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Eugenie Scott Lecture Resurrects, Spreads Misinformation on Intelligent Design

Photo: Eugenie Scott, by Sgerbic, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

For decades physical anthropologist Eugenie Scott was executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a leading pro-evolution activist group. Though she retired from that role in 2013, she remains an influential figure, much beloved within the evolutionary biology community. Recently, one of her old lectures was posted at the Leakey Foundation’s YouTube channel. Dr. Scott’s talk was given on May 17, 2007, at the American Museum of Natural History — but she still draws a crowd online. Since it was posted in November 2021, her lecture has attracted over 60,000 views. That’s decent for how long it spent in the vault. The lecture, though, has some noteworthy fallacies that offer an occasion to look back on how the evolutionary case has aged. I am going to consider those here in a series of posts.

I’ve followed Dr. Scott’s advocacy for a long time. She has always been civil to me in person and I have appreciated that. I also respect her right to promote an anti-ID view. What’s troubling is that her work has promoted an immense amount of misinformation about ID, and there often seems to be a subtext to her remarks, as if she were telling her audience: “Go forth and persecute.”

Targeting Intelligent Design

I remember the first occasion when I saw her give a talk. The topic was “creationism.” Back then, around 2000, I was in the early stages of my master’s degree at UC San Diego and she was invited to speak at Scripps Institution for Oceanography where I was doing my studies. It seemed like each slide she presented had a photo of a “creationist” accompanied with proof of their unorthodox views and nefarious creationist deeds. It felt like a military briefing, where soldiers were being briefed on targets to hunt down.

Over the years many loyal foot soldiers of the Darwin defense league have gone out and done precisely that — persecuting intelligent design (ID) proponents and hounding them out of academia. I now proudly work with quite a few of these victims. They are top quality scientists, many of whom are employed by Discovery Institute after having been harassed or cancelled by their institutions for supporting ID. 

The 2007 date of her talk posted above shows it was given at the height of the post-Dover purge, in the wake of Judge John Jones’s ruling against academic freedom, when we saw a spike in persecutions of ID proponents. This talk isn’t quite as focused on showcasing ID proponents, although she does include a superfluous slide about evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg, overstating his connections to a long-defunct “baraminology study group.” Sternberg’s purge as a Smithsonian researcher would be completed that year. But her talk does commit a fallacy I’ve heard from her and others many times: deliberately conflating ID with creationism.

Creationism, Creationism, Creationism

Dr. Scott knows that we ID proponents object to this characterization, but like many critics she just doesn’t seem to care. “Of course, the folks at Discovery Institute break out in hives when they’re called creationists,” she says in her lecture, further asserting, “But well, they are.” 

Are we really? Her given justification for ignoring the substance of our objections is that “everything that you would read in the intelligent design literature is not unique. It pre-existed in creation science.” Even if her claim were true, which it’s not, would that mean we are “creationists”? Simply because ID and creationism have some points in common does not mean that ID has the defining features of creationism. Dogs and cats have ears and tails. Does that mean cats are dogs? Of course not, because logic rejects arguments based upon the fallacy of the undistributed middle.

I’ve covered the key differences between ID and creationism before (see here, for example). But don’t take my word for it. Consider what Eugenie Scott herself has said:

Most ID proponents accept an ancient age of the universe and Earth … most ID proponents do not embrace the Young Earth, Flood Geology, and sudden creation tenets associated with [young earth creationism].

Eugenie Scott, Evolution vs. Creationism, pp. 126, 128

Three Foundational Concepts 

As to the claim about many key tenets of ID having their origins in creationist literature, let’s take three such foundational ID concepts — irreducible complexity, specified complexity, and the explanatory filter.

The term irreducible complexity was first popularized by Michael Behe in his 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box. Question: From which creationist did Behe steal the idea of irreducible complexity?  Answer: He didn’t steal the idea from a creationist or anyone else. Moreover, the first known use of the term “irreducible complexity” comes from a decidedly non-creationist source: a 1986 Cambridge University Press book, Templets and the Explanation of Complex Patterns,by theoretical biologist Michael J. Katz. As Katz states:

In the natural world, there are many pattern-assembly systems for which there is no simple explanation. There are useful scientific explanations for these complex systems, but the final patterns that they produce are so heterogeneous that they cannot effectively be reduced to smaller or less intricate predecessor components. As I will argue in Chapters 7 and 8, these patterns are, in a fundamental sense, irreducibly complex… 

pp. 26-27

And from which creationist did William Dembski steal the idea of specified complexity? Again, he didn’t steal the idea, but the first known use of the term “specified complexity” comes from an explicitly anti- creationist source: the eminent origin of life theorist Leslie Orgel. In 1973, Orgel wrote: 

[L]iving organisms are distinguished by their specified complexity. Crystals are usually taken as the prototypes of simple, well-specified structures, because they consist of a very large number of identical molecules packed together in a uniform way. Lumps of granite or random mixtures of polymers are examples of structures which are complex but not specified. The crystals fail to qualify as living because they lack complexity; the mixtures of polymers fail to qualify because they lack specificity. 

Leslie E. Orgel, The Origins of Life: Molecules and Natural Selection, Chapman & Hall, 1973, p. 189, emphasis added

As for the explanatory filter for detecting design, I’m not aware of any source that predates Dembski’s first use of the term and he’s widely recognized as the person who came up with the concept. His first major explication of the explanatory filter appeared not in some creationist journal but in a peer-reviewed book from Cambridge University Press, Dembski’s 1998 monograph The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities.

All of this information was available at the time Dr. Scott gave her lecture but somehow it escaped mention.  

Next, “Eugenie Scott’s Backwards Take on Intelligent Design.”