Sunday, September 6, 2009

When You Design and Build Watch Factories ...

... everything ends up looking like something a watchmaker would do.

Jim Manzi (of Lotus Development and Lotus 1-2-3 fame see comment below) has a piece over at Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish in which he takes on Jerry Coyne's review of Robert Wright's book Evolution of God that was published in The New Republic.

I read about this at Coyne's blog where you can read his response to Manzi. You can follow the twisty maze on your own by clicking on the above links (including responses, responses to responses, etc.)

My point here, however, is another train of thought. Shortly before discovering this kerfuffle, I got a status update via Facebook from an engineer friend. It was early Sunday morning and A new day breaks, a glorious Sunday to worship our Lord and Savior. Just the coincidence of these two pieces of input got me thinking about the observation that Intelligent Design proponents and some Creationists often come from backgrounds of math, physics, or engineering rather than biology or philosophy.

When all your training has been to successfully design and build things, it is a natural thought that something successful has been designed and built. When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail is a less sophisticated version of the same thought.

The ID luminaries who have some real scientific training come from outside the field of biology — which is the field in which evolution does its handsprings. Manzi comes from the world of software development.

They are all used to the idea of designing and building as the natural mode of changing the world. Their tools are crucial to the world we live in — airplanes fly across great oceans, sewer systems allow giant metropolises, Facebook is filled to the brim with our minutia, genetic algorithms guide our computers through designs, small boxes of magic carried in our pockets let us listen to music or talk to people around the world.

The engineering design and manufacture paradigm has been overwhelming successful in our attempts to tame the savage world and provide sustenance, enjoyment, and longer lives. We no longer have to survive on what we find. Or what we learn out how to hunt. Or what we figure out how to husband. Or fitting the family into a cave.

But just because a method is successful there is no reason to assume that it has any relevance outside of the realms that are amenable to its use. Even within a field, careful use is required for some concepts. Something as simple as the average of a collection of numbers requires well-grounded analysis. Is the mean, the median, or the mode the correct concept to use? Statistics and probability are minefields for the unwary. Why is the Birthday Paradox so .... paradoxical?

I think understanding how the engineering paradigm influences the ideas and analysis of those who wish evolution wasn't true will be a useful beginning to more constructive dialogues and partnerships. There are millions of interesting engineering problems in the structure and development of this thing we call life. Tapping into the engineer's expertise would be useful where it is appropriate.


  1. Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    A couple of quick things:

    1. I'm not the Jim manzi who was associated with Lotus (though I do have a math background, and did start and build a software company).

    2. I am in no way an ID proponent, and consider it (and all the related ideas of creationsims, etc.) as non-science.

    Jim Manzi

  2. Post corrected but traces left (as evidence of my train of thought)


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