Category ►►► Science

December 22, 2005

Evolution, ID, and Science - most recent UPDATE Dec 23rd 2005

Science , Science - Good
Hatched by Dafydd

A powerful lot of arguments were advanced against my position in an earlier post, Unintelligent Redesign of Creationism; I'll essay to answer as many as I can in this one. Note that I will probably return to this post and update it now and again, as people come up with new arguments... so if you're tickled by this sort of debate, bookmark the permalink to this post --

-- and return often... in addition to the normal checking of Big Lizards for new things, of course! We don't want to lose any custom.

I won't be listing the names of everyone who offers an argument, because it's too much work. Just assume that if you make some argument, many other people have the same argument in mind.

Let me first get the silly non-arguments out of the way; I'll clear the detritus, and then we can concentrate on the salient points:

1. What business is it of a federal court to decide what is or is not science?

This question is akin to the Democrats in 2000 demanding to know why the federal courts were deciding how to count votes in Florida, and the answer is identical: because somebody filed a lawsuit in federal court.

Whenever such a suit is filed, the very first thing the district court must decide is whether the person filing the suit has standing to do so.

I'm not a lawyer, though I sometimes play a "sea lawyer" in this blog... but my understanding is that "standing" means a person has a legitimate reason to bring the lawsuit in the first place. If you get wrongfully fired, I can't prosecute a lawsuit to get you reinstated, because I have no connection to you; you're the one who suffered the loss, so it's up to you to decide whether to sue. But in this case, the lawsuit was filed by the parents of children in the Dover public schools, children who were required to read the ID-supporting statement... so the parents (as guardians of the children) definitely had standing.

The next thing the court decides is whether it, itself, has jurisdiction: that is, whether it is legally empowered to decide the question at the heart of the lawsuit. In this case, the parents alleged that the public schools, which are a branch of the government, were preaching a particular religion to their kids -- which, they alleged, was a violation of the First-Amendment rights of the children (hence the parents) not to have the government establish a religion.

Now "establishing a religion" means something quite different in 2005 than it meant in 1789; back then, it literally meant creating a Church of America, like the Church of England. But today, it means any attempt by the federal (or state, now) government to promote a particular religious belief as the correct one.

Since this is a federal right found in the federal Constitution, it's up to a federal judge to finally decide whether the ID requirement "established" a religion, as forbidden by the First Amendment. That's why a federal judge had to decide whether ID was science, as its proponents claimed it was -- or a religion, as the plaintiffs claimed it was.

2. Of course creationism/creation science/intelligent design is a science! Just go to the Institute for Creation Research and read their arguments!

I will have to stop you right there: I have probably read more creationist literature than you have! But I will not accept any argument that is a variation of "go read this huge web site or this lengthy tome, and I'm sure you find that I'm right and you're wrong." If you can't summarize the argument succinctly right here, I won't address it.

I have no intention of doing your homework for you.

3. Judge Jones was needlessly insulting, proving that he's biased against ID.

As Francis Urquhart says, "You may very well be right; I couldn't possibly comment." This is an irrelevant non-sequitur: Judge Jones may be the biggest butthead in the world, but we're not arguing that point. We're arguing whether evolutionary theory and/or ID are sciences.

4. Maybe ID can't be scientifically proven, but neither can evolution.

You've misunderstood the point of the exercise. In fact, no scientific theory can be "proven." A theory can be disproven, but not proven; at any moment, the best you can say is "it hasn't been disproven yet." And in nearly every case, a scientific model soon will be disproven, to be replaced by an even better model of the physical universe: so it goes.

That is another formulation of the "tentativity" test for science: the best you can ever say about any scientific theory is that it's the best model of the available data you have at this point. The tentativity of science is not a weakness, however; I've had arguments where my opponent has claimed that the very fact that science "keeps changing what it's saying" proves that it's "false."

On the contrary, tentativity is science's greatest strength: a scientific theory simply constructs a model of the universe -- one that explains all previous measured data and predicts new measurements. Thus, gravitational theory explains the observed fact that if you let an object go in a gravitational field (and everything everywhere is in some gravitational field), it moves in a certain way. The theory allows you to predict how an object will move if you drop it or throw it ten minutes from now.

But as new measurements are made, new data produced, you will always find odd bits and pieces that don't fit. The scientific response is to accept the data -- and modify the theory to take it into account. (Of course, your new theory must also take into account all the earlier data, which hasn't gone away!) That is why science is so much more accurate than, say, astrology or phrenology: because it's constantly improving itself by tossing out incorrect, primative formulations in favor of more accurate, more complex formulations.

That is also its "falsifiability," by the way: if objects started behaving differently from what the theory of gravity predicted -- if objects fell along a spiral, for example, or any other curve besides a conic section -- then that would falsify the current theory of gravity; physicists would have to throw it out and come up with a new theory that explained not only the new, weird behavior... but also the thousands of years of previous data!

So nobody can "prove" that evolutionary theory is correct; the question is, can you prove that it is not? I can certainly prove that Intelligent Design does not fit the model of science; can you prove that modern evolutionary theory is likewise not "science?" Read on for that exact argument!

5. The scientific arguments for a young earth are obviously so unanswerable that Darwinists never try to answer them!

Perhaps because -- as above -- the creationists never try to enunciate them! And one quick point: there are no "Darwinists," no more than contemporary Christians are "Paulists" or constitutional scholars are "Madisonites." Charles Darwin published his first cut at the theory of natural selection, the Origin of Species, in 1859; since that time, evolutionary biologists, chemists, microbiologists, and other evolutionary scientists have expanded, altered, refined, and reworked the basic evolutionary ideas for 146 years. Darwin would not recognize the theory today. Nobody is going to argue "Darwinism" with you; try arguing against contemporary evolutionary theory, if you want to be taken seriously.

Now, having disposed of the preliminaries, we get into the real nitty-gritty.

6. Maybe ID isn't science, but neither is evolutionary theory. How is it falsifiable, for example?

Evolutionary theory -- hereafter ET -- is very falsifiable, because it makes a great many predictions! Any one of those predictions could turn out to be wrong... which would, by definition, "falsify" the current ET.

(a) For example, anybody can go out and find fossils. ET predicts that complex creatures evolved from simple creatures; so the earlier in time you look, the simpler the creatures would be. In general, except where geological folding has occurred, the deeper a sediment layer, the older it is. Thus, we should expect, under ET, to find that the deeper you dig, the simpler should be the plant and animal fossils.

(Note that geological folding actually flips sedimentary layers; but you can easily see this and avoid it: you will actually see the sediment layers flop over, like folding a Japanese futon, and the colored sedimentary layers -- and the fossil record -- will be inverted in the folded-over section.)

This is what geological folding looks like

Geological folding

Therefore, if we were to dig in some (non-folded) site and find that the deeper fossils were more complex than the shallower ones, or that the complexity was mixed at all levels, this would cause a volcanic explosion in the field of ET. It would certainly falsify contemporary theory!

Some creationists claim to have found such instances; evolutionary scientists have examined these claims and found them unsubstantiated. If you want to cite such sites, we can discuss the specifics at that time.

Fortunately for ET, however, it is in fact true that the deeper you dig, the simpler the fossilized organisms you find. Surprised? You will not be told this in creationist literature; they adroitly skirt the subject, except where they point to this or that tiny area where they (falsely) claim the fossil record is mixed.

(b) ET also postulates an "old Earth," an Earth that is at least hundreds of millions, if not billions, of years old. But we have other methods of dating rock formations that do not depend in any way or form on ET: radioactive dating, for example (not carbon; that doesn't go back far enough). There are also discoveries in astonomy that reflect upon the age of the Earth and the solar system. And astrophysics and geophysics generate theories on planetary formation that tell, e.g., how long a planet must cool before its crust is the temperature found on Earth, or how long a methane-ammonia atmosphere would last before blue-green algae could convert it to oxygen-nitrogen. None of these sciences were developed from ET; they are entirely separate, depending upon separate observations of different phenomena analyzed using different mathematical formulas.

If these alternative methods of dating the earth were to produce "young Earth" results, that would falsify evolutionary theory, big time! But in fact, they all come up with about the same answer: the Earth (the solar system) is a few billion years old.

(c) Finally, if it's really true that later species evolved from older species, then they should have obviously derivative DNA. The DNA molecule was utterly unsuspected in Darwin's day; it was discovered only in the last century, and described in the 1950s by James D. Watson and Francis Crick. Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is a complex, twisted molecule that uses an arbitrary code of four "nucleotides," which are adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine. (There is one more nucleotide, uracil, found in some odd viruses.) The body uses the code of these four nucleotides to determine genetic structure.

If the DNA of human beings was completely different from the DNA of chimpanzees, or alligators, or petunias, or sponges, this would be a fatal blow to ET. There is no reason why it should be the same, if the species were created separately; there is no reason why one nucleotide could not be substituted for another, and still serve the same purpose of coding genetic structure.

Yet it turns out that all non-viral, non-anaerobic-bacterial life on the planet uses the same four nucleotides in the same coding sequence. In fact, the closer (in ET) one species is to another -- say humans and chimpanzees -- the more of their individual DNAs are identical: we share about 97% of our DNA structure with the chimps, for example.

So there are three completely separate methods by which ET is falsifiable; yet each of the three alternate sciences yields results that perfectly mesh with the basics of ET. And where there are discrepencies, evolutionary scientists do what they are supposed to do: they change the theory to take into account the new observations. (That is one thing that defines a science.)

Thus, contemporary ET is precisely the refinement of earlier "Darwinism" that survived the falsification test... thus it is, by definition, falsifiable -- unlike ID, which by its very nature cannot be disproven, since it depends upon an intervention by a sentient, supernatural being that could have done anything, including laying false "evidence" to mislead us.

That is enough argumentation for right now; I will return to this post periodically as more questions arise.

7. There are simply too many potential mutations, all but a tiny fraction fatal, for so much evolutionary change to have occurred in only a couple billion years.

There are so many possible mutations -- the figure 10^50 is bandied about -- and only a small number that would be viable and advantageous, and so many of the latter that would have to occur, that it’s mathematically impossible for evolution to have happened in only a few billion years.

Richard Dawkins (among others) has indeed answered this question, the creationists have completely misunderstood the answer -- which leads me to suspect they really don’t understand the underlying math as well as they pretend. The point is that the laws of chemistry and biology act as constraints or filters that prevent the vast majority of those 10^50 possible changes from occurring, restricting the possibility of mutation and other forms of variation to just a sliver of those possibilities.

This is not “functionally equivalent to the generic ‘intelligent designer’ of ID,” as one commenter put it; we see such constraints all the time in non-life physical science: a planet in orbit could mathematically go in any direction at any time; since there are an infinite number of directions, and the planet would have to select one particular direction out of those infinite numbers to keep along its orbit, and since it would have to do this an infinite number of times every second, one might naively say that probability that the planet would follow its orbit by sheer, random chance is zero.

But of course, it’s not “sheer, random chance” that keeps the planets in their orbits; that job is done by the law of gravitation: the planet follows its particular elliptical orbit (bumpy elliptical, since it’s tugged by all the other planets and -- in theory, at least -- all the other bodies in the universe) because its choices of motion are constrained or filtered down to only one.

Similarly, during ontogeny, the cells in a developing body of, say, a horse are constrained by the horse DNA present from the moment of conception. At a deeper level, atoms cannot spontaneously become different atoms because that violates fundamental laws of the universe (except due to radioactive decay -- which is also strictly constrained by its own laws; an oxygen atom cannot suddenly turn into a helium atom at whim).

Molecules cannot spontaneously become any molecule they want, or even any molecule that contains the same atoms: water (H2O), which consists of hydrogen and oxygen -- cannot suddenly turn into hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), even though that also consists of hydrogen and oxygen.

Physics, astrophysics, astronomy, chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, biology, and evolutionary biology are all disciplines built around discovering these “constraints” and formulating them as physical laws. But they all act to one purpose, as far as ET is concerned: to reduce the number of available choices for “mutation” down to only a few possibilities... and the “wrong” (unhelpful) choices do, in fact, wildly outnumber the “right” (helpful) choices -- most mutations are fatal; only a tiny, tiny percent confer a reproductive advantage. That is why evolution takes such a large number of generations... but not an impossibly large number.

8. Doesn't ET violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy)?

By the Second Law of Thermodynamics and by information theory, structures always move towards decay, from more complex to less complex, from more information to less information; the theory of evolution violates this precept.

Structures in a closed system, dude. The Earth is not a closed system... the sun pumps massive amounts of entropic energy (heat) onto the earth, and it is a small portion of that incoming energy that drives evolution. In addition, the sun itself and all the planets are made up of the remnants and debris from earlier stars; it is also not a closed system. And it is presumptively true that the universe itself, which is (so far as we know) a closed system, is losing information and coherency faster than it’s being created.

As to where it came from in the first place, there is not yet a scientific theory that explains how the Big Bang actually occurred, or what existed before it -- if such terms even have meaning, when whatever existed might have had different physical laws (perhaps even including a different set of thermodynamical laws). Everything I've seen picks up at least a few nanoseconds after the BB itself. Science can only theorize about this particular universe with these specific physical laws.

(There is plenty of room to argue that the Big Bang was actually the fiat lux of the Bible; but that is not a scientific argument, and science should stay out of it.)

9. There is no experimental evidence for speciation; nobody has ever seen a new species arise naturally.

This argument displays a faulty understanding of what “experimental evidence” means. It is not restricted to bubbling chemicals in flasks and beakers. Going to a fossil site and looking at what you find there is an experiment, or more accurately, an observation and measurement.

We find new species all the time, but we cannot say whether they really are new, or we just haven’t found them before. In the timeframes required for evolution, only microbes and insects can really be speciated speedily enough for humans to observe it -- and even then only by the “intelligent design” of humans. What this argument demands is absurd on its face: it requires that we sit and stare at some species for a few decades to see whether it changes, spontaneously, into some other species.

But nobody claims that is how evolution works; first, the vast majority of species on the planet at any particular time won’t change into any other species ever, or at least not in any observable time frame. Second, such changes are so gradual, you might not even notice them until such a long time had passed that the entire generation involved in the observation would have died (and you know what the attention span of kids and grandkids is like). And third, the argument demands that we not use any artificial means to accelerate or constrain the variations, because that wouldn’t be entirely “natural.” The “argument” is actually a clever but completely paralogical attempt to set evolution up to fail by making so many restrictions that the creationists know it would be impossible.

Here is an analogy: until very recently, no modern scientist had ever seen a supernova occur (people in China observed and reported the supernova that created the Crab Nebula, but that was such a long time ago that there were no modern astronomers). So how did we know there had been supernovae?

Because we saw and measured their remnants, and the theory of astrophysics explained where those remnants came from (supernovae) better than any competing theories: that is, the theory of supernovae explained more observations that had already been made and correctly predicted more new observations than any competing theory.

Then just a few years ago, a nova or supernova began (rather, the light from an ancient supernova began to reach us), and by golly, it turned out they really did occur. Astonomers were right.

And of course, scientists could do the same thing to creationists: they could say, “You claim that God is omnipotent; so prove it... tell Him to create a zebra ex nihilio, right now in your living room, while I watch to make sure it really does spring into existence out of nothingness.”

The creationist would of course have to respond by shaking his fist and quoting “do not tempt the Lord thy God,” which you’ll have to admit isn’t really an answer. The correct answer is “omnipotence doesn’t work that way, and according to the Bible, God hasn’t created animals out of nothingness for thousands of years.”

All right; so now you know how it feels!

(Next update will tackle the ever popular misconceptions about the evolution of the eye and the wing....)

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, December 22, 2005, at the time of 3:55 AM | Comments (24) | TrackBack

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