Update: December 30, 2006: Somehow it slipped past me that P.Z. Myers had already shredded the Hitchens piece. Sorry about that. By all means have a look at his eloquent demolition as well.
Here’s Peter Hitchens weighing in on the evolution/ID dispute, writing for The Mail on Sunday, which I gather is a British newspaper:
The large response to the item about ‘Intelligent Design’ only underlines the need for a proper debate about this interesting intellectual development, here in Britain. This might start with a bit more fairness and open-mindedness. I was, because I am not a scientist, very cautious about what I wrote here. I still am. I also didn’t give my own view on the controversy. This can be summarised in the words ‘I have no idea who is right… and nor have they’. Yet many of the responses from Darwinists were still actively hostile and angry, as if I had said a good deal more than I actually did.
Lovely. Another one of those, “I’m so much more open-minded and clear-thinking than you,” columns. It’s a familiar genre. Let me see if I can recreate Hitchens’ thought process:
Evolution vs. ID is big right now. I should really write a column about it. But I don’t know anything about biology. Worse, everyone knows I don’t know anything about biology. So if I write a column completely endorsing evolution, I’ll be open to the charge that I’m just parroting the opinions of a dogmatic, scientific establishment. Can’t have that. Have to look insightful, avant-garde, cutting-edge. But I certainly can’t endorse cretionism or ID. I mean, those guys are just nuts. Don’t want to be associated with them. How about if I just tell everyone to be open-minded and skeptical? That could work. No one really opposes open-mindedness, after all. Yeah, this is good. Get to stick my thumb in scientists’ eye without looking like a fool. Perfect!
Let us see how things play out. We consider the essay in full.
Let me deal with one aspect of their attack on Professor Michael Behe and others. There’s a great deal talked about how ‘ID’ is ‘pseudoscience’ and that there are no articles in support of ‘ID’ published in peer-reviewed journals. There’s also a lot about how the ‘overwhelming majority’ of scientists accept the Darwinist position.
Much of this is not, as it appears to be, objective argument. It is just subjective use of important-sounding phrases to discredit an unfashionable idea. First, this technique greatly exaggerates the claims made by ‘ID’. These are basically arguments about probability, which can’t be resolved, and mainly act by widening the area of doubt.
I guess Hitchens hasn’t read the decision in the Dover case. You know, the one where the claims of ID were laid out according to strict rules of evidence, and the Judge found that it was religion after all.
Hitchens tells us that these are arguments about probability, which can’t be resolved. Actually, Behe says very little about probability. His claim is simply that if a system is made of numerous, well-matched parts, and the removal of any one of its parts renders the system nonfunctional, then it is irreducibly complex and could not have evolved gradually via natural selection. This claim is simply wrong. There are a variety of ways such systems can evolve in principle, and there is ample evidence from actual complex biological systems to suggest how they evolved in practice.
The probability comes into it when you read William Dembski. His contribution is to argue that irreducible complexity is a special case of specified complexity. He claims that it is possible to carry out probability calculations that show it is highly unlikely that complex systems could evolve gradually. He has only ever attempted such a calculation for one complex system, the flagellum of E. coli. That calculation is readily exposed as a bad joke by anyone with a touch of mathematical training.
So the scientific claims of ID are easily assessed and found to be incorrect. Notice, incidentally, that ID claims about specified complexity or irreducible complexity are wrong regardless of the merits of Darwinian evolution. Evolution could be overturned tomorrow, but if that happens it will still be true that Dembski and Behe are wrong.
Of course, ID claims considerably more than that. ID is not merely the assertion that Darwinian evolution has gaps or that skepticism is required. It is also the assertion that only the action of an awesome, but unspecified, intelligence can account for biological complexity. As its practitioners proudly tell us, it is the leading edge of a wedge intended to overthrow materialism. It’s ambitions are to replace science as it has been practiced for centuries with an oxymoron known as “theistic science.” Somehow Hitchens overlooked that aspect of the subject.
As I tried to say, ‘ID’ is unlike Darwinism in that is specifically doesn’t seek to offer a general theory of the origin of species. It is a sceptical current. It says ‘there is something in the Darwinist argument which requires re-examination in the light of knowledge we didn’t have until recently’. Here are a few questions. Since Darwinism is orthodoxy, on which many careers have been built and continue to prosper, is it likely that an attack which threatens that orthodoxy is going to be sympathetically treated by other scientists? That is specially so in Britain, where – as I understand – academics don’t have the security of tenure which people such as Behe have in the USA.
You might think that Hitchens would give us an example of one of those recently uncovered facts that is forcing us to reevaluate the Darwinist argument (whatever that is). But no! Instead he goes to an old chestnut. One of those arguments you can make when you know nothing about the subject but need to comment in a way that doesn’t make you look foolish. Note that he doesn’t actually acuse scientists of ruthlessly suppressing contrary ideas to protect a crumbling orthodoxy. He just throws it out there. You know, food for thought.
I don’t suppose he stops to consider the possibility that the reason so many careers have prospered on a foundation of evolution is that evolution actually produces results on a fairly regular basis. Of course not. No one ever looked insightful by arguing that scientists know what they’re doing.
There’s another point in this. Try as I may, struggling with selfish genes, alleles and the rest, I cannot find any Darwinist argument which doesn’t in the end rely on conjecture, backed up by the argument that it is the majority view.
That’s the first sentence of the next paragraph. If this were written by someone who knew what they were talking about, you would expect the next few sentences to give some examples of those Darwinist arguments that rely on conjecture and majoritarianism. But since this was actually written by a hack columnist, you might be able to guess what comes next:
Well, a majority cannot make a falsehood true, and all kinds of things have been the majority view, from the idea that blood didn’t circulate to the idea that iron ships would sink (and the idea that Anthony Blair was a refreshing and brilliant new feature in British politics). As for majority medical orthodoxies which have been totally mistaken, someone should write a book about them, as there have been so many.
What a guy! He can point out the foibles of those clueless, oppressive scientists, and still find time to throw in a gratuitous political slap. Punditry at its finest.
Unlike Darwinism, these ideas could be – and were – exploded by experiment and discovery. But Darwinism is all about events that happened when there was nobody there to witness them. And it is also about events which – if happening now – are happening too slowly for anyone to live long enough to see them. It is amazing how many supporters of this theory cannot see the difference between the micro-evolution of adaptation or alteration within species, and the far more ambitious developments of macro-evolution, in my view qualitatively different, which Darwinists believe in.
I’d feel cheated if Hitchens actually provided an example of one of those confused Darwinists who can’t tell the difference between adaptation within a species and large-scale macroevolution on the other. Don’t you kind of have the feeling at this point that the only evolutionary biologist Hitchens can actually name is Richard Dawkins? (Well, possibly Stephen Jay Gould as well.)
What evolutionary biologists do say is that there is no reason in principle why natural selection acting on random genetic variations, which can be observed to produce substantial change in relatively short periods of time, can not also produce very large changes when given millions of years in which to work. They go on to claim that there is ample evidence, culled from virtually every branch of the life sciences and paleontology, that what works in principle has actually happened in fact. And they further back up this claim by applying evolution-based reasoning to the problems they face in their lab, and being rewarded with progress on open questions. I guess Hitchens overlooked all that during his struggles with selfish genes and alleles.
The fossil record is full of gaps and highly ambiguous. Species appear and disappear suddenly, which I should have thought would upset the Darwinist position quite badly, but somehow doesn’t.
There he goes being all open-minded and clear-thinking again. Why can’t scientists be more like that?
Of course, most scientists find it significant that with tens of millions of fossils collected and dated, not one is out of place from an evolutionary standpoint. Those appearances and disappearances, the ones evolutionists are supposed to find disconcerting, occur in precisely the patterns suggested by other methods of reconstructing natural history. Zooming in a bit closer we find numerous transitional forms, all of them at just the right place in geological history and at just the right locations around the globe, documenting many of the major transitions that are said to have occurred. At times there are so many transitional forms, as with the evolution of mammals from reptiles, that it is impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. But I guess scientists are expected to ignore all that.
That’s the set-up. Now for the big closing:
All I ask is that people keep thinking about this, don’t get frightened of doing so, and don’t try to frighten others into orthodoxy, or to misrepresent opponents’ positions.
Thinking about evolution is good, but actually learning something about the subject is better. If Hitchens had tried that approach he might have avoided all those misrepresentations of his own.