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Robert Asher’s Evolution and Belief: A Civil if Unconvincing Critique of Intelligent Design

Ashernew.jpgAfter reading Cambridge University paleontologist Robert J. Asher’s error-filled critique of Explore Evolution in the Huffington Post last August, I decided to pick up a copy of his 2012 book, Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist (Cambridge University Press). While the book is critical of intelligent design, Asher deserves credit for remaining largely respectful and serious in his discussions. Additionally, he seems to have grasped (crudely at least) many ID arguments. That said, the book has lots of problems — including a number of citation bluffs.

Asher gets one thing right when he writes that “Intelligent design (ID) advocate Stephen C. Meyer professes a low regard for naturalism, but high regard for uniformitarianism. In many of his publicly available talks and lectures, he infers ‘design’ that we observe today to always to be a product of intelligence, and claims to use the uniformitarianism of Charles Darwin to justify his inference.” (p. 32) That makes it seem like he’s actually read and understood some of Steve Meyer’s writing — which is more than most ID critics could honestly say. In fact, in a very crude way, he accurately restates Meyer’s arguments:

To paraphrase, a very complex device we observe now, such as a wristwatch, computer, or piece of software, has only one source: human ingenuity. According to him, none of these things can be made without it. It follows, he says, that a similar complex device we observe in the geological past must also have arisen as a result of something like human ingenuity, i.e., intelligence. The processes we know and observe today are relevant to explaining the phenomena of the past, and we know that particularly complicated things we see today have an intelligence behind them. Biology is particular complicated, ergo, ‘intelligent design.'” (p. 32)

But then he mischaracterizes Dr. Meyer’s argument, equating it with a Paley-like position, stating: “Meyer repeats an argument articulated long ago by scholars like William Paley, but applies it to areas of complexity about which Paley knew nothing, such as cellular microbiology and DNA.” (p. 32) His critique of Meyer’s position is very weak.

First, he writes that design arguments should be rejected because they don’t explain how a machine works: “If you want to know how a wristwatch powers each tick (coiled spring versus battery?), or where some bit of software stores information (does it need to access a network?), then ‘Joe designed it’ is not an answer.”

But Asher’s critique cuts against neo-Darwinist and other materialist explanations with equal force. Studies of origins don’t typically try to investigate the operation of a system. In fact, such studies often START with pre-existing empirical studies of how systems operate. So Asher gets it backwards: we typically don’t learn about a system’s operation by studying its origin, but rather we learn its origin by studying its operation. So his critique applies not to ID alone, but to all historical sciences.

Additionally, Asher is wrong to assume that studying the origin of an object can tell us nothing about its operation. Regarding junk DNA, neo-Darwinists would say “It arose by random mutation, therefore it doesn’t ‘tick’ at all.” ID would say “It arose by design, so we ought to assume it ticks and figure out how it works.” ID in fact leads us to many expectations about how the world works.

Second, Asher maintains that invoking agency lacks explanatory power, writing: “You might very well think God, space aliens, or both have directly intervened as human-like tinkerers in shaping the Earth’s biota. Fine. Even if you were right, you’ve not said anything about how either agency has affected the actual course of life history.” (p. 32)

Historical sciences infer history from its results. So we know what happened, and looking back we can understand precisely how agency (or, alternatively, natural selection) has influenced life’s history. In that regard, again, Asher’s criticism either cuts against neo-Darwinism with equal force, OR, it’s misplaced and fails to recognize the explanatory power of historical sciences.

Third, Asher claims that ID fails because it doesn’t provide a “mechanism”:

Furthermore, by attempting to replace a causal mechanism (natural selection) with an attribution of agency (design), ID advocates such as Meyer are decidedly anti-uniformitarian. What process of today could possibly lead to his understanding of the past? How could a biological phenomenon, even if designed, be simply willed into existence without an actual mechanism? At least young Earth creationists are honest about their appeal to a supernatural divinity.” (p. 32)

Here, Asher has really lost me. The answer to his question, “What process of today could possibly lead to his understanding of the past?” is simple: intelligence! That’s precisely why Meyer’s argument is not “anti-uniformitarian.”

Uniformitarianism requires an observed precedent from the present day, in other words that the proposed cause of a particular phenomenon in the past should be observable currently in the present. Asher thinks that ID, which attributes creative power to an immaterial intelligence, lacks such a precedent. But the human mind, an immaterial entity (distinct from the brain that it uses to interface with the physical world), regularly impresses its ideas on material reality. It makes things happens, including the manufacture of physical objects. To use Asher’s language, it “wills them into existence.”

The computer I’m using to write this article would be one of countless illustrations you could furnish. There is no fully describable universal “mechanism” by which ideas in the mind of a computer programmer or manufacturer make their transition from the immaterial to the material realm — from the mind to the nerves and muscles that guide the hand to do its work — yet we know this happens all the time.

Why should the lack of a clear-cut “mechanism” be a problem for ID? Asher himself concedes the possibility that the agent behind the design is a “supernatural divinity.” Maybe it is God. So what? ID doesn’t claim we can scientifically infer that. But leaving open that possibility, there certainly isn’t a shortage of potential “mechanisms” for ID. ID doesn’t pinpoint the exact mechanism but rather leaves open a plethora of possibilities. Saying that there’s a “range of options” doesn’t mean we haven’t provided plausible potential explanations.

Would we say “We can’t infer that a design is evident in the arrangement of rocks at Stonehenge unless we can determine the exact mechanism used by its creators to arrange and carve the rocks”? Hardly! We may have no record that allows us to say precisely how Stonehenge was built, but that doesn’t leave us without viable options for the “mechanism,” and it certainly doesn’t preclude us from inferring design.

So why should it be so hard to believe that intelligent agents could implement their designs in the real world? After all, we see intelligent agents manipulating the information in DNA all the time. Just read any scientific paper about engineering a gene!

Photo credit: Robert J. Asher, Cambridge University Department of Zoology.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



Robert Asher