Is the “Science” of Richard Dawkins Science Fiction?

Atheist Richard Dawkins is hopping mad at the makers of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Dawkins accuses the filmmakers of “lying for Jesus” because they make it seem that he believes in intelligent design and space aliens.

Dawkins is an outspoken critic of intelligent design (ID). In his 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins defined biology as “the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” Design is only an appearance, because (as the subtitle of the book indicated) “the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design.” According to Dawkins, evolution shows that the universe and everything in it can be explained by undirected natural processes such as random mutation and survival of the fittest. By ruling out design, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

According to intelligent design, however, it is possible to infer from evidence in nature that some features of the world and of living things are better explained by an intelligent cause than by undirected natural processes. Although ID says nothing about the nature of the designer (other than calling it intelligent), it leaves open the possibility that the designer is God.

Clearly, Darwinian evolution and intelligent design have different implications for God’s existence.

Surprisingly, in a lengthy interview with Ben Stein in Expelled, Dawkins says that living things on the Earth could be actually (and not just apparently) designed — and that the design might be detectable. Dawkins thereby concedes the central claim of ID, though he insists that the designers — if there were any — must have been highly evolved space aliens, not God.

Dawkins dug his own hole in the interview; the filmmakers simply gave him a shovel. Now he is trying to dig himself out, though the hole just gets deeper. In the April 18 Los Angeles Times, Dawkins tries to explain what he meant in an essay titled “Gods and earthlings: The ‘science of intelligent design’ is science fiction.”

Dawkins wrote: “Entities capable of designing anything, whether they be human engineers or interstellar aliens, must be complex — and therefore, statistically improbable. And statistically improbable things don’t just happen spontaneously by chance without an explanation trail.”

“Natural selection,” he continued, “is the only ultimate explanation we know for complex, improbable things. Even if our species was created by space alien designers, those designers themselves would have to have arisen from simpler antecedents — so they can’t be an ultimate explanation for anything.”

OK. Probably everyone would concede that attributing design to space aliens doesn’t ultimately solve the problem; it just moves the solution further away. But how does Dawkins “know” that natural selection is “the only ultimate explanation?” Why not God? Intelligent Design doesn’t tell us that the designer is God, but how does Dawkins know it isn’t?

Because, Dawkins reiterates, God is statistically improbable: “Visitations from distant star systems are improbable enough to attract ridicule, not least from advocates of intelligent design themselves. A creator god who had always existed would be far more improbable still.”

That sounds very scientific, as befits Oxford’s Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. And it sounds scientific because improbability can be quantified. Comparing probabilities means comparing numbers.

Ben Stein knows this. So in “Expelled” he asks Dawkins what number he would assign to the improbability of God, and how he knows what the number is. In what I consider the funniest scene in the movie after Michael Ruse’s “I already told you” interview about the origin of life, Dawkins suggests that God’s existence is 99% improbable. Stein asks him, Why not 97%? Dawkins hems and haws and says he’s not comfortable assigning a number. With his trademark deadpan look, Stein presses him: So maybe it’s only 49%? Dawkins replies that he doesn’t know, but it’s certainly much higher than that.

Clearly, Dawkins’ devotion to Darwinism and dismissal of God have nothing whatever to do with probability — or for that matter, with science. His improbability argument is an empty bluff.

Your average science fiction writer could have come up with a better story.

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.