Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Obama and the Evolution of the Complex

Two more today:

R.Porter asks,

how many more times does golden boy Obama have to do something as f'd up and *Republican* as his FISA vote until his supporters realize what they've foisted on the party? I'm not just being smug, either. If this is a one-time lapse, then obviously I'm overreacting. However, if this is a trend - and if you look at his biggest piece of legislation since he's been in the Senate, the E85 bill, the trend has at least two data points now - I think we have to wonder when the rose-colored glasses come off.
I guess the answer to this question depends upon what glasses you assume Obama supporters to be wearing. Anyone who thinks Obama is a taller better-looking Dennis Kucinich is simply wrong, but then I'm not sure many of the folks who support Obama really interpret the message of hope and change as one of a full-throated all out progressive attack on the last administration and a half.

Obama has never called for the implementation of the progressives' agenda, but rather a change to the way things are done, that is, an end to the hyper-partisanship where everything is seen as nothing more than opportunities to demagogue. This can take one of three forms: (1) what we now call "bi-partisanship" which is meeting the other side in the middle, (2) what we saw in his work with Dick Lugar and Tom Coburn in the two bills that bear his name in which you take an issue that Dems and GOoPers disagree about, find some area where there is common interest and craft something that fits into both agendas, and (3)passionately arguing for something that is partisan, but doing so in a way that does not create a strawman out of your opponents.

If you look at Obama's career, he has used all three paths, deciding which path based on pragmatic considerations. The case of FISA is an example where he chose (1) and we wish he had chosen (3). I'm with you that (3) would have shown leadership and real interest in the rule of law. But it was a battle he chose not to fight at this time, most likely for political reasons. It does allow administration and telecoms to get away with having broken the law and reinforces the Nixonian notion that if the President decides it doesn't break the law, then as an analytic truth, it doesn't break the law. This IS a bad thing.

At the same time, to argue that this is evidence that something horrible has been foisted upon the party by putting someone in charge who runs the most most effective party registration and voter sign-up operations we've ever seen thus laying the groundwork for Dem electoral gains for decades, who chooses Samantha Powers as a foreign policy advisor, who has worked for the voiceless, and who has shown an incredible political sense infused with a positivity we have not seen from a Dem in a long time seems an overstatement. No, he's not going to be a progressive's wet dream. No one who is paying attention believes that. Yet, he will certainly bring in with him a wide array of new voices, shaking up the stagnant backwater that has been Democratic politics for the last two decades. Some of what gets churned up will be scum (FISA is one example), but then it also seems likely that some pearls will be found that otherwise wouldn't as well.

John Steward asks,
I believe in evolution but I don't understand how it accounts for the complexity of the world. What's the relationship between complexity and evolution?
The tough part about this question is the slippery nature of the word "complexity." The arguments for design based on complexity can be found as far back as Aristotle, but really take there modern form with William Paley. The idea is that there are systems whose parts are so perfectly designed that random mutations, which would only bring parts, could not account for the intricate way these parts interact. The workings of a watch, of example, are so perfectly fitted that they could only be crafted, must be an artifact of an intelligent watchmaker.

The standard example if the human eye which contains many parts, none of which by itself is seemingly useful. If random mutations gave us bits, there is no reason why they would be selected for, the argument goes, hence the most reasonable explanation for eyes must be design and not natural or sexual selection pressures.

One can account for the complexity of the eye through evolutionary means both through negative and positive argumentation. The negative route, showing problems with the design argument, tends to take two lines. First, there are a multitude of different sorts of eyes among living beings, although we tend to find the same sort among related species who inhabit the same sorts of environments, variations found among similar eyes based on environmental factors. Second, flaws in the design of the eye are pointed to -- most normally the placement of blood vessels in front of the retina, something that no decent engineer would ever do. If the supposed designer is maximally intelligent, surely HE wouldn't have made such a blunder.

The positive argumentation is to look for transitional forms of the eye in past and current species. indeed, we do find such evidence in the world that would account for the differentiation of the parts of the eye. Each example of complexity needs its own story to be told and that story needs to be supported with empirical evidence. Not every explanation about advantages conveyed are actual histories of biological complexity, but there are examples of such that can be recreated.

Two more tomorrow.