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November 13, 2007

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Nato

"I have no opinions either way about the Intelligent Design school because I don't understand the theory they are offering or what kind of evidence would prove or (more to the point) disprove it."

So far as I can tell, no (scientific) theory is on offer - if there was, it would be far more interesting and less infuriating. That said, we can reference back to prior contentions regarding the methodological naturalism built into science and so on, the outcome of which would determine whether one should even demand/expect/want such a theory.

What *is* infuriating is that this sort of thing can be (and has been) so useful in advancing our understanding of evolutionary dynamics. I don't know enough to say if the cited mutation rates pose any real conundrum - as Nathan points out, sexual reproduction increases the rate and usefulness of mutation, potentially responding to at least one implied question - but if it does, then it would seem to be something we would want to try to bring our dynamic toolkit to reverse-engineer. Relatives of malaria exist in other primates*, providing a prima-facie case that it does indeed evolve when it needs to (human populations don't evolve quickly, so it would seem likely that malaria's most successful strategy doesn't need to change very quickly). Why, we might ask, is its current strategy the best available to it (at least until recently, when it has needed to become more drug resistant and so on)? How are large, complex organisms like humans stably resistant to the various diseases that can evolve so much faster than we can? Why haven't the bacteria come up with the ultimate weapon yet and annihilated all the poky multi-cellulars, and even the less poky but still much-slower eukaryotes? Most scientists seem to have attributed this to the advantages of sexual reproduction, though it's almost certain there's more going on than that. Our immune systems are like our own little quick-reaction evolution labs, capable of in some ways recapitulating a tremendous amount of algorithmic design in a huge hurry. Does that explain it? Are there just too few possible solutions for microbes to ever really get the upper hand on multicellular life?

There's tons and tons of interesting questions, and I'm sure at least a few of them are yet unanswered, or answered in a way that will prove inadequate. What "ID" seems to amount to most often is a call to *not try to answer* the questions. Any substantial contravention of that perception would truly interest me, but my visits to ICR** yield papers like:

http://www.icr.org/pdf/research/ICCSOMERSETDAM_2-AAS.pdf

In which there begins a long discussion of how recalibrated radioisotopic dating yields "discrepant" results, but then short-circuits in postulating accelerated rates of decay during the "Creation Week" - an "and then a miracle occurs" answer in the most literal sense. Access Research Network doesn't seem to publish any such abject special pleading, but neither does it seem to publish/link to any *research* at all. Perhaps I just don't search assiduously enough.

* http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/full/95/14/8124

** ICR isn't ID, but they do seem to really try to mount research projects, which I think is pretty laudable even if the outcome has an embarrassing resemblance to numerology.

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