Monday, February 3, 2014

Answering Kirk Hastings: Fourth Question for Darwinists

This post is part of the ongoing saga to answer the questions asked by Kirk Hastings of the defunct Evidence 4 Faith podcast. This post addresses the fourth question of Kirk's "Top Ten Questions for Darwinists."

4) If, according to Darwinism, we are nothing but an arbitrary combination of matter, energy, and random processes with no intelligence, direction, or purpose behind it, and our brains are nothing more than a physical organ that randomly evolved from non-living matter, and our thoughts are nothing more than random electrical and/or chemical processes that came about by sheer chance, then how can anyone trust their own so-called "rational" thoughts to accurately tell them the real truth about anything?
Kirk's major problem in this question is his misunderstanding of the role of random change. The question as written has what's called a "major unstated premise."  That premise is that evolution asserts that everything is the result of nothing but random chance. The question restates the old "tornado in a junkyard" metaphor. Imagine for a moment a tornado touches down in an automobile junkyard, throwing every hunk of detritus around and slamming the parts into one another at high speed. The argument goes that human beings evolving from simpler organisms would be tantamount to the tornado assembling a working 747 airliner from the assorted auto parts in the junkyard.
Both the metaphor and Kirk's question are fundamentally dishonest. Both ignore the role of natural selection, the process by which random changes are filtered so only the advantageous ones survive. Inspired by nature, the power of random change, combined with natural selection, is being used today in software development. Genetic algorithms are processes that are modified randomly over time, just as our DNA is randomly changes from one generation to the next. Those random changes are then tested against an external criteria, just as our genetic changes are tested against the environment. The best known example of genetic algorithms is in stock trading.
Examining the use of genetic algorithms in stock trading raises an interesting concern, that of “overfitting” the data. The danger is that the test data used to winnow the mutations will result in an algorithm that fails to perform effectively in the real world. Consider for a moment a program evolved against the hand over fist growth of the stock market before the housing bubble burst of the early 2000’s. That program may be unable to perform effectively in an environment where housing prices plummet and the securities based upon suddenly “underwater” mortgages become a liability instead of an asset. This danger closely mirrors the threats faced by living organisms who have evolved in one environment and suddenly face a radical change. Just as the evolved stock trading program may kill its brokerage with bad trades in an economic downturn, so will many species die out if the environment changes in a way that exceeds their ability to adapt. In many ways the Dot Com Bust was analogous to an asteroid slamming into the Earth. Both events radically altered the environment in a way that devastated a large swath of the ecosystem’s members.
That’s the problem with using evolution. It can turn on you as quickly and easily as it turned on the dinosaurs.
Kirk's question and the 747 analogy assume a situation where the randomly changed stock algorithms are set free on the stock market without first being tested. Naturally, anything assembled entirely at random is likely to fail, so the 747 analogy seems reasonable if you don't look too closely. In reality however, every competent design process has a testing phase. Computer programmers subject their software to QA testing. Car and aircraft designers put their prototypes and scale models in wind tunnels. New car models are road tested before going into production. If the testing and winnowing, were skipped in any of these situations, disaster would result.
Kirk has to misrepresent fundamental principles of evolution to argue against it. Evolution is, according to the theories current as of this writing, the result of natural selection winnowing the chaos of random change. For Kirk's question to even make sense he has to pretend a major component of evolution simply does not happen.
To answer Kirk, the accumulation of random changes described in Kirk's question can result in a rational, thinking human being because the 4 Billion plus years of random mutations have been tested, culled, winnowed and filtered through 4 Billion plus years of natural selection. Each change has been tested against a cruel, uncaring universe. Some changes granted our ancestors an advantage the allowed them, and their mutation, to thrive.
A common counter argument is that not all changes result in a reproductive or survival advantage. How, for example, could variations in eye color grant a reproductive advantage? Setting aside romantic notions of a Neanderthal woman choosing a mate because he had prettier eyes, we come to the fact that some random changes survive and thrive because they happened to piggyback on another advantage. Tail fins on cars were popular in the 1940’s and 1950's despite the fact that automotive tail fins injured a few kids. They survived for a while however, not just because people liked how they looked, but because safety was not yet critical enough a pressure to drive cars that sidelined that concern off the market. Once safety, and the liability of your car’s tail fin poking a kid’s eye out, became concerns, tail fins in automotive design became a disadvantage, and people naturally selected vehicles without them.
To make the “tornado in a junkyard” analogy better reflect reality, you have to imagine a series of daily tornadoes, each one changing parts that are already attached to multiple vehicles. The tornado isn’t building one object, but billions all at once. Between tornadoes, the vehicles are used to try and accomplish goals. Those that work better than their peers are given another chance to be changed by the tornado the next day. Those that fail, get ripped apart and used for raw materials. The process is repeated for millions of years. The testing phase is a critical component Kirk, and the original “tornado in a junkyard” analogy, have to ignore to make their case.

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