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Scientists Respond to the Orchestrated Assault of IDists on Professor Gross
Posted December 4, 2003
- Intelligent Design and that Vast Right-wing Conspiracy: Paul R. Gross
- The assault of ID advocates on Professor Gross's essay is poorly substantiated: Mark Perakh
- Dear Editor: Andrea Bottaro
- It's Religious Politics: Pete Dunkelberg
- To the Editor: Jason Rosenhouse
- Dear NAS: Jeffrey Shallit
- Letter to the Editor: Matt Young
- Après le déluge, moi: Paul R. Gross
- Appendix: Wesley R. Elsberry Responds to Dembski's Challenge
By Paul R. Gross
This is an essay by professor Paul Gross which appeared in September 2003 issue of Science Insights (the organ of National Association of Scholars).
Because this can't be a treatise and we must be content with
only a few pointer-references to a vast literature, I must, before describing
the putative science of "intelligent design," establish the background from
which it emerges.
Symptoms of crankhood
Bogus science takes many forms. The aspiring diagnostician
has a choice of sources, ancient and modern, for help in recognizing it. Thus
the student of science-obfuscation may distinguish among the works of (sincere)
"crackpots," persistent "cranks," science-illiterates, honest but grossly
incompetent practitioners with a fixed idea, and qualified but sham
practitioners of science, in it for money or sectarian glory. Recent
symptom-lists for these pathologies come from two accomplished physicists.
From Robert L. Park, we have "The seven warning signs of
bogus science", a
meditation on the Supreme Court's landmark effort (Daubert v. Merrell Dow
Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 1993), toward insuring the admissibility of expert
science testimony, and the inadmissibility of bad, tendentious, or bogus science.
Park identifies seven warning signs of the shams that the Court wants judges,
as gatekeepers, to disallow. Two of these are especially relevant to the new
creationism, which dubs itself "Intelligent Design Theory."
1. "The [self-identified] discoverer," Park explains, "[who]
says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work...that
the establishment will...stop at nothing to suppress discoveries that might shift
the balance of wealth and power in society." And,
2. "The discoverer must propose new laws of nature..."
As a convenience for serious investigators, mathematical physicist
John Baez has fashioned a Crackpot Index. A high score on this Index identifies
infallibly a scientific claim that isn't -- one that can be ignored by the working
and presumably busy scientist (http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/crackpot.html).
The Index is computed on 35 indicators, each with a point value. Those range
from 1 to 50. The last six, with the biggest point values, are:
"31. 40 points for comparing those who argue against your
ideas to Nazis, stormtroopers, or brownshirts" [or the equivalent on the
Stalinist-Maoist left -- PRG].
"32. 40 points for claiming that the 'scientific
establishment' is engaged in a 'conspiracy' to prevent your work from getting
its well-deserved fame, or suchlike."
"33. 40 points for comparing yourself to Galileo..."
"34. 40 points for claiming that when your theory is finally
appreciated, present-day science will be seen for the sham it truly is..."
"35. 50 points for claiming you have a revolutionary theory
but giving no concrete testable predictions."
The new creationism, as any competent reader of its
voluminous literature discovers, displays every one of these symptoms.
Creationist anti-science, directed primarily but not exclusively at evolution
and its current expositors, suffered regular and damaging defeats in the courts
during the 20th century. The litigation was in response to ceaseless
creationist efforts either to eliminate evolution from school science, or to
give equal time to some scriptural account of Earth history, or to require
strong disclaimers as to the rightness of evolutionary biology. Every legal
defeat of anti-evolutionism turned upon the issue of church-state separation.
Creationist attacks on science education were easily shown to be religiously
motivated, and their proposed alternatives to be religion, not science. The
constitution forbids an establishment of religion: that includes public
education. Thus the impediment to creationist sabotage of modern biology has
been the unmistakably religious motivation of every disruptive strategy -- until
The new creationism, too, is at base religious, not
Attend now to William A. Dembski, theologian and
mathematician, currently the lead intellectual of the intelligent design
movement, in Touchstone Magazine, July/August 1999, p. 84:
"Despite its [intelligent design theory's] implications for
science, I regard the ultimate significance of the work on design to lie in
"The world is a mirror representing the divine life. The
mechanical philosophy was ever blind to this fact. Intelligent design ...readily
embraces the sacramental nature of physical reality. Indeed, intelligent design
is just the Logos theology of John's Gospel restated in the idiom of
Bypassing the Impediment
In the middle 1990s, a strategic plan for bypassing the
constitutional impediment was hatched, funded by rightist and religious
sources, and given a home within the Discovery Institute of Seattle,
Washington. It was the brainchild of Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson,
who had decided, in the course of a mid-life crisis, to (in his own words) give
himself to Christ. His plan called for Christian scholars to set aside, for the
time being, all biblical literalism and palpable (Christian) apologetics, and
to attack contemporary science directly -- as a form of thought crippled by its
commitment to "philosophical naturalism," or materialism.
In this movement there would be no direct mention of God or
divine action -- thus bypassing the legal barrier to the science classroom.
Participants in the work would carry out research to identify and publicize the
(assumed) deep flaws in Darwinism; they would prove the working of
intelligent design in the creation of the world, and -- most important -- they would
convey that good news, by energetic public relations and political activity,
into every corner of the culture and every level of local, state, and national
politics. This plan was dubbed "The Wedge": like a small wedge splitting a log
when driven into a crack, this combination of research discoveries, anti-evolution
public relations, and activist politics, hammered into the cracks in
evolutionary biology would shatter it and with it materialism, restoring a
God-centered socio-cultural life. (See for example
Survival of the Slickest
How anti-evolutionists are mutating their message; also Robert T. Pennock, Tower
of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism. Cambridge, MA: MIT
In all its elements except the most important -- the new
science that was to identify the flaws in Darwinism and to demonstrate the
presence of intelligent design in the world -- the Wedge has prospered. It has
almost displaced the creationisms that preceded it: the extreme biblical
literalists, the "young earth creationists", the old earth creationists, the
varieties of "theistic science" that acknowledge the fact of evolution but
attribute it to the action of some version of God.
But the science -- discovery of those failures in Darwinism, of
proofs, empirical and theoretical, that Darwinian evolution cannot have
happened -- has failed utterly. No matter: few people, few scientists, even,
outside the life sciences, understand the modern science of evolution, much
less the nit-picking inside and outside it. Of course, few people understand
relativity or quantum gravity either, and their internecine quarrels; but theoretical
physics arouses no passions. What counts in the making of public (including educational)
policy is low-level plausibility,
repetition, and hardball politics. To the lay mind, especially the mind justly
concerned about faith and the state of society, intelligent design has more
than enough plausibility. So half a dozen among the fifty states, now, and many
more local school districts than that, are embroiled in bitter political fights
over evolution in the science curriculum. In all of those, the Wedge is
present. To multiple millions of people it seems self-evident that the world
was designed by an intelligence, that is, for a purpose.
The creationist Santorum "amendment," disguised as a call
for "critical thinking" about science (in K-12!), barely missed incorporation
as such into the last federal education bill. But it is still there as an
advisory of the joint congressional committee. Wedge regulars mounted a
1960s-style teach-in for members of the Congress of the United States, in
Washington. Yet to date, seven or eight years after the initial efforts of the
Wedge, not a single research paper on, or clearly related to, the intelligent
design hypothesis has been published in the peer-reviewed scientific
literature. But again, no matter: millions of people believe what the Wedge
publishes in non-science journals, in books mostly from religious houses,
broadcasts in talk shows, and announces in conferences for the faithful.
How, then, does the Wedge explain this failure to produce
the new science that was supposed to be its purpose? See Park (1), above on bogus science, and Baez (31 -- 35,
above), for the Crackpot Index. Their explanation is a Vast Conspiracy of the
world's scientists to cover up the collapse of Darwinism and to suppress the discoveries
of Wedge members. You don't believe me? Please go to the web sites of the
Discovery Institute itself, or of the Access Research Network, or to the
productions of Wedge to which I provide starting keys below, or to the writings
of mathematician David Berlinski in Commentary. That respectable
cultural-political journal, for mysterious reasons, continues to publish, sans
competent review, Berlinski's animadversions on evolution. It does so although
he has no visible qualifications in biology or as an evolutionary thinker (see
James Downard's "A Tale of Two Citations," and has most recently even
dismissed the arguments of the Wedge, retaining however his own cranky
certitudes contra "Darwinism."
As to Park (2) -- the claim of bogus scientists to have
discovered new laws of nature -- that
is made by the Wedge's William Dembski in his "Law of the Conservation of Information."
The experts have ignored or scorned it (for example,
On Dembski's Law of Conservation of Information;
A Consistent Inconsistency). And biochemist Michael Behe,
another Wedge leader, in his 1996 book, Darwin's Black Box (New York:
The Free Press) compared his argument for "irreducible complexity" to the
discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo (Baez 33).
The Scientific Claims
What, then, are the explicitly scientific claims with which
the Wedge (the branch of the Discovery Institute that houses the Wedge)
encourages the faithful and bemuses parents, school boards, politicians, and
nice people in the National Association of Scholars? There is one general claim
with five subsidiaries, each identified with one or more Fellows, advisers, or
associates of the Center for Science and Culture. The subsidiaries fall into
two groups: negative (as regards evolutionary biology, "Darwinism") and
positive (as regards intelligent design). The general claim is familiar: it is
the ancient argument from design for the existence of God, last resurrected by
the Reverend William Paley, in England, in 1802 despite its having been rather
soundly thrashed by David Hume in 1748. The explicit aim of the Wedge is to
rehabilitate this argument -- that the world, life within it, is too complex and
obviously purposeful to have happened "by chance," hence it must have been
designed and created miraculously. In fact the explicit aim is to modernize
ecstatic, nineteenth-century natural theology, and with it to defeat "the mechanical
philosophy" of modernism.
Here now I list the subsidiary claims, name some of their
principal Wedge spokesmen, indicate briefly the reasons why they are
inconsequential. I provide pointer internet addresses and other references at
the end of each. Each site provides links to the large literature on the issue,
from the Wedge itself and its supporters, and from the scientific community.
Negative claim: In the Cambrian "explosion" of about 540
million years ago, nearly all the phyla of modern animals appeared at
the same time, giving the lie to the key Darwinian principle of slow, gradual
change -- descent with modification. This indicates that something quite different
was going on, possibly special creation ex nihilo of the animal body
plans. The Wedge's point man for this has been Paul Chien, a marine biologist
and self-described anti-Darwinist Christian; but others have contributed to the
argument. Chien has no qualifications in paleontology; he has published no
research in the field and has frankly acknowledged, when interviewed, his
amateur status. Nevertheless he has cultivated, on behalf of the Wedge, the
Chinese paleontologists working on the remarkable Precambrian and Cambrian
fossils of Guizhou Province.
The Cambrian explosion argument is false. "The same time"
means, in fact, a time-span of about ten million years. The relative
rapidity of the Cambrian adaptive radiation is of great interest in
paleontology; but no paleontologist of stature believes that the phyla arose ex
nihilo. There were multicellular animals on Earth long before the Cambrian
period, and there were unicellular ancestors of those, worldwide, at least 2.5 billion
years ago. Darwinian "gradualism" never required that all evolutionary change
proceed at a constant slow rate. What interests contemporary students of the
Cambrian is the trigger(s) for the radiation from Precambrian ancestors that
left few or no fossils to their multiform descendants in the Cambrian seas. See
as an example a recent book review by the preeminent student of the subject,
Cambridge Professor Simon Conway Morris, in American Scientist Online,
July-August 2003. More references and links
Negative claim: "Irreducible complexity" of structures and
biochemical systems at and below the cellular level. This is Lehigh University
biochemist Michael Behe's variation of Paley. Behe's claim is that the internal
machinery of cells is massively complex; each IC object is functionally
dependent upon all its parts. If one part is missing, there can be no function.
Behe's examples of IC subcellular objects include processes, such as the blood
clotting cascade, and structures such as flagellae. There are a few key howlers
in this argument, which was published in trade-book form 1996. Since then they
have been pointed out in dozens of reviews and in responses from working
evolutionists to Behe's frenetic schedule of promotion and replying (inadequately)
to critics. But there are in the scientific literature -- and have been for sixty
years -- considerations and examples of the evolution such systems as Behe
identifies, structures and processes that have demonstrably evolved from
simpler precursors, less complex and sometimes with different functions than
those of the contemporary structure or reaction pathway. (See, for a beautiful
current example, "Origin and evolution of circadian clock genes in
prokaryotes," by Volodymyr Dvornyk and others, in Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences, 100 (5): 2495-2500, 2003). A comprehensive discussion,
with dozens of links pro-(from the Wedge) and con-IC, can be found at "Behe's Empty
Box". See also a typically
devastating review of Darwin's Black Box from Brown University biologist -- and
theist -- Kenneth Miller.
Behe's "discovery" is just an argument from personal incredulity.
Negative claim: Some of the supposed "proofs" of Darwinian
evolution are false or fraudulent. All wedge spokesmen assert or imply this
from time to time; but their chief conspiracy theorist is Jonathan Wells. Wells
is a member and theologian of the Unification Church. As he tells it, the Rev.
Sun-Myung Moon, to whom he refers as "father," encouraged him to go for a
second Ph.D., this one in Biology, after winning his spurs in theology. The
purpose was to arm himself to "destroy Darwinism." His work consists not of
doing biology, but of mining the literature for arguments and weaknesses in
evolutionary science. These he has assembled, for example in his book Icons
of Evolution: Science or Myth (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2000), as
supposed proofs of evolution, taught in the schools, that are in fact wrong or
fraudulent. The book, and the lectures and tracts he produces wherever there
are conflicts over science curriculum, are very effective in rousing the furies
of parents who care about their children being taught lies.
It is the Icons themselves, however, that are wrong
and deceitful. Not one of them is about
a "proof" of Darwinism. Every one is a comment on material in some
school science textbooks, mis-stated or grossly distorted by Wells as to
origin, significance, and relevance to modern biology. There is no alternative
for the reader who cares about this than to read a few of the responses from
the literally dozens of experts and science teachers who have dissected Wells'
claims. Good places to start looking are National Center for Science Education and
TalkOrigins, searching for "Wells" and "Icons." In any case
nothing offered by him is in any way useful for judging seriously the strength
and significance of evolutionary science.
Positive claim: All modern science is blinded to the breadth
of reality by an unjustifiable commitment to naturalism and materialism,
whereby it cannot recognize the spiritual element in nature. The naturalism of
modern science is no more than a faith. This was lawyer Phillip Johnson's
original, and is still his only original, claim. It is bad philosophy. Its
basic error is to mistake the methodological naturalism of natural
science, without which there could be no objective inquiry, for some
ontological or metaphysical commitment, which in fact most scientists do not
have. The whole argument is artless. See Pennock's Tower of Babel, cited
earlier, and the collection of essays edited by Pennock, Intelligent Design
Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific
Perspectives (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).
Positive claim: It is proven by mathematics that "the
Darwinian mechanism" alone cannot explain life. This is the work of William
Dembski, trained in theology, philosophy, and mathematics. Mathematical and
probabilistic arguments against evolution are, of course, nothing new. They
have been appearing for more than a hundred years, and one at a time they have
been dropped because silly. A favorite current version is the argument from
improbability. One shows, because any ordinary protein is composed of a hundred
or so amino acids in an ordered configuration, and because the set of possible
amino acids numbers twenty, that the probability of the correct set assembling
in the proper order by chance is ridiculously small, because the number of
possible combinations is ridiculously large -- a number larger than the number of
electrons in the universe, or some such.
This is nonsense, of course: no protein has ever assembled
that way. Dembski's arguments are far fancier, though. He posits a "design
inference," an algorithmic decision process, by which the investigator may
decide among three and only three possible explanations for any "event":
regularity (a law of nature); chance; and, by elimination if the first two fail
to apply, design. This scheme, by now in a state of bewildering symbolic
elaboration with dozens of hedges, and claimed by Dembski to produce no false
positives, is the highest reach if intelligent design science. It doesn't and
it can't work. A good place to start seeing why is the recent book of physicist
Victor Stenger, Has Science Found God?: The Latest Results in the Search for
Purpose in the Universe. (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003, 99-129).
Next is the Talk Reason archive, which provides expert analyses of Dembski's
works and full linkage to his productions. See
also the review by mathematician Jason Rosenhouse of Dembski's latest book, No
Free Lunch, in: (Evolution 56(8): 1721-22, 2003), and the
point-by-point dissection by Richard Wein.
Nothing new. Success of intelligent design testifies merely
to the power of money, public
relations, and politics to convince the millions of the rectitude of what is in
fact baloney. See the Board Resolution of the American Association for the
Advancement of Science.
What follows are the letters from six scientists as well as from Professor Gross himself, wherein they reply to the
set of letters to Science Insights attacking professor Gross's essay.
The assault of ID advocates on Professor Gross's essay is poorly substantiated.
A number of writers have responded to Professor Grossís essay which was published in Science Insight (vol. 7, No 4, 2003). Their letters were published in Science Insights, vol. 7, No 5, 2003; the entire sets of these letters can be seen at www.nas.org. Several of the letters in question are in support of Gross (such as those submitted by Jason Rosenhouse, Jeffrey Shallit, Andrea Bottaro, Pete Dunkleberg, and Matt Young). Many others, however, attack Grossís essay (those from William Dembski, David Berlinski, Jonathan Wells, Robert Koons, Roland Hirsh and others). Most of the letters in the second category come from the same place -- the Discovery institute which is the home of the anti-Darwinian team of which the writers of the letters in question are fellows. The letters in that category contain mainly vitriolic assaults on Gross. The Discoveryís fellows accuse Gross of ad hominem attacks, distortions, lack of impartiality, and attempts to suppress the free expression of such views that are contrary to the allegedly doctrinaire Darwinism in which Gross is supposedly a blind believer.
Given the emotional tone of these letters from Discovery fellows which are replete with sharp denunciations of Grossís essay, often suffused with personal innuendoes, all their accusations sound hollow. If these writers are in favor of a calm and impartial discussion, they should have first of all made sure their own escapades were a little less loud.
take a very long letter to respond to all this anti-Gross vitriol. Therefore Iíll limit my comments mainly to
the letter by Robert Koons, and also a little to that by Hirsch, since these
two letters contain arguments also seen in other letters, so replying to Koons and
partially to Hirsch will address to some extent the arguments of their
colleagues as well.
writes, "It is ironic that leading members of the NAS, including Paul R. Gross,
have joined the Inquisition against defenders of Ďintelligent designí and other
dissenters from Darwinian orthodoxy. " This invective is typical of the manner
the Intelligent Design (ID) advocates conduct the discussion. They routinely
compare their opponents to inquisition, the Nazis, Himmler, Lysenko and the
like (see, for example, a collection of pertinent quotations at Invidious comparisons, The polemics of "intelligent design"). It is ironic indeed because the mere fact of the publication of
all these anti-Gross letters belies the preposterous assertion that the right
of the ID advocates to the free expression of their views is somehow curtailed
by the malicious pro-Darwinian inquisition. Koons, Dembski, Wells, Johnson, and
their colleagues publish their literary output at a high rate, having their own
publishing outlets like InterVarsity Press, their own journals, but also
participate in anthologies published by many publishing houses, and fully enjoy
the right for a free expression of their views. The inquisition they are fond
of talking about is non-existent.
telltale is Koonsís reference to the so-called Darwinian orthodoxy. There is no
such animal in existence. The modern neo-Darwinian synthesis is characterized
by a lively discussion of controversial topics and by an open-end development
wherein there are no sacred cows and unorthodox views are suggested and discussed
day in and day out.
scientists, with a few exceptions, largely ignore the ID advocates, but in that
the mainstream scientists exercise their own right to choose what to speak
about. The simple fact is that the ID advocates, although lavishly funded, have
so far not produced much of what would qualify as a scientific research in
support of their ID concept. Instead, they indulge in philosophical and
theological discourses (besides polemics and political actions) which they
disseminate without any constraints.
comparison of pro-evolution scientists with the inquisition, or with Lysenko,
the Nazis, etc, is a mendacious and shameful device intended to obfuscate the
essence of the dispute and to present themselves as underdogs deserving
sympathy because of their being allegedly oppressed by the vile materialistic
Darwinists. This picture has nothing to do with reality.
other hand, since this collection of attacking letters has all signs of a
concerted group assault, it, unlike Grossís critique, indeed may justifiably be
viewed as an effort at intimidation and thus silencing Gross and any other
Koons writes, among other things, that "William Dembski does not claim to have Ďdiscoveredí
the law of the conservation of information. Instead, he simply brings this
well-known and widely accepted result of information theory (the Ďno free lunch
theoremsí) to bear on problems of the origin of biological information."
This quotation reveals the actual regrettably low level of
dispute offered by the ID advocates, in this case by the philosopher Koons. To
start with, Koons seems to think that the No Free Lunch (NFL) theorems are part
of information theory. In fact, these fine theorems by Wolpert and Macready (which
extend the traditional Bayesian analysis into a
model-independent "geometry of induction") have little
relation to information theory (unless we construe that relation in the fact
that both information theory and geometry of induction utilize probabilistic
approach, which, of course, is a common feature of many conceptual systems
having otherwise nothing in common; likewise we could say, for example, that
some concept of agronomy belongs in, say, seismology, since both sciences deal
with earth). In fact the NFL theorems belong
in the optimization theory (see D. H. Wolpert and W.
G. Macready, IEEE Trans. Evol. Comput. 1 (1997), no. 1, 67-82), with which philosopher
Koons apparently is familiar about as much as with information theory.
demonstrated actual level of Koonsís ken in information theory, it is less
surprising that he has claimed his colleague Dembski to be the "Isaac Newton of
information theory." (Koonsís blurb on the dust cover of Dembskiís Intelligent
Design). Furthermore, contrary
to what Koons seems to think, the NFL theorems have no relation to the
so-called "law of conservation of information," persistently propagandized by
Dembski, and even less supporting that "law" in any way. The entire attempt by
Dembski to use the NFL theorems to support his intelligent design "theory" was
a failure. One of the two originators of the NFL theorems, David Wolpert,
unequivocally dismissed Dembskiís misuse of the NFL theorems in an essay
tellingly titled "William Dembskiís Treatment of the NFL Theorems is Written in
Jello". There are other critical reviews of Dembskiís attempt to utilize the NFL
theorems (see articles on Talk Reason
wherein a further bibliography is available). Moreover, contrary to Dembskiís loud claim in his book No Free
Lunch (wherein he tried to use the NFL theorems to prove the impossibility
of Darwinian evolution), having encountered a rebuttal of that attempt by a
number of critics, Dembski has later changed the tune, now announcing that the
use of the NFL theorems was not really his principal thesis but rather just an
example, a particular case of what he calls "displacement problem." Unlike Dembski himself, Koons seems to still
adhere to the preposterous notion, stemming from his amateurish understanding
of the matter, that Dembski successfully "brings this well-known and widely
accepted result of information theory (sic!) to bear on the problems of the
origin of biological information." Rather than making such claims, Koons should
have first spent some time and effort on studying the subject he sets out to
discuss. Last but not least, if, as Koons now asserts in his letter, Dembski has not discovered the law of
conservation of information, but only applied the well known notions, how to
reconcile it with Koonsís earlier claim wherein he wrote about Dembski that "his
law of conservation of information represents a revolutionary breakthrough"? (The
already mentioned Koonsís blurb on the cover of Dembskiís Intelligent Design).
Something is not quite right with philosopher Koonsís consistency.
the "Isaac Newton of information theory" Dembski himself, it is interesting to
note that information theorists have not paid much attention to Dembskiís supposed
revolutionary contribution to information theory. There are practically no
references in the literature on information theory to Dembski and his theories.
The reason for that is simple - Dembskiís contribution to information theory is
all but invisible. Moreover, although Dembski has a PhD degree in mathematics,
his contribution to any branch of mathematics is not much larger than to
information theory. Although he is a prolific writer, all of his literary
output contains not a single mathematical theorem proved by him, nor any
mathematical formula derived, nor any algorithm developed, but only a multitude
of esoteric notations often serving no useful role.
statement can be made about many other letters directed against Gross.
Professor Gross had a distinguished career in genuine science, having published
many high quality research papers in biology. Lately he has addressed the
problems related to the assault of the ID advocates on evolution. The main proponents of Intelligent Design, however,
while being very active and loud in asserting their anti-evolution views, have
so far produced no genuine scientific results related to their ID theory. Most
of them, with a few exceptions, have produced very little of anything
scientific in general. For example, David Berlinski, usually referred to as a
mathematician, has authored popular books on mathematics, and papers against
evolution, but has no known record of his own contribution to the development
of mathematics or of any other science.
writer of an anti-Gross letter (Hirsh) accuses Gross of referring to Wellsís
religious background but ignoring Wells scientific credentials. In fact, both
Wellsís religious affiliation and his credentials are a well known secret.
Everybody familiar with the ongoing dispute between ID advocates and their
opponents knows that Wells has a PhD degree in biology from University of
California Berkeley. There are many PhDs who graduated from that fine institution,
so there was nothing really unusual in that to specially emphasize it in
Grossís reference to Wells. However, what is indeed unusual is something
related to Wellsís religious background. As Wells himself wrote, he set out to
study biology being advised to do so by his spiritual "father." Gross properly
mentions this. Moreover, as Wells himself stated, the purpose of his studying
biology, set in advance, was to "destroy Darwinism." Such a goal set prior to
having studied the subject is indeed quite unusual (actually unheard of from a
scientist) and is also undermining Wellsís status as an objective participant
in the dispute. It is only natural that
Gross pointed to that fact which is quite relevant to the question at
hand. Hirsch further asserts that Wells
continues conducting a genuine research in biology, referring to Wellís two
published papers. A closer look reveals, though, that these two not very recent
papers (apparently stemming from his PhD dissertation) constitute the whole of
Wellsí contribution to biology (which therefore seems to be hardly
significant). As of late, Wells in fact does not seem to pursue any known
genuine research work, unless he is doing it in secret.
Behe, who seems to be one of a few exceptions in the ranks of the most
prominent ID advocates, in that he is a real active scientist, does not seem to
mix his biochemical research with his pro-ID activities - there seem to be no
cross- references in the two separate branches of his endeavors.
such "greats" of the ID movement as Phillip Johnson or Stephen Meyer, have even
less to do with any science.
attack on Gross from this group of ID advocates, which in itself makes
preposterous their claim of allegedly being silenced by the Darwinian
establishment, should be construed for what it actually is - an unsubstantiated
polemic designed to drown Grossís argument in the loud din of an orchestrated
California State University, Fullerton
Readers of ScienceInsights should be grateful for Paul Gross' lucid analysis of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. Hardly a day passes by without some newspaper around the country uncritically reporting about some Discovery Institute press release or P.R. move. As pseudoscience, from whatever source, tends to look easier and less messy than real science, a good immunization with a healthy dose of reality is the best prophylaxis against its subtle appeal.
Alas, your readers will also need to get ready now for the unavoidable onslaught of personal invective that regularly follows nerve-touching anti-ID pronouncements. As with most pseudosciences, wild accusations of censorship, scientific fraud, conspiracy and various forms of unethical behavior have become part of the common armamentarium of ID argumentation: a recent paper by Dembski devotes a whopping twentysome pages solely to a catalog of alleged Darwinian "tricks" (disclosure: I am, according to Dembski, one of the co-conspirators). Even more than the scarcity of scientific substance highlighted by Gross, it is the inordinate amount of time that ID proponents devote to political action, personal attacks and conspiracy mongering, rather than actual scholarship, that ultimately dooms their efforts to the "crankhood" category.
University of Rochester
School of Medicine and Dentistry
It's Religious Politics:Intelligent Design and Religious Politics
One of the intriguing things about intelligent design (ID) is that it
has an aura of mystery for many people even though it seems empty to
scientists. I'll try to throw some light on this and the related question of
ID's similarity to creationism.
It's a question of politics (and so of tactics) and it's really
inter-religious politics, with high school science as a proxy battleground.
> Mainstream theology is aware that 'God of the gaps' is a bad idea. The
gaps keep getting smaller. And why should good religion have to deny
scientific discoveries? Those who disagree see usurpation of public schools
as the way to defeat their brethren.
Take a moment to read Ronald Numbers' 1982 paper Creationism in 20th-Century America, in Science 218: 538-544.
Creationist leader Henry Morris's tactical advice to supporters will sound
very familiar to Texans, who have just been through several months of
political theater courtesy of the
Discovery Institute (DI).
The astute, media savvy and
DI is the
sponsor of the ID campaign. Their strategy is laid out in the
This document was not supposed to become public, but it was leaked several
years ago. As you can see, science as we know it must be vanquished and
replaced by theo-science. This is to be accomplished by unspecified research
which has not occurred, and by a massive political campaign which has.
The DI also uses the 'big tent' strategy. Both young- and old earth
creationists are welcome. They argue that they are not creationists because
they are not specifically young earthers, and that ID is not strictly
religious because, they say, the Designer might be a space alien rather than
God. But another group of IDists, the
Raelians, believe the Designer
is a space alien. It is their religion.
ID's greatest claim to fame, and to being more than mere creationism,
is its design detectors. These are allegedly scientific methods of detecting
the Designer's handiwork in nature. Although the design detectors have not
detected any design, they give ID its sex appeal.
The best known of these is Behe's irreducible complexity (IC). He
argues, but gives no evidence, that IC as defined by him cannot evolve and
yet he can detect it in nature. But Behe's argument ignores basic biology,
and IC evolves easily. See
Irreducible Complexity Demystified for examples. Since IC as such doesn't matter,
all that's left of his position is "Gee that looks complex". Note that
others may refer to the public image of IC as something that really cannot
evolve. I refer just to Behe's definition of IC.
The other Design detector is Dembski's 'Explanatory Filter' (EF)
argument and its elaborations. This is discussed in his books, and also by
Wilkins and Elsberry, who explore what used to be a favorite example of
Dembski's in The advantages of theft over toil: the design inference and arguing from
ignorance in Biology and Philosophy, November 2001. In later versions
the filter is said to work best with specified complexity (SC). Dembski's
complexity turns out to mean improbability. Specification has been defined
to hardly anyone's satisfaction, and is best explained with examples. The
stone circles of the far north, a whole field of stones arranged in
neat circles, provide a good introductory example. This arrangement is
certainly 'improbable' enough (using creationist probability, in other words
assuming the circular arrangement resulted from random mixing alone), and
circular is a fine specification. Hence the stone circles pass
through the filter and must have been designed. Unlike science, design, not
"don't know," is the default, as it is in creationist thinking generally.
Positive evidence is not required to infer design. But alas, now a
natural explanation of the stone circles has been found.
Dembski proudly claims "No false positives" for his method, or in other
words a natural phenomenon is never incorrectly identified as Designed. How
can this claim be squared with the fact that, excepting man-made items, only
false positives have occurred? Easily. When you think you have found a false
positive, for example the stone circles, it obviously means that the method
was not properly applied in the first place. You did not eliminate all
non-design explanations after all. The EF works perfectly in hindsight.
'Gedanken' presents an interesting
example of specification on ISCID,
where other aspects of EF are debated; there are many more articles on the
subject online at
How distinct are the design detectors from good old scientific
creationism? First, you need to know that when pressed about their design
detectors, IDists finally say, "Oh, we didn't really mean it has to
be design. But if not, it's very improbable." (using creationist
probability, see below). Now take a look at this passage from Morris' famous
book Scientific Creationism:
"This issue can actually be attacked quantitatively, using simple
principles of mathematical probability. The problem is simply whether a
complex system, in which many components function unitedly together, and in
which each component is uniquely necessary to the efficient functioning of
the whole, could ever arise by random processes."
Scientific Creationism 2nd edition p. 59.
"By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several
well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function,
wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively
Darwin's Black Box, p. 39 (emphasis in original).
Morris doesn't have ID's neologisms and does not claim a design
detector as such. However, he argues from creationist probability that the
complex systems he describes could not arise naturally. His treatment
presages both of ID's design detectors. "Creationist probability", still
very much in use by IDists, means: estimate the probability of a nonrandom
outcome on the assumption of random mixing; often assume that evolution has
a specific target in advance; ignore population biology; and design is never
improbable. It is at the root of many creationist arguments new and old.
Could it be that ID is simply a politically improved creationism? The
new terms and bold claims impress the public, but scientifically they
introduce new fallacies and misrepresentations.
To fully understand the hubbub surrounding ID, we need one more piece
of the puzzle and a final clue. Recall that I said at first it's a matter of
politics and tactics. We need to learn of one more tactic: the fall-back
It happened first in Ohio, and seemed to be a last minute realization
as the DI was about to go before the Ohio state board of education: there is
absolutely nothing in ID theory that the DI can present to a school board
and say, "Here is our lesson plan. Teach this." Anything singled out for
public scrutiny will promptly receive a very public debunking. Grasping for
something to say, they came up with "Teach the controversy," meaning the
public, not scientific, controversy they created. This has now changed into
"Teach the weaknesses." Of course the DI also supplies the "weaknesses" of
biology in the form of DI Fellow Wells' book Icons of Evolution. His
topics are familiar from scientific
creationism, but the new treatment is more
stridently bogus than
Henry Morris ever dreamed.
Whenever they come before a school board, the DI is adamant about their
fallback position. We do not want you to teach ID they insist. As
they are so protective of their brand name product, could it be that they
realize the design detectors have no scientific value? It's not as if no one
ever mentioned it to them. Be that as it may, the design detectors, while
they don't detect any design, function very well tactically to excite the
public, and then it's bait and switch. With one final clue, it all becomes
clear. As I see it, where ID is concerned, (with apologies to Dobzhansky):
Nothing from the Discovery Institute makes sense except in light of the
To the Editor:
Squeamish readers of "Science Insights" might wonder if the
polemical tone of Paul Gross' editorial against Intelligent
Design theory (ID) was really justified. To them I offer the
following paragraph, drawn from a letter I received
announcing a forthcoming ID conference:
"The American Association for the Advancement of Science
believes the design that is detected by our intuition and
confirmed by formal design detection methodology should be
censored for a lack of evidence. Hmmmm! If this doesn't seem
a bit off-the-wall, they also claim that design can't be
tested even though scientists are testing radio and light
waves for alien intelligence everyday. Curiously, while those
tests have turned up negative, the same tests run on DNA are
turning up positive."
Or this quote, drawn almost at random from Jonathan
Wells' "Icons of Evolution":
"As we saw in Kevin Padian's Ďcracked kettleí approach to
biology, dogmatic Darwinists begin by imposing a narrow
interpretation on the evidence and declaring it to be the
only way to do science. Critics are then labeled
unscientific; their articles are rejected by mainstream
journals, whose editorial boards are dominated by the
dogmatists; the critics are denied funding by government
agencies, who send grant proposals to the dogmatists for
`peer review'; and eventually the critics are hounded out of
the scientific community altogether.
"In the process, evidence against the Darwinian view simply
disappears, like witnesses against the Mob. Or the evidence
is buried in specialized publications, where only a dedicated
researcher can find it. Once critics have been silenced and
counter-evidence has been buried, the dogmatists announce
that there is no scientific debate about their theory, and no
evidence against it. Using such tactics, defenders of
Darwinian orthodoxy have managed to establish a near-monopoly
over research grants, faculty appointments, and peer-reviewed
journals in the United States."
This is how ID proponents talk when they are preaching to the
choir. It is how they talk during the uncounted hours they
spend lobbying sympathetic politicians to have their views
presented in science classes. This is the rhetoric you will
find at any of the dozens of web sites devoted to ID
So forgive me if I find their bleats about fairness, civility
and open-mindedness to be a bit rich. The fact is the
scientific community has bent over backward to give the ID
theorists a fair hearing. Not long ago, for example, the
American Museum of Natural History invited William Dembski
and Michael Behe to present their views. Numerous scientists
such as Kenneth Miller of Brown and Massimo Pigliucci of the
University of Tennessee have engaged in debates with ID
proponents. When presenting their views to knowledgeable
audiences, the ID proponents are invariably unimpressive.
The scientific claims of ID proponents are rejected because
they are demonstrably false. Scientists who investigate
further quickly discover that ID proponents do not behave the
way scientists behave when they have a dispute over technical
questions. For example, rather than present their views at
academic conferences they attempt to seize the reins of
public power by lobbying school boards and politicians. This
makes it reasonable to wonder about their true agenda. When
you subsequently discover that most of the funding for ID
comes from organizations otherwise devoted to promoting a
conservative social agenda, it is not difficult to connect
Scientists wading into ID literature can expect to find their
words distorted, their ideas misrepresented and their
integrity impugned. When they point this out, they are
accused of being part of an atheist conspiracy. And after
delivering their endless tirade of irrational anti-Darwinian
invective, ID proponents then turn around and accuse
scientists of being arrogant.
Where I come from we call that chutzpah.
Department of Mathematics
James Madison University
Harrisonburg, VA 22801
Thanks to Paul Gross for telling it like it is.
"Intelligent design" isn't good science. It isn't even good pseudoscience. It's a political and religious movement masquerading as pseudoscience. Its proponents have largely refused to submit their claims to the rigors of peer review, preferring to bypass this process by publishing books with religious and/or right-wing publishers.
Need proof? Look at Dembski's forthcoming book, The Design Revolution. The publisher is InterVarsity, whose website states "We are a publisher of Christian books and Bible studies" -- not the first place I'd look for a revolutionary scientific discovery.
Next, look at the endorsements for The Design Revolution, available on Dembski's own web site. The very first is from far-right Senator Rick Santorum; the second is from Robert George, a conservative Christian professor of politics; the third is from William Abraham, a theology professor at Southern Methodist; the fourth is from an historian; the fifth is from a philosopher; the sixth is from a theologian. (Yes, lower down there are a few scientist endorsers, but it's clear what the pecking order is.) If most of these folks have the necessary scientific and mathematical training to catch the errors in Dembski's claims, it's news to me.
And there are errors -- lots of them. Some are pure carelessness (one crucial calculation in Dembski's No Free Lunch is off by 65 orders of magnitude), but others are not so easy to shrug off. I have covered a number of them in my review of his book in BioSystems 66 (2002), 93-99. I sent Dembski a copy of this review more than a year ago, but no substantive response has been forthcoming. Although Dembski's own web site archives dozens of his papers, there is no errata page for No Free Lunch.
Intelligent design advocates are so desperate for praise that they grasp at nearly anything to show that they're actually doing science. Take Dembski's response to Gross, Paul Grossís Dilemma:An Open Letter to the National Association of Scholars in Response to Paul Grossís Article on Intelligent Design in the NASís September 2003 Issue of Science Insights. Dembski mentions two papers from the peer-reviewed literature that he claims cite his work "favorably". But if you look at the article by Chiu and Lui, you will see that (1) nothing in their article uses Dembski's methodology (2) their citation to The Design Inference refers to "complex specified information" -- a term that doesn't even appear in that book! This is hardly proof that Dembski's work is having scientific impact.
Maybe intelligent design will eventually become science. But the only way that's going to happen is if its proponents buckle down and do some actual science, instead of spending their time exhorting the faithful at church gatherings or legislating their way into the public-school curriculum.
Professor Jeffrey Shallit
University of Waterloo
Letter to the Editor
Dear Dr. Wenger:
Whenever I hear someone compare himself to Copernicus, I immediately think, "Velikovsky." Immanuel Velikovsky was a physician who apparently convinced himself that the mythology of all the peoples of the world reported real events and then set out to prove it. He argued that the planets Mars and Venus had had near collisions with Earth within historical times and made a great many predictions based on this contention. Among them were the claim that Venus was very hot (true) and that oil would be found only at low latitudes (thought to be true but later falsified). By rewriting the archeological record, ignoring real physical problems, and focusing only on his successful predictions, Velikovsky "proved" his thesis to his own satisfaction and that of a lot of gullible followers.
Velikovsky had a real research program in the sense that he made concrete predictions that could be tested against reality. In this regard, he is worlds ahead of the "intelligent designauts" whom Paul Gross describes in the September 2003 issue. Like Velikovsky, the intelligent designauts have a thesis that they are determined to prove, whether it is right or not. Unlike Velikovsky, however, they have no research program: they make no predictions whatsoever, unless you count as a prediction the claim that we will never understand the bacterial flagellum. Instead, they seem to think that carping is enough: if they can undermine what they call Darwinism, then they can incorrectly hold out intelligent design as the only alternative.
As Gross notes, Jonathan Wells attended graduate school with the express purpose of destroying Darwinism, presumably a field he had not studied in detail before enrolling (Darwinism: Why I Went for a Second Ph.D.). A real scientist would have examined the case for Darwinism, not rejected it out of hand. Wells has so far produced nothing that regards intelligent design and has any scientific merit. His colleagues Behe and Dembski have likewise produced nothing that can be tested empirically -- only assertions that amount to a lack of imagination, what Gross calls the argument from incredulity.
No matter: intelligent design is not intended to be scientific. It is a smokescreen designed to hide the defects that were apparent in creationism. Dembski admits as much (Chapter 10 of Paul Kurtz, Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? Prometheus, Amherst, N.Y., 2003, pp. 89-97) and crows that "most people" do not find evolution "compelling." Scientific truth is not a popularity contest, as Dembski well knows. That he is willing to make it so is one indication why intelligent design is a political movement and inherently anti-science.
Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism
Rutgers Univesity Press, 2004 (to be published)
Après le déluge, moi
By Paul R. Gross
My rejoinder will be
shorter than the preceding articles of abuse. Of each indictment, in the order
in which they arrived, I make the shortest possible précis. And I answer similarly.
In anticipation, however, we need a preamble. It includes a reminder of what I actually wrote. The real issue -- as it
should be for the National Association of Scholars -- is politicization of
teaching and scholarship. Therefore in the preamble I report on the latest
science textbook battle in Texas, now temporarily halted. Time and space allow
no more than a terminal nod of gratitude to those who approved my observations.
My piece began by
identifying -- with references -- certain diagnostic features of crank-, or pseudo-,
or otherwise bad science, as proposed by two well-known physicists. I then said
that the newest form of creationism, so-called Intelligent Design (ID) Theory,
displays the symptoms named. This was perhaps not kind; but it is true.
Everything that followed was in effect supporting evidence. The style of these
complaints about my piece simply adds to the evidence.
For a decade there
has been a massive political effort to emplace the new creationism in schools
and colleges, and to discredit evolution and the relevant geology and cosmology.
This has for long seemed to me a matter for NAS concern. But I have had my
doubts about raising the question. Recently I was urged by others, and then
invited, to write the opinion piece. Nota
bene: "opinion piece" -- an editorial, not
a textbook; not a technical rebuttal of bad arguments. (Which I can
nevertheless provide, have provided, and do so again in a forthcoming book). I
supplied citations to the professional literature as well as to the
In the master plan of
the most energetic ID-advocacy guild, self-dubbed "The Wedge," first place was
given to gaining scientific respect in the universities and in public education,
K-12 and beyond. That was to result from their publication of new, powerful
scientific arguments and empirical evidence in favor of ID (therefore against
that vast body of modern science they miscall "Darwinism"). This part of the
plan has failed. A decade later, there is still no support in the
scientific literature. But they had already announced, at the start, that
"Darwinism" was dead! How then, my essay asked, do ID-advocates explain this?
Answer: by the devices the two physicists named. To anyone who reads the
references, it will be obvious.
I then reduced the
actual scientific claims of ID -- those employed in public relations and political
maneuvering -- to five; three negative and two positive. I dealt with each one,
very much compressed, as required for a Science
Insights opinion, but with documentation. This exercise could not have been
gracious. Serious science is overwhelmingly dismissive of ID theory. And, the
new creationism is relentlessly derogatory of evolutionary biology and
biologists, that is, of modern biology. The derogation is unjustified. If, now,
an active and increasingly powerful political-public relations campaign
describes us, our professional work, our antecedents and colleagues, as either
stupid or blind to the way things really
are, or worse, as conspirators, covering up the failure of "Darwinism," are we
supposed to respond with deference? Do our humanist and social-scientist
members respond graciously and with deference to political assaults on Western
culture, or when they are charged with the terrible triad (racism, sexism, and
Now I quote reporter
Terrence Stutz, in The Dallas Morning
News, Dallas, Texas, November 6, 2003.
-- State Board of Education members on Thursday tentatively adopted new high
school biology books that fully discuss evolution, rejecting the pleas of
social conservatives and other critics of Charles Darwin and his theory of how
life on earth evolved.
an intense campaign by opponents of evolution -- including thousands of e-mails,
faxes and phone calls to board members -- the board of education approved 11 new
books by a lopsided 11-4 vote.
board vote was a setback for a national think tank that has promoted an
alternative theory for the origin of life on earth, called "intelligent design.
current law, the board may reject a textbook only if it has factual errors,
does not cover the curriculum or is manufactured poorly. Critics of the biology
books had claimed they contained numerous factual errors about evolution.
Final approval of the
textbooks was voted the following day, November 7th, 2003. The
record of this conflict and its predecessors in other states, most recently
Kansas, Ohio, and Georgia, reflects a changing strategy of the Wedge in its
case against evolution. Initially the claim was positive: new discoveries revealing
intelligent design in the world; new science to topple the old. Those new discoveries,
it turned out, do not (yet) exist. Even laymen began to hear about that. There
came a return to old-style negative creationism: claims of gross errors in
Darwinism, deductive "proofs" that Darwinian evolution cannot happen. Then came
the current version: a collection of putatively "failed proofs," grave
"weaknesses" of evolution, assembled by Jonathan Wells. Those were central to
the latest ID push in Texas. They are supposed to be present in nearly all
biology textbooks -- false evidence of an empirical base for evolution. Thus the
intelligent design political strategy no longer emphasizes new science. It now
resembles its earliest ancestors: demands for the most minute scrutiny or
censorship of anything to do with evolution.
Texas science, and
not only its life science, rose to the occasion and opposed the Discovery
Institute's (the Wedge's) campaign. Here is an example of what the state's scientists
said and did. The Dallas-Fort Worth area (like others in Texas) is rich in
biological and medical talent. On September 22, 2003, seventeen local members
of the National Academy of Sciences and/or the Institute of Medicine, all of them biological and medical
scientists, four of them, including Alfred Gilman, Nobel laureates, addressed
the school board and their fellow citizens. From Professor Gilman's published
individuals and organizations have long opposed teaching only scientific bases
for the appearance and evolution of life on earth. These opponents claim that scientific
texts systematically misinform readers. Why? Because, according to the critics,
the books in question don't expound upon supposed weaknesses in the theory of
These assertions have been
refuted in great detail by scientists in testimony prepared for the state board
and in analyses of the central arguments raised by opponents of the texts...[emphasis added]
note that these supposedly scientific challenges are directed selectively at
the theory of evolution. There are no similar campaigns being waged against
textbooks that don't discuss alleged weaknesses in other major scientific
theories, such as gravitation or relativity. Clearly, the motivation for the
current challenges lies not in
science, and the scientific classroom is not
the proper forum for such a debate.
modern theory of evolution has undergone 140 years of testing. It is now so
well established that its veracity and robustness are accepted as fact by the
overwhelming majority of scientists in this country and around the world. In
the scientific community, the unanswered questions concern not the fact of evolution but rather the mechanisms by which evolution operates...
For those familiar
with the public information style of the Discovery Institute, it will be no
surprise to learn that on November 7th, at 1:21 ET, the Institute
announced victory ("Textbook Reformers See Last-Minute Victory in Texas
Decision"). This was posted online;
but by Nov. 13th, it had been removed. For a good sense of what that
announcement contained, N.A.S. members might look up Robert Graves: "The
thinks my criticisms are funny. This is a sun-ray in the fog: we are brothers,
because I think his writings on science are droll. His contortions in declining
to support the claims of ID while yet remaining an anti-Darwinian in good
standing are, well...Elizabethan. British English, especially as spoken by the
Scots, has an expression for it: "chuntering."
Phillip Johnson defends
the Santorum "amendment," arguing that it was endorsed even by Senator Kennedy.
That was the only surprising name on Mr. Johnson's short list of supporting legislators.
(It is not, however, an amendment. It
is accessory language in the conference committee report. Qua amendment, it was voted down. Nor did the original propose
teaching intelligent design. It recommended teaching the evidence on controversial
theories. Which is what has always been done anyway, in those exceptionally
rare cases of real controversy about
anything in the K-12 science curriculum.)
The reasons for the
large, final supporting vote cited by Mr. Johnson were mechanical and
political; the media covered them well. Yet, on March 14, 2002, in a Washington Times opinion piece, Senator
Santorum mirepresented his amendment and declared that "Sen. Ted Kennedy,
Massachusetts Democrat, approves of having alternative theories taught in the
classroom. He believes children should be 'able to speak and examine various
scientific theories on the basis of all information that is available to them
so they can talk about different concepts and do it intelligently with the best
information that is before them.'"
On March 21, 2002,
Mr. Kennedy replied in the same newspaper:
"The March 14
Commentary piece, 'Illiberal education in Ohio schools,' written by my
colleague Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, erroneously suggested
that I support the teaching of 'intelligent design' as an alternative to biological
evolution. That simply is not true. Rather, I believe that public school science
classes should focus on teaching students how to understand and critically
analyze genuine scientific theories. Unlike biological evolution, 'intelligent
design' is not a genuine scientific theory and, therefore, has no place in the
curriculum of our nation's public school science classes."
Is Mr. Johnson
unaware of Sen. Kennedy's demurrer? William
Dembski is not: he published a sneer at Mr. Kennedy's pretensions to
scientific judgment. Matching comment on Sen. Santorum's qualifications has not
Jonathan Wells complains
that I distorted his religious background. What I wrote about it comes from
Wells' own Unification Church sermon. Already a theologian, he enrolled in a
doctoral biology program for the
stated purpose of "destroying Darwinism." This is hardly irrelevant to
the issue at hand; it is ad hoc, not ad hominem; nor was that a good start
toward scientific objectivity. Please see Darwinism: Why I Went for a Second Ph.D. .
He offers a long,
quasi-technical justification for his attacks upon E. H. Haeckel's 19th-century
drawings of vertebrate embryos, and on peppered moth evolution, two of his
"icons." He says that those attacks are in the scientific literature. There are
indeed some, often old, complaints from scientists about details of these and
others among the "icons" of Wells' oeuvre.
But they amount to little or nothing in modern evolutionary biology. Experts in
each of the relevant fields have dismissed -- in the scientific literature -- Wells'
accusations. See, for another example, "The Talented Mr. Wells," by Kevin
Padian and Alan D. Gishlick, in Quarterly
Review of Biology, 77, No. 1, 33-37 (2002). A reader who follows my pointers
will find many other such rebuttals.
comprehensive re-examination by Michael K. Richardson and Gerhard Keuck of the
work and influence of Haeckel (Biol. Rev.
Cambridge Phil. Soc. (2002) 77:
495-528) is a case in point.
Richardson is one of those who most recently called attention to the
inaccuracies in some of Haeckel's old drawings. Yet his new study with Keuck he
concludes that Haeckel was a founder of comparative morphology, and that the
broad evolutionary principles he espoused, if not all the details, were sound.
I agree with Wells on
only one point: readers who really care about these issues must go to the real
scientific literature, some way into the technicalities. And for a start, they
might look back to the statement (above) of the Dallas-area Nobelists and
National Academy members. Their opinion on these matters is echoed by some 550 working
Texas scientists, who said so during the Texas wars. It is implicit in what the
chief executives of fifty or so of the largest scientific societies wrote in connection
with the Santorum "amendment" (August 2001: Joint Letter from scientific and
educational leaders on evolution in H.R. 1, addressed to Rep. John Boehner and
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy). It is implicit in the daily work of tens of thousands
of biologists, including all currently contributing evolutionary biologists
around the world.
fulminates at great length over my statement that he compares his own "discovery"
to those of Copernicus and Galileo. To support these complaints and his homilies
on scholarship, he quotes a passage from Darwin's
Black Box. Again, I shan't contribute to the Discovery Institute's misuse
of Scientific Insights for "debate."
Suffice it to say that throughout Darwin's
Black Box (which I did read: I
was paid to review it in The Wall Street
Journal), Mr. Behe's message is that the "irreducible complexity" (henceforth
"IC," his coinage) of sub-cellular systems, is implicit in modern biochemistry,
and that this has a startling consequence. He compares modern biochemistry
with the "assault on the senses"
perpetrated by Copernicus and Galileo.
Behe argues that the
IC of molecular biological systems -- which he, not modern biochemistry, claims -- makes the evolution of
those systems by natural means impossible! The claim that ID must therefore be
true is attached, although it does not follow. This is how IC continues to this
day to be sold. But biochemistry and cell biology have been a continuum, accumulating
knowledge of the contents of "Darwin's black box," for some 90 years. It
contains no such conclusions. If Behe's argument is correct, then it is he, not the community of biochemists and
molecular biologists, who made this Copernican discovery. To date, almost a
decade later, science has not noticed.
Several years ago,
however, science did notice, and dismissed with counter-evidence, the IC
argument itself -- dismissed it with counter-examples such as the Krebs cycle, biological
clocks, and developmentally-regulated Oxygen-transport proteins, which have
demonstrably evolved. All this is in the primary research literature, where it
is easily found and where it belongs. There one can also identify the "howlers"
to which I referred -- and to which word Behe objects: the long-known phenomena
(to biochemists) of gene duplication and functional divergence over time, which
refute the argument that IC rules out evolution.
The place to refute a
major scientific theory is in the primary journals -- with evidence. It is not true that this vast literature is
closed to arguments against "Darwinsm." Such arguments appear weekly in the
world literature, just as they do against the standard models in physics and
chemistry. Peer review, for all its problems, insures some minimum quality of
evidence. Behe's closing citations of his own work are not for peer-reviewed
contributions to the literature of evolutionary biology, biochemistry, or molecular
biology. His closest approach is quarrels with critics, in Biology and Philosophy and Philosophy
of Science. Neither Behe nor any other Discovery Institute regular has published
on ID in the appropriate venues: the professional journals of evolution, ecology,
molecular biology, developmental biology. There are dozens of good ones available.
He has had eight years in which to do so. Why should his claims be in the K-12
A friendly critique
of Behe's argumentation comes from Dennis O. Lamoureaux, evolutionist at St.
Joseph's College, University of Alberta, Canada. Mr. Lamoureaux offers a review
(A Black Box or a Black Hole?
A Response to Michael Behe) of Behe's summary paper in
Canadian Catholic Review, 1998. To
its technical objections, Lamoureaux added this:
"I have two concerns
with regard to Behe's thesis for the creation of irreducible structures in 'one
fell swoop.' First, before Christians come to claim publicly the existence of
any miraculous intervention during the course of geological time, it behooves
them to be certain lest they embarrass the Church by rash and intellectually
(in this case scientific) unsubstantiated claims. I am more than uncomfortable
with the assertions of a single man, the biochemist Behe. Such claims should at
the very least be done in a community of biochemists. I know a number of
professional biochemists, including many devout Christians, and their
assessment of Behe's 'one fell swoop' thesis is quite negative."
Mr. Lamoureaux ends
the review as follows: "I believe that his black box thesis is in reality a
black hole or gap in our knowledge, which as history reveals will be filled
through the findings of modern science. My respectful suggestion to Dr. Behe is
to return to the Mother Church's view of biological origins and leave behind
the interventionism and anti-evolutionism of protestant evangelicalism and
I wrote two paragraphs, a part of
whose length was devoted to references: 320 words, total. Dembski's "response" occupies three pages: Times New Roman,
10-point, single-spaced, one-inch margins; 2,200 words. This is the treadmill
of responding to the Wedge. No sooner has one made some simple point in
critique, then one is belabored with a response (if there is response at all) ten
times longer, ranging over irrelevancies (e.g., Dembski and Shermer have had
drinks in a Waco bar; Dembski knows and has conversation with Stuart
Kauffman...), ignoring the central arguments, claiming kinship with greats as
opposed to amateurs cited by a critic.
What are Dembski's
1. That I cited
criticisms of his claims without elaborating. But what else? The purpose of my
short article was not to elaborate, but to offer an opinion, with references.
2. That he has published in the peer-reviewed
literature, which I did not acknowledge. Sorry, but no: the one such item was The Design Inference, one of a series of
Cambridge University Press monographs. That volume, apparently Dembski's thesis
effort, is in a series devoted to certain issues of probability and induction,
not to evolution. The book itself says nothing about biology. The only examples
given of application of the inference
are trifling. Its application to real biology has not been accomplished.
Moreover, it has made no noticeable impact on evolutionary biology, philosophy
of science, mathematical statistics, or information theory. There is no way
that I could have demonstrated all
this in 320 words; but any competent reader of the literatures will confirm the
3. That critics I
cited are "amateurs." I cited certain authors, who are no more "amateurs" of
the subject matter than Dembski himself, for their excellent critiques. But the
Nobel Laureates and National Academy members mentioned earlier here are certainly
not amateurs of the subject matter. Steven Weinberg's Nobel Prize is in
(theoretical) physics, and he is one of the world's most distinguished, writers
on science. He is among the many such who have dismissed ID in no uncertain
terms. He did so recently, addressing the Board of Education during the Texas
wars. Speaking of the near-universal acceptance of the modern theory of evolution,
know there are Ph.D. scientists who take an opposite view. [But:] There's not
one member of the National Academy of Sciences who does. There's not one winner
of the National Medal of Science who does. There's not one Nobel Laureate in
biology who takes the view that there's any question about the validity of the
theory of evolution through natural selection or that there is any alternative
that's worth discussing. So by the same standards that are used in the courts,
I think it is your responsibility to judge that it is the theory of evolution
through natural selection that has won general scientific acceptance. And
therefore, it should be presented to students as the consensus view of science,
without any alternatives being presented."
(Physics Nobelist takes stand on evolution)
In any honest
matching of authorities, the number of qualified thinkers who find ID, IC, and
the design inference empty exceeds by orders of magnitude the few who speak for
them. Let me symbolize the worth of Dembski's argument to authority by two examples.
"Kauffman and I are
conversation partners," [he reports]. "...he even graciously consented to do an
online chat through the professional organization I helped found..." This is meant to show that Stuart
Kauffman, who is an expert, who argues forcibly with certain features of
standard Darwinism, and who is the best-known figure in Dembski's field of
evolutionary interest, agrees with Dembski, or is impressed by Dembski's
claims. During a radio talk show appearance on Dallas station KERA, Dembski
paired himself with Kauffman. Some listeners asked Kauffman about that. Here is
In brief, my own books explore self organization in complex systems and the
implications for the origin of life and evolution and ontogeny. I am, however,
a Darwinian in the broad sense and hold to the view that mutations are random
with respect to prospective adaptive significance. Hence I hold no truck with
"It is fine with me
if you publicize my response. We have to fight creationism everywhere it pops
For the background, please find "Dayton" by moving through
this set of online messages.
Dembski's second technical, book, No Free Lunch, is an effort to update The Design Inference, respond to the chorus of criticism, repair
the defects, and make better arguments for ID. Of the latter there are two: (1)
an attempt to rehabilitate the failed IC claim of Behe, with a calculation
based on a supposed model of IC (the bacterial flagellum). This attempt failed
(see Jason Rosenhouse in Evolution
56(8), 2002, 1721-22: "a computation that may as well have been written in
Klingon..."). (2) It announces a new mathematical insight. This, it is claimed,
shows that certain theorems on evolutionary algorithms, a class of
computational devices using Darwinian method to solve optimization problems,
imply that the evolution of complex biological structures cannot occur by
natural means. Those new theorems are discoveries of mathematicians David H. Wolpert
and W. G. Macready, who named them "No Free Lunch" (NFL), a light-hearted reference
to their significance for algorithmic searching.
Here is how mathematician Wolpert (no amateur), whose
discovery gave Dembski the title for his book, received Dembski's treatment:
"I say Dembski
'attempts to' turn this trick [formalizing induction] because despite his
invoking the NFL theorems, his arguments are fatally informal and imprecise.
Like monographs on any philosophical topic in the first category [not
rigorously mathematical], Dembski's is written in jello. There is simply not
enough that is firm in his text, not sufficient precision of formulation, to
allow one to declare unambiguously 'right' or 'wrong' when reading through the
argument. All one can do is squint, furrow one's brow, and then shrug.
This account of the book appeared in Mathematical Reviews and is available online:
William Dembski's treatment of the
No Free Lunch theorems is written in jello.
To continue this way would be further to impose upon Science Insights. I point to just one
published refutation of the assertions Dembski makes here -- he has already published
them elsewhere. See the analysis by "RBH" of Dembski's response to my 320
words, especially of his associating himself with eminences such as Medawar.
Even if there were professional interest in Dembski's
musings on the issues of induction, it would be absurd for such material, about
which he changes his mind regularly, to be taught in K-12.
John G. West
(for Discovery Institute). Re: "Sermonti," see my comments below on Mr. Koons's list of
non-materialist sages. West is
surprised that the NAS printed my little piece, which he says is aimed at shutting
down debate. What? My entire
argument was, is, for debate -- debate
in the scientific literature, not via stunts, not on radio talk shows, not in
publications of religious houses, law reviews, advisories for politicians or
school committees. He accuses me of conspiracy-mongering. Well, I suppose the
Wedge is a sort of conspiracy -- to take
over science, or at least the teaching and public understanding of it; to
discard post-Enlightenment methodological naturalism; to return science to its
former incompetence as a branch of theology. Please read the Wedge Document, or the speeches given at Discovery
Institute meetings and fund-raisers
"According to Gross, scientists and other scholars
supporting intelligent design have religious motives. Therefore their writings
about science can be dismissed. Q.E.D." No. That is Mr. West speaking, not
Gross. Gross's position is that when bad science explodes onto the public
scene, when it is used as a club in politics, one should look for a common
denominator other than the bad science itself. That turns out to be not
in my imagination but in tens of thousands of words from Mr. West's colleagues
in the Discovery Institute leadership: a narrowly sectarian motive. This is highly relevant to
any inquiry about ID. Q.E.D.
Watson and Crick, Steven Weinberg, Victor Stenger and the
others named: They are, according to West "aggressive" atheists! Well then, I concede
that this might be considered in trying to understand what they say
about science, and why they say it. But, their science
works. Only a mountaintop hermit
during the last fifty years can doubt that. The science of the Discovery
Institute, on the other hand, not only has not yet worked to explain, or
predict, or retrodict anything formerly inexplicable in nature, it routinely contradicts itself. Therefore it makes far more sense to ask why that argument
continues than it is to study, in connection with the three-dimensional
structure of DNA, the religious views of Watson and Crick.
Mr. West attacks my co-author, Barbara Forrest for "building
her career" on "outing and denouncing the presumed religious motives of
academic critics of Darwin." Those of us who know Professor Forrest and her
research and teaching achievements have a different view of her professional
standing. Most of the DI senior regulars, however, including West, seem to have
busy careers of bashing Darwinism. If that is legitimate, then Dr. Forrest's
interests certainly are, too. Mr. West and his colleagues surely believe that
their own activities are important for philosophy, and for society. Why then
should Dr. Forrest, a Professor of philosophy, not study them?
Mr. West and his colleagues want debate. I agree. The
subject, Mr. West's choice, is the content of biology and the extent to which
ID should be a part of it for purposes of teaching as well as research. That
debate is in progress where most of the participants are qualified to
understand it and to contribute: in the scientific literature and in ad hoc science groups. Among biologists,
ID is rejected by the vast majority who have ever heard of it because it has
all the trappings of crank science. What I will not debate with Mr. West -- not
here, anyway -- is the merits of his or my religion. What is taught to students in
the schools, in the pitifully few hours devoted to science, should have nothing
to do with religious debate. There is an important place in school for
discussion of religion: but not in the laboratory or the field of natural
science. That is methodological naturalism, which is how natural science works.
Downard's penetrating discussion of David
Berlinski's Commentary attack on an
admirable Proceedings of the Royal
Society paper by Nilsson and Pelger, on Richard Dawkins, and on a host of
"Darwinists" (myself included), is cited in my Science Insights piece. Mr. Downard thinks I spoke too strongly.
That may well be so. There are provocations, however, as anyone who has read
the literature of ID, or just the foregoing "responses," should know. Mr.
Downard reports that he and Berlinski have indulged in a "provocative" but (presumably)
civil exchange of views. Good! I thank Mr. Downard for his well-meant comments,
and ask nevertheless that readers go to his fine essay, examining not only his
account of Berlinski's peculiar scholarship, but also that of ID. My opinion
piece may well have been "counterproductive rhetorical excess"; but if so, I am
at a loss for an alternative response to charges of "A Scientific Scandal"
(Berlinski), or that Darwinists conspire to mislead children, or that Darwinism
is a primary source of evil in society. Mr. Johnson regularly, and seriously,
it seems, describes himself and his movement as "revolutionary." History
reveals that decorous exchanges with revolutionaries do nothing for peace.
Robert Koons, a philosopher, should be famous for having nominated
William Dembski "the Isaac Newton of information theory." The world's
information theorists have not seconded that motion; but perhaps Koons knows
something about information that they don't. No substance here until one gets
to "the venerable scientific tradition" of "Louis Agassiz, St. George Mivart,
Richard Goldschmidt, Pierre Grassé, Gerald Kerkut, Hans Driesch, Marcel-Paul
Schützenberger, and Michael Denton." He says that this tradition grows daily in
strength. If so, neither I, nor the hundred or so working biologists I know
best have heard about it. The list itself is something of a joke. Agassiz was a
good morphologist and the founding spirit of a marine laboratory of whose
descendant, a century later, I was the Director (1978-88); but he was also an
inflexible enemy of evolution and his arguments were even then wrong. Mivart,
early a Darwin disciple, ended his life angry and thwarted, a religious denier
of Darwin. Goldschmidt (chairman of a biology department of which I was
chairman from 1971 to 1978), doubted that ordinary point-mutations account for
the evolution of animal body-plans, and proposed instead macro-mutations,
yielding "hopeful monsters." He was wrong. This is all ancient history in biological
science. What Goldschmidt has to do with resistance to "narrowly materialistic
explanations" is a mystery.
It gets worse. Driesch is an interesting case. His
experiments, done at the end of the nineteenth century on sea urchin embryos,
had a startling result: what became known as "regulative" development. In (some
but not all) species, subdivision of the early embryo yields duplicate small,
complete larvae, rather than (the expected) monsters. The effort to find an
explanation for this seems to have unhinged him as an investigator. He decided
that the explanation must be a non-material entity, an "entelechy." Within
twenty years, the material explanation had become evident; it was almost
complete with the beautiful microsurgical work of Sven Horstadius and others in
the very early 1950s. The molecular
proof of this mechanism -- a particular, asymmetric spatial distribution of RNA
sequences in the unfertilized egg -- was published by W. H. Rodgers and P. R.
Gross in 1978 (Cell, 14: 279-288). Driesch's
lucubrations are long forgotten.
Dr. Koons's argument is about philosophy of science and
theism versus atheism, not biology. It is irrelevant to judgment of what is
today good science and what is not, what should be taught to schoolchildren in
science class and what elsewhere. In Daubert
v. Merrell-Dow Pharmaceuticals, The United States Supreme Court did its
scholarly best on what is to be admissible scientific evidence. In the court's
judgment, the views of God held by prospective expert witnesses would be neither
here nor there.
"I predict that, in our lifetime, we will be able to
generate genuine hypotheses from the Darwinian template (and from various
non-Darwinian alternatives) and subject them to rigorous testing." So says
Koons. But the "Darwinian template" is tested rigorously every day! Today, this
week's (the November 6th) issue of Nature, the huge-circulation weekly professional science journal,
has arrived. A regular News and Views
section of Nature is Evolutionary Biology. Today's covers new
experiments testing this hypothesis:
that natural selection is (or is not) responsible for the remarkable
pattern of spermatogenesis, the relevant neurophysiology, and the consequent
copulation behavior of cockerels. It takes an Olympian indifference to the
quotidian reality of science to believe that the "Darwinian template" is not tested rigorously.
J. B. S. Haldane described one rigorous test of Darwinism.
"Find a Cambrian rabbit." Since then, an astonishingly rich Cambrian fauna has
been found, by thousands of paleontologists in thousands of fossil-beds around
the world. No Cambrian rabbits. Every day, a hundred predictions are made about
what will happen in experiments on microbial populations, in cell cultures,
within the immune system of patients with autoimmune disease. These are
predictions that test "Darwinism": so far not one has failed. Evolutionary
developmental biology has discovered, in the last few years, a universal
genetic toolkit for animal body-plan organization and reorganization. Meantime, there have been no "rigorous" tests of an anti-Darwinian, or a non-materialist, or
Roland F. Hirsch. I suspect
that Mr, Hirsch isn't clear about what constitutes an "ad hominem" attack. He
carps about my mention of Jonathan Wells's connection with the Rev. Sun-Myung
Moon, and with my failure to mention that Wells has a Ph.D. from Berkeley. I
don't see the relevance of Berkeley to this forum, and I have already addressed
the considerable relevance of Mr. Wells's religious motives. It is Wells
himself who discusses his current work in biology. That work is not
experimental or theoretical inquiry, and it does not include publication in
professional journals. The two Wells publications mentioned are apparently
early results from his doctoral or postdoctoral work. But his job now is
searching the life sciences literature for items that might help to destroy
Darwinism -- which is what he undertook to do from the start.
Speaking of Behe and my account of the IC claim, Mr. Hirsch
says that "As we learn about the major cellular machines we recognize the
inadequacy of evolutionary theory to account for them." But that is just Behe's
claim repeated. For it, Behe has provided no evidence, yet. Hirsch's hopeful
addition to the list of putatively IC "machines," the ribosome, is beside the
point. The point is that Behe claims to have discovered a property of some
subcellular "machines" that makes their emergence by descent with modification
from ancestral "machines" -- their evolution, in other words -- improbable or impossible.
There is no evidence that such IC
exists in any biological machine.
I am not, as he believes, an "ardent Darwinist," whatever
that is supposed to mean. In my biological research field, mechanisms for the
genetic control of development have been discovered that are unanticipated in
the modern synthesis of evolution. They present a picture of macroevolution
(the creation of new body-plans) departing from the model than has been
standard for some fifty years. Hirsch's quotation from Richard Lewontin on
evolution -- a mere jibe at some of Lewontin's peers, not at evolution, in which
Lewontin certainly believes -- impresses me no more than did Lewontin's Marxist
tract (with Rose and Kamen), Not in Our
Mr. Hirsch wants Science Insights to publish "scientific
argument." Impossible. "Scientific argument" takes place among scientists, with
peer review, before audiences and with participants having reasonable
competence to judge the details. Scientific argument about evolution is
continuous in the scientific literature. If Mr. Hirsch "doubt[s] the validity
of the basic claims of Darwinian evolutionary theory," and if he has a good reason to doubt, he should submit it at once
to Science, or Nature, or Evolution. If
it is a good reason, his name
will be in lights. Anybody who knows science and its opportunism knows that.
supported my account: I thank them
for having found this somewhat obscure venue, for going to the trouble of
writing well and concisely, and especially for knowing what they're talking
Appendix: Elsberry Responds to Dembski's Challenge
Unlike all the preceding letters, this one by Wesley R. Elsberry was not sent to Science Insights. Instead, it was submitted to (and printed in) the Waco Tribune, which is a newspaper published in the Texas city where Baylor University is situated. William Dembski had earlier published a challenge to the biologists of Baylor (where he holds a non-teaching position) for a dispute on ID and biology. As far as we know, Baylor biologists chose not to indulge Dembski, perhaps because they do not take his theories to be relevant to their science. Although Elsberry's letter was not a direct contribution to the dispute between Paul Gross and his detractors, it touches on questions raised in that dispute and therefore we consider it proper to post it in conjunction with the rest of this material.
Wesley R. Elsberry
Baylor biologists don't have to show that ID is not science. It is up
to ID advocates to demonstrate that it is science. ID consists
entirely of negative arguments against evolutionary biology. Science
requires more than just making critiques of theories. ID advocates
have failed to develop a positive scientific research program.
Dembski has failed to convince the scientific community of either the
correctness or the utility of "intelligent design".
Dembski has applied his own method for "detecting intelligence" to
only four examples in seven years. Just one of those was both
non-trivial and about a biological phenomenon, and even then the
analysis was incomplete. There are no reports in the scientific
literature of the full application of Dembski's method to any
phenomenon, much less a biological one.
The citations Dembski brags about do not support his claim of being
well received in the scientific community. His ideas are only
mentioned in passing (rather than being applied to any problem), or
are criticized. I wrote two of the papers citing Dembski; both are
critical of Dembski's ideas. Further criticism may be found at
Talk Design and The AntiEvolutionists: William A. Dembski.
Dembski's background is in theology, mathematics, and philosophy. His
contributions in the latter two fields are meager and his contribution
to biological literature is nil. Anyone with any claim to being a
scientist would know that public debates are a form of socio-political
action and not a method of doing science. Dembski's debate challenge
is another publicity stunt instead of serious scholarship showing ID
to be good science.
Wesley R. Elsberry, Ph.D.
Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences
Texas A&M University