May 19, 2008

Of Cockoaches, Creationists and Clyde Berg: the Arguments of Insects

I ran across this opinion piece by Clyde Berg of Lebanon, Missouri in the Springfield News-Leader this morning. It's unusual insofar as its written by a Christian who accepts biological evolution but doesn't understand what the theory contains and pushes back the god in the god-of-the-gaps argument to the beginning of time. He goes on to explain his doing so as arising from a lack of mental capacity, which is at least an honest way of presenting an argument from ignorance. Unfortunately for Clyde, he wants to extend his own lack of mental capacity to all of humanity.

Clyde presents his case thusly:

Easier to believe evolution from something than nothing

I believe the Earth and universe and all it contains were created by a supreme being. We of the Christian faith recognize this as God's creation. I do not have the mental capacity to understand why, when or how it was created but that does not alter the fact of creation.

Evolution is a fact, but it is evolution after creation, not evolution as origin of the universe and all it contains. An example of evolution is a tadpole swimming in a pond; it looks like a little blob with a tail, a few weeks later it has evolved into a frog with four legs and jumps out of the pond onto dry land. Mankind has evolved from an average height of three or four feet tall to over six feet and still growing. Look at a walnut, crack and it is good to eat, put it in the ground and it evolves into a tree 80 to 100 feet tall, produces new seeds, lives 150 years, dies, decays into the earth and becomes nutrients to nourish new life.
Let's pause right there. That Clyde doesn't understand what evolutionary theory is has been made abundantly clear. A tadpole developing into a frog and a walnut developing into a tree aren't examples of evolution, they're examples of development. There's an utter confusion here about the difference between evo and devo. Evolution maintains that frogs had ancestors in deep time that were something other than what we think of as a frog and that walnut trees has progenitors that weren't walnut trees. Nothing Clyde has cited so far is an example of evolution. Clyde does, at least, confess that he doesn't have the mental capacity to understand what he's talking about, though, and this alone is novel.

Ignorance means that one doesn't know something but could learn it. A lack of mental capacity means that one can't understand something. Clyde thinks he's stupid; he may be right. I'll leave it to him to explain that further.
Evolution is a fact, the problem comes when the theory of evolution morphs into scientific fact that leaves out one essential fact: creation. Call me a religious zealot if you like, but I would rather believe in a creator that I don't have the mental capacity to understand than a dark void of nothing that I don't understand. I try to pull all of this into perspective by looking at a cockroach. Science tells us the cockroach has been on earth longer than mankind. We don't think of insects as having intelligence, but in their world they have the instinct to reproduce and the intelligence to survive perhaps a million years.
OK, I'll call you a religious zealot, then. "Creation" is not an essential fact to evolutionary theory in particular or to science in general, and this isn't the result of a theory "morphing" into a fact anymore than a tadpole "morphing" into a frog is an example of evolution. What you or I would rather believe in has nothing to do with science; science is neutral on matters of belief, values, etc. All science is is a method for constructing models of phenomena based upon evidence. That's it; it's not there to support or deny any particular thing. The difference between science and religion, as Clyde has kindly pointed out for us, is that religion stops at things it calls "mysteries." Mystery is a code word for ignorance; when religion hits a mystery, there's no further investigation. But this is precisely where science starts; science is all about solving mysteries. The danger that catering to religious belief in science is exactly what Clyde has expressed; "Goddidit" doesn't get us anywhere at all.

By the way, insects have been around for a lot more than a million years, and the nobody is handing out MacArthur grants for the ability to reproduce. Instinct is not intelligence; it involves, by definition, no analytical ability nor even a faculty for relating phenomena. Instinct, taxis and reflex are the necessities of life; intelligence is a luxury in terms of the continuation of life. It's a luxury that allows a select few living things to exercise their will upon their environments and to collectivize experience in ways that organisms that do not possess it cannot do. My writing this entry is an example of what this luxury makes possible (at least I hope so). We humans can give our knowledge to one another; cockroaches cannot.
Consider, if you can, you are Joe Cockroach crawling under the Brooklyn Bridge. You look up and see the bridge -- it is beyond your intellect to comprehend how, when or why it was constructed; therefore you deduce that nobody built it. It just evolved, or maybe a cataclysmic explosion eons ago caused particles to be blown into the sky. Gravitational pull forced these particles back to earth where they assembled themselves into a structure those big humans call the Brooklyn Bridge. Either way poor ole Joe Cockroach is still searching for answers. In some ways this reveals to me why I don't understand God's creation. I was not given the mental capacity. I suspect there is a larger gulf between me and God's intellect that is between Joe Cockroach and mankind.
Cockroaches, as far as anyone has been able to discern, do not deduce anything. That a cockroach can't understand a bridge arises from a nervous system that doesn't provide for such a capacity. I doubt very much that cockroaches go about attributing large objects to the intervention of a supernatural creator. Far more likely, they don't give them any thought and simply react to chemical and tactile signals. We humans are not so constrained. We look at things far more complex than bridges and we ponder them. We dissect them in our minds and compare them to things similar and dissimilar to them. Humans once did this and concluded that the stars in the night sky were the fires of ancestors on the shores of some distant ocean. We didn't stop there, though. We turned this story over in our minds, passing the myth from person to person, until someone or some group came to the realization that it was an inadequate explanation. We came up with a new one that better explained what we saw, and with time and continued consideration that model, too, was overturned. This is the beginning of science, and the process led eventually to the detailed, descriptive and consistent explanation that we have now, that stars are essentially huge reactors that rely on gravity to fuse simple elements like hydrogen into complex ones like calcium with an accompanying release of energy. Does that mean we know everything there is to know about every individual star? Of course not; science will continue as it always has, passing the story onto others who, over time, will puzzle out even better explanations with even more detail. Cockroaches can't even start this process; one of the wonderful things about humans is that we will never finish with it; there is always more to know and, as far as we can see, we are the only living things capable of finding it out. Clyde may choose to be a cockroach and make the excuse for himself that he simply lacks the mental capacity to be anything more, but the rest of us are under no restriction to be either Clydes or cockroaches.
I define natural phenomenon as God's creation. Could it be that the science/evolution community is studying and experimenting with God's creation in order to prove what they are studying doesn't exist.
I define George Washington as a North American platyrrhine ape which subsisted on a diet of chocolate candies and flourished during the late 19th century. Could it be that the first president of the United States was a sasquatch with a sweet tooth?

We can play this game all day long, we humans. We have wonderful imaginations capable of concocting all sorts of marvelous things that bear no resemblance to reality, and its one of our species' great attributes. Without out it, we'd have no Pietà, no Finnegan's Wake, no "Doctor Who" (perish the thought!) However, it is also one of our handicaps when it comes to understanding that which lies entirely outside of ourselves. Confronted with a mystery, our natural inclination is to imagine, to fill in the gaps in our knowledge with fantastic and not-so-fantastic stories that, while easy and gratifying, are not the way things are outside the very small confines of our own heads. Science is that which allows us to examine things in the light of their relationship to everything else we know, to test the models that we concoct and thereafter to discard those which don't hold up to scrutiny. Imagination sets the process in motion, but if we stopped there we would be much the poorer for it. The method of science asks the question, among others, "Why should I trust that your definition accurately describes the nature of this thing?"

So, should others simply accept my definition of George Washington? First ask yourself upon what basis one makes that decision. A little child who knows that I tinker about in a laboratory with the essence of living things and that I am in possession of some esoteric and, to his mind, awesome understanding of how things work might very well accept my definition. He's been taught to trust adults, authorities, etc. Someone who isn't of such limited experience certainly should not. I would feel the need to make apologies to a person to whom I passed on my sasquatch-nonsense in jest but who thereafter took it in earnest, and more so if a hundred others then also believed it. I would also be concerned for that person's mental health, as I think would anyone who has enough intellectual acumen to be reading these very words. We would consider a person who accepted the "Washington was a sugared bigfoot" assertion to be defective in some way, to lack maturity and perhaps in need of professional attention.

Why, then, should we consider Clyde's personal definition of "natural phenomenon" any differently? We see natural phenomenon arise every moment of every day, and we see them disappear as well. Clouds come and go, the sun rises and sets, the tides come in and the tides go out. Birds fly south for the winter, our grandparent passes away, the heat from a stove cooks our morning eggs and occasionally we drop one to the floor on the way to the pan and it breaks. All of these things are natural phenomenon and, with a very few exceptions which may include Clyde Berg of Lebanon, MO, we don't attribute them to the actions of a deity. Gravity makes the egg drop, electromagnetic energy heats the pan, the kinetic energy left from a long-ago explosion set the earth spinning which gives the appearance of sunrises and sunsets. There was a time in history, though, when such a scenario wasn't taken for granted. Angels pulled the egg to the linoleum and a horse-drawn chariot carted the sun-god across the sky. As a species, we have matured. We've come to know better than our forebears who, for all else we might say about them, came up with the best explanations they could at the time they lived. They were well-intentioned, but they were wrong. Nonetheless, we owe them our gratitude for even making an attempt at a very difficult task that requires knowledge that transcends the mind of any one of us.

I would not trust the experience of cockroaches to answer the question that Clyde puts forth at the end of his essay. I trust in millennia of accumulated human understanding, millions upon millions of trials and errors. The sum of human knowledge has evolved massively since the first prefrontal cortex appeared upon this planet. That of cockroaches hasn't changed at all and, apparently, neither has that of the Clydes of this world. The real question left to humanity, then, is whether we will continue upon the path of discovery and science, or whether we shall halt ourselves to accommodate the cockroaches, Clydes and Creationists who will almost certainly always be among us.

I would like to think I know the answer to that question. Some days I'm not as sure as others. I am always in firm possession of the knowledge that I will stand with humanity, though, and not be swayed by the arguments of insects.

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