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Authority, commonality, microbiology

I happened to read a very odd op-ed piece in the New York Times this morning. It’s called “Design for Living”, and it’s by Michael J. Behe of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. Mr. Behe is arguing for “Intelligent Design”, as opposed to either natural selection or biblical creationism. He claims to be simply clearing up “widespread confusion about what intelligent design is and what it is not”, but of course this is a familiar rhetorical structure to gain the reader’s sympathy. The reason I’m writing about it at all is because he’s quite good at those structures.

Mr. Behe begins the argument by saying, “The first claim is uncontroversial: we can often recognize the effects of design in nature.” Now, Gentle Readers, you all know that when somebody is trying to persuade you of something and says in passing that a particular point is not controversial, you will end up with an ear full of cider. Particularly, of course, when the terms are loosely defined: here I have no real idea what he means by “often” “recognize” “effects” “design” and “nature”. I’m not even sure what he means by “we”; his example, that Mount Rushmore is clearly designed while the Rocky Mountains are clearly natural, applies to humans who have a reference of monumental sculpture but no inherent truth. I don’t, myself, believe that I can consistently recognize design from nature; a home-made chocolate chip cookie looks awfully natural, while a pine cone seems awfully designed. So this first uncontroversial claim is misleading.

By claiming the statement as written is uncontroversial, Mr. Behe also leads us to infer that a stronger version is actually true. The claim changes, in our minds, to “we can [often always correctly] recognize the effects of design in nature”. And I think some people infer “I” from “we”, so that the final statement is something like “if something looks designed to you, it is designed.” That statement is certainly controversial, and both empirically and logically wrong. And he doesn’t make it, he just brings the reader to the point of inferring it, and tacitly agrees with the reader who does.

The second claim Mr. Behe brings is that “the physical marks of design are visible in aspects of biology. This is uncontroversial, too.” I have no idea whether this is actually uncontroversial, but am initially skeptical. I’m even more skeptical when he brings in the argument from authority: “For example, Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, once wrote that biologists must constantly remind themselves that what they see was not designed but evolved. (Imagine a scientist repeating through clenched teeth: "It wasn't really designed. Not really.")” Note that he first usurps Mr. Crick’s authority, actually on the side of natural selection, to his own position. Then he mocks a “scientist” for hypocrisy and dishonesty. The specific scientist, as an authority, he takes (and distorts), but the general scientist is an outsider, and not an authority at all.

Again, by claiming the statement is uncontroversial as written, he leads us to infer a stronger version, that is, that “the physical marks of design are [often or always] visible in aspects of biology”, which I don’t think most biologists would say is uncontroversial. And, by the way, the phrasing assumes physical marks exist; an alternate phrasing might be something like “there exist forms in cellular biology which more closely resemble designed objects than natural ones.” I have no idea what that would actually mean, phrased that way, since any resembling to anything I would recognize would be tenuous, anyway. In fact, it seems to be a preposterous claim on the face of it, and pretty controversial as well.

Mr. Behe admits that his third claim is controversial: “that we have no good explanation for the foundation of life that doesn't involve intelligence”. I have no idea what he means by this. His only example is to state “there are no research studies indicating that Darwinian processes can make molecular machines of the complexity we find in the cell.” There are some research studies that discuss the possibility of natural selection of such things, but clearly it is up to the individual to accept them or not as good explanations. Also, by the way, note that by saying that “we have no good explanation”, Mr. Behe implies that no such explanation exists; the exact meaning is overshadowed by the misleading implication. He also, by contrast, implies that there does exist a good, scientifically rigorous explanation of how intelligence could be involved in the creation of complex molecular machines; I don’t think that such has been found, even taken hypothetically. That is, even given as a hypothesis that the Creator had the idea for these things, and decided to create them, there is no model I’m aware of that goes from that hypothesis to the empirically observed phenomena that adheres better than any other model.

This leads to Mr. Behe’s fourth claim: “in the absence of any convincing non-design explanation, we are justified in thinking that real intelligent design was involved in life”. He is assuming that there exists a convincing design explanation, that is, claim three. He then states that “it's important to keep in mind that it is the profound appearance of design in life that everyone is laboring to explain”. Notice he is here again assuming the “appearance of design” that he claimed was uncontroversial earlier. If you reject the first claims, then naturally you are not laboring to explain the problems they bring up, you are simply trying to explain how things work, or even how they came to be what they are, and can ignore the distinction between design and nature that Mr. Behe claims is so obvious, but seems to me to be primarily rhetorical.

He concludes:

Still, some critics claim that science by definition can't accept design, while others argue that science should keep looking for another explanation in case one is out there. But we can't settle questions about reality with definitions, nor does it seem useful to search relentlessly for a non-design explanation of Mount Rushmore. Besides, whatever special restrictions scientists adopt for themselves don't bind the public, which polls show, overwhelmingly, and sensibly, thinks that life was designed. And so do many scientists who see roles for both the messiness of evolution and the elegance of design.
Let’s see. As a flag that the remainder of the sentence is going to be misleading, “some critics claim” is right up there with “uncontroversial”. I mean, really. And the response is marvelously non sequitor: even Prof. Straw isn’t trying to settle the “question of reality” by defining science excluding design (and I should underscore that Prof. Straw doesn’t exist); he’s narrowing his field to observable stuff in order to avoid the question entirely. Then there’s his colleague, Dr. Haye, who evidently takes the controversial stance that when there is disagreement on a topic, more research might be advisable. The response to that is that such research is pilpul; the question has been answered. How? By forcing you to accept the uncontroversial claims 1 and 2, and then claiming 3 and 4 follow. No more work to be done here, Dr. Haye. Move along.

Having used scientists both as authorities and as straw men, Mr. Behe then dismisses them entirely. Now he appeals for authority to the wisdom of the masses, who he claims support his position. They do no such thing, of course. Many believe in creationism outright; Mr. Behe’s position is that six-day creationism is bunk and inconsistent. Many others believe in natural (unguided) selection. Others don’t care. Others believe in a sort of clockwork Creator, who set up conditions for everything before the beginning, and whose interference in molecular biology is unnecessary. Others believe in a sort of Divine Interferer, who works through natural causes, but can’t violate his own rules, which leaves out designing molecular machines. Others believe in Mr. Behe’s Designer. It’s not overwhelming in Mr. Behe’s favor. And of course the whole appeal is bunk anyway; just because Mr. Behe claims such support is sensible doesn’t make it so, and I have believed in enough nonsensical things myself to understand that.

Then the scientists come back, or many of them, anyway, to add their authority, because of course these ones aren’t the scientists Mr. Behe was mocking earlier, but the good ones. Hm. Initially, what I found most interesting was the claim of commonality, and the ways in which he makes himself and his views seem reasonable and familiar, and other people and views unreasonable and strange. Now that I look at it closely, his shifting appeals to various kinds of authority is also interesting, and slippery as hell. These two, combined with a topic whose empirical evidence is microscopic, make for a persuasive column that is hard to refute, because it hardly ever is saying what it actually says. You can’t persuasively contradict his evidence, because I have no way of knowing if what you say is true. You can’t successfully counter his authorities with other authorities, because the shifts in authority make each individual claim seem irrelevant. And because of his identification with the reader against scientific straw men, attempts to attack Mr. Behe come off as attacks on the reader.

Before Your Humble Blogger finally leaves off, a footer is in order. I believe in a Divine Creator, and I find natural selection incredibly persuasive. As a religious matter, the six-day Creation story makes me happy, but I don’t particularly care if its truth is inconsistent with reproducible laws of nature. I also quite like the idea of a Creator who creates the world anew each day, who notes the fall of each sparrow, and whose ineffable spirit is in the very molecules of our nature. I don’t find at all appealing the idea of a creator who plays with molecules as Tinkertoys, who is bound by the laws of nature or by the design specs of microbiology. Within the entire controversy, I fall on both of the two sides that Mr. Behe rejects, so it perhaps isn’t altogether surprising that I am not pleased by his article.

Thank you,


Excellent rhetorical analysis! Thanks!

It's fascinating and disturbing to watch a (fairly) skillful rhetorician lie in order to convince people that he is speaking the truth. Does he know how much he's lying, or has he convinced himself that arguments of the sort that he is making are valid arguments? If he does know that he's lying, why has he chosen to lie rather than to try to persuade people of what he believes is the truth, by means of the truth? If he doesn't really believe the position that he is arguing, what does he really believe?

It's been suggested on another thread that the Intelligent Design business is being masterminded not by true believers but by politicos who want to use it as a wedge issue between the left and Christian believers.

An editorial like this one gives significant support to this view, which I had not previously credited.

Either that, or the Intelligent Design folks are a remarkable confabulation of intelligence and folly.

Hrm, "appearance of design" and "effects of design" are very different. I was raised by a mathematician who was busy using computer simulations based on chaos theory to draw pictures that looked like sand dollars. I don't think we can argue with the "appearance of design" in the natural world. But he actually says "effects" in his first claim, and that jumps the question entirely --- these things which look designed must be designed.

Yes, and he elides the differences between the sorts of appearances that humans can see in the world around them (Mt. Rushmore vs. The Rocky Mountains) and the sorts of appearances that we imagine in molecules too small for us to ever see unaided.

It's also the case, as V. implies in his conclusion, that Intelligent Design can't stand up to logical scrutiny on the evidence of life alone. The complex organization that Mr. Behe sees as too complex to be otherwise than designed is made possible by the chemical properties of the elements. A happy coincidence, isn't it, that this intelligence that designed life chanced upon materials with such potential for complex organization? Once one admits "Intelligent design" into living organisms, one must, if one is given to logical thinking, admit "intelligent design" into the basic fabric of the universe itself, or posit a divine being of unknown origins stumbling upon a physical universe, also of unknown origins, and figuring out a nifty use for it. That's getting pretty close to the "space aliens" theory of the origins of life on earth. The "Intelligent Design" folks are either a) not thinking through the implications of their own theories or b) trying to make their theory sound less more plausible by keeping quiet about its larger implications.

And why would they want to do that? Well, once you begin to infer the handiwork of God in things other than life, the convenient, common-sense claim that we can recognize what is designed (telling Mount Rushmore from the Rocky Mountains) -- a claim that is essential to the rhetorical plausibility of "Intelligent Design" -- totally breaks down. If one follows the implications of the "Intelligent Design" argument, the rocks of the mountaints must be God's handiwork just as men and women are.

Well, and as I said I'm not at all sure what he means by 'effects' (or even 'recognize').
I suggest the following thought experiment. You show somebody twenty things, ten of which are 'designed' in the sense that there was clearly an intention that existed before the object, and ten of which are 'natural' in the sense that there wasn't such and intention, or at least that there was no obvious intention, or that there is no way to detect such an intention. Asked to categorize the things, most people would get nineteen or twenty of them into the same category you would. Even, I suspect, if you deliberately choose things 'designed' by nonhumans, such as bee hives, beaver dams and bird nests.
This is, in part, because we share a good deal of history, and our pattern-matching is set up with a lot of the same stuff. It's not that I look at a honeycomb and think it's 'designed', it's that I look at a honeycomb and think it's a honeycomb, made by bees, eaten by bears, etc, etc, and then apply that knowledge to the categorization. Even with things we haven't seen before, we can extrapolate from pattern-matching history. We'll be wrong, on occasion, but we'll be right more often than not, and after all, Mr. Behe only says 'often'.
Now, I don't see how any of this applies to molecular machines. I don't have any patterns to match them to, nor do I understand microbiologists to have a broad history of such patterns. So the reasoning breaks down. If I were shown two vials of gases, and asked which was synthetic, I would have no way of knowing, nor would my guesses be likely accurate.
I'll also add that Chris brings up my main theological problem with "Intelligent Design", which is its sense that the Divine Creator exists, but should only get credit for designing certain things, such as molecular machines, and the perhaps the initial "foundation of life". The Rockies are not designed, and therefore not Designed; the broad outline of evolution exists, in this view, entirely outside of the writ of the Divine. That seems presumptuous and arrogant. If, on the other hand, you accept that the Creator has Designed everything, including natural selection, and the Rockies, and logic, and all of that, then things need not be "designed" in order to be Designed, and we can study them without threatening the Designer.

I don't buy the "I can't tell by looking with the naked eye" argument. The fact that you can't tell that a gas has designed-looking molecules in it is no more interesting than the fact that you can't make out any details of a beehive when you look at it from a hundred yards away.

I haven't thought about this in great detail, but I suspect that one of the features that leads us to think that something "looks designed" is a sense of inevitability. If you moved one of the bits, it wouldn't look right; each bit has to be where it is to make the thing what it is. Dropping clods of dirt onto a pile does not produce this effect; you can move the clods around without making the dirt pile look "wrong", in a way that you can't with the walls of a beehive.

This seems different from molecules, though, where you can't assemble them "wrong", can you? You can't take some H2O and stick the two hydrogen atoms together; they have to attach to the O. That doesn't imply intent to me, just inevitability.

Well, and my point (I had one!) with the gaseous analogy was not that I would need a full-spectrum analysis to determine which was natural and which designed, but that even a full-spectrum analysis wouldn't help me, as I have no knowledge whatsoever of the properties of gases. There's a level of expertise there that I simply don't have, that I do have in the area of dirt piles and beehives. I might, in time, pick up that expertise, and then the designed gas would be obviously designed, even if I had to use tools to look at it. I would argue that simply because nobody has that kind of expertise in microbiology at present isn't a reason to assume that expertise can't exist.

the weakest part of the argument in general, and as represented in the article, is that the existence and prevalence of math, now or long ago, doesn't prove a thing.

i could argue that patterns are the only truly divine force. out of nothing, comes an initial pattern, consistent with tendencies but only one of many possible patterns; the arbitrary shape spawns more patterns, because patterns like patterns; which spawn goo; which learns to dance in rollerskates.

I am but a young scientist, but it is my impression that science right now would have some degree of success differentiating "natural" genes, say, from those designed *by humans*, by looking at related genes, typical mutation rates and patterns of mutation, etc. Of course, the more a human designer used that knowledge to guide their design, the harder it would be. And many "design" projects are quite obvious - you can get bacteria to use a nonstandard amino acid in protein synthesis if you give them a way to make it and a tRNA for it and things, but it's like green hair - if you know hair, you know know it wasn't born that way. (There are some bacteria that do use a nonstandard amino acid naturally but, er, these would not be them.) So I would say that we already have the expertise to see evidence of design in molbio/microbio, it's just that in this "divine design" notion there's nothing to differentiate "design" from (and thus it's a meaningless idea... can I say that?).

can patterns create patterns?

one argument says they can't. life, chemicals, atoms, all at some level are moving because a puppeteer has pulled the strings.

another argument says they can. the tendency to break apart and recombine according to flexible but regular rules creates immense, numerous cycles of pattern creation, which among other things has led to giant walking piles of goo that can type, listen to music, and sit in a sunlit window all at the same time.

the physiological argument that we have a tendency to seek higher powers, left over from our most intense period of acculturation (0-5), obviously doesn't prove that we made up the stories about higher beings than us. our top position among the universe's tool users also presents no proof that religion is a social tool, to refine earthly affairs and keep infighting to a minimum.

religious documentation aside, we'll never know for sure how the relationship began. all we can do now is aim to honor the relationship by observing particular interpretations of texts and rituals and hope that they're something close to the right thing to do - meaning, they're actually honoring the divine, instead of honoring group identity through ancestor worship. personally i don't see how anybody can reconcile this issue, nor am i sure that we have the capacity to do it.

there may be a day when we build a computer that can model cultural inheritance and tell us that something that has been nearly divine, really unimaginably huge and influential, can be tagged, tracked, and pestered in its nest just like any other beast. (for the moment we really should have our hands full trying to predict patterns of weather and illness, but we don't; further evidence of our stubbornness and our devotion to self-flattery.)


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