The Sad state of Intelligent Design: Or why it shuns 'peer review'

On Uncommon Descent, our friend Davescot shows once again why Intelligent Design has to hide in the shades of our ignorance. Richard B Hoppe has dealt with most of what he called Dissent Out of Bounds on Uncommon Dissent (Oops, make that “Descent”) and this posting is meant to archive the excellent comments by Febble which caused so much concern at UcD.

While UcD is well known for its aggressive moderation policies, deleting much of anything critical of ID and quickly banning those who expose ID’s scientific and religious vacuities, Uncommon Dissent seems to also favor squashing unfavorable reviews of its theses. In a thread titled ID in the UK ID activist Bill Dembski invited comments from people in the United Kingdom to comment on the recent ‘activities’ of ID in this country.

A poster, named Febble complied with the invitation and politely expressed her feelings. Soon thereafter Davescot banned Febble from participating on UcD. Why? Read on

Febble introduced herself as “… a scientist, a Christian theist, and a UK citizen, with a son in a UK secondary school. This is my response to your encouragement to comment.”

She points out that ID, as a scientific hypothesis (sic) defines intelligence in a manner which includes natural selection as the designer. This conclusion was long since reached by others, including Wesley Elsberry, but it seems that ID activists are largely unfamiliar with the impact of Dembski’s musings and unwilling to take it where it leads.

Febble wrote:

I am happy to accept “Intelligent Design” as a scientific hypothesis to account for the development of life, as proposed by yourself, Dr Dembski, as long as you stand by this definition of intelligence:

’ by intelligence I mean the power and facility to choose between options–this coincides with the Latin etymology of “intelligence,” namely, “to choose between” ‘

However, such a hypothesis need not (and should not) be presented as an “alternative to evolution” as it is described in the Truth In Science materials. Far from rejecting an agent “with the power and facility to choose between options”, this is exactly what the Theory of Evolution postulates as the agent of evolutionary change - a process of_selection_ (aka “choice”) between options.

The responses were varied but invariably hasty and avoiding the issue raised by Febble.

But first let’s look at the full response by Febble and save it for posterity since ID sites have a history of having embarassing postings disappear.

Febble wrote:

The fact that the selection process postulated by the ToE is a “natural” one (“Natural Selection”) does not disqualify it from being an agent “with the power and facility to choose between options”. This is exactly what it does, by means of a simple IF…THEN selection algorithm. IF a variant survives THEN it replicates. Variants with greater capacity to survive are selected (chosen), while those with lesser capacity are rejected.

Certainly Natural Selection has no_intentionality_ but you yourself, Dr Dembski, have made it clear that the “intentionality” problem “, together with the “ethical”, “aesthetics” and “identity” problems,”are not questions of science”.

Yes, patterns we see in life-forms indicate an “intelligent” (as per your definition) design process. But they do not imply anything not also implied by Natural Selection.

Suggesting that the appearance of “intelligent design” ( by your definition of intelligence) contradicts the Theory of Evolution is therefore illogical, and it would appear that the Truth In Science materials do just that. Suggesting that life-forms have the appearance of “intelligent design” using a definition of intelligence that would NOT cover Natural Selection (e.g. one that invoked intentionality) would not, as you say, be science at all.

I am therefore opposed to the Truth In Science materials.

After her introduction, Febble continued to participate in a very polite manner by educating ID activists as to the vacuity of their arguments and claims. In her response, she also unveiled her true identity as Elizabeth Liddle

Febble wrote:


Yes, I am aware that cells are complex. But you are arguing ID from degree of complexity, not kind. Dr Dembski’s ID argument is that it is the quality (“specified”), not the quantity, of the complexity exhibited by living things that identifies them as having been produced by an intelligent agent, for which he provides an operational definition. Natural Selection possesses “intelligence” according to that operational defines it. As such, it can produce specified complexity. Whether it can produce enough “complexity” to account for the variety of life is separate issue.


Nature may not be “intelligent” by many definitions. I do not ascribe to it intention or foresight, or consciousness, for example. But I refer you again to Dr Dembski’s definition of intelligence for the purpose of inferring an intelligent designer from observed patterns (e.g. in a signal picked up by SETI), namely “the power and facility to choose between options”. Natural Selection has this power and facility. It’s how it works. It’s also why it’s called selection. (BTW, you assumed I’m male. I’m female, as it happens.)


Again, we were talking about ID as a scientific theory. As a scientific theory ID is sound, if “intelligence” is defined as Dr Dembski defines it. And, as Dr Dembski defines it, an intelligence “with the power and facility to choose between options” is indeed capable of, as you put it “inputting new information into the system”. It’s how computers work. You may not believe it is capable of making a cell work, but that is not the debate here. The debate is whether ID, as defined by Dr Dembski is a scientific hypothesis. It is. And it describes Natural Selection very nicely.

Natural Selection cannot, of course, account for the existence of my immortal soul. But the origin of my immortal soul cannot be investigated by means available to science.


Elizabeth Liddle

Elizabeth Liddle has quite a name on the Internet. On Mystery Pollster she is disclosed to have developed a model which analyzed voting behavior.

The Liddle Model That Could

Regular readers of this blog may know her as “Febble,” the diarist from DailyKos. Her real name is Elizabeth Liddle, a 50-something mother and native of Scotland who originally trained as a classical musician and spent most of her life performing, composing and recording renaissance and baroque music. She also studied architecture and urban design before enrolling in a PhD program in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Nottingham where she is currently at work on a dissertation on the neural correlates of dyslexia. In her spare time, she wrote a children’s book and developed in interest in American politics while posting on the British Labor party on DailyKos. A self proclaimed “fraudster” she came to believe our election “may well have been rigged,” that “real and massive vote suppression” occurred in Ohio where the recount was “a sham” and the Secretary of State “should be jailed.”

Quite a history… But let’s return to Febble’s plight on UcD:

Her insightful and polite postings led Davescot to quickly ban her from participating

Davescot wrote:

febble is no longer with us - anyone who doesn’t understand how natural selection works to conserve (or not) genomic information yet insists on writing long winded anti-ID comments filled with errors due to lack of understanding of the basics is just not a constructive member - good luck on your next blog febble

What is truly fascinating is the level of ignorance found in the comments by ID activists, including our dear friend Davescot who seems quite confused about the concept of natural selection and information. Which is not surprising given that most of these posters have gotten their ill founded information from Bill Dembski’s writings.

But once again I digress from the remarkable performance of “Febble”

Febble wrote:


I’m sorry, I did not respond to this point:

“I’ll accept random mutation and natural selection as the cause of life and its diversity right after someone shows me how to design a computer by trial and error starting from nothing but the simple unorganized elements (silicon, copper, etc.) that make it up. Start explaining that to me if you would.”

Firstly, of course, “random mutation and natural selection” are not postulated as the cause of life, only of its diversity. Darwin said nothing about the how the first cell came into existence, and nor do evolutionary biologists.

So the equivalent operation in computer terms is not “design[ing] a computer by trial and error starting from nothing but the simple unorganized elements (silicon, copper, etc.) that make it up”. The theory of evolution tells us nothing about how the first DNA molecule was assembled from “simple unorganized elements”, nor indeed how any molecule is assembled from “simple unorganized elements”, although chemistry tells us a lot, particularly about how complex organic molecules are formed from carbon and hydrogen.

However, if you want me to explain how, given a computer and an operating system, complex algorithms can be created by trial and error, then I’m happy to do so. It involves a random number generator, and a series of “if…then” statements. In other words, the computer equivalent of random mutation, and natural selection proposed by the ToE.

Such a program has the “power and facility to choose between options”, and is thus capable of producing patterns with “specified complexity”, and possesses “intelligence” as defined in this context by Dr Dembski. As does the system of random mutation and natural selection.

Dr. Dembski’s Intelligent Design theory is not, therefore, an alternative to the Theory of Evolution. Rather, the system proposed in the Theory of Evolution is, by Dr. Dembski’s own definition, an example of “intelligent” design.

Faced with the impeccable logic of “Febble” ID activists are scurrying for responses, thus we find a poster named Patrick claiming that the Febble “… go read the UD archives. That claim has been repeated so many times it’s not funny.”

Febble, not easily distracted, inquires politely as to the nature of the claim to which Patrick seems to be referring.

Patrick, not constrained by any logic, ‘responds’

Febbles: First off, Dave and everyone here is fully aware that OOL is different from TOE. Whenever a Darwinist comes on here and blindly starts “lecturing” I just roll my eyes. Secondly, run a search on “genetic algorithms” because that is obviously what you’re referring to.

And Bunjo’s hypothetical discussion is a false caricature of ID. Only a teacher who is either ignorant of ID or purposely distorting it would respond as such.

So do you guys have anything truly interesting to add to UD or is going to be another repetition of common nonsense?

No real response, but then again, addressing “Febble’s” comments is no easy task, in fact it is a task which Dembski has mostly neglected himself.

Lizzie then goes for the jugular in a very polite manner

Febble wrote:

Hi, Patrick

I’m sorry if I made an erroneous assumption. DaveScot’s comment began: “I’ll accept random mutation and natural selection as the cause of life and its diversity…” (my bold) which suggested that he might not make the distinction that you assure me he does. In which case, my comments were redundant. They were not intended to lecture, merely to address the point he asked me to address.

I am happy to run a search on “genetic algorithms” but I would appreciate it if you would say what claim of mine you were referring to. My point was simply that if intelligence, for the purpose of inferring an “intelligent designer” from an example of “specified complexity” is defined as “the power and facility to choose between options” (and I agree with Dr. Dembski that an agent with such power is required to produce a pattern with “specified complexity”), then natural selection has that power and facility.

Genetic algorithms are interesting (and I work on learning algorithms myself) but they were not central to the point I was making. A simple if…then statement is all that is required to satisfy the requirement of “the power and facility to choose between options”.



Patrick realizes that he cannot withstand the onslaught and responds

Didn’t notice that myself. Dave was too quick with a response.


Patrick continues to make some vague references to Lizzie’s claim and she takes the opportunity to invite him to give some specifics

Febble wrote:

Hi, Patrick

Well, I’m still not sure what you are regarding as my “claim”. My “claim”, as I see it, is simply that yes, the complexity we see in life forms has a quality that Dr. Dembski has defined as “specified” - the quality that emerges when a pattern is produced from what he calls an “intelligence”. And he defines that “intelligence” as “the power and facility to choose between options”. My argument is simply that natural selection is an agent that “has the power and facility to choose between options” - which is why life forms exhibit “specified complexity” - and is therefore a form of “intelligence” as defined by Dr Dembski.

But I certainly didn’t claim to have a computer algorithm that generated 10 letter words. What I have is a learning algorithm. It learns by trial and error - it repeats responses that lead to success. In fact, what it learns is optimal response times. It learns that if it is too slow it may miss its target, but if it is too fast it may respond to the wrong target. It actually starts with a flat distribution of reaction times, and I end with a distribution with a peak . Sometimes, depending on the contingencies, I get a bimodal distribution. When I change the contingencies, and it has to learn a new set of responses - and the distribution of response times changes. It’s very simple though, just a fairly basic population model. But like actual populations, it tends towards the currently optimal solution. And what it models is actual intelligence - learning and set shifting, as seen in actual human behaviour.



In her next posting, Lizzie introduces us to her literary skills

Lizzie wrote:

Hi, avocationist

My question to Lizzie is, was God surprised when humans popped up?

Well, not being omniscient myself, I don’t know.

But I think it’s an interesting question, and it’s one my son asked, a few years ago. So I wrote this story for him. It’s called “Perhaps….”



She also responds to Patrick’s question about genetic algorithms

Lizzie wrote:


Thanks for suggesting “genetic algorithm” as a search term. I have read at least some of the posts in which that term, or “evolutionary algorithm” is used.

My own view is that life is a profoundly algorithmic phenonemon, and it is the richness of its algorithmic structure that gives rise to its “specified complexity”. It did not arise by chance, it arose from rules - algorithms. And a key algorithm is the if…then statement. In that sense, I consider Dr Dembski correct - biological systems are intelligent systems, arising from intelligent processes.

Where I part company from the ID movement, as opposed to the concept of ID itself, is the frequent implication that intelligent design is coterminous with intentional design. I am happy with Dr. Dembki’s operational definition of intelligence, which includes the concept of choice between options, but does not include consciousness or intention. Dr Dembski does not argue, as I understand him, that consciousness or intention are necessary to produce a pattern with “specified complexity”, merely the “power and capacity to choose between options”.

As a neuroscientist (that’s my field) I would argue that consciousness and intention emerge from simpler selection algorithms, of course. But I do not accept that consciousness and intention are necessary components of “the power and capacity to choose between options”.

Patrick, lost for logic attempts the appeal to authority approach

Patrick wrote:

I’d suggest you read “No Free Lunch” since I doubt Dembski would agree with your redefinition of his work. Specifically, you should look at his law of conservation of information.

Lizzie then presents her master piece

Lizzie wrote:

I have read a fair number of Dr. Dembski’s monographs and writings, although I have not read the book “No Free Lunch”. However, I have read his piece:

Intelligent Design as a Theory of Information

several times, and I agreed with it (after considerable reflection), on first reading, up until the final section entitled “The Law of Conservation of Information”. On re-reading it, I still find that up until that point in the article, Dr. Dembski makes perfect and elegant sense. CSI has to be the result of Actualisation-Exclusion-Specification, and Specification must be the result of choice. To quote Dr Dembski:

The word “intelligent” derives from two Latin words, the preposition inter, meaning between, and the verb lego, meaning to choose or select. Thus according to its etymology, intelligence consists in choosing between. It follows that the etymology of the word “intelligent” parallels the formal analysis of intelligent causation just given. “Intelligent design” is therefore a thoroughly apt phrase, signifying that design is inferred precisely because an intelligent cause has done what only an intelligent cause can do-make a choice.

However to my mind, Dr. Dembski at that point takes a leap.

He claims:

Natural causes are in-principle incapable of explaining the origin of CSI.

His reasoning appears to be as follows: he states:

Natural causes comprise chance and necessity

(citing Monod), and proceeds to rule out both chance and necessity as a source of information. He then states:

Contingency can assume only one of two forms. Either the contingency is a blind, purposeless contingency-which is chance; or it is a guided, purposeful contingency-which is intelligent causation.

In other words, he defines chance as “blind, purposeless contingency” - and ascribes “intelligent causation” to any other kind. Now, I’d still agree with him, using his own operational definition of “intelligence”. Where I disagree with him is that such “intelligence” cannot be “natural”.

He writes:

If chance and necessity left to themselves cannot generate CSI, is it possible that chance and necessity working together might generate CSI? The answer is No. Whenever chance and necessity work together, the respective contributions of chance and necessity can be arranged sequentially. But by arranging the respective contributions of chance and necessity sequentially, it becomes clear that at no point in the sequence is CSI generated. Consider the case of trial-and-error (trial corresponds to necessity and error to chance). Once considered a crude method of problem solving, trial-and-error has so risen in the estimation of scientists that it is now regarded as the ultimate source of wisdom and creativity in nature. The probabilistic algorithms of computer science (e.g., genetic algorithms-see Forrest, 1993) all depend on trial-and-error. So too, the Darwinian mechanism of mutation and natural selection is a trial-and-error combination in which mutation supplies the error and selection the trial. An error is committed after which a trial is made. But at no point is CSI generated.

Natural causes are therefore incapable of generating CSI. This broad conclusion I call the Law of Conservation of Information

This is where Dr Dembski’s reasoning is not clear to me. Indeed, earlier in the paper, Dr Dembski gives an example of rats learning maze, and notes:

Only if the rat executes the sequence of right and left turns specified by the psychologist will the psychologist recognize that the rat has learned how to traverse the maze. Now it is precisely the learned behaviors we regard as intelligent in animals.

But trial and error is the method by which rats learn to find their way through a maze – or at least, if it is not, there is no way of telling that it is not. All we observe is that the rat has learned the maze. And Dr Dembski tells us, correctly of course, that if the rat makes the correct sequence of left and right turns, we can infer from that the fact that the pattern of its behaviour exhibits CSI that it was produced by an intelligent agent, namely the rat. In his own next words:

Hence it is no surprise that tthe same scheme for recognizing animal learning recurs for recognizing intelligent causes generally, to wit, actualization, exclusion, and specification

So it would appear that Dr. Dembski believes that learned behaviour can be recognized by its CSI, and inferred to be intelligent behaviour. Which is fine. But we know that learning can proceed by trial-and-error – indeed many of the cognitive tasks we use in cognitive psychology can only be solved by trial and error. So it does not follow, to my mind, that a pattern that is arrived at by trial and error cannot generate CSI. The rat demonstrates that it can.

So I took a closer look at Dr. Dembski’s analysis of chance and necessity. Dr Dembski claims that:

Natural causes comprise chance and necessity.

He rules out chance as a source of CSI, as of course we must do. Chance, is, after all, the null hypothesis in any signal detection test. But he also rules out necessity. He does so by reasoning that if A must lead to B, observing B tells us no more about A than we know already from A. But consider this: if we have a “natural” choice maker, such as a perfect filter, or sieve, and a supply of particles of varying size, then we will find ourselves with a sorted arrangement of particles that cannot have arisen by chance – the pattern of the sorted particles exhibits CSI. We can infer the rule that generated the pattern:particles smaller than a certain threshold pass, but larger particles are retained. I assume that Dr. Dembski would not want to call such a perfect filter “intelligent” – although it clearly has “the power and capacity to choose between options”: it chooses the large particles and releases the small ones. And I would agree that a sieve is not what we would normally call intelligent, although it fulfills Dr. Dembski’s operational definition. So why would Dr Dembski not infer an intelligent agent from something a pattern that had resulted from a natural sieve?

Well, he tells us that the pattern generated by the sieve cannot exhibit CSI because no new information has been added. And it is true that if we knew the precise mesh size of the sieve in advance, and the sizes of every particle, the piles of particles wouldn’t tell us anything new about what pattern would be generated by the sieve. But in that case would a sieve with randomly fluctuating mesh size produce piles of particles that exhibited CSI? And could we then infer an intelligent sieve? Well, clearly not. All we’d have is an unreliable sieve instead of a perfect one. An unreliable sieve is not more intelligent than a perfect sieve.

In other words, the pattern of sorted sand, which appears to me to exhibit CSI, cannot, according to Dr. Dembski have CSI, simply because we know everything about the sieve. His argument therefore appears to be not that, as he claims, that we can infer intelligence from a pattern that appears to exhibit CSI, but from the degree to which we have less-than-perfect knowledge about about the mechanism that created the pattern. Thus we can infer that the rat is intelligent, not from the CSI generated by its behaviour, but _because we do not know everything about what determined the rat’s choices._Conversely, we infer that the sieve is not intelligent, not because the pattern it generates does not have CSI (it does), but because we can know, in principle, everything about the sieve.

This is the problem I have with Dr. Dembski’s analysis. I agree with him that CSI is detectable. I agree with him that if is detectable we can infer that it was generated by something with “a power and capacity to choose between options”. I do not agree with him that that we can distinguish between a “natural” choice-maker, like a sieve, and an “intelligent” choice maker, like a rat, by observing the differences between the patterns they generate. Both will generate patterns that exhibit CSI. But if intelligence is to be inferred from the amount of new information contained in the pattern, this quantity will depend not simply on the pattern, but on what we know about the factors that determine the choice-making of the choice-making agent. The more we know about the choice algorithm (whether rat or sieve), the less new information will be gained by examining the pattern. Once we know everything about the rat’s brain, will the rat cease to be intelligent?

No, because, in my view, is that there is no difference between the two agents. The amount of new information (in Dr. Dembski’s terms) contained in the pattern generated by a trial-and-error learning algorithm in a computer only differs from the trial-and-error learning process in a rat because we know the algorithm – because we wrote it. And the pattern produced by a “natural” filter only differs from the pattern produced by the rat in that the rules that govern the pattern are more amenable to inference by a diligent scientist.

As a Christian, I believe in free will. I believe we are responsible, in some cosmic and meaningful sense, for our own actions. But I do not believe free will can be inferred from our behaviour. To an outside observer, our behaviour could as easily be entirely deterministic. If so, even the patterns generated by our intelligent behaviour would add no information to what an ideal observer already knew from the initial conditions of our neurons. Belief in free will seems to me to be as much an act of faith as belief in God – indeed, belief in God is not possible without belief in free will. And I make that act of faith by believing in God. But we cannot infer an agent with free will from patterns that exhibit CSI. We can only infer “intelligence”, as defined, by Dr. Dembski, as the “power and capacity to choose between options”. Which is also possessed by a sieve.



Not to be outdone, Davescot enters

Davescot wrote:

I have been skimming your writing waiting for you to get out all your objections and just now I searched all the comments on this thread for the word “probability”. No discussion of Dembski’s work and CSI can proceed very far without getting into probabilities yet you didn’t use the word (or any derivative) even once.

Never mind that Davescot does not address Lizzie’s comments, he quickly focuses on what he perceives to be a shortcoming in her arguments, namely that she does not use the term probability. Of course, in her analysis of Dembski’s own words, Lizzie has to do nothing more than quote and analyze where Dembski’s ‘arguments’ lead.

Perhaps Davescot was not aware of Lizzie’s history in data analysis and probabilities or he would not have chosen this particular path. In hindsight…

Lizzie wrote:

Ha! Well, now, look at that. It must be almost a record for me. I’m really quite reassured I have managed a probability-free history on a discussion board (trying googling Febble…).

Well, I think I probably (no pun intended) assumed a shared understanding that we are talking about probabilities, on such a rarefied board. I have probably had my fill of explaining probabilities 101 elsewhere. And I did, of course, talk about “chance” and about the “null hypothesis” in signal detection. Because, as you rightly draw attention to, the detection of a signal depends on there being a low probability that what you are interpreting as signal is not random noise.

So in fact I plead not guilty to the charge that I avoided the issue of probability (chance and null hypotheses are certainly derivatives).

OK, let’s move on.

You state:

Given you have enough time and probabalistic resources anything is possible. Given an infinite amount of time or trials every possible pattern will be generated an infinite number of times.

Ah, but we do not have to generate every possible pattern. For a highly specified pattern (say a unique pattern of 100 ones and zeros), and where even a near miss was as bad as a complete failure, then, yes, you would need to search a very large space with a very small probability of success. But that is a very specialised kind of search. Memory of near-misses won’t help, because you have no feedback until you hit the jackpot. You just have to keep trying every combination, until you win. But random selection and natural selection isn’t that kind of search. It’s more like the game of hangman (even a game of hangman where the target is a random letter string). You guess at random, but when you get a correct answer for one slot, you get to keep it. You replicate what works, in other words. You don’t start from scratch each time.

This is the sense in which random selection and natural selection is a learning algorithm (and why learning algorithms tend to use random number generators and feedback). Trial-and-error proceeds very quickly for this kind of learning, as successes are replicated, and the search space is rapidly reduced.

Thus when discussing CSI we come to terms like probabilistic resources and probability bounds. What do you know of these

Well, a fair bit. I’m a professional data analyst. I deal with probabilities daily. Right now, in fact.

and how do you explain life at the simplest level being composed of intricate interdependent networks of objects

Well, by incremental improvements to the ability of each organism to replicate itself. But, as you yourself pointed out, even modern single-celled organisms are far from simple, and have had (as I believe the evidence strongly suggests) several billion years in which to get their act together. My assumption is that the first prototypes of life (whether on this planet or elsewhere in the universe) would have been replicating molecules, with the replication governed by catalysts. As replication is the key to “learning” (in both evolving biological systems and elementary schools) then something that replicates has to be the starting point. Once you have a molecule that replicates, then you have a key element for a learning algorithm in place. Natural Selection being the other. All you need in addition is a bit of stochastic resonance. Actually, the concept of resonance is the key to all this, IMO - positive feedback loops.

As for your point that those objects…

are themselves represented by digital codes that must be translated from codes to actual objects before they can be employed?

My simple one-word answer is: chemistry. The “codes” themselves are “actual objects” and they catelyse the synthesis of other “actual objects”. This happens in inorganic as well as organic chemistry. As of course you will be aware. Sure, the code is digital, but all chemistry is digital - atoms are discrete (for the purposes of chemistry).

But my argument, as I said upthread, is not that life could have begun without a intelligent designer (I do not find it necessary myself to invoke God for that part of the process, but I certainly don’t know how the first DNA molecule formed). I am simply arguing that the variety and complexity of life does indeed indicate a) intelligent design, where intelligence is defined as Dr. Dembski defines it but that b) such intelligence is possessed by the system comprised of natural selection and modified replication.



Davescot struggles and Lizzie responds further

Lizzie wrote:

Hi DaveScot

Well, as you can imagine, I read the evidence somewhat differently. However, I should say, firstly, that I agree that natural selection will fluctuate in strength as a “feedback” mechanism. The more unforgiving the environment, the more powerful the feedback. However, I disagree with your characterisation of the mechanism. I do not agree that the evidence suggests that “Natural Selection is a conservative force”, and nor do I consider that the evidence supports the hypothesis of less-than-disastrous mutations piling up. I’d argue that there is a sole criterion for evaluating a mutation: does it increase the replication rate, or does it reduce it? If it does neither, it is neutral.

And although I’d agree that when times are good, mutations that decrease an individual’s probability of replication, but do not rule it out, will tend to be propagated through the population, the same will be true of those mutations that increase it. And where animals are in competition for resources, environment and genes will often interact, with the healthiest animals gaining more benefit - in terms of reproductive success - from the environmental bounty than the less healthy. So there is no particular reason for expecting “build up” of deleterious mutations in a population, even in good times. And, in contrast to your model, when times are hard, those individuals carrying genes that already compromise their chances of successful reproduction are more likely to be “purged” from the population than those carrying more reproductively advantageous genes. Although clearly, some mutations will be advantageous under certain environmental conditions, and disadvantageous under others. So you would expect, under this hypothesis, for times of rapid environmental events to coincide with rapid extinction events and rapid rates of speciation.

So I’d agree that stasis and abrupt extinctions are “handily explained by rm+ns.” But I’d maintain that relatively rapid rates of evolution are also handily explained by the same mechanism. Because, to return to the subject of Dr. Dembski’s OP, that “rm+ns” is an intelligent system. It chooses and it learns, and thus tends towards optimal solutions for current conditions.

You write:

The bit of evolution rm+ns can’t adequately explain is the abrubt origin of new species with markedly different and unique anatomical features which is also part of the indisputable testimony of the fossil record.

Well, hmm, not exactly “indisputable”. Sure, it’s a discrete record, because fossilisation is a discrete event, but there are some pretty impressive transitional series out there. But in any case if you are arguing (as I think you should not) that the fossil record indicates the emergence of abrupt novel features, then it puzzles me that you should then comment:

Origination of novel cell types, tissue types, organs, and body plans has not been observed in historical times.

because of course I would agree. Incremental change, which is what is postulated by the Theory of Evolution would not lead to the prediction of “novel tissue types, organs and body plans” when observed at the sampling rate possible through observations recorded by human beings in historical times. What we see instead, as predicted by the ToE, is incremental adaptation, and occasionally the beginnings of speciation. The “abrupt” changes in the fossil record are not abrupt over a historical time-scale.

Any stories of how these things originated, and they must have originated thousands of times to get from bacteria to babboons, are works of fiction. Adding insult to injury, when the probablistic resources of rm+ns are scrutinized with 21st century knowledge of the complexities involved that particular fiction doesn’t even pass the giggle test.

Well, there we will probably have to agree to differ. I do not consider it likely that “novel cell types, tissue types, organs, and body plans” ever appeared. It seems much more probable to me, and consistent with both the fossil and the genetic evidence, that modern bacteria and baboons are the end products of separate lines of incremental change from an common ancestor that probably resembles neither. So I don’t even share your premise. And so I don’t find the postulate either incredible or funny. But all postulates are, in a sense “fiction” - science isn’t about certainty, as I’m sure you would agree, but about provisional models of reality that are always subject to potential falsification.

In peace,


I think I am falling in love with Lizzie…

Not to be left behind, our friend and Young Earth Creationist, Salvador Cordova joins the fray

Sal wrote:

I encourage your consideration of literature that is highly critical of of Darwinain evolution on simple theoretical and empirical grounds.

Nothing so far of Lizzie’s arguments against Dembski. But then again, Sal, ‘I will take a grenade for Dembski’ is not there to argue these uncomfortable points.

Febble’s detect Sal’s weakness and responds

Febble wrote:

Thanks for the welcome.

I think what I find odd about the Intelligent Design versus Theory of Evolution debate is that there seems to be very little discussion of what constitutes intelligence. And as a neuroscientist, intelligence - or cognition - is what I am interested in.

So, having spent a day at the workface trying to figure out the kinds of algorithms an intelligent person might be using to solve a cognitive task I have set them (and trying to get measures of the patterns of neural firing that might shed light on this problem) , it feels odd to be confronted by an argument about whether or not a design could be the product of “natural” or “intelligent” processes. For me, intelligent processes are natural, and figuring out their nature is what earns me my living.

So in the post of yours that you link to (and thanks for the link), you define something as “designed” (presumably “intelligently”) if cannot be accounted for by “natural law “ or “chance” .

Now I understand that there may be legitimate philosophical and theological debate about whether cognition is the product of anything more than a vast array of neural processes, and my own view, as a theist, is that there is more to the person than the sum of the neurons by which they know and interact with the “natural” world. But I regard that view as an act of faith - I do believe, as I said upthread, in individual responsibility on some cosmic scale that matters. I think it matters to God. I define God to myself as the entity to whom my actions ultimately matter, and who is present in everyone. But enough theology…

As a neuroscientist, I consider the bit of me that does that kind of theosophizing is my brain. And it’s made of neurons, which, through a cascade of processes, transmit electrical impulses through my nervous system. It’s a complex system. But I see no reason to suppose it is not a natural one.

So the question as to how that complex system came to be “designed” is not for me a particularly burning one. I assume it was designed by the same kinds of process by which I think - in fact, by which Imyself “design” By a natural intelligence. And I consider the mechanism by which variance in our genetic inheritance interacts with natural selective pressures is an intelligent system. An extremely intelligent system, though not, I suggest a conscious one (although I suppose you might conceivable call it the mind of God….).

So my problem with the arguments I have read that pit ID arguments against the ToE is not that I think the evidence invoked for ID is invalid, but that that the intelligence it is evidence for is the intelligence of a complex natural system.

I don’t know at what stage one can sensibly call a system of rules “intelligent”. As I said, upthread, ordinary English usage would not allow a sieve, and certainly not an unreliable sieve, to be called “intelligent”. But if we define intelligence as Dr. Dembski has done as, essentially, being an agent with the power of choice between options, then the reductio ad absurdum is to a sieve. Or, more sensibly, any “natural law”.

I think one of the most misleading words in the whole debate, in fact, is the word “random”. Without getting into whether or not the universe is deterministic or not (and I’ll stick with the quantum physicists who say that it is not), for practical purposes, things have causes. Chemistry is full of rules. Some things bind to other things in a particular way. Some things have affinities for other things; some things don’t mix, like oil and water. Some things are catalysts, and affect the way other things bond. This system of rules means that natural algorithms are occurring all the time, and varied, often complex structures and compounds are the result. Now this all might be the product of a vastly intelligent First Mover, or it might just be the Way Things Are. But it is, nonetheless, the Way Things Are, now, and were, as I consider the evidence suggests, on the earth four billion years ago. And I see no intrinsic reason to doubt that, given that we are here now, as complex organisms whose minds and bodies function by means of complex cascades of chemical “if…then” algorithms, that we didn’t emerge from much simpler chemical algorithms four billion years ago.

The universe, as I see it, is an intelligent system. As soon as it diversified, with different forces having different rules, it became a vast algorithm, generating complexity, not by “chance” but by a sequence of algorithms so complex (and at stochastic at a quantum level) that “random” is often a convenient shorthand by which to describe it. I don’t think we are the result of random processes. I think we are the result of intelligent processes, and that that intelligence, as with our own, is embodied in the “natural laws” that govern the matter of which we - and the entire universe - are made.

For which, of course, as a theist, I give thanks to God.



Back to Davescot who attempts to (re)define intelligence

Davescot wrote:

One of the hallmarks I use in defining intelligence in the context of intelligent design is the ability to plan for the future. Natural selection can only select among things that have been realized. Proactive vs. reactive.

Lizzie returns

Lizzie wrote:

Yes, I would agree that planning is an key component of intelligence as-we-know-it. However, I do not attribute intelligence to “natural selection”, but to the entire system, including replication with modification. And there are different levels of planning.

As intelligent animals, we certainly plan - and one model of the way in which we do this is that we make neural models of possible actions and their consequences - and only enact the one that suits our purposes best. We leave the rest as models.

Natural selection +replication with modification doesn’t do that, of course. It cannot rehearse possible future courses of action, and choose the best. It’s gotta do what it’s gotta do. However, it does do a form of planning that we also do, and so do less intelligent animals, which is that it learns. While it may not plan novel strategies de novo or from observation, it learns from direct experience, as we do. If it makes a mistake, it doesn’t repeat the mistake. It makes sure that in the future it does what worked last time. So in that limited sense, yes, it “plans”. It “chooses” what worked, rather than what didn’t. And like us, sometimes it gets lucky by accident, and remembers that trick too.

And as a strategy, that works pretty well. It may be described as “trial and error” learning, but that is a bit of a misnomer, as “trial-and-error” could just as easily describe random search. Trial-and-error learning involves, well, learning . It’s much more efficient than random search because you learn from your successes and your mistakes. Natural selection + replication with modification also learns from both its successes and its mistakes, which makes it moderately intelligent.


Well, I think its a semantic issue. I’m probably predisposed to see the evolutionary mechanism as “intelligent” because it’s the kind of mechanism I model when I am trying to model intelligent behaviour - particularly learning. And one thing that human beings do when they learn is learn bad habits. And instead of correcting their bad habits, they learn to compensate with some learned behaviour. The classic icons of “bad design” would, in my terms be “bad habits”. Some of them are cool though. I do like those weird wasps.



Causing Davescot to express his ignorance for all to see

Davescot wrote:

You’re still making mistakes in describing rm+ns. Saying it learns from mistakes is misleading. It needs constant reinforcement of what it learns or it forgets even faster than it learned. This known as conservation of genomic information. Anything that is not immediately useful (no selection value) is not conserved within the genome forever. The genomic information with no immediate use gets peppered with random mutations and quickly becomes useless as a result. This is really basic stuff you don’t know.

Of course, Davescot did not allow Febble to respond to his ignorant posting.

And that is, my dear friends, the sad story of Intelligent Design, who invites people to comment on a particular event and when a well informed person politely responds, in a manner devastating to the cause, the person is treated with non-sequitors and other fallacies. And when it becomes clear that she has gained the upper hand in the discussions, she is unceremoniously booted out.

Not only is ID scientifically and theologically vacuous, it also is not ready for any peer review. I wonder if ID activists who are rooting for ‘teaching the controversy’ where expecting a form of ‘controversy’ about their own thesis… How ironically appropriate to see how ID is forced back into the shadows of our ignorance. Next time, I bet that ID activists will be more careful in chosing their opponents, and avoid anyone who is familiar with uncovering ‘fraud’.

The pattern instead is consistent with the E-M hypothesis of “reluctant Bush responders”, provided we postulate a large degree of variance in the degree and direction of bias across precinct types. Mathematically, the observed pattern could arise from widespread fraud as well as from widespread response bias; differential vote spoilage rates for Kerry votes, or “ballot stuffing” of Bush votes, would produce results indistinguishable from “reluctant Bush responders.” However, this is not the inference currently drawn from the data by USCV in their report.

PvM: Updated with reformatting some of the quotes per Febble’s request