My brother recently accused Mere-O of attempting to increase traffic by referencing “scantily clad women” (twice). I’m not sure anyone looking for said women would use “scantily” to find them. Regardless, it surely wouldn’t bring the sort of reader Mere-O likes, so we’ll try to avoid any more mentions of “scantily clad women” (did I say “scantily”?).

One mention of Intelligent Design, though, will (hopefully!) bring the readers out en masse. Full disclosure: I am rather uninterested in the debate regarding the scientific merits of intelligent design, or in the scientific shortcomings of evolutionary theory (or vice versa). In fact, I remain uninterested in the claims of science itself (which, according to fellow Mere-O member Andrew, is nothing short of a vice, to which I reply, “So be it.”).

The claims of science are tentative, and I would much rather focus on the philosophical issues undergirding the actual science. For this reason, I share an affinity with ID.

My confusion, though, is simply about a number of claims being made about the benefits of “evolutionary theory.” In a recent post, ID theorist Bill Dembski said:

My suspicion, therefore, is that Josh Rosenau meant something much more plebeian when he referred to evolutionary theory as “creating cures.” What I suspect he is referring to is that bacteria, through a process of natural selection, tend to acquire immunity to antibiotics. Thus, for infections to be treated effectively, drug companies need to design new drugs to overcome the increased immunity of these bacteria.

But, in that case, it is not the theory of evolution that provides insight into how to design new antibiotics that knock out bacteria that have developed an immunity to old antibiotics. Rather, it is the drug designer’s background knowledge and ability as a researcher that enables him or her to design appropriate new drugs that knock out these bacteria. All evolution is doing here is describing the process by which these bacteria acquire antibiotic resistance — not how to design drugs capable of overcoming that resistance.

In response, my brother litanized genetic mutations that we are now aware of.

Additionally, in response to Dembski, Rosenau writes:

The ongoing campaign to reduce use of antibiotics is driven in large part by an understanding of evolution, and a concern that our bullpen of useful antibiotics is being depleted faster by evolved resistance than we’re developing new drugs. That’s evolution saving lives and alleviating suffering.

Maybe you don’t like that. Fine, look at the immune system. Whenever you are given an immunization, your body puts its immune system through natural selection. The cells which produce useful antibodies survive, the others are more likely to die off. As a theory, evolution predicts the effect of that, and explains how the immune system works and how it fails. Treating auto-immune disorders relies on our understanding of the evolution within the body.

It may be me, but it seems both my brother’s and Rosenau’s response miss Dembski’s objection. Dembski seems to be accepting the fact that “evolution” identifies how and when bacteria acquire immunity to certain drugs, but that in order for lives to actually be saved (intelligent) researchers need to design a new drug that will effectively combat the now-immune bacteria. My brother’s response that mutation happens and Rosenau’s claim that evolution predicts the effects of the immune systems response to immunization don’t actually address the substance of Dembski’s claim.

It does raise questions for me, though, about what “evolutionary theory” actually is. Clearly mutation happens on biological levels, and clearly on biological levels there is something like “survival of the fittest.” However, these ‘facts’ seem no less difficult to harmonize with ID than with ‘evolutionary theory.’ The only difference is that an evolutionary theorist who does not accept agent causation as a valid form of (scientific?) explanation must explain all events in the universe using these categories, which just seems a tendentious. They must see the macro in light of the micro, which seems awfully reductionistic.

The anticipated question for an ID theorist would simply be “How would ID predict the immune systems response to immunization better than evolutionary theory?” My reply is, on the micro-level, it doesn’t seem to at all. This doesn’t entail that the explanatory power of “evolutionary theory” in this instance disconfirms ID. Rather, it simply highlights that ID is a macro-scientific theory, and it’s opponent “evolutionary theory” is as well, which means that rolling out specific instances (on either side) probably won’t settle the issue. It also makes me more than a little suspicious that there are two competing philosophies of science at work and that philosophical naturalism is undergirding contempory science more than some would like to admit (rather than science justifying the claims of naturalism, as many more would like to admit!).

Those are my thoughts. Perhaps I am over-simplifying the situation, but if I’m right, then I’m probably justified in continuing in my lack of zeal for the scientific aspects of evolutionary theory and intelligent design (whatever those are).

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

7 Comments

  1. Dembski’s complaint misses the mark. Evolution as a process saves and destroys with equanimity, and no one is claiming otherwise. Our knowledge of evolutionary processes is what allows us to save lives.

    Dembski has said that ID can accommodate all the results of evolutionary theory, in which case it is trivial, as I have argued elsewhere.

    What is the scientific theory of Intelligent Design? Can anyone answer Lenny Flank’s question?

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  2. Dembski’s complaint misses the mark. Evolution as a process saves and destroys with equanimity, and no one is claiming otherwise. Our knowledge of evolutionary processes is what allows us to save lives.

    I quoted Dembksi as saying: “Rather, it is the drug designer’s background knowledge and ability as a researcher that enables him or her to design appropriate new drugs that knock out these bacteria. All evolution is doing here is describing the process by which these bacteria acquire antibiotic resistance — not how to design drugs capable of overcoming that resistance.”

    Really, it seems he is making the same claim you are. Hence, the ambiguous claim that evolutionary theory saves lives isn’t quite accurate (as both you and Dembski are pointing out).

    “Dembski has said that ID can accommodate all the results of evolutionary theory, in which case it is trivial, as I have argued elsewhere.”
    Again, you presume this notion of “evolutionary theory”–what is that? Do you mean, “evolution happens (on a micro level)?” If that’s the case, then of course ID HAS to accomdate that fact, but that doesn’t mean it’s trivial–it just means that it’s a macro-explanatory mechanism the same way “evolutionary theory” seems to be.

    “What is the scientific theory of Intelligent Design? Can anyone answer Lenny Flank’s question?”

    What do you mean by “scientific theory”? : ) If you give a definition of ‘science’ that a priori bars any type of agent causation as a viable explanation, then ID won’t submit to your notion of ‘science.’ But your notion of science is a philosophical position, not necessarily a scientific position. Hence my claim that it’s “two competing philosophies of science at work.”

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  3. “Evolutionary theory saves lives.” Sure, it’s “ambiguous,” if we’re talking about strict logic. It’s rhetoric, like saying “seatbelts save lives.” “Ah, but only if they’re worn,” says the logician. Of course. And only if evolutionary theory is applied. Quibble we must, because these are blogs. :)

    Remember, Dembski’s original point was to say that

    My own experience in reading the biological literature is that evolution has very little to do with nuts and bolts biology (e.g., genetics, biochemistry, anatomy and physiology). Biologists, by and large, try to understand existing systems and structures — what they’re made of, how they’re constructed, and how they function. How they evolved is largely beside the point.

    Yet to read evolutionists about the scientific status of evolutionary theory, one often gets the impression of salesmen who are omitting crucial details about the product they are selling. Thus one reads that evolution is a fruitful scientific theory that is put into practice every day by scientists across numerous areas of biology and beyond.

    Compare that with these pages, and you’ll see that Dembski, quite frankly, is full of it. (The second also goes into the scientific theory of common descent, the macro-portion of evolutionary theory.)

    ID is confusing because its proponents are confused. Behe and Dembski believe in common descent; Behe believes that Darwinian processes are sufficient after the first de novo cell, but Dembski has doubts. Jonathan Wells doubts common ancestry. All consider hemselves proponents of Intelligent Design. With a theory so vacuous, they’re all right.

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  4. Dembski’s biggest problem is that he assumes ID and evolution are mutually exclusive alternatives. And perhaps Rosenau may share some of that same problem as well, but in Dembski’s case the consequences are more severe.

    Evolution is itself a highly intelligent design, so if our knowledge of evolutionary theory allows us to design medicines that save lives, that may indeed involve design, but the presence of design does not change the fact that the design would not be possible without the contributions of evolutionary theory. Rosenau is much nearer to the mark here than Dembski. Dembski wants to make evolution the ultimate evil and source of all that is wrong with the modern world, and it isn’t. ID theory, as typified by Dembski, has manifested itself so far as little more than hatred of evolution, and hasn’t made any real positive contribution to the world at all–not even a coherent alternative to evolutionary theory.

    Understanding that a wise Designer might (and arguably would) design life with the ability to evolve, we ought to understand that it’s not a question of whether evolution OR intelligent design is true, but a question of seeing the intelligent design of evolution itself, as theistic evolutionists have been doing for years. It is by understanding the design of evolution that we are able to design medicines that save lives, among other things, and to take steps to avoid unfavorable evolutions like the evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. This is no idle theological debate–the health of future generations may be significantly impacted by our ability to recognize and understand the design of evolution. Dembski’s efforts to make design and evolution into mutually exclusive alternatives may be hazardous to your grandchildren’s health.

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  5. Welcome to Mere-O, Mark.

    You said:
    “Evolution is itself a highly intelligent design…”

    Pray tell, what in the world do you mean by evolution? Things ‘mutating,’ or the broader evolutionary thesis that ‘things evolve in a random and undirected fashion’? If the latter, then I think it’s tough to see THAT as an ‘intelligent design’ since properly speaking, there is no design at all. It happened randomly and undirectedly.

    “Dembski’s efforts to make design and evolution into mutually exclusive alternatives may be hazardous to your grandchildren’s health.”
    Heh. Not if he’s as unsuccessful as everyone suggests he is. But then again, he doesn’t seem to be going away (nor does ID, for that matter).

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  6. Evolution is not “things mutating in a random and undirected fashion”–that’s the mockery of evolution given by those who wish to detract from it. The brilliant design of evolution is that within the species is the potential both for variability and for sensitivity to environment (i.e natural selection, expressed from the creature’s point of view) such that over long periods of time changes may emerge, resulting in species which are better adapted to prosper in their environments. Over sufficiently long periods, this process leads to whole new species (thus continuing the inherent flourishing of creativity with which Creation is endowed), thus revealing not only the engineering genius but also the creative/artistic genius of the Creator. But there’s more: this design also carries a very practical genius, because in case of a major catastrophe (an asteroid strike, for example, one of which wiped out more than 3/4 of all species living on earth at the time), the ability to evolve allows life on earth to replenish itself, and to generate new species to re-fill ecological niches left vacant by the extinct species and thus continue to “be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth.”

    No random or haphazard process this, but a most elegant and sophisticated design, far superior to any plan that would have populated the earth with only fixed species that, lacking the ability to adapt and evolve, could only become extinct and leave the earth empty once they were gone. The mechanisms are “undirected” in that we do not observe visible agents manually adjusting the genes and chromosomes, but that does not mean the changes themselves are uncaused or outside of God’s control. It may take more faith than science to see God’s hand at the helm, of course, but we’ve come this far by faith, and it’s not a bad place, overall.

    (Yes, I know Dembski’s still here, and that’s ok too. But I wish he would learn to appreciate God’s handiwork a little better.)

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  7. It does raise questions for me, though, about what “evolutionary theory” actually is.

    Evolution theory is five observations, or facts, and three reasonable inferences drawn from them.

    These are the facts of evolution which creationists must deny to falsify evolution.

    Observation 1: Species have great fertility. They make more offspring than can grow to adulthood.

    Observation 2: Populations remain roughly the same size, with modest fluctuations.

    Observation 3. Food resources are limited, and are constant most of the time.

    Inference A: In such an environment there will be a struggle for survival among individuals.

    Observation 4: No two individuals are identical. Variation is rampant.

    Observation 5: Much of this variation is heritable.

    Inference B: In a world of stable populations where each individual must struggle to survive, those with the “best” characteristics will be more likely to survive, and those desirable traits will be passed to their offspring. This is natural selection.

    Inference C: Natural selection, if carried far enough, makes changes in a population, eventually leading to new species.

    (In Ernst Mayr’s 1982 book The Growth of Biological Thought, he boils Darwin down to five observations and three inferences from them — the heart of evolution, according to Donald Johanson and Maitland A. Edey in Blueprints.)

    The careful reader will noctice that nothing in ID calls any part of these observations into question.

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