26 April, 2005

Blood clots could cost me my job!

I'm down to six fingers, after I stabbed myself in my right middle finger last night with a kitchen knife. Since I've thus got a large blood clot "at hand", I'll take this opportunity to make an awkward segue.

Michael Behe argues in his book, "Darwin's Black Box", that certain protein pathways are what he terms "irreducibly complex", that is, could not have formed through an evolutionary process. Behe's contention is that some complex, multi-component systems would obviously fail if any one component were missing, and since evolution by natural selection demands they form via a stepwise process, such systems could not have been the product of evolution. The cascade of reactions that results in the formation of blood clots in humans is one of his more spectacular examples.

A simple thought experiment illustrates both the sense and nonsense of this proposition. Take three chopsticks and try to form a tripod with them through a series of stable intermediates. It seems impossible, since any two by themselves will collapse without the support of a third. But in fact, we can very easily form such a structure: we stabilize the one- and two-stick intermediates with one hand, add the third, and take our hand away. A system that is apparently irreducibly complex is not so if we consider the possibility of scaffolding structures, which stabilized intermediates in a way which is not obvious from the current state of the system.

In fact, this is not a far-fetched idea. Life is far more adept at borrowing, stealing, subverting and recycling bits of machinery than we can imagine. Irreducible complexity isn't a disproof of evolution, unless you can definitively establish that no such scaffolding process of intermediates could have occurred - a much more difficult, and perhaps even impossible proposition. In fact, Behe's original blood clot example has been taken apart by simple example - a supposedly vital component of the "irreducibly complex" system does not exist in some other species.

Nevertheless, despite the weakness of the critique, and despite the fact that it remains a fundamentally negative statement and has not been augmented by any coherent theory of origins, the idea of "irreducible complexity" is the linchpin of the modern Intelligent Design movement, which in turn represents the basis for the modern Christian creationist attack on the theory of evolution. Since that paritcular movement has been gaining in leaps and bounds, and since attacking the theory of evolution has always been a favorite hobby-horse of the Christian conservative movement, it's fairly inevitable that the attempts to discredit the theory would be escalating. And not without some success, in the lay public. The "modern synthesis" is a very well-established theory, corroborated by evidence from many fields: genetics, ecology, geology, paleontology, et alia. But most people only have a cursory understanding of these fields, and (coupled with ideological credence) are susceptible to flawed but technical and informed arguments in a broad range of these fields. So, I'm not surprised to see proponents of intelligent design "theory" gaining ground and becoming more militant and self-assured.

But, to be honest, I can't picture a realistic scenario in which these forces achieve a victory. It's frankly impossible, given the fact that the science is crap, and evolution is a well-established liberal sacred cow. If it were seriously threatened, battle lines would be drawn and some sustained battles would occur, and intelligent design would come out bloodied and probably dead.

So the only issue is whether it's worthwhile to have a sensibly educated public. Note that the American majority has been hostile to the theory of evolution pretty much since its inception (along with other scientific theories), and the result has not been a notable decay in the strength of these theories or of scientific institutions. They've remained quite robust, in fact. The only reason, therefore, to advance a correct understanding of the theory of evolution (and other theories that contradict Christian dogma) is because they imply a rejection of Christian dogma. Their acceptance necessarily entails giving up the belief in Biblical inerrancy. This is why they're so vigorously opposed.

Now, I'm quite clearly an empiricist, and I think Biblical inerrancy is the height of foolishness. On the other hand, there's another liberal sacred cow at stake here, viz. the Establishment Clause. Since evolution is a direct contravention of a religious viewpoint, doesn't teaching it in schools imply an endorsement of a particular religious perspective?

We can always hope that Christians will grow the fuck up and wake up to reality, but it's a historical truth that people cling fiercely to their religious ideals, no matter how irrational. I think this is a battle we're stuck with. Forever, even.

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