Thursday, July 24, 2008


In a recent column at Christopher Hitchens displays his ignorance of the issues at stake in the intelligent design/Darwinism debate on several different levels. He flatters himself to think that he has discovered a novel argument against intelligent design when in fact the argument he has stumbled upon has been around for at least a century:

It is extremely seldom that one has the opportunity to think a new thought about a familiar subject, let alone an original thought on a contested subject, so when I had a moment of eureka a few nights ago, my very first instinct was to distrust my very first instinct. To phrase it briefly, I was watching the astonishing TV series Planet Earth ....Various creatures were found doing their thing far away from the light, and as they were caught by the camera, I noticed-in particular of the salamanders-that they had typical faces. In other words, they had mouths and muzzles and eyes arranged in the same way as most animals. Except that the eyes were denoted only by little concavities or indentations. Even as I was grasping the implications of this, the fine voice of Sir David Attenborough was telling me how many millions of years it had taken for these denizens of the underworld to lose the eyes they had once possessed.

Hitchens believes that he has discovered a powerful refutation of intelligent design:

But what of the creatures who turned around and headed back in the opposite direction, from complex to primitive in point of eyesight, and ended up losing even the eyes they did have? Whoever benefits from this inquiry, it cannot possibly be [intelligent design advocates]. The most they can do is to intone that "the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away." Whereas the likelihood that the post-ocular blindness of underground salamanders is another aspect of evolution by natural selection seems, when you think about it at all, so overwhelmingly probable as to constitute a near certainty.

Of course, only someone completely ignorant of the issues in the debate between Darwinian evolutionists and intelligent design theorists would suggest that functionless eyes in cave salamanders is an argument against intelligent design. The only thing that Hitchens has stumbled upon is an argument against the doctrine of fixity of species which no one has held for over a hundred years anyway.

Everyone acknowledges that organs can lose their function and atrophy through disuse. Mutations that would diminish the ability of the salamander embryo to produce functional eyes would be eliminated in a lighted environment via the death of the young salamander, but they would not necessarily be eliminated in a dark environment where eyes are of little use anyway. Thus there'd be no selective pressure in a cave environment to retain eyes. Not even the most stalwart special creationist disputes this.

The challenge is not in explaining the degeneration of biological organs and machines, it is explaining through random genetic drift, mutation and natural selection their origin.

Hitchens has great fun ridiculing the ID folks, but his ignorance makes him look like a buffoon. He'd do better to approach matters beyond his competence with a little more humility.


Simply Irresponsible

The Washington Post, one of the most reliably liberal papers in the nation, is skeptical of the spin Obama's campaign and media supporters have put on the Iraqi response to his plan to have American combat forces out of Iraq by April of 2010. Here's part of their recent editorial:

The initial media coverage of Barack Obama's visit to Iraq suggested that the Democratic candidate found agreement with his plan to withdraw all U.S. combat forces on a 16-month timetable. So it seems worthwhile to point out that, by Mr. Obama's own account, neither U.S. commanders nor Iraq's principal political leaders actually support his strategy.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the architect of the dramatic turnaround in U.S. fortunes, "does not want a timetable," Mr. Obama reported with welcome candor during a news conference yesterday. In an interview with ABC, he explained that "there are deep concerns about . . . a timetable that doesn't take into account what [American commanders] anticipate might be some sort of change in conditions."

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has a history of tailoring his public statements for political purposes, made headlines by saying he would support a withdrawal of American forces by 2010. But an Iraqi government statement made clear that Mr. Maliki's timetable would extend at least seven months beyond Mr. Obama's. More significant, it would be "a timetable which Iraqis set" -- not the Washington-imposed schedule that Mr. Obama has in mind. It would also be conditioned on the readiness of Iraqi forces, the same linkage that Gen. Petraeus seeks. As Mr. Obama put it, Mr. Maliki "wants some flexibility in terms of how that's carried out."

Other Iraqi leaders were more directly critical. As Mr. Obama acknowledged, Sunni leaders in Anbar province told him that American troops are essential to maintaining the peace among Iraq's rival sects and said they were worried about a rapid drawdown.

Mr. Obama's account of his strategic vision remains eccentric. He insists that Afghanistan is "the central front" for the United States, along with the border areas of Pakistan. But there are no known al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, and any additional U.S. forces sent there would not be able to operate in the Pakistani territories where Osama bin Laden is headquartered. While the United States has an interest in preventing the resurgence of the Afghan Taliban, the country's strategic importance pales beside that of Iraq, which lies at the geopolitical center of the Middle East and contains some of the world's largest oil reserves. If Mr. Obama's antiwar stance has blinded him to those realities, that could prove far more debilitating to him as president than any particular timetable.

Then there is a piece by WaPo columnist Max Boot who examines Iraqi president Nouri al Maliki's apparent agreement with Barack Obama's 16 month pullout and concludes it is purely for domestic consumption. Boot goes on to make this observation:

But Maliki's public utterances do not provide a reliable guide as to when it will be safe to pull out U.S. troops. Better to listen to the military professionals. The Post recently quoted Brig. Gen. Bilal al-Dayni, commander of Iraqi troops in Basra, as saying of the Americans, "We hope they will stay until 2020." That is similar to the expectation of Iraq's defense minister, Abdul Qadir, who says his forces cannot assume full responsibility for internal security until 2012 and for external security until 2018.

What would happen if we were to pull out much faster, on a 16-month timetable? Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Hammond, commander of coalition forces in Baghdad, says that would be "very dangerous" -- the same words used by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The upshot of all this is that, if the WaPo writers are correct, almost nobody in Iraq, Iraqi or American, who has any sense of what's happening outside the Green Zone in Baghdad, thinks that Obama's timetable for withdrawal, so far from being irresistible, is anything but irresponsible.



One of the most frequent criticisms of those who believe that life and the physical universe are intentionally designed is that those who believe this cannot adduce any mechanism for how the designer would have accomplished the feat. Since design theorists can't posit a means by which the designer would have created a universe or biological structures and organisms the design theory is said to be unscientific. It may be philosophy, skeptics concede, but it's not science. Science is based on empirical evidence, not faith.

This last claim may be so but if it is much of what passes for science is no more supported by empirical evidence and every bit as faith based as is intelligent design. This is especially true of the belief that life arose purely through the laws of chemistry and chance. Here's part of what Paul Geim at Uncommon Descent says about the problem:

[This belief] is heavily faith-based. We have no experimental evidence for this belief, and the theoretical problems appear insoluble. We have here belief against all the evidence, analogous to the most daring leaps of religious faith imaginable, that is to say, faith not only without evidence but in the teeth of evidence. And it is even worse; there is no appeal to a God Who could reasonably do the feat that needs explaining. It is a miracle without God.

The rationale that I have seen for this leap of faith is usually that "science" has solved all previous problems and will solve this one too. But this argument is wrong, on two counts. First, even if successful, it would only establish that there was relative parity between the argument for the supernatural origin of life and those for abiogenesis (the origin of life from non-life). We would still be completely dependent on faith to believe in abiogenesis.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, "science" has in fact not solved all previous problems. Science has come up to a stone wall regarding the origin of the universe. In fact, "science" has come up to several difficult obstacles, issued promissory notes, and moved on without actually solving the problems. The origin of the Cambrian fauna is something that non-interventionalist evolutionary theory has simply postulated without fossil evidence. The origin of the flagellum in a step-by-step manner has never actually been demonstrated (the best try, that of Matzke, was actually a leap-by-leap explanation, and even then without any experimental evidence to back up his scenario). This insistence that nature must be self-contained is in fact faith against the weight of evidence.

Geim has much more to say about the problems inherent in any naturalistic explanation of the origin of life (OOL) at the link.

For more on the things scientists take on faith, often with little empirical warrant, see my letter (May 2006) to First Things.