(Originally written November, 2005)
The Vatican stand that biological evolution “represents the interpretative key of the history of life on Earth” is refreshing (‘Design’ is not science, Vatican paper says). Its conclusion (and subtle admonition) that “intelligent design doesn’t belong to science and the pretext that it be taught as a scientific theory alongside Darwin’s explanation is unjustified” has a ring of irony that begs a reading between the lines, so to speak. My interpretation of the message follows along these lines: there is a line separating science and theology that should not be crossed, and that intelligent design falls squarely on the side of, and within the exclusive purview of, theology. The implied meaning coming out of the Vatican is an accommodation of sorts: we’ll keep theological concepts (such as intelligent design) out of science deliberations; (if) you undertake to keep scientific concepts (such as evolution) out of the way of theology.
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The December 2005 ruling by Judge John E. Jones III in the evolution versus Intelligent Design case finally allowed the good citizens of Dover, PA to return to life as usual – just in time to enjoy the holiday season. Perhaps it is too much to expect any long held opinions to evolve following the judgment denying the mention of Intelligent Design in science classes. But then again, we all sense we have not heard the last on the subject in this ongoing national dispute – and that other school districts will become tested for both their resolve and patience, as the composition of their school boards vacillate between supporters of one side and the other.
As national debates go, this one is a classic, transcending science, religion, philosophy and now politics. Even President Bush could not help himself from injecting his opinion on the side of ID. With all of the media attention given the debate – the discussions and arguments, pro and con – one could hope that by now, the ID/evolution issues would have gained a modicum of clarity and transparency. These are, after all, important topics for discussion and citizens must be able to assess how such legal decisions reflect the intent and spirit of the constitution and the impact on science education in particular. Unfortunately, that bit of logic appears to be overoptimistic as the two sides persist in talking past, rather than to, each other. The debate has assumed a level of partisanship more suggestive of political campaigning than of rational discourse. In truth, this reality comes neither as surprise nor disappointment because that is how it has been since Darwin made his case for biological evolution some century and a half ago. The question we must consider is whether over all this time – any new information has been supplemented that could conceivably change the partisan dynamics of the debate. One need just look below the surface to see that it indeed has. In fact, the changes we might want to seek out are to be found in how the term evolution itself has evolved. And, just to set the record straight, as to where my sentiments lie, I am a strong believer in the separation of church and state and have no personal agenda or ax to grind.
Evolution means change. It is an umbrella term that can be applied to any dynamic process, whether deemed natural or not. Thus, scientists talk about an evolving universe just as casually as they do referring to evolving plate tectonics or an evolving weather system with hurricane potential. Economists refer to evolving economic trends and sociologists refer to evolving social trends. Engineers talk about evolving technological disciplines and fashion gurus talk about evolving trends in what we wear. These are in addition to Charles Darwin’s – then radical, now mainstream – scientific idea that biological species evolve and his suggestion of how biological evolution might occur.
Over time, the term “biological evolution” has come to represent not only the results of changes in species but as well the mechanisms by which those changes occur. The libraries are full of books devoted to the subject of biological evolution and I will not subject the reader to more than be necessary for our purposes here. I, for one, am fully confident in accepting the premise that mainstream science has successfully made the case that biological evolution is a fact of life – that is, that species have evolved from common ancestors and are likely to continue to do so. The fact that life comprised single-celled organisms exclusively for the most of its 3.8 billion year existence on this planet pretty well demands evolutionary processes to validate the relatively recent rise of multicellular species. At the same time, I accept evolution biologists’ caveat at face value that not all of the mechanisms of evolution are presently understood – as exemplified by the fact that there are a number of seemingly paradoxical anomalies that evolutionists are hard pressed to explain. The unexplained missing links in the fossil record is one and the seeming paradox of complex organ development (e.g., the seeing eye) is another. One can debate whether these unexplained phenomena (among others) obscure the case for biological evolution and open up to the opposition legitimate arguments to question some aspects of evolution.
Probably the most glaring example of evolution theory inconsistency concerns the attempt by researchers to apply the principles of biological evolution to the origin-of-life theory referred to as abiogenesis. Abiogenesis postulates that life began from inanimate chemical elements. Its legitimacy as an origin of life option depends primarily on chemical evolution processes that could account for the accumulation in complexity of inanimate chemical constituents. According to theorists, some pre-biotic chemical entities began to self-replicate and evolve, gained sufficient complexity over eons of time, and eventually resulted in the biological cellular system of life we are witness to today. As stated, the theory of abiogenesis depends entirely on chemical evolution processes for its viability. Obviously, the mainstream community of biologists believes they can extrapolate Darwin’s theory of biological evolution, a theory with ample evidence to back it up, to a hypothetical strictly chemical phase of evolution which at present lacks any credible evidence. Which leads us to the obvious issue: whether and to what degree mainstream science may have overreached – beyond its legitimate application of the evolution label. To what extent has it opened up to ID a variety of legitimate pretexts to deny some aspects of biological evolution that in reality lack any kind of scientific evidentiary support? Less important are the references to the missing transitional fossils and the mystery that concerns the development of complex organs referred to above. At least, both are acknowledged phenomena, albeit ones that beg explanations. More insidious is the attempt to extrapolate and apply the principles of biological evolution to chemical based abiogenesis – an origin of life option that has even engendered a fair amount of skepticism from within the scientific community itself. It is within the origin of life arena, in my view, where the battle for scientific minds will eventually play itself out.
To be clear, it will be the origin of life issue that will ultimately determine the future success or failure of each side in the evolution vs. ID debate. The scientific case that states that biological species evolve from ancestral biological species is very different from the concept of biological species evolving from increasingly complex precursor prebiotic inanimate chemical entities. The fact is that biological evolution is as different from chemical evolution as biological-life is from non-life. Biological evolution is a proven living phenomenon while chemical evolution is not only devoid of evidence but can legitimately be argued not to exist at all. The latter could well be just an unproven myth necessarily conjured up in order to validate the self-generation origin of life hypothesis. I predict that the biological/chemical evolution inconsistency is destined to become the proverbial line drawn in the sand that will ultimately determine the scientific viability of either the natural self-generation of life or OoL by design.
One more outstanding issue: Does the idea of “intelligent design”, of necessity, imply a religious connotation or basis? Not really – let us assume for the moment an OoL hypothesis by Rational Design (RD) – that the interactive system of Life on our planet is the direct result of genetic engineering and purposely deposited on this planet some 3.8 billion years ago in order to accomplish specific goals. Human engineers do it all the time – design systems and put them into operation to serve a specific design intent. Who knows – eventually human genetic engineers might discover how to create life from inanimate chemicals in some molecular engineering lab from scratch. Isn’t it possible that somebody beat us to it some four billion years ago? If we make that assumptive leap, the next consideration, agendas aside, is whether it is possible to test for RD. Could RD logically be put to the test under thoroughly scientific circumstances such that it be proved or disproved – thus rendering the concept relevant from the scientific point of view? Why not? If, for example, we could test the DNA information library for extraneous information – intelligible information having nothing to do with the genetic instructions for life – would that not qualify as a form of valid testability, and thusly qualify as well for scientific relevancy? And if such extraneous information were to be discovered somewhere within the 5000 volume equivalent human DNA library, would that not qualify unequivocally as the incontrovertible evidence of design that RD proponents suggest? And might that not also satisfy the ID contention that life is indeed too complicated to have self-generated randomly and that outside intervention was and is required for the origin of life? Think about it!
Bryant M. Shiller is the author of the newly released book:
Origin of Life: The 5th OPTION.
Copyright © BRYANT M SHILLER 2006.
All rights reserved subject to the following conditions: Publication, reproduction, transfer, distribution or storage of part or all of the contents is expressly permitted so long as the source of any and all information used is mentioned according to the above copyright.