This Week in Intelligent Design – 19/02/12

Intelligent design news, commentary and discussion from the 11th of February to the 19th of February, 2012. 

So, it happened again: the Discovery Institute decided to notice something I wrote about them. I’m not sure if it’s because I write for The Panda’s Thumb and they see me as the weakest, undergraduate link in its strong chain of esteemed, proper biologists, or because my criticisms of their ideas are annoying, but they seem to focus on me quite a lot. Ah well, any recognition is good recognition, right?

This week I’ll be focusing mostly in their response to me, but also on the Discovery Institute’s move into the iAge (which must be very exciting for them), as well as a curious post that highlights yet another major problem with the way the intelligent design movement operates.


A few days ago I published a post called ““Pro-ID”, “endorse ID” and “ID-friendly” – Holy terminological ambiguity, Batman!” (it was also cross-posted to The Panda’s Thumb), which was a response to this post by Casey Luskin on Evolution News & Views. Well, true to ENV form, I’ve received a response: not from Casey, but from the faceless main account of the blog. Clearly ol’ Casey is busy with more important things. I understand, don’t worry.

We check in on the pro-Darwin bloggers at Panda’s Thumb regularly and always look forward to another post from Jack Scanlan. You may remember he’s the one who is always threatening to read and review Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell when he finally gets some free time.

I’m flattered they remember me, but I’m more interested in what was written next:

Now Scanlan’s back again and warning that he may someday get around to reading our updated list of pro-ID peer-reviewed scientific publications:

Now, this post is not about to dissect all 50+ citations, that’s for someone else (or me, if I ever get some free time) to do at another time, but I would like to look at exactly how Casey describes the way these papers, even if they don’t mention it by name, “endorse” ID.

Scanlan has an issue with Casey Luskin’s describing the papers in question as “pro-ID” when many, instead of making a positive case for intelligent design, actually focus on Darwinism’s inadequacy in explaining crucial features of life.

But this objection makes no sense.

ID, like Darwinian theory, has a positive and a negative aspect. Saying that life’s development, from non-existent to simple to complex, is best explained as the product of either intelligent design or purposeless Darwinian churning assumes that you are making a comparison between competing hypotheses. Defending either theory, Darwin or Design, means you have to argue for your explanation and against others.

That’s what it means to saying one idea is “better” than another. How can Scanlan not understand that?

How can I not, indeed.

Putting aside that they never mentioned my other arguments, such as that the work of Michael Behe, Douglas Axe and others is not based on ID predictions, they have a little bit of point here. It may be that for “ID” (whatever they decide to define it as1 ) to be true, “Darwinism” (whatever they decide to define it as, too2 ) must be false. But just because, realistically, when you test a hypothesis it must be compared to another, it doesn’t mean that the failure of the alternative hypothesis is an automatic victory for the one you’re proposing. “Darwinism” being incompatible with the data doesn’t mean “ID” wins. It means “ID” could win, because it’s not ruled out by “Darwinism” being true, but it needs to experience positive support too.

This is noticeable in the pre-existing evolutionary biology literature. If the Discovery Institute’s model for how science progresses is true, then modern evolutionary hypotheses and broader theories should be tested, at least in part, by comparing themselves to “ID” and ruling it out, before trying to see if positive evidence exists to support them. But, demonstrably, this does not occur. Why? Because evolutionary biologists have found numerous ways in which to find positive support for their ideas3. They’re running statistical tests, finding examples of hypothetical processes in nature and in the lab at every level of biological organisation, from the ecosystem right down to the molecular world of chromosomes, and just generally being productive. They’re not content with evolution simply being “better”, they want it to be fully fleshed out and complete: the “best” it can possibly be.

Not so with ID. Researchers and writers self-identified as “pro-ID” seem happy to spend more time attacking what they see as a competing framework of thinking than developing their own framework into something that can stand on its own, without being rhetorically propped-up by unrelenting assaults on the last 150 years of biological research. They have precious little, if any, positive evidence for ID, yet they shield this fact by “competing with Darwinism”.

That’s not a good way to do science. How can the Discovery Institute not understand that?


Phew. That was a little heavy, so onto something slightly fatuous: wow, the Discovery Institute has an iOS app! Yep, that’s right, now you can view what is essentially the content of Evolution News & Views (plus podcasts) from your iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad. Wow!

Not only is this app pretty to look at, it’s the smartest, easiest, and most compact way yet to keep up to date with headlines from ENV, podcasts from ID the Future, videos on evolution, ID, science more generally, academic freedom, education, faith and science and more.

Let’s say you find yourself in a friendly argument on Darwin v. Design with a new acquaintance who’s in desperate need of enlightenment. What could be more effective than to pull out your iPhone and show him with a couple of touches to the screen how very wrong he is?

Now I may have come across as a little sarcastic before (mainly because I was trying to), but if you’re a masochist like me, I actually recommend downloading it, if only because it will be guaranteed to infuriate you whenever you have the time to look at it. Plus, it’s free, so you can sleep well knowing you aren’t financially supporting the Discovery Institute.


Finally this week, I want to look at an interesting post by David Klinghoffer, which contains a curious example of the kind of thing plaguing the intelligent design movement: vagueness and opportunistic criticism.

When I was growing up in Southern California, pretty much my favorite field trip was to the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, tomb of countless prehistoric animals that got stuck in the tar to be dug up later as fossils, for the wonderment of visiting school kids. The ongoing excavations have since been supplemented by a spiffy museum.

From the other side of a fence on Wilshire you can see the life-size models of a mammoth caught and doomed to drown in the tar as another adult and baby mammoth look on. It’s an L.A. landmark – and a nice illustration of one problem that bedevils Darwinian theory.

Commemorating “Darwin’s Legacy” for the website, paleontologist and harsh intelligent-design critic Donald Prothero writes, based on his own work there, about the funny way the animals dredged up from the tar have of staying static over vast stretches of time. That is despite radically alternating environmental conditions of the kind that should stimulate some evolutionary action. The more things change the more they stay the same.

The tone of this piece is strange. As has been slowly discovered over the past two decades, intelligent design proponents do not actually believe that all of evolutionary biology is nonsense. Even young-Earth creationists must believe in some form of diversification and speciation for their post-flood model to make any sense at all (which is hard, believe me). ID proponents obviously do believe that natural selection exists and that populations of organisms can adapt to changing environments. So why is David seemingly delighting in the fact that adaptation never occurred around the La Brea Tar Pits? Surely he, if asked ahead of hearing about these findings, would have predicted some changes in the animals would have taken place to cope with environmental flux, even if he believed those changes somehow involved the action of a Designer.

It makes sense when you consider the ID movement’s modus operandi: discredit evolutionary explanations for biological phenomena whenever possible, whatever the implications. After all, the less that evolution is seen to be a valid and productive scientific theory, the more that ID will seem to be a better option. This is the two-model approach and it’s as transparent as… well, you know.

To make matters even more damning, the Discovery Institute has been recently singing the praises of epigenetics, which it claims has the potential to destroy “Darwinism” once and for all (for some reason). But epigenetics is all about heritable changes in gene expression based on nucleotide methylation and modification of histones, which don’t alter the underlying nucleotide sequences of alleles, but nonetheless (potentially) allow a phenotypic response system to environmental changes without going through a population genetic approach of mutation and fixation.

Such a dynamic response system, instead of “Darwinian” mechanisms, could have produced useful phenotypic changes in the La Brea Tar Pit animals in the face of their rapidly changing environment. So why would an ID proponent get so excited about such changes not being observed? Curious.

The answer is that people like David will latch onto anything that seemingly contradicts the “orthodoxy” of evolutionary biology, even if those things contradict each other or something else that they believe. Modern evolutionary biology being wrong is so important to them that they’ll accept almost anything for another chance to sound its death knell.

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  1. Intelligent design is an extremely vague concept when you get down to it. At its most basic level, it means that some intelligence acted sometime to do something – nothing is specified except for the causal agent being intelligent. As such, in what way can we say that ID is incompatible with evolutionary theory? ID could explain some features of the biological world, whilst evolution could explain others. Proponents of ID rarely try to rigorously define what it is trying to explain.
  2. Is “Darwinism” strict Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms? Or is it all evolutionary mechanisms that are naturalistic? Must it claim to explain every aspect of life, or only certain things?
  3. Also, “ID” isn’t well-defined enough to be ruled out.

One thought on “This Week in Intelligent Design – 19/02/12

  1. Jack Scanlan: “So why would an ID proponent get so excited about such changes not being observed? Curious.”

    C’mon, you know. It’s one of those bones they throw to their Biblical literalist fans. The “created kinds” thing that they know ain’t so, and occasionally (usually Behe) even admit it. ID is a “big tent” scam that originated as “don’t ask, don’t tell what happened when” creationism before the “cdesign proponentsists” “transitional fossil.”

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