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ID's Critics Engage in Motive-Mongering to Avoid the Evidence

By Casey Luskin

In August 2010, the creators of Salvo graciously invited me to speak at the University Club in downtown Chicago. After a short 40 minute presentation on the positive scientific case for intelligent design (ID), we opened up the floor to the audience.

Most of the inquiries led to serious and worthwhile scientific discussions. But one gentleman was confident he came armed with a "gotcha question" that would stump me. His challenge essentially boiled down to this: What about the 'Wedge Document'?

The Wedge What?

Salvo readers generally believe—quite rightly—that seeking truth requires merely following the evidence where it leads. As a result, they don't get bogged down in endless debates about personal motives or the religious (or non-religious) beliefs of scientists. At the end of the day, what matters is the evidence. Right?

For many ID critics, that's not right. In fact those who follow the ID debate closely are depressingly familiar with the fallacious distraction of the "wedge document."

While the "Wedge document" has no bearing on whether the information-rich molecular machines that underlie every living cell point to an intelligent designer, it's worth rebutting to help those who are seeking truth understand this debate

What is now called the "Wedge document" was originally a short fundraising packet compiled in the late 1990s by the pro-ID think tank Discovery Institute ("DI"). Like any good prospectus, it laid out the goals of the DI, centering around using pro-ID arguments to influence various branches of culture, including science, politics, education, and theology.

As the story goes, DI employed the services of a local copy store to duplicate the document. Some overzealous employees breached the store's duty to its clients by stealing a copy of the packet, which eventually led to it being leaked online.

When these events transpired, I was still taking G.E. courses in my undergraduate studies. But this much I can say for sure: Critics have been using the "Wedge document" ever since as a convenient excuse to dismiss ID without addressing its arguments.

"Go to Wikipedia"

"You can find it easily online," my self-assured challenger instructed me and the audience. "Go to Wikipedia and type in 'wedge document' and you can get copies of this thing. It says design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions."

"There are other things," he continued.

"Governing goals of the wedge: to defeat scientific materialism and its destructive, moral, cultural and political legacies. To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that humans are created by God. 20 year goals. To see design theory as the dominant theory in science."

Having patiently waited a few minutes for the gentleman to finish (he eventually did ask a question), I was ready to respond.

Denying nothing in the Wedge document, I started by thanking him for reading a section often omitted by ID-critics—the part which describes the long-term goal for ID to become an established, respected field of science. If one reads the Wedge document carefully, I explained, it makes it clear that every goal outlined is to be driven by scientific research.

But this was not enough for my friend who assured me and the audience that the Wedge document showed the "origins of the [ID] movement are theological in nature."

When objections are brimming with logical fallacies, multiple levels of reply are often necessary.

The Genetic Fallacy

The first level of reply is that this question commits the genetic fallacy, which attacks the origin of an argument rather than the argument itself.

The ID movement is a collection of scientists and other scholars with a wide variety of beliefs and backgrounds. Many—though not all—are Christians. There are also Jews, Muslims, and individuals of other faiths. Some notorious ID proponents are not even religious.

But all of this is irrelevant to whether ID is correct. The personal religious (or non-religious) views or motives of people in the ID movement do not determine whether their scientific arguments hold merit.

For example, consider the great scientists Kepler and Newton. They were inspired by their religious convictions that God would create an orderly, rational universe with comprehensible physical laws. Their ideas turned out to be right—not because of their religious beliefs—but because the scientific evidence validated their hypotheses.

The Origins of Intelligent Design

The next stage of reply corrects historical errors made by the challenger. The origin of the ID movement was driven by science, not theology.

The first arguments for design in nature were made by ancient Greek philosophers—smart guys like Plato and Aristotle. They were not Christians—in fact they pre-dated Christianity by hundreds of years. Fast forwarding a couple thousand years, the term "intelligent design" was used by mainstream scientists as early as the 19th century, long before the advent of the creationist movements.

The scientific discoveries that inspired the modern ID movement commenced in the 1950s and 60s when biologists realized that life is fundamentally based upon a non-material entity, information. The visionary chemist Michael Polanyi explained this in a 1968 article in the journal Science titled, "Life's Irreducible Structure":

"Whatever may be the origin of a DNA configuration, it can function as a code only if its order is not due to the forces of potential energy. It must be as physically indeterminate as the sequence of words is on a printed page."

While Polanyi predated the modern ID movement and was not pro-ID, in the ensuing years a number of credible scientists became convinced that the information in life required an intelligent cause.

The term "intelligent design" appears to have been coined in its contemporary scientific usage by the atheist cosmologist Fred Hoyle. In his 1982 book Evolution from Space, he argued that "if one proceeds directly and straightforwardly in this matter, without being deflected by a fear of incurring the wrath of scientific opinion, one arrives at the conclusion that biomaterials with their amazing measure of order must be the outcome of intelligent design."

Another early pro-ID scientist was Charles Thaxton, a chemist who in 1984 published a highly influential book, The Mystery of Life's Origin, which argued that life's information pointed to design. Soon thereafter, Thaxton served as academic editor for the first pro-ID textbook Of Pandas and People. In 2005, "Pandas" gained notoriety by being at the center of a lawsuit that sought to ban ID from public school science classrooms in Dover, Pennsylvania.

"I wasn't comfortable with the typical vocabulary that for the most part creationists were using because it didn't express what I was trying to do," stated Thaxton in his deposition testimony for the Dover trial. "They were wanting to bring God into the discussion, and I was wanting to stay within the empirical domain and do what you can do legitimately there."

Thaxton was never called as a witness by the Dover plaintiffs—perhaps because his testimony made it clear that the origins of ID stemmed from a desire to pursue science. According to Thaxton, he preferred ID's approach because it differed from creationism and made a strictly scientific argument.

Guided by Thaxton's scientific methodology, Pandas explains that "If science is based upon experience, then science tells us the message encoded in DNA must have originated from an intelligent cause." However, this early ID work cautions that "if we go further, and conclude that the intelligence responsible for biological origins is outside the universe (supernatural) or within it, we do so without the help of science." According to Pandas, ID's scientific approach doesn't go that far, for "All it implies is that life had an intelligent source."

From its earliest days, ID thus sought to avoid getting into religious arguments about the identity or nature of the designer.

This continues to be ID's approach. In his book Signature in the Cell published in 2009, Stephen Meyer argues that, "Though the designing agent responsible for life may well have been an omnipotent deity, the theory of intelligent design does not claim to be able to determine that."

But Is It Science?

In a segment of my talk unrebutted by the critic, I explained that ID uses the scientific method to make its claims.

The scientific method is often described as a four-step process involving observation, hypothesis, experiment and conclusion.

Like any good scientific theory, ID starts with observations of the natural world. ID theorists observe human intelligence to understand the types of information and structures produced when intelligent agents act. These observations have been used to construct a cause-and-effect relationship between intelligence and the origin of certain types of information. ID theorists observe that intelligent agents are the sole known cause of high levels of complex and specified information, or "CSI" (see Salvo 13 for a discussion).

ID theorists then hypothesize that if a natural object was designed, it will contain high CSI. A variety of experiments can detect high CSI. Mutational sensitivity tests ask how finely-tuned an amino acid sequence must be in order to generate a functional enzyme. Genetic knockout experiments can be used to determine if a structure is irreducibly complex—a special type of CSI where a system requires all of its parts to function.

Such experiments have been conducted by ID proponents on biological systems to conclude that some of them bear the hallmarks of intelligent design.

ID critics are welcome to disagree with this argument. But harping upon the religious beliefs of ID proponents won't change the fact that ID's methodology is scientific.

What's Sauce for the Goose

It seems clear that ID is grounded in science. But has theology played any role in the development and advancement of the ID movement? The third level of rebuttal to the "Wedge document" answers that question.

The short answer is "Yes, but so what?" The longer answer is rhetorically devastating to ID-critics.

Ignoring ID's scientific methodology, many critics argue that ID is not science due to the religious motives, beliefs, and affiliations of its proponents. With the "Wedge document" in hand, they trot out various quotes (some in-context, some not) discussing religious views of ID proponents.

These attacks against ID are not just logically fallacious, they're also highly hypocritical.

After all, what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Leading proponents of evolution have expressed stridently anti-religious beliefs and motives for advocating evolution, and have close ties to atheist and secular humanist organizations. If critics want to harp upon the religious beliefs, motives, affiliations, and implications associated with ID, then they should realize that the argument cuts both ways.

Of course the most notorious example is Richard Dawkins, who holds the duel-honor of being the world's most famous evolutionist and its most famous atheist. Formerly Oxford University's Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, Dawkins argues that belief in God is a "delusion" and that "Darwin made it possible to become an intellectually fulfilled atheist." Dawkins has stated his personal goal is "to kill religion," and in a speech before the American Humanist Association, he asserted that "faith is one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate."

America's great champion of evolution, the late Stephen Jay Gould, similarly announced that "[b]efore Darwin, we thought that a benevolent God had created us," but because of Darwin's ideas, "biology took away our status as paragons created in the image of God." Gould repeatedly discussed the "radical philosophical content of Darwin's message"—a materialist message which holds that "Matter is the ground of all existence; mind, spirit, and God as well, are just words that express the wondrous results of neuronal complexity."

Darwin's defenders sometimes claim that Gould and Dawkins are outliers in their views. If only that were so.

A 2007 editorial by the editors of the world's top scientific journal, Nature, stated that "the idea that human minds are the product of evolution" is an "unassailable fact," and thus concluded, "the idea that man was created in the image of God can surely be put aside."

That same year, a poll published in The Scientist by Cornell researchers William Provine and Greg Graffin found that 79% of evolutionary biologists surveyed were "pure naturalists" and strikingly, "[o]nly two out of 149 described themselves as full theists."

Provine and Graffin themselves squarely fit in the 'pure naturalist' category.

Provine has stated that "belief in modern evolution makes atheists of people" and asserts stark implications of Darwinian biology:

"Naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly. 1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent."

As for Graffin, this Cornell-trained evolutionary biologist is also a founder of the anti-Christian punk-rock band, Bad Religion.

But the materialist implications of neo-Darwinism are not just asserted by passionate university professors or rock stars. They are also found in textbooks.

The widely-touted theistic evolutionist biologist Kenneth Miller has written in five editions of his popular high school biology textbooks that evolution works "without either plan or purpose" and is "random and undirected." Two other versions of Miller's textbooks contain a striking discussion of the implications of Darwinism:

"Darwin knew that accepting his theory required believing in philosophical materialism, the conviction that matter is the stuff of all existence and that all mental and spiritual phenomena are its byproducts."

Likewise, my own college evolutionary biology textbook declared that "[b]y coupling undirected, purposeless variation to the blind, uncaring process of natural selection, Darwin made theological or spiritual explanations of the life processes superfluous."

Also noteworthy is the fact that top Darwin lobbyists have strong ties to secular humanist groups.

Eugenie Scott—called by Nature "the nation's most high-profile Darwinist"—is director of the leading pro-Darwin advocacy group, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). But Dr. Scott is also a public signer of the Third Humanist Manifesto. This "wedge document" for atheism is an aggressive statement of the humanist agenda to create a world with "without supernaturalism" based upon the view that "[h]umans are . . . the result of unguided evolutionary change" and the universe is "self-existing."

Another leading pro-evolution activist, Barbara Forrest, believes that philosophical naturalism is "the only reasonable metaphysical conclusion." Dr. Forrest sits not just on the board of the NCSE, but also on the Board of Directors of the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association.

Given these affiliations and implications, it's no coincidence that leading evolutionists are closely wedded to materialism. Harvard paleontologist and author Richard Lewontin explains how materialism is a key assumption propping Darwinian thought:

"[W]e have a prior commitment . . . to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to . . . produce material explanations . . . [T]hat materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door."

Even the leading Darwinian philosopher of science (and atheist) Michael Ruse admits that "for many evolutionists, evolution has functioned . . . akin to being a secular religion" whose main doctrine is "a commitment to a kind of naturalism."

So What?

Neo-Darwinian evolution is surrounded by a cloud of leading proponents with anti-religious motives, beliefs, and affiliations, who have plainly declared that their theory can have anti-theistic implications.

And they have every right to do this.

None of the quotes or observations listed above disqualify evolution from being scientific. Neo-Darwinian evolution is a scientific theory, and it should be studied in laboratories and taught in public schools.

In fact, since neo-Darwinism is a bona fide scientific theory, this shows that the religious or anti-religious motives, beliefs, or affiliations of scientists do not disqualify their scientific views from holding scientific merit. And the fact that some draw larger metaphysical implications from evolution simply shows that there's a difference between the implications of a theory and the hard data supporting it.

And that's the whole point: In science, religious or anti-religious beliefs, motives, affiliations, and larger philosophical implications don't matter. Only the evidence matters.

Hypocritically, many ID-critics eagerly apply this logic to exonerate evolution, but they refuse to apply it fairly to ID.

What About Francis Collins?

After presenting a shortened version of this argument to my challenger friend, his rejoinder was reduced to pointing out that there are proponents of evolution who are religious, whereas ID is supposedly uniquely affiliated with religion. In this typical response, he dropped the names of theistic evolutionists like Francis Collins and Ken Miller.

Logically, his counter-rebuttal fails because ID uses the scientific method to make its claims and we're back to the genetic fallacy. But he was also simply wrong about ID and religion.

Since ID does not have religious premises, there are leading non-religious advocates of ID. The famous atheist Anthony Flew announced in 2004 that "the findings of more than fifty years of DNA research have provided materials for a new and enormously powerful argument to design."

Likewise, in 2009 University of Colorado professor Bradley Monton wrote a book subtitled "An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design." Later that same year, Monton defended ID alongside agnostic David Berlinski in a debate where a theist and an atheist attacked ID.

Just as some evolutionists are religious, there are leading ID proponents who are not religious.

A Consonant Conclusion

The critic noted in his question that the Wedge document aims to "reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions."

Do those words condemn ID? Not if we're going to be fair. After all, for every Wedge document there's a Humanist Manifesto.

What is more, the word "consonant" doesn't mean "equivalent to," but rather means "in agreement with." Just as many materialists seek a science consonant with atheism, some theists seek a science consonant with their own worldview. The objection cuts both ways.

But most importantly, all this motive mongering is irrelevant; only the scientific data will decide who is right.

Pro-ID scientists should be able to stake out scientific positions without being judged on the basis of their private religious beliefs, motives, or affiliations. Moreover, their views should not be disqualified from being scientific if people interpret ID's scientific claims to have larger metaphysical implications. Unless, that is, evolutionists want their theory to be disqualified from being science.

They don't want that, and neither do I. The best solution for all is to stop talking about motives and start talking about the scientific evidence. But let the reader be forewarned: many ID-critics won't be willing to take this fair, truth-seeking approach.

Apparently some ID critics find it easier to live with hypocritical and logically fallacious arguments than to face the empirical data supporting intelligent design. •

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