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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.

Glasgow’s Intelligent Design Director has ”open mind” on age of Earth

Al Furqan Mosque, Glasgow, in whose Community Hall Dr Noble spoke last Friday (November 28) on ‘Intelligent Design: Myth or Reality?’

See how many errors of fact and logic you can find in what Dr Noble, Director of Glasgow’s own Centre for Intelligent Design, said when my friend and Scottish Secular Society colleague, Garry Otton, asked him about the age of the Earth. This was on the occasion of his visiting a mosque as part of the activities of Scotland’s Interfaith Council, which receives £9,000,000 a year of taxpayer money. I offering him  space to reply, but he tells me that “I really don’t think this kind of speculative trivia deserves a considered response.”

Dr Noble said that the scientific consensus is about 3 billion years old, but there is a lot of uncertainty about all scientific things and some think the Earth’s only thousands of years old. He thinks the Earth might be old, but human beings might be “much younger than most scientists would accept”. A geologist has shown him a piece of rock, dated as 300 million years old, but containing a seam of coal carbon-14 dated at 40,000 years. And carbon dating only goes back to around 50,000 years, so [he said with heavy emphasis] “the error is not in the date of the coal.” All methods depend on judgements about initial conditions that we have no way of knowing. The scientific consensus can be very arrogant, so he doesn’t have a serious problem with an old Earth, but is not completely convinced.

Here is my list of errors; let me know if you spot others:

First, and least important, that number, 3 billion years. It should of course be around 4. 5 billion years.

From the fact that carbon-14 is useless beyond 50,000 years, Dr Noble infers that the error is “not in the date of the coal.” The exact opposite is true. The 50,000 limit is the limit of the method, showing that it cannot be used for more ancient deposits.

Actually, it has long been known that ancient coal cannot be dated by carbon-14, because it gives spurious and erratic young(ish) ages, between 20,000 and 50,000 years. This has thwarted attempts to use it as a standard background (see e.g. this 1939 paper). One percent contamination by contemporary material of the area sampled will reduce the apparent age to less than the 40,000 years that Dr Noble quotes, and other potential problems include the presence of modern bacteria (well established by 1931) and carbon-14 generation in the coal from the nitrogen-14 present, as an indirect effect of the radioactive decay of heavy elements in the coal.

I don’t know where Dr Noble got his numbers from, but they are identical with those quoted in a 2002 Talkorigins article, which discusses and dismisses the alleged anomaly. A fuller and more recent critical analysis of claims of detecting carbon-14 in ancient materials  can be found at (ASA in this address stands for American Scientific Affiliation, an organisation of Christians who reject attempts such as Dr Noble’s to discard the plain science of evolution and an ancient Earth; the author, Kirk Bertsche, holds a Ph.D. for his work on radiocarbon methods, and an MA in Exegetical Theology from Western Seminary, Portland, Oregon).

As for our judgments about initial conditions, we can check these in at least four separate ways. Firstly, careful mineralogy, picking out well isolated samples or even well-defined individual crystallites. Secondly, available since the 1940s, what are known as isochron methods, which use non-radiogenic isotopes as internal markers. Thirdly, SHRIMP (sensitive high resolution ion microprobe) methods, available since 1980, which allow assessment even of selected regions within crystallites, giving valuable information about thermal history and element mobility; I have a friend who does this for a living. Finally, the good agreement of disparate methods (this was mentioned to Dr Noble) provides cross-validation, and the rare occasions when this does not occur (for example in rocks with anomalously young potassium-argon ages) are themselves highly informative (in this example, regarding subsequent heating episodes). Radiometric Dating, A Christian Perspective, by Roger Wiens,  principal investigator of the Mars Curiosity Rover’s chemical laser analysis team, gives an excellent perspective on this and other alleged problems.

It is just not true that there is a lot of uncertainty about all scientific things. There is no real uncertainty about the age of the Earth, any more than there is real uncertainty about the existence of the atoms of which it is composed. Dr Noble himself would be very upset if I were to allege that there is a lot of uncertainty about the abstruse area of inorganic chemistry in which he obtained his own Ph.D. over 40 years ago.[1] And yes, we should keep an open mind, but not so open that our brains fall out.[2]

So how did Dr Noble, who evidently still thinks of himself as a scientist, come to make such a concatenation of elementary errors? I would suggest confirmation bias, selecting evidence that supports a view already adopted for very different reasons. And in this case, that view is identified by his wish to take seriously the possibility that human beings might be “much younger than most scientists would accept”. Dr Noble belongs to a church that believes in the “entire trustworthiness” of Scripture, and perhaps he looks kindly on the idea that human beings were specially created in the past few thousand years. But if this is the case, the biological science that shows we are sister species to chimpanzees, and the Earth science that dates undeniably human skulls back to more than 100,000 years ago, must be denounced as unreliable. The rest follows.

Added note: Some commentators have inferred that Dr Noble is a six-day creationist. I, however, interpret his careful distinction between the age of the Earth and the age of humanity a showing a more broad-minded perspective than that, one which also grants credibility to day-age and gap versions of creationism.  Here day-age accepts the order of events in Genesis, but allows that each “day” may refer to an era. “Gap” allows geological tme in between Genesis 1:1 and Genesi 1:2. Both were originally attempts by conservative theologians to accommodate biblical literalism to early 19th century geology, and both, crucially, accept a historical Eden a few thousand years ago, and separate creation of kinds. I deliberately chose impeccably Christian sources for the geological background, to highlight the possibility that Dr Noble’s hermeneutics may be as selective as his geology.

1] The Preparation and Properties of Tungsten Hexafluoride Derivatives, Glasgow, 1970.

2] For the history of this phrase see here.

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