God is in the details, perhaps


Horizon – 26th January 2006: ‘A War on Science’

Last week’s Horizon on BBC2 was an interesting look at the conflict between the theories of evolution and intelligent design. As well as broad coverage of key players in both camps, the programme focused on the court case in Dover, Pennsylvania, in which members of the school board wanted to replace evolution in science classes with intelligent design.

The key to this case was that if the teaching of intelligent design was found to be motivated by religious beliefs, it would be unconstitutional and therefore illegal, as the US constitution calls for a separation of religion and state.

Prominent atheist Richard Dawkins savagely attacked intelligent design, and was joined by David Attenborough and others. While the programme focused more on the cultural implications of the conflict between the two theories, the science behind them was obviously also important.

The evidence for evolution is undeniable, and can only be argued against with the belief that God put this evidence in place to make us believe in evolution. While this can neither be proved nor disproved, a belief in this stance would necessarily mean the abandonment of all reasoned thought – but this is another subject entirely.

The argument from intelligent design is that if examples of what is called ‘irreducible complexity’ can be found in nature, there must be an intelligent designer. Irreducible complexity takes the argument from evolution that complex forms of life evolve from simpler ones, and argues that an example of a biological system that cannot have evolved from a simpler form, because it is so complex that it can only work in its complete, developed state, would disprove Darwin’s theory of natural selection

The ID camp posits that flagellin, a biomechanical swimming instrument found on some bacteria, is evidence of irreducible complexity. This system is composed of fifty individual parts which apparently serve no function on their own, and therefore could not be genetic a legacy from simpler biological systems. The evolutionists argue that this is not the case, and that the individual parts do serve their own functions.

While both arguments are interesting, if not compelling in their own right, the programme failed to address one of the fundamental aspects of this conflict. Intelligent design was not placed within the broader context of arguments such as the cosmological Anthropic principal and the teleological argument, but worse than this, the origin of life itself was not even mentioned.

Evolution is a theory of the development of life on Earth, and it’s gradual adaptation through purely natural processes from simple to complex forms. But it is not a theory of the beginning of life. Evolution takes as its most fundamental base the concept of biogenesis; the observation that all life is from life. Biogenesis has never been seen to be violated.

Abiogenesis, the spontaneous formation of life from non-living matter, has never been observed. While the theory of evolution helps us to trace back our origins to simpler forms of life, it does nothing to answer the question of how life began in the first place. The fact that intelligent design provides a possible solution to this shortcoming of evolution and needn’t necessarily be directly opposed to it was not even mentioned. The absolute origin of life, as opposed to its gradual development and evolution did not get a look in, and all this in light of David Attenborough’s comment that science is based on observation. While evolution has arguably been observed, and the evidence for it definitely has, abiogenesis has not, and therefore any theory which claims to explain it is surely, by Attenborough’s reckoning, unscientific. And this would include arguments from intelligent design and evolution.

Written by Matt Goldman



    January 28, 2006

    Ah, but abiogenesis is a flawed concept in principle, for there is no “spontaneous formation of life from non-living matter”. The main problem being, there is no clear, iron-proof definition of life in the first place. It has been argued that viruses, for instance, are not life forms, for while they contain RNA and some proteins, they cannot propagate by themselves, but need to inject their code into the cell core of a cellular organism. It has been argued that prions, the likely cause of vCJD and BSE, might be a new form of life, without DNA.

    Mushrooms are more like animals than like plants. Human categorization is flawed, for it is more rigid than reality, which is very fluid.

    In other words, the continuum between life and matter does not need to have a spontaneous burst. Abiogenesis is likely to be nothing but a legend, a creation myth we dream about. There are conditions under which static matter can start acting as a living thing, and thus I suspect that the chain between life and dead matter is long, continuous and unbroken.


    January 28, 2006

    True, but then we are forced to disregard the concept of life entirely. Unless we view living things as nothing more than complex mechanisms, responding in a predetermined manner to external stimuli, and consciousness and free will as illusions, we must draw a line somewhere.

    If we hold that there is some way in which we can draw a distinction between life and non-life (personally I consider ‘life’ to be that which is counter-entropic), we must also hold that there was a point in the past when this transition occured.

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