Sunday, June 05, 2016

Can Stephen Talbott Be Taken Seriously?

Stephen Talbott, one of the dreariest writers on subjects that should be interesting, manages once again to flail around a topic without saying much at all. He babbles meaningless garbage like "As we have seen, the life of the organism is itself the designing power. Its agency is immanent in its own being, and is somehow expressed at the very roots of material causation." And when he does manage to say something factual, he is, not surprisingly, wrong.

In his latest piece, Can Darwinian Evolutionary Theory Be Taken Seriously?, Talbott (who apparently has no advanced training in evolutionary biology) once again takes on the theory of evolution, without exhibiting much understanding at all.

Rather than write a complete critique, I'll just excerpt some of the stupider parts of his screed, with comments.

I would like to suggest that if half of all American citizens have become (as certain arch-defenders of biological orthodoxy like to put it) “science deniers”, then something important is afoot, and it does not look good for science. At the very least — if we assume the denial to be as unreservedly stupid as it is said to be — it would mean that science has massively and catastrophically failed our educational system.

As is usually the case with those who want to cast doubt on evolution, the fact that Americans have trouble accepting it is trotted out as something significant about the theory. Talbott makes no effort at all to look at acceptance in other countries because (I suspect) it would completely undermine what follows in his piece. After all, if you have to admit that the majority accepts evolution in Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, France, Japan, UK, Norway, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Hungary, Luxembourg, Ireland, Slovenia, Finland, Czechia, Estonia, Portugal, Malta, Switzerland, and so forth, then maybe ridiculously overblown claims like "science has massively and catastrophically failed our educational system" would be seen for what they are.

Now any fair-minded person knows very well what separates the US from the countries in the list above: it is that many Americans are under the grip of the appalling and anti-intellectual influence of fundamentalist Christianity. The evidence that religion is responsible is easily available and hard to contest. But the words "religion" and "Christianity" appear nowhere in Talbott's piece.

Organisms are not machines.

Of course they are. Anybody who says otherwise is simply being ridiculous. They obey the laws of physics like other machines. The only citation Talbott gives for this claim is his own work.

No one has ever pointed to a computer-like program in DNA, or in a cell, or in any larger structure. Nor has anyone shown us any physical machinery for executing such program instructions.

Of course they have! I wonder what Talbott thinks ribosomes do?

how can it be that, 150 years after Darwin, we still have no widely accepted theory about how all the different body plans arose?

Let's see... could it be, perhaps, because those events occurred hundreds of millions of years ago and didn't leave behind much trace for us to find now? After all, my grandparents arrived here from Russia in 1912-1913, but there is no widely accepted theory about how they got from their home in Vitebsk to Hamburg. Did they walk, or take a train, or use some other method? We don't have a "widely accepted theory" because the evidence is gone now.

If a beautiful, crystal-clear vision of “how evolution works” doesn’t give us answers to key questions about how evolution has in fact worked, perhaps we should begin to ask questions of the vision.

We know many different mechanisms of evolution. (Talbott seems not to know this.) If Talbott thinks there is another mechanism, why doesn't he propose one?

This enables us to greet with a certain recognition the nagging question that has bothered a number of the past century’s most prominent biologists: “What does natural selection select — where do selectable variations come from — and why should we think that the mere selection of already existing variants, rather than the creative production of novel variants in the first place, directs evolution along the trajectories we observe?”

Umm, we know where these variations come from. One place they come from is recombination in sexual organisms. Another source is mutation, often induced by cosmic rays. This is taught in every introductory course on evolutionary biology. So why doesn't Talbott know this?

What is life? How can we understand the striving of organisms — a striving that seems altogether hidden to conventional modes of understanding? What makes for the integral unity of every living creature, and how can this unity be understood if we’re thinking in purely material and machine-like terms? Does it make sense to dismiss as illusory the compelling appearance of intelligent and intentional agency in organisms? No one can deny that our answers to these questions could be critically important even for the most basic understanding of evolution. But we have no answers.

We have no answers to "What is life?"? Say what? Talbott doesn't seem to know that there are books devoted to this question, one of the most famous being by Schrödinger, and another one, more recently, by Addy Pross. The problem is not that we don't have answers -- many answers have been proposed. The problem is, like every complicated concept (even the philosopher's famous example of "chair" suffices) no single brief definition can capture all the nuances of the concept.

As for the other questions, I absolutely do deny that vague babble like "integral unity" has anything useful or helpful to say in trying to understand biology. And there hasn't been a single advance in biology that comes from thinking in other than "purely material" terms. If there had been, you know Talbott would have shouted it to the rooftops.

Talbott does no experiments in evolution. He publishes no papers in evolutionary biology journals. As far as I can see, he has no expertise in evolution at all. He publishes his stuff in obscure venues like New Atlantis. Why would anybody take this vapid stuff seriously? Answer: you take it seriously if you're a creationist. No one else should.

P. S. The Nature Institute, where Talbott works, is apparently strongly influenced by Rudolf Steiner, the cult leader and quack who is responsible for the nutty Waldorf schools. Big surprise.


Steve Watson said...

No one has ever pointed to a computer-like program in DNA....

Funny, because IDists crow about this all the time, and how it's evidence for ID. You'd think Talbott might at least consult his fellow crackpots.

John said...

it would mean that science has massively and catastrophically failed our educational system

I'm pretty sure Talbott has that the wrong way 'round.

Paul C. Anagnostopoulos said...

"As we have seen, the life of the organism is itself the designing power. Its agency is immanent in its own being, and is somehow expressed at the very roots of material causation."

May I refer the reader to this paper:

~~ Paul

Unknown said...

>>Organisms are not machines<<
"Of course the are (...) They obey the laws of physics"

Our sun is a celestial body that obeys the laws of physics, but I would neither define it as an organism nor as a machine.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Bert, I didn't say or mean to imply that "everything that obeys the laws of physics is a machine".

Mikkel Rumraket Rasmussen said...

One can always quibble about what is meant by "widely accepted" but to my knowledge it is pretty standard and accepted view that Evo-Devo explains the origin of body plans mostly through accumulated changes in gene-regulatory networks.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Jeffrey, for clearing that up, because based on what you said one could otherwise almost conclude that machines are mortal.

By the way, last year here in the Netherlands even a (christian) children's book on evolution could cause quite a stir amongst fundamentalistic christians:
So compared with the US thinks aren't all that different here, it's just on a much smaller scale. Also these christians don't have a very powerful lobby, which makes their influence rather limited.

Steve Watson said...

I poked around the Nature Institute site a little and...oh ghods, these kooks are disciples of *Rudolf Steiner*?! I think that alone answers the question posed by the post's title.

nmanning said...


Talbott's site is apparently linked to favorably by Rupert Sheldrake. 'Nuff said.

jwaltos said...

I have never heard of this person so I went to his homepage. "Luddite" came to mind but it doesn't quite apply.

Combine the documentary "Merchants of Doubt" with John Oliver's "Election 2016."
In the former, understanding the debate parameters is critical to providing a balanced argument and in the latter `feelings trump fact.` (my pun)

Mark said...

Who is this guy? He sounds like he can write as authoritatively about evolution as Edgar Rice Burroughs could about Mars. Perhaps not science, but our educational system is failing, and that because too many religious politicians are obstructing the teaching of science. Like them, Talbott ignores so much of what is known.

judmarc said...

Its agency is immanent in its own being

I just hate it when folks use very cool words like "immanent" nonsensically.

I realize he uses *all* the words he writes nonsensically, but "immanent" is such a little jewel, and to mangle it so badly....