Saturday, September 17, 2005


Just Not So Stories

Stephen Jay Gould is generally credited with originating the use of the phrase "just so stories" to denote a practice that he deplored in evolutionary biology, which he described as "a speculative style of argument that records anatomy and ecology and then tries to construct historical or adaptive explanations for why this bone looked like that or why this creature lived here". [1] The phrase comes from the name of a children’s book by Rudyard Kipling recounting fanciful stories of the origins of certain animals and their traits.

Intelligent Design proponents frequently accuse "evolutionists" of responding to arguments for design with "just-so stories", particularly in response to Michael Behe’s claims about "irreducibly complex" organs or systems. But what is Behe’s argument but a "just not so story"? [2] He elaborately describes in great detail some microbiologic organ or system and then, instead of attempting to construct an account of its origin as an evolutionist would, he makes an elaborate show of throwing up his hands and saying "I can’t think of how this could evolve".

Setting aside the questions of the validity of Behe’s appeal to teleology, the correctness of his examples and the fairness of his characterizations of evolutionary theory, I want to point out how he and the rest of the ID apologists are violating a concept that might be called "the equivalence of argument". In logic, not to mention anything approaching fair rules of debate, a more than adequate and perfectly relevant reply to the claim "We can’t imagine how this trait could evolve" is "We can!".

The IDers present no empiric evidence for design, they merely contend that (a strawman version) of evolution cannot logically produce certain structures or systems. Nonetheless, they insist that that arguments showing their "logic" to be faulty aren’t sufficient and empiric evidence must be presented as to exactly how every claimed IC system has evolved or the design hypothesis has to be accepted. Behe goes so far as to demand reproduction of the bacterial flagellum in the laboratory in 10,000 generations in order to falsify his claim that it can’t evolve [3], even though he offers nothing more than his mousetrap analogy in support of his position. It is nothing but an Argument from Ignorance and intellectual sleight of hand.

The problem here is not that many people believe in a creative God, as demonstrated by the fact that many deeply religious people have no problem reconciling their belief in that God with the science of evolution. The problem is that IDeologists are making, without evidence, the extraordinary claim within science that not only is there a God but that he can be caught in a mousetrap.


[1] From: "Introduction" to Björn Kurtén, Dance of the Tiger: A Novel of the Ice Age. N.Y.: Random House, 1980. Pp. xvii-xviii. (c)1980, Random House, Inc. quoted at "Stephen Jay Gould On..." page at the "Stanford Presidential Lecture Series in the Humanities and Arts". It should be noted that others consider these scenarios to be hypotheses that stand or fall based on the predictions they make and how they correspond to real world data. Which view is right, and how often, is beyond the scope of this post.

[2] Credit for this coinage, as far as I know, should go to John Wendt in a post on 02-13-2005 to the ARN Design Forum board.

[3] Behe, Michael J., 2000. "Philosophical Objections to Intelligent Design: Response to Critics".

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