Thursday, November 10, 2005

pity this busy monster, manunkind, not.

As Piper noted yesterday, Kansas has officially disappeared from the ranks of the modern world. The school board, in deciding that evolution is too "controversial" to be taught without a supernatural backup plan, took approximately 150 years of hypotheses and experimentation and punched it in the face with 2000 years of Biblical teachings. Of course, the proponents of this "scientific" theory don't mention the Bible when they want to actually get their "controversial" view taught in the classroom. Instead, they call it "Intelligent Design," or ID for short.

I am probably the only person here at the PeP who has read the seminal work in ID dogma (I originally wrote "theory," but I don't think that something that cannot be tested or proven can be called a theory, at least not in the "synonym to hypothesis" sense of the word), Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box, a book that purports to explain how the world was created in six days designed by some higher intelligence. I read the book my junior year of college, the year that I quit being a Chemistry major and focused solely on English. I read it because I wanted to have some sort of scientific backup to my theological leanings, and the book provided me with more comfort than a room full of overstuffed pillows crammed with teddy bears ever could.

Yet, I was someone who wanted to look at both sides, to see if what I believed was an actual theory in the traditional sense or merely a matter of dogma. Darwin's Black Box presented me with an opportunity to have my faith confirmed by science--something I later realized was rather antithetical to the whole "faith" idea--and the science seemed ironclad. Behe analyzed various "irreducibly complex" (his words) biological mechanisms that he believed could have never been attained through some cascade of evolution without the guiding hand of an intelligent designer. These include: the Bombardier beetle, which creates Hydrogen Peroxide in a little compartment in its abdomen and then shoots said Hydrogen Peroxide at its enemies, much like the character "Reptile" from Mortal Kombat 2; the human/animal eye, since it is really, really difficult to figure out how all that crazy "sight" stuff came about; the flagellum of bacteria, which require a certain protein (I don't remember all the details, obviously) in order to create the motor necessary to move the bacteria. Behe's argument hinges on his underlying assumption that evolutionary theory cannot account for all the tiny steps necessary for such hugely complex systems. So, since the outcome of the Bombardier beetle's evolution should be a kickass defense mechanism, each interstitial step would be moving towards such a kickass defense system, and as such it wouldn't be giving the beetle a better chance of survival. In Behe's understanding of evolution, natural selection would never result in the Bombardier's defenses since each particular step is only moving towars its H2O2 defense, not toward getting a competitive advantage: all mutations that pushed it towards its H2O2 defense are only occuring because of the design, not because of the actual advantage that, however small, makes the beetle better able to mate and get food and protect itself. After I read all this, I thought, "Holy crap, this is going to revolutionize science[exclamation point]" Well, actually, I just thought it did a good job of confirming what I already believed.

Yet, being the good, liberal (not the political kind) college student that I was, I decided to check out the other book that was sharing shelf-space with Behe's tract, something called Finding Darwin's God, a book by Kenneth R. Miller. Within 10 minutes of picking it up, however, I had to put it down because he eviscerates Behe's argument with a rusty knife, Rambo-style. Miller notes that Behe's arguments echo an early 19th Century minister named William Paley, a man Behe quotes quite often, especially concerning the irreducible complexity of the eye. What Behe fails to note in his book is that Darwin had read Paley before he wrote The Origin of Species and that Darwin refuted Paley's arguments about the eye within that very book, noting (I'm quoting Miller quoting Darwin here, so try to keep up):

if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, through insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.

Darwin notes that the eye itself is not "irreducibly complex" as Behe would have it, but rather that each gradation of the eye made animals a little better at getting food, and as such they passed down their good genes to their progeny. With the Bombardier beetle, the same thing must have occurred, wherein each tiny, tiny mutation made food that much easier to get, and the beetle that much harder to kill.

Much of Behe's problem, and the ID movement's problem, is that they still live within a 6000 year timeframe, even though their brand of creationism has dropped the farce of the young earth model. It is strange that a group of people so focused upon the eternal would think in such short time periods, but their models of ID tend to forget that the earth is pretty darn old, and that life on earth has also been around for a while. At this point we're talking something like 3.5 billion years for us to evolve from not much to something a little more important.

Now, if that were ID's only sin, I suppose I could countenance it. Yet, it purports to be a scientific theory that "explains the gaps in evolution." Yes, evolution has gaps. Scientists don't dispute that; instead, they try to figure out why the gaps are there, and how to explain the gaps within the boundaries of natural science. ID instead says, "design" and like an incantation everything is explained. The reason the Bombardier beetle can kick ass and take names? Design. The reason deer stand transfixed by headlights? Design. The reason dogs eat cat crap out of litter boxes? Design. It can work for anything. Yet, it can never be proven. In fact, the Kansas board "redefined the word 'science,' no longer limiting it to natural explanations of phenomena" (first link). According to that reasoning, someone could teach students that the reason that plastic bowls float is because invisible ghosts are holding them above the surface of the water, and that the invisible ghosts are there to control everything that lives on top of the water. Nevermind that there is a huge body of evidence that the reason things float is because their density is less than that of the water on which they rest. Why should it matter, since there are ghosts holding up every floaty thing on the face of the planet.

My example is, of course, absurd. But that is the point. ID-ers are trying to make science a question of whether or not God created the earth. To me, that seems more like a question of faith than science. Science is about observable, repeatable results. The Scientific Method=Observation and Repeatability. Even if there is such a thing as intelligent design, it is impossible to observe. It follows, then, that it is impossible to repeat. Perhaps I could have saved a lot of keystrokes if I had written that in the first paragraph, but I am, as always, a self-important blowhard. Rejection of ID is not a rejection of God or the idea of God or of God having a hand in creation; instead, it is a rejection of a bunch of dogma masquerading as a scientific theory that is creating gaps in the education of our students.


xtrachromosomeconservative said...

I just thought I would put in my two cents worth on the idiocy of Intelligent Design. One, as Archduke F.F. points out, it is not a theory, since it cannot be tested. This undermines any validity of its claim of being scientific. Ultimately, I believe we shouldn't teach religion as science or science as religion, and so long as we point out that Evolution is still a theory, that is fine. It just happens to be a theory in the league of gravity that has such formal weight that our acceptance of it as fact is not likely to be change unless our understanding of physical science undergoes such a sea change as seen by the impact of Einstein and the theory of relativity and its impact on newtonian physics.

That said, the idiocy of Intelligent Design does not go at its scientific merits or lack thereof, but rather are more metaphysical or even theological. Faith ultimately is belief in that which we cannot substantiate. An underpinning of most religions is that it escapes us not because of our limited understanding but because of the greatness of the creator. If in fact there is some "Intelligent Design" that is intelligible to the human mind it would essentially undermine that religion. If the creator's design is comprehensible, ultimately it will be replicable, and thus his power is not infinite, thus he does not deserve our veneration. This is why I am flummoxed about ID, because ultimately, it is religion masquarading as pseudo-science, but it essentially is subversive to the very religious teachings that it is trying to impose on public schools by stealth. Well that wasn't to coherent but maybe somebody else can pick up on the thread

Ilya said...

I really enjoyed your review of Behe. If there is one thing this blog does not tolerate, it is Intelligent Design. I can tell that you majored in English because only English majors use the word "interstitial."

Just to note, months ago I made some similar points. See The June Bug Reconsidered, The Rebel Cardinal and Intelligent Fools.

Ilya said...

Speaking of Paley, not that anyone cares. H.D. Thoreau discusses Paley's view of government in his famous essay, Civil Disobedience.

What useless info I know...

Justin Guarini said...

Rag on Seacrest again and you'll have to answer to me.