ID and the New Republic

The August 22&29 edition of The New Republic has an article entitled "The Faith that Dare Not Speak Its Name" by Jerry Coyne. This article contains vertually every fallacy, false assumption, and error made against the Intelligent Design argument, making it a good case study for reviewing these objections.

The opening of the article highlights the first two fallaciesy Coyne uses are called Poisoning the Well ("[T]his sort of "reasoning" involves trying to discredit what a person might later claim by presenting unfavorable information (be it true or false) about the person."), and Guilt by association In this case Coyne connects the defenders of ID with Christian "creationists". It is obvious from the article that Christians are not Coyne's "type of folks", but the "Creationist" kind are certainly the worst. Here is what Coyne wrote in his opening paragraph:

Exactly eighty years after the Scopes "monkey trial" in Datyon, Tennessee, history is about to repeat itself. In a courtroom in Harrisburg Pennsylvaia in September, scientists and creationists will square off about whether and how high school students in Dover, Pennsylvania will learn about biological evolution. One would have assumed that these battles were over, but that is to underestimate the fury (and the ingenuity) of creationists scorned.

The above also contains a not so subtle ad hominem (those crazy creationists lost the first round, but now they are back with a more clever, but no less dangerous attack on science!). From this point forward Coyne uses the terms "creationist," "Christian creationist," and "defender of Intelligent Design" interchangeably. Thus the connection is made. All IDer's are creationist, therefore what they have to say is wrong, dangerous, and opposed to science. Now, under normal circumstances, this would be merely fallacious reasoning, but it has the added difficulty in simply being wrong. While it is true that many IDer's are Christians, and even creationists, it is also true that some proponents of ID theory consider the designer to be some alien race who planted life on this planet eons ago. Still others are Jews, or other non-Christian theists, including Deists. Given that these people believe in a God of some sort, and that belief in a creator God necessitates belief in some form of intelligent design to the universe, this should not come as all that much of a surprise. In fact, elsewhere in his article Coyne notes that there are theists (even Christian theists!) that believe in some form of evolution, including something close to neo-Darwinian evoltution. Were he to have asked those individuals how they reconcile belief in evolution with their belief in a creator God, he might also have avoided his next, and greatest fallacy: Straw Man construction ("The Straw Man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person's actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position.")

Very simply the great body of his article is devoted to knocking down a version of Intelligent Design that most proponents do not hold or defend. For example, Coyne fails to distuish Young Earth Creationists (YEC) (those that believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis, and argue that the earth is no more than a few thousand years old, and that all of life was created as is by God, in six days) from the Old Earth Creationists (OEC) (those who accept that the earth is billions of years old, and has gone through many developemental stages, pretty much like those described by the vast majority of scientists from all disciplines). This is not a small distinction, especially since the criticisms Coyne levels against ID are almost entirely directed against the YEC arguments. A couple of examples will hopefully suffice. After a lengthy discussion on the evidence for the evolution of the jaw bone from reptile to mammal, Coyne argues against the position presented in Of Pandas and People thus:

Like earlier creationist tracts, Pandas simply denies this evolution of the jaw hing occured. It asserts that "there is no fossil record of such an amazing process," and notes that such a migration would be "extraordinary." This echoes the old creationist argument that an adaptive transition from one type of hinge to another by means of natural selection would be impossible... (the implication is that the intelligent instantaneously and miraculously.) designer must have done this job

So, the actual truncated quote of Pandas has the authors telling us that the change in the design of the jaw hinge is not found in the fossil record, and that this change is extraordinary. The first point is simply a fact. There is no fossil record, and Coyne admits this earlier in the same article, and explains why there isn't (the animals in question did not die in an area that would leave us many fossils). The second part tells us that the transition, if it occured, would be extraordinary. This is merely a truism. Even if the evolution were demonstrated to have happened (and we have no reason to doubt that it did), it would still be "extraordinary." But unfortunately, what Pandas does not say is that the transition was done "instantaneously and miraculously." And so the staw man. Coyne has made the "implication" that this is what the authors of the book meant (through the added fallacious reasoning of "guilt by association" with (young earth) creationists.

Contra young earth creationists, ID scientists do not deny that a transition can, and does, take place by way of gradual evolutionary changes over the course of even millions of years. What they deny is that this change occurred in a completely random manner through a series of blind chances. Were one to make the latter argument, one would be making a philosophical assumption, not a scientific argument. Coyne's second example of straw man building is no less blatant:

Phillip Johnson's book Darwin on Trial, which appeared in 1993, particularly emphasizes these gaps (in the fossil record) which, IDers believe, reflect the designer's creation of major forms ex nihilo (from nothing).

Once again Coyne fails to produce anything like a quote from Johnson (or even a reasonable paraphrase), nor from any other ID scientist, that suggests that anything was created ex nihilo, excepting, of course, the universe itself. Given that cosmologists are also pretty much in agreement that the universe does appear to have appeared out of nothing in the Big Bang, this latter position seems pretty reasonable. And as for the argument at entire species were created as is, from nothing, well, IDer's do not defend such a position, excepting those that also defend Young Earth Creationism.

Alright, enough with Coyne's straw men. Coyne does present two actual, and significant objections to Intelligent Design, both of which are pretty common. The first is that life does not look anything like what a designer would create, and the second is that Intelligent Design is not falsifiable, so it is not a true scientific theory.

First, after listing off a long line of evidence for traces of evolution within existing organisms, including humans, Coyne concludes:
There are only two answers to these questions: either life resulted not from intelligent design, but from evolution; or the intelligent designer is a cosmic prankster who designed everything to look as though it had evolved.

This is known as the fallacy of the False Dilemma ("This line of "reasoning" is fallacious because if both claims could be false, then it cannot be inferred that one is true because the other is false.") While it is entirely possible that the intelligent designer is, or is not a "cosmic prankster" (after all, true ID theory does not make any claims about the actual nature or purposes of the designer), it need not be false in order for the first proposition to be true. Moreover, both of the propositions could be false, both could be true, or a third possibility exists that Coyne refuses to consider: namely, the designer could be using the process of evolution in order to produce the variety of life as we know it.

Interestingly, Coyne recognizes that we know of actual cases of such "guided evolution," though he fails to connect the dots when it comes to the arguments about ID. Consider the cases of how humans have modified various species to suit their own purposes. The classic example Coyne uses is dogs, but we could also use cats, horses, cows, chickens, and a host of other domesticated animals. Dogs will suffice for this discussion however.

It is a well known fact that every breed of dog alive today originated from wolves that were domesticated by humans thousands of years ago. The process of this evolutionary change in dog types is documented, and new breeds are being created even today. Were a scientist to examine the purely scientific "fossil" and other natural occurring evidence, and at the same time, remained unaware of the human guidance of this process, he might be forgiven for concluding that this process was purely done through natural selection without the benefit of intelligent design. He might even point to the fact that female bulldogs, for example, cannot have puppies except by C-section because bulldog puppies have heads that are too large fit through the birth canal is evidence that there either is no designer, or that such a designer was a "cosmic prankster." But we would all know that this unfortunate scientist was wrong. His error stems from his inability, or refusal, to consider non-natural evidence provided by the record of human history showing that human beings created these breeds through guided selection. It would be interesting to see if we could determine, from the natural evidence alone, if it were more reasonable to accept the activity of a designer(s) in the creation of the assortment of dog breeds or not, but I will set that aside for now, as this article is plenty long enough as it is.

Coyne’s seemingly more serious challenge to intelligent design is based upon the fallacy known as Begging the Question (Begging the Question is a fallacy in which the premises include the claim that the conclusion is true or (directly or indirectly) assume that the conclusion is true.)

Insofar as Intelligent Design theory can be tested scientifically, it has been falsified. Organisms simply do not look as if they had been intelligently designed. Would an intelligent designer create millions of species and then make them go extinct, only to replace them with other species, repeating this process over and over again? Would an intelligent designer produce animals having a mixture of mammalian and reptilian traits, at exactly the time when reptiles are thought to have been evolving into mammals? Why did the designer give tiny, non-functional wings to kiwi birds?

The above list goes on in a similar vein, but hopefully the point is understood. If all these animals were “designed”, then why does the design contain useless, or even harmful characteristics?

The problem with this line of reasoning (which again demonstrates a form of the false dilemma fallacy) can be demonstrated using the dog breed example again. Why do bulldog puppies have heads so large that they cannot pass through their mother’s birth canal? In fact, this is almost an identical problem faced by hyenas, many of whom die in giving birth to pups with over sized heads. The bulldog is obviously a product of intelligent design. What about the hyena? We know that the purposes of the designers of the bulldog included over sized heads for the breed. They actually willed it that way. Could the same be said of the designer of the hyena? How can we know? It is true, as Coyne notes, that Intelligent Design makes no claims as to the nature and purposes of the designer(s) of life on earth. But to impose such a demand on the theory misunderstands its purpose, and simply begs the question.

Intelligent Design intends only to argue that there is more evidence of some kind of guided, intelligent, process behind the fact of the existence and diversity of life, than there is against it. The alternative is to argue that the existence and variety of life is all the result of chance alone. Neither is a testable, verifiable hypothesis in the same sense as is “if I heat water to a specific temperature, it will boil.” But both can be a part of the scientific evaluation of the evidence. As I argued in my post Is ID Compatible with Scientific Methodology?, one of the purposes of some scientific inquires (ie. coroners, archaeologists, arson investigators), is to establish if a natural event can be explained entirely by chance, or if it is more reasonable to believe that an intelligent mind stands behind it. Intelligent Design seeks to remove the philosophical presupposition behind most teaching of the Theory of Evolution that evolution itself proves that life on earth is the product only of blind and random chance, and that it is impossible to believe or demonstrate that any kind of mind could be behind the process itself.

That, in a nutshell, is all that Intelligent Design can, or should, do. Those that would try to take it further, and use it to prove the existence of the Christian (or any other type of) God overstep its bounds, and should be criticized. Had Coyne confined his critique to that point, then he would have been justified, though his resorts to fallacious reasoning, and even mean spiritedness and condescension would have been appreciated. As with the great majority of critics of ID and IDers, Coyne misses the mark, demonstrating that his suspicion of the motives of the proponents of ID has clouded his ability to actually evaluate what they have to say, and what they are trying to do.

Hopefully the debate will improve over time, as those same critics are compelled to address the actual arguments, and come to terms with their implications and reasoning. Only then will the ideological battles end. There was a time when some scientists opposed the Big Bang theory on the grounds that accepting it would mean that science was advancing theology (that the universe had a beginning, and therefore could be said to be created). My guess is that with time, the opponents of ID will come to realize that this debate, like that of the Big Bang before it, is not about theology, but about scientific methodology, and especially scientific philosophy.



BK said…
Thank you for this post. I have published a similar critique of the tactics of the pro-Darwinian crowd here:
What you said echoes what I said on a larger scale. Good work.


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