What is Intelligent Design Creationism?

Obvs, he did it.

Obvs, he did it.

Larry Moran discusses some apologetics from Jonathan McLatchie, in which McLatchie briefly argues for intelligent design. I think the fact that it’s in the context of Christian apologetics already gives away the store, but at least he gives a succinct definition of intelligent design:

The study of patterns in nature which bear the hallmarks of an intelligent cause

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An unintelligent Intelligent Design creationism quiz

Larry Moran has been given a quiz to test our comprehension of Intelligent Design creationism. Unfortunately, it was composed by someone who doesn’t understand ID creationism but merely wants everyone to regurgitate their propaganda, so it’s a major mess, and you can also tell that the person writing it was smugly thinking they were laying some real traps to catch us out in our ignorance.

Larry has posted his answers. I’ve put mine below the fold (I sorta subtly disagree with him on #2). If you want to take a stab at it untainted by our answers, here’s the original quiz, untainted by logic or evidence, so you can view them in their pure naked ignorance.

Also, another thing: the person who composed the quiz clearly expected simple yes/no answers, yet wrote questions that demand explanation. Yet again, the idiocy of the IDiots is exposed. I’ve actually troubled to explain my answers.

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Behold! The Legendary Intelligent Design Creationism Research Laboratory!

The Discovery Institute released a video of one of their stars, Ann Gauger, explaining the flaws in “population genetics” (I put it in quotes because it wasn’t a description of the field of population genetics that any competent biologist would recognize). Larry Moran points out the errors.

But then, someone noticed something else: the video was fake. It was Ann Gauger, all right, talking in a “lab”. Again, the quotes are because she was actually talking in front of a green screen, and a stock photo of a lab was spliced in behind her. Oops. It adds comic absurdity on top of the egregious errors in her babbling.

But of course that’s exactly what the DI wants. They can’t answer for the stupidity of her comments, but they can wave their hands and shout, “We do too have a lab! A real lab! And it’s sciencey and everything!” Because, after all, when you’re doing cargo cult science, the props are all important, and the substance doesn’t matter.

So, yeah, the indignant DI released a real photo of their real lab, with Gauger gazing at a petri dish. And here it is:


Errm, are we supposed to be impressed? I could give you an equivalent photo of a few shelves in one of our student labs — it would look similar, just messier. A petri dish, a few orange-top bottles, a small hood in the background—all they needed to make it really sciencey were a few bubbling bottles of colored water. D. James Kennedy did a better job in “Darwin’s Deadly Legacy”.


See? Now that’s a lab!

But seriously, the furniture does not make the lab — the work being done in it does. When you think it matters that you can pose with a petri dish, you really are doing cargo cult science.

Intelligent Design creationism is fundamentally wrong

Via Sandwalk, this is a clip of Paul Nelson praising Jonathan Wells and his godawful gemisch of bad scholarship and lies, Icons of Evolution. They were making a big to-do over the ten-year anniversary of publication of this ghastly hackwork, and here Nelson is piously praising the premise.

It’s infuriatingly dishonest. Notice what he repeats over and over: the textbooks “diverge from the actual evidence,” they’re “out of touch with the actual evidence,” we “need to take these standard stories back to the evidence.” This, from the Discovery Institute, a propaganda mill with no evidence for their fantasies about design at all. There is such an egregious disconnect between what Nelson says and what he and his cronies do that I half-expected his sanctimonious head to explode. If you’re an intelligent design creationists, you do not have the privilege of hectoring others about evidence.

Furthermore, he’s spewing this nonsense in praise of Icons of Evolution, a book to which honesty and evidence are words in a strange foreign language…yet Nelson claims the message of that book is that textbook authors need to be “scrupulous about accuracy” — and yet those scruples are never applied to Wells, and further, Nelson is more than a little self-serving here: he is co-author on another awful DI production, Explore Evolution, which is little more than a warmed-over edition of Icons, and which has also been panned in reviews.

And then Nelson says the “response was much more hostile than I would have guessed.” He claims the hostility was because they were airing “dirty laundry,” which is simply wrong. The hostility derived from the fact that it was an appallingly bad work of misrepresentation and misleading innuendo, all on the service of an intellectually bankrupt theology.

On top of Icons of Evolution and Explore Evolution, Wells rehashed the same lies again in The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. It’s become obvious that the Wells has gone dry: he’s simply repeating the same errors and phony arguments over and over again. This is not a man or work that warrants praise, but only condemnation and contempt.

In the past, I’ve focused on one specific issue that Wells repeatedly brings up, the idea that Haeckel’s embryos are some kind of ongoing problem for evolution. There are a lot of articles on Pharyngula on this subject, but I’ll just point to this one omnibus summary of links to articles on Haeckel and Wells, and briefly explain the nature of this ‘controversy’. There is a 19th century observation, made by multiple scientists and easily replicated today, that embryos go through a period called the phylotypic stage (and in vertebrates, called the pharyngula stage), in which species within a phylum exhibit a remarkable degree of similarity to one another. This is simply a fact: stop by my lab and I can pull out a series of slides of birds and mammals and reptiles and fish and show you how they all exhibit a set of characters, the presence of a tailbud and pharyngeal arches and somites and so forth, that are the hallmark of this relatively well-conserved stage. Now in the 19th century, Haeckel over-interpreted them to postulate a recapitulation of evolution within the development of an embryo, an idea now known to be false; Wells strategy has always been to point to an obsolete and falsified explanation for the similarities to argue that the evolutionary relationships are untenable. It’s a sleazy sleight of hand. Recapitulation theory is not in any way endorsed any more, but the similarities at the phylotopic stage are undeniable…yet Wells condemns any textbook that even shows photos of embryonic similarities.

That’s the central problem here. We have a phenomenon, the similarities between embryos at one stage of development, for which the creationists have no explanation, so they’re reduced to frantically denying the phenomenon. This isn’t the way science should work. The phenomenon is real; that these common similarities between embryos is better explained by common descent than by design may make creationists uncomfortable, but what a scientist should do is find an answer, not try to wave the problem away (or worse, accuse everyone who has seen these similarities as guilty of fraud).

I’d go further than to argue that the creationists are trying to hide data that defies their ideology. They’re trying to bury something that is almost paradigmatic of juicy, exciting science. There are a couple of properties of significant scientific questions that I consider emblematic of exactly the kind of work that is of great value.

  1. It has to address a universal phenomenon. The problem of phylotypy isn’t representative of all of life by any means, but it seems to be a near-universal within the animal kingdom. Why do organisms as diverse as insects and mammals exhibit this morphological bottleneck in their development? It’s a great question; it doesn’t deserve to be swept under the rug as the creationists would like to do.

  2. It has to be a non-trivial problem. Trying to figure out exactly what is going on in phylotypy isn’t easy, because the current best hypotheses all involve interactions within complex gene networks, not the most tractable problem, and solving it will require both comparative and computational tools. It’s the complexity of the subject that makes it both challenging and rewarding to solve.

  3. One thing guaranteed to spur interest if the postulated mechanisms are controversial. Proposed mechanisms for phylotypy are non-Darwinian: they involve selection for intrinsic properties of networks of developmental genes that establish large scale properties of embryonic patterning. Notice that it isn’t anti-Darwinian, or the creationists would be happy with it; the mechanism fits within the context of our understanding of evolution, but extends it somewhat to include conservation of a kind of sophisticated, modular array of genes that work together to build the body plan. It’s not just the alleles that matter, but the connections between them.

  4. Maybe I should have mentioned this one first. A key quality of good science is that it is doable — we have to be able to sit down and do measurements and experiments. Truth be told, a lot of ordinary science doesn’t engage the first three principles I listed above as much as it permits the rapid and routine collection of data. The phylotypy hasn’t been quite so tractable, and to move beyond a kind of morphological phenomenology that has characterized much of the work so far, requires comparative analysis of large dataset of developmental gene expression data. Until recently, that kind of information simply hasn’t been available.

I used the past tense there: that data hasn’t been available. But that’s changing fast now with new techniques in molecular and developmental biology, and later today I’ll summarize a couple of beautiful recent articles that have revealed some of the underpinnings of the phylotypic stage. The creationists weren’t just wrong, they’re on the wrong side of history, and day by day they are bing shown to be increasingly far off base.

A brand new stupid argument for Intelligent Design creationism

Cruel, cruel readers. Everyone is sending me links to this recent episode of The View, in which four women babble inanely about something or other. In this case, it’s evolution. Do you people like to see me suffer? This was horrible.

OK, Whoopi Goldberg is wishy-washy, rather than stupid: she argues for some vague kind of deistic intervention at the big bang, then evolution is the mechanism for creating life. Elisabeth Hasselbeck, though…allow me to paraphrase. ‘Really cool handbags and shoes have, like, designers, so really cool people must have a designer, too, even greater than Gucci and Prada.’

Oh, wait…that’s not new. That’s the same old argument the ID creationists have made all along.

Here. The rest of you can suffer and despair of humanity now, too.

Another rhetorician for Intelligent Design creationism

Jason Rosenhouse has an exhaustingly exhaustive report on a lecture by Thomas Woodward, in 4 parts (here are parts 1, 2, 3, and 4). Woodward has written a book defending ID, and is going around the country giving testimonials to his faith. As is common with these folk, he also did a little prophesying.

Woodward closed by setting the date for the end of Darwinism’s reign as the dominant paradigm at …wait for it…2025. Later he suggested that it might be within ten years that evolution as we know it suffers a decisive failure. And then he predicted a severe nosedive for evolution in the next six to twelve months as Behe’s book soaks into the public consciousness.

I am reminded of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who prophesied the end of the world in 1874, 1878, 1881, 1910, 1914, 1918, 1920, 1925, and 1975. The millennial catastrophe did not arrive, but also…the Jehovah’s Witnesses did not fade away with their failures. I am not anticipating any sudden resolution of the evolution-creation pseudo-controversy in either 2017 or 2025.

The atheist dilemma

There is no evidence for gods. It really is that simple. That is not proof that there are no gods, but it does imply that we ought to be cautious and limited in our interpretations of supernatural explanations — do not multiply the number and magnitude of unevidenced entities in your explanations of observed phenomena. It is genuinely easy, in an intellectual sense, to be an atheist, while believing in any gods is outrageously difficult because it requires positing an extremely complex root cause for everything with no supporting observations at all (in an emotional sense, it’s the reverse: it can be comforting to short-circuit the difficult path to knowledge by simply saying that “God (whatever the heck that is) did it.”)

But here’s the problem: how do you get that across to the majority of believers? And even more fundamentally, why should you bother? The argument is that if someone believes in UFOs or Jesus or that the Earth is flat, they aren’t hurting anyone else, and we atheists, as human beings, also all hold personal beliefs that might not be true — are atheists who like Justin Bieber wrong? — but again, if they aren’t hurting anyone else, so what? Do we have an obligation to be silently tolerant, or do we have an obligation to speak out?

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They don’t understand logic or science

The Discovery Institute is still singing the same tune. It’s revealingly tone-deaf, too. David Klinghoffer champions falsification as a key strategy, and he doesn’t even understand it.

Want to falsify the theory of intelligent design? Here’s one way.

Show with a convincing computer simulation – no cheating allowed — that the infusion of biological information in the Cambrian explosion could occur absent the intervention of a guiding intelligence: artificial life in a variety as we see in the Cambrian event, but without design.

He starts out with an interesting proposal: falsify his favored theory. That’s how science works. We propose a hypothesis, and then we batter it about trying to find the flaws and identify tests that would evaluate whether our proposal actually works. I read that and thought that finally we were going to see a testable claim about Intelligent Design creationism.

No such luck. Read the next sentence, and he isn’t taking a critical look at ID creationism: he announces that we have to come up with a test to prove our theory is possible. That isn’t a falsification test! It’s the opposite of falsification — we have to prove every detail of evolutionary theory is true, or he gets to claim his bullshit idea is true.

Wesley Elsberry takes on the bizarre infatuation of creationists with binary models. This is good stuff.

There is nothing in falsification about how validating some other concept makes a concept false. This is a popular misconception in antievolution circles, though, as one finds this particular mistake in the output of various high-profile “intelligent design” creationists. It is a long-running misconception, a zombie pseudoscience if you will, as I was pointing this out directly to William Dembski and Michael Behe at a conference in 2001, and it continued to put in appearances from them later.

One might wonder why IDC advocates have such trouble with this. I think that it follows from confusing and conflating their “two-model” worldview with an actual concept in philosophy. The “two-model” view was a component of “scientific creationism” that has propagated through the various renamings that have followed it. The “two-model” view states that there are only two possible models, creationism or evolution, and evidence against one is evidence for the other. In other words, that one’s likelihood of belief in one can be bolstered by reducing one’s likelihood of belief in the other. Or, putting it in the terms that likely led to the confusion, the falsity of one model attests to the truth of the other. This whole notion is rank nonsense, and has been exposed as rank nonsense for decades. For example, Francisco Ayala, as a witness in the McLean v. Arkansas case in 1981 was questioned about the soundness of the “two-model” view by an unfortunate lawyer named Williams. Ayala said, “Surely you realize that not being Mr. Williams in no way entails being Mr. Ayala!” Judge Overton in his decision also noted the inherent problems with what he termed “a contrived dualism”. This was referenced in the Kitzmiller v. Dover decision as well, where it was noted that the same erroneous argumentation had been carried forward to that case.

I also take exception to creationist’s constant focus on “computer models”. Computer models are useful tools for assessing some ideas, but they’re no substitute for real data…especially when the events you’re pursuing are not simple, and have a million different equally valid ways of producing a result. Again with the binary thinking: Cambrian evolution will not be described with a “yes” or a “no”.

I’m also going to call shenanigans on his assumptions. The Cambrian was not an “event”. It was a long, multi-million year series of events, and it was driven by multiple phenomena. There was the pre-Cambrian bioturbation revolution, in which the evolution of worms with hydraulic skeletons drove massive turnover of nutrients in sediments; there was the gradual increase in atmospheric oxygen, which made more energetic organisms possible; there was a long history of evolution of animal lineages before the Cambrian that set the stage with breadth and depth of diversity. How do you “simulate” all that on a computer? And why bother, because you know creationists like Klinghoffer will simply reject any result that shows an increase in complexity without an infusion of biological information (whatever that means) as cheating?

Most importantly, no one with any sense or competence would carry out such a simulation to falsify creationism, an endeavor with no reward, since they’ll just move the goalposts as they always have.

Tom Wolfe’s magic combo move

Here’s a formula for seeming wise: take two complex, deep topics that are individually the domain of specialists, and that may be unfathomable to the general public. Combine them in some arcane way; you can trust that the set of experts who understand both topics will be minuscule, so you’ll be able to get away with a lot of nonsense, because experts in A will be impressed with your knowledge of B while thinking you don’t know squat about A, while experts in B will be vice versa. The classic example of this strategem is Velikovsky, who blended expertise in Middle Eastern mythology with astrophysics. Astrophysicists thought his flying, colliding planets that ignored conservation of energy were ludicrous nonsense, while gosh, there sure are a lot of provocative ancient texts talking about astrophysics, while classical scholars were shocked at all the liberties he was taking with history, but gee whiz, that physics stuff is impressively daunting. Meanwhile, the people who nothing about either were applauding him as a genius.

We have another example, and unfortunately, it’s the brilliant writer Tom Wolfe. He has taken his dilettante’s understanding of two subjects to attempt to fuse them: in this case, linguistics and evolution. One would think those two would complement each other nicely, but not when the author’s preconceptions are simply stuck in human exceptionalism, and his arguments are all about ‘proving’ his assumptions correct, no matter how false they are. And, most unfortunately, it leads him to conclude not that his understanding of linguistics is deficient, but that evolution must be false.

There’s absolutely nothing like it [speech], and I think it’s time for people who are interested in evolution to say that the theory of evolution applies only, only to animals.

He’s also not worried that creationists will love this, because, he says, there’s there’s not a shred of whatever that depends at all on faith, on belief in an extraterrestrial power. Ah. So intelligent design creationism it is, then.

You might want to take a look at this wonderfully entertaining review of the book. It’s an ahistorical mess — Wolfe claims that Darwin was obsessed with proving that human speech was derived from animal sounds, for instance, and that the whole idea of examining the evolution of speech was discarded after Darwin, until Chomsky. He not only gets the history of evolution wrong, he mangles the history of linguistics.

Speech, Mr. Wolfe says triumphantly, gave our species “the power to conquer the entire planet,” “the power to ask questions about his own life,” the power to control other human minds—“a power the Theory of Evolution cannot even begin to account for . . . or abide.” “Speech! To say that animals evolved into man is like saying that Carrara marble evolved into Michelangelo’s David.”

And here my pen dropped onto the bonded-vinyl flooring. I stared at the page with a slack, dopey expression. I scratched my fuzzy head. I just did not understand. Even if speech were entirely due to culture, why is this some sort of victory over evolution? Why the boosterish chest-thumping? No biologists think that the great creations of our species— Mozart’s symphonies, Katsura Villa, the Mahabharata, integral calculus—were due to natural selection. None believe that today’s languages evolved from some unknown ape tongue. Meanwhile, everyone who accepts evolution at all—including, I had thought, Mr. Wolfe—knows that the larynx evolved over time, as did the pharyngeal cavity, motor cortex and the rest of the mechanism of speech. Geneticists have turned up a library of genes involved in language. Zoologists have found that animal sounds are more complex than previously believed (most are “non-Markovian,” in the jargon). To all of these people, the arrival of language is not a matter of abrupt on-and-off, like a light switch, but more a subtle accumulation, like a dimmer switch. Co-evolution, as Darwin hand-waved at the beginning. But even if there were an exact line to draw, as Mr. Wolfe contends, why would shifting it here or there reflect better on our species? Why does it matter whether Mr. Wolfe used a product of nurture or nature for his razzle-dazzle prose? Either way, it’s all his.​

It’s all very sad. Wolfe will use his considerable talents at writing to successfully peddle nonsense to the public, doing harm to public education, giving me yet another line of babble to refute which will be smugly thrown at me for the next several years, and the only gain will be that Mr Wolfe will be able to buy a few more white suits while his bullshit rises on the NY Times bestseller lists.

Man, maybe I ought to do some retirement planning. What two subjects do I know very little about (that part’s easy, most of the subjects), but can profitably merge to sound innovative and insightful? Everyone goes for the obvious one, quantum physics, so I think that’s played out. Hmm. Photonics and immunology? Gravity and time travel? Indian cooking and renewable energy? I’m sure all I have to do is find the right catchy combo, and then I’ll be on all the talk shows.

Mike Pence, creationist

In 2001, a French anthropologist discovered some very interesting specimens in West Central Africa: the skulls of some 6-7 million year old apes that showed some chimpanzee-like features and some human-like features. He called it Sahelanthropus tchadensis.

In 2002, Mike Pence used the bully pulpit of the house of representatives to denounce Sahelanthropus and the entire theory of evolution, in a pointless exercise of flouting his ignorance. Why, I don’t know; perhaps he thought he could use a scientific discovery to somehow legislate against science? The performance has been caught on video.

It’s an extended riff on the “just a theory” argument, revealing that he doesn’t understand what a scientific theory means. He cites the 1925 Scope trial as the moment where this mere “theory” was legislated into the classroom and taught as fact; wrong. The Scopes trial was the result of a law that tried to prohibit teaching evolution, the side of science lost the case, and the theory has been taught in classrooms ever since because it is the best-supported explanation of the history of life. And evolution is a fact — life has not been static, but species change over time.

Then he claims that we all remember our classrooms illustrated with that linear portrayal of humans evolving from little monkeys to Mel Gibson. Well, I’ve been teaching for 30 years that that linear sequence is wrong, and that evolution is all about branching descent, which is also, as it happens, how Darwin thought about it (that popular Time-Life illustration is a true curse on evolution education).


But I also challenge Pence on his claim that this portrayal was ubiquitous in classrooms. I had a public school education, in the liberal stronghold of King County, Washington, and never once heard the word “evolution” pass the lips of my teachers. What I learned about evolution before college I got from sneaking into the “Adult” section of the local public library, because this was a subject they didn’t even allow children to read about.

Pence reads about Sahelanthropus and claims to be surprised, that this represents a new theory that human evolution was taking place all across Africa and on the Earth. Uh, what? He also criticizes it because the textbooks will have to be changed, because the old theory of evolution…is suddenly replaced by a new theory.

I really want to play poker with Mike Pence. The astonishment on his face when the second hand dealt to him is different from the first will be something to behold. He will be aghast that the rules of poker get changed with every deal.

And then he gets to his point. Every theory is equivalent. We ought to also teach the theory that the signers of the declaration of independence believed — that humans were created by a creator. The Bible tells us that God created man in his own image, male and female he created them, and I believe that. He also thinks that scientists will come to see that only the theory of intelligent design provides even a remotely rational explanation for the known universe. Alas, scientists have scrutinized intelligent design explanations for a century or two now, and have generally found them to be useless crap.

It’s clear. Mike Pence is not only a babbling loon, but he’s a generic Biblical creationist who sees Intelligent Design creationism as a loophole to smuggle his religious ideas into the classroom. He’s wrong about virtually everything in that pompous little speech.

He’s lucky in one thing, though: he’s got Donald Trump boldly distracting most of the media from making any noise about Mike Pence’s incompetence and ignorance. Even without Trump, I don’t want this goober anywhere near high office.