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|Is Intelligent Design A Theory?|
Feb. 28th, 2009 at 1:40 pm
If I have some reservations about Darwinism as a good theory, what can we say about intelligent design? Let me first try to describe it. Intelligent Design theory says that there are too many interdependent parts in metabolism for these changes to evolve gradually. They call this irreducible complexity, and it’s pretty easy to imagine. A half an axle, half of a cell phone, are not half as useful as a whole one, they are entirely worthless. Intelligent Design advocates point to a great number of complex processes in life, from cellular motors to oxygen exchange in hemoglobin, and say that these things cannot develop incrementally. A cellular motor that barely works, or a hemoglobin that doesn’t exchange oxygen, is worse than nothing. It confers no evolutionary advantage and in some cases will kill you altogether. How do you get all this complicated machinery to develop gradually, in stepwise fashion?
A lot of these things have to work together, and very well, or they don’t work at all, and the organism ends up dead. So how do you suddenly “evolve” all of that stuff at once? The suggestion is, you can’t. And while Intelligent Design theory concedes that species do adapt in response to natural selection, the most important parts are too important, and too complex, to evolve gradually and randomly. The implication is (and this is very much an implication; rarely do they come out and say it) , those key parts were not evolved, they were designed. And then, depending on how much you credit some of their statements, ID advocates either leave it there, or they meanÂ to say this proves the existence of a Creator.
The biggest problem with this formulation is it isn’t even a theory. It doesn’t make any predictions. It doesn’t allow us to form and test hypotheses. And it’s always doomed to be on the defensive. Whenever Darwinians solve a problem in evolution (as they appear to have done when it comes to the hemoglobin problem), Intelligent Design must beat a retreat and ask, “Well, ok, you’ve explained how hemoglobin evolved, but how about the visual system? How about flagella?” Its entire viability as a theory (if we can call it that) is banking on the failure of Darwinian theory. And as Darwinian theory is able to explain more and more of these things, Intelligent Design must retreat into the shadows of ignorance. For once they show how certain things could have evolved, Intelligent Design’s proposition fails. The Darwinians don’t even have to prove that’s how things did evolve, it’s sufficient to destroy Intelligent Design to show how it could have. Tactically, this is not an enviable position to constantly find yourself in.
Intelligent Design itself doesn’t suggest any experiments to conduct or provide specific mechanisms for how this design happens. I want to ask Intelligent Design advocates, “Ok, you don’t think we could have evolved through evolution alone. All right. How did we get created? How did the Designer design us intelligently? Did He use AutoCAD? A 3-D lathe? How would we know we were designed–where would that evidence show up and how should we go looking for it?” In response to these questions, Intelligent Design is mute. (Though, in ID’s defense, I should add that Darwinism didn’t get anyÂ mechanism until decades later with Gregor Mendel, and then, finally, in the next century, with Watson, Crick, and Franklin. What Darwinian evolution did have, even from the beginning, was a guideline for what to look for and where to look for it. I don’t see that with ID.)
All Intelligent Design has to say is that creating life is really, really complicated and hard and we don’t have any idea how it could have been done. Well, not to be rude, while that’s true,Â you don’t need a theory for that. We create theories to answer questions, not to demonstrate how complicated and difficult those questions are.
That said, I do not think Intelligent Design is entirely useless.Â I just don’t think it’s a theory. They have caught evolutionary biologists and biochemists making a lot of unproven claims. Until the Intelligent Design advocates started complaining about it, I think a lot of people in related fields assumed that a lot of work had been done that actually hadn’t. There was altogether too muchÂ inference and hand-waving. If carping from Intelligent Design advocates makes evolutionary biologists dot their i’s and cross their t’s, then I say that’s useful.Â As I tried to say earlier, it’s one thing to say natural selection explains thus-and-such, but in science you’re supposed to actually prove it. And there has not been enough of that in evolutionary biology, in my opinion. From this point of view alone, it’s no wonder evolutionary biologists are impatient withÂ IDers, because they’ve created a lot of makework for them.
What about teaching it in schools? I’m not able toÂ think of much value in teaching Intelligent Design in the biology curriculum, but in general I think examining a bunch of discarded theories in biology, like vitalism, spontaneous generation, Lysenkoism, the four humors theory of disease, and so on, would have tremendous value. (Vitalism lives on in certain strains of environmentalism and alternative health therapies, so we could make this discussion quite relevant to today.) We ought to review how these theories were examined and discarded. It would be a great opportunity to show how science is supposed to work. Too many kids (and adults for that matter) are taught the received wisdom as if it were dictated by Zeus; they need a sense for how people have formulated theories to account for observations; they need to know the push-and-pull of science, the role of politics, and how tentative all of its propositions really are.
And I know I’m weird, but I think a class that examined questions of cosmic and human origins, and the many ways people have tried to answer that question, would be really fascinating. In such a class, I see no reason to exclude Intelligent Design (and a discussion of its deficiencies) from that discussion. (I remember when I was at BYU, a Hare Krishna made a presentation to the honors program. He said, “We believe the world was created on the back of a turtle. I know that sounds absurd, but it’s not half as absurd as Darwinism.” I’d have him come to my Origins class too!)
As a believing Latter-day Saint, I obviously sympathize with certain implications of ID, though I do not think Darwinian evolution excludes those either. I think it is possible for ID-affiliated scientists to do real science, andÂ I think some of them have. They should not be denied grants or workÂ solely because they subscribe to ID; it is possible to do a lot of work in science without reference to a specific theory.
Too much of the hysteria around teaching creationism is an unfortunate artifact of the Scopes Trial, which was a ginned up controversy and publicity stunt from the very beginning. It did little good and lasting damage to the relations betweeen science and religion. John Scopes was a physics teacher, and it’s far from clear if he ever said anything about evolution in his class. The School Board never tried to enforce the state law or told him not to teach evolution. Just about everything you’ve been told about the Scopes trial, and its supposed victory for the forces of truth over the forces of obscurantism, is wrong.
Simon Conway Morris, the famous evolutionary paleobiologist, summarizes my perspective on this overblown and unfortunate bit of history nicely:
When so many kids are graduated from high school unable to locate the United States on a map, or most Harvard graduates do not know what causes the changing seasons, the fear that students will graduate believing in magical theories of biology and only mouthing Baptist bromides is a quaint if not entirely misplaced concern when viewed in relation to the terribly discouraging state of science education in general. If Stephen Prothero is right, there has also been an unfortunate decline in religious literacy as well. In our polarized world, it might not occur to people that we could use a lot more of both science and religion in our schools.