Friday, October 28, 2005

Intelligent Design

Intelligent Design (or ID) is a hot topic these days. For those not in the know, the basic premises are these:
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 schools

The 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 ones

There 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 scientific

This 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.


ID 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.


  1. Hmm, some interesting points, but there are some important errors I must point out.

    First of all, the theory of evolution can NEVER become the "law" of evolution. A law tends to be something described by a theory- Newton's theories of gravity and motion contain laws (f=ma), which are true if the theory is correct.

    To call evolution "just a theory" is to misunderstand the philosophy of science. The way science is meant to be done is thus

    -gather evidence about the world
    -develop a theory that describes this evidence, and also make testable predictions
    -look to see if these predictions come true

    If those are true then you have a theory. However, a scientific theory CAN NEVER BE PROVEN TRUE. It must be falsifiable, and it must be unprovable.

    As time goes on, and as a theory passes more and more tests, it becomes very acceptable, but one piece, just one piece, of evidence that contradicts the theory can destroy it. As of yet, there has not been one to stop evolution, which means that it is a VERY strong theory.

    However, it has been modified over time, and there IS real scientific discussion about various points of it. I am no biologist, and cannot explain these, but apparently natural selection is not believed to be the only method of species change. Its interesting stuff, and if anything should be taught about evolution, it should be controversies WITHIN the scientific community. However, at low level science it would be foolish to teach that; most students would not understand it anyway. It would be the equivalent of talking about controversies in the theory of relativity, or quantum theory. You don't get to that level until you are doing a degree.

    Intelligent design is meaningless because there is no evidence for it. The idea of "irreducible complexity" that they argue is flawed in that there is NO EXAMPLE OF IT. The bacterial flagellum, or the eye, two examples, have been shown that they are NOT irreducibly complex at all. Also, there is a SEVERE logical problem in intelligent design. It claims that intelligent life is far too complicated. It could only be created by... intelligence.

    Every good scientist is aware that there are alternate explanations for every single thing in the world covered by a scientific theory, and any good scientist will not say that evolutionary theory (or any theory) is fact. They will say its the best explanation given the current evidence. I see no reason for this to change.

  2. Your objections are well taken. One thing I'd like to note is that natural selection and evolution are two different things. I'm not sure from your response that you caught that. If you did, good.
    First, I understand that theories are just about all science can offer us (at least outside the realm of physics) and you understand that. But the point is that as long as it's a theory, it is open to debate and debunkment.

    Yes, evolution is a great theory, and for the most part I believe it. It's patently ridiculous to deny natural selection, and evolution appears to be the natural consequent of natural selection.

    Your argument that the controversies within science shouldn't be discussed at a primary or secondary school level is a good one. But, in something as controversial as evolution, shouldn't the students at least be given a brief introduction to its criticisms? By that, I don't even mean you have to discuss them as criticisms. You could, alternatively, state the areas where more research needs to be done, so some students could take it as criticism and others could take it as a challenge to become paleontologists.

    And finally, everything in the fossil record that is believed to support evolution can equally be used to support intelligent design. So your argument that there is no evidence to support it is perhaps not worded correctly. It may (or may not) be true that evolution is a more plausible explanation for the evidence.

    I think the "irreducibly complex" argument is not the best argument in favor of ID. The better argument is the implausibility of certain evolutionary jumps (gills-to-lungs is the best example). That said, it's still a powerful argument, and maybe it depends on the second argument. By that I mean that eyes didn't just develop in one generation, according to evolutionary theorists. Rather, small mutations, all of which must have been beneficial, eventually led to the development of the eye. This is where it gets difficult to believe. (Yes, I understand that some cells could have developed as light-sensing, and could have, over time, developed greater and greater complexity, but this is still difficult for many to accept. It's still another jump to get to a lens that allows greater focusing ability, rather than just a mass of cells to detect different wavelengths of light.)

    "It claims that intelligent life is far too complicated. It could only be created by... intelligence."
    Yes, but not necessarily intelligent "life" as we know the word.

    All that said, I think the debate in and of itself is useful, not necessarily the concept of ID.

    And thank you for your comment. It's an excellent one.

  3. I hate to double-post, but I'm going to be without Internet access for the weekend.

    Isaac Asimov wrote a story (I can't remember the title) in which Multivac (the enormous computer) told its users what jokes are. It turns out, they are a method aliens use to study humans. These aliens are to us what we are to bacteria, in terms of complexity.
    Similarly, there was another story he wrote (again, can't remember the title) in which similarly complex aliens were using the earth basically as a petri dish. They allow us to go as far as developing nuclear weapons, but when someone develops a way to protect ourselves from those same weapons, then they put the equivalent of alcohol in the dish. If we could do that, we would be a threat to them, much like dangerous bacteria that get out of the dish.
    The aliens are so complex in these stories that bacteria are no longer useful subjects for experimentation for them.

    What am I trying to say here? Some people criticize ID because it refuses to discuss the intelligent force or the degree to which it is involved in the process of speciation. What these stories illustrate is that the intelligent force is not necessarily supernatural and that it is not necessarily a complete replacement for evolution.

    Honestly, I'm against any thorough discussion of ID in science curriculum. I don't even think scientists or science teachers are qualified to discuss it. But I find the position so unpopular that I need to take that side in order to foster discussion. And when I do that, people seem to think I support ID, which I do not.
    In addition, teaching a watered-down creationism in public schools could have the effect of watering down religion instead of introducing religion to the masses.

    Also, on Wednesday I will be attending a lecture on ID and the Constitution. I may post more on the subject after that.

  4. The political problem is really a practical one.

    (a) Sometimes balance is amazingly unbalanced. That's why it is rare to read in a newspaper "and now for the neo-Nazi perspective." Teaching is all about sifting the good stuff from the bad.

    Now, I happen to think that the schools, especially at the elementary level, should be doing a heck of a better job at teaching students to be skeptical. Unfortunately, skepticism often goes hand-in-hand with questioning other kinds of authority (family, religious, governmental, and institutional) and too many teachers and schools fear the loss of power in the classroom that would cause, I suspect.

    I would go for including a line in textbooks that says something along the lines of "evolution is a particularly controversial theory in society because it runs against the religious beliefs of many people." In fact, I think neglecting to note this would be a serious oversight.

    The development of knowledge is sometimes not particularly democratic, even if it hopes to yield a better democracy. If 99.9% of biologists agree, should it matter than 50% of parents do not?

    (b) I am less sanguine about how this plays out in the classroom. A science teacher who would seriously teach ID is not much of a scientist. And requiring those who are scientists to teach that evolution is "just a theory," does a disservice to both the teachers and the students.

  5. The problem is, though, that all those "flaws" ID uses to bash evolution have been refuted so many times it's not funny - including the few you mention. There are areas of controversy with in the study of evolution, unfortunately, they concern areas, the evolution of sex ratios for example, that can't be taught at a high school level because of the vast amount of background knowledge required to make sense of the issues involved (the evolution of swim bladders and lungs springs to mind also). Finally, I don't see how the fossil record can be used to support ID, perhaps you'd like to expand on that. I for one have never heard a proponent of ID talk about the fossil record in a way that showed they actually knew what they were talking about. The few discussions I have seen of the fossil record were merely plaigerisms from AIG.

  6. Actually, Mr. K, you are correct that evolution will never become a law. However, the reasoning you give is a bit flawed. Yes, evolution is almost untestable, but there is another reason. Let me tell you a little story about science.

    Wayyy back in the days of classical physics, scientists found rules by which everything worked. They showed how objects moved in space, how they rolled down a hill, and how they fell out of the sky. They'd figured everything out. They were so completely certain of their theories that they came to be called the "laws of physics." The Law of Gravity, the Laws of Thermodynamics, Newton's Laws of Motion. Great theories, all of them, and everybody was happy with them.

    As I said, these folks thought their laws were pretty fuckin' spiffy, and nobody ever gave them a second glance. Nobody, that is, until a man came around by the name of Einstein and brought his theory of relativity. You see, every scientific theory to ever exist in history up to this point had been based on observation. We roll this ball down this hill and see what happens. They quite literally had it down to a science. Existing theories, with 100 percent accuracy, told us how things worked, according to our observations.

    Einstein's theories, however, showed people that there is more to physics than they had observed. I won't bother you with details, but when several key experiments showed that Einstein was onto something, the scientific world was completely shocked. How could their laws that they had held for hundreds of years be wrong?

    But the story doesn't end there. Einstein was shocked when quantum physics came out, and fought tooth and nail against its proponents (The quote "God does not play dice with the universe." comes from these debates). Einstein turned out to be wrong - quantum physics accurately describes the way things work in our universe (so people who quote Einstein and say "God does not play dice with the universe" are wrong - God DOES, or so it appears, play dice with the universe). It does have a few special cases where it, and all other current physics theory fails, but smarter men than I are working every day to fix these errors.

    There is a big movement now called string theory, which, if shown to be correct, could toss quantum theory for the leading theory on particle physics. Will it ever be a law? Never. Nothing will ever be a law in physics again.

    Since Einstein, the scientific community has called nothing a law, despite the fact that relativity and quantum physics explain our universe much better than classical physics. Perhaps they do this as a reminder that it could happen again. Their best theories, refined by years of testing, shot apart in a matter of one little experiment. Nothing is EVER for certain in science, and not calling it the law of relativity or the laws of quantum physics is a reflection of this fact. In past centuries, if Einstein hadn't come along and told us that we were wrong about classical physics, quantum physics would be called law.

    And THAT is why we don't call things "laws" of science anymore.

  7. I want to go back quickly to the point that the laws of physics have holes in them. It's true. all Physics theories (at least, to my limited knowledge, although I'm pretty well-read on relativity, quantum physics, and string theory...) break down in certain extreme cases, like the big bang, certain black holes, etc.

    Do we say "Oh, noes! We have holes in our theories! We should throw away this theory because an intelligent force causes physics!" Some people might say this, but certainly I would hope a scientist would focus on fixing the theory instead of trashing it and saying the theory is wrong because of a few little holes in the theory.

    I think this illustrates the non-scientificness of the ID claims. Instead of relying on religion and philosophy to explain the universe, why don't we concentrate on either finding a way to "fix" (if it really needs fixing) the theories of evolution (preferably without the unprovable existance of a god or other intelligent designer), or at least offer a valid competing scientific theory? I would be fine if someone went against the theory of evolution with a genuine theory instead of "we don't understand it so it must be God," but I have yet to find an actual, scientific competing theory.

    Intelligent Design is, plain and simple, Creationism version 2.0. It's another way to prove that the bible is right, stripped of about 1% of its religious context. If ID is true, then the only logical conclusion is that there is some form of a creator. God is a matter of FAITH, not science, and that is the way it should be. Why would religion be worth believing in if we KNEW what was right? Where is the religious merit in believing what has been proven? For this reason, God cannot and should not be scientifically tested. I'm sure there are some Douglas Adams fans who remember the line from The Hitchhiker's Guide series that goes something like "'I refuse to prove my existence,' says God, 'for proof denies faith, and without faith, I am nothing.'" (subsequently, man uses irreducible complexity to prove that God exists, and therefore by His own logic, He doesn't...)

    To tell me that ID is not creationism is insulting to my intellignece, and by trying to prove that there is a God, ID proponents are trying to take away the faith part of religion.

    Finally, I'd just like to share a quote that I was/am planning on using in my own post on ID:

    "[W]hether there be a God and whatever be His nature; whether we have an immortal soul or not, or whatever may be our state after death, I can have no fear of having to suffer for the study of nature and the search for truth"
    - Alfred Russel Wallace, 1861

    Thanks for bearing with me through two long posts!

  8. Thanks for that clarification- my knowledge of the history of science is clearly incomplete; I know modern scientific philosophy. I would agree with most that you've said there.

    Kelly, yes evolution and natural selection are indeed seperate things, in that we pretty much know evolution happened, and that natural selection is the mechanism to explain it that is the best. At least, used to be anyway.

    I see what you mean by the fossil record supporting ID- ID is a valid explanation... if you imagine any jump, rather than spurred by random factors (although a discussion on what is random is always an interesting one), is spurred by intelligence. However there is absolutely no reason suggested by current evidence to imply that intelligence is in any way necessary for each jump.

  9. Thanks, everyone, for your comments!

    I talked with my dad about the subject on Saturday, and it seems he came to the same conclusion that I did: that teaching ID in public schools would be harmful to both the teaching of science and to the teaching of religion in other forums. As for the schools, the damage is obvious. And many churches are already watering down their messages to make them more acceptable to the masses. If you water it down anymore, then what is left to believe in?

  10. Just thought I'd weigh in on why I believe teaching ID, or even mentioning it in science class, would be dstructive too all parties involved..

    At it's heart, the debate isn't a scientific one but political. Evolution is the theory that the scientific community has, after generations of investigation, decided to put it's stock into. From a scientific perspective, it's the most logical and most coherent explanation for the origins of life. Why, then, should schools be required to undermine this theory by pointing out it's flaws? Because a select group of people object to it? It may satisfy creationists (and I'm in agreement with the other comments that ID is politically correct creationism), but that's the only purpose it serves. Imagine, if you will, a highschool that opts to stress evolution as a theory with flaws. Does the school only take this skeptical approach to evolution, thereby indirectly belittling it's importance in comparison to every other scientific theory taught in highschool? Or do they take it to the logical ends and opt to point out the flaws in all the prevailing scientific theories that are taught in various classes?

    Assume the former and you're apt to wind up with a host of kiddies who think that evolution is somehow less scientific than, say, geology or astronomy. Assume the latter, and you spend entirely too much time debunking good science rather than teaching critical thinking...and you've set a precedent by caving into political pressure.

    As to the question of whether ID is creationism, how can you argue anything else? The entire premise of ID is that there is an intelligent entity involved in the development of life. From an atheist perspective, teaching ID as a scientific theory is absolutely teaching religion. And I disagree with your assertion that this won't harm anyone. Just as proponents of ID see the teaching of evolution as the school's contradiction of their children's religious education, the opposition see the teaching of ID as undermining the religious education of their children as well. Except that evolution doesn't strictly exclude the possibility of a creator being. ID explicitly contradicts the possibility that there isn't one. It's far more religiously neutral to teach evolution and leave it to the parents to work it into their faith structure...

    (Cutting it short -- class is over.)

  11. So I am new to blogs and not really sure how they work but I do have a question for someone fairly up to date with Intelligent Design. Background...have no degree...but I do read post grad material which is currently about Galactic evolution or to not use the "E" hot word...the Galactic creation process. Having said this I am very interested in how someone would be able to come to the conclusion about HOW a galaxy seems to be created using intelligent design. Because it seems to me that Intelligent Design (carries it's own Homo centric bias in that it presumes it fully understands the very idea of intelligence)does the same thing science does yet adds the extra step of nameing a creator to the scientific process. If this is the case I don't understand how that is good rationality or "science" in that the very concept of God or a god implies doubt which implies the of no substantial concept of "God". in other words the very idea of a god or "God" itself is in it's own right clearly undefinable. As it should why then the weird necessity of saddeling a process like evolution or science with somthing so unneeded? I just don't get it. Why?