Thursday, January 26, 2006
The Weather and Evolution: An Interesting Analogy
I've been following the whole evolution versus intelligent design political battle for the last few months, and I see that scientists face a huge challenge in getting a fair representation of evolution in the media. The major ID organization, The Discovery Institute, has a massive PR apparatus that can spin falsehoods and anti-evolution propaganda faster than a runaway ferris wheel (can anyone give me a better metaphor?). The supporters of science have no such PR machine, and many of the arguments for evolution involve explaining a significant amount of detail on what evidence for evolution exists and how scientific conclusions were made. This amount of information doesn't really fit that well into a short newspaper article or a few pithy soundbites.
Most people don't seem to be inclined to listen to a boring science lecture with lots of minute uninteresting details (well, *I* don't think they're uninteresting, but then, I'm a geek). So below I present an argument for evolution that perhaps might do better at capturing the general public's attention while still being interesting. Any comments or suggestions are appreciated (as if anyone is actually reading this!).
Do you rely on the daily weather forecast? I do. Every morning before work, I watch the news to hear what the day's weather will be like. I even look at the 5-day forecast when there's a special outdoors event coming up that I want to attend. As we are all aware, weather forecasting isn't perfect. Sometimes meteorologists get it wrong. It rains when they said it would snow. We get a sunny day instead of the expected rain. However, on most days, the weather forecast is reasonably reliable. And meteorologists continuously collect data so that they can modify their predictions as new information becomes available.
Most people would consider meteorology to be good science, despite scientists' inability to predict the weather with 100% accuracy. I'm no expert on the science behind weather modeling, but I'd be surprised if it wasn't grounded in physics and chemistry. Despite the significant increase in our knowledge of both physics and chemistry in the last few centuries, we still are unable to make semi-reliable weather predictions beyond more than 2 weeks into the future. We can't predict where tornados will touch in down in the midwest early enough to warn people to evacuate. Most people would label the weather as "random" in the sense that people, with our limited understanding and simplified models, cannot predict weather changes with complete certainty.
Now suppose there was a hypothetical group of people who looked at meteorology and decided it was flat-out wrong. "The weather displays amazing complexity," they say. "The weather cannot just be the product of natural forces acting randomly! The very existence of the weather and its complexity implies that there must be an intelligence that designed the weather!" What would you say to that? Would you agree or disagree? If you disagree, you might argue that scientists have been able to make predictions about the weather based only on natural forces, and have found no evidence for a designer. "Those predictions don't prove anything," your opponents would say. "Why can't the meteorologist models predict weather more than a few days in advance? And even then, sometimes those predictions are wrong. Long-term weather trends can't be predicted, and natural disasters are almost never recognized by meteorologists! How do we explain this complexity without the existence of a designer?"
At this point you might ask your opponents to explain why this intelligent designer makes natural disasters that kill people, such as lightning strikes that can cause fires and burn down buildings. "We can't know the purposes or mechanisms of the designer," the intelligent weather design (IWD) proponents say. "Perhaps the designer was displeased with the people in those particular buildings, and decided to punish them. But look at the complexity of the weather! Look at snowflakes! Such complex patterns *CANNOT* have arisen by random chance! Meteorologists are just blind to the facts that all evidence points to an intelligent weather designer. Their theories only work in limited cases, and can't explain all weather! They have an inherent bias to philisophical materialism, and that means they've excluded the possibility of a designer a priori! They're blind to the real evidence!"
"Uh, Okay. Well, who is this intelligent designer, according to your theory?" you might ask. The IWD proponents' answer: "Well, we're doing real science, so we can only use empirical evidence to make a conclusion. The evidence clearly points to the existence of an intelligent weather designer, but we cannot determine the designer's identity. However, given the majesty and complexity of the weather, it seems completely logical to assume that designer is God." You ask, "But you said meteorologists excluded the possibility of an IWD. Does that mean they think meteorology proves God doesn't exist?" And they reply, "Exactly! Meteorologists are part of a consipiracy to get God out of public life. Their meteorology is a flawed theory that denies the glory of God! With IWD theory, you can see that science proves God's existence!"
These guys don't seem to be making sense. You ask another question: "Well, wait a minute. I've watched the weather report countless times on the news, and it's reasonably accurate. Sure, I've never heard a weather announcer claim God controls the weather (they keep talking about things like "warm fronts" and "cold fronts") but I've never heard a weather announcer claim meteorology proves God doesn't exist. Why have you reached that conclusion?"
The IWD proponents' response: "Those meteorologists never talk about how the weather is intelligently designed, do they? They claim the weather is just "random and unpredictable." They claim they know everything there is to know about the weather, but their models can only make limited predictions, and even those are often wrong! How can anyone who believes that the weather is random also believe in an all-powerful God who controls the weather and the entire universe! They are athiests trying to use meteorology to destroy your faith in God!" At this point, you smile, nod, and back away slowly, avoiding eye contact.
Okay, I know, this story sounds really over the top. Weather science has nothing to do with the existence or non-existence of God, right? No one would really be silly enough to dispute that meteorology is "flawed" or that scientists who study the weather are motivated to prove that God doesn't exist by showing that the weather is "random and undirected." I'm just making a flawed analogy to defend my misguided support of evolution as science, right?
Well, no. It turns out, some people in the 18th century refused to put up lightning rods to protect their houses from lightning strikes. They saw lightning as the manifestation of God's will, and lightning that destroyed peoples' houses was divine punishment. Then Ben Franklin came along with his electriciy experiments. He invented the lightning rod, and it was surprisingly effective at preventing fires due to lightning strikes. People were skeptical at first, but couldn't deny the practicality of Franklin's invention. Eventually, some churches were the only major structures that did not have lightning rods. Some religious leaders saw the lightning rod as blasphemy, because it thwarted God's will, and refused to install them in their churches. In the end, ironically, the only buildings to continue to suffer "God's wrath," were those same churches. Of course, people eventually came to their senses and realized that lightning wasn't divine judgement, but a result of natural physical processes. They also didn't conclude that this therefore proved God doesn't exist.
We can look back, and see how foolish those people were being. Ben Franklin used science to invent something that would help prevent loss of life and property damage. Why would anyone cling to superstition in the face of good science? Why would anyone claim that one must either accept the glory of God, or the conclusions of science, but not both, with no exceptions? Why, indeed.
But what is the difference between evolutionary theory and meteorology? Evolution describes the process by which species change over time. Genetic mutation, a major process behind evolution is "random" in the sense that we cannot predict what mutations will occur. But natural selection is a process that acts on these mutations in predictable ways. Similarly, the weather is based on the well-defined processes of physics and chemistry, but is unpredictable due to "random" variations. All the data that's been collected, from anatomical similarities across animal groups, to the fossils of extinct animals and plants, to all the genetic information in DNA, supports evolution. Evolutionary theory explains quite well the diversity of life on Earth. Like any other scietific theory, it is not complete. Scientists don't claim to know everything about evolution. Finally, evolution is a conclusion based on a vast amount of empirical evidence, not a religious commitment to atheism. Evolutionary theory does not imply atheism any more than meteorology does.
The only difference between my weather story and evolution is that evolution lacks a "killer app" like a lightning rod that would obviously and conclusively demonstrate its use to most people. Things like bacteria resistance to antibiotics has been shrugged off by creationists and ID proponents as "microevolution," and evolutionary predictions like the eusocial behavior of naked mole rats are too dry and abstract for most people to relate to.
Perhaps, with the sequencing of both the human and chimpanzee genomes complete, scientists will discover some insight about humans by examing the chimpanzee genomes that couldn't be explained without evolution. This might lead to some treatment for genetic diseases or cancer that would be based on the similarity of chimpanzee and human DNA due to their close relation via common descent. Of course, this is just speculation. I think the weather analogy makes the point that evolution is science and is not out to destroy reigion. The story can be easily grasped by someone who is not a science geek, despite there not being a good evoultion "killer app" example. What do you think?
P.S. I didn't invent the weather analogy. A commenter on The Panda's Thumb linked to the lightning story in a discussion. I've merely tried to dress it up a bit and make it entertaining. Although, I admit, I might have failed miserably.