Physics Today weighs in on the “Evolution Wars”

This month’s issue of Physics Today contains an article entitled “Evolution Wars Show No Sign of Abating”: It’s free on the web, for all you non-subscribers (and I know there are just a few of you!). It’s a nice, but (as usual) scary, overview of this confusing mess into which the U.S. has gotten itself.

I got to thinking. What happens if you take a bunch of randomly cut paper shapes and throw them repeatedly onto the floor. Then, snap a picture of the pattern they make. Take the photos – say, 100 – and show them to a random set of Americans. Ask them the question, “Which of these patterns was designed by an artist?” Determine what fraction of people say that they see design in any of them. That would be a very interesting experiment.

Intelligent design advocates always say they can see, touch, and smell the design in nature. I agree that the laws of nature create order from relative disorder, and that understanding those laws is critical. But I don’t ascribe them to a designer. However, they never argue that. They argue that micro-motor assemblies in cells are evidence of design. I wonder if it’s just that they’ve had their noses in too close to the petri dish, and every complex structure that’s the result of thousands or millions of years of selection makes them see the shadows of design?

Thoughts on Science and Spirit from a man of the Spirit

My good pal Mandeep sent me a lovely blog article from “Jim Burklo, minister at the Sausalito Presbyterian Church”: Jim talks about how intelligent design is a discredit to both science and religion. Well, Jim puts it best so let me just quote him:

But [intelligent design] isn’t a “theory” at all. “Intelligent design” posits that the structure of life is so complex and delicate that it is unimaginable that it could have come into existence without having been designed by some intelligent force. Therefore such an intelligence must be responsible for it. But this is a conclusion that can be reached only by assuming that it is true in the first place – a classic tautology, or example of circular reasoning, which has no place in science. It is not a theoretical alternative to evolution, because it suggests no other credible means by which this outside intelligence created the complexity of life. There is nothing in the theory of evolution, the only theory that holds any water in explaining the origin of the species, that proves or disproves the existence of such an intelligent “designer”. Even if one thinks of God as a separate, distinct being that manipulates the universe, “intelligent design” offers no intelligent reason that God didn’t employ evolution as his or her means for creating life on earth.

Circular reasoning doesn’t belong in science education. “Intelligent design” is a thinly-veiled and inappropriate attempt to inject religious indoctrination into public schools. If it gets into school science textbooks, it would damage both science and religion in this country.

The emphasis was added by me to highlight the key conclusions he draws. Hear, hear, Jim. Let us both hope that together science can continue to map out the order of the natural world and religion can map out the order of the spirit, and through both we can gain a deeper insight into this wonderous universe.

When it rains crazies, it pours crazies.

I just saw an “article about an astrologer in Russia who is proceeding to sue NASA because she believes that a future planned comet mission will disrupt the natural order of the universe”:

Says the woman’s lawyer, “My client believes that the NASA project infringes upon her spiritual and life values as well as the natural life of the cosmos and would disrupt the natural balance of forces in the universe.”

Let me reassure her, the natural balance of the forces in the universe will not be disturbed. An impact on a distant comet involves the interaction of electrons in the comets surface with those of the probe; the electromagnetic force, while infinite in range, falls off in intensity as a function of the inverse-square of the distance. The effect on the surrounding universe (i.e. earth, sun, etc) is smaller than ambient electromagnetic disturbances (like lightening, or even a cell phone).

The impact is not energetic enough to break up atoms, so we don’t have to worry about the strong or weak nuclear forces (which are finite in range anyway). So that leaves gravity. Since the effect of this comet on the earth is vastly masked by the effect of the sun and moon on the earth (i.e. comets don’t cause tides, since they move past us quickly), and the comet’s material will merely be redispersed instead of totally annihilated, no problem there.

Let me assure you, Ms. Bai: there will be no disruption in the natural forces in the universe. Those forces have withstood much worse (i.e. the very creation of the universe) and this small probe will have no effect on us. Go back to your job with some satisfaction in that regard.

AAAS Respectfully Declines to Attend at Hearings on Intelligent Design

There’s a lot going on in our nation right now regarding the pushing of faith into the science classroom. As a scientist, I am watching this issue with great concern. Although the struggle over the content of science class challenges primarily my colleagues in biology and medicine (i.e. those who use the theory of evolution to make daily breakthoughs), I see this as a struggle much like the early days of World War II. If you appease the advocates of intelligent design by giving them the battle in the biology classroom and textbooks, what’s to prevent them from taking the fight to the big bang or modern cosmology? I see this as a struggle that could spill over into all science education.

Anyway, if you’ve been reading this blog you know how I feel. Science is a methodological process by which a hypothesis is made, an experiment is proposed to test it, that experiment is executed and the results are used to uphold or challenge the theory. This simple and yet rigorous process gave us the theory of planetary motion, classical mechanics and thus modern engineering, the theory of electromagnetism and the first unification of two forces, quantum mechanics and relativity, and thus all of our society today. That process is taught in science class, and any attempt to push opinion into the classroom as if it were fact is wrong. It is morally wrong. Science is not about opinion. We teach what we know, and we teach the process by which we can know more.

It is important to teach where the theories fail, but we cannot teach everybody’s untested (and potentially crackpot) idea about how to fill or patch those gaps. It is also important to teach kids that when a theory fails, you must never fill the void with mysticism. If Einstein had looked at the conflict between Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism and Newton’s classical theory of motion and said, “Well, that must be the creator a work in this disagreement, and who am I to tangle with the creator?”, we would have been long delayed in the theory of relativity. No advance in our society has ever been gained by shrugging and saying, “I don’t know, so it must be the will of a superbeing and who am I to deny that will?”

Whew. There I go again. I get really serious about this issue. I really do. When I think of all the mysticism that I learned in church, and how screwed up that made my view of the world as I got older, it frustrates me that the first thing I learned was religion and the second was the truth. Imagine a teenager trying to reconcile what a holy book says about the age of the world with the true age based on geologic evidence, carbon dating, and other rigorous and reproducible methodology. Imagine how messed up that is. Imagine trying to reconcile the notion of a creator with that of a hot, dense seed of this universe which inflated and expanded rapidly, cooling and eventually birthing the stars, the galaxies, and our solar system.

What I have to remind myself of constantly is that there are a thousand creation myths. Almost every culture had its own, with several roughly in common. But for all their similarities, these cultures and religions have always struggled to get everybody else to see their viewpoint by argument and inference and finally, moral superiority. In contrast, the big bang theory, the theory of planetary evolution, of species evolution and natural selection, were arrived at by careful, multiple observations and experiments carried out by countless people from innumerable backgrounds. And yet, somehow they have all arrived at the same conclusions about the usefulness, and the gaps in, these theories. No moral superiority was needed at all to force another to see their point of view, merely the strength of rational investigation.

All of this, to point out that the “American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)”: has “politely declined an invite to participate in hearings in Kansas about teaching hypotheses, such as intelligent design, as an alternative to the theory of evolution”:
The decline was made on the basis that AAAS is a scientific organization and does not get involved in matters of faith, which (I thought) was an excellent way of framing this issue. Hypothesis and faith are really almost the same things. They differ in that a hypothesis cries to be proven or disproven with experimentation. Faith, on the other hand, is something that you hold onto even when confronted with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. One could interpret the AAAS’ statement to mean that intelligent design doesn’t even value at the level of a hypothesis.

I’m willing to give these “ID” folks the benefit of the doubt. They need to stop all their talking and start all their research. All they have to do is prove that there is evidence for the hand of a creator in all life, from humans down to phytoplankton, and I’ll be convinced. It doesn’t have to be a supernatural being, I’ll also agree to that. It could be a race of aliens that did it. But then I have to ask the question, “Who intelligently designed them?” Or, perhaps, they evolved to be intelligent and decided to create us for fun. We must look like a hoot from outer space.