Speaker by Various Artists

Now, creationism, and brainwashing?

by David Saul

The following is a blog I sent out to my Stage 1 Biology students at the University of Auckland. We set up a bulletin board so that the new students straight from school could get into the swing of university life. I caused disquiet in a lecture when I made rude comments about intelligent design (something about the human genome being a mess and not very intelligently designed). It caused a firestorm on the weblog, where I was accused of brainwashing. And so I posted my own views on ID

Now, creationism, and brainwashing?

Science is not about dogma. It is not about what is right and wrong or about what we'd like to be the truth; it's about what is best supported by the evidence at hand.

First and foremost, science must be testable and disprovable. Evolution can be tested, for example, by searching for correlation between molecular data and morphological data. It can also be disproved. A single molecule that cannot be explained by random change and directional selection would bring the whole edifice of evolutionary theory crashing down.

Unfortunately for the creationists, despite 120 years of trying, nobody has yet come close. Indeed, every gene, every protein, every complete genome sequenced, has evolution written all over it in flashing neon lights. Only somebody deliberate averting their eyes could miss it. It is so blindingly obvious.

There have of course been arguments and counter-arguments about the mechanisms by which evolution acts (and this has been great ammunition for the creationists) but the assertion that organisms change and can change to new forms is, I'm afraid, now proven beyond doubt.

What about creationism? "Creation Science" declares that all life was created a few thousand years ago by forces no longer present in the universe. (It is defined as such in many web sites.) This definition renders it a priori a theory that can be neither tested nor disproved (the forces have gone). It is therefore a theory, but not a scientific theory.

Then along came ID (Intelligent design) and IC (irreducible complexity). These brazen pieces of rhetoric are alas, creationism dressed in a lab-coat and safety glasses to make it look like science - a bit like the stuff you get on shampoo ads.

The argument of IC goes like this: If you take any protein and chop out any one amino acid, then it won't work. Ergo, the complexity cannot be reduced and so there was no evolutionary route to the present day level of complexity. The fact that this is complete balderdash is largely ignored by the ID people. In fact, you can swap and change most amino acids in a protein and cut many out without altering its ability to catalyse reactions - talk to any X-ray crystallographer.

Worse though, is the claim that evolutionary biologists believe that proteins got there one step at a time - one amino acid added after another. Nobody has even suggested such an idea for over half a century and it is patently obvious that proteins (and their corresponding exons) are modular; made up of smaller sub-units that can be swapped and changed like Lego.

In other words, what the ID zealots do is find an outdated and silly model of evolution that nobody in living memory adheres to and they then declare that evolutionary biologists believe in this model and hence they must be silly misguided people. Great politics, a great way to get converts to the cause and foist ID into American schools, but an unrepentant lie nonetheless.

The saddest thing of all is that evolution is so elegant, so simple and so beautiful. Any right-minded intelligent designer would be proud to have come up with such a staggeringly simple and efficient way of constantly adapting life to be suited to an ever-changing world.

Ah, but I forgot. The world is but 8000 years old and it doesn't constantly change. Geologists, palaeontologists and cosmologists are as daft as evolutionary biologists.

I have no problems with anybody's religious beliefs but what I hate is bad science and ID is lousy, fraudulent science.

And if you think that tossing into my lectures the latest scientific observations and ideas is brainwashing, then welcome to the cerebral laundromat! You?ll get a lot of it over the next 3 years: it's what we call University.

If you want to read about ID, type "intelligent design" at Google and you will get over twenty million hits. If you want to read about how ID is a travesty of science, there are some good essays at Talk Reason.