Saturday, March 19, 2005


Stockholm anti-war demonstration

DN has it slightly more than thousand people gathered in Stockholm today. I'd have estimated the crowd a bit more. The local branch of the Committee for a Workers' International had a very visible presence. Speakers included British MP Alice Mahon and a guy from the eurocommunist Vänsterpartiet - very good speaker, he was, actually. Nice music (ska band, quite good but trumpettist a bit undisciplined). Slogans ranged from quite reasonable to stomachable. Crowd generally young, significant number of punkrockers. Bitter, bitter cold which made standing through the speeches waiting to finally get to march quite taxing.

The number Harry's Place mentions - 300 - is merely indicative for the grain of salt one needs to take anything emanating from that blog with.

- Merlijn de Smit

Tuesday, March 15, 2005


World Without End (1)

On the terminal point
Of the cul-de-sac
Patients are dying
The horses are dazed
From the glare of stars
The starry wisdom
Owned by the Baron
And he's got the cure

- "The Siege and Investiture of Baron von Frankenstein's Castle at Weisseria"
Blue Öyster Cult

REVIEW: Frank J. Tipler: The Physics of Immortality. Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead. New York 1994.

There's a religious argument known as Pascal's Wager. If I understand it, it goes like this: If you believe in God, and you're wrong and God does not turn out to exist at all, you're going to end up as wormfood, you'll be munched upon by beetles - but you won't notice anything because there isn't really anything after death. Just the great big black hollow of Nothingness.

If you don't believe in God and you turn out to be right, you're going to end up the same. But you were expecting that anyway.

But if you don't believe in God and you turn out to be wrong, then you're in deep trouble, at least according to Jack Chick cartoons. I read one of them once, and it was very frightening. First, you'll be examined by a really large guy with this featureless, luminous face. A bit like a lightbulb. Like that one Walt Disney character, what's his name, has running around. Only, this one is ten feet tall and dressed in robes. If, then, your name is not in a book that some angel is holding there (and if you don't believe in God, your name is not going to end up in that book), you're sent off to the lake of fire. Livid flames will lap at your skin - for all eternity. Ouch. Aawww. Ooh, that hurts.

However, if you believe in God and you happen to be right, you'll end up in Heaven, where you can look forward to being pleasured by tender-skinned angels for all eternity! (My idea of Heaven differs somewhat from that presented in Jack Chick cartoons).

So, the idea is that it's a rational choice to believe in God. At least you'll not end up being roasted alive and sodomized by awful hairy little devils with red-hot pitchforks for all eternity. And if you happen to be right, the payoff is very big.

Of course, it's not a very good argument. For once, the coldly rational calculation of Pascal's Wager may not be what the Church has in mind when they talk about "belief" and "faith".

Anyway, here's Frank Tipler, who starts off right on the first page by asserting:

(...) that theology is a branch of physics, that physicists can infer by calculation the existence of God and the likelihood of the resurrection of the dead to eternal life in exactly the same way as physicists calculate the properties of the electron.

On the first page of the introduction, Tipler announces:

I shall describe the physical mechanism of the universal resurrection. I shall show how physics will permit the resurrection to eternal life of everyone who has lived, is living, and will live. I shall show exactly why this power to resurrect which modern physics allows will actually exist in the far future, and why it will in fact be used. If any reader has lost a loved one, or is afraid of death, modern physics says: "Be comforted, you and they shall live again."

No maybe's and perhapses here. This is the real stuff. Not only is a resurrection possible, it will happen - and what's more, you don't have to go to Church or to actually have to believe for it to happen!

The biggest free lunch in history.

Anyway, if this was any mush-headed New Age tract, I'd have returned the book to the library there and then, because if there's one thing I detest, it's New Age. New Agers hate the body, they hate the flesh and blood and itches and hair and dirt that comes with being human. With them, it's all about becoming one with the Cosmic Consciousness or being rocked like an infant at the ample bosom of Gaia the Earthmother, or some such crap. They're anti-humanists. New Agers would not talk about resurrection as much as about being reincarnated as a fiery ball of pure cosmic energy circling Sirius. Now, I'd be pretty pissed off if I would find myself being a shimmering orb of energy circling some stupid star in the next life. I'd probably collide with the surface of Sirius over and over again, in the slight hope that I could make it go Supernova through some weird quantum effect and be done with it.

What made me not return the book immediately was Tipler's apparent interest in
Christian dogma rather than mush-headed New Age fantasies. Now, Christian dogma is something I know and respect.

Anyway, this book is sure to infuriate theologians and skeptics alike. There's been some kind of armistice between the natural sciences and religion, defended by for example the late Stephen Jay Gould and also Michael Ruse, in which both field would have their own domain, not impinging upon one another. Physics deals with how the world works, Theology and religion with the meaning of it all.

Tipler's book does not as much break down the barrier as plants his fist in its face, spits in its mouth, jeers at it and humiliates it and finally kindly informs it that it has just returned from a drawn-out session of buggering a close member of the barrier's family. You get the idea.

As the quotes at the beginning make clear, Tipler is very blatant about the possible religious significance of his ideas. An uncharitable reader would say that he's trying to make a profit out of selling his ideas to the religious. A charitable reader would say that Tipler is being very sincere and up-front.

So what is the gist of the theory Tipler presents in his book?

Start out with the observation that, in a few billion years, the Earth will be gobbled up by the expanding outer shell of the Sun, now gone Red Giant. Oceans will have boiled away long before as the Sun grows hotter. In order to survive as a species, we would need to leave the Earth long before then.

However, manned space-travel in a strict sense is not going to help us. Tipler sticks to the speed of light being an absolute barrier beyond which information cannot be transferred; but even at a fraction of the speed of light, the crew of a spacecraft would be squished by inertial forces like a snail being stepped upon. A survivable trip to a nearby star system would take ages.

Tipler finds a solution in so-called Von Neumann machines. A Von Neumann machine is a conscious, intelligent machine that is able to replicate itself and basically construct anything, given the raw materials. We humans are Von Neumann machines, in a way. However, mechanical Von Neumann machines would have the advantage of great longevity and, more important, possibly a very small size. A nano-engineered Von Neumann machine a few centimetres big would not need that much energy to get from here to Proxima Centauri. So, Tipler envisages Von Neumann machines leaving the Earth in search of habitable systems pretty soon, actually. The Von Neumann machines would contain the information needed to re-create whole colonies of virtual human beings (Tipler assumes that the total content in bits of human memory is immense, but finite) in their tiny memory banks. Once this process has started, it is irreversible; once a few Von Neumann machines have founded colonies on other planets and sent their replicated counterparts forth to seek on, the human race (or, the combined human/machine race) is essentially indestructible.

With me so far? Good.

Now, Tipler invokes a version of the Final Anthropic Principle, the Eternal Life Postulate.

Basically, in its weakest form, the Anthropic Principle states that our observations about the universe should be in accord with the fact that we are observing it. What this means is that out existence places limits on the age and expanse of the universe. We are carbon-based creatures, but the carbon in our world has been spread across the Galaxy by an exploding Supernova. So, the Universe must be at least old enough for stars to develop, go Supernova, and so on; the gravitational constant must be such that some stars are able to go Supernova, etc.

This version of the Anthropic Principle is uncontroversial, the question is whether it is interesting, or merely trivial.

In a stronger sense, the Anthropic Principle states that life is not merely a contingent possibility of the development of the Universe, but is in a way hard-wired into the Universe itself. This based on the fact that many of the fundamental constants in the physical sciences seem to be 'just right' to support a living Universe. If the gravitational constant was slightly stronger, for example, we would have a universe with tiny galaxies and tiny stars kilometres across - however, they would go through their life-cycles so quickly that there would not be enough time for life to develop. A weaker gravitational force and matter might not clutter together tightly enough to even form stars.

As far as I understand, this version of the Anthropic Principle tends to make at least those scientist of a more atheist/skeptical persuasion feel a bit itchy. Because it's a relatively short way from arguing that the emergence of life was somehow part of the "purpose" of the universe, in a more-or-less teleological fashion, and from saying that the fundamental laws of nature are the product of design.

Note, by the way, that a "design" interpretation of the stronger Anthropic Principle is incompatible with "Intelligent Design" as the most recent 'respectable' incarnation of Creationism. For what such an interpretation would state is that the evolution of (intelligent) life is hard-wired into the laws of Nature. However, if we were to accept Intelligent Design/Divine Creation (same thing) in biological evolution, most of the anthropic arguments would become vacuous. If God can create a beetle and an orang-utan and cacatoo and Mongolian death worm etc., then surely he can create the Earth with carbon and gold and iron and all without needing first to waste a whole star to create a fiery Supernova to belch forth all those precious materials! It's one or the other: anthropic design or ID, you can't have both.

Anyway, the problem with the stronger anthropic principle - which, by the way, I find a halfway respectable argument, as opposed to Intelligent Design in biological evolution - is that we're really hovering on the edge of what we know and cannot know. How sure can we be of the chances that our life-supporting Universe, instead of some other uninhabitable one, would emerge from the Big Bang? More to the point, a counter-argument has been levelled to the extent that there may be many universes, some life-supporting, others hostile. If that were true, the fundamental laws in our universe would be not more surprising than the fact we're finding ourselves on Earth instead of on the surface of Jupiter.

One interpretation allowing for many universes which apparently is popular to some extent among physicists is the many-world hypothesis of quantum mechanics. If I understand it - and I very much doubt whether I do (some physically more astute reader should enlighten me) - the status of quantum particles is often indeterminate. They could be waves, or particles. At the moment they are observed, though, they "choose" one of the two possible states. What the many-world interpretation would say, if I understand, that actually both possibilities are realized - the universe branches in two daughter universes.

Anyway, quantum processes have been going on for some time, and what this hypothesis would lead to is that there is, in fact, a near-infinite (or infinite?) number of parallel universes. There's a parallel universe where a certain head of state gets hit by a flaming meteor at the moment of pronouncing the State of the Union speech. There's a parallel universe where the PSSST(KA) rules visible space with an iron fist from it's fortified headquarters on Olympus Mons. Not: there may be such universes, but there are such universes.

Tipler does, in fact, subscribe to the Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. I do not know to what extent it would invalidate a stronger anthropic principle, as I do not know to what extent variable constants and fundamental laws of nature are allowed in the alternate universes of the MWI.

In any event, purely as an explanation of anthropic "coincidences", without taking other issues into account, I am not at all sure whether the postulation of alternate universes is less outlandish than the postulation of the existence of God. I wonder whether any of the alternatives would be preferable on the basis of Occam's razor - I'm not sure whether such a thing would be calculable in the first place.

Tipler's theory is based on not merely the stronger version of the Anthropic Principle, but on a Final one: Intelligent life, once emerged, must continue forever.

In short, the rest of the idea is that slowly but inexorably, the Von Neumann machines would colonize the Galaxy and, basically, make it a "living" Galaxy. Then they move on to the Magellean Cloud and Andromeda. Eventually, all of space, the whole universe, would be inhabited by Man and his machine descendants.

An important part of this reasoning is that the Universe does not merely go on to expand forever, as some have suggested (for example Freeman Dyson). At some point, it will start to contract again. Intelligent life cannot exist forever in an eternally expanding universe - eventually, all stars will have burned out, leaving only neutron stars and black holes, and even protons might start to decay. Tipler's anthropic postulate does, of course, support an eventually contracting universe - but you see how much a leap of faith this kind of anthropic reasoning is, tantalizing as it may be.

But now the Universe is contracting, the fun starts. Tipler believes that the universe may be manipulated not into contracting at an even rate in all directions, but to contract faster in one direction while staying the same size in others. This would create stupendous heat differences, and thereby a potentially enormous source of energy. Note that we're dealing with some pretty hostile circumstances at the end of the Universe: intelligent life would need to adapt to the volatile, hot circumstances that exist then.

Eventually, though, Tipler believes that the contracting, living universe would attain an infinite information-processing capacity. Here, Tipler bases himself on a model of the late universe in which there are no event horizons - boundaries beyond which light and information cannot pass, such as the "shells" of Black Holes. When that happens, briefly before the Big Crunch, essentially the living, human universe would become God. As Tipler subscribes to the Many-Worlds Interpretation, all world-lines in all parallel universes would converge upon the Omega Point.

After Teilhard the Chardin, Tipler names this event the Omega Point. It is odd that Tipler stresses that this concept is the only contribution of Teilhard to his thesis, even if he, rightly, defends Teilhard's vague vitalism as the consensus position of evolutionary biologists of his time.

All of this, of course, depends on whether one accepts Tipler's anthropic assumption, his Eternal Life Postulate. If one does, the hypothesis is quite interesting. If one does not, all bets are off.

Now, the Omega Point, being omnipresent - it is the living, contracting universe, will also want to become really omniscient. To do that, Tipler argues it will recreate every possible, imaginable human being. As we are basically an immensely complex, but finite pattern, recreated patterns would be identical to us. They would be us. Of course, we'd be resurrected in intricate virtual worlds, which is probably a blessing considering what the real universe will look like seconds before the Big Crunch.

Now, I'm hearing you: "So, Tipler says we're all going to be resurrected and then informs us that it's going to happen seconds before the End of the Universe? This is a bit of an anticlimax." However, as the universe is basically a giant computer with infinite processing capacity, it can do an infinite number of calculations within those few last moments. Subjective time would slow down to virtually nothing. For all intents and purposes, we'd have an eternity ahead of us.

That's the idea in a nutshell. A big nutshell.

As a non-physicist, I cannot really evaluate Tipler's physics. He might be pulling my leg - but let's assume he doesn't. In that case, the weakest link in the argumental chain, in my opinion, would be that it crucially hinges on an anthropic assumption.

The weakest part of the book is where Tipler insists on searching support for his hypothesis from various world religions. Thus, Tipler is quite happy with the burning bush telling Moses "I will be who I will be" in the original Hebrew, rather than "I am who I am." See?, says Tipler, that fits nicely with the Omega Point theory! Ummm... yes, it does, but we're not actually assuming that God literally spoke to Moses in the shape of a burning shrub, do we?

The biggest redeeming feature of the book is Tipler's guns-blazing no-holds-barred scientific optimism. Kuhnian epistemic relativism is dealt with with the terseness that the junk in question deserves. Not only can we go to space, not only should we go to space, we will go to space! (Albeit as bytes in the memory banks of a dwarf-sized Von Neumann machine). No nonsense about the Precautionary Principle here!

Tipler's writing style is occasionally terse and jumpy. Sometimes, arguments that really would needed to be worked out a bit more are dealt with way too briefly in my opinion. Though most of the equations and such are mercifully banished to an "Appendix for Scientists", I quite often feel that Tipler does not take enough time for what is a dazzling chain of arguments. Doubtlessly the publisher placed restrictions on the size of the book - but twice as big would have been nice.

Finally - does Tipler's argument convince me?

I am not religious, but have been teetering on the brink of religion for quite some time, and have been fascinated by the idea of God ultimately emerging from Mankind for a long time. It seems to me that God as emerging from our collective labours, thoughts, knowledge, emotions, love and hate is far more appealing than a constant, distant Creator.

However, in perhaps too many ways Tipler succeeds in replacing a "maybe" or a "perhaps" with a "will" by his usage of the Final Anthropic Principle. Though anthropic reasoning of this kind interests me greatly, I think there are also problems, as I mentioned (particularly the conundrum of, overtly or silently, comparing the make-up of our universes with other possibilities the existence of which we cannot be sure about - as I said, it all borders at the edge of knowability).

Does Tipler's vision of the Universal Resurrection comfort or reassure me? That's difficult to say. Perhaps it's better to die in the knowledge that it's remotely possible that it's remotely possible that it's remotely possible that there is a remote possibility that you'll be resurrected - I am not convinced enough to go any farther.

So, for now, it's Pascal's Wager all over again.

- Merlijn de Smit

PS: As the Omega Point is omniscient, It will of course be able to read this. So, I have a special request. On page 256-257, Tipler writes that after the resurrection: "(...) it would be possible for each male to be matched not merely with the most beautiful woman in the world, not merely the most beautiful woman who has ever lived, but to be matched with the most beautiful woman whose existence is logically possible." Tipler subsequently provides calculations proving that the psychological impact of meeting the most beautiful woman whose existence is logically possible is roughly 100,000 times greater than that of meeting the most beautiful woman currently existing (p. 257).

As you are omnipotent and all, well, ummm... could you, ummm... match me with two of the most beautiful women whose existence is logically possible?


War, Hitchens, etc.

The post-facto justifications for the clusterfuck that the war in Iraq turned out to be are slowly beginning to become a little wild.

First of all, the war in Iraq is retrospectively justified by events in Lebanon. You see, the Lebanese are inspired by the fledgling democracy in Iraq to dispose of the Syrians. (Nevermind that the street protests were induced by the murder of a former prime minister, that Lebanon has always been politically quite lively, that some of the largest street protests have been organized by Hizbollah - that's something only the - what was it again? "Reality-based community"? - would worry about). And this is just the beginning: soon, the whole Middle East will become a vibrant, flowering meadow of democracy.

However, even more bizarre is a line that Christopher Hitchens is taking in Slate. Referring to an article in the New York Times in which two reporters, it appears, interview the Iraqi Deputy Ministry of Industry, Hitchens reveals the scoop. Iraq had WMDs:

How can it be that, on every page of every other edition for months now, the New York Times has been stating categorically that Iraq harbored no weapons of mass destruction? And there can hardly be a comedy-club third-rater or activist in the entire country who hasn't stated with sarcastic certainty that the whole WMD fuss was a way of lying the American people into war. So now what? Maybe we should have taken Saddam's propaganda seriously, when his newspaper proudly described Iraq's physicists as "our nuclear mujahideen."

Of course, there's a small detail. All the sites where these supposed faculties for the production of nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, anthrax weapons, anti-matter weapons, what have you were located have been systematically looted. So right know no one has even a clue where they are.

If the American army actually had gotten those weapons of mass destruction, instead of letting whoever took them run away with them (supposing of course that this story is true), Christopher Hitchens' point would be, well, a lot stronger than it currently is. I am reminded of the quip involving one's homework and one's dog.

There's an interesting political phenomenon which for an odd reason seems to be virtually confined to the British islands - namely that of a part of the left in support of the Iraq war and the subsequent occupation. I've been wondering why this seems to be a particularly British phenomenon. Part of the reason may well be the stranglehold that the ghost of the Tory Party still seems to exert on the British left, and the way a big swath of the left tries to ward the spectre off by supporting the Labour Party - which of all European social-democratic parties seems to be the one in the most advanced state of decline. The most interesting exponent of the pro-war left must be Socialism in an Age of Waiting, which quaintly combines the time-honoured Trotskyist/Stalinist/Maoist tradition of unrestrained pompous self-important vituperation against any perceived opponent with remarkably sensible positions on, say, animal experiments, environmentalism, etc. - anything but imperialist wars.

SIAW is waxing lyrical over a tearful article of one Robin Cook, commenting in the Guardian on the surrender of Ramus Haradinaj. Robin Cook, if you remember, was the hysterical Foreign Secretary of England during the Kosovo War. As the war in Iraq was clearly less politically correct and salonfähig to the moderate left than that in Yugoslavia, Cook resigned from Blair's cabinet in protest at British involvement in Iraq. Quoth SIAW:

Cook, amusingly, risks arousing the incoherent rage of his new-found friends in the anti-war/pro-dictatorship movement, as well as fervent Serbian nationalists (of whom there are probably as many in the West as in Serbia itself these days), and all the other vociferous but, happily, ineffectual fans of “stability”, “sovereignty” and the rest of the tired liberal/right-wing shibboleths of international relations that the pseudo-left so stupidly and revealingly upholds. Unlike most of them, of course, Cook has actually met Milosevic and many of the other players in the Yugoslav tragedy, and he has at least a residual awareness that the real world is not as pure or simple as the Manicheans of the anti-war crowd would like it to be. Accordingly, we look forward, with puerile but (oh, go on) forgivable glee, to the ritual denunciations of the Cookie monster that will shortly pop up all over the internet.

For clarity's sake, I would oppose Haradinaj's surrender to the Hague Tribunal - just as I oppose Milosevic's. The reason being that I don't have much faith in a Tribunal designed and directed by one of the main participants in the Balkan wars, and current occupier of large swaths of former Yugoslavia. Such a thing has been and will be used for ulterior political motives. Both should have been tried by their own people. The chance that Milosevic would have been convicted of war crimes in Serbia may be slim, that of Haradinaj convicted in Kosovo absolutely laughable, of course. Then again, neither the conflict in Bosnia nor that in Kosovo has seen a stable peace yet.

But the very fact that a group (?) calling itself "Marxist" and thereby supposedly on the left of the Labour Party will praise a Labour politician when involved in an imperialist war (yes, I am going to stick to using that word, primitive and unsophisticated anti-imperialist that I am), and denounce him when he repudiates his support for the next one, convinces me that monikers such as "left" are beginning to become meaningless.

I've long felt I have a lot more in common - at least on issues of war and peace - with libertarian outfits like Lew Rockwell than with leftist ones like SIAW or the whole bunch of "progressives" - from Susan Sontag to Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the odious Joschka Fischer - that became the most vociferous supporters of imposition of peace and democracy by cluster bombs in the nineties. In the Netherlands, we had Mient Jan Faber, who was a driving force behind the anti-cruise missile protests during the eighties, then began to issue blood-curdling cries for the levelling of Belgrade only to come to his senses almost immediately after the bombing began; and the (ex-?)anarchist Roel van Duijn. Oh, and most of the burnt-out empty shell that the Communist Party regrettably decided to liquidate itself into in the early nineties, known as the Green Left party.

During the bombing of Kosovo, the anti-war left either bent over backwards to disassociate themselves from Milosevic to such an extent that it was sometimes difficult to see whether they were actually opposed to the bombings or just wanted slightly different bombings; or they supported Milosevic's supposedly "socialist" regime wholeheartedly (this excludes of course some Trotskyist groups who have admirably pushed their own political program just as they have been indefagitably pushing that boulder up that mountain ever since 1938). The anti-war right often steered way too close to wholehearted support of Serbian nationalism. Nonetheless, parts of the libertarian anti-war right at least came up with internally consistent rationales of opposition to imperialism that sounded extremely refreshing to me.

Far as I am concerned, the division between "left" and "right" is dead and should be shovelled under the ground as quickly as possible. There are only two notable political poles right now: that which opposes imperialist military ventures and the expansion of the state, erosion of civil liberties and ultimately militarization of society that is inevitably, inextricably connected with war - particularly totalitarian wars against vague concepts such as the War on Terror; and that which supports them.

- Merlijn de Smit

Monday, March 14, 2005


Evolution and

FredOnEverything has a column up about evolution here which raises some very interesting points.

Fred seems to want to stress that he is not a Creationist, regarding Creationism as basically too absurd to merit much of a response, and wondering why evolutionary scientists spend so much time trying to debunk Creationism. He's right - I think the point on which I disagree most with him is that Fred is a hard-core positivist.

Natural sciences like physics, chemistry, astrophysics etc. are blessed with immutable constants and laws, which apply regardless of time and space. The Second Law of Thermodynamics, the gravitational constant, the speed of light all apply regardless whether we are here, on the surface of Jupiter, or at the other end of the universe. That's what makes experiments in physics and chemistry possible - an identical experiment should always have an identical results. Experiments are repeatable, and hence empirical science (using empirical in a strong sense of the word) is possible.

Problems arise when you try to transpose this scheme of science on disciplines like evolutionary biology, or my own subject, historical linguistics, where events do not happen necessarily as a consequence of the workings of natural laws, but contingently - they might just as well not have happened. Quoth Fred:

Consequently, discussion often turns to vague and murky assertion. Starlings are said to have evolved to be the color of dirt so that hawks can’t see them to eat them. This is plausible. But guacamayos and cockatoos are gaudy enough to be seen from low-earth orbit. Is there a contradiction here? No, say evolutionists. Guacamayos are gaudy so they can find each other to mate. Always there is the pat explanation. But starlings seem to mate with great success, though invisible. If you have heard a guacamayo shriek, you can hardly doubt that another one could easily find it. Enthusiasts of evolution then told me that guacamayos were at the top of their food chain, and didn’t have predators. Or else that the predators were colorblind. On and on it goes. But…is any of this established?

In evolutionary biology, contingency is built in the fact that evolutionary changes are the product of random genetic mutations. A mutation darkening the wings of a butterfly would raise the changes of survival for that butterfly (provided it lives in a dark environment) but that does not mean all light-coloured butterflies, or other light-coloured animals would have turned dark in the same circumstances. If that were the case, there would be no evolution proper: there would be no genetic diversity, since a the first mutation happening in the population of whatever primordial organism we're descended from would necessarily apply to the whole population, and so the next, etc. Same with the history of language. A change from the consonant group /mt/ to /nt/ has happened often in many different language families, and the reasons of it may be easily seen: it is easier to pronounce /nt/ because of the greater similarity between the two sounds than /mt/. Nevertheless, that does not explain all the cases where this change has not occurred.

The situation for historical linguists is, in a way, much more dire: any "explanation" of a linguistic change must necessarily refer to actions by intentional agents - speakers of languages. Sound changes occur to make the language easier to pronounce, or to get a message easier across - all explanatory models much, much more fuzzy than the random genetic mutations of biologists, which are at least grounded firmly in the physical world.

So when Fred argues:

Early on, I noticed three things about evolution that differentiated it from other sciences (or, I could almost say, from science). First, plausibility was accepted as being equivalent to evidence. (And of course the less you know, the greater the number of things that are plausible, because there are fewer facts to get in the way.) Again and again evolutionists assumed that suggesting how something might have happened was equivalent to establishing how it had happened. Asking them for evidence usually aroused annoyance and sometimes, if persisted in, hostility.

He is right, I think, but I don't think that needs to be much of a concern to evolutionary biologists. Plausibility - the most compelling account given the facts we have at hand - is as much as one can attain in many "historical" sciences. That doesn't make them any less than physics or chemistry - but the subject matter itself makes the posivist methodology of those disciplines inapplicable.

Fred continues:

As an example, it seems plausible to evolutionists that life arose by chemical misadventure. By this they mean (I think) that they cannot imagine how else it might have come about. (Neither can I. Does one accept a poor explanation because unable to think of a good one?) This accidental-life theory, being somewhat plausible, is therefore accepted without the usual standards of science, such as reproducibility or rigorous demonstration of mathematical feasibility. Putting it otherwise, evolutionists are too attached to their ideas to be able to question them.

Here I disagree - first, the origin of life itself has no bearing upon the validity of evolution. Evolution deals with DNA sequences that are already reproducing and mutating. Many evolutionary biologists probably have their own ideas on how those came about (Dawkins presents some in The Selfish Gene), but I don't think that "chemical accident" is as much as a consensus position as Fred assumes. There's one English biologist who has actually proposed that life originated as replicating crystals, only to have been taken over later by strands of DNA.

I think Fred takes race/intelligence arguments way too seriously when he writes that:

Black sub-Saharan Africans (say many evolutionists) have a mean IQ somewhere near 70, live in wretched poverty, and breed enthusiastically. White Europeans, reasonably bright at IQ 100 and quite prosperous, are losing population. Jews, very bright indeed at a mean IQ of 115 and very prosperous, are positively scarce, always have been, and seem to be losing ground. From this I conclude either that (a) intelligence does not increase fitness or (b) reproduction is inversely proportional to fitness.

I might want to post on these ideas in more detail later, as they are vigorously popularized in Finland by one Tatu Vanhanen (father of the current Finnish prime minister) - and vigorously debunked by almost everyone else. Just for now:

- Before theorizing on any relationship between "race" and "intelligence" you must first define "race" in terms of genetics. The old categories like Blacks, Jews, Caucasians, Asians are not going to do: superficial similarity may mask enormous genetic diversity (and as for that, "Jews" aren't even a racially particularly homogeneous group, many of them having genetic roots from all kind of populations all around the Eurasian continent). The problem is that genetic research of this kind (studying, for example, mitochondrial DNA - which happens to mutate at a regular, clocklike rate, as mitochondria are actually the vestigial remnants of independent organisms, now present in our cells) is just beginning, and often you see large syntheses drawn on the basis of preciously little material. But it seems to me that the research of, for example, Cavalli-Sforza makes short work of obsolete racial divisions.

- Modern man arose about 200.000 years ago in the Rift Valley in Africa. One should expect significant genetic/racial diversity to arise no later than 100.000 years ago, when the first modern humans entered Eurasia. Recall that Native Americans are racially quite similar to Asians, even though the first Native Americans must have entered the new world as long as 30.000 years ago at least (the old date of 16.000 BC doesn't fit with a lot of things, among them the enormous linguistic diversity among Native Americans). Also, there's a lot of mention in the literature, valid or perhaps not, about similarities between various "archaic" populations in South-East Asia (for example, the Wedda's of India, the Andamanese indigenous population, etc.) and Australian aboriginals. The forefathers of the aboriginals may have reached Australia as long as 60.000 years ago.

In any event, if there was a correlation between race and intelligence, particularly one as big as quoted by Fred, you would find such a thing to result in significant cultural differences within the world. Yet - the first significant such difference arose only 10.000 years ago with the advent of agriculture, independently, and roughly synchronously, in East China, New Guinea, the Middle East, Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa. Real, significant cultural and technological differences between, say, Europe and Africa are astonishingly recent. Perhaps one would have to place the breaking point as late as the renaissance. Sub-Saharan Africa did have elaborately organized city-states in modern Ghana, Zimbabwe and along the Eastern coast during the Middle Ages. Writing was not developed in these - but writing is an innovation which happened independently only three times in history (Sumer, China and the Mayans).

If there was any real correlation between race and intelligence, one would expect this to become manifest in culture, technology and civilization sooner than during the last 5-1% of genetically diverse human history.

- The number of a mean IQ of 70 for Black Sub-Saharan Africans sounds, well, plain bullshit to me. An IQ of 70 would pretty much mean you're disabled. Note that it is the average IQ we're talking about: half the population would need to be even dimmer. Encounters I've had with Black people of Sub-Saharan origin convince me that this, well, just can't be right.

When IQ tests give you such results (I should try to dig up where that number comes from), the correct response would be to question the validity of your IQ test.

Fred divides evolutionary theory into three conceptual parts:

The first, chance formation of life, simply hasn’t been established. It isn’t science, but faith.

The second proposition, that life, having arisen by unknown means, then evolved into the life of today, is more solid. In very old rocks you find fish, then things, like coelacanth and the ichthyostega, that look like transitional forms, and finally us. They seem to have gotten from A to B somehow. A process of evolution, however driven, looks reasonable. It is hard to imagine that they appeared magically from nowhere, one after the other.

The third proposition, that the mechanism of evolutions is chance mutation, though sacrosanct among its proponents, is shaky. If it cannot account for the simultaneous appearance of complex, functionally interdependent characteristics, as in the case of caterpillars, it fails. Thus far, it hasn’t accounted for them.

On the first, I agree. On the second, I would put things actually stronger: the fossil record is no longer the only piece of evidence that some kind of evolutionary process occurred - the fact that DNA sequences seem to correspond so well to time-depths established by those must count as another. We seem to have 99% of our genes in common with a chimpanzee - but only 40% or so with a wheatplant.

The third one goes, to be honest, beyond my knowledge of evolution. But there's one very strong argument to stick with natural selection and random mutations: namely, it can produce evolutionary change without either violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics (I know, the sun in the sky provides us with a continuous stream of energy - but also, unsuccessful mutations can be regarded as "chaos" offsetting what appears to be increased order; of course, only successful mutations survive in the long tun) or without proposing some kind of goal-directed process, some sort of vitalistic "energy" of the kind that Teilhard de Chardin proposed. Which would be tantamount to leading us into the realm of the supernatural. In that sense, random mutations and natural selection does not seem to me to be merely "plausible", but, to my knowledge at least, to be the only plausible mechanism, as it is firmly based in what we know about the physical world.

- Merlijn

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