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April 4, 2012

Intelligent Design is Apparently True

Filed under: science — Tags: , , , , , , , — paragardener @ 4:18 pm

The theory of Intelligent Design is very annoying to mainstream science and its supporters. The theory posits that life on Earth was designed by God (or space aliens), rather than evolving through many iterations of natural selection. I.D. supporters usually point to some complex structure like the human eye or a ribosome and say, “This must be the work of a designer, because it won’t work without all the parts. I can’t imagine, and you can’t either, how such a thing gradually came to be, so evolution is not the valid theory to apply here.”

There’s something very unsporting about cutting down evolution’s explanatory power, and offering nothing in return except the insinuation that God did it. God can do anything; God can make monkeys fly out of my butt; God can make time run backwards and explosions unburst back into grenade shells; God could’ve made the world any old way He wanted to, and is known to work in mysterious ways, so what does it really tell us to know that God did it?

I looked around for some I.D. predictions, in case these might actually exist. According to ideacenter.org, besides the non-prediction of “irreducible complexity,” there should be “rapid appearance of complexity in the fossil record,” “re-usage of similar parts in different organisms” and “function for biological structure.” To spin hypotheses in the I.D. fashion, you watch how people  design things. Then, you presume that the engineer of life on Earth works in a broadly similar way.

“Rapid appearance of complexity in the fossil record” is an interesting prediction. If someone were tinkering with life on Earth all along, they might sometimes turn out a really novel batch of organisms in a short time. Unfortunately for I.D., this prediction is also part of conventional evolutionary theory, what is called “punctuated equilibrium.” Punctuated equilibrium holds that life on Earth get into stable grooves for thousands or millions of years, until perturbed by a meteor strike or whatnot, when life will suddenly evolve into different, sometimes more complex forms. Complexity does  rapidly burst into the fossil record (Cambrian explosion, the dawn of flowering plants), but that fact supports I.D. and evolution about equally.

“Re-usage of similar parts” suffers from the same basic problem. Similar parts evolve in different organisms because they employ similar strategies to survive, a phenomenon recognized as “convergent evolution.” It is  pretty freaky to recognize that an octopus, more closely related to a clam than a man, has eyes just like ours (iris, lens, humor, retina). Well, an octopus has a much more active lifestyle than a clam. All of the fine details are different, anyways (no land animals have rectangular pupils, for one thing.) Sometimes genetic similarities are found in disparate species. I think that that is evidence of genes moving about by means other than sex, such as viruses. If conventional biology does a piss-poor job of explaining these things in the future, that will give a little credibility to I.D. — Someone keeps using the same building blocks in all His designs.

The last prediction on Ideacenter’s list is “function for biological structure.” I think that this is a great prediction for digging into the philosophical issues around evolution and I.D. There are a few little biological structures with no function — the eyes of cave fish, the xiphoid process below your breastbone that can only break off and harm you. Possibly, a lot of DNA is junk. But, overwhelmingly, when you look at living organisms what impresses you is the functionality of the parts: the leg bone’s connected to the knee bone with ligament, tendon and muscle all arranged in a complex way, such that people look at it and say, “why, the knee’s purpose is to allow you to walk.” References to evolution are somewhat rare in my Physiology textbook, being reserved for broader, more reflective essays or explaining weird glitches in the human body. On the other hand, the book freely talks about the “function” of the kidneys, heart, liver and so on just as if it were describing the parts of a machine.  Do things have a function if they lack a designer? What is the function of a lump of granite or a cloud?

In the apparent world, living things grow according to designs. Saying that leaves were designed to collect the sunlight is no more wrong than saying that the Sun rises in the East and sets in the West (when really, the Earth is rotating and the Sun is practically still). In fact, for the first several hundred years, when science was called “natural philosophy,” everyone was operating under the assumption that God had indeed designed the world. The whole point of natural philosophy was to better understand God’s design — the practical results were mere side effects until science was melded to capitalism and power.

Intelligent Design is looking to return to that noble, if outdated, philosophy. When I.D. proponents point to apparent design and function in the natural world, it is really there… just as the world really appears flat when my horizon is blocked out by trees and buildings. And for many, many purposes, I really can work from the theory that the Earth is flat (as when using a level).

If Intelligent Design is rejecting Darwinian explanations in favor of a traditional, really pre-scientific view, it is what you call a “null hypothesis.” The null hypothesis says that nothing interesting is going on: eggs aren’t good for your cholesterol, they’re not bad for your cholesterol. Until someone proves that eggs really are good or bad for cholesterol levels, everyone should assume the null hypothesis. This accounts for I.D.’s lack of interesting predictions: it’s essentially a rejection of Darwinism and an acceptance of traditional beliefs and apparent reality, a default position to fall back on, although it’s struggling to become its own distinct scientific theory.

I just sharpened my own philosophy of science by considering the evolving position of Intelligent Design. Can our schools encourage students to question science, and discuss it, and imagine things from another point of view? Or must students accept the word of the High Priests of Curriculum?

I fear that we really can’t discuss evolution vs I.D. in a typical K-12 school. All anyone knows is one line of propaganda or the other, so that would surely be a discussion with zero brain engagement and maximum noise.

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2 Comments »

  1. Does any animal have a rectangular pupil?!?! I have to say, that wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense, because the maximum surface area (per circumference) is in a circle, so circular pupils have a natural advantage in collecting light.

    I don’t think it’s possible to discuss evolution, climate change, or vaccination (among other things) in a rational manner in mixed company. “You are either with us or against us,” everyone seems to feel.

    Comment by freelearner — April 8, 2012 @ 2:27 am


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