An evolutionist shares lessons he's learned from the Intelligent Design camp
Jun 20, 2008
Two and a half years ago, in what is so far the "trial of this century," federal district judge John Jones III linkurl:ruled;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/194/ that it was unconstitutional for a school board in Dover, PA to teach linkurl:intelligent design;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/36664/ (ID) theory in a public high school science class. The decision was stunning; the ID movement lost on every front. When Jones called the school board's efforts to introduce ID into the curriculum "staggering inanity," the anti-ID chorus roared its support. Jones declared the ID movement's science bogus, their tactics corrupt, and their religious motivations transparent. Intelligent design, Jones said, is the most recent species in the highly adaptive lineage known as linkurl:American Creationism.;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/15273/ The Dover trial seemed, for a brief moment, to be a wooden stake driven into the heart of creationism. But ID is once again back up and on the march. So far in 2008, legislators in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Michigan, and Missouri have tried to require that classrooms teach both "the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory," code for unteaching evolution. Similar legislation linkurl:passed;http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2008/06/house_approves_changes_in_teac.html both houses of the Louisiana legislature this month and is coming perilously close to passing in Texas. American creationism's resilience is tied mostly to its cultural and religious roots, in particular the linkurl:Religious Right's;http://www.the-scientist.com/2006/7/1/48/1/ conviction that scientific naturalism promotes cultural relativism. But in the debate over evolution, I also think creationists' doggedness has to do with the fact that they make a few worthy points. And as long as evolutionists like me reflexively react with ridicule and self-righteous rage, we may paradoxically be adding years to creationism's lifespan. First, I have to agree with the ID crowd that there are some very big (and frankly exciting) questions that should keep evolutionists humble. While there is important work going on in the area of biogenesis, for instance, I think it's fair to say that science is still in the dark about this fundamental question. It's hard to draw conclusions about the significance of what we don't know. Still, I think it is disingenuous to argue that the origin of life is irrelevant to evolution. It is no less relevant than the Big Bang is to physics or cosmology. linkurl:Evolution;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/23321/ should be able to explain, in theory at least, all the way back to the very first organism that could replicate itself through biological or chemical processes. And to understand that organism fully, we would simply have to know what came before it. And right now we are nowhere close. I believe a material explanation will be found, but that confidence comes from my faith that science is up to the task of explaining, in purely material or naturalistic terms, the whole history of life. My linkurl:faith;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/52986/ is well founded, but it is still faith. Second, IDers also argue that the cell is far more complex than linkurl:Darwin;http://www.the-scientist.com/2008/6/1/32/1/ could have imagined 149 years ago when he published __On the Origin of Species.__ There is much more explaining to do than those who came before us could have predicted. Sure, we also know a lot more about natural selection and evolution, including the horizontal transfer of portions of genomes from one species to another. But scientists still have much to learn about the process of evolution if they are to fully explain the phenomenon. Again, I have faith that science will complete that picture, but I suspect there will be some big surprises. Will one of them be that an intelligent being designed life? I doubt it. Even if someone found compelling evidence for a designer, for us materialists, it would just push the ultimate question down the road a bit. If a Smart One designed life, what is the material explanation for its existence? The third noteworthy point IDers make has its roots, paradoxically, in a kind of psychological empiricism. Millions of people believe they directly experience the reality of a Creator every day, and to them it seems like nonsense to insist that He does not exist. Unless they are lying, God's existence is to them an observable fact. Denying it would be like insisting that my love for my children was an illusion created by neurotransmitters. I can't imagine a scientific argument in the world that could convince me that I didn't really love my children. And if there were such an argument, I have to admit I'd be reluctant to accept it, however compelling it appeared on paper. I have too much respect for my own experience. Which leads me to a final concession to my ID foes: When they say that some proponents of evolution are blind followers, they're right. A few years ago I covered a conference of the American Atheists in Las Vegas. I met dozens of people there who were dead sure that evolutionary theory was correct though they didn't know a thing about adaptive radiation, genetic drift, or even plain old natural selection. They came to their Darwinism via a commitment to naturalism and atheism not through the study of science. They're still correct when they say evolution happens. But I'm afraid they're wrong to call themselves skeptics unencumbered by ideology. Many of them are best described as zealots. Ideological zeal isn't incompatible with good science; its coincidence with a theory proves nothing about that theory's explanatory power. Should IDers be allowed to pursue their still very eccentric and outlying theory? Absolutely. There must be room, even respect, for eccentricity in science; it can lead to great discoveries. linkurl:Alchemy;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/53274/ led to chemistry. Astrology to linkurl:astronomy.;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/10317/ Much more often, of course, it leads nowhere. Looking for evidence of design in the natural world isn't itself unscientific (though, as I argue in my book, insisting that any designer must be a supernatural being is!) and if it were found, that would be big and fascinating news. But if I had a biology department with only seven faculty spots in it, I would not want someone who believed the cornerstone of modern biology was hogwash filling one of them. And I certainly don't want an improbable outlying hypothesis taught to my own teenage son as an alternative to one of the most powerful explanatory theories to illuminate the human mind.linkurl:Gordy Slack;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/53514/ is an Oakland-based science writer. His most recent book, linkurl:__The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything: Evolution, Intelligent Design, and a School Board in Dover, PA__,;http://www.amazon.com/Battle-Over-Meaning-Everything-Intelligent/dp/0470379316 was published by Wiley in 2007, and came out in paperback this April. He is now writing a book about the neuroscience of epilepsy.