The ID folks put on one of their dog and pony shows in Knoxville, TN this weekend. My curiosity piqued, I decided to check it out.
So I left big bowls of food and water for the cats, piled into the Jason-mobile, pointed it South, and wound up in Knoxville six hours later. Things got off to an inauspicious start when I discovered that the highway exit recommended by MapQuest was closed for construction. Resourceful guy that I am, I overcame this difficulty and found my hotel. Killed the rest of Friday walking around the University of Tennessee campus and engaging in a fruitless effort to find some reasonable place to eat in Knoxville.
Then came Saturday, when the fun really began. Since there is too much to report on in one blog entry, I will break this up over several entries.
The conference was held in a ballroom in the Knoxville Convention Center. I got there early enough to note that there were 938 chairs set up. Attendance seemed to vary throughout the day. For the morning sessions I would estimate that around 2/3 of the seats were full. By the afternoon it seemed that number had swelled to about 4/5. Overall I’d say a figure of 700-800 attendees sounds about right.
I took a seat near the front and the conference got underway. First up was a fellow from the Discovery Institute whose name went by too quickly for me to jot down. After a few words of inroduction he recoutned the origin of his interest in this issue. Apparently he was a crime scene investigator who one day found himself at a crime scene involving a murdered woman in an optometrist’s office. The criminal was still there when our host arrived. He asked the young man why he would kill this woman, a mother of three with eight dollars in her purse. The kid replied, “I’m a juvenile, they’re not going to do anything to me. And number two, it’s survival of the fittest, man.” This started his own quest, said our host, to determine what was going on in our society. Ideas have consequences, he warned us sagely. Food for thought, indeed. I mean, obviously the problem was that gangs of teenage philosophers were thinking too deeply about modern biology.
Next up was Lee Strobel, author of The Case For Christ, The Case for Faith, The Case for a Creator, The Case for a Creator for Kids, The Case for Christ – Student Edition, you get the idea. As Stephen King once said, “Once you’ve done Frankenstein what’s left to do but Bride of Frankenstein. Conversion stories being the order of the day, Strobel talked about the precise moment when he lost any vestige of his religious faith. It was in a biology class in high school in 1971, and the teacher taught them about the Miller-Urey experiment. Obviously God was out of a job! I smelled a fair amount of “tending to his legend,” here.
There followed some general thoughts about how evolution poses a genuine threat to Christian belief (one of the few things said all day with which I agree), and then some discussion of some of the more florid pronouncements of William Provine.
Fast forward a few years. Strobel is the legal editor of The Chicago Tribune, still blissfully atheistic, when his wife informed him that she had converted to Christianity. Initially put off by this, he decided to unleash his formidable journalistic training on the question of God and Christianity. Three guesses where his investigation led him.
He then launched into a discussion of a few of the lines of evidence that convinced him that evolution was nonsense and God was real. It was the first time actual science was discussed in the conference, and unsurprisingly also the first time howling scientific errors were committed.
Strobel was horrified to learn that the Miller-Urey experiment had been dsicredited, as a result of changing views regarding the composition of the atmosphere on the early Earth:
But later the consensus of science became that’s not what the environment of the early Earth was like. It was actualy more like this, and when they take what the consensus of science believes was the atmosphere of the primitive Earth, the correct atmosphere, and you run electricity through it, you don’t get the amino acids that Stanley Miller got. In other words his experiment doesn’t work when you use the atmosphere that the consensus among scientists is the one that existed in the earliest Earth.
Thats nonsense, of course. Paleontologist Alan Gishlick provides a good discussion of this point, this time responding specifically to Jonathan Wells:
These allegations might seem serious; however, Wells’s knowledge of prebiotic chemistry is seriously flawed. First, Wells’s claim that researchers are ignoring the new atmospheric data, and that experiments like the Miller-Urey experiment fail when the atmospheric composition reflects current theories, is simply false. The current literature shows that scientists working on the origin and early evolution of life are well aware of the current theories of the earth’s early atmosphere and have found that the revisions have little effect on the results of various experiments in biochemical synthesis. Despite Wells’s claims to the contrary, new experiments since the Miller-Urey ones have achieved similar results using various corrected atmospheric compositions (Figure 1; Rode, 1999; Hanic et al., 2000). Further, although some authors have argued that electrical energy might not have efficiently produced organic molecules in the earth’s early atmosphere, other energy sources such as cosmic radiation (e.g., Kobayashi et al., 1998), high temperature impact events (e.g., Miyakawa et al., 2000), and even the action of waves on a beach (Commeyras, et al., 2002) would have been quite effective.
See the original for links and further discussion.
That was plank one in Strobel’s case. Here was plank two:
What does the fossil record show? It shows that the majority if not all of the world’s forty phyla or the highest category in the animal kingdom virtually sprang forth with unique new body forms, fully formed, without transitionary fossils preceding them, in what is known as the Cambrian explosion more than five hundred million years ago.
More nonsense. Here’s a paper published in, of all places, Perspecitves on Science and Christian Faith, putting the lie to Strobel’s claim. Here’s the abstract of the paper:
The claim is often made in Christian circles that there is no evidence for phylum level evolution. Evidence, in the form of morphological similarities, is presented showing that transitional forms connecting phyla do exist. Specific morphological connections are examined which unite the lobopods, arthropods, brachiopods, molluscs, and annelids. By examining these lineages, evidence arises indicating that the Cambrian Explosion was not very explosive. In contradiction to many apologetical claims, it occupied a period of nearly 100 million years. This paper discusses the causes of the rapid differentiation and apparent abundance of Cambrian animals, adding to the evidence that the Cambrian does not represent the creation event. For some Christians to equate the Cambrian Explosion with the creation event ignores the massive evidence of animals appearing gradually beginning in the Precambrian and continuing into the Cambrian. The creation of life on earth must be much earlier than the early Cambrian.
Perhaps sensing some waning interest in the audience, Strobel now unleashed several minutesd of talking points. 700 scientists of impeccable credentials signed the Dissent from Darwinism statement. Believing in evolution requires a leap of fatih. This isn’t faith versus science it’s science versus science.
Physics came next, and here we saw the first instnace of a common pattern throughout the conference. Though it was called “Darwin vs. Design,” very few of the speakers addressed anything related to Darwin. Instead, the star attractions were the origin of life and the fine-tuning of the cosmos. Speakers Stephen Meyer and Jay Richards both explained this peculiarity during their presentations, and we will consider their responses at the proper time.
Back to Strobel. It turns out that the Big Bang, or more precisely the idea that the universe is not eternal, provides one of the strongest arguments yet for the existence of a creator. He then rattled off the standard argument, “Everything that began to exist had a cause, the universe began to exist, therefore the universe had a cause,” This is a standard bit of creationist sophistry known as the Kalam Cosmological Argument. It is vulnerable on many fronts. For example, Strobel spoke as if the Big Bang occurred at a particular moment in time just like any other historical event we may care to speak of. This is not consistent with the way physicists tend to view the matter. More to the point, however, even if we grant the entire syllogism precisely as Strobel presented it, there is no reason to think the cause had to be supernatural.
But these details apparently didn’t bother Strobel. He was too busy whipping out quotations from people like Stephen Hawking and Arno Penzias for that. Oh, and if you’re inclined to raise the who designed the designer chestnut, rest assured that Strobel has anticipated you. God, you see, never began to exist, He has always existed, and therefore avoids the first prong of the syllogism. What a clever fellow.
Then came a love-song to the idea of fine-tuning. How could all those constants have just set themselves by chance! How ridiculous!! Lots of analogies about how remarkable this is (throwing a dart from the moon and hitting a tiny target on the Earth, that sort of thing). Multiple universes? Why, that would require an unjustified leap of faith. And even if there were multiple universes, that would just be more evidence for ID. (Yeah, I didn’t follow that argument either).
Biochemistry next. Mostly a preview of Behe. Biochemical systems are irrdecuibly complex. Why, the biochemical evidence was enough even to convince arch atheist Antony Flew! It’s like Billy Graham becoming an atheist!!! Incidentally, the exclamation points are not just me being snarky. Strobel tends to get very animated when he talks, and I am trying to convey the moments when he got especially excited. Despite the extreme dopeyness of nearly everything he said, Strobel was by a wide margin the most engaging speaker at the conference.
Then came DNA. It contains information! Information I tells ya!! information, Information, INFORMATION!!! And not just any information, mind you, but the kind that carries a message. Nature can’t do that. Where did it come from? It had to be intelligently caused. QED, dude. It requires more faith to be an atheist.
So much for Strobel. Next up was something that probably seemed like a good idea on paper, but did not translate well into practice. Strobel called up philosopher Stephen Meyer for an interview. The idea was for Strobel to interview Meyer, lobbing him softball questions which Meyer would then answer. The trouble is that Strobel remained behind the podium while all of this happened, with Meyer standing awkwardly to one side of the stage.
Stephen, how did you get involved in this issue? Well, Lee, I was shocked to learn there were scientists on both sides of issues like these. And eventually the evidence persuaded me that design was real. What is intelligent design? We say design in nature is real, not like Richard Dawkins who says design is only apparent. We don’t object to evolution construed as “change through time.” ID is based on scientific evidence. It’s not just stealth creationism. Why, then, is it so controversial? It’s a fascinating question. It’s hard to speuclate on the motives of others. Many scientists have conflated their materialist philosophy of life with the scientific method. We’re doing science, they have a worldview. ID threatens that worldview. Why is the conference called Darwin and Design, when Darwin only talked about biology but we are going to talk about other sciences? Because Darwinism represents the denial of design. It was the success of Darwin’s theory that led to widespread denial of all design in nature. Poor Darwin didn’t know anything about modern physics or cosmology or findings in origin of life research. (Yes, Meyer actually said, “Poor Darwin.”) Thank you, Stephen, for your canned responses to my inane questions. My pleasure Lee.
There’s more, of course, but we’ll save that for a later post. There’s a limit to how much of this I can stand to recreate in one sitting.