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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.

Petition against evolution denial gets full page coverage in [Glasgow] Sunday Herald

A petition by the Scottish Secular Society to stop ‘neo-creationism’ being taught in schools was backed by three Nobel-winning British scientists, including Sir Harold Kroto, above

This story has made it to the “Headlines” news feed! My comment on the story, published in the Heerald’s web version  [links added]:

It does not matter what classroom we are in. It is simply not true, and has not been true for generations, that evolution (including macroevolution) and common descent are what C4ID calls in its statement to Parliament “undemonstrated and speculative”.

If any group wanted to tell schoolchildren that the existence of atoms was undemonstrated and speculative, that would be equally objectionable. However, it is only in the case of evolution and the age of the Earth that we have organisations dedicated to misinforming.

The C4ID full statement to Parliament is at the petitions website;. As I show in my response, it takes a position much further removed from scientific reality than Dr Noble’s disingenuous remarks here would suggest.

The full story is here, and comment on the web page is overwhelmngly favourable.

Centre for Intelligent Design Launches Naked Creationist Attack on SecScot Petition

Dr Alastair Noble, educational consultant and director of the Glasgow ...

Dr Alastair Noble, Director of the Centre for Intelligent Design

Until yesterday, it may just have been possible to accept the claim by Glasgow’s Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID) that the view it promotes differs from old-fashioned creationism. Not any more. Dr Noble, the Director, writing for C4ID, has used a whole range of traditional creationist arguments in a full-blooded attack on the Scottish Secular Society’s petition, currently before the Scottish Parliament, in which the Society requests

official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time.

Answers in Genesis has also attacked us, here and here [1], using cruder versions of the same arguments. We feel honoured.

Predictably, the C4ID submission [2] attempts to disguise the fact that “Intelligent Design” is nothing more than a blend of creationism and obfuscation. This has famously been established in court (Kitzmiller vs Dover School Board), and elsewhere. Most relevant to the present petition is the statement to this effect from the Association for Science Education, the UK-wide association of science teachers at all levels, and the UK’s largest teaching subject organisation.

“Macro-evolution … unobserved and speculative”

More interestingly, the C4ID submission illustrates precisely the disinformation that we seek to guard our children against, by itself embracing creationism. It does this by driving a wedge between “micro-evolution” and “macro-evolution,” and admitting that the former of these occurs, while describing the latter. Such dismissal of macro-evolution can have only one implication, the separate creationism to which we are objecting, and the denial of the results of almost two centuries of careful scientific observation. As the submission puts it:

Few people, including the most ardent religious believers, deny that evolution in the form of adaptation is an empirically observed phenomenon. This can be described as ‘micro-evolution’ and it is the sort of variation, in, for example, the beak sizes of finches that Darwin observed in the Galapagos Islands. However, those findings say nothing about how finches arose in the first place. The speculation that evolutionary processes can explain the origin as opposed to the distribution of finches can be referred to as ‘macro-evolution’. This is an unobserved and speculative feature of the theory of evolution. It is therefore inaccurate and confusing to refer simply to ‘evolution’ without clarifying which aspect of the theory is being dealt with.

Some minor points: C4ID mention religion; we did not. C4ID, like all creationists, cannot resist referring back to Darwin, much as some demented opponent of atomic theory might keep on referring back to Dalton. But the main point regard evolution: if macro-evolution didn’t happen, the only alternative is separate creation.

As a commentator (David Bell at FB Secular Scotland) points out, Macro and Micro evolution are the ID version of Ken Ham’s “historical science” and “observable science”.

Moraine in Rocky Mountain National Park. Ansel Adams (1941) via Wikipedia. Public domain

In a sense, of course, macro-evolution is unobserved, but only in much the sense that the Ice Ages are unobserved. Macro-evolution has not been directly observed over the 3000 or so years of recorded scientific observation because it takes more time than that, and the Ice Ages have not been directly observed by scientists because they happened too early, but in both these examples the evidence is incontrovertible.

From Gatesy et al,. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution Volume 66, Issue 2, February 2013, Pages 479–506

Regarding the Ice Ages, we have evidence such as erratic boulders transported by glaciers, scratches on rocks, and massive moraines left behind, as far south as Lueneberg Heath in Germany and Minnesota in America. Regarding macro-evolution, we have, to choose just one well-explored example out of the enormous range available, the evolution of whales from terrestrial hoofed mammals. Here we have two completely independent lines of evidence ; a fossil record showing at least 10 well-defined intermediate forms, either on or close to the ancestral line leading to modern whales and porpoises, and molecular phylogenies (no different in principle from the DNA evidence used every day in our courts to establish family relationships) that show whales as first cousins to a hippopotamus and second cousins to a cow (for a general reader level open-access review, see here).

If the evolution of the blue whale, purely aquatic and the largest animal ever known on this planet, from a small terrestrial wader, does not count as macro-evolution, what does? If this kind of evidence does not remove macro-evolution from the domain of the “unobserved and speculative”, what would?

Australopithecus afarensis skull, through

Or I could have chosen human evolution, where some 20 distinct hominin species have been identified, with steady progression in bipedality, cranial capacity, dentition, and all the other features that distinguish us from apes [3].

Or birds from non-avian dinosaurs, with the step-by-step evolution of feathers and then of flight. Or amphibia from lobefish. Or sheep and goats. Or dogs, bears, walrus and weasels from a common ancestral carnivore. All beautifully documented in the fossil record, and now supported by molecular phylogenies, along with numerous other examples. There is no lack of well written books explaining these things in highly accessible language [4], a major website has an entire section devoted to such transitions, and if C4ID are really ignorant of these evolutionary facts, the ignorance is self-imposed.

Having once placed C4ID in its rightful place in the evolution of delusion, their other arguments fall readily into place. We have the usual complaint that we want to put all talk of creationism off-limits, when we explicitly state that we intend no limitation on the discussion of ideas; merely on the misrepresentation of facts. We have the usual claim that an intelligence (or Intelligence) is required to generate new information, as if otherwise information were some kind of conserved entity like energy. We have the claim that all DNA has been shown to be functional – a travesty of even the most extravagant claims made in the current “junk DNA” controversy. We have the vulgar error that the forces driving evolution are random, whereas in fact organisms are sculpted by natural selection. We have the usual inversion of burden of proof, where the unexplained is deemed unexplainable, while those who seek natural explanations for what we do not yet understand are called closed minded. We have the argument that since natural selection sometimes works by elimination (and indeed it does), it can never really work by addition. We even have (was nothing learnt from the debacle at Dover?) irreducible complexity.

Since this is the high-class version of creationism, we also have the lofty argument that, in C4ID’s words,

The neo-Darwinian position that life and the universe, including conscious thought, are the result of blind and purposeless processes gives no reason to believe that our investigations and conclusions have any validity or truth. Students should be aware of this.

This is absurd, as I like many others have said before. If our investigations and conclusions had lacked validity or truth, we would simply not have survived. Indeed, there is now a flourishing if controversial subdiscipline that considers our minds, with both their strengths and weaknesses, as the products of natural selection.[5] Given this, C4ID’s claim that “Students should be aware of this,” when “this” is a doctrine residing only on the philosophical fringe, is breathtaking in its arrogance. (There are of course environments, such as creationist universities and seminaries, where survival is more likely if one’s conclusions lack validity and truth, but the cradle of mankind was not one of them.)

Finally, the C4ID submission accuses the petition, which I helped draft, of making an unwarranted prior assumption of philosophical naturalism; here the author, Doctor Noble, is echoing the ideas of his mentor, Phillip Johnson. As it happens, my one and only contribution to professional-level discussions on the philosophy of science  is to prove that in reality we neither need nor use any such assumption. Naturalistic explanations stand or fall in science, as in all human endeavours, on their merits; we use them because they work. Our reason for rejecting non-natural (supernatural? praeternatural? unnatural?) explanations is that they cut no ice. In every case studied, their predictions have turned out to be wrong, or unnecessary, or ambiguous to the point of utter uselessness, and the sorry history of Intelligent design research merely bears this out.


Ken Ham, of Answers in Genesis

After C4ID, Answers in Genesis comes as comic relief, even if the gag lines are rather predictable. Evolution is a religion and an attack on Christianity (never mind that the spokesperson for BCSE, which supports the petition, is an Anglican priest; as far as AiG is concerned, he’s the wrong kind of Christian). Historical science is in a separate category because it deals with the past and is therefore not testable (what does AiG think geologists and palaeontologists do all day?) Evolutionary naturalism is atheism. Secularists (meaning, I imagine, everyone who does not use Genesis as a geology textbook) are in rebellion against God. Reaching these profound new conclusions the work of any one individual, butrequired the help of AiG‘s research team. And only one thing spoils the joke for me – the knowledge that People with a Mission Ministries, who promote AiG‘s materials, are made welcome in schools throughout Scotland.

Which is why the petition is needed in the first place.

I thank Maarten Boudry, Catherine Matthews, the Rev. Michael Roberts, Clare Marsh, and  Mark Edon, Mark Gordon, and my other colleagues in BCSE and SSS, for stimulating discussions on these issues .

[1] I have made these links “no-follow”, to avoid boosting the site’s ratings.

[2] Full text at (warning: extreme boredom alert).

[3] Some would say “other apes”, since if apes are a clade – a complete set of descendants from some common ancestor – then we are part of it.

[4] For the fossil record and its tie-in with phylogeny, my personal favourite here is Don Prothero’s Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters.

[5] I refer of course to evolutionary psychology. Here my own position is that all psychology is evolutionary, since I have no other way of explaining the existence of our atavistic shortcomings.

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