Did Swamidass Punt on Innovation?

Just chiming in to provide a transcript of the important, relevant exchange during the debate. @swamidass , in his own words, “punted” on the central question at issue after seeming to contradict himself and never explained his view to the audience, believing it was too sophisticated for the audience to understand. I’m putting this here because this is where the transcript was requested. Feel free to move it to the current thread if you want.

Timestamps are from the youtube video.

Swamidass (44:25):

(Reading from the slide) “The Scientific Dissent from Darwinism. We are skeptical of the claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

And that’s really what Mike’s main message, I would say, has been for the last twenty years. But here’s the big surprise for me when I got into actually studying evolutionary science. I found out that everyone actually agrees with this. The reason why is back in 1968, you [indicating Behe] were in high school in 1968, right? That’s when Haldane’s Dilemma was solved in a big part by Motoo Kimura, who showed that natural, positive selection driven change could not account for molecular machines, could not account for the changes in DNA, but in fact neutral mechanisms could. And in fact those are more important when considering DNA and molecular machines and all those sorts of things than Darwinian mechanisms.

Behe (54:30):

When this fellow, Motoo Kimura, wrote his very influential, well actually his first paper, his book came out later called The Neutral Theory of Molecular Evolution. It was a great advance. What it said is that most changes when a nucleotide in DNA is switched out for another one, they don’t do anything. Doesn’t do anything. And that’s very true and can help us track changes in DNA. What it doesn’t do is explain those mechanical structures that I showed you on the previous slides. What’s more, Dr. Kimura himself thought that his theory does not explain much about such structures. He wrote that (reading from the slide), “The theory does not deny the role of natural selection in determining the course of adaptive evolution, but it assumes that only a minute fraction DNA changes are adaptive.” So these are what are called neutral. They can come, they can go, la la la. Who cares? But the big changes, the important ones, the ones that put together complex interactive structures such as we’ve seen, that has nothing to do with this. So the examples that Josh has put up are interesting and useful, but they don’t speak at all to the examples that we saw.

Swamidass did not reply to this in rejoinder, however he did mention it during the Q&A (1:08:28):

(Addressing Behe) So you are correct, and I want to agree with you, that neutral theory as put forward by Motoo Kimura does not explain how new functions arise. That’s correct. (Addressing Tour) And this gets to this issue of “How do you change a complex system?” And so, I agree with you. It doesn’t. What it does is give us some evidence for common descent. That’s all I talked about. (Addressing Behe) And I punted on the question of how that arose, because it’s actually orthogonal to the question of that, alright? (Addressing Tour) What I would say is that biology is pretty complex, and it’s nonintuitive. Can you grant me that there are things in science that are nonintuitive? He’s nodding, “Yes” for the record. There’s things that are obvious to you as a chemist, Jim, that are just going to confuse many people in this room who are not chemists. Can you agree with me on that? And I’m just telling you like any complex area, that’s how it is in biology. And so not knowing that complexity I think this argument makes an intense amount of sense. As you understand actually what’s going in biology, it’s not, uh, it’s just basically your intuitions get [unintelligible, refaced? refused? refuted?]. That’s what’s going on. I think there’s a legitimacy to where you’re coming from because chemical intuitions won’t explain what I’m talking about. It requires some biological intuitions that are shaped in a different way. I know it’s not being satisfying but hey, I’m hanging out with you tomorrow. We’ll talk about it for hours.


True, however:

  1. Constructive neutral evolution does explain how new functions arise and this is not what Kimura put forward.

  2. Much of the diversity of life has nothing to do with new functions and is well explained by neutral theory.

And the next day I explained to Tour how a complex system changes in biology. My presentation was focused on the evidence for common descent, which Behe himself agrees with.

And we did talk about it for hours.


@BenKissling, thanks for the transcript. I appreciate it. Hopefully that makes clear I was not contradicting myself.


I could say chemical reactions explain origin of life. How is the statement that constructive neutral evolution explains how new functions arise different?

Evolutionary science does not provide a fine-grained mutation by mutation account of new functions arising, which is why I did not even attempt to do so. However, it provides a far better account of how new functions arise than does origin of life research.

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Luckily both of those statements have supporting evidence.

Here is an argument from Sandwalk. Are you or @swamidass aware if the theory has developed beyond you “can’t prove it cannot be done” ?

BilboMonday, September 07, 2015 1:26:00 AM

Professor Moran,

I think you misrepresent Behe’s position. But the most interesting thing you just asserted is that it isn’t unlikely for such systems to evolve by CNE. Has somebody demonstrated the truth of that claim?

Larry MoranMonday, September 07, 2015 2:16:00 AM

Please stop trying to shift the burden of proof. Creationists argue that it is IMPOSSIBLE for irreducibly complex systems to evolve by natural means therefore there must be an intelligent designer. Do you believe that the evolution of irreducibly complex structures is IMPOSSIBLE? If so, has someone demonstrated the truth of that claim?

I’ve just described a way to evolve irreducible complexity without the need of an intelligent designer. You have to prove to me that it’s impossible, otherwise your argument for the existence of gods collapses.

If I might, I would like to add a different perspective that values the neutral theory in a more fundamental way.

Before Kimura, the main hypothesis that could be framed regarding the origins of a feature had a decided Darwinian bent. Specifically, one would frame a hypothesis based on hypothetical selective advantages, etc., etc…

Kimura allowed a different hypothesis (or sets of competing hypotheses). Specifically, it was (and is) appropriate to hypothesize that the origins of a given feature be grounded in neutral evolution, and not natural selection. I am always reminding trainees (and myself) of this, and challenging them to come up with ways to test this hypothesis. Trainees learn so much more when faced with this task. Not the least of which is to move outside of a mindset (natural selection explains everything) that is the intuitive default for most biologists.

I would add to this that neutral evolution is also an excellent, and perfectly reasonable, alternative for the student of ID, and, if ID is in fact science, one must encourage trainees to test these competing hypotheses (ID vs. neutral evolution). In ways that go far, far beyond “it looks that way to Behe”.


Whenever I have debated with evolutionists, virtually all of them will answer any assertion that evolution is “random” by saying natural selection is not random. They will strenuously object and say I am mischaracterizing evolution by calling it “random”. By removing natural selection from the equation, you have made believing the evolutionary story harder, not easier, because now it is totally random. Instead of the Darwinian story which Behe critiques that only requires random mutation to successfully find selectable steps, CNE as you call it is random the whole way through. That is a step back, not a step forward, in understanding evolution. The fact that neutral evolution does away with selection at low selection coefficients makes evolutionary steps harder to achieve, not easier. And yet you act as though this is a great leap forward in understanding and somehow an answer to Behe’s questions, which is why I find this whole thing rather amusing.

Besides that, I would hope you aren’t suggesting that natural selection doesn’t work at higher selection coefficients. Would you still accept that natural selection is an acceptable explanation of fixation when the selection coefficient is high enough?

Vis a vis the debate, you clearly presented Kimura’s neutral theory as an answer to Behe’s questions about molecular machines. You even implied that he ought to have known this because it was in evidence since 1968. Now perhaps that’s not what you meant, but that is what you said at the debate.

Why did you not bring up constructive neutral evolution at the debate and contrast it with Kimura’s original theory?

There’s a lot of misconceptions about CNE going around here I see. For example it appears some are confusing CNE with neutral theory, or that it imples the absence of natural selection in the evolution of some structure.


I did not remove natural selection. Rather, I said that natural selection is not the whole story. Everyone should agree that Darwinian evolution is not a good explanation of how diversity arises, because that isn’t even what current evolutionary science claims.

Moreover, science does not seek “sufficient” or total explanations, but just empirically “good” explanations.

No kidding. I’m saying that evolution is far more complex than just “Darwinism” and that full complexity needs to be engaged together if we are to make an argument against it.


I presume, from the fact that some people are kvetching that Joshua did not provide a detailed, molecule-by-molecule account of how biological innovations arise, that Behe did give a detailed, molecule-by-molecule account of how these innovations were created by a designer, and who this designer was. That is quite exciting news. Could we have a transcript of that, @BenKissling?


I think part of @BenKissling frustration is that I did not take the bait of trying to tell a just-so story for any of these structures. If I did, I’d be pressed to demonstrate each step as fact, and to specify each step in increasing detail. Except evolutionary science doesn’t claim to give such a detailed and positively demonstrated case. I am also aware that it is rhetorically strong to mock attempts to explain things such as this.

Behe doesn’t give us a step by step account that is evidentially demonstrated, so I’m not sure why @BenKissling thinks I should, except because he feels rightfully robbed of the chance to mock an improvised just-so story. The way I see the rhetoric here, I wouldn’t want to give any more detail in that context than would Behe, and Behe gave no detail.

The thing is, that evolution is not a sufficient explanation; it does not purport to be a total explanation. We cannot explain everything, and there is a lot we do not know, especially if we drill down to fine-grained details and limit ourselves to claims positively demonstrated with evidence. This leaves a lot of room for the possibility of God’s involvement, but the fact we can’t explain everything is not evidence of God’s involvement.


And, so, instead they take you to task for not taking their bait. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Except the only ones who are really damned here are the creationists, whose intellectual inconsistency is again revealed.


Maybe @BenKissling would care to explain why he does not see that as fair.



Your assessment is “right on”.

But you also missed the opportunity to say that you AGREED with Behe that God uses evolution (which I assume Behe does agree with, or should be compelled to explain why he isn’t).

But you will have more chances to do this in the future, yes?

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Im pretty sure I did say that @gbrooks9!

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About what time stamp should I look for that statement?

NOTE: It is my suspicion that we are all TOO CONDITIONED to think we have justify Evolution-without-God … when that is not even your position!

33 min in on the YouTube version.


An analogy that helps me visualize these concepts is the game of Jenga.


If you have ever played this game before you will have learned that the importance of specific blocks can change over time. At the beginning of the game there are many blocks that can be removed without tipping the tower over. However, if you go back to those same loose blocks later in the game you will find that they fit tightly and can’t be removed. The same for some of the tight blocks at the beginning of the game that become loose and removable later. This is very much how genetics can work.

If you look at a protein or functional DNA sequence at any point in history there are bases that can change without damaging the function of that sequence. However, if you move to a different point in history this may not be the case. Bases you could change at one point without any ramifications, that is neutral mutations, may be vital for function at a different point in history. This is called epistasis, a term you should look up and understand to get a better grip on how part of constructive neutral evolution works.

Is natural selection an important part of the modern theory of evolution? Absolutely!!! However, evolution is a complex process and to understand it you also have to incorporate a lot of other mechanisms, with historical contingency, epistasis, and neutral mutations being three of them.



Very nice paragraph !!!