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Friday, February 23, 2007

Evolutionary biology: Better off without Darwin?

You'd have to pay for this Chronicle of Higher Education article that addresses the question of whether ditching Darwinism would help evolutionary biologists deal with the unwashed hordes:
In his controversial book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins insisted that scientists should work to dispel the idea that God exists. Without religion, Mr. Dawkins has said, the conflict between scientists' beliefs about evolution and the fundamentalist religious belief that a supernatural intelligence created all life would vanish. Now an evolutionary biologist has proposed a different tack. In a meeting last weekend in San Francisco, he suggested scientists might win the argument by ditching Darwin.
Mr. Kutschera, a professor of plant physiology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kassel in Germany, said scientists should emphasize that evolution is a fully formed field of biological study "built up by generations of non-dogmatic scientists." Terms like
Darwinism can make evolutionary biology seem like an ideology, rather than a focus of empirical work, he said.

Basically, the controversy was never about Darwin's theory as such, of course, but about the use of Darwin's theory to preach a materialist origin of life and the mind. It is one thing to say that Dawin'sc oncept of natural selection explains which squirrels will survive the winter - another to say that it completely explains life, the universe, and all that.

Materialists, faced with growing dissent worldwide, now want to spin materialism through some sort of "God-talk" that addresses, in the words of one participant, the "dethronement of humans" (read: the dethronement of intelligence) and makes it all seem quite normal and true. The scary part is that they will undoubtedly get a taxpayer-funded budget for that. It won't work, of course, but it will cost you.

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Why did anyone ever believe Darwinism?

While we're here, Phillip Johnson, the California law prof who put intelligent design on the intellectual map, asks in Think, the Royal Institute of Philosophy's publication, why did anyone ever believe in mud to mind, molecules to man, and other theories of unintelligent design:
Nowadays I rarely see any attempt to prove that the Darwinian mechanism actually has the power to create major new biological innovations. Instead, the museums and magazines prefer just to tell the story of common descent, assuming that random variation with natural selection (differential reproduction) must have been adequate to perform whatever designing had to be done. At the same time, mainstream science, although guided by Darwinian assumptions, keeps providing more and more evidence of the enormous information content of living structures. Even the core assumption that genetic similarities are necessarily inherited from common ancestors is contradicted almost daily by invocations of something called “lateral gene transfer” to explain genetic similarities between organisms which are not believed to share a recent common ancestor. Today authoritarian rules ban the hypothesis of intelligent design from scientific discussion and fiercely suppress it by lawsuits. A genuinely confident scientific culture that was making continual progress in confirming its theories and solving problems would not need or want to rely on intimidation to silence dissent. It may require many long years of struggle before the hypothesis of real design in biology will be able to receive a fair hearing, but the day of that fair hearing will arrive, and eventually people may wonder how a materialist theory as shaky as Darwinism was able to captivate so many minds for so long.

Well, one may as well ask, why did Freudianism capture the public for so long? One reason is that when third-raters proffer unfalsifiable explanations - without themselves having the least sense that they might not be proferring wisdom - they can sound very, very convincing. They act as thought they have discovered the source of truth, and the unwary believe them.

The Freudian honestly believed that your behaviour as a mid-life adult can be entirely traced to early childhood traumas, and challenged you to prove otherwise. In the same way, the Darwinist honestly believes that creativity can be had for free without intelligence, and can't imagine otherwise, despite the evidence. Not only that but - zealous as he is for the cause - he knows it is his duty to persecute any who doubt.

Johnson's comments on the hype surrounding the Galapagos finches are interesting in this context.

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New Age discovers AI and ID?

Or have they all just discovered each other?

According to James Gardner's The Intelligent Universe,
It is remarkable to me that almost all of the discussions of cosmology fail to mention the role of intelligence. In the common cosmological view, intelligence is just a bit of froth, something interesting that happens on the sidelines of the great cosmic story. But in the standard view, whether the universe winds up or down, ends up in fire (a great crunch and new Big Bang), or ice (an ever-expanding and ultimately dead universe), or something in-between, depends only on measures of dark matter, dark energy, and other parameters we have yet to discover. That the story of the universe is a story yet to be written by the intelligence it will spawn is almost never mentioned. This book will help to change the common "unintelligent" view.

This scenario,.as prophesied by Ray Kurzweil's Foreword, seems materialist, but it's a bit hard to tell. Kurzweil, interestingly, is not a fan of Carl Sagan's billions of civilizations out there in space:
According to most analyses of the Drake equation, there should be billions of civilizations, and a substantial fraction of these should be ahead of us by millions of years. That's enough time for many of them to be capable of vast galaxy-wide technologies. So how can it be that we haven't noticed any of the trillions of trillions of "needles" that each of these billions of advanced civilizations should be creating?
My own conclusion is that they don't exist. If it seems unlikely that we would be in the lead in the universe, here on the third planet of a humble star in an otherwise undistinguished galaxy, it's no more perplexing than the existence of our universe with its ever so precisely tuned formulas to allow life to evolve in the first place.

Gardner's book is here.

My other blog is the Mindful Hack, which keeps tabs on neuroscience and the mind.

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

Are you looking for one of the following stories?

My review of Francis Collins’ book The Language of God , my backgrounder about peer review issues, or the evolutionary biologist’s opinion that all students friendly to intelligent design should be flunked.

Lists of theoretical and applied scientists who doubt Darwin and of academic ID publications.

My U of Toronto talk on why there is an intelligent design controversy, or my talk on media coverage of the controversy at the University of Minnesota.

A summary of tech guru George Gilder's arguments for ID and against Darwinism

A critical look at why March of the Penguins was thought to be an ID film.

A summary of recent opinion columns on the ID controversy

A summary of recent polls of US public opinion on the ID controversy

A summary of the Catholic Church's entry into the controversy, essentially on the side of ID.

O'Leary's intro to non-Darwinian agnostic philosopher David Stove’s critique of Darwinism.

An ID Timeline: The ID folk seem always to win when they lose.

Why origin of life is such a difficult problem.
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