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Monday, January 17, 2005

If you compare the defense of Darwinism in the nineteenth century, when it was a new and shaky venture, with the defenses mounted of it now, when it is a successful and chubby scientific paradigm, you find a strange thing: early Darwinists were much more radical critics of their opponents than today’s breed. Yes, scientists now will publish lists of common fallacies about evolution spread by creationists, or they will man the battlements to fight over this or that supposed gap in the evolutionary record. But they always play defense. We suspect this is because of a general feeling that hurting the religious sensibilities of people in a society where an appreciable percentage believe they have been abducted by aliens, while others are waiting for the rapture and the conversion of the Jews, is the better part of valor and funding opportunities.

We say to hell with that. Perhaps, we have sometimes thought, it really would be a good thing to teach ID in school, subjecting it to the rough and tumble of the scientific method, and thus induce a benign strain of skepticism in the population. Handling it with kid gloves not only encourages Intelligent Design, but coddles an unhealthy gullibility in the populace.

How would our class on ID look?

The first thing to do is to understand both intelligence and design. There is a distinction of degree between the type of intelligent design that remains at the level of technique – design that solely takes advantage of how materials work – and design that depends on a deeper level of understanding of why materials work.

To illustrate this, compare the discovery of wrought iron, which was purely a “how’ discovery, with the discovery of ammonia fertilizer, which was largely a why discovery.

Richard Cowen has published a nice web book, for his course on geology at UC Davis, which has illuminating chapters on the bronze age, the iron age, and so on. According to Cowen, we have wrought iron work going back to 1400 B.C. Tutankhamen, who was buried around then, took with him into the underworld (besides a celebrated horde of goldwork) an iron dagger.

Cowen points to the difficulty in working with iron:

“In principle, iron can be smelted from magnetite or hematite, which are comparatively common ores, but iron does not melt at the temperatures that are reached in a primitive furnace: iron is still solid when copper and bronze are molten. Let us suppose that some iron ore, say FeCO3, siderite or "ironstone", is loaded into a furnace along with malachite, and fired with charcoal. (Siderite is a grey-green mineral whan it is fresh, though it weathers to a brown rusty iron oxide mineral at the surface. It often occurs with malachite, copper carbonate.) Inside the furnace, the first reaction of the siderite is like that in copper smelting: the carbonate breaks down to form an iron oxide:
FeCO3 = FeO + CO2

Then, as the charcoal burns to form hot carbon monoxide (CO), metallic iron is produced:

FeO + CO = Fe + CO2

The problem is that even when the reaction is complete, the iron that is produced is not liquid slag. But the iron is left unmelted, as a dense spongy mass of metal. There are always impurities that form a slag, but the iron will hold at least some of the slag in the small holes in its spongy texture. If the smelter is allowed to cool after the slag and the copper have been tapped off, then the iron would be left behind as an ugly solid mass that could easily be discarded as worthless.”

Notice that the very idea of carbon monoxide would be incomprehensible to our Egyptian ironsmith, who had no conceptual knowledge of the mathematics, or atomic theory, or physical laws involved in what he was doing. What he did know is that if he hammered on that “ugly solid mass” while it was still red hot, he could hammer out some stuff that was in it and shape the rest of it. Which is what he did. Intelligence, here, remains on the surface of the procedures for making the product.

Contrast this with the invention of nitrate ammonia fertilizer. In 1909, Fritz Haber knew, as a chemist, both the laws of physics and the fund of knowledge about molecules that had been discovered during the 19th century. He worked in a lab. In this lab, he produced a reaction between nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas to produce ammonia under medium temperature and high pressure. To do his work, he used mathematical formulas. And to refine the combination that made ammonia, Carl Bosch invented a machine.

The Haber-Bosch cycle, as it is called, is a pre-eminent case of “Why” intelligent design. It couldn’t have happened in ancient Egypt, since neither the physical nor the conceptual tools were present. Notice – the more complex the design, the more dependent the design is on an order. All our smith needed was a primitive furnace able to amplify heat, a hammer, and a stone of some sort. He didn’t leave behind a laboratory, or formulas, or an institutional memory. On the other hand, Haber needed a laboratory, he needed libraries filled with books, and he needed an institution in which physical space could be provided, as well as highly specialized tools. Even if we had more thoroughly bombed Germany than was the case in WWII, and had totally blotted out the street on which Haber worked, we could recover enough evidence of laboratory work to trace what Haber did, when he did it and how he did it than we could ever recover about the beginning of wrought iron smithwork. If you like, this is the second law of thermodynamics applied to intelligent design: as the system makes order, it must release waste. In a broad sense, that is what the relics of scientific achievement are.

Now that we have a sense of what Intelligent Design is – a sense of the material order that must condition the increasing complexity of design, and a sense what we mean by intelligence designing products – let’s turn to the ID argument. We will ignore the critique of evolution to concentrate on the positive claims of the school.

The best example of such claims comes from a molecular biologist, Michael Behe, whose book, Darwin’s Black box, argues for the intelligent design of organism. Behe uses complexity – just as we have. He claims that evolutionary theory (which he defines as small, incremental mutations acting on organisms) can’t explain intrinsically complex organic structures.

By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional. An irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution.”

Helpfully, he uses an example. To quote from the Boston Review article about his book:

One of Behe's goals is to show that irreducible complexity is not confined to the inanimate world: some biochemical systems are also irreducibly complex. Here he succeeds. Certain biochemical systems show exactly the properties Behe attributes to them. His description of the mind-boggling cascade of reactions that occurs during blood-clotting is particularly persuasive: thrombin activates accelerin, which, with Stuart factor, cleaves prothrombin; the resulting thrombin cleaves fibrinogen, making fibrin, etc. Knock out any of these innumerable steps and the animal either bleeds or clots to death.

To Behe, an extraordinary conclusion follows on the heels of irreducible complexity: Darwinism cannot explain such systems. The reason, he says, is simple: An irreducibly complex system "cannot be produced directly . . . by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional." You cannot, in other words, gradually improve a mousetrap by adding one part and then the next.”

So – granting, for the moment, that evolution is totally incapable of explaining the blood clotting system – what does account for it?

Wierdly enough, for a scientific theory of such sweep, Behe seems pretty reticent to give us an account. But we already have examples of intelligent design, so let’s try to fill out the unspoken here, shall we?

One thing we’ve noticed is that Haber’s work left behind a lot of evidences. Surely, the design of the hominid blood clotting system, then, should also leave behind a lot of evidences. Haber’s work involved prototypes that failed, and borrowed from other chemists extensively. Oddly enough, this system of borrowing mimics evolution. That is, parts of a theory are selected, parts are thrown out, and so on. Designs are incrementally improved on. Sudden inspirations turn out to have absorbed millenia of techniques and science and theory. But evolution is a no no for Haber – his designer only exists in blinding flashes of inspiration. On his own terms, however, that doesn't make much sense. We would expect such a designer to pay no attention to other blood clotting systems in other species. Funnily enough, the designer or designers of the hominid blood clotting system used many of the same chemicals that exist in the blood clotting system of, say, lobsters. In fact, perhaps they were influenced by their past 500 million years of organism design. If this is true, some form of evolution is needed. Intelligence itself demands that we surreptitiously bring it back in to explain speciation on the ID level.

Now to get down to the other requirements for designing this terribly complex system: we need a number of prototype hominid bodies; we need a lab or some facility designed to keep the hominid body alive as various amazing chemical grafts are performed on it; we need the tools to perform such grafs; and of course a body of literature, however assembled, with the formulas, etc., for the chemistry of the thing.

The great thing about all that complexity is that it strongly infers a great deal of relic leaving. You know how ID-ers are about the fossil record -- sticklers. So surely they have a counter record, a history of wonderful archaelogical and paleological discoveries. After all, the individual acts of speciation it calls for number well over 100 million, and span more than 500 million years. We have strong reason to believe, in fact, that the designers must have used some material means, and thus left behind stray lab equipment and other detritus, because that five hundred million years shows a distinct order. Remember, the smith in Egypt was constrained not only conceptually but materially from producing ammonia nitrate – as design gets more complex, it requires a larger material reserve. To create even a galvanized paper clip, you have to have the tools to make iron much more malleable than it could be made in 1900 b.c., you have to be able to alloy it, and you have to be able to deal with it at very high temperatures. And since analogy is what is giving us our ID idea in the first place, we can see, here, the reason that there are no 'precambrian rabbits". There's a clear learning curve for the designers. This is so nice, since the order of creation is perhaps the strongest reason that almost all biologists for the past sixty years, since the great synthesis of Neo-Dawwinism, and most of them even before then, are Darwinians of one type or another. Obviously overlooking those scalpels from the Jurassic period.

So what we are looking for is evidence of laboratories existing from around 500 million years ago to a mere 150,000 years ago. Speciation has occurred since then, but this gives us a pretty good target range. To take Behe’s example, it should be simple to dig in the jungles of Africa and find, oh, oxygen bottles and vats of chemicals dating back to 150,000 b.c. Maybe the lab walls have utterly decayed by now, but how about some thrown out hominid prototypes? Surely they must be cluttering the ground. It would be nice to find a few books from 65 million b.c., too, ones containing formulas for dinosaur species making. Perhaps, though, the designers, being supersmart by this time, had put everything on CDs. Still, production conditions being what they are, surely we can find a few tools, plastic tubing, things like that. After all, if you find a mousetrap, you can pretty much bet that somewhere there's a mousetrap factory, right?

Disappointingly, so far the evidence is null, nothing, on this five hundred million years of activity. Apparently the designers have been very big on the vacuum cleaner idea. Build your hominid prototype, put in your complex blood clotting system, get in, get out, clean up. Beautiful work.

Or perhaps in the last 500 million years we’ve been visited by 100 million spaceships, ferrying the products of the laboratories of Alpha Centauri down to earth. Spaceships do leave traces, too. As well as occasionally crashing. Surely Behe has a full record of spaceship archaelogical digs to refer to, if that is his theory?
No? Nothing? Not a single material evidence for any ID whatsoever, over 500 million years, spanning 100 million acts of species invention?

I have been playing, of course. Behe isn’t a real scientist when he writes about these things, but a sort of ideological Ken Doll for the Right. The logic he employs is not the logic of science. It is the logic of shizophrenic breakdown. In the same way that you can never prove to a schizophrenic that the tv is not talking to him (since the messages are encoded in such a way that only the schizo could hear him), ID is formed in such a way that its production of astonishingly no evidence whatsoever is counted as a great triumph.

However, Behe's book does show the lengths of fraudulence to which the great Rightwing machine will stoop in order to enforce a political order. That Behe's book was reviewed at all, and by respectable people, is sign of the times. After the review of his book in the Boston Review, Behe, like a con caught with his hand in somebody’s pocket, responded with some baldfaced effronteries about evolution that were truly funny. We especially liked two comments. In one, he gives us the grounds for falsifying ID. Does this have to do with finding evidence for labs in Africa, books in the Jurassic period, or the like? Nothing so vulgar. Here is what he says:

“One last charge must be met: Orr maintains that the theory of intelligent design is not falsifiable. He's wrong. To falsify design theory a scientist need only experimentally demonstrate that a bacterial flagellum, or any other comparably complex system, could arise by natural selection. If that happened I would conclude that neither flagella nor any system of similar or lesser complexity had to have been designed. In short, biochemical design would be neatly disproved.”

Surely he swallowed his bubble gum when he wrote that. This is an old con trick. A man writes a book that claims that the Martians built the pyramids. What would disprove the claim? If archaeologists found a signed blueprint of one of the pyramids from 1000 B.C. This is reasoning for gulls – which is why, in the age of Bush, it is so popular. Ruled by a gull, bred by gulls, and educated by gulls -- that's the U.S.A.

The other quote that is interesting from Behe reveals his basic charlatanism. He writes:

“Orr says we know mousetraps are designed because we have seen them being designed by humans, but we have not seen irreducibly complex biochemical systems being designed, so we can’t conclude they were. I discuss this on pp. 196-197. We apprehend design from the system itself, even if we don’t know who the designer is. For example, the SETI project (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) scans space for radio waves that might have been sent by aliens. However, we have never observed aliens sending radio messages; we have never observed aliens at all. Nonetheless, SETI workers are confident, and I agree, that they can detect intelligently-produced phenomena, even if they don’t know who produced them.”

This is a patently false analogy. The SETI people claim that they would know a material transmission, sent by a material transmitter, obeying physical law, to be a intelligently-produced phenomenon. ID is claiming no such thing – in fact, it rigorously avoids claiming such things, because such things are check-able. Rather, the analogy should be to a group of people who claim to be receiving ESP from outer space. In the end, ID amounts to no more than such a claim. It isn’t science, but science is so, you know, materialistic.

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