Monday, 22 November 2010

Intelligent Design: pseudoscience or a challenge to evolution?

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Michael Behe
As I've reported, prominent American Intelligent Design advocate Michael Behe is in Britain this week, conducting a nationwide speaking tour hosted by the new Glasgow-based Centre for Intelligent Design. He's speaking at Westminster Chapel this evening, but his first task today was a debate with the Royal Society's former Director of Education, Michael Reiss, which I've just got back from now.

Hosted by Premier Christian Radio, which will broadcast it this coming Saturday, the debate was entitled "Darwin or Design? Intelligent Design: pseudo-science or challenge to Darwinian evolution?", and took place in (deep breath...) Charles Darwin House in central London, with Premier's Justin Brierley as moderator.

The debate began with Behe providing an outline of arguments for why he thinks Intelligent Design should be taught alongside evolution in science lessons (he famously gave evidence for the defence in the 2005 Kitzmiller v Dover federal court case in Pennsylvania, in which Judge Jones ruled that it could not be). The basis of his argument is something called "irreducible complexity", which you can easily read more about via a quick Google search, but to summarise what he said in the debate, he sees it as irrational for science to reject what he repeatedly termed "other minds" (i.e. God/gods) as explanations for phenomena and events. It is, he says, a "fundamental facet of rationality" to discern the existence of other minds. He claims that "life reeks of design" – one of his main examples is the bacterial flagellum – and says that when the parts of something appear to be arranged in order to perform a function, it is rational to infer design. As, in his view, evolution has not been proven to be a definitive explanation, Intelligent Design should be taught alongside it in schools. He suggested that a rejection of the teaching Intelligent Design represents solipsism on behalf of scientists.

Listening to Behe put this case, one observation I made was that a frequent tactic he employs is to cite examples from credible scientists who do not support Intelligent Design in order to back up his arguments for it. So we are provided with quotes from Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker, in which he says that the study of living things gives the appearance of design, as well as a list of articles from the journal Cell which have the word "machine" in their title (e.g. "protein machines"). Other scientists cited by included the biologist Douglas J Futumya, president of the Society for the Study of Evolution, and Richard Lenski, conductor of the famous E. coli long-term evolution experiment. Of course, none of those scientists would claim that their work points in any way to Intelligent Design, but Behe takes their words or work out of context and uses them to add credibility to his own arguments.

Michael Reiss followed Behe, and opened by saying it was a pleasure to have the chance to debate these issues with him. Beginning with the issue of science and Intelligent Design, he said that science makes no mention of God, and operates without presuming anything regarding the existence or otherwise of a deity – science only studies objective physical reality. He suggested that there is nothing wrong, philosophically, with pointing to the existence of a deity to explain things that we don't know about the universe, but said that in his view it is somewhat premature. He predicted, while admitting it was only a personal prediction, that 30 years from now most of the arguments made for Intelligent Design will have been dispelled by the findings of conventional science. Concluding with the question of education, Reiss argued that in the UK we should address religious questions around origins in RE classes, while leaving science teachers to deal with science. He doesn't think teachers should be prohibited from answering questions posed by pupils which may relate to ID or creationism, but he certainly doesn't think these things belong on the science curriculum (this, of course, is the view that led to Reiss stepping down from his role at the Royal Society in 2008).

There followed a discussion between Behe and Reiss, in which Brierley posed questions to them both. Much of this revisited ground covered in the initial remarks, but some points are worth noting here. Brierley brought up the issue of the Dover Case, and Reiss pointed out that while, in principle, it would be possible for an individual to conceive of ID as a theory without appeal to religion, in reality its proponents are, almost without fail, card-carrying Christians. He joked that ID advocates clearly "evolved from their creationist ancestors". Responding, Behe suggested that religion is irrelevant – what matters is whether the proposition is true. He claims that he arrived at ID not because of his religion (he's a Catholic), but because his work in biochemistry led him to that position.Reiss then made the interesting point that Intelligent Design is a broad camp. Darwinian evolutionists and ID's more moderate advocates – he suggested Behe is one of those – often don't differ on the processes involved in the development of life. It's only when you get to the question of beginnings – I assume he means the question of how life originated – that the two camps really start to disagree. But those questions are about metaphysics, not science, and so do not belong in the science classroom.

The final section of the event involved questions from the floor, and I was able to pose one myself. I asked Reiss why he views debating with an Intelligent Design advocate such as Behe as a useful exercise. Richard Dawkins tends to take a "no platform" approach to creationism and ID – indeed he had turned down the offer of participating in this event, describing it as a "publicity stunt" and saying he believes in “never giving creationists the oxygen of publicity by sharing a platform with them”. Why, I asked, does Reiss feel differently. He replied by saying that he would refuse to debate with some people, but believes debating with Behe is respectable and interesting – where life came from is an important issue. He added that he is concerned with education (he is currently Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education), and is not comfortable with the notion that some ideas are off limits. Brierley also asked Behe how he feels about being labelled a "creationist" by Dawkins – he suggested it is a rhetorical technique used to duck the issue, like branding advocates of public health care "communists".

As one final point, I was intrigued by Behe's answer to one of the last questions from the floor, which concerned the future of ID. Behe invoked the work of the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, who developed the notion that scientific revolutions occur as a result of "paradigm shifts". As the evidence in their favour mounts, scientists are eventually required to accept ideas that they previously would have rejected out of hand, resulting in a paradigm shift and a scientific revolution. Behe appeared to suggest that, one day, a paradigm shift would lead to the general acceptance of ID as the best explanation for life on Earth. Responding, Reiss – with a nod to how unlikely he clearly feels this is – pointed out that, if ID turned out to be true, the implications would be so profound as to make the paradigm shifts Kuhn was writing about seem like ripples on a pond.

So, that's a (fairly lengthy) summary of what I heard at the event today. I'm very interested to hear what people make of it all – please do share your views in the comments? If anyone else was at this event, or has seen Behe in other locations during the tour, it'd be good to hear from you.
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