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Intelligent Design — Introduction & Reading List

2005.09.25   prev     next

PHILLIP Johnson’s book Darwin On Trial has spawned a movement which is now called Intelligent Design, or ID for short.  What follows is a summary of ID (as I interpret it), and a selected reading list for those who are just discovering it.

ID asserts that:

  1. The mutation-selection mechanism of Darwinian evolution does not have the creative powers attributed to it, and natural selection serves only as a maintainer of genetic code.

  2. Life on Earth was designed by intelligent beings. Speciation is not a natural phenomenon, except perhaps when it involves complexity-neutral or complexity-reducing changes.

  3. The designers most likely exist outside this universe, and the laws of physics in which we live are their invention. Those laws have been specially engineered to support complex life such as exists on Earth.

  4. The designers may have manipulated our solar system to create a planet (Earth) on which complex life could thrive.

  5. The designers possess an intelligence that is similar in nature to human intelligence. Their design process involves trial, error, and progressive improvement, such as can be seen in human design work (e.g. the automobile; the computer).

  6. The designers are not concerned with the fates of all human individuals; nor have they given us codes of morality to follow. (However, the designers may be fully aware that laws against murder and stealing will arise naturally in human society.)

  7. Ideas of an infinitely perfect, hyper-benevolent, omniscient designer are religious in origin, and there is no scientific evidence that intelligent design ever exhibits these char­ac­ter­is­tics.

  8. The science community currently backs evolution because:

    • mutation-selection evolution has an elegant simplicity which scientists like to find, and which fits the historical trend of apparently-complex phenomena falling to simple explanations,

    • much of the evidence a­gainst evolution was not available until over a hundred years after Darwin published,

    • once a theory becomes firmly entrenched in the science community, the peer-review system protects it from attack, and the theory will yield to negative evidence only after a few generations of at­tri­tion,

    • most scientists view evolution not just as a theory, but as a vital piece of a philosophical wall that protects science from being destroyed by fundamentalist religion, and

    • most scientists are acclimated to the concept of a hyper-perfect designer (see item #7 above), and mentally attach this concept to all anti-evolution ar­gu­ments.

Recommended Reading:

Darwin On Trial, Phillip Johnson — Foundational ID material; consider this a primer to the whole ID movement.

Johnson is Christian, and although he refrains from promoting his religion in this book, his later books include direct promotions of Christianity as the valid source of human knowledge. In those later books, Johnson notes that to attempt to prove one’s own accuracy is to commit circular logic; then he cites this circularity as reason to yield to the authority of the Christian God. But Johnson fails to notice that the problem he identifies is a general issue for all arguments, including his own, pro-Christian position. I am confident that there is no solution to this circularity issue — I simply must begin with the assumption that I am rational and capable, and proceed from there.

Darwin’s Black Box, Michael Behe — Key argument against evolution as a complexity-builder, replete with specific biochemical ex­am­ples.

Behe is also Christian, but keeps his religious views out of his ID arguments.

The Privileged Planet, Guillermo Gonzalez — Latest book to work on the subject of bio-tuning in the laws of physics and in our solar system.

Shows that the bio-coincidences of our universe apply not only to the survival of complex life such as ourselves, but also to our opportunities for scientific discovery. Although obviously relevant to ID, this book’s thesis is logically separable from the anti-evolution ID branch, since evolution is not entirely incompatible with the universe-designed-for-intelligent-life proposition.

Darwin’s God, Cornelius Hunter — Focuses on the Darwinist mode of argument, from Darwin’s day to the present.

Hunter spends an entire book showing how the Darwinists use religious suppositions to make their case. This is one of the very few pro-ID books to draw heavy attention to the possibility that we were designed by entities very unlike the deities of any of the major religions.

Questioning Cosmological Superstition, Rich Halvorson — Discusses how the science of cosmology has been badly distorted by the desire to evade the design conclusion.

Although Halvorson’s message is that isotropy is heavily verified and homogeneity heavily refuted, he is careful to avoid drawing any firm conclusion that we are thus at the center of the universe — he even mentions possible ways to avoid that conclusion if avoidance is desired. Halvorson’s main point is that this widely-held desire — to exclude any form of geocentricism from cosmology — has resulted in the scientifically indefensible adoption/enshrinement of homogeneity.

The Edge of Evolution, Michael Behe — Followup to Darwin’s Black Box; focuses on real-world examples of what evolution actually does (and doesn’t).

This book includes a section on the philosophical implications of ID — see here for my thoughts on that.

The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories, Stephen Meyer — Focuses on empirical studies that show proteins to be extremely isolated islands of function; not connected by incremental in­ter­me­di­ates.

Meyer appears to be Christian, although this paper does not mention religion.

Under heavy fire for being the first peer-reviewed science journal — The Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington (BSW) — to publish an openly pro-ID paper, the BSW has since renounced their own publication of Meyer’s work, claiming that his paper somehow evaded their normal review process, and would not have been published otherwise.

The Case Against a Darwinian Origin of Protein Folds, Douglas Axe — The latest work in the aforementioned subject of the isolation of stable proteins in amino acid sequence space.

The Evolutionary Accessibility of New Enzyme Functions: A Case Study from the Biotin Pathway, Ann Gauger and Douglas Axe — Shows that even proteins of similar structure may not be connected by statistically reasonable mutational pathways. (Also see Axe’s response to a criticism of this article.)

A Second Look At the Second Law, Granville Sewell — The Second Law of Thermodynamics (i.e. in a closed system, entropy always increases) has long been assumed — by both evolutionists and anti-evolutionists alike — to be a non-problem for evolution, due to the sun providing a constant energy input to Earth’s biosphere. However, Sewell argues that with just a little bit of refinement, we can see that solar energy input allows only limited types of Second-Law violation, and that these allowances do not provide evolution a way a­round the Second Law.

Sewell, in a recent lecture:

According to [Daniel] Styer, there is no conflict with the Second Law because the Earth is an open system, and entropy increases outside the Earth compensate the entropy decrease due to evolution. In other words, using Styer’s understanding of entropy, the fact that evolution is astronomically improbable is not a problem, as long as something, anything, is happening elsewhere which, if reversed, would be even more improbable.

Update 2016.08.07 — Caveat: Sew­ell now actively promoting the Christian religion, and not just as a soft lifestyle, but very specifically the hard idea that human individuals are subject to judgment in the afterlife. To his credit, he puts his finger on the issue very directly:

The idea of a judgment after death is terribly difficult for our modern minds to take seriously. But, for me, the idea that there will be no final justice — no reward for generosity, kindness, mercy, and courage, and no punishment for selfishness, betrayal, arrogance, and cruelty — is even harder to accept. That would mean that those who are confident that they will never be punished for their corruption and cruelty will be proved right, while those who believe their unselfishness and sacrifices will someday be recognized are deluding themselves.

That, I think, is the perfect explanation for what fuels religion in general. Even those who have no mental block against the idea that the code in the DNA was intelligently written, typically still balk at the idea that our creator(s) consider humans to be individually expendable, and that those creators just expect humans, as a group, to actively deal with bad behavior, not throw up our hands and believe that the creators will make it all good in the next life.

The reason individual human mal­e­fac­tion is objectively bad isn’t because it offends some imagined hypersensitivity of our creators, but because it hinders our progress. To sit back and expect divine judgment to take care of it, is a failure to attack the problem, and thus is another form of individual mal­e­fac­tion.

To me, it’s a little shocking to think that someone capable of such fearless, rational analysis when it comes to evolution and thermodynamics, would then look at the possibility that many human individuals really do “get away with” crime, and mistake his personal revulsion for evidence that the idea isn’t true. I think it evident that our creators are not significantly bothered even by the slaying of millions, as long as the long-term advance of humanity is not in danger. If you really want to live in a world where bad behavior is strongly, individually punished (or better yet prevented) much more than it already is, then you must work at advancing humanity to that state. It is a dereliction of that task to instead believe (and encourage others to believe) that unprevented, unpunished evil will be perfectly retaliated in some other world.

Conservation of Information Made Simple, William Dembski — Explains the displacement problem and conservation of information in easier-to-understand terms than his previous works; then discusses question-begging and tautological arguments made by leading ev­o­lu­tion­ists.


Are we, as pattern-seeking and pattern-inventing animals, simply imposing these targets/patterns on nature even though they have no independent, objective status? This concern has merit, but it needs not to be overblown. If we don’t presuppose a materialist metaphysics that makes mind, intelligence, and agency an emergent property of suitably organized matter, then it is an open question whether search and the teleology inherent in it are mere human constructions on the one hand, or, instead, realities embedded in nature on the other. What if nature is itself the product of mind and the patterns it exhibits reflect solutions to search problems formulated by such a mind?

Probably the most fundamental disagreement I have with Dembski is that I do not see that the scientific arguments for ID and/or against evolution are in any significant way connected to — not to mention dependent upon — the idea that the human mind is “more” than the arrangement of matter in the human brain. The problem he touches in the above quotation is simply the problem of self-reference, a problem which I have concluded to be (a) an unsolvable paradox, and (b) non-corrosive to modern pro-ID, anti-Darwin arguments, including Dembski’s own conservation-of-information arguments. (See my discussion in Mechanism, chapter 2.)

Another problem I have with this article is that — like some of Dembski’s prior works on which I commented in “Three Issues With No Free Lunch” — he seems to be suggesting (without directly stating) that even if the Darwinian explanation of how bacteria turned into sharks is correct, it would still leave unexplained where the information content of the shark came from, since the evolutionary search cannot work without being somehow pre-loaded with that information. As I pointed out in “Three Issues,” however, evolutionists would scarcely care if that was the case — at most it would make conservation-of-information an extension of the cosmological fine-tuning argument, and not at all an argument against Darwin’s theory of evolution nor its modern formulations.

Proteins and Genes, Singletons and Species, Branko Kozulić — Modern genomic sequencing has revealed that each species includes many unique “singleton” genes and proteins, not found in any other species. The extreme improbabilities involved in generating these singletons bring the design argument all the way down to the level of species, not — as Behe generously offered in The Edge of Evolution — just at higher levels of taxonomy. (See also: Orphan Genes — A Guide for the Perplexed, Ann Gauger, which discusses the surprising fact that 10-20% of the protein-coding sequences in each species are new; not inherited from related species.)


Click here for information about my book, Mechanism, on Intelligent Design, self-reference, and other deep subjects.


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