The ROM and evolution


in Geek stuff, Science, Toronto

Kensington Avenue sign

Wandering through Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) is an enjoyable way both to experience the diversity of life and appreciate the degree to which its history has come to be comprehensible for human beings. From the grand displays of ancient bones to the more abstract explanations of taxonomy and evolutionary history, the place is a monument to the scientific understanding of the world. Given the power of that discourse – derived from the exceedingly high level of evidence provided by physical remains, genetics, and the study of living creatures – it makes it all the more astonishing that anybody out there believes that the Earth is 6,000 years old, that all the creatures on it were created simultaneously, and that evolution is not a powerful ongoing process that explains our biological origins.

Over and above matters of scientific understanding, the story told by the ROM is also enormously more compelling than the story of creation by an omnipotent god. The latter may have fireworks, but the former has a lot more power and beauty. It makes the creation story look like a bad Hollywood film that happens to star someone famous: the Waterworld of theories.

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. April 20, 2009 at 10:05 am

The latter [biblical creation] may have fireworks, but the former [evolution] has a lot more power and beauty.

While the scientific evidence certainly strongly supports evolution, this judgment is personal and aesthetic. A lot of people feel more compelled by creation from an intelligent entity that cares about them, rather than as the result of physical laws and chance interactions. Actually, the fervent hope that we are not the product of accidents may be one major reason why people reject evolution.

Milan April 20, 2009 at 4:14 pm

More sad coverage of how scientifically illiterate and religiously blinded some powerful people are:

House Republicans bring strange theories and wacky witnesses to climate hearings


“[T]he idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical. Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide. Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you’ve got more carbon dioxide.”

That quote is courtesy of John Boehner, Republican leader in the US House of Representatives.

Tristan April 20, 2009 at 4:42 pm

People who consider the “why” question to be a real question, tend to be religious. Science can do great work with the “how” question, “how are things the way things are”. But Science can’t do anything with the “why” question, “why is there anything at all”. All the beauty and force in the world concerning the “how” question cannot begin to give another answer to the “why” question.

The serious response to those who desire a “why” is that the question is only answerable in terms of an originary intelligence – because the “why” wants a reason of the same kind as “why did you go to the store today” – an intentional answer. The idea that things in nature of purposes is an old one, Kant deals with it by showing why it’s necessary that it appears to you that way, but you are never justified in asserting (nature to have purposes) to be true.

I think there is a need to dispel the “why” question in one way or another, and not simply ignore it. Kant’s explanation – i.e. to tell you why you think you need an answer to the why question, but why you can’t have – is more convincing than what Dawkins would say (he’d probably dismiss the desire for the answer to the why question as a historical particularity having to do with the religion you happened to be born into).

Milan April 20, 2009 at 4:47 pm

But Science can’t do anything with the “why” question, “why is there anything at all”.

The history of science has been the history of better and better answers to this question, though there are obviously still gaps.

We know the history of life, the origin of the Earth and the sun, and quite a bit about the very early universe. We don’t know exactly where or how life began, nor do we have an explanation for why the universe began, but these are both questions where important scientific work will certainly be done during our lifetimes.

Over time, science has been very effective at squeezing the inexplicable places where gods live into smalller and smaller boxes. As Hippocrates explained 2500 years ago: “Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. We will one day understand what causes it, and then cease to call it divine.”

Tristan April 20, 2009 at 5:04 pm

What would a scientific answer to they “why question” look like? Science explains the existence of beings in terms of their causal relations with other beings. If the universe were brought into being by some beings before it, that wouldn’t be an answer to the why question because it would still ask “why were those beings?”

The reference to epilepsy is quite a deep one – Socrates says in the Phaedrus dialogue that the Good itself can only be known in a particular aspect – and that the poets know it in mania. The Good is something like the Platonic answer to the why question – it’s the cause of all intelligibility – the cause of the knowability of beings, which is their essential property (beings are essentially form and contingently matter, and the Good makes form knowable. Matter is never knowable).

We like to think we are “over” the why question – we no longer the world has purposes in it, we deny the teleology of nature. And yet, I mean – look at Dawkins and O’Reiley in this interview, starting at 1:05, and at 1:50 – the dispute against Science is that it can’t answer:

“But it had to get there, it had to come from somewhere, and that is the leap of faith that [Scientific atheists] make, that it just happened”.

“You guys can’t tell me how it all got here.”

Matt April 20, 2009 at 5:10 pm

I think scientists are at least more honest than theologists. The scientist can still admit “I don’t know.” The theologists can only say “because God made it that way.”

Until we see some good evidence of God, I refuse to believe. Faith isn’t cutting it for me.

Milan April 20, 2009 at 5:25 pm

What I was mostly trying to convey in this post is the disjoint between levels of evidence and different beliefs.

The ROM is a massive demonstration of how much meticulous evidence there is for evolution: everything from genetic analyses to examinations of embryonic development to the fossil record to observed evolution in living beings (such as antibiotic resistance). By contrast, the evidence for creation is: “I read it in a book which I think is special.”

Personally, I think the fact that some people find the second option more compelling than the first is bad news for humanity. It means we are ultimately very bad at incorporating trustworthy information about the world into our own thinking.

Milan April 20, 2009 at 5:28 pm

This previous debate with Ronald Cote is related to this discussion.

Milan April 20, 2009 at 5:30 pm
R.K. April 20, 2009 at 5:48 pm

I think what we’re looking at is a combination of denial – my child can’t possibly have been out street racing on meth, the cops must have made a mistake – and bloody-minded defensiveness – my beliefs are under attack and I will defend them at whatever cost.

It’s not about evidence at all, but rather about what people want to believe about themselves, as well as people and institutions they care about.

Tristan April 20, 2009 at 5:59 pm

The creationists story is really a straw man. You might notice O’Reiley doesn’t even try to assert it – he admits that Dawkins is right about all the “physiology” of it (it’s not accidental that he refers to all of nature’s particularities as a physiology, because if God made it, everything is sort of like the body of God). The question remains “why is there anything at all”, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. Explaining how stuff happens might be also a source of wonder, but it’s completely different from the fact that things are at all.

Tristan April 20, 2009 at 6:22 pm

The evidence for creation is not as much of a joke as you’d like. Look at natural things – they seem to have purposes. How could non-intelligent things have purposes? Well, machines have purposes, that’s because we put them into them. So, I guess natural things are made things, like machines.

There are other serious arguments – take the one concerning the necessity of the existence of a necessary being. If there are no necessary beings, then given infinite time, there must be a time when no beings exist. Nothing can come from nothing. If there had been a time when no beings existed, there would be nothing. So, either time isn’t infinite, or there is a necessary being. Since all other beings are contingent, there must have been a time when only the necessary being existed. So, the necessary being brought all other beings into existence – some directly, some indirectly. We have an easy solution to this – time isn’t infinite. But, certainly not that long ago this would have been pretty convincing.

Milan April 20, 2009 at 7:10 pm

Look at natural things – they seem to have purposes. How could non-intelligent things have purposes? Well, machines have purposes, that’s because we put them into them. So, I guess natural things are made things, like machines.

Natural things don’t have purposes, but evolution makes them look like they do. Take flagella, which some bacteria use to move. They evolved purely by chance, but the beings that had them outperformed those that did not. Hence, bacteria with flagella used for the ‘purpose’ of motion.

Since this type of ‘purpose’ is entirely separated from will, it cannot be used to assert the existence of something that willed it into being.

If there are no necessary beings, then given infinite time, there must be a time when no beings exist. Nothing can come from nothing.

Your other argument sounds more like a riddle than a logical stance. Firstly, it depends on what we mean by ‘nothing.’ Virtual particle pairs appear from nothing, then usually annihilate themselves. Perhaps the universe is the product of a similar chance event. I also think ‘infinity’ is being used in a loose way. It’s like saying that if the universe is infinite and it contains a finite amount of matter, there is infinitely more emptiness than matter, therefore there is no matter.

Chances are, our understanding of time is profoundly lacking and beings that understood it better would see this second argument as some kind of simple fallacy. Regardless of that, it certainly doesn’t provide evidence of a conscious, benevolent god specifically concerned with humanity.

Tristan April 20, 2009 at 7:23 pm

I agree with your criticisms of both arguments. My point was not there are true arguments for the existence of God (other than the first cause argument, but that’s a difficult issue), but that the arguments are better than “I read it in a picture book”.

Milan April 20, 2009 at 7:26 pm

Dawkins may have written the best description of the non-intentionality of life. He begins by talking about ‘replicators’ that copy themselves in the manner of crystals: because of how they are shaped, and because they are surrounded by their own raw materials. Then, there are replicators that can break down pre-existing competitors, not out of any conscious competition but simply due to probability. From there, it goes on to replicators with more and more sophisticated strategies for copying themselves and enduring.

Speaking of genes (the descendants of the first replicators), Dawkins says:

“Was there to be any end to the gradual improvement in the techniques and artifices used by the replicators to ensure their own continuation in the world? There would be plenty of time for their improvement. What weird engines of self-preservation would the millennia bring forth? Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators? They did not die out, for they are the past masters of the survival arts. But do not look for them floating loose in the sea; they gave up that cavalier freedom long ago. Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind;and their preservation is the ultimate rational for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes,and we are their survival machines. “

Milan April 20, 2009 at 7:27 pm

Also, the very opening lines of The Selfish Gene speak directly to this question:

“Darwin made it possible for us to give a sensible answer to the curious child whose question heads this chapter. [‘Why are people?’] We no longer have to resort to superstition when faced with the deep problems; Is there meaning to life? What are we for? What is Man?

The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes.”

Peter April 21, 2009 at 1:57 am


I know you hate analytic (not-) philosophy, but I still expect (incredible emphasis) you to show some rigor. “true arguments” – Use your big people philosophy words please. There are sound arguments and valid arguments. Validity refers to the form of the argument and entails that if all of the premises are true, then the conclusion follows. Soundness entails that the argument is valid in form (once again, meaning that the premises are linked to the conclusion in the appropriate way) and that all the premises in the argument are true.

Neither of the arguments you offered enjoys formal validity. Also, I am hesitant to share your assumption that this marks an improvement. At least you aren’t dealing with blatant self-contradiction, so the ranking is appropriate when you apply it to professionals (one who are likely to make arguments based on reasonable premises), but I would still equally condemn a formally valid argument with an obviously incorrect premise. At the very least, the degree of improvement is not necessarily as large as you are suggesting, and may I remind you – neither of your examples enjoys formal validity, so I’m a little murky about the improvement.

Tristan April 21, 2009 at 9:59 am

“the argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes.”

Except it’s impossible to believe you are a machine. Because the very notion of a “belief” requires spontaneous thought, which we don’t attribute to machines. You have to change the meaning of belief to something incoherent (something as arbitrary as the arrangement of rocks on a table, i.e. pure data and no knowledge), in order to say “I believe I’m a machine”. Scientific explanations for life always leave out the difficult question – how could beings know themselves?


Do you want to explain how the second argument is invalid? Can you explain how if both its premises were true, it would not entail its conclusion? It seems pretty damn valid to me. Also, I think the first argument is valid (at least if you form the first premise as “natural things have purposes”. Do you think Aquinas didn’t know anything about formal validity?

Milan April 21, 2009 at 10:02 am

I don’t think machines and thinking beings are necessarily seperate categories. It is possible to think of yourself as a machine, and it is probably possible for machines to think.

I would not be surprised if there are electronic or optical machines as intelligent and self-aware as humans within the next fifty years or so.

Tristan April 21, 2009 at 10:05 am

“but I would still equally condemn a formally valid argument with an obviously incorrect premise”

Peter, don’t you think it’s a bit foolhardy to call the premises of these arguments “obviously incorrect”? I mean, we believe them to be incorrect, if we agree with science about time, and Kant and Darwin about why things appear to have purposes. But if you just look at something, and forget about Darwin for a minute, it sure looks like it has a purpose. And considering our scientific theories change decade to decade, which is more true – our everyday understanding of time (infinite in both directions) or the almost impossible to really grasp Relativistic one? Unless you do physics, you will never encounter a data set which is better explained by relativistic time rather than Aristotelian time.

Tristan April 21, 2009 at 10:14 am

“It is possible to think of yourself as a machine, and it is probably possible for machines to think.”

If it’s possible for a machine to think, it would be possible for me to think I’m like a machine, or I am a machine. I don’t think reductive accounts of thinking work very well, and we build machines that way, so I don’t see much hope of this. But, if it works out, then we’ll have to change our understanding of the organic/inorganic distinction.

. April 21, 2009 at 11:10 am

Artificial neural network
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

An artificial neural network (ANN), usually called “neural network” (NN), is a mathematical model or computational model based on biological neural networks. It consists of an interconnected group of artificial neurons and processes information using a connectionist approach to computation. In most cases an ANN is an adaptive system that changes its structure based on external or internal information that flows through the network during the learning phase.

In more practical terms neural networks are non-linear statistical data modeling tools. They can be used to model complex relationships between inputs and outputs or to find patterns in data.

Tristan April 21, 2009 at 3:57 pm

Anything computed by a neural network can be computed by a turing machine. In fact, since neural network computers are so expensive, they math is often run on conventional computers simulating neural computers. So, if you don’t think that turing machines can think, you don’t think neural networks can think – categorically. Neural nets don’t help the problem at all.

Milan April 21, 2009 at 4:17 pm

Could a Turing machine be created that approximates (or precisely models) the thinking of a person?

It does seem as though it would be possible in theory to build an artificial copy of a person’s brain. You make optical or electric devices that behave in the same way as their neurons, then you wire them together in the same way. Of course, for a full simulation, they would also need to be able to make and sever connections like real neurons, and you would need to emulate the effects of other factors, like hormones.

Milan April 21, 2009 at 4:21 pm

In retrospect, it would probably be much easier to emulate a person’s brain in software than it would be to construct comparable hardware.

Tristan April 21, 2009 at 7:43 pm

You could copy all the observable functions of a persons brain in software – there is no guarantee it would begin thinking. Just like, you could copy all the measurable aspects of the tectonic plates into software – but there is no guarantee that you could predict earthquakes. It’s not enough to simply copy all the observable data, you have to copy the relevant underlying functions – and there is no guarantee that you’ll catch those when you copy what you can observe. That’s why models are always imperfect.

Said more clearly, models work when they track the salient data – but there is no way to know in advance which data in an organic system is the salient data and which is just incidental. Alternatively, you can just copy all the data – but that isn’t a model, it’s just a copy. Is it possible to construct a brain in software that copies all the data, including data that we might call non-salient? No. It’s possible to copy a brain exactly only in the same material it’s made of. Otherwise it’s a model not a copy.

Milan April 21, 2009 at 7:45 pm

Sure, and testing the behaviour of our models against real brains would be the method of evaluating how good a job we’ve done.

Even having an artificial brain as intelligent as an insect would be pretty exciting.

Tristan April 21, 2009 at 8:30 pm

That’s true. It’s even worse than I pointed out earlier though – there is no guarentee that all the functions we call intellectual reside in the brain – that’s just a hold over from the idea that brain=mind. It might be that intellectual functions are spread across the nervous system, even the alimentary system, in ways we don’t understand. We might have to copy the entire body of a an animal, rather than just the brain, to get the model to work properly.

Milan April 21, 2009 at 8:33 pm

It would be interesting to see.

Sometimes, trying to copy something is the best way to understand it better.

. April 21, 2009 at 8:37 pm

Sending Messages With Your Brain Via EEG

“From a University of Wisconsin-Madison announcement: ‘In early April, Adam Wilson posted a status update on the social networking Web site Twitter — just by thinking about it. Just 23 characters long, his message, ‘using EEG to send tweet,’ demonstrates a natural, manageable way in which “locked-in” patients can couple brain-computer interface technologies with modern communication tools. A University of Wisconsin-Madison biomedical engineering doctoral student, Wilson is among a growing group of researchers worldwide who aim to perfect a communication system for users whose bodies do not work, but whose brains function normally.’ A brief rundown of the system: Users focus on a monitor displaying a keyboard; the interface measures electrical impulses in the brain to print the chosen letters one by one. Wilson compares the learning curve to texting, calling it ‘kind of a slow process at first.’ But even practice doesn’t bring it quite up to texting speed: ‘I’ve seen people do up to eight characters per minute,’ says Wilson. See video of the system in action.”

Peter April 22, 2009 at 2:55 am


I didn’t say the premises in your second argument were obviously incorrect. I said, “I would still equally condemn a formally valid argument with an obviously incorrect premise” to show that while formal validity often suggests a higher calibre of argument, since its progenitor will not fall into blatant self-contradiction, it is not necessarily the case. I had the textbook example of a valid but not sound argument in mind:

1. A whale is larger than a building.
2. A whale is a fish.
C. There are fish larger than buildings.

While retaining formal validity this argument fails to impress since it contains a premise that most six-year-old Canadians would recognize as false.

While I didn’t say anything with regards to your specific example, you did say, “We have an easy solution to this – time isn’t infinite. But, certainly not that long ago this would have been pretty convincing.” I interpreted your appeal to the previously unknown status of infinite time as an indication that common knowledge now reveals that time is not infinite. It might have been a powerful argument when originally introduced, but it worries me that you’re pointing to it as an example of quality arguments contemporary religious individuals might hold. I’m not accusing philosophers from previous centuries of making obviously incorrect arguments based on our current understanding; I’m accusing you of holding up past arguments that were strong due to a lack of knowledge as examples of strong and sophisticated contemporary religious arguments.

With respect to the first argument, you’ve already admitted the invalidity by correcting it. The problem stems from “seems”

1. Natural things seem to have purposes.
2. If something has a purpose it has a creator.
C. There was a creator.

The conclusion doesn’t follow from P1 and P2, because you haven’t established natural things are having a purpose. Even if P1 is true, P2 doesn’t claim that things that seem to have a purpose have creators. You have since amended P1 to 1. Natural things have purposes. This admits another problem but establishes validity. However, you can’t take issue with my pointing out a mistake in your statement before you’ve corrected it. I know what you said (“seems”), not what you think, or really meant to say, and the argument that was laid out wasn’t valid.

I am happy to engage with the second argument. Unfortunately, I don’t know why you think it is a two-premise argument.

1. If there are no necessary beings and time is infinite, then there must be a time when no beings existed.
2. Nothing can come from nothing.
3. If there had been a time when beings didn’t exist, then nothing could exist.
P4/C1. Either time isn’t infinite, or there are necessary beings.
5. If other beings are contingent, then there must have been a time when only the necessary being existed.
Implied 6. Contingent beings exist.
C2. The necessary being brought all other beings into existence.

There is a stylistic point to be made about P2. It should probably read, “No thing may come from nothing” to indicate a restriction on the possibilities of creation, rather than the positive assertion that “nothing begets nothing.”

First lets focus on the move from P1 and P3 to C1. There maybe a point in infinite time where no beings exist, but that point might be after this point. P3 might be true, but P1 doesn’t establish when the point where no beings exist occurs relative to the present. P2 suggests this is necessarily at the beginning, but doesn’t establish that beings can’t originate from objects and this is the central problem with the premises – the tacit assumption that beings must come from other beings. The same logic applies to P5, since it presumes this time was in the past, to make way for C2. Unfortunately, we clearly see that P2 doesn’t secure this – unless…

I did actually consider that by “beings” you meant Heidegger small-b-being rather than conscious entities, life forms, etc… However, this makes P3 appear quite odd. If you were really using “beings” to refer to existence (of any and all objects), why would you specify that nothing could exist if there was a time when beings didn’t exist? Interpreted this way, P3 wouldn’t be doing any work in the argument, and would literally mean if nothing exists (verbosely written as – there is a time when no objects have existence), then nothing exists. The phrasing of P3 seems to admit a distinction between “beings” and existent objects

However, I fully considered this option as well because I figured it was more likely to reflect what you actually intended, since I know you love Heidegger. In the case of small-b-being, there is an implicit contradiction between the meaning of “necessary beings” and P2. Necessary beings are by definition non-contingent beings. Even charitably rewritten P2 states that, no thing my come from nothing. The very concept of a necessary being invalidates this premise. You could correct it to read, P2. No thing, other than necessary beings, may come from nothing. Once again, I take issue with what is actually written. The latitude afforded to small-b-being only occurred because it is a possible interpretation the written word that conveys different implications. P2 is an actual error, which I can quote.

Now this would establish formal validity, but let us focus on that odd interpretation of “beings” again. Since we all know this is a religious argument, C2. is meant to establish the existence of capital-G-god, as the necessary prime mover. This only happens if you take “beings” as conscious entities, otherwise I can easily impart that stunning necessity to the universe and the conclusion becomes the rather laughable and tautological – the universe must exist for the universe to exist. (Note – the tautological nature of the conclusion requires minimal deduction, which I would be happy to explain if asked)

P.S. I don’t know what Aquinas knew about formal validity.

To everyone else, I apologize for the length of this post.

. April 22, 2009 at 4:17 pm

Microchip Mimics a Brain With 200,000 Neurons

“European researchers have taken a step towards replicating the functioning of the brain in silicon, creating new custom chip with the equivalent of 200,000 neurons linked up by 50 million synaptic connections. The aim of the Fast Analog Computing with Emergent Transient States (FACETS) project is to better understand how to construct massively parallel computer systems modeled on a biological brain. Unlike IBM’s Blue Brain project, which involves modeling a brain in software, this approach makes it much easier to create a truly parallel computing system. The set-up also features a distributed algorithm that introduces an element of plasticity, allowing the circuit to learn and adapt. The researchers plan to connect thousands of chips to create a circuit with a billion neurons and 10^13 synapses (about a tenth of the complexity of the human brain).”

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