More “Expelled”: Origins of life research ignored by intelligent design advocates

A reader named Matt provided some incisive comments in another thread, “Cold showers for intelligent design:  ID not even fringe research,” and I bring them to the top here to highlight a major failing of the intelligent design advocates, their complete absence from participation in origins of life research.

Matt blogs at Consanguinity, which recently featured an exchange on Ben Stein’s mockumentary, “Expelled!

Matt took issue with a characterization that the intelligent design movement is not science.  He wondered if they would get a fair hearing were they to submit their research to science journals.  I pointed to the court records that show they would get a fair hearing, but that they do no research and so submit nothing for publication — which indicates the lack of science we were discussing.  Matt suggested that Francis Crick and Frederick Hoyle were sympathetic to the ID cause, and I pointed out they both specifically refuted creationism and ID.

Our discussion is below the fold.

In a response here at the Bathtub, Matt said:

Since I mostly agree with what you said about publications, and I find the second part of the discussion more interesting, I’ll keep to that topic. I think I wasn’t completely clear in expressing my point. I wasn’t claiming that Crick and Hoyle were proponents of ID, but rather that they had asked similar questions concerning the origin of life. Furthermore, when I was referring to the question of design, I was specifically talking about origin of life and not evolution per se (I didn’t make this clear). I am not an opponent of evolution. I agree that an incredible amount of research has demonstrated the origin of diversity once you have life, but there is no similar immense theoretical and experimental framework for the origin of life. There are interesting ideas, but no one really knows. It is in the exploration of the origin of life that I think we have something to gain by allowing the question concerning design. The fact that the origin of diversity is explained well without an appeal to design has no bearing on the origin of life question. I think that a scientist who refuses to consider this an option, until ruled out by evidence, is committing the same academic dishonesty that the IDer does who comes to the table presuming there must be design.

My response:

Crick and Hoyle weren’t much involved in questions of origins of life, actually. But if they asked any questions at all about the issue, they were, again, separate from ID advocates, who avoid asking any questions at all about much of anything, especially origins of life. There is absolutely nothing in ID that contributes to origin of life (ool) research.

Evolution theory doesn’t encompass origins of life, either. Darwin noted evolution occurs regardless how one thinks life began — and it’s difficult to read Darwin’s last paragraph in Origin of Species without understanding he was posing a Genesis-like beginning of life for evolution.* So if ID propagandists say they have something different there, it is only spin, once again.

Before I were to agree there isn’t a lot of research on the origins of life, I’d want to check out what is going on at NASA and in several laboratories around the country — I think you’ll discover the research is considerably farther along than ID advocates would allow one to imagine. Take a look at the research of Andy Ellington at the University of Texas, for example:

Ellington says that the nucleotide building blocks for DNA and RNA (the Gs, Cs, Ts, As and Us) aren’t particularly interesting alone, but that strung together they are “exquisitely adaptable.”

“What I’ve learned about origin of life is that I think it’s a much easier problem than anyone anticipated, in the sense that there are probably multiple functional optima,” he says, reflecting a concept promoted by the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. “If you were to ask for a given function, there are many different ways for a molecule to achieve that function [through evolution].

“The miracle, as it were, is in front of us all of the time.”

And there are many others, such as James Ferris (his work can be viewed in summary here: The general field is known as astrobiology. NASA is deep into the work:

There is a lay journal on the topic, you can access here [Astrobiology Magazine is listed in the blogroll here, for your edification convenience]:

And need I stress the point? In this rapidly expanding field of origins of life research, there are no ID players. Not one.

I think we need to be more careful in analyzing how science looks at design. It is not that scientists refuse to consider design an option at all. It is this: For everything that looks designed, we have so far discovered that the appearance of design is achieved through wholly natural means that do not involve interference from any intelligence outside the natural course of things.

Scientists not only consider the issues of design all the time, they investigate them thoroughly. Time after time, science discovers a natural, non-intelligent source for the appearance of design. That ID advocates refuse to consider these well-established facts speaks to the bias, bigotry, and anti-knowledge nature of ID. The academic dishonesty is entirely on the side of the ID advocates, especially when they claim, falsely, that scientists don’t consider design. You won’t find IDists discussing origin of life issues — they hope you and others will never discover that science has advanced so far on the issues.

What science refuses to do that ticks off the ID advocates is say, “God did it,” in the absence of evidence to that point, and in the presence of billions of data points that refute the hypotheses of God being directly involved, say, in the development of an embryo. It is not merely that ID posits a mad conjecture where there are not sufficient data; it is that ID requires us to ignore the data and theory that already exist.

If you think about this, theologically, you’ll see the silliness of the ID position. Were it true that God must be involved in the creation of each life, how could there ever be an unwanted, out-of-wedlock pregnancy?

* Darwin’s last paragraph, in Origin of Species:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

4 Responses to More “Expelled”: Origins of life research ignored by intelligent design advocates

  1. RBH says:

    Matt wrote “I personally feel that at least a few interesting questions can be filtered out of the noise that is the ID debate.”

    I’ve read an awful lot of ID literature, including both of Behe’s books, two of Dembski’s books (The Design Inference and No Free Lunch), essays by both along with Stephen Meyers and other ID proponents, and I have found no interesting questions in what I’ve read.

    Perhaps Matt could suggest some of the interesting questions that can be filtered out of the ID debate that depend on that debate for their existence and aren’t already in the philosophy or scientific literature. That is, what does ID bring to the table that’s even original?


  2. elbogz says:

    Ed, That has to be by far one of your best blog entries. Thanks!


  3. Ed Darrell says:

    There are a lot of bad arguments for intelligent design, but no good ones. Simply put, there is not an iota of evidence that anything like a Gepetto in the Sky is cobbling together puppet living things for the Good Fairy to make real.

    I’m no philosopher. I’m a former biologist, and a lawyer. I feel obligated to go where the evidence leads and no further without clear labeling of conjecture, and to avoid places the evidence denies. Whatever logical fallacy I may commit — and I’m not conceding that in any fashion — I do not commit the fallacy of total fantasy, as ID proponents do.

    If there is a good, scientific argument for intelligent design, it has not been proposed in any scientific venue, and it is unknown in religious venues as well.

    Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, necessarily, but in the face of evidence of something else being there, it is strongly suggestive. Absence of evidence also is not evidence of presence. ID advocates explain their complete and utter failure to produce a single point of data as my bias. I’m flattered. I did not know my god-like powers were so great.

    And in reality, I suspect it is not my powers at all, but rather the error of the ID advocates. There is no evidence there to support their claims. While scientists may not have all the answers, I’m loathe to say the answers they already have are wrong in favor of a null answer based on zero data, offered by ID advocates who can’t find a laboratory or a hypothesis with both hands and their eyes wide open. That just seems amazingly imprudent, to me.

    It may be that design is deeper than ID advocates imagine, and the evidence is in the origin of life research of people like Andy Ellington and Jim Ferris. That is a faith-based position, however (and close to my own). Science does not offer any support for it.


  4. Matt says:

    I appreciate the advertisement, as your blog gets two orders of magnitude more traffic than mine. However, you have grossly misunderstood (or misrepresented) my view. I think that for the most part my comments and post stand on their own, and that the dispassionate reader will see your mistake. However, I feel that I should clarify two things. First, I am not an ID advocate. While I am a Christian, I don’t have any need to believe in a miraculous mechanism for the origin or evolution of life. I simply advocate moderation and rationality in the discussion. I am willing to listen to what the ID folks say and assess it critically for myself to see whether they have any valid points. I personally feel that at least a few interesting questions can be filtered out of the noise that is the ID debate. Second, I am not ignorant of or ignoring origin of life research. In fact, not long ago I heard an interesting bit on NPR about a theory for the origin of life on crystal surfaces:

    However, I stand by my claim that no consensus view for the origin of life has yet emerged, and that we should be open to the possibility of design. In arguing against the possible usefulness of design within science (assuming that’s what you’re trying to do) you say:

    “For everything that looks designed, we have so far discovered that the appearance of design is achieved through wholly natural means that do not involve interference from any intelligence outside the natural course of things.”

    However, this argument seems to commit the fallacy of composition or of converse accident depending on how you formally represent it (feel free to lay it out explicitly in the form you prefer if I am misunderstanding you). There may be good arguments against using design as a scientific hypothesis, but this is not one of them. I don’t really have time to continue this conversation, as I should be spending my time doing actual science research right now, instead of discussing an area of science about which neither of us are experts, so this will likely be my last post here.


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