A Response to John Derbyshire's Attacks Upon George Gilder

Joe Manzari and Casey Luskin
Evolution News & Views
August 14, 2006
Print ArticlePart I: John Derbyshire, Meet Quentin Smith

In 2001, the distinguished philosopher and naturalist Quentin Smith wrote a famous article entitled “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism” for the prestigious philosophy journal Philo, of which he is the editor-in-chief. In his article, Smith lays out the scholastic climate of contemporary university philosophy departments. Smith explains that by the second half of the twentieth century, universities and colleges had become in the main secularized. This secularization, however, began to quickly unravel upon the publication of Alvin Plantinga’s influential book on realist theism, God and Other Minds, in 1967, and The Nature of Necessity seven years later. Smith reluctantly admits that almost overnight it became “academically respectable” to argue for theism as an influx of talented theists entered the field. A survey of the Oxford University Press catalogue for the year 2000-2001 makes this ultimately clear. Of the 96 books published on the philosophy of religion, 94 advanced theism and two presented “both sides.” Naturalists quickly found themselves to be a mere bare majority, with many of the leading thinkers in the various disciplines in philosophy, ranging from philosophy of science (Van Fraassen) to epistemology (Moser) being theists. Smith characterizes the naturalist philosopher’s current practice of ignoring theism as “a disastrous failure.” He concludes by stating that the naturalist philosopher’s pursuit of the cultural goal of mainstream secularization in academia has failed both philosophically and culturally. Smith concludes that “the philosophical failure has led to a cultural failure.”

In a recent issue of National Review, George Gilder—co-founder of the Discovery Institute in Seattle, WA—wrote a piece entitled “Evolution and Me” in which he argues that in light of the modern findings in physics, mathematics, computer science, and biology, scientists need to eschew naturalism and adopt a metaphysic that can make sense of the information and complexity we observe in nature. In response, the self described “pop-math author” and “point man against Creationists,” John Derbyshire then responded to Gilder with a piece on The Corner blog entitled “George Gilder, Metaphysic.” It is the prevalence of opinion pieces like Derbyshire’s that illustrate Smith’s conclusion that naturalistic philosophy is a philosophical and cultural failure. Derbyshire’s hand waiving dismissal of non-naturalistic philosophy exemplifies what Smith likened to a man “trying to halt a tidal wave with a hand-held sieve.”

Derbyshire: Fun-Filled Fallacies
The writings of Darwinists like Derbyshire remind one more of a sample sheet of logical fallacies because they are full of ad hominem attacks. This is most evident when he conflates ID-theorists with creationists in attacking Gilder:

It’s a wearying business, arguing with Creationists. Basically, it is a game of Whack-a-Mole. They make an argument, you whack it down. They make a second, you whack it down. They make a third, you whack it down. So they make the first argument again. This is why most biologists just can’t be bothered with Creationism at all, even for the fun of it. It isn’t actually any fun. Creationists just chase you round in circles. It’s boring. It would be less boring if they’d come up with a new argument once in a while, but they never do. I’ve been engaging with Creationists for a couple of years now, and I have yet to hear an argument younger than I am. (I am not young.) All Creationist arguments have been whacked down a thousand times, but they keep popping up again. Nowadays I just refer argumentative e-mailers to the TalkOrigins website, where any argument you are ever going to hear from a Creationist is whacked down several times over. Don’t think it’ll stop ’em, though.**

(John Derbyshire in George Gilder, Metaphysic)
While this mindset is disheartening to those desiring serious discussion of the scientific debate over ID and evolution, Salvador Cordova reminds us of the silver lining:

When the other side starts resorting to ad hominems, rather than engaging the arguments, it’s a sign they know we’re scoring points. I actually take this as a good sign!

(Salvador Cordova at the UncommonDescent blog, http://www.uncommondescent.com/index.php/archives/1273#comment-46090)
Part II: Overblown Claims for Evolution
John Derbyshire claims that modern biology is built on evolution. He says that “Creationists seem not to be aware of how central evolution is to modern biology. Without it, nothing makes sense… Speciation via evolution underpins all of modern biology, both pure and applied.” However, in 2001, A.S. Wilkins, editor of the journal BioEssays, made it clear that “evolution would appear to be the indispensable unifying idea and, at the same time, a highly superfluous one.”

Apparently Derbyshire sees things differently from Wilkins, claiming that evolution is vital for "such things as new cures for diseases and genetic defects, new crops." Yet Wilkins' sentiment was re-affirmed in 2005 by Philip Skell, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, who when commenting on Wilkins statement wrote “I would tend to agree. Certainly, my own research with antibiotics during World War II received no guidance from insights provided by Darwinian evolution. Nor did Alexander Fleming’s discovery of bacterial inhibition by penicillin. I recently asked more than 70 eminent researchers if they would have done their work differently if they had thought Darwin’s theory was wrong. The responses were all the same: No.”

Keeping the Baby, Throwing Out the Bathwater
But Derbyshire misrepresents the view of ID-proponents, implying that they reject all of evolution, including the useful stuff about how insects can become resistant to pesticides or bacteria resistant to antibiotics. He insinuates that ID proponents "say to biologists: 'Look, I want you to drop all this nonsense about evolution and listen to me,'" and compares their view to "walking into a room full of pilots and aeronautical engineers and telling them that classical aerodynamics is all hogwash." This false comparison misrepresents the views of ID proponents, who accept much of modern evolutionary theory. ID proponents fully recognize that natural selection can produce many small-scale changes but simply question if evidence for such changes can be extrapolated to account for all of life's complexity. Did Derbyshire misrepresent the nature of the ID-argument?

Overblown Claims of Human Origins
Derbyshire makes some grand claims about the alleged evidence for human evolution. Derbyshire writes:
We have known a good deal about human origins for a long time, from researches in archeology and zoology. Darwin himself wrote a book on the topic back in 1871. Now, with the tools of modern genomics at our disposal, we are finding out much, much more. None of this would be possible, none of it would make any sense, if speciation by evolution were not the case.

(John Derbyshire in George Gilder, Metaphysic)
Derbyshire makes great claims. But does the evidence validate his claims? Consider these quotes from scientific reviewers of the state of the fossil evidence for human origins:

"The field of paleoanthropology naturally excites interest because of our own interest in origins. And, because conclusions of emotional significance to many must be drawn from extremely paltry evidence, it is often difficult to separate the personal from the scientific disputes raging in the field.

[...]

The primary scientific evidence is a pitifully small array of bones from which to construct man's evolutionary history. One anthropologist has compared the task to that of reconstructing the plot of War and Peace with 13 randomly selected pages. Conflicts tend to last longer because it is so difficult to find conclusive evidence to send a theory packing."

(Constance Holden, "The Politics of Paleoanthropology," Science, p.737 (August 14, 1981).)
So sparse and difficult to interpret is the data that in the judgment of Harvard zoologist Richard Lewontin, it is difficult to identify fossils that can be universally accepted as direct ancestors of the human species:

"When we consider the remote past, before the origin of the actual species Homo sapiens, we are faced with a fragmentary and disconnected fossil record. Despite the excited and optimistic claims that have been made by some paleontologists, no fossil hominid species can be established as our direct ancestor...The earliest forms that are recognized as being hominid are the famous fossils, associated with primitive stone tools, that were found by Mary and Louis Leakey in the Olduvai gorge and elsewhere in Africa. These fossil hominids lived more than 1.5 million years ago and had brains half the size of ours. They were certainly not members of our own species, and we have no idea whether they were even in our direct ancestral line or only in a parallel line of descent resembling our direct ancestor."

(Lewontin, Richard C., Human Diversity, Scientific American Library: New York NY, 1995, p.163)
Derbyshire lauds the genomic data, but the reality is that molecular data for primate systematics often conflicts with morphological data. In some cases, genomic data has cloudened our picture of primate “evolutionary relationships:”

Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Trisha Gura, "Bones, molecules…or both?," Nature Vol 406:230-233, copyright 2000.

The figure above shows that the morphological tree conflicts with the molecular tree for primates. This is very common in molecular biology, to the extent that one paper in Journal of Molecular Evolution wrote, “That molecular evidence typically squares with morphological patterns is a view held by many biologists, but interestingly, by relatively few systematists. Most of the latter know that the two lines of evidence may often be incongruent.” Is genomics really giving us a clearer picture of evolution?

Intelligent design and Human Origins
Finally, Derbyshire claims that an ID-based approach to human origins would be a fruitless endeavor. He makes a science-stopping argument, contending that “[a] research program in paleoanthropology premised on the idea that speciation by evolution is not the case, would have nowhere to go, nothing to do, and nothing to tell us.” Derbyshire's statement is a wonderful example of assuming the truth of your own argument.

Derbyshire continues, saying that because his own imagination cannot figure out how science can proceed without Neo-Darwinism, it’s pointless to try to explore human origins under the ID-paradigm: “It is hard to see how any such program would be possible; though if George will tell me, I’ll be glad to broadcast his idea.”

Derbyshire's science-stopping view reveals that he is not familiar with ID-literature. An ID-based research program in paleoanthropology is most certainly possible, and has been suggested. In fact, one can glean such research programs based upon articles one of us has published in the pro-ID journal Progress in Complexity, Information, and Design (PCID). One article explains that we can develop models for what we’ll expect to find in the fossil record if the genus Homo was designed:

"Intelligent agents can rapidly infuse large amounts of genetic information into the biosphere, reflected in the fossil record as the abrupt appearance of novel fossil forms without similar precursors. These designed "basic types" may undergo limited genetic change, diversifying into similar species belonging to the same basic type clade. Paleoanthropological studies reveal that early hominids appear suddenly, without clear direct fossil ancestors, and distinct from previous hominoids."

(Casey Luskin, "Human Origins and Intelligent Design," PCID, Vol 4.1 (July, 2005))
This paper thus puts forth a model with testable predictions about what we should find in the fossil record if the genus Homo was designed distinctly from other hominoids.

In another article, paleoanthropologist Sigrid Hartwig-Scherer has applied such a model to ID and paleoanthropology. She explains that her own research reveals that "[i]t is difficult to accept an evolutionary sequence in which Homo habilis, with apelike limb proporitions and possibly apelike locomotor adaptations, is intermediate between Australopithecus afarensis, with more humanlike porpoirtions and a certain kind of bipedality, and fully bipedal Homo erectus." Rather, she favors the hypothesis that the genus Homo was designed, and that its subspecies H. ergaster/erectus, H. sapiens, and H. neanderthalensis, are best explained by "effects of size variation, climatic stress, genetic derift, and differential expression of genes hidden in the (genetically polyvalent?) ancestral form." (See S. Hartwig-Scherer, "Apes or Ancestors? Interpretations of the Hominid Fossil Record Within Evolutionary & Basic Type Biology," Mere Creation, edited by William A. Dembski, pgs. 212-235 (InterVarsity Press, 1998).)

Derbyshire confidentally asserts that only evolution can yield insights into human origins. Has Derbyshire ever checked out any of these references or was he making incorrect statements about ID and human origins?

Part III: Praising Judge Jones while Pretending To Not Praise George Gilder

Maybe the most fascinating part of Derbyshire’s article is the candor with which he evaluates the strength of Gilder’s arguments. Derbyshire states clearly that “[Gilder’s metaphysic] refutes evolution, which has high-information-bearing substrates arising out of low-information-bearing ones… [and] As metaphysics go, [Gilder’s is] a pretty good schema... a good metaphysic for our age…” Thus it seems that Derbyshire affirms one of Gilder's central points!

In an attempt to not sell the entire farm, Derbyshire assures his fellow naturalists that we are “getting along just fine… discovering new things about the world, pushing the wheel of knowledge forward a few inches every year.” But Darwinist biologist Franklin M. Harold wrote that while “[w]e should reject, as a matter of principle, the substitution for intelligent design for the dialogue of chance and necessity” we “must concede that there are presently no detailed Darwinian accounts of the evolution of any biochemical system, only a variety of wishful speculations.” (from The Way of the Cell, pg. 205 (2001)) It sounds like Derbyshire’s team is still stuck behind the 20 yard line, and they reject ID a priori on philosophical grounds. The main difference between Derbyshire and Franklin Harold is that Harold honestly acknowledges the reality of the long distance his team has to go.

But what does philosophy say? Have developments in philosophy reinforced the foundations of naturalism? Unfortunately for Derbyshire, the facts seem to be saying just the opposite. As Quentin Smith points out, “the vast majority of naturalist philosophers have come to hold (since the late 1960s) an unjustified belief in naturalism. Their justifications have been defeated by arguments developed by theistic philosophers, and now naturalist philosophers, for the most part, live in darkness about the justification of naturalism.” (Smith, "The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism”)

Derbyshire's Taunts
Derbyshire taunts George Gilder with some questions. First Derbyshire asks, “If, five years from now, one of these innumerable teams of researchers develops a really good computer simulation of protein synthesis, will George discard that metaphysic of his, that told him it couldn't be done?”

Yet a retired Microsoft software architect we consulted wrote us the following on this point:

The factual data is on George's side. There are two fundamental problems that made it very unlikely we'll ever successfully model protein folding and interaction (which Derbyshire somewhat misleadingly calls "protein synthesis"): First, the shear amount of data is overwhelming. You need to capture the physical state, including charge, location, etc., of every atom to properly model the protein. Even a simulation that captures molecule data still has its work cut out for it. Then you must factor into the model the properties of the surrounding material - these things don't live in a vacuum. We know that our computers are reaching their computational limits of sorts - sure we'll get faster and we'll solve ever larger problems through "farms" of machines (much like Google) - but the attributes of folding and interaction may not (do not?) fit well on those systems. It will be, at least, quite a while before we can hope to model this. Second, I suspect the system is chaotic; meaning that truly predicting behavior will require precisely knowing the state of all the variables (and here physics has something to say about how well we can know things) and then running it exactly. Why? Chaotic systems are inherently unpredictable because even small variations in the assumed initial conditions can have a dramatic effect on the final result - we might have models, but they'll likely be quite wrong.

Lastly, George's argument is not about what present computer science can model, it's about the origin of information. Even if we successfully model protein folding and interaction, how does that explain the information system producing the proteins? This is no haphazard system. It's ordered, contains distributed (meaning not present in just the DNA) error correction and construction, it includes system- level feedback and control systems; we're not talking about a bunch of Lego blocks. This is serious stuff. More serious than any program I've seen to date.
Derbyshire taunts Gilder with another challenge, saying, "'Go back to your Institute, hire some bright new researchers, teach them your metaphysics and your new methodology, buy them some computers and lab equipment, and let them loose to do some science. When they've got testable theories and reproducible results, I'll pay attention. Until then, if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to my own lab.' What would you say to this guy, George?"

Derbyshire may taunt Gilder, but what's good for the Goose is good for the Gander: If a really good simulation could dispel George's ideas, then what kind of simulation might disprove Derbyshire's assertions? If a simulation could clearly demonstrate the inability for evolution to create new information, would Derbyshire give? Perhaps time will tell.

No Political Magazine Can Serve Two Masters
Finally, there is irony in how Derbyshire laud’s Judge Jones’s opinion about intelligent design. Derbyshire writes that “Kitzmiller case demonstrated, to courtroom standards of evidence, that I.D. is a species of Creationism. That’s good enough for me.” Since when did National Review, of all magazines, start genuflecting before federal judges?

Surely they criticized the U.S. Supreme Court for deciding large social issues in cases like Roe v. Wade—so why does Derbyshire now cite everything Judge Jones says about intelligent design, the nature of science, and evolutionary theology, as if it is holy writ? Yet Derbyshire is content to cite Judge Jones as the final answer on the philosophy and science of intelligent design: “Judge Jones Said it, I belive it, That Settle’s It.” But there is another side to the story of the Kitzmiller v. Dover case.

Derbyshire's technique seems to be learn a little science, accept only the pro-Darwin viewpoint, and then use all kind of invectives and snide comments against scientific skeptics of evolution to dismiss their viewpoint as religion. Fortunately the reader of National Review knows George Gilder’s scientific experience and reputation in technology well enough that they will recognize Derbyshire’s flustering.

This response to John Derbyshire originally appeared as a series of three articles on Evolution News and Views. The authors are as follows:

Joe Manzari, research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC.

Casey Luskin, Program Officer in Public Policy and Legal Affairs with the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture