Crawl Across the Ocean

Monday, January 24, 2005

A Little Fishy

Strand #1: I first heard about the concept of 'Intelligent Design' from Darren Barefoot's post referring to this interesting article about it in Wired.

More recently, Pogge has posted on the topic and the New York Times had an article on it today (reg. req'd).

Personally, I find it hard to take the whole Intelligent Design concept seriously. In a nutshell, the argument is that the world is so complex that somebody (intelligent) must have designed it. e.g. If you were walking on a beach and found a watch, the purposeful nature of it's design would leave you to believe that it must have had an intelligent creator and not just occurred by chance. And like a watch has a watchmaker a body must have a bodymaker.

Now I'm not saying that the universe wasn't created by some intelligent being. I'm guessing that anyone with the power to create a universe would have the power to lead us to believe whatever they wanted, leaving the question moot.

But the fact that the universe is complicated (by our standards) doesn't prove anything one way or the other. Arguing that human's are so special that we had to have been made specially, just sounds way too much like arguments that the sun goes round the earth, that the earth is the centre of the universe, that humans have a soul or a 'free will' that other animals don't and all the other human-centred nonsense we like to make up to make ourselves feel special.

Especially when simple observation shows us how similar we are to the next most intelligent animals on the planet and when evolution clearly lays out how beings of greater complexity can arise out of simpler ones without the need for intelligent external intervention.

Strand #2: As long-time readers will know, after making the ill-advised decision to fly with Jetsgo, my flight home for Christmas was delayed by 28 hours. On the plus side, all my time waiting around at the airport allowed me to catch up on my reading. Specifically, I was able to read two books I had been meaning to get to for a long time: Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind (readable but not great - The Amazon editorial review is pretty accurate in my opinion) and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams which was great fun, although I think it was wise to leave it as a fairly short book.

The Rope1: Since I had read the Wired article on Intelligent Design, I was amused to come across the following passage in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (written in the 70's), which is written in reference to the Babel fish, a small fish you can put in your ear which will translate any language for you,

"Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.

The argument goes something like this: "I refuse to prove that I exist," says God, "for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing."

"But," says Man, "the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED."

"Oh dear," says God, "I hadn't thought of that," and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

"Oh, that was easy," says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed at the next zebra crossing."

That pretty much sums it up.

1 Technically, according to Wikipedia, a rope is made from three strands, whereas my story only has two. But does this really bother me? I'm afraid not.

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  • Good post. I'm, generally speaking, pro-evolution. I think that onthe whole the theory is pretty close to the truth.

    A counter-argument tht recently came to my attention goes something like this:

    "Consider birds. The theory of evolution states that birds evolved from land based creatures by systematically selecting random mutations that improved their survival. This apparently led to flight. This means that over time they developed wings. However, unless a bird hatched with a fully formed wing (highly unlikely) then all the middle points of the evolutionary chain seem like disadvantages, not advantages (and thus wouldn't be selected). If you have a full wing or normal arms you're okay. If you only have a partial wing, you're food."

    The actual argument is more eloquent of course, but that's the gist of it. Since I'm not a scientist and have not delved into evolution, I have no good counter for this. (I still believe evolution has more chance of being true that intelligent design, I just consider this a decent counter-arguement)


    By Blogger Andrew, at 3:54 AM  

  • As best as I can respond without doing research...

    Scientists lately believe that feathers evolved first as a method of keeping warm (i.e. trapping heat against the skin) and keeping dry. Over time certain small feathered dinosaurs found these feathers were more useful in gliding short distances (than say, bare apendages) and over time the feathers' structure and their positions and lengths on the body helped the creatures glide farther and eventually begin flying short distances.

    Hence, having feathers without the ability to fly was not a downward step to not having them at all, but actually a slight improvement.

    (Don't quote me, its been months since I read the article in Discover ;) )

    By Blogger Bill, at 7:02 AM  

  • Wonderful post, Declan. Any argument that can be perfectly deflated by the humour of Douglas Adams didn't have much of a leg to stand on anyway.

    Side note: stop at Wizard's First Rule. I got another three or four books into the series before I decided it was too horrible to go on. Considering I was trapped at a bush camp with no other reading material, that's really saying something. Awful, awful stuff.

    More positively, I just finished reading the Dune prequel novels written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. Very good stuff, if you're a Dune fan.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:15 PM  

  • Hey Andrew, this is the best I could find. Pretty interesting read, that bird they found fossils of in Carolina (near the bottom of the link) must have been truly enormous - I've seen an albatross and I thought it was huge.

    To be honest, if I can accept that somehow we got from ameoba to human, I'm not all that troubled by how birds first started flying. The idea that 100+ million years ago God decided that things were going all right but it would be cool if some of his creatures could fly so he made some gradual alterations over a few million years to make it happen just seems a bit implausible to me.

    Bill - thanks for the help, what you wrote seems pretty consistent with what I found.

    Anon - thanks, I've been told that book 2 is the best one and then it goes downhill, but maybe this is just a trick to get me to read the next book...

    By Blogger Declan, at 2:45 PM  

  • Actually, that anonymous post was me, Declan. Don't know why it ended up as anonymous. Weird.

    By Blogger Timmy the G, at 3:13 PM  

  • This "intelligent design" effort reminds me of an argument that one of my high-school religion teachers (Catholic school) tried on us young saplings in order to convince us of the existence of God. It went something like this:

    - Most ‘things’, especially lifeless 'things' contract upon being frozen.
    - Water, key to life, is the only thing that expands after being frozen*
    - The human body is over 50% water (55% to 80% depending on gender, age, etc).

    What a neat trick by God to show us a sign that He exists, right kids?? **blank stares** Right??

    OK, so maybe that argument is more like the scene in The Holy Grail with the ‘witch’ and the duck – look, I can appreciate that religious people seek credibility for their viewpoint, but using science to try to prove the existence of James Caviezel’s dad is pointless. More often than not, such arguments are just going to sound silly.

    * this isn’t true by the way, but water is indeed one of a few things that expands upon freezing.

    By Blogger Simon, at 5:42 PM  

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