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On Intelligent Design, an Italian Philosophy Journal Takes a Step in the Right Direction

Philosophers are making some important and interesting contributions to the conversation about biological origins. Earlier today we saw that philosopher Subrena E. Smith registered a harsh critique of evolutionary psychology in the journal Biological Theory, even saying that evo psych explanations are “impossible.” Now, a new paper in the Italian philosophy journal Humana Mente, “Residuals of Intelligent Design in Contemporary Theories about Language Nature and Origins,” observes that the arguments of intelligent design proponents are applicable to many explanations of the origins of language. The authors are cognitive scientists at the University of Messina, and although the English translation isn’t always easy to follow and some of their ideas about ID are both dated and heavily critical, the openness to taking ID seriously is clear. 

First, the authors semi-accurately describe ID arguments, noting:

ID’s current and general criticism — not only to evolutionism but also to biological science — is not that complex phenomena can’t be explained without the participation of a creator God, but rather that they can’t be entirely solved inside a radically monistic theory. In other words, they can’t be exposed to a naturalistic reduction…

They correctly quote Phillip Johnson noting that ID isn’t based upon the Bible: “the first thing that has to be done is to get the Bible out of the discussion,” and even rightly observe that “Natural selection is the actual target” of ID, quoting ID theorists Angus Menuge and Michael Behe to this effect. They even recognize that ID is potentially compatible with common ancestry, noting that under ID “evolution can reveal itself as a sequence of related species, but never as a casual variation of structures that come in succession across a selective ecological modeling.” What you just saw is something rare: scholars recognizing in a mainstream academic journal that ID is not based upon biblical arguments, is compatible with common descent, but takes issue with the causal power of natural selection. 

So, Are They Pro-ID?

Don’t take this to mean that the authors are pro-ID. They are not. The article is peppered with gratuitous rhetorical jabs at ID in which they show their bona fides to fellow academic materialists. Indeed, their primary information about ID comes from a highly inaccurate and outdated polemic against ID published back in 2004. Their ideas are so outdated that they cite “Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture,” a name we haven’t used in over 15 years! They quote ID proponents such as Michael Behe, Angus Menuge, Michael Behe, Phillip Johnson, William Dembski, and Jonathan Wells — calling them “new gladiators,” apparently unaware that Johnson passed away last year, some 15 years after their primary source on ID was written. They use all kinds of outlandish rhetoric, including calling ID “second generation creationism,” a “more sophisticated and dangerous ‘theistic science’ tradition,” and “a vehicle of philosophical infection, an insidious vehicle because it seems reasonable and moderate.” In a passage that has to make you laugh, they state:

If   nothing   is   ascribable   to   structural   transformations generated  by  natural  selection,  but  neither  comes  out  already  equipped  by  a demiurge’s mind, how the hell we can explain the ID foundational phenomena, or  the  irreducible  and  specific  complexity  in  range  of  a  carefully  regulated universe? [Emphasis added.]

How the Hell, Indeed

There’s no need to for their mystification about the cause behind ID. Since as human beings we have extensive observations of intelligent agents designing things, we can readily recognize the effects of intelligent agency in the natural world. Thus, intelligent design is detectible by science, and while it may not have a “naturalistic mechanism” it certainly provides a scientifically acceptable cause: intelligence. You might even call it a “mechanism” (although definitely not one in the materialistic sense). 

Nonetheless, the point of the article is less to attack ID than it is to attack their fellow evolutionists who propose non-direct evolutionary pathways. They do this, ironically, by claiming that such evolutionists are falling into some traps of ID.

To make this argument, they first note that ID strongly criticizes direct evolutionary pathways:

From this point of view two decisive points of evolutionary analysis are brought into question: the first one is that the origin of language has to be obligatorily connected to functions directly linked to reproductive advantage; the second one is that, from the point of view of adaptive selection, the functional components acquired with language development might not be considered, or revealed, as an evolutionary advantage (on the contrary, they even could show themselves as counter-evolutionary features).

This second point raised up by Dembski seems to challenge the central mechanism of evolutionary reconstructions. According to Darwinian dictate, indeed, also the most complex organism derives from “numerous, successive, and slight mutations” of their own morphologic structures. The pure reconstruction of these transformations and the internal laws that rule them, is called by ID supporters a «direct Darwinian pathway» (Dembski & Well, 2008, p. 151).

They believe that language is amenable to such direct evolutionary pathways:

In human language, for example, a “direct Darwinian pathway” can be rebuilt taking into account the original structural constraint story (peripheral and central structures of hearing-vocal system) and the interaction between ecologic and environmental constraint (bio-geographic, for example) and social structure constraints, produced in turn by morphogenetic and cognitive constraints (from human female’s hidden ovulation, to the “sentence” of semantic and syntactic categorization caused by vocal articulation). In short an intersection between different restrictions, but all “inside” a natural perspective.

They then take aim at those who use non-direct explanations to account for human language — oddly linking this somehow to a flaw in ID:

[U]ntil recently many explicative models, born in the field of cognitive sciences, have unconsciously adopted this dangerous dualism surreptitiously brought by ID in their attempt to explain complexity in human language without using the “right way”: an evolutionary explanation linked only to the progressive variation of morphologic structures.

Explaining Language

They then delve into the debate about the best way to explain the evolutionary origin of language. Here’s their view:

Direct Darwinian pathway goes through the analysis of body morphology: organisms narrate an evolutionary story made by phylogenetic heredity and species-specific changes. The functions that every organism show depend by constraints given by its body shape and by the interaction with the habitat he lives. Human language, as any cognitive function, showed itself only when sapiens’ morphology reached a “usable minimum threshold”, a discreet ergonomic target and a system of neural control that make possible compositional segmentation (Wray, 2002) and constant articulation of vocal sounds. In this way, it is possible to explain the presence of a communicative and representative complex function as human language without “intelligent” residuals, without necessarily using an external substance, and without spasmodically researching the adaptivity of every linguistic component to demonstrate evolutionary continuity.

We prefer to stay out of this fight. However, note that some theorists are deeply skeptical that the origin of human language is amenable to a detailed evolutionary explanation, appealing to adaptive benefits alone. For example:

In a very real sense, the two principal peculiarities of human language are an evolutionary embarrassment. It is not easy to picture the scenarios that would confer selective fitness on, specifically, syntactic classes and structure-dependent rules. While linguists advise us that these are formal properties without which human language cannot be modeled, it is not at all clear what functional properties of language are served specifically by these formal properties. Perhaps recursiveness is such a property; it may depend on syntactic classes. Let us pretend that it does: I, at least, do not see how to realize recursiveness without syntactic classes. These classes afford the kind of abstract representation in which the rewrite rules, needed for recursiveness, can be easily realized. But if this is correct, even in the weak sense that syntactic classes provide an economical or simple access to recursiveness, the, peculiarities of human language would remain no less an evolutionary embarrassment. I challenge the reader to reconstruct the scenario that would confer selective fitness on recursiveness. Language evolved, it is conjectured, at a time when humans or protohumans were hunting mastodons. Having language would be a benefit to them. They could do social planning, discuss strategies together, lay plans for specific contingencies. Now the alleged advantage of recursiveness is not simply unlimited sentences, but even more perhaps, the compacting of information. Would it be a great advantage for one of our ancestors, squatting alongside the embers, to be able to remark: “Beware of the short beast whose front hoof Bob cracked when, having forgotten his own spear back at camp, he got in a glancing blow with the dull spear he borrowed from Jack”? Human language is an embarrassment for evolutionary theory because it is vastly more powerful than one can account for in terms of selective fitness.

(David Premack, “‘Gavagai!’ or the future history of the animal language controversy,’ Cognition (19), 1985, pp. 207-296, emphasis added)

Back to the Humana Mente Article

It’s difficult to know how to make sense of all of it. These philosophers take ID seriously, at least enough to describe the relevant arguments accurately. Yet they heavily criticize design theory, with trite and easily answered low-brow objections. One of the main points on which they take ID seriously seems to be a misapplication of ID ideas: they critically compare invoking the arguments of ID theorists to linguists who adopt non-direct evolutionary explanations for the origin of human language. Of course ID proponents are some of the most vocal critics of those who promulgate indirect evolutionary explanations. Why? Because such explanations are weak, difficult to test, and just highly unlikely. Sometimes indirect evolutionary explanations almost sound teleological. 

Again, the English translation of this paper is rough. Perhaps the article rejects indirect evolutionary pathways because those pathways seem too goal-directed. Perhaps the authors intuit that material causes don’t work very well to guide an evolutionary pathway toward a specific, complex endpoint. If this is the way they see things, then they’re exactly right. But then what they don’t appreciate is that there is a cause that can operate with an end-goal in mind to guide evolution to produce a highly complex function. In the words of Stephen Meyer: “The answer is: intelligence. Conscious activity. The deliberate choice of a rational agent.”

Photo: Socrates, a bust displayed in the Vatican Museum, via Wikimedia Commons.