Thursday, September 23, 2004

Strange Comment

The Quarterly Review of Biology has this review of the recent book Chaos and Life: Complexity and Order in Evolution and Thought, by Richard Bird. The review's author is mathematician Ethan Akin.

The review is well-done and makes the book sound interesting, but unpersuasive. However, Akin closes his review with the following strange remark:

Finally, for those who prefer their speculation without mathematical varnish, I recommend instead the much maligned Intelligent Design crowd. Michael Behe (Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. 1996. New York: Free Press) and Philip Johnson (Darwin on Trial. 1991. Downer's Grove (IL): Inter Varsity Press) seem to me to be clear about the Darwinism they are attacking. Perhaps for that reason, I find their criticisms more thought provoking.

I agree that the criticisms raised by ID folks are thought-provoking, which, indeed, is the reason I spend so much time thinking about them. I think you can learn a lot about real science by thoroughly understanding fallacious arguments. But I don't see a whole lot of speculation in ID writing. Mostly I see a lot of poorly-reasoned attacks against biology and slurs against biologists. Darwin on Trial is especially egregious in this regard. From Akin's description, it sounds like Bird provides some interesting arguments about the relative importance of self-organization and natural selection in evolution. That is an interesting topic, and one about which reasonable people can disagree. There is nothing comparably interesting in the ID literature.

And if in your ID reading you encounter the work of William Dembski, you find that some ID proponents love to lard their work with meaningless mathematical babble. Akin criticizes Bird for garbling certain mathematical topics. The ID folks are guilty of the same sin.


At 11:08 PM, Blogger HatHead said...


The difference between the three books listed seems to be that the two clearly pro-ID books are focused on attacking Darwin as an icon of evolution such that defeating Darwin somehow also defeats evolution. This is the marketing strategy of ID as Philip Johnson declared on his "The Wedge" webpage.

The initial book you cite (which I have not read though I have read Stuart Kauffman's work) seems to deal with Complexity and Chaos Theory which is most certainly a threat to the Darwinian axioms of the gradual and orderly progression of nature (but not, of course, to selection)

I returned to this blog, which I happened across a little while ago, because I recalled reading in it about the common ancestor proposition and this meme stuck itself back in my head.

It sometimes strikes me that we are replacing one Adam & Eve metaphor with another. I am curious if this proposition has its roots in Platonic thinking - i.e. there is a first cause for everything (which science has proved is not correct).

At the top of it, one has to define what 'a living organism' is - not an easy line to draw in the primevil protoworld. And even if we could all agree on this arbitrary line, we'd probably go ahead and draw it wherever it would best serve our own propositions in the first place. While this might be intellectually satisfying, it would still be an arbitrary line.

Though a common ancestor would certainly make biology a whole lot easier, evolution did not start with the first living organism. We should not forget that molecular evolution was occuring before it became biological evolution. Biology is a branch of chemistry and so to will our common ancestor most likely turn out to be a molecule.

Anyway, I am not as elegant as all you educated folk here but I happened across this blog a couple of weeks ago and it got my mind thinking about this proposition again - so here you go!


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