During the Dallas Conference on Science and Faith in January 2019, Beyond Today senior writer Mario Seiglie sat down with author and presenter Jay Richards.
Beyond Today: Dr. Richards, you have been involved in the Intelligent Design and Darwinian evolution controversy for more than 20 years. Could you summarize the progress made by Intelligent Design theorists during these past 20 years?
Jay Richards: I think a lot of what has happened in the Intelligent Design community has been filling out the details of the argument.
When I first got involved in the 1990s, Bill Dembski [now Dr. William Dembski, author of several books on intelligent design, evolution and creation] and I were in graduate school together. That’s how I got pulled into the fine-tuning argument. Then we developed a key set of intuitions about how you infer design. What happens when you detect design, and what is a reliable indicator of intelligence, both in the human world and in nature. But there is still a lot of work left to be done.
Intelligent design in many ways is a research program, essentially. So what you saw here in this conference and what Steve Meyer [fellow presenter Dr. Stephen Meyer, director of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture] has been doing over the years, is filling out the evidence for design—including the discovery of things we didn’t know about before. Twenty years ago we might have talked about the information in the DNA, but we didn’t talk about epigenetic information, the information elsewhere in the cell and in an organism.
In many ways, this research program is similar to paleontologists in a dig who have detected the tip of a T-Rex dinosaur fossil. So now you know you are on to something and that this is not a normal side of a mountain. This is an artifact of something, but there is still a whole dinosaur fossil left to discover. I think we are now, in this sense, partway up the tail.
If you noticed, in the past, intelligent design conferences tended initially to be about such things as [molecular biologist] Michael Behe’s important book on molecular machines or Steve Meyer developing his DNA evidence over the years. But now if you look at the people involved, it’s all across the scientific disciplines. In fact, I now spend more time on artificial intelligence and the mind—and a lot of people are doing the same thing.
So we began with a set of reliable intuitions that have proven themselves over time. Now in the last 20 years we started filling out that research program. Yet I would still say the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. So between scientists who are casualties of personal attacks and just the kind of difficulty of this endeavor, it would be nice if there were more key players involved.
There are a lot of graduate students and young scientists who work on this issue, and they feel they have to work behind the scenes and quietly. Of course, you can have someone involved like James Tour, who is a very prominent scientist, and he can say whatever he wants (see “The Problem with Evolution and the Return of God” beginning on page 4). But there are also many hundreds of junior faculty members and researchers who can’t yet talk about this subject. So I would say the pressure to conform and not to speak about it has gotten worse, even while the evidence has gotten stronger.
BT: I heard Dr. Jonathan Wells, a colleague of yours, say in an intelligent design conference over 10 years ago that Darwinian evolution would reach a serious crisis of belief and that its popularity would begin to decline around 2025. Do you believe this to still be the case, or will it take more time?
JR: I think it’s one of those things that’s almost impossible to predict, but there is no doubt in my mind that it will happen—because I think ultimately the truth is already out. If you look at the history of science, theories or mainstream paradigms have a way of holding on long after the evidence runs out and long after all the anomalies have built up. But they can’t go on forever, because they don’t fit reality.
Still, I also think these are unpredictable and chaotic phenomena where you may have a tipping point—one person who is well-placed who says the right thing and then all of the sudden it all changes. There is a famous aphorism that says when you come up with a new idea, first they ignore you, then they say you’re crazy and finally they say they knew it was right all along. So we are way into the crazy stage and going past it.
What is happening now is similar to what the Royal Society Conference in 2016 was about, where you have a lot of mainstream biologists and top scientists casting about for something other than the neo-Darwinian synthesis. But they also worry, because they know what the main alternative to Darwinism is—the argument for design. The whole point of Darwinism was to squeeze design out of biology. So in many ways their worry over the point about design prevents them from jumping ship long after they probably knew better and probably should have done so.
BT: That reminds me of the famous quote by a Chinese paleontologist about being in denial.
JR: Yes, it was a quote by J.Y. Chen, who said: “In China we can criticize Darwin, but not the government. In America, you can criticize the government, but not Darwin.” That is exactly right. Unfortunately, it has gotten more fanatical and dogmatic than ever. When I first started talking about these things, I was a bit safer as a philosopher speaking about fine-tuning, and you could have a rational conversation about it. But now it’s gotten where you can’t even have a public discussion about it.
BT: For thousands of years, the prevailing thought was the belief in a Creator. It’s just been in recent times that this has changed. Do you think we are far away from a flip back to the original idea?
JR: I think that is exactly right. At least if you look in Western history and even with the pre-Socratic philosophers, the debate was whether the universe was a result of a Creator or at least was purpose-driven. And Plato in his book Timaeus argues against these pre-Socratic sophists and materialists. That, at least in the West, has been the overwhelming point of view.
So we are in this weird moment in which creationism, if you actually took a poll of the population, is still a majority view, but not in the commanding high culture and influential institutions. So I do think the prevailing evidence of nature goes so strongly against materialism that at some point we are going to see it flip back. But materialists are still holding on tenaciously—unfortunately.
BT: In June 2018, an article in the journal Human Evolution pointed out that after examining gene sequences of mitochondrial DNA in 100,000 species, the hundreds of scientists involved concluded that the event—either the simultaneous appearance of humans and most animals, or a population crash —occurred about 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. What can you remark about this discovery?
JR: It does suggest casting doubt on the idea that all the information from population genetics is sown up. First, it says that all human beings could not have descended from a single pair of humans in the recent past. Yet, most of those predictions from population genetics are, in fact, highly theory-laden. It presupposes the Darwinian account is true, and then they just plug in the data.
What is interesting about this finding is it shows, if nothing else, how uncertain all of these claims are and how much the Darwinian theory is read into the data and then treated as if it is evidence for the theory—when in fact it is the theory that is describing the data. So this is the problem with a lot of these comparisons. I often tell people not to buy this claim that population genetics has shown either that we all share a common ancestor or that we couldn’t descend from an original pair.
BT: Another unexpected result of this large genetic study, according to David Thaler, one of the co-authors of the report, was that “species have very clear genetic boundaries, and there’s nothing much in between. If individuals are stars, then species are galaxies. They are compact clusters in the vastness of empty sequence space. The absence of ‘in-between’ species is something that also perplexed Darwin.” Could you comment on these findings?
JR: I honestly think that simply confirms everything we have learned since Darwin composed The Origin of Species in 1859. If Darwinism were true you would expect, through infinite plasticity between species and different kinds of organisms, to get huge amounts of variation. Yet what we find, for example, with domesticated dogs, which are highly genetically diverse—and you get everything from a Chihuahua to a Great Dane—is that they are all of the same species! They hit a genetic wall and don’t go any farther.
The best examples we have of [supposed] Darwinian evolution in action would be antibiotic resistance and bacteria, but they never become anything but bacteria. I think this is an honest look at the biological evidence. What is happening in biology, whatever power natural selection and random genetic mutation have, it’s tweaking around the edges and doesn’t explain the complexities or the diversity of life.
In fact, Michael Behe’s new book, Darwin Devolves, really drills down on this. It shows that ... the capacity for variation is just fixed, and at some point you will hit a brick wall, and random mutations just are not going to do anything else for you.
BT: Is there anything else you would like to say, especially to the youth of today, about the intelligent design versus Darwinian evolution debate?
JR: I would just encourage youth and anyone who hears the words “intelligent design” not to assume they know what it means, and to especially not assume that the critics of intelligent design are describing it accurately. Take the time if you are curious to actually read some of the books by intelligent design proponents and grapple with their arguments. See what they are actually saying and not what their critics say they are saying. There is no harm in doing this, and they might very well learn something they would never have learned otherwise.
Dr. Jay Richards is a senior fellow at Discovery Institute, assistant research professor in the School of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America and executive editor of the online news site The Stream. He has authored many books and edited and co-wrote the award-winning anthology God and Evolution: Protestants, Catholics and Jews Explore Darwin’s Challenge to Faith. He is also co-author with astronomer Guillermo Gonzales of The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery (2004).
Richards’ articles and essays have been published in The Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, The Washington Post, Forbes, National Review Online, Investor’s Business Daily, The Washington Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and many other publications. He has appeared on many national radio and TV programs and has lectured worldwide on a variety of subjects.
He has been featured in the documentaries The Case for a Creator, The Wonder of Soil, The Privileged Planet and The Call of the Entrepreneur. Richards has a Ph.D. in philosophy and theology from Princeton Theological Seminary. He lives with his family in the Washington, D.C. area.