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Ben Carson on Creationism, Evolution, and Intelligent Design

O'Reilly Carson.jpg

Whether Dr. Ben Carson has adequate experience and background knowledge to be President of the United States is a fair question, but there's certainly a lot to like about him as a man. He displays an admirable fearlessness in stating his views. That combined with his calm, soft-spoken manner and undoubted intelligence makes him an appealing personality to many voters.

We're not in the business of expressing preferences for one aspirant to higher office over another, but evaluating candidates' views on relevant scientific issues comes with the territory of what we do. Dr. Carson's thoughts on evolution, the history of life and the cosmos, have come under scrutiny. He was on The O'Reilly Factor last night, and gracefully handled questions about his beliefs (click on the still image above, starting at 3:32 above).

Bill O'Reilly opened by making a useful differentiation between intelligent design and creationism. He asked Carson if he's a creationist, to which Carson replied that the Declaration of Independence affirms a "Creator," and so does he. Fine, O'Reilly answered, but "That could be intelligent design," not creationism. Yes indeed! (On a side note, is O'Reilly aware that the Declaration's author, Thomas Jefferson, affirmed something like an ID view, as we've mentioned here before?)

O'Reilly deserves kudos for clarifying a distinction that Darwin lobbyists habitually obfuscate. Carson went on to deny reports that he thinks the world is just six thousand years old:

They have no basis for saying that. I don't know how old the earth is. It says "In the beginning God created the heaven and earth," and then there's a period there. You don't know how much time elapsed. The other thing is, people don't realize, he's God. If he wanted to create an earth that was billions of years old, he could do it.

This strikes me as a merely verbal solution, using words to get out of directly facing a conundrum. Certainly, all the major arguments for ID take for granted the conventional scientific dating of life's origin and that of the universe.

O'Reilly didn't ask about evolution per se, but we know that Dr. Carson has given the question some thought -- more than most Republican or Democratic aspirants as far as I can tell, and more than most journalists. He spoke well in an interview with David Boze on our podcast Intelligent Design: The Future.

Asked about ID versus Darwinian theory, Carson told Boze:

The evolutionists look at the similarities that you see in the various life forms and they say, because this creature and this creature here [share] the same type of digestive system or the same type of structures in their head, that clearly one evolved from the other. I don't know how clear that is. Because if you have an intelligent designer, why wouldn't he use a basic structure, that works on multiple different creatures, just like an automobile manufacturer. General Motors -- same basic chassis for Chevrolet, a Buick a Pontiac, or a Cadillac. And yet they're all different and one did not evolve from the other. And why would you have to go and completely change the motor, the chassis, and all the other infrastructure because you're creating a different model. Doesn't make any sense to me.

And I think one of the most damning pieces of evidence against evolution is the human genome. You can see that you have a very complex, sophisticated coding mechanism -- four different [nucleotides] in various sequences that give you millions of different genetic instructions, very much like computer programming, which uses a series of zeros and ones, and different sequences but if gives you very specific information about what that computer is to do.

Well this is at least twice that complex because instead of just two digits we have four digits, repeating in different sequences but always resulting in the same things unless there is a mutation. And if there is a mutation it tends to lead toward degeneration rather than improvement.

Might we have put some of that a little differently if we had the time and opportunity to compose a written response? Would we welcome an opportunity to host an in-depth conversation between Dr. Carson and Stephen Meyer, let's say, on the finer points of the case for intelligent design? Sure, but for a casual chat with an interviewer, that's not bad.

Carson, indeed, echoes ideas that we have expressed here. See, for example, Granville Sewell on evolutionary convergence and common design ("In Biology as in Technology, Similarities Do Not Prove the Absence of Intelligent Design"), observing:

"Convergence" suggests common design rather than common descent: the probability of similar designs arising independently through random processes is very small, but a designer could, of course, take a good design and apply it several times in different places, to unrelated species. Convergence is a phenomenon often seen in the development of human technology, for example, Ford automobiles and Boeing jets may simultaneously evolve similar new GPS systems.

So if the history of life looks like the way humans, the only other known intelligent beings in the universe, design things -- through careful planning, testing and improvements -- why is that an argument against design?

Or, for a consideration of specified complexity and biological information, see Casey's Luskin's helpful introduction to intelligent design ("A Tale of Two Mountains").

To be sure, Dr. Carson has said things to which I for one can't agree -- for example, his comments about Darwinian theory as reflecting the influence of "the Adversary," meaning Satan. That was in a speech before a church group in 2012, and he has recently sought to clarify his meaning in a Time Magazine interview that, in truth, didn't help much.

While Darwinism has inspired pernicious social thinking in the past century and half, that doesn't justify demonizing it or its originator. To see evolution treated as an ordinary scientific idea, subject to question and debate, even down to its foundations, has been our goal. We have advocated freedom of inquiry and, for open-minded scientists and thoughtful adults, serious consideration of an alternative theory.

In fact, whether ID is strictly speaking an alterative to evolution, or instead an "evolution" of it, is a question I considered in an article the other day ("Has World Entered a 'Post-Darwin' Era, or Have We Merely Evolved?"). Referring to our new short documentary The Information Enigma, which presents a major argument for ID in an accessible and provocative manner, I pointed out that "ID advocates commonly invoke Darwin's legacy and inspiration":

DNA and how it conveys biological information was unknown to Darwin, who died in 1882. But the co-discoverer of evolutionary theory, Alfred Russel Wallace, who outlived his colleague by three decades, seemed to have an inkling of what was to come. His own opinions matured into a view that science historian Michael Flannery calls "intelligent evolution."

Wallace anticipated modern ID, but Darwin pointed the way, too. The creative power of his evolutionary mechanism, natural selection, is today hotly contested in professional science journals, with some scientists claiming we have entered a "post-Darwinian" era.

The truth is we are all Darwin's inheritors, and the current debate will determine the shape that heritage takes.

Wherever his presidential campaign ultimately takes him, Dr. Carson has stirred the pot of an important debate. He shows that a serious person who is not an evolutionary biologist has a right, and an obligation, to think through the evidence about evolution for himself. The conclusions he has reached so far don't exactly match ours, but his thoughtful skepticism is worthy of respect.