Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA
by William A. Dembski and Michael Ruse (Editors)
Cambridge University Press, 2004
Review by Gal Kober on Jan 22nd 2006
The anatomy of man is a key to the anatomy of ape.” Karl Marx (Introd. to a Contrib. to a Critique of Polit. Economy, 1957)
Intelligent Design and the war waged by its proponents against evolutionary biology and the naturalistic practices of science are more a matter of public affairs than they are philosophical or scientific issues. Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA, a volume recently published by Cambridge University Press, aims at providing “a comprehensive and even-handed overview of the debate concerning biological origins,” and specifically, the more vocal aspects of this ‘debate’, namely, the conflict between evolutionary biology and supporters of intelligent design. Although it succeeds in doing that, it also has a seriously negative side.
This volume was edited by Michael Ruse and William Dembski, an eminent philosopher of biology at Florida State University and the prominent Intelligent Design spokesperson, professor of theology and science at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, respectively. It is comprised of 20 essays in five main sections, the first of which lays the historical foundations for the debate, and the remaining four span — in what the editors describe as a gradual transition — the range from orthodox Darwinism to devout intelligent design. It is a collection of essays by very diverse contributors: philosophers, historians of science, biologists, priests, mathematicians, physicists, theists, atheists, computer scientists, Christians, Discovery Institute, fellows, theologians, and many combinations of these titles and attributes.
The book’s main virtue is as a source for reference, as it is quite comprehensive regarding the different opinions and positions involved in the long standing discourse of design and evolution, the main issues and points of contention, the regular arguments and refutations, and the genealogy of them all. It touches on such diverse issues as organized complexity, teleology, biological progress, theistic evolution, irreducible complexity, neo-Darwinism, probabilities and likelihoods, self-organization, emergence, and divine providence. It does not, however, seem to offer or address many new angles on these issues, and in their individual papers most contributors write about things they have written about before, sometimes extensively, albeit with an emphasis on the particular issues being ‘debated’ or with an eye to a particular claim or vein they are seeking to contend with. Thus, for those readers familiar with their previous work and with the topic as a whole, the book does not have a great deal to offer by way of novelty.
As for the value of putting together those various positions, there is both benefit and damage to consider. Upon first encountering the book one might be baffled by the very impetus for compiling a volume which juxtaposes Intelligent Design and Darwinism. It is, of course, a topic much debated in the public sphere in recent months, so one might indeed find interest and justification in certain forms of examination of it, but as an attempt to measure scientific and philosophical arguments for and against Intelligent Design (ID), or for and against Darwinism, this book might just as well be seen as an abomination: considering ID and science side by side as though there was an actual debate between them is a grave misrepresentation of the facts. The very idea of doing so might grant ID legitimacy well beyond what it had earned on its own merits. As far as evolutionary biology is concerned, there is no debate; ID proponents have made very few claims in order to challenge conclusions reached within biology, and have not provided evidence or experiments that would debunk the thriving discipline. It is only from the point of view of opponents of evolution that their protests against science amount to a debate with it. As pointed out by philosopher Daniel Dennett in his New York Times Op-Ed of last August (Daniel C. Dennett, “Show Me the Science,” New York Times, Aug 28th, 2005), it is as though someone were to publish some claims based on a misrepresentation of a scientific work, and upon their dismissive refutation were to assert that hence there is a true scientific controversy and the two parties are engaged in a debate. Since ID proponents aim at limiting the teaching of evolution in schools and at undermining its status in the eyes of the public, and this is their aim not from a standpoint of a more advantageous scientific theory or one that furthers knowledge in any beneficial way, it possess a truly damaging potential should it succeed in attaining a stronger hold in society.
However, reading the book helps put one’s mind at relative ease. Although some harmful influence on public opinion might still have been caused by the very creation of such a book, given that more people might hear about it or see it than would actually read it, at least in the book itself one finds a rather serious attempt at handling the issues at stake, and despite the neutral tone of the writers, science clearly emerges triumphant from this forced debate.
Part I of the book features two expository essays from the two opposing points of view. Michael Ruse’s opening essay outlines the history of arguments to and from design. Although it is (admittedly) not very far in contents and spirit from Ruse’s last book, Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose? (Harvard UP, 2003) it serves as an excellent opening for this volume, not only laying out the origins and versions of these arguments, but also highlighting the main philosophical issues involved. From the basic sense of there being something special about biological processes which requires explanation, and from the fact that the living world in all its organized complexity looks designed, emerged the original versions of the arguments for the world being designed: it must be that all things exist for an end, and there has to have been some special cause at work, designing the world. One main view regarding these issues would be that voiced by David Hume (in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1779), claiming that the world does not resemble a designed artifact, nor is it not like a machine for which there is a builder. Furthermore, even if one claims it is, still the designer who would have created it cannot be god-like, as in fact the world is not as marvelously organized as such a creator would have made it. On the opposite side one finds the well-known position of William Paley (as put forth in his Natural Theology, 1802), that just like one could tell that a watch found in a meadow was not just like a stone but rather designed by a watchmaker, so can one tell that the world was designed. Despite criticisms such as those made (earlier!) by Hume, Paley claimed that the best and only adequate explanation to the world’s existence as such is that there has been a designer. Thus, already early on in the history of such arguments, one sees that the position of those who assume the existence of a designer is one decidedly chosen with very little regard to possible philosophical objections. The analogy drawn by Paley between the watch and the world was disputed by Hume and innumerable others; not only is there no evidence to support it, but also the very phrasing is problematic: how is the world like a clock, or like any machine? And even if this analogy is taken to hold, that just like a watch is discernible from the surrounding nature where it is found by the fact that it looks, and was, designed, it is still not clear how this same argument can then be used to claim that nature was in fact designed, if it was just proclaimed to have been un-designed, in comparison to a watch. But all that matters very little to supporters of design claims: they find it to be the best explanation, the simplest explanation, and that it might indeed be — except it is also, so it seems, unfounded.
This is not necessarily to say that thereby the existence of god is refuted: simply that choosing the overarching simplistic explanation: ‘someone designed it like that’ does not seem to offer a better explanation than the ones offered by evolutionary biology, nor does it even start to compete with those — and the rest of the book makes that very clear.
The second expository essay, by Angus Menuge (philosopher, computer scientist and Christian apologist, of Concordia University, Wisconsin), is entitled “Who’s Afraid of ID?”. It briefly surveys some events and currents in the ID movement, especially concerning Phillip Johnson, one of its central figures, and outlines the future prospects of ID, which include acceptance by the educational mainstream and putting out more scientific publications in support of ID claims and against their refutations. The essay concludes with two perfunctory notes, regarding the problem of evil in the context of ID and a suggestion that ID is a paradigm shift in science. This piece, which sets a general goal (surveying the current ID movement and the claims it has to make) and ends up making very few points of limited scope (not all ID is Phillip Johnson; ID is not the same as creationism, ID’s target is public opinion, and it needs to come up with more scientific credentials) is very representative of the relative weakness of the chapters in support of ID in this book. These are so few and so weak, that one is bound to feel quite puzzled: since the book was not edited as a pamphlet against ID, and one of its editors is among ID’s chief proponents, how could it be that these are the essays chosen to represent it? Could it truly be the case that these are the best arguments that could be made for it? Could it possibly be true, that the best advocates can only say so little? Apparently, this seems to be the case. I will attend to these essays in detail shortly.
Part II of the book consists in four essays, by Francisco J. Ayala, Kenneth R. Miller, Elliott Sober and Robert T. Pennock. All four confront main points and arguments made by ID proponents, and systematically show them to be deeply flawed philosophically, scientifically or logically. Ayala (professor of biology and of philosophy at UC Irvine) addresses the appearance of teleology in nature as the basis for design hypotheses, and shows that a careful distinction between different kinds of teleology (internal, external, bounded and unbounded) instructs us of the inappropriateness of an analogy between teleology in nature (all parts of an eye comprising a mechanism which enables seeing; a chick turning into a chicken) and that in a purposefully designed object (a knife made for cutting), and thus of the futility of looking for any intelligent designer leading the formation of organisms. Miller (professor of biology at Brown University) contributes an enjoyable and very important essay to this volume, in which he refutes — rather, tears to shreds — the central scientific argument for ID, famously advocated by biochemist Michael Behe. The gist of this argument is that certain mechanisms are irreducibly complex, and thus could not have emerged in stages from any precursory mechanisms, but had to have been created whole by an intelligent designer. A famous example for such a mechanism, extensively used by Behe also during the recent ‘ID trial’ in Dover, Pennsylvania (Kitzmiller et al v. Dover Area School Board), is that of the bacterial flagellum. Miller demonstrates how claims for irreducible complexity are based on lack of knowledge regarding those mechanisms, and how specifically in the case of the flagellum its choice as the poster child of ID was both arbitrary and unfortunate, since it is not more complex than innumerable other mechanisms, and detailed accounts of how it evolved and of its precursors are ample and plenty. Miller also goes on to discuss William Dembski’s use of the bacterial flagellum as an example of his theory of ‘complex specified information’. This too is promptly shown to be unfounded. Sober (professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison) tackles the issue of likelihood as employed in arguments for design which state that the likelihood of natural phenomena having been intelligently designed is far greater than that of them having emerged through evolution, and thus that ID is more plausible as a theory. He carefully explains the concepts involved, and shows in detail how likelihood arguments cannot help determine plausibility of hypotheses. Further, he examines other formulations of the design argument, and points out crucial flaws in them as well. He then throws in a bonus observation, that the probabilities of design vs. chance have in fact nothing to do with whether or not god exists, and thus perhaps implies that the level of urgency attributed to ID arguments should not be as high as its proponents attach to it. Pennock (professor of science and technology studies and of philosophy at Michigan State University, another expert witness in the Dover, PA trial) takes up the writings of ID advocate Stephen Meyer (director of the Discovery Institute and University Professor, Conceptual Foundations of Science at Palm Beach Atlantic University, Florida), and points to great difficulties in them, such as the utilization of old arguments that were already refuted, overplaying the problems raised by gaps in the fossil record (and specifically the so-called Cambrian Explosion) while ignoring recent scientific discoveries, and various inconsistencies within his different arguments.
As mentioned above, the editors purport to have arranged the essays in the book in sections ranging from those in support of evolution and critical of ID to those critical of evolution and favorable to ID. While the last part of the book indeed includes essays which directly present and support ID, and the first part of the book (the first argumentative part, following the introductory one) displays what is very much the opposite standpoint to ID, it cannot be said that the intended structure of the book was in effect followed. Part I is titled ‘Darwinism’ and although it is highly plausible that this is indeed a framework that the four writers are partial to, it is hardly the topic of any of their essays, which concentrate on refuting the arguments for ID. Parts II and III seem to deviate from the proclaimed gradual development as well: part II, titled ‘Complex Self-Organization’ discusses neo-Darwinian positions and certain strands and veins in the evolutionary biology framework which focus on organization and play down the role of selection as the single most important power acting in evolution. These respectable and sometimes almost already mainstream views of contemporary evolutionary biology can only be seen as being less impartial to ID if one accepts the ID strategy of pointing to disagreements within evolutionary theory as evidence of its being fallacious.
In fact, bringing up some of the different emphases and approaches in evolutionary biology as it is practiced today, points to one of the greatest problems of the ID position: in stressing the improbability of complex adaptation as emerging from natural selection and in protesting against the explanatory power of evolutionary theory, they are in fact attacking a straw man. What they protest against is a theory that sees every feature and characteristic of living beings as the product of selection and of adapted complexity. In so doing, they reinforce their own view of the world as being necessarily designed, since such all-encompassing adaptation is indeed quite unlikely as the fruit of chance, but at the same time they make their own design hypothesis rather implausible in itself, since the world picture of which they speak is not that of things as they really are: the living world is not thoroughly adapted, and not perfectly designed; redundancy, partial adaptation and awkward features abound (to mention but a few popular examples, the retina being ‘inside out’ and thus having a blind spot; the intestinal appendix; male nipples). Contemporary theories of evolution take account in many ways of selection and adaptation as being only two of several players. Ideas such as punctuated equilibria (Gould and Eldredge), the view of evolutionary changes as leaps interrupting long periods of equilibrium, rather than constantly-occurring adaptation, and the newer wave of evolutionary developmental biology theories (‘evo-devo’) which stress the constraints which always limit full adaptation and shift the emphasis to developmental mechanisms and processes, demonstrate the landscape of evolutionary biology as very different form the illusion of complete adaptation and purposiveness which ID proponents portray it as.
Part III, titled ‘Theistic Evolution’ does not support ID at all, but instead suggests various ways in which science and evolution are fully compatible with religious views. It thus can be seen as partial to ID only based on the assumption that ID is indeed a religious movement, which its proponents insist on denying. In fact, several of these essays (most of all that by John F. Haught, professor of theology at Georgetown University) explicitly show why ID is wrong to oppose Darwinism, or why it is more of a theological movement rather than a scientific framework. In that, this part of the book further bolsters the case against ID.
Finally, part IV presents four essays in support of ID, by some of the central figures of the ID movement: William A. Dembski, Michael J. Behe, Stephen C. Meyer and Walter L. Bradley. After reading through the book, at this stage the reader might feel the urge to put it down, as most of the arguments were already referred to earlier, and what’s more, refuted or cast in grave doubt. However, out of a drive to engage in a true intellectual match, one might actually feel great curiosity, and would be driven to pick it up again. But alas, disappointment awaits. In the most part, these articles recapitulate claims that were contradicted, shown to be misleading or proven incorrect in earlier parts of this very book. Examples of this abound, and are such as Michael Behe’s essay on Irreducible Complexity, the main points of which were shown to be thoroughly invalid by Miller’s earlier piece; Dembski’s essay, similarly rebutted by Miller and by Sober, Meyer’s essay discounted in advance by Pennock. The rest of what is claimed in these essays amounts to what Kenneth Miller (who is, by the way, not only a distinguished biologist, but also a devout Christian) dubbed “an argument from personal incredulity”: it is indeed hard to believe how intricate and complex many biological mechanisms are, and the thought of it all being attributed to processes of chance is stunning. But to ignore evidence to the fact of it indeed being true simply because it is hard to believe such magnificent feats of nature is hardly a basis for any debate.
Gal Kober is a dissertation fellow at the Boston University Center for Philosophy and History of Science working in the philosophy of biology.