Science Wars

04.21.14

My Debate With an ‘Intelligent Design’ Theorist

Advocates of the pseudo-scientific, secularized version of creationism love debates, because they give the appearance of two equal sides. Here’s what it’s like to participate in one.

Debating anti-evolutionists is something of a fool’s errand, which makes me something of a fool, especially if you read the reviews of my recent debate with America’s leading intelligent design “theorist.”

Debates are curious events. They masquerade as intellectual contests, but are really just showcases for rhetorical cleverness and public charisma. Richard Nixon is thought to have lost a debate—and the 1960 presidential election—to John Kennedy because he was visibly sweating during one of the first televised debates. In provocative contrast, radio listeners, who couldn’t see what Nixon looked like, thought he had won the debate.

Young-earth creationists and Intelligent Design (ID) advocates love debates. Debates raise the profile of their scientifically discredited anti-evolutionary views, making those positions look viable, just as presidential debates showcase two seemingly viable alternatives. Put a young-earth creationist on stage with an evolutionist, as Ken Ham recently did with Bill Nye, and the world sees a genuine scientific controversy with two sides, not a science versus non-science exchange. This is why virtually every debate about evolution in the past half-century has been hosted by an anti-evolutionary organization, and typically takes place in front of an audience dominated by conservative evangelicals who reject evolution and show up to cheer for “their” guy.

I recently returned from Richmond, Virginia, where I debated Stephen Meyer, head of the Discovery Institute, the heart of the anti-evolutionary intelligent design movement. Meyer is the author of two major anti-evolution books, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design and the recent New York Times bestseller, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life the Case for Intelligent Design.

The debate topic was “Should Christians Embrace Darwin?,” a formulation that poses serious problems for proponents of Intelligent Design. They insist that their “Intelligent Designer” is not the God of the Bible—which would make their position religious and keep it forever out of the public schools—but rather is a conventional inference from the same sort of observational evidence as other scientific theories: “Intelligent design is a scientific inference based on empirical evidence,” writes ID advocate John West, “not on religious texts.”

West’s claim is politically expedient. ID has to be secular to succeed. Indeed, ID emerged from the wreckage of creationism when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the latter formally religious and thus forever banned from science classes in the public schools. But ID is not, of course, secular, and would immediately disappear if not for evangelical Christians who underwrite it in the hopes of bringing America back to what they see as its Biblical roots.

ID is only superficially supportive of Christian belief, a point I made in the debate. The natural world is filled with examples of “design,” but much of it is both bad and sinister, and could be used as evidence for a stupid, malevolent “designer.” Design comes in many forms. Pipe bombs, the U.S. Tax Code, and lawnmowers that cut off your toes all have designers with intelligence. These analogies—and ID is based almost entirely on analogies—sever the essential link they need to connect the Christian God to their “designer.” The religious question is not whether nature shows design, but whether nature shows the sort of design we might expect from the God of the Bible.

To make this point, I showed pictures of otherwise healthy humans who had been born with webbed feet and tails. I asked the challenging question: “Why does the human genome contain instructions for the production of features we don’t use?” The scientific explanation is that we inherited these instructions from our tailed ancestors but the instructions for producing them have been shut off in our genomes, which is why Shallow Hal is the only person most people know who has a tail. Sometimes the “ignore these genes” message gets lost in fetal development, however, and babies are born with perfectly formed, even functional tails.

I have no idea how Intelligent Design theorists explain humans with tails. And apparently Stephen Meyer doesn’t either, as he completely ignored this point. In his book, Signature in the Cell, he offers a “prediction” that all such examples of bad design will turn out to be “degenerate forms of originally elegant or beneficial designs” (p. 491). Fitting this notion into any Christian framework would entail—pun intended—endorsing the notion that God created humans to have tails and something went wrong along the way and we lost them. This is essentially the view of young-earth creationism—which ID insists is not its evolutionary ancestor—that attribute every imperfection in nature to Adam and Eve’s fall into sin. And yet the dioramas of Adam and Eve in the Creation Museum do not picture them with tails, for some reason.

I do the occasional debate to remind me what America’s troubled conversation over origins looks like from the inside.

I went on to argue that the explanatory deficiencies of ID are overwhelming, extending far beyond bad and sinister design. ID, in fact, has no “theory,” despite its proponents’ claim to the contrary and their propensity to call themselves “theorists.” Meyer’s colleagues at the Discovery Institute are, in fact, quite open about this. I quoted ID theorist Paul Nelson, who wrote: “Easily the biggest challenge facing the ID community is to develop a full-fledged theory of biological design. We don’t have such a theory right now, and that’s a problem … we’ve got a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions such as ‘irreducible complexity’ and ‘specified complexity’—but, as yet, no general theory of biological design.” The retired Berkeley lawyer, Philip Johnson, considered the founder of ID, made similar comments: “I also don’t think that there is really a theory of intelligent design at the present time to propose as a comparable alternative to the Darwinian theory, which is, whatever errors it might contain, a fully worked-out scheme.”

The absence of a clear and well-articulated theory is disastrous for ID, and excludes it from scientific consideration, because it makes it impossible to put any observations in context as evidence either for or against the theory. I made this rather complex point with a photo of the lake in front of my vacation home. A photo is an “observation,” of course. But a photo is not automatically “evidence.” A theoretical claim that can be tested with a photo must be present before a photo becomes evidence. My photo could be used as evidence, for example, to determine if 1) the water was higher than last week or 2) the winter ice was gone 3) the boat race was on some other lake or 4) if aliens were waterskiing that day. But, until you advance some relevant theoretical claim a photo is just a photo—it is not “evidence.” 

The many interesting examples that dominate the ID discussion—the little tail on the bacterium, our eyes or our blood-clotting mechanism, the explosion of new life-forms in the Cambrian period—are just snapshots of things in nature. They are not “evidence” for anything and won’t be until the ID theorists develop a theory of how their “designer” works. Once they provide a well-articulated version of their central claim, we can decide whether or not our eyes—or our tails— support their theory. 

I mentioned in the debate that I thought this difficulty—acknowledged as it was by other ID theorists—was the deepest and most interesting challenge facing ID. But Meyer assured me that this is no longer an issue and that they now had a theory, although whatever it is appears to remain a well-kept secret. I objected that, as a physicist with a Ph.D who had studied some real theories—quantum mechanics, classical mechanics, electromagnetism—ID did not remotely resemble any other theory in the natural sciences and was thus hard to see how it might work. The response was that ID was under no obligation to satisfy the expectations of the scientific community for what a theory should look like. 

Debates have limitations, of course, not the least of which is a racing clock that rules out the pursuit of many interesting questions. I was hoping that subsequent discussion of the debate might provide opportunity for some of these issues to be addressed. The review of the debate on the ID website, however, is telling.

My presentation—crafted with consideration of my non-specialist audience—was dismissed as a “bunch of pictures—characters from The Simpsons (a cartoon of Homer evolving); a baby with a tail, webbed feet, a strange-looking whale creature with legs (ambulecetus, a well-established and very significant transitional fossil connecting sea mammals to their terrestrial ancestors); and a pretty picture taken at [my] vacation home.” In contrast, my debate partner’s presentation was “sleek, professional, and chock-full of evidence and data.” Like the sweat on Nixon’s brow, my homey images and simple questions apparently destroyed my argument. 

And so we see why debates accomplish so little. The Virginia audience left that night having learned little about ID, as Meyer’s presentation was very technical, although anything but “chock full of evidence.” My rather serious claim that ID had no theory and thus no evidence at all was dismissed, not addressed. The ID folk are now assuring their readers that their guy won; my defense of evolution was apparently pitiful: “Where was the new evidence?” the reviewer asks. “Where were the cutting-edge studies supportive of [my] view?” Such questions seem profoundly irrelevant, given that evolution has been an established scientific theory for many decades. The theory is long past needing new evidence and new discoveries are never presented as offering new “evidence” for evolution, any more than new photographs of the earth from space provide “new evidence” for its shape.

I do the occasional debate to remind me what America’s troubled conversation over origins looks like from the “inside.” My debate partner in Virginia was articulate, educated, likable, and familiar with a vast range of relevant scientific research. If important scientific questions—like elections—turned on debate performances ID would fare much better—which is exactly why anti-evolutionists love debates.

Fortunately, scientific questions are not resolved with rhetoric and PowerPoint.