Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Now I understand Richard Dawkins

Recently I was enjoying this really cool story about how slime mold can be used to construct efficient networks, which used the example of the interstate highway system as a model. If you haven't seen this, check it out:

I read the NY Times op-ed written by Andrew Adamatzky and Andrew Ilachinski, the scientists who pioneered the use of slime mold (Physarum polycephalum) for various sorts of computing tasks. Read this excerpt:
But it’s worth remembering that the highway system was created by mere humans, using only human intelligence. To find out if it’s optimally designed, we need to consult a higher authority. Namely, slime mold.
What follows is a fascinating explanation of how such a bizarre creature can be used to solve complex problems like path optimization. Super-cool, right?

Well, later I saw a link someone posted to a blog article written by a conservative Christian entitled, "Who Needs Engineers?" The blog post makes the following complaint against Adamatzky and Ilachinski:
In short they argue that we really did not need all those engineers and planners who gave us the Interstate Highway system because we could have just let some slime do the work instead. I am not kidding, and I hope you will read this story to your children and help them see why the Bible says that those who hate God are fools.
Upon reading that, I realized why people like Richard Dawkins have such a missionary zeal about trying to promote science in the public realm. At some point Christians ought to realize that this kind of anti-scientific statement doesn't just make them look stupid. It's also, dare I say it, sinful. For one thing, it's false. Adamatzky and Ilachinski are clearly not saying that designing interstate highway systems is as simple as watching a slime mold. At the very least, have enough respect to understand what these men are actually saying.

For another thing, think about how hateful this is. "I hope you will read this story to your children and help them see why the Bible says that those who hate God are fools." So two creative, passionate scientists who have given the world a fascinating perspective on an interesting problem are being blasted, not for anything they said against God, but simply for sharing their research. I'm not going to look it up, but for all I know reading their article, these two scientists could be Christians. Whatever the case may be, it is wrong to judge people like that.

What provoked such an insult from this Christian blogger? Apparently, it was the mere mention of "evolution," as in this statement from the Times article: "the slime mold was designed by evolution to solve just one problem: how to build an optimal transport network (for its nutrients)." Thus, if you continue reading the aforementioned blog post, you will read yet another explanation why it is absurd to believe in evolution. I am almost 100% sure that Adamatzky and Ilachinski never even thought about the controversy over evolution when they were writing their op-ed for the NYT. If a single word can provoke such ire, perhaps I shouldn't tell my fellow church-goers that I study evolutionary differential equations.

I see these attacks on science as symptomatic of a couple of serious moral issues in the church, which Christians have yet to deal with. First, let's be clear: anti-intellectualism is a moral problem. Christians need to be reminded that intellectual pedigree does and should demand a certain amount of respect in this world. To treat scientists as if the very foundations of their research can be refuted in a short blog post is not only stupid, it is incredibly disrespectful. This is what I mean by anti-intellectualism.

But by far the more important moral problem in the church is a simple lack of respect for truth. For all this talk about standing firm against the cultural tides of relativism and skepticism and boldly proclaiming the truth, Christians are often profoundly lazy about trying to discover the truth. Thus they refuse to cope with the reality that some things we discover about the world are going to conflict with what the church has traditionally believed. Life is hard that way. Sometimes our beliefs don't withstand rigorous scrutiny. Failing to accept this is both an intellectual problem and a moral one.

There is another thing I find sad about this, and that's the apparent lack of imagination displayed by Christians who refuse to accept that the theory of evolution might really be true. All of their arguments come down to the same thing: I can't imagine how such complex systems came into being without any sort of design involved. Essentially, this is a bias born of conceit. Think about the title of that blog post: "Who Needs Engineers?" We humans seem to be of the biased opinion that any sort of order in the universe comes from the work of human hands, so when we discover that in fact there is a beautiful and complex order in nature, it makes sense that we tend to attribute that order to God the engineer. Not God the artist, not God the gardener, not God the lover of things spontaneous and free. No, it must have been God the designer, because we all know that really cool things can't just come into being on their own.

Yet probably the opposite is true: the more complex a system is, the more essential it is that it be allowed to freely evolve. Our complex economic and political systems came into being through a process of cultural evolution, and not thanks to "social engineers" (notice how many of these same Christians hate socialism--to me this boggles the mind). In the same way, this rich world of complex organisms and ecosystems could not have come about any way other than a process of evolution building spontaneous order.

When we say "designed by evolution," we of course mean "selected," but perhaps in a higher sense there is a sort of design to it all. Evolution is not "random" just because it is free. On the contrary, it has the remarkable tendency to produce improvements in living things, which we never could have produced using our feeble mental capabilities. And this is exactly what Adamatzky and Ilachinski were saying from the beginning: "To find out if it’s optimally designed, we need to consult a higher authority. Namely, slime mold." We have much to thank God for and much to learn from this beautiful world he has given us, but we will never understand it if we insist that God is an engineer.

More importantly, we will never understand it if we demonize those whose life's work it is to bring us creative insight into the wonderful and mysterious world around us. I hope the church can feel some sense of shame about this, before it forces out all of us who take scientific truth seriously.

In related news, the General Assembly of the PCA will soon vote on whether or not to reject all evolutionary views on the origin of man.


  1. I think you are jumping to a generalization about Christianity and the Creationist Christian's appreciation of science on a whole.

    I read the article that you posted and I LOVED it!! I think that it is awesome and too bad this couldn't have been discovered this earlier! I am a creationist. I just don't see how being a creationist makes this discovery any less awesome. As a creationist, my response is like "Dude! Of course Slime mold is super smart! God created it, after all...and we should start applying it and using it for cool scientific and practical purposes"

    I guess I just don't understand why you have to be an evolutionist in order to appreciate slime mold.

    Also, can I beg you to please not group all non-evolutionists in the same group and assume that we are all anti-science? I think science is fascinating and I love reading about discoveries and projects like this and there are many many other creationists who say the same.

    Maybe they can put slime mold in an area representing DC and further prove to us that the design of the metro system here is absolutely atrocious and an embarrassing demonstration of engineer's planning...

    1. While it's clear that a creationist can still appreciate how awesome slime mold is (it is pretty cool, isn't it?) it's not altogether clear to me how one can be a creationist without being--in *some* sense, anyway--anti-science. It's great to be fascinated by science, but I'm talking about something that goes a little deeper than that. The question is whether we're willing to embrace major discoveries, even when they contradict what we'd previously thought.

      As much as scientists themselves might say that science is valuable because we get to question everything in it, not all questioning is that useful. We need a community of experts, or we can't move. If you have enough ambition, you can become an expert yourself and attempt to revolutionize the field with a theory of your own. But in the meantime, evolution is a cornerstone in our understanding of biology, and by rejecting it you close yourself off to a vast area of fruitful research.

      I like your idea about the DC metro system. That would make a great Youtube video.

  2. Jameson, a sincere "thank you." Eloquently said.

    1. Thank you for your wonderful work, and thank you for reading!


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