PIG Roast

How bad have things gotten for the ID folks? They’re pathetically excited about the publication of Jonathan Wells’ new book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Drwainism and Intelligent Design.

It used to be that the ID folks were keen to persuade us that they were going to revolutionize science. They published books like Darwin’s Black Box and No Free Lunch, which at least put forward some actual scientific ideas.

But then the scientific community laughed en masse at those ideas, and the ID folks found themselves with nothing left to say. So now they have to take satisfaction when sleazy demagogues like Ann Coulter or Jonathan Wells take up their cause in jokey little political tracts.

Wells’ book deifes description. Substantively it’s complete garbage, but that goes without saying. What is remarkable is the level the book is being pitched at. You would think you were reading a children’s book. Large print, oversized pages, plenty of silly graphics, lot’s of pull quotes and “Guess Whats,.” and scientific descriptions that wouldn’t impress anyone over the age of five.

Nonetheless, with the attitude that nonsense has to be confronted, the PT crew is going through it chapter by chapter. Reed Cartright’s introduction is available here. Burt Humburg takes on Chapter One here. And P.Z. Myers rips into Chapter Three here.

As for me, I took Chapter Eight. I’ve posted a sneak peek below the fold, before the final version gets posted at the Thumb. Enjoy!


Review of Chapter Eight of Wells’ Book

In Chapter Eight Wells recapitulates the standard ID mantra that design can be established via an eliminative process. That is, if it can be established that a particular phenomenon is not the result either of natural laws or chance, then design emerges as the only remaining possibility. Readers familiar with ID will recognize this as the same, tired argument ID folks have been offering for more than a decade. Indeed, Wells merely parrots the assertions of William Dembski, giving neither acknowledgement of nor consideration to any of the numerous refutations of Dembski’s work produced over the years.

Wells opens his chapter as follows:

Ferry passengers entering Victoria harbor in Canada are greeted by a bank covered with flowers that spell out “WELCOME TO VICTORIA” in large letters. Everyone who sees the greeting knows immediately that it was intelligently designed. In fact, all of us make design inferences every day. We wouldn’t be able to function without them. But how do we do it? What sort of logic do we use?

Actually, the logic is easily spelled out. We all have enough horticultural experience to realize that flowers do not naturally bunch themselves into arrangements that spell out English messages. On the other hand, we do know that people occasionally arrange flowers to form such patterns. Consequently, we conclude the flowers were deliberately arranged. Our conclusion was based not on abstract probability calculations or on our ability to match up the flowers with an arbitrary pattern. Rather, we could draw on our own, past experience in drawing our conclusion.

This reasoning applies as well to another favorite ID example: Mt. Rushmore. We all know what mountains look like in nature. It is that experience that tells us that Mt. Rushmore represents something that nature alone could not produce.

Wells argues that this sort of reasoning can be applied as easily to biological systems. The previous discussion makes clear, however, that there is a big difference between the Victoria harbor flowers and Mt. Rushmore on the one hand, and biological systems on the other. When confronted with the Victoria harbor flowers we can say, “Left to their own devices, flowers do not arrange themselves in this way.” Likewise for Mt. Rushmore. But no similar statement can be made for the proteins out of which biological systems are made. When confronted with the particular arrangement of proteins forming the human eye, for example, we have no basis for saying, “Three billion years of evolution do not generally produce structures of this sort.”

Indeed, we can go further. Biologists know of a regularity that can in principle lead to the creation of complex biological systems: natural selection acting on chance, genetic variations. It is the general consensus of the scientific community that every complex system studied in detail shows clear signs of having been fashioned via this mechanism. In her book Evolution and Christian Faith, biologist Joan Roughgarden writes:

Furthermore, neo-Darwinism can account for complex structures. When you get together eye experts, feather experts, flagellum experts, blood clotting experts, and so on, it always turns out that they can suggest plausible neo-Darwinian scenarios for how these structures originated. (p. 89).

After some further discussion she concludes:

So, when the intelligent design folks announce with great fanfare that the bacterial flagellum is too complex to be explained by natural selection acting on random mutation…well, it’s hard for evolutionary biologists to suppress yawns. (p. 92)

Indeed. Scientists who, unlike Wells, actually study complex biological systems do not see evidence for intelligent design. Instead they see the clear signs of natural selection.

Thus, to make their case design proponents must somehow show, in clear defiance of the conclusions drawn by the scientists most knowledgeable in the area, that biological systems nonetheless embody patterns unlikely to appear even via natural selection. The failure of their sole attempt at doing this, “irreducible complexity,” will be discussed elsewhere. In the present chapter Wells attempts to discredit the efficacy of natural selection via a bit of armchair theorizing.

He writes:

According to Darwinists, specified complexity in living things should not be attributed to intelligence because it can be explained by a combination of mutation and selection. Richard Dawkins instructed his computer to begin with the random sequence:


WDLMNLT DTJBKW IRZREZLMQCO P

And then to make random changes (mutations) in one letter or space at a time, selecting only those that matched a target line from Hamlet:

METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL

By randomly arranging letters and spaces, it would take on average more than a trillion trillion trillion attempt to produce this specific line, but Dawkins found that his “evolutionary algorithm” could produce it in only forty-three steps. He concluded that the “belief that Darwinian evolution is `random’ is not merely false. It is the exact opposite of the truth. Chance is a minor ingredient in the Darwinian recipe, but the most important ingredient is cumulative selection which is quintessentially non-random.”

Of course, Dawkins cheated by specifying the target in advance. He conceded as much, noting that at each step the phrase was compared to “a distant ideal target” even though “evolution has no long-term goal. There is no long-distance target.”

…For now, it’s sufficient to note that Dawkins’s evolutionary algorithm didn’t produce specified complexity – it had it all along. His computer exercise wasn’t evidence for undirected Darwinian evolution, but for intelligent design.

Wells’ description here is almost completely incoherent, which is unsurprising given his desire to make scientists look foolish. He cannot afford to give a clear description of Dawkins’ experiment, for then it would be clear to everyone that Dawkins’ point was both simple, and correct.

An accurate description of what Dawkins did begins by noting that he carried out two different experiments. In the first, the computer generated random strings of letters. These strings were then compared to the target phrase “METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL.” If there was a match, then the experiment terminated. Otherwise, new random strings were generated. Of course, nothing close to the target phrase was generated via this approach.

In the second experiment the computer begins with a single, randomly generated, string of letters. This string is then copied repeatedly, but with the proviso that each individual character has a small probability of being copied incorrectly in each iteration. (Note, incidentally, that Wells’ statement that Dawkins allowed his strings to mutate one space or letter at a time is totally inaccurate). The computer then determines which of the copies bears the closest resemblance to the target phrase, and uses that as the starting point for the next round of breeding. In this experiment, the target phrase emerges rather quickly.

The flaw in Wells’ argument is now obvious. The computer’s success in the second experiment was not the result of being equipped with the target phrase. After all, the computer had the target phrase in both experiments, but was unsuccessful the first time.

Rather, the success in the second experiment resulted from the nature of the selection mechanism that was used. The computer employed one, consistent criterion in determining which strings would be used to produce the next generation. It is this consistency, and not any awareness of a distant target, that makes it possible for complex structures to develop gradually.

The inability of natural selection to anticipate the future needs of the organism is of no relevance to determining whether it can produce complex structures. Instead we need only ask two questions: First, is there a series of small, heritable variations leading from a relatively simple precursor to the modern complex structure? And second, are the organisms bearing these variations likely to leave more offspring than those that do not? Where these two conditions are met, natural selection can cause great complexity to emerge from initial simplicity.

The logic here is entirely sound. Consequently, refuting the efficacy of natural selection is not something that can be done from one’s armchair. Whether this sort of explanation works in practice can only be determined by a detailed study of particular complex systems. As we have seen, scientists studying particular complex systems often have little trouble discerning likely precursor structures.

Of course, thoughtful discussions of scientific concepts are not really Wells’ forte. He’s much better at pure propaganda, and that is why chapter eight devotes almost as much space to accusing “Darwinists” of skullduggery and malfeasance as it does to science. Readers familiar with ID apologetics will recognize the script. Beleaguered, open-minded, evidence-following ID scientists just want a fair and open discussion of controversial scientific issues, but those dogmatic, religion-hating, Gestapo-like Darwinists just won’t let them. Yawn.

In the present chapter the focus is on William Dembski’s troubled tenure at Baylor University. As Wells tells the story, Dembski was put in charge, by then university president Robert Sloan, of the newly formed Michael Polanyi Center for studying ID. He organized a highly successful conference that promoted the ideals of open-minded discussion ID advocates hold so dear. But militant, angry Darwinists on the Baylor faculty won’t stand for such things. By throwing around their considerable weight, they were able not only to get Dembski relived of his post, but got Sloan fired as well.

Wells’ writes:

At first, President Sloan resisted faculty pressure to close the Michale Polanyi Center. “It’s rather ironic,” he said, “that people in the scientific community whose rights had to be protected in the face of ideological pressure” from fundamentalists “now appear to be suppressing others.” Sloan concluded that the faculty’s position borders on McCarthyism. Nevertheless, the Baylor faculty forced Sloan to appoint a committee to review the status of the Michael Polanyi Center. Since the faculty made sure that the committee was stacked with biologists hostile to Dembski, it came as no surprise when it reaffirmed the faculty senate’s recommendation that the Center be closed. Dembski was removed from his position (though he stayed on at Baylor as an independent researcher until his contract expired), and eventually even Sloan lost his job.13

The Baylor lesson is clear: Darwinists will not tolerate any open discussion of intelligent design. When they cannot crush it in a balanced academic forum, they resort to intimidation and mob rule. (pp. 91)

Alas, this version of events is pure spin. Wikipedia has this fine summary of what happened at Baylor, the major details of which I present below.

One of Wells’ main references for the first paragraph above is this article from the Baylor student newspaper. Remarkably, absolutely none of the assertions in this paragraph are addressed in any way in this article. Instead, we find excerpts like this:

A debate over the reputation of Baylor as a university has erupted among the teachers and administrators, concerning the establishment of the Center as a campus institute.

The debate intensified Tuesday, when an outgoing Baylor professor said President Robert Sloan is intimidating faculty into not commenting on the controversy.

“Faculty are not speaking out because Sloan can make their lives miserable,” Dr. Lewis Barker, psychology and neuroscience professor, said. “They don’t speak out for fear of their salaries and of being singled out by the administration.”

Dogmatic Darwinists did everything in their power to squelch honest debate? Actually it was dogmatic ID proponents who tried to shut down any criticism of their work.

The reality of what happened at Baylor is that Sloan unilaterally established the Polanyi Center for Dembski. This is very unusual, since ordinarily the university faculty would be consulted before such a move. When the faculty raised concerns over both the pseudoscientific activities of the Center and the manner in which it was established, President Sloan did everything in his power to silence the opposition.

This led to a vote in the Baylor faculty senate that went 27-2 in favor of eliminating the Center. The decision to form a committee to examine the situation was then seen as a compromise between the opposition of the faculty and the support of the President. The verdict of the committee, contrary to Wells’ account, was that ID was a legitimate field of study, but that the Center should be absorbed into the Baylor’s Institute for Faith and Learning (and not closed as Wells asserts).

The committee did not recommend that Dembski be removed from his post. In fact, Dembski himself was so pleased with the committee’s findings, he dashed off the following press release:

The report marks the triumph of intelligent design as a legitimate form of academic inquiry. This is a great day for academic freedom. I’m deeply grateful to President Sloan and Baylor University for making this possible, as well as to the peer-review committee for its unqualified affirmation of my own work on intelligent design. The scope of the center will be expanded to embrace a broader set of conceptual issues, at the intersection of science and religion, and the Center will therefore receive a new name to reflect this expanded vision. My work on intelligent design will continue unabated. Dogmatic opponents of design who demanded the Center be shut down have met their Waterloo. Baylor University is to be commended for remaining strong in the face of intolerant assaults on freedom of thought and expression.

This is the same committee Wells’ now describes as being stacked with people hostile to Dembski.

Sloan believed Dembski’s press release amounted to inflaming an already tense situation. In an attempt to repair his damaged relationship with the university faculty, Sloan asked Dembski to retract this statement. Incredibly, Dembski refused. It was this refusal, and not anything the Committee said, that led to Dembski being relieved of his post.

As for Sloan, he remained President for five years beyond the events surrounding the Polanyi Center, only stepping down in 2005. The internal politics of Baylor University are complex. Suffice it to say that this incident was only one of several that made Sloan an unpopular figure on campus.

Wells is right about one thing, however. Scientists do, indeed, get very angry with ID proponents. It is the same anger mathematicians would feel if one of their number were telling people that a conspiracy of dogmatists was suppressing the essential truth that two and two make five. Wells’ scientific arguments are childish and easily refuted. And his brazenly dishonest attempts to portray scientists as dogmatic and censorious are disgusting. It is impossible to have any respect for ID when its leading proponents behave in so reprehensible a manner.

Comments

  1. #1 Cody
    August 26, 2006

    After Sloan stepped down to become Chancellor for a few more months, I remember reading an article in Baylor’s satirical newspaper, The Rope: “Sloan: Forgotten But Not Gone”

    Sloan was indeed one of the most unpopular figures on campus, second only to the (thankfully) gone chapel leader, Todd Lake.

    Not everybody is pleased by his absence, however

  2. #2 Ahcuah
    August 26, 2006

    After reading the “Welcome to Victoria” example, a better one occurred to me: the chocolate Jesus that’s been in the news lately (or the cinnabun Mother Theresa, or numerous other examples).

    Many Christians see “design” in these objects. A lot of this is in the recognition wetware of the human brain. But that doesn’t make then any less of a random occurrence.

    Your mention of our knowing the difference between flower arrangements and nature doesn’t really have enough strength on these examples, because, at first glance, to the unsophisticated, they cannot tell the difference between a randomly generated chocolate blob and real design.

    And these examples also point out just how much the human brain looks for design even when it is not there.

  3. #3 Doc Bill
    August 26, 2006

    Over at Un(ho hum)Common Descent (into madness) they are falling all over themselves with the attention from the PT on Wells’ “book.”

    Gee, they say, with so much attention Wells must be on to something!

    More like Wells is on something, I’d say.

  4. #4 Michael Hopkins
    August 26, 2006

    I think you should put in some more stuff about the “METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL” program. Creationists go on and on about how unrealistic that program is but they never seem to mention that Dawkins discusses why that program is unrealistic: its goal being to illustrate the difference between single-step and cummulative selection. What is worse is that the “Weasel” program was not where Dawkins ended. He merely used it as a stepping-stone to discuss yet another program. If Dawkins is going to be attacked, it is that program that should be attacked.

    Indeed there are only two types of people who go on and on whining about the “Weasel” program: those who have never bothered to read what Dawkins wrote in the first place and those who are outright liars.

  5. #5 Chad
    August 27, 2006

    Great post. The Faith-based Right has been coming out with these silly PIG books turning historical knowledge on its head so that everything conforms to right-wing ideology. If science tells us that global warming is real, then the scientists have a liberal bias, it’s a hoax, they’re just making it up to get funding for their research, blah blah blah. I find it interesting that they consider it politically incorrect to state that evolution is just a theory, a shot in the dark, there’s no evidence to back it up, etc. The exact opposite is true in mainstream culture. It’s politically correct to believe or at least profess a belief in the traditional bullshit genesis account. Can’t wait for their next book to come out. Maybe it’ll be The Politically Incorrect Guide to Geology and they’ll explain how the Earth is actually flat and the biased liberal anti-god scientists have falsified data to make the Earth look spherical.

  6. #6 Dave S.
    August 28, 2006

    Jason writes:

    They published books like Darwin’s Black Box and No Free Lunch, which at least put forward some actual scientific ideas.

    Some actual scientific ideas? I don’t think so. At best, they put out some new variations of existing Creationist attacks on evolution.

    Biologists know of a regularity that can in principle lead to the creation of complex biological systems: natural selection acting on chance, genetic variations. It is the general consensus of the scientific community that every complex system studied in detail shows clear signs of having been fashioned via this mechanism.

    Natural selection acting on chance can certainly lead to complex biological structures, but it is by no means responsible for all complexity seen in organisms. We must also add into the mix processes like horizontal gene transfer, modes of speciation and endosymbiosis.

    Where these two conditions are met, natural selection can cause great complexity to emerge from initial simplicity.

    Correct. A just-so story, which is exactly what the irreducible complexity argument is, can be countered with another just-so story. If someone says a certain system that they describe as IC cannot be formed using evolutionary processes, then all that’s needed to refute that argument is to provide a hypothetical system that meets the IC criterion they are using, and that came together using only standard evoltionary events. That scientists can not only do this, but also provide an empirical basis for thier claims, seals the deal. Behe attemps to get around this by restricting which evolutionary processes he’s willing to accept by inconsistantly or arbitrarily defining terms, and denying the sufficiency of the evidence for the remainder (the argument to incredulity).

    It is the same anger mathematicians would feel if one of their number were telling people that a conspiracy of dogmatists was suppressing the essential truth that two and two make five.

    The difference being that those mathematicians or their agents are not actually trying to force their agenda onto those most defenseless in combatting them.

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