Intelligent Design for Dummies, Part 1

Book Cover

Glenn Branch is deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit organization that defends the integrity of American science education against ideological interference. He is the author of numerous articles on evolution education and climate education, and obstacles to them, in such publications as Scientific American, American Educator, The American Biology Teacher, and the Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics, and the co-editor, with Eugenie C. Scott, of Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design is Wrong for Our Schools (2006). He received the Evolution Education Award for 2020 from the National Association of Biology Teachers.

Stephen Jay Gould’s discussion of the panda’s thumb in his essay of the same name, originally published in 1978, is often misrepresented as describing the false thumb of Ailuropoda melanoleuca as ineffective in practice rather than as inelegant in origin. A recent incidence of such misrepresentation prompted Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education to provide his discussion of a similar misrepresentation in a 2000 cartoon presentation of intelligent design, originally published on the Metanexus: The Online Forum on Religion and Science website in two parts on August 15 and 16, 2002. The following appears here in conformity with Metanexus’s republication policy and with Branch’s permission. Minor changes, primarily regarding punctuation, have been made invisibly, and a few updates have been included in square brackets. This is part 1 of 2.

Intelligent design, according to Michael Behe,

must be ranked as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science. The discovery rivals those of Newton and Einstein, Lavoisier and Schrodinger, Pasteur, and Darwin. The observation of the intelligent design of life is as momentous as the observation that the earth goes around the sun or that disease is caused by bacteria or that radiation is emitted by quanta (Behe 1996: 232–233).

Such a great scientific achievement, of course, deserves a careful exposition in a suitably scholarly format. But instead what it received is What’s Darwin Got to Do With It? (henceforth, for brevity, WDGDWI), Robert C. Newman and John L. Wiester’s cartoon treatment of intelligent design (Newman and Wiester 2000).

WDGDWI is clearly a product of the notorious Wedge strategy for promoting intelligent design creationism, devised by Phillip Johnson (who lauds the book as “deadly accurate — and more fun than a barrel of Australopithecines”) and implemented by the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture [now Center for Science and Culture] (Forrest 2002). WDGDWI’s dedication thanks the DI’s CRSC for “its technical, critical and financial support” (page iv), and both Janet and Jonathan Moneymaker, who collaborated with Newman and Wiester on the book, are [as of 2002] Fellows of the CRSC. (According to Newman’s posting on’s page for WDGDWI [no longer available], the cartoons are mainly Janet Moneymaker’s, the story line is mainly due to Newman and Jonathan Moneymaker, and the bulk of the task of providing “the science input” was Wiester’s.) Access Research Network, a “research partner” of the CRSC, is currently [as of 2002] promoting WDGDWI as part of its Teachers’ Origin Resource Kit.

To be sure, neither Newman nor Wiester is directly associated with the DI’s CRSC. Newman is [now emeritus] professor of New Testament at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pennsylvania [now Missio Seminary in Philadelphia], and director of the Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute,

a group of Christians who see a desperate need for men and women convinced of the complete reliability of the Bible who will: (1) get training both in Biblical studies and in some other academic discipline, and (2) use this training to help other Christians deal with the many areas where non-Christian teaching is so dominant today.

IBRI is also thanked in the dedication of WDGDWI for its financial support. Wiester is [as of 2002] a part-time instructor in biology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, and the chairman of the Science Education Commission of the American Scientific Affiliation.

WDGDWI purports to be “a friendly conversation about evolution” that “makes sense” of “Darwin, creationism, and intelligent design” for high school students; the conversation takes place between Professor Teller, “an advocate of Darwinism” (page vi), and Professor Questor, who disavows the label “creationist,” preferring instead to be known as a design theorist (page 7); the message implicit in their surnames is too obvious to require comment. It is instructive to compare Questor’s disavowal with what Newman wrote 25 years ago: “We advocate a third, intermediate view usually labeled ‘progressive creationism’” (Newman and Eckelmann 1977: 11). As late as 1999, he declared himself to be an old-earth, or progressive, creationist (Newman 1999: 105). Wiester is cagier about his allegiances, staunchly insisting that the issue is not between creationism and evolution but between Darwinism and intelligent design (Wiester 2000). But his The Genesis Connection (Wiester 1992) is identified as a work of old-earth creationism by none other than his present collaborator (Newman 1999: 107n1). Still, WDGDWI proclaims, and largely complies with, the thesis that “[d]esign theory is not derived from religious authority nor from appeals to Scripture” (page 136).

Before its publication, WDGDWI was heralded in various sectarian publications under several different names: Darwin Ate My Homework (DeHaan and Wiester 1999: 65); Darwinism for Skeptics ([Anonymous] 1999). I think that Intelligent Design for Dummies would have been better (with due apologies to IDG Books Worldwide, the publisher of the “For Dummies” books). A pedant, Bertrand Russell quipped, is a man who likes his statements to be true; pedantry in Russell’s sense was in no way involved in the production of WDGDWI. I propose to remedy the lack by carefully examining Newman and Wiester’s treatment of the panda’s thumb, discussed on pages 72–78 of WDGDWI, which represents the general level of discussion of the book. Even in the limited space of these six pages, it becomes quite clear that, to paraphrase Gibbon’s observation about Augustine, their learning is too often borrowed, and their arguments are too often their own.

The discussion of the panda’s thumb begins when Teller, throwing up his hands, expostulates,

Well, even if you can raise some questions about whether Darwinism is the only way to explain living things, they certainly weren’t made by an all-wise God. Consider the panda, for example (page 72).

Newman and Wiester then write, “According to Stephen Jay Gould, the panda’s thumb is proof of Darwinism. Imperfect design proves that the creative power at work is not intelligent” (page 73). WDGDWI is of course not a scholarly treatise and contains no footnotes — but remember Chick Publications’ comic book tract Big Daddy?, which is replete with footnotes from the Institute for Creation Research and Kent Hovind? — but the appendix on background information refers to The Panda’s Thumb, and presumably the first essay in it (Gould 1980). Newman and Wiester paraphrase Gould’s famous discussion, putting part of it in the mouth of Teller (and managing to reproduce the punctuation incorrectly, if harmlessly, in a verbatim quotation). Questor replies, “I have three problems with your story” (page 73).

The First Problem

Questor quotes a passage from the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes (whose surprising presence here is discussed below) to the effect that the regularity of the seasons is evidence for intelligent design; schematically, Diogenes is arguing:

The seasons are arranged in the best possible way. If something is arranged in the best possible way, then it was designed. Therefore, the seasons were designed.

The argument elicits the following protest from Teller: “You can’t call it design just because it happens to fit your idea of the way it ought to be” (page 75). Questor then pounces: “My point exactly! Just because the thumb doesn’t fit Gould’s idea of what a thumb should be, how can he conclude that it isn’t designed?” Her point presumably is that if Teller objects to Diogenes’ argument, then he is committed to object to Gould’s argument — crudely,

The panda’s thumb is not arranged in the best possible way. If something was designed, then it is arranged in the best possible way. Therefore, the panda’s thumb was not designed.

— on the same grounds.

Teller’s response is ambiguous. To which premise of Diogenes’ argument is he objecting? If he is objecting to the second premise (that if something is arranged in the best possible way, then it was designed), as the wording of his protest suggests, then Questor’s contention that his objection applies to Gould’s argument is false. Gould’s argument uses, not the second premise of Diogenes’ argument, but its converse (that if something was designed, then it is arranged in the best possible way), which is not logically equivalent to it.

In light of a later description (page 76) of the issue as whether the panda’s thumb is “pleasing to a human observer,” it is perhaps plausible to take Teller as rejecting the first premise on the grounds that judgments about whether or not something is arranged “in the best possible way” are subjective, reflecting only matters of personal preference, and consequently not suitable data for scientific inquiry. But there is no necessity to construe the first premise of Gould’s argument as subjective; it is in principle possible to provide objective biomechanical criteria by which to assess his judgment that “[t]he sesamoid thumb wins no prize in an engineer’s derby” (Gould 1980: 24). (In fairness, if it is possible to provide objective criteria by which to evaluate the first premise of Diogenes’ argument, Teller should retract his objection to it; it is still open to him to reject the argument by rejecting its second premise.)

Thus the first problem, whatever it is, is spurious.

The Second Problem

“Secondly,” Questor continues, “your argument has a logical problem” (page 76). Scribbling on a handy blackboard, she represents Teller’s (and Gould’s) argument as follows (pages 76–77, emphasis in original).

1) If there is a God, He would be ABLE to make organisms with features that are pleasing to a human observer. 2) If he were ABLE to, he WOULD HAVE done so. 3) A practical example is that God would have given the pandas a real thumb. 4) Pandas do not have a real thumb. 5) Hence, God did not make the panda’s thumb. 6) Therefore, Darwinism, the only alternative, produced the thumb.

Questor says that (1) is “debatable, moot, and probably irrelevant” (page 76), a charge remarkable for its vacuity. First, the word “moot” is ambiguous between “debatable” and “irrelevant”; either way, then, the charge is redundant. Second, no doubt (1) is debatable, but Questor chooses not to debate it: “debatable, moot, and probably irrelevant” is all she says. Third, if the task at hand is evaluating the soundness of the argument, (1) is hardly irrelevant: the argument is sound only if (1) is true.

It is just as well, however, that (1) receives no further attention from Questor, for neither Gould nor the hapless Teller asserted it. In both Gould’s argument and Teller’s version of it, what is under consideration is not whether certain biological features please human observers but whether certain biological features are optimally designed to accomplish their functions. The confusion here echoes the confusion about Teller’s objection to the first premise of Diogenes’ argument: the content of the premise is misrepresented, presumably because it is easier to attribute ineradicable subjectivity to our judgments about what is and is not pleasing than to our judgments about what is and is not optimally designed to accomplish its function.

On premise (2), Questor comments, “That’s a theological proposition for which you have no evidence.” Leaving aside the oddity of Newman’s using “theological” as a term of objurgation when he teaches at Biblical Theological Seminary, what of it? Neither Gould nor Teller insists that the argument is wholly scientific in nature; hence there is no reason that they should be debarred from invoking theological propositions in their premises. As for whether there is evidence for (2), certainly any evidence for (2), or against (2), is not likely to be scientific, but again there is no reason to require it to be. As it stands, (2) is certainly in need of more support than it is given — the ancient problem of evil is implicated — but the question of its truth cannot simply be sidestepped by relegating it to the realm of theology. (Ironically, Questor argues similarly shortly thereafter: when Teller says, “Darwinism is still the best naturalistic theory we have,” Questor responds, “I want to know if it’s true” [page 78, emphasis in original].) The same remarks apply, mutatis mutandis, to premise (3), also said by Questor to be theological.

Summarizing, Questor says, “Premises 1–3 are purely theological. Statement 6 is not a conclusion. It’s a claim for which you provide no evidence. At best, it’s a faulty premise, and it’s certainly not justified by statements 1–4. Your conclusion might just as well have been, ‘Therefore, you drive a red car’” (page 77). Her judgment is noteworthy because it manifests Newman and Wiester’s failure to accord with their own exposition of argumentation (which, by the way, is itself rife with error). On page 29, they write, “In the study of logic, an ‘argument’ is a series of statements that tries to prove something,” and they add in a note that “the ‘something’ you’re trying to prove is usually called a proposition or a conclusion” (emphasis in original); the definition of “conclusion” is repeated on page 43. But clearly (6), by their definition, is a conclusion: it is the proposition that Teller is attempting to prove on the basis of the premises of the argument. Questor may believe that the argument to the conclusion (6) is unsound, but it is ludicrous to deny that it is indeed the conclusion of the argument. She fails to be even minimally consistent here: just two panels after denying that (6) is a conclusion, she refers to it as “your conclusion.”

Regardless of Questor’s, and presumably Newman and Wiester’s, confusion about whether (6) is a conclusion, is the argument for (6) valid, or is Questor right to detect a logical problem in it? The subconclusion (5), that God did not make the panda’s thumb, in fact follows validly from the premises, interpreted charitably. (For example, it is necessary to supply the implicit premise that real thumbs are, and the panda’s thumb is not, optimally designed.) As for the conclusion (6), that “Darwinism, the only alternative, produced the thumb,” it is laughably misexpressed. For “Darwinism” is defined as “the belief that undirected mechanistic processes (primarily random mutation and natural selection) can account for all the diverse and complex organisms that exist” (page 10); since the panda’s thumb long predates this belief, it could hardly have been produced by it. Of course, Newman and Wiester intended to say that “Darwinian processes, the only alternative, produced the thumb.” Appropriately revised, and adding the implicit premise that Darwinian processes are the only alternative to divine creation, (6) follows validly from (5), belying Questor’s claim that there is a logical problem with the argument. There is not.

There is, however, a serious exegetical problem with the argument. For the premises entail not only that God did not make the panda’s thumb, but also that God does not exist. (Reduced to their essentials, the premises Questor presents are: if God exists, pandas would have real thumbs; pandas do not have real thumbs. It follows that God does not exist.) Needless to say, Gould’s original argument neither proved nor attempted to prove the nonexistence of God. Whether the unwarranted imputation of atheism to Gould’s argument is due to incompetence or malice, it is clearly a blatant misrepresentation.

The second problem thus is also spurious; in addition, Newman and Wiester’s discussion of the argument for which it is supposed to be a problem verges on the incoherent.