The International Writers Magazine:
Not So Intelligent Design.
Mark H. Shapiro
"The quizzical expression
of the monkey at the zoo comes from his wondering whether he is
his brother's keeper, or his keeper's brother."...
... Evan Esar.
is both bad religion and bad science
Last week the federal
court in Harrisburg, PA was considering a legal challenge to the actions
of the Dover, PA school board, which have required that so-called "Intelligent
Design" theory be included in the Dover Area School District's
biology classes alongside the conventional theory of evolution.
The trial is being closely watched across the country because school
districts in some 20 states have been trying to introduce ID theory
into their biology curriculums. The scientific community generally
has opposed the teaching of ID theory in science classrooms on the basis
that it is just "creationism" (which already has been ruled
a religious doctrine rather than a scientific theory by the federal
courts) in another guise.
Intelligent Design proponents argue that some biological systems and
structures are too complex to have come about through the natural processes
that form the basis for modern evolutionary theory. These include
natural selection as proposed by Darwin along with more recent scientific
discoveries in gene transfer, symbiosis, chromosomal rearrangement,
and regulator genes. One ID proponent, Michael J. Behe, argues
that some biological systems are "irreducibly complex" in
the sense that if one part is removed then the structure will not function
as intended. He then argues that such irreducibly complex systems
could not be built up from simpler structures through evolutionary processes.
Another ID proponent, William A. Dembski, is a mathematician who argues
on statistical grounds that it is just too improbable that complex natural
systems could have arisen by chance.
ID theory is supported by religiously based organizations such as The
Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture.
The Center is noted for its so-called "wedge strategy".
The goals of this strategy go beyond displacing evolutionary theory
in biology with ID theory. According to this strategy the
Center aims "to see intelligent design theory as the dominant perspective
in science; to see design theory application in specific fields, including
molecular biology, biochemistry, paleontology, physics and cosmology
in the natural sciences, psychology, ethics, politics, theology and
philosophy in the humanities; to see its influence in the fine arts;
[and] to see design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and
political life." ID theory has been subjected to repeated
challenges from the mainstream scientific community. And, its
most fundamental tenets have been questioned in detail. Victor
Stenger's paper "Intelligent Design - Humans, Cockroaches, and
the Laws of Physics" is one of the more readable papers among
these challenges to ID theory.
The ID proponents advance as a solution to these "dilemmas"
that they see in conventional evolutionary theory the notion that such
complex systems provide evidence that an "intelligent designer"
must have been at work. In other words, in the absence of a natural
explanation there has to be supernatural explanation. The ID proponents
are careful not to mention who the "intelligent designer"
might be in order to skirt the proscriptions that prevent public school
employees from promoting religious beliefs. But, all but the most
intellectually challenged citizens should be capable of seeing through
the charade. Visits to the leading intelligent design web site
confirm that the great majority of the people behind the ID movement
are religiously motivated, and most of these are fairly fundamentalist
in their outlook. But unlike the openly religious approach of
the young-earth creationists who deny entirely the validity of evolutionary
biology along with good bits of geology, astronomy, and physics, the
ID proponents put forth a "theory" that both admits at least
a minor role for evolution in biology and concedes that most aspects
of the modern physical sciences are basically correct.
In this sense ID theory is a very watered down version of creation science
that almost could be considered "evolution light". ID
theory apparently allows evolution to account for much of the adaptation
that obviously takes place within biological species as their environments
change. But at critical points the supernatural designer has to
hop in to ensure that this limited evolution does not conflict too greatly
with supernatural creation. Whenever a biological structure somehow
is deemed "too complex" a natural explanation is not sought,
but rather the miraculous is invoked.
The problem with ID, as the IP sees it, is that it is both bad religion
and bad science. By invoking a nameless intelligent designer,
ID leaves it up to the learner to determine who or what this supernatural
force is. The ID proponents hope, of course, that students will
jump to the conclusion that the designer is the same God that they hear
about at church. But, many students might just as well infer that
the designer was from some hyper-intelligent race of space aliens.
ID theory, in order to pass Constitutional muster, allows you to choose
the supernatural designer that you prefer be it God, space aliens, or
The Great Seagull.
The main reason that ID theory is bad science is that unlike conventional
scientific theories it has almost no predictive power. In science
we judge the value of a theory by its predictive power. For example,
in physics we consider relativistic mechanics to be a better theory
than classical Newtonian mechanics because the predictions of relativistic
mechanics cover a wider range of physical situations while at the same
time the predictions of relativistic mechanics agree with those of classical
mechanics for those situations where the predictions of classical mechanics
were known to agree closely with experiment. A fundamental requirement
for any scientific theory is that it must make predictions that are
testable; i.e., that agree with observation and experiment. The
problem with ID is that it is basically a "negative" theory.
It doesn't predict the outcome of observations and experiment, but rather
provides, at least according to its proponents, only a way of determining
if an observation is detecting a situation that is so complex that no
natural explanation should be sought.
In addition, because of its vagueness ID theory can be challenged but
unlike scientific theories it can never be definitively tested.
One of my favorite challenges to ID theory, and one for which I've never
seen a satisfactory answer, is the conundrum of the appendix.
The human digestive system is a complex system of organs that resembles
the digestive system of many other mammals. Included in the human
digestive system is an organ called the appendix. The appendix
performs no known function in the human digestive system, although there
have been some suggestions that lymphatic, exocrine, endocrine, or neuromuscular
functions might be associated with it. However, about 1 in 100,000
people are born without an appendix; and, these individuals show no
impairment to their immune system or gastrointestinal function.
The human appendix is prone to infection from trapped fecal matter;
and, if infected it can rupture causing a life threatening case of peritonitis.
The question, of course, is why would an "intelligent designer"
provide humans with a digestive tract that includes an organ that has
no useful function in the digestion of food and which can threaten life?
While ID theory provides no answer to this question, conventional evolutionary
biology suggests that the human appendix is a vestige of a much larger,
and more functional appendix, found in a common ancestor that we share
with other mammals. In fact, some contemporary mammals possess
quite large appendixes that help them digest cellulose.
The appendix is just one example of a biological structure that (from
a design perspective) seems to have been rather poorly designed. There
are many others. Conventional evolutionary theory, however, doesn't
require intelligent design. It only requires that organisms adapt
well enough for survival.
The driving force behind the attempts to introduce ID theory into science
classrooms appears to be the incorrect notion common among religious
fundamentalists that evolutionary theory in biology requires that life
itself must have evolved from purely naturalistic causes and that all
of life can be explained through naturalistic mechanisms. However,
that is not what evolutionary theory says. It says only that more
complex forms of life evolved from less complex form, and that the materialistic
properties of living organisms can be understood by applying basic scientific
One does not have to be either an atheist or an agnostic to support
that position. There are many scientists with deep religious convictions
who also find evolutionary theory to be basically sound. In fact,
in the K-12 realm, the most detailed discussions of evolutionary biology
can be found in the Catholic parochial schools, which are not exactly
hotbeds of godless atheism.
The IP's position on ID is that it should not be taught in science classes
because it is not science; however, there is no reason why it could
not be discussed in a class that compares the many varied religious
alternatives to scientific theories. But, if does find its way
into science classes then it should be subjected to same rigorous standards
as other scientific theories.
© Dr. Mark H. Shapiro Oct 2005 - all rights reserved
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