Thursday, January 05, 2006

on the shoulders of giant mistakes...

With all the news about Intelligent Design in the air, I am frequently struck by the fact that all too many things written during the still-incomplete "Scientific Revolution" remain relevant today. They serve as cautionary tales and reminders of how hard it can be to accept all of the implications of new ideas - even for some of the greatest minds in the history of science.

Consider the following excerpt from a letter written by Isaac Newton to Reverend Dr. Richard Bentley in 1692, in which he describes some of the implications of his Law of Gravitation...

" [...] To your second query I answer that the motions which the planets now have could not spring from any natural cause alone but were impressed by an intelligent agent. For since comets descend into the region of our planets and here move all manner of ways, going sometimes the same way with the planets, sometimes the contrary way, and sometimes in cross ways in planes inclined to the plane of the ecliptic at all kinds of angles, it's plain that there is no natural cause which could determine all the planets both primary and secondary to move the same way and in the same plane without any considerable variation. This must have been the effect of counsel."

As scientists, it's easy for us to ridicule modern-day proponents of "Intelligent Design" while making excuses for folks like Newton. After all, that was the 17th century! This is 2005! Shouldn't we have outgrown this kind of thinking by now? But I think it is important to recognize that even great genius is no defense against the failure of imagination that lies at the heart of the design explanation.

Like today's Intelligent Design creationists, Newton fell back on the argument of - I can't imagine how something this complex could just "happen", therefore, God must be responsible. It is all too perfect. Too precise. Too ordered. It practically screams - "Designer"!

The parallel with evolution is closer than one might realize. The formation of a solar system is a process which is, like natural selection, "random" at the root level and yet "guided" by certain laws and forces at a higher level. In evolution, random variations are pruned by the process of natural selection. The ill-adapted die. The better adapted become better adapted. Species evolve. The formation of a planet is a selective process as well, governed by the inexorable pull of gravity. Large chunks of matter become selectively larger. Those chunks of material that just happen to be in near-circular orbits sweep out a clear path, avoiding head-on collisions that would threaten to break them apart. When it comes to growing a large planet, there is a sort of "selective pressure" that favors nearly-circular orbits. The tinkering hand of the Creator is not necessary to set the planets in their places. They just grow that way.

Today, we can run computer simulations and watch solar systems form in a virtual world governed by Newton's laws. More and more we are gaining the ability to look out into the galaxy and pinpoint alien solar systems in various stages of formation. But Isaac Newton didn't have the advantage of supercomputer simulations of planetary accretion or observations of extrasolar planets. All he had were his own newly-minted laws of motion and his imagination. And despite his great genius, in this instance, Newton's imagination was clearly not up to the task. We should take heart in this. And so, to paraphrase Isaac Newton, I suggest the following new motto for the ID movement: "If we see less far than others, be consoled that we stand in the company of shortsighted giants."

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featured in Tangled Bank #29


Blogger Internal Medicine Doctor said...

Wonderful essay. Really well-written.

I will, of course, being the great skeptic that I am, confirm that Isaac Newton did in fact write this.

12:51 PM  
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