Thursday, February 19, 2009

Evolution and Intelligent Design

There is currently a fierce but lop-sided debate in Hong Kong regarding the teaching of alternate theories to evolution and natural selection, and more specifically, Intelligent Design.

The dominant position, as seen from the media, is that evolution is the only acceptable scientific theory. By evolution, it is meant (with gross simplification): nothing -> simple elements -> inorganic compounds -> organic matter -> simple life forms -> complex life forms -> animals -> humans. According to this view, theories such as Intelligent Design are simply religious dogma and must be banned from any discussions of science, even in a university.

As far I can understand, Intelligent Design argues that certain features of the universe and living things are so complex that it is unlikely to be produced by undirected processes such as natural selection, but more likely to be produced by an intelligent cause. To me, this argument is worthy of being investigated in science. It may be wrong, but let us see the arguments and the evidences before we decide. That is the spirit of science.

Researchers in Intelligent Design should submit their arguments and evidences to reputable conferences and journals just like other scientific researchers. Let their peers review and debate the merit of their work.

Whether Intelligent Design is science is not the decision of reporters, talk show hosts, government officials, and even university administrators. It should be the domain of fellow scientists.

Banning the discussion of such theories from scientific studies is dogmatic.



26 comments:

Malcolm said...

Stephen,
That is an interesting post - but it contains a few misconceptions.

First - ID is not a theory in the scientific sense of the word. A scientific theory needs to be supported by evidence, to help explain observations, and to allow predictions that can be confirmed by experiment and/or observation. ID has none of those features.

Instead ID says "Some features of life are really complicated. It's hard to imagine how they could have evolved, its easier to say that a designer (and of course we don't meant the Christian god *wink*) must have done it."

ID fails to present evidence, it offers no explanation of observed data, and fails to make any testable predictions. In otherwords it is not falsifiable, it cant be proved wrong, so it is not science.

A little research into the history of ID would show you that it is the product of the Discovery Institute which has the stated aim "To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and hurnan beings are created by God." (Search Google for the Wedge Document, 1999)

Teaching Creationism in US schools was ruled unconstitutional in the 70's. so they renamed it Creation Science, and tried again. The was also ruled illegal in the 80's. So they reimagined it as ID, and tried again, and again it was declared to be a religious teaching and ruled illegal. (Search Google for the Dover Trial. 2005)

That is why this debate is so public. The overwhelming majority of practicing Biologists reject ID as science, The US courts have confirmed that view, so now they are using public venues and the media to appeal to the public, over the heads of scientists, to try and get their views taught in US schools. (Google "dissent from Darwin", "Project Steve", Evolution + Strengths and Weaknesses").

An example of a real scientist's response to a discovery institute request for a debate put it more eloquently than I can:
"Instead of spending time on public debates, why aren't members of your institute publishing their ideas in prominent peer-reviewed journals such as Science, Nature, or the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences? If you want to be taken seriously by scientists and scholars, this is where you need to publish. Academic publishing is an intellectual free market, where ideas that have credible empirical support are carefully and thoroughly explored. Nothing could possibly be more exciting and electrifying to biology than scientific disproof of evolutionary theory or scientific proof of the existence of a god. That would be Nobel Prize winning work, and it would be eagerly published by any of the prominent mainstream journals."

For the source of that quote see
http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/02/how_to_respond_to_requests_to.php

The other thing in your post that concerned me was your characterisation of evolution
"nothing -> simple elements -> inorganic compounds -> organic matter -> simple life forms -> complex life forms -> animals -> humans"

In fact Evolution in biological terms simply means change of life forms over time.

nothing -> simple elements -> inorganic compounds This is the area of Physicists and astronomers, not biologists and evolutionary theory.

inorganic compounds -> organic matter -> simple life forms
This is the field of abiogenesis (study of life from non-living matter). While there are several hypotheses of how this could have occurred, none is yet generally accepted as the theory of abiogenesis.

simple life forms -> complex life forms -> animals -> humans.
This is the area of evolution. However it seems misleading to me as it suggests that animals and especially humans are somehow the highest product of evolution. A better characterisation might be
simple life forms -> complex life forms (such as plants, and animals including humans).

Sorry for such a long reply - but this topic has been on my mind recently and there was a lot of information waiting to get out!

Anonymous said...

I don't want to get into a debate in this nice little blog of Stephen's, but I must point out the fallacies in Malcolm's post.

1) There cannot be scientific proof of the existence of a god. There can neither be scientific proof of the non-existence of a god.

2) In a nutshell, nothing --> simple elements --> inorganic compounds --> organic matter --> simple life forms --> complex fife forms --> humans is evolution. About 10 years after Pasteur's refutation of spontaneous generation, Darwin mentioned the idea of abiogenesis, "some warm little pond" in a letter. This is the area of chemical evolution, though of course he didn't use the term.

3) There is microevolution, and macroevolution. No one argues with microevolution. Microevolution is slight, short-term evolutionary changes within species. Macroevolution is the origin and diversification of species. ID questions whether Darwinian evolution (abiogenesis, common ancestor, descent with modification, natural selection, random genetic mutation) can account for the many macroevolutionary changes and the origin of biological complexity.

4) Have there been detailed mechanisms or models of intermediates in the development of complex biological structures? There are alternative explanations for homologous structures and universally shared biochemical processes etc. (The scientific method cannot be used to argue for evolution here. So is evolution really science? Evolutionists' arguments are: it must have happened in this way. But give me the evidence please.)

5) Scientists should be allowed to follow evidences to the conclusions, even though they may feel uncomfortable with the conclusions. a priori commitment to only naturalistic explanations is a 'religious faith' in sicence itself.

6) The naturalistic worldview has dominated academia for the past 150 years. It is naive to think there is no persecution for dissidents. Just check out what happened to Prof. Reiss (himself an evolutionist) of the Royal Society in Sept 2008. Even suggestions for debating evolution are not allowed.

7) Scientists are people too. We have our likes and dislikes and prejudices. Science done by people cannot be totally neutral.

Evolutionists believe the universe has no design, no purpose. The inevitable outlook is: humans are one big (or maybe just a small) accident. They don't know where they are going. To me, this is sad. But maybe since there's no evolutionary advantage of being sad, natural selection will select for pitiless indifference.

Malcolm said...

Hmmmm. You say you "must point out the fallacies in" my last post - but you do nothing of the sort - instead you lay out a rehash ID creationist talking points that have been repeatedly shown to be false.

1)You say there cannot be scientific proof of the existence or non existence of a god.

But the whole point of ID is the claim that they *can* prove the existence of a designer/god by detecting traces of it's intervention in the otherwise natural process of evolution.

Basic logic says you cannot prove a negative proposition. We can't prove a god does not exist - all we can say is that there is no evidence available to us that proves that one does exist.

2) The scope of 'evolution'. the word 'Evolution' simply means change over time.
In terms of the debate between mainstream science and ID creationism 'Evolution' is shorthand for "the change in genetic make up of populations over time". The study of biological evolution has never included the origins of the universe, matter etc.

3) Microevolution/Macroevolution,
I quote from the wikipedia entry for microevolution. If you don't like wikipedia there are many other sources which confirm this:

The claim that microevolution is qualitatively different from macroevolution is fallacious as the main difference between the two processes is that one occurs within a few generations, whilst the other is seen to occur over thousands of years (ie. a quantitative difference). Essentially they describe the same process.

The attempt to differentiate between microevolution and macroevolution is considered to have no scientific basis by any mainstream scientific organization...


4)Have there been detailed mechanisms or models of intermediates in the development of complex biological structures?

The quick answer is yes for some structures, but obviously not for all.

I'm not sure how your question points out a fallacy in my previous post nor how it calls into doubt the validity of evolutionary theory.

I assume you're referring to the ID concept of Irreducible Complexity which claims that certain structures could not have evolved, and must therefore have been created by a designer/god.

Both of the examples cited by ID proponents (the cascade of proteins in mammalian blood clotting, and the bacterial flagellum) have been shown to have simpler precursors, and thus not to be irreducibly complex.

And as I said above - You cannot prove a negative. You cannot prove that it is impossible for a particular structure to have evolved - the best you can do is to say 'as yet we don't know how it could have'.

5)Scientists should be allowed to follow evidences to the conclusions

Absolutely. That is the basis of of the scientific method. Unfortunately for the ID creationist movement they are leaping to their desired conclusion (ie that an interventionist designer/god exists) without evidence.
See the quotation in my previous comment for elaboration on the need for ID theorists to produce data.

There is no 'a priori commitment to only naturalistic explanations' , rather an 'a priori requirement that conclusions be supported by data'.

You are free to believe a designer/god was involved in the evolutionary process - but without evidence no one else is required to take your belief seriously.

6)"The naturalistic worldview has dominated academia for the past 150 years". True. That's because it's a worldview that works and produces results. When praying or chanting or some other invocation of the supernatural/immaterial can reliably produce a faster computer, or a cure for cancer or anything useful at all they'll get their place in academia too.

It is naive to think there is no persecution for dissidents" (How does this relate to a fallacy in my original post?). The Reiss case was unfortunate. He made some comments which were mis-reported and mis-interpreted in the press and raised some knee jerk reactions. However Reiss supports evolutionary theory, has stated that there is no scientific support for creationism, and is a member of the royal Society - all very much mainstream establishment rather than an outsider or dissident.

8)Scientists...have...likes and dislikes and prejudices...cannot be totally neutral
Absolutely. And that is why we have the scientific method. Requiring evidence, and repeatable observations etc, followed by peer review and discussion is the best method society has developed to eliminate the biases produced by individual prejudices.

And this is the process that has tested and rejected the conclusions of ID creationists as being without merit.

Evolutionists believe the universe has no design, no purpose
Another creationist canard. You're trying to equate accepting the evidence for evolution with atheism. There are plenty of religionists who also accept the fact of biological evolution. The Revd. Prof. Reiss who you mentioned is an ordained CofE minister, and a scientist. The Catholic church accepts the fact of evolution, while claiming that their god guides the process - neither of those two believes the universe "the universe has no design, no purpose"...

Lots of stuff in your post - but none of it does anything to change the facts that inspired my original post: Intelligent Design is not science, has no scientific evidence to support it, is rejected by every major scientific organisation that has expressed an opinon, and has to date produced no research projects or data.
When or if that changes ID will get a place at the table - until then it will remain on the kooky fringe, complaining of persecution to anyone willing to listen.

Anonymous said...

I agree to disagree.

I'm not going to elaborate on each point, but the main ideas are:

Do you know what a true experiment is? What is a control? Science, done most rigorously, cannot prove the existence or non-existence of God.

It's simply not true that microevolution and macroevolution are not accepted by any mainstream scientific organization. Such terms are used and defined in updated U.S. university-level textbooks and evolutionary biology textbooks (not written by creationists nor ID people).

You mentioned "You cannot prove that it is impossible for a particular structure to have evolved" suggests that Darwinian evolution is unfalsifiable - this is exactly the charge you made against ID.

ID is open to falsification by lab experiments. But let's read the original journal papers, and not secondary sources with reinterpretations and misinterpretations.

Prof. Reiss' case demonstrates the uneven playing field in academia and publication. Even an insider (Reiss), who suggested that evolution and creation should be debated, was misinterpreted and ousted. Of course he is not a dissident. But what does this 'unfortunate' event signal to dissidents?

I do not plan to go on with this debate, but to show that it is not my imagination about a prior commitment to only naturalistic explanations, I quote Richard Lewontin,an evolutionary biologist, "We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to Materialism (naturalism). Materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door."

Whether science and faith are at odds is another issue, and I do not plan to dwell on this now.

Malcolm said...

Agree to disagree is right - as we're both aware, this sort of debate rarely changes anyone's opinion..

I'll follow your lead and not go into every point. But at least there is one point where we seem to have potential to agree: Scientific proof of the existence of a god.

You seem to be under the impression that I think science can prove or disprove the existence of a god. If you read what I wrote in my previous posts you'll see that I've been arguing the opposite.

The ID movement claims certain biological features could not have evolved naturally and so must have been designed and built in by a designer/god.

I have been arguing that their logic is faulty and hence their claim to have proved the existence of a designer is invalid.

So - we both agree there is currently no way to prove god's existence or lack of it.

Of course if an omnipotent god does exist I'm sure it could provide incontrovertible proof or evidence of it's existence if it so chose - but so far it has not chosen to do so..

Go in peace.

StephenC said...

We human beings like to think that if God does exist, then He should prove Himself to us. I'd like to think that a little humility on our part would be in order.

Anonymous said...

In response to Malcolm, I just want to say that in your first comment to this blog, you said "a real scientist's response to a discovery institute request for a debate put it more eloquently than I can: '...Nothing could possibly be more exciting and electrifying to biology than scientific disproof of evolutionary theory or scientific proof of the existence of a god. That would be Nobel Prize winning work, and it would be eagerly published by any of the prominent mainstream journals.'

So, I have not misunderstood you; you used the quote to support your view that there could be scientific proof of the existence of a god.

This is totally shocking to hear a 'real scientist' uttering such absurdities, and I salute you for having partially figured out now this point of scientific proof of the existence of a god.

You mentioned in your latest blog that "...currently no way to prove god's existence or lack of it."

Currently, or in the future, science has no way to prove the existence of God. Real scientists do know this as a fact.

Thanks for your time - this has been an interesting weekend.

Anonymous said...

Stephen's point is well taken.

To give a "down-to-earth" example: Suppose I do not believe in the existence of Obama. There are evidences that he exists, but I will only believe he really exists if he comes before me, turns around a few times, and shakes my hand.

Now, now, who am I, to demand that the U.S. President should appear before me to convince me he exists?

Malcolm said...

Stephen said:
We human beings like to think that if God does exist, then He should prove Himself to us.

My thinking is more along the lines that if a god exists and wants belief or worship from me then it will have to provide me with some evidence that it exists and of it's nature. Otherwise I have no way of knowing which of the myriad gods that mankind has worshiped over history I am offending by not believing in them...

In the absence of any such evidence I shall continue trying to lead a good life, using my own judgment to determine what constitutes 'good' as i go..


To 'anonymous':

If an omnipotent god exists, it could, if it so chose, provide incontrovertible evidence of its existence.

Once that evidence was provided, observed, and confirmed it would constitute proof of the god's existence. Whether that would be science proving the god's existence or the god proving it's own is a semantic quibble - it would still be proof of the god's existence.

What evidence would be sufficient to prove that it was provided by 'god the creator of the universe' rather than say some super advanced alien species pretending to be a god I can't say. But that's not my problem - god's omnipotent so it shouldn't be a problem for her... ;)

StephenC said...

God being God, He/She does not need anything from us. Instead, it is us human beings who want to know: Why am I here? Where am I going? How can I escape from suffering and the certainty of death? ...

For someone who does not feel the need, perhaps God is irrelevant.

Either way, God does not need to prove Himself to me. It is me who want answers; hence I have to be humble.

Malcolm said...

Hi Stephen,
I've enjoyed the past few days visiting your blog.

God doesn't need to prove anything to me - unless he wants something from me - in which case I'd be delighted to take his call.

In the meantime, for me, the answers that kept me alive and comforted me when I was ill and close to death came from science.

I've made my peace with the inevitability of my death, and (in answer to a common question)- that does not make my life meaningless - rather it encourages me to value the short time I have on this planet.

Each to his own I guess.

Go in peace,

Malcolm

Michael said...

First - ID is not a theory in the scientific sense of the word. A scientific theory needs to be supported by evidence, to help explain observations, and to allow predictions that can be confirmed by experiment and/or observation. ID has none of those features.

Has anyone observed macro-evolution? I mean really, if macro-evolution would have to be observed then tested with accurate predictions then macro-evolution shouldn't be a science nor a theory because it can not fulfill such a requirement.

Intelligent design advocates life forms have an thinking process that constitutes a source of information. This agent, could be anything but yet it doesn't try to ID it. It doesn't advocating everything is intelligently designed unlike creationism.

I agree with Stephen who seems to look at science objectively and allow other voices to speak and be heard in the realm of the scientific establishment!

Malcolm said...

Hello Michael,
You start by quoting my statement that : ID is not a theory in the scientific sense of the word.

Then you ignore that quotation and instead leap to discussing macroevolution. I'd like to remind you that the whether macroevolution is true or not has no bearing on whether ID is a scientific theory. ID remains without evidence, without data, and is therefor neither science or a scientific theory.

Moving on to your point:
Has anyone observed macro-evolution? The answer is YES!
Macroevolution (defined as evolution of new species) has been observed and documented many times. Google "speciation event" or "nylonase bacteria" for many examples.

Anyone who has studied biology will tell you that there is no real difference between micro- and macro-evolution , only the timescale.

It is only people (usually religiously inspired) who need to believe that no new species has ever arisen on the earth who try to assert a qualitative difference between the two.

You continue"if macro-evolution would have to be observed then tested with accurate predictions then macro-evolution shouldn't be a science nor a theory because it can not fulfill such a requirement.

Macroevolution is not a theory - it is a description of part of the process described by the Theory of Evolution. And yes, the T of E is science, and has been tested thousands of times over the past 150 years, and remains the best explanation humanity has for the diversity of life on this planet.

Intelligent design advocates life forms have an thinking process that constitutes a source of information.

I'm not clear exactly what that sentence means. The definition of ID that I use is from the Discovery institute web site: Intelligent design is the assertion 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.

That is the idea or assertion of ID. However there is to date, no evidence that it is true, and no research is being done to try and find such evidence. That is why ID is not considered science.

I ...look at science objectively and allow other voices to speak and be heard ...
I also try to look at science objectively and allow other voices to be heard. No one is stopping you or other ID advocates from stating opinions.
But if what you say is false then I will point out the errors.

If you, or anyone else want ID to be accepted as science all you have to do is provide empirical evidence that the ID assertion is true, then publish that evidence!

Saying evolution is wrong, or that macroevolution does not happen is NOT evidence.

Publish the evidence - that's all you need to do to get ID accepted. The ideas will be debated and challenged and if they stand up they will be accepted as science (and probably gain the author a Nobel prize).

Science is not about what someone wants to believe, it's about what the evidence shows.
ID could be true, there could be a designer, but so far there is no evidence at all that such a designer exists - so ID remains speculation, not science.

Michael said...

Greetings Malcolm

You make the following statements;Publish the evidence - that's all you need to do to get ID accepted. The ideas will be debated and challenged and if they stand up they will be accepted as science (and probably gain the author a Nobel prize)...

Science is not about what someone wants to believe, it's about what the evidence shows.

I disagree, it is all about what people believe! For example, Reverse transcription of RNA was discovered back in the 1960s but was soundly rejected and laughed at by the scientific community.

So you see, a valid scientific discovery was rejected by disbelief by those who thought they knew better despite the evidence!

Science writer Gordy Slack wrote back in 2008;

I think it is disingenuous to argue that the origin of life is irrelevant to evolution. It is no less relevant than the Big Bang is to physics or cosmology.

Evolution should be able to explain, in theory at least, all the way back to the very first organism that could replicate itself through biological or chemical processes. And to understand that organism fully, we would simply have to know what came before it.

And right now we are nowhere close. I believe a material explanation will be found, but that confidence comes from my faith that science is up to the task of explaining, in purely material or naturalistic terms, the whole history of life. My faith is well founded, but it is still faith.


Gordy is honest, sadly he rejects creationism, but admits his faith in evolution which puts one theory on top of another theory for example, experiments at LMU claim the weakest can come out to be the winner for survival.

Roger Buick, a paleontologist and astrobiologist said, “it appears that almost all of their major evolution took place before we have any record of them, way back in the dark mists of prehistory.”

Ok if that's the case, how could microbe evolution have any possible footing in empirical science? We are talking faith again!

While I agree with the premise it's experimental science not just saying this doesn't work or that will work. But I contend, evolution is a complex metaphysical research program!

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