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E.O. Wilson’s Argument From Ignorance

In the November-December edition of Harvard Magazine in an article titled “Forum: Intelligent Evolution” E.O. Wilson recites the long debunked mantra of Darwinists accusing ID of merely being “God-of-the-Gaps”. In Wilson’s own words:

Many who accept the fact of evolution cannot, however, on religious grounds, accept the operation of blind chance and the absence of divine purpose implicit in natural selection. They support the alternative explanation of intelligent design. The reasoning they offer is not based on evidence but on the lack of it. The formulation of intelligent design is a default argument advanced in support of a non sequitur. It is in essence the following: There are some phenomena that have not yet been explained and that (and most importantly) the critics personally cannot imagine being explained; therefore there must be a supernatural designer at work.

This statement is pretty ironic given the prefatory statement to the piece which said:

At a moment when discussion of evolution and “intelligent design” preoccupies American political discourse to a surprising degree, shedding more heat than light on the nature of life and life science, Wilson invites the serious public to do what far too few of us have done: to read what Darwin wrote.

If E.O. Wilson and the good people at Harvard Magazine want to shed more light than heat then they would have done their homework on ID, and in doing so found that this charge was long ago debunked decisively by Center Director Stephen Meyer in First Things in April 2000:

Of course, many scientists have argued that to infer design gives up on science. They say that inferring design constitutes an argument from scientific ignorance–a “God of the Gaps” fallacy. Since science doesn’t yet know how biological information could have arisen, design theorists invoke a mysterious notion–intelligent design–to fill a gap in scientific knowledge. Many philosophers, for their part, resist reconsidering design, because they assume that Hume’s objections to analogical reasoning in classical design arguments still have force.

Yet developments in philosophy of science and the information sciences provide the grounds for a decisive refutation of both these objections. First, contemporary design theory does not constitute an argument from ignorance. Design theorists infer design not just because natural processes cannot explain the origin of biological systems, but because these systems manifest the distinctive hallmarks of intelligently designed systems–that is, they possess features that in any other realm of experience would trigger the recognition of an intelligent cause. For example, in his book Darwin’s Black Box (1996), Michael Behe has inferred design not only because the gradualistic mechanism of natural selection cannot produce “irreducibly complex” systems, but also because in our experience “irreducible complexity” is a feature of systems known to have been intelligently designed. That is, whenever we see systems that have the feature of irreducible complexity and we know the causal story about how such systems originated, invariably “intelligent design” played a role in the origin of such systems. Thus, Behe infers intelligent design as the best explanation for the origin of irreducible complexity in cellular molecular motors, for example, based upon what we know, not what we don’t know, about the causal powers of nature and intelligent agents, respectively.

Similarly, the “sequence specificity” or “specificity and complexity” or “information content” of DNA suggests a prior intelligent cause, again because “specificity and complexity” or “high information content” constitutes a distinctive hallmark (or signature) of intelligence. Indeed, in all cases where we know the causal origin of “high information content,” experience has shown that intelligent design played a causal role.

Design theorists infer a past intelligent cause based upon present knowledge of cause and effect relationships. Inferences to design thus employ the standard uniformitarian method of reasoning used in all historical sciences, many of which routinely detect intelligent causes. We would not say, for example, that an archeologist had committed a “scribe of the gaps” fallacy simply because he inferred that an intelligent agent had produced an ancient hieroglyphic inscription. Instead, we recognize that the archeologist has made an inference based upon the presence of a feature (namely, “high information content”) that invariably implicates an intelligent cause, not (solely) upon the absence of evidence for a suitably efficacious natural cause.

Second, contra the classical Humean objection to design, the “DNA to Design” argument does not depend upon an analogy between the features of human artifacts and living systems, still less upon a weak or illicit one. If, as Bill Gates has said, “DNA is similar to a software program” but more complex, it makes sense, on analogical grounds, to consider inferring that it too had an intelligent source.

Nevertheless, while DNA is similar to a computer program, the case for its design does not depend merely upon resemblance or analogical reasoning. Classical design arguments in biology typically sought to draw analogies between whole organisms and machines based upon certain similar features that each held in common. These arguments sought to reason from similar effects back to similar causes. The status of such design arguments thus turned on the degree of similarity that actually obtained between the effects in question. Yet since even advocates of these classical arguments admitted dissimilarities as well as similarities, the status of these arguments always appeared uncertain. Advocates would argue that the similarities between organisms and machines outweighed dissimilarities. Critics would claim the opposite.

The design argument from the information in DNA does not depend upon such analogical reasoning since it does not depend upon claims of similarity. As noted above, the coding regions of DNA have the very same property of “specified complexity” or “information content” that computer codes and linguistic texts do. Though DNA does not possess all the properties of natural languages or “semantic information”–i.e., information that is subjectively “meaningful” to human agents–it does have precisely those properties that jointly implicate an antecedent intelligence.

This piece has long been listed on the Center website in our “Essential Readings”, so now I too extend an invitation to E.O. Wilson and other ID critics to do what too few of them have done and actually read what ID theorists have written.