August 31, 2005

Democratizing Darwin - Review of Behe and Dembski lectures from DDD V conference

(Edited version published in Vol. 11, No. 4 of Skeptic magazine)

[Although the conference which is the subject of this review took place in the fall of 2004, I waited to post this until publication. I will leave the article here for a short time, and then eventually re-date it so it will be archived under 2004.]

On September 24th and 25th of 2004, proponents of “Intelligent Design” convened at the University of New Mexico for the fifth annual Darwin, Design, and Democracy conference (DDD V). The highlight of the event occurred on the second night of the symposium when two of the three most influential leaders of the design movement, Michael Behe and William Dembski, were scheduled to speak back to back. Although unable to attend the prior seminars I did manage to slip through the doors minutes after the evening’s activities began, just in time to see Dembski receive the “Wedge of Truth” award. This was, to me, something of a minor surprise considering the recent stir created by Stephen Meyer, another leading light of ID, who managed to finally gain the Holy Grail of “Intelligent Design” getting a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal, albeit under somewhat unusual circumstances (BSW, 2004).

After awards and gift watches had been presented the moderator of the evening obliged the crowd of 120 or so with mercifully short introductions and the lectures began.


Dr. Behe led off. His talk was entitled “Science Stumbles on Design,” and after he went to some length to point out the double-entendre contained within this title he began by acquainting everyone with a quote from the Origin of Species.

“If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down." (Darwin, 1859)

Darwin wrote this in the sixth chapter of the Origin wherein he discussed possible difficulties with his theories. Behe proposed to take up this challenge as he said,
“…let’s take Darwin at his word and see if we can find a system that doesn’t look like it [evolution] could have formed it.”
He then went on to present a familiar slide demonstration of his ill-conceived mousetrap and flagellum examples. More problematic, however, than Behe’s use of these oft-debunked exemplars is his failure to understand, or at least acknowledge, the incommensurability of his approach vis-a-vis the Darwin quote.

Finding a system or structure that “doesn’t look like” evolution could have formed it is a functionally different standard from the one Darwin suggested, that of demonstrating that the system “could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications.” Behe would have us believe that it is enough that our intuition, or in some cases the lack of current research, tells us a system could not have evolved. As hard as ID proponents look for substantive, positive evidence of ID, an argument from gaps in scientific knowledge still appears to be what’s left at the bottom of the test tube after their rhetoric has boiled off.

In a way, Darwin even anticipated this argument, and the extreme level of evidentiary justification it would take to address his challenge, just a few lines after the quote Behe used.

“No doubt many organs exist of which we do not know the transitional grades, more especially if we look to much-isolated species, around which according to the theory there has been much extinction.” (Darwin, 1859)

Charles Darwin appears to have understood what many in the ID movement cannot, that the default position for a question of natural processes must of course be “not enough data,” not reference to non-natural agency.

As the audience viewed his mousetrap example Behe continued, suggesting that “if there are things like this in biology” then Darwin’s challenge is met. About the flagellum, he said
“You can find, without too much trouble, a number of scientists who agree that these things are beyond Darwinian explanation.”
and stated flatly that this is an
“...empirical conclusion, completely justified by the physical evidence.”
It is striking, and disappointing, that to Behe, a scientist, these kinds of arguments, littered as they are with fudges like “if” and “a number” can justify a conclusion that Darwin’s theory should be rejected. One can only hope that if he were speaking to other biologists his standards for “empirical conclusions” would be significantly higher.

He went on to observe that he finds it difficult to understand how it is that biologists have so much trouble recognizing design. To illustrate this he projected a Far Side cartoon in which a party of jungle explorers has met with difficulty. One of the group is seen hanging upside-down in a rope trap and the caption, voiced from another back in the party reads, “That’s why I never walk in front.” After the audience giggles subsided (who doesn’t laugh at Far Side?) he pointed out that we all instinctively understand that the trap, composed as it is of rope and wooden parts in a specified arrangement, was designed. What Dr. Behe apparently either fails to understand or acknowledge is the multiple levels of understanding, including situational clues, combinations of artifacts, and cultural inculcation, of which our initial evaluation is composed. To suggest that an immediate recognition of the rope trap as designed is something conceptually simple and instinctive, rather than built upon many layers of learning and context, is to simplify either out of laziness or the desire for rhetorical advantage. In short, we recognize the trap as designed because of our multifaceted familiarity with the history and process of human design. Offering this as an argument for the operational possibility of identifying supernatural intelligent design is to assume the conclusion in a particularly egregious fashion.

Next Behe took issue with comments made by Franklin Harold. In discussing Behe’s idea of Irreducible Complexity Harold says,

“We should reject it as a matter of principle.” (Harold, 2001)

Dr. Behe reviewed comments like this made by Harold and others and suggested that their point of view is arrogant and over-the-top. Unfortunately what seems to Behe as unnecessarily harsh and dismissive only appears that way due to his willingness to import metaphysical propositions into a methodology that simply cannot abide them. Looked at without Behe’s preconceived notions, we realize that a comment such as the above from Harold is little more than a statement that is meant to reinforce the operational nature of science. It is a recognition that methodological naturalism is the only rubric by which science can remain an effective tool for understanding nature. If Behe and others wish to continue to drive their wedge into this mechanism they can expect to see more scientists defending science with similar sentiments.

Behe went on to offer more insight into those preconceived notions. He fussed that
“Science is supposed to follow the evidence wherever it leads.”
Despite his framing this as a protest it’s pretty clear that virtually all scientists would agree with the sentiment as stated. However we cannot really know what this statement means as used by someone (like Behe) for whom metaphysical agency should be acceptable within scientific methodology. In a previous essay he repudiates a past indifference to the subject of biological origins as he writes,
“Now I judge the topic to be quite important. Now I’m very dubious that science will figure out how life started if it restricts the scope of its investigations just to physical laws.”(Behe, 2004).
One is given to wonder, then, how Dr. Behe would square the notion of science determinedly following the evidence with inclusion of extra-physical laws and phenomena in its methodology. Should scientists expect to see some sort of “natural detour” signs by which they might know that they have reached the limits of their methodology? Silly as this notion is, it points out one of the fundamental flaws within ID proponents rhetoric, they wish to allow conclusions of intelligence based upon ambiguous inference, not direct causal agency. Consideration of this kind of accommodation would undercut the very meaning of “evidence,” and the efficacy of scientific investigation.

After a discussion of the blood clotting cascade that can be best summed up as (my paraphrase) “Russell Doolittle and others made a mistake in their interpretation [of a paper], they used this misinterpretation to refute me, therefore I’m not wrong,” Dr. Behe ended his portion of the evening with the only bow to actual science in his talk. He spoke of some recent work with protein-protein interaction probability, specifically referring to an article in Nature called “Functional organization of the yeast proteome by systematic analysis of protein complexes,” as well as a path of inquiry upon which he has embarked with fellow researcher David Snoke. They have produced a paper, “Simulating evolution by gene duplication of protein features that require multiple amino acid residues.” According to Behe, this research somehow demonstrates the extreme improbability of co-evolution by mutation of proteins to become substrate and reactant. Further comment will have to wait until the opportunity arises to read the paper, but unfortunately, the previous uses of probability arguments by ID theorists do not inspire confidence that convincing evidence will be forthcoming.


William Dembski followed Mike Behe with a lecture he called “Is ID Contributing to Science?” After ironically dismissing Eugenie Scott as a “master of dismissing people and their efforts,” (to be fair, he did later complement her on her evenhandedness in moderating a debate he’d attended) he wandered through some thoughts about entrenched bias on the part of science debaters and referred to natural selection at one point as “the great designer substitute.” These openings comments, to this listener at least, appeared to be aimed at arming proponents with some nifty new sound-bites.

In a somewhat indirect nod to the title of his lecture, Dr. Dembski suggested an analogy meant to illuminate how biologists react to ID. He posited a scenario in which a physicist from 100 years ago, familiar with the dominant paradigm of his day (the physics of Newton and Maxwell), is transported to the present. According to Dembski this physicist, confronted with the atom bomb, would be overwhelmed by, and would consequently reject, what he is told regarding relativity and quantum mechanics. In closing the circle on this not-too-subtle analogy Dembski suggested that Darwinists of today are in the same position. They cannot wrap their minds around this new biological paradigm of “intelligent design” and refuse to see its advantages, remaining faithful to what feels comfortable and profitable. This is Dembski at his most desperate, crafting a shallow argument that is more about feeding uninformed prejudices and creating a rhetorical stir than it is about conscientious inquiry, all the while assuming the validity of ID rather than presenting any evidence.

A deeper look at the analogy, mixed with an understanding of the layered structure of scientific scholarship, reveals a different likelihood. Assuming enough intellectual facility and time to get caught up it is easy to believe that our unstuck-in-time physicist could be exposed to the underlying mathematics and research data about relativity and QM and would not only not reject these new ideas, but would be able to fold them into an understanding of modern physics that complements his previous perspective. Although as a cultural product of his times it might be difficult for him to employ this knowledge he would certainly be able to learn the theory and understand the concepts. The reasons for this are epistemic. Science builds upon earlier science. Relativity builds upon Newtonian dynamics, just as the modern synthesis in evolutionary biology builds upon an early “Darwinism” (that being simple mutation and natural selection, not the ambiguous characterization Dembski and other ID proponents use to provide wiggle room and cover for their creationist arguments).

To continue the analogy, it would far more likely that our physicist friend would summarily reject notions such as perpetual motion, ESP and remote prayer precisely because they are not scientific hypotheses but ideas based on presuppositions of extra-natural agency. And it is for the same reasons that biologists should, and do in overwhelming numbers, reject “intelligent design.”

Later, in another demonstration of irony Dembski complained that “so much of this debate is rhetorically driven.” And as he argued that Aristotle envisioned a much richer version of the natural world, one in which explanations that today we consider supernatural would be accepted, it was impossible not to wonder, as I had during Behe’s lecture, how Dembski would propose to reconcile this inconsistency. Should we, for example, fold non-naturalistic assumptions into aerodynamics or pharmacology? I, for one, would feel less confident in taking a pill or stepping on an airplane if this was the case as, I suspect, would Dembski and Behe. While it is obvious that this simplistic kind of application is not what they would propose, it is important to understand that the same operational incongruities apply in their more subtle suggestions that evolutionary science should accommodate supernatural explanation. No ID proponent ever elaborates on how a scientist might incorporate the supernatural into the scientific method, no proponent has addressed the effects this would have on empirical inquiry, not the least of which would be to forestall further investigation once a point has been reached wherein it satisfies the researchers’ personal beliefs to invoke a supernatural explanation. This is exactly what happens in the case of “intelligent design.”

Dembski then undertook a rather defensive section in which he cited noted paleontologist David Raup as someone who had initially greeted ID with the notion that, if nothing else, it would serve to keep traditional biology honest. But evidently Raup has been less than enthusiastic in his more recent evaluations of ID and this prompted a frustrated Dembski to venture that biologists in general act as if they’ve already explained origins, while in fact they offer only “just so stories.” His discussions and debates have led him to conclude biologists don’t recognize how difficult these problems are or how little they actually know of the specifics of evolution. Of course this observation misses the fact that biologists all over the world are busily investigating these problems, an observation which suggests that they do recognize there is more to know. More importantly, however, Dembski appears to be misled by his own perspective. The historical sequence goes something like this:
  1. “intelligent design” theorists propose examples of design, and a design inference which is fundamentally opposed to scientific methodology,
  2. biologists react by claiming it is not science,
  3. IDists ask for an alternate explanation (for: take your pick, the flagellum, the blood-clotting cascade, etc.) for design inference conclusions,
  4. biologists offer alternate explanations, the response to which is,
  5. IDists, Dembski in this case, claim that biologists think they’ve explained it all and don’t recognize gaps in our understanding.
Dembski’s complaints are logically bankrupt. Biologists don’t think they know it all. They think Dembski doesn’t know enough.

He then proceeded to compare the field of abiogenesis research to the line “Then a miracle occurs,” from the famous Sidney Harris cartoon. Dembski feels that there are too many theories floating around and this apparently is evidence that
“ of the things Darwinists have done here is they’ve hidden behind the complexity of life.”
Once again, ongoing research would seem to indicate that not only are biologists not “hiding” but they are actively attempting to elucidate the “complexity of life.” Nor would it be amiss to mention here that if anything is being hidden it would be the elusive “designer” (and ID proponents are the ones doing the hiding).

In another apparent attempt to get back to the lecture subject Dembski offered an interesting set of comments in which he addressed the long-standing charge against ID that I suggest in the previous paragraph: the accusation that ID makes no attempt to identify the designer or any characteristics thereof.
“We’re saying intelligence did it...but that’s not where we’re leaving it.”
He suggested that there could be programs developed to research “how” intelligence did it. Though not the commitment that scientists have suggested - an extension of scientific methodology past ID theorists’ usual abrupt and terminal “discovery” of intelligence - this does represent some small measure of accession to natural methodology. As an example, Dembski proposed that ID theorists might investigate how humans could have been made from pre-existing material, taking as their cue the Genesis notion that “God formed man of the dust of the ground” (Holy Bible, 1991). [It is worthwhile to note this proposition, not only for its recognition of ID problems, but also for its operational connection to Christianity. Can ID proponents deny the religious connection with a straight face anymore?]

Next came a confused bit of conversation about who the designer might be (it seemed to me he had gone a good way toward establishing that with his suggestions for research in the previous section). Dembski suggested that the designer, or designers, could even work through intermediaries (demigods, saints?) but never really explained his thoughts with much clarity and it seemed this part was essentially an attempt to broaden the discussion in order to avoid appearing to invoke the God of Christianity. Strangely this was followed by the now familiar, and completely spurious, analogy of ID with SETI. But this time his purpose in bringing it up was to suggest that, just as scientists would feel no need for further investigation after receiving the sequence-of-primes signal seen in the movie Contact (because the conclusion of intelligence would be obvious), so to there is no need for ID proponents to feel defensive about not going beyond determination of “intelligent design” in an attempt to identify the designer. While Dembski’s misunderstanding of SETI and its applicability to this debate have been dealt with extensively elsewhere it is worth noting here that his assumptions about what SETI scientists would do in this scenario are simply silly. SETI researchers have developed extensive protocols for investigation of putative intelligent signals, part of which was in fact shown in the movie (SETI, 2004). SETI’s studies are methodologically natural both in design and execution.

Except for a brief bit where he cited Behe’s recent work with protein interaction probability William Dembski’s talk had little to do with ways in which ID has contributed to science. It had much more to do with his confusion about how to reconcile problems with his theory, including;
  • the identity of the designer,
  • whether it’s necessary to identify the designer,
  • whether it’s necessary for ID to meet the scrutiny of legitimate peer-review,
  • when and where the designer/designers intervened in cosmological development,
  • how science should accommodate supernatural explanations.
As such it becomes clearer, to this listener at least, that as much as proponents wish to cast this debate as one between competing scientific theories, their perspective is still little more than a collection of grievances, hopes, and inapplicable probabilistic ideas. To be sure, they have concrete political goals, based upon disquiet with increasing secularism and the perceived intransigency of methodological naturalism. But what remains obvious to those of us who oppose them is that if science were to become the kind of enterprise that could accommodate metaphysical presuppositions, or even mere disturbance with moral trends, none of us, including those who seek to change it, would be very happy with the results it delivers.

  1. BSW. Statement from the Council of the Biological Society of Washinton. 2004.
  2. Darwin, Charles R. 1859. On the Origin of Species. New York. Penguin Group.
  3. Harold, Franklin. 2001. The Way of the Cell. Oxford University Press.
  4. Behe, Michael. 2004. A Catholic Scientist Looks at Darwinism. Uncommon Dissent (Ed. William Dembski). Wilmington, DL. ISI Books.
  5. Gavin AC et al. Functional organization of the yeast proteome by systematic analysis of protein complexes. 2004. Nature.
  6. Genesis 2:7. The Holy Bible. 1991. Ballantine Books.
  7. SETI Institute. 2004.


Post a Comment

<< Home