Posted by Jason Rosenhouse on October 22, 2006 06:15 PM

Jonathan Wells (2006) The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. Regnery Publishing, Inc. Washington, DC.Amazon

Read the entire series.

In chapter eight Wells recapitulates the standard “intelligent design” mantra that design can be established via an eliminative process. That is, if it can be established that a particular phenomenon is not the result either of natural laws or chance, then design emerges as the only remaining possibility. Readers familiar with ID will recognize this as the same, tired argument that “intelligent design” activists have been offering for more than a decade. Indeed, Wells merely parrots the assertions of William Dembski, giving neither acknowledgement of nor consideration to any of the numerous refutations of Dembski’s work produced over the years.

Wells opens his chapter as follows:

Ferry passengers entering Victoria harbor in Canada are greeted by a bank covered with flowers that spell out “WELCOME TO VICTORIA” in large letters. Everyone who sees the greeting knows immediately that it was intelligently designed. In fact, all of us make design inferences every day. We wouldn’t be able to function without them. But how do we do it? What sort of logic do we use?

Actually, the logic is easily spelled out. We all have enough horticultural experience to realize that flowers do not naturally bunch themselves into arrangements that spell out English messages. On the other hand, we do know that people occasionally arrange flowers to form such patterns. Consequently, we conclude the flowers were deliberately arranged. Our conclusion is based not on abstract probability calculations or on our ability to match up the flowers with an arbitrary pattern. Rather, we draw on our own, past experience in drawing our conclusion.

This reasoning applies as well to another favorite ID example: Mt. Rushmore. We all know what mountains look like in nature. It is that experience that tells us that Mt. Rushmore represents something that nature alone could not produce.

Wells argues that this sort of reasoning can be applied as easily to biological systems. The previous discussion makes clear, however, that there is a big difference between the Victoria Harbor flowers and Mt. Rushmore on the one hand and biological systems on the other. When confronted with the Victoria harbor flowers we can say, “left to their own devices, flowers do not arrange themselves in this way”. Likewise for Mt. Rushmore. But no similar statement can be made for the proteins out of which biological systems are made. When confronted with the particular arrangement of proteins forming the human eye, for example, we have no basis for saying, “three billion years of evolution do not generally produce structures of this sort”.

Indeed, we can go further. Biologists know of a regularity that can in principle lead to the creation of complex biological systems: natural selection acting on chance, genetic variations. It is the general consensus of the scientific community that every complex system studied in detail shows clear signs of having been fashioned via this mechanism. In her book Evolution and Christian Faith, biologist Joan Roughgarden writes:

Furthermore, neo-Darwinism can account for complex structures. When you get together eye experts, feather experts, flagellum experts, blood clotting experts, and so on, it always turns out that they can suggest plausible neo-Darwinian scenarios for how these structures originated.

(p. 89)

After some further discussion she concludes:

So, when the intelligent design folks announce with great fanfare that the bacterial flagellum is too complex to be explained by natural selection acting on random mutation…well, it’s hard for evolutionary biologists to suppress yawns.

(p. 92)

Indeed. Scientists who, unlike Wells, actually study complex biological systems do not see evidence for intelligent design. Instead they see the clear signs of natural selection. Thus to make their case, design activists must somehow show—in clear defiance of the conclusions drawn by the scientists most knowledgeable in the area—that biological systems nonetheless embody patterns unlikely to appear even via natural selection. The failure of their sole attempt at doing this, “irreducible complexity”, will be discussed elsewhere. In the present chapter Wells attempts to discredit the efficacy of natural selection via a bit of armchair theorizing.

He writes:

According to Darwinists, specified complexity in living things should not be attributed to intelligence because it can be explained by a combination of mutation and selection. Richard Dawkins instructed his computer to begin with the random sequence:

WDLMNLT DTJBKW IRZREZLMQCO P

And then to make random changes (mutations) in one letter or space at a time, selecting only those that matched a target line from Hamlet:

METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL

By randomly arranging letters and spaces, it would take on average more than a trillion trillion trillion attempt to produce this specific line, but Dawkins found that his “evolutionary algorithm” could produce it in only forty-three steps. He concluded that the “belief that Darwinian evolution is ‘random’ is not merely false. It is the exact opposite of the truth. Chance is a minor ingredient is cumulative selection which is quintessentially non-random.”

Of course, Dawkins cheated by specifying the target in advance. He conceded as much, noting that at each step the phrase was compared to “a distant ideal target” even though “evolution has no long-term goal. There is no long-distance target.”

For now, it’s sufficient to note that Dawkins’s evolutionary algorithm didn’t produce specified complexity—it had it all along. His computer exercise wasn’t evidence for undirected Darwinian evolution, but for intelligent design.

Wells’s description here is almost completely incoherent, which is unsurprising given his desire to make scientists look foolish. He cannot afford to give a clear description of Dawkins’s experiment, for then it would be clear to everyone that Dawkins’s point was both simple, and correct.

An accurate description of what Dawkins did begins by noting that he carried out two different experiments. In the first, the computer generated random strings of letters. These strings were then compared to the target phrase “METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL”. If there was a match, then the experiment terminated. Otherwise, new random strings were generated. Of course, nothing close to the target phrase was generated via this approach.

In the second experiment the computer begins with a single, randomly generated, string of letters. This string is then copied repeatedly, but with the proviso that each individual character has a small probability of being copied incorrectly in each iteration. (Note, incidentally, that Wells’s statement that Dawkins allowed his strings to mutate one space or letter at a time is totally inaccurate.) The computer then determines which of the copies bears the closest resemblance to the target phrase, and uses that as the starting point for the next round of breeding. In this experiment, the target phrase emerges rather quickly.

The flaw in Wells’s argument is now obvious. The computer’s success in the second experiment was not the result of being equipped with the target phrase. After all, the computer had the target phrase in both experiments, but was unsuccessful the first time. Rather, the success in the second experiment resulted from the nature of the selection mechanism that was used. The computer employed one, consistent criterion in determining which strings would be used to produce the next generation. It is this consistency, and not any awareness of a distant target, that makes it possible for complex structures to develop gradually.

The inability of natural selection to anticipate the future needs of the organism is of no relevance to determining whether it can produce complex structures. Instead we need only ask two questions: First, is there a series of small, heritable variations leading from a relatively simple precursor to the modern complex structure? And second, are the organisms bearing these variations likely to leave more offspring than those that do not? Where these two conditions are met, natural selection can cause great complexity to emerge from initial simplicity.

The logic here is entirely sound. Consequently, refuting the efficacy of natural selection is not something that can be done from one’s armchair. Whether this sort of explanation works in practice can only be determined by a detailed study of particular complex systems. As we have seen, scientists studying particular complex systems often have little trouble discerning likely precursor structures.

Of course, thoughtful discussion of scientific concepts is not really Wells’s forte. He’s much better at pure propaganda, and that is why chapter eight devotes almost as much space to accusing “Darwinists” of skullduggery and malfeasance as it does to science. Readers familiar with ID apologetics will recognize the script. Beleaguered, open-minded, evidence-following “intelligent design” activists just want a fair and open discussion of controversial scientific issues, but those dogmatic, religion-hating, Gestapo-like Darwinists just won’t let them. Yawn.

In the present chapter the focus is on William Dembski’s troubled tenure at Baylor University. As Wells tells the story, Dembski was put in charge, by then university president Robert Sloan, of the newly formed Michael Polanyi Center for studying “intelligent design”. He organized a highly successful conference that promoted the ideals of open-minded discussion “intelligent design” activists hold so dear. But militant, angry Darwinists on the Baylor faculty won’t stand for such things. By throwing around their considerable weight, they were able not only to get Dembski relived of his post, but got Sloan fired as well.

Wells’s writes:

At first, President Sloan resisted faculty pressure to close the Michale Polanyi Center. “It’s rather ironic,” he said, “that people in the scientific community whose rights had to be protected in the face of ideological pressure” from fundamentalists “now appear to be suppressing others.” Sloan concluded that the faculty’s position “borders on McCarthyism.” Nevertheless, the Baylor faculty forced Sloan to appoint a committee to review the status of the Michael Polanyi Center. Since the faculty made sure that the committee was stacked with biologists hostile to Dembski, it came as no surprise when it reaffirmed the faculty senate’s recommendation that the Center be closed. Dembski was removed from his position (though he stayed on at Baylor as an independent researcher until his contract expired), and eventually even Sloan lost his job.

The Baylor lesson is clear: Darwinists will not tolerate any open discussion of intelligent design. When they cannot crush it in a balanced academic forum, they resort to intimidation and mob rule.

(pp. 91)

Alas, this version of events is pure spin.

One of Wells’s main references for the first paragraph above is this article from the Baylor student newspaper. Remarkably, absolutely none of the assertions in this excerpt are addressed in any way in this article. Instead, we find statements like this:

A debate over the reputation of Baylor as a university has erupted among the teachers and administrators, concerning the establishment of the Center as a campus institute.

The debate intensified Tuesday, when an outgoing Baylor professor said President Robert Sloan is intimidating faculty into not commenting on the controversy.

“Faculty are not speaking out because Sloan can make their lives miserable,” Dr. Lewis Barker, psychology and neuroscience professor, said. “They don’t speak out for fear of their salaries and of being singled out by the administration.”

Dogmatic Darwinists did everything in their power to squelch honest debate? Actually it was dogmatic “intelligent-design” activists who tried to shut down any criticism of their work.

The reality of what happened at Baylor is that Sloan unilaterally established the Polanyi Center for Dembski. This is very unusual, since ordinarily the university faculty would be consulted before such a move. When the faculty raised concerns over both the pseudoscientific activities of the Center and the manner in which it was established, President Sloan did everything in his power to silence the opposition.

This led to a vote in the Baylor faculty senate that went 27-2 in favor of eliminating the Center. The decision to form a committee to examine the situation was then seen as a compromise between the opposition of the faculty and the support of the President. The verdict of the committee, contrary to Wells’s account, was that “intelligent design” was a legitimate field of study, but that the Center should be absorbed into the Baylor’s Institute for Faith and Learning (and not closed as Wells asserts).

The committee did not recommend that Dembski be removed from his post. In fact, Dembski himself was so pleased with the committee’s findings, he dashed off the following press release:

The report marks the triumph of intelligent design as a legitimate form of academic inquiry. This is a great day for academic freedom. I’m deeply grateful to President Sloan and Baylor University for making this possible, as well as to the peer-review committee for its unqualified affirmation of my own work on intelligent design. The scope of the center will be expanded to embrace a broader set of conceptual issues, at the intersection of science and religion, and the Center will therefore receive a new name to reflect this expanded vision. My work on intelligent design will continue unabated. Dogmatic opponents of design who demanded the Center be shut down have met their Waterloo. Baylor University is to be commended for remaining strong in the face of intolerant assaults on freedom of thought and expression.

This is the same committee Wells’s now describes as being stacked with people hostile to Dembski.

Sloan believed Dembski’s press release amounted to inflaming an already tense situation. In an attempt to repair his damaged relationship with the university faculty, Sloan asked Dembski to retract this statement. Incredibly, Dembski refused. It was this refusal, and not anything the Committee said, that led to Dembski being relieved of his post.

As for Sloan, he remained President for five years beyond the events surrounding the Polanyi Center, only stepping down in 2005. The internal politics of Baylor University are complex. Suffice it to say that this incident was only one of several that made Sloan an unpopular figure on campus.

Wells is right about one thing, however. Scientists do, indeed, get very angry with “intelligent-design” activists. It is the same anger mathematicians would feel if one of their number were telling people that a conspiracy of dogmatists was suppressing the essential truth that two and two make five. Wells’s scientific arguments are childish and easily refuted. And his brazenly dishonest attempts to portray scientists as dogmatic and censorious are disgusting. It is impossible to have any respect for “intelligent design” when its leading proponents behave in so reprehensible a manner.