All Things Bright and Easterbrook

by Kieran Healy on October 28, 2003

Following up on yesterday’s great “spiritual plane debate,” I see via Atrios and Carl Zimmer that Gregg Easterbrook may subscribe to the theory of Intelligent Design. Best known in the version presented by William Paley, this is the view that, as Easterbrook puts it, “organic biology [sic] is so phenomenally complex that it is illogical to assume that life created itself. There must have been some force providing guidance.”

One is tempted to reply that anyone who believes in Intelligent Design clearly has never given birth or had impacted wisdom teeth removed. The ID crowd have thought of this problem. Easterbrook again: “Unlike creationism, intelligent-design theory acknowledges that the universe is immensely old and that all living things are descended from earlier forms.” Of course, if life just needed an initial push from God (if it couldn’t have “created itself”) and then descended with modification, we are left wondering what has happened to the “Intelligent Design” part of the theory — it’s not doing any work anymore. These guys love to have things both ways. Sadly, if you want the nice stuff you need to put up with the nasty bits, too.

Funnily enough, in his column Easterbrook says that ID is “now being argued out in the nation’s top universities.” Would these be the same “top universities” that we learned yesterday were places where people are “laughed out of the room” for their “irrational religious sensibilities”? Of course not. Though they have the same names as real universities, these “top schools” exist only in Gregg Easterbrook’s imagination, to be called forth at a moment’s notice to illustrate some point about the relationship between science and religion whose truth has already been determined in advance by what Carl Zimmer calls Easterbrook’s “own personal neat-o-meter.”

Debate about religion is alive and well at Universities — but intelligent design theory isn’t in the ascendancy in Biology departments and theists are not laughed out of rooms in philosophy departments. Come to think of it, I’d like to meet the last person who tried to laugh Alvin Plantinga, or either Bob or Marilyn Adams out of a room, but they’re probably in therapy somewhere.



Abiola Lapite 10.29.03 at 12:14 am

Easterbrook obviously has no acquaintance with such phenomena as pseudogenes, endogenous retroviruses and transposable elements. If the presence of such things in the human genome are indications of any sort of “design”, they cannot have been the work of a very intelligent designer.


PZ Myers 10.29.03 at 12:21 am

Unfortunately, Easterbrook is parroting a common ID line when he says it is “now being argued out in the nation’s top universities.” One of the goals of the Discovery Institute’s wedge strategy is to get this crap ‘officially’ recognized at major universities so they can make claims like that. The ID hack at the University of Minnesota, for instance, has offered a freshman seminar in the subject, and now our education commissioner can say with a straight face that ID is being taught on our campus.

I wrote a bit about this here:


nick 10.29.03 at 2:32 am

Didn’t David Hume essentially stomp ID into the ground (and I don’t mean IDS) and sweep the bits under the carpet in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion? When I read it, at least, I got the warm glow that only comes from encountering an argument that makes any opposition — past, present or future — seem rather silly.


Chaka 10.29.03 at 4:00 am

Kant did a good job refuting it.


northernLights 10.29.03 at 4:51 am

I heard a speaker on intelligent design. My reaction is that looking for justification in nature, whether it is “survival of the fittest” or “intelligent design” is a dangerous activity.


Brad DeLong 10.29.03 at 5:08 am

If the existence of a watch makes the existence of a watchmaker highly probable, and if the existence of a watchmaker makes a watchmaker-maker highly probable, than doesn’t the existence of a watchmaker-maker make the existence of a watchmaker-maker-maker highly probable?

It seems to me that the First Cause must be something extremely dumb and simple, or else you are trapped in an infinite regress of sorts…


William O. Pate II 10.29.03 at 5:56 am

My office, the Texas Freedom Network, has recently been fighting the Discovery Institute’s efforts to get Intelligent Design recognized as a theory viable enough to be presented in Texas public school textbooks alongside evolution. They even flew in their “experts” from around the country to a State Board of Education meeting last month. It’s frightening.

Their line of attack has been to promote the teaching of the “strengths and weaknesses” (as dictated by law) of various scientific theories, including evolution. After they’ve created enough doubt in the minds of elected officials and the public in the theory of evolution, they plan to say, “Hey, look, ID is just as valid as evolution! They both have their faults!”

The above is a poor explanation of the entire conflict, but I’m on my way to bed. Suffice it to say, we’re still battling the leftovers of the Middle Ages down here in Texas.

I’d like to believe, as Neil Postman did, that, if put side-by-side in public schools, evolution would easily kick IDs ass all over the locker room (in the minds of the students).


jdsm 10.29.03 at 8:02 am

ID in its latest incarnation argues that the conditions for the Big Bang were so unlikely that it is unlikely to have happened by chance. Isn’t it astonishing, the theist argues, that of all the possible rates at which the Big Bang could have occurred, it actually occurred at the rate necessary for the Universe to support life.

Of course this is a nonsense argument. How is it possible to say whether the rate of the Big bang was surprising or not. Obviously it can be surprising to us without being significant in any other way, just as winning the lottery is surprising to the winner but is not statistically significant if 13 million people play.


Matthew 10.29.03 at 10:47 am

Poor IDS, I don’t think he needs David Hume attacking him as well!
As for ID, I think/hope it will collapse on itself, tripping over its intelligently designed feet as it tries to square the circle.
Easterbrook seemed a fantastic advocate for that purpose.


Jorge 10.29.03 at 12:19 pm

ID has always struck me as just creationism in a lab coat. And it isn’t just Texas where we’re fighhting the remnantsof the Dark ages, Georgia has the same problem with these dingbats. In one f the county’s over from where I live the school board made teachers put stickers on the outside cover of asll the science textbooks bearing a meassgae to the effect that Evolution is just a theory and their are alternative ideas on the matter. You know, so the fundies wouldn’t flip thei rlids at the idea of Billy and Jane learning any of that heathan Science.


Keith M Ellis 10.29.03 at 12:35 pm

Ah, but this fallacy is so attractive to people. Thus, the Strong Anthropic Principle.

People think very irrationally about counterfactuals. Comments from the analytic philosophers among us?

Anyway, Easterbrook is a fucking idiot. There’s no way to sugarcoat this. He _may_ be a well-intentioned and bigotry-free idiot, but he’s an idiot nonetheless. His “no means yes” column, his “money-grubbing jew movie executive” column, his stunningly ignorant “string theory/many worlds/why not God?” column, and this column all exhibit signs of the cardinal intellectual vice: reasoning about the world in a way that indulges one’s emotional intuitions.

Not that many first-rate intellectuals don’t also exhibit this fault. But Easterbrook isn’t a first-, or second-, or even a sixth-rate intellectual. He’s an entertainer.


Barry 10.29.03 at 2:45 pm

Keith’s comment is very important here – the simplest explanation for Easterbrook, and probably the correct one, is that he has become a dumbf*ck. An editor might keep signs of this from showing for a time, but in the end his foolishness shows through.


baa 10.29.03 at 3:30 pm

I first became suspicious of Easterbrook’s technical writings when he claimed it was *always* wrong to blitz in long-yardage situations. As Jerry Glanville said “my philosophy is to put the quarterback on his back on every play” — and he studied with Carnap!


Glenn 10.29.03 at 3:37 pm

Growing up, I can’t tell you how many times I heard the argument along the lines of: “Look how beautiful the world is! There must be a God!” ID is just a slightly more sophisticated version of that argument (and I use the term very loosely). What’s always amazed me is the hubris of it. Oh, so anything that’s sufficiently complex, or beautiful (assuming we could even agree on defining those terms) could only have come from an intelligence like our own? Christ. Frankly, I think the argument for a human-like intelligence would be a lot more compelling if you pointed to evidence of just how f*cked-up the world is.


David W. 10.29.03 at 4:01 pm

Glenn’s quite right that the hubris of ID is simply breathtaking. I’ll happily concede that the universe may have been painstakingly crafted by an omnipotent god. The fact that evolutionary processes appear random to us doesn’t negate that.

But why, why oh why, would anyone necessarily assume that God would sloppily leave nails sticking out of his beautiful masterpiece? Or more pointedly, why would anyone assume that the mechanisms through which (s)he did it would be discernable to our clearly inferior brains?

Science and religion can both lead to hubris if unchecked. ID leads to a kind of hubris that can only be acheived by combining the two.

FWIW, someone in the NYRB wrote a two part article reviewing about eight major ID books. He sliced up the folly of the scientific claims of each and every one of them. It was within the last two years, I think.


ian54 10.29.03 at 4:17 pm

Richard Dawkins, in “A Devil’s Chaplain”, had an essay showing how he was duped into a video interview with creationists, he now subscribes to the policy of not granting interviews on the grounds they are only to get alternative views on the agenda by the back door.

In fact he was going to issue a joint statement with Gould on this subject, but unfortunately Gould died before it could be edited and issued. This would have been striking as creationists tend to (wrongly) exploit the differences in evolutionary theories championed by Dawkins and Gould for their own arguments.

As far as ID is concerned, I am sure that with the steady decline in dogmatic religious thinking, there is an effort to unite the creationists with the conspiracy theorists to boost numbers. After all, ID can cover both a god or an alien as a creator.


markus 10.29.03 at 4:29 pm

the original link was broken, so here’s a new one
I’d also like to recommend this fisking

That aside, I’m still puzzled why -apparently- 43 percent of Americans believe in creationism. My personal theory is that it isn’t religion, but a rationalisation for or an example of the right to remain ignorant. After all, few -if any- creationists believe the whole bible has to be taken literally. So why then this insistence on creationism?


David W. 10.29.03 at 4:41 pm

David W., this may be the review you had in mind:

Saving Us from Darwin – by Frederick C. Crews


Cosma 10.29.03 at 5:02 pm

So, maybe this would be a good time for somebody (Kieran?) to tell us on which subjects Easterbrook is worth reading?


David 10.29.03 at 5:35 pm

I’d never try to laugh Alvin Plantinga out of the room, but he himself seems to have significant reservations about Darwinian science.



People forget that brillant minds can contain crucial scientific/philosophical insights as well as, to put it politely, less well grounded speculations.

Anyone remember Isaac Newton’s bizarre prophetic speculations?


Jeremy Osner` 10.29.03 at 6:12 pm

Wow — this article about Newton is quite fascinating.


rik 10.29.03 at 6:14 pm

Easterbrook: “intelligent-design theory acknowledges that the universe is immensely old and that all living things are descended from earlier forms”

This is the key point to bring up if you are ever unlucky enough to argue with a proponent of ID. They want to claim that ID is an “alternative” to evolutionary theory, but if you press them on the details, they will admit that the basic claims of evolutionary theory are actually correct (outside of the scientifically obscure area of the origin of life itself). So actually their “alterative” turns out to be an endorsement of all of the relevant parts of the theory of natural biological evolution.


mattH 10.29.03 at 6:26 pm

An important note about why the ID groups use seemingly contradictory justifications, like arguing that design is an undeniable fact and then contradicting it by saying that we have still developed from antiquity, it’s because they are working backwards from a conclusion, not going where the data leads them. As with all “scientific” creationism, it’s the results that are paramount, and the theory must be structured in such a way that the facts produce the desired results, no matter how torturous and contradictory the theory.

If we really want to stop “creation science” arguments from having any chance of succeeding, we probably are going to have to do a better job of explaining what science is. Most of the people deciding what goes into text books and what is taught in classes in the U.S. are relying on their often less than accurate explanations they recieved in high school. I think it might be the biggest mistake that we make in our education system as a whole.


Michael Drake 10.29.03 at 7:05 pm

Brad Delong observed above: “It seems to me that the First Cause must be something extremely dumb and simple….”

Which is exactly as a literal reading of the Bible will attest.


Michael Drake 10.29.03 at 7:05 pm

Brad Delong observed above: “It seems to me that the First Cause must be something extremely dumb and simple….”

Which is exactly as a literal reading of the Bible will attest. ;-)


David 10.29.03 at 7:43 pm

FYI: a book on Darwinism and Design by Michael Ruse.


sidereal 10.29.03 at 7:52 pm

Glenn, you can go a step beyond pointing out that ‘it’s beautiful therefore it’s supernatural’ is bunk. You have to acknowledge that our own conceptions of beauty are evolved and conditioned by our environment (and any ID proponent who wants to honestly divorce themself from the Ghost in The Machine theory is forced to agree). Obviously things we like are beautiful because we’ve evolved to favor those conditions, because things we like generally lead to reproductive success.

The intuitions and aesthetic appreciations of the human mind are in no way free from the environment they evolved in, and are therefore hopelessly biased.


Keith M Ellis 10.29.03 at 9:21 pm

“The intuitions and aesthetic appreciations of the human mind are in no way free from the environment they evolved in, and are therefore hopelessly biased.”

Please take a moment to consider this, and perhaps you’ll realize that it is, in isolation, a very stupid argument. I am so overwhelmed by its flaws, I don’t know where to begin. So I won’t.


a different chris 10.29.03 at 10:07 pm

>I am so overwhelmed by its flaws, I don’t know where to begin

Um, actually I wish you would because I thought sidereal was just saying that “if a human had a housefly’s physiology, we’d be as enamored of a pile of poop as we are now of, say, a field of corn.”

Doesn’t sound outrageous to me, but maybe my head is still spinning from finding myself in 100% agreement with Abiola, of all people.


Keith M Ellis 10.30.03 at 12:25 am

Well, first of all it seems to me to be tautological. The conclusion is a restatement of the materialist assumption. Secondly, why would a creationist accept that materialist assumption? Thirdly, a large number of evolutionists, past and present, are dualists—even they are not bound by that materialist assumption. Fourthly, _even if_ one accepts this staunch materialist, anti-dualist assumption, it is not necessarily the case that there’s nothing extrinsic to the human mind that normalizes human aesthetic sensibilities. There may be.

My first thought was to point out that the same argument can be, and has been, used against the human faculty of reason as a guide to “truth”. I doubt that sidereal, so confidently discussing human nature from a positivist point of view, is likely to want to let go of reason as a reliable guide to the nature of the universe. So he’d/she’d need to prove that aesthetics is completely independent of reason. And while that’s arguable, it’s certainly not incontestable.

Had sidereal phrased his point differently, I would have no quarrel with it. He could have said: “There’s no guarantee that the sensibilities and intuitions that guide a human belief in the necessity of a creator are infallible—a variety of valid and persusive arguments can be made that they are quite fallible and are, for example, completely contingent.” But that’s not what he said.

As it happens, I think he’s largely correct. But he isn’t _necessarily_ correct, and his argument is shoddy from beginning to end. Since I’m something of a defender of evolutionary psychology, I find this sort of thing irksome. “With friends like these…” and all that.


moonbiter 10.30.03 at 12:29 am

Eventually, evolution will win out in this debate because of, well, a form of evolution.

People who truly believe in theories such as ID, and operate on those beliefs, will fail to be competitive in the relevant sciences. Those who believe in the theory of evolution, and operate on that belief, will be more successful.

Alas for those who believe in ID. They go the way of the dodo.


Keith M Ellis 10.30.03 at 12:45 am

“People who truly believe in theories such as ID, and operate on those beliefs, will fail to be competitive in the relevant sciences.”

Yes, except that ID doesn’t live in that ecology. It lives outside the ecology of the relevant sciences. It’s just a more polite version of creationism, and creationism hasn’t been “selected against”. Sadly, it’s still very much with us.

I expect that ID will be very succesful in popular culture. It’s what most people believe, anyway. Creationism with its seven day creation, young Earth, flood geology is just too manifestly stupid for most people. However, most people are also theists, most people think that there’s a “purpose” to the universe and human existence, most people think that the universe was “designed” in some sense. Taking these widely and deeply held intuitive beliefs and applying a patina of science to them to make them intellectually palatable, why, that’s the essence of modernity, isn’t it?

Don’t expect ID to go away soon. It won’t really make inroads into science departments, but that’s not the point.


chun the unavoidable 10.30.03 at 10:25 am

I agree with K. Ellis that ID is more likely to go the way of the dildo (sex-toy production continues to skyrocket–where’s the sociologists?)than the dodo.


chun the unavoidable 10.30.03 at 10:32 am

I know this sounds callow, but what if the Christian Reconstructionists are right? It’s a shame that no one has written a science fiction novel set after the near-destruction of humanity by an asteroid (or similar) in which a sect very similar to the CRs have consolidated power. The absence of this idea speaks volumes about the sociology of sf production, I feel.


Cosma 10.30.03 at 7:06 pm

> It’s a shame that no one has written a science fiction
> novel set after the near-destruction of humanity by an
> asteroid (or similar) in which a sect very similar to the
> CRs have consolidated power.
Actually, this theme has to qualify as at least not-uncommon in postapocalyptic SF. Even if A Canticle for Leibowitz doesn’t fit Chun’s bill, there’s Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow, for starters. At a drastically lower level, there was a series (trilogy?) of such novels which I read in the mid-1980s, basically swords-and-sorcery affairs with many Hideous Mutants as well as Repressive Theocrats. Even though it was the golden age of science fiction (i.e., I was 12 or 13), I remember thinking the idea hackneyed. (Can’t remember the author or titles.) And sitting in my to-be-read pile is Sheri Tepper’s The Visitor — where the disaster, come to think of it, was a meteor, which leads me to ask Chun to pull the other one.


Morat 10.30.03 at 9:21 pm

Intelligent Design is nothing more than an attempt to cloak religion in the (hard-earned!)credibility of science.

Science, of course, earned it’s credibility through strict methods and a long-standing history of “beating the crap out of everyone else’s work”.

Intelligent Design avoids both the process and the safeguards of science, but continue to try in cloak themselves in the mantle of credibility that those processes grant.

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