Posted by: cjobrien | 3 January 2010

An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design? Not Really…

I have just read a very interesting and timely review of Bradley Monton’s book, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design by Matt Young on Panda’s Thumb. I say “timely”, because just yesterday by accident I happened across Jay Wile’s review of the same book.  I perused Wile’s website to become acquainted with his viewpoints and his logic. As with most creationists, Wile repeats the same worn out creationist canards throughout his site but obscures them within a cloak of scientific-sounding vocabulary – I point this out only because he appears to be better than most at doing this and it takes time to wade through his terminological obfuscations before realizing that he’s really talking about the same old falsehoods. He also generally fails to provide sufficient links to original documentation (other than back to his own opinion pieces). But I digress…I always like to compare reviews of books I have yet to read myself to measure reviewers’ reactions; especially if they approach the same book from separate worldviews.

As an instructor of human evolution at our local college, I also try very hard to understand if creationist’s have “a point” that deserves recognition in the human evolution classroom. When creationists stop lying about evolutionary theory and its evidence as arguments and start providing scientifically verifiable alternatives, then I’ll start to discuss them in the classroom. To date, I have yet to find a solid, understandable argument from any kind of creationism that 1) isn’t years out of date; 2) doesn’t falsify the evolutionary record to make its own place by default; 3) doesn’t use out of context quotes or data to suggest that evolutionary scientists disagree with evolutionary theory; 4) doesn’t rely on scientists who don’t study the subject professionally for its support; or 5) doesn’t rely on linking Darwin’s view with Hitler, Stalin or any other despot whose name can be drawn in crayon on a Tea Bagger protest sign.  

Anyway, I keep searching…

Wile’s lengthy review offers nothing of intellectual substance other than to point out that an “atheist” scientist suggests that Intelligent Design creationism should not be ruled out as science and non-material explanations can be considered “scientific”. Wile apparently believes this is sufficient for an instructor like me to start teaching ID in the classroom as a reasonable alternative to evolutionary theory. It is not.

Young gets more to the heart of the arguments put forth by Monton. Read the review yourself, however, I found a couple of comments intriguing. Young says of Monton: “He argues, correctly, that we need to focus on evidence for and against ID creationism, rather than try to label it as science or pseudoscience”. I agree, but I also agree (and Young goes on to say) that ID, if given fair consideration, is useless for explaining the genetic, geological, anatomical, paleontological and other evidences presented in a good class on human origins. This has been my problem all along with ID – how the hell do you use it in a classroom? How does ID help me to explain the anatomical differences between Homo habilis and Australopithecines? How does ID figure in to the role of scavenging and the rise of hunting among early hominids? How does ID help me discuss the rise of bipedalism among hominids?  None of this is clear with ID – it offers me nothing of any explanatory value that is not already well met with evolutionary theory.  Young makes another point about Monton’s argument that is completely glossed over by Wile – it’s not that ID is not science…it’s that ID’s proponents don’t practice it as science:

Under the rubric, Other Arguments, Monton quotes Edis and me to the effect that the proponents of ID creationism do not practice science. He then takes us to task for saying that ID creationism is not science, a contention which I could defend, but which we did not say. Practicing nonscience is only one way to not practice science; you could also practice science improperly, and Edis and I note several failures of ID creationists in this regard. At any rate, if one ID creationist comes along and practices it as science, our conclusion is falsified. I won’t hold my breath. Similarly, Monton attacks our claim that ID creationists make no substantive predictions: He says that in fact they predict that if we look for it, we will find evidence of a designer. That is at best a very tenuous prediction, since it does not include a testable hypothesis, but Monton compares it to the “prediction” that there is matter in the universe. That is not, however, a prediction; it is an observed fact.

Finally, Young indicates that he could agree in principle with Monton’s suggestion that ID could be taught intellectually in a science class “…without proselytizing”, but in practice that is another matter. The pressure put on instructors like me to teach ID is political in origin, not scientific. I suppose the administration, through pressure from the local community, could force me to teach ID and the Discovery Institute would get its wish.  In a way, I already do discuss the tenets of ID in the classroom – I bring up “irreducible complexity” as a concept…and then point out why it fails. I bring up the Cambrian Explosion as a concept…and then explain how it has been misrepresented by some and why it’s not an issue paleontologically. I bring up many of the “arguments” against evolution made by ID proponents and then devastate them in front of the students. I don’t link them specifically to ID, just suggest that “others who argue against evolution claim that…” and go on from there. Even if forced to teach ID, I could honestly say that I do, insert Intelligent Design here and there and move on. Of course, this is NOT what ID proponents want instructors to do. They want those instructors sympathetic to ID to be able to disregard evolutionary evidence in the classroom and teach ID as a superior explanation. And they ultimately want those of us who teach the available evidence to limit our discussion to evidence in favor of ID…by political and administrative fiat if necessary.

I’ll still read Monton’s book…but ultimately it seems like he doesn’t understand the political realities of teaching evolution in the US in the 21st century.


Wile read my post and has responded. His concern seems to be that I assumed he would want ID taught in schools when in fact he writes at length in the response that ID should not necessarily be taught alongside evolution. Fine…I’ll concede the point to him, but of course my discussion wasn’t about Wile specifically – and the points I make about ID remain unaddressed.


  1. Good stuff. I’m waiting for the library to get me a copy of Monton’s book. But, my guess is that it mostly duplicates the ‘insights’ in his papers–those I’ve managed to trudge through.

    Here’s the question I’ve long asked myself: Why is it that ID researchers are not working to discover the mechanics of the interface between the designer’s agency and the designer’s purported work product?

    Now, there are several stock answers. One of which underwrites the so-called design inference. In noting this, my assumption about methodology holds that this is one, easy to understand, reason ID has not even evoked a testable hypothesis.

    I would not count the demarcation problem to be very helpful until a testable hypothesis “shows up” with which to help us, as-it-were, demarcate. And this seems–to me–to land at the doorstep of the interface assumption that is ‘too hot to handle,’ even for proponents of ID.


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