Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Sociology Memo: Intelligent Design vs. Evolution in Schools

This is a memo I wrote for class a few months back, going to be posting a bunch now. The question here was "Should Intelligent Design be taught in public schools?"


There are three main arguments against the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools that I will consider: the first is one of purpose, the second is one of practicality, the third is one of merit. On purpose, the purpose of a public education in science is, as the nay-author says, "to expose students to the best possible scholarship in each field of science." Chemistry does not teach Alchemy alongside the standard model, Astronomy does not teach palm reading or divination alongside the standard model, Mechanical Physics, while technically wrong (as superior models exist), does teach the math that got us to the moon, not simply "intuitions" about distance or the idea that the sun revolves around the Earth. Thus it should not be the purpose of a biology class to teach vitalism, a long-dead theory, nor the idea of Intelligent Design, which while not yet quite dead in the eyes of the public is certainly dead to most of science. I am open to the possibility of teaching Intelligent Design in an alternate course, but I disapprove of labeling it science and once you have a class allowing it the door opens to the practicality argument.

Of all the possible alternative theories of evolution, or even the origin of the first replicator (which evolution does not explain), why pick "Intelligent Design", which is, though the punters may deny it, a simple rewording of "Creationism"? The yea-author in the book said the claim was dubious that "ID has its roots in fundamentalist Christianity", yet I don't find that odd at all. Who else is pushing for it, besides Christians? But you don't even have to grant that, the fact is that if you're going to teach ID based on such premises as "the school system is corrupt and unfair and academic freedom is being lost", "scientists aren't gods and try to censor things just like every other group", "the courts should have minimal influence"--all of which are sound premises I agree with--then you have to teach everything. Jumping from those premises straight to teaching ID, however, is insane, and if you're even going to try it, then you have to give equal time and consideration to all other theories. This includes ID, young-earth creationism, Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, Greek mythology (presented as truth), Norse mythology (presented as truth), Tolkien's creation story, et cetera ad absurdum. This couldn't be covered in a semester's course, much less in the relatively minor portion of all of Biology that specifically discusses evolution.

The third argument is the most controversial, but it is not necessary to show that ID should be kept out of schools. The argument is that ID is, to put it bluntly, a crap theory. It is based on "god of the gaps" reasoning, that because evolution cannot explain some cherry-picked "complexity", that immediately puts the probability in a completely different alternate theory. Let's go about this in chunks, and start with how the ID people justify their "theory". Perversions of probability theory, which only show that life is rare but not impossible (and surely not rare enough to never happen in the age of the universe, which it clearly has), are used to justify something else. Just because the original origin of life is rare does not affect the theory of evolution, which does not explain that. ID is potentially a valid idea for the creation of life to go against spontaneous emergence (rats from hay and dirty socks, flies from rotting meat) or against the idea that Earth had just the right series of chemicals present in tidal pools to create the first replicator, which was probably similar to an RNA strand. ID can address this, but no further. It loses out to the first replicator on grounds of simplicity, however, as there's just no evidence in favor of ID whereas there's significant evidence for how the first replicator came about: in fact modern scientists are trying to replicate early-Earth situations to achieve this, and I'd be willing to bet that they will be successful within the next five years. Another perversion of "complexity" is the argument that the eye is too complex for evolution to generate, which would be a valid criticism if the eye were a tank. (Evolution cannot produce tanks, sorry. That is forbidden by the theory.) This has of course been addressed, and a simple example can be found here: link. In short, light sensitive cells started it all.

Now ID oversteps its bounds and creeps in on evolution itself, and throws around the mystical "purpose". Sure, you can personify evolution to say it "wants" more copies of genes in each successive generation, but this is a personification used for intuition pumping, and nothing more. Evolution is a statistical correlation between "fit" genes and organisms that survive to reproduce. But humans have a supreme ability of seeing purpose where there is none (Darwin had to fight off the people who claimed evolution destroyed morality, or showed even our most noble virtues are caused by selfish behavior of the genes), and so it is not unexpected. Nevertheless, before Darwin published his work a theory of purposeful evolution came and was beaten down by Christians and scientists at the time. There are numerous arguments against it, and merely pointing at the complexity of genes is not sufficient evidence to consider "purpose". On another node, the many gods of Hindu present a better explanation than a singular Creator, simply because of conflicting purposes in real life: a rabbit seems purposed to outrun a fox, while a fox seems purposed to catch a rabbit. This only makes sense if there is a rabbit god warring with a fox god, because humans (being intelligent) would, intelligently, not design a computer with one part purposed to transfer enough electricity to the processor, and simultaneous design another part purposed to hinder that flow of electricity. In a very abstract way, evolution fills the role of a Blind Idiot God, and the answer to our "creator" has already been found. It's just not what some wanted to hear. (I originally read this line of reasoning at: link around when the post was published.)

The following are side-arguments, specifically directed at ID and also meant to educate. They are not necessary to assert that ID should not be taught in public schools.

"Design" by itself isn't such a horrible hypothesis: perhaps we exist in the simulation of a computer. Perhaps we have yet to discover (very unlikely) some fundamental quantum effects that point to intelligence as an ultimate end for the universe, and because of those physics we were "designed". But to add on the word "intelligent"? Going back to the eye example: if the eye were intelligently designed, the retina would not be backward (and it isn't, in some other animals) and the eye would not be so limited in quality and light spectrum senses. For examples of intelligently designed eyes, see modern cameras. Humans, especially the engineers among us, can generally easily tell when something is intelligently designed or not, and nothing in nature strikes as particular intelligent. Marvelous, sure, especially that a blind dumb process like evolution works at all, but certainly nothing intelligent. Many college undergrads can create something in less than an hour that evolution could never produce in many ages of the universe.

The nay-author claims ID is a product of religious teaching, and rightfully so. It's not scientific. Let's assume it's true: what then? What new predictions can we make, that we couldn't before? What have we gained in understanding? Pointing at the complexity of the human brain and saying "A Creator designed this!" acts as a curiosity stop-sign, and isn't an explanation at all. The human brain becomes no less mysterious. It is pretty clear that any questions remaining on evolution are questions of how, not that evolution actually happened. And the questions of how can be answered by modern evolutionary theory: we can see the genes themselves now! Let's again assume ID is true: then we should expect things to not model our predictions which do not have mention of ID in them. The probability of a mutation spreading is 2 * s percent, where s is the fitness (if the mutation carried 3% of fitness, s = 0.03). If the mutation is going to spread, the generations until it is fixated among the population is calculated with 2 * ln(N) / s, where N is the population size, ln() is the natural logarithm, and s is again the fitness. If a designer were involved, we would expect to see this violated somewhere.

Finally, the nay-author took a soft stance on religion and falls for the lie that religion is non-disprovable. Ironically, perhaps the first recorded instance of a scientific experiment is in the bible, in the story of Elijah and the priests who worshiped Baal. (see link) To summarize: Elijah proposes an experiment to see whose God is the True God, where each side offers sacrifices on a pyre without setting it on fire, and whoever's pyre is set on fire is the pyre of the true god. Of course Elijah wins, and has the priests of Baal executed because of course dissenting views cannot be tolerated. Anyway, it's a truth that absence of evidence is evidence of absence, and the absence of the Christian God is non-existent at worse and pitiful at best. The idea of Matrix-lords is more plausible, simply because it doesn't come with all the details of the Bible. As far as I'm concerned, there isn't a religion out there that deserves consideration as a hypothesis. Maybe if one day we find that the laws of physics as we understand them are violated in deep and obvious ways, but nothing bad happens, we might again postulate the idea of a higher power. But until then, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Religion is proven false, because there is no evidence to support it, and plenty of evidence against it. (Whether evidence can be considered proof is another matter: but if you need a logically rigorous proof before believing something, you might as well ignore all of science which is based on observation and finite evidence.)

Posted on 2010-04-30 by Jach

Tags: evolution, memo, religion


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