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    June 06, 2007

     A half-intelligent design

    British news item:

    The Church of England's new head of education, the Rev Jan Ainsworth, who is responsible for more than 4,600 C of E schools, said intelligent design could form part of discussions in science lessons under the heading of history of science.
    She was swiftly disowned by her bosses, but that may just be prudence or cowardice. Anyway the suggestion is interesting. Would it offer a solution to the war on evolution in schools being waged between American scientists and religious fundamentalists?

    Jan Ainsworth is obviously correct in thinking that intelligent design was once an important argument in science as well as theology; to be precise, between 1802 and 1859, the dates of publication of William Paley's Natural Theology - link is to the text of the second, 1809 edition - and Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species.

    Archdeacon Paley was no reactionary. A latitudinarian and opponent of the slave trade, he was probably too progressive to reach the bishopric justified by his talents. He was no Biblical literalist. At several points in the Natural Theology (pp . 63, 384) he accepts the antiquity of the earth, the deep time only revealed by the pioneer geologist James Hutton in 1788. A keen fisherman (p. 490) who couldn't account for the pleasure of the sport, he produced a spirited defence of gnats (p. 477). And see the footnote. But it was the watchmaker argument that made Paley famous; it opens the book and most of the chapters are simply documentation for it.

    Paley asked the very good question: if the refined design everywhere evident in nature was not produced by an intelligent creator, then what did? He challenged atheists to stop waffling about a vague "principle of order" (p. 71):

    Was a watch ever produced by a principle of order? and why might not a watch be so produced, as well as an eye?
    In other words, a rationalist theory of biology had to propose a genuine natural mechanism. For half a century, there was no good answer, and Paley quite rightly ruled the day. But a knockout reply is precisely what Darwin provided in Chapter VI of the Origin, in the celebrated passage on "organs of extreme perfection":
    Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real.
    The response is so conclusive that Darwin does not admit the emergence of such structures as a genuine difficulty with his theory, unlike the troubling absence of gradual change in the fossil record (a difficulty only resolved recently by Gould and Eldridge's theory of punctuated equilibrium).

    At first sight it therefore looks sound to introduce biological ID as an episode in the history of science. But this would not resolve the culture wars. For Paley is wrong and Darwin right; there is a natural, selectionist explanation in principle for eyes and wings and brains, and accumulated evidence for such a process in each case as well. There is no other honest way of telling the story. Even if the teacher pretended neutrality, Darwin must win. So what you would be doing is exposing students to a refuted argument for the existence of God. You would risk transforming every biology classroom in the Bible Belt into a Kulturkampf free-fire zone; and since truth will out, the end result must be the defeat of biblical fundamentalism. Many of us would welcome this result, but the process would be wrenching, and possibly even physically violent.

    To avoid this, I have a Modest Proposal. The American scientific establishment mans the barricades, as in the Dover lawsuit, to prevent the invasion of religion into the science classroom. But they are defending a system that delivers indifferent results by their own criteria. Confirming the regular litany of complaints and initiatives from domestic science education wonks, the OECD PISA comparisons indicate that school students in the wealthy United States, with the world's leading science universities and high-tech corporations, perform below the OECD average in maths and science. The separation of church and state is a fine constitutional principle; but carried over into education, it delivers no discernible comparative advantage. The vehemently secular French have recognized that le fait réligieux must have its place in public education. In fact, the contortions involved in trying to keep religion out of the curriculum are bound to weaken it, and partially trivialize the school's role as scaffold for growing up. How do you keep the presence or absence of God out of literature, history and philosophy?

    A more historical approach to science could help students realize that scientific understanding is neither handed down by Promethean geniuses nor the result of mechanical Baconian accumulation, but of a great and decidedly non-linear human endeavour. Its zig-zags are marked by personal and ideological conflict as well as generous cooperation; hard work and decency (Darwin) as well as egotism and eccentricity to the edge of insanity (Newton); blind alleys like alchemy as well as lucky breaks (Penzias and Wilson). My particular proposal is that the curriculum include the whole relationship between science and religion, warts and all, from the Babylonians to today, and especially in Ancient Greece, Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

    Even a very superficial survey would be better than none. And the comprehensive perspective would allow priorities and balance to emerge naturally. Paley's watchmaker is only a footnote compared to the long struggle between the Greek prejudice for an eternal, static cosmos and the Judaic doctrine of creation in time and a directional history, a dispute only settled in the last century in favour of the latter. The Catholic Church persecuted, as everyone knows, the heretical opinions of Galileo; but it's less appreciated that provoked by Arab Aristotelians, it encouraged the habit of abstract speculation that favoured the emergence of modern mathematical science - in contrast to the largely pragmatic and utilitarian science supported by Chinese and Muslim societies.

    My own pennyworth is that science and religion are not ultimately distinct endeavours. You can only have one global world-view, and it either has gods in it or not. And they both stem from the same impulse, a drive to impose order on the chaos of experience. Research on cooperative newborn babies has confirmed Kant's insight that at least some physics (the persistence of objects) is hard-wired in us, and so I suggest is pattern-seeking. As an idol of the tribe this innate prejudice leads us into many blind alleys, but is also the blindfolded faith that drives the search for a unified physical law and moral order of human life.

    Genesis 1 and 2, as creation myths, are both theological and scientific hypotheses. The scientific component of Genesis 2 is mostly wrong - the separate creation of humans, the creation of men before women, the exclusively human character of morality; the only plausible claim of fact is the universal political dominance of men. Accordingly the theological hypothesis for the origin of evil, and the justification of male authority, has little force. The scientific component of the superb later account in Genesis 1, the seven-day cosmic narrative, is largely true: a point origin of the cosmos in time, the emergence and stabilisation of the planet and its continents and oceans, the successive emergence of different kinds of creatures, in the case of animals of two sexes simultaneously, the recency of humans. Set against the competing Greek cosmology, it's a clean sweep for the ancient Jews. The time parameters have changed by a factor of half a billion, but numerical values are trivial compared to the structure of a theory. And the God of Genesis 1 is not working from Paley's blueprints; he is rather a skilled craftsman, judging and interacting with his work in progress in unstated ways. Read with discernment, this account is not just the origin of much of our current understanding, it can remain part of it.

    Footnote - another cutting-edge RBC discovery!
    As an aside to his detailed biological arguments, William Paley briefly discussed astronomy. In Chapter XXII (p. 384) he made the first clear statement of the anthropic principle:

    Now, concerning this law of variation [the inverse square law of gravity], we have three things to observe: First; that attraction, for any thing we know about it, was just as capable of one law of variation, as of another: Secondly; that, out of an infinite number of possible laws, those which were admissible for the purpose of supporting the heavenly motions, lay within certain narrow limits: Thirdly; that of the admissible laws, or those which come within the limits prescribed, the law that actually prevails is the most beneficial.
    This argument has only been reinforced over time; the observation holds not just for gravity but the cosmological constant, the initial ratio of matter to antimatter and so on. The parameters and constants of physical law are as finely tuned for intelligent life as the suspension of the mobile I've just made my granddaughter. The clever men at Princeton and elsewhere are trying to get round the problem, with Greek-type speculations about multiple universes, or heroic efforts to unify physics in such a way that the anthropophilic numbers emerge naturally from the mathematical structure of physical law. SFIK, there isn't so far any actual evidence for either. Paley's physical ID argument isn't conclusive, but it hasn't been refuted either.
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