The Polite Liberal

A rant-free discussion of liberal philosophy and policies.


The Polite Liberal is the pseudonym of a "nontraditional" graduate student in mathematics (for nonacademics, "nontraditional," is a polite way of saying, "older than 25.") The Polite Liberal is an attempt to spur real policy debate, instead of partisan insults and conspiracy theories. Conservatives (and liberals, of course!) are welcome.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


Mr. Bush has just stated that he believes that the theory of Intelligent Design should be taught in science classes alognside evolution.

In case anyone hasn't been following this issue, the theory of evolution is the basic framework of modern biology--it's the theory that life on has evolved and differentiated over many millions of years from common ancestors. Intelligent Design, by contrast, is a crackpot theory supported by a small handful of scientists (generally working outside their fields), which basically recapitulates the original argument from incredulity of the ninteenth century. It does so as follows:

(1) It defines the concept of "irreducible complexity"--a structure that could not have evolved (usually the argument is that the structure has no purpose if any piece were altered, and so could not have evolved).
(2) It points to specific structures and claims, without proof, that those structures are irreducibly complex, and so could not have evolved.
(3) It argues that therefore the structure must have been created by an intelligent designer (carefully left unspecified to avoid the obvious argument that this is simply religious creationism).

The problematic step, of course, is (2). Whenever any specific strucutre is shown (as has happened repeatedly since Intelligent Design was first formulated) to have a perfectly reasonable evolutionary path from simpler structures, the old infinite regression game begins: "Aha! But those pieces are irreducibly complex!"

The fact that the President of the United States is advocating abandoning our leadership in biology at this time (and that is exactly what he is proposing--intelligent design is useless as a scientific tool, doesn't itself meet the standard of a scientific theory, and has led to no results to date, despite years of work) is a disaster. Technological leadership is a cornerstone of our superpower status, which Mr. Bush seems bound and determined to destroy.


Blogger Gerry L said...

I like the name -- and tone -- of your blog. I, too, am trying to do a rant-free conversation but specifically on the subject of this post: the pseudo-controversy around the pseudoscience attack on authentic science education. Oops, I'm starting to slip into rant mode.
Anyway, check out my blog (Evolutionary Times) and let me know what you think.

8:52 PM  
Blogger Arthur Weatherby-Browne said...

My understanding of evolution is that it is driven by random mutation, and guided by natural selection. Is there any reason why relatively complex structures could not be produced spontaneously following a mutation? It only takes small changes in genetic makeup to result in drastic (usually lethal) physical changes. A single bite from an irradiated spider was enough to transform Peter Parker into Spiderman -- imagine what millions of years of evolution could do!

Of course such arguments are trumped by my own inalterable conviction that irreducibly complex things were forged by an even more irreducibly complex Supernatural Being:

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things irreducible --
The Lord God made them all!

3:17 PM  
Blogger The Polite Liberal said...

Actually, no--small mutations don't usually do very much at all. Many, many do nothing whatsoever.

The real issue is whether the term "irreducibly complex" actually means anything useful. It appears that the answer is no--there's no way to test for it.

Of course, you're more than entitled to believe that we were created by God. The only problem is that that's immediately a nonscientific theory, and so oughtn't be taught in science classes.

There are lots of things that might well be true, but aren't scientific theories because they're unfalsifiable. We might have been created just before you made that last post, with full memories of everything that "happened" before. We might be inside a very, very complex simulation. God could have created us in a literal Genesis sense 10,000 years ago, and for reasons of His own left evidence of a much older creation. Since there's no way to test any of these ideas, they're not scientific. Intelligent Design is in this class of idea--absolutely anything you see can be justified by "yes, that's how it was designed," so there's no possible test.

9:18 PM  
Blogger Arthur Weatherby-Browne said...

It's still the case that small mutations can have drastic effects on an organism. I imagine it's like any complex system, where minor dumplings have an avalanche effect, leading to potentially massive dumplings. I vaguely remember hearing something on the radio about one school of evolutionary thought which asserted that much of evolution occurred in big jumps rather than in gradual steps. I mean, what is the counter argument against a relatively complex structure being produced spontaneously?

You may despise the jump from Irreducible Complexity to Intelligent Designer, but let's just consider Irreducible Complexity on its own. From my understanding of your post, you actually agree that Irreducible Complexity would be a thorn in evolution's side if such Irreducibly Complex structures existed. You just don't think we've found any.

I'd like to know if you think it's possible to verify that a structure is Irreducibly Complex. You obviously think it's possible to show that a structure is Reducibly Complex. Verifying Irreducible Complexity seems harder though, because you'd have to consider all potential reductions and show they were impossible. But to my mind it is by no means obvious that Irreducible Complexity is by definition unverifiable. If it is verifiable, then taken on it's own without the religious connotations, it would constitute a scientific theory. Non?

5:48 PM  
Blogger The Polite Liberal said...

There are actually several separate problems with Intelligent Design:

(1) Proving that something is irreducibly complex isn't possible, for just the reasons you suggest. That leaves the term all but undefined--of what use is a philosophical concept for which there exists no conceivable test?

(2) Even if "irreducible complexity" were somehow modified to be a meaningful term, and even if such a structure were found, all it would leave is an interesting puzzle. It's not as if all the evidence for evolution would suddenly vanish in a puff of blue smoke, and it certainly wouldn't prove the existence of an intelligent designer.

(3) In the absence of any empirical way to determine the properties of said designer, an "intelligent designer" isn't a scientific concept, as I said earlier. The problem is that absolutely data can be ascribed to a sufficiently bizarre intelligent designer; he could be perverse enough to cleverly design everything to appear evolved, for example.

8:58 AM  

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