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September 29, 2004 7:54 PM   Subscribe

The Crusade Against Evolution. How the next generation of "creation science" is invading America's classrooms, and peer reviewed biology journals. [Via The Panda's Thumb.]
posted by homunculus (83 comments total)

 
Meanwhile, U.S. lags in stem cell research.
posted by homunculus at 8:00 PM on September 29, 2004


Now see, here is a topic where I cannot muster any defense whatsoever of the theists and their fellow-travelers pushing ID. In fact, if I write anything more, I'm likely to get downright nastily intolerant.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:06 PM on September 29, 2004


But I'll say that I highly recommend the blog The Panda's Thumb for keeping on eye on these matters.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:09 PM on September 29, 2004


Crusade against evolution? Count me in.

I'm sick of all this evolving. Yesterday I saw a child of no more than nine growing a prehensile tail. Where does it all end?
posted by jonmc at 8:31 PM on September 29, 2004


Yesterday I saw a child of no more than nine growing a prehensile tail.

Is this him?
posted by homunculus at 8:38 PM on September 29, 2004


"These are compelling times we live in. Around the world, wars are being fueled by fundamentalist adherence to ancient creeds. Here in the United States, where religious fervor has in many ways never been stronger, creationism still finds its way into some classrooms, and biblically accurate creation theme parks are built, with scripture accompanying dinosaur-bone displays. And yet all the while, the United States government is allotting millions of dollars each year to the global endeavor of piecing together from an ever-growing body of evidence the actual story of creation."
posted by homunculus at 8:42 PM on September 29, 2004


If you need more here's where I go for my daily dose of spurious science.

They should add it to the new junk science marketing campaign at consumerfreedom.
(for which I have lost all respect for the actor who formerly played Seinfeld's "soup nazi")
posted by milovoo at 8:44 PM on September 29, 2004


I'll take over then, EB. *Ahem* People who claim that religion is a private matter should pay attention here. The problem with believing in a book, a bible if you will, without relying on empirical evidence is that new empirical evidence keeps popping up. And it's naive to assume that once empirical evidence is uncovered, the religious belief it contradicts will disappear. A more common outcome, throughout history, has been for the religious to abuse positions of authority to temporarily halt or roll back scientific progress which it considered 'heretical', of which the current debates over creationism (err, I mean Intelligent Design) and stem cell research are only the two most prominent current examples.
posted by boaz at 8:47 PM on September 29, 2004


Intelligent Design is old hat. All the hip new fundamentalists are all about Intelligent Grappling.
posted by majcher at 8:48 PM on September 29, 2004


I don't think intelligent design can explain the elephant. However, this can.
posted by jb at 8:55 PM on September 29, 2004


"As a friend of mine said, it takes a half a second for a baby to throw up all over your sweater. It takes hours to get it clean."

Exactly. Babies. Like Freepers, but putatively educated ones who are smart enough to realize how badly they come off when they thump bibles in the classroom.

I was going to trot out something Roland Barthes had to say about stupidity being an indivisible kernel, but I came across this pair of customer reviews, which made me laugh, eh.
posted by trondant at 9:18 PM on September 29, 2004


I do feel like making a little fun.

For as long as I can remember, creationists have been using the example of the mammalian "eye" to "prove" design. It's so perfect, it's so interdependent, it couldn't possible have evolved, they claim. Here's the thing: the blind spot. What kind of stupid designer would put the optic nerve inside the eye, thus causing a blind spot that's "fixed" with a perceptual kluge? The octopus doesn't have that flaw. Why do we? What good reason can there be? And, really, do we need a reason if, as is claimed, the argument for design is that all this stuff is made "too well" to be an accident? I mean, what they're saying is that stuff is "designed" well enough not to be an accident, but not even as well as, you know, a non-deity human being would do it. Which leads me to conclude that their definition of "too complex, interdependent, perfect (or whatever) to be an accident" is either self-serving, or merely an anthropocentric cognitive artifact.

Yeah, you've all heard this before. But it was worth mentioning again.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:23 PM on September 29, 2004


I have a theory I like to call "Stupid Design." If the human body was deliberately designed, it was done quite poorly. A first-year engineering student could do better. With only two eyes in the front of the head, we see less than half of our surroundings at any one time. Yes, depth perception is nice, but you could have depth perception and 360° vision with 4-6 eyes spaced around the head. People have all kinds of trouble with their backs...who the heck builds an upright structure with only one supporting column? No redundancy for the heart, one of the most vital organs in the body. And WTF is the appendix doing there?

So I hypothesize that the human body was deliberately designed, but by some being with the intelligence of a below-average ten-year-old. I trust that no one will mind if I insist Stupid Design be taught in the classrooms along with Intelligent Design, since there is at least as much evidence for SD as there is for ID.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:33 PM on September 29, 2004


I always thought the kidney and the circulatory system were cooler, but that's neither here nor there. A more common point is the spine. If one were designing an upright animal from scratch, one would put the spine in the center so that the weight would be evenly balanced around it, and you'd just need muscles to lean in different directions. On the other hand, if one were retrofitting an upright animal from a four-legged animal, you'd be stuck with a spine in the back and be forced to add a ton of muscle around the abdominal region in order to hold it vertical, which requires extra energy and reduces flexibility. Guess which one our not-so-intelligent designer chose.

On preview: or what DA said.
posted by boaz at 9:35 PM on September 29, 2004


I love the awesome either/or fallacy that goes on here. Argument A has holes (see me drive my wedge!) so Argument B must be true. There's no evidence given for argument B other than "there's no way that much could get done in X years!"

Also, I have to call bullshit on that Glider guy's statement that all information is hierarchical. Just because he's wrapped his mind around that philosophy doesn't mean it's true.
posted by mikeh at 9:40 PM on September 29, 2004


Hey, the baby with the tail, the creationists are already all over that one.
posted by shepd at 9:54 PM on September 29, 2004


Religious extremism does seem to be the "new hotness" nowadays.
posted by clevershark at 9:55 PM on September 29, 2004


DA - check out the link in my comment above. You probably have already seen it (it's classic) - either way I think you might enjoy it. But your name has more Omph.
posted by jb at 9:57 PM on September 29, 2004


Pro-creationists are just evolution in progress. Those who don't believe in science will die out over time and we'll be left better for that fact.

Think of it this way: For us to lose the ability to eat grass all day and survive on it, some dumb monkeys had to do that all day and die out. The smart ones are still about! Woohoo!
posted by shepd at 10:01 PM on September 29, 2004


I've actually got the Wired magazine in question right next to me, but I've been afraid to read that article because of the general irateness I feel when hearing of complete idiots discussing science. Now that I hear George Gilder is quoted I'm doubly afraid; that guy's like the philosopher king of idiots.

His main claims to fame were non-ironically referring to himself as a "futurist" and being able to explain technology in a simple enough fashion that even Newt Gingrich could understand. The only problem was that his 'explanations' were inevitably nothing more than strewn-together buzzwords mixed with woefully simplistic assertions, usually in service of some utterly ridiculous point. As such, I can pretty much assume what side of this argument he's on; there's no way a real empiricist would even ask Gilder to discover the time of day.
posted by boaz at 10:17 PM on September 29, 2004


".....Embarrassed, the journal's publisher backs away from the work. But it's too late for that. The press has gotten involved, and though the work in question has been discredited in the world of science, partisans who favor its conclusions for ideological reasons will champion it for years to come.

The scientific waters are muddied. The damage is done." - Homunculus, this is a great cover of the issue.

"I hypothesize that the human body was deliberately designed, but by some being with the intelligence of a below-average ten-year-old." - Stupid design, eh? I like it.

"....A more common point is the spine. If one were designing an upright animal from scratch, one would put the spine in the center so that the weight would be evenly balanced around it, and you'd just need muscles to lean in different directions." - boaz, yup - and to take it further, why not redundancies of the most critical human organs, like the Heart, or the Brain? Human have some redundant organs, like the Kidneys or the Lungs (legs, buttocks, feet, hands, arms, and eyes - I suppose) but no redundancies with the most critical organs.

Maybe God just wanted to prevent us from getting too uppity.
posted by troutfishing at 10:26 PM on September 29, 2004


Now that I hear George Gilder is quoted I'm doubly afraid; that guy's like the philosopher king of idiots.

You are not alone.
posted by homunculus at 10:28 PM on September 29, 2004


Also, the whole ID gambit sums up a new approach which holds that beliefs can be validated through political success.

So - for example - if one wishes to make the Earth flat, all that is necessary is to start a movement, vested in the language of science (if not science per se), which eventually gains the political upper hand.

Then, the topology of the Earth then distorts to comply with majority belief, and presto! - a flat Earth !
posted by troutfishing at 10:34 PM on September 29, 2004


Oh - and I think the apt Machiavellian designation, for the likes of George Gilder, is "useful idiot".
posted by troutfishing at 10:43 PM on September 29, 2004


...a new approach which holds that beliefs can be validated through political success.

Um, that's not a new approach.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:54 PM on September 29, 2004


The truly intelligent designer would save himself a lot of effort and create a system that develops on its own.
posted by wobh at 10:56 PM on September 29, 2004


The issue I take with this thread is the same one I always have with the "evolution version creationism" story. Since it is practically always framed, on the ground, in the context of a public-school curriculum, the multiplicity of knowledge becomes veiled and unconscious.

I believe there is a problem with teaching intelligent design in public schools, for the very reason that scientific consensus is a public and secular consensus with secular purposes. I think that for the most part we teach the theories and methods of science in public schools because they are all concerned with publicly verifiable knowledge. That makes sense to teach in an institution with a public to serve.

I suppose any kind of proponent of introducing methods or theories incompatible with this public mode is fair game for attack; the Discovery people themselves seem to me to invite it through their own mode.

However! (I was getting to this) It is important to keep in mind that it is not an either-or question in the non-public sphere. That is where most of life occurs, after all. Just as I have a public face and other, multiple, and some un-accounted-for facets, as a complex human being in an ultimately unknowable Universe, am known only to you now, as gomez, the "knowledge" of science is just one knowledge among many.

It is simplistic and incorrect thought that insists on one way of knowing.
posted by gomez at 11:16 PM on September 29, 2004


EB - by "validate", I meant to suggest "change the ground rules of known physics". This impulse may be uniquely American - that all of reality can be reshaped through the power of belief.
posted by troutfishing at 11:18 PM on September 29, 2004


This impulse may be uniquely American - that all of reality can be reshaped through the power of belief.

You're kidding me, right? :) This is a human impulse.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:29 PM on September 29, 2004


Does George Bush even know what science is? A new political advocacy organization, Scientists and Engineers for Change, is pretty sure the answer is no. And so they're going on the warpath.
posted by homunculus at 11:31 PM on September 29, 2004


EB - I suppose you're right, but there is usually are cultural and religious contexts, for this notion, which limit the supposed powers of belief.

But, in the uniquely amok American style, belief can render even the Earth flat as a pancake.
posted by troutfishing at 11:46 PM on September 29, 2004


The debate in its current form should be over now, or soon for people who actually keep up with science. We are now sequencing the genomes of virtually everything. If you look at specific genes which are common to broad swaths of life, you can find "evolutionary clocks." A somewhat simplistlc approach to this is looking at the frequencies of synonymous codons. When a gene is transcribed into a protein, it uses a mapping between three letter codes and amino acids. Some amino acids can be formed by multiple three letter codes. For example, Alanine is GC?, where ? is anything. In a protein that takes alanine, suppose the gene had the code GCA. Now, we mutate that to GCC. To the organism, this makes virtually no difference, because GCC and GCA code for the same amino acid, and thus, the same protein will be made. When two species diverge, the diverging species will have a unique set of these mutations, and the mutations will continue in the new organism, but separate mutations will occur in the population of the old organism. Through statistics we can use this, and similar techniques to map the tree of life. The unanswerable question to creationists is why say, a hemoglobin gene would show this pattern through the tree of species. If god created all the species at once, or even at different times, it would be logical that he would have created them all with the same gene, not one that we can clearly see changing as the species branch off.
posted by cameldrv at 12:00 AM on September 30, 2004


That research is interesting (My uncle's actually involved tangentially in it), but it doesn't solve the central dilemma of ID: that assuming only an intelligent designer, any design is possible. While it may 'make sense' that a designer would use the same gene for all his creations, it's not required by any means, and an ID proponent sure wouldn't admit that this is a valid experimental test of ID.

The real problem with ID is that because any design is possible, it doesn't tell us anything about how the world works. It just claims that, whatever we observe, however it looks, it's 'intelligent design'. It's a tautology masquerading as a theory.
posted by boaz at 12:27 AM on September 30, 2004


I think it's healthy that a creationism article or two gets snuck into the scientific literature once in a while and stirs things up. This kind of thing keeps science fresh and might help to win some people over from the dumb side. The worse thing would be that the creationists are left isolated and unengaged with the rest of us.
posted by shoos at 12:35 AM on September 30, 2004


From Gilder's "rebuttal":

It is a process subject to the mathematical theory of information, which shows that even mutations occurring in cells at the gigahertz pace of a Pentium 4 and selected at the rate of a Google search couldn't beget the intricate interwoven fabric of structure and function of a human being in such a short amount of time.

Such a human perspective that vastly underestimates the potential magnitude of, in a human conceit, the massive parallel processing involved in the evolutionary process.

In a world of science that still falls short of a rigorous theory of human consciousness or of the big bang, intelligent design theory begins by recognizing that everywhere in nature, information is hierarchical and precedes its embodiment. The concept precedes the concrete.

I don't know about you, but it's the ideas of scientists and not of Plato that have built me my microwave. What can intelligent design "build" for me, other than a framework of agnostic uncertainty? While he's busy praying to God to find where "information" existed before it'd been "embodied" in our world, I'm going to go nuke me a burrito. Does that makes me a materialist?
posted by DaShiv at 1:30 AM on September 30, 2004


The problem is the inherent fascism of "ID theory" or known as, in another time, "Creationism". There is no room for falsifiable, give and take science to take root. It gets shoved out of the way to make room for the charlatanry of expedience.

Science of course, does not work that way. Science takes a dedication to soporific measurements and observations. ID's paramount observation has already been made -- God exists. Everything proves it.

Whereas, nothing could be further from the truth.

While science builds its case through progress, fundamentalism sees itself as being eroded. It truly is a figment of the imagination.

Could this be perhaps the ultimate wedge issue?
posted by crasspastor at 2:35 AM on September 30, 2004


I’m not sure I like the idea of conflating those who accept or accept the possibility of some form of intelligent design with creationists; even if those who argue for intelligent design also accept creationism that would not be safe grounding on which to reject their arguments for intelligent design itself. If we are to accept that Darwinism is for some reason unfeasible this doesn’t leave us subject to belief in the Old Testament.

So, basically, the ties of intelligent design to creationism and the use of the term “crusade” in the article title would seem to be intentionally attacking a weaker position. To refute intelligent design is to refute creationism, but the reverse is not quite so easy.
posted by ed\26h at 4:01 AM on September 30, 2004


i probably shouldn't chime in here. i'll probably get masaquered. but i can't stop myself. are you all willing to give a hearing to the views of someone who believes in creation in this thread? or will you just say i'm dumb? (by 'give a hearing' i don't mean 'consider changing your beliefs'. i just mean something like 'allow their expression in a civil way'.)

is anyone here willing to consider that some of these people might be intelligent, decent folks? i know most of you are intelligent, decent folks. but it's hard to remember that when you are vilifying us. i know many creation-believers vilify you, too, and that prompts some of the animosity. that's a problem. they shouldn't do that.

part of the ID strategy to get a hearing can be described as political, because the review process (eg, article publication) and the authentication process (eg, tenure, membership in the NAS), at least, are political. science is peer-reviewed but science education is mandated by the electorate. they should have a say. that makes the process political, at least technically.

gomez' argument is intriguing. i agree that most of life occurs in the non-public sphere. and this is critical to knowledge. it's so critical that we can't leave it just in the non-public sphere. for example, where will values come from? they're not publicly verifiable, strictly speaking. do we want public education without values?

if ID is 'a tautology masquerading as a theory', so is evolution. the study of evolution is retroactive by its very nature. it cannot predict anything significant that hasn't already been played out, since we haven't had the theory that long and it's a long-time-type process.

i have more to say, but i think i'll stop there and see how this goes.
posted by Sean Meade at 5:21 AM on September 30, 2004


I'm sorry to say it Sean, but if you're in favour of teaching ID in science lessons alongside evolution, then yes, you're dumb.

The scientific method goes something like this: Observe facts; make hypothesis; make predictions based on hypothesis; test hypothesis; revise or junk hypothesis based on tests; start over. Evolution is not known to be absolutely 100% correct. However, it fits the available data better than any other theory, and is constantly subject to revision as we learn more about the universe in which we live.

Intelligent design falls outside this method. It starts off with a conclusion and attempts to work backwards. It is nothing more than an attempt to describe creationism in scientific terms, to muddy the waters and confuse people who don't fully understand the scientific method. It can teach us nothing, make no verifiable predictions and is not subject to the same rigourous self-examination that all scientific theories are subject to.

In short ID has no place in the science classroom.
posted by salmacis at 6:03 AM on September 30, 2004


Sean Meade - I think that's the worst you're going to get from this crowd. As for your argument itself:

".....the study of evolution is retroactive by its very nature. it cannot predict anything significant that hasn't already been played out." - Read Cameldrv's excellent comment above.

"....When two species diverge, the diverging species will have a unique set of these mutations, and the mutations will continue in the new organism, but separate mutations will occur in the population of the old organism. Through statistics we can use this, and similar techniques to map the tree of life. The unanswerable question to creationists is why say, a hemoglobin gene would show this pattern through the tree of species. If god created all the species at once, or even at different times, it would be logical that he would have created them all with the same gene, not one that we can clearly see changing as the species branch off.
"


No, we can't rerun the clock on Evolution, but these "molecular clocks" supports Evolutionary theory quite precisely while refuting, in general, Creationist notions.

"....science education is mandated by the electorate. they should have a say. that makes the process political, at least technically." Aren't you taking on a position that those on the American Right used to level at the vilified "Liberals", that they were relativists ? You seem to be teetering on the edge of saying that scientific truth can be politically determined. You might want to read about the history of Lysenkoism, which is a great cautionary tale against such thinking.

There's a reason why there's close to 0 legitimate scientific research done into creationist theory, and if there is any validity to the Creationist claims of American evangelicals then why not the many thousands of unique (and often wildly contradictory) creation mythologies currently, or once held by varying cultures around the globe?

If Christians want to make me take their creationism notions seriously, they will have to somehow (in violation, it seems to me, of an extremely extensive body of current scientific research that both works - has predictive power - and also, crucially, produces product - knowledge of Genomes, genetic modification therapies, etc.), they will need to start doing "Creationist" science which is truly predictive and which generates "product". And, in this I am NOT looking for the mere construction of parallel institutions that exist in a hermetically sealed vacuum and have been created solely for the purpose of advancing a creationist ideology so that they resemble nothing so much as Medieval cloisters full of theologians debating the capacity of pinheads to support dancing angels......no, I mean that the creationists will need to supply a creationist theory which is MORE predictive, generates BETTER product than current evolutionary science does and - so rightly - supplants the evolutionary paradigm and takes it's place as the new reigning explanatory mode.

That also implies, by the way, that the American creationists will have to empirically refute the several thousand creation mythologies which are both held currently and have been held throughout known human history. Hence : disprove the (divinely inspired) narratives from the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, and so on.

My brother, by the way, is a creationist - and thus he has taught his four children. I don't get into it anymore with him.

__________________

Gomez - I don't think most on this thread are opposed to your perspective, and if you dig a bit on Metafilter you'd dig up some commentary about scientific research into anomalous territory where empirical science intersects in strange ways, such as research that - apparently - seems to confirm the power of prayer (at a distance and for strangers, no less) and the fascinating work of PEAR (Google it, it's at Princeton).

"the "knowledge" of science is just one knowledge among many....." - Render unto Caesar, eh ? I tend to agree - with the caution that it's crucial to keep one's modes of knowledge in their proper places.

And so - when my car's axle-shaft starts to make a loud banging noise, I don't turn to magical thinking to address the problem. Instead, I buy a new axle shaft and get out my tool set or just take the car to a repair shop.

Strangely, too, this functional empiricism does leave plenty of room for the magical and the mystical, for (at least) the scientific explanation of reality is currently incomplete and probably always will be - or, in any event, will eventually exceed human comprehension and so come to look, to non-scientists and the great unwashed, more like theology and religion.

Or have we reached that point already ?
posted by troutfishing at 6:19 AM on September 30, 2004


The public should have a say in what science is or is not, since state government boards have seen fit to mandate it in public institution classrooms? What is that about? You lost me right there.


It's not so much college boards that require science anyway, as it is accreditation boards.
posted by raysmj at 6:20 AM on September 30, 2004


Evolutionist posits A. IDist refutes with B. Evolutionist counters with C. IDist responds with D.

Does the IDist realize that he/she is using evolution to argue against evolution? The simple fact that the new arguments arise is a form of evolution in itself. We see it all around us. Nothing is static.

Focus not solely on the physical form. The mere fact that we are using this on a computer that has evolved from a room-sized ENIAC is an indication that we all evolve in our abilities, understanding, philosophies, and perhaps even physical forms.

What about that study that showed Japanese teens using their thumbs in a different way due to cell-phone usage? That's a clear evolutionary change.
posted by Dantien at 6:21 AM on September 30, 2004


No better argument can be found for school choice. Local majorities will always heavily influence government school curricula, and currying to/placating noisy local minorities will certainly play a role, as well.

School choice secures to parents an "opt out" from the frequently unfortunate results of that political process, whether it's a 5-page state-mandated digression into intelligent design in a Texas biology texbook, or a Massachussets history textbook's determined equivocation of Manzanar and Auschwitz.
posted by MattD at 6:30 AM on September 30, 2004


If ID could tell us how to slip a coupla blueprints into the Inscrutable Immutable's In-Tray, that'd be cool. Cos, He could like, make all the Pokémon and shit.
posted by RokkitNite at 6:45 AM on September 30, 2004


Sean Meade - I'm not calling you dumb, and I have a high regard for the intelligence of many of my creationist relatives. I'm not challenging your intelligence at all. I'm suggesting that you have been hoodwinked - and that's only human. It's happened to me, and many times - I'd add.

That's the miracle of human existence. We have the free will to reexamine our beliefs and - finding them less than perfect descriptions of reality - change our minds and adopt new, more congruent beliefs.

_________________________



raysmj - I believe that to be a finely tuned populist argument (which I'm certain was not invented by Sean Meade) that has been crafted to advance the Creationist ideology - by way of the distracting sheen of it's eminently reasonable appearance.

But, stripping away that deceptive veneer, it is revealed to be this claim :

Scientific truths can be determined in the political sphere, through a political process - as happened in the case of Lysenkoist thoery in the Soviet Union (as mandated by Stalin).

And, the implication of this assertion is that it's proponents believe - like many American "New Agers" - that beliefs can - and do - change reality in fundamental ways and, hence, massed human belief can make the earth flat as a pancake. :

To take this claim to it's logical conclusion, if I were given a sufficiently large advertising budget, I could - literally - make the Earth FLAT by convincing enough people (a majority, I suppose?) that it was flat - and then, presumeably, the topology of the planet would re-form in accord with that new consensus.

______________

"What about that study that showed Japanese teens using their thumbs in a different way due to cell-phone usage? That's a clear evolutionary change." - Dantien, I believe that is a cultural change, not a genetic change. I will, of course, change my position should new research identify the appearance and gradual emergence (over 1 generation ?) of specific Japanese "cellphone-thumb" genes which are unique and demonstrably different from normal human "thumb genes".
posted by troutfishing at 6:51 AM on September 30, 2004


I find the scientific approach to creationism to be downright bizarre. For me, religious texts from any source and the stories they contain are metaphors that bring discussion about how we live with each other and what makes up our psyche (an extremely short summary.)

The moment you start trying to apply a scientific interpretation to metaphors is the moment you entirely miss the point. How can evolution be a denial of a metaphor? It seems that by taking literature and for some reason pretending that it's describing actual events is using sciene to obliterate the very meaning of the text. Symbolism and any other form of creative language is distorted.

Science isn't needed to validate whatever "meaning" may be in religious texts (or literature in general.) I believe these ID folks are doing everything they can to poison the worth of creationist stories by applying a model that doesn't work for such stories and is, indeed, irrelevant (beyond methods of study) to interpreting such texts.

Evolution and creationist literature can co-exist as long as neither pretends to be the other.
posted by juiceCake at 7:14 AM on September 30, 2004


I believe in evolution and science and that I evolve.

I believe that creationists do not evolve and are useful idiots.

How can one live today and take advantage of scientific achievements and deny the validity of scientific process at the same time?

There's that damn dissonance again! Time to recommend reading Michael Shermer (Why Smart People Believe Weird Things) and Carl Sagan (A Candle in the Darkness) to those who cannot accept valid scientific method and its results as opposed to faith based belief systems.

Raise your hand if you believe the earth is only 6,000 years old?
Or that dinosaurs did not exist, or that your electricity is magic, or that microwave ovens don't work, that the internet is "ether."
You have to accept it all or reject it all when it comes to scientific method and its results.
In the spirit of evolution this process allows for inadequate or faulty data and generally acceptable principles as a result of the method so the method is self correcting.
Can the fundies say that of creationism?
Why is this even still discussed?
posted by nofundy at 7:27 AM on September 30, 2004


I recently found a fascinating rebuttal of the famous "Watchmaker" argument, one that actually made me understand the incredible power of the "divine" rhetoric employed by creationists. Check out James Huber's wonderful site, and this page about The Watchmaker.

Here's a quote: "I expressed my conviction that the watch could not simply happen. There must be a Watchmaker. The manager (who took an interest when I began to raise my voice) was able to shed some light on the matter. "Sir, we receive these watches from corporate headquarters in Vermont. If you want to find the Watchmaker, you will have to contact them."
A very nice person at corporate headquarters was able to refer me to her contact at an import company, who referred me to his contact at a Far-Eastern manufacturing firm. Once I convinced him that I was not investigating his company's employment practices, he was kind enough to provide me with a description of their manufacturing process.
The watches were assembled by unskilled workers paid the equivalent of about two dollars a day. (For some reason my contact thought it was important to point out that this is nearly one-and-a-half times the local minimum wage.) The watch band, case, and face were injection molded in an automated process. The electronic portion of the watch was purchased in bulk from another company. . . .
The watch was the product of intelligent design and construction, but there was no single Watchmaker. The watch embodies the combined intelligence of countless entities over the course of millennia, from the geniuses who invented the semi-conductor, to the minuscule "intellect" of the silicon and quartz crystals, back to the Babylonian scribe who invented astronomy, and even the purely mechanical motions of the heavenly bodies that inspired him."

His argument goes on from there, and provides the most compelling and accessible counter-argument to "intelligent design" I've every read.
posted by mooncrow at 7:35 AM on September 30, 2004


From "The Junk Science of George W. Bush"
by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20040308&s=kennedy)


"Today, flat-earthers within the Bush Administration--aided by right-wing allies who have produced assorted hired guns and conservative think tanks to further their goals--are engaged in a campaign to suppress science that is arguably unmatched in the Western world since the Inquisition. Sometimes, rather than suppress good science, they simply order up their own. Meanwhile, the Bush White House is purging, censoring and blacklisting scientists and engineers whose work threatens the profits of the Administration's corporate paymasters or challenges the ideological underpinnings of their radical anti-environmental agenda. Indeed, so extreme is this campaign that more than sixty scientists, including Nobel laureates and medical experts, released a statement on February 18 that accuses the Bush Administration of deliberately distorting scientific fact "for partisan political ends."


Also, from The Guardian, Thursday April 10, 2003

The battle for American science


"Welcome to the new battlegrounds of American science. No conspiracy, nor even one political agenda, links the incidents above. But US scientists say they are indicative of a new climate that has emerged under the Bush administration: one driven partly by close relationships with big business, but just as much by a fiercely moral approach to the business of science. The approach is not exclusively religious, nor exclusively rightwing, but is spreading worry as never before through the nation's laboratories and lecture halls.

As prescient observers of the events north of Atlanta last year realised, these aren't the old wars of science versus religion. The new assaults on the conventional wisdom frame themselves, without exception, as scientific theories, no less deserving of a hearing than any other. Proponents of ID - using a strategy previously unheard of among anti-Darwinists - grant almost all the premises of evolution (the idea that species develop; that the world wasn't necessarily created in seven days) in order to better attack it.

"It's not that I don't think Darwinian evolution can't explain anything," says Professor Michael Behe of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, the movement's foremost academic advocate, when asked how he accounts for the very visible evolution of, say, viruses. "It's just that I don't think it can explain everything. Bacterial resistance to antibiotics, for example, is one of the things it can explain."

Similarly, the White House's strategy on global warming is not to scoff at the scientific establishment's warnings on climate change. Rather, it trumpets the importance of their research activities and calls for even more research - years more, in fact - before any action is taken. In the same fashion, one of the most popular arguments currently circulating on anti-condom websites claims not that they encourage promiscuity but that they can't protect against HIV. The reason, it argues, is because the virus is 0.1 microns in diameter, while there are tiny pores in latex measuring 10 microns. (There is no evidence for this.)"

posted by acrobat at 7:46 AM on September 30, 2004


Some Creationists deny that the Earth rotates around the Sun. It's the opposite, they say - It's in the Bible~!
posted by troutfishing at 7:51 AM on September 30, 2004


It's such a shame that it's the fundamentalists who get all the attention and disproportionate power. As Yeats wrote, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." The moderates need to stand up and take God back from the wackos.
posted by callmejay at 8:06 AM on September 30, 2004


Dantien:

I think you may have equivocated on the term “evolution”. Primarily using it in the biological sense which relates to Darwinism and is opposed by Creationism; and moving to a much more broad meaning later in the post relating to a general alteration to suit or work more efficiently within respective environments. Intelligent Designism does not hold that nothing evolves in any sense of the word, just that life does not evolve* in the sense that evolutionists assert.

* = In fact, I don’t see why Intelligent Design arguments (but not Creationist ones) cannot be perfectly consistent with the Darwinist idea of evolution, but for the sake of argument I’m not going to raise this just now.
posted by ed\26h at 8:07 AM on September 30, 2004


is anyone here willing to consider that some of these people might be intelligent, decent folks?

I certainly believe that many laypeople who, not having looked too deeply at the evidence, do not believe in evolution are intelligent, decent folks.

I find it very difficult (and that's putting it nicely) to conceive that anyone who, after looking at the evidence in detail, does not at the very least acknowledge that evolution is the most likely explanation for what is observed, is both intelligent and decent.

it cannot predict anything significant that hasn't already been played out, since we haven't had the theory that long and it's a long-time-type process.

On the contrary; the time between successive generations of some bacteria, under ideal conditions, is only 40 minutes. A year is in excess of 10,000 generations of bacteria. Evolution predicts that the widespread use of antibiotics will lead to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and guess what one of the major new health care problems of the last 10 or 20 years is.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:26 AM on September 30, 2004


"It's not that I don't think Darwinian evolution can't explain anything," says Professor Michael Behe of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, the movement's foremost academic advocate, when asked how he accounts for the very visible evolution of, say, viruses. "It's just that I don't think it can explain everything."

However, that doesn't mean that anyone can explain it at this point. The great thing about science is that the process of discovery reveals how much you don't actually know, not that there's a complete start-to-finish set of specifications. I can't think of any scientific field that doesn't have deep questions at the root. That's the point of science, to explore that edge of knowledge and try to find something beyond. No theory has explained "everything."

If anything, that's the problem with Intelligent Design: it purports to answer the very last question, and assumes that all of science is rushing toward that answer. There have been a lot of theories that push the boundaries, but none have been this... total? If anything, that's the problem: it's not presented as a theory, but as a final answer.
posted by mikeh at 8:33 AM on September 30, 2004


mooncrow: You might like to check also Richard Dawkins' book "The blind Watchmaker"
posted by acrobat at 8:34 AM on September 30, 2004


ed/26h: Now, I find this very interesting. Thanks! Good, tasty food for thought.
posted by acrobat at 8:39 AM on September 30, 2004


I loved this post so much, I created a followup post, a tribute of sorts - with some more historical backdrop. Enjoy.

"Just for the record, do you believe the Sun goes around the Earth or the Earth goes around the sun?" : Ages before "Intelligent Design", a bold PaleoCreationist pseudoscientific gobbledygook - embodied by Tom Willis, Creationism's man in Kansas and head of the Mid Atlantic Creation Research Society - strode the Earth. The AAAS dissected the mess in "Lions, Tigers and APES, Oh My! ; Creationism vs. Evolution in Kansas" ( Google cache) and one writer concluded : "The War between the creationists and the public schools is over. The creationists appear to have won" : now, in a Kansas that's scientifically proven flatter than a pancake, Mona Lisa is as happy as a clam, and Kissing Frank's ass and appeals to mysterious watchmakers predominate, while on the national stage, God is a real estate developer.

Meanwhile, a new group proposes better zoning bylaws : Scientists and Engineers for Change
posted by troutfishing at 9:42 AM on September 30, 2004


Sean Meade - thanks for offering yourself up here as the token sacrificial beast on the altar of "we make fun of creationists day" here at metafilter.

here's my problem with it. ID (the "new creationism") is the absence of an argument. people who believe it say "the universe is this way because god made it". the absence of argument is that anything opposing this idea is wrong, thus no debate, thus no rebuttal. they attempt to prove this by taking on the most well-accepted theory (natural selection) and by poking holes in the theory, they assume that we will accept their alternative. they say "this is black, because we have proven it is not white". they ignore the fact that green, blue, yellow, etc. are also not white - but they're not black, either. they don't talk about any other alternatives, because their absense of argument does not allow for alternatives - god created all, end of story.

science works by eliminating as many alternatives as possible. the only goal is to explain the world by proving all other explanations are insufficient.

some problems with creationism: first, evolution is not a theory. it is a fact. organisms evolve. gene frequencies in populations change over time. new genes appear. unsuccesful organisms have fewer offspring. unsuccessful species are driven to extinction (largely by us these days).

natural selection is the currently accepted theory explaining to the best of our knowledge how evolution occurs. darwin did not come up with the idea to poke holes in religion, he came up with the idea as an alternative explanation for the then-common idea that god made all. by darwin's time, many, many people had already challenged the idea that the world was static and unchanging - lamarck, lyell, geologists, biologists, religious officials. evolution was an acceptable theory for all until alfred russell wallace - a contemporary of darwin - published his views that natural selection was incompatible with a belief in god-as-creator. darwin did not state this. wallace did. thus began the wedge between the ideologies. the religious denied evolution, by attacking the theory that explained the mechanism so well. we've largely forgotten this, and the average person today would likely tell you, if asked, that darwin invented evolution - a patently untrue misconception.

secondly, if ID is the way of the world, then the designer is either incredibly inefficient, vastly unoriginal, or a downright liar.

how many species have almost the exact same body plan? why do all vertebrates go through the same stages of development? why do we as embryos sport gills and a tail? why can i teach my students about human development by examining chicken or fish embryos? why is human and chimpanzee DNA 98% identical? why does the sequence of the small subunit protein of the ribosomal RNA of every living creature on the face of the planet map out to a beautifully logical succession of gradual change across species that very neatly matches the taxonomic predicitons of sicentists, who were mostly working out these taxonomic relationships well before sequencing protein or DNA was even possible? well, either the similarites are due to descent from common ancestors, or the designer keeps using the same plan over and over and over.

why does the fossil record match the natural selection predictions? why are we finding transitional forms exhibiting quite clearly the transitions of land animal to whale, or bipedal dinosaur to bird? why are there so many species that were apparently not "designed" well enough to survive into modern times, and are now present only as fossils? why can we find the remains of pre-human and early human hominids? why does all this pesky evidence of descent from common origins keep cropping up? well, again - either it's because evolution by natural selection is right, or because the creator quite bluntly keeps fucking with us by seeding the earth with false leads. so, ask yourself: do you believe what your eyes tell you, or do you believe that god is a liar who tries hard to trick people into condemning themselves to eternal damnation for the simple offense of believing the evidence He left lying around?

the other part. my belief? you either accept science or you forget all about it. every branch of science - chemistry, biology, geology, physics, astrophysics, engineering - has, in some way, contributed to our understanding of life and the way that life came to be. you do not get to pick and choose which part of science you believe. it all works the same way - observe, question, form an opinion, test the opinion, observe outcome, re-question, revise or re-form opinions, repeat. you either accept the scienctific method as valid, across the board, or you reject science completely, as it's all based on the same method. if you reject evolution by natural selection, you also reject the ideas that:
-drug testing on a non-human can teach us anything about a human. (no more FDA, just make chemicals and imbibe, 'cause the DNA similarities are meaningless, bro!)
-extinction is bad. (hell, god made species X, if it wasn't supposed to die, it wouldn't have! fuck the tigers!)
-vaccines are helpful. (god made us! we're clearly perfectly designed! if we pray, he'll fix it!)
-biological diversity has ANY importance at all (rainforest? who cares? i want my big SUV! clearcutting can't hurt the planet, 'cause refer to the above about extinction!)
-DNA differences mean anything (hey, if a chimp is 98% similar, OJ is sure as hell totally innocent!)
-antibiotics are in any way bad (hell, it kills the germs! they can't possibly evolve resistance, 'cause that's a lie!)
-racism is bad. (hell, we look different! we must be different! we can't all be the exact same species, i mean, look, that dude's skin is way different color than mine!)

i feel pretty strongly that you either accept what science has to offer, or you give up everything science has ever done for you, and go live in a cave in the woods and forage for grubs for a living.

we humans have great big brains. we feed our brains a full 1/4 of all the oxygen and energy we take in. from either point of view - religious or evolutionary - there's a good reason for this. your choice:

(1) god didn't give you that big powerful super-computer-like brain so you would spite him by not using it.

(2) evolutionary theories say we wouldn't have such an energy-hungry organ if we didn't need to use it.

crap like this is why american students have no faith in science. we tell them that the men in white coats lie to them, then wonder why they don't believe in global warming, don't support the Kyoto protocol, don't want to accept homosexuals as full members of society, don't do well on the science sections of local, national, or international examinations. so, start thinking. to question is human. to ignore the evidence is idiocy, and an affront to the brain god/evolution gave you.

my name is c.l. frogs. i'm a biologist. i'm pretty clearly someone who thinks this is a damn important subject. and i'd never raise a kid in ohio. i'd rather be fired than teach ID alongside natural selection. keep your damn hands off the public schools, folks. if you want your kid to learn ID, fine. home-school the poor rugrat, and you all have fun living in the woods eating those grubs.
posted by caution live frogs at 9:45 AM on September 30, 2004


But I am just a simple unfrozen cavemen and do not understand your complex theories. Sometimes, when I look at my watch, I grow frightened and want to run and hide.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 9:49 AM on September 30, 2004


caution live frogs - try on this talking point.

" [ "Creationists" believe that ] Scientific truths can be determined in the political sphere, through a political process - as happened in the case of Lysenkoist thoery in the Soviet Union (as mandated by Stalin).

And, the implication of this that Creationists believe - like many American "New Agers" - that beliefs can - and do - change reality in fundamental ways and, hence, massed human belief can make the earth flat as a pancake."

posted by troutfishing at 10:05 AM on September 30, 2004


I don't really want to get involved in this muck-a-much too much, but just beause someone advocates the idea of ID, one doesn't have to buy into the Christian Creation story. Also, I thought that most IDers were mostly against the idea of MacroEvolutin, that is, evolution across the Phyla.

Also, I was under the impression that, thus far, very few intermidiate stage fossils had been found.

Finally, aren't the "gills" on embryos actually some sort of skin flap? I recall reading somewhere that they don't actually have any gill-like functions, but since they look like them, most people just assume they must be gills.
posted by hughbot at 10:07 AM on September 30, 2004


For example, where will values come from?

What has that to do with anything?

Here's the bottom line on the teaching of ID/Creationism in schools: if the USA falls into a religionist mode of teaching, it will further accelerate its decline into irrelevancy. The only thing keeping the USA economy going at this point is its ability to invent new stuff. All its manufacturing and design is being lost to other countries.

In order to "invent new stuff," the USA needs to have a very capable research environment. This, in turn, requires people who are capable of exacting scientific investigation. And those people who are scientifically-minded must reject the Intelligent Design/Creationism school, because those things are thoroughly anti-scientific.

You simply can't have it both ways: you can't have an evangelistic American taliban movement and remain a world leader in research and development.

The only thing the USA has going for it is a massive braintrust. Treat it well.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:26 AM on September 30, 2004


Also, I was under the impression that, thus far, very few intermidiate stage fossils had been found

Your impression is wrong. There are examples of intermediate forms between plain-old fish and tetrapods, and there's a whole string of intermediate forms between a legged animal like pakicetus and modern whales, and some intermediate forms, like basilosaurus, have vestigial legs.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:28 AM on September 30, 2004


hughbot, you might be interested in this faq about transitional fossils.
posted by callmejay at 10:47 AM on September 30, 2004


I don't really want to get involved in this muck-a-much too much, but just beause someone advocates the idea of ID, one doesn't have to buy into the Christian Creation story.

Logically, no. ID does not necessarily imply that the designer is the God mentioned in Genesis. However, I challenge you to find one single person who accepts Intelligent Design but rejects a literal interpretation of Genesis. I'm not aware of any.

Also, I thought that most IDers were mostly against the idea of MacroEvolutin, that is, evolution across the Phyla.

Many creationists accept microevolution--change within a species over time due to selective pressure--simply because the evidence for that is so overwhelming that even they cannot bring themselves to dispute that. Macroevolution is the evolution of new species (not necessarily "across phyla"--phyla are much broader categories than species).

Consider this: why would an IDer be opposed to macroevolution? If they were truly interested in ID as they present it, they would be willing to consider the possibility that the Designer designed some species, and also allowed other new species to come from the old ones by evolution. The fact that they reject that theory out-of-hand indicates that they in fact are not sincere in their presentation of ID, and actually are using it just as "biblical creation in non-religious clothing."

Finally, aren't the "gills" on embryos actually some sort of skin flap? I recall reading somewhere that they don't actually have any gill-like functions, but since they look like them, most people just assume they must be gills.

What does that have to do with anything? Even if that's so, I'm afraid I don't see what conclusion you are drawing from it--could you spell it out for me?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:54 AM on September 30, 2004


C L Frogs: huzzah. A+. Thank you.
posted by ltracey at 11:15 AM on September 30, 2004


Another problem with the ID argument that Earth's biological complexity came about through intelligent intervention by some being: if so, it wasn't necessarily their monotheistic "god".

You see, if you posit that complexity of the sort biological systems presents requires a "maker" to intervene, yet they also allow that earth's history is but a short span as compared to that of the universe, then it could be that earth biology was engineered by another species, who came much earlier.

Of course, that begs the question: who made them?

Well, that's easy -- it's turtles, turtles all the way down...
posted by mooncrow at 11:56 AM on September 30, 2004


From the Gilder response DaShiv linked to and quoted:

It [evolution by natural selection] is a process subject to the mathematical theory of information, which shows that even mutations occurring in cells at the gigahertz pace of a Pentium 4 and selected at the rate of a Google search couldn't beget the intricate interwoven fabric of structure and function of a human being in such a short amount of time.

That's just a flat-out lie. What the fuck, George?!
posted by mr_roboto at 12:05 PM on September 30, 2004


DevilsAdvocate:

Logically, no. ID does not necessarily imply that the designer is the God mentioned in Genesis. However, I challenge you to find one single person who accepts Intelligent Design but rejects a literal interpretation of Genesis. I'm not aware of any.

Even if this is so, I think what hughbot was saying, and indeed what I was saying earlier in the thread is that the concept of Intelligent Design is not as weak as that of Creationism, irrespective of the fact that proponents of the former generally (or even always) accept the latter. In order to refute ID it is not simply a case of refuting Creationism; that would be knocking the roof from the house of cards, not removing the foundation itself.
posted by ed\26h at 12:07 PM on September 30, 2004


Sean Meade: I think you make a mistake in regards to the idea of what prediction means in science. Predictions are made in regards to the discovery of evidence in the future, not just events occuring in the future. So for example, the circular valley at Ries, Germany is similar to craters on the moon. If it is an impact crater, microscopic examination of some minerals should reveal Shocked Quartz. Examination of rocks at Ries finds shocked quartz, and as a result, Ries is added to the list of probable impact craters. The events that led to the creation of Ries and the shocked quarts occured before man walked the Earth.

Perhaps a big part of it is that creationists tend to overemphasize the role of a particular research design in science. The double-blind experiment is only one possible research design, and one that is only useful in a limited number of scientific fields. Correlation and regression are are most frequently used in studies of phenomena in situ.

Devil's Advocate:
Logically, no. ID does not necessarily imply that the designer is the God mentioned in Genesis. However, I challenge you to find one single person who accepts Intelligent Design but rejects a literal interpretation of Genesis. I'm not aware of any.

In my experiment, the history of ID has been dominated by a view of the Genesis as the work of a group trying to understand god, but not a literal transcription of events. This was certainly the dominant view of the Methodism I was raised in, and seems to be the view of the Catholic Church now. A very popular idea is the day epoch interpretation in which the "days" described by the Bible map to periods of the history of the universe. Young-earth creationism has only recently become the dominant form of creationism.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:17 PM on September 30, 2004


I loved this post so much, I created a followup post, a tribute of sorts - with some more historical backdrop. Enjoy.

Wonder Twin powers, activate!
posted by homunculus at 12:22 PM on September 30, 2004


A very popular idea is the day epoch interpretation in which the "days" described by the Bible map to periods of the history of the universe.

This is one I was exposed to in school as well. I read the book Genesis and the Big Bang: The Discovery of Harmony Between Modern Science and the Bible on my way out of theism.
posted by callmejay at 1:04 PM on September 30, 2004


That's just a flat-out lie. What the fuck, George?!

It would have to mean something to be a lie, mr_roboto. It's like if I claimed "God would need a better tailor than Giorgio Armani to exist and a faster sportscar than a Porsche 911 to create humanity in the time that he did."
posted by boaz at 1:24 PM on September 30, 2004


Well, if you cut out all the (weirdly distracting) high-tech buzz words, he's left saying something like: "information theory shows that known rates of mutation are not sufficient to account for observed genetic diversity". I'll agree that the phrase "intricate interwoven fabric of structure and function of a human being" is pretty much entirely meaningless, but he must be intending something like my reconstruction above. Which is a lie. Information theory shows no such thing.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:35 PM on September 30, 2004


Fair enough. I had lumped that "mathematical theory of information" in with the gobbledydook (an easy mistake since it's alway just been called 'information theory' where I come from; what's next? Linear algebra becomes 'mathematical algebra of linearity'? ;) ). That does raise it from complete nonsense to nonsense plus doublespeak.
posted by boaz at 2:08 PM on September 30, 2004


Well, Shannon's paper is called "The Mathematical Theory of Communication."
posted by sonofsamiam at 3:13 PM on September 30, 2004


Doh! Just to mock me, the paper introducing linear algebra probably had a title similar to the one I gave too.
posted by boaz at 3:55 PM on September 30, 2004


This is rather long, and not addressed to anyone in particular, but in a just world, it would provide a conclusive end to all further poorly informed pro-ID/creation arguments on metafilter.

There is nothing in Intelligent Design to refute. It is not a scientific theory; they have not put forward a scientific argument. Most of their work hasn't even raised any interesting ideas worth contemplating (though there is one possible exception). There are basically only two people of note in ID: Michael Behe and William Dembski.

1) Behe, a mediocre biochemist of "Darwin's Black Box" fame. His argument reduces to "I can't think of a way this system could have evolved". Honestly, that's it. He hasn't even pointed out a system that no one can explain. Everything he has brought up has various plausible explanations using current evolutionary theory. If one day he finds a system no one can explain, then we'll have something to talk about -- but that still doesn't, itself, justify abandoning the search for natural explanations to this particular mystery of our universe (you know, science as it has thus far existed). We come across things all the time that are not adequately explained by the current state of evolutionary theory, and the theory adapts, grows, evolves, becomes more clearly defined, more nuanced, etc, to account for the new observations -- as do all theories in science. Why conceed origin of life to the realm of the super-natural so easily? Why not quantum gravity? M-theory? This is where it becomes intellectually dishonest for someone to claim to be a scientist and support ID.

And by the way, Intelligent Design does propose a super-natural explanation to our existence -- unless of course you think they would conceed that we are the creation of an intelligent alien species that evolved from entirely natural physical processes (or so on). And if they do that, it means it is theoretically possible that we did, too, and thus a tad premature to give up on that (and at this point, at least) vastly more plausible notion.

Don't delude yourselves: intelligent design, as it stands today, is simply saying "I can't figure it out; I'm giving up; I'm going back to [insert religion of choice]".

2) Dembski, a philosopher/"mathematician" of "The Design Inference" fame. His argument is that there are classes of "information", one of which requires a designer. (Aside: This is relevant to those of you wondering about the phrasing re: "information theory" vs. "mathematical theory of information": basically they are trying to add some qualifications to information theory, and thus don't use standard terminology.) The one of note is something he calls "complex, specified information". The basic idea of classes of information is reasonable; such classes as patterns (like a sine wave), chaos (noise), and complexity (sort of noisy patterns). First of all, he purports to have developed a deeply meaningful distinction, but has not. He has a set of ad-hoc (though reasonable) classification rules.

Regardless, his ultimate argument is that life is of the "complex, specified" type of information, and that it requires a designer to generate. But like Behe, his biggest failing is that his arguments cannot justify his conclusions (even if his arguments were as solid as he claims). Assuming everything else about his line of reasoning: a designer does not mean an intelligent designer -- it could be a design process. A process optimizing the balance between productivity (efficiency) and error tolerance generates information of this "complex, specified" type.

This is a fairly simple result from control systems theory. To improve error tolerance, you have to add control systems: monitoring, regulation, prediction, etc, via feedback/feedforward mechanisms. But the new control systems have their own noise problems, and those may need their own control systems, and so on, and so on, and in time you have something spectacularly complex (of that "specified" type).

Evolution can be thought of as one such design process. Our ancestors were those bacteria that replicated quickly, but could still deal with the occasional drought of glucose, slightly elevated temperatures, transient fluctuations in calcium concentration, growing concentrations of anti-oxidant metabolic by-products, etc.

And finally, evolution is not a tautology. Usually people get there via the "survival of the fittest. what's fittest? those that survive" line of thinking. The thing they forget is that the "fittest" are a distinguishable group (from the non-fittest), independent of their survival. Those bacterial survivors discussed above were genetically more similar to each other than they were to the non-survivors. A trait lead to survival; that trait becomes more common. Evolution only works on things with a "memory". If every round of selection was independent of the rounds before, it wouldn't go anywhere. But with a "memory" (like a genome), every round is building on the previous decision.

For example: That last trait was useful, but it had some issues (such as it was really useful part of the time, but a bit energetically wasteful the rest), and now everyone has it, anyway. But if one picks up another trait -- useful in a completely different way, or in a way mitigating some of the issues with a previous trait -- that trait is added to the "memory". We now have a path, and notice that path often involves iteratively tweaking the details and tolerances of existing infrastructure (only turn this subsystem on when these conditions are met): in other words, refining control systems.

It's simple engineering and you don't have to be intelligent to do it; you just have to be prepared for many failures. Humans build bridges by logically figuring out what would work knowing some basic physics and the range of expected tolerances (how strong is the current, winds, how much weight, etc); another way would be to just keep trying small random variations on your previous design every time it collapsed. And to speed things up, do it in parallel with a few billion bridges. You'll end up with a lot of "complex, specified" information in your bridge either way.
posted by justin at 5:16 PM on September 30, 2004


IMO, everyone would be doing themselves a big favour by reading The Blind Watchmaker, a book in which Richard Dawkins painstakingly deals with every conceivable protest against the theory of evolution.

I don't believe anyone who has an ounce of sensibility will remain convinced of a supernatural explanation for life once they're done with that book.

It can be a tough slog, though: not because the ideas are particularly challenging, but because Dawkins can be such an arrogant asshole. If you can get over that, though, his actual explanations are well worth the effort.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:56 PM on September 30, 2004


justin: I think skeptical inquirer has a nice piece about Popper's claim that evolution is a tautology, and then his retraction after he was told just what you said.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:27 PM on September 30, 2004


Ugh. I don't understand why, but evolutionary theory seems to be really difficult for most people. Distressingly, even some scientists working in biological fields don't seem to really understand it.

Michael Behe is an okay guy. I've met him; attended one of his lectures; even had a protacted converstation with him and a small group (I think there were six of us). He's not a bad guy, but he's not exactly the world's greatest biochemist either. He's been enveloped by figurative "yes men" for a long time. He's been taught to distrust what should be his peers as part of the "evil" orthodoxy. As I've said, I spoken with him at length and he does not know his science. He was visibily surprised upon hearing various snippets of progress in biological theory from the last couple decades. His "lecture" to some of the foremost scientists in biology consisted primarily of bitching about how he has been persecuted. Half-way through, some said (roughly) "I don't care about you; show us your data." He had little. What he did have was easily ripped apart by young undergraduates. Those of us with a couple of degrees were audibly laughing. We are not dismissing an interesting contrarian point of view here. We've looked; they have nothing.
posted by justin at 1:06 AM on October 1, 2004


nice addition there justin. and mr_roboto, i do so like it when the IDists point out the sheer impossibility of anything evolving, forgetting the overwhelming evidence that shows quite clearly that we humans do, in fact, exist. damn. i would think it's hard for one of these guys to say we couldn't possibly have evolved by now, and then look around the room and realize that his audience is full of critters that, by his own logic, couldn't possibly exist...

troutfishing, wait - does that mean that if we get enough IDists in a room, positing that humans can't possibly have ever evolved, that they'd all just voluntarily disappear? now that would be something quite interesting to see...
posted by caution live frogs at 6:19 AM on October 4, 2004


caution live frogs - I'm not sure. The construction of reality from shared beliefs is a pretty tricky business. I think there are complex rules, sort of like the way the Ptolemaic model of the Solar System got towards the end, with all sorts of weird Rube Goldberg fudges to make the damn thing work.

Maybe you'd need to get all humans alive believing the same thing to change, say, the gravitational constant.

You might even need to get the smarter animals in on it too.

Fat chance.
posted by troutfishing at 11:31 AM on October 5, 2004


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