Is this the new Intelligent Design creationist strategy?

If you watch the Discovery Institute, you’ll discover they’re constantly playing games, trying to find that winning PR technique that will persuade the hapless ignorati. Some of them are effective, even if dishonest: “irreducible complexity” injected all kinds of misleading chaos into the brains of their followers, and “teach the controversy” was a potent slogan. They’ve been flailing about in recent years, trying to emphasize their pretense of scholarliness with tripe like West’s efforts to use pseudohistory to blame Darwin for Hitler, or Meyer’s farcical, long-winded distortions of modern biology in Signature in the Cell. Those haven’t worked so well.

The one thing that is always a constant, that has been true of everything the Discovery Institute has ever done, is that they don’t have any new ideas to offer, and everything is focused on being anti-evolution, or as they call it, anti-“Darwinism”. I really think that one of their big problems is that they’re actually anti-something-they-don’t-understand-at-all, so all their efforts fall flat. They especially fall flat with real biologists, who are gobsmacked that anyone would seriously say this crap.

Larry Moran discusses their latest venture. The new chant is non-adaptive order, a mysterious thing that could not possibly have evolved. And that’s the trip wire that always makes the ID creationists stumble: find something that you can say “that couldn’t possibly have evolved!” about, and they’ll stand about gape-jawed and staring, eager to agree.

Here’s their slick video, titled The Biology of the Baroque: the mystery of non-adaptive order. It is unbelievably stupid. Also, it’s as if they went shopping for the narrator with the thickest, poshest, stodgiest upper-class British accent to narrate it — it’s completely over the top.

Here’s the core logic of this argument. There are many features of living things that are elaborate and beautiful, but they are otherwise useless. But natural selection is purely utilitarian! Therefore, beautiful ornamentation Could Not Have Evolved.

So evolution should produce only the biological equivalent of sterile gray Soviet architecture, and if you find something that is the equivalent of a Baroque church, then evolution is refuted. This entire argument is built around what Michael Denton calls the fundamental assumption of Darwinism…that all novelties are adaptive. To which biologists around the world can only say, “Fu…wha?” in total confusion. That is not one of our assumptions at all. Novelties are going to arise as a product of chance mutation; if they are not maladaptive (and sometimes even if they are), they can spread through a population by chance-driven processes like drift. And some elaborate fripperies can acquire a selective advantage, like that example of Soviet architecture, the peacock’s tail, which this video actually uses as an example of non-adaptive order.

It’s an excellent example of creationists avidely embracing a counter-factual. All I can say is, please do continue to attack the fallacious idea that everything in evolution is adaptive.

Only…they do have one little problem. They’re going to have to rewrite their own history. For the past several years, they have been raging against the assertion by those damned “Darwinists” that the genome is full of junk DNA — that it contains huge amounts of non-adaptive order. That somehow, while the official dogma of the church of Intelligent Design has been that “Darwinists” have been promoting a heresy of non-adaptiveness of the genome, the new party line is going to be that “Darwinists” have always been promoting a strict line of omnipresent utilitarian functionality and adaptedness.

It’s going to get confusing. Here’s the old ID:

According to Darwinists, DNA is almost entirely junk – this is what is consistent with the view that creatures have evolved through a process of random mutation and selection

Since the mechanism of evolutionary change is based on genetic mistakes, evolutionists expect the genomes of certain species to be littered with useless DNA—essentially leftovers from the clumsy, unguided evolutionary process

A number of leading proponents of Darwinian evolution claim that “junk DNA”—the non-protein-coding DNA that makes up more than 95% of our genome—provides decisive evidence for Darwin’s theory and against intelligent design, since an intelligent designer would not have littered our genome with so much garbage

See, evolution is dead because it’s full of ideas about randomness and unguided evolutionary processes and genomes littered with garbage!

But here’s the new ID:

Denton presents a novel yet compelling vision of life on earth that modern biology has forgotten. He shows that the language of Darwinism, limited to adaptation and fitness, is bankrupt in the face of the most recent scientific knowledge.

See, evolution is dead because it’s limited to only talking about adaptation and fitness!

The authors of those old quotes are going to have to have their faces airbrushed out of the old official portraits, and may find themselves shivering in a gulag somewhere.

Nah, who am I kidding? Creationists have always been willing to swallow inconsistencies and contradictions. It’s in the Bible.


  1. says

    It’s not got anything to do with that our sense of beauty is also evolved in because it’s adaptive.

    I’d feel bad for them except they’re such liars. Which is funny – here’s the thing: in order to lie about evolution and creationism, you have to know you’re wrong. Which means they actually accept evolution as true because otherwise they wouldn’t lie about it.

  2. says

    Discovery Institute produces video packages and reading materials for Christian schoolboard members to give to their friends. If you are a scientist or give a fig about natural history or biology, you are not their audience, and nothing they say will ever make sense on those terms.

    DI is a think tank, which is to say, it is a resource for people who have already made up their mind about everything in contention.

  3. johnlee says

    This reminds me of Christopher Hitchens remembering his teacher telling her kids that God made grass green because it was pleasing to the eye.

  4. grumpyoldfart says

    Science is hard. Creationism is easy. People (including tens of millions of poorly educated Americans) will always prefer the easy option – so Creationism won’t be going anywhere in a hurry.

  5. Bernard Bumner says

    To this Brit, that accent sounds very affected. Certainly the cadence is odd.

    Did they assume that Attenborough derives his authority from his accent, rather than through his ability to synthesise well researched natural history to produce accessible, clear, and elegant narratives? Certainly, he doesn’t patronise his audience with plummy delivery designed to brow-beat them his audience by firmly letting them know who is their better.

  6. marcoli says

    Is it pronounced ‘ba-rock’ or ba-roak’? I thought the latter, but I am slightly philistine.
    Any-who, the example of the shapes of tree leaves is an interesting question, and i do not have a strong argument for why they have the diverse shapes that they do except that it is the result of a frozen accident, fixed after genetic drift in different lines near the establishment of different plant families. This will have do as a naturalistic explanation to the matter.

  7. monad says

    @6: Here’s a paper on the shape of tree leafs:

    To be short: since leaves are built out of parts in a regular way, they end up with particular sorts of shapes as emergent consequences. Similar to how they are arranged around a stem, which tends to give Fibonacci numbers just because that’s what happens when you pack things. It’s fascinating, but the only explanation needed is that they are trying to build some kind of structures, and these are the ones mathematics makes easy.

  8. parasiteboy says

    AFAIK, irreducible complexity was the only novel, testable hypothesis that ever came out of ID and it was proven wrong. Everything else is a criticism, misunderstanding or distortion of evolution.

  9. blf says

    parasiteboy@8, My understanding is there never has been a definition of irreducible complexity which could be tested, or even understood.

  10. EvoMonkey says

    This a slickly produced “Moments of Wonder” piece but made by people that believe their own BS. I wonder how much this cost to produce.

  11. Carl Muckenhoupt says

    This reminds me a lot of the jokes me and my friends used to tell, when the term “Intelligent Design” was new, about the theory of “Stupid Design”. The idea was that counter-adaptive biological features such as the blind spot in the human eye are evidence against “survival of the fittest”, and allow us to discern the mind of a creator who didn’t really know what he was doing and was probably in a bit of a rush. (Possible reason for the rush: procrastinating until six days before the deadline.)

  12. says

    @4 “Science is hard. Creationism is easy.”

    Eh, it’s easy to just see the world, accept what you see and come to reasonable, parsimonious conclusions. What’s hard is insisting that everything, from the large-scale structure of the universe to the configuration of a bird’s butt-feathers, must validate your moral and theological beliefs. And worse, you have to go to sleep with ulcers every night believing that if your children believe that a peacock’s butt-feathers have been arranged by contingency and natural selection, he’ll grow up to become a homicidal maniac.

    @5 Smart People Speak the Queen’s English.

    @10 It probably cost quite a bit, though what are you going to spend your money on, doing experiments, or making flashy Cosmos-knockoff videos? Observe the priorities.

    @8 I think the closest Behe ever came to suggesting an actual experiment that could falsify ID was, you could take a bacteria population, put it under selection pressure for motility, and after 10,000 generations if they started growing flagella, then ID would be disproved. In the first instance, this is a bad experiment because there’s no control, and because ID refuses to state how ID works, or place any constraints on what ID is, it’s impossible to control for the influence of the “Intelligent Agent,” the intelligent agency is basically whatever the IDer says it is. If you end up with bacteria with flagella, the IDer can just say that design influenced your population on the table-top.

    And when people actually did prove that bacteria were able to develop novel abilities under selection pressure, like metabolizing citrate, the IDers response was more or less this very argument. Some said Lenski was the designer, by imposing the pressure, therefore ID is true; others said it was impossible to prove God didn’t change his bacteria while he wasn’t looking, therefore ID is a totally valid assumption.

    Behe responded by writing a whole other book where he basically rejiggered his arguments to say that Lenski’s bacteria evolved but it wasn’t evolution enough to prove that ID never happens — just shifting the emphasis from the positive examples of “design” to the idea that the negative examples could never be exhaustive, there are “big” changes and “little” changes, and for certain values of “big,” natural selection cannot possibly be the cause. Today’s linked article is just more arglebargle along this line.

  13. says

    Apparently those idiots never considered the possibility of sexual selection, in which elaborate structures like a peacock’s tail evolved to attract mates. The females would assume that males with highly conspicuous features, making them vulnerable to predators, would be more able to survive. But Darwin himself did!

    Aren’t there laws against FRAUD in our societies?! Time to start enforcing them!

  14. says

    Didn’t Darwin himself point out that selection was not necessarily geared towards maximizing fitness? In fact, if I remember correctly, he wrote extensively on the subject of sexual selection…

  15. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I’m still waiting for evidence of the “pooferies”, where new species suddenly “poof” into existence, on the cue from their imaginary “designer” *snicker*. I suspect I’ll be long dead, and they will still not be able supply said evidence….

  16. Anisopteran says

    Marcoli@6: I’d say ‘ba-rock’ – but then I’m English too. I’ve often heard it pronounced ‘ba-roak’ by USAians though.

  17. philhoenig says

    @8, IIRC, Darwin himself in On the Origin of Species came up with the concept of Irreducible Complexity if not the term, saying something like that if there’s just one thing that could not have been made in small incremental steps, with each step being better able to survive, that would prove his theory wrong.

    The Discovery Institute isn’t even novel, although I suppose you could call them brave (And good scientists!*) to take up Darwin’s challenge.

    * Just forget about that whole equating “I can’t think of how it could happen” or “I find it hard to believe that could happen” with “It’s impossible.”

  18. says

    “Non-adaptive order”! Good luck to DI with making the case for that!

    In the meantime, I’ve taken this opportunity to refresh my ongoing list of the DI’s actual scientific accomplishments, the “Discovery Institute Discoveries: Detailed List by Year (DIDDLY)”. All up to date, through 2015 and the start of 2016!

    Should anyone care to peruse (it won’t take you long : ) :

  19. inflection says

    This especially gnaws at me as a mathematician.

    We should expect that random mutations will first give rise to simple systems, and then these simple systems will be recruited in increasingly elaborate ways, but generally in layers starting with simple interactions. Simple systems interacting according to simple rules will give rise to patterns and symmetries (the basic material of mathematics), which are exactly what people tend to find beautiful and ordered.

  20. parasiteboy says

    Behe did do a computer simulation with very restrictive parameters and he actually disproved his hypothesis. I remember this coming out around the Dover trial.
    Also I believe the E. coli experiments are done with out selection. IIRC they use the same liquid medium from one generation to the next and randomly move some to the next generation. They then test the populations every so often to see if they have evolved new characteristics.

    You seem to be right (as far as wikipedia can be trusted:). I guess even giving them a little credit is too much.

  21. chrislawson says


    “Irreducible complexity” was neither novel nor testable. The historical use of irreducible-complexity arguments goes back at least to Cicero, 45BC. And there has never been a testable hypothesis generated from the concept of irreducible complexity for reasons that, if you think about it, are obvious.

  22. Lofty says


    “Discovery Institute Discoveries: Detailed List by Year (DIDDLY)”.

    Every year they discover anew that there is no limit to the stupidity of their target audience.

  23. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I wonder how Dembski(?) is coming on his paper showing how to calculate the complexity of biological systems that he’s been working on since 2004? *snicker*

  24. parasiteboy says

    I was thinking along the lines of Behe claiming that flagella are irreducibly complex. Eventually biologist found examples of simpler less complex predecessors to the flagella and proved him wrong. But after thinking about it I can see them moving on to another system and then your playing whack a mole and it does become unfalsifiable.

  25. EigenSprocketUK says

    @Bernard Bumner #5 – yes, the accent sounds quite affected to me too. Robert Blythe (narrator) is that sort of old-school Welsh-trained-to-speak-the-Queen’s-English. Superb and distinct clarity.
    When it’s done well, the result is pure Richard Burton. But in this case it made me think of every trade show video which ever wanted to sound reliable and well-informed.
    For example: with his absolutely trustworthy consonants and those perfectly honest vowels, how could you resist buying this artisanal hard drive?
    I’m ordering one for my computer right now: my audio recordings will surely sound more symphonic; my writing will clearly contain better-pronounced vowels and more expensive-looking punctuation.

  26. zenlike says


    Please, please, tell me that’s from the tech equivalent of The Onion. Let me keep that last vestige in the believe that humanity can still be saved from its own stupidity.

  27. says

    Nope. They’re very serious. Take a look at the youtube comments — all 8 of them — everyone of them praises the video for its brilliance.

    Side note: where are all the MRAtheists who leap onto every video that mentions feminism positively? They’re usually lightning-fast about flooding those videos. The Discovery Institute must have someone working full time to police the youtube comments of all negative thoughts.

  28. says

    I agree with #21; but in the context of the post “And some elaborate fripperies can acquire a selective advantage, like that example of Soviet architecture…” should read: “Baroque”, no?

  29. Rich Woods says

    @EigenSprocketUK #30:

    But in this case it made me think of every trade show video which ever wanted to sound reliable and well-informed.

    Exactly! The last time I heard voice acting this contrived, it was being used to sell attack helicopters.

    (Don’t ask.)

  30. Bernard Bumner says

    @ EigenSprocketUK,

    When it’s done well, the result is pure Richard Burton. But in this case…

    Indeed! But now I’m running some of it through my head with the tone and cadence of Burton’s reading of Under Milk Wood. Suddenly, the Biology of the Baroque seems even more like a scabrous satire.