Re: [asa] ID/Miracles/Design (Behe vs. Behe)

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Sun May 24 2009 - 00:18:06 EDT


This is a reply to your earlier post, not your post of tonight.

Thank you for the kind words about my expository style. I won't reply in
detail to every point, so as to keep this shorter than it would otherwise
be, but I will take up a few points:

1. In reply to my recommendation of agnosticism, you wrote:

> Agnosticism of what? From a scientific perspective, it's pretty clear that
> no natural intelligence was involved. As for any other metaphysical
> perspectives, that's a different realm.

a. I mean agnosticism regarding the origin of something. For example,
take the first cell. Despite nearly 60 years of research into the
non-directed origin of life by chemical means, modern scientists still have
almost no understanding of how such a thing could have occurred. So, if
someone were to ask, "Did the first cell come into being by chance alone, or
was design somehow involved?" the proper
answer for a scientist would be, "We don't know." I would call that a
laudable agnosticism.

b. On what grounds can one say, regarding the formation of the first cell,
"from a scientific perspective, it's pretty clear that no natural
intelligence was involved"? Do you mean: "Science has *proved* that no
natural intelligence was involved?" Or "Science *assumes* that no natural
intelligence is involved"? If the former, please give me the titles of
books or articles where this proof can be found. If the latter, what
justifies science in making that assumption?

2. You wrote:

> Actually, I think the explanation is indeed comparable to the rigorous and
> detailed manner commonly expected in physics and chemistry. But not as
> detailed as detractors might demand.

Randy, you've stated that your field is computers. The training of a
computer scientist or engineer is generally not in the life sciences. So
isn't your belief in the rigorous and detailed character of
macroevolutionary theory something that you have taken more or less on faith
from your colleagues in the life sciences? If so, I think a little
skepticism is in order. Let me give you some good reasons for such

I can walk into any library in just about any university in the world, and
pull off the shelf any number of 500-page textbooks with titles like:
"Principles of Cantilever Construction"; "Bonding Strengths in the Alkynes";
"The Nuclear Structures of the Transition Metals", etc. These are not works
of speculation. They are books of information. Detailed information. And
most of the information in them has been accumulated since 1859. Now, tell
me where I can find a book with a title like: "From Light-Sensitive Spot to
the Camera Eye in 150 Stages: A Genetic Accounting"; or "The Origin of
Winged Flight: A Full Set of Plausible Intermediaries, Genetically and
Physiologically Explained, with Anatomical Drawings of Each"; or
"A Study of Natural Selection in the Pre-Cambrian Ocean: All the Prey
Available to the Trilobites, and All the Competitors They Faced"; or
"Seventy-Nine Physiological Adaptations Required for Marine Lactation, and
How Darwinian
Mechanisms Achieved Them". You won't find books in the library like this,
Randy. And the question is, why not?

We know a hundred times more about electricity and magnetism than Faraday
knew, but, 150 years after Darwin, what do we "know" about how the camera
eye evolved that Darwin did not know? Note that Dawkins's account of the
evolution of the camera eye marks no advance on Darwin's. And take a look
at Denton's review of the literature on the origins of winged flight: it's
clear that the best evolutionary theorists simply don't know how it arose.
And Denton's account was written more than 120 years after Darwin. I could
multiply these examples at will. How do you account for this incredibly
slow rate of progress in explanation, in comparison with the phenomenal rate
of progress of the rest of science during the same time period?

I would suggest that the slow progress comes from the nebulousness and
imprecision of the Darwinian mechanisms; they are too broad and loose for
anything to be nailed down. Precisely because "mutation" and "natural
selection" can be imagined to explain everything, they can explain nothing.
Darwinian theory will never achieve what physics and chemistry have
achieved, until it stops yammering endlessly about "mutation" and "drift"
and "neutral theory" and "selection" and "punctuated equilibrium" and other
such broad concepts, and can nail down an exact sequence of chemical changes
in the genomes and the proteins that can turn, say, a wolf into a whale.
Until Darwinian theory can offer explanations on this level of detail, it
will never be rigorous science, but only science-flavoured storytelling.

You wrote:

> Here I must object. This is not scientific methodology in the least.

Speaking as a scholar who has read a more than an average amount of the
history of science, including original sources by people such as Galileo,
Gilbert, and Darwin, I have some idea of what scientific methodology
requires, and I know that
people who advocate a theory are expected to provide evidence for it. They
can't simply make grand speculative claims and then sit back and defy the
world to disprove them. It is not enough for Darwinians to say that no one
can *disprove* the possibility of the unguided evolution of the flagellum,
and that a Darwinian explanation for it may be found "some day". That's
just "Darwin of the gaps", which is every bit as vacuous as "God of the
gaps". No, I'm afraid that it is up to the Darwinians to provide a
plausible detailed model, showing how the flagellum could have come into
existence without intelligent design. So far, they have one plausible
intermediate step, the Type III secretory system Where are the other fifty
steps? Does Darwinism get a pass on the flagellum, on the strength of one
plausible intermediate step? And does it get a pass on the transition to
marine lactation, for which it has (I believe) zero plausible intermediate

Why do none of the scientists on this list raise any of these critical
questions about Darwinism? Why does it have to be a religion
scholar/historian of ideas such as myself, or a sociologist like Gregory
Arago? Where are the vaunted critical faculties of scientists in evidence
here? Where is the celebrated scientific skepticism about grand speculative
claims? Where is the demand for details, for quantification, for precise
mechanisms, all of which are hallmarks of good science? Why does Darwinism
get away with so little questioning, when its detailed explanatory power is
so very limited?

Is the reason for the "easy ride" given to Darwinism perhaps that, given
modern science's commitment to a *de facto* reductionist naturalism, *any*
chance-and-necessity theory for the origin of the cell or the flagellum or
the eye, no matter how flimsy, lacking in detail, or generally implausible,
is automatically better than a design inference?

If so, I predict that Darwinian theory will never, ever improve. It has no
motivation to go beyond vague qualitative generalizations if it is
guaranteed acceptance by the mere fact that design explanations are not
permitted. The only post office in town doesn't have to provide good
service to stay in business. And just as the post office is often staffed
by surly clerks who don't work very hard (but complain that they do), so
Darwinism is often staffed by quarrelsome, irritable men and women (e.g.,
Dawkins, P. Z. Myers, Eugenie Scott) who don't explain very much about how
evolution actually works. And just as the way to get better service in post
offices is to take them out of the hands of the state, and open them up to
private competition, so that each entrepreneur will hire hard-working and
pleasant clerks, to attract more customers, so the best way to produce
biologists who will actually roll up their sleeves and dig into the dirty
details of macroevolution is to hold their feet to the fire by constantly
comparing their results with the design inference. In such a competitive
atmosphere, Darwinians would have every incentive to show how Darwinian
processes can mimic every last detail of conscious design, thus rendering
design a redundant hypothesis. As it is, they don't have to show a blessed
thing. Like those surly post office clerks, they get their paycheques
anyway, so why should they care how inefficient they are at producing
detailed explanations for major macroevolutionary changes? As long as the
courts and the scientific establishment and the state education authorities
and the textbook publishers maintain their monopoly over "origins science",
they've got all the time in the world.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Randy Isaac" <>
To: <>
Sent: Wednesday, May 20, 2009 9:39 PM
Subject: Re: [asa] ID/Miracles/Design (Behe vs. Behe)

> Cameron, you certainly are a clear thinker and good writer. A few
> rejoinders if I may.
> You wrote:
>> 1. I agree with you that the ideal situation for design detection is one
>> in which we know something about the potential designer and the potential
>> techniques.
> Not just ideal but necessary. Without some degree of knowledge of the
> characteristic of the designer or the methodology, there is nothing to
> detect.
>> 2. I'm not sure, however, that these conditions are strictly necessary.
>> At least it is debatable whether they are. Some biological systems seem
>> not only so complex, but so integrated with other complex biological
>> systems (in such a way that they all adjust to each other in intricate
>> and nuanced ways), that it seems almost beyond imagination that these
>> overlapping systems could have come into existence without the aid of
>> intelligence (the possessor of that intelligence -- aliens, God, etc. --
>> being a side-question). The living cell is a more complex and more
>> integrated set of sub-systems than any man-made computer, and none of us
>> would think of arguing that the integrated complexity of a computer came
>> about by chance and necessity, without the aid of intelligence.
> This is an argument from incredulity which is extremely attractive to all
> of us but not as scientists. And no, the analogy of the complexity of a
> computer to a living cell doesn't hold up--certainly not about its origin.
> I spent my career designing and building computers and I can easily assert
> that computers are nowhere near the complexity of a living organism. We
> know how computers are designed so we know it has a designer. Many of
> them, actually. For living systems, we have no comparable indication of
> design.
>> You will perhaps respond that this does not amount to a formal proof.
>> Well, I agree. But does science always require formal proofs? Does it
>> not sometimes settle for "the best available explanation"? And isn't
>> "the best available explanation" in the case of a cell that some sort of
>> intelligence has been at work? Couldn't design be accepted, not as
>> proved by science, but as a provisional explanation, and as the best
>> currently available explanation? This would leave open the possibility
>> that a better explanation for the origin of the cell, couched entirely in
>> terms of chance and necessity, might come along, in which case the design
>> explanation could be abandoned.
> No, this is not an issue of formal proof. It isn't even a "best available
> explanation." The claim that an intelligent agent is "the best available
> explanation" is not accurate on several counts. One, it isn't an
> explanation. With no known agent and no known methodology, there is no
> explanation to provide. Secondly, if that intelligent agent is
> "supernatural" or "non-natural" then there is no plausible reason why such
> "explanations" are in the same category to be compared. It seems that it
> would be a category error to say that it is a better explanation. It may
> be complementary but the "best?"
>> 3. I agree with you when you say this:
>>> Yet the argument hangs solely on the inability to find an alternative
>>> (natural) explanation for this so-called "information content."
>> True; and ID people sometimes overstate their case, when they say that
>> Darwinian processes (or other naturalistic processes) *can't possibly
>> have* produced the blood clotting mechanism, or the flagellum, etc. But
>> on the other hand, Darwinians overstate their case when they say that
>> Darwinian processes can explain such things.
> Indeed, all sides of the debate unfortunately overstate their case to make
> the strongest statement possible.
> >The fact is that, to date, Darwinian
>> processes haven't explained (in anything like rigorous detail) any major
>> macroevolutionary change. And if the Darwinian processes haven't been
>> able to do this to date, how do we know that they ever will be able to?
> It doesn't seem to me that this is a "fact." And who is the arbiter of
> what level of "rigorous detail" is required to explain "any major
> macroevolutionary change." Are you? Is the ID community? Is Dawkins?
> Scientific methodology is hardly that stringent. The relevant "fact" in
> this case is that evolutionary (note I'm replacing your term "Darwinian"
> with "evolutionary" for obvious reasons) processes have explained so many
> things and successfully predicted so many discoveries and is so
> surprisingly consistent in so many ways that the scientific community sees
> it as plausible. No, not proven in a rigorous sense. But scientifically
> profound. And that is what counts. No other theory has come anywhere
> close. Hasn't even left home plate.
>> Let me put this in another way. It is unwise of anyone to try to prove a
>> negative. In trying to say that "Darwinian processes couldn't possibly
>> have ..." ID people put too great a burden on themselves. Instead, they
>> should be arguing like this: "OK, we'll grant the possibility that the
>> camera eye could have arisen by Darwinian processes. Now give us a
>> hypothetical account -- *with details*." Now the onus is on the
>> Darwinians, and they are in the hot seat. (Note: this more cautious
>> approach is the one taken in *The Design of Life*, by Dembski and Wells,
>> which does not argue that Darwinian mechanisms *cannot* explain the
>> apparent design of life, but only that they have not come anywhere near
>> to explaining it.)
> Here I must object. This is not scientific methodology in the least. And
> who is the authority demanding of "evolutionists" to have the "onus" of a
> hypothetical account "*with details*"? There's no hot seat. Indeed, there
> is a tremendous amount of detail to be discovered. That is the exciting
> part of doing science. In grad school, my thesis advisor used to say that
> the answer to a good scientific question gives rise to three more good
> questions. It may be self-satisfying to always be demanding more and more
> details before one is convinced, but the level of explanation is so
> productive to this point that there is no reasonable point in demanding
> "more details" before the big picture is allowed.
>> 4. I think that this approach (#3 above) would lead, in essence, to a
>> stalemate, in which the Darwinians would have to admit that they are
>> nowhere near being able to explain any major macroevolutionary change in
>> an adequate manner, and whereby the ID people would have to admit that
>> they haven't disproved the Darwinian thesis or confirmed intelligent
>> design. So where would that leave the matter? I think your own words
>> capture it: "we don't know". And that's essentially David Berlinski's
>> position. He's a strong critic of Darwinism, but doesn't endorse ID. He
>> says that we simply don't know how all these complex systems could have
>> arisen. We don't know for sure that intelligence was involved, but we
>> certainly aren't in the position to say that intelligence couldn't
>> possibly have been involved. The proper position, he says, is
>> agnosticism.
> Agnosticism of what? From a scientific perspective, it's pretty clear that
> no natural intelligence was involved. As for any other metaphysical
> perspectives, that's a different realm.
>> 5. But note that agnosticism regarding the macroevolutionary
>> capabilities of Darwinian mechanisms is *not* the official position of
>> the NABT, the AAAS, the NCSE, etc. It is not the position of Dawkins and
>> Coyne. It was not the position of past influential popularists like
>> Asimov and Sagan. It is not the position of some theistic evolutionists,
>> who seem sure that Darwinian means are God's chosen means for bringing
>> about evolution. The very strong impression conveyed to the general
>> public, by people who claim to speak in the name of "science", is that
>> Darwinian mechanisms have been proved capable, beyond a reasonable doubt,
>> of explaining the incredible complexity we see in life, and that it is
>> only some of the clean-up work, the fussy details, that are not yet
>> understood.
> There is indeed much too much arrogance in the way science is often
> portrayed in the media. Perhaps it is a characteristic of scientists who
> write popular books and materials. Indeed, many successful scientists are
> far too arrogant. Maybe that helps them be successful. But I think most
> scientists have a great degree of humility, knowing all too well what we
> don't know. Unfortunately, most scientists don't know how to convey this
> to the public.
>> If the official position of "science" were "We cannot explain -- in
>> anything like the rigorous, detailed manner commonly expected in modern
>> sciences such as physics and chemistry -- the origin of complex
>> integrated biological systems, and therefore those origins remain a
>> mystery", the creation/evolution debates would lose much of their
>> explosive character. And if the teaching of biology in the schools
>> reflected that healthy agnosticism, many of the constitutional and legal
>> debates would go away as well.
> Actually, I think the explanation is indeed comparable to the rigorous and
> detailed manner commonly expected in physics and chemistry. But not as
> detailed as detractors might demand. But we could benefit from more
> humility in the presentation.
>> 6. The problem as I see it, Randy, is that people like Eugenie Scott and
>> Ken Miller and Francis Ayala and Barbara Forrest and Daniel Dennett and
>> Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins are never going to accept your
>> intellectually modest and cautious position. What would you say to these
>> people about the limits of "science" regarding the question of
>> evolutionary mechanisms? Should it not be something roughly equivalent
>> to what you have said to the ID people?
> I would hardly put those names together in one sentence. Their views
> differ widely. I have far harsher words for Dawkins and Coyne and Dennett
> than any brother and sister in Christ striving to understand God's
> providence in our world, whether they be ID or YEC or whatever. They
> inexcusably use science as a means to convince people that their
> metaphysical views are true. Scott and Miller and Ayala have their own
> respective issues but they have a more credible attempt at building
> bridges than the other three.
> Randy
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Received on Sun May 24 00:19:38 2009

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