Calvin College Hosts "Design" Conference

Calvin College Hosts "Design" Conference

by Jeffrey Shallit
Appeared in NCSE Reports Vol. 21, No. 1-2 (Jan.-Apr. 2001), pp. 4-5.

As a part of its Seminars in Christian Scholarship series, Calvin College hosted a conference entitled "Design, Self-Organization, and the Integrity of Creation" on May 24-26, 2001. The featured speakers included Paul Nelson, Stephen Meyer, William Dembski, and Jonathan Wells (for the complete conference program, see In response to the presentations at the conference, I offer some observations and a few impressions.

The two most notable aspects of the conference for me were how little the members of the intelligent design (ID) movement have been able to accomplish scientifically in the 5 years since the publication of Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box and how much they have been able to accomplish politically. Not since cold fusion has there been so much hullabaloo with so little scientific output.

Strategies for promoting "Intelligent Design"

ID proponents use several strategies to get around this hard truth. One strategy, exemplified by Paul Nelson's talk, consists of combing the existing scientific literature for explanatory gaps and then claiming that ID fills them. Nelson claimed that one gap is the existence of a variant genetic code in Tetrahymena, where the codes for glutamine and stop differ from the ordinary codes. Nelson objected to Jukes's explanation of how this difference could have evolved and said that ID was a better explanation. But how much of an explanation is it and why is it better? Nelson provided neither specific criteria that would allow a standardized approach to ascertaining the superiority of design arguments nor any broader criteria that could be generalized from this specific case.

The entertaining presentation of Jed Macosko of the University of California-Berkeley illustrated a second strategy -- present complex data followed by oversimplified and misleading questions. Macosko focused mostly on showing videos created by other researchers that portrayed complex biological systems and then asked, "Chance or design?" Of course, the question itself is tendentious, because no evolutionary biologist would argue that chance alone is responsible for complicated systems such as ribosomes or that design is the only alternative to chance.

A third strategy to promote ID was exemplified by the talk of Scott Minnich, a microbiologist at the University of Idaho. One of the few speakers who actually discussed his own original scientific research in any detail, he talked about the flagellum and virulence in Yersinia enterocolitica. He argued that his use of intelligent design as a heuristic allowed him to get to the answers faster than other researchers. However, it was unclear exactly what role ID played in Minnich's research and how it produced this expeditious result.

The last strategy to promote ID employed at the conference was to use outright misrepresentation in an attempt to cast doubt on evolution. This strategy was used by Jonathan Wells, who claimed at one point in his presentation that the evidence in Darwin's On the Origin of Species (first published in 1859) was based in part on Haeckel's 1868 drawings. Even before a sympathetic crowd, this strange claim prompted some doubt from the audience and Wells was forced to retract it. He also claimed that common descent predicts that "major differences would appear last", and since this is not what we see in nature, common descent is falsified. Of course, common descent makes no such prediction.

ID's elusive research record

The lack of published scientific evidence supporting ID is in stark contrast to the immodest claims made for it. For example, philosopher Rob Koons introduced mathematician-theologian William Dembski as the "Isaac Newton of information theory", despite the fact that Dembski has not published a single paper on the subject in a peer-reviewed mathematical journal (Dembski's only published paper in such a journal was on probability, back in 1990). Despite the conspicuous dearth of papers published in scientific journals on ID, Paul Nelson claimed that "data in support of intelligent design are pouring in", and philosopher Bruce Gordon claimed that his interpretation of quantum mechanics would result in the destruction of naturalism.

The lack of scientific success may account for the large chips on the shoulders of ID advocates. In talks and discussions, I heard repeatedly about how the "scientific establishment" was arrayed against ID proponents, that their work was being "suppressed", and so forth. The possibility that ID research was either nonexistent or of poor quality was never entertained. Yet some presentations were remarkable for their lack of scholarship and awareness of current literature.

Just "good science"?

There is not much doubt that the primary motivations behind ID are political and religious, not scientific. The Discovery Institute (DI) was a prominent presence, selling books by anti-evolutionist authors such as Phillip Johnson and David Berlinski. (At least four of the speakers have their institutional home at the DI.) DI literature was widely available, including a very carefully-worded statement encouraging the teaching of "the full range of scientific evidence" about origins. But in another brochure, they were less circumspect about their concerns:

This materialistic conception of human nature ultimately infected almost
every area of Western thought and culture. ... Materialistic thinking
undermined belief in personal responsibility. ... Materialists also
devised utopian political schemes. Thinking they could manipulate people
like mathematical variables, social theorists advocated coercive
government programs that promised heaven on earth, but often produced
the opposite -- oppression and genocide.
One of the few speakers to exercise a cautionary tone was Calvin College philosopher Del Ratzsch, who gave the banquet address, "Design: Looking Back to the Future". Ratzsch discussed why design as a scientific paradigm was abandoned 150 years ago, questioned the explanatory power of design, and warned that there is no rigorous analysis in the ID community of what design is. When his talk concluded, there was a distinct and uncomfortable silence in the room.

This conference convinced me that ID remains almost entirely hype. Until some serious scientific evidence is adduced in its favor, its influence on the scientific community is likely to be minimal. With monetary resources and political clout, however, its influence on the general public will be more substantial.