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Friday, August 08, 2008

Thoughts toward an intelligent design textbook ...

Warwick U sociologist Steve Fuller, author of Dissent over Descent, and I have been corresponding about how scientists who are sympathetic to intelligent design can make a bigger impact, and what the next generation of ID textbooks should look like.

Me: So what should the ID guys do? Create a complex life form from scratch in under 100 days? That would show that intelligent design is required. Nature never done that. But if they can't do it, does that prove intelligent design is not necessary? I don't think so.

He: First, ID needs to stop living up to its critics’ image of the movement as purely negative, i.e. ‘not-evolution’. Because ID has been largely cultivated in a US context, ID supporters have been reluctant to admit theology’s role in informing ID’s scientific imagination.

As a result, and especially when under pressure, ID has tended to focus exclusively on the very real problems in Neo-Darwinism. But not surprisingly, to a disinterested observer, this looks opportunistic and even disingenuous, as it suggests that ID is justified simply if Neo-Darwinism has enough holes it can’t plug.

Me: Yes, I see what you mean. Bear in mind, however, that the icons of evolution I grew up with are mostly exploded now. For example,

- The Viceroy butterfly "evolved" to mimic the Monarch, which is poisonous, to avoid birds

- The peacock's tail "evolved" to attract peahens

- The eyespots of butterflies and moths "evolved" because their resemblance to eyes scared off bird predators.

All nonsense. Birds do not think the way we do. Yet these fraudulent icons of evolution - alleged living shrines to Darwin - linger in popular imagination. They are the chief reason that many people honestly believe neo-Darwinism to be resoundingly confirmed, with no need to consider an alternative.

He: The deeper problem with this negative strategy is its implicit concession that all current biological knowledge belongs exclusively to Neo-Darwinism. This then leads the anti-ID brigade to bray, ‘Stop complaining and do your own research!’

A better tack would be for ID simply to systematically reinterpret existing biological research in ID-friendly terms and shift the burden of proof to the Neo-Darwinists by insisting that they come clean on what exactly they mean by continuing to speak in design-laden terms.

Design talk has only increased – not decreased -- with the revolutionary impact of molecular biology on genetics. While Richard Dawkins may blithely speak of ‘design without a designer’, philosophers agonize over this problem in their more esoteric publications without clear resolution. (And I mean here pro-Darwin philosophers, e.g. Tim Lewens, Organisms and Artifacts, MIT Press, 2004.)

Me: Yes, I agree. I would love to work on such a textbook myself.

He: Neo-Darwinists should not be allowed to get away with saying that ‘design’ is a metaphor, especially if they can’t conceptualise in more ‘literal’ terms what they’re talking about.

Me: Well, metaphors become costly when they are maintained only to prop up an existing theory that doesn't really help us understand.

Here’s an example: People sometimes talk as though computers think.

Sometimes that idea does no harm, as in “The machine thinks you want American spelling because that is the default. If you want Canadian spelling, you have to tell the machine by selecting it in Tools, Spelling, Language.”

Explaining it that way helps the person understand, even though the machine isn't really thinking. The metaphor does no harm.

But sometimes, the metaphor does harm. The user thinks the machine IS thinking. He gets frustrated because he thinks he is interacting with a person. So one must take him aside and explain:
The machine does not think anything. The thoughts are those of the software engineer who has encoded them in the program. But that’s all in the past. If the engineer did not think to provide a given option, we just can’t do it, I am afraid. We will have to think of something else ourselves.

And then there are the people who imagine that “soon machines will think like people!” They promote vast, cranky attitude changes. They do not seem to have gotten the memo: The human brain does not work like a machine. It is not going to start working like a machine. Not now. Not ever.

If the only purpose of insisting that design is merely a metaphor rather than a reality is to prevent anyone from making a connection between intelligence and design, we will soon not bother with that distinction. Only an ideological atheist crank would even care.

He: By the same token, ID may also need to take its own design talk more literally. I notice that Dembski and Wells have a book due out in the autumn that purports to explain ‘why intelligent design is necessary to explain the high-tech engineering inside the cell’. Well, I hope that this turn of phrase isn’t simply a marketing device because it captures really well how ID differs from Neo-Darwinism.

My fantasy ID textbook would actually treat biology as a branch of engineering – i.e. God’s engineering.

The phylogenetic tree would be treated as purely a taxonomic device to show how certain bio-machines result once certain changes are made to their structure. The book would be completely neutral on origins, in terms of either when or how the various bio-machines we call species were produced. These would be matters treated separately – as it were, in another course.

Me: Yes, I look forward to a textbook that rethinks the conventional approach too.

See, one warp that neo-Darwinism has created is this: So often “how it is” has come to mean “how it evolved” – which in turn comes to mean “what story can we tell, given that we don’t really know how it evolved?”

That of course means that the “how” gets all mixed up with the “why” – as in, we know WHY the peacock has a huge fan tail – to attract peahens! – and therefore we know HOW it came to exist – it evolved through a long, slow process of natural selection acting on random mutations.

Now suppose we just put all that into the recycler and say “We don't know for certain either what function the peacock’s tail serves or how it arose. Birds are not feathered people, so what matters to a bird may be different from what matters to us."

No doubt, if we get beyond our preconceptions, we can find out. That's what research is for, not telling stories that garland the tacky local shrine to Darwin's bogus miracles.

Here’s an example of where my suggested approach might help: A Darwin myth, exploded recently, is “Butterfly eyespots deter bird predators because they look like the eyes of the bird’s own predators.”

After 200 years, some enterprising scientists actually decided to test that, and discovered that birds do not much care whether the spots are round or square - or just bars. Birds avoid colourful patterns generally.

Humans thought some patterns looked like eyes and made up a Darwinian story about it. And, inevitably, because we knew “why” the spots looked like eyes, we also knew “how” they came to look that way – that ol' Darwinian magic - natural selection acting on random mutation!

In reality, it may turn out that patterns in butterfly wings follow certain rules – in that case, if we look for those rules, we will probably find them. So natural selection would play only the limited role of selecting out butterflies that don’t have any clear pattern.

But we won’t begin looking for the rules that govern the patterns as long as Darwinian fairy tales offer us an easy “explanation” - one that no one ever thought to test for two centuries!

By the way, it occurs to me that if a bird waited until he could see the cat’s eyes, it would be too late. He probably wouldn't be contributing genes to future bird generations - more likely nutrition to future cat generations.

He:The point of this fantasy textbook is to highlight a profound sense in which I believe ID does change the ground rules of how biological science is conducted: It keeps separate at least three questions that the Neo-Darwinists want answered as package deal:

1. When species were formed?

2. In what order were they formed?

3. By what means were they formed?
A Young Earth Creationist may have no problem adopting my fantasy ID textbook, while contesting when and by what means species were produced.

Me:Yes, as I tried to hint above, it does change the rules. For one thing, we stop telling stories and start looking for patterns. It is less like history, more like geography.

One thing that helps is the discovery of gene swapping. Gene swapping, if widely practiced among plants and bacteria (and even fish?), makes ancestry irrelevant.

Similarly, the fact that genomes may change during an individual’s lifetime means that the history of a genome does not equal the history of fertile matings – that turns out to be only part of the story. And if it’s only part of the story, it makes the neo-Darwinian history of life even less useful as a science-based account. Maybe, Darwinism is just how an Anglo-American capitalist would explain life?

He:Finally, I would say that the perverse science-religion politics in the US should not be taken as a global model for the reception of ID. This has only led ID supporters to undersell the value of ID as a positive guide to scientific research. I mean here how ID gets scientists to define their scientific problems differently.

For example, the book you authored with Beauregard illustrates well how a scientist sensitive to the potential role of God in nature would do research to establish how we might know such a thing in empirically valid terms. It is not so very different from how scientists in the past have tried to get a grip on features of reality that cannot be easily explained by the usual naturalistic explanations.

Me:Well, keep in mind that non-materialist neuroscientists tend to be a practical lot. They mostly come from medical science. They are interested in treatments that work. Drugs are okay for augmenting or reducing a function that is out of control, but you can't keep people on drugs all their lives and expect them to be happy and healthy.

To use the language of non-materialist neuroscientists, when people change their minds, they change their brains. So the goal is to encourage them to make the changes that are good for mental and physical health.

In The Spiritual Brain, we did not try to “prove” our point - that the mind is a real, though immaterial thing, and not the same thing as the brain. We wanted to assemble the evidence that we think reasonably supports that view.

(Darwinbot alert!: Get busy, Darwinbots, and oppose this idea. Your opposition helps sales. I would like my tax money to go toward you doing something besides lay nosegays on Darwin's grave. )

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