Introduction to Intelligent Design, Alastair Noble (review)

Summary: a doctrine that doesn’t deliver, the usual rhetorical tricks, begging the question, ignoring the evidence, distorting the science, and leaving all the work still to do.

I promised friends I would review this, so here it is.  Fortunately, a paragraph by paragraph review has already been carried out by my BCSE colleague, Dr Robert Saunders, Reader in Molecular Genetics at the Open University, so I can be brief.

A doctrine that doesn’t deliver

NoblePamphletThis pamphlet is indeed a worthy introduction to what now goes by the name of Intelligent Design. Quote mining, baseless claims, ignoring of established facts, repetition of long exploded arguments, and, at the heart of it all, a purported explanation of phenomena that proves on examination to explain nothing. All as a thinly disguised excuse to discard what we actually know about deep evolution and, in the ID movement on this side of the Atlantic at least, about deep time.

Now to detail. First, the virtues of this pamphlet. It is short; the text runs to less than 16 pages. It clearly and undeniably exemplifies the logic, and rhetorical devices, of the contemporary Intelligent Design movement. despite a £2 pricetag, it cost me nothing, having been given away at Dr Noble’s recent talk at Al’ Furqan Masjid Community Hall in Glasgow, organised through Scotland’s Interfaith Council (a charity that receives public funds). And it contains three arguments with which, as Dr Noble might be surprised to learn, I agree. I agree with his claim that we do not know the origin of life. I also agree that that science should not restrict itself a priori to natural causes. In my only professional level publication on the philosophy of science, I argue that, on the contrary, our preference for natural causes is based on experience. And I also agree with Dr Noble that the multiverse hypothesis is highly speculative, that we lack the means to test it, and that fine tuning continues to present an interesting challenge.

Next, everything else. Note that what follows applies to the 2013 print edition. Online and earlier versions may differ; I have not checked.

The usual rhetorical tricks

Problems start in the first paragraph. About the Author describes Dr Noble as “a professional adviser to secondary school teachers.” This is disingenuous. He is the Director of the Centre for Intelligent Design, not a disinterested author. But that’s a small matter.

We rapidly move on to the now traditional list of Great Scientists who believed in an Almighty Creator. And so they did. So, as I have explained here and here respectively, did James Hutton, originator of our modern concept of deep time, and, at the time when he wrote On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin (Autobiography p. 93). So do many distinguished contemporary evolutionary biologists, ranging from the Evangelical Francis Collins to the Catholic Ken Miller, whom I will be mentioning again in this review. I wonder why the ID crowd never talk about any of these.

Then the next traditional feature, the Mined Quote. So we have Einstein, although Noble is surely aware that Einstein regarded belief in Noble’s kind of God as infantile. We even have what Michael Denton wrote in 1985, ignoring the fact that his views had changed dramatically by 1998. And of course the claim, which has been around since the 1920s, that more and more scientists are abandoning naturalistic evolution in favour of supernatural processes.

Next, the key assertions, on which the entire theory (if that is not too kind a term) depends. The first assertion is that complexity is evidence of design; the second and third, discussed below, are that information can only arise through the operation of an intelligence, and that some biological functions are “irreducibly complex” and thus could not have arisen through evolution. The first assertion runs something like this: we accept that complex artefacts are designed, and hence can infer that biological complexity likewise involves design. Expressed as a syllogism

Safety razors (Noble’s example) are complex, well adapted to function, and designed.

Living things are complex and well adapted to function.

Therefore living things are designed.

This is essentially Paley’s argument, which Darwin himself found impressive as an undergraduate (Autobiography, pp. 59, 87). However, the entire point of natural selection is that it explains how living things can become well adapted to function, without the intervention of a designer, and the entire history of life is a story of how this has happened. ID’s immediate appeal to a principle of design rules out at a stroke everything that has been gained by two centuries of investigation.

Begging the question

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.” (Descent of Man, 1871)

To bolster his claim, Noble repeatedly asserts that random change cannot generate what William Dembski has called “complex specified information”, and even goes so far as to say (p. 9) that “We know that information can only arise from prior intelligence”. He admits that evolution can function up to a point, which he calls “microevolution”, but (p. 28) makes a bizarre assertion that “Microevolution necessarily involves an overall reduction in the amount of genetic information.” This is false. Some information may be lost when less fit variants within a population tend to die out, but we know that information content is being continuously replenished by mutation, at the same time that it is being winnowed by selection. All this was worked out almost a century ago, with the development of population genetics, while Dembski’s specific probability arguments crumble in the face of a recent theoretical analysis  of the time required for complex information to evolve under natural selection.

Ignoring the evidence

Fig. 6.

Cryoelectron tomography reveals the sequential assembly of bacterial flagella in Borrelia burgdorferi,Xiaowei Zhao et al., PNAS 110, 14390–14395, 2013

Next, the appeal to specified, or even irreducible, complexity, and Noble asks us to consider the eye, the ear, and that old standby the bacterial flagellum. Here, Noble actually states that ID would fail if “there is a clear step-by-step evolutionary pathway with all the intermediary stages to a bacterial flagellum or similar irreducibly complex structure which can be generated by mutations alone.” If by “mutations alone” he means mutations without selection, he is asking for something that reality does not offer. If he means an account of how the bacterial flagellum could have emerged from earlier structures, this was famously presented at the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board trial, where Ken Miller testified on this very point (here, pp. 12 on; for more on Miller on the flagellum see here). If Noble then complains that that account does not include a historically reliable account of all the intermediate stages, he has missed the entire point of his own argument. Irreducible complexity, if it means anything, means that the structure could not possibly have emerged through naturalistic evolution, and Miller’s testimony readily explains how it could.

Distorting the science

There are other minor absurdities. Noble suggests that the fact that water is a liquid depends on tiny variations over and above the general rules of chemical bonding. As a chemist, he should know better, since the “hydrogen bonding” that holds H2O in the liquid state is a consequence of the same set of rules that makes the closely related substance H2S a gas. He also claims that complex life requires the moon to be exactly the right size and right distance, otherwise Earth’s axis would become unstable. I am mystified, unless he is running together two separate claims, one (plausible) regarding the stabilising effect of a satellite, and the other (ridiculous, but taken seriously within the ID community) that regards us as privileged because we are on a planet where we can observe both total and annular eclipses. And like the rest of the ID community, he misinterprets the ENCODE project, which showed that 80% of the human genome is biochemically active. We are invited to infer that DNA is perfectly designed and free of junk. But consider the “onion test“; in brief, an onion contains five times as much DNA in each cell as a human; does anyone imagine that it contains five times as much complexity?

And leaving all the work still to do

Finally, my most severe criticism of ID, which I have already stated here very briefly. It doesn’t answer the question. For a safety razor to come into existence, we need, not only design, but fabrication. And when we come across any natural feature that requires explanation, invoking ID merely leaves us two (or, if the use of ID involves rejecting naturalistic evolution, three) problems for the price of one. We have the problem of accounting for all the evidence for evolution by trial and error tinkering, combined with natural selection and genetic drift, ranging from biogeography to developmental embryology to anatomical (and now molecular) phylogeny, and much much more. We have the problem (although I suspect that for Dr Noble this is not a problem at all) of specifying the nature, provenance, and motivation of the designer (or Designer). And finally, worst of all, we still don’t know how it happened. Paley’s watch implied, not just a watch designer, but a watch assembler, a parts manufacturer, a toolmaker, a metallurgist… Unless the Designer just wills complete structures into being, in which case there’s no point even trying to do the science.

In short, this pamphlet delivers what it promises to, but the doctrine that it is promoting does not. Dr Noble repeatedly and sincerely asks us to open our minds; he is unaware that ID is an invitation to close them.

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on December 13, 2014, in Creationism, Darwin autobiography, Education, Philosophy, Scotland and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. A fine demolition — thanks! It increasingly seems that the IDers have shot their bolt and recognize that they’ve done so. All that’s coming out of the Disco Tute these days seems to be propaganda assailing the wicked, wicked Darwinism rather than essaying fresh hypotheses. I mean, “irreducible complexity” may well have been a silly concept, but it was at least an attempt to bolster the DI’s central thesis. Now all we get out of the DI is ludicrous attempts at hatchet jobs.

    From your review, Noble does seem at least to be above those crude tactics, but the fact that he’s just regurgitating multiply debunked notions means that it’s not by far that he’s cleared this hurdle.


  2. Safety razors are complex, well adapted to function, and designed.
    (The metallic elements of all razors eventually corrode (oxidise) and fails to adapt!)

    Living things are complex and well adapted to function.

    Therefore living things are designed.
    (Inanimate, non-living things change chemically to a less ordered (higher entropic) state and the conclusion of the syllogism becomes a non-sequitur!


  3. A pleasure to read. Paul, you have a knack for this.


  4. Reblogged this on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin and commented:
    Actually this is YOUNG EARTH creationism, but not admitted


  5. I would make an additional point here.
    ID proponents claim that they have a scientific theory. Setting aside for a moment the fact that they are demanding that science be redefined to accommodate the supernatural (presumably because that would allow them to refer to ID as science), their argument fails on its own merits alone.

    In science, propositions must be testable. That means there have to be potential observations or measurements which could not be explained by the proposition. Scientific propositions set constraints on possible outcomes. It is because of this that we can know if they are valid or not.

    ID “theory” proposes that an unspecified but possibly supernatural intelligence has interfered with biological processes using unspecified but possibly supernatural methods for unspecified reasons. There is no potential observation or measurement which cannot be “explained” by such intervention. Evolution may have proceeded in exactly the way theory describes for billions of years because some supernatural intelligence has been constantly fiddling with the process. If a dog gave birth to a cat, ID “theory” could “explain” it. For that matter, if a dog turned into a bunch of petunias or a Blue Whale ID “theory” could explain it. A proposition which can “explain” anything actually explains nothing.

    No ID proponent has ever offered a test of ID. All they have done is to present potential falsifiers of evolutionary theory – though a fact ID proponents rather studiously ignore is that “irreducible complexity”, the supposed killer argument for “design” was predicted on the basis of evolutionary theory almost a century ago. Even if they could present solid and robust evidence which shows that evolutionary theory is false, it would add not one iota of support for their “theory”. “An intelligent designer did it” is not the default position in science in the absence of a robust explanation for a phenomenon: it’s “I don’t know”, followed by “how can i find out?” – and usually followed by “Where can I find funding”.

    The fact that some at least ID proponents have a respectable track record of scientific research and publication means that they must know that their “theory” is scientifically illiterate, yet they persist in presenting it as science.

    I suggest that this is downright dishonest. And this lead to the reason why I think that creationism in all its forms (which includes ID, of course) should be opposed. If you dig down into its literature and arguments with a knowledge and understanding of the science they attack, you will find that it is deeply and systematically dishonest. Coming as it does from those claiming the moral high ground, it downright hypocrisy.


    • I think you are too harsh (or should I say, too gentle?) in claiming that ID proponents are knowingly dishonest. I think, rather, that they have developed superb filters in order to protect core beliefs, and consider themselves virtuous for having done so.


  6. Paul,

    You say that the fine tuning argument is interesting. But it’s not that interesting if you acknowledge the importance of chance and contingency in nature. Highly improbable events can and do happen by sheer chance.
    For example, the existence of Paul Braterman is an extremely improbable event since countless factors had to happen just right for his coming into being. Yet here he is. We do realize that Paul was one among trillions upon trillions of possibilities, but chance events made one among those trillion possibilities a reality.
    Same is the case with the cosmological parameters. Their values are a result of accidental events. Life eventually followed when those accidental events made biochemistry possible. Creationists, of course, ignore this crucial point and present the fine-tuning argument from a teleological perspective.


    • If we are convinced on other grounds that our universe is one on a multitude, I would have to agree. But I admit to regarding our physics and cosmology as very much work in progress, because we can only account for a fraction of the masses of galaxies, and don’t have a coherent account of quantum gravity. So I do regard the multiverse hypothesis as speculative, and if our Universe is unique I think one could construct a Bayesian argument that fine tuning enhances the probability of a designer. Of course, that designer would be a lot more like Einstein’s God than like Noble’s.


      • Of course, cosmology, as with any other science is very much a work in progress. And there’s a lot that we don’t know. But the multiverse is not mere speculation, it’s a prediction made by some of our theories, for example the theory of inflation.

        But the point I was making was that even if there’s no multiverse and there’s only one single universe, cosmological constants can end up being favourable by sheer chance and accident, just like you and I came into existence from a multitude of possibilities. You don’t have to invoke a deistic God to account for it. It is important to acknowledge the role of contingency, which creationists constantly fail to do.


      • I think Stephen Law agrees with you, but I’m not convinced. If you and I hadn’t come into existence in our universe, beings not too vastly dissimilar would have done so instead. But if the universe had, contingently, different fundamental laws or constants, what chance that it would still have been a universe in which such interesting things happened?

        But all I ever claimed was that the question was worthy of discussion, and o that we clearly agree. There is a danger, in the process of explaining, of appearing to exp
        lain away.


      • But if the universe had, contingently, different fundamental laws or constants, what chance that it would still have been a universe in which such interesting things happened?

        Why are you insisting that the universe should produce such interesting things? That’s a teleological viewpoint – you’re virtually saying that the universe had a purpose, namely to produce interesting beings such as ourselves. Having assumed that, you then view the cosmological constants as being perfectly suited to serve that purpose.

        This is the same mistake creationists also make. Shed such assumptions and go for the most parsimonious explanation. The universe ended up like this by accident, there was no purpose or intention to produce anything interesting at all. What we see now is merely a consequence of the way the universe ended up being.

        Once you grasp this point, the “fine-tuning” argument melts away. It won’t hold much interest anymore.


      • A posteriori, the Universe is interesting. A posteriori probability of an interesting universe, unity. The fine tuning argument is that if the set of all possible interesting universes is a relatively small subset of the set of all possible universes, we should seriously consider if there is a reason for this. (Analogy; if someone wins at roulette all the time it makes sense to wonder if the game’s crooked). The argument collapses, I agree, if we are on other grounds convinced that we are part of a vast and diverse multiverse (analogy; if far more than 37^100 games of roulette have been played, there will be lots of instances of someone wining 100 times in a row).

        You may disagree. But my point was merely that there was something here to discuss. I see a real danger that in our zeal to avoid giving an opening to claims for the supernatural, we make equally unsound claims to understand more than we do.

        Editorial decision: let’s leave it there.


  7. You mention the claim has been around since 1920 that scientists are abandoning natural evolution. There is the writeup by Glenn R. Morton, “The Imminent Demise of Evolution: The Longest Running Falsehood in Creationism” which documents many earlier examples: Darwin wrote to J.D. Hooker in 1860 that Richard Owen “says my book will be forgotten in ten years”, there is a book titled “Collapse of Evolution” by Luther Tracy Townsend, published in 1905, etc. etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, e.g. The Refutation of Darwinism: And the Converse Theory of Development; Based Exclusively Upon Darwin’s Facts (T Warren O’Neill, 1879), and predictions of the collapse of deep time geology go back decades before that.


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