Monday, October 24, 2005

Dover, PA vs. Darwin update (III)

I promised to keep on top of this story as the trial continues.

In the continuing saga of the new Scopes trial (blogged on previously here, here, and here.

The Defense opened their testimony this week. They called their star witness: Lehigh University Biochemistry Professor Michael Behe.

Behe, whose work includes a 1996 best-seller called "Darwin's Black Box," said students should be taught evolution because it's widely used in science and that "any well-educated student should understand it."

Behe, however, argues that evolution cannot fully explain the biological complexities of life, suggesting the work of an intelligent force.
He then goes on to advocate that teaching of 'Intelligent Design.'

There are several problems with this line of reasoning.

First, it is a given that we don't completely understand evolution (we learn more every day, especially with new DNA sequencing techniques that allow us to determine, for example, exactly where different species diverged from a common ancestor.) In fact, there are many things in science that we don't understand. That is what science is-- an organized inquiry into the unknown, in order to explain what is apparently unexplained by what we know now. So why not Intelligent Design as an explanation? In fact, there is no reason why not IF it is subjected to the same process of testing as all other scientific theories, including evolution, are subjected to on a daily basis. Professor Behe is welcome to propose the hypothesis, based as he says, on the complexities of life that there is an intelligent design in life, but in order to teach it as science, he must first design an experiment to test it. And Professor Behe knows that. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania in 1978, and like all doctoral candidates, was required to conduct and report on research using the scientific method-- testing a hypothesis to determine if his research results were valid or not.

The second flaw is that, even if he is right that some processes can't be explained by evolution (and he is right that evolution does not entirely explain everything that we observe now), this does not in itself serve to indicate that intelligent design is the answer. For example, there were quirks and inconsistencies observed in Newtonian mechanics as early as a hundred years after he published 'Principia.' With the development of more advanced methods of observation and of Quantum physics these inconstencies grew from being minor curiosities to matters of serious concern. Did this mean that Newton was wrong? Did it mean that in fact the old theories of Ptolemy were resurrected? Did it mean that some unseen intelligence was in fact manipulating the motion of objects by some invisible force other than gravity? No, it meant that there was more that needed to be explained. In 1905, an experiment was conducted to test whether an answer to the inconstencies suggested in the writings of a former postal clerk (who had failed physics) named Albert Einstein could explain the apparent contradiction. So the problem is that even if we accept that there may be something else at work besides evolution, this in itself does not favor intelligent design over the general field of other possible explanations (including explanations not yet considered-- no one in Newton's time could possibly have considered Quantum mechanical explanations because the equipment needed to observe it had not yet been invented).

As for Dr. Behe's colleagues in the biology department at Lehigh,

Lehigh's biology department sought to distance itself from Behe in August, posting a statement on its Web site that says the faculty "are unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory." He earned tenure at Lehigh before becoming a proponent, which means he can express his views without the threat of losing his job.

Now, I support tenure, including for Dr. Behe, because one role of universities IS to push the limits on thought. And he certainly has a right to his opinion, and to express it in the classroom. However, there is a big difference between his freedom to advocate as he wishes in his classroom and the Dover school board's attempt to mandate that a particular opinion be taught in their classrooms.

The experiment that proved Einstein right was this: Einstein suggested that matter was a form of energy, so that energy (such as light) would be affected in the same way as matter by the force of gravity. During an eclipse of the sun visible from South Africa, if Einstein were correct, the sun's gravity would bend the incoming light from stars. Of course while the sun is out, the starry field behind it is invisible, but during the eclipse, they would be visible. If Einstein were correct, they would be visible, but those near the occluded sun would appear closer to it than they should. In fact, this was observed. And it was only after this that Einstein's theory was considered scientifically valid, because it had been borne out by experimental observation. Can we ask that 'Intelligent Design' be held to a lower standard than Einstein?


dorsano said...

at least we're not killing each other over this one like we did slavery.

Eli Blake said...


I guess that means we've evolved.

Anonymous said...


Billy: Light = Energy and Information = truth. Hmmmm. Subatomic particles of energy and information, not solid objects but matter is a form of energy. Hmmm.

Teacher: The subatomic pieces of light (energy) accidentally make atoms. The atoms accidentally form molecules, the molecules accidently are shaped into DNA strands. Enzyme globs accidentally slide up and down the DNA strands organizing the molecules just right.

Billy: Huh?

Teacher: Glitches form differences, differences become anomolies, anomolies become benefits, benefits become wings and teeth and fingernails. Chimps are not birds. The end.

Billy: Chimps live in the Jungle. I can read. My thumb bends in. Its all too much for me. It must be an accident. Do I have to have faith that it was an accident?

Teacher: Experiment, test, then you will know.

Billy: But wait where does the light come from in the first place?

Teacher: We're evolved now. We don't have to ask that question. We have to be scientific.