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ID floats a lead-lined trial balloon

By PZ Myers

Posted February 03, 2006

We're getting signs that the Discovery Institute is going to be shifting their strategy a little bit.

Thoughts from Kansas has an excellent discussion of the subject. Basically, they're going to embrace more of the actual science, and focus their dispute on finer and finer points. What does this mean? Common descent is now in.

DaveScot on Bill Dembski's blog (TfK has the link) has a bit of a rant on it -- he's going to kick out anyone who questions the idea of common descent, and goes on and on about how denying common ancestry is a religious idea that goes against all of the scientific evidence, and therefore must be purged if ID is to achieve any status as an actual scientific idea.

As Josh documents, though, they've got a long list of ID advocates on the record at the Kansas hearings denying common descent: Angus Menuge, Nancy Bryson, Ed Peltzer, Russell Carlson, Warren Nord, Michael Behe, Jonathan Wells, Bruce Simat, Charles Thaxton, and Stephen Meyer are all quoted as rejecting it to various degrees, and ironically, Dembski's blog is titled "Uncommon Descent". The commenters at that blog are also frantically tossing up quotes from their heroes, such as Dembski's own "Intelligent design therefore throws common descent itself into question..." -- obviously, common descent has been an obstacle to them in the past.

If you're familiar with DaveScot, though, you're probably thinking, "DaveScot is a deranged lunatic -- he shouldn't be regarded as a bellwether for the ID movement!" I agree, and given that so many notables in the movement have rejected common descent, he does seem to be an outlier.

Except...

Stephen Meyer has an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News today. This is the Stephen Meyer who claims to be one of the "architects of Intelligent Design", Stephen Meyer the Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute, the Stephen Meyer who, when asked whether he accepted the principle of common descent, said:

I won't answer that question as a yes or no. I accept the idea of limited common descent. I am skeptical about universal common descent. I do not take it as a principle; it is a theory. And I think the evidence supporting the theory of universal common descent is weak.

Today, though, Meyer declares that ID has no complaint with common ancestry.

The theory does not challenge the idea of evolution defined as change over time, or even common ancestry, but it does dispute Darwin's idea that the cause of biological change is wholly blind and undirected.

That does sound a little bit like we have a new party line emerging. They are going to accept all of the science except that they are going to insist that there is also an additional guiding force than selection. In order to do that, though, they're also going to have to find some evidence for this mysterious force, and since they're still calling it an intelligent directing force, they're going to have to try harder to back up this specific claim, if they actually plan to carry through and focus on this one point.

Meyer's op-ed, though, shows no sign of that. Instead, as usual, he falls back on the old argument from incredulity, making the same old analogies and comparing cells to cars and computer programs.

Over the last 25 years, biologists have discovered an exquisite world of nanotechnology within living cells -- complex circuits, sliding clamps, energy-generating turbines and miniature machines. For example, bacterial cells are propelled by tiny rotary engines called flagellar motors that rotate at speeds up to 100,000 rpm. These engines look as if they were designed by the Mazda corporation, with many distinct mechanical parts (made of proteins) including rotors, stators, O-rings, bushings, U-joints and drive shafts.

He repeatedly claims that ID is based on scientific evidence, but fails to provide any -- saying it "looks like" something designed is not evidence, especially when the basis for that appearance is nothing but overwrought and fallacious metaphors. Sorry, Stephen, you are confusing the computer-generated illustrations of the flagellum, which are all shiny smooth flat and curved surfaces with pseudocolor and ray-traced reflections, with the reality, which consists of coarse-grained polymers and stochastic chemical processes. Mazda may use CAD, but cells do not.

My bold prediction: this strategy can only further marginalize ID. The grassroots that support ID now are largely the same people who supported old-school creationism, who don't like being told their ancestors were apes, and they're going to be explicitly cut off by this policy. Bye-bye, base. At the same time, they aren't going to acquire any new supporters among scientists: focusing on a narrower, more precise set of ideas is usually a good idea, but it will also focus attention on the dearth of evidence supporting it.

I suspect this is a poorly thought-out trial balloon that's going to thud right into the ground. Expect further backtracking and denials soon.