Intelligent Design on Trial

A case opening today in the Federal Court in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is likely to draw worldwide attention. A group of outraged citizens of the Dover School District, 20 miles south of that state capital city, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, has filed suit against their school board for requiring the teaching of “Intelligent Design” (ID) in science classrooms. The plaintiffs argue that ID is a religious doctrine because it is based on a non-falsifiable premise. As such, it should not be treated as a viable alternative to the Darwinian Evolution, which is regarded as one of the most robust theories in all of science.

One of the great similarities between science and religion is the belief that apparent complexities can result from a few simple elements. Whether the substance of universe and life on Earth are the result of the standard model of particle physics and the four-nucleotide code of DNA or of the action of a single intelligent designer, our minds crave and search for simple explanations.

So what are we doing in court, where lawyers earn their living from complexity? No theory, no matter how well supported by evidence, is clear when an advocate is paid to transform a minor disagreement into a feud.

Advocates of teaching ID as a science say that it is important to “teach the controversy.” As an open-minded scientist, my first inclination is to agree with such a statement. And as a person who loves to teach, here is my introductory lesson. It is the definition of the controversy itself.

Let’s start with Darwin’s original work. His object was not to undermine religion — he was in fact a religious man himself — but rather to provide a useful model of the origin of species. Through painstaking collection and analysis of samples, he documented the process by which species develop. He hypothesized that the mechanism for speciation was natural selection. In the 150 years since, scientists have found his hypothesis increasingly successful. That is how it achieved the exalted scientific status of theory.

Discoveries in physics, chemistry, molecular biology, paleontology, and geology have led to a more complete understanding of life and its development on this planet. Of course, our knowledge is incomplete and always will be. That leaves room for varying interpretations of new evidence. The theory will continue to be open for revision. Even its central premises remain open to change. But the scientific process that has led to the theory as it now stands and may lead changes in the future is best described as cooperative argumentation, not controversy.

ID claims that the complexity of life is beyond human understanding, but all science can say is that certain things are beyond our current knowledge. We continue to make scientific progress, and no one knows how far our understanding will carry us.

Thus the hypothesis that an intelligent designer exists is neither testable nor falsifiable, nor will it ever be. That doesn’t make the fundamental premise of Intelligent Design incorrect. It just means that Intelligent Design is not science.

Teaching science includes teaching the cooperative art of scientific argumentation. When that argumentation turns to controversy, objectivity is replaced by advocacy and the discussion ceases to be scientific. Teaching the controversy is great training for future attorneys, but it is lousy science.

For a selection of books about evolution and human origins, see the evolution links page of the Science Shelf book review archive.

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4 thoughts on “Intelligent Design on Trial”

  1. Though the particular phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution, it is a useful way to describe the way that amendment is implemented. So your first statement is a red herring.

    I’m sorry that you find it hard to accept that random mutation can lead to evolution. Furthermore, you confuse evolution with purposeful change. We (and the other llife forms on Earth) are not the pinnacle of evolution but merely the current result of an ongoing process. An unlikely event, like hitting the Powerball lottery, is bound to happen given enough time, and the descendents of the lucky winner will have their chances of survival greatly increased.

    Likewise, random mutations that happen to have survival/reproductive benefit will tend to remain in the gene pool. The greater the benefit, the more likely they are to increase. The entropy argument does not apply, because this is not a closed system. It is possible to increase order locally even as the global disorder increases.

    In the end, Intelligent Design rests on a supernatural designer. That takes it out of the realm of science. Legalities aside, it simply does not belong in a science curriculum.

    Furthermore I believe a strong legal argument can be made that the assumption of a supernatural designer, whether or not it is called a deity, is a religious belief. Therefore the school board can not impose it on the curriculum with one exception: it is fair game to include it in a course in comparative religions. If you want to “teach the controversy,” do it there.

    You might be interested in comparing your argument to the view of a prominent Catholic priest who considers it very bad theology.

    A number of books reviewed on my Science Shelf website address this issue far better than I can, so I don’t plan to reply furter to this. You may have the last word, but readers should not interpret my lack of response as acquiescence.

  2. First off, let’s get one thing straight – THERE IS NO SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE IN THE CONSTITUTION!!!!! Read the First Amerndment, and you will see that the only issue is that the Government may not make any laws that establish a state religeon and may not tell people how they may – or may not – worship. That is it!! There is no Wall of Separation anywhere but in the Federalist Papers, and these are NOT the law of the land – just a collection of musings and propositions made regarding the sociopolitical issues of the time.

    NOW THAT THAT HAS BEEN ESTABLISHED, let us proceed to the next issue: Random Mutation theory. There are people who honestly believe that, given several billion years of shaking, a bag of bicycle parts will somehow assemble themselves into a bike. Neat idea, and thoroughly unprovable. However, it discounts a recognized and proven force of the natural universe – entropy. As Stephen Hawking so elegantly put it, “entropy gives direction to time”. Nothing unliving gets better, unbreaks, or grows larger with time. Since we all reasonably conclude that raw elements – not yet integrated into even marginally living DNA – are nonliving, they are subject to entropy and thus do not improve with time.

    Why, you might ask, am I babbling on about this side issue? Simply put, to prove a point – science says what we want it to say. Science says that a million monkeys with a million typewriters over a million years will produce the works of Shakespeare. This same science is telling us that time does not build, but rather degrades.

    Can we really trust science at this point? Truly, science has made some magnificent breakthroughs, but can science be allowed to dictate the truth in the direction of deity?

    In the end, is God really so hard to accept and live with? Perhaps, for those who do not wish to have their personal desires frowned upon – living excessively, divorcing, taking lightly the human rights of others.

    Intelligent design is not enough. We are intelligent, and we design machines that do wonderful things. However, we have yet to come close to understanding the design of a living being, or of a living ecosystem. These things require intelligence on an order unimaginably beyond our own.

    They require Divine intelligence.

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