6/26/2007

THE ARGUMENT FROM DESIGN

(This is the first in a series of net-based resources that I intend to make available to my students, fellow travelers and other members of the general public, summarizing my views on evolutionary biology.)

Slightly more than two hundred years ago, there was general agreement among both theologians and philosophers that the best explanation for the diversity and complexity of life was the direct action of a Creator. To put it another way, the existence of Design in Nature was accepted as evidence for the action, and therefore the existence, of a Designer. Echoes of this line of reasoning can be found in scripture, as when the Psalmist remarks, "I am fearfully and wonderfully made." (Ps. 139:14)

The classic expression of this argument was given by William Paley, who observed that if he tripped upon a stone while hiking through the countryside, he would not be all that concerned about how the stone got there: for all he knew, he might have been there forever. But then Paley adds: "...suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there." (Paley, 1802)

Paley goes on to explain that the watch, with all of its myriad parts working together to keep time, is evidence of a Watchmaker. Since living things are arguably even more complex than watches, Paley concludes, they must have had a Maker of their own: God.

Interestingly enough, Paley’s works were required reading at Cambridge during the 1830's for those who, like Darwin, were studying for the priesthood. Charles Darwin would’ve not only known Paley’s argument very well, but if his letters are any judge, he almost certainly accepted them as a young man. (Darwin, 1996). How ironic, then, that the course of Darwin’s thought would lead most scholars today to place far less confidence in, or to even reject, the argument from Design. (Dawkins, 1996)

ID: The Design Argument Revived

Since the early 1990's, proponents of ‘intelligent design’, or ID, have revived a version of Paley’s old argument as part of an attempt to mount a critique of evolutionary biology that was not openly religious in origin or intent. The ‘ID movement’ was inspired by the writings of a law professor (Philip Johnson) who argued that science as practiced today was unfairly biased against design arguments, and that much of evolutionary biology was not so much science as it was a metaphysical system that he preferred to label ‘Darwinism’. (Johnson, 1991)


Johnson’s reasoning persuaded a number of scholars, mostly evangelical Christians, to form a Seattle-based ‘think tank’ known as the Discovery Institute (DI) whose goal was not merely to reform scientific practice, but to transform society by affirming "the reality of God by challenging the domination of materialism and naturalism in the world of the mind." (Johnson, 1997) In short, another version of the ‘culture war’. Johnson’s strategy, and a specific agenda to achieve those goals, were privately circulated in a 1998 document known as ‘The Wedge" (Discovery Institute, 1998). This document, which revealed the sectarian origins of its founders, would come back to haunt the DI once its particulars became generally known.


The first stage of Johnson’s ‘Wedge strategy’ involved raising consciousness in the public as to what he and others regarded as the defects of ‘Darwinism’. Toward that end, those associated with the DI have produced a large number of publications. Some developed propaganda aimed at undermining public confidence in high school science curriculum through allegations of bias and impropriety (Wells, 2000). Others claimed to have inferred previously-ignored evidence for design in biological structures (Behe, 1998) or attempted to repackage probability arguments (Dembski, 1999) as evidence that such structures could not have been produced without a Designer. Much of these publications were not peer-reviewed and of those that were, none produced any original scientific research bearing on their claims.

In recent years, the ‘ID movement’ has seen much of its momentum halted when it was on the losing side of a heavily-publicized Pennsylvania court case (Kitzmiller vs. Dover) in which the plaintiffs were able to show that an attempt by a local school board to require ID in the high school curriculum amounted to pushing creationism, which previous court rulings had held constituted an attempt to privilege sectarian religious views. The judge in the case, a conservative Republican appointed by President Bush, was highly critical of the deceitful conduct of the board members, two of which obviously lied under oath in an attempt to counter past misconduct. (Jones, 2005)


Why Are Evolutionary Biologists Unpersuaded By This New Version of the 'Design Argument' ?

Simply put, the Design Argument can not be tested. God’s creative power does not appear to manifest itself in a predictable way that can detected on a lab bench, a field survey or a computer analysis. Whereas, specific predictions based upon evolutionary mechanisms are routinely tested and often found to provide an extremely good fit to the data. Evolution is a fact, natural selection is a fact, and the inference that evolution by natural selection is sufficient to explain a wide variety of features in a number of different fields of study. As Pope John Paul II has written: "The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory." (Wojtyla, 1996)


Behe, M. Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. Free Press. New York, 1998.

Darwin, C. Charles Darwin’s Letters: A Selection, 1825-1859. Ed. F. Burkhardt. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1996.

Dawkins, R. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. W.W. Norton. New York, 1996.

Dembski, W. Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology. Intervarsity Press. Nashville, 1999.

Discovery Institute "The Wedge Document" 1998.

Johnson, P. Darwin On Trial. Intervarsity Press. Nashville, 1991.

Johnson, P. Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds. Intervarsity Press. Nashville, 1997.

Jones, J. Kitzmiller, et. al. vs. Dover School District, et. al. Memorandum Opinion: Dec. 20th, 2005.

Paley, W. Natural Theology (Oxford World’s Classics) Reprint of 1802 edition, ed. M. Eddy and D. Knight. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Wells, J. Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Why Much of What We Teach About Evolution is Wrong.
Regnery Publishing. New York, 2000.

Wojtyla, K. Truth Can Not Contradict Truth. October 22, 1996 Address of Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 22, 1996. URL: http://www.fjac.org/truth.pdf

3 comments:

CAD said...

Thanks for a great summary of the formation of the DI! This is the first time I've actually read their wedge document and, well, let's just say that it lived up to the hype!

I look forward to seeing the rest of the series...

Blake Stacey said...

No discussion of Paley's Watchmaker could be complete without a little David Hume:

In a word, Cleanthes, a man who follows your hypothesis is able perhaps to assert, or conjecture, that the universe, sometime, arose from something like design: but beyond that position he cannot ascertain one single circumstance; and is left afterwards to fix every point of his theology by the utmost license of fancy and hypothesis. This world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors: it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force which it received from him.

My own take:

With the paltry information we have on hand, we cannot say whether the watch we found was made by a master craftsman, by an apprentice (perhaps on his twentieth attempt!), by a committee of guild members, by Hephaistos or by aliens from Tau Ceti IV. The design argument crumbles in our hands, leaving only an old timepiece with sand in the gears.

Scott Hatfield . . . said...

Blake: Good stuff. My post only focused on the design hypothesis with respect to natural history/theology. Perhaps I will later add a post summarizing the objections of philosophers like Hume. It would also be a good idea to provide a post that specifically adduced examples from biology that evince poor design.