I’m normally pretty pleased when my book Soft Machines gets any kind of notice, but a recent rather favourable review of it leaves me rather troubled. The review is on the website of a new organisation called Truth in Science, whose aim is “to promote good science education in the UK”. This sounds very worthy, but of course the real aim is to introduce creationist thinking into school science lessons, under the guise of “teaching the controversy”. The controversy in question is, of course, the suggestion that “intelligent design” is a real scientific alternative to the Darwinian theory of evolution as an explanation of the origin and development of life.
The review approvingly quotes a passage from Soft Machines about the lack of evidence for how the molecular machine ATP synthase developed as evidence that Darwinian theory has difficulties. Luckily, my Darwinian credentials aren’t put in doubt – the review goes on to say “Despite the lack of hard evidence for how molecules are meant to have evolved via natural selection, Jones believes that evolution must have occurred because it is possible re-create a sort of molecular evolution ‘in silico’ – or via computer simulation. However, as more is discovered about the immense complexity of molecular systems, such simulations become increasing difficult to swallow.” This is wrong on a couple of counts. Firstly, as Soft Machines describes, we have real experiments – not in-silico ones – notably from Sol Spiegelman, that show that molecules really can evolve. The second point is more subtle and interesting. Actually, there’s a strong argument that it is in complex molecular systems that Darwinian evolution’s real power is seen. It’s in searching the huge, multidimensional conformational spaces that define the combinatorially vast number of possible protein conformations, for example, that evolution is so effective.
The review signs off with a reiteration of a very old argument about design: “In the final chapter, ‘Our nanotechnological future’, Jones acknowledges that our ‘…only true example of a nanotechnology…is cell biology…’. Could that lead to an inference of design? “ Maybe, like many scientists, I have brought this sort of comment on myself by talking extensively about “Nature’s design principles”. The point, though, is that evolution is a design method, and a very powerful one (so powerful that we’re seeing more use of it in entirely artificial contexts, such as in software engineering). However, design doesn’t necessarily need a designer.
“Truth in Science” may present itself as simply wishing to encourage a critical approach to evaluating competing scientific theories, but a little research reveals the true motives of its sponsors. The first name on the Board of Directors is Andy Mckintosh, Professor of Thermodynamics and Combustion Science at Leeds University. Far from being a disinterested student of purported controversies in evolutionary theory, this interview reveals him to be a young earth creationist:
“So you believe in a world created about 6,000 years ago, cursed on account of sin, then devastated by Noah’s Flood?
“Absolutely. There’s nothing in real science (if you take all the assumptions into account) to contradict that view.”
I don’t have a problem if people want to believe in the literal truth of either of the creation stories in Genesis. But I don’t think it is honest to pretend that a belief which, in reality, is based on faith, has any relationship to science, and I think it’s quite wrong to attempt to have these beliefs insinuated into science education in publicly funded schools.