We have been talking about evolution a bit in the Communication Theory class, largely in the context of Axelrod and social simulation. Ryan took exception to an introduction to one of the chapters in the Kennedy book that is fairly dismissive of “creation scientists,” calling the treatment “borderline repulsive.” Kennedy writes
Incredibly, as the second millennium drew to a close, the State of Kansas Board of Education voted to eliminate evolutionary theory from the state’s elementary school curriculum. Polls showed that only about a tenth of Americans could wholeheartedly accept the premises of Darwinism, that life has evolved to its present state through natural selection. “Creation scientists,” whose conclusions are biblically predetermined and whose arguments are based on the absence of some “missing links,” ignoring the tremendous body of positive evidence that does exist, are cited in the media as if they were real scientists.
Let me begin with a brief exculpatory “this is not my thing” admission of ignorance. I am not a biologist, nor do I play one on TV. Despite a fairly broad range of majors as an undergraduate, I managed to escape organic chemistry completely.
Let me also state that the quote above is inflammatory, and that there are “real scientists” (whatever that means) who dispute evolutionary theory. There are a much larger group who have more subtle objections that have more to do with fine tuning than they do with baby+bathwater tossing.
Of course, there are also scientists — relatively reputable ones — who believe in things like pyramid power, psychokinesis, and a lot of other things. That said, science is a process of consensus, and the consensus is that “creation science” / “intelligent design” is nonsense. Two scientists — reputable or not — do not mitigate crackpottiness. Two hundred scientists may constitute a “movement” but they still haven’t escaped crackpottiness. It’s worthwhile to remember that most of the great scientific paradigm shifts were led by crackpots, but most crackpots don’t shift anything.
Again, my exposure to this area is not deep, and I’ve not read widely enough to give a completely informed opinion. I did hear an interview with Michael Behe, and if he accurately represented his argument, I don’t find it to be at all compelling. (Neither, by the way, do his colleagues.) Basically, it comes down to this: while natural selection is almost certainly a strong, or even dominant, mechanism for adaptation at the macro-organism level, it cannot account for the extraordinary complexity of bio-chemical interactions at the smallest level.
The problem is that ID folks don’t posit a good alternative, and fail to show that evolutionary processes are not at work. Their argument comes down to seeming intuitively wrong. The watchmaker analogy and Behe’s mousetraps are interesting examples. They are, it is claimed, “irreducibly complex,” and therefore clearly designed by an intelligent being and not evolved through some natural process. Of course, neither watches nor mousetraps came into being through a supernatural act. It doesn’t matter that they were designed by humans, if humans themselves were created through evolutionary processes. Intelligence itself is complex. But claiming that complex systems come about through (=”are created by”) complex systems in no way obviates the evolutionary argument.
Intelligent Design often tries to escape from the label of being faith-based science, by positing some intelligent designer. That this is a god of some sort is normally only very thinly veiled, though it may be the Flying Spaghetti Monster or aliens, or any other intelligent thing. But positing the need for intelligence and then saying “ignore the question of what that intelligence or intelligent being is” is intellectually dishonest.
Why? Because when we say that watches are designed by intelligent beings, we mean humans. And when we ask what it means to be intelligent (one of the central questions, for example, for SETI), it often defined by the ability to create something complex or behave in a complex way. Whoa. Say it with me: starts with a taut, and ends in a logy.
It would be different if we didn’t have a long history of attributing the unexplained to the divine. Simply saying “we don’t have an answer yet so the source must be supernatural” is not science. Failing to posit an alternative theory is not science. The aim of science is to explain. That explanation cannot be “because God said so”. Even if that is an interim explanation, the question quickly follows: what made God do that. Science does not accept the idea of an unmoved mover. And creation “science” in its many guises, proclaims just this.
Now, is it possible to be a person of faith and still be a scientist? Of course! My guess is that that a fairly large proportion of scientists are people of faith. But to be a scientist requires the pursuit and destruction of mystery. To the extent that religion requires the maintenance of mystery, it remains in conflict with science. In my experience, most religions rely on faith, on trust without verification. Scientists rely on a sort of leap of faith whenever they induce toward theory. But they also believe (and, as with religion, we can debate whether that belief is based on more than “blind faith”) that they have ways of verifying objectively that their induction represents a true and correct rendering of the world. That is, faith is used as a bridge, as leverage, as something to temporarily lean against rather than stand upon.
I mentioned after class that I am a theosophist most days and an atheist when the wind blows NNW. That is, I see god in the machine. I see no reason that god cannot be revealed rather than reviled in the complexity of evolution. I have difficulty understanding the religious rejection of evolution. The beauty and complexity of the natural world is not, in my opinion, a “creation” of god — it is god. It is pretty easy to believe in a great power and simultaneously believe in evolution. My god makes process, not just product.
The problem quickly comes down to the question of agency, something we have talked about a lot in this class. One of the classic aims of science was (and to a certain extend is) the ability to predict. Predictability suggests determinism, which leaves little room for human will. If “you” consist of the arrangements of your cells, perhaps with some special focus on the arrangements of cells in your brain, then where do you fall in love? If you aren’t making you do stuff, who or what is? Just as understanding the mechanisms of thought does not remove our humanity, understanding the mechanisms of evolution does not remove its divinity. The good news is that the real world is made up of complexity, and that complexity means that it is extraordinarily difficult to predict what the future will bring. Yes, the path of the universe may be spelled out in any instantaneous complete understanding of the world (cf. Laplace’s demon), but since that understanding is impossible, we cannot know what the future may bring.
Human agency exists through a lens, even when that lens is (literally) in the eye of the beholder. Fatalism doesn’t come naturally to most people and raises all kinds of interesting ethical questions. Can we believe either in human consciousness or a powerful, effective god if we conceive of the world as an evolutionary system? My guess is “no,” but the love of our selves and our gods doesn’t do much to undo the observation that the world evolves.