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Paul Nelson on Intelligent Design and the Royal Society’s “White Bear Problem”


Gerd B. Müller, opening speaker at last week’s Royal Society meeting in London, introduced the “explanatory deficits” of evolutionary theory’s Modern Synthesis. Less understatedly, those are major failures of standard neo-Darwinism to account for the explosions of creative innovation we see in life’s history. Discovery Institute philosopher of biology Paul Nelson was on hand for the meeting (“New Trends in Evolutionary Biology“) and he participated in a follow-up gathering the day after it closed where a group of ID-friendly scientists agreed that the “new mechanisms” offered at the meeting are likewise inadequate.

On the latest ID the Future episode, Andrew McDiarmid debriefs Dr. Nelson on the events in London. Nelson as always is a great explainer and in the podcast is particularly rich in helpful analogies.

Download the episode by clicking here:


I liked his allusion to what’s sometimes called “ironic process theory” or the “white bear problem.” The Wikipedia article defines it as “the psychological process whereby deliberate attempts to suppress certain thoughts make them more likely to surface.” For the “white bear” reference, they quote Dostoyevsky: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”

Tell someone “Don’t think about intelligent design! Whatever you do, don’t think about intelligent design!” and that deplorable theory “will come to mind every minute.” Speakers at the Royal Society were working hard not to think about design in nature as the obvious and more satisfying alternative to their own ingenious add-ons to orthodox Darwinism. Predictably, then, what Nelson calls the “forbidden possibility” of ID could not be contained and emerged in grumblings and one memorable outburst.

Asks Dr. Nelson, why not stop trying to suppress the possibility of design and intent in biology and, instead, debate the question openly? Good question.

Photo: Don’t think about this polar bear; by Ansgar Walk (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.

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David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.