Saturday, January 28, 2006

Evolution v. Intelligent Design: Countering the Mythology

I, like so many others, have been following the evolution vs. intelligent design debate rather closely. It is both disheartening and infuriating that this public debate has been full of lies, half-truths, intellectual dishonesty, and logical fallacy.
Part of this is the media's fault, as usual. Some media coverage has been biased towards one side to the extent of misrepresenting the other. Other coverage, following the fallacy of balance and its half-assed practice in today's mainstream media, has simply pitted one irrational, dogmatic extremist against another and ignored the complexity of the issues.
The media, however, cannot take all of the blame. The state of the current debate on this topic is far too dependent on the ignorance of the masses. Science education and education in general are in such a poor state that most people don't have the information and tools necessary to understand the topics, much less to argue them.
Rather than arguing for one side or the other, which will change nothing, I'll weigh in here on the useless noise and nonsense that passes for "truth" and the basic facts people need to get a full grasp on each "side's" strengths and weaknesses. I will not claim to have achieved the ever-elusive ideal of objectivity, just that I'm trying to be fair. However, my readers have a right to know my biases if they're going to determine my reliability. So, here they are: I'm a believing Jew, an evolutionist, and an intellectual committed to honesty and courage in the realm of ideas. Now, let's get to the good stuff.
Is evolution fact or theory? Well, it's both. It all depends on how you use the word evolution. Unfortunately, the distinctions between fact and theory have been ignored in the mainstream debate so that both sides can make their arguments appear stronger than they are. The fact of evolution is simply that the many forms of life have changed and increased in number over time. I will refer to this fact as "biological change" from now on to prevent confusion. (References to "evolution" will refer to the theory.) The theory of evolution attempts to explain how and why biological change happened in the first place and continues to do so. Evolution, however, has nothing to do with the origin of life, only how different types of life arose from one or multiple common ancestors. There is currently no single, widely accepted scientific theory as to how life came to exist in the first place.
Opponents of evolution have claimed that it is "just a theory." They're right, but what does that mean? It doesn't mean that evolution is just a wild idea some old guy pulled out of his hat in the nineteenth century. Evolution is simply not a proven fact. Science doesn't work with certainty or claims of absolute truth. A scientific theory is, amongst other things, provisional and correctable. In other words, a theory is the best and most widely accepted explanation we have for the evidence right now, but it may not be correct. Further evidence can uphold, alter, or disprove the theory. As Einstein said, "No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong." This is science.
This is also why Darwin's theory and modern evolution are two very different things. Darwin's work laid the scientific foundation for the theory, but other scientists have improved it based on new evidence that Darwin didn't have and on the theories of other scientists. Some intelligent design proponents have tried to use Darwin's admission of possible flaws in his theory to discredit modern evolution. This is ridiculous, since a flaw in Darwin's version does not necessarily apply to or disprove the more advanced modern theory.
This modern version is currently the best explanation for biological change, but it does not "disprove" the existence of the supernatural or an intelligent designer. Neither evolution specifically nor science generally has anything to do with the existence or nonexistence of the supernatural. Science "assumes" that their is a natural explanation for everything and that supernatural explanations are unnecessary as a basic working principle. This assumption is also provisional, so science makes no claim that it is absolutely true.
Of course, many have argued that evolution makes the supernatural "unnecessary," therefore the supernatural does not exist. Regardless of the actual existence of the supernatural, this assertion is simply wrong. Existence doesn't depend on necessity. Evolution itself refutes this. A random mutation may create something that is not necessary to the species. Later, this characteristic may become useful or destructive, but its very existence had nothing to do with necessity, only randomness.
So, now, we move on to intelligent design. Here, too, there is some confusion as to the meaning of those words, confusion that both "sides" have dishonestly exploited. There is an intelligent design theory and an intelligent design movement. They're not the same thing. Basic ID theory is that natural explanations aren't enough and that the evidence "implies" an intelligent cause behind it all. The ID movement is the political agenda of those trying to get ID into schools and/or evolution out of them or to force schools to play down the validity of evolution.
First, opponents of the idea state simply that ID theory is not scientific. Again, they're right, but not in the way you think. Saying that ID is not scientific has nothing to do with its validity as an idea. Science operates within certain set rules, as discussed earlier. ID violates the founding scientific "assumption" that there are natural explanations for everything. Science simply isn't the right field for a debate on the existence of the supernatural. An analogy might be useful here: If your car is giving you trouble, you don't take it to a doctor. The doctor doesn't have the knowledge or tools to assess your car's "health." In the same vein, if you want to examine the existence of a deity or deities, angels, ghosts, etc., you don't go to a scientist. You go to a philosopher or metaphysicist or theologian, because they at least have the right tools and information.
Although the existence of an intelligent designer is outside the realm of science, some of the minor claims of intelligent design can and perhaps should be examined scientifically. For example, the claim of specified complexity is easy to examine without violating scientific standards. Opponents of ID within the scientific community simply have to answer three questions according to the evidence: 1. Does specified complexity exist in nature? 2. If not, why does it appear to exist? 3. If so, how can it be explained without appealing to a supernatural cause?
Now, what about the movement? First, not every proponent of the theory is in favor of the political movement's full agenda even if their research is being financed by it. We will include as a proponent only those who believe that it is a "scientific" theory, not those who may appreciate the idea from a philosophical or theological standpoint. On a program called Uncommon Knowledge, Jonathan Wells, a biologist and senior fellow at the now-infamous Discovery Institute, said, "Well, I think intelligent design is a scientific theory but I would not require students to study it because it's too new." Wells, misguided as he may be on that point, at least has the honesty to admit that ID theory is not yet developed enough to be included in the science curriculum.
But, you may ask, don't they argue that students should be taught that evolution is flawed, that it's "just a theory"? Yes, but what's wrong with that as long as it's done honestly? Students in any science class should be taught that any scientific theory is correctable and provisional. Teaching that any theory is perfect or absolutely "correct" or even completely provable is dishonest and promotes a kind of dogmatic orthodoxy that contradicts the fundamental ideals of science. On the other hand, students should not be led to believe that these possible flaws completely discredit the theory or that intelligent design theory is "scientifically" as valid as or better than evolution.
"But they're out to destroy science and the American way of life!" Hold on, Chicken Little, it's not as bad as you think. Yes, some extremists within the movement would love to replace science with biblical literalism and destroy the separation between church and state. Some proponents, on the other hand, simply believe in the theory and think their ideas should be given equal value with evolution. They may be wrong. They may be misguided. But they're not all bent on destruction. Some are actual scientists committed to discovery and explanation, regardless of the validity of their ideas. (The best amongst them know, like Jonathan Wells, that the theory, whatever its strengths, simply isn't there yet.)
Finally, despite the most heartfelt desires of the right wing extremists and their ill-fated agenda or the claims of orthodox evolutionists, intelligent design proves neither biblical creationism nor Christianity. At its best, the theory may be able to provide some convincing philosophical arguments for the existence of an intelligent designer, but it can never prove that the designer created the world in six days or that this is the deity of any particular religion. Religious doctrine depends on the divine inspiration of sacred texts, the identity of prophets and messiahs, and the validity of moral guidelines. These are all outside the focus of the theory.
So, this is the basic framework of the real debate. Any arguments about the truth of the ideas should operate within it. Intellectual honesty requires that we assess each idea based on its actual strengths and weaknesses and that we avoid discrediting an idea based solely on our commitment to our own competing doctrines and orthodoxies. Intellectual courage demands we do so despite our irrational fears that entertaining an idea that opposes our own will somehow destroy the foundations of our favored systems of thought. Giving an idea fair and reasonable consideration doesn't mean that we're promoting any opposing agenda or weakening our own.

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