Another lame justification for "intelligent design"

William Dembski has made some really weak arguments for "intelligent design" creationism, but this has to go into some sort of hall of fame for lame justifications:
At the time, Morowitz was quite taken with the biochemical and metabolic pathways in the human body and was examining possible self-organizational scenarios for how they might have emerged (for the staggering complexity of what needs to be explained, go here — click on portions of this “map” to zoom in). I asked him if he had made any progress in creating any portions of these pathways without using biogenic materials. He immediately replied, “You mean without enzymes.” I said, “yes.” He said, “no.”

I take this NO to be a huge admission and concession. Brute chemistry, as in the Miller-Urey experiment, can produce certain primitive building blocks of life. But to get anywhere beyond that, biologists studying the emergence of biological complexity invariably require biomacromolecules extracted from preexisting living systems. There appears to be no direct route through brute chemistry to the functionally integrated molecular systems that make biological organisms interesting.
This is an argument from incredulity (a. k. a. a divine fallacy) of the worst sort, with a false dilemma thrown in for good measure. The false dilemma (a. k. a. the false dichotomy) is Dembski's apparent implication that, because Dr. Morowitz (or anyone else) hasn't yet been able to reconstitute a biochemical pathway without using enzymes, it must mean that these pathways couldn't have come about by evolution. In other words, either we can somehow recreate networks of biochemical pathways in a test tube now without enzymes, or evolution must be incorrect. Never mind that he is mixing abiogenesis (how life came about from nonlife) with evolution, which says nothing about how life originally came about, only how it evolves after coming into existence. This is a favorite stupid ID trick, mainly because evolution is so well supported by the evidence but we know much less about abiogenesis, making it more speculative science. In any case, it is disingenuous to argue that, because metabolic pathways are so complex now and because they can't be reproduced in a test tube without enzymes, that God--excuse me, a "designer"--must have done it. It has taken billions of years of evolution to come up with the network of enzymes that catalyze the reactions, and scientists are developing plausible evolutionary mechanisms that could account for such pathways, despite ID advocates' claims otherwise. Just because Dembski can't imagine how such complex metabolic pathways might have developed through naturalistic processes (making them "irreducibly complex," according to his terminology), he concludes that God--sorry, I mean a "designer"--must have done it.

Arguments from incredulity stop science dead. After all, if, whenever scientists come up against a biological phenomenon that science can't yet explain, they were to automatically declare it "irreducibly complex" or invoke God--sorry again, I mean a "designer"--it would produce an attitude that science can't ever figure out the question. Invoking God or a "designer" is simply a way of throwing up one's hands and declaring a natural phenomenon too complex for us ever to understand.

Fortunately, real scientists don't behave this way.

I will, however, thank Dembski for turning me on to this ├╝ber-cool link to a map of metabolic pathways. I've added it to my bookmarks.


  1. I think the best approach is to turn the tables: ask whether the person who is arguing thus would give up on belief in God/ID/whatever if scientists can reproduce abiogenesis. When the reply comes back "No, definitely not", as you can be assured it will, ask sweetly why then may you not be allowed a little "faith" that scientists will solve this puzzle in the future, as they have so many in the past? This sort of "faith" has far more justification than whatever the likes of Behe are pushing.

  2. Ooh, that link is cool. Stephen Colbert recently epitomized the ID way of thinking pretty well:

    “Anybody who knows me knows that I am no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist for constantly telling us what is or isn’t true, what did or didn’t happen…

    I don’t trust books. They’re all fact and no heart. And that’s exactly what’s pulling our country apart today. Because face it, folks, we are a divided nation… We are divided by those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart.

    Consider Harriett Miers. If you think about Harriett Miers, of course her nomination’s absurd! But the President didn’t say he thought about this selection, he said this:

    President Bush: “I know her heart.”

    Notice that he didn’t say anything about her brain? He didn’t have to. He feels the truth about Harriett Miers. And what about Iraq? If you think about it, maybe there are a few missing pieces to the rationale for war. But doesn’t taking Saddam out feel like the right thing…right here in the gut? Because that’s where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen…the gut.

    Did you know that you have more nerve endings in your stomach than in your head? Look it up. Now, somebody’s gonna say `I did look that up and its wrong’. Well, Mister, that’s because you looked it up in a book. Next time, try looking it up in your gut. I did. And my gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works.

    Now I know some of you may not trust your gut…yet. But with my help you will. The “truthiness” is, anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news…at you.”


  3. Dave S.

    The link goes to Dembski, not Behe.

  4. Yikes. I don't normally blog during work, but when my Gmail notifier went off because of the arrival of your comment in my In box, I had to take five minutes and fix the error right away, rather than wait until tonight.

    The error is fixed.

    I guess that's what I get for trying to whip a post off quickly late last night...

    Hows embarraskin'...

  5. Paul Power wrote:
    "I think the best approach is to turn the tables: ask whether the person who is arguing thus would give up on belief in God/ID/whatever if scientists can reproduce abiogenesis."

    And when the reply comes back "No, definitely not," as you can be assured it will, ask sweetly why then are they fighting against evolution, since they've just admitted that there's nothing ethically wrong or theologically contradictory about being a theistic evolutionist?

    Ali; that's a great quote, thanks. I suspect most of my friends would not catch the sarcasm. The belief in the power of special intuitions (especially among women I think) runs rampant.

  6. Dave S.

    Understandable gaff to make, as either are capable of out-laming the other. Biochemical lame justifications are more Behe's territory, so that's probably the source of the confusion.

    Like your stuff Orac.

  7. The logic of ID is circular, and self-confirmatory.

  8. Dave S.

    Absolutely it is Greg.

    We know a biological system is designed because there is a purposeful arrangement of parts....but the word 'purposeful' already pre-supposes deisgn!

    The trick is to equate function with purpose. Once you do that, the rest comes naturally.

    And ID is all about mechanisms....the mechanism of ID being....well....ID.

  9. Argument from incredulity actually amounts to introducing two hidden premises, both of which could be charitably characterized as astonishingly arrogant:

    1) Everything that humanity is capable of knowing is already known.

    2) Everything that humanity is capable of doing has already been done.

    Unfortunately, the K-12 school system usually teaches science in such a way as to make 1) seem superficially plausible. Students are left with the impression that science is about managing a big catalog of facts rather than being a process of inquiry.


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