A clever argument, by design

At the end of The Seattle Times' debate April 26 between Peter Ward, Darwinist, and Stephen Meyer, Intelligent Designist, Ward asked the audience whether anyone had changed his mind. Of the hundreds of people who packed Town Hall's former Church of Christ, Scientist, I didn't see anyone raise a hand.

I didn't raise mine. I'll confess to having been on the side of Darwin since elementary school, when I read Roy Chapman Andrews' stories of finding dinosaur eggs. I had thought that in this secular city the crowd would have been on Darwin's side, too, but the advantage in decibels was on the side of intelligent design.

Two college-age guys behind me heckled Ward, probably not loudly enough for him to hear it. They applauded when Meyer compared America's scientific establishment to Communist China and again when Meyer said, "I want to be accorded the same respect as [Darwinist] Richard Dawkins."

Meyer is a senior fellow at Seattle's Discovery Institute, which has held the fort for intelligent design. He was rhetorically careful. He did not dispute that species had evolved. But natural selection, he said, could not have created the "protein copy machines" and "miniature rotary engines" that exist inside a single cell, or the baroque "software" of the genetic code.

The DNA was like the Rosetta Stone, Meyer said. When that stone was dug up, people recognized that an intelligence had done it. It should be the same with DNA, he said. When we seek causes for a thing, he said, we need "to invoke causes that are known to produce the effect in question."

But in the design of an eye, or a skeleton, what are the causes "known to produce the effect in question"? Evolution is the best we have, and it is a suspicious move to begin by rejecting it.

I am reminded of a 1970s movie, "Chariots of the Gods." In it, the Swiss archaeological fabulist Erich von Däniken would declare the ordinary explanation — say, that the Easter Islanders had moved the great stone heads around their island — to be impossible. To von Däniken, that was evidence that ancient astronauts had done it.

The form, "A is impossible, therefore B," where A is ordinary and known, and B is out of this world, is the same kind of argument made for intelligent design. It is a von Däniken argument. That doesn't prove it wrong, only in bad odor.

Ward, who teaches at the University of Washington, is a fossil hunter, used to grubbing for his evidence in the earth. He uses that evidence to make provocative arguments. In "The Call of Distant Mammoths" (1998), for example, he argues that mammoths were wiped out by humans, not by changes in the climate. In "Rare Earth" (2001), written with astronomer Donald Brownlee, Ward argues that Earth is probably unusual, and that life may also be unusual. But all these arguments are subject to disproof.

The problem with saying DNA was designed, said Ward, was that there was no test that could conceivably disprove it. It was not connected to the rest of our knowledge in the way that science demands. In science, he said, "You can't go to the supernatural."

("He's not!" said the hecklers behind me.)

There was another problem: "Who is the Designer?"

"In my view, the Designer is God," said Meyer.

"How do we test for God?"

"We don't claim to be able to know the identity of the Designer."


Really, this is the "Argument from Design," made by St. Thomas Aquinas eight centuries ago: order requires an Orderer, which is God. It is a theological argument. The intelligent design people attempt to make it a scientific argument by not naming what they've done — and if you name it for them, they will say you are misconstruing them.

Whoever has changed his mind, raise your hand.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com