Tim's comments on What if Evolution is Compatible with Design After All?

The following was originally posted here.

[ Addendum: in an a further attempt to air-brush-by-moderation, the position-of-the-original-post has been moved here. Which (i) makes things more than a little confusing, and (ii) is further evidence of how dysfunctionally stultifying the moderation of that thread is – I’m glad to be out of there. ]

Welcome Dr Kojonen.

This impression was formed by the combination of an over-familiarity on this forum with Creationist abuse of secondary-sourced quotes and by the fact that you proceeded thereafter to engage with the secondary source rather than Carroll himself. I apologise for the misapprehension.

Here, I cannot agree with you. The tentative wording (a mere “possibility”) of the passage you quote, combined with the immediately-following passage, gives the strong impression that Carroll is merely positing an open question that he intends to address, rather than that he is offering any firm conclusion. It is the conclusion of this article that offers the ‘answer’ to this question. This answer appears to be very modest, talking merely of “passive trends”, “entirely contingent” events and that “there is no basis to assert that bilateral, radial or spiral forms were or would be inevitable.” This does not appear to give any support for a ‘Law of Forms’ of any strength.

However, as neither of us are biologists, I have taken the liberty of creating a side conversation to facilitate the discussion of both your quote and your wider “Laws of Form” claims (so as to avoid disruption of this thread, and to free that discussion from this thread’s somewhat-stultifying level of moderation).

The discussion is ongoing, but initial responses seem to indicate:

  1. A lack of support for the contention that “biologists increasingly talk of ‘laws of form’ underlying evolutionary development”.

  2. The impression that this viewpoint may have greater currency in Intelligent Design circles than in biology.

  3. A lack of support for your contention that Carroll’s article is supportive of this claim.

  4. An impression that what you are referring to as “Laws of Form” may in fact be what is more commonly termed, in biology, as “Structuralism”. (Parenthetically, I would point out that idiosyncratic terminology is often a barrier to communication.)

I am by no means an expert on Structuralism, but my amateur impression is that it is viewed as a fringe viewpoint by the biological community, rather than as a dominant or growing view.

Commentary on it that has been brought to my attention includes this blog post by biochemist Larry Moran:

(hat-tip @Faizal_Ali)

Kojonan, if you had read that thread with any degree of care whatsoever, you would have noticed that I made that comment before I gained access to your book (access which I noted here).

I make no apology for, at the time, addressing the material that I had been presented, rather than an expansion of it that, at the time, I was not even aware existed.

I have since read your exposition on the subject in the book. It did not strike me as particularly compelling. However, given your patronising tone, and your less-than-careful characterisation of my own comments, I have very little interest (or even stomach) for discussing the issue with you further.

Let me first restore my full discussion of the topic:

  1. When you refer to what “biologists increasingly talk of” but then use a term that biologists (generally) do not use, you cannot help but muddle the conversation.

  2. For reasons I will elaborate on below, I have no confidence that your engagement with biology has either the breadth or depth to either (i) accurately characterise the general trend of what biologists are “talking about”, or (ii) accurately characterise individual biologists’ specific views.

“Why not”? I can think of several reasons:

  1. I have seen no evidence that your engagement with biology has gone beyond what ID advocates, and other Christian Apologists, have spoon fed you. This appears to have resulted in a very superficial and distorted understanding of Evolutionary Biology. In fact you give every appearance of viewing Evolutionary Biology as simply a set of concepts to be argued over by ID-advocates and their opponents, rather than a vast, robust and fecund field of scientific research in its own right. I have elsewhere suggested that your book would be more accurately be titled The Compatibility of What-ID-Has-Told-Me-About-Evolution and Design.

  2. Your lack of independent engagement with biology and your credulous acceptance of ID arguments renders your book somewhat superfluous – if I wanted the ID line, I could simply read books by ID advocates.

  3. This is not just my opinion. This was the reaction of one of our more experienced biologists to the idea of reading your book:

  1. If Glass’s piece was any example, Zygon is no improvement on lack of meaningful engagement with biology. As Mercer said:

In responding to @John_Harshman, Kojonan replies:

Yet you seem unable to articulate to anybody else’s satisfaction how your interpetation is an accurate understanding or representation of Carroll’s article.

Which further demonstrates the paucity of your engagement with biology.

Calling Alexander a “biologist” is a stretch. He was what I have seen described as a “biomedical researcher”, with a PhD in Neurochemistry. He is, as I accurately characterised him, a “‘Science and Religion’ scholar”, and since 2006 has been the founding Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.

I would note that Alexander, in the cited book, likewise does not employ the term “laws of form”. Yes, he makes the Carroll quote, but in the context of asking the “question” of:

whether the evolution of the shapes of life represent a random walk through all possible shapes and sizes, or whether there are physical constraints arising from physics, genetics, and development that channel evolution in certain prescribed directions.

… rather than making the stronger proposition that some “law” exists governing this. In fact, in a succeeding section, he discusses the fact that, with a few exceptions:

Biologists don’t generally spend much time looking for “laws of nature”, feeling that this is really the task of mathematical physicists. Living organisms are far more complex than relatively simple objects like stars and do not lend themselves easily to the kind of broad generalizations concerning the properties of matter that we associate with the term “law”.

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To be fair, that lack of depth also is extended to biochemistry and biophysics by his treatment of Axe.


It would be very handy if Dr. Kojonen would mention and describe some of these “laws of form”. It would in fact be handy if he would mention biological examples to illustrate, and thereby clarify, any of his vague claims. But that is apparently not his style.



Sorry to hear you found that patronizing! I was hoping that some counter-criticism could help slightly improve the quality of the feedback here, not just regarding my work, but also any other scholar. But it seems this attempt failed once again.

And I actually did notice that you wrote those before getting access to the book! It just does not make a difference in my view. If I had written a public critique of someone’s argument and only got access to their book later (for some weird reason - typically I would read the book before criticizing), one of the first things I would do is to check if the author takes my criticism into account. If they did, I would see it as my responsibility to publicly revise my previous critique, in the interest of fair representation. Even if I did not find their response convincing, I would write something along the lines of “to his credit, Tim himself develops this same critique, and then responds to it as follows”. Usually my goal would be to try to summarize an argument in terms that (hopefully) the author themselves can recognize, and then offer the critique after that. But it’s ok if your goals are different - and I also do not have that much more time to spend on this discussion anyway.

I guess many of the posters here see me as a theologian intruding on the territory of science, and so see it as their responsibility to defend science against such intrusions. Maybe that explains the hostile tone of much of the discussion, and the lack of interest in reading the material. Hostile to the extent that even the clarification of cross-discipline terminological confusion can be interpreted as a creationist tactic, and high quality philosophy articles are called akin to output of the postmodernism generator :slight_smile: . However, it seems clear that evaluating the issue of the compatibility of evolution and design is not limited to just biology, but is actually mainly a philosophical and theological issue, while it does require engagement with science. And in those realms I do have relevant training and publications, whereas most biologists are non-experts.


I can understand this wish - but unfortunately the focus of this article was on the philosophy and theology, with only some references illustrating the science. I’ve given a few more references in this thread, and Tim has also mentioned some names of the people I cite. Hopefully we can get an article focusing just on the science in the future, but we will see. The dismissal of philosophical articles is sad to see, however. Claims about lack of evidence for design, the poor quality of design as an explanation, and the idea of evolution as overturning biological design arguments are also philosophical in nature, after all. So we do need to do serious philosophical work to evaluate them.

John made a very simple, straightforward request, that is in addition highly relevant to making this a more productive discussion.

I am having a very difficult time understanding why you couldn’t just answer him. But rather than explain why you didn’t answer, I think everyone here would prefer that you simply did answer. Is that unreasonable?

No. We see you as a person who has written an article rife with errors and unsupported assertions and who has swallowed the many lies and misrepresentations of ID proponents without taking the minimal efforts that would be expected of a scholar to determine whether the ID claims were actually defensible. And who, moreover, has so far shown no ability or inclination to respond meaningfully to valid criticisms.

You still have the opportunity to change that, of course.



What’s the valid criticisms that I missed, or the rife errors in the article? I have not seen such yet in the comments so far - except for the criticism that perhaps an article focusing on science would have been more interesting for many in this crowd.

What would be your definition of “minimal efforts that would be expected of a scholar to determine whether the ID claims were actually defensible”, and what’s your basis for concluding that I have not done that?

Perhaps you could elaborate on these in the main thread, so that we do not split the discussion too much. I should try to keep out of this one, I guess.

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Then you probably should have said so.

Then you probably shouldn’t have explicitly told us to look at Glass (and Wahlberg) for your argument:

For readers who just want to understand the basic argument, the papers by David Glass9 (Ulster University) and Mats Wahlberg10 (Umeå University) provide good commentary on the structure of the argument. Glass’ paper focuses on the issue of conjunctive explanations, whereas Wahlberg focuses on the philosophy of religion and the problem of evil. Zachary Ardern’s introduction also provides a good overview of the discussion.11

I would also point out that the fact you spent somewhere in excess of two and a half thousand words without actually articulating your own argument would seem both excessive and confusing:

I might not even have bothered reading Glass’s article at all, if I hadn’t posted about its existence in response to John. I likewise found your essay to be less-than-informative, and tend to make ‘signal-to-noise’ evaluations on whether to read further. Glass added a further five to six thousand words. Now I’m apparently expected to read an entire 234-page book? No thank you.

You also appear to misunderstand the episodic nature of a forum thread. We don’t tend to go back and heavily revise old posts. If we think that we have something more to add, then we would post a follow-up. However, I wasn’t even looking for that section – I simply stumbled upon it while looking for something else (I can’t now remember what), read it, found it neither compelling, nor particularly interesting, so I went back to what I was looking for.

Finally, I would point out that I’m not some university post-doc paid to read books like yours. This is on my own time, and their is no compulsion on me to spend any significant time preparing a response to an articulation of your argument that appeared simply longer and more convoluted without being appreciably better.

No, I would suggest that your problem is that you have come to this forum, with a preponderance of biologists, to talk about a claim related to the core theory in biology, but failed in your essay to engage the biological aspects of your claim, and appear to have had minimal engagement with biology beyond what ID has exposed you to.


You said that biologists “talk about” what you termed “laws of form”, but seem unable to provide either the ‘terminology’ that biologists themselves use to describe it, or to describe the meaning of this term to biologists. This merits very well-earned skepticism.

I would also ask that, if we are indeed dealing with “cross-discipline terminological confusion”, what discipline uses the term “laws of form”, and can you please provide us with some examples of its use?

I would suggest that in order to make such an ‘evaluation’, you first need an accurate appreciation of what evolution is, which (i) is a purely scientific issue, and (ii) is NOT something that can be gained via a group of anti-evolution polemicists, such as the Intelligent Design movement.

Then you have woefully misread your audience. [For the avoidance of doubt, by “your audience”, I meant an audience made up of a preponderance of biologists.]

The “names” I’ve mentioned aren’t anything close to sufficient to allow a reader to discern what you mean by “laws of form” – particularly as the ones I’ve read give no indication of proposing any biological law at all!

Lacking any apparent scientific grounding for your philosophising, it is hardly surprising. It renders your claims untethered.


The Intelligent Design movement has no existence except in reference to (and opposition to) the scientific field of Evolutionary Biology. This can be seen from (i) the frequency of their books having “Darwin” or “Evolution” in their title, and (ii) the fact that the majority of their arguments are arguments against the sufficiency of evolution to explain the observed biodiversity.

It is the idea of design that is attempting to overturn 160 years of scientific research on evolution, not the other way around.

Therefore all this is primarily an argument about science. And, as I have said before, you cannot have an argument about science without first accurately characterising the science you are arguing about. Which nobody here appears to think you have done.

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I cannot believe you actually wrote this.

Imagine someone wrote a scholarly article in which he cited Holocaust deniers and Flat-Earthers as primary sources. Moreover, he treated them as legitimate scholarly sources and, while mentioning some of the people who have corrected their lies and misrepresentations, dismissed the latter as mere “critics.”

Would you say such a person had made the effort that one should expect of a scholar to determine whether the claims made by the Holocaust deniers and Flat-Earthers were legitimate? I wouldn’t.


The design argument long predates the ID movement though, and the argument as I’ve defended it does not need to overturn any science - I thought this at least would have been clearly stated in the articles you’ve read? I am happy to agree that accurately characterizing science is important, but so far I am puzzled at what the mischaracterization would be.

The focus on the term “laws of form” might explain it is one of the few claims of mischaracterization proposed. I did not use this term in the PS article, since I figured it would need further explanation, but it was used by David Glass and in my book, so it’s understandable that people are interested. I will add a short further explanation to the main thread. I suspect John wanted a more extensive explanation than this though, since what I write is, I think, already apparent from the previous comments in the thread. That will have to wait for the future.

I wish you had answered the questions! For me it makes no difference to the legitimacy of arguments whether someone is called a “critic” or not. It should be clearly indicated what is the mainstream position though, and peer reviewed scholarly publications should be given more weight. I don’t know if you noticed, but in the book the assumption actually is that mainstream evolutionary biology is correct, and that ID’s critique of evolutionary explanations is wrong. I do treat ID proponents’ arguments respectfully though, and I do reference the results of some of their peer reviewed publications, like Axe’s frequency of functional proteins and Denton’s arguments for structuralism in Nature and the Journal of Theoretical Biology. I also reference responses to both arguments.

That’s your mistake right there.

And did you miss the criticisms made here of that paper? If so, I suggest you look thru the discussion and respond as you see fit.

I’ve read that, and if I recall the contents of that discussion correctly, I make some of the same points on generalizability and evolvability in the book. I also point to other estimates with different results than Axe. However, I did not critically evaluate Axe’s methodology deeper than that in the book - happy to leave that to the scientists. Nothing in the book depends on Axe’s estimate anyway, so there was no need to go in depth on that paper.

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Why include it at all?

The point of asking about the science was precisely to clarify the philosophical claims, because I simply don’t understand what your thesis is. It perhaps is clearly stated somewhere in your book, which I have no access to, but it hasn’t been clearly stated in your article or in either of the articles by others you appeal to for explanation. It’s possible that I’m just too stupid to comprehend, but shouldn’t you then try extra hard to help me?

I wanted an explanation, period, with examples that clarify the meaning. It should be clear from all the previous comments that what you write is by no means clear. Or perhaps everyone else is, like me, too stupid to comprehend a clearly stated claim.

I quote this purely for the irony.


Part of the point of that section is to discuss ways in which some responses to ID arguments (in defense of mainstream evolutionary explanations) reveal something about the preconditions of evolution, even seem to point to a kind of fine tuning. I could not argue this without citing ID arguments and the responses to them. Plus, although I realize that peer review is not a guarantee of quality, Axe’s paper is nevertheless a much discussed peer reviewed paper focused on the topic at hand - I do not want to dismiss such studies lightly, without even citing them. I would rather just counter them with other peer reviewed studies.

Is it? How often is it discussed by anyone other than ID propagandists and those trying to counter the claims of those propaganidists?

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