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.

89 responses so far

89 thoughts on “Design, Evolution, and more Semantic Nonsense from ID Proponent, Michael Egnor”

  1. ellazimm says:

    Another good exposition, thank you. I have no need to clog e-space with another blog when people like you put things so well and much better than I could.

    I’m getting the impression that religious views are more to the fore at Evolution News & Views and the Uncommon Descent blog. I wonder if they’re giving up some of the pretence. Perhaps they don’t want to get left behind or expelled.

  2. CleveDan says:

    Egnor says:
    “Design is always the product of a mind.”
    If Egnor would have used the word “brain” he would have questions to answer like: we know the human brain evolved…so where did the designers brain come from? and: Are you suggesting the designer is an alien being??

    Instead he uses the word “mind” In his world that word means whatever he says it does and nothing at all simultaneously

  3. Steve Page says:


  4. Skeptico says:

    Egnor writes:

    “Complexity can arise without intelligent design…”

    Did he run that one by Michael Behe? I thought complexity was the main way to determine ID?

  5. TheBlackCat says:

    I think that was Demski, actually. Behe is more concerned with irreducibility.

  6. Demski used the term “specified complexity” – again, without defining it operationally. He abused information theory, shifting back and forth between various mathematical definitions of information and complexity in order to play his shell-game. Very similar to what Egnor just did.

  7. ChemGirl says:

    I do not understand why people refuse to recognize that this is a false dichotomy. Egnor said, “The falsification of intelligent design is Darwinism. The falsification of Darwinism is intelligent design.” This is like asking, “What color is it?” Then saying, if it’s not red then it’s blue, and if it’s not blue then it’s red. Wrong. It could be yellow.

    If you want to make a certain argument, for example, it is red. Then there has to be a definition of what red is. Possibly a certain wavelength of light. If you measure, and it doesn’t match, then it’s not red. But you still haven’t proved that it’s blue, particularly if no one will define what blue is.

    This is how science works. If people want to claim that intelligent design is science, they have to define their terms and make predictions.

  8. TheBlackCat says:

    Flying ponies that eat dirt and poop golden apples?

    No, no, no. That’s all wrong. They don’t fly, they eat rainbows, and they poop butterflies.

  9. weing says:

    I thought they farted rainbows.

  10. For the record, I have a flying pony that eats golden apples and poops dirt. I was thisclose to proving ID.


  11. Roy Niles says:

    I have a flying pony that ate one too many atoms and pooped out a planet.

  12. Blair T says:

    Another analogy could be made between rivers and canals.

    Naturally occuring rivers share some characteristics of living organisms. They have function, design, and are created through a combination of tiny accumulations of water that conform to the lay of the land. They change over time and often have menandering paths.

    Human made canals tend to follow the shortest distance between two points and if they are maintained, tend not to change over time. They have much simpler designs compared to rivers.

    I am sure many other analogies could be made to hammer this point (off the top of my head: climate control in buildings vs weather, Legs vs wheels, Eye vs Camera lens, etc. . .) – not that a creationist is looking to be convinced, but I think the strength of the IDer’s position is it panders to people’s ‘common sense’ notions about the world. ‘Common sense’ counter examples are needed.

  13. rochabill says:

    “Darwinism is immune from evidence and must simply be accepted on faith.”

    This guy has got to be kidding. How could he knowingly express such an absurd statement in any sort of public forum? This is yet another false claim that science has some agenda or pre-established conclusion and works backwards from there. Well, not everyone operates the way creationist do. Surely, if this God, err. . . I mean “Intelligent Designer” were to offer some form of compelling new evidence science would be overjoyed to embrace it. To quote the Doc off of a recent podcast, “Attach yourself to the process . . .and not to the conclusion” This, to me, is a fundamental necessity for science.

    Love all the analogies by the way. These are great examples that I hadn’t contemplated previously.

  14. Aaron S says:

    Another good post exposing the sophistry and rhetoric of ID.

  15. weing says:

    God created New York Harbor so that we could build a city there. God made the Mississippi have it’s present course so we could build New Orleans. Whoops. Not too intelligent there. But wait a minute. We can blame that on man.

  16. Steve Page says:

    This little passage from Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” made me laugh, and seems highly appropriate:

    “The physicist Richard Feynman used to make a joke about a posteriori conclusions – reasoning from known facts back to possible causes. “You know, the most amazing thing happened to me tonight,” he would say. “I saw a car with the licence plate ARW 357. Can you imagine? Of all the millions of licence plates in the state, what was the chance that I would see that particular one tonight? Amazing!” His point, of course, is that it is easy to make any banal situation seem extraordinary if you treat it as fateful.

  17. remush says:

    Quoting: “So far evolution has proved to be one of the most successful predictive theories in science.”

    Absolutely. It is certain that only a few centuries will be needed to see the human race split in two different species: one with a IQ under 80 watching television and one above 150.
    These highly intelligent new race will owe his capacity to a new constructed language that will boost his thinking power even further later on.
    It’s a pity that we will not be there to verify this 🙁

    Quoting: “Evolutionary theory also predicts that living species will display signs of their history. Life will look like English, not Esperanto.”

    The evolution theory and etymology share a common characteristic: they explain the past more or less successfully. There are a few gray areas, but one can usually find the origin of a Esperanto word back in some Hindo-European root. There are more grey area in English than in Esperanto, and there is some overlap of grey/gray/grizaj areas/areoj between English and Esperanto, precisely those words coming from an old English tongue, like “birdo” (bird), thought to come from “brid” or whatever lost word.
    In http://remush.be/etimo/etimo.html#GEN_1 you will see that “knight” very probably comes from the same root that produced the dutch word “knecht” (servant), knaap (meaning: jong man). In Esperanto you’ll find both “knabo” (= German Knabe) and Knapo (= English knight). You don’t need IQ 150 to guess the origin of these words.

    In short, your theory needs some revision. It’s even better to start all over from scratch.

  18. It is true that Esperanto’s vocabulary took word from existing languages, and therefore carried over the history of those words. But the grammar is entirely constructed to be optimal and minimal. Whereas English grammar is suboptimal and full of exceptions. This is a direct analogy to life.

  19. Roy Niles says:

    The theory of evolution has allowed us to predict what archeologists will find, and then have found, while ID has predicted they should never have found it. But more importantly, evolution has allowed predictions to be made that can be confirmed in the short term, where ID has made none. Humans can’t act without some assurance that the results of those actions will be more consistent with predictability than not. Predictability is the determinant of probability.

    Concentrate a bit more on where ID has failed the predictability test for the short term, and you will have hurt the theory on the level of it’s practicability, which will resonate with the public more than considerations of consequences in the abstract.

  20. Cannidae says:

    If in fact the ID proponents who challenge evolution where “Lions of Faith” they would have no need to challenge evolution. As you said they accept the findings of science in every other aspect of life and it doesnt shake thier faith. It is the fact that they feel threated in thier faith by the answers provided by evolutionary science that shows they are “Cowards of faith” and “Lions of deciet” even unto themselves.

    The whole argument is patently ridiculous and yet it goes on and on in its vicious circle, a vast waste of energy and resources.

  21. josh caleb says:

    I love how you guys can just make up an another definition for “design” out of thin air… Am I allowed to do that too? I guess the effects of linguistic deconstructionism are more rare than I thought. (Note: by “rare” I actually mean “prevalent”, just another connotation I like to use sometimes…)

    All kidding aside:
    Can you provide a definition for design that does not imply a mind or telos? And possibly provide an example of such design?

    (I hope it would be obvious to you that citing examples of biology would be kind of “begging the question”. Thanks.)

  22. Roy Niles says:

    “Oh may the Gods give succor to those many in that wasteful circle of doubt, where the negativity of criticism treads its hopeless and dreary path, without progress or achievement, and enlarges, from generation to generation, its hold upon civilized mankind.” (From the parables of Zoroaster and his arguments for a rational deism).

  23. Josh – I think you missed the point, but what you say is a standard ID retort worthy of responding to.

    What is language? It is not something objective, it is a cultural construct. Words are developed as needed (often borrowed from other contexts) and their meanings change over time as concepts and usage change. To constrain thoughts and explanations by language has it backwards. Are you going to argue that I cannot use the term “launch window” to refer to a space launch because the word “window” is not classically defined that way?

    Science is partly a process of developing new concepts and new ways of explaining the word. A new concept requires new language. Typically, either new words are invented (sometimes as technical jargon) or colloquial words that are close in meaning are used, but then are defined operationally for scientific use so that they mean something very specific. Within neurology, for example, the word “dizzy” has no specific meaning. We substitute words like “vertigo”, “pre-syncope”, and “ataxia” to mean very specific things that colloquially people might call “dizzy.”

    So – what do we call a complex structure that has come into existence through the natural and blind process of a complex adaptive system – one that is able to use energy for self-replication that entails variation and upon which are acted forces of selection? Or if we just consider a complex organic structure – the bottom line is that the question of what to call it must be separate from the question of how it arose. ID proponents, however, want to make a semantic argument (always ludicrous within science) that if you call it “design” then that determines how it arose. Absurd.

    You also reiterate Egnor’s point (that I did not cover) that there are no other examples of natural processes that create things as complex as modern life. So what? Life is what we call the complex chemistry that arose on earth. Why should there be other examples of it? Your unstated major premise is that if life is natural than it cannot be unique in nature – this is a false premise.

    But, having said that, I can give examples of other self-organizing and non-biological systems. However, the only other kind of thing I am aware of that has all the prerequisites (can use energy, replicate, under selective pressure so retention of variation is non-random) are technological. This does not invalidate them as analogies. For example, there are many computer programs that evolve – their code evolves through replication and selection. The end result appears designed, but it was not top-down designed it was bottom-up designed by the computer process. ID proponents, like Egnor, dismiss such examples because computers are designed by humans. But this misses the point of the analogy. It is a system that evolves, the rules and substrate of the system may be of human artifice, but the evolution is spontaneous and bottom-up (like organic evolution).

    If you want an example that is non biological and non-technological/cultural, then you are rigging the game. Biology is what happens when a natural system evolves complexity. There are other natural systems that self-organize, but they are not nearly as complex as life. So how could there be an example that would satisfy you?

  24. Roy Niles says:

    Given a hypothetical mind with both a design and it’s purpose, wouldn’t you need to postulate a mechanism that allowed it to achieve the intended result? (Caleb, I josh)

  25. Isn’t Esperanto essentially extinct? If so, a complicating (or illuminating) factor if one uses it for evolution and/or creation analogies.

  26. Continuing my quest for world domination via bandwidth waste, I answer my own question after realizing how easy it would be to look it up:

    “Esperanto has had continuous usage by a community estimated at between 100,000 and 2 million speakers for over a century.”

  27. remush says:

    Quoting Steven” […] the grammar [of Esperanto] is entirely constructed to be optimal and minimal. Whereas English grammar is suboptimal and full of exceptions. This is a direct analogy to life.”

    I think is quite a poor analogy, comparing evolution of languages to living creatures, even if the previous assumption about Esperanto were true. See joke at http://remush.be/bildoj/evoluo.jpg
    Organizing the information in structures, each inheriting characteristics from a super structure (like a trout is a fish is an animal is a creature) is a function of mind, not of reality.
    There are many ways to classify reality, some more useful than others, some with more exceptions than others.
    A rule with exceptions is simply a very useful rule applicable in most of the cases. It would be unproductive to replace this rule by a set of more complex ones to obtain little benefit.
    When there are several explanations to a phenomenon, our brain will tend to choose the simplest one as the truth.
    Indeed, it’s easier to understand the orbit of Mercury if the sun is the centre of the system (well almost). It’s still disputable where the centre of the universe is (or was).

    To correct your believe, the grammar of Esperanto is neither entirely constructed, nor optimal, nor minimal.
    Optimality depends of the native language of the speaker, and some might object to some rules (and they do).
    It’s true there are 16 rules (http://www.akademio-de-esperanto.org/fundamento/gramatiko_angla.html) that are sufficient to make oneself understood, but there is a lot of unspoken rules that most of us would follow unconsciously because it seems logical to do so. Occasionally some foreigner would use an unusual way to say something, and you could doubt whether it’s correct or not. You could usually find the solution in http://www.bertilow.com/pmeg/. You’ll see that PMEG is far to be minimal, as it attempts to take into account all situations of all people speaking most different languages quite foreign to ours.

    My opinion however remains that ID supporters are too easily satisfied with the simple explanation.
    There are however improvements to make to the “Theory” of evolution to make it a real theory, capable of predicting the future, as a “theory” should be capable of doing.
    I would be glad with a probability of 80%.

  28. Roy Niles says:

    I would think that in the area of predictions, a theory that accurately predicts what ISN’T going to happen in the short term (as well as what IS), and based in large part on what is more likely to happen in the long term, has a capability of predicting the future with a relative probability of closer to 100% on a comparative scale with other competing systems, assuming ID is even eligible to enter the race.

  29. remush – I acknowledge that esperanto is an imperfect example because it is not a perfect construct. However, part of your explanation of that imperfection has to do with the rules and assumptions of other languages adapting to it – and I don’t think that’s a valid criticism. But that’s a small point. For my analogy to hold esperanto does not have to be perfect – it is clearly different from English. English has characteristics that derive from its history and can only be explained that way. Esperanto has complexity for different reasons generic to language (with the only historical elements borrowed from other languages). I suppose it’s possible that esperanto has “evolved” since it was created, but that is obviously not relevant to my analogy.

    Your last point is not valid. Evolution is a “real theory.” It is not a criterion of a scientific theory that it must predict the future – that is a misconception. It must make testable predictions, but those predictions can be about information that will be discovered in the future – not necessarily about what will happen in the future. Evolution is an historical science – it studies what has happened in the past and tries to understand them by processes that are still happening in the present. But it cannot predict the future because of chaos – there are too many interdependent variables.

  30. Roy Niles says:

    Of course evolution is expected to predict the future in the sense that all our scientific hypotheses involve an aspect of prediction. Our brains evolved in the direction of discovering more efficient ways to predict future consequences from an increasing array of possible choices. Science represents a number of those ways and evolution is one of those sciences.

    Your position would seem to be that if evolution can’t predict the future with 100% accuracy, it shouldn’t be considered as a way to understand our prospects even for the short term. But the present becomes the future during the act of trying to understand it. It’s that short term future we are most anxious to prepare for.

  31. josh caleb says:

    Really? You really think that that type of postmodern “we can re-define words to suit our purposes, even if the redefinition involves a reversal of connotation” is a defensible position?? That’s brilliant!! (and by brilliant i mean idiotic)
    So tell me, can black actually be called white is some sense of the word if we feel blackness doesn’t fit with our ideology?

    At least “lauch window” has connection to a discrete opening in some dimention which is permissible to some phenomena (like “seeing out of” or “launching a rocket”). Referring to “window” with a meaning of something akin to “uninterupted brick wall” would be more like your redefinition of “design” to include a property of something brought about by unguided processes.
    To so change the semantic meaning of a word to now include the very OPPOSITE of its original meaning is a clear indication of the total weakness of your position if such semantic gymnastics must be involved.

    I also love it that your not being able to face the fact that your wrong is not conflated as me “rigging the game”… kudos to your clearly superior intellect on this issue. (and by intellect, i actually mean stupidity).

    See two can play this game.

    I’ll let you have the last word, i’m sure it’ll be enlightening (and by enlightening, i actually mean “really, really, REALLY stupid”)


  32. weing says:

    I thought our brains evolved redundant cells and synapses so that the animals we chased would collapse from heat stroke before we did. Once the number of cells and synapses was established other uses for them became possible and led to our advantage.

  33. weing says:

    Speak English man. What the hell are you talking about? Did you ever use a scientific dictionary? Words have specific meanings. The lay definitions of these words are not the same. The old man on the mountain, before falling off, in Franconia Notch, NH was a “design” as could be plainly seen by looking at it at a certain angle and was brought about by unguided processes. Mount Rushmore, on the other hand is a design brought about by guided processes.

  34. Roy Niles says:

    weing: You need to remember that Josh works without any known mechanism.

    And the brain development you referred to applied to an earlier race of dinosaur chasers.

  35. weing says:

    There is a saying “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” . Could it be that Design is in the mind of the beholder?

  36. Roy Niles says:

    Well it does appear that’s where the designer gods were born and still reside.

    And just as beauty is often a facade that gives the lie to what’s behind it, these gods lie to the beholder about the true nature of his observations.

  37. TheBlackCat says:

    To so change the semantic meaning of a word to now include the very OPPOSITE of its original meaning is a clear indication of the total weakness of your position if such semantic gymnastics must be involved.

    Words are irrelevant. What matters is evidence. That is the whole point. Trying to use definition of words to win an argument is the equivocation fallacy. I could define “design” as the effect that invisible pink unicorns have on orbiting teapots, that doesn’t have the slightest impact whatsoever on what is actually happening in nature. Trying to say that because we can’t agree on the definition of a word that we must somehow be wrong is just silly. It is just a word, it does not affect the underlying reality.

  38. [objective, independent of me vs subjective, according to me reality]

  39. Roy Niles says:

    I just looked back and reviewed weing’s comment about brains evolving redundant cells relative to chasing animals, etc. I took it as a joke, but if so, it was apparently based on some scientific findings. And he would be right if he’s inferring the brain is more than a calculating apparatus.
    But I think at bottom every change in it’s evolution represented an attempt (for want of a better word) to either protect or improve its core function of predicting consequences of contemplated (again for want of a better word) actions.
    Starting from old scratch, no matter how well its “brain” aided an organism in its physiological functions, the organism still wouldn’t have survived without it’s ability to recognize relevant signals, almost instantaneously calculate the odds of using it’s available options, and then acting or responding accordingly.
    (A particular organism wouldn’t have had to be right more times than it was wrong, but close enough to right to procreate before something else ate it.)

  40. Roy Niles says:

    BlackCat: Actually I was not talking about intelligence per se and the differences between species, etc. (I never even used that word.). What I was talking about was the necessity for organisms to evolve in ways that allowed them to predict to a greater or less extent the consequences of any actions they might need to take to survive in ar particular and ever changing environment.

    You have assumed that I regard such predictability as a measure of relative intelligence, but I do not assume that, and you have just demonstrated why it would be wrong to do so.

    A necessity to predict consequences in a more and more dangerous and/or competitive environment might or might not correlate with intelligence, but it might also correlate with whether the organism was more predator than prey, was the more dangerous in it’s environment, or the more impervious to danger, and a host of such factors.

    The so called drive toward higher intelligence would seem inevitable only in retrospect. In a sense most species survived through what could be called dumb luck. My whole point was to demonstrate that the science of evolution did involve an aspect of predictability, and could be compared to ID in effectiveness for that reason alone, if not for innumerable others.
    I repeat that the main function of what would pass for brains in any organism is an attempt to predict future consequences, whether it does so by instinct or a capacity for abstract thought. Life would not have survived without that capability. Science would not exist except for its facility to make such predictions in a more reliable fashion.
    Otherwise your lecture, as always, was quite informative and obviously the product of an intelligent being.

  41. TheBlackCat says:

    BlackCat: Actually I was not talking about intelligence per se and the differences between species, etc. (I never even used that word.). What I was talking about was the necessity for organisms to evolve in ways that allowed them to predict to a greater or less extent the consequences of any actions they might need to take to survive in ar particular and ever changing environment.

    What you are talking about are planning and problem-solving, two of the hallmarks of intelligence. In fact those are two of the key things tested in IQ tests. What would you call it, if not intelligence?

  42. Roy Niles says:

    IQ tests measure (or try to) the comparative intelligence of members of a selected group of humans. And they are dealing with planning and problem solving abilities of or within a species with a rational as well as emotional brain.
    I made no attempt to allege that comparative intelligence, either within a species or across species, was a factor in whether or not any organism had the necessity to use a predictive apparatus or improve that apparatus with the goal of getting a selective advantage over other species.
    However, if you ask me if I think that intelligence does give a competitive advantage within a species, of course it does. How all this plays out in the overall process of evolution I don’t profess to know, and I don’t know if anyone has accurately determined that as yet. But if not, I’m confident someone will. (And that it won’t be.)
    I do profess to know that the brain is a predictive apparatus, and such an apparatus is common to every organism (some of which have several). And whatever “intelligence” you feel this represents is peculiar to that organism’s makeup and environment, and in many cases would not appear to involve any actual decision making at all. Its predictive process could just be a reliance on whether or not something jerked its knee.

    But if you don’t agree that all organisms rely on a predictive process, then I’d like to know why, or at least why you wouldn’t call it that – as that was my contention – along with the contention that the process does have to get more complicated when the situations it may need to react to become more complicated.

    That request was not meant as a challenge, or an attempt to get one up. As far as I’m concerned (at least this time) I don’t win anything if I don’t learn something. Even if I have to lose an argument to win it.

  43. remush says:

    “It is not a criterion of a scientific theory that it must predict the future – that is a misconception.”

    A theory that cannot predict what will happen (assuming certain conditions) is useless.
    It is of course possible to build lots of useless theories

    “It must make testable predictions, but those predictions can be about information that will be discovered in the future – not necessarily about what will happen in the future.”

    What you call theory seems to be simple interpolation. Of course one can interpolate that between fossil A and fossil C, there should be a B.
    It is not obvious that one can know what appeared first, A or C, And even if probable, the B found is not necessarily between A and C. it could be outside.
    To know for sure, you do not use the “evolution” theory, but dating processes.
    Analogy: If I drop an object from point A and observe it later at point C, I may assume that it probably was at B at a certain moment.
    I would not call this a “gravitation theory”.
    The gravitation theory predicts not only where the object would be, but also when.

    If on some Rosette stone in the future one finds a text in English with its translation in Esperanto, linguists would have a hard time determining what appeared first. English could be seen as a deteriorated form of Esperanto that “evolved” anarchically among illiterates after a global cataclysm.

    By the way I don’t like the term “evolution” because it includes a judgment value. What is good or bad has nothing to do with the “theory”.

  44. remush says:

    About “brilliant, blackness, enlightening”, opposite meanings and language “evolution”.

    Amusing Josh. It happens that the Hindo-European root BHLENDH is related to obscurity. See http://remush.be/etimo/etimo.html#BHLENDH .

    Note it gave “blind” and “blinding” (German blendend, that is the opposite of obscure).
    The comparisons with languages are not valid because anything can happen in some language and it’s contrary. Evolution in language proceeds both very gradually and by huge leaps. Cross-breeding is common. Adopting words is legal. ID is the best explanation in many cases related to language evolution.

    I don’t think the “evolution” “theory” takes into account dogs adopting cats (yet).

  45. badrabbi says:

    Why Doesn’t Egnore’s post allow for comments? It is ridiculous; the guy makes a whole bunch of statements, some of them half cooked, attacking Dr. Novella, and does not allow for any commentary. I for one have many questions about his Discovery post.

    Does any one know his email address?

  46. josh caleb says:

    In German “blendend” means blinding, impeding vision, possibly… “obscuring” one’s view?
    So explain to me how “obscure” is the opposite of “blind” again…
    Your example doesn’t make your point.

    In order for Novella to be correct, he would have to show the usage of design as “bottom up” outside the current discussion of evolution to avoid “begging the question”.
    I’ve noticed Novella has not addressed this. Until he does, I’d say he’s full of it.

  47. weing says:

    Take for example the distance between the solid rocket boosters of the space shuttle. That is so it can fit on railroad tracks for transportation. The distance is the same as the distance between wheels on Roman chariots which were pulled by 2 horses.
    So the width of a horses ass a few thousand years ago has determined the distance between the SRBs on the space shuttle. Sounds like bottom up design to me.

  48. Cannidae says:

    mmmm So now when I read Blended Whiskey on the bottle, my mind will translate to Blinding Whiskey which will possibly obscure my judgement.

    Remush. the analogy drawn between evolution and language was to the point of languages that arose naturally out of usage and time and a language that was specifically designed for a certain purpose.

    your argument seems to have nothing to do with that point and since that was the only purpose of the analogy, you are arguing against something that was never stated.

    My personal opinion on analogies is that they only create holes like this in the facts, you read languages are analogous to evolution and think bullshit. Languages were designed by thier creators, what a stupid comment.

    The analogy drawn was valid, english evolved esporata was designed, but I think just putting the facts out and letting people debate them clearly without wrapping them up in funky packages would be a whole less distracting/confusing to people who are not up to speed.

    Unfortunatley brilliant minds seem completely helpless in the face of turning a good analogy = )

  49. In defense of analogies – they serve a very useful purpose although they are tricky to use.

    Languages, life, and technology share certain features in common because they all have a history – they are contingent upon the details of their history from which they developed with continuity. This is more than an illustration – we can see commonalities that actually have a common cause and it teaches us something about the nature of (in this case) evolved systems.

  50. weing says:

    I am working on a way to make two identical snowflakes and take exception to you saying that they exhibit complexity without information.

  51. Josh- what is your basis for saying that we “cannot” expand the definition of “design?” Languages change over time with need and with use. And you didn’t really address my points – what is even the relevance of this semantic debate? Evolution can happen whether or not we have a word for it.

    The free market analogy of course does not have all the components of life – that’s why it’s just an analogy. But it does have the bits we are interested in – it’s a complex self-organizing system. And it absolutely is an information generating system (in fact just recently George Will used that exact term to refer to free markets). It generates information about the worth and the need for items, about what works and what doesn’t.

    You say free markets don’t have “irreducible complexity.” Neither does life. Evolutionists have already won that debate, even though Behe won’t admit it.

    You also use Dembski’s term “specified complexity” – but his musings have been thoroughly trashed by actual mathematicians who understand information theory. Dembski uses terms like “complexity” and “information” colloquially – without ever defining them operationally. He even drifts from one definition to another, and that is where he gets tripped up.

    Free markets increase information over time. And modern economies are much more complex than the hunter-gatherer economies from which they evolved.

    And still – I am waiting for an explanation for how any of this casts legitimate doubt on whether or not evolution can happen.

  52. Blair T says:

    Josh Caleb,

    My dictionary (Collins, Millenium Edition) provides many definitions of design, including:
    “A coherent or purposeful pattern, as opposed to chaos.”

  53. josh caleb says:

    Blair T,
    Congratulations. Again making my point that one can not define “design” appart from some result of a mind or teleology. Even this definition grates on your sensibilities I’m sure because it has that nasty “purposeful” word in there… (darn them!)

  54. weing says:

    Give it time and our language will evolve to have a definition of bottom up design.

  55. Blair T says:

    Hey Josh,

    “Coherent **OR** purposeful”.

    But your argument about word definitions is surely beside the point. Trying to use a definition of a word to make a point about reality is a high school level debating technique – that is, it is superficial.

    Dictionaries just try to describe word usage (which changes over time – you could say it ‘evolves’), they don’t describe reality.

  56. josh caleb says:

    Blair T,
    Can bird grass effort hornblowing yes postulate wig powder mechanism qwerty?

    I didn’t think so… lol

  57. weing says:

    It appears you are unfortunately limited in your ability to see bottom up design. That does not mean it doesn’t exist. Just like the colors I see are not seen by the color blind.

  58. remush says:

    Quoting Josh: “So explain to me how “obscure” is the opposite of “blind” again.”

    Easy: a very bright light could be “blinding”
    ergo: very bright = blinding = opposite of obscure.
    If you take a good German dictionary you will also learn that “blendend” has taken the meaning of “excellent” as in: “es geht mir blendend”, what is the contrary of “I feel gloomy.”

    There are many cases of reverse of meaning, but it is besides the point. The meaning of words depends more on the context than on a dictionary definition. It’s the task of the intelligent reader to understand the intention.

    Quoting Cannidae: ” the analogy drawn between evolution and language was to the point of languages that arose naturally out of usage and time and a language that was specifically designed for a certain purpose.”

    There are two reasons why I object the comparison with Esperanto.
    1) There are no objective criteria that an independent observer could use to determine that Eo was wholly/holy created by one man (which it was not), by examining messages in newsgroups. Superficial observation shows that it changes like any other language, adding words and expressions, loosing archaic words. There are other “natural” languages that are grammatically as logical as Esperanto.
    Read the thesis “Liberté ou autorité dans l’évolution de l’espéranto” by François LO JACOMO (1981)
    2) The reasoning goes like this: We know that Esperanto was created in 1887 by one man, so it must work like this (what after further analysis appears to be false believes). Similarly we “know” that there is no creator, therefore evolution works like that, what must be totally different from the evolution of Esperanto.
    … Not really a scientific approach unless one wants to show the absurdity of the theory and give arguments to its detractors.

    If people have false believes about something that can be verified as easily as the language Esperanto, it’s not surprising that some will doubt about the arguments of evolutionists, when they proceed along the same logic.

    The idea of “bottom-up design” should be attractive to believers. It should reconcile the creationists with the theory. I think Rome is in favour of this interpretation of the creation.

    about: nature appears “designed” or is it an illusion?
    Of course. It is the purpose of the brain to find relationships; it’s a pattern-recognizing device.
    It will find design everywhere, and create it if necessary.
    This is the way the brain organizes information: making rules, theories and analogies.
    In reality, in nature, there is no top-down nor bottom-up design because… God knows why.

  59. weing says:

    You propose to scientifically test the “appearance of design”. Fine, no one is stopping you. Show us how you would test “appearances”. In my view “appearances” are subjective impressions that are dependent on the state of the observer. So please show us an experiment. Just do it without changing the definition of “scientifically”.

  60. Josh – to reiterate weing – go for it. Do what the ID’ers have failed to do. Propose a positive research question that would demonstrate the presence of intelligent design in life (positive evidence for design, not just knocking down evolutionary explanations). I love how the ID’ers reverse reality – you actually accuse scientists of dogma and think that the ID’ers are championing research. That is reality-challenged, i.e. propaganda.

    Also – you do not correctly interpret the IC counter-argument of Miller and others. Behe says that a structure more simple than a flagellum could not function, therefore it could not be selected for. Evolutionary scientists point to simpler structures that do function. This falsified Behe’s argument. I acknowledge that we have not fleshed out the actual evolutionary path of every protein system – that is not relevant to the argument that Behe is making, which is that IC implies impossibility. The IC argument is not valid.

    Evidence for co-option: http://arjournals.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.cellbio.18.020402.140619

    There’s plenty. You are relying too much on ID propaganda.

    Also – it is not the only leg – there is also gene duplication, for which there is copious evidence.

    Finally – it is you who are dancing around and shifting definitions as needed. Your point about minimal genes for life is not valid, as I pointed out, your dodge notwithstanding. Single celled life is not the minimum necessary for evolution to occur – all you need is something that can self-replicate with variation and that is under selective pressure. A molecule can theoretically do this. The line between chemistry and life is fuzzy. Your point is not valid.

  61. weing says:

    You are a lowly biochemistry student who can’t even design an experiment to back up your nonsense. Stop reading bullshit and read real research. Try to replicate it or prove that it’s bullshit if you disagree with it. Do it by designing and running experiments unless you are incapable of intelligent design.

  62. josh caleb says:

    Why don’t you actually read what i post for once and respond to the science instead of proving again and again your short little come backs are completely devoid of scientific understanding…

  63. josh – your condescending tone and gratuitous insults magnify how foolish you look when you get everything completely wrong.

    IC – loses all of its meaning if you allow that supposedly IC structures could have had simpler forms that served other functions. Behe CHANGED the definition of IC to allow for this (once examples were given) but neglects – as you do – that this invalidates his entire premise.

    The whole point of IC is that there is no evolutionary pathway from a simpler structure to an allegedly IC complex structure. Simpler forms, regardless of what function they serve, provide that pathway. IC is wrong.

    Biologists have shown that plausible evolutionary pathways exist, occasionally hopping from one function to another. Behe’s false premise was that complex structure MUST evolve directly to their present function.

    Co-option can occur without gene duplication, so gene duplication does represent a separate mechanism that bypasses the supposed limitations of IC.

    You are desperately trying to distract from the core issue – IC is a flawed and incorrect notion. It is not viable. Co-option and gene duplication bypass it. Why do you cling to it?

    Regarding molecular or subcellular evolution – I am not aware of any evidence that this is happening presently. I didn’t say there was. I was simply describing the minimum requirements for a system that can undergo evolutionary change. This is a statement of logic, not an empirical claim. But it does provide a plausible theory for how single celled life could have evolved from organic molecules. At present this is still a very incomplete theory.

    Again – you are just pointing to gaps in current scientific knowledge. You and no one else has presented any reason why single cells could not have evolved from organic molecules, or an alternate testable theory.

    I would also point out that it is not reasonable to expect that there would be examples of subcellular evolution present today. The earth is very different today than what it was 3.5 billion years ago. Primitive molecular evolution, without the cellular infrastructure to make it more efficient, wold have been incredibly slow. If you have a worldwide organic soup and millions of years, then things can happen. Those conditions just don’t exist today. In addition, current life uses up any organic material in the environment, so there is no free raw material for it to happen.

    Just to summarize – ID criticism of evolution takes the form of arguing that evolution is NOT POSSIBLE. However, all of their arguments have been shown to be invalid, as possible mechanisms and pathways are prevents that get around ID’s supposed impossible hurdles to evolution. Then in response ID apologists move the goalpost by arguing that there is insufficient evidence to show that the mechanisms and pathways are the actual ones that evolutionary history took – but this is a non sequitur having nothing to do with their original arguments. You are doing the exact same thing here.

  64. weing says:


    Science? What science? Ha Ha Ha. Design experiments to test your theories and I’ll look at them.

  65. josh,

    Please try to focus on my actual points. I never said that IC is wrong because I “dislike it.” Tilting at these straw men is not advancing our conversation. I will state my point again – which you still have not addressed.

    Behe’s premise is that a complex structure could not (an argument from impossibility) evolve if it could not function for its current purpose if it were any simpler. This is demonstrably wrong because the structure could have evolved from simpler forms that serve a different purpose, and because it could have evolved from genes that were freed from constraint by current necessity by gene duplication.

    This alone invalidates Behe’s argument. But there is also copious evidence that co-option and gene duplication have actually taken place.

    The ID defenders move the goalpost further -prove that these mechanisms increased information. But this has already been demonstrated – the information argument has never been legitimate. For example, If you make two copies of a gene from one copy – you have doubled your information. The two copies can now drift and/or be under different selective pressures and will diverge over time – now you have two different genes serving different purposes. How is this not an increase in complexity and information?

    Regarding flagellum and TTSS – your characterization is not accurate (keeping in mind this is an evolving story under active research).

    First let me say that it was never believed that current flagella evolved from current TTSS – clearly both evolved from a common ancestor, and it is believed that the ancestor probably looked more like a TTSS than a flagellum. Also – the point of the example is that if you reduce the flagella to a simpler structure you have something that could function as a secretory structure – so it is not irreducible from an evolutionary perspective. The actual history of flagella is a different question.

    But here is a recent reference (http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=15026670) that indicates:

    “Here we reconstruct the evolutionary history of four conserved type III secretion proteins and their phylogenetic relationships with flagellar paralogs. Our analysis indicates that the TTSS and the flagellar export mechanism share a common ancestor, but have evolved independently from one another. The suggestion that TTSS genes have evolved from genes encoding flagellar proteins is effectively refuted.”

    Evolutionary relationships are complex, especially at the molecular level. The point, again, is that a plausible pathway exists. We are actively fleshing out the actual pathway – closing that gap. But ID proponents will just shift to other gaps.

    Of course I admit that evolution is still an incomplete theory – all scientific theories are. Again – you are arguing against straw men, which strongly suggests that you are learning about what evolutionists say from secondary hostile sources – ID proponents. No one says that every aspect is iron-clad fact. The big picture – that evolution happened – is as well established as any fact in science. The details are still being investigated. There is no dogma on the evolution side – that is an ID fiction.

    Promissory materialism? Popper used this to refer to “scientism” not science. Science is not a weak position – it has shown to be a highly successful and effective position. This is a separate and long discussion – I will just summarize by saying that materialism is a necessary premise for science – ideas have to be testable, and supernatural ideas are inherently not testable.

    Regarding what ID says – I was careful to say “ID criticism of evolution.” Your response was to ID as an alternate theory – two different things. IC and ID abuse of information theory are criticisms of evolution – they are based on the argument from impossibility, and they are demonstrably wrong. ID as an alternate theory is worse than wrong – it’s not even a scientific theory, because it does not propose anything testable.

    And since we’re keeping track – you still have not responded to my challenge to come up with a test of ID.

  66. weing says:

    How would you test if DNA has semantic information?

  67. weing says:

    Thanks Steve for making it clear. This guy just throws around terms without defining them. I think that’s a tactic to avoid being precise.

  68. Not the most graceful of dismounts, but necessary once the horse he was riding died.

  69. TheBlackCat says:

    I don’t know if Josh will be back, but if he is, here is a question:

    You say that gene duplication cannot increase information. What, specifically do you mean by information? You talk about semantic and semantic information, which I understand conceptually but not empirically. In order to test whether evolution can, in fact, increase semantic information, we would need some way to measure it empirically. So please provide an empirical measure of semantic information. You say that semantic information is “qualitative”, but that is utterly useless. Unless there is an empirical measure for semantic information then there is no way for us to actually test whether it is increasing or not.

    I’ll make it easier: give us a specific, objective method for comparing the semantic information in two different genomes. It doesn’t have to be quantitative, it just has to be something objective and unambiguous so different people can agree, and it has to be specific enough that it can actually be used. It also has to have some relevance to evolution, obviously. An analogy is not a definition, nor is an example. Without such a definition it is nothing more than personal intuition or opinion, and neither has any validity in science.

  70. Roy Niles says:

    I just found the link below that may add a bit of a counterpoint to the opinion referenced here:

    “Evolution is an historical science – it studies what has happened in the past and tries to understand them by processes that are still happening in the present. But it cannot predict the future because of chaos – there are too many interdependent variables.”


  71. Roy,

    The article you reference is saying exactly what I am saying. Evolutionary theory cannot predict the future course of evolution because of chaos – just like you can’t predict the weather. But evolution does make scientific predictions about what we will find when we examine nature.

  72. Roy Niles says:

    Steven: As I recall your initial remarks were countering something I suggested about how evolution has predictive powers that ID lacks, and this difference should also be pointed out. Your response at the time that “it cannot predict the future,” is different from your present phrasing that it cannot predict the future “course of evolution.”

    I’m sure now that’s what you meant, but it came out as a complete dismissal of my suggestion. Predicting some future course of events is not the same as the “course of evolution.” That may look like a quibble, but I think it’s a significant difference. I don’t think the initial contention can be completely dismissed, and I doubt you think so either. (It’s not original to me in any case.)

    The subject of the article at hand is that it is a MYTH that evolution is not predictive. There are observable events in the ongoing present that it can forecast that ID can’t. That to me is the counterpoint.

    I read the following paragraph in the article as supporting what evolution can do, rather than emphasizing what it can’t.

    “However, what matters in science is not how much you can predict on the basis of a theory or how precise those predictions are, but whether the predictions you can make turn out to be right. Meteorologists don’t reject chaos theory because it tells them it is impossible to predict the weather 100% accurately – on the contrary, they accept it because weather follows the broad patterns predicted by chaos theory.”

    And as an example of the utility of that predictability:

    “Many researchers developing treatments for infectious diseases now try to consider how resistance could evolve and find ways to prevent it, for instance by giving certain drugs in combination. This slows the evolution of resistance because pathogens have to acquire several mutations to survive the treatment.”

  73. Roy – apparently we agree, we just misunderstood each other. I may also be remembering content spread out over different blog entries. That evolution cannot “predict the future” is a common false criticism from ID/creationists, and perhaps I thought you were referring to that.

    It exploits the ambiguity in the phrase “predict the future.” We cannot tell what species will evolve into in the future, but evolutionary theory can make predictions about the outcomes of future experiments and observations.

  74. Roy Niles says:

    Thanks. You’re in a great position to hammer that home in your new show. (Cue music to the tune of “If I had a hammer.”)


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