How Intelligent Is Intelligent Design?

by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan

Anyone who follows the US news in even the most casual fashion is aware that great amounts of energy are being expended on the battle over whether Intelligent Design (ID) should be included in school curriculums as a serious competitor, for the task of explaining the diversity and complexity of life on Earth, to the dominant theory, which is typically called Neo-Darwinism. The fact that so many people with little or no expertise in biology and who normally would be unaware of such theoretical disputes have taken a side in the debate indicates that something beyond the mere technical nature of the theories is at stake.

I will declare up front that I don't regard Intelligent Design as a likely candidate to supplant Neo-Darwinism as the accepted model for understanding the origin of species, and not merely due to the hostility it generates in the scientific establishment, but even more because of its own weaknesses. For one thing, it seems to me that ID, at least in the versions of it with which I am somewhat familiar, posits an odd sort of process for God to be undertaking. ID, unlike fundamentalist creationism, generally doesn't deny that life on earth is very old, or that Darwinian evolution has occurred. Instead, it suggests that certain biological phenomena exhibit too complex a dependence on a number of underlying mechanisms to have evolved through random mutation and natural selection. The picture that arises is of God sporadically entering into biological evolution to tinker with it – a picture I find unattractive.

Furthermore, ID contains a theological difficulty I have never seen noted before in this context, but one which, for example, Cardinal Bellarmine would have been well acquainted with when he was criticizing Galileo: ID proponents appear to propose constraints on how God could have achieved the biological diversity we see around us. If God is omnipotent, then there is no reason that he couldn't have created the universe with the proper initial conditions so that eyes, for instance, would emerge from a process of Darwinian evolution. (One may question whether the process would be truly random in that scenario, but the important point is that it could appear entirely random to anyone lacking a God's-eye view of time and physical circumstances. Dembski apparently tries to maintain that, even if God had arranged things at the first instant of creation such that, from that point forward, a sequence of events indistinguishable from a standard Darwinian account led inevitably to life as we find it today, ID is still valid. He declares that in that scenario, ID applies anyway, since, "the Specified Complexity was ‘front-loaded’ in at the big bang." But then, it seems to me, Darwinism would offer a satisfactory account of everything that has happened since the Big Bang – no paltry accomplishment for any scientific theory, I would think – and ID would be relevant only in explaining evolution's kickoff.) To contend, as I understand ID theorists to do, that the eye is "too complex" to have evolved by random mutation and natural selection seems to deny God the power to produce eyes in that way.

Despite the fact I suspect that ID is an intrinsically flawed approach, I still endorse the efforts to have it presented in schools as an alternative to the standard theory. If ID is included in a biology course, the enrollees should certainly be informed that Neo-Darwinism is currently the orthodox view, embraced by the vast majority of working biologists. But it is precisely such firmly entrenched orthodoxies that most cry out for challenges. Even if the dominant theory succeeds in repelling all rivals, they still can serve to rescue the mainstream from the danger of self-satisfied complacency. Furthermore, many of yesterday's orthodoxies are now regarded as quaint curiosities, because some lonely dissenters refused to accept the prevailing wisdom. To me, teaching students that all scientific ideas should be open to criticism and that broad acceptance of a theory is no guarantee of its truth seems even more valuable than conveying the details of any particular theory.

Opponents of teaching ID in schools may acknowledge my above contentions in principle, yet still protest that ID is not a genuinely scientific alternative to Neo-Darwinism. They often castigate it as "agenda-driven science," an irredeemably biased venture unworthy of serious consideration. I think this complaint rests on unsustainable picture of "real science" as an entirely objective enterprise, pristinely untouched by scientists' personal beliefs about the nature of reality. An honest appraisal of how major scientific advances were arrived at in the past will reveal the mythical character of that image. Copernicus developed heliocentrism because he wanted to place the great light of the sun at the center of the universe, where his Neoplatonism demanded it ought to be. Kepler was dissatisfied with the Ptolemaic and Copernican models of the solar system, involving planetary orbits with their centers offset from the central body (the Earth or the Sun, respectively), because he believed that the angelic intelligences guiding the planets through the heavens could not steer them around an empty point in space. Galileo was notorious, and in the end suffered, for his propensity towards propaganda and his tendency to defend his positions with impressive rhetoric instead of solid evidence. Newton sought an alternative to the popular Cartesian physics of his time because it seemed to leave no place for an active God after His initial act of creation. Einstein famously rejected the "Copenhagen" interpretation of quantum mechanics because he thought that "God does not play dice" with the physical universe. Most great scientists and most great scientific advances have been inspired by a passionately held vision of the fundamental character of the world we inhabit. That is true of the defenders of Neo-Darwinism no less than it is of the proponents of Intelligent Design, despite the gulf separating their respective visions: the Neo-Darwinists take such umbrage at their critics because of their pre-scientific commitment to a mechanistic worldview.

Another charge lodged against ID is that the theory is not falsifiable, and therefore not scientific. I think there are several problems with this objection. First of all, it is not clear that any number of theories routinely accepted as scientific can meet this criterion. For example, Michael Polanyi notes that the well-developed and quite mainstream theory of crystallography cannot be falsified by any empirical findings. Nor, strictly speaking, can any probabilistic theory – an advocate of one can always maintain that any run of observations seeming to contradict it are merely a chance occurrence. Indeed, whether or not Neo-Darwinism is falsifiable is open to dispute.

What's more, the allegation that ID is not open to falsification does not even strike me as well grounded, although I admit that I haven't examined the matter at great length. As I understand the theory, ID claims to demonstrate something like, “Mechanism (organ, etc.) X is too complex to have evolved by random mutation and natural selection, and therefore must be the product of deliberate design.” If that is accurate, then ID may be falsified by showing that X could arise from strictly Neo-Darwinian processes.

In response to arguments like those above, the critics of teaching intelligent design in high school biology sometimes respond to the effect, "OK, these fine points in the history and philosophy of science are all well and good to bring up with graduate students, but they just don't belong in secondary education. There, the students need to be learning straight, mainstream evolutionary theory." Well, that's obviously because, right out of high school, all of their jobs will demand the application of Darwinism to fast food sales, computer repair, truck driving, and so on. You say what? They most probably won't need a mastery of evolutionary theory for their practical pursuits? Then why wouldn't it be more important that high school students learn that scientific theories are always tentative, that they must face competing theories, and that scientists are fallible, than that they learn the details of Neo-Darwinian evolution? The only reason I can see is an ideological one: students are being taught that scientists are quasi-magical people who bring enlightenment to the masses, the job of whom it is just to shut up and listen.

December 20, 2005

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives