Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Intelligent Design Creationism

A recent opinion piece in my local paper inspired me to write the following essay. Also, see these other letters here and here. The public opinion, judged using this small sample, is split. Hopefully we can work to straighten out the creationists among us.

The recent flurry of opinions published in this newspaper -- capped off with Richard S. Brown's longwinded and misguided piece -- show a fundamental misunderstanding amongst the general public regarding evolutionary biology. Within the field of biology, there is no serious debate over biological evolution, and there is no faith involved in evolutionary biology. Furthermore, scientific consensus is not determined by a popular vote of an uninformed public, but instead by support from those actively involved in a research area and exposed to the undistilled data firsthand.

Intelligent design (ID) advocates like to point out that the believers in their camp include approximately 300 scientists. They fail to mention that many of these scientists are experts in fields other than biology, and of those that are biologists (such as Dr. Michael Behe, a Biochemist at Lehigh University) all are experts in fields other than evolutionary biology. Typically, when scientific revolutions occur, they are spearheaded by researches with a fundamental understanding of the subject matter they are revolutionizing. This is not the case for Intelligent Design, and, in contrast to the small minority of scientists who support ID, the National Center for Science Education has collected signatures from 513 PhD scientists who oppose creationism (about two thirds of which are biologists), and that's just the ones named Steve.

The claim that evolution is based on faith is tantamount to declaring that hundreds (if not thousands) of biologists, whose graduate degrees involved research in evolutionary biology, did not collect and analyze real data according to proper scientific procedures, but rather simply believed in a dogma and were given an education under false pretenses. I find the assertion that evolutionary biology is a faith based doctrine insulting, considering the massive amounts of evidence in support of the theory relative to the minute amount that intelligent design advocates point to. The so-called "holes in the fossil record" do nothing to take down the theory of evolution -- fossilization is an uncommon event that requires many conditions to be met (the proper body type, environment, geological conditions, etc.), not to mention the difficulty in finding new fossils. It's too bad for creationists that there is overwhelming support for evolution from other fields, such as genetics, developmental biology, molecular biology, cell biology, biochemistry, anatomy, behavior, and ecology. For instance, all organisms on earth (viruses, bacteria, plants, animals, and fungi) share the same genetic code based on nucleic acid molecules. This genetic material encodes genes, and when genes from different species are compared they reveal evolutionary relationships. These evolutionary relationships can be inferred between closely related species (such as humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and other primates) or between extremely divergent organisms (like humans, wheat, and E. coli). The amount of genetic relatedness is reflected in developmental, anatomical, and physiological similarities. Taking the massive amount of published evidence into consideration, the scientific community has come to the conclusion that biological evolution is the most logical and most heavily supported explanation for the diversity of life on earth and presents most rewarding opportunities for future scientific study.

A referendum or school board decision cannot determine whether evolution is fact, but we do have the power to chose whether we would like to educate the next generation of researchers in the proper way to do science. It is impossible to ignore the fact that biological evolution is an extremely supported theory amongst biologists, and that Intelligent Design is nothing but a political movement lead by a fundamentalist group bent on including biblical teachings in science curricula. I agree with Lee Cuddy in his letter to the editor that science should not remain static; that is why the biblical story of creationism was replaced by the scientific theory of biological evolution (it would be a disservice to negate the modern renaissance of biology by teaching outdated ideas). Richard Brown has "observed over the years that it is the evolutionists who obfuscate the ever-changing details of their theory." Sadly, Mr. Brown does not realize that as more information is obtained, scientific theories change to accommodate the growing wealth of knowledge -- this not obfuscation, it is adaptation. As opposed to evolutionary biology, which has theories that can be disproved, intelligent design offers no testable hypotheses.

Supporters of intelligent design and creationism are guilty of ignoring the abundant amount of evidence in an attempt to support a conclusion that they have made prior to collecting and analyzing data; their process is an example of bad science. Imagine how difficult it would be to identify the causes of lung cancer if, before we began examining anything, we decided that it was due to a voodoo curse and looked for evidence for that curse at every step of our examination. As the amount of biological research has increased exponentially over the past few decades, scientists have continuously gathered evidence that supports biological evolution and learned more about the rules that govern this process, all the while basing their conclusions and future research on previous findings as opposed to belief or dogma. That is how science is done.


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