Jason Rosenhouse’s new anti-ID book

June 28, 2022 • 11:00 am

I may have mentioned Jason Rosenhouse‘s new book before, but I just finished it and wanted to give it two thumbs up. The image below links to the Amazon site:

This book is a withering critique of the so-called “probabilistic” arguments against evolution promoted by Intelligent Design advocates like Michael Behe and William Dembski. Jason is ideally equipped to write about them as he’s both a professor of mathematics at James Madison University and a diligent reader of creationist and ID literature. An earlier book of his, Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line, describes his many visits to creationist meetings and gatherings and his attempt to suss out the psychology of anti-evolutionists without being judgmental.

In this book, though, Jason pulls no punches, analyzing and destroying the arguments the evolution simply could not have occurred because the probability of getting organisms, proteins, or “complex specified information” is too low to be explained by materialistic processes. Ergo, the ID arguments supposedly point to the existence of the Intelligent Designer, who we all know is God. (IDers like to pretend that it could be a space alien or the like, but it doesn’t take much digging to descry the religious roots of ID, sometimes described as “creationism in a cheap tuxedo”.) The real target of ID is not just evolution, but naturalism or “materialism”, as they sometimes call it. Their ultimate goal is to sneak religion into public schools and into mainstream science. But they’ve already lost.

Still, the religious motivations aren’t important when the calculations are wrong—or rather, can’t be made. Jason’s main point in this book is that although complex-looking mathematics is often invoked to show the improbability of naturalistic evolution, IDers lack information about probability space to plug into their equations, so they can’t come to any mathematically-based conclusions. (And when we do have information, like that bearing on the claim that evolution violates The Second Law of Thermodynamics, or that the evolution of chloroquine resistance to malaria is impossible, that evidence doesn’t support the IDers’ and creationists’ claims.)

In the end, all IDers do, argues Jason, is throw sand in the layperson’s eyes with fancy equations, and then simply assert, without actually making valid calculations, that evolution by natural selection is too improbable to have occurred.

Other arguments that are less mathematical, for example that bacterial flagella could not have evolved in an adaptive, step-by-step process, are also discussed, and Jason shows how they’ve been refuted.

Another admirable aspect of the book is that Jason writes very clearly and elegantly, so it’s easy to read. Here are two specimens of his prose that also make his main point:

What about specificity? Dembski’s theoretical development of this concept essentially required graduate-level training in mathematics. He helped himself to copious amounts of notation, jargon, Greek letters, and equations. Anyone unaccustomed to wading through prose of this sort could easily come away thinking it represented work of depth and profundity just from the level of technical detail in its presentation.

However, when it came time to discuss the specificity of an actual biological system, the flagellum in this case, all of the technical minutiae went clean out the window. For all the use Dembski made of his elaborate theoretical musings, they might as well never have existed at all. He just declared it obvious that the flagellum was specified and quickly moved on to other dubious claims. At no point did he attempt to relate anything in reality to the numerous variables and parameters he included in his mathematical modeling.

As Jason shows, the lack of parameters needed to show that evolution is too improbable to have happened in a Darwinian way is a ubiquitous problem for iD. One more quote:

This pattern, of introducing difficult mathematical concepts without ever really using them for any serious purpose, is ubiquitous in anti-evolution discourse, and this fact goes a long way to explaining why mathematicians an scientists are so disdainful of it. Professionals in these areas strive for the utmost clarity when presenting their work. Used properly, the jargon and notation permit a level of precision that simply cannot be achieved with more natural language. This might seem hard to believe, since a modern scientific research paper will be unreadable for anyone without significant training in the relevant discipline. But the problem is not a lack of clarity in the writing. Rather, it is just that the concepts involved are difficult, and experience is needed to become comfortable with them.

. . . In section 2.6, I remarked that anti-evolutionist arguments play well in front of friendly audiences because in that environment the speakers never pay a price for being wrong. The response would be a lot chillier if they tried the same arguments in front of audiences with the relevant expertise. Try telling a roomful of mathematicians that you can refute evolutionary theory with a few back-of-the-envelope probability calculations, and see how far you get. Tell a roomful of physicists that the second law of thermodynamics conflicts with evolutionary theory, or a roomful of computer scientists that obscure theorems from combinatorial search have profound relevance to biology.

You will be lucky to make it ten minutes before the audience stops being polite.

If you want a clear and convincing response to IDers’ (and earlier creationists’) claims that evolution could not have happened without God or a Designer because it’s simply improbable via naturalism, read this book.

It will convince you, as Laplace supposedly tried to convince Napoleon about astronomy, that science—in this case, evolution—has no need of the God hypothesis.

40 thoughts on “Jason Rosenhouse’s new anti-ID book

  1. Their ultimate goal is to sneak religion into public schools … But they’ve already lost.

    Well, they’ve lost so far … but the Kennedy and Carson vs Makin rulings show that eternal vigilance is needed.

    1. My thoughts almost exactly.

      As an aside…am I the only person infantile enough always to want to replace the “E”s in Dembski’s and Behe’s last names with “U”s?

      1. “A” s, “I” s, and “O” s might also work in a pinch for Dimbski and Beeehaw. Nonetheless, “U” s appear to work most effectively. (IMHO)

  2. Jason is … a diligent reader of creationist and ID literature.

    Bless his heart; someone’s gotta do the scutwork.

    1. Imagine earth’s astronauts visiting for the very first time a planet on which they’re shocked to find the equivalent of a laptop computer with fully functioning power and software. They also find in the soil some silicon and other elements which could be used in the construction of a laptop.

      Would they conclude that
      ‘Wonders never cease! A solar wind must have stirred these things in such a way that this laptop and software miraculously resulted!’ ?

      From what I understand, living things are more complex than laptop and laptop software.

      Here’s a quote from a man who is no doubt an evolutionist:

      “DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created.”
      – Microsoft founder Bill Gates

      (Maybe Bill is hinting that Microsoft’s software engineers are just a façade for the real miracle worker – abiogenesis followed by random mutations.)

      1. When you put non-rhetorical questions in an argument, you ought to answer them. Tell us: what do you think the astronauts would have concluded on finding a computer and software on another planet?
        In reality they wouldn’t have concluded anything about its origin until they had examined it. They would have generated hypotheses and figured out how to test them.

        Bill Gates’s comparison between DNA and computer code doesn’t pass the so-what? test except to show that Mr. Gates is humble enough not to claim he has invented life.

        1. “When you put non-rhetorical questions in an argument, you ought to answer them.”

          I didn’t answer because in effect it WAS rhetorical.

      2. I can respect Bill Gates for some reasons, but he knows squat about genetics. He can be forgiven since it is a common analogy to compare cellular genetics to a computer program, but any student who has gotten through their 2nd and 3rd year in biology should understand that cellular genetics is far less efficient and far more poorly designed. DNA is loaded with dead genes, repetitive non-sense gibberish, and the working genes are clearly old genes that are stolen and edited to be put to new uses.
        A purchaser of this computer program would send it back for slip-shod design, and the computer programmer should be found guilty of copyright infringement.

        1. I think what Bill Gates meant was that DNA represents a set of instructions that creates creatures that are much more complex than any computer program yet created by humans. He’s not saying anything about its efficiency. I’m pretty sure he’s not saying that it was created by an intelligence.

          I’m willing to bet that Bill Gates does know much more than squat about genetics. His foundation funds many programs that rely on genetics. While I’m sure he has people that know much more than he does, he is well known as someone who can speak very intelligently about the foundation’s work.

      3. I don’t see the point of your astronaut story. If astronauts found a laptop on another planet, they’d first check to see if it was a brand made on earth. If so, they would then wonder what humans had put it there, not how it was made. If it was an alien laptop, they would then start looking for the aliens who made it, try to figure out how it worked, and learn what they could about the aliens.

        1. “I don’t see the point of your astronaut story.”

          No, I think you DO see the point of the story.

          The point is that the intelligent astronauts would NEVER have assumed the laptop resulted from the whims of nature but rather would have known the laptop must have had an intelligent designer (e.g. intelligent aliens).

          1. Sure, because the astronauts were able to identify it as a laptop. Still not seeing your point.

            What if they found some kind of alien life, rather than a laptop? Of course, then they would assume that it was created by a process similar to that which created life on earth, evolution.

            1. “Still not seeing your point. What if they found some kind of alien life, rather than a laptop?”

              But that’s not the story. And life is more complex and instruction-rich than a laptop.

              “they would assume that [alien life] was created by a process similar to that which created life on earth, evolution.”

              But evolutionist do NOT say evolution created life on earth. They say abiogenesis did.

          2. It’s the same as the watch analogy by William Paley, and had he known about laptop computers he might have used it instead of a mechanical watch. That is an ooold argument that was persuasive in Darwins’ time (Darwin deeply admired it when younger). But that argument is long dead. To quote the immortal saint Monty Python: “‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! ” 🦜

            1. So, as one of the astronauts, you would have concluded that indeed ‘Wonders never cease! A solar wind must have stirred these things in such a way that this laptop and software miraculously resulted!’ ?

              Now THAT would be funny.

          3. You see, that’s why you ought not to have left your question unanswered. I thought you were suggesting that, because the laptop couldn’t have been created by solar wind, the astronauts would have concluded that something divine made it. (That’s the argument the creationists make when they get confused about entropy.)

            Of course, as Paul says, if there was a logo on the lid of an apple with a bite out of it, ….

            1. “I thought you were suggesting that, because the laptop couldn’t have been created by solar wind, the astronauts would have concluded that something divine made it.”

              No, I wasn’t suggesting that.
              I was suggesting that, well, it goes without saying.

          4. Yes, I see the point.
            It is Paley’s old watchmaker argument, that Darwin debunked, rehashed.
            Transparently so.

  3. “Try telling a roomful of mathematicians that you can refute evolutionary theory with a few back-of-the-envelope probability calculations.”

    I agree with what Rosenhouse is saying here. But at my university the faculty sponsors of the Jesus club are mathematicians, computer scientists, and physicists (with a smattering of economists). Those folks (admittedly a minority) are part of the problem, not the solution. But I haven’t read his book, maybe Rosenhouse addresses this issue of physical scientists who pretend to be evolutionary biologists.

  4. “Other arguments that are less mathematical, for example that bacterial flagella could not have evolved in an adaptive, step-by-step process, are also discussed, and Jason shows how they’ve been refuted.”

    Jason must have shown the step-by-step process.
    In one step, he must have shown how evolution created a motor,
    then in another step, created another motor.

    Because the flagella appears to have multiple motors –

    “They can propel themselves forward using threads, known as flagella, powered by the flagellar rotary motor. But how this rotary motor is powered has been a mystery among scientists. Now, researchers from UCPH show that the bacterial *flagellar motor is powered by yet another even tinier, rotary motor*.
    … The rotation is powered by a rotary motor, which again is powered by a protein complex known as the stator unit. This is all well known within our field. What we now show is how this stator unit powers the motor, which has been a mystery so far’, says Associate Professor and Group Leader Nicholas Taylor, Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research.
    Quite surprisingly, the team shows that the stator unit itself is in fact also a tiny rotary motor. This tiny motor powers the large motor, which makes the threads rotate, causing the bacteria to move. *The results contradict existing theories* on the mechanism of the stator unit”

    https://healthsciences.ku.dk/newsfaculty-news/2020/09/tiny-protein-motor-fuels-bacterial-movement/

    1. Press releases are a lazy way to make a point. They tend to sensationalize trivial results (like this one), since they are aimed at burnishing the reputation of a university.
      The protein components described, btw, are well known, and have numerous components that are related to other ‘molecular machines’ in cells. Rather than being an argument for irreducible complexity, they are a nice example of evolution as tinkering.

      1. I don’t think we should be too smug about our understanding of evolutionary theory. Even a simple question such as “will COVID-19 inevitably evolve into a less virulent form” does not have an answer that all experts agree on.

        1. Sure we should not be smug about our understanding. But the disagreement over EES isn’t really about understanding of evolutionary theory. It’s just a tiff over whether the modern synthesis does or doesn’t include plasticity, ecological fitting, epigenetics, and niche construction. These things are all well understood parts of evolutionary theory, and they all have a population genetics underpinning (e.g., epigenetic modifications require evolved molecular mechanisms – enzymes – for creating and regulating methylation patterns, as our host has explained here previously). Hardcore EES proponents instead stamp their feet that the modern synthesis can’t explain these things. It’s basically an unjustified claim to a paradigm shift.

          Also SARS-Cov-2 *has* already evolved into a less virulent form. This is how alphacoronaviruses typically evolve when they cross over from other mammal hosts into humans (https://doi.org/10.1093/ve/veab020). Agreed this is not something all experts would agree on in advance, but it’s a good prediction based on past evolutionary events. It’s a classic example of parallel (or convergent) evolution, and one of the best kinds of evidence for selection as the most important cause of evolution.

          Ok that’s enough from me on this post.

    1. That sounds like old news.

      From 2014 –
      “Does evolutionary theory need a rethink?”
      https://www.nature.com/articles/514161a

      From 2016 –
      “New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives
      … Developments in evolutionary biology and adjacent fields have produced *calls for revision* of the standard theory of evolution, although the issues involved remain *hotly contested*.”
      https://royalsociety.org/science-events-and-lectures/2016/11/evolutionary-biology/

      Safe to say that the only thing which truly evolves is…
      the theory of evolution.

      1. Have you read our host’s book after which this website is eponymously named, monkey? (You can order it in the upper righthand corner of this page.)

        If not, doing so may give you a store of knowledge from which this subject could be meaningfully discussed.

  5. When will the creationists get it into their heads that anything that happens does so by following an entropy gradient? In other words, the second law of thermodynamics determines how things happen, not whether they do. Evolution and everything else follows the second law. Creationists always chunter about disorder without realising that that is an inadequate metaphor for entropy, and consequently their reasoning is thoroughly spurious.

    1. I think the creationists forget, or don’t know, that the Second Law predicts only that the entropy of the universe must increase for any process that goes as written. The entropy of a system (e.g., a living organism) can reduce provided only that the entropy of the surroundings increases by an amount of greater absolute value so that the entropy of the universe increases as it must. (Of course the entropy of the system need not decrease and for most biochemical processes it doesn’t.). Since it is impossible to measure the entropy of the universe, the quantity can be shown to increase whenever the Gibbs free energy of the system, which is easy to calculate from the equilibrium constant, is negative.

      Most of the entropy increase in the universe from life processes is just from waste heat given off to the surroundings by the metabolism of the living organism. Life does not export net entropy out to the surroundings as an inherent property of life itself. As you say, the concept of order/disorder is wholly inadequate as a parable for entropy.

      Since evolution is just* the accumulation of biochemical processes that individually obey the Second Law, evolution itself must also conform to it.
      ————-
      * I hesitate to use the word “just” when referring to the greatest scientific idea of the 19th, or probably any, century. I wanted to underline that it requires no special supernatural assistance to make it work.

  6. It’s an expensive book! $45usd paperback and $75usd hardcover, even $35usd for the kindle.

    I’m not complaining, just wondered why so pricey?

  7. The more I see the ID arguments in the wild, the more I’m convinced that they exist purely to intellectualise their pre-existing beliefs. In that sense, Dembski doesn’t need to show that his equations work on the flagella, because that friendly audience will pass the arguments on and demand a refutation from a lay audience. “Can’t show the error of Dembski’s equation? Well obviously your belief in evolution is a faith too!”

    In this, the bad faith nature of argumentation is one of the most pernicious aspects of reasoning. How can we expect an honest discussion of evolution when those who are against it don’t care whether their arguments are right? (Replace evolution with climate change or electoral fraud and the prospects of humanity feel rather bleak.)

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