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Intelligent Design

I see where the Creationists have gotten into the news again lately, slapping labels on biology textbooks and generally doing whatever they can to devolve our modern educational curriculum. Jeez, I thought those guys wouldíve been sated back in 1925, by the Scopes Trial in Tennessee. (Since my wife was born and raised in Tennessee, I have to be a bit careful here. But I have to say -- as much as Iíve always liked that Stateís terrain and geography -- much of its sociology strikes me as strictly pre-Neanderthal...)

Iíve done a wee bit of web research into the latest "Intelligent Design" (ID) tack of the Creationists. I should prefix this by saying that Iím strictly a layman in terms of both evolutionary theory and Creationism. Most of what I know of evolution I learned in 1964 from my H.S. biology teacher, Ms. Sudler, and from a few books written by Jay Gould since then. What I learned about Creationism was limited to church bible school quite a few years antecedent to that, and some supplemental religious studies along the way. I must say that I always had a hard time believing Bishop Usherís calculation that the Earth was created on October 22, 4004 BC. I also had a hard time believing that fossils were planted deep in the earth by Satan, in order to deceive us.

There is a current claim that "Intelligent Design" should be taken as a "scientific" alternative to evolution. I say "bushwah" to that. From all I can read and determine, ID is definitely, unequivocally non-science and non-sense, and is not worthy of a picosecondís worth of intellectual consideration in our schools. But at the same time, while the Darwinian Theory of Evolution passes some of the tests of a "true science", it is fraught with difficulties -- at the very least, itís significantly incomplete. I see Darwinian Evolution as rather like Newtonian physics, awaiting anxiously for the birth of an Einstein to complete and fulfill it. But that doesnít mean that Darwinian evolution theory should be expunged or shoved aside -- since itís the best science has to offer right now.

One of the things Iíve noted is that almost all the Intelligent Design gurus seem to be connected with a conspiratorial movement. Most of IDís major proponents have not-too-well-hidden connections to evangelical Christian organizations. Their claimed excuse is often: "Well, those are the only institutions that will give us the support we need for our scientific work." Thatís pretty lame. What scientific work? If I were doing real science, would I prostitute myself (or my reputation) by taking money from, say, the Flat-Earth Society? If youíre doing real science, real science groups will support you. I just canít for the life of me determine what kind of "science" these guys are actually doing.

Nor would I elevate the open-mindedness of the "sanctioned" scientific community much above the Creationists. Iíd characterize them in terms of the old story about the group of blind men, each feeling different parts of an elephant and pontificating on what the beast must look like.  The scientific community is about the most politicized, closed-minded fraternity that's ever existed on the planet. The revision of existing scientific dogma is about as hard as adding a Station of the Cross to the Roman Catholic Church. Thatís why people who have the tenacity to accomplish that seemingly impossible task get the Nobel Prize, and are immortalized in textbooks. But always, real science will out in the end.

One problem with evolution as a "science" is that so much of it depends on analysis of paleontology data. These data do behave nicely and sit still on a slab, but their interpretation and chronological organization are very subjective. If what you see on the slab doesnít jibe with what the reigning hypotheses may be, itís too easy to shove the sample back into the drawer and ignore it. And if you donít think thatís a routine practice in this field, read Forbidden Archeology by Cremo & Thompson (Bhaktivedanta Book Publ., 1993).

You just canít do experiments in evolution in the same way you can do physics experiments. Thatís a distinct weakness. Sure, you can do short-term experiments on, say, genetic changes in fruit flies -- but that doesnít say a whole lot about what it was that made a fruit fly fly in the first place. You can do 20-year observational studies of a species on the Galapagos Islands Ė but of what significance is that, when youíre trying to explain how 1.5 billion years of biological development proceeded on this planet?

Here is my main rub against the Theory of Evolution: The data say that ALMOST ALL of the animal phylum that comprise our natural world sprang forth within a relatively tiny slice of time (at most, 10 million years) at the start of the Cambrian age, about 500 million years ago. This event is known as the "Cambrian Explosion". Prior to that time, there were just sea stars, crustaceans, and worms. There has been only one single new animal phylum that has developed since then, in all those 500 million years Ė but even that one is a questionable case. In the total span of Earthís biological time, thatís a mighty slim sliver indeed, to have produced essentially all the basic body structures of the myriad, teeming forms of life we see on our Earth.

Standard Darwinian evolutionary theory posits that natural changes take place gradually, over time. So it bombs out badly there against the Cambrian evidence. "Neo-Darwinian" theory grants spurts or "saltations" in evolution -- but the Cambrian "spurt" was unprecedented and unique in the entire natural history of the Earth. And 500 million years is a sufficiently long time to wait for new phylum to evolve, with lots of environmental opportunities prevailing. Why did it happen? Lacking any better evidence or hypotheses, scientists point to a period of global greenhouse warming that was known to have occurred during the period in question.  Is this a sufficient explanation? It seems kind of flimsy to me, since other greenhouse events have occurred since.  On the other hand, the ID folks want to point to this rapid design proliferation as evidence of intervention by the Finger of a Divine Designer.  But is the lack of a solid scientific explanation for this anomalous event really sufficient motivation to make you want to leap off the scientific toboggan altogether?  To do so would be to embrace an argumentum ad ignorantium.  Just because something can't be scientifically explained at the present time is not proof of its scientific impossibility.

As geologic time progressed, there was a pattern of increasing diversity at lower taxonomic levels relative to the higher taxa. Today there are far fewer classes and orders than existed four- to five-hundred million years ago, while there are probably eight to ten times the number of species. This lower-level species proliferation is obviously the work of classical "Darwinian" natural selection. But what of the almost spontaneous genesis of so many varied basic and dramatically different forms of animal life in such a short period of time in the Cambrian era? To me at least, evolutionary theory doesnít deal with that fact in a very persuasive manner.

Note: The "Cambrian Explosion" was followed by a "Cambrian extinction" period where many of the new, unique phylum ceased to exist. Great global extinction episodes have happened at least 5 times since the initial introduction of these wonderfully varied Cambrian life forms, probably caused by environmental catastrophes like asteroid hits, "super-volcanoes", quick climatic shifts, etc. Most of the phylum existing in the Cambrian era no longer survive. (The Chordata phylum that we vertebrates belong to, emanating also from that Cambrian Explosion, fortunately did. I wonder what the ones that didnít make it would have looked like today, had they survived the Cambrian Extinction and continued to evolve? Perhaps we humans would have become their petsÖ)

Despite this major exegetical flaw in evolutionary theory Ė and despite my respect for the Jesuit Priest Teilhard de ChardinĎs idea of "directed evolution" Ė I have to stop short of believing that a teleological principle was involved in the development and progression of life on the planet. I truly wish there was an "Omega point" that we were destined to achieve Ė starting from our Cambrian creche and culminating in an ultimate apocatastasis with the Godhead, somewhere at the end of our evolution. That would place us humans in a truly glorious context, progenitors to great super-beings -- and in that sense even proto-gods ourselves. I think this is the notion that really lies in the recesses of the Creationistís minds, carefully repackaged in order to hide this "unscientific" message in the "scientific" Intelligent Design initiative. Of all the thousands of biological species extant in His creation, God favors Man alone, and therefore leads him along a special path back to Himself.

Well, maybe so.  But from what I have seen of Man -- more particularly, of his behavior -- I can hardly understand why.  Regardless, this thought is strictly in the realm of Religion, or at best Metaphysics. You can of course invoke the Anthropic Principle to support the notion, a tautology that says there must be something particularly fortunate or "blessed" about Man, since he's the only one around smart enough to be asking the questions and studying the universe around him.  And the universe, or more particularly the conditions of the Earth and its local environment, have developed "just so" to allow him to do that.  To me, this is not an extremely satisfactory line of thought-- mostly since I'm not sure what you do with it.  Like the old CSN&Y song, you've got to "love the one you're with".  If it had so happened that -- through a stroke of bad environmental luck -- the Chordata phylum now occupying our intellectually elevated position had suffered early extinction back in the Cambrian (like so many of his fellow new phylum), who's to say it wouldn't have been the descendant of another Cambrian "design experiment" who would now be sitting on the same throne as Man?  More critically, would they think that God loved them any less?

Rupert Sheldrake, in A new Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation (Blond & Briggs Ltd. 1981), has made an interesting and persuasive case that life is influenced by a "morphological field" that constrains and governs the manifestations of natural form, function and design organization. Sheldrake believes that the existence and maintenance of this field can be studied and analyzed in a scientific way. As a lower level analogy to this idea, consider that the laws of physics & chemistry provide only so many ways that proteins may fold, and extending that, so many ways that flesh may grow. Sheldrakeís field operates in a similar fashion, except that it impacts not only biological form but also individual behavior, learning and development.  More recently, some serious efforts are now underway at Princeton University to explore particular aspects and effects of a "global consciousness" phenomenon; some of the results to date are quite astounding.  This global noosphere, if it exists, may lend credence to Sheldrake's morphological field hypothesis.

Experiments with bacterial cultures and flies subjected to controlled mutational conditions show that the same types of mutations always seem to occur, repeatedly. In essence, there are only so many ways to skin a cat. Or rather, so many ways that a cat can be a cat. I see no reason to invoke a higher entity to explain why that is, at least at this level of focus. To me, Darwinism is a rather threadbare, humble attempt to explain how we came to be what we are. More modern evolutionary theory has tried to patch the holes.  Itís at least a partially "verifiable" theory -- albeit not on the level of the "harder" scientific theories found in physics or chemistry. But eventually, the moldering body of Darwin will fossilize enough so that we can stand more firmly on his shoulders, there to see a lot farther. I daresay, with a glance in the other direction, we'll also spy the Creationists, in their new "Intelligent Design" cloaks, plodding doggedly backwards toward their pre-Cambrian reward.

 

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Some of this material was extracted from Fredric J. Heeren, Was the First Craniate on the Road to Cognition?This is a very interesting paper and one of the few that I found of any value referenced on the Intelligent Design websites. Most of the rest are just evolution-bashing articles written by nimrods, or more argumentum ad ignorantium.  Thatís not what I call "science".

Look at the fossils and artist's reconstructions of some of the novel, incredible creatures that sprouted forth in the Cambrian Explosion at the paleontology site of the National Museum of Natural History.

The implication that no intervening or "crossover" evolutionary forms have been found to connect the novel phylum arising in the Cambrian Explosion to pre-Cambrian life-forms is debated by many of the experts.  New data keep coming in -- or perhaps, new people are looking more imaginatively at the same old fossils.  For example, see this article by Glenn R. Morton, Phylum Level Evolution.

Lastly, is this another possible "triggering event" for the Cambrian Explosion?

Postscript:  Possibly inspired by the time I've been putting into this page, Chris just bought me The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, by Stephen Jay Gould (Belknap Harvard, 2002).  It must've been Jay's swan song, since he died in 2002.  Hmmm, only 1433 pages of text, with very few illustrations.  I'd better get started if I want to finish this book before the Heat Death of the Universe ensues...

 

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