Saturday, January 21, 2006

Evolution vs. Intelligent Design

PatB writes in a comment to the last post:


BTW, here is something I find much more disturbing than the "success" of Brokeback Mountain:

Most Americans do not accept the theory of evolution. Instead, 51 percent of Americans say God created humans in their present form, and another three in 10 say that while humans evolved, God guided the process. Just 15 percent say humans evolved, and that God was not involved.

(from CBS News Polls).

Out of curiosity, since you are an educated man, doesn't it bother you that some social conservatives in the Republican party are promoting scientific ignorance? AS a conservative, but educated guy, does the following from the Washington Post bother you:

"President Bush invigorated proponents of teaching alternatives to evolution in public schools with remarks saying that schoolchildren should be taught about "intelligent design," a view of creation that challenges established scientific thinking and promotes the idea that an unseen force is behind the development of humanity."

In the interest of balance, I'd like to hear your response about this given the number of columns I've read about the misdeeds that take place in academia and other centers of Liberalism (and in fairness, there are some!).

This happens to be a topic of intense interest to the Hatcher, and I've posted on it before, even with an item dredged from the original Ideas Hatched print version circa 1999. Let me first address whether it bothers me or not that some conservatives would like to see intelligent design, or creationism if you prefer, inserted into public school curriculum.

For thousands of years no one was taught evolution, but somehow the West managed to progress significantly in both scientific knowledge and standard of living. That progress has obviously accelerated since Darwin, but outside of the general interest that he might have inspired to study science, there really is no practical economic application of the theory that can account for material progress being tied to evolution. We'd lack some key insight into the natural world, but aside from knowing to finish out you antibiotic, I can't see the specific harm from not studying evolution. And if we posit a material world with no God, it seems to me that the only standard of harm should be whether or not material progress is impeded. If it's not, so what?

On the other hand, survival of the fittest, a concept that came right from the pages of Darwin, has been the favorite mantra of eugenecists from that day forward. Not that it's fair to blame the theory for this. So I think that the harm of not teaching it is likely to be minimal, unless you are of the view that a belief in a divine creator would necessarily fill that void, and that such a view is itself harmful, or on balance harmful. Some people clearly hold that view, but that is a debate for another day.

I do consider myself an educated guy, and I've read multiple books and more articles on the debate over intelligent design (ID) versus evolution. I may suffer from confirmation bias, more out of contempt for the anti-religious bias of guys like Dawkins than any sympathy for the view that the earth is only 10 thousand years old, but I haven't really seen a argument against the scientific points made by the intelligent design guys that sticks. Intelligent design guys are not proponents of literal biblical truth - they accept the scientific consensus about the age of the earth and the reality of evolution as based on the fossil record. They simply argue that the theory is highly unlikely to be the correct explanation of everything it porpurts to explain.

The basic notion behind ID is that some biological living systems are complex, in the sense that they are comprised of many parts that are all required in order for the system to perform its function. Take away one of the parts, and the system would be functionless. They then argue that a system like this is highly unlikely to evolve - i.e. it cannot have built up, one part at a time, with the function improving with each additional part coming on board via genetic mutation. The IDers use the analogy of finding a watch in the woods; you'd come to the obvious conclusion that a working watch was clearly designed, and did not randomly assemble itself from the surrounding woods. They don't dispute that evolution occurs, they just assert that it works its magic on things that are initially inexplicable by evolution.

There a few basic arguments I've seen raised by the evolutionists against this view:

1) Talk about the many examples where evolution does explain changes in a species or the emergence of a new species: there is a little problem of induction here - if evolution explains the change in the color a moth's wings, we're supposed to take it on trust that all life has a similar explanation.

2) Make the claim that ID is not falsifiable - i.e. there is no evidence that can be found to refute it as a theory - therefore it is not a science. I think that is true, but I've never seen it acknowledged that the same is probably true for evolution - it's obviously not a labratory science, and so it is hard to imagine evidence that could be presented that casts doubt on the theory's application in a given instance without the proponents of evolution simply crying that the fossil record is incomplete, followed by the assertion that if it were complete, they'd surely be right.

3) Talk about the imperfection of "design" - the blind spot in the human eye for example - and argue that a perfect creator wouldn't screw up the design. Another variant of this is the idea that the creator has to intervene at multiple points in time, and what self-respecting God would do that? This one always kills me - a prime argument against a challenge to evolution is a conjecture about how a divine creator, who we don't believe in in the first place, would choose to design life, followed by a comparison of that conjecture to what we actually observe. I'm no logician (really, I'm not), but even I can see that is not a scientific argument.

4) Take an example of a complex system put forth by the IDers, and explain how it could have evolved - I've seen this done for only one of many examples offered by the IDers. Of the arguments, this is certainly the best, but even here explaining away one example does not explain away all of them. And still one problem remains - the probability that the evolution explanation makes sense can be exceedingly low.

It seems to me that evolution can do nothing to explain how inanimate matter can suddenly assemble itself into life. Darwin called his book The Origin of Species , not life, probably for good reason. There is another scientific theory - with no real challenge to its accuracy - called the second law of thermodynamics, which asserts that things are always tending to a greater state of entropy (disorder and randomness) in a closed system. The emergence of life through evolution violates that rather severely. So if you'd prefer to keep the argument scientific, please explain to me how the theory of evolution should trump the second law of thermodynamics.

My guess is that the average high school science teacher, and the average person who falls into the 15 percent that believe humans evolved and God did not guide the process, probably also believe: 1) that evolution explains the origin of life, and 2) that the emergence of human life in the timeline, based upon everything we know about rates of genetic mutation, lifespans, etc. (every parameter that would go into a model of evolution), is not an unlikely event. In truth evolution does not explain the origin of life, and the probability of human life developing in the time that it did is infinitesimally small. My guess is that neither of those truths is typically conveyed or understood in a high school biology class - does that promote scientific ignorance? (And speaking more broadly, whether your concern is discouraging the propogation of "scientific ignorance," economic ignorance, or any kind of ignorance, high school is a very thin line of defense for doing so.)

If the Bible said that the moon was definitively made of green cheese, my guess is that we'd be seeing the scientific establishment pushing to teach children in earth science classes the religious theory in order to display the absurdity of such beliefs. The defensiveness of evolutionists in regard to intelligent design is enough to think that it's worth teaching, if only to show that in the end the evolutionist asks the student to take a leap of faith. Maybe their theories are totally true, but it is clear that they will never have evidence as convincing as the rock brought back from the moon, and so they have to suffer the ignorance of us religious yokels. I like to think that God planned it that way.


Blogger Professor Vic said...

"There is another scientific theory - with no real challenge to its accuracy - called the second law of thermodynamics, which asserts that things are always tending to a greater state of entropy (disorder and randomness) in a closed system. The emergence of life through evolution violates that rather severely. So if you'd prefer to keep the argument scientific, please explain to me how the theory of evolution should trump the second law of thermodynamics."


Incredible. I can't believe you even wrote this. The fact that you would even trot this item out, a favorite of creationists, seems to confirm that you have been doing a bit too much reading of ID texts and not enough basic thinking.

The simple answer is that the earth is not a closed system. The energy provided by the sun essentially powers all life on earth even to this day and provides plenty of energy to allow for ongoing life and evolution.

The fact that proponents of ID keep bringing up this sort of idea is exactly why it's hard to trust anything they say, even if they bring up a good point here and there.

Basically, it boils down to this. A scientist says, "I can't explain this. I better keep looking for an answer." An ID person says, "I can't explain this. It must be God." That's a huge difference.

As to ID slowing down scientific advances, I might add that many believe that the restrictive views of the belief systems of both Islam and Confuscism both strongly contributed to the decline of the economic and scientific supremacy of the Middle East and China, both of which were far ahead of Europe 1000 years ago.

8:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well leave it to the engineer-turned-economist to toss around a little engineering pals were yacking about Adam Smith the other day and we had to call in a geologist to set them straight.

The question should be broken down to a greater granularity.
1. Should ID be taught in the PUBLIC schools? (Well the story of the resurrection hasn't been, but lots of people seem to know a bit about it.)
2. Is ID any more worthy of school time than is pure Evolution or Creationism?

You call this stuff science? Why not call economics a science while your at it?

Short Answer to key question: Less ID/Creationism/Evolution, more math.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Hatcher said...

Funny Vic, I never knew about the 2nd law argument until i did read an article recently bringing it up. Here is the link:

He talks about the open system counter-argument.

Also, Vic, what scientist in this case is saying "I can't explain this"? They can explain it, they just cannot prove it, perhaps only for reasons of a severe lack of data.

As for your last comments, I totally agree that a religious view that bars science from importance can have material affects. But here is a question: if there is no ghost in the machine, why should we care? Or, to put another way, isn't our caring just a peculiar natural phenonomen that has no value content?

Also, science unrestrained can lead to armageddon at the push of a button (in some cases it may be religious dementia that leads one to push it, albeit).

Here are a couple of paragraphs from that article:

Anyone who has made such an argument is familiar with the standard reply: the Earth is an open system, it receives energy from the sun, and order can increase in an open system, as long as it is "compensated" somehow by a comparable or greater decrease outside the system. S. Angrist and L. Hepler, for example, in Order and Chaos (Basic Books, 1967), write, "In a certain sense the development of civilization may appear contradictory to the second law.... Even though society can effect local reductions in entropy, the general and universal trend of entropy increase easily swamps the anomalous but important efforts of civilized man. Each localized, man-made or machine-made entropy decrease is accompanied by a greater increase in entropy of the surroundings, thereby maintaining the required increase in total entropy."

According to this reasoning, then, the second law does not prevent scrap metal from reorganizing itself into a computer in one room, as long as two computers in the next room are rusting into scrap metal -- and the door is open. In Appendix D of my new book, The Numerical Solution of Ordinary and Partial Differential Equations, second edition, (John Wiley & Sons, 2005) I take a closer look at the equation for entropy change, which applies not only to thermal entropy but also to the entropy associated with anything else that diffuses, and show that it does not simply say that order cannot increase in a closed system. It also says that in an open system, order cannot increase faster than it is imported through the boundary. According to this equation, the thermal order in an open system can decrease in two different ways -- it can be converted to disorder, or it can be exported through the boundary. It can increase in only one way: by importation through the boundary. Similarly, the increase in "carbon order" in an open system cannot be greater than the carbon order imported through the boundary, and the increase in "chromium order" cannot be greater than the chromium order imported through the boundary, and so on.

In these simple examples, I assumed nothing but heat conduction or diffusion was going on, but for more general situations, I offered the tautology that "if an increase in order is extremely improbable when a system is closed, it is still extremely improbable when the system is open, unless something is entering which makes it not extremely improbable." The fact that order is disappearing in the next room does not make it any easier for computers to appear in our room -- unless this order is disappearing into our room, and then only if it is a type of order that makes the appearance of computers not extremely improbable, for example, computers. Importing thermal order will make the temperature distribution less random, and importing carbon order will make the carbon distribution less random, but neither makes the formation of computers more probable.

What happens in a closed system depends on the initial conditions; what happens in an open system depends on the boundary conditions as well. As I wrote in "Can ANYTHING Happen in an Open System?" (The Mathematical Intelligencer 23, number 4, 8-10, 2001), "order can increase in an open system, not because the laws of probability are suspended when the door is open, but simply because order may walk in through the door.... If we found evidence that DNA, auto parts, computer chips, and books entered through the Earth's atmosphere at some time in the past, then perhaps the appearance of humans, cars, computers, and encyclopedias on a previously barren planet could be explained without postulating a violation of the second law here (it would have been violated somewhere else!). But if all we see entering is radiation and meteorite fragments, it seems clear that what is entering through the boundary cannot explain the increase in order observed here."

THE EVOLUTIONIST, therefore, cannot avoid the question of probability by saying that anything can happen in an open system, he is finally forced to argue that it only seems extremely improbable, but really isn't, that atoms would rearrange themselves into spaceships and computers and TV sets.

10:48 AM  
Blogger pbryon said...

Evolution is not economically irrelevant. See the boatloads of money being spent every year to protect us from evolving variants of influenza and bacteria that are developing resistance to antibiotics.

For those who believe in both evolution and ID--where does God's work stop, and when does evolution begin? Did God create the first influenza virus, and everything else has happened from there? Or did God create H5N1? When does God step back in? Is punctuated equillibrium "proof" of God stepping in several times?

I sometimes wonder where the first bits of energy, atoms, particles, etc. came from, but after that I'm for evolution. That being said, I'm OK with teaching the evolution controversy, but not in science class. The beauty of the Dover judge's ruling is that he laid out in very clear terms, that ID is not science.

12:15 PM  
Blogger Hatcher said...

I think that it is best to describe ID as an inference made based upon an understanding of the available data. Often derided as a "God of the gaps", as an inference it is no more or less scientific than an "evolution of the gaps." But insofar as it may present unique challenges to the theory of evolution, at least those challenges make for interesting scientific material, even if the inference does not necessarily follow. My bet is that the non-scientific inferences about the truth of evolution is offered up as essentially unchallenged in high school classes.

12:39 PM  
Blogger pbryon said...

What are the "non-scientific inferences about the truth of evolution?"

What I've always been taught--and I had a short-lived tenure in an Ecology and Evolution PhD program--is that "This is what we believe, based on what we know, from these repeatable scientific observations and repeatable experiments."

1:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Was Chartreuse the byproduct of Evolution or Inteligent Design? Who can say?

3:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I don't know what in the hell made me relate broke back mtn to intelligent design- I shouldn't post after a long day.

I am not a biologist, but a small correction is in order. Evolution is a fact, not a theory. Evolution asserts that a gene changes its frequency in a population (this is what I learned in my college biology class). This happens. The frequency of genes does not remain constant.

Natural selection (or the origin fo the species) is a theory. It's a pretty good theory, I think, as theories go, but doesn't explain everything.

The question is, then, should ID be taught in the schools. Personally, I think that a good working definition of science is something that can survive the peer review process in a scientific journal.

While ID might be appropriate for a social studies class or a religion course, it is not appropriate for a science course since it does not survive the usual tests applied to a theory. There is no meaningful evidence in favor of this theory. At the end of the day, I trust scientists at accredited universities to teach science more than people who want to discredit scientific ideas in order to favor our modern superstitions (e.g. Christianity).

Personally, I think that ID is creationism recooked. The level of appreciation for science in this country is truly disturbing to begin with. The fact that the right wing of our country want religion, masked in the form of intelligent design inserted into the science curriculum of the public schools is extremely sad.

You probably don't mix with these folks, but there are many people in this country who do not accept the basic biology. I come from a very poor, rural area. While you somewhat scoff at people who try to teach science in your article, I think they serve an important role.

At X-Mas, my little cousins told me in Sunday school how they were told that the theory of evolution was false, and that God made the world a few thousand years ago. Furthermore, there were no such things as dinosaurs. If their science teachers don't take a stand against this nonsense, who will?

This reminded me of the following article from the Onion (I am sure, Hatcher, that you are not this extreme, but it was funny):

Creationist Museum Acquires 5,000-Year-Old T. Rex Skeleton
January 15, 2003 | Issue 39•01

TULSA, OK—In a major coup for the growing field of creation science, the perfectly preserved remains of a 5,000-year-old Tyrannosaurus Rex were delivered Monday to Tulsa's Creationist Museum of Natural History.

Methuselah stands on display at the Creationist Museum of Natural History.
"The Good Lord has, in His benevolence, led us to an important breakthrough for scientific inquiry," Creationist Museum of Natural History curator Dr. Elijah Gill said. "Our museum has many valuable and exciting exhibits that testify to Creation and shine light on the Lord's divine plan. But none have been as exciting—or anywhere near as old—as this new T. Rex specimen named 'Methuselah.' This skeleton, which dates back to roughly 3,000 B.C., offers the most compelling proof yet that the Earth was made by God roughly 10,000 years ago."

Added Gill: "It's awe-inspiring to gaze on something that actually lived here on Earth, so very many years ago."

Methuselah was discovered last summer in northern Turkey by a team of Oral Roberts University archaeologists, who were on a dig searching for the Tower of Babel. According to Gill, the skeleton, which stands nearly 20 feet tall, possesses terrifying, razor-sharp teeth and claws, confirming that it was an evil beast in league with Satan, the Great Deceiver.

Using advanced dating processes from the cutting edge of biblical paleontology, the Oral Roberts team determined that Methuselah lived during the late Antediluvian period, or "The Age of the Dinosaurs." They said the pristine condition of the find strongly suggests that it perished in the Great Flood, fossilizing quickly and thoroughly due to the tremendous water pressure during the event.

"It was a truly majestic beast," said Gill, gazing up at the massive skeleton. "One almost has to mourn that there was no room for it on the Ark."

Gill called the discovery "a powerfully compelling refutation" of secular scientists' long-held assertion that dinosaurs lived on Earth millions of years before humans.

"The fact that no human remains were found anywhere in the vicinity of the site of the skeleton serves as proof of the tyrannosaur's ferocity and huge appetite," Gill said.

"At most," he added, "tyrannosaurs existed a few days before the first humans, given that the birds and the beasts were created early in the week, and Adam and Eve were made on the sixth day."

Founded in 1874, the Creationist Museum of Natural History has amassed a collection of thousands of exhibits from around the world demonstrating that the Earth was made by the hand of a Divine Creator over the course of a week, roughly 10,000 years ago. Among its most prized exhibits are a trilobite believed to have lived during the Jewish Exodus and a stunning specimen of "Java Gibbon."

Methuselah has caused such a stir that even supporters of evolutionary science have found themselves caught up in "T. Rex Fever." Christopher Eldridge, director of New York's Museum of Natural History, raved that the acquisition was "absolutely inconceivable" and "not to be believed." Dr. Harmon Briggs, a Smithsonian Institution paleobiologist, gushed in a phone interview that the discovery of the 5,000-year-old beast was "mind-boggling" and "in defiance of all the human senses."

Said Gill: "I have even received an exciting letter from a paleontologist at UCLA asserting that Methuselah could be even older than 5,000 years. Who knows, it might even date back to the Sixth Day of Creation."

The T. Rex skeleton will be on public display at the museum beginning Feb. 3. Conversions will be performed every two hours at the museum's baptismal font, located in the Apologetics wing.

Take care buddy,


7:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can't you go back to writing about really cool bars?

4:21 AM  
Anonymous Jim O said...

Why are you presupposing that the emergence of life constitutes an INCREASE in order of the system?

I don't know about you, but there is very little order in my life

6:53 AM  

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