Magi Mike's Blog

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J Horgan, R Dawkins and the Anthropic Principle

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John Horgan is a reliable and competent science writer, albeit not a scientist himself, who directs the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ. His books include The End of Science and Rational Mysticism. He wrote a review in The Philadephia Inquirer (8 November, 2009) of The Greatest Show on Earth, by Richard Dawkins, refreshingly free of the creationist speculation and propaganda that any articles in US popular news inevitably invites these days. In it, Dawkins explains the basic evidence for evolution and natural selection, arrange such that it answers various categories of creationist criticisms.

Thus all those yawning gaps in the fossil record creationists cite from Darwin, have been considerably filled in since 1859. Creationists argue as if every living creature that ever appeared on earth ought to have a fossil, but fossilization is unlikely to happen to any dead animal, and it is more unlikely for some animals than others. Yet apparently there should be a fossil for every species that is an intermediate between two others that we do have fossils for. Whatever intermediate is found, they want one between that and next. All that would satisfy them, it seems, is a continuous record of evolution, and even given that, they would find some other excuse.

We have some good intermediate forms between ourselves and the common ancestor we had with the apes, Homo sapiens Neanderthalenis, Homo erectus, Homo habilis, and Australopithecus, several examples in some cases, and most recently “Ardi”, Ardipithecus ramidus, an ape able to walk upright, albeit lurchingly, 4.4 million years ago. As the common ancestor is thought to have lived less than 8 million years ago, we have specimens half way to the common ancestor, and all have intermediate features and characteristics between us and apes. Indeed this specimen having a skeleton that shows it could walk upright so far back in time, and having no sharp canine teeth has made anthropologists think the common ancestor itself might have been more humanlike than chimplike, and that chimpanzees have therefore evolved away from the common ancestral form more than we have.

But creationists think we were a very special creation by God, and they will not change their views until they change their views about God, whence their hatred of practical science which challenges almost everything said in Genesis. Most absurd of all, of course, is the supposed creation of the whole of existence in six days. Not one of the bible worshipping believers are willing to recognize that Genesis records the seven days of an annual festival, popular in the ancient near east, in which each day celebrated an aspect of the creation, and the Genesis poem is describing the festival day by day, not God’s actual creation. It proves that none of these believers are too bright in not realizing this centuries ago.

Just as obviously, all mammals have the same skeletal structure. Bones are directly comparable in their situation in respect of other bones (homology), though they might have changed their shape and function. The nail on your middle finger is the hoof of a horse’s foreleg. If God made every species fresh, He showed a singular lack of imagination. He could have used different designs for every one of them, but, if we all evolved from a common stock, then what is observed is perfectly sensible. Indeed, not just mammals but most reptiles and amphibians also have the same structure of their limbs, and even some, like snakes, that seem not to, are shown by careful study to be the same too.

There ought to be nothing in these least surprising that in billions of years a single cell could evolve into a human being, because every time a human ovum is fertilized and grows into an adult, a single cell has grown into the most technologically sophisticated animal on earth in only nine months! And all by rules that come from the DNA encoded in the fertilized egg, and the pattern of chemical signals that accompany and drive local development and cell specialization.

Creationists demand to be shown life being created, even though evolution is about how life diversifies once it has been created. Molecules that reproduce have indeed been made but the reproduction is only local and does not constitute life. And one of the molecules of life, RNA, has been shown to evolve when allowed to reproduce in test tubes. Simple cells have been shown to evolve when grown for many generations in test tubes or on gels. And a virus, TMV, which is alive given the right conditions but can be isolated in a crystalline form has been broken up into its constituent molecules, killing it, but then it has been reconstituted from its constituents and returned to life. Scientists have resurrected the TM virus!

Religious dogmatists say evolutionary theory is not a proper scientific theory because it makes no predictions. Suddenly the creationists are telling the biologists and molecular chemists how science should be run! These hypocrites have not noticed that Darwin himself predicted, in 1862, that a Madagascar orchid that secretes nectar at the bottom of a foot long tube could only be pollinated by an insect with a foot long proboscis—some sort of moth. It was discovered in 1903.

Horgan only gets critical at the end of his review, suggesting that Dawkins falls short of perfection in asking:

How is it that we find ourselves not merely existing but surrounded by such complexity, such elegance, such endless forms most beautiful and wonderful?

And answering:

It could not have been otherwise, given that we are capable of noticing our existence at all, and of asking questions about it.

It seems Horgan was dismayed by this because it suggests the “notorious concept” called the “anthropic principle”:

The principle states that that universe must be as we observe it to be, because, if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be here to observe it. If this sounds like a tautology, a circular and hence vacuous pseudo-explanation, that’s because it is. The anthropic principle is less a theory than an admission of defeat.

Here Horgan seems to falter, not Dawkins. First, it is hardly correct for a science writer to call the anthropic principle a theory, except in the vague but popular sense that the creationists use it in—a gash explanation. It is not gash, and it is not a tautology. The anthropic principle is more of an observation than a theory. We are here, and so the Universe’s age and physical constants are those that allow us to exist, and not all those others that would make our existence impossible, because the physical constants would be to big or small for the universe to exist itself, or to exist long enough for us to have evolved. We are not trying to prove that we do exist, but that unless the conditions had been as they are, we could not have done.

We do exist, and the universe is as it should be for us to exist. We would need no convincing there is a God if we miraculously existed in a universe which we could see was unsuitable for our existence! Moreover, just as observations can suggest explanations, so too can this one explain the fact that we are here to observe the universe. It is no different from observing that a fish is a certain shape, and so too are dophins, whales, seals and so on, the reason being that they all live in a rather dense medium called water. Would it be tautological for a dolphin, an intelligent mammal, to figure out that it existed because the planet is largely covered in water, without which it could not exist?

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Written by mikemagee

9 November, 2009 at 12:07 am

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