Apr 10 2008

Design, Evolution, and more Semantic Nonsense from ID Proponent, Michael Egnor

The one utility of the Evolution News and Views blog of the Discovery Institute is that it frequently demonstrates that ID proponents do not understand science and logic (or they simply don’t care, or some combination of the two). Dr. Michael Egnor is especially adept at demonstrating this critical lack of understanding, and he’s done it again. His most recent post lays out a few of the classic ID misdirections and misconceptions.

In response to my post in which I pointed out that the question is not whether there is design in nature but whether or not their is top-down (intelligent) design or bottom-up (evolved) design. Egnor argues:

No. Design is always the result of intelligent agency — by definition. It’s always top-down. Design is a mental act. Complexity can arise without intelligent design, but complexity is not the same thing as design. All design arises by intelligent agency, because that’s how design is defined. Consider the definition of design:

He then pulls the classic desperation maneuver of someone who is relying upon a semantic misdirection as if it were a logical argument – quoting a dictionary definition; as if a colloquial definition is relevant to the science. Egnor is presenting the typical “design gambit” of the ID crowd. They start with the premise that there is “design” in nature – but they don’t define design operationally or scientifically. Then they use a colloquial definition of design – that it implies an intelligent agent – and conclude that by definition life was designed by an intelligent agent. By using this purely semantic argument they bypass the actual scientific question – is the end product of life on earth the result of purposeful intelligence or did it emerge through blind natural processes?

As an extension of this Egnor states that bottom-up processes (i.e. evolution) cannot produce “design”, only “complexity.” This statement is vacuous unless you specifically define what is meant by design vs complexity – and I mean define what is meant by them in terms of what you observe. ID proponents have not been able to do this.

Egnor (and ID proponents generally) are exploiting the fact that colloquial language does not possess the scientific specificity required to deal with the relevant questions. Words like “design” and “complexity” are not specific enough as commonly used, in a scientific argument they must be specifically defined – which ID proponents do not do.

I attempted to clarify the situation by separating the concept of “design” into two types: top-down (the result of deliberate planning) and bottom-up (the result of blind but non-random processes. (This concept is not new to me – other writers, like Michael Shermer, have made this observation before.) It actually doesn’t matter what you call these two things – the whole point is to ask what would life look like if it evolved vs what would it look like if it were purposefully planned. That’s the question ID proponents like Egnor don’t want to ask – so they hide behind semantic misdirection (more on this below).

I gave as an illustrative example the difference between a city that “evolved” over many years (a complex interacting system that is the product of many individual decisions with no agency controlling the overall plan) vs a planned city, that was designed in or near its current state. I made the correct observation that these two types of cities would look very different – but Egnor again missed the entire point and focussed on a semantic issue – use of the word “evolved” to refer to a human artifact rather than a natural system. Egnor wrote:

There are no ‘evolved’ cities. All cities are designed, in that they are the product of human minds.

This is a false dichotomy – human activity can evolve. There is cultural “evolution”, languages can evolve, as can technology. This does not imply biological evolution – but rather a complex adaptive system that involves change over time through variation and selection (Egnor restricts his definition to “natural” selection – but market selection will do also). It implies a system that has a history, and that history can been seen in its present form. It is the difference between Esperanto – a made up planned language, and English – an evolved language. Esperanto is much more simple and elegant – it has no history. While English contains words like “knight” – the spelling of which can only be understood in the context of it’s history. It is a point so straightforward I have to wonder if Egnor is being deliberately obtuse.

Also – Egnor is essentially saying that all things that are the product of the human mind are therefore “designed.” This assumes that human activity is never unintentional (a fallacy I propose is henceforth referred to as “Egnor’s Folly”).

To bolster his semantic argument Egnor quotes Richard Dawkins as saying, “Biology is the study of things that appear designed, but aren’t,” as if Dawkins is conceding Egnor’s point. But this is a misquote. What Dawkins actually wrote was: “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” (from The Blind Watchmaker) Egnor has a habit of leaving off important bits when he quotes other people. Dawkins quite deliberately included the words “for a purpose” to qualify what he meant by “design.” Incidentally, Dawkins went on to write: “”all appearances to the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics, albeit displayed in a very special way.”

Further, Egnor could have quoted Ken Miller, another evolutionist and critic of ID, who recently said in a lecture at the AAAS, “Design is real, but it emerges from evolution.” Both quotes actually reflect my basic point. Either you need to more broadly define “design” but then specify if you mean design by top-down agency or the kind of design that emerges spontaneously from a complex adaptive system capable of accumulating favorable functional variations over time (like life) or you come up with another word that means the latter.

Having botched his first point, Egnor then goes on to murder his second, discussing the question of whether or not ID is falsifiable. Again he simply repeats the ID party line – despite the fact that it has been soundly refuted numerous times. He writes:

Thus ID and Darwinism are merely two opposite conclusions drawn from the same question: is there teleology in biology? If there is, ID is true. If there isn’t, Darwinism is true. The falsification of intelligent design is Darwinism. The falsification of Darwinism is intelligent design. Either biology shows evidence of intelligent agency, or it doesn’t. Either intelligent design and Darwinism are both science, or neither is science. If you can’t test the hypothesis of intelligent agency in biology, then you can’t test Darwinism, and Darwinism is immune from evidence and must simply be accepted on faith.

This is the false dichotomy that creationists have been pushing for decades – and it is still wrong. It is wrong because it entirely mischaracterizes science and epistemology. The notion that the only way to falsify evolutionary theory is to prove ID is absurd. Evolution makes specific predictions about what we will find observationally and experimentally in nature. Evolutionary theory predicts that life on earth will display a branching pattern of relatedness – at every level that we look from genes to morphology. And that this branching pattern will also have a temporal pattern – ancestors must appear prior to their descendants. In other words – we won’t find horses in the Cambrian fossil layer (something that would falsify evolution without proving ID). Evolutionary theory also predicts that living species will display signs of their history. Life will look like English, not Esperanto. Further, if evolution is correct than we should see variation and selection in nature, changes in gene frequencies over time, and even the emergence of new species. Evolution makes countless predictions about what we will find – what we must find – if it is true. So far evolution has proved to be one of the most successful predictive theories in science.

ID, on the other hand, makes no positive predictions about what we should find in nature. This is mostly due to the fact that ID says nothing about the designer – the alleged top-down designer of ID has unlimited power and could design nature to look like anything. Therefore anything we observe in nature is compatible with design (unlike evolution) and therefore ID makes no predictions about what we must find (unlike evolution does). ID is therefore not science. No ID proponent has been able to make a specific prediction about what we should find in nature if ID is true. I challenge Dr. Egnor to give me such a prediction.

What ID proponents have put forward to claim that ID is falsifiable is – evolution. Prove evolution correct and that will falsify ID (and Egnor repeats this fallacy). Again – this is premised on a false dichotomy – if not evolution, then ID. Therefore failure to prove evolution proved ID. Then ID proponents make ridiculous demands for proof of evolution – whatever evidence is currently not available, and when it becomes available they simply move the goalpost. They then proclaim that evolution has not been proven and therefore ID wins. For example, when confronted with the very question of whether or not ID can be tested, Michael Behe proposed that a test for ID would be to make bacteria in a test tube evolve a flagellum. This is an absurd standard.

It also would not falsify ID. Even Egnor himself said in his post that ID claims that “some aspects of natural biological complexity show evidence of teleology.” Therefore if some aspects were shown to evolve, that would still not falsify ID. By Egnor’s definition scientists would have to prove that every tiny little detail of every living thing evolved – and exactly how it evolved, when, and from what. They would also have to prove a negative – that there is no teleology anywhere in biology. That’s all.

Egnor demonstrated that he, and more generally the ID proponents that share is views, simply do not understand the process and epistemology of science and certainly do not understand the theory of evolution they deny. ID is not science because it does not propose a single testable positive prediction. That is why ID has no positive research program. All they have ultimately reduces to a god-of-the-gaps argument – that as long as there are gaps in what evolutionary theory has currently explained (and there will always be gaps) then ID will fill those gaps.

ID is still not science, and Michael Egnor still doesn’t have a clue.


John Pieret also blogged a response to Egnor.

Here is Science Avenger’s take on Egnor.

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