Thoughts in the atmosphere

Things of the world, and out of it.

Does reductionist science miss the bigger pattern (Part 2)?

Posted by desicontrarian on September 20, 2008

As I was saying, an article advocating the truth of Darwinian evolution caught my eye. It is a software-driven simulation experiment by Dave Thomas, published at Panda’s Thumb. He wrote a genetic algorithm where the general problem is described, but the target solution is not precisely specified or designed. The problem is called  “Steiners’s Problem”. The algorithm evolves several solutions to the problem, and gradually comes up with The Best Fit solution to the problem. This is called Steiner’s Solution.  Along the way, the algorithm also generates sub-optimal solutions, dubbed by  Dave Thomas as MacGyver Solutions.   MacGyver is an American TV serial from the 80s where the hero always gets people out of a jam by devising gadgets out of every-day household articles like pins, screws, coat hangers etc. Its not the best solution, but it does the job.

Of course, the author and his friends were very happy. See, they had proved that evolution can happen without specifying a precise target! The discussion in general was about the techniques used in the simulation, the rebuttals that it provided to ID proponents etc. Then there was a comment thread in the discussion which went as follows.

Dilettante

2 statements in your thesis are :

1. Simply given the environment “shorter is better, connectivity critical,” a suite of digital organisms with solutions comparable to formal Steiner systems were evolved

2. In my algorithm, the Fitness Test is easy to apply: calculate the length of active segments. Shorter connected systems are more “fit.”

Query : Was there a purposeful agency which created the environment “shorter is better, connectivity critical?”. Who set the fuzzy “fitness” criteria?

 

For a while, there are no responses. Then, somebody stirs 🙂

 

steve s | July 7, 2006 12:30 PM

This is just a reminder that there is a creationist troll going unanswered:

Posted by Dilettante on July 7, 2006 02:07 AM (e) 

2 statements in your thesis are :

…..

Considering that he’s setting up for the dumbest possible objection to an evolutionary simulation, my amusement has an interest in seeing him engaged.

 

  That provokes a knowledgeable militant.

 

RBH | July 7, 2006 12:49 PM

Dilettante asked

Query : Was there a purposeful agency which created the environment “shorter is better, connectivity critical?”. Who set the fuzzy “fitness” criteria?

The experimenter did so in setting up experimental conditions to study the behavior of the system. It’s sort of like an experimenter in a bacteriology lab sets out Petri dishes (themselves intelligently designed) and varies a nutrient medium to ascertain the effects of the variation on the growth of E. coli colonies. Gee. Experiments are intelligently designed. What a breakthrough!

And what was learned in this particular research? Why, that given a fitness function that selectively rewards (via differential probability of reproduction) shorter paths, an array of irreducibly complex outcomes evolve. What does that tell us? It tells us that good old random mutations and selection can produce astonishing results, results that give the lie to ID creationsts’ blathering about the inability of evolution to produce novel complex structures without specifying a target state but merely manipulating local fitness calculations according to a simple figure of merit. And guess what ‘natural’ environments do, environments that vary in any number of physical dimensions. Why, they set implicit fitness criteria for survival and reproduction in subranges of those physical variables (known as “niches”) such that differentail reproduction as a function of relative adaptation to the niches produces populations of novel ‘solutions’ to the demands of the environments. Gosh. Evolution works just like that research platform. Amazing. The difference is that in the one it’s easier to manipulate selective environments (fitness functions) to study the process.

Now, if Dilettante wants to argue that the selective environment in nature was itself designed, let him go argue with the physicists and chemists and geologists, and leave biologists the hell alone.

Now, the arm-wrestling starts!

 

Dilettante | July 10, 2006 1:02 PM

RBH answered me on July 7, 2006 12:49 PM:

“Why, they set implicit fitness criteria for survival and reproduction in subranges of those physical variables (known as “niches”) such that differentail reproduction as a function of relative adaptation to the niches produces populations of novel ‘solutions’ to the demands of the environments”

So, the “environments” set up “demands”. They set up implicit criteria for survival. Does it not mean they have goals? The method of doing it may be mutations, random selections, elimination and favouring of certain characteristics. In other words, evolution. But that is just process, a trial-and-error method. But is there not a purpose behind evolution itself?

I think G.B. Shaw writes about the emergence of organization from chaos in one of his plays. The evolution of the eye for the purpose of seeing, ear for the purpose of hearing etc. Sometimes outsiders have more imagination than insiders.

 

Dilettante | July 10, 2006 3:38 PM

RBH on July 7, 2006 12:49 PM

“The experimenter did so in setting up experimental conditions to study the behavior of the system. It’s sort of like an experimenter in a bcateriology lab sets out Petri dishes (themselves intelligently designed) and varies a nutrient medium to ascertain the effects of the variation on the growth of E. coli colonies.”

1. The experiment is intelligently designed 2. Equipment (Petri dish and nutrient media) are designed/selected/added. 3. The nutrient media are varied to ascertain the effects of variation on the growth of E.Coli colonies.

Suppose Nature is the experimenter?

1. Environments are set up for the creation and sustenance of life forms 2. Sources of life are created (amino acids, oxygen etc) 3. Single-celled organisms evolve. 4. They invent cell division. Multi-celled organisms evolve. 5. Various forms of life evolve and fit various niches 6. They influence each other and their habitats 7. Nature varies the environmental variables to favour certain characteristics and discourage other characteristics. 8. Macgyver and Steiner solutions emerge.

Such a system is meta-intelligent, since it creates environments where intelligent adaptation occurs.

Far-fetched?

A dog hears a whistle. It then smells food. Runs towards the plate with the food and eats it. It does not see anyone providing the food.

It hears a drum. Smells food again. Runs towards it, touches it. Gets a shock. After some trial and error, it knows when to eat, when to avoid. It never sees the creator of these criteria.

Does the invisible food provider have something in mind?

Looks like the question has to be taken seriously. Dilettante is an over-smart, over-imaginative ID person!?

 

AC | July 10, 2006 5:21 PM

Dilettante Wrote:

[I]s there not a purpose behind evolution itself?

There is no evidence of one. Do you have such evidence?

 

Dilettante | July 11, 2006 12:58 PM

I prefer to say Nature rather than Cosmos. However, if you accept that Nature and Cosmos are synonyms, then I don’t mind that pejorative.

1. If the micro-organisms on the Petri dish could think, would one of them know that they were part of an experiment? Would be be easy to know the duration of the experiment?

2. If the nodes and connectors in the Steiner solution were alive and concious, would they know that Dave Thomas set them up?

3. 400 types of bacteria live in my colon and small intestines, making up 1.5 kg of my weight. For them, it’s a habitat. Their home. They have no idea that they are there to make enzymes, digest food, help eliminate waste matter. They just live and breathe in their colonies along with their families, procreate, defend against enemies, die some time.

If told that their habitat is part of a larger organism, they might shake their head. Another bacterium cannot use the words small intestine, enzymes etc. They might ask for evidence, which cannot be provided by the bacterium with strange ideas.

If the bigger organism wishes to communicate with the bacteria, it cannot. Firstly, there is no common language. Second, the principles and the concepts are too remote and complex to be communicated. Third, the bacteria do not have the interests, brains and vision to comprehend the principles.

The Mind of Nature cannot be understood and proved so easily. If we start with the idea of Nature as an Object, then the first reasons that occur to us will be the utilitarian ones – Survival and Domination. We can inductively reason about its purposes and means of achievement if we start with the idea of Living Nature.

 

Some dodging and weaving is required, perhaps.

 

GuyeFaux | July 11, 2006 1:29 PM

Dilettante Wrote:

We can inductively reason about its purposes and means of achievement…

Absolutely not, for pretty much for the reasons you suggested:

If the bigger organism [Nature] wishes to communicate with the bacteria [humans], it cannot. Firstly, there is no common language. Second, the principles and the concepts are too remote and complex to be communicated. Third, the bacteria [humans] do not have the interests, brains and vision to comprehend the principles.

The answers to your 1. and 2. are a justified no. If you are interested in such questions, I suggest you read some philosophy starting with Descartes. These notions are not terribly useful for science, precisely because they don’t have an inductive basis to stand on.

Scientists don’t have much of an issue with believing/wishing that the Universe was designed. For all we know, we’re all part of a super-being’s high school project and running on It’s hard-drive. But thinking this way gets us nowhere scientifically; there’s absolutely zero proof for any such conjectures, ID notwithstanding.

 

But hell no, lets declare victory already!

 

AC | July 13, 2006 3:15 PM

So the short answer to my questions is “no”.…

Back to the mists for this math nerd. Great article, Dave.

 

 

No, the pesky nuisance comes back!

 

Short answers save time, but lose depthContemplation may give deeper understanding, but it takes time.

 

Well, was that an interesting Socratic dialog?

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