Thursday, August 25, 2005

Onward Christian Soldiers II

Over the past month we've had the Presdient of the United States endorsing the teaching of "Intelligent Design" in public secondary schools and more attempts to challenge local schoolboards to do so. You can follow this issue nationally and state by state at the website of the National Center for Science Education.

So why is this issue getting so much traction? This is my humble perspective. Unfortunately many people who think that there is some ultimate awareness or purpose at the heart of the universe are then told that "evolution" means accepting strong atheism (disbelief in a God or Higher Power). Further, many popularizers of ID show their true colors by revealing that their arguments are based solely on perceived (and sometimes misconstrued or misleading) discrepancies in the explanatory power of the science of evolution. There is no alternative mechanism proposed or tested. Moreover, the question of what science is, how it operates, and what kind of outcomes it provides are also frequently misrepresented by claims such as "Evolutionary explanations cannot be proven without a doubt." Nothing in science is ever "proven" to a level of certainty associated with the idea "without a doubt", but that isn't the same as having a very high degree of confidence.

Another charge is that "Evolution hasn't explained everything yet." Being a historical science with limited amounts of evidence available, it is simply not possible to completely explain everything, but that doesn't indicate a flaw in the body of theory and work being employed. In every field of science there are things that "haven't been explained yet", that's just the nature of scientific inquiry.

A final common complaint is "Not all scientists working in evolution agree with each other over different theories and hypotheses and methods of interpreting evidence, so evolution must be in crisis or full of holes." This actually betrays another fallacy of many in both the YEC and ID crowd, which is that there is one standard unified view of evolution which is uniformly applied to all topics and problems in biological natural history, therefore alternatives should be permitted in the classroom. The blindlingly obvious fact is that there are many alternatives within evolutionary science, models of change which go beyond "natural selection of genes leading to the fittest phenotypes". Models involving neutral or other silent mutations, the effect of pleiotropy and gene regulation in pattern formation and pattern alteration, the study of complexity and emergent systems, et cetera, provide quite a number of alternative mechanisms, tempos, and explanations of form in evolutionary science.

Note that the rise of the popularity of Intelligent Design in it's "anti-evolutionary"/"equal time" format coincides with decisions by the courts concerning creationism in public schools. Young Earth Creationism? No, it's not science. Renaming it Scientific Creationism? No, it's still too obviously biased/rooted in a particular religious origins story. So then we see ID being used to make the same challenge. And again, it takes legitimate criticisms of the more popular arguments within evolution (which also have alternatives within evolution), the belief in some ultimate guiding force or source of the universe (presented as incompatible with evolution), and combines them with the anti-evolution sentiment of Creationists to present a single front to have ID taught alongside evolution. But what to teach? What does ID have other than a laundry list of supposed faults of evolution? What novel ideas or explanations, what mechanisms and direct evidence, does ID have to offer? To quote a selection from an essay I've written on the subject:

What is the positive evidence of either a) the existence of the designers themselves b) their capacity to accomplish their design c) their presence here on Earth at any time past or present d) the act of design itself? The last item would be something like a futuristic toolkit found in PreCambrian rock if one were going the alien route (which may not really be the most popular form of ID). The only evidence for ID of the "nature couldn't do it on it's own so someone must have altered something" variety is the assertion of what evolution can or cannot adequately explain. It is evidence by default. That isn't an invalid kind of evidence, but in the kind of hard evidence comparison you have been alluding to it is positive evidence that would hold the field. Even the smallest positive evidence for evolution from genetics weighs more than nothing. That is not an insult, it's just that so far no one has provided any positive evidence of any crediblity (good, bad, or ugly) for a), b), c), or d) as outlined above.

But, more than just an argument from evidence (or lack thereof) is the issue of what models get us where. The practical use for this kind of Intillegent Design in science, as espoused by one of it's better known advocates (and as I relayed in another reply in this thread) is to "help us to identify problems that would not yield solutions by applying nautral processes/theories based on these processes. We could then spend the effort and resources elsewhere" (that was a paraphrase in the original context, for clarity's sake, not a direct quote, but I feel it is accurate). My reply to that kind of thinking: "Saying that just because we don't have the answer yet we should label the problem 'unsolvable' and move on is anathema to science.". Even if someone hadn't suggested as much, one is hard pressed to think of another practical application of that type of ID thinking to our investigations of nature. In fact the typical impression I get from listening to many ID debator arguments is that the point isn't practical at all, it's just an attempt to 1) bash evolution/justify evolution bashing and/or 2) prove there is a Designer. Neither of these objectives, whether they are deemed to be good, bad, or indifferent goals, is really on point with coming up with working explanations of the very features that were supposedly too complex for evolution.

Link to full essay

There may or may not be some greater intelligence which created or sustains the universe, which created or sustains the various properties and qualities and processes which are then measured and modeled by science. But evolution is the study of how natural processes explain the diversification of life--it doesn't say where the laws or principles of nature ultimately come from. The only reason to interject ID as an alternative is if there is compelling evidence that some intelligent force directly intervened and circumveneted/altered these natural processes, and such compelling evidence (for example, an alien device for alterning DNA found embedded in 500 million year old strata) has yet to be produced. Many natural forces and processes can create patterns of complexity and apparent design (one minor example being natural selection), so as soon as ID advocates come up with something as substantial, by all means, include them in the mainstream scientiic dialogue.

Those who are wittingly or unwittingly supporting what many consider anti-science movements such as having ID, Scientific Creationism, and YEC taught in public school science class (where students lack the background, experience, and time to properly evaluate such alternatives) can benefit from a friendly and honest dialogue rather than hostile complaint. If you are an advocate of YEC or ID and see evolution as misguided or even "satanic", those who favor evolution can also benefit from a friendly and honest dialogue rather than hostile complaint. Regardless of whether we agree or disagree about method and philosophy in the study of natural history, we are all worthy of fundamental respect and kindness.

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