1. Evolution is only a theory, and is not proven
2. There are many holes in the theory of evolution
3. ID resolves this problem by positing that some intelligent force is at work in the evolutionary process, or that evolution is false entirely and that species are the work of some intelligent force.
4. Therefore ID should be taught alongside evolution in public school science classes
Understandably, the scientific community and others are concerned about the final assertion. School boards in some states (notably Kansas) are attracted to the idea.
I will address the three major arguments of ID critics in order to get a better understanding of the issue.
Intelligent Design is just a subterfuge for teaching religion in public schoolsThe criticism most emotionally and emphatically put forward by most lay ID critics is that it’s an attempt to teach religion in schools. This argument may have some merit, although people in policy-making positions don’t spend much time on it, for reasons that will become clear.
Yes, at first blush, ID sounds like the Judeo-Christian and Muslim ideas of creation. And in all fairness, this is probably why people want ID to be taught in schools. It would be ignorant to assert otherwise. But what looks like a leopard may actually be a jaguar.
What makes ID something new and different is that it completely avoids any discussion about the guiding, intelligent force. It could be any god or pantheon of gods: the Judeo-Christian God, Allah, Ahura-Mazda, or even the body of Tiamat destroyed by Marduk. But this ignores the fact that it could be something else: a galactic computer, aliens, or Aristotle’s unmoved mover, or something that we don’t even comprehend.
Aside from the fact that non-religious explanations can be had for ID, it doesn’t really fall into our normal understanding of religion. I’m probably stepping into the Language Guy’s territory here, but I think religion is generally thought of more as an understanding of that intelligent force, as a set of morals, or as a means toward salvation or some equivalent. ID doesn’t attempt to address any of these concerns, and religion (at least as I know it) generally treats the origin of things only incidentally.
If Intelligent Design is taught in public schools, then you will have to teach any and all ideas, even crackpot onesThere is a very amusing satirical response to ID in The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which also has an uncyclopedia article on the subject. This position partially depends on the subterfuge argument addressed above, especially when you note that FSM-ID is essentially no different from regular ID, except that it is actually more a promotion of a particular form of creationism. It’s similar to an assertion that Christian-ID should be taught in public schools, which is something no one is seriously suggesting.
It does bear noting that teaching ID would necessarily also allow other ideas into the school. But it seems a weak criticism because no other such idea has been seriously promoted. Has anyone even come up with a comparable idea? All explanations I have heard, other than evolution, would fall into the sphere of ID.
The argument also partially depends on what is a “crackpot” idea, the issue to which I turn next.
Intelligent Design is not scientificThis is the argument where everyone is putting their money. Proponents of ID have even put forward a new definition of scientific theory, but it can hardly be taken seriously because this definition would include astrology. And opponents of ID have put forward their most damning criticisms under this argument.
Scientific theories rest on testable hypotheses. For example, if the current atomic theory is correct, then we can expect that sodium, when it comes into contact with chlorine, will result in an entirely different substance. This substance we know as common table salt. But what about evolution and ID? Bear with me as I develop the argument.
Evolution rests on the theory of natural selection. Natural selection comes from observations of life-forms in nature as well as an understanding of genetics. Since we know how genetics work, we also know that natural selection happens. But, as I believe ID proponents correctly observe, there is nothing solid to show that all species come about from common ancestors through the process of natural selection.
As an example, it’s patently bizarre to assert that a simple genetic mutation put lungs into an animal that previously only had gills. It’s even more bizarre to assert that it happened to an entire breeding population, or that small genetic mutations, all of which were beneficial, eventually led to the development of lungs in a breeding population. Does this mean it didn’t happen? Certainly not, but it provides a foothold for ID.
ID latches on to these utter improbabilities, as well as the lack of a complete fossil record. While we can’t realistically expect scientists to produce such a record, this is what ID proponents would have them do, or else teach ID. In this way ID is perhaps a good thing, because we should always examine our science and point out its flaws lest it become dogma. But ID attempts to explain these problems with the bare assertion that, since natural selection can’t account for everything, there must be some intelligent force behind it all. This is where, it is contended, ID steps over the line and becomes unscientific.
But is it really any more unscientific than evolution? No one would seriously argue that the theory of natural selection isn’t scientific. In fact, I don’t know why they still call it a “theory” and not a “law.” Evolution, however, is something different. I suppose it is testable, but to this date it has never been tested. If, for example, scientists could observe a population as it develops into two genetically incompatible species, then evolution will have been tested. But it never has been tested in this way, and likely never will be, at least not on the same scale as the lungs-to-gills transformation. Correct me if I’m wrong on the state of research. There is an overwhelming abundance of evidence in favor of evolution as a theory, but ID is correct in pointing out that it’s far from proven as a law.
ID, however, is not even testable. Even if we observe a new species developing from another, it would support ID no more than evolution. And even if we observe a new species coming out of thin air, it still doesn’t prove that there was some intelligent, guiding force behind it. Unless and until we observe the intelligent force itself, ID can’t be tested.
ID does have a lot of powerful support from the pure position of reason. Philosophers for more than two millennia have used pure reason to come to the conclusion that there must be some higher force. And the early philosophers, notably Thales, Aristotle, and Democritus, believed that it is impossible to discuss philosophy without discussing what would now be seen as more scientific endeavors. So the question really comes down to where the line is between philosophy and science, and whether there should be such a line.
I’m not sure how adequately I addressed this last issue, but at least it gives an overview, and allows us to make some conclusions and ask the right questions.
ConclusionID can’t properly be called religion, and it doesn’t really open the door to an infinity of crackpot ideas (unless you let non-scientists redefine what makes a scientific theory). ID is useful because it points out the flaws in the currently accepted scientific model of evolution, but it may go too far in making untestable assertions to explain those flaws.
Religion has its place, and science has its place. Reasonable people agree on that.
So what should we do about it? I can’t see any harm in requiring teachers to point out the flaws in the evolutionary model. Is there anything wrong with requiring teachers to make a statement that, while evolution is widely accepted in the scientific community, it is not the only explanation, and that these other explanations will not be discussed in class? I’m not sure what you do after that, if one of the students asks to be directed to a resource on these alternative explanations. This opens up a slippery slope. So you could simply have a standard list of other resources available in the area, or tell the kid to search the Internet, or allow the teacher to decline to answer the question.
What’s the best answer? I don’t claim to know. Let’s hear what you have to say.
Edit (11:00 a.m. Oct. 28): I would like to add one final point. Assuming that ID is nothing more than creationism in disguise, then going through ID as thoroughly as evolution in class would likely have no effect on students except to slow down their science education. If they are creationists they will get that education elsewhere, and if they are not then the ID discussion will likely have no effect on them. If there is more to ID than that, the situation is different.