Friday 10 June 2011

Not enough 4thought? Channel 4 goes for "balance" on evolution

All this week Channel 4's daily "let's have some controversial views, but not too much — in fact let's keep it down to under two minutes" slot, called, has been attempting to answer the question "Is it possible to believe in God and Darwin?" An odd question — if to "believe" in something means you think it exists. I think Darwin existed. There's documentary evidence to show that Charles Darwin actually walked this Earth, and — famously — sailed the seas, as well as perambulating the tangled bank, and so forth.

That's not what Channel 4 means, I suspect, which gives us an indication how seriously or rigorously it's taking the real question, which I assume is "Is belief in God compatible with an understanding of Darwin's theory of evolution by random mutation and natural selection?" As a further demonstration of their lack of commitment to rationality, on Monday Channel 4's choice of first participant to discuss this important issue was a Young Earth Creationist:

Dr Sandré Fourie comes out with some dreadful nonsense that makes her credentials as a veterinary surgeon distinctly dubious (note the stethoscope round her neck, to add verisimilitude to her utterly unconvincing contribution — though to be fair I wouldn't be surprised if this medical adornment was at the instigation of the show's art director).

Next, on Tuesday, we have a voice of sanity with Simon Watt, an evolutionary biologist, who makes several valid and relevant points — including that the Bible story is not meant to be taken literally and is in a completely different category from what science has shown us about evolution, and that he's not irrevocably wedded to the theory of evolution. If something better comes along, he's ready to take on new scientific ideas:

Wednesday we heard Dr. Alastair Noble, director of the Centre for Intelligent Design, telling us that if something looks designed, it must have an intelligent cause. Not that Channel 4 mentions Noble's affiliations anywhere, only that he's been involved in science education (he's actually an ex-inspector of schools) and that he thinks science should take the "theory of intelligent design" seriously. A scientific theory, however, should make specific, testable predictions, which intelligent design has so far failed to do. Noble claims that evolution (he calls it "Darwinism") is inadequate to explain the complexity seen in living things. But then he says that intelligent design is a sufficient explanation, when it clearly isn't an explanation at all. ID is a philosophical idea — there's nothing scientific about it. He mentions that the cell is very complicated, and that anywhere else such complexity is observed (he means in engineering) we infer a designer. As usual he leaves out an important component in this inference: what we actually infer when we see such engineering is a human designer — every time. Even William Paley inferred a human watchmaker. We have no other examples of design intelligence, apart from human intelligence. ID proponents make an invalid extrapolation from an inadequate sample size:

Thursday and we're back to real science with Alanna Maltby, who announces that she's an evolutionary biologist and an atheist. Echoing Simon Watt she mentions the elegance of Darwin's theory, and the overwhelming evidence in support of it. She also hopes that there aren't too many people who believe in six-day creation and a 6000-year-old Earth. I hope so too, but so far in this series we've had two evolutionary biologists, a Young Earth Creationist and an intelligent design proponent:

On Friday Dr. Ruth Bancewicz began by saying "My Christian faith tells me who made something out of nothing. Science can't answer that question." She ought to realise that though science does not at present have an answer to that question — if indeed it's a valid one — the idea that her Christian faith does have an answer is obviously absurd. Christianity, or any other religion, just makes up an answer. There's no compelling evidence or reason supporting it, only variable interpretations of ancient texts of dubious provenance. Dr. Banciewicz goes on to tell us she has a PhD in genetics, and she thinks the word creationist has been hijacked by the young-earthers. She prefers to think of all people who believe that God set things in motion — including evolution — as creationists. I think she could  be fairly described as a theistic evolutionist, but of a particularly vague and woolly kind:

Is it significant that of the five contributors so far, all three of those claiming that evolution is untrue, that "Darwinism" is inadequate, or that Goddidit — have "Dr." in front of their names?

There are two more "4thoughts" on this subject to come — I'm guessing we'll have one believer and one non-believer — as if such a near even split is representative of scientific opinion as a whole.