Report #1 on Questions to Calvert


I have had a short email exchange with John Calvert concerning the questions I have asked him in the past (See[…]/000893.html.) He did provide some short answers to the questions, but he didn’t give me permission to make his responses public, and he didn’t want to continue the discussion. Therefore, I will paraphrase his answers, with occasional short quotes.

One of the things he said was that he had a number of published works that one could consult to see his take on things. The problem with this response is that he thus avoids responding to criticism of his ideas. I know what his ideas are, because I have read his works: what I want him to do is subject his ideas to scrutiny - to listen to critiques, answer questions, and otherwise defend his views.

I asked two sets of questions, one on religion and “theistic evolutionists,” and the other on the “theory of Intelligent Design.” I’m going to discuss the “theory of Intelligent Design” questions here, and the religion ones in a separate post. Let me take the questions in reverse order of interest.

1. First, Calvert accepts an old-earth and the mainstream sequences and ages of organisms. He has said this before, and does not equivocate as some IDists do. (See[…]/000900.html at the Panda’s Thumb) This is interesting because a number of the creationist Kansas Board members and science writing committee are young-earthers, and Board president Steve Abrams definitely has some interest in asking young-earth questions about such things as the validity of radiometric dating.

2. In response to a number of questions Calvert says there is no current scientific answer. For completeness sake, these questions were:

2) *How* is the design implemented? What are the *mechanisms* by which the designer has caused its design concepts to be become actualized in the world?

5) What is the nature of the relationship between design and naturally occurring processes (law and chance)?

a) Can the designer design anything, biological or otherwise, or is the designer constrained in any way?

b) Is the designer active all the time, or only periodically?

c) Can the designer completely override the effects of law and chance, or does design interact with law and chance in ways that are beyond the designer’s control?

3. My question 3 asked this: “Exactly which phenomena have been designed, and which haven’t. Has design occurred once, a few times, every time a new species has arisen, or when?”, and then asked more specifically, “Is every act of speciation a designed event?, “ and “What happens when a new species (or whatever) is designed.”

Calvert doesn’t have answers to these questions, but he says that “serious design scientists” use (or would use) “statistical calculations regarding probabilities” and calculations of “the odds of major increases in complexity.” Of course, here is where merely pointing to his published works and declining further discussion protects him from the inevitable follow-up questions: what means of calculated these probabilities have been developed; and where, and in regards to what, have these putative “serious design scientists” employed these methods?

He does make some interesting remarks about speciation, twice saying that the definition of a species is an issue, and expressing doubt that speciation has ever been observed. He seems to say that speciation would occur in the “biological software,” by which I assume he means the genome. He then goes on to say that the “Darwinist” would explain this by random mutations, but that the design theorist might argue that those changes were directed and not truly random.

This brings up a number of comments and follow-up questions:

So is common descent true or not? What is the Intelligent Design theory on this? (I think the waffling on this topic is at least as great among creationists as it is on the age of the earth.) If the designers can guide mutations at the genetic level through a series of changes to create a new species, then how does this theory differ from “theistic evolution” which holds the theological view that God designs through evolutionary processes?

And if Intelligent Design does accept common descent, but renounces theistic evolution (which it does), what empirical means does Intelligent Design propose to substantiate the difference it and theistic evolution?

And if Intelligent Design denies common descent, what does it propose? If the designers can make new species without parent-child relationships with previous organisms, how do they do that? Do they create new organisms from scratch and then drop them into the environment, or do they create them de novo and materialize them into existence, or what?

Referring back to “previous published works” does nothing to answer these questions. Calvert and the Intelligent Design movement in general are ignoring obvious questions: if they were genuinely interested in science, they would be discussing these questions.

4. One of my questions was about human beings, where I asked,

6) In particular, how are all these questions answered in regards to human beings? At what time, and in what ways, were humans designed so as to be distinguished from earlier hominids, and in what ways is there an naturalistic, evolutionary connection via common descent with those earlier hominids?

Calvert didn’t answer this question, although he did say that the fact that intelligence arose quickly in humans didn’t fit the “gradual increase in complexity hypothesized by a Darwinian explanation.” This is the critical “speciation” question, and it’s very straightforward, but he won’t answer it.

But Calvert did make a puzzling remark here, and I will quote rather than paraphrase: “This question ignores the fact that the inference of design is a very limited claim. This question, as well as many of the previous questions presupposes a broader claim that is not being made and that likely goes beyond the data.”

What does this mean? What I think it means, based on what Calvert and others have written, is that all Intelligent Design claims to be able to do is to “detect design” without claiming to be able, perhaps even in theory, answer more specific questions such as I have been asking. This would mean that Intelligent Design would be pretty useless as science.

However, this “limited claim” fits right into the religious goal of providing a bridge to theology, to use a phrase of Dembski’s. Calvert alludes to this in his answer to the next question, which is

5. Who is the designer?

The standard Intelligent Design answer, which Calvert gives, is that we can’t tell - there isn’t any “signature or a copyright notice” on DNA. However, it’s perfectly OK for a person to theologically identify the designer with whatever God they prefer, but “the data does not permit a scientist to make that leap.”

But it’s not a leap if you’ve build a bridge, and that is the goal of Intelligent Design: to clear the ground of obstacles (to use another Dembski-ism) to the establishment of theism, specifically Christianity.

This is a fascinating subject, and several of us (especially Dick Hoppe and myself) have argued at ARN and ISCID that

a) any Intelligent Design hypothesis necessarily makes assumptions about the nature of the designers (which is different than their “identity,”) and that

b) if design is empirically detectable and part of science, then inferences about the nature of the designer becomes part of science also, and that

c) the evidence might just lead to the scientific conclusion (tentative but supported by the data) that the designers are limited in power, or impersonal, or a pantheon of multiple designers, or whatever.

The point is, once you build the bridge between science and theology, there is nothing to prevent you from walking across: you might open up science to religion but you then open up religion to science.

Does the Intelligent Design movement discuss this? Is Calvert interested in discussing all this?

Nope. They go through all sorts of contortions to try to claim that you can study design but not say anything about the designer. This is another place where they want to have their cake and eat it too (to badly mix my metaphors.)

[6]A humorous note.

At one point, Calvert favorably mentions that “A recent paper by John A. Davison, a professor of biology at the University of Vermont proposes that ‘the information for organic evolution has somehow been predetermined in the evolving genome in a way comparable to the way in which the necessary information to produce a complete organism is contained within a single cell, the fertilized egg.’” ‘Nuff said on that one.


It is ironic that Calvert and the IDnet make so much noise about having a public debate, and about scientists being dogmatic and close-minded about Intelligent Design. I think that I and others have demonstrated a number of times that we have thought more creatively about Intelligent Design as a scientific hypothesis than those in the Intelligent Design movement do.

So I leave Calvert or other members of the Intelligent Design movement a standing offer to address the questions I’ve raised.


I think you’re wasting your time. No matter what questions you ask, the answer is “It’s nothing but turtles, turtles, turtles, all the way down.” It’s a matter of faith, not logic, and minds closed that tightly can’t be opened by mere facts.

It’s not a waste of time. These people claim to be producing science, and complain that they’re ignored or actively repressed. It’s worth demonstrating that neither is true.


Yes, that’s the important point. They say they want to be heard and claim that the mainstream science world won’t listen, but when the mainstream world listens and critiques, they dismiss the criticism. Dembski is another clear example.

Also, of course I don’t expect to convince Calvert of anything, but people who read about these exchanges then see what’s going on - they see the lawyerly tactics.

I think, Jack, you missed a key question: Suppose ID research finally declares a phenomena designed without a reasonable doubt… so what? Get Calvert to detail for you how ID opens up new and exciting avenues of research after declaring something Designed. In particular, have him tell us how ensuing ID research would be substantively exclusive of or incompatible with mechanical/naturalistic hypotheses and theories. Or perhaps, Calvert is ready to declare ID as the final answer to everything that closes all avenues of scientific research permanently?

This seems to me to be the crux of the matter. Attaching merely a label to a phenomena does not a science make. What does the label inform us about the phenomena under investigation? Only in the light of what positive contributions ID can make does the rest of the interview really make any sense. Only by having Calvert explain to us how ID generates positive research, does it suddenly become clear that he has nothing substantive to offer other than the erroneous “It must not have evolved.” In particular, I honestly don’t care what specific ID facts Calvert has conjured up, I care about how he may conjure them. Say you even charitably grant him some hypothetical Design scenario. From the interview, can Calvert show us how to figure out how something was Designed? Can Calvert reveal how to determine when it was Designed? Can Calvert lay down a plan for searching who or what Designed it?

In effect Calvert’s refrain “there is no current scientific answer” really is quite a nonsensical answer. No wonder he doesn’t want to continue the interview. After all, ID proponents don’t agree with Science as it is practiced today (cf. Meyer and Nelson). So what does it mean that an ID proponent has no “scientific answer”? Does it mean that they don’t have any ID answers? or does it mean that they don’t have any answers that we would recognize as science? or perhaps it means that since current science has no answers, ID is just playing a waiting game? Once again, in order to evaluate any potential ID responses meaningfully, we need a positive statement regarding the framework of ID research, not the specifics of ID results.

I think the AMNH debate is a good model for critics of ID to adopt. I believe it was Pennock who asked Behe and Dembski to teach him how to be a “Design Theorist.” The exchange was memorable because of how Behe and Dembski fumbled with the question. Granted, Pennock was rather sarcastic in his application, but the underlying theme hits the nail on the head – if you have a brand new methodology that only you alone know how to apply, what good is it? I’d hope the human race has evolved beyond deponding on shamans and rituals to divine the revelations of gods.

Combatting ID is hard work because contemporary biology is located far uphill of common sense. Like every kind of human thinking, ideas about living things began in fantasies that were emotionally gratifying and conveniently simple. Since people naturally revert to this default case, ID folks don’t need to do very much in order to prevail.

Calvert Wrote:

This question ignores the fact that the inference of design is a very limited claim.

Indeed, the design inference does not even address the issue of designer and cannot even rule out natural processes as the designer. There are so many problems with ID and many of them so basic that it should be obvious to all that ID is not scientifically meaningful as formulated by the ID movement. And yet…

Christians will not be swayed by facts or logic. What part of “The Bible said it, I believe it, and my mind will never be opened” do you not understand? You might convince a few people who are on the fence, but the huge majority of Christians don’t even listen. If you show them evidence of the fallibility of the Bible, they just (figuratively) close their eyes, put their hands over their ears, and begin humming. Religion, from my experience, has nothing to do with facts, and if you’re truly religious, facts can, and should, be ignored. Thinking, reasoning humans aren’t religious, but not all humans think and reason. Most politicians, however, are highly pragmatic, and if you can convince them that they will lose money by passing a law, you can prevent its passage. IMO, that’s the way to deal with this issue.

We need to be concerned not only with the content, but also about the type of reasoning that “teaching the controversy” will promote. The sort of reasoning that Calvert himself illustrates in his replies is what I fear. This sort of reasoning is appropriate for rhetoric, but not for science. I classify it loosely as “sophomoric reasoning

lurker Wrote:

…can Calvert show us how to figure out how something was Designed?

To the surprise of all, the best I can come up with for doing that is identifying Design Intent. But that means that it’s Turtles All The Way Up.

At least I managed to work a form of the word “prescribe” into the screed.

The sort of people who boost these ideas are either dishonest and cynical, fearful and therefore stubbornly ignorant, or a combination of all the above. Sloth can be added to any of these catagories in varying amounts, as can dashese of actual sincerity (but only in the youngest, or completely unsophisticated, inexperienced cases). Years ago I began following this “debate” on the mainstream side, expecting to find a few fanatics, but more poorly informed people, generally of the “born-again” persuasion, and I wanted to understand them, and to have them at least comprehend what the TOE really was, and even why many non-scientists not only believe it to be accurate, but profoundly beautiful. After many years and a number of forums, I have come to a conclusion matching the one I have realized in dealing with American politics: the opposition is organized by completely unscrupulous people, many ignorant of everything but there own vanity and greed, leading a flock of wantonly ignorant, fear-filled fools, however nice a great many of them are on their own, away from the LCD and face-to-face with another simple human like myself.

It’s not cynicism I have, just a sort of baffled weariness.

Another thing that starts becoming clear: We need to get some real mathematicians and statisticians involved in running Dembski’s numbers. Several years ago, in his first book as I recall, Dembski had proposed an equation that suggested that evolution was statistically difficult at best. Paul Lucas had the good sense to try a few numbers and made an interesting discovery: One of the key equations had assumed that each creature had only one offspring, so when n was substituted with 1, the odds against evolution were pretty high. But if one assumed 2 as n, the odds for evolution starting looking very good. And if one assumed 4 offspring, the odds tipped in favor of evolution. If one assumed anything more than 4, the odds became almost certainty in favor of evolution.

I watched Dembski and Nelson (and Bohlin from Probe Ministries) yesterday at a presentation sponsored by a local religious group, and I was struck with their relative unfamiliarity with real biology. Bohlin trotted out the old saw about a guide in the Galapagos claiming only “God and Peter Grant can tell the difference between species of finch” in the archipelago (I wondered whether Bohlin intended to flatter Grant, or God, but I digress). Bohlin appears not to be much of an ornithologist nor even a casual reader of any bird guide. In answering a question about just what a “novel” body plan might be, Nelson mentioned bats, and then agreed under questioning that bats have nothing neally novel, different from humans.

But I’m equally at sea in statistics and math, and I suspect others are, too. These guys get by making fantastic and sometimes stupid claims about biology in most audiences because most audience members are not familiar with real biology.

In short, we need to check the numbers, especially any mathematics that IDists propose. Teach the facts first, check the numbers.

To a know nothing like Bill comes across as a tiger on paper but a mouse at the lectern. I have seen him on a TV debate with Eugenie Scott and Catholic priest (taped by I don’t know who). Bill looked as comfortable as one would be betetween a rock and a hard place. In a bout 5 minutes Scott had him almost blabbering about his science and soo after the Catholic minister had him beaten all ends up on religion. Bill D is best among fawning admirers where there is no accountability. In the Xripts of his debates with Ken Miller, he actually sounds very defensive. The very fact that Bill D is leading a charge against modern biology from the bully pulpit indicates that there is no scientific controversy whatsoever about the subject.

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This page contains a single entry by Jack Krebs published on March 25, 2005 10:49 PM.

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