April 09, 2008

Unintelligent Design and Men's Testicles: Abigail Hafer at Greater Worcester Humanists

Last night's talk at the meeting of the Greater Worcester Humanists by Curry College professor of zoology Abigail Hafer was rather funny. I do mean "ha ha" funny by this. Officially entitled "Unintelligent Design," Hafer revealed at the outset that the alternative title was "Unintelligent Design and Men's Testicles," and she used the latter organs as a jumping-off point to explain five selected examples of what would be poorly designed systems in the human body if they had actually been designed. These included testicles, the eye, the epiglottis, the birth canal and the appendix. Hafer gave her audience an understanding of how these systems are only "good enough" in humans and how other living organisms in the world today have better ones (e.g., cephalopods have better eyes, kangaroos have a better solution for the trade-offs needed between bipedalism and birth canal size, whales a better separation of air and food passages that prevents choking). None of it was new information for me personally, but it was clear that most members of the audience considered all of this new information.

From a personal POV, what was most interesting to me was the long Q&A period after the talk. One of Hafer's main points was that the Intelligent Design movement is fundamentally political and not at all scientific. A good number of those in attendance wanted to know why; what is the political end here? This being Massachusetts, a place where in much of the state one can't swing a stick without hitting some sort of scientist or another, people around here really don't have much experience with Neocreationism, I suppose. Hafer seemed to think that money and power were a major motivation, that it was largely about political influence and the ability to pay oneself a handsome salary without actually having to produce anything, such as is done at the Discovery Institute. I added, when the opportunity arose, that people who wanted to find the motivation for Neocreationist politics need look no further than The Wedge Document.

When I had the opportunity to ask a question, I asked Dr. Hafer about what she thought would be an appropriate response to the propaganda embodied in Stein and Mathis' hit piece, Expelled. Interestingly, Hafer had never heard of it and neither had all but one other person in the audience of about 50. While that bit of celluloid trash may be creating buzz in the blogosphere, I don't think it has emerged much into popular consciousness and will ultimately be something that has little impact out in the real world. True-believers may go see the thing because some religious figure in their already anti-science madrass tells them that they should and perhaps a small sampling of scientists and pro-science people will also see it to keep tabs upon how far into the pits of sleazy lunacy the other side has managed to sink, but in the end it won't change things anymore than the Left Behind movies did. It will come and go and ultimately be relegated to the basements of fundamentalist churches, I think.

Another audience member brought up the Dover trial, and he was followed up by a woman who had heard of Michael Behe and essentially wondered what was wrong with the guy. She wasn't a scientist by any stretch; it was amusing to me to hear that she could see through Behe without a science degree.

One funny thing that I noticed is that a lot of the questions were about things far outside of the domain of biology. Hafer fielded questions about everything from artificial intelligence to attempts at getting her to predict the far evolutionary future of Homo sapiens. The inference I draw from such questions is that there are people who think that being a scientist entails some all-consuming knowledge of anything that sounds science-y. Without specific knowledge of a discipline, all this stuff seems to run together. Scientists aren't supposed to say "I don't know," even though that's largely what they do — just like everyone else on the planet, if they're honest. Hafer admitted to that, but clearly she was still having a good time speculating on such things as she answered the questions. That's also a commonality; we all like to speculate about the more interesting aspects of the future. It's fun to toss around some science fiction, even when there's more fiction than science.

So while the talk itself was good, the audience reaction and speculation was more informative for me. Future events are in the works, of course, and I'm sure I'll be attending them as time permits.

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