ID = incompetent design

In which I report on a seminar by Francisco Ayala.

Francisco Ayala, ordained as a Dominican priest, has doctorates in biology and theology, specializing in evolutionary genetics and parasitology. He teaches at UC Irvine (as University Professor, with appointments in biology and philosophy), holds the National Medal of Science, and is about to head his third National Academy of Sciences panel looking at the evolution v. creation debate.

I can’t possibly do justice to the talk on intelligent design Ayala gave today to UCLA’s Behavior, Evolution, and Culture seminar, but it would be a shame not to record what I can remember:

1. The fact of evolution — species change over time — had been established by paleontology and was common currency when Darwin wrote. His contribution was natural selection as an explanation for evolution.

2. Darwin was responding to William Paley’s Natural Theology, which was a standard text at Cambridge when Darwin was a student there.

3. Paley’s book deserved its place in the canon. It contains the best summary of turn-of-the-nineteenth-century biology. Contemporary “intelligent design” essays are just bad plagiarisms of Paley. He made the “irreducible complexity” argument (which he called “relation”) much better than current ID proponents, because he knew more biology than they do.

4. But “irreducible complexity” is simply wrong, as illustrated by the step-by-step development of the complex eye in marine invertebrates, leading from a simple layer of photosensitive cells in the limpet up to the human-like eye of the octopus.

5. Darwin intended a Copernican revolution in biology, but not in the sense that he intended to displace Man from the center as Copernicus had displaced the Earth. Rather, his goal was to bring biological phenomena within the realm of things explicable as matter-in-motion-under-unvarying-law.

6. But his accomplishment demonstrates the futility of the attempt to “reduce” biology to chemistry and physics. To understand a biological process at a deep level is to understand how it is adaptive: i.e., what its “purpose” is in evolutionary terms. Such a question can never arise in the physical sciences. Thus Crick’s remark that everything in biology that isn’t molecular biology is merely stamp collecting is as false as it is witty.

7. If organisms were the design product of engineers, the engineers ought to be fired for, e.g., making the human birth canal too small for the human newborn head. Intelligent Design would therefore be, to a large extent, Incompetent Design.

8. As a result, if the Intelligent Designer is identified with the Christian God, ID is blasphemous, though its authors intend it as pious. Darwin, by removing from God the direct responsibility for the enormous cruelties that natural selection creates, was actually a disguised friend of religion, as some theologians of his own period recognized.

9. The evolution controversy is an almost entirely American phenomenon. Growing up in Franco’s Spain and attending Catholic schools, Ayala was taught evolution as an uncontroversial fact about the world.

10. The current official Catholic teaching, as enunciated by John Paul II, is that Darwin’s theory is one of the supreme accomplishments of the human mind and in no way contrary to Scripture. The Austrian Cardinal who tried to challenge that view just took it back, apparently having been slapped down by Pope Benedict.

11. But American folk-Catholicism has absorbed an anti-evolution flavor from the surrounding evangelical Protestant culture. When he taught introductory biology at UCI, Ayala had Catholic students as well as Protestants coming to him to say, “I’ll write the answer you want on the exam, but my faith forbids me to believe what you teach.” To the Catholics, Ayala would simply say, “Ask your parish priest,” with consistently satisfactory results.

12. With tens of millions of dollars flowing into the Discovery Institute and other organizations advocating ID, some organized push-back is needed, and may be underway.

Update And not a minute too late, as these poll numbers illustrate.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com