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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Response to student: Darwinian evolution not random?/ ID is God of the Gaps?

A student appended this query to a recent post :

I've recently encountered your blog and book during some research on intelligent design for a class project. My central objection to your comments (and what I've read of your book) is I feel that you have mischaracterized evolution through natural selection. It is decidedly -not- a random process and no biologist will tell you so. It is based on the principle that the variation we see in living things (think of the differences we see between people) allows some individuals to produce more offspring than others. If some individuals reproduce more than others, the traits they carry will become more frequent in the population. This process often moves in a direction--towards predators with better teeth for eating prey, for instance. This is not a random process. What is random is the basic genetic mutations that provide the raw material to work on.

A second objection is that intelligent design is arguably "lazy" science. When confronted with something that is not well explained, most scientists become excited--the most interesting research is often in these areas that we don't understand. But to leave the explanation to a designer is no better than telling a child the sky is blue because God (insert designer of choice) made it that way. If we approached every question this way, we wouldn't learn very much about the world.

I'd really appreciate a better understanding of how people respond to these objections!

A kind commenter has ably addressed the query, but I will try as well, though my explanation will amount to some hundreds of words:

This is not a random process. What is random is the basic genetic mutations that provide the raw material to work on.

Exactly. Katie, you have correctly identified the central concept of Darwinian evolution. Essentially, on the Darwinist's view, there is no design in nature. The role that has (in the Darwinist's* view, falsely) been ascribed to design is in fact played by - in your words - "what is random."

Now, the central question is not whether anyone is pleased by that but whether it is a fact. Can the entire progress of life from the prebiotic soup to the conscious mind indeed be explained by Darwin's mechanism and a couple of allied entirely materialist mechanisms? (Materialism: The belief that there is nothing beyond or outside of physical nature and that we are simply evolved animals, without mind, soul, or free will.**)

We are not here concerned with whether Darwinian evolution (or any form of evolution that requires no preexisting design) ever occurs. I take for granted that there some genuine examples do occur, but would urge you, based on my own experience with the Monarch-Viceroy mimicry puzzle and the silliness over the Washington squirrels to be very careful about the ones you accept.

The Darwinist insists that materialist forms of evolution (especially his materialist form) are the only forms that ever do occur, and that materialist accounts can thus explain the history of life. That is precisely why no design is necessary.

So far, so good. Katie. Here is where I am going to ask you to stretch a bit: On the face of it, Darwinian evolution is highly improbable or impossible on mathematical grounds. I mean that the history of complex life on earth (600 mya?) does not likely give us the resources we need for the random mutations. Once the Big Bang theory made it possible to establish an age for the universe (approx 13 bya) and the Earth (approx 4 bya), Darwinism was certain to come under attack.

Why is it so stoutly defended? Mainly for religious reasons, actually. Darwinism is the creation story of materialism. "In the beginning was natural selection, acting on random mutations" - a creation without design.

The probability that one assigns to a given account of the origin and development of life - apart from evidence - depends in large part on one's preexisting assumptions.

That is, a materialist - and most of the members of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States are materialists - knows that a materialist account of origins is true. So the facts must be made to fit.

Please understand: He has not, using the methods of science, discovered that materialism is true. He has assumed that it is true. To him, science is applied materialism. And he will fit any evidence he does discover into his materialist view.

Even where the evidence fits badly and inconsistently, as Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and I show in The Spiritual Brain (Harper 2007), the materialist prefers to live with the problems rather than to consider that materialism might not be true. Agnostic philosopher David Stove showed brilliantly where all that leads, in his systematic examination of Darwinism in Darwinian Fairy-Tales.

So when you hear people say that the evidence for Darwinian evolution is overwhelming, you might be wise to wonder whether a materialist could possibly view the evidence in any other way. Even a straw of evidence that supports materialism is, for the materialist, of much more account than a mass of evidence identifying problems with it.

Now, you also write,
A second objection is that intelligent design is arguably "lazy" science. When confronted with something that is not well explained, most scientists become excited--the most interesting research is often in these areas that we don't understand. But to leave the explanation to a designer is no better than telling a child the sky is blue because God (insert designer of choice) made it that way. If we approached every question this way, we wouldn't learn very much about the world.

Katie, you don't say whether you have read the chapters of By Design or by Chance? devoted specifically to intelligent design theory (Chapters 13-16), but if you do, you will notice a striking fact: The IDS guys treat the question of whether design is an intrinsic part of our universe and of life forms as a question of findings of fact. They ask, where does the evidence lead?

Your objection, however, assumes that an explanation of a given fact of nature must be an explanation that does not include design; otherwise, it is not really an explanation. When we come to understand the thing "that is not well explained" - human consciousness, for example, or the bacterial flagellum - we will see that there is no design. So if we think we have uncovered design, we must admit that we have not worked hard enough, and devote our efforts to explaining it away.

But is that true? On the materialist view, yes, of course, because there isn't really any design.

On the non-materialist view, it is not necessarily true. The non-materialist asks what pattern best fits the facts of the case. To get a clear sense of the statistical case for design in nature, rigorously argued, you will need to read a more challenging book than mine, such as William Dembski's The Design Inference. You would also find Michael Denton's Nature's Destiny illuminating.

The concern you expressed above, that an inference of design means that "we wouldn't learn very much about the world", beautifully captures the default position of defenders of materialism - whether they claim to be churchgoers or not - and that may be where you first encountered it. (I am not saying that you are a materialist; I am saying that you have beautifully captured their default position.)

Their view makes sense, of course, once you assume up front that materialism is really true. (Of course, on that view, religious people believe myths, but evolutionary psychology can explain why they do. We all have the right to our purely private delusions and indulgences.) But in reality, it is merely childish to attribute any feature of the universe to design, just as it would be childish to attribute it to fairies.

And - note this carefully, for this follows too - when we identify evidence that looks like design, we must seek an "explanation" that rules out design, even if it doesn't really work well. That's okay because some day we will have an explanation that rules out design that works a lot better. Otherwise we wouldn't learn very much about the world.

That is actually a classic recipe for a point of view that can never be disconfirmed by evidence. So it is not surprising that materialists insist that the evidence for their point of view and for their creation story (Darwinism) is overwhelming. Following their rules, there is no circumstance under which it could ever be otherwise.

Thanks for writing, Katie, and if you continue to be interested in the intelligent design controversy, I recommend that you read books and papers (for example at that unpack the issues in more detail and with more technical sophistication than I can do.

*I use the term "Darwinist" for convenience for two reasons. The vast majority of materialist evolutionists today are Darwinists. More important, many great materialist evolutionists use the term themselves. However, you may have run across the claim that only intelligent design sympathizers use the term, or that only ID sympathizers ever claim that Darwinism is one of the great triumvirate of materialist theories of the twentieth century, along with Freudianism and Marxism. If you follow the links, you will see that those statements are factually incorrect. I would suggest to you, that people who make a great fuss about such matters are trying to distract themselves and us from examining the evidence with an open mind.

**The materialists commonly call themselves atheists, but atheism is really a side issue in this context. Obviously, a materialist should be an atheist. But historically, most atheists have not been materialists. Buddhism is, for practical purposes, a religion followed by hundreds of millions of people that does not require a concept of God. Indeed, right now, one atheist (Sam Harris, a neuroscience grad student and successful author) who joined the current anti-God campaign - launched, incidentally, by key arch-Darwinists - is in big trouble because he does not accept a materialist account of all reality. So we need to be clear that what most vocal atheists in the United States today mean by atheism is specifically materialist atheism. They persecute non-materialist atheists, as Sam Harris's story will show.

My other blog is the Mindful Hack, which keeps tabs on neuroscience and the mind.

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

Are you looking for one of the following stories?

My recent series on the spate of anti-God books, teen blasphemy challenge, et cetera, and the mounting anxiety of materialist atheists that lies behind it.

My review of Francis Collins’ book The Language of God , my backgrounder about peer review issues, or the evolutionary biologist’s opinion that all students friendly to intelligent design should be flunked.

Lists of theoretical and applied scientists who doubt Darwin and of academic ID publications.

My U of Toronto talk on why there is an intelligent design controversy, or my talk on media coverage of the controversy at the University of Minnesota.

A summary of tech guru George Gilder's arguments for ID and against Darwinism

A critical look at why March of the Penguins was thought to be an ID film.

A summary of recent opinion columns on the ID controversy

A summary of recent polls of US public opinion on the ID controversy

A summary of the Catholic Church's entry into the controversy, essentially on the side of ID.

O'Leary's intro to non-Darwinian agnostic philosopher David Stove’s critique of Darwinism.

An ID Timeline: The ID folk seem always to win when they lose.

Why origin of life is such a difficult problem.
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