Do Heat Seeking Missiles Have Teleology?


Who disagrees that natural selection produces an increase in fitness? Please be specific, and cite quotes from these individuals.


What biologists are interested in are peer reviewed papers containing original research. If you want to communicate to biologists then these are the references you need to use. Anyone can write a book. Not everyone can get a peer reviewed paper published in a (quality) scientific journal.

(Edward Robinson) #103

I didn’t say they could. But evolution appears to involve changes beyond those that are necessary for fitness, and even where fitness is involved, it doesn’t follow that it is arrived at by blind search of variations plus natural selection. The book by Turner I mentioned suggests that organisms have an internal end-directedness that is not adequately accounted for in the “variations/mutations filtered by natural selection” model. I suspect you will disagree with his conclusions, which is fine, but they come from a biologist (albeit a biologist informed by much reading in the history and philosophy of evolutionary theory), so you can’t dismiss them as coming from a scientific quack.

I assume that you were actually at the conference and heard all the papers, and that you would not have made this statement unless you were. But in any case, agreeing that natural selection is a factor in evolution (which most people do) is not the same as agreeing how much of a factor it is. Darwin thought it was the most important factor by far, but Joshua tells us that neutral theory indicates that much of evolution is not under selection.


I didn’t say that adaptations are arrived at by a blind search. I said that increased fitness is what happens when imperfect replicators compete for limited resources.

I would ask to see the peer reviewed papers that his claims are based on.

Carl Zimmer was there, and this is part of an article he wrote on his experiences at the meeting:

For all the rhetoric, the mechanisms these scientists are pointing to are the standard mechanisms that have been in the theory of evolution for decades now.

(Edward Robinson) #105

I translate this as: You are a biologist, whose profession is supposedly the study of life, but when a trained biologist writes one of the most thoughtful books on the nature of life to appear in the past 30 years, you aren’t interested in reading it. That’s fine, but all this nonsense about peer-reviewed papers is irrelevant. Something isn’t less true because it is published in a book rather than in a peer-reviewed paper. (Darwin’s Origin of Species was a book, not a peer-reviewed paper, and so were several of the foundational works of the Modern Synthesis by Julian Huxley, Mayr, etc.) And of course, if someone is a big-picture thinker, they are going to need a book-length treatment to show how all the complex pieces of a large intellectual puzzle fit together. In a typical peer-reviewed science article, of which I have read many, big-picture thinking is very little in evidence, as the purpose of the paper is usually to determine some small point, e.g., whether the removal of Gene X will cause the appearance of antennae rather than feet in a fruit fly. There is nothing wrong with focused research papers like that, but I would rather be dead than spend my entire life writing them and reading them. Without the big-picture writings of the more philosophically aware scientists, science to me would be an intellectually barren field.


I am not interested in your opinion of the book. I am interested in the science that supports Scott’s claims. Anyone can write a book. Anyone. What separates good science from a book is the evidence, and it is the evidence I am interested in. I am assuming that Scott did not do all of the research he references in his book, so I am asking to see the evidence.

You are not a scientist. You may not understand that scientists look for evidence. You also may not understand that primary sources are what we want to see, not characterizations of the primary sources written by secondary sources. Any scientific argument is dependent on how well a person describes the facts.

What I have found all too often is that book authors will mischaracterize the science and hope that no one will check the references.

(Edward Robinson) #107

The more logical order would be to read his book, to see exactly what he is claiming, before asking him to document his claims. But as it happens, the book has about 15 pages of Endnotes, with some references there, and I am sure that if you weren’t satisfied with those, you could find more either by going to his website or writing to him with a request for more evidence.


Apparently, you have read his book so why don’t you start a thread, describe what his main points are, cite the peer reviewed papers that Scott cites (preferably papers that aren’t behind a pay wall), and then we can discuss.

(Edward Robinson) #109

Yes, I understand this. I also understand that scientists, especially biologists, often carry about them a metaphysical and epistemological chip on their shoulders as large as the Rock of Gibraltar, and that they filter the evidence through that. Turner’s book is written largely to urge biologists to be more self-conscious about that large chip on their shoulder which is preventing them from seeing things about life that are there to be seen, for those without methodological blinders on. And he started out in biology with exactly the attitude which you are projecting here, and did biology for many years in the mode that you recommend, so it is not as if he does not understand what scientists typically count as an explanation in biology. But his thought has matured, and he now thinks differently. If you are interested in a different view on the nature of life and on evolution, you might be interested in hearing what he has to say. But if you have decided that no other view than the current consensus could possibly be correct, then there is no need for you to listen to him or even read him.

(Edward Robinson) #110

Good idea. I may do that, when I get out from under from some teaching and writing duties. But I think the interesting point here is that you were inclined to react against him before actually hearing what his argument was. That’s exactly the prejudice in modern biology that he wrote his book to combat! Still, if I can write up something later, I will. Thanks for the suggestion.


I think you are projecting.

It would appear that it is Turner who has the chip on the shoulder.


I don’t deny that I have a dim view of the EES crowd, but that is because I have looked at the science and their claims and I find their science to be seriously lacking. Perhaps Scott is different, and I am more than willing to be proven wrong.

(Edward Robinson) #113

You can’t know that, without reading his book.

I assume you have some reason for concealing your identity (some reason other than fear of professional consequences, since being anti-ID and anti-creationist and atheist would count as pluses rather than minuses in the world of biological academia), and I don’t question your right to do so. But if you can’t tell us your name, could you at least tell us what your research specialty within biology is? Is evolutionary mechanism your field of research? People like Shapiro, whom you don’t seem to like, actually have produced published work in that area. Also several people in the EES crowd that you are criticizing, and the people in the Altenberg group, whom I would guess you also take a dim view of, have published frequently in the journals that deal with evolutionary mechanism. I’m trying to discern whether you are actually a peer of these people, working in their field, or are an outsider to it, and criticizing it from the perspective of some other biological or biochemical field.

(Eric Michael Holloway) #114

No. If you can use your real world experience to explain the problem with my argument, I would be grateful.

The best I’ve been able to think of is since we can only estimate an upper bound on Kolmogorov complexity, then we can over or underestimate the algorithmic information theory in a practical setting.

This is an important point, but it does not mean the mathematical argument is invalid. It raises practical issues, which may be insurmountable, but, at least, from my inexperienced perspective, it does not seem insurmountable. For instance, based on AIT, Li and Vitanyi invented a useful distance metric with calculable compression.

But, if your experience has indeed shown you algorithmic mutual information can never be measured to any useful degree, this would indeed show that ID is in deep trouble, and is an argument worth clearly articulating.
All ID researchers I know would take such an argument seriously, and would reject ID if your argument was indeed conclusive. I certainly would. I look forward to seeing such an argument.

(Eric Michael Holloway) #115

Sure, I can do that too, and have been revisiting the Python experiment I worked on last time. I thought you had a clearcut argument, though.

(Jon Garvey) #116

When I saw the thread heading, I was reminded that a thrown missile was one of Aristotle’s prime illustrations of teleology, or final causation. The telos in this case is all from the thrower, but the stoe or arrow exhibits teleology by being directed to its target.

The heat-seeking missile is entirely comparable, for the onboard technology is put into the missile by man just as surely as the trajectory is put into the stone by man.

Yet Aristotle or Aquinas would still distinguish it from the inhererent teleology of an organism, whose aims are intrinsic to the thing as a whole, and directed towards its own good (not self destruction for another’s harm).

Where Aquinas differed from Aristotle was in the theological application of the “artifact” analogy - if life was created by God, then intrinsic teleology is ultimately an indicator of the final purposes of its creator.

(Jon Garvey) #117

No - the language of “efficient material causes” is the language of the philosophy of science. “Efficiency” is the language of mechanical science and, derivatively, colloquial conversation.

“Teleology” is in the thread title, which shows that the expected language is that of philosophy, not colloquial usage.

(Jon Garvey) #118

Does this help?


If you’re using the definition “fitness = differential reproductive success” then definitionally fit individuals must outcompete less fit ones. The old tautology problem.

But if most changes in evolution are neutral, and sometimes those changes are fixed by drift, whilst rare “beneficial” mutations are frequently not fixed, then it would appear that definitionally the organisms undergoing drift are fitter, because they reproduced and that with the benefical mutation didn’t.

Or is there another definition of “fitness” that doesn’t require survival?

(Alan Fox) #119

Why is that a tautology, especially when fitness is dependent on niche? Golden moles don’t thrive at sea but manage quite well swimming in sand*. Sharks on the other hand…

ETA *the sand of the Namib Desert, that is.

(Jon Garvey) #120

It’s a tautology in T_aquaticus’s question. Less fit individuals can’t outcompete if your definition of fitness is outcompeting.

But no individual trait guarantees reproductive success, when many advantageous traits never become fixed.