Why is it hard to defend evolution against intelligent design?

Despite the overwhelming evidence that evolution actually occurs, the theory is not widely accepted by the general populous.  How can there be such a disconnect with the science and public opinion?  The public’s apathy towards science is partly to blame.  Undoubtedly, attacks by intelligent design proponents on the theory of evolution also has a large effect.  But how can the pseudoscientific theory of intelligent design hurt the theory of evolution in the view of the public?

Different rules apply    

Intelligent design proponents are not playing by the same rules as scientists studying evolution.  They are not required to show any evidence for their theory. They don’t need to make predictions that can be tested.  They don’t even really have to define the designer or the mechanisms the designer used to create life.  All that is required for them is a gut feeling. 

Evolution, on the other hand, requires everything that science entails.  This means making testable hypotheses and actually testing them.  This also means taking all data into account, not just the data that fits.  With evolution, you can’t say anything to the scientific community without evidence.

Underlying motivations

Intelligent design also has the benefit of being able to support some of people’s most precious ideas: religion.  People are much more likely to listen to someone who reaffirms their preconceived notion of how the world works than listen to someone who goes against it.  Intelligent design proponents take advantage of this by implying that if you believe in evolution, you are an atheist.  it even goes a step further where people like Ben Stein compare evolutionists to the Nazis.

Limits of the human mind

Intelligent design also plays to imperfect human mind.  Humans have a hard time comprehending the large timescales that are required for evolution.  It is hard enough to imagine a million years let alone hundreds of millions or even billions of years.  Our brains have an equally hard time processing the ridiculously large numbers of organisms on the earth.  The fact that there is 1,000 trillion microorganisms in our bodies or that there is 100-400 million insects in one acre of land is hard to imagine.  Yet, these are the types of numbers that are required for the diversity of life on earth.  Intelligent design proponents use these weaknesses to argue that it would be impossible for evolution to have occurred.  The problem is that most people buy into this fallacy (arguing from personal incredulity). 

Everything under the sun works

Intelligent design is really a theory that can be argued to be supported by any evidence.  No matter what new evidence arises, an intelligent design proponents can simply say that this new evidence is that way because the designer did it.  When you have a supernatural designer, anything is possible.  Evolution has to follow the laws of physics. 

As the above points show, promoting evolution is an uphill battle.  Good thing there is so much evidence to support it.


Discovery Institute fails at science again: origins of life

The study of the origins of the earliest life (abiogenesis) is an exciting and interesting field of research.  However, the field is fraught with technical difficulties.  After all, these scientists are trying to reproduce what happened billions of years ago.  Yet, significant progress has been made beginning with the Miller-Urey experiments to today’s ongoing experiments.

Recently, Gerald Joyce and Tracey Lincoln‘s findings have added to the growing body of knowledge on abiogenesis.  Their work is to further the model known as the RNA-world hypothesis.  Briefly, this theory holds that the original heredity molecule when life was just beginning was actually RNA, a close relative of DNA.  This theory is attractive because RNA can store genetic material and act as an enzyme itself.  Joyce and Lincoln’s recent work showed that under lab conditions, that RNA alone was sufficient to reproduce in such a way that allowed for slight changes in sequence.  Over the course of the experiment, these slight changes led to better and better reproducing RNAs or, in other words, they evolved.

Discovery Institute’s take  

As I have said before, strict evolutionary theory does not include abiogenesis.  That doesn’t stop the Discovery Institute’s Evolution News and Views blog from focusing on it.  They aren’t going to let any experimental findings get in the way of their preconceived notions of the beginnings of life on earth.  In this case, Casey Luskin wrote a post criticizing these findings.

Luskin’s criticism of the work largely focuses on how the experiments performed (original emphasis):

Origin of life researchers are excited about [the research] because they think it shows one possible step in their story about how life might have arisen via natural processes, without intelligent design (ID). One big problem with their story: under no uncertain terms did natural processes produce this molecule.

The point of the research was not to replay the origin of life from the beginning as Luskin is implying.  The point was to take RNA molecules that can replicate and see if they can adapt to new conditions.  Joyce and Lincoln’s work nicely shows that this is possible.  Luskin completely misses the point here and is arguing with a strawman.  Other researchers are trying to figure out what the earliest “biological” molecules looked like, but that is not the focus here.       

Luskin goes on to produce a list of 5 complaints that came from an unnamed pro-ID chemist.  Let;s take these criticisms one at a time:

1. The system is completely contrived consisting ONLY of catalysts and substrates. No competing materials or reactions were allowed. No natural analog is possible.

One of the strengths of modern scientific method is that the best experiments are tightly controlled. The reason for this is so that results are reproducible and are due to only the variables being studied. Adding “competing materials or reactions” introduces unnecessary variables. Luskin’s complaint goes against doing science the correct way. 

2. There is a vast gulf between their reaction mixtures and anything that might possibly come from a Stanley Miller type electric discharge experiment. This requires explanation.

Again, the point here is study RNA molecules, not how the original organic molecules formed on earth.  Besides, Stanley Miller’s experiments are not the only way to produce organic molecules. 

3. The 5’-end of the oligonucleotides were primed for the condensation reaction by prior synthesis of the high energy triphosphate form. Simple phosphates fail to react or react at rates orders of magnitude slower. Clearly the reaction only does what the chemist intended.

The unnamed chemist seems to have a problem with presence of high energy triphosphates.  We don’t know whether or not there were these phosphates present during abiogenesis.  This argument from ignorance is just a diversion and was not the question the scientists were testing.  However, an interesting proposal for these high energy phosphate production is that it came from meteor impacts. 

4. Reactions were carried out at 42 deg C. –> fine-tuning –> fine-tuner!

This goes back to controlling variables.  One temperature means one variable.  Having the reactions occur at any random temperature would only complicate the issue.  Besides, 42 deg C is a very common temperature that is used in labs.

5. Only one bond is formed by either of the paired enzymes. The rest of the molecule was pre-assembled by Joyce and his colleagues. What this experiment shows is that some clever chemists have spent ten years of their lives re-engineering a pair of RNA-zymes to catalyze ONE reaction. And without a constant supply of pre-fabricated component parts, nothing happens. Indeed, if anything, the road to self-assembly just got longer. 

Unfortunately, I do not have access to the full article, so I cannot fully respond to this point. However, the two news releases that I have read seem to imply that the scientists did not preassemble anything but the starting RNA molecules.  If anyone else has more information, I would love to know.

Luskin glosses over perhaps the most important finding of the research.  The RNAzymes were able to adapt and by the end of the experiment could outcompete the RNA molecules at the beginning of the experiment.  Luskin again shows us that he understands very little of modern science.  It is a shame that anyone listens to this drivel as a source of news.

One final point. These experiments have to be done on human timescales. We can’t spent thousands or millions of years reproducing the early earth.

Answering a few intelligent design proponent questions

In a recent Forbes column, Michael Egnor (of Discovery Institute fame) wrote “Why I don’t believe in atheism’s creation myth.”  In the middle of the column, Egnor asks a series of questions concerning evolution and intelligent design.   These random questions are meant to cast doubt in reader’s minds about the validity of evolution without giving any real arguments. He probably doesn’t expect any answers to his questions, but here we go anyway. I have included the questions as written in here along with my own answers.

Why, when the genetic code was unraveled, didn’t scientists question Darwin’s assumption of randomness?

Contrary to Egnor’s insinuation, the unraveling of the genetic code supported randomness. The enzymes that copy DNA are not perfect and allow for random mutations to occur at a low frequency.

Why didn’t Darwinists ask the difficult questions that are posed for their theory by the astonishing complexity of intracellular molecular machinery?

What difficult questions? Scientists ask difficult questions all the time. Does he really think that trying to describe what happens inside a living cell is easy work?

Why do Darwinists claim that intelligent design is untestable, and simultaneously claim that it is wrong?

We already have a highly substantiated theory to explain the diversity of life on earth: evolution.  Therefore, intelligent design is unnecessary.  Why do we need to bring in a baseless idea that is untestable?

Why do Darwinists claim that intelligent design theory isn’t scientific, when both intelligent design and Darwinism are merely the affirmative and negative answers to the same scientific question: Is there evidence for teleology in biology?

What defines science is not what questions it asks, it is in the approach to answering the questions.  In order for something to be scientific, it needs to make predictions that can be tested and be shown to be falsifiable.  Intelligent design does neither.  Science takes into account all evidence.  Intelligent design ignores or denies scientific findings.  Science deals with the natural world.  It does not deal with the supernatural because, by definition, the supernatural does not follow the laws of physics.Intelligent design requires a supernatural being.

Why do Darwinists–scientists–seek recourse in federal courts to silence criticism of their theory in public schools?

We do not want an unscientific viewpoint based on an unscientific set of beliefs determining the direction of science in public schools.  Logic, reason, and evidence have failed to work. Extensive debate doesn’t work. What else do we have? Using the courts is all that is left in many situations.

What is it about the Darwinian understanding of biological origins that is so fragile that it will not withstand scrutiny by schoolchildren?

Scientists are not afraid that school children will be able to disprove evolutionary theory.  We are afraid of having a scientifically illiterate populous.  It is very easy to indoctrinate children.  Their minds have not matured and they do not have the knowledge necessary to fully evaluate a theory such as evolution.

These same questions, or slight variations, seem to arise quite often in Intelligent design proponent’s writings.  They have been answered many times before, but they still keep being asked.  Of course intelligent design proponents are not really interested in the answers, they are more interested in casting doubt on the evolutionary point of view.

Ben Stein is justifiably expelled

PZ has been following Ben Stein’s withdrawal from the commencement ceremonies at University of Vermont (UVM). Stein won’t speak at the graduation or get an honorary degree from the institution. This was not a forced withdrawal; Stein did this on his own.

Apparently there has been much backlash among the students and faculty at the university. These criticisms are well justified. After all, the university engages in scientific research, and Stein once said :

the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed

University of Vermont president Daniel Fogel has given several interviews on the subject. He sums up the feelings of the university in this quote from an interview with the Vermont Cynic:

It’s an issue about the appropriateness of awarding an honorary degree to someone whose views in many ways ignore or affront the fundamental values of scientific inquiry

The Discovery Institute is all up in arms over this. Both John West and Casey Luskin have posts about the subject.

Both seem to be arguing that Stein was forced to withdrawal just because Stein believes in the pseudoscientific principle of intelligent design (ID). Take for example, this quote from Luskin:

the fact that he(Fogel) won’t give honorary degrees to someone simply because they support ID demonstrates the lack of academic freedom for ID proponents in the academy(sic).

They are both really missing the point.  Ben Stein is openly anti-science.  Just look at the quote from Stein above.  That quote has nothing to do with ID vs. evolution; it has to do with his out right dislike and distrust of scientists and the scientific process.  Anyway, Stein gave a lecture less than a year ago on the campus of UVM.  I really don’t understand how Luskin and West can argue that his “academic freedom” is being violated since he was just there.

President Fogul said he got hundreds of emails from both within and outside of the university complaining about the choice of Stein as speaker.  He also says that there was a Listserv going around where many faculty were voicing their disproval.  But, as Luskin points out, only about “a half dozen” faculty members wrote to him on the subject.  I don’t know how many faculty members there are at UVM, but you have to remember that these half-dozen faculty members were taking a risk in complaining to the president of the university about the situation.  These letters could have really hurt their careers.

One of Luskin’s points in his post is that people outside the university were calling and writing in to complain about Stein being included in the ceremonies. The title of the post is even "Darwin Defenders get Ben Stein expelled from University of Vermont’s Commencement Address." Ironically, John West calls for the exact same thing in his blog post:

"Let your voice be heard: If you think it was wrong for Ben Stein to be pushed out as this year’s commencement speaker at University of Vermont, send a message to University President Daniel Fogel at Daniel.Fogel@uvm.edu or 802-656-3186."

One thought occurs to me.  What if Stein is using this whole episode as a publicity stunt?  He undoubtedly is going to use this as a talking point in the future  He will say how even he was expelled.