Book Review: Undeniable, by Doug Axe

When a new book comes out in the intelligent design debate, on either side, my first reaction is always to ask “What is new here?” So much has been written that one only rarely hears new ideas. Doug Axe’s new book, Undeniable, covers much of the territory presented in other books, but brings personal insights from his experience of fifteen years as a significant player in the debate. His concern is not primarily new scientific evidence, but the narrative of how our society has approached the debate. As part of this, he tells some of the history of what happened, and who said what, when he was removed from his research position at Cambridge University for questioning the prevailing orthodoxy.

The great concern of Axe in this book is something familiar to most members of the CSS. The intelligent design debate involves details of microbiology understood in depth only by a small number of experts. Even scientists in other fields, and academics outside the sciences, struggle to understand many of the details. Thus most people rely on experts who give simplified stories. But there is a fine line between simplification and oversimplification. Even without outright lying, experts can slant the stories based on their biases, and no one is without bias. How then is the nonexpert to judge between the different viewpoints of experts?

Axe’s main premise is that everyone has the ability to evaluate basic evidential arguments, an ability he calls “common science”. This is my experience as well: real science has far more in common with cooking and fixing cars than most people think. An expert need not give all the details, but a credible story should make sense according to our common science sense. Axe goes to great lengths to present the case for intelligent design in this way, teaching basic concepts of probability and protein biology. Those discussions will make this book valuable for those who don’t have not studied the issues and want to get up to speed.

One topic which Axe glosses over, in this approach, is the longstanding debate about the difference between extreme improbability and impossibility. In our common understanding, we equate these. Truncating probabilities this way drives philosphers crazy: they are like the character in the movie Dumb and Dumber, who, when told that the odds of dating a girl were one in a million, replied “So what you are saying is, I’ve still got a chance.” I’ve written on this topic, and Bill Dembski addressed it at length in No Free Lunch. Normal, or common science, does indeed drop extreme improbabilities as impossible.

Two insights of Axe’s stood out to me. First, he argues persuasively that living systems are coherent wholes, in which every part depends on every other part. Thus, for example, a computer chip with one failed part does not work, but all the other parts still work: a transistor would still be a working transistor in a chip with a failed capacitor. But in a living system, many things don’t exist at all if other parts are removed or broken. Life is full of “chicken-and-egg” problems precisely because so much is working as a coherent whole.

Second, Axe points out that many of the “just-so” stories told by Darwinian evolutionists make a sort of sense to us because we are used to designed systems working well. A well-designed system acts in a way that seems effortless and natural, so that we forget how many parts have to work in concert together for this to happen. Olympic gymnasts, professional orchestras, and Ferraris seem to glide easily from one thing to the next. When we are told that an eye evolved by a light-sensitive spot just “appearing,” we can take that in stride without question, because living systems often have things appear, seemingly effortlessly. But systems controlled by accident and chance don’t work that way, and even non-optimally designed systems such as student orchestras don’t work that way. A deep study of biological systems shows that when new things appear, a huge number of delicate machines and subtly coded instructions were involved.

Axe is not afraid to have God-talk in his book, invoking God as the explanation for design numerous times. I find this refreshing, but I am still confused about what the Discovery Institute wants to say about God. In a recent review, Stephen Meyer said, “Indeed, ID emphatically isn’t an ‘apologetic’ strategy. It is a scientific theory of origins, which may be right or wrong, yet must be judged as science and only as science.” I think that what Meyer means is that ID relies heavily on scientific argument to say that the universe and living things look like the work of a Designer, but that it is the domain of metaphysics and religion to say anything about that Designer. I just don’t see the need for that high wall of demarcation between science and religion. Although the ID argument doesn’t take us all the way to the Christian God of the Bible, it is an apologetic argument for a grand designer of some sort. As I have written previously, some would like a high wall of demarcation so that nothing in science can ever argue against the existence of God, but by building that wall they seal off religion into an irrelevant domain. Science can tell us some things about God, and the Bible encourages us to think that way, pointing to the creation as testifying about him. That opens up the risk that science can be used to argue against the existence of God, but we live a more robust scientific life if we don’t protect ourselves with artificial walls. Doug Axe seems to have embraced the unified approach, and argues from our common intuition to the existence of God who designs things beautifully.