Sunday, 25 May 2014

Andrew Perry shows how not to discuss evolution and creation - 5

In October 2004, the Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania endorsed the teaching of Intelligent Design. This decision was challenged by eleven parents of students in the Dover Area district, and eventually reached the federal courts. On December 20th 2005, after a forty day trial in which ID luminaries such as Michael Behe testified, Judge John E Jones III declared that Intelligent design was merely another form of creationism and as such violated the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution. [1]

Andrew Perry's attack on evolution unsurprisingly refers to intelligent design, but never mentions either the Kitzmiller v. Dover decision. In fact, he ignores the fact that the Intelligent Design movement is rooted in creationism, and asserts that OD advocates "dissociate themselves from religious creationism", a claim which is flatly contradicted by comments such as:
"Intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John's Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory" [2] 
made by ID advocate William Dembski, or by lawyer Phillip Johnson's remark in response to the question of whether he believed ID made 'Darwinists' more receptive to Christianity asserted:
"ID is an intellectual movement, and the Wedge strategy stops working when we are seen as just another way of packaging the Christian evangelical message. Christian workers and organizations sometimes have difficulty understanding why anything other than direct evangelism is worthwhile...The evangelists do what they do very well, and I hope our work opens up for them some doors that have been closed." [3]
This is common knowledge among those involved in the evolution-creation controversy, and for Perry to blithely assert that ID advocates are not defending the Bible but simply arguing that complexity in nature implies an intelligent cause indicates a poorly researched, tendentious argument.

Perry's one paragraph summary of the history of Intelligent Design and the resulting mainstream scientific opposition to is deeply flawed, not because it gets the basic facts wrong, but because of what he leaves out about the ID movement, as well as the gratuitous referral to defenders of mainstream science as 'apologists for evolution.' 
The slogan 'intelligent design' came to prominence in the 1990s, starting with the work of P.E. Johnson and his book Darwin on Trial. This was built upon by the biochemist Michael Behe in his book Darwin's Black Box in 1996. Several likeminded scholars got together and decided to promote the idea of intelligent design, hence critics refer to an 'intelligence design movement.' A research institute, the Discovery institute, was set up in the USA and two philosophers of science joined the cause: W.A. Dembski and S.C. Meyer. The movement gained notice, and apologists for evolution responded with criticism - scientists such as K. R. Miller, in Finding Darwin's God, F.J. Ayala and J.A. Coyne. Other philosophers, not particularly identified with the movement, have added critical observations about aspects of neo-Darwinism, such as A. Plantinga, J, Fodor and T. Nagel. In turn, philosophers supportive of evolution have written defences, such as M. Ruse and R.T. Pennock. [4]
Furthermore, his failure to differentiate between evolution as fact and evolution as theory leads him to invest far more significance in criticism of the modern synthetic theory from philosophers such as Thomas Nagel and Jerry Fodor, both of whom are atheists who accept the fact of evolution, but have voiced criticisms of how it occurred. This critical significance is likely to be lost by Perry's readers who quite likely will assume that Nagel and Fodor, both well-known philosophers, are lending support to special creation, rather than voicing criticism of one theory of how evolution occurred. 

One fact which Perry omits is that the intellectual roots of the contemporary ID movement stretch back to the mid-1980s [5] with the publication of The Mystery of Life's Origin by Charles Thaxton (chemist), Walter Bradley (mechanical engineer), and Roger Olsen (geochemist)  which asserted that the origin of life was not due to natural processes but the action of a Creator, and Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, the title of which summarised neatly its thesis [6]. Denton's book in particular was particularly seminal for the ID movement as both Johnson and Behe have stated they rejected evolution after reading Denton's book.

Evolution: A Theory in Crisis was universally panned by professional biologists who reviewed the book. American biologist and philosopher Michael Ghiselin declared that a "book by an author who is obviously incompetent, dishonest, or both -- and it may be very hard to decide which is the case -- ordinarily is not worth the attention of a professional scholar" but continued by saying reviewing the book did serve a value both as warning potential readers and discussing its flawed reasoning and premises. [7] Geneticist Philip Spieth called attention to Denton's flawed attack on the significance of molecular phylogenies by noting how: his interpretation of 'molecular equidistance," Denton has confused ancestor-descendant relationships with cousin relationships. The telltale clues of molecular data are not, directly, concerned with parents and offspring, intermediate forms, and "missing links." They are, instead, reflections of relative relatedness between contemporary cousins. Twentieth-century bacteria are not ancestors of twentieth-century turtles and dogs: they are very distant cousins, and, as the data in Denton's presentation show, the bacteria are roughly equally distant cousins of both turtles and dogs. [8]
Despite its critical reception, Denton's book remains influential among special creationists to this day, though they tend to be unaware that its follow-up book [9] saw him reverse many of his criticisms of evolution.

Perry's attempt to distance ID from overt theism demonstrates his considerable ignorance of the history of ID as one of its main spurs was the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard Supreme Court decision which ruled that a Louisiana law that required special creationism be taught in public schools was unconstitutional. Prior to this, the Foundation for Law and Ethics, a Texas-based Christian apologetics and preaching organisation had for some time been working on a creationist textbook. The book, Of Pandas and People by Dean Kenyon and Percival Davis was first published in 1989. For at least one of the authors, the motive in writing it was theological rathe than scientific:
Davis frankly admitted that his motives in writing Pandas were "religious", not scientific. "There's no question about it," he added for emphasis. [10]
After the 1987 Supreme Court decision, the initial draft of the book was revised to remove overt references to creationism. Of Pandas and People was the book used by the Dover Area School District as a reference for teaching intelligent design in its secondary schools, and it featured heavily in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover trial. One of the main points made during the trial was that Of Pandas and People was originally a creationist text which had been converted to an ID book by simply  by simply deleting all references to creation and creationists and replacing them with intelligent design and design proponent. Irrefutable evidence of this cutting and pasting existed in the presence of the word 'cdesign proponentsists' which as one can see resulted from a botched cut and paste attempt:

Creation Biology (1983), p. 3-34

Biology and Creation (1986), p. 3-33

Of Pandas and People (1987, creationist version), p. 3-40

Of Pandas and People (1987, “intelligent design” version), p. 3-41

Contrary to what Perry tries desperately to assert, ID is merely creationism rebadged in order to avoid the baggage attached to the latter term. As Numbers observed:
Hoping to distance themselves from the intellectually marginal creation scientists and to avoid endless niggling over the meaning of the Mosaic story of retain, design theorists carefully avoided any mention of Genesis or God, although, as one of them confessed to some fellow Christians, referring to an intelligent designer was merely a 'politically correct way to refer to God.' [11]
That ID is definitely not neutral with respect to the existence of a creator is well evidenced by the existence of the Wedge Strategy [12] , created by the Discovery Institute, the main ID think tank as part of its aim to reshape American culture to bring it into line with conservative Protestant values:
  • To defeat scientific  materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies
  • To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature an human beings are created by God
In trying to construct the fiction that the ID movement is not a sectarian phenomenon and has respectable mainstream support, Perry neglects to point out that all of the ID advocate to whom he refers are Christian, while the ID critics he mentions include believers (Kenneth Miller - Catholic), atheists (Jerry Coyne), and those with a religious background who take an accommodationist position with respect to the compatibility of evolution and Christianity (Francisco Ayala - former Catholic seminarian). Coyne and Ayala in particular are hardly scientific lightweights - Coyne is regarded as one of the leading experts on speciation, while Ayala, whose doctoral supervisor was the legendary Theodosius Dobzhansky, is a recognised expert on population genetics.

Perry also forgets to inform his readers that both Darwin on Trial and Darwin's Black Box have been comprehensively savaged by mainstream scientific reviewers for their many inaccuracies. Palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould noted that it was:
 a clumsy, repetitious abstract argument with no weighing of evidence, no careful reading of literature on all sides, no full citation of sources (the book does not even contain a bibliography) and occasional use of scientific literature only to score rhetorical points. I see no evidence that Johnson has ever visited a scientist's laboratory, has any concept of quotidian work in the field or has read widely beyond writing for nonspecialists and the most "newsworthy" of professional claims. [13]
Johnson's background as a lawyer does not mean that he was excluded a priori from writing about evolution (though it meant that he would not be writing from personal expertise), but as anthropologist Eugenie Scott noted, the differences between legal and scientific epistemology meant his entire approach in criticising evolution not on scientific but legal grounds was flawed. [14]

Behe's Darwin's Black Box, unlike Darwin on Trial, was written by a life scientist, but also fared poorly when reviewed. [15] Evolutionary biologist H Allen Orr's scathing review is representative of how Behe's peers received his argument:
Behe's colossal mistake is that, in rejecting these possibilities, he concludes that no Darwinian solution remains. But one does. It is this: An irreducibly complex system can be built gradually by adding parts that, while initially just advantageous, become—because of later changes—essential. The logic is very simple. Some part (A) initially does some job (and not very well, perhaps). Another part (B) later gets added because it helps A. This new part isn't essential, it merely improves things. But later on, A (or something else) may change in such a way that B now becomes indispensable. This process continues as further parts get folded into the system. And at the end of the day, many parts may all be required. 
The point is there's no guarantee that improvements will remain mere improvements. Indeed because later changes build on previous ones, there's every reason to think that earlier refinements might become necessary. The transformation of air bladders into lungs that allowed animals to breathe atmospheric oxygen was initially just advantageous: such beasts could explore open niches—like dry land—that were unavailable to their lung-less peers. But as evolution built on this adaptation (modifying limbs for walking, for instance), we grew thoroughly terrestrial and lungs, consequently, are no longer luxuries—they are essential. The punch line is, I think, obvious: although this process is thoroughly Darwinian, we are often left with a system that is irreducibly complex. I'm afraid there's no room for compromise here: Behe's key claim that all the components of an irreducibly complex system "have to be there from the beginning" is dead wrong. [16]
As Orr notes, this evolutionary explanation is hardly new, and has an impeccable pedigree, being advanced by the Nobel laureate and geneticist Hermann Muller as early as 1918:
Most present-day animals are the result of a long process of evolution, in which at least thousands of mutations must have taken place. Each new mutant in turn must have derived its survival value from the effect which it produced upon the “reaction system” that had been brought into being by the many previously formed factors in cooperation; thus a complicated machine was gradually built up whose effective working was dependent upon the interlocking action of very numerous different elementary parts or factors, and many of the characters and factors which, when new, were originally merely an asset finally became necessary because other necessary characters and factors had subsequently become changed so as to be dependent on the former. It must result, in consequence, that a dropping out of, or even a slight change in any one of these parts is very likely to disturb fatally the whole machinery; for this reason we should expect very many, if not most, mutations to result in lethal factors, and of the rest, the majority should be “semi-lethal” or at least disadvantageous in the struggle for life, and likely to set wrong any delicately balanced system, such as the reproductive system. [17]
Perry's reference to three philosophers "not particularly identified with the movement", namely Alvin Plantinga, Jerry Fodor, and Thomas Nagel who have criticised aspects of the modern synthetic theory conveniently forgets to point out that Alvin Plantinga is a Calvinist philosopher of religion who has been involved with the ID community on a number of occasions. Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross note that Plantinga was one of those who signed a letter supporting Johnson in the wake of Gould's evisceration of his Darwin on Trial:
"Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga was also a signatory to this letter, which is early evidence of his continuing support of and continued, active participation in the intelligent design movement. Nancy Pearcey refers to Plantinga as a "design proponent". [18]
It should be noted that Plantinga has expressed doubt that ID can be demonstrated scientifically, and has implied that it is unguided evolution that he rejects, rather than evolution per se:
But of course it doesn't even begin to follow that I think the scientific theory of evolution is false. And I don't...God certainly could have used Darwinian processes to create the living world and direct it as he wanted to go; hence evolution as such does not imply that there is no direction in the history of life. What does have that implication is not evolutionary theory itself, but unguided evolution, the idea that neither God nor any other person has taken a hand in guiding, directing or orchestrating the course of evolution. [19]
This would seem to be far removed from the OEC that Perry supports. 

Perry's appeal to Fodor and Nagel also fails to mention that they are critical of the modern synthetic theory, not evolution per se. Furthermore, he fails to mention that their books have also been heavily criticised both by evolutionary biologists and philosophers. Entirely representative of the negative reviews of Nagel's "Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False" was the review by philosophers Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg: 
Nagel’s arguments against reductionism are quixotic, and his arguments against naturalism are unconvincing. He aspires to develop “rival alternative conceptions” to what he calls the materialist neo-Darwinian worldview, yet he never clearly articulates this rival conception, nor does he give us any reason to think that “the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two.” Mind and Cosmos is certainly an apt title for Nagel’s philosophical meditations, but his subtitle—”Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”—is highly misleading. Nagel, by his own admission, relies only on popular science writing and brings to bear idiosyncratic and often outdated views about a whole host of issues, from the objectivity of moral truth to the nature of explanation. No one could possibly think he has shown that a massively successful scientific research program like the one inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection “is almost certainly false.” The subtitle seems intended to market the book to evolution deniers, intelligent-design acolytes, religious fanatics and others who are not really interested in the substantive scientific and philosophical issues. Even a philosopher sympathetic to Nagel’s worries about the naturalistic worldview would not claim this volume comes close to living up to that subtitle. Its only effect will be to make the book an instrument of mischief. [20]
Likewise, "What Darwin Got Wrong" by Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini was just as heavily savaged. Significantly, Nagel was one of those attacking What Darwin Got Wrong, as Leiter and Weisberg note in their review:
"Fodor’s challenge was exposed rather quickly by philosophers as trading on confusions (even Nagel disowns it in a footnote)." [21]
Geneticist Jerry Coyne noted not just distortion of the scientific literature in their thesis, but scientific errors:
Beyond distorting the scientific literature, F&P make a number of claims that are simply silly. I mention just one: "The textbook cases of Mendelian inheritance, in spite of their great historical and didactic importance, are more the exception than the rule." This came as a surprise to me. In fact, cases of Mendelian inheritance (the random assortment of parental genes into sperm and eggs) are the rule; if they weren't, genetic counseling would be useless. Statements like this typify the authors' attitude toward science throughout their book: they seize on some new wrinkle in the scientific literature, like a rare gene that doesn't behave according to Mendel's rules, and interpret it as a revolution that nullifies all of mainstream biology. This lack of grounding is often seen in work by science journalists who make their living touting "revolutionary" new findings, but it is inexcusable in a supposedly serious book written by academics. [22]
Respected evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma was likewise critical of What Darwin Got Wrong, and in words which serve as a rebuke to Perry's fatuous praise of the authors as "professors of philosophy with international reputations" [23] concluded his negative review of What Darwin Got Wrong:
Because they are prominent in their own fields, some readers may suppose that they are authorities on evolution who have written a profound and important book. They aren't, and it isn't. [24]

In his appeal to intelligent design, Perry has completely ignored its origins as merely yet another incarnation of special creationism, created in the wake of the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard Supreme Court decision that declared the teaching of creation science unconstitutional. His failure to even mention the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover decision is astounding given that it is nearly ten years old. Furthermore, his failure to point out that opposition to ID comes from both theists and non-theists undercuts the narrative he has been trying to construct which is predicated on a battle between theists and non-theists. Finally, his failure to point out that the arguments made by ID supporters have been eviscerated by mainstream science is deception by omission. 


1. Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. vDover Area School District, et al. (400 F. Supp. 2d 707, Docket no. 4cv2688) 
2. Dembski WA "Signs of Intelligence: A Primer on the Discernment of Intelligent Design" Touchstone Journal, (1999) 12:4
3. Johnson, PE "Keeping the Darwinists Honest" Citizen (Colorado Springs, CO: Focus on the Family)
4. Perry A "The creation versus evolution debate" The Testimony (2014) 84:69-72 
5. The following section is heavily indebted to "Intelligent Design" in Numbers R "The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design" (2006: Harvard University Press)
6. Unlike the authors of The Mystery of Life's Origin, Denton is agnostic on matters of religion. 
8. Spieth PT "Review -  Evolution: A Theory in Crisis" National Center for Science Education October 2 2008
9. Nature's Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe, (1998: Free Press) sees Denton accepting the fact of evolution, though with reservations about the ability of the modern synthetic theory to effect evolutionary change.
10. Numbers op cit, p 375
11. ibid, p 379-380
12. See the Wedge Document
13. Gould SJ "Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge" Scientific American (1992) 267:1
14. Scott, EC; Sager TC "Review of Johnson's Darwin on Trial" Creation Evolution Journal (1992) 12:47–56
15. I have dealt with Behe when commenting on David Burges' uncritical review of Darwin's Black Box.
16. Orr, H.A (December 1996/January 1997). "Darwin v. Intelligent Design (Again): The latest attack on evolution is cleverly argued, biologically informed—and wrong". Boston Review 22:(6)
17.  Muller, H. J. (1918) "Genetic variability, twin hybrids and constant hybrids, in a case of balanced lethal factors." Genetics 3:422-499
18. Forrest B, Gross PR "Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design" (2004: Oxford University Press), 18
19. Plantinga A "Letter: Evolution, Shibboleths, and Philosophers" The Chronicle of Higher Education April 10 2010
20. Leiter B, Weisberg M "Do You Only Have a Brain? On Thomas Nagel" The Nation October 3 2012
21. ibid
22. Coyne J "The Improbability Pump" The Nation April 22 2010
23. Perry op cit, p 71
24. Futuyma D "Two Critics Without a Clue" Science (2010) 328:692-693