During my recent hiatus Phillip Johnson emerged from his hidey hole and posted some new expectorations regarding the current state of ID. I realize other bloggers have already ripped into Johnson’s ill-considered comments, but why should they have all the fun!
He begins with his standard tripe about finch beaks:
The claim that evolutionary science has discovered and verified a mechanism which can account for the origin of biological information and complexity by involving only natural (unintelligent) causes is supported by an immense extrapolation from limited evidence of minor, cyclical variations in fundamentally stable species. The current leading textbook example of the standard neo-Darwinian mechanism involves a species of finch on an island in the Galapagos chain. Two scientists named Grant published a famous study of variations of the beaks of these birds, later popularized in a book titled The Beak of the Finch, by journalist Jonathan Weiner.
Johnson’s been beating this drum for years. It is totally untrue, of course. The obsevrations of finch beaks and other instances of small-scale evolution are certainly interesting and important, but they are not the primary reason for thinking natural selection can account for complex biological strucutres.
The case that the prolonged action of natural selection can account for complex structures in biology begins with the observation that there is no theoretical reason why it can not. It is a simple fact that a system in which random variations are sifted through a selection mechanism can lead to very complex structures indeed. The viability of selection as an evolutionary mechanism can not be refuted from an armchair. All attempts to do so, such as Dembski’s probability arguments or Behe’s prattlings about irreducible complexity are simply fallacious.
Bare reason gets an assist from various artificial life experiments and the success of evolutionary algorithms in solving engineering problems. These results show that selection based mechanisms have astonishing creative abilities. We also know that every aspect of an organism’s anatomy is ultimately under the control of genes. It follows that alterations in the genes can affect any bit of organismal morphology, and therefore come under selection’s watchful gaze. So, again, there is no reason in principle why selection can not account for large scale evolution.
Natural selection is theoretically sound, which is enough to refute the assertions of the ID folks. Their case for ID is based entirely on the theoretical insufficiency of natural selection. They have no positive case of their own to offer.
Moving on, we next note that selection can account for impressive quantities of change over short time scales. We know, for example, that the many species of dogs alive today are the result of artificial selection practiced by breeders over a period of a little more than a thousand years. If the chihuahua and the Saint Bernard were known solely from fossils, they would not be placed in the same species, and almost certainly not in the same genus. That this level of change is possible over such short periods of time should give anyone pause in questioning selection’s creative abilities.
Laboratory experiments routinely document the ability of selection to create new functionalities. The development of novel, functional, multi-part sytems has been observed in the lab, as documented, for example, by Ken Miller in Finding Darwin’s God. Field studies of natural selection routinely find similar results.
But what about the really big stuff? Here we must rely on more indirect lines of evidence. We note that every complex system studied in detail shows signs of having evolved via natural selection. After all, selection can only operate by modifying preexisting structures. It can not create a complex system ex nihilo. So if complex systems were crafted by selection, that fact should be reflected in the composition of these systems. We should expect to find complex systems cobbled together from preexisting parts. We should not find novel complex structures that lack precursors in the relatives of the organism under study.
And we invariably find exactly what we should. Darwin was already on top of this, noting that the complex contrivances by which orchids attract insects were cobbled together from parts readily available and serving other functions in closely related flowers. Likewise for the blood clotting cascade, or the Krebs cycle, or the panda’s “thumb”, or the evolution of the mammalian jaw bone from reptilian ancestors. In these cases and countless others, including the ID favorite the flagellum of E. coli, we see the telltale signs of natural selection.
Another line of evidence is provided by the success of game theory in the study of ethology. The mathematical models used here are based specifically on the assumption that the behaviors under study evolved via natural selection. The success of these models is evidence that the assumption is correct.
And then there is the most important thing of all. Scientists routinely apply selection-based reasoning in their work, and they are usually rewarded with progress on open questions as a result.
So the situation is clear. On the one side you have a body of theoretical work showing that selection is sound in principal. You have various sorts of computer simulations producing suggestive results. You have field and lab observations of selection’s power, in modern organisms, operating over short periods of time. You have the fact that complex biological structures have precisely the form they ought to have if they were crafted by selection, and you have the routine success of mathematical models based on the premise of natural selection’s importance. There are numerous complex structures for which we can speak with confidence about the likely evolutionary precursors. You have scientists routinely applying selection based reasoning to their work, and being rewarded with success as a result.
And against all this you have a handful of naysayers, folding their arms and shaking their heads, insisting against all the evidence that selection is not an adequate explanation for biological complexity. When asked for an alternative or a possibly fruitful line of investigation to follow in the lab, they reply with nothing beyond a vague and useless notion of design.
I really don’t think it’s the scientists who are being unreasonable here.
After belaboring the finches for a few more paragraphs Johnson moves on to a discussion of how science has responded to the bloviations of his fellow ID folks. After extolling the virtues of Michael Behe and William Dembski, he writes:
To my disappointment, however, influential scientific organizations formed a solid bloc of opposition to the consideration of whether evidence points to the possible involvement of intelligent causes in the history of life. Nevertheless, the subject is sufficiently fascinating, that orthodox scientific bodies have had to take strenuous action to keep it from cropping up in science education, and even in scientific journals. As the case of philosopher Antony Flew demonstrates (see below), the argument has persuasive power. If independent thinkers in science felt free to write about the possibility of intelligent causes in the history of life without suffering adverse consequences, the literature on it, professional and popular, would probably be substantial and lively. That is why those who do not want the concept of intelligent design to flourish find it necessary to enact explicit rules against allowing scientists and others to discuss the possibility that there is a real intelligence behind complex genetic information.
The idea that the scientific community is a monolithic block of religion haters, frantic to prevent anything remotely God-like to enter public discourse, is an article of faith among the ID set. Of course, as usual, reality is almost 180 degrees from what Johnson describes.
The ID folks unleash a barrage of ill-considered arguments, fallacious acusations of fraud and skullduggery, and gross distortions of current scientific discourse. Scientists reply by painstakingly exposing the flaws in their arguments, disproving the accusations, and attempting to set the record straight regarding the current state of science. Some actually take time away from their actual work to write book length treatments of the subject.
And how do the ID folks respond? By levelling precisely the same arguments, accusations and distortions, with hardly any acknolwedgement that the critics had said anything at all. It’s not the scientists who are preventing a fair hearing of ID. It’s the ID folks who are uninterested in engaging knowledgeable people.
After another paragraph of this we come to the following:
That was enough to rouse Darwinists and other secularists to dismiss the entire concept as “religion,” and thus “not science,” thereby disposing the conflict to their satisfaction on the basis of a stereotype rather than on an analysis of specific evidence and arguments. The governing board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) passed a resolution declaring that the intelligent design theory is not science. This action signaled that the AAAS board was worried that, if editors and peer reviewers were permitted to exercise their informed discretion in reviewing manuscripts for publication, some papers would eventually appear in the professional literature seriously discussing the possibility that intelligent causes were necessarily involved in generating biological innovations.
The picture of journal editors cowering before the pronouncements of the AAAS is almost too comical to consider. It is the goal of every journal editor to be the one to publish the next great idea. The competition among journals is fierce, and everyone wants to publish work that people are going to discuss and argue about. The journal Statistical Science, for example, was perfectly happy to publish a serious article about Bible codes even though you could count on one hand the number of statisticians who took the idea seriously. They did this because they received a paper advocating the idea that contained no obvious flaws. (As later work revealed, it did contain subtle flaws).
On the other hand, every journal editor remembers the fate of the physics journal that hastily published work endorsing cold fusion. The black eye they received when the work was shown to be incorrect effectively killed the journal. So while every journal wants to publish outre research, they don’t want to be embarrassed by publishing arrant nonsense.
And that is what has happened to ID. Every biological ID argument offered to date has been trivially wrong. So it is only natural that on the rare occasions when ID folks have tried to publish a paper, they have been met with hostile peer-reviews. Johnson’s protestations notwithstanding, there is no evidence that journal editors are actually receiving ID manuscripts. That is because the ID folks know that absolutely nothing they are doing is of the slightest use to practicing scientists.
Johnson then recites the standard ID cant about the Stephen Meyer paper published, under highly suspicious circumstances, in The Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. We then come to this:
I’m convinced that, under conditions of intellectual freedom, scientists and philosophers would be fascinated by the possibility that intelligent causes had to be factor in the origin and development of life. And there would be vigorous discussion pro and con about this subject in both the professional and popular periodical literature. Those who insist that science is by definition dedicated to seeking out and endorsing naturalistic explanations for all phenomena dismiss any questioning of their basic premise as “religiously” motivated and hence irrational–and even unconstitutional in the USA (where a majority of the population is nevertheless inclined to question the premise).
This is a frequent bleat throughout Johnson’s essay, and it represents a telling admission. Notice that Johnson does not talk about all of the great scientific successes ID has had in the decade and a half since he published Darwin on Trial. He does not talk about all of the great research ID is working on that is going to win the day for his side. Instead he finds himself trying to explain the complete failure of ID in the past fifteen years to win any measurable support in the scientific community. So he falls back on the old, whiny standby of protesting the bigotry and closed-mindedness of scientists. Pathetic.
Johnson goes on like this for a few paragraphs, using the fact that his books have been translated into many languages as evidence of the great traction his ideas have among the public. He boasts of winning over Antony Flew, and ponders the possibility that Flew will embrace not just some vague desim, but full-fledged Christianity. He repeats the standard canard that “Darwinists” are afraid of any honest scrutiny of their work. Yawn. That’s so nineties.
The essay goes on at great length, but you will search it in vain for any hint of how ID will aid in actual scientific research. You will find no reference to any novel scientific points ID folks have managed to raise in the past decade. Save for the topical references to the Meyer paper and Flew’s “conversion” you will find nothing here that ID folks have not been saying for over a decade. Indeed, Johnson has been delivering almost precisely this speech for the entire time he has been active on this subject.
Increasingly, Darwinism is protected by intimidation and legal restrictions much like those that would be employed to protect the fundamental tenets of an established church.
Actually, evolution is protected by the ever growing body of research that supports it. Evolutionary biology has prgressed enormously in the past fifteen years. A talk about cutting edge evolutionary biology today would look vastly different from such a talk given fifteen years ago. The same can not be said for ID.
It is not evolutionists who rely increasingly on intimidation and legal restrictions. Rather, it is the ID folks who rely increasingly on the spectre of discrimination and censorship, and not on their own scientific progress, to make their case. Look just slightly beneath the surface of Johnson’s arrogant, dishonest bombast, and you find the ultimate admission that ID has been a complete and total failure.