Recently, Larry Moran critiqued ID’s approach to evolutionary biology. Here I will explain how Larry Moran has misunderstood both ID and modern evolutionary theory.
In a recent blog post, Larry Moran criticized the ID movement (shocker, yes, I know). In his post, he claims that ID’ers must be lying about evolutionary theory. However, Larry Moran has both ID and evolution wrong.
Larry Moran is complaining about the fact that ID’ers lay their claim against Darwinian evolution. According to him, this makes us either really stupid or liars. According to Dr. Moran, we cannot attack modern evolutionary theory by calling it Darwinism.
Well, in a sense, he is right. But that’s only because ID is winning.
Here’s the deal. Intelligent Design is not inherently at odds with evolutionary biology. It is possible to formulate a theories of evolution that are perfectly compatible with the concept of design in the Universe and in biology. In fact, that’s what ID’ers have been attempting for some time. Dr. Moran just seems to be upset that the evidence and the practice of evolutionary biology is now pointing towards ID, and calling foul on that basis.
You see, ID is only inherently against purely materialistic views of evolution – those in which a mechanism serves as a design substitute. This is, specifically, why ID is against Darwinian Evolution, also known as the “Modern Synthesis”. The Darwinian theory is that the primary driver of adaptation and organismal complexity is a combination of happenstance mutations in DNA and natural selection weeding them out. This is at odds with ID because it substitutes a mechanical process for design.
What Dr. Moran tells us is that evolutionary biology has moved far away from Darwinian theory. How is that a poke in the eye for ID? Doesn’t it mean that the ID’ers were right all along, that everyone from Mivart (a 19th century ID proponent) to Behe (a 21st century ID proponent) were all correct that Darwinian evolution was not the way that organisms were built? I fail to see how the fact that evolutionary biology as a whole now agrees with the founders of the ID movement is somehow an argument against it.
Dr. Moran feels especially burdened by the fact that ID’ers don’t mention genetic drift or neutral theory more. However, here he makes his biggest mistake. Neither genetic drift nor neutral theory claim to be design replacements like Darwinian evolution does. Genetic drift does not even claim to design new mechanisms. As for neutral theory, many evolutionary biologists are on record stating that it is illogical to think that complex adaptive mechanisms can occur by happenstance. If the “neutral” part of neutral theory is the result of happenstance, then it isn’t the source of complex adaptations. If the “neutral” part of neutral theory is not the result of happenstance (i.e., a neutral fluctuation between multiple pre-existing complex adaptations), then it is not attempting to explain away design, but is instead including design.
It’s not that ID’ers don’t think that genetic drift doesn’t happen, or that neutral mutations aren’t important. Rather, these mechanisms presuppose rather than explain complex adaptations. They can accomplish simple adaptations, but not complex ones (for a method to distinguish complex vs. simple adaptations based on computability theory, see here). They use design, they do not create design.
In short, Dr. Moran makes the following mistakes:
- Dr. Moran fails to understand that ID is not inherently at war with every possible theory of evolution, or evolutionary biology as a whole. The fact that the ID movement doesn’t address your favorite part of evolution probably means that this part of evolutionary biology does not confuse mechanism and design.
- Dr. Moran fails to understand that the shift of evolutionary biology away from Darwinian mechanisms shows that ID and its proponents were correct. ID was the one to predict this move, while everyone else was hailing Darwinism as the highest point of evolutionary biology. Darwinism is no longer the pivotal feature of evolutionary biology, thus ID was correct.
- Dr. Moran fails to understand the different roles that different theories of evolution play, and why they are important. Genetic drift and neutral theory are not theories of the origin of complex adaptation, thus, they do not function as design substitutes like Darwinism does. They are theories of what happens to the organism after the design. These fail, too, when stretched beyond their bounds to become design substitutes, but that happens much more rarely. Many design opponents tend to agree with ID’ers assessments of this possibility.
At the end of the day, if you read Dr. Moran’s article really closely, what is really true is that the ID’ers are actually using language quite correctly and legitimately, but it bothers Dr. Moran that they are not fitting into his stereotype of their behavior. ID is not attacking a straw man precisely because its arguments are aimed at Darwinian evolution, and not evolutionary theory as a whole. ID’ers opt for precision of language, specifying exactly what it is that is being disagreed with. The only way that ID-skeptics like Dr. Moran can criticize is by pretending that we mean something other than what we precisely specify.
This conversation reminds me a lot of the hype around evo-devo, which is a great ID theory. Basically, it says that Darwinism didn’t have to do very much, because all organisms are based on a deeper, adaptive design, and that the surface features don’t do much. It may or may not be true, but nonetheless it is an ID theory because it points out that evolution doesn’t do any real designing, it just takes the existing design and remodels it a little. I’m not saying that Sean Carroll knows that he is an ID’er, only that his theory is exactly the kind that Mivart and Behe’s works anticipated.