29 July 2012

A few thoughts on Intelligent Design

I was perusing the algorithmically-generated recommended videos on Youtube the other day when I found a creationist video that claims to be a refutation of Richard Dawkins' "best evidence for evolution video". Turns out this chap has his own blog, called The New Creationist, which is an Intelligent Design advocacy website – which basically means it criticizes evolution all the time, since ID basically amounts to "evolution can't explain it, ergo the best explanation is Goddidit".

As a layman, I'm reasonably well-versed in physics. Which is to say that I've read several popular science books on physics by people like Lisa Randall, Brian Greene and Stephen Hawking. I've read lots of stuff by Sean Carroll at his blog Cosmic Variance, and I've read many articles in Scientific American over the years. In every case, these are people who have achieved prestigious academic positions and whose work is rigorously peer-reviewed. But that doesn't mean I fancy myself a physicist, or have any idea how to make sense of a page full of equations. It's just that I have a good enough grasp on the concepts to know when someone is representing them dishonestly – which is why I've spent many a blog post criticizing the Christian apologist William Lane Craig for positioning himself as some sort of expert on physics while spreading all kinds of misinformation.


I have a similar, but less developed grasp of the general concepts in evolutionary biology. I know enough to know why, when people ask something like, "If we evolved from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?", it's a stupid question. Ditto with things like Ray Comfort asking why we don't see "crockoducks", or Ken Ham saying dogs never produce non-dogs. Anyone who thinks those questions undermine evolution are so pathetically ignorant – and frankly willfully ignorant, given the abundant easily accessible information on the topic – that their arguments in most circumstances don't even warrant a response.

And yet I don't fancy myself a biologist. So if I were to read something like, say, The Myth of Junk DNA, a book published by the pro-ID Discovery Institute, I probably wouldn't have the knowledge to refute most of the esoteric information in there. Fortunately there are others who do, like Larry Moran, but I'd be pretty much lost in that kind of discussion. And yet I think there are several things that, on their face, indicate that there isn't any reason why I should take Intelligent Design seriously even if I'm not well-versed enough in biology to single-handedly refute all their specific claims.

1. The numbers: I did a blog post about this some time back, but the Discovery Institute – the frontline organization for ID research and advocacy – has roughly 50 Fellows. Of those fifty, roughly 20% have formal education in various biological sciences (I counted nine when researching my post, but couldn't access the CVs for all the Fellows listed). The rest have education in fields such as law, like Casey Luskin, or theology, like William Lane Craig. By contrast, the National Center for Science Eduction, an advocacy group for evolution education, has over 4500 members and about a dozen supporting scientific organizations. I don't know how many of their supporters are biologists, but I found more than ten pretty damn easily in their list of supporters.

And that's one advocacy group. If you look at the list of organizations that explicitly reject Intelligent Design, and peruse their memberships, it becomes painfully obvious that the Discotute is the fringe of a fringe of a fringe. Now, I'm not saying ID is wrong because they're a minority. I'm saying that it should raise some red flags when you have people who really think that they're spearheading some great upheaval in the biological scientists, except the vast majority of them aren't actually biologists at all. Would anyone take seriously a group of, say, 50 people claiming to undo quantum theory in modern physics, if only 20% of them actually had any formal training in physics at all? Would the thousands of physicists all over the world stop their particle colliders to support Quantum Design Theory? Probably not.

2. The dearth of research: The vast majority of Discotute literature, and that of its supporters, is spent attacking evolution. That's really because the thesis that life has been continuously designed by an intelligence instead of evolving is not falsifiable – not that pro-IDers would ever 'fess up to that, but it literally cannot make one single specific prediction about what we will discover in any field of biology. There's a conspicuous absence of research actually verifying specific claims of ID... probably because they tend to shy away from specific claims. Their broader arguments, like "irreducible complexity", have already been soundly refuted. So there isn't much left for them to actually contribute to the sciences. They seem to think that if evolution is summarily falsified, ID will be established by default. This is, of course, total lunacy and reflective of their ignorance of how science actually works.

3. They have no idea what falsification really is: ID is really nothing but an argument from ignorance – it claims that certain things simply cannot be explained by science, so it must be 'best explained' by a designer instead. Take for example this post from The New Creationist. I often point creationists to the Ken Miller video where he explains the Chromosome-2 fusion in humans, because it's a perfect example of the theory of evolution making a falsifiable prediction that ended up being powerful evidence that evolution is true – something that ID has never done and in principle cannot do, which is why it will never be a science. Now, this "new creationist", who incidentally sounds just as credulous as the old ones, argues that such a fusion is impossible – that the chromosome should never have been able to fuse at all.

Being that I'm not a biologist, I have no idea how to directly refute what he's arguing. But it's conspicuously odd that rather than, I dunno, ask a biologist or two (like, golly I dunno, write a letter to Ken Miller?), he simply frames his argument as though the unanswered question itself creates a major problem for the theory of evolution. Let's say that he's right, which I think is extraordinarily unlikely, and nobody knows how to explain this. That still would not change the fact that Intelligent Design could not have made this prediction, and the theory of evolution did. Further, the fact that an explanation is either unknown or not immediately apparent would not refute the fact that the theory of evolution made this falsifiable prediction, nor would it suggest that there cannot be a rational explanation at all. Our new creationist seems to think that because he does not know how to explain it that a rational explanation is not merely unknown, but in principle impossible. Ergo, Goddidit. That ain't how science works, kids.

As an analogy, take the Big Bang. If I were an "intelligent creation" advocate who promoted "guided expansion of the universe", I might argue that there are innumerable problems with the Big Bang theory. What caused it? Why did the universe start at low entropy? Why was the initial state of the universe exactly as it was, and not different? Why is the universe expanding at all? These questions haven't been answered, ergo Goddidit. Yeah, physicists talk about the expansion being driven by "dark energy", but that hasn't actually been observed – it's conjectural. Clearly, the best explanation is that God – wait, sorry... "an intelligence" – both caused and is driving the expansion of the universe.

It's all just one big argument from ignorance. The Big Bang was predicted by physicists several decades before the strongest predicted evidence for it – the cosmic microwave background – was directly observed. No "intelligent expansion" theory could have predicted the existence of the cosmic microwave background, much less the specific patterns of non-uniformity (anisotropy) predicted and verified by the Big Bang theory.

And so it is with evolution. Evolution is falsifiable because it makes innumerable predictions about what we will find and where we'll find it. Intelligent Design cannot make any such predictions; instead, it piggybacks on the advances of actual science and attempts to retroactively insert God as the 'best explanation' by poking holes in the explanations of the facts observed by biologists. In fact, if everything is really best explained by an intelligent designer, there no reason for any pattern we see at all. There's no particular reason why the phylogenetic tree should look as it does, and not completely different. There's no reason why humans and chimps should share the vast majority of their DNA. There's no reason why vertebrates should have appeared on Earth after non-vertebrates. There's no reason why modern humans should have appeared, chronologically, as part of a continuous succession with more primitive but very similar human-like primates. God could do it however he wants! Ironically it's creationism, not evolution, that makes us out to be pretty unremarkable.


Related – Steve Novella: Egnor Tries to Write About Evolution to Humorous Effect
Michael Hawkins: Chromosome 2

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