Monday, March 29, 2010

Perceiving Design

Remember that series on design I started a while back? I was kind of distracted by some other interesting results and by some silly accusations. After my confession of ambivalence about Meyer's Signature in the Cell, one "helpful" fellow suggested that I was too dismissive. After all, even in my understanding of creation, I still need a way to identify design. I used to think like that, but now I see that design is a far more difficult problem than encapsulated by the dichotomy of "designed" vs. "not designed." I think there are far more fruitful approaches to the study of design.

One such approach has been pioneered by my CORE colleague Roger Sanders. At the 2003 ICC, Roger introduced the concept of the cognitum [PDF]. Now I'm sure you're thinking that creationists have enough neologisms (and I sympathize), but this is one that I think is quite important. The cognitum is a taxonomic category that is based on human cognition. In some sense, it plays off a very important theological concept: the human ability to recognize God's design (Rom. 1). There are also echos of cognita in Adam's naming of the animals, wherein the newly created man responds intellectually to God's design.

After the introduction of the cognitum, Roger began working on a cognitum classification of the flowering plants. The fruit of this labor has just been published by the Occasional Papers of the BSG, and it's an extremely important paper.

Briefly, he looked at five authoritative classifications of the flowering plants to derive his cognitum classification. Cognita are recognized as "core groups" that all authorities agree on with "boundary groups" that are disputed. Some authorities include boundary groups in one core group, while others put them in another. The boundary groups exhibits of characteristics of different core groups and can therefore be thought of as morphological intermediates between the core groups.

What makes this fun is that the boundary groups outnumber the core groups around three to one. That implies that the intermediates are a dominant pattern in flowering plants. In one sense, nearly everything is an intermediate! In the paper, Roger relates this observation to Kurt Wise's 1998 paper on nonhierarchical classification, which emphasized the mosaic rather than hierarchical classification of organisms. At the time, I thought that microbial genomics fit really well with his idea, but now I see that flowering plant do as well.

With respect to evolution, I think it's very intriguing that the recognition of intermediates depends greatly on context. In the fossil record, intermediates like feathered dinosaurs or archaeocetes are viewed as evidence of transitions between major groups. Within the living plants, however, similar intermediates are viewed as problematic. They can't be transitional between living organisms, and they must fit into some kind of hierarchy. But they don't. I wonder if we creationists haven't been remiss? What if we've been busy refuting intermediates when we should identifying even more?

With reference to new molecular methods that have produced a hierarchy (and have upset the traditional morphological classifications), Roger had this to say:
What is most striking from the results compiled in Appendix A is the high level of support by the molecular data for the circumscription of the core groups of most of the primary cognita identified. ... This suggests that the core groups of primary cognita are units that are generally internally consistent morphologically, as well as genomically. ... The decoupling of molecular similarities from morphological similarities just above the family/order level suggests that the circumscribed core groups of cognita at this level or the subfamily/family level may closely reflect the constitution of holobaramins represented by them. In fact, more precise methods of documenting both the decoupling of morphological and molecular characters and mosaic recombination of these characters, so easily depicted in a cognitum system, may eventually prove to serve as a criterion in delimiting holobaramins.

Naturally, I challenged Roger to produce a complete baraminological treatment of the flowering plants. He's working on it.

It seems to me that the intersection of cognitum studies and baraminology will tell us a great deal about God's design. As Roger noted,
...the cognitum system must be viewed as a persisting structure undergirding the study of similarity and design among apobaramins allowing them to be grouped into more inclusive apobaramins without invoking common ancestry. Thus, this cognitum system should provide the starting point to develop theories about interbaraminic design in flowering plants.
Cognitum studies transcend the simplistic "design inference" so popular with so many, and they produce a number of implications that can serve the basis for future studies. So the science marches on, whether or not the skeptics see it.

Sanders. 2010. A Quick Method for Developing a Cognitum System Exemplified Using Flowering Plants. OPBSG 16:1-63.

Sanders and Wise. 2003. The cognitum: A perception-dependent concept needed in baraminology. ICC5, pp. 445-456.

Wise. 1998. Is life singularly nested or not? ICC4, pp. 619-632.