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Specter of Intelligent Design Emerges at the Royal Society Meeting

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The ID bomb, ticking throughout the first day and a half, finally went off in the afternoon session today of the Royal Society’s “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology” meeting. But it was something of an accidental explosion, because the speaker — Andy Gardner of the University of St. Andrews — was not advocating for intelligent design, but rather, for its replacement as a cause by natural selection (NS). Nonetheless: BANG. Doug Axe has already noted Gardner’s cheetah slide.

Dr. Gardner opened his talk with a different slide, showing a portrait of William Paley (1743-1805), and images of a stone, a watch, and an eye. He recited Paley’s classical argument (“Suppose I pitch my foot against a watch”), and stressed that complex organismal design required a cause sufficient to explain the effect. For Paley, that was a divine designer; for Darwin, NS. While Paley got the answer wrong, Gardner said, he certainly framed the important, or central, question correctly: What explains the obvious adaptive complexity of living things? (Gardner’s full argument is available here.)

Then the Q&A arrived. Professor Tim Ingold of the University of Aberdeen, sitting to my left, was visibly agitated. Are you saying, he asked Gardner, that organisms are actually designed objects? Yes, replied Gardner. Well then, continued Ingold, if organisms are actually designed, then that would require a designer. Can you please say, he asked vehemently, how your explanation is any different from Paley’s?

I have not put their remarks in quotes because this summary compresses a much noisier and more extended back-and-forth between Ingold and Gardner, but it captures the essence of their interaction. In the coming weeks, Evolution News readers should be able to see the exchange for themselves, when the Royal Society makes the recordings of the whole event available.

As already sketched here by other observers, the specter of genuine agency as a cause of biological complexity hangs over almost everything happening at this meeting.

A talk by Patrick Bateson, concluding just as I was typing out this report, did so with a slide stating “Natural selection is not an agent,” with the implicit warning that invoking agency is to drop off the edge of the known world. And not two minutes ago, in today’s roundtable discussion, a female speaker at the front of the room — I could not identify her but am told she was Professor Eva Jablonka of Tel Aviv University — said, “Not God — we’re excluding God.”

Image credit: GFHund (The Royal Society 1952 London) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.