Research News & Opportunities in Science & Religion February 2003

Dembski vs. Ruse Exchange on AAAS ID Policy

Damage Control and Historical Myopia at the AAAS

By William A. Dembski

The AAAS Board Resolution on intelligent-design theory represents the scientific establishment’s latest effort to insulate evolutionary biology from critique and discussion. The challenge of intelligent design for evolutionary biology is real. This is not like someone who claims that ancient technologies could not have built the pyramids, so goblins must have done it. We can show how, with the technological resources at hand, the ancient Egyptians could have produced the pyramids.

By contrast, the material mechanisms known to date offer no such insight into biological complexity. Cell biologist Franklin Harold in his most recent book, The Way of the Cell, remarks that in trying to account for biological complexity, biologists have thus far proposed merely “a variety of wishful speculations.” If biologists really understood the emergence of biological complexity in material terms, intelligent design couldn’t even get off the ground. The fact that they don’t accounts for intelligent design’s quick rise in public consciousness. Give us detailed, testable, mechanistic accounts for the origin of life, the origin of the genetic code, the origin of ubiquitous biomacromolecules and assemblages like the ribosome, and the origin of molecular machines like the bacterial flagellum, and intelligent design will die a quick and painless death.

But that hasn’t happened and shows no signs of happening. Nor has the “refutation” of intelligent design by scientists and scholars been nearly as successful as the AAAS resolution suggests. The discussion is ongoing and vigorous. A design-theoretic research program is now taking shape (see my article “Becoming a Disciplined Science”). Moreover, the claim that no evidence supports intelligent design is false -- plenty of evidence supports it provided that evidence is not ruled inadmissible on a priori grounds (much as Kepler’s elliptical orbits were ruled inadmissible because science “knew in advance” that the orbits had to be circular).

The worst fault of the AAAS resolution is its historical myopia and the ill-effects that portends for biology education. From the start, evolutionary biology has invoked intelligent design as a foil. We don’t need to explain the structure of a random chunk or rock. We do need to explain the organized complexity of biological structures like the bacterial flagellum. Why? Because they bear the hallmarks of design (why else would cell biologists call them “molecular machines”). Engineering terminology is not optional here. Evolutionary biology itself makes no sense except in light of intelligent design.

Michael Ruse, as a historian of science, knows this full well even if he puts it less delicately: “Teleology is like masturbation. It's all well and good to go to philosophical mass on a Sunday and swear off it, but come Monday morning, there you go again....” (Reported by John Wilkins.) For Ruse to characterize intelligent design as “creationism lite” needs therefore to be viewed as a further exercise in damage control. Intelligent design is compatible with Ruse's "fact of evolution" as well as his requirement that science not invoke miracles. What's at issue is not whether evolution has occurred or the degree to which it has occurred but whether the role of intelligence in the evolutionary process is both indispensable and empirically detectable, thus bringing intelligent design squarely within the fold of science.

Keep "Creationism Lite" ouf of the Public Schools
By Michael Ruse

Scientific creationism is as dead as the dodo. Even ardent American evangelical Christians are starting to realize that there really is no good scientific evidence to take the early chapters of Genesis absolutely literally. God’s creative efforts took more than six days, and Noah’s flood did not cover the whole earth. Unfortunately, “creationism lite,” better known as intelligent design, continues to thrive like a virulent social disease. Its supporters push it with enthusiasm and skill, and by appealing to ignorance and to the American sense of fair play “If they can have their views expounded in schools, why shouldn’t we have ours?” it is an ongoing threat to biology education in state-supported schools. Therefore, I welcome the sound endorsement of evolution and criticism of intelligent design by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and I am quite unmoved by the mishmash of half reasons given in defense of intelligent design by William Dembski.

I have said it before. I will say it again. The fact of evolution is as well established as the heliocentric theory of the solar system. The evidence fossils, homology, biogeography, systematics and much more is overwhelming. As the great evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky used to say: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” The theory of evolution is still much debated, but no one denies that natural selection is a very important mechanism, explaining at the physical level the eye and the hand and at the micro level the various essential processes and parts of the body, including those highlighted by the intelligent-design enthusiasts.

Nothing absolutely nothing the ID people have said in any way challenges this fact. The biochemist Michael Behe trots out blood clotting and more, despite the fact that the experts in the field protest that he has the science wrong (and much out of date). Behe refuses to answer questions posed by critics like Ken Miller who point to the difficulties in his position, such as when and where did complex organisms get created and why (if in the present) do we have no observational evidence and why (if in the past) they did not degenerate if they existed (as they must have done) before they were used? Dembski, a mathematician and philosopher, appeals to mathematical theorems, such as the No Free Lunch Theorem, which tells us that to get real design out we must put real design in. Why does he not address the relevant issue, namely that evolutionists claim that, thanks to selection, we can get apparent design out? What relevance does any of his mathematics have to this altogether-different claim?

The real tragedy is not the exclusion of intelligent design. It is that where ID succeeds politically and, if President Bush gets his way over future appointments to the Supreme Court, I fear that it will succeed mightily, politically students are not being taught the best of modern science and the methods to carry the enterprise forward. Good science means sweating it out with nature, trying to uncover her laws, pitting your wits against the evidence. It does not mean appealing to miracles when the going gets rough. This is neither good science nor good religion. For remember: there is nothing in Christianity (or Judaism) that demands the invocation of miracles to explain the wonderful world around us, and much that tells us that it is a denial of our God-given powers of sense and reason to take such an easy route. It is in the struggle for scientific understanding that humans do truly show that they are made in the image of their Creator and are not simply modified monkeys.

File Date: 02.18.03