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Darwin’s Nemesis

March 2, 2006

Since I am busy, I thought I’d post this oldie from April of last year. The book in question, now titled “Darwin’s Nemesis: Phillip Johnson and the Intelligent Design Movement” will, according to Dembski, ship soon. I will offer a real review when I can.
Over at his website, Bill Dembski had published the front matter [pdf] for A Man For This Season: The Phillip Johnson Celebration Volume to be published by InterVarsity Press in 2006, and edited by Dembski and Jed Macosko. The volume is a festscrift for PEJ that stems from the celebration that was held at the opening of the Intelligent Design and the Future of Science conference that was held in Biola in April 2004. This is the conference, you will remember, that PEJ received the first Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth “honoring lifetime achievements of an individual who has expanded the scope of academic freedom and truth-seeking.”
Dembski is known to all, Jed Macosko perhaps not so. Macosko holds the PhD in chemistry from UC Berkeley, and in his portion of the introduction he recounts living in Johnson’s basement for a period while in grad school. He is an ISCID fellow, and was a DI/CSC fellow between 2001 and 2003. He is currently an assistant professor (of biophysics) at Wake Forest University. Unlike most ID supporters, he seems to actually publish peer-reviewed scientific research, though none of it appears to offer a theory of intelligent design or any explicit discussion of design.
Below the fold, I offer some thoughts on the volume and its constituent papers. This is – obviously – not a review as I have not read the book and I will no doubt comment more when I do so next year.


Following a preface that I will return to, the book proper get’s underway with a section titled “Portraits of the man and his work”, a series of four essays by Meyer, Behe, Richards and Tom Woodward. The latter is “adapted from his award-winning book” Doubts About Darwin (Baker Books, 2004). “Award-winning” means the 2004 Christianity Today Book of the Year, by the way. Woodward’s history is deeply biased and flawed and while useful as a source of inside information – Woodward was an organizer of the Southern Methodist University symposium in 1992 that helped launch the movement* – is unabashedly whig in it’s outlook. Woodward devotes three chapters (3 though 5), and the fifth shares the title for his contribution here (“Putting Darwin on Trial: Phillip Johnson Transforms the Evolutionary Narrative”) so I don’t think there will be anything new here. The three initial essays outline Johnson’s role in the writers own “intellectual journey” (12) and tell how PEJ “got me moving” (Behe) and “changed my mind” (Richards).
The next section introduces us to “The Wedge and Its Despisers” via three essays from Dembski, Francis Beckwith and Timothy Standish. Only the latter (a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Geoscience Research Institute) will probably be unfamiliar to regular readers. Debbski’s essay “Dealing with the backlash against intelligent design” has been available online since April 2004. Needless to say, no “despisers” get a word in Part II. Instead, in Part III, “two friendly critics,” David Berlinski and Michael Ruse tackle intelligent design. I’ll leave comment on these critics to another time.
Part IV is titled “Johnson’s Revolution in Biology” and examines “Johnson’s impact in biology”. The first two papers describe “how Johnson has influenced [the authors] approach to biology and what implications such an ID-fiendly approach would have for biology” (13). The first of these is authored by Macosko and David Keller, a University of New Mexico chemist; again we have chemists writing about biology. The second is by Jonathan Wells (“Common ancestry on trial”).
The next two papers offer, according to Dembski & Macosko, “actual research papers in biology” (13). This, one feels, is the proof of Johnson’s impact and what do we get? Firstly, Meyer’s Proc. Biol. Soc. Wash. paper. This has been dealt with over at the Panda’s Thumb, so it will be interesting to see if Meyer strengthens his attempt by dealing with any of the scientific criticisms offered. (I very much doubt that will happen). Secondly we get a paper presented by Scott Minnich and Meyer** at the Second International Conference on Design and Nature and previously published in chapter 4 of Design and Nature II (MW Collins & CA Brebbia eds., WIT Press, 2004). This paper – along with the Meyer effort – has been available at the CSC site for quite a while now. The Minnich/Meyer paper ends:

We know that intelligent designers can and do produce irreducibly complex systems. We find such systems within living organisms. We have good reason to think that these systems defy the creative capacity of the selection/mutation mechanism. The real problem may not be determining the best explanation of [sic] the origin of the flagellum. Rather it may be amending the methodological strictures that prevent consideration of the most natural and rational conclusions – albeit one with discomfiting philosophical implications. (p. 8 )

A brief perusal of the contents of the conference proceedings (and indeed the conference website) shows that Minnich and Meyers audience wasn’t exactly full of biologists!! Lots of engineers though, as a list of the invited presentations shows:

“Man the engineer – an interpretation of homo sapiens [sic] based on engineering thermodynamics” by MW Collins, South Bank University, UK
“The mechanical self-optimisation of trees” by I Tesari, Institute for Materials Research II, Germany
“Cells, gels and mechanics” by GH Pollack, University of Washington, USA
“Applications of the finite vortex model” by R Liebe, Siemens Power Generation, Germany
“Material/matter/mater: the fundamental integrating principles” by MA Baez, Carleton University, Canada
“Dissipative structures, complexity and strange attractors: keynotes for a new eco-aesthetics” by RM Pulselli, University of Siena, Italy
“Designed porous and multi-scale flow structures” by A Bejan, Duke University, USA
“Form-optimizing processes in biological structures – self-generating structures in nature based on pneumatics” by E Stach, University of Tennessee, USA
“The efficiency of the explosive discharge of the bombardier beetle, with possible biomimetic applications” by A C McIntosh, University of Leeds, UK
“The development of a miniature mechanism for producing insect wing motion” by SC Burgess, University of Bristol, UK
“Electro-osmotically driven flow near a soil animal body surface and biomimetics” by YY Yan, Nottingham Trent University, UK
“Application of fractional calculus in modelling and solving the bioheat equation” by R Magin, University of Illinois at Chicago, USA
“Bio-mimics for sound and vibration technologies” by G Rosenhouse, Technion, Israel
“Computational biomimetics of twisted plywood architectures in fibrous biological composites through chiral liquid crystal self-assembly” by AD Rey, McGill University, Canada
“Biomimetic manufacturing of fibers” by A Abbott, Clemson University, USA
“Matching nature with ‘Complex Geometry’ – an architectural history” by J Tomlow, University of Applied Science, Zittau, Germany.

So there you have it … Johnson’s “impact in biology”. A paper that may have abused the peer-review process of the Biological Society of Washington and was eventually repudiated by the Society, and a paper presented at a relatively obscure conference filled with engineers. Nothing to alter Paul Nelson’s evaluation in Touchstone Magazine (July/August 2004, pp 64 – 65. ):

Easily the biggest challenge facing the ID community is to develop a full-fledged theory of biological design. We don’t have such a theory right now, and that’s a problem. Without a theory, it’s very hard to know where to direct your research focus. Right now, we’ve got a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions such as ‘irreducible complexity’ and ‘specified complexity’-but, as yet, no general theory of biological design.

The volume ends with a final section “Ever-Increasing Spheres of Influence” and an epilogue. With contributions by Nancy Pearcy and Jay Budziszewski, one gets a feeling that we will be in familiar territory here. There is, however, a potentially intersting paper (“A taxonomy of teleology: Phillip Johnson, the intelligent design community, and young-earth creationism”) by Marcus Ross and Paul Nelson. Ross is a PhD student in geosciences at the University of Rhode Island, a CSC fellow, and in 2002 he presented a poster – along with Nelson – at the Geological Society of America conference:

ONTOGENETIC DEPTH AS A COMPLEXITY METRIC FOR THE CAMBRIAN EXPLOSION
Various attempts have been made to quantify the increase in biological complexity exhibited by metazoans across the Neoproterozoic-Cambrian boundary. These include such metrics as genome size, cell type (Valentine et al. 1994), and a variety of complexity measures (e.g., McShea 1996). Here we develop a measure of ontogenetic depth – i.e., the distance, in terms of cell division and differentiation, between a unicellular condition and a macroscopic adult metazoan capable of reproduction (generation of gametes). We then apply this metric to the radiative events which occurred during the Cambrian Explosion, and assess the evolutionary mechanisms that may explain the increases in ontogenetic depth at the origin of the phyla.

Nelson mentioned in February 2003 that “Marcus and I plan to have a comprehensive paper ready to submit to SDB [Society of Developmental Biology] by the end of March” … we’re still waiting for the paper on “ontogenetic depth”. In the meantime, we have this PDF version of the theory, a version which PZ Myer has dissected. What is interesting is that the Ross/Nelson paper is not in the section on the influence of Johnson on biology; this would seem to indicate that “ontogenetic depth” is still not ready for prime-time (even if prime-time is defined as an ID-friendly outlet such as InterVarsity Press). Nelson has in the past freely admitted his young-earth beliefs. Now it looks like another ID supporter is willing not to prevaricate (as does PEJ) and state their beliefs.
Returning to the beginning. The foreward is written by none other than Rick Santorum whose “famous amendment” to the No Child Left Behind Act is (according to Dembski and Macosko, p. 12) “all the opening needed to bring down Darwinian naturalism within public school science education.” Santorum, BA, MBA, JD – though neither scientist nor historian or philosopher of science – has no problem on opining about science:

Only a shallow, partisan understanding of “science” supports the false philosophy of materialist reductionism, with its thoroughly unscientific denial of formal and final causes in nature and its repudiation of the first cause of all things? As the decline of true science has been a major factor in the decline of Western culture, so too the renewal of science will play a big part in cultural renewal.

True scienceYEC flag if you ask me.
But, I’ve gone on too long. I don’t expect this volume to bring anything new or even interesting to the table when it appears next year. I will leave the last word to Macosko who outlines “Phil Johnson’s Rule Number One” –

“And we’ve got to keep it fun. As soon as people figure out that we’re a lot more fun to party with than the Darwinists, we’ve pretty much won.”

At the BIOLA conference that spawned this festscrift, Access Research Network noted that:

Fred Heeren of Daystar Research spoke on “Top-Down Evolution”, and when his talk became “boring” (according to him) he delighted the audience with hand walking, juggling, and unique dancing.

These boys have a credibility problem, methinks.


* Interestingly, Woodward does not mention his involvement with the organizing of the conference and instead positions the (unnamed) organizers as “supporters of Johnson”. The proceedings were published by the Foundation for Thought and Ethics in 1994 as Darwinism: Science or Philosophy (available online here) and Woodward’s involvement is a matter of public record (see page 3 of the printed proceedings).
** It is somewhat interesting that the two “actual research papers in biology” are written by an individual with a PhD in history of science, not biology!!!

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  1. b grubbs
    March 2, 2006 at 3:59 pm

    Jed Macosko is also the son of Chris Macosko.

  2. March 2, 2006 at 9:03 pm

    Timothy Standish is no doubt related to the brothers Russell R. and Colin D. Standish, who have authored numerous books for the Seventh-Day Adventist publishing house Hartland Publications.
    The only one I’ve read is their very exhaustive critique of the claims of phony archaeologist Ron Wyatt, who claimed to have found both Noah’s Ark and the Ark of the Covenant, along with Jesus’ tomb and many other sites which he claimed proved the truth of the Bible–_Holy Relics or Revelation_. It’s quite good.
    They are extremely prolific:
    http://www.hartlandpublications.com/

  3. March 4, 2006 at 10:54 am

    “And we’ve got to keep it fun. As soon as people figure out that we’re a lot more fun to party with than the Darwinists, we’ve pretty much won.”
    The idea of partying with Philip Johnson, William Dembski, and Jed Macosko will give me nightmares for the next week, thank you very much.
    On the other hand, anyone who thinks biologists aren’t fun to party with has obviously never done it.

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