16 November 2008

Critiquing Nature's Destiny by Michael Denton, Part I

I've mentioned before that we've had an intelligent design proponent (code named Timaeus) as an official guest on the ASA email list. The discussion has been mostly useful. One thing that became clear early on was the fact that Timaeus is not a scientist and has not read much science outside of the works of ID defenders. His repeated and enthusiastic citation of Michael Denton led some to request commentary on Denton's work, by knowledgeable scientists. This is my contribution.

Timaeus has made frequent mention of the work of Michael Denton, who has written two books that are popular among ID sympathizers. The first, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, was published in 1985 and is regarded as a major influence on the early ID movement. The second, Nature's Destiny, was published in 1998 and seems to be far less influential. I recently read Nature's Destiny, and offer here a review in two posts. In this post, I present an overview of the book and its arguments, with a general critique and comments on the portrayal of the book by Timaeus. The second post (if I find time to collate it) will contain more detailed comments on technical aspects of Denton's claims in areas of my expertise. In separate posts, I will comment on Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (henceforth abbreviated as ETC).


Reading Timaeus' characterizations, one might reasonably suppose that Michael Denton has written books that demolish "Darwinian evolution," in ways not seen before and not answered (or answerable) by evolutionary biologists. Timaeus asserts, for example, that Denton "rips the Darwinian mechanism to shreds, armed with thousands of references to the latest knowledge in biochemistry, genetics, embryology, physiology, comparative anatomy, etc." And that quote clearly refers to Nature's Destiny.

This is a very serious mischaracterization of Denton's work. Denton did attempt, in ETC, to undermine "Darwinian evolution" – unsuccessfully, as I will explain elsewhere. In Nature's Destiny, his project is wholly different. Nature's Destiny seeks to defend a law-based, teleological view of cosmic history in which the development of humanity is the ultimate goal. The view is non-Darwinian for sure, in the sense that such strong teleological conceptions are non-Darwinian by definition. But any claim that Nature's Destiny does damage to modern evolutionary biology is a significant distortion. In fact, I would be most interested in a conversation with Michael Denton, both because I find his work intriguing and because I would be quite curious to hear his response to Timaeus' triumphalistic pronouncements regarding his ideas. Specifically, I wonder if Denton believes that he has "shredded" the "Darwinian mechanism," and whether he would acknowledge that many of the challenges he raised in his first book have failed completely in the face of vast amounts of data arising from completely new biological subdisciplines. (More on this in a future post on ETC.) My point is not that I think Denton is a fool, but that on the contrary I'm pretty sure he'd be embarrassed by the propagandistic ends toward which his ideas are being employed. (Perhaps there is a clue here regarding his divestiture from the Discovery Institute.)

I found Nature's Destiny to be mostly interesting, occasionally informative, occasionally exasperating, and ultimately unpersuasive. Ominously, I found that the chapters I judged to be the weakest were the chapters on topics I know the best. I suspect that cosmologists, physicists, biophysicists and perhaps chemists would feel the same way. In any case, I hasten to add that I have not concluded that Denton is wrong or that his failure to assemble a convincing case is somehow evidence to the contrary. His book is far stronger than Behe's Edge of Evolution, and unlike that unacceptably misleading and inaccurate work of folk science, Denton does not invite speculation that he is willing to abuse science in the course of metaphysical argumentation. Nevertheless, there are times when he's clearly trying too hard, and this is one of my main criticisms of the work.

Nature's Destiny does not attempt to destroy "Darwinism." It attempts to defend a "teleological religious concept of the cosmos as a specifically designed whole, with life and mankind as its primary goal and purpose." (p. xi) As Denton describes in his autobiographical account in Uncommon Dissent and in the prologue, the book can be viewed as an updating and expanding of a classic work by Lawrence Henderson (The Fitness of the Environment, 1913) that describes the ways in which the cosmos (specifically its chemistry) is remarkably fit for life. As Denton puts it in Uncommon Dissent (p. 168), Henderson demonstrated that
there is clear evidence that some adaptive fitness is given from within. This is adaptation "for free" arising out of the intrinsic properties of matter...
It may be that some forms of "Darwinism" cannot abide such talk, but those who think that consideration of nature's "eerie perfection" is somehow "anti-Darwinian" should read Simon Conway Morris. In fact, Conway Morris' Life's Solution is the book that every ID proponent should read after reading Nature's Destiny. Conway Morris' project overlaps with Denton's in obvious ways, and Conway Morris cites Denton twice, approvingly. But one never hears an ID propagandist brag that Conway Morris has "shredded the Darwinian mechanism." This, to me, is telling. I urge those who take Denton seriously to read Life's Solution. It simultaneously affirms Denton's basic view (that life is an inevitable result of the "laws" of the cosmos) while putting the lie to any claim that Denton or anyone else has undermined the theoretical foundation of modern evolutionary biology. If there is hope for ID as a serious intellectual movement, it lies in the deep cosmic concepts that unite the work of Simon Conway Morris and Michael Denton. But as long as ID propagandists believe that Denton has wrecked evolutionary explanation, they will purvey ignorance and confusion, and prolong the degeneration that gives us Casey Luskin and the disastrously bad Edge of Evolution.


1. As the articulation of a certain metaphysical view of the cosmos, Nature's Destiny works fairly well. As a defense of that view, it is wholly unconvincing, and I suspect that Michael Denton would understand my criticism. Nature's Destiny explores the notion of fine tuning and deep direction at every level of organization; it is not primarily a book about biological evolution. It begins with a standard retelling of the physics fine tuning story, then turns to some special examples of proposed fine tuning in chemistry. These chapters are fun to read, and contain very nice historical and scientific summaries on topics such as the properties of water, carbon and other elements, and gases. But even in these better chapters, and frequently in later chapters, careful readers will detect numerous instances of special pleading, and scores of arguments that go like this:
X is a really good thing for life. It is likely that X must be this way to enable biological function.
Or like this:
X is a really good thing for life. It seems there is no other way to do it, but somehow the cosmos found that way.
The key word is "seems." That word occurs over and over and over again, as do "likely" and "appears" and "perhaps" and "it may be," and in one sense it is a credit to Denton that he is careful not to overstate his case. (His admirers often lack this wisdom.) For this reason, it felt somewhat strange to read the book after seeing Timaeus' chest-beating.

The main impression I got from Nature's Destiny was this: Michael Denton is a Platonist who has a strong preference for typology and for teleological conceptions of the universe. To him, the universe seems to exist just for humans. And so everything he looks at is made to conform to this view. Now, this isn't meant to be an insult or a particularly damning criticism. I have some preferences and predilections of my own (I am decidedly not a Platonist, for example), and I would be a fool to claim that my views are unaffected by these precommitments. My point is that those of us who don't share Denton's somewhat odd viewpoint are able to see just how often his arguments and his choices are strongly affected by the momentum of his cause. To Denton, a lot of things "seem" to be extraordinary. Everything, to Denton, appears to be supremely and perfectly optimized, to the point that he must look for perfection (more accurately, fitness) in every aspect of biology and biochemistry. To me and to others, life just doesn't look like this at all.

And so I see much of Nature's Density as weird and extreme, containing speculations that range from reasonable to utterly off-the-wall, forced by a view of cosmic perfection that I don't embrace for various reasons. In chapter 13, "The Principle of Plenitude," the argument reaches a crescendo when Denton embraces the pre-Darwinian notion that all – or nearly all – possible life forms have been actualized on Earth. Phrases like "seems likely" and "difficult to see" appear multiple times on each page. The equivocation does not, to me, mask the odor of special pleading, which is strongest in the sections on biological evolution.

2. When critiquing "Darwinian" evolutionary mechanisms, Nature's Destiny offers nothing more than standard arguments from ignorance. Again, Nature's Destiny is not the demolition of Darwinism of Timaeus' caricature, but it does occasionally touch on the plausibility of Darwinian explanation. Denton offers nothing new or creative here, simply repeating arguments of the "it is difficult to see how" type. His descriptions of "spectacular adaptations" are enjoyable, but the argument is tiresome and weak. It should be unnecessary to make this point: one does not demolish – or even damage – evolutionary explanations by confessing one's personal incredulity.

This would be a good place to address another aspect of Timaeus' claim that Denton's work in Nature's Destiny "rips the Darwinian mechanism to shreds, armed with thousands of references to the latest knowledge in biochemistry, genetics, embryology, physiology, comparative anatomy, etc." The book contains about 600 notes, at least 1/4 of which are ibids. A few notes refer to more than one reference, but scores are to historical sources such as Darwin, Cuvier and Henderson, all of which are cited repeatedly. And more than half of the book is on fine-tuning topics (water, carbon, etc.) that didn't make Timaeus' list and don't concern the "Darwinian mechanism" as he obviously implies. To call Timaeus' statement an exaggeration is to be generous. The truth is that Denton makes relatively little reference to current science, and when he does he creates a mixture of interesting scientific commentary and shameless cherry-picking.

3. Like Behe, Denton peppers his descriptions of nature with effusive metaphors and confessions of wonder and awe. Cherry-picking and inaccuracies aside, these narratives are entertaining, educational and even inspiring. But they cannot take the place of the argument that needs to be made, namely the argument that adaptations, however spectacular or wonderful, are inexplicable outside of the preferred metaphysical framework. Denton overplays his hand in places, creating the impression that he is willing to substitute "shock and awe" for careful argument. Of course biology is cool. Of course it inspires awe. Not even Richard Dawkins would disagree with that.

So in summary, I found the book to be a bemusing and mostly unsuccessful attempt to defend a view of the cosmos built completely on commitments to typology, teleology, and law-based design. Unlike Behe's Edge of Evolution, the book lacks the sinister implication of deliberate duplicity, and contrary to certain propagandistic pronouncements, it neither attempts nor achieves a damaging critique of evolutionary theory. I recommend that Nature's Destiny be read as a metaphysical treatise, written with a distinctly apologetic angle, and that readers understand that it is characterized by special pleading. And I recommend that anyone who reads it follow up by reading Life's Solution by Simon Conway Morris. Both the overlap and the contrast are striking.