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Dennis Venema Gets ID Wrong (Again)

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Dennis Venema, the “heavy hitter” of Biologos when it comes to evolutionary theory — hands up, professors of evolutionary biology at Chicago, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, etc., if you have heard of Dennis Venema — has recently issued some remarks about ID in an interview.  The remarks can be found on the website of Rachel Held Evans, a pleasant and personally engaging writer and former student of English who has in the past served as a sort of lay cheerleader for the Biologos project.

In the interview, Venema says:

‘The ID Movement is a “Big Tent” approach for all and sundry who reject at least some part of evolutionary biology. As such, there are Young-Earth Creationists, Old-Earth Creationists, and others within the movement. The main ID view is that some features of life are too complex to be the result of evolution, thus indicating that they were “designed” – a word that functions as the equivalent of “created” within this group.’

There are errors and misleading statements in this paragraph which are bound to generate multiple confusions in the readers of the article.

Regarding the first sentence, it is true that ID is a “Big Tent” movement in the sense that it includes people of varying views on a number of issues.  But the subsequent sentence is materially misleading because of what it omits.  After mentioning two groups of “Creationists” it adds “and others” without specifying that some of those “others” are evolutionists, for example, one of the leaders of ID, Michael Behe.  Richard Sternberg, an associate of ID and an ID theorist in the broad sense, is also an evolutionist, and former Discovery Fellow Michael Denton, clearly a design theorist even if he dislikes the label “ID,” is an evolutionist as well.  Many of the commenters here on UD are also evolutionists — they just happen to be evolutionists who accept design.  So right away, by failing to mention these people, Venema subtly perpetuates the error that ID is inherently “creationist” in the popular sense of excluding belief in evolution.  This “omission” by a seasoned debater like Venema cannot have been accidental and is a shameless rhetorical tactic.

The third sentence makes more explicit the misdirection that is implicit in the second.  “Some features of life are too complex to be the result of evolution.”  No ID theorist would have written that sentence.  An ID theorist would have said:  “Some features of life display an integrated complexity which would be difficult if not impossible to achieve via the mechanisms of Darwinian evolution.”  Venema fails to “get” what ID theorists have told him scores of times, in their books and in comments on Biologos and elsewhere, that it is the Darwinian mechanism which is incompatible with ID, not “evolution.”  One can believe in “evolution” while rejecting the Darwinian mechanism as evolution’s main driver.

To see this clearly, we have to ask:  in the Darwinian model of evolution, where does novelty come from?  It doesn’t come from natural selection.  Natural selection can only prune.  The novelty comes entirely from the supposedly random mutations.  Random mutations are supposed to be able to accumulate gradually to produce not only tiny point changes that confer antibiotic resistance, but multiple changes which produce major alterations in the body plans of living creatures.  This view, which was the view championed by Mayr, Dobzhansky, and others of the Modern Synthesis, is the view Venema was taught in school and the view which he accepts.   But it has been heavily criticized by a number of evolutionary biologists who have much more special training in evolution than Venema has.  Lynn Margulis, a major player in evolutionary theory, scoffs at the idea that major novelty emerges from gradual accumulation of random mutations.  Numerous other cutting-edge evolutionary theorists, including most recently James Shapiro of the University of Chicago, have seriously criticized the Darwinian position.  Thus, Venema does not realize (or at any rate fails to acknowledge) that the criticism of Darwinism made by many ID theorists is also made by many professional biologists who are completely committed to “evolution.”  For him to speak and write publically about evolutionary theory without being aware of the mounting critique of Darwinian mechanism within the field is nothing less than intellectually irresponsible; and if he knows of this mounting critique, his suppression of it is nothing less than intellectually dishonest.

Venema says that “designed” functions as an equivalent of “created” in ID.  This is not true.  In ID theory “designed” means “caused by intelligence” as opposed to “produced by chance, or by a combination of chance and necessity, without any input from intelligence.”  “Created” is another notion entirely, which identifies the designer with God.  But the identification of the designer with God is not part of ID as such.  Most ID proponents are Christians, and almost all ID proponents are theists, but when they identify the designer with the God of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, they are speaking as religious believers, not as design theorists.

Venema confuses “detecting that something is designed” with “believing that the designer is the Creator God.”  I can believe that the layout of Stonehenge was designed without believing that it was created by God and without having the slightest idea who built it.  I can believe that life on earth was designed without deciding whether it was manufactured technologically by alien biochemistry students or created by God.  Of course, ID proponents have clarified this in hundreds of places in their books, on the internet and so on, but evidently Venema can’t be bothered to read what they write (which often seems to be the case with his Biologos colleagues, Falk, Giberson, and Collins), or he doesn’t read carefully, or he can’t comprehend what he has read, because he gets it wrong.

Venema has used the Biologos website, and now he uses Evans’s website, as a launching pad for attacks on ID, a movement whose nature he has not grasped.  This has been a common practice among Biologos people.  The “Leading Figures” page on Biologos for many months had an erroneous characterization of ID as essentially a “God of the gaps” view which required divine interventions.   This mischaracterization was brought to the attention of Darrel Falk, head of Biologos, over a year ago, and for many months afterward it remained unchanged.  Fortunately, the description of ID on that page has recently been modified, for which I give Biologos credit, but the tendency for individual Biologos columnists to employ that description remains.  To give just one example, in the March 26, 2011 Biologos column where Giberson interviews Collins, Collins says this:  “Again, the fundamental premise of intelligent design is that there were supernatural interventions to explain irreducible complexity. And how, from a scientific perspective, are you going to catch those in the act when they are, by definition, supernatural?”   But of course, as already stated, ID does not require supernatural interventions, and it makes no attempt to catch supernatural interventions in the act.  Collins does not grasp that one does not need to catch the sculptors of Mt. Rushmore in the act in order to prove that Mt. Rushmore is the product of design rather than chance.  He might grasp it if he would take the time to read ID works instead of getting his picture of ID from hearsay.

If this is going to continue to be the way of Biologos, with figures like Venema and Collins misrepresenting ID in the face of easily available information  about what ID actually asserts, one can only hope that Biologos’s funding sources will soon pull the plug on it, and put this ragtag band of carping ID critics out of its misery, and out of business.  The moneybags who fund Biologos would be wiser to start a whole new theology/science project, one run by people who are much more cognizant of the very latest developments in biological science and the very latest developments in post-graduate-level theology.  And, above all, one run by people who honor the basic academic principle that one should make sure one understands a theoretical position before one criticizes it.

See also: Cudworth, Dennis Venema’s Christian Darwinism is an alarming symptom – but only a symptom – of a much bigger problem

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Why did NickMatzke_UD run away from this thread? Joseph
"Further, in the case of so many, there is a virulent opposition to anything that they feel may even be supportive of theism. Thus, even though ID is not theistic, and even though ID is compatible with many aspects of evolution, they go on with their obfuscations and “explanations,” no matter how absurd, because: (i) they “can’t allow a divine foot in the door” and (ii) they mistakenly think ID necessarily leads to a divine foot." So what are the options? I see: 1) God 2) Aliens 3) Natural Selection Have I missed any? In the case of aliens, where did the aliens come from? You have the same three options that we have for outselves, so we can rule them out as the old philosophical problem of an infinite regress. That leaves God and natural selection. Since natural selection does not require a designer, the way I see it, ID is tied to the concept of a supernatural creator. Any natural creator would be subject to the same question. Granted, that doesn't rule out ID in the local context of this planet. However, I've yet to see an example of irreducible complexity that hasn't been thoroughly explained in terms of evolution by small increments. I notice you're still using a picture of the flagellum as your site banner! Richard Payne
Joseph: "So just come out and say it- the blind watchmaker is the only definition of evolution you will accept and equivocation is the name of your game." This hits it right on the head. The blind watchmaker thesis is exactly what Nick and Co. are talking about, and always have been. The NCSE is dedicated to the fully materialistic account, as is Nick, and so many others. Further, in the case of so many, there is a virulent opposition to anything that they feel may even be supportive of theism. Thus, even though ID is not theistic, and even though ID is compatible with many aspects of evolution, they go on with their obfuscations and "explanations," no matter how absurd, because: (i) they "can't allow a divine foot in the door" and (ii) they mistakenly think ID necessarily leads to a divine foot. The blind watchmaker thesis is *assumed,* if not explicitly stated, almost any time the word "evolution" is used in common parlance. Eric Anderson
OK Nick let me help you: Defining “evolution”:
Finally, during the evolutionary synthesis, a consensus emerged: “Evolution is the change in properties of populations of organisms over time”- Ernst Mayr page 8 of “What Evolution Is”
Biological (or organic) evolution is change in the properties of populations of organisms or groups of such populations, over the course of generations. The development, or ontogeny, of an individual organism is not considered evolution: individual organisms do not evolve. The changes in populations that are considered evolutionary are those that are ‘heritable' via the genetic material from one generation to the next. Biological evolution may be slight or substantial; it embraces everything from slight changes in the proportions of different forms of a gene within a population, such as the alleles that determine the different human blood types, to the alterations that led from the earliest organisms to dinosaurs, bees, snapdragons, and humans. Douglas J. Futuyma (1998) Evolutionary Biology 3rd ed., Sinauer Associates Inc. Sunderland MA p.4
Biological evolution refers to the cumulative changes that occur in a population over time. PBS series “Evolution” endorsed by the NCSE
Biological evolution, simply put, is descent with modification. This definition encompasses small-scale evolution (changes in gene frequency in a population from one generation to the next) and large-scale evolution (the descent of different species from a common ancestor over many generations) UC Berkley
In fact, evolution can be precisely defined as any change in the frequency of alleles within a gene pool from one generation to the next. Helena Curtis and N. Sue Barnes, Biology, 5th ed. 1989 Worth Publishers, p.974
Evolution- in biology, the word means genetically based change in a line of descent over time.- Biology: Concepts and Applications Starr 5th edition 2003 page 10
Those are all accepted definitions of biological “evolution”. Next I will show what Intelligent Design says about biological evolution and people can see for themselves that Intelligent Design is not anti-evolution:
Intelligent Design is NOT Creationism (MAY 2000)
Scott refers to me as an intelligent design "creationist," even though I clearly write in my book Darwin's Black Box (which Scott cites) that I am not a creationist and have no reason to doubt common descent. In fact, my own views fit quite comfortably with the 40% of scientists that Scott acknowledges think "evolution occurred, but was guided by God."- Dr Michael Behe
Dr Behe has repeatedly confirmed he is OK with common ancestry. And he has repeatedly made it clear that ID is an argument against materialistic evolution (see below), ie necessity and chance. Then we have: What is Intelligent Design and What is it Challenging?- a short video featuring Stephen C. Meyer on Intelligent Design. He also makes it clear that ID is not anti-evolution. Next Dembski and Wells weigh in:
The theory of intelligent design (ID) neither requires nor excludes speciation- even speciation by Darwinian mechanisms. ID is sometimes confused with a static view of species, as though species were designed to be immutable. This is a conceptual possibility within ID, but it is not the only possibility. ID precludes neither significant variation within species nor the evolution of new species from earlier forms. Rather, it maintains that there are strict limits to the amount and quality of variations that material mechanisms such as natural selection and random genetic change can alone produce. At the same time, it holds that intelligence is fully capable of supplementing such mechanisms, interacting and influencing the material world, and thereby guiding it into certain physical states to the exclusion of others. To effect such guidance, intelligence must bring novel information to expression inside living forms. Exactly how this happens remains for now an open question, to be answered on the basis of scientific evidence. The point to note, however, is that intelligence can itself be a source of biological novelties that lead to macroevolutionary changes. In this way intelligent design is compatible with speciation. page 109 of "The Design of Life"
And that brings us to a true either-or. If the choice between common design and common ancestry is a false either-or, the choice between intelligent design and materialistic evolution is a true either-or. Materialistic evolution does not only embrace common ancestry; it also rejects any real design in the evolutionary process. Intelligent design, by contrast, contends that biological design is real and empirically detectable regardless of whether it occurs within an evolutionary process or in discrete independent stages. The verdict is not yet in, and proponents of intelligent design themselves hold differing views on the extent of the evolutionary interconnectedness of organisms, with some even accepting universal common ancestry (ie Darwin’s great tree of life). Common ancestry in combination with common design can explain the similar features that arise in biology. The real question is whether common ancestry apart from common design- in other words, materialistic evolution- can do so. The evidence of biology increasingly demonstrates that it cannot.- Ibid page 142
And from one more pro-ID book:
Many assume that if common ancestry is true, then the only viable scientific position is Darwinian evolution- in which all organisms are descended from a common ancestor via random mutation and blind selection. Such an assumption is incorrect- Intelligent Design is not necessarily incompatible with common ancestry.- page 217 of “Intelligent Design 101”
That is just a sample of what the Intelligent Design leadership say about biological evolution- they are OK with it. That said Intelligent Design is anti-evolution if and only if "evolution is defined as:
the “Blind watchmaker” thesis: the idea that all organisms have descended from common ancestors solely through an unguided, unintelligent, purposeless, material processes such as natural selection acting on random variations or mutations; that the mechanisms of natural selection, random variation and mutation, and perhaps other similarly naturalistic mechanisms, are completely sufficient to account for the appearance of design in living organisms.
So just come out and say it- the blind watchmaker is the only definition of evolution you will accept and equivocation is the name of your game. Joseph
What would really help, Nick, is you and your colleagues endeavoring to – even in the midst of your ID criticisms – paint the idea with something approaching fairness and accuracy. Ah, but that would complicate things…
But wait, complicated things require the supernatural... :) Joseph
And front-loaded evolution, prescribed evolution, non-random evolution and evolution by design are all evolution just with the blind watchmaker relegated to breaking things, as observed. So again I ask- How are YOU defining “evolution” that makes ID anti-evolution? Joseph
Hi NickMatzke_UD! How are you defining "evolution"? A change in allele frequency over time is evolution without requiring universal common ancestry. Descent with modification is evolution without requiring universal common descent. Baraminology is descent with modofication, which is evolution without requiring universal common descent. Natural selection is evolution without requiring universal common descent. OTOH common design is a directly observable phenomenon- we see it every place there are design/ building/ communication standards. Not only that we see it every time a designer wants to improve an existing design. So Nick, how are YOU defining "evolution" that makes ID anti-evolution? Or is that kept in a top-super-secret location too? Joseph
How about noting that one can accept ‘evolution’ but not accept ‘common descent’
That would be an interesting trick. Why would anyone in the ID movement want to deny a point that is accepted by ID's most qualified proponent? Common descent is kind of the bedrock for evolution. The common ground that unites everyone working in biology. Including Behe. Petrushka
How about stating right in the FAQ that ID is not anti-common descent? How about putting that FAQ on the sidebar? How about hosting the writings of a major ID proponent, arguably one of the most central ones - Mike Behe - who has repeatedly stated not only the compatibility of CD with ID, but his personal belief in it? How about repeated statements that ID is compatible with CD, even from those people who reject CD? How about noting that one can accept 'evolution' but not accept 'common descent' - that these things are not necessarily related, even if that's the most far away popular position? How about noting that one can accept 'evolution' even while rejecting 'macroevolution'? What would really help, Nick, is you and your colleagues endeavoring to - even in the midst of your ID criticisms - paint the idea with something approaching fairness and accuracy. Ah, but that would complicate things... nullasalus
Hmm, you'd have to get rid of the name "Uncommon Descent" and all of the common ancestry bashing, "common design works just as well as common ancestry" non-arguments, Denyse O'Leary and her campaign against Christianity Today for the Neanderthal Adam cover story, and a lot more stuff, if you want to even begin to correct the "misimpression" that ID is anti-evolution. Right now, objectively, ID mostly *is* antievolution. NickMatzke_UD
Thomas, Perhaps more posts about the fact that ID is NOT anti-evolution, rather it is anti- the blind watchmaker having sole dominion over evolutionary processes. And more posts about what ID DOES claim. Information/ eductation trumps ignorance... Joseph
Hi Thomas, My apologies. Many people distort ID- just about 100% of all anti-IDists distort ID. They do so because the are a pathetic lot who cannot support their position and therefor are forced to misrepresent all opposition. How to address that- well beyond litagation, fist-fights, war, etc., I am afraid we just have to live with it and do the best we can to A) expose the lies and B) Correct them Joseph
Neil, bornagain77, Joseph, and others: I don't want to sound ungrateful for the technical discussion in threads 4 and 5 above; it's interesting in its own right. But on almost every UD posting we tend to quickly wander into technical details of this sort, even when the posting is focused on something else. Here, I'm trying to get people to reflect on the current comments of Dennis Venema (for which a link is given in the article above), and more generally on how and why Biologos authors misrepresent ID. I'm hoping people will focus on these subjects. Biologos is using the wealth of a deceased man to misrepresent ID for its own ends. I don't know how many hits Biologos gets daily, but presumably it runs in the hundreds or thousands (much more than the paltry few comments posted on Biologos would indicate). So the lies and distortions about ID are spreading through the population of internet science-and-religion followers. I'd like us to think about (a) how Biologos distorts ID and (b) how we can address such distortions. Thomas Cudworth
Neil Rickert:
I don’t see anything that I would call “information processing technology” in biology, except of course for technology produced by homo sapiens.
As you said you are not a biologist. However biologists see information processing technology inside of cells- for example the ribosome is a genetic compiler. Joseph
Neil you state,
None of that has to do with why I think it a craft, rather than a technology.
And then the burden is on you, since you are making the challenge, to prove as such rather than just assert that it is so. bornagain77
For those truly interested in where the novelty comes from, I highly recommend the new Koonin book. Particularly if it's still free. Although the author has his own point of view, the book is a well written compendium of historical and contemporary evolutionary ideas. It was a great idea for UD to recommend it. I think Koonin's answer to the novelty question would be that the really difficult stuff (the improbable stuff) would be very ancient, and the product of ancient bacteria. Petrushka
None of that has to do with why I think it a craft, rather than a technology. Neil Rickert
Neil states:
I don’t see anything that I would call “information processing technology” in biology,
Yet, despite Neil's referenceless assertion, the evidence states:
The Digital Code of DNA - 2003 - Leroy Hood & David Galas Excerpt: The discovery of the structure of DNA transformed biology profoundly, catalysing the sequencing of the human genome and engendering a new view of biology as an information science. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v421/n6921/full/nature01410.html Information Theory, Evolution, and the Origin of Life - Hubert P. Yockey, 2005 Excerpt: “Information, transcription, translation, code, redundancy, synonymous, messenger, editing, and proofreading are all appropriate terms in biology. They take their meaning from information theory (Shannon, 1948) and are not synonyms, metaphors, or analogies.” http://www.cambridge.org/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=9780521802932&ss=exc Human DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software we've ever created. Bill Gates, The Road Ahead, 1996, p. 188 The Coding Found In DNA Surpasses Man's Ability To Code - Stephen Meyer - video http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4050638 Even the leading "New Atheist" in the world, Richard Dawkins, agrees that DNA functions exactly like digital code: Richard Dawkins Opens Mouth; Inserts Foot - video http://www.evolutionnews.org/2010/06/richard_dawkins_opens_mouth_in035861.html#more 10 Ways Darwin Got It Wrong Excerpt: As molecular biologist Jonathan Wells and mathematician William Dembski point out: “It’s true that eukaryotic cells are the most complicated cells we know. But the simplest life forms we know, the prokaryotic cells (such as bacteria, which lack a nucleus), are themselves immensely complex.,,, There is no evidence whatsoever of earlier, more primitive life forms from which prokaryotes might have evolved” (How to Be an Intellectually Fulfilled Atheist (or Not), 2008, p. 4). These authors then mention what these two types of cells share in terms of complexity: • Information processing, storage and retrieval. • Artificial languages and their decoding systems. • Error detection, correction and proofreading devices for quality control. • Digital data-embedding technology. • Transportation and distribution systems. • Automated parcel addressing (similar to zip codes and UPS labels). • Assembly processes employing pre-fabrication and modular construction. • Self-reproducing robotic manufacturing plants. So it turns out that cells are far more complex and sophisticated than Darwin could have conceived of. How did mere chance produce this, when even human planning and engineering cannot? http://www.gnmagazine.org/issues/gn85/10-ways-darwin-wrong.htm Systems biology: Untangling the protein web - July 2009 Excerpt: Vidal thinks that technological improvements — especially in nanotechnology, to generate more data, and microscopy, to explore interaction inside cells, along with increased computer power — are required to push systems biology forward. "Combine all this and you can start to think that maybe some of the information flow can be captured," he says. But when it comes to figuring out the best way to explore information flow in cells, Tyers jokes that it is like comparing different degrees of infinity. "The interesting point coming out of all these studies is how complex these systems are — the different feedback loops and how they cross-regulate each other and adapt to perturbations are only just becoming apparent," he says. "The simple pathway models are a gross oversimplification of what is actually happening." http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v460/n7253/full/460415a.html Cells Are Like Robust Computational Systems, - June 2009 Excerpt: Gene regulatory networks in cell nuclei are similar to cloud computing networks, such as Google or Yahoo!, researchers report today in the online journal Molecular Systems Biology. The similarity is that each system keeps working despite the failure of individual components, whether they are master genes or computer processors. ,,,,"We now have reason to think of cells as robust computational devices, employing redundancy in the same way that enables large computing systems, such as Amazon, to keep operating despite the fact that servers routinely fail." http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090616103205.htm Bioinformatics: The Information in Life - Donald Johnson - video http://vimeo.com/11314902 On a slide in the preceding video, entitled 'Information Systems In Life', Dr. Johnson points out that: * the genetic system is a pre-existing operating system; * the specific genetic program (genome) is an application; * the native language has codon-based encryption system; * the codes are read by enzyme computers with their own operating system; * each enzyme’s output is to another operating system in a ribosome; * codes are decrypted and output to tRNA computers; * each codon-specified amino acid is transported to a protein construction site; and * in each cell, there are multiple operating systems, multiple programming languages, encoding/decoding hardware and software, specialized communications systems, error detection/correction systems, specialized input/output for organelle control and feedback, and a variety of specialized “devices” to accomplish the tasks of life.
ID theory has to do with a specific kind of complexity: functionally integrated, information-processing technology, which is everywhere evident in biological systems and which becomes much more apparent the more we learn.
I don't see anything that I would call "information processing technology" in biology, except of course for technology produced by homo sapiens. Yes, biological systems use information. But they way that they use it better fits what we would call a craft rather than a technology. Neil Rickert
The main ID view is that some features of life are too complex to be the result of evolution... No. NO. AND NO!! ID theory has nothing to do with per se (that is, intrinsic) complexity. Boulder-strewn mountainsides are complex but have no functionally integrated significance. ID theory has to do with a specific kind of complexity: functionally integrated, information-processing technology, which is everywhere evident in biological systems and which becomes much more apparent the more we learn. Arguing with Darwinists about all of this is like arguing with inanimate objects. They don't think. They don't evaluate. They universally have no expertise in real-world engineering or any concept of the design and intelligence that would be required to produce what they claim random errors created. In my opinion, Darwinists, including "Christian" Darwinists (whatever the hell that means), are suffering from self-inflicted ignorance of the most destructive kind, because it poisons both the scientific enterprise and the human soul. GilDodgen
RalphDavidWestfall: Thanks for your question. It drove me back to the Leading Figures page on Biologos, which can be found at: http://biologos.org/resources/leading-figures For many months I checked the Leading Figures page and found that it was still unchanged long after we had personally challenged Darrel Falk here on UD to change it. But now, I see, they have finally modified it, so I will have to revise one of my paragraphs above. I'll attend to that later this evening. I think the changes on the Leading Figures are worthy of an independent discussion, so I will probably post a new column on it tomorrow. But just to highlight one of the main problems with the previous Leading Figures page: previously the page had indicated that ID required direct divine intervention to fill in gaps in natural causation. This was wrong; ID allows for intervention but does not require it. Now that claim has been withdrawn. That marks an improvement. There are still some misleading phrases in the summary of Intelligent Design, but at least the most blatant error has been excised. Whoever finally relented at Biologos and changed the text there deserves credit for ceasing to impute to ID a position which it never held. Thomas Cudworth
I'm sure if you search "BioLogos" on the right side of this page you'll find plenty of posts in this regards. geoffrobinson
"The 'Leading Figures' page on Biologos has an erroneous characterization of ID." It would be helpful to have a link to more specific information about this: the text of the offending statement(s), commentary on the errors in the statement(s), information on attempts to get it corrected, responses to those attempts, etc. RalphDavidWestfall

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