Monday, February 13, 2006


The Times lambasts Intelligent Design

In this Saturday's edition of The Times (Feb 11th 2006) the Times' science correspondent, Mark Henderson, lambasts Intelligent Design theory in an article for the newspaper's 'body & soul' news section. The article is headed: 'Junk Medicine, Crteationism, How evolution can save lives'.

Mr Henderson begins by asserting: 'The creationist movement and its cloak of "intelligent design" theory, is usually seen in Britain as a pecularly American phenomenon.' He also seems rather irked by 'columns pushing intelligent design in The Daily Telegraph' (this is surely a reference to Stephen C. Meyer's recent op-ed piece, cf. and having made advocacy of a scientific theory seem like pushing drugs, he warns on this basis that 'creationism is seeking to establish a British foothold.'

I'd say that creationism already has something more than a 'foothold' in Britain (cf. Answers in Genesis)! Intelligent Design certainly is trying to establish a foothold in Britain (no British ID society exists, as yet...) - and why not? If it is really 'creationism' that Mr Henderson is worried about, let him take comfort from my recent experience advocating ID on Premier Christian Radio. A creationist phoned the show to say how frustrated she was that I wasn't advocating young earth creationism. She was particularly concerned to refer us to the early chapters of the book of Genesis (understood in her particular way). For my part, during the course of my debate with Peter Hearty of the national secular society and various phone callers, I never once so much as referenced, let alone attempted to draw any epistemic support from, a single verse of scripture! Intelligent Design theory is NOT a cloak for creationism. Creationists certainly can be ID theorists, but this is because ID is a 'big tent' rather than because ID is a cloak for creationism. If ID is supposed to be a cloak for creationism, it is doing an exceptionally poor job since ID defines itself as excluding epistemic support from any religious documents and as leading to a conclusion that underdetermines ones metapysical and religious commitments.

Creationism is rooted in assumptions about the correct interpretation of the biblical teachings about creation and attempts to demonstrate that a legitimate interpretation of the available scientific evidence bears out that scriptural interpretation. Young Earth creationism is wedded to such concepts as a 'recent' creation completed over the course of six 24 hour days throusands but not millions of years ago, a global flood, a literal Adam and Eve as the very first human beings, etc.

ID is rooted in two purely scientific claims, 1) that scientific tests for ruling in intelligent design as a best explanation for certain types of pattern exist and 2) that some things in the natural world pass these tests. Where is the 'creationism' here?

ID neither makes religious assumptions, nor leads to a religious conclusion. There are people who accept the conclusion of intelligent design without accepting that the bible is the word of God, or that there is even a God. After all, the metaphysical nature of the source of design is something about which science can offer very little guidance. One could accept ID as a Platonist, or a Raelian, or a polytheist. One could chalk up the design to angels or demons or aliens or time travelling human genetic engineers, or to Frank Tipler's emergent 'Omege Point'.

Astronomer Fred Hoyle made similar arguments to those made by ID theorists for the conclusion of design, but although he argued that the evidence pointed in the direction of a 'non carbinacious intelligence', and although he noted that this falsified Darwinism and left the theological explanation given by the likes of William Paley in the running with a chance of being right, he did not embrace that explanation himself. ID certainly offers grist for philosophical argumentation aimed at supporting a belief in God, but to make such arguments one must leave science behind for philosophy and bear in mind David Hume's sound points about the theological limitations of such arguments.

Mr Henderson begins to make his point about medicine by observing that:

'It is impossible to understand biology, and therefore medicine, without a good grasp of evolution.'

But as Professor Steve Fuller testifies:

'as a matter of fact, reference to the claims of Darwinian evolution is unnecessary for the conduct of the vast majority of contemporary biological research…Neo-Darwinism functions more as a disposable ‘made for export’ world-view than a code of professional conduct.'

Fuller quotes historian of science Nicolas Rasmussen:

'As a point of fact most biologists do not know, and do not need to know, much about evolutionary theory. It is unlikely that any of the life sciences deriving their basic logic from experimental physiology (including molecular genetics, classical genetics, biochemistry, pharmacology, etc.) would have to change its ways substantially in a Lamarckian or even Creationist world. Anatomical fields (including cell biology, if it does not fall under the physiological) are just as theoretically independent, as is ecology, insofar as they concern themselves with short time frames. Arguably, even systematics and paleontology might go on much as before without evolutionary theory.'

Rasmussen observes that less than 10% of the articles published each year in the journals included in Biological Abstracts are devoted to evolutionary theory: ‘At the very least,’ comments Fuller, ‘such a finding suggests that the status of evolutionary theory may be debated safely without worrying that its refutation might undermine the rest of biology.’If there is a sense in which evolution is the central unifying concept of biology, this is only because it is currently the unifying paradigm within which ‘normal science’ takes place; a fact that does not mean evolution necessarily deserves such a status.

Mr Henderson attempts to press home his point with reference to the importance of evolution to understanding infectious diseases like MRSA, which show natural selection in action. However, not even young earth creationists deny the sort of mirco-evolutionary change involved in such examples. Talking about the necessity of evolutionary explanations for mutating pathogens is besides the point, because the point is the legitimacy of the massive Darwinian extrapolation from such examples of evolution in action to a totalizing 'macro-evolutionary' explanation. Intelligent Design theory does not deny any of the science which Mr Henderson extolls as having 'Its importance... proven at the coalface of medical research, where creationism has contributed, and can contribute, absolutely nothing.' Indeed, ID is beginning to contribute to medical research...

Mr Henderson says that cancer is the result of an 'evolutionary trade-off' between the ability of tissues to repair themselves and the possibility of uncontrolled cell division. However, that looks like an engineering trade off to me - there is nothing specifically evolutionary about this example. It's as if I were to observe that car crashes are an 'evolutionary' trade off between the possibility of automated mobility and the possibility for uncontrolled mobility this provided... Meanwhile, ID theorist Dr Jonathan Wells has authored an article 'Do Centrioles Generate a Polar Ejection Force?', published in the peer reviewed journal Rivista Biologia, which uses the ID hypothesis as a guide to cancer research:

Abstract: A microtubule-dependent polar ejection force that pushes chromosomes away from spindle poles during prometaphase is observed in animal cells but not in the cells of higher plants. Elongating microtubules and kinesin-like motor molecules have been proposed as possible causes, but neither accounts for all the data. In the hypothesis proposed here a polar ejection force is generated by centrioles, which are found in animal cells but not in the cells of higher plants. Centrioles consist of nine microtubule triplets arranged like the blades of a tiny turbine. Instead of viewing centrioles through the spectacles of molecular reductionism and neo-Darwinism, this hypothesis assumes that they are holistically designed to be turbines. Orthogonally oriented centriolar turbines could generate oscillations in spindle microtubules that resemble the motion produced by a laboratory vortexer. The result would be a microtubule-mediated ejection force tending to move chromosomes away from the spindle axis and the poles. A rise in intracellular calcium at the onset of anaphase could regulate the polar ejection force by shutting down the centriolar turbines, but defective regulation could result in an excessive force that contributes to the chromosomal instability characteristic of most cancer cells. (my italics)

Wells's article is available from the journal's publisher in Italy:

Or you can download the PDF

Mark Henderson is wrong when he says that ID is a cloak for creationism (because ID excludes essential creationist assumptions and conclusions by definition), wrong when he says that creationism and ID undermine medicine by denying evolution (because they simply don't deny the relevant type of micro-evolutionary explanations), and wrong when he implies that ID has not and cannot contribute anything to medical research (because it already has).

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