TCS Daily

An Atheist's Dream

By James Ringo - December 22, 2005 12:00 AM

Those battling to include the teaching of Intelligent Design (ID) along with Darwinian evolution in biology classes are shooting themselves in the foot, and not just because a Pennsylvania judge this week tossed out an effort to teach ID in schools.

The problem can be seen if one imagines, as a simple thought experiment that one is an aggressive atheist planning a propaganda campaign to capture the minds of the young. Such a campaign might look like the following. Begin by tying the question of the existence of God to some poorly supported theory of biology. Next, set up a joint presentation of this weak theory with, and in comparison to, the Darwinian theory of evolution which can and has been demonstrated in the laboratory with short generational microorganisms (both mutation and selection of the "fit" are observed) and has a world of data and modeling support. Finally, have this contest presented, refereed and commented on... by a Darwinist, as the bulk of biology teachers surely are. Diabolical no? Yet such a campaign is not far from what has been happening in Dover, PA, in Kansas and elsewhere.

Besides making a tactical misjudgment, those trying to force ID into the biology classroom are making a scientific misjudgment. This is a misunderstanding about how scientific disputes are settled and the status of the opposing theories.

There is no court that decides when a scientific hypothesis graduates to become a theory and when a theory is accepted as a law. But if there were such a court the theory of evolution would be called the law of evolution. The assurance biologists (including me) place in Darwinian evolution is demonstrated when we regularly bet our careers on evolution being right. These bets take the form of basing new experiments on, among other things, principles from evolutionary theory. For example, I have spent years on experiments which derived from an idea that a brain memory mechanism found in rodents would be preserved, expanded and adapted in the monkey. I followed this line of work because I am convinced of the general correctness of Darwinian evolution. Such conviction is essentially universal among the professors at major national research universities.

Now it is conceivable that all those biologists are wrong. Scientific revolutions have occurred before. The overwhelming bulk of attempts to overthrow established scientific law, however, come up empty, and usually with far less publicity than (say) Cold Fusion received.

The key to this kind of revolution is to find some inexplicable experiment or fact which is utterly incompatible with the current scientific understanding. If the proponents of ID would actually demonstrate (instead of simply assert) that the flagella or some other structure is irreducibly complex and could not have evolved then they would have met such a test. In fact, the "irreducible complexity" of the flagella, while asserted by ID proponents, is not holding up well. One (nicely reduced) candidate component of the flagella, which has an important function of its own and could also serve as a 'way station' on an evolutionary pathway to the more complex flagella, is a secretory structure with substantial homologies, discussed here.

This specific, detailed and technical dispute is exactly what should be happening. The first place to dispute evolutionary theory is in the laboratory. If proponents of ID show some success there, young Turks will flock to such a potential scientific revolution as Nobel Prizes beckon. At that point, basic texts in biology should (and will) attend to the issue, not before.

Lastly, if (say) 10% or even 5% of the professors at American medical schools backed ID one could argue there was an uncertain scientific consensus, or if this was an academic field where the very notion of expertise is suspect then there could be a supportable case that a political resolution would be needed. At present, however, it simply looks primitive. Science is not decided by consensus, but by evidence and experiment. Anybody who wishes is free to work to disprove Darwinian evolution. Textbooks, however, are compilations of consensus.

I would recommend a harder but surer path for those who believe in ID. Either do, or help fund, some revelatory experimental demonstration showing Darwinian evolutions limits.

The author is a Professor at the Medical School, University of Rochester.

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