Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Is Evolution Really Difficult to Understand?

Philosopher Daniel Dennett has a nice article in the NY Times (or here if you don't want to register) on why Intelligent Design isn't science and there is no real 'controversy' to teach. I'm not going to discuss most of it because it's thoroughly sensible and everyone should just read it. One thing I did find strange, though, is his suggestion that evolution is hard to understand or somehow counter-intuitive - he uses the term 'mind-boggling'
Yes, eyes are for seeing, but these and all the other purposes in the natural world can be generated by processes that are themselves without purposes and without intelligence. This is hard to understand, but so is the idea that colored objects in the world are composed of atoms that are not themselves colored, and that heat is not made of tiny hot things.
I've heard many a fine person make similar claims - including Douglas Adams in this radio programme, where he says it's counter-intuitive that order can come about through the interaction of many unorderly things.

Personally, I don't find evolution counter-intuitive at all. In fact it's one of the very few scientific theories I can actually understand in a concrete way. We can precisely pinpoint the mechanism (natural selection) which brings about these effects. True, order and purpose are things we don't expect to just emerge without reason, but when we can explain how they come about in simple cause-and-effect terms, shouldn't our skepticism disappear?

By analogy, we wouldn't expect supply and demand to equilibrate in an unplanned market unless we had knowledge of some mechanism that would make it do so. There is such a mechanism: shortages or surpluses changing the pricing behaviour of firms and consumers responding to those altered prices. Given this economic insight, our grounds for doubting the equilibrating capacity of markets is gone and we accept that order can emerge from flux.

Does anybody agree? I'd probably be inclined to go with Dennett and Adams, they're both far smarter than me.
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