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Forbes on evolution and intelligent design

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on February 12, 2009


This is the year of Darwin (yes, yes, it’s also the year of astronomy, I know), and especially this week — around the date of Chuck’s birth — we are seeing a spike of events, radio and tv pieces, and printed articles. (Expect a second peak in November, for the anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species.) One of the most schizophrenic treatments of the topic surely is the one published this week by Forbes magazine. They have a number of solid pieces by recognized scientists and science writers (for instance by evo-devo researcher Sean Carroll, philosopher Michael Ruse, and writer Michael Shermer). But they also have four, I repeat four, insanely anti-intellectual articles by pro-ID writers: Ken Ham (the “CEO” of Answers in Genesis and founder of the oxymoronic Creation Museum in Kentucky), John West (the hack author of Darwin Day in America), Jonathan Wells (the infamous author of Icons of Evolution), and my colleague here at Stony Brook, Neurosurgery Vice Chairman Michael Egnor. I will ignore the first three because I have dealt with them on numerous occasions in the past, and concentrate instead on Egnor.

He begins his piece by stating that “As an undergraduate biochemistry major, I was uncomfortable with
Darwinian explanations for biological complexity. Living things certainly appeared to be designed.” That’s a bad enough reflection on undergraduate science education in the United States at the time (alas, it ain’t much better today, in this respect), but the fact that Egnor persists in such a naive way of thinking today, as a professor of neurosurgery is really a shame (for him and for Stony Brook).

Egnor goes on trotting out the same old tired creationist “objections” to evolution. The fossil record has discontinuities (yes, it does, and they have been shown over and over to be perfectly compatible with evolution, considering the time scales involved); biomolecules are so complex that they couldn’t possibly have originated naturally (an argument from ignorance, both in the philosophical sense and in the personal sense that Egnor is obviously ignorant about molecular evolution); the genetic “code” couldn’t exist without design, because only intelligent beings produce codes (an astounding example of taking a metaphor literally instead of looking at the perfectly explicable biochemistry of nucleic acids). Then Egnor proceeds by asking what he seems to think are devastating questions for “evolutionists.” Let’s take a look.

“Why do Darwinists claim that intelligent design theory isn’t scientific, when both intelligent design and Darwinism are merely the affirmative and negative answers to the same scientific question: Is there evidence for teleology in biology?” This betrays Egnor’s ignorance of the nature of science. The question of teleology in biology is most certainly not a scientific question, it is a philosophical one. And “Darwinism” is not a negative answer to that question, it is a positive answer to the question of how adaptive complexity originated during the history of life on earth.

“Why do Darwinists–scientists–seek recourse in federal courts to silence criticism of their theory in public schools?” Because the issue is one of government-mandated separation of Church and State and school board-regulated criteria for what should be taught in science classrooms. The creation-evolution debate is not a scientific debate, it is a social controversy, and as such it naturally, if unfortunately, involves court challenges.

“What is it about the Darwinian understanding of biological origins that is so fragile that it will not withstand scrutiny by schoolchildren?” Are you kidding? Schoolchildren do not understand plenty of other solidly established science either. For instance, many children (and a good number of adults) seem to think of the world in terms of Aristotelian, not Newtonian (let alone relativistic) physics. Should we ban Sir Isaac from science curriculum as a result?

Egnor ends his piece with a long whine about how he has been vilified on the internet (well, join the club, dude), and how “fundamentalist atheists” have called for him to be fired. I don’t know how good a neurosurgeon Egnor is, but I assume he is good enough to have obtained his post at Stony Brook. As such, he should retain it. But if he were in my Department (Ecology & Evolution) I most certainly would call for him to be booted out immediately on the ground that he doesn’t understand the basic foundations of the science in which he is supposed to carry out scholarship and which he should be able to teach to students.

This isn’t a matter of “ostracism” or “intolerance” (rather ironic terms when they come from creationists), it is a matter of intellectual honesty. I don’t subscribe to the Dawkins-style attack on creationists (amply quoted by Egnor, of course), which he calls “ignorant, stupid, insane … or wicked.” Most creationists are none of the last three (though ignorance often does play a role. But then again, I’m just as ignorant of neurosurgery). But Egnor, Ham, Wells, West and especially the editors of Forbes should understand once and for all that evolution is to biology what relativity or quantum mechanics are to physics, what the big bang is to cosmology, or what the atomic theory is to chemistry. Evolution is a scientific fact as solid as they come, and a scientific theory as well established as any other scientific theory is. Creationism and its cousin intelligent design are primitive ideas that were reasonable enough in a pre-scientific society, but do not have a respectable place at the table of intellectual discourse anymore. It’s time to get used to it.



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