Sunday, August 23, 2009

Science and religion

There is a piece in the NYTimes by Robert Wright, trying to reconcile evolutionary biology. He proposes, in effect that if creationists would just accept that evolution happens as it does, and evolutionary biologists would just accept that the universe could have been set up the way it is by a creator who chose natural laws that would lead to organic evolution, we could all just get along. He makes the theistic evolution argument as well as I've seen it made, and I still think it is lousy both in its internal illogic and in its total lack of realpolitik.
The religious aren't about to accept a greatly diminished (or at least distanced) role of God in the universe, and secular scientists aren't going to accept that the fact that there could possibly be some space for God to slip into the cracks that science can't explain yet means that God is a scientifically viable option. Wright's proposed "bargain" wouldn't satisfy anyone, and wouldn't even be more satisfying than the status quo to many people. Wright questions why most people on both sides of this divide seem more inclined to leave it alone than to either argue over it or try to bridge the two views. The answer seems obvious to me: it is not particularly likely that one will either convince someone on the other side, or come to a common understanding, and people have other things to do with their time.


gml said...

Another problem with the suggestion is that accepting evolution and then adding a preceding arrangement of a universe in which evolution works just adds an unnecessary postulate; Occam's razor suggests that we should cut off the extra supposition. GML

Dan Levitis said...

True. He also glosses over how hard it would be to have a universe with life without having natural selection.

There are variable definitions of life, but almost all include something about organisms self-replicating (passing on their traits to their offspring). One reason we don't call fire alive is because a paper fire can start a gasoline fire, or a wood fire, or another paper fire. Fire may cause more fire, but the new fire doesn't necessarily have any particular resemblance to the old.

Natural selection requires:
1. organisms with variable traits
2. some portion of that variation is caused by individuals getting different traits similar to their parents, who are also variable
3. the variation has some effect on who reproduces how much

So the only ways to have life without having natural selection would be:
1. To have absolutely no variation in the traits that parents pass onto their offspring (only one invariant life-form)and no opportunity for variation to arise.
2. Variation in these inherited traits having absolutely no effect on an organism's reproduction or survival.

To build a world of life without natural selection would be much harder than one with natural selection.