Flock of Dodos

Randy Olson earned his Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard University in 1984 as an environmental ecologist, primarily in reef ecology. In the late 90s, he decided to go into film making, and caught a lot of attention for 2006’s “Flock of Dodos: The Evolution - Intelligent Design Debate”.

Okay, so it’s a documentary about the ‘debate’ between ID and Evolution from a guy who, quite simply, firmly knows that Evolution takes place. It’s probably stands up to logical rigor as well as Michael Moore on a treadmill, right?

I’ll admit a bit of bias, in that I find the ‘debate’ around Evolution ridiculous, but Olson gives the ID people ample time to try to convince him of their world view in his movie. Probably close to 75% of the movie centers around discussions with ID proponents, and they generally are glad, and quick, to show how little they truly understand about modern evolutionary theory.

I’ll be getting to that part in a bit, but I will say that Olson, for his part, doesn’t let the evolutionary biologists off free and clear. He paints an, unfortunately somewhat accurate, portrait of the modern evolutionary biologist as a older, white male, who is completely incapable of expressing their work in reasonable terms, and who tends to become belligerent when presented with someone who doesn’t accept a well-understood (by those who’ve read any of the literature, at least) scientific fact like evolution.

In fact, both sides of the argument fail to provide a rigorous platform with which to convince people of their cause. The ID proponents use ridiculous comparisons and poor science to push their agenda, while the scientific establishment has tried to pretend these people don’t exist in the modern age. Sadly, these people do exist, and so do people who honestly believe that the Earth is flat.

The core argument that the ID proponents put forward is that Darwinian Evolution can’t explain everything. Which is certainly true. But then, Darwin didn’t really try all that hard to describe how common descent began, and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published 150 years ago (next month, actually). To suggest, as ID proponents surreptitiously do, that evolutionary theory hasn’t progressed in 15 decades, is ridiculous. In fact, the biological community no longer believes with one of the core ideas presented in “Origin”, that the primary driver of evolution was ‘survival of the fittest’. Certainly that’s viewed as a driver, but not as the most important one.

The, there is Michael Behe, a well respected biochemist, who is basically responsible for the modern face of Intelligent Design. I’ve seen Behe speak, the video from the talk being available online. Behe is, as one might expect, the consummate Intelligent Design proponent. He mentions that he’s a professor at Lehigh University, but that his department clearly states that they disagree with him on the issue of Intelligent Design, regarding it as unscientific.

It’s not so much that he mentions this, but how he mentions it that’s offensive. He says it, to suggest that he is somehow being persecuted by his peers, when really, if he was being truly persecuted, he wouldn’t likely even be on the faculty at Lehigh anymore. All his department has done is said that, while they respect Behe, and his science, they don’t believe the Intelligent Design is science, and don’t want his affiliation with Lehigh to lend credibility to it.

Why doesn’t the Biology Faculty at Lehigh University believe that Intelligent Design is Science? Because it isn’t. Science is defined as follows:

  1. The collective discipline of study or learning acquired through the scientific method; the sum of knowledge gained from such methods and discipline.
  2. A particular discipline or branch of learning, especially one dealing with measurable or systematic principles rather than intuition or natural ability.

Intelligent Design fails to live up to either of these definitions. The most trumpeted principle used by ID proponents, irreducible complexity, states that some systems are too complex to have been arrived at via gradual evolution, and small steps and changes over time. Behe’s favorite example of this one, is that of a flagella, specifically the protein ‘motor’ that drives the filament. Admittedly, this is a complex mechanism, one that, to my knowledge, Science is currently unable to explain the origin of. However, that doesn’t make irreducible complexity a scientific principle.

Science, and the scientific method, are based around asking questions. Even after Darwin wrote “Origin”, there were a lot of things he didn’t understand. Darwin didn’t know the mechanism by which traits were passed from parents to offspring, but we’ve answered that question, because someone formed some intuition that they could then measure and test via ‘systematic principles’. Irreducible Complexity says “I don’t know how this happened, so clearly, it must have been implanted by some sort of designer.” That’s not science. That’s anti-science, and a classic application of the logical falacy of ‘argumentum ad ignorantiam’.

This is also to ignore the outright lies that ID proponents will tell in order to push their agenda. The focusing on the term ‘theory of evolution’, even though in Science and Mathematics, something can only earn the title ‘Theory’, when it has passed scientific rigor to the point where it is universally accepted. The lies which talk about Ernst Haeckel’s embryo drawings as if they were still being used in modern teaching. In the movie, Olson takes an embryology text book on the bookshelf of the gentleman he’s talking to who is making this claim about Haeckel’s embryos, and they can’t even find a mention of Haeckel in the book.

Intelligent Design has to assume that science has stood still for the century or more, because it’s the only way the are able to put together a wide breadth of arguments into the failures (or more accurately, misunderstandings) of evolutionary theory.

What people need to understand is that science doesn’t exclude the existence of God, or a Creator. It simply doesn’t presuppose such existence. It seems to me that because they don’t make that presupposition, because a scientific universe could exist without some sort of divine outer influence, many people believe that it completely precludes the possibility of divinity. And certainly there are some vocal members of the scientific community who routinely mock the faithful, but for most in the community, the existence of God simply isn’t relevant to the work that their doing.

Ultimately, part of the reason ID has gained so much traction is that it’s simply better marketed, in part because the scientific community felt they didn’t need to defend themselves against it’s claims. We need to support groups, like the National Center for Science Education, who seek to defend the teaching of science from the illogical attacks from Intelligent Design, and other fundamentally religious arguments. They are under funded compared to their opposition, however, but you can join for as little as $30 per year, a perfectly reasonable amount to try to change science education in this country for the better.