Intelligent Design

An Extremely Ill-Informed Response to Alastair Noble on Evolution and ID: A Very Brief Rebuttal

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Did you know that the UK has an NCSE equivalent? It’s called the BCSE (no prizes for guessing what ‘B’ stands for). You can see their website here and their blog here. The web design leaves, shall we say, a lot to be desired. The BCSE never wants to discuss, you know, actual science. The focus of their blog is principally politics, religion and education policy. In the few cases where they do attempt a rebuttal to a science article posted by myself or others, they generally respond by linking to someone else, rather than engaging the subject themselves. I usually respond to blogs offering scientific critique of my articles here or on Evolution News & Views.

One of the contributors, a ‘religious education’ (RE) teacher named Keith Gilmour (also, ironically, the convener for Glasgow Brights and a vocal atheist), recently set up a website of similarly poor design titled “The Centre for Unintelligent Design“, presumably an attempt to mock the increasingly active UK Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID).

On the website, Keith Gilmour has posted an email sent to him by University of Warwick sociologist / philosopher Steve Fuller:

Dear Keith,

Thanks for this. You might perhaps make more headway with ID people if you understood the position better.  The problem of apparent ‘unintelligent design’ in nature is one that people with ID sympathies have long tackled. Simply look up the literature on ‘theodicy’.

Steve Fuller

And indeed it has been addressed many a time. With the progression and advancement of science, biological phenomena which may previously have been regarded as “poor design” turn out to have plausible design purposes — such as in the case of the eye (as I show in a previous rebuttal to the BCSE and Scottish Humanists), or the recurrent laryngeal nerve.

Nancy Pearcy has also weighed in on the site. She, like me, asks “Did the website for The Centre of Unintelligent Design have a website designer? Just wondering.”

Anyway, Keith Gilmour recently posted this entry on the BCSE blog, attempting to mount a response to a review of Dr. Eugenie Scott’s trip to Glasgow by C4ID director Dr. Alastair Noble. Oddly, my review of the event didn’t receive a mention. Oh well.

Gilmour writes,

Following last month’s Glasgow Skeptics talk, “Evolution and Global Warming Denial: How the Public is Misled”, by NCSE (National Centre for Science Education) Executive Director Dr Eugenie Scott, ID proponent Dr Alastair Noble has used his website, The Centre For Intelligent Design (never to be confused with The Centre For Unintelligent Design!), to take issue with Dr Scott’s contention that “there is no contrary evidence to evolution” (AN, essay link below) – and to criticise her decision to highlight “parallels between the denial of evolution and the denial of global warming.” (ES, 2:46, video link below). On the first point, Dr Scott was, of course, just stating a fact. “There isn’t scientific evidence against evolution. That all comes from the creationist literature and it’s of the quality of those xenoliths that I mentioned and the lava flows.” (ES, 42:09). It shouldn’t have to be pointed out that good scientists are always on the lookout for “contrary evidence” and if Dr Noble has, or knows where to find, some evidence against evolution (anatomical, geological, bio-geographical, genetic – anything!), he should silence his foes and critics by producing it.

I think it is fairly indisputable that there is evidence which — at the present time — is inconsistent with neo-Darwinian evolution. It is naive to say otherwise. Whether one considers that to be sufficient evidence to question the validity of the whole paradigm is a different question. Many honest scientists recognise those problems but have faith that the conundrums will ultimately be resolved. If there was, as maintained by Gilmour and others, absolutely no shortcoming of the theory, then one would not expect to see, every so often, a book or a paper emerging — written by biologists — claiming to remedy some major flaw in evolutionary theory. And we would have left such questions as “Is there enough time for evolution?” behind a long time ago.

Since Mr. Gilmour is apparently unaware of the “evidence against evolution”, here are a few examples he might like to consider:

  1. The rarity and isolation of functional protein folds in sequence space.
  2. The irreducible and interlocking complexity of macromolecular machines.
  3. The impotence of neo-Darwinism in facilitating evolutionary transitions which require multiple co-ordinated (non-adaptive) changes to acquire utility.
  4. The nature of the Cambrian explosion of life, and various other features of the fossil record.
  5. The impotence of neo-Darwinism in accounting for embryonic development.
  6. The counter-Darwinian nature of insect metamorphosis.
  7. The emergence of homologous structures by virtue of analogous developmental pathways (or homologous genes influencing the development of analogous structures).
  8. The lack of tolerance of organisms to mutations affecting early development but the wide divergence of early embryonic pathways in vertebrates.
  9. Instances of extreme molecular convergence.

One could continue this list for some time. But to simply dismiss these concerns as irrelevant to the discussion over evolution seems to be a case of burying one’s head in the sand.

Gilmour subsequently disses irreducible complexity, complaining that it doesn’t constitute evidence. In this context, we are discussing the evidence against evolution, and not the positive evidence for intelligent design. It seems to me that, regardless of whether one accepts irreducible complexity as an argument for ID, it nonetheless constitutes a fundamental problem for Darwinian evolution: one which has not been resolved. Indeed, in National Review, the Chicago microbiologist James Shapiro writes that,

There are no detailed Darwinian accounts for the evolution of any fundamental biochemical or cellular system, only a variety of wishful speculations. It is remarkable that Darwinism is accepted as a satisfactory explanation for such a vast subject — evolution — with so little rigorous examination of how well its basic theses work in illuminating specific instances of biological adaptation or diversity.

Gilmour proceeds to make an outrageous claim that,

On the second point, Dr Scott’s comparison [between evolution skeptics and holocaust deniers] is a compliment evolution deniers do not deserve. Global warming/climate change deniers are certainly cranks (and many are clearly guilty of the sins highlighted in Dr Scott’s lecture) but the same cannot be said of sceptics honestly querying the extent to which the climate is changing, the degree to which human activity has contributed towards changes in temperature, the role of CO2, the influence of solar activity, and so on. These sceptics do not face overwhelming evidence that has settled the matter and, unlike creationists and the ID crowd, are at least searching for natural explanations. In contradistinction to evolution, in other words, ‘It’s all our fault’ is not “the only game in town.” (ES, 32:46).

Oh please. We have living eyewitnesses for the holocaust. We have confirming videography. We have confirming photographs. We have attestation from adverse witnesses. How is that comparable to the claim that all of biodiversity has arisen purely as the result of an undirected material process of random variations acted upon by natural selection (and other similarly mindless mechanisms)? Lynn Margulis is a reputable biologist. Is she equivalent to a “holocaust denier” when she says that “The critics, including the creationist critics, are right about their criticism.”? Lest I be charged with quote mining, she subsequently goes on to say that “It’s just that they’ve got nothing to offer by intelligent design or ‘God did it.’ They have no alternatives that are scientific.” But at least she — a reputable scientist with no obvious religious axe to grind on the matter — has the honesty to forthrightly say that there are indeed problems with evolutionary theory. Or what about James Shapiro: Is he on par with a “holocaust denier” too?

We go on:

If Dr Scott had been determined to avoid causing offence, she would not have used the terms “denier” or “denial” at all (even if they were occasionally replaced with “anti-global-warming-ist”). Instead, she would have employed the word sceptic throughout – in all honesty, a more accurate description of people who aren’t, after all, claiming that nothing has ever evolved anywhere/no-one was gassed/climate doesn’t change. If Dr Scott genuinely would, as she asserted in the Q&A, “rather persuade” people, why did she use these loaded words? And why use the term ‘ID-Creationism’ when it is virtually guaranteed to infuriate ID proponents such as Dr Noble? Why tell one questioner that, “This is really not a matter of discussion” and “We’re just not gonna argue about that” (ES, Q&A, 19:20) – or another, after the Q&A, that it would be pointless to debate ID with him? I too would “rather persuade” my opponents but when someone shows absolutely no interest in being persuaded and consistently goes around peddling tripe to anyone who will listen, I think we have a responsibility to expose that person, their allies, and their pseudoscientific agenda.

Hang on a minute. Does Mr. Gilmour seriously think that ID proponents are “claiming that nothing has ever evolved anywhere”? Oh my. Many ID proponents are quite comfortable with the proposition of common descent. I would probably describe my own views on common descent as “skeptical agnostic”. I don’t have a definitive opinion on the extent to which different taxonomic groups are related, though I have come to suspect that universal common descent has now become scientifically untenable. Even among those of us who doubt common descent it is universally acknowledged that the NS/RM synthesis possesses some explanatory power (e.g. the emergence of antibiotic and insecticide resistance), and that life has a history.

But it gets worse. Gilmour then makes the remarkable claim that,

…the word evolution is not, as Dr Noble contends (and would prefer), a ‘slippery’ one. Common ancestry is simply the logical conclusion that comes from all that we have discovered – as well as from the absence of evidence to the contrary. Noble embarrasses himself by pushing the idea that, yes, this branch is obviously related to/descended from that branch but please don’t go thinking they might both be from the same actual tree!

Oh dear. Does Gilmour really not know that the word “evolution” carries multiple meanings, each with varying levels of controversy? Evolution can refer to “change over time” or the view that life has a history (uncontroversial). Or it can refer to the emergence of new species from previous ones — speciation — by virtue of various processes such as reproductive isolation (again, uncontroversial). Or it can mean “universal common descent” (more controversial). Or it can refer to the mechanism, as put forward by Charles Darwin and his successors, of random variation and natural selection (the extent to which this is responsible for the origins and development of life is still an open question). One must always take care to distinguish between patterns and processes. Some see a pattern of universal descent with modification: But that pattern is not, in and of itself, a causal explanation. Neo-Darwinism seeks to provide that causal explanation: In my opinion, not very successfully.

Gilmour concludes by saying,

“[S]ince we don’t have every piece of the jigsaw (and never will), an interventionist must therefore come along, every now and again, with “new genetic information” and “body plans” (AN).

How many times does one need to spell out that ID is not committed to interventionalism?

He further asserts,

Unfortunately for creationists and the ID crowd, educated and open-minded theists do not need the farce of “Intelligent Design” to challenge the proposition that “the origin and development of life is a blind and purposeless process.”

Really? What about educated and open-minded theists who choose to embrace ID? As for me, I am currently pursuing a postgraduate-level Masters education in evolutionary biology. While that does not make me, by any stretch, an expert, I would like to think of myself — at the very least — as educated in the field. What about a Richard Sternberg, a Scott Minnich, a Michael Behe, a Paul Nelson, a Jonathan Wells, a Douglas Axe, a Ralph Seelke or an Ann Gauger? These people don’t strike me as uneducated. One has to wonder why the BCSE continue to allow such mis-informed content on their website. Indeed, this is only the peak of the proverbial iceberg.

To conclude, I would suggest that the BCSE attempt to focus more on publishing interesting scientific content on their blog, and play down substantially on the unnecessary and outlandish ad hominem insults. Keith Gilmour — to my knowledge — is not trained in biology. And, while that fact alone does not necessarily disqualify him from the ring of discussion (nor does it invalidate his points), perhaps a little respect for the points of view of those of us who are may be in order?

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