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Why I Don't Believe in Intelligent Design

February 19th, 2009 (02:54 pm)

I was commenting on a Guardian thread which was locked down (not sure if it's a time thing or just that the debate was getting out of hand), which is a pity because there's an interesting comment I wanted to reply to from someone called Wice:

it's nice to meet someone, who, starting as an ID proponent, finally accepted evolution as a better explanation. all the ID proponents i've met up to now, seem to be completely unable (or unwilling) to understand even the most basic concepts of the theory of evolution. could you provide some information, what helped you understand the subject and change your mind?

I guess there's not a great deal of point in responding here - I mean, I suppose he might google himself, but I'm never going to be top entry - but the answer is kind of interesting so I thought I'd share. I'm slightly amused at (what I took) as his suggestion that he hasn't met an ID proponent who was willing or able to understand evolution - if you did they would kind of stop being ID proponents! More seriously, if his experience with IDer's is through debate, most people (and nearly all theists) go into a debate prepared to defend their ideas to the death and are really not open to other points of view.

With that in mind, the change in my opinion was marked (at least in the early stages) by a movement from ignorance to enlightenment in the field of genetics. I clearly remember the moment of realisation, and was immediately aware that the only way anyone can hold a belief in young earth creationism was ignorance*.

As for what helped me understand the subject, in broad sense it has to be taking a degree in biomedical science; although I was over halfway through my degree (year two, semester two) before I accepted it. I regret this profoundly, as I had avoided taking an elective in Evolutionary Biology (on the grounds that I didn't agree that it had happened) and took Psychology instead, and looking back, I know what I would have enjoyed more. Looking back, it was embaressingly arrogant of me, but throughout my biological education (from watching Attenborough videos as a kid, through secondary education and into university) I had carefully refused to accept any teaching on evolution. I didn't demand that my views were recognised, I just quietly resolved to take a different stance. In my defence, I had never been clearly and coherently presented with the evidence for evolution; it was just sort of assumed throughout my education, and my willful ignorance was left unaddressed.

As I mentioned, it wasn't enlightenment in the field of evolutionary biology that changed my mind - I would have approached that in a closed minded fashion, and refused to be educated. It was in fact a genetics class - developmental genetics, as it happens, a lecture by Tanya Whitfield (a course which also, incidentally, set me down my current career path). Of course the whole premise of developmental biology is that species are linked in a fundamental way that allows you to draw conclusions between humans and animals**. However, the fact that analogous functions in species as diverse as insects and humans are not only fulfilled by similar genes, but by the same genes (the example that did it for me was the Hox Cluster, but it doesn't really matter which one) was what finally broke through to me, like a road to Damascus experience.

Of course, that wasn't quite the end of the story. I had, in effect, gone from being a young earth creationist to a day age creationist. Although my religious views at the time were agnostic, I truly believed that the creation account in Genesis was defensible as an allegory for evolution - starting with a bright flash of light (the big bang), appearance of planet, and then the gradual appearance of species in a stepwise fashion ultimately ending with the appearance of people. I have yet to hear a real knock-down argument to this idea (the most convincing one being that the Genesis account could a whole lot more accurate, for one thing describing the emergeance of flowers before the appearance of insects to pollinate them). But key to my acceptance of this idea was the notion that of the creation accounts of ancient civilisations (cf. Egypt, ancient Greece and Rome etc.) this one best matched our modern theory of evolution.

Another embaressingly arrogant statement. In fact, it was only when I started investigating my own claim a little that I realised that the creation account in Genesis was actually copied, almost word for word (swapping the polytheistic creators for Yahweh) from the Babylonian creation myth. This marked another turning point in my belief, definitively leaving behind my agnosticism (and sympathy with Christianity) for atheism, and making up for lost time by learning in detail about the evolution-vs-creation debate. The fruit of my research has not been favourable to creationism (intelligent design or otherwise), or theism in general. As a result, I've developed a bit of a bee in my bonnet about creationism, and become a christian apostate to boot. But that's a different story.

...Well. That turned into a bit of a long post. Apologies for not putting it behind a cut, but I somehow felt I wanted it all out there. I was thinking of also responding to the (earnest, I think) comments of an ID creationist on the same thread, but this post is already getting a bit out of hand. It also has not escaped my notice that this article doesn't exactly live up to it's title - this is what led me to question ID, not why I ultimately discarded (except in briefest outline). Both stories for another time, perhaps.

* or at least, a tolerance for severe cognitive dissonance.
** as in any field of investigation which uses animal models of human disease, but developmental biology - where investigation in humans is extremely tightly restricted for ethical reasons - especially depends on comparison between species

Comments

Posted by: wolodymyr (wolodymyr)
Posted at: February 19th, 2009 08:12 pm (UTC)

This is great; thank you for it.

If I can haul out my little soapbox for a moment, I was really struck by the part where you said that no-one had tried to prove evolution to you - it was assumed. I think that happens a lot, and I think your reaction is an understandable reaction - "If we're just assuming things a priori, I've got something else to assume, thank you very much."

I was mystified by all the people who are refusing to have their kids vaccinated, and then I heard that the average number of vaccinations these days is somewhere around 14. And I thought, so, the parents who are shocked at the jump in number, and are squeamish about letting others "hurt" their kids - are they being sat down and having the utility and significance of each shot explained to them? Or are they being treated in a way that suggests they're not worth explaining things to and will just have to obey? Because if it's the latter, I can easily see an anti-vaccination movement, born right there, out of the human-nature push-pull of "You have to do this and I won't explain why" met with "Well I did some online research Mr. Smarty-condescends-to-me-pants, and it turns out you can't make me."

Anyway, box returned to closet, this was a great post! And again, thank you.

Posted by: Confused (confuseddave)
Posted at: February 20th, 2009 02:13 pm (UTC)

Jesus, 14 separate jabs? I didn't know that. I don't remember how much we were given as kids... must have been four or five, including boosters.

Where are you from, incidentally?

(Apologies if I know you in person, I haven't twigged your username yet)

Posted by: wolodymyr (wolodymyr)
Posted at: February 20th, 2009 08:12 pm (UTC)
feet

The general increase in number of vaccinations: yeah, no-one mentions that when talking about the parents-vs-vaccination thing. At the same time, I don't think the debunking of the autism connection is getting anywhere near enough press, either.

I found you through neuroscience, and I'm from Los Angeles - where I was raised Catholic, and where I lapsed. I was a very sincere 2nd grader receiving Communion, though.

Posted by: Confused (confuseddave)
Posted at: February 20th, 2009 10:48 pm (UTC)

Yes, I figured this out after I asked by scanning your user info. ^_^ I'm surprised I attracted any readers from neuroscience, given I think I don't convey my opinions particularily well there. I'm kind of convinced everyone rolls their eyes whenever I post. This may be a general self esteem thing, every time I get a comment notification on this post I think it'll be someone saying "actually, you're a dick", too.

I only asked where you're from because I wondered if the vaccination regimen might be different between countries. I had a feeling that at least some of them were grouped together, but I'm not sure that's true...

And incidentally, as a regular reader of Ben Goldacre's Bad Science and Orac's Respectful Insolence, I come down pretty firmly pro-vaccine in principle, although I usually try to keep in mind that there are two sides to most stories.

Posted by: Confused (confuseddave)
Posted at: February 20th, 2009 10:49 pm (UTC)

I also half wondered if you were going to confess to be Wice, who this entire post was a glorified response to, although I didn't think it all that likely.

Posted by: An unexpected Haggis (haggis)
Posted at: February 19th, 2009 09:50 pm (UTC)

Interesting. I think I flirted with the young earth creationism idea (I suspect from reading the same book) and then decided it seemed a bit unconvincing. However, I can't say for sure whether it was a logical argument against it or just that everyone else seemed convinced by evolution.

I drifted into 'day age creationism' and then into accepting evolution as a scientific theory, completely separate from the question of whether God exists. I think one of the key idea for me was that God shouldn't be a 'God of the gaps', needed to fill in the bits of science we don't understand and therefore constantly shrinking as science progresses. Evolution didn't negate my faith, any more than the idea that the earth orbits the sun.

Then I fell out with God and organised religion and getting away from church-think helped me see how much of it was circular arguments and motivated by group dynamics, not spiritual concerns. I am now basically agnostic - I can see how you can believe but don't feel it myself.

Posted by: Confused (confuseddave)
Posted at: February 20th, 2009 02:09 pm (UTC)
Purple Gloves

My relationship with God was a kind of subtext to this story that I haven't really gone into. Obviously creationism was a direct effect of a belief in the inerrancy of scripture (although I don't think I was ever a literalist, I considered Genesis to be a direct allegory for the history of the universe). Oddly, I don't think I ever particularily liked Christianity; I was simply convinced it was true. I remember being bewildered by pagan friends at university who chose their religion because it reflected their personality - I didn't believe in Christianity because I liked it, I believed it because I honestly thought it was true.

I think I would probably have remained adamant about creationism for longer (possibly indefinitely) if I hadn't also deliberately made a decision to turn away from God (I hold and still hold that Christianity was harming me, and felt that if God loved me then he would find a way to bring me back in his own time). That said even while I was an active christian, I was aware in a nebulous way of our circular arguments, and that there was a risk that we were seeing what we wanted to see in answers to prayer, like faces in the clouds. I guess in a way I was an agnostic before leaving home; I always acknowledged the possibility that I might be wrong.

So the last nine or ten years has more or less been a steady tipping of my agnostic favour from christianity to humanist materialism. I guess I'm still agnostic to a minor degree (critical thinking demands it), but if I ever deserved to call myself I Christian, I deserve to call myself an Atheist now more.

"When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, and reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up my childish ways." (1 Cor 13:11)

It's interesting that you say "I can see how you can believe but don't feel it myself." For me, I feel like it's all about truth. This is part of the reason I have recently become outraged against christianity; because I'm slowly becoming aware of how much untruth is intrinsic to the christian religion. However, that is a rant I should also save for another time.

Posted by: Some Bloke or Other (astatine210)
Posted at: February 20th, 2009 08:23 pm (UTC)

In related stuff: this.

Posted by: Confused (confuseddave)
Posted at: February 20th, 2009 10:31 pm (UTC)
Ceiling Cat

I lol'd.

Posted by: ocean_depths (ocean_depths)
Posted at: February 27th, 2009 02:40 pm (UTC)
Skydive

A nice post. My views are mostly very similar to those listed above, but far more unsubstantiated (by the stories read at various one-off services I visited) Can't think why anyone should find your opinions/thoughts badly conveyed mr D! Or is it Dr D now? :/

PS I'm getting the feeling that my questions always get rolled eyes in medical forums now... OU masters sponsored by work, forum people are showing me how much different backgrounds influence how intelligent you appear in various different capacities. It can be quite scary how intelligent people seem in one area, but then when asked about another they completely flounder :/

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