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Suffer the Little Children

By (August 1, 2016) 14 Comments

Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life is DesignedAxeUndeniable
By Douglas Axe
HarperCollins, 2016

Two main contentions run throughout the new book by Douglas Axe, Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life is Designed: first, that “clever things are to be had only by cleverness,” and second, that we’ve all known this, deep down, since we were little children, known it with a “universal design intuition” that allows all of us to discern by gut reaction whether or not something we encounter was intentionally designed or just happened by random chance. According to Axe, you only have to look at humans and the world around them to know – not to deduce but to know – that the wonders of creation aren’t the product of blind happenstance.

Axe received a degree in chemical engineering from the California Institute of Technology and has published papers in reputable scientific journals, but those days are over. He’s currently the director of the Biologic Institute, a faux-science front shop for the Discovery Institute, a Creationist propaganda mill located in Seattle, where he’s published pieces (sans peer review, of course) in the Biologic Institute’s in-house journal, BIO-Complexity. All of which might constitute an extended sham, but it’s at least a vaguely scientific sham; Axe’s background in legitimate science, however distant, has been a boon to the credibility of the Discovery Institute’s roster of charlatans and fourth-rate punters. So at first glance it seems odd that he would write a book so fundamentally anti-science as Undeniable.

The book not only contains precious little science but repeatedly undercuts the very idea of the kind of scientific expertise that gets Axe himself so much mileage among the credulous. Throughout Undeniable, he invokes something he links to common sense by calling it “common science,” assuring his readers that “when it comes to defending the big question of our origin, everyone is scientifically qualified.” We’re all scientists, he argues, because from our earliest childhood we instinctively learn how to think scientifically about the world around us. So if our “universal design intuition” tells us that the complex things we see in the world sure look like they’re designed, they probably were designed, and the designer is God – Undeniable never uses any other term for the concept: Axe seems genuinely unaware of the fact that most of the hundreds of thousands of mythologies in human history have been polytheistic. If you were to grant him his “universal design intuition” but ascribe the credit to Marduk and Nabu, he’d be the first to object.

In other words, his “universal design intuition” is, unsurprisingly, is not just a religious proposition but a priestly one: not just a God, already something neither Axe nor anybody else can possibly know in any scientific sense of the word “know” but one specific God, out of the uncountable multitudes that have bedeviled human history. A creation1specific God whose handiwork is discernible and whose ways are knowable, at least to a select few.

It’s with this God in mind that he asks one of the central questions of his book: “To what or to whom do we owe our existence?” He rejects completely the viewpoint of pure materialism, which states the patently obvious: the only things that exist are real things, and all real things can be analyzed and measured. Axe makes the standard Creationist reduction of materialism, characterizing it as both a “degrading participation in the systematic devaluation of human life” and also as arid and incapable of awe:

Yes, orcas are the product of blind material forces that had no ability to conceive them, and yes, they take our breath away whenever we watch them. Never mind how these two affirmations fit together. Just pretend they do. Life is meaningless. Isn’t it beautiful?

It’s a neat distillation of the enormous egotism that drives most of Creationism: that the universe must have a point, and that the point must be humanity, one recently-evolved species living on the surface of one planet in one solar system out of hundreds of billions of such systems in the universe. That beauty can’t exist without a meaning that flatters the vanity of that one species. The sheer scope of such egotism is always hard for nonbelievers to fathom, but as Axe points out in the later, more explicitly evangelical sections of his book, achieving that scope becomes much easier once you abandon reality:

If the galaxies out there were capable of grasping the meaning of the universe, their attention would be fixed on one little planet circling an ordinary star situated in a minor arm of an otherwise ordinary spiral galaxy. What is present on that one little planet makes this particular galaxy – the one named after milk – utterly extraordinary.

“No one should deny the importance of science,” he writes, “but neither should anyone deny the importance of the more fundamental realities that lend meaning to science.” And by “more fundamental realities” he means some variation of the Christian God (necessarily a variation, since Christians have maintained – and killed each other over – many thousands of different interpretations of that God over the millennia). “Heroes are badly needed,” he tells us, in the ongoing struggle to prevent this God from being swept aside by a flood of rationality, with young people “who innately know themselves to be the handiwork of a ‘God-like designer’” are “indoctrinated with the false message that they are instead cosmic accidents – the transient byproducts of natural selection.”

That innate knowledge is what passes for the intellectual backbone of Undeniable. Over and over, Axe contends that the “universal design intuition” is “a law, of sorts,” (since he couldn’t have graduated from a legitimate university without knowing what constitutes a scientific law, this statement joins the long creationism2list of simple outright lies to be found in these pages) a thing every child knows, a thing those innocent children must be indoctrinated to doubt. It’s only “intellectual intimidation” that ever makes these children abandon the “simple, unassailable common-sense argument” they were apparently born knowing, which is that life is so complex and amazing it must be the direct invention of an invisible, extra-dimensional super-being.

As anyone who’s ever been or known a child could attest, children innately believe all sorts of things that turn out to be wrong. Does the fact that this is true for all children make all those wrong things right? It’s the logical extension of Axe’s bogus “law,” but he’s curiously diffident about embracing it. All children are innately certain the sun and the moon are the same size, for instance, and they’re sure as Hell certain that the sun revolves around the Earth, not vice versa. If these too are “universal” intuitions, why not try to contort them into scientific “laws” as well? “If the obvious solution to all this is to acknowledge the reality of a personal God, why go to such strained lengths to withhold this acknowledgment?” Axe asks. “Having now dipped our toes in the intriguing waters of reconciling our inner and outer worlds, why not just dive in?

That “why not just dive in” is the muezzin-call sounding persistently in Undeniable: quit fighting, quit straining at at all this scientific mumbo-jumbo and just dive in. After all, as Axe repeatedly puts it, “Life is a mystery and a masterpiece, an overflowing abundance of perfect compositions” – why mess that up with unseemly – and, more to the point, insubordinate – questions?

All of which would be bearable if it were being read in a book of Christian religious inspiration where it belongs. But the danger here is that Axe attempts to disguise his pieties with distracting vestiges of science. He asserts that “the remarkable proteins we call enzymes can’t happen by accident … good enzymes come only from insight, and whatever the ingredients of primordial soup might be, insight isn’t one of them.” He repeats this nonsense about “the impossibility of accidental invention” so often you start to think he might actually believe it, even though he must know bogey-man terms like “random chance” or “by accident” for the Creationist buzz-words they are. The complex structures of life we see all around us today – including Axe’s “good” enzymes – are the product of billions of years of evolution, as Axe well knows. His “good” enzymes didn’t just pop into being by accident; they grew, in complicated combination with bad enzymes and Swiss-neutral enzymes. No “Darwinist” thinks all things simply appeared out of the blue, and yet that seems to be the only straw man Axe can be bothered to set up:

Talk has its proper place in science, but to those hoping to convince everyone that accidental invention is possible, I say – If you merely tell us that plants happen when light shines on random atoms or that nature created a world of proteins, the response will probably continue to be disappointing. Show us such magical things and you will have our rapt attention. Give us a demonstration that passes the hat test with flying colors. We will still be puzzled by your insistence that magic should be regarded as ordinary, but you will have our attention.

This is about as rich as the irony gets in Undeniable, this contention that “we will still be puzzled by your insistence that magic should be regarded as ordinary” being made literally on the same page as the contention that “physical forms of life are expressions of something deeper, something immovable, something perfect.” Axe darwinappears to see no problem with claiming he and his fellow Creationists will be bemused by the “Darwinist” invocation of magic as opposed to observable reality while simultaneously claiming “In the end, each new form of life amounts to a stunning new invention, and since the hallmark of invention is functional coherence – which accidental causes can’t explain – we rightly see each form as a distinct masterpiece.” In a way, it’s a stunning little performance of lying effrontery: the man whose entire argument is based on a magical being using “magic” as a term of mockery.

Part of the problem in this case might be simple scientific illiteracy – not exactly an uncommon thing at the Discovery Institute. Axe’s insistence that we should all worship instead of study – or worse, much worse, study as an expression of worship – might have been instantly recognizable to St. Ignatius Loyola, but unfortunately, so too would much of the “science” he paraphrases in Undeniable. Ghastly, mud-ignorant passages like this one are common in the book:

By my casual observation, most nonscientists – and some scientists as well – think the blueprint from which every living organism was formed is written on that individual’s genome in the language of genes. Accordingly, geese honk because they have the honk gene, and hyperactive dogs yap because they have the hyperactive-dog gene. Likewise, by this popular view people who can sing or whistle received these abilities by receiving the corresponding genes.

The whistling-gene … written by a man with a degree after his name … in 2016 …

And the woolly old mind/brain debating gambit is raised to what Axe is no doubt sure is devastating effect. In a footnote he concludes that “mind can’t have a material basis” and goes on: “Minds … are neither material things nor thoughts; rather, minds are immaterial entities that have thoughts.” No matter that nobody has ever seen evidence of a mind existing without a brain; no sense that Axe is willing to face what would happen to the immaterial entity that is his mind if his physical body were pushed off the edge of the Grand Canyon (the hypothetical will have occurred to every rational reader of this book – another universal intuition?). No, all that matters in this case as in all other cases – the only thing working scientists with specialized degrees and laboratories and research grants should be caring about – is what little children think before they’re “indoctrinated”:

In the end, it seems the children are right again. The inside world is every bit as real as the outside one. Consciousness and free will are not illusions but foundational aspects of reality, categorically distinct from the stuff of the outside world. Following the children, if we allow ourselves to see the outside world as an expression of God’s creative thought, everything begins to make sense.

And when Axe writes “everything,” he means exactly that. He isn’t content with calling provable developments in the genetic and fossil record “magic,” and he isn’t content with so openly equating the term “mind” with the Christian soul; he hopes to go further, by giving his readers “a glimpse of how exciting the transformation of biology would be if a true understanding of its place within the big picture were to take hold.” And if biology can be transformed that way, “why not other pursuits as well”? Once we’ve all simply given in and started listening to the intuition of children (Christian children, recall; the intuition of Hindu children regarding Vishnu are to be discarded out of hand – and heck, just to be extra sure, why not discard the Hindu children themselves out of hand as well? Helps to clean up the “big picture”), surely we can start transforming fields like architecture and literature as well? To extoll what Axe refers to as “God’s presence and the deep connection we have with him through personhood”?

Natural selection, Undeniable declares, couldn’t possibly account for the staggering variety and complexity of life on Earth. “Selection steps to forms that already exist, so it doesn’t explain the forms themselves, much less the intricately engineered circumstances that would have been needed for these forms to be connected through lines of descent,” Axe writes. “And the problem never goes away.” This too might be simple stupidity on the author’s part about the fundamentals of a discipline he abandoned a long time ago – evolution isn’t possible because you’d need to have the end result immediately? Do even little children think such bunk? – but thanks to dangerous clots of cant like Undeniable, the last part is unfortunately true: the problem never goes away.

Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston. His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and The Christian Science Monitor. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.


  • JIM says:

    I notice you completely ignore the math in the book and the fact that the core of Dr. Axe’s case is based on peer reviewed research. I know…math is hard. But is inescapable. Has the earth existed long enough for a new functional protein to evolve? That comes down to hard numbers, and they don’t add up for Darwin. Axe’s critique’s of neo-Darwinism line up with a growing number of scientists who are not Intelligent Design theorists. E.g., the Third Way scientists from all over the world.

  • A. A. Lewis says:

    A truly euphoric review. Excellent and totally relevant use of the crocoduck photo!

  • Open Letters Monthly says:

    There is no ‘growing number’ of scientists who are coming to prefer magic as an explanation for anything. The whole rhetorical trick of invoking a ‘growing movement’ is designed by the charlatans at the Discovery Institute to get biddable morons to jump on what they perceive to be a bandwagon. And the reason I didn’t delve into “Dr.” Axe’s biochemical math has nothing to do with math being hard; pretty much anybody would try to avoid technical minutiae in a book review. But needless to say, even these minutiae make him look foolish. First, nothing in any of his peer-reviewed work suggests or even hints at the explanation for “good” enzymes being magic. And second, as I hinted at the end of my review, his understanding of the ways proteins evolve is willfully obtuse. Deceitful, in simpler terms. He KNOWS the process of enzymatic evolution is much more complex than the idiotic play-acting he’s doing in the Discovery Institute’s kangaroo “science” labs, but he has a clerical agenda to validate, so the math in his book stays as shoddy as he can make it.

    • Brett says:

      You’ve said that Axe’s understanding of the ways proteins evolve is “willfully obtuse. Deceitful in simpler terms.” Why? What specifically is he getting wrong?

      • Rizwan Sharnez says:

        Good question. According to Axe’s calculations in the book, of the possible genes encoding protein chains, only about one in 10e56 (10 to the power 56) genes is expected to encode an amino acid chain that folds well enough to perform a biological function. The calculation is based on a protein with 153 amino acids, which is a conservative estimate, considering the molecular weight of a typical protein molecule. Based on this calculation, the probability of forming a functional protein is infinitesimal. What does that tell us about the probability of forming infinitely more complex biological systems such as elephants, bumble bees and human beings? To me the probability of that happening only by chance is inconceivable; for all practical purposes, it seems to be outside the realm of what is possible. Hence the conclusion that there must be something more than just chance that guided our formation from dust seems reasonable to me. Perhaps the “Laws of the Universe” have a form of “intelligence” that is way beyond the grasp of our very limited understanding.

  • Charles says:

    I would like to thumbs up this review — and the comment the author wrote to the “hard math” criticism. Steve is not a temperamental/attitudinal writer or commenter in the least! Praiseworthy, indeed!

  • Alex H says:

    What a disappointing review. Comes across as one long, ideological rant fest. Why don’t you try to refute his points with evidence instead of merely dismissing them off-handedly using a creative range of logical fallacies. Your points lack so much substance that addressing them is unnecessary. I hope this review isn’t published elsewhere as it would only be an example of the continuing debasement of discourse in the intelligent design / evolution debate.

    • Alex S says:

      It’s amusing that are asking the reviewer to refute points with evidence, whereas none of the points Axe attempts to make are backed up with any evidence. And then you address none of the reviewer’s points because that is ‘unnecessary’. How convenient.
      There is no debate outside the minds of creationists, so there is nothing to debase. Everyone who understands how real science works see these attempts to save creationism with pseudo-science as a joke.

      • Gage says:

        “how real science works”? Beyond “the Earth and life are very old”, “life has changed over time” and “we know that mutations happen”, there is no scientific proof for the development of the complexity we see around us, and much less for the origin of life. Yes, I know that we are supposed to believe that many minor variations allow natural selection to continually improve a species until, over time, remarkable structures and abilities result. We have all been force-fed that concept for much of our life. But where is the evidence that blind process actually function even remotely that well? You can’t just say, “Well, we are here aren’t we?” because that simply begs the question. Doug Axe has done what few have, which is to experimentally question that big assumption, and his findings are described in the early part of the book. So cling to your worldview if you wish, but please try making arguments without the insults. I can tell you that many who disagree with you and with the author of this article know the science better than you or he does.

        • BRNNR says:

          One needn’t even be as specific as the redoubtable Mr. Donoghue is, in his review, as he wastes time responding to the goofiness of Axe’s yammering. One could be as general, as basic as possible, when countering any such treatise.

          To wit: Even if there were no scientific evidence for anything, ever, it still would not follow that If We Can’t Figure Something Out Completely, Then The Answer Is God.

          The answer is especially not one particular god out of the umpteen hundreds available for convenient browsing at your local Deity Depot, each of which commands believers as goofy as Axe & each of which will tell you that it is, of course, the one TRUE god.

          I understand that some people think that, though.

          And I understand that some people who think that are also not compete idiots.

          But that particular portion of their many & perhaps otherwise intelligent thoughts? Is idiocy.


  • Clark Griswold says:

    I suppose you weren’t attempting to avoid an appearance of a polemic, ad hominem review. Pity. I would be open to an actual, scientific critical review of Axe’s work, absent the ranting. So hard to find one, though.

    I find it odd that proponents of Darwinian evolution go on the attack in this way, with misdirection, strawman, and ad hominem. I guess it’s because ID, whatever it may or may not lack in terms of validating a positive assertion, nonetheless seems to attack with remarkable effectiveness the core assertion of Darwinism, as stated by Richard Dawkins. This assertion describes biology as the study of things that, despite their appearance of having been designed, are nonetheless rather the product of natural selection acting on unguided mutation. It does seem as though one of these explanations is likely true and the other false.

    As far as I can tell (and I have no religious axe to grind here–no pun intended) Axe delivers a stunning rebuttal, based on biology and mathematics, as well as reasonably sound philosophy. Pity so many seem unable to respond in kind.

    • Rizwan Sharnez says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree, I was not looking for a one-sided, vitriolic attack on Axe’s honest lifework. As you said, an “actual, scientific critical review of his work, absent the ranting” would be very welcome! If anyone comes across such a review, please send it my way (rsharnez@amgen.com).

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