Estimated Reading Time: 23 Minutes
Recently Jackson Wheat decided to respond to my 40-minute video on biological structuralism and argue against the idea of structuralist evolution in favor of functionalist evolution (Neo-Darwinism). Before I get started I want to note I support Jackson’s work in addressing the claims of young-earth creationists. So I hope he doesn’t take this rebuttal personally.
The reason I note this is because many of the objections he brought against structuralism were not well thought out, and I don’t think he really understands what structuralism truly is (he only seems to gather the gist of it). Most saddening is he didn’t even respond to most of the evidence I presented and misrepresented my claims in a lot of ways. From reading Stephen Jay Gould (after he became a structuralist) and Michael Denton I actually already expected some of these objections to come eventually from opponents, so nothing caught me off guard. So let’s dive into his arguments.
The first part of the video is simply an explanation of what structuralist believe. His explanation is okay and I am not going to get nit-picky about specifics here and there. However, at 3:27 Jackson, says:
“However, since the features of the human form are the results of incremental modifications that were compiled over many millions of years of evolution it’s unlikely that another life-form would follow the exact same evolutionary route.”
I need to stop here because the errors are piling up so quickly. I know Jackson is addressing specifically the idea of a dinosaur-like human species, but he seems to conflate this with structuralist claims, so I would like to clarify what structuralism states before moving on. First, neither structuralists or functionalists deny evolution results from a series of incremental modifications over millions of years. The question is what are the driving forces of these modifications. This point doesn’t favor functionalism in any way.
Second, structuralists do not say other life forms or any life for has to follow the same route. This is just not true by any standard. In fact, I spent a large chunk of my video arguing for convergent evolution as evidence of structuralism. Convergent evolution, by definition, would mean that different species take different routes and still arrive at very similar forms. Structuralists don’t even say species have to arrive at the exact same structures, only that species tend to arrive at very similar structural plans. This is what I mean about Jackson not understanding the claims of structuralism. He presents something we never claimed was the case.
Third, this brings up the other issue I raised in the beginning. Jackson has simply ignored data I already covered at his convenience. In my video, I covered a study that contradicts this idea. The authors argue that we can predict aliens (if they exist) to follow similar patterns given similar natural constraints. Let me just quote from abstract, “Given aliens undergo natural selection we can say something about their evolution. In particular, we can say something about how complexity will arise in space. Complexity has increased on the Earth as a result of a handful of events, known as the major transitions in individuality. Major transitions occur when groups of individuals come together to form a new higher level of the individual, such as when single-celled organisms evolved into multicellular organisms. Both theory and empirical data suggest that extreme conditions are required for major transitions to occur. We suggest that major transitions are likely to be the route to complexity on other planets, and that we should expect them to have been favoured by similarly restrictive conditions. Thus, we can make specific predictions about the biological makeup of complex aliens.” (1)
So we would except other life forms to have taken similar routes (not the exact same evolutionary route as Jackson says). It is also not like I was arguing this without evidence to support it. As we will see throughout his video, Jackson offers very little evidence to favor functionalism and ignore a large portion of the evidence I presented in favor of structuralism.
Next at 4:25, Jackson seems to think part of my case for structuralism was the existence of intelligent organisms which implies “the existence of a platonic universe of ideal forms.” This is just not true at all. The existence of intelligent organisms was never used as evidence of structuralism in my video. My main arguments for structuralism were self-assembly processes, convergent evolution, and evo-devo research. I have no clue why Jackson noted the first two but ignored the third area.
The only reason I brought up intelligent organisms was to note a structuralist account of evolution can better explain why intelligence arises over functions accounts relying on contingent histories and chance genetic mutations. This is pretty clear in my video. How on earth Jackson could confuse this is beyond me.
Also, I actually don’t believe in a platonic world any more than Stephen Jay Gould does. I am actually more of a scholastic realist, but I am not nailed down to a particular view. If you notice in my video, the only time the word “platonic” comes up is when it is in quotes. Most of when it is quoted platonism is only used as an analogous way to explain the structuralist argument. For example, remember this quote from Stephen Jay Gould, “I worked piecemeal, producing a set of separate and continually accreting revisionary items along each of the branches of Darwinian central logic, until I realized that a “Platonic” something “up there” in idealogical space could coordinate all these critiques and fascinations into a revised general theory with a retained Darwinian base.” (2)
Obviously, Gould is not a platonist. He is using platonist terminology to explain what he is getting at and that is the only way I would use it as well.
Next, Jackson tries to tackle my evidence for structuralism from convergence, and once again, demonstrates he doesn’t understand structuralism. I will suggest he only shoots himself in the foot. I am going to put the full quote up because, in a way, he makes the argument for me:
“Molecules do self-organize and interact with each other, governed by physical laws and convergent evolution really does happen quite a lot. When organisms enter similar environments they tend to converge on similar forms. For example, prehensile tails have evolved repeatedly in mammals, such as in platyrrhines, opossums and new world porcupines. Now did they evolve their features because their environments are similar, sure, prehensile tails have an adaptive value in an arboreal environment. When you live in a tree it’s helpful to have grasping appendages for keeping yourself from tumbling to the forest floor. This very same argument can be made for every example of convergence that IP shows. The convergent traits have adaptive value in their particular environments. Thus, his numerous examples structuralist interpretation at all.”
What he has just said could have been argued by a structuralist, almost word for word, yet he claims this does not favor structuralism. Why would structuralists be harmed by the idea of organisms adapting to new environments? It is an odd claim for Jackson to make, especially since he forgets that later in his own video he references Edward T. Oakes (from my video) speaking in a colloquial sense of structuralist reliance on environmental constraints. So how does he not realize structuralists predict this?
Remember that one of the core tenants of structuralism is that nature constrains organisms through environmental factors to bring about certain structures, which is why we see so much convergence. We are not claiming some mystical platonic realm is causing convergence in evolution, it is obviously because nature brings about similar environments, which create similar constraints, which brings about similar forms and structures. This should have been obvious. Jackson has only succeeded in explaining environmental mechanisms that structuralist argue for, yet claims this is not evidence for structuralism. Once again, he demonstrates he doesn’t understand structuralist claims. If the environment constraints organism so certain forms come about I see nothing to object to from a structuralist perspective. Nature constraints and brings about similar structures. To quote Stephen Jay Gould, “They write (p. 167): “Given evolution by random drift as a null model, natural selection now becomes a constraint!” Yes, and appropriately so—with no exclamation point needed to register surprise.” (3)
Now here is the important point, because a lot of what I said a functionalist would accept and might be left scratching their head wondering where the disagreement is. This is because structuralism is technically not opposed to functionalism, we simply say functionalism is incomplete and doesn’t follow its own logic. I agree with PZ Myers at the end of Jackson’s video that natural selection works in conjunction with structuralist accounts of evolution. In fact, Stephen Jay Gould has a whole chapter in his book, “The Structure of Evolutionary Theory,” on this very topic where he explains this; titled, “Chapter 10: The Integration of Constraint and Adaptation (Structure and Function) in Ontogeny and Phylogeny: Historical Constraints and the Evolution of Development.”
Structuralists don’t deny the role of natural selection and adaptations. Gould’s point is functionalists need to simply follow their arguments to their logical conclusions. If organisms, through adaptation, are being constrained by internal genes and environmental factors then the environment (ecological niches) is fine-tuning organisms and causing repeating structures to form. Again, and I cannot stress this enough, structuralist accept adaptive changes, and natural selection, we just say that is an incomplete description of what drives evolution and we need to look at the big picture and accept the role of internal and external constraints driving evolution. To quote Gould again:
“In short, and to summarize these few pages of argument in a paragraph, orthodox Darwinians have not balked at negative constructions of constraint as limits and impediments to the power of natural selection in certain definable situations. But they have been far less willing to embrace positive meanings of constraint as promoters, suppliers, and causes of evolutionary direction and change. This distinction follows logically from the basic premises of Darwinian functionalism, because the admission of a potent and positive version of constraint would compromise the fundamental principle that variation (the structuralist and internalist component of evolution) only proposes, while selection (the functionalist and externalist force) disposes as the only effective cause of change. In considering how structural constraints might limit the power of natural selection to adapt each feature of an organism to each local environment, we recognize that some modes will rank as “benign” for Darwinian functionalists…” (4)
Next Jackson moves on to Hox genes and their involvement in evolution. This was a confusing part of the video for numerous reasons. For one, he completely ignores the fact that I did not shy away from this area of research in my video. I used it as part of my case for structuralism. Why would he think this threatens a structuralist account of evolution?
Second, the evidence of ancient genes such as Hox genes was not predicted by functionalism. I am not sure why Jackson would bring this subject up as if it somehow supports functionalism. As Rudolf Raff said, “The conservation of a set of clustered genes over half a billion years is difficult enough to accept, but collinearity with body axis defies credibility. Yet it’s true.” (5)
Stephen Jay Gould says, “On the second branch of full efficacy for natural selection as an externalist and functionalist process, the stunning discoveries of extensive deep homologies across phyla separated by more than 500 million years (particularly the vertebrate homologs of arthropod Hox genes)—against explicit statements by architects of the Modern Synthesis (see p. 539) that such homologies could not exist in principle, in a world dominated by their conception of natural selection—forced a rebalancing or leavening of Darwinian functionalism with previously neglected, or even vilified, formalist perspectives based on the role of historical and structural constraints in channeling directions of evolutionary change, and causing the great dumpings and inhomogeneities of morphospace—phenomena that had previously been attributed almost exclusively to functionalist forces of natural selection.” (6)
After discussing the role of Hox genes Jackson then contradicts himself. At 7:40 he says, “This means that the picture IP shows of all the different eyes, all of which come from bilaterally symmetrical animals is full of animals with eyes controlled by homologs of the same pax6 gene family. The eyes shown were therefore not evolved in response to sunlight but are simply variations on the same gene family that existed in all of them.”
Come again? First of all, the picture he is commenting on is a visual representation of a quote from Edward T. Oakes who is being quite colloquial in his description. This is not meant to be a detailed account at this point in the video. Oakes is just trying to move on to the philosophical implications of structuralism. So Jackson is being unfair here.
Second, eyes do not evolve in response to light? Do you mean organisms do not adapt to their environment? Didn’t Jackson just tell us earlier, “The convergent traits have adaptive value in their particular environments.” Do not organisms evolve by adapting to new environments? That is all Oakes is trying to point out in very colloquial terms. Doesn’t Jackson accept that evolution through adaptations happens? Here, let me just google random quotes from scientists on this.
“The ultimate source of light and energy for life on Earth is the sun, so it is not surprising that virtually all living organisms evolved some kind of response to light.” (7)
“The sun is a very hot body, and most of its rays fall in the region of visible wavelength. This is reasonable since our visual organs have evolved in response to sunlight.” (8)
“Animals that have colonized dimmer environments have evolved superposition eyes in response to lower light levels, and the refracting compound eye is the most common form.” (9)
Now there is a half-truth in what Jackson said. Of course, the eyes that species have now are variations on the same ancient gene family, but they change in various organisms due to environmental constraints and organisms adapting to those constraints. It is not an either-or situation. Of course, evolution works on what is available, no one denies that. The problem for functionalism is that it was originally predicted by the modern synthesis that genes would be constantly modeled and changed, so ancient genes were not predicted to still be found. The fact that ancient genes are still constraining evolutionary changes is evidence in favor of a structuralist account. Numerous structuralists make this case, like Michael Denton and Stephen Jay Gould.
Next, instead of Jackson actually dealing with a plethora of evidence I presented in the first part of the video he goes back to Oakes’ colloquial phrases. I guess because it is easier to attack. At 8:50, he says, “What about wings? Did wings evolve in response to wind? No, definitely not!
Really? Again, give me a moment to back this up with some quotes.
“The former line derives from thysanuroid insects living on swamp grasses and using paranotal lobes as parachutes, and the latter from thysanuroid insects living in crevices of the soil and using paranotal lobes as sails in the mind.” (10)
Later in the paper, the same author says, “In the species living on the ground the lobes functioned as a sail and enabled the insect to become airborne thanks to the wind.” (11)
“Allocapnia stoneflies (Capniidae) skim by sailing; they raise their wings in response to wind and are incapable of flapping. Because this behavior is mechanically simpler than flapping, it was originally proposed that sailing might be the ancestral condition.” (12)
Again, Oakes is just speaking in colloquial terms, so Jackson is being quite unfair.
Right after this, Jackson says the one thing that made my jaw drop when I watched this video. This is one quote from him which almost guaranteed to me he has never read anything on structuralism. He says, “If wings evolved in response to wind then why don’t all terrestrial animals have wings. This claim is nonsense!”
Well considering I just quoted scientists above who said very similar things to the colloquial saying that wings evolving in response to wind, this claim is not nonsense. Second, no structuralist says all organism will always evolve in the same way. We have never made this claim. We say certain structures and features will come about due to environmental constraints, but that doesn’t mean the environment is supposed to produce the same thing every time. Take a lesson from an analogy of using the periodic table. Did not the laws of physics constrain nature to bring about each element on the periodic table? If molecules “evolved” (so to speak) in response to the laws of physics why are not all elements the same? The obvious answer is certain physical constraints brought about certain elements given different conditions throughout the universe. Just because the elements of the periodic table were constrained by physical laws that doesn’t mean we would expect to always see the same element forming everywhere. A similar analogy can be drawn from the various protein folds that arise in nature. They are not always the same due to different constraints or factors.
Likewise, different organisms will fill different ecological niches and wings will come about in similar ways. Different environments produce a plethora of different ecological niches and sometimes, depending on the niche, specific constraints bring about wings, much like how physical laws bring about various elements. Jackson is wasting time attacking a very colloquial saying and it is not charitable of him at all.
In fact, I agree with what Jackson says right after this, “Particular animals have wings because they living in environments where having wings was selectively advantageous and happened to have had relevant mutations that opened up new adaptive options for their descendants.” Yes, I agree, and I don’t understand why Jackson would think I would disagree with this statement. It is quite clear at this point he doesn’t understand the claims of structuralism.
At 10:09, Jackson says, “And what about the last one? Did brains evolve in response to the ideal forms that exist as part of the universe? No, again! Enlargement of the human brain was the result of a number of factors.”
Again, structuralists would agree. We argue numerous factors constrains the evolution of life. I feel like Jackson is ignoring what I quoted from Oakes and Dennett and trying to sum of their entire argument in one sentence, which is coming out at as clear misrepresentation.
Then at 11:18, Jackson says, “Needless to say, no anthropologists are attributing the size of the brain as a response to platonic forms sewn into the fabric of the universe.”
Neither am I, and neither is Daniel Dennett in the quote I provided in conjunction with the quotes from Oakes. Allow me to provide the quote from Daniel Dennett again to clarify what I am getting at:
“Suppose SETI [Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence] struck it rich, and established communication with intelligent beings on another planet. We would not be surprised to find that they understood and used the same arithmetic that we do. Why not? Because arithmetic is right… The point is clearly not restricted to arithmetic, but to all “necessary truths” — what philosophers since Plato have called a priori knowledge. As Minsky (p. 119) says, “We can expect certain ‘a priori’ structures to appear, almost always, whenever a computation system evolves by selection from a universe of possible processes.” It has often been pointed out that Plato’s curious theory of reincarnation and reminiscence, which he offers as an explanation of the source of our a priori knowledge, bears a striking resemblance to Darwin’s theory, and this resemblance is particularly striking from our current vantage point. Darwin himself famously noted the resemblance in a remark in one of his notebooks. Commenting on the claim that Plato thought our “necessary ideas” arise from the pre-existence of the soul, Darwin wrote: “read monkeys for preexistence (Desmond and Moore 1991, p. 263).” (13)
Dennett is not a platonist, he is using platonic terminology to drive home a point about the existence of why there we can predict the existence of intelligent beings. One does not need to posit a mystical explanation for this. The abstract information that gives rise to intelligence is a part of nature. One can learn abstract arithmetic from seeing empirical objects and adding amounts together. The basic laws of logic and mathematics are clearly displayed in the description of the empirical world for a contingent mind to discover. That is all Dennett is saying. Jackson even knows this quote from Dennett is not advocating direct platonism, as shortly after this he addressed the quote I used from Dennett in an attempt to clarify what Dennett means.
As for Oakes’ beliefs, I never denied he is being more literal, but as I stated above I am far more in agreement with Stephen Jay Gould that Platonism is used more of an analogy rather than literally accepting platonism.
The second issue on this point is Jackson has made a category error in saying, “no anthropologists are attributing the size of the brain as a response to platonic forms.” Of course not, because they are not philosophers. The section of the video Jackson is attempting to criticize is where I go over the philosophical implications of structuralism, which is why I quoted two philosophers here. Why on earth would Jackson expect me to quote anthropologists when I am laying out the philosophy of structuralism?
Right after this, Jackson commits an ad hominem fallacy against Edward T. Oakes. To quote, “Where does IP’s quote claiming this comes from you ask? Not an evolutionary biologist or anthropologist, but Catholic theologian and fierce proponent of intelligent design, Edward T. Oakes. Why a theologian instead of a biologist? Reasons I guess.”
This is quite disrespectful, even for Jackson’s own standards. To be fair, in the video description Jackson did correct himself and note Oakes is not a fierce proponent of intelligent design. He is an opponent of intelligent design. Besides that, yes Jackson, there are reasons I quoted someone who has a degree in philosophy when I was talking about philosophy. The reason is that I am talking about philosophy. Notice that roughly the first 30 minutes of the video was filled with quotes from biologists to support this philosophical implication. Why not note that as well? Jackson is better than this. Why doesn’t he make the same note about me quoting Daniel Dennett not being a biologist? Why only attack the credibility of Oakes? Could it be because Dennett is an atheist?
Also, Jackson conveniently leaves out where the quote from Oakes comes from. It is from a book titled, “Fitness of the Cosmos for Life,” which is a book where each chapter has a different author and it is filled with the work of biologists, chemists, paleontologists, etc. It is not like Oakes’ quotes exist in a vacuum. He was asked by the editors of the book (who are scientists) to write on the philosophical implications of the data they are presenting. Jackson is being quite unfair to Oakes in numerous ways. (14)
After this, Jackson hands things over to P.Z. Myers. A couple of months ago P.Z. Myers commented on my video and I was wondering how he even found it. I guess Jackson’s video answered that for me. As you can see there was no real substance to his comment:
Myers doesn’t say much I disagree with in Jackson’s video and he comes across as more charitable than Jackson has been in this video. Oddly enough, Myers calls me a structuralist extremist. I really don’t care what they say, but I would not consider myself that, and in fact, I am perfectly willing to criticize someone like Michael Denton for being too extreme in his work on structuralism. I think he takes things too far and argues too much from gaps and doesn’t put enough emphasis on natural selection. So I protest the use of the phrase, “structuralist extremist.” Neither Myers or Jackson bothered to ask me where I stand on this and from Jackson’s response video I can’t help but wonder how much he paid attention to my arguments. (15)
Next, Myers says structuralists like myself “like to think that evolution leads inevitably to human-like forms, ignoring the obvious fact that it leads instead to endless forms most beautiful.” This is obviously a false dichotomy (it seems to be what he implied in his comment on my video screenshot above). No one denies that the evolution of life has produced a plethora of forms and structures. That is not the focus of the debate between functionalist and structuralists, but why the plethora of forms has come about and why intelligent beings have evolved. Was it by chance or was it inevitable? That is where the divide is, not on what evolution produces. As far as I see, neither Jackson or P.Z. Myers presented evidence that favors functionalism or evidence that structuralists cannot account for. I spent most of my video presenting evidence that favors structuralism from self-assembly processes, evo-devo, and convergence.
One of the main problems for functionalists, that Gould notes, is most of what they say drives evolution is already accounted for and predicted by structuralism. This is why structuralists simply note functionalism is not necessarily wrong but incomplete and in response to structuralism, many functionalists have to ignore a lot of the data structuralists present and argue it is not as prominent as structuralists suggest. This is why I spent most of my video presenting as much evidence as I could possibly find to show this is not the case and there is mounting evidence favoring structuralism. For the most part, Jackson and P.Z. Myers barely touched on this.
To summarize, Jackson demonstrates a lack of knowledge of what structuralism is, he seemed to contradict himself in several places, and ignored most of the research I present in my video while focusing too much on one quote from Edward T. Oakes where it was obvious Oakes was speaking in colloquial terms. If Jackson had questions about structuralism he could have just emailed me. I am more than willing to send him books to read, but his current video is not well thought out and I think he is better than this. His attacks have only shown a lack of knowledge on the claims of structuralism.
1. Levin, S., Scott, T., Cooper, H. and West, S. (2017). Darwin’s aliens. International Journal of Astrobiology, 18(1), pp.1-9.
2. Gould, S. (2002). The structure of evolutionary theory. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, p.41.
3. ibid, p. 1035.
4. Ibid, p. 1029.
5. Raff, R. (1996). The Shape of Life: Genes, Development, and the Evolution of Animal Form. p.307.
6. Gould, p. 27.
7. Nation, J. (2001). Insect physiology and biochemistry. p.316.
8. Spiro, T. and Stigliani, W. (1990). Environmental issues in chemical perspective. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/ Hunt, p.97.
9. Dubielzig, R., Schobert, C. and Schwab, I. (2012). Evolution’s Witness: How Eyes Evolved. Oxford University Press, p.56.
10. La Greca, M. (1980). Origin and evolution of wings and flight in insects. Bolletino di zoologia, 47(sup1), p. 65.
11. ibid, p. 78.
12. Thomas, M., Walsh, K., Wolf, M., McPheron, B. and Marden, J. (2000). Molecular phylogenetic analysis of evolutionary trends in stonefly wing structure and locomotor behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97(24), pp.13178-13183.
13. Dennett, D. (2014). Darwin’s dangerous idea. New York: Simon & Schuster, pp.129-130.
14. Barrow, J. (2012). Fitness of the cosmos for life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.49-69.
15. Denton, M. (2016). Evolution: Still A Theory in Crisis. Seattle: Discovery Institute.