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Robert Asher Objects: We Can't Detect Design Without Finding the Designer's "Garbage," "Waste," and "Teeth"

garbage dump.jpg

I keep going back and forth in my mind about Cambridge University paleontologist and theistic evolutionist Robert Asher. Is he a serious, civil critic of intelligent design, or just another typical Internet Darwin-defender who uses and endorses nasty rhetoric and weak objections, often misrepresenting the arguments for ID?

DebatingDDsmall.jpegMy first encounter with Dr. Asher came in September 2012, when he wrote an article at the Huffingtgon Post attacking the textbook Explore Evolution. This wasn't an encouraging introduction to Dr. Asher. In the article, he claimed "This book makes a case that biodiversity results from a kind of 'design' incompatible with evolution by natural selection," as if the textbook argued for intelligent design.

In reality, Explore Evolution doesn't argue for intelligent design, whether explicitly or implicitly. The word "design" is used a few times, but it's in the same context many anti-ID biologists use it: to refer to the structural "design" of an organism, not to argue for intelligent design. At the time I posted my rebuttal to Asher, I challenged him (or anyone else) to provide page numbers and quotes showing just where and how the book argues for intelligent design. He, of course, never took me up on my challenge. His critique of EE included other egregious misrepresentations of the textbook's arguments, ridiculing us as "anti-science." You can read all about it here.

But then I was more encouraged in early 2013, after I read Asher's book Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist. I discussed it in here on ENV (see part 1, part 2, and part 3 of my responses). Though I disagreed with many of his criticisms of intelligent design, I found that he generally tried to address ID's arguments squarely. I was especially impressed that he acknowledged that Stephen Meyer "claims to use the uniformitarianism of Charles Darwin to justify his inference." (p. 32)

Admittedly in a crude way, his book even accurately states that Meyer's argument is a positive one that follows from the complexity of living organisms. Though Meyer wouldn't put it quite that way, Asher characterizes Meyer's argument as saying "a very complex devise we observe now, such as a wristwatch, computer, or piece of software, has only one source: human ingenuity" and thus "It follows, he says, that a similar complex device we observe in the geological past must also have arisen as a result of something like human ingenuity, i.e., intelligence." (p. 32) Though Asher's version of the argument isn't nearly as sophisticated as Meyer's, at least it appeared that Asher had read and understood some of Meyer's writings. True, Asher's book Evolution and Belief is marred by citation bluffs and common misunderstandings about ID, but it's serious tone is a big improvement on the critiques of other many other ID opponents.

Fast forward to 2014. Robert Asher has now critiqued Darwin's Doubt in the Huffington Post. Sad to say, some progress has been lost with Dr. Asher.

Titled "A New Objection to Intelligent Design," Asher's article opens with his saying, "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)." In fact, Darwin's Doubt received lots of typical empty ridicule from Matzke and Prothero (Marshall was civil), which I won't dignify by quoting. Matzke and Prothero's reviews were full of gutter rhetoric -- "disparaging" treatment indeed, which Asher apparently feels was "well-deserved." But we provided many responses to the substantive arguments, and for the sake of the record, you can read our responses to Matzke, Prothero, and Marshall.

It turns out that Asher's own complaint against Darwin's Doubt has very little to do with the science, and is instead a weak philosophical-ish objection. In a nutshell, Asher argues that since all the intelligent agents in our experience are human agents, and since humans have teeth and bones, and do things like leaving behind waste and garbage, therefore we can't claim to detect design unless we find evidence of the designer's teeth or bones, or waste or other abandoned material, in the historical record.

This is all in the context of a challenge to Stephen Meyer's uniformitarianism. Asher writes: "Meyer is not really uniformitarian in a scientific sense" since "while Meyer appeals to the uniformitarianism of Darwin to address this possibility [that a human-like, super-intelligence interfered with life], he stops short of fully using it." He continues:

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...

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.

Asher makes much the same argument in his book Evolution and Belief. He basically concedes that design detection is a theoretical possibility. However, Asher suggests that unless the designer has left behind artifacts like "garbage" or "plastics," then in fact we can't detect design. Asher's critique is flawed on at least two levels.

First, he's wrong to claim that we must find evidence of the designer's "waste" or "infrastructure" (or body parts) to detect design. The defining characteristic of intelligence is NOT whether the designer has teeth, bones, or leaves behind waste or garbage. Rather, the defining feature of an intelligent agent is the ability to rationally choose between many options, and look forward with will, forethought, and intentionality to solve some complex problem. Accordingly, when intelligent agents act, they generate high levels of complex and specified information (CSI). Thus, a fundamental sign that an intelligent agent has been at work is high CSI. We can detect design by finding high CSI, regardless of whether we also find physical evidence of the designer's body, waste, or infrastructure.

Second, Asher is wrong to claim that we haven't found any evidence that the intelligent designer has left a record. In fact we find all kinds of "counterflow" in biology -- in the form of polymers (proteins) and computers (DNA and molecular machines) that are rich in CSI, and can't be explained by material causes. This is evidence, or a record, of the work of an intelligent designer.

Asher critiques 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." He claims we lack such artifacts (like "garbage" or "plastics") to give evidence of intelligent designers in the deep past on Earth.

But why plastics? Maybe the designer had advanced technologies that didn't leave behind such garbage. Star Trek is full of episodes where Federation archaeologists visit pre-warp societies and hide out in cloaked "anthropological observing stations." They leave no evidence they were there. But they were intelligent agents, and they were at work.

Accordingly, the following simple questions show why Asher's critiques are misguided:

  • Must an intelligent agent always have teeth?
  • Must an intelligent agent always have bones?
  • Must an intelligent agent leave always waste or garbage?
  • Must an intelligent agent always leave behind an infrastructure?
If the answer to any of those questions is "no," then Asher's critique is flawed.

ID doesn't require that the intelligent designer be identical to humans -- having teeth, bones, and leaving behind waste, garbage, and an infrastructure. Rather, ID simply requires that the intelligent designer be intelligent. There's no hiding the ball here: "intelligent design" means exactly what it sounds like it means -- intelligent design. Only by adding these additional superfluous -- and might I even say unreasonable -- requirements to what it means to be an "intelligent agent" can Asher critique ID.

Indeed, Asher concedes that ID argues that life arose due to "something like human ingenuity" (emphasis added) -- not necessarily from an intelligent being identical to humans. As a result, we can detect design if we find evidence that a human-like intelligence -- one that produces high CSI and machine-like structures found throughout biology -- was at work in the past. There is no need to require that the intelligence be identical to humans in every way, having bones, teeth, and producing waste. What matters is if the agent has human-like intelligence; if it does, we can potentially detect its actions.

Asher wants to be able to find something the designer left behind, and indeed there is something that intelligent agents do leave behind: high CSI. Thus, maybe the designer DID leave behind such evidence -- i.e., in the form of high CSI in our DNA. In fact, in Evolution and Belief, Asher concedes that Meyer argues this way: "Meyer argues that one such artifact has already been found. It is DNA itself... in a software-like, digital code." (p. 35) Asher can't accept this, however. He writes:

"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)
Like all historical sciences, ID doesn't claim to provide "proof," but it does show that the best explanation for the high CSI in life is intelligence. Nonetheless, 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, only comes from intelligence. This isn't a "proof" of design, but it does show that intelligent design is the best explanation for high CSI in nature.

Now ID isn't fundamentally opposed to looking for evidence of the designer's teeth or trash, and if we find such teeth and trash, then fine. But since the defining property of intelligent agents is that they produce high CSI, looking for CSI -- not teeth or trash -- seems like a better place to start. We should not be required to find the designer's "garbage" as its signature, when (a) intelligence doesn't necessarily leave garbage behind, and (b) a more fundamental description of intelligent behavior is that it leaves high CSI.

Asher's HuffPo piece protests that "Meyer called my argument a 'new objection' to Intelligent Design" but "my objection to his professed methodology is not new." New or not, I can't remember anyone else who has argued that if we don't find the designer's teeth or trash, we can't detect design. While Asher thinks his argument "is not new" what surely isn't new are the rebuttals to his argument: Meyer responded to them in Darwin's Doubt and I responded to them last year here on ENV (see here and here). Asher's recent piece restates his original arguments, but fails to mention or answer any of our rebuttals.

Well, at least his objection, even if fundamentally flawed and previously answered, is phrased in a civil, serious manner. If that sounds like tepid praise, I suppose it is.

Image source: seantoyer/Flickr.