Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Challenge For Defenders of ID

A defender of intelligent design writes:
I would ask: how many books by ID proponents have you read?

Darwin's Black Box?
The Edge of Evolution?
Signature in the Cell?
Darwin's Doubt?
Nature's Destiny?

If all you've read are the fumbling critiques by folks like Dawkins, Matzke, talkorigins etc. then perhaps you shouldn't be so dismissive.
He then goes on to demand:
putting aside the historical origins of the ID movement, do you agree that one can conceptually distinguish design inferences from the supernatural? And if not, then why not?

Now this commenter may be inclined to believe whatever pseudo-scientific gobbledy-gook he reads by a fellow theist that is supportive of his religious beliefs.  He seems to think that if only atheists would read and understand these books, they would be convinced of their truth, just as he is.  But atheists dismiss them without giving them a fair hearing.  And the implication is that without actually reading these books, atheists have no grounds on which to be critical of them.

At the same time, it is clear that he is just as dismissive of critical reviews of these books as he accuses atheists being - reviews by people who actually know what they're talking about.  Reviews exist for a reason.  They can help us to get a good overview of the material, to understand positive and negative aspects of the material, and to decide whether it is worth investing our time and money.

So here's my challenge to him and any other defenders of this stuff: before you dismiss these reviews as being "fumbling", you really should read and understand them.  So go ahead.  And then you can tell us exactly what each of them gets wrong about these books.  I'll be waiting.

And as to the second question he asks, it was answered before he asked it, in my previous post.


Behe - Darwin's Black Box

In this review, Robert Dorit discusses fundamental fallacies in Behe's claims about irreducible complexity, and reveals how he is out of touch with recent research in biochemical science.

Here Peter Atkins discusses how Behe misrepresents scientific information, scientific method, and his own creationist position.

And David Ussery gives a fairly extensive review covering shortcomings in Behe's presentation of scientific and philosophical concepts.


Behe - The Edge of Evolution

Mark Chu-Carroll deconstructs the mathematical argument that is the central thesis of Behe's book.  This review's style is not sympathetic to Behe, but he makes a strong case based on his much more solid understanding of Behe's mathematical assumptions and implications.

This review by Richard Dawkins also attacks Behe's math with simple, familiar examples that that directly contradict Behe's claims, and clearly illustrate why he is wrong.


Meyer - Signature in the Cell

Darrel Falk is a fellow Christian who believes in intelligent design, and he's also a scientist who questions Meyer's knowledge of the relevant scientific fields, here.

Francisco Ayala, in this review, provides reasons for religious people to doubt whether intelligent design is realy intelligent.


Meyer - Darwin's Doubt

Matzke (a real scientist, unlike Meyer) does a masterful job of destroying Meyer's credibility in Darwin's doubt here.  This review is not a fumbling critique, but it clearly reveals that Meyer's book is a fumbling attempt at fooling the scientifically uneducated.

And here, Smilodon's Retreat has done a series of posts showing how Meyer has failed to do the pertinent research, gotten scientific facts wrong, quote-mined and misrepresented the words of scientists.


Dentin - Nature's Destiny

Papalinton (to whom the comment was directed) has provided this review by Mark Vuletic, giving his philosophical perspective.


  1. Skep
    I am reminded of the words of Robert Graves, renowned novelist, poet and classical scholar, when he intoned:

    "What the scientist thinks today, everyone else will be thinking on the day after tomorrow."

    Theism [faith, ignorance and superstition]. Scientism [knowledge, information and understanding] The two -isms at the ends of the Culture Wars continuum. There is but one end to which we must eventually gravitate if we are to build a mindscape founded on reality, as faith and knowledge are "related as the scales of a balance; when one goes up, the other goes down." [Schopenhauer]

  2. I'd be delighted to respond, im-skeptical. When I mentioned fumbling critiques and Dawkins in the same sentence, I actually had in mind his New York Times review of Behe’s second book. Give me a week or so. Regards, Cale.

    1. Thank you. Of course, there are bad reviews that are not valuable for someone trying to get a decent understanding of the material in question. And perhaps a reader can be fooled by what appears to be a well written review that does not give a true perspective. When the scientific community is in agreement about issues of science, it is generally worth noting. I am open to your opinions, but I must balance that information against all the other information I have.

  3. btw, your link to Peter Atkins' review is broken.

  4. Here is the first instalment of my critique:
    Francisco Ayala’s reflection on Meyer’s SITC

    Ayala writes: “The keystone argument of Signature of the Cell is that chance, by itself, cannot account for the genetic information found in the genomes of organisms. I agree. And so does every evolutionary scientist, I presume. Why, then, spend chapter after chapter and hundreds of pages of elegant prose to argue the point”
    Straight off the bat, this is utterly wrong: the thesis of SITC is that a design inference is warranted for the origin of life. Incidentally, the title is Signature in the Cell.

    Here, I think Ayala is (misguidedly) appealing to the fact that rather than believing in “chance”, evolutionary biologists believe that the intrinsic improbability of a particular complex feature in biology is “broken down” via a gradual process of random mutation and non-random selection. But when Meyer discusses “the chance hypothesis” in SITC, he isn’t referring to the genetic information present in the genomes of modern organisms arising “by chance”. He’s talking about early proposed origin-of-life scenarios which relied on large sets of probabilistic resources (e.g. long amounts of time) bringing about extraordinarily unlikely events. Meyer lets the reader know that the chance hypothesis has been widely rejected by origin of life researchers, and that he’s simply providing a historical background to his argument. As for Meyer spending “hundreds of pages” on the chance hypothesis, his discussion of this topic actually only runs for 55 out of the 613 total pages of the book. His discussion of other, more current, origin of life hypotheses goes for another four chapters.

    “But regarding natural selection, genetics, ecology, development, physiology, and behavior in the evolution of genetic information, there is nothing substantive in Signature of the Cell.”
    Right! It intended to tackle the question of the origin of life, and so it focused on information theory, chemistry and the philosophy of science. Surprise, surprise...

    “According to Meyer, ID provides a more satisfactory explanation of the human genome than evolution does.”
    Well, no, Meyer didn’t really discuss the human genome, apart from briefly in the epilogue and appendix: rather, the book attempts to address the question of the origin of life.

    Ayala’s only other comment is to refer to Alu sequences as being nonsensical. Strictly speaking, this is irrelevant, as it has nothing to do with abiogenesis. Nevertheless, on page 12-15 of the booklet Signature of Controversy , Meyer attempts responds to Ayala’s claim that Alu elements constitute mere “nonsense” haphazardly scattered around genomes.

    Ayala also gives some theological reasons for rejecting ID, and these shall be addressed at a later time. On the whole, though, this is a thoroughly disappointing review, with Ayala displaying a profound misunderstanding of the basic thesis of the book.

    1. I am preparing my response ...

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Thank you for responding, but I must say, I am disappointed. Your comments are largely lifted straight from Meyer's paper, so I have no real basis to discern whether you grasp the material from Meyer's book or Ayala's review. Nevertheless, I will reply to the points you included from Meyer's response.

      First of all, you have been misled by Meyer's response, which assumed from the outset that Ayala didn't really read the book. This was based on two mistakes in reading Ayala's review: 1. Meyer's interpretation of the phrase "chance, by itself". 2. the question of whether the book is about the origin of genomes, or the origin of life itself.

      Regarding Ayala's phrase "chance, by itself", Meyer chooses to interpret this as meaning pure chance without any other physical mechanism coming into play, and then castigate Ayala for not addressing all the other theories that involve chance in conjunction with some additional mechanism. But this is exactly what Ayala is referring to. A more appropriate interpretation of the phrase would be chance without the involvement of some intelligent agency. That is what Meyer discusses throughout much of the book, and that is what Ayala is addressing.

      Despire Meter's claim, Ayala also clearly recognizes what the book is about: "Meyer avoids consideration of the negative implications of ID as an explanation of the origin of genetic information, which is his main subject." But there is no question that Meyer also makes inferences about ID in the development of modern genomes: “discrete or discontinuous intelligent activity in the history of life”, so it is very disingenuous of him to call out Ayala for discussing it.

      Meyer (a philosopher) goes on to lecture Ayala (a leading evolutionary biologist) on the function of Alu sequences in the genome, apparently ignoring the fact that he did note that many non-coding sequences do play a functional role. But Meyer seems to confuse the functional role of various different types geneteic sequences. See here: "Despite their being genetically functionless, recent findings suggest that Alu elements may have a broad evolutionary impact by affecting gene structures, protein sequences, splicing motifs and expression patterns." In other words, these sequences affect the evolution of a genome, despite having no direct functional role.

      I look forward to the rest of your response, as well as the responses to other reviews.

  5. Dawkins’ NYT review of TEOE

    Im-skeptical “Richard Dawkins also attacks Behe's math with simple, familiar examples that that directly contradict Behe's claims”
    Dawkins: “If mutation, rather than selection, really limited evolutionary change, this should be true for artificial no less than natural selection... Behe has to predict that you’d wait till hell freezes over, but the necessary mutations would not be forthcoming. Your wolves would stubbornly remain unchanged. Dogs are a mathematical impossibility.”
    “[Behe claims] that mutations are too rare to permit significant evolutionary change anyway.”

    In TEOE, Behe isn’t so imprecise as to say that “no significant evolutionary change” is possible: rather, he attempts to give a qualitative measure of complexity in biochemical systems beyond which random mutation and natural selection cannot reach.
    David Swift aptly summed up the weakness of this approach in his book “Evolution under the Microscope”:

    Darwin, being aware of morphological variations that arise naturally, but knowing nothing of the underlying genetic mechanisms or biochemical implications, believed that biological tissues are innately plastic. Also, from the success of domestic breeding it was evident that variations are heritable and that significant morphological change can be achieved by repeated (artificial) selection. In the light of which, Darwin extrapolated that any amount of morphological change could be achieved through the selection and accumulation of small beneficial variations. In effect, he believed there was no fundamental limit to the plasticity of biological tissues: morphological change was limited only by the viability of the resulting structure. Now, of course, we realise that this ‘plasticity’ of tissues is a consequence of underlying genetic and biochemical mechanisms... Unfortunately, many contemporary biologists, although they are aware of the genetical and biochemical aspects of variations, still follow the uninformed 19th-century view when it comes to considering the origin of new morphological structures. That is, they totally ignore the genetics or biochemical implications, and assume that variations can arise and accumulate indefinitely through the imagined plasticity of biological tissue.”

    As I see it, Dawkins’ "Wow! Wolves can be bred into Chihuahuas and Great Danes! Look at that change! Imagine what evolution can do over deep time!" is just as scientific as, "Wow! Look at how good the stick insect's camouflage is! Look at that intricacy! It just can't have evolved!". That is, not very scientific at all. In both cases I want to be given a quantitative statement about the actual biochemistry involved, not just a shallow assertion from intuition. TEOE attempted to do this, and Dawkins’ argument here is nothing less than an epic failure at addressing it.

    1. Dawkins is pointing out what we observe. And observation is the basis of science. The one employing "shallow intuition" is the one who concludes despite the evidence that evolution couldn't be responsible for the major morphological changes we see between different phyla. If what you want is a quantitative statement about the biochemistry involved, please point out Behe's quantitative statement that you found so convincing.

      I know you love to hate Dawkins (like so many theists do). He's a threat to your deeply held religious belief. But he does base his beliefs on objective, observed evidence, unlike Behe.

    2. "please point out Behe's quantitative statement that you found so convincing."

      I'm only a biology undergrad, and I'm quite happy to say that Behe could well be totally wrong on the science, as I don't have the expertise to fully evaluate it. So, in terms of whether I "find it convincing" in that sense, I'd say that I don't. But when one person writes a book which includes 150 pages in which they delineate the kind of complexity they think random mutation and natural selection can produce, and give specific examples to attempt to substantiate this, and his reviewer sincerely thinks that: "Yeah, but wolves change... heaps!" is some kind of devastating rebuttal, you have to be obtuse not to perceive which side of the exchange is one that is irrational and lacking in scientific rigor. So im-skeptical, go read pages 17-170 in TEOE and keep an eye out for the phrase "chloroquine complexity cluster" and Behe's comments on the rule of two binding sites if you want to know what he thinks the "edge of evolution" is in quantitative terms.

      "Dawkins is pointing out what we observe. And observation is the basis of science"

      On stick insect camouflage, Dawkins wrote in a private communication to Dan Dennett, "It is an easy rhetorical point to make: ‘Come on, are you really trying to tell me that 5% like a stick really matters compared to 4%?’ This rhetoric will often convince laymen, but the population genetic calculations (e.g. by Haldane) belie common sense in a fascinating and illuminating way"

      Similarly, "Wolves change a lot" will often convince laymen, but is worthless as a serious comment on Behe's book.

      "I know you love to hate Dawkins"
      Not quite. I am a former atheist who once recommended the God Delusion to a friend. I have really enjoyed a number of Dawkins' books.

      "He's a threat to your deeply held religious belief."
      Not at all.

    3. " go read pages 17-170 in TEOE and keep an eye out for the phrase "chloroquine complexity cluster" and Behe's comments on the rule of two binding sites if you want to know what he thinks the "edge of evolution" is in quantitative terms."

      You do know, don't you, that all of Behe's theories about biological complexity have been thoroughly debunked by respectable scientists, and rejected by the scientific community. Every example he ever cited about irreducible complexity has been shown to be false. Now he's making a similar case based on faulty mathematics. See Chu-Carroll's review if you don't like what Dawkins has to say about it.