More on the Intelligent Design Decision

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A long and thoughtful comment to my earlier post about the Dover court decision on Intelligent Design begins: “I’m a molecular biologist at UCLA, and after linking here from slate I hope to offer comments…”

Did he say “linking here from Slate?” Apparently, he did. I really didn’t expect that; I’m happy he found us.

In any case, the comment that followed is only one in a series of very sharp and well-done critiques of Intelligent Design, and my defense of the idea. There is more to discuss here, and much food for thought. As Slate put it, I think ID is an “inchoate” theory, meaning not well-defined. That could certainly be used to characterize my thoughts at this point on the various comments, but here are some reflections.

The multiple definitions of species and speciation do allow for things found in the lab to meet one or more of the standards; I clearly stand corrected on that one. But from what I read in the comments and various links, these lead only to very limited changes. Certainly, nothing explains the development of complex structures that, if half-completed, would be useless or detrimental.

The best criticism made of ID was that based upon various assumptions made in accordance with evolutionary theory, new and very beneficial medical discoveries have resulted. What do we do with all of those under Intelligent Design?

The answer, I think, is basically nothing. It is as I said earlier, that ID is merely “the conclusion that both the formation of life and the development of many structures most probably did not happen by chance.” All of the benefits of not only our understanding of DNA, but of its ability to adapt and mutate, are in no way contradicted by ID. They’ve demonstrated that a bacterium will mutate into a form better able to handle a given temperature range. Is this an argument for evolution? On the contrary, DNA moving around in such carefully limited ways could be telling us that there’s more to DNA than we’ve begun to understand.

All of this is irrelevant to the “deep theory” of evolution, which is not only immune to being disproven but also has no utility for future scientific investigation. It is merely the comfortable belief that all this brilliance happened naturally. As Netanel Livni pointed out, that probably has no more place in the science classrom than Intelligent Design. He says no more, I say no less, but we’re basically making the same point (and I’d be forced to agree with him that probably both should be set aside).

Sholom Simon — who got hold of the court decision before I did — made the case that regardless of what merits ID might have in another situation, the Dover folks were so blatantly trying to bring religion into science class that the judge basically had no choice:

If you [read the decision], you’d understand why ulterior motives are relevant to the case.

See page 32 for one of the reasons.

Hypothetical: if one is not allowed to teach religion in the schools, but school board X wants to teach it, can they take a clearly religious book, do a global “replace and search” of “G-d” and replace it with “intelligent designer”, and then claim to the court that it’s a secular book?

That’s essentially what actually happened, and that’s why the judge was angry and criticized the motives as a transparent attempt to get religion into the classroom.

Whether one likes the decision or not, the judge (appointed by G W Bush) was right on the money given the facts of this case (which include the behavior of the erstwhile school board).

And later:

(a) given that a district judge must invalidate any Creationist text; and (b) given that the text used was a Creationist text with the words “intelligent design” substituted in each place “creationism” existed — the judge can only conclude that this was davka an attempt to evade the Supreme Court decision.

How can anyone possibly disagree with that?

I do urge you to read the decision. There is a maxim that “bad cases make bad law.” If ever in the entire world there was a case that had such bad facts that the religious folks had the worst possible chance to win in any US Court — this was it.

Other examples include specific statements made by the school board, and etc. This was clearly an attempt to teach a specific religious viewpoint — it was not a neutral attempt. Again, read the decision. It’s quite an eye-opener.

I don’t disagree with Shalom that the ID folks in Dover made a terrible case; I pointed that out in my earlier post. But at the same time, I don’t think an otherwise-acceptable text suddenly becomes unacceptable because you find that the word “creation” or “creationism” once appeared where “ID” shows up now. It would seem that the book has to be judged on its merits — but perhaps when it is obvious that it will be used to make oral presentations in favor of religion, that demands a different result.

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12 Responses

  1. bvw says:

    Well, I alluded to the 2nd Law by way of the Maxwell’s demon, even though I was hoping to be more general so as to focus on the chooser — the selector (or selectors) of outcomes that are evolutionary. Still it would be nice to be able to answer about the law of entropy, but it’s a dicey endeavour to attempt … I know from past experience. It takes some time and paragraph upon paragraph just to sychronize our ideation streams. Then, B-H, this afternoon I came across just such an explanation, posted today at the American Spectator by a mathematician, Granville Sewell. His essay is called Evolution’s Thermodynamic Failure
    Here’s one excerpt:

    Anyone who has made such an argument is familiar with the standard reply: the Earth is an open system, it receives energy from the sun, and order can increase in an open system, as long as it is “compensated” somehow by a comparable or greater decrease outside the system. S. Angrist and L. Hepler, for example, in Order and Chaos (Basic Books, 1967), write, “In a certain sense the development of civilization may appear contradictory to the second law…. Even though society can effect local reductions in entropy, the general and universal trend of entropy increase easily swamps the anomalous but important efforts of civilized man. Each localized, man-made or machine-made entropy decrease is accompanied by a greater increase in entropy of the surroundings, thereby maintaining the required increase in total entropy.”

    According to this reasoning, then, the second law does not prevent scrap metal from reorganizing itself into a computer in one room, as long as two computers in the next room are rusting into scrap metal — and the door is open. In Appendix D of my new book, The Numerical Solution of Ordinary and Partial Differential Equations, second edition, (John Wiley & Sons, 2005) I take a closer look at the equation for entropy change, which applies not only to thermal entropy but also to the entropy associated with anything else that diffuses, and show that it does not simply say that order cannot increase in a closed system. It also says that in an open system, order cannot increase faster than it is imported through the boundary. According to this equation, the thermal order in an open system can decrease in two different ways — it can be converted to disorder, or it can be exported through the boundary. It can increase in only one way: by importation through the boundary.

    So the jist, as I understand it is that while the sun provides energy, that energy has no order, no organization, and without that the net of orderliness on earth can not be more even though we are an open system. So why is order increasing on earth?

  2. Chizki says:

    bvw, you said –
    “However, I think, “natural selection” as a choosing force working seemingly against natural entropy, like some great Maxwell’s Demon, is not a concept that stands much rational scrutiny. ”

    Let’s not bring the old argument that the 2nd law of thermodynamics (i.e. within an enclosed system, entropy never decreases) implies that the development of complex systems such as life (or an increase in the complexity of existing organisms) is impossible. Is there a net decrease in entropy here on planet Earth due to the existence of complex, highly ordered systems that we call life? Perhaps. But this is not a problem because, thermodynamically speaking, the planet Earth is not a closed system. Because Earth receives such a great input of energy from the Sun, we need to consider the entire Solar System if we are to judge whether the 2nd law of thermodynamics is being violated. Once we consider the entire Solar System as our “closed” system, whatever amount of localized decrease in entropy that may be occurring on Earth is more than offset by the tremendous increase in entropy that is caused by the combustion occurring within the Sun.

    “What is natural selection selecting for, exactly? Long life? Rocks are very long lived. High reproduction rate? (Hmmm …) However if reproduction rates for one species maxes out, that species runs out of resources—such as food.”

    This critique of yours only makes sense if you assume that “fitness,” as formulated by Darwin, is some absolute scale of measure. It’s not. It’s a RELATIVE scale of measure. An organism that has high “fitness” (i.e. has the ability to produce a large number of offspring) in one environment will have low “fitness” in another. Also, as you’ve correctly implied, “fitness” is a measure that is very dependent on the timescale over which a species is observed. If a species in a given environment multiplies at a prodigious rate over the course of, say, a century and then becomes extinct due to overcrowding, one would correctly say that it had high “fitness” at the timescale of years but had low “fitness” at the timescale of centuries. Yes, “fitness” is a moving target. But this isn’t a problem because nobody (well, no serious evolutionary biologist, anyway) ever considered it to be a stationary one.

  3. bvw says:

    Rivka W in reponse 6 repeats a common stance in defense of evolution, that natural selection is not “random”. However, I think, “natural selection” as a choosing force working seemingly against natural entropy, like some great Maxwell’s Demon, is not a concept that stands much rational scrutiny. Pehaps it is also a “incohate” concept.
    What is natural selection selecting for, exactly? Long life? Rocks are very long lived. High reproduction rate? (Hmmm …) However if reproduction rates for one species maxes out, that species runs out of resources — such as food.
    So something less than maximum possible at any time. Some optimal reproduction rate? Well then what is that? “Determined by nature”! Aha! Tautological.

    I suggest that “natural selection” is at its deepest root (which I think also, is only so deep and no deeper) a meaningless fob of a term. That in practical usage by us humans seeking both comfort and edification both the term turns into a false flag, a pretty thing of a term that sounds so rational, but means only that we chose the cheap comforts of the ignorance of looking into things only so far, of refusing to move firther upwards on the mountain to achieve greater perspective.

  4. Tzura says:

    “Tzura, I don’t see at all why your Emunah would somehow be threatened were it to be proven absolutely that evolution by chance could have happened. It’s not a threat at all.”
    Hold on! I agree with you. Evolution does not threaten my Emunah. Maybe I was misunderstood. In my previous comment, I was trying to flesh out exactly why my Emunah will *not* be threatened by the possibility of unguided evolution being true. However, considering all the brouhaha with the the trial and all the posts you put about it on this site, you surely agree that a lot of religious people do indeed feel that the establishment of evolution by chance would be a threat to faith. Saying “It’s not a threat at all,” is a bit of an overstatement.

    Also, you first said:
    and this is where the scientific “discovery” of G-d, that which Tzura says “with a high degree of confidence… will never happen,” actually takes place:

    Then you said:
    It begs the question of who created the aliens, but this certainly demonstrates that one can believe in ID without believing in G-d.

    As an aside, it’s exaclty by this point above that the Pennsylvania case was lost. On one hand, you believe in God alreay, so you truly, sicerely want to say that ID proves the existence of God, but then you try to make ID more palatable to non-believers by saying that one can hold by ID without believing in God.

    My original response was to your comment on evolution, not the establishment of life on earth, which you are discussing now. I’d like to point out that the two issues are fundamentally different. Evolution of organisms is understood to be an ongoing process, but the creation of the basic biochemistry necessary for life, as far as we know, was a one-time event. Perhaps the creation of biochemistry is a part of Ma’aseh Bereshis, while evolution is a part of Teva, our natural order in the here and now. Be that as it may, It seems like you agree now that imposing ID on evolution is rather difficult. I agree that the establishment of life presents a bigger difficultly than evolution in presenting a naturalistic explanation. This point, however, only gets back to what I was saying in my previous comment, that people who are so inclined (like Crick) will, and is able to, choose the next naturalistic step.

  5. Rivka W. says:

    I have read the memo. I have also read some of Behe’s work.

    The probability of a particular sequence is not really relevant, and in this case puts the cart before the horse. (The reason that particular protein is so common in biological systems is because it existed early on.) The probability of some equivalent sequence is many orders of magnitude more likely. And any one of them could have served just as well, although it might mean that life would look rather different than it does.

    There are a huge number of paths open to evolution. We are here because one particular route was taken. But many, many others could easily have produced viability. And a large percentage of the ones that are non-viable simply die off. Lethal mutations occur all the time — the individuals with them don’t often live to reproduce. (But sometimes they do. Huntington’s disease comes to mind.) Some mutations are not particularly useful, but not (usually) harmful either. Although my appendix surely did me no good.

    And all of that is actually irrelevant to the original argument. Because none of this goes to the basic problem of ID: it makes no claims which can be tested. Therefore it is not scientific, and has no part in a public school science class. In a philosophy class, certainly. (And in my science class, which I feel free to pepper with my non-scientific comments and opinions of many types, I most certainly make (brief) reference to Hashem as the source of the world (especially the really cool stuff!)) But I teach in a private school, and am therefore not an extension of the government in the way a public school teacher is.

    “Note that “directed panspermia” by space aliens is a theory of ID that does not resort to a Divine Creator.” And that is a maileh of ID?! To me that’s a major chisaron.

  6. Yaakov Menken says:

    Tzura, I don’t see at all why your Emunah would somehow be threatened were it to be proven absolutely that evolution by chance could have happened. It’s not a threat at all. It also happens not to be true (more on this below).

    Micha, well said.

    Rivka,

    I encourage you to read the memo from Ed Sisson first referenced here by Rabbi Adlerstein back in June. He has a very good definition of what it means to support ID.

    The critics of “unintelligent” evolution may be usefully described as proponents of “intelligent” evolution. Their argument does not impeach the general proposition that species evolved one from another over time, but instead focuses on the assertion that randomly-operating natural forces – such as random DNA mutations interacting with random environmental, population, and ecological changes – are sufficient to explain how all of that evolution occurred.

    Natural selection only “selects” between two things that have already come into existence — and that, says evolutionary theory, happens by chance. Those are the numbers that fail to appeal, and this is where the scientific “discovery” of G-d, that which Tzura says “with a high degree of confidence… will never happen,” actually takes place:

    In my early research, one book I found particularly persuasive is The Mathematics of Evolution. Many people, assuming that scientific merit alone determines whether professors obtain teaching posts at prestigious universities, believe that the prestige of the university wherein a professor teaches is especially relevant to deciding how much merit to accord to the professor’s positions. The author of this book was Professor Sir Fred Hoyle of Cambridge University, founder of the Cambridge Institute of Theoretical Astronomy. In his book he calculates the probability that a particular DNA sequence, necessary for the production of a protein called “histone-4” (a protein so common that he says it is “conserved across the whole of biology”) arose by chance. He concludes that the chance that DNA hit upon the necessary sequence at random is 10 –120 – a number so small that Hoyle says that this sequence came about “not by random chance.” He also says that “faced with this situation, neo-Darwinians retreat into an untestable position … retreating neatly into the unknowable and untestable.”

    Other authors who have independently calculated the probabilities of DNA assembling into a useful sequence by chance include Dr. Dembski; Dean Overman, a senior partner at Winston & Strawn DC (A Case Against Accident and Self-Organization pub. by Rowman & Littlefield); Dr. Lee Spetner (Ph.D in physics from MIT) (Not By Chance, pub. by Judaica Press); Dr. Richard L. Thompson, (Ph.D in mathematics from Cornell) (Mechanistic and Non-Mechanistic Science pub. by Bala Books); and others. All of them conclude that the probabilities are so small as to be virtually impossible. I have never found any calculation of the probabilities that would support the likelihood that life arose from non-life by “unintelligent” process or that the DNA of life as we see it today arose by Darwinian “unintelligent” evolution.

    No one disputes the accuracy of this math. British philosopher Anthony Flew just two months ago announced that the “impossibility of providing a naturalistic theory of the origin from DNA of the first reproducing species” caused him to doubt his long-held atheism. Moreover, Dr. Francis Crick himself, co-discoverer of the DNA code, proposed in a 1981 book Life Itself that “an honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.” Because of this, Crick, like Hoyle, proposed that life likely began not on earth but in some other location in space, and came to (or was sent to) Earth in a process of “directed panspermia.”

    Note that “directed panspermia” by space aliens is a theory of ID that does not resort to a Divine Creator. It begs the question of who created the aliens, but this certainly demonstrates that one can believe in ID without believing in G-d.

  7. Rivka W. says:

    (Firstly, I apologize about the excess bolding in my last comment. I must have dropped a tag. Sorry!)

    “Rivka, the problem is that you are misconstruing ID in creationist terms.”

    Not particularly. I have read a great deal about ID, mostly from its proponents. When I first heard it explained, it seemed to line up wonderfully with my own beliefs. Then I learned more about what was being claimed.

    “ID in and of itself does none of the above—it says that non-theistic evolution is unlikely to explain our presense here.”

    That is not all it says. ID claims that there is scientific evidence that evolution could not have occurred without an intelligent designer. There simply is not any such thing. Scientific evidence must be testable. ID makes no claims which can be tested.

    I absolutely believe that Hashem Yisborach has guided, and continues to guide, every minuscule genetic change. I believe that studying the universe is a wonderful and enlightening way to learn more about Him. But that is because I have emunah, NOT because of some argument about “irreducible complexity.”

    I believe many things that cannot be tested or proven — at least not in this world. But I make no claims that they are scientific . . .

    “Even given the physical age and size of the universe, the probabilities are too small to explain what transpired.”

    Really? If one believes the other alternative is pure random chance, then surely so. But science does not claim pure random chance. It claims natural selection — which is very far from random.

  8. micha says:

    The question isn’t whether ID should be taught in science class. It’s metaphysics, not physics. The question is whether it’s possible to teach evolution without implying that the process is truly random, ie without cause or purpose, pure chance and luck. That too is a religious position, not a scientific one.

    If it is impossible, then the nearest on can do to keep promotion of a particular religious out of the public school classrom is to teach a variety of possible metaphysics for it — randomness along with ID.

  9. tzura says:

    “Certainly, nothing explains the development of complex structures that, if half-completed, would be useless or detrimental.”

    I never understood why this argument is considered so strong. One can easily imagine scenarios where changes that lock a system into irreducibility crept in after a certain level of complexity was already reached through intermediate stages. Also, the fact that a structure like the eye has evolved multiple times tells me that its development is simply not as difficult as it currently seems.

    “All of the benefits of not only our understanding of DNA, but of its ability to adapt and mutate, are in no way contradicted by ID. They’ve demonstrated that a bacterium will mutate into a form better able to handle a given temperature range. Is this an argument for evolution? On the contrary, DNA moving around in such carefully limited ways could be telling us that there’s more to DNA than we’ve begun to understand.”

    Assuming that evolution appears to have occurred over natural history, how did it happen?

    To bring back the bacteria as an example, if we can determine how the bacterial chromosome changed, and if we can demonstrate that such changes *can* occur spontaneously, I would say that that is an excellent indication that spontaneous changes in DNA drives evolution. One can argue that in the particular case of this particular bacterium evolving in this particular petri dish, the change was directed and not spontaneous. No one would be able to refute that, but that’s already taking things beyond the scope of empirical testability.

    To generalize, since it has been shown that:
    1. Changing the sequence of genetic information encoded in an organism’s chromosomes changes the basic characteristics of that organism

    2. The DNA sequence in chromosomes can spontaneously change in various ways

    one can reasonably imagine that spontaneous evolution happens. The rest is details, mopping up, with the main questions being: a. To what degree can genetic information be spontaneously mutated in chromosomes? b. How much does the DNA sequence have to change to effect organismic changes necessary for speciation? and c. Can the kinds of spontaneous mutation we know about account for the observed genetic differences between species?

    The fact that these questions are not completely answered is not considered to be a killer problem. Again it’s details. Anyways, the general direction of current research is showing that the answer for a. is “a lot more that we thought” and b. is “a lot less than we thought”.

    Both scientists and ID’ers are amazed that DNA can be rearranged in such carefully limited ways. The difference between them, ulitimately, is about attitude, not understanding of facts. It seems like R. Menken would like to just stop there and make that mystery in to something with which to hang a belief in God. Science just doesn’t work like that. They just take that mystery as a challenge to look further to find the materials reasons why DNA behaves that way.

    I’ve talked with a number of frum, non-scientist friends who think that scientists will reach a certain level of understanding, find a phenomenon they can’t explain, and finally say, “There we find God!” I can say with a high degree of confidence to say that that will never happen. As a believing Jew, I believe that God does suspend the natural order on occasion (although maybe not bizman hazeh, from the time of Megillat Esther onward), but the everyday, natural world is constructed in such a way that the line of causality emanating from God is infinitely long. That means that although God created the world and His hashgacha is everpresent, there is nevertheless a materialistic explanation to every observable feature of the natural world. Such a position, in effect, hedges my bets so that my Emunat Hashem can’t be shaken by future scientific discoveries. That reasoning might sound like sophistry to some, but I think it’s a lot better than the alternative.

  10. Michael says:

    It is true that ID is not in and of itself creationist. But as I mentioned in my comment to the Dec. 21 blog, I am not convinced that it is a framework for predictive, testable work. The value of evolutionary theory is not in its ability to explain how life developed. It is in its application to current and specific biological models. Evolution and science in general, need to be taught more intelligently (ie not as a history lesson, but as a way to piece together more about the world we currently live in.) Of course there are problems when evolution is taught in such a way that the children who were taught to believe in Creation understand their science course to be flat out contradicting it. The approach (which, I admit, might be complicated to quite hash out in its subtleties) needs to be one that brings out the value and applications of the learning material in the here and now.

  11. Yaakov Menken says:

    Rivka, the problem is that you are misconstruing ID in creationist terms. ID in and of itself does none of the above — it says that non-theistic evolution is unlikely to explain our presense here. Even given the physical age and size of the universe, the probabilities are too small to explain what transpired.

    The rest is fluff, and I agree that if they spent more than a page or two on this topic, they were trying to find a back door for creationism. But don’t confuse ID with how some have misused the basic idea.

  12. Rivka W. says:

    The problem is not whether there is evidence that the world is God-designed. IMO, there certainly is. The problem is whether that evidence is scientific. And it is fairly clear that it is not.

    ID proponents (who insist that somehow there is such scientific evidence) do theistic evolutionists (to use a term coined by a friend) like myself a disservice, and unnecessarily polarize the debate. No wonder some of my students (I teach science in an Orthodox high school) are convinced “science is against Torah.” It certainly is not, but some people seem determined to spin things that way.

    ID is not science. Pardon my bluntness, but anyone who claims it is either doesn’t understand ID, or doesn’t understand science.