October 04, 2007
More religious needles in scientific haystacks
The arguments that I gave before against taking anthropic arguments seriously apply with even greater force when it comes to the whole intelligent design creationism (IDC) movement, whose advocates argue that a very few biochemical processes could not have come into being except by the actions of god and thus this is evidence of god.
If god exists but did not want to give us evidence because he wants us to believe purely on faith, then he surely would not have created the cases used by IDC advocates as examples of his interventions in the evolutionary process. On the other hand, if he wanted to show us he exists, he could have done so directly by stopping the Earth's rotation or something dramatic like that. Instead, we are asked to believe that god wants to give us evidence that he exists but for some reason chooses to provide evidence that is so subtle and ambiguous that it takes professional biochemists to even get a glimpse of it. If that is true, maybe we should abolish the current priesthood and create a new Church of Biochemistry with IDC advocate like Michael Behe as the BioPope, since only biochemists can see god and it was Behe who first saw him.
Although the IDC movement seemed to have died after the Dover trial fiasco, Michael Behe has apparently written a new book The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits to Darwinism trying to resuscitate the corpse. Jerry Coyne (professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago), in his review the book says the following:
What has Behe now found to resurrect his campaign for ID? It's rather pathetic, really. Basically, he now admits that almost the entire edifice of evolutionary theory is true: evolution, natural selection, common ancestry. His one novel claim is that the genetic variation that fuels natural selection -- mutation -- is produced not by random changes in DNA, as evolutionists maintain, but by an Intelligent Designer. That is, he sees God as the Great Mutator.
Coyne goes on to clarify an important misconception about the meaning of the word "random" as used in natural selection:
What we do not mean by "random" is that all genes are equally likely to mutate (some are more mutable than others) or that all mutations are equally likely (some types of DNA change are more common than others). It is more accurate, then, to call mutations "indifferent" rather than "random": the chance of a mutation happening is indifferent to whether it would be helpful or harmful.
I haven't read Behe's new book but if Coyne's description of its central idea (that the role of god (aka "intelligent designer") is to create appropriate mutations so that they are not random but are designed to advance evolution towards a particular goal), then this is not even a new idea. This was proposed in the 19th century by eminent scientists such as Asa Gray, Charles Lyell, St George Mivart, and Richard Owen soon after Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. (Darwin: The Life of a Tortured Evolutionist Adrian Desmond and James Moore, p. 545). They, like Behe, were religious and were disturbed by the fact that Darwin's theory that random mutations and natural selection were sufficient to explain nature seemed to make god superfluous. They too were anxious to find something for god to do. But at least in their defense, they lived before the discovery of genes and DNA as the mechanism for inheritance and the source of mutations. The flowering of Darwinian thinking known as the neo-Darwinian synthesis came long after they were dead. Behe has no such excuse.
What underlies all these people's misgivings about evolution is that it seems to deny some special quality for human beings. They seem to be able to accept evolution for everything else but when it comes to humans think there must be some miraculous spark that is responsible for us. If there is no special plan for humans, then life for them will have no meaning.
But there is really no basis for this belief that we play any special role in the cosmos. What is remarkable is how inhospitable the universe is to human life. As Richard Dawkins, says (Stenger, p. 71, and Scientific American November 1995, p. 85) "The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference."
If god does exist and humans are special in his sight, then he seems to have been extraordinarily wasteful by making, as far as we know, only this tiny Earth inhabitable, and creating enormous amounts of matter and space that we cannot reach or occupy. It seems like he really does not like us all that much and has essentially made us prisoners, destined to live forever in a tiny corner of the universe, with no chance of escape.
Next: Atheism and meaning.
POST SCRIPT: Remembering the Little Rock Nine
Last week was the fiftieth anniversary of the integration of Little Rock schools. This moving article profiles the story of one of them, Elizabeth Eckford, whose face was captured in an indelible image of that tumultuous day.