Humility in Science

This morning, the BBC posted a news article entitled, “Churches urged to back evolution.” It’s an interesting, if very basic, look at the controversy between “Intelligent Design” so-called and “evolution.” Revisiting the scientific controversy of our age yet again got me thinking, yet again. I put the two sides in quotes because it is my contention that the whole debate is a false dichotomy, created because neither side has much in the way of humility. Pride cometh, whether you believe in the Fall or not. To say that because one doesn’t comprehend something, that something doesn’t exist, is fallacious reasoning.

“Intelligent design” starts with such a bad premise: that Creation as we know it could not have arisen without anthropomorphic “Design.” For brevity’s sake, I will focus on one classic ID argument, the idea of irreducible complexity. Irreducible complexity, brought to the fore by Dr. Michael Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box in 1996, suggests that because there are systems in the cell that contain multiple parts, all of which are essential for function, that the system could not have evolved. He uses the analogy of a mousetrap, made of various parts that have no real purpose other than to work together and catch mice; and, he gives several examples of biological systems that fit his model, such as the clotting pathway in the blood and the bacterial flagellum. However, Behe’s argument is based on the premise that incomprehension equals impossibility. It is not the case that, for example, the clotting cascade could not have evolved. While all of its components are necessary for clotting, that does not necessarily mean that has always been the case. Since most of the proteins involved in the cascade are closely related to each other by amino acid and DNA sequence, it is reasonable to suggest an evolutionary mechanism where each arose via “gene duplication.” One might envision a scenario where over time, a system with mutiple redundant components acquired mutations that allowed the once redundant components to function together in a non-redundant and more efficient fashion. The system would then be irreducibly complex, not before. I just made that scenario up off the top of my head: a little more critical thought could demolish the rest of Behe’s examples as well. Behe is well-meaning I’m sure, but in the end, just because he does not understand how an irreducibly complex system could have evolved does not mean that it did not evolve. To claim otherwise could be construed as pure arrogance and pride in one’s intellectual abilities.

Behe’s argument is the easiest for me to debunk, being a molecular biologist, but a cursory look at other ID proponents suggests that a similar faulty premise might be at work in their ideas. Bill Dembski, a mathematician, has suggested a “Law of Conservation of Information,” where a natural system cannot increase in “information content,” that is, that the genetic information in a simple organism cannot increase without the action of an intelligent agent. Gene duplication and mutation can easily increase “information content,” so I wonder if Dembski, like Behe, relies on disbelief, not evidence. Other critics of evolution, like Phillip Johnson and Jonathan Wells, focus more on debunking evolutionary arguments than on actually building up a coherent framework of Intelligent Design. But, to point out the hubris of some evolutionists, like Haeckel concocting drawings of embryos, is not to debunk a coherent theory that can explain most, if not all, of the facts of biology.

The other side of the debate is also guilty of the same premise, but in a completely different manner. Evolutionists like Dawkins, Lewontin, Wilson, Futuyma, and any number of other run-of-the-mill scientists, make the faulty claim that because they do not understand how God could exist, that He doesn’t exist. To claim that a natural explanation of the world excludes God from creating and upholding it is exactly the same logical error as “Intelligent Designers” make when they assert that they cannot understand how the world can be explained naturally, therefore God designed it. It is entirely possible for God to work through natural mechanisms and still have “designed” the world to be exactly as it is. To state otherwise is to start from atheistic materialist presuppositions, not because the scientific evidence demands it. Perhaps evolution allows Richard Dawkins to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist,” but I honestly can’t see the logic behind that statement.

So, in the end, it appears that we in the ID/evolution debate could all use a good dose of humility. I suspect that the prideful dismissal of God by prominent evolutionists directly led to the prideful dismissal of evolution by prominent IDers. And, the ID reaction only serves to reinforce the arrogance of atheist evolutionists. It’s a vicious circle that can only be broken by realizing what science can actually tell us, what our philosophical assumptions are, and by realizing the limits of our own intelligence. But, sadly, I don’t see that happening any time soon. Humility is not, after all, a virtue we prize today.

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