The Commons is a weblog for concerned citizens of southeast Iowa and their friends around the world. It was created to encourage grassroots networking and to share information and ideas which have either been suppressed or drowned out in the mainstream media.

"But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection." (Henry V, Act V, Scene 4)

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Daniel C. Dennett - Show Me the Science


August 28, 2005

Show Me the Science


PRESIDENT BUSH, announcing this month that he was in favor of teaching
about "intelligent design" in the schools, said, "I think that part of
education is to expose people to different schools of thought." A
couple of weeks later, Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Republican
leader, made the same point. Teaching both intelligent design and
evolution "doesn't force any particular theory on anyone," Mr. Frist
said. "I think in a pluralistic society that is the fairest way to go
about education and training people for the future."

Is "intelligent design" a legitimate school of scientific thought? Is
there something to it, or have these people been taken in by one of the
most ingenious hoaxes in the history of science? Wouldn't such a hoax
be impossible? No. Here's how it has been done.

First, imagine how easy it would be for a determined band of naysayers
to shake the world's confidence in quantum physics - how weird it is! -
or Einsteinian relativity. In spite of a century of instruction and
popularization by physicists, few people ever really get their heads
around the concepts involved. Most people eventually cobble together a
justification for accepting the assurances of the experts: "Well, they
pretty much agree with one another, and they claim that it is their
understanding of these strange topics that allows them to harness
atomic energy, and to make transistors and lasers, which certainly do

Fortunately for physicists, there is no powerful motivation for such a
band of mischief-makers to form. They don't have to spend much time
persuading people that quantum physics and Einsteinian relativity
really have been established beyond all reasonable doubt.

With evolution, however, it is different. The fundamental scientific
idea of evolution by natural selection is not just mind-boggling;
natural selection, by executing God's traditional task of designing and
creating all creatures great and small, also seems to deny one of the
best reasons we have for believing in God. So there is plenty of
motivation for resisting the assurances of the biologists. Nobody is
immune to wishful thinking. It takes scientific discipline to protect
ourselves from our own credulity, but we've also found ingenious ways
to fool ourselves and others. Some of the methods used to exploit these
urges are easy to analyze; others take a little more unpacking.

A creationist pamphlet sent to me some years ago had an amusing page in
it, purporting to be part of a simple questionnaire:

Test Two

Do you know of any building that didn't have a builder? [YES] [NO]

Do you know of any painting that didn't have a painter? [YES] [NO]

Do you know of any car that didn't have a maker? [YES] [NO]

If you answered YES for any of the above, give details:

Take that, you Darwinians! The presumed embarrassment of the test-taker
when faced with this task perfectly expresses the incredulity many
people feel when they confront Darwin's great idea. It seems obvious,
doesn't it, that there couldn't be any designs without designers, any
such creations without a creator.

Well, yes - until you look at what contemporary biology has
demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt: that natural selection - the
process in which reproducing entities must compete for finite resources
and thereby engage in a tournament of blind trial and error from which
improvements automatically emerge - has the power to generate
breathtakingly ingenious designs.

Take the development of the eye, which has been one of the favorite
challenges of creationists. How on earth, they ask, could that
engineering marvel be produced by a series of small, unplanned steps?
Only an intelligent designer could have created such a brilliant
arrangement of a shape-shifting lens, an aperture-adjusting iris, a
light-sensitive image surface of exquisite sensitivity, all housed in a
sphere that can shift its aim in a hundredth of a second and send
megabytes of information to the visual cortex every second for years on

But as we learn more and more about the history of the genes involved,
and how they work - all the way back to their predecessor genes in the
sightless bacteria from which multicelled animals evolved more than a
half-billion years ago - we can begin to tell the story of how
photosensitive spots gradually turned into light-sensitive craters that
could detect the rough direction from which light came, and then
gradually acquired their lenses, improving their information-gathering
capacities all the while.

We can't yet say what all the details of this process were, but real
eyes representative of all the intermediate stages can be found, dotted
around the animal kingdom, and we have detailed computer models to
demonstrate that the creative process works just as the theory says.

All it takes is a rare accident that gives one lucky animal a mutation
that improves its vision over that of its siblings; if this helps it
have more offspring than its rivals, this gives evolution an
opportunity to raise the bar and ratchet up the design of the eye by
one mindless step. And since these lucky improvements accumulate - this
was Darwin's insight - eyes can automatically get better and better and
better, without any intelligent designer.

Brilliant as the design of the eye is, it betrays its origin with a
tell-tale flaw: the retina is inside out. The nerve fibers that carry
the signals from the eye's rods and cones (which sense light and color)
lie on top of them, and have to plunge through a large hole in the
retina to get to the brain, creating the blind spot. No intelligent
designer would put such a clumsy arrangement in a camcorder, and this
is just one of hundreds of accidents frozen in evolutionary history
that confirm the mindlessness of the historical process.

If you still find Test Two compelling, a sort of cognitive illusion
that you can feel even as you discount it, you are like just about
everybody else in the world; the idea that natural selection has the
power to generate such sophisticated designs is deeply
counterintuitive. Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of DNA, once
jokingly credited his colleague Leslie Orgel with "Orgel's Second
Rule": Evolution is cleverer than you are. Evolutionary biologists are
often startled by the power of natural selection to "discover" an
"ingenious" solution to a design problem posed in the lab.

This observation lets us address a slightly more sophisticated version
of the cognitive illusion presented by Test Two. When evolutionists
like Crick marvel at the cleverness of the process of natural selection
they are not acknowledging intelligent design. The designs found in
nature are nothing short of brilliant, but the process of design that
generates them is utterly lacking in intelligence of its own.

Intelligent design advocates, however, exploit the ambiguity between
process and product that is built into the word "design." For them, the
presence of a finished product (a fully evolved eye, for instance) is
evidence of an intelligent design process. But this tempting conclusion
is just what evolutionary biology has shown to be mistaken.

Yes, eyes are for seeing, but these and all the other purposes in the
natural world can be generated by processes that are themselves without
purposes and without intelligence. This is hard to understand, but so
is the idea that colored objects in the world are composed of atoms
that are not themselves colored, and that heat is not made of tiny hot

The focus on intelligent design has, paradoxically, obscured something
else: genuine scientific controversies about evolution that abound. In
just about every field there are challenges to one established theory
or another. The legitimate way to stir up such a storm is to come up
with an alternative theory that makes a prediction that is crisply
denied by the reigning theory - but that turns out to be true, or that
explains something that has been baffling defenders of the status quo,
or that unifies two distant theories at the cost of some element of the
currently accepted view.

To date, the proponents of intelligent design have not produced
anything like that. No experiments with results that challenge any
mainstream biological understanding. No observations from the fossil
record or genomics or biogeography or comparative anatomy that
undermine standard evolutionary thinking.

Instead, the proponents of intelligent design use a ploy that works
something like this. First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist's
work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing
forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as
evidence that there is a "controversy" to teach.

Note that the trick is content-free. You can use it on any topic.
"Smith's work in geology supports my argument that the earth is flat,"
you say, misrepresenting Smith's work. When Smith responds with a
denunciation of your misuse of her work, you respond, saying something
like: "See what a controversy we have here? Professor Smith and I are
locked in a titanic scientific debate. We should teach the controversy
in the classrooms." And here is the delicious part: you can often
exploit the very technicality of the issues to your own advantage,
counting on most of us to miss the point in all the difficult details.

William Dembski, one of the most vocal supporters of intelligent
design, notes that he provoked Thomas Schneider, a biologist, into a
response that Dr. Dembski characterizes as "some hair-splitting that
could only look ridiculous to outsider observers." What looks to
scientists - and is - a knockout objection by Dr. Schneider is
portrayed to most everyone else as ridiculous hair-splitting.

In short, no science. Indeed, no intelligent design hypothesis has even
been ventured as a rival explanation of any biological phenomenon. This
might seem surprising to people who think that intelligent design
competes directly with the hypothesis of non-intelligent design by
natural selection. But saying, as intelligent design proponents do,
"You haven't explained everything yet," is not a competing hypothesis.
Evolutionary biology certainly hasn't explained everything that
perplexes biologists. But intelligent design hasn't yet tried to
explain anything.

To formulate a competing hypothesis, you have to get down in the
trenches and offer details that have testable implications. So far,
intelligent design proponents have conveniently sidestepped that
requirement, claiming that they have no specifics in mind about who or
what the intelligent designer might be.

To see this shortcoming in relief, consider an imaginary hypothesis of
intelligent design that could explain the emergence of human beings on
this planet:

About six million years ago, intelligent genetic engineers from another
galaxy visited Earth and decided that it would be a more interesting
planet if there was a language-using, religion-forming species on it,
so they sequestered some primates and genetically re-engineered them to
give them the language instinct, and enlarged frontal lobes for
planning and reflection. It worked.

If some version of this hypothesis were true, it could explain how and
why human beings differ from their nearest relatives, and it would
disconfirm the competing evolutionary hypotheses that are being

We'd still have the problem of how these intelligent genetic engineers
came to exist on their home planet, but we can safely ignore that
complication for the time being, since there is not the slightest shred
of evidence in favor of this hypothesis.

But here is something the intelligent design community is reluctant to
discuss: no other intelligent-design hypothesis has anything more going
for it. In fact, my farfetched hypothesis has the advantage of being
testable in principle: we could compare the human and chimpanzee
genomes, looking for unmistakable signs of tampering by these genetic
engineers from another galaxy. Finding some sort of user's manual
neatly embedded in the apparently functionless "junk DNA" that makes up
most of the human genome would be a Nobel Prize-winning coup for the
intelligent design gang, but if they are looking at all, they haven't
come up with anything to report.

It's worth pointing out that there are plenty of substantive scientific
controversies in biology that are not yet in the textbooks or the
classrooms. The scientific participants in these arguments vie for
acceptance among the relevant expert communities in peer-reviewed
journals, and the writers and editors of textbooks grapple with
judgments about which findings have risen to the level of acceptance -
not yet truth - to make them worth serious consideration by
undergraduates and high school students.

SO get in line, intelligent designers. Get in line behind the
hypothesis that life started on Mars and was blown here by a cosmic
impact. Get in line behind the aquatic ape hypothesis, the gestural
origin of language hypothesis and the theory that singing came before
language, to mention just a few of the enticing hypotheses that are
actively defended but still insufficiently supported by hard facts.

The Discovery Institute, the conservative organization that has helped
to put intelligent design on the map, complains that its members face
hostility from the established scientific journals. But establishment
hostility is not the real hurdle to intelligent design. If intelligent
design were a scientific idea whose time had come, young scientists
would be dashing around their labs, vying to win the Nobel Prizes that
surely are in store for anybody who can overturn any significant
proposition of contemporary evolutionary biology.

Remember cold fusion? The establishment was incredibly hostile to that
hypothesis, but scientists around the world rushed to their labs in the
effort to explore the idea, in hopes of sharing in the glory if it
turned out to be true.

Instead of spending more than $1 million a year on publishing books and
articles for non-scientists and on other public relations efforts, the
Discovery Institute should finance its own peer-reviewed electronic
journal. This way, the organization could live up to its self-professed
image: the doughty defenders of brave iconoclasts bucking the

For now, though, the theory they are promoting is exactly what George
Gilder, a long-time affiliate of the Discovery Institute, has said it
is: "Intelligent design itself does not have any content."

Since there is no content, there is no "controversy" to teach about in
biology class. But here is a good topic for a high school course on
current events and politics: Is intelligent design a hoax? And if so,
how was it perpetrated?

Daniel C. Dennett, a professor of philosophy at Tufts University, is
the author of "Freedom Evolves" and "Darwin's Dangerous Idea."


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