Tuesday, 20 November 2007

'Intelligent Design'

For a period of several weeks recently, I exchanged emails with an Intelligent Design enthusiast. I'd come across a site which offered to send a series of emails which would 'prove' that ID was valid and that many things I accept as factual, are actually just fairy stories. I thought I'd let them have a go.

They fell at the first hurdle, however, because the very first email contained the assertion that the universe was created by an intelligence. They offered no evidence to support this opinion, so I cancelled out of it, with the comment that such an unsupported assertion simply demonstrated that they had nothing new to offer.

I got an email back offering to send the whole set of messages in a single attachment to give me the chance to assess everything they were saying, rather than just dismiss it out of hand. I should have known I was wasting my time, but I did learn one thing from it; I'm lousy at debate, so I might just as well not get involved.

So then I exchanged a number of emails with this guy, in which he maintained that what I was saying was 'baloney' and I maintained that he was believing 'fairy stories'. Well, neither of us was willing to admit the slightest flexibility, so eventually I gave up entirely. It was a complete waste of time. I still maintain I'm right, of course; he offered no evidence whatsoever to support his claims, just attacked the theory of evolution.

The outcome was that I was prompted to assemble my ID Good Joke jpeg. Just my small contribution. The animal, I hope you know, is a tree kangaroo, in my opinion one of the silliest 'designs' in 'creation'. I hope you like it enough to pass it around. Or make your own version.

My wife Jenny is Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology at Cambridge University, where for the past 25 years she's worked on the evolution of land vertebrates from fish. As you'd expect, some of her understanding of her subject has rubbed off onto me. I think one of the things that makes me so bad at debate is that I can't step away from the subject and be completely logical about it.

When the ID enthusiast erected a straw man argument (there are no ancestors and descendants in the fossil record, therefore Darwinian evolution is a delusion) it just made me mad, particularly since he dismissed my arguments as either micro-evolution (ie irrelevant) or simply nonsense. One of several answers to his straw man is that because so few individuals are actually fossilised, you'd never expect to find ancestors and descendants, so scientists stopped thinking in those terms many decades ago.

Relationships these days are represented by cladograms which look like this one, which I copied from www.tolweb.org, which is the Tree of Life web project, and represents real science.

The idea is that since we know we won't find ancestors and descendants, we look at the specimens themselves and identify similarities and differences, and use these to decide their most likely relationships. This turns out to be quite a robust methodology, particularly since, when a new specimen turns up, you can incorporate it into the existing pattern.

Sometimes, of course, it highlights shortcomings in the current model, sometimes it just reinforces it. That's how science works.

Unfortunately, cladograms do rather play into the hands of the ID charlatans. They see just lines on the left, with no ancestors, so claim that evolution can't have happened. Then they turn the diagram through 90 degrees and call it a field of grass, with no substance below.

They take perfectly good, valid science, and misinterpret it for their own purposes, then peddle the resulting garbage to people who don't have the background to know they're being lied to.


I feel a bit better now, thank you.


DJ Kirkby said...

Completely fascinating.

trousers said...

You say you're lousy at debate: can you offer any evidence to support this or is it just a rather flimsy assertion that you expect us to take as fact?

I need to know.

I'm just being silly of course :)

In some ways I'd love to take an ID enthusiast (if that's the right word) like this one on in such a manner, and fair play to you for trying; however I too think I would get tired of it very quickly and too wound up for my own good in a similar manner to the frustrations you describe.

Rob Clack said...

Thankyou, DJK. I find the whole subject of evolution compelling, and it's intensely frustrating to see it abused.

Hahaha, trousers. V funny.

Sorry about the rant. I just felt the need to get it off my chest.

Actually, I think Jenny and her colleagues are the ones who should be getting involved, but all too often they're too focussed on their work and regard ID/creationism as just a distraction. My fear is that it's an expanding distraction.

Anna said...

Yeah. I've tried to argue evolution with ID/creationists, but I don't have patience so I got bored and gave up very quickly. It's like banging your head against a brick wall usually. "True believer syndrome" I guess.

Are you a Bright, by the way?

Rob Clack said...

I knew there was something nice about stopping the argument - like stopping banging your head against a wall!

Er..wossa Bright? I link to A Load of Bright, but have never understood the title. But then, many blogs have strange titles.

Malcolm said...

The Brights' Net - Home Page

The international constituency for individuals whose worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements.

Rob Clack said...

Ah, that ties up the odd loose thread. Thank you.

OK, having inserted a hyphen (www.the-brights.net) I spent a while reading about the Brights, but am not sure I'm going to join. They don't go nearly far enough, to my mind. I feel very antagonistic towards ID/creationism (surprise!) and the Brights don't seem to have countering the junk peddled by that crowd on their agenda. I like what they do do, but want to go much further.

Malcolm said...

Sorry about the hyphen! They should be banned from domain names along with underscores!

I like the aim of the brights in the sense of having a positive noun to describe non-religionists. It's also an interesting social experiment to see if they can actively create a neologism - but I don't put much energy into the cause.

I've recently been thinking a lot about Sam Harris's idea that we should stop using the word atheist to describe ourselves, along with humanist, secularist and all the others. Instead, just sneak under the radar as 'normal' and make a point of forcefully challenging bad thinking and illogical ideas where ever you find them - be it religion, education, or ID. It's harder to do if you don't have a label, but if you put the burden of explanation on the proponent of the idiocy it makes life harder for them too.

"Now that's an interesting concept. Can you explain a bit more exactly why you believe that...."

Rob Clack said...

Thought-provoking, Malcolm. I've visited your site for the first time today. Tried to post a comment, but failed, so I'd like to take this opportunity to wish you the very best. Sounds as though you've had an awful time and are at last making good progress. I hope that's true and that it continues.

Malcolm said...

Hey Rob,

I forgot I'd entered my blog address..

Not sure why the comments there aren't working. Time to change blog platform I think...

Awful time? In parts. On the bright (!) side it's given me time and reason to think about life, death, and my place in the universe. Happily I've found myself able to face the future with all it's uncertainty with more equanimity than I would have expected if I'd been presented with my current situation as a thought experiment a couple of years ago.

Equally happily I've found myself without any desire to turn back to religion to comfort myself through the hard times. I can see the comfort people find there - but I'd rather be right than comforted...