Interview: Gunter Bechly Paleontologist

Gunter Bechly is world-renowned and a leading expert in Paleontology working at the Biologic Institute. He is a self-proclaimed anti-darwinist, who has the credibility to be so!

Welcome, Dr. Bechly!

Günter, it's so great to chat with you and get to know you a little more. Some people may not know who you are, but they should because you're an outstanding paleontologist, better than Ross Geller! But really, you have studied dragonflies specifically, is that correct?

Who is Ross Geller? ;-) I have to admit I had to google him, because I never watched this TV series.

But, yes, I am a paleontologist specialized on the fossil history of insects, mainly from amber and from Mesozoic limestones. My favorite group is dragonflies, which belong to the oldest branch of winged insects and can be traced back to the lowermost Upper Carboniferous era about 320 million years ago. Thus, they are much more ancient than the dinosaurs.

Was that something you always thought you'd do and set out to accomplish, or did that develop over time?

That I want to become a scientist researching the wonders of nature was my goal from earliest childhood on. I was always fascinated and enthusiastic about nature and especially animals and fossils. My specific love for dragonflies developed during my university studies when I participated at a zoological expedition to tropical South America. Everybody had to choose a subject for this expedition, and I happened to choose to study and collect dragonflies and then developed a lifelong interest in these animals and their fossil history. Think about their fantastic colors, their efficient compound eyes with 30,000 facet lenses, their acrobatic helicopter-like flight, the interesting reproductive behavior with the unique mating-wheel formation, their aquatic larvae with prehensile mask, and their vast fossil record spanning hundreds of millions of years. I later pioneered the modern phylogenetic system and reclassification of dragonflies, and until this day most publications about fossil dragonflies are based on my classification system.

Those of who you do know who you are, know a few things. We know that you hold to Intelligent Design, which is a growing theory, I won't call it a scientific theory YET because we need to tackle that question for the skeptics here. And we know that you have been pushed out of not just a job curating a museum but also from Wikipedia? Is that true?

That’s correct. After my “coming out” as an intelligent design proponent in late 2015, I was pushed out of my position as curator for amber and fossil insects at the State Museum of Natural History in Stuttgart (Germany), which I had held successfully for 17 years. They could not fire me, but they made very clear that I was no longer welcome, and productive work was made impossible, so that I finally agreed to quit. A year later, my page at the English Wikipedia was deleted for dubious notability arguments, but of course really due to world view issues. A scientist like me, who has changed his mind about Darwinism based on evidence not religion, is not supposed to exist and must be made disappear from the public arena.

Let's stop on the Intelligent Design theory for one second, because many people at home probably have varying definitions of this term (even though they should have watched out explainer video on YouTube!) and they'd need some clarification: what is it? is it a scientific theory? can it be shown to be scientific?

Well, first, we have to distinguish between three different layers of meaning of the term “intelligent design theory”:

1. ID as empirical method: this refers to the design inference (e.g., using William Dembski’s explanatory filter) with an inference to the best explanation (abductive reasoning). If chance and necessity or a combination thereof can be excluded, then the cause must be intelligent design, also because we positively know that only intelligence can generate specified information beyond a certain threshold, which in our universe is about 500 bits due to its limited probabilistic resources (universal probability bound).

2. ID as a scientific research program: this is the scientific approach to use the established ID method to search for design signals in nature.

3. ID as explanatory hypothesis: this is the claim that some phenomena in nature indeed are best explained by an intelligent cause (or at least by a flow of information from outside the system) and not by undirected, blind processes.

Is this approach scientific? Of course: it is a purely empirical method to detect intelligent causation. The ID method is totally uncontroversial in fields like forensics, archaeology, synthetic biology, and SETI’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence. There is no reason at all to a priory exclude this ID method from cosmology and biology. Whether there is evidence for intelligent causation in these fields or not should be exclusively decided by the empirical data, and we should follow the evidence wherever it leads and not be biased by an ad hoc metaphysical commitment to exclude intelligent causes among the possible options.

Actually, even the staunchest Darwinists admit that intelligent design can be scientific as long as it does not bring God into the game. Richard Dawkins said in an interview with Ben Stein for the documentary movie Expelled, that he could well envision that intelligent design might one day detect intelligent causation in biology based on genetic engineering by aliens, who might have interfered within Earth’s history of life.

Also, atheist philosophers, like Thomas Nagel (2012 “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False”) and Bradley Monton (2009 “Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design”) admitted that intelligent design is a valid scientific approach. And more and more high profile intellectuals begin to see the limits of Darwinism, as the recent example of Yale-professor David Gelernter shows.

Actually, the question, how to distinguish science from non-science is a hotly debated issue and there is no consensus among philosophers of science about a general demarcation criterion. But of course, the really interesting question is not whether ID fulfills some arbitrary criterion but whether it is a better explanation for certain data.

Some atheists or skeptics object to Behe's Irreducible complexity because it doesn't fit within the confines of science and the method therein. How would you respond? And how does Paleontology help show the science behind this?

It’s a myth that irreducible complexity ideas not fit within science. Actually, the concept of irreducible complexity not based on an idea by intelligent design theorists, but goes way back to Charles Darwin (1859) himself, who formulated a possibility to scientifically falsify his hypothesis. He said: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down”. This is nothing but a formulation of the argument from irreducible complexity. It this is unscientific, then so was Darwin.

Paleontology does not so much help with the concept of irreducible complexity, but it provides conflicting evidence to the gradualist predictions of Darwin’s theory. These gradualist predictions are not optional but are at the core of this theory. It is not for nothing that Charles Darwin mentioned the Latin sentence “natura non facit saltus” (nature does not make jumps) six times in his magnum opus on the Origin of Species. As Richard Dawkins (2009) said in his famous book The Greatest Show on Earth: “Evolution not only is a gradual process as a matter of fact; it has to be gradual if it is to do any explanatory work”. The fact that gradualism is contradicted by the fossil record can no longer be explained away as a mere artefact of our insufficient knowledge about an incomplete fossil record. We meanwhile have good statistical tests to know if the gaps in the fossil record are data or artefacts. They are clearly data that require a proper explanation. It is not just the famous Cambrian Explosion (aka “Life’s Big Bang”) with its sudden appearance of the different animal body plans without precursors in the preceding layers, but many other such events: from the origin of life, the origin of photosynthesis, the Avalon Explosion of the Ediacaran biota, the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event (“Life’s Second Big Bang”), the Siluro-Devonian Terrestrial Revolution, the Devonian Nekton Revolution and Odontode Explosion, the Carboniferous Insect Explosion, the Early Triassic Marine Reptile Radiation and Tetrapod Radiations, the Upper Triassic Dinosaur Explosion, Darwin’s “abominable mystery” of the sudden origin of flowering plants, the Early Tertiary radiations of placental mammals and modern birds (“Big Bang of Bird Evolution), to the “Big Bang of the genus Homo” and the Upper Paleolithic Human Revolution. Discontinuity is the rule in the fossil record on all levels.

Is paleontology the key to proving or disproving Darwinism?

No, it is not the key, but an important element in a strong cumulative case against the feasibility of the Neo-Darwinian mechanism of random mutations and natural selection as main explanation for macro-evolutionary transitions.

When Darwinists claim that there is a lot of cumulative evidence for evolution, what they really mean is a lot of evidence for micro-evolution within modern species (e.g., the origin of drug resistance in germs), which is mostly based on devolution of existing information rather than evolution of new information. And there is indeed a lot of cumulative evidence that is best explained with common descent. However, what is conspicuously lacking is any good evidence that macroevolutionary transitions, with their abrupt appearances of new body plans and new complex structures, can be explained by a mere accumulation of microevolution. There is about zero evidence that a Neo-Darwinian process can explain macroevolution. And all the modern ideas for a so-called Extended Evolutionary Synthesis likewise fail to address the crucial problems of the origins of new information, new proteins, and new phenotypic complexity etc.

Many people might think that ID is a term just to replace Theistic Evolution - it's not, but does it contain theistic evolution concepts within it?

Not at all. Theistic Evolution is a theological approach that seeks to reconcile Christian doctrine with evolutionary biology. Theistic Evolutionists generally deny that evidence for design can be discovered scientifically and fully subscribe to Darwinian account or biological origins. They claim that God created through evolution. Intelligent design, on the other hand, has nothing to do with theology, but is a purely empirical scientific method to detect intelligent causation in nature. It is absolutely neutral concerning religious issues, but of course is compatible with a theistic interpretation. However, it is also compatible with naturalistic explanations like the Matrix hypothesis that we all live in a computer simulation, which is currently so fashionable among physicists and tech-people like Martin Rees, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Elon Musk. This is nothing but an atheist version of intelligent design and refutes the bogus claim that there is no evidence for design, or that it is unscientific or only religiously motivated.

What do you think are the most significant issues in Neo-Darwin's theory (even in the paleontology portion) today? We can name 3 to be safe on time.

The information problem, the search space problem, and the waiting time problem.

The information problem is the problem that we definitely know by our uniform experience that significant new information can only come about by intelligent causes. Books or computer programs do not write themselves, and random changes are generally detrimental to specified information. The amount of information required for the first replicator at the origin of life is much too large to be explained with an accident, unless you invoke an infinite multiverse like some desperate evolutionary biologists already do (e.g., Eugene Koonin). You also cannot invoke Darwinian explanations for this complex information, because Darwinism requires a replicator to work and therefore cannot explain its origin.

The search space problem is the problem of the origin of new proteins. The islands of protein function in the vast search space of all possible aminoacid sequence combinations are so rare and so widely separated in sequence space that they cannot be reached by a gradual random search process. My colleague Dr. Douglas Axe experimentally determined that only 1 in 1077 sequences result in a functional protein that could be selected for. That is about as likely as finding a single atom in the whole universe with a blind search.

The waiting time problem arises from the combination of paleontology and population genetics. Paleontology establishes certain windows of time for macroevolutionary transitions, e.g. 4.5 million years to get from a pig-like terrestrial ancestor to a fully marine dolphin-like whale. This requires a lot of morphological adaptations and reconstructions. Population genetic models show that the time for the required mutations to arise and spread in an ancestral population is orders of magnitude longer than the available time established by the fossil evidence. For example the waiting time for a single coordinated mutation in whales would be about 43 million years, and in humans 216 million years (but only 6-7 million years are available for the human lineage after the split from the chimp lineage). The Neo-Darwinian process simply cannot work in the available time frame, even though its millions of years.

So I'm a philosopher, the intelligent design theory offers some philosophical notions that can have a pretty significant ripple effect into other sciences. The central philosophical idea being a purpose, things are created with a purpose in mind. I'm currently drinking from a coffee mug; it was designed with a purpose. Would you agree or disagree that ID proponents hold to the basis that humans and intelligent life, a life that can create/think etc., was designed with a purpose in mind?

Again we have to distinguish between the three different meanings of intelligent design described above.

Intelligent design just offers a research program and methodology to study the different causes at work in nature, and an empirical argument in favor of an intelligent cause as explanation for certain phenomena. Intelligent design thus does not have to presuppose a purpose for humans at all, but can simply follow the evidence wherever it leads. This is why the often-heard critique that ID is just biblical creationism in a cheap tuxedo is not only wrong but also unfair: contrary to biblical creationism, which presupposes the truth of certain holy scriptures and only looks for confirmation bias in nature, intelligent design is an open-ended and result-oriented approach.

Is the Intelligent Design Theory more of a reformulation of the teleological argument in many cases? or is it the application of that argument?

No. The Teleological Argument is a deductive philosophical argument for the existence of God. Intelligent design, I cannot repeat it often enough, is just a method to distinguish between phenomena that can be explained by chance and necessity from phenomena than require an intelligent cause as best explanation. ID is not natural theology or apologetics. The fact that it can play a role in natural theology does not make it to a theological enterprise any more than Big Bang cosmology, which can likewise play a role in a Cosmological Argument by supporting the premise of a cosmic beginning in the finite past.

I very much appreciated Christian philosopher William Lane Craig’s answer to the question if science can prove God. He said no, but emphasized that science can provide evidence for the truth of premises in a deductive philosophical argument that has theistic implications. The same is true for ID and the Teleological Argument.

How does paleontology specifically bring a robust view to ID?

It does not bring a robust view to ID, but a brings a profound critique of its rival Neo-Darwinism. Actually, many critics of ID often claim that it is just a negative argument against Darwinism but not a positive argument for design. This is of course not true at all, because intelligent design is based on an inference to the best explanation based on what we do know about the causal structure of the universe, not on things we just cannot explain yet. This is why ID is definitely not a God-of-the-Gaps argument. However, even if ID arguments would only refute Neo-Darwinism, it would still be implicitly a positive argument for design, because it has excluded the only alternative. This has sometimes been considered to be a Sherlock Holmes fallacy, because it ignores other options. As you might remember, in some of the Sherlock Holmes novels, Holmes says to Dr. Watson that “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. This is only a logical fallacy if you have not excluded really all other alternatives as impossible. However, if you did, it is a perfectly valid argument. I am convinced that Darwinism is the only possible naturalistic alternative to intelligent design. It is the only idea ever forged by human ingenuity in 2500 years of western civilization to explain the origin of complexity from the bottom-up. It is not for nothing that atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett called it Darwin‘s Dangerous Idea and “a universal acid”, and arch-atheist Richard Dawkins admitted that only “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist”. If Darwin’s ingenious idea of random variation and natural selection can be shown to be not a feasible explanation for biological origins, then it is game over for naturalism. ID makes this bold claim and this is why it is met with so much resistance and even hatred in mainstream academia, which is nowadays totally committed to naturalism, materialism, and atheism. ID is the most dangerous idea for naturalists, and the refutation of Neo-Darwinism is a positive argument in favor of intelligent design as the only alternative that can explain the phenomena in question with an adequate form of causation.

What in your discoveries helped you get to the place of questioning Darwin's theory? was it something specific?

The ubiquitous phenomenon of abrupt appearances in the fossil record described above certainly was one point that made me think. Another was the realization during my work on insect phylogeny, that the phenomenon of homoplasy (convergences and other incongruent complex similarities that are not based on evolutionary relationship) is much more frequent than previously thought. When I studied at university, we still believed that convergence is an exception from the rule and only a minor source of noise. The fact that homoplastic incongruences proved morphological similarity to be an unreliable guide to phylogenetic relationship, of course suggests that these ubiquitous incongruent similarities might have another explanation like a common design templates or at least a fine-tuning of the laws of nature to arrive certain solutions (i.e. fine-tuned laws of form or a fine-tuned fitness landscape). The latter alternative is getting more and more support under the label of “process structuralism” and ultimately also implies intelligent design, just on a different level. Renowned paleontologist Simon Conway-Morris wrote two best-selling books about this subject (2004 “Life’s Solution” and 2015 “The Runes of Evolution”).

What're the most significant signs that ID is valid scientifically?

Well, depends on what you mean by “valid scientifically”?

If you mean if the method qualifies as scientific then I answered this question above already.

If you mean whether ID is true, then this is actually irrelevant to its scientific status. There are a lot of totally valid scientific hypotheses that proved to be false. A theory does not have to be true to be scientific. Science is not in the game of truth claims, but is a systematic procedure to study nature and make successful models and predictions of repeatable processes or search for the best explanations of historically singular events. But of course, ID proponents like me are convinced by the evidence that intelligent design indeed is the best explanation for certain phenomena in nature, such as complex molecular machines and organs, or the delicate fine-tuning of the physical constants and initial conditions of the universe.

At what point are secular scientist simply guessing away at what they view in fossils? We have all these different skulls, these fossils with holes in like the ammonite fossils, they say "Oh it has bite marks from this specific animal" in what way is that valid or is purely hypothetical?

Everything is hypothetical in science, and today’s knowledge often turns out to be tomorrow’s error. There is always an element of guesswork in historical sciences that try to reconstruct the long gone past. But that does not mean that its purely an exercise in fantasy. Paleontologists use a lot of very sophisticated and reliable methods to reconstruct extinct animals. Think of the methods that are used in forensics to reconstruct the face of a murder victim based on the skull alone. Similar methods are used to reconstruct the appearance of extinct animals based on their fossilized bones. Reconstructed colors are often speculative, but reasonably based on comparison with animals living today. Sometimes even color patterns can be preserved in fossils. The same is true of past behavior, which can for example be “frozen” in amber. Concerning the mentioned bite marks a reasonable case can be made if you for example find a certain type of ammonites as fossilized stomach content in Mesozoic marine reptiles, and then find ammonites with holes that match the teeth size and dental pattern found in the fossilized jaws of these reptiles. It is an inference to the best explanation, excluding alternative hypotheses like bore holes from marine worms etc.

Occasionally, paleontologists are tempted to overinterpret the evidence and see what they want to see in a mess of poorly preserved fragments. However, such erroneous overinterpretations never stand the test of time for long, and sooner or later they are dispelled by other scientists checking the original fossil material. This is also true for forgeries that are often mentioned by creationists. Such forgeries (e.g., Archaoraptor), which only very rarely confused scientists, where never unmasked by creationists, but always by other paleontologists.

Gunter, what are you currently working on? Are you studying anything? Are you writing anything?

Yes, I am still working as a paleontologist for Biologic Institute, which is an ID lab run by Discovery Institute, and published 4 scientific articles about fossil insects in mainstream journals this year and have just submitted two more. You can find all my scientific work (about 150 publications) linked on my homepage http://www.bechly.at.

In terms of intelligent design research, I am currently working on the waiting time problem in a collaborative project with molecular biologist Dr. Ann Gauger and mathematician Prof. Ola Hössjer. We have just submitted a co-authored technical article describing the mathematical underpinnings of our model, and now work with Dr. Richard von Sternberg on the application of this model to the origin of whales. Further work next year will extend this approach to other concrete examples like the origin of bird feathers or the origin of humans.

Thank you so much for taking the time here and chatting with me. I hope people have learned more about ID and what it means, what it's trying to do, and the contrary, optional views to neo-Darwinism.

My pleasure.

Until next time, we appreciate you!