Thursday, April 16, 2009

Intelligent Design

What is Intelligent Design?

Intelligent design is the assertion that "certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection." It is a modern form of the traditional teleological argument for the existence of God that avoids specifying the nature or identity of the designer. The idea was developed by a group of American creationists who reformulated their argument in the creation-evolution controversy to circumvent court rulings that prohibit the teaching of creationism as science.

Intelligent design's leading proponents, all of whom are associated with the Discovery Institute, a politically conservative think tank, believe the designer to be the God of Christianity.
Advocates of intelligent design argue that it is a scientific theory, and seek to fundamentally redefine science to accept supernatural explanations. The consensus in the scientific community is that intelligent design is not science. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has stated that "creationism, intelligent design, and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life or of species are not science because they are not testable by the methods of science." The U.S. National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have termed it pseudoscience. Others in the scientific community have concurred, and some have called it junk science.

Therefore, Intelligent Design is not some augment to evolution - it is a competitive "theory" to evolution.

I concur that natural evolution is compatible with the existence of a higher intelligence. However, there is nothing to suggest that such a higher intelligence is at all required for natural evolution to operate - and therefore, suggesting a higher intelligence violates Occam's Razor in the worst possible way, because it distracts from the valid unraveling of the truly profound intricacies of evolution by introducing what at heart is a metaphysical desire for God.

When we look to the heavens for the answer to what is right before us, all around us, it is not the mystery of evolution that we are trying to solve - it is attempting to feed our deep human need for God. A person's faith is their own, I do not attack that. It can be a source of great inner strength. But do not look to the physical world to bolster those beliefs - if one must do that, it could be suggested that one's faith is fragile. If it provides comfort, consider God the "ultimate scientist" - a rational entity who initiated a universe that follows physical laws, and those laws evince themselves in myriad ways, and some of those ways can be described as various natural processes.

Evolution is a process. That's all it is - like the weather, plate tectonics, star formation, galaxy formation, and many other natural processes we could name. A most amazing process, but just a process.

And suggesting that aliens might have done it, rather than a Christian or other God, there is no difference between these two. If you ponder it, a sufficiently advanced alien race would be indistinguishable from God to us, if that is what they wanted to be. If we make the equally Occam's Razor-violating assumption that "aliens did it", we once again raise our eyes to the stars for the answers to what is all around us.

Natural selection is a most powerful idea - not just because it has been, and continues to be, validated by an ocean of empirical evidence, but because it is simple to grasp. Those who attempt to obfuscate the purity of this idea by introducing metaphysical perspectives do the pursuit of objective truth a grave injustice. Their methods in fact predate the scientific revolution - they use rhetoric and disputation until one becomes convinced of their view. This is not science - this is what the scientific method was specifically designed to correct. Rhetoric and disputation do not lead to the truth, if that rhetorically-derived "truth" runs counter to the book of nature - in other words, if it runs counter to the empirical evidence.

Interestingly, the breakthroughs in genetics and the (much touted here) advances in DNA sequencing and such are helping to unravel how evolution works in greater detail than ever before. These technologies are bolstering the already century and a half of empirical validation of this theory with even more, staggeringly vaster confirmation of this ground-breaking idea.

Sometimes it is suggested that when empirical evidence runs counter to one's deep certainty on some issue, that the empirical evidence must lose. This is the hardest thing about embracing science - to be objective, to let the evidence form one's assessments, not bending the facts to suit one's predetermined beliefs. This is why science, despite hundreds of years of performing incredible feats of knowledge generation and technological progress, still has but a precarious foothold in the minds of most.

Here are a series of articles discussing many of the various aspects of current evolutionary thinking.

Of particular interest might be these:

Testing Natural Selection with Genetics
Biologists working with the most sophisticated genetic tools are demonstrating that natural selection plays a greater role in the evolution of genes than even most evolutionists had thought l-selection
Key Concepts:

* Charles Darwin’s theory that evolution is driven by natural selection—by inherited changes that enhance survival—struggled against competing theories for the acceptance it has within biology today.
* Random genetic mutations having neither positive nor negative effects were once thought to drive most changes at the molecular level. But recent experiments show that natural selection of beneficial genetic mutations is quite common.
* Studies in plant genetics show that changes in a single gene sometimes have a large effect on adaptive differences between species.

This is a brief excerpt from the above, focusing on what is meant by natural selection and "fitness":

the idea of natural selection is simplicity itself. Some kinds of organisms survive better in certain conditions than others do; such organisms leave more progeny and so become more common with time. The environment thus “selects” those organisms best adapted to present conditions. If environmental conditions change, organisms that happen to possess the most adaptive characteristics for those new conditions will come to predominate. Darwinism was revolutionary not because it made arcane claims about biology but because it suggested that nature’s underlying logic might be surprisingly simple.

In spite of this simplicity, the theory of natural selection has suffered a long and tortuous history. Darwin’s claim that species evolve was rapidly accepted by biologists, but his separate claim that natural selection drives most of the change was not. Indeed, natural selection was not accepted as a key evolutionary force until well into the 20th century.

The status of natural selection is now secure, reflecting decades of detailed empirical work. But the study of natural selection is by no means complete. Rather—partly because new experimental techniques have been developed and partly because the genetic mechanisms underlying natural selection are now the subject of meticulous empirical analysis—the study of natural selection is a more active area of biology than it was even two decades ago. Much of the recent experimental work on natural selection has focused on three goals: determining how common it is, identifying the precise genetic changes that give rise to the adaptations produced by natural selection, and assessing just how big a role natural selection plays in a key problem of evolutionary biology—the origin of new species.
“Fitness,” as used in evolutionary biology, is a technical term for this idea: it is the probability of surviving or reproducing in a given environment.
Adaptive evolution is therefore a two-step process, with a strict division of labor between mutation and selection. In each generation, mutation brings new genetic variants into populations. Natural selection then screens them: the rigors of the environment reduce the frequency of “bad” (relatively unfit) variants and increase the frequency of “good” (relatively fit) ones. (It is worth noting that a population can store many genetic variants at once, and those variants can help it to meet changing conditions as they arise.

Diversity Revealed: From Atoms to Traits
Charles Darwin saw that random variations in organisms provide fodder for evolution. Modern scientists are revealing how that diversity arises from changes to DNA and can add up to complex creatures or even cultures traits
Key Concepts:

* The idea that nature “selects” favorable variations in organisms was at the heart of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, but how those variations arise was a mystery in Darwin’s time.
* Random changes in DNA can give rise to changes in an organism’s traits, providing a constant source of variation.
* Certain kinds of DNA changes can produce major differences in form and function, providing raw material for the evolution of new species and even new human cultures.

Putting Evolution to Use in the Everyday World
Understanding of evolution is fostering powerful technologies for health care, law enforcement, ecology, and all manner of optimization and design problems he-everday-world
Key Concepts:

* The theory of evolution provides humankind with more than just a scientific narrative of life’s origins and progression. It also yields invaluable technologies.
* For instance, the concept of molecular clocks—based on the accumulation of mutations in DNA over the eons—underlies applications such as the DNA analyses used in criminal investigations.
* DNA analysis of how pathogens evolve produces useful information for combating the outbreak and spread of disease. Accelerated evolution in laboratories has improved vaccines and other therapeutic proteins.
* Computer scientists have adapted evolution’s mechanisms of mutation and selection to solve problems.

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