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How to write an intelligent design book

Yeah, I’m still working on my review of Darwin’s Dilemma…which is how I end up on these tangents.

In my review of Stephen Meyer’s talk at OU last week, I commented on his fruitful use of the model that Michael Behe had used in Darwin’s Black Box.  Abbie disagreed with me, pointing out that

Meyers choice of ‘origin of life’ was a bold choice. Meyer is not a biologist. I mean, hes got some earth science degree, but ‘Origins’ research is dominated by virologists, astrophysicists, biochemists– waaaaaaay beyond Meyers knowledge base. Waaaaaaaaay off. Behe could bullshit biochem, cause hes a ‘biochemist’, but for a geologist/philosopher to try to bullshit astrophysics… thats bold!!

[Resisting the urge to add apostrophes…]

While what she says is true, it assumes that IDists are out to bullshit scientists.  I don’t believe that’s true.  The goal of ID is apologetics – science and scientists are just props, convenient or inconvenient foils.

The first work attributed to the “intelligent design” movement is Davis and Kenyon’s 1989 “textbook” Of Pandas and People, but as Barbara Forrest and Nick Matzke demonstrated in the Kitzmiller trial, Pandas was written as a “creation science” text, and only slightly modified in the wake of Edwards v. Agillard.

Over the next 13 years the ID movement produced four important books – Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial (1991), Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box (1996), William Dembski’s The Design Inference (1998), and Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution (2002).  Both Johnson’s and Wells’ books are primarily anti-evolution books, and they draw upon the creationist tradition of using “problems” with evolution to attempt to discredit the entire endeavour.  They follow the lead of Michael Denton’s 1985 book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis – their arguments are, for the most part, specious, and are only effective if you don’t understand (or disbelieve) the self-correcting nature of the scientific endeavour.

Behe’s and Dembski’s books, on the other hand, blaze new ground.  Together they give intelligent design it’s core argument – “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.”  Rather than attacking evolution, Behe chose to advance the idea that evolution was “insufficient”, that there were thinsg that couldn’t be explained by natural processes, and hence must be “designed”.  Dembski, on the other hand, tried to come up with a means of detecting design.

While both works have been effectively debunked, they were successful in reaching their target audience.  They were works of apologetics, works designed to reassure believers in an age of science.  Behe’s book had the added benefit of being something that the average reader could understand.  But the very design of the book was its greatest weakness.  In making his case that crucial areas of research were non-existent (and, he implied, impossible), Behe ignored many active fields of research.  The “irreducible complexity” of the bacterial flagellum is considerably more reducible today.  Behe’s arguments only held togetherby studiously ignoring a growing scientific literature – a literature he was forced to confront in a very real sense when it was piled in front of him in the witness box during the Kitzmiller trial.

In my review of Stephen Meyer’s talk, I noticed similarities with DBB, but it was only while writing a review of Darwin’s Dilemma that I discerned what it took to write an intelligent design book.

One of the key distinctions between an intelligent design book and a general anti-evolution book is that ID books need to lappear to be pro-science.  And it seems like the most popular literary device to convey his message is to start off with a sympathetic angle on Darwin.  Style over substance, of course.  Your next task is to pick a topic that’s “best explained by an intelligent cause”.  Bonus points if you can pick a topic that Darwin pondered.*  Meyer picked the origin of life.  The writers of DD picked the Cambrian explosion.  While you might be afraid that the field is played out, never fear.  There are lots of topics still out there, especially if you’re a brave soul who’s willing to venture beyond On the Origin of Species. The origin of angiosperms would be a great topic.**  It’s just as “sudden” as the Cambrian explosion.  And it’s got as name every bit as impressive as “Darwin’s dilemma”…Darwin’s abominable mystery.***

The next element in writing an ID book is to find some irrational exuberance to smack down.  The 1950s are a good time to find things like this (though there are probably  other equally good periods).  In the wake of the discovery of the double helix, it seemed like reductionism would solve every question.  Then contrast this with a more dismal outlook.  The early 1980s are a good time for pessimism.  Stagflation and the American defeat in Vietnam robbed American society of its sense of invulnerability, and the DNA revolution was still flew under the radar.  Faced with the realisation that reductionism couldn’t answer every question, problems loomed large.

Use that sense of despair to characterise your problem.  Feel free to ignore more recent science – most people can’t tell the difference between 1980s or 90s science and modern science.  Even biologists are often unaware of what’s happening in fields just outside their own.  And remember – ignore the last decade to three of progress.

Then run with your idea. Don’t think of it as “formulaic and lacking in originality”.  Think of it as something more akin to…fanfic.

– – – – – – – –
*Because, of course, science isn’t a progressive enterprise; we simply sit around and ponder the wisdom of the ancients.
**Although, of course, you’d have to write about plants.  But look on the bright side – the field of people who know enough about plants to show you up would be miniscule.
***OK, some people would think you’re talking about the Yeti.  But look on the bright side – you could build links between two groups that feel shut out by academic science – the creationists and the cryptozoologists.  Synergies!

5 Responses

  1. Ian: I appreciate this post and your take on things. In talks I give I often mention the increased interest in creationism that occurred in the 1950’s and the 1980’s (and now) that came about in times of fear and uncertainty, leading many to take solace in their faith and holy scriptures. The pseudoscience of creationism/ID feeds on these societal changes.

  2. Angiosperms? Seriously? No one would read it. What Dembski and Behe do works because ) they are using things that people have heard of b) they are subjects which are sexy (malaria is sexy. DNA is sexy. Flowering plants? Not very sexy) c) they are using topics where people feel like they have some tiny background info and so they don’t go out and learn a lot more about the subject after they read the material by the ID author.

    • Math isn’t sexy – or wasn’t, until Danica McKellar – and Dembski still managed to make his name with The Design Inference… Ah, damn. I can’t make things up just to support my premise. The Design Inference has an Amazon sales rank below 450,000, while DBB has a sales rank better than 4,500 and even Icons is above 25,000.

      That said, flowers are sexy. And I’m a better writer than any of that lot. I’m almost tempted to Sokal it… 🙂

      • The Design Inference is also a much stuffier book. Even the title is stuffier. “Darwin’s Black Box” sounds a lot more interesting than “The Design Inference” which from the title sounds almost like a Robert Ludlum novel knockoff(Next up, The Irreducibility Agenda, followed by The Transitional Conspiracy. ) until you realize it is an academic book and then it sounds frightfully dry.

  3. OK, some people would think you’re talking about the Yeti. But look on the bright side – you could build links between two groups that feel shut out by academic science – the creationists and the cryptozoologists.

    It’s already here:


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