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Intelligent Design, Common Descent, and an Ascent of Mount Everest

Mount Everest

Regarding Ann Gauger’s post “Intelligent Design and Common Descent,” maybe as a well-known skeptic of universal common descent (UCD) I can say a word in defense of the position combining ID and UCD. I do this because (a) I love and respect Mike Behe, despite failing to persuade him to give up UCD after 25 years of friendship, (b) there are others in the ID community who hold the same ID and UCD view, but most importantly, (c) rejection of UCD, and its acceptance, have ALWAYS represented sub-positions within the ID tent. That was true for Asa Gray, who, if he were alive now, would be lumped in with us, and it’s true today.

About 12 years ago, I wrote a short post here about the first four-year-old to climb Mount Everest. The story went something like this.

Associated Press, dateline Nepal 11/2/18. Photos of Miss Angela Jones, age four, show her in an oxygen mask and climbing gear, atop Mount Everest, waving proudly to the camera. Angela’s parents, Bob and Mary Jones, reached by satellite phone at base camp by the AP, were thrilled with her achievement, noting that their daughter is by far the youngest person ever to summit Everest.

“And she did it all by herself,” said the Joneses.

Now, how would we know that what Bob and Mary Jones said wasn’t true, and why does it bear on ID and UCD?

Smuggling in Assumptions

Let’s take the second half of that question first. UCD asserts that a continuous chain of ancestor-descendant relations extends from the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA) to any organism that ever lived, or is alive on Earth today. Unless one smuggles in assumptions about process or mechanism, this is not a claim about HOW the branching from LUCA occurred. It is simply a topology of universal relatedness.

Parallel: Angela, age four, really is there at the top of Everest. The photo is 100 percent legit. A continuous chain of events occurred that brought Angela from her parents to the top of the mountain.

Did Angela climb Everest by herself? No way.

What’s the primary ID and UCD claim? It’s this: Design was required to get from LUCA to you. Mike Behe would not have taken all the beatings he has endured since the early 1990s if he wasn’t fully persuaded of this.

Advocates of ID and UCD need to show their view to be more empirically compelling than ID and not-UCD, but that’s a separate matter. Is ID and UCD properly classified within the ID tent? Yes, and we need to keep the channels of communication open and welcoming among all members of the ID community. Only by doing so can we hope to improve our ideas and persuade those outside ID to give it a chance.

Photo: Climbers on Mount Everest, by Lloyd Smith, via Wikimedia Commons. 

Paul Nelson

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Paul A. Nelson is currently a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute and Adjunct Professor in the Master of Arts Program in Science & Religion at Biola University. He is a philosopher of biology who has been involved in the intelligent design debate internationally for three decades. His grandfather, Byron C. Nelson (1893-1972), a theologian and author, was an influential mid-20th century dissenter from Darwinian evolution. After Paul received his B.A. in philosophy with a minor in evolutionary biology from the University of Pittsburgh, he entered the University of Chicago, where he received his Ph.D. (1998) in the philosophy of biology and evolutionary theory.



Ann GaugerAsa GrayAssociated Presscommon descentintelligent designLUCAMichael BeheMount Everesttopologyuniversal common descent