Archives For intelligent design

dingy lab

Granted, it’s been a few weeks since the Panda’s Thumb caught the Discovery Institute using a stock image for one of their research labs, but this seemingly little thing really matters because it’s another glaring example of how creationists are desperate to present “I don’t know, therefore an unspecified creator or designer which sounds suspiciously like a Biblical deity,” as science. I can imagine Luskin’s train of thought now. Scientists like to show people labs, right? So if we get an image of a “scientist” in what looks like a lab, they’re bound to think that we’re also scientists doing serious research, right? Not really, it’s just taking cargo cult science a notch down and no green screen added lab makes a supposed biologist’s ridiculous musings any more legitimate.

Come on, we have Biologist Ann Gauger, PhD telling us that it’s premature to assume that two similar species must have some common descent without telling us how else these species can get their genetic and anatomical similarities without invoking magic or the supernatural. I’d really like to know the kind of research she produced to show a causal agent for genetic similarity with no evolution involved in that gloomy lab of hers. I’m sure we’ll find it in all the top journals which are always on the lookout for some paradigm-shifting discovery. Though the fact that no one at the Discovery Institute and its offshoots can even define evolution as we know it might be a big impediment to producing work of any scientific value, with or without a real lab…

[ illustration from Far Cry 3 ]

sad trex

Obviously, creationism is alive and well and will be with us for the foreseeable future in all of its permutations, fed by our desire to feel special and taken care of for all eternity by a wise someone or something rather than simply be abandoned to our fates in a vast, uncaring cosmos. But what about intelligent design, creationism with an academic veneer and centered around a very deliberately and insistently unnamed, yet for some odd reason always singular, creator, replete with technobabble about complexity, order, and design? Is it just me or have the ID think tanks been rather quiet as of late, eclipsed by their unabashedly religious counterparts in school board meetings and creating their own versions of science based on biblical fundamentalism, not cherry-picked data about fossils or grandiose attempts at information theory which flame out in an instant, but come across as very educated and well researched to non-experts at first glance? Has ID basically done all it can do in the spotlight and will we see it fade into the background, a shadow of itself in its brief heyday?

The modern ID movement was founded by Christian Evangelicals on a mission and based on the hysterical premise that teaching evolution was responsible for every social ill in the world today. Since evolution is a real science and religion has been legally kept out of public schooling by the Establishment Clause, they couldn’t simply barge into a classroom with a war cry of “repent you little heathens!” So instead, they decided that with enough money and media attention, they could challenge the theory of evolution with highly technical minutia and force school boards to teach the controversy they created. But it was never really a satisfactory approach since it was so flimsily veiled. When writing about the Discovery Institute’s efforts in the field, I constantly kept asking why their unnamed designer had to be singular and could never be pinpointed or named. Yes, I know it’s a rhetorical question, but it illustrates the problem both sides of the aisle had with ID. On the secular side, we were wondering why Behe, Dembski, or Luskin would never just say what they meant even though they’d made it pretty much transparent that by designer they really mean the Abrahamic deity. On the religious side, their supporters also wondered why they couldn’t just come out and tell those evolutionists that God made us all in his image and we were sinning by not allowing their proselytizing in science classes.

For a time it was an acceptable compromise and creationists seemed to be willing to back ID to at least get a beachhead into public schools. However, when the movement lost its legal challenges to evolution, had the assertions of its prized fellow dismantled by biologists, saw its top expert having to recant for daring to say that the Earth is older than 6,000 years to keep his job without making a peep, though they poured millions into a sham of a documentary which alleged that only those evil Nazi-like evolutionists make scientists swear an oath to a specific ideology (while oddly still employing Behe), and got exactly nowhere with school boards not staffed by those on the extreme right, it definitely lost its former luster. Even the Templeton Foundation, which once funded the Discovery Institute, changed course and gave $1.5 million to a biologist who argued against the Institute’s pseudoscientific assertions. Sneaking through the back door didn’t work, so why hide behind the mock academise and forced secular vagueness? Considering that your prototypical I-don’t-know- ergo-God argument is hardly new and the hatefully erroneous notion that Hitler was tied at the ideological hip to Darwin had already been percolating around creationist literature long before DI got the idea to make it its supposed argumentative trump card, intelligent design brought very few new ideas with it. Considering its purpose, however, there wasn’t exactly much from which to draw new concepts.

What few arguments it did have were easily and quickly refuted by simply applying a bit of high school biology to the proclamations and giving its fellows a little help with statistics, so what creationists got out of ID was an impotent mess to put it bluntly. Under the ID shield they couldn’t talk about their deity or their religion, they had very little room to maneuver in court cases, their arguments were the same old creationist canards excised of any outwardly religious elements and partially updated with modern technobabble, and their main attack was not a series of phenomenal new discoveries, but one long Godwin followed by whines of persecution. As it is, intelligent design seems to be spent. Instead of coming up with something profound, its proponents are busy reshuffling their now tired and redundant rhetoric while a good deal of those who once backed them gave up and went back to the tried and true practice of political Bible thumping, especially in red states where you can get away with being a teacher-proselytizer because the community approves and the school boards are far too scared to pick a fight since they know that having the facts on their side is meaningless if their opponents are immune to said facts. So when you have the Bible and a voter registration in hand, and politicians cower before you, who needs all that abstract talk of some unspecified creator to get things done?

Life is full of surprises, but according to the Skeptical Inquirer, the widespread popular bent towards a new incarnation of creationism that prefers to be called intelligent design, isn’t one of them. In fact, says the author of a recent article on the creationism/evolution manufactroversy, to many laypeople, the idea that everything in our universe was somehow designed and polished to follow certain rules and laws is common sense. Now, writing for a skeptical magazine, Scott Lilienfeld spends a good deal of time explaining how and why common sense is often wrong and how the widespread acceptance of any idea doesn’t say anything about how factual it is without evidence attached, ultimately veering off to explain popular belief in creationism as a lack of good evolutionary tools to understand the scale of time and the statistics involved. Over the last few years, I’ve seen this argument more times than I can count, and every time, it comes off as patronizing to both the scientists it seeks to inform about the public’s opinion, and the millions of creationists who reject evolutionary biology.

First off, any scientist who has ever met religious fundamentalists knows that their obsession is to hunt down anyone who doesn’t believe the same exact interpretation of a holy book that they do, and threaten the heretic with fire and brimstone. Likewise, knowing that the United States is the most religious nation in the developed world and that high rates of religiosity tend to be correlated with a greater rejection of scientific findings which don’t back up the believers’ dearly held dogmas, and chief among the scientific discoveries rejected by many faithful is evolution, I highly doubt that scientists are really all that stunned at the popularity of creationism. The real unpleasant surprises for scientists have been how little of a spine the people in charge of setting crucial educational standards seem to have when a horde of chanting zealots barges into school board meetings to demand that their beliefs be taught as fact, and how oblivious and ignorant some school boards have gotten. When an office supervisor at Paper Pushers Inc. feels far more qualified to compose his state’s scientific and social studies curriculum then scientists and historians, and elects people just as ignorantly arrogant as him to turn education into indoctrination rather than a cognitive challenge, academics understandably get upset.

And that brings us to the second problem with Lilienfeld’s thesis. None of this is common sense and none of this has to do with how evolution equipped our minds. Is it really so intuitive to imagine that some omnipotent and omniscient being beyond all scrutiny built the universe and then narrated its wisdom to random humans, and presumably aliens, wisdom contained in holy books which are held to be the infallible world of this being because these books say they’re the words of this being, and their devotees insist that accepting every single word of these books as true is the only way the universe won’t self-destruct? Or maybe this is a construct that was shaped by millennia of evolving religious ideas until monotheism came to dominate the world and we’re given this religious worldview as the conventional wisdom? And keep in mind that the economist who coined the term conventional wisdom actually meant it as a pejorative, using it to refer to what people find convenient and agreeable rather than what’s correct and factually backed. The notion of a deity coming down from some hidden part of the cosmos to work on eyes or genomes is far from conventional wisdom as well since religion holds that the deity could just wave its hand and have its will be done. Intelligent design is just a creation tale in more palatable terms for those with some trust in science but no real interest in it, rather than intuition.

Finally, Lilienfeld does a major disservice to his argument when he says that because evolution hasn’t really equipped us to deal with complex abstraction, this is why we grasp to the supposedly intuitive explanations of biology, physics, and cosmology. While we might not have an innate feel for millions and billions, humans do have pretty good abstract reasoning. If a scientist can break down complex processes over full geologic time scales stretching for tens of millions if not billions of years, so can virtually any other human. People aren’t too dull to catch on when it comes to scientific facts and we can clearly see that when it comes to the widespread acceptance and other scientific ideas that don’t challenge fervent religious beliefs. Take geocentrism. Today, even though there are still loons who think the Earth is the stationary center of the universe, they’re almost guaranteed to be the butt of everyone’s jokes. Sure, it seems counter-intuitive that we’re walking on an oblate spheroid spinning at over a thousand miles an hour around its own axis as it’s flung around a thermonuclear furnace that weighs more than everything in the entire solar system put together, but we’ve seen the proof and have accepted this arrangement as irrefutable fact. Same goes for concepts like gravity and the atomic theory of matter. New Age mind-way-too-wide-open quantum woo aside, these facts are accepted as rock solid.

But when it comes to evolution, there’s just too much for too many religious fundamentalists to accept, and no matter how many times we demonstrate speciation and how mutations create new genes or brand new body structures, they’ll shout for anyone with religious bliefs to rebel against facts and to bully teachers and school administrators and board members to let them to drown evolutionary biology in their theological noise during science class. The problem is not out common sense intuition, or how evolution shaped our brains. The real problems behind the support for creationist apologetics are religious fundamentalism and cultural pressures to submit to religious zealotry over fact. And the real surprise to me is how Lilienfeld managed to equate them with the intuitive, common-wisdom based reasoning of John and Jane Q. Public.

It’s an article that has all the trappings of a creationist strawman collection. Filled with random proclamations about the complexity of life, the mysteries of genetics, obscure references to unnamed experiments and filled with random quotes while heavily borrowing from Behe’s incompetent screed used by the Discovery Institute, funded by Templeton, and shown to be wrong again and again, you might think that its author is a lackey for the modern creationist movement. Just to drive that image home, his credentials state that he was enlisted in the Army as an intelligence agent, and after his military career ended, began to conduct “independent studies on human evolution” discovering that everything modern biology knows is just flat out wrong. And yet, he has no affiliation with the Discovery Institute and the modern creationist movement. Long time readers might even remember his name mentioned in a number of my popular posts. About the ancient astronaut theory.

You see, this article was penned in 1998 by UFOlogist and conspiracy radio celebrity Lloyd Pye, whose claim to fame these days rests in an odd, misshapen human skull which he says is proof of alien/human hybrids from the ancient past. He’s never had anything to do with the Seattle think tank, which was founded to cram a religious mythology into classrooms across the nation at the request of wealthy evangelicals who believe that scientists are immoral, evil liars whose only goal in life is to indoctrinate children into atheism. Instead, Lloyd has a keen interest in alien life and converted to the science fiction gospel advanced by van Daniken. So why was he borrowing from Behe and unleashing a logorrheic Gish Gallop of creationist word salad science and obscure mentions to some sort of designer? Was this a flirt with creationism before he substituted designers of the supernatural kind with those which are actually scientifically plausible, even if remotely so? And could we use this as a peek into the mind of an ancient astronaut theorist arguing against evolution to bolster a very personal belief in an alien creator?

Considering the similarities between them, I would actually argue that the fervent believers in the notion of a God acting as a scientist setting up the universe as an experiment in a very deist way which sees the deities working on a quantum level, and ancient astronaut theorists, are ideological siblings. The only difference is the entity in which they believe. Amusingly though, creationists actually apply critical thinking skills to tales of mysterious alien species engineering humans in their labs, H.P. Lovecraft-style and often dismiss the idea for its lack of concrete evidence, yet suspend all criticism when it comes to divine magic. Likewise, many ancient astronaut theorists rely on the same I-don’t-know-therefore-my-deity-of-choice arguments so favored by the creationists whose beliefs they dismiss as entirely baseless. And this is why this essay by Pye is quite interesting. It shows how easily high-minded creationists and passionate ancient astronaut theorists can be mistaken when you don’t know to what they say they ascribe loud and clear. And really, I could take intelligent design proponents as a tad more than transparent apologists for magic if they were to include aliens in some of their ruminations. At least then they’d say something at least tangentially related to real science.

[ illustration by Aaron Sims ]

There’s a very popular expression in Russia about trying to present well known and thoroughly explored ideas as some groundbreaking novelty that will usher in a new are of understanding between two opposing groups with very different theories about the world. It’s called “discovering America,” and considering that today is the Fourth of July, it seems appropriate to include this expression in today’s post, especially since we’re going to talk about a science writer who decided to fit this expression to a tee in the depths of that collection of feel- good, New Age pseudoscience and quasi-philosophical navel-gazing known as the Huffington Post with his very heartfelt attempt to play into the creationist canard of God creating evolution to accomplish his goals. As one of Jerry Coyne’s readers pointed out, the deity in Clay Farris Naff’s column seems a lot like this one…

But it’s not just in quoting much parodied, satirized and debunked creationist notions where Naff tries to make a discovery. While penning a little purple prose intended to compel creationists and scientists to get along by only slightly overlapping their magesteria, he smacks right dab into an idea which should be very, very familiar to most readers of this blog since it’s one of my absolute favorite speculative topics for posts.

If the Creator wanted to bring about a result like us — life capable of contemplating, appreciating, and sustaining life — he, she, or they surely might have done worse than to create a Universe with just enough scope and variation to let evolution do all the labor of design. And what sort of Creator might do that? One in our own image, of course: An intelligent life seeking to pass the torch of life across the cosmos to a new generation. There is more to ponder, here, of course, and I’m the first to admit that there is no evidence to tip the balance. But let me stake my claim here: the just-good-enough Universe we inhabit is more consistent with my view than any other rationally acceptable explanation proffered so far. If I’m right, we are the children of loving cosmic parents, and we are charged with becoming what they once were. How cool is that?

Now why does that sound so hauntingly familiar? Oh right, because Naff just re-invented the famous ancient astronaut theory which inspired Erich von Daniken and his disciples to create a new quasi-religion around a belief that sometime in the distant past, aliens interfered in human life on Earth, or, for some fans, modified living things as we know them today by manipulating their genomes, or controlling their evolution. And just like Neff’s claim, these proposals require substantial evidence to be taken seriously, evidence outlined once upon a time in a post trying to explore the requirements for a traveling alien designer. So far, neither the ancient astronaut theorists, or ID proponents have been able to come up with even one of the items on the list, so it’s rather hard to imagine Naff’s claim being taken any more seriously than as just another example of the poorly thought out opinion columns that seem to make up the vast majority of HuffPo’s attempts at science.

Earlier this week I posted a few questions about the concept of intelligent design from a biological standpoint but from that of a designer. As you can guess, there was no answer from Dembski, probably because a small fry blog like this is just not important enough to warrant his attention and can be safely ignored. However, one reader requested to tackle these questions and since I did ask, it’s only fair to share his answers and take a few moments to see whether they address the issue or not. Remember that for the purposes of this exercise, we’re not trying to prove or disprove creationist ideas. We’re just talking about the quality of the alleged design.

human anatomy

The common theme of all my questions had to do with flaws in how well our bodies adhere to basic concepts most designers are supposed to learn by heart and use for all their projects. Jeff Sollars explains the lack of interchangeability of our organs and the trouble we have when vital components of our bodies fail, thusly…

The human system is designed to be self-supporting and has redundancy components within the system in order to be self sustaining. The modularity of components between systems is evident on a cellular and molecular level.

Okay. That’s not at all what was being asked in the first question. Sure, because new functions and structures can and do arise from existing ones, we’ll find plenty of redundancies in the body. But we only have one heart, one brain, one liver and one stomach. Should they stop working, we’ll die because we don’t have a spare and we can’t just swap out organs with the kind of ease a mass produced object should be able to. The response missed the whole point by a mile and a half. And the reply to the second question about where we could find a watermark or a logo of a designer fares no better.

The pattern of relationships showing [an organism’s] will to survive determine the signature, the commonality. There are many logos there are many watermarks, there are many identities.

Again, huh? There’s a lot of talk about systems and patterns but no concrete examples as requested. Instead of being pointed to a certain chromosome and told to look for a certain marker, we’re floating around in clouds of indeterminacy and philosophy. With all due respect, even Behe, Dembski and Egnor at least try to point to a concrete organism or function and despite being wrong, they at least try to nail down something tangible. Let’s see how Jeff does explaining why we’re vulnerable, frail tropical creatures which survive by wits alone and lack any natural defense against wild creatures that can and do maul us to this day.

The success of the defenses will determine the longevity of the system as a successful pattern of survival. The Dinosaurs were systems that survived millions of years due largely to their defense subsystems.

That’s zero for three as far as actually answering the question being presented and a complete evasion of the point being raised. Dinosaurs had claws, fangs, physical traits that allowed them to fight or get so big so fast, no one would dare mount an attack against them. But what about us? We’re totally helpless in the claws and fangs department. Why did dinosaurs have them and we don’t despite facing the same eat or be eaten drives of natural selection? There were plenty of times over the last ten million years or so that hominids could put a venomous bite or shearing claws to good use. We’re trying to look at designing a living thing and if we need to go back to natural selection, we should just stick to evolution in the first place.

By now you might have guessed that the question about why humans seem to have no specialized task built into their body shapes at birth also gets no elaboration from Jeff. And you’d be absolutely right…

We are specialized to do everything we do. If we were not, we would not survive very long.

Being specialized to do everything is an oxymoron. Your car isn’t also your plane, washing machine, oven and couch. Tools are either specialized for particular tasks, or perform a narrow range of them. Humans have the potential to do wildly different tasks and as noted in quote above, being generalists is what keeps us going as a species. We’re omnivorous, flexible and lack normal constraints imparted on designed machinery. Ants and bees have the kind of specialization I’m talking about. But what about us? Why don’t we if we’re designed by a wise external agent who needs us to do a particular job or play our part in a specific experiment?

At this point it doesn’t even seem necessary to go into the last question. Jeff’s answers can only be called so by a semantic label and don’t actually provide any information or insight into the issues being laid out. Funny enough, this is what usually happens when you ask pointed questions about the design part of ID. You get a lot of vague responses, sometimes a great deal of technobabble but a real, concrete reply is rarely there. And even then, it’s virtually always based on bad science or lack of relevant knowledge on the subject.

You probably remember one of my favorite wannabe scientists, Bill Dembski. His lack of understanding in the very things he claims to have real expertise, penchant for assertions that aren’t even wrong, and pomposity that just begs to be taken down a peg or two, are fodder that keeps on giving for popular science bloggers. But there’s one more thing about Bill that should probably be covered. He loves providing questions that he thinks expose the weaknesses of the evolutionary theory even though nearly all of them are little more than appeals to ignorance disguised as some profound insight into the basics of biology. Like political pundits who want to say something scandalous to boost their ratings and skirt the facts of the issues at hand, he’s just asking us some questions. And real science is done when people ask profound questions and try to answer them.

don quixote

Now, the big difference between what scientists do and what’s done by Dembski and cranks like him can be summarized in one simple sentence. Scientists do research, cranks chalk it up to whatever they want. But in the spirit of discovery and asking questions because we can, I thought I’d throw out a couple of questions to creationists, err… I mean intelligent design proponents, and see if they can provide a reasonable explanation to some issues that come up when they explain their so-called theory. As someone who actually knows how to design complex things, I’m probably not the least qualified person to be asking them.

Q1: Why are our individual body parts not interchangeable as they would be in cars or aircraft?

When we treat humans as a designed object, we have to come to the conclusion that we’re mass produced in a highly efficient, self-replicating process. However, all humans are a little different and if something happens to break down in our bodies, like a heart, a liver or a kidney, our body parts are not really interchangeable. Yes we’ve figured out how to transplant organs, but even then we have to match blood types as closely as we can and transplants require that we take immunosuppressant drugs because a new organ could be rejected. If humans are designed, any designer worth his or her salt knows that parts in mass produced products must be interchangeable for easy fixes when something breaks down. This is why when your car engine dies, you can just get a new one instead of matching it to a similar car type and hope it connects, or try to grow a brand new engine in a process so riddled with complex problems as to make it impractical for the near future. How could a designer allow a debilitating oversight that would surely result in a D from any design professor?

Q2. If we’re made by a designer, where’s his/her actual trademark, logo, watermark or identification?

One of the arguments creationists like to use is to point to our DNA and claim it has a blueprint of a designer in its informational content. Ok, where is it? When you get a new watch, the name or the logo of the company that made it is going to be prominently featured on the face. We could then find the company’s website, get an address and go see how the watches are being designed and built. What about us? Where’s our logo? How can we confirm that a design process is going on firsthand? I don’t want to listen about vague references to a genome’s complexity or other examples of pseudoscientific pareidolia. I mean show me the trademark genes and where they’re hiding. After all, even we know how to make them. An advanced designer should too.

Q3. Why are humans so vulnerable and lack natural weapons for self-defense, relying only on technology?

In case you haven’t noticed for some bizarre reason, human lack claws, fangs, venom, armored skin and just about every other defensive feature countless other species possess. If not for our technology, we would be a species of lion, leopard, hyena and cheetah snacks wandering around the savannas of Africa. Many of us still die in the wild after being mauled by animals against which we’re defenseless. What kind designer in his right mind possibly drop such an ill-equipped creature into the midst of predator infested territory without a potent natural defense? Even a little bit of venom would be an immense improvement, so it seems like a hell of an oversight to leave us there with only sharp rocks and the hope that we can climb a tree before getting eaten. By a predator who probably climbs trees much easier than we could…

Q4. Why do humans lack specialization in their designs? What job were we designed to do?

Before designing anything, I ask several important questions. What is it’s purpose? What is it designed to do, how, and why? Humans perform a very wide array of tasks. Some of us are artists and communicators, some are scientists and engineers, others are analysts and strategists, and often our roles are flexible. We seem to be a sort of all-purpose tool which has to decide what task to do. That seems totally irrational to a designer’s mind. Why aren’t we born with designations and tasks? Why do we have to stumble around until we find what we’re willing to do instead of being slated to do something? I wouldn’t want my screwdriver deciding it would rather be a hammer, so why would any designer just build a multi-purpose tool with no particular task?

Q5. Why do we have extra components and vestigial parts? Aren’t they just a waste of resources?

From a design standpoint, redundancies and parts that really don’t have any significant function to play in the mechanism should be removed or consolidated as much as possible. They take up energy and resources to produce and maintain while contributing little to nothing. Having five toes that do nothing but add a little help in balancing our bodies when we walk is not like having a spoiler on a car. The spoiler generates downdraft at a high speed and allows supercars to stay planted on the track during maneuvers. Five toes are used by a few martial art styles to maintain superb balance during attack. But wherein the spoiler is required by physics, the martial art styles adapted to use the toes. There’s no reason whey they couldn’t be consolidated. And to return to the spoiler for just a moment, there’s a reason why they’re not included on most cars. They’re not needed at highway speeds and normal roads used for everyday commuting.

And yes, for those who might be curious, a copy of these questions was sent to Bill Dembski himself. Here’s his chance to show how creative and rich the tapestry of his branch of creationism really is and offer original arguments. Whether or not he’ll do that remains to be seen…

[ illustration by CG artist Fabricio Moraes ]

Every time a creationist who categorizes himself as a proponent of intelligent design starts talking about what it would take for scientists to convince him that evolution is plausible, you just know that the criteria he outlines are going to be changed the instant the relevant research is produced. That’s exactly what happened when a staff crank at the Discovery Institute, Dr. Michael Behe, was pointed to research by biologist Joe Thornton, who not only demolished his claims of “irreducible complexity” but did it according to Behe’s own criteria.

cthulhu controversy

Now, if Behe was still a real scientist rather than a professional sophist with an inflated sense of self-worth, he’d be rethinking his assumptions and whether becoming a PhD for creationists to wave around was really a good career move. Instead, he’s shamelessly lying about the research and what it shows, trying to move the goalposts. It’s like he ordered a steak cooked medium rare and when what can only be described as a picture perfect medium rare steak hits his plate, he backs away and says that this isn’t what he meant when he said medium rare at all. Well, that’s ok if you’re a fussy restaurant patron. But if you want to be a scientist, you have to hold yourself to a higher standard.

As we can see by Behe’s eager acceptance of a fellowship at a think tank for wealthy evangelicals who want to go back to the days of the Scopes Trial by any means necessary, he’s not about to do the honorable thing and admit that science met his challenge. Instead, he’s even been raving about how the very research that shows his assertions to be ridiculous are actually proof of those ridiculous assertions by mangling Thornton’s work. Thanks to an intervention from science writer Carl Zimmer, Thornton delivered a lengthy, detailed debunking of Behe’s criticism on The Loom, although he admitted to a little trepidation before countering creationists in public. It’s not the he’s unsure of his research. If he were, he wouldn’t have published it. His concern is about something totally different…

I am well aware that Behe and his supporters might portray my response as an indication that there is scientific debate over the possibility of adaptive protein evolution: “Look, an evolutionary biologist who actually does scientific research is arguing with me; let’s teach this controversy in public schools!” Because Behe has grossly misinterpreted the results of my research to support his position, however, I feel some responsibility to set the record straight.

He’s absolutely right to be worried about this turn of events. Consider the Institute’s fiasco with organizing a debate between Dr. Nicolas Gotelli and one of their hacks. It seems that the likes of Behe and Dembski are desperate to hear anything addressed to them by an actual scientist for a chance to try and show how smart they supposedly are, they don’t even care that it’s a condescending shrug and an explanation of why they have no valid arguments on their side. Or maybe Behe already forgot the brutal smackdown he received from Ken Miller about his notion of irreducible complexity? Although to forget that, our theologically inclined biochemist would probably have to be suffering from amnesia.

[ as per tradition, illustration by Controversy Wear ]

Since we all know that creationism, err, I mean intelligent design is a very strict and careful science, one of its professional proponents is teaching at a theological seminary. And he gave his students a rather bizarre assignment worth as much as a fifth of their grade. Rather than do any studies or experiments which could show that intelligent design isn’t just a fancy way of rejecting the theory of evolution on religious grounds, his pupils are supposed to go to “hostile web sites” and leave at least ten comments defending the concept from those sinister materialists with their high and mighty secular biology.

don quixote

The funny thing about posting your syllabus on the web though, is the fact that it will be found and it will be disseminated for review and critique just like anything and everything else on the web. However, it’s simply not in Dembski’s nature to take critique lightly and he lashed out at his critics over at the highly moderated ID blog, Uncommon Descent…

I’ll make you a deal: let Darwinist, atheist, skeptic, freethinking, and infidel websites state prominently on their homepage the following warning — “Intelligent Design Supporters Strictly Prohibited” — and I’ll make sure my students don’t post on your sites.

What’s that whooshing sound? Ah yes, it’s the concept of what actually makes a scientific education sound flying over his head. If you want to give your students a good grounding in a theory, you don’t send them out to defend it against people who could teach them a thing or two. You give them the basic ideas and tell them to go and explore. The purpose of a fruitful scientific debate isn’t to clobber the opponent but to enhance your knowledge of the relevant concepts. To pit your pupils against those evil “Darwinists” and their icky theory isn’t good pedagogy. It’s just bitter obstinacy, Demibski’s full time gig since his shot at becoming a famous scientific figure fell through…

Let’s be honest for a second Bill. You tried to play scientist. You really did. You even wrote a book that was supposed to prove the presence of design in our DNA but when real scientists started to ask you questions, you shrunk from the challenge. When they pointed out the flaws in your arguments, you started snapping at them and sending Casey Luskin to whine on your behalf. In the meantime, you were daydreaming about the imminent collapse of modern evolutionary theory and the rise of ID like a phoenix from the ashes, with you at the head of the movement. And this stunt of sending students to post pro-ID comments on sites you don’t like is just another example of why you’ll never be a paradigm shifting scientist outside your personal fantasies.

It’s not that scientists and science writers don’t want to allow people to post messages about ID. In fact, we’re happy to let them. But we reserve the right to point out their motivation (getting a good grade in your class) and their factual flaws. Go ahead Bill, add me to your list and send me all the students you want. I will let every single one of their messages through, just like I always do on my posts. I will of course try to rebut those arguments since I’m the blog’s author and have both the ability and right to do so. Maybe, just maybe, some of them will be able to learn something about real science rather than blindly adhering to the self-indulgent, pseudoscientific concoction you espouse.

It’s funny how things work out when pseudo-scientists try to spread their woo and come up against volumes of evidence to the contrary. Instead of working in the lab or doing some groundbreaking research, they stomp their feet, dig their heels into the ground and start making excuse after excuse, complaining about the mean old scientists trying to keep them out of their sandboxes. And when that’s not enough for their tastes, they send others to make excuses and whine on their behalf, calling it legitimate, open-minded education.

[ illustration by CG artist Fabricio Moraes ]

Often, when I write critical comments about creationism aka “intelligent design,” plenty of readers like to ask me how random, unguided forces of evolution could possibly produce creatures that seem to be so perfectly tuned to their environments. Ordinarily, I’d point out that the non-random process of natural selection would quickly eliminate organisms not suited for the ecological niches in which they evolve, but that doesn’t work on creationists. For them, history flows in reverse and every animal has to be predestined to occupy it current niche, otherwise the world makes no sense.

So instead, I try to point out that evolution doesn’t actually produce perfectly tuned organisms and if there’s some grand designer behind every living creature, he would probably get a D for his over-engineered work. Need a few examples? Well, here are a few of my favorites from a list of ten atrocious evolutionary “designs” compiled by Wired Magazine.

4 Giraffe birth canal. Mama giraffes stand up while giving birth, so baby’s entry into the world is a 5-foot drop. Wheeee! Crack.

5 Goliath bird-eating spider exoskeleton. This giant spider can climb trees to hunt very mobile prey. Yet it has a shell so fragile it practically explodes when it falls? Well, at least it can produce silk to make a sail. Oh, wait — it can’t!

8 Slug genitalia. Some hermaphroditic species breed by wrapping their sex organs around each other. If one of said members gets stuck, the slug simply chews it off. What. The. Hell?

And I can think of many more cases in which existing biological structures just don’t seem to be built for the way we use them. Our bodies alone suffer all sorts of ailments from walking upright, sitting for extended periods of time, and having caloric requirements needed for a feral world in which you never know when your next meal is coming, rather than industrialized societies in which food generally comes on schedule.

Here’s what would convince me that there might be some design behind our biosphere. Not only would we share the same structures for transmitting hereditary information and basic genetic toolkits, we would also have very simple, efficient bodies which would be compartmentalized and easily interchanged, like Legos. Rather than praise our over-elaborate complexity as proof of design, maybe, just maybe, creationists should take a few industrial design courses and learn the real hallmarks of good design before trying to look for it in nature.