Dilbert’s a creationist

Mattghg posted something about how Scott Adams, the Dilbert artist, doesn’t believe in evolution. I responded:

Scott Adams also thinks that gravity is caused by the fact that everything is expanding, and that if you write down something you want to happen several times a day, it will come to pass. While this doesn’t mean he’s necessarily wrong about evolution, I think he’s a contrarian who likes to throw out wild ideas about how the scientists are wrong. To deny evolution is on a par with the expansion=gravity idea: it’s only Americans who think there is a controversy, because of the wedge strategy of the creationists (now known as intelligent design advocates).

Matt has made another post about my last sentence, taking issue with my assertion that there is no controversy. He links to Jerry Fodor’s recent article in the LRB as an example of a someone who says that there is a controversy. He also objects to me lumping the Intelligent Design (ID) crowd in with the Young Earth Creationists.

I have at least two PhD biologists on my friends’ list. They know much more about this stuff than me, so I hope they’ll point out my errors in what follows. That said, I thought I’d have a go anyway. So:

I probably should have said that by “controversy” I mean the specific idea that ID-ers want taught in schools, namely that there’s some serious disagreement among biologists about whether an intelligent designer is required to explain some biological structures. I’m not saying all biologists agree on every detail of how evolution works.

That said, Fodor’s article is, I’d guess, a typical example of someone from outside the field misunderstanding the details of debates within it (hence my hope that my biologist friends will correct me where I’m wrong). He talks about the constraints of embryology and existing forms as if this were breaking news to people like Dawkins. As it happens, I’m reading Climbing Mount Improbable as the moment, where Dawkins, writing back in 1996, talks about the evolution of the eye. He tells us that “Once a good eye has started to evolve with its retina back-to-front, the only way to ascend [the fitness landscape] is to improve the present design of the eye… the vertebrate retina faces the way it does because of the way it develops in the embryo, and this certainly goes back to its distant ancestors”. A recent entry by davegodfrey, a paleobiologist, addresses some of the other oddities in Fodor’s essay.

But biologists do disagree. ID-ers like to see this disagreement, because it allows them to tell the biologists that the resolution is right in front of their noses: God did it! (if you doubt that the ID-ers’ intelligent designer is God, read their own strategy document, which lays out the aims of the movement). This is just the sort of “me too Daddy” helpfulness that you get from New Agers about quantum physics. Unfortunately it loses its charm when grown-ups do it (and it’s not made any more convincing by the fact that some very distinguished scientists go along with it: there’s no idea so silly that you can’t find a PhD, or even a Nobel prizewinner, who’ll agree with it). No wonder the biologists are annoyed by this sort of thing.

ID-ers assume that if there is a disagreement among biologists, evolutionary theory is in crisis, and that the solution must be ID. As the ID-er linked to by Matt said “Of course, one of those alternatives, not mentioned by Fodor, is ID.” There’s a reason by Fodor didn’t mention that alternative. As Dawkins and Coyne said in their Guardian article: “The other side is never required to produce one iota of evidence, but is deemed to have won automatically, the moment the first side encounters a difficulty – the sort of difficulty that all sciences encounter every day, and go to work to solve, with relish.”

On the point of what “creationism” means, it’s clear from the Discovery Institute’s own documentation that their aim is to provide a stepping stone to creationism while sneaking around the American restrictions on the establishment of religion, specifically on the teaching of creationism in schools. This is so well known that I suspect ID will need to reinvent itself soon in its continual game of cat-and-mouse with the US court system. Wikipedia links to Panda’s Thumb, which claims that “critical analysis of evolution” is the new buzz phrase. We’ll have to see how that one works out for them, I suppose.

5 thoughts on “Dilbert’s a creationist”

  1. I don’t believe that Scott Adams actually believes either of those two things. I think he likes asking people to defend them, because it makes people think about why they think they know them to be true.

  2. Sorry for misunderstanding you. I thought you meant “controversy” in the sense implied by the cartoon, i.e. over whether everything is neatly sewn up in principle and those who cast doubt on prevailing orthodoxies are therefore by definition obscurantists.

    Look, if design theorists really did rely on the goddadagaps arguments from ignorance you suggest, then they really would be as childish as all that. But they don’t. Williams’ remark is made in passing; he is after all, merely commenting on someone else’s article. Typically, arguments to design run like this:
    1. Structure [x] contains feature(s) [y] which is/are known to be the result of intelligent agency.
    Of course, this can be strengthened by
    2. [x] cannot be explained naturalistically (for these reasons:…)
    3. Therefore, [x] is (at least partly) the result of intelligent agency.
    …but without premise 1. there is no design argument.

    So much is well known, because the features proposed for [y] are the subject of debate. Maybe irreducible complexity ain’t that irreducible after all, and maybe specified complexity admits of counterexamples. But maybe not. Either way, it’s lunatic to claim BOTH that the evidence advanced by your opponent is inadequate AND that your opponent “is never required to produce one iota of evidence”! I’ve said it before, but I’ll be even more explicit here: if all Evolutionary Biology were to collapse, that wouldn’t prove Intelligent Design.

    On the point of what “creationism” means, it’s clear from the Discovery Institute’s own documentation that their aim is to provide a stepping stone to creationism while sneaking around the American restrictions on the establishment of religion, specifically on the teaching of creationism in schools.

    For a moment, there, I thought we were going to get that definition of “creationism” I asked for. Ah well. OK. I have read the Wedge document and, to be frank, haven’t really ever been able to see what all the fuss was about, given that a stated aim is to produce “solid scholarship, research and argument” and “the best and truest research” rather than “just another attempt to indoctrinate instead of persuade”. In any case, US Constitutional hurdles cut both ways, if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor. Link: http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/?p=111

    Can’t evolution be critically analysed?

    1. I wasn’t clear, but I meant “controversy” in the “teach the controversy” sense.

      Surely the interest you mentioned among ID-ers at Fodor’s article shows that many of them do think of ID as the default alternative to neo-Darwinism? Otherwise Fodor, who is careful to state his atheism and who never mentions ID, isn’t saying much which benefits their argument.

      Dawkins’s assertion that there’s no evidence for ID depends on what you call evidence, I suppose. I once had an argument with an atheist who claimed there was no evidence for the existence of God, which I thought was untrue. It comes down to semantics in the end. But in the passage I quoted, he’s not talking about the quality of the ID evidence but rather arguing that ID-ers take hope from any article critical of evolution, regardless of the evidence (or lack of it) for their own theory.

      By creationism, I mean that I know it when I see it. Er… I mean the belief that a scientific theory can never be sufficient to explain the history of life from those origins, but rather that God has to be invoked somewhere. By this defintion, Universal origins and abiogenesis seem more fertile ground for creationists than the history of life, but a god who doesn’t intervene in evolution would make it hard to argue that humans are special in the way that Christians argue we are. I’d like a definition which excluded theistic evolutionists from the creationist label, I suppose.

      I recall Dawkins saying something about how he’d be no use if called before a US court, because he’d have to say that he did think his acceptance of evolution had lead to his atheism. I don’t think that the one leads inexorably to the other, though, or people like Francis Collins would not exist.

      Evolution can and should be critically analysed, but it’ll be interesting to see whether that particular phrase becomes the next “intelligent design”, i.e. that just as “intelligent design” means “and the designer we’re carefully not naming is God”, so “critically analysed” means “criticised for not mentioning God”.

      1. Surely the interest you mentioned among ID-ers at Fodor’s article shows that many of them do think of ID as the default alternative to neo-Darwinism? Otherwise Fodor, who is careful to state his atheism and who never mentions ID, isn’t saying much which benefits their argument.

        Well, I’m sure some of them do, but that supposition isn’t necessary to explain the general enthusiasm. The article strengthens premise 2. of the argument as I laid it out above: if you think your theory is the best explanation of the available data then it helps to show that rival theories aren’t as good. But you still need positive arguments for your own theory, of course. I’ll be happy if Man Utd and Chelsea start losing because that makes it more likely Arsenal will win the title… provided that Arsenal keep on winning. (For “Liverpool” see Fodor’s collaboration “with Massimo Piattelli-Palamarini on a book about evolution without adaptation”).

        Another probable reason for the profuse linkage is that an awfully big deal has been made out of the very concept that Fodor is critiquing, as he himself is well aware. ID sympathisers are more likely than most to have ringing ears from hearing all their behaviour and beliefs explained away with adaptationist just-so stories.

        By this defintion, Universal origins and abiogenesis seem more fertile ground for creationists than the history of life, but a god who doesn’t intervene in evolution would make it hard to argue that humans are special in the way that Christians argue we are.

        I think I probably am a creationist by your definition (it depends on the meaning of “has to”: I think in OOL research the cumulative improbabilities in any naturalistic theory make deliberate intention a better explanation, but of course the “it was just a sheer freak event” line is always available”). As for humans being special, the point where this argument gets really messy is when we start talking about the mind. But then, we’ve already been around the houses on that issue.

  3. The famous Christian apologist, Gary Habermas, writes that 25% of NT scholars doubt the empty tomb.

    I’m not sure where that figure comes from, but if you want a controversial theory, there is one for you right there.

    Do 25% of professional biologists doubt neo-Darwinism?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *