The Ruse - Woodward debate: an introduction to political creationism

by Pete Dunkelberg

Valencia Community College, Orlando FL, 19 Jan 2006, 7:30 PM

Thomas Woodward, professor of religion at Trinity College and Michael Ruse, professor of philosophy at Florida State University debated evolution vs intelligent design (ID) before a packed hall. Woodward spoke first. His first slide advertised the videos Icons of Evolution and Unlocking the Mysteries of Life. Then he flashed a slide associating evolution with atheism in very large letters. (In reality, biology is merely nontheistic just as chemistry, physics and plumbing are.) Then he started with a major theme: there may be some “microevolution”, which doesn’t count, but there is no evidence for “macroevolution”. To glimpse the volumes of evidence, see Transitional Vertebrate Fossils and 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution.

Woodward’s first argument against macroevolution was based on a quote from the book Origination Of Organismal Form: “Darwinism has no theory of the generative”. The book is about evolutionary developmental biology, known affectionately as evo-devo, along with some more speculative ideas. Thanks to evo-devo research, we now know that new forms can evolve much more readily than used to be thought. Evo-devo expert Sean B. Carroll’s book Endless Forms Most Beautiful is an excellent introduction to the topic, and he also has a short online article, The Origins of Form to whet your appetite. As always, there is more to be learned; we still lack a good understanding of just why certain forms evolved, and not others – the rest of the “theory of the generative”. But how could Woodward misinterpret rapid progress in our understanding of evolution as support for creationism?

Woodward then switched to ‘fine tuning’ of the universe. As you know, if just one of several physical constants were different, the universe would be unsuitable for life as we know it. (What if several of the constants were different? The possibilities are endless.) Woodward thinks the values of the physical constants imply that the universe is Designed. While on the subject of the universe, he brought up Fred Hoyle, a deceased astronomer who made some not very sensible calculations about life’s origin.

The next slide came up and it was Haeckel’s embryo drawings. Oooh, the wicked Haeckel. Richardson and Keuck 2002 (pdf) will tell you at least as much as you want to know about the infamous drawings. Despite their imperfections, I think the drawings convey the big picture well enough at the level of detail a beginning student is likely to notice. Haeckel’s biggest error was an idea he called the biogenic law, which never became mainstream biology. What you never hear from creationists, though, is that evolution is not based on Haeckel - he’s a distraction. Evolution is very properly based in part on embryology, with modern research (evo-devo again) showing a very solid link between evolution and development. For some real embryology, read Wells and Haeckel’s Embryos by PZ Myers. I’ll just say that yes, you had gill slits and you had better be glad. Why? After reading PZ try to figure out what you’d be like without them.

Woodward’s embryos: Haeckel compares embryos of several species at successive stages of development. Woodward put up a slide with four embryo pictures, labeled (I’m not sure of these labels; there wasn’t much time) fish, bird, reptile, mammal. “Here is what they really look like” he said. His embryos all looked strikingly different from one another, which they are not. I’m not sure what was in that murky black and white slide; he may have shown yolk sacks or other external features, or his embryos may be at different developmental stages. Perhaps someone else who was there can shed some light on this.

Moving on to ID

Based on Hoyle, Haeckel, and the quote from the evo-devo book, the audience must have been fairly well convinced that there is little evidence for macroevolution. (Obviously, Woodward presented the material differently than I did.) Woodward reinforced this conclusion while praising Michael Denton’s book Evolution: A Theory In Crisis. He will speak of the book four times during the evening, but forget to mention that Denton himself now says it is mistaken. Next, he briefly mentioned the book Darwin on Trial by Phillip Johnson, the Godfather of ID.

Now comes the best part: Woodward gives two strong reasons why ID is scientific. The first is irreducible complexity, (IC) the subject of Michael Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box. Behe defines IC thus:

Behe wrote:

By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.”

Darwin’s Black Box p 39, emphasis in original

Behe argues that IC just can’t be produced by evolution, or at best it won’t evolve because it’s too improbable. Earlier creationists like Henry Morris had the idea first, but didn’t have Behe’s clever name for it:

Morris wrote:

This issue can actually be attacked quantitatively, using simple principles of mathematical probability. The problem is simply whether a complex system, in which many components function unitedly together, and in which each component is uniquely necessary to the efficient functioning of the whole, could ever arise by random processes.

Scientific Creationism 2nd edition p 59

Reality: IC evolves naturally and easily. Evolution is bound to lead to co-adapted parts. Once these exist, the observer can designate functions, ‘systems’, and the subdivision of a system into parts such that all of the parts are required for the designated function. Bacteria have evolved IC systems in just the last few decades to deal with man-made chemicals. More complicated IC systems would take longer to evolve, but then life has had much longer. Examples and details can be found at Talk Design.

Woodward’s second reason why ID is scientific is Dembski’s explanatory filter (EF). Dembski, who Woodward called the Einstein of ID, has codified a standard pattern of creationist thought and named it the EF. Used as directed, it is supposed to filter out all explanations other than “The Designer did it”. (Reality: at best, it filters out everything except “I don’t yet know how this happened”.) Here’s what it looks like:

The Devine Inference

The idea is that something that is very likely to happen, given the right conditions, is considered a natural regularity, medium probability is just one of those things, but low probability, in combination with specification, means the Designer did it. A specification, in practice, is just a brief verbal description of the thing in question. To simplify matters further, Dembski says that in biology the description of the function of something is its specification. Now suppose that something is very rarely observed, and that you have no idea of any exact conditions that will cause it. Also suppose that this thing does not look at all like a random mixture of particles. What can you say about the probability of it happening at all? Essentially nothing except that this probability is greater than zero. Dembski’s method, though, is to calculate the probability of it occurring as a random mixture, which it surely did not. This is bound to give a very small number. Give it a specification and voila! The Designer did it.

Let’s work an example. Say we find a field of stone circles. (there’s our specification already). No natural cause is known, and such an arrangement of stones has a very low chance of happening at random. So it was designed. But then Oops! A geological explanation is found after all. Now the event is not designed, and the EF has produced a false positive. If it produces false positives then it is not a design detector after all. It is only a “Don’t know” detector.

Perhaps the EF makes sense to creationists because “God did it” is their default explanation of everything. It makes no sense in science because “Don’t know” is the default explanation. In science, design can’t win by default; there must be evidence for it. To learn more about the EF, read The advantages of theft over toil.

Back to fossils

Having established to his satisfaction that ID is scientific, Woodward returned to disproving evolution. He reminded us that there are no truly intermediate fossils. To drive this home, he said he has seen some of the fish-to-amphibian fossils, and he can tell that every one of them is either completely a fish or completely an amphibian. This exemplifies the creationist solution to transitional fossils; draw a line somewhere and concentrate on the line rather than on the pattern you might otherwise see. Everything is on one side of the line or the other, so there are no transitionals.

Getting back to the fossils, it is not correct to say that each is either a fish or an amphibian. Legs and air breathing evolved while the animals were still aquatic and not yet amphibians. They became aquatic tetrapods. You could say that each one of them either was a tetrapod, or else it wasn’t. But just when does a fin become a leg? At what point are fewer, stronger fin rays digits? I don’t know, but here’s an up to date popular review by leading authority Jenny Clack, and here’s the latest (for the moment) research paper on the transition.

Woodward continued with a couple more standard creationist topics: punctuated equilibria, which all creationists are sure makes evolution wrong, then the Cambrian explosion. Of course he insists there are no preCambrian fossils, or at least none that make a difference so far as he is concerned. Regular readers here will know that there are many, and they certainly do matter for evolution. Here is a good introduction to the Ediacaran, as the relevant part of the preCambrian is called. Readers are invited to share their favorite Ediacaran organisms.

Too much DNA?

From the Cambrian, Woodward segued into a topic that seemed especially pleasing to his many supporters in the audience: the great quantity of information, or DNA, contained in living cells. He insisted that there is no way so much information could have arisen by any natural process.

Why aren’t scientists concerned about this? There are several types of mutation. One type just changes a single “letter” of DNA into another one. Other mutations duplicate sections of DNA, making the molecule larger. Gene duplication is a common type of mutation, and sometimes a whole chromosome or even a whole genome is duplicated. Duplicated regions then mutate, diversify and take on new functions over time. Because of all the duplications it is actually necessary to lose genes to keep the size of the genome from getting out of hand. See here and here and here for instance.

It is also impossible for life to start, at least as creationists envision it. Woodward seems to think the “first cell” formed suddenly, complete with 250 genes. Creationists don’t seem to think in terms of slow processes with many intermediate steps.

Finally, he quoted Bill Gates saying “Human DNA is like a computer program”, which it isn’t. Woodward’s own comparison of DNA to a database is much better. Then he told us Mt Rushmore exhibits intelligent design.


Ruse gave a relaxed presentation which I won’t cover in detail. He began with Darwin and the voyage of the Beagle, pointing out that evolution by natural selection explains a wide variety of natural phenomena. “Darwin delivered the goods” on evolution, he said. Then he discussed Augustine and nonliteral views of the Bible. Ruse noted that ID is “creationism lite”, and thought as many do that IDists ought to just admit the Designer is God. He very correctly noted that Behe doesn’t seem to know how evolution works, and that IC may evolve by sundry means. Ruse also made the important point that ID is bad religion as well as bad science.

Q & A

Much of the question and answer session was taken up by each speaker posing a question to the other. Woodward posed an odd question about an unnamed physicist who read something by Gould and decided that the natural origin of life was “implausible”, and an unnamed biologist who had some partial doubts of evolution. What did Ruse think about that, he asked. What can one say to this vague question?

Ruse asked a friendly question: Didn’t Woodward agree that, as Phillip Johnson has also said, the controversy isn’t really about fossil fishes. Isn’t it really about how one views the moral order of life, and things like that? No, Woodward said, it’s really an intellectual disagreement over the evidence. He then recited his lecture points all over again.

At last a few students were able to ask questions.

Q: Why would plants evolve fruits?

A: (Ruse) After a couple general remarks he stated the obvious: animals eat fruit and then spread the seeds.

A: (Woodward) He indicated that evolution might change one fruit into a similar one, but there was no way for flowers to start. The way he explained it, the first flower must have been a rose. In answering this question he ran through Denton, gigabyte database, the Designer can not be identified, Fred Hoyle, SETI, bacterial flagella, and the big bang! This is a man who knows his talking points.

Q: If Archaeopteryx is in between a reptile and a bird, how could such a mutation be beneficial?

A: I didn’t take down the speakers’ answers to this question, but I’ll just say: think about a seal, and about what influences whether an adaptation is beneficial.

Q: A student asked Dr. Woodward if it concerned him that the Vatican says ID is not science. She could also have mentioned the Clergy Letter Project, and added that even the Templeton Foundation is fed up with ID.

A: Since Woodward’s “scientific” claims had not been thoroughly exposed, it was easy for him to reply that he was not concerned at all, since his position was based on scientific evidence.


The encounter between Ruse and Woodward wasn’t really a debate. Woodward got away with a powerful (to the scientifically naïve) presentation of creationism. Ruse idealistically tried to get the audience to think about religious and philosophic issues, but this just isn’t as exciting as learning that science is thoroughly, stupidly wrong. It wouldn’t occur to most people that Woodward’s confident delivery could itself have been false and misleading from beginning to end.

Readers unfamiliar with political creationism (if that’s you, you’d best be aware of The Wedge) may be surprised at the thorough inaccuracy of Woodward’s presentation, but it’s all too normal. Day after day Americans hear misinformation if not disinformation about biology. Dr. Woodward’s sincerity notwithstanding, the strongest reason not to teach creationism in schools, whether it is called Creation Science or ID or “the controversy”, is that teaching it would amount to lying to students about science.

I’d like to hear the impressions of others who were there. What did you learn? Who won?