Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Bad Analogies At Evolution News and Views

How many times will Evolution News and Views writers re-cycle a poor analogy before everyone realizes they are not actually making the point they think they’re making? Michael Egnor again incorrectly uses archaeological science as an analogue with intelligent design. He just doesn’t get it.

Archaeology is not, as Egnor mischaracterizes, a science about determining design:

All of us discern design as a matter of daily life. It’s an essential expertise. For scientists — all scientists — it’s a particular expertise. For some scientists — forensic scientists, cryptographers, archaeologists — discernment of design is their science.

What Egnor and other ID advocates fail to recognize is that archaeology does not assume design. This is a difficult concept to explain. In my archaeology class I show the students an “arrowhead” (better described as projectile points – most “arrowheads” are actually atlatl points – the bow and arrow was a relatively late development). Most students will recognize a projectile point as such, as would most ID advocates, and most will clearly infer a human designer. But then I ask, “How do you know that’s a projectile point?” In other words, how do we know what we know? Most students will say that they have seen similar items, read about such things in books or articles, or even tried to make one themselves. As we walk through this exercise, students begin to realize that their assumption of human design is correct, but what on the surface seems obvious is in fact built on a large body of previous knowledge. When I point out that artifacts of such “obvious design” today were once thought to be the products of thunder and lightning and not the result human manufacture, they are somewhat surprised. The knowledge of an “arrowhead” as the result of an intelligent design is dependent upon a history of research in archaeology, geology, ethnography and several other disciplines. It is also based on research specifically directed at the nature of the designer, and only secondarily the design itself (this is another area glossed over by ID advocates using archaeology as an analogy to intelligent design). It took a long time (and a significant amount of written argument) before such design could be attributed to human intelligence.

Egnor and others perceive design without comprehending the research behind that assumption. They suggest an analogous design in nature without offering the same kind of solid research in support. Perhaps another analogy may work better than Egnor's:

In the 1970s Erik van Daniken proposed that much of the monumental architecture we see in archaeological sites around the world (Giza, Titicaca, Palenque, etc.) could not have been constructed by indigenous groups in the area but must have resulted from extraterrestrial knowledge. Such buildings and monuments were so intricate and complex that some thought they could not possibly be constructed by humans but must have been engineered by visitors from other planets possessing far greater technological abilities. In other words, van Daniken argued that a significant portion of the world’s archaeology was the result of design by a higher intelligence. He was arguing, on the basis of his perception of complexity, that current proposed sources of such engineered feats were insufficient to account for that complexity and required intervention by beings with superior capabilities. His ideas were popular among the general public, which largely lacked the understanding of archaeological history, method and theory necessary to see through the faulty logic. Archaeologists of course immediately dismissed van Daniken’s ideas. And they did so with good reason. Archaeologists were familiar with a century’s worth of data from a wide variety of disciplines (not just archaeology, but geology, paleontology, zoology, chemistry, physics, ethnography, ecology, botany, geomorphology, and others) that in total provided significant confirmation that yes, indeed, it was really earthly humans who were responsible for such feats of complexity and there was no reason (and more importantly, no data) to invoke extraterrestrials. Van Daniken, like Egnor and the ID advocates, needed an “intelligent design” because he could not personally perceive that such relatively simple processes would produce such complexity. His “data” were limited to simple analogies with isolated cases and exclamations of incredulity, not basic research showing that extraterrestrials were a better explanation for what was seen on the ground. The current intelligent design movement is highly analogous to van Daniken’s proposals for an extraterrestrial “intelligent design” (I am sure he probably even complained that those “Darwinian archaeologists” were picking on him!).

Archaeological principles, like those in evolutionary biology, are backed by volumes of data from diverse disciplines. They are not analogous to intelligent design, unless taken out of context. Intelligent design has much more in common with Chariots of the Gods? than it does with Stone Age Spear and Arrow Points of California and the Great Basin.


Anonymous said...

You have knocked the ball out of the park.

Good job!

Ian said...

Great post. Not only have you demolished the argument, you also pointed out the fundamental flaw in their claim that it is unscientific to speculate about the nature of the designer.

And the final paragraph deserves to be quoted everywhere ID is discussed.

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

How many times will Evolution News and Views writers re-cycle a poor analogy before everyone realizes they are not actually making the point they think they’re making?

As often as it takes to get God back into the schools.

Oh I'm sorry, was that a rhetorical question?

CFeagans said...

This was a refreshing read. Well said, Chris.

Eric Michael Johnson said...

Very nicely stated. As a graduate of CSU, Chico (2003) I'm pleased to see that NorCal is in good virtual hands. How's old Bayham doing? When I was attending he was still chair.



Vargas said...

I think you've missed the point and the explanation you've given here is a rambling, confused and contorted explanation. Not surprising.

In light of the fact that people correctly infer intelligent design (whether or not they are assuming this from a larger body of knowledge) when looking at archeological artifacts, Michael Egnor's explanation makes far more sense than yours.

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