Report on the Annual Meeting

Well, the first annual meeting (or as some, inspired by thermodynamics, have called it, the “zeroth annual meeting”) has come and gone. Overall I think everyone there had a good time. There were about 35 participants, coming from 10 states, and a range from students up to emeritus faculty. Here is my summary of the events:

The debate on Friday night with Martie Poenie and Jed Macosko was indeed very “friendly”. Martie started with a presentation of three evidences of historical continuity, namely the connection of the bacterial flagella to the secretion system and simpler versions of flagella; the presence of noncoding (“junk” DNA), in particular, evidence of virus “uploads” into the human genome which have been “silenced”, as well as what appear to be virus uploads that are now active and essential parts of the genome; and the evidence of fusion of two chromosomes in humans. Jed then gave a talk which started with a survey of the wonderfully designed-looking molecular machines in the cell; he then summarized work in numerical calculations which argues that the time needed for three to six neutral mutations to become probable may be longer than the number of generations of living things in the whole history of the earth, while these machines need hundreds to thousands of mutations. He also summarized the arguments of Behe and others that most beneficial mutations involve breaking or disabling things for defensive purposes, not making new things.

The two then gave ten minute responses to each other, followed by an extended Q&A time. My (opinionated) summary of the discussion is 1) Martie argued strongly that point mutations are not the whole story and there are many other ways to have mutations, but for me and some others, this was unpersuasive because these other mechanisms just add new ways to mutate; the question still remains how likely it is that random changes of the genome by any mechanism lead to positive changes. Other mechanisms of mutation just increase the overall mutation rate, and we still have to ask what fraction are likely to be beneficial. 2) Jed conceded that the homologies (similarities of gene patterns) are persuasive evidence of common descent in at least some cases, but argued that the lack of a mechanism to make it likely to have beneficial changes involving more than a few mutations was even stronger evidence against common descent. In my opinion, the two arguments are not mutually exclusive. One could imagine a scenario in which there is a continuous series of extremely unlikely events leading to change. In this scenario there would be many homologies between species, but the changes from one thing to another would involve highly unlikely (but God-directed) events such as virus uploads of new, useful information. Thus, random, undirected common descent could be very unlikely, but common descent could have happened by a series of essentially miraculous violations of laws of probability. For example, as Martie discussed, placental animals seem to have acquired placenta by not one, but a whole bunch of completely different virus uploads of new information. What is the likelihood that even one virus would carry new information needed to make a uterus, much less ten or so independent different viruses?

Neither speaker addressed arguments I have heard in the past that the homologies don’t all work out to give a single evolutionary tree. Comparing two species, one can often find parts that are similar, but when many species are compared, one often finds that one species will be similar to another in one area, but similar to a third in a different area, and that one similar to a fourth in yet a different area, so that no consistent line of descent can be drawn. I’d like to see a talk on this topic at next year’s meeting. Perhaps some know of papers already out there which address this. Also, neither speaker addressed the question of whether noncoding DNA plays a role in the spatial structure of the DNA, another theory which is out there.

On Saturday morning, Casey Luskin gave an impassioned and well documented presentation that there really are bad people out there who play hard ball with people sympathetic to ID, or even theistic evolutionists perceived to be sympathetic to ID. Some words of advice from his talk: if someone says something discriminatory to you, get it in writing by writing them an email summarizing what they have said to you (in a polite and non confrontational way). Create a paper trail. And don’t put anything in writing yourself that you would not like to see on the front page of the New York Times– only say what you will stick by.

I gave a talk at 1:30 with some handwaving and controversial statements on quantum mechanics. Some may not agree with my bias that the randomness of quantum mechanics is not fundamentally different, from a theological/philosophical perspective, from classical randomness, and doesn’t really help with the freedom of the will problem. Is it better to have my actions determined by random particles than by deterministic particles?

Gary Patterson then gave a talk on why entropy is our friend, and noted the prevalence of negative talk about entropy and the Second Law not only by young-earth creationists but also by prominent evangelical theologians. Since entropy is a count of the number of possibilities available to a system, it can be viewed as part of God’s design to allow many possibilities, instead a single boring monad.

Everyone enjoyed David Bossard’s final talk on the cave paintings in France, dated at 17,000 BCE. The pictures he showed gave a fairly persuasive case that some of the pictures of animals are star charts (spots on these pictures fit the stars of the night sky at that time fairly well). If this theory is true, then it would mean not only were humans around at that time but that they were pretty intelligent, not the dumb “cavemen” we often see in the popular media.

Lots of fun discussions over meals and breaks, as well! Everyone agreed this was worth doing again, at least once a year. Hopefully by next year we will have the funds to support travel for some people to attend the meeting.





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