Saturday, August 13, 2005

An Evolving Understanding of Our Origins

I just returned from vacation to catch my Tivo recording of the recent History Channel special "Ape to Man", a terrific and timely new documentary chronicling the development of human evolutionary theory. The program covers the span of over 150 years, from pre-Darwinian ideas to the realization of man's common ancestry in Africa and the importance of the use of tools.

Rather then offering just a dry, encyclopedic recital, "Ape to Man" focuses on the chronological advancement of scientific thought on the subject. Key moments are reenacted, from the finding of Neanderthal fossils in Germany in the 1850s up through the famous discovery of "Lucy" in 1974. The scientific history is interspersed with vignettes featuring superbly costumed and cosmeticized actors dramatizing situations like hunting, fighting, and utilizing fire. This may sound cheesy, but surprisingly enough, it is all done so well and fits so neatly into the flow of the documentary as to be completely engrossing.

Any mention of evolutionary theory these days would be remiss not to notice this is a time when anti-evolutionists are gaining momentum by pushing the idea of "intelligent design". This concept has been in the news a lot as of late, drawing apparent support from President Bush and being touted as an alternative to teaching evolution in the classroom.

"Intelligent design" holds that the complexity of life is so great that it could only have been overseen by a supernatural force. There are two ways to interpret this--one, of course, is that this is just a nuanced rewording of the creationist position. In this respect, the idea of "intelligent design" is just a subtle but so far surprisingly effective assault on science and on public education. The idea of uncertainty in the current scientific viewpoint, however, is a reasonable enough idea. There is a bottomless supply of questions to which science yet has no answer. In the context of establishing a basis for scientific thought, however, the idea is fallacious.

Consider that the essence of science is a constant, millennia-old progression of our ability to understand our world. We are always striving to improve that understanding. Scientific explanations are made to the best of our ability based on the ascertained information we possess. Introducing intelligent design into the classroom does a great disservice to science, for the idea is not a scientific one. This is not a debate about whether there is or is not a God, so don't let that topic, irrelevant to the matter at hand, distract you. It's that science is not, as a letter to the LA Times recently pointed out, about points of view.

In the decades and centuries to come, we will almost certainly refine our ideas about our origins. "Ape to Man" did a great job, I thought, in showing how the "evolution of evolution" was in no way easily contrived. In addition to the requisite inspiration and perspiration, scientists had to overcome many missteps (and even intentional falsehoods) to arrive at the current theory of our origins. Even now, science is still trying to solve the unexplained. Intelligent design, though, can never provide any answers, and it still begs the questions of "why?" and "how?" Furthermore, the faux-security it provides cheapens the value of the rational scientific thought that is supposed to be a cornerstone of education.

Here's the beauty of science: if an idea is flawed, it will be cast by the wayside, and we will be better off for abandoning it. If the idea is tested and strengthened, then we all go to sleep feeling more confident that yet another great mystery has been solved by the might of human ingenuity. Regardless of the outcome, that's called progress. So to all challengers, bring it on!


Kevin said...

That's a pretty typical knee-jerk reaction from the science camp. Specifically what answer(s) do you want that intelligent design doesn't provide?

Jay said...

You misunderstand me, Kevin. I am not dismissing the idea of intelligent design--far from it. I have no problem with people suggesting a higher being or other organizing principle. (In fact, I don't even see that as somehow incompatible with science.)

I'm saying though that intelligent design is not suited for the science class because there is no scientific element to it.

Intelligent design takes a look at the unknown and says, ok, Something is responsible for this. Fair enough. But where's the science in that? On the other hand, current evolutionary theory (though admittedly a conjecture) is firmly grounded in science, based on our current best understanding of archaeology and biology. That's why it's taught in a science class.

What "intelligent design" offers is analagous to a philosophic answer to an engineering problem. An interesting perspective, but not the right tool for the job.

Kevin said...

Well, regardless of what you meant, that's the impression that I got (and rather strongly) from my first couple reads of your post.

Anyways, moving on, why not mention it in science classes? I'm not suggesting that you turn those classes into philosophy discussions, but it's only fair to bring ID up as a valid option. Not an answer, or a solution; just another avenue of possibility to be researched. When I took bio, at any rate (Ms. Taliaferro; did your year have her?), we discussed the possibilities of life starting when the exact right combination of chemicals just happened to land in something similar to a cell wall. We discussed a handful of other ideas too, and closed by saying that science doesn't YET have the answers. For now, ID as a theory is just as valid as any of the other theories.

As usual, this isn't a black and white case. I don't want to replace evolution with intelligent design. I was firmly in the evolution camp for many years, and still believe in it in full. But there are unanswered questions yet out there, and I think that it's only fair to have evolution and ID both brought up, side by side, as schools of thought that have promise.

If ID does turn out to be right, who's going to find out? The philosophers? No, it'll be the scientists, who will use the same strong, rational scientific process that we both hold dear. Just because Aquinas couldn't reconcile everything nicely doesn't mean someone won't be able to do so (or at least do better) in the future. If nobody ever studies ID again in a scientific (rather than philosophic) way, how will we ever know if it's right or wrong?

Jay said...

You don't say how scientists can prove intelligent design. If ID is true, I think some yet undiscovered or unexplained force will be found, though i can't say I when or how. How then to study it scientifially in class?

The thing is, ID's proponents don't care--they aren't interested in scientifically proving ID. They have introduced ID to assault science; they seek to replace science with a kowtow to the limits of man's ability to learn about the universe.

Just think, if we'd followed that logic all our lives, where would we be?

Again, keep in mind this has nothing to do with the veracity of ID or the existence of God, which many of the greatest scientists of all time have believed in the existence of.

The issue is what is to be accomplished by challenging current scientific thinking with another hypothesis that is unscientific in nature.

Kevin said...

I think you're beginning to blur the line between ID and creationism.

You say: "The thing is, ID's proponents don't care--they aren't interested in scientifically proving ID." Are you KIDDING me? ID proponents absolutely care! That's why I'm willing to defend them even though I don't necessarily agree with them and do laugh heartily at creationist jokes. (Speaking of which, did you see that Family Guy? "Average > Retarted > Peter > Creationists"; brilliant!) At least, ID's founders and respectable members care; as with any cause, there are hangers-on who twist the message to suit them and do not represent the movement as a whole. I'd like to hear one example of a serious ID supporter who doesn't care about science.

I never said that we should study ID scientifically in class at this point. Eight hundred years ago, I wouldn't have suggested studying the concept that all matter in the universe is made up of little things, let's call them "atoms," which are affected by a magical "electrical force." Just because a theory can't be studied fully at one time doesn't mean it won't eventually be.

Note, once again, that I said should be brought up, not studied in depth. It's obvious that it can't be studied in depth at this time, which you keep saying, presumably under the incorrect impression that I disagree. However, now that ID is out there, to proceed in a science class about the origins of life without mentioning it would be to give an incomplete treatment of the subject.

And you STILL haven't answered my original question.

Jay said...

Kevin, you asked "What answers do you want that intelligent design doesn't provide?"

I believe a theory should only be taught in a science class if it is based on scientific evidence. Evolutionary theory is based on fossil records, the idea of natural selection, and genetics. Intelligent design is based on...what?

I respect your desire to place this debate in the context of "academic freedom", but my position is best expressed by a Bill Maher quote: "You don't have to teach both sides of an issue if one side is a load of crap."

Your claim in the second paragraph of your most recent comment is one that is simply not backed up by the facts. Do you know where this whole ID thing started? This article in the NY Times explains how the ID movement has been carefully crafted and led by the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tanks.

Millions of dollars have been poured into the effort, financed by right-wing Christians and prominent conservatives. Their stated goal: to replace established science with a "broadly theistic understanding of nature."

To deny that intelligent design is not allied with a crowd hostile to science is simply not true.

Kevin said...

Intelligent design is a theory that has not yet been proven incorrect by science. It finds some evidence of the kind you want in fossil record gaps and other minor apparent contradictions.

Quotes are nice, until you try to use them as your arguments in debates. They aren't, in and of themselves, supports. Responding to your quote anyways, Maher's right. "A load of crap" would be teaching that 1 + 1 = 5; it's clearly and irrefutably wrong. ID, however, is no such load; it's an idea that can't yet be proven right, but certainly can't be proven wrong either.

I'll respond to your link (which is broken at the time I'm writing this comment, but I'm working off of your description) with one of my own: Washington Post article about Phillip Johnson.

As I said before, not all supporters (self-identified, of course) of any given cause/group are the kinds of people whom the group would want to have associated with it. There was a guy who camped outside an abortion clinic somewhere in the US South a few years ago with a digital camera. He posted pictures of doctors and clients entering and leaving the clinic on websites that insinuated that said people were evil and should be punished. Sure enough, someone was assaulted; I don't remember details, but I remember that that's why the guy was on the news. He called himself a journalist. I hope I never meet him, 'cause I'm liable to punch him in the face for tarnishing the word journalist.

Point is, not all supposed ID proponents stay true to the spirit of the movement, which is itself changing. I think the people who actually genuinely support ID are reasonable and worth listening to, and radicals are attempting to co-opt and corrupt the cause, as is liable to happen with causes.

Whether your comment "To deny that intelligent design is not allied with a crowd hostile to science is simply not true." is true depends, it seems, entirely on which of the two groups I've mentioned is truly at the core of the movement. My previous reading/research leads me to believe that it's the men of science.

Jay said...

Thanks for pointing me toward that Post article. In turn, here is the corrected link to the NY Times article I mentioned in my previous comment.

Kevin said...

Interesting read. I always knew that people like that were out there (being a Pittsburgh transplant, I've heard a little about Richard Mellon Scaife), but it still makes me sad to hear about them.

None of my arguments say or rely on that kind of person not existing, though. My position is to support the people who both truly believe in intelligent design AND want to approach it scientifically, not the ones who are just using it as a cover for creationism.

It's still your move, my friend.

Jay said...

I think this discussion, though productive, ultimately reached an impasse where neither one of us was going to convince the other. For posterity's sake though, I think today's NY Times piece by Daniel Dennett fairly summarizes everything I was trying to say.