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Evolutionary Biologist Backs Off from Computer Simulations

computer simulation

PZ Myers is an atheist activist and evolutionary biologist whose blog is more about promoting his left-wing politics than it is about evolution. But this caught my eye. In denouncing me for a brief post here recommending a podcast interview with Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics co-author Winston Ewert, Professor Myers tellingly backs off from the idea of computer simulations of evolution, at least where the Cambrian explosion is concerned.

He doesn’t like our use of the term “falsify,” or that I call the geologically sudden Cambrian event an “event.” But these are minor points. This I find very interesting. Dr. Myers writes:

I also take exception to creationist’s [sic] constant focus on “computer models”. Computer models are useful tools for assessing some ideas, but they’re no substitute for real data…especially when the events you’re pursuing are not simple, and have a million different equally valid ways of producing a result. Again with the binary thinking: Cambrian evolution will not be described with a “yes” or a “no”.

I’m also going to call shenanigans on his assumptions. The Cambrian was not an “event”. It was a long, multi-million year series of events, and it was driven by multiple phenomena. There was the pre-Cambrian bioturbation revolution, in which the evolution of worms with hydraulic skeletons drove massive turnover of nutrients in sediments; there was the gradual increase in atmospheric oxygen, which made more energetic organisms possible; there was a long history of evolution of animal lineages before the Cambrian that set the stage with breadth and depth of diversity. How do you “simulate” all that on a computer? And why bother, because you know creationists like Klinghoffer will simply reject any result that shows an increase in complexity without an infusion of biological information (whatever that means) as cheating?

Most importantly, no one with any sense or competence would carry out such a simulation to falsify creationism, an endeavor with no reward, since they’ll just move the goalposts as they always have. [Emphasis added.]

Now, Dr. Ewert’s point was that computer evolution simulations, as a rule, fail. I would expect this. If they succeeded, that would be a problem for alternatives to unguided evolution.

Ewert was simply reiterating the conclusion that he and co-authors Robert Marks and William Dembski reach, after meticulous investigation, in their book. As Marks puts it, “There exists no model successfully describing undirected Darwinian evolution. Period. By ‘model,’ we mean definitive simulations or foundational mathematics required of a hard science.” In turn, Marks, Dembski, and Ewert were responding to the challenge of a distinguished mathematician, Gregory Chaitin, in his book, Proving Darwin: Making Biology Mathematical.

Dr. Chaitin wrote:

The honor of mathematics requires us to come up with a mathematical theory of evolution and either prove that Darwin was wrong or right!

Giving some mathematical rigor to evolutionary theory is not the “focus” of “creationists,” as Myers thinks. Gregory Chaitin is not a “creationist,” or a proponent of the theory of intelligent design. But he is a candid and gracious interlocutor. In a comment about the Marks-Dembski-Ewert book, he said that it was “An honest attempt to discuss what few people seem to realize is an important problem.” Well, well.

Others feel similarly. Here are a couple of further comments gathered by the publisher. Bijan Nemati of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

With penetrating brilliance, and with a masterful exercise of pedagogy and wit, the authors take on Chaitin’s challenge, that Darwin’s theory should be subjectable to a mathematical assessment and either pass or fail. Surveying over seven decades of development in algorithmics and information theory, they make a compelling case that it fails.

Professor Donald Wunsch, who directs the Applied Computational Intelligence Lab at Missouri University of Science & Technology:

Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics is a lucid, entertaining, even witty discussion of important themes in evolutionary computation, relating them to information theory. It’s far more than that, however. It is an assessment of how things might have come to be the way they are, applying an appropriate scientific skepticism to the hypothesis that random processes can explain many observed phenomena.

That – whether “random processes can explain many observed phenomena” in life – is exactly the question to consider. Another atheist evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, used to think that simulations held out great promise for settling the issue. (See, for example, Jonathan Witt’s post, “Richard Dawkins’s Weasel Program Is Bad in Ways You Never Dreamed.”) This is not an issue that “creationists” invented.

And now, just as a major work of ID research arrives, at the cutting edge of thinking on the subject, PZ Myers whines about how simulations are hopeless anyway: “How do you ‘simulate’ all that on a computer? And why bother, because you know creationists like Klinghoffer will simply reject any result that shows an increase in complexity…”

It’s just what Robert Marks wrote here the other day. He responded to ten common objections to the evidence in Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics. This one is Myers in a nutshell:

2. But Darwinian evolution is so complicated, it can’t be modeled!

If this objection is true, we have reached the same conclusion by different paths: There exists no model successfully describing undirected Darwinian evolution.

Which means that on anyone’s honest analysis, Darwinism fails to deliver on an expectation of what Marks calls “hard science.”

Myers is saying that simulations can’t work, and even if they could, “no one with any sense or competence” would “bother” going through with the exercise for fear of being shown the door by…who? Me? What?? Sorry, that is just a pathetic excuse, among the lamest from evolutionary advocates that I’ve heard in a while, which is saying something.

Incidentally, for more on the Cambrian explosion from the perspective of biological information and the challenge of making evolution mathematically rigorous, see our brief video, The Information Enigma, highlighting the work of Doug Axe and Stephen Meyer. Click on the image – a scene from the video – at the top of this post.