This Week in Intelligent Design – 16/12/11

Intelligent design news, commentary and discussion from the 9th of December to the 16th of December, 2011.

It’s nearing Christmas, and here in Australia the weather is heating up, causing the ground to bake beneath our thong-covered feet – and a kind of cognitive dissonance sets in as the “White Christmas” imagery fed to us by popular culture and jolly old Christmas tunes conflicts with the harsh reality of Summer in December. Such is the Southern Hemisphere.

Of course I could, at this point, easily compare that tale with the cognitive dissonance present in the intelligent design movement as they wiggle around, both in cyberspace and in the real world, evading effective criticism and being ambiguous about many a topic. But I won’t.

That would be a bit forced, wouldn’t it?

No, I just wanted to let you all know about the wonderful Christmas we Australians will be having. Enjoy your Winter Wonderland, Northern Hemispherians: I’ll be cooking sausages, avoiding swarms of flying insects and trying my best not to get terribly sunburnt.

Anyway, this week we have blog posts about biomimetics, the potential predictive powers of Judaism/Christianity when it comes to the origin of humanity, using my words to pump money into the ID movement, and Richard Dawkins brainwashing poor, poor children.

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Casey Luskin (who else?) wrote about the relationship between biomimetics/biomimicry and intelligent design, in a provocatively titled post, “Praise Evolution for the Forced Marriage of Biomimetics and Materialism”. If it were two years ago, I could have written nearly an entire VCE English essay on that title alone, it contains so much rhetoric and colourful prose. But alas, those days are over, and I’m left with the (perhaps more useful) task of analysing the rest of the post on this blog:

Biomimetics, or biomimicry, is the field where engineers turn to nature for inspiration in designing human technology. The Newton Blog at Real Clear Science wrote about it this week, highlighting the remarkable design of gecko toes which “stick to a pane of polished glass like glue, allowing it to scurry straight up a window.”

Gecko toes, when magnified tremendously, consist of millions of hairs each 100 times thinner than a human hair. Like shag carpet, the hairs have a huge surface area of tiny pointed tips that can catch on the smallest flaws in the glass surface. This causes an enormous amount of friction and keeps the foot from slipping.

Which raises an obvious question: If natural structures outperform our best technology, what does that say about the origins of those structures in the first place? While this does not provide an absolute knockdown argument for intelligent design, you can hardly deny the ID-friendly implications of a design approach that looks to natural structures as an ideal template for human technology. Biomimetics and Darwinian evolution are like an unhappy couple in a forced marriage — maybe they can make it work, but biomimetics always wants to be with someone else. That someone else is intelligent design.

Sure, biomimetics might be intuitively design-friendly, but I have a question: if a natural structure is better at doing something than a structure we ourselves can make, does that not make it seem like that structure could not have been designed? That’s another superficially intuitive argument – and not one I would ever defend, because I rate it as at the same level as that of Casey’s: that is, not very persuasive.

In essence, biomimetics says nothing about either evolutionary biology or intelligent design. It’s irrelevant. It only seems related t0 ID because human design is involved in the process – but life isn’t copying design (a far more satisfying intuitive argument for ID can be made on those grounds by proponents, whenever possible), design is copying life, and there isn’t some law of nature that prevents evolutionary mechanisms from finding solutions to biological problems that we humans haven’t thought of yet. Those mechanisms aren’t constrained by culture, technological progress or grant money: they’ll use whatever works whenever they come across it.

This is just another attempt by the Discovery Institute to argue for ID without doing any intellectual heavy-lifting. Argumentum ad intuitus1.

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 A post by David Klinghoffer snuck in again this week, and it is – like before – about Judaism. Enter “”Out of Israel”?”:

Israel’s Qesem Cave is in the news again, offering further tantalizing hints — hints is the very most you could honestly call them — about the origins of modern humans.

Last year a report in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology about several teeth found in the cave near Tel Aviv excited speculation that they belonged to 400,000-year old specimens ofHomo sapiens. If true — if, if, if — that might have suggested a very different story than is usually told about where the first members of our species arose: in the Levant rather than Africa, where the earliest humans, according to conventional interpretations, arose only 200,000 year ago.

We’ve emphasized here again and again the creativity, not in the best sense of the word, that goes into attempted reconstructions of long ago deceased human-like creatures from their pathetically minimal remains. Still there was a certain intrigue in the idea of seeing a very old religious tradition, likewise tracing human origins to Israel, confirmed in an anthropology journal however speculatively and hypothetically. The Midrash and other Jewish sources place the location from which God drew the dust to form Adam and Eve at the site of today’s Temple Mount in Jerusalem while locating their burial cave in Hebron. (The location of the Garden of Eden, where they were taken and quickly expelled, is a different matter.) What this would mean in ordinary historical terms, I don’t know.

Anyway, now a configuration of the same research team, from Tel Aviv University, returns with additional data and interpretation. Writing in PLos ONE, they want to show that the Qesem Cave site provides evidence of the downfall of Homo erectus, having hunted out his local supply of elephants, and replacement by “a new hominin lineage in the Middle Pleistocene (ca. 400 kyr) Levant,” a more nimble and intelligent species better able to seek out fatty nourishment from other sources. So goes the theory, it was the crisis in making a living that drove the evolutionary transition some 400,000 years ago.

Recognizing that identifying anyone or anything by their dentition is tricky to say the least, the team declines to name the Israeli successor to Homo erectus as Homo sapiens but the possibility is clearly what gives the report its special interest.

Very interesting, David. Now, I can’t comment on the plausibility of the conclusions of these studies, but I’m bringing this post up because it’s a great example of the way the ID movement (the Discovery Institute in particular) seems to inconsistently choose a position on whether or not science can support the truth of any particular religious tradition.

It’s been the DI’s line for years that all ID can do is identify that a Designer exists, not tell us who that Designer is (or any of its characteristics – apart from intelligence). But why should ID necessarily stop there, when fields like archaeology and anthropology can potentially support the Old Testament idea that humans arose in Israel, as per David’s hinting? Why can human remains provide evidence for the truth of Judaism or Christianity, but “digital information within cells” can’t? Can science comment on religion or can’t it?

Of course, monotheism is only one potential solution to the question of who ID’s Designer is (given that the Designer even exists at all), but given the clearly Judeo-Christian sympathies of nearly all the Discovery Institute’s fellows and staff, they’re in a position to promote it. And they seem to do just that, with posts like this one – even if they don’t like stating it outright in their secular pro-ID books and websites.

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I can now say that may have – indirectly – helped the Discovery Institute raise money, thanks to this post by the editor of Evolution News & Views:

Even Darwinist critics of intelligent design recognize it: If you want to know what’s going on in the world of ID, if you want the latest news on science — evolution, cosmology, paleontology, every biological field and specialty — unfiltered by the materialist blinders that the rest of the media keep firmly in place, you need to follow what we do here at ENV. There’s no substitute — no book, journal or other website provides the service we do. At the end of this month our writers at ENV will have filed about 600 articles in 2011. That’s a lot of information and reporting and we plan to top ourselves next year.

[Donate button]

But obviously it all doesn’t come free. Well, it comes free to you, every day throughout the rest of the year, valued reader. That’s why we ask you now, as the year winds down, to think about how you’ve benefited from the news and views you find here and here alone, and then donate generously. [Emphasis in original] Support the Center for Science & Culture by clicking on the friendly, helpful button.

We, for our part, will go back to flogging Casey and Jonathan, our tireless and brilliant news gatherers and analysts, and all the top ID scientists who share their thoughts here — Stephen Meyer, Michael Behe, Jonathan Wells, Ann Gauger, Paul Nelson. We will demand greater and greater feats of productivity. More! More! We didn’t give you permission to leave your computer. Write! Report! Analyze! Repeat!

Yes, I’m the “Darwinist critic of intelligent design” they mention, even though I don’t call myself a Darwinist (because I’m not one). I wonder how many donations they procured with this blog post? How influential was my “support”? Did it tip some fence-sitting ID sympathisers into full-scale “Donate Mode”? I hope not.

The sound you probably didn’t just hear was a sigh, emanating from me. This post might be the furthest-most extension of the spin they’ve been putting on my past comments. Well, let’s hope so – I don’t want my face on some Discovery Institute pamphlet in the future.

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Finally this week, Casey Luskin took issue with Richard Dawkins’ latest book, The Magic of Reality - which is aimed at young teenagers. Need more convincing that the Discovery Institute really, really likes to defend religion and supernatural beliefs? Look no further than The Magic of Reality: Richard Dawkins’s Latest Attempt to Produce Young, Angry, New Atheist Clones”:

What do you get when the world’s most influential atheist teams up with a tarot card illustrator to write a book for younger readers? Well, apparently you get a book that accepts scientism on faith, mocks religion, and is full of occult-like imagery. Welcome to Richard Dawkins’s latest salvo, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True.

The stated purpose of The Magic of Reality is to help kids understand both the content and nature of scientific knowledge. The real purpose is to get them to disbelieve in anything supernatural and to associate traditional religious beliefs with wacky superstitions that few have even heard of. Oh yes, you’re also supposed to learn to mock those who disagree with you as “dishonest” and “lying.”

Off to a good start.

The beginning freely associates the God of the Bible (whom Dawkins refers to as “the tribal god YHWH”) with the Greek sun god Helios and the primitive superstitions of the Barotse tribe of southeast Africa (they believe “the sun is the moon’s husband” p. 118). Dawkins wants kids to see them as all the same.

Sorry to be completely “New Atheist” for a second, but on some level, they are. They’re all beliefs in supernatural phenomena. Of course, Casey – being Christian – places his belief in supernatural phenomena above those of others. Quite understandable. But who is he to judge the “primitive superstitions” of the Barotse? Has he investigated their claims? For all he knows, they could be as nuanced and “advanced” as modern Christian theology.

Dawkins on Miracles: They Don’t Happen, Therefore They Don’t Happen

The last chapter of the book, “What is a Miracle?,” is dedicated to teaching kids to disbelieve in miracles. In his signature fashion, Dawkins knocks down wacky straw man examples, like claims that Jesus’s face appeared in toast — the kind of stuff that the average religious believer laughs at. (No joke: you can have Jesus on your toast every day now, with the Jesus Toaster!)

Dawkins then feeds kids shaky logic about why they should never believe in miracles. Taking the tired old Humean approach, he claims that if someone seemingly trustworthy tells you about a miracle, your first inclination should be to believe the person is lying because “the ‘miracle’ of their lying would still be a smaller miracle than the [miracle] they claimed…” (p. 255) But doesn’t this simply assume that miracles don’t happen?

No, it doesn’t.

Say Person B tells Person A that Miracle X occurred. A knows that it’s far more likely, given their previous knowledge of the world and how it works, that B is lying or mistaken than X actually occurred – even taking into account B’s previous track record of telling the truth and perceiving the world accurately. So, given only B’s word, A is rational in disbelieving that X occurred.

However, if A later comes across better, more substantial evidence of X occurring – enough evidence to overturn and revise what they know about the way the world works – it would be rational for A to then believe that X did occur.

I’m fairly confident that Dawkins would agree with me here: I’ll believe a miracle happened, but only if I receive enough evidence to justify that belief.

But Casey continues, apparently aware of this criticism:

Of course it’s good advice not to simply accept without investigation every claim of a miracle. But under all other circumstances you can think of, you would consider the testimony of a sane, credible witness trustworthy. Why not about miracles too? Dawkins wants us to disregard the testimony of such a credible witness, and hold miracles to an unreasonably high standard of proof — a standard unknown in any other human discipline of truth seeking.

This is an elementary lesson of scientific skepticism: human beings are fallible. Very fallible. Many supernatural and paranormal claims are based upon human eyewitness testimony, but since such testimony is rarely accurate, scientific claims can’t be based on them. Skeptics such as myself require a greater quality of evidence than anecdotes before we start accepting such claims.

Casey, I’m fairly sure, does not believe that UFOs (unidentified flying objects – which do exist, as they are merely things that are- well, it’s self-explanatory, really) are extraterrestrial craft. However, many people claim to have seen visual evidence that they are of alien origin, or even claim to have been taken up into the craft and met their pilots. Some of these people don’t seem to have any reason to lie, are perfectly sane and are otherwise “credible”. Based on their testimony, would Casey then start believing that aliens regularly visit the Earth? Probably not. Yet he’s making the same sort of appeal to anecdote when he talks about miracles.

UFOs and theistic/supernatural miracles are qualitatively very similar, in that eyewitness testimony doesn’t cut it as supporting evidence, given their prior implausibility. The sooner Casey realises this, the better off he will be when it comes to determining whether or not it is rational to believe that specific miracles really have occurred.

For more on Casey’s misunderstanding of Hume’s argument against miracles, check out John Pieret’s post over at Thoughts in a Haystack. I recommend it (and the blog itself in general).

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  1. Argumentum ad intuitus – the argument from intuition: often used by intelligent design proponents in place of rigorous reasoning. Examples: “Fact X is ID-friendly”, “Theory Y implies design”, “Data Set Z has obvious ID-friendly implications”. 

    Argumentum ad intuitus forces the audience of the arguer to make the logical connection between evidence and conclusion intuitively. Fact X is ID-friendly insofar as Person A intuitively thinks X provides evidence for ID, even though this has not been supported.

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