Rebirth of Reason


Unintelligent Design - Part 1
by Peter Cresswell

The current landmark U.S. trial pitting so-called Intelligent Design against intelligence has prompted me to delve into the subject of so-called 'Intelligent Design,' a title that seems to me to beg the very question it seeks to prove. 'Intelligent Design' is Creationism in a lab coat: this idiocy was once thrown out the front door of intelligent debate; it now tries to come back in wearing new clothes and some slick shades, but the same old hand-me-down quality is still evident.

Why do these fundamentalists bother? They do so because fundamentally they haven't gotten past the primitive explanations of primitive man.

Several millennia ago, primitive man saw lightning, floods and other phenomena he couldn't explain and decided that the explanation for what he didn't understand was that Ďa godí -- or even several gods -- caused it, organised it, or were otherwise responsible for it. This 'explanation' simply gave him a name for that which he couldn't yet explain, but by pushing explanation back for another day it brought into being the psychological phenomenon of supernaturalism.

And pushing it back caused another problem: if a god was the cause of the lightning, then who or what was the cause of the god? Another god? And the cause of that god? Seemed like this wasn't an explanation so much as an infinite regression; an excuse for not simply admitting, when faced with utter ignorance of the seemingly incomprehensible, "I just don't know." Nothing wrong with not knowing, but an awful lot wrong with just making stuff up to cover your ignorance.

The explanation provided by primitive man to 'explain' things is still with us -- God did it! -- even as the reasons for honestly saying "I don't know" have diminished exponentially. Proponents of so-called Intelligent Design today claim for example that "there are natural systems that cannot be adequately explained in terms of undirected natural forces and that exhibit features which in any other circumstance we would attribute to intelligence." William Dembski for one believes that "an object must be the product of intelligent design if it shows 'specified complexity.' " 'Complexity' supposedly confounds explanation, and opens the door for idiocy.

Fortunately, there are still plenty of intelligent minds around to combat the idiocy. James Watson of Watson-and-Crick fame -- the chaps who discovered the secret of DNA -- had this to say recently on how science liberates us from the supernatural :

One of the greatest gifts science has brought to the world is the continuing elimination of the supernatural, and it was a lesson that my father passed on to me -- that knowledge liberates mankind from superstition. We can live our lives without the constant fear that we have offended this or that deity, who must be placated by incantation or sacrifice, or that we are at the mercy of devils or the Fates. With increasing knowledge, the intellectual darkness that surrounds us is illuminated and we learn more of the beauty and wonder of the natural world.

Let us not beat about the bush -- the common assumption that evolution through natural selection is a "theory," in the same way that string theory is a theory, is wrong. Evolution is a law (with several components) that is as well substantiated as any other natural law, whether the law of gravity, the laws of motion or Avogadro's law. Evolution is a fact, disputed only by those who choose to ignore the evidence, put their common sense on hold and believe instead that unchanging knowledge and wisdom can be reached only by revelation.

He's right, you know, and his article provides sound argument for Darwin's Law, and an acerbic criticism of the New Creationism. Have a good read. As he says, "We can only hope that a time will soon come when rational, skeptical thought renders the creationists' stories as what they are -- myths." Too true.

Speaking of myths, as we were yesterday, here's a candidate for 'The Emperor's New Clothes, Part 2:' The Challenge of Irreducible Complexity by Michael J. Behe is touted as an "Intelligent Design position statement" by its author. Sadly, it's neither intelligent, nor evidential in the way the author intends.

How can we decide [says Behe] whether Darwinian natural selection can account for the amazing complexity that exists at the molecular level? Darwin himself set the standard when he acknowledged, "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down." Some systems seem very difficult to form by such successive modifications -- I call them irreducibly complex.

That's really the crux of his argument. As an argument it's poor, and it sets up a false alternative: either Darwin or Behe's Creator. But we don't even need to point out the logical error he's committing, because as we see Behe fails even to get his argument off the ground:

Irreducibly complex systems appear very unlikely to be produced by numerous, successive, slight modifications of prior systems, [says Behe] because any precursor that was missing a crucial part could not function. Natural selection can only choose among systems that are already working, so the existence in nature of irreducibly complex biological systems poses a powerful challenge to Darwinian theory.

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. H. Allen Orr responds to this nonsense rather too politely:

Behe's colossal mistake is that, in rejecting these possibilities, he concludes that no Darwinian solution remains. But one does. It is this: An irreducibly complex system can be built gradually by adding parts that, while initially just advantageous, becom -- because of later changes -- essential. The logic is very simple. Some part (A) initially does some job (and not very well, perhaps). Another part (B) later gets added because it helps A. This new part isn't essential, it merely improves things. But later on, A (or something else) may change in such a way that B now becomes indispensable. This process continues as further parts get folded into the system. And at the end of the day, many parts may all be required.

Orr is too polite because Darwin himself explained this process with regard to the human eye. The eye, he conceded, might at first sight be considered too complex to have been formed by natural selection. However,

if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.

Science has proved Darwin right on this point as on every other. As James Watson explains, evolution is not a Theory, it is a Law. As the youngsters say on such matters, "Deal with it."

This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Part 2 will be posted on Tuesday.
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