A difference in method between ID supporters and biologists

I think ones of the issues that we run into here is a difference in the way people, and disciplines, go about evidence or reasoning. Some sciences (chemistry, physics) seem to be more bottom up (maybe more inductive reasoning) going from lots of observations to finding the theory that ties them together. In biology, it often seems more top-down (more deductive) in that it tends to have established theories that then can be applied to new observations. Perhaps some of the difference may come from how well behaved most chemistry/physics “subjects” are compared to biology.

In any case, we constantly see from ID the more bottom-up approach where the expectation is that you determine how all the bits (biological/biochemical mechanisms) got here, and then you can say that evolution is demonstrated. On the other hand, the non-ID biologists (and allies) seem to take the more top-down approach that uses evolution to try to discover biological/biochemical mechanisms.

That’s why the conversations seem to always be some variety of:

ID proponent: evolution can’t be demonstrated because it can’t account for the origin of X
evolution proponent: we don’t have to account for X, prove that evolution can’t be demonstrated.
ID proponent: well, like I said, unless you can demonstrated how X got here, evolution can’t be demonstrated
evolution proponent: X got here through normal evolutionary means, we don’t know specifics, but it’s here so it must have evolved.
ID proponent: hah! so evolution is defeated!
evolution proponent: not even close!
ID proponent: see, it’s your assumptions that are the problem!
evolution proponent: idiot!
ID proponent: moron!

and then we rinse, repeat on another thread. Neither side seems to be able to agree on what the actual question is, what evidence looks like, or how you know when you’ve answered the question. It’s really frustrating looking on it from the outside but it must be even more so from the inside (hence the quick devolving into name calling).

I don’t really have a solution other than maybe trying to more carefully define specific questions that are answerable using experiments that we’ve either already done or could do. So much of the debate is at such a high, abstract level that it doesn’t lend itself to actual evidence-based answers.

I don’t see a God of the Gaps argument here. I think it’s a legitimate question, and one that I think needs to be carefully articulated back. This isn’t so much about ID itself but intellectual culture and context in which ID arises.

If you come at this from a foundationalist, linear perspective, if you can’t give an exact mechanism to understand how the first cell got here, and how a prokaryote turned into a eukaryote, then anything like explaining Prp8 is nonsensical. So I think it would be helpful for biologists to explain what they know and how they view the unfolding knowledge of the origins of biological systems rather than what usually comes off as hand-waving generalizations.


You’ve hit on one of the most common and most intellectually dishonest tactics used by ID-Creationists, the “evolution can’t explain everything therefore evolution can’t explain anything!” attack.

The actual conversation goes

ID proponent: evolution can’t be demonstrated because it can’t account for the origin of X
evolution proponent: Sure it can. Evolutionary theory doesn’t depend on knowing the origin of X. Here are examples A,B,C,D, etc, etc. clearly demonstrating evolution in action.
ID proponent: SEE! I told you evolution can’t explain X therefore evolutionary theory is WRONG!"
evolution proponent: (rolls eyes) whatever.

I see this theme repeated on every E/C discussion board, usually several times a day. Bill Cole on this board loves it dearly.



I think it could be intellectual dishonesty, but I think it also represents how many non-scientists would approach it. The assumption is that science takes everything we know (in terms of data/observations) and builds a theory that somehow accounts for it all. So having a theory without somehow being able to explain everything underneath it is seen as a major hole in the credibility. Do you have any ideas of good ways to explain better how biology (especially evolutionary biology) actually works?


Only to really scientifically clueless people and/or people with a religious agenda to push. Sadly that describes most ID-Creationists to a tee. I’ve never seen someone who is not an outspoken ID-Creationism proponent raise the argument. Never. It’s like claiming since we don’t know the name of every Rebel soldier in R.E.Lee’s army then the U.S. Civil War never took place.

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I see this kind of thinking all the time in my chemistry general education classes with regard to other topics, that’s why I brought it up. I don’t doubt that you mostly see that from ID/Creationist folks since the vast majority of non-science people don’t think about evolution at all (and therefore haven’t thought about arguments for or against).

It does seem to me though, that there can be a big disconnect between “evidence for evolution” section of websites/textbook and specific “so how’d that enzyme/function/DNA come about” questions. It’s not a bad thing, but there is really so much we don’t know. I just run into a lot of students who think science must have everything figured out, and the hard part is memorizing it all :wink: .

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Hopefully you’re doing a good job dispelling them of that silly notion. After all, if science already knew everything then science would stop looking. :slightly_smiling_face:



I just picked up this summer a (physics-focused) book on things we don’t know:


The problem is when students take that to mean, “scientists don’t know anything!” So some good science literacy work can help.


Psst…Bill Cole…are you listening?


Yes; ID creationists don’t use the scientific method.

When someone says “Because you don’t know how X happened, I’m going to say God did it”, that’s textbook God of the Gaps. When they also say “Because you don’t know how X happened, I’m going to ignore all the evidence for Y, and claim that Y didn’t happen and that instead this is evidence that Z happened”, that’s not science, and it’s not intellectually honest. When it is repeated despite being called out multiple times, then it’s not morally honest either.


My general reaction to people who are Old Earther I.D. proponents is that they have an irrational fear of the word “Evolution”.

@Jordan - I had some similar thoughts/questions recently. We have a broad hypothesis – every organism that ever lived is related. And we have a variety of more specific sub-hypotheses about gene B mutating from gene A or species Q diverging from species P at time T, etc. The evidence for some of those specific hypotheses can be very weak, or may not be adequate for distinguishing between several competing hypotheses. But the evidence for all of those various specific hypotheses also lend weight to the broad hypothesis, such that the evidence for it is cumulatively strong.

Except that for some folks, the evidence for the broad hypothesis is only as strong as the weakest evidence for the more specific sub-hypotheses. That’s not an unreasonable intuition, and it may very well be how some areas of human inquiry operate. It might even be interesting to formalize a way of doing science that operated that way. But that’s not actually how science works.

Now, how to explain that, and explain how science does works, is not as clear. Perhaps it would be helpful to move away from strength of evidence as if we were building a legal case and talk more about uncertainty.

For example, at work I occasionally deal with population demographic data, which comes with estimates and a measure of uncertainty. What percentage of people in the US are 25-34 years old? We have a number for that, plus or minus a little bit. We are reasonably certain about that number because we’ve counted a large number of people, large enough that we couldn’t have missed a big chunk of people in that age range. We may have missed a few, but they won’t change the percentage much at all.

On the other hand, if we ask what percentage of people in your census tract are 25-34 years old, we have more uncertainty. We didn’t count everybody, and we’re dealing with a much smaller number of people total. So if we missed a few 25-34 year olds, the percentage could change quite a bit.

Our certainty about common descent is more like our certainty about the percentage of 25-34 year olds for the entire US, which is high. And it’s high even though every one of those 25-34 year olds lives in a census tract where our uncertainty about the number of people in their age bracket is much higher.


I’d just like to point out that many of the things ID proponents say we can’t account for the origin of, we can in fact account for the origin of. There are actually accounts for the origin of the spliceosome, the flagellum, the nuclear pore complex and the nuclear envelope, and so on. Accounts that draw on well-established mechanisms of evolution (hint: it’s almost always some combination mutations and natural selection, perhaps with a bit of HGT from endosymbiont to host thrown in).

The problem here is how ID proponents respond when such accounts are actually given, which betray a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of science and reasoning about the past. When we talk about what happened in history before anyone was around to observe and record it, the only thing we can do is inference to the best explanation. Meaning we draw from mechanisms we think we understand and have reason to believe were in operation in the past too, and use those and the data we have to piece together how X came into existence.

And this is where it all goes wrong for IDcreationists. They’ll say we don’t have a detailed step-by-step account for the origin of X, and then when we provide that they call it a “just so story”, declare that the sequence of events described is so unlikely so as to be miraculous, and then they demand we prove that it really happened in history because, they say, it’s just “speculation” and we can’t “prove it happened like that”.

But what do they propose as an alternative? Design, as in the word and nothing else. No details, no reasoning, nothing. Their alternative amounts to uttering or typing the word ‘design’ into a browser window. And for them too the issue remains, that they’re attempting to account for events which happened in the past, and which they couldn’t ever hope to demonstrate in the way they demand it be demonstrated for evolution. So first and foremost they have a double standard.

They will accept and believe their own ad-hoc conjectures with literally zero explanatory power, while also being COMPLETELY unable to determine the probability of the things being designed, yet demand that biologists give Bayesian prior probability estimates for their proposed scenarios.

If those scenarios are actually provided, they will declare it unsubstantiated speculation dreamt up out of fear and hate of God and a “prior commitment to materialism” when scientists use established evolutionary mechanisms and comparative genetics to draw up a scenario for the evolutionary origin of X.

This whole thing is ridiculous. I could write a long post on the origin of the spliceosomal complex and the Prp8 protein, and draw on many lines of evidence and causal reasoning from mutation and natural selection for why it came to exist, grew to it’s current size and so on. But I can’t travel in time and prove that this is what really happened.

I have to bring up the Mt Everest analogy here again because there’s no in principle difference between how geologists versus biologists reason about the past. Scientists use well-understood causal forces/processes (plate tectonics, wind and erosion, gravity, thermal pressure, convection etc.) to explain how some extremely unlikely assemblage of atoms came into existence.
We call it the Mt Everest. We have no problem accepting that there is some extremely unlikely combination of how the wind blew, how convection took place deep in the Earth’s mantle, and how the crust was shaped by erosional forces, and the pressure of drifting colliding continents, that explains how we ended up with the incalculably unlikely arrangement we call the Mt Everest. Hundreds of millions of years ago.

We can’t travel back in time to see it happen again, we just can’t. We have to make that inference to the best explanation. For every single atom in the structure and it’s current position in the whole thing. How did this particular calcium atom come to rest in this position? How about that silicium atom a kilometer below it? Think of the world-history it had to go through to get to where it is. What explains it’s position? Why did it not end up one centimeter to the left? Four angströms more north? What would be the Bayesian prior probability of the explanation we would have to come up with to account for the entire mountain? And yet we understand that it was, in fact, made by blind dumb pressure propagating through rock. A superficial and ad-hoc answer that doesn’t really explain anything in much detail except to say “lots of rock was pushed together and some of it was pushed up”. And yet we’re fine with it. That does, in principle, explain all of it. And we can see how there is some explanation, at the atomic level, for why some atom ended up where it did even if we couldn’t ever hope to know.

But we move to biology and suddenly people’s heads explode. Though nothing has really changed here. The explanations are again inferences using causal forces and processes seen operating in the present. Mutations happen, carriers exhibit biased reproductive success due to the fitness effects of those mutations. The types of mutations have different molecular results. Some are duplications, others are point mutations, some are deletions etc. etc. We make an inference to the best explanation by drawing on these causal forces, combined with comparisons of the genomes of many organisms, to give the best explanation for the larger pattern of how genes are distributed in populations, and from this how some structure evolved.

But now people’s standards have changed. It’s biology, it’s about them and their own history and the myths and stories they were brought up with. Suddenly great^nth grand-dad far enough back was a non-human ape, or a fish, or something no more complex than slime mold, and that’s not a welcome thought. And so they’re suddenly demanding fatutous probability estimates and ultra complicated models just so they can call them “just so stories” and demand time-travel scenarios. You can’t create the flagellum again from scratch. No, I can’t. I also can’t re-create the Mt Everest again from scratch, but you were fine with that one.


@jordan and @AndyWalsh The OP and this post are actually very helpful. This puts into words some thoughts I’ve been trying to formulate for a while now. It seems to me, as a non-scientist that the “conclusions” of science around evolution are represented as certain, while the underlying mechanisms (sub-hypothesis) are relatively uncertain even to scientists. (I’m not questioning the conclusions, just providing how things look to a non-scientist).

As Christians who believe that God has created the world, this naturally leads to questions about whether the sub-hypothesis are the best explanation, or whether they are better explained by a more direct intervention by God.

As many people seek certainty in explanations in science and theology, this leads to conversations where people are yelling across the divide of rather than discussions around the uncertainty both in science and in how God has carried out his creation.


Often the actual argument goes:

ID proponent: evolution can’t be demonstrated because it can’t account for the origin of X
evolution proponent: Sure it can. We don’t know the details, but there are possible precursors to X in S1, S2 and S3, and the most likely scenario based on our current data is that X evolved from X" in S2 via aform of process P. Here are examples A,B,C,D, etc, etc. clearly demonstrating that process in other organisms, and here is a possible intermediate form X’ in S4.
ID proponent: But you DON’T KNOW! I told you evolution can’t explain X therefore evolutionary theory is WRONG!"
evolution proponent: (rolls eyes) whatever.


I believe there has been a shift in biology from top down to bottom up in modern times, mostly due to technology. The tangled web of biochemistry and genetics was once impenetrable, but that isn’t the case anymore. It is now feasible to sequence entire genomes, measure all RNA transcripts in a cell, and measure the spectrum of small molecules in a cell. 20 years ago you often started with a hypothesis that a certain gene was involved in a process based on theory, but now you survey the biochemistry of a cell to find candidate genes. It’s been amazing to watch over the last couple of decades.

As it relates to evolution, the genomics revolution has allowed scientists to build bottom-up evolutionary models. For example, finding functional regions of a genome can use sequence conservation as a tool. With all of this genetic data you can rebuild the theory of evolution from first principles. Evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) is one of the fields that I find most fascinating, and it is a great example of bottom-up thinking from genetics moving into the previously top-down field of developmental biology.


No. It is both. Science always works in both directions.

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Agreed. I should have said that bottom up methods have become much more common in biology.


“Not only would I need a step-by-step, mutation by mutation analysis, I would also want to see relevant information such as what is the population size of the organism in which these mutations are occurring, what is the selective value for the mutation, are there any detrimental effects of the mutation, and many other such questions.”

Can you say how many individuals there were in a specific single eukaryote species in the year that the spliceosome began to evolve?


Tough. You’ll never convince a IDer.

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Suppose you gave an estimate, he’d call it a “just so story” and demand to have the past recreated in front of his eyes.

Since you can’t do that, he will substitute the much more detailed account with much greater explanatory power: Design!

That’s the model, the word itself. Not what it could mean, or how the designing and manufacturing takes place or when or where, or anything. Just the word itself. ‘Design’. Done, case closed. Praise the LORD! And that’s NOT a just-so story? And there are no Bayesian prior probabilities supplied or anything.

I’m supposed to argue with these people as if there is an equivalence? To take their demands and objections seriously? Not gonna happen.


Then you agree that ID isn’t science, because they are neither proposing nor doing experiments or field work.

That’s a pretty ridiculous assumption. Most people, particularly children, have no problem avoiding that assumption when they use the scientific method in their daily lives.