The Sisson Memo, Reprise

I know that we’ve talked about Intelligent Design quite a bit already, but I think it worthwhile to reference the memo from Ed Sisson posted by Rabbi Adlerstein back in June before leaving the topic. It seems to answer many of the criticisms posted in recent comments. In order to cover them all, this turned into a much longer post than I intended… maybe I should have done one at a time? In any case, here it is.

Ed Sisson was the lead counsel at the Kansas hearings on Intelligent Design. I don’t know who was the defense counsel for the Dover School Board, but if it wasn’t Mr. Sisson, perhaps his presence might have changed the results. His memo explains to his colleagues at Arnold & Porter why he — and by extension, the firm — undertook pro bono representation of the minority position in the Kansas case. He, too, brings home the point that there is only one real difference between evolution and ID: evolution posits that “the origin of species” is the result of fortuitous coincidence; ID posits that the probabilities for chance origin are so remote as to be untenable, thus requiring an intelligent designer.

Many of the criticisms miscontrued ID as somehow contradicting the observed similarities of species. For example, David Stopak commented as follows:

When Darwin posited his theory, the structure of DNA was unknown, in fact genetics and how hereditary characteristics were passed from generations was unknown. At that time evolution was based on observations in comparative anatomy and paleontology. Yet now that we can unlock the genome, genetic studies confirm the same evolutionary relationships that studies in comparative anatomy had revealed. This did not have to be so. If the genetic relationships and anatomical relationships were in wholesale discordance, evolutionary theory would have been in crisis. But genetics shows that frogs and toads are more closely related than either are to rabbits. Evolution is not crisis because it continues to be a powerful predictive model.

I think it difficult for the layman to understand just how persuasive evolution is…

But Intelligent Design, as Rabbi Shafran pointed out, does not question Mendelian genetics. Or as Sisson puts it, the ID proponents’ argument “does not impeach the general proposition that species evolved one from another over time, but instead focuses on the assertion that randomly-operating natural forces – such as random DNA mutations interacting with random environmental, population, and ecological changes – are sufficient to explain how all of that evolution occurred. ” And as for DNA, its structure does not, as David posits, overwhelmingly support the idea of evolution. On the contrary, it provides strong evidence that chance development is not tenable:

Professor Sir Fred Hoyle of Cambridge University, founder of the Cambridge Institute of Theoretical Astronomy… calculates the probability that a particular DNA sequence, necessary for the production of a protein called “histone-4” (a protein so common that he says it is “conserved across the whole of biology”) arose by chance. He concludes that the chance that DNA hit upon the necessary sequence at random is 10–120 – a number so small that Hoyle says that this sequence came about “not by random chance.”

He then cites several “other authors who have independently calculated the probabilities of DNA assembling into a useful sequence by chance,” ending with the following:

All of them conclude that the probabilities are so small as to be virtually impossible. I have never found any calculation of the probabilities that would support the likelihood that life arose from non-life by “unintelligent” process or that the DNA of life as we see it today arose by Darwinian “unintelligent” evolution.

No one disputes the accuracy of this math. British philosopher Anthony Flew just two months ago announced that the “impossibility of providing a naturalistic theory of the origin from DNA of the first reproducing species” caused him to doubt his long-held atheism. Moreover, Dr. Francis Crick himself, co-discoverer of the DNA code, proposed in a 1981 book Life Itself that “an honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.” Because of this, Crick, like Hoyle, proposed that life likely began not on earth but in some other location in space, and came to (or was sent to) Earth in a process of “directed panspermia.”

[Note that both Crick and Hoyle posited Intelligent Design in which the designer was not a diety of whatever kind. As I have mentioned before, this clearly disproves the argument that a theory of ID is necessarily “theologically-driven,” as Jonathan asserts. The court decided that since some of the proponents had previously suggested religiously-motivated theories that were outside what was appropriate in a science classroom, this material should be rejected even if the books themselves in no way promoted religion or anything other than a Crick & Hoyle, non-theistic version of Intelligent Design. This is why both Law Prof. Alschuler and I called it a bad decision. Reaching the conclusion that evolution is wildly improbable does not force one to follow Anthony Flew.]

In response to the above, Rivka W. commented that there are “many, many other” paths that “could easily have produced viability.” This is an unsubstantiated conjecture; needless to say, no one has built an organism using an alternative structure. [If there are other paths that are so probable, why is the genetic structure of every living creature built upon such a wildly improbable variant?] Sisson addresses this question as follows:

The usual “mainstream science” response is that this math is irrelevant because no hypothesis has yet been offered that provides sufficient detail regarding how DNA arose, and how it evolves, such that mathematical analysis can be applied. But this response fails because the probability of an outcome can be calculated without knowledge of the process that produced the outcome. For example, fraud detection statistical analysis is used to spot non-random patterns in such areas as credit-card purchases, bank account transactions, data reporting fraud in scientific papers, and other fields, without knowledge of how the perpetrator obtained the information used to carry-out the fraud. Moreover, the inability of science to propose a mathematically-testable hypothesis despite the passage of fifty-two years since the discovery of the DNA code legitimately causes doubt that we should continue to have faith that someday, science will propose a hypothesis that, when analyzed statistically, plausibly could be explained by “chance.”

Many of the comments questioned whether those outside the scientific community, especially Rabbis, should have any right to question the conclusions made from within. I have already responded to the effect that my own background in the understanding of probability and statistics is not inferior to that of the average evolutionary biologist, and am gratified that Dr. Hall concurred that there’s merit to that statement. As Sisson points out, we do have the right to question.

Central to “mainstream science’s” objection to the Kansas hearings was that the state has no right to teach in its science courses any position except the positions that have achieved a consensus in the scientific community. Indeed, the resolution of Kansas Citizens for Science calling for a boycott expressly states that “scientific merit is not established through public discourse and debate, but rather, internally, through a consensus of those with the specialized background necessary to make such judgment.”

This statement asserts that the public must not question the “scientific merit” of assertions offered by a closed group of self-defined persons “with the specialized background necessary” to determine scientific merit. In substance, we cannot question what we are told, we must meekly accept the word of this self-defined special group. But it is profoundly wrong to assert that “public discourse and debate” should be excluded from the process by which the public decides whether statements have scientific merit.

There are two main reasons why the science establishment does not deserve the deference it demands. First, any intelligent member of the public can acquire sufficient “specialized knowledge” to equip him or her to make the necessary judgments. Indeed, a significant part of Arnold & Porter’s practice consists of cross-examining and questioning science experts on matters such as the chemistry, biology, and health effects of various agents that are alleged to cause disease, as well as the merits of patents, and on other scientific matters. Lawyers at firms across the country perform similar roles, challenging scientists on highly technical matters within their fields of expertise. It is a part of our job. To do that job, we educate ourselves on the science. And then we educate judges and juries.

Thus, while Kansas Citizens for Science – and presumably “mainstream science” as well – asserts that only “those with the specialized background” may properly judge the merits of a scientific controversy, this overlooks the fact that any intelligent person may spend the time to acquire such “specialized background” and become an informed judge of the issues. Just as any intelligent high school or university student can acquire the “specialized knowledge” necessary to understand a scientific subject, so too can any intelligent adult obtain the necessary textbooks and read them with understanding – and with a critical eye. No rule says that a person is permitted to learn from science textbooks when enrolled at MIT or Harvard, but not after graduating. There is no statute of limitations on choosing to learn. And that is what the Kansas State Board was trying to do in the hearings: to learn from scientists so as to acquire the “specialized knowledge” useful for them to judge the merits of a scientific theory.

Second, as discussed above, the process by which this group of specialists arrives at its consensus is marked by self-interested motivations, as is any other human endeavor. If the “consensus of those with the specialized background” was reached by means of a process entirely divorced from the biases and self-interests of “those with the specialized background[s],” there might be some merit in limiting the right of the people’s elected officials to second-guess the science establishment’s conclusion on what is to be taught. If this were the situation, a state board of education, in determining what is to be taught as science in state schools, might properly function as no more than a rubber-stamp for the pronouncements of the AAAS. But anyone who studies the history and practice of science knows that ego and personal ambition play a major role in the process of reaching a scientific consensus, such that people who have built their prestige on the broad public acceptance of a particular theory fight tenaciously to preserve the theory’s continuing acceptance by the general public. They know that if the public rejects the theory, the prestige of those whose careers are built on the theory will fall. Recall Dr. Skell’s letter, quoted above, in which he reports that “that some of my scientific colleagues are very reluctant to acknowledge the existence of any problems with evolutionary theory to the general public” (emphasis added).

And that means that some highly defective theories can become part of the accepted “consensus” view of mainstream science. Indeed, the very textbook from which John Scopes taught evolution in 1925 devoted considerable space to the teaching of eugenics – a field then accepted by the “consensus of those with the specialized background” to judge eugenics.

This quotation from Sisson is quite long enough as it is — I would encourage interested readers to download his memo so as to read his discussion of the process through which a dominant scientific theory is abandoned, and the powerful inertia at play — based on his memo, you can call it the Perry Mason requirement.

As one final point, I agree both with the assertion that evolution and emunah (faith) are not necessarily in conflict, and with those who say that evolution is a challenge to some people of faith. There are some who have theological problems with the idea that evolution might appear to have happened by chance — and plenty of reasons why one need not see any such conflict. It is unreasonable to dismiss the proponents of ID as moved by defensiveness over evolution, exactly because there need be no conflict.

If one is prepared to believe that the world looks to be fifteen billion years old — and on this count, the scientific evidence is more or less overwhelming — then there is no reason to object to the appearance of natural evolution. I know this firsthand. However, once freed of the belief that there must be a “natural” explanation for how we got here, it is possible and likely that a person will revisit the issue and reevaluate his or her position. I know this firsthand as well. The result is that many of us who once believed that evolution was the most likely explanation for how we got here have changed our minds, motivated not by defensiveness over how evolution might challenge our faith, but by a newfound willingness to accept that the probabilities are so extreme and unreasonable that chance is not a viable explanation.

And that, I think, is where many of us find ourselves on this issue.

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3 Responses

  1. Seth Gordon says:

    …the chance that DNA hit upon the necessary sequence at random is 10–120 – a number so small that Hoyle says that this sequence came about “not by random chance.”

    This is a strawman argument, because nobody is claiming that the entire gene for histone appeared in a single generation. They are claiming that organisms with the gene for histone evolved from organisms with a gene for some other protein (which may not have served the same function that histone serves in modern organisms).

    One can make a self-replicating peptide (a molecule similar to a protein, but smaller) with as few as 32 amino acids. Based on current estimates of the volume of the Earth’s early oceans and the concentration of amino acids in them, this and other simple self-replicating peptides could have arisen spontaneously in less than a year. See this essay for more details, with copious references.

    “Ah,” you say, “but nobody has ever seen a bacterium evolve from one of these self-replicating peptides in the laboratory, so there is no proof of evolution!” First, since the theory of evolution holds that the development of blue-green algae took hundreds of millions of years to evolve from the first proto-life, such a development in the lab would count more against the current theory of evolution than for it. Second, the “you haven’t seen it happen in the lab” argument applies with equal force against Intelligent Design—the Designer has not deigned to prove its existence by serving us a brand-new organism under laboratory conditions.

  2. Yaakov Menken says:

    Seth, thank you for the comment. That article is an interesting read — but he seems to evade rather than address the issue throughout. Given no reason for a peptide to assemble a particular large protein, the fact that the building blocks are not nearly so improbable has minimal, if any impact upon the likelihood that they would assemble as necessary.

    Furthermore, he was awfully lucky on his coin-flipping test. If something has a one in sixteen probability, he is as likely to wait 30 times as twice before getting the result he wants. Meanwhile, out here in the real world we make decisions based upon probabilities. Even his better numbers are far less likely than the likelihood that all of the tests and medical problems are coincidental, and smoking doesn’t cause cancer after all. It is certainly far less likely than the likelihood his next plane flight will end in a crash. So is he willing to stake his life on something he regards as so likely to end in death?

    As for the Designer not deigning to prove his existence in the lab — on the contrary. You are assuming the Designer would want to show Himself so obviously, which contradicts all of Jewish thought. Crick’s “Directed Panspermia” certainly only happened once, at least on this planet!

  3. Charles B. Hall says:

    Here is one more opinion on this issue, from Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the executive vice President of the Orthodox Union:

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