Review: Evolution versus Intelligent Design
Work under Review
Peter Cook, a philosopher with a degree from the University of Sydney, suffers from terminal objectivity — the idea that you have to give equal consideration to both sides of any controversy, whether or not both sides have equal merit. Why all the fuss indeed! There is a fuss because a tiny handful of well-funded activists, few of them scientists, have set themselves up to undermine the theory of evolution and thereby all of science, because evolution does not fit well with their preconceived religious notions. You would not know that from reading this book. Indeed, on page 45, Cook swallows, hook, line, and sinker, the contention that "intelligent design" creationism is not religious in origin because it does not "rule out the possibility that the intelligent designer may in fact be a hyper-intelligent race of aliens from another galaxy!"
Cook's approach is to present competing factoids so that, as the back cover of the book advises, "You, the reader, can make up your own mind." No one, layperson or not, can make an informed decision about a highly technical subject like evolution on the basis of a sequence of 100-word factoids.
It does not help that Cook conflates "intelligent design" creationism with creationism in general, as when he notes, incorrectly, that "intelligent design" creationism uses the supposed absence of transitional fossils as evidence against speciation or macroevolution. It also does not help that the book is badly proofread and contains a number of annoying factual errors. For example, contrary to Cook, Darwin was unaware of genetic variation and genetic drift. Galileo did not devise the heliocentric theory in 1616 (nor at any other time). Darwin did not publish the Origin of Species in 1859 when he "got wind of a similar theory being proposed by fellow naturalist Alfred Wallace"; Darwin and Wallace published jointly in 1858, the year before the Origin was published. Design does not necessarily imply purpose. Energy is not exerted; entropy is not lost energy or "spent energy that loses its direction."The No Free Lunch theorems are not physics. Genesis and the fossil record do not agree. And so on.
Cook writes,"Evolution is a theory in the sense that it is a story about how all past and present life on our planet came to be as it was, and as it now is." If he thinks that a scientific theory is just a story,then it is no wonder that he cannot choose between evolution and creationism. Cook goes on to say that "scientists are more likely to simply assume the idea of evolution from the outset ..." as if that assumption were an arbitrary choice based on faith. Scientists,he says, could in principle "find data which simply cannot be made to fit with the theory of evolution. This [finding] would imply that the theory of evolution is wrong." He then argues, correctly but inconsistently, that scientists "constantly" find things they cannot explain but, rather than doubt the theory of evolution, try to explain any apparently anomalous results within the context of the theory. "So," asks Cook, "is it possible to challenge the validity of the theory of evolution?"The short answer is no, probably not.The theory of evolution is far too well established to be challenged, for example, by a handful of anomalous data or carping criticisms based on tenuous concepts like specified complexity or irreducible complexity.
The structure of the book is like a he said–she said story: "intelligent design" creationism says this; evolution says that. Or sometimes evolution says this; creationism says that.Almost no argument runs longer than one page, and they are mighty small pages at 5 x 7 inches. Arguments on both sides are presented without comment; readers are left to decide which arguments they prefer, but they are given no guidance whatsoever. For example, Cook repeats uncritically William Dembski's spurious claim that the No Free Lunch (NFL) theorems prove that no search algorithm performs better than a blind search. On the facing page, he notes that evolution has no target and that the NFL theorems do not apply to co-evolution. But he leaves out the crucial fact that Dembski is prevaricating: the NFL theorems do not apply to a single search algorithm in a single environment (that is, a single fitness function) but to the average over all fitness functions. In other words, the NFL theorems are irrelevant to evolution under any conditions, and discussion of a target or coevolution is beside the point.
As a specialist in optics, I was particularly amused by Cook's uncritical repetition of the creationist claim that the parts of the eye are arranged precisely as a human engineer would have arranged them. I do not know about Cook's eye, but mine would be a lot better if the nerves were not on top of the retina. As it is,the nerves have to pass through a hole in the retina, and we can get glaucoma if the tensile force on the nerves gets too great. In addition, if I were designing an eye, I would have made the retina lie on a plane, I would not have designed such a small area of high resolution, and I would have made a lens that did not get stiff and opaque with age. I suppose an automatic exposure control would have been a bit too much to ask for, but at a minimum I would have made the nerves that attach to the rods and cones go to different parts of the brain so that the user could switch rapidly between rods and cones and not have to wait minutes or longer to accommodate to darkness. Nature did what it could with the materials at hand, but, frankly, if I had been around at the appropriate time, I might have made some good suggestions. Cook observes that biochemists sometimes reverse-engineer a system and says they find "design decisions" built into those systems; he uses the possibility of reverse-engineering as evidence that biochemical systems may have been designed. I certainly hope they are better designed than my eye, but I doubt it. Indeed, I would argue that the existence of demonstrably suboptimal systems militates against a design argument.
Not everything in this little book is bad. But, apart from the errors, Cook's dogged refusal to take a stand is vexing, if not downright irresponsible.Not every question has two sides, and some truth claims are better supported than others. "intelligent design" creationism is bunk and should be treated as such.
Department of Physics
Colorado School of Mines
Golden CO 80401
Matt Young is Senior Lecturer in Physics at the Colorado School of Mines and the co-editor, with Taner Edis, of Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism (New Brunswick [NJ]: Rutgers University Press, 2004).