The "New" Creationism
The following text was published in Slate Magazine, April 16, 2001.
by Robert Wright
his time, though, the evolutionists find themselves arrayed not against traditional creationism, with its roots in biblical literalism, but against a more sophisticated idea: the intelligent design theory.New York Times, front page, April 8, 2001.
With this sentence, the newspaper of record has now granted official significance to the latest form of opposition to Darwinism. As the Times notes, adherents of "intelligent design theory" are doing what creationists have long done, such as trying to change public-school science curricula. But there's a difference: Instead of being a bunch of yahoos, they are a bunch of "academics and intellectuals" with new, "more sophisticated" ideas.
Two obvious questions: What is really new about "intelligent design theory"? And who are these "academics and intellectuals"? The answer to the first question nothing of significance is best seen by answering the second question.
The Times piece identifies three "intellectual fathers" of intelligent design theory: Phillip E. Johnson, Michael Behe, and William Dembski.
Intellectual father No. 1: Phillip Johnson, law professor. The Times says the movement's "manifesto" is Johnson's 1991 book Darwin on Trial. If true, this does not bode well for the movement. This book shows Johnson to be suffering from an elementary confusion about Darwinian theory.
Johnson notes, accurately, that species often go extinct because of what you might call bad luck, not bad genes. A meteor triggers an environmental cataclysm, wiping out thousands of species that, only the day before, seemed ideally suited to their habitat. Well, Johnson asks: If which genes perish is so often determined randomly, how could natural selection work well? Isn't the idea supposed to be that, while genetic traits are generated randomly, they are weeded out selectively, depending on whether they are "fit"? That is indeed how natural selection creates "fit" organisms.
But, according to modern Darwinian theory, most of the consequential weeding out doesn't happen conspicuously and suddenly, when whole species go extinct; it happens on a day-to-day basis within a species, as some individuals fail to spread their genes as ably as other individuals. So, even if every few hundred million years a meteor strikes, wiping out lots of well-adapted species, other well-adapted species remain, and the process of adaptation continues.
In short, Johnson wrote a whole book critiquing modern evolutionary theory without first mastering the basics of modern evolutionary theory. (I pointed out his fallacy in a New Yorker piece published a year agoin fact, the above two paragraphs have a hauntingly familiar sound. I also argued in that piece that Johnson's confusion comes partly from reading Stephen Jay Gouldand that Gould's writings have aided and abetted creationism in myriad ways. But don't get me started on that subject.)
Intellectual father No. 2: Michael Behe, biochemist at Lehigh University. "One of the first arguments for design theory," according to the Times, is found in Behe's 1996 book Darwin's Black Box. Behe, says the Times, argues that various biochemical structures "could not have been built in a stepwise Darwinian fashion." For example, the mechanism for blood-clotting involves more than a dozen different proteins working together in complex harmony. Surely, Behe argues, the entire complex mechanism didn't spring to life from a single fortuitous mutation! So, Darwinians must contend that it was built by a series of mutations, and that each mutation, by itself, was useful to the organism. Yet, Behe insists, if you try to imagine these earlier, more rudimentary forms of the mechanismlacking its full complement of proteinsyou'll find yourself imagining a mechanism that wouldn't function at all.
The first thing to note about this "new" argument against Darwinism is that it is roughly as new as The Origin of Species. The classic formulation of Behe's question is: "What good is half an eye?"and it was raised by Darwin himself, who then did his best to answer it.
Of course, it's a good question, a question that Darwinians should continue to struggle with (as they have), notwithstanding the inherent difficulty of discerning an evolutionary path that has been lost in the mists of prehistory. Still, there is nothing new about this basic question. It is straight out of Creationism 101.
Doesn't Behe deserve some credit for applying the question to new thingssuch as blood clotting? Sure. Such new applications can be productive. In this case Behe's probing led the Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller to show that, actually, there is a fair amount of evidencein our species and otherssuggesting how the blood clotting mechanism could have evolved incrementally. Unfortunately for Behe, Miller showed this in the course of a powerful critique of Behe's overall argument, in a chapter of Miller's book Finding Darwin's God. (For a book-length critique of the intelligent design movement see the philosopher Robert Pennock's Tower of Babel. For Behe's reply to Miller, see Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe, co-edited by Behe.)
Behe's (and Darwin's) basic questionWhat good is half an eye, or half an anything?is now getting more tractable thanks to genome studies. For example, scientists have found a gene involved in eyesight that is shared by humans and one-celled creatures. Apparently, in one-celled creatures the gene confers nothing like vision, but does confer a vague sensitivity to lightthus showing that, actually, much less than half an eye can be good for something.
Incidentally, the first time I opened Behe's book, I came upon a major confusion about Darwinian theorya confusion on par with, and in fact related to, the confusion of Phillip Johnson's described above. It's no wonder Behe can't imagine how natural selection could create complex things if he hasn't bothered to find out how natural selection is supposed to work in the first place.
Intellectual father No. 3: William Dembski, a mathematician at Baylor University. Dembski, according to the Times, has developed a "mathematical 'explanatory filter' that he asserted can distinguish randomness from complexity designed by an intelligent agent." And Dembski, applying this litmus test to organisms, finds them to fall in the latter category. Now this, unlike Behe's argument, does sound new. Is it significant?
First of all, devising a test that shows that organisms aren't randomly arranged molecules is a curious way to spend time. After all, no one ever said that natural selection produces random conglomerations of matter. Rather, it is said to produce complex, functional arrangements of matter. In fact, according to evolutionary biologists, it produces arrangements that look for all the world as if they were composed by an intelligent designer. So, even if Dembski does have some test that can determine whether a being's complexity is of the precise sort that an intelligent designer would produce, that won't help his cause. For that is exactly the sort of complexity evolutionary biologists expect to find in the first place. (Of course, you can argue that they're wrongthat natural selection can't produce this kind of complexity. But then you're back to the Behe-esque argumentsCreationism 101and Dembski's mathematical rendering of the issue hasn't changed the state of play.)
Surely, you say, Dembski must be saying something more sophisticated than this. After all, he is at an accredited university! Well, I've now spent about an hour and a half interrogating him, trying to find the sophisticated thing that he's saying, and I have failed. So far as I can tell, Dembski's argument is just an example of something demonstrated time and again in various disciplines at various accredited universities: If you phrase your argument in mathematical symbolism and technical terms, some people, including other academics, can be counted on to lose track of what the exact connection is between the symbolism and the reality it's supposed to represent. Then they may conclude that your mathematical model proves somethinge.g., that natural selection couldn't have produced life as we know itwhen in fact that's what your model assumes.
In sum: So far as I can tell, all the major components of "intelligent design theory" are either not new, not significant, or just wrong.
The Times piece was a legitimate news story. The "intelligent design movement" is having impactgetting the attention of school boards, legislators, and, obviously, journalists. And the Times is right to say that intelligent design theorists are "more sophisticated" than past creationists in the sense that most of them don't believe the Earth was created a few thousand years ago as described in Genesis. Some of them even believe evolution happenedalbeit with divine input. Still, in the movement's critique of Darwinian theory, there is no sign of any new sophisticationat least, not in any positive sense of the word. "Intelligent design theory" is just a fresh label, a marketing deviceand, evidently, an effective one.
One reason people think Behe's old argument is new is that he has a new phrase for it: "irreducible complexity." Something is "irreducibly complex" if by removing any one of its components you render it inoperable. The Times accurately describes Behe's inference from this sort of complexity: "If the structure serves no function without all of its parts, Dr. Behe asks, then how could evolution have built it up step by step over the ages?"
Talk about a bad question. Consider software. It often piles up in distinct increments. (Early versions of Windows, for example, were built on top of DOS.) After each incremental additionAddition A, Addition B, Addition C, Addition Dthe software is functional. But if you take the resulting ABCD software and eliminate the A part or the B part or the C part, the remaining package won't function at all.
It may be true that if you took away the final incrementthe Dthe remaining ABC software would work as it used to. On the other hand, if in the course of putting D on top of C the software engineers did the slightest fiddling with the structure of C, then ABC might well not work. (And natural selection does seem to modify the functionality of pre-existing components in the course of adding new components to them. In fact, it is sometimes the case that the pre-existing components had served a wholly different type of function before being integrated into the new function.)
The software system is thus, by Behe's definition, "irreducibly complex." Yet his inferencethat it couldn't have been built in distinct increments, each of which added valuable functionalityis clearly wrong. (For more on the fallacious logic of "irreducible complexity," see Robert Pennock's Tower of Babel.)
Behe, on Page 35, is discussing the presence of noxious chemicals in beetleschemicals that lead predators to spit a beetle out, though only after they've chewed it up to a presumably lethal extent. Describing what he thinks is the standard Darwinian explanation for the evolution of such noxious compounds, Behe writes, "Initially a number of individual beetles are chewed up and spit out, but a predator learns to avoid their noxious counterparts in the future, and thus the species as a whole benefits from this defense."
According to modern Darwinian theory, natural selection doesn't generally design things for the good of the "the species as a whole." After all, if you imagine a gene that has recently been created by a mutation, it won't exist in the "species as a whole." So how would any contribution it makes to the "species as a whole" help the gene itself spread?
If the gene that Behe imaginesa beetle's gene that leads predators to spit out beetles after killing them and develop an aversion to eating future beetleswere indeed to thrive via natural selection, it would almost certainly do so via a dynamic known as "kin selection." That is, the geneeven if the result of a fairly recent mutationmight exist in close kin of the beetle in question. So, even if the gene that creates the noxious compound perishes along with this beetle, there are copies of the gene in nearby kin beetlesperhaps the very beetles the predator would have eaten if hadn't gotten disgusted by the noxious compound. So, in this scenariounlike the "species as a whole" scenariocopies of the gene itself do thrive by virtue of the gene's noxious properties.
This distinctionbetween implausible "good of the species" logic and plausible kin-selection logicis a standard part of Modern Darwinism 101, and Behe just failed the exam.
Actually, there is one sense in which products of natural selection are different from some products of intelligent design. Because organisms are designed incrementally, they have a certain jerry-built quality. If you were going to design a two-legged creature from scratch, rather than fashion one out of a four-legged creature, you'd do a better job than was done with us. (That's why so many of us have back trouble.) Then again, some products of human design have the same quality. Software often carries the legacy of its past incarnations with it during its evolution. So, I don't see how this "burden of history" feature of evolutionary design could be used to distinguish it from products of "intelligent design." And, indeed, this manifestly jerry-built feature of lifewhich has been widely documented in various speciesis not the distinctive property of life's complexity that Dembski claims to have found. How could it be? It's a hallmark of incremental design, the very thing that Dembski, Behe, et. al. are so intent on minimizing.
I pointed out to Dembski that evolutionary biologists expect to find complexity in living things, so when he applies his mathematical litmus test and declares that living things have complexity, he's not exactly sending evolutionary biologists into a tailspin. Yes, he said, but his "explanatory filter" not only distinguishes between complexity and randomness; it distinguishes between "specified complexity" (the kind that he says would result from intelligent design) and "cumulative complexity" (the kind that might result from the mere accretion of adaptations via natural selection). And he has discovered that animals have the former!
Fine, I said, but what he calls "specified complexity"and asserts is not producible via natural selectionis exactly the kind of complexity that evolutionary biologists tell us they do expect natural selection to produce. But they're wrong, he said: They can't successfully explain how natural selection could produce certain complex adaptations.
Of course, I said, it's true that they could conceivably be wrong about this. But the only way to find out is to argue it out on a case-by-case basisargue about eyeballs, blood clotting, and other complex adaptations. Dembski can't prove they're wrong just by asserting that they're wrong. Yet his "explanatory filter" argument, so far as I can tell, is just a mathematical assertion that they're wrong.
The more I argued that his logic was circular, the more the two of us seemed to just be going around in circles. So we moved on to another dimension of his position. He concedes that natural selection could be the "conduit" for the creation of specified complexity. But it could only serve this purpose if it was "front-loaded" with certain kinds of "informational input." Indeed, he said, it is conceivable that once you had one-celled life, all the requisite information had already been fed in (though he doubts it would all reside in the cell's genome).
What is the nature of this "informational input"? Here things got pretty sketchy (though, clearly, this is where the hand of God would enter the picture). But let me now throw out one broad sense in which I think Dembski is righta sense so broad that, I think, any open-minded evolutionary biologist should agree that he's right.
A few self-replicating one-celled organisms, by themselves, cannot get natural selection started. They have to have something elsean environment. And the environment has to have certain features, such as available energy and various physical laws. What's more, for evolution to have produced the particular forms of life we see on this planet, all kinds of other, more specific things have to have been true of the environment (solar energy, water, etc.).
Now, you can call all these features of the environment "information" if you want. In fact, the eminent geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky once said that natural selection is a process that transmits information from environment to genome. (That is, the genes natural selection preserves, by being adaptively compatible with the environment, amount, in a sense, to an implicit description of it.)
Let me put the point more abstractly. Natural selection is an algorithm. (Even arch-anti-creationist Daniel Dennett calls it that.) And no algorithm can do anything more than take one kind of information and turn it into another kind. In that sense, the information that was eventually transmuted into today's biosphere had to exist in some form prior to todayand some of the information, clearly, was "outside" of natural selection itself in the sense of being in the environment.
So have Dembski and I found common ground? Um, no. He says that the kind of front-loaded information I'm talking about is not the kind he's talking about.
But I don't see whyefor theological purposeseit should really matter. If you believe (as I do) that natural selection was likely to produce intelligent beings, and you believe that natural selection is basically an algorithm, or conduit, that has transformed pre-existing information into these intelligent beings (in the concrete sense described above), then isn't the hand of some kind of God an equally plausible conjecture regardless of what the exact nature of the front-loaded information is? Anyway, that's my view.
By the way, Dembski will present his argument in a book called No Free Lunch, to be published this summer.
Dembski allows this possibility. Of course, the theory of natural selection itself is compatible with some notions of "divine input"the idea that natural selection was set in motion by some higher intelligence, whether a God or a bunch of extraterrestrials or whatever. In fact, I myself have argued that, for all we know, evolution could have been set in motion by some intelligent being for some as yet unrealized purpose.
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