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Unintelligent Design

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Unintelligent Design: Interview with Mark Perakh
Author(s): 
Interviewed by Glenn Branch
Volume: 
29
Issue: 
4
Year: 
2009
Date: 
July–August
Page(s): 
15–17
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

Mark Perakh was born in 1924 in Kiev, Ukraine. In 1941 he volunteered to fight the German invasion of the USSR. Later he studied at the Odessa Institute of Technology, earning a Diploma in Engineering Physics, and later an equivalent of a PhD degree from the Odessa Polytechnic Institute. In the 1950s he was arrested by the KGB on the charge of engaging in "anti-Soviet propaganda" and spent several years in a Siberian prison camp. Subsequently, he conducted research and taught physics in several universities in the USSR. In 1967 he received a third degree (the highest in the Soviet system) from Kazan Institute of Technology. He emigrated to Israel in 1973, where he was appointed a full professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He received a number of prizes and awards for his research, including one from the Royal Society of London. He has authored close to 300 scientific papers and several monographs, which resulted in an invitation for a two-year stint at the IBM Research Center in the US. Later he joined the faculty at California State University, Fullerton. He retired in 1994 and lives near San Diego.

Photograph of Mark Perakh sitting in front of books

Perakh's book Unintelligent Design (Amherst [NY]: Prometheus, 2004) contains three sections. The first offers a detailed critique of "intelligent design" creationism as purveyed by William Dembski, Michael Behe, and Phillip Johnson; reviewing the book for RNCSE (2004 May/Aug; 24 [3–4]: 49–50), Jason Rosenhouse commented, "I did not fully appreciate the sheer extent of ["intelligent design"'s] awfulness before reading Mark Perakh's Unintelligent Design." The second addresses various attempts to reconcile the Bible with science, focusing on those by Hugh Ross, Grant Jeffrey, Fred Hereen, Nathan Aviezer, Lee Spetner, and Gerald Schroeder. The third discusses issues in the nature of science and in probability theory, using the so-called Bible codes as a cautionary example.

In the five years since the publication of Unintelligent Design, Perakh's concern about religiously motivated pseudoscience continued unabated. He contributed a chapter ("There is a free lunch after all: William Dembski's wrong answers to irrelevant questions") and coauthored another ("Is intelligent design science?" with Matt Young) to Matt Young and Taner Edis's collection Why Intelligent Design Fails (New Brunswick [NJ]: Rutgers University Press, 2004). And he published a series of further valuable articles, both in the pages of journals such as RNCSE, Skeptic, and Skeptical Inquirer, and on-line on The Panda's Thumb blog (http://www.pandasthumb.org) and the Talk.Reason website (http://www.talkreason.org), of which he is a founder and editor.

RNCSE: The year 2009 is the bicentennial of Darwin's birth and the sesquicentennial of the publication of the Origin of Species — but it is also the fifth anniversary of the publication of Unintelligent Design. What impelled you to write Unintelligent Design, and how did you become interested in religiously motivated pseudoscience like the Bible Code and creationism in the first place?

MP: After my retirement (at 70) I lost access to labs where I could have continued research within the framework of my specialization. On the other hand, I have always been interested in the philosophical underpinnings of science, and I just could not imagine spending my retirement years without some activity giving food to my brain. By accident, I came across the Bible Code fad, and wanted to clarify, first of all for myself, whether there was any factual foundation to it. I investigated the available material and came to the firm conclusion that the Bible Code existed only in the imagination of its proponents. This led to my cooperation with a prominent mathematician, Brendan McKay, with whom I developed a new method for statistical analysis of texts — dubbed the Letter Serial Correlation (LSC). All this activity attracted the attention of a number of people, and one day I was asked to review Behe's Darwin's Black Box and Dembski's The Design Inference. Thus I got involved in the fight for the integrity of science and against various versions of creationist pseudoscience, especially the "intelligent design" nonsense. Writing a book gathering my ideas about creationism and its pernicious efforts to undermine genuine science was a natural outcome of my pro-science and pro-reason activity.

RNCSE: As a physicist, you usually formulate your critiques of "intelligent design" to avoid the biological minutiae. Do you regret not being able to engage more closely with such details? Have you found yourself learning more about biology?

MP: Yes, I regret it in the same sense as I regret, say, that I am not fluent in French or Italian. In fact, my early interest in science was in biology. Perhaps this was due to my friendship with a remarkable girl who was my neighbor. Ania was two years older than I, and our friendship started when I was about 10 or 11. She was highly intelligent, and had a great influence over me. At the age of 12 she was already much interested in biology, and attended the Children's Agro-Biological station in a suburb of Odessa, where she conducted simple experiments studying the nervous systems of fish. She suggested that I accompany her. At that time I imagined my future as both a writer of fiction and a scientist specializing in biology. Then the war started, and our plans could not be implemented. In occupied Odessa, Ania participated in an Ukrainian guerilla gang fighting the Romanian and German occupation forces; after the liberation of Odessa by the Soviet army, she was arrested by the KGB and perished in the northern camps. And I went in 1941 to fight the Germans, and afterwards to study physics rather than biology. Regarding the possible recent improvement of my knowledge of biology, I have read a number of books including the Origin of Species, and the great A View of Life by Gould, Singer, and Luria, trying to acquire some minimal knowledge of biology, but I realize that it has not made me an expert in any sense of the word, so I view myself as an amateur in biology.

RNCSE: Your book received generally appreciative treatments from the scientific, educational, and skeptical journals that reviewed it. But what kind of reaction was there from the "intelligent design" creationists themselves?

MP: None of the authors who were the targets of my critique — Dembski, Behe, Johnson, Schroeder, and so on — deigned to respond. (I do not count a couple of very short remarks by Dembski, limited to ad hominems and name-calling, lacking any attempts to address the substance of my critique.) Instead, rude assaults upon me appeared on a number of creationist websites, where I was called stupid, dense, a hypocrite, a liar, an idiot, and similar names, without even a slightest attempt to address the substance of my arguments. When I debated Behe on a television program hosted by Larry Kane in February 2008, I found that Behe was perfectly aware who I was and was evidently familiar with my critique — although he never replied in any form, shape, or manner. Where I came from (that is, a scientific environment), such silence is usually interpreted as inability to come up with reasonable counterarguments.

RNCSE: There was a droll exception to the resounding silence, though, involving a review on Amazon.com from "A Reader from Waco" whose anonymity was accidentally breached — can you tell that story?

MP: This funny story has been told in detail in my posts on The Panda's Thumb and Talk Reason (see, for example, http://www.talkreason.org/articles/shenanigans.cfm). Briefly it is as follows. A few days after the release of my book a review of it appeared on the Amazon.com website, signed "Reader from Waco, TX." The review contained no discussion of my arguments, but instead bluntly claimed them to be erroneous and recommended instead some creationist books, including a forthcoming book by Dembski. Since the author of that review recommended Dembski's book, which had not yet appeared, and since Dembski was at that time employed at Baylor University situated in Waco, a natural assumption was that it was Dembski himself who posed as an allegedly unbiased reader to denigrate my book and to promote his own book. Indeed, shortly thereafter, there was a glitch on the Canadian version of the Amazon.com website where the real names of anonymous reviewers were inadvertently revealed for a whole week. Of course, the "reader from Waco" turned out to be Dembski. With an amazing arrogance, Dembski promptly removed his review, which immediately reappeared verbatim, but now signed "Reader from Riesel, TX." Riesel is where Dembski had his residence. By thus changing the signature, Dembski evaded the counter-critique from other reviewers who responded to "Reader from Waco."

RNCSE: "Intelligent design" creationists are fond of comparing the scientific establishment to the Nazi regime and the Soviet regime: for example, George Gilder, the cofounder of the Discovery Institute, reportedly denounced "Darwinian storm troopers" at a conference, while William Dembski wrote, "Doubting Darwinian orthodoxy is comparable to opposing the party line of a Stalinist regime." You volunteered to fight the Nazis in World War II — or, I should say, in the Great Patriotic War — and later in your life, you were sent to a prison camp for supposedly engaging in anti-Soviet propaganda, so you are in a particularly good position, I imagine, to comment on such comparisons.

MP: In an essay I co-authored with Wesley Elsberry (see http://www.talkreason.org/articles/eandp.cfm) we discussed the creationist writers' habit of comparing their opponents to Nazis, storm troopers, the Soviet oppressive regime, Salem judges, Lysenko, and the like. Specifically, in my part of the essay, I referred to my personal experience with both the Soviet and the Nazi totalitarian systems. I lived for many years in the USSR and was myself persecuted by the KGB, which put me into a Siberian prison camp for engaging in so-called anti-Soviet propaganda (which was their standard term for any utterance short of parroting the official lies of the communist rulers). As to the Nazi regime, in the aftermath of the war, I served in the Soviet military administration in Germany and had access to vast amounts of the documentation left by the destroyed Nazi regime. As I demonstrated in that essay, in fact it is creationists whose behavior has been often reminiscent of the practice of stormtroopers in Nazi Germany and of the Soviet repressive state.

RNCSE: Yet in The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design (Washington [DC]: Regnery, 2006), Jonathan Wells had the gall to distort your rebuttal of such comparisons, in effect fabricating a quote that he attributes to you.

MP: Yes, this "intelligent design theorist" wrapped in a mantle of a biologist brazenly fabricated an alleged "quotation" from my essay. He transposed various sentences from my essay, placing those that occur somewhere later in the text, ahead of some other that in fact occur earlier in the text; he used ellipsis in several cases, apparently to hide from readers the exact wording of my essay; and he combined partial quotes taken from different parts of my essay in an allegedly single sentence — thus fraudulently attributing to me something I did not say, as I have discussed in detail at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/ugly.cfm. After I revealed how he performed his dishonest trick, Wells has been pretending that my revelation does not exist. Well, what can you expect from a pseudo-biologist who makes his living via mendacious shenanigans?

RNCSE: Since the publication of Unintelligent Design, what critiques of "intelligent design" have you found to be the most interesting and the most valuable?

MP: First, I would like to mention that simultaneously with my book, two other books appeared addressing "intelligent design" — Creationism's Trojan Horse by Barbara Forrest and Paul R Gross, and God, the Devil, and Darwin by Niall Shanks. I value both books highly. I think they nicely complement my book, as all three deal with the same crank science but analyze it from different standpoints. Then, several months later, an anthology edited by Matt Young and Taner Edis, entitled Why Intelligent Design Fails, was published, which contained essays by thirteen scientists who pounced on the crank science of "intelligent design". I authored one chapter in that anthology and co-authored another, so I cannot offer an evaluation of those two chapters, but in my view the other eleven chapters provide a devastating deconstruction of the intelligent design "theory" in a detailed, professionally unbiased way. More recently, several more books appeared, which, if not always directly devoted to the refutation of "intelligent design" pseudoscience, touch on that subject to a certain extent. I may mention the always entertaining books by Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Vic Stenger (especially his recent God: The Failed Hypothesis), and more. Last but not least, NCSE's own Genie Scott's very effective book cannot be left unmentioned.

RNCSE: Your own attitude to religion is generally irenic; toward the end of your book, you say that you see no reason to accept the specific claims of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but you also express agnosticism about the existence of God. What is your reaction to the ongoing debates about whether evolution can be, or should be, used to promote atheism?

MP: I think that both viewpoints — one based on the notion that evolution theory leads to the rejection of faith, and the other on the notion that evolution theory can be viewed as compatible with religious faith — are legitimate. The choice between the two should be left to each individual. There is a whole spectrum of views between the two extremes. On one extreme we have, for example, PZ Myers, a pretty militant atheist who perceives no way to reconcile religious faith with the facts of science. I think I understand his attitude and sympathize with it. On the other extreme we have, for example, Kenneth Miller, in whose opinion the firmly established truth of evolution can be reconciled with religious faith, and even can be construed as supporting it. While I personally doubt the validity of Miller's argument in the latter sense, I am inclined to accept his position as a legitimate choice, even if I cannot share it.

Should evolution be used to promote atheism? I just believe that everybody must be entitled to his or her own position and to promote it if he or she wishes to do so. So, if PZ Myers sincerely believes that evolution and faith are incompatible, he must have the freedom to promote his view in any way he deems proper. Likewise, if Genie Scott rejects Myers's attitude, and favors a friendly dialog with believers, she must have the right to promote her views as much as she wants. The considerations of which choice is more expedient must, in my view, be secondary. I don't think anybody has a monopoly on truth, so every extreme position has to be evaluated with a grain of salt.

RNCSE: At the age of 84, you have a good claim to be the oldest currently active opponent of creationism. Do you find it dispiriting to think that the struggle is going to continue?

MP: Well, this is something that nobody can do anything about. People will always have opinions, and they never will be the same for everybody. This relates not only to the creationism versus evolution encounter, but to an endless list of other problems as well. I will not see it, but my grandsons' future looks to me not very bright. Most probably the 21st century will see devastating wars, depletion of resources (land, water, and so on), enormous explosions of barbarism of various kinds. Humans as a species are the most stupid of all animals. I came to this conclusion watching firsthand the big war of the 20th century. There is hardly anything more stupid than a war, but humans seem to be unable to live without it. The struggle between reason and obscurantism, however important, is just a footnote to the idiocy of wars humanity sinks into with an inevitable regularity.

About the Author(s): 

Glenn Branch is deputy director of NCSE.