Intelligent Thought by Brockman. Review

This book is a compilation of arguments against Intelligent Design (ID), from sixteen of the world’s leading evolutionary biologists. It includes the full text of the Harrisberg PA, Dec. 20 judgement where a federal judge ruled against teaching ID in schools. The book will reinforce the arguments of the judge and perhaps stop ID from gaining a foothold in schools in other states. An entire school board advocating teaching a supernatural explanation for natural events reminds one of why its necessary to communicate not only the results but the methods of science and improve numeracy in elementary school children.

The judges were of the opinion that while the proponents of ID held deep beliefs and that ID should continue to be discussed, it was unconstitutional to teach it in classrooms as an alternative to evolution as ID was merely ‘an interesting theological argument’. The strongest statement was that natural science does not admit supernatural explanations — to do so is not science.

Abolishing ID by definition from science would set ID proponents back but hardy placate them, as they have been trying to promote an experimental research program. The problem is, and this is the value of the book by Brockman, there is no experimental evidence for ID, and an overwhelming amount of evidence for evolution. As Stephen Hawking recently said:

SH: There is no evidence for intelligent design. The laws of physics and chemistry, and Darwinian evolution, are sufficient to account for everything in the universe.

In particular, proponents of ID must conceed or else contradict themselves that the hallmark of scientific enquiry is measurable evidence subject to logic. The centerpiece of ID is the irreducible complexity (IC) argument. According to Wikipedia, irreducible complexity is the idea that certain biological systems are too complex to have evolved naturally from simpler, or “less complete” predecessors, usually based on the idea that a structure’s constituent parts would be useless prior to their current state.

However, natural systems are not ‘brittle’ and tend to display graceful degradation with the removal of parts. Many examples are given in the book from microbiology to ecology.
Niche modeling explains why natural systems must necessarily be like this. Any system that is mechanistic, or ‘brittle’ or limited to specific spatial or temporal scales must degrade under entropy into a more ‘smoothed out’ system according to laws of thermodynamics. Evolution occurs in the context of entropy. When looking at natural systems it is good to keep this in mind, as the human mind too often searches for sharp, concise, anti-entropic models of systems.

This notion can be quantified with a complexity measure such as the Hurst Exponent, H. IC would seem to require deviation of H at small scales. If there is some inherent minimum scale, then that would be seen as a divergence in H from the general linear trend in natural series at a range of scales. Studies investigating the value of the Hurst exponent in DNA like “Rescaled range and transition matrix analysis of DNA sequences” could also be germane to this analysis.

In order to be consistent, the IC argument should also predict deviation of H at large scales too, with an upper limit to scale and complexity of the designed system. No deviation at upper or lower limits of scale are seen, although I don’t think people have really looked hard at H in this context. This is perhaps typical of science, where opportunities to perform simple falsifications go begging because the alternative theory is dismissed outright.

There is a good story in the book about how to handle a conversation with two Christian students. Rather than dismissing them as fools, he had more success in handling the controversial topic with the following approach:

I added, “I personally have friends — eminent scientists — who do believe intelligence must have been involved in creation. However, all of us do science in the same way. We take it for granted that science is an attempt to explain as much of the world as we can by natural mechanisms.” The real challenge is to reach out to those who have been jerked around by conflicting ideologies and don’t know what to think. Leonard Susskind

For the latest on the web about ID see the Intelligent Design resource (which includes the Mercedes E-class).

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