Stephen Meyer’s definition of intelligent design is unfair, according to Barry Arrington

A while back, Barry Arrington challenged critics of intelligent design to define intelligent design, claiming that

I have never seen a fair summary of ID theory come from one of our opponents.

Several ID critics(including me) weighed in with our definitions, but Arrington called all of them “superficial and contemptuous” (my answer was apparently so superficial and contemptuous that it got me banned from commenting at Uncommon Descent). I pointed out at the time that some of these answers were virtually identical to the definitions given by prominent ID proponents.

Stephen Meyer, author of Darwin’s Doubt, founding member of the Discovery Institute, and occasional contributor to Evolution News and Views, has cleared things up for us. Here’s his definition of intelligent design (around 1:58 in this recording):

The theory of intelligent design is the idea that there are certain features of life and the universe that are best explained by a purposive intelligence, rather than an undirected material process such as, in the realm of biology, natural selection acting on random mutations.

Stephen C. Meyer

Dr. Stephen C. Meyer. Discovery Institute press photo from

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I don’t exist!

David Klinghoffer has outdone himself. For a guy who thinks the discovery of an extrasolar planet is a challenge to materialism, the bar for the dumbest thing he’s ever said is already high, but he has cleared it with room to spare:

In a sense, there are no atheists.

He’s right, in a sense. In the sense that we can arbitrarily redefine words to mean whatever the hell we want them to mean. Let’s look at some equally valid examples:

In a sense, all mammals are descended from snakes.

This is true, in a sense, because I define snakes as small Triassic insectivores.

In a sense, there are no dump trucks.

This is true, in a sense, because I define dump trucks as wine bottles that magically refill themselves.

In a sense, David Klinghoffer is a ghost.

This is true, in a sense, because I define ghosts as human beings who occasionally say monumentally stupid things.

A Ghost Story

David Klinghoffer, in a sense. Image from A Ghost Story, downloaded from IMDB.

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A quick question for Douglas Axe

Intelligent design proponent Douglas Axe says,

My recent book, Undeniable, makes the case not just that life is designed but also that this is obvious — you need no special training to see it. And yet, as with other obvious truths, some people prefer to deny this one than to fully embrace the attending implications.

For atheists to be in denial here isn’t surprising. Short of recanting, they have no option. [emphasis added]

Douglas Axe

Douglas Axe

But intelligent design proponents have said many, many times that ID, being a scientific rather than religious theory, does not identify the designer. According to Michael Behe,

Possible candidates for the role of designer include: the God of Christianity; an angel–fallen or not; Plato’s demi-urge; some mystical new age force; space aliens from Alpha Centauri; time travelers; or some utterly unknown intelligent being.

So here’s my question: if ID is agnostic to the nature of the designer, why can’t an atheist believe life is designed?

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Convergence part 4: “an epic myth”

I promised in part one of this series that I would show why the argument that convergence is a problem for evolution is daft, and I haven’t really done that. What I’ve done so far is show that the argument includes a false premise, namely that evolutionary biologists have only recently become aware that convergence is widespread.

In parts onetwo, and three, I showed that some intelligent design proponents misrepresent the history of biological thought regarding convergence. They have created an alternate history in which biologists from Darwin to Dawkins were barely aware of convergent evolution, and have only in the last few decades been forced to confront it. Whether this is dishonesty or just bad scholarship, I can’t say, but it is a big, stinking pile of wrong.

But I haven’t really engaged their core argument, a fair paraphrase of which is that convergence, the appearance of similar phenotypes in distantly related species, is evidence against (or even falsifies) common descent. For example, Cornelius Hunter says convergence

…violates the evolutionary pattern. Regardless of adaptation versus constraint explanations, and any other mechanisms evolutionists can or will imagine, the basic fact remains: a fundamental evidence and prediction of evolution is falsified. —2017-05-25

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Convergence part 3: “the Darwinists’ lollapalooza”

In parts one and two, I showed that suggestions by some intelligent design advocates that evolutionary biologists have only recently become aware of widespread convergence are false. At least one ID proponent, though, has gone further, suggesting that convergence is a post hoc rationalization invented by ‘Darwinists’ to hide their dirty little secret that common descent is not supported by evidence.

Phylogenetic tree from The Origin of Species

Not the first tree of life. The one figure from The Origin of Species. By Charles Darwin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Physicist Lee M. Spetner makes this argument in his book The Evolution Revolution. I don’t own The Evolution Revolution, but Casey Luskin has helpfully, and approvingly, quoted some critical passages:

Convergent evolution is the Darwinists’ lollapalooza. They made it up to keep their phylogenetic tree from falling apart, but they can’t say how convergence happens. — As quoted by Casey Luskin, 2014-10-19

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Convergence part 2: “exceptions to the rule”

In part 1, I argued that some advocates of intelligent design give a misleading picture of the history of evolutionary thought on the topic of convergence. To hear them tell it, convergence, or at least convergence as a widespread phenomenon is a recent discovery, unknown to Darwin and to the architects of the modern synthesis. For example, Günter Bechly says,

One of the most essential doctrines of Darwinian evolution, apart from universal common descent with modification, is the notion that complex similarities indicate homology and are ordered in a congruent nested pattern that facilitates the hierarchical classification of life. When this pattern is disrupted by incongruent evidence, such conflicting evidence is readily explained away as homoplasies with ad hoc explanations like underlying apomorphies (parallelisms), secondary reductions, evolutionary convergences, long branch attraction, and incomplete lineage sorting.

When I studied in the 1980s at the University of Tübingen, where the founder of phylogenetic systematics, Professor Willi Hennig, was teaching a first generation of cladists, we still all thought that such homoplasies are the exceptions to the rule, usually restricted to simple or poorly known characters. Since then the situation has profoundly changed. Homoplasy is now recognized as a ubiquitous phenomenon (e.g., eyes evolved 45 times independently, and bioluminiscence 27 times; hundreds of more examples can be found at Cambridge University’s “Map of Life” website).

I don’t know who gave Dr. Bechly the idea that homoplasies are rare, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Willi Hennig. Dr. Bechly was there, and I wasn’t, but I’m going to go out on a limb here anyway and say that Willi Hennig wasn’t even at the University of Tübingen in the 1980s. I can be fairly confident that this is the case, because Willi Hennig died in 1976.

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Convergence part 1: “quite unexpected”

A number of advocates of intelligent design have written variations on the theme that convergence is a problem for evolution. I aim to show why this argument is daft.

First of all, what is convergence? Definitions differ, and I’m not going to get into an extended discussion of the differences. A definition that will serve well enough is Anurag Agrawal’s, “the independent evolution of similar phenotypes.” A phenotype, and this will be important, can refer to a single trait, multiple traits, or the entire set of traits expressed by an organism. Green-eyed is a phenotype. A calico pattern of fur color is a phenotype. All of the traits that make up a particular cat are also a phenotype. A phenotype can describe a trait (or set of traits) of an individual or of a species, so just as being 5’10” tall is a phenotype, so is being bipedal.

Convergence typically refers to the latter kind of phenotype, those that characterize a species. So if, for example, seasonal changes in coat color have independently evolved in a bird, a lagomorph, a mustelid, and a canid, that’s an example of convergence of a single trait.

Zimova 2018 Fig 1

Figure 1 from Zimova et al. 2018. Seasonal coat colour species in their winter (top row) and summer (bottom row) coats. (A) Rock ptarmigan; (B) mountain hare; (C) stoat; (D) Arctic fox. None of these species share a common ancestor with seasonal coat polymorphism; they evolved it convergently. Photos by Pilipenko D, Paul Carpenter, Stephan Morris, Diego Cottino; Mills lab research photo, and Seoyun Choi.

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Jonathan Wells debunks something nobody believes

Black bear

Black bear, Glacier National Park, September 2014.

Charles Darwin speculated that whales might have evolved from bears. He was wrong, but then he didn’t have the benefit of molecular sequence data, detailed morphological comparisons, and sophisticated methods of phylogenetic inference. We’ve known for at least 50 years that cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) are most closely related to ungulates, specifically even-toed ungulates (artiodactyls). The current consensus is that the closest living relatives of cetaceans are hippopotamuses. Not everyone agrees with this specific relationship, but no one really doubts that whales are closely related to ungulates.

You wouldn’t learn that from reading Discovery Institute Senior Fellow Jonathan Wells’ recent post, “From Bears to Whales: A Difficult Transition.”

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