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In the real world, the process of

In the real world, the process of design depends on evolution: “To consider the iPod, it did not spring fully formed from the mind of a powerful Designer, but rather it represents one distinct point on a long evolutionary timeline.” Intelligent design is bad science and bad design. That doesn’t leave much.

Reader comments

fRed simontonOct 17, 2005 at 11:46AM

In the interest of full, tangy irony, I say, "Amen." Everytime I read about the ID I want to go running back to my Bill Hicks Cds.

Mark PhillipsOct 17, 2005 at 11:47AM

If good design is evolutionary, then evolution is evidence of good design, right?

JoshOct 17, 2005 at 12:00PM

It seems a fairly self-centered viewpoint.
You shouldn't be surprised to hear ID folks (myself included) retort with the fact that you haven't taken into account our worldview includes a God who is not bound by human failings and constraints, and thus the "design, test, fix, redesign" process is unnecessary if you get it just exactly the way you want it the very first time.

As a sidenote, I'm curious if you'd ever consider tackling the social ramifications of a belief in natural selection. Why haven't we eliminated charity, compassion, and selflessness in our collective personality? It seems useless and even dangerous from a "survival of the fittest" point of view.

JaredOct 17, 2005 at 12:15PM

Actually, as ID presupposes the existence of a creator who, by definition, is omnipotent, then the human design process is logically inapplicable. Humans don't know everything, and are far from perfect - it takes us a while to get it right. And even then, we're never satisfied with the result.

An omnipotent creator, however, wouldn't need to keep trying.

(Of course, this all assumes that evolution and intelligent design are mutually exclusive.)

Jimmy SOct 17, 2005 at 12:16PM

We haven't eliminated charity, compassion, and selflessness - because they were only recently added
(in evolutionary time). Clearly they are not universal, even and especially in cultures that pride themselves on these cqualityes. So we are still testing to see if they work. Fix and redesign is next.

barlowOct 17, 2005 at 12:30PM

I don't mean to defend ID here, but I think the comparison is a bit off - the ID folks pretty much universally admit the phenomena of adaptation and descent with change, but these are within basic "kinds" of organisms. So the fact that the iPod has evolved from its initial conception into the models that exist today is not really at odds with what the ID people are saying about variations within basic kinds. The larger point, that the ipod itself evolves from thinking through hard disk storage, LCD displays, rechargeable batteries, and touch sensitive interfaces does involve a quite dramatic bringing together of those parts by an intelligence. Once the "type" is established, yes, there has been microevolution. But the iPod itself is really the evolution of the computer (storage, power, display, input). It isn't as if some scientist were studying hard drive heads and suddenly came up with the idea for the Ipod. That's the kind of change that IDers are skeptical about happening without guidance from intelligence.

Personally, I am beginning to be skeptical that we can hammer down criteria for the detection of design, as the ID proponents are trying to do. At some point, there is an inference or an intuition about things that guides what we will accept as plausible. Everytime I cut open an orange, the symmetry and beauty simply plays into my personal bias in favor of there being a theistic God - who creates and sustains. Obviously, that's not the kind of evidence that would be sufficient for all others. Likewise, naturalists are quite willing to fill in any mystery with "evolution did this somehow" even when they themselves have no clue.

Overall, though, saying "that's not science" is just a way to stop discourse by definition. What science is has really depended upon when and where one lived. "Science" is more of an honorific term than anything.

MattOct 17, 2005 at 12:56PM

Overall, though, saying "that's not science" is just a way to stop discourse by definition.

and "guidance from intelligence" and "ID presupposes the existence of a creator" are real conversation starters?

barlowOct 17, 2005 at 1:02PM

Well, Matt, expressing a conclusion for consideration doesn't cut off conversation - but saying that certain conclusions can't be a part of the debate does cut it off. If some ID person says "this shows the existence of guidance by intelligence" then you can engage that person by demonstrating a plausible way in which the structure in question could have evolved. It's my understanding that such an approach has been taken with regard to the bacterial flagellum - demonstrating plausible evolutionary precursors to it.

GilesOct 17, 2005 at 1:03PM

The existence of 'charity, compassion, and selflessness in our collective personality' is a topic discussed in plenty of books about evolution that I've dipped into. If I could remember them though, I'd be happy to share them. Steven Pinker is springing to mind, but I might be wrong on that one. Perhaps others can point you towards better sources.

The fact of the matter is, cooperation (which is merely what charity/compassion/selflessness are facets of) has proved massively beneficial to our survival and development as a species. The concept that society is a hindrance to the individual is a distinctly recent (and American, from what I can discern) development.

GilesOct 17, 2005 at 1:06PM

Oh and since I don't mean to throw politics into the mix (thereby turning a fission bomb thread into a fusion bomb one), by "American", I'm referring to Social Darwinism/Government needs drowning in a bathtub, which is a curiously alien concept here in Europe.

jkottkeOct 17, 2005 at 1:17PM

What science is has really depended upon when and where one lived. "Science" is more of an honorific term than anything.

Well, since we're living in 2005, let's use that definition rather than what, say, Lucretius thought science was in ancient Greece. And using that definition means that a hypothesis or theory has to bring certain things to the table, which ID does not. If it did, I'd be more than happy to listen.

I've always felt this was a strange tactic on the part of creationism try and introduce ID as a proper scientific theory on the one hand and then attempt to change or debase what science is and what it really proves on the other. It's a circular argument...which can be extremely fruitful politically but almost useless scientifically.

markOct 17, 2005 at 1:22PM

As a side note, I'm curious if you'd ever consider tackling the social ramifications of a belief in natural selection. Why haven't we eliminated charity, compassion, and selflessness in our collective personality? It seems useless and even dangerous from a "survival of the fittest" point of view.

We could spend a great deal of time discussing the idea that there is no true selfless act, and altruism is never completely obtainable, that a person does a selfless act with the either conscious or unconscious thought of personal gain, be it either emotional or material.

It has been argued many times, by both biologist and creationists, that the ideal of altruism is contrary to the principals of survival of the fittest. Could it be that, as I have stated above, that there is no truly selfish act, or maybe its a behavioral mutation that will eventually be eliminated from the gene pool.

spsOct 17, 2005 at 1:47PM

Barlow - while you have a valid point that simply shutting someone up in a debate through rhetorical means is (often) suspect, this is not one of those times. You're correct: "science" has meant different things in different times...but of course, it has also been named as and associated through language with different things. However, there is perfectly reasonable logic that goes into demanding what is essentially a "working definition" (a necessity of science). As it is defined right now (having evolved and been refined over the course of the past few centuries), "science" has an explicit meaning that involves the repeatable testing of hypotheses, the detailed description of things, their properties and their processes, and a presumption of fallibility, among other things. The core purpose of high school science classrooms has been to instill students with this hypothesis testing work ethic and show them how hypotheses from the past few hundred years have been tested into explanations (theories and laws), and furthermore, how these explanations have had the pragmatic consequence of giving human beings the ability to produce the modern world.

The intelligent design hyopthesis (or hypotheses) are "philosophical" in nature. Having a certain set of premises, they infer a logical conclusion (yes, I would argue that "God" or a higher power or what not is a logical conclusion given the premises and the lack of concrete evidence to the contrary). This logical conclusions is, heretofore, untestable, and furthermore, it does not in anyway give us insight into the nature of this higher power. Ergo, it is not science and should not be taught in science classrooms. It can be taught in philosophy classrooms.

And if you want to argue scientists are being unscrupulous by making a rhetorical argument (I don't think they are), then you must also admit that ID proponents are being similarly dishonest in using the popular meaning of the word "theory" in their own rhetorical arguments.

SparticusOct 17, 2005 at 2:01PM

Jason Alexander Kottke, you've been blogging for almost eight years now and you open up the comments on a post about intelligent design? Good Lord man!

TimOct 17, 2005 at 2:10PM

I'll second Sparticus--this is brave or stupid. Is this a selfless act designed to further our species, or are you trying to top your Matrix discussion?

Jason rossittoOct 17, 2005 at 2:12PM

Two things, why is it so hard to believe that “charity, compassion and selflessness” are evolved characteristics? Humans are social animals. We live in communities and rely on each other to flourish. These are all traits conducive to having a healthy community and they are precisely the traits that have allowed humans to be outrageously successful organisms. It seems logical that when they developed in some population of early primates that it would increase their chances of success in a hostile world.

And about the orange. Symmetry is an extremely simple and convenient way to organize a structure. It’s repetitive, and mathematically describable. The “design” of an orange can be described with a very simple set of rules. This economy is beautiful to be sure, but I see that as the reason for its evolutionary persistence. Its simplicity was a positive selection.
Almost all organisms exhibit some kind of symmetry. Complex organisms like fish have overall bilateral symmetry while more primitive organisms like algae often have bilateral or radial symmetry. At the most basic level, DNA is radially symmetrical. So wouldn’t the fact that all organisms share such a fundamental trait be a clear indicator of common descent, one of the central tenets of evolution?

And P.S. (I know this is getting long) All of today's posts have comments enabled. Is this going to be a permanent change?

barlowOct 17, 2005 at 3:29PM

Well "science" has been narrowed to "natural science." Personally, I don't see why the deliverances of natural science should be privileged over the deliverances of philosophical science or historical science or even theological science. That is simply a bias, especially since all of the tools of science (I'm thinking chiefly of the principle of induction) can't be established by science itself. All knowledge is broadly circular. As for whether I'm trying to help ID by hurting science, please don't take that as my meaning. All the critiques of "science" that I've learned have been from philosophers of science who themselves are pretty committed to Darwinian evolution - Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos, Alisdair MacIntyre, etc.

LeahOct 17, 2005 at 4:57PM

"Why haven't we eliminated charity, compassion, and selflessness in our collective personality? It seems useless and even dangerous from a "survival of the fittest" point of view. "

Josh -- in an animal behavior class (or probably in evolution, tho I admit I haven't studied it as much as a good biologist should), one learns that there is more than one mechanism of evolution. one is "natural selection," and another is "kin selection." "Sexual selection" also plays a role. Kin selection would most appropriately address your question: organisms sometimes act in a potentially deletirious manner in order to promote the survival of a greater number of kin.

Altruism (which is what you're describing) also has ramifications even among the un-related. As Mark said, the you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours mentality can be highly beneficial in some societies where individual survival is difficult but group survival is not. Think of how hard it would be to survive, even in the United States, without the help of *any other individual* -- this would mean going into the wild, with no clothing and no tools, and attempting to live completely on your own. It's quite difficult; heck, it's even difficult to live in some societies with lots of help (see natural disasters, repressive gov'ts, etc). Altruism uses group abilites to help promote the survival of many individuals on a species (and sometimes even cross species) level. If you'd like more examples, just ask.

Nathan LoganOct 17, 2005 at 5:41PM

In the world of weak comparisons, this one is the paradigm. Thanks for giving us a standard.

Rob HydeOct 17, 2005 at 7:11PM

So, evolution in not necessarily true, but is science because it can explain everything - not always by looking at the evidence - but by an appeal to the all encompassing nature of the theory itself. Got a problem with abiogensis? The Cambrian explosion? Micro-biological complexity? Well, we can guess how evolution might have done it, we can squash the theory into new gaps that may appear and it feels intellectually satisfying when we do so (puzzle solving is fun).

Meanwhile, ID is just laughably circular. NO, thank goodness we're not like that.

Toon Van AckerOct 17, 2005 at 8:23PM

On a sidenote, it's very odd to read this kind of discussion as a Belgian, because, well I can't think of a single person I know that doubts evolution.

(I'm not condemning believing in ID, I'm just pointing out that it's something we don't seem to have over here. At least, not anywhere near as much as in America. Also, yes, I do truly believe in evolution personally.)

Nathan LoganOct 18, 2005 at 11:25AM

As an admitted creationist, I also believe in evolution (or more specifically, natural selection). I cannot, however, make the jump from natural selection among species to macroevolution, biogenesis, and life brought about through random chance. Beyond being an unjustified, and in my mind, unreasonable extrapolation of the data, the best science can do is provide an untestable hypothesis on origins (or in the case of biogenesis, a testable hypothesis that has never been achieved).

The fact of the matter is that science will never be able to provide us a bulletproof account of origins. It simply cannot. At some point, it must say, we don't know for sure, but this is what we believe.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.