These Weeks in Intelligent Design – 07/03/12

Intelligent design news, commentary and discussion from the 20th of February to the 7th of March, 2012. 

Semester 1 of my 3rd year of university started last week, so I’ve suddenly found myself with coursework to pore over. Likewise, the Discovery Institute seems to have kicked itself into a high gear, publishing a larger-than-average number of articles about numerous different topics, all of which just so happen to be rather important and weighty. Ah well, someone’s got to cover them, my own studies of evolutionary genetics be damned.

This week I’ll be looking at how the ID movement views the relationships between science, religion and politics, how it operates with respect to criticising evolutionary biology and supporting its own ideas, and how it deals with the “bad design” objection from critics of ID.

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David Klinghoffer recently wrote a post on Evolution News & Views celebrating the launch of Discovery Institute senior fellow Jay Richards’ new book Indivisible: Restoring Faith, Family and Freedom Before It’s Too Late. I think it’s quite clear what the book is about: the merging of the religious and political realms. Now, a senior fellow of an organisation writing a book with a specific contention does not necessarily mean that the organisation endorses that contention, but in this case it’s obvious the Discovery Institute is 100% on board with Richards’ ideas:

Readers of ENV will know Dr. Richards as a wonderfully illuminating and entertaining writer and explainer especially of all things touching on the relation of science to faith. Making the case that a society’s economic flourishing is “indivisible” from its moral values, the book may seem off-topic for us here. But it emphatically isn’t.

Discovery Institute, our institutional home, is unique among think tanks in being organized around the insight that every aspect of public and private existence follows from the fundamental question of how people in a society understand what it means to be a human being.

Are men just a species of hairless ape bearing no signs of ultimate purpose or design, or do we contain a spark of something transcendent? [Emphasis mine – Jack] For a given culture, no question is further “upstream” than that. From our answer to it flow a myriad of attitudes that determine what it will be like to live in that culture — whether humane or degraded, rich or void in meaning, creative or barren, prosperous or wretched, safe or imperiled [sic].

“Ultimate purpose”? “Transcendent”?  That’s very religious language. Note that ID proponents have, many times, stated that ID doesn’t necessarily propose a supernatural Designer (and I agree with them), but they just can’t seem to be consistent with this message. The Designer always turns out to be divine in the Judeo-Christian  sense, at least when they describe it in their own words in more private settings.

So not only is the Discovery Institute a conservative think tank (we all knew that, right?), it seems to fundamentally contend that religious faith, politics and science are “indivisible” from each other, which is a far more extreme position than mere political conservatism. Leaving aside the theocratic problems with merging religion and politics, this conflation of science with religion reveals (again) just how religious their motivations behind ID are. Yet this conflicts with their public message of ID as a secular scientific theory. How is one to interpret these mixed signals?

The most likely possibility is that they just don’t care. They have their set audience – religious people who either already agree with them or are very close to agreeing with them – and they know that religious language and appeals to socially conservative, “Religious Right” ideas will keep them happy, whilst their press releases, involvements in legal battles and educational reforms, and official definitions all repeat the definition of ID as a secular hypothesis with no influence from religion, so they have something to point to when scientists claim that ID is simply the latest incarnation of traditional US creationism and anti-evolutionism.

History shows that this strategy has had mixed results. People with knowledge about the legal battles over creationism in the last 40 years are able to identify the ID movement’s religious motivations immediately, as are savvy members of the public. Once identified, this knowledge can be passed on relatively easily to many people, as has been done through some branches of the media (including popular science magazines) and organisations such as the NCSE. However, people with a peripheral or non-existent involvement in any of the past disputes (and who haven’t been reached by the NCSE) look to the Discovery Institute and see a scientific organisation being hammered by the academic community for the non-crime of having a new idea. Those with Christian viewpoints may look below the surface and see (very obvious) subtext that they agree with, giving them even more incentive to fight for the ID movement’s “academic freedom”. Most won’t. But the public loves an underdog being treated unfairly, giving the Discovery Institute a good amount of inherent public support.

This is something that people involved with the battle against intelligent design have known for years, and this “exposé” is unlikely to change anything: people with the power to protest and fight against ID are already using this knowledge, and those in the ID movement have their standard retorts to it. But if you’re new to all this, er, I hope you learnt something important.

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The next thing I want to touch on is not one post, but three: one by Granville Sewell, another by David Klinghoffer, and the last by the anonymous editor of Evolution News & Views. They each seem to be about a different topic – thermodynamics, the origin of language, and epigenetics – but they’re actually very closely linked to each other. Why? Because taken together they reveal the pattern of “dissent” from modern evolutionary theory that the Discovery Institute takes – and guess what? The pattern isn’t so much a pattern as it is a hodge-podge of shots fired randomly and sometimes unthinkingly.

As I discussed in the last TWiID, modern opposition to evolutionary biology is far from organised. Of course, I don’t mean “not organised” in the sense that organisations don’t exist to further the goal of destroying the education and public acceptance of evolution1, but in the sense that most ID proponents aren’t quite sure what they disagree with when it comes to evolution: except that intelligence must have played a role in the history of life somewhere.

This leads to many disparate, and sometimes conflicting, arguments against “Darwinism” from the ID camp. Take Granville Sewell’s argument from the second law of thermodynamics: on its face, it seems to state that evolution of any kind cannot occur, because it would mean that (locally) entropy would be decreasing. However, he has been clear to point out that he doesn’t make that argument, simply that he believes “the increase in order observed on Earth (and here alone, as far as we know) violates the laws of probability and the second law of thermodynamics in a spectacular fashion” because the claim that “ANYTHING can happen in an open system, even the rearrangement of atoms into computers, without violating the second law” is untrue.

So his real argument is that local decreases in entropy do not allow for anything at all to occur. Well, sure! That’s pretty reasonable. I wouldn’t expect that locally decreasing the entropy in my room would produce a cat spontaneously appearing on my bed, that’s absurd. For that to occur, a local decrease in entropy is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. There would need to be some physical, chemical or biological process that would cause the cat to appear, and that’s the real reason the scenario is absurd: such a process probably doesn’t exist.

Similarly, simply stating that the local decrease in entropy on the Earth via solar radiation is sufficient for the diversification of life to occur is incorrect: there also needs to be a plausible process that can use that decreased entropy in a productive way. Evolutionary mechanisms comprise that process.

But that Sewell’s argument is horribly flawed isn’t the issue here (although I really wanted to make sure everyone knew why it’s terrible). The real issue is the fact that if it were true, all evolutionary processes could not occur, contradicting many ID arguments about the amount of change possible given an ID-centric view of life’s evolution. Likewise, the “No Free Lunch” arguments of William Dembski seem to deny that natural selection as an evolutionary mechanism doesn’t work – which is both demonstrably false and contradicts the beliefs of many ID proponents.

While Sewell’s argument deals directly with the mechanistic details of how evolution occurs, David Klinghoffer is taking issue with the naturalistic origin of language:

A technical comment in Science shows how quickly an evolutionary just-so-story can unravel (“Comment on ‘Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa,'” February 10, 2012). Quentin Atkinson, last year in the same journal, had proposed the striking and suspiciously neat theory that worldwide linguistic evidence, based on the size of the phonemic toolbox of languages around the world, showed that language had originated in western African between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago.

[…]

The problem is this turns out to be a bit of a fable, based on partial and imperfectly analyzed evidence, as Michael Cysouw and his colleagues show in hardly more than a page.

[…]

It’s always tempting to see that one pattern in the carpet and miss all the rest. In fact, we don’t know where language originated.

Huh? How does evidence against the hypothesis that the origin of language occurred in Africa undermine evolutionary theory? Cultural evolution is most likely very different to genetic evolution, considering most of our language skills come from our environment as learned behaviours and are not influenced by inherited genetic information. An infant born to English-speaking parents from a long and proud English-speaking background would probably have no more trouble learning Japanese from its foster parents after its biological parents died in a tragic ballooning accident than learning English like it would have if the hot air balloon carrying its parents had not spontaneously caught fire whilst floating over a harsh and an unforgiving mountain range in the middle of winter.

Klinghoffer’s basically just desperately trying to find something in the human origins literature that doesn’t add up, pointing to counterarguments and yelling “See! See! They sometimes get it wrong, therefore… sometimes they get it wrong!” This is the perfect example of the hodge-podge approach to “dissenting from Darwin”: disprove a hypothesis, imply it’s typical of all evolutionary hypotheses, and relish in your rhetorical victory.

Another example of this is ENV‘s recent post on epigenetics shaping the phenotype of the modern domesticated chicken. While this is interesting in and of itself, the message was twisted to somehow count as a strike against Darwinian evolutionary explanations. Hmm. When genetic drift is found to be the cause of allele frequency changes in a case study, it doesn’t count against selection as a perfectly valid explanation in other cases – so similarly, epigenetic changes (changes in gene expression due to chemical modification of nucleotides or histone proteins) accounting for some phenotypic changes in some cases does not mean that nucleotide sequence changes suddenly lose explanatory power when it comes to explaining the majority of evolutionary change.

So why push the point that epigenetics and Darwinian mechanisms sit opposed to each other? They’re both examples of ways that phenotypes can change through generations of organisms. Nothing supernatural/intelligent to see here, folks! The rhetorical strategy being pushed here is simple, however: define evolutionary biology as relying solely on Darwinian mechanisms, like natural selection, and then show how research is revealing that non-Darwinian evolution occurs as well. Shock! Looks like Darwin was wrong all along! The orthodoxy is crumbling!

The truth is that Darwin didn’t get it all right (and no one expected him to) – there are indeed other evolutionary mechanisms besides natural selection, such as genetic drift (which can have surprising consequences in various situations), endosymbiosis, horizontal gene transfer, and yes, epigenetic change too. But they come together to explain evolutionary change, they don’t fight amongst themselves in the academic literature for the “one, true evolutionary mechanism”. That’s ridiculous.

The Discovery Institute will embrace anything that vaguely challenges the primacy of Darwinian evolutionary mechanisms, even if evolutionary biologists accepted them decades ago or they contradict the ID movement’s own ideas. So next time you hear them claim that “Darwinism” is being overturned, it’s probably best to just look the other way and read up on your current journal subscriptions.

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Bad design! It’s a classic argument from critics of ID, so much so that ID proponents have grown somewhat tired of responding to it. Casey Luskin and David Klinghoffer were no exception when they wrote about the challenges they had received from Keith Gilmour, the author of the website The Centre for Unintelligent Design. Casey writes:

As a science, ID doesn’t address theological questions about whether the design is “desirable,” “undesirable,” “perfect,” or “imperfect.” Undesirable design is still design. Gilmour just doesn’t like it because (in his own subjective view) it’s undesirable.

Why are questions about the perfection of design necessarily theological? Isn’t non-divine design a possibility. I guess so, but Casey keeps forgetting that.

Anyway, I would write on this topic for hours, but I already have. This is, of course, another case of the timeless “Bad Design Paradox”: either ID is scientific and includes testable predictions about the Designer’s characteristics through the examination of the design in question, or ID is unscientific and holds off on identifying anything about the Designer2. You can’t really have a scientific ID that shuns all discussion about the characteristics of the Designer, like Casey and Klinghoffer are trying to do.

Hopefully the dialogue between Keith Gilmour and the Discovery Institute continues: I’m interested to see where it’ll head.

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  1. They clearly do – see the Discovery Institute, Answers in Genesis, Creation Ministries International, the Institute for Creation Research, etc.
  2. This is for various reasons – mostly because ID proponents don’t like to stray into what is often theological territory, simply because nearly all of them think the Designer is a deity, but also because they’d find it almost impossible to guess about the motives of a being they don’t really understand.

One thought on “These Weeks in Intelligent Design – 07/03/12

  1. I like your phrase "the Bad Design Paradox." You are right that ID cannot make predictions unless it draws analogies between the Intelligent Designer and human designers. But, I would go farther and say that ID is all based on circular logic, as I'll explain.

    First of all, when IDologues say "We predict that if life were intellligently designed, there should be specified complexity in living things," they call that a "SCIENTIFIC HYPOTHESIS." It's based on an ANALOGY between the Intelligent Designer (name withheld, but rhymes with Todd) and human designers, who create things that allegedly have specified complexity, whatever that is. (Two problems with this are that "specified complexity" is defined in a biased ad hoc fashion, and some humans design things that are simple, elegant, and/or look totally natural, like Japanese garden designers. But I digress…)

    But when evolutionists say, "OK, let's assume you're right and let's assume life was intelligently designed. How much foresight did the Intelligent Designer have? How far did he plan into the future? Living things are full of kludges, structures that started out with one purpose and had stuff added on clumsily to give it a new purpose, like the five-fingered hand becoming a wing which becomes a penguin's flipper, or the flipper on a whale, or the wing being used by flightless birds for display and balance, the vestigial hind limbs in embryonic dolphins … So he didn't plan very far ahead…"

    Then IDologues say, "I'm shocked, SHOCKED that you have brought your RELIGION into a SCIENCE DISCUSSION! You are making METAPHYSICAL ASSUMPTIONS about the purposes of the Intelligent Designer! Maybe the Intelligent Designer likes poorly designed things. Let's leave your RELIGION out of this!"

    So: an analogy between the Intelligent Designer (rhymes with Todd) and human designers is:

    1. A scientific assumption if ID proponents make it.
    2. A METAPHYSICAL assumption if evolutionists make it.

    But why is it "physical" when IDologues do it, and "Metaphysical" when evolutionists do it?

    For another example, consider that some humans design things that are simple, elegant, and/or look totally natural, like Japanese gardens. But IDolgues assume a baroque Christian god who wants to "show off", not a Japanese gardener god who is subtle and elegant and tries to be invisible. This assumption about the Intelligent Designer is "scientific" not "metaphysical", because assumptions are "scientific" when ID proponents assume them.

    So OK, it's all about argument from authority. We have to trust what the ID priesthood tells us is "scientific" because they're the authorities and they say so. But why do they say so? Next let's ask: why does the priesthood of ID officially approve some analogies, but dismiss others?

    IDologues ONLY regard analogies between "Todd" and human designers as "approved", if living things share a given property with human artifacts. If living things DIFFER in some property from human artifacts, then the analogy between "Todd" and human designers is disapproved– a "Metaphysical assumption".

    Or to put it more succinctly: how do IDologues determine whether an analogy between "Todd" and human designers is approved (scientific) or invalid and religious (metaphysical)? They can only determine what to approve by first checking the properties of living things and comparing them against human artifacts.

    1. If living things share a property with human artifacts (e.g. many interacting parts), the analogy is approved.
    2. If living things differ in a property from human artifacts (e.g. kludgy, lack of foresight, liable to extinction), the analogy is invalid ("metaphysical").

    ID cannot make predictions unless it draws analogies between "Todd" and human designers. But they determine which analogies should be "officially approved" from the observed properties of living things; then they compare living things against ONLY the properties derived from their "officially approved" analogies… the "approval" of which was based on the known properties of living things.

    Circular logic. Therefore, it can never be disproven.

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