits of information. Like the code of life, TWODEPEP began with primitive features, being capable of solving only a single linear elliptic equation in polygonal regions, with simple boundary conditions. It passed through many useful stages as it adapted to non-linear and time dependent problems, systems of PDEs, eigenvalue problems, and as it evolved cubic and quartic elements and isoparametric elements for curved boundaries. It grew a preprocessor and a graphical output package, and out-of-core frontal and conjugate gradient methods were added to solve the linear systems.

Each of these changes represented major evolutionary steps–new orders, classes or phyla, if you will. The conjugate gradient method, in turn, also passed through several less major variations as the basic method was modified to precondition the matrix, to handle nonsymmetric systems, and as stopping criteria were altered, etc. Some of these variations might be considered new families, some new genera, and some only special changes.

I see one flaw in the analogy, however. While I am told that the DNA code was designed by a natural process capable of recognizing improvements but incapable of planning beyond the next random mutation, I find it difficult to believe that TWODEPEP could have been designed by a programmer incapable of thinking ahead more than a few characters at a time.

But perhaps, it might be suggested, a programmer capable of making only random changes, but quite skilled at recognizing improvements could, given 4.5 billion years to work on it, evolve such a program. A few simple calculations would convince him that this programmer would have to rely on very tiny improvements. For example, if he could produce a billion random “mutations” per second (or, for a better analogy, suppose a billion programmers could produce one “mutation” per second each), he could not, statistically, hope to produce any predetermined 20 character improvement during this time period. Could such a programmer, with no programming or mathematical skills other than the ability to recognize and select out very small improvements through testing, design a sophisticated finite element program?

The Darwinist would presumably say, yes, but to anyone who has had minimal programming experience such an idea is preposterous. The major changes to TWODEPEP, such as the addition of a new linear equation solver or new element, required the addition or modification of hundreds of lines of code before the new feature was functional. None of the changes made during this period were of any use whatever until all were in place.

Even the smallest modifications to that new feature, once it was functional, required adding several lines, no one of which made any sense, or provided any “selective advantage”, when added by itself.

Consider, by way of analogy, the airtight trap of the carnivorous bladderwort plant, which has a double sealed, valve-like door which is opened when a trigger hair is activated, causing the victim to be sucked into the vacuum of the trap (described by R.F.Daubenmire in “Plants and Environment,” John Wiley and Sons, N.Y. 1947). It is difficult to see what selective advantage this trap provided until it was almost perfect.

This, then, is the fallacy of Darwin’s explanation for the causes of evolution–the idea that major (complex) improvements can be broken down into many minor improvements. French biologist Jean Rostand, in “A Biologist’s View” (William Heinemann Ltd., London, 1956) recognized this:

“It does not seem strictly impossible that mutations should have introduced into the animal kingdom the differences which exist between one species and the next…hence it is very tempting to lay also at their door the differences between classes, families and orders, and, in short, the whole of evolution. But it is obvious that such an extrapolation involves the gratuitous attribution to the mutations of the past of a magnitude and power of innovation much greater than is shown by those of today.”

The famous “problem of novelties” is another formulation of the objection raised here. How can natural selection cause new organs to arise and guide their development through the initial stages during which they present no selective advantage, the argument goes. The Darwinist is forced to argue that there are no useless stages. He believes that new organs and new systems of organs arose gradually, through many small improvements. But this is like saying that TWODEPEP could have made the transition from a single PDE to systems of PDEs through many five or six character improvements, each of which made it work slightly better on systems.

It is interesting to note that this belief is not supported even by the fossil evidence. Harvard paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, for example, in “The History of Life,” Volume II of “Evolution after Darwin,” (University of Chicago Press, 1960) points out:

“It is a feature of the known fossil record that most taxa appear abruptly. They are not, as a rule, led up to by a sequence of almost imperceptibly changing forerunners such as Darwin believed should be usual in evolution…This phenomenon becomes more universal and more intense as the hierarchy of categories is ascended. Gaps among known species are sporadic and often small. Gaps among known orders, classes and phyla are systematic and almost always large. These peculiarities of the record pose one of the most important theoretical problems in the whole history of life: Is the sudden appearance of higher categories a phenomenon of evolution or of the record only, due to sampling bias and other inadequacies?”

Another way of describing this same structure is expressed in a recent Life magazine article (Francis Hitching, “Was Darwin Wrong on Evolution?”, April 1982, which concludes that “natural selection has been tested and found wanting”) which focuses on the “curious consistency” of the fossil gaps:

“These are not negligible gaps. They are periods, in all the major evolutionary transitions, when immense physiological changes had to take place.”

Unless we are willing to believe that useless, “developing” organs (and insect traps which could almost catch insects) abounded in the past, we should have expected the fossil structure outlined above, with large gaps between the higher categories, where new organs and new systems of organs appeared.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that the structure of the fossil record is the only argument against Darwin which has received much attention lately, this is not the real issue. The “problem of novelties” correctly states the real argument, but too weakly. Consider, for example, the human eye, with an aperture whose size varies automatically according to the light intensity, controlled by reflex signals from the brain; with a lens whose curvature varies automatically according to the distance to the object in view; and with a retina which receives the picture on color sensitive cells and transmits it, complete with coded intensity and frequency information, through the optic nerve to the brain. The brain superimposes the pictures from the two eyes and stores this 3D picture somehow in memory, and it will be able to search for and recall this image later and use it to recognize an older but familiar face in a different picture. Like TWODEPEP, the eye has passed through various useful stages in its development, but it contains a large number of features which could not reach usefulness in a single random mutation and which provided no selective advantage until useful (e.g. the nerves and arteries which service it), and many groups of features which are useless individually. The Darwinist may bridge the gaps between taxa with a long chain of tiny improvements in his imagination, but the analogy with software puts his ideas into perspective. The idea that all the magnificent species in the living world, or the human brain with its human consciousness, could have arisen from simple organic molecules guided by a natural process unable to plan beyond the next tiny mutation, is entirely comparable to the idea that a programmer incapable of thinking ahead more than a few characters at a time could, given a lot of time, design any sophisticated computer program.

I suggest that, with Jean Rostand, “we must have the courage to recognize that we know nothing of the mechanism” of evolution.

As someone who has put a few lines of code out these last two score, Sewell’s observations on the subject make sense.  This, written in 1985, anticipates at least two of the “hot button topics” this debate has engendered: the transitional fossils issue and the issue of irreducible complexity that Michael Behe made famous.

Our Insane "Civilisation": John Kerry and Justin Welby

There are two threads in the news these days that illustrate where our “Western civilisation” (which at this stage is neither) is going.  As is usually the case, “God, gays and guns” are at the centre of the problem, but not in the venues they’re normally associated with.

Let’s start with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby: what he (now in cahoots with Archbishop of York Sentamu) is trying to do is to bully the large African provinces (specifically Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda) into submission re his idea of the place of same-sex relationships in the church.  Not to restrict his attack to ecclesiastical matters, he’s spreading his net to include their governments (I think he’s the lackey of his own; perhaps he thinks they have a lot of pull in theirs too).

The targeted Africans are pushing back.  At this point they have the upper hand.  They have numbers the English only dream about any more.  The Chinese are displacing the West in terms of economic activity, and the Chinese don’t care what they do.  That blunts any influence that Welby’s masters in Whitehall might have.  You’d think that, this being 2013, that “old Blighty” would have gotten past its colonial pretensions in matters like this, but old habits die hard.

Across the Atlantic John Kerry is trying to put the same kind of squeeze on the State of Israel to come to some kind of “settlement” with the Palestinians.  Like Welby, Kerry’s employer doesn’t have a very stellar track record of success in the field he’s entering.  So they’re now trying to restore “normalcy” with Iran while pushing the Israelis to go back to a pre-1967 state with the Palestinians on the other side of the 1947 cease-fire line.

The core problem with this is simple: the Palestinians’ leadership (such as it is) cannot bring themselves to get up in front of the world and say with conviction that the State of Israel has a right to exist.  That’s what torpedoed the best shot at a settlement (in 2000); Yassir Arafat knew he’d be dead if he acknowledged same.  His successors know the same thing.  But Kerry’s fixated (as are many in our establishment) on a peace deal here; they think that it’s the key to peace in the region.

But Kerry and his Overlord are fooling with what is the biggest conflict in the region: the one between Iran and Saudi Arabia/Gulf states.  Their idea of restoring normal relations with Iran has Those Across the Gulf in a nervous state; they even are discreetly turning to Those People in Jerusalem for potential help.  But let’s put things through the lens of the one thing that matters to our masters these days: sex.  While Welby pushes his (perhaps soon to be erstwhile) communion partners to accept same-sex relationships, why is it that Kerry is having cordial meetings with people who hang gays from hydraulic cranes?  Or how many more gay pride parades does he expect in Jerusalem after it goes back to the Palestinians?

Many today depict our culture as depraved and immoral.  Both are true, but perhaps another characterisation is more to the point: insane.

The Scots-Irish Cause Trouble…

…in William Penn’s Philadelphia.  This, from Robert Carse’s Ports of Call:

But the Scottish Presbyterians who came in from North Ireland were the worst.  They knew their rights, they said, and they would have those satisfied before they stepped foot out of Penn’s town of brotherly love.  Most of the Scots were big, rangy men, with blue eyes, red hair and extraordinarily short tempers.  A number of the families had been proscribed, driven from their homes in Scotland for refusal to join the Church of England.  Then, in Ireland, they had fought the native Catholics, and, for practice, each other.

They took over the Blue Anchor Tavern as their temporary headquarters.  Men who were recognised as shipping agents were chased, caught and thrown in the river.  Songs were sung in the Blue Anchor taproom.  There was dancing to a bagpipe. But the leaders who met with the colony authorities were canny, adroit in their dealings.  When the Scots left for the frontier, retribution for the various losses suffered during the voyage had been made, and the groups were happy.  Pipers marched ahead along the forest trails in the leaf-dappled summer sunlight, playing gay tunes.  Life on the frontier promised well.  There would be no more trouble with landlords or leases, like that in Ireland.  Each man was given enough space for himself here, and a chance for some fighting should the Indians turn ugly.

Philadelphia was the entry port for many of the Scots-Irish in the years leading up to the American Revolution.  It was, in some ways, the “Ellis Island” of that immigrant group, although their goals were far different, a difference not well grasped today.

More than three centuries have passed since the rowdies came to Philadelphia, but the issues then have not left us.  Indeed one way to interpret the divide our country experiences today is whether this nation is defined by the Scots-Irish or everyone else.

The Ancient Star Song is Back

One of the features of this blog is the Music Pages, where some music of the “Jesus Music” era is featured, a good deal of it to the delight of the artists.  I can’t take the credit for starting this; that must go to “Diakoneo” of the Ancient Star-Song, whose blog started in 2006 and who, along with Heavenly Grooves, got me re-ignited about this time of music, both Protestant and Catholic.

Christian music in the 1960’s and 1970’s was many things, among them very evangelistic, experimental and even artistic.  When Christian music transitioned from ministry to business in the 1980’s, a great deal of the experimental and artistic part fell by the wayside.  Adding to the oblivion was the transition from vinyl to CD, which literally shelved a great deal of the music (except for the collectors, who could eventually turn to Ken Scott’s Archivist).

Diakoneo’s and others’ music blogging put a great deal of this back into circulation.  The better known artists and labels were able to keep their albums in distribution, and these were excluded from reputable blogs like the Ancient Star-Song.  But many, especially independent and private label albums, were in oblivion until blogged.  And one thing I’ve found out is that the worst thing an artist can experience is to be forgotten.  To experience this music has been a joy and a blessing at a time when current praise and worship music is, by and large, not to my taste.

Never a straightforward proposition, Christian music blogging took a body blow two years ago in the wake of the “Kim Dotcom” disaster.  Today the Ancient Star-Song is largely a catalogue, taken mostly from Ken Scott’s book, of the music of the era as opposed to the music itself.  But it’s a great catalogue and, after a hiatus, I’m glad to see that it’s back.

P.S. One interesting twist concerns Catholic folk music.  To his credit, Ken Scott had no problem featuring the Catholic artists of the era, something many Protestants wouldn’t do.  Diakoneo and others followed his lead.  Much of this music is in an especially deep oblivion because a) the Catholic church has turned away from the folk Mass after Pope Paul VI, b) the changes in the liturgy (first to the NOM and then to the new English translation) have made much of it unsuitable for current Masses and c) the full Nelson OCP has on parish music crowds out just about everything and everyone else.  To rescue this is a special joy, both for me and for the artists.

The Mediator Between God and Us

From St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 3, q. 26 a. 1:

Properly speaking, the office of a mediator is to join together and unite those between whom he mediates: for extremes are united in the mean [medio]. Now to unite men to God perfectively belongs to Christ, through Whom men are reconciled to God, according to 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.” And, consequently, Christ alone is the perfect Mediator of God and men, inasmuch as, by His death, He reconciled the human race to God. Hence the Apostle, after saying, “Mediator of God and man, the man Christ Jesus,” !1 Timothy 2:5) added: “Who gave Himself a redemption for all.”

He goes on in the following article to say this:

We may consider two things in a mediator: first, that he is a mean; secondly, that he unites others. Now it is of the nature of a mean to be distant from each extreme: while it unites by communicating to one that which belongs to the other. Now neither of these can be applied to Christ as God, but only as man. For, as God, He does not differ from the Father and the Holy Ghost in nature and power of dominion: nor have the Father and the Holy Ghost anything that the Son has not, so that He be able to communicate to others something belonging to the Father or the Holy Ghost, as though it were belonging to others than Himself. But both can be applied to Him as man. Because, as man, He is distant both from God, by nature, and from man by dignity of both grace and glory. Again, it belongs to Him, as man, to unite men to God, by communicating to men both precepts and gifts, and by offering satisfaction and prayers to God for men. And therefore He is most truly called Mediator, as man.

That’s something unique about Christianity: God and us at a meeting place, and a meeting person.