Intelligent System Design

In retrospect I studied zoology at a time when one of biology’s disciplines was on the cusp of change. In the sixth form we looked at ecology as a branch of biology (a rather boring one compared to all those interesting animals, I thought at the time). By the time I was doing medicine at Cambridge it had become a branch of sociology, to do with how “the ecology” gets polluted by us. By and large, the latter approach has predominated in the public eye, with most of us being more concerned about global warming messing things up than by how they work in the first place.

There’s a good series on BBC 4 at the moment, called Nature’s Microworlds, in which particular ecosystems are examined in detail, revealing their wonder, rather than concentrating on individual animal stories. For some of us, the lack of mood music and grieving elephants is refreshing.

In the first one I saw, for example, a mountain habitat was shown in which in one way or another, most processes tended to wash biomass and nutrients downstream. The key feature in replenishing them, it seems, is the migration of vast numbers of salmon, whose spawning and death keep the whole system in a state of plenty and equilibrium. How often has one seen films showing the salmon story as wasteful and vaguely tragic (that pitiless evolution again)? Why would God create a fish where so many millions of eggs are wasted and exhausted adults die en masse? Part of the answer, it turns out, is that he’s a systems thinker.

Last night’s film  was about Yellowstone Park, where some years ago wolves were reintroduced, after being hunted out to protect livestock seventy years before. The idea, clearly, was simply to restore the original wild nature to a National Park. The unexpected effect was that river flow quickly improved in the park, numbers of small mammals and birds increased, the decline of a rare antelope was reversed, grizzly bears prospered and several other beneficial effects.

The immediate cause turned out to be that beaver activity had increased, and though the coincidence in time seemed significant, it wasn’t obvious why introducing wolves would benefit beavers. By tracing “false leads” in this story, the film managed a good overview of the key parts of the ecosystem, and the subtle influence the wolves had had on it.

One key point, for example, was that wolves both hunted and competed with coyotes, taking pressure off the small mmamals the latter favour. Additionally, coyotes can take out the young of rare pronghorn antelope, which were in decline. Wolves, however, can’t usually catch the adult antelope, and ignore the young as too small to feed a pack.

The “answer” to the beaver story was that in the absence of top predators elk have increased and over-browsed the riverside vegetation. Wolves can take elk as prey, with the effect that the latter have resumed their former wariness and peripatetic behaviour. Result: more trees, more beavers, more dams, better river flow, better habitats, more abundance. What a wonderful world we live in! They’re reintroducing beavers in a few places here in the UK, amidst controversy. Maybe it will ameliorate some of the flooding we’ve been experiencing here in recent decades.

Two general lessons occur to me from learning these things. The first is that the standard Neo-Darwinian synthesis is a pretty poor explanation for the development of such finely tuned ecosystems. Most people studying evolution seem seldom to think in terms of ecology. There seems no intrinsic reason why an evolutionary process tuned to give short-term survival advantage to an individual species (or gene, if you’re a Dawkins fan!) should fortuitously produce the abundance of “endless forms most beautiful”, so closely co-dependent, that typify our world. It’s the same kind of problem as why the adaptations selected to allow Homo to survive on the East African plains should simultaneously enable quantum physics and Elgar’s Cello Concerto.

There is no reason why organisms should not regularly evolve an advantage that would devastate an ecosystem. After all, we have seen what crown of thorns starfish can do to a barrier reef. The whole sociological aspect of ecology is predicated on our ability to do irreversible damage accidentally. The Greeks deforested their country in the 2nd millennium BC to build ships, and it never recovered. It may be true that the Sahara’s desertification was, as now seems to be thought, the result of astronomical factors rather than human over-grazing, but there is no doubt that most of its extension in the last century has been due to human activity, as was the reduction of the American midwest to a dustbowl in the 1930s .

Systems do not just happen, or systems designers would simply employ people with disparate skills, assemble a few computers and a factory unit and let them get on with it. Systems analysis cannot be a reductionist science – so why should biology be assumed to be different?

My second point is regarding theistic evolutionists’ attitudes to the systems approach. BioLogos poster Beaglelady recently challenged me on how a loving God could have designed the poliovirus. She is not a scientist, but exactly the same challenge was made to me by Darrel Falk last year. Neither believes Satan created viruses – the assumption seems to be the unforeseen or sadly inevitable side effects of “free” evolution result in a flawed creation. Many TEs will put the red-in-tooth-and-claw, built-on-bodies appearance of nature down to the same thing: if God is responsible, it is only indirectly and raises all kinds of problems of theodicy.

But as soon as one takes an ecological systems approach, one begins to see that this God-is-not-responsible attitude must apply to the whole of nature if at all. The fecundity of our world, as Nature’s Microworlds shows, is the result of beautifully designed and balanced systems, of which carnivores and probably polioviruses too are an integral part. And if God did not create what makes a place like Yellowstone so awe-inspiring, then what exactly did he create?

This is a particularly acute issue as the biblical concept of creation, described in Genesis 1, is fundamentally orientated towards ecology in its scientific sense. God is not so much the Creator-of-things-and-stuff as the Creator-of-how-things-work-smoothly, as John Walton has shown exhaustively. The content of the first three days of creation are, in order; seasons, weather and fertility. The second three days are about the functionaries that inhabit those realms. God is, in biblical terms, a systems engineer. His sabbath rest is no more or less than his sovereign management of earth’s ecology for the benefit of its inhabitants – and it shows in any ecological system one cares to examine closely.

Given the scientific evidence for the fine-tuning of our ecology, it is a very grave theological move indeed to seek to minimise God’s role in creating and maintaining it.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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8 Responses to Intelligent System Design

  1. Gregory says:

    “a very grave theological move”

    Yes, labelling the thread “Intelligent System Design” qualifies as such.

    JonG. is almost-already an American ID Theory supporter. That much is clear.

    Is JonG. no longer a British Warfieldian TE?

    “Systems do not just happen.”

    That’s not very profound. In fact, it’s rather elementary. Probably you should read more books and articles by IDists to see very how shallow such a statement actually is.

    “Most people studying evolution seem seldom to think in terms of ecology.”

    You’re starting to sound like Roger Sawtelle.

    “Systems analysis cannot be a reductionist science – so why should biology be assumed to be different?”

    Because you’re British and so was Darwin. Name an Easterner, a holistic thinker on your horizon. Name your favorite systems theorist for that matter.

    “if God is responsible, it is only indirectly and raises all kinds of problems of theodicy.”

    Oh, don’t worry, since Stephen C. Meyer responded to Steve Fuller about theodicy at the conference you were at in Cambridge, IDists ‘the world over’ are holding their breaths waiting for the newest ID revelation about direct responsibility on the topic. Surely you are applauding them with your language, aren’t you?

    “the biblical concept of creation, described in Genesis 1, is fundamentally orientated towards ecology in its scientific sense.”

    Right. So now you’re a creationist-ecologist, with a fetish for scientism, is that correct? A classical TE who wants to be an IDist for evangelical purposes. The mirrors spin around and around with such threads as this one.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    I think your confusion is in thinking me to be a W-TE, whereas I’m clearly a w-TE, and that position certainly leaves room for the non-DI UK IsD I’m proposing here, which you seem to be confounding with DI US Big-ID. Maybe that’s not surprising, because there are bound to be some cultural similarities between US W-TE and US DI Big-ID, but I’m surprised you didn’t pick that up having made the cultural connection between my UK IsD and Darwin’s UK ToE.

    But let’s not kid ourselves Gregory, this is all about power, not ideas, isn’t it? It all takes me back to the course I did on Herbert Marcuse in social psychology. UK IsD is a minority position with, so far, no influential voice in society. And it won’t get one either, whilst society tolerates repressive attacks on it (aka hate-speech). Indeed, Marcuse’s ideas have been gaining ground, it seems now, to the extent that his ideals have become the oppressor, the discussion of ideas taking second place to the trumpeting of ideology. As Kołakowski put it, we are “to be ruled despotically by an enlightened group [who] have realized in themselves the unity of Logos and Eros, and thrown off the vexatious authority of logic, mathematics, and the empirical sciences.”

    That’s all I’ll have to say on the matter.

  3. Gregory says:

    No, it’s about ideas, not just power. Is that why you’ll have no more to say on the matter, with a social psych course 30+ years ago from Cambridge directing your interpretation?

    “I’m clearly a w-TE” – Jon G.

    You want to dehumanise Benjamin B. Warfield by de-capitalising his ‘w’?! That’s a joke, of course, that my Canadian sense of humour can laugh at.

    There seems to be just as much a dead-end in Anglo-American PoS as there is a standoff in the Anglican Church’s stance on women bishops.

    ‘UK IsD’ = Jon Garvey’s preferred ideology, right? Nobody else holds it, nobody else resonates with it. That said, you might then want to read a few of the many systems theorists (instead of just IDists!), some of whom do actually elevate ‘system’ into ‘System.’

    Nice reference to L. Kołakowski (even as politics play right into your crazy copycat uses of ‘design inference’ *as if* they did not originate in US Big-IDism, but in your own mind)! Does that mean he is not one of those “kooky Eastern Europeans” as you derogatorily referred to them elsewhere?

  4. Gregory says:

    Is there no conviction to stand behind the term “Intelligent system Design” or even ‘small-w’ warfieldian theistic evolution at this forum?

    Small town, village post-doctor British philosophy of science should be exposed for what it is if it doesn’t stand up for itself.

  5. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    No Gregory – it’s been completely defeated already by your first post. And being such a parochial ideology it’s really not worth the time and effort to refute.

    Best to wait until publication.

  6. pngarrison says:

    “Most people studying evolution seem seldom to think in terms of ecology.”

    Jon, as you can see I’m perusing some of your old columns from before the time that I became aware of your blog.

    I find the assertion quoted as puzzling as Roger S.’s repeated assertion of something similar. I just did a google search on “Department of Ecology and Evolution.” I quit counting the listed university departments at 35, but the list goes on and on. Every major university has one or something like it. The conjunction of these 2 areas is not some arbitrary connection. Everyone in biology knows that fitness is a function of the environment, and adaptation of species to environmental niches influences the environment itself. It’s not my area at all, but I would guess that the standard view would be that adaptation of each species and the complex interaction of all the species in an ecosystem can indeed account for the system. I recently read Dawkin’s The Greatest Show on Earth, and I would suggest the chapter called Arms Races and Evolutionary Theodicy to get at least one typical perspective.

  7. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Good of you to respond, though it makes the number of plates I’m balancing here currently more problematic than ever!

    I didn’t realise when I wrote this that Lou Jost is involved in evolutionary ecology. I suppose I should expect no part of biology to be free of an evolutionary branch.

    But it’s certainly not a popular aspect of ET, it seems to me, so I no doubt confused serious work with public knowledge of it. Like you I’m not au fait with what particular mechanisms the field recognises, but as you know I’m still suspicious of the ability of natural selection to carry the weight demanded of it in individual organisms, given the increasingly understood complexities.

    Junk DNA, after all, was originally a deduction from the theoretical limit placed on the number of variables natural selection could operate on. How much more problematic, given the countless subtle interactions in a complete ecosystem or the whole biosphere? But I’m certainly not sympathetic to Roger’s position, which seems dependent on a particular reading of Richard Dawkins and, indeed, of the Bible… neither of which I understand.

    Dawkins arms races, or the recent BioLogos example of purple camouflage, exemplify my doubts. Such simplistic examples make NS a no-brainer. But add in the 70% loss of tit nests regardless of fitness, the mimicry by insects of other species that are perfectly edible, neutral evolution, epigenetic adaptation to environment, etc and the piucture may well, it seems to me, get more complicated. Am I just stupid to have doubts?

    Have you seen, for example, this book, to which I was pointed by someone on here this week: .
    His Wikipedia entry shows the guy has very good credentials both in population genetics and molecular phylogenetics, but like Eugene Koonin he sees natural selection as a minor player, and mainly in a purifying role at that.

    That doesn’t make him right, of course – and I couldn’t understand his book even if I could afford it. But it does suggest that for all its intuitive plausibility, some seriously good people are far from convinced that natural selection does all it says on the tin in individual species. If that were so, how would it fare in ecosystems?

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