Evolution and the X Factor

“Oh, God, not another argument about evolution.”

That’s how I reacted — somewhat unfairly — to a video posted last week by the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank located at Stanford University.

The video is about “mathematical challenges to Darwin’s theory of evolution.”

It features an interview with three undeniably smart guys:

  • David Berlinski, a philosopher, mathematician, and biologist (kind of like yours truly) who’s taught at Stanford other prestigious universities;
  • Stephen Meyer, a philosopher of science who wrote the book Darwin’s Doubt; and
  • David Gelernter, a polymath computer science professor at Yale.

All of them think that evolution by natural selection can explain variation within species, such as different breeds of dogs. However, they doubt that natural selection accounts for the emergence of different biological species: humans, orangutans, whales, and so forth.

Meyer thinks that the explanation is “intelligent design” — i.e., some more or less philosophical interpretation of “God did it.”

Berlinski and Gelernter are more skeptical about intelligent design, but they think that it should be considered.1

The video is worth watching. However, I can give you the short version right here.

Their main argument is very similar to the one I made in my June 9th blog post, “History Bends Toward Chaos:”

  • There are many more ways for a complex system to be chaotic than for it to be organized in useful ways.
  • Therefore, it’s extremely improbable that the system will organize itself in useful ways.2
  • Biological systems are extremely complex. That applies especially to large molecules such as proteins.
  • Hence, the probability that biological systems evolved naturally3 is vanishingly small.
  • Therefore, something else must have brought them into existence.

How science works

That “something else” is an X Factor. They are very common in science:

  • We observe something that we don’t understand.
  • We think of possible explanations. Those are possible X Factors.
  • We test the different explanations to see if new facts support or disprove them.

A lot of scientific research is a search for X Factors. For example:

  • Disease: The X Factor was infection by microscopic organisms, not exposure to evil spirits or bad smells.
  • Wobbly orbits: The planets Uranus and Neptune wobbled in their orbits around the sun. The X Factor was the gravitational pull of an undiscovered planet, Pluto.4
  • Earth doesn’t move: The Michelson-Morley experiment in 1887 seemed to show that the earth was not moving through space. The X Factor was a new explanation of space and time, given by Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

Explanations are stories

An explanation is a story in which the protagonist is the X Factor. The last line of the story is “Therefore, this happened.”

But notice something interesting about the debate over intelligent design:

  • Intelligent design says that no accurate, purely physical explanation exists for the emergence of biological species.
  • Opponents of intelligent design say that no accurate, non-physical explanation exists for the emergence of biological species.

Neither of those statements can be proven or even tested scientifically. They’re not scientific statements. They’re philosophical stories: “big picture” views of the world that shape all our other theories and judgments.

Footnotes

  1. Intelligent design is often confused with “creation science,” which is an entirely different thing. Creation science argues for the literal truth of the Biblical creation stories. Its supporters are mainly non-scientists and a few scientists with degrees in unrelated fields. Its flagship organization is the Institute for Creation Research. Intelligent design’s flagship organization is the Discovery Institute.
  2. That’s basically just the Second Law of Thermodynamics. However, it doesn’t always apply. Some systems do spontaneously self-organize. A free-market economy is an example: F.A. Hayek won a Nobel prize for his work on the issue.
  3. Through unguided physical processes.
  4. Astronomers can’t seem to make up their minds about whether or not Pluto is big enough to be considered a planet. Recently, they’ve been calling it a “dwarf planet.” The American Astronomical Society voted down a proposal to change the planet’s name to either Bashful, Doc, Dopey, Happy, Sleepy, Sneezy, or Grumpy.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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