This Friday the University of Edinburgh Humanist Society and the Humanist Academy jointly hosted a debate entitled “Are we here by Chance, or by Design… or should we ask deeper questions?”. Speaking for Evolution were Professor Roger Downie (Zoology Dept, Glasgow University) and John Wiltshire (Mathematical Physicist,Systems Engineer). Speaking for Intelligent Design were Dr. Alistair Noble (Chemist, Educational Consultant) and Dr. Alistair Donald (Church of Scotland Minister, PhD Environmental Science). Each team of speakers were given 30 minutes to present their arguments, 15 minutes to respond to their opponents’ presentations and then 30 minutes were left for questions from the floor. I was glad to see these issues being properly debated by a well-qualified panel. My only encounters with Intelligent Design theories so far have been the usual extremists and Creationists so I was looking forward to seeing the actual hypotheses presented to the scientific community and their responses.
The Evolution speakers presented first. Professor Downie spoke about the fundamentals of science; how hypotheses are proposed and then tested and discussed, and how if we find phenomena that our theories can’t account for or contradict our hypothesis then we try to develop new ideas which give a better account. As old ideas are discredited, they are discarded and replaced by new ideas with better explanatory power. Evolution, while controversial at its outset, has shown to be a robust theory adopted as a paradigm in the biological sciences. Both speakers pointed out that ‘Chance or Design’ was a false dichotomy but John Wiltshire elaborated on this point. He discussed that while evolutionary theory involves random variation, the process of evolution itself relies on natural selection of the fittest. Some mutations may be harmful, some may have little effect on the organism’s survival rate but those that aid the organism’s survival are much more likely to survive and be reproduced in future generations. Wiltshire used computer programs and animations to illustrate how many popular examples presented as counterarguments to evolution (Paley’s watch, Hoyle’s jumbo jet, Dembski’s probability argument) were ‘straw-men’ which were inaccurate analogies and failed to fulfil the necessary conditions for evolution, e.g. reproduction. He then presented basic animated programs which did fulfil these criteria and evolved successfully to adapt to become better fit for survival in their environment.
The Intelligent Design speakers started off with a 15 minute DVD presentation. This presented phenomena such as discovering hieroglyphics, the Easter Island statues and the faces carved into Mount Rushmore and discussed how on finding such things we assume that they have been created by a human being, an intelligent designer. This argument was then applied to biological phenomena to propose that the complexity that exists cannot be accounted for by random variation or existing theories. Several academics testified their support for the theory and were shown participating in a working research group. In his talk, Dr Noble then argued that criticism of Intelligent Design suffered from a category error assuming that the theory was not scientific and that personal religious ideas prejudiced critics from assessing the ideas objectively and scientifically. He returned to the themes highlighted in the DVD to argue that the world is too complex to be accounted for by random variation and highlighted the idea of irreducible complexity, where an organism is so complex that it cannot be shown to have arisen in stages e.g. bacteria flagella. Such complex systems can only arise when the information for their development is already present at the outset front-loaded by an intelligent designer. Dr Donald used examples from cosmology to demonstrate that the world is too fine-tuned to support current life and organisms and that it must have been designed for this purpose. Such information would have to be set at the creation of this universe.
The response sections mostly consisted of heated debate as to whether current scientific theories could account for complexity, with Downie and Wiltshire arguing that evolutionary theories could account for this and Noble and Donald arguing that it couldn’t. There were lots of interesting questions from the floor when the time came: Doesn’t every religion claim this intelligent designer as their own? How can complexities have arisen from the primordial soup – isn’t this too improbable? What about Hume’s argument that if we accept that some complexity arises from design and some arises from natural laws, why should we default to the view that complexity must come from a designer? Who creates the intelligent designer? What about waste and inefficiency in nature and the genome? There were also other questions and many hands still raised to ask when the time drew to a close.
So how did I feel about the whole thing? Well, a little disappointed really. The first speakers had presented a clear explanation about the theory of evolution, supporting evidence and well thought out examples illustrating their points and ideas, as well as emphasising the importance of critical thinking and scientific method. However, I felt a little cheated when the second team chose to use someone else’s words to make their case by presenting a recorded feature. Furthermore in their own speeches they failed to produce any scientific arguments or evidence as to why theories of evolution can’t account for life on Earth, and they failed to present any kind of account for current biological diversity or phenomena. I think I would have enjoyed some controversial scientific theories and the discussion that would have ensued. So while I agree with the Intelligent Design speakers that this world is so complex and amazing it’s mind boggling, at the same time I do believe that evolutionary theory can explain how gradual changes and variation can build up to highly complex organisms without requiring pre-existing information from an intelligent designer.