A review of Douglas Axe, Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed, New York: HarperOne, 2016, 304 pages, hdbk.
Readers of Stephen Meyer’s two important books, Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt, will know the name of Douglas Axe. Axe’s work on probability theory and gene folding feature quite prominently in those works. This book is a compliment to Meyer, but it is also a companion to William Dembski’s books like The Design Inference and No Free Lunch. I suppose the nearest thing to it is Dembski’s book Intelligent Design.
But Undeniable is not simply a repetition of the type of arguments one will find in those books. In the first place, Axe’s main concern is to provide Joe Public with an assuring and accessible guide on his own ability to detect invention no matter what the Science pundits tell them.
This book tries to get behind the sane intuition all of us have that incredibly complex functionality is not and can never be a result of any kind of unguided randomization. It never is in our day to day experience of living. Only in the imaginings of those who cannot see the difference between a scientific pronouncement and a metaphysical one does the idea gain currency and the power to veto competing ideas. But this so characterizes the furtiveness of the spokespeople who try to shove evolutionist just-so stories down the throats of the populace, without facing the arguments brought against them. The author thinks evolution is wrong; that it “can’t possibly be defended as clearly and convincingly as it can be refuted.” (59). I’m on board. I’m also totally fine believing that “Atheists have a pronounced leaning toward scientism” (7), which explains why they slide so easily from science-talk into bad philosophizing.
Axe engages the reader with what he calls “common science”. Common science is the sort of enterprise we all do to get along in life. And we do it by following a “design intuition”, and by inventing stuff. The author believes that “everyone validates their design intuition through firsthand experience”, and he thinks this validation is of a scientific nature (60). He sounds like Thomas Kuhn when drawing attention to pressures among the scientific class to conform to an institutionalized agenda (54); like Michael Polanyi when he says that prior understanding is essential for deeper knowledge (61), and gets a little Aristotelian (in the right way) when he quips that little actions are meaningful when “they produce a significant end”, one that clearly looks intended (67).
Axe is good at giving analogies to help his reader grasp his thesis. He speaks about the discovery of “a revolutionary new soup” (16). This “oracle soup” when cooled reveals instructions for constructing a helpful new gadget, and it does it every time it cools down! Skeptical?, the author asks, that’s because this fabled soup goes right against our design intuition. We will just not accept that physical laws plus chance as explanations for the miraculous qualities of oracle soup (18). Common science stops us from settling for clearly obvious nonsensical answers – if we heed it. But just here problems arise. What if nonsense is what you need in order for the world to be the way you would like it?
We should by all means trust the scientific community to tell us how many moons orbit Neptune or how many protons are packed into the nucleus of a cobalt atom. Why would anyone distort facts of that kind? Matters where everyone wants to see things a certain way, however, are a completely different story. With those we should always apply a healthy dose of skepticism. (38)
In chapter 6, “Life is Good”, the writer refers to what he calls “Busy Wholes” and “Whole Projects”. Whole Projects are the result of bringing many smaller things together in just the right way. “Busy wholes” are the things which, when properly combined, make up a “whole project.” (69). “Busy wholes tackle their projects by breaking them down into smaller projects in an organized way.” (70). This means that we intuit complex wholes as “projects”, and such things “ought to be so” (76). He gives the example of the pandas thumb, a favorite target of evolutionists of dysteleology, or bad design. But Axe observes simply that,
I find myself evaluating the people rather than the panda. None of these people, however earnest they may be, have any deep grasp of the principles of design and development underlying sesamond bones or thumbs, to say nothing of pandas. (78).
Because they eschew teleology, and are often not skilled engineers, those who complain about the pandas thumb are not saying anything of value. (This same attitude holds true when it comes to information theory). To sum up,
When we see working things that came about only by bringing many parts together in the right way, we find it impossible not to ascribe these inventions to purposeful action, and this pits our intuition against the evolutionary account. (87)
He poses a central question: “whether evolutionary theory is more in touch with our observations than our design intuition is” (88). The book argues strongly that the answer is No. The evidence is stacking up in favor of an agreement between the evidence and our design intuitions.
The next thing that Axe examines is the crucial matter of whether proteins actually are able to reshape life at all. He discusses a painstaking experiment he did with two colleagues, and how they could not get a simple protein to transform even slightly, no matter how hard they tried (81-86). The push back from the evolutionary establishment has been, would you believe, that these proteins evolved so successfully that they have achieved optimal status; they cannot evolve anymore because there is no space left to evolve into! This is all terribly convenient for the evolutionist who must believe that the marvelous diversity of life got here through novel protein transformations and folding, but now when we can empirically falsify that claim the rejoinder that one receives is that protein evolution has achieved perfection.
Chapter 7 has a thought experiment which illustrates the difficulty of unguided natural selection stumbling upon the right genetic sequence to “invent” something functional. Again, the answer comes back negative (88-97). Natural selection, which is supposed to be the only means of evolutionary “invention”, cannot invent.
The author goes on to show how high the massive improbabilities of anything arising by natural selection are (chapter 8). The search space turns out to be too impossibly vast for blind selection to have even a slight chance of success (cf. 182. See also the examples given on pages 196-206). But what is prohibitive for natural selection is relatively easy once insight and purpose (design) is present.
The contrasting view is that what looks to be the fruit of genius always is the fruit of genius… Inventions are clever things, and clever things are to be had only by cleverness. Inventors do sometimes search for new ways of doing things, but they never search blindly. (136. italics his)
Once more, a solid example of this is provided which shows why what Axe calls “functional coherence”, which always involves hierarchical planning, is always the product of design (139-155). The hierarchical pattern of “conception, construction, operation” cannot be bypassed. He clearly demonstrates “the indispensable role of knowledge in the process of invention.” (158. My emphasis). His conclusion is simple:
Functional coherence makes accidental invention fantastically improbable and therefore physically impossible (160. There is a helpful diagram of this on page 162)
The tenth chapter discusses the system behind photosynthesis in all its multifaceted glory. He observes, “Living inventions are… all-or-nothing wholes – utterly committed to being what they are.” (176). Nevertheless, Darwinists are in the habit of minimizing the mind-numbing improbabilities in naturalistic accounts of origins by speaking in matter-of-fact ways. The case of MIT researcher Jeremy England is used to illustrate how this ploy is used to distract the public from the real problems (chapter 11). He uses the work of nanotechnologist Jim Tour to get the problem in sight once more.
Chapter 12 is called “Last Throes”, and describes the several “retreats” that Darwinists are making away from the welter of scientific evaluation of their ever-more shaky yet shrill claims. They are backing off critical dialogue, testability, the universe (as in the multiverse expedient), and even (though quietly) tenets of Darwinism itself. The last two chapters deal with the riddle of consciousness and the new avenues opening up to those who are willing to abandon naturalistic dogma and follow the evidence instead of defending an unworkable philosophical slant on science.
Throughout Undeniable the writer maintains a civil and conciliatory tone, but this doesn’t prevent him from building a very strong case against Darwinian naturalism and for intelligent design. Yes, he freely admits he is a Christian-theist, and that will be all the information some will need to sneer at the book. But I recommend you read it, and allow yourself to believe that when something looks like it took astonishing planning to produce, that is because it did, and that is a scientific intuition.