Thursday, January 15, 2009

Darwin Bicentenary Part 1: A Brilliant Theory Says Ben Stein.

To commemorate the Darwin bicentenary I am bringing out a series of articles on the Evolution/Intelligent Design debate. This article is the first in the series

The theory of evolution raises intriguing and important questions about the nature of man and his place in the cosmic context and few would disagree. Although the status of evolution as a theory is more contentious it is nonetheless a very good theory. So good in fact that admission of its effectiveness comes from an unlikely source. Ben Stein, Intelligent Design aficionado and mischievous drawling roving reporter in the documentary film “Expelled”, praised evolution and Darwin in this YouTube Video. If Ben says that evolution is “a brilliant theory” and Darwin was “a brilliant guy” then it can’t be that bad. However, I don’t need to take Ben’s word for it. From my rather general layman’s perspective of the lie of the land, paleontologically and biologically, evolution appears to serve as an excellent background theoretical structure explaining the broad sweep of both prehistoric and extant life. Evolutionary theory joins the dots of the sample data very well in so far as it succeeds in uniting a diversity of organic forms into a single object called ‘Evolution’. The layman sees many fossils and many extant organic structures out there and although these are but a tiny fraction of the conjectured evolutionary tree of life that is supposed to sit behind them, evolution is one of those great organizing principles that succeeds in providing a compelling explanation of a gross aspect of both fossils and living forms, namely the clade structure of their categories. As an explanation of the taxonomy of natural history there looks to be no other game in town that is as good. In comparison ID theory as an organizing principle is no competitor: it is difficult to understand how positing a series of special acts by a super intelligence of unknown power and motive constitutes an effective organizing principle. From our lowly human perspective those acts appear, to all intents and purposes, arbitrary, and yet paradoxically, that mind seems to have created an organic taxonomy that looks suspiciously evolutionary. But then if the ID theorists are right one might expect the mind of a super sentience to confound us and have an agenda beyond our ability to comprehend.

In actual fact the case for evolution isn’t as clear cut as I make out. The overall layman’s impression that evolution provides an immediately to hand understanding of the gross cladistic aspects of the fossil record is one thing, but reading and trying to interpret the fine print of that record is quite another. For evolution the devil is in the detail. Enigmas and conundrums abound and these are not just about matters of fact, but also about matters of meaning. Take for example this upbeat assessment of evolutionary theory found in the British Open University magazine ‘Ozone’ (Winter 2008):

Among the scientific community evolution is a measurable, indisputable fact. The only debate that continues to engage them revolves around the precise mechanisms that drive evolution. But while academic niceties are politely batted to and fro at conferences and symposia, the rest of humankind (that sounds like me – ed) has been wrestling with the implications of Darwin’s monumental book ever since its publication in 1859.

That we are up against philosophical nuances and not just questions of science is suggested by the fact that many ID theorists would ALSO agree that evolution as a history of organic development is a fact. However where they would take issue with the evolutionary academic establishment is in that same question about the mechanisms driving evolution. But needless to say, in this case we are not talking about some minor academic quibble about the fine tuning of evolutionary mechanisms. Instead the ID/evolution contention is about a gross feature of the cosmos: namely, about whether or not the cosmos appears to make leaps of organization that can only be put down to the implementation of intelligent design with all the connation of non-human sentience that that notion suggests.

Philosophical, scientific and world view interests are well and truly entangled in this subject. So forget about academic niceties being politely batted to and fro: for the ID vs. evolution contention is far more sanguinary. Part of that may be down to the way the ID case proceeds in that it does so in way very reminiscent of the case for Young Earth Creationism. It is largely a negative science, a science that states that this, this and this could not have happened like that, that, and that. ID theory then attempts to satisfy the demand for predictions by recasting its negative predictions in positive mode, after the fashion one might recast the assertion “Black swans don’t exist” as “All swans are aren’t black”. This appears to make ID theory more falsifiable than standard evolutionary theory, a theory that makes existential statements about the historical existence of, say, illusive missing links. How annoying that must be to the atheist theorists who think of themselves as the bastions of empirical rationalism as they try to get the ID theorists to answer the evolutionary equivalent of the question “Just what colour are swans then?”. The ID theorists respond by rubbing salt into the wounds: they hint, more than hint in fact, that survive or die ‘Darwinism’ just may have something to do with the holocaust, one of the worst sins of mankind The evolutionary establishment retorts with the modern day equivalent of a charge of heresy: “ID theory is not science, it’s superstition”

But let me end on a positive note by acknowledging the help that good people on both sides of the debate have given me. I’m not keen on the abrasiveness of the contenders in this debate, but jointly both parties have given me a lot to think about. And that is much to be thankful for: for without these little problems to ponder, life would be so much more boring and this may have helped prevent me from being taken away by the men in white and diagnosed as pathologically bored. And finally I leave the last words to Ben Stein:

Bad Ben says "Evolution is a brilliant theory and Darwin was brilliant guy.”

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