Posts Tagged ‘through a glass darkly’

Intelligent Design: Dembski responds to MSP


manicstreetpreacher just needs to clear something up.

ID proponent William Dembski continues to give me a free readership on his Uncommon Common Descent blog by attacking my post on his appearance on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? (700 views and counting!  😮  ).  Firstly, Denyse O’ Leary vilified me for my take on the importance (or lack!) of probabilities in biology.  Now, Dembski himself has posted a response denying that Darwin knew about the complexities of the cell, accusing your humble servant of “re-writing history”:

A blogger who goes by “Manic Street Preacher” sent me three unsolicited emails about his reaction to the debate, which was not positive…

I finally had a look at what this blogger wrote. I can’t say I was impressed with the argumentation or erudition, but I do have to credit him for chutzpah…

I don’t mean to be argumentative, but the insides of the cells depicted here do look to me like blobs.  But qualitative interpretations like this aside, the fact is that Darwin had no conception of molecular biology or the intricate nano-engineering that Michael Behe, for instance, describes in the cell.  Moreover, it’s straightforward to examine the actual history of the scientific understanding of the cell to realize that the cell in Darwin’s time was conceived as simple, indeed so simple that it could spontaneously generate.  Jonathan Wells and I describe some of this in HOW TO BE AN INTELLECTUALLY FULFILLED ATHEIST.

But perhaps the easiest way to see that “Manic Street Preacher” is blowing smoke is to do a search on “Bathybius Haeckelii” – slime dredged up from the ocean floor thought to be the primordial living matter.  This proved to be a big embarrassment to Huxley and Haeckel.  The details here are unimportant.  What is important is that biologist of Huxley’s and Haeckel’s stature thought that life could be so simple as to be the result of this slime.

“Manic Street Preacher” reminds me of Joey Bishop in the movie A GUIDE FOR THE MARRIED MAN [IMDB].  Bishop, caught in flagrante delictu with another woman by his wife, denies all wrong doing (and, if he were a Darwinist, would accuse his wife of infidelity).  Eventually, the wife, suitably cowed, accepts the denials and agrees that nothing happened. Well, here at UD we don’t let Darwinists get away with such nonsense.  Darwin and his contemporaries didn’t have a clue about the complexity of the cell.  History bears this out, Darwinian revisionism notwithstanding.

Aside from being somewhat bemused at being compared to a member of the Rat Pack and an email spammer, I have two retorts to this.  Firstly, Dembski ought to have scrolled down to the comments section, where he would have seen that I had linked to this page on zoologist and theistic evolutionist Wesley R Elsberry’s blog which contains excellent references both to creationist and IDiots’ claims that Darwin knew nothing about that complexity of the cell:

Antievolutionists make lots of claims about Charles Darwin, seeking to impeach the authority of someone born 199 years ago today.  Given that science moves on and leaves no one’s ideas untouched, one would think that they would stick to negative claims that would stand up to some scrutiny.  Again and again, though, we find that they continue to espouse negative claims that are just plain silly, at least to those with even the slightest familiarity with the actual record that Darwin left.

[A] common antievolution claim about Darwin, simply put, [is] that Darwin considered the contents of cells to be “black boxes”, comprised of a simple or homogeneous protoplasm.  This is expressed in similar ways by a number of antievolutionists.  The following is just a sampling of the available instances.

Michael Behe:

To Darwin, then, as to every other scientist of the time, the cell was a black box.

And again:

Scientists use the term “black box” for a system whose inner workings are unknown.  To Charles Darwin and his contemporaries, the living cell was a black box because its fundamental mechanisms were completely obscure.  We now know that, far from being formed from a kind of simple, uniform protoplasm (as many nineteenth-century scientists believed), every living cell contains many ultrasophisticated molecular machines.

Casey Luskin:

There were other things that Darwin did not know.  For example, Darwin assumed that the cell was like a primitive blob of protoplasm that could easily evolve new biological functions.  As Behe explains, “To Darwin, then, as to every other scientist of the time, the cell was a black box…  The question of how life works was not one that Darwin or his contemporaries could answer.”

Nancy Pearcey:

To be fair to Darwin, he proposed his theory when scientists knew next to nothing about biochemistry.  Living things were “black boxes,” their inside workings a mystery.  The cell itself was thought to be nothing more than a blob of jellylike protoplasm.  It was easy to draw large-scale scenarios about fins gradually turning into legs, or legs into wings, since no one had a clue how limbs and organs work from the inside.  As Behe writes, it is as though we asked how a stereo system is made and someone answered, “by plugging a set of speakers into an amplifier and adding a CD player, radio receiver, and tape deck.”

That’s pretty rich, that “be fair to Darwin” phrase.  As Jeffrey Shallit, Professor of Computer Science at University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, commenting on Stephen Meyer’s recent book, Signature in the Cell points out, “This claim has been repeated again and again by creationists, but it is not true.  Fergodsake, the nucleus was discovered in 1833.”

Elsberry continues with the opinions of Jay Richards:

In addition, biochemists and biologists have discovered a microscopic world of mesmerizing complexity belying the simple blobs of protoplasm that Darwin imagined.

Elsberry frames matters bluntly:

Antievolutionists don’t go looking at the primary sources to come up with these nuggets; one of them creates a “magic bullet”, and the rest pass it around like a game of “telephone”, sometimes resulting in a garbled mess.  As Casey Luskin’s contribution here indicates, the likely source of the BS in this case is Michael Behe.

Why call it BS?  Because anybody can disconfirm the claim in seconds with a modern Internet search, and only moderately longer using the past technology scholars have long relied upon for substantiating claims about prior work.

Wesley correctly recommends the Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online website as an excellent resource:

One finds there Darwin’s work on pangenesis, his hypothesis that there existed small particles that he called gemmules, each of which contained the heritable information for some particular trait, and which would combine, somehow, into the gametes.  His continued advocacy of this wrong idea was a major failing on his part, but along the way we can see that even though Darwin was wrong about gemmules, he did hold an antithetical view to the claim that everything was simple at the most basic levels of life’s organization:

Notwithstanding the astounding complexity of the processes implied by this hypothesis of pangenesis, yet it seems to me to comprehend the several leading facts better than any other view.  On this hypothesis we may fancifully look at each animal and plant as being compounded of many beings, in the same manner as a tree or coral is compounded of many similar beings; but in neither case have these so-called beings had a separate existence.  Each of these beings, or parts, is supposed to be capable of throwing off gemmules, which whilst within the organism are capable of self-increase, and which can be separately developed at the part or organ whence they were derived, and can be united, as in the case of hybrids, with other gemmules into a single germ or bud, which reproduces the complete parent form.  On this view, each organic being may be looked at as a little universe, formed of a host of different self-propagating organisms, almost as numerous as the stars in heaven, and as minute as they are immense.

Darwin clearly understood the complexity of the cell in this paper:

As, however, a cell is a complex structure, with its investing membrane, nucleus, and nucleolus, a gemmule, as Mr G H Lewes has remarked in his interesting discussion on this subject (Fortnightly Review, Nov. 1, 1868, p. 508), must, perhaps, be a compound one, so as to reproduce all the parts.

Two papers by Darwin published in 1882 demonstrate Darwin’s readiness to experiment in resolving sub-cellular processes, using chemistry and microscopy to aid in the work.

Darwin, C. R. 1882. The action of carbonate of ammonia on chlorophyll-bodies. [Read 6 March] Journal of the Linnean Society of London (Botany) 19: 262-284.

Darwin, C. R. 1882. The action of carbonate of ammonia on the roots of certain plants. [Read 16 March] Journal of the Linnean Society of London (Botany) 19: 239-261.

These papers in the primary literature demonstrate vividly that Charles Darwin not only was aware that protoplasm was not homogeneous, but was at the end of his life working toward elucidating exactly what differences within cells existed.  As Wesley concludes:

The antievolution “magic bullet” intended to dismiss Darwin is a dud.  Sub-cellular structure elucidation was another part of science in which Darwin was an active participant.  Darwin’s own preferred hypothesis of heredity, though now discredited, presumed the sort of immense complexity at small scales that antievolutionists falsely claim Darwin had no “imagination” for.  Many antievolutionists have willingly participated in passing along this falsehood and urging changes in public school curriculum policy based, in part, on their false and ignorant claims.  I find it significant that I have yet to encounter any instance of an antievolution advocate pointing out the actual facts of the case and remonstrating with their colleagues, even though the disconfirming evidence is easy to locate and describe.  I can only conclude that antievolutionists in general have no concern for the truth nor for fact-checking even the simplest of their claims.  Trusting antievolutionists to help guide policy and form curricula for public schools would be malfeasance, plain and simple…

Secondly, the charge that Darwin did not know anything about the inner workings of the cell is purely an academic point and I corrected Dembski mainly to preserve Darwin’s reputation and correct him on this bogus canard that he and his ilk keep trotting out.   There was a great deal that Darwin did not know about and/or where he was plain wrong.  Dembski is correct in pointing out that he had no idea about genetic mutations, DNA and molecular biology.  However, his theory has been revised, updated and indeed strengthened by the subsequent 150 years of scientific research, experimentation and peer-review by scientists who have had far greater knowledge and far more advanced technology at their disposal.

This is the science that has rid the world of smallpox and flown us to the moon.  Even if Dembski and Behe had their way and people accepted that there was an extraterrestrial intelligence behind the complexity we see in nature, even if the unthinkable happened and the designer actually revealed himself in the middle of an international event with the entire world watching and told us directly to be nice to each other, nothing whatsoever would change about the way we do science.  We could not even confront the designer and ask him to repair what he makes, like Roy Batty in Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner.

We would still have to search for cures to cancer and AIDS as well as updating our vaccinations against constantly evolving viruses (funny how you never hear creationists and IDers shout about the wonderful design of these particular organisms!).  Creationism and Intelligent Design contribute nothing to the advancement of science and medicine.  If an IDer has ever won the Nobel Prize, they must have hidden it from the judges.  If the Discovery Institute is leading the way in the fight against deadly diseases, they are keeping it awfully quiet.  Instead, they are concerned with preserving ancient myths in the vain hope that adhering to such beliefs sometimes makes people behave better, as the opening paragraph of the DI’s “Wedge Strategy” document (download PDF) well attests:

The proposition that humans beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built.  Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West’s greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise and progress in arts and science.

One piece of scripture that has stuck with this manic street preaching heretic is something St Paul said: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.  For now we see through a glass, darkly.”  (1 Corinthians 13: 12 – 13).

Time to put away childish things, guys.