A little over a week ago, Florida Citizens for Science issued a press release denouncing a creationist display, and got three ignorant columns in response. Now their blog is asking for help in responding to the columns. I normally don’t like getting into this on the grounds that arguing with creationists is like arguing with flat Earthers, but here’s my contribution:
The first column actually has a good point, though it’s buried in a pile of misunderstanding. When the writer says, “Darwinism is dead,” he is completely right: Darwinism is dead and has been since the 1930s. The current theory of evolution is called neo-Darwinism, and integrates the old Darwinian mechanism with an understanding of genetics.
Right now there’s another challenge to neo-Darwinism in the form of evolutionary developmental biology, or evo-devo, which stresses the importance of early development of organisms; for example, a goat might be born with two legs despite having normal genes because of an environmental effect.
The difference between evo-devo and intelligent design, superficially both challenges to neo-Darwinism, should be glaringly obvious. Evo-devo doesn’t deny the basic fact of common descent, for which scientific evidence is overwhelming, and which practically 100% of biologists accept. It challenges specific mechanisms by providing evidence that certain evolutionary changes are not genetic and that the old concept of survival of the fittest needs to be modified.
In contrast, intelligent design does not present evidence. William Dembski does no research in design; he argues from a misguided notion of information theory, which is not only bad biology but also bad mathematics. Michael Behe uses plenty of intricate analogies, but no concrete experiments.
The ID argument devolves into, “We don’t know how this feature could have evolved, so it must have been designed.” “This feature” used to be the eye, until it became clear how the eye evolved; then it was whales, until paleontologists discovered transitional fossils from land-dwelling to sea-dwelling mammals; now it’s the bacterial flagellum.
This is why scientists scoff at the idea of dialogue between evolution and intelligent design: intelligent design is so unscientific that this dialogue would be as fruitful as a dialogue between astronomy and geocentrism.
All columns repeat the assertion that there is no evidence for evolution, in various forms: one calls evolution a religion, another says it’s just a theory, and the other says macroevolution doesn’t exist.
Actually, macroevolution does exist. The speciation observed is nothing glamorous, since lab research hasn’t been going on for the 60 million years it took rodent-like mammals to evolve into primates, but it’s there. Fruit flies regularly speciate in the lab – if you separate two groups of fruit flies in a certain way, they will no longer be able to interbreed after some time. Besides, there is no real difference between the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the evolution of insects, except in time scales.
Neo-Darwinian evolution is then a theory for which there is plenty of evidence. There’s nothing wrong with being a theory – we talk of the theory of relativity and the theory of electrodynamics, neither of which is controversial anywhere.
It’s also a theory that makes testable predictions, largely about which fossils we are going to find and where, and how various DNA segments in different species will look. It can’t make the same sort of predictions as particle physics and chemistry because it’s an observational science, just like astronomy and geology, but it can predict that we will find trilobites in lower sediment layers than dinosaurs.
This is the contrast between good science and bad science. Good science makes testable predictions, for example about the location of fossils. Bad science makes no testable predictions – when biologists find a missing link, intelligent design proponents never say “I was wrong” but move to another missing link. Good science uses good math, for example in simulations of evolution. Bad science uses bad math, for example Dembski’s no-new-information thesis, which contradicts the tenets of modern information theory.
Having an equal debate between the two is pointless, because intelligent design is not a serious challenge to neo-Darwinism. The serious challenge to neo-Darwinism, evo-devo, concentrates on publishing peer-reviewed research and testing its own predictions rather than on shrilly demanding equal time in schools. Scientists don’t need to waste their time on arguing with proponents of any crackpot theory.