To Be Explained II
A month and a half ago Intelligent Design (ID) was in the news only because President Bush had publicly offered some further supposed evidence of his dimwittedness and his doltishness, by stating that he thought ID should be taught in our public schools. At that time I made a comment that didn’t endorse ID nor argue against it; I simply offered my own list of things I would like to have explained if ID is to be solidly blockaded from any discussion in science classes or in scientific pursuit. This isn’t a comprehensive list, by any means, nor does it even represent a collection of arguments against “Darwinism.” Indeed, this bit about goosebumps is touted elsewhere as strong evidence against the existence of any intelligent designer. As an aside, there’s a lesson in there, and it’s a grave warning to anybody who makes their livelihood in science: Humans being what they are, two people can look at exactly the same thing and come away “convinced” of the “proof” of two polar-opposite theories.
ID-versus-evolution is in the news for a different reason now. In Dover, PA our judicial system is in the process of being used to figure out what “science” is. That’s kind of nuts. At issue is the First Amendment with its prohibition against the establishment of a national church, so that will be the vehicle to figure out what science has successfully “proven” and what it has not. That’s nuts, too. What is rabit-wombat-crazy, is the use of propaganda to sway the public opinion on this, as if public opinion should ever have much to do with science OR constitutional interpretation. Going by the sound bites, it seems settled that “the weight of the evidence is overwhelming” in favor of evolution, and that “Intelligent Design has no place in the classroom.”
I’m not going to comment on the first of those two, since I have no idea what “evidence” actually “weighs”. But I take strong issue with the second of those two, if for no other reason, than because the debate between natural selection and Intelligent Design has been so valuable in illuminating important things. It has shown us how scientists work, how some theories go about being discredited and how other theories go about accumulating credibility. Those who would expunge Intelligent Design permanently from the classroom, are in effect asking me to believe that science students could be exposed to all that good stuff, and come away from the experience consistently without any discernible benefit to their education. Well, based on what I know now that I didn’t know two months ago, that’s difficult for me to do.
What impresses me the most over the last couple of months, is the epiphany that science appears to work by discrediting theories by the identities of the advocates behind the theories, and by slandering those advocates by supposing other theories were advanced by them, even when that is not the case. There are several quotes in the news insisting that “Intelligent Design is just creationism with a new label,” when the evidence emerging from the Dover lawsuit doesn’t seem to support this. That doesn’t seem to be very scientific, to me.
Much of the argument for rejecting ID appears to be rooted in the truism that evolutionary theory has labored under a heavier burden, and yet has proven so much more. That seems, to me, to be a natural result of what each theory alleges. ID is simply a problem for established evolutionary theory, or rather a catalog of such problems. On the other hand, “evolutionary theory” as we know it today, in a venue in which we consider excluding all other explanations, is so much more absolute, stringent, radical and uncompromising than what “evolutionary theory” is supposed to be. Evolutionary Fundamentalists today argue that evolutionary forces can account for everything we see! Every little bit of it. Any living thing you care to pick out, a credible explanation can be found for how evolution produced it.
And not only is that untrue, but nobody with any reputation to defend is actually saying it. In fact, the Evolutionary Fundamentalists with real scientific credentials, readily concede that evolutionary theory is incomplete by this standard. There are many things for which evolutionary theory is a process of finding a plausible explanation, and hasn’t completed this process yet. However, the scientists who are best acquainted with the current state of evolutionary theory, are confident this will successfully happen, and if I knew what they knew, I’d be confident too.
Okay, I believe them.
But I would like to know about these issues. In the greatest detail I can, with whatever background I possess. It’s my nature. I’m curious.
It hasn’t escaped my attention, some of these conundrums can be dismissed with an ease far greater than what we would expect, as laymen, without a fairly comprehensive understanding of what evolutionary forces can do. And other conundrums are a little bit trickier. Pardon me for saying so, but that’s interesting.
Evolutionary theory is supposed to explain everything. ID, as I know it, simply points out that where evolution fails, the presence of a Designer remains standing as the most plausible explanation. That seems to be just logical. Selection can be natural, or it can be artificial; if it isn’t one, it must be the other. There is no in-between.
Michael Behe’s theory of Irreducible Complexity has been assaulted repeatedly, apparently not by the “weight” of directly-contradicting evidence but by what amounts to academic snobbery. The publication of Darwin’s Black Box in 1996, for example, was not preceded with the traditional peer-review process one would expect with regard to any scientific work. Well, what of it? If Dr. Behe wants to publish his ideas in a book without peer review, and because of that he gets nailed on something the peer-review process would have caught, that’s going to be an embarrassing problem for Dr. Behe. If some non-scientist reads something wrong in there and starts repeating it, making an ass out of himself, then that’s an embarrassment for that guy too. What skin is it off the nose of those peers? How does it reflect on the scientific community as a whole? It doesn’t.
It’s troubling that the peer-review process has been proposed as a way to stop certain theories, not-disproven theories, from seeing the light of day. Why shouldn’t we unwashed peons know about those? We can read about Elvis Presley having a space alien’s baby from a supermarket tabloid any time we like. When did science get in the business of filtering out what we can read?
Some of what has been learned, in light of this trial, is helpful to the Evolutionary Fundamentalists, or at least to evolutionary theory. One of the elegant attacks placed against the ID people, is that whales have “fingers”. The bone structure inside the flippers, resembles that of a human hand. This is a difficulty for Design Theory, because why would that designer give the whale something the whale doesn’t need? Dr. Daniel Dennett makes another case in Show Me the Science that the retina strongly assults ID theory:
The retina is inside out. The nerve fibers that carry the signals from the eye’s rods and cones (which sense light and color) lie on top of them, and have to plunge through a large hole in the retina to get to the brain, creating the blind spot. No intelligent designer would put such a clumsy arrangement in a camcorder, and this is just one of hundreds of accidents frozen in evolutionary history that confirm the mindlessness of the historical process.
To get a good idea of the ID counter-argument, all you have to do is play Lieutenant Columbo and flip this whole process around. You say, okay, the notion of an Intelligent Designer has been soundly defeated, now walk me through this. It’s tens of millions ago and we’re not evolved yet, we’re just a bunch of blind fish. We’re going to grow eyes through a series of entirely random mutations. The mutations produce what we know as “evolution” through a progression of exceedingly rare events in which those mutations become “fortunate”. They provide a feature or two, that allow the hosting organism to gain an advantage in the competition for finite resources in the host environment.
Clearly, being able to see, is an advantage. But wait, you don’t have that yet. A lens without a retina, is useless; a retina without a lens, is also useless. “Evolution” does not occur until the advantage is enjoyed. How many mutations do you have to have before the advantage is enjoyed?
Evolutionists explain this in a way that I find pretty credible. They say, you need a lens and a retina today, but this complicated arrangement is in itself an example of evolution. Back then, the mechanism could have been a whole lot simpler. It would have to have been a simple photoreceptor. They point to living organisms, as well as fossils, providing a spectrum of links between that photoreceptor and the complicated arrangement we have embedded in our skulls today. Is there not a bundle of optic nerves? A hole in the skull allowing that nerve to get to the brain? A cortex in the brain arranged so that this nerve can easily get someplace that will do some good? All of this is achieved through one lucky mutation at a time, the evolutionists say.
And I suppose I can buy that, since I’ve been convinced of evolution since the first time I saw a series of skulls in a fourth-grade textbook, starting with something ape-like but lacking much brain-space at all, and ending with Homo Sapiens.
The problem emerges with that very first stage. Even in the most primitive forerunner to the eyeball you could possibly propose, there must be several parts. The photoreceptor must be exposed to light. A nerve must be attached. It must run to a cortex in the brain, and the brain has to understand how to deal with the resulting information. This is important. The “mutation” will survive and propagate because of the Darwinian advantage. To propose some feature appears on the skin that may evolve into a photoreceptor — it just isn’t hooked up yet — seems to contradict the theory of evolution that you’re trying to support. How many more generations until the nerve appears? What keeps that blotch there, throughout those generations?
Does this start at the brain first, perhaps? Do we have a nerve wandering aimlessly, perhaps taking several generations to breech the skin and become something that can feed images? How long does that take, then? Maybe the skull developed last? That would certainly explain the convenient openings. Suppose there wasn’t even any skin? What if the photoreceptor was actually on the brain, and the skin, optic nerve, and surrounding skull came later?
If that’s the case, shouldn’t I be able to search for creatures that have skulls but no eyes, and come up empty? Don’t salamanders have skulls? How did that happen?
I freely admit it is possible, even likely, that all I’m proving is my own ignorance. I’m not trying to demonstrate I know my biology. My point is simply that no matter which piece you put in the puzzle first, they never quite seem to fit. Columbo is never quite finished saying “Oh, and one more little thing.”
Does this all make sense inside the labs? Once I get my biology degree, will the questions all magically go away? Show me how, then. Science is democratic by definition; it belongs to us; it is the study of “nature” which is something not only in contact with, but surrounding, all of us. Scientists my be inspired to explain this in a way we understand it, after they have successfully buried Intelligent Design and made it deader than King Tut. But they’re much more likely to enlighten us while they’re in the process of trying to do that burying. It doesn’t hurt to examine what the problems are with evolutionary theory, and to periodically re-visit from time to time to see what evolutionary theory has figured out about them.
That is, it doesn’t hurt what we conventionally call science. It doesn’t bring a lot of arguing and heated invective from someone we conventionally call a scientist
It would only be injurious to an effort to invest atheism as an official religion of science, and thus as an official religion in the United States.
And that’s the only logical explanation I can see for what’s going on. After all, if you’re trying to find a way evolution can explain something it hasn’t explained yet, you shouldn’t be the least bit bothered by someone saying “A designer makes sense, at least until you’ve got your theory figured out.” You would be agitated only if you had an emotional belief, running counter to the proposal of a designer, that you were trying to prop up with your “scientific” efforts.
I’m in the camp that fails to understand the mutual-exclusivity between theism and evolution. Obviously we have grown; we may have been put here; there is nothing inherently wrong with supposing that were were put here and we grew here.
I can probably explain that concern best with the parable of the tomato seeds. A little old lady buys tomato seeds and puts them in her garden — when you prove the tomatoes grow from seeds, this does nothing to refute the existence of the little old lady. Discovering the glass wall of the greenhouse, poses no problems to the theory of “growing” tomatoes. It only poses a problem to someone who has posited the tomatoes are out in the wilds, and the little old lady is a figment of someone’s imagination — that is the only faction left with some explaining to do.