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Evolution  vs.  "Intelligent Design"

The folly of Kansas continues...

August 2005

Two issues are involved in the Kansas dispute:  Evolution, where the Kansas education authorities reveal themselves as uneducated, and Creation of life, where the religious view is as good as any  –  for the time being.  But there's no fundamental conflict between religious views of creation, which deal with purpose and originator, and science, which deals with the mechanism of that creation.
A few months ago, a somewhat lighthearted BRJ article took note of the currently running replay in Kansas of Tennessee's "Scopes" debacle of 1925, i.e., the school board's desire to guard their state's children from the scientific conclusion that natural forces have been responsible for the development of life on Earth, and particularly that of the human species.  It's been mentioned that as a biologist I should have treated the subject with more gravity, and I confess that I tended to see the Kansas Board of Education as troglodytes not worthy of serious argumentation  (my apologies to the few educated and frustrated moderns on the Kansas Board of Education).  But on reflection, the troglodytes' actions threaten to undermine the education of some millions of American children, and  – as the education of American children hangs by a thin thread already –  these children deserve our support and defense.  Let me say, though, that I stand by my earlier proposal.

That proposal, for those who haven't bothered looking it up, was simply that religious doctrines regarding creation and everything else ought to be taught in school.  Not just the Christian variety, but those of all significant religions.  They ought to be taught, to give the child an understanding of the variety of extant religious doctrines and belief-based answers to the natural world's riddles.  These should be taught, but they have no business in science classes.

What is "science"?
In modern parlance, natural science means the activity of investigating, discovering, clarifying, and if possible explaining the mechanism of the natural world (including ourselves and the workings of the very mind that is doing the wondering) in accordance with operation of the physical laws of our universe, as we understand them.  Let's understand that science is mechanistic.  Questions about purpose, design, or supernatural forces behind the mechanism are not part of scientific inquiry.

The key to scientific inquiry is that it proceeds by an accepted standard of rigor.  That is, scientific conclusions, to be accepted, must be demonstrated to be "true".  These demonstrations are either by repeatable experiments, or, where these are infeasible  – as in much of astronomy –  by confirmation through multiple lines of evidence.  To a scientist, however, "truth"  is never final;  it's always a matter of probability.  The scientist, in fact, generally designs his experiments to disprove his hypothesis.  If he is testing a cause-and-effect, for example, his hypothesis will be that a given condition does not result in a certain effect.  His statistical tests will then require him to disprove the negative, i.e., show that it is not true that the experimental variable failed to cause the observed effect.  That's a tough test to pass.

The scientist will generally accept a result as "probably true" if the statistics show that the likelihood of it being false is less than 1 percent;  and will say that "we accept this result to be true with a 99 percent confidence level."  But not with 100 percent confidence.  There's no such thing in real science!

How does this "scientific method"  compare with the religious "belief method" of acquiring knowledge in the quest for explanations of the natural world?  In fact they can hardly be compared because belief is not based on any repeatable (or even describable) method and does not acquire knowledge of any sort.  If we were to try to describe the "method" for acquiring a religious belief, it would perhaps run like this:

  1. One observes and wonders at the marvelous complexity of life (so far it's identical to the scientific method), and becomes infused with the gut feeling that "somebody must have made this."  (Here's a conclusion without any evidence;  totally antithetical to the scientific method.)  Then,
  2. Searching through ancient, pre-scientific tribal explanations for what kinds of gods must have been responsible, one chooses the one myth that has lingered on in one's own culture.
  3. One then orders one's life according to the chosen ancient tribal myth, and believes the myth with the unshakable assurance that one has found truth.  Further discoveries will now be unnecessary and irrelevant.
The modern citizen who thinks in this way has not advanced in reasoning methodology from the primitive tribes of three thousand years ago.  As I wrote in an essay on religion some months ago, "It's a remarkable fact that folks whose religion is based on divine revelation are likely to demand more proof and demonstration from a door-to-door gadget salesman than they demand for the supposed revelation on which their faith and their entire world-view is based."  Indeed, I have yet to meet a religionist who can  – or will –  explain by what criteria he chose his particular set of doctrinal beliefs out of the thousands that have been thought up by various tribes through the ages.  One cannot get around the fact that "belief" is just belief.  It's not knowledge, and it has nothing in common with any rational means of acquiring knowledge.

Newspapers just last week reported a survey that found that more than half of all Americans do not believe that life, and particularly human life, evolved from more primitive forms, nor that the first life on Earth developed by natural processes, i.e., without the involvement of gods.  These two points are really two quite different questions, and I will suggest below that while the American majority opinion on the first issue (evolution) reflects a sad irrationality and an education as lacking as that of the Kansas Board of Education, their opinion on the second issue (creation), while equally irrational, may be as good a hypothesis as any, as long as it's taken as a hypothesis.

"Evolution" means change over time.  The designs of cars, airplanes, and TV sets have evolved during our lifetimes.  "Geological evolution" of the Earth means that the Earth has not remained static during its existence, but has changed form, for example by tectonic movement of continental crust plates and upwelling of mantle material through fracture zones and volcanoes.  And "biological evolution" similarly means change in the biological component of the Earth over time.  It's a commonplace  – now hardly disputed by anyone in possession of a rudimentary education –  that the biological component of the Earth has altered drastically over the 3+ billion years for which we have a record.  The evidence is just too overwhelming to dispute this point.  The paleontological findings from ocean sediment cores, fossils, and pre-ice age skeletons are conclusive:  In earlier eras, forms of plants and animals which are no longer here populated the Earth.  Conversely, the most complex life forms that exist today did not exist millions of years ago.  Further, we see in the paleontological record a gradual development in sophistication of the life forms on Earth, from bacteria-like single cells and ferns, to – much later – the rise of flowering plants and sexually reproducing fishes and other vertebrates;  much later again development of the warm-blooded land animals;  and very recently the appearance of early primates and later of the hominids.  Man in modern form appears to have been on the Earth no longer than a couple of hundred thousand years.

But do these descriptive facts prove the evolution of species, i.e., the gradual change and adaptation of organisms through generations, which is what the hullaballoo really is about?  No, not by themselves, though the paleontological record is consistent with the idea of species evolution.  And in order to believe that new species did not originate as a development from existing species, one would have to interpret the fossil record to mean that each of the millions of life forms found, which differ only slightly from earlier life forms, is a new creation, while at the same time the earlier form is eradicated by some means.  Such an interpretation of constant serial creation of improved forms while destroying the old would be far more fantastic than the simpler conclusion that the record indicates gradual evolution, as it appears to.  But the decisive evidence for species evolution comes from combining the paleontological record with our understanding of the processes of heredity and of environmental selection factors.  Our study of molecular biology has shown us that the genetic material does undergo mutation through copying error or irradiation at a fairly predictable rate.  Therefore, genetic variability must occur, as we see that it does, in many cases giving us congenital diseases.  And where variability exists, selective pressures must operate on these, as farmers have known for millennia.  Another simple proof that mutations lead to increased variability in a population over time is that the variants of genes that we see expressed in the Earth's total population of humans could not all have been contained on the chromosomes of the small number of humans that both science and religions agree made up our original stock.  That's a physical/chemical impossibility, and therefore variability has arisen through mutations.

The "theory of evolution" is therefore now on as firm ground as the atomic theory and the gravitational theory.  It is established fact, with a confidence as close to 100% as one likes.

I can convey little news regarding the creation of life, because no one knows anything about it.  All we have are ideas and possibilities.  But there is a world of difference between the scientific approach to the question and that of the mere believer.  Science asks, "What does the evidence suggest about the mechanism of creation?", and "What are the alternative ideas?"  Science is then open to new ideas and evidence, and to new thought.  Belief asks no such questions, and is interested neither in evidence nor in alternative ideas.  It has its truth, and its truth is the truth.

The ideas that science has offered regarding the creation of the Universe are highly debatable, as expected in science at its early stages where we lack direct evidence.  (And Cosmology is still in its very early stages, necessarily full of erroneous notions.)  The "Big Bang" theory of a spontaneous (?) explosion fifteen billion years ago is not very satisfying, and science frankly has little to offer about the eventual origin of energy (which would be needed to fully buy into this theory).  Science's theories about the origin of life on Earth are nearly equally unclear and contradictory:  for example, it has been proposed that life on Earth may have developed spontaneously from the physical forces that existed on the primitive Earth:   amino acids and other organic molecules may have been formed by atmospheric electrical discharges into a soup of raw material chemicals  –   laboratory proof of this possibility is referenced in my essay on extra-terrestrial life), or that primitive life forms or proto-life forms may have been brought to Earth from extraterrestrial sources (though this "explanation" merely moves the problem of the origin of life onto another celestial body.

Of course science is making progress in investigating likely mechanisms that brought about life, and in theorizing about possible scenarios for the beginning of the universe.  But again, science is about mechanism, and science will never confirm nor exclude the possibility of supernatural beings – such as gods – behind the scenes.

The Kansas Board of Education is right about one thing:  Scientists and science teachers need to be careful to distinguish established fact from conjecture.  If there are any knowable facts in this world, then biological evolution of species is established fact.  It was conjecture 150 years ago, but today there is no question that such evolution has occurred and continues to occur.  On the other hand, talk of creation, whether of life or the universe itself, is conjecture.  It may be conjecture based on more or less rational reasoning, but it's still conjecture.

Science has proven a great many things about the workings of the world.  But it has not proven that either the universe or the life in it were created by mechanistic processes without the involvement of gods.  And it hasn't proven anything about the existence of gods.  There is nothing in the findings of science that would make one dispute that gods might exist or that they might have started this whole mess.  And that's where many scientists, and perhaps science teachers, go wrong.  If they declare a god-less universe to be a fact, or even a probability, they are misrepresenting what science can determine, and are misusing their stature as scientists.

I speak as one who is rather fond of gods, myself.  I think it's a cute idea, that gods created the universe and life.  And why not?  Sure, there's no evidence that there are gods, but then again, there's no evidence that there are not.  And science is powerless to enter this discussion, because godhood cannot be determined by scientific inquiry.  So I entertain religious notions myself, imagining that gods made the universe and all that's in it.  As a Scandinavian I'm naturally drawn to the explanations of the native nordic religion:  Lightning is the sparks from Thor's hammer;  thunder is the rumbling of the wheels of his chariot rolling across the heavenly cobblestones, and according to the leaf droppings of Yggdrasil, the tree of life, we'll know whether we'll enter Valhalla, the realm of the gods.  It's comforting to know that these nordic "theories"  have the same validity as those of the more usual western religions, besides being a lot more fun.

So what of the notion of "Intelligent Design"  (a euphemism, of course, for "Creation by God") that the Kansas School Board would like to introduce into the school science curriculum?  The answer is in part that science has nothing to say about "design".  On the one hand, teachings involving gods have no business in a science curriculum.  On the other hand, when science teachers speak of origins, they must be careful to limit themselves to the mechanisms that are the purview of science.  These mechanisms will not conflict with religious notions of "design" behind the mechanisms, and Kansans need therefore not fear that their children's innocent faith will be tainted by the teachings of science.

© 2005 H. Paul Lillebo

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