News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Intelligent Design and the Culture Wars

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Intelligent Design and the Culture Wars

One issue in the effort by Christian jihadists is the effort undertaken to invalidate the theory of evolution. As part of what is called the "culture wars," the two sides in the war can generally be characterized as "modernists" versus "traditionalists." One sure sign that the Christian jihadists are winning the war will be whether the false science called "intelligent design" (ID) becomes part of every student's education in US schools.

The following article provides a scinetific response to the main bone of contention that IDers have with the scientific theory of evolution. The question of organism complexity has been exploited by creationists and IDers. This article suggests that evolutionists now have the answer to that question.

I believe the article says that evolutionary tweaks are mutational--they are happening randomly all the time. The mutations that accord at the survival level are the ones that get passed on. At least that is how I understand the following sentence:

"So the trunk, antlers, and tusk are really just different expressions of the same type of genetic activity-funneled through the process of natural selection, in which variations useful to a particular environment tend to survive over time."

To characterize this as Dawkins does as the "selfish gene" overstates the case. The selfish gene is what gets passed on, since it is the "solution" to the problem of survival. It will continue to be passed on as long as it is able to overcome those problems, otherwise the organisms that have the gene die out. I guess one can look at it as "selfish" although that seems too anthropomorphic to me.

Some people will assert that all this implies an intelligence behind natural processes. What's the nature of this "has to," as I'll characterize it now? Why not simply see it as a purely biological process? This would mean that within the natural processes there are patterns that result in products that survive. No need to assert any intelligence at all, except the causal structure that we can "find" in the processes and then exploit. The natural world just "is."

That it "is" is an event for awe and wonder--then from this wonder and awe, one can believe what the various religious traditions assert is the "meaning" of this process. But at the natural level itself, there will only be continuing understanding--assertion and counter-assertion that will simply result in more undertsanding of the causal structures involved but no meaning that rises to the level of a religious beliefs.
Missing links
Proponents of Intelligent Design have exploited a vexing question at the heart of Darwin's theory. Now, say two leading biologists, scientists can - and must - answer back.
By Peter Dizikes | October 23, 2005

. . . . . . .

As it happens, Kirschner and Gerhart give several of these advances in evolutionary biology a broad public airing as coauthors of a new book, ''The Plausibility of Life," published this week by Yale University Press. In it, they discuss the origins of complicated biological features-from the bat's wing to the human eye-and present their theory of ''facilitated variation," which they believe addresses a major question in evolution: How can small genetic changes develop into complex, useful body parts? In a sign of the times, they also rebut claims of irreducible complexity made by Intelligent Design advocates.

In so doing, Kirschner and Gerhart say, they are tackling an issue evolutionists have often left unexamined. ''The question of how variation could be produced has been there from the beginning," says Gerhart, referring to the publication of Charles Darwin's ''On the Origin of Species" in 1859. By the 1940s, the so-called ''Modern Synthesis" of evolutionary theory powerfully buttressed Darwin's insights on natural selection with the post-Darwinian discoveries about the mechanisms of heredity. But, the authors write, the Modern Synthesis was ''silent" about the way organisms generated variation. It is not coincidental, they add, that because ''variation is the least understood of the theoretical underpinnings of evolutionary theory," it thus ''is currently the favorite target" of creationists.

Kirschner and Gerhart say this situation has now changed. Organisms, they assert, have a far greater capacity to generate rapid and complex variations than even biologists had previously supposed. Moreover, from the genetic level up to our visible features, organisms have a modular structure. In this sense, complex features are less like singularly intricate structures than a collection of building blocks.

Significantly, Kirschner and Gerhart write, while random genetic mutations in our DNA code cause variations, these mutations do not create random effects (a traditional working assumption of many evolutionists). Instead, all organisms have maintained an essentially intact set of vital mechanisms-metabolism, reproduction of DNA, growth mechanisms, and more-for at least 2 billion years. These elements, along with a long-conserved body plan common to many animals, serve as the platform for subsequent, often more visible variations.

Consider the elephant's trunk, the elk's antlers, and the narwhal's tusk, which all appear to be distinct, complex innovations. But as Kirschner and Gerhart point out, the same type of cell guided their growth in each animal. Moreover, the modular structure of life means these body parts could develop without affecting the rest of the organism. (A corollary is that it only takes limited genetic changes to bring about large bodily changes.) So the trunk, antlers, and tusk are really just different expressions of the same type of genetic activity-funneled through the process of natural selection, in which variations useful to a particular environment tend to survive over time.

Kirschner and Gerhart also suggest Behe does not consider modularity in his claim that only ''staggeringly complex biochemical processes" lie behind the composition of, say, an eye. As they note, the eyes of insects and mammals, each of which appear to be singularly complex, share important biochemical building blocks and connections among their components.

''People should be asking about the nature of complexity, not just how complex it is," amplifies Kirschner, in conversation. ''You look at a clock, and you see that every part is purposely made. That's what you would do if you were an Intelligent Designer. But instead, when you look at biology, you find that there are very few types of parts, and they are being co-opted from one place to another. We have a Lego-like capacity to very easily generate new structures."

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