Friday, October 21, 2005

Bird Flu and Intelligent Design

This post follows up on arguments I posted on September 23rd on Divine Wrath.

There, I argued that recent natural disasters contain an element of cosmic justice similar to divine wrath. It's not that the disasters themselves were punishment for the wrongs that humans commit. They are nothing more than the natural effects of the laws of physics at play. However, the severity of those effects -- the numbers of people who are killed and injured and the amount of property destroyed -- is our punishment for human moral failings.

The effects of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean was our punishment for failure to establish a tsunami early warning system in a part of the world where tsunamis are possible and hundreds of millions of people live in harm’s way.

The devastation in Pakistan and India from this most recent earthquake is punishment for constructing buildings near a fault line that cannot withstand such an earthquake and packing those buildings full of people.

At New Orleans, we did not suffer because we tolerated homosexuals and abortion clinics. We suffered because we built a city below sea level surrounded by levees capable of withstanding Level 3 hurricanes in a land where Level 4 and 5 hurricanes were possible.

Bird Flu

Nature is now threatening us with another round of punishment for decades of moral decadence. It is threatening us with a pandemic caused by a mutated strain of Bird Flu – the H5N1 virus. The moral crime which has increased our risk of suffering and death centers on the resistance people have put up against theories of evolution on the basis that it conflicts with their religious beliefs.

We may soon be the victims of a campaign that has fought for 150 years to gut and dismember our scientific understanding of biology and genetics – the tools that provide our best defense against such a pandemic.

"Intelligent design" (an evolved form of “Creationism”) tells us that when we encounter what appears to be an unlikely change in biology, such as the creation of the flagellum, that we should shout "irreducible complexity", throw up our hands, and blame the change on a designer. Science, on the other hand, tells us to look for a natural solution -- a way in which the proteins and genes could have come together naturally and produced this effect.

"Intelligent design" is a campaign of willful ignorance. When we encounter a problem in biology, we shelve it and move on to other things.

Science is a campaign of forming theories, designing experiments to test those theories, observing the results, and upgrading the theories. The best theories give us hints as to what might happen to living organisms today under different circumstances. If the theory works, then it allows us to explain what happened in the best, and predict what will happen in the future. It means being better able to explain a pandemic that occurred in 1918, and predicting and preparing for a pandemic that might occur in 2007.

“Intelligent design” is not a theory that says, “I do not know what happened.” It is a theory that says, “I do know what happened – an intelligent designer is responsible for these effects.” Somehow, ignorance is supposed to give us the ability to ‘know’ such a thing.

Scientists have no trouble saying, “I do not know.” There are some things they will admit to not knowing – and some things that they will admit that they can never know. However, the scientist keeps looking, where he or she is able. He keeps theorizing, keeps designing experiments to test his theories, and keeps throwing away proposals that do not withstand the rigor of experiment and scientific testing.

The scientist advances our understanding so that we can explain and predict what something like the "bird flu" will do under different circumstances. The “intelligent design” theorist freezes our understanding at the point where he claims to find ‘irreducible complexity’, leaving us ignorant, defenseless, and unable to plan and prepare for the dangers that nature may have in store for us.

Years of Change

Changing our ways, and encouraging more children to learn the basic facts of biology, including genetics and evolution, will not have an immediate effect on our ability to react to the Bird Flu virus. These effects are long-term.

However, I am talking about the price that we pay for past sins. The campaign against literacy in the biological sciences has been going on for a long time -- for 150 years. It is reasonable to expect that this campaign has had at least some effect, causing us to live today in a world with fewer medical advances and less overall scientific understanding of the living organism that share this Earth with us than we would have otherwise had.

It is the past promotion of willful ignorance that puts lives today at risk. It is our current campaigns to promote willful ignorance that will put future generations at risk.

Now, I do want to add an important addendum, in case somebody draws some wrong implications. It is never permissible to object against an idea by using the force of law to suppress it. Bad ideas have to be defeated by education, not violence or government sanction. So, I would reject any campaign against intelligent design based on laws and punishments. I would only accept a campaign that puts more emphasis on rational thought and an appreciation of the benefits that we can obtain through a greater understanding of the biological sciences.

Failure to promote a proper appreciation for the science of biology is a sin which some of us may well pay for with our lives.

Cosmic Justice

We have two groups of people proposing two separate programs for protecting ourselves from the next natural disaster.

One group advocates violently interfering with the lives of our neighbors in order to enforce a uniform religious code, and a uniform scientific ignorance, on everybody. Somehow, this is supposed to please a God who will then protect us and make sure that plagues and pandemics do not strike us.

Intelligent Design can be understood as telling us to give up on predicting Bird Flu at the start, because, at any moment, a designer will introduce the perfect design into this disease, and we will not be able to explain or predict it.

Another group advocates using the scientific method to understand how the natural forces moving around us actually work. With that knowledge, we come up with theories that allow us to explain and predict those forces. We then use that power to immunize ourselves against disease, prepare for potential outbreaks, and to respond quickly and efficiently when they do occur.

Of these two, I am willing to assert with confidence that the second option has significantly more promise of saving significantly more lives than the first. However, the second option requires being honest with ourselves and with each other about what the scientists are telling us about the facts of living organism.

Intelligent design can tell us nothing that will allow us to predict or explain the world around us. The ‘intelligent designer’ that they speak of can do whatever it wants, and is entirely outside of our ability to explain or predict. The theory is of no use. It only stands in the way of theories that we can use to prevent real death and suffering.

What scientists are telling us is that the best theories for predicting and explaining what will happen in nature are theories derived from or dependent on evolution and genetics. Promoting ignorance of and hostility toward the best life-saving tools we have available, by definition, puts lives at risk that could otherwise be saved.

Promoting such a risk is not something that a person of good moral character would want to do.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Agreed. Bird flu is not intelligent design. Here's the words translated to images.