Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Evolutionary Quackery 2: Not by Chance!?

It's like a recurring dream: books that attempt to refute evolutionary theory through science are written by trained people writing outside their area of expertise.

Such authors ipso facto exploit the fact that their audience is relatively untrained, and must accept the technical statements and trains of logic as givens. They also exploit the general audience's lack of experience in moving outside the boundaries of human timescales, hammering doubts that something as complex as a mammal could grow from nothing. Since human history is a speck on the timeline of earth's history, such puzzlement is easy to exploit.

Another common strand is selective use of sources, often quite out of date. A misrepresentation of the nature of advancement of scientific theory is also quite likely, in particular to belittle a "theory" that keeps on changing - yet that is how it should be in the constant refinement of knowledge.

All these flaws are present in the next two books reviewed here.

Today, it's "Not By Chance!", by Lee Spetner, a physicist who collected notes in his spare time, and wrote the book after he retired.

Of course it's not by chance, Lee! It's a combination of random mutation and selective forces. If it wasn't through natural (and, in recent times, human) selective pressures, we wouldn't even be amoebae.

My notes on this book return time and again to Spetner's misrepresentation of evolutionary theory, in the specific and the general - no more so than in the book's title. He (and other such writers) simply do not understand the nature of change over time, such as the cumulative benefits of small change - not that result in unworkable organisms, but changes that don't impact viability.
By way of contrast, in Gould's Eight Little Piggies, some very lucid examples are given of change, for example via different organs that perform the same function (a two-for-one redundancy) or organs that can fulfil different functions and thus bridge a gap (the one-for-two).

Spetner often presents inappropriate (or, at the most charitable, grossly self-serving) analogies, and is often loose with his language in a way that belies his apparent careful analysis.

Most of his analysis centres on genetics, which is something I don't feel properly qualified to comment on. But a critique on this front is available at Not a difficult read.

Spetner bookends the treatise with some religious perspective, which give some insight into his keenness to attack randomness. Sensibly, he keeps these outside the body of the book.In the preface, he bewails atheism in the modern world. In the epilogue, he quotes from the Talmud in favour of a creationist intervention. Of course, this doesn't per se invalidate his arguments. But teleology is not science.

Gould, Stephen Jay (1994): Eight Little Piggies. Penguin, London.Spetner, Lee (1998): Not By Chance! The Judaica Press, New York.

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