God, Darwin and Dixie Part 1: Semantics

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When it comes to the discussion of evolution, at least in the public, there’s a lot of misunderstanding floating around. Probably the biggest misunderstanding — the one that, if you don’t get this you’re not going to get why evolution is so important concerns the word theory. Precisely what that word means in the scientific community.

“It’s not used the same way as it’s used in common speech.”

Dr. Robert Angus is a biologist at UAB. He teaches the school’s biannual class on evolution. He says a theory is the highest level of scientific understanding, often the result of years of work studying laws and hypotheses.

“It’s a group of laws or ideas that has been tested many, many times by many different individuals and has been supported. So theories are much higher level than hypotheses or even laws in science … it’s not just a theory.”

That’s pretty much the nuts and bolts of the argument of some evolution naysayers. This idea that evolution is just a theory. Angus says there’s no just about it … in order for a theory to stand the scientific stink test it must be solid — with no major fissures. It’s kind of like the foundation of your house, if there are major flaws the house falls down. In science, people go looking for those fissures. They try to create them. They run experiment after experiment in order to disprove their findings. Angus says evolution has run the gamut of tests and emerged on the other side, pretty solid.

“The theory of evolution has been pretty much accepted by scientists for over a hundred years now. And there are no experiments that really refute or are against the theory of evolution. It’s supported by vast amounts of information.”

Angus points out evolution’s considered so sound it’s become a paradigm, or framework, in which the sciences operate but a lot people don’t quite get that …

“The public, at large, is not really well educated about scientific principles.”

Linda Coleman is an English professor and language expert at the University of Maryland.

“Most of us don’t really pay attention on a day-to-day basis to what science does and does not cover and how to draw conclusions about scientific claims so that we’re really, a little bit more susceptible to non-scientific arguments.”

Coleman says that, coupled with the fact that the intelligent design community — the high profile other side of the evolution debate — is so well organized means scientists have an uphill battle.

“There’s a very small intelligent design community and they’re in touch with each other and they can actually establish their talking points and, frankly, some of them are just excellent rhetoricians.”

Coleman says most scientists aren’t trained in rhetoric. Debating is not a natural part of what they do — it’s something they’ve been forced into because of the controversy that’s developed around evolution. And that controversy isn’t even real, says Coleman, it’s something the intelligent design community’s whipped up.

“Their purpose at the moment seems to be merely to sway the public that there is a controversy. Now that’s pretty easy to do, you just assert there is a controversy and if you say it enough it will become a controversy. Scientists have a much broader problem because they want to keep teaching science in the schools and improve the teaching of science; I mean they don’t have a single, simple goal as the intelligent design proponents do.”

But people on the intelligent design side of things maintain their theory — that life is so complicated some kind of designer must have been involved at some point — is just as sound a scientific theory as evolution. Among them is Michael Behe.

“Intelligent design is, in fact, based on the results of the science of biology, especially at the molecular level, that have been developed in the past couple of decades. I know there’s a lot of kneejerk stereotyping and as a matter of fact some people do like the idea of ID because they think it fits in some particular story that they favor.”

But Behe says that’s not how he came to intelligent design, or ID. Behe is a biochemistry professor at Lehigh University and says he began to look into ID after studying molecular systems. He eventually became a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute — a Seattle think tank that pushes intelligent design — and authored the book “Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution”. In it Behe makes the case for intelligent design through something he calls “irreducible complexity”.

“Irreducible complexity is a fancy phrase but it stands for something simple. It means that you have a system that has a number of different parts and they all work together to do something that the individual parts couldn’t do, or certainly couldn’t do effectively.”

Behe uses the bacterial flagellum to demonstrate this idea. The flagellum — basically the motor that drives the bacteria — needs about 42 separate proteins to get up and go. Remove one and the bacteria’s not going anywhere. Behe argues the complexity of the system shows evidence of some kind of design, as well as the fact that there is no direct precursor to the flagellum. But biologists have begun to unravel just how flagella evolved over the eons. One of the tenets of evolutionary theory is the idea that ancestors don’t need to have the same function as their descendants. Biologists have discovered several biological mechanisms that seem to be precursors to the flagellum — they show how the flagellum could have evolved, taking some of the wind out of that particular intelligent design sail.

In fact, the scientific community, as a whole, discounts Behe’s theory of irreducible complexity, saying it’s an argument for a “God of the Gaps”. It’s a characterization Behe does not appreciate.

“The opposite argument that ‘just wait ten years and then we’ll figure out how unintelligent processes could put this together’ is a gaps argument itself. It’s saying sure things look designed but you just hold on a second we’ll figure it out somehow. It’s not based on evidence, it’s based on some simple feeling or intuition that, you know, ‘we can’t accept design so we’ve got to look for something else’.”

Critics say the fact Behe’s work on intelligent design and irreducible complexity has never been published in a scientific journal speaks volumes about whether it’s seen as science or not. But still, his message resonates with a lot of people. Linda Coleman, the language expert, says because it’s been framed as an alternative to evolution; tapping into the American desire to want to always be fair.

“Fairness, or presenting both sides of an issue; even the idea that any issue has two sides automatically is something that is really dear to our hearts as citizens of a democracy. So, of course, if you present the idea of fairness we just want to present both sides in the abstract most of us will say, ‘Yeah, that really sounds good’.”

But it’s not good when we’re talking about evolution; as far as science is concerned there’s not another side. And science by its very nature doesn’t work that way. It’s much cooler, much more logical; relying on reason to win out in the end.

The whole situation is kind of like the battle of wills between Spock and Captain Kirk on Star Trek — Spock quietly tries to make his point through logic while Kirk lets his emotions carry him away. Coleman says, as far as evolutionary theory goes, it’s probably time Spock got a little more animated.