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Joana Xavier, Skepticism About Design, and a Fable About a Gray Parrot with an iPad

Paul Nelson
Photo credit: L.Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Lmbuga), CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

For years, co-workers and I have exchanged, and encouraged others to consult, this outstanding review article on systems biology and defining minimal cells. Read it for yourself and you’ll see what I mean. In light of the article’s excellence, we began to follow the publications of the first author, Joana Xavier of University College London, a young origin-of-life researcher who has steadily pursued questions of central importance

Xavier’s strong track record, therefore, had us marching straight over to YouTube to watch her discussion with the maverick theoretician Perry Marshall ­— where she said this about Steve Meyer’s first bookSignature in the Cell (2009):

But about intelligent design. Let me tell you, Perry, I read Signature in the Cell by Stephen Meyer…And I must tell you, I found it one of the best books I’ve read, in terms of really putting the finger on the questions.

That was her positive assessment, which she repeated a few moments later in the interview. But her take on ID itself?

What I didn’t like was the final answer, of course…I think that we must have a more naturalistic answer to these processes. There must be. Otherwise, I’ll be out of a job.

An understandable response, which invites a closer look.

Responding to Xavier’s Skepticism About Design

Think in terms of tradeoffs. If design turns out to be true — let’s say, for the origin of life — then accepting the ID hypothesis as the best supported among the competitors does require one to stop chasing after other hypotheses, by definition naturalistic, which do not appeal to design. That’s the straight-up logic.

But if, like Dr. Xavier, one conceives of scientific explanation as employing only non-intelligent causes, grounded ultimately in undirected physics, design may look like a poor tradeoff at best, where the whole point of science is being surrendered for little or nothing in return. Not much of a deal.

Consider a fable, however, which I’ve told to co-workers and students over the past few years. The fable implicitly acknowledges that, for most scientists since Darwin’s time — especially for biologists — inferences to design may appear fantastically impossible, departing science proper for the wastelands of metaphysics or theology, surrendering the established goals of scientific inquiry in exchange for a self-administered job termination pink slip.

We need to think more deeply. Here’s the fable.

How Does the Strip Mall Financial Guy Do It?

One day, on a hunch, you give five thousand dollars to a local investment advisor, whose modest office sits in a nearby strip mall. You tell him that 2 to 3 percent yields annually on your initial deposit would be fine.

But the return on your portfolio, year after year, is astonishing. You consistently beat the market by several percentage points, and the gains are bona fide. Real money. Despite unimpressive appearances, this strip mall financial advisor knows exactly where to put your cash.

Finally, your curiosity gets the better of you. You stop into the office, and insist that the advisor tell you his investment strategy.

Sheepishly, he agrees — but makes you promise not to tell anyone. “They won’t believe you,” he says, “and I’ll be ruined. This works, but God only knows why.”

The advisor leads you into a back room. There, perched opposite an iPad (showing equity and bond offerings), is a large gray parrot. From time to time, the parrot pecks at the iPad, and a server records the hits. “There,” says the advisor, “that’s how we do it.”

Then the parrot looks at you from his perch.

“Now that you know the secret,” says the parrot, are you going to give the money back?

The Moral of the Fable

Of course, parrots don’t make investment picks. But neither do little red hens harvest wheat and make bread,or tortoises and hares run foot races. The gray parrot and his iPad are a fable, after all. As such, the fable does have a point.

For most biologists, explaining by design isn’t so much wrong as it is a category error. With design, normal scientific theory evaluation criteria, such as testing by observation, seem to have disappeared altogether. For these biologists, without the familiar methods, it isn’t simply difficult to say if design is true or false, in any given case — it’s impossible. As my undergraduate philosophy of science teacher Carl Hempel used to say, the venture seems as hopeless as trying to take the square root of Abraham Lincoln.

In short, design inferences look impossible in a scientific context because the cause being invoked by design — a transcendent intelligence, irreducible to physics — is not, in principle, accessible to direct observation. Getting design to be scientifically fruitful, therefore, looks as unlikely as a gray parrot giving investment advice.

But direct observation is not the only path to empirical content. Philosopher of science Philip Kitcher, whom no one would mistake for a friend of ID, expressed this clearly forty years ago, in relation to what he called “creationism”:

Even postulating an unobserved Creator need be no more unscientific than postulating unobserved particles. What matters is the character of the proposals and the ways in which they are articulated and defended.

Philip Kitcher, Abusing Science: The Case Against Creation (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1982), p. 125

This outlook focuses on design as hypothesis formation, leading to novel consequences — not on using design as (for instance) a proof of God’s existence. (See the figure below.)

Novel consequences that hold up under scrutiny represent scientific money in the bank. The ongoing ID 3.0 research effort, which continues to expand into new areas, intends to provide just that “money in the bank.” Unfortunately, to protect the (mostly younger) scientists, who are pursuing ID 3.0 projects, from career-destroying attacks by ID critics, the most interesting research needs to be kept, at least for the time being, under wraps.

A Sizable Measure of Courage

In that respect, using the gray parrot fable to respond to skepticism of design, such as expressed by Joana Xavier, requires at the moment a sizable measure of courage: namely, that the fruitful novel consequences — the money in the bank — will be forthcoming. In a sense strongly parallel to financial investment, risk is involved.

“But you guys haven’t proved God’s existence!”

Shrug. If that’s your worry, you’ll never get over it. If you have married yourself to naturalism, there is nothing anyone can do about that.

But be brave, and try a design hypothesis. William Harvey did. And no one is going to give back the reality that blood circulates. It’s money in the bank.