Thursday, October 25, 2007

Darwinism: Science and Fantasy

From Marvin Olasky on Townhall.com...

New York Times columnist John Tierney recently offered a materialist version of "intelligent design": All of us are actually characters in a computer simulation devised by some technologically advanced future civilization.

Fanciful to the extreme, sure, but the growing number of such theories -- life comes from the past (Mars, when it was theoretically livable) or future (Tierney) -- is one more indication that Darwinism no longer satisfies. Reporters pretending to referee the origin debate used to have it easy: slick evolutionists vs. hick creationists, progress vs. regress. Now, Darwinism is looking fuddy-duddy, and sophisticated critiques of it are becoming more diverse.

My favorite theory is an old one from Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick-- that the first life came here sent by aliens.

From there, Olasky turns to an interview he did with Dr. Michael Behe...

I interviewed Michael Behe, author of "Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution" and a new book, "The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism." This Lehigh University biology professor points out that "Darwin and his contemporaries knew very little about the cell, which is the foundation of life. Microscopes of that era were too crude to see many critical details. So 19th-century scientists thought the cell was simple protoplasm, like a piece of microscopic Jell-O."

Behe explained what has changed: "Now we know that the cell is chock-full of sophisticated nanotechnology, literally machines made from molecules. The same goes for the universe. In Darwin's era, the universe was thought to be pretty simple. Now we know its basic laws are balanced on a razor's edge to allow for life and that our planet may be the only one in the universe that could support intelligent life. The more we know about nature, the more design we see."

We also have data now from a half-century of careful malaria-watching, which -- because malaria reproduce so quickly -- lets us see what happens to thousands of generations of parasites that are under constant attack from man-made drugs. Darwin predicted that random mutation and natural selection would lead to the development of new species, but no new kinds of malaria have emerged, just tiny changes in existing strains.

The mass killer HIV also has provided evidence to disprove Darwin. Behe points out that HIV, like malaria, "is a microbe that occurs in astronomical numbers. What's more, its mutation rate is 10,000 times greater than that of most other organisms. So in just the past few decades, HIV has actually undergone more of certain kinds of mutations than all cells have endured since the beginning of the world. Yet all those mutations, while medically important, have changed the functioning virus very little."

Behe's summary of HIV: "It still has the same number of genes that work in the same way. There is no new molecular machinery. If we see that Darwin's mechanism can only do so little even when given its best opportunities, we can decisively conclude that random mutation did not build the machinery of life."

It's important to remember that Behe and other "intelligent design" believers are talking about macroevolution, a change from one kind of creature to another, and not the microevolution of longer beaks, different-colored wings and so forth; no one doubts that microevolution happens. Behe sees development as an incredibly difficult maze that an intelligent agent could navigate but an utterly blind process could not -- and Darwin's most radical claim was that evolution is utterly blind.

One more analogy: Some Darwinists have portrayed evolution as a walk up the stairs of a building, but it's hard to keep going higher if many of the steps are missing. Behe says Darwin did not know that "there are many biological steps, called amino acids, between biological floors, and many are missing. Even plentiful microbes have great difficulty jumping missing biological stairs to go from floor to floor. So we can conclude that life did not ascend by Darwinian evolution."

6 Comments:

At October 25, 2007 at 11:27 PM , Blogger William Lang said...

Eric,

Have you read any books critical of intelligent design? There are several fine books I could recommend, but the one I will mention here is Kenneth Miller, Finding Darwin's God.

Miller is a prominent Brown University biologist, textbook author, and devout Roman Catholic. He explains why ID is poor theology as well as bad science. In particular, he rips Michael Behe's lungs out.

I should mention that my rejection of ID is neither knee-jerk or ill-informed. I have read (indeed, I own) seven or eight pro-ID books, including books by Michael Behe, William Dembski, Phillip Johnson, Cornelius Hunter, Lee M. Spetner, and Jonathan Wells. After reading these books, and a variety of mainstream biology and evolution books (including textbooks as well as popularizations), I have reached the conclusion that there is little or no science in ID.

The evidence for evolution (the great age of the Earth, and descent with modification from a common ancestor) is devastating and utterly convincing.

Two examples: It now appears that eukaryotic cells (cells with nuclei, as opposed to bacteria) originated as symbiotic relationships between different types of bacteria. One critical example: Eukaryotic cells contain mitochondria, organelles that process energy in the cell. These are now understood to be cyanobacteria. (They even contain bacteria-like plasmids, loops of their own DNA.)

Another example: There are certain viruses, including HIV, that splice their genes into the DNA of the cells of their hosts. Sometimes, these genes get into the DNA of egg cells. So they are passed along to the descendants of the hosts. This is referred to as "endogenous retroviruses." Humans have these in their genomes. So do chimpanzees. The critical point is that humans share with chimps certain of the same (inactive) retroviral genes. Chimps and humans share a common ancestor of about 6 million years ago, which had the original copies of the endogenous retroviral genes. It is important to understand that these play no role or function in the genes of the hosts; they are genetic parasites. And they provide convincing evidence of a common ancestor of chimps and humans.

I should conclude with the thought: A faith that depends on the denial of the foundation of basic biology, science that has been established by many independent lines of evidence, is a very shaky faith indeed.

Best wishes,

William

 
At October 26, 2007 at 8:55 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Q&A

WL: Have you read any books critical of intelligent design?

Me: No. I've read several essays and talked with proponents but have not read a book of that type yet. I'll acquire Miller's book and get it on my reading list.

WL: I should mention that my rejection of ID is neither knee-jerk or ill-informed. I have read (indeed, I own) seven or eight pro-ID books...

Me: Thanks for looking thoroughly into both sides!

WL: The evidence for evolution (the great age of the Earth, and descent with modification from a common ancestor) is devastating and utterly convincing.

Me: For the record, the next paragraph was utterly unrelated to whether ID is science. In fact, ID does not dispute the evidence from evolution. It only wrestles with the supposition that evolution is not sufficient as a comprehensive "explanation" of the development of life.

WL: A faith that depends on the denial of the foundation of basic biology, science that has been established by many independent lines of evidence, is a very shaky faith indeed.

Me: I agree with you-- and so do the academic proponents of ID. ID is not about denial of basic biology, but wrestling with the extent to which biology provides an "explanation".

Ironically, the first part of my original post makes the same point: it's a very shaky faith that requires just-so stories for the origins (as well as the development) of life.

 
At October 26, 2007 at 12:58 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I would add that I've only read one book on ID (in addition to a number of essays). As such, I can commend Dembski's book, "The Design Revolution: Answering The Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design".

I will soon blog separately on some "myths about ID". Most people don't understand what ID does and does not claim (including many of its "proponents" and opponents). But in my experience (from Dembski's book), what it does and does not say about evolution is not all that complicated.

 
At October 26, 2007 at 6:05 PM , Blogger William Lang said...

Eric: ID is not about denial of basic biology, but wrestling with the extent to which biology provides an "explanation".

Oh, yes it is; ID is most assuredly a denial of the foundations of modern biology. Ask any of your colleagues at IU Southeast in biology, and they will explain (in as much detail as you could possibly wish) why that is so.

Eric: For the record, the next paragraph was utterly unrelated to whether ID is science. In fact, ID does not dispute the evidence from evolution. It only wrestles with the supposition that evolution is not sufficient as a comprehensive "explanation" of the development of life.

It's not always clear from what I've read that all the ID people believe in descent with modification from a common ancestor. But if we assume that this is the case, we are left to argue merely about the mechanism for speciation—is it Darwinian chance plus necessity (variation plus natural selection), or is it design? It's clear from my knowledge of biology that contingency is a much better explanation than design for how life developed. But in fact, it is unnecessary to assume God had nothing to do with creation even if we accept Darwinism. That is, God could have used evolution to do the creating for him. This is of course theistic evolution, and describes the position of the Roman Catholic Church and other churches; and it is also my own position.

Eric: I can commend Dembski's book, "The Design Revolution: Answering The Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design".

I have two books by Demski. I find him less than convincing because in his writing he doesn't really demonstrate any deep knowledge of biology. He offers abstract philosophical/mathematical arguments instead of considering actual biological systems. (By training, Dembski is a philosopher and a mathematician, but he is now a professor of Christian apologetics at a Baptist seminary.)

 
At October 26, 2007 at 9:33 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Perhaps we have a different definition of the "foundations of modern biology".

If ID is correct, then evolution could still do 99.99% of the changes that would "explain" (or at least, weave a nice comprehensive story) for the development of life (if not its origins).

In ID terms, it's a false dichotomy to say that it must be "Darwinian chance plus necessity (variation plus natural selection)" OR design. Again, ID allows for the former doing much, but ultimately, not being able to explain all.

And ID seems perfectly consistent or quite consistent with theistic evolution (TE). TE could range from God setting evolution in motion-- and then steps aside while evolution takes care of the rest. (I suppose, at least philosophically, that this would still be ID of a sort.) Or TE could allow for God setting evolution in motion and intervening on occasion (i.e., ID).

Finally, you haven't yet commented on the just-so stories I pointed out in the original posting-- the main reason I posted this in the first place. Your thoughts there?

 
At October 26, 2007 at 10:46 PM , Blogger William Lang said...

Behe says evolution can't produce novel molecular machines. But this is precisely what happens every time a bacterium evolves resistance to an antibiotic, or an insect evolves resistance to a pesticide: a genetic mutation results in a new protein (usually a modification of an existing protein) that physically locks onto or cleaves the toxic chemical. What Behe and others do not get is that nature is a great recycler: the 'search space' of evolution is much smaller than often asserted by creationists; all that gets searched are proteins similar to the complement already in hand. And the evidence is abundant that this works.

Behe seems to be skeptical of macroevolution. But we now know that animals (worms and vertebrates alike) all have a small set of genes known as homeobox genes, that control the development of the body plans of the organism. Small changes in these genes can create radically different body plans. Again, the distance that evolution must travel even in macroevolution is not nearly as insurmountable as the creationists or ID people think. (I gather that homeobox genes are believed to have originated with segmented worms; they have been duplicated and modified as animals evolved from worms long ago, maybe 600 million years ago, to current much more complex body plans.)

But I'm struck by your suggestion that ID and TE are compatible, that the one might explain things not explained by the other. Perhaps our only disagreement now is how much TE and how much ID is needed to explain the development of life. I would say it's almost entirely TE. I should conclude by saying how helpful I found the book by Kenneth Miller; he does a very good job of explaining why evolution (Darwinian TE) is compatible, not necessarily with a direct reading of Genesis, but with the core of Christian theology (the problem of evil, etc).

 

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