Monday, March 26, 2007

Orson Scott Card doesn't understand evolution

I love Orson Scott Card's books. He's most famous for Ender's Game and the whole Ender series, I'm sure. I just don't love his politics or his idea that the vast majority of Democrats are the kind of left wing nuts Ann Coulter sees in her paranoid dreams.

And although he calls himself a Democrat, he's definitely one of the most conservative. That figures, given his Mormonism. He's a morals and security kind of guy, although totally anti-gun and critical of free-market capitalism. So I'm not politically opposed to him in every way, although he certainly does have some more out-there beliefs, like the idea that science arguing against Global Warming has been suppressed. In any case, I read his column a while ago about the argument between "Darwinism" (very much a misnomer now) and Intelligent Design. I was rather incensed at his characterization of Evolutionary arguments against ID, and I feel the need to rebut them. I have a more than casual interest in the argument because of my chosen degree, so it might be said that I'm just repeating the talking points of the "Evolutionist" side of the argument, but I would respond that Card mischaracterizes those arguments badly. Before writing his column, he really, really should have read Ernst Mayer's book first.

1. Intelligent Design is just Creation Science in a new suit (name-calling).

But the problems that the Designists raise with the Darwinian model are, in fact, problems. They do understand the real science, and the Darwinian model is, in fact, inadequate to explain how complex systems, which fail without all elements in place, could arise through random mutation and natural selection.

Card falls for the mistaken argument that because a cornea doesn't work without a certain blood vessel to feed it there is a dilemna of chicken-or-egg. How could the vein develop without a cornea, but how could the cornea develop without the vein? Evolutionary Development, a rather recent branch of the science, has discovered that there's a sort of meta-process for things like blood vessels. Essentially, there is no gene that governs the placement of blood vessels in your right arm versus your left leg. Hox genes are just markers saying, "Grow leg here", which process is governed by the overall process for how things grow. There are some specific things, like legs vs. arms, but the differences are in the details such as how the bones grow and how they're joined. Basically, whatever body part you grow will be governed by those general rules, including new mutations such as a spot that is sensitive to light, the precursor to a full-blown retina.

But to address the meat of the problem, well, what are IDists if not Creationists? I've said this before, and I'll say it again: Who are these guys saying is the designer if not God? There might be one guy saying "It's aliens, obviously", but that's not the majority. So let's get past this right now. They are Creationists, and Creationists back IDism because it lends some credibility to their completely ridiculous beliefs. ID demands there be a designer. Most IDists are Christians who believe that designer is God. What difference is there between that and straight Creationism except a smattering of junk science thrown in? To quote Charles Krauthamer (of all people) from an older post of Xanthippas':

Let's be clear. Intelligent design may be interesting as theology, but as science it is a fraud. It is a self-enclosed, tautological "theory" whose only holding is that when there are gaps in some area of scientific knowledge -- in this case, evolution -- they are to be filled by God. It is a 'theory' that admits that evolution and natural selection explain such things as the development of drug resistance in bacteria and other such evolutionary changes within species but also says that every once in a while God steps into this world of constant and accumulating change and says, "I think I'll make me a lemur today." A "theory" that violates the most basic requirement of anything pretending to be science -- that it be empirically disprovable. How does one empirically disprove the proposition that God was behind the lemur, or evolution -- or behind the motion of the tides or the 'strong force' that holds the atom together?

Whew. Enough of that. On to point #2.

2. Don't listen to these guys, they're not real scientists (credentialism).

Real science never has to resort to credentialism. If someone with no credentials at all raises a legitimate question, it is not an answer to point out how uneducated or unqualified the questioner is. In fact, it is pretty much an admission that you don't have an answer, so you want the questioner to go away.

This is the case if you're the Army Corps of Engineers trying to explain to a Ninth Ward resident why their house is under 19 feet of water. This is not the case if you're a scientist with over a hundred years of science to back you up and religious nuts keep trying to insist that simply because you can't manipulate science to the degree that you can make freaks like in 300 the gaps in your knowledge must mean there's a God. They're not raising legitimate questions (see my answer to point #1).

3. If you actually understood science as we do, you'd realize that these guys are wrong and we're right; but you don't, so you have to trust us (expertism).

Expertism is the "trust us, you poor fools" defense. Essentially, the Darwinists tell the general public that we're too dumb to understand the subtleties of biochemistry, so it's not even worth trying to explain to us why the Designists are wrong. "We're the experts, you're not, so we're right by definition."

The irony is that there are plenty of Darwinists who are perfectly good writers, capable of explaining the science to us well enough to show us the flaws in the Designists' arguments. The fact that they refuse even to try to explain is, again, a confession that they don't have an answer.

This is just bs. If Card was right, books like Mayr's wouldn't exist, nor this one. But even if they were elitist, well, I've always felt it's stupid not to trust the experts. Experts are why things get better. The auto industry fought safety standards pushed by the NTSB. The government listened to the safety experts and now we don't burn to death in our cars (as often).
Maybe they're not right by definition, but I'll sure take one of them over somebody who's pushing his agenda like some religionist.

4. They got some details of those complex systems wrong, so they must be wrong about everything (sniping).

Uh, how can they criticize what they don't understand? This isn't art: "I don't know art but I know what I like." It's science. You have to know it.

5. The first amendment requires the separation of church and state (politics).

While this is true, it's less that Evolutionary scientists want to ban ID because of its blatantly religious angle than that it's just not science. Card wants to think that because the designer might be an alien, this is more reason to let it be taught in school, not less. Besides which, I can just imagine the reaction from the Christians when little Tommy comes home saying, "Mom, I found out today that we might all have been created by aliens." Yeah, let's see that.

6. We can't possibly find a fossil record of every step along the way in evolution, but evolution has already been so well-demonstrated it is absurd to challenge it in the details (prestidigitation).

Which, according to Card, isn't even a point IDists make, so why the hell talk about it? Just to mis-state yet another point of evolution, which is that it is sufficiently demonstrated every day. If you don't believe that, then you must believe that God creates new strains of flu every year just because that's his Christmas present to the world.

7. Even if there are problems with the Darwinian model, there's no justification for postulating an "intelligent designer" (true).

Well, thanks for your graciousness on that last one, Mr. Card. That was sure generous of you.

It's kind of already covered, but this is what Xanthippas said about Mr. Card's column:

Ugh. He leaves out two highly important arguments, that "intelligent design" is not actually a theory (he obscures that with the "intelligent design is just creationism" argument) and that the people behind intelligent design are largely Christians who want to introduce some element of religion into the schools, or want to undermine belief in science. Intelligent Design proposes nothing worth teaching in schools, because it is not scientific, as he readily admits (it requires a "leap of faith" to believe in it?) ID is the last refuge of those who wish to teach religion in schools, and as such it has no place in them.

Now, as harsh as this has sounded, Card is no proponent of ID either. This is what he says about it:

Yes, there are problems with the Darwinian model. But those problems are questions. "Intelligent design" is an answer, and you have no evidence at all for that.

Intelligent design uses the evil "must" word: Well, if random mutation plus natural selection can't account for the existence of this complex system, then it must have been brought into existence by some intelligent designer

Why? Why must that be the only alternative?

Just because the Darwinian model seems to be inadequate at the molecular level does not imply in any way that the only other explanation is purposive causation.

My problem with Card's argument has solely been his misunderstanding of the point of view of Evolutionists, like this:

They instead behave like religious fanatics whose favorite dogmas are being challenged. That's why they answer their serious critics with name-calling, credentialism, expertism, sniping, politics, and misdirection, answering questions that have not been asked, using answers that have nothing to do with the real questions.

It's not evolutionary scientists who believe this. It's rabid right-wingers who say that evolutionary scientists believe this. And Card bought into it in a big way. Here's an idea. Before you go griping about what those who understand evolution say, know what they say.

As the LA Times wrote:

Card, the Hugo- and Nebula-winning science fiction writer, is the biggest literary heavyweight to try his hand at the culture war novel (though you wouldn't know it from "Empire's" stilted dialogue and improbable plot twists). But, by his own admission, he's doing it for a higher purpose than mere book sales.

"We are so constantly pounded by mild-mannered, stating-it-as-fact fanatics of the left who dominate the media that that starts sounding like the normal climate," Card sighed during a promotional interview with husband-and-wife bloggers Glenn Reynolds and Helen Smith. "Repetition makes even insanity sound normal."

Some insanities, maybe. Not quite all.


Xanthippas said...

If you don't believe that, then you must believe that God creates new strains of flu every year just because that's his Christmas present to the world.

Best line of the post.

adam said...

Great, great post.