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Dembski: “Moving On” from ID



From William Dembski’s new blog, for November 9th:

In the last few years, my focus has switched from ID to education, specifically to advancing freedom through education via technology. All my old stuff on ID is on the present site (it was previously at, which is no more), and can be accessed by clicking on “Design” in the main menu.

I still have a few ID projects in the works, notably second editions of some of my books (e.g., NO FREE LUNCH and THE DESIGN INFERENCE). I regard BEING AS COMMUNION: A METAPHYSICS OF INFORMATION (published 2014) as the best summation of my 23-years focused on ID (the start of that work being my article “Randomness by Design” in NOUS back in 1991).

I’m happy for the years I was able to spend working on ID, but it’s time to move on. I’ll be describing my new endeavors on this new blog.


Last March Tom English and I posted an argument here here at Panda’s Thumb analyzing an argument by William Dembski, Winston Ewert, and Robert Marks. They had made an argument that evolutionary “search” would not do better than blind search; we proved that their argument showed no such thing.

In response to our analysis here of the Dembski-Ewert-Marks paper, Winston Ewert has replied at Evolution News and Views. As that site does not allow comments, I have finally gotten around to posting a response here (six months late). Tom has now put up a related thread at The Skeptical Zone; I will try to comment in both discussions.

Ewert rather dramatically reveals that Tom and I do not actually disagree with any of the theorems in their paper. And he’s right about that. How did they discover this remarkable fact? Perhaps it was by reading our post, where we said

We’re not going to argue with the details of their mathematics, but instead concentrate on what in evolutionary biology corresponds to such a choice of a search.

or by reading a comment in that thread where I also said:

As theorems they may be mathematically true, but the average poor performance of searches is true only because so many irrelevant and downright crazy searches are included among the set of possible searches.

Ewert is right that we did not question their theorems. Instead we concentrated on what would follow from their theorems. We showed in a simple model that once there are organisms that reproduce, with genotypes that have phenotypes and fitnesses, that evolution will find higher fitnesses much more effectively than random guessing. So is it true that having what they call Active Information, embodied in a fitness surface and in a reproducing organism whose genotypes have those fitnesses, requires that there be Design Intervention to set up that system?

The issue is not the correctness of their theorems but, given that they are correct, what flows from them. Dembski, Ewert, and Marks (DEM) may object that they did not say anything about that in their paper.

We don’t think that it is a stretch to say that DEM want their audience to conclude that Design is needed.

Let’s look at what conclusions Dembski, Ewert, and Marks draw from their theorems. There is little or no discussion of this in their paper. Are they trying to persuade us that a Designer has “frontloaded” the Universe with instructions to make our present forms of life? Let’s look at what Dembski and Marks have said about that (below the fold) …

(edited to add a point on Aegirocassis and Parapeytoia)

This week, the Discovery Institute Press put out another book called Debating Darwin’s Doubt. I took one for the team and bought it, in part because a a decent chunk of the book is responding to me. I’m pretty sure I’ve never been mentioned so much in a book!

Sadly, though, looking through it, almost all of it is material re-hashed from the DI “Evolution News and Views” blog and is no better than it was the first time. There is, however, a new chapter (I think it is new) by Casey Luskin, chapter 9, “Cladistics to the Rescue?” responding to me. If you don’t want to buy the book, there is a free podcast at ID the Future (heh), “Debating Darwin’s Doubt: Casey Luskin on Classification of Organisms” that interviews Luskin (although I think he wrote the questions). It has mostly the same material.

Unfortunately, I do not have time at the moment to write the introductory-level-tutorial-from-square-one that would be required to really explain the basics of cladistics and phylogenetics to Luskin et al. I have literally just moved to Australia to start as a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) Fellow in the Division of Ecology, Evolution, and Genetics, Research School of Biology, at The Australian National University in Canberra. Once I have a bed and a computer in my office I may be in better shape to do things more thoroughly – I have a bit of a fantasy about writing an R vignette or R package called something like BasicPhylogeneticsForCreationistsEspeciallyLuskin (I’ll take suggestions on a better name/acronym).

However, below, I can briefly hit the high points on the small bit of Luskin’s chapter that was new.

I have got to stop following links in e-mails from AIG. Today I read the most bizarre article by Dr. Danny Faulkner, an astrophysicist who must have slept through his celestial mechanics courses. Dr. Faulkner discusses the leap second that will be added at 23:59:59 UTC (GMT) on June 30. He notes correctly that the rotation of the Earth is slowing down, and the moon is consequently drifting farther from the Earth. He then observes,

Finally, there is a long-term secular (non-periodic) slowing in the earth’s rotation caused by the tidal interaction of the earth and moon. As the earth slows its rotation, the moon spirals away from the earth. Therefore, in the past the earth spun more rapidly and the moon was much closer to the earth. Direct computation shows that the earth and moon would have been in contact about 1.3 billion years ago. Even a billion years ago the moon would have been so close to the earth that tides would have been a mile high. No one–including those who believe that the earth is far older than a billion years–thinks that tides were ever that high or that the moon and the earth touched a little more than a billion years ago.

However, since the earth and moon are only thousands of years old as the Bible clearly indicates, the long-term change in the earth-moon system is no problem. Indeed, what we see in the interaction between the earth and moon offers powerful evidence that the earth and moon are young.

I do not know the nature of the “direct computation,” but I would bet that it is based on the radius of the moon’s orbit increasing at a constant rate. Not obviously a good assumption; an article from Cornell University (which has a scientific reputation at least as distinguished as that of AIG) notes,

The exact rate of the Moon’s movement away from Earth has varied a lot over time. It depends both on the distance between the Earth and the Moon, and the exact shape of the Earth. The details of continents and oceans moving around on Earth actually change the rate, which make it a very hard thing to estimate. The rate is currently slowing down slightly, .…

Worse, look at Dr. Faulkner’s statement that “the earth and moon would have been in contact about 1.3 billion years ago.” An absolutely remarkable statement from a person who purports to have a PhD in physics and astronomy! Has he never heard of Roche’s limit? Roche’s limit is the smallest radius that a large satellite can maintain without being torn apart by tidal forces caused by the gravitational field of the main planet. According to NASA, Roche’s limit for the Moon is about 20 000 km, so I can assure Dr. Faulkner that the Earth and the Moon have never been in contact – not 1.3 billion years ago, not ever. When the Moon was formed, it had to have been formed outside Roche’s limit, and then it drifted away from the Earth at a rate that is not a constant and therefore not amenable to simple calculations.

Modern astronomy is not threatened, and the Earth is not young.

You can read it for yourself here. But, for my money, Mr. Kopplin exposes Gov. Bobby Jindal’s inner hypocrite with these too kind words:

“I mean, who knows? I could be totally wrong, and maybe Jindal believes this [creationism] with his whole heart. Which is more why I go back to what his kids are learning. I had their seventh-grade biology teacher at [University Laboratory School] where I went for middle school, and I know she doesn’t just teach evolution–she’s absolutely obsessive about it. If Jindal actually was a creationist, I think he’d have a much bigger problem with his kids being taught what evolution is.”

Mr. Kopplin, who is on the verge of graduating from Rice University,

has continued to beat the drum on what he views as the erosion of public schools. He has broadened his focus to include the governor’s voucher program, which diverts state money to religious schools that question evolution and openly discriminate against students who violate their moral code. … And Kopplin has expanded his push to Texas, where he discovered that students at the state’s biggest charter school network were being taught that the “sketchy” fossil record undermines the theory of evolution.

The Washington Post reported the other day that Justice Antonin Scalia, in a commencement address, said,

Humanity has been around for at least some 5,000 years or so, and I doubt that the basic challenges as confronted are any worse now, or alas even much different, from what they ever were.

I suppose that “at least 5000 years” gives you some wiggle room, but I would hardly call, say, 200,000 years “at least 5000 years.” That is a bit like saying, “The trip from Boulder to New York is at least 20 kilometers.”

Jerry Coyne, who is much nicer than I am, thinks that it might have been “just an offhand remark that’s been blown out of proportion.” Well, maybe, but I watched most of the speech on Professor Coyne’s website, and I could not help but notice that Justice Scalia was reading that text: he did not misspeak.

Justice Scalia dissented in Edwards vs. Aguillar, but he seemed more concerned with whether the legislature intended creation “science” as a religious doctrine than with its scientific merit. He also supported the “balanced treatment” argument to the effect that students who learn evolution are entitled to the opposing view as well. His argument was well reasoned but depended on the assumption that creation science is not a religious doctrine if its supporters think it is not.

Contrary to some reports, Justice Scalia did not say, “The body of scientific evidence supporting creation science is as strong as that supporting evolution”; rather, he was paraphrasing the testimony of witnesses and states explicitly “that I by no means intend to endorse its accuracy” but that “what is crucial is not [the legislature’s] wisdom in believing that [a certain secular] purpose would be achieved by the bill, but their sincerity in believing it would be” [italics in original].

Still, Justice Scalia generally comes across as an authoritarian, uncomfortable with ambiguity and guided by literalist interpretations. If he takes the Bible as literally as he takes the Constitution, then it is easy to see that he might well believe in a young Earth. I hope I am wrong and Professor Coyne is right.

adam-and-eve-cast-out-of-paradise-after-eating-from-the-tree-of-knowledge-in-the-garden-of-eden.pngI would like to introduce everyone to James Downard, and his website Troubles in Paradise (TIP). TIP is available at or

James Downard is an activist with decades of experience tracking the creationists, stretching back to encounters with Stephen Meyer in Washington state in the early 1990s. In 2010, he did a guest post for PT, “An Ill Wind in Tortuca”, available at:[…]wind-in.html

Troubles in Paradise is a massive review of the creationism/ID movement, its people, and its arguments, along with a similarly massive review of relevant scientific evidence and literature. TIP primarily covers the movement up to about 2004, which of course was just about the peak of the ID movement, leading up to the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover case.

I think it is extremely valuable to the pro-science community to have such a historical review available: the ID movement actively tries to conceal what it was saying pre-Kitzmiller, and of course the “intelligent design” label itself was an attempt to disguise connections to creation science. (And, “creation science,” particularly the whitewashed version put forward for the Edwards v. Aguillard case, was its own attempt at obscuring connections to religious fundamentalism.) (On this, see especially: Matzke, N. (2009), “But Isn’t It Creationism? The beginnings of ‘intelligent design’ and Of Pandas and People in the midst of the Arkansas and Louisiana litigation.” In: But Is It Science?: The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy, Updated Edition, eds. Pennock & Ruse, Prometheus Books, 377-413; google Scholar)

Today in 2015, it is not uncommon for commentators new to the creationism/ID debate to start producing writings almost totally ignorant of the history of the issue. Hopefully Downard’s effort will help correct this problem, and will serve as a resource that science fans can link to and cite.

Troubles in Paradise is really several books’ worth of work, so if you’ve ever gone to the bookstore and bought a science book, please think about making a similar donation so that Downard can continue his efforts.

Below, I post Downard’s short description of the project, which includes a Q & A email interview I conducted with him, and links to his GoFundMe page, Please reblog, retweet, and spread the word! PS: James Downard’s Twitter is: @RJDownardNick Matzke


Short description of Troubles in Paradise, by James Downard:

Welcome to TIP, a new open access resource for defenders of sound science who get really unsettled by the claims of antievolutionists (be they Young Earth Creationists or the newer brand of Intelligent Design) but may not have all the best science information ready to drop on their claims.

The TIP files (all in pdf format) cover all aspects of antievolutionism (from paleontology and biology to the social and political ramifications of antievolutionism as they play out in schoolrooms and school boards or in state legislatures, Congress, or even candidates for President.

The Old TIP files form the base of the project, drawing on over 5500 sources, and step by step I am updating that material with a much larger set of newer data (over 36,000 sources and counting, including over 14,000 technical science sources aimed at claims popping up in over 6000 antievolutionist works) to keep TIP constantly current. The new modules also have an index to help locating all specific topics and people covered.

There are more pdfs & offsite web links in Other Stuff, including the 3ME illustrated guide to the Cambrian Explosion, and the origin of birds and mammals, the perfect heavy brick to lob at antievolutionists who make the mistake of claiming “there’s no evidence for macroevolution.” 3ME not only shows how wrong that is, it also pulls back the curtain to see just how antievolutionists manage to evade all that evidence (not a pretty picture, but has to be done).

Check out all the material here on TIP, all open access to download and share freely with anyone you think needs evens stronger evidence to counter the claims of antievolutionists.

Q & A with James Downard:

Q: Why did you decide to call your project “Troubles in Paradise” (TIP)?

Anyone who relies on the Supreme Court to guarantee that creationism will not be taught in public school or that the Ark Park’s threatened lawsuit will necessarily fail might want to read an article by Erwin Chemerinsky in the January 1 issue of The Washington Spectator. In that article, which I take to be a longish abstract of his book, Chemerinsky argues that the Court has generally not lived up to its “lofty expectations” and indeed has more often “upheld discrimination and even egregious violations of basic liberties.” The Chemerinsky article does not appear on the Spectator website, so I will abstract it very briefly below the fold.
Update, January 5, 2015. The article is now available here, so you may read it for yourself and not take my word for what Chemerinsky says.

On August 14, William Dembski spoke at the Computations in Science Seminar at the University of Chicago. Was this a sign that Dembski’s arguments for intelligent design were being taken seriously by computational scientists? Did he present new evidence? There was no new evidence, and the invitation seems to have come from Dembski’s Ph.D. advisor Leo Kadanoff. I wasn’t present, and you probably weren’t either, but fortunately we can all view the seminar, as a video of it has been posted here on Youtube.

It turns out that Dembski’s current argument is based on two of his previous papers with Robert Marks (available here and here) so the arguments are not new. They involve considering a simple model of evolution in which we have all possible genotypes, each of which has a fitness. It’s a simple model of evolution moving uphill on a fitness surface. Dembski and Marks argue that substantial evolutionary progress can only be made if the fitness surface is smooth enough, and that setting up a smooth enough fitness surface requires a Designer.

Briefly, here’s why I find their argument unconvincing:

  1. They conside all possible ways that the set of fitnesses can be assigned to the set of genotypes. Almost all of these look like random assigments of fitnesses to genotypes.
  2. Given that there is a random association of genotypes and fitnesses, Dembski is right to assert that it is very hard to make much progress in evolution. The fitness surface is a “white noise” surface that has a vast number of very sharp peaks. Evolution will make progress only until it climbs the nearest peak, and then it will stall. But …
  3. That is a very bad model for real biology, because in that case one mutation is as bad for you as changing all sites in your genome at the same time!
  4. Also, in such a model all parts of the genome interact extremely strongly, much more than they do in real organisms.
  5. Dembski and Marks acknowledge that if the fitness surface is smoother than that, progress can be made.
  6. They then argue that choosing a smooth enough fitness surface out of all possible ways of associating the fitnesses with the genotypes requires a Designer.
  7. But I argue that the ordinary laws of physics actually imply a surface a lot smoother than a random map of sequences to fitnesses. In particular if gene expression is separated in time and space, the genes are much less likely to interact strongly, and the fitness surface will be much smoother than the “white noise” surface.
  8. Dembski and Marks implicitly acknowledge, though perhaps just for the sake of argument, that natural selection can create adaptation. Their argument does not require design to occur once the fitness surface is chosen. It is thus a Theistic Evolution argument rather than one that argues for Design Intervention.

That’s a lot of argument to bite off in one chew. Let’s go into more detail below the fold …

By David MacMillan.

8. New perspective. I think there are several different varieties of creationism activists. Some are obsessed with the presumed negative effects of evolution and secular humanism. Some are driven by suspicion for science and the certainty that a conspiracy must be afoot. Some use creationist apologetics to make themselves feel smarter and better-informed than the general public. Some are genuinely interested in science and want to know the truth.

I’d be lying if I said my motivations for arguing creationism were firmly in the last camp. I wasn’t much of a conspiracy theorist, but I certainly believed that there were inevitable negative consequences from the acceptance of evolution. I was definitely stuck-up about my “special” expertise. But deep down, I really did want to know the truth about the world. I loved being right, but I loved learning new things more.

By David MacMillan.

7. The religion of evolution.

The final set of creationist misconceptions about evolution surrounds its supposed religious, moral, and ethical implications. These objections prove difficult to address, simply because they have little or no objective basis and are almost purely philosophical or religious. This section will concentrate mostly on explaining the relationships and connections between these arguments, as systematically refuting them would delve deep into philosophy and theology and is far beyond the scope of a single post.

By David MacMillan.

6. Genetic evidence.

Revised July 4, 2014.

Perhaps one of the clearest and most obvious confirmations of evolution is the convergence between the evolutionary paths of descent determined by fossil evidence and the phylogenetic tree generated by algorithms analyzing genetic information. Because the tree of universal common descent is real, not invented, it leaves the same fingerprint in every part of nature that life touches. Matching trees can be found in global fossil distribution, in analysis of skeletal morphologies, in chromosome length, count, and banding, and in numerous common genetic sequences.

Not every genetic sequence yields a perfect branching tree. Evolutionary theory would not predict perfect branching trees, because random mutations scramble the relationships over time. Even though mutations provide the variation needed for diversification, their accumulation throughout that diversification can eventually obscure the evidence needed to reconstruct those relationships.

By David MacMillan.

5. Evolution of evolution.

Most creationists believe that the theory of evolution was developed out of an ideological commitment to explaining life apart from God. Explanations of the history of evolutionary theory often point out personal struggles in the lives of prominent scientists – Darwin most often, of course – in support of this belief. “Secular scientists wanted a way of explaining a world that didn’t require God, so they invented this ridiculous theory.” To creationists, this foundation offers an easy way of dismissing all the theoretical and observational bases of evolution. If evolution is just wishful thinking born of anti-theistic extremism, then all the “evidence” is reduced to ad hoc speculation.

Because of this misconception, creationists rarely understand the actual history of how geology, paleontology, and biology built upon each other to provide us with our understanding of the world. Mainstream geology emerged significantly ahead of Darwin’s work; many early geologists were Christians. Studying the distribution of rock layers around the globe allowed geologists to construct a complete geologic column and begin appreciating the incredible amount of time the column represents. Moreover, the regular progression of extinct species fossilized throughout the geologic column had been well-catalogued.

By David MacMillan.

4. Transitional fossils.

One of the most common and most frustrating creationist objections to evolution is the claim that there are no “missing links” or “transitional fossils” required by evolution. This claim is made without qualification, particularly in presentations to lay or church audiences. As unthinkable as it might seem, creationists really do believe that transitional fossils simply do not exist. On this basis, they conclude that evolution must be false.

They maintain this completely erroneous view by consistently misrepresenting what a transitional fossil actually is. Creationists don’t deny that Archaeopteryx, Pakicetus, Tiktaalik, Australopithecus, and similar prominent examples of transitional fossils exist; they rather argue that these are not “true” transitional fossils.

si-JulAug2014.jpg I’ve a brief new article in the new Skeptical Inquirer (July/August 2014) regarding Casey Luskin’s botched attack on the second episode of Cosmos. Here it follows - your comments are welcomed.

Fox TV’s Seth McFarlane has joined with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s widow and collaborator, to continue Sagan’s marvelous Cosmos series of decades ago. The new series is a splendid blend of homage to Sagan’s original one with dazzling new graphics–and new discoveries.

The second episode of the series, first broadcast March 16, 2014, covered evolution and natural selection. (Link) As expected, creationists were furious. The main promoter of “intelligent design,” Seattle’s Discovery Institute, has run several anti-Cosmos blogs on its Evolution News and Views (ENV) website.

In their zeal to attack Tyson and the Cosmos series, however, the Discovery Institute has created a stunning example of the straw man logical fallacy. This fallacy is so named because it involves attacking one’s opponent not by an honest dissection of his or her actual views but by attacking a caricature, a distorted misrepresentation of those views. The Discovery Institute’s attack on the evolution episode of Cosmos was a particularly egregious example of this fallacy–a straw man for the ages, as it were.

By David MacMillan.

3. You don’t evolve, your species does.

Creationists often conceptualize evolution as something which is purely vertical: successive changes from parent to child to grandchild to great-grandchild accumulating over time. They can hardly be faulted for this misconception, because this view seems to be shared by the general public and even reinforced by the sometimes-imprecise explanations and depictions of evolution by museums and science educators.

Evolutionary adaptation, however, does not happen in a straight line from parent to child. Rather, adaptation takes place throughout a population as different genetic sequences spread outward from parents to all their offspring and are recombined and reshuffled in many different individuals each successive generation. Evolution is wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. It is the combination of changing genetic material across an entire population that makes major evolutionary adaptation possible; without this constant mixing and recombination from the entire population, evolution would grind almost to a halt. Evolution is a phenomenon that functions not at the level of the individual, nor at the level of individual lineages, but across the entire population within the species (Figure 1).


Figure 1. This hypothetical example depicts evolutionary change as an emergent property of the entire population. Both the “ABC” combinations (in shades of blue) and the “XYZ” combinations (in shades of red) offer a survival advantage and are passed on, while combinations of the two (shown in shades of purple) are detrimental and are removed from the population. No specific mutation order is required; as long as the selection pressure remains steady, the mutations accumulate together (essentially “finding” each other) and two separate genotypes emerge.

By David MacMillan

2. Variation and adaptation

The majority of modern creation science freely admits the existence of biological variation, adaptation, and speciation. Indeed, the recent-creation model – particularly the belief that all extant life descended from a small group of “kinds” present on Noah’s Ark which diversified into all families on Earth after a global flood – requires enormous adaptive variation and near-constant speciation. Creationists estimate that fewer than 10,000 pairs of land-dwelling, air-breathing animals on the Ark diversified to represent all families alive today. There are around 6.5 million land-dwelling species today, so millions of speciation events would have needed to take place over the past 44 centuries since their global flood.

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Apparently not at Bryan College (yes, that Bryan) in Dayton, Tennessee (yes, that Dayton), according to an article in yesterday’s Times. The college, founded in 1930, requires faculty to sign a statement agreeing to certain reactionary views on creation and evolution, including, “The origin of man was by fiat of God,” according to the article by Alan Blinder.

Several months ago, the college added a “clarification” to the effect that Adam and Eve “are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life-forms,” according to Blinder. There is a ray of hope, however: “Hundreds” of students out of a student body of approximately 700 petitioned the trustees and opposed the clarification. Two faculty members filed a lawsuit, arguing that the college charter does not permit the trustees to change the statement of belief. A biology professor, Brian Eisenback, called the clarification “scientifically untenable” and accepted a position at another Christian liberal arts college in Tennessee.

Others argue that a college is not a church and should not prescribe doctrine, but the trustees are determined to enforce their policy. The president, Stephen D. Livesay, noted

But this is Bryan College, and this is something that’s important to us. It’s in our DNA… [my italics].

I trust that I am not the only one who finds that allusion uproariously funny.

This novel by Lauren Grodstein is about Andy, a once promising biology professor now languishing in the tenure-track of a third-rank university in New Jersey. Andy teaches a course nicknamed There Is No God, whose principles are these:

1: Evolution is the explanation for everything

2: Darwin is right

3: And people who don’t believe Darwin are wrong

That is about right, at least to first order and as far as biology is concerned, but naturally such an explicit statement is bound to attract attention. Indeed, it attracts the attention of Lionel, a Campus Crusade type who has received permission to take Andy’s course for a second time in order to make a case against Andy. More importantly, as it turns out, Lionel sets Andy up by encouraging another student, Melissa, to ask Andy to mentor her in a reading course on intelligent-design creationism. Andy resists but finally gives in, with predictably dire consequences.

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