Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Intelligent Design is Boring

At a thread at another website discussing the idea that ID is "boring", an ID supporter wrote this:

"[ID] is boring to Will [Provine] I suspect (and to others for the same reason) because they rule out the possibility of an intelligent designer."

Actually, knowing Will Provine pretty well and hearing him say that ID is "boring" on several occasions, I can confidently state that the reason he finds it "boring" is that whenever something interesting in biology is discovered and somebody asks "Why is that thing the way it is?" Will hears most ID supporters answer "Goddidit". His opinion of ID is that it's a science-stopper because rather than suggesting new and interesting ways of trying to figure out how something came to be the way it is, he thinks that IDers simply throw up their hands and say "It's too complicated, so God / the Intelligent Designer must have done it".

Personally, I don't find ID boring for quite the same reason, as I don't always see ID supporters resorting to the "Goddidit" pseudoexplanation. No, the reason I tend to find most ID boring is it's relentlessly negative. That is, people like Michael Behe and William Dembski observe something marvelously complicated and say "That's Irreducibly Complex!" or "That's Complex Specified Information, so it couldn't have evolved via naturalistic means"...and then they leave it at that. No alternative means of creating the marvelously complicated thing is proposed (unless you credit Behe's "puff of smoke" pseudoargument).

Furthermore, I generally don't see ID supporters doing any original empirical research. In particular, I don't see any of them going out into the field (my favorite place to discover things) or into the lab and "getting down and dirty" with some biological phenomenon that they find absolutely fascinating.

My friend, Harry Greene (the world's authority on rattlesnakes) is my idea of a real scientist. He absolutely loves snakes, talks about them at the drop of a hat, has spent his entire professional life studying them in the field and in the lab, and has revolutionized our understanding of the ecology, ethology, and evolutionary biology of reptiles. To me, he's the epitome of an evolutionary biologist, because he has what we call "a feel for the organism" which goes far beyond simply studying it as an experimental subject.

And my friend, Lynn Margulis (the world's authority on endosymbiosis) is also my idea of a real scientist. She absolutely loves getting knee-deep in the mud of some tropical lagoon and scraping scum off of rocks to look at under the microscope. She's spent her entire professional life studying microorganisms in the field and in the lab, and has revolutionized our understanding of the evolutionary biology of microorganisms. Like Harry, she's the epitome of an evolutionary biologist, because she also "a feel for the organism" which leads her to discover things nobody ever thought to look for before, such as symbiotic bacteria embedded in the cell membranes of symbiotic protozoa from the guts of termites.

I have yet to meet or hear about or read about any ID supporter who does anything like what Harry and Lynn do. Yes, Michael Behe is a biochemist, but the things he does in his laboratory at Lehigh have little or nothing to do with ID. And William Dembski wouldn't know an actual living organism if it lunged out and bit him on the ankle.

Biology, and especially evolutionary biology, is that branch of the natural sciences founded and maintained by people who loved and were obsessed with nature and natural things. Darwin and Wallace and Fisher and Haldane and Wright and Dobzhansky and Mayr and Simpson and Stebbins and Hamilton and Trivers and Margulis and the two Wilsons (Edward O. and David Sloan): these are my heroes, and they are the "naturalists" (see how the word has another, much more positive meaning?) who have been the inspiration for my research, insignificant as it is compared with theirs.

And all that IDers can generally do is say "No, you're wrong, it can't happen that way, in fact it can't happen at all without a deus ex machina?" Ugh: boring, pointless, and most of all, no "feel for the organism".


As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


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At 3/25/2009 03:09:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, to my knowledge (and I went to Lehigh for my B.S. in Molecular Biology), Behe hasn't published a peer-reviewed paper with any new data at all since 2004 (when he himself refuted his test case of irreducible complexity). And before that, he stopped laboratory work sometime around when I graduated 1996.

So no, Behe doesn't do science either.

At 3/25/2009 07:29:00 AM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

Ah, here is where we part company, John. I don't think there is any subject that is beyond debate, or any question that shouldn't be asked, or any thing at all that should be taken as "given". I guess I'm just a little too curious about how the world works to just leave it alone.

As for the role of chance in biology, I'm still working on that one. I think the problem is the word "chance", as it really isn't defined in such a way as to be useful. I prefer to use the term "non-foresighted", as it communicates better that property which seems to be the primary characteristic of biological adaptations.

I don't think that it is possible, even for a "supernatural agent" to see for certain what is going to happen in the future. All we have is what we knowabout the past, and so that's all we have to use to predict the future. But "predicting" the future is absolutely nothing like "knowing what the future will be".

Evolution, like our own understanding of reality, appears to be relentlessly driven by past experiences, which is why extinction is such a ubiquitous phenomenon in nature. If the origin of biological adaptations were genuinely "foresighted", then nothing would ever go extinct, because whatever the foresighted agent was, it would be able to avoid whatever upcoming event it was that resulted in the extinction.

At 3/25/2009 10:55:00 AM, Blogger Joe G said...

This is crazy-

Is archaeology boring?

With intelligent design a new new realm of questions opens up!

Why?- now there may be a purpose

What- what was designed?

How- how was the design implemented

Who- who did it

Think of it, with the design inference comes the possibility that we are living genetic algorithms.

All we have to do is to then figure them out. But we can't unless we are looking.

Allen asks for ID research but there are two problems witn that:

1) The issue is about conducting scientific research and then being allowed to reach a design inference


2) IDists aren't generally allowed to do overt ID research at major universities.

So you can't say "IDists should be doing this", then prevent them from doing it and ask "where is it?"

"The Privileged Planet" has told us what we should be looking for if we want to find another technological civilization.

Gonzalez got booted from his university for his views on ID.

That is not a very good outlook for IDists.

At 3/25/2009 11:19:00 AM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

There seems to be a general misunderstanding here of what "research" entails, at least at the university level. Yes, Dr. Gonzalez wrote and published a book entitled The Privileged Planet. Does this in and of itself constitute "research"? Of course not. Research, at least as most scientists understand it, consists of observing nature and recording one's observations. This is then sometimes followed by an interpretation of those results, especially as they relate to the hypothesis being tested by means of observing and recording the results. However, the process of interpretation is always carried out by means of logical inference, and as such does not qualify as "research" at all.

Dr. Davison's definition of "science" corresponds to the more restricted definition of "research" as I have outlined it here. That is, the gathering of empirical data vis-a-vis some natural phenomenon of interest to the investigator.

Doing "science" in this way is essentially doing "natural history" in the way that it was done up until 1859. That is, "naturalists" such as Gilbert Stuart (author of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, published in 1789) carefully and patiently observed nature and recorded their observations. However, they made little or no attempt to do the kind of overarching meta-analysis (often using mathematical models) that characterized the work of physicists and chemists of the same period.

Darwin changed all that, and converted the "hobby" of "natural history" into the science of biology. He did this by doing what his predecessors (like Gilbert White, whom he greatly admired) did not do: by providing an explanation for the things he observed, rather than simply describing them.

Yes, its' true that such explanations are formulated via logical inference, and are therefore of a fundamentally different quality than the "pure" descriptions provided by pre-Darwinian naturalists (and apparently advocated by Dr. Davison). And yes, Newton asserted that he made no "hypotheses", by which he meant that he did not speculate as to the origin of the force of gravity, he simply analyzed it mathematically in such a way as to make his analysis highly predictive of the behavior of objects responding to the force of gravity.

But modern science does much more than that, and has been doing so for about a century and a half. Einstein provided an explanation for the origin of gravity in his theory of general relativity, just as Darwin provided an explanation for the origin of adaptations in his theory of evolution by natural selection.

Personally, I'm equally excited by "doing science" as by "doing natural history", and so I suppose I will have to part company with Dr. Davison on this score.

At 3/25/2009 11:25:00 AM, Blogger Larry Moran said...

You think that the only "real scientists," or real evolutionary biologists, are those who get their feet dirty. Those are the people you admire.

I admire the biochemists, molecular biologist, and geneticists who discover how life works at the molecular level. I think they've made a significant contribution to evolutionary biology even though they may have never handled a snake or looked for slimy things under a rock.

I don't think there's any reason to call some scientists "real" scientists while dismissing other types as "non-real"(?). There's plenty of room for field biologists and laboratory experimentalists. There's even room for (gasp!) theoretical biologists.

At 3/25/2009 11:35:00 AM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

I'm sorry if I left the impression that the only "real" scientists are those that "get their hands dirty". I've worked in several laboratories, both at Cornell and in private industry, and gotten my hands plenty dirty there. What I was trying to say is that what makes science different from what Michael Behe and William Dembski do is that scientists actually take the trouble to observe nature and natural phenomena in some way, rather than simply sitting around thinking and/or writing about it.

So yes, I do think what Harry Greene and Lynn Margulis (the former an extraordinarily talented field biologist and the latter an extraordinarily talented field laboratory, biologist) do is much more in keeping with the long tradition of the empirical sciences than what Behe or Dembski spend their time and energy doing.

Yes, theoretical biology has its place, just like theoretical chemistry and physics, but it wouldn't exist without empirical biology, chemistry, and physics providing both the empirical raw material for mathematical speculations and the empirical evidence that validates or falsifies its theories. As the case of William Dembski shows, mathematical theoretics without a firm grounding in empirical observation is "airy speculation" of the most useless and counterproductive kind.

At 3/25/2009 12:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joe G,
With intelligent design a new new realm of questions opens up!

Put up or shut up.

(Sorry for the rudeness but seriously, what questions, and why isn't anyone testing them?)

At 3/25/2009 12:11:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Biology is not a proper starting point. Every cosmologist,if you asked, would tell you that your genealogy must have started a few billion years ago when the atoms of the earth formed life. Time and evolution in our natural world and here you are today with body and mind,destined in death to return to a simpler arrangement of ancient atoms. God, the Intelligent Designer, KNOWS how to design atoms!

At 3/25/2009 12:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For humor's sake and for sake of indulging "Joe G", here's my opinion of the sort of thing that I think would make intelligent design non-boring (if it would actually work, replacing smurfing for the observable activities of a god).

Detecting the Designer Among Flageller Componentry, by none other than MikeGene himself. Too bad he didn't take himself seriously - if he'd have found something, he'd be a Nobel laureate by now.

At 3/25/2009 02:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I have been partially overruled.

But some of the responsibility goes to me which I describe below.

All of the comments you attempted to post to my thread have been released from the moderation and spam queues. If there are some missing you can try to repost them.

I have no control over the fact that your comments are put in the moderation queue.

Once your comment goes into the queues (there are two queues), I can release them assuming I actually see that they are there or remember to check the queues.

I have no intention of deleting anything you write on my threads at UD. However, I have no jurisdiction in other UD threads.

I have never deliberately deleted anything you wrote (it is possible I can delete by accident). Others at UD can override my decisions. I have the lowest privilege level of any UD author.

So, I'm sorry for the delays. That is something I have little control over. Even some of my comments are still held up for release at UD on other threads by UD authors, so I endure similar barriers as you do.

Please don't take what's happening there as an indication that I don't want to hear from you.



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