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Getting ID Right: More Response to the Beliefnet Review of Signature in the Cell

The second, third, and fourth installments of the review of Steve Meyer's book Signature in the Cell are up over at Beliefnet. (I responded to the first installment here.)

Although this series appears on Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed blog, they're written by anonymous blogger "RJS." I'm guessing that RJS is a scientist, or is in a sensitive academic position, and doesn't want to risk banishment for saying reasonable things about an ID argument. If so, that tells us something of the social pressures against writing publicly about this issue.

The second installment didn't really review Meyer's book, but rather used Meyer's analysis of evidence in the historical sciences as a point of departure for reflecting on the differences in historicity between Noah's flood and Jesus's resurrection. She has some interesting thoughts on this, but since it's not germane to Meyer's argument, I'll just respond to her thirdinstallment here, and her fourth and later installments separately.

I should say that this review is better than 95% percent of online reviews of Meyer's book, so it's worth reading. Not only does she grapple with the details, she's actually read the book before reviewing it. What a thought!

Unfortunately, she still mischaracterizes ID, and she still relies on the Darwinian doctrinal defaults so characteristic of this debate.

First, she makes it appear that ID is concerned only with the biological sciences, which is not the case. It's just that biology is by far the most controversial area for saying design-friendly things (due to the deeply ideological character of modern Neo-Darwinism), so it draws the most fire.

Second, though I'm glad she distinguishes the negative case against, say, Neo-Darwinism, from the positive case for intelligent design, she puts the point a bit pejoratively as "the attempt to undermine all of evolutionary biology." When dealing with the negative side of the argument, the focus among ID folks in biology is not "all of evolutionary biology," but rather the Darwinian selection-mutation mechanism, materialistic chemical origin-of-life scenarios, and inaccurate claims concerning universal common ancestry. And IDers widely recognize that it's the first two claims, and not the third, that are central to the argument.

But there is an issue in this vicinity that RJS misses: if you're allowed to consider ID, then many arguments for (universal) common ancestry are ambiguous, and seem to count equally in favor of common design and common descent. ID folks generally understand this and are willing to talk about it publicly, while those seized with the Darwinian vision usually find it almost impossible to imagine the evidence for common descent counting for anything else. RJS does this almost reflexively, citing just this sort of ambiguous evidence from Darrell Falk and Francis Collins for this conclusion:

These three lines of evidence, and perhaps there are others, make the general theory of evolution clearly the inference to best explanation. There is no real doubt left. While we do not yet understand the whole process, the general scenario is as close to proven as anything ever is or can be in history or biology. Arguments against the broad brush history of evolution fall into the same general category as arguments that Napoleon never existed (an example Meyer uses in his book when discussing IBE), that Jesus was married, or that the holocaust never happened.

These sorts of doctrinal statements are nearly universal in this debate, and should always set off your baloney detector. This one doesn't even pass the smell test. "The broad brush history of evolution" is hopelessly ambiguous. Are we talking about history, change over time, cosmic evolution, universal common ancestry, or all of the above plus the mutation-selection mechanism and other putative mechanisms that are often referred to vaguely but seldom do any real work in creating adaptive complexity? We're not told. And whatever it encompasses, it surely involves all sorts of different claims and inferences about deep history. As a result, even if it were precisely defined, it would still be qualitatively different from discrete events in very recent, recorded human history. Alas, such comparing of apples and orangutans is common in the evolution debate, and serves no helpful function.

The reviewer's concern here does seem to be of the "helpful advice" variety: ID would have more credibility if it would drop all the snake-handling stuff: "I think that the ID movement damages its credibility (destroys might be a better word) by fighting a battle against the general evolutionary theory." But that's the reviewer's misleading characterization of ID, based in part on his apparent confusion about the differing status of different historical events. I am surprised that RJS makes this mistake, since his second installment was an excursus on the intrinsic differences in the historicity of Noah's flood and Jesus's resurrection. Thus he can draw careful distinctions. And yet, when we move to evolutionary theory, this capacity for nuance reverts to default invocations about the impeccable evidential credentials of some ill-defined evolutionary scenario.

What this suggests to me is that there's something about the logical and rhetorical character of the "general evolutionary scenario" that makes it very hard for those enamored of it to keep separate issues separate. So we're now three installments in, and the review of Meyer's book is still mostly focusing on ancillary issues. I'm hoping that despite all of this, RJS will rise above the ambient prejudice and offer a serious review of Steve Meyer's book.

I'll respond to his fourth and later installments in a separate post.