Last December, a colloquium was held in Irvine, CA, with the general title "In the light of evolution". This choice of words is an allusion to Dobzhansky's oft-quoted statement that "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution". A series of colloquia are planned, all seeking to "interpret phenomena in various areas of biology through the lens of evolution". The December event was the first and it took as its theme "Adaptation and Complexity".
The organisers were very aware that this is "a time of resurgent societal interest in supernatural explanations for biological complexity. Especially in the United States, proponents of intelligent design (ID)-the latest reincarnation of religious creationism - argue that biotic complexity can only be the product of a supreme intelligence (i.e., God)." Of course, this is not how the ID community sees the issue. ID arguments major on the rationale for making design inferences. The options for causal explanations are extended from 'Law + Chance' to 'Law + Chance + Design'. This approach is perceived as important for truth and for the integrity of science, because otherwise science gets moulded by the philosophy of naturalism (nature is all there is). This threat to science is neither perceived nor addressed by the organisers.
There is an easy way to show that design inferences are inappropriate - and that is to show the superiority of the explanations based on Law and Chance. However, the failure of the evolutionary community to deliver on this is one of the most important factors behind the sustained interest in ID. The authors of the introductory essay recognise that they do not bring strong, mature arguments to support their claims: "150 years after Darwin the challenge of understanding nature's complexity remains in many regards in its infancy." They go on to refer to new tools to help understand this complexity, but do not acknowledge that the data uncovered by these tools have influenced many in the direction of ID.
The papers are currently in the Early Edition of the PNAS website, all open access. Selected papers will be the subject of further comment on this blog.
In the light of evolution I: Adaptation and complex design
John C. Avise and Francisco J. Ayala
Published online before print May 9, 2007
Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 10.1073/pnas.0702066104
Abstract: This paper serves as an introduction to this PNAS supplement, which resulted from the Arthur M. Sackler Colloquium of the National Academy of Sciences, "In the Light of Evolution I: Adaptation and Complex Design," held December 1-2, 2006, at the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering in Irvine, CA. It is the first in a planned series of colloquia under the umbrella title "In the Light of Evolution" (see Box 1). The complete program is available on the NAS web site at www.nasonline.org/adaptation_and_complex_design.
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