Evolution of creationism
Evolutionary pressure on Creationists
H. Allen Orr writing in Boston Review - 31 OCT 2002
Out of the primordial Judaeo-Christian soup stomped the Young Earth Creationists. They believed in six-day creations and static geology. Their great evolutionary advantage was simplicity, and so they are still with us today, like the slime molds. But their brains were too small to compete with Darwinists for the spoils of intellectual credibility. No organism can resist an ecological niche, and so a new Creationist evolved: the Creation Scientist. These Creationists had the brain capacity to read scientific material and could even perform simple abstract analyses, such as attacking radio-isotope dating methods and concocting Flood-friendly geological theories. Creation Scientists were moderately successful. They captured a large ecological niche, feeding off the ignorance of those who knew just enough to recognise scientific terms as scientific, but who did not know enough to evaluate the actual scientific validity of Creation Science. This is a pretty good evolutionary strategy. Good enough to temporarily colonise a district school board in Kansas. But it was still not the Big Niche. The Creation Scientists were soon crushed by the heavy evolutionists and the school board returned to its ante-diluvean state.
Now the Creationists have evolved again. They're bigger. They're smarter. They have cranial capacities measured in volumes larger than thimblefuls. They are Intelligent Design Theorists. The most famous is Michael Behe, a qualified biochemist. The next most famous is Phillip Johnson, who has no scientific credentials, but is a professor emeritus of law from Berkeley. The latest is William Dembski, who has a PhD in philosophy, a PhD in mathematics, and a Master of Divinity. These are not intellectual slouches.
Like all Creationists, the Intelligent Design (ID) Theorists reject Darwinism, and specifically natural selection as an explanation for the complexity of living creatures. As Michael Behe puts it, organisms are made up of too many "irreducibly complex" systems to be the work of random mutation and natural selection, and they must be the work of intelligent design. The ID theorists do not reject the existence of Darwinian evolution - after all, Darwinism can explain the evolution of antibiotic resistance and the fluctuating beaks of Galapagos finches. The ID theorists accept that the Universe is billions of years old. They do not reject science itself. They don't lie about their opponents. This makes them more formidable than their primitive ancestors.
In this review of Dembski's book No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot be Purchased Without Design, H. Allen Orr delivers a stinging critique of ID theory. He gives lucid and compelling reasons why Dembski is wrong. He even shows that Dembski is often aware of the limitations of his own arguments.
Dembski has constructed a complex mathematical argument. He claims that he can show mathematically whether something is random or is designed, and that biological systems must be the latter. Orr's review completely spikes Dembski's argument. Orr even shows that Dembski's mathematics are irrelevant to the question, that is, Dembski's book is one long strawman argument. Orr even shows that Dembski is aware that he is fighting a strawman. This is pretty damning. But the problem is that Orr is a professional biologist, and his critique is resolutely biological. This makes sense of a sort - ID theory makes biological claims, so that is how it should be confronted. But it goes deeper. Dembski is actually engaging in two dishonest strategies that Orr does not really address because they go beyond the biology. Orr identifies several points where Dembski's arguments fall apart - in one instance so badly that Orr describes it as "the height of hypocrisy." But there are two other flaws in Dembski's book that are just as damning.
Orr's review utterly demolishes Dembski's argument that biological organisms are too complex to be explained by Darwinism. But let's suppose that Dembski is right. Let's suppose that there are biological systems that are too complex. This is a hypothetical, understand. Dembski is wrong. But let's pretend that he is right. The problem here is that even if Darwinism cannot account for biological complexity, Dembski has offered no evidence that Intelligent Design is the only plausible alternative. Like all the ID theorists, he assumes that what cannot be explained by Darwinism must be God's work. This is the old God of the Gaps argument. But science doesn't work this way. Proving the Scottsboro Boys innocent doesn't mean that Elvis raped the women.
Scientific theories are judged on two key criteria: (i) that they explain the known facts, and (ii) that they lead to testable predictions. Intelligent Design certainly can explain the known facts, but that's because anyfacts can be put down to Intelligent Design. Something doesn't make sense? Well that's not a flaw in the theory, that just means God made it that way. And that's the problem. It makes no testable predictions. Any scientific observation can be explained away as God's direct intervention. There is no such thing as contrary evidence to an ID theorist. This is not science. It is rationalisation of faith.
The other deep flaw in Dembski's argument that Orr only addresses tangentially is that it boils down to an attempt to cheat the reader. He fills his book with complex mathematics and rigorous-looking theses - and then reveals at the very end that these arguments don't really address the core of Darwinism. It is a shell game. Watch the maths go round and round. Where it stops, no-one knows.
A story, the relevance of which will become apparent, is recorded by Françoise Thiebault. In the 18th century there lived a famous encyclopedist by the name of Denis Diderot. He was even more famous as an anti-Catholic materialist. In Diderot's time, his philosophy was despised and mildly dangerous to follow. He spent three months in a French prison for publishing Lettre sur les aveugles, which questioned the existence of God. In another essay, Diderot wrote, 'Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: "My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly." This stranger is a theologian.' You can see why he got himself in trouble.
Diderot was invited in 1773 to the Russian Court. Catherine the Great was amused by Diderot's philosophy, but some of the court officials were distressed, and while they wanted to muzzle Diderot they did not dare confront him given that the Empress herself had invited him. Instead they introduced him to the famous mathematician Leonhard Euler. A true genius, Euler published over 380 mathematical papers on many subjects. When Euler died in 1783, he left such a backlog of material that the St Petersburg Academy continued to publish his work for fifty years. He was also a devout Christian who conspired with the Russians to deflate the upstart French atheist. The court officials explained that the famous mathematician Euler had an algebraic proof of God's existence, which he would present to the Court if Diderot would like to hear it. Of course Diderot agreed.
Here Thiebault completes the story: 'The mathematician, which was Euler advanced towards Diderot and said gravely, and in a tone of perfect conviction: "Monsieur, (a + b^n)/n =x, therefore God exists. Any answer to that!" Diderot, to whom algebra was Hebrew, was embarassed and disconcerted; while peals of laughter rose on all sides. He asked permission to return to France at once, which was granted.'
William Dembski has cast himself in the role of Leonhard Euler and his readers as Diderot. His argument amounts to a proof by mathematical intimidation. It is bad enough that No Free Lunch gets published as if it is a serious scientific work. But the worst of it is that the slime-mold Creationists are symbiotic with the ID theorists, and once again they are demanding Creationism be taught in schools, this time in the guise of Intelligent Design. Once again they are demanding equal time and that students be given access to "competing theories". But there are no competing theories here. ID theory is just Creationism dressed up. Its practitioners may be more intellectually gifted than the old Young Earthers, but they have still not constructed a viable theory. As we speak, the entire ID argument can be summed up thus: "I believe but have no evidence that some components of biological organisms are too complex to have evolved in a Darwinian fashion. The only other alternative is that God must have made these complex systems in numerous acts of Special Creation. I cannot think of any experimental design that would show my theory is better than Darwinism." This is not science. It should not be in science books. If ID theory deserves equal time as an explanation of biological complexity, then we'd better include Native American folklore, which explains how Crow got his raspy voice from being tricked into singing himself hoarse by Raven. Equal time for all, I say.