To the Greater Glory of the G.O.P.

When the Republican leader of the U.S. Senate last Friday (the 19th) told Tennesseans in his home state that he backs the teaching of “intelligent design” in America’s schools, immediately one could hear the echo of a Republican Party strategy for mobilizing psychologically and emotionally fractured voters to turn out at the polls come the November 2006 and 2008 elections—and shoot themselves through the head.

According to the Associated Press reporter who observed the scene at the Rotary Club luncheon in Nashville where the Republican Senator spoke:

“I think today a pluralistic society should have access to a broad range of fact, of science, including faith,” Frist said.

Frist, a doctor who graduated from Harvard Medical School, said exposing children to both evolution and intelligent design “doesn’t force any particular theory on anyone. I think in a pluralistic society that is the fairest way to go about education and training people for the future.”

So, Senator Frist. Do you mean to suggest that Democrats would seek to deny people the right to free inquiry? That the Democratic Party has been so thoroughly taken over by the swamp-fever left-wing that the Democrats not only deny the existence of God, but also would deny Americans their right to religious freedom?

History really has got to hand it to these creatively destructive Americans. Rapidly devolving into god-only-knows what kind of freaked-out curiosities at home. While abroad, their violent, ruthless, and predatory state racks up one bloodbath after another, evoking the very enemies that it pretends to fight. With no discernible means of stopping the slide. Let alone reversing it.

Politics aside, so-called “intelligent design” (just like all of its predecessors) is quite obviously an effort to smuggle the category of the supernatural back into the current state of knowledge about the universe. (I just would have written the natural universe or the material universe. But these terms are redundant for the universe. Plain and simple.)

Concerning questions about the origins and development of life on the planet earth: To think in terms of evolutionary theory (which means Darwinian natural selection in its current stage of development) and to reject “intelligent design” is to reject the fraudulent belief that detectable changes in a species’ adaptedness over time is to be explained according to anything that smacks of teleological principles. As Ernst Mayr once put it, the reason we reject teleological principles is that, “whether a given evolutionary change qualifies as a contribution to adaptedness is strictly a post hoc decision….Natural selection deals with the properties of individuals of a given generation,” Mayr admonished; “it simply does not have any long-range goal, even though this may seem so when one looks backward over a long series of generations.” (What Makes Biology Unique? pp. 61-63.)

Now. Imagine the amount of intellectual labor that had to be expended over the centuries to cleanse supernatural categories from our dealing with the universe. Consider, too, how intellectually vapid the recourse to the supernatural really is. Whatever is known about the universe will be explained independently of the supernatural—or it will not be understood and explained. And yet we’re supposed to hang onto the supernatural (a.k.a. “design,” not to mention an intelligent one, as some would aver), as if we require some kind of larger framework of unknowables, encompassing the rest. God and all of the philosophers’ variations thereupon always having been the ultimate null hypothesis. Needless to say.

“We express no causal insight whatever when we say that taxonomic order reflects the plan of a creator,” Stephen Jay Gould writes in his magnum opus, “for unless we can know the will of God, such a statement only stands as a redundant description of the order itself….Darwin, an ever genial man in the face of endless assaults upon his patience, directed several of his rare caustic comments against the ultimate idea-stopping claim that God so made it, praise his name.” (The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, p. 100.)

Of course, neither of these two reasonable gentlemen were commenting directly on the American Right’s desire to keep people locked into psychologically and emotionally fractured, and even infantile states—frightened, confused, and huddled together in cesspools, scrubbing each other down with the filthy water, trying to stay clean.

Still. When scanning the state of contemporary America, certain inferences do strike me as warranted.

Postscript (August 24): On the political agenda behind “intelligent design,” the current series in the New York Times has been helpful. (“The Evolution Debate,” beginning Aug. 21. Though the Times concedes far too much theoretical ground—where to concede any theoretical ground is too much.)

If you check it out, notice what the Times (illustrating what has become the Republican Party’s propaganda strategy going forward) calls the “teach the opportunity” approach to these questions, whereby the supernaturalists and God-smugglers seek not to refute evolutionary theory on its own terms, but simply to get their feet in the auditorium door, and to transform the ensuing “debate into an issue of academic freedom rather than a confrontation between biology and religion.” Hence the American President’s August 2 remark that “Both sides ought to be properly taught…so people can understand what the debate is about.” Hence also Republican Senate majority leader Bill Frist’s August 19 echo of the same message. And so on. Doubtless with increasing frequency and vigor, as the November 2006 elections grow nearer.

For the sake of electoral politics, the “intelligent design” campaign has been designed—yet another tribute to right-wing diversionary propaganda. Just like how people live out their sexual lives. Or rise to the challenge of Global Terrorism. (In this wonderful case, fomenting it along the way.) Or defend the Homeland and secure the future of Social Security.—How many captive Americans will cast a ballot for a candidate who promotes the philosophy of materialism and seeks to curb religious freedom in the schools? “Both sides ought to be taught.” A classic wedge issue.

Indeed. In a document denying the significance that the Times would eventually attribute to the “1999 Discovery manifesto known as the Wedge Document” (“Politicized Scholars Put Evolution on the Defensive,” Aug. 21), one of the more defensive pieces of literature you’re likely to find coming from any “think tank,” Discovery reaffirmed that its “wedge strategy” is “challenging scientific materialism,” the “vision of a self-existent and self-organizing universe;” and that insofar as questions about the origin and development of life on the planet earth are concerned, this strategy includes challenging “neo-Darwinism and other materialistic theories of origins,” and, in general, exploring the “cultural implications of competing philosophies of science and worldviews.” (The “Wedge Document”: “So What?”, March 1, 2004, p. 2. For a recap of the 1999 Wedge Document, also see p. 12 ff.)

Intellectually, “intelligent design” is a threat to nothing but the survival of rational, intelligent, empirically-rooted human beings. But. Ask yourselves this: What can “intelligent design” possibly add to any sufficient explanation of the universe? Suppose, on the one hand, that we possessed the totality of true accounts of the universe. If somebody then adds to this set one additional account, namely, God, the supernatural (or what the Discovery Institute implies in rejecting phrases such as the “materialistic vision of a self-existent and self-organizing universe”—a phrase that is meaningless in every respect except for its usefulness in God-smuggling), what in real terms has he added?

Now. Can anyone show me how the “intelligent design” concept (a.k.a. God, the supernatural) adds anything to a true account of the universe (or any aspect within it), other than simply to re-state the true account, while also stating something else?

Postscript (August 25): Should anyone have the time, I strongly urge you to take a critical look at a webpage devoted to an incident that the provocateurs associated with the Discovery Institute staged over the course of the last 12 – 24 months in order to allege that the conduct of all but one (now former) editor of the journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington reek of dogmatics rather than true science:

Sternberg, Smithsonian, Meyer, And The Paper That Started It All,” Discovery Institute News, August 22, 2005

The Proceedings’ then-Managing Editor Richard Sternberg played a role (perhaps decisive) in getting the journal last year to publish Discovery Institute Senior Fellow Stephen C. Meyer‘s article, “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories” (Vol. 117, No. 2, 2004).

Meyer’s article conjectures about “intelligent design” as an alternative to current Darwinian – natural selection accounts about life on the planet earth. Having been dragged down this road before, members of the Biological Society were enraged, and knew they had had yet another anti-evolution Trojan Horse smuggled into the city. But the provocateurs behind this incident knew something, too: That they could count on their access to right-wing outposts such as (it turned out) the Wall Street Journal (“The Branding of A Heretic,” David Klinghoffer, Jan. 28, 2005), the Washington Times (“Researcher Claims Bias by Smithsonian,” Joyce Howard Price, Feb. 14, 2005), and the National Review (“Unintelligent Design: Hostility Toward Religious Believers at the Nation’s Museum,” David Klinghoffer, Aug. 18, 2005) to propagandize their case that the Darwinian dogmatists within the American scientific community are the real threat to free and open inquiry in this country. Just look at what they’ve done to the former managing editor at the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. Not to mention the scientific study of “intelligent design.”

Then at the start of August, 2005, the fellow travelers in the White House and the Republican-controlled Congress climbed aboard.

The whole episode looks like a scam to me. Born among American right-wing circles and nurtured therein with sufficient vigor for years on end, but now spreading out to more mainstream establishment circles as well. Hence the suckers at the Washington Post, The Independent, and the New York Times. And god-only-knows which others to follow. (I can’t believe that the FOX News Channel has yet to devote a special program to oppression within the American scientific community. Any day now, no doubt.)

Still. The most revealing place to turn to watch how this scam unfolded remains the Discovery Institute’s website. Specifically, the webpage it devotes to “Sternberg, Smithsonian, Meyer, And The Paper That Started It All.” If you can’t decode it there, you can’t decode it anywhere.

How’s that for an overview of the workings of complex social systems? Particularly those in the grips of power and ideology?

Postscript (August 28): “Is intelligent design a hoax?” Daniel C. Dennett asks (“Show Me the Science,” Daniel C. Dennett, New York Times, August 28, 2005). “And if so, how was it perpetrated?”

In answer to Dennett’s first question: Yes. You bet it is. What the perpetrators of so-called “intelligent design” clearly have designed is a wedge issue. But the only architects (watchmakers, first causes, unmoved movers, designers) at work here are the right-wing political operatives striving to bring about their dream-state—the permanent Republican control of the White House, and a permanent Republican majority in the Senate and House of Representatives.

As for Dennett’s second question—how the hoax has been perpetrated—we need to look to other successful right-wing Republican wedge issues in recent years. For example: The “Contract With America,” “partial-birth abortion,” the “definition of marriage,” and so on.

Like all wedge issues, diversions such as “intelligent design” are political in their origin and nature. Therefore, they ought to be renamed: Cynical Designs. Rather than to nature (much less to God), it is ultimately to right-wing American politics that we need to look for the answer.

The Writings of Charles Darwin on the Web (Homepage), John van Wyhe, Editor
The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Stephen Jay Gould (Harvard Univeristy Press, 2002)
What Evolution Is, Ernst Mayr (Basic Books, 2001)
What Makes Biology Unique? Ernst Mayr (Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Intelephant Design,” Tom Toles, Washington Post

Center for Science and Culture, Discovery Institute
The “Wedge Document”: “So What?”, Discovery Institute, March 1, 2004
Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness Center (Homepage)

Edge Foundation (Homepage—website for original posts and discussions of fields that include evolution)
Santa Fe Institute (Homepage—superb website on “complexity” in both the historical and the material worlds) [N.B. This distinction does not betray any hidden commitment to dualism. It simply reflects the difference between (a) the study of the things that humans make and (b) the study of the things that would be the case, whether or not humans were around to make and to study them---including the creation of true as well as false beliefs about them.]

Bush Remarks Roil Debate on Teaching of Evolution,” Elizabeth Bumiller, New York Times, August 3, 2005
Bush Remarks On ‘Intelligent Design’ Theory Fuel Debate,” Peter Baker and Peter Slevin, Washington Post, August 3, 2005
Design for Confusion,” Paul Krugman, New York Times, August 5, 2005
Frist Backs ‘Intelligent Design’ Teaching,” Rose French, Associated Press, August 19, 2005
Editor Explains Reasons for ‘Intelligent Design’ Article,” Michael Powell, Washington Post, August 19, 2005
U.S. Editor Ignites Evolution Row at Smithsonian,” David Usborne, The Independent, August 20, 2005 [$$$$$]
Frist Urges 2 Teachings On Life Origin,” David Stout, New York Times, August 20, 2005
Intelligent Design and the Smithsonian,” Editorial, New York Times, August 20, 2005

Frist’s Tennessee Recess Is Puzzling for a Presidential Hopeful,” Shailagh Murray, Washington Post, August 21, 2005

The Evolution Debate (Series), New York Times, August 21, 2005 –
Politicized Scholars Put Evolution on the Defensive,” Jodi Wilgoren et al., New York Times, August 21, 2005
In Explaining Life’s Complexity, Darwinists and Doubters Clash,” Kenneth Chang, New York Times, August 22, 2005
Scientists Speak Up on Mix of God and Science,” Cornelia Dean, New York Times, August 23, 2005

Study Cites Seeds of Terror in Iraq,” Bryan Bender, Boston Globe, July 17, 2005
Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, Robert A. Pape, Random House, Inc., 2005
The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” Robert A. Pape, American Political Science Review, Vol. 97, No. 3, August, 2003
The Logic of Suicide Terrorism” (Interview with Robert Pape), Scott McConnell, The American Conservative, July 18, 2005
Security, Terrorism and the UK, Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), July, 2005

The Oath Against Modernism, Saint Pius X, September 1, 1910

Saving Us from Darwin,” Frederick C. Crews, New York Review of Books, October 4, 2001
The Wars Over Evolution,” Richard C. Lewontin, New York Review of Books, October 20, 2005

The Great American Genitals Caper, ZNet, November 3, 2004
Holy Rollers, ZNet, November 5, 2004
Hail, Mary, ZNet, March 13, 2005
Devolution at the Church of Rome, ZNet, July 9, 2005

Postscript (August 29): In it entirety, here is the final section (“Convergence and Teleological Evolution”) of Steven C. Meyer’s “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories,” Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, Vol. 117, No. 2, 2004, pp. 213-239 (as archived here by the Discovery Institute, “Sternberg, Smithsonian, Meyer, And The Paper That Started It All,” August 22, 2005).

Question: Does Meyer use “intelligent design” to smuggle God (i.e., the supernatural) into his account of the origin and nature of life on the planet earth, and the so-called “Cambrian explosion” specifically?

“What natural selection lacks,” Meyer writes, “intelligent selection–purposive or goal-directed design–provides.”

Meyer continues:

Analysis of the problem of the origin of biological information….exposes a deficiency in the causal powers of natural selection that corresponds precisely to powers that agents are uniquely known to possess. Intelligent agents have foresight. Such agents can select functional goals before they exist. They can devise or select material means to accomplish those ends from among an array of possibilities and then actualize those goals in accord with a preconceived design plan or set of functional requirements. Rational agents can constrain combinatorial space with distant outcomes in mind. The causal powers that natural selection lacks–almost by definition–are associated with the attributes of consciousness and rationality–with purposive intelligence. Thus, by invoking design to explain the origin of new biological information, contemporary design theorists are not positing an arbitrary explanatory element unmotivated by a consideration of the evidence. Instead, they are positing an entity possessing precisely the attributes and causal powers that the phenomenon in question requires as a condition of its production and explanation.

So I guess the answer to my own question is, No. Meyer isn’t necessarily a God-smuggler. His intelligent, purposive, goal-directed entity just as easily could have been the member of a race of extraterrestrial space experimenters who, less like the Galactus of Fantastic Four infamy (“Thruout the Cosmos worlds must die—that Galactus may live!”) than the extraterrestrials of Kubrick and Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, tinkered with the terrestrial life that they found on the earth eons ago, and steered it toward wherever it is that we find it today.

Convergence and Teleological Evolution

More recently, Conway Morris (2000, 2003c) has suggested another possible explanation based on the tendency for evolution to converge on the same structural forms during the history of life. Conway Morris cites numerous examples of organisms that possess very similar forms and structures, even though such structures are often built from different material substrates and arise (in ontogeny) by the expression of very different genes. Given the extreme improbability of the same structures arising by random mutation and selection in disparate phylogenies, Conway Morris argues that the pervasiveness of convergent structures suggests that evolution may be in some way “channeled” toward similar functional and/or structural endpoints. Such an end-directed understanding of evolution, he admits, raises the controversial prospect of a teleological or purposive element in the history of life. For this reason, he argues that the phenomenon of convergence has received less attention than it might have otherwise. Nevertheless, he argues that just as physicists have reopened the question of design in their discussions of anthropic fine-tuning, the ubiquity of convergent structures in the history of life has led some biologists (Denton 1998) to consider extending teleological thinking to biology. And, indeed, Conway Morris himself intimates that the evolutionary process might be “underpinned by a purpose” (2000:8, 2003b:511).

Conway Morris, of course, considers this possibility in relation to a very specific aspect of the problem of organismal form, namely, the problem of explaining why the same forms arise repeatedly in so many disparate lines of decent. But this raises a question. Could a similar approach shed explanatory light on the more general causal question that has been addressed in this review? Could the notion of purposive design help provide a more adequate explanation for the origin of organismal form generally? Are there reasons to consider design as an explanation for the origin of the biological information necessary to produce the higher taxa and their corresponding morphological novelty?

The remainder of this review will suggest that there are such reasons. In so doing, it may also help explain why the issue of teleology or design has reemerged within the scientific discussion of biological origins (Denton 1986, 1998; Thaxton et al. 1992; Kenyon & Mills 1996: Behe 1996, 2004; Dembski 1998, 2002, 2004; Conway Morris 2000, 2003a, 2003b, Lonnig 2001; Lonnig & Saedler 2002; Nelson & Wells 2003; Meyer 2003, 2004; Bradley 2004) and why some scientists and philosophers of science have considered teleological explanations for the origin of form and information despite strong methodological prohibitions against design as a scientific hypothesis (Gillespie 1979, Lenior 1982:4).

First, the possibility of design as an explanation follows logically from a consideration of the deficiencies of neo-Darwinism and other current theories as explanations for some of the more striking “appearances of design” in biological systems. Neo-Darwinists such as Ayala (1994:5), Dawkins (1986:1), Mayr (1982:xi-xii) and Lewontin (1978) have long acknowledged that organisms appear to have been designed. Of course, neo-Darwinists assert that what Ayala (1994:5) calls the “obvious design” of living things is only apparent since the selection/mutation mechanism can explain the origin of complex form and organization in living systems without an appeal to a designing agent. Indeed, neo-Darwinists affirm that mutation and selection–and perhaps other similarly undirected mechanisms–are fully sufficient to explain the appearance of design in biology. Self-organizational theorists and punctuationalists modify this claim, but affirm its essential tenet. Self-organization theorists argue that natural selection acting on self organizing order can explain the complexity of living things–again, without any appeal to design. Punctuationalists similarly envision natural selection acting on newly arising species with no actual design involved.

And clearly, the neo-Darwinian mechanism does explain many appearances of design, such as the adaptation of organisms to specialized environments that attracted the interest of 19th century biologists. More specifically, known microevolutionary processes appear quite sufficient to account for changes in the size of Galapagos finch beaks that have occurred in response to variations in annual rainfall and available food supplies (Weiner 1994, Grant 1999).

But does neo-Darwinism, or any other fully materialistic model, explain all appearances of design in biology, including the body plans and information that characterize living systems? Arguably, biological forms–such as the structure of a chambered nautilus, the organization of a trilobite, the functional integration of parts in an eye or molecular machine–attract our attention in part because the organized complexity of such systems seems reminiscent of our own designs. Yet, this review has argued that neo-Darwinism does not adequately account for the origin of all appearances of design, especially if one considers animal body plans, and the information necessary to construct them, as especially striking examples of the appearance of design in living systems. Indeed, Dawkins (1995:11) and Gates (1996:228) have noted that genetic information bears an uncanny resemblance to computer software or machine code. For this reason, the presence of CSI in living organisms, and the discontinuous increases of CSI that occurred during events such as the Cambrian explosion, appears at least suggestive of design.

Does neo-Darwinism or any other purely materialistic model of morphogenesis account for the origin of the genetic and other forms of CSI necessary to produce novel organismal form? If not, as this review has argued, could the emergence of novel information-rich genes, proteins, cell types and body plans have resulted from actual design, rather than a purposeless process that merely mimics the powers of a designing intelligence? The logic of neo-Darwinism, with its specific claim to have accounted for the appearance of design, would itself seem to open the door to this possibility. Indeed, the historical formulation of Darwinism in dialectical opposition to the design hypothesis (Gillespie 1979), coupled with the neo-Darwinism’s inability to account for many salient appearances of design including the emergence of form and information, would seem logically to reopen the possibility of actual (as opposed to apparent) design in the history of life.

A second reason for considering design as an explanation for these phenomena follows from the importance of explanatory power to scientific theory evaluation and from a consideration of the potential explanatory power of the design hypothesis. Studies in the methodology and philosophy of science have shown that many scientific theories, particularly in the historical sciences, are formulated and justified as inferences to the best explanation (Lipton 1991:32-88, Brush 1989:1124-1129, Sober 2000:44). Historical scientists, in particular, assess or test competing hypotheses by evaluating which hypothesis would, if true, provide the best explanation for some set of relevant data (Meyer 1991, 2002; Cleland 2001:987-989, 2002:474-496).10 Those with greater explanatory power are typically judged to be better, more probably true, theories. Darwin (1896:437) used this method of reasoning in defending his theory of universal common descent. Moreover, contemporary studies on the method of “inference to the best explanation” have shown that determining which among a set of competing possible explanations constitutes the best depends upon judgments about the causal adequacy, or “causal powers,” of competing explanatory entities (Lipton 1991:32-88). In the historical sciences, uniformitarian and/or actualistic (Gould 1965, Simpson 1970, Rutten 1971, Hooykaas 1975) canons of method suggest that judgments about causal adequacy should derive from our present knowledge of cause and effect relationships. For historical scientists, “the present is the key to the past” means that present experience-based knowledge of cause and effect relationships typically guides the assessment of the plausibility of proposed causes of past events.

Yet it is precisely for this reason that current advocates of the design hypothesis want to reconsider design as an explanation for the origin of biological form and information. This review, and much of the literature it has surveyed, suggests that four of the most prominent models for explaining the origin of biological form fail to provide adequate causal explanations for the discontinuous increases of CSI that are required to produce novel morphologies. Yet, we have repeated experience of rational and conscious agents–in particular ourselves–generating or causing increases in complex specified information, both in the form of sequence-specific lines of code and in the form of hierarchically arranged systems of parts.

In the first place, intelligent human agents–in virtue of their rationality and consciousness–have demonstrated the power to produce information in the form of linear sequence-specific arrangements of characters. Indeed, experience affirms that information of this type routinely arises from the activity of intelligent agents. A computer user who traces the information on a screen back to its source invariably comes to a mind–that of a software engineer or programmer. The information in a book or inscriptions ultimately derives from a writer or scribe–from a mental, rather than a strictly material, cause. Our experience-based knowledge of information-flow confirms that systems with large amounts of specified complexity (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source from a mind or personal agent. As Quastler (1964) put it, the “creation of new information is habitually associated with conscious activity” (p. 16). Experience teaches this obvious truth.

Further, the highly specified hierarchical arrangements of parts in animal body plans also suggest design, again because of our experience of the kinds of features and systems that designers can and do produce. At every level of the biological hierarchy, organisms require specified and highly improbable arrangements of lower-level constituents in order to maintain their form and function. Genes require specified arrangements of nucleotide bases; proteins require specified arrangements of amino acids; new cell types require specified arrangements of systems of proteins; body plans require specialized arrangements of cell types and organs. Organisms not only contain information-rich components (such as proteins and genes), but they comprise information-rich arrangements of those components and the systems that comprise them. Yet we know, based on our present experience of cause and effect relationships, that design engineers–possessing purposive intelligence and rationality–have the ability to produce information-rich hierarchies in which both individual modules and the arrangements of those modules exhibit complexity and specificity–information so defined. Individual transistors, resistors, and capacitors exhibit considerable complexity and specificity of design; at a higher level of organization, their specific arrangement within an integrated circuit represents additional information and reflects further design. Conscious and rational agents have, as part of their powers of purposive intelligence, the capacity to design information-rich parts and to organize those parts into functional information-rich systems and hierarchies. Further, we know of no other causal entity or process that has this capacity. Clearly, we have good reason to doubt that mutation and selection, self-organizational processes or laws of nature, can produce the information-rich components, systems, and body plans necessary to explain the origination of morphological novelty such as that which arises in the Cambrian period.

There is a third reason to consider purpose or design as an explanation for the origin of biological form and information: purposive agents have just those necessary powers that natural selection lacks as a condition of its causal adequacy. At several points in the previous analysis, we saw that natural selection lacked the ability to generate novel information precisely because it can only act after new functional CSI has arisen. Natural selection can favor new proteins, and genes, but only after they perform some function. The job of generating new functional genes, proteins and systems of proteins therefore falls entirely to random mutations. Yet without functional criteria to guide a search through the space of possible sequences, random variation is probabilistically doomed. What is needed is not just a source of variation (i.e., the freedom to search a space of possibilities) or a mode of selection that can operate after the fact of a successful search, but instead a means of selection that (a) operates during a search–before success–and that (b) is guided by information about, or knowledge of, a functional target.

Demonstration of this requirement has come from an unlikely quarter: genetic algorithms. Genetic algorithms are programs that allegedly simulate the creative power of mutation and selection. Dawkins and Kuppers, for example, have developed computer programs that putatively simulate the production of genetic information by mutation and natural selection (Dawkins 1986:47-49, Kuppers 1987:355-369). Nevertheless, as shown elsewhere (Meyer 1998:127-128, 2003:247-248), these programs only succeed by the illicit expedient of providing the computer with a “target sequence” and then treating relatively greater proximity to future function (i.e., the target sequence), not actual present function, as a selection criterion. As Berlinski (2000) has argued, genetic algorithms need something akin to a “forward looking memory” in order to succeed. Yet such foresighted selection has no analogue in nature. In biology, where differential survival depends upon maintaining function, selection cannot occur before new functional sequences arise. Natural selection lacks foresight.

What natural selection lacks, intelligent selection–purposive or goal-directed design–provides. Rational agents can arrange both matter and symbols with distant goals in mind. In using language, the human mind routinely “finds” or generates highly improbable linguistic sequences to convey an intended or preconceived idea. In the process of thought, functional objectives precede and constrain the selection of words, sounds and symbols to generate functional (and indeed meaningful) sequences from among a vast ensemble of meaningless alternative combinations of sound or symbol (Denton 1986:309-311). Similarly, the construction of complex technological objects and products, such as bridges, circuit boards, engines and software, result from the application of goal-directed constraints (Polanyi 1967, 1968). Indeed, in all functionally integrated complex systems where the cause is known by experience or observation, design engineers or other intelligent agents applied boundary constraints to limit possibilities in order to produce improbable forms, sequences or structures. Rational agents have repeatedly demonstrated the capacity to constrain the possible to actualize improbable but initially unrealized future functions. Repeated experience affirms that intelligent agents (minds) uniquely possess such causal powers.

Analysis of the problem of the origin of biological information, therefore, exposes a deficiency in the causal powers of natural selection that corresponds precisely to powers that agents are uniquely known to possess. Intelligent agents have foresight. Such agents can select functional goals before they exist. They can devise or select material means to accomplish those ends from among an array of possibilities and then actualize those goals in accord with a preconceived design plan or set of functional requirements. Rational agents can constrain combinatorial space with distant outcomes in mind. The causal powers that natural selection lacks–almost by definition–are associated with the attributes of consciousness and rationality–with purposive intelligence. Thus, by invoking design to explain the origin of new biological information, contemporary design theorists are not positing an arbitrary explanatory element unmotivated by a consideration of the evidence. Instead, they are positing an entity possessing precisely the attributes and causal powers that the phenomenon in question requires as a condition of its production and explanation.


An experience-based analysis of the causal powers of various explanatory hypotheses suggests purposive or intelligent design as a causally adequate–and perhaps the most causally adequate–explanation for the origin of the complex specified information required to build the Cambrian animals and the novel forms they represent. For this reason, recent scientific interest in the design hypothesis is unlikely to abate as biologists continue to wrestle with the problem of the origination of biological form and the higher taxa.

Postscript (September 14): Below you will find some excerpts from the writings of the late Ernst Mayr (1904 – 2005), one of the leading figures in placing the thought and research of the field of evolutionary biology on its current path. (See, e.g., the Ernst Mayr Library at Harvard.)

In the first excerpts, Mayr provides a definition of what “Darwinism” means (One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought, Harvard University Press, 1991, pp. 90-107); in the second, taken from his essay “Teleology,” Mayr argues why teleological thinking has no place within evolution (What Makes Biology Unique? Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 39-66).

For anyone who has fallen prey to the “intelligent design” con, even at the intellectual level (i.e., rejecting right-wing politics, while remaining open to the notion of design and, of course, designers), I strongly recommend the second of these essays in particular. (For an contemporary example of the malevolent designs of “intelligent design,” see “Sternberg, Smithsonian, Meyer, And The Paper That Started It All,” Discovery Institute News, August 22, 2005. And for an analysis of the con, see “To the Greater Glory of the G.O.P.,” ZNet, August 23, 2005.)

As Mayr states his case at various points, the “clarification of the concept of teleology has greatly contributed to the conclusion that biology is a genuine science without any occult properties” (p. 49)—where by clarification, he means, ultimately, its elimination.

“Adaptedness…is an a posteriori result rather than an a priori goal seeking,” Mayr writes elsewhere. “For this reason, the word teleological is misleading when applied to adapted features” (p. 58). “There is adaptedness (Kant’s Zweckmässigkeit) in living nature but Darwin showed that its origin can be explained materialistically….None of the…teleological processes works backward from an unknown future goal; there is no backward causation” (p. 61).

And so on. For this line of empirically-rooted, anti-dogmatic, genuinely liberated thinking. (Or what Mayr in one passage excerpted below refers to as the “beliefs of every enlightened modern person.”)

“Our ignorance of the laws of variation is profound,” Darwin himself wrote in On the Origin of Species (1859). “Not in one case out of a hundred can we pretend to assign any reason why this or that part differs, more or less, from the same part in the parents.”

Still. Darwin had just concluded (Ch. V, “Laws of Variation,” p. 167):

For myself, I venture confidently to look back thousands on thousands of generations, and I see an animal striped like a zebra, but perhaps otherwise very differently constructed, the common parent of our domestic horse, whether or not it be descended from one or more wild stocks, of the ass, the hemionus, quagga, and zebra.

He who believes that each equine species was independently created, will, I presume, assert that each species has been created with a tendency to vary, both under nature and under domestication, in this particular manner, so as often to become striped like other species of the genus; and that each has been created with a strong tendency, when crossed with species inhabiting distant quarters of the world, to produce hybrids resembling in their stripes, not their own parents, but other species of the genus. To admit this view is, as it seems to me, to reject a real for an unreal, or at least for an unknown, cause. It makes the works of God a mere mockery and deception; I would almost as soon believe with the old and ignorant cosmogonists, that fossil shells had never lived, but had been created in stone so as to mock the shells now living on the sea-shore.

Apologies for the truncated nature of the excerpts from Mayr that follow. But I do not feel like transcribing whole chapters verbatim out of published books. So the excerpts will have to suffice.

Anyway. Here goes nothing.

(A) “What Is Darwinism?” (From: One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought, Harvard University Press, 1991, pp. 90-107)

Immediately after 1859 the word Darwinism simply meant a rejection of special creation. If someone rejected special creation and adopted instead the inconstancy of species, common descent, and the incorporation of man into the general evolutionary stream, he was a Darwinian. Neither natural selection nor any special theory of speciation, nor even one’s belief in gradual versus saltational evolution, had any relevance to whether at that time one was considered a Darwinian or not….When someone in the 1860s or 1870s attacked Darwinism, he did so primarily in defense of creationism or natural theology against these four Darwinian concepts.


There is…one belief that all true original Darwinians held in common, and that was their rejection of creationism, their rejection of special creation….Nothing was more essential for them than to decide whether evolution is a natural phenomenon or something controlled by God. The conviction that the diversity of the natural world was the result of natural processes and not the work of God was the idea that brought all the so-called Darwinians together in spite of their disagreements on other of Darwin’s theories, and in spite of the retention by some of them [e.g., Asa Gray, Alfred Russel Wallace] of other theological arguments. This situation was quite well understood in the post-Origin period and that is why at that time, for Darwin’s opponents, Darwinism simply meant denying special creation and replacing it with the theory of evolution and in particular the theory of common descent.

If someone believed that the origin of the diversity of life was due to natural causes, then he was a Darwinian. But if he believed that the living world was the product of creation, then he was an anti-Darwinian.


The rejection of special creation, the inclusion of man into the realm of the living world (the elimination of the special position of man versus the animals), and various other beliefs of every enlightened modern person are ultimately all based on the consequences of the theories contained in the Origin of Species.


Darwin’s proposed mechanism, natural selection, was almost universally rejected, but since the fact of evolution and the theory of common descent were so completely convincing after Darwin had pointed them out, other evolutionists simply adopted—instead of natural selection—various other kinds of mechanisms, whether teleological, Lamarckism, or saltational. Indeed, for Darwin himself, as much as be believed in natural selection all his life, it was obviously not his mechanism that was of first important for him but the evidence for evolution and common descent.


The version of Darwinism that developed during the evolutionary synthesis [of the 1930s and 1940s] was characterized by its balanced emphasis both on natural selection and on stochastic processes; by its belief that neither evolution as a whole, nor natural selection in particular cases, is deterministic but rather that both are probabilistic processes; by its emphasis that the origin of diversity is as important a component of evolution as is adaptation; an by its realization that selection for reproductive success is as important a process in evolution as selection for survival qualities.


After 1859, that is, during the first Darwinian revolution, Darwinism for almost everybody meant explaining the living world by natural processes….[D]uring and after the evolutionary synthesis [of the 1930s and 1940s] the term “Darwinism” unanimously meant adaptive evolutionary change under the influence of natural selection, and variational instead of transformational evolution.

(B) “Teleology” (From: What Makes Biology Unique? Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 39-66)

[S]ince 1859 no explanation in the biological sciences has been complete until a third kind of question was asked and answered: “why?” It is the evolutionary causation and its explanation that is asked for in this question. Anyone who eliminated evolutionary “why” questions closes the door on a large area of biological research. Therefore it is important for the evolutionary biologist to demonstrate that “why?” questions do not introduce a new metaphysical element into the analysis and that there is no conflict between causal and teleological analysis.


Day is the telos of the night. All processes caused by natural laws sooner or later have an endpoint, but it is misleading to use for this termination the same word telos that is ordinarily used for the goal of a goal-directed process. The endpoint of a non-teleological process is, so to speak, an a posteriori phenomenon.


Descriptions of the physiological functioning of an organ or other biological feature are not teleological. Indeed, in favorable cases, they can be largely translated into physiochemical explanations; they are due to proximate causations. What is involved in an analysis of teleological aspects is the biological role of a structure or activity. Such roles are due to evolutionary causations.


Features that contribute to the adaptedness of an organism are in the philosophical literature usually referred to as teleological or functional systems….It was adopted by the older philosophical literature under the assumption that these features had originated through some teleological force of nature. This assumption was largely a heritage of natural theology, with its belief that the usefulness of each feature had been given by God….Darwin has taught that seemingly teleological evolutionary changes and the production of adapted features are simply the result of variational evolution, consisting of the production of large amounts of variation in every generation, and the probabilistic survival of those individuals remaining after the elimination of the least-fit phenotypes. Adaptedness thus is an a posteriori result rather than an a priori goal seeking. For this reason, the word teleological is misleading when applied to adapted features.


One of the characteristics of adapted features is that they can perform teleonomic activities. They are, so to speak, executive organs for teleonomic programs.


Before the nineteenth century, the belief was almost universal that change in the world was due to an inner force or tendency toward progress and to ever-greater perfection….The most determined opponents of natural selection were teleologists.


There is no cosmic teleology; there is no trend in the world toward progress or perfection. Whatever changes and trends in the cosmos are observed in the course of the world’s history, they are the result of the action of natural laws and natural selection.


The process of natural selection, acting in every population, generation for generation, is indeed a mechanism that favors the rise of ever better-adapted species; it favors the invasion of new niches and adaptive zones; and as the end-result of competition among species it would favor development of what are best described as advanced types. Descriptively there is no question about what has happened during the diverse steps from the most primitive bacteria to humans. Whether one is justified in referring to this as progress is still controversial. This much is clear, however: natural selection provides a satisfactory explanation for the course of organic evolution and makes an invoking of supernatural teleological forces unnecessary. And those who accept the occurrence of advance or progress in evolution do not ascribe it as due to teleological forces or tendencies but rather as the product of natural selection.


The removal of [teleological thinking] leaves no residue….The recognition that…seemingly teleological processes…are strictly material phenomena has deprived teleology of its former mystery and supernatural overtones. There is adaptedness (Kant’s Zweckmässigkeit) in living nature but Darwin showed that its origin can be explained materialistically. Even though there are indeed many organic processes and activities that are clearly goal-directed, there is no need to involve supernatural forces, because the goal is already coded in the program that directs these activities. Such teleonomic processes, in principle, can be reduced to chemicophysical causes. Finally, there are all the end-achieving processes in inorganic nature that are simply due to the operation of natural laws such as gravity and the laws of thermodynamics. None of the…teleological processes works backward from an unknown future goal; there is no backward causation.


After Darwin established the principle of natural selection, this process was widely interpreted to be teleological, both by supporters and by opponents. Evolution itself was frequently considered a teleological process because it would lead to “improvement” or “progress”….However, it is no longer a reasonable view when one fully appreciates the variational nature of Darwinian evolution, which has no ultimate goal and which, so to speak, starts anew in every generation….[Y]et considering how often natural selection leads into fatal dead ends and considering how often during evolution its premium changes, resulting in an irregular zigzag movement of the evolutionary change, it would seem singularly inappropriate to use the designation teleological for any form of directional evolution. To be sure, natural selection is an optimization process, but it has no definite goal, and, considering the number of constraints and the frequency of chance events, it would be most misleading to call it teleological. Nor is any improvement in adaptation a teleological process, because whether a given evolutionary change qualifies as a contribution to adaptedness is strictly a post hoc decision.


Natural selection deals with properties of individuals of a given generation; it simply does not have any long-range goal, even though this may seem so when one looks backward over a long series of generations.

Leave a comment