07 January 2006

"Lost ID?"

Last month's court decision in the Intelligent Design (ID) case in Dover Pennsylvania has caused quite alot of glee among evolution proponents. Gloating too. I come to this controversy with a perspective apparently not shared by either side. For one thing, I am familiar with the root concepts of ID, namely specified complexity and irreducible complexity. I find these ideas to have some merit. But, I cringe when I read that ID is an alternate theory of origins. It's nothing of the kind and never was.

ID is really a scientific criticism of evolution. In the parlance, you might say that it is an attempt to falsify the theory of evolution. Things get very messy here because the term "evolution" has come to encompass so much. To view the controversey fairly you've got to understand that ID theorists do not contest the many things under the evolution umbrella that are well known. It would be easiest to just say that natural selection is not evolution; inheritance of traits (genetics) is not evolution; the progressive, multi-billion year fossil record is not evolution. No reasonable person denies these well known things -- including the scientists who work on ID.

But, wait a second, if "designists" are really just creationists in sheep's clothing then how can they believe in all those things? ID proponents apparently do include quite a number of creationists who have jumped onto the bandwagon. The embarrassing, ham-handed way in which some school boards have handled things makes that obvious. But, the authors of the ideas and the many other earnest people who have bothered to actually understand ID -- and find these ideas credible and important and worthy of further research -- are not generally creationists. Simply put, ID theorists have raised critical questions about our understanding of evolution. These ideas cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand or attacks on the motives of the evolution critics. They must be addressed.

But, still, if one believes in all those pieces and parts of evolution, then how can they not believe in evolution?? That's the big question all right. I think I have to speak only for myself here. I believed in evolution for most of my life, up until just a few years ago. (I also believe in God and saw no real conflict -- then or now.) Now, I'm not saying I no longer believe in evolution. Not exactly. I'm just saying that I've come to understand that we really have no idea how it all happened. We don't know how this earth went from no life to human beings in the relatively short span of a few billion years. So, I might believe in evolution. If someone would just explain it to me. No one's been able to yet and, believe me, I gave them a fair hearing.

"What? You don't believe in evolution? You stinking, creationist scumbag!" (Yes, that's usually the next stop on this little trip.) Well, not exactly. That's a big issue with ID, it doesn't actually answer the questions of our origins either. It simply is not an alternate theory of origins. Anyone who represents it as such either doesn't understand it or actually is a theory-hijacking creationist. (Note to ID theory authors: bad choice of name for your theories.)

Now, I wanted to talk about the science of the debate versus the politics of the debate. But, how can you separate them? The two have become so deeply intertwined that it is impossible. For example, I would like to see more honesty from the evolution proponents about the true limits of our knowledge in this area. But, they believe they are under assault from anti-scientific fundamentalists and that they must maintain a unified front and admit no inadequacies at all in their understanding. Is this a political stance or an honest, misguided attempt to keep the unwashed masses from being hoodwinked? The vitriol with which many denounce the authors of ID makes it difficult to accept that their motives are pure. Destroying a reputation now passes for science. And, again, it proves my point that we still have very, very much to learn about the origins of life. If the facts of the matter were as well known as some insist that they are, then the answer would be to explain those facts, not attack the people that merely point out that they are lacking.

Many ID proponents continue to disappoint me, too. They continue to be allied to and perhaps infiltrated with people who really do appear to be pursuing a religious agenda. What are they thinking?

The whole mess reminds me of the Cold War proxy wars, where the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. would support opposite sides of some small war between third world countries. There is a much larger cultural battle going on here and what should be a minor scientific controversy has been dragged into it.

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