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Scientist Admits Biologists Are Obsessed with Intelligent Design

Published at Evolution News

What do scientists spend more time thinking about — sex, or the theory of intelligent design? Scientific research famously gives a range of answers to the question of how many times per day men think about sex (from 19 times to 7,200 times). If one European researcher is correct, scientists in the United States (who are mostly male) spend one-fifth of their waking time thinking about how to “combat intelligent design.” Despite incessant declarations that “there is no controversy” about evolution, ID is evidently on the mind of many biologists, to the point of obsession!

Evolution News recently commented on an article in an Italian philosophy journal that took intelligent design (ID) arguments with refreshing seriousness. Now another European journal has published its own noteworthy commentary. The author is Giuseppe Longo, who studies mathematical computer science and epistemology as research director (emeritus) at Le Centre national de la recherche scientifique (National Center for Scientific Research) in Paris. His article, “Scientific thought and absolutes for an image of the sciences, between computing and biology,” appears in the humanities journal Angelaki

He writes:

During a recent colloquium on biology in Paris, I have heard with dread all American colleagues, but fortunately only them (for the moment), lost 20 percent of their time and brain power combat [sic] intelligent design theory, so much the stakes have become drastically central, even for the financing of research, in this country.

Multiple thoughts come to mind.

ID Is Dead, Long Live ID!

First, if the critics are right to say ID is “dead,” why devote so much time to it? Evolution News reported in 2014 that an article in the journal Nature admitted that scientists self-censor criticisms of neo-Darwinism to avoid lending credence to ID. As Laland et al. (2014) conceded: “Perhaps haunted by the spectre of intelligent design, evolutionary biologists wish to show a united front to those hostile to science.” In 2017 we observed how Laland followed his own advice, refusing to admit in a report published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution that the 2016 Royal Society meeting included strong critiques of the neo-Darwinian paradigm. Clearly, ID arguments are potent, and evolutionary biologists are aware of this — which is why they admit they don’t like to acknowledge problems in the evolutionary consensus.

Second, intelligent design’s supposed negative impact is hyped beyond reason. The notion that “financing of research” in the U.S. is being hurt by ID is laughable. Pure ID research gets exactly zero dollars from the Federal Government. From other sources, the amount of money available to fund ID research, though not trivial, is minuscule compared to the amount of money available for evolutionary science. No evolutionary scientist has any right to complain.

Third, it’s a shame that “20 percent of their time and brain power” is going to ID because the trend in thought is now running toward government-backed censorship.

Where to Begin?

Fourth, it does happen from time to time that ID critics reply to ID arguments. More often what they are doing is attacking straw man mischaracterizations, as in the recent BioEssays that demanded censorship of Evolution News and other ID publications. In his article, Giuseppe Longo himself goes after ID straw men:

Creationist theories require divine intervention case by case: there is no universality of either method or criteria, but only faith in an omnipotent God, who created species and biological functions one by one, each with their own characteristics. Generality is in God, not in the method of knowledge.

We can say the same of the modern version of creationist absolutism: “intelligent design” theory, which is having great success with the American public. Tapping the molecular alphabet on the genetic keyboard, God would program DNA mutations for his own supreme ends. But then, paleontological evidence tells us that approximately 99 percent of species that were formed on earth have disappeared, and that, especially in the five greatest known extinctions, massacres and death have ravaged our planet. That all of this has taken place to conserve us, as well as the 1 percent of species that have survived, does not seem to be very productive, or particularly intelligent. Hence, we invoke the impenetrability of divine design, of the Absolute Programmer, as the face of the tens of millions of deaths caused by the mutation of the flu virus (the “Spanish flu” of 1918 for example). Whenever we see fit, this “intelligent design” becomes impenetrable (unintelligible), the criteria change, and we invoke faith.

What a mess. It’s hard to know where to begin. What mainstream ID proponent actually argues like that? Who says that ID “requires … faith in an omnipotent God”? Not Stephen Meyer:

The theory of intelligent design does not claim to detect a supernatural intelligence possessing unlimited powers.  Though the designing agent responsible for life may well have been an omnipotent deity, the theory of intelligent design does not claim to be able to determine that. Because the inference to design depends upon our uniform experience of cause and effect in this world, the theory cannot determine whether or not the designing intelligence putatively responsible for life has powers beyond those on display in our experience.  Nor can the theory of intelligent design determine whether the intelligent agent responsible for information life acted from the natural or the “supernatural” realm.  Instead, the theory of intelligent design merely claims to detect the action of some intelligent cause (with power, at least, equivalent to those we know from experience) and affirms this because we know from experience that only conscious, intelligent agents produce large amounts of specified information. The theory of intelligent design does not claim to be able to determine the identity or any other attributes of that intelligence, even if philosophical deliberation or additional evidence from other disciplines may provide reasons to consider, for example, a specifically theistic design hypothesis.” 

Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, pp. 428-429 (HarperOne, 2009)

Or who says that the theory of intelligent design requires “divine design” where God “created species and biological functions one by one, each with their own characteristics”? Here is Michael Behe:

So, based on developmental biology and our new knowledge of life’s molecules, can we draw a reasonable, tentative line between Darwin and design in animal evolution? …. Combining the reasoning from the past several sections, then, we can conclude that animal design probably extends into life at least as far as vertebrate classes, maybe deeper, and that random mutation likely explains differences at least up to the species level, perhaps somewhat beyond. Somewhere between the level of vertebrate species and class lies the organismal edge of Darwinian evolution.

Behe, The Edge of Evolution, pp. 193, 201 (Free Press, 2007)

Behe again:

[ID] is not an argument for the existence of a benevolent God, as Paley’s was. I hasten to add that I myself do believe in a benevolent God, and I recognize that philosophy and theology may be able to extend the argument. But a scientific argument for design in biology does not reach that far. Thus while I argue for design, the question of the identity of the designer is left open. Possible candidates for the role of designer include: the God of Christianity; an angel–fallen or not; Plato’s demi-urge; some mystical new age force; space aliens from Alpha Centauri; time travelers; or some utterly unknown intelligent being. Of course, some of these possibilities may seem more plausible than others based on information from fields other than science. Nonetheless, as regards the identity of the designer, modern ID theory happily echoes Isaac Newton’s phrase hypothesis non fingo. 

Behe, “The Modern Intelligent Design Hypothesis,” Philosophia Christi, Series 2, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2001), p. 165

ID grants that organisms might undergo various degrees of Darwinian evolution. Within vertebrates Behe allows that this may extend even up to the level of the class — hardly requiring that God specially creates each type of organism in its current form. This is what Behe calls the “edge of evolution.”

William Dembski agrees that ID does not require special creation:

Intelligent design does not require organisms to emerge suddenly or to be specially created from scratch by the intervention of a designing intelligence. To be sure, intelligent design is compatible with the creationist idea of organisms being suddenly created from scratch. But it is also perfectly compatible with the evolutionist idea of new organisms arising from old by gradual accrual of change. What separates intelligent design from naturalistic evolution is not whether organisms evolved or the extent to which they evolved, but what was responsible for their evolution.

Dembski, The Design Revolution, p. 178 (InterVarsity Press, 2004)

And who says that “there is no universality of either method or criteria” by which we detect design, “but only faith in an omnipotent God”? Not Dembski. He laid out an objective criteria by which we can detect design, requiring no religious premises. The method is based on recognizing information in nature, indicating the past action of intelligence:

[I]ntelligent design can be formulated as a scientific theory having empirical consequences and devoid of religious commitments. Intelligent design can be unpacked as a theory of information. Within such a theory, information becomes a reliable indicator of design as well as a proper object for scientific investigation.

Dembski, “Intelligent Design as a Theory of Information,” in Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics, edited by Robert Pennock (MIT Press 2002), p. 553

The type of information that indicates the prior action of intelligence is “complex and specified information” (CSI). We can rigorously measure CSI:

To see why CSI is a reliable indicator of design, we need to examine the nature of intelligent causation. The principal characteristic of intelligent causation is directed contingency, or what we call choice. Whenever an intelligent cause acts, it chooses from a range of competing possibilities. … Intelligent causation always entails discrimination, choosing certain things, ruling out others. … Given this characterization of intelligent causes, the crucial question is how to recognize their operation. Intelligent causes act by making a choice. How then do we recognize that an intelligent cause has made a choice? … The actualization of one among several competing possibilities, the exclusion of the rest, and the specification of the possibility actualized encapsulate how we recognize intelligent causes, or equivalently, how we detect design. … We can summarize this argument for showing that CSI is a reliable indicator of design as follows: CSI is a reliable indicator of design because its recognition coincides with how we recognize intelligent causation generally. To recognize intelligent causation, we must establish that one possibility from a range of competing possibilities was actualized, determine which possibilities were excluded, and then specify the actualized possibility.

Dembski, “Intelligent Design as a Theory of Information,” pp. 565-568

When Longo says that ID is based on “faith” and “absolutism,” this bears no resemblance to the actual theory of ID.

Return of the “Perfect Design” Straw Man

What about Longo’s claim that if organisms go extinct then this shows the design “does not seem to be very productive, or particularly intelligent”? He argues that unless we admit that extinction refutes design, this shows “the impenetrability of divine design.” By that he means ID proponents change the goalposts arbitrarily, and “Whenever we see fit … the criteria change, and we invoke faith.” 

If ID proponents had ever argued that design requires that all species must live eternally, he might have a point. But no mainstream ID proponent has ever said that, and ID readily allows that mass extinction occurs. Evolution News dealt with the “perfect design” objection in response to BioEssays as well. Imperfect design is still design. Anyone who ever got stuck trying to upgrade a computer’s operating system is well aware of this fact. From the textbook Discovering Intelligent Design:

[W]hen ID proponents use the term “intelligent,” they simply seek to indicate that a structure has features requiring a mind capable of forethought to design the blueprint. But does intelligent design require perfect design? 

For that matter, what constitutes biological perfection? Take humans for example. Should our bodies all last 100 years? 200 years? Forever? Should we be impervious to injury and never get sick? These are philosophical or theological questions, having little or nothing to do with science.

Holding biological systems to a vaguely defined standard of “perfect” design is the wrong way to test ID. The examples at the beginning of this chapter — broken machinery, computer failures, and decaying buildings — all show that a structure might be designed by intelligence even if it breaks or has flaws. Intelligent design does not mean perfect design. It doesn’t even require optimal design. It means exactly what it says: design by an intelligent agent.

In attacking such outlandish straw men, ID critics parade their own ignorance.

Four Options for the Critics

So as we’ve seen, evolutionary biologists think about intelligent design quite a bit (whether it’s 20 percent of the time, who knows?), and sometimes they get very frustrated about it. They don’t like that there are potent challenges to their materialistic origins paradigm. Sometimes it seems they wish ID would just go away. As recent responses indicate, they typically deal with ID in three different ways:

(1) They may pretend that ID challenges don’t exist, as Laland et al. (2014) suggested, and Laland (2017) later practiced. 

(2) They may put out a fake response, attacking straw men versions of ID, as Giuseppe Longo does. 

(3) Writing in BioEssays, Dave Speijer followed approach (2), but added an extra touch of malice by calling for Internet censorship. That’s always an option for dealing with ideas you dislike.

Of course, there’s a fourth option. It’s a tougher assignment: respond substantively to ID’s arguments. If the critics could do that, they probably would.