In some ways this is quite a way off from what I usually write for this particular blog (it’s from my Bioblog). I’ve republished it here because it’s something that I do want to get out to science educators – especially biology educators – as widely as I can.
I’ve written about the group who call themselves ‘Scientists Anonymous (NZ)’ before, in the context of determining the reliability of sources. At the time, I commented that I would have a little more confidence about the information this group was putting out there if the people involved were actually identified – as it is, they are simply asking us to accept an argument from (anonymous) authoriry. (I was rather surprised to actually receive a response to that post, albeit its authors remained anonymous.) Anyway, this popped up in my inbox the other day, and was subsequently sent to me by several colleagues in secondary schools:
TO: Faculty Head of Science / Head of Biology Department
Please find a link to the critically acclaimed resource (http://programmingoflife.com/watch-the-video) dealing with the nature of science across disciplines/strands.
Interesting to see an attempt to link it into the current NZ Science curriculum with its focus on teaching the nature of science.
PROGRAMMING OF LIFE
- The reality of computer hardware and software in life
- The probabilities of a self-replicating cell and a properly folded protein
- Low probability and operational impossibility
- The need for choice contingency of functional information
Freely share this resource with the teaching staff in your faculty/department.
Scientists Anonymous (NZ)
So, I have been to the website. I intend to watch the video tonight (from a comfy chair), but the website itself raises enough concerns, so I’ll look at some of them briefly here. And I’ll also comment – if they really are ‘doing science’, then it’s not going to be enough to simply produce a list of ‘examples’ of the supposed work of a design entity (because that’s what all the computing imagery is intended to convey) & say, see, evolution’s wrong. That would be an example of a false dichotomy, & not scientific at all. They also need to provide an explanation of how their version of reality might come to be.
Its blurb describes the video as follows:
Programming of Life is a 45-minute documentary created to engage our scientific community in order to encourage forward thinking. It looks into scientific theories “scientifically”. It examines the heavy weight [sic] theory of origins, the chemical and biological theory of evolution, and asks the extremely difficult questions in order to reveal undirected natural process for what it is – a hindrance to true science.
The words ‘undirected natural process’ immediately suggest that this is a resource intended to promote a creationist world-view. I would also ask: if the documentary is created to ‘engage our scientific community’, then why did Scientists Anonymous send it to secondary school teachers in biology and not to universities & CRIs across the country? The blurb goes on:
This video and the book it was inspired by (Programming of Life) is about science and it is our hope that it will be evaluated based on scientific principals [sic] and not philosophical beliefs.
Unfortunate, then, that they wear their own philosophical beliefs so clearly: ‘undirected natural process’ as a ‘hindrance to true science’.
As well as linking to the trailer for the video, & the full video itself, the Programming for Life website also presents a bunch of ‘tasters’. One of these is the now rather hoary example of the bacterial flagellum (irreducible complextiy, anyone?) The website describes ‘the’** flagellum thusly:
The bacterial flagellum is a motor-propeller organelle, “a microscopic rotary engine that contains parts known from human technology such as a rotor, a stator, a propellor, a u-joint and an engine yet it functions at a level of complexity that dwarfs any motor that we could produce today. Some scientists view the bacterial flagellum as one of the best known examples of an irreducibly complex system. This is a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts manufactured from over 40 proteins that contribute to basic function, where the removal of any one of those parts causes the entire system to fail.
** As noted on my link for this example, there is no such thing as “the” bacterial flagellum as the sole means of bacterial locomotion: different prokaryotes get around in different ways. Nor is the flagellum a case of design; its evolutionary history has been quite well explained. The lack of quote closure (& of citation) is in the original.
Mitochondria have their own executable DNA programs built in to accomplish their tasks.
Well, yes, & no. Several key mitochondrial genes are actually found in the cell’s nucleus – something that allows the cell to control some aspects of mitochondrial functioning (& incidentally prevents the mitochondria from leaving!). There’s a good review article here. That the number of nuclear-based mitochondrial genes differs between taxa is a good argument for evolution; for design – not so much.
Much like the firewall software on your computer the membrane contains protein gate keepers allowing only those components into the cell that belong and rejects all other components. The membrane is thinner than a spider’s web and must function precisely or the cell will die.
Well, d’oh – except when it doesn’t. Viruses, and poisons that interrupt cellular metabolism, get in just fine. They really are pushing the boundary with this computer metaphor.
The human eye is presented as an amazingly complex ‘machine’ – yet we have a good explanation for how that complexity evolved. And more telling (but omitted from this presentation): the eye’s structure isn’t perfect – it’s a good demonstration of how evolution works with what’s available,but hardly an argument for the wonders of directed design. The same can be said for the human skeleton, which is also in the taster selection, along with the nucleus, DNA, & ribosomes (which come with more, lots more, of the computer software imagery).
As I said earlier, if this video is not simply another example of the use of false dichotomy to ‘disprove’ a point of view with which its authors disagree, it had better provide more than metaphor. That is, I’ll be looking for a strong, evidence-based, cohesive, mechanism by which these various complex features sprang into being. Otherwise, we’re not really talking ‘nature of science’ at all.
I was going to stop there (for now) but then I noticed the ‘Investigate the facts’ heading. It links to a list of various papers & articles that supposedly support the ‘design’ hypothesis. Richard Dawkins’ name caught my eye – he’s there for writing that
Human DNA is like a computer program, but far, far more advanced than any software we’ve ever created.
I had a couple of thoughts; a) metaphor is a wonderful thing, & b) Dawkins is a biologist & science communicator, but not necessarily big on programming. (If I am inadvertently doing him a disservice, I apologise!). Someone else had the same thoughts.