Ken Miller thinks that life scientists should reclaim the word design.
I was going to write the followup to “How to think about biology” post, but instead I’ll pick up on the ideas being floated by Miller that scientists should take back the word design from pseudoscientists (discussed at Pharyngula, Evolving Thoughts and Gregg Laden’s blog). But instead of design, I think that we life scientists should reclaim the idea that life is the product of machines.
Now of course I’m exaggerating a bit. The word “machine” is used everywhere within molecular biology, biochemistry and other related fields. But I’ve noticed that the fierce attackers of intelligent design are squeamish about the term. And they don’t hesitate to warn me whenever I use it. What these folks don’t understand is that the term “machine” perfectly describes the products of the genome, namely all the proteins and functional RNAs. Get over it – they are machines. But just as the term “design” doesn’t necessarily imply that there must be a designer, the term “machine” does not necessarily imply that there must be a machine inventor. For the rest of this conversation see Ken Miller’s views. I will take a different angle on this topic. But first I want to remind you of man’s religiously based preconceived notions about biological questions. Remember that biological questions come in two forms: those that search for proximal and ultimate causation. How does something work (proximal causation) and why does it work (ultimate causation).
Traditionally we had religious answers for these two questions. Our answers to ultimate questions tended to involve creation. To the question, “Why do we exist?”, the answer would be “Because God created us.” To “Why does our hand have an opposable thumb?”, the theologian would answer something like “Because God designed our hand intelligently.” Then came Darwin who proposed one of the greatest insights that man ever had: evolution. Now instead of answering our ultimate questions by invoking some divine being, we could explain the ultimate causation using a couple of pedestrian assumptions: the second law of thermodynamics, heredity, limited resources and competition. These four ideas were verifiably true. And from these four axioms, evolution pops out. But unlike what theists and other ideologues would lead you believe, this is not the only point of contention between science and religion. The main battle field in the mind and hearts of most religious folk, now and a hundred years ago, is the battle for the answers to proximal questions. And for a long time this battle raged WITHIN the biological sciences. It is the answer to How does life work.
So what are the two opposing views to proximal causation within biological systems? On the one hand are the materialists. Their credo is that life can be reduced to the laws of chemistry and physics. After the Modern Synthesis, the materialists added evolution, or the historical precedent to explain some aspects of these machines. This can be summed up by that famous quote by Dobzhansky.
In sum materialists would say that our bodies work because they are full of small machines that act in synchrony to form the substrate of organic matter. This idea has been basically borne out over the last fifty years. Through reductionism we have discovered that biological processes are the products of proteins, nucleic acids, lipids and sugars. They form these vast biochemical networks that produce “life”.
What is the opposing view? Well, ask any religious person why they are opposed to stem cell research. Their answer will involve something about conception and something special about the nature of life. The topic becomes a bit harder to address when we talk about that byproduct of multicellular animal life, thought. Ask any individual (including yourself) whether they (or you) have free will. What is this mysterious force that inhabits our bodies and/or our brains? Several terms can be used to describe this “special” biological property that many would say exists beyond chemistry, physics or the realms of reductionism: these include animalism, vitalism, the soul. These words all share the idea of an extra property given to organic or neuronal matter — the “life force”. Where this force comes from is as mysterious as the force itself. Some claim that it has divine origin. Others say that it is simply part of a different spiritual or platonic world. Some try to link it back to materialism by invoking quantum weirdness or higher level organization via strange feedback loops. Now at some point in our history, as reductionism was explaining more and more about the world in which we lived in, some philosophers feared that life will soon be understood in terms of the new material sciences an that the platonic world would be shown to be an illusion. But man had to be rescued. Many prominent intellectuals like Descartes gave up the body part of vitalism and declared that animals were nothing but machines, but humankind had something extra: consciousness. And so this vital force, like some battle-weary soldier, took refuge in the human mind. Thus today many religious moderates would say that the soul resides solely in the mental world (these folk tend to be pro-choice and in favor of stem-cell research since these technologies do not destroy conscious beings). Many non-religious individuals, including many who are reading this post, believe in a related idea, free will. I don’t want to get bogged down in a discussion of mind and will, but just would like to point out that the idea of a vital force has been a long a contentious one. But this has been where most of the real battles have been and are fought.
Although most religious people are opposed to materialism, there is no data or scientific way to attack materialism or reductionism itself – in fact materialism and reductionism are so intertwined with all of our current scientific advances that to take these ideas on using scientific methods would be foolish. Yet to some degree we all hold on to some vestige of anti-reductionism belief when it comes to proximal causes. In contrast our answers for ultimate causation are basically settled, here materialism has won.
Thus I find it ironic that the intelligent design folk have implicitly taken over the idea that life is but a collection of machines operating in some complicated network. By doing so they acknowledge materialism as the main proximal cause for biological processes. They have thus inadvertently banished the creator to the world of ultimate causation. A world where we have enough proof to kill the idea of a creator through logic itself. This idea that all of proximal biology is devoid of any divine force, is an idea that the backers of the IDists do not believe. I’m sure that most ID proponents haven’t really thought about the implications either. By letting materialism enter the room, they undermine their own cause.
Thus I leave you with that thought. The public discussion is upside down. Most of our questions regarding the ultimate causes of biological design are settled – no one in academia ever discusses whether we need to invoke mysterious forces to explain why organic being are the way they are. But to oppose the use of the term “machine” just because the ID movement uses this same word to imply a machine inventor, is to oppose “materialism” because anti-evolutionary forces use this idea to invoke a creator of mater. By taking this approach, critics of the ID movement inadvertently retreat to the force vitae to explain proximal causation within biological systems. It is only by insisting that both proximal and ultimate causation has a materialistic foundation, a fact supported by all evidence collected in the life sciences, that you can explain why Intelligent Design is unintelligible.
In the next post, which I’ve previously promised to write, I will explain how the networks of machines found inside each and every single cell can help give insight into how evolution works. Remember that in the end the ultimate result is highly dependent on the nature of the proximal events.