Professor Larry Moran is mightily offended at a recent post of mine, claiming that he supports the use of ID-compatible science textbooks in Texas classrooms. I have absolutely no intention of withdrawing that claim. But if he really wants to expose what he regards as the “IDiocy” of the Intelligent Design movement, then I have an interesting proposal for him. I’ll say more on that at the end of this post.
Before I continue, I’d like to highlight a remark Professor Moran made in his latest post, in response to mine:
So, why did Vincent Joseph Torley misrepresent my position? Is it because he’s too stupid to understand what I was talking about or is it because he deliberately wanted to mislead his readers? It’s the classic conundrum, are they liars or IDiots? Or, is it possible that I’m creating a false dichotomy and there’s a third option?
I’ll let readers judge for themselves whether and to what degree I have misrepresented Professor Moran’s views. Let’s assume for argument’s sake that I am guilty as charged. Why might that be? Professor Moran can conceive of only two alternatives: either I’m a liar or I’m an idiot. Neither alternative sounds very plausible. First, if I were lying, then why on earth would I write a post linking to two of his posts, from which I quoted a total of ten whole paragraphs? Not a very sensible thing for a liar to do, is it? Second, if I’m an idiot, then by definition I’m stupider than the vast majority of the population. Now if Professor Moran wants to make that claim, that’s fine: he’s perfectly entitled to do so. But I have one question for him: what’s his yardstick for measuring people’s intelligence? Let him design a test which most ordinary people can pass and which I and most of my fellow Intelligent Design advocates fail, and I’ll start taking seriously his claim that we are cognitively impaired “IDiots.” Until then, color me skeptical.
Professor Moran wonders aloud whether there is a third option. Yes, Professor, there is. Here it is: communication between human beings is seldom unambiguous. Almost every message contains some degree of ambiguity, and when it does, people have an unfortunate (and almost unavoidable) tendency to let their own preconceptions color their reading of that message – which means that they may read it in a way that was not intended by the sender of the message. That doesn’t make them wicked or stupid; it just makes them biased. All of us are.
Would you like an example, Professor? I’ll quote a short passage (which is now crossed out) on speciation, from one of your own posts, titled, Junk & Jonathan: Part 4—Chapter 1 (May 22, 2011):
As Jerry Coyne points out, reproductive isolation is mostly due to accident (random genetic drift) and not natural selection [The Cause of Speciation]. That’s in line with modern evolutionary theory and Coyne should know because he’s one of the world’s leading experts on speciation.
In the post he linked to in the above paragraph, Professor Moran attributed to Professor Jerry Coyne the belief that “the main cause of reproductive isolation—the actual speciation event according to the biological species concept—is due to accident, not adaptation.” In fact, Professor Coyne believes nothing of the sort, and Professor Moran subsequently acknowledged this, for he issued a retraction:
UPDATE: Coyne and some commenters have corrected me. Coyne actually does think that most speciation is due to natural selection.
Well, I will say this for Professor Moran: he is an honest man.
Professors Moran and Coyne are scientists who share a common passion: they both firmly believe that evolution should be taught in schools and universities as a fact (as well as a theory), even if they disagree to some extent about how new species arise. Now, if misunderstandings can arise even between two eminent scientists like these men, how much more should we expect them to arise between people whose worldviews are poles apart? (I presume that Professor Moran would consider himself to be at the opposite pole to people whom he derides as “creationists.”)
Which brings me to my alleged offenses.
1. Professor Moran complains that “Torley does not quote me directly and does not explain to his audience that ‘evidence’ is important in deciding what to teach.”
Reply: In my post, I quoted the following statement by David Evans, Executive Director of the National Science Teachers Association: “Furthermore, the very foundation of science is grounded in, and based upon, evidence.” I think that’s clear enough. I also quoted Professor Moran’s comment on the paragraph containing that quote. I later wrote: “I presume he [Moran] believes that these science textbooks could also include proposed (unguided) mechanisms for generating systems exhibiting a high degree of specified complexity.” I then added that “ID proponents are fine with that – as long as the limitations and uncertainties of these explanations are also pointed out to students.” Nowhere did I state that Intelligent Design should be taught in schools. In fact, the Discovery Institute’s Science Education Policy on this issue is quite clear:
What does the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture recommend for science education curriculum?
As a matter of public policy, Discovery Institute opposes any effort to require the teaching of intelligent design by school districts or state boards of education. Attempts to mandate teaching about intelligent design only politicize the theory and will hinder fair and open discussion of the merits of the theory among scholars and within the scientific community. Furthermore, most teachers at the present time do not know enough about intelligent design to teach about it accurately and objectively.
Instead of mandating intelligent design, Discovery Institute seeks to increase the coverage of evolution in textbooks. It believes that evolution should be fully and completely presented to students, and they should learn more about evolutionary theory, including its unresolved issues. In other words, evolution should be taught as a scientific theory that is open to critical scrutiny, not as a sacred dogma that can’t be questioned.
In short: I believe, as does Professor Moran, that science students should only be taught what is based on evidence. Nowhere in my post did I suggest that he believed otherwise.
2. Professor Moran writes: “He describes my comment as ‘astonishing’ and notes that ‘truth is stranger than fiction.’ This gives an entirely misleading picture of what I said. Torely (sic) has been reading my blog for years so I have to assume that he is deliberately misleading his readers. In other words, he has to be lying because he can’t be that stupid.”
Reply: Professor Moran is making uncharitable assumptions at the outset, which is generally an unwise thing to do. Let me give an example. I notice that in his latest post, Moran misspells my name no less than six times. Now, if I were the sort of person who was quick to take offense, I might conclude that his intention was to insult or belittle me. But that would be a very stupid conclusion to draw, as he spells my name correctly 13 times in his post. A more likely conclusion is that he misspelled it unintentionally, and was simply too tired (overwork, perhaps?) to notice his mistake. (I notice that on one occasion, he misspelled “inconsistency” as “inconsistently.”) Another possibility is that the profusion of misspellings arose from an over-zealous use of the copy-and-paste keys on Moran’s part. Yet another possibility is that he simply has a juvenile sense of humor: maybe he thinks that misspelling someone’s name is funny. Personally I think tiredness is the most likely explanation.
Professor Moran accuses me of misleading my readers, so let’s look at the specific points he raises.
Which comment of Professor Moran’s did I describe as “astonishing”? This one (I’ll quote it in full here):
You could specify “biological evolution” to make sure you’re talking about real science. But there’s no reason to eliminate the possibility of directed evolution. If the evidence supports the direct intervention of the Flying Spaghetti Monster then that’s fine by me. I agree with John Harshman.
The problem with leaving the phrase is that it eliminates evolution by random genetic drift and that’s definitely known to occur. This means that the statement from David Evans is actually incorrect and not what the vast majority of expert scientists believe. (Emphasis mine – VJT.)
In order to provide my readers with the full context, I should mention that David Evans had advocated in his post that Texas students be taught “evolution by natural selection,” but Professor Moran disagreed, and suggested that students should simply be taught “evolution” as this best reflects “what the vast majority of scientists accept as settled science.” That remark would have been surprising enough, as it tacitly concedes there’s no general agreement among scientists on the mechanism of speciation. But that wasn’t what prompted my astonishment. A commenter named Peter then suggested that Professor Moran might perhaps want to change his wording to evolution “by natural mechnisms” (sic), but Professor Moran was having none of it: “there’s no reason to eliminate the possibility of directed evolution,” he wrote. That was what I found astonishing.
In other words, Professor Moran believes that students should be taught a definition of evolution which is broad enough to include “directed evolution.” He even mentions “the direct intervention of the Flying Spaghetti Monster” as an example of what he means by “directed evolution.” The term “evolution,” on Professor Moran’s definition, could therefore include at least some forms of Intelligent Design. And Professor Moran would like Texas students to be taught that definition. Hence the title of my last post: “Professor Larry Moran supports the use of ID-compatible science textbooks in Texas classrooms.”
The reader will notice that I didn’t claim that Professor Moran supports the teaching of Intelligent Design in any way, shape or form, in science classrooms. Nor did I claim that the textbooks Moran envisages would omit any of the evidence that he wishes to cite for evolution – whether it be the theory of evolution which he endorses or the Darwinian theory – indeed, I specifically assumed that he would want these science textbooks to “include proposed (unguided) mechanisms for generating systems exhibiting a high degree of specified complexity.” I added that I was happy with that, “as long as the limitations and uncertainties of these explanations are also pointed out to students.”
Was I misleading my readers? Was I lying? Was I stupid? You be the judge.
3. Professor Moran writes: “Torley then quotes David Evans who said, ‘Decisions about what counts as science should not be a popularity contest. No matter how many people object, public schools must teach what the vast majority of scientists affirm as settled science.’ Torely (sic) decides that this represents a logical inconsistently (sic) that, presumably, negates the entire argument…. Most people of even moderate intelligence will have no trouble understanding what David Evans meant. He meant that you don’t teach bad science just because a majority of the general public believes it to be true. There has to be some way of deciding what counts as good science because surely we all agree that good science is what we should be teaching students. There’s no logical inconsistency.”
Reply: A reader who goes under the handle goodusername, who commented on my post made a similar point to Professor Moran’s (but much more politely). While I’m quite happy to concede that this was what David Evans meant, I don’t think it really removes the inconsistency. As science writer Matt Ridley put it in a recent Wall Street Journal article (July 9, 2013), “Science Is About Evidence, Not Consensus.” Or as Enza Ferreri (a journalist with a degree in the philosophy of science) put it succinctly in a post entitled Scientific Consensus (November 21, 2013):
Nothing in science is ever “settled”: this is a concept foreign to science and borrowed from the political discourse. Science is a continuous process that never ends.…
Science is not a democratic process, scientific disputes and disagreements cannot be resolved by opinion polls among the scientists.”
Is there an inconsistency in Evans’ position? I’ll let my readers decide.
4. Professor Moran continues: “Torley then pretends that he has discovered my position for the first time. Here’s my position. I believe that almost all of the claims of Intelligent Design Creationists are scientific. I believe that those claims can be addressed by the scientific way of knowing. Most of the claims have been refuted or shown to be worthless. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that Intelligent Design Creationism is bad science and should not be taught in schools. I’ve been saying this for years as Torley well knows because he links to one of my earlier posts: Is Intelligent Design Scientific?“
Reply: The post which Professor Moran links to was written one year ago (November 12, 2012), but we’ll let that pass. The key point I’d like to make is that nowhere in my post did I deny that Moran believes that “Intelligent Design Creationism is bad science and should not be taught in schools.” Nowhere did I claim that he believes that Intelligent Design should be taught in schools. Heck, even I don’t think it should be (at least, at the present time). What I did assert is that because Professor Moran’s definition of evolution omits mention of a mechanism, “the course taught to Texas students” under his proposed guidelines “would be compatible with intelligently guided evolution.”
The point I’m making here is a fairly simple one: if you teach students the evidence that life has evolved, without teaching them that science says it happened this way or that way, then by definition, you’ve left intelligently guided evolution on the table as an option for possible consideration. Yes, you might tell students that “modern evolutionary theory includes several mechanisms of evolution,” and I’ll happily agree with Professor Moran that “they should be taught.” Even if you happen to think, as Professor Moran does, that “There is no evidence for intelligently guided evolution and certainly no scientific evidence of any being or entity who could do the guiding,” that doesn’t make the theory wrong. All it means is that people attempting to argue for the theory of Intelligent Design have their work cut out for them: they need to make a good case for what they believe. But the fact remains that the course you’ll be teaching, if you follow Professor Moran’s proposals, will still be compatible with Intelligent Design.
I’ve just been watching a Youtube talk given by Professor Moran last year, titled, Larry Moran – Science vs. IDiots (Eschaton 2012). I’d encourage readers to have a look at it: it’s only about 35 minutes long. Frankly, it left me unfazed. Apart from showing (i) that some arguments for Intelligent Design made by some individuals are unconvincing (which proves what, exactly?), (ii) that populations of living things are capable of evolving over time and that reproductive isolation has actually been observed in a handful of cases (which only proves speciation if that’s how you define a species, and which fails to address the points made by Dr. Branko Kozulic in his 2011 paper, Proteins and Genes, Singletons and Species, which I blogged about here), (iii) that some fossil series (e.g. land animals to whales) provide powerful suggestive evidence for common descent, the main piece of evidence cited by Professor Moran for evolution was the fact that organisms can be consistently grouped into nested hierarchies. Moran seemed to think that Intelligent Design proponents didn’t have a good explanation for that. Actually, I put forward one six months ago, in my online post, Is Darwinism a better explanation of life than Intelligent Design? (May 13, 2013). (Other Intelligent Design proponents have also pointed out that the nested hierarchy is messier than you might expect, due to lateral gene transfer, but I’ll leave that criticism aside for now, as I’m sure Professor Moran would argue that the correlation observed between the different trees of life is still astronomically higher than what you’d expect from chance.)
I might add that proving that evolution occurs isn’t the same as proving that it is able to account for all of the changes that have taken place since the dawn of life, 3.5 billion years ago. Nor is proving common descent (which I happen to accept) the same thing as establishing that evolution does not require intelligent guidance.
In his talk, Professor Moran argues that you need to study evolutionary biology in depth before you can criticize it. To my mind, that’s a courtier’s reply. If I were making detailed criticisms of specific mechanisms, then I’d concede his point. For my part, I think that the most telling criticism of any theory of unguided evolution relates to protein evolution. And my overwhelming impression (as a layman and non-specialist) is that Professor Moran has failed to effectively discredit the work of scientists like Dr. Douglas Axe (see also here and here) and Dr. Ann Gauger (see here and here). Nor has he answered the scientific conundrum voiced by Dr. Branko Kozulic in his paper, Proteins and Genes, Singletons and Species, in which he claims that each species of organism can be characterized by literally hundreds of chemically unique singleton proteins, which are not found in other species, and whose evolution via stochastic processes is vastly improbable. If Kozulic is right about that, then evolutionists have been overlooking the real problem of speciation all these years: it isn’t simply a matter of achieving reproductive isolation.
Now, I may be horribly wrong about all this. But going by the evidence I see in front of me at the present time, I’d say that while there’s a strong scientific case for common descent, there’s an even stronger case for the intelligent design of a relatively large number of proteins. The best hypothesis I can come up with to explain that is a Designer Who actively guides evolution. I’m not advocating that this hypothesis be taught in Texas science classrooms. What I am advocating is that the gaping holes in contemporary evolutionary theory be taught.
How does Professor Moran handle those holes? I mentioned two in my last post. The first related to evolutionary biologist Dr. Eugene Koonin’s peer-reviewed article, The Cosmological Model of Eternal Inflation and the Transition from Chance to Biological Evolution in the History of Life (Biology Direct 2 (2007): 15, doi:10.1186/1745-6150-2-15), which claims that the emergence of even a basic replication-translation system on the primordial Earth is such an astronomically unlikely event that we would need to postulate a vast number of universes, in which all possible scenarios are played out, in order to make its emergence likely. In my post, I asked, “How does Professor Moran feel about including Dr. Koonin’s article in the Texas school curriculum? ” Here is the substance of Professor Moran’s response:
The origin of life is an interesting and complex issue. Once students have mastered to basic concepts of evolution, they can be taught what scientists currently think about the origin of life…
I think students should be taught that we don’t know how life originated even though there are many ideas that are compatible with an origin that obeys the laws of physics and chemistry. I think that students should be aware of the fact that the specific direction that life took on this particular planet is highly improbable, as is all or history. It would be wonderful if Texas high school students could be taught how to deal with probabilities and how to appreciate that a posterori argument is suspect. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
I’ll just quote one paragraph from Dr. Koonin’s paper:
In other words, even in this toy model that assumes a deliberately inflated rate of RNA production, the probability that a coupled translation-replication emerges by chance in a single O-region [i.e. a single observable universe – VJT] is P < 10^-1018. Obviously, this version of the breakthrough stage can be considered only in the context of a universe with an infinite (or, in the very least, extremely vast) number of O-regions.
How do Professor Moran’s comments address the argument in Dr. Koonin’s paper? Not at all, it seems to me. Why should students be exposed to the problems associated with abiogenesis only after they’ve been taught the scientific case for evolution? How is it helpful to point out that the various proposed scenarios for the origin of life are compatible with the laws of physics and chemistry, when the real question is: how likely are they to generate life, given the time available? What is the relevance of pointing out to students that the specific direction that life took on this particular planet is highly improbable, when the really pressing question is: how did life arise in the first place? And if Professor Moran thinks that “a posterori argument is suspect,” then what kind of probability estimates would he prefer? A priori ones, perhaps? Let’s face it: Dr. Koonin has bent over backwards in an attempt to make abiogenesis work in his peer-reviewed article, and it still appears vanishingly unlikely. I think Texas students deserve to know that.
In my post, I also asked whether Texas students should get to hear about claims by paleontologists Douglas Erwin and James Valentine, that currently known evolutionary processes are utterly unable to account for the relatively sudden appearance of about 30 phyla of animals with different body plans, in the Cambrian period. (Yes, Professor, I’m well aware that “relatively sudden” means “phenotypic change over a period of 10 million years.”)
What was Professor Moran’s response?
You would need to show them how the molecular data confirms evolution then discuss the various explanations for phenotypic change…
It would not be consistent to postulate that a supernatural being pops up and intervenes whenever we encounter a problem that can’t easily be explained by the available data. That’s not consistent with everything else we know. Such a model adds a whole extra level of complexity and a host of additional assumptions. For example, when, where, and why did some god make a bacterial flagellum? Why did some god decide to make all the strange animals of the Cambrian?
Let’s address these points one by one. The molecular data confirms common descent, if it confirms anything. By itself, the data says nothing about how phyla arose: all it can tell us, at best, is when they arose. The origin of animal phyla is not merely “a problem that can’t easily be explained by the available data”; it’s a problem that can’t be explained by any currently known unguided mechanism. Valentine and Erwin conclude:
We conclude that the probability that species selection is a general solution to the origin of higher taxa is not great, and that neither of the contending theories of evolutionary change at the species level, phyletic gradualism or punctuated equilibrium, seem applicable to the origin of new body plans.
…The seeming paradox of abundant new body plans evolving during a time of relatively low species diversity may be a key to the Metazoan radiation. What may be required is a theory for the evolution of novelty, not diversity, which explains abundant individual transitions occuring [sic] in 1 to 5 million years or less and leading to new phyla and classes without the production of easily fossilized intermediates or of numerous species…
..we envision an evolutionary process not unlike forms of selection that operate during microevolution, but with mechanisms of genome change that do not operate at the same intensity or with the same results today. However, these postulated processes do operate at the same hierarchical level as does most microevolution — the level of natural selection in populations. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
(Valentine, J. W., & Erwin, D. H. 1987. “Interpreting Great Developmental Experiments: The Fossil Record” in Development as an Evolutionary Process (MBL Lectures in Biology, volume 8), edited by Rudolf A. Raff & Elizabeth C. Raff, pp. 71-107. New York: Alan R. Liss, Inc., p. 96.)
Valentine and Erwin are committed evolutionists. Nevertheless, their explanation for the Cambrian explosion remains a highly speculative one. That, by itself, would be insufficient to convince me that Intelligent Design was involved. What makes Intelligent Design vastly more likely, to my mind, is the fact that large numbers of cell types – requiring very large numbers of proteins – appear to have arisen within a relatively brief period. If Professor Moran can dissolve that mystery, well and good. Until then…
Finally, I haven’t the foggiest idea why a Deity would decide to create multiple phyla of animals at the beginning of the Cambrian. Perhaps the earth had to undergo a certain amount of terra-forming before it was ready to support complex animals. In any case, the question is secondary – just as the question of why some intelligent being left a monolith on the moon would be, if astronauts happened to find one there.
My challenge to Professor Moran: try a Sokal-style hoax
So here’s my challenge to Professor Moran: if you really think that Intelligent Design journals aren’t up to scratch, why don’t you and your friends try to put together a phony article outlining new evidence for Intelligent Design, submit it to an ID journal, and see if they publish it? That’s what physics professor Alan Sokal did in 1996: he submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies, in an attempt to test the journal’s intellectual rigor and establish whether “a leading North American journal of cultural studies – whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross – [would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions” (see here for more details).
If you’re worried that “Forewarned is forearmed,” Professor, then you might want to wait a while: everyone lets their guard down, sooner or later. But if you really wanted to undermine the credibility of Intelligent Design research, that would be the perfect way to do it.
Well, Professor? What say you: yea or nay?
One last piece of advice, Professor. I hope you now have a better understanding of why it’s generally not a good idea to impute bad motives to people. I’ll finish with a quote from Benjamin Franklin (1744): “Tart Words make no Friends: a spoonful of honey will catch more flies than a Gallon of Vinegar.”