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A Review of Undeniable, by Douglas Axe. [EvolutionBlog]

Friday, September 23, 2016 1:33
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Do you remember those commercials, from a few years back, for Excedrin headache medicine? There was a whole series of them. In each, some very normal-looking and totally relatable person would talk straight to the camera, explaining that he or she suffered from terrible headaches and had tried every other remedy. The climax of each commercial was when the person said something like, “How do I know Excedrin works? Well, they have their “scientific research” to prove it. But you know what? I did my own kind of research. I tried it.” I use the scare quotes to indicate their tone of bemused contempt.

That’s basically what Douglas Axe’s new book is like. Axe, if you are unfamiliar with him, is a protein chemist and the latest ID celebrity. The argument of his new book is this: The latest science shows that evolution is total nonsense, but that’s just for geeks and nerds. The fact is that every child figures out that complex machines come from intelligence, and that’s all you need to conclude that life is designed.

While I no longer blog with anything like my former enthusiasm, I do return here periodically to remind you that ID is dead. I say that in part because the ID folks do not seem to have had a new idea since Dembski’s No Free Lunch. They pop their collective heads up to publish a book every once in a while, but all the recent ones have just been rehashes of old, discredited arguments.

Axe’s book is an egregious example of this. There is nothing remotely new in it. But more than that, it is a real step backward in tone and style for ID. It is the sort of short, large print, truculent book that has more in common Henry Morris and Duane Gish than with William Dembski or Michael Behe.

For one thing, the book is openly evangelistic. The creator is the Christian God. Period. No subterfuge about the possibility of intelligent aliens or anything like that. For another, there is a great deal of swagger and bravado involved. In his telling, modern evolutionary theory is not merely incorrect, it is ridiculous. This is obvious to anyone not blinded by groupthink or by morbid, anti-religious bias. There are the silly cartoons and pull quotes and the condescending tone towards his audience. There are the suspiciously short quotations from other scientists, and the familiar boasts of what a courageous truthteller he is. The denunciation of ID from every major scientific body in the world is not evidence that knowledgeable people have, for good reasons, considered and rejected ID’s arguments. Instead, it is evidence of a massive conspiracy, in which a few gatekeepers force everyone else to tow the materialist line.

And there is also the complete unwillingness to deal seriously with the actual reasons people give for finding evolution not just credible, but the only theory that adequately accounts for the facts of biology.

In Axe’s telling, God did everything. Every attribute of any consequence, in any organism, is God’s handiwork. Natural selection is nothing more than an inept fiddler that at most made a few refinements around the edges. He does not weigh in on the age of the Earth, but I will assume he accepts that the Earth is very old and that the fossil record reveals a genuine chronological progression of life forms played out over vast periods of time. Near the end of the book, he laments that dumbass materialist scientists only consider the construction and operation of various bio-molecular systems, but they do not consider the conception that had to occur prior to the construction.

Strangely, he does not take his own advice. How does ID makes sense of the fossil record, which shows a clear progression from simpler, ancient organisms to more complex, modern organisms? Why did God do His creating over billions of years, and why did He do so in the one sequence that would later suggest evolution to so many? Why did he just watch the unicellular organisms for a billion years or whatever before getting on with the show? What was the point of the millions of years of bloodsport taking place among creatures with enough brainpower to know they were suffering and miserable, but not enough to enter into a relationship with God? What are mass extinctions all about? How is this consistent with the idea that life was designed for a purpose?

Axe has nothing to say about any of this. And that’s just the fossils. What about all the other lines of evidence that are so ably explained by evolution? The patterns of embryological development, the retroviral scars, the vestigial structures, and all the rest. Axe never even mentions any of it, much less tell us how ID accounts for it. If God really is responsible for all of this, then it amused Him to create in a manner that coincides perfectly with evolutionary expectations. But Axe is too busy dismissing biologists as idiots to acknowledge that they have good reasons for accepting evolution.

Which brings us to all those adaptations Axe finds so compelling. They’re complex! There’s functional coherence! Indeed. But they are also more like Rube Goldberg machines than they are the creations of an omnipotent engineer designing a machine for a purpose. The issue is not so much bad design, as it is weird design. Design that makes no sense from an engineering perspective but makes perfect sense if you see the modern system as the endpoint of a long, historical process. Rube Goldberg machines are ingenious, but they are funny precisely because you recognize immediately that no engineer would design such a thing. So it is with basically every complex adaptation studied to date. You can look from on high and gush about the genius of the designer, or you can actually study these systems carefully and quickly grow skeptical of ID.

I won’t bother with Axe’s arguments, such as they are, for dismissing natural selection. It’s the usual bad search metaphors and asinine probability calculations that we have seen so many times before. (Might I suggest my recent article if you want some discussions of these points?)

Instead I am more interested in why Axe thinks his conclusions are so simple and obvious. He is very taken with the idea that we all have a “universal design intuition” that tells us, somehow, that living organisms just have to be the products of intelligent design. You need design to explain bricks and shoes (his examples), right? And organisms are way more complicated than that! This intuition, and our basic experience with everyday contrivances, should count for more, he argues, than the opinions of a few over-educated eggheads:

We tend to overlook two key facts. One is that everyone validates their design intuition through firsthand experience. The other is that this experience is scientific in nature. It really is. Basic science is an integral part of how we live. We are all careful observers of our world. We all make mental notes of what we observe. We all use those notes to build conceptual models of how things work. And we all continually refine these models as needed. Without doubt, this is science. I have called it common science to emphasize the connection to common sense.

…Long before we walk, we have constructed simple mental models of gravity and balance. Long before we put our hands to art, we have acquired notions of color, shape, and form. Long before we speak, we have learned to classify things into categories that await the terms we eventually use to refer to them. (p. 60)

This goes on for a while. Eventually we come to this:

Because everyone practices common science, public reception of scientific claims is arguably the most significant form of peer review. For professional scientists to assume that public skepticism toward their ideas can only be caused by public ignorance is just plain arrogant. If ignorance is the cause, clearer teaching should be the remedy. When that proves elusive or ineffective, professional scientists need to be willing to find fault with their ideas, not the public.

…Instead of merely following expert debates, nonexperts should expect important issues that touch their lives to be framed in terms of common science. Once they are, everyone becomes qualified to enter the debate. This doesn’t apply to intrinsically technical subjects, of course, but the matters of deepest importance to how we live are never intrinsically technical. (p. 62-63)

That “intrinsically technical” loophole is doing a lot of work here. One suspects it is only evolutionary biology to which folks get a heckler’s veto, so as long as they feel deeply that it is wrong.

Science, of course, is one long assault on our common sense. Excuse me, common science. Science tells me I live on a giant sphere that rotates at more than a thousand miles per hour. Is that how it feels to you? Science tells me that the continents are moving around, and that hydrogen and oxygen, both gasses at room temperature, come together to form water. It tells me that sodium, which explodes, and chlorine, a deadly poison, come together to make tasty table salt. Science tells me that time slows down when I move real fast, and it tells me things about atoms that are an affront to basic sanity, let alone common sense.

I guess those subjects are all intrinsically technical.

Evolutionary biology receives contributions from paleontology, genetics, anatomy, ethology, mathematics, embryology, and many other fields besides. People study for years to become experts in any one of these disciplines, but here comes Axe to tell them they wasted their time. Turns out it is all so simple and non-technical that any old person on the street can figure it out.

Folks, no one has “intuitions” about what can happen in billions years of evolution by natural selection. Nothing in our daily experience is remotely relevant to understanding what science reveals about the history of life on Earth. Organisms reproduce themselves imperfectly and engage in a struggle for existence. In this they differ dramatically from the world of human invention. Our everyday experience with human contrivances simply has nothing to tell us about what can happen when such a system evolves over billions of years. The only way to determine whether it is plausible is to do the hard work of high-level science. How interesting that the actual professionals who do this work, who are forced by the practical realities of their jobs to stick with what works and discard bad ideas that lead nowhere, are all but unanimous in finding evolution not just credible, but, frankly, kind of obvious. How arrogant of me to think that verdict counts for more than a bad analogy between life on the one hand, and bricks and shoes on the other.

(And no, I have not overlooked the sheer chutzpah of Axe lecturing us on the need for better education, when he and his fellow travelers fight tooth and nail to make sure that such education is impossible.)

Now, I would like to close with one further point. It seems to me there is a huge double standard in how Axe treats natural selection as a possible explanation for complex systems, versus how he treats intelligence.

Scientists like to point out that we have voluminous evidence, alluded to earlier, that modern life is the end result of a gradual evolutionary process. When they apply evolutionary reasoning to the problems they face in their work, they are routinely rewarded with tangible progress. We know that the basic components of evolution by natural selection are empirical facts: Genes really do mutate, sometimes leading to new functionalities. Natural selection can string together these mutations into directional change. On a small scale these are empirical facts. We then note that every complex adaptation studied in detail has shown clear signs of evolutionary history, and in many cases we have strong, converging evidence for the major stepping stones through which they evolved.

Axe dismisses all of this out of hand. Evolution is sheer lunacy, untutored intuition is enough to refute it, and until you evolve a flagellum from scratch in a laboratory you have nothing.

Contrast that with his credulity regarding the power of intelligence. It is all well and good to say that intelligence can create things natural causes cannot, but he never stops to ask about possible limitations on what intelligence can achieve. Instead he writes things like this:

We’re left to think that poor Tavros 2 [a solar-powered, underwater vehicle] is really no more worthy of comparison to a lowly cyanobacterium than it is to an exalted dolphin. After all, raw natural ingredients like sand and metal ores and crude oil become Tavros 2 only with the skillful help of thousands of people at hundreds of industrial plants of various kinds. With all due respect, this human invention does very little in comparison to the human effort expended to manufacture it. The contrast with cyanobacteria could hardly be more stark. (p. 175)

This sort of thing is commonplace throughout the book. He is constantly telling us that the simplest biological processes are way beyond the puny contrivances of human engineers. Axe is all about parlaying our everyday experiences into grand conclusions about the history of life on Earth. Why then should I not conclude that intelligence is fundamentally incapable of accomplishing what Axe attributes to it? If the greatest accomplishments of the greatest intelligences we know of are like nothing compared to the living world, then why the confidence that intelligence is responsible for the living world, much less for the universe as a whole?

With natural selection he refuses to accept the small-scale evidence of what has been observed in the field and the lab and the large scale evidence for common descent and for the evolutionary origins of those complex systems he goes on about. He laughs at it. Dismisses it out of hand. But he makes a far more extravagant extrapolation in going from what intelligence is seen to do, to what he claims it did.

Axe’s argument is like saying that since moles make molehills, mountains are evidence for giant moles.

I make an issue of this because I am willing to meet Axe part way. I also find evolution by natural selection hard to believe, though I’ve never considered “intuition” a serious argument for any scientific conclusion. As I see it, though, the idea has three big things going for it. The first is the mountain of evidence that supports it. The second is the consistent success that scientists have had in applying evolutionary thinking in their work, as contrasted with the nothing-at-all that ID folks can brag about.

And the third is that the main alternative theory, that an omnipotent magic man just poofed the universe into existence with an act of will, is even harder to believe. If you don’t think it’s hard to believe, if you’re perfectly happy to just help yourself to the assumption of such an intelligence to explain basic facts of biology, then you need to think a little harder.

Maybe that’s just a matter of opinion. What is not a matter of opinion is that Axe’s book is very superficial, makes no serious attempt to engage with the arguments of the other side, and reads far more like standard creationist propaganda than it does a work of science.

Come to think of it, I intuited that this would be that case before even opening the book. By Axe’s logic I needn’t have bothered actually reading it.

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