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Derbyshire Protects Darwinism from Dissent

John Derbyshire keeps reburying the design argument over at The Corner, with evidence he assures us is elsewhere. By assembling a host of misconceptions about design theory into a single, compact essay (generally unencumbered by supporting evidence), Derbyshire has done us a great service, providing us a forum to respond to each misconception in a series of posts over the next several days.

I’ve never met John Derbyshire. I love his name. It makes me think of England and Middle Earth. I imagine him wearing a stylish derby and living in a tasteful shire somewhere, an articulate conservative with strong opinions — but who just might stop and take a second look at a position with a much older pedigree than Darwinism, one that has gotten a boost in recent years from discoveries in molecular biology, big bang cosmology, astrobiology, information theory, and physics.

Derbyshire begins with a rhetorical flourish: “I like a good knock-down argument as much as the next person, but I must say, ID-ers are low-grade opponents, at least if a bulk of my e-mails are any indication.”

Hmmm. If Derbyshire likes a “good knock-down argument,” why is he arguing with his inbox instead of with the best design arguments (of which he appears oblivious)?

I don’t think Derbyshire likes to have his cherished opinions knocked down at all. Most of us don’t. So we have to fight our tendency to guard our pet scientific theories from contrary evidence. We have to put our theories in empirical harm’s way, and see if they continue to stand when assailed with fresh evidence. It’s called “The Scientific Method.”

But for Derbyshire, Darwinism is the damsel and he will not have her virtue besmirched, will not have her dragged into the dock to be cross-examined, will not have her competing for our affections like a common harlot. Intelligent design, he writes, “is, by the way, not a scientific theory, though it may be a metaphysical one.”

Rhetorically punchy, but is it a scientific way to defend a theory–victory by definition?
Derbyshire also informs us, “All the ID arguments have been patiently refuted many times over.” Were they refuted exclusively with metaphysical arguments? No. Leading Darwinists often rebut ID arguments with scientific arguments. Then when a design theorist rebuts the Darwinist’s scientific arguments by pointing to contrary evidence in the natural world, suddenly (according to Derbyshire) it’s no longer a scientific argument.

Such desperate efforts to keep design theory out of the ring should impress no one.

Notice, too, where Derbyshire retreats to the dogma that design theory isn’t science. It’s right after he states, “A good scientific theory fits the data better than a poor theory.” Hear! Hear! But Derbyshire immediately senses the danger. You see, Darwinism does a horrible job of explaining all sorts evidence in biology and paleontology (e.g., irreducibly complex devices like the mammalian eye, the bacterial flagellum, and blood clotting, the sudden appearance of numerous animal phyla in the Cambrian Explosion, the lack of any examples of macroevolution).

On these points, Darwinism is the aging boxer, past his prime. In contrast, the design hypothesis fits these data points nicely. Sensing this, Derbyshire quickly tries to get Darwinism’s strongest contender, intelligent design, out of the ring. “That other guy’s not a boxer. He’s a slugger, a ninja street fighter. I saw him down at the dojo last week! Watch out or he’ll use some of that Kung Fu voodoo on you!”

OK, that isn’t a Derbyshire quotation, but neither have leading design theorists made some of the silly arguments Derbyshire lists to the exclusion of strong design arguments. Consider what philosopher of science Stephen Meyer has to say about the Darwinist habit of defining intelligent design out of the competition:

As [Michael] Ruse and Richard Lewontin have argued, miraculous events are unscientific because they violate or contradict the laws of nature, thus making science impossible.

… But why is this the case? Surely the point at issue is whether there are independent and metaphysically neutral grounds for disqualifying theories that invoke nonnaturalistic events — such as instances of agency or intelligent design. To assert that such theories are not scientific because they are not naturalistic simply assumes the point at issue. Of course intelligent design is not wholly naturalistic, but why does that make it unscientific? What noncircular reason can be given for this assertion? What independent criterion of method demonstrates the inferior scientific status of a nonnaturalistic explanation? We have seen that “must explain via law” does not. What does?

Some say it isn’t science because the proposed design isn’t observable. Well neither is common descent. Others say design theory isn’t science because it can’t be tested in a lab. On this point, Derbyshire and design theorists are in agreement. As Derbyshire puts it, “For heaven’s sake. That criterion would invalidate most of science. The theory of continental drift, for example — how are you going to get Eurasia in through the lab door?” Stay tuned for more on observability and testability. In the mean time, the old saying is apropos: “He who lives in glass houses …”

Jonathan Witt

Executive Editor, Discovery Institute Press and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Jonathan Witt, PhD, is Executive Editor of Discovery Institute Press and a senior fellow and senior project manager with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. His latest book is Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design (DI Press, 2018) written with Finnish bioengineer Matti Leisola. Witt has also authored co-authored Intelligent Design Uncensored, A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature, and The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot. Witt is the lead writer and associate producer for Poverty, Inc., winner of the $100,000 Templeton Freedom Award and recipient of over 50 international film festival honors.