To read about F's and my London trip, start here and click "newer post" to continue the story.

Friday, December 23, 2005

I swore I would stop talking about Intelligent Design, but I've slipped up in comments elsewhere and stuck in a sentence or two. I guess I can say what I like on my own blog, though.

Something I have tried to impress upon my daughter is that sloppy language leads to sloppy thinking. I think this is particularly true in the whole evolution/ID - well, I can't call it dialog, because both sides are talking past each other.

Some time ago I read the sequel to Jurassic Park (and found it disappointing, shallow and stupid, unlike JP which was very good) and I found a statement that I will have to paraphrase, because I can't find my copy to quote directly. The statement was to the effect that dinosaurs evolved a family structure because they needed to.

Okay, the way natural selection works is that changes are constantly happening when DNA is passed from one generation to the next. The changes may be copying errors, or they may be caused by some mutagen, or they happen for some other reason. Anyway, sometimes those changes are disastrous, and the offspring can't live. Sometimes they don't make any difference. And sometimes when they happen in a particular species living in a particular environment, they give the offspring some advantage so that it is better able to pass its DNA, with that alteration in place, along to the next generation. Over time the changed DNA and whatever physical way it manifests itself becomes more prevalent in the group. That's it in a nutshell.

But the change has to happen first, in a strictly random manner, and then prove advantageous or not. To say that any characteristic evolved "because it needed to" is completely incompatible with the idea of natural selection. One could argue that it's just an informal way of stating that the environment was such that only the dinosaurs that randomly acquired family structure could survive. But the problem comes in with the ID debate.

I know there is more to the concept called Intelligent Design than "something or someone caused this to happen". I've read Darwin's Black Box, and I'm frustrated by the fact that my background in life sciences is insufficient for me to determine whether Behe's arguments hold water or not. But I will say that if, for example, God brought about the dinosaurs using whatever combination of natural selection and direct design he found appropriate; and then he thought that it would be interesting, and they would have a better chance of survival, if they formed family groups, and then he caused that to happen: that makes sense. It flows. It's internally consistent.

I'm not saying that dinosaurs didn't get their family structures from natural selection in its purest form. I don't know how they got them. I don't know that they did in fact get them. But I do know that if a scientist insists on excluding the idea of a designer with unmerciful rigidity, then he should be rigorous in excluding sloppy language. He should be able to state his ideas in such a way that they make perfect sense without the concept of a designer deciding something was "needed" or whatever. Otherwise it looks like he's trying to have it both ways.

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