Intelligent Design Versus Evolution Debate Held at Bridgewater College, Bridgewater, VA

A Debate on Intelligent Design versus Evolution took place on the campus of Bridgewater College, Thursday evening, Feb. 15, 2007, between mathematician and Intelligent Design advocate William Dembski and psychologist Michael Shermer, atheist and founder of Skeptic Magazine, before a packed house.  Intelligent Design is a synonym for “creation.”

Dembski went first citing Darwin’s language from his Origin of Species, 1859 where Darwin used words such as “possibly,” “likely,” and “probably.”  This is the language of statistics, Dembski said, and since we know more about biology and the complexity of life than Darwin could ever dream, the mathematician Dembski has put the claims of Darwinism to the test in the form of rigorous probability calculations.  His conclusion is that Intelligent Design is a far more satisfying scientific explanation for the complexity of living things than Darwinian theory.  He showed pictures of the now famous bacterial flagellum, (a universal joint with rotors, stators, and bushings, not to mention a sophisticated sensory system to control the motor) among other examples in nature whose enormous complexity, he said, poses serious problems to evolutionary explanations-especially the currently accepted “mechanism” of natural selection.  He cited the sophistication of the messenger and transfer RNA and its ability to code in cell reproduction. He touched on probability arguments from statistics showing the impossibility of evolving a component such as a protein, enzyme, or a strand of DNA.


Dembski made effective use of popular culture in his media presentation, showing a scene from the movie “Dumb and Dumber” where the beautiful girl, Lauren Holly, informs Jim Carey that his odds of getting her are “more like one in a million.”  Taken back at first, Carey quickly regained his composure, “So I still have a chance…” and exults, “YES!!!”  The audience had a hearty laugh, comprehending the analogy Dembski had just made.  Evolutionists demonstrate even blinder faith then this, when they attempt to override such staggering odds involved in the proposition that the complexity of the cell–and life itself—could arise from chance.  Dembski’s presentation continued with computer animated graphics illustrating the complexity of the cell as a veritable city of information and activity.  His case was substantive, and he included some references to ID newly published in technical journals, which he said showed that ID is scientific.


It was the evolutionist, Michael Shermer, who relied heavily on humor and rhetoric, claiming that creationists and ID people “argue from incredulity.”  Shermer says the creationist attributes to God when he can’t account for a scientific explanation.  Shermer took the debate back 25 years by arguing for evolution from vestigial organs, e.g. the appendix & male nipples.  He mentioned the so-called Junk DNA, which was originally thought to have no function and therefore labeled “vestigial.”  The argument “Pseudogenes and Plagiarized Errors” was popularized by Edward Max of the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, MD, in 1988.  We now know this DNA is not “junk” at all, but plays a prominent though not fully understood role in copying information.  In Nowak’s article, the DNA remained dormant but would activate in times of crisis to override deleterious mutations, (Rachel Novak, “Mining Treasures out of Junk DNA, 1989?)  The analogy is that of a back-up quarterback coming off the bench upon an injury to the starter and throwing the game winning pass.  Shermer also laid out a case for the fossil evolution of whales, citing Basilosaurus.  He denied that there were no transitional forms in the fossil record, arguing that the transition does not have to provide a series of links.  His debate points seemed to parrot NCSE talking points which were circulating back in 1987, used by evolutionists such as Karl Fezer, (Fezer/Doughty, 1987, Fezer/Gish, 1992) and Edward Max (1988).  Shermer ended the question and answers session by stating that he had nothing against the idea of God or religion personally, but as for science, he said, “We are only looking for naturalistic explanations.”


Taking the first part in the question and answer session, I challenged Shermer’s argument on the Junk DNA being an example of vestigial evolution.  I asked him to clarify his argument on now that “Junk DNA” is known to activate. I asked Shermer, is not the very idea of a “back-up system” itself, contradictory to a “naturalistic” process operating by blind random chance?  Furthermore, I asked, is not the vestigial organ argument an argument from ignorance (we assume there is no function because we do not know, or have not found it yet), and therefore is not Shermer (who argues from ignorance) just as guilty as the creationist such as Dembski (whom Shermer accuses of arguing from incredulity.)  Shermer responded and acknowledged that, yes, Junk DNA has been known to activate, but that for him… this was greater proof for evolution.  Dembski responded by saying that Shermer did not answer the question.


During the post-debate reception, Shermer admitted that the appendix does serve a purpose in fighting infection.  Why would he use the appendix as a proof of evolution if he knew this to be true?  Shermer agreed with us when we asserted that there were no examples of vestigial organs in the human body.  Shermer was interested in the two Duane Gish/Vince Sarich debates which had taken place in Harrisonburg.  Sarich is on the editorial board of Shermer’s magazine, and Shermer conveyed that he holds him in high regard among the evolutionary rank and file.  Shermer had also mentioned in the discussion that he had debated Duane Gish.


The only constructive criticism we had of Dembski’s ID presentation was a semantic issue where Dembski used the word “evolution” in the sense of “micro-evolution,” (speciation) in his opening and closing comments where he stated to the effect that, “ID and evolution can work together…”  Our colleagues thought that this statement was confusing to the audience, especially since Dembski had presented a far more compelling case of scientific evidence than had Shermer.  Kirk Rygol asked Dembksi, “If we make this concession, then why debate at all?”  Dembski clarified the comment that by evolution, he had meant “micro-evolution,” i.e. speciation, horizontal changes, variation within species, NOT Darwin’s amoeba to man transition.  He thanked us for sharing our thoughts with him and said that he would take greater pains in the future to make sure he adequately defined his terms.


All in all it was an informative and productive meeting.


John Doughty


See also local newspaper coverage, Daily News-Record, Harrisonburg, VA “An Evolving Debate,” by Kelly Jasper, DNR, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2007, Section B, p. 1.

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