Evolution vs. Intelligent Design in Public Schools: Is Randomness Scientific?

December 30, 2009

In a recent exchange with a scientist, I came upon an argument that intelligent design should not be taught in public schools because it is not science and is not falsifiable.  I am not a scientist, but this argument led me to a question: what would falsify the theory of evolution by means of natural selection?  I decided to get some of the basics of the theory of evolution from a hostile source.  Here are some quotes from Douglas Futuyma, professor of evolutionary biology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, president of the Society for the Study of Evolution and the American Society of Naturalists, that I find relevant to my thoughts:

The reason that natural selection is important is that it’s the central idea, stemming from Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, that explains design in nature. It is the one process that is responsible for the evolution of adaptations of organisms to their environment.

Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection caused quite a stir when it appeared in 1859. Evidence to support evolution and natural selection, of course, has accumulated over time, and now science accepts that evolution is a fact and that natural selection explains very well how adaptive evolution takes place.

You can’t have any evolutionary change whatever without mutation, and perhaps recombination, giving rise to genetic variation. But once you have genetic variation, there are basically two major possibilities:

  • First, there is simply no difference between the different genotypes or different genes in their impact on survival or reproduction, and in that case, you can have random changes of one versus the other type in a population or a species until eventually one replaces the other. That is an evolutionary change. It happens entirely by chance, by random fluctuations. That is what we call the process of genetic drift.
  • Genetic drift is very different from possibility number two, natural selection, which is a much more consistent, predictable, dependable change in the proportion of one gene vs. another, one genotype vs. another. Why? Simply because there is some consistent superiority, shall we way, of one genotype vs. another in some feature that affects its survival or some feature affecting its reproductive capabilities.

. . . .

Evolution certainly does involve randomness; it does involve unpredictable chance. For example, the origin of new genetic variation by mutation is a process that involves a great deal of chance. Genetic drift, the process I referred to earlier, is a matter of chance.

. . . .

[N]atural selection is not like Mother Nature watching over us. Since natural selection is totally an impersonal process that is nothing more than a difference, generation by generation, in the reproductive success of one genome over another, there’s no way that it can look forward to the future or guard against the possibility of extinction. What individuals have right now that gives them superior adaptation may lead to disaster tomorrow.

. . . .

[F]irst of all, random processes are involved in the evolutionary process. For example, the origin of new mutations: a lot of evolution is dependent on particular mutational changes in genes that were very, very rare or unlikely, but that just happened at the right time, in the right species, in the right environment, but it need not happen that way. So, there’s this unpredictability. In addition, the particular sequence of environmental changes that the Earth underwent and that organisms were exposed to over billions of years has left a long-term imprint on species as they are today. If the sequence of environmental changes were different, you would have a different evolutionary history, leading to entirely different organisms over time.

. . . .

The philosopher Daniel Dennett called natural selection “Darwin’s dangerous idea” for a good reason: it is a very simple natural mechanism that explains the appearance of design in living things. Before Darwin, the adaptations and exquisite complexity of organisms were ascribed to creation by an omnipotent, beneficent designer, namely God, and indeed were among the major arguments for the existence of such a designer. Darwin’s (and Wallace’s) concept of natural selection made this “argument from design” completely superfluous.   It accomplished for biology what Newton and his successors had accomplished in physics: it provided a purely natural explanation for order and the appearance of design. It made the features of organisms explicable by processes that can be studied by science instead of ascribing them to miracles. The contemporary “intelligent design” movement is simply a repetition of the predarwinian argument, and of course it cannot be taken seriously as a scientific explanation of the properties of living things.

[Underlining added.]

So what I take from the above is that evolution involves a process of random and unpredictable mutation, combined with a predictable process of natural selection whereby certain mutations win out over others, but all mutations in all species began in a single common ancestor.   [Another more succinct summary is available here.]

Professor Futuyma admits that there is an “appearance of design in living things.”  He claims that the theory of evolution by means of natural selection—which is to say, one way of interpreting the evidence—explains that appearance of design based on random occurrences.  The intelligent design (ID) crowd claims that the theory of evolution by means of natural selection is not the best explanation of the appearance of design.  The ID people claim that life appears designed because it is designed; it is not random.  Now, keep in mind, the ID scientists make no claim for the source of this designer—it could be aliens; they can’t (and won’t) say (“Unlike creationism, the scientific theory of intelligent design does not claim that modern biology can identify whether the intelligent cause detected through science is supernatural”).  But ID scientists claim that life was designed by some intelligent source.  I’ll allow some of the ID people to speak for themselves:

The theory of intelligent design holds 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. . . .

If [evolution] simply means “change over time,” or even that living things are related by common ancestry, then there is no inherent conflict between evolutionary theory and intelligent design theory. However, the dominant theory of evolution today is neo-Darwinism, which contends that evolution is driven by natural selection acting on random mutations, an unpredictable and purposeless process that “has no discernable direction or goal, including survival of a species.” (NABT Statement on Teaching Evolution). It is this specific claim made by neo-Darwinism that intelligent design theory directly challenges.

Now, as to the claim that the theory of evolution by means of natural selection is scientific and ID is not because ID is not falsifiable: how is the concept of randomness possibly falsifiable in any way that ID is not?  Is the question of whether some certain pattern is random or designed not a proper subject of scientific inquiry?  If not, then scientists have no business saying anything is random (and thus Professor Futuyma’s brilliant explanation above is not scientific; the concept of randomness is all over the place).  But if that question is a subject of science, then ID certainly belongs in the scientific discussion.  ID is merely an interpretation of the evidence which, as Professor Futuyma admitted, establishes the appearance of design in nature. 

Thus, the ID proponents claim that what they are doing is science:

Is intelligent design a scientific theory?

Yes. The scientific method is commonly described as a four-step process involving observations, hypothesis, experiments, and conclusion. Intelligent design begins with the observation that intelligent agents produce complex and specified information (CSI). Design theorists hypothesize that if a natural object was designed, it will contain high levels of CSI. Scientists then perform experimental tests upon natural objects to determine if they contain complex and specified information. One easily testable form of CSI is irreducible complexity, which can be discovered by experimentally reverse-engineering biological structures to see if they require all of their parts to function. When ID researchers find irreducible complexity in biology, they conclude that such structures were designed.

So, if we’re going to teach the evolutionary process in public schools, either we include arguments for randomness and arguments for intended design, or we exclude both.  I do not buy Professor Futuyma’s conclusory dismissal of ID on the ground that the design argument is “pre-darwinian” and therefore wrong or unscientific.  Darwinian evolutionary theory is pre-Naturallawyer (Darwin died long before I was born); so is it wrong if I disagree with it?  The age of an argument is a remarkably bad reason for discarding an argument.  Equally suspect is the argument that ID is wrong because the “scientific consensus” says that it’s wrong.  The consensus of the scientific community is constantly changing.  If scientific consensus is a reason to abandon a controversial argument, the emperor is wearing some mighty fine new clothes on his way to public schools these days.

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23 Responses to “Evolution vs. Intelligent Design in Public Schools: Is Randomness Scientific?”

  1. J Says:

    http://biologos.org/blog/intelligent-design-and-religion/
    The knee-jerk response of most scientists is that supernatural explanations are by definition non-scientific. They’re certainly not amenable to experimentation. Randomness appears to be a natural explanation that can account for everything we observe in nature. However, I’ve been bothered for a long time that Darwinian evolution may not be falsifiable. Could we ever discover anything that couldn’t be explained by sufficient randomness?


  2. Pre- Cambrian rabbits would falsify evolution.

    What would falsify ID/Creationism again?

    Regards,

    Psi


  3. Psi:

    I’m no scientist, so can you explain to me how pre-cambrian rabbits would affect the concept of Darwinian evolution, and particularly the randomness aspect of the theory?

    Falsification of ID, or at least the discovery of evidence weighing against it, would consist of proof that life can evolve from a random collection of parts. So get a box, put a bunch of non-living things in it, shake it up, produce a living being, and you will have falsified ID, right? I am quite certain that if scientists could create life from a lifeless environment, and particularly through a random process, they would claim to have completely falsified ID. Do you disagree?

    (Incidentally, if scientists could create life through an intentionally random process with non-living components, it would not necessarily mean anything about God’s existence or lack thereof—ID makes no claim as to whether God or a physical entity designed life as we know it.)

    Thanks for commenting; I’m very curious about pre-cambrian rabbits because I’m not familiar (at all) with that issue.


  4. Psi:

    Additionally, your confusion of ID may be affecting your analysis (e.g. “ID/Creationism”). As explained in the post, ID says nothing of creationism. The equation of the two is nothing more than a byproduct of bias against creationism, and that bias is wholly unscientific and no reason whatsoever to discard the ID theory. After all, ID could be true even in an atheistic universe(s). Maybe aliens designed life as we know it. Even Richard Dawkins, of all people, acknowledges such a possibility.


  5. J: I agree with you, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which randomness could not explain the evidence.

    Let’s say crime scene investigators come upon a crime scene in which a dead body lies next to a pool of blood. In the pool of blood a name of a person appears to have been scrawled. Certainly the pool of blood *could possibly* have flowed out in such a way as to have left the shape of a name within the pool, such that the appearance of the name does not mean anything. We may not be able to repeat such an occurrence by recreating the scene, but the exact conditions of the original blood flow cannot now be observed (just as Darwinian scientists claim “we just don’t know” how life randomly started, but it must have, even though we cannot repeat the conditions and observe the beginning). It would be absurd in the extreme to explain the message in the pool of blood in terms of randomness, but it can be done. Still, the name in the pool of blood *appears* to be a message (just as life appears to be designed, as admitted by Darwinian evolutionists), and any rational person would conclude the name in the pool of blood was designed by some intelligent agent and that the name is somehow relevant to the event. No one but the dead person observed the drawing of the name in the pool of blood, but it’s reasonable to conclude that we know it was designed, notwithstanding the bizarrely small odds that the message in the pool of blood was randomly caused by some non-intelligent source.

    Crime scene investigators consider themselves scientists, do they not?

  6. J Says:

    Your crime-scene analogy is a good one. However, in that case we have no need to insert copious randomness because we have causal agents readily available (i.e., people). For the origins of life, we’d have to invent an agent, a designer. That’s a philosophical, not a scientific conjecture, though I might just say that from a pretty narrow definition of science. But I think that’s the working definition.

    My reading suggests that most of the processes necessary for the formation of life (amino acids, RNA, etc.) can be replicated in the lab under reasonable conditions of chemistry, temperature, and pressure. Many of these processes are even less selective than first predicted, meaning that they may not be horrifically unlikely, given enough time. The Anthropic Principle is actually more interesting to me than the origins of life, but maybe that’s because I’m a biologist and not a physicist. I sort of feel that if we’re OK with the existence of the Universe and stars and a planet, then life doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. Remember that Newton posited God to explain what he didn’t understand in classical physics (like the existence of gravity), but natural explanations were later made. A god of the gaps is no god at all. My God is over all and through all and in all, bigger than science. How would you scientifically approach omnipresence? Why do we demand miracles for proof?

    I’m still unsure about the falsifiability criterion re evolution. Psi’s point is interesting but ultimately unsatisfying to me. Pre-cambrian rabbits would certainly require re-writing life’s history, but wouldn’t necessarily overturn evolution. But I do think Psi is right that ID is not particularly different than creationism, as that link I posted discusses. If aliens designed life, where did the aliens come from? Turtles all the way down?


  7. Your crime-scene analogy is a good one. However, in that case we have no need to insert copious randomness because we have causal agents readily available (i.e., people). For the origins of life, we’d have to invent an agent, a designer. That’s a philosophical, not a scientific conjecture, though I might just say that from a pretty narrow definition of science. But I think that’s the working definition.

    I don’t think that your statement that we have to “invent” an agent holds water. It’s perfectly permissible to say that the physical evidence points toward a “something” but that “something” cannot be measured scientifically. Perhaps it was a natural cause, perhaps it wasn’t. But certainly the evidence is worth scientific inquiry, is it not?

    Moreover, if the pursuit of evidence pointing to a “something” is philosophical, pointing to a “nothing” is surely philosophical as well. “Random” is no more scientific than “intentional.” If science cannot say whether nature came from an intelligent source, it certainly cannot say that it didn’t come from one, or that one is not currently guiding it. And with that, Natural Selection as a science falls apart, does it not?

    Like Professor Futuyma said above, the whole point of this “natural selection” exercise is getting rid of God as a necessary source. If that goal can’t be pursued scientifically because it’s “philosophy,” then neither can natural selection in public school classrooms.

    My reading suggests that most of the processes necessary for the formation of life (amino acids, RNA, etc.) can be replicated in the lab under reasonable conditions of chemistry, temperature, and pressure. Many of these processes are even less selective than first predicted, meaning that they may not be horrifically unlikely, given enough time. The Anthropic Principle is actually more interesting to me than the origins of life, but maybe that’s because I’m a biologist and not a physicist.

    Well, first, it was my understanding that scientists have never been able to produce life from an environment of non-life. I’ve never heard that scientists have “assembled” a living being from non-living “parts.” Perhaps this will one day be done. Has it in fact been done and I’m just not aware? But in any event, if this has never been done from a random process, I’m not sure the ID theory is any less a valid explanation than the natural selection theory, at least for now.

    Interestingly, your important phrase “given enough time” is worth scientific pursuit as well. Atheist Antony Flew became a theist because he concluded there was not “enough time” (since the beginning of the universe) for the building blocks of life to have formed randomly. Perhaps the odds of that happening in the time allotted thus far are even less than a pool of blood naturally forming with the name of the killer written in it? But I have no first-hand scientific knowledge on this.

    A god of the gaps is no god at all. My God is over all and through all and in all, bigger than science. How would you scientifically approach omnipresence? Why do we demand miracles for proof?

    My God is above science, but He created science. I don’t believe there is any contradiction between the two. Science is a pursuit of real knowledge (as is theology), and miracles are scientifically unexplainable. Omnipresence is likewise unexplainable scientifically, let alone theologically.

    I don’t know that miracles are “demanded” for proof of the Divine, but they serve as a pretty good proof because we know that a human who is prone to power-seeking generally won’t be able to recreate them on his own. It’s a good way to distinguish between genuine prophets and cult leaders. But I don’t demand that God come down and perform a magic trick for me; the great cloud of witnesses is enough for this lawyer. Some religions claim to have more first-hand witnesses than others, and some of these witnesses are more credible than others.

    But I do think Psi is right that ID is not particularly different than creationism, as that link I posted discusses.

    I found the link you posted quite unsatisfying. It focused more on the religious motives for pursuing ID, rather than the actual pursuit of ID. I couldn’t care less what the motives are, the empirical facts are the empirical facts. The facts of physics may lead us to the creation of guns and bombs and other works of violence, but the violent motives of those scientists does not in any way invalidate the science they used to unleash their evil. Whether their discoveries and the uses thereof were evil is not a scientific question, nor is the motives of ID proponents.

    I also disagree with the posts’s assertion that a “significant problem for ID advocates, however, is that ‘design’ and ‘intelligence’ are social constructs rooted deeply in theological and philosophical speculation about ultimate meaning and purposes.” Referring again to the pool of blood, one need not have any social construct of design or intelligence to conclude, scientifically, that the name in the pool of blood was probably created by some intentional source. The defendant in court isn’t going to say to a jury, “you see, you can have reasonable doubt because your idea of intelligence is a speculative social construct, so you can’t conclude that my name scrawled in the pool of blood was anything more than a random occurrence.” Verdict: GUILTY!

    If aliens designed life, where did the aliens come from? Turtles all the way down?

    Why is it not acceptable to state that this is a scientific mystery? There are other scientific mysteries, aren’t there? What’s so unscientific about saying that scientific facts point to a designer (an agent with intelligence that acted intentionally), but we don’t scientifically know who/what the designer is/was, or whether it is/was natural/physical or supernatural/immaterial?

    With the name in the pool of blood, we may not know whether the writer of the name (if there was one) was short, bald, male, female, or an escaped chimpanzee that had been taught to write down the name of his owner (even though the chimp may not know what the written name “means”). We don’t know whether the dead person wrote it–even if that person has blood on his finger. Perhaps someone else took the person’s hand and wrote the name in it to mislead the police. None of these questions has anything to do with whether the appearance of the name was intentional or random.

    I do not believe that ID could ever prove 100% (if such proof were to exist for anything anyway) that life was designed. Only that the evidence points that way. Even if they hypothetically established that life was approximately 25% likely to have been designed and 75% likely to have occurred randomly, both theories are worth exploration and explanation to students. I don’t see how one can conclude otherwise. Either we eliminate the random/intentional question as scientifically invalid (precluding ID and natural selection) or we admit that it is a scientifically valid one (in which case we include both, regardless of the motives for doing so). Political correctness is absolutely not a good excuse for limiting scientific research, the predelictions of the American Psychology Association notwithstanding.


  8. Hi NL,

    Sorry it’s been a while replying.

    You said;

    “Falsification of ID, or at least the discovery of evidence weighing against it, would consist of proof that life can evolve from a random collection of parts. So get a box, put a bunch of non-living things in it, shake it up, produce a living being, and you will have falsified ID, right? I am quite certain that if scientists could create life from a lifeless environment, and particularly through a random process, they would claim to have completely falsified ID. Do you disagree?”

    Yes definitely;

    1 – Science doesn’t claim that life started like that. So why would it falsify your theory?
    2 – Evolution isn’t abiogenesis.
    3 – You seem to be setting up a false dichotomy

    re rabbits,

    The pattern of fossils in the rocks moves from very simple things to more complex ones. No one has ever spotted a fossil mamal in precambrian rocks and if it did then our understanding of the development of life would be all wrong.

    A more general way to express this way of falsifying evolution would be “a static fossil record”.

    I don’t mean to be rude but this is high school level stuff. If you aren’t even aware of these basics then how do you know it is wrong?

    Cheers,

    Psi


  9. Hi NL,

    ID is simply creationism with the overt religious refernces removed to help creationists get their (long ago debunked) anti evolutionary “arguments” into public schools in the US.

    Try searching for cdesignpropoenttsists”

    – – –

    You are quoting Dawkins out of context.

    Cheers,

    Psi

  10. padraic2112 Says:

    > Now, as to the claim that the theory
    > of evolution by means of natural
    > selection is scientific and ID is not
    > because ID is not falsifiable: how
    > is the concept of randomness possibly
    > falsifiable in any way that ID is not?

    Please define what you mean by “concept of randomness”.

    I’m passing familiar with randomness, but I’m not familiar with the way you are using it here. Professor Futuyma’s understanding of randomness is probably incorrect or at best incomplete, since he’s not a mathematician; however, his explanation of randomness within the context of biology, while imprecise, illustrates the point he is trying to make.

    > Is the question of whether some certain
    > pattern is random or designed not a
    > proper subject of scientific inquiry?

    That’s not the question being asked, actually, although people do try to shoehorn the question of ID vs. Evolution into that framework.

    Science operates off of a number of different axioms. Like any other formal framework of thought, these are presupposed to be true. Among them are that the universe operates according to a set of laws, and that these laws are constant, and that these laws can be derived within some order of precision through observation.

    The question of whether or not these axioms are correct or not is a question of philosophy, not science. It is a given that any formal framework of thought cannot be examined by the rules under which it itself operates (something many philosophers have failed to recognize, by the way). Questions about the correctness of these axioms can be taken up in a Philosophy class, but not in Biology 101.

    Intelligent design, all hand-waving aside as to the “source” of the design, presupposes that there exists some intelligent entity that is capable of manipulating the rules of reality. The “aliens” conjecture is a red herring; if “aliens” are the Intelligent Designers of humanity, than who designed the aliens? It’s not “turtles all the way down”, at some point you have to get to a primal mover; an entity which is capable of generating life (that itself was not generated); this entity by definition exists outside the physical constraints of the universe… it is, therefore, by definition, paranormal.

    It is certainly possible for a paranormal entity to exist; even as a thought experiment it stands to reason that there is no way to falsify the existence of a paranormal entity, since by definition it is capable of violating any empirical observable capability. People who say, “I’ll believe in God as soon as you show me empirical evidence that He/She/It exists” are committing a tautology; they’ve gamed the contest ahead of time for the God-believer to fail.

    The question of the existence of God is not answerable using empirical evidence, and anyone who claims otherwise, whether they be a believer or an agnostic or an atheist, is either a fool or they have a laughably simplistic idea of “God”.

    Now, it is posited, in the particular case of evolutionary theory, that changes in the genetic code are be explained by random mutation. You ask “is this possibly falsifiable in a way that ID is not?”

    Of course it is, and it has been tested in numerous different ways. There is a large volume of evolutionary biology literature addressing this question (basically, all of it, you’ll have to take classes in biology for references), using a vast number of different methodologies. Random mutation has been observed in gene replication. Population modeling including randomness matches observable population phenomena, and so on. Random processes do exist, and are observable. Moreover, they can be shown to occur in a frequency and severity that, when modeled over time, can be shown computationally to cause divergence.

    Now, of course, there is no way to *prove* that this is *the* explanation for evolutionary processes. Even apparently random processes may be merely manipulated to appear random, if indeed there exists a paranormal entity capable of ignoring what we understand as the rules of reality. But that’s not a scientific question, any more than “are the laws of thermodynamics evil” is a theological question.

    We know random processes exist. The existence of any random process implies that a random process is a possible explanation for any particular physical phenomena. We do not know that a designer exists. This does not imply that a designer is *not* a possible explanation for a particular physical phenomena, but it is not a testable hypothesis.

    ID has no real falsification standard. If you posit that a supernatural entity manipulates the evolutionary process, how do you show that this is the case? This is, for all intents and purposes, impossible, because the supernatural entity manipulating the evolutionary process is not subject to observation. If I generate life by a lab experiment, the ID proponent can simply claim that the Designer reached in and created the life. If I show a closed population of bacteria that diverges, the ID proponent can claim that my population wasn’t closed “enough” to prove that randomness caused the divergence.

  11. padraic2112 Says:

    Sorry, clarification on that last, change “that these laws are constant” to “these laws are immutable”, I don’t want anyone to confuse my rule with a rejection of general relativity, which it isn’t 🙂

  12. J Says:

    Sorry, I’ve been mulling over a response as well, but Psi basically pre-empted everything I was going to say. I guess I’ll say it anyway, in my own words.

    > If science cannot say whether nature came from an intelligent source, it certainly cannot say that it didn’t come from one, or that one is not currently guiding it. And with that, Natural Selection as a science falls apart, does it not?

    This is the crux of the whole argument. Science cannot say, either way, whether life, the universe, and everything were designed or not. So to ask the question is non-scientific. Science as currently practiced is experimental and observational, and anything beyond that is speculation. Speculation about unobservable events (like the origins of life) is only scientific to the extent that it is consistent with other scientific observations and, ideally, testable through experiments (even if these experiments are not (yet) possible). Other kinds of speculation are called “philosophy”. ID is in this category, whereas randomness fits with what we know about the universe, what we observe around us, and can be replicated in a laboratory. Natural selection is the best current scientific theory and should be taught as such, just like quantum mechanics or any other theory near the edges of what we know.

    > …it was my understanding that scientists have never been able to produce life from an environment of non-life.

    It sort of depends on your definition of “life”. Are viruses alive? Are prions? The scientific consensus is that it’s a continuum, so this question is not especially relevant. It’s actually very much like the definition of “species”, which is a lot more fluid than you’ve probably been taught. Yes, at some point, two lineages become incapable of interbreeding, but before that there’s a long, long period where they could but don’t. We observe populations of organisms at every stage of this speciation process, and we see them moving along it, and we can experimentally push them in one direction or the other, and common descent makes the most sense of the fossil record, so we conclude that’s probably how it works. Ditto for life, except substitute “molecules” for “organisms”. So in that sense, life is constantly being created, even today. It just takes a long time.

    > Perhaps the odds of that happening in the time allotted thus far are even less than a pool of blood naturally forming with the name of the killer written in it?

    I can’t even begin to calculate that, and I don’t think I would trust anyone else’s calculation, either.

    > What’s so unscientific about saying that scientific facts point to a designer (an agent with intelligence that acted intentionally), but we don’t scientifically know who/what the designer is/was, or whether it is/was natural/physical or supernatural/immaterial?

    There can’t ever be scientific evidence of anything supernatural. I’m not saying we could never observe a one-time supernatural event, but that’s not science (http://xkcd.com/242/). As a friend of mine says, “Once is interesting, twice is coincidence, three times is science.” If it’s random, like subatomic particles, it should have a well-defined probability distribution. Supernatural events have none of these properties, pretty much by definition.

    And you don’t begin science with the facts already known. Most ID research begs the question. Sure, you can begin with a hypothesis, but it doesn’t count if your hypothesis can’t ever be disproven. In the case of the crime scene, the straightforward hypothesis is design. We see people write things all the time, but I’ve never seen it happen randomly, so it’s quite a stretch to explain it that way. For the origins of life, we take random processes we see in action around us today and extrapolate backward. I’ve never seen God create life or anything else, in that sense, so why would I invoke him when there are everyday occurrences that might already account for the observations?

    So, yes, I wonder about the falsifiability of Darwinian evolution, but what other natural explanation is there? People have been looking and looking, and the theory has been tweaked but never rejected. That’s why some have begun referring to it as the “fact of evolution”, though I’m unwilling to go that far. It’s not cut and dried, but it explains just about everything, and nothing else makes any scientific sense.


  13. To summarize, I asked if my “shake a box of non-living parts and produce a living being” hypothetical would falsify ID, and you claimed that it would not on three grounds:

    1 – Science doesn’t claim that life started like that. So why would it falsify your theory?

    That’s a non-sequitur. It doesn’t matter what “science” currently claims. The question is what it would claim if the scenario occurred.

    To be clear, ID is not my theory. I never even advocated for the truth of ID, I don’t think. I’m somewhat skeptical, but think it’s worth an inquiry (and I’m certainly willing to question the “random” aspect of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection hypothesis (hereinafter TENS)).

    The “box” scenario would falsify ID because it would prove that non-complex, i.e. non-living and non-self-replicating, parts can be shaken up and randomly form a more complex living being (with the appearance of design as a complex living being) within a reasonable amount of time. This would mean that the overwhelming appearance of design (conceded by Futuyma), coupled with incredible complexity, does not imply a designer, and there is adequate time in our universe for that to happen. I think it’s a dubious claim that pro-TENS scientists wouldn’t give each other high-fives if they could accomplish the box scenario.

    On the other hand, one could always argue that the creation of life in the shaken-up box cannot be shown to be truly random. If one is a hard-determinist, nothing is random. One might argue that a spiritual force was at work in the box forming the life, just as it is at work in guiding the evolutionary process. However, if that is not falsifiable, then neither is the “randomness” that is the bedrock of TENS. My point is not to argue that ID is science, or that it is falsifiable. My point is that ID is neither less nor more falsifiable than TENS, but only with respect to the design/intent v. randomness foundation (my post is not about the other aspects of TENS—only randomness, hence the title of the entire post).

    2 – Evolution isn’t abiogenesis.

    But abiogenesis is science, isn’t it? And TENS leads to questions about abiogenesis, doesn’t it? Abiogenesis is certainly a concern of the design v. randomness presuppositional question behind TENS and ID. And it is only TENS which we are questioning; we are not questioning the evolutionary process entirely.

    3 – You seem to be setting up a false dichotomy

    What is the third possible outcome to my hypothetical that I’ve ignored?

    The pattern of fossils in the rocks moves from very simple things to more complex ones. No one has ever spotted a fossil mamal in precambrian rocks and if it did then our understanding of the development of life would be all wrong.
    A more general way to express this way of falsifying evolution would be “a static fossil record”.

    I’m not convinced that Precambrian rabbits would falsify the random hypothesis. It would change a scientific historical question, which might lead to the conclusion that some life developed faster or differently than previously expected. But I don’t see how one could claim that the existence of a static fossil record would mean that life could not have formed randomly at the outset. Do you think that the existence of Precambrian rabbits would compel the conclusion that life was designed and was not random? It still could be explained in terms of randomness if one wanted to do so.

    I don’t mean to be rude but this is high school level stuff. If you aren’t even aware of these basics then how do you know it is wrong?

    That was funny. Given the thesis of the post, the irony that “this is high school level stuff” is not lost on me. In any event, I don’t claim to know TENS is 100% wrong with 100% certainty. I wasn’t there, nor were you. I have neither the time, energy, nor interest in becoming an expert on the subject; but being a lawyer, the question of what we teach our children is of interest to me. I believe that TENS is wrong insofar as it relies on randomness as a necessarily exclusive basis for explaining the origin of all life (including human life) as we know it. Therefore, I’m open to at least considering the evidence that life may have been developed through an intentionally guided process, even guided evolution. Professor Futuyma clearly is not, despite his lack of certain evidence that life is not sustained or changed over time by a guided process.

    ID is simply creationism with the overt religious refernces [sic] removed to help creationists get their (long ago debunked) anti evolutionary “arguments” into public schools in the US.

    If there’s anything a litigator is good at, it’s spotting a conclusionary assertion passed off as an “argument.” Yours provides a good example.

    The problem scientists currently face is that they have all the credibility of a used car salesman. “Long ago debunked” is tantamount to a scientist saying “trust me.” And I don’t. Skepticism is a two-way street.

    In any event, sometimes the older argument is, in fact, the better one.

    You are quoting Dawkins out of context.

    Do you contend that Dawkins does not, in fact, believe that aliens may have possibly (even if there is an infinitesimal chance) designed life as we know it somehow? Even if not (I don’t know, nor care, frankly), my reference to Dawkins was a throw-away. Surely there are some scientists that acknowledge such possibilities, even if they are atheists. Dawkins is not someone I respect; apparently, many intelligent atheists do not, either.


  14. Padraic and J:

    Your responses are excellent, well-written, and quite informative for the non-scientist (i.e. me). I do have some thoughts in response, but I spent too much time with psiloiordinary’s argument before reading yours.

    This is why I tend to make arguments in the form of rhetorical questions; I’m offering thoughtful people like yourselves a chance to rebut my argument clearly so that I can learn if I’m wrong, which happens more than I care to admit.

    I do have some thoughts in response, so they are coming. You’ve both given me a lot to digest.


  15. Hi NL,

    Sorry – can’t parse this bit at all;

    “It doesn’t matter what “science” currently claims. The question is what it would claim if the scenario occurred.”

    To try to be clear;

    Science says shake things up in a box like that and you won’t get life – so does ID.

    So this is not a claim that makes ID different to science in anyway so testing such a silly claim is just a silly waste of time.

    – – –

    You said;

    “I’m certainly willing to question the “random” aspect of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection hypothesis (hereinafter TENS)).”

    I am yet to be convinced you have a grasp of what the “random” aspect of TENS actually is. Please can you summarise you understanding of it.

    A sentence or two in your own words will be plenty.

    – – –

    Shaking things up in a box and getting life sounds pretty much like creationism to me.

    Scientists would be fascinated – read baffled in the popular press.

    – – –

    “One might argue that a spiritual force was at work in the box forming the life, just as it is at work in guiding the evolutionary process.”

    Who is it that claims this exactly?

    – – –

    Oh and before I forget – how would ID be falsifiable in a way that distinguishes it from accepted science – what prediction does it make that science doesn’t already make?

    – – –

    I said;

    “2 – Evolution isn’t abiogenesis.”

    You said;

    “But abiogenesis is science, isn’t it?”

    So what?

    Try to stick to the subject of the debate please.

    Unless you are arguing for science not to be taught??

    – – –

    I said;

    “3 – You seem to be setting up a false dichotomy”

    You said;

    “What is the third possible outcome to my hypothetical that I’ve ignored?”

    The scientists favourite one – “we don’t know”.

    My point is that you don’t provide evidence for hypothesis A by knocking holes in theory B. You might in a court of law in front of jury. But it simply doesn’t wash in the logical and evidence base arena of science.

    You don’t get suspect A put away just by proving suspect B couldn’t have done it.

    You need evidence to support your theory – things that you predict that the current thinking doesn’t. Predictions that, if found not to be fulfilled, actually falsify your theory compared to the prevailing theory.

    I’m still waiting for any kind of an attempt to do that. All ears and happy to think carefully about any suggestion you might come up with.

    – – –

    “More generally, TENS would be falsified by a static fossil record.”

    Why are you ignoring this? ( I think I know – its called “confirmation bias” )

    Isn’t a static fossil record just what ID predicts? If not, then what DOES ID predict?

    – – –

    “I have neither the time, energy, nor interest in becoming an expert on the subject; but being a lawyer, the question of what we teach our children is of interest to me.”

    So at least make an effort to understand it to the level that our children will be taught it then.

    Or is that somehow not necessary?

    I would have thought it would be the bare minimum.

    Look NL – I have asked you for more details about ID – specifically how it could be falsified.

    You haven’t answer – yet.

    You display an almost complete lack of understand of the TENS and yet you claim to doubt it.

    Now you deny a wish to become an expert even though I never asked you to be one.

    Putting words into my mouth might be highly effective in a courtroom but it is at best impolite outside of one. I haven’t done this to you so please don’t do it to me or I will withdraw. After all If you just want to make up my side of the debate then you don’t really need me anyway.

    – – –

    Now, earlier I told you that TENS was not abiogenesis and you acknowledged it.

    But here you are again;

    “I believe that TENS is wrong insofar as it relies on randomness as a necessarily exclusive basis for explaining the origin of all life (including human life) as we know it. ”

    So you either forgot this whilst writing your comment in between or . . . .

    I don’t know!

    Why or how would you do that?

    Are you deliberately trying to distort what TENS or abiogenesis is?

    Surely not a strawman argument?

    I await you explanation with interest.

    – – –

    You said;

    “If there’s anything a litigator is good at, it’s spotting a conclusionary assertion passed off as an “argument.” Yours provides a good example.”

    Fight fire with fire, I always say.

    I will be happy to discuss the evidence for my comment – even that evidence I already mentioned and that you seem to be ignoring.

    Hint

    cdesignproponentsists

    again

    (more confirmation bias perhaps?)

    Did you even notice you did it?

    – – –

    Anyhow, all along I thought you were trying to make a balanced argument based on evidence, but then you say this;

    “The problem scientists currently face is that they have all the credibility of a used car salesman. ”

    Funny that you now reveal your own bias so openly.

    With that attitude why on earth don’t you just delete my comments? Or didn’t you mean me?

    Regards,

    Psi


  16. Psi:

    Just a brief note… I’ve never deleted a comment and have no intention to start, except perhaps for spam or highly offensive (like pornographic) posts. I’m quite more open minded than you give me credit for. Of course I have biases, as do you. We have worldviews, and human beings are hesitant to change their worldviews.

    I’m sorry if you feel slighted, but it wasn’t my intent (my comment there was more a silent reference to the global warming “scientists,” but I definitely don’t want to get into that). This blog exists for critical examination. Your presence is appreciated.

    For my brief and limited examination (as set forth in my post), I’ve tried to let the parties speak for themselves, and I think I’ve taken their words at face value, but I’m open to being shown that I’ve misunderstood them. My chief inquiry is whether a theory of randomness can be “falsifiable” and a theory of design not “falsifiable”. Comment number 5 above goes directly to my point.

    In your post you asked me 15 questions. That’s a bit much for the limited focus of my original question. I’m going to set those aside for now while I focus on the other two commenters’ posts, which are more along the philosophical lines in which I’m interested. I’ll explain what I mean by “random” in my response to them, and perhaps that’s where my error (if any) lies.

    Thanks for your posts.


  17. Ah.

    Silence is very eloquent sometimes.

    Regards,

    Psi


  18. Ok, I’m going to have to just comment with some of my thoughts rather than fully reply. It’s taking too long and I’ve got too many questions/analyses…

    Most relevant here is my understanding of randomness. Keep in mind that I’ve tried to set forth the Darwinian evolutionists’ theory (as stated by Professor Futuyma) in good faith. I’m perfectly open to being corrected in that understanding; I really have no interest in knocking down a straw man.

    What I mean, and what I think Professor Futuyma means, by “random” is “an unintended occurrence,” that is, unintended by anyone or anything. Thus, if you enter a room and find marbles strewn about in no particular order, it will appear “random,” as though someone dropped a handful of marbles without any intent as to where they end up. Yes, the dropping of the marbles by a person, if any, was intentional, but the arrangement is not. On the other hand, if someone placed each particular marble in its place in an intended spot, it’s not random, even if it appears random to you walking into the room. I suppose, looking at the marbles, we could come up with a mathematical calculation of the probability of the marbles having fallen into their current arrangement randomly, but randomness in fact is about the intention (or lack thereof) of the causal agent, not mathematical probability.

    The lynch pin to my understanding of randomness as stated by Professor Futuyma is stated clearly:
    “[N]atural selection is not like Mother Nature watching over us. Since natural selection is totally an impersonal process that is nothing more than a difference, generation by generation, in the reproductive success of one genome over another, there’s no way that it can look forward to the future or guard against the possibility of extinction.” (emphasis mine)

    If it’s an “impersonal” process, a process without regard to the existence of mankind, it is a process without anyone intending that it continue in one particular way or another.

    J, however, says:

    Science cannot say, either way, whether life, the universe, and everything were designed or not. So to ask the question is non-scientific.

    Padraic adds:

    It is certainly possible for a paranormal entity to exist; even as a thought experiment it stands to reason that there is no way to falsify the existence of a paranormal entity, since by definition it is capable of violating any empirical observable capability. People who say, “I’ll believe in God as soon as you show me empirical evidence that He/She/It exists” are committing a tautology; they’ve gamed the contest ahead of time for the God-believer to fail.

    and

    Now, of course, there is no way to *prove* that [random processes are] *the* explanation for evolutionary processes.

    According to the both of you, it appears (if I understand you correctly) that Professor Futuyma is scientifically incompetent to state or imply that there is no “Mother Nature” (“who” would by definition be “paranormal,” existing above the laws of science) or any other personal force (like those described in the many religions and philosophies of mankind) guiding the process of natural selection and ensuring the survival of mankind, no matter how random or designed the process may appear (or be in fact). His statement reveals a philosophical or religious bias that is in no way scientific, right? After all, philosophically, pantheism’s “god” is a possible non-random force intentionally carrying out natural selection. I don’t believe that, but science is incompetent to say that’s not true.

    And if the president of the Society for the Study of Evolution is making incompetent statements directly in response to the simple question “What is natural selection, and how is it central to the theory of evolution?” at an introductory level, isn’t that a huge red flag about teaching evolution, and the kind of people that teach it? These biases leak into the teaching. We all have biases, but if you’re religious, this is a dangerous and scientifically unnecessary bias, and Professor Futuyma has no business slipping in the implication that there is nothing behind the process. He even asserts that TENS is important because it eliminates the need for God as an explanation for the “the appearance of design in living things” (though J says that the question of design is not scientific anyway, which means TENS should be irrelevant to the question of design, rather than an argument against it). If science cannot confirm or deny the existence of any personal design of life, why does this man have any input whatsoever in what is taught in a science (rather than philosophy) classroom?

    (As an aside, perhaps they shouldn’t be separated at all? There’s no law against including “philosophy of science” as a brief component of a science class; why limit an education if you’ve got time for more information?)

    Padraic’s comment leads me to another important question with respect to education: does the scientific process necessarily lead us to truth? The “best scientific theory” today might yield to another better scientific theory tomorrow. That kind of thing has obviously happened before. But moreover, “science” as you’ve described it might even directly lead us to a false conclusion (possibly).

    I realize these are now questions outside of science as you both have described it, but I certainly think it’s worth addressing before we decide the scope of education. On the first day of science class, students may be taught “what is science?” But that lesson isn’t “scientific.” Do we tell students, “all of the stuff we teach you today might lead you to false conclusions, but it’s important to learn anyway”?


  19. J says:

    There can’t ever be scientific evidence of anything supernatural. I’m not saying we could never observe a one-time supernatural event, but that’s not science (http://xkcd.com/242/). As a friend of mine says, “Once is interesting, twice is coincidence, three times is science.” If it’s random, like subatomic particles, it should have a well-defined probability distribution. Supernatural events have none of these properties, pretty much by definition.

    Let’s say you see a rabbit with its head cut off. You have pictures of all angles and all sorts of measurements of the decapitated rabbit (body temperature, loss of blood, etc.). All of a sudden you see the rabbit’s head levitate, assemble itself back to the rabbit’s body, and the rabbit is in full health, alive, with plenty of blood. Could you not do tests to try to find a natural explanation (look for a reason for the levitation, like magnetic forces or something, and see how much blood could’ve been left in the rabbit based on how much it lost, whether any other rabbits can be decapitated and yet continue to live like a chicken or something, etc.)? And if you could find no natural explanation because the scientific tests led you to the answer of “impossible,” could you not conclude that the “best explanation” (your words for natural selection) of the event is a paranormal one (the source of which science is incompetent to examine)?

    Are doctors not scientists if they find a unique event, a one-time disease? They all of a sudden become philosophers?

    Is *anything* scientifically impossible, or does science always assume that there *must* be a scientific explanation?

    In the rabbit scenario, can’t you have scientific evidence of a miracle (without being able to further inquire, scientifically), or must scientists shut their eyes, look the other way, and pretend it didn’t happen at all (as scientists)? And if science reaches the dead end of a necessary paranormal explanation of some type, then can’t we have scientific evidence of the paranormal after all? We could call it simply “scientifically unexplainable,” but all of the evidence available from scientific examination (the available tests I referenced above) would lead any reasonable person to conclude that the occurrence was paranormal.

    I’m not Catholic, but I understand that the Catholic Church “certifies” miracles claimed by witnesses to the event. I would assume, without first-hand knowledge, that the Church first looks for natural explanations, and when it finds none, and has sufficient eye-witness testimony, then certifies that a miracle did in fact occur. At least, that’s what I would do. Isn’t this a case where science is at least useful for paranormal conclusions based on evidence? Isn’t it wrong to assume that science can have *no* use in the examination of the paranormal?


  20. NL,

    If you would try to answer even just a few of the things I asked you then we might make some progress.

    Sigh

    – – –

    You ask:

    “And if the president of the Society for the Study of Evolution is making incompetent statements directly in response to the simple question “What is natural selection, and how is it central to the theory of evolution?” at an introductory level, isn’t that a huge red flag about teaching evolution, and the kind of people that teach it?”

    The answer;

    No. It simply demonstrates that you don’t understand evolution.

    Why not start by giving us your understanding of what evolution is and how natural selection works. You can prove me wrong quite easily and I will be happy for you to do so as I think that such an explanation from you will help us to illustrate where you are making the error in the claims of contradiction.

    It works best if you make the effort to do it this way rather than us just spoon feeding you the answer you see.

    Otherwise you are just making claims of contradiction in two descriptions of a topic when the contradiction would be appear to be based on nothing more than a lack of understanding of that topic by you.

    So why not clear this up and just give us in your own words a description of what you think evolution is? Three or four sentences will do it.

    Whilst you remain reluctant to answer such a germain point then I think we might all be forgiven for suspecting a hidden agenda.

    That was a cracker about the Catholic Church – why not do a bit of research into things instead of just making assumptions?

    Re your claims about the existence of the supernatural and paranormal – imagine ancient people seeing an iphone – supernatural in appearance? Absolutely. We know better now don’t we.

    What about lightning – punishment of the gods? Or electricity?

    Earlier you claimed that if evolution is false then ID must be true and I pulled you up on it. You ignored me.

    Now you try the same trick here – i.e. if we can’t explain something then surely the best answer is the supernatural? Er – no – the best answer is we don’t know.

    Good to see you are really engaging and not just repeating the same errors even when they have been pointed out to you.

    Regards,

    Psi

  21. Sealawr Says:

    I hesitate to leap into this but I’ll try. As a fellow lawyer and with a very strong professional interest in this subject, I’ll first directly respond to this:

    “The lynch pin to my understanding of randomness as stated by Professor Futuyma is stated clearly:
    “[N]atural selection is not like Mother Nature watching over us. Since natural selection is totally an impersonal process that is nothing more than a difference, generation by generation, in the reproductive success of one genome over another, there’s no way that it can look forward to the future or guard against the possibility of extinction.” (emphasis mine)”

    Notice that in the quoted text, Futuyama did not use the word “random.” There is a reason for that. Natural Selection is not random.

    There is a difference between “random” and “unguided” as those terms are used in biology.

    “Random” in biology does not mean “anything can happen.” Evolution is constrained. Here’s a poor analogy–a roll of a a standard dice cube is random. Despite the randomness, only numbers 1 through 6 will occur–you can’t roll a “9” with one cube. Evolution is similarly constrained.

    Genetic mutations are “random.” Natural selection is not. Natural selection is like a seive–only certain mutations can pass through the seive, but the seive has no apparent purpose.

    “Let’s say you see a rabbit with its head cut off….could you not conclude that the “best explanation” (your words for natural selection) of the event is a paranormal one (the source of which science is incompetent to examine)?”

    You could consider the event is outside our current scientific expertise to evaluate. “Paranormal” or even “Magic” could be used to describe this event, but, like all scientific conclusions, those conclusions would be tentatively held while the phenomenom is still under investigation. What do you think when you see Sigfried & Roy “vanish” a tiger? Do you think that any laws of physics were violated? Or do you simply assume that you don’t have complete information on how the trick was performed? Different people may have different tolerances for accepting when they concede they will “never” solve the trick. My enjoyment of stage magic is very high but I have never seen or heard of anything I’d consider paranormal or not readily explainable by science, even if I personally coudl not explain it–like the tiger vanishing trick–absolutely amazing!

    I disagree that science is incompetent to examine any observable event. As a Catholic, I can say the Church’s examination of miracles is shockingly non-rigorous and not a useful example of the point you are trying to make. (The headless rabbit suffices and is very good!)

  22. Psiloiordinary Says:

    Ahoy sealawyer,

    oh bugger you just did the spoon feeding I was carefully avoiding.

    But you did do it very eloquently.

    Spoiled my little pedagological trial – but very nicely.

    I await nl’s response with baited breath.

  23. padraic2112 Says:

    > According to the both of you, it appears
    > (if I understand you correctly) that
    > Professor Futuyma is scientifically
    > incompetent to state or imply that there
    > is no … personal force… guiding
    > the process of natural selection

    (Edited for brevity, I hope I correctly ascertained your nuance).

    No, you misunderstood me.

    *If* a supernatural entity exists, it cannot be studied using science. Period, full stop.

    This doesn’t meant that rejecting the possibility of the supernatural being is bad science. In fact, it’s just the opposite: it’s a prerequisite to repeatable behaviors, which is what science is all about.

    The scientist must reject a causal explanation that assumes the existence of a non-empirically testable entity in order to perform science.

    Otherwise, you’re violating several of the axioms of science. Science assumes that the laws of the universe are immutable; there exists no being that can ignore the laws of physics simply by wishing to do so.

    Here’s an example: Al sees someone dead on the sidewalk. Suddenly, the dead person gets up and walks away.

    Al can formalize several different hypotheses:

    * The guy wasn’t dead, he just appeared to be dead.
    * Al just witnessed a miracle.
    * Al just witnessed an extremely rare incident of naturally occurring cardiopulmonary resuscitation caused by some non-paranormal explanation.

    The scientist *discards* the second possibility. Some scientists would argue that the reason for this discarding is that “that is impossible”… but the proper reason for us to discard that possibility is that there is no way for us to repeat that occurrence. We cannot test for miracles. If we find something that appears by all observation to have no natural explanation, it is always a possible explanation that the problem is that our powers of observation are currently limited, *not* “God did it*.

    One can argue that empiricism is wrong. There’s lots of philosophical thought experiments that have been offered at one time or another by various philosophers.

    Example: “What if the universe as we know it doesn’t exist? What if I’m in some completely different universe, with completely different laws, but I’m in some analog of a coma in that alternate universe and everything I think I’m seeing, hearing, or otherwise experiencing *here* is just an internal hallucination?”

    There is no way to test *that* hypothesis scientifically, either. You can’t design an experimental method when you’re assuming that all of your empirical evidence is in question.

    The common mis-perception (not only among lay persons, but most scientists who don’t actually study the philosophy of science) is that scientists seek truth.

    They don’t. They seek empirical fact.

    Assuming that empirical fact is *also* a true representation of reality is a philosophy question, not a scientific one. It happens to be a *default axiom* of science, which is why people often conflate the two, but it is, itself, *NOT* a scientific question.

    Put another way, any formal framework of thinking (theology, philosophy, any formal logic, mathematics, science) cannot be examined by the tools that are present within itself.

    Science classes teach science, they don’t teach philosophy of science. The lack of formal teaching of the philosophy of science is in and of itself a bad thing, from an educational standpoint, just like the lack of symbolic logic education is a bad thing.

    But symbolic logic isn’t actually *part* of mathematics, and teaching symbolic logic is something that would be done very badly if it was done in the context of the mathematics classroom. Philosophy of science doesn’t belong in a biology class, it belongs is a philosophy class.

    ID assumes the existence of an agent that can act on the physical universe without itself being measurable. There is no way to empirically test this assertion, as the entity can avoid observation. That’s not science.


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