Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Of Clots and Clods

Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London and author of Darwin’s Ghost, has an interesting piece on Intelligent design and the blood clotting cascade in today’s Daily Telegraph. First he sets the stage by posing the conundrum at the heart of ID, in its role as religious apologetics:

As I sat down to write this piece, I put on my glasses. They were designed by an intelligent optician to correct my eyesight, which, acute as it once was, is now - like that of most elderly academics - blurred at best. The lens has become less elastic with time and no longer focuses properly. My specs help, but soon I will need a stronger pair.

Well, as we evolutionists say, that's life. Or, to be brutally frank, that's a hint of impending death, for in the good old days of nuts, berries, and sabre-toothed tigers, I would have starved or been eaten by now. It makes perfect sense: evolution cares only about the next generation; I am too old to pass on genes to that unborn tribe and my failing eyesight is hence of no interest to the Darwinian machine.

That thought is not of much comfort, but at least I have nobody to blame for my plight. But what about advocates of Intelligent Design, the notion that the eye is so complicated that it needed a Designer (quite who is best not to inquire) to do the job? Some of them wear glasses. Do they never have doubts about their astral engineer, who could surely have given them a BMW of a visual organ rather than the Austin Allegro they are stuck with?

The answer, of course, is that, unlike Paley’s Natural Theology, no one, least of all its advocates or those they seek to reach, intend to take the modern incarnation of ID seriously:

Intelligent design . . . began as an attempt to promote creationism without breaking American laws that keep religion out of schools.

In my own view, while the subterfuge is an important motivation for the revival of Natural Theology, permitting creationists to promote their beliefs even in situations where proselytizing is inappropriate or outright forbidden, proclaiming a belief in the ID "movement" is also a social signaling device by which believers in a certain religious tradition can let others know of their membership in the group, while retaining the form, if not the substance, of scientific objectivity.

Jones goes on to explain that, when it comes to "irreducible complexity":

Darwin, as usual, got it right: part of an eye is better than no eye at all and any slight modification will improve matters until we get a reasonably effective organ.

On the other hand:

The ID crew, to use Darwin's own phrase, "look at an organic being as a savage looks at a ship, as at something wholly beyond [their] comprehension". The first Hawaiians to cast eyes on Europeans were so astonished by their great vessels that they thought their builders to be gods. The ID argument is just the same. It is the logic of ignorance, idleness and incuriosity: I am very smart, even I do not understand this, so why bother to explain it except by bringing in God (if necessary under an alias)?

Jones then tells the story of how Queen Victoria had an inkling that Darwin had gotten it right, expressed in her reaction upon seeing orang-utans. She found them "frightful, and painfully and disagreeably human." Jones uses this as a segue to the gene for hemophilia that Victoria passed to a number of her descendants and, from there, to the blood clotting cascade.

Jones discusses how sea turtles do rather well with only a part of this supposedly irreducibly complex system and how flies lack fibrinogen, the protein that makes the solid plug in humans, but have another protein quite like it, which is used in their immune system to form a mass around invaders. This similar protein is a perfect candidate for hijacking for use in the cascade.

That, of course, means nothing to Intelligent Designers. Stephen Hawking tells the tale of an elderly lady who came to a talk on the origin of the Universe. Quivering with indignation, she insisted that it rested on the back of a giant turtle. What, the speaker asked, does that stand on? "Young man," she said, "you think you're very smart, but it's turtles all the way down!"

In the case of evolutionary theory, it is supported by turtles . . . standing on flies, on top of hemophiliacs, on top of . . .
John, Hawking may well tell that story, but it goes back a bit farther. I've seen it attributed to William James.
Heck, I sometimes think every clever thing ever said was originated by a guy named Ooga while he was doing some graffiti at a place called Lascaux.
Heck, I sometimes think every clever thing ever said was originated by a guy named Ooga while he was doing some graffiti at a place called Lascaux.

Now, there's a thought: all those wonderful cave paintings were actually the work of bored and rebellious cave-hoodies. I wonder if they had teams going around trying to clean the stuff off until they gave up in disgust. :)
the work of bored and rebellious cave-hoodies.

You didn't hear? Not all, but some of it. http://news.independent.co.uk/world/science_technology/article347793.ece
Let me make that a link
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