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A Misguided Attempt to Critique Intelligent Design: A Response to John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One

This weekend I’m giving a presentation on the scientific evidence for intelligent design (ID) at a conference in Chicago where the keynote speaker is the BioLogos-affiliated Old Testament scholar John Walton. On the plane flight here, I decided to read Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One (InterVarsity, 2009), which aims to convince readers that the best way to interpret Genesis 1 is to assume it carries no meaningful scientific implications for the modern reader. As I’m not an expert in ancient Hebrew language or Biblical hermeneutics, I have no intention of expressing an opinion on Walton’s basic thesis about how to interpret Genesis 1.

But there were two surprising elements that struck me as I read Walton’s book: (1) How much space Walton devotes to ID, Discovery Institute, and public education (all topics far removed from interpreting Genesis), and (2) How inaccurate Walton’s discussion of ID was. Here I will express some opinions on Walton’s claims.

Walton Misses the Positive Argument for Intelligent Design
Like many BioLogos-affiliated ID-critics, Walton critiques false characterizations of ID rather than the actual theory of ID as defined by its proponents. In that regard, Walton frames ID as a purely negative argument against Darwinian evolution:

In other words, ID does not offer a theory of origins. It offers conclusions from observations in the natural world and posits that those observations argue against the reigning paradigm of Neo-Darwinism. It must be noted, however, that even as many might grant weaknesses in the reigning paradigm, ID would only be one among many possible alternatives … Its basic premise is a negative one: “that natural selection (i.e. natural selection, random mutation) cannot fully account for life as we know it.” (pp. 126-127)

One would think that if you’re going to define ID then you would quote from a leading ID proponent–say Stephen Meyer or Michael Behe. Not Walton’s book. If you’ll notice, at the end of this quote Walton is quoting someone else ostensibly defining intelligent design–he’s quoting from a book by two outsiders to the ID movement, Thomas Fowler and Daniel Kuebler.

Had Walton defined ID by citing a leading ID proponent like Stephen Meyer or Michael Behe, perhaps readers might have learned that ID is not merely a negative argument against evolution, but rather is based upon a positive argument. This positive argument for design is based upon finding in nature the type of complexity which in our experience comes from intelligence. This means that ID isn’t just “one among many possible alternatives,” but that ID postulates specific causes which can uniquely explain the data we observe. As Stephen Meyer writes:

[W]e have repeated experience of rational and conscious agents–in particular ourselves–generating or causing increases in complex specified information, both in the form of sequence-specific lines of code and in the form of hierarchically arranged systems of parts. In the first place, intelligent human agents–in virtue of their rationality and consciousness–have demonstrated the power to produce information in the form of linear sequence-specific arrangements of characters. Indeed, experience affirms that information of this type routinely arises from the activity of intelligent agents. A computer user who traces the information on a screen back to its source invariably comes to a mind–that of a software engineer or programmer. The information in a book or inscriptions ultimately derives from a writer or scribe–from a mental, rather than a strictly material, cause. Our experience-based knowledge of information-flow confirms that systems with large amounts of specified complexity (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source from a mind or personal agent. … 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.

(Stephen C. Meyer, “The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories,” Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 117(2):213-239 (2004).)

Similarly Meyer writes in Signature in the Cell:

[T]he discovery of the specified digital information in the DNA molecule provides strong grounds for inferring that intelligence played a role in the origin of DNA. Indeed, whenever we find specified information and we know the causal story of how that information arose, we always find that it arose from an intelligent source.

(Stephen C. Meyer. Signature in the Cell: DNA and the evidence for Intelligent Design, p. 347 (HarperOne, 2009).)

Walton also tries to portray irreducible complexity as merely a negative argument against Darwinian evolution (p. 126). He’s right that irreducible complexity is a challenge to Darwinian explanations, but as Michael Behe explains, it is also a positive argument for design:

[I]rreducibly complex systems such as mousetraps and flagella serve both as negative arguments against gradualistic explanations like Darwin’s and as positive arguments for design. The negative argument is that such interactive systems resist explanation by the tiny steps that a Darwinian path would be expected to take. The positive argument is that their parts appear arranged to serve a purpose, which is exactly how we detect design.

(Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, Afterward, pgs. 263-264 (Free Press, Reprint), emphasis added.)

Walton never mentions that ID is based upon a positive argument. As a result of wrongly claiming ID is based upon a “negative” argument, he further claims ID “does not contribute to the advance of scientific understanding because it does not offer an alternative that is scientifically testable and falsifiable.” (p.127)

Again, Walton is wrong, as ID makes a variety of testable and falsifiable predictions. As explained here, some of ID’s concrete and testable predictions include:

  • (1) Natural structures will be found that contain many parts arranged in intricate patterns that perform a specific function (e.g. complex and specified information).
  • (2) Forms containing large amounts of novel information will appear in the fossil record suddenly and without similar precursors.
  • (3) Convergence will occur routinely. That is, genes and other functional parts will be re-used in different and unrelated organisms.
  • (4) Much so-called “junk DNA” will turn out to perform valuable functions.

In that regard, ID also contributes to an advance of scientific understanding, including:

  • Directing research which has detected high levels of complex and specified information in biology in the form of fine-tuning of protein sequences. This has practical implications not just for explaining biological origins but also for engineering enzymes and anticipating / fighting the future evolution of diseases.
  • Predicting that scientists will find instances of fine-tuning of the laws and constants of physics to allow for life, leading to a variety of fine-tuning arguments, including the Galactic Habitable Zone. This has huge implications for proper cosmological models of the universe, hints at proper avenues for successful “theories of everything” which must accommodate fine-tuning, and other implications for theoretical physics.
  • Implying that there are limits to the information-generative powers of Darwinian searches, leading to the finding that the search abilities of Darwinian processes are limited, which has practical implications for the viability of using genetic algorithms to solve problems. ID’s predictions about the existence of limits to evolution can help us combat antibiotic, antiviral and pesticide resistance–not knowledge of Darwinian evolution.
  • Pointing scientists to anticipate and seek out function for junk-DNA, leading to various types of research seeking function for non-coding “junk”-DNA, allowing us to understand development and cellular biology.

For more details on how ID helps generate new scientific knowledge, please see: Does Intelligent Design Help Science Generate New Knowledge?.

Winning the Debate by Defining ID out of Science
In my experience, theistic evolutionists often try to marginalize ID as being outside of science. Walton adopts this strategy, as seen in the following passage from his book:

[E]ven as ID proposes that N-D [neo-Darwinism] fails to provide adequate naturalistic mechanisms to explain the existence of “irreducible complexities,” the response of science has not been to admit that there must be a designer. Instead critique from a variety of sources has prompted continuing work to offer alternative naturalistic mechanisms that will remedy the inadequacies of N-D. This is how science works–it seeks out other scientific explanations. If scientists simply threw up their hands and admitted that a metaphysical, teleological explanation was necessary they would be departing from that which is scientific. (p. 130)

The implication, of course, is that if we adopt ID then we have abandoned “scientific explanations.” Here, Walton is taking the BioLogos approach of defining the debate such that ID is outside of “science” and ID proponents as not “scientists.” But ID is not unscientific, and it’s not merely “a metaphysical, teleological explanation.” Rather, ID uses the scientific method to make its claims.

The scientific method is commonly described as a four-step process involving observations, hypothesis, experiments, and conclusion. As noted, ID begins with the observation that intelligent agents produce complex and specified information (CSI). Design theorists hypothesize that if a natural object was designed, it will contain high levels of CSI. Scientists then perform experimental tests upon natural objects to determine if they contain complex and specified information. One easily testable form of CSI is irreducible complexity, which can tested and discovered by experimentally reverse-engineering biological structures through genetic knockout experiments to determine if they require all of their parts to function. When experimental work uncovers irreducible complexity in biology, they conclude that such structures were designed.

Thus, ID employs the scientific method to detect intelligent causes in nature.

Missing the Scope and Breadth of Intelligent Design
When discussing ID’s arguments, Walton focuses only on irreducible complexity, implying that it is the only argument for design. But there are many other arguments for design. The founding book of the modern ID movement, The Mystery of Life’s Origin, written in the 1980s, makes the case for design based upon information in DNA. Many other thinkers have expanded and elaborated that argument, most notably Stephen Meyer in Signature in the Cell. Walton also ignores extensive arguments for design based upon cosmic fine-tuning and a correlation between the requirements for habitability and scientific discovery, as explained and developed by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards in their 2004 book The Privileged Planet.

A final area where Walton oddly ignores the contribution of ID thinkers is in non-scientific areas. I truly do not understand this next comment from Walton, as he can’t even admit that pro-ID thinkers contribute to his fields of Biblical interpretation and theology:

They offer no theory of origins nor do they attempt to interpret the Bible or contribute to theological thinking. (p. 128)

Let me get this straight: According to Walton, ID isn’t science and offers no scientific theory, but it also makes no contributions to theology. If ID isn’t science, and it isn’t theology, then what in Walton’s view is ID?

In any case, we’ve already seen that ID does offer a positive theory of design detection. Walton is also wrong to claim that ID proponents offer no contributions to Biblical interpretations or theology.

Ironically, one of the books Walton cites at the end of this chapter (p. 131) is William Dembski’s book Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology. Walton’s citation leaves off the subtitle, never informing readers that one major aspect of this book is to explore how ID helps us understand theology, namely how we interpret God’s actions in the world.

While the vast majority of ID literature is scientifically oriented, you can also find areas where Christian ID proponents help readers understand how ID coheres with Biblical interpretations. Phillip Johnson, for example, explains in his books Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds and The Wedge of Truth that ID can help give religious believers new insights into the meaning of Romans 1 and John 1.

Walton might disagree with ID, but to claim that ID proponents make no contributions to theology or Biblical interpretation reflects a gross lack of familiarity with the writings of ID proponents.

Walton Misstates Discovery Institute’s Reasons for Opposing Mandating ID in Public Schools
To his credit, Walton correctly acknowledges that Discovery Institute “do[es] not promote a requirement to teach Intelligent Design.” (p. 157) However, he then claims that we have adopted this policy because of a lack of scientific depth to ID:

We have proposed that Genesis 1 does not offer a competing descriptive mechanism for material origins, and Intelligent Design likewise does not currently have a replacement model to propose. The Discovery Institute, a think tank that explores Intelligent Design, agrees with this assessment. They do not promote a requirement to teach Intelligent Design. (p. 157)

Walton wrongly thinks he has the ability to speak for the Discovery Institute, and in fact most people at Discovery Institute would not agree with his assessment that ID is insufficiently developed to be part of a science curriculum.

The reason Discovery Institute opposes mandating ID in public schools stems not from a lack of content to form an ID-based science curriculum. Rather, the priority of Discovery Institute is to see ID develop as a scientific theory, and forcing ID into public schools would take the debate out of the scientific realm and force it into the political realm. Thus Discovery Institute’s Science Education Policy page states that our education policies aim to avoid politicizing ID:

As a matter of public policy, Discovery Institute opposes any effort to require the teaching of intelligent design by school districts or state boards of education. Attempts to mandate teaching about intelligent design only politicize the theory and will hinder fair and open discussion of the merits of the theory among scholars and within the scientific community.

So Walton is wrong to claim that somehow Discovery Institute “agrees” that ID lacks a model. ID has a theory of design detection that has been mature for a number of years, and it continues to grow at an ever-increasing rate. Our policy against mandating ID stems from a desire to focus the debate about ID in the scientific realm, not the political arena.

Walton Wrongly Denies Science can Detect Design
We make design inferences every day. Forensic scientists are in the business of discriminating between naturally caused deaths and intelligently caused deaths. Archaeologists have learned how to distinguish between intelligently designed artifacts and natural caused structures. The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project is devoted to scanning the skies for radio signals that come from natural phenomena like pulsars vs. radio signals sent by an extraterrestrial civilization.

Yet Walton asserts that science cannot detect design. He writes:

Science is not capable of exploring a designer or his purposes. It could theoretically investigate design but has chosen not to by the parameters it has set for itself … Therefore, while alleged irreducible complexities and mathematical equations and probabilities can serve as a critique for the reigning paradigm, empirical science would not be able to embrace Intelligent Design because science has placed an intelligent designer outside its parameters as subject to neither empirical verification nor falsification. (p. 127)

Here, Walton has misframed ID as if it studies designers and their purposes rather than seeking to detect design in nature. William Dembski explains how ID actually works:

  • “By contrast, intelligent design nowhere attempts to identify the intelligent cause responsible for the design in nature, nor does it prescribe in advance the sequence of events by which this intelligent cause had to act. … Intelligent design is modest in what it attributes to the designing intelligence responsible for the specified complexity in nature. For instance, design theorists recognize that the nature, moral character and purposes of this intelligence lie beyond the remit of science.” (William A. Dembski, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology, pp. 247-248 (InterVarsity Press, 1999).)
  • “Intelligent design is the science that studies signs of intelligence. Note that a sign is not the thing signified. … As a scientific research program, intelligent design investigates the effects of intelligence, not intelligence as such.” (William A Dembski, The Design Revolution, p. 33 (InterVarsity Press, 2004). )

Given that Walton says that “science can only deal with causation sequences” (p. 116), it would seem that there is no barrier to us understanding how intelligent design is an information-generating cause we can detect in nature. In fact, Behe explains that we can detect design in nature without necessarily studying the designer or its purposes:

The conclusion that something was designed can be made quite independently of knowledge of the designer. As a matter of procedure, the design must first be apprehended before there can be any further question about the designer. The inference to design can be held with all the firmness that is possible in this world, without knowing anything about the designer.

(Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, p. 197 (Free Press, 1996).)

Conclusion: Walton’s ‘Separate Realms’ View Plays Into Atheism’s Endgame
John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One makes the following mistakes about intelligent design:

  • It wrongly frames ID as merely a “negative” argument against neo-Darwinism and ignores the positive argument for design;
  • It wrongly asserts that ID studies intelligent designers and their purposes, missing the fact that ID instead studies natural objects to detect design;
  • Because it ignores ID’s positive content and methods of detecting design, it wrongly claims that ID is not “scientifically testable and falsifiable”;
  • Because it wrongly thinks ID makes no testable or falsifiable claims, it wrongly claims that ID “does not contribute to the advance of scientific understanding” and has no “theory”;
  • Because it wrongly thinks ID has no theory, it makes the false conclusion that Discovery Institute opposes mandating ID in public schools due to a supposed lack of scientific content;
  • Because of all of these misunderstandings about ID, Dr. Walton wrongly concludes that ID merely an unscientific “metaphysical, teleological explanation.

(As a final item, the book also wrongly claims that ID thinkers don’t contribute to theology.)

As noted at the beginning of this article, I am not expressing an opinion on Walton’s proposed way of reading Genesis 1. But I do want to offer some parting thoughts about his overall view of the relationship between science and faith.

Walton is adamant that science can say nothing about God or design, writing “Science cannot offer access to God and cannot establish his existence … nor falsify his existence.” (p. 116) While perhaps science cannot absolutely prove God’s existence, Walton writes as if science could never detect God’s action, and thus suggests that when God acts, He must do it through processes that are “undetectable by science” (p. 139). Walton seems to think that by denying that Genesis can make any meaningful claims about the natural world, and by denying that science can detect design, he’s protected religion from any attacks from science. This appears to be a major motive behind his thesis.

Walton appears to have adopted a position something like Stephen Jay Gould’s “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA) model of science and religion, where science and religion operate in separate realms.

Though Walton doesn’t use the term “separate realms,” the idea that science and religion are (or at least ought to be) separate realms permeates his book.

Francis Collins, whose endorsement of The Lost World of Genesis One appears on both the front and back covers, would certainly agree. As Collins has stated, “Science’s domain is to explore nature. God’s domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science.”

But what happens when God doesn’t follow Dr. Collins’ rules, and religion claims that the “spiritual world” has influenced the natural world in a real, measurable fashion? When Darwinism answers questions traditionally within the religious domain–such as the origin of religion and morality itself–guess who has to shut up and leave the conversation? As ID-proponent Phillip Johnson has insightfully commented, under NOMA, science and religion are “‘separate but equal’ of the apartheid variety.” This little made-up parable explains:

One day a NOMA-selling Darwinian scientist and a priest walk into a bar. The evolutionary scientist says, “Priest, our side won’t talk about religion if your side won’t talk about science.” Thinking this deal will protect religion from the attacks of Darwinian scientists, the priest replies “OK.”

The next day, the Darwinian biologist goes around arguing that religion and morality were not divinely inspired but evolved by random mutation and unguided selection to help us survive, and that the human mind is just a meat-computer with no soul. “Such is the progress of science,” says the scientist, “and you faith-heads better not stand in its way.”

Perhaps the priest should have realized that the evolutionary biologist never intended to uphold his end of the bargain.

In Walton’s vision, science and religion will be playing wholly different games. In his formulation, this saves religion from any threats from science. In exchange, Walton promises to keep science free of intelligent design. The problem is that the motive for this bargain isn’t based upon seeking truth and recognizing that we can detect design using scientific methods; it seems based upon a pragmatic desire to save religion from attack.

Personally, I’m most interested in seeking truth. But if Walton wants to be pragmatic, here’s some practical advice:

Many atheists feel that religion in general, and Genesis in particular, make certain truth claims, and they feel those truth claims are overturned by modern science. That’s a big part of why they’re atheists.

Many scientifically trained religious persons respond to atheists by contending that a fair and accurate assessment of modern scientific findings corroborates, rather than refutes, the truth claims of religion. This rebuttal confronts the false claims of atheism head-on.

Walton wants religious persons to take a different approach and deny that religion can ever make any empirically testable truth claims. Thus, he suggests that we should believe that God is “working alongside or through physical and biological processes in a way that science cannot detect.” (p.120) That bland view seems to add an unnecessary and dubious assumption, as we should not assume that God’s actions could never be detected by science. If the theory of intelligent design is correct, Walton’s assumption might not just be wrong, but it could hinder the progress of science.

Here’s a pragmatic angle: Theists who accept Walton’s view unnecessarily give up a major rational basis for challenging those atheists. Walton’s view leaves many atheist objections to religion totally unanswered–I think the atheists know who got the better end of Walton’s bargain.