Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The data in the bacteria

Richard Dawkins, in The Greatest Show on Earth, devotes much of Chapter 5 to describing the work of Richard Lenski, who performs experiments on the evolution of bacteria. "Creationists hate it," Dawkins explains, because it shows evolution in action, and "it also undermines their central dogma of 'irreducible complexity'" (130-131).*

Creationist Andrew Schlafly asked Lenski to send his data. He agreed to. Then "Lenski went on to make the telling point that his best data are stored in frozen bacterial cultures, which anybody could, in principle, examine to verify his conclusions" (131).

Now this, to me, is a fascinating concept. The data are in the bacteria. The implication seems to be that Lenski's job, in writing his report, was merely to put on paper what already existed in nature. By extension, that may be viewed as the job of scientists in general. Language is a conduit between nature and mind. Read the words, and you know what's really out there.

Elsewhere in this blog, I've stated firmly that I do believe there is a Real World Out There. The Earth really is round (although not a perfect sphere), and bacteria really do evolve (and there are no qualifications for this statement).

At the same time, I'm skeptical of the implications I just mentioned. There are facts in nature, yes. In that sense, we can say that the data are in the bacteria. But even so simple an organism as a bacterium has a great deal of data in it. The choice of which data to emphasize is a rhetorical one. Not everyone will be working from the same concepts, so not everyone will choose the same data.

The conclusions are even more open to interpretation. I'm fairly certain that even if Schlafly were qualified to examine the cultures, he wouldn't come to the same conclusions Lenski did. One obvious response to this statement is that Schlafly's conclusions would be wrong. That misses my point, though: the same data can be interpreted by different people in different ways. It has no meaning until that meaning is created by humans. The moons of Jupiter, seen through Galileo's telescope, could as well be defects in the glass without the proper context.

Let me be clear. The moons of Jupiter were there long before Galileo--or any other human--was born. I am not claiming that the fact of their existence was created by humans. The knowledge of their existence, however, was.

Language, then, is not, and cannot be, simply a conduit between nature and mind. The most it can do is help lead to a shared understanding of our world. And I must say, that's quite enough to ask of it.

*Not all creationists emphasize irreducible complexity. It's mostly at the focus of the intelligent design theorists, led by Michael Behe, who does believe in a type of evolution--albeit one guided by a Designer. That doesn't deny the point Dawkins makes, though.

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