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Intelligent Design: Science or Philosophy?

Posted Date: November 18, 2007 – Sunday – 12:38 PM

My family invited me to a church function about evolution, and how it conflicts with American Protestant Evangelicalism. This event was put on by Seattle’s own Discovery Institute, originators of the Intelligent Design Hypothesis. This institution is nominally established to support a scientific dissent from Darwinism:

“We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

They have several problems with Darwin’s theory, and argue instead that life can only be explained by a designing force of some kind. Think Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover”. They also deeply object to the “materialistic bias” in science, and want to replace it with a reverent spirituality. Their immediate goal is to see the bad evolutionary science in textbooks be corrected, and that their own design hypothesis be given equal time to Darwin’s theory.

They are making a statement that involves aspects of religion, philosophy, politics, law, education, ethics, not to mention science, and their ideas have provoked quite an uproar. I myself became a Pastafarian because of this, and we are well on the way to having our equal representation in science textbooks as well.

But I’d be the first to say that the issues the Discovery Institute brings up are pretty good.

Regarding factual errors in science textbooks, check this article in Forbes out:
http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2000/1030/6612178a_print.html
It’s enough to make your scalp crawl, realizing that our children will eventually be engineering the systems of the world. Or worse yet, how they won’t be…

The truth is, “Darwin’s Theory” should only be taught as a historic scientific relic, or as a “good enough” approximation. Even so, we should not mock Darwin for his insights, it put is on a very productive path. Just as, Newton’s Celestial Mechanics were beautiful, but then came Einstein’s General Relativity. Science moves on, old theories are discarded and new ones are picked up.

Evolutionary Biology has gone through many a revolution (and evolution) since Darwin, and the old morphology based “Tree of Life” is starting to show its age. I’ve been studying up on Evolutionary Biological Development (evo-devo), and it is some incredible science they are doing with genetics and embryonic development. The fact that these people are not prominently featured in biology textbooks is certainly a shame; as they are doing hard science instead of just classifying things by how similar they look.

Getting past all this, there is a very clear reason why evo-devo deserves a place in biology and genetics classes, and the Intelligent Design Hypothesis does not. And it’s not because “evo-devo is right and ID is wrong”. It’s because evo-devo bring us one step closer to understanding how self-adapting and self-replicating organisms actually work. ID takes us a step away, giving us a pat answer that doesn’t actually explain any details or make any predictions.

So far, not one Intelligent Design experiment has been proposed, much less completed. “Irreducible Complexity” is the best thing they’ve got, and it’s conveniently unprovable (although it might be disproven). They distrust random mutations and fitness landscapes, but they offer no replacements. I first became aware of these guys in the mid 90s, and even from a Christian mindset I could see that these guys were not doing science, and they still aren’t. In contrast, many experiments have been performed against various evolutionary theories, and not all of them have been failures. Geology, emergence and complexity, genetics, molecular biology, computer science, game theory, Information theory, etc. etc. etc.

Yes, there are big problems with the evolutionary theory. The Cambrian Explosion has yet to be explained. Yes, “Irreducible” complexity is a daunting challenge, even in the days of supercomputers. The language of genes needs to be cracked. There are lots of challenges! But even Jupiter’s “red spot” (stunning picture here: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c8/Jupiter_from_Voyager_1.jpg, animation here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Jupiter_Great_Red_Spot_Animation.gif) speaks to the basic self-organizing aspects of nature. Regardless of our Humanistic or Christian philosophies, it is important to understand how things work, as this is the true purpose of science.

Myself, I think DNA are fractal structures that constantly generate novel information. This information is then used to “walk the fitness landscape”, until the system settles down into relatively few “optimal” trajectories. This trajectory certainly lies on the multi-dimensional “strange attractor” that describes all the evolutionary possibilities of DNA. This could be the prime reason for the different body types that suddenly developed in Cambrian Explosion. This was a different stages of evolution, governed by different laws and processes than our own stage. And before that, maybe DNA originally came from space rocks, or from the hand of God himself. We don’t actually know yet, and we’re still looking into it.

Today, evolution appears iterative, based more on localized environmental pressures than on the entire phase space of evolutionary possibilities. This is probably not completely good, as the system might loose its ability to adapt to large perturbations, like a comet, a huge volcano, or a shift in the earth’s orbit. Or even “human intelligence” and its inherent lack of biodiversity. Although many chaotic systems portray a surprising robustness, so maybe not. Our “hopeful monsters” may be missing from the fossil record simply because the rapid adaptation of their children made them extinct in very short time. If so, that does not bode well for humanity, as we are nothing if not the bridge between instincts and cognition.

The science in textbooks will always be factually incorrect. The reason for this is, our science is only crude approximations of how the world actually works. Mathematics is the language of science, because math allows us to model our approximations, and to use them to make predictions. But like it or not, they are approximations, and someday there will be a better model, itself still crude. And after that, another one. Evolution, if you will. The improvement and testability allows man to put “faith” in this system even while understanding its fundamental limitations.

So scientifically, Darwin’s crude approximation was much more objectively accurate than the book of Genesis, or any of the other myriad creation accounts that came before and after it. But those stories are not meant to convey factual information, they were meant to convey archetypal truths, moral truths. “Spiritual” truths versus “Scientific” truths, if you will.

These “spiritual” truths are very important and should be taught in school as well as church. In ethics class, religious history, and comparative mythology. And most of all parents must teach their children things as basic as altruism and charity regardless of their theological beliefs. Nobody is arguing this, and it is unfortunate for many that evolutionary theory has such theological ramifications. I have no answer for those stuck in this situation, except to say that religion is also a “crude approximation” of man’s desire for God. People need to remember this about both Science and Religion, in fact. Not to say that they are equal, just to point out that neither are infallible, and both are “man-made” to some extent.

It is dangerous to claim that spiritual or philosophical truths are backed up by scientific evidence; as tomorrow’s scientist will probably crap all over your pretty analogies. Most importantly, the application of science should be guided by our moral values, not the other way around! Conversely, the validness of various scientific theories must be guided by hypothesis and observation, not by philosophy or theology.

For those interested in more about the debate, you can find information on the Discovery Institute’s website here: http://www.discovery.org/csc/essentialReadings.php

You can find the court’s ruling on the Discovery Institute here (“Scopes Monkey Trial part 2”):
http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/msnbc/sections/news/051220_kitzmiller_342.pdf

For a sceptics view:
http://skepdic.com/intelligentdesign.html

For a scientists view:
http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/dennett05/dennett05_index.html

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