Thursday, December 01, 2005

Tom Bethell on Evolution and ID

Tom Bethell, who writes regularly for the American Spectator, is a favorite author of mine. His writings on science, economics, the environment, and just about everything else under the sun—and indeed about the sun itself—are fascinating in their clarity and pure logic. In today's edition of National Review Online, a perfectly fabulous publication read and admired by absolutely all of the Smart Set, Bethell writes brilliantly on the relative merits of the theories of evolution and intelligent design. You must read the entire article, lest you remain far less brilliant than you could be (and it will only be your own damned fault), but the following excerpt illustrates an important point which the present author has himself made over at the American Spectator, that both evolution and intelligent design are theories that are not falsifiable—and Bethell does us a great favor by reminding us that the philosopher who invented the "falsifiability" test himself said that the theory of evolution by natural selection abysmally failed it!. To wit:

Charles Krauthammer tells us that Isaac Newton was religious and if he saw no conflict between science and religion, why can't we take our thin gruel of evolutionary science like good children and be satisfied, without dragging a Designer into the picture?

Because it isn't real science, Charles. Newton, in fact, thought that the "most beautiful system" of sun, planets, and comets could "only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being." But the laws of physics that govern these motions are simplicity itself compared with the immense complexity of the biological machinery that governs the development, proliferation, growth, and aging of millions of reproductive species. These mechanisms have yet to be discovered or described. To believe that the feeble tautology of natural selection — laissez-faire political economy from the 1830s imported into biology — constitutes a sufficient explanation of the marvels of nature is to display a credulity that makes our fundamentalists seem sagacious by comparison.

George Will has made one accurate criticism of the idea he so dislikes: "The problem with intelligent design is not that it is false but that it is not falsifiable. Not being susceptible to contradicting evidence, it is not a testable hypothesis." This is true; but he should have added that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is not falsifiable either. Darwin's claim to fame was his discovery of a mechanism of evolution; he accepted "survival of the fittest" as a good summary of his natural-selection theory. But which ones are the fittest? The ones that survive. There is no criterion of fitness that is independent of survival. Whatever happens, it is the "fittest" that survive — by definition. This, just like intelligent design, is not a testable hypothesis. As the eminent philosopher of science Karl Popper said, after discussing this problem that natural selection cannot escape: "There is hardly any possibility of testing a theory as feeble as this." Popper was the first to propose falsification as the line of demarcation between theories that are scientific and those that are not; both intelligent design and natural selection fall by this standard.

The underlying problem, rarely discussed, is that the conclusions of evolutionism are based not on science, but on a philosophy: the philosophy of materialism, or naturalism. Living creatures, including human beings, are here on Earth, and we got here somehow. If atoms and molecules in motion are all that exist, then their random interactions must account for everything that exists, including us. That is the true underpinning of Darwinism. What needs to be examined in detail is not so much the religion behind intelligent design as the philosophy behind evolution.

Bloody well right, Tom, as ever.

10 comments:

Jay D. Homnick said...

Every single word that Bethell writes in this piece is correct.

brmerrick said...

I would like a believer in evolution to watch "March of the Penguins" and come up with a survival-of-the-fittest argument for why those penguins do what they do, when it would be so much easier to swim- via one small island after another- to the tip of South America where it is far more hospitable, and where there is a greater guarantee on their survival.

Granted, the film is also no sure-fire argument for Intelligent Design, either, as the hard choices these penguins make don't always seem the most intelligent, either.

John Tabin said...

Popper was wrong.

James Elliott said...

Merrick, "survival of the fittest" is an immense dumbing down of natural selection. That's not what it means. You're thinking of Social Darwinism, which was and is a perversion of the idea to justify racist and classist dogma.

George Will has made one accurate criticism of the idea he so dislikes: "The problem with intelligent design is not that it is false but that it is not falsifiable. Not being susceptible to contradicting evidence, it is not a testable hypothesis." This is true; but he should have added that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is not falsifiable either.

Unlike Intelligent Design, evolution happens to have that pesky little thing called observable evidence. ID isn't bad just because it isn't falsifiable: it's not remotely testable.

What does Bethell mean evolution is not falsifiable? Here's one particularly ignominious yet perfectly salient example:

During the slave trade, slavers would lick potential purchases to see if they could taste salinity before stuffing said purchased person into a hold and sending them across the sea without so much as an "I beg your pardon." Why did they do this? Why, because the better a slave's ability to retain salt, the better their ability to survive the two things and promulgated copiously in the hold: 100 plus degree heat and dehydration! The slaves with the highest ability to retain salt survived most frequently. Consequently, here in America, we now see among African-American descendants of slaves (as opposed to African immigrants) much higher salt-retention. Salt retention increases (mightily) the risks of hypertension and heart-related diseases, both of which occur disproportionately among that population.

"Not falsifiable" my sweet behind.

Kathy Hutchins said...

James: Your example has nothing to do with the evolution of species. All you have offered is a history of how a pre-existing natural variation of a genetic trait comes to be more prevalent in some subsets of a species than others. IDers do not deny that microevolution exists. It happens on time scales so short that we can observe it happening. But microevolution with either artificial or natural genetic selection as the mechanism does not explain how new species "evolve" from older ones, nor does it explain the development of complex structures, nor indeed does it offer a mechanism for the greatest puzzle of all in organismal biology: why is there sex?

As I believe I have stated many times, I have not yet staked out a position in this debate. Any sympathy I have for ID comes from my experience of the unwarranted bullying that goes on in other scientific areas where I actually do have a firm enough grasp of the details to hold an informed opinion. But it is clear to me, watching from the sidelines, that lay supporters of evolution display a far shakier grasp of basic science and scientific method than do the lay supporters of ID, and rely far too heavily on trash talking nonsense to convey a true sense of well-founded intellectual confidence.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

I think you missed the point, James, or maybe I did.

To rephrase the question, "Is it possible to disprove that we evolved from a warm puddle plus a random chance collision between atoms??"

James Elliott said...

Is it possible to prove that we were designed by a Bearded Old White Man with magical juju powers? Does it explain why the aliens are always looking up people's butts then?

Your argument, if correct, invalidates Intelligent Design as much as evolution.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

My argument invalidates nothing. It simply shows that evolving from a puddle and being designed by a bearded man in a white robe have the same basis of argument.

BTW...I'm with Kathy on the ID thing. If I have ever argued FOR ID at some point, it was by accident.

My intention is to argue against those who dismiss ID as "religion". While that may be true in some sense, I'll back off when the evolution establishment says uncle and accepts its place at the religious table (ie, the we evolved from a warm puddle part of evolution).

brmerrick said...

Doesn't it make more sense for a penguin, an animal that is already a strong and fast swimmer, to swim a few miles to an at least slightly warmer climate in order to breed and give birth? How does any principle of evolution explain the Emperor Penguins' desire to remain in an obviously inhospitable environment when warmer temperatures can be sensed nearby? Wouldn't an animal that does such a thing eventually die out, or the smarter ones among them move to a different climate if only for part of the year?

Why would a genetic code, that is obedient to the principles of evolution only, not mutate to ensure a more populous penguin community?

My point proves nothing about ID, merely that evolution does not seem to support such illogical behavior.

Timothy Birdnow said...

Hey James Elliott,

You said,

``Unlike Intelligent Design, evolution happens to have that pesky little thing called observable evidence. ID isn't bad just because it isn't falsifiable: it's not remotely testable.``

You are mistaken, in that Darwinian theory is based on observation of observable evidence-the same which is observed by ID people. What you object to is the INTERPRETATION of this evidence. Darwinists interpret this evidence solely in their favor, ignoring those pesky details which do not fit their worldview.

You also said,

`` You're thinking of Social Darwinism, which was and is a perversion of the idea to justify racist and classist dogma.``

Spencer began working on his theories BEFORE the publication of Origin of Species, and was thrilled with Darwin because this strengthened his case. If you accept classical Darwinism you have to accept the racial components; ANY divergence in Man must be an effect of divergent survival attributes, if you accept Darwin. Therefore, it is an inescapable conclusion that these divergent traits mean real racial differences. This was not a misreading or perversion of his views-it was at the core of Darwinian theory. By the way, did you know that rejection of the Eugenics movement was the driving force behind the birth of Christian Fundamentalism?

You further state,

``During the slave trade, slavers would lick potential purchases to see if they could taste salinity before stuffing said purchased person into a hold and sending them across the sea without so much as an "I beg your pardon." Why did they do this? Why, because the better a slave's ability to retain salt, the better their ability to survive the two things and promulgated copiously in the hold: 100 plus degree heat and dehydration! The slaves with the highest ability to retain salt survived most frequently. Consequently, here in America, we now see among African-American descendants of slaves (as opposed to African immigrants) much higher salt-retention. Salt retention increases (mightily) the risks of hypertension and heart-related diseases, both of which occur disproportionately among that population.``

First, I would like to point out that sports commentator Jimmy the Greek was fired for sentiments similar to the ones you are expressing here. Second, I would like to ask your source; I haven`t heard that, and would like to know if it is documented, or legendary. (Please let me know.) Finally, licking a sweaty man is hardly a scientifically falsifiable practice, and one is forced to doubt the accuracy of such a proceedure.

This argument leads back to Social Darwinism; if African men are better at retaining salt, isn`t it logical to argue that they are better runners, because they have evolved to be? Can it not then be argued that his harsher environment and more physical life means he is intellectually inferior to his cousins in Europe? You can`t have it both ways, James. If you want to make this argument you must accept the whole thing.

It is one reason I am convinced Darwinism is wrong.

``Does it explain why the aliens are always looking up people's butts then?``

ID does not address this, but Darwinian theory postulates that there must be some survival value for the aliens to look in an alien species anal cavity. Perhaps they must inhale small quantities of methane, or require minute amounts of fertilizer?