“Gold of the gaps”, the Discovery Institute, and Intelligent Design

The Panda's ThumbThis from Matt Young on pandasthumb:

Gold of the gaps

Does gold have a purpose? asks an unnamed author in Evolution News & Science Today. The author goes on to observe that there is more gold on earth than astrophysicists can account for and also that gold has risen to the surface of the earth faster than might be expected. They go on to note the “availability of many essential elements at the surface of the earth …” and also discuss the use of gold in medicine. They are somewhat breathless at the discovery that the body can metabolize gold:

Gold nanoparticles, which are supposed to be stable in biological environments, can be degraded inside cells, [boldface in original]

even though, as they note, gold salts have been used for decades in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.

At any rate, the article stresses the “mystery of biological gold” and claims several hints why gold may have a purpose: its abundance and seemingly unlikely transport to the surface of the earth, the ability of cells to “metabolize” [sic] gold, the fact that gold persists in the body, and the usefulness of gold for therapeutics. The conclusion of the article is

Since ID advocates are better equipped to think outside the box than are the paradigm-locked materialist scientists, they are more free to consider a positive answer — showing once again that intelligent design is not a “science stopper” but a fruitful way to pursue interesting questions. If the answer is “Yes, gold has a purpose,” the applications could be profound.

Gold nugget (Australia) 4 (16848647509).jpg

Fluvial gold nugget; James St. John, via Wikipedia

Au boy! The author seems a little Au-struck by what seem to me relatively unrelated scientific discoveries and is trying Au-fully hard to weave them together into a fine-tuning argument. Here is my translation of the conclusion:

Since intelligent-design creationists are desperately searching for “hints” of design, they are more likely than empirically based scientists to come up with a positive answer — showing once again that intelligent-design creationists can pretend that any unanticipated scientific discovery leads to “interesting questions.” If the answer is, “Yes, gold has a purpose,” no practical applications will result.

Actually, the answer to the question is, “Yes, gold, like anything else, has whatever purposes we assign to it.”

Matt is too kind. The Discovery Institute thinks that the complexity of organisms shows the effects of intelligent design. In this they are following the thinking of William Paley, and are 150 years out of date. As Darwin puts it in his autobiography (p. 87),

The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered.

But, more respectably, they also see the effects of intelligent design in the laws of nature, and Darwin, at the time when he was writing On the Origin of Species, would have agreed (pp 92-93):

Autobiographies (Penguin Classics)This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist.

Here we have Darwin embracing a version of the Argument from Design, (although as he goes on to state he later withdrew into agnosticism because of doubts about the ability of the human mind to cope with matters so far beyond our experience). Intelligent Design advocates, for some strange reason, never mention this fact, nor the fact that James Hutton, to whom in large part we owe our concept of deep time, believed Earth to have been designed by a benign providence.

Yet here we have the Discovery Institute, self-appointed apostles of Intelligent Design, arguing for the inability of naturalistic explanations to account for the abundance of gold. By implication, therefore, they are invoking supernatural explanation, and this is the very opposite of their own core doctrine.

There’s worse! Consider this passage from their article:

ID (intelligent design) scientists have noted the uncanny availability of many essential elements at the surface of the earth, including metals like iron, zinc, copper, magnesium, and unexpected ones like manganese, molybdenum, and cobalt.

This is the argument of the Little Puddlian Philosophical Society, presented in Life Beyond Earth, 1980, by Gerald Feinberg and Robert Shapiro, in 1980, and available on-line here. It also appears in The Salmon of Doubt, by Douglas Adams, who appears to have independently invented it. How wonderful that Nature provides a very elements that our biochemistry requires. How utterly remarkable that the underlying surface should so perfectly fit the shape of our puddle.

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 October 19, 2020, in Charles Darwin, Creationism, Darwin autobiography, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Interesting about James Hutton. I was aware of Darwin’s impulse towards some sort of deistic intelligent design, but did not know about Hutton. I guess a vague deism was pretty common c. 1800.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A kind of vague deism was popular in the 1700s. I’ll just mention Voltaire, who was fond of the clockmaker argument for God.

    Liked by 1 person

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