Friday, September 23, 2011

My thoughts on irreducible complexity -or- What good is half an eye?


Sometimes I go to church with my dad. Not because I love church, but because I love my dad, and we don't have a lot of things in common. He's very religious, and it means a lot for him to have me there. I'm fine with it.

A few nights ago, he invited me to a seminar that the people of his church were attending. I had joined him for something like that last year, and my night was free, so I accepted.

On the way in, I was required to get a barcode card that I would use to check in. I would later learn that if you attend for so many nights, you'd get a free family Bible. The signup for the card asked my address and other contact information, which I gave slightly altered versions of, pretty sure that the host would ever need to contact me at my home. We got seated, and I watched a woman play organ music on a keyboard, wondering about the business plan of the speaker, and if he would end up selling the contact info he was gathering. I realized how much more cynical I had become over the years.

Before the speaker came out, an image of Charles Darwin popped up on the twin projector screens, and I tensed. I could listen to a man preach about sin, or hell, or the ways to please God, but evolution is a subject that I'm fascinated by. It excites me to think about it. I did not want to hear a man talk about how evolution was wrong for an hour.

The presentation began with a marginally funny anti-Darwin song (You won't make a monkey out of me!), along with an Adobe Flash style music video that got laughs from the audience.

A lot of what he said, I had expected. A certain amount of misunderstanding about the subject. Painting a picture of a world full of scientists that all, behind closed doors, doubt evolution. An enormous emphasis on the word "theory," playing on the audience's misunderstanding of the word. His main argument focused on the idea of "irreducibly complex systems." Simply, the idea that some systems in the body are so complex that a single step back (in evolution) would make them not function, and they would have been weeded out by survival of the fittest. He gave the metaphor of a mouse trap, which can only work with every part intact. He gave a lot of weight to the credentials of the scientists that champion the view that, for things to exist the way they are, they must have been created spontaneously.

One example of irreducible complexity he used, that I have heard of before, is the eye. What good is half of an eye? It wouldn't function if any part of it were missing, so what part wasn't there before?

I think the first mistake in questioning evolution in this way is the idea that things evolve piece by piece. Legs, then nipples, then chin hair, then toenails. The creationist mindset might aid this kind of misconception. When we create things, after all, we do it piece by piece. In reality, the gradual changes an organism goes through, over many generations, are more similar to a fetus developing in the womb than a man being put together with legos. Many things change at once, usually by tiny increments.

I guess my main problem with the idea of irreducible complexity is that someone has to have the authority to decide that there could have definitely been no previous step. Some guy, or some lady, has to be able to make an infallible judgement of what nature can't do. But nobody in this room (this room called the Internet) is nearly creative enough to have come up with one of these remarkably complex systems. Humans are shitty at reproducing biological systems, even when we have real ones to copy. I'm always hearing about how many more connections a brain has than a computer, or how much more sensitive a dolphin's sonar is than manmade sonar, or how much better a biological blah is than an artificial blah, often by huge factors.

So how is the person who is only beginning to understand how a system works going to stand up and say, with certainty, that there is no way there could have been a previous step?

Why? Because you can't think of it, buddy?

One thing that he mentioned is the differentiation of sexes. How does a single organism evolve to have two different kinds that have to mix genes to reproduce? And my answer is: I don't know. It doesn't make any sense to me, either. Does that prove that God made us this way, maybe some six-thousand years ago? Well why would it?

The pastor of my dad's church approached me after the seminar, and gave me a surprise. He had only asked my dad to invite me to the talk after he had heard what the topic was going to be. I'd never discussed religion with him, but he correctly pinned me as a more analytical thinker, and had thought that I might want my evolution debunked. Hmm.

One thing he told me, as he (a really really nice guy) nervously/casually tried to back up the positions stated in the seminar, mostly by repeating them in rote, was that regardless of what I was taught in high school, I do have another option.

Well, I have lots of options. I could believe in evolution, or creationism. I could also believe old Greek stories about the origin of species, or Native American legends. I could go with Scientology. I'm sure there are hundreds of ready-made theories of how we came about that are just as valid as Jesus-dad and the Garden of Eden. So, if someone successfully disproved evolution through natural selection, it wouldn't narrow the possibilities down that much.

Christianity is a big deal now, but what about a thousand years ago? What about a thousand years from now? What about on the other side of the planet, right now as we speak? Science seeks universal truths, that are always true, everywhere. Religion, it seems to me, bends to fit the people in a certain region of the world, and a certain period of history. At least that's the way I see it.

It was a fun night.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent. Maybe these folks would like to see a nice video on the evolution of the eye.

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