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Reform It Altogether — More on the Naturalistic Parabola

Paul Nelson
Image credit: Damir Belavić via Pixabay.

Editor’s note: This is part 2 of a series by Dr. Nelson, “Trapped in the Naturalistic Parabola.”

On Saturday, September 12, I presented a webinar about design triangulation, a method of functional analysis in biology (or in complex systems generally) with great promise for helping intelligent design, as a scientific enterprise, to climb free of what I’ve called the hopeless grip of the “naturalistic parabola.” The pdf of that webinar is available here.

Been A Long Time Coming

Some background. Recently, a doctoral student whom I came to know via email, and then at the Discovery Institute Summer Seminar, told me that she had read a large unpublished manuscript with the transcripts of an ID research meeting, held at Calvin College nearly twenty years ago. I was present at that meeting, along with Steve Meyer, Bill Dembski, Rob Koons, and other familiar names. This student told me that my transcribed remarks focused in particular on the need for ID to provide “something new, something of its own” to the scientific dialogue.

So I’ve fussed about this point for a long time. And Discovery Institute colleagues have occasionally chided me for my obsession. There is more than one way, they object, to conceive of the empirical content of any scientific theory. Your single-minded focus, Paul, on novel predictions from ID, unjustifiably privileges that epistemic virtue over equally valuable desiderata, such as explanation or unification. Get over your novel predictions craving already.

Well, all right. I learned my Michael Scriven like a good boy, just like every other philosophy of biology student in the 1980s. But many years of lectures on ID at colleges and universities in the U.S. and overseas have taught me that the naturalistic parabola is all too real. For example: not long after the Calvin College ID research meeting, I was speaking at Wayne State University in Detroit, about ID and evolutionary theory. Following the talk, as I was packing up my computer, a young biochemist on the Wayne State faculty, who identified himself as a Christian (thus, he acknowledged, he was philosophically pre-disposed to find ID worthwhile, maybe), approached me at the podium. You spent a lot of time in your talk criticizing evolutionary theory, he began, and I can agree with much of what you said.

But what can you offer me using design (he asked) that I can take back to my lab and apply?

I have never forgotten his question, or my fumbling reply. It struck me that, indeed, nearly all of my talk had addressed shortcomings in evolutionary theory. By implication, the ID alternative was more promising — only I had said almost nothing about it.

Life in the Naturalistic Parabola Ain’t Much to Crow About 

And that is because, since my first days as an undergraduate studying evolutionary biology and the philosophy of science (1980-1984), and then into graduate school, I had been living mentally, at least where biological inquiry was concerned, mostly within the naturalistic parabola. Everybody else in academic biology lived there, so…it seemed natural. But not, it turns out, if one also wants to be an independently creative dissenter in science.

Figure 1.

Figure 1 shows natural selection as the evolutionary process proposed by Darwin, and held chiefly responsible by neo-Darwinian theory in the 20th century, as the cause of adaptive biological complexity. I spent literally thousands of study hours probing the logical and evidential structure of the theory of natural selection. I wanted to learn about the evidence for selection, but also to satisfy myself — in light of the evidence that selection needed, to explain macroevolution, but which did not exist — that the process, while perfectly real, could not accomplish what Darwin, or Dawkins, or my biology professors (some of them, anyway) thought it could. Having done my due diligence, I could put a red X through selection (see Figure 2). What next?

Figure 2.

“What next,” however, if one is living within the naturalistic parabola, will be governed by the parabola itself. Figure 2 shows the route (blue arrow) taken by many evolutionary theorists, who themselves were unsatisfied with the neo-Darwinian case for the centrality of natural selection. Michael Lynch, for instance, now at the BioDesign Institute of Arizona State University, wrote in 2007 that “it is a leap to assume that selection accounts for all evolutionary change, particularly at the molecular and cellular levels. The blind worship of natural selection is not evolutionary biology. It is arguably not even science” (Lynch 2007, 369). Lynch argues that what has come to be known as constructive neutral evolution (CNE) is far more significant.

Segue to CNE, then, to check it out. Ann Gauger, Steve Meyer, and I critiqued constructive neutral evolution in Chapter 8 of the Theistic Evolution volume (Meyer, Gauger & Nelson 2017). Once again, I spent long hours plowing through the CNE literature, attending talks by CNE theorists, and discussing CNE, pro and con, at ID research meetings.

Could CNE build the ribosome, the photosynthetic apparatus, or ATP synthase? Or any animal body plan? Almost certainly not. Put another red X through a proposed evolutionary mechanism. Getting somewhere, finally!

You Can Do That All Day and Never Make a Lick of Progress

Nope. As the saying goes, after someone sits through a bad movie: you’ll never get those hours back. The blue arrow within the parabola will move on to the next naturalistic proposal (see Figure 3), and on again, after that, indefinitely into the future. The failure of CNE, when it comes, will not be the end. It couldn’t be, as long as one is committed to the naturalistic project. Natural selection, when it tumbled for many evolutionary theorists in the last two decades of the 20th century, certainly wasn’t the end. The naturalistic project goes on, my friend: shoulder to the wheel.

Figure 3.

The reader should be able to see now, if it wasn’t obvious in part 1 of this series, the abject futility of trying to construct a theory of biological design within a philosophical framework, naturalism, fundamentally committed to another goal. Reform it altogether, said Hamlet to the players.

Design triangulation is a stumbling step in that direction. Reform it altogether, and let the naturalistic parabola go on its own way.


Lynch, Michael. 2007. The Origins of Genome Architecture. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer.

Meyer, Stephen, Ann Gauger, & Paul Nelson. 2017. Theistic Evolution and the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis: Does It Work? In J.P. Moreland et al., eds., Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.