Odds & Ends

ID: Intelligent Debate

From the March 2014 issue

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John Derbyshire’s article “Occasionalism Is Not Science” (TAS, January-February 2014) attacking Intelligent Design (ID) was full of religious emotion but did not address the scientific arguments for ID. The statistical impossibility of evolution, lack of a viable mechanism, lack of transitional fossil evidence, Cambrian explosion, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics argue strongly in favor of ID over evolution, but John did not try to refute them.

His main theme was the fabricated notion he called “occasionalism”; that everything happens because God makes it happen which does not allow us to do science. He used the example of ice floating on top of water because it is less dense. Yes, we can do science thinking and research about density, phase diagrams, etc. It is also natural for us to wonder why there is a substance that behaves like water which is such a benefit to us. Many of the great scientists were creationists. They viewed it as “thinking God’s thoughts after him.”

He complained that proponents of ID do not offer any speculative-imaginative theories on how new species appear. Well, speculation and imagination are not science.

There are two different types of evolutionary species change: limited and general. Limited changes require no new information and rely on genetic variation within the kind designed by God. Limited changes like natural selection, adaptation, and speciation are generally accepted by creationists and scientifically observable. The general changes require new information with no viable mechanism to get it. Changes that have never been observed, like dinosaurs into birds, are speculative beliefs, putting them outside the realm of science.

John talked about the mind without reaching a conclusion. This gets us into the real issue of where intelligence, information, organization, design, laws of science, and laws of logic came from. They are immaterial and can not be explained by just looking at matter. We obviously need an intelligent designer.

Robert C. Lemke
Joliet, IL


Mr. Derbyshire expends a great deal of ink attempting to discredit Intelligent Design (ID) by linking ID-ers to Occasionalism and other metaphysical straw men instead of dealing with the criticisms of evolutionary orthodoxy. If the genesis of matter and life forming due to a non-material agent is too metaphysical to allow scientific acceptance, perhaps Mr. Derbyshire can expound on how materialistic occasionalism (everything happens because time and chance make it happen) is more reasonable, despite the facts that the spontaneous generation of matter ex nihilo (big bang), generation of life from non-life, and subsequent living transitional life forms (molecules to man) have never been observed. I think it is legitimate to expect answers to these points supported with observational and repeatable examples devoid of hand- waving and “just so” storytelling. Or, an honest “we don’t yet know” will suffice.

Don Hibbard
Howell, MI


I thank John Derbyshire for re-educating me regarding the origins of intelligent life. Errantly, I now realize, I had given credence to the reasoning of Stephen Meyer et al. that the more the electron microscope helps to reveal about the highly ordered, vastly complex coding of information necessary to direct the hierarchical manufacture and assembly of amino acids into proteins to form cell types for tissue variants that become precisely specialized functional body organs, structures, and systems, the less persuasive is Darwin’s conditional conclusion—based on his 25-year-old notes of a six-week stay on the Galapagos Islands—that chance, undirected processes transformed primordial muck into Francis of Assisi, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Albert Einstein, and the rest of us human beings by small, incremental steps in only one general direction over eons.

Mr. Derbyshire has refuted intelligent design without breaking an intellectual sweat; to wit, Mr. Meyer and his fellow ID proponents are contemptible dupes who believe in God, and therefore nothing they say about the origins of life may be taken seriously. Accordingly all that remains to be done, it would seem, is to stack the cord wood, set the stake, and put these heretics to the flame. 

Earl Bohn
Ben Avon, PA


John Derbyshire prefers to ridicule those who embrace ID as “ignorant, rustic, and low rent” while waving off their arguments. Scientists have discovered that the human genome has three billion nucleotide base pairs exquisitely arranged to provide the digital code to transform a single cell into a human being. Almost all scientists and Mr. Derbyshire appear to believe that all this complexity is a matter of chance. Those so inclined reveal themselves to be persons of faith: I submit more faith than to believe our Creator set into motion life as we know it.

J. Michael Ruff  
Fayetteville, NC


No doubt John Derbyshire feels justified in taking the disdainful tone that he does toward the Intelligent Design community. However, he completely fails to address any of the issues raised by Stephen C. Meyer in the preceding article: specifically, the Cambrian Explosion in the fossil record, and the needle-in-a-haystack combinatorial problem—both problems that Darwinism needs to answer before being quite so smug with the show-me crowd.

Elizabeth Quaintance
Downers Grove, IL


Reading John Derbyshire’s response to Stephen Meyer’s article on Intelligent Design reminded me of Mark Twain’s comment that he’d rather go to Hell where his friends were than to Heaven which was sure to be one long, boring church service.

Really? Are those of us who believe in a Creator God really such pathetic bores?

Our imaginations never go beyond “it’s just God’s will so that ends it?”

Poppycock. I am personally acquainted with a young man in our church (oh no, not that!) who received his Ph.D. in Physics. This man believes in a seven-day creation, as do I. “Pass the likker...”

Our imaginations of what God hath wrought far exceed the small, wrinkled world where Derbyshire places us. Our souls and our minds reel at God’s amazing variety. We celebrate science as people discover the wondrous, endless acts of God.

Mr. Derbyshire is a “man without a chest” as so compellingly described by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man: one whose intellect is directly attached to his appetites and desires. The heart and the soul have disappeared. 

Virginia Mulhern
San Jose, CA 


I read with interest the opposing articles on Intelligent Design by Dr. Stephen Meyer and John Derbyshire. Dr. Meyer is a credentialed scientist with a strong background in both empirical and historical science. Mr. Derbyshire describes himself on his website as a “…writer-novelist, pop-math author, reviewer and opinion journalist” and “a Mysterium,” who was “…never much interested in biology, all through my life until my 50s.” 

While Dr. Meyer has presented a reasoned, scientifically based critique of the prevailing orthodoxy regarding the evolution of life on earth (Neo-Darwinianism), Mr. Derbyshire can only offer ad hominem attacks on those scientists who are proponents of Intelligent Design as the “inference to the best explanation” to describe the biodiversity of life on planet Earth. Mr. Derbyshire can offer no scientific evidence to support his belief in an unguided process to explain this biodiversity. His best argument against ID is that ID is not really science but pseudoscience, “as practically all scientists believe.” Unfortunately for his belief system, science does not progress by majority vote, but by “following the evidence wherever it leads.” And the evidence is becoming overwhelming that the classic neo-Darwinian explanation of the development of life on earth is wholly inadequate. 

There is not enough space to address all the fallacies used by Mr. Derbyshire in his attack on ID, but the article highlights the weakness of neo-Darwinianism. Concerning matters of science, it would be better to leave the discussion to true, credentialed scientists, and let opinion journalists keep their opinions to themselves.

William G. Reeves
Oklahoma City, OK


John Derbyshire replies:

Thanks to the readers who wrote in. I am a commentator on social, cultural, and political issues, with a sideline in writing popular books and articles about math, in which I have a university degree and a longstanding interest. I have no training or credentials in paleobiology; which is to say, I have precisely as many as Stephen Meyer.

The American Spectator is a magazine of social, cultural, and political commentary, so I feel quite at home as a contributor. It is natural, when they ask me to write about Intelligent Design (ID), to approach it as a social-cultural topic. That’s how I approached it.

All the points raised by critical readers have been fully addressed in specialist outlets many, many times over. I usually refer inquirers to the TalkOrigins website, which was set up by the National Center for Science Education in the early 2000s, at the height of the ID fad. (With the fad’s fading following the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District decision, a few links no longer work, but TalkOrigins remains a splendid resource. Amongst much else, it contains the entire court transcript of Kitzmiller.)

Google “talkorigins” and you will see the home page, with a “search” link. You can now search for any topic that interests you, and find masses of commentary from credentialed experts. Putting “Second Law of Thermodynamics” into the search box, for example, brought up “about 508 results” when I tried it. Putting “information theory” into the box returned “about 3,130 results.” “Transitional forms” returned 2,050. Surely that is enough for the curious enquirer.

Stephen Meyer’s book is reviewed at great length (9,400 words and several elaborate diagrams) by actual paleobiologist Nick Matzke at the related website Panda’s Thumb: Google “Meyer’s Hopeless Monster, Part II.” 

Sample from Matzke’s review:

As far as I know every authority would agree that lobopods are a paraphyletic grab-bag on the stems of the crown-group phyla Arthropoda and Onychophora (and perhaps also on the stem below their common ancestor). In other words, the arthropod and velvet-worm phyla evolved from lobopods, and lobopods contain a whole series of transitional forms showing the basics of how this happened! How anyone could write a book on the origin of Cambrian animals, without mentioning Cambrian Explosion 101 findings like this, is mystifying.

Is this the kind of thing TAS readers want in the magazine?

For readers interested in the scientific consensus on the Cambrian Explosion, the 2013 book The Cambrian Explosion: The Construction of Animal Biodiversity seems to be a good scholarly presentation by two seasoned paleobiologists, Douglas Erwin and James Valentine (their names wrongly presented on the Amazon website). Perhaps the Discovery Institute could arrange a public debate pitting Stephen Meyer against Erwin and/or Valentine? Ha ha ha ha ha!

Lay people don’t realize that genuine scholarly endeavor in math and science comes surrounded by a buzzing host of cranks and monomaniacs. Some years ago I published a book about a great unsolved math problem. The book was quite successful, as such things go. I still get occasional letters written in green ink with purple capitals from persons patiently assuring me that a solution to the problem can be found in 4,000-year-old Egyptian papyri.

For social and historical reasons, science cranks in the U.S.A. concentrate on paleobiology, rather than on, say, superconductivity, seismology, or the distribution of galaxies. Everything they have to say has been refuted hundreds of times over—see TalkOrigins. They just keep coming back with the same threadbare notions. It’s like sitting in a bar listening to some guy bang on about flying saucers. Zzzzzzzzz. 


I just finished Stephen C. Meyer’s article on ID and life’s origins (“The Cambrian Explosion and the Combinatorial Problem,” TAS, January-February 2014) and was struck with the flawed premise of the piece and at least part of his book, which I don’t plan on reading. Meyer goes to great lengths with mathematical formulations to show life is somewhat of a crapshoot. The bicycle lock may have 100,000 possible combinations; however it’s on the ground, open, and the bike’s long gone. I didn’t realize the IDer needed a bike but apparently he did. Even more bothersome is application of DNA sequence possibilities to multiple powers. The chance of me hitting the lottery is almost nil but the chance of someone hitting is 100 percent: Every lottery has been won. The chance of any isolated cells/amino acids getting the right DNA sequence to form a new X is very small, but here we are. You didn’t have one small Pre-Cambrian pool getting lucky; you had an ocean. You didn’t have one cell getting it right; you had trillions all succeeding or failing. Rather than one trying trillions of combinations and hitting the time limitations, apply trillions trying trillions of combinations 24/7 and the correct sequence may have been hit in 17 minutes or 1,700 years. Either way, it was sequenced correctly. In much the same as the bike lock or lottery, there is a correct sequence.

  Now the explosion of life has not been repeated again as of now which raises a few questions. In man’s short time of awareness, we have not seen many new life forms pop up. We have seen some go extinct. Is the designer on a break? Is the design complete? In the complex DNA sequencing needed to say make a right arm, the body knows the sequence and can make new bone, skin, muscle, nerves. So if I lose my right arm, why don’t I grow a new one? Did my body forget? Didn’t notice the loss? Does the designer want one-armed humans? Arms are a mature design. There are billions of them and yet one more is not in the plan? 

  Meyer’s need to attempt to dazzle the reader with numerical arguments disproves whatever point he was attempting. This is the usual ending when belief systems wrestle with science to somehow prove their belief. Either the science disproves the God, sorry Ra, or it’s silent. The evolution theory neither proves nor disproves God, but it may poke holes in the Adam and Eve tale. That apparently scares the heck out of some believers evidenced by the extremes to which Mr. Meyers has gone. 

Jim Shanahan
Via the Internet


Stephen C. Meyer makes a common mistake in his example about odds (admittedly I have not read his book which may explain his position better). True, if the bike thief can only produce 5,400 random combinations and the lock has ten billion possible combinations, his odds of opening it are very low. But nature doesn’t work on things sequentially; it works on everything simultaneously. If the thief can apply his 5,400 combinations to ten trillion locks simultaneously, and doesn’t care which bike he ends up with, his odds of success are very high.

When I ask people what the odds of someone winning the lottery are, they inevitably answer millions (depending on the lottery) to one. But it’s a dead certainty that someone will win. They just keep extending the drawings till they have a winner. Sure, the odds of any particular person winning, no matter who it is, are millions to one. But that hardly proves that intelligence is guiding the selection.

That’s where most people have the problem. The odds of predicting a particular outcome in advance may be very low, but that there will be some outcome is inevitable.

If you assume that humans are the desired outcome of evolution, it’s necessary that you start out believing that there is an intelligent entity desiring an outcome. That makes it inevitable that you will conclude there is an intelligent entity. However, if you take the more reasonable position that humans are not necessarily the bike the thief wanted in the first place but just the one he ended up with, the calculations change.

Paul Kelly
Delta, CO


While Stephen C. Meyer’s article on Intelligent Design was highly informative, it did not go back in the history of the universe far enough. Just to name two fundamental properties necessary to life: (1) certain properties of the carbon nucleus are finely tuned to permit the buildup in stars like the sun of heavier elements essential to life, and (2) the so-called “fine structure constant” (a combination of the electronic charge, the Planck or quantum constant, and the velocity of light) is precisely 1/137. If that value were only a few percent different, the molecules essential to life could not form. Indeed, the constant is so essential to our world that the great physicist Wolfgang Pauli reportedly had a near-nervous breakdown over its value. The universe is so finely tuned to the emergence of life that ID appears to this observer to be unavoidable. The ID deniers often resort to claims that our universe is only one of a large number of universes with different physical laws. How we could observe them, if such an hypothesis is to be “scientific,” is a mystery.

Robert C. Whitten
Via the Internet


Stephen C. Meyer replies:

Both readers who raise concerns about my probabilistic reasoning have correct intuitions, but each lacks a few facts necessary to recognize why my conclusions are sound. 

Both readers are correct to note that the likely success of a random search (and the assessment of the plausibility of any hypothesis that posits such a search) depends not only on the probability of the event of interest occurring once, but the probability of the event occurring given all the opportunities that it has to occur. Thus, as both readers correctly note, if biological organisms can conduct multiple searches simultaneously (or, indeed, sequentially) the probability of success—in this case, the probability of generating a particular functional protein by random mutational search—increases significantly. In Darwin’s Doubt, I make this same point. Nevertheless, I show that the probability of a successful mutational search remains vanishingly small (and the hypothesis that such a search produced the genetic information necessary to build new animals remains extremely implausible). 

Indeed, to assess the probability of an event occurring by chance, statisticians typically determine what is called a conditional probability—the probability of an event given or “conditioned on” what we know, or can reasonably postulate, about the number of opportunities that event has to occur. 

If the conditional probability of a chance-based hypothesis (given the number of opportunities the event in question has to occur) is less than 1⁄2, then it is more likely than not that the event will not happen by chance. In that case, the hypothesis will be judged implausible—more likely to be false than true. Conversely, if the conditional probability of the chance hypothesis is more than 1⁄2, then it is more likely than not that the event in question will occur by chance and it will be judged plausible—more likely to be true than false. And the smaller the conditional probability associated with a hypothesis, the more implausible the hypothesis—the more likely the hypothesis is to be false than true. 

The bike lock illustration in my Spectator article illustrated these principles of probabilistic reasoning without making explicit all relevant biological facts. Nevertheless, my longer discussion in Darwin’s Doubt takes into account the possibility of multiple simultaneous and/or sequential searches (“whole oceans” as well as “isolated ponds”). It does so by comparing the probability of a functional protein arising in a single random trial to the total number of evolutionary searches that might be reasonably postulated to have occurred during the entire history of life on Earth. 

Recall from my article that recent experimental work has allowed protein scientists to determine the probability of a functional protein arising in a single random trial. Experimentally derived estimates of the ratio of functional amino acid sequences to the total number of possible sequences for a protein of modest length allow us to estimate that probability at about 1 chance in 1077. In Darwin’s Doubt, I also make a careful upper-bound estimate of the second number—the total number of relevant evolutionary trials that have occurred during the history of life. I determine that number to be 1040 based in part upon well-established estimates of the total number of organisms that have ever existed on Earth. Thus, my calculation takes into consideration the possibility of both simultaneous and sequential evolutionary searches in multiple organisms—indeed, in all organisms that have ever lived on our planet.

On the basis of these two empirically derived estimates, I then calculate the conditional probability of random mutations generating a novel protein (again, given the maximum number of opportunities that event would have to take place on Earth) at about 1 chance in 1037 (1040 divided by 1077). 

This calculation assumes that every organism that has ever lived on Earth has generated—by random mutation—one new base sequence per generation in the sequence space of interest. On that exceedingly generous assumption (see Darwin’s Doubt for further explanation), my calculation implies that the evolutionary process would still have sampled only one 10 trillion, trillion, trillionth of the relevant possible sequences. And since the conditional probability of a new gene arising as the result of random mutational search turns out to be unimaginably less than 1 in 2 (in fact, 1 in 1037), the standard neo-Darwinian theory of gene evolution turns out to be vastly more likely to be false than true. It follows that a reasonable person should reject it. 

Your third letter writer is correct: The fine–tuning of the laws and constants of physics (as well as the initial conditions of the universe) do provide additional, and earlier, evidence for intelligent design. Further, though the evidence of design in biology alone might in principle be explained by some form of immanent (within the cosmos) intelligence, evidence for the fine-tuning of the universe as a whole points to a transcendent intelligence. For this reason, and because all “multiverse” proposals depend upon cosmological models that must invoke prior fine-tuning to generate a life-friendly universe like ours, I favor a theistic design hypothesis as the best explanation for the ensemble of evidences concerning biological and cosmological origins.


CORRECTION

It has been brought to our attention that this magazine perpetrated a misguided and very rude satire of the incomparable oeuvre of the late Russian composer, Petr Ilich Tchaikovsky. Actually, the puerile attempt at farce took place in our November, 1971 issue, and it has cast a pall on the editorial department ever since. However, on the morning of January 8, 2014 we heard a stupendous recording of the Piano Concerto Number One by pianist Sviatoslav Richter with the Vienna Symphony under the baton of Herbert von Karajan, recorded in 1962, and it has afforded us the opportunity to apologize to our readers and to old Petr wherever he might be. He was a splendiferous composer, and the Russian Revolution and what followed were in no way his fault. 

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