This [TIME PERIOD] in Intelligent Design – 10/02/12

Intelligent design news, commentary and discussion from the 17th of December, 2011 to the 10th of February, 2012.

Huh? Intelligent design, what’s that? Oh, oh, yes. Yes, you’re quite right. I’m sorry, I’ve been out of the loop a bit and I’d forgotten this little movement I like to keep an eye on from time to time. Well, it’s actually supposed to be a weekly thing, but… things have been crazy around here. Leave me alone, I’m a university student on holidays, I have no time to do anything.

Anyway, what has the intelligent design community been up to online since we last saw them? Not a huge amount, actually, although certainly more stuff than is feasibly possible to fit into one blog post. So, like normal, I’ll skim off the cream floating at the top of this ID think-tank and have a peer into the beaker I used to do it.

This time we’ll be looking at speciation, the glowing past and future of ID, ID as a default assumption in science, appeals to historical authority, and the Discovery Institute distancing themselves from a creationist bill in Indiana.

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First up is one of the more confusing series of blog posts on Evolution News & Views in the past year: namely, Casey Luskin’s attack on the concept of speciation. He posted a PDF of a long-form response to the TalkOrigins Speciation FAQ, which was then split into six posts on ENV.

Why is this confusing? The thing is, Casey doesn’t seem to have any particular goal here, apart from simply casting aspersions on TalkOrigins as a reliable source of information. ID doesn’t really make any predictions about the existence of natural speciation – and if we assume that all ID proponents are young-Earth creationists, as some people (wrongly) think, their beliefs would require speciation to have taken place, diversifying the original “kinds” of organisms created by God into the species we see today1.

Perhaps I’m being presumptuous about Casey’s motives. Let’s see what he actually thinks is wrong with the FAQ (emphases in original):

After analyzing a large portion of the technical literature cited in the FAQ, this review finds that the FAQ’s claims are incorrect. For example:

  • NOT ONE of the examples studied documents the origin of large-scale biological change.
  • The vast majority of the examples do NOT even show the production of new species, where a “species” is defined by the standard definition of a “reproductively isolated population.”
  • Only one single example in the FAQ shows the production of a new plant species via hybridization and polyploidy, but this example does not entail significant biological change.
  • Only one of the examples purports to document the production of a reproductively isolated population of animals – however this example is overturned by a later study not mentioned in the FAQ.
  • Thus, not a single bona fide example of speciation in animals — e.g. the establishment of a completely reproductively isolated population — was found.

I should note from the outset that my purpose is not to deny that speciation can occur in nature, especially when it is defined merely as a reproductively isolated population. When trying to assess the creative power of the Darwinian mechanism, that definition is trivial. Rather, my purpose is to test the FAQ’s claims. In that regard, if the FAQ is correct that “Many researchers feel that there are already ample reports [of speciation] in the literature,” then an analysis of the literature cited in the FAQ suggests those researchers are wrong.

He says he wants to “test the FAQ’s claims”, but to what end? Even if the examples of speciation given are flawed, incorrectly interpreted, or even fabricated, what does that say about evolutionary theory? Casey even admits that the natural production of reproductively isolated populations of organisms is “trivial”, yet he makes a big deal about the FAQ not establishing that such a thing has been observed to occur. The whole exercise seems to be a giant non sequitur.

Speaking of non sequiturs, his first point in the quote above, about “the origin of large-scale biological change” is a concept not mentioned in the FAQ and is therefore not the focus of it. Speciation does not necessarily entail such change, and vice versa. I’m guessing Casey probably knows this and added it in for rhetorical strength – but if he doesn’t, I’m not sure he’s qualified to write such scathing reviews of TalkOrigins.

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Another theme of discussion over at ENV around the end of the year was the future of the ID movement: has it been successful so far? Will it fade out? How will the evitable ID-centric paradigm shift in biology affect us all? The only person for the job was Casey Luskin, of course, and he assured us that everything was, is, and will be fine:

Critics of ID who fume on the Internet, preach in university classrooms, and feign knowledge and authority in the media love to proclaim that the ID movement is dead. As their story goes, in 2005 a federal judge ruled in the Kitzmiller v. Dover lawsuit that ID is religion and thus unconstitutional to teach in public schools. This supposedly dealt a “deathblow” to the ID movement, which according to critics, has since lost momentum and all but dissipated.

This tall tale may reassure the barons in the ivory tower that they need no longer fear the barbarians at the gate. But those who actually follow the ID movement and know the facts about the debate understand that the critics’ preferred narrative could not be further from the truth.

ID’s Scientific Renaissance
Despite what you hear — or don’t hear — from critics (especially those in the media), the past 5 to 10 years have been a boom period for pro-ID scientific research and peer-reviewed scientific publications.

[...]

ID’s record shows it deserves — and is increasingly receiving — serious consideration by the scientific community. This is seen too in the fact that pro-ID research conferences have taken place worldwide over the past few years where pro-ID scientists have presented their research in fields such as genetics, biochemistry, engineering, and computer science.

Contrary to what Casey thinks, having a few peer-reviewed papers published does not a seriously considered hypothesis make. The broad trend over the past 10-15 years is that the ID community has become insular, organising its own conferences, inviting its own people and talking about their own ideas, with little outside input. Any “pro-ID” (a nebulous concept at best, considering the Discovery Institute will claim any paper that potentially casts doubt on any area of modern evolutionary theory as “pro-ID”, when in fact they contain no positive arguments for – and fail to mention – ID at all) paper not published in an in-house journal like BIO-Complexity is usually published in a low-tier journal with sympathetic editors at the helm. Exceptions to this trend are few in number and are torn to shreds by the biological community as soon as they see the light of day.

Books don’t really count.

It’s rather safe to say that ID hasn’t had a significant impact on the academic ideas pervading the biological community.

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Moving forward a little in time, this post, “Intelligent Design at the Frontier of Astrobiology and Biophysics”, caught my eye for one rather large reason. See if you can spot it:

Since Louis Pasteur discovered chirality in the late 19th century, design-friendly scientists have used the 100% homochiral aspect of biomolecules as an argument for design. Today’s ID advocates can say it matches the requirements for specified complexity.

First, it’s highly improbable: getting a chain of 100 left-handed amino acids for a small protein without design would be like tossing a coin and getting 100 heads in a row. Second, it matches the requirement for functional specification, because homochiral polymers are better suited for the elaborate folds needed for protein machines and the coding in the double helix of DNA. Even one wrong-handed amino acid can destroy a protein’s function. Accordingly, living cells actively maintain homochirality by repairing wrong-handed chiral molecules or rejecting them.

To date, all attempts to explain this phenomenon have been unsuccessful. Jones admits as much: “No one knows why.” If history is a guide, any physical preference for one hand, called enantiomeric excess, is likely to be very small — too small to make a difference. Barring a “new physics” able to account for homochirality by undirected physical causes, ID advocates can and should continue to point to the phenomenon as an example of specified complexity best explained by intelligent design.

A more unbiased scientific world would naturally give ID the edge for these two frontier experiments. ID should be the default position till demonstrated otherwise. Anything else would be like requiring racing enthusiasts to wager on the blind, lame horse lying on the ground at the starting gate, when overwhelming odds favor Secretariat. A hasty apology is in order for this simplistic analogy. The situation for naturalism is actually far, far worse.

Did you see it? Why yes, it was this delicious phrase that stopped me in my RSS-reading tracks:

ID should be the default position till demonstrated otherwise.

What?! No. Just no. Science doesn’t work like that, guys. There is no such thing as a “default position” in science: every hypothesis needs to be supported by evidence rather than simply being assumed true until shown otherwise.

Of course, ENV may not have been imply that. They may have meant that ID is supported by more of the evidence at this time, so it should be the favoured hypothesis bases solely on the weight of data. But even then, they fail to show why the data is predicted by their ID hypothesis, given that their version of ID – sans knowable intent – is congruent with any data set.

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Last month was a funny time for appeals to historical authority, on the part of the ID movement, and by that I mean they wouldn’t stop trying to get great figures of history – long-dead – into their intellectual camp. What this proves, of course, is nothing: what an ancient scholar thought of an idea is irrelevant if the idea is objectively terrible.

It didn’t stop Michael Flannery, supposed Alfred Russel Wallace expert and ID proponent, and Michael Shermer, well-known skeptic and dirty “Darwinist”, having a debate about whether or not Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection (along with Charles Darwin), would be an ID proponent if he were alive today.

I’m quite frankly shocked that Shermer even wanted to take part in such a thing, as association with the Discovery Institute has long been recognised by scientists and skeptics as a bad idea. But nonetheless, he did. The outcome was apparently a flawless victory for Flannery, but it should have been an empty one: who cares what Wallace thought about ID in the 19th century? Historically it’s interesting, certainly, but it has no scientific weight.

But it wasn’t just Alfred Russel Wallace who was being intellectually exhumed: C. S. Lewis was also a target, with John G. West, Discovery Institute fellow, debating Dr. Michael Peterson just this week on the topic of what the famous writer and Christian apologetic really thought about evolutionary biology.

Again though, who cares? Historical figures, no matter how influential or renowned they were during their life, necessarily drew conclusions about the world based on the data they had access to at the time. C. S. Lewis, who died in 1963, would have missed out on nearly 50 years of scientific thought and data collection in the field of evolutionary biology if he was suddenly brought back to life this very second. He also was not a scientist and I doubt there is therefore much reason to think that he was particularly well-read in the biological sciences.

However, point-scoring with historical figures looks good, so it’s easy to understand why the Discovery Institute tries to retroactively baptise notable persons into their folds. But that’s really no excuse.

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The final topic I’ll touch on this week is something both marvellously ironic but also quite sensible. A bill passing though the Indiana political system at the moment is attempting to allow the teaching of traditional creationism in public schools, and you might be surprised to hear that the Discovery Institute is criticising the bill:

bill approved yesterday by the Indiana Senate to allow the teaching of creationism in public schools is being criticized as bad science education by Discovery Institute, the nation’s leading intelligent design think tank.

If made law, Indiana Senate Bill 89 (SB89) would allow creationism, a religious view on the origin of species, into the Hoosier state’s biology classrooms. In 1987, the Supreme Court struck down similar legislation as an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Instead of scrapping SB89 in deference to legal precedent, the Indiana Senate has amended the bill to allow more religious views on origins, as if more religion could cure the original problem.

“Instead of injecting religion into biology classes, legislators should be working to promote the inclusion of more science,” said Joshua Youngkin, a law and policy analyst at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture. “There are plenty of scientific criticisms of Darwin’s theory today, and science students should be able to hear about them, not about religion.”