Evolution 2.0 vs Intelligent Design: A Preliminary Response to Perry Marshall

A few days ago I was listening to an episode of Unbelieveable?, the fantastic radio debate show and podcast at Premier Christian Radio. The episode was a fairly recent one between Stephen Meyer and Perry Marshall. Marshall is the author of Evolution 2.0 and writes at his blog Cosmic Fingerprints. I’ve read some of his work and he makes some interesting points, though I find myself disagreeing on many issues. Essentially, his contention is that biological complexity is best explained not by conventional evolutionary theory or standard ID, but by the mechanisms proposed by those promoting the ‘Third Way‘ and the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis. For him, the explanation for biological complexity lies within the cell itself because cells are essentially intelligent agents, capable of doing their own design work. I plan to examine Marshall’s work in more detail in the future but for now I want to briefly comment on one of his more recent blog posts where he reflects on his discussion with Stephen Meyer. The post in question featured a comment from another listener followed by Marshall’s own thoughts on the debate and Meyer’s approach. Here’s what he says:

The Discovery Institute people are NOT happy with my view of biology, where the intelligence resides in the cells. They consider that heresy.(1)

It’s not that ID theorists are unhappy with Marshall’s view. I wouldn’t say that Marshall’s view is necessarily incompatible with ID. I’ve noticed in most of his work that he takes a very narrow view of what ID is and tries to turn it into something that it’s not. The reason why Meyer and others don’t think much of ‘Evolution 2.0’ is that it doesn’t go far enough, and thus fails to explain biological complexity. It may well be the case that cells have some form of intelligence, and Meyer doesn’t outright reject this view, but that doesn’t explain the origin of information. This was pointed out by one commenter who wrote:

Nowhere did he reject the notion of cellular intelligence as an explanatory tool in biology. His point was that a) its scope and power is as yet unproven and b) at best it pushes back the design question one step. Cellular intelligence cannot explain the origin of cellular intelligence.(2)

As others have argued, it leaves us with an unsolved chicken and egg problem. Marshall responded by saying that Meyer rejected the ability of cellular intelligence to produce macro-evolution. Even if he did, his primary point was that it doesn’t explain the type of information in the cell. Marshall himself agrees with this and writes ‘So the larger question is: Where do codes come from in the first place?’.(3) This is the same question ID theorists have been asking for decades, and they answer that question with ‘intelligence’. Marshall worries that Meyer is arguing that ‘the emergence of life on earth is a series of miraculous events that cannot be observed or reproduced by scientists.'(4) The problem is, observability and repeatability aren’t the be-all and end-all of science. Any event that happened in the distant past cannot be observed, so we can only make inferences. What design proponents claim is that the complexity in the cell cannot be reproduced naturalistically or without reference to intelligent causation. But like observability, naturalism isn’t an essential part of science. Meyer may think that there are miraculous, ontic discontinuities in life’s history, but let’s not confuse Meyer’s personal views about the implementation of design with design simpliciter. More importantly, I don’t think is a fair representation of what he thinks.

A Gap in Marshall’s Reasoning

For Marshall, ID can only be a theological, ultimate explanation for the biological world. He’s unwilling to posit intelligence beyond the natural world itself because according to him that would mean using ‘God of the gaps’ reasoning. This is one of the points that he insists on despite continual correction. He writes in response to one commenter that ‘Meyer claimed to NOT be making a God-of-Gaps argument when in fact he was doing precisely that.'(5) In a more detailed comment on his commentary of the debate with Meyer he says:

“The Cambrian explosion wasn’t caused by naturalistic evolution, it was caused by Intelligent Design” or “Origin of life was an act of Intelligent Design” are by definition God-of-Gaps arguments…

The Discovery Institute can claim it’s not a God argument, and instead say it’s an information and intelligence argument, but at the end of the day, if it’s not from the innate capacity of the cell or some process we can model, observe and describe, then it’s supernatural. Just because intelligence is “inference to the best explanation” doesn’t make it not a God-of-Gaps argument. It’s still God-of-Gaps.

…despite Meyer’s insistence to the contrary, Intelligent Design is still God of the gaps.(6)

Marshall is completely off the mark here. It certainly isn’t, logically speaking, a stark choice between the options he lays out. A gaps argument is a negative one, yet an inference to the best explanation is by definition a positive argument. This is a basic logical point, yet he fails to grasp it. All ID appeals to is intelligence. It would be absurd for someone to object to an inference to design, after observing Mount Rushmore, by responding ‘that’s just an intelligence of the gaps, we must be able to account for it in terms of wind and erosion’. The ‘gaps’ objection is as much an illogical one to what ID theorists are arguing as it is in the Mount Rushmore example. ID doesn’t require God of the gaps thinking, because it doesn’t even posit God. Though most design theorists do think the designer is God, that is not a conclusion forced by ID itself. And the fact is that there are also some supporters who don’t identify the intelligence with a deity. Marshall merely continues to assert that ID is ‘God of the gaps’ argument, yet he provides no support for this claim. I’d like to see Marshall take a more open and charitable view to what design theorists actually think instead of forcing it into the tiny box he wants it to be in.

At bottom, I think Marshall’s error lies in his simplistic philosophy of science. He claims ‘A scientist must discover natural processes using the scientific method.’.(3) He might be surprised to learn that amongst scientists and philosophers, there is no agreement on what ‘the scientific method’ is. No one has yet solved the vexing demarcation problem. What we can say is that there are various reliable methods we use to elucidate the natural world and we often use terms such as ‘testibility’, ‘falsifiability’, ‘observation’, ‘experiment’, ‘repeatable’, ‘prediction’, and ’empirical’ to describe scientific conduct. The problem is that no one can agree on whether science must have all these attributes, or whether some are more necessary than others. As soon as we try to describe a black and white ‘scientific method’ we run into serious problems. Related to Marshall’s view of science is his insistence on methodological naturalism. This is an area that has been debated over and over in discussions about design. Again this is a disagreement about scientific methodology and many believe methodological naturalism to be highly dubious as a necessary requirement for science.

Old-Earth Creationism?

Marshall goes on to write that:

What this debate shows is that Intelligent Design a la Discovery Institute is actually Old Earth Creationism. Also, my debates with Stephen Meyer have also made it clear to me that a large number of Discovery Institute supporters are actually Young Earth Creationists.(7)

This is a serious misrepresentation of their position. If he has read much ID material, he can’t have understood it properly. The Discovery Institute define ID this way:

The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.(8)

Of course, one might claim that how one defines a view could be different to what it actually is in practice, but conceptually speaking, there is nothing in this definition that necessitates Old Earth Creationism. ID could only be a form of creationism if it refers to a deity in its definition. ID is an inclusive view that has a minimalistic commitment to design in nature. As a result, it can be supported by any view that allows design as a possibility. This could include Young and Old Earth Creationism but it could also include views that hold to an intrinsic teleology, which could be compatible with various non-theistic worldviews.

The commenter Marshall was responding to wrote ‘I always thought that, in principle, the concept of ID accepted any form of intelligent cause, not just the God answer.'(9) As far as I know, no design proponent has ever argued on scientific grounds that only God can be the intelligence in question. ID is compatible with any view of intelligent causation. If a design theorist does object to non-theistic interpretations of ID, that would be on theological and philosophical grounds.

Marshall’s misunderstandings about ID can be seen all too clearly in another post he wrote, comparing neo-Darwinism, ID, and his ‘Evolution 2.0’ (which he lumps in with ‘the third way’ and the extended synthesis). He puts these differing views in a chart to illustrate where the differences lie. Unfortunately it presents a very simplistic picture and again misrepresents ID’s stance on various areas. Below I have reproduced part of his chart, singling out his comments on design (10):

(Intelligent Design)

Origin of Life: Created by an Intelligent Designer

Speed: Instantaneous events of intervention

Sources of Novelty: Insertion of information by outside agent

Scientific Status: Supported by inference; not possible to experimentally demonstrate; rejects methodological naturalism

Implications for Humanity: Man is a special creation

Implications for Science & Technology: Scientists can study designs, but not the design process

Causality: Top-down

Implications for Spirituality: Most commonly associated with evangelical Christianity

As you can see, there are various problems with this chart. The first thing to point out is that the three views outlined in his original chart aren’t mutually exclusive. I’m sure Marshall will know this, but it’s important to realise that ID is broad enough to accommodate many of the insights made by neo-Darwinism and the extended evolutionary synthesis (if one could even make such a stark distinction). All the ID position is committed to is the view that though the various mechanisms proposed might explain much of the biological realm, they fail when it comes to explaining the features that design theorists have identified. As to some of the specific points shown above, Marshall seems to think that ID is committed to some sort of external intervention as opposed to gradualism and also that it must view humans as being specially created. This isn’t correct. ID isn’t committed to non-gradualism, interventionism, or special creation. William Dembski writes that:

Intelligent design does not require organisms to emerge suddenly or to be specially created from scratch by the intervention of a designing intelligence. To be sure, intelligent design is compatible with the creationist idea of organisms being created from scratch. But it is also perfectly compatible with the evolutionist idea of new organisms arising from old by a gradual accrual of change. What separates intelligent design from naturalistic evolution is not whether organisms evolved or the extent to which they evolved but what was responsible for their evolution.(11)

More recently I listened to another discussion Marshall had. This time it was with ID theorist Jonathan McLatchie on his Apologetics Academy. This was interesting because it made clearer some of Marshall’s thoughts. I was pleased to see Jonathan and a couple of others put many of the points I have addressed here to him. It is clear that when pushed, Marshall was prepared to acknowledge some of the subtleties of ID theory and he did at times make a distinction between interventionist ID and other versions. However, he must make these distinctions in his written work if he is to represent ID accurately, and I haven’t seen any retractions on his blog yet. Frustratingly, though the ‘God of the gaps’ objection and his dubious philosophy of science were robustly questioned by others in the discussion, he continued to fail to grasp these points. He admitted himself several times that he has a predisposed theological bias towards naturalistic explanations in science. And that’s that. There isn’t much you can do with such an unreasonably recalcitrant bias toward naturalism.

In summary then, a preliminary analysis of some of Marshall’s work shows that there are some serious problems with his take on intelligent design and his broader thesis of ‘Evolution 2.0’. As I said at the beginning of this article, I’d like to take a closer look at Marshall’s work, in particular his book and other writings. This isn’t intended as a comprehensive refutation of his work, for there is much in Marshall’s thinking that an ID proponent can agree with. However it is clear that his notion of ‘Evolution 2.0’ perhaps isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and he needs to seriously revise his understanding of intelligent design. Marshall writes, ‘I do not believe that I have misrepresented ID in any way, shape or form. I understand ID very very well.'(12) I beg to differ. As one can see from this cursory analysis, Marshall understands very little about ID.



References

  1. Perry Marshall, Is Intelligent Design really just Old Earth Creationism?, Available at: http://cosmicfingerprints.com/intelligent-design-creationism/
  2. ibid.
  3. Perry Marshall, Truth or Market Share? Intelligent Design vs. Evolution 2.0, Available at: http://cosmicfingerprints.com/id-vs-evolution/
  4. Perry Marshall, Is Intelligent Design really just Old Earth Creationism?.
  5. ibid.
  6. Perry Marshall, Stephen Meyer Debates Perry Marshall – Intelligent Design vs. Evolution 2.0, Available at: http://cosmicfingerprints.com/stephen-meyer-debate/
  7. Perry Marshall, Is Intelligent Design really just Old Earth Creationism?.
  8. Discovery Institute, Frequently Asked Questions, Available at: http://www.discovery.org/id/faqs/
  9. Perry Marshall, Is Intelligent Design really just Old Earth Creationism?.
  10. Perry Marshall, Darwinism vs. ID vs. Evolution 2.0, Available at: http://cosmicfingerprints.com/chart/
  11. William Dembski, The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design (InterVarsity Press, 2004), p.179
  12. Perry Marshall, Is Intelligent Design really just Old Earth Creationism?.
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Peter S. Williams & Denis Alexander’s Dialogue on Intelligent Design

In this post, I wanted to draw attention to a particular written dialogue between ID advocate/philosopher Peter S. Williams and biologist/ID critic, Denis Alexander. Both Williams and Alexander are committed Christians (Williams being one of the UK’s foremost Christian philosophers and Alexander being the director of the Faraday Institute for Religion and Science), so in terms of their broader worldviews, they have much in common. Denis Alexander is a Christian neo-Darwinist, which would put his views pretty much in line with the Biologos crowd (in fact he is one of the bloggers at Biologos). Alexander has critiqued various aspects of ID in many publications¹

Back in 2006, Alexander had an article published on the website Bethinking.org called Creation and Evolution?. In it he discusses theistic evolution, creationism, and ID. Subsequently, Peter S. Williams penned an interesting piece in the form of a hypothetical dialogue called Theistic Evolution & Intelligent Design in Dialogue. There are several characters in the dialogue who are coming from various perspectives in the origins debate. This article was written as some form of response to Alexander’s initial article. In response to this, Alexander wrote Designs on Science, an open letter to the characters in Peter Williams’ dialogue, which neatly summarizes some of Alexander’s criticisms of ID. Finally, in response to Alexander, Peter Williams wrote Intelligent Designs on Science: A Surreply to Denis Alexander. This was the concluding part of their dialogue.

It is well worth reading through the dialogue from start to finish. Both authors engage in a polite and cordial fashion throughout, and much ground is covered in great depth. In particular, Williams’ concluding response is very lengthy (25.000 words with almost 300 footnotes) and very well researched, and to my mind constitutes a devastating refutation of Alexander’s objections to design. In addition to this, Williams presents a strong positive case for ID. Of course, Williams doesn’t answer everything that Alexander has written on ID but he deals with the most salient points.

In future, I shall be writing my own response to some of Denis Alexander’s more recent publications on intelligent design.

  1.  Denis Alexander has critiqued ID extensively in books such as Creation or Evolution: Do We Have To Choose?The Language of Genetics: An IntroductionRescuing Darwin: God and Evolution in Britain TodayBeyond Belief: Science, Faith and Ethical ChallengesRebuilding the Matrix: Science And Faith In The 21St Century. On top of these, he has published many articles on the topic including Is Intelligent Design Biblical?Intelligent design is not scienceA Critique of Intelligent DesignA Response to Should Christians Embrace Evolution?

 

Critic’s Corner: Elliott Sober

Elliott Sober is a highly respected professor of philosphy at University of Wisconsin-Madison. His main fields of interest are philosophy of science and philosophy of biology.

Sober has interacted quite a bit with ID theorists, and has published several interesting papers and books advancing his take on ID and evolution. To my mind he is a very thoughtful critic, whose responses to ID present quite a strong challenge. That being said, I think design advocates have also done a good job at replying to Sober’s criticisms. Sober’s output is pretty vast so in this post I have only link to his published works related to evolution and ID:

Books by Sober

Papers/Articles

(Sober’s papers directly related to ID can be found at the bottom of his page)

Selected Papers

Intelligent Design, Irreducible Complexity, and Minds-A Reply to John Beaudoin

Popper’s Shifting Appraisal of Evolutionary Theory-(with Mehmet Elgin

Media

Lectures and Interviews

Youtube Playlist

(Podcast Episodes)

Think Atheist: Episode 43

Elliott Sober on Darwin’s Theory

Darwin or Design with Jason Rennie

 

Responses

(Books)

William Dembski responds to Sober in:

-No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence (Roman & Littlefield, 2002) in chapter 2: Another Way to Detect Design?

-The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design (Inter-Varsity Press, 2004) at various points.

Bradley Monton Responds to Sober on p.42-46 of Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design (Broadview Press, 2009)

David Reuben Stone responds to Sober in The Loftus Delusion: Why Atheism Fails and Messianic Israelism Prevails (2010) in chapter one ‘Intelligent Design and Modus Tollens’.

 

(Papers & Articles)

A Critique of the Rejection of Intelligent Design as a Scientific Hypothesis by Elliott Sober from His Book Evidence and EvolutionJames LeMaster

Testability of Intelligent Design Argument in the Perspective of Quantitative Methodology-Chong Ho Yu

Firing Squads and Fine Tuning: Sober on the Design Argument-Jonathan Weisberg

Sober on Intelligent Design and the Intelligent Designer-John Beaudoin 

Another Way to Detect Design? A Preliminary Reply-William Dembski

Another Way to Detect Design? Lecture Notes-William Dembski

Elliott Sober’s Independent Evidence Requirement for Design– William Dembski

If Not Natural Selection?(A review of Steven Hecht Orzack and Elliott Sober, eds., Adaptationism and Optimality)William A. Dembski

Sober’s “Progenic Fallacy”-William Dembski

Elliott Sober, Alvin Plantinga and the Design Argument-Graham Veale & David Glass

A Critique of Elliott Sober’s Goals and Abilities Objection to the Design Argument-Daniel Lim

On the Logic of Evolution and the Vanity of Scientism-Thomas E. Elliott

Observation Selection Effects and the Fine-Tuning Argument for Cosmic Design
Jonathan Lipps

Epistemology, Miracles, and the God Who Speaks-Lydia McGrew

Historical Inquiry-Lydia McGrew

Testability, Likelihoods, and Design -Lydia McGrew

Elliot Sober: Just Don’t Call the Designer “God” (Part 1/Part 2)-Sean D. Pitman

Empiricism and Intelligent Design I: Three Empiricist Challenges-Sebastian Lutz

On Likelihoodism and Intelligent Design-Sebastian Lutz

On Elliott Sober’s Challenge for Biological Design Arguments-Troy Nunley

Fossils, Fishnets, Fine­tuning…and Flaws in Sober’s Defense of Common Ancestry-Troy Nunley

Fishnets, Firing Squads, and Fine-Tuning (Again): How Likelihood Arguments Undermine Elliot Sober’s Weak Anthropic Principles-Troy Nunley

Where the Design Argument Goes Wrong: Auxiliary Assumptions and UnificationMaarten Boudry & Bert Leuridan

Thomas Nagel vs. His Critics: Has Neo-Darwinian Evolution Failed, and Can Teleological Naturalism Take its Place?-Vincent Torley 

Sober and Irreducible Complexity-Dave S

Deconstructing Sober-Dave S

“No Designer Worth His Salt”? At the University of Chicago, Gregory Radick Critiques the Theology of Darwinism

Sober Analysis-Logan Gage

What is Wrong with Sober’s Attack on ID? (Part 1/Part 2/Part 3/Part 4)-Casey Luskin

Cornelius Hunter’s Blogposts on Sober

Getting Sober About Survival (Part 1/Part 2/Part 3)-Michael Sudduth

Probabilistic Modus Tollens and the Design Argument-Alan Rhoda

Nagel and his critics, Part III-Edward Feser

The “Achilles’ Heel” of the Design Argument?

Sober Continued

Sober, Arbuthnot and Fisher

Elliott Sober: Confusing Religion and Philosophy-Jeremy Pierce

Sober on ID being Inherently Supernatural-Bradley Monton