Intelligent Design

There has been quite a ruction lately about the Topeka, Kansas school board’s wish to accommodate literalist Christians by introducing new teaching standards for biology. The proposed guidelines would suggest to the impressionable student that the Darwinian idea, in which modern organisms (including humans) arose through a lengthy process of evolution by natural selection, is mere scientific dogma, and that an alternative account of the phenomena — “intelligent design” – should be given serious consideration.

Most scientifically literate people who hear of this sort of argument at once assume that the opponents of Darwin’s idea are motivated by their religious beliefs, which of course almost all of them are. The anti-Darwinians have learned, though, in previous skirmishes, that frontal assaults on the heathens (i.e., simply declaring that the teaching of evolution must be abandoned because it is in direct conflict with the revealed word of God, as handed down to Man in the Bible) fail to win the day. So here is a new tactic:

First, find a place where public sympathy lies strongly with the literalist Biblical account (easy enough in America these days, unfortunately).
Next, counting on the fact that most people are going to have only the vaguest understanding, if any, of the subtle power of Darwin’s idea, present them with a “commonsense” explanation of the absurdity of the prevailing scientific-atheist view.
Into the illusory intellectual vacuum just created, insert a comforting pseudoscientific notion about an “intelligent designer” (wink wink).
Finally, put the whole thing to a vote in the local school board.
It’s a good plan, and could very well work.

As I said above, although there are a few people – perhaps as many as several dozen, given the large population of the US – who support the ID agenda and are not religious, the overwhelming majority who oppose the teaching of evolution do so because it conflicts with their Christian beliefs. I offer a glimpse, if I may, into what might be a typical viewpoint:

One might imagine that, given our steadfast faith in the Bible as the only reliable source of Truth about the world, we would feel no need even to bother making any sort of a scientific argument against Darwin – after all, the whole idea stands in blasphemous contradiction to Genesis, so what more is there to talk about? Troublingly, though, modern society does seem to think that teaching science is important, and let’s face it, science has given us some pretty nifty stuff – cars, TVs, cell phones, computers, etc. So let’s see if we can have it both ways! What we need is a docile, biddable version of “science” to teach in the schools, one that can be just as scientific as it likes when dealing with, say, absorption spectra or Zener diodes, but which knows its place, and won’t go poking its nose where it doesn’t belong. If we can get that to happen, then we have the best of both worlds – we can maintain our fidelity to the word of God, but still tell ourselves that we are enlightened, modern thinkers, and full-fledged citizens of the 21st century.

So, what to do? As Christian fundamentalists, we have not a shred of doubt that the words of the Bible were dictated directly by God, not as allegory or multilayered metaphor, but as exact, literal Truth. But we also want to be players in this new game, Science, that seems to be all the rage. Can’t somebody help us?

…Hello, Creation Science! (er, sorry, I meant to say Intelligent Design.) Here’s how it works:

First of all, you don’t really have to learn all about Darwin’s theory to see that it’s all wrong. It gets awfully complicated in spots, and since we know it’s wrong ahead of time anyway (the Bible tells us so, which is why we are bothering with any of this in the first place), there’s really no need for us to slog through Darwin’s Dangerous Idea or The Blind Watchmaker or any other of those atheist texts. No need to learn about kin selection, say, or the Baldwin effect, or Hamming distances. Here’s what we’ll do instead – let’s just take a good close look at a living cell. Wow! It’s awfully complicated. Who knew? In fact, it’s such an overwhelmingly, mind-bogglingly, amazingly complex and beautiful system, so full of astonishingly clever design, that we are just completely bowled over by it all – we would never, ever, ever have come up with anything nearly this good, even if we had worked on it our whole lives.

Now from what we hear, the Theory of Evolution says that all of this got going somehow all by itself out of nothing more than “chance”! Apparently what they’re saying is that if you could put all of the molecules that make up a person into a box, and then you shook the box long enough, sooner or later a person would pop out. But that’s obviously ridiculous, and anyway we have a math teacher here who assures us that even if you accept the Earth’s age as being 4.5 billion years or so (more blasphemy, but we’ll let it slide, just for the sake of argument) it turns out that there still hasn’t been nearly enough time for the required amount of mixing and shaking. Not even close. In fact, we can’t see how something this amazing could ever have designed itself by mere chance, no matter how much time it had. So there you are: if all of this design couldn’t possibly have happened by random chance, then obviously we have to have a designer. (What we really think we have is a “Designer”, but for the sake of making some headway, we’ll just call it a “designer” for now…)

Of course there are many glaring problems and errors here, but the most troubling, to me, is the unwillingness to take the trouble to understand how design can build on design, how each new achievement is lifted into place by (and from) what has already been built.

Other objections abound. For example, ID does nothing to answer the question of the origin of the “designer”, whereas Darwinian theory does at least propose plausible models to explain how the design process might have “bootstrapped” itself from the primordial environment. In other words, ID papers over the question of design’s origin by assigning it to a preexisting “Designer” (which obviously just begs the question), whereas Darwin’s model is the only one that can accommodate design arising from simplicity all on its own. ID also fails to explain why existing designed parts are co-opted and reused over and over (e.g. the famous “Panda’s Thumb”), when if each organism were being drafted ex nihilo there would be no reason to do so (and no, we are not talking about convergence here, as Philip Johnson seems to think, but rather what Gould called “exaptation”). The list is long, and persuasive.

Above all, though, as far as I can make out, ID fails to meet the basic requirement of a scientific theory, which is to make falsifiable predictions.

I should also point out – though it should hardly be necessary – that there are many ways to reconcile a belief in God with an acceptance of the facts of evolution. The only faith that is really threatened here is the absolute conviction that all the words in the Bible are exactly, literally true in a perfectly flat, non-metaphorical way (and usually the text in question is the King James Bible, a very recent retranslation of older translations of still older translations of a hodgepodge of even more ancient documents). Unfortunately, though, this is quite a common mindset, and although everyone should be free, of course, to believe whatever they like, those who would promulgate such a confining worldview at the expense of the quality of public education can expect to encounter some resistance from the infidels.

Ultimately, though, there is another question: In a free society, who decides what should be taught in the schools? If the state of Kansas chooses, by an open democratic process, to teach that the Moon is made of green cheese, by what right shall we prevent them? If Biblical literalists become an overwhelming majority in the US (and it does appear that agnostics, atheists, and religious people of more supple beliefs are rapidly being outbred by the opposition), then it is hard to see how this battle will be won, in the long run. The Constitutional defense — that creationism is a religious idea, and that teaching it as science in public schools amounts to a violation of the Establishment Clause — has vulnerabilities that the ID argument is carefully designed to exploit, which means that the intellectual composition (and political independence) of the judiciary is of critical importance. Even the Establishment Clause itself is safe only in the absence of a sufficiently large Fundamentalist majority in Congress. I admit that the idea of such a Constitutional amendment still seems farfetched, but it is not entirely unimaginable, given the way things are going.

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  1. Eugene Jen says

    Not directly related to this topic. But I found a good reading about Intelligent Design Creationism movement. “Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives” by Robert T. Pennock from MIT Press.

    Posted May 16, 2005 at 2:56 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Eugene. I’ll take a look.


    Posted May 16, 2005 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  3. Jess Kaplan says

    When I saw the title, I thought you were going to write about The Farm. I was way disappointed to have to slog through a bunch of stuff about school & biology & religion & even Law. Heavy, man; but kind of imponderable, if you know what I mean.

    Posted June 15, 2005 at 2:09 am | Permalink