Monday, November 14, 2005

Un-intelligent Non-design

Proponents of Intelligent Design (or ID, the assertion that God designed all the details of life) miss the single most important goal of science: to identify patterns that can be projected into the future to usefully predict the outcome of actions taken today.

While I don't deny the existence of a Designer, I do not find the Intelligent Design proposal compelling.

Scientific theories like general and special relativity, F=ma, Newton's laws of gravity, molecular dynamics, recombinant DNA, quantum mechanics, etc. are mere estimations or representations of an infinitely more complex reality. Scientific laws or theories are useful because they tell us how to accomplish space travel, power generation, television, white paint, medicine, etc. Scientific theories are testable and independently reproducible, otherwise any proposed theory is not accepted.

ID can not be tested, nor can it be used to predict any useful information. It is therefore useless. The theory (or laws if you prefer) of evolution, on the other hand, are useful. Studying how ecosystems have reacted to environmental changes in the past inform us on how ecosystems might react in the future to changes today.

An example often cited as proof that life was designed is the miracle of the eyeball. How could something so complex and useful just pop into existence without a designer? Intelligent Design proponents fail to appreciate the huge relative competitive advantage the ability to merely sense light and dark (such as the euglena) has on any creature. Relatives that can't sense the shadow of a predator quickly die out. Further changes that, say, allow an organism to detect which direction light is coming from (such as in planaria) have an additional advantage. These incremental advantages easily build up over billions of years (truly quite a long time) to create the eyeball. Voila!

In fact, proof that eyeballs offer a huge competitive advantage can be seen in the number of organisms that have similar eyeballs: from humans all the way back to fishes and invertebrates. The fact that different types of eyes evolved independently in insects and vertebrates is more proof of their evolutionary usefulness. Eyes must have been one of the first organs to develop, they are so darn common and useful!

Another Intelligent Design concept that is irreducible complexity: the notion that the sum of the parts is so much greater than the parts themselves, that those parts must have been assembled by a Designer. An example given in an article in today's Wall Street Journal uses a mousetrap as an example of irreducible complexity: remove any single piece of a mousetrap, and the whole thing ceases to function. Similarly, remove any bit of a cell's mechanism, and the cell will cease to function. Mousetraps have designers, therefore a cell must also have a Designer. This is a flawed metaphor. Do trees create wood solely so some designer can build a mousetrap? Does wood have no other use? Can wood exist outside of a mousetrap? Were springs developed solely to build mousetraps? Does humanity itself exist only to build mousetraps?

Certainly most cells as they exist today could not suffer the removal of any constituent part. But ID proponents fails to mention that there are many kinds of cells in existence today, not all with the same components. Flagellae, cilia, hard-walled cells (such as in plants), soft-walled cells (such as in amoebae or animals), solitary single celled organisms, organized colonies of single celled organisms (notably sea sponges), and complex multi-celled organisms all exist today. Not all components necessary for one type of cell to survive are present in the cells of other organisms. Some non-living natural compounds can even demonstrate self-organization into things that look like components of cells, such as cell walls. The building blocks of life may be more commonly available than guessed.

ID ignores the Darwinian corollary called co-evolution: evolution of one group of organisms may be influenced by evolution in another set of organisms. For example, if a predator kills all its easily caught prey, and only hard to catch prey is left, the predator population eventually drops. Now hard to catch prey can proliferate. Only the few predators capable of killing hard to catch prey survive, but eventually prosper as their food supply rebounds. If you were only seeing the aftermath of this process, you might incorrectly guess that the predator has always been able to catch its prey the same way. The same thing has apparently happened to cells. Mitochondria, the parts of cells that convert RNA into proteins, has its own DNA, causing some researchers to theorize the mitochondria once existed as an independent organism itself. Certainly if you remove all the mitochondria from a cell today, that cell wouldn't live much longer. But there certainly was some proto-cell that didn't have mitochondria that still survived. But that proto-cell certainly wasn't robust enough to create today's complex organisms.

Intelligent Design proponents also fall into the common trap that most non-rigorous students of Darwin's theory leap to: anthropomorphism. Evolution does not have a "goal." Even science teachers and certainly journalists fall into this trap. How many times have we heard something like, "The dolphin developed sonar so it could see underwater." Bullcrap. The dolphin didn't develop sonar. Sonar happened: Rudimentary echolocation gave some ancient dolphins a slight advantage over their cousins. Slight improvements over the eons, and perhaps some catastrophic die-offs, have allowed today's sophisticated dolphin sonar to persist.

Evolution simply happens, and the resulting organisms either survive, or don't. External factors determine the ultimate utility of any random mutation. Sometimes mutations are so detrimental the individual organism dies quickly. Sometimes mutations simply appear and fade in a general population of organisms. Sometimes large scale environmental changes, such as mass extinctions seen throughout geological history, weed out all but the few organisms most capable of surviving the change. Even tiny competitive advantages can, thorugh the generations, become dominant.

What God probably designs is more along the lines of an infinite number of universes with an infinite number of scientific laws. Or He designs the mechanism that allows universes to exist. Or he designs the mechanisms that allow those mechanisms... ad infinitum. At any rate, only a tiny fraction of those universes where the rules and timing are just exactly right produce organisms capable of recognizing God's wonders. Other universes just don't - no love lost, no tears shed. Everything in nature is a result of the design of those laws. The Designer is an indirect designer. He simply sets up the conditions and lets everything else flow from there. Our living God is probably more interested in how we morally relate to other results of His creation, including to each other; not in determining if this fish or that toad develops a tumor or a third eyeball. The higest praises we can give are continuing to delve deeper into how God's universe works, and respecting how we relate to God's universe.

An interesting article: Fact and fiction on evolution by Cathy Young at The Boston Globe.

Update, 11/21/2005 - Charles Krauthammer - Phony Theory, False Conflict

No comments: