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Rosenhouse’s Whoppers: Seeing Patterns in Biology Is Like Seeing Dragons in the Clouds

Photo: A leaf hopper, by Cowli33, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

I am responding again to Jason Rosenhouse about his book The Failures of Mathematical Anti-Evolutionism. See my earlier posts herehere, and here.

Having clarified certain points, let’s now turn to Rosenhouse’s whoppers. Whopper number one is this: According to Rosenhouse, to see the bacterial flagellum as a bidirectional motor-driven propeller is to see a pattern that in no essential way differs from seeing clouds shaped like a dragon. I’m not making this up. Thus in his reply he writes: “How can we be confident that in using function as a specification we are not doing the equivalent of looking at a fluffy, cumulus cloud and seeing a dragon?” As if to leave no doubt, he repeats the point: “Saying of a flagellum that it resembles an outboard motor is comparable to saying of a cloud that it resembles a dragon.” Seriously?!

Not a Metaphor

Since the flagellum gets so overused in the debate between ID and Darwinism, let’s change the system. Consider the leaf hopper, Issus coleoptratus (above), which uses toothed mechanical gears to achieve its amazing jumping ability. Here’s a brief video about its gear-based jumping system. Note that these really are mechanical gears. They are not merely like gears. They are not a metaphor for gears. They don’t meekly aspire to be gears. They’re gears.

Yet, according to Rosenhouse, all such systems, despite exhibiting clear engineering patterns, require no fundamentally different type of explanation from clouds that resemble dragons. Natural selection produces the one, natural weather the other. Click here to see one example of a dragon in the clouds (a fire-breathing dragon, no less). The Internet is filled with such examples.

If you can’t appreciate the difference between these two types of patterns, and if you take seriously that they don’t require completely different orders of explanation, then the real world may not be your home. My notion of specification grapples with the difference. You may not like my formulation of it. Fine. But if you can’t form and take seriously some such distinction, then you inhabit an alternate reality. And even though Darwinian group think, powerful as it is, can keep you imagining that you are in your right mind, you really need to do a sanity check.

Digression: The Shermer Delusion

How can some Darwinists, like Rosenhouse, dismiss engineering-like patterns in biological systems as having no more force than seeing human and animal images in clouds? It seems that what’s behind this is the addling effect of evolutionary theorizing on human psychology. As already indicated, I’ve debated professional skeptic Michael Shermer before various college audiences. Shermer dismisses the use of patterns to eliminate chance by appealing to evolution, claiming that evolution has hardwired us to see patterns that convince us of design even when design is in fact absent. In other words, evolution biases us to err on the side of false positives, seeing design in patterns where design is not actually present. Here is how he makes such an argument (in his 2006 book Why Darwin Matters, pp. 38–39):

Perceiving the world as well designed and thus the product of a designer … may be the product of a brain adapted to finding patterns in nature. We are pattern-seeking as well as pattern-finding animals… Finding patterns in nature may have an evolutionary explanation: There is a survival payoff for finding order instead of chaos in the world, and being able to separate threats (to fight or flee) from comforts (to embrace or eat, among other things), which enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce. We are the descendants of the most successful pattern-seeking members of our species. In other words, we were designed by evolution to perceive design.

Shermer is here suggesting that the patterns we find in nature (as opposed to artifacts created by humans or aliens) are simply imposed by us on nature on account of our evolutionary conditioning, and thus signify nothing about any real underlying design of the world. But that can’t be right. Clearly, nature could present us with patterns that reliably point to the activity of an intelligent agent outside of nature. Take, for instance, a pulsating star that acts as an oracle, communicating messages, in English, about matters of great consequence to the inhabitants of the earth. Assume the star is millions of light years away, and yet is communicating in real time, responsive to questions as they are posed by humans on earth.

No Doubt About It

Clearly, signals like this coming from outer space would exhibit patterns that leave no doubt about their intelligent origin. But the intelligence in these signals would also be beyond this world, given that physics limits communication by the speed of light, precluding communication taking place, as here, instantaneously. Such signals would provide decisive confirmation of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. But it would not be an intelligence localized in space and time that’s sending signals with the help of advanced technology. In this example, the intelligence doing the communicating makes itself evident in nature (via a design inference) but operates beyond the constraints of nature.  

In any case, to refuse to attribute patterns to design on the grounds that our brains are hardwired by evolution to overinterpret design merely begs the question. That’s because some patterns are indeed rightly interpreted as signaling design. We all recognize a valid distinction between patterns that convincingly demonstrate design and patterns that result from unreliable psychological factors, such as an overactive imagination: seeing human faces in the clouds, burnt toast, or soap films, examples of the sort that Shermer — and Rosenhouse — use to discredit intelligent design. Shermer’s claim that we are hardwired by evolution to be pattern-seeking, pattern-finding animals does nothing to draw this distinction.

Next, “Rosenhouse’s Whoppers: Probability Theory Is Irrelevant.”

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