I had an unexpected opportunity last Sunday night to attend a lecture by Intelligent Design theory advocate Michael J. Behe — professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and author of the watershed Intelligent Design work Darwin’s Black Box.
He had been invited to speak at the Schilling School for Gifted Children here in Cincinnati. SW and, I believe, CR brought it to my attention this past Sabbath, just in time for me to make sure I had room for it in my plans for Sunday evening. So, make room I did, and come 7pm Sunday night I found myself in a room of 80-100 people, many of whom were parents and students of the school, listening to a presentation from Mr. Behe — a very personable and seemingly unassuming gentleman who has become a lightning rod of criticism on the topics of Darwinian evolution and Intelligent Design. (He had fun with that, inviting any in the audience interested in reading critiques of his ideas to visit any web search engine and type in his name followed by any common curse word that comes to mind.)
The school invited him as a part of what I gather is a series of lectures by influential thinkers. The math & science department head of the school mentioned that after the Nye-Ham debate, they had invited Bill Nye (the Sort-of-Science Guy) to come and give a talk, which turned out to be a pleasant event. Wanting to keep the conversation going, they invited Dr. Behe as a representative of one alternative “middle ground” that the Nye-Ham debate missed: That of Intelligent Design, representing neither religion-based nor materialism-hobbled theorizing.
Dr. Behe’s presentation had, in my estimation, modest goals: Explain the concept of Intelligent Design, explain why it is real science (contrary to the assertions of its detractors), and explain why he considers it a more reasonable and more credible theoretical framework in comparison to Darwinian evolution. In these goals, I think his presentation succeeded.
Sure, the discussion could go deeper. His points would surely be disputed by evolutionists, and their disputations would be counter-disputed by IDers, etc. His presentation wasn’t a debate-ender, and it wasn’t meant to be. It was a gentle-but-persuasive presentation and not meant to be a bare knuckle “throw down” — and in this, it was refreshing. It was a pleasant atmosphere and solid presentation, appropriate to its audience — which was clearly composed of both skeptics and supporters — that did not avoid hard questions and which, in simple and clear terms, explained a topic that is shamefully banned from many of our public schools by those who fear open minds and thoughtful criticism of their most cherished theory.
Here are a few observations from the lecture, presented as points and elaboration. The points are generally points he made, but the elaboration is mostly mine. Still, I will try to mention his comments, as well, since that is probably what most of you reading are actually interested in. 🙂
- “Intelligent Design” is legitimate science.
One of the most shameful tactics taken against ID by its opponents is that it does not represent legitimate science, and it is utter nonsense. If the question, “Does any element of life demonstrate signs of intelligent design?” is not accessible by scientific inquiry, then what is?
I think this is an important question even beyond biology. If an explorer or artificially intelligent probe were to stumble upon a structure of some sort on another planet, would the question, “Has this been designed by intelligence or is it a natural formation?” completely inaccessible to science? That such questions cannot be addressed by science is ridiculous to me. Is it impossible to design an artificially intelligent probe, for instance, that could encounter something like the ancient ruins of Greece or Rome and conclude that there was intelligence behind their construction? What if the probe came upon the Louvre in Paris? We recognize such things, immediately, as intelligently designed, and the implication of that fact is that we could design probes to do the same. (Turing fans and AI folks, feel free to run with this assumption.)
If so, cannot such reasoning be turned toward the structures we find involved with life?
If the statement “Life empirically demonstrates characteristics for which the most reasonable explanation is intelligent design” is not a statement that can be evaluated by science, then why not?
One can claim (falsely, I believe) that Intelligent Design theory represents ideas that have been disproven, but one cannot legitimately claim that it is not science. Like a president standing in front of a crowd and talking about a contentious and unpopular piece of legislation and claiming that “The debate is over” (ahem), such claims sound more like desperation than fact. If SETI represents a scientific enterprise–that is, activity and research grounded in real science–so does the work of Intelligent Design theorists and researchers. I’ve read some try to defend SETI as activity grounded in science but Intelligent Design research as pseudoscience. (Amanda Gefter’s 2010 article in New Scientist is a good example.) But their arguments ring hollow and demonstrate themselves to the careful reader as poor reasoning motivated by either ideological predisposition or by ignorance of the work done by ID theorists.
Ignore the hypocrisy and the smoke screens of ID’s detractors who say otherwise. And the detractors are many. More honest and/or educated critics, even while not agreeing with the conclusion of intelligent design, recognize ID for the scientific endeavor it represents and do not feel the need to dodge legitimate debate through such illegitimate means.
(Actually, in response to a question Behe offered an argument that ID may represent legitimate science better than evolutionary theory does. I will try to remember to describe his point later.)
- The identity and nature of the “intelligence” is irrelevant to ID theory
Weird concern about the identity of the “intelligence” behind the intelligent design evident in life is a red herring often brought out to distract people from considering ID theory (school district decision makers, gullible judges, etc.). The fact-based detection of the presence or absence of intelligence in design should not depend on how one feels about who or what the source of that intelligence might be.
Imagine a police investigation into death that begins to point to murder. Should the investigation be abandoned because some folks are uncomfortable with the possibilities of who such a murderer might be? Of course not.
Dr. Behe brought this point out (not the murder example, but the point above), and it makes perfect sense. Some of the attendees did not get it, one or two of the school’s students, in particular. Questions about the “designer” in Intelligent Design theory are irrelevant to determining whether or not there is intelligence present in the design. The fact that some of the students were either oblivious to the point or that they had been feeding on various anti-ID tropes were pretty evident. For instance, one individual asked how a perfect designer (clearly, here, a “Designer” with a capital-D is in mind) would designed creatures that show so many imperfections. While both philosophy and theology (and, importantly, the Bible) address such questions related to God’s Creation, in terms of the scientific theory of Intelligent Design, the question is irrelevant. Determining whether or not intelligence is necessarily involved in the design of living systems is not dependent on whether the “designer” is perfect or imperfect, a single intelligence or multiple intelligence, etc. For example, detecting what seem to be flaws or inefficiencies in the design of of a Volkswagen Beetle does not negate the obvious fact that there is, indeed, intelligence present in the car’s design. That is, outstanding questions about the nature of the “designer” of the Volkswagen Beetle (number of designers, his or their purpose, power, or intent, etc.) do not negate the conclusion that there is intelligence on display in the design of the Volkswagen.
There is literally zero scientific justification for rejecting the theory of Intelligent Design on the grounds that it leads to questions about the nature of the “designer.” Quite the contrary, questions that lead to other questions are normally part of what scientists enjoy.
I think that this is potentially where some atheists sometimes show their bias-driven prejudices. For instance, the idea of a finely-tuned universe designed to make life possible is rejected by a cacophony of voices among various atheists. (I say a cacophony, because many of them do not agree with each other–running away from a feared conclusion instead of running toward a truly better one tends to produce such results.) However, I believe that once a “fine tuner” can be safely hypothesized that will provide an “escape hatch” away from the more natural conclusion that a divine God is the Creator, suddenly “fine tuning” will become more acceptable. I’ve already seen this in one major, mainstream publication, where someone pointed out that certain particle physics work has the potential (important: under some theories) to create multiple universes that are expanding alongside our own. Seeing that (again, under some theories) we have the power to initiate such “creations” of alternate “cosmoses” as we smack particles together, one person speculated that perhaps in the future we will learn to “fine tune” such creations to craft universes with particular characteristics. He then speculated that perhaps our own universe was initiated on some past laboratory table top by a physicist in a previous universe who had learned to do just that.
And that’s how it goes: Once we come up with possibilities we are more comfortable with, we become willing to embrace certain conclusions. Once we can substitute someone in the place of a God to Whom we might be accountable, suddenly “fine tuning” becomes palatable. Until then: No way, José.
And that’s wrong. The proponents of ID continue to say that they long only to follow the evidence where it leads: If to an intelligent designer of some sort, then so be it. If to no designer at all, then so be it. But let science be honest with the evidence. What sort of self-respecting scientist would disagree with that?
Again, drawing a conclusion on the intelligent design of life should be a matter that is irrelevant to the matter of who or what that designer could be.
All of this is related to a point I felt Dr. Behe made very well, coming up next:
- Science has gotten into more trouble in the past trying to ignore conclusions that felt uncomfortable than it has in embracing them.
Some have said that Intelligent Design must be ruled forbidden out of hand simply because its implications are uncomfortable and seem “unscientific” (they aren’t, but play along).
Of course, the same scientists lament about how many people they believe avoid trusting them about Darwinian evolution because of its implications. Sauce for the goose is not, apparently, sauce for the gander.
But more to the point, Dr. Behe’s example was a good one. He presented an idea: “Maybe Intelligent Design could be true, but its conclusion is radical enough that perhaps its acceptance should be put off — say, a century or so — while efforts are focused on finding alternate explanations that are more palatable.” He compared such sentiment to the resistance originally expressed concerning the Big Bang theory. Imagine how far behind physics would be if we put off accepting the Big Bang theory due to discomfort about its implications.
Some might say that the difference between the Big Bang and Intelligent Design is a matter of compelling evidence. The evidence of a Big Bang, while not necessarily completely unavoidable, eventually became strongly compelling, while the evidence for Intelligent Design simply is not. I would disagree with that conclusion, and the fact that resistance crumbled concerning the Big Bang but remains strong concerning Intelligent Design is due, I believe, to the stakes involved. Given the vagueness and impersonal nature of the universe’s origins–conceptually distant–the Big Bang is easier to embrace, regardless of its metaphysical implications, because those implications are easier to “shelve” and emotionally avoid. It can be ascribed to impersonal “forces” and “conditions”–and although a thorough consideration of the possibilities for such “forces” and “conditions” leads unavoidably to the same uncomfortable metaphysical implications, there is a comfortable cushion of abstraction that aids one’s efforts at denial and self-deception or distraction. However, the idea that life, itself, has been designed by an “intelligence”–that is more personal. The metaphysical implications of that are much harder to avoid. That life may have a “designer” means that you may have a “designer” . . . a “designer” who may actually be a Designer, if you get my capitalized drift. And many people do not want a Designer.
- The evidence against Darwinian evolution as the mechanism by which life has developed in complexity is rather damaging.
Dr. Behe summarized a number of the points he makes in his book The Edge of Evolution, including the observation that Darwinian evolution (natural selection–survival pressures–acting on random mutations) can be seen in life’s development but only in ways that are very clearly not creative in nature.
His examples in the lecture were solid, looking at research on literally tens of thousands of generations of E. Bola bacteria and, in more detail, evolution in humans enabling resistance to malaria. In the latter case, for instance, humans have, indeed, “evolved” some resistance to malaria and, as natural selection would dictate, those who have “evolved” that resistance have had better reproductive success, growing to represent disproportionately larger segments of the population in areas where malaria represents a serious challenge. However, as Behe points out in detail, the mutations in the human genome that have enabled the increased resistance are, in every case, the results of genetic information being destroyed in the human genome, not information being built or added. None of the mutations have demonstrated an increase in complexity — rather they are, in a sense, a matter of de-evolution.
His analogy was a good and memorable one. Behe showed a picture of a bridge in South America destroyed by drug lords to prevent the army from coming in to their area and halting their operations and pointed out that this is the equivalent in what we see with malaria resistance. The “bridges” have been wiped out genetically, preventing the disease from being able to proceed in those individuals whose mutations have protected them. The mutations are destructive–not constructive–and, in many ways, harmful, but in the case of preventing malaria from killing the individual, they have been helpful. In these ways, Dr. Behe points out, Darwinian evolution can be seen in action.
However, the picture painted by proponents of evolution is of natural selection plus random mutation as a great, materialistic bridge builder. The idea we are supposed to believe is that nature–with no assistance from any designer at all–can build bridges where there are none, yet this is overwhelmingly not observed in the laboratory or in the field. Bridge destruction, sure. Bridge building, not so.
- The charge of “science stopper” is a terrible excuse not to do science and to avoid following the evidence where it leads.
This was one area where I benefitted from the lecture in a way I did not expect.
Intelligent Design is often called a “science stopper” because it is felt that once activity is accredited to a “designer” then it can no longer be explored, tested, or investigated. Consequently, all research on life would apparently stop and we would all just sit on the floor with our smartphones and play Angry Birds. More seriously, the idea seems to be that once Intelligent Design is concluded, there is no more exploration of possible non-intelligent means and mechanisms concerning life and its processes. If things aren’t materialistic, then they are not accessible to science, so we “must” continue to assume materialism lest we stop prematurely and cease to learn. So, accepting the conclusions of Intelligent Design supposedly puts a stop to the production of testable hypotheses and predictions — hence the term, “science stopper.”
If I got him rightly, Michael Behe shed fantastic light on this attack and why it is disingenuous. The points to be made are several.
Less revelatory to me, personally, were the facts that the “science stopper” claim is simply not true as it is pictured. The concept that life on earth has a richer information source in its past or that it has access to richer information resources than generally accepted could invigorate additional avenues of research, including investigating claims by researchers such as James Shapiro concerning seemingly intelligent genetic engineering going on at the cellular level. Being freed from the assumption that only blind mutation and fundamentally undirected selection are at work in life could create the sort of environment where new ideas can grow instead of meeting the stifling resistance they now suffer. Being free to consider the world of genetics in a context that is more accurate — materialistic and naturalistic or otherwise — would begin to allow new frameworks of understanding, which could hardly be “science stopping.” Accurately understanding the limits of mechanistic, undirected processes would help in understanding them better, as well. How is this somehow “anti-science”? And if science must take place in a context where a true fact must be disallowed because it is a “science stopper,” then we’ve lost sight of just what science is supposed to achieve.
[Asked in a different context but related to being a “science stopper” was a student’s question to Behe about the falsifiability of Intelligent Design. He answered this well, by demonstrating that various principles of Intelligent Design are, indeed, falsifiable (that is, subject to being shown false), where as it is the theory of Darwinian evolution that is treated in an unfalsifiable manner. Every finding that demonstrates evolution’s weaknesses is dismissed, and every experiment or cumulative experience that demonstrates its unviability is discounted and excused.]
However, those things aside, one thing Dr. Behe pointed out has stuck with me: “Science stopping” conclusions aren’t failures at all but successes. His examples really sold the point.
For instance, consider the success of Einstein’s theories of relativity. While they are generally not referred to as “science stoppers” that is exactly what they were. One can read of the fantastic experiments that were being done, for instance, by many trying to discover the medium in which light travelled and the many theories that were multiplying about the “æther” that carried light along. Newtonian mechanics-based theories on various scales were “killed” — slain by the understanding that they were inaccurate and inadequate. A great deal of science was stopped cold — and rightly so. In this way, relativity is a success not a failure.
Anti-relativity theories are still formulated and pursued by some, to be sure. But the success of relativity has put such researchers on notice: “Don’t expect this to be promising work.” While a “science stopper,” relativity has, instead, been a “science focuser.”
The same could be said about other theories. Should the recent evidence supporting the existence of the Higgs boson be ignored because it solidifies the Standard Model of particle physics and makes alternate theories less likely? Is it a “science stopper”?
The success of the Big Bang theory certainly put an end to considerations of an eternal universe. Any such theorizing certainly stopped — at least in any significant volume. But cosmology has been properly and profitably focused by the theory’s success, hash;t it? Shouldn’t unprofitable and inaccurate science be stopped?
Bringing our work and research more in line with reality should always be embraced, should it not?
In this case, the charge of “science stopper” is simply a matter of trying to smear a good theory with a negative sounding pejorative. People worried that accepting a beginning to the universe would move cosmology into the “metaphysical” and put an end to science and research. And yet, cosmology has exploded (sort of a Big Bang pun there!) with theories, research, experiments, etc. The beginning hasn’t gone away — the “Genesis Problem,” as it has been called, is still there. But the science goes on, with new questions, new findings, new knowledge, and new theories — actually, with deeper questions, more illuminating findings, more accurate knowledge, and more profitable theories. As a “science stopper” — even one with metaphysical implications — accepting the universe’s beginning has been a “science focuser” and a “science energizer.”
Doesn’t it make sense that embracing truth should do just that? And if embracing something that is increasingly seen as false is necessary for science to “continue” then haven’t we lost our way a bit?
Al the best theories are, in a number of ways, “science stoppers.” If Intelligent Design is a “science stopper,” it is only so in all the right ways. Don’t let the name-calling fool you.
I know there was more, but if I don’t post this review today, I may never do so. 🙂 Life is busy with the Spring Holy Days knocking on the door, so I think I will cut it short here. If I think of additional points to make, I will try to follow up with a “Part 2,” but for now I think this will do.
It was a great talk, and I enjoyed the opportunity. I took my copy of Darwin’s Black Box up for Dr. Behe to sign and was able to chat with him a bit. I had the chance to ask him about the work of William Dembski and others concerning trying to quantify information and signs of intelligence in a way that may add more objective analysis, and he said he thought it was promising as long as the work stays rooted in the realm of experimentation. I wanted to ask about David Berlinski, as well, but feared I would turn into a fan boy in that case. 🙂
Michael Behe was a very nice fellow, and I enjoyed the brief interaction and the chance to hear him present his case in person. It is my understanding that he stayed overnight so that he could spend time with the students of the school in a more intimate setting the following day, and I am sure that they found it profitable.