Last year I was invited to write an essay reflection on Douglas Axe’s book Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition that Life is Designed for the periodical Sapientia (Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding an outreach of TEDS –Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). That essay, Undeniably Limited: Designing a Box in Which to Find the Creator, has now been published. The essay is part of a symposium of essays including a response by Douglas Axe.
I highly recommend the two essays published prior to mine in the series. They both reflect similar criticisms I had of Axe’s central thesis and his supporting data but explore those ideas from unique perspectives and experiences.
I was under a strict—at least for me—word limit for the essay. There was so much more that I wish I could have explored in my essay. In the space below I include some additional thoughts—best understood in the context of my published essay—that I had to cut from my initial drafts.
The thrust of Axe’s book is that we all have a “design intuition” that tells us—despite our desire to deny it—that unguided natural processes don’t explain the intricacy of the biological world. He calls this the Universal Design Intuition or UDI. This UDI is equated to common sense we all have such that we don’t need any expert knowledge to understand that life is designed. However, Axe is also convince that should experts look for design they will find that intelligent design is detectable by the scientific investigation of nature.
My essay critiqued the UDI thesis and asked; if the UDI is a universal instinct why does it seem as if our UDI has functioned differently throughout human history? Considering the book as a whole, if I had to sum up my reaction it would be: Unreliable not undeniable! In addition to the many mathematical and scientific errors I noted on the margins of my copy, the thesis presented is an unreliable account of the scientific enterprise and appeals to the unreliable ability of humans to intuit truth in complex phenomena.
As I say in the essay, as a biblical creationist I do believe in intelligent design. However, I am not convinced of the philosophical or scientific theses that lie at the heart of the ID movement. Axe’s book only confirmed my suspicion that ID is nothing more than a political and cultural movement underlain by the appearance of being scientific. Regular readers of this blog will recognize that I have never directly discussed any Intelligent Design book or article. This is because I don’t find the ID movement interesting or important. ID hasn’t provided any tangible solutions for any questions that I’ve ever had about science or my faith.
Below are a few additional thoughts on subjects brought up in Axe’s book.
Perfection and design: What does it mean to be perfect?
What does it mean to be perfect? For Axe it seems—as it often does in his book—that we will know it when we see it. Perfection can be observed as “some wholes are what they are because they ought to be so.” (pg 76) I’m not sure how that helps us define or identify perfection. It isn’t clear that this means anything. Does our intuition lead us to a universal understanding of perfection? Axe points to something that in his opinion represents an object that is perfect: “the giant panda is yet another example of something perfect—something that is exactly as it should be.” How so? Because it a whole organism that is as it ought to be? Surely there is no doubt that pandas come in many different variation. Is each variation also perfect? How much variation can exist in a population or species before the “panda” as a whole is no longer perfect as a species? Do you see how quickly our sense of design is going to fall back on a vague appeal to intuition and become ill-defined? Interestingly, identifying perfections both of complete organisms and or parts of organisms seems to lie at the core of where Axe find the limits of biological change and thus the limit of evolutionary adaptation. But believing there is boundary and being able to define it and identify are two different things.
For Axe, a perfect characteristic can’t have evolved from something less perfect or from the characteristics of another organism. His example of the panda gives us the clearest indication of just how deeply he believes God is engaged in the direct—without intermediate steps—design of each living thing (or population or species or genus?). We should note here that at this point we see a definitive break between understanding of the origins of biological diversity of Axe and young-earth creationists (YEC) who understand pandas to be but one form of a bear “kind” and thus share a common ancestor with many other bears including many intermediate forms. In their minds the panda is the product of changes to an original kinds via “natural” mechanisms rather than a perfect species formed as it is without connections to previous forms. We might say that for the YEC the perfect design was only in the original created kind but they accept that many changes can occur within those kinds to produce many varied species. In this way, the YEC sees many evolutionary mechanism at play in shaping organisms whereas the ID advocate find each “species” to be perfect and thus unable to change into any other species without losing the design we intuit as being solely from a creator.
Let me say a few more words reflecting on the strangeness of the idea of perfection. There does not appear to be any organism that has perfect individual characteristics meaning that there is no way we can imagine them being improved upon. We can see that every feature of an organism has the capacity to be better (more perfect!?). For example, each enzyme could work faster and more efficiently. However this is only true if we consider each feature in a vacuum. Natural selection helps to select the best combination of thousands of working parts. Isn’t this what we could expect from a system that manages many different but dependent parts? Natural selection is constantly asking the question, does the whole package—the whole organism—function? If doesn’t ask if all the individual parts are the best they could be. As a result, many parts can be suboptimal (less than perfect) as long as the entire functional whole (Axe uses this word for whole beings) is good enough to survive and produce offspring. But this principle applies to entire groups of individuals as well. No single individual will ever have all the best characteristics. We can see there is enormous variation among individuals in a species.
Axe suggests that each animal is doing the best it can by itself and cannot change lest it goes awry and no longer exist as a species. The problem is that what, for Axe, is a perfect whole species, has little ability to adapt and change lest it become less perfect than it was before. But animals have to change because the environment (interactions with the physical and other biological organisms) change and all individuals in that population that have combination of physiological systems that allow for survival in that new system are passed on irrespective of the desires of any individual in that population not to change.
In each case an individual is not perfect in the sense that there is another individual that in all likelihood has another enzyme that works better than theirs but that individual has a combination of several others that work better in tandem that other individuals does alone. Consider also that an individual may have one particularly bad allele (variation of a gene) that then hurts the function (a form of pleiotropy) of five other alleles that by themselves would have been great for the organism. Natural selection then makes selection that forms a coherent or adequately functioning organisms that can produce offspring that don’t necessarily have the best of everything, they will have imperfections but they are less imperfect than others. This idea that each species is perfect and only strives to be who they are meant to be is adding an anthropomorphic element to their actions. The fact is that as each enzyme changes over time through mutations the organism doesn’t feel like it is different. Yes, each individual will strive to be itself—a busy whole for Axe—but its offspring aren’t necessarily the same as they are and they will be as much who they are as their parents even if they are different.
It appears to me that in Axe’s world to have perfection you would need a system in which meaningful change doesn’t happen. And yet, I intuit that Axe wants God to have allowed for adaptation by some natural means. The challenge for him and other ID proponents is to define where the limits of adaptation lie? Consider that change would be expected to create a continuum of species at various stages of diversification into new species. After all, if organisms are always changing how could they be expected to be what they are for millions of years without changing their identity? Finally, we can ask the ID proponent, how can we tell the difference between natural adaptation and intelligent design when we study an organism? Might I suggest that rather than a dichotomous choice we consider that natural adaptation is a form of intelligent design!
Is Intelligent Design reserved solely for complex cellular life?
This brings me back to a discussion I have in my essay about identifying design not just in living system but in all parts of the creation. Shouldn’t we ask: are the physical processes that produce a sandstone arch or a waterfall, a star or a tornado really blind or mindless processes? Aren’t these no less the product of a creator? I believe that these processes and products in our universe are all upheld and only find their existence in God’s sustaining power. Axe appears willing to allow blind—uncontrolled?–processes to produce most of what we see in the world and universe by reserving the fingerprints of intelligent design only for cell-based living things. Again, an appealing but ultimate rather vacuous concept if this design is not perfect and is to only be found in one part of creation and not another. Please see my essay for an expanded discussion on this point.
The danger here, and this is certainly not a novel observation, is that by seeking to find a space to find God in design, as design becomes explainable by describing God-provided means of sustaining and creating, the purview of UDI to identify design becomes ever smaller. Today, the UDI seems to be limited to identifying design in the origin of life, the Cambrian explosion and a few unique traits of present-day living things. Most of these things, though are poorly understood. What if our knowledge changed in the future, will our UDI no longer intuit design here either? It feels like ID and UDI are boxing God into an every smaller space in which He can provide proof of his existence.
Axe, and other Intelligent Design advocates frequently focus on the Origin of Life question as if proving that a naturalistic origin of life is impossible would then prove the existence of God as designer. They hope is that, that singular realization will unlock the hearts—or possibly their latent universal design intuition—to see God in other aspect of biology and their life. But this seems like a poor starting point for finding proof of God and universal design. Unlike young-earth creationists, Axe believes—or at least gives the strong impression—that the first cellular life appeared up on earth as simple bacteria. He accepts the conventional interpretation of the fossil record indicating an ancient chronology of earth. As a result he is left to attempt to calculate the probability of events he believes happened 2 to 3 billion years ago: the creation of the first life on earth. Such a calculation of odds is apt to be fraught with error given the many unknowns with respect to the conditions on Earth at that time. If we want to “prove” design and the presence of designer wouldn’t it be better to examine something that God designed more recently such as cryptic praying mantids or polar bears? There is so much more evidence that can be brought to bare on more recent supernatural design events. Yet in Axe’s book, he chooses to focus on events from the distant past. It appears, though is very difficult to discern from his book that he believes that all or most species are the product of intelligent design without intermediate steps. Shouldn’t we be looking at species and asking how we can detect evidence of design that could only be the result of a divine intervener rather than any secondary mechanism even if those mechanisms are of divine origin? The lack of recent examples of design which should be subject to closer and more accurate investigation suggest that either ID proponents believe that God has been a less active designer in the past million years or the evidence for design is far more difficult to identify than we are being led to believe.