Maybe Not Thumping, but Certainly Not Dumping

September 7, 2011

In rebuttle to a recent newspaper column of mine a neighboring Christian pastor lumped me together with syndicated columnist Donald Kaul. Donald and I were accused of portraying Intelligent Design (ID) as irrelevant, dangerous and advocated by a bunch of bible-thumping, knuckle-dragging flat-earthers.

For the record I don’t think ID advocates believe the earth is flat or drag their knuckles, and their relevancy depends upon their success at having legends taught in schools as science. That outcome would also affect their danger to American students interested in careers in science. As to bible-thumping, ID adherents have been trying to steer clear of Genesis in order to look scientific, and while they may not be thumping bibles they are not dumping them either.

I can’t speak for Donald Kaul, but I think he might agree with me that  there’s a difference between science and legend and that we do our children a disservice by confusing the two.

The objection creationists have to evolution (and ID is just creationism camouflaged as science) is that everything we see in the world looks as if it has been designed, therefore the possibility of randomness having anything to do with what we see is incredible. Despite the fact that the Theory of Evolution (which suggests that random mutation is the basis of natural evolution) is well-established in the field of biology, the argument of ID is that randomness is an impossible explanation for the world we experience.

Looking at this from the other side I could point out that the inexplicability of many events often makes it seem like things operate by chance rather than design: the unlucky encounter of an innocent bystander on a street with the bullet of a drive-by shooter, the devastation of a tornado, the last-minute change of flight that ends in a person who shouldn’t have been aboard dying in a plane crash, not to mention the chaos of war, disease, etc.… in a world designed by god do these things imply god’s intention?

Religious folks often explain such events by tucking them into the “mystery of god’s will” while the secular explanation might be “bad luck.” Practically speaking there’s not much difference between the two —the bedrock truth is: someone’s injured or dead and no one really knows why.

To argue as the pastor did that our cells are irreducible complexes and that all their parts must be in place in order to properly function is a belief leading to a conclusion that is not necessarily true. To the contrary, laboratory experiments support the “plausibility of the spontaneous synthesis of organic molecules” of which RNA is one, and that RNA is capable of “catalyzing a number of chemical reactions” which makes RNA a probable candidate for being “the initial genetic system that evolved into DNA’s famous double helix—which is a mouthful from U.S. National Library of Medicine no harder to swallow than the story of Adam and Eve. Evolution simply says that, in nature, when systems work they survive. The funny thing is, if you wanted to be religious about it you could choose to believe that this was exactly the way god arranged it, unless god could not work such miracles.

But in the pastor’s argument he includes a quote by a “prominent scientist” that refutes this theory of the origin of cells. I suspect this scientist is Michael Denton whose book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis was hopped on by creationists as scientific confirmation that the Theory of Evolution is a hopeless explanation for the origin of life. But Denton’s book was not well regarded in the scientific community and his arguments against the idea of large-change mutability have been systematically challenged by scientists.

One such challenge, by Ph.D Mark Vuletic (Philosophy, University of Chicago), notes mutations of plants in the cabbage family. Vuletic points out that, “Anyone who has compared kale with brussel sprouts can see that their structures are extremely different,” yet they are all members of the same family. The changes within this family, says Vuletic, “…have been derived through artificial selection” through a series of small changes that have led to remarkable difference in individual varieties. That such changes have also been made by natural mutation over billions of years is not really a huge leap unless you are constrained by prior belief.

There have been numerous other challenges by scientists to Michael Denton’s earlier conclusions. But the best example of the power of organic change is the mutation in Denton’s thinking that occurred between Evolution: A Theory in Crisis and his later book Nature’s Destiny.

In Nature’s Destiny Denton says, “Contrary to the creationist position, the whole argument presented here is critically dependent on…the reality of organic evolution and on the presumption that all living organisms on earth are natural forms in the profoundest sense of the word….”

Summing up our pastor insists that “creation screams design,” and I have no problem with such belief. Belief is appropriate to religion. Religions are founded and sustained by belief in unchanging ideas, science is not. Rather, the foundation of good science is skeptical process in which hypotheses are formed, experiments are made, data collected and examined, and theories proposed. If, in the process, evidence is developed that undermines previous theory that theory is scrapped or adjusted. That’s how a cure for polio was discovered.  It was not copied from the pages of Genesis.

Whether or not our children will grow spiritually wiser by being taught about Adam and Eve is beside the point of Darwin’s theory, but they will probably not find a cure for cancer there —for that they need to understand the relation between belief and skepticism and the differences between religion and science and metaphor and fact, as well as the appropriate place for each.

by Jim Culleny
for The Greenfield Recorder
9/8/11

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