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Citation Bluffs and Other "Garbage" Arguments in Evolution and Belief

Though Robert Asher's book Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist is largely critical of intelligent design, there are a few points where he concedes that there is some merit in ID's arguments. For example, consider this passage where he says that there are legitimate ways to detect design:

Strictly speaking, [Stephen] Meyer is correct to say that some kinds of signals evident to us in the natural world would justify the inference of a human-like intelligence involved in its current state. The absence of such signals is why it is possible to rule-out human-like agency behind certain historical events, like the conspiracy theory that the German Freemasons engineered the spread of the 1918 flu. Evidence in favor of the participation of a human-like agency in biological evolution might include multiple, independent discoveries of the remains of prehistoric synthetic polymers. Artifacts from monumental architecture from some distant, pre-human age, or the remains of an actual computer and fragments of the manual to use it, would also help. If the "intelligence" of the ID movement actually seeded the Earth with various biological novelties over time (like bipedal apes), it would be reasonable to expect that intelligence to have left behind a record, in the same way that any other intelligent being would leave behind a record. (pp. 33-34)
This is interesting. He basically agrees that we can detect design if the designer leaves a record. But he's wrong to claim the intelligence that ID infers hasn't left a record. We find all kinds of "counterflow" (designed objects) in biology, in the form of highly complex and specified polymers (proteins) and computers (DNA and molecular machines), that can't be explained by material causes.

Asher also commits a fallacy in saying that to infer design, we must find systems identical to human ones. Maybe the intelligence at work in life's history doesn't use computers like the ones we make today, and doesn't need manuals. That wouldn't change the fact that computers always arise from intelligence. Let's return to the example of Stonehenge I used in an earlier response to his book. Builders typically consult blueprints or the equivalent (a manual of sorts) before building a structure, but we would never say "We can't infer design for Stonehenge unless we can find the manual, or blueprint, used by its builders." His objection is weak.

In a similar fashion, Asher criticizes Stephen Meyer's use of the phrase "uniform and repeated experience" because he says that "Another 'uniform and repeated experience' that we have about intelligent agents is that they have left behind a plethora of evidence when and wherever they have existed." (p. 34) He claims we lack such artifacts (like "garbage" or "plastics") to give evidence of intelligent designers in the deep past on Earth.

This is another weak objection. Maybe the designer didn't use garbage or use plastics. Maybe the designer had advanced technologies that didn't leave behind garbage. Star Trek is rich in episodes where Federation archaeologists visit pre-warp societies and hide out in cloaked "anthropological observing stations." They leave no evidence they were there, yet they were there, observing the primitive societies that haven't yet started to travel the stars.

Or maybe the designer DID leave behind evidence -- in the form of DNA. In fact, Asher concedes this on the next page, writing: "Meyer argues that one such artifact has already been found. It is DNA itself... in a software-like, digital code." (p. 35) Asher doesn't accept this:

While the complexity of DNA makes an interesting analogy to human creative expression, the analogy falls short as proof of human-like intelligence as the cause behind biodiversity for the philosophical, theological, and biological reasons enumerated here and elsewhere." (p. 35)
Asher is wrong to claim that the similarity between DNA and software/language is a mere analogy. As Hubert Yockey explains:
It is important to understand that we are not reasoning by analogy. The sequence hypothesis [that the exact order of symbols records the information] applies directly to the protein and the genetic text as well as to written language and therefore the treatment is mathematically identical.

(Hubert P. Yockey, "Self Organization Origin of Life Scenarios and Information Theory," Journal of Theoretical Biology, Vol. 91:13-31 (1981).)

Though Yockey is no ID proponent, he rightly observes that the informational properties of DNA are mathematically identical to language. Thus, the argument for design is much stronger than a mere appeal to analogy. It's based upon finding in nature the precise type of information that, in our experience, comes from intelligence.

And Now, Some Citation Bluffs

Asher then elaborates on why ID's supposed "analogy" fails -- using some weak arguments and citation bluffs in the process:

We already know that complicated structures can result from mechanisms unrelated to a human-like intelligence, observable within the scale of a single human lifetime. Some of these examples are complex in a repetitive fashion, such as the symmetry of a snowflake. Others are complex in more patterned ways, such as (for example) novel digestive pathways in bacteria, changes in skeletal morphology, reproductive anatomy, or perception of visual spectra in different groups of vertebrates. A meaningful understanding of "information" in these cases means the capacity of some organisms to perform a novel task (e.g. eat nylon, give birth to live young, perceive a higher wavelength of light) or exhibit a novel phenotype (e.g. conduct sound via multiple bones in the ear). Many of these cases show that novel "information" has resulted from very specific genetic changes, ones which we can actually observe and ones which are demonstrably the subject of mutation and selection in many organisms over time. (p. 35)
Let's briefly look at the examples that Asher claims refute ID on a scientific level:

Snowflakes: Snowflakes are a crystal, and form easily by natural laws. They actually have a very low level of complexity. Like all crystals, they can be described easily by the laws that govern chemical bonding and atomic packing. For that reason, among others, nobody claims that snowflakes or crystals require explanation by design. Because they are characterized by low CSI, or "Complex and Specified Information," we wouldn't expect them to trigger a design inference.

Nylonase: William Dembski has a good response on this. Basically, the bacteria already had the ability to break down a similar chemical. When they encountered nylon, it was a small step to break that down.

Changes in skeletal morphology: This is a bluff, pure and simple. Asher's citation here is to a 2003 paper in Science about how Hox genes are necessary to "globally pattern the mammalian skeleton." It's a really cool study. The investigators knocked out various Hox genes in mice and then watched how mice skeletons failed to develop properly. Problems that arose included failure to produce ribs and other vital bones. There is really hardly anything about evolution in the entire paper -- it's mostly just an empirical study about how development takes place. The few comments that do mention evolution are like what Phil Skell called "narrative gloss."

In the end, this is a classic example of a study that investigates how biological systems work (or in Asher's words, "tick"). But it has nothing to do with their origins. It certainly doesn't show how "complicated structures can result from mechanisms unrelated to a human-like intelligence, observable within the scale of a single human lifetime."

Giving birth to live young: This is another citation bluff. The study Asher cites looked at fish in the genus Poeciliopsis -- small aquarium fish native to the New World. It found that within this genus, some species give birth to live young (and have a placenta), while others lay eggs (with no material provisioning after fertilization). After creating a phylogenetic tree and doing a molecular clock analyses (methods that we know are highly suspect), they estimate that the species in this genus diverged between 750,000 kya and 2.5 mya. Thus, they infer that the placenta must have arisen rapidly.

They further claim that some members of Poeciliopsis are "intermediate" in their development of a placenta. They came up with a statistic called the "matrotrophy index" (MI) which measures "the estimated dry mass of offspring at birth divided by the dry mass of the egg at fertilization." They admit that this metric is somewhat subjective as "one cannot interpret the MI value as an absolute measure of maternal provisioning for a species." But they believe that "the distribution of values for the genus indicates that there is a continuum of variation from species that have no maternal provisioning after fertilization to those with moderate amounts of provisioning." This tells them there are supposedly "intermediate" stages of placental development found in this genus. They write:

There are thus gradations in the degree to which the mothers of different species provision young during development.

Given the likely complexity of the adaptations associated with extensive maternal provisioning, this range of variation in Poeciliopsis is comparable to finding a single genus that has three independent origins of elaborate eyes, including congeners that have either no eyes or eyes in various intermediate stages of evolution.

But there's no analysis of the "complexity" of placentas in these species to show how they are actually "intermediate" in some biologically meaningful way. There's no step-by-step analysis of how they evolved. The researchers merely assert that they evolved by Darwinian evolution.

Let's now consider what hard data they have actually found:

(1) There are a bunch of species in a particular fish genus...(2) ...Some of which reproduce using live birth, and others of which lay eggs.

All of the evolution is inferred, or assumed, and no step-by-step evolutionary schemes are given for how a complex trait like placentas evolved so quickly. In fact, there's no discussion whatsoever of the changes necessary to produce placentas. So after talking big at the beginning, the paper doesn't demonstrate that this trait can evolve, whether quickly or otherwise. The paper sounds impressive at first but turns out to be empty if you read it carefully. It's another citation bluff.

Changes in perception of visual spectra: This is another small-scale change. In this case, researchers have found that by changing one amino acid in a pigment in the eye, they could mediate between UV vision and Violet vision. This is like taking a fully functional protein and generating one that performs a very slight difference.

And there you have it. Asher gets points for politeness but he otherwise fails in his critique. In the end, his case against intelligent design is thoughtful, civil, but highly unconvincing.