Monday, January 7, 2008

Intelligent Design Could Be as Robust as Darwinian Evolution - If the Evidence and Theory is There

In November 2007 PBS broadcast a Nova special called "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial", which covered a 2006 lawsuit brought against the Dover, PA school board over their requiring a disclaimer be read in biology classes stating that "there is an alternative to Darwin's theory of evolution" and that an alternative biology textbook, Of Pandas and People, was available in the school library for those who wanted to explore an Intelligent Design based explanation of the origin and development of life. The school's science teachers objected to the school board's actions and filed a lawsuit on the grounds that Intelligent Design (ID) was not science, and that this was an unconstitutional intrusion of religion into the public schools.

I found this program very compelling, and couldn't help but notice that for the first time in my life I was actually finding biology interesting. The subject never did much for me in high school or the couple required courses I had to take in college, I've always been far more interested in software and "inanimate" science and technologies :-)

I'm not going to talk about the "religion in the classroom" angle, that's a whole 'nother contentious set of blog posts. Instead I'm going to look at the argument that was being made regarding the "scientific-ness" of ID and how that bears on what is taught in the classroom.

Now I try very hard to be meticulously fair and even-handed when I get into contentious matters like this. I rarely find an anti-evolution or anti-creationism site that can restrain themselves from making snarky comments, or much, much worse, about their opponents. Such childishness accomplishes nothing. I try to fairly present each side, in terms their proponents would find acceptable, and then look at the conflict between them. And therefore I'm also very sensitive to any kind of unwarranted disparagement, strawman, or ad hominen attacks and arguments being made by one, the other, or both.

In "Judgment Day" I was quite pleased to see that no significant instances of any such comments were broadcast. I don't know if any were made by those interviewed, but what got on the air appeared scrupulously objective, no doubt significantly aided by the producer's decision to rely heavily on the trial transcript and the judge's final decision for the show's content.

Now to the science. I'm going to try to summarize what I understood to be the "scientific-ness" approach of the plaintiffs (those who brought the suit).

Science, as it's generally understood by scientists rests on two foundations: facts, and theories.

"Facts" are the physical entities and behaviors of the components of the universe. Facts are the "what is" of the universe, the objective, physical reality. Facts can be discovered, measured, observed (sometimes requiring specific tools), and appear and act the same to any observer. Some facts are not physical entities, but are instead relationships, which can be captured as laws, e.g. F = ma and E = mc2.

"Theory" is an explanation of facts. An explanation of why things are the way they are, why the laws operate the way they operate. A theory is the underlying explanation for the reality and behavior that we observe. To be accepted as a scientific theory that theory must build off the facts, logically and rationally explain the interrelationships amongst them, and be able to make predictions about more facts and behaviors that ought to exist, but have not yet been discovered. By its very definition a theory cannot contradict facts--it may not have an explanation for all the relevant facts, but ideally further refinement of the theory--the explanation--will incorporate those facts as more is learned. (The meaning of "theory" in the collequial phrase "It's just a theory" has little in common with its industrial-strength meaning in the sciences.)

In science classes such as physics and chemistry no one questions that the only facts and theories that are taught are those that are built on this rock-solid foundation of scientific facts and theories.

Biology is no less such a science and therefore only equally solidly supported facts and theories should be taught within its classes. And this is where the conflict between evolution and Intelligent Design arises.

First off, most everyone agrees on the raw facts of biology: Life exists, fossils exist, DNA exists, living beings pass on traits to their offspring, genetic combinations and mutations occur during the inheritance process. There are structural similiarities, both gross and fine, amongst different families and species of plants and animals, there are similarities in the composition of genes amongst different plant and animal species.

Chimpanzees and orangutans show a lot of physical and genetic similarities.

Oaks and okapis not so much. (Yet they're both made up of cells, employ the same "life processes", and the form and growth of both is controlled by DNA.)

It's when it comes to explaining these biological facts--how they originated, why they are the way they are--that evolution and ID provide significantly different explanations.

Darwinian Evolution is a detailed theory based on "natural selection". In a nutshell it is summarized as "the accumulation of changes through succeeding generations of organisms that results in the emergence of new species".

The Intelligent Design theory "holds that certain features of the universe and living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, and are not the result of an undirected, chance-based process such as Darwinian evolution".

The core of the scientific aspect of the Dover lawsuit was examining how well the theory of evolution explains the presence and behavior of the biological facts, versus ID's explanations of those same facts.

What the scientific testimony at the trial revealed was that the theory of evolution provides a rigorous, accurate, and testable explanation of biological facts, meeting the same standard as those theories that are taught in physics and chemistry classes. In short, that "life on Earth today acts exactly as if evolution were true".

The ID arguments, as presented in the trial, could not supply the same rigorous explanations of observed biological processes. This is not an assertion that Intelligent Design is wrong, but simply that its tenets could not meet the high standards of evidence and explanation that are met by evolution (as well as the "hard" sciences).

The Intelligent Design proponents conceded as much, stating in an amicus curiae brief filed with the court that "the current formulation of intelligent design theory," " still in its youth.... For that very reason it is premature to conclude that one side has triumphed and the other has lost." "[This] brief makes no scientific argument at all, and gives no indication of where the court might look to find a scientific argument."

Similarly, that there are "holes" and "gaps" in evolutionary theory gives no reasonable cause for asserting that such deficiencies undermine the theory, in fact, pursuing the closing of such openings in a scientific endeavour often drives the very advance of scientific progress. That there are aspects of biology that evolution doesn't yet explain in no way constitutes proof for an alternate explanation of biological origins, such a claim is an example of a false dichotomy, identified as such by Judge Jones in his decision.

Those wanting to present Intelligent Design within a science-based biology class admitted, as noted above, that the theory did not meet accepted scientific standards, and that therefore "the ground rules of science must be changed". Altered to include "supernatural causation of the natural world", which forced Intelligent Design expert Michael Behe to concede that "his broadened definition of science, which encompasses ID, would also embrace astrology". (All quotes in this paragraph from the judge's decision, emphasis added.)

Judge John E. Jones, III (recommended for the bench by former PA senator Rick Santorum (R) and appointed by President Bush) decided on the evidence and merits of the case that on the "question of whether ID is science, [...] it is not". And that due to its religious couplings, it was unconstitutional to teach ID in a science class in the public school.

Nova's presentation of this case covered both the scientific and religious aspects of the lawsuit, and did an excellent job filling out the scientific context for the arguments that were made at trial. (It also handled the religious/community aspects well, but like I said, I'm not going to get into that here.) The explanations, illustrations, examples, and arguments regarding the science of evolution and ID's claims to science were quite clear and easy to follow. Not least because the judge himself needed a full understanding of the biological underpinnings of the science aspect of the case: "We'll take a lunch break now. I might be inclined to say class dismissed for the morning."

The bottom line regarding scientific evidence for evolution by natural selection and the lack of same for Intelligent Design is simply that ID does not yet stand up to the rigor of the accepted scientific method. This does not mean that ID is false, simply that it is not scientific, it is "not science", as Judge Jones ruled. The methods that have been used by science over several centuries now have unequivocally led to the multitude of successful advances of human knowledge and technology that we have today. Advocating a liberalizing of these methods, of "changing the ground rules" of science merely to justify putting ID on the same apparent footing as evolution is hardly a way to advance our technology and understanding of the universe.

There is nothing inherently preventing ID proponents from developing ID theory to the same robust level of Darwinian evolutionary theory if the evidence and theory is there. But simply finding fault with an overwhelmingly well supported and explanatory theory is not going to do it. In fact, finding legitimate deficiencies will likely aid the development of evolutionary theory as such "holes" help focus efforts on understanding those deficiencies by finding more evidence and improving the theory to address them.


I would strongly encourage people to read Judge Jones' decision (pdf) in this case. I read every line of it, all 139 pages. And actually, since it's double-spaced and employs a rather large font, it really doesn't take that long to read. I read the whole thing in one 45-minute sitting. Once you get past the legal boiler-plate in the beginning the decision is very readable, summarizing all aspects of the case and spelling out the judge's criteria and rationale for coming to the conclusion that he did.

And like I said at the beginning, this is the first time I actually found biology interesting, and who would have thought that would have been a result of a court case?


Mathias said...

Interesting post, to which I would like to add two comments.
First, obviously, the reason this debate is so heated is because it pertains to us, humans. After all, theories such as quantum theory make much more outlandish statements about the nature of the universe than evolution does. The issue is that people don't care that much about atoms, but they don't like to think that their existence could be random, or worse, that they may have monkeys in their ancestors.
Then, the second point which makes the discussion much more heated is the lack of simple experiment. The power of "theories" like gravitation is that there are simple experiments which anyone can perform and hard to disprove, like dropping a stone and predicting its trajectory. Evolution is well-grounded from a science standpoint, but there is no such "school experiment" to make a strong case for it, which makes it an easier target to attack.

Marc said...

Mathias, I agree with you that our "human-ness" being central to this issue is the root cause of the heat.

And the notion held by creationists that evolutionists claim that humans are "descended from monkeys" is a mischaracterization that only exacerbates the matter.

Humans are not descended from moneys; both humans and monkeys are descended from a common ancestor whose lineage broke into different branches 5-8 million years ago.

You're also right about the ease (or lack thereof) of demonstrating aspects of various theories. Still, while the theory of gravity is trivially easy to demonstrate, there's not much objection to relativity, despite the lack of readily available near-light-speed capable equipment.

It also doesn't take much to see evolution in action: antibiotic resistant bacteria is blatant evidence of the efficacy of natural selection, and directed evolution experiments are performed in labs to harness the power of natural selection to develop new drugs and other biological agents.

Anonymous said...

Mathius said "After all, theories such as quantum theory make much more outlandish statements about the nature of the universe than evolution does."

But he kicker is that while they may be "outlandish" they are testable! So far, there isn't a test that does anything other than point at QM being true view of the universe.

LosManos said...

There is one - The Big One - difference between science and religion.

In science you are allowed to - and should, and must at all times question whether the theory is right or not.

In religion this is not the case since all religions I know of have a stand point that it must not be questioned; If you do you are automatically wrong.

Marc said...


"In science you are allowed to - and should, and must at all times question whether the theory is right or not."

Absolutely right!

"In religion this is not the case since all religions I know of have a stand point that it must not be questioned; If you do you are automatically wrong."

I agree that this is the de defacto position held my most religious practice and believers. For Christian religions, though, I think this notion is unbiblical.

Why? Very simple: "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known." (1 Cor 13:12)

Humanity is imperfect, so how can we possibly assert that we have a perfect understanding of God? Humility and awareness of our imperfections and potential for misunderstandings are essential to one's efforts to come closer to God.

There's another post on this blog, "A Christian Realist's (Brief) Perspective on General and Special Revelation" that generated a comment thread that went into this in some depth.

Basically, my take on understanding the nature of God and humanity is this (which I lifted from one of my comments in that thread): "The way I see the growth of understanding of Christianity in a way parallels the way science works: Look at the materials, study them, seek understanding--from the material and from God. Study what others have figured out, discuss and debate with others who are pursuing Truth."

Vidar said...

Excellent post. There is one thing worth mentioning, regarding the use of the word "random" both in the post and in Mathias' comment:

There is a huge perceptual problem here that is worth reminding people of. Natural selction is NOT random. It's nowhere near random, in fact.

It has elements of chance in it, but it's a highly structure process, and the difference can be modeled very clearly for instance by comparing how a genetic algorithm employing a fitness function vs. random change converges to an optimal state.

It's worth hammering into peoples heads, because it's such a fundamental misunderstanding. If evolution was actually governed by chance, then I'd agree in a heartbeat that it'd seem incredible for it to have the results claimed.

What element of chance there is, however, is very strongly weighted in favor of refinement.

Not only that, but modeling natural selection vs. random change also very neatly explain a lot of "mistakes" in nature, such as the bizarre design of the human eye (we have our blind spot because our eye is "inside out", so that the optical nerve has to pass through the retina) - it's the classic problem of directed search algorithms with finding local maxima vs. global maxima, something which is actually not that hard to explain to people once they've gotten the "random" idea out of their heads.