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Derbyshire should try reading the ID literature

I enjoy John Derbyshire’s posts on National Review Online &’s Corner when he’s talking within his area of expertise. Unfortunately, intelligent design isn’t that area. Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds today quoted Derbyshire from his criticism of ID yesterday at The Corner:

Lots of scientists believe in God. Einstein seems to have, for instance. So do I; and so do a great [many] other people who think that ID theory is pure flapdoodle. It is possible to believe in God and not believe in ID; it is possible (as I pointed out in a previous post) to believe in ID but not God.

ID theory posits that certain features of the natural world CAN ONLY be explained by the active intervention of a designing intelligence. Since the entire history of science displays innumerable instances of hitherto inexplicable phenomena yielding to natural explanations (and, in fact, innumerable instances of “intelligent design” notions to explain natural phenomena being scrapped when more obvious natural explanations were worked out), the whole ID outlook has very little appeal to well-informed scientists. A scientist who knows his history sees the region of understanfing [sic] as a gradually enlarging circle of light in a general darkness. If someone comes along and tells him: “This particular region of darkness HERE will never be illuminated by methods like yours,” then he is naturally skeptical. “How can you possibly know that?” he will say, very reasonably.

Derbyshire has managed to pack several misconceptions and myths into one paragraph. He should be commended for such efficient writing. But he doesn’t show any evidence that he’s read anything from any prominent ID advocates. He’s shooting from the hip.

There are lots of arguments for ID in a variety of scientific disciplines, from various areas of biology and the origin of life, to physics, astronomy, and cosmology. (Go here to find out more.) But the only argument Derbyshire seems willing to identify with intelligent design is Mike Behe’s. And he doesn’t even describe it accurately. Behe focuses on features of certain “molecular machines.”

Behe argues that there are certain structures in biology that are “irreducibly complex.” They’re like a mousetrap. Without all of their fundamental parts in place, they don’t work. Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection and random variation must build systems one small step at a time, by traversing a path in which each step provides a present survival advantage. It can’t select for a future function. So the Darwinian mechanism isn’t a good explanation of such structures.

On the other hand, we do know of causes that can exercise foresight, that can produce irreducibly complex structures. We usually know the effects of such causes when we see them. We call them “intelligent agents.” Such agents can use foresight, can conceive of a plan and implement it. They would be causally adequate to explain such structures. So intelligent design is a better explanation for them than the Darwinian mechanism.

Notice that Behe’s ID argument has both a negative and positive aspect. It’s not an argument from ignorance, as Derbyshire implies. We can consider what the Darwinian mechanism explains well and what it explains poorly. We can do the same thing with intelligent design. Behe’s argument (and others) does not simply look for something that current theory (Darwinian or otherwise) can’t explain well, and then stick ID in as a stop gap. Behe’s argument is based on our knowledge of the properties and capacities of certain natural processes, and our knowledge of the powers of intelligent agency, and the sorts of structures that such agents produce.

Next, contra Derbyshire, there’s nothing in Behe’s argument that says that “certain features of the natural world CAN ONLY be explained by the active intervention of a designing intelligence.” It’s a matter of comparing hypotheses, and picking the best one — the one with the most explanatory power, the one that most increases the likelihood of the evidence in question, and so forth.

Finally, Derbyshire makes a false but historical claim. History — Western history at least — is not replete with “innumerable instances of “intelligent design” notions to explain natural phenomena being scrapped when more obvious natural explanations were worked out.” This is an urban legend akin to the claim that most folks thought the Earth was flat in the middle ages. To my knowledge, the only clear example in the West of a prominent design argument being justifiably scrapped is the argument that Newton makes about God tweaking the orbits of the planets in his General Scholium (in the Principia). There may be a few other mistakes like this. But Western Christianity has always had the distinction, first implicitly and later explicitly, between primary and secondary causality. Everyone wasn’t attributing everything that happened to God, angels and demons, and then, later, to gravity and electromagnetism.

Of course, we’re often told that as “science” has progressed, “religious” (read: teleological or design) explanations have inevitably been refuted and passed into oblivion. But this is as much a myth of scientific materialism as is the claim that peppered moths really like to rest on tree trunks.

Jay W. Richards

Senior Fellow at Discovery, Senior Research Fellow at Heritage Foundation
Jay W. Richards, Ph.D., is the William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, and the Executive Editor of The Stream. Richards is author or editor of more than a dozen books, including the New York Times bestsellers Infiltrated (2013) and Indivisible (2012); The Human Advantage; Money, Greed, and God, winner of a 2010 Templeton Enterprise Award; The Hobbit Party with Jonathan Witt; and Eat, Fast, Feast. His most recent book, with Douglas Axe and William Briggs, is The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic Into a Catastrophe.