Intelligent Design, or Not So?

By Mike Zasadil

Intelligent Design (ID) is promoted as a legitimate, scientific alternative to the one sided presentation of evolution as the origin of the human species.  ID proposes that a non-specific intelligent designer is the best explanation for the creation of many of the features of life and the universe.  ID advocates offer the analogy of investigators at an archeological dig or a crime scene.  In either case certain patterns are consistently interpreted as an indication of an “intelligent designer.”  Similarly, ID maintains that patterns in nature, especially extremely complex systems, also establish the necessity of an intelligent designer.  ID advocates question how evolution can explain the origin of an eye, of sexual reproduction or any system which appears to require simultaneous development of multiple elements to gain any advantage.  The lens of an eye is of no value without the retina and the neurological systems to process the information produced by the retina.  The origin of sexual reproduction raises obvious analogous issues.  By raising these questions ID advocates claim they are merely trying to introduce some critical thinking into the discussion of evolution.  Since the intelligent designer is never identified as God, they claim that ID is not a religious but an agnostic movement.

Logically, the problem with ID is that it takes our well honed ability to detect evidence of the hand of man and transforms it into the presumed ability to detect the hand of a universal intelligent designer.  We do the former very well.  For example, archeologists who find an arrowhead know without a doubt that a human being existed who created that object.  We know why and approximately how he created it.  We can safely draw these conclusions because our culture has thousands of years of experience with arrowheads and with people.  Our ability to draw these inferences in regard to our own creations does not justify any confidence that we can do the same with other elements of the universe.

Still, our ability to see human creations for what they are can be valuable in discussion of ID.  Consider Intelligent Design itself.  In 1987 the Supreme Court ruled that teaching Creationism ran afoul of the First Amendment prohibition of the establishment of religion.  Less than twenty years later we have the theory of Intelligent Design which advocates for an intelligent designer but has been carefully scrubbed of all explicit religious references.  The purpose of Intelligent Design is as clear as the purpose of the arrowhead.  The Supreme Court said that a religious theory such as Creationism cannot be taught in public schools.  ID was developed specifically to clear this constitutional hurdle.  So we have an intelligent designer who created the basic elements of life and the universe – what is that, if it is not God?  ID is clearly a Trojan horse designed to sneak religious ideas into public education.  This illustrates the most fundamental problem with ID.  It’s advocates are so dedicated to their cause that they are willing to be dishonest in denying ID’s religious roots.

The dishonesty does not end there.  The school board in Dover Pennsylvania demonstrates their dishonesty or willful ignorance by promoting the statement that “Evolution is not a fact it is just a theory.”  As they should well know, in the scientific realm “theory” does not mean “just a guess.”  A theory is the fundamental intellectual framework which describes some aspect of the universe.  When you say that it is theoretically impossible to exceed the speed of light you are making the strongest possible statement to that effect.  No amount of tinkering with your space ship or particle accelerator will allow you to violate this basic law of the universe.

ID advocates claiming to foster critical thought in scientific curricula are no more honest.  It is strains credulity to believe that non-denominational advocates of critical thinking would come to focus exclusively on a single scientific discipline when there are so many areas suffering from a critical thinking deficit.  Take, for example, religious literalists.  All over the world there are people whose entire world view is based on their possession of the literal word of God.  Virtually every one of these folks cleaves to the religion of the family or community that they were born into.  In the United States many of these folks see evolution as a threat.  What should be more troubling to them is that their true believer path to enlightenment when practiced by people in other communities produces “infidels.”  When you have two people who take the identical path to enlightenment but end up viewing each other as implacable enemies, this is where some critical thinking could really come in handy.

Regardless of their motives, ID advocates’ call for more of an emphasis on critical thinking in science curriculums is worth considering.  Few students take many science courses and fewer still will ever apply the assortment of facts and figures they learn.  However, the scientific method is another story – it is not just about science it is about thinking.  It is a rigorous approach to the use of reason and observation to move from facts to conclusions (and not the other way around).

Unfortunately, the ID version of critical thinking is more a game of gottcha.  They seem to feel that they can invalidate the theory of evolution by asking the hard questions.  There is nothing wrong with asking questions – so long as you are willing to listen to the answers.  The idea that the theory of evolution will be invalidated by demonstrating that there are still controversial or poorly understood areas is just wrong.  The theory of evolution is rock solid because of all that it does explain.  Charles Darwin’s concept of random mutations and natural selection allowing isolated populations to evolve into separate species which are adapted for their specific environment did an excellent job of explaining the evidence he observed over a hundred and fifty years ago.  Today it is just as useful in understanding how two of the fastest replicating forms of life are evolving right before our eyes as bacteria evolve to become resistant to our antibiotics and insects evolve to resist our insecticides.  If Intelligent Design was really about critical thinking, it would ask why the intelligent designer seems to be working so hard on bugs and bacteria lately.  Strictly speaking, I’m not sure bugs and bacteria are even American.  So that can’t be right.

Evolution does not invalidate faith in God.  You can consider evolution to be God’s plan for creation.  Or, since evolution is the result of untold billions of random mutations, you can believe that these mutations are all truly random or you could believe God is tweaking them occasionally, but you can’t prove either.  You can even believe that God created the world in seven days six thousand years ago, but if He did, He created a world that looks much older and populated with critters with an evolutionary history built into their genes. The ultimate question for ID advocates is why religious people who enjoy complete religious freedom would take time from perfecting their relationship with God to embark on an intellectually dishonest crusade to convince the world that their faith is based on scientific principles.  Seems to me the answer is that their faith is no stronger than their grasp of science.


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