Monday, August 22, 2005

Intelligent design gets even more coverage in the NYT

Fads come and go, but does any one have any doubt that ID proponents are gathering steam? A new article in the NYT by Kenneth Chang lends credence to the movement by giving it yet another pointless, but fair, hearing.

Chang covers four elements of ID's arguments against the biology we've known for over 100 years:

  • Irreducible complexity: everything is like a complicated mousetrap; remove a part and nothing works. Therefore, how could there have been functional intermediates prior to something like the eye, or blood-clotting? Answer: lots of organs and enzyme systems have been shown to have loopy, non-intuitive evolutionary origins. Most biological systems are nothing more than elaborate, and very, very small, Rube Goldberg machines -- although in this case, Rube Goldberg machines that actually work -- with oddball collections of parts borrowed from systems with entirely different purposes. One blood clotting enzyme has a close relative in the digestive tract, for instance.
  • Science purposefully eliminates the non-material, and could therefore miss the true cause of biological origins. But science is perfectly suficient at delivering explanations of the natural world with no recourse to an "in-your-face" designer.
  • A set of large evolutionary "leaps" in the fossil record (such as the Cambrian Explosion) could not have occurred over the short period of time that they are said to have occurred. Nonsense. 30 million years (the duration of the Cambrian Explosion) is still a very, very long time. Besides, there's no reason to assume that evolutionary change need have occurred at exactly the same rate throughout Earth's history. A big unanswered question is why we have no evidence of multicellular life between the appearance of the first eukaryotes (2 billion years ago) and that of the first multicellular animal life (600 million years ago). The same objection could be raised by IDers to this little factoid, but it wouldn't carry the same urguency, would it?
  • Some patterns are visible in the natural world that could only have been established by a designer. Mathematical algorithms are being developed to detect these. Why is it mostly mathematicians, engineers, and biochemists who become creationists?
The article also discusses the idea that some IDers (here, Behe) have that the "design" inherent to the biological world could have been established at the Big Bang -- in other words, nothing IDers say can ever be proven wrong.

"Intelligent design" dividing God and evolution?

The debate over Intelligent Design (or ID), has become particularly acute in recent months and years. School boards and state and local governments in Georgia, Kansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas have exerted considerable effort at introducing it into public schools. In and of itself, this is unexceptional -- the creationism/evolution debate has been going on for over a century -- but this old debate now has a new air of credibility, if not acceptability. Language inserted by Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum into versions of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act made the seemingly innocuous mandate:
Where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy.
What's so objectionable about that? After all, shouldn't our students understand why some people object to evolutionary biology and how to respond to those objections? Unfortunately, this was not the intent of that language at all. By cleverly exploiting the American public's combined religiosity and ignorance of evolutionary biology, IDers have been able to convince a wide swath of the public that it is not only good to have both sides of any debate, but that there are surely gaps in neo-Darwinism that only an Intelligent Designer could fill.

In parallel to the debate in public schools, which has increasingly worried some IDers as being "too much, too fast," our political and religious leaders have weighed in, as well. On July 7, 2005, in a New York Times Op-Ed entitled "Finding Design in Nature," the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, began the process of deconstructing John Paul II's statement in a 1996 letter that evolution is "more than just a hypothesis":

The Catholic Church, while leaving to science many details about the history of life on earth, proclaims that by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world, including the world of living things.

Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense -- an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection -- is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.


Naturally, the authoritative Catechism of the Catholic Church agrees: ''Human intelligence is surely already capable of finding a response to the question of origins. The existence of God the Creator can be known with certainty through his works, by the light of human reason.'' It adds: ''We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance.''

Riding the domestic wave of support for ID, President Bush recently began his own personal exploration of the boundaries of science and religion, taking a weaker stance than that of Schönborn, but parroting the Discovery Institute's talking points (PDF) in his inimitably cosmopolitan way:

"I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought...You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, the answer is yes."

Very clever, Mr. President! Irving Kristol would be proud! As Paul Krugman puts it on the NY Times Op-Ed page on August 5, three days after President Bush's statement:

...what if creationists do to evolutionary theory what corporate interests did to global warming: create a widespread impression that the scientific consensus has shaky foundations?

Creationists failed when they pretended to be engaged in science, not religious indoctrination: ''creation science'' was too crude to fool anyone. But intelligent design, which spreads doubt about evolution without being too overtly religious, may succeed where creation science failed.

The success of ID will depend on convincing enough Americans that neo-Darwinism excludes God (as Schönborn appears to believe), that ID is simply another possible explanation for biological origins, that all IDers want is to have a fair debate on the subject, and that it's all really just an extension of the Red State/Blue State, conservative/liberal divide that has swept the nation.

The problem is that ID has no standing as a true scientific theory. No, I'm not going to cite the definition of "theory", as everyone seems to when discussing this topic; rather, I want to point out, following Jerry Coyne's incredible article in The New Republic this month (subscription only), the basic set of facts we should be keeping in mind when talking about ID:

  • Evolution (i.e., descent by modification) is an extraordinarily well confirmed fact; it is not just "an assumption" or just "a theory." By the way, if the word "theory" is properly defined, the phrase "just a theory" is meaningless.
  • Intelligent design has produced no cracks in evolutionary or neo-Darwinian theory; indeed, natural selection and descent by modification have been extremely powerful for explaining natural phenomena and providing a rationalization for "nature, red in tooth and claw."
  • ID has no research program of its own (only one "peer-reviewed" article in the controversial submission of a paper to the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington by Stephen Meyer).
  • ID is historically rooted in "creation science", but modified for today's legal landscape.
But most importantly, we need to be very careful about how we talk about religion. My dad is an evangelical Anglican minister in Southern California. I deeply respect him, even though he and I may disagree on a couple of issues. We do agree, however, on the fact that evolution occurred. But he adds to his acceptance of Darwinian evolution a very deep sense of God's purpose for the Universe and for humanity. Let's be sure that we can build a discursive framework that buries ID but can include people like my dad.

Calling it "intelligent design" was brilliant, obscuring the difference between a supposed body of scientific theory ("intelligent design") and the assertion that God created the Universe. Most Americans believe that God did in fact create the Universe, so provided IDers can maintain the false dichotomy of God v. Evolution, those poorly informed of the debate (i.e., most of the American public) will continue to find it odd if not offensive that anyone would oppose even mentioning "intelligent design" in public schools. The argument would go something like this: "Darwin never included God in his theory, and I believe in God, therefore evolutionary biology is too narrow." It is because of this divorce of God from evolution that our great nation is in the weird place that it is.

The best way for us to fight ID is to insist that God and evolution are compatible. Do not, under any circumstances, make fun of anyone's religion!

The dKos community could probably benefit from getting into some of the reasonable discussions of this topic available from the religious end of the debate. I recommend a set of recent articles, as forwarded to me by my dad, written by Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic, John F. Haught in Commonweal, John Garvey also in Commonweal, and John McMullen in Catholic Exchange. For me, the best quote is from Wieseltier:

The cunning souls who propound intelligent design are playing with fire, because they have introduced intelligence into the discussion. It is a standard to which they, too, must be held. The theory of intelligent design must itself be intelligently designed. I cannot judge the soundness of their science, but that is not the only standpoint from which they must be judged. Their science, after all, is pledged to a philosophy. Philosophically speaking, I do not see that they have demonstrated what they congratulate themselves for demonstrating. The "argument from design," the view that the evidence for the existence of God may be found in the organization of the natural world, is an ancient argument, but philosophers have grasped, at least since the sixth section of the third chapter of the second book of the Critique of Pure Reason, that it may establish only the wisdom of a creator, and not the existence of one. It is impossible, of course, not to marvel at the complexity and the beauty of the natural order; but marveling is not thinking. The mind may recoil from the possibility that all this sublimity came into being by accident, but it cannot, on those grounds alone, rule the possibility out, unless it is concerned only to cure its own pain. (Cosmic accident is also an occasion for awe.) Intelligent design is an expression of sentiment, not an exercise of reason. It is a psalm, not a proof.

I hope you find this useful.

A space shuttle at what cost?

What are we trying to achieve with the Space Shuttle, and at what cost?

Well, it looks like the next shuttle launch (Discovery again) will be no earlier than March of 2006, and only after the withering criticism of a seven member "return-to-flight" oversight group who

blasted NASA for still exhibiting many of the same behavioral problems that contributed to the Columbia tragedy, poorly assessing shuttle risks and making the shuttle's return to space more complicated and costly than it needed to be... By the time Discovery blasted off July 26 on the first shuttle flight since the Columbia disaster, it had gone through 15 launch dates. Some safety improvements that could have been made were not because of the push to meet a launch date that was always just a few months away, the seven task force members noted in their critique.
What are we doing? As the Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg says in the beginning of his important 2004 piece in The New York Review of Books (electronic subscription required):
Ever since NASA was founded, the greater part of its resources have gone into putting men and women into space.
The "yahoo" factor aside, how much greater a part?

NASA's 2005 budget allots $7.1 billion to manned space flight. This total includes both the space shuttle ($5.0 billion) and the space station ($1.7 billion), plus some extra for space and flight support ($0.5 billion). For scale, consider that this is 44% of NASA's total budget for 2005.

What of this $7.1 billion actually yields any scientifically important data? I'll ask you. I'm sure some of you work at NASA. But consider this. The National Science Foundation, the leading arm of basic research in the US, has taken it's first budget cut in years, a 1.9% reduction from FY 2004 appropriations amounting to a $225 million cut to basic research and outreach/education relative to the FY 2005 request. From of a budget of over $5.4 billion per year, this may not seem like a lot, but it will mean fewer competitive grant awards, narrower scientific aims, and overall a poorer outlook for science in the US. D'ya think cutting the Shuttle Program (and the president's Mission to Mars) could cover the shortfall and then some?

Some of you might say that we need the space shuttle to service platforms like the Hubble Space Telescope. After all, Hubble was launched with the shuttle and is serviced by the shuttle. But it no longer needs to be. Today, the Hubble could be launched at a fraction of its original $1.5 billion initial cost using unmanned launch vehicles. In other words -- and this is conservative -- cutting the shuttle program ($7.1 billion) would leave us enough money to launch 4.5 Hubbles every year. And assuming we launch just one, think of all the money we could save for basic research as funded by NASA in its earth science program, or by NSF in all fields!

For the "scientifically pointless effort" file

Tuesday's (08/16/2005) New York Times published a story on creating simple organisms in silico using other simple organisms, like the intestinal bacterium E. coli, as a model. The effort reminds me of a very short story by Jorge Luis Borges, which I reprint here in its entirety:

...In that empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forbears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography. -- Jorge Luis Borges, "On Exactitude in Science", The Maker, 1960

The effort to create an artificial organism in a computer reminds me of the lottery player who buys $120 million in tickets for the $120 million Powerball.

Welcome to Trumpetcell

I'm a plant biologist interested in discussing the growing problem of "Intelligent Design," issues relating to science policy and funding, and new developments in plant biology.

I cross post over at DailyKos (as Plant Matt).