THE BLOG

A New Objection to Intelligent Design

Jan 09, 2014 | Updated Mar 11, 2014

The title of this essay derives from Stephen Meyer's latest anti-evolution book, in which he continues to argue that life is too complicated to have naturally evolved. For years, Meyer has been delivering popular books and lectures that portray selection and other natural processes as insufficient.

They do not explain macroevolution, he says, claiming to use a method called "uniformitarianism" (arguably attributed to Darwin's mentor Charles Lyell) to prove it. In Evolution & Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist, I disagreed, writing (among other things) that Meyer is not really uniformitarian in a scientific sense. On p. 392 of his latest book, Meyer called my argument a "new objection" to Intelligent Design (ID). Here, I'm not going to review his book, which has already received well-deserved, accurately disparaging coverage by practicing scientists (like Nick Matzke, Don Prothero, and Charles Marshall). Instead, I'd like to clarify why Meyer is not really uniformitarian, and note that my objection to his professed methodology is not new.

The principle of uniformitarianism is at the core of historical science. It enables us to make scientific inferences about an event, even if it happened long ago, by postulating that processes observable today (like gravity and decay) have been active in one form or another throughout history. Sciences like evolutionary biology, astronomy, geology, or forensics use evidence we now have to make predictions that should follow if some claim about the past actually happened. For example, in 1912, Alfred Wegener theorized that continents were not always in their present positions. Decades later, the discovery of paralleled magnetic reversals in sea-floor deposits on either side of the mid-Atlantic ridge was one line of evidence showing that North America and Europe have indeed been moving apart over time, proving Wegener correct. This inference depends on uniformitarianism because we make the reasonable assumption that iron oxides in molten rocks have oriented towards the Earth's magnetic poles in the past as they do today.

Meyer portrayed his previous book as uniformitarian, "employing the same method of inferential reasoning that Darwin used", to explain life's origins. (He rarely focuses on Darwin's actual theory -- how life evolved after it originated -- but that's another story.) Because Meyer sees "design" today as a product of human intelligence, something like intelligence must also have been relevant to apparent "design" in the distant past. Uniformitarianism says that the processes we observe today are relevant to explaining the phenomena of the past, and we know that particularly complicated things we see today have an intelligence behind them. Biology is particularly complicated, ergo, "Intelligent Design".

One of the things that makes this debate interesting is the fact that a human-like, super-intelligence could very well have interfered with Life in order to manufacture, among other things, large-brained, bipedal primates. It is thus inappropriate to rule out such a possibility in advance. The problem arises from the fact that while Meyer appeals to the uniformitarianism of Darwin to address this possibility, he stops short of fully using it.

Here is why: if an intelligent force actually seeded the Earth with biological novelties over time (like bipedal apes), uniformitarianism would lead us to expect that intelligence to have left behind a record, in the same way that any other intelligence would leave behind a record. For starters, we'd expect to find hard organic remains such as bones or teeth, since all known intelligent agents have them. Furthermore, if these agents could engineer a new organism, we should reasonably expect them to leave behind some of the more banal traces of their existence, like infrastructure and waste, beyond simply their finished product, such as a new ape. Remains of things derived from human "intelligence" (metal alloys, synthetic polymers, cigarette butts, etc.) will be at least as obvious to future geologists as the global traces of an asteroid impact 65 million years ago are to geologists today. This impact probably contributed to the extinction of many large vertebrates like terrestrial dinosaurs, and left behind an element called iridium, followed by an abundance of ferns. Sixty-five million years later, the impact boundary is recognized in the geological record by "spikes" of both substances.

If we really apply uniformitarianism to determine if intelligent agents influenced the course of our evolutionary history, we'd expect those agents to have left behind the same kinds of traces as other such agents. Humanity is the best example we've got so far, and we make an exponentially greater amount of garbage than we do functional designs. One of the most obvious kinds of material evidence that a human-like intelligence in Earth's distant past would have left behind was spelled out with one of the most famous lines, indeed one of the most famous words, ever uttered in twentieth-century film: Plastics. Far from being persecuted for a discovery that raises the issue of design, anyone finding genuine "plastic spikes" in deep time, corresponding temporally to one or more evolutionary events, would be assured of a successful, mainstream academic career (to say the least). While such artifacts wouldn't tell us how biodiversity actually came about, they would indicate that something out there served as an agent behind life on Earth. Maybe ID advocates will claim that their "intelligence" didn't have to leave behind a plastic spike or other such material evidence. And when they do, they cease to qualify as scientifically uniformitarian.

Intelligent Design doesn't offer theories on how, but speculates about who. In a general sense, such conjecture is compatible with a kind of theistic evolution, a metaphysical philosophy which I actually find reasonable. This view claims that a deity exists, one which is not necessarily human-like, but is apparently behind the existence of natural laws and rationality itself. Where theistic evolution and ID part ways is the attempt of the latter to present "intelligence" as an alternative to an actual theory of how life evolved. In his latest book (p. 399, for example), Meyer makes it seem that expecting science to illuminate mechanisms, or how, is an arbitrary philosophical rule, rather than a simple reflection of what science is supposed to do. Stated differently, the question "how does this watch work?" demands a better understanding than one gets with an answer like "Rolex." Disappointment at such an answer is not a political conspiracy, but an honest desire for a more thorough explanation. And by the way, this observation is not new; the distinction between an appeal to "design" and a genuine theory of how dates at least to the 19th century. For example, in the sixth edition of the Origin (1872), Darwin wrote:

"It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as the 'plan of creation,' 'unity of design,' &c., and to think that we give an explanation when we only restate a fact." (p. 422)
"Under a scientific point of view, and as leading to further investigation, but little advantage is gained by believing that new forms are suddenly developed in an inexplicable manner from old and widely different forms, over the old belief in the creation of species from the dust of the earth." (p. 424)

Charles Darwin (among others) recognized the value of a scientific explanation. Detecting the influence of an agent, e.g., viruses in medicine or assassins in forensics, clearly has its place and in many circumstances is important to understanding natural phenomena. But in no biological instance do such agents exclude, replace, or comprise "alternatives" to understanding material phenomena, such as viruses dissolving cell membranes or assassins pulling triggers. At best, they're complementary. Stephen Meyer, in contrast, seems to be comfortable with the idea that material mechanisms are entirely lacking for the origin (he doesn't say much about modification thereafter) of biological "information", stating for example that ID,

"attributes the origin of information in living organisms to thought, to the rational activity of a mind, not a strictly material process or mechanism. That does not make it deficient as a materialistic or mechanistic explanation. It makes it an alternative to that kind of explanation." (p. 395 Darwin's Doubt)

Here is an appeal to a murky connection between rationality and gray matter that might be interesting philosophically, but -- as an effort to understand nature -- throws uniformitarianism under the bus. In this quote, Meyer epitomizes the "inexplicable manner" referred to by Darwin in 1872. There is indeed much to be learned about how a human cortex grasps rationality, but (whatever ID advocates may say) our "uniform and repeated experience" is that intelligence does rely on material processes and does leave behind material evidence. Consider the ways -- deliberate and accidental -- in which human intelligence effects its designs: measurable electric nerve impulses delivered from obviously material cortical matter via spinal nerves to the brachial plexus, on to QWERTY keyboards and tons of metal and plastic to link those impulses to LCD monitors, which enable you to read this text. There are materially observable events (some of which are detectable long after the fact, others which are yet to be discovered) in a chain of cause and effect at every step in this process, not just in the final outcome. The whole point of uniformitarianism in science is to investigate the material residue of a given cause alleged to have been active at some point in history, not ignore or deny its existence.

Uniformitarianism started in the early 19th century as a means to understand geological patterns based on observable, material processes, and is applied more generally throughout science today. The "design" implicit in the activity of intelligence (at least that for which we have some precedent) is a particular combination of those processes, not a departure from them. To regard material processes behind the appearance and evolution of biodiversity as incidental -- or even worse to claim that they can be replaced by speculation about "who did it" -- is one of the failures of the ID movement. Such a perspective has little to do with mainstream historical science, in which uniformitarianism plays a crucial part. Thank God.