About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Forbes on evolution and intelligent design
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.