My letter to New Scientist

In the 16 December issue of New Scientist, there was an editorial (“It’s still about Religion”, subscription required) and an article “The God Lab” (free access), which investigated the Biologic Institute, an institute that was set up with money from the Discovery Institute supposedly to do laboratory work into Intelligent Design. Not surprisingly, the Biologic Institute does not come out well. On the 13th of January, Douglas Axe, Brendan Dixon and Ann Gauger wrote a letter (subscription required) addressing the editorial, saying they are convinced that Intelligent Design will lead to good science, but they won’t talk until their research is finished. I wrote a letter myself in response, but it didn’t make it into either the print or web letters. For the record, here is my unpublished letter.

Douglas Axe, and fellow members of the Biologic Institute claim that they are doing science (Letters 13 January Pg 18), and that they insist on completing their research projects before talking about them. However, this has not stopped their sponsors, the Discovery Institute from funding and distributing glossy DVD’s on Intelligent Design to schools, promoting Intelligent Design in various political fora, nor from funding expensive (and ultimately disastrous) legal forays to support teaching of Intelligent Design in High Schools. Indeed, their admission that only now, 16 years after the beginning of the Intelligent Design movement, are they beginning to get around to doing any research at all is a damning indictment of the movement.

In contrast, Stanley Prusiner, who came up with the truly heretical idea that the scrapie agent was a self-replicating protein (prions), had published over 250 papers alone, and won a Noble Prize in less than 16 years. Hundreds of more papers were produced by others in the same time frame, in a fruitful research program. And yet the concept of prions was a truly radical and unpopular one, striking at some of our central notions of how cells work. That the Intelligent Design movement has failed to do any scientific research themselves yet, let alone inspire other to do research, shows the intellectual and scientific vacuity of intelligent design.

Disclaimer, Ian Musgrave is a chapter contributor to Why Intelligent Design Fails (reviewed New Scientist 17 July 2004, p 47)

Now there is not much you can go into with a letter to the editor. I was pretty gobsmacked by this statement from Axe and co.

If that [the ability of nature to produce complex systems without intelligent input] is wrong - and we think it is - whole new fields open up, waiting to be explored. Perhaps neurobiologists would learn something from computer designers and network whizzes. Maybe systems biologists would start hanging out with systems engineers.

Where have these people been? Engineers, computer scientists and biologists have been hanging out together for as long as the respective disciplines have existed. At just one local university, people are studying visual systems of insects to improve robotic vision and motion sensors. To quote from one of the researchers here:

How has the brain evolved to optimally extract the features from scenes that are most relevant to the behavior adopted?…….We adopt a wide variety of techniques drawn from biology, computer science and engineering to augment our basic neurophysiological approach to studying this system.

And there are hundreds, if not thousands of collaborations like this around the world. In many cases, evolutionary biology has informed engineering, just like the evolutionary algorithms that are used to design aircraft wings and antenna. Computer designers have been working with neurobiologists for decades (what about brain cells on a chip).

If Douglas Axe and his co-signers are so badly misinformed about something as basic and well known as the relations between engineers, computer designers and biologists, can we trust their judgment on any research that comes out of this Institute?