Intelligent Design rehashes old criticisms of evolution
I have never understood how, in the 21st century, there could possibly be any debate about whether Darwinian evolution provides the best explanation as to the origin and development of life. How could such an elegant, well-supported theory fail to be universally recognized as valid? How could people persist in believing that a conscious being “designed” life in the face of an evidence-based theory that much more convincingly accounts for life’s complexity?
And it’s not as if only a few individuals don’t accept Darwin’s theory. According to a 2005 survey conducted by Jon Miller of Michigan State University, 39 percent of people in the United States overtly reject Darwinian evolution, while 21 percent are uncertain. In sharp contrast to this, the vast majority of scientists are riding the Darwin bus, and given that it forms the foundation of current research in fields such as biology, zoology, genetics, paleontology and anthropology, many of them take it to work. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as the United States National Academy of Sciences, have declared that Darwinian evolution stands alone as the only well-founded theory of the origin and development of life. According to Brian Alters, education professor at McGill University and Harvard University, “99.9 percent of scientists accept evolution.”
In this light, the notion that there is a serious “debate” about evolution—a notion promulgated by our conflict-crazed media—needs to be majorly qualified. Darwinian evolution is controversial only for some non-scientists. When George W. Bush said in 2005, “The jury is still out on evolution,” he was simply wrong.
What is Evolution?
When Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, his was not the only theory of evolution on the market. What made Darwin’s theory unique was not the concept of evolution, which is the idea that change in species over time produces new species, but rather the mechanism that he proposed drives evolution: natural selection.
Natural selection combined two different ideas: 1) at any given moment, more individuals of a given species are produced than can survive, and 2) there is always diversity within species. Darwin reasoned that there would always be some individual members of a species with traits that would make them more likely than their fellows to survive to reproduce in a given environment. Over many generations, Darwin reasoned that this would result in the species becoming more and more like the individuals with the favored traits. Thus, evolution by natural selection.
If the diversity and complexity of all life is a result of evolution by natural selection, then, in the words of Darwin himself, “All the organic beings which have ever lived on this Earth have descended from some one primordial form.” The differences in form of one species from another are not the product of design, but merely the result of the interplay of individuals with diverse traits and the environment, the backdrop of which is the brute fact that not all members of a species will survive to reproduce. Darwin showed how order in life—and who can deny, when one considers the structure of a beetle’s exoskeleton or the remarkable fact of intelligent life, that there is order?—does not necessitate intentional design. Order can arise from disorder. Evolution is, as former Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins put it, the blind watchmaker.
A New Species or More of the Same?
Since the early 20th century, opposition to evolution in the United States has often come from fundamentalist Christians who believe the account of creation in Genesis accurately describes the origin of life on Earth. Several groups, such as the Creation Research Society in Michigan (founded in 1963) and the Institute for Creation Research (founded in 1970), have sought to extract a scientific theory from Genesis and to bring it into classrooms. However, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1987 case Edwards v. Aguillard that creationism cannot be taught in classrooms because it consists merely of religious doctrines, opposition to evolution has tended to come in the name of an alternative theory called Intelligent Design.
According to Michael J. Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University and one of the Intelligent Design movement’s most prominent proponents, Intelligent Design is the idea that life could not exist as it does, in a variety of complex forms, without the guidance of an intelligent being.
Behe’s main argument for Intelligent Design is the existence of what he calls “irreducibly complex structures.” An irreducibly complex structure is a structure with multiple parts that cannot function unless all of the parts are in place. It follows from this, Behe reasons, that the irreducible structure could not have evolved gradually but had to emerge all at once by an act of Intelligent Design—or what some would call an act of creation.
“If you take a watch, and you take out a gear from its workings, it stops,” Behe explained. “So it’s irreducibly complex. It needs those parts and a bunch of other parts to work. There are plenty of systems in life where if you take out a gene or a product it stops working.”
In his books The Edge of Evolution and Darwin’s Black Box, Behe cites the bacterial flagellum—that little tail on the end of bacterial cells—and the human blood clotting system as examples of irreducibly complex structures.
Intelligent Design parts company with creationism in lacking explicit references to God and the Bible. Intelligent Design also diverges from creationism in admitting that evolution may have occurred, insisting only that life had to have been intelligently designed—or created—first.
“Intelligent Design is not the opposite of evolution,” Behe said. “It is the opposite of undirected evolution, of unintelligent processes, unintelligent design. … I don’t think that [life] could have happened by an undirected process.”
Differences aside, however, Intelligent Design shares its main idea—an intelligent being made life what it is today—with creationism, and its arguments are hardly new. Historians of science will recall that Behe’s “watch example” is taken straight from William Paley’s 1802 publication Natural Theology, in which the argument is used to prove the existence of God. More damning, however, is the science textbook Of Pandas and People: Once a textbook that included a creationist perspective, instances of the word “creation” were replaced with “Intelligent Design” after the Edwards v. Aguillard ruling in 1987, and all else in the textbook remained exactly the same. This has led credence to those who say that Intelligent Design is, as Dawkins once put it, creationism dressed in a cheap tuxedo. It also served as a key piece of evidence in the first trial in which Intelligent Design was brought to court.
Evolution and Intelligent
Design Compete in Court
In the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District Case, a group of parents sued their local school district for using the Of Pandas and People textbook. After hearing testimonies from a number of scientists both for and against Intelligent Design, Behe being among them, the judge ruled that Intelligent Design invokes supernatural causation, is substantially the same as creation science, and has no criticisms of evolution that have not been answered by the scientific community.
Kenneth Miller, an evolutionary biologist and Brown University professor who testified at the trial, said in a 2006 lecture that at the Dover trial, “We saw Intelligent Design collapse as a theory.” For Miller, the lack of peer-reviewed scientific research makes Intelligent Design frankly unscientific.
“The reason I think [Intelligent Design] doesn’t belong in our schools is that no one, not even its most fervent advocates, have been able to produce any legitimate scientific evidence in favor of this form of special Intelligent Design creationism,” Miller said. “It isn’t fair to students to take an idea that hasn’t won any scientific support and pretend that it is a perfectly legitimate scientific theory—that I would regard as dangerous.”
Miller also does not buy Behe’s examples of irreducibly complex structures, and he argues in the same 2006 lecture mentioned above that just because we lack an explanation of how a specific thing evolved does not mean it could not have evolved; Miller even disputes that we lack such explanations, offering some of his own in the lecture.
In the trial, Behe himself admitted that there are no articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals defending Intelligent Design and that Intelligent Design has not been laboratory tested.
Behe did not comment specifically on the judge’s decision, saying he sees his role in research, not advertising a cause. But he did say this, which sets him in strict opposition to Miller: “I do not think that the National Academy of Sciences should have a veto power over what my kids learn at school … even if the scientific community is unanimously in agreement about something.”
It will take a Supreme Court ruling to set a nation-wide precedent, but the harsh verdict of Kitzmiller v. Dover indicates the environments of courts and in laboratories are ones for which Intelligent Design is poorly adapted.
Science and Society
A while ago, I spoke about the evolution/Intelligent Design debate with Arlene Zielinski, one of the assistant superintendants at my alma mater, Pennridge High School in Perkasie, Penn. My high school has had students and parents propose teaching alternatives to evolution in the past, although the school board has accepted none of these proposals. Zielinski reminds us that the problems with teaching evolution come from the fact that science competes with other belief systems for the same resource—minds.
“It’s a question of what’s learned versus what is actually operational in a belief system,” Zielinski said. “The school is not the only game in town. Equally continuous for many of the people living here is their religious education. That is also a source of teaching, as is the home. … Family is a very powerful influence.”
As Zielinski recognizes, the debate over evolution is not only within science; it is also a debate between science and its other—that is, between science and society—and this includes, among other things, religion and family. What is necessary is dialogue between scientists and non-scientists. Although the terms of such a dialogue would admittedly be difficult to determine, it is not for that reason any less necessary a task. Science acting without relation to the general public risks irrelevance. The general public acting without relation to science risks confusion.
Kenneth Miller believes that scientists need to be proactive in engaging in such dialogue: “All too many people persist in the fiction that there are missing links in human evolution that evolution is just a story as to where we came rather than a scientific theory that we use in an operational sense in a laboratory every day. Part of the problem comes from an aversion that a lot of people have to popularizing science.”
Shaun Poust is a junior journalism major who is also your distant relative. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.