September 26, 2007

A Thought On Ontology

Sometimes, one theory is better than another. Having overheard a conservation today at lunch about how evolution is “just a theory,” and trying my best to not jump out of my chair and bitch-slap the participants, I take this opportunity to vent here. After all, what’s a blog for if not that?

If you asked me, “TL, how did you come to be,” I’d answer that I was the product of a sexual union between my father and my mother, which resulted in a pregnancy. There is no tangible evidence I can point to in order to corroborate this theory (other than my own physical existence, which is tautological evidence). Since I can’t find any tangible evidence that corroborates the theory, and the only other witnesses to the event (my parents) can only provide testimony with no tangible evidence they can point to, this theory is doomed to remain just that – a theory.

Indeed, if the events underlying the theory were to be re-created, identical results would most definitely not recur (even though my parents would probably have a lot of fun trying). Even if they were to have attempted to re-create those events during their childbearing years, we can all be very, very certain that someone other than me (or, perhaps more accurately, someone who was a clone of me) would result. So this theory has not only been posited in the absence of any tangible evidence supporting it, the theory is scientifically untestable and unverifiable in any objective sense.

And, if you think about it, sexual reproduction is an astonishingly counter-intuitive way for a member of the species to reproduce. It necessarily involves the dilution of that individual’s genes and it provides little tangible benefit other than a few moment’s pleasure to the male – and to the female, the few moment’s pleasure (sometimes) is followed by months of physical inconvenience and distress. It carries the risk of communicating diseases and of killing the mother during pregnancy or childbirth, absent the use of powerful scientific techniques, developed over hundreds of years of experience, to mitigate those risks. The sexual organs of homo sapiens are particularly vulnerable to both physical injury and a panoply of diseases. Really, if you were God (which would mean I would have to capitalize the second-person pronoun) and You were designing humans from scratch, is sex the mechanism You would have picked? Really?

So the theory lacks tangible evidence, is based strictly on the unverifiable testimony of a very small number of purported participant/eyewitnesses, and cannot be reproduced under even the most ideal laboratory conditions imaginable.

But no one sane suggests that because of this, the “stork theory” of existence deserves to be taught as the intellectual and scientific equivalent of the “sexual reproduction” theory. The idea that I came into existence as the result of sexual reproduction is, however flawed a theory it might be, nevertheless so overwhelmingly likely to be correct that it can be treated as the equivalent of fact. And, the “stork theory” is so overwhelmingly improbable, and so unhelpful an explanation, as to be properly disregarded completely.

No one would seriously suggest that the “flat earth” model of cosmology be an equally valid model of astrophysics as compared to “conventional” celestial mechanics.

So why does creationism (or its thinly-veiled clone, intelligent design) deserve to be taught side-by-side with evolution? It doesn’t. It’s not science, and it’s not even science fiction. It’s just plain fiction. And saying evolution is “just a theory” doesn’t bring evolution down to the level of being equivalent to the creation myth of a tribe of bronze age nomads.

(UPDATE: To clarify, what made me upset about the conversation was not that the people were ignorant of evolution, it was that they were willfully so, and wanted public schools to teach religion as an equivalent alternative to real science.)


Orange Phantom said...

Sorry again, pal. I don't believe evolution (theory or fact). It just doesn't make sense to me. Now I have to admit that I can't verify that intelligent design or creationism is correct either. But seems to me that if your (or mine) ideas are verifiable, both or neither should be taught. Both are religeous. Science and religieon clash all the time (just ask some of the 'witches' of our early democracy or meadevil times). This blog is not the proper place to discuss this as I have much infromation to ask you about. The fact remains that evolution is not verifiable and neither is creationism. Why is one taught (sponsored) by our schools and not the other? I thought we had religeous freedom in this country?

Burt Likko said...

You can believe what you like, but evolution is not religion, and teaching it advances a secular, not a religious, purpose. Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) 482 U.S. 578.

Evolution does not require faith in a supernatural actor. Indeed, it disclaims the intervention of any supernatural actor. The theory of evolution offers no social structure, code of ethics or morals, ritual behaviors, or mediators between the evolution and its subjects.

Evolution is nothing more than an explanation of a specific phenomenon: the diversity of species. Evolution does not purport to explain from where life originated, only why where are so many different kinds of it. There is speculation about the origin of life from a lifeless environment, but such speculation is beyond the scope of evolutionary theory.

It's not a valid criticism of evolution to say that you do not understand it. I don't understand calculus, computer programming, or automotive mechanics other than at the most basic of levels. But these things exist despite my lack of mastery of them.

Moreover, you've not responded to my "stork theory" argument. You might say "God blessed this couple with a child," but whatever subtle influence you may attribute to God in the creation of that child, I strongly doubt that you would deny that the sexual union of the child's parents was the proximate cause of the child's conception. You would not argue that the child was sent a stork, carrying a pre-diapered baby to the couple wrapped in a bindle, or that they found the child in a cabbage patch -- and I hope that you would object to telling children such fairy tales when it comes time to for them to learn where babies come from.

So too with evolution. Evolution may not please you in the way that intelligent design does. I don't pretend evolution is simple, any more than calculus, auto mechnics, or computer programming are simple. But the complexity of the subject does not mean it is invalid.

You see, evolution is verifiable. One example: corn, in its natural state, does not release any chemicals when its kernels are punctured. Introduce caterpillars into the system; the caterpillars will eat the corn. Wasps eat caterpillars. When exposed to caterpillars, successive generations of corn plants will begin to release a chemical that attracts wasps, in increasingly strong doses, for as long as the caterpillar threat continues. Turlings, et. al., Exploitation of Herbivore-Induced Plant Odors by Host-Seeking Parasitic Wasps, Science 250: 1251 - 1252. The corn plants evolve, and they do it in only a few generations.

I bet that when it comes down to brass tacks, you really do believe in evolution. Prove me wrong: the next time you're really sick, ask your doctor to give you the same dose of antibiotics that would have been given to you in 1957. If you're right that those microbes haven't evolved in the last 50 years, the same done of penicillin you would have got in the Eisenhower Administration should do you just fine today.

Orange Phantom said...

Well, you missed the point. Take your corn theory (subject, not a editorial comment on its logic....) your example infers that the corn is able to decide what chemicals to release (ones that will attract wasps). Corn does not have that ability. Same goes fro the example of evolution. Dogs procreate more dogs, and so on. I have never heard of any thing else occurring. This brings up the 'kind' argument. We'll skip that as it’s very prolonged. How did the fire beetle evolve? (That’s the one that secretes 2 chemicals that when mixed, forms a (very) hot gas that burns their adversary. Seems that if that bug evolved, there may have been many casualties (which arguable could have an effect on the procreation of the species).

As I mentioned, I don't have all the answers, I just doubt that the evolution theory has the content explain it all.

In addition, the belief that there is nothing (i.e. God) to believe in is in fact a religion and it is protected by our constitution. Evolution does not allow for a supreme being (Intelligent designer), so by that definition, it IS a religion.

All I argue for is that both views are allowed to be taught. Believe what you want, but do not exclude my beliefs. Just because it can't be proved, does not mean that it's untrue. I have many facts that are in complete disagreement with evolution.

We're gonna have some really good discussions when we get together. Won’t affect what I think of you (after all, the stork delivered you to my brother), so be prepared for some challenging questions.

Burt Likko said...

I'm looking forward to it!