Monday, August 30, 2004

Flip Flops and Higher Beings

The last thread of the thingie on my right flip flop gave up the ghost while I was doing light yardwork on Saturday. What is striking about blowing out the flip flop is how utterly functionless the flop becomes once that one feature is rendered useless. As the death of all cherished things does, the broken flop got me thinking about God; this is from the archives:

A high school biology teacher, working in a state whose rural population is conservatively religious, was recently barred from teaching biology simply because he introduced well accepted scientific theories to his students that may have had the effect of undermining their faith in prevailing orthodoxies. At first glance, the situation sounds eerily familiar to that which led to the famous Scopes monkey trial, wherein a high school biology teacher in Tennessee introduced the theory of evolution to his students, only to be forbidden from doing so by a religiously conservative school board. That school board preferred creationism, a set of beliefs concerning the origins of life that invokes the hands on creation of God, to evolution.

The outcome of the Scopes trial is very well known – biology teachers cannot be restricted by district officials from teaching evolution. Though that decision said nothing about the teaching of creationism in public schools, later Supreme Court decisions would expressly forbid doing so as the Court considers creationism an advancement of religion.

So the issue has long been settled for public schools: they are permitted, though not required, to teach evolution, and they absolutely cannot teach creationism. So what is the problem in Minnesota? Surprisingly, the situation there is not the work of creationists disobeying the law and trying to silence the truth of evolution, but is instead the work of evolutionists trying to silence the truth of intelligent design theory, a line of scientific inquiry at the cutting edge of bio-molecular research.

As much as Darwin’s evolution has eliminated any doubt that humans have evolved from apes, intelligent design theory has convincingly demonstrated that this chain of evolution cannot be traced backward from man to lifeless matter. The theory of evolution does very well in explaining small changes that take as their starting point systems that are already extremely complex, but fairs very poorly in explaining how those systems evolved from the primordial soup. Intelligent design theorists, using arguments that appeal only to scientific evidence, have highlighted this failure, and presented evidence that the problem is not just temporarily unresolved, but is instead irresolvable.

The theory of intelligent design has arisen from laboratory observations of biochemists examining the most basic unit of life – the cell. Within the cell they have found many systems that can be compared to little machines, each made up of several inter-working parts. These machines are “irreducibly complex”: irreducible because all of the working parts are required for the machine to perform its function; complex because the interaction of the working parts is clearly geared toward performing a useful function, and cannot be explained as having been randomly compiled.

Consider a machine consisting of four inter-working parts that performs a given function. The removal of any one part would make the machine completely unable to perform its function, implying that favorable random mutations, passed on to succeeding generations through natural selection, could not have added function improving parts sequentially. The machine, therefore, either must have been intelligently designed or randomly compiled. The argument in favor of design over random compilation is qualitative, and relies upon the complexity of the machine being examined. A machine as complex as a watch has obviously been designed – it is extremely improbable that nature would produce materials that would randomly find their way into a physical relationship with each other that exactly mimics the function of a watch. The presence of bio-molecular machines within the cell that are as complex as a watch implies the overwhelming likelihood of intelligent design.

Intelligent design theory is not being well received by the proponents of evolution, as the case of the Minnesota teacher clearly shows. The theory may be a partial scientific vindication for creationists who, while getting many things wrong, may have gotten the central point correct: that an intelligent being created life. And if there is one thing an evolutionist will never admit, it is that the evil creationists were right about anything.

Creationists accept the bible as their source of authority regarding the origins of life, and therefore reject the claims of science when these claims contradict the bible. Creationists do not even attempt to offer scientific proof for their beliefs, but will occasionally highlight scientific evidence that undermines the claims of evolution theorists. Despite this small exception to the general rule, the ideas of creationists concerning life’s origin are overwhelmingly faith based.

And evolutionists do not react well to those who simply refuse to acknowledge the convincing case for their theory. Richard Dawkins, an eminent biologist who has written several books on evolution meant for popular consumption, has written that anyone who denies evolution is either “ignorant, stupid, or insane (or wicked – but I’d rather not consider that).” Daniel Dennett “compares religious believers to wild animals who may have to be caged, and says parents should be prevented from misinforming their children about the truth of evolution.”

And yet, it cannot be the case that evolutionists really object to people holding ideas based upon faith, and backed with little or no scientific evidence, because evolutionists are guilty of this themselves. Each one of them makes a tremendous leap of faith, while offering not a shred of evidence and no convincing refutation of intelligent design, when he claims that life arose through purely natural processes without the guiding hand of a planner. Their unmitigated scorn for creationists must instead be based upon the particular ideas held by Creationists. Believing that there is a God without offering scientific proof for God’s existence is somehow backward and ignorant (or, according to Dawkins, even possibly wicked), while believing that there is no God without offering scientific proof for God’s non-existence makes one enlightened and intelligent (or, again according to Dawkins, at least non-wicked).

While no scientist denies the ability of evolution to explain the large class of phenomena that it has capably elucidated, many scientists (but not all) are beginning to understand that the hopes for evolution to explain the fundamentals of life are ill-founded. The lens through which scientists examine these fundamental questions has shifted, perhaps irrevocably, from evolution – you might say that science has evolved, and that evolution has not made the cut. The evolution paradigm is being replaced in what amounts to a scientific revolution. And as with political revolutions, the old regime does not go quietly, and can look very silly in clinging to the old ways. Thomas Kuhn wrote in the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the proponents of the old regime “will devise numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications of their theory in order to eliminate any apparent conflict.”

In fact, the behavior Kuhn describes will generally be one of the strongest signals from the sceintific community that a theory has exhausted its power. Has this happened with evolution? What type of response would count as an “ad hoc modification” meant to defend evolution from intelligent design theory? Consider one potential example put forth by Francis Crick, a Nobel laureate who collaborated with David Watson in the discovery of the DNA molecule. Crick, in the pages of Science, argued that intelligent beings from another planet traveled to earth and planted certain primitive life forms. These intelligent Martians then promptly left, leaving no trace of having ever been here. From there, evolution took over, and now here we are. And as for how the Martians came to life, surely they must have evolved, but unfortunately we cannot actually prove that they did. Instead, we are to take it on faith. How is that for ad hoc?

Despite what can accurately be described as a crisis of faith among scientists who have long clung to the belief that evolution theory would, in time, provide them their complete victory over the claims of religion, the larger culture has gone almost completely unaware that any controversy exists. The most recent battle over the teaching of evolution has been interpreted narrowly as a step backward from truth toward the camp of superstition. I am referring to the recent decision of the Kansas School Board to reject a proposition that evolution be made a mandatory part of the high school curriculum in all districts. Whatever the motivations of the opposition to that proposal, the rejection of it can rightly be considered the best way to avoid the very real potential that evolution will be improperly taught.

We can easily imagine high school teachers explaining those phenomena that can be easily explained by evolution, and then wave their hands to suggest that the analysis can be carried back to explain the origins of life, but the semester is only so long. Scientists themselves have been guilty of this hand waving, leaving little faith that it would not occur among high school teachers. And, while scientists waved their hands at the same time they tried to bridge the gap, little or no efforts are being done in this direction today, and there is plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that doing so would prove fruitless.

The case of the Minnesota teacher shows that even those who are aware and are conscientious enough to present of the latest scientific work concerning life’s origins, will be silenced by administrators who fear the bothersome lawsuits of the ACLU. And the curriculum requirements suggested in Kansas made no provision for the presenting of dissenting views, even those that are entirely science-based.

I confess that I have no clue if considerations of this sort entered into the decision process for members of the Kansas school board, but even if their votes were influenced entirely by Creationist and anti-scientific sympathies, the decision was nevertheless a good one. It was all the better, in my eyes, if the decision was articulated in a way that maximized the fury of those who pretend that their only interest is in properly educating children. Because the sad truth is that there are many who would make evolution the cornerstone of a child’s education for the express purpose of undermining his religious faith.

The passion these people feel for the importance of teaching evolution can only be due to their desire to tear down religion, especially that of fundamentalists living in rural America. And that desire is not simply due to a disagreement over the competing claims of science and religion concerning the origins of life - rural America and the elite sophisticates are on quite opposite sides of the culture war. Darwinists consider the opinions of fundamentalist Christians concerning abortion, pre-marital sex, divorce, crime, and most social issues to be dangerously backward. Seeing their antiquated religious beliefs as the source of the problem, evolution theory serves to attack the root of the problem. As it was put in a recent article, “writers like Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Edward O. Wilson, and Daniel Dennett promote atheism in the name of evolutionary science.” Why else would Dawkins introduce the idea that those who deny evolution are possibly evil? Precisely because he believes that the influence of religion is itself evil.

It is more the politics that stem from the religious beliefs of fundamentalists than the beliefs themselves that draw the ire of Darwinists and liberals. Consider the Ahmish – they probably hold the same creationist beliefs as fundamentalist Christians, but because they are completely disengaged from American politics, you do not see anyone storming into Ahmish schools and insisting that evolution be taught. Now consider the Nation of Islam – I don’t know what their attitude is concerning evolution, but I do know that they believe the white race was created by the devil, named Yacub, who was rebelling against Allah, and that these greedy and vicious whites were responsible for destroying the earthly paradise enoyed by Allah’s creations – the black race. And there are private schools that teach this stuff, not to mention Million Man Marches that are organized by the central proponent of this theory. Now this group is undoubtedly enmeshed in politics, but their interests do not necessarily counter the liberal agenda, so we hear no complaints of them. Does the squelching of evolution have a negative impact on society? Alternatively, would the teaching of evolution present any tangible benefit to society? If we answer either in the affirmative, then why should we let the tribes of Africa and South America persist in their mythological views.

It is instructive to note that the same people who laugh at the Kansas School Board for their recent decision probably applauded a judge who ruled (a day prior to the first day of school) that a voucher program established in Cleveland was unconstitutional because it provided public funds for use in attending religious schools. The beneficiaries of that program, which was targeted towards impoverished children, now have the lucky benefit of remaining in failed public schools. If they ever do learn to read, I am sure they will be enthusiastically taught evolution, and all their problems will be solved. Far better this than letting them be explicitly taught right from wrong – what value can that possibly have in this day and age?


Blogger Professor Vic said...

First of all, it is simply untrue that creation scientists do not attempt to use science to prove their point. Flat out false and this is not an opinion thing, either.

Creation scientists heavily dress up their arguments in scientific terms only they fail to accept the most basic premise of the scientific method: that certain hypotheses can be proven wrong. Creation Scientists want their ideas taught on an equal basis as evolution but don't want to accept any evidence that would prove their ideas wrong. That's why creationism can't be taught in science classes. Evolutionists feel free to accept evidence that proves their ideas wrong. Indeed, Richard Dawkins, who Hatch cites in the article, actually believes Darwin is wrong. Dawkins thinks evolution is at the gene level while Darwin believed in selection at the species level.

Now here is the problem with intelligent design, a line of thinking first developed by the creation scientists. I'll use a very simple that creationists use, assuming most of us don't understand molecular biology.

Liquid water is a prerequisite for life to develop according to our best guesses. Water is very unusual among chemical compounds in that when it freezes it expands so that ice floats. Almost every other compound shrinks when it freezes so that metal, for example, sinks when it "freezes." If ice didn't float, it would be very hard for liquid water to exist for any period of time because the water would get cold at some point, sink down, and then never rethaw.

What is the chance that an essential building block such as water would also have the almost unique property that allows water to exist in the first place? It is a stunning coincidence. The only possible explanation, according to intelligent designers and creationists, is that a higher being must have made it that way. That is the leap that is non-scientific and that is also non-falsifable.

Any theory that claims proof of God because things are hard to explain otherwise is a difficult one to justify.

6:45 AM  
Blogger pbryon said...

Tacking a few observations on to Professor Vic's:

* Frances Crick died just a few weeks ago. Coincidence, or intelligent design, based on the timing of this article?

* Life, if you will, has been made from spare parts. Quite a fuss was made a few years back when scientists from Stony Brook took genomic sequences, biological building blocks from mail order, and made the polio virus. And the thing was infective. Of course, the argument is that the still needed to know the design or order in which to put those genetic bits.

* And like every issue, this goes both ways. earlier this year, the Georgia state school superintendent ordered the word "evolution" be replaced with the phrase "biological changes over time." It ain't just one side trying to force the issue down someone's throat.

Like Vic says, you're trying to blend the line between proof and faith. Its impossible to do.

7:33 AM  

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