A Review of Undeniable, by Douglas Axe.

Do you remember those commercials, from a few years back, for Excedrin headache medicine? There was a whole series of them. In each, some very normal-looking and totally relatable person would talk straight to the camera, explaining that he or she suffered from terrible headaches and had tried every other remedy. The climax of each commercial was when the person said something like, “How do I know Excedrin works? Well, they have their “scientific research” to prove it. But you know what? I did my own kind of research. I tried it.” I use the scare quotes to indicate their tone of bemused contempt.

That’s basically what Douglas Axe’s new book is like. Axe, if you are unfamiliar with him, is a protein chemist and the latest ID celebrity. The argument of his new book is this: The latest science shows that evolution is total nonsense, but that’s just for geeks and nerds. The fact is that every child figures out that complex machines come from intelligence, and that’s all you need to conclude that life is designed.

While I no longer blog with anything like my former enthusiasm, I do return here periodically to remind you that ID is dead. I say that in part because the ID folks do not seem to have had a new idea since Dembski’s No Free Lunch. They pop their collective heads up to publish a book every once in a while, but all the recent ones have just been rehashes of old, discredited arguments.

Axe’s book is an egregious example of this. There is nothing remotely new in it. But more than that, it is a real step backward in tone and style for ID. It is the sort of short, large print, truculent book that has more in common with Henry Morris and Duane Gish than with William Dembski or Michael Behe.

For one thing, the book is openly evangelistic. The creator is the Christian God. Period. No subterfuge about the possibility of intelligent aliens or anything like that. For another, there is a great deal of swagger and bravado involved. In his telling, modern evolutionary theory is not merely incorrect, it is ridiculous. This is obvious to anyone not blinded by groupthink or by morbid, anti-religious bias. There are the silly cartoons and pull quotes and the condescending tone towards his audience. There are the suspiciously short quotations from other scientists, and the familiar boasts of what a courageous truthteller he is. The denunciation of ID from every major scientific body in the world is not evidence that knowledgeable people have, for good reasons, considered and rejected ID’s arguments. Instead, it is evidence of a massive conspiracy, in which a few gatekeepers force everyone else to tow the materialist line.

And there is also the complete unwillingness to deal seriously with the actual reasons people give for finding evolution not just credible, but the only theory that adequately accounts for the facts of biology.

In Axe’s telling, God did everything. Every attribute of any consequence, in any organism, is God’s handiwork. Natural selection is nothing more than an inept fiddler that at most made a few refinements around the edges. He does not weigh in on the age of the Earth, but I will assume he accepts that the Earth is very old and that the fossil record reveals a genuine chronological progression of life forms played out over vast periods of time. Near the end of the book, he laments that dumbass materialist scientists only consider the construction and operation of various bio-molecular systems, but they do not consider the conception that had to occur prior to the construction.

Strangely, he does not take his own advice. How does ID makes sense of the fossil record, which shows a clear progression from simpler, ancient organisms to more complex, modern organisms? Why did God do His creating over billions of years, and why did He do so in the one sequence that would later suggest evolution to so many? Why did he just watch the unicellular organisms for a billion years or whatever before getting on with the show? What was the point of the millions of years of bloodsport taking place among creatures with enough brainpower to know they were suffering and miserable, but not enough to enter into a relationship with God? What are mass extinctions all about? How is this consistent with the idea that life was designed for a purpose?

Axe has nothing to say about any of this. And that’s just the fossils. What about all the other lines of evidence that are so ably explained by evolution? The patterns of embryological development, the retroviral scars, the vestigial structures, and all the rest. Axe never even mentions any of it, much less tell us how ID accounts for it. If God really is responsible for all of this, then it amused Him to create in a manner that coincides perfectly with evolutionary expectations. But Axe is too busy dismissing biologists as idiots to acknowledge that they have good reasons for accepting evolution.

Which brings us to all those adaptations Axe finds so compelling. They’re complex! There’s functional coherence! Indeed. But they are also more like Rube Goldberg machines than they are the creations of an omnipotent engineer designing a machine for a purpose. The issue is not so much bad design, as it is weird design. Design that makes no sense from an engineering perspective but makes perfect sense if you see the modern system as the endpoint of a long, historical process. Rube Goldberg machines are ingenious, but they are funny precisely because you recognize immediately that no engineer would design such a thing. So it is with basically every complex adaptation studied to date. You can look from on high and gush about the genius of the designer, or you can actually study these systems carefully and quickly grow skeptical of ID.

I won’t bother with Axe’s arguments, such as they are, for dismissing natural selection. It’s the usual bad search metaphors and asinine probability calculations that we have seen so many times before. (Might I suggest my recent article if you want some discussions of these points?)

Instead I am more interested in why Axe thinks his conclusions are so simple and obvious. He is very taken with the idea that we all have a “universal design intuition” that tells us, somehow, that living organisms just have to be the products of intelligent design. You need design to explain bricks and shoes (his examples), right? And organisms are way more complicated than that! This intuition, and our basic experience with everyday contrivances, should count for more, he argues, than the opinions of a few over-educated eggheads:

We tend to overlook two key facts. One is that everyone validates their design intuition through firsthand experience. The other is that this experience is scientific in nature. It really is. Basic science is an integral part of how we live. We are all careful observers of our world. We all make mental notes of what we observe. We all use those notes to build conceptual models of how things work. And we all continually refine these models as needed. Without doubt, this is science. I have called it common science to emphasize the connection to common sense.

…Long before we walk, we have constructed simple mental models of gravity and balance. Long before we put our hands to art, we have acquired notions of color, shape, and form. Long before we speak, we have learned to classify things into categories that await the terms we eventually use to refer to them. (p. 60)

This goes on for a while. Eventually we come to this:

Because everyone practices common science, public reception of scientific claims is arguably the most significant form of peer review. For professional scientists to assume that public skepticism toward their ideas can only be caused by public ignorance is just plain arrogant. If ignorance is the cause, clearer teaching should be the remedy. When that proves elusive or ineffective, professional scientists need to be willing to find fault with their ideas, not the public.

…Instead of merely following expert debates, nonexperts should expect important issues that touch their lives to be framed in terms of common science. Once they are, everyone becomes qualified to enter the debate. This doesn’t apply to intrinsically technical subjects, of course, but the matters of deepest importance to how we live are never intrinsically technical. (p. 62-63)

That “intrinsically technical” loophole is doing a lot of work here. One suspects it is only evolutionary biology to which folks get a heckler’s veto, so as long as they feel deeply that it is wrong.

Science, of course, is one long assault on our common sense. Excuse me, common science. Science tells me I live on a giant sphere that rotates at more than a thousand miles per hour. Is that how it feels to you? Science tells me that the continents are moving around, and that hydrogen and oxygen, both gasses at room temperature, come together to form water. It tells me that sodium, which explodes, and chlorine, a deadly poison, come together to make tasty table salt. Science tells me that time slows down when I move real fast, and it tells me things about atoms that are an affront to basic sanity, let alone common sense.

I guess those subjects are all intrinsically technical.

Evolutionary biology receives contributions from paleontology, genetics, anatomy, ethology, mathematics, embryology, and many other fields besides. People study for years to become experts in any one of these disciplines, but here comes Axe to tell them they wasted their time. Turns out it is all so simple and non-technical that any old person on the street can figure it out.

Folks, no one has “intuitions” about what can happen in billions years of evolution by natural selection. Nothing in our daily experience is remotely relevant to understanding what science reveals about the history of life on Earth. Organisms reproduce themselves imperfectly and engage in a struggle for existence. In this they differ dramatically from the world of human invention. Our everyday experience with human contrivances simply has nothing to tell us about what can happen when such a system evolves over billions of years. The only way to determine whether it is plausible is to do the hard work of high-level science. How interesting that the actual professionals who do this work, who are forced by the practical realities of their jobs to stick with what works and discard bad ideas that lead nowhere, are all but unanimous in finding evolution not just credible, but, frankly, kind of obvious. How arrogant of me to think that verdict counts for more than a bad analogy between life on the one hand, and bricks and shoes on the other.

(And no, I have not overlooked the sheer chutzpah of Axe lecturing us on the need for better education, when he and his fellow travelers fight tooth and nail to make sure that such education is impossible.)

Now, I would like to close with one further point. It seems to me there is a huge double standard in how Axe treats natural selection as a possible explanation for complex systems, versus how he treats intelligence.

Scientists like to point out that we have voluminous evidence, alluded to earlier, that modern life is the end result of a gradual evolutionary process. When they apply evolutionary reasoning to the problems they face in their work, they are routinely rewarded with tangible progress. We know that the basic components of evolution by natural selection are empirical facts: Genes really do mutate, sometimes leading to new functionalities. Natural selection can string together these mutations into directional change. On a small scale these are empirical facts. We then note that every complex adaptation studied in detail has shown clear signs of evolutionary history, and in many cases we have strong, converging evidence for the major stepping stones through which they evolved.

Axe dismisses all of this out of hand. Evolution is sheer lunacy, untutored intuition is enough to refute it, and until you evolve a flagellum from scratch in a laboratory you have nothing.

Contrast that with his credulity regarding the power of intelligence. It is all well and good to say that intelligence can create things natural causes cannot, but he never stops to ask about possible limitations on what intelligence can achieve. Instead he writes things like this:

We’re left to think that poor Tavros 2 [a solar-powered, underwater vehicle] is really no more worthy of comparison to a lowly cyanobacterium than it is to an exalted dolphin. After all, raw natural ingredients like sand and metal ores and crude oil become Tavros 2 only with the skillful help of thousands of people at hundreds of industrial plants of various kinds. With all due respect, this human invention does very little in comparison to the human effort expended to manufacture it. The contrast with cyanobacteria could hardly be more stark. (p. 175)

This sort of thing is commonplace throughout the book. He is constantly telling us that the simplest biological processes are way beyond the puny contrivances of human engineers. Axe is all about parlaying our everyday experiences into grand conclusions about the history of life on Earth. Why then should I not conclude that intelligence is fundamentally incapable of accomplishing what Axe attributes to it? If the greatest accomplishments of the greatest intelligences we know of are like nothing compared to the living world, then why the confidence that intelligence is responsible for the living world, much less for the universe as a whole?

With natural selection he refuses to accept the small-scale evidence of what has been observed in the field and the lab and the large scale evidence for common descent and for the evolutionary origins of those complex systems he goes on about. He laughs at it. Dismisses it out of hand. But he makes a far more extravagant extrapolation in going from what intelligence is seen to do, to what he claims it did.

Axe’s argument is like saying that since moles make molehills, mountains are evidence for giant moles.

I make an issue of this because I am willing to meet Axe part way. I also find evolution by natural selection hard to believe, though I’ve never considered “intuition” a serious argument for any scientific conclusion. As I see it, though, the idea has three big things going for it. The first is the mountain of evidence that supports it. The second is the consistent success that scientists have had in applying evolutionary thinking in their work, as contrasted with the nothing-at-all that ID folks can brag about.

And the third is that the main alternative theory, that an omnipotent magic man just poofed the universe into existence with an act of will, is even harder to believe. If you don’t think it’s hard to believe, if you’re perfectly happy to just help yourself to the assumption of such an intelligence to explain basic facts of biology, then you need to think a little harder.

Maybe that’s just a matter of opinion. What is not a matter of opinion is that Axe’s book is very superficial, makes no serious attempt to engage with the arguments of the other side, and reads far more like standard creationist propaganda than it does a work of science.

Come to think of it, I intuited that this would be that case before even opening the book. By Axe’s logic I needn’t have bothered actually reading it.

Comments

  1. #1 eric
    September 23, 2016

    Near the end of the book, he laments that dumbass materialist scientists only consider the construction and operation of various bio-molecular systems, but they do not consider the conception that had to occur prior to the construction.

    I think he’s probably wrong about that, though I can’t be sure because its not my field. But it seems to me that “conception” is a testable hypothesis and that if it held water, we’d have heard about it by now. The way you test it is by seeing whether the distribution of mutations you see matches what you would expect based on physics, chemistry, and statistics – or not. To make up an example, if there’s a 1E-8 chance of a photochemical reaction causing a specific types of substitution, and you see 1 in 1E-8 of them getting that substitution, then this result supports the “blind nature, no conception” model. OTOH if you see 1 in 1E-20 of them or 1 in 1E-1 of them, then that would be a problem for the modern TOE that would not be explainable, and might be initial evidence of intelligent conception having taken place. My guess is, for example, that the gene splicing practiced by Monsanto in GM crops has an extremely negligible “natural rate” of occurrence based on our understanding of chemistry and physics. We can thus sometimes ‘back out’ whether a plant we find has been GM’d or not.

  2. #2 eric
    September 23, 2016

    I should add that, from a marketing perspective, he’s played this pretty smart. The last year has seen a real resurgence in ‘know-nothing’ political thought. So in selling a book that tells people their intuitions are more reliable than subject matter experts, Axe is attempting to hitch a ride on a pretty big wave.

  3. #3 Miles Rind
    September 23, 2016

    I had a similar thought when I read the appalling quotation in which Axe says that “public reception of scientific claims is arguably the most significant form of peer review.” My thought was: “Just what we need–epistemological populism!” My constant fear is that we may get it.

  4. #4 Alexander Hamilton
    September 23, 2016

    So many words, yet so little substance.

    I guess with most of your ilk it’s all rhetoric. You deride the science without refuting it. From what I can see you essentially believe a priori that Darwinian evolution provides a better explanation, despite actual science not backing it up. Merely looking at the fossil record and saying “things looked simpler then and they look more complex now” just isn’t evidence if there’s no mechanism to show it works.

    I wonder if you really read the book because he doesn’t use intuition as evidence but he uses it to illustrate that evolution goes against our intuition and he then shows through science why that intuition is correct.

  5. #5 Michael Fugate
    September 23, 2016

    So many words, yet so little substance.

    You are referring to Axe’s book, no?

  6. #6 eric
    September 23, 2016

    I wonder if you really read the book because he doesn’t use intuition as evidence but he uses it to illustrate that evolution goes against our intuition and he then shows through science why that intuition is correct.

    Jason covers what you call “shows through science” when he notes the book is a rehash of old discredited arguments. But feel free to lay it on me: what is, in your opinion, the top/best new argument for ID that Axe makes in his book? Let me guess, will it be evolution doesn’t explain everything? Will it be things that evolution can’t explain are evidence for design? Will it be evolution can’t create new functions? There are so many oldnew arguments to choose from!

    Full disclosure: in my curiosity about new arguments, I scanned the Amazon reviews to see if any one published the TOC. Alas, they didn’t, so I’m just guessing above. But I did find this gem of a review (the reviewer gave the book five stars): “Always knew this, never had any proof other than the Bible. Thanks for confirmation.” Yep, so glad to see ID isn’t creationism.

  7. #7 Alexander Hamilton
    September 23, 2016

    Hey Eric, that’s cute that you believe ID’s arguments have been discredited. The only supposed refutations I’ve come across have been nice fanciful stories with precious little evidence.

  8. #8 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 23, 2016

    Alexander Hamilton won’t be joining us anymore. My patience for trolls who just make snide remarks with no substance to them is pretty thin.

  9. #9 Pierce R. Butler
    September 23, 2016

    Douglas Axe, Douglas Axe …

    Isn’t he the one who got funding from the Disco’Tute to set up a real laboratory – and “proved” he was doing so by publishing a lab photo quickly revealed as a stock image from an online graphics vendor?

    eric @ # 2’s Barnum-Trump hypothesis seems most appropriate here.

  10. #10 GAZZA
    Australia
    September 23, 2016

    As others have noted, I think you’re being too generous with ID there. ID is not a competitor to evolution until they can come up with a falsifiable experiment that would demonstrate their hypothesis (that is, prove that it was designed). They have never even attempted to do this; their strategy instead is to “poke holes in evolution”.

    But that won’t wash. If you prove evolution wrong, that doesn’t make ID right, any more than Newtonian gravity being proved wrong (or perhaps merely “incomplete”) made Intelligent Falling right.

  11. #11 Pierce R. Butler
    September 24, 2016

    Re my @ 9: Yup.

  12. #12 colnago80
    September 25, 2016

    I would really like Axe or any creationist to explain how many of the conundrums of quantum mechanics make common sense. For instance, what is the common sense in the two slit problem or in quantum entanglement? Where is the common sense in the quantum vacuum? The interaction of the electron with the quantum vacuum via the calculations of quantum electrodynamics provides an estimate for the anomalous magnet moment of the electron that agrees with measured value to 10 significant places.

  13. #13 JimV
    September 26, 2016

    As I’ve said too many times, the basic flaw in IDists is that they have no understanding of how either intelligence or design actually work. Spoiler: they work by … evolution. We’ve seen science and designs (cars, phones, TV’s , etc.) evolve in our life times. You try something; if it doesn’t work (by whatever natural selection criterion applies) you discard it; if it does, you try to remember it and pass it on to future generations. It is not magic. It doesn’t need to be. Evolution is the universal algorithm.

    What they claim as evidence of a giant mole (as Dr. Ken Miller said years ago), i.e., human design work, is actually more evidence of evolution.

    Of course in the case of human intelligence, bad ideas can persist and reproduce themselves if the selection criteria are biased. Science evolved to try to eliminate bias, therefore the bad ideas must attack science.

  14. #14 eric
    September 27, 2016

    You try something; if it doesn’t work (by whatever natural selection criterion applies) you discard it; if it does, you try to remember it and pass it on to future generations. It is not magic. It doesn’t need to be. Evolution is the universal algorithm.

    That’s a very loosey-goosey definition that doesn’t really get to Darwin’s key observations, which is that random, heritable changes are sufficient to drive the process. When a human engineer tries some alteration of their equipment or program, it is not usually random;* it is informed and reasoned. And human engineered things don’t have ‘heritable’ traits: if, next year, Toyota engineers want to swap out the 2016 Toyota engine for a 2017 Rolls Royce engine in the next generation of Toyota cars, they can. Thus the change in a human design from one version/generation to the next can be quite extensive and reach across “parallel” designed things. With biological evolution, neither of these things happen much; saltation is not expected to happen, nor do genetic innovations leap from one species to another except via descent (viral horizontal gene transfer is a rare exception, and in that case, we know it’s not design unless someone wants to call the virus an intelligent designer).

    Both of these points are important in distinguishing why human’s “trying something, seeing how it works, and changing it” is not a good description of biological evolution. But they’re also important because they can be used to show that creationists are wrong, and that design is not a good explanation or how species arose. We do not see non-random mutation, which is what we should see if some designer were directing them. We do not see saltation. And thirdly, we do not see ‘good’ mutations being integrated into parallel species after discovery – only the descendants of the mutated animal get that good mutation, nobody else. Thus the pattern of gene change over generations looks a lot more like undirected evolution than any sort of engineering project. Could some uber engineer chose to design the way we see? Sure, its theoretically possible. But as far as we can tell, that would not make much engineering sense. And IMO it seems quite deceptive.

    *Except when they use an evolutionary algorithm…which is characterized by the design changes not being directed by humans!

  15. #15 JimV
    September 27, 2016

    It’s a general definition because I have written longer definition with lots of evidence in the past and assumed it wasn’t necessary to repeat it since if people thought about it they could flesh out the details from themselves. That’s how obvious it seems to me, but I have a lot of design experience.

    Evolution (the general algorithm) consists of:

    1) Generation of something (self-reproducing chemicals, ideas, designs, etc.) by any and all means, including random.

    As a mechanical design engineer with 35 years experience, I know that first you look for things that have been done before and try them (similar to biological creatures using existing genes), and then, if that doesn’t work, you start trying things randomly. See Edison’s invention of the light bulb and battery. See also the cat who invented Lexan by knocking over some beakers in a laboratory at night. A lot of things have been done (see Mach’s Handbook of Engineering) so there isn’t as much need for random trials, but they still exist.

    You see the new designs that roll out every few years. You don’t see all the trials and errors that take place before the roll-outs – although often you see the errors afterwards, e.g., the Pentium bug, Windows Vista, etc. There are many more errors than successes, just as with biological mutations.

    You should however clearly see the evolution from simple to more complex forms. Example: rolling logs rather than dragging them, to rollers under heavy objects to move them, to the wheel, etc. See Gall’s Law.

    2) Selection criteria, to filter out the more successful somethings from the less successful. E.g., survival of new designs in the marketplace. The Edsel failed. Phlogiston failed. Unfortunately, humans sometimes used biased criteria which benefit the few rather than the many, whereas nature selects for the many. On the other hand, humans use a meta-form of selection in which designs are simulated (in our neurons, in computer models, and in factory prototypes) which can speed up the process.

    3) Some form or forms of memory, to pass on the successful somethings to posterity. Humans have evolved better and better forms of memory, while nature has plateaued with DNA – or you could look at that nature invented humans as a way to evolve better evolution techniques.

    Nature has its specific mechanisms, and humans have different ones, but the general algorithm is the same, I believe.

    Some relevant quotes by smarter people than I:

    From a review of The Quest for the Cure: The Science and Stories Behind the Next Generation of Medicines 
    By Brent R. Stockwell
    Columbia University Press (June 1, 2011)

    On the upside, Stockwell does an amazingly good job communicating the relevance of basic research and the scientific method, and in my opinion this makes up for the above shortcomings. He tells stories of unexpected breakthroughs that came about by little more than coincidence, he writes about the relevance of negative results and control experiments, and how scientific research works: 

    “There is a popular notion about new ideas in science springing forth from a great mind fully formed in a dazzling eureka moment. In my experience this is not accurate. There are certainly sudden insights and ideas that appear to you from time to time. Many times, of course, a little further thought makes you realize it is really an absolutely terrible idea… But even when you have an exciting new idea, it begins as a raw, unprocessed idea. Some digging around in the literature will allow you to see what has been done before, and whether this idea is novel and likely to work. If the idea survives this stage, it is still full of problems and flaws, in both the content and the style of presenting it. However, the real processing comes from discussing the idea, informally at first… Then, as it is presented in seminars, each audience gives a series of comments, suggestions, and questions that help mold the idea into a better, sharper, and more robust proposal. Finally, there is the ultimate process of submission for publication, review and revision, and finally acceptance… The scientific process is a social process, where you refine your ideas through repeated discussions and presentations.”

    Priscilla Long, wondering why schizophrenia persists across generations, points to a link between the illness and creativity:
    Imagination, suggests Princeton molecular biologist Lee M. Silver, is related to the brain’s “noise” (random firings of neurons, or nerve cells), thus generating more associations. Brain scans of people with schizophrenia and their unafflicted family members show mega-amounts of random noise. Brain scans of control subjects (no schizophrenia in the family) do not.
    A recent major study confirmed a high association between people in creative professions and their first-degree relatives (parents, offspring, and siblings) who have psychopathologies such as schizophrenia. Could there be inherited brain structures that produce thought patterns such as “broad associative thinking” in which contradictory images and ideas knock about together, structures that serve an artist’s work but that in some brains go too far and become the twisted thoughts of mental illness? Does selection for a more robust imagination – so very useful to us humans – keep imagination’s more dysfunctional forms from dying out?

    Franklin Delano Roosevelt, during the Great Depression:
    The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.

    Greg Chaitin, co-founder of Kolmogorov -Chaitin Information Theory:

    Chaitin: “for years I’ve been arguing that information-theoretic incompleteness results inevitably push us in the direction of a quasi-empirical view of math, one in which math and physics are different, but maybe not as different as most people think. As Vladimir Arnold provocatively puts it, math and physics are the same, except that in math the experiments are a lot cheaper!”

    I have a lot more, but I think the onus is on those who don’t believe intelligence and design work this way to give a better explanation. Magic?

  16. #16 JimV
    September 27, 2016

    Errata:

    Trial with errors: “have written longer *definition* with lots of evidence in the past and assumed it wasn’t necessary to repeat it since if people thought about it they could flesh out the details *from* themselves”

    Errors: definition should be definitions, from should be for.

    The whole thing could be refined so as to evolve into something better, but not necessarily by me, today.

    I first had this insight when talking to an old friend who is an ardent creationist. He pointed to a car parked next to a tree and said, “See that car and that tree? Isn’t it clear that they both were designed?” I replied, “No, it’s clear that they both evolved. You’ve seen cars evolve in your life time!”

    Now I might word it differently: design and evolution are the same thing. (Design is a way for engineers to survive and reproduce ourselves, as is intelligence, and we use the same basic methods as biological evolution, although not the same mechanisms to implement those methods.) Hence, as I said, the history of design is more evidence of evolution. not evidence of magic which points to a magical Great Designer.

  17. #17 eric
    September 27, 2016

    1) Generation of something (self-reproducing chemicals, ideas, designs, etc.) by any and all means, including random.

    This criteria is so broad it that it classifies Intelligent Design as a form of evolution.

    3) Some form or forms of memory, to pass on the successful somethings to posterity. Humans have evolved better and better forms of memory, while nature has plateaued with DNA – or you could look at that nature invented humans as a way to evolve better evolution techniques.

    Darwin specifically postulated that his theory is dependent on the individual thing itself having a heritability mechanism. What you’re talking about – humans remembering their design of a car and using what they’ve learned to make the next car – does not qualify as Darwinian evolution. For cars to undergo TOE-style evolution, the car itself would need to have inherited traits and be able to pass them on to the next car. Here’s a quote, my bold:

    The consequences of this overproduction is that those individuals with the best genetic fitness for the environment will produce offspring that can more successfully compete in that environment.

    So your #3 takes your definition far away from the TOE definition, too.

    Now, its okay to use a word in multiple ways. The word evolution is also used to describe stellar evolution, for example, and we don’t talk about stars having heritable traits. So I don’t disagree necessarily with you using the word in a nonstandard way. But I do disagree that the basic flaw of IDists is that they don’t interpret ‘evolution’ in the way you do. They understand what TOE-evolution is, and they know design isn’t it. Their basic flaw is post-hoc reasoning to preserve an unwarranted conclusion.

  18. #18 JimV
    September 27, 2016

    “This criteria is so broad it that it classifies Intelligent Design as a form of evolution.” As was my point. The broad, general form of the trial-and-error algorithm as I describe it applies to biological evolution, human design work, and human intelligence. (The second is based on my experience and anyone’s who reads the history of design or done a lot of complex design work; the third is my extrapolation of what I think is going on in our neurons based on some evidence, as previously mentioned.)

    In talking about specifics of the ToE I use the term “biological evolution”, as I have above. I have not claimed that all evolution is biological evolution, or that design work is biological evolution. I think the general concept of evolution is too important to be restricted to biology.

    Yes, it is implemented in different ways biologically. It is still trial and error plus memory. A pine forest is not an oak forest but they are both forests.

    “I do disagree that the basic flaw of IDists is that they don’t interpret ‘evolution’ in the way you do. They understand what TOE-evolution is, and they know design isn’t it.”

    And I disagree that they understand the power of the trial and error plus memory algorithm, and the role it plays in human design. If they did they would not be so adamant that the ToE is impossible and would not be implicitly attributing magical power to human design. I don’t know of any ID theoreticians who have successfully designed anything complex. I don’t think they even know Gall’s Law. A theory of ID should start with a good explanation of how intelligence and design work. I have not seen one from them.

    If human design work and biological evolution both are based on trial and error and memory, then the so-called ID theory disappears in a poof of logic (human design work then adds no secret ingredient to the sauce of life – Paley’s watch and the trees both evolved). So lack of that understanding would in fact be a fatal flaw. Your argument then must be that human design work is not based on trial and error and memory. I have given some of my evidence for that proposition and could give many more examples and quotes. For example, the flow-path design of the GE-90 jet engine was in fact done by an iterative, random, trial-and-error computer program – the algorithm works, and is in use at every large industrial corporation as I write. What is your counter-argument? How else do you think human design work is accomplished?

  19. #19 eric
    September 27, 2016

    If human design work and biological evolution both are based on trial and error and memory, then the so-called ID theory disappears in a poof of logic

    No, it doesn’t. If you got them to accept your definition, they’d just say that life on earth is of the intelligently designed-evolved type not the random-mutation-type-evolved. You’re not going to get them to change their theology simply by redefining terms.
    What’s more, your redefinition opens the door to them going to school districts and saying “hey, the state standards say kids should learn evolution. Well you aren’t adequately covering it, because you aren’t teaching the sudden-appearance-by-design form of evolution. We demand you teach that form of evolution!” And then we have another round of court cases until the judges sort out that Jim V.’s definition of evolution is not what the standards are talking about and not what should be taught in schools.

  20. #20 JimV
    September 28, 2016

    “they’d just say that life on earth is of the intelligently designed-evolved type not the random-mutation-type-evolved.”

    No, the creationists I have discussed this with immediately reject the notion, as you seem to have done also, that human design work is non-magical and starts (in any new situation, such as the development of the first light bulb) with random trial and error. In the case of the light bulb, which Edison said took about 1000 filament trials, they claim, and I quote, “Well, I’m sure they weren’t random.”

    If you’re trying to design the first light bulb and try 1000 materials before finding one that works adequately, how is that fundamentally different from random trial and error? Okay, you might retry the same error because only successes go into memory in biological evolution’s random T&E, but sooner or later you would reach the same result, and biological evolution does its trials in massive parallel (trillions of trials per generation, in the case of bacteria).

    Similarly, if a giant Designer does random trial and error to design the first flagellum, how does that add or subtract anything from the ToE, which already has random trial and error? It would simply add an unnecessary element which would fail both the Occam’s Razor and Mario’s Sharp Rock tests. Creationists may or may not think through the logic train but they instinctively reject the notion that there is anything random about human design work – despite the fact that explicitly random trials are done in current computer models. They cannot accept that what works in a computer might work in their 73 billion neurons. It is their blind spot that prevents them from accepting the ToE.

    A new example occurred to me recently: Tic-Tac-Toe (X’s and O’s in a 3×3 grid). Did you instantaneously look at your first game grid and know what to do? Or did you have to work through all the possible moves to find the best ones? How did you chose the first case to look at? That is how humans design new things (that aren’t in their memory database). It is also the way biological evolution finds genetic improvements.

  21. #21 JimV
    September 28, 2016

    P.S.

    I think a better way of making the parallel between Edison’s light bulb trials and biological evolution would be to simply say, the (natural) selection criterion for the light bulb filament materials was survival. Those that did not survive were not reproduced for re-testing.

  22. #22 eric
    September 28, 2016

    If you’re trying to design the first light bulb and try 1000 materials before finding one that works adequately, how is that fundamentally different from random trial and error?

    Because it’s not random. The inventor knows they need a thin wire that gives off light and heat when a current passes through it. This knowledge informs their choice. Thus, they aren’t going to pick a block of wood. They aren’t going to pick an elephant. Biological evolution, OTOH, doesn’t know anything. It produces substitutions, deletions, or repeats that kill the subject because they are so inappropriate. To use my analogy, it throws the occasional elephant into the lightbulb because – unlike the inventor – the process has no knowledge or information constraining its choices. It does have physics constraining its choices, of course, but that’s it.

    A new example occurred to me recently: Tic-Tac-Toe (X’s and O’s in a 3×3 grid). Did you instantaneously look at your first game grid and know what to do? Or did you have to work through all the possible moves to find the best ones? How did you chose the first case to look at? That is how humans design new things (that aren’t in their memory database). It is also the way biological evolution finds genetic improvements.

    This is a great example that shows exactly how non-random human trial-and-error learning is. Humans must be taught the rules before they can play tic tac toe. Then in deciding what move to make, they play by those taught rules. Thus, their moves are intelligently informed choices. Its intelligently informed even if they don’t make the best move. Even if they have to play hundreds of trial-and-error games before figuring out what the best moves are, every one of those games in informed by their understanding of the rules. If you want to see what truly random behavior looks like, give that grid and a pencil to a four-year-old that doesn’t know the rules, and watch them draw a chicken out of it. Draw an X in one spot and hand them the pencil without instructions, and watch them draw X’s all over the page.

    the creationists I have discussed this with immediately reject the notion, as you seem to have done also, that human design work is non-magical and starts (in any new situation, such as the development of the first light bulb) with random trial and error…

    I assure you, I don’t reject the notion that human design is non-magical, or that humans use trial and error. I do reject the notion that human trial and error is random in the same way biological evolution is random, because even our guesses are informed by our background knowledge. Mutational processes have no memory; humans engineers do. Mutations have no goal; human engineers do. A human biochemist today is never going to take the codon GCC and try replacing it with GCA to see what happens, because humans biochemists know that those codons are redundant and both produce Alanine. But random mutation produces point mutations that are redundant all the time. Why do mutational processes do things a human biochemist wouldn’t? Because our human trial and error isn’t truly random.

    Similarly, if a giant Designer does random trial and error to design the first flagellum, how does that add or subtract anything from the ToE, which already has random trial and error?

    First, I expect that any creationists you’re talking to are outright rejecting the notion of the designer using random trial and error. Their designer is omnipotent and omniscient; trial and error makes no sense for such a being.

    But to respond to your point, one big difference is that a designer has a goal in mind – some end state they are trying to produce – while evolution does not.

  23. #23 JimR
    September 28, 2016

    @Eric in Post#6 the TOC can be seen by clicking on the “Look Inside” tab above the picture of the book cover on Amazon. The TOC is one page.

  24. #24 JimV
    September 28, 2016

    “The inventor knows they need a thin wire that gives off light and heat when a current passes through it. This knowledge informs their choice.”

    And how did the inventor know these things? Was it not part of his or her inherited knowledge base, similar to the way organisms could easily vary body plans once Hox genes evolved?

    “Humans must be taught the rules before they can play tic tac toe.” And viruses can pass genes from one species to another, teaching the target species something it couldn’t do before.

    The key point is that completely new things, such as the first light bulb filament (which was not a wire but carbonized thread), require some random experimentation – when developed by either human design or BE.

    “I do reject the notion that human trial and error is random in the same way biological evolution is random, because even our guesses are informed by our background knowledge. Mutational processes have no memory; humans engineers do.” I have stated before that humans have better memory than biological evolution’s DNA, and that thus BE has evolved a creature that can do evolution better than it can. I see no paradox in this. Again, BE is not identical to human design, but it uses the same fundamental method, including random trial and error.

    “First, I expect that any creationists you’re talking to are outright rejecting the notion of the designer using random trial and error. Their designer is omnipotent and omniscient; trial and error makes no sense for such a being.” Indeed, in which case the comparison to human design work (which does involve random trials) does not hold water, and Axe’s and other IDist’s appeal to that analogy is erroneous and misleading. Once again the ID theory goes up in the smoke of burnt logic. Note however they objected to humans using random trials, not (at that point in the discussion) the Great Mole/Designer.

    “one big difference is that a designer has a goal in mind – some end state they are trying to produce – while evolution does not.” Human designers as I mentioned before do design work as a means to better their chances to survive and reproduce. This is a specific version of the same general goal that drives BE. It must be in fact the same goal that drives the Great Mole/Designer: for humans and the other existing creatures to arrive so that they can survive and reproduce. And since we already have that goal in the ToE without the need for a GM/D …

    Summary: once a creationist admits that human design consists of a knowledge base (existing genes) and random trials informed by that knowledge base (mutation of existing genes), the so-called Theory of ID is untenable as science (either their GM/D uses the same method as human design and is unnecessary, or it doesn’t and uses some unknown method which there is no scientific evidence of). They are still free to believe in a hidden god whose miracles cannot be distinguished from random chance, and I for one am happy for them to believe whatever it takes for them to get through the night (as Mario says), but they must then admit this belief should not be taught as science.

  25. #25 JimV
    September 28, 2016

    P.S. My point about the goals of BE and the GM/D may not have been clear. Ascribing a goal to the GM/D does not give it an advantage over the ToE per se, since the same goal can be figuratively attributed to BE. BE “wanted” to produce more dominate organisms. It also succeeded in its “goal”.

  26. #26 JimV
    September 28, 2016

    P.P.S. I feel compelled to note the striking resemblance between the arguments here against human design using random trials to make progress and the arguments of creationists against the ToE. I am puzzled by this coincidence. I would have thought that those who understand and accept the power of BE would also be willing to accept that humans could (and do) use the same algorithm (albeit with improved mechanisms) to make progress in engineering and science. Especially after seeing so much evolution in technology over their life times. Discouraging.

  27. #27 JimV
    September 28, 2016

    P.P.P.S. My feelings not withstanding, thank you for the engagement.

  28. #28 eric
    September 28, 2016

    And how did the inventor know these things? Was it not part of his or her inherited knowledge base

    No, it wasn’t. Her inherited traits include the ability to metabolize dairy (or not). They include her eye color. But there is nothing whatsoever that she genetically inherits that tells her blocks of wood and elephants will be bad choices for a lightbulb filament. That is learned.

    Look, I get that you’re using the meme/gene analogy. And in some ways, that analogy holds. But memes aren’t the same things as genes. When creationists argue against evolution, they’re arguing against the ability of genes to produce new phenotypes and species, they aren’t arguing against he ability of memes to help create new ideas. They most likely accept the latter while rejecting the former.

    Human designers as I mentioned before do design work as a means to better their chances to survive and reproduce. This is a specific version of the same general goal that drives BE.

    Genes don’t have goals. They’re just long chain polymers, like the plastic in your shirt, and they don’t have goals any more than the polyester in your shirt has goals. Survival and reproduction is a consequence of some genetic sequences, it is the result if an organism gets situationally and genetically lucky, but nope, genes don’t have goals. Mutational events don’t have goals. The process of natural selection doesn’t have a goal.

    P.P.S. I feel compelled to note the striking resemblance between the arguments here against human design using random trials to make progress and the arguments of creationists against the ToE. I am puzzled by this coincidence.

    Perhaps your puzzlement comes from misinterpreting my point. I fully agree that human design using random trial can make progress (in designing better things). Where I disagree is when you equate this to biological evolution through the mechanism of random mutation and natural selection.

  29. #29 JimV
    September 28, 2016

    “But memes aren’t the same things as genes.” See previous comments about not seeing forests for the trees. Again, I am comparing algorithms, not specific mechanisms.

    “Genes don’t have goals.” There you go again. Goals, driving forces, causes, motivations … Dr. Dawkins used the term “selfish genes” to try to get his point across. If humans have emotions and goals, surely these are the result of their genes, unless you are a dualist. In any cause, the point I was trying to get across is that although BE did not consciously chose a goal, it has a naturally-occurring one (survival and reproduction) and genes are one of its mechanisms. My engineering tools don’t have goals either, nor do my neural memories or hard drives (the latter two being the more direct analogies).

    “Where I disagree is when you equate this to biological evolution through the mechanism of random mutation and natural selection.” Yet again, I am equating the general algorithm, not specific mechanisms used to implement it in different contexts.

    At this point I feel that if I were to say that ” F(X)=2X done on an Apple //e in Applesoft is the same algorithm as F(A)=2A” done on a Dell W7/32 laptop in Python you would argue, “No, X and A are two different letters, the machines have different circuits and operating speeds, one language is an Interpreter and the other is compiled, and the machine languages use different op codes. “

  30. #30 eric
    September 29, 2016

    “Genes don’t have goals.” There you go again. Goals, driving forces, causes, motivations … Dr. Dawkins used the term “selfish genes” to try to get his point across.

    Yes he did use that analogy. But its an analogy. Genes aren’t actually selfish, and while I don’t have the book handy, I expect that somewhere close to the front Dawkins points that out.

    If humans have emotions and goals, surely these are the result of their genes, unless you are a dualist. I suspect the environment and other people’s actions have more to do with the development of personal goals than genes. I”m not dualist, but I do think explanations have different levels, and while yeah everything we do might ultimately all come down to particle physics, that is the wrong level of explanation when discussion biological evolution.

    if I were to say that ” F(X)=2X done on an Apple //e in Applesoft is the same algorithm as F(A)=2A” done on a Dell W7/32 laptop in Python you would argue, “No, X and A are two different letters…

    Genetic inheritance is not the same ‘equation’ as learned knowledge. Biological evolution is not the same ‘equation’ as intelligent design. Yes, you can develop a broad meaning of the term ‘evolution’ which encompasses both, and that revised word might be useful for drawing some analogies and showing some similarities between the two processes, but creationists are not going to be swayed to accept the origin of species via descent with modification by redefining words, nor is the educational debate over teaching ID in school going to be resolved by redefining words.

  31. #31 eric
    September 29, 2016

    oops, many html errors. Sorry. Hope you can figure out the quotes from the responses.

  32. #32 JimV
    September 29, 2016

    I think you’re the one who is redefining words:

    “early 17th century: from Latin evolutio(n-) ‘unrolling,’ from the verb evolvere (see evolve). Early senses related to physical movement, first recorded in describing a tactical “wheeling” maneuver in the realignment of troops or ships. Current senses stem from a notion of “opening out” and “unfolding,” giving rise to a general sense of ‘development.”

    “the gradual development of something, especially from a simple to a more complex form.
    “the forms of written languages undergo constant evolution”
    synonyms: development, advancement, growth, rise, progress, expansion, unfolding”

    Similarly, “relativity” was used before and after Einstein.

    Evolution was made famous and more common by Darwin and others. I have acknowledged that by using “biological evolution” to distinguish that usage.

    If you can’t recognize that different machines using very different mechanisms to perform the same algorithm is a rather exact analogy for your arguments, this is hopeless, but one last try:

    “Genetic inheritance is not the same ‘equation’ as learned knowledge.” No, they are not the same mechanisms but they play similar roles in the algorithm. You are comparing mechanisms, not algorithms. Can you really not see that?

    If so, I will have to agree that my argument will never be understood by most creationists, That of course is a separate question from whether it is valid.

  33. #33 JimV
    September 29, 2016

    P.S. I just realized I saw my F(X) algorithm performed by a human when I was about 10 years old, in Frank Coveny’s store and diner. I held out my nickel and asked for a roll of caps (cowboys and indians using cap guns was all the rage back then). Frank slapped two rolls on the counter. “Today, ya ask for one, ya get two!” Jerry Decoste, nearby, exclaimed, “I want two too!” Much to our amazement, Frank then slapped four rolls on the counter. “Ya get four!”

    (Talk about different mechanisms.)

  34. #34 eric
    September 29, 2016

    Evolution was made famous and more common by Darwin and others. I have acknowledged that by using “biological evolution” to distinguish that usage.

    Okay, fine, I’ll stick to the term BE. In BE, the subject must be able to reproduce on its own with variation. This is qualitatively different from human engineering, where humans (use tools to) reproduce the subject, i.e., cars don’t reproduce cars, humans use tools to reproduce cars. In BE, ‘random mutation’ refers to the fact that no goal or expectation of functional outcome influences the mutational change that occurs. This makes BE qualitatively different from human engineering, where having a desired outcome and trying to reach it is the whole point of experimenting on design. In BE, the evidence supports the conclusion that these mutations fully explained by unplanned physicochemical reactions and not the intervention of any intelligent agent. This also makes BE qualitatively different from human engineering.

    Look, beer froth undergoes exponential decay (thank you, IgNobel prize). IIRC, a capacitor losing charge also undergoes exponential decay. A Uranium-238 atom also undergoes exponential decay. All three use the same mathematical equation to describe them. Thus, they are somewhat analogous to each other. If you want to know how much beer foam/electrical energy/uranium is left, you can follow the same basic heuristic to answer the question in each of the three cases (input original amount. Input half-life. Input t. Calculate remaining amount). But beer foam loss, capacitors, and uranium atoms aren’t undergoing the same process. Same math /= same physics or same chemistry. Likewise, ‘human engineers designing new equipment’ is not the same process as BE, even if you can create a broad heuristic that describes both.

    “Genetic inheritance is not the same ‘equation’ as learned knowledge.” No, they are not the same mechanisms but they play similar roles in the algorithm.

    In your original post, you argued the basic flaw in IDists is that they have no understanding of how either intelligence or design actually work. Spoiler: they work by … evolution. If you’re acknowledging that they aren’t the same mechanism even if they use the same heuristic, then it seems to me you’ve undermined your original point. IDists very clearly understand that ID and BE aren’t the same mechanism, and it seems you agree that they are correct in that understanding. Yes?

  35. #35 nate
    September 30, 2016

    That’s how obvious it seems to me, but I have a lot of design experience.

    Ah – so ‘design experience’ but no background in biology. I’ve seen this type 1000 times. I once had an engineer – with lots of design experience – tell me that cells are spheres. I linked a picture of cuboidal epithelium. He stopped responding to me, but then made the exact same claim on an ID forum (the old ‘Brainstorms’ forum), where the assembled ID advocates – not a biologist among them – oohed and aahed at his acumen.

    Instead of playing games and offering bland dismissals, why not present some actual positive evidence for actual Yahweh design in nature?

  36. #36 JimV
    September 30, 2016

    “This is qualitatively different from human engineering,” I have acknowledged in my comment that defined the general evolution algorithm that humans have evolved better mechanisms than BE (which is after all what evolution does). You are still hung up on mechanisms rather than the algorithm itself.

    Take the F(X)=2X algorithm example. I will readily agree that my Dell laptop is qualitatively different than my very old Apple //e. (And Frank Coveny was even more q.d.) The algorithm works fine on both. You might recall that Alan Turing proved a relevant theorem (see “Turing Complete”).

    “Spoiler: they work by … evolution. If you’re acknowledging that they aren’t the same mechanism” I am saying and have said and will say they are the same ***algorithm***. Mechanisms as I am using the term are the specific ways in which algorithms are implemented in different systems.

    Last and final try: ID claims that human design is special and different from “blind evolution” (in some unknown way which makes random trials unnecessary) and can therefore be naturally extrapolated to a Giant Designer as a better explanation than BE. I am saying, no, human design work is a natural extrapolation of the methods of BE (including random trials), and have given lots of evidence to support this claim. I further claim that this fact (as I think it is) logically disposes of the ID “theory”.

  37. #37 Tom English
    Oklahoma City
    October 2, 2016

    Very nicely done, Jason.

  38. #38 Jason Rosenhouse
    October 3, 2016

    Thanks, Tom. Glad you liked it.

  39. #39 eric
    October 3, 2016

    ID claims that human design is special and different from “blind evolution” (in some unknown way which makes random trials unnecessary) and can therefore be naturally extrapolated to a Giant Designer as a better explanation than BE. I am saying, no, human design work is a natural extrapolation of the methods of BE (including random trials), and have given lots of evidence to support this claim. I further claim that this fact (as I think it is) logically disposes of the ID “theory”.

    Your conclusion simply doesn’t follow from your argument. ID is not “disposed of” by saying it follows the same general heuristic as evolution, because the argument between IDers and mainstream scientists is in how that general heuristic was historically implemented. IDers think it was implemented in the past by an intelligent agent, mainstream scientists think it was implemented by unthinking, unconscious nature.

    To refer back to your @13: who is ‘trying something’ and who is doing the ‘discarding’ is an important difference. Or to use your @15, there are differences between the two concepts in terms of how novelty is generated and what does the selection. Sure, both ID and the TOE might have a ‘generate novelty’ step in them, but what goes on in that step is different, and its what proponents of the two ideas argue about. I don’t see how pointing out their similarities resolve that argument. ‘Okay’ says the IDer, ‘both generate novelty. But under ID, novelty is generated by God, whereas under the TOE, novelty is generated by random mutation. That’s a difference worth paying attention to.’ Do you disagree? Do you think its not a difference worth paying attention to?

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