Monday, December 19, 2005

A second-rate evolutionary biologist

Richard Dawkins has published a guest article in Newsweek”

I’ll quote and comment on a few of the things he has to say.

“But a spider doesn't know how to make a web as a fisherman knows how to make a net. Spider genes are a recipe for legs, muscles and spinnerets, together with a brain whose wiring diagram causes it to manipulate muscles in such a way that a web automatically results. The spider presumably knows nothing of webs or flies, any more than you knew how to build yourself during your nine months of unconscious gestation.”

Yes, that’s all true. And how, again, is this an argument against intelligent design?

If it takes personal intelligence for a fisherman to make a net, but it doesn’t take personal intelligence for a spider to make a net, then where is the intelligence coming from?

To take a different comparison, it takes a pilot to pilot a plane. Or the plane can operate on autopilot. But that takes intelligent design. Or you can have a remote-control operated model airplane.

In each case, intelligence is indispensable. It’s just a case of whether the intelligence is proximate or remote.

“Genes literally don't know anything, but in a powerful sense they store knowledge about environments from the ancestral past. They "know" about their environment in the special sense that a key "knows" the lock that it uniquely fits.”

Except that both the key and the lock were designed to intermesh.

“This coded information fosters the illusion that organisms were designed precisely for their environments. Think of the uncanny resemblance of camouflaged insects to the background on which they sit.”

It takes an intelligent observer to appreciate the survival advantage of camouflage.

“Several factors conspire to make the natural illusion of design persuasive, complex and often beautiful. ‘Arms races’ between predators and prey, or parasites and hosts, drive the perfection of evolutionary adaptation to spectacular heights.”

This is the second time in as many paragraphs that he has used the word “illusion.”

“Above all, the illusion of design depends upon the gradual accumulation of small improvements, escalating to levels of complexity and elegance that could not conceivably be achieved in a single lucky step. We are rightly incredulous of any suggestion that biological complexity could spring suddenly from primordial simplicity in one generation. But it is easy if each step of a gradual progression is derived from its immediate predecessor which it closely resembles. That, in a phrase, is why evolution can so brilliantly explain life, where neither chance nor design can.”

i) This is the third time in three consecutive paragraphs that he has used the word “illusion.” When a creationist appeals to the illusion of apparent age, he is accused of special-pleading.

ii) Neither the young-earth creationist nor the ID-theorist is imputing to evolutionary theory a quantum leap from primordial soup to biological complexity in a single generation.

iii) It is easy “if” each step of a gradual progression is derived from its immediate processor.


a) Does the fossil record present a stepwise progression from primordial soup to biological complexity?

b) Have lab experiments been able to replicate a stepwise progression from primordial soup to biological complexity?

Even if they had, that would be cheating. It would require intelligent design.

c) What about the evolution of interdependent systems?

“Disingenuously, intelligent-design advocates try to disguise their religious motives by claiming that the designer's identity is left open.”

Do they? I thought the ID-theorist treated the intelligent designer as an inference from the data rather than a presupposition.

“Intelligent design works as a short-term proximal explanation of cameras and cars, prize roses and poodles. But it is fatally flawed as an ultimate explanation for anything, because it miserably fails to answer the $64,000 question: who designed the designer? That is not a frivolous debating point. It looms menacingly and fatally over the case—such as it is—for intelligent design.”

“You can roll the regress back if you wish, to a designer of the designer. But sooner or later you are going to have to forswear what the philosopher Daniel Dennett calls "skyhooks," and employ a solidly founded crane. The only natural crane we know is natural selection, and I have no doubt that if life exists elsewhere in the universe it will turn out to be, in the broad sense, Darwinian.”

“To the extent that creationists allow their un-evolved supernatural designer to have sprung into existence ab initio, they should allow natural agents the same dubious privilege. Intelligent design is not only bad science; it is bad logic, bad philosophy and even—as my theologian friends point out—bad theology.”

i) Why does appealing to God invite a vicious regress, but appealing to natural selection does not invite an infinite regress?

ii) Natural selection presupposes life, does it not? Natural selection is not an explanation for the origin of life, is it?

iii) In classic Christian theology, God did not come into being. Dawkins is trying to compare a timeless state of being (the existence of God) with a contingent process of becoming (the event of life on earth). They are disanalogous at the fundamental point of comparison.

“A second-rate mathematician, a mediocre biochemist, a born-again retired lawyer and a Moonie have somehow succeeded in elevating themselves, in the eyes of influential but ignorant politicians, rich benefactors and duped laymen, to near parity with the entire National Academy.”

i) If the ID-theorist is both mistaken and incompetent, then it should be a simple matter for Dawkins to prove him wrong.

ii) Is Dawkins a first-rate scientist? He’s not a Nobel Laureate. He’s not even a working scientist, that I’m aware of.

Instead, he’s the “Professor of the Public Understanding of Science.”

So he doesn’t do science, he merely writes about it.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this, I'd read some of this guys comments in a recent Discover magazine wherein he was called "Darwin's Rottweiler", I also noticed that he had a startling lack of scientific credentials but simply a rabid wit.

    That said, I don't like "ID"... I think it presents the same 'god' that evolution presents, a nameless, faceless god quite different than the one from Scripture... but that's a different debate.