Evolution defended (again)
My dad passed onto me an article about the book Doubts About Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design by Thomas Woodward, and asked more comments.  I probably went a bit overboard, but here is what I had to say about it.

There are loads of these books, and all of them take the tactic of bypassing peer-reviewed journals.  In fact, for a project in education before I started my M.Ed. program I read a number of books of this sort and examined their arguments.  What you consistently find is that they pick and chose from the published literature.  However, they fail to explain really basic things like why related species tend to be found in proximity to one another (e.g., most marsupials are in Australia, etc.) which would point to common ancestry.  And so on.

I'm just one guy here, so I'll probably exclude a lot as well.  But unlike these guys, it won't be on purpose.

>For the past three decades, an intense battle has been fought in the academy about the veracity of Darwinian evolution. At stake is the complete discrediting of Darwin's theory.
This would be news to anyone in academia.  If such arguments were presented in scientific journals, they would have to hold such tremendous implications that they would appear in the select, most-read three: Nature, Science, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  As such, any truly newsworthy stories would have garnered the attention of the popular press and would have been discussed enthusiastically within academic circles.  I am not aware of any of this having occurred.  Conclusion: This is a biased fabrication on the part of the author.

Where the debate has generally occurred has been at the level of what to include in text books and school curricula.  Thankfully, the courts have consistently sided with the scientists on what is science education.  (See the Lemon Test for the legal criteria in Church vs. State issues s to what constitutes the promotion of one set of religious ideals by the State.  See also Edwards vs. Aguilar for the most recent case in which evolution was restored to Louisiana curricula and the "scientific creationism" --which was anything but based in science-- that had briefly supplanted it was removed.)

>The movement challenging Darwinism is called "Intelligent Design" (Design).
I will point out here that this is a keyword for a set of ideas that reside for the most part with non-scientists.  On the scientific publication search engine Scirus, a search for the word "evolution" yielded 14,354 citations whereas "intelligent design" returned 255 hits.  Conclusion: Bullshit.

>Design proponents argue that the empirical evidence ostensibly proving that evolution is true is sketchy at best and outright false at worst.
At this point, I'm not sure how they define evolution, but the scientific community and the rest of the non-fundamentalist world defines it as the process of a change in the proportion of genes in a population.  Period.

Darwin recognized this process implicitly and offered up an explanation of this process (Lamark did as well, a little earlier, in fact, but did not propose a mechanism.  He also lacked the volume of evidence Darwin amassed as a well-traveled naturalist).

Darwin in a nutshell:
-New genes arrive through mutation.  This can be demonstrated through mutagenesis (i.e., the application of chemicals or radiation to change the sequence of DNA) that results in new variations in organisms.  Most of these changes don't have an effect, a good many of them are deleterious to the organism, and a few of them (more if you have a few years and lots of funding in which to do the work) result in interesting new critters like bacteria that eat oil slicks and that sort of thing.
-Some combinations of genes grant a selective advantage.  Thus, a cheetah that can run faster (due to extra elasticity in its bursa, for example) will catch more prey.  Or, conversely, will not become the prey of someone else!
-Organisms that are "selected for" have greater reproductive potential.  In other words, they go forth and multiply.
-Genes are passed on through heredity.  Offspring of the survivors carry the advantageous genes.  Thus, the proportion of the population with the more "highly evolved" genes increases over time.  (Note that I place "highly" in quotes.  Evolution makes not judgment in this respect, only in how well organisms "fit" into their environment... Hence, "survival of the fittest.")

The extension of this is that:
1) These processes occur over a looooong period of time and
2) There is a tremendous pool of organisms in which nature may carry out these "experiments."

As a result, something like HIV can evolve at a terrifying rate due to a short generation time and the fact that several million (if not billion!) new virus particles are produced every day in every infected individual.  (It also helps that they are retroviruses; carrying the more volatile RNA as your primary genetic material allows you to mutate that much faster than DNA-based organisms... but that's a discussion for another time.)  The timescale for evolution goes up accordingly as you modify these factors.  For example, tuberculosis is growing resistant to antibiotics, but much more slowly (and, at the same time, too fast!) than HIV.  Similarly, insect populations overcome pesticides on the timescale of mere decades.

>They assert that Darwinism is not science at all, but a cosmology built on the foundation of nineteenth century philosophical materialism.
That came out of left field.  Science is an iterative process yielding knowledge.  Philosophy is a collection of ideas only demonstrable through speculation.  Science begins with a hypothesis (an educated guess) that is challenged by the scientist who generated it him- or herself.  Each of the assertions can be examined through this process.  I consciously phrased each as a "guess" followed by supporting evidence.  In the scientific literature, authors are impelled to report in this manner more or less, and that includes presenting evidence to the contrary... else they be called to task by their peers!

In Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, author Michael Shermer points out how fringe groups often refer to the establishment as cults.  This form of projection is especially common among fundamentalists.  The example at hand is the devaluation of the theory of evolution as a philosophy while theology in the absence of experimental validation is summarily promoted to the status of science!

>The facts marshaled against evolution are startling.
Not to me.  But then the fossil record isn't especially convincing to this guy, so he's liable to come out with anything.

>For example, there is less probability of a single cell emerging from inert matter than a tornado blowing through a factory and assembling a Boeing 747.
That would be assuming life was made up of inert matter.  This is hardly the case.  Different forces operate on different scales; this is why, for example, a cockroach can walk on the ceiling and support 10 times its body weight but we can't.  When you get down to the level of quantum interactions we can only just begin to predict what will happen.  However, we know that under certain circumstances (for example, RNA molecules on a clay substrate) matter exhibits behavior that could be mistaken for life.  Many of these interactions in conjunction would satisfy the requirements for the definition of "life" (i.e., reproduction, storage and use of energy, the ability to evolve, etc.).  By contrast, viruses don't satisfy some of said requirements, and are thus considered biological but not alive.  It's a very complicated story.  (For further reading, see The Blind Watchmaker by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.)

Further, lots of "mistakes" happen.  Many lines of organisms do not make it to present day (i.e., there are more extinct species by far than there are existing species today).  For example, the majority of the hominid skeletons found thus far have been "cousins" who have died out rather than our direct ancestors.  This confirms (along with a lot of other evidence) that there is a lot of "trial and error" in this process.  One an even lager scale, consider that there have been at least six periods of mass extinction in the history of the planet.  The particularly famous one was most likely the result of the cataclysmic impact of a meteorite in the present-day Gulf of Mexico which wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.  However, there was a tremendously more catastrophic extinction known as the "oxygen holocaust" in which the first round of life (microorganisms) all but wiped themselves out through their own waste product: oxygen.  (As a species, we could probably learn a lot of this example!)

Is life periodically bungled by an "intelligent" designer?  Not likely.  There are much more reasonable explanations, even if they leave the universe feeling a little less watched-over.

>There is no fossil evidence for macroevolution, the claim that life developed through the selection of random mutations.
This is supposed to read "microevolution."  As I said, it's pretty hard to knock the entire fossil record.  "Microevolution" is a reference to changes on the level of molecular machinery.  The hope here is that, since genome sequencing has demonstrated that species are genetically distinct*, maybe there's a crack in evolution at the molecular level.  That being the area we still can't probe as effectively (i.e., not much has surpassed 50+ year-old X-ray crystallography at looking at protein structure), so that's the perceived weakness they presently try to exploit.

*Before DNA sequencing became commonplace, it was argued by creationists that a horse and zebra were the same animal (lest Noah's ark be the size of California to conceivably accommodate everyone!).  The idea was that they had the same genes, these were just arranged differently... whatever that way supposed to mean.  Naturally, no explanation was offered for this, nor was the fact addressed that this would still qualify as evolution in terms of the genes expressed.

>Irreducible complexity, the discovery that subatomic systems are so complex that to take away one element causes their complete collapse, rules out the possibility that Darwin's evolutionary pathways (where complex systems emerge from simple systems) even exist.
Hardly!  As I explained with the example of "proto-RNAs," there are incredibly reducible levels to which life can be taken.  I could draw other heady examples from a course on protein structure (which are routinely touched upon in even undergrad-level biochem courses), but I have a feeling those who support this point would rather not deal with such contradictory details as facts.

>...his purpose is not to defend Design thinkers, but to examine why they have had such remarkable success in such a short amount of time.
Again, what success?  All scientists I know measure their personal success by 1) how many publications they make over their career and 2) how influential their publications are in their field (indicated by how often they are cited in other publications).  As I indicated above, scientific publications on this topic are in short supply.

>Woodward evaluates the work of Design thinkers in terms of cultural narrative.
This is a reflection of the work of researchers in areas ranging from education, psychology, and political science.  In the book Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut, author David Shenk points out how (and this is a timely example!) political candidacies tend to be more successful when they wrap their presentation in a story.  Shenk terms this "anecdotage," a recent example of which is how the clip of Howard Dean shrieking effectively derailed his campaign... never mind who had the better political platform.  Similarly, the facts get in the way of a scientific *explanation* of evolution.  Our brains just don't absorb information in the form of postulates when there are nice stories about an invisible man who lives in the sky and wants to help things along (or, as it is more routinely stated, created everything outright).

>If Darwinism is indeed a cosmology (a premise Woodward accepts), then the social and cultural dynamics that contributed to its ascendancy are valid objects of study and analysis.
This is indeed a reasonable line of study, but the environment in which a theory was formulated does not invalidate 150 years of research.  Why does this author keep side-stepping this issue?

>For Woodward, the larger conflict about Darwinian evolution is not only a debate about evidence...
Here he goes again!

>...but about how the culture assimilates and organizes knowledge to create a coherent worldview, a vision of how the world is ordered.  Woodward argues that the larger culture assimilates knowledge through story. A story organizes ideas in ways that make the ideas comprehensible by referencing them to, and incorporating them within, a larger cultural narrative.
Yes, recall "anecdotage."  I used to have a storybook I found at a Goodwill that showed Noah loading dinosaurs onto the ark by way of explanation that there was no such thing as evolution.  No explanation was offered as to why, as an entire class of animals, they selectively died out whereas mammals prospered.

>In concrete terms Woodward writes that there are four brute facts that undermine Darwinian evolution and play powerfully into the hands of Design advocates.
I'll take these one by one where I can.

1) the Cambrian explosion, underscored and heightened in the recent discoveries in China
Paleontology is not my strong point, but I'll direct your attention to the qualifiers in this one.  And that's exactly what the author intends: Never mind the rest of the Cambrian explosion, pay attention only to an isolated sampling of geological history, and a recently published (at least I'm assuming) set at that.  It's a bit suspect, but I'm no expert.  And neither is the vast majority of the readership of this book.  Which is exactly what Woodward hopes.

2) the general absence of fossils between the higher taxonomic categories outside of the Cambrian
Again with the qualifiers!  If I understand this correctly, there were apparently fossils between the other categories.  Was "unintelligent design" supposed to be at work here but some other mechanism invoked at other times?

3) the breathtaking complexity of cells' molecular systems
This is a really despicable attempt to evoke emotion rather than providing evidence in what is supposed to be an intellectual argument.  The idea is that "It's more complicated than I can imagine, therefore it could not have happened other than through the guidance of someone higher than myself."  This assumes that the human brain is powerful enough to encompass an understanding of all the processes in the universe and then to play them out in an elaborate model that accurately depicts what has occurred in the last 15 billion years.  If the end result of this egocentric thought experiment does not jive with the observed reality, well, "Somebody's wrong and it ain't gonna be me!"  I can't tell what galls creationists more, that God didn't have an obvious hand in their "special creation" (another keyword for intelligent design) or that they were evolved from monkeys.  Sorry, the fact that it isn't pretty doesn't mean you can chuck the evidence.  Is it better to have come from dirt than to be evolved from primates?

The whole history of cosmology (the study of the universe, not a philosophy as Woodward has misappropriated the term) is filled with examples of scientific observations knocking humanity off its pedestal.  See the Catholic church's take on heliocentric models of the universe by Copernicus and Galileo.  In recent years they have even tangled with Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose on questions about the origin of the universe.  Next up: Neuroscience cracks the code on the nature of consciousness in the human brain.

The interesting end of this is that scientists rarely spend much time proselytizing to the general public.  I don't have a satisfactory explanation for this disparity, but the last couple paragraphs above should tie into any good attempt at one.

4) the quiet, experiment-driven collapse of the confidence in "chemical soup" scenarios of the origin of life.
Here is a failure to appreciate the nature of science.  As I stated above, the scientific method is a process of ruling out hypotheses.  The failure to generate an explanation for a phenomenon does not automatically rule the rival explanation the winner by default... especially when there is no logical connection between the alleged failure* here and the implied alternative by Woodward.  Indeed, many times several explanations (be they "models" or "theories") co-habitate if there is supporting evidence for both... even if they are contradictory.  The golden example of this is Einstein's theory of gravitation and quantum mechanics which have coexisted for ~80 years without either ruling the other out.  However, intelligent design is inherently untestable (unless someone could convincingly get a line through to God!), so it does not qualify as a scientific theory.

*I was not aware that this course of study had been abandoned.  If it hasn't, clearly the scientific community does not regard their progress as halted.  I mean, they *do* have to publish, so they are obviously getting something out of this line of inquiry!

>These brute facts mean nothing in themselves.
...Especially when taken in conjunction with scores of published observations.

>They may surprise and confound.
And that is what they are designed to do.  Child psychologist Jean Piaget formulated a model of learning, still respected today, that dealt with this.  He proposed that when we encounter a new idea or piece of information, we are at first set into a state of disequilibrium.  We regain our internal equilibrium by doing one of the following with the new piece of information 1) assimilating it (fitting it into existing frameworks of knowledge), 2) accommodating it (creating a new cognitive framework that organized the fact), or 3) discarding it because it cannot be accommodated or assimilated.  And a related point: It has been experimentally validated that pre-existing knowledge impairs the ability to acquire new information.  Taken together, these ideas explain what this book intends to do: Sabotage the acquisition of new knowledge that might challenge theological explanations.

As George Carlin reminds us, "When evolution is outlawed, only outlaws will evolve."

Copyright Alexplorer.
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