Sunday, 19 October 2014

What is the intelligent design hypothesis?

OK, so what is the intelligent design hypothesis?

This question can best be addressed by studying the books at the heart of the movement. These would be (in my view and I would suggest by common consent)  'Darwin's Black Box' and 'The Edge of Evolution' by Michael Behe and 'Signature in the Cell' by Stephen Meyer

Cue snorts and retorts from the 'Behe has been refuted many, many times.' brigade. Behe has indeed been cursed, derided and misrepresented many, many times but his arguments have not been refuted, even if they have had to be modified to a limited extent. I'll come to that later. We are discussing what kind of thing ID is: the question of whether its principal protagonists are right or wrong in their arguments is obviously very important but peripheral to the question 'Is intelligent design religion?'

In 'Darwin's Black Box' Behe considers several biological processes in detail and asks whether Darwinian mechanisms (natural selection acting on random mutations) are capable of having built such systems. By meticulous study of the details of the systems, which include the clotting of blood, sight (photosensitivity) and the immune system. Behe develops the concept of 'irreducible complexity' in which we find that sophisticated machines in which  many parts work together to achieve a particular outcome tend to fail completely when one part is removed or wrongly assembled. Behe uses the analogy of a regular mouse trap to lead into the much more sophisticated nanomachinery of a bacillary flagellum. If any one part of the mouse trap, let alone the flagellum is taken away, or is even slightly wrong (for example, if the spring of the mouse trap is too strong or too weak, the trap does not catch FEWER mice, it catches NO mice.

As an example of the poor reasoning which opponents of Behe and intelligent design are willing to use rather than admit he might have a point, one opponent (Ken Miller) has made a video in which he uses a broken mouse trap as a tie clip. He claims that this refutes Behe's irreducible complexity argument, although in fact he is only using typical Darwinian 'could have' assertions. On another web site I saw a series of drawings which claimed to show functional mouse traps in varying degrees of functionality. But none of the traps would in fact have worked. Presumably their proposers know this because these 'might have been' traps remain drawings. Nobody to my knowledge (I'm happy to be corrected on this, comments are not moderated or censored) has made working models and used them to catch real mice. I don't think any of them would work. What's more, any spring based trap has to actually be SET and BAITED, which can't be explained without an intelligent external agent. More importantly, the mouse trap analogy is many orders of magnitude less sophisticated than the simplest biological system.

But even if we can debate the validity of the mousetrap analogy, we note that Behe hasn't got anywhere near talking about religion or creation. He is just testing a scientific hypothesis-that biological structures like the eye can develop gradually by steady slow improvement, or whether this (like the fake mousetraps referenced above) is merely a philosophical abstraction which would not deliver working structures that progresses from good to better to best by unguided processes in real life.

meaningful versus meaningless complexity

Stephen Meyer mainly uses mathematical arguments in his book 'Signature in the Cell' . The book could in my view do with being about 40% shorter, but the long preamble is all about the mathematics. Meyer studied the discovery of DNA at Cambridge and his central argument is about meaningful versus meaningless information. This is very important when we are talking abotu probabillity. If we could assign a number to the precise spatial arrangement of all the grains in a cubic metre of sand, it would be a stupefyingly massive number with effectively zero probability of it being repeated randomly. Nevertheless, the number evidently did occur once. This argument or one like it is used against those who (like me) assert that the probability of life assembling itself is so small that it can be discounted, because 'Given enough time, anything could have happened'. However, this sand number is utterly meaningless. Plot the spatial arrangement of grains in a billion, billion, billion etc cubic metres of sand, they will all have highly complex and rare numbers but all be the exact same kind of dead inanimate thing. Meyer successfully explains the difference between random complexity and purposeful complexity.

In the nucleotide sequences found in DNA, we also have stupefyingly unlikely numbers, BUT they carry coded information which DOES something. When transcribed and used to build amino acids in correct sequences into proteins by intracellular nanomachinery (which has all the appearance of being purposefully designed and does in fact behave purposefully) we see that the information carried on DNA is PURPOSEFUL.

Meaningful information is never seen to emanate from a non intelligent source.

Having explained what we mean by a meaningful piece of information (which could be as simple as a rhyming couplet) Meyer argues that there is no example in any field of human study where a meaningful piece of information has ever arisen from a non intelligent source. He argues from this that if we use the same principles that Darwin and Lyell used in their reasoning (the key to explaining effective causes in the distant unobserved past is the study of effective causes/repeatable events today) then we should logically deduce that since meaningfully complex things ARE routinely seen to arise from designing intelligences but NEVER observed (where we know the cause by direct observation) to arise from non rational causes, we should reasonably conclude that the high order magnitude meaningfully complex things that we see in nature had a designer.

Random DNA changes are observed to degrade information

As Behe, Meyer and other ID advocates observe, even relatively small changes in the DNA nucletotide sequences lead to wrongly assembled proteins which will not function normally. In another book which uses ID arguments 'Genetic Entropy: the Mystery of the Human Genome' by geneticist john Sanford, the author speaks of 'near neutral' mutations. these are analogous to small, infrequent spelling mistakes which we initially compensate for but which will inexorably and inevitably convert a meaningful piece of written information into illegible junk. The same thing is happening with the human genome, and it would happen very much faster if it were not for the incredible DNA check and repair mechanisms we have which detect and correct most mutations.

The above is a very short overview of some of the arguments used by prominent intelligent design advocates. Although to my knowledge Behe, Meyer and Sanford are all Christians, the key arguments advanced in the books mentioned above do not rely on God, faith or the Bible but only meticulously reasoned science. In particular, the complex and purposeful nature of the information carried on DNA which instructs cellular nanomachinery to build correct proteins. 

DNA mutations are seen to be harmful, sometimes lethal.

If the information is corrupted by random alterations (mutations) the tendency is for the protein to become less functional or to fail completely, leading to less fit or dead plants, animals and people. The genetic disease Xeroderma Pigmentosum (caution, disturbing images)  illustrates this very effectively by showing us what happens when our DNA check and repair mechanisms do not work properly. 60% XP of sufferers are dead by age 20.

If ID is religious, is Darwinism anti-religious?

So far, we have seen no evidence that intelligent design hypothesis is religious. Admittedly, I have not proved it isn't religious, but all I have cited above (and you can read the books and judge for yourself) is a fair reflection of typical ID arguments. But if we accept that ID is not religious, does ID have a religious agenda? That's an interesting question, which must be considered with the opposite question 'Does evolutionism have an anti-religious agenda?'.

No comments:

Post a Comment

feel free to comment, good manners and lucidity are appreciated.