ID – Impugning Darwin

October 7th, 2005 | by ian |
I’ve been watching the whole intelligent design (ID) controversy from the sidelines for some time with mixed feelings. My focus in university was evolutionary biology. I spent quite some time working in a laboratory for experimental evolution (working with microbes with no artificial genetic modifications – strictly natural processes were used). What led me there was a strong desire to gain insight into the processes leading to and maintaining the diversity of life. And there I learned that change in the living world generally depends on there being a VARIATION of INHERITABLE properties which are passed on to subsequent generations disproportionately due to SELECTION (what doesn’t work well in a given environment generally doesn’t last long unless linked to something that does) and imperfectly due to MUTATION (among other mechanisms). The resulting reproduction and recombination of traits feeds back into the variation.

An intelligent designer would use evolution, not reject it

Evolutionary processes are so successful at solving problems that they are now employed in computer engineering, financial investment and the development of pharmaceuticals among myriad other applications. My mixed feelings about ID begin with disappointment that this is considered a debate, mingled with the hope that the end result will be widespread public education about evolutionary principles and a general discrediting of the ID movement.

Firstly I think it is not a coincidence that such a controversy occurs now. Public support for and education about science may be at the lowest point in recent history. Funding for science has been moving into the private sector, and increasingly science is seen as “too difficult” for north american students. Culturally we are leaving science behind while countries such as India are embracing it. The war on science by the current US administration is overt if not declared. Call it the “global struggle against rational thought.”

Science is not religion but some scientists are religious about their work.

Religions are based on faith – accepting the gospel and requiring no proof. Science is based on asking questions, investigating with as open a mind as possible, re-examinating assumptions and making sure results can be independently verified by others. Why do some people confound science and religion?

Faith is as human a quality as reason. Being human, scientists are prone to holding beliefs that are not supported by evidence. This could be the existence of god(s), the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or the belief that some newfangled scientific hypothesis is accurate. Until there is independent verification and peer review and (ideally) decades of further verifications a scientist should consider and accept the possibility that the hypothesis is wrong.

Science has its practical issues: whereas objective and carefully examined, independently verifiable research is a nice idea, sources of funding and cultural biases affect what questions science pursues and therefore what it does or does not discover. Pressure to produce results both in industry and academia frequently lead to incorrect or downright dangerous conclusions. And like any discipline, some scientists are simply much better than others. Some are downright charlatans.

So science has challenges to what it strives to acheive. Religions have their own issues ranging from fundamentalist terrorists to being able to keep up with changes in society and culture. Confounding religion and science is almost always towards political ends. There is absolutely nothing about the acts of faith or evidence based inquiry that preclude each other unless you are willing to take on faith something that has been proven false. Thankfully it is impossible to prove religion false because the claim that there is a god or gods are not VERIFIABLE. You can continue be a devout follower of some religion AND be an excellent scientist. Your religious faith need not interfere in your scientific approaches. Some people will choose to make them seem like they interfere, such as ID supporters who use preposterously illogical pseudoscience to pursue political goals backed by creationist lobby groups. It is from this kind of approach that the repugnant science of phrenology was was born and it will certainly die a similar death.

Clever Purpose

At the end of the day, Intelligent Design is what it says it is but not what it means to be: a clever way, given the current social environment, of achieving certain political goals. Luckily this environment is always changing and this is one idea that is unlikely to survive to reproduce. Like an overly aggressive virus, by forcing widespread discussion, legal debate and public education on topics of evolution it will rapidly lead to a population which is innoculated against its continued survival.

Luckily both religion and science will survive. Thanks to and The Onion so will my sense of humour about ID.

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