August 28, 2005


Show Me the Science (DANIEL C. DENNETT, 8/28/05, NY Times)

[N]o intelligent design hypothesis has even been ventured as a rival explanation of any biological phenomenon. This might seem surprising to people who think that intelligent design competes directly with the hypothesis of non-intelligent design by natural selection. But saying, as intelligent design proponents do, "You haven't explained everything yet," is not a competing hypothesis. Evolutionary biology certainly hasn't explained everything that perplexes biologists. But intelligent design hasn't yet tried to explain anything.

To formulate a competing hypothesis, you have to get down in the trenches and offer details that have testable implications. So far, intelligent design proponents have conveniently sidestepped that requirement, claiming that they have no specifics in mind about who or what the intelligent designer might be.

To see this shortcoming in relief, consider an imaginary hypothesis of intelligent design that could explain the emergence of human beings on this planet:

About six million years ago, intelligent genetic engineers from another galaxy visited Earth and decided that it would be a more interesting planet if there was a language-using, religion-forming species on it, so they sequestered some primates and genetically re-engineered them to give them the language instinct, and enlarged frontal lobes for planning and reflection. It worked.

If some version of this hypothesis were true, it could explain how and why human beings differ from their nearest relatives, and it would disconfirm the competing evolutionary hypotheses that are being pursued.

We'd still have the problem of how these intelligent genetic engineers came to exist on their home planet, but we can safely ignore that complication for the time being, since there is not the slightest shred of evidence in favor of this hypothesis.

But here is something the intelligent design community is reluctant to discuss: no other intelligent-design hypothesis has anything more going for it. In fact, my farfetched hypothesis has the advantage of being testable in principle: we could compare the human and chimpanzee genomes, looking for unmistakable signs of tampering by these genetic engineers from another galaxy.

Sadly for Mr. Dennett, one need only look to his own description of how Natural Selection works to find equally compelling--which is to say, not very--support for ID:
Take the development of the eye, which has been one of the favorite challenges of creationists. How on earth, they ask, could that engineering marvel be produced by a series of small, unplanned steps? Only an intelligent designer could have created such a brilliant arrangement of a shape-shifting lens, an aperture-adjusting iris, a light-sensitive image surface of exquisite sensitivity, all housed in a sphere that can shift its aim in a hundredth of a second and send megabytes of information to the visual cortex every second for years on end.

But as we learn more and more about the history of the genes involved, and how they work - all the way back to their predecessor genes in the sightless bacteria from which multicelled animals evolved more than a half-billion years ago - we can begin to tell the story of how photosensitive spots gradually turned into light-sensitive craters that could detect the rough direction from which light came, and then gradually acquired their lenses, improving their information-gathering capacities all the while.

We can't yet say what all the details of this process were, but real eyes representative of all the intermediate stages can be found, dotted around the animal kingdom, and we have detailed computer models to demonstrate that the creative process works just as the theory says.

All it takes is a rare accident that gives one lucky animal a mutation that improves its vision over that of its siblings; if this helps it have more offspring than its rivals, this gives evolution an opportunity to raise the bar and ratchet up the design of the eye by one mindless step.

Even setting aside the obvious fact that it is mere faith that allows him to believe that this one lucky animal process has worked for every single step in evolution and that each mutation is so overwhelminglt favorable that it forces out all of the unlucky non-mutated, all that ID says is that where Mr. Dennett says luck intervened an intelligent being[s] or a process designed by an intelligent being[s] intervened instead. Neither actually has anything to do with science in the long run. They're just competing faiths.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 28, 2005 9:11 AM

I'm too rushed today to take on OJ's silly anti-evolutionism again, except to point out an obvious straw man in his comment: no evolutionist anywhere believes "that each mutation is so overwhelmingly favorable." In fact, they explicitly say that most aren't good for the organism or the species.

Posted by: PapayaSF at August 28, 2005 3:09 PM


Posted by: oj at August 28, 2005 3:38 PM

Now, OJ, I think you are crossing a line in calling ID a faith. Intelligent Design has been shown to work in an controlled setting. Look at
what We have done to dogs. The big question for ID
is whether it scales up. I know why the Darwinists ignore the data(because difficulty of maintaining
changes makes Evolution look even more unlikely).
But OJ, you should know better.

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at August 28, 2005 6:49 PM

Mr. Mitchell:

I stand corrected. Of course, the truly sublime irony is that if, contra Mayr, it were possible to demonstrate Darwinism via experiment, what they'd actually be showing is ID.

Posted by: oj at August 28, 2005 6:53 PM

Hmm, we've seen the selfish species, the selfish cell, the selfish gene and now the selfish eye. I've love to hear him on the evolution of toenails.

Can Danny Boy give us any evidence that eyes ever "improved" within a species, or perhaps deteriorated as a trade-off for the improvement in some other bodypart? And how can he possibly say that the retina is inside out and no designer would have made such a mistake? Isn't that like saying the fact that we don't have eyes in the back of our heads is a disproof of G-d's existence? The eye is whatever it is and it survived--end of story.

Finally, how would he square his statement that And since these lucky improvements accumulate - this was Darwin's insight - eyes can automatically get better and better and better, without any intelligent designer. with Mayr's "amazing" observation that evolution has come to a dead halt, at least with respect to man? Isn't natural selection ever going to do its stuff and put the retina on right?

Posted by: Peter B at August 28, 2005 7:00 PM

[E]volution has come to a dead halt, at least with respect to man?

Humans are still changing, but now the primary stimuli are human-arranged environments.

Isn't natural selection ever going to do its stuff and put the retina on right?


Evolution is very much a "good enough" system.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 29, 2005 3:02 AM


Humans are still changing, but now the primary stimuli are human-arranged environments.

Can you give some examples?

Posted by: Peter B at August 29, 2005 6:48 AM


No it isn't. The lucky individual with the retina that's started to invert, by however little, has such an advantage that they ratchet everyone else up. Or would if Darwinism worked.

Posted by: oj at August 29, 2005 9:01 AM

Peter B:

The same ol' from the Nineteenth century, but better, faster:

* Improved nutrition
* Improved health care, leading to increased procreation among the less-blessed, genetically speaking.
* Near complete control of our environments.
* Ease of travel, leading to increased procreation between widely dispersed gene pools.
* Prenatal testing and terminations
* And, of course, genetic engineering

North Americans are bigger stronger taller faster smarter better-looking than they were 200 years ago, on average.

200 years from now, the average person will be even more so.
Plus covered with orange fur, perhaps.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 30, 2005 2:33 AM