Re: [asa] Rejoinder 2B from Timaeus – to Don Nield

From: Don Nield <>
Date: Sat Sep 27 2008 - 00:25:03 EDT

Thank you, Timaeus, for your thoughtful reply.
In front of me as I type I have copies of Denton’s books Evolution: A
Theory in Crisis (1985,1986) [ETC], Nature’s Destiny (1998) and his
chapter “An anti-Darwinian intellectual journey” in Uncommon Descent
(William A. Dembski, ed.) (2004)[ADIJ]. I also have access to what
appears to be Denton’s most recent scientific paper, namely
Edelmann JB, Denton MJ, The uniqueness of biological self-organization:
challenging the Darwinian paradigm, Biology & Philosophy 22 (2007),
ABSTRACT Here we discuss the challenge posed by self-organization to the
Darwinian conception of evolution. As we point out, natural selection
can only be the major creative agency in evolution if all or most of the
adaptive complexity manifest in living organisms is built up over many
generations by the cumulative selection of naturally occurring small,
random mutations or variants, i.e., additive, incremental steps over an
extended period of time. Biological self-organization-witnessed
classically in the folding of a protein, or in the formation of the cell
membrane-is a fundamentally different means of generating complexity. We
agree that self-organizing systems may be fine-tuned by selection and
that self-organization may be therefore considered a complementary
mechanism to natural selection as a causal agency in the evolution of
life. But we argue that if self-organization proves to be a common
mechanism for the generation of adaptive order from the molecular to the
organismic level, then this will greatly undermine the Darwinian claim
that natural selection is the major creative agency in evolution. We
also point out that although complex self-organizing systems are easy to
create in the electronic realm of cellular automata, to date translating
in silico simulations into real material structures that self-organize
into complex forms from local interactions between their constituents
has not proved easy. This suggests that self-organizing systems
analogous to those utilized by biological systems are at least rare and
may indeed represent, as pre-Darwinists believed, a unique ascending
hierarchy of natural forms. Such a unique adaptive hierarchy would pose
another major challenge to the current Darwinian view of evolution, as
it would mean the basic forms of life are necessary features of the
order of nature and that the major pathways of evolution are determined
by physical law, or more specifically by the self-organizing properties
of biomatter, rather than natural selection.

 I think that we can rule out geographical distance as a factor in
Denton’s departure from the Discovery Institute. According to the
biographical note in ADIJ, Denton has worked in the UK, Australia and
New Zealand, but not for any extended period of time in the USA.
Denton has distanced himself from Behe’s view that certain biological
entities are machines. If they are not machines then that undercuts
Behe’s position in a fundamental way. Denton’s view that basic life
forms are due to natural order means that when Dembski’s design filter
is applied to biology it fails at the first gate.
Dentons’statements in ADIJ about his change of view indicates to me that
much of what he wrote in ECT is now out of date. Indeed, he seems to
have moved on even further between his writing of ND and his ADIJ.
I think that you have read into Denton’s books something about design
that is not there. I note that “design” is not listed in the index of
either book.
It seems to me that Denton’s latest writings are more in line with a TE
position (such as I hold myself) than with an ID one.


Ted Davis wrote:
> In answer to Don Nield’s comments and question:
> Regarding Denton’s distancing himself from the Discovery Institute – I have no knowledge and could offer only speculation. Who knows why someone leaves a group? It could be something as simple as personality conflicts; it could be geographical distance, if he was no longer able to spend much time in North America; or it could be a distaste for the political aspects of the ID movement (which are inevitable given the fact that Discovery is located in the U.S.A., where the First Amendment has unfortunately become a tool in the culture wars). Or it might be a mix of these things. Or none of them.
> I’m not sure I agree that Denton has distanced himself from any particular claims of Dembski and Behe, but you haven’t specified the differences, so I don’t know what else to say.
> I don’t know whether ‘no longer seeing evolution in terms of mechanism’ brings Denton closer to the TE position, because I find the TE explanation of how evolution works to be theoretically amorphous. One of the reasons I am here is to find out from you people whether there are any core, theoretically articulate propositions advanced by TE about the nature of the evolutionary process, or whether TE is little more than a faith-gloss upon standard Darwinism.
> Also, note that while Denton has tried to get away from the language of “mechanism” (which in his view both creationism and neo-Darwinism share), he has replaced it with a language of “law” and “necessity”, not the personalistic language of “freedom”, “creativity”, “novelty”, etc., which some TEs revel in. Denton’s “nature” isn’t John Haught’s or Ken Miller’s. It’s more like Spinoza’s. It will appeal more to Christians of a disciplined, mathematical sensibility than to those of a romantic, personalistic sensibility.
> As for the differences between Denton’s books, he comments at length about that, in terms of his intellectual development, in his essay in Uncomment Dissent, so I recommend that, though it can’t be fully understood without reading the books themselves. I have just read both of his books recently, with extreme care. I find that, while they are obviously different in purpose, and while he has changed his emphasis somewhat, they are not contradictory. The earlier book lays down the necessary groundwork for the later one.
> For TEs, Denton’s first book should be mandatory reading, because most TEs are convinced that Darwinism is good science, and the first book shows that Darwinism is very poor science, even when “science” is restricted to the narrow view of causation and explanation demanded by Scott, Ken Miller, Dawkins, etc. For TEs, the second book should also be mandatory reading, but they will like it better, because it clearly endorses both evolution (as common descent) and a naturalistic explanation for evolution. However, the second book will require some mental adjustment for many TEs, because Denton is also absolutely insistent that life cannot be explained without reference to design, even from a scientist’s perspective. For him, design is no theological afterthought, no gratuitous exercise of “faith” that the Christian scientist can engage in, sitting in his easy chair in front of the fire, after a hard day at the lab (where the thought of “design” never ente!
> d his scientific head). For Denton, it is impossible to understand nature from a theoretical point of view without the notion of design; if you do not understand nature as designed, you simply do not understand nature; your theoretical grasp is insufficient. And he lays his reasons out in immense detail, with copious references to the literature of embryology, genetics, physiology, anatomy, cell biology, neuroscience, etc.
> Both books are just lovely; fine scholarship and informed science (from a front-line medical genetics researcher with an astoundingly broad grasp of the life sciences and of the history of evolutionary thought) woven beautifully together. I don’t think that any evolutionary biologist should be permitted to write another line of scientific prose without having read both of them.
> *****************************************

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Received on Sat Sep 27 00:25:57 2008

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