Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Errors? What Errors?

A Nature Magazine page, explaining one of the standard causes of mutations in evolution.

Let's go down the list, see what problems I can turn up. I warn you: This is me arguably at my most monotonous.

Let's start right with the first question.

Cells employ an arsenal of editing mechanisms to correct mistakes made during DNA replication.

See, this is a line that wouldn't so much as bother a Young Earth Creationist, much less most full-blown Theistic Evolutionists. What is there to find objectionable?

Well, I don't know if I'd call it objectionable. But there's something odd going on with this language. Let's go piece by piece.

* "Cells employ an arsenal of editing mechanisms". Hey look, it's teleological language! Right in Nature! Now, those of you who have found my blog know I have zero problem with teleology. In fact, I think it's impossible to eliminate while still fully and adequately describing nature - chalk me up for the fifth way and all that. All that's important here is to notice that arguably the biggest science journal around, right on their homepage, is quite happy to make with the teleological language without qualification. Cells employ various programs towards an end.

Let's move on.

* "to correct mistakes made during DNA replication." And here's where the problem comes in. Mistakes? What mistakes are being made?

Now, I know what the immediate response is. "Well, the cell is trying to make a perfect copy during DNA replication, and it's failing to. Those are mistakes!" But, why is it assumed that a perfect copy, every time, is the goal of the cell - or of anything else?

There's another response. "Well, most of the time those errors are harmful to the organism!" While "harmful" is a loaded word, that still leads me to say: Fine, let's accept that for the sake of argument. Why is it assumed that the goal of the cell is to avoid all harm?

Let's skip down to the bottom of the page to illustrate why I find something disturbing and wrong with this rendition of cellular functions. Those of you who lean TE or see evolution as teleological may know where I'm going with this already.

Here we go, with some emphasis added: Of course, not all mutations are "bad." But, because so many mutations can cause cancer, DNA repair is obviously a crucially important property of eukaryotic cells. However, too much of a good thing can be dangerous. If DNA repair were perfect and no mutations ever accumulated, there would be no genetic variation—and this variation serves as the raw material for evolution. Successful organisms have thus evolved the means to repair their DNA efficiently but not too efficiently, leaving just enough genetic variability for evolution to continue.

Well there we go. If every replication were utterly perfect, it would be disastrous for life. No way to fill a new niche. No way to adapt at the biological level. It turns out some amount of "errors" are essential - at least if you want impart direction and development to life. But that speaks against regarding these changes in transcription as errors.

And there lies a major problem. How does evolution start to sound if an aspect of the process so fundamental to it is no longer described as "error" or "mistake" or "accident", but is instead recognized and treated as purposeful, essential, and evolution "working as intended"? And before it's pointed out that teleological language is supposedly verboten, note that the page in question is loaded with teleology anyway - it's doubtful they could scrub it all if they wanted to, but if so, "Error" and "Mistake" would have to be scrubbed too. It's just a different flavor of teleology, after all.

As I said, I'm focusing on something monotonous here, so monotonous that even the most critical ID proponents - who constantly (and with some justification) wage war against Junk DNA - tend to overlook. But I think this sort of re-evaluation of evolution and evolutionary language is key and essential. It's almost a kind of poisoning the well, trying to paint evolution in so negative a light that certain people would rather choke than consider it as teleology revealed.


Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

This is good, keep it up. I started a blog a couple years ago solely to document how and when science writers and more or less 'naturalistic' authors inadvertently endorsed hylomorphism and finality, but in the end it was just easier to document the same thing in my blog or in offline writings under construction. It's a good habit, so, more posts like would be fine, monotonous or not heheh.

Crude said...

Oh, I'll keep at it. But what I'm calling attention to here isn't just that this nature piece operates with teleology in play, but that there's a very common, tremendously repeated, and teleological (or even value-laden) bit of language also in play that I think ends up unjustly ignored. Evolution as "mistakes" is a bedrock claim, and I think there's little way to lose or change that language without the effects being considerable.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

Another irony: the "mistakes" of evolution are simultaneously used by Darwinists as proof against a Creator-God AND as proof of the inexorable harmony of nature. To recognize mistakes is to recognize them against some non-mistaken standard, but to see mistakes as the inexorable chipping away of imperfections is also to see form continually embossing itself through matter. Allegedly, genetic mistakes aren't, so to speak, what an organism was "getting at" in the reproductive process, yet mistakes are also what an organism "gets around" to maintain itself 'in flagrante delicto'.

The "unjustly ignored" thing is what my defunct blog was getting at as well, so the field is still ripe for cherry-picking on the anti-teleological teleologists. You should read all the Charles de Koninck you can.

Crude said...

Really now? I'm glad someone else was thinking along these lines. Part of what bothers me is how little things like this get overlooked, even by the people you'd think would obsess about them (Again, the ID crowd.) Though I know that whole issue is far more complicated.

I'll have to read up on Charles de Koninck. As in right now, since apparently someone made A wiki for the man.

IlĂ­on said...

The constantly used teleological language of Darwinism was one of the late David Stove's (who, as I understand, was an atheist) logical-and-philosophical gripes with Darwinism.

Crude said...

I've seen some claims that Darwin himself saw his theory as teleological (The prime evidence being an exchange he had with Asa Gray, who immediately saw the theory as such), and of course the claim that Darwin was trying to remove all teleology from his theory.

I also think one of Fodor's central complaints about Darwinism in his recent book is that "natural selection" requires a mind to work, but nature has no mind, therefore NS can't work. Which I'd love to see more talk of, seeing as his criticism would turn most criticisms of "Darwinism" upside-down.

One of the most confusing aspects of the teleology debate is that the opponents of it seem to help themselves to it, which the proponents of it never tire of pointing out. Yet the proponents continue to call their opponents "deniers of teleology" or "materialists" or such, and the opponents naturally accept that title. I think it would be more interesting if the proponents took the tack of claiming their opponents were just another breed of teleologist.