What can evolutionary biology learn from creationists?

Irreducible-complexity-E-coli_472_308_80by Joanna Masel

You might expect a professional evolutionary biologist like myself to claim that my discipline has nothing to learn from creationists. And I certainly do find all flavors of evolution-denialism sadly misguided. But I also find it reasonable to assume that any serious and dedicated critic should uncover something interesting about the object of their obsession. I’m not talking about passing trolls here. I’m talking about earnest and sometimes talented people whose sincerely held anti-evolution convictions do not preclude engagement, and who invest a lot of time thinking about evolution from an unconventional perspective.

I draw three main lessons from such critics. First, there is plenty to learn about human psychology from the rejection of evolution. Why do so many people not accept scientific conclusions that seem to an expert like me to be irrefutably supported by the evidence? Dismissing the cause of their rejection as religious ideology only shifts the question. Why do so many ideologies take that particular form?

Listening to those who deny or are at least uncomfortable with evolution, it quickly becomes clear that most are relatively unconcerned about the evolution of microbes. Instead their objections dwell on the evolution of humans and our relationship to other animals. This notion that humans are special, not only in a theological sense, but also in concrete ways that should be amenable to scientific study, is often at the core of people’s discomfort [1]. In other words, objections tend to focus less on the implications of evolution for God than on the implications of evolution for the significance (or rather, the insignificance) of human lives. An uncomfortable message from science, including cosmology as well as evolution, is that we humans are much less significant — in the broad scheme of things — than we like to think. This discomfort is not restricted to creationists.

In this view, evolution-denialism is a case study for a far more widespread phenomenon known as human exceptionalism, which in non-creationists takes more subtle forms that are harder to detect. Indeed, science itself can and has been distorted by the notion of human exceptionalism; the related notion of “progress” in evolution has been particularly pernicious in this sense [2].

It is hard to stay objective about human affairs. The same principles of evolutionary biology apply just as well to humans as they do to other species. But on average, those principles will be applied less objectively to humans than to other study organisms. Because scientists are human too.

The big two topics studied by evolutionary biology are sex and death [3]. We make these topics sound more dry and technical by calling them survival and reproduction. Whatever words we use, these are not easy topics to remain objective about, especially when it comes to humans.

The lesson I take for myself, as a professional evolutionary biologist, is the need to hone my thinking and my tools on unproblematic species such as microbes. The scientific study of mating types a and alpha in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae is relatively unsullied by attitudes towards sexism or feminism. I find it easier to maintain objectivity when discussing yeast reproductive strategies than when discussing human reproductive strategies.

Once my epistemic skills are honed by the application of evolutionary biology to yeast, and hence relatively unsullied by the taint of human exceptionalism, I am in a good position to make occasional forays into the study of human questions. The key to gaining evolutionary insight into human affairs is to make sure that my methods of reasoning and standards of evidence remain the same for the study of humans as they are for the study of yeast. But I try not to think about humans for too long, lest my own biases about our species erode my scientific standards. This is an important cautionary lesson that I have learned, in part, from creationism.

Leaving aside human exceptionalism, where do other objections to evolution come from? I am especially interested in more thoughtful objections from the scientifically trained. Interestingly, some of them come from biochemistry; in particular, the idea that some biological systems are “irreducibly complex” at the molecular level [4].

The source of this objection in biochemistry is revealing. As an evolutionary biologist, I am shocked at the poor grasp of evolutionary concepts among many (non-creationist) biochemists and molecular biologists, and I am not alone in this view [5]. Students in these fields are taught how cells work using diagrams and 3D animations where each molecule somehow knows what it is supposed to do, and efficiently does only that. The colossal mess, waste, redundancy, and confusion of real molecular processes, although increasingly apparent in today’s era of systems biology, are generally ignored in biochemistry and molecular biology classrooms. Students are presented with images of clean molecular machines [6], backed up by canonical and unrepresentative examples, e.g. from viruses. No wonder some of them then find intelligent design intuitive! If students knew just what an inefficient mess real biological systems fundamentally are, they might be more open to the frequently unintelligent nature of “design” via natural selection.

Biochemistry was in its infancy at the time when biology went through the purging process known as the modern evolutionary synthesis, in which the field of biochemistry did not participate [2]. The disciplines of biochemistry and molecular biology were offshoots of chemistry, not biology. A synthesis of biochemistry with evolutionary thought is much-needed and overdue [7]. The second lesson I draw from creationism is the urgency of this task.

Going back to the specific irreducible complexity objection to evolution, the biochemist Behe writes [4]:

By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional. An irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution.” (p. 39)

The most common response from evolutionary biologists is to say that irreducible complexity is only an illusion. Systems that perform one function can be co-opted for a different function, making it difficult to trace the exact series of successive one-step modifications by which it evolved. And there is a lot of truth in this response.

But nonetheless, I think Behe asked a good question. Can irreducibly complex adaptations evolve? Behe is not the first person to ask this question, by a margin of about six decades [8]. In the technical jargon of evolutionary biology, we call this “crossing a valley on the genotype-fitness landscape.” It is believed to be difficult, but possible under some circumstances [9,10].

My colleagues and I just published a paper identifying circumstances in which the crossing of wide adaptive valleys, i.e. irreducible complexity, is not just possible, but common [11]. And we made the decision to put “irreducible complexity,” a term coined by a creationist, in the title of our paper. Why? Because it’s a good term. It’s a much better term than using a continuous metaphor of a “landscape” to describe a discrete space, among other known flaws of the term [12, 13]. And the definition in Behe’s book is a good definition. I am happy to give credit where credit is due, including to a creationist.

The topic of irreducible complexity / valley-crossing was understudied in evolution until recently, and deserved more attention than it was getting. Where Behe sees the concept of irreducible complexity as an illustration of the failure of the theory of natural selection, I see it as pointing to a set of exciting and understudied evolutionary biology problems.

Think for a moment about an intelligent and otherwise rational person who hates a scientific theory for religious or other ideological reasons, desperately wants to prove that idea wrong, and is willing to work hard to undermine it. That person is going to identify the weakest points in the theory. For the theory of evolution by natural selection, those weak points are overwhelmingly unlikely to be weak enough to undermine the theory as a whole. But they are likely to point to really interesting and understudied questions that I might want to do research on next! I see a weak spot in evolutionary theory not as a problem, but as an opportunity for me to work on the topic and make it stronger, possibly making exciting scientific breakthroughs along the way.

This is the third lesson I draw from creationists. Some evolutionary biologists are afraid to even discuss topics highlighted by creationists, fearing that this could be seen as an unnecessary concession of weakness of the powerfully supported theory of evolution by natural selection. I disagree with this reasoning.

Behe believes that irreducible complexity occurs, that this would be impossible via evolution by natural selection, and hence that evolution by natural selection must be wrong. In contrast, I am intrigued by the fact that irreducible complexity might occur, believe that if it does occur then of course it occurs via evolution by natural selection, and conclude that my job as an evolutionary biologist is to work out how.

The answer in our paper, in part, was that evolutionary biologists had been asking the question wrongly. They were defining both a starting point and an end point for evolution across a valley in genotype-fitness space. But evolution does not move towards one particular end. The possibilities are, if not limitless, then combinatorially large. Say you have 100 mutations to choose between in the search for a fitter genotype. That means you have up to 100-choose-2 = 4,950 2-way combinations available to you. And you have 161,700 3-way combinations and nearly 4 million 4-way combinations. Even if finding any particular irreducibly complex adaptation is extraordinarily unlikely to evolve, this must be balanced against the extraordinarily huge number of potential complex adaptations. And for this reason, we were able to find circumstances under which irreducible complexity was not only possible, but actually common [11].

In other words, space is big. Not just the big physical space that we are familiar with from astronomy, but also the more abstract genotype space of all the things that are possible. We humans have limited intuitions about spaces that big, but we can overcome our cognitive limitations through the use of formal mathematical models. And in some of those models, irreducible complexity is a common phenomenon.

Continuing with this third lesson, my future plans for the study of evolution include Behe’s observation of the predominance of loss of function mutations in observable evolution [14] and a question that sometimes goes by the name of “Haldane’s dilemma” [15]. I think some really exciting evolutionary biology lies ahead.


Joanna Masel is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona. Her research investigates the robustness and evolvability of biological systems and the nature of different types of competition in both biology and economics.

[1] Mix LJ, Masel J (2014) Chance, Purpose, and Progress in Evolution and Christianity. Evolution 68: 2441-2451.

[2] Provine WB (1989) Progress in evolution and meaning in life. In: Nitecki M, editor. Evolutionary Progress. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 49-74.

[3] Sterelny K, Griffiths PE (1999) Sex and Death: An Introduction to Philosophy of Biology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[4] Behe MJ (1994) Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New Jersey: Free Press.

[5] Graur D, Zheng Y, Price N, Azevedo RBR, Zufall RA, et al. (2013) On the immortality of television sets: “function” in the human genome according to the evolution-free gospel of ENCODE. Genome Biology and Evolution 5: 578-590.

[6] Boudry M, Pigliucci M (2013) The mismeasure of machine: Synthetic biology and the trouble with engineering metaphors. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (4):660-668.

[7] Harms MJ, Thornton JW (2013) Evolutionary biochemistry: revealing the historical and physical causes of protein properties. Nat Rev Genet 14: 559-571.

[8] Wright S (1932) The roles of mutation, inbreeding, crossbreeding, and selection in evolution. Proc 6th Int Cong Genet 1: 356-366.

[9] Weissman DB, Desai MM, Fisher DS, Feldman MW (2009) The rate at which asexual populations cross fitness valleys. Theoretical population biology 75: 286-300.

[10] Weissman DB, Feldman MW, Fisher DS (2010) The Rate of Fitness-Valley Crossing in Sexual Populations. Genetics 186: 1389-1410.

[11] Trotter MV, Weissman DB, Peterson GI, Peck KM, Masel J (2014) Cryptic Genetic Variation Can Make “Irreducible Complexity” a Common Mode of Adaptation in Sexual Populations. Evolution in press.

[12] Provine WB (1986) Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology: University of Chicago Press.

[13] Pigliucci M (2012) Landscapes, surfaces, and morphospaces: what are they good for? In E. Svensson & R. Calsbeek (eds.), The Adaptive Landscape in Evolutionary Biology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 26-38.

[14] Behe MJ (2010) Experimental evolution, loss-of-function mutations, and “the first rule of adaptive evolution”. The Quarterly review of biology 85: 419-445.

[15] Remine WJ (2006) The Biotic Message: Haldane’s dilemma.

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123 replies

  1. Guys, isn’t this debate about human exceptionalism exactly the kind of irrelevant side issue the new rules were supposed to avoid? It has very little to do with the main point of the article, which only mentioned that creationists find humans to have a significance in a way arising out of theistic teleology.

    This is why I’d much prefer a rule against this kind of side-debate than hard limits on comments per thread.


  2. Well, I suspect (although I’m certainly willing to be corrected) that Robin and Massimo are using the concept of human “exceptionalism” to describe the fact that selection pressure has made humans unusually complex (both structurally and functionally), giving rise to consciousness and all our achievements as a species, whereas the form of “exceptionalism” Coel was refuting is that which would either place humans outside of evolution entirely or which would posit that humans are “fitter” in their environments than other, less complex, species are in theirs. In other words, we can be exceptionally complex and sophisticated without being exceptionally well-adapted to our environment.


  3. As Joanna Masel pointed out “ideology does have an important explanatory role in the rejection of evolution, even if it not an exclusive one”.

    If we put psychology instead of ideology there seems to be a rejection of the empirical tradition that works out through trial and error. Then, the idealistic, ascetic, static and non-finalistic tradition is brought to the fore. I guess there is a deep crack in the human mind, rooted in the past, that leads to be suspicious with the empirical side of evolution, with the development of technology and with those approaches that defend teleology and finalism.

    Then, the ideology that rejects evolution seems to seek a short cut to avoid the probabilistic aspects of evolution. From this perspective we are drawn like shipwrecked in a random sea no matter how unexceptional we may are. I have no idea if a new paradigm may close up the crack, though I’m skeptical about the existence of a short cut to overcome the scientific and empirical investigation on evolution.


  4. @Robin Herbert I think I see your point but for me the talk about landscape implied mountain ranges, forestalling a single goal.

    I haven’t read the article, but cryptic state I think means genetic variation that is unexpressed in gross phenotype. Evolutionary capacitor would denote any process that that leads to the expression of the previously cryptic genetic variation. The upshot would be that the interactions between the genes and the environment can lead to the seemingly sudden emergence of an irreducibly complex system. The apparent defiance of the probabilities would be partly an artifact partly due to ignoring the accumulation of potential variants in the cryptic state. More would be due to miscalculating the probabilities by ignoring the effects of population size. Each organism would in effect be throwing another set of dice. You might think of each organism being part of a massively parallel computing network calculating evolutionary solutions. And of course, in a large enough set of occurrences, rare events will occur, a point often forgotten. Or so I understand it. My apologies to Prof. Masel if I’ve done violence to her ideas.

    I’m not so sure that we need hypothesize a cryptic state. In my view, it is often forgotten that natural selection is a conservative force. But in the fossil record, as I understand it, the appearance of radically new forms tends to follow upon a mass extinction, which leave relatively empty biomes. I don’t think the panselectionist bias seeing natural selection as the most powerful force holds then. The variation can be very much wider since selection forces tightly constraining species form are so much weaker. But the adaptive landscape necessarily changes (whether genotypically or ecologically) precisely because of population changes. Natural selection becomes more powerful as ecological niches or habitats or preempted by competition. In this view, the evolutionary capacitor is replaced by an event, the arrival of an evolutionary filter. Fitness drives species forms to a local extreme.

    But this is an historical explanation and as such ruled out as scientific by many. Prof. Masel’s process would act at all times. Also, it would act towards emergence not of species alone but even more so as a driver for the emergence of novel traits, whether visible like wings, or invisible, like a cell structure or a metabolic pathway. Incidentally, I suspect the relatively straightforward biomechanical or thermodynamic efficiences would make natural selection for optima much more effective. The efficiency of an entire organism is a much, much more complex affair.

    As to human exceptionalism? One warthog may find another warthog enchantingly beautiful. Human exceptionalism I think is of the same kind as this warthog exceptionalism. Even after reflection I am not sure why we need any other kind of objective (or seemingly objective) justification for a greater interest in ourselve.


  5. Massimo,

    … what humans have done and achieved, in an astounding variety of fields, is staggeringly and qualitatively different from what any other species of animals has even come close to doing.


    … all the more exceptional then that we are a bunch of damn dirty apes who are studying be beginning of the Universe, the interior of distant stars, the lineages of long dead animals.

    These assertions start with a highly anthropocentric list of what is important. It is no surprise that humans tend to value the things that humans are good at, and thus see themselves as exceptional. However, there are 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bacteria for each human, and we could not exist without them, while they could exist without us. If you think that mere numbers don’t matter and that writing poetry is more significant, then again that is an anthropocentric view.

    We are certainly exceptional among the animals and I often wonder what is behind the need to deny that.

    It’s more about clear thinking and recognising that what is important to us is not the same as “what is important”.


  6. In the end it may all come down to the understanding of the human language mechanism, an ontological puzzle we have only a hint of understanding since ID and other dogma can set the human mind in certain ways. (“In the beginning was the Word….”) All three western religions are based in literary books. Reading Gene Pacelli’s (Pius XII) Human Generis (Human Origins) written circa 1950, one gets the hint of modernism (Catholic “Atheism”) in the Catholic literary teachings or rather not the importance of adherence to religious “creation science” as opposed to the adherence of religious doctrine which sets the mind in a moral stance. God may well be the most “develish” idea ever devised for organizing human moral practice and human civiliztion. It is hard to dispute the positive results, inquisitions and all.


  7. Re landscape / hill-climbing etc. metaphors. At this point I feel that all of these metaphors are inadequate and dangerous. The number of dimensions is so high that our intuitions are seriously flawed. The way forward for science in this area is through the use of formal mathematics. Metaphors may sometimes be useful in rationalizing.explaining the results of that mathematics after the fact, and even for inspiring particular ideas to study with that mathematics, but reasoning about genotype using verbal metaphors alone is not a valid approach. In that light, it is somewhat moot whether one metaphor is slightly better/worse than another.

    An important thing to bear in mind is that this strict mathematical language is already used in much of the technical literature (including our own manuscript that prompted this post). That literature is of course not very accessible (including to many less mathematical evolutionary biologists) for precisely that reason. But it is there.


  8. Joanna Masel: “Why do so many people not accept scientific conclusions that seem to an expert like me to be irrefutably supported by the evidence?”

    In addition to my previous comment, the major problem is in the ‘expert’. Every ‘expert’ knows a very tiny (tiny,…, tiny…) bit more knowledge in a very narrow (narrow, …, narrow, …) niche of the knowledge landscape. By all means, those experts are not much smarter than the street-walking people, but some of those grandiose experts got their big head spinning to their self-ordained super-glory. On the one hand, they see their tiny finding as the ‘irrefutable evidence’. On the other hand, they totally have the ability to ignore the eternal evidence. Although I did not meet ‘Disagreeable Me’ in person, I enjoyed many of his comments. One of his comment is about my comment, and it makes a great significance on this discussion. I showed an Alpha equation at this Webzine before:

    Beta = 1/alpha = 64 (1 + first order mixing + sum of the higher order mixing)
    = 64 (1 + 1/Cos A (2) + .00065737 + …)
    = 137.0359 …
    A (2) is the Weinberg angle, A (2) = 28.743 degree
    The sum of the higher order mixing = 2(1/48) [(1/64) + (1/2) (1/64) ^2 + …+(1/n)(1/64)^n +…]
    = .00065737 + …

    DM’s comment was “I am ‘decisively’ not convinced.”

    Wow, ‘not convinced’ of what? Not convinced that that equation gives an answer = 137.0359…? Then, go find a neighbor kid of 8th grader and ask him to show you the calculation steps.

    This is a simple and factual example. This Alpha equation is an ‘eternal’ fact, and it can still be ‘decisively’ rejected or ignored by well-educated person. The most of ‘irrefutable evidences’ by definition are fallible; why should they carry much more weight than the eternal facts.

    On the other hand, the street-walking persons ‘do know and accept’ some eternal knowledge. When ‘a’ system has three parts (A. B, C). Every street-walk person knows at least four things about it.

    One, {A, B, C} are different among themselves. If they are the same, there will not be three.

    Two, {A, B, C} are ‘parts’ of an ‘one’, the system. That is, the ‘one’ is the fundamental, the parts the emergent.

    Three, the ‘one’ is an ontological reality (existence), and this reality is either always there or having a beginning. On either cases, there is an ‘origin’ and must be. If this ‘origin’ popped out in the ‘blue’, the street-walking person definitely wants to know {What is this ‘blue’?}.

    Four, if this ‘one’ is always there, there will not be any ‘evolution’. If this ‘one’ had a beginning, then it can and must evolve.

    These four simple points are known by every (every, …, every, …) street-walking person. If any ‘irrefutable evidence’ is not jive with this simple knowledge, that ‘irrefutable evidence’ can take a highway of its choice.


  9. I’d also like to thank so many of you commenters for your kind words on my article, and for a quality of discourse that is undeniably far higher than elsewhere on the internet! And thanks to Massimo for making this possible!


  10. Hi Joanna, interesting essay. As soon as I began reading texts from the Intelligent Design movement, I became a pretty strong opponent. One point which I thought merited consideration was the concept of irreducible complexity, though not for the reasons you have advanced. I thought it might be useful given that we are moving into an era of synthetic, and otherwise intelligently designed (aka altered), biology. Perhaps it would be useful to set up criteria to try to distinguish what is more likely to have evolved, versus likely to have been manufactured.

    However I have to admit I am a bit ambivalent about an idea that evolution can produce systems that are “irreducibly complex”, at least how that term was intended. Unfortunately I have not had time to get to your articles, but I wanted to write something before the time for replies ran out. In my molecular bio coursework we learned about chaperones and “heat shock” proteins that could basically mask the build up of mutations that might be deleterious (or perhaps useful), until situations of stress which would allow the “new” proteins to exhibit their function. I am assuming you theory (with cryptic variations) moves along these lines?

    If so, I worry that the name becomes a bit of a boon to the ID movement without enough added benefit to science. This is because the mutation never went through a phase where the components were in fact deleterious, as the system itself provides checks on the effects of the mutations. If anything, to my mind, your point appears to show that proving any organism or biological component is irreducibly complex (such that it was impervious to evolutionary mechanisms) is harder than Behe could have imagined. Has Behe or anyone from the ID movement reacted to your usage of the term?


  11. Coel,

    “there are 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bacteria for each human, and we could not exist without them, while they could exist without us.”

    Yes, thanks for the biology lesson. To begin with, as Aravis has already pointed out, the whole idea of “X being important” is a human judgment. Bacteria don’t make judgments, another way in which we are exceptional.

    Second, if you really don’t think that there is something exceptional in a lump of carbon and other assorted elements being able not just to metabolize and reproduce (which all those bacteria do too) but also to produce poetry, science, and discussions on blogs, I really don’t know where to start, which means I’ll stop here.


  12. @brandholm. Yes, a lot of the work on evolutionary capacitance has focused on chaperones, as you learned in class. Personally, I think there are some better examples, but in any case the principles are the same.
    In our model, cryptic genetic variants still go through a period of being deleterious as individual components. However, they are so weakly deleterious at this stage that natural selection is relatively ineffective against them.
    When the ID movement cites my work, they often focus on the headline of the news report that covers it, next on the news report and quotes that also simply and anthropomorphize to make something accessible, and rarely on the work itself in its formal mathematical clarity. A longer form example that is at least aware of the distinction between the press coverage and the work is at http://crev.info/2011/01/evolutionists_admit_it146s_about_mistakes/


  13. A few additional comments again:
    @DisagreeableMe: I don’t think the issue of human exceptionalism is a side issue. Per my first and second comments, I consider it part of the “connotative meaning” baggage of Masel using “irreducible complexity” in her paper. Unfortunately, Masel’s never directly answered this issue. And, per my second comment, with link to old Rationally Speaking, and old “accomodationism,” to be honest, I don’t expect her to answer. Nor do I expect her to respond to this. She also never really addressed Nicholas Matzke, on page 2 of comments, either.

    In light of that, I’d have to say that while this met Massimo’s standards for being non-complex and non-technical, it didn’t really light my candle.

    @Coel: Bacteria can’t think. QED on your particular anti-exceptionalism angle. Humans are exceptional, within the world of biology, without believing in an “arrow of progress” in evolution or a creator/intelligent designer. How exceptionally exceptional they are is then open for discussion.


  14. I guess I agree with SocraticGadly that human exceptionalism is not a side issue, albeit not because of any connection with irreducible complexity. The first of three lessons drawn from creationism in my article is that human exceptionalism is a powerful driving force (without setting out my personal position about whether or which version of human exceptionalism is reasonable, which is irrelevant to the point I was making).

    If you check my writings in ref [1], which I quoted from in the comments, you will see that my position on human exceptionalism is that it is not something that has been proven by the science of biology, and that it indeed falls outside its purview. In general, I am more concerned by how strongly held views on human exceptionalism can distort scientific thinking than I am by whether and in what sense human exceptionalism is “true”. The comment thread here only reinforces my opinion on how strongly people hold views on this topic, and how much influence those views have.


  15. I haven’t read all the replies, but I believe the article overlooks one important factor.

    The three points, if I understood them correctly, are:
    1) Denialism elucidates on human psychology.
    2) New paradigms in biology (and/or biochemistry) are necessary.
    3) Areas previously understudied should be studied all the more fervently.

    All of these points have to do with what goes on inside the scientific community. I think a fourth point needs to be added:
    4) Scientists need to do more PR work.

    For example, I recently had a discussion with a creationist about a few recent papers regarding convergent evolution in venom genes of snakes and monotremes. The creationist point was of course: “Two independent mutations in two distantly related clades? That can’t happen if evolution is true.”
    I then went on to explain the difference between “identical” and “functional analogues”, but to no avail.

    Then, my glorious idea: I contacted one of the authors of the paper and asked her to elucidate on one or two points. Thankfully, she complied and the creationist (to his credit) dropped that particular point. Not the other points though.

    If it were possible for scientists to better explain their research/papers, make them more accessible to the public… I believe we’d have far fewer problems. Also, we’d not require so much uneducated debate on fora (including the one I had) and could instead rely on experts.


  16. Hi Coel, you wrote:

    “However, there are 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bacteria for each human, and we could not exist without them, while they could exist without us”.

    I’m not sure about it. There are about 2000 bacteria species in the human organism in a symbiotic state that has lasted for millions of years. I wonder how these species would survive living in different conditions. Once the symbiotic condition takes over is difficult to say which is the weakest element of this structure.

    I’m not defending that human species is exceptional, I need more information to say anything worthwhile about, I just comment that around the anthropocentric idea we shouldn’t forget that we have been living in cooperation with some bacteria for millions of years.


  17. Good point Dr. Masel, and so I want to clarify what I was saying. The fact that humans perceive themselves to be exceptional is very relevant indeed in affecting how they interpret science. *Whether* humans are exceptional or not is irrelevant (and so should probably not be discussed further here).


  18. Thank you Joanna, and apologies if you would have preferred Dr Masel (no offense meant). I was curious if they would have taken your work (or at least your writing) out of context. They seemed to be big on that, which was the source of my concern. It figures they’d concentrate on the news rather than your work. The linked site was uhm… still a bit eccentric… I was immediately distracted by the quote linking Darwin and Marx before getting to the article.

    I wish you success and will be interested if you make more headway into these kinds of issues. Someone once told me there are no problems in science, only frontiers to be explored. I think you’re tackling some intriguing and useful sections of our scientific frontier (especially if largely ignored by others).


  19. on the first point, it’s been interesting for me to debate creationists precisely because the science wasn’t the issue. When I first started debating creationists, many of their questions seemed scientific, and it pushed me to read more evolutionary biology so I could personally understand. But after some time of doing this, it struck me that the creationists weren’t interested in the scientific answer, rather they were using the scientific arguments as potential defeater arguments against atheism. Whether or not the science had an answer (most creationists are nowhere near as informed as Behe), it didn’t really matter.

    If it is the case that the creationist battles aren’t over the science of evolution (nearly all creationists I’ve encountered were addressing ethical and/or existential concerns they saw with evolution – “if there is no God, then everything is permitted”), then what obligation is there to give scientific answers? Can we have meaningful dialogue with creationists if we’re not addressing those central concerns about human significance head-on? 


  20. @kelskye I completely agree with you. Meaningful dialogue with creationists is not easy, and may well be impossible. But if it can be done, I agree that it will involve addressing central concerns about human significance head-on.


  21. Disagreeable Me: “Guys, isn’t this debate about human exceptionalism exactly the kind of irrelevant side issue the new rules were supposed to avoid? … This is why I’d much prefer a rule against this kind of side-debate than hard limits on comments per thread.”

    ‘Human exceptionalism’ could be the core issue for ‘all’ issues, especially in physics and in philosophy. The ‘5-comments with 500 words per comment’ rule allows each commenter to write 2500 words comment per article, and it has about the same number of words of the original article. If one cannot make enough comment on that article, he can simply submit an article of his own. The one-liner bickering exchangers were very annoying and degrades this great Webzine. I kept quiet about it, but obviously someone was unable to take it. A great thank to Massimo to cut that out.

    For human exceptionalism, this issue can be answered by asking two simple questions.

    Question one (Q1): can ‘this’ universe survive ‘without’ a human-like manifestation?

    Question two (Q2): if the human on Earth were totally destroyed by self-destruction, can this universe survive?

    Superficially, these two questions are similar, but they are completely different in essence. For Q2, the answer is a definitely big ‘Yes’; this universe can survive if the humanity disappeared totally on Earth. Yet, for Q1, the answer is a definitely big “No”; this universe will never come into being if the human-like ‘manifestation’ is forbidden.

    The ‘essence’ of this universe consists of two things (consciousness and intelligence) which are imbedded in the ‘base’ of the nature physics. The human-like ‘manifestation’ is the utmost (highest) ‘expression’ of that ‘base’. The human-like manifestation is the ‘inevitable’ consequence of that ‘base’.

    I have showed a 4-lock litmus test for the ‘human-physics’. Any physics (or else, philosophy/religions, etc.) model fails this litmus test, it cannot be a part of the ‘nature-physics’. Yet, these 4-locks can be further reduced to two processes (consciousness and intelligence). Any model which cannot derive both ‘consciousness and intelligence’ cannot be a part of the nature-physics.

    The human-like manifestation is totally exceptional as it is the utmost (highest) expression of the nature-physics, and this manifestation is the ‘inevitable’ consequence. That is, without a human-like manifestation as the utmost expression, this universe cannot come into being let alone to survive.


  22. Hi Massimo,

    To begin with, as Aravis has already pointed out, the whole idea of “X being important” is a human judgment.

    That was my point also, that “human exceptionalism” is purely an anthropocentric judgement based on humans valuing what matters to humans.

    Of course humans are exceptional in many ways, but then so are lots of other things. Humans are thus exceptional, but we are not exceptional in being exceptional.

    The more important point is that, in the history of intellectual thought, far more bad thinking has been caused by seeing humans as “exceptional” and as distinct from the rest of the world, than has been caused by seeing humans as fully part of the natural world and as very much products of the natural world. Indeed, an important thread running through advances in our understanding has been a move from the former to the latter position.

    Copernicus and Darwin were notable highlights (as was the largescale shift from a theistic world view to a non-theistic one), but the residue is still with us today in the reluctance of some to ascribe notions such as tool use, deliberation, meaning, morality, and consciousness to other animals.

    Human exceptionalism can also lead to thinking about such things as binary yes/no properties, rather than as continua, which then prevents us understanding them.

    And of course — bringing this back to Dr Masel’s piece — theism-based human exceptionalism underpins all of creationism and the rejection of evolution.


  23. The facts don’t support human exceptionalism. Yes, it’s true that people can think, speak, sing, do art and science and these particular exceptionalities are not shared to the same degree with other species. But this is irrelevant because it is not at all clear that most people are even interested in things, not even so much within their own particular cultures. Many people are opposed to science for instancel. Notably, all these special things are offered by other cultures as well and many people are downright hostile to them. You can write “X is important” but it is conspicuously not a human judgment but a cultural one, or even an idiosyncratic one.
    If whole categories of other people are unimportant or even wrong, what people in general do is neither important nor necessarily right.

    I cannot see how the kind of people who are committed to the proposition an interest in other people has to justified by something external (external even to nature!) can ever conceive of human exceptionalism as anything but a rationalization for conceiving themselves as exceptional. How many others get included in the inner circle is more or less a whim, whether personal or second hand from friends and family. Creationism is fueled more than anything I think by fury over the insult to the vanity. Maybe the wounded vanity is the most dangerous prey and such hazardous pursuit may be frightening. But it is not at all clear how any emollient to the vanity presented by human exceptionalism, however qualified, can help but foster the emotional rejection of evolutionary biology.


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