Thursday, 02 February 2012

Intelligent Design - It's NOT Science

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Perhaps I should preface this article with “I’m not a scientist, but…”.

A long time ago, people used to believe that it was necessary to cut up a cow or a slave to make sure the Sun came up each day, because the Sun was a ball of fire being dragged across the sky by some god or spirit. Or perhaps it was a self-propelled being of fire, either way it and/or its carriers had to be kept fed and happy.

They didn’t know this as observed fact, but there were apparently well-informed shamans or priests who said it was so, because visions and don’t argue with me or you’ll be the next one in the fire-creature’s tummy. The ancients knew it because they were told; it was all the evidence they had.

I know the sun’s going to come up every morning, and I know that it’s because (in very simple terms) the Earth is a huge spinning ball of rock orbiting the Sun, which is an even-huger ball of burning gas.

I obviously don’t know this as observed fact, because I’ve never seen the Earth from space, but I know it because plenty of people have seen it, and there are dozens of cool devices that have travelled all over the solar system taking pictures. I know it because they told me, showed me and proved it to me.

Is there a difference between my knowledge and that of the ancient people? Well yes there is: better evidence. The coincidence of a murdered slave and the sun rising does constitute evidence of a kind, but I have better evidence than that (for instance I’ve never murdered any of my slaves but there’s the sun every morning) and unless someone comes along with better proof than we’ve already got, I’m sticking with the big balls of rock orbiting and spinning scenario.

People used to believe (some still do, but I’ll get to that) the Earth and everything else was created in seven days. It was in the Bible, which is a pretty important book and mostly a very good read and if you believed in God, well, you pretty much had to believe everything that was in His Book.

Then evidence, which had always been there by the way, got looked at properly by Charles Darwin among many others, and the whole world changed. The proof is there, in every fossil and in every living thing, that we weren’t actually created from scratch but we just, eventually, happened.

Despite our sentience, our intelligence, our spirituality and everything else that makes humans good (or at least morbidly interesting), we’re just a blip as far as the Earth’s concerned; consider that dinosaurs were around for tens of millions of years before mammals came squeaking along and it was a few million more before they started doing anything useful like looking up at the sky and wondering “How come that?”.

For some reason, the fact that we’re just some kind of accident gives great heartache to a lot of people. They feel that there must be some kind of Great Planner out there, who’s made all this for us, and is interested in what we’re doing with it, and has some kind of Plan for each of us.

This is understandable and almost forgivable — being a sentient being in the middle of an unimaginably vast Universe that’s been around for unimaginable billions of your lifetimes is fucking terrifying. The fact that you’re here, for such a relatively short time, in the middle of all that unspeakable bigness is, for want of a better word, a miracle.

I love the thought that we are a miracle, but I think that making a Creator of some kind responsible for it all actually cheapens the miracle. If you were able to go back in time to when the first strands of RNA fell together, there’s just no way you could calculate the number of mutations that have occurred, the number of life forms that have come and gone, and the number of chances that have gone our way. Which amoeba floated too close to the surface of the ocean and died, which one developed a slightly better-functioning gut, which ugly fish flopped onto the shore and discovered that it could breathe air; there are lots of cul de sacs in the fossil record, creatures that existed for a time, but just went nowhere, and the reason could’ve been as simple as a predator coming along at the wrong time.

All those odds and yet here we are.

Think about how you came into being. Just you.

About forty million sperm swam into a hostile environment (the birth canal) where most of them died. A few hundred made it as far as the uterus and the fallopian tubes, where it just so happened that this was one of the four or five days in twenty-eight that an egg was present in the right place. One of the sperm managed to push its way in and was healthy enough to fertilise the egg. The egg was positioned perfectly in a functioning uterus, and your mother was healthy enough that the egg developed into you. You weren’t one of the two in three fertilised eggs that self-terminated due to the dozens of reasons that zygotes fail. You survived all the risks associated with developing in the womb, and further survived the ordeal of childbirth (somewhat less of an ordeal in the past hundred years or so than it was in times past).

You survived childhood without serious disease or malformity, and no fatal accidents befell you (or your parents) while you were still too young and feeble to care for yourself. And here you are, a sentient being, perhaps with children of your own, reading this. You’re a winner.

When you consider that every single one of your human ancestors came into being the same way, in the face of far more environmental and medical risks, it makes you even more of a miracle. Consider what your DNA, and indeed the solar system that developed to contain the Earth on which DNA eventually developed, has been through to get this far, and when you really think about it that’s a lot more interesting than Creation.

Some People of The Book have pretty much accepted that the Seven Days thing, the Garden of Eden, the Flood and a lot of other stories in the Old Testament are just Bronze Age myths, useful perhaps as morality tales but not as history. It hasn’t shaken their belief in God, and doesn’t stop them being decent human beings, they just use the Bible as a guide to being nice to people, not as an historical text. Good for them, or you, if you’re one. Seriously.

However, there are plenty of others who for some reason cannot accept that the Bible is anything other than historical fact. Thanks to this second group, we get to the point of this article: Intelligent Design.

Faced with an undeniable fossil record and a couple of hundred years of stunning scientific achievement, they have to admit that evolution does happen, just not in the way that science describes.

They put ID forward to show that we, and everything else on the planet, have actually been designed, with us as the obvious end-point of perfection.

They call their cherry-picked data and conclusion-based theories Science, and It. Is. Not. Behind its claims to validity, ID’s central tenet is that all this is simply too complicated, we don’t want to have to think about it, it’s just easier to believe that Somebody is Responsible.

It’s too hard to think about how the human eye for example could have evolved, so let’s just say it’s just too complicated, Somebody must have made it. They call this Irreducible Complexity, but it fails on every application that I’ve seen.

From a mutation in part of a cell wall that responds to light, you get individual cells whose sole purpose is to respond to light, then they start gathering in groups, then you get brain functions to process the data, then cones and lenses and all the other bits come along and improve it, and you eventually get the mammalian (and octopus) eye, or one of the seven other kinds of completely different eyes that evolved independently on this planet.

It’s easy enough to disprove the irreducible complexity assumptions about the human eye, particularly when you go on to point out that it actually collects everything upside down and our brain has to turn it right way up, and there’s a blind spot, and what Supreme Being would’ve made such a glaring error…

ID proponents don’t usually embarrass themselves with that argument any more. Their latest cause celebre is a thing called the flagellar motor, which is a little whip that amoeba use to propel themselves around test tubes or wherever it is that amoeba hang out.

The flagellar motor is made of thirty different proteins, and experiments have shown that it simply will not work without all thirty in exactly that formation. Therefore, it couldn’t have evolved in bits, therefore it’s Irreducibly Complex, therefore Someone must’ve made it.

But that’s like looking at a bridge or a 747 and assuming a whole lot of parts just levitated themselves into place, without any scaffolding or cranes or welders. Once the bridge is up or the 747’s ready to roll out of the hangar, all the scaffolding and cranes and welders go away because they’re no longer needed, which is pretty much what happened with the flagellar motor.

We don’t know what kind of scaffolding used to be around it, or if some or all of the thirty proteins used to be different proteins, but there are plenty of examples of such scaffolding to be found in nature.

So there are two competing theories around the flagellar motor — it just happened (like every other bit of every other life form on Earth), or Somebody made it. We evolutionists have supporting evidence from which our theory comes (obsolete parts such as our own appendix, or the fact that human foetuses have a tail), whereas ID’s theory is only supported by its necessary erasure of evidence (I can’t see the scaffolding, therefore it was never there).

Science is about looking at all the evidence and coming up with a theory that explains it, then re-testing the theory in as many ways as possible. When new evidence appears, a theory is altered (as evolution has hundreds of time since Darwin) or abandoned altogether.

Intelligent Design is a theory that goes looking for evidence that supports it and ignoring that which doesn’t. Despite the scientific qualifications of some of its proponents and the fact that they can write scientific-sounding papers, ID is not science.

It is intellectual laziness which refuses to confront the mind-boggling numbers and timescales of evolution, but more than that it is a weakness of Faith.

Its proponents, convinced of an unbreakable link between God and the Bible, cannot bring themselves to separate one from the other: if the Bible is not to be believed in its entirety, then whither my belief in God?

So they attempt, through psuedo-science, to tie their omniscient, omnipotent God to a collection of Bronze Age myths assembled in the second century AD then edited down in the fifth and subjected to dozens of transcriptions and translations ever since.

Faith in God comes from a basic human need for explanation of things we can’t understand. There’s nothing wrong with that as far as I’m concerned: you want to believe in God, that’s fine.

But when the evidence, actual evidence not just cherry-picked “data” fabricated and twisted to suit a pre-determined conclusion, is right there in front of you and is explained over and over again by people (yes, scientists!) who do understand it, why the need to “prove” His existence by denying that science?

Belief in God can be a beautiful thing, but it is insulted, along with our intelligence, by Intelligent Design.

Read 3475 times Last modified on Saturday, 04 August 2012
Justin Shaw

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