Walter Bradley at DDD1

In the thread “DDDV: Presenting Opposing Views” FL wrote in a comment, partially in response to a comment I made about the DDD conferences (Design, Darwin and Democracy, sponsored by the Intelligent Design network) being “publicity shows”:

I was at DDD1. … However, I was most impressed by the way Dr. Bradley, the origin-of-life guy, handled his question and answer period.

By the time it was over, I actually wound up feeling embarrassed for the pro-evolution guys (apparently from Kansas University?) who were trying to challenge him.  He was totally prepared for them, and simply mopped up the floor seven ways to Sunday.  That was something to watch.

I was also at DDD1, and in fact have a tape of, and just watched, Walter Bradley’s presentation. On the one hand, I’d say that Bradley’s talk was probably the fairest and most scientifically detailed and accurate of any ID speech I’ve heard at the DDD conferences. His main topic was the problems with the origin of life, and particularly the biochemical requirements for the origin of proteins, DNA, and RNA. He focussed on the Miller-Urey experiments and what he considered the misrepresentation in textbooks of that experiment.

On the other hand, I think FL’s memory of the question and answer period is faulty (this is not to blame him, of course - I wouldn’t have even remembered the Q&A if I hadn’t just watched the tape.)

There were about four questions from ID supporters, and in a couple of cases Bradley in fact corrected some of their points; there was one question from a guy who wanted to talk about the Flood, and Bradley asked to talk to him later since the question was off-topic; and there were three questions from people who critically questioned Bradley in some way or another.

None of these people identified themselves as being from Kansas University (although one said he had attended the play about the Scopes trial that had been held in Lawrence the previous week), and one was young and obviously a student. I was there with two KU professors and I think I would have known if any of the questioners were associated with the biology department at KU.

One of the questioners made a simple point (although somewhat antagonistically), that most textbooks don’t make overly strong statements about the origins of life. The Miller-Urey experiments are mentioned because of their historical importance (Bradley agreed to this), but the questioner pointed out that he was taught it was really a quite unsolved problem as to how life began. Bradley’s response was that he must have had a teacher that was a little more honest than the average textbook.

For what it’s worth, the textbook used in my school (Modern Biology, by Holt Rinehart, and Winston) also describes the Miller-Urey experiment from an historical perspective, and then discusses some of our more recent knowledge about the conditions of the early atmosphere, making some of the same points Bradley was pointing out.

One questioner pointed out that evolution isn’t about the origin of life, but rather about what happened after the first life began. Bradley answered this question quite fairly, making the legitimate distinction between biological evolution (after the process of replication and natural selection began) and the chemical evolution of life from nonliving chemicals (although he also then implied that something other than natural selection must have guided this process.)

The third questioner (the student) asked if intermediate reactions might have made the endothermic gain that Bradley had talked about more likely - Bradley, again politely and reasonably, answered the question with a straightforward scientific response.

So I agree with FL that Bradley did a good job with his presentation, but I think his memory is inaccurate about Bradley being challenged (really only the question about the textbook presentations was “challenging”); about the questioners being from the University of Kansas; and definitely about “mopping the floor” in regards to anyone.

I hope this sets the record straight about the issue.

The larger point here is the one that Bradley hinted at throughout his talk - that the belief that there is a naturalistic explanation for the chemical evolution of life, given the interrelated complexities of life, is a metaphysical assumption, not a scientific one. A thorough response to this point is beyond the scope of this post. Let me say merely that given that the success that searching for naturalistic explanations has had, and the lack of success in finding (or even articulating in a testable fashion) explanations which invoke “intelligent design”, and given the ongoing scientific research in origins of life issues (and corresponding lack of ID research), I think that a belief in searching for a scientific explanation in terms of natural chemical events is a practical and pragmatic belief.

Science searches for “naturalistic” explanations because that has worked time and time again. It’s an inductive position about the utility of the scientific approach, not a metaphysical bias, that causes scientists to believe that the effort to understand the origins of life will pay off .