Intellectual incest

Natural selection tends to avoid incest. Incest—more properly, inbreeding—allows recessive genetic traits to accumulate, often to the detriment of affected individuals. If a child gets a bad gene (doesn’t make a needed protein) from one parent, it’s best if the other parent doesn’t also contribute the bad gene.

Popular literature suggests wild populations, such as wolves, seek mates from outside their own packs. Also, primitive peoples may raid neighboring clans for wives, and friendly exchanges of eligible women between ruling European families provided genetic diversity while maintaining royal status.

Cultural and intellectual incest is a problem of a slightly different nature. Lack of cultural diversity can deprive a nation of the benefits of innovation and can also result in the development and retention of perverse cultural traits. Open societies are the fix. Honor killings within some European societies have lost fashion as a result of the cultural dilution that resulted from advances in communications and exchange of populations in the twentieth century.

Science deflects intellectual incest through a well-considered program of peer review. A small group of scientists working in isolation can develop wrong-headed theories through self-deception or an undeserved sense of self worth. Banging unworkable theories against contrary opinions and knowledge will often bring light and a better understanding of the true nature of things.

Cold fusion is one area where this process did not work well. The original developers of the idea shortly isolated themselves from scientific interchange and scrutiny and remained locked into a dead-end path to the ends of their careers.

Then there is Intelligent Design

If ever there was a “theory” that was self-named, it is Intelligent Design. That is because Intelligent Design was intelligently designed.

Intelligent Design grew from a special need. The need was to keep alive the idea that supernatural forces control the world we live in. Especially, the idea that the existence of people—our species—is the result of a thought process. The founder of this thought process cannot, for political reasons, be identified by proponents. However, the thought process, itself, is likened to the thought process enjoyed by people, ourselves.

Young-Earth creationism (YEC) initially filled the need for supernatural explanations. YEC was and still is promoted heavily in many religious organizations. When modern science falsified YEC absolutely, it still found refuge in churches. Not so much so in the public schools.

Once it lost any factual credibility, YEC became unwelcome in publicly-financed education. A short phrase in the first constitutional amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” Since teaching YEC is strictly religious, with no other reason for being, the courts eventually abolished it from all education that obtained financing through the power of the American government.

The religious-minded scientists and scholars who founded the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture (CSC) do not necessarily espouse YEC, but they do have a problem with the rejection by modern science of a supernatural basis. Especially, they object to the teaching in public schools the Darwinian theory of evolution, which holds that the development of modern life forms is the result of a purely natural process. In particular, they object to public institutions teaching young children about a science that does not involve God.

The CSC resurrected the old idea of Intelligent Design in order to provide a plausible vehicle for the supernatural. By supernatural the predisposed student was expected to infer God. And not just any god, but Yahweh, the god of Abraham. The CSC fellows likely had the idea that even students who were not predisposed would catch on to the idea, and so much the worse for those who did not catch on. They would by their actions be singled out.

Law professor Phillip Johnson published Darwin on Trial to get the idea going—not specifically Intelligent Design, but that something was wrong with purely natural explanations. Johnson’s inspiration quickly coalesced like thinkers, and thus began the formulation of Intelligent Design as a substitute for science.

The problem manifested early on was the nasty matter of peer review. What peer review there was of Intelligent Design was, itself, nasty.

Scientist Stephen J. Gould wrote a stinging review of Darwin on Trial for Scientific American. The rest of the scientific community for the most part ignored it.1

But the movement was growing, and other books followed.

Professor of biochemistry Michael Behe wrote Darwin’s Black Box, explaining that certain life processes were irreducibly complex and could not have developed by random mutation and natural selection. They must have been designed.

Jonathan Wells does not do any science, but he does have a Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology. He wrote Icons of Evolution, in which he attempted to shoot down what he perceived were ten icons representing the science associated with the theory of evolution.

William Dembski has a Ph.D. in mathematics, but he does not appear to do any scientific research. Dembski has put forward the idea that science can detect the presence of design in nature by observing specified complexity. Dembski uses his expertise in mathematical statistics to bolster his claims.

Through all of this there persists the problem of peer review, or lack of it. The CSC fellows have put forward their ideas about Intelligent Design, but they have not published them in any legitimate peer-reviewed scientific journals.

The word legitimate is highlighted in the above, because, strictly speaking, some papers promoting Intelligent Design have been published. You only have to ask.

I went to the page on the CSC’s Web site that discusses peer review related to Intelligent Design. The content is enlightening.2

There is a long list of “peer reviewed” publications, some of which are already familiar.

In 2004, from all appearances, CSC founder Stephen C. Meyer engaged CSC fellow Richard Sternberg to publish his paper “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories” in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a peer-reviewed scientific journal of which Sternberg was editor. Sternberg allowed publication of the paper after bypassing regular review by other editors of the journal. The standard process does not reveal the names of those who review a paper, so it is not possible to determine whether peer review included CSC fellows. Having like-minded creationists perform the peer review would make this a classic case of intellectual incest.

Regardless of who performed the peer review, the Meyer paper does not present any scientific research into Intelligent Design. This has not kept the CSC from claiming a goal in the game of peer review soccer.3

I looked down the list of publications claiming peer review and found this one. Tracking it down revealed some details:

Jonathan Wells published “Do Centrioles Generate a Polar Ejection Force?” in Rivista di Biologia. Sidestepping the peculiar nature of the publication venue, the reader should skip down to the Conclusions section of the paper. Typically this section will summarize what the paper purports to show. This section is significant for what it does not say. It does not make any claim for Intelligent Design or for a supernatural cause of any kind. After 18 pages of elaborate explanation of some very nice biological processes, Wells concludes by summarizing:4

The polar ejection force that plays an important role in dividing animal cells could be generated by centrioles. In the hypothesis presented here, these organelles are literally tiny turbines that pump fluid through their triplet microtubule blades with a dynein-powered Archimedes’ screw located in their proximal lumens. A mother centriole would rotate about its long axis within a bearing of subdistal appendages, held in place by a flange of distal appendages. A daughter centriole, projecting at a right angle from the mother, would not rotate about its own axis but would revolve around the latter inside the capsule formed by the centromatrix. The daughter would also function as a turbine, however, generating a torque that introduces an eccentricity or “wobble” into the revolutions of the mother-daughter pair.

Another writer familiar with the matter has this to say:5

First, the journal, Rivista di Biologia, is utterly insignificant, and is prone to publishing articles that are clearly on the edge of scientific respectability. Its editor is (reportedly) a creationist and is affiliated with the Discovery Institute. Second, the paper is not a primary research report. It outlines a hypothesis, accompanied by a literature review, but describes no new experiments and reports no new findings.

Intellectual incest can take multiple forms, and publishing under a reviewer sympathetic to Intelligent Design, as in this case, would be one of them. Most odd of all is why Wells didn’t take this opportunity to publish something favorable to Intelligent Design.

Odder still is the CSC’s continued insistence that Darwin’s Black Box was peer-reviewed. It’s odd in the first instance, because a popular book like DBB doesn’t need to be peer-reviewed. You just write the book, find a publisher, and collect the royalties. And what kind of peer review did DBB receive?

In his book about the Kitzmiller trial, Edward Humes describes the cross examination of author Michael Behe. Behe had claimed the DBB was peer-reviewed. On cross examination attorney Eric Rothschild asked Behe about reviewer Michael Atchison. Then Rothschild recounted the story behind Atchison’s review of DBB.

The book’s editor told his wife about the book. The wife was a student of Atchison’s, and she suggested that Atchison talk to the editor. Atchison had a ten-minute phone conversation with the editor and got a description of the book. Atchison suggested the book would be good reading. And that was the peer review.6

It is not as though peer review will do any good for Intelligent Design. Intelligent Design gets lots of peer review, and all of it is bad. Not surprising, peer review of Intelligent Design does not have the effect of correcting the problems with Intelligent Design.

Under cross examination at the Kitzmiller trial, Behe was confronted with a stack of peer-reviewed research and published books dealing with the very science Behe used to promote irreducible complexity in DBB. This was material Behe had claimed did not exist. He made these claims in DBB and afterwards, and he continued to make these claims after they were refuted during Kitzmiller.

Apparently the matter of peer review has scraped a nerve at the CSC. The CSC has set up the Biologic Institute to conduct scientific research related to Intelligent Design.7

Biologic Institute brings together scientists with diverse expertise, unified by the realization that a revolution in biology—with far reaching implications—is well under way. Like many revolutionary ideas, this one is powerful in its simplicity:

The more we learn about the organization of life, the more clearly it reveals design.

That’s good enough for an Intelligent Design research center. But there is still the matter of peer review. For every problem there is a solution. The CSC’s solution is its own journal:8

BIO-Complexity is a peer-reviewed scientific journal with a unique goal. It aims to be the leading forum for testing the scientific merit of the claim that intelligent design (ID) is a credible explanation for life. Because questions having to do with the role and origin of information in living systems are at the heart of the scientific controversy over ID, these topics—viewed from all angles and perspectives—are central to the journal’s scope.

With this, the CSC has neatly tied up the problem of peer-reviewed publication. Peer review, perhaps, but not the problem of intellectual incest.

Therein is the real core of Intelligent Design. Intelligent Design cannot exist except in isolation. It needs to be supported by a determined cadre of rogue scientists and scholars, who cite each others’ research and tell themselves what they want to hear. CSC fellows say they are doing breakthrough research, and that research will lead the way toward an understanding of life’s origins. Reality is somewhat different.

I do a little writing, and I find my style becomes stale after a while. Some say it’s after a short while. Reading the works of good writers keeps me from getting into a terminal rut.

I also do some photography. Pulling out a National Geographic or even a Science magazine cover reminds me of what good photography looks like.

The CSC will never do this, and their incestuous intellectual environment is not likely to ever produce any novel or useful thinking. In my way of thinking that was never their intent.




3 You can read the Meyer paper on the CSC Web site or here.



6 Edward Humes, Monkey Girl. pp 302-303. Harper, 2007.




One thought on “Intellectual incest

  1. Pingback: Traipsing into Banality | Skeptical Analysis

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