Report from Hillsdale College Symposium on ID

The symposium speakers were (in order of appearance) Larry Arnhart (Northern Illinois University), Michael Ruse (Florida State University), Mano Singham (Case Western Reserve University), Michael Behe (Lehigh University), Niles Eldredge (American Museum of Natural History), Jonathan Wells (Discovery Institute), and William Dembski (Baylor University). The symposium ended with a Hillsdale College Faculty Roundtable chaired by David Whalen (English) and consisting of Mark Kalthoff (History), Donald Turner (Philosophy) and Frank Steiner (Biology).

Since readers of this site are presumably familiar with the work of Behe, Wells and Dembski I will focus on the talks by the others. All of the talks were well attended by visitors and students (the latter got credit for attending). —JW

Audio & Video Tapes of the Conference are available through Hillsdale’s Center for Constructive Alternatives.

Larry Arnhart led off at 4 PM on Sunday, November 10, with “Four Questions in the Intelligent Design Debate.” The organizers had hoped Arnhart would give Hillsdale students a balanced overview of the issues in the debate, but instead Arnhart gave a highly partisan critique of I.D. Saying he took his cue from the Athenian in Plato’s “Laws,” Arnhart listed four issues in the design controversies: scientific, religious, moral and political.

Arnhart spent most of his time focusing on the scientific aspect, acknowledging that the other three depended on it. He claimed that in the arguments of Mike Behe and Bill Dembski “design has no positive content,” since it fails to specify how, when and where a “disembodied designer” executes his designs in the natural world. He maintained that the winner of a debate – for purely rhetorical reasons – is usually the one who succeeds in putting the other side on the defensive, and he predicted that Jonathan Wells would “shrewdly” argue that Darwinian evolution hasn’t been absolutely demonstrated. According to Arnhart, Wells demands an unreasonable standard of proof for Darwin’s theory, which actually has “impressive” evidence in its favor. He went on to fault Bill Dembski for equivocating between human and divine design; although we have observed the former we have never observed the latter, so the analogy or extrapolation is unwarranted. I.D. proponents, he said, “hide” this fallacy in moving from human to divine design.

On the religious issue, Arnhart argued that I.D. advocates conceal their deeper motivations in the dispute, namely their “fear” that Darwinian evolution denies God’s existence or moral law. He said he saw no warrant in the Bible for I.D.’s claim that God couldn’t have worked through natural laws, and he praised Howard Van Till for pointing this out. Behe, Dembski and Wells, he said, “refuse” to consider theistic evolution as a viable option. He argued that Darwinism is not necessarily atheistic, and he quoted the closing lines of The Origin of Species to prove his point.

Regarding morality, Arnhart criticized Nancy Pearcey for attributing moral corruption to the effects of Darwinism. He said Nancy’s view is tantamount to Nietzschean nihilism, whereas Darwinism roots morality in human nature. He argued for his view of “Darwinian natural right”: The good is whatever is desirable, and the desirable is what humans have pursued throughout history. The scientific evidence supports Darwinism as a “probable truth,” Darwinism is compatible with Christian belief, and there is a Darwinian natural morality.

Nevertheless, Arnhart argued on political grounds that I.D. should be taught in biology classes in public schools. Allowing students to debate the issues will give them a better understanding of scientific reasoning. Darwin himself debated I.D. in his writings, so there’s no way to let students read those writings without grappling with the issue. Besides, the controversy makes science more interesting. In the Q&A, Arnhart made it clear that he rejects the notion of “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” whereby religion and science occupy separate realms, since there are places where the two make conflicting claims about the same thing.

At 8 PM Sunday Michael Ruse got off to a rough start, since he couldn’t get his Powerpoint presentation to work. Nevertheless, he recovered very well and the show went on. He announced the title of his talk as “Intelligent Design: Bad Science, Bad Theology,” declared himself an “ardent” Darwinist, and emphatically disagreed with Arnhart’s claim that I.D. should be taught in biology classrooms.

Ruse divided his talk into three parts. First he gave a historical overview of design arguments, from Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas through Hume and Paley. He summarized Darwin’s views, pointing out that although the Darwin of The Origin of Species was not a Christian he was not an atheist. Ruse argued that the defining mark of Darwinism is NOT randomness, but an acknowledgement that complex features need explaining. He did, however, say that Darwin “wanted to get God out of science.” Ruse cited Darwin’s correspondence with Asa Gray to show that Darwin still saw a god behind everything, though he was deeply troubled by the problem of evil. According to Ruse, Darwinism offers a naturalistic explanation, but it doesn’t wipe out design and it “doesn’t cross out God.”

Second, Ruse talked about negative aspects of I.D. He sees Behe and Dembski dividing the work up between them – Behe doing the science, and Dembski complementing that with philosophy. Ruse, however, regards irreducible/specified complexity as scientifically and theologically unsatisfactory. He used the analogy of a stone arch to argue against Behe: Although the arch will collapse if any stone is removed, it is constructed piece-by-piece with the aid of scaffolding that is then removed. Analogously (he claimed), biochemists say the Krebs cycle could have been put together one step at a time. Theologically, Ruse faulted I.D. for not explaining why the designer didn’t avoid sickle-cell anemia or Tay-Sachs disease. Why did God make some people so miserable? Ruse criticized Dembski’s No Free Lunch by arguing that biology needs only APPARENT design, which (he claimed) CAN be purchased without intelligence.

Ruse nevertheless felt that I.D. poses some good questions – even though he doesn’t like I.D.’s answers to those questions. His main objection to I.D., he said, is its effort to revive natural theology, and he quoted John Henry Newman in this regard: “I believe in design because I believe in God; not in a God because I see design.” In the Q&A, the parent of a Hillsdale student asked him about a hypothetical case in which a genetic engineer would modify an organism that was subsequently examined 100 years hence; would future scientists be able to conclude that the organism had, in fact, been modified by design? Ruse stepped into the audience and started making jokes, but he never really answered the question. Once he got the laughter going, he made some crack about the questioner being like the punk “at the end of the bar” who tries to start trouble. End of discussion.

At 4 PM Monday Mano Singham spoke on “What Does Physics Have to Say About I.D.?” According to Singham, “the nature and structure of science cannot be prescribed, only inferred” from the history, sociology and philosophy of science. Physics is the best place to start (he maintained), because it is the oldest modern science, it has experienced some major revolutions, it is more highly constrained and less ambiguous than other sciences, and it is easier to compare directly with the data.

Singham gave the following example: Hang a weight from a thread; observe as the thread breaks; then provide a scientific explanation for the phenomenon. Merely saying the thread was too cheap is not good enough. Instead, Singham explained, a physicist would start with the premise: For every thread of a given composition, exceeding a characteristic weight K would cause breakage. The empirical fact that a given weight exceeds K leads to the deductive conclusion that the thread breaks. According to Singham, this means that I.D. needs (1) general laws under which I.D. acts, and (2) deductive arguments showing how/when/where these laws would lead to specific design events.

At a minimum (Singham argued), a scientific theory must be (a) naturalistic and (b) predictive. It need not, however, be true. Scientists, he claimed, are not interested in truth, but only in usefulness. This requires scientific theories to exclude supernatural causes. Furthermore, even though a scientist may personally be a religious believer, he or she must pursue natural causes in the belief that only his or her own limitations stand between the scientist and the solution of a problem. In agreeing to a paradigm (Singham claimed), scientists “agree to accept it as a basis for future work and to treat as illusory or eliminable all apparent inadequacies or defects.” One corollary of this is that in science there is no basis for validating a theory that is “superior to the collective judgment of the paradigm-sharing community.”

Singham criticized I.D. for acting as though Darwinian evolution and intelligent design are the only two options, and for trying to establish the latter by refuting the former – when in fact there are (he claimed) an unlimited number of possible alternatives. Furthermore, he said, I.D.’s efforts to discredit Darwinian evolution fail because there is lots of positive evidence for natural selection, whereas there is no positive evidence for an I.D. mechanism. He challenged I.D. to postulate a mechanism that can be used to predict what would happen when it is used in a different context.

During the Q&A, Singham said “there is no controversy in the biological community” over Darwinian evolution. [When he repeated this later at a reception, I pointed out to him that Mike Behe and I – who were seated right in front of him – are biologists who find the theory controversial.] Mark Kalthoff asked him about fine-tuning; Singham replied that physical constraints might just happen to be the way they are, or there might be some underlying structure to the universe that requires them to be the way they are. In response to a question about falsifiablity, Singham said that anomalies cannot falsify a comprehensive theory; instead, what matters is what the “community of scientists feel” about it. A new theory won’t be acceptable unless it prescribes productive research.

Mike Behe spoke at 8 PM on Monday. [On the previous Thursday the weekly campus newspaper had quoted Don Heckenlively, Hillsdale’s evolutionary biologist, as saying that Behe’s arguments are “the biggest bunch of malarkey and baloney I’ve ever heard – that’s from a scientific perspective.” According to Heckenlively, “Behe is afflicted with insufficient imagination.” As far as I know, Heckenlively did not attend any of the talks in the symposium.] In Mike’s talk, which was characterized by his usual good humor, he described the mouse trap analogy (which Michael Ruse had warned the audience to expect), and why Ken Miller’s and John Macdonald’s “refutations” miss the point. Mike explained why the blood-clotting cascade is irreducibly complex, and he gave a thorough account of how blood-clotting expert Russell Doolittle had misunderstood the scientific literature in his critique of Mike’s position. And, of course, Mike described the bacterial flagellum, and why the Type III secretory pathway doesn’t explain its origin.

At 4 PM on Tuesday, Niles Eldredge presented “The Case for Evolution.” He defined evolution as the idea that all organisms on earth are descended with modification from a single ancestor in the distant past. He pointed out that one cannot “prove” anything in science. Instead, one proposes a theory, makes predictions, and checks to see whether the evidence fits them. When a theory’s predictions are confirmed many times, it is considered reliable. As an example, he cited the flat Earth: People thought Columbus would sail off the edge of the Earth until he showed them wrong.

Eldredge listed three predictions made by Darwinian evolution that he claimed had been amply confirmed by the evidence: (1) evolution should produce a nested hierarchy of living things; (2) the history of life should show a progression from simple to complex; and (3) major environmental disasters should lead to evolutionary radiations of new forms. He then showed Darwin’s branching-tree diagram from The Origin of Species, claimed that the fossil and molecular evidence supports it, and claimed that the “nested hierarchy prediction” was thereby confirmed.

Turning to the “simple-to-complex” prediction, Eldredge dismissed creationist objections to the geological time scale, showed pictures of some fossils, and pointed out that although “creationists love to call it an instant” the Cambrian explosion was preceded by the Ediacaran fossils and took 10 million years. He also claimed that “the human fossil record is much better than most of us expected,” and he showed a series of hominid skulls. He concluded that the second prediction was thereby confirmed. Eldredge touched briefly on the third prediction, then concluded that ever since 1859 “evolution is the only scientific explanation of the diversity of life on the face of the Earth.”

Eldredge pointed out that I.D. cannot make predictions about a supernatural designer, but it can make predictions about HUMAN design. He used the history of cornets (he is an avid collector of antique cornets) to construct “phylogenetic trees,” then he claimed that the patterns produced are markedly different from those we see in biological evolution, implying that design was not operating in the latter. He challenged I.D. advocates to produce more analyses of the history of designed artifacts to see how their patterns would correspond to biological evolution. During the Q&A, someone asked him about transitional forms. He stated that “transitional forms are in the eye of the beholder,” and he argued that the hominid fossil record shows plenty of transitional forms. In response to another question, Eldredge said that I.D. is not science because “real science plays by the rules of empirical evidence.” He claimed that Behe does not really propose positive tests but relies instead on purely negative arguments against the sufficiency of natural selection.

I spoke at 8 PM on Tuesday on “Darwin’s Underwhelming Evidence.” I briefly criticized several “evidences” for Darwinism, ending with the evidence for human evolution (which Niles Eldredge considers “creationism’s worst nightmare”), and I used Berra’s blunder to show that a mere series of fossils cannot rule out design. During the Q&A, Larry Arnhart cited the “25% of peppered moths rest on tree trunks” nonsense, giving me an opportunity to explain why the statistic is bogus. Niles Eldredge then complained that I had not fairly represented the embryological evidence from other phyla besides the chordates for the common ancestry of animals. It so happened, however, that I had a few slides on my computer showing why the non-chordate embryological evidence DOESN’T support common ancestry. I announced to the audience that Eldredge and I apparently disagreed with each other, and they (and he) laughed.

Bill Dembski was the last speaker, at 4 PM on Wednesday. Anticipating the claims by Arnhart, Ruse and Singham that I.D. lacks a positive program, Bill titled his talk “I.D.’s Positive Contribution to Biology’s Information Problem.” The core of it was a careful exposition of the explanatory filter, and how materialists short-circuit the inference to design whenever there is any possibility that God might be the designer. During the Q&A, an older man in the audience quoted a statement from Intelligent Design in which Bill maintained that Christ is the foundation of good science, and he asked how Bill could square that with the claim that the design inference is not theologically based. Bill explained that this theological affirmation was in addition to and separate from the bare inference of design in nature. At that point the questioner started shouting at Bill, until a member of the audience tapped him forcefully on the shoulder to get him to behave.

The symposium ended with a Hillsdale Faculty Roundtable at 8 PM on Wednesday, November 13. Mark Kalthoff led off by defending I.D. for its studied critique of Darwinian evolution and for making progress in identifying the marks of design in nature. He criticized the use of I.D. to promote natural theology, but he also asked (rhetorically) whether Darwinism makes for good religion. Donald Turner reviewed Larry Arnhart’s four aspects of the controversy and concluded that Christianity and “evolution” are, indeed, compatible.

Frank Steiner, professor of biology and Hillsdale College Dean of Natural Sciences, had the last word. According to Steiner, science is not an attempt to get at the truth, but it is a way of knowing. I.D. is not science (he maintained), but it is based on “muddy philosophical grounds.” To understand I.D., Steiner recommended that students read Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God and Robert Pennock’s Tower of Babel. “Darwin’s God is my God,” Steiner announced. I.D., he said, is nothing more than a political/social movement to displace evolution from the classroom. I.D. is “pathological,” not scientific; it’s “embarrassing.” He called the symposium an example of the glaring ignorance of science in this country. Addressing the audience, he said “you people” just don’t understand.

Steiner said that the I.D. proponents at the symposium didn’t realize that biology has progressed since the time of Darwin. He said (apparently having missed all of our talks) that we had almost nothing to say, for example, about genes. He patronizingly explained the “central dogma” of molecular biology (DNA makes RNA makes protein), then he informed the audience that about twenty years ago scientists discovered “organisms” that are based on RNA instead of DNA. [This was obviously a reference to retroviruses, which most biologists do not consider “organisms.”] Steiner concluded by asserting that the root of wisdom is the ability to believe in two contradictory ideas simultaneously, and he quoted from various sources (including George Orwell’s 1984) as support.

In the Q&A, a student asked Steiner about Wells’s claim that there is no evidence for beneficial mutations that affect anatomy. Steiner responded with a long description of the sickle-cell mutation in hemoglobin, and how it protects people in Africa from malaria. [Of course, I had acknowledged the existence of beneficial MOLECULAR mutations, but I had pointed out that beneficial anatomical mutations are unknown. Sickle cell anemia is caused by a mutation in the hemoglobin molecule; it does not produce any change in anatomy. Steiner missed the point.] In response to a question about the origin of life, Steiner remarked that evolution pertains to descent from a common ancestor, not to the origin of life. He then launched into a long description of the “active research” since 1953 [i.e., the Miller-Urey experiment] that has shown how the molecular building blocks of life could have formed on the early Earth.

Steiner urged the audience to ask him about the bacterial flagellum, and someone finally did. In response, Steiner pointed out that Lynn Margulis believes that eukaryotic flagella were acquired from bacteria. [Of course, Behe’s argument concerns the origin of the bacterial flagellum, so this was irrelevant.] Steiner then claimed that there IS an indirect Darwinian pathway to the origin of the bacterial flagellum, explaining at length how Salmonella bacteria use a transposon to regulate the formation of two different types of flagella. [In other words, in response to a question about an evolutionary mechanism, he described a developmental mechanism – apparently not understanding the difference, or at least hoping that the audience would not.] Finally, in response to another question, Steiner claimed that there is plenty of good evidence for macroevolution, and he proceeded to describe Lynn Margulis’s endosymbiotic hypothesis for the evolution of eukaryotes, and some evidence for it. [He ignored, of course, the evidence AGAINST it, and the fact that a significant number of biologists find the endosymbiotic hypothesis problematic.] Steiner concluded by recommending that students consult the talkorigins Internet archive.

Although many of Steiner’s remarks were scientifically inaccurate, they were delivered with an air of contemptuous condescension. His behavior was not representative of the Hillsdale community as a whole. In particular, Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn and the staff of the Center for Constructive Alternatives are to be commended for hosting the symposium and making us all feel very welcome.

Jonathan Wells

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Jonathan Wells has received two Ph.D.s, one in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California at Berkeley, and one in Religious Studies from Yale University. A Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, he has previously worked as a postdoctoral research biologist at the University of California at Berkeley and the supervisor of a medical laboratory in Fairfield, California. He also taught biology at California State University in Hayward and continues to lecture on the subject.