Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Lessons from the Scablands

Last night, I watched an intriguing episode of NOVA called Mystery of the Megaflood which provided the scientific evidence that the Scablands were formed by a catastrophic flood that was caused by the abrupt (brittle?) failure of an ice dam thousands of years ago. I would encourage everyone to watch this very education and eye-opening show.

Watching Mystery of the Megaflood also made me think of the evolution/ID debates and what lessons can be applied from this:

1. Gradualism is not always the answer. Geology has been dominated by gradualism: geological formations are best explained by erosion via water and/or wind or other mechanism over large periods of time. Catastrophic events were shunned. In fact, when J. Harlen Brentz presented his hypothesis of how the Scablands were formed in 1923, he was ridiculed. However, his hypothesis was later vindicated.

Just as Catastrophism was/is frowned upon by the geological establishment, so is a similar hypothesis frowned upon by the majority of evolutionary biologists: saltationism. Could saltationism be vindicated sometime in the future?

2. A qualifier to point 1 is that Brentz's hypothesis was vindicated due to a large amount of scientific investigation over a period time. Brentz wrote his paper in 1923, his insights were vindicated by the 1950's, and the details were filled in around the 1990's. The point: Catastrophism needed a wealth of scientific experimentation and verification, something that ID is sorely lacking at present. The term "Less talk and more action" seems appropriate.

3. How Brentz's hypothesis was accepted is a great example of how to go through the Explanatory Continuum as proposed by Mike Gene in The Design Matrix: it started as a possibility in 1923 (a remote one); then circumstantial evidence was gathered and the hypothesis progressed to being plausible (1950's); details were filled in such that the hypothesis is now seen as probable (1990's). Note that almost 70 years were needed to progress from possible to plausible to probable. See Chapter 2 of the Design Matrix for more on the Explanatory Continuum.

On an engineering side note, I found the small-scale models presented interesting and educational. However, as any engineer knows, what works at a small scale does not completely translate to a larger scale. This is called "scale effect", and I'd be interested in knowing what scale effects there are in this research.

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