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The Success of Mathematics in Advancing Intelligent Design: A Guide to Reading Jason Rosenhouse

William A. Dembski
Photo credit: Benjamin Lizardo via Unsplash.

Book review of Jason Rosenhouse, The Failures of Mathematical Anti-Evolutionism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022), 310 pages. 

Intelligent design can credit at least some of its success to mathematics. Math has helped to advance its program for scientifically understanding the role of intelligent causes in nature. Math has also helped its efforts to unseat neo-Darwinism as the reigning paradigm for biological evolution. Success here, however, can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, it could mean that design theorists have developed rigorous mathematical ideas that both advance intelligent design and solidly refute neo-Darwinism. On the other hand, it could mean that design theorists have developed a mathematical song and dance that convinces the naïve and gullible, but that falls apart upon informed scrutiny.

Intelligent Design, Rest in Peace?

Mathematician Jason Rosenhouse, in his new book from Cambridge University Press (released last month), The Failures of Mathematical Anti-Evolutionism, takes the more cynical view, urging that the intelligent design community’s use of mathematics is, without exception, a sham. Nothing of mathematical merit to see here — move on. Rosenhouse writes as the vanquisher of intelligent design’s mathematical pretensions. He gives the impression that his critique is so devastating that intelligent design can no longer be considered a viable research program or school of thought. The back-cover endorsements by Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker encourage the belief that Rosenhouse has decisively finished off intelligent design.

The intelligent design figure to receive the brunt of Rosenhouse’s criticism is mathematician William A. Dembski. Rosenhouse devotes as much of his book’s index to Dembski as to the other intelligent design figures cited in it. As one reads Rosenhouse’s painstaking dissection of Dembski’s ideas, one marvels how Dembski could ever have achieved his position of prominence in the intelligent design community. Indeed, as I was reading this book, I kept saying to myself “What an idiot this Dembski character is.” And then I remembered, “Wait a second, I am Dembski …”

Why a Guide?

But seriously. Rosenhouse has been a critic of intelligent design since 2000, when he received his PhD for work in algebraic graph theory. I suspect many readers of his book will have no sense of the debate and prior discussions about the applicability of mathematics for assessing, both pro and con, the evolvability of biological systems by Darwinian means. What this means is that if unsuspecting readers jump into this book with no knowledge or background of the debate, they are in danger of embracing his critique of “mathematical anti-evolutionism.” And that would be a mistake because if there’s one thing that Rosenhouse does well in this book, it is to misrepresent intelligent design and its use of mathematics. In this and a series of subsequent posts at Evolution News, I will review the book and justify that charge in detail. It is why I subtitled this review “A Guide to Reading Jason Rosenhouse.”

In this review, I’ll focus on Rosenhouse’s criticisms of my work and that of my colleagues in the intelligent design movement. Rosenhouse also criticizes young earth creationists as well as thinkers from the past (such as Lecomte du Noüy) who used math to criticize evolutionary theory. Moreover, he criticizes attempts to use entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics to undermine evolution. But these criticisms by Rosenhouse are peripheral to his main task, so I’ll largely bypass them in this review. Rosenhouse has set his sights on intelligent design, and me in particular. That’s where he directs his heavy artillery, and so it will help to see why that artillery, as deployed by him, in fact leaves intelligent design unscathed. 

Next, “The Book That Launched a Thousand Barbs.”

Editor’s note: This review is cross-posted with permission of the author from BillDembski.com.