Evolution, Creationism, and Intelligent Design
Despite my intention to not write about politics or religion, I have to get something off my chest here. Can't bear it any longer.
When I first came to the United States, I was rather shocked to find out that the theory of evolution is actually more or less seriously questioned in the USA. Being educated in the Netherlands, I was under the naive assumption that everyone accepted evolution as the cornerstone of modern biology. Not so.
Recently, George W. Bush expressed that he felt that the theory of Intelligent Design (more on that later) should be taught in public schools alongside with the theory of evolution. In science class, no less.
That wasn't so much of a shock. More shocking was the statistic that roughly 50% of the American public believes that the earth was created by God some 10,000 years ago. In other words, half of the American public believes in creationism (more on that later also). Then, another 10% or so subscribes to the idea of intelligent design. The rest either accepts evolution, or doesn't care about the whole thing.
Let me describe in my own simple terms the three different concepts. But let me first describe what I understand science to be.
Science tries to understand and explain the Natural phenomena that we observe every day. In order to do this, scientist utilize a thingy called the Scientific Method. It basically goes like this: you observe something and try to explain it. This explanation is called a hypothesis. Next, you try to test this hypothesis by performing experiments. The experiments either confirm or contradict your hypothesis. If the experiments contradict the hypothesis, you either reject the hypothesis (and come up with a new one), or you adjust it. If the experiment confirms the hypothesis, you try more experiments to get more confirmation. Etcetera.
A good hypothesis will predict the outcome of experiments. If the prediction turns out to be correct, great. If not, back to the drawing board. You continuously refine the whole process.
You would think that this is the only way to describe and explain Nature. However, the whole idea of experimentation is only a few hundred years old. It was basically introduced by guys like Galileo and Newton and the like. For example, the whole idea of experimentation would have been considered ridiculous by the ancient Greeks. Understanding of Nature could only be achieved by pondering things over a good glass of wine, according to these guys. Why would you try to actually check things by trying them in an experiment? Silly idea.
Now, let's consider the track record of the Scientific Method. Given history, the only reasonable conclusion can be that the Scientific Method has been spectacularly successful. It is hard to exaggerate the effect that science has had on modern society. Automobiles, air travel, medicine, agriculture, space exploration, communications, computers, electrification, manufacturing, shipping, entertainment, etcetera. The list is endless. All this has been made possible and practical by science. You can probably come up with a whole lot of other things as well.
So, all things considered, the Scientific Method seems pretty useful.
One (generally accepted) property that a theory must have in order to be accepted as scientific, is that it is falsifiable (the concept was introduced by an Austrian dude named Karl Popper). In simple terms, falsifiable means that there must be a way to disprove the theory. In other words, you must be able to conduct an experiment that could have a negative outcome disproving the theory. If such an experiment is not possible, then your theory may be a theory in its own right, but it's not a scientific theory.
Philosophy fails this test, in my humble opinion. This does not mean that philosophy is not a valid discipline, it's just not scientific. Same thing goes for religion. It's not scientific. There's no way of proving or disproving that God does exists. It's a matter of faith. Nothing wrong with that, it's just not science.
Thinking about this, is mathematics science? There's not a whole lot of experimentation going on in mathematics. So, is it falsifiable? Hmm.
Another thing that is more or less generally accepted as a sound idea is Ockham's Razor. Has nothing to do with shaving. Basically this states that the simplest explanation is usually the best. For example: if you see hoof prints, think horses, not zebras. Unless you are on an African savannah, of course.
To put it in my own words: theories that are needlessly complicated are suspect. Go with the simple explanation.
Anyway, let's babble about evolution in a completely non-expert way. I'm no biologist, you see.
Charlie Darwin wrote a whole book about it. First of all, the Theory of Evolution is a scientific theory. This has a different meaning than the everyday meaning of the word theory (in simple terms, meaning guess). A scientific theory is quite a bit more solid than that.
Let's get one thing out of the way immediately. Saying: "Well, it's just a theory", is similar to saying that the Electromagnetic Theory is "just" a theory. If you have ever touched a live power wire, you know hoe theoretical that is.
So anyway, the Theory of Evolution states that species evolve from common ancestors by random genetic mutations and natural selection. There's more to it than that, but I'm dumbing it down a bit, mainly for my own benefit.
The so-called fossil record (bones in the ground and all that) supports this quite convincingly. Granted, there are gaps in the fossil record (no bones found yet from species that should have been there), but all 'n all it's pretty solid. This, and the fact that I have a tail bone (more on that later). Plus, did you know that humans have a gene in common with the pea plant? That's something else than descending from monkeys, hmm?
Opponents of evolution often argue that humans (and other critters) are far too complex to have evolved randomly. They often compare it to a bicycle being assembled spontaneously from loose parts.
They are right. Humans, or even single-cell organisms are extremely unlikely to have been created by pure chance.
However, evolution is not pure chance. There's the (conveniently) overlooked mechanism of selection as well. It sort of goes like this: random mutation, if mutation is favorable (most of the time not), then the mutated organism has a slightly better chance of reproducing, thus causing the mutation to be passed on to future generations, etcetera. This mechanism has been observed in laboratories.
I'll say it again. Evolution is not purely random.
One thing that is needed for evolution to work is an insanely long period of time. Interestingly, life on earth has had this ridiculously long amount of time for evolution to work, namely several billions of years. If you don't think this is a long time, I'd like to borrow some money from you. I'll pay you back in a hundred million years or so.
Are all problems in the theory of evolution solved? No. At least in my opinion, there are at least two things that I have not read a fully satisfactory explanation for.
The first is speciation. This is simply a fancy word for the mechanism that creates new species. How does a reptile become a bird?
One conjecture is that species evolved gradually. The problem is that the many intermediate species seem to be missing from the fossil record. Maybe the explanation is that this is just bad luck, and that there are simply not that many species preserved as fossils. Maybe, but it still leaves me with a bit of a nagging feeling.
Another conjecture is that speciation occurred in jumps. So, new species were formed in relatively short bursts of time, and that is why we don't see any intermediate species in the fossil record. This one leaves me with a nagging feeling as well, mainly because I don't fully understand it.
Then there is another problem. How did life get created in the first place?
There have been laboratory experiments involving solutions of chemicals and simulated lightning that resulted in amino acids being formed spontaneously. This is very encouraging, since amino acids are the building blocks for proteins, and therefore the building blocks of life. So, it is conceivable that amino acids were created in the oceans when the earth was still very young.
However, an ocean full of amino acids does not equate life. Life has to be self-replicating, and therefore somewhat organized. DNA, RNA and all that stuff. It is not clear to me how the amino acids organized themselves into self-replicating cells.
One theory is that the earth was seeded with life from outer space. That does not solve the problem at all for me. How did life get created in outer space then, huh? It just shifts the whole problem to somewhere else.
Another theory is that it happened by chance. The universe is a pretty big place, you see. Unimaginably large, in fact. Given the right circumstances on enough planets, it was bound to happen somewhere. And since we are here yakkin' about it, this somewhere is apparently earth. Don't ask why, we just happened to be the lucky ones.
This is a bastardized version of the anthropic principle. Never liked it too much, leaves me with that nagging feeling again.
After all this stuff, you may think that I have my doubts about evolution. Not really.
There is one very important fact that cannot be denied. There is life on earth (not so sure about intelligent life, though). And the variety of life is impressive. No matter how adverse the circumstances, somehow creatures seem to have adapted to them. Extreme pressures, extreme temperatures, lack of water, lack of oxygen, whatever the circumstances, there always seem to be many critters that have no problem to survive.
Now, it is tempting to argue that all these creatures were designed that way. And many people do, I'll get to that later.
It just struck me as ironic that we use the word creatures. It is obviously derived from creation. Maybe we should call these buggers evolutures.
However, there is an explanation that fits Ockham's Razor much better. And of course, that explanation is evolution. Once life got started (and admittedly, how that happened is still a bit of a mystery), everything else happened automatically! The evolutionary mechanism is incredibly elegant from a scientific point of view. No need to design all these species, they evolve by themselves, driven by chance and environmental circumstances.
Oh, and let's not forget that I have a tail bone.
This does not mean that that is all to be said about the matter. But, let's first examine some of the alternative explanations.
Some 10,000 years ago, God created the earth. And all that other stuff as well, like planets and stars and so. And while he was at it, He created oceans, plants, animals (30 million different kinds of insects as well. Friggin' bugs, wasn't 10 million kinds enough?). And He created humans, of course. God was very efficient as well, it took him only six days. And on the Seventh day he slept late. Note that these days are literally days, as in 24 hours.
It always struck me as funny that this was measured in days even before the earth was created (God created earth on Tuesday or Wednesday, I think. Can't remember exactly). Isn't a day sort of defined as the period it takes for the earth to make one rotation? Maybe I'm being too scientific about this. God probably already knew beforehand how long a day would be. He is omnipotent, you see.
If you detected a hint of sarcasm, you detected correctly. My sarcasm comes from the fact that creationists insist on taking the bible (specifically the book of Genesis) literally. This is just plain dumb. If you just drop the 10,000 years idea, and accept that a day could also be interpreted as some (long) period of time, then there suddenly are remarkable (and eerie) parallels between the book of Genesis and modern cosmology.
No matter how divine you think the origins of the bible are, don't forget that the bible is a book. Some dude wrote the whole story up a long time ago. Like all humans, this dude could have made mistakes.
Let's see. "Let there be light". Well, that could be the Big Bang. "God created the earth and skies". Formation of stars and planets, I guess. "God created the animals in the oceans and on the land". Appearance of life. Etcetera, etcetera. The timeline isn't completely consistent with science, but hey, the similarities are striking, to say the least.
Bible quotes are from my own recollection, so probably inaccurate. Can't be bothered to look it up. Besides, I'd have to learn Hebrew first. Can't be using some translation if you want to be literal, right?
So, if they would just stop taking everything so literally, creationists could claim (to a certain extent) that science is on their side! But no....
(Intelligent design proponents have dropped the more ludicrous parts from creationism. More on that later).
Anyway, back to creationism.
I never understood where this 10,000 years number for the age of the earth came from. It is a nice round number, I guess. It poses tremendous problems for the credibility of creationism, though.
First of all, there's these fossils in the ground. They are pretty old, much older than 10,000 years. You can jump up and down and argue that radiological dating methods aren't nearly as accurate as scientists claim, but that doesn't explain the discrepancy between 10,000 years and 4,500,000,000 years.
One explanation that creationists give is that God put these fossils in the ground to test our faith.
I have to credit Seattle radio talk show host Dave Ross with the following comment. I paraphrased, by the way.
"If God put these fossils in the ground, why did he bury them in order of complexity? You see, the deeper you dig, the less complex the fossils are. So, obviously God wants us to believe in evolution, or else He would not have gone through some much trouble. So, who are we to defy His will?"
I really wonder why God would take so much trouble. But then, God's ways are mysterious.
Another story that really stunned me is the following. Since the world is only 10,000 years old, and dinosaur bones undeniably exist, dinosaurs and humans must have roamed the earth at the same time. This poses a bit of a problem with the story of Noah's Ark. You see, there must have been dinosaurs on the Ark as well, since God would not have allowed some species to become extinct just because of this flood thing. However, how do you fit these monstrous beasts on the Ark? They're kind of big, you see. Well, Noah took two adolescent dinos on his ark.
Turns out Noah wasn't just some lumberjack or carpenter or something like that, no, he was an engineer. How do I know this? Well, Noah must have left blueprints or something, since creationist know that the Ark was 450 feet long and 40 feet wide. Or something like that.
Sigh. If this story does not strike you as somewhat silly, I'll not try to convince you.
I am going to wind up now. The problem with this creationism is that it is not science, it is religion. Nothing wrong with religion, it's just not science. You can't falsify it. Every hole in the story can be explained away by just saying, "oh well, God did that, and His ways are mysterious". You can't prove God exists. Worse, there is no way to falsify it either. So, again, religion, not science.
And therefore creationism should not be taught in schools. Everything has its proper place. Reading, writing, science, history, whatever, that belongs in schools. Religion, creationism, it belongs in a church. You don't hold a barbecue party in a movie theater. Or assemble cars in a bar. I could go on and on with these silly metaphors.
Sometimes called Creationism Lite. The reason for that is that Intelligent Design drops the silly literal stuff like 10,000 years and puppy dinosaurs on Noah's Ark and all that. It must have seemed pretty clear that wasn't going to be accepted as valid science any time soon.
However, Intelligent Design maintains that evolution is flawed, and basically states that many (if not all) living beings are designed rather than evolved. Designed by some Intelligent Designer, no less. Clearly this is an euphemism for God, but anyway.
Ironically, Intelligent Design flies in the face of what the bible teaches, at least if you take the bible literally. If you are a true believer, you cannot accept the fact that the earth is some 4.5 billion years old, as ID proponents concede. So, if you are a real bible thumper, you can't accept ID any more than you can evolution. The only thing you could like about it is that it attacks evolution.
Intelligent Design suffers from the very same problem that creationism does: it is not scientific. It is not falsifiable. The (divine) intervention of a Designer in evolution cannot be falsified (nor proven, for that matter).
Some of the arguments made by ID proponents (and creationists) go something like this: "Only a simpleton would believe that complex organisms like mammals could evolve randomly" (sigh), or "It is obvious that...", etcetera. I guess I'm a simpleton, then. Be that as it may, these arguments offer no scientific (or even reasonable) explanation at all. Invoking an omnipotent Designer is not very scientific.
The whole reason for the existence of Intelligent Design is to slip a form of creationism through the backdoor into school curriculums. It looks like it may even be successful.
I have to get something off my chest. If all this stuff (shrubs, animals) was designed, was it designed in a really intelligent way? As mentioned before, what are 30 million different kinds of bugs good for? What fool would design a panda bear? The dumb thing will only eat bamboo and mate one day of the year. Why do I have a tail bone, or an appendix? Why do humans have two copies of some organs (eyes, ears, arms, legs, kidneys, lungs), but not others (heart, stomach, etc.). Couldn't the Designer have designed one kidney that doesn't fail? Humans are flawed designs: we walk upright (why?), but keel over all the time. What's the point of kangaroos? And why are they down under only? Did we really need an AIDS virus ("yes", some idiots say: "to punish those bad people". Aargh!)? Huh?
Shouldn't Intelligent Design be called Stupid Design?
Back to the beginning. George W. Bush wants Intelligent Design taught in public schools, alongside with evolution, so that "students can compare the merits of both, and make up their own mind". Great idea. I have a few ideas as well.
Let's teach alchemy as well as chemistry, and let the kids decide for themselves. How about astrology as well as astronomy? Never mind that modern society would not exist in it's current form had it not been for science.
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