Five years ago, on December 31, 2015, after working at Discovery Institute for ten years, I wrote a farewell message. I said the following:
It is with a mixture of sadness and excitement that I write this to announce that, as the year 2015 closes, I am leaving Discovery Institute. I am doing so in order to fulfill a lifelong goal of furthering my studies. My colleagues, who entirely support this decision, are people of the utmost integrity and they have been incredibly generous and welcoming to me and my family. I know we will miss each other.
Now at the beginning of 2021, it is with a mixture of joy and excitement that I write to announce that I’m grateful to return to Discovery Institute as Associate Director of the Center for Science & Culture (CSC). And I’m very optimistic about the future!
Over the past few years, I’ve seen critics of intelligent design (ID) advance some wild and amusing conspiracy theories about the reasons for my departure and absence. Fortunately, none of them are true. I chuckled when they wishfully and confidently asserted that I had, alternatively, “jumped ship,” “abandoned ID,” was “fired” or “retired.”
Now, Where Was I?
So where was I for the last five years? Hiding out because I couldn’t take the heat? Finally seeing the light and converting to Darwinism? “Fired” from Discovery Institute? Not at all. The truth is exactly what I said in my farewell post: I was fulfilling a lifelong goal of furthering my studies — specifically, to earn a PhD in geology.
This pursuit took me to the University of Johannesburg (UJ) in South Africa, where I used paleomagnetism to study the early plate tectonic history of the Kaapvaal Craton, an ancient portion of Earth’s crust in southern Africa that traces back to over 3 billion years in age. Although my research does have some implications for early earth habitability, it was not related to intelligent design. And while many of my colleagues were aware of my ID views (and my prior work at Discovery Institute), to my knowledge they did not share them. My colleagues at UJ are first-rate geologists doing phenomenal research, and are great people who have nothing to do with ID. The focus of my PhD at UJ simply was not intelligent design, but rather Archean geology (and the subfield of paleomagnetism). I had a great time doing it.
My PhD project focused on the “Pongola Supergroup,” a major section of supracrustal rocks in southeastern South Africa (Kwazulu-Natal and Mpumalanga provinces) and southern Swaziland, aged ~2.8 – 3.0 billion years old. These rocks represent some the earliest deposits of volcanic rocks and siliciclastic sedimentary rocks that were deposited on stable continental crust. Specifically, my research investigated the paleomagnetism of the Pongola Supergroup’s volcanic rocks of the Nsuze Group, focusing on trying to determine where they were located on Earth at the time they formed about 2.95 – 3.0 billion years ago.
When molten rock cools, it frequently gets magnetized by the Earth’s magnetic field. Because the magnetic field varies according to latitude (i.e., angular distance from the equator), studying the magnetic properties of rocks can reveal where on Earth the rock originally formed in terms of its original paleolatitude (though not paleolongitude). If you have enough data, you can use paleomagnetism to attempt to reconstruct the plate tectonic history of a continent — that is, figure out where continents were located in the past, what they may have looked like, and where they have drifted over time.
Suffice to say, this project involved months and even years of fieldwork, lab work, data analysis, and writeup. Like most PhDs, mine had its ups and downs, complete with excitement, fun, blood, sweat, tears, near-madness, sheer terror, and utter boredom.
A Range of Hazards
Regarding excitement and terror, more than once I collected samples where signs warned of crocodiles, pythons, hippos, leopards, and other hazards. Fieldwork also gave me new experiences such as getting tick bite fever and other weird illnesses, getting caught in lightning storms, an angry farmer threatening to shoot me, and nervously tromping through countless kilometers of snake-infested bush.
Regarding the boredom and tears, my PhD required me to endure machinery and lab instrument breakdowns which slowed progress significantly and forced travel to other continents to finish lab work, amounting to untold days and nights spent alone in a small, windowless room measuring rock samples. As for the madness, that’s what happened after I wrote over 30,000 lines of Python code to create new software tools for generating paleomagnetic diagrams. My family bought me a t-shirt that said “I dream in Python” because for months it was all I ever thought about.
None of the above makes me special or unusual. It just makes me like every other geologist who has done fieldwork, lab work, and data analysis. But in the end, the research was immensely rewarding because it allowed us to test fascinating hypotheses about whether Kaapvaal Craton of southern Africa and the Pilbara Craton of western Australia were once connected as an ancient “supercontinent” billions of years ago in the Archean.
Why South Africa?
Oh yes, the big question! Over the last few years many friends have asked me, “Why did you go to South Africa for your PhD?” Well, a major reason is that my wife’s family is South African and we have a lot of extended family there. Another reason is that I wanted to study geology, and with South Africa’s rich mineral resources and extensive mining industry, it has among the best national infrastructures for geological research in the world.
The University of Johannesburg has a world-class geology department doing many forms of cutting-edge geological research, and was a superb place to study. Many other top geology research institutions are located in South Africa, offering prime opportunities for research collaborations. There are other reasons I went there, too, but all in good time. In sum, South Africa was an ideal place to do geological research.
Why Did I Do the PhD?
Critics of ID often claim that if you don’t have a PhD then you can’t understand science and you don’t deserve to speak on the topic. This is simply false.
There are lots of very smart people with PhDs — but an amusing and astute saying I’ve heard says that “Science is 50 percent luck, 50 percent hard work, and the rest brains.” Earning a PhD isn’t easy, but I’m now more convinced than ever that a PhD is not a litmus test for whether you’re intelligent, whether you understand science, whether you have the ability and right to cogently speak in public about science, or whether your scientific views are ultimately correct. That said, I’m immensely grateful for the experiences and opportunities I had working toward my PhD.
Everyone on the Planet
Of course everyone on the planet who has ever gotten a PhD did so because they wanted to improve their skills, credentials, and advance their career. But to be frank, before I did the PhD I was content with my credentials and my career. So for me, those weren’t the driving concerns.
Prior to attending law school, I had a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in earth sciences from UC San Diego. As a kid, I would make my dad pull over our family’s old RV on road trips so I could scamper off into the desert to collect rocks. Science was always my first academic love, and I was a weird geology-loving kid from a young age. Simply put: Going on to obtain a PhD in geology was a lifelong goal I had. None of my close friends were surprised when I told them I was doing this.
So why did I do the PhD? Answer: For the love of science, a desire to do research, and a quirky passion for rocks I’ve had my entire life! And South Africa was an amazing place to do it.
So, you don’t need a PhD to do good science, but that doesn’t mean a PhD is a cakewalk. My PhD was the most mentally and emotionally exhausting academic venture of my life — and I suspect that most folks who have gone through the experience will agree. I’m still recuperating. In the end, I feel incredibly grateful to have learned a ton, met amazing people from all over the world, made many great friends, and had the experience of a lifetime.
What Is My Future Outlook?
As I return to Discovery Institute, I remain as optimistic about ID’s future as I was when I wrote my farewell post in December 2015: “my personal support for ID and confidence in its future have never been stronger … the fundamentals of ID are sound.” In that post, I discussed four general areas where ID was forging ahead: (1) scientific advancements and peer-reviewed papers, (2) failed attempts by critics to suppress ID, (3) ID’s performance in high-level debates against top critics, and (4) a growing community of ID-friendly graduate students and scientists. Considering various developments over the past few years while I was doing the PhD, I believe this optimism remains warranted, and that ID is in an even stronger position than when I left:
Scientific Publications and Advances
Evidence supporting ID and/or challenging standard materialistic evolutionary models has continued to grow these past few years. There are so many examples it’s hard to know where to begin. In 2016, the Royal Society held a meeting on “New trends in evolutionary biology,” in which some talks were sharply critical of modern evolutionary biology’s ability to explain the origin of new complex biological features. Also in 2016, a team led by Scott Minnich published a paper in the Journal of Bacteriology which showed that the famous Cit+ phenotype of Richard Lenski’s Long Term Evolution Experiments actually involved, as the paper argued, “No new genetic information.” Then, in 2017, Discovery Institute released an updated list of pro-ID peer-reviewed papers, now topping over 100 papers.
There will surely be quite a few more papers added when we next update our peer-reviewed articles page, but there are a few worth mentioning that showed ID expanding into new areas of research. One of my favorite developments of the past few years was a paper published in BIO-Complexity in 2018 by computer scientist Winston Ewert. He applied the concept of “common design” to produce a “dependency graph” model of organismal relationships based upon the principle that software designers frequently re-use the same coding modules in different programs. Ewert tested his model by comparing the distribution of gene families in nine diverse organisms to a treelike pattern predicted by neo-Darwinism versus a dependency graph distribution used by computer programmers. His preliminary analysis showed that a common design-based “dependency graph” fit the genetic data 103000 times better than a Darwinian evolutionary tree!
Another important novel contribution from the ID camp was a project on human origins that published a paper in BIO-Complexity in 2019. This paper used population genetics to refute those who cite evolutionary models to claim that human genetic diversity indicates we could not have originated from an initial couple. As a final example, in 2020 a major article came out in the Journal of Theoretical Biology which supported “intelligent design” by name, noting that “ID aims to adhere to the same standards of rational investigation as other scientific and philosophical enterprises, and it is subject to the same methods of evaluation and critique.” The authors predicted that we will “establish fine-tuning as a sustainable and fully testable scientific hypothesis, and ultimately a Design Science.”
Failed Attempts to Suppress ID
How did critics respond to ID’s advances? Well, the media gave “muffled coverage” to the Royal Society conference in 2016 while participants tried hard “not to think” about ID. As for the Journal of Theoretical Biology, it issued a tepid disclaimer and weak rebuttal to the 2020 pro-ID paper, which, as John West pointed out, showed “the article survived peer-review and was accepted for publication despite the open hostility of the journal’s top editors!” The episode demonstrated the bias and opposition often faced by ID theorists in the scientific community, but that quality pro-ID science is being published nonetheless. Another episode from last year was telling. When we merely cited evidence from a mainstream journal that fulfilled ID’s prediction of function for junk DNA — though making it clear that the writers did not intend to support ID — the same journal responded by calling for us to be censored!
I suppose little has changed in the past five years while I was doing the PhD: attempts to suppress ID continue, but the evidence for ID grows stronger — apparently so strong that it can’t be answered on the merits and must be suppressed. One wonders why there can’t just be a serious, civil conversation about ID.
ID has fared superbly in high-level debates against its top opponents in recent years. Consider Brian Miller’s exchange with fellow physicist Jeremy England in the journal Inference. Miller showed that leading origin-of-life thinkers like Dr. England still cannot account for the high-energy, low-entropy states of living systems. As Miller explains, doing so requires explaining the origin of molecular machines which perform work to maintain these states. And explaining the origin of molecular machines requires accounting for the information that encodes them. Miller identifies the crux of the matter: “Until origins researchers address the central role of information, the origin of life will remain shrouded in mystery.” The exchange showed that even brilliant origin-of-life theorists like England simply do not have an answer for the origin of that necessary genetic information.
Or consider the scientific debate over Michael Behe’s book Darwin Devolves which came out in February 2019 and argued that evolutionary adaptations typically break or diminish function at the molecular level. The book received a critical though serious review in the journal Science, as well as in other scientific journals, and a lively debate ensued online. I followed the debate closely, and could not help but participate in it with a few anonymously submitted posts here at Evolution News. What I saw was that top anti-ID scientists like (such as Richard Lenski, Jerry Coyne, and others) barely put a dent in Behe’s arguments. Undoubtedly they would feel otherwise, but consider this: On degradation in polar bear genes, Behe’s defenders carefully answered every objection from critics and uncovered medical research showing that, as Behe’s model predicts, degradative mutations to APOB can help reduce cholesterol (see here for a summary and guide to that intense debate).
As we dug into other criticisms, Behe’s arguments stood the test at almost every turn. Then last year, Behe’s arguments were further vindicated when a Harvard geneticist wrote in Current Biology that “the majority of the mutations that lead to adaptation are loss-of-function mutations that impair or eliminate the function of genes rather than gain-of-function mutations that increase or qualitatively alter the function of proteins.” Read the Criticism & Response page on the book’s website to get a sense of how well Behe’s arguments fared.
A Growing Cohort of Graduate Students and Scientists
This past year I had the pleasure of assisting with the 2020 Summer Seminar on Intelligent Design — my first time teaching at the program in five years. I was reimpressed that there are dozens upon dozens of bright and motivated ID-friendly graduate students around the world doing (or planning to do) research in fields including biology, biochemistry, physics, cosmology, chemistry, and many other fields who want to advance the case for ID. Quite a few Summer Seminar alumni are already publishing papers contributing to the ID research program — showing that ID is a healthy science with an up-and-coming crop of international scientists. Meanwhile, high-level defections, such as Yale computer scientist David Gelernter, show that it’s not just young scientists who are coming to doubt Darwin. Gelernter came out in 2019 as a critic of Darwin after reading Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt (though he’s not persuaded by ID). Another example is Günter Bechly, a German paleontologist and entomologist who first officially came out as a Darwin-skeptic and ID-sympathizer in late 2015, but became widely known in 2016 when he publicly joined the ID community, and gained even more notoriety in 2017 after being forced to resign from his position as scientific curator for amber and fossil insects at the State Museum for Natural History in Stuttgart, and Wikipedia tried to erase him from history.
Over the last few years, many other scientific advances turned out to support ID and/or challenge Darwin. I hope to discuss those in depth on other occasions. For now, I want to list one final reason for optimism. Prior to my leaving Discovery in 2015 I helped craft the vision for the ID 3.0 research program — a vision that has since become a reality. As Associate Director of the CSC, I’m excited about helping to manage the research that is being funded by Discovery Institute and about renewing my contributions to the ID community in many other ways.
Despite this positive outlook, I must again confess a lingering sadness: I left a major part of my heart in the South Africa. With its wonderful people, rich multicultural society, cheerful vibe, and unmatched natural beauty, including incredible wildlife testifying to nature’s design, South Africa will always be a special place for me. If you ever plan to go there, feel free to contact me and I’ll offer some tips for your trip!