e-Skeptic #40 for October 29, 2004
www.skeptic.com: Where Nothing is Certain... But We're Not Sure About That...
Book Notice: Missing Links
Book Review: Why Intelligent Design Fails
Interview Link: Shermer interviewed by DOTT: http://www.dottpoliticaltalk.com/
Book Notice: Missing Links
A couple of weeks ago I lectured at Murray State University, in Murray,
Kentucky, a lovely college town in the western part of the state, itself a
couple of notches from the buckle of the Bible Belt. While there I met Robert A.
Martin, a paleontologist who gave me a copy of his new book, Missing Links:
Evolutionary Concepts and Transitions Through Time. It is a wonderfully compact
answer to creationists' demand to "show me just one transitional fossil." Well,
here are 300 pages of them! Check it out. -- Michael Shermer
Missing Links: Evolutionary Concepts & Transitions Through Time
by Robert A. Martin, Murray State University
Missing Links provides readers with a compendium of scientific evidence of
extinct organisms, or "missing links," that bridge the evolutionary gaps between
primordial species and modern life. The book introduces newcomers to the field
of evolutionary science with an accessible discussion of basic scientific
practices, rock and fossil dating techniques, and schools of classification.
Readers are then ushered through a fascinating array of examples of evolutionary
transition at all chronological and geographical scales, from the ultimate
origins of life on Earth to the morphological changes that readers will observe
during their lifetimes.
Offering a lucid primer on evolutionary science, as well as a series of case
studies and fossil histories in support of evolutionary theory, Missing Links
serves as an ideal short introduction to evolution for students and general
readers. Published by Jones & Bartlett. 304 pp., paper
Section I: A Primer of Evolutionary Science
Section II. Case Histories
Epilogue: Charles Darwin and the Fossil "Problem"
Robert A. Martin is a Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, Murray
State University. He holds a Ph.D. in Zoology at the University of Florida. Dr.
Martin has published more than 50 professional articles in the areas of
mammalian evolution and paleoecology and currently conducts fieldwork on Late
Cenozoic small mammal associations in Kansas and southern Spain. His work has
been recently supported by the National Geographic Society and the National
Patience and Absurdity:
How to Deal with Intelligent Design Creationism
A review of Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New
Mark Young and Taner Edis (Editors)
By Paul R. Gross
Physicists Matt Young and Taner Edis are the editors of a new volume whose
contributors are working scholars in the sciences touched by the newest
expression of “creation science”: Intelligent Design (ID) Theory. Why
Intelligent Design Fails is a patient assessment of all the scientific claims
made in connection with ID. The half dozen science-enabled spokesmen for ID are
the indispensable core group of an international neo-creationist big tent. Goals
of the American movement are sweeping: they begin with a highly visible,
well-funded, nationwide effort to demean evolutionary science in American school
(K-12) curricula. ID is offered as a better alternative. The hoped-for result is
the addition of ID to, or even its substitution for, the teaching of evolution.
Which would mean substituting early 19 th-century nature study for modern
biology. The admitted ultimate goal of the ID movement is to topple natural
science (they berate it as “materialism”) from its pedestal in Western!
culture and to replace it with “theistic science.”
For several decades, similarly imperialistic goals of a coterie of cultural
theorists have been achieved in many university departments of social sciences
and humanities, including art history. One well-known art critic, Roger Kimball,
has long been an analyst of their postmodern, postcolonial, gender-feminist
chic. But now he admits to second thoughts about the value of patient analysis
of its gaucheries. Painstaking analysis, applied to presentist posturing like
that which now passes in some parts of the academy for art history, can be
counterproductive. He worries, in a new book, that careful analysis of wishful
absurdities can suggest, to onlookers innocent of academic high culture, that
the absurdities are legitimate alternatives to the serious study of art—that the
conflict is between equally meritorious interpretations. “Patient objections to
the ludicrous,” he writes, “become ludicrous themselves.”1
But this is a worry that goes beyond cultural studies, and it has now become
acute in the evolutionary sciences. Patient analysis of creationist blunders and
sham reasoning (definition: ostensible inquiry whose conclusion is fixed in
advance) has as often done harm as good to the life sciences. Biologists are
confronted endlessly with touring companies of debaters and religious
charismatics who present the scripts of “scientific” creationism. Most
evolutionists and other biologists who are aware of these performances take the
easy way out: they ignore all religion-based commentary on science, justifying
indifference by declaring that to argue would dignify absurdity. Or worse: they
shrug off sham reasoning with a glib dismissal: “Nobody really believes that
stuff.” The excuse is itself absurd: Vast numbers—indeed, a majority—of our
countrymen do believe that stuff, even as they are ignorant of the real science.
Still, refusal to dignify absurdity has some merit. The creationist position,
especially this newest form of it, is pure Hollywood: There is No Such Thing As
Bad Publicity. That this view is held by the ID leadership is fully documented
in several recent studies of the movement. Thus, almost any careful examination
of ID by qualified scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers—especially by
those with strong credentials in evolution or cosmology—is likely to be
advertised by ID publicists as proof of the scientific importance of ID. Any
non-polemical response to it is described to the mass audience for
anti-evolution as showing the revolutionary truth of ID, the fear and trembling
it causes among Darwinists. That a few dedicated scientists take the trouble to
answer ID “theory” in detail is regularly adduced—in ID books, editorials,
opinion columns, talk shows, dedicated internet sites, and in a growing numbers
of activist student organizations around the country—as signaling!
the collapse of Darwinism.
The contributors to Why Intelligent Design Fails (WIDF) have risked being so
used. But they decided, evidently, to accept this risk. They decided to examine
every supposedly scientific (or mathematical, or epistemological) claim of ID,
patiently, in detail, and to offer only those conclusions about the value of ID
science—if any—that emerge clearly in the individual critiques and from their
totality. Whether this risk was justified will be known only if and when the
book is widely read, and then responded to (as inevitably it will be) at those
many creationist web sites, meetings, talk shows, conferences, and clubs. If
they do no more than to denounce the book and disparage its authors (as they
began to do the day it was listed on Amazon.com), WIDF will have succeeded. If
instead they proclaim it evidence for the scientific muscle of ID theory, the
tables will, at least to some extent, have been turned. But about the quality of
the critiques in this book, and of the totality, !
there is no doubt. This is honest, technically competent—patient—inquiry; the
critique of the newest form of creation science is devastating.
The Science of ID “Science”
Those scare-quotes on “science” are in ironic honor of recent and current
philosophers and sociologists of science who use them routinely to sabotage the
value of any word they surround. Thus if you are a relativist, you write about
“truth” to signal your discovery that there is no such thing. If you are
convinced that objectivity is made impossible by an observer’s culture or
ethnicity, then you write “objectivity.” WIDF is about the scientific claims of
ID, not about its background, history, purposes, politics, and practices. All
those are covered in other books and merely touched upon in the short
introduction. The undertaking here is, rather, to examine and judge only those
ID claims that have some original scientific (or mathematical) content.
Therefore the book lacks any discussion of, for example, one of the iconic books
of the movement, Jonathan Wells’s Icons of Evolution, which offers no science of
its own but rather a litany of accusations against evolutionary biolog!
y, mined from the literature of creationism and applied to quotes dug up from
internal arguments in the biological literature. Its burden is that evolution as
taught is wrong or fraudulent, and must therefore not be presented to children
without the strongest disclaimers. Wisely, the contributors to WIDF have ignored
all this. It has already been dismantled, point by point and claim by claim, in
lengthy treatments by scientists who are experts in all the fields involved. A
check at www.ncseweb.org will unearth them all. There are, on the other hand,
purportedly new arguments for ID: and those are the mainstay of its nationwide
campaign. They fall loosely into three classes:
(1) Primarily biological. The featured argument was offered by biochemist
Michael Behe, who proposed in 1996 that at the sub-cellular level of molecular
machines and chemical reaction pathways, important systems are “irreducibly
complex” (IC). Such systems have multiple working parts, each of which is
essential for function. Absence of any part would destroy the function. But, his
argument goes, non-functioning systems are not subject to positive natural
selection. Therefore complex functioning systems cannot have evolved gradually
by any Darwinian mechanism, which requires that all intermediate stages have
some function. They must have arisen in one fell swoop. Therefore (sic) they are
the product of some designing agency—of intelligent design. All recent ID
biological claims relate to this one, and the most widely exposed mathematical
claim depends upon it too. A body of other, very old but regularly updated
creationist claims comes along with ID, however. These are all vers!
ions of the young-earth creationist preoccupation: that while there may be some
common descent at a very low level (contemporary species, perhaps, from the
original basic kinds), the world’s biota are the products of God’s “kinds,” as
per Genesis or in separate interventions.
(2) Epistemological-Physical. These arguments challenge the logic or the formal
plausibility of prevailing scientific accounts of universal origins and of the
history of life on Earth. There are several threads of which these arguments are
woven, some very old, some relatively new. The oldest are creationist canards
from thermodynamics, for example: that since the entropy of a (closed!) system
either rises or remains constant, and its degree of order (complexity) must
therefore remain constant or fall, the spontaneous (read “natural”) appearance
of life-forms (which means increased order and complexity) is impossible.
Something other than nature alone must have done it. Another class of arguments
depends upon heuristic models—Michael Behe’s mousetrap, for example—as
illustrations of irreducible complexity or the need for a purposeful designer.
The more sophisticated arguments surfacing in ID ignore these old thermodynamics
howlers and focus, instead, on supposed limitations of!
self-organizing processes or on the several anthropic principles (“the
fine-tuning of the universe for life”) as indicators of supra-physical design in
(3) Mathematical-Probabilistic-Computational. These are descendants of the
primitive creationist claim of life’s improbability, as calculated. If, that is,
the assembly of something necessary to life requires a coming together, at just
the right time and place, of a large number of individual events or objects,
each of which has its own (often low) probability, then the probability of the
assembly occurring by chance is the product of all those constituent
probabilities. If that product is small enough, then the likelihood of the
assembly happening in any real time-interval is effectively zero. Again, the
more sophisticated ID proponents shun this argument, steering away from the
self-evident absurdity of such clearly inapplicable models. Nevertheless, the
flawed basis in equi-probability and multiplication remains in the fancier
versions. The achievement of William Dembski, the movement’s
mathematician-theologian-philosopher, is to couple such arguments with a purely
e device, an eliminative “design inference,” by which—he claims (but has never
demonstrated)—the presence of design can be discovered as the cause of any
supposedly natural process. This is to be done by considering the probabilities
of chance and “regularity” (physical law) as causes, and then by the extent to
which the still unexplained event or object has “specified complexity.”
Judging ID Science
WIDF analyses of these ID offerings are provided by a team of well-qualified
contributors. For the biological claims, there are chapters from paleontologist
Alan Gishlick, biologist-engineer Gert Korthof, molecular pharmacologist Ian
Musgrave, and molecular biologist David Ussery. For logic, epistemology,
physics, and cosmology, there are contributions from physicist (and editor)
Taner Edis, taphonomist (the study of fossilization) Gary Hurd,
bio-mathematician Istvan Karsai, physicist-engineer Mark Perakh,
philosopher-biologist Niall Shanks, physicist Victor Stenger, and physicist
(editor) Matt Young. Finally, the mathematical and probabilistic arguments are
examined closely by zoologist-computer scientist Wesley Elsberry, physicist Mark
Perakh, and mathematician-computer scientist Jeffrey Shallit.
Result? Not one of the ID claims is sustained, let alone proven, in the massive
output of ID to date. Most of the claims are shown to be simply bad science. The
expository style of WIDF is for the most part respectful of the authors and
claims analyzed. It is therefore very remarkable that those presumably qualified
ID authors should have committed themselves, and to some extent their academic
careers, to a relentless, public elaboration of soft claims, bad arguments, and
plain mistakes. One can only guess that they are driven by motivation and
sincere feelings other than simple dedication to doing the best possible
A few examples, telegraphically stated, must suffice here. Irreducible
complexity will do for most of the biology. Behe’s entire argument depends upon
the implied necessity that every piece of a sub-cellular molecular machine—and
most such “pieces” are proteins, which are encoded in genes—be provided for ab
initio. That is, it requires that all the proteins of a supposedly irreducibly
complex system are (or were) provided from the beginning, or that the genes for
them were already there at the beginning but not necessarily being used.
Examples he adduces of such systems are the blood clotting cascade and the
bacterial flagellum, which functions as an outboard motor for the bacterial
cell. But as the biologist-authors of WIDF show, there is no need for all the
parts of any such system to be there, or to have been there as such, from the
beginning. Behe made a simple, but bad, mistake. He overlooked gene duplication
and the independent evolution of copies; and he forgot that man!
y, perhaps most, proteins have multiple functions. He seems not to have thought
through the startling redundancy of subcellular functions. Thus, in separate
WIDF chapters, Ussery and Musgrave present unshakable evidence that systems Behe
would consider IC have evolved by “Darwinian mechanisms”; and that relic
intermediates for many of the steps in that evolution survive as the current,
simpler version of the system in some contemporary organism.
Gishlick, in an unexpected way, tops even those no-nonsense contributions.
Taking the definition of IC at face value, he shows that there must be IC
systems at the level of anatomy, as well as of biochemistry. One well-studied IC
system of contemporary animal anatomy is the flight machine of birds: the wing.
Gishlick sets out the special parts of the working wing and all its auxiliaries,
from wrist bones to special, airfoil-producing flight feathers. He then shows
that all those parts appeared during the long course of Avian evolution over
geologic time, and that for most of that long stretch, those parts functioned
usefully (therefore selectably) for somethingother than flight. Evolution of
functional systems is almost always a story of co-optation, as evolutionists
have known for nearly a century. Gishlick’s naming of known fossil species that
had those intermediate states of the system as it evolved, is an overwhelming
dismissal of the central claim from IC.
Gert Korthof undertakes the modest job of examining descent with modification as
viewed by the ID leaders. “Descent with modification” was Darwin’s own shorthand
for the history of life on Earth, for the facts of evolution as he gathered them
together (even in the absence of a workable idea about heredity). All the ID
leaders equivocate about this. They do hesitate to state, if not to imply, the
young-earth creationist absurdity that all species are “kinds,” and that all
kinds were called into being by God. Biologist Behe, for example, concedes that
descent with modification has occurred; but he indicates that it can’t account
for IC, so that intelligent design must be at the heart of real
species-formation—if and when that happens. Others among the ID leadership
either deny any taxonomically significant descent with modification, or labor to
create complex “alternate” taxonomies that allow species to proliferate, but
only as products of basic families—the “kinds” of genesis. !
Korthof’s essay is a compact gem: he shows that none of these jury-rigged
schemes can possibly explain the huge matrix of facts out of which modern
evolutionary biology grows, and that they are severally illogical to boot.
The part-epistemological, part-faux-thermodynamic ID claims to the effect that
information-rich complexity cannot arise spontaneously in natural systems are
addressed by several of these authors. But Shanks and Karsai describe such
spontaneous complexities as the beautiful Benard (convection) cells that
organize themselves in an asymmetrically-heated Petri dish, and the astonishing,
ad hoc shaping of cellular structure in wasp nests, whose builders have no
intelligent-design contingency book for nest structure. The last resort of ID
proponents when defeated, as they have been in arguments about the need for
designer-intervention in such historical processes as evolution and such
contemporary processes as these discussed by Shanks and Karsai, is to invoke the
strong anthropic principle. The universe is exquisitely fine-tuned, this says,
as regards the values of its fundamental physical constants and the possible
structures arising because of them—fine-tuned for “life as we know!
it,” for us. Therefore the universe must have been pre-loaded with the right
information—the “complex specified information” that William Dembski and Behe
and the others argue is the unfailing diagnostic of an intelligent designer.
Victor Stenger, however, explains here why current theoretical and astro-
physics, especially multiple-universes cosmological theory, is perfectly at home
with a “fine-tuned” universe inhabited by ourselves, and with its having arisen
Mark Perakh has taken great pains to study and analyze the claims of Dembski’s
most influential theoretical book so far. That book presents an argument based
upon certain induction-formalizing, optimizing theorems discovered by
mathematicians David Wolpert and William MacReady in 1997. As Dembski exploits
them, these so-called “No Free Lunch” theorems mean that the “the Darwinian
mechanism,” taken to mean iterated algorithmic searches on a (biological)
fitness landscape, cannot in general find the kinds of solution represented in
the complexity of biological organisms—unless necessary information is
incorporated beforehand in the algorithm itself. “Front-loading” again. But
Perakh’s study shows that this conclusion results from a misunderstanding and
misapplication of the No Free Lunch theorems. David Wolpert, co-discoverer of
the theorems, dismissed Dembski’s prolix argument as “written in Jello.”
Elsberry and Shallit, finally, provide a well-named essay, “Playing Games with !
Probability: Dembski’s Complex Specified Information.” In it they show that this
most fundamental (and most obscure) of the formal elements of Intelligent Design
Theory is simply incoherent.
The editors, Young and Edis, contribute strong chapters of their own on a number
of these points and also provide concise but useful background on the ID
movement, on the epistemological issues, and on ID congeners elsewhere in the
religious world (for example in Islam). Gary Hurd provides a very useful
appendix on organizations and websites concerned with ID (pro and con).
What’s Really Happening
Much of this might appear to professional biologists to be nit-picking; and in a
sense it is. But it is nit-picking because the claims of neo-creationism are
mostly nits. They are quote-minings, trivially literal models such as mousetraps
and painted bulls-eyes, or obscure mathematical-probabilistic arguments based
upon unrealistic models of biological phenomena. Biologists who know what has
been going on in evolutionary science the past decade or two can be,
understandably, bemused. They know that there has been an explosion of progress
in study of the central process of evolution: the formation of new
species—speciation. They are aware of excellent recent books, popular 2 and
professional, 3 recounting that progress, conveying what we know today of at
least some of the real mechanisms by which speciation has occurred in the past
and is happening all around us, now.
They recognize that providing a fully detailed account of macroevolution is the
daunting task yet before us, but that the fruitful marriage of molecular
genetics and developmental evolutionary biology has already provided plausible
answers to the basic question: how the proliferation of animal body plans
happened, at least since they first fossilized well during the lower Cambrian.
The forms demonstrated then heralded the eventual diversity. Evolutionists know
now that the Cambrian “explosion” was not a literal explosion: that the rapid
unfolding of body-plans in the lower Cambrian was inherited from ancestors: and
some of those ancestors have been found. An ancestral Echinoderm (not yet an
Echinoderm) has at last been discovered in the Chengjiang deposits of China. The
Echinoderms did not appear explosively, by some act of special creation. They
evolved. There is no reason to doubt that the same was true for the other phyla.
One of the elusive, predicted, and long-awaited mic!
roscopic ancestors of all bilaterian animals has been found, fossilized, in the
Doushanto formation in China. It dates to some 50 million years before the
Every reasonably informed biologist knows that there are big problems in the
history of life on Earth still to be solved, and the ways to their solutions are
not transparently clear. But that is the way of all science; and so far, natural
science has delivered testable and daily-confirmed explanations. No other
“science,” theistic or otherwise, has. Every one of those informed and
open-minded biologists therefore knows, as well as anything about the physical
world can be known, that organic evolution happened on this planet. And he or
she knows that current evolutionary theory, the product of 145 years of often
besieged work, of testing and winnowing, is one of our surest scientific
So it seems a trouble for busy scientists to give their time to truth-squads,
examining (scrupulously, as do the WIDF contributors) the incessant nay-saying
of creationists, and now of creationists who use the language of science and
mathematics comfortably. But it must be done. There will be more anti-evolution,
religiously motivated nay-saying, and there must be more books like WIDF. The
stakes are high. Nothing less hangs in the balance than the hope that some
fraction of the next generation—of our children—will get serious education in
science, and that they will be capable of speaking truth not only to power, but
to and for all their peers.
Dr. Paul R. Gross is University Professor of Life Sciences, emeritus, at the
University of Virginia. His baccalaureate and doctoral degrees are from the
University of Pennsylvania. He is a developmental and molecular biologist who
has taught at Brown, Rochester, MIT, and the University of Virginia. He is
co-author with Norman Levitt of Higher Superstition (Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1994), and with Barbara Forrest of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge
of Intelligent Design (Oxford University Press, 2003).
Roger Kimball, The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art.
(San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2004), 52.
Menno Schilthuizen, Frogs, Flies, and Dandelions: The Making of Species (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2001).
Jerry A. Coyne and H. Allen Orr, Speciation (Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates
, Inc., 2004).
Why Intelligent Design Fails is published by Rutgers University Press, copyright
Permission to print, distribute, and post with proper citation and
acknowledgment. Copyright 2004 Michael Shermer, Skeptics Society, Skeptic
magazine, e-Skeptic magazine. Opinions expressed are those of the authors, and
not necessarily those of the Skeptics Society, its Board of Directors, or its