Moral Behavior Without Principled Intent

Addendum: The original title of this post was “An Evolutionary Antecedent of Morality?”. In the comments Petrushka pointed out the difficulties of this phrase and I have given it a better title.

In the comments of an old post I linked to the story of a Bonobo chimp named Kanzi who is the research subject of a project called The Great Ape Trust. Since then I have been mentally groping for, what was, an amorphous concept I needed to concretize in order to turn that comment into an OP. Petrushka has helpfully formalized that concept with his very own neologism, enabling me to write this.

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Reification of the tree metaphor

A brief note to a regular reader.

The Darwinian “tree of life” is not an actual tree. It is a diagram of relationships. Therefore it can survive without having established its “roots”.

It could be granted that the origin of life was artificial, or even supernatural, and the theory of evolution would still be applicable within its domain.

This is not the first time the error in the essay challenge has been pointed out, but it costs us little to hope that a sincere individual, in no way guilty of peddling a religiopolitical agenda, would acknowledge the mistake.

The Programmer and N.E.C.R.O.

A computer programmer noticed that he was not able to type very much in a single day.  But he mused that if there were a large number of software bots working on his code, then they might be able to proceed via totally blind trial and error.  So he decided to try an experiment.

In the initial version of his experiment, he established the following process.

1. The software was reproduced by an imperfect method of replication, such that it was possible for random copying errors to sometimes occur.  This was used to create new generations of the software with variations.

2. The new instances of the software were subjected to a rigorous test suite to determine which copies of the software performed the best.  The worst performers were weeded out, and the process was repeated by replicating the best performers.

The initial results were dismal.  The programmer noticed that changes to a working module tended to quickly impair function, since the software lost the existing function long before it gained any new function.  So, the programmer added another aspect to his system — duplication.

3. Rather than have the code’s only copy of a function be jeopardized by the random changes, he made copies of the content from functional modules and added these duplicated copies to other parts of the code.  In order to not immediately impair function due to the inserted new code, the programmer decided to try placing the duplicates within comments in the software.  (Perhaps later, the transformed duplicates with changes might be applied to serve new purposes.)

Since the software was not depending on the duplicates for its current functioning, this made the duplicates completely free to mutate due to the random copying errors without causing the program to fail the selection process.  Changes to the duplicated code could not harm the functionality of the software and thereby cause that version to be eliminated.  Thus, in this revised approach with duplicates, the mutations to the duplicated code were neutral with regard to the selection process.

The programmer dubbed this version of his system N.E.C.R.O. (Neutral Errors in Copying, Randomly Occurring).  He realized that even with these changes, his system would not yet fulfill his hopes.  Nevertheless, he looked upon it as another step of exploration.  In that respect it was worthwhile and more revealing than he had anticipated, leading the programmer to several observations as he reflected on the nature of its behavior.

Under these conditions of freedom to change without being selected out for loss or impairment of current function, what should we expect to happen to the duplicated code sequences over time and over many generations of copying?

And why?

[p.s. Sincere thanks to real computer programmer OMagain for providing the original seed of the idea for this tale, which serves as a context for the questions about Neutral Errors in Copying, Randomly Occurring.]


When Prior Belief Trumps Scholarship (Review of Darwin’s Doubt)

Just in case We haven beaten this book to death, let’s have another round.

His case against current scientific explanations of the relatively rapid appearance of the animal phyla rests on the claim that the origin of new animal body plans requires vast amounts of novel genetic information coupled with the unsubstantiated assertion that this new genetic information must include many new protein folds. In fact, our present understanding of morphogenesis indicates that new phyla were not made by new genes but largely emerged through the rewiring of the gene regulatory networks (GRNs) of already existing genes.


As Meyer points out, he is not a biologist; so perhaps he could be excused for basing his scientific arguments on an outdated understanding of morphogenesis. But my disappointment runs deeper than that. It stems from Meyer’s systematic failure of scholarship. For instance, while I was flattered to find him quote one of my own review papers—although the quote is actually a chimera drawn from two very different parts of my review—he fails to even mention the review’s (and many other papers’) central point: that new genes did not drive the Cambrian explosion. His scholarship, where it matters most, is highly selective.


Charles R. Marshall

The word “chimera” is interesting. The rules of this site forbid characterizing what Meyer did


On the Idea of “Scientism”

Defenders of evolutionary theory are sometimes accused of “scientism”, and this much-used (and much-abused) term has also arisen in the republic of letters due to Steven Pinker’s recent “Science is Not the Enemy of the Humanities” in The New Republic, which drew interesting responses from Leon Wieseltier, Ross Douthat, and Dan Dennett.    Here I want to examine a bit more carefully the idea of “scientism” by way of a criticism of Wieseltier’s “Perhaps Culture is Now the Counterculture”: A Defense of the Humanities”.  There he complains that

Our glittering age of technologism is also a glittering age of scientism. Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles  certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one, and so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical, which is to say, a humanistic question.

Wieseltier isn’t a philosopher but a professional pundit who sprinkles his prose with philosophemes to appeal to the class-prejudices of his intended audience. So it would take some work just to locate his rant on a more well-traveled map.

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Totalitarianism at the Heart of the American Intelligent Design Movement – Part II

Our strategy has been to change the subject a bit so that we can get the issue of intelligent design, which really means the reality of God, before the academic world and into the schools.

– Phillip E Johnson, American Family Radio, Jan 10, 2003 broadcast.

Open the book “Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds” and you will find an affectionate dedication:

To Roberta and Howard, who understood “the wedge” because they love the Truth.[1]

Howard Ahmanson, the sinister theocrat we met in Part One, and his wife Roberta are friends of the author, Phillip E Johnson. Roberta is no better than her husband. She defends RJ Rushdoony’s desire for the reintroduction of biblical law, and asks “What is so bad about theocracy?”[2]

Phillip Johnson is often called the father, or godfather, of the intelligent design movement.[3][4][5] He is the brains behind the “wedge strategy”, the co-ordinated attack on all fronts to insinuate Christian theology masquerading as science into all areas of public life, until Christianity is the ruling ideology.[6]

In a November 2000 interview, Johnson describes how his “wedge strategy” became the focus of the Intelligent Design movement:

I met Steve Meyer, who was in England at the time. Through Steve, I got to know the others, who were developing what became the Intelligent Design movement. Michael Denton stayed in my home for three days while he was in the United States. Meyer introduced me to Paul Nelson, and so on. One by one, these people came together.
At that time there was a little funding to pay for people to come to Seattle occasionally for a conference. So they had me speak at one in 1989 to look me over. I soon became the leader of the group.[7]

The NCSE has a neat summary of the history of ID:

Intelligent Design creationism (IDC) is a successor to the “creation science” movement, which dates back to the 1960s. The IDC movement began in the middle 1980s as an antievolution movement which could include young earth, old earth, and progressive creationists; theistic evolutionists, however, were not welcome. The movement increased in popularity in the 1990s with the publication of books by law professor Phillip Johnson and the founding in 1996 of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (now the Center for Science and Culture.) The term “intelligent design” was adopted as a replacement for “creation science,” which was ruled to represent a particular religious belief in the Supreme Court case Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987.[8]

The popularity of the term “intelligent design” as used by modern creationists to denote a putative scientific field stems from the 1989 edition of the book “Of Pandas and People”.[9]

The ID movement has a temporal home in Seattle at the headquarters of the Center for Science and Culture, part of the Discovery Institute.[10]

The goals for ID, as outlined in the infamous leaked Wedge Document[11] drafted by Discovery Institute staff, are sweeping. They include the objective

To see design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral, and political life.

The Wedge Document outlines a concerted attack on “materialism”; this effectively means an attack on secular elements of society. For example, modern approaches to criminal justice and welfare are criticized. While it would be very worrying even if the justice and welfare models sought were Victorian, Johnson and his cohort seek to go back much further than that.

Johnson rejects the utility of secular rationality, and he says

[T]he nihilism permeating contemporary life is the inevitable consequence of apostasy.

For him, a Christian society is the only long term option:

As modernist rationalism gives way in universities to its own natural child—postmodernist nihilism—modernists are learning very slowly what a bargain they have made. It isn’t a bargain a society can live with indefinitely.[12]

It becomes clear from his writings that by “modernist rationalism” he means The Enlightenment and its legacy. His proposed solution is desecularization via a religious revival.[13]

Dembski is of the same mind as Johnson. Of science, he says

[T]he scientific picture of the world championed since the Enlightenment is not only wrong, it is massively wrong.[14][10][15]

It may be startling to realize quite how radical the approach to science of Johnson and his most well known satellites really is. Some “evolutionist” scientists are sympathetic to the principle of detection of the supernatural and/or the detection of design in nature. However, such concessions would not satisfy their opponents. Dembski and Johnson and associates believe that science should be essentially theistic. Dembski insists on seeing science through the lens of fifth century theology:

If we take seriously the word-flesh Christology of Chalcedon (i.e. the doctrine that Christ is fully human and fully divine) and view Christ as the telos toward which God is drawing the whole of creation, then any view of the sciences that leaves Christ out of the picture must be seen as fundamentally deficient.[16]

Upon his appointment as Professor of Theology and Science at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dembski said

This is really an opportunity to mobilize a new generation of scholars and pastors not just to equip the saints[17] but also to engage the culture and reclaim it for Christ. That’s really what is driving me.[18]

When Dembski says Christians have a mandate to bring “every aspect of life under the influence of [Christianity]”[19] he means it. There is a word for a society where religion, culture, ethics, politics, criminal justice, and legal reform are predicated on the reality of a god.

Dembski is intolerant of Christians who interpret scripture differently to him, let alone the non-religious:

[H]eresy has become an unpopular word. Can’t we all get along and live in peace? Unfortunately the answer is no.[20]

While it is fair to say that Dembski does not advocate an imperialistic approach to creating a world where his fundamentalist brand of Christianity informs everything, the outcome could not be anything other than totalitarian.

The new theocrats, some of them at any rate, may feel that their single authority world would be different because it would be based on “love”, but in the belief that pre-modern values are the highest expression of love they display the symptoms of a dangerous sickness.

Read Part One here

[1] Defeating Darwinism By Opening Minds. Phillip E Johnson. InterVarsity Press 1997.
[2] Interview with Roberta Ahmanson for Christianity Today. 19th January 2011.
[3] Defending Intelligent Design. PBS Nova website.
[4] Intelligent Design: The real issue according to Johnson. The Panda’s Thumb.
[5] Father Of Intelligent Design. Center for Science & Culture website
[6] Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, Barbara Forrest and Paul R Gross, OUP, 2003.
[7] Berkeley’s Radical. An interview with Phillip E Johnson. Touchstone. June 2002.
[8] What Is “Intelligent Design” Creationism? NCSE website.
[9] “Biological design in science classrooms”, Eugenie C. Scott and Nicholas J. Matzke, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. May 15, 2007. vol. 104 no. suppl 1.
[10] Understanding the intelligent design creationist movement: Its true nature and goals.
A position paper from the Center For Inquiry office of public policy. Author: Barbara Forrest. July 2007.
[11] The Wedge Document. Copy at
[12] Ethics in a Vacuum. Phillip E Johnson. Touchstone. October 2002.
[13] Nihilism And The End Of Law. Phillip E Johnson. First Things. March 1993.
[14] Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology.William A. Dembski. InterVarsity Press 2002. p224.
[15] Scientific Values and Civic Virtues. Noretta Koertge. OUP 2005. p203.
[16] Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology. P206
[17] And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,  until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

Ephesians 4:11-16.

[18] Dembski to head seminary’s new science & theology center. Baptist Press website.
[19] “Introduction: Reclaiming Theological Education”, William A. Dembski & Jay Wesley Richards, in Unapologetic Apologetics: Meeting the challenge of theological studies. Eds. William A. Dembski and Jay Wesley Richards. InterVarsity Press 2001. p18.
[20] “The Task of Apologetics”, William A. Dembski, in Unapologetic Apologetics: Meeting the challenge of theological studies. p43.

Totalitarianism and The American Intelligent Design Movement – Part I

The Chalcedon Foundation are a Christian Reconstructionist [1] [2] organization [3], founded by the late RJ Rushdoony.

The Chalcedon Foundation propose

an explicitly Biblical system of thought and action as the exclusive basis for civilization


[t]he role of every earthly government including family government, church government, school government, vocational government, and civil government is to submit to Biblical law.[4]

Rushdoony subscribed to the postmillenial notion that Christ will only return to earth when biblical law is the only law throughout the world. In his 1973 890 page effluvium, “Institutes of Biblical Law”, the first of three movements, Christianity and democracy are “inevitably enemies.” Rushdoony envisages the church as the final dictatorship. Nothing less than world domination will do.

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