On the Denial of Intelligent Design:
Marvin French Answers Robert McKnight

The following is a letter to the editor of Telicom, which was published:

Robert McKnight's article On the Denial of Intelligent Design (Telicom, March-April 2008) has prompted me to comment on some of it. Not a scientist, I can only draw on my reading for what follows. To save space, I have abbreviated Intelligent Design as ID, Robert McKnight's name as RMcK, and mine as MLF.

RMcK's Abstract: This essay exploits the notion that a denial implies a belief. The example treated is the denial of intelligent design by evolutionary biologists. This denial should imply what it is that such biologists believe.

MLF: A denial may imply a belief to some, but that “notion” is not descriptive of the thinking of evolutionary biologists. In the realm of science they believe in facts and what is firmly tied to facts, nothing else. Disbelief is not synonymous with “denial.” They may deny the need for ID as an explanation of life's diversity and complexity, but that is not the same as denying ID.

RMcK: That implication should be helpful to those of us who cannot determine their beliefs from their writings.

MLF: Their beliefs are clearly documented in a single book by eminent philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life. If that isn't enough, the books by Richard Dawkins can fill in any “missing links.”

RMcK: Does it seem to you that the experts all disagree with each other, that each expert has a theory of his own?

MLF: Well, no. Dennett and Dawkins, for instance, are essentially in complete agreement. Such narrow conflicts that exist among others have been blown up out of proportion.

Dennett: The fundamental core of Darwinism, the theory of DNA-based reproduction and evolution, is now beyond dispute among scientists. Most—if not all—of the controversies concern issues that are “just science”; no matter which side wins, the outcome will not undo the Darwinian idea.

RMcK: I noticed that objectors [to ID] are nearly all biologists. I don't know why this is so. It is odd since the theory is much broader than one that applies only to the origins of life here on this tiny speck called earth.

MLF: Perhaps it is because ID discussions have mostly centered on biology and not cosmology, even though such extrapolation is quite natural.

RMcK: One thing that the majority of the deniers [of ID] share is the conviction that the term, intelligent design, is a cover term for biblical creation. This conviction is most pointedly expressed by a denier who just happens to be a self-proclaimed atheist, an atheist with a proselytizing zeal that would make Madeline Murray O'Hare blush.

MLF: “Proud” would be a better word than “blush.” Is there something wrong with being an atheist? To understand Dawkins' zeal, one has only to view parts 1 and 2 of his video “The Root of All Evil,” which can be viewed (and/or downloaded free) at www.veoh.com.

Okay, let's pause right here and look at the trail from literal Biblical creation theory down to cosmological ID.

Step 1. The Old Testament's version of creation has been so contradicted by geological and fossil evidence that informed believers have changed “Six days” to mean millions of years, saying that the Bible should not be taken literally.

Step 2. Efforts to include Creationist beliefs in the schools have been rebuffed by the courts, so believers joined adherents of a spin-off called “Intelligent Design,” avoiding the word “God” in order to enter schools through the back door. They claim that complex organisms and parts of organisms could not have evolved on their own but had to be designed. By whom? They are careful not to say, but we all know the Designer they have in mind. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne calls it "The faith that dares not speak its name.”

Step 3. Some go along with evolution theory, but want to insert ”saltations,” sudden leaps of advancement along the way that could hardly have evolved (e.g., the complex human eye).

Step 4. Some accept the Darwinian concept of evolution, but require a design(er) for the initial step, the jump-start creation of a common ancestor that would evolve in a pre-designed way in accordance with the designer's rules. They can't accept that it's natural selection all the way down.

Step 5. Some move over to cosmology, asserting that the Big Bang, resulting in a very unlikely universe whose physical constants must be just so in order for earth-like planets and life to eventually evolve, had to be designed, as there is no other explanation.

RMcK: So just what is “Intelligent Design”? The theory's principle hypothesis is...the universe is the result of both intelligence and design.

MLF: There is no “theory” of ID if the word is being used in the same sense as in references to Darwin's theory of evolution. “Theory” has acquired many meanings. Scientists use it to describe a coherent body of well-established facts that explain a class of phenomena, as in Newton's Theory of Gravitation. Another meaning is a hypothesis, a reasonable explanation that needs experiment or observations for substantiation. The “Theory of ID,” which can be expressed in a single sentence, does not rise to the level of a hypothesis, but rather is a mere untestable conjecture (another meaning of “theory”) with no facts to back it up.

There is a film entitled "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" playing in theaters right now. It is the latest try of the religious Right to put the debate between evolution and ID back on the burner after ID's 2005 defeat in a federal court in Pennsylvania.* Surprisingly, it does not include a definition of ID. Typically of propaganda, it presents no evidence but simply attacks Darwin emotionally. The portions blaming him for the Holocaust are really despicable.

Radio talk-show host and film critic Michael Medved has endorsed the film heartily as “an immensely important project.” Medved is an extreme ID adherent, with very firm beliefs, as he made clear on his program by hauling out an old “proof” of ID, the complex human eye. It had to be designed in one step, he says, because “What good is five percent of an eye?” My father had about that much eye because of macular degeneration, and found it to be quite useful. Eyes have evolved independently between 40 and 60 times around the animal kingdom, Dawkins reports.

Darwin: Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science. If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find no such case.

Dennett: [In meeting challenges] Darwin's fundamental idea of natural selection has been articulated, expanded, clarified, quantified, and deepened in many ways, becoming stronger every time it overcame a challenge. That is not a conclusive proof, of course, just a mighty persuasive consideration. ...the idea of natural selection appears to be a clear winner, even while there are unresolved controversies about how it can handle some phenomena. But, saying, as intelligent-design adherents do, “You haven't explained everything yet” is not a competing hypothesis. Evolutionary biology certainly hasn't explained everything that perplexes biologists, but intelligent design hasn't explained anything at all.

RMcK: Perhaps the more fundamental objection of deniers who object to the notion of intelligence is the idea that the universe had a designer of any kind. They deny intelligence because they see it as implying a designer [saying] “Who designed the designer?” The other kind of objection is that a designer has traditionally been thought of as a supernatural designer. Some of them deny that there is anything outside the natural system—to these, there is no supernatural anything.

MLF: They would say there is no evidence of a designer, natural or supernatural. Scientists are not in the business of denying, as it would leave them no time for anything else.

Dawkins: We cannot disprove beliefs like these, especially if it is assumed that God took care that his intervention always closely mimicked what would be expected from natural selection. All that we can say about such beliefs is that they are superfluous and, secondly, they assume the existence of the main thing we want to explain, namely organized complexity. The one thing that makes evolution such a neat theory is that it explains how organized complexity can arise out of primeval simplicity. Ultimately, design cannot explain anything because there is an inevitable regression to the problem of the origin of the designer.

RMcK (quoting Ernst Mayr): “There is indeed a great deal of randomness (“chance”) in evolution, particularly in the production of genetic variation, but the second step of natural selection, whether selection or elimination, is an anti-chance process.” That quote is almost clear, but leaves us uncertain as to whether the author considers there to be a bit of randomness in the second step or not.

MLF: Mayr merely says that in the second step randomness (“chance”) continues to operate along with selective processes, with a net result that cannot be attributed to chance alone. Flipping a biased coin yields “anti-chance” results. I don't see a contradiction at all.

RMcK: It is equally difficult to know what those deniers who also deny that chance is an element of natural selection take as their alternative to design.

MLF: No one denies that chance is an element in natural selection, which can give the powerful illusion of good design, and consequently the illusion of intelligence. Good intelligent-seeming design is an unplanned fall-out of evolution. Humans innately see pattern where there is only randomness, and purpose where there is only process.

MLF: I was unable to follow everything RMcK wrote about chance and randomness, probably my fault. After reading Dennett and Dawkins the matter seems quite simple to this layman: Gene mutations, caused by miscopying or cosmic rays, have effects that range in a continuum from deadly to unfavorable to neutral (little or no effect, true of most) to favorable. Then natural (or sexual) selection steps in to discourage the bad changes and encourage the good ones in future generations. There are no guarantees; the bad may survive and the good may go extinct, but the latter have a better chance.

Dawkins: The whole rational of Darwin's theory was, and is, that adaptive complexity comes about by slow and gradual degrees, step by step, no single step making too large a demand on blind chance as explanation. The Darwinian, theory, by rationing chance to the small steps needed to supply variation for selection, provides the only realistic escape from sheer luck as the explanation of life.

Carl Zimmer quote by RMcK: “Consider the peacock and his splendid tail. Marion Petrie, a biologist, says ‘Darwin had a real problem with the peacock, because they seem to go against his theory of evolution by natural selection.’ Darwin was always a bit evasive about one fundamental question of sexual selection: Why did a female prefer a particular kind of tail or comb? He simply said she found it attractive.”

MLF: The first part just isn't true. Darwin treated the subject of sexual selection, which he puts on a par with natural selection, at great length in The Descent of Man. Attractiveness can't be explained or defined, it's a matter of taste. Why do gentlemen prefer blondes? De gustibus...

RMcK: The author [Carl Zimmer] then proceeds to mention the growing numbers of scientists who believe that females are not arbitrary when they pick their mates. It is claimed that the females are attracted to displays that can reveal a male's genetic potential. The notion is tacitly implying that the usual rule about the elimination of the unfit has been set aside in the case of peafowl.

MLF: RMcK repeatedly cites Carl Zimmer, who is a very good science writer, a popularizer, but not an evolutionary biologist. The evolution of beautiful displays in order to attract a mate is balanced against the need for survival. Those who go too far may not survive to mate and those who don't go as far as their rivals are less likely to mate. Sometimes even scientists slip into the bad habit of attributing “good gene searching” to actions that are no such thing. Genes are not the attraction, as they of course know. It is as if gene-searching is going on when a female's preference gets a guy with good genes, which attractive guys are likely to have. Some have written that men are attracted to certain female shapes because they indicate good child-bearing potential. Speaking from experience, I can say that is baloney. As a young man this consideration was farthest from my mind when finding certain females physically attractive.

RMcK: What do deniers mean by “sexual selection”? The difficulty is in explaining how a choice of an obviously unfit mate jibes with the usual fitness criterion.

MLF: Attractiveness does not equate to “unfit,” and it may be based on more than good looks. Voice, odor, nest-building ability, or a seductive dance (in the air or on the ground) may also contribute. The selective process has two dimensions, one that selects for survivability (natural selection) and the other for mating prowess (sexual selection). Species must find a balance between any dangers (from predators) of attractiveness and the increased chance of mating that it brings. Whether you die before mating or don't get to mate, the result is the same—your genes don't get passed on.

Darwin: As birds always breed when food is abundant, the males probably do not suffer much inconvenience in searching for food from their impeded powers of movement; but there can hardly be a doubt that they must be much more liable to be struck down by birds of prey. Nor can we doubt that the long train of the peacock and the long tail and wing-feathers of the Argus pheasant must render them an easier prey to any prowling tiger-cat than would otherwise be the case...it probably is that such birds are generally of a shy disposition, as if conscious that their beauty was a source of danger, and are much more difficult to discover or approach, than the sombre coloured and comparatively tame females or than the young and as yet unadorned males.

RMcK: If you are confident that you have a full understanding of evolution but, nevertheless, have read this essay, I beg you not to tell me that I haven't read the right book. The most that we who are baffled by the writings of Darwinists dare hope for is that some evolutionary biologist will, some day, write an admission that evolution is really not a theory of the integrated kind found in the writings of Euclid, Newton or Maxwell.

MLF: Don't hold your breath. The cited theories are mathematical, not biological. Unlike them, a biological theory like evolution cannot be expected to answer all questions. Nevertheless, the writings of Darwin do comprise a theory of the integrated kind. This genius had no knowledge of DNA or Mendel's findings, and yet produced a work that is essentially correct. Modern scientists have filled in some details to make the theory even more complete. As to the right book, I suggest Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea.


* Associated Press release 20 December 2005:

A federal judge barred a Pennsylvania public school district from teaching “intelligent design” in biology class, saying the concept is creationism in disguise. U.S. District Judge John E. Jones delivered a stinging attack on the Dover Area School Board, saying its first-in-the-nation decision in October 2004 to insert intelligent design into the science curriculum violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

The ruling was a major setback to the intelligent design movement, which is also waging battles in Georgia and Kansas. Intelligent design holds that living organisms are so complex that they must have been created by some kind of higher force. Jones decried the “breathtaking inanity” of the Dover policy and accused several board members of lying to conceal their true motive, which he said was to promote religion.

A six-week trial over the issue yielded “overwhelming evidence” establishing that intelligent design “is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory,” said Jones, a Republican and a churchgoer appointed to the federal bench three years ago.

Judge Jones: To be sure, Darwin's theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.

Suggested Reading:

Dennett, Daniel C, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life.

Dawkins, Richard, The Selfish Gene.

Dawkins, Richard, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design.

Darwin, Charles, The Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection.

Darwin, Charles, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.