The Evolving Nature of Evolution: Counter Example

This is the fourth in a series about the debate between Darwinian evolutionists and advocates of Intelligent Design. In part 1, I used President Bush's statement that the debate should be "properly taught" to point out that no one (at least, no leading figure in the debate) is presently advocating that ID be taught with the same weight as Darwinian evolution. Rather, the case that is being made is that it should be introduced and taught fairly so that students can understand the controversy. In part 2, I pointed out that statements to the contrary notwithstanding, the central hypothesis of Darwinian evolution has not actually been tested. That doesn't mean that there isn't a lot of evaluating of the evidence and placing the evidence into the Darwinian evolutionary framework. The fact that the evidence fits so nicely (much of the time) into that framework provides evidence that the framework is true. But the problem is that the framework itself remains untested and unproven. In the third part, I used two analogies to try to illustrate what I saw scientists as actually doing when they claim to have demonstrated the truth of evolution. In this part, I want to re-examine something that Dr. Higley said in his pro-evolution article.


As I noted originally in part 2, an article by Dr. Leon Higley originally posted on the University of Nebraska Lincoln website (which has now been partially preserved on the Marine Insects Homepage for the University of Nebraska Kearney) discussed the testing of the evolutionary hypothesis by asking why insects haven't succeeded as well in water as on land. You can read the quote in its entirety in part 2, but I want to edit out some material so I can focus on a couple of points here.

When you do experiments, where you (at least in principle) control every factor except the one you are examining, hypothesis testing usually involves using statistics. Statistics are important, because they provide a mathematical statement based on probability theory of how likely a given outcome is. By convention, scientists tend to say that unless an experimental result could have occur [sic] only 1 time in 20 (5% of the time), it probably is not a real effect.

Unfortunately, given that we don’t have planets and hundreds of million of years to experiment with, we have to take a different tack with the marine insects question. Here, as in much evolutionary argumentation, we try to form plausible hypotheses, and then try to find evidence that supports or disproves these guesses. Once a hypothesis is formed, we look for current examples that would contradict it. For example, the argument that insects can’t survive in the ocean because of water pressure doesn’t seem so good when you realize one insect species survives at a depth of 1,300 meters! This is a form of counter example. Because at least one species can survive a great depth, it implies that other insects could have evolved to do so. Eliminating hypotheses by counter examples is a powerful approach in assessing hypotheses.

Counter examples are a type of comparison (comparing one species’ biology with what might be possible for the group). Often comparison provides a mechanism for supporting a hypothesis. In our marine insects example, we compare insects in the oceans with insects in fresh water. We find that lots of insect species live in fresh water, but almost none do in the oceans. Compare: what is different about the two habitats? If it isn’t something physical (such as salinity or water pressure), maybe it has to do with biology.

Dr. Higley is effectively saying that one way to examine a scientific hypothesis is by examining nature to find whether nature supports the hypothesis -- the "educated guess" of the scientist -- or opposes the hypothesis. He uses, as his example, the problem of why insects are not as prevalent in salt water environments as crustaceans. He pointed out that the lack of insects in the water environment may seem to be contrary to the idea that insects can succeed in any environment, but then he points out how the lack of insects can be seen as consistent using other scientific principles.

He also points out that scientists use statistics to determine the validity of a particular theory. Specifically, he notes that if a certain result is likely to occur less than five times out of a hundred attempts, it is probably the case that the theory is not supported by the evidence.

I'm good with all of that. Clearly, it makes a great deal of sense.

So, that brings us to the problem of Intelligent Design (ID). Consistent with the nature of scientific investigation that Dr. Higley describes in his article, ID presents a counter-example to the idea that all life began with a simple life form and evolved into more and more complex lifeforms solely by natural laws and natural selection. It says (in part) that certain biological structures are so complex and are so completely unlikely to have come together by pure chance that it is necessary that there must have been some type of designer. In making these assertions, ID uses statistics to demonstrate its claims -- a discipline which Dr. Higley approves. Hence, it could point to (for example) the clotting system and its incredible complexity coupled with an apparent purpose to say that all of the pieces of the system need to be in place for the system to function. If any one of the pieces is missing then the system fails and does not succeed in clotting at all. What are the odds that all of the pieces should come together into a functioning clotting system in the simplest organisms? I'm certain that the odds must be very long indeed. (In saying the foregoing, I am aware that there are certainly theories about the evolution of clotting systems, and perhaps some answer all of the questions posed about how the clotting system came to exist in a purely naturalistic context. I am using the clotting system merely as an example of one system that is pretty darn complex which may have pieces in the system that are, as ID scientists describe them, "irreducibly complex" and not capable of being broken down into smaller functioning units, and which pieces are highly unlikely -- i.e., significantly less than 1 in 20 chance pointed to by Dr. Higley -- to have come together by purely naturalistic means.)

So, given that intelligent design presents counter-examples to the theory -- exactly what Dr. Higley says is an appropriate means of doing science -- why is this effort so quickly denounced by those invested in evolution? At least two strong contenders for the reason present themselves. First, ID leads to the possibility that God, a god or gods is/are involved. Keep in mind that ID says absolutely nothing about the identity of the designer which is evidenced in nature. It merely points out that the appearance of design coupled with the mathematical remoteness that some system arose purely by natural causes (making it pretty much impossible that it could happen naturally) means that something outside of nature had a hand in creating some of these systems. That offends today's scientists who are wedded to the idea of naturalism as the only legitimate foundation stone for proper scientific inquiry.

Second, and more importantly, unlike the type of counter-example addressed by Dr. Higley, the Intelligent Design counter-example strikes at the very core of the theory of evolution -- the central pole, so to speak. It is not something that merely questions the details of the theory like the frog that was found in Madagascar that needs to be reconciled with the fact that its nearest biological relative lived in South America. Rather, ID goes to the very heart of Darwinian evolutionary theory because, if correct, there is no way that evolution can be the sole basis for the incredible complexity in life we see on Earth (and may even be responsible for that life occurring at all). One cannot imagine a land bridge or a previously unknown benefit to explain away the gaping hole in evolutionary theory that intelligent design reveals.

Intelligent Design is a scientific hypothesis that has not been proven wrong any more than evolution has been proven wrong. The former is simply a counter-example to the reigning scientific belief in step-by-step evolution. If it weren't for the fact that it challenges the sacred cow itself, ID would be readily accepted as proper science since it uses counter-example and statistics to challenge a part of the evolutionary scheme. The only problem is that the part that it challenges is the very heart of the theory.


Peter Kirby said…
"Intelligent Design is a scientific hypothesis" is true in what sense? That is, under what definition of scientific hypothesis?
Steven Carr said…
Perhaps ID people can actually accept funding from sources like the Templeton Foundation and do some research.

But you can't even pay these guys to do science...
Anonymous said…
Peter Kirby: "Intelligent Design is a scientific hypothesis" is true in what sense? That is, under what definition of scientific hypothesis?

Well, actually "Intelligent Design" isn't a scientific hypothesis, any more than "Evolution" is. Both are classes of scientific hypotheses that possess certain common features. But of course in casual speech, we often use those labels as though they referred to specific hypotheses themselves. I imagine we all know this, but it's worth pointing out for the sake of clarity.

Examples of actual ID claims that are scientific hypotheses are, say, "The coming into existence of life-forms required at least one occurrence of deliberate, purposeful design", or "The development of the process by which blood clots required an event driven by an intelligent entity", just as examples of scientific evolutionary claims would be, "The coming into existence of life is capable of resulting from a sequence of undirected natural biological steps", or "The development of the process by which blood clots can result from a sequence of non-purposeful biological events".

Examples of a non-scientific ID claim would be, "Yahweh purposefully created the first life on Earth", and of a non-scientific evolutionary claim would be, "The only way life could have begun on Earth was by a series of non-intelligent biological occurrences."

"Intelligent Design" is scientific insofar as it makes claims about the natural world that can be proven — or disproven — by means of the scientific method. It has to be — if intelligence were not an acceptable object of scientific enquiry then it either it's a supernatural phenomenon, or it doesn't exist at all: either Mount Rushmore 'evolved' through erosion; or Mount Rushmore is an act of God.

Of course, that kind of is what people on either side believe, if we phrase it better: to materialists, intelligence is a feature of purely natural brains, and so Mount Rushmore "evolved" not by erosion of wind and rain, but through being eroded by tools wielded by those funny machines called "human beings". And to theists, man's intelligence is not just a feature of his brain, but of his mind, his soul — so Mount Rushmore was an act of divine faculties endowed by a supernatural creator. But we're left with the same choice: either intelligence is entirely subject to scientific hypotheses, or else every intelligent creature walking the planet is proof of a supernatural creator.

Frankly, you'd think the evolutionary naturalists would be the biggest supporters of Intelligent Design theory. Go figure.


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