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Miller on Witness Stand: ID Isn’t Falsifiable, So It Isn’t Science; Plus, We’ve Already Falsified It

HARRISBURG, PA — The first day of testimony in the ACLU’s lawsuit against the Dover, Pennsylvania school district ended today with the defense beginning their cross-examination of leading Darwinist Kenneth Miller.

How long has it been since a leading evolutionist subjected himself to cross-examination on the witness stand? In the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial in the 1920s, the Darwinist, Clarence Darrow, used a procedural trick to cross examine his opponent while himself avoiding cross-examination. The vast majority of Darwinists routinely duck full and fair exchanges. Kenneth Miller should be applauded for bucking this duck-the-debate tactic.

Ironically, however, Miller’s testimony is not part of an effort to encourage the sort of back-and-forth critical inquiry encouraged by the Dover Area School District’s policy of taking one minute to point biology students to a book about intelligent design in the school library. Instead, Miller and the American Civil Liberties Union are bent on protecting Darwinism from critical scrutiny, bent on making sure future Dover high school kids never hear about the competing theory of intelligent design in their class room.

The school district’s policy calls for administrators to read a brief statement to biology students indicating that Darwinism is a theory, and that if students want to learn about a contrary explanation for the origin of living things, they can find a supplementary science textbook, Of Pandas and People, in the school library.

The plaintiff is arguing that intelligent design is merely the creationism that was on trial in the Supreme Court decision, Edwards vs. Aguillard (1987). There the court ruled that Louisiana could not mandate equal-time teaching of biblical creationism. But in my essay here on the history of intelligent design, I show that intelligent design is clearly distinct from creationism and predates Edwards vs. Aguillard by many years.

Miller commented on the witness stand that unlike creationism, the theory of intelligent design does not identify the designer, nor does it attempt to reconcile the fossil record with a Biblical reading pointing to a 6000-year-old earth and the global flood of Noah. Miller added that by not including these elements in its theory, intelligent design is, ironically, less testable than creationism.

In friendly questioning from the plaintiff, Miller asserted that the theory of intelligent design was “not a testable theory in any sense” and so wasn’t science. Later, however, Miller argued that science has tested Michael Behe’s bacterial flagellum argument and falsified it, by pointing to a micro-syringe called the Type III Secretory System, and arguing that it could have served as a functional step on the gradual, Darwinian pathway to the full flagellar motor.

Did the journalists covering the trial notice the contradiction? Miller tried to provide a fig leaf for it, but the fig leaf was itself a misrepresentation. Miller said Behe’s argument was in every respect a negative argument (and, further, that ALL the leading design theorists’ arguments he was aware of are purely negative, with nothing positive anywhere). Miller conceded that Behe’s irreducible complexity argument was testable, but said Behe’s inference to design doesn’t follow from irreducible complexity because Behe was committing the either/or fallacy — If not A (Darwinism), then it must be B (design). Miller said there were, in principle, an infinite number of other possible explanations, so jumping from a refutation of Darwinism to design was illegitimate.

But Behe and other design theorists have offered positive evidence for design repeatedly and for various features of the natural world.

For example, as proof that design uses only negative arguments, Miller confidently proclaimed that the textbook being used in Dover, Of Pandas and People, failed to ever offer “positive evidence” for intelligent design. Yet a cursory scan of the textbook reveals that it clearly makes a positive argument for design:

“If experience has shown that a certain class of phenomena results from intelligent causes and then we encounter something new but similar, we conclude its origin also to be from an intelligent cause.” (Of Pandas and People, page ix)

This argument makes a positive case for design based upon our observation-based understanding of how intelligent agents operate. Pandas then goes on to explain how we can make a positive argument for design:

“It has been discovered that the structure of information in living systems is mathematically identical to that of written language. Since both written language and DNA have that telltale property of information carried along by specific sequences of ‘words,’ and since intelligence is known to produce written language, is it not reasonable to identify the cause of the DNA’s information as an intelligence too? (Of Pandas and People, page 57)

There is also positive evidence for design of the bacterial flagellum. Click here and scroll down for a good, brief description and animation of the bacterial flagellum, and here for an enlarged view with its parts labeled. Behe made this little engine that could famous by showing that it was irreducibly complex, like a mouse trap: “If any one of the components of the mousetrap (the base, hammer, spring, catch, or holding bar) is removed, then the trap does not function.” With even four of these parts, it’s utterly useless. The mousetrap is irreducibly complex.

What does irreducible complexity have to do with Darwinian evolution? Evolution by mutation and natural selection must proceed by one slight, functional improvement at a time. So how can it build an irreducibly complex propeller motor one step at a time if the motor can’t propel at all until all of its parts are in place? It can’t. Something else built it.

Behe’s argument doesn’t assume that none of the other parts could ever be used for anything else. The spring on a mousetrap could be taken and used in some other device. The base with cheese on it could feed a mouse. Several but not all of the parts of a bacterial flagellum–while completely useless as a rotary propulsion machine–can be used as a microsyringe. But this hardly provides a credible Darwinian pathway.

Imagine if a boy told a girl that NASA’s Mars rover had not reached Mars in a space probe designed by engineers, but had climbed there by a natural ladder extending from earth to Mars? The girl is skeptical, pointing out that nobody on earth has ever found such a ladder; therefore, it’s a much better explanation to say that NASA designed a space probe and sent the rover to Mars. The boy screams, “That’s an argument from ignorance! Scientists are finding all sorts of new things all the time. Look! The moon! The moon is one step along the way. You see, everything is falling into place.” Miller’s effort on the witness stand to spin away the clear significance of the bacterial flagellum is strangely akin to this sort of reasoning. Dembski comments:

Darwin’s theory, without which nothing in biology is supposed to make sense, in fact offers no insight into how the flagellum arose. If the biological community had even an inkling of how such systems arose by naturalistic mechanisms, Miller would not — a full six years after the publication of Darwin’s Black Box by Michael Behe — be lamely gesturing at the type three secretory system as a possible evolutionary precursor to the flagellum.

Miller should be applauded for making his argument against Behe in such a public forum where he can be cross-examined. It’s particularly fortunate because his argument so very desperately needs to be cross-examined. His critique of Behe’s flagellum argument is like the boy convinced of the natural ladder to Mars, who finds the moon and yells “Ah ha! Now who dares to play the skeptic!” Well, design theorists do. Consider this passage from a peer-edited paper by biologist Scott Minnich (also scheduled to testify in the Dover trial) and philosopher of science Stephen Meyer, in which they discuss recent evidence for the delicately orchestrated and information-rich proteins of the bacterial flagellum:

[I]f anything, TTSSs [Type Three Secretory Systems] generate more complications than solutions to this question. As shown here, possessing multiple TTSSs causes interference. If not segregated one or both systems are lost. Additionally, the other thirty proteins in the flagellar motor (that are not present in the TTSS) are unique to the motor and are not found in any other living system. From whence, then were these protein parts co-opted?

Also, even if all the protein parts were somehow available to make a flagellar motor during the evolution of life, the parts would need to be assembled in the correct temporal sequence similar to the way an automobile is assembled in factory. Yet, to choreograph the assembly of the parts of the flagellar motor, present-day bacteria need an elaborate system of genetic instructions as well as many other protein machines to time the expression of those assembly instructions. Arguably, this system is itself irreducibly complex. In any case, the co-option argument tacitly presupposes the need for the very thing it seeks to explain‚ a functionally interdependent system of proteins.

Miller asserted that biologists like himself, Bruce Alberts, and others refer to molecular machines as motors, or the bacterial flagellum as a motor, merely as a convenient metaphor. He never explained what was merely metaphorical about a motor (the bacterial flagellum) that has turned out to be far more sophisticated than our manmade motors.

As Minnich and Meyer note, the discovery of molecular motors is opening a whole new field, where biology and engineering meet:

To paraphrase the original rendition of the Department of Energy’s Genomes to Life web site, “the molecular machines present in the simplest cells, produced by evolution, dwarf the engineering feats of the 20th century.” The dissection of the complexity and sophistication of … machines like the bacterial flagellum are indeed a testimony to the power of modern molecular biological techniques. Yet, the elegant structural properties, efficiency, and the highly controlled genetic programming to produce these machines was neither anticipated nor predicted. The potential applications of this knowledge are legion and have spawned a new discipline focused on nanotechnology.

One needn’t go far for examples. Here at Physics Today, well trained physicists are standing around this astonishing little machine, the bacterial flagellum, like neighborhood mechanics getting a chance to take apart and learn from a NASCAR racing engine.

Contra Miller, then, there are strongly positive grounds for inferring design from the presence of irreducibly complex machines and circuits. Every time we know the causal history of an irreducibly complex system (like the NASCAR racing engine or an electronic circuit), it always turn out to have been the product of an intelligent cause.

Miller has conceded that Behe’s irreducible complexity argument is testable. And we see that Miller’s assertion that scientists have tested and falsified Behe’s argument is itself false. Finally, we see that Behe and other design theorists like Scott Minnich and Stephen Meyer have offered positive evidence for the design of the flagellum based on standard uniformitarian reasoning, reasoning well established in science. Darwinists like Miller quarrel with these claims and arguments. Behe, Minnich, Meyer and other design scientists respond. It’s called a scientific controversy, something Darwinists claim doesn’t exist. Now that’s what I call faith-based.

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.



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