Friday, September 30, 2005

The evolution wars are here again

The controversy over evolution and intelligent design is back in the news because of the Pennsylvania trial over a school board's decision to add critiques of evolution and the "alternative" theory of Intelligent Design to the curriculum.

Good posts on the subject by Roger Simon and Richard Bennett. See also this piece by William Saletan in And, for those who think that only secularist liberals and lefties want to keep ID out of science classrooms, read John Derbyshire, whom no one would dream of calling a secularist liberal. (Derbyshire's debate on ID with some of his own National Review colleagues can be be found here and here.)

I've had my share of the evolution/ID debate since writing about it back in August, and I find it rather depressing, because there are so many people -- many of them, broadly speaking, on my side of the political divide -- spouting so many inanities. Here's an example: a blogpost that excerpts my column, under the title, "If you can't compete you demand a monopoly." That's the main pro-ID meme in respectable conservative circles: those who don't want ID to be a part of the science curriculum or of mainstream scientific discussion are intolerant of debate -- or even "fascist," according to Bill O'Reilly. Funny how not long ago, the same Bill O'Reilly rightly slammed C-Span for wanting to "balance" an interview with Deborah Lipstadt, the historian who prevailed against Holocaust "revisionist" David Irving in a libel suit, by interviewing Irving as well, and commended Lipstadt for refusing to participate so as not to create the appearance of a legitimate debate on the issue. If we're going to teach the "debate" on evolution vs ID (which President Bush's own science adviser, John H. Marburger, has pointedly said is "not a scientific topic), then why not bring the "debate" over whether the Holocaust really happened to history classrooms? Why not teach astrology on a par with astronomy? Heck, nearly one-third of Americans, including 43% of those aged 25 to 29, believe in astrology, and we live in a democracy where we can't just let those arrogant scientific elites decide what our children will learn, right?

Then there's this intellectual gem from my former Detroit News colleague Tony Snow:

That said, ID does not qualify as science because it gives us nothing to test or measure. Science requires replicable tests involving measurable variables. ...
Evolutionary theory, like ID, isn't verifiable or testable. It's pure hypothesis -- like ID -- although very popular in the scientific community.

That's another common pro-ID argument, often encountered in Internet forums and in my email ("has anyone actually seen one species evolve into another?"). Sadly, it demonstrates little but the scientific illiteracy of the people who make it. "Testable" and "verifiable" does not mean "proven beyond a reasonable doubt" or "backed by irrefutable evidence." It means that you set up an experiment in which evolutionary theory predicts a particular outcome. If the experiment fails, then evolutionary theory has failed the test. There is no "final proof" of evolution, but there is abundant evidence supporting evolutionary theory (indicating, for instance, that both humans and modern apes are related to primates who lived millions of years ago, or that modern-day birds are related to the dinosaurs), and none disproving it. ID is not a "scientific challenge"; it postulates simply that because science doesn't fully explain how various organisms evolved, there must have been a higher intelligence beyond material science at work.

Tony Snow again:

ID is useful largely because it punctures the myth of scientific invincibility, while providing a basis for promoting the cause of "hard" science. Sure, science involves trial and error. Scientists refine theories each day. But as they do, they help us grasp more clearly the wonders of the world and the universe.

Scientific inquiry and ID provide useful angles of approach to ultimate questions. Here's how to make both sides happy: Let science teachers tell kids that science is a matter of inspired guesswork, not of invincible decree. Eventually, new theories will arise to wipe away weaknesses and inconsistencies in today's scientific orthodoxy.

Sorry, but does the guy have any idea what he's talking about? Yes, of course science is not "invincible." No scientist worth his or her salt teaches that it is. While ID proponents imagine that the scientific establishment is locked into a rigid orthodoxy that brooks no challenge, the truth is that scientific hypotheses are constantly challenged, revised, and even disproved. For every scientist who is invested in the "orthodoxy," there's probably at least a dozen who would love nothing more than to revolutionize their field. But the status quo must be challenged through scientific inquiry, not through "inspired guesswork" or "I don't understand how it happened, therefore God must have done it" fuzzy logic.

(By the way, Snow's proposal that students ought to be taught to view science as "inspired guesswork" provides one good answer to the sneering question, "What are you monkey people so afraid of?" That's what. That way, folks, lies scientific illiteracy and abandonment of reason.)

The drive behind ID is not science; it's religion, and the perceived threat of science to religion. In his excellent New Republic article, "The Faith That Dares Not Speak Its Name" (subscriber only, but a PDF version is available here), evolutionary scientist Jerry Coyne quotes mathematician Wiliam Dembski, one of the much-vaunted "real scientists" who champion ID:

But there are deeper motivations. I think at a fundamental level, in terms of what drives me in this is that I think God's glory is being robbed by these naturalistic approaches to biological evolution, creation, the origin of the world, the origin of biological complexity and diversity. When you are attributing the wonders of nature to these mindless material mechanisms, God's glory is getting robbed.

Many people worry that an acceptance of naturalistic evolution erodes religious values and promotes a nihilistic world-view in which all morality is relative and life has no higher purpose or meaning: we're all animals, after all. I don't see why it has to work this way. Humans, whether by dint of evolution or creation, are capable of reason and have a sense of right and wrong; we should live accordingly. I myself don't care for militant atheism, and I don't think it's right to use science in its service. I myself am an agnostic who would like to believe that there are some transcendent things in our existence, and who does not regard the concept of the human soul as hopelessly outmoded. If I were religious, I don't think I would want to tie my faith to so shaky a foundation as ID. There are, in fact, many scientists who accept evolution and believe in God, and many religious people (and organizations) who believe that evolution is not incompatible with a belief in God or in any particular religion.

Last year, the National Center for Science Education unveiled a website for teachers called "Understanding Evolution." It features a section explaining that many religious groups, theologians, and scientists who hold religious beliefs endorse evolutionary theory -- obviously in an attempt to placate concerns that the teaching of evolution undercuts faith. ID proponents cried foul, complaining that the insidious evolutionists were "trying to unconstitutionally mix church and state," using taxpayer dollars to promote the correct (pro-evolution) religious viewpoint. That takes some chutzpah.

There was a time, not too long ago, when conservatives stood in defense of science and reason against politically correct attacks on science from radical feminists, Afrocentrists, environmental extremists, and post-modernists who rejected the concept of objective reality. I miss those days.

Update: Another good rebuttal to some standard anti-evolution arguments about the fossil record. Hat tip: Rand Simberg.

Update: And one more good post by Tom Smith at The Right Coast, another conservative and Christian who explains why Darwinian biology belongs in science classroom and "Intelligent Design" does not.


Anonymous said...

Great post. Why would any religious folks want to hitch their faith to what ID proponents maintain is a scientific theory? The RC Church used to do that kind of thing, and the ghost of Galileo can tell you where it got them.

Anonymous said...

Amen, Sister!

Tim said...

What I like about the ID debate is that a lot of people are learning a lot about what science is and what it is not just by listening to the fuss. Despite it's silliness, it is educational, and education inevitably undermines false argument. The ID proponents are shooting at their own feet.

Conversely, and by the way, I often found the Dawkins/Gould arguments irritating because they fell out over the fine points of science that went right over most people's heads. ID is much more fun.

That said, even many scientists seem to be unaware that, ultimately, science does not answer any teleological questions. It answers "how?" questions, not "why?". Science, ultimately, is not a threat to religion, only its ill-founded manifestations.

beAzl said...

When I went to graduate school in mathematics, there was a fellow Ph.D. candidate who worked very hard, was very bright, and seemed to have a promising future (I haven’t followed his progress since graduating). We often sought his suggestions when we got stuck on problems, etc.

His primary focus was on probability and statistics. He was obsessed about it. The reason? He wanted to prove that the probability that life could spontaneously come about in the primeval muck was statistically impossible. Yes, he was a devout Christian.

The point is, controversy inspires people. Students’ exposure to evolution probably sticks in their minds longer than, well, math, because people on both "sides" are so much more passionate about it (including yourself). So I agree with johndoe’s implication, and Tony Snow as well, that exposing students to "controversies," even if it really isn't much of a controversy in the scientific community, might have some positive repercussions – it might inspire more interest in the sciences and philosophy. Of course, it would be even better if students could instead become equally passionate about the “true” scientific controversies, the ones that the leading scientists are actively shouting at each other about currently. But these are generally so arcane and specialized, attempting to do so would be fruitless.

Having taught to math students a few years --I have since moved on to greener pastures-- I can say that the biggest problem with today’s students is not that they are clinging to wrong, “unenlightened” beliefs. It’s that they could care less. Roger L. Simon’s contention that it is vital to our economy that students accept evolutionary theory in its entirety seems rather far-fetched to me. (Nor btw do I find Richard Bennet’s argument that terrorists will gain strength from ID very compelling. This argument seems about as reactionary as anything I've heard on the other side). What is important for our economy is that students learn to argue a point coherently, read and understand differing opinions, and consider the pursuit of the truth at least as important as landing a date.

So to both "sides" I say: bring it on!

As for what should be taught in the schools, I agree with Saletan: Emphasize those areas where scientists agree there are gaps – inspire students to fill in the gaps. Tony Snow is wrong that science "is a matter of inspired guesswork" if by "a matter of" he means that's all there is to it. But I do think filling in the gaps generally does ***begin*** with an inspired guess. The problem with ID appears not to be that it is a guess, but the rest of the process isn't there.

orrinj said...

I believe you've misunderstood the gist of the critique in at some portion of the Right--it is not that I.D. is science but that Darwinism is not. The two are virtually identical and belong in the same classroom, whichever you choose to make it, science class or a philosophy class.

Anonymous said...

I believe that once other passionate parents get equally inspired and try to flood the science classrooms with their preferred versions of "the beginning" (based on their religeon), this idea that every possibility, no matter how much support, deserves an opportunity to be taught in Science classrooms might disappear.

Its either pretty disengenious or uninformed or both to say that the scientific evidence behind evolution and ID are equal to the point they deserve equal time in the science classroom.

It also seems to be the perplexing norm in dicussion/debate nowadays that a true critique of an idea, no matter how small, somehow is felt to override a largly unequal weighing of positives in that ideas favor.

Maybe the solution is for Science classes to spend equal time on the actual scientific proof for each -- after all it is Science class. They could teach darwinism for a week, mention that there is still no solid proof and only theories regarding the very point that might have kicked it all off. Then add a one sentance disclaimer that some people believe that there is an intelligent being that worked in lieu of evolution. Then support that with time for the science behind ID.........oh! next topic I guess.

And to be fair and carry this out to its end, in religeon class, the time spent on each topic would be distinclty opposite.

orrinj said...

Anonymous said They could teach darwinism for a week, mention that there is still no solid proof and only theories regarding the very point that might have kicked it all off.

That's precisely the point here. There's no dispute about evolution--even Genesis provides an evolutionary account of Creation, with common descent and stages of development. The only dispute is about whether the mechanism of evolution is entirely Natural and random; is tweaked in various places by an intelligent actor or actors; or is a function of the Creator. The accurate assertion that there's no proof in favor of Darwinism suggests why it should be taught along with the other theories. It's not that I.D. is scientific but that Darwinism isn't.

Anonymous said...

My point was ...... its Science class.

While I think any holes in scientific theory should be mentioned (kids indeed should be taught to think for themselves) you can't introduce a new chapter that is not based on science in a class called Science.....its not a debate class or a class about why we as humans are here (leave that for philospohy class)....its a class meant to teach scientific principles and well supported scientific theory.

Sure point out the holes in the scientific argument....but so far there is no legitimate science behind ID, so until you have some push those ideas in another more appropriate class.

And please stop pointing to one negative in a theory as evidence that another theory is of equal merit. The right method would be to take a pencil and make a list of all the science behind each and then the another side by side list of the holes in each theory. Under this logical decision making scrutiny the decision to include a substantive chapter on ID falls completely apart.

That would be a more logical...or dare I say scientific....way to compare these.

Mark B. said...

First, let's drop the term "Darwinism" - we are talking about the theory of the evolution of species by the process of natural selection, not the pet idea of one man. Darwin was the first to publish this theory, but it was also derived independently by Alfred Russell Wallace in the 1840's and 50's - in fact, Darwin was only motivated to publish in order to establish his precedence, which Wallace quite generously granted him. Evolutionary theory also incorporates the genetic principles established by Mendel, as well as centuries of paleontological and geological research and observation.

I'm flabbergasted by the claim that there is no "proof" of evolution through natural selection - the studies of auk speciation in the Arctic, moths in Great Britain, the famous Galapagos finches, not to mention the continuous evolution of insect and microbial species in response to chemical insecticides all show that species change over generations in response to changes in their environments. How, exactly does ID allow for evolutionary change? I see no real natural mechanism in ID - species or characteristics are created, period. Evolution relies on the reproductive characteristics of species and the study of genetic variance to explain emprical data; ID simply invokes a Designer or Creator – where’s the “science” in that? We can test evolutionary models by examining the fossil record or by recording the changes in present-day environments and species; in ID, we simply assume that the Designer was “tinkering” or tweaking. A scientific theory must be testable and falsifiable, and ID, unlike natural selection, is neither.

I have no problem in presenting creationism as an early attempt to understand the world, one that was perfectly valid in its day. The fact that Lamarck was driven to propose his theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics in the 18th Century suggests that even by that time creationism was found to be an inadequate explanation for observed phenomena in the natural world. Let's not mince words here - ID is simply creationism in another guise, and without religious backing this "competing" theory wouldn't exist. Evolutionary theory is based on solid scientific thought and observation; ID is based on the desire to deny that thought. It is not equivalent to evolutionary theory, and it has no place in a science classroom

orrinj said...

The peppered moths are, for instance, a notorious hoax and the great line about the finches is that only God and Peter Grant can tell the "species" apart. There simply are no instances of observed speciation by Natural Selection, nor experiments demonstrating it, as even Ernst Mayr conceded. It's a philosophy, not a science. Go ahead and teach it in science class, so long as you teach the other philosophies as well. Fortunately, Natural Selection has no scientific importance [], so not learning it at all will have no effect on students' preparedness.

[Darwinism is just short for Natural Selection in the same way that Creationism covers all of the various beliefs that evolution is God driven.]

Cathy Young said...

Interesting suggestions about "teaching the debate." Gerald Graff suggests the same in an interesting article at Inside Higher Ed the other day.

I suspect, however, that if an accurate presentation of the debate were given in the classroom, the parents who want ID taught would cry foul.

Mark B., excellent post, particularly about scientists other than Darwin working toward the discovery of evolution.

Orrin: that dog won't hunt. While actual speciation may not have been observed by scientists, it is supported by plenty of evidence in the fossil record.

orrinj said...

Yes, the fossil record tells us that speciation occurred, just not how. ID, Creationism anmd Darwinism all offer unscientific theories--philosophies, if you will--of what the mechanism is. Teach kids that life evolved, as all three agree, but then either tell them we don't know how and why or teach them the three main theories, of which Darwinism has the fewest adherents in America. To insist that only Darwinism be taught is to impose one faith, that of the smallest minority, above the others. It is effectively an establishment of religion.

Cathy Young said...

Orrin, biology provides us with evidence of (1) the evolution of organisms through natural selection and (2) speciation. It provides us with plenty of evidence to conclude that speciation can occur through natural selection. This is not "faith," it's the scientific method, and no matter how many times you repeat to yourself, "Darwinism is just another faith, Darwinism is just another faith, Darwinism is just another faith," it just ain't so.

To use this evidence to conclude that there is no God would indeed be a matter of faith. As far as I can see, though, no one here is advocating that.

There is zero evidence to support creationism. (The existence of a species genetically unrelated to any other would provide such evidence.)

If you want to believe that natural selection is guided by an intelligent designer, you can beleive that. The evidence can fit into such a hypothesis. But that's the problem with ID: anything is explainable as consistent with ID. That's why it's not science but a catchall explanation for how things happened.

By the way, if the hypothesis is that the intelligent designer is actually intelligent and benevolent as well, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence to contradict that. Why would such a being make us so prone to cancer? Why would he, she, or it design the human body in such a way that upright walking puts a major strain on it? Why did it make reproduction a process that, until modern medicine, killed large numbers of females of reproductive age? Why, to use an example someone has cited recently, did it run the male urethra through an organ (the prostate) which is prone to swelling? And so on and so forth.

orrinj said...

Accepting that speciation "can" occur through Natural Selection even though irt has not been observed to do so nor can the result be reproduced in the lab is quite simply faith-based, rather than scientific.

Your quarrel with the quality of the intelligence behind the design is the same as Darwin's was and is fundamentally a theological dispute--"why does evil exist if there's a God and He is benevolent?"--not a scientific matter at all.

You are, of course, welcome to your faith in Darwinism. However, if one faith is going to be taught in what are putatively science classes then the others, which most Americans believe instead, should be taught as well. The more honest solution is obviously just to teach kids the science--that life evolved--and then admit to them that there is no scientific explanation of how or why, only a variety of philosophical explantions.

Darwinists can obviously not concede that their beliefs are not science, so I'll not expect to change your mind, or that of any of the other commenters. But you must be aware that in a country where only about 13% of the population believes that evolution was not guided by God ( this is an argument that y'all can't win the long run and a compromise that would at least allow Darwinism to remain a part of the curiculum woiuld seem the best you're likely to achieve.

Thanks for your time and your consideration,

Cathy Young said...

Orrin: Darwinism does not address the issue of whether there is a God behind natural selection or not. It simply addresses the fact that natural selection occurred. That is evidence, not "faith."

The assertion that Darwinism is a "religion" is plainly preposterous, since there are quite a few people (such as National Review's John Derbyshire) who accept the fact of natural selection and also belong to one of the established faiths.

Check out, as well, the post by Tom Smith of, who I believe is a practicing Catholic; I'm adding a link to the body of my post.

beAzl said...

Okay, this is pretty weird. The Ph.D. candidate I was describing above was William Dembski, one of the founders of ID.

Cathy Young said...

beazl -- really!!!

Actually, having read your post I thought, "Hm, that sounds a bit like Dembski."

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