Intelligent Design and the SETI Analogy
The following excerpt was published in Tower of Babel (2000).
by Robert T. Pennock
eviewing the literature of scientific creationism, one writer reflected the opinion of many, concluding that its arguments "often involve tortured logic, a stubborn denial of the evidence, a shallow understanding, or a reckless disregard for truth." Given such a track record, it is no wonder that many of the new creationists are trying to distance themselves from their YEC progenitors. But can they do any better? We have already seen a bit of the struggle going on within the creationists Tower and we have also looked at many of the negative arguments, particularly the central argument against scientific naturalism, that are the mainstay of the new attacks on evolution. What more do they have to offer?
What Intelligent Design Theorists Won't Say
Intelligent design theorists have learned a few lessons from the failures of their predecessors and have devised a more sophisticated strategy to compete head on with evolution. One of the main things they have learned is what not to say. A major element of their strategy is to advance a form of creation that not only omits any explicit mention of Genesis but is also usually vague, if not mute, about any of the specific claims about the nature of Creation, the separate ancestry of humans and apes, the explanation of the earth's geology by catastrophic global flood, or the age of the earthitems that readily identified young-earth creationism as a thinly disguised biblical literalism. Occasionally an old-earth intelligent-design creationist will even explicitly reject one or another element of the young earth view and endorse the standard scientific models. Behe even says that he endorses the common descent thesis. In either case their emphasis is on the minimal thesis that "life, like a manufactured object, is the result of intelligent shaping of matter." That is, whether or not they believe the manufacturing process was gradual or abrupt, and making no claim about how long it took, they concur on the basic point that the biological world was designed by an intelligent agent.
To the extent that it sticks to the minimal generic thesis and is coy about other points, intelligent design creationism is able to rally a wide variety of creationists to its banner. One of the reasons that Philip Johnson it is the most widely accepted creationist champion is that, as we saw in the previous chapter, he defines creationism as simply the minimal positive thesis that God creates for purpose, and confines his arguments to opposing evolution and scientific naturalism. He claims that issues of the timing of Creation are relatively unimportant and in his major writings declines to state his own view of the issue. Others like Hugh Ross and Fred Heeren, while continuing to reject evolution, explicitly accept much of the standard scientific picture and openly criticize the young-earth view. Heeren says that not only is the Bible not incompatible with the standard geological views, but that many devout Christians recognize that it fits better with the idea of lengthy geological ages, and he tells his readers not to be "bullied" by the "my-way-or-no-way" views of the Institute for Creation Research. For their part, young-earth creationists support the generic thesis of intelligent-design, but of course they disagree strongly with the claim that the question of age is unimportant, so there is an ideological gulf that separates the groups.
Intelligent-design crteationists' most carefully crafted game plan appears in the textbook Of Pandas and People, which was supposedly written for secondary school biology students, but which really looks like it was written to try to circumvent Supreme Court rulings against young-earth creation-science. However, almost all of the arguments that appear are exactly the same negative ones as those of the young-earth creationists: they recite the same litany of supposedly insuperable problems with evolutionary theory, with the aim of showing that it does not have the resources to account for the origin of life, the Cambrian Explosion, and biological complexity and adaptedness. Again, the most important difference involves what they leave out. They conclude that if the world looks designed and evolutionary theory cannot explain the fact with its natural mechanisms, then we must conclude that the world is designed. This is just the same failed strategy we saw before: they offer two models and try to support the one by negative arguments against the other. If this were all there was to intelligent design theory then we could dismiss it without further ado. However, IDC does offer one important new positive argument.
The SETI Analogy
The authors of Pandas are keen to reject the notion that IDC is necessarily religious or supernatural. There is nothing unscientific, they say, about investigating intelligent design. The reason some might think otherwise, they claim, is that many scientists have confused the notion of intelligence with the idea of the supernatural.
"[S]cientists from Western culture failed to distinguish between intelligence, which can be recognized by uniformed sensory experience, and the supernatural, which cannot. Today, we recognize that appeals to intelligent design may be considered in science, as illustrated by the current NASA search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)."
It is hard to believe that scientists really did not understand the difference between intelligence and the supernatural, but, be that as it may, it is worth examining the IDC's claims in more detail. It is certainly an interesting idea that the creationist hypothesis could be investigated on the model of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. To be able to evaluate their analogy, we must begin with a bit of background about the SETI project.
The modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence began with the work of Frank Drake, a radio astronomer who realized that microwave radio waves might be a way to send interstellar messages. He reasoned that if there were intelligent beings on other planets with that level of technological advancement, we might be able to pick up their transmissions. In the spring of 1960 he made the first search for such microwave signals, training an 85-foot antenna on two nearby sun-like stars. Drake's receiver operated at only one frequency and picked up no signs of life, but his project inspired others. In the early 1970s, NASA sponsored Project Cyclops, a feasibility study of SETI science and technology issues, and its positive assessments led the agency to commit further resources to the project, establishing SETI programs at Ames Research Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Intelligent-design creationists fail to mention that the main reason scientists think that their might be intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is the plausibility of cosmic evolutionthat is, it is reasonable to think that evolution, as a natural process, occurs regularly throughout the cosmos where conditions are favorable.
Of course, it is hard to estimate how likely it is that evolutionary mechanisms would produce intelligent beings similar enough to us for us to be able to hear and understand them. Drake devised an equation to help assess the probabilities. It begins with the rate of star formation and then progressively whittles this number by factoring the proportion of stars that could be expected to have a planetary system, the proportion of these that have suitable condition for life, and so on. At first, putting numbers into the Drake Equation was mostly blind guesswork, and most of the factors in the equation still have wide margins of error, but in the last few years the first observations of planets orbiting other stars and of possible microfossil evidence of bacterial life on Mars have actually increased estimates of what was admittedly a long shot. After more than a decade of preliminary design work, NASA began observations in 1992, but within a year Congress terminated funding. Part of the NASA project continued as Project Phoenix with private funding, pursuing a Targeted Search of 1,000 nearby sun-like stars. Several other SETI projects that began in the 1970s at Ohio State University, The University of California (SERENDIP), and the Planetary Society (META) continue observations. The SETI Institute has a home page on the Internet where one can keep up with the latest developments.
The one development that has yet to be reported is any sign of intelligent life, though over the decades a few candidate signals have briefly tantalized researchers. Even during Drake's original search, one brief and unusual signal that appeared to emanate from Epsilon Eridani caused momentary excitement but it could never be reestablished. Drake reports that some UFO enthusiasts still believe that he made contact with extraterrestrials that day but that, because of a government conspiracy, the information had to be kept a secret. Drake also describes the excitement caused in 1967 when Jocelyn Bell, a graduate student in astronomy at Cambridge University, picked up a beacon-like radio source that pulsated every 1.3 seconds. A blinking astronomical source was completely unprecedented at that time, and the scientists wondered whether this might be a signal from [an] intelligent civilization. Some astronomers spoke of the "Morse code" nature of the signal and others called the sources "LGMs," as a joking reference to little green men. Lacking computer programs that would have been needed to analyze the pulses for patterns that might suggest an intelligent origin, Drake writes:
"I made long recordings of the pulse intensities, on tape and on chart paper, and then sat scrutinizing the charts, trying to discern signal patterns in them. I stared at them for hours at a time, but even in my eagerness to find an alien message, I never saw any evidence to make me think these tracings were of intelligent origin."
No little green men were sending the signal after all. Actually, this was the discovery of the first pulsar, a term that Drake coined for these radio pulses that astronomers eventually showed to be emissions from rotating neutron stars. The discovery of pulsars was worth a Nobel Prize, but of course if an intelligent signal were ever to be discovered that would be worth even more. In 1997, the movie Contact gave SETI researchers a fictionalized success, but unless one believes the conspiracy theorists, real-life SETI scientists have yet to make contact with any extraterrestrials.
The Talking Pulsar
Intelligent-design theorists argue that just as the scientists of the SETI Project seek evidence of intelligence beyond the world, so too do they. In a cleaver rhetorical move, the frequently quote the late astronomer and SETI pioneer Carl Sagan to show that even a confirmed skeptic such as he admitted that such investigation is scientifically legitimate. But are IDCs rally sincere in their protestations that theirs is not a religious hypothesis? Can they use the SETI model to ground the hypothesis of intelligent design as a truly scientific alterative to evolution? To begin to examine their claims, let us take an extended representative passage that sets out the main lines of their argument. There is one important item of information that we will want to watch for in anyone who promotes ID creationism as a scientific theory. We need to check out their ID card and determine the identity of the intelligent designer!
Intelligent-design creationist Fred Heeren is up-front about the identity of the designer in his recent book, Show Me God: What the Message from Space is Telling Us About God. In it, he summarizes the key points of the IDC argument in a fictional dialogue between Margaret, a SETI project researcher, and the Sultan of Brunei, who is considering helping to fund the project. The Sultan begins with a question:
"How will you be sure when you've received a signal from an intelligent source? How do you tell the difference between a natural, pulsing signal, as from a pulsar, and a signal from an intelligence?"
"If you get a message in Morse code," explained Margaret, "you know there's intelligence behind it. Nature can't duplicate that. In the same way, if we get a signal containing encoded information, even if we can't break the code at first, we'll know it coming from an intelligent source."
"You mean like the encoded information we find in DNA."
Margaret didn't here this interruption and continued her speech: "Nature can't duplicate specified complexity. The chance of nature creating a pattern that has meaning is almost infinitely small."
"Like the specified complexity of hemoglobin. Are you familiar with the calculations of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe? Did you know that the chance that amino acids would line up randomly to create the first hemoglobin protein is one in ten to the 850th power atoms in the entire universe."
Mark and Margaret could only stare at each other This man obviously had more than a casual interest in science.
The sultan continued: "There's an even smaller chance that the DNA code could have randomly reached the required specificity one chance in ten to the 78,000th power even for the DNA of a simple microorganism. This must be a signal of intelligence, wouldn't you say?"
As the story continues, the star Epsilon Eridani begins flashing out a signal in Morse code that turns out to be some familiar words in Hebrew: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." The signal continues and, over the course of a year and a half, transmits the entire Hebrew Bible, and then it stops. Following the SETI protocol for post-contact procedure, the nations of the world meet and decide how to respond. The UN sends back a reply asking "What does this mean? What do you expect us to do with this message?" Epsilon Eridani is eleven light years away, so they expect to wait 22 years for the signal to reach there and for a response to get back, but instead the star begins immediately to transmit the New Testament in ancient Greek: "The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Then scientists find that the message is beaming from all stars and from all parts of the sky. Margaret is finally convinced that this is a message from God, but Mark is not and ask why doesn't God just appear before him if he wants to be known. Margaret replies:
"If God were to personally appear before you, in any form that was spectacular enough to convince you that it was really Him, then you wouldn't have any real choice about following Himyou'd know you had to. And when there's no choice there's no opportunity for love. That's what He wants, He doesn't want to make you follow him."
Mark looked for holes in the argument but found none.
Of course, no Bible-quoting pulsars have yet been observed, so the last part of the story is not meant to provide any positive evidence, but it is important in that it lets us know how intelligent-design creationists want us to interpret the first part. Because it serves so well to connect the ideas of information, divine intelligence, and the SETI project, the talking pulsar has become a regular character in IDC arguments. The first talking pulsar story I heard was in a presentation by William Dembski at an IDC conference in Dallas. In his version, the pulsar says, again in Morse code, that it is the "mouthpiece of Yahweh" and proceeds to provide it by answering any question that is deposited in an ark on Mount Zion, predicting future events, giving cures for diseases, and providing answers to provably hard math problems.
After a discussion in which he argued that this science-fiction case would be an indication of a super intelligence because of the extreme improbability that the correct answers could have been found, Dembski then moved on to the improbability of the specific sequences of nucleotides in the genome of biological organisms. In discussion and in other papers Dembski also makes the connection to the SETI project. We are supposed to think that the information in DNA molecules is a sign from God in the same way as would be a transmission of the Bible in Morse code beamed from a pulsar. The SETI project looks for intelligent life in the universe by searching for a signal with information, and IDCs claim that we find such an information signal in the DNA of every cell, which therefore indicates the existence of an intelligent designer who put it there. The Pandas text substitutes a love note scrawled in the sand for the talking pulsar and speaks only of a generic intelligent designer instead of specifying that it is God, but the argument is otherwise the same. The lessons we are asked to take from the SETI analogy are two-fold. First, we are supposed to agree that intelligent-design creationism is not religion but good science. Second we are supposed to conclude that intelligent design is the best scientific conclusion to draw from the DNA data.
As we will see, the intelligent-design creationists' SETI analogy is a space-age version of the classic philosophical argument from design for the existence of God. To evaluate it we will therefore not only have to look a bit at scientific work on information theory and probability and their applications in evolutionary biology, but also return to deeper philosophical questions about the nature of evidence, to help us differentiate science from religion and from pseudoscience. We will also have to consider a bit of theology to understand the importance of Heeren's concluding remarks about why God doesn't just make spectacular appearance. As in our discussion of linguistic evolution and the Tower of Babel, it will be useful to first investigate these issues in a context that allows us to consider them afresh and without prejudice. Moreover, for philosophical analysis of an issue, it is often very helpful to have a contrasting case that can highlight conceptual features that we might otherwise be blind to. For these reasons I now want to introduce one further sort of anti-evolutionary viewpoint.
Extraterrestrial Intelligent Design
Suppose we adopt, for the sake of argument, the intelligent-design creationists' claim that the evidence supports their hypothesis that life is the result of intelligent creation. Let us also take them at their word that they mean to provide scientific support on the SETI model. If so, then it looks as though the conclusion we should draw is that we were designed and created by intelligent extraterrestrials. Interestingly, Heeren writes that when the first edition of his book was published he was "barraged with calls from UFO watchers and skimming readers who wanted to know more facts about this reported contact with extraterrestrials," and he says that he "felt like Orson Wells must have felt after his radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1939." My original intention at this point was to devise an alternative extraterrestrial intelligent design (ET-ID) view of this kind and to show how ID creationism's arguments compared to those of the UFO enthusiasts whom we would expect to believe such a story. As it turns out, I did not need to concoct such a tale, for once again truth is stranger than fiction. A large international groupthe RaŽlian Movementadvocates just this ET-ID view. Like creationism, this is a religiously based movement that rejects evolution. Unlike creationism, RaŽlianism denies supernatural divine creation. RaŽlians promote a third viewthat intelligent aliens landed here millennia ago in spaceships and formed all of life on earth, including human beings, using highly advanced genetic engineering. I think that if we investigate the question of intelligent design in this context it will be easier to see why the IDC conclusion is not scientific.
The RaŽlian Movement originated in the early 1970s in France and now claims over 35,000 members in over eighty-five countries around the world. Outsiders think of it as a New Age religion, and in many ways that is a fair characterization, but Raelians think of their religion as being directly linked to Christianity and the other great world religions, and moreover, as the final religious form now that the world has entered the time of the Apocalypse. The beliefs of RaŽlians are based upon messages our extraterrestrial creators conveyed to the world through the "Guide of Guides," Claude Vorilhon, a French journalist and race-car enthusiast. Vorilhon, who later adopted the name "RaŽl," claims to have been twice contacted by an alien in a flying saucer who revealed to him the true story of the creation of life on earth. Here, in brief, is the story, as described in The Book That Tells The Truth (1986 ).
Eons ago, on a distant planet, these aliensthe Elohimhad reached an advanced level of scientific understanding and technical ability that enabled them to create primitive living cells in the laboratory. Some of them were fearful, however, of creating some new life form that might prove dangerous to life on their own planet, so they sought a lifeless planet where they might pursue their experiments safely. That planet was the earth. They began with simple cells but as researched progressed they soon were able to engineer seeds, grasses, and a wide variety of vegetation. As their technical abilities developed, the scientists collaborated with artists to produce beautifully decorative and scented plants. Plankton, small fish, and then bigger fish came next, and as the scientists created new species they worked to see that each fit well into the ecology of the whole system. Eventually, they began to create animalsdinosaurs, sea and land creatures, herbivores and carnivores. The artists had a big hand in the creation of birds, going to such wild aesthetic extremes in some cases in their design of plumage that the creatures could hardly fly. Finally, the scientists were ready for their greatest technical challenge, creating beings like themselves. Several teams set to work. After producing a series of prototypes (some of the skulls and bones of which we have found), the scientists successfully created Homo sapiens. Their final forms were all slightly differentthe various human racesbut all were alike in being made in the image of their creators.
Evolution is a myth, according to RaŽlianism. Biologists are correct that life forms of increasing complexity appeared over time, but that is because the alien scientists began with simple cells and then progressively modified these to produce more complex life forms as their techniques improved. Biologist are also partially correct in saying that humans descended from earlier primates; according to the Elohim scientist who contacted RaŽl, "Human beings are only an improved model of the monkey, to which we added that which makes us people." However, do not think that this happened by chance with purely natural mechanisms! No natural need could produce the beautiful curled horns of certain wild goats or the wild exotic colors of tropical fish. It is incredibly improbable that accidental evolution could produce the wide array of life forms. No, the complex biological world is all the result of the intentional design work of the Elohim scientists and artists.
It is important to understand that RaŽlianism fulfills all the elements that intelligent-design creationists set out to characterize their view, at least in the minimal version they propose for public consumption. The only difference is that Raelianism specifies that the intelligent designers were not supernatural spirits or gods, but alien beings from another planet. We thus have a real example of an ET-ID view. In all other respects, RaŽlianism is very similar to standard creationism. They have been so far less organized and productive than creationists in arguing against evolution, because they are more interested in proselytizing their positive message, but when they do talk about it they tend to follow the same negative argumentation strategy.
[ Discussion continued in Tower of Babel on pages 250-276. ]
Berra, Tim M. (1990). Evolution and the Myth of Creationism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 125-126
Davis, Percival and Kenyon, Dean H. (1993). Of Pandas of People. Dallas, Texas: Haughton Pub. Co., p. vii
Heeron, Fred. (1995). Show Me God: What the Message from Space is Telling Us About God. Wheeling, IL: Searchligh Publications, p. 169
Drake, Frank and Sobel, Dava. (1992). Is Anyone Out There? The Scientific Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. London: Souvenir Press, p. 37
Dembski, William A. (1994) "The Incompleteness of Scientific Naturalism." In Darwinism: Science or Philosophy, edited by J. Buell and V. Hearn. Richardson, TX: Foundation for Thought and Ethics, p. 83
RaŽl, Claude Vorilhon. (1986 ). "The Book Which Tells the Truth," In The Message Given to Me By Extra-Terrestrials. Tokyo: AOM Corporation, p. 103
( Robert T. Pennock, Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2000, pp. 226-236. )
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