Intelligent Design

Intelligent design has become a scientific parasite, seeking out academic blind spots as a way of bolstering its own strength. This can only be bad for scientific progress, as the unanswered questions that science thrives on are continually held up as evidence of the failure of evolutionary theory, and in favour of a mysterious designer.


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Sneaking God into science by the back door

Time for the UK to confront 'Intelligent Design'

In February 2006, the BBC television programme Horizon" commissioned a MORI poll to ascertain UK public opinion on the theory of evolution(1). A group of over 2000 participants were asked what best described their view of the origin and development of life, from a list including creationism, intelligent design and evolutionary theory.

According to this poll, just over half of the British public are not convinced by evolutionary theory. Even given caveats about the validity of polls as a way of measuring public opinion, these are worrying statistics.

Creationism and its newer, shinier offshoot, intelligent design, have up until recently been regarded in the UK as peculiarly American phenomena. Interesting debates perhaps, especially the recent school curriculum cases in Ohio and Kansas but, like line-dancing and SUVs, not the sort of things to ever cause problems in Britain.

The Horizon poll, along with some other recent developments, would suggest otherwise. In February 2006, the Guardian reported that creationism and support for intelligent design was worryingly on the rise in the UK student population (2). Geneticist Steve Jones described this as "an insidious and growing problem", and has been commissioned by the Royal Society to give a talk in April with the unambiguous title 'Why Creationism is Wrong'. More extremely, creationism is taught quite openly in biology classes as an alternative to Darwin in the trio of Vardy Foundation schools in the north of England, which are controversially funded by a local evangelical Christian businessman.

So, just as line dancing classes are now a staple at the local community centre, and the south of England gets increasingly clogged up with SUVs, it looks like creationism and intelligent design may also be added to the list of unlikely US exports that have taken root in the UK.

Creationism and intelligent design

For some, there is a feeling that we have been here before. Didn't we go through all of this with creationism decades ago? Haven't we dealt with all of this stuff already? The answer is yes and no. While creationism and intelligent design come from the same place – a belief that the universe and everything in it was designed – intelligent design has been presented as a 'scientific' position, and this has changed the overall nature of the debate.

Creationism is a position based on the Bible. Creationists generally believe that God created the universe in 6 days because the Bible tells us so. This entails a flat denial of Darwinian evolution, and often also comes in conjunction with 'young-earth-ism', the belief that the scientific estimates about the age of the earth are secondary to Bible accounts. Creationism is now thought to be mostly the preserve of evangelicals and extremists, although some polls in the US would suggest otherwise. The current debate is framed in terms of 'intelligent design', an idea which, although just as fundamentally religious as creationism, claims to be a scientific position rather than a religious one.

In the words of the intelligent design think tank the Discovery Institute, the ID position is:

"Certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection ." (3)

These 'certain features' are very complex systems. ID's most prominent defenders claim support from scientific work in biology and biochemistry, arguing that science has revealed some incredibly complex natural systems, systems which they argue are too complex to have evolved. In ID jargon, such systems are described as 'irreducibly complex'. ID proponents hold that design is a better explanation than evolution for cases of such 'irreducible complexity'.

What ID doesn't say is almost as interesting as what ID does say. The movement has selected its proponents well – they tend to be academic scientists rather than pastors and many have PhDs from prestigious institutions. Their claim is that an intelligent designer is the best explanation of some complex natural phenomena, but the status of the designer is somewhat coyly left undeclared. As Michael Behe, one of ID's most prolific and vocal supporters, said in a recent interview with the Guardian:

"All that the evidence from biochemistry points to is some very intelligent agent. Although I find it congenial to think that it's God, others might prefer to think it's an alien – or who knows? An angel, or some satanic force, some new age power. Something we don't know about yet."

Their argument is that support for intelligent design comes from science, not from religion. ID proponents tend to keep their mouths closed about their religious beliefs in public, claiming that they have been led towards intelligent design out of a thirst for adequate explanation rather than religious preoccupations. However, after a first glance, and after wading through the mass of scientific jargon in pro-ID material like Behe's book "Darwin's Black Box ", or any of the innumerable ID blogs out there, one thing becomes clear – intelligent design is a religious position, not a scientific one. By attempting to frame this argument in terms of science, the intelligent design movement are seriously misrepresenting their own position in an attempt to garner popular and political support for their agenda.

Scientific problems

Going a little deeper into intelligent design claims shows that its claims to scientific validity are unwarranted. First of all there is the general point about peer review – no research in support of ID has ever been published in a peer reviewed journal. This in itself should indicate problems with a position and a research program with a supposedly respectable scientific basis. But for those who would demand more detail on the problems with intelligent design, we need only look to the work of one of ID's most high-profile supporters, Michael Behe.

Behe is a professor of biochemistry at the University of Lehigh in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. His arguments are mostly based on biochemistry, and he is credited with bringing the notion of 'irreducible complexity' into common usage in his 1998 work "Darwin's Black Box" (4), which makes the case for intelligent design against Darwinian evolution as explanation of complex natural phenomena. To a non-scientist some of the biochemical detail in Behe's book is daunting, but his argument boils down to the position that there are certain systems in nature which have many parts, and which require the operation of all of their parts to work. As he puts it:

"By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning ."

The given examples of irreducibly complex systems range from blood-clotting to mouse-traps.

Behe holds that no scientist has ever shown how an irreducibly complex system might have evolved. This leads him to hold that gradualist explanations, whereby a system would develop in complexity gradually over generations, cannot explain these particular phenomena. Behe then argues that the inference to design is the best way of explaining the supposedly sudden appearance of such extremely complicated systems.

Biochemists' responses to this argument are unambiguous – irreducible complexity is not a problem for evolutionary biology, and such systems can be shown to have evolved. Professor PZ Myers, Professor of Biology at the University of Minnesota and ardent pro-evolutionary blogger, makes the following point about Behe's claims:

"'Irreducible complexity' is one of those things the ID people have gotten a lot mileage from, but every competent biologist immediately recognizes its antecedents: Muller's ratchet. Muller made the argument back around 1925 that genetic processes would naturally lead to increasing complexity; cycles of gene duplication and addition to pathways would unavoidably lead to more and more steps. Contrary to Behe, the phenomenon he describes is actually a prediction of 80 year old genetics."

Myers' rebuttal of Behe's position on irreducible complexity can be found here , as can some more material about evolutionary approaches to irreducible complexity.

In the recent Dover trial in Ohio, where the local school board's decision to teach intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in biology classes was overturned, Judge Jones made the following statement about irreducible complexity:

"The argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, involves the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980s." (5)

The decision was influenced by expert testimony, details of which can be found in the full text of the decision. It is clear that scientific opinion is against Behe on this point. Irreducible complexity is an insufficient basis for any scientific position, and cannot support the weight of intelligent design.

Conceptual problems

However, it is unnecessary to take intelligent design in terms of science to see the flaws in pro-ID arguments. If irreducible complexity is not a problem for evolutionary biology then it is clearly important to point this out, but as a non-scientist I would argue that we don't need the evidence of chemistry or biology to see the flaws in the pro-ID position.

The inference to design is only ever an inference to the best explanation from a religious perspective. For those who don't have a particular religious agenda, it is natural to want to exhaust other avenues of enquiry before positing supernatural beings to explain our scientific problems. The intelligent design movement, for all of its claims about scientific evidence pointing towards design, has to go through some ridiculous intellectual contortions in order to wedge the idea of a designer into a genuinely scientific worldview.

Intelligent design makes no room for the idea of bad design, and irreducible complexity itself suggests a bad design strategy. Making complex things all at once so that they only work if all of the components are present and fully operational is an inefficient way to put something together. Are we to assume that not only is this intelligent designer mysterious, but also that he, she or it is perhaps a bit rubbish? The best explanation of complex systems in nature, which encompasses all of the bits that do 'work' and all of the bits that don't, is that they evolved. Positing a designer with their own private reasons for designing things badly is simply a step too far in what is claimed to be a scientifically grounded inference to the best explanation.

As new areas of science grow and develop, areas appear which require research, where questions have not yet been fully answered. Intelligent design is jumping on these areas, and taking the inability of evolutionary scientists to offer a complete explanation of some very specific cases as evidence that evolution is completely wrong. As Richard Dawkins puts it:

"If the scientists fail to give an immediate and comprehensive answer, a default conclusion is drawn: 'Right then, the alternative theory, intelligent design, wins by default.'" (6)

Without any scientific backing of their own, intelligent design proponents pounce on gaps in other scientific accounts and adopt them as support for ID. In this way, intelligent design has become a scientific parasite, seeking out academic blind spots as a way of bolstering its own strength. This can only be bad for scientific progress, as the unanswered questions that science thrives on are continually held up as evidence of the failure of evolutionary theory, and in favour of a mysterious designer.

A problem for the UK?

The recent educational cases in Ohio and Kansas were watched with great interest from this side of the Atlantic. However, it may be time to take some lessons from the US cases as well as news material if intelligent design is to be prevented from becoming a major problem in the UK.

One of the interesting features of the intelligent design debate in the US was the initial unwillingness of the scientific authorities to engage in debate on the issue. Intelligent design, as an offshoot of creationism, was seen to be self-evidently dodgy. Scientists didn't want to dignify it by speaking out against it. This is an understandable tactic which eventually backfired, allowing the intelligent design factions to take a 'what are they scared of?' approach.

Intelligent design is now a coherent movement with vocal, well-educated proponents, extensive literature, substantial funding and a relentlessly enthusiastic online supporters' community. It is therefore an issue which cannot be ignored. The American Association for the Advancement of Science has now responded to the intelligent design challenge well, with an extensive public information campaign, lectures and online resources. A pro-evolution blogging community has also taken up the online challenge, with lively and articulate results.

One major problem for the issue of schools teaching is that the call to 'teach the controversy', to teach both evolution and some form of ID in classrooms, sounds at first to be an open-minded position. Teaching the controversy sounds like a sensible thing to do, if there are genuinely two alternative scientific theories. But ID is not a genuine alternative to evolution, as it has no scientific backing, so teaching the controversy is misleading rather than fair-minded. It is therefore of the utmost importance to get the idea that ID is not a valid alternative across, so as to avoid the school science teaching fiascos we have witnessed in the US.

Stalwart defenders of evolution Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are, as always, responding to the challenge well. The Royal Society is also hosting the aforementioned public talk by geneticist Stephen Jones(7) . Thousands of members of religious communities across the globe have signed up to the Clergy Letter Project, an open letter which maintains that:

"The theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as "one theory among others" is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children."(8)

All of this effort is immensely valuable, but it will have to be sustained to be effective. The most important lesson the UK can take from the recent US schools cases is that intelligent design cannot be ignored. By going out to bat for evolution, by continually publicly emphasising the illegitimacy of intelligent design as an alternative to evolutionary theory, UK scientists, teachers, writers and learned institutions can all work together to ensure that intelligent design does not become a problem for the UK. Information is the only weapon against ignorance. Making a loud noise about evolution will therefore be the best way to prevent intelligent design from bringing God into science through the back door.

March 16 2006

References and links

(4) Michael Behe, Darwin's Black Box: Biochemical Challenge to Evolution , Touchstone, NY, 1998