[Paleopsych] NYT Op-Ed: Daniel Dennett: Show Me the Science

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Daniel Dennett: Show Me the Science

    Blue Hill, Me.

    PRESIDENT BUSH, announcing this month that he was in favor of teaching
    about "intelligent design" in the schools, said, "I think that part of
    education is to expose people to different schools of thought." A
    couple of weeks later, Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Republican
    leader, made the same point. Teaching both intelligent design and
    evolution "doesn't force any particular theory on anyone," Mr. Frist
    said. "I think in a pluralistic society that is the fairest way to go
    about education and training people for the future."

    Is "intelligent design" a legitimate school of scientific thought? Is
    there something to it, or have these people been taken in by one of
    the most ingenious hoaxes in the history of science? Wouldn't such a
    hoax be impossible? No. Here's how it has been done.

    First, imagine how easy it would be for a determined band of naysayers
    to shake the world's confidence in quantum physics - how weird it is!
    - or Einsteinian relativity. In spite of a century of instruction and
    popularization by physicists, few people ever really get their heads
    around the concepts involved. Most people eventually cobble together a
    justification for accepting the assurances of the experts: "Well, they
    pretty much agree with one another, and they claim that it is their
    understanding of these strange topics that allows them to harness
    atomic energy, and to make transistors and lasers, which certainly do

    Fortunately for physicists, there is no powerful motivation for such a
    band of mischief-makers to form. They don't have to spend much time
    persuading people that quantum physics and Einsteinian relativity
    really have been established beyond all reasonable doubt.

    With evolution, however, it is different. The fundamental scientific
    idea of evolution by natural selection is not just mind-boggling;
    natural selection, by executing God's traditional task of designing
    and creating all creatures great and small, also seems to deny one of
    the best reasons we have for believing in God. So there is plenty of
    motivation for resisting the assurances of the biologists. Nobody is
    immune to wishful thinking. It takes scientific discipline to protect
    ourselves from our own credulity, but we've also found ingenious ways
    to fool ourselves and others. Some of the methods used to exploit
    these urges are easy to analyze; others take a little more unpacking.

    A creationist pamphlet sent to me some years ago had an amusing page
    in it, purporting to be part of a simple questionnaire:

    Test Two

    Do you know of any building that didn't have a builder? [YES] [NO]

    Do you know of any painting that didn't have a painter? [YES] [NO]

    Do you know of any car that didn't have a maker? [YES] [NO]

    If you answered YES for any of the above, give details:

    Take that, you Darwinians! The presumed embarrassment of the
    test-taker when faced with this task perfectly expresses the
    incredulity many people feel when they confront Darwin's great idea.
    It seems obvious, doesn't it, that there couldn't be any designs
    without designers, any such creations without a creator.

    Well, yes - until you look at what contemporary biology has
    demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt: that natural selection - the
    process in which reproducing entities must compete for finite
    resources and thereby engage in a tournament of blind trial and error
    from which improvements automatically emerge - has the power to
    generate breathtakingly ingenious designs.

    Take the development of the eye, which has been one of the favorite
    challenges of creationists. How on earth, they ask, could that
    engineering marvel be produced by a series of small, unplanned steps?
    Only an intelligent designer could have created such a brilliant
    arrangement of a shape-shifting lens, an aperture-adjusting iris, a
    light-sensitive image surface of exquisite sensitivity, all housed in
    a sphere that can shift its aim in a hundredth of a second and send
    megabytes of information to the visual cortex every second for years
    on end.

    But as we learn more and more about the history of the genes involved,
    and how they work - all the way back to their predecessor genes in the
    sightless bacteria from which multicelled animals evolved more than a
    half-billion years ago - we can begin to tell the story of how
    photosensitive spots gradually turned into light-sensitive craters
    that could detect the rough direction from which light came, and then
    gradually acquired their lenses, improving their information-gathering
    capacities all the while.

    We can't yet say what all the details of this process were, but real
    eyes representative of all the intermediate stages can be found,
    dotted around the animal kingdom, and we have detailed computer models
    to demonstrate that the creative process works just as the theory

    All it takes is a rare accident that gives one lucky animal a mutation
    that improves its vision over that of its siblings; if this helps it
    have more offspring than its rivals, this gives evolution an
    opportunity to raise the bar and ratchet up the design of the eye by
    one mindless step. And since these lucky improvements accumulate -
    this was Darwin's insight - eyes can automatically get better and
    better and better, without any intelligent designer.

    Brilliant as the design of the eye is, it betrays its origin with a
    tell-tale flaw: the retina is inside out. The nerve fibers that carry
    the signals from the eye's rods and cones (which sense light and
    color) lie on top of them, and have to plunge through a large hole in
    the retina to get to the brain, creating the blind spot. No
    intelligent designer would put such a clumsy arrangement in a
    camcorder, and this is just one of hundreds of accidents frozen in
    evolutionary history that confirm the mindlessness of the historical

    If you still find Test Two compelling, a sort of cognitive illusion
    that you can feel even as you discount it, you are like just about
    everybody else in the world; the idea that natural selection has the
    power to generate such sophisticated designs is deeply
    counterintuitive. Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of DNA, once
    jokingly credited his colleague Leslie Orgel with "Orgel's Second
    Rule": Evolution is cleverer than you are. Evolutionary biologists are
    often startled by the power of natural selection to "discover" an
    "ingenious" solution to a design problem posed in the lab.

    This observation lets us address a slightly more sophisticated version
    of the cognitive illusion presented by Test Two. When evolutionists
    like Crick marvel at the cleverness of the process of natural
    selection they are not acknowledging intelligent design. The designs
    found in nature are nothing short of brilliant, but the process of
    design that generates them is utterly lacking in intelligence of its

    Intelligent design advocates, however, exploit the ambiguity between
    process and product that is built into the word "design." For them,
    the presence of a finished product (a fully evolved eye, for instance)
    is evidence of an intelligent design process. But this tempting
    conclusion is just what evolutionary biology has shown to be mistaken.

    Yes, eyes are for seeing, but these and all the other purposes in the
    natural world can be generated by processes that are themselves
    without purposes and without intelligence. This is hard to understand,
    but so is the idea that colored objects in the world are composed of
    atoms that are not themselves colored, and that heat is not made of
    tiny hot things.

    The focus on intelligent design has, paradoxically, obscured something
    else: genuine scientific controversies about evolution that abound. In
    just about every field there are challenges to one established theory
    or another. The legitimate way to stir up such a storm is to come up
    with an alternative theory that makes a prediction that is crisply
    denied by the reigning theory - but that turns out to be true, or that
    explains something that has been baffling defenders of the status quo,
    or that unifies two distant theories at the cost of some element of
    the currently accepted view.

    To date, the proponents of intelligent design have not produced
    anything like that. No experiments with results that challenge any
    mainstream biological understanding. No observations from the fossil
    record or genomics or biogeography or comparative anatomy that
    undermine standard evolutionary thinking.

    Instead, the proponents of intelligent design use a ploy that works
    something like this. First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist's
    work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing
    forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as
    evidence that there is a "controversy" to teach.

    Note that the trick is content-free. You can use it on any topic.
    "Smith's work in geology supports my argument that the earth is flat,"
    you say, misrepresenting Smith's work. When Smith responds with a
    denunciation of your misuse of her work, you respond, saying something
    like: "See what a controversy we have here? Professor Smith and I are
    locked in a titanic scientific debate. We should teach the controversy
    in the classrooms." And here is the delicious part: you can often
    exploit the very technicality of the issues to your own advantage,
    counting on most of us to miss the point in all the difficult details.

    William Dembski, one of the most vocal supporters of intelligent
    design, notes that he provoked Thomas Schneider, a biologist, into a
    response that Dr. Dembski characterizes as "some hair-splitting that
    could only look ridiculous to outsider observers." What looks to
    scientists - and is - a knockout objection by Dr. Schneider is
    portrayed to most everyone else as ridiculous hair-splitting.

    In short, no science. Indeed, no intelligent design hypothesis has
    even been ventured as a rival explanation of any biological
    phenomenon. This might seem surprising to people who think that
    intelligent design competes directly with the hypothesis of
    non-intelligent design by natural selection. But saying, as
    intelligent design proponents do, "You haven't explained everything
    yet," is not a competing hypothesis. Evolutionary biology certainly
    hasn't explained everything that perplexes biologists. But intelligent
    design hasn't yet tried to explain anything.

    To formulate a competing hypothesis, you have to get down in the
    trenches and offer details that have testable implications. So far,
    intelligent design proponents have conveniently sidestepped that
    requirement, claiming that they have no specifics in mind about who or
    what the intelligent designer might be.

    To see this shortcoming in relief, consider an imaginary hypothesis of
    intelligent design that could explain the emergence of human beings on
    this planet:

    About six million years ago, intelligent genetic engineers from
    another galaxy visited Earth and decided that it would be a more
    interesting planet if there was a language-using, religion-forming
    species on it, so they sequestered some primates and genetically
    re-engineered them to give them the language instinct, and enlarged
    frontal lobes for planning and reflection. It worked.

    If some version of this hypothesis were true, it could explain how and
    why human beings differ from their nearest relatives, and it would
    disconfirm the competing evolutionary hypotheses that are being

    We'd still have the problem of how these intelligent genetic engineers
    came to exist on their home planet, but we can safely ignore that
    complication for the time being, since there is not the slightest
    shred of evidence in favor of this hypothesis.

    But here is something the intelligent design community is reluctant to
    discuss: no other intelligent-design hypothesis has anything more
    going for it. In fact, my farfetched hypothesis has the advantage of
    being testable in principle: we could compare the human and chimpanzee
    genomes, looking for unmistakable signs of tampering by these genetic
    engineers from another galaxy. Finding some sort of user's manual
    neatly embedded in the apparently functionless "junk DNA" that makes
    up most of the human genome would be a Nobel Prize-winning coup for
    the intelligent design gang, but if they are looking at all, they
    haven't come up with anything to report.

    It's worth pointing out that there are plenty of substantive
    scientific controversies in biology that are not yet in the textbooks
    or the classrooms. The scientific participants in these arguments vie
    for acceptance among the relevant expert communities in peer-reviewed
    journals, and the writers and editors of textbooks grapple with
    judgments about which findings have risen to the level of acceptance -
    not yet truth - to make them worth serious consideration by
    undergraduates and high school students.

    SO get in line, intelligent designers. Get in line behind the
    hypothesis that life started on Mars and was blown here by a cosmic
    impact. Get in line behind the aquatic ape hypothesis, the gestural
    origin of language hypothesis and the theory that singing came before
    language, to mention just a few of the enticing hypotheses that are
    actively defended but still insufficiently supported by hard facts.

    The Discovery Institute, the conservative organization that has helped
    to put intelligent design on the map, complains that its members face
    hostility from the established scientific journals. But establishment
    hostility is not the real hurdle to intelligent design. If intelligent
    design were a scientific idea whose time had come, young scientists
    would be dashing around their labs, vying to win the Nobel Prizes that
    surely are in store for anybody who can overturn any significant
    proposition of contemporary evolutionary biology.

    Remember cold fusion? The establishment was incredibly hostile to that
    hypothesis, but scientists around the world rushed to their labs in
    the effort to explore the idea, in hopes of sharing in the glory if it
    turned out to be true.

    Instead of spending more than $1 million a year on publishing books
    and articles for non-scientists and on other public relations efforts,
    the Discovery Institute should finance its own peer-reviewed
    electronic journal. This way, the organization could live up to its
    self-professed image: the doughty defenders of brave iconoclasts
    bucking the establishment.

    For now, though, the theory they are promoting is exactly what George
    Gilder, a long-time affiliate of the Discovery Institute, has said it
    is: "Intelligent design itself does not have any content."

    Since there is no content, there is no "controversy" to teach about in
    biology class. But here is a good topic for a high school course on
    current events and politics: Is intelligent design a hoax? And if so,
    how was it perpetrat- ed?

    Daniel C. Dennett, a professor of philosophy at Tufts University, is
    the author of "Freedom Evolves" and "Darwin's Dangerous Idea."

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