Thursday, May 13, 2004

Back to Normal On Tuesday I praised an article by Gregg Easterbrook, who once wrote a pro-ID op-ed for The Wall Street Journal. Yesterday I managed to praise a creationist science project turned in by two middle school students.

Since these two posts have left a bitter taste in my mouth, it's nice to be able to get back to normal with this article from the website CanadianChristianity.

They've been pounding the anti-evolution drum quite a bit recently. Have a look at this recent posting from Pharyngula, describing an anti-evolution interview that appeared at the same site. I would note that the author of the present article, David Dawes, is also the person who conducted that interview.

THE THEORY of evolution may be in big trouble, according to no less an authority than Charles Darwin.

This is rather too cute. Evolutionary science has progressed a bit since Darwin's day. Incidentally, the opening paragraphs of this article appear next to a picture of Charles Darwin. The caption reads “Evolution Theorist Charles Darwin”.

“If it could be demonstrated,” he once wrote, “that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, excessive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”

The breaking down has begun, according to many critics of evolutionary theory -- who are more convinced than ever that Darwin's concept is destined for the slag heap of humanity's failed ideas.

It seems to me there's a bit of a concession here. The critics of evolutionary theory are described as “more convinced than ever”, which implies that their anti-evolutionism existed prior to whatever recent discoveries are about to be described. So it's not as if they had once been sympathetic to evolution, but recent discoveries persuaded them to abandon that view.

In recent years, science has made great strides in understanding the immense intricacies of various organisms. “Inside every human cell sits a tiny encoded DNA coil five-thousandths of a millimeter in diameter -- which, if unfolded, would be one meter long,” writes Jay Richards of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based non-profit education foundation. “Even Bill Gates has observed: 'DNA is like a computer program, but far, far more advanced than any software we've ever created.'”

“Darwin knew nothing of these things,” says Toronto-based Denyse O'Leary, author of the soon-to-be-published By Design or By Chance? “He was a clever man, but he had no idea what he was talking about. He lived and died before these wonders came to light.”

I love the line about Bill Gates. From the tone of the article, you'd think Gates was making some huge concession.

And it was very generous of Mr. O'Leary to concede that Darwin was clever. Since Darwin never discussed the inner workings of the cell in his writing, it's not clear what O'Leary has in mind in saying that Darwin didn't know what he was talking about. Why do I suspect that his forthcoming book will contain little that is worth reading?

Since the 1859 publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species, biblical creationism has been under fire and losing ground -- a process that escalated dramatically with the colorful 1925 Scopes 'Monkey Trial.'

I would say that biblical creationism was losing ground long before Darwin. In the early nineteenth century a number of geologists were uncovering evidence suggesting that the Earth was far older than the Bible suggests. As for the Scopes trial, its main result was that evolution was removed almost completely from school textbooks. The movie notwithstanding, the Scopes trial was hardly an unambiguous victory for evolution.

Most creationists now generally accept what they call 'micro-evolution' -- physical changes evolving within a single species -- as scientifically provable. However, they reject the Darwinian concept of 'macro-evolution' -- transformation from one species into another -- and its underlying assumption that life on earth has developed through a random, unguided process of countless small mutations over millions of years.

This is the familiar, phony creationist distinction. Suffice it to say that there is plenty of evidence for recent speciation events in nature, and lab experiments have shown that in many cases speciation can be achieved with only a handful of genetic changes.

At one time in North America, it was against the law to teach the theory of evolution. Now it is broadly unacceptable to teach, as scientific theory, anything but evolution as an explanation for the origins of the world and its inhabitants.

Evolution has become unquestioned scientific orthodoxy. In the process, attempts to link life's origins with anything beyond material causes have been written off as 'religious' -- and therefore, scientifically invalid.

But some observers believe evolutionary theory is on the defensive -- and slowly on the way out. The Intelligent Design (ID) movement is the chief weapon in this new offensive against Darwinism.

ID advocates generally do not address the Bible's creation account. Instead, they muster persuasive scientific arguments that the universe is intricately designed. The obvious implication is that, where there is a design, there is a transcendent Designer.

Do I detect a bit of nostalgia for the days when it was illegal to teach evolution?

Of course, the ID people may not agree that their theory implies a transcendent Designer. They routinely protest that we should take seriously the intelligent aliens theory.

As for the claim that Darwinism is on the way out - they have been making that claim for more than a decade. In fact, as far as I can tell, they make exactly the same arguments today as they made a decade ago.

One of the crucial ID concepts is “irreducible complexity.” Biochemist Michael Behe introduced the theory in a key ID book, Darwin's Black Box. Behe states that an irreducibly complex biological system, such as the human cell, is made up of well-matched and interdependent parts. To function properly, all the parts must be present at the same time, fully-formed and in the right combination. ID argues that it is impossible for the separate parts to develop in isolation from each other, accumulating their essential characteristics one by one over a period of time, and then accidentally fuse together as a perfectly working organism.

Darwinian evolution is increasingly being called into question because of ideas like irreducible complexity. Over the past two decades books promoting ID -- by authors such as Behe, Phillip Johnson, Jonathan Wells, Michael Denton and William Dembski -- have created a sensation in Christian intellectual circles.

Actually, irreducible complexity is the only crucial concept for ID, at least as applied to biology. Dembski may talk a lot about “Complex Specified Information”, but when it comes time to apply his ideas to biology he relies completely on Behe's writing.

Also, IC as described by Behe is not a theory. It is simply a term that he defined, coupled with the assertion that a system matching his description could not evolve gradually. That claim is false, of course.

I'm not sure what Christian intellectual circles the author has in mind, but it should be observed that there are plenty of mainstream Christians and Christian groups who want nothing to do with ID.

From here the article goes on to discuss various other perspectives on the legitimacy of ID. I'll respond to that part of the article in Sunday's post.


At 7:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post. Just one minor correction.

[quote]And it was very generous of Mr. O'Leary to concede that Darwin was clever. Since Darwin never discussed the inner workings of the cell in his writing, it's not clear what O'Leary has in mind in saying that Darwin didn't know what he was talking about. Why do I suspect that his forthcoming book will contain little that is worth reading?[/quote]

Denyse O'Leary is a woman.

At 9:34 AM, Blogger Andrew said...

Just a thought on irreducible complexity and the god of the gaps. As science fills in more and more of the gaps in the origins of living things, the goalpost for a truly IC structure will retreat further and further into simplicity. If you wanted to believe in IC and god, and could no longer refute the overwhelming evidence of biology, couldn't you just cut to the chase and just worship the smallest known subatomic particle at any time?

At 8:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe when you're in a lighter mood you could write an article on Incompetent Design.

- Lloyd.

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