I just spent the last week working out of my New Jersey office, which is to say I was visiting the family for Thanksgiving. Before that I was spending a lot of time going over the page proofs and compiling the index for the BECB (the big evolution/creationism book, for those not up on the local slang). So it’s nice to see that particular project work its way down the home stretch.
It was probably sometime during 2006 when I first started thinking seriously about writing a book about my experiences at creationist conferences. When I first started mentally outlining the book I honestly thought ID would be the focus. That’s not how things worked out. Among the five major sections of the book only one is devoted exclusively to ID. Once I started writing, it simply became clear that ID just isn’t that interesting anymore.
When I first became aware of ID in the late nineties, I worried that evolution might have met its match. Not because of ID’s scientific merits, of course. Even as a novice creationism-fighter first learning the relevant science it was clear to me that the ID arguments didn’t hold up at all. Behe’s arguments about irreducible complexity were logically fallacious, something that is clear even before you peruse the professional literature and discover that Behe’s summaries of it were inaccurate. Dembski’s probabilistic arguments were an even bigger disaster, since your average freshman math major could tell you there is no reasonable way of calculating the probability of evolving a flagellum or whatnot.
No, I worried because ID seemed to be providing something that a lot of people wanted. You see, many folks just flat don’t like evolution. They have some vague notion that it’s hostile to religion, and it does seem to lower the status of humanity within The Big Picture. But for many of those same people, YEC is just a bridge too far. They’re not going to take their Bible literally or dismiss out of hand huge swaths of modern science.
Then here comes ID to provide what seems like a scientifically plausible form of anti-evolutionism. You could apparently oppose evolution without descending into outright religious obscurantism. I worried that people would find that sufficiently appealing to avoid looking too carefully at the details, rather like it’s easier to just enjoy a chocolate covered Oreo than it is to think about what it’s doing to your innards.
But that’s not what happened. Even leaving aside the blow of Kitzmiller v. Dover, ID has simply collapsed under the weight of its own vacuity. In the nineties and early 2000s, ID seemed to be producing one novel argument after another. They were variations on familiar themes, of course, but books like Darwin on Trial, Darwin’s Black Box, No Free Lunch and even Icons of Evolution, written by people with serious credentials and written with far more skill than the YEC’s could muster, seemed to advance the discussion in original ways. These books attracted enormous interest among scientists, if only in the sense that they were promoting bad ideas that needed be countered. Many books were written to counter ID’s pretensions, and major science periodicals took notice of them.
Not so today. Consider the two biggest ID books of recent years. Michael Behe’s follow-up book, The Edge of Evolution, dropped like a stone. It got a few perfunctory reviews written by scientists who perked up just long enough to note its many errors, and then everyone ignored it. Frankly, even the ID folks don’t seem to talk about it very much. Stephen Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell was likewise met with crickets. It briefly seemed like a big deal, a big book released by a mainstream publisher, but scientists gave it a scan, saw nothing remotely new, and yawned.
The ID blogs are hardly in any better shape. It’s mostly just post after post whining and kvetching about how mean old scientists don’t take them seriously. Consider this sad little post from David Klinghoffer, writing at the Discovery Institute’s blog. Referring to people like P. Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins he writes:
These people are bullies and cowards. Really, it’s pathetic and anyone with a critical capacity and any interest in the Darwin question should have asked himself by now why the main Darwin defenders refuse to wrestle with the most serious Darwin critics — even if seriousness were measured simply in relative terms — when they’ve got no shortage of time to plow through self-published Internet texts by the Hamza Andreas Tzortzises of this world.
The occasion for this pouty little rant was this post by P. Z. Myers, which was responding to the claims of an Islamic creationist who was arguing that the Quran anticipated modern science. Klinghoffer does not approve of Myers’s choice of blog topics, it seems. (Incidentally, P. Z. Myers has already responded to Klinghoffer.)
But to anyone outside the ID bubble the claim that evolutionists have simply ignored the most serious (ahem) Darwin critics is plainly absurd. There have been numerous books and countless magazine and internet postings addressing and refuting all of the major arguments ID has to offer. Quite a few scientists have taken time out from their real jobs to take ID seriously, ponder its arguments, and formulate counter-arguments that they then patiently explain to anyone who is interested. Klinghoffer obviously does not agree that the counter-arguments have been successful, but that’s a far different charge from saying that ID has been ignored.
What would Kilnghoffer have Myers do? Write another post explaining why irreducible complexity is nonsense? Another post explaining why complex specified information is crap, or why Dembski’s use of the No Free Lunch Theorems is silly, or how Jonathan Wells was wrong about everything in Icons of Evolution? There’s only so many times you can refute the Darwin/Hitler connection, or the urban legends about creationists being fired from their jobs just because of their beliefs, or the endless wolf-crying claims that the latest bits of esoterica from the back pages of Nature somehow refute evolution, before you move on to other things.
The situation hardly improves if you move over to Uncommon Descent. At one time UD aspired to be the outpost for serious ID thinking. Those days are long past. To see what it has become makes even a hardcore anti-ID guy like me a little sad. For one recent example, here’s Granville Sewell making his thermodynamics argument one more time.
Evolution is a movie running backward, that is what makes it so different from other phenomena in our universe, and why it demands a very different sort of explanation.
In a postscript he writes:
The “compensation” argument, used by a fictional character above to argue that because the Earth is an open system, tornados constructing houses and cars out of rubble here would not violate the second law, and widely used by very real characters to argue that the most spectacular increase in order ever seen anywhere does not violate it, was the target of my Applied Mathematics Letters article “A Second Look at the Second Law”. In that article, I showed that the very equations of entropy change upon which this compensation argument is based do not support this viewpoint, they instead illustrate the tautology that “if an increase in order is extremely improbable when a system is isolated, it is still extremely improbable when the system is open, unless something is entering which makes it not extremely improbable.”
See what I mean about ID having nothing new to offer? Sewell has been peddling this nonsense since 2001, when he got The Mathematical Intelligencer to publish an opinion piece by him on this subject. Do we really have to explain, again, that the notion that local decreases in entropy can be offset by global increases is just a straightforward consequence of what the second law says? That the second law does nothing more than put a lower bound on the magnitude of the entropy change that results from some thermodynamical process, and that a claim that evolution contradicts the second law must be backed up with a plausible calculation showing that the bound did not hold in the case of evolution? That every serious attempt to estimate the entropy change in the course of evolution shows that Darwin is safe by many, many orders of magnitude? Must we once more point out that declaring a sequence of events to be consistent with the second law in no way implies that that sequence is probable?
Is this the sort of serious ID theorizing to which Klinghoffer wants us to pay greater attention?
The occasion for this post is the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial. This is the book that kicked off the ID phenomenon in the early nineties. Many of the ID blogs have been posting tributes to Johnson, such as this one by David Berlinski. It’s a remarkable post. It goes on and on in Berlinski’s familiar, tortured, “See how well I write!” style. He starts with the standard chest-pounding directed at Richard Dawkins and Michael Ghiselin, moves on to familiar creationist idiocies about the fossil record or the neutral theory of evolution, dredges up ye olde Lewontin quote (you know the one I mean), takes some shots at Gould’s NOMA idea, and boasts about how the California Science Center and the University of Kentucky recently paid nuisance money to ID folks to avoid dealing with frivolous lawsuits. All so standard. And boring.
You have to wade through all the way to the end before coming to anything about ID that is not mired in the past, or that does not involve dredging up some old imagined glory. Berlinski closes with:
And now? Both critics and defenders of Darwin’s theory have been humbled by the evidence. We are the beneficiaries of twenty years of brilliant and penetrating laboratory work in molecular biology and biochemistry. Living systems are more complex than ever before imagined. They are strange in their organization and nature. No theory is remotely adequate to the facts.
There is some evidence that once again, the diapason of opinion is being changed. The claims of intelligent design are too insistent and too plausible to be frivolously dismissed and the inadequacies of any Darwinian theory too obvious to be tolerated frivolously. Time has confirmed what critics like Phil Johnson have always suspected. Darwin’s theory is far less a scientific theory than the default position for a view in which the universe and everything in it assembles itself from itself in a never-ending magical procession. The religious tradition and with it, a sense for the mystery, terror and grandeur of life, has always embodied insights that were never trivial.
The land is rising even as it sinks.
And this, too, is a message that Phil Johnson was pleased to convey.
You can be sure Berlinski was mentally thinking, “Damn, I’m good!” as he wrote those pretentious final lines.
But this is all so sad and silly. It will come as news to most biologists that the last twenty years of progress in biochemistry and molecular biology have been disconcerting to evolutionary theory. And the claim that evolution performs a philosophical role, and not a practical one, in modern scientific practice is refuted by the simple expedient of perusing the journals in any decent science library. For a moribund, unworthy theory, evolution sure does seem to produce a lot of results, as judged by the sheer number of papers people manage to write on the subject.
In the mid-nineties it was possible to wonder seriously if ID was a serious intellectual movement, or just another fad that would die out on its own. That verdict is now in. ID is dead. As a doornail. Even as YEC shows renewed life with the success of the Creation Museum and the fracas over their planned Noah’s Ark theme park, the ID corpse isn’t even twitching anymore.