Book review: Debating Design (Dembski/Ruse ed.)

Note from author: As with most of my reviews this is a work in progress, I will update the posting with additional chapter reviews as I finish reading them.

Debating Design : From Darwin to DNA by William Dembski (Editor), Michael Ruse (Editor)

Introduction to the book by Ruse and Dembski

My review at Amazon review: “Not much of a debate”

While the title suggests that there would be a balance in arguments the anti-Darwinian arguments totally lose out against an overwhelming team of experts. Ruse, Ayala, Sober, Pennock and Miller methodically address the flaws in the scientific and philosophical arguments presented by the ID proponents. The ID proponents such as Dembski, Behe and Meyer mostly seem to be repeating old arguments while ignoring the main criticisms against their ideas.

Despite this, the book presents some interesting contributions. As a scientist and Christian I was particularly pleased with the contributions of Haught, Polkinghorne, Ward and others in part III “Theistic evolution” showing how evolution and divine Providence need not be at odds.

John Haught’s “Darwin, Design and Divine Providence”, explains the main reason why Intelligent Design proponents so strongly oppose Darwinism and why they are wrong. Surprisingly it is based on the same argument that some evolutionists use to ‘disprove’ religion. Namely the idea that “Darwinism renders the notion of a divine Providence implausible”. This is an interesting observation which may help explain the strong anti-Darwinism found in ID proponents. While many admit that God (oops, the designer) could have used Darwinian evolution, most seem to reject this based on theological grounds. In other words, rather than being a scientific movement, ID is far more a theological movement. This helps one to understand why ID was quickly to abandon the efforts of teaching of intelligent design in favor of the teachings of ‘the controversy’. While little real controversy exists, this allows for a ‘wedge’ for ID to get its message across. Haught’s contribution offers a refreshing insight into why Darwinism can be theologically acceptable. In “God after Darwin” Haught observed that

“A God whose very essence is to be the world’s open future is not a planner or a designer but an infinitely liberating source of new possibilities and new life. It seems to me that neo-Darwinian biology can live and thrive quite comfortably within the horizon of such a vision of ultimate reality.”

Haught shows convincingly how Darwinian evolution does not inevitably entail a materialistic philosophy and that the theological notion of Providence is different from the idea of Intelligent Design. Haught thus argues that evolution and divine Providence are compatible. In fact the ultimate love (God’s Providence) can only be found in the contingency of life, free of ant predestination or rigidities. Haught’s chapter is a must read for scientists and Christians.

Ayala’s argument in “Design without Designer: Darwin’s Greatest Discovery” is very similar to Ruse’s namely that teleology in nature is the expected outcome of the processes of evolution which include natural selection. Thus the appearance of teleology by itself is not sufficient to infer intelligent design. In other words, even if we can infer design, we cannot exclude “natural selection” as its designer. One of the earliest people to point out this limitation in Dembski’s argument was Wesley Elsberry.

In “DNA by Design? Stephen Meyer and the Return of the God Hypothesis” Pennock addresses many of the claims by Meyer and shows why they are without much merit. Pennock points out the ‘cut and paste’ approach of Meyer in which old arguments, even after been shown to be erroneous, end up in later publications (especially in publications that are not peer reviewed such as newspapers). Pennock not only shows that the anti-Darwinian implications of the Cambrian explosion are mostly “blown out of proportion” (pardon the pun), but also that ID proponents fail to present much of a scientific argument in favor of their own claims. Questions which remain unanswered include “what about phyla which arose after the Cambrian? Where they also ‘designed’?”, “what about the species that arose since the explosion such as us humans?”

Elliott Sober in “The Design Argument” shows what is wrong with the philosophical and logical foundations of the “intelligent design” argument as proposed by Dembski. By showing that there is no probabilistic equivalent to the “modus tollens” argument, Sober shows how the foundation of the design argument is fundamentally and irreparably flawed. Modus tollens is the argument that “if P then Q”, followed by the observation that “Q” is false, hence P is false. But when dealing with probabilistic arguments, such as found in the intelligent design approach, modus tollens does not hold anymore. In other words, if a hypothesis states that an observation is very unlikely, it does not mean that the hypothesis is unlikely. Probabilistic arguments to show “intelligent design” are quite common and all suffer from the above flaw. Because of this “Intelligent Design” has to show that the probability of a particular observation or event “E” is more probable given the intelligent design hypothesis than a naturalistic hypothesis. But this means that “intelligent design” has to be formulated in a positive rather than its usual negative (eliminative) form. Intelligent Design inferences are typically stated as not(chance and/or regularity) thus intelligent design. This argument, also known as “argument from ignorance” forms a poor logical and scientific foundation for science. Hence we have to reject the “intelligent design” claims based on such an approach. That the “intelligent design” approach is indeed unsuitable for scientific inquiry can be observed in a total absence of “intelligent design” hypotheses relevant to science. As Del Ratzsch has stated (I paraphrase), in order for intelligent design to be relevant it has to show that it can give better ‘non ad hoc’ explanations of the observations. An “intelligent designer” did it fails that requirement.

Kenneth Miller in the chapter “The Flagellum Unspun: The Collapse of “Irreducible Complexity”, shows in intricate detail how the homology between type III secretory apparatus and the bacterial flagellum gives us a fascinating insight into the likely evolutionary pathways where the two share a common ancestor. In “Why intelligent design fails Young and Edis (ed)”, Ian Musgrave shows in even more detail how science is unraveling much of the mystery behind the bacterial flagellum, leaving little room for an intelligent designer to hide. Miller also addresses the ‘probability calculations’ by Dembski in his book “No Free Lunch” to show how Dembski’s model has little similarity to reality.

Dembski in “The Logical Underpinnings of Intelligent Design” continues to argue his fallacious claim that his explanatory filter has no ‘false positives’ despite the fact that such false positives are unavoidable. Failing to address the criticisms by his opponents and even fellow ID proponents such as Del Ratzsch, Dembski still argues the logically impossible namely that his filter does not suffer from false positives. In fact Dembski more recently has accepted false positives as an inevitable risk of doing science but he also maintains that false positives would render the explanatory filter useless. Seems to me that the only logical conclusion thus is that the explanatory filter (which is used to infer intelligent design) is useless. A conclusion already reached by intelligent design proponents such as Del Ratzsch who stated

“So typically, patterns that are likely candidates for design are first identified as such by some unspecified (“mysterious”) means, then with the pattern in hand S picks out side information identified (by unspecified means) as relevant to the particular pattern, then sees whether the pattern in question is among the various patterns that could have been constructed from that side information. What this means, of course, is that Dembski’s design inference will not be particularly useful either in initial recognition or identification of design.”

From page 159 of Del Ratzsch’s “Nature design and science: The Status of Design in Natural Science”, Suny Series in Philosophy and Biology, State University of New York Press (April 1, 2001) which is an excellent book by an intelligent design proponent who often takes an unpopular stance within the ID movement.

Behe, in “Irreducible Complexity: Obstacle to Darwinian Evolution “, focuses on the concept of irreducible complexity as a reliable indicator of intelligent design but irreducible complexity has been shown to be able to arise under fully natural processes thus it is not a very reliable indicator of design. In fact the argument from IC (irreducible complexity) mostly centers around our ignorance of the actual details. While the bacterial flagellum may have appeared to be IC, more and more research provides us with fascinating insights as to how it may have evolved (Musgrave, Matzke). See also Kenneth Miller in this volume.

Update August 21

Behe’s argument is that :

As a sufficient response to such claims I will simply rely on Harold’s statement quote here as well as the other reviewers who agree that there is a dearth of Darwinian explanations. After all, if prominent scientists, who are no fans of intelligent design agree that the system remains unexplained then that should settle the matter.

In other words, a beautiful rhetorical argument in the form of reversed form of “appeal to authority”.

Behe ends with

The misconceived arguments by Darwinists that I have recounted here offer strong encouragement to me that the hypothesis of Intelligent Design is on the right track. After all, if well-informed opponents of an idea attack it by citing data that, when considered objectively, actually demonstrates its force, then one is entitled to be confident that the idea is worth investigating.

The rhetoric and the lack of much scientifically relevant data suggests to me that ID is indeed on the right track. A track to scientific obscurity. As the ultimate Icon of ID, one would expect design proponents to extend the argument by adding positive knowledge about the flagellum showing how indeed the system is not only irreducibly complex but that Darwinian pathways are less and less likely the more knowledge we acquire. Of course the problem seems to be that with increased knowledge the gap narrows significantly.

Update August 19

Behe’s arguments are also self defeating. First of all he argues that Irreducible Complexity seems to be difficult to fit into a Darwinian perspective but as has been shown in “Thornhill, R.H., Ussery, D.W. 2000. “A classification of possible routes of Darwinian evolution.” J. Theor. Bio. 203: 111-116.”, such a notion is untenable. In chapter 15 Michael Roberts shows the great use Behe makes of rhetoric. “Having led the reader through many explainable and unexplainable (unexplained? PvM) functions and having used the rhetorical appeal of his mousetrap, he (Behe) uses an inductive rhetorical argument and argues that the absence of an explanation, as in the case of blood clotting, indicates the direct activity of a Designer. He rapidly moves from possibility to probability to moral certainty, but that certainty is only certain until an explanation is found. … and his conclusion of a Designer is only a ‘restatement of fact’ based on his original argument” (page 286). In other words, the conclusion of intelligent design not only suffers from being a ‘God of the Gaps’ or ‘appeal to ignorance’ argument but additionally depends strongly on the presumption that intelligent design is correct. This becomes even more evident when we hear Behe make the following statement

A second point that is often overlooked but should be emphasized is that Intelligent Design can happily coexist with even a large degree of natural selection. Antibiotics and pesticide resistance, antifreeze proteins in tish and plants, and more may indeed be explained by a Darwinian mechanism. The critical claim of ID is not that natural selection doesn’t explain anything, but that it doesn’t explain everything.

Michael Behe p. 356

In other words, ID is scientifically meaningless as it explains everything and anything. If we find a natural pathway to a biologically complex (or even irreducibly complex) system, it is compatible with ID, and if we remain ignorant it is (even more) compatible with ID.

So what explanations does ID have to offer one may wonder? Behe is quickly to point out the ‘just so stories’ of Darwinism but seems to fail to realize in his rhetoric that the same problem exists in an even more insurmountable format for ID. Namely not just the existance of ‘just so stories’ but the complete lack of any story beyond ignorance. After engaging in more rhetorical arguments about the blood clotting cascade and the moustrap, while ignoring examples in which science has progressed in its understanding of for instance the bacterial flagellum, Behe concludes “the misconceived arguments by Darwinist that I have recounted here offer strong encouragement to me that the hypothesis of Intelligent Design is on the right track. After all, if well-informed opponents of an idea attack it by citing data that, when considered objectively, actually demonstrates its force, then one is entitled to be confident that the idea is worth investigating”.

Beautiful rhetoric which shows once again the scientific emptiness of the intelligent design hypothesis. It’s force is not to be found in actual scientific arguments or evidence but rather in our ignorance. If Behe really believed the idea was worth investigating one would have expected that since the publication of his book he would have embarked on ID relevant research. The opposite seems to be true however, ID relevant research is painfully lacking other than in the unsupported claims by Dembski that ID friendly research exists in the form of the ISCID bibliography. I have seen the ISCID bibliography and it does not present any relevant ID research. Unless one confuses anti-Darwinian with pro-ID. But that is just rhetoric not science.

Finally, Meyer, in “The Cambrian Information Explosion: Evidence for Intelligent Design” raises the old canard (can we say Icon of Intelligent Design) of the Cambrian explosion much of the arguments seem to be contrary to (again) recent scientific findings making the Cambrian explosion as an argument for design one based on our ignorance more than on a positive contribution to our scientific understanding. Contrary to what ID proponents seem to suggest, the Cambrian explosion was not the origin of complex life although it was a period of rapid divergence. Multicellular life can be traced back to the pre-Cambrian and bacteria to more than 3.5 billion years ago. Beautiful transitional fossil evidence and evidence of phyla level evolution can be found. The Cambrian explosion is hardly the enigma Meyer seems to want it to be. In other words, the Cambrian explosion, as described by Meyer mostly is a strawman argument, or in simpler terms an argument at odds with both the evidence and the scientific understanding of this event. But even ignoring these shortcomings, Meyer does not present any scientific evidence why the Cambrian explosion should be seen as ‘evidence of intelligent design’. Kenneth Miller raised a good question: If all these organisms were designed by an intelligent design during the Cambrian why did most of them go extinct?


1. General Introduction p. 3
William A. Dembski
2. The Argument from Design: A Brief History p. 13
Michael Ruse
3. Who's Afraid of ID? A Survey of the Intelligent Design Movement p. 32
Angus Menuge
4. Design without Designer: Darwin's Greatest Discovery p. 55
Francisco J. Ayala
5. The Flagellum Unspun: The Collapse of "Irreducible Complexity" p. 81
Kenneth R. Miller
6. The Design Argument p. 98
Elliott Sober
7. DNA by Design? Stephen Meyer and the Return of the God Hypothesis p. 130
Robert T. Pennock
8. Prolegomenon to a General Biology p. 151
Stuart Kauffman
9. Darwinism, Design, and Complex Systems Dynamics p. 173
Bruce H. Weber and David J. Depew
10. Emergent Complexity, Teleology, and the Arrow of Time p. 191
Paul Davies
11. The Emergence of Biological Value p. 210
James Barham
12. Darwin, Design, and Divine Providence p. 229
John F. Haught
13. The Inbuilt Potentiality of Creation p. 246
John Polkinghorne
14. Theistic Evolution p. 261
Keith Ward
15. Intelligent Design: Some Geological, Historical, and Theological Questions p. 275
Michael Roberts
16. The Argument from Laws of Nature Reassessed p. 294
Richard Swinburne
17. The Logical Underpinnings of Intelligent Design p. 311
William A. Dembski
18. Information, Entropy, and the Origin of Life p. 331
Walter L. Bradley
19. Irreducible Complexity: Obstacle to Darwinian Evolution p. 352
Michael J. Behe
20. The Cambrian Information Explosion: Evidence for Intelligent Design p. 371
Stephen C. Meyer

Change History

Aug 18: spell checked Aug 19: Added additional comments on Behe’s rhetoric Aug 21: Added examples of Behe’s beautiful rhetoric