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. 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. He 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).
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. (more…)