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What’s Up with Ronald Numbers? An Analysis of the Darwinist Metanarrative in the Journal of Clinical Investigation (Part III)

[Editor’s Note: The three individual installments of this series can be seen here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. The final complete article, What’s Up with Ronald Numbers? An Analysis of the Darwinist Metanarrative in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, can be found here.]

The noted scholar Ronald Numbers is often cited as an objective authority on the history of the debate over evolution. But when he recently co-authored an article in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, “Defending science education against intelligent design: a call to action,” I was surprised that Numbers used invective language and clearly incorrect claims to discredit the theory of intelligent design. My first two pieces on the article are here and here. Now I want to take up three other claims that the article makes: (1) Michael Behe’s irreducible complexity argument ignores exaptation (co-option); (2) there are no peer-reviewed science articles defending intelligent design; and (3) ID stymies scientific progress.

Inaccuracy # 5: The article states that “Behe assumes that the component parts of irreducibly complex systems never had other functions in older organisms.” This false claim, made by the Dover plaintiffs and then repeated by Judge Jones, was refuted by Part I of my April, Do Car Engines Run on Lugnuts? post, noting that Behe (and others) have devoted much discussion to the inadequate argument that the presence of other functions for a given part of an irreducibly complex system undermines a claim of irreducible complexity.

Inaccuracy # 6: The article also implies that ID has published no studies about how life came about:

However, those studies tell us a great deal about how life came to be as it is and now form the foundation of modern biology. ID, by contrast, has produced nothing.

This common fallacious claim is easily refuted by a listing of peer-reviewed articles and books, some published in highly prestigious venues, supporting ID.

Most importantly, this literature is helping us to understand the natural world. As Stephen Meyer explains in his peer-reviewed article, ID helps us to understand the origin of biological information:

Analysis of the problem of the origin of biological information, therefore, exposes a deficiency in the causal powers of natural selection that corresponds precisely to powers that agents are uniquely known to possess. Intelligent agents have foresight. Such agents can select functional goals before they exist. They can devise or select material means to accomplish those ends from among an array of possibilities and then actualize those goals in accord with a preconceived design plan or set of functional requirements. Rational agents can constrain combinatorial space with distant outcomes in mind. The causal powers that natural selection lacks–almost by definition–are associated with the attributes of consciousness and rationality–with purposive intelligence. Thus, by invoking design to explain the origin of new biological information, contemporary design theorists are not positing an arbitrary explanatory element unmotivated by a consideration of the evidence. Instead, they are positing an entity possessing precisely the attributes and causal powers that the phenomenon in question requires as a condition of its production and explanation. (Intelligent Design: The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories by Stephen C. Meyer, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 117(2):213-239 (2004))

And the ID explanation can also yield fruitful insights into biology. Pro-ID biologist Jonathan Wells has suggested in a peer-reviewed ID journal (***) that intelligent design can help us to understand function of Junk-DNA:

Since non-coding regions do not produce proteins, Darwinian biologists have been dismissing them for decades as random evolutionary noise or ‘junk DNA.’ From an ID perspective, however, it is extremely unlikely that an organism would expend its resources on preserving and transmitting so much ‘junk.'” (Jonathan Wells, “Using Intelligent Design Theory to Guide Scientific Research,” Progress in Complexity, Information, and Design, Vol 3.1, Nov., 2004.)

Wells’s approach might have helped us to avoid pitfalls stemming from Neo-Darwinian thought. For example, a widely used college textbook on molecular biology leads students to believe that, under Neo-Darwinian thinking, introns are merely genetic junk:

Unlike the sequence of an exon, the exact nucleotide sequence of an intron seems to be unimportant. Thus introns have accumulated mutations rapidly during evolution, and it is often possible to alter most of an intron’s nucleotide sequence without greatly affecting gene function. This has led to the suggestion that intron sequences have no function at all and are largely genetic “junk”… (Molecular biology of the Cell, 3rd Ed. (1994) by Bruce Alberts, Dennis Bray, Julian Lewis, Martin Raff, Keith Roberts, and James D. Watson)

That Darwinist statement was written in 1994. In 2003, an article in Scientific American about the functionality of so-called “junk-DNA” called our failure to recognize introns as functional within the cell “one of the biggest mistakes in the history of molecular biology”:

Yet the introns within genes and the long stretches of intergenic DNA between genes, Mattick says, “were immediately assumed to be evolutionary junk.”


About two thirds of the conserved sequences lie in introns, and the rest are scattered among the intergenic “junk” DNA. “I think this will come to be a classic story of orthodoxy derailing objective analysis of the facts, in this case for a quarter of a century,” Mattick says. “The failure to recognize the full implications of this–particularly the possibility that the intervening noncoding sequences may be transmitting parallel information in the form of RNA molecules–may well go down as one of the biggest mistakes in the history of molecular biology.” (The Unseen Genome: Gems Among the Junk by Wayt T. Gibbs, Scientific American (November, 2003), emphasis added)

Intelligent design leads us to the testable expectation that designers make things for a reason–and thus ID leads us to expect that structures in biology probably have some function. Had scientists considered an ID approach, the mistake Mattlick so passionately identifies could have been avoided.

The article by Numbers and his co-authors nicely encapsulates the Darwinist metanarrative about ID. A close analysis exposes that this metanarrative–though widely promulgated–is factually bankrupt.

Sadly, the article also uses harsh invectives and polemics to describe ID. These are surprising for an article appearing in a scholarly journal. Given the prestige garnered by co-author Ronald Numbers for his past works on the history of this debate, one cannot help but ask, “Has Numbers given up his role as historian and become a partisan in the debate?” Is Professor Numbers maintaining his neutrality, or is this polemical and factually-challenged article a departure from his position as an academic historian of science?

*** The Progress in Complexity, Information, and Design website states that “[t]he editorial advisory board peer-reviews articles submitted to the society’s journal.”