Human Extension vs. the Discovery Institute’s Theory of Intelligent Design (DI-IDM-ID)

When it is said that Human Extension is an example of ‘neo-intelligent design’ (neo-id*) and an alternative to human evolution in social sciences, several clarifications seem needed in order to ease the reader’s conscience with respect to ideology.

First, Human Extension did not originate within the ‘intelligent design’ (or ‘Intelligent Design’) paradigm promoted by the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington, USA. The Discovery Institute (DI) is the central institute supporting the development of ID theory and thus by definition (meaning DI-ID, IDM-ID or DI-IDM-ID) it is opposed by a neo-ID approach. I disagree with the main focus of DI-IDM-ID. The ‘neo’ feature of Human Extension denotes that it actually studies the ‘designer(s)’ rather than requiring that the designer(s) is not and cannot be part of ID theory, which is a central presupposition of DI-IDM-ID. Neo-id is a position that accepts that designers and design processes can be studied; Human Extension is an example of this.

Second, Human Extension is not part of the intelligent design movement (IDM). It did not in any way develop from contacts with the IDM or from ideas presented or shared therein. Likewise, it does not accept the notion that DI-IDM-ID is ‘purely scientific.’ Even though its home fields are biology and cosmology, it is false to pretend that it has nothing practical to do with philosophy and religion/theology. And it is unwise to be ‘agnostic’ about the hypothetical designer(s)/Designer(s).

Instead, Human Extension claims that ‘design’ is a particular human construct or achievement. People extend ‘designs;’ this is something that we think, imagine and/or do in our everyday lives. Human Extension is thus an idea that fits firmly, specifically and properly within the human-social sciences, instead of in natural-physical sciences like biology, botany or cosmology as DI-IDM-ID has thus far preferred.

Third, Human Extension does not reject evolutionary biology or the entire contribution of Charles Darwin on the topic of change-over-time in natural history. What it rejects is the exaggeration of biological theory into human-social sciences, where alternative terms are available and favoured. Human Extension is anti-evolutionism, rather than anti-evolution, while it also offers a positive and reflexive contribution to human-social sciences through the term ‘extension’ and the methodology of studying ‘tension’ in human life and actions.

Thus, when DI-IDM-ID links ‘biological information’ with ‘design,’ Human Extension claims that it is committing a category error by taking a concept from the human-social sciences and attempting to transfer it to natural-physical sciences. The majority of the natural-physical scientific community has identified this concept-transferral attempt as a failure. Human Extension recognises and personifies this error by instead requiring ‘design’ to focus on its proper realms, which are those of human choice, creativity and action.

Human Extension asks several questions that DI-IDM-ID currently has no answer for: What does ‘irreducible complexity’ extend from? What do ‘molecular machines’ extend from, i.e. when, where and how did they transition from being ‘non-machines’ into being ‘machines’? What does ‘information’ extend from, i.e. what is the agency that turned non-information or pre-information into ‘information’? By focussing on the ‘it just is’ (ontological) or ‘it walks like a duck’ (essentialist) argument for ‘design,’ DI-IDM-ID theory has thus far provided no satisfactory answers that could be applied to these questions.

If we ask, ‘what does the IDM extend from?’ however, there are multiple explanations and theories offered (e.g. the DVD called “The Mystery of Life’s Origins”). The IDM extends from a small group of scholars, scientists and activists who became disenchanted with the ‘creationist’ approach to evolutionary theory and evolutionism. They didn’t want to be called ‘creationists,’ but similar to creationists, they were strongly ‘evangelical’ in their attempt to link religion with science. Likewise, this was a group of people who chose (i.e. extended themselves) to build a movement of followers who were, like them, opposed to ‘naturalism’ and ‘materialism’ and who sought a ‘renewal of science and culture,’ which ended up, through targeted funding projects, being based in the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington, U.S.A. This brief summary of IDM history shows how Human Extension offers interpretive tools that can help people to understand and investigate the human-made world around them.

Turning back to an alternative way to look at ‘intelligent design,’ on the one hand Human Extension is based on ideas about ‘extension’ that have been put forward in multiple fields of knowledge, including mathematics, physics, psychology, geography, anthropology, media and communications, economics, sociology, philosophy and theology. On the other hand, as DI-IDM-ID leader William Dembski contends, “intelligent design’s main focus is biology.” (2004: 303) Thus, we can see a significant difference between the inter-disciplinary possibilities for Human Extension compared to the narrow natural sciences focus of ‘intelligent design.’

According to the blog Uncommon Descent, “The theory of intelligent design (ID) holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process such as natural selection.” Human extension agrees with this when and if the focus is on human-made things. But the biggest problem with DI-IDM-ID is that the IDM is mainly not interested in studying human-made things, and thus a gap is formed between the two approaches. DI-IDM-ID focuses on ‘nature-only,’ while Human Extension focuses on human choices, values, feelings, plans, ethics, emotions, actions, dreams, etc. Human Extension thus contends that DI-IDM-ID (as of 2012) is extremely impoverished on these topics. Of course, the DI-IDM-ID response is that their theory is meant to address different topics that it deems important.

What the IDM has mainly been interested in is origins of life studies and the origins biological information, which they claim both could not have occurred materialistically. Likewise it has displayed great appetite for discussions about Adam and Eve, the human beings who are believed by the Abrahamic faiths to have been the progenitors (whether biologically, culturally or spiritually) of all living persons. What ‘extension’ brings to the table is a series of questions, like those above, which inquire how pre-humans could turn into humans without ‘extension,’ whether natural-human or extra-human-divine or a combination of both. Is it possible to view the created world, including human beings, as God’s ‘extension,’ rather than or as well as being God’s ‘design?’ If people are not willing to view evolution (natural history) as God’s ‘creation’ (i.e. the ‘evolutionary creation’ position), then perhaps they will be more disposed to embrace the idea of ‘extension’ that integrates scientific, philosophical and theological realms in the same conceptualisation.

The ‘shoulders of giants’ that DI-IDM-ID seeks to stand on include the work of William Paley and his ‘natural theology’ as well as Alfred R. Wallace and his anti-Darwinism (Wallace was even called “effectively the founder of the modern intelligent-design movement”). Intelligent design also unarguably (cf. ‘cdesignproponentsists’) ‘stands on the shoulders of creationists,’ even if it is not a ‘creationist’ theory itself. The giants whose shoulders DI-IDM-ID does not stand upon, however, includes significant figures in the realm of human-social thought, systems theory, cybernetics, and design theory. These people are vacant on the public DI-IDM-ID radar.

As design theorist Horst Rittel once wrote: “Everybody designs sometimes; nobody designs always. Design is not the monopoly of those who call themselves ‘designers.’ From a downtown development scheme to an electronic circuit; from a tax law to a marketing strategy; from a plan for one’s career to a shopping list for next Sunday’s dinner, all of these are products of the activity called design.” Why do ‘intelligent design theorists’ then not pay due diligence and attention to the ‘design theory’ put forward by others, such as Morris Asimow, Kenneth Starr, Bela Banathy and most recently, Duke professor of engineering, Adrian Bejan?

‘Design in nature’ may be a reality (ontologically), but it may also (epistemologically) be a simple outworking of the fact that most IDers are predisposed to believing the world is full of meaning and purpose because they accept Abrahamic faith(s). IDers do not know anything ‘scientific’ about the supposed ‘designer/Designer’ who/that is believed to be responsible for the origin(s) biological information. They do not know when, where or how the supposed ‘designing’ took place. They merely claim that ‘design’ did take place and let analogy with human design act as a substitute for a rigorous natural scientific answer. The weakness of analogy between human and non-human design by DI-IDM-ID should thus be seen as wishful thinking more than as a legitimate scientific theory.

DI-IDM-ID depends heavily on a causal analogy with human designers, cf. mouse traps, Easter Island, Mt. Rushmore, flower arrangement in the name ‘Welcome to Victoria,’ etc. IDers thus expect people to make a leap of faith right along with them from common-sense-design to natural-physical scientific ‘design,’ from embodied mind to unembodied ‘designer(s)’ of biology. Yet they give no credit to and demonstrate no knowledge of the history of ‘design’ thought that trumps a theoretical transfer from human-social sciences to natural-physical and applied sciences.

Most importantly perhaps, DI-IDM-ID is a classic example of how science done by committee lacks something compared with science done by an individual who has a unique insight or makes a single discovery[1]. With a combination of opinions from various fields, such as philosophy, biology, chemistry, origins of life studies, information theory, engineering, government, public relations and theology, it is unsurprising that DI-IDM-ID has become some of a mash or ‘big tent’ (which IDers take as a compliment) of often contradictory viewpoints. The main thrust of the IDM is its rejection of naturalism and materialism, which explains its simple appeal mainly to conservative Protestant Christians. Persons of other faiths, political persuasions or higher educational levels are mainly outside of DI-IDM-ID recruitment strategies.

In so far as they both take very narrow views of wider topics and questions, the new atheists and DI-IDM-IDers are tailor-made for each other. DI-IDM-IDers and ‘new atheists’ both perpetuate a ‘primitive’ philosophy of science, which is characteristic of the ‘western, analytic’ tradition. The best philosophers of science, however, have come from the continental ‘East,’ represented by three of the top-four figures in the tradition: Karl Popper, Paul Feyerabend, and Imre Lakatos. If one includes major figures such as Karl F. Kessler and Piotr Kropotkin, Vladimir Vernadsky, Alexander Bogdanov, Boris Hessen, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Ilya Prigogine, and others, it is clear that the ‘western’ dominance over PoS is flimsy at best. [It is a bit like Canadians not wishing to remember that in the 1974 Summit Series, the CCCP dominated, with a record of 4-1-3, after falling to Canada by a single game/goal in the 1972 Friendship Series (La Série du Siècle).] The recently deceased Lynn Margulis recognised the monumental contribution of Kozo-Polyansky and that ‘westerners’ still were stuck in a paradigm of thought that did now allow them to take a more holistic view.

If one wants to fault sociology of science by saying that it is inevitably beholden to national boundaries, then that is another topic of conversation. But it still does not take away from the significant contributions to human knowledge that have been made by studying the social environments in which ‘science’ is done.

Extension (directed choice and action) is a ‘law’ of human nature. But since DI-IDM-ID is not outwardly interested in human nature, but rather in biological information and origins of life, it cannot be taken seriously as a possible key to understanding people and the lifeworld we now live in.

Everybody designs and everybody extends. The big question is what do they design, how do they extend, to where and for how long? That is a topic for another paper.

* – Thanks to ‘Timaeus’ at Uncommon Dissent for his suggestion that I use ‘id’ in small letters, i.e. not capitalised ‘ID,’ in order to clearly distinguish it from DI-IDM-ID. 

 Bibliography

Rittel, Horst, W. J. “The Reasoning of Designers.” Arbeitspapier zum International Congress on Planning and Design Theory in Boston, August 1987. Schriftenreihe des Instituts fuer Grundlagen der Planung, Universitaet Stuttgart, 1988.


[1] “Full well do I know that in order to attain any definite goal it is imperative that one person should do the thinking and commanding and carry most of the responsibility. But those who are led should not be driven, and they should be allowed to choose their leader.” – Albert Einstein

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