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
This 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
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
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.
Don’t say Darwin unless you mean it
Don’t say “Darwin” when you mean “evolution”. It’s about as useful as saying “Dalton” when you mean atoms. Our understanding of atoms has moved on enormously since Dalton’s time, and our understanding of evolution has moved on similarly since Darwin’s. Neither of them knew, or could have known, the first thing regarding what they were talking about, and both would be delighted at how thoroughly their own work has been superseded.
Dalton didn’t know anything about the forces that hold atoms together, which depend on electrons and quantum mechanics. In fact, he didn’t even know about electrons. Darwin was equally ignorant about the nature of biological novelty, which comes from mutating genes. In fact, he didn’t even know about genes. Chemistry has advanced enormously since Dalton, just as biology has advanced enormously since Darwin, although atoms remain central to chemistry in much the same way that evolution remains central to biology.
So why is discussion of evolution still saturated with Darwin’s name? In part, I think, because that’s the way the opponents of evolution want it. By identifying evolution with Darwin, they continue to breathe life into the controversies of the mid-19th century. At the same time, it helps them pretend that modern biology is just one individual’s point of view, rather than a mature science based on the work of thousands of investigators. Very recently, creationists have taken to invoking Darwin himself for their cause, in such titles as Darwin’s Doubt and Darwin Strikes Back. This is an extremely powerful rhetorical tool; if even Darwin was puzzled by [whatever], surely we “Darwinians” should be too. Closely related is the device of presenting creationism under the guise of even-handed debate, as when a creationist pseudo-textbook (which mentions Darwin on almost every page, but not in the index) calls itself Explore Evolution; the arguments for and against neo-Darwinism, or in the list below, where a creationist comic goes by the name, What’s Darwin got to do with it? A friendly discussion …
And while we’re on the subject of unhelpful language, don’t say “theory of evolution” when you mean the well-established facts of historical and continuing change over time, and of common ancestry. And if you find yourself in the position of explain the difference between a scientific theory (coherent intellectual structure developed to explain a range of observations), and the use of the word “theory” in everyday use (provisional hypothesis), you have blundered into a morass. Back out again.
But back to Darwin. You can see what I mean if you just look at the names of the books written by the new enemies of scientific biology, from Darwin’s Doubt (Meyer, 2013) all the way back to Darwin’s Black Box (Behe, 1996) and beyond. This week I came across further examples, The Darwin Conspiracy (Roy Davies, 2006), which portrays Darwin as a plagiarist, and, while checking its details, an even more lurid book of the same name by John Darnton, which portrays him as a murderer. To be fair, Darnton does not pretend that he is writing anything other than fiction, although surely he was writing with half an eye on the creationist market.
To test my idea, I went online to Amazon.com, and typed “Darwin” and “Darwinism” in the search window. Here are some of the books by creationists that I came up with; a lot of the names were all too familiar, but I never realized that Rick Santorum had actually got his name on a book:
Darwin’s Doubt (Meyer, 2013)
Dehumanization: A Product of Darwinism (David Campbell, 2012)
How We Got Swindled By Wall Street Godfathers, Greed & Financial Darwinism (E. Henry Schoenberger and David Satterfield, 2011)
Evolution by Intelligent Design: Debate is Over – Darwinism is Extinct (Gabor Lingauer, 2011)
Exposing Darwinism’s Weakest Link: Why Evolution Can’t Explain Human Existence (Kenneth Poppe, 2008)
Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism, (Stephen C. Meyer, Scott Minnich, Jonathan Moneymaker and Paul A. Nelson, 2007)
The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism (Michael Behe, 2007); Since Behe clearly believes that biological complexity is the work of a designer who operates independently of natural laws, I include Behe as a creationist, although he would deny this)
Darwin Day In America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science John G. West, 2007)
Doubts About Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design (Thomas Woodward, 2007)
Darwin’s Nemesis: Phillip Johnson and the Intelligent Design Movement (William A. Dembski and Rick Santorum, 2006)
Darwin Strikes Back: Defending the Science of Intelligent Design (Thomas Woodward and William Dembski , 2006)
The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design (Jonathan Wells, 2006)
Reclaiming Science from Darwinism: A Clear Understanding of Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, (Kenneth Poppe, 2006)
The Naked Emperor: Darwinism Exposed (Antony Latham, 2005)
Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing (William A. Dembski, 2004)
Darwinism, Design and Public Education (John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer, 2003)
Darwinism and the Rise of Degenerate Science (Paul Back, 2003)
The Collapse of Darwinism: Or The Rise of a Realist Theory of Life (Graeme D. Snooks, 2003)
Human Devolution: A Vedic Alternative to Darwin’s Theory (Michael A. Cremo, 2003)
The Case Against Darwin: Why the Evidence Should Be Examined (James Perloff, 2002)
Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (Benjamin Wiker and William Dembski (Jul 12, 2002)
Darwinism Under The Microscope: How recent scientific evidence points to divine design (James P. Gills, 2002)
Shattering the Myths of Darwinism (Richard Milton, 2000)
What’s Darwin Got to Do with It?: A Friendly Discussion About Evolution (Robert C. Newman, John L. Wiester and Janet Moneymaker, 2000)
Darwinism Defeated? (J. I. Packer, Phillip E. Johnson and Denis O. Lamoureux, 1999) (Lamoureux says no, by the way)
Evolution Deceit: The Scientific Collapse of Darwinism (Harun Yahya and Mustapha Ahmad, 1999)
Tornado in a Junkyard: The Relentless Myth of Darwinism (James Perloff, 1999)
Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds (Phillip E. Johnson, 1997)
Darwin’s Black Box (Michael Behe, 1996)
Darwinism, Science or Philosophy? (Phillip E. Johnson et al., 1994)
Darwin on Trial (Phillip E. Johnson, 1991)
Darwinism : The Refutation of a Myth (Soren Lovtrup, 1987)
There are also references to “materialist neo-Darwinism”, but since I don’t pretend to know what a “materialist” is, and whether I or for that matter Darwin would qualify, I decided to let that go.
And so on, all the way back to The Refutation of Darwinism: And the Converse Theory of Development; Based … Upon Darwin’s Facts, (T Warren O’Neill, pre-1923)