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On Intelligent Design 
14th-Feb-2008 02:59 pm
My hangover on Darwin Day precluded me writing the post I actually intended - about people who weren't Darwin and their contibution to evolutionary understanding - and not just with regards to the modern synthesis.

Maybe I will aim to get that written for July.

This week, however, I have been asked to give a basic run down of the I.D. milarkey from the point of view of an evolutionary scientist, and who am I to refuse to write about evolution?

About Science and Religion

As it happens, I am happy to talk about my religious views elsewhere, but not here. Because how one fits their beliefs and faith around their experience, knowledge and interaction with others is a matter for personal reflection, theology, and all sorts of things that are not for me to dictate and not in the remit of this post to address. So all I'm going to say is this:

Personal beliefs do not change the physical world.

You may believe the world is 6,000 years old and was created in a week. You might believe that all the terrestrial vertebrate tetrapod* populations were subjected to a massively crippling bottle neck some 4,000 years ago. You can believe in fairies and spaghetti monsters and Harry Potter. You can believe in things as far out as the fundamental goodness of humanity for all the fossil record cares, because the fossil record doesn't care. What the majority of religious/spiritual beliefs - be they Christian, Muslim or Pagan - have in common is that they invoke supernatural forces. It doesn't matter if this force is divine, magical, karmic or whatever. If it's supernatural, it has no place in natural science.

Religion and faith are not dependant on Creationism to survive - I'm fairly certain of this because of the sheer number of religious scientists there are. Yes, there are probably more atheists in science than in other areas, but it's my opinion (and I am an atheist and a scientist) that it tells you more about atheists than scientists, and again, I will go into this elsewhere if necessary.

The point is: science by it's very nature excludes supernatural forces. Because science describes and explains the natural world. That every living thing was designed by a divine creator is as possible as that everything that falls is pushed down by that creator's hand - yes, hypothetically, if you accept the possibility of a divine power, you can ascribe everything that happens to the will of that power. People do. But it's far more useful to scientists if we seek to understand natural processes behind these observable events. The assumption that there was a natural force behind things falling to the ground  (The Theory of Gravity)  has led us to the ability circumnavigate the world in a matter of hours. It has allowed us to explore space and visit the moon. Just as the study of natural forces behind the diversity of life on the planet has given us modern medicine.

Yes, all life on this planet may have been created just as it is by a designer. But science is about investigating the evidence available to us in the natural world and interpreting it using what we already know about nature. When you bring supernature into it, you no longer have natural science.

"Evolution is only a Theory"

Allow me to address this with a link to Wikipedia:

A theory is a logically self-consistent model or framework for describing the behavior of a related set of natural or social phenomena. It originates from or is supported by experimental evidence (see scientific method). In this sense, a theory is a systematic and formalized expression of all previous observations, and is predictive, logical, and testable. In principle, scientific theories are always tentative, and subject to corrections or inclusion in a yet wider theory.
The Theory of Evolution is a large scale framework that describes and explains how life has changed, and how it continues to change, and how it may change (also the practical applications of that, IMO, are small scale: more along the lines of 'I bet I can guess what happens to this Staphylococcus aureus population if I flood its environment with Methicillin' than 'In millions of years time humanity will have split into two species: the Eloi and Morlocks'). It incorporates genetics, palaeontology, molecular biology, ecology, neuroscience, and many more. It is used to formulate predictions which are then verified. It explains why mitochondrial DNA is different from nucleur DNA. It is vital in the fight against AIDS. It explains why some theropod dinosaurs had feathers.

Evolution is the single most important theory in the biosciences - it's the reason life is how it is, and without asking 'how does feature/behaviour A improve taxon X's evolutionary fitness'? Biology is reduced to stamp collecting: description without explanation. It's all very well knowning how respiration works, but unless you understand that respiration is a way of providing energy to stay alive and produce offspring, then you're missing part of the story. Linneus catalogued taxa according to a hierarchy of kingdoms, orders, genera and species (among other levels), but until the the idea was formulated of descent from a common ancestor, there was no explanation for why organisms can be so neatly** arranged into hierarchy like that.

'Evolution' means 'change'. Biological evolution has been long documented in the fossil record- mesozoic fauna were significantly different to what we see these days. Trust me, I've spent four years up to my eyeballs in leg and hip bones the like of which no modern animal has anymore. Many people commented on this, some people put forward (often inaccurate) explanations as to why. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, in their revolutionary joint paper, merely provided a mechanism. A mechanism which even creationists don't deny:

  1. Organisms vary
  2. Variations are passed to offspring
  3. Some variations provide an advantage to survival and reproduction
  4. These variations are more likely to be propagated
  5. Better propagation of a certain variation will result in a general population change.

And yet Creationists are 'suddenly' (in historical terms) denying, not Darwin's work, but what he was attempting to explain: that life has changed over time.

Evolution is a Theory. It is disprovable. You just need to prove that:
- life has not changed over time.
- selection pressures do not produce changes in populations.
- changes in populations do not produce separation at species or other taxonomic level.

Once one of those is disproven, then we can talk.

Creationism/Intelligent design is also a theory

You know, I've been interested in the Creation/Evolution debate since I knew it even existed, which would be ten years, now. I still have never seen a decent model of the other side with which to engage. YECs such as Answers in Genesis presumably take, well, Genesis as a model, but the problems with YEC are in no way limited to that of biological evolution, few enough people take Genesis literally, and even AiG has to expend a whole lot of energy explaining ways, for example, the differences in the two separate creation accounts therein.

"Intelligent Design", on the other hand, as proposed by the Discovery Institute, is clear in its very definition that it exists as an alternative to evolution, not as a model or theory in its own right:

The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.

It has to mention what it isn't in its definition, and hardly explains what it is, beyond 'there is a creator.' Which is invoking a supernatural cause. Which is religious. Which means it's not scientific. The Discovery Institute spin it a lot, but no matter how hard they insist on being scientific, on being different from creationism, on being a valid scientific principle, there is still the matter of the Wedge Strategy: Intelligent Design 'theory' was formulated by the DI as a starting point to try and inject their morality and politics into every aspect of Western (read: American) life and culture. It's not a scientific theory: it's a tool of political agenda.

Show me the model of ID. Show me the predictions ID makes. Show me the disprovable aspect of ID. (God, pretty much by definition, is not disprovable). Show me a cohesive synthesis by which ID explains the natural world in any other way than 'it was made this way', and I might concede some scientific merit to it.

Hell, show me a Creation/ID/Evolution debate in which the Creationist actually explains their side instead of attacking the so called 'problems' with evolution.

Evolution and abiogenesis

Abiogenesis is the creation of life from non living matter. It is not evolution. Evolution is not abiogenesis. They do not rely on each other. Both naturalist and theist models for origins involve abiogenesis - the difference is, one side says "God done it" is not only enough, but trying to understand the process further is blasphemous. The other says 'OK, but how did it happen?'

I'm not only a vertebrate palaeontolgist, but I'm tired and I feel like I'm becoming ranty on this subject. So have a list of abiogenesis links.

A commenter in amurderofcrows' recent (locked) posts about ID linked to this video applying basic reproduction, mutation and selection principles to clock components. Not only does it successfully deconstruct the 'watches were designed and therefore so were kittens! strawman, but it also produces some amazing results that would be recognisable to someone with knowledge of the history of life as mirroring various life history forms. It's just under ten minutes long. Watch it. And then check out the other videos by cdk007.


Here with are important links for anyone who comes at evolution from a layperson's "do creationists have a point?" perspective:

Understanding Evolution - a resource hosted at Berkeley, whose primary purpose is to provide information about  the "science and history of evolutionary biology" for people involved in education. It doesn't even touch Creationism, simply focusing on evolution for the layperson.
Talk.Origins archive - vast coverage of the YEC/evolution debate
Talk.Design  - like Talk.origins but for Intelligent Design.

Thanks to typos, GoogleDocs decided that the document I was writing this in should be named My Hangover of Darwin. I wonder what that means.

*Yes, everyone I know who claims the Global deluge actually happened excludes invertebrates from their model. No, I don't understand how it's supposed to work. No, I'm not going to go into everything that's wrong with the Noah's Ark model in the body of the post. Ask me in comments. This does not preculde anyone from believing in it.

**For a given value of 'neat', messed up by bloody 'transitionals' such as Archaeopteryx, Homo neanderthalensis and Falcarius.
14th-Feb-2008 03:12 pm (UTC)
Can I please keep you in a small box and let you out to speak when these subjects come up? Your opinion is the same as mine, but you express it so much more intelligently and calmly than I do.
14th-Feb-2008 03:14 pm (UTC)
Will you feed and excercise me every day?
14th-Feb-2008 03:16 pm (UTC)
Absolutely! I'll have the box fitted with a wheel. Now, what do you like to eat?
14th-Feb-2008 03:37 pm (UTC)
Vegatables, chocolate and cheese.
14th-Feb-2008 04:06 pm (UTC)
All at the same time?
(Deleted comment)
15th-Feb-2008 11:37 am (UTC)
She's mine I tell you, MINE!

You can have her on weekends.
14th-Feb-2008 03:15 pm (UTC)
It should also be noted that both ID and Creationism have an unnatural obsession with Darwin as a person. (ie this blog post about Darwin Day from the people bringing you the "Expelled" film)

***and Morganucodon, and Pohlsepia (a 10-armed Carboniferous octopod), and Halkieria and...

How the fuck did this get past peer review?
14th-Feb-2008 03:36 pm (UTC)
It should also be noted that both ID and Creationism have an unnatural obsession with Darwin as a person.
This is actually what i intend to cover on July 1st- personal attacks on Darwin are pointless 'cause other people dun stuff too.

The Expelled blog is also weird - moral implications don't change fact, and as for the mitochondria paper- wtf?
14th-Feb-2008 04:02 pm (UTC)
Its beginning to look like the Egyptian author hijacked the Korean author's paper in adding the "mighty creator" crap. But that doesn't explain the blatant plagiarism. Nor how the fuck it got through peer review.
14th-Feb-2008 05:22 pm (UTC)
Since we're being Pharyngulists here, I'll mention that the Darwin-obsession thing tends to be interpreted as a case of projection--the fundy mindset is very much invested in the "cult of personality" thing, and they can't seem to get their heads round the idea that scientists respect the likes of Darwin, Newton, Merkwürdigliebe et al for, to coin a phrase, advancing the sum total of human knowledge and endeavour, and neither worship them nor treat their words as set in stone for all eternity. (And that was truly a mighty sentence worthy of Darwin himself, tell me if it wasn't!)

If you're conditioned to think of everything in terms of a charismatic leader and a Holy Book, it's natural to try to discredit what you see as being the leader and the Book of the other side. They don't understand why it's not working, and they interpret the scientific community's understandable annoyance as a reaction to blasphemy, rather than to their incessant fucking lies.
14th-Feb-2008 05:23 pm (UTC)
Mmm, lying for porn. I'll take that over Lying For Jesus(tm) any day.

14th-Feb-2008 03:47 pm (UTC)
Consider this asking in the comments, even if I don't know enough about this subject to participating in an actual discussion as of yet, I'm very interested in you criticisms of the Noah's Ark model. I don't actually believe it, but I'm interested nonetheless... actually really I'm interested in your opinion on everything, can you come lecture at my university please? You make science seems ridiculously interesting to a poor little BA student like me.
14th-Feb-2008 04:17 pm (UTC)
Quick run down, assuming a global flood event with only a boatload of survivors:

- Not enough water in the stratosphere to cover the entire continental mass.
- No stratigraphic evidence of such an event.
- No palaeo-diversity record of global extinction event analogous to universal extinction with recovery by repopulation from a fixed area.
- Molecular clocks fail to reveal bottle neck events occurring universally across land animals.
- Rising sea-levels= homogenization of marine environments and usually cause reduction in biodiversity. A flooding of all the worlds oceans would have catastrophic effect, especially on marine fish as global salinity declined. There is no such event in the marine diversity record.
- The word 'kind' used in description of the events is always unsatisfactorily defined - in some taxa it is 'species', and in others it can be entire orders, but it nearly always includes so many that there would be severe ecological issues regarding food, disease and overcrowding.
- Recent migration from a fixed point utterly and completely fails to explain current biogeography - especially with regards to how all the marsupials ended up in Australia.
- The plant record also fails to show such an event.

Apologies for the big words. I went for brevity rather than simplicity. I think, basically, it boils down to there being absolutely no evidence for a global flood at any point?
14th-Feb-2008 04:41 pm (UTC)
No, that's fine, I understand everything and it's enough for me to google on my own for the actual science behind those reasons. I find the fact that all these various ways of measuring our history report no flood at all extremely interesting, because all I ever hear about in my community is the 'scientific discoveries' that supposedly support the theory.

ps the big secret is that kangaroos (and related subspecies) are actually really good swimmers...
14th-Feb-2008 04:52 pm (UTC)
These 'scientific discoveries' are so very often just a discovery of one area that got flooded, or lake sediments at one point. They so often fail to be included in a generic synthesis: the lake sediments need to be global. The molecular and biogeographic data need to point to a universally concurrent bottleneck.

We have evidence for many catastrophic events in Earth's history. I'll pretend everyone's agreed on the causes for two of the biggest and say: one volcanic, one extraterrestrial cause, but those are obvious, globally supported, and yet aren't nearly as catastrophic (or as recent) as the Deluge is supposed to be.
14th-Feb-2008 05:14 pm (UTC)
One of the basic things missed by so many when looking for literal truth in religious texts is the worldview of the people that wrote it.

When I read history books of 15th Century Exeter, when people talk about "their world", what they mean is "the world that they know" which will be, overwhelmingly, Exeter.

So when "the world flooded" they really mean their known world. Which would likely have been the Ur/Babylonian delta. A few generations later, someone wrote the story down. Factually accurate? Nope. A nice little explanation for how civilisation X got wiped out that fitted then-known ideas of how the world worked? Yup.

Occam's Razor is brilliant: if in doubt, god(s) did it. Science doesn't work like that.
14th-Feb-2008 04:17 pm (UTC)
I've been following the "debate" on da Tube for a while now, but I never ran into this one of cdk007's compelling collection. That guy must have tonnes of time on his hands to put those computer programmes together.

Thanks to both of you for putting those ID protozoa back in their tide pool.
14th-Feb-2008 04:55 pm (UTC)
DAMMIT MAT, I don't handle compliments well.

14th-Feb-2008 05:10 pm (UTC)

Oh, I've subbed the comments here just FYI, I'll learn more from points raised as I will from the post itself, I knew most of that from you, Dave and others already, it's the bits people don't already know that's useful.

BTW, I has my first "proper" blogging client, so I really need to do that "how to be a pro-blogger" post, which'll need to be redrafted after comments and feedback &c ;-)
14th-Feb-2008 06:08 pm (UTC)
(Deleted comment)
16th-Feb-2008 03:01 am (UTC)
You are more than welcome!
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