Evolving Ideas and Intelligent Design

Well, it seems that my earlier post on Darwin has ruffled some feathers in the Intelligent Design (ID) camp, so they’ve been trolling the comments section on my personal blog. This post started out as a response, but I decided to expand it to include some of the context surrounding Darwin’s work.

A comment by VMartin

…One wonders why no one noticed “natural selection” before. And there were ingenous minds in the history! One answer might be this – it was never observed because it doesn’t exist. Darwin implanted this speculation there. And “On the origin of species” reads sometimes like comedy. One should try to count how many times Darwin used words like “which seems to me extremely perplexing” etc….

One reason why some scientific theories have been slow to come to light

One reason why some scientific theories may have been slow to come to light

It’s interesting how ‘simple’ natural mechanisms and systems can take longer to be acknowledged than one might have thought. Heliocentrism is another example of something that now seems very obvious, but was historically slow to be recognised (and is still not recognised or not known about by some). It’s easy to blame organised religion for the suppression of such observational truths about the universe, since challenges to traditional belief were seen as heresy and dealt with accordingly, but there’s far more to it than that.

Let’s set the scene – Darwin’s formative years were tumultuous with regard to sociopolitical events. The Napoleonic wars drew to an end with the Battle of Waterloo when Darwin was six years old, the Peterloo Massacre occurred and the Six Acts were drawn up by the Tories to suppress radical reformers when he was ten – reflecting the ongoing social division between the establishment and the public. When Darwin was in his twenties the power of the strongly traditional British establishment finally began to wane, when the Whigs came to government allowing the 1832 Reform Act and the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act to be passed. There was also the devastating Great Famine in Ireland when Darwin was in his thirties and all of this was set against a background of the Industrial Revolution, which was providing the impetus for science to play an increasingly important role in society.

Peterloo Massacre

This meant that Darwin’s work was by no means formulated in intellectual isolation. Theories of evolution had been proposed 2,400 years previously, but they were poorly developed. Natural philosophers like Darwin’s own grandfather Erasmus and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck raised the issue of evolution at around the time of Darwin’s birth, but the mechanisms for evolution were either ignored or flawed. Evolution was an established topic of discussion and publication by the time Charles Darwin came onto the scene, with people like Robert Grant being more radical on the subject than Darwin found palatable in his early manhood. Despite this interest, the mechanism of evolution remained elusive – perhaps unsurprisingly, since the academic community addressing natural sciences was largely composed of members of the clergy and the natural theology of the time was seen as being mechanism enough.

But a literature base that was to inspire non-traditional hypotheses was also developing at the time – Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in particular offered an alternative view that was seen as too radical by many – clearing a path for subsequent works that challenged orthodox views.  Given this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace converged on the same premise at the same time. In short, the ideas evolved to fit the intellectual and social environment. The same has been true of other discoveries and inventions where there was a requirement for the right intellectual groundwork to be laid in advance. This groundwork is required before a robust theory can take root – and Natural Selection is a component of the robust theory of Descent with modification.

Intelligent Design

The Intelligent Design agenda

The critiques I have seen of evolutionary theory  have come from people who quite clearly don’t understand it – and such critiques tend to rely on statements of incredulity rather than a strong factual base. No well-supported alternative hypotheses have been constructed or presented and a lack of understanding hardly counts as a robust refutation of a well supported theory.

An accusation by IDers is that ‘Darwinists’ (N.B. I don’t know anyone who would call themselves a Darwinists following the New Synthesis) stick with Natural Selection because they are atheist. I think I see the real agenda emerging here, particularly when you see evolution as a theory being conflated with just one of the mechanisms involved. After all, Natural Selection is not the only mechanism involved in evolutionary adaptation and speciation – there are also other factors like hybridisation, horizontal gene transfergenetic drift, perhaps some epigenetic influences and artefacts of EvoDevo processes. But these factors are still constrained by the simple fact that if they are selected against, they will not be perpetuated.

John A. Davison left this comment on a previous post:

Natural selection is a powerful force in nature. It has but one function which is to prevent change. That is why every chickadee looks like every other chickadee and sounds like every other chickadee – chickadee-dee- dee, chickadee-dee-dee. Sooner or later natural selection has always failed leading to the extinction of nearly all early forms of life. They were replaced by other more prefected forms over the millions of years that creative evolution ws in progress…

Salamander ring species (picture from Thelander, 1994)

Salamander ring species

First and foremost, the suggestion that Natural Selection prevents change is erroneous – change will occur if there is a change in the environment and/or if beneficial mutations arise in a population (tell me that mutations don’t happen – I dare you…). The obvious response to the next statement is that I can think of six different ‘chickadee’ species, with an additional three subspecies (and this is ignoring numerous other very similar members of the Paridae), all are similar, but all are different – so the statement makes no sense as it stands. Getting to the meat of what is being implied about the Creationist interpretation of species, another bird provides a good example to the contrary. The Greenish Warbler shows a distinct pattern of hybridising subspecies across their vast range, until they form reproductively isolated species at the extreme ends of their range, where they happen to overlap yet not hybridise (a classic ring species [pdf of Greenish Warbler paper]). This is a well-known example of how genetic variation can accrue and give rise to new species without any supernatural intercession.

Another comment by VMartin

…But no wonder that Darwin considered “natural selection” for such a complicated force. Even nowadays Dawkins speculates that NS operates on genes, whereas E.O.Wilson has brushed up “group selection” recently (citing of course Darwin as debeatur est .

So may we “uncredulous” ask on which level “natural selection” operates?

As to this question about the level on which Natural Selection operates, I thought the answer was pretty obvious – it operates at every level. Change the focus of Natural Selection from passing on genes to the only alternative outcome – the inability to pass on genes. It doesn’t really matter which level this occurs at or why – be it a reduction in reproductive success when not in a group, or a deleterious single point mutation – if it happens then Natural Selection can be said to have occurred. Being ‘fit’ simply means that an organism has not been selected against.

There’s a lot more to modern evolutionary thought than Darwin’s key early contribution, but Darwin is still respected because he was the first to provide a viable mechanism by which evolution is driven. This mechanism has helped make sense of an awful lot of observations that were previously unaccounted for and, moreover, evolution has been observed and documented on numerous occasions [here's a pdf summary of some good examples].

I fail to see why Intelligent Design has been taken seriously by some people – it relies on huge assumptions about supernatural interference (so it fails to be a science) and I have as yet never seen a single piece of evidence that actually supports ID claims. The only research I have seen mentioned by proponents of ID are old, cherry-picked studies that report a null result from an evolutionary study – this is not the same thing as support for ID, as anyone who can spot the logical fallacies of false dichotomy and Non sequitur (in particular the fallacy of denying a conjunct) will tell you.

Intelligent design as a scientific idea

Intelligent design as a scientific idea

I like to keep an open mind, but as soon as I see logical fallacies being wheeled out I lose interest in getting involved in the discussion. This may be a failing on my part, because I should probably challenge misinformation, but quite frankly I don’t have the time or the patience – much as I hate to stoop to an ad hominem, my feelings on this are best summed up by the paraphrase:

when you argue with the ID lot, the best outcome you can hope for is to win an argument with the ID lot

and my time is far too precious to waste arguing with people who ignore the arguments of others and construct Straw man arguments based on cherry-picked and deliberately misrepresented information. I have no problem with other people believing in a god, but please don’t try to bring any god into science (and heaven-forbid the classroom) – since it is neither necessary nor appropriate.

Inspiring science

For the sake of clarity, ‘inspiration’ is here defined as: ‘arousal of the mind to special unusual activity or creativity‘.

Inspiration is important; after all, every human cultural advance or achievement is the result of someone being inspired to do something new. I want to explore some of the ways in which people are inspired to undertake scientific investigation, but I also want to consider how the outcomes of science feed back and inspire broader culture.

Charles Darwin provides us with a topical place to start – it’s exactly 150 years since the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life‘  (later changed to the more snappy ‘On the Origin of Species‘); a book containing an idea inspired by a complex web of circumstances and experiences and which has subsequently inspired a new understanding of our place on this planet.

Darwin himself was inspired by a wide variety of factors: people (family,  friends, mentors, colleagues); books (e.g. White’s “The Natural History of Selborne“, Paley’s “Natural Theology“, Herschel“Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy“, Malthus’ “Essay on the Principle of Population“); cultural institutions (Museums, the Royal Institution, the Linnean Society,  Zoological Gardens); places (Santiago, the Falkland Islands, Quiriquina, the Galapagos, Downe); hobbies (shooting, fishing, insect collecting, gardening, chemistry), and of course his experiences with nature (from earthquakes to earthworms, tropical forests to his Bromley garden). Interestingly he was not inspired by his schooling (neither at Mr Case’s grammar school nor Shrewsbury Grammar School) or University education (both in Edinburgh and Cambridge); for example, Darwin initially dismissed geology as dull based on his experiences at Edinburgh University under the tutelege of Professor Robert Jameson, yet 5 years later under the guidance of Professor Adam Sedgwick he became an avid geologist. Facts alone seldom inspire; it is how they are presented and how they can help us understand and formulate new ideas that can make them inspirational.

I’ve discussed fact-based science before (more than once), with the take-home message that it provides the best method that currently exists for checking what we think is true. Science is all about asking questions and finding ways to answer them by observation of the world around us (preferably in the controlled conditions of an experiment); the initial questions that scientists ask need to be inspired by something and answering that question takes motivation. Of course, absolutely anything might motivate a person to pursue a question, but some things will be more motivational than others.

Necessity is the mother of invention, which is why need will often provide the inspiration and motivation required for science to address a problem. Life and death situations are a prime example of how science has often found its inspiration and motivation – just look at the funding in science and it immediately becomes obvious that health, the military and agriculture are way up there. These things are directly relevant to people’s everyday survival – they are necessities.

However, there is more to science than catering to basic needs – science is about understanding our universe and thereby allowing us to better address the bigger questions that our over complicated human brains enjoy cooking up. Where once we had to make do with simple explanations that didn’t really work (like echoes are spirits shouting back at you, schizophrenics are possessed by demons, rainbows are Gods way of reminding himself not to flood the world again) now we can delve into the causes and reasons for the odd things we witness and we can turn that to our advantage. Understanding the deeper mysteries of the universe requires a lot of imagination, so it’s little wonder that the fringe of science tends to be populated by people who extrapolate beyond the fringe (this is where science fiction is born) or are being pushed back as the fringe expands (which is where homeopaths, psychics and those with a deep-rooted fear of change still linger).

Of course, those extrapolating beyond the fringe of science can help inspire new science and technology, from communicators in Star Trek inspiring mobile phones to lasers taking cues from The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (1927). The moon landing shown on TV sets in 1969 was pre-empted in 1902 by Le Voyage dans la lune; Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea provided a visionary new concept of what submarines might achieve and spurred advances in the field, and we all know that good old Leonardo Da Vinci was great at letting his imagination wander way beyond the fringes of the science of his time (yet still be informed by his own observations) – who knows the full extent of what Da Vinci has inspired (I’d wager it goes beyond a ropey Dan Brown book).

Of course, each new development in science does more than push back a theoretical fringe; it inspires new ideas that lead to further developments. Science and technology move quickly and are seldom permitted to stagnate – which is good, because stagnation of ideas is what gives rise to dogma and suppression of alternative viewpoints.

For something to be inspirational it needs to open someone’s mind to a previously unknown world of possibilities, a conceptual space ripe for exploration. It needs to spark the imagination – with the possibility that the spark will ignite the interest and enthusiasm needed to fuel the exploration and investigation of the wider universe, of which we are a tiny part.