Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Endless frontier or the end of the road?

posted by Chet at 11:57 AM UTC

I read two essays yesterday about how life works.

The first was Michael Behe's op-ed piece in the NYTimes (free, but registration required) on Intelligent Design. Behe is one of the small but effective cadre of folks at the Discovery Institute trying to foist stealth creationism on America's public school science classrooms.

Behe's argument is the same as that of the 18th-century theologian William Paley: If I don't understand how it happened it must be magic. It is an attitude towards nature that in two centuries has produced precisely zero useful knowledge of the world.

The second essay is by the grand old man of evolutionary biology, Ernst Mayr, written last year on the occasion of his 100th birthday. Mayr died on February 3.

His story is that of brilliant biologists pushing the empirical method as far as it will go, battling out differences, forging a brash and resilient consensus. This is the kind of science that led to the detailed knowledge of the living cell that Behe quotes as evidence of magic.

Mayr concludes by saying: "Evolutionary biology is an endless frontier and there is still plenty to be discovered. I only regret that I won't be present to enjoy these future developments."

Which essay will be most influential in shaping public opinion? Behe's, of course. It's the difference between eating strained peas and something you have to chew on for a while.