philosophy science theology

the ‘science’ of intelligent design

I must thrive on controversy or something. I’ve got posts on speaking in ‘tongues‘, sexual ethics and now –if those weren’t enough– I’m posting on the evolution/creation debate… Sigh… Where to begin!!??

Where I’ve come from
Since I like honesty, I’ll start with a very short (and therefore un-detailed) review of how I’ve thought in the past, and where I’m at now…
Growing up, I didn’t think too much about evolutionary theory. I believed God created all things, and assumed that He did it like Genesis 1 & 2 said. Years later, the topic would become of greater importance to me. I listened to radio programmes, read a few books, looked at websites, etc., etc., and convinced myself that evolution could not be true. I happily enjoyed debating about it, and pointing to ‘holes’ in Darwinian theory… The title ‘six-day young-earth creationist’ would have been proudly worn by me, and any Christian who dared think that ‘macro-evolution’ could have happened would have gotten dis-approving looks from me.

More recently, however, I’ve taken a much more ‘I have no idea’ kind of approach to whether or not life as we know it has come about by way of Darwinian processes. My current view of Genesis 1 & 2, is that these chapters are not scientific explanatory reports, but rather theological poetic texts which were not written to explain exactly how creation ‘happened’, but rather to (beautifully, if you ask me!) contrast the Creator God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob with all of the gods of the nations around them. I could go on, but that’s enough for a ‘very brief’ review!

Why this post?
Firstly, I am still interested in such conversations; though at the same time, I’m saddened by the unhelpful ways they are sometimes carried out. Secondly, this interest and sadness have found me discussing such things with some atheists. As we discussed my last post (which was more of a philosophical suggestion concerning the value(s) which underlie ethics and morality) we eventually stumbled onto things to do with evolution. I thought that the conversation was too big to have there… More specifically, I wanted to discuss my thoughts on ‘Intelligent Design’ (I.D.).

‘I.D.’ scientific?
I.D. (which enters conversations about cosmology, abiogenesis and evolution) is called a lot of things by a lot of people. ‘True science’ by fundy young-earthers, and ‘Religions’ desperate attempt to attack real science’ by others. Here are my thoughts, which –perhaps not surprisingly– are located somewhere between these two…

The biggest criticism of I.D. is that it is not a testable theory. A big problem is that the evaluation of that statement is confused by various expressions of what I.D. is. If I.D. is a theory which makes suggestions about how the universe or complex organisms came to be, then it can only be ‘tested’ in a mental-experiment kind of way, which may prove quite useful to philosophers and logicians. On the other hand, it offers no empirically testable theories, so –in a very important sense– it is not a theory at all, but rather an assertion.

Natural science, you see, is what natural science is. It seeks to explain things by natural causes, so you can see why a ‘theory’ about a super-natural ‘designer’ is no longer in the domain of natural science. Positing all day long about a designer leaves nothing to empirically test, and thus no way for natural science to even begin to do its thing. Therefore, the idea that the universe and/or complex organisms are designed is one of many ideas that can never be verified, tested or developed by natural science.

A confused mess
Now, having said that, there remains a great deal of value in critiquing Darwinian evolutionary theory – or any other theory for that matter! What I suspect is happening, however, is that the whole ‘I.D.’ movement –with it’s implicit (sometimes explicit!!??) agenda to ‘prove’ the existence of the Designer– actually ends up stifling and confusing what sometimes could be fruitful critique of Darwinian theory.

The comments on this article show how immaturely and impatiently the I.D. crowd react when scientists change their opinion on something. This does not encourage fruitful dialogue.

A new documentary by Ben Stein called ‘Expelled‘ will highlight several controversial scenarios involving abuse or firing of scientists and instructors who subscribed to I.D. ideas. Debates rage about the legitimacy of the tenure denial of seemingly qualified astrophysicist Guillermo Gonzalez, or the dismissal of Caroline Crocker. (Two quick examples of firings that seem more justified (or at least to be expected?) are that of Kris Helphinstine and Nathaniel Abraham.)

An unfortunate example to me is the firing of Richard Sternberg for publishing an article by I.D. proponent Stephen Meyer. Sternberg himself finds I.D. flawed, but published Meyer’s article because “evolutionary biologists are thinking about this. So I thought that by putting this on the table, there could be some reasoned discourse.” Like all such situations, there is no doubt more to the story than the public will ever know, but the firing of Sternberg (himself neither an evangelical, young-earth creationist or even a theistic evolutionist!) seems to me extreme.

So What?
So, as far as I’m concerned, one of the most disappointing things about I.D. is that it has simply gone too far too often. It seems that because of the attempts to use it to ‘prove’ a God, they have created justified suspicion in the natural science community. What a shame. As far as I’m concerned, it’s silly to think that natural science could ever ‘prove’ God.

The assertions that the universe looks ordered, fine-tuned or designed are assertions that I find compelling, but these assertions give natural science no counter-theory, no alternative-hypothesis, and no way to even begin to test for the implicitly suggested Orderer, Fine-Tuner and/or Designer.

28 replies on “the ‘science’ of intelligent design”

Good post Dale, and one I mostly agree with.

Early next week I will try and follow up those examples you gave of people getting fired out of curiosity but for now, in reply to one point you made:

The assertions that the universe looks ordered, fine-tuned or designed are assertions that I find compelling

I don’t think anyone disputes that the universe is “designed”. The only remaining debate is whether or not the universe was designed from the top down (God/gods) or the bottom up (evolution). Personally I think every scrap of evidence there is points to the latter :)


Good post,Dale.
Too much info to read and digest all at once. I’ll come back when I have more time to read all of the links in the post.
In the mean time, Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Thanks for your post Dale – I appreciate you giving some details for your comments.

First, despite ID, evolutionary biology is alive and well. Of course ideas and theories get discussed and criticised – as in every other field of science. The thing about ID is that it is not part of science – it’s really a political and religious movement and its criticisms and debates are in the public rather than scientific sphere.

I was aware of most of the cases you mention.

My understanding of Sternberg’s position was that he endorsed publication of Meyer’s article as more or less the last action of his term as an editor of Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington and was not fired. His website confirms this. After his departure the journal was very unhappy about Sternberg’s approving Meyer’s article. It appears Sternberg faced a lot of mistrust and maybe harassment in his (quite separate) job at the Smithsonian, probably because of the controversy, but I don’t think he was sacked. He has however, painted himself as a martyr, and the Wedge people have certainly promoted that. The subsequent presentation of ID as a “victim” seems not to concern Sternberg.

I suspect Sternberg is being disingenuous in describing his beliefs. He served on the Editorial board of the creationist Baraminology Study Group, for example, and has been very coy about the review process he used for Meyer’s paper (The journal claims he bypassed the normal procedure – Sternberg claims he didn’t but refuses to provide the documentation). Sternberg describes himself as a ‘structuralist’ and this is somehow related to baraminology, but I have no idea how. He presented a paper on this at a Baraminology creationist conference.

Caroline Crocker was not dismissed – she has a dispute as a result of her inclusion of ID in her biology course. It’s the old question of inclusion of religion in science courses I guess. I did confuse Caroline Crocker with Chris Comer (She was the Texas Education Agency director of science curriculum but was forced to resign after passing on an email advertising presentation by Barbara Forest – Comer is not an ID supporter but a victim of the ID movement).
Gonzalez may have been a victim of performance issues – that is what the university claims. (The Wedge activists are extremely prolific in the extra-curriculum ID activity – it’s not surprising that their jobs suffer. Behe has been able to get around this by arranging payment from the Discovery Institute to his department). Abraham refused to work on evolutionary science despite knowing that was part of his job when he was employed. Helphinstine was obviously a very irresponsible teacher (linking evolution to Nazis, for example).

None of these are evidence of a science establishment preventing the truth of ID from getting through –as the Wedge people claim. However, they do give fuel to the Wedge campaign to present themselves and sympathisers as victims. If we look at the Ben Stein blog it’s easy to see that the Expelled film will not be objective it is really just part of this political campaign.

I have written a post on the ‘scientific method’ advanced by the Wedge movement, but will hold off a few days before putting it up because of the holidays. I’m convinced, however, that someone should do an analysis of the theological issues involved – the Wedge Strategy does list modern Christianity as one of its targets, and there is clearly a huge division within Christianity about evolution and similar scientific issues.

Meanwhile – all the best for the summer solstice holidays.

Opening queries…

Evolution verses ID as testable theories? Who has proved either by THAT method? Please let me know. I regard both as untestable since we don’t know the original environment from which either process started.
If some say nothing or instaneously, then that’s no different than saying ‘God Did It’. You haven’t shown casuality, you know no more than something happened.
Genesis as poetry. St Paul refers to Adam. Is Paul’s desciption of Jesus’ antidote to Adams sin poetic also? Is Paul just trying to get us to be nice people by referencing us through poetry, to some universal principle that material evolution clearly does not?
Theistic (Christian) evolution cannot work since death, which is a BIG part of the evolutionary process, was only introduced after Adam’s sin. Or do you insist on a dualistic universe where Genesis poetically refers to a spiritual death which can not explain the problem of evil in the physical world?

Hi all,

Thanks for the good comments!

Thanks for the comment. One counter-question: You see the ‘only remaining debate’ as being framed between the ‘(God) top down’ or ‘(evolution) bottom up’ methods. What of the possibility of both being true? :)

Yeah, my post was a rather shabby attempt at a thoughtful commentary on the current state of the debate (It was a ‘wee hours of the morn’ post)… Cheers… :)


Thanks for the detailed comment. (Those kinds of comments –links, bold, etc.– don’t just come together in a few minutes!)

Not surprisingly, you’ve presented what seems to be the view that the difference between science and politics is obvious, neat, clear and clean. I suspect it’s not so easy.

I’m trying to suggest a few things…

1. Yes, ‘I.D.’ is not an actual ‘theory’ in terms of natural science, because it does not offer a theory which is testable in terms of the natural sciences.

2. Yes, sometimes (often? almost always?) the ‘I.D.’ language seems to be a not-so-sneaky attempt to posit the existence of some kind of Creator.

3. Yes, this positing has no place in the natural sciences, precisely because natural science is the realm of the testable, etc.

4. Yes, SHAME on the ID crowd for trying to sneak philosophy or theology into natural science.


5. A critique of Darwinian evolutionary theory (even when coming from an ID-supporter or ID-sympathiser) is still a critique of Darwinian evolutionary theory (DET).


6. I suggest that (for lack of a better way to say it) the shameful ‘sneaking’ of God into natural science has provoked extreme suspicion of many. Resulting in a kind of “ID-sniffing” culture in the natural science community. Critique of small details of DET is permissible if done by someone who still gives appropriate homage to the overarching theory, but any critique of DET by IDers is suddenly a ‘political campaign’.

Further comment…
I’ll use the example of Behe. Behe (in principle) could likely be a perfectly suitable and capable micro-biologist. Furthermore, I suspect he and the rest of the micro-biology crowd are in agreement on the strictly observable, testable, “experiment-able” (and therefore truly scientific) knowledge of things concerning micro-biology.

Now, take a valid (at least in principle) scientist like Behe, and then take a statement like the following coming from his lips: “I have doubts that Darwinian processes can give full account for the development of ‘x’…”

This statement alone should not warrant ‘ID-sniffing’. It is merely a statement of opinion that has nothing to do with Intelligence of Design or whatever. Now, Behe’s book ‘Darwin’s Black Box’ (I don’t have my copy at hand) goes far beyond this quite simple statement, and therefore perhaps does warrant ‘ID-sniffing’, which –as far as I’m concerned– is simply unfortunate.

The problem here, I suspect, is this:
In the minds of most (all?) whom are familiar with this conversation, we don’t have a “Third Option” to explain the complexity of life. Logic would suggest that there are a multitude of possibilities, and not only Two. Nonetheless, the Two options are generally DET or Creation.
I find this extremely unhelpful. First, they could (at least possibly) possibly both be true (i.e. – Theistic evolution).
Second, there are a multitude of expressed understandings and/or definitions of both, and so they are really much more than ‘Two’…

Further, what seems to be the case is this:
-Many IDers have (frustratingly) gone FAR beyond simply raising questions concerning DET, but they have implicitly (and/or explicitly) suggested, “And this shows why there really is a God after all…”

-This has (and who wouldn’t have expected it?) provoked suspicion and enmity in the natural science community.

-This also has made genuine questioning of DET a very dangerous thing to do. On one hand, the ID crowd will see your questioning and quickly (a) claim you as one of their newest heroes/heroines; and on the other hand, the ID-sniffing crowd will sniff away at you, and should ‘a’ happen, their sniffing will instantly become ferocious barking.

To bring this very long comment to a close, I’ll say this: The ID crowd brought about this unfortunate situation by trying to ‘prove God’.

It really is a HUGE unfortunate mess, and one that has ruined lots of things…

(Thanks for the comment, how did you find my blog?)

Testable theories:
Yes, there are some (many?) points of Darwinian Evolutionary Theory (DET) which are not testable, so yes, neither have been ‘proved’ in that kind of sense. And yes, causality is a key point.

Genesis as poetry:
These are large questions to do with the nature of the Bible and how we are to interpret, understand and ‘handle’ it. I’m curious: does ‘poetic’ mean ‘less-true’ in your mind? Something can be ‘poetic’ and still be ‘true’. To give a relevant example (concerning Genesis 1) I’ve heard that a modern Jewish Scholar, Jacob Neusner, when asked how long the ‘days’ of creation were (as in literal 24-hrs v. non-literal period of time), replied, “I never thought about that.” Neusner believes firmly in the Truth (the ‘what’) of that passage, but had not given thought to the literal-ness (the ‘how’, if you will) of it. He believes that God created everything out of nothing, but hadn’t thought about how it happened. And the point of Genesis 1 is not how many 24-hour periods elapsed while God created, but rather that God (YHWH) is The Creator of all things (even, for example, the ‘greater light’ and ‘lesser light’ which other surrounding cultures had made into gods; sun god / moon god.)

On St Paul:
The fantastically brilliant Paul had (alas) no other categories or ways of saying anything about Adam and sin than those that he used, so he used the ones available to him – and he used them brilliantly! One can only imagine how Paul would have worded things if the Enlightenment had happened two-hundred years before him. But he wrote when he did and with a very first-century understanding of time, space and matter – and for that matter, human anthropology.

His point in Romans 5, after all, is about two representative figures for humanity – Adam and Christ – and the way that the work of the second figure, Christ, overcomes the work of the first figure, Adam. In other words, for me, the Truth of Romans 5 is big enough for some scientific uncertainty regarding human anthropology. I hope that doesn’t sound like I’m brushing off the question. I don’t mean to. I understand the concern. I really do.

Death – physical/spiritual:
The Torah has a pretty consistent theme concerning ‘life’ and ‘death’ and choosing between the two. Humanity was not ‘in Adam’ because we came chronologically after him, but rather because ‘all have sinned’.
I’m curious (honestly) about your last paragraph. What do you mean by ‘evil in the physical world’, and how does ‘spiritual death’ not explain this?

And, I’d prefer working out these very theological concerns via email. This post is intended for discussion of I.D. as it relates to science, etc. Please do email me at dale(at)nbc(dot)org(dot)nz… Thanks!

You see the ‘only remaining debate’ as being framed between the ‘(God) top down’ or ‘(evolution) bottom up’ methods. What of the possibility of both being true? :)

Some people have posited the notion that evolution does its thing and is occasionally tweaked by some deity and there are several other versions hybrids of ID and evolution as well. These seem to me much more likely to be an attempt to keep god in the frame rather than an actual serious theory. There is not one shred of evidence to suggest some evolutionary changes happened one way while others happened another way.

To me there are two real questions here.

1. Can evolution by natural selection account for all the features in current and extinct species of animals? We know for a fact it happens, but is it enough?
2. How did life come from non-life?

I think the answer to 1 is that we haven’t found anything that couldn’t yet – i.e. in attempting to falsify Darwinian evolution nothing has yet succeeded. The answer to 2 is more of a mystery but science has shown us that the building blocks of life are common in the universe, and that more complex organic molecules can arise from atmospheres similar to that Earth would have had billions of years ago.

Given this knowledge it seems to me that there is nothing left for god to explain in the development of life. It could be both, but there doesn’t seem any need.


Thanks Ian,

(From the ‘one remaining debate’ to ‘two real questions’)


Let me point out, I’m not talking about a mixture of the two (evolution plus God – or vice versa).

What I’m saying is this: The God v. evolution scenario not only leaves out the possibility of a combination or mixture of the two (which I think is weird), but also leaves out the (less weird) possibility of a total fusion of the two (so to speak).

Not 50/50, not 80/20, not 99/1, but 100/100. Make sense?

Your ‘two real questions’ are indeed very tough ones.

1. I’m not sure outright ‘falsification’ is even possible?
2. ‘Arise’ is a very appropriate word, I think. :)

“…it seems to me that there is nothing left for god to explain in the development of life.”
Funny that… my view is that God is seen in what we can explain AND what we can’t. And to add to that, there is plenty of the ‘unexplainable’ (at least currently) within what we call the ‘explainable’… I.e. – We can explain how bread gets toasted – we can explain why a toaster’s elements heat up – we can explain why the electricity does what it does to the electrical bits of the toaster – we can explain the negative/positive charges of electricity, etc… but eventually (after a while) you have to say ‘well, that’s just the way that works.’ Why gravity? Why the laws of the universe? They just are… Anyway, that’s not a ‘god of the gaps’ bit, I’m just saying there are unexplained things within explained things. And I think God created things in both categories! :) …out of zilch. :)


How did I find your blog?

Interpretation one: the kids told me about your blog

Interpretation two: I find them thought provoking, hence my dialogue.

Even a simple statement, can have more than one meaning :)

So, it is of scientists’ claims about DET. They say they haven’t proven it, but speak as though they have, or they speak of processes within micro-evolution as though it proves the big picture.

Both, theology and science are stories told from different perspectives. They speak about the same reality, but use different idioms and language. One has categories that are scientific, the other theological. However there are areas where they overlap. Therefore we should not preclude one from the other.
There are many things science and theology do not claim to explain.
But there are areas, of which origins is one, where an understanding has striking influences on how we look and treat life.
Theological understandings do affect scientific interpretations of natural phenomena, as do scientific knowledge affect theological understandings.
So that is why I mentioned death, as a common denominator in both theological and scientific terms.
If the scientific story (DET) is true, then death was established from the beginning of life, as it is an essential part of the evolutionary process. Therefore, the theological story is untrue because it claims death only entered the world as a product of sin. Otherwise theology must speak of a different death when sin enters the picture. If Genesis speaks (poetically or otherwise) of a different non-material death (ie spiritual) then there is a category difference between the death(s) of Adam in Genesis and the death of Jesus in the Gospels. Adam’s death is separately material and spiritual – Adam was going to die anyway as a result of him being a product of evolution, but suffered another death (spiritual) as a result of God’s judgement of Adam’s disobedience. We have now two deaths – one material and one non-material – we have the basis of the duality of Gnosticism, of which Christian theology claims does not exist.
St Paul, being a Jewish scholar, probably had a better handle on cosmology than the medieval Greek based terra-centric universe. He also lived in a world that knew dead men don’t come back to life. Yet he referred to the Jewish belief of resurrection. A resurrection of physical life of individual humans firmly planted in the dust of a renewed earth – not as disembodied, spirits floating in a netherworld, of the Greek mystics. Paul saw physicality as a product of spirituality, not the other way around, as a product of DET (ie as in Theosophy).
So, in general if you wish to dialogue DET without the bigger picture, then Monty Python’s Black Knight maybe able to help you. To me it’s like Zeno’s motion paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, restricting Achilles movement, so he never gets in front of the tortoise!

Thanks Dale. The 100/100 thing only makes sense to me if you want god to fit into a theory regardless of whether it fits or not :) It effectively says to me that evolution could have done the job by itself and god is an unnecessary meddler… ;)

And I think God created things in both categories! :) …out of zilch. :)

Perhaps this isn’t the right place to ask, but I would really like to know why you think this is the case? The reason I ask is that you have the knowledge to explain these things without resorting to this, so I don’t understand what it is that drags you back to trying to fit in this seemingly superfluous explanation?

To perhaps offer a starting point, is it possible to find a reason to suspect anything was created (or had its existence contributed to in some way) by god without referring to the bible (or any other holy book)?


Dale – I believe that to use the terms Darwinian Evolutionary Theory or DET misrepresents science. In fact this is one of the tricks that the Wedge activists use. Science is not a dogma. We have heroes, not saints. Evolutionary ideas preceded Darwin and have changed since Darwin’s time. As a scientific field, evolutionary theories are constantly being questioned, critiqued, etc. That is how science works.

I really object to people labeling theories this way (because it misrepresents and dogmafies them). There may be a role for terms like Darwinian mechanism (referring to natural selection). But please – not Darwinian Evolutionary Theory – that’s offensive. (I believe that the current scientific term often used to describe evolutionary theory is “Modern evolutionary synthesis.” However, I am sure that there are more recent developments since this term was introduced).

Darwin’s contributions to evolutionary theory and his empirical evidence has been extremely valuable. But science always moves on and we now know of other aspects and mechanisms besides those contributed by Darwin. And this happens because genuine questioning is welcome in science – is essential to science. To claim otherwise is to attack science and, yes, unfortunately that is quite popular with some people these days. The Wedge strategy specifically outlines this as one of their approaches.

Specifically on Behe. Of course, any contribution he and others can make highlighting the gaps in knowledge, where we don’t have data to enable explanation of a phenomena is valuable. In that sense his highlighting real gaps is valuable. Unfortunately Behe’s problem is he goes beyond highlighting gaps to then claiming the impossibility of understanding or explaining specific phenomena (his irreducible complexity). That is the unscientific part. And, of course, he just set himself up to be shown wrong as new knowledge comes in.

This happened with the bacterial flagellum which was not understood when he made the initial claim but subsequent work has provided explanations. Some of his other claims, such as the blood clotting cascade and immune system problems resulted from his lack of knowledge – they weren’t real “gaps” when he made the claims.

But further – when scientists highlight problems in theory or knowledge that is the starting point to further investigation. Behe has not taken this logical step. He stands outside the scientific investigation making carping criticisms. That is not an honest scientific position. Since he became a Wedge activists his scientific output has been pathetic. He has become a political activist.

I am very sensitive to the sort of attacks made by the Wedge people and others where science is presented as a dogma which doesn’t allow questioning because I and my colleagues were victims of this tactic. In our case the attackers had commercial interests and wished to undermine our findings for commercial reasons. They were able to pressure our institute to suppress publication of findings and threaten jobs. They were able to suppress science – to the ultimate harm of the industry.

The Wedge people have their own theological agenda. Their attack on science (a political attack in society as a whole – they have no influence within the scientific community) is just a part of their more general attack on society and culture – including modern religion.

I would be intrigued to see discussion of the theological divisions within Christianity exposed by the Wedge attack. Perhaps BC’s contribution contrasting with your comments illustrates this division?

Thanks BC, (hope the family has had a great Christmas!)

I certainly am not trying to espouse something that gives rise to a Gnostic (or other kind of) dualism. The Jewish (and the Christian Proper) worldview is, as you suggest, a very down-to-earth thing! :)

Yes, the Jewish view of reality was certainly not split into ‘spiritual’ and ‘physical’, and it is precisely their holistic view which I think relates to their understanding of ‘death’. Disobedience, rebellion, wrong-doing and/or sin bring ‘death’ in every sense of the word. I think this is what the Torah was on about.
The statement ‘death entered the world as a result of sin’ can still be true in the fullest sense while we speculate endlessly regarding anthropology. In other words –theologically speaking– the sin/death link can remain firmly intact whatever we conclude about the biological origins of humanity.

It’s not a matter of ‘fitting’ God into a theory. I don’t know how I can express things any clearer – however it happened, I think (by way of a rational, coherent and logical assumption) that God did it that way. It’s not a picture of nature ‘doing’ the job ‘by itself’ and then God meddling here and there occasionally, but rather it’s a picture of God upholding, sustaining, carrying-along and/or causing each and every step along the way (however it might have happened – and is still happening!)… So, to put it another way, it’s not a question of ‘where can we see God at work in nature?’, but ‘where do you NOT see God’s work in nature?’

And no, I don’t think we can explain everything without resorting to a Creator. All arrows (biological theory, cosmology, philosophy, logic) point to beginnings with no explanation. It’s not superfluous. It’s rational, logical and basic. Heaps of people assume a Creator. And yes, I say ‘assume’ because it’s not something you can ‘prove’. yada yada… :)

To answer your last question, I would say unhesitatingly ‘Yes.’ Throughout history, humans of all levels of scientific enlightenment have assumed that a Creator God must be behind everything, and they made this assumption simply by observing reality in all its wonder, complexity and beauty. The biblical text itself also suggests that the Creator is ‘clearly seen by what was made.’



Darwinian Evolutionary Theory (DET) is hardly an ‘offensive’ term. At most I was simply less than fully informed. The wiki article you referenced for Modern Evolutionary Synthesis (MES) says that it is a unified (hence ‘synthesis’) theory of evolution, so the only real difference between DET and MES is that MES includes other contributions than Darwin’s. But hey, if I’ve offended someone, then please know it wasn’t my intent to do so! :)

On Behe, I’m not trying to defend him personally as a scientist (though I find it interesting how critical you are of him; ‘his lack of knowledge’, ‘has not taken this logical step’, ‘outside the scientific investigation’, ‘not an honest position’, ‘pathetic’, ‘activist’), but I’m saying, in principle, someone like Behe can make good critiques of MES. And, I know it’s hard for you, but PLEASE at least acknowledge that some critiques or ideas –while not testable, and therefore not specifically within the realm of natural science– can at least possibly be scientifically informed, smart, helpful, logical, wise or otherwise ‘good’. Take Behe’s comments about ‘irreducible complexity’ (IC). He would go too far if he said, “We know all we’ll ever know about bacterial flagellum.” But does he say that? I don’t think so (but I’m happy to be shown where he does…). I think IC is a helpful –and quite simple really– recognition of a general pattern there is to reality. The further we zoom in with our microscopes, etc., the more detail we see. This is important, because even if we can explain how a bacteria functions and reproduces, etc. there are things happening within that that we don’t have explanations for. The unexplained within the explained. And I’m also curious what kind of ‘subsequent work has provided explanations’ about bacterial flagellum. Are we talking about theoretical work (i.e. – ‘well, if this happened then that could have developed in that or this kind of way, etc.), or are we talking about observed and repeatable development seen in lab experiments or something? If it’s a simple matter of a theoretical reply to Behe, then what makes these subsequent explanations any more valid than Behe’s initial observations about complexity?

If some ‘gaps’ in MES seem to not be shortened upon further explanation, then so be it. Let us keep looking and thinking and researching. But let us not take a theoretical response (if that is indeed the case?) to a criticism and treat it as some kind of authoritative explanation.

Moving on, I can appreciate your sensitivity to this issue based on your negative experience. I’d be very interested to know any details you’re willing to share…

Just a suggestion though, your language of ‘attack’ (“attack on science”, “a political attack in society” “…and culture”) is a tad excessive, I think.

A further question.
I know you loathe the Discovery Institute (and I refrain from comment on them at the moment), but their list of scientists has a few names on it. Are they all scientific idiots doing shabby science, and are they all conspiring with ‘Wedge activists’ and their attack on all things scientific, reasonable and good? Have all of their queries been met with subsequent ‘explanations’?

It could be that there would be more scientists who would put their name to a list like this provided:
-that the possibly unhelpful term ‘Darwinism’ weren’t used…
-that the current climate of ‘ID sniffing’ weren’t so high…

Just a question…


We did, thanks. And even the Christmas message made it from the pulpit too!
Hope you and yours had a good one also.

If we take the sin/death link seriously, then how are we to ‘speculate’ on the evolution/death link in biological human origins?
Are we to regard the latter as a baseline process to which God added the sin/death link later when humans had evolved enough to take responsibility for their actions?

The dispute between the scientific establishment and those who challenge it, always trumpets that it has to come down to good science verses bad science. Society revels in controversy, so it’s not surprising that it is not absent within the Evolution/Creation/ID debate. Politics lies (no pun intended!) on all sides, so it’s not easy at all from the outside to grasp what is really going on. And unfortunately, as Dale has highlighted, that is invariably what many a conversation about evolution vs creation comes to! (yawn).

So it may come down to personal integrity of those who are involved. Which I find intriguing that it involves a moral stance as much as a good/bad science argument!


Thanks. Excuse the lengthy quote, but I don’t think it would be anywhere on the net…

Our favourite Bishop on the Romans 5 and sin/death topic…

The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol X, N.T. Wright Commentary on Romans,

“Paul clearly believed that there had been a single first pair, whose
male, Adam, had been given a commandment and had broken it. Paul was, we may be sure, aware of what we would call mythical or metaphorical dimensions to the story, but he would not have
regarded these as throwing doubt on the existence, and primal sin, of
the first historical pair. Our knowledge of early anthropology is of course sketchy, to put it mildly. Each time another very early skull is dug up the newspapers exclaim over the discovery of the first human beings; we have consigned Adam and Eve entirely to the world of mythology, but we are stall looking for their replacements. What ‘sin’ would have meant in the early
dawn of the human race it is impossible to say; but the turning away from open and obedient relationship with the loving creator, and the turning instead
toward that which, though beautiful and enticing, is not God, is such a many-sided phenomenon that it is not hard to envisage it at any stage of anthropoid development.
The general popular belief that the early stories of Genesis were
straightforwardly disproved by
Charles Darwin is of course nonsense, however many times it is
reinforced in contemporary mythmaking. Things are just not that simple, in biblical theology or science.
One potentially helpful way of understanding the entry of death into the world through the first human sin is to see ‘death’ here as more than simply the natural decay and corruption of all the created order. The good creation was
nevertheless transient: evening and morning, the decay and new life of autumn and spring, pointed on
to a future, a purpose, which Genesis implies it was the job of the human race to bring about. All that lived in God’s original world would decay and perish, but ‘death’ in that sense carried no sting. The primal pair were, however, threatened with a different
sort of thing altogether: a ‘death’ that would result from sin, and
involve expulsion from the garden (Gen 2:17). This death is a darker force, opposed to creation itself,
unmaking that which was good, always threatening to drag the world back toward chaos.
Thus, when humans turned away in sin from the creator as the one whose image they were called to bear, what might have been a natural sleep acquired a sense of shame and threat. The corruption of this darker ‘death’ corresponded all too closely to, and seemed to be occasioned by, that turning away from the source of life, and that turning instead toward lifeless objects, which later generations would call idolatry.”

Behe presented his “irreducible complexity” arguments in his expert witness evidence for the defence in the Kitzmiller v Dover trial in 2005. Consequently there is discussion in a popular format (trial documents available on the internet) of the data refuting his ideas. The cross-examination of Behe and the expert witness of Ken Miller at this trial are good sources. So is the video of Ken Miller’s talk at Case Western University (The Collapse of Intelligent Design). It’s long but an excellent easily accessible scientific source. Nick Matzke (discusses) his own review paper and recent work showing Behe’s assumptions about the bacteria Flagellum are unwarranted. He refers, for example, to the paper Stepwise formation of the bacterial flagellar system

However Dale, underlying the discussion is not the science but your ideological preference for ID explanations (with a consequent suspicion about the scientific evidence, methodology and “establishment”). I think that is where the discussion of theological differences within Christianity is important. I’m hardly an expert on such matters but here is a suggested theological analysis:

The enlightenment influenced theology, as it did most things. Apparently a theological justification for the modern scientific method arose (some claim this proves Christianity was a necessary precursor of modern science but I see that as chauvinistic and really it’s a matter of making a virtue out of necessity). The argument was that God created a logical universe with its own laws and that humanity was created with the ability to investigate and understand reality. This rejected the superstitious model of reality and seems to leave no place for miraculous or supernatural explanations (although I think some theologists argue for limited exceptions). Arguably, these two teachings must have (and still do) coexist, are influential and are a source of conflict.

The conflict becomes apparent when the most cherished beliefs of Christianity are challenged by scientific knowledge. There is then a temptation to resort to supernatural/superstitious approaches, to deny the new knowledge. The divisions here are big. Surveys indicate that a bit more than 40% of NZ Christians, and something like 60% of US Christians, reject scientific explanations of evolution. (the petition you refer to lists people with these views – not actually working in the scientific area. However, science petitions are not legitimate scientific tools and one should be suspicious when they are used as such).

There is an attempt to present this as a religious/atheist conflict – but really it is a conflict within Christianity between the ordered universe and supernatural explanation groups. (For example the expert witness conflicts in the Kitzmiller v Dover trial were between scientist Behe on the ID side and theologist Haught and scientist Miller on the evolution side – all Christians). Haught described ID as “appalling theology” in conflict with major traditions which “maintain that if God influences and interacts with the created world it cannot be in the same way that physical causes operate.” He also argued that he would be “offended religiously as well as intellectually” if teachers proposed ID as an alternative to evolution in a biology class attended by his children.

A NZ group that has lined up firmly with ID are Christian News (e.g. Tired of hearing the shallow men — the new atheists). However, I am starting to wonder if they are a spoof – they described themselves as “Sponsored by the Elusive Brethren & Right Wing American Fundamentalists.” Does anyone know if they are serious?

Thanks Ken, for another no-doubt time-consuming comment. The detail is appreciated.

As a matter of fact (as a short side point), I observe that in conversations regarding evolution, one key problem is what I like to think of as the general/specific problem. This general/specific tension is noticed in all kinds of conversations about all kinds of things. For example, the word evolution itself is a very general term used in quite simple and general ways. This contrasts extremely with the detailed calculations, formulae and recording that goes on in experimentation. There is the same general/specific tension in theology, philosophy, engineering, computer science, etc., etc. ad infinitum.

A general (and probably unhelpful!) comment by me about Behe and flagellum, for example, can turn into a rather detailed review of various experiments. As you claim no expertise on theological matters, I certainly claim none on (for example) biochemical matters, so I’m very limited in my ability to meaningfully interact with the details. What I can do, is try to notice which words are used, what they are saying and what they are not saying.

I read the PNAS article (exerpt) on flagellum, and found it (and the related charts) interesting. Allow me to communicate my (limited) understanding of things.

Behe’s observations about complex things like bacterial flagellum (as noted in the PNAS article) have presented “one of the major challenges of evolutionary studies”, and its “origins and evolutionary history have proven difficult to reconstruct.” And the date of this article (received for review in early 2007) shows that this was still seen as a major challenge even until quite recently. Now, Liu and Ochman’s analysis is helpful, but my limited perception is that it is still in the realm of theory and not observed development. Their summary is that the complex bacterial flagellum is developed from a simpler version with core components, which originated through ‘successive duplication and modification of a few, or perhaps even a single, precursor gene.’ This raises a few questions for me. Would not each successive duplication and modification have to be advantageous for the bacterial organism at each stage? And have any detailed reconstructions been described regarding how the few (or single) genes could have encoded the components for even the simplest version of a flagellum? In other words, I’m quite interested in the detail. Now, I know this could sound over-critical, but the wording of bits of the summary like ‘we could distinguish’ (not ‘observe’), ‘many’ (not ‘all’), ‘indicating’ (not ‘confirming’ or ‘showing’), ‘probable’ and ‘perhaps’, mean (from my limited perspective!) that this research and the conclusions resulting from it do not conclusively demonstrate the origin and (early) history of bacterial flagellum. Now, this is a key point to give the full credit (and not mere lip-service) that is due to Liu and Ochman. Their research and conclusions are valuable. It’s just that (linguistically speaking) their last sentence seems to go beyond their research in terms of certainty. This comment is already too long, but let me explain…

Here’s a verifiable statement that they make:

“The gene clusters encoding the components of the flagellum can include >50 genes, but these clusters vary greatly in their numbers and contents among bacterial phyla.”

This is an observed fact, and is a matter of simply counting the genes, right?

Now, their final sentence in the summary:

“These results show that core components of the bacterial flagellum originated through the successive duplication and modification of a few, or perhaps even a single, precursor gene.

The words ‘show’ and ‘originated’ mean just what they mean. The safer wording would be: “These results suggest that core components of the bacterial flagellum could have originated through…”

These less certain terms would better reflect the lack of full certainty implicit in the rest of the summary (especially seen in the phrase ‘suggest the probable order’).

The analysis (in terms of certainty) is much like the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis itself – the further back you go, the hazier it gets.

Now, PLEASE hear me. I give full marks of scholarship and intelligence to Liu and Ochman. It’s very easy for someone like me to pick grammatical holes in their summary.

I’ve got to run, but am happy to explore the detail of this example further!

Cheers for now,


Looks like I missed your changeover, so I’ve reposted here. Hope I haven’t stuffed up anything!

Thanks for the lengthy quote from NTW.

But, I’ll take issue, even with him.
Obviously, his friend John Polkinghorne has an influence here. A good old Anglican tea party with uniformitarianism!
Remember we need to be careful looking out at a post-fall universe, when gathering information of past events, even when we do recognise catastrophic changes.
Of course, Genesis as a poetic epic, can be ‘spiritualised’. But day and night, I contend doesn’t signify anything more than the rotation of the earth, much less indicating seasons or decay = good and evil any more than nakedness/shame = moral depravity etc.
Conditions in the Garden of Eden scenario were different to today’s climate. I’m doubt that climatic seasons existed to the degree we have today, must less that its reference relates to decay and a ‘natural death’. Even paleontological evidence would suggest ancient earth had a warm stable semitropical atmosphere. It wasn’t till after the fall, that longevity of life, particularly for humans, is noted in gradual, but substantial decline.
With an upper firmament of water (cloud) shrouding the earth providing a greenhouse atmosphere, direct sunlight and its contingent harm would not be a factor. The rainbow after the flood could have been be the first time direct sunlight penetrated to the earth’s surface that had previously been shrouded, hence its striking significance to Noah.
Although the earth’s orbit around the sun, which give us our seasonal differences, the areas of ancient populations were roughly equatorial. An additional indicator of a climatic difference is that the polar regions were forested, so the palaeontologists tells us. There are theories that these polar regions arrived/formed after a cataclysmic event of an asteroid hitting the earth. This may have caused the upper firmament of water vapour to fall, the impact of the asteroid convulsed the earth to such a degree, releasing water under the earth as well.
As far as sin/death being argued as an additional moral separation from God, evidenced by mankind’s idolatry, and natural death preceding some ulterior purpose of God, I find rather thin. The sin/death in Genesis (together with the OT and NT) is described as all encompassing – including material and nonmaterial aspects of the universe. Jesus died to restore the universe (cosmos) not just to restore a broken marriage vow between God and Man. The physicality of sin is evidenced by a marred presence at the subatomic and genetic level through to macro relationships between individuals, nations, creation and God. Sin and its consequences is a whole lot bigger and penetrating than we really appreciate.
As you can see there really is difficulty with a two-tiered death.
I know this seems to have gone a long way off your original blog, but the ID vs Creationism vs Evolution debate is really a head-on between Christian appreciation of a creation and a Non-Christian appreciation of the universe. There maybe overlaps of understanding, but they are from completely different perspectives.
Thanks for your patience – and let me know when to push off!

Interesting post. You’ve picked up the dilemma within the Christian community. Yes, some really do feel that IDists and Creationists have bad theology. But the bad theology is more to do with the fact that ID and Creationist community (and other Christians) don’t accept the current scientific persuasion, that the evidence presented to ‘prove’ the evolutionary process is adequate to bring about life in its present complexity and diversity, and little to do with the Bible’s teaching (theology)!
Graeme Finlay, an orthodox (not Greek or Russian!) Christian and avowed evolutionist, maintains that Creationists’ bad theology comes from the fact they try to replace the God of the Bible with a creator God who takes no notice of natural, proven evolutionary processes. Therefore, creationists exclude God from His creation. Graeme sees a distinction between Christian evolutionary understanding and Atheistic evolutionary understanding. By the way Graeme is currently Senior Lecturer, Department of Molecular Medicine and Pathology at Auckland University, teaching cancer biology and scientific pathology. He has a theology degree from the University of South Africa.
From a non-orthodox Christian (Christian existentialism, commonly called Liberal) perspective we have for example, AT Robinson, John Shelby Spong and Lloyd Gerring who have exorcised a personal, creator God from the Bible, presenting a purely experiential meaning of scripture and therefore theology. From that it becomes completely necessary to adopt current scientific perspectives on all manner of human behaviour and origins. For them the Bible is the product of chauvinist, paternal, power hungry religious leaders, shrouding the truth of good human nature in superstition and bad behaviour.

A quick query BC” “Graeme sees a distinction between Christian evolutionary understanding and Atheistic evolutionary understanding.” I presume you mean ideological understanding. I don’t think a Christian would see the science differently to an atheist. That would be true for all of science. But ideological interpretation – yes I agree there has to be a difference – for all of science.

I think, also, that the theological position implied by creationism/ID has consequences in understanding and attitude toward scientific method and this is a central component of the “scientific” debate promoted by the Wedge activists.

Yes. You’re right. The idea of Christian evolutionary understanding would obviously have to incorporate a God behind the scenes in a way that atheistic evolutionary understanding deems unnecessary. To the atheist, with current observational abilities, God is totally surplus to requirements.
ID/Creationists and other Christians, obviously haven’t/can’t show using the scientific method, the part God plays in creation/evolution. But they still maintain that God is necessary in some way that is presently unsubstantiated scientifically.
Unfortunately, with present ideological and scientific arguments, ID/Creationists have gone out on a limb and found wanting.
As scientists are always apt to say they are the world’s biggest sceptics, so too, for different reasons are ID/creationists. I also think there is a certain amount of laziness in seeking to understand where and why people think differently about the same things.

Hi there,

Your comments contrasting the Eden climate/environment with the modern one are familiar to me. I’d be interested to hear serious critical interaction of these theories. I’m concerned, however, that these theories are birthed out of a desire to maintain/defend literal interpretations of biblical texts, and possibly might not stand up to criticism? I’m quite happy to accept such theories, but I’m nervous about relying on them to ‘defend the bible’ or something. As for further discussion of science and biblical interpretation, I’m happy to chat via email…

Finally watched the 2-hr Ken Miller talk. He’s a great communicator. I found his demonstrations very compelling, but my skeptical tendencies had me asking questions like: “OK, so 10 proteins from the 50-protein bacterial flagellum can after all be functional as a type III secretory system; but is this secretory system itself ‘irreducibly complex’? What theories do we have of the origin and development of the type III secretory system?”

Ken and BC,
Graeme Finlay presented a paper at New Perspectives in Faith and Science at BCNZ a few months ago. The talk was ‘Just Glorified Apes?’. He discussed viral RNA shared by humans, chimps, gorillas, orangutans, etc. and reflected on patterns of science – i.e. what he called ‘the scandal of particularity’ as it relates to paired patterns such as chance and necessity; and freedom and lawfulness. Interesting stuff…

General comment:
Once again, I am more and more frustrated by false choices. False choices between evolution and God or between science and faith. For me, everything –every single thing– in reality is ‘evidence’ of the Creator, whether we think we know how ‘it’ works or not. How frustrating it is for me to see people trying to use only the currently unexplained to try and ‘prove’ God!

One interesting comment in the Q&A from the Miller talk was this: ‘…without science everything is a miracle.’ I found that interesting. It hints at what I like to call the ‘normalisation of nature’. Scientific explanations –probably with no motive– have a tendency to (at least for some –many?) make things less ‘wondrous’. This need not be so. Knowing how grass grows and tree leaves function should not take away one iota of the awe we feel when looking at them. And for goodness sake, natural explanations don’t “put god out of work” or some ridiculous notion like that. My view is that natural explanations are the attempt at knowing and understanding reality –the reality which is caused and sustained by God.

I’m heading up north with the wife for a few days and will return after new years… Enjoy the wonder or reality if you get the chance!

See ya ‘next year’…


I agree about Ken Miller, Dale, he is an excellent communicator. We need a lot more people like him in science. The fact that he is a Christian also helps to counter the argument that the evolution/ID conflict is an atheist/Christian conflict. I think the Wedge people have been quite successful with their promotion of this dishonest claim.

To me, his religious beliefs are not important – what matters is his science and his honesty.

As for your skeptical attitudes. Well, I find myself being very skeptical when I listen to presentation in science – particularly in my own discipline. It’s part of the scientific attitude and I am confident that evolutionary biologists adopt the same approach listening to presentations in their discipline. Skepticism is an important part of the scientific process – how else does knowledge advance. (I wonder if there is a similar atmosphere of skepticism at theological presentations).

However, I am also aware of limitations in my own knowledge when it is not my discipline. There are limits to the degree I can pursue the evidence – or even understand it. One either has to trust the honesty of the researchers in these fields and know that their theories are honest and “correct” (in the way scientific theories are “correct” – amenable to change according to new evidence). Or, one has to assume they are dishonest, part of a conspiracy, driven by dogma, etc., etc., (all familiar claims by Wedge activists).

It’s a sad aspect of this conflict that people get into discussing scientific issues with very little understanding of the science. But of course, these issues are really just “standing in” for the real issues underlying the conflict which are, I think, religious issues. Perhaps that is where the debate should concentrate.

Sure, a scientific theory can be just plain wrong – but if its good science it is honestly wrong and able to be changed.

I can’t understand why you say “Scientific explanations –probably with no motive– have a tendency to (at least for some –many?) make things less ‘wondrous’.” I just find knowledge, understanding and science so amazing and wonderful – and, yes, I find reality wonderful because it can (potentially) be explained. Einstein, who gloried in the wonder of the universe, also made this point: “One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have.” Magic and the supernatural have no appeal to me.

Thanks Ken,

(nice profile image sketch, by the way) :)

Indeed, many aspects of the conflict are unfortunate. At least two things, I suspect, are not helping: 1) Theists who not try to force natural science to become ‘theistic science’, but who do so in ‘sneaky’ ways, and 2) Atheists who continually assert that ‘science has made God unnecessary’ or words to that effect.
Neither Theology nor Science is that simple… :)

And yes, healthy skepticism is the name of several games. Theology is actually quite alive with endless bantering, debate and correction. Sure, many examples of un-thinking acceptance could (and should!) be noted. (I went along –not in support, of course!– to the Benny Hinn ‘Holy Spirit Miracle Crusade’ in Auckland, and was shocked but not surprised to hear his brother encourage the gullible crowd “Don’t you go and get educated. Don’t go and study theology. Cause then God won’t use you!” …groan…) But still, the amount of healthy interaction taking place at both scholar and lay-person levels is –to me– encouraging; but we Christians still need to do much more of this… And do it better. For me, this means warning Christians against labeling each other ‘heretics’ too quickly, etc. Particularly, the Jewish synagogue is a great example of this. They are famous for their lively debates. Reminds me of Millers description of ‘near fist-fights’ by scientists trying to classify a new fossil! :)

On lack of expertise, I can relate. For example, with Theology, I still don’t read Greek or Hebrew (or Aramaic), so that extremely limits my ability to interact as fruitfully with many journal articles and technical books as I could if I did read these languages. I have to ‘trust’ some scholars who’ve been doing detailed work compiling lexicons and establishing the boundaries of meaning, etc. for their entire career.
Like I said earlier, there are simplicities and complexities to every topic and field of study! That’s why I appreciate scholars like N.T. Wright, who are ‘populisers’. I enjoy both his technical work (e.g. ‘The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology’ – which I just –finally!– finished surveying today) and his more popular writing (e.g. – the ‘for everyone’ series). I suspect you have similar admiration for helpful populisers of science…

On the tendency for loss of ‘wonder’, thanks for pressing me. Let me comment further. Yes, it is not at all necessary for these scientific explanations to warrant any loss of wonder whatsoever. Knowing how a rainbow works, for example, doesn’t need to make the rainbow less wonderful. Indeed, what actually happens, is that a single wonder (the ‘simple’ rainbow itself) is multiplied into several or many wonders (the ‘complex’ host of things working together to make it ‘work’ – light, water, etc.). But the thing is, whatever level of understanding we’re at with rainbows, we still see wonder in it.
More specifically on the tendency for loss of ‘wonder’, I think it has to do with the sharp divide the Enlightenment handed us between ‘nature’ and ‘super-nature’. Many people still see reality as comprised of bits of both. Not only did we get these categories, but I think the assumption is often that the ‘nature’ category carries less awe/wonder/amazement than the ‘super-nature’ category. Now, when phenomena that the Enlightenment left in the ‘super-nature’ category are explained in terms of the ‘nature’ category, the ‘super-nature’ category is seen to be shrinking, while the ‘nature’ category is seen to be growing. Thus, reality is seen (by some) to become less and less ‘wonderful’.
Personally, I reject this category divide. Like you, I think reality is reality, and whatever happens is a part of reality, and is… well… real. So –in that sense– the ‘supernatural’ has no appeal to me either. :)


More importantly I would like to review the origional theories of beer. Yes beer, that honey coloured liquid that tantalises ones taste buds.

This gift from the gods was just that until scientists theorised the production of alcohol must be some form of checmical reation as that was most logical. Of course everyone scoffed the French dude who thought it was a something eating yeast and defecating alchol. What a proposterous idea but was it Louis Pasteur that was finally able to observe such a process with single cell organisms.

I guess my point it the most simple explanation it usually the most accurate but there are exceptions.

Hey Ant!

Thanks for stopping by my blog!

Debates are fun, huh? :)

I like the beer analogy! Funny stuff! And also a good point too, I might add… ;)


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