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Why Intelligent Design Doesn't Cut It: A Primer
By Michael S. Luciano
Posted June 30, 2009
There exist many organizations whose stated mission it is to
promote the teaching of Intelligent Design in the science courses of our public
schools. They have names like the Discovery Institute, and the Intelligent
Design Network which seeks "Objectivity in Origins Science." Needless to say,
such organizations seek neither discovery nor objectivity, but are corrupted
from the outset by a preexisting desire to push a faith-based agenda which has
no scientific merit whatsoever.
Rather than define Intelligent Design and open myself up to
allegations of straw-man tactics, I will let the Discovery Institute, perhaps
the most visible and vocal mouthpiece for the ID cause, explain precisely what
design refers to a scientific research program as well as a community of
scientists, philosophers and other scholars who seek evidence of design in
nature. The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the
universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not
an undirected process such as natural selection. Through the study and analysis
of a system's components, a design theorist is able to determine whether
various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent
design, or some combination thereof. Such research is conducted by observing
the types of information produced when intelligent agents act. Scientists then
seek to find objects which have those same types of informational properties
which we commonly know come from intelligence. Intelligent design has applied
these scientific methods to detect design in irreducibly complex biological
structures, the complex and specified information content in DNA, the life-sustaining
physical architecture of the universe, and the geologically rapid origin of
biological diversity in the fossil record during the Cambrian explosion
approximately 530 million years ago.
Because every single sentence contains major flaws, it would
not be unwise to scrutinize every single one of them. And so off we go.
Right away we are told that ID is a program conducted by
"scientists, philosophers, and other scholars who seek evidence of design
in nature." Basically this is an admission that their program is not about
gathering data and allowing the evidence to lead them wherever it may, but
rather a mission to find evidence which supports a predetermined
conclusion -- that being that an intelligent agent created everything. In this
way, the ID "researcher" confines himself to analysis of only those findings
which he may have use for as a buttress for the conclusion he has already
arrived at. It goes without saying that this is not science. To presuppose automatically
the existence of a (perhaps supernatural) designer is to preclude real,
thoughtful, scientific research in accordance with the scientific method, since
science deals only with observable, measurable, phenomena.
Second, I must take issue with the characterization of
natural selection as an "undirected" process. While selection is certainly not
guided by a designer, it is guided by a fundamental logic inherent in the way
the populations of species develop through time. Specifically, organisms with
the highest likelihood of passing on their genes are those best-adapted to
their environments due to their having particular characteristics which are
conducive to survival and procreation.
Hence, natural selection is not some willy-nilly phenomenon having no apparent
rhyme or reason to it, but is a completely logical and -- more
important -- observable process which helps explain to a great degree speciation
and evolution in general. This is especially true when selection is viewed in
conjunction with ecological considerations.
Next, we come to this gem: "Through the study and analysis
of a system's components, a design theorist is able to determine whether
various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent
design, or some combination thereof." I daresay this is outright bullshit.
First of all, evolution is not about chance. Science is not interested in
theories that attribute important phenomena to mere whimsy and caprice. When ID
advocates rail against the alleged role of chance in evolution, they betray
their ignorance on the subject. As I just explained, natural selection is
hardly a matter of chance. Nor is, as is popularly believed, mutation or what
is sometimes called "random mutation." Mutation of course refers to changes in
an organism's DNA or RNA (genetic material) resulting from the miscopying of
cells during cell division and also exposure to viruses, chemicals, and
radiation, just to name a few of its sources; and this act may or may not
produce an effect which causes the organism to be measurably different in some
way from its peers. Thus
mutation has identifiable causes which can be observed and assessed. Even if we
cannot in some instances ascertain why a mutation has occurred, we logically
assume that there exists a cause which is not yet within our ability to grasp.
We do not use the holes in our understanding as an occasion to invoke God
for the purpose of plugging those holes. This is both unscientific and lazy.
But what is truly incredible about the Discovery Institute's
statement is the idea that ID "theorists" can determine if natural structures
are a product of intelligent design. How could they possibly determine whether
the universe is intelligently designed when they have no other universe with
which to compare it? Indeed, what would a non-designed universe look like? Or,
what would an unintelligently
designed universe look like? I am afraid that for the tunnel-visioned ID
advocates, the achievements by men and women in the fields of biology,
chemistry, physics and other sciences have had the exact opposite effect on
them than the one it should have had. Indeed, as Christopher Hitchens has
noted, ID advocates have seen fit to use findings of science which have
revealed further complexities in the natural world to assert that God is even
cleverer than they had thought. In this way, good science unwittingly serves to
support the cause of the ID advocates (in their view) because by their own
admission, the very nature of the ID "research" program requires that when
reviewing scientific findings, they always do so with an eye toward their
predetermined conclusion about intelligent agency.
Further, the Institute says, "Such research is conducted by
observing the types of information produced when intelligent agents act.
Scientists then seek to find objects which have those same types of
informational properties which we commonly know come from intelligence." And
what are the objects we know come from intelligence? Paintings, automobiles,
televisions, etc. In other words, mostly manmade objects, along with the
occasional bird's nest and beaver dam. But these objects clearly have design
and purpose because we have either created them ourselves or have observed them
built and used. To a truly objective eye, the world does not appear to have a
purpose, and to say that it does is -- once again -- to formulate a conclusion not
supported by the evidence. The problem here is the same as before in that we do
not have any criteria for determining what an intelligently designed universe
Coming down the homestretch, "Intelligent design has applied
these scientific methods to detect design in irreducibly complex biological
structures, the complex and specified information content in DNA, the
life-sustaining physical architecture of the universe, and the geologically rapid
origin of biological diversity in the fossil record during the Cambrian
explosion approximately 530 million years ago." In the first place, by "these
scientific methods" the statement means the ones I just demonstrated as being
worthless in the preceding. Second, we come to the darling "theory" of ID:
"irreducible complexity" -- the
odd idea that some systems are too complex to have arisen through natural
selection. As Richard Dawkins has observed, supporters of irreducible
complexity begin their argument simply by proclaiming that something is irreducibly complex,
and that if one part of the system is removed, the whole apparatus will not
work properly. However, I fail to see, for example, how by recognizing that
removing the retina from a human eye will render it useless, this does any
damage to evolutionary theory. Evolution is predicated on the idea that genetic
and biological compositions change over time as organisms adapt in accordance
with their (changing) environments. These adaptations very often involve a
"progression" from relatively simple systems to more complex ones. Rather than
an argument against evolution, the eye may be rightly viewed as the intricate
culmination of millions and billions of years of evolutionary change in those
organisms from which humans are descended.
Finally, ID "theorists" who do not ascribe to the asinine
view that the world is only a few thousand years old, frequently invoke the
so-called Cambrian explosion in an effort to bolster their case. Indeed, they
brandish the Cambrian period as if it were some kind silver bullet to be shot
into the heart of evolutionary theory. But their optimism is misplaced. More
and more evidence is being uncovered which suggests that the "explosion" was
not as sudden as initially thought. As Fortey, Briggs, and Wills have observed,
independent lines of evidence have prompted a critical re-examination of the
Cambrian evolutionary 'explosion'. The first has involved a closer look at the
nature of the fossil record and the phylogenetic relationships of Cambrian
animals. The second is based on the estimated sequence divergence of times of
critical genes in the major groups of living animals, where these reflect deep
phylogenetic branching. Both lines of evidence indicate that the important
branching events separating the animal phyla from their various common
ancestors happened much earlier than the base of the Cambrian; the fossil
record cannot be taken literally as a chronology of phylogenesis.
As such, the authors further note, "It may not be generally
appreciated by biologists that first occurrence in the fossil record is not
necessarily the same as time of origination." While this fact may not be
appreciated by some biologists, as far as I can tell it is
certainly not appreciated by any IDist.
It should also be pointed out that although ID advocates
like to claim that the beginning of Cambrian period lends credence to the idea
of intelligent agency, the subsequent extinction of Cambrian organisms poses
yet another problem for ID. If the universe is intelligently created, how does
one account for the fact that over 99% of all species that have ever existed
are no more? That's some design. Rather than deal a blow to evolutionary
theory, the implicit lesson of the Cambrian "explosion" seems to confirm one of
its fundamental maxims -- that only the fittest shall survive. Thankfully, this
principle also applies to scientific theories, and hopefully in due time the
American public will realize that Intelligent Design is so insufferably weak
that it should no longer be allowed to live.
My Response to an ID
Expectedly, at least one person wasn't very satisfied with
my assessment of Intelligent Design. A man named (or calling himself) Lee
Bowman gave all sorts of reasons why I am wrong in believing that ID is an
illegitimate theory. Based on some cursory internet research, Mr. Bowman
appears to be a man who scours the web looking to slay Darwinian dragons in
forums and online reviews. Normally I would not even think about dedicating an
entire article to respond to a comment, but Mr. Bowman raises some important
points, on which he is wrong.
Before proceeding, I would like to take a moment to observe
a melancholy truth about proponents of ID. And that is that no matter what
evidence you give them, no matter what experiments you perform or hypotheses
you scientifically validate or refute, no fact is too inconvenient for the ID
advocate. The sheer ambiguity of the ID "hypothesis" allows for any and all
kinds of evidence to fit this paradigm someway, somehow. Needless to say, such
a potentially all-encompassing hypothesis is scientifically useless. Let us
bear this in mind, shall we?
First, Mr. Bowman takes issue with me because I refuse to
recognize that the existence of an intelligent agent is a legitimate hypothesis
from which to commence scientific inquiry for the reasons I just state above.
He also takes issue with my use of the word 'God' instead of 'intelligent
agent.' Truth be told I was using 'God' not so as to imply a particular god,
but simply as an abbreviation for 'intelligent designer.' But fine, I will use
'intelligent agent(s)' or 'designer(s)' in this article, even though I would be
willing to bet a good chunk of change that Mr. Bowman believes in the existence
of the Judeo-Christian God. Also, in a rather curious critique of a remark in
which I said that ID proponents believe that a designer
created everything, he says, "The specifics that you follow with are not
suggested or implied, i.e. 'designed everything,'"
Not suggested or implied? If I'm not mistaken, this means he
is saying that ID posits that it may be that only some of our universe is intelligently designed, as opposed to
it being designed entirely. If this is the case then he has just made his job
even more difficult than if he had said that the whole universe is
intelligently created. Whereas an advocate of universal ID sees design
everywhere and therefore automatically attributes the existence and nature of
things -- stars, animals, proteins, etc. -- to design, Mr. Bowman would have to
determine which objects, species, and phenomena are the result of intelligent
agency and which ones are not. And not only would Mr. Bowman have the same
problem of identifying design without having any conception of what design
looks like in the first place, he would have to hope that his inevitably
arbitrary classification of things into the categories of 'designed' and 'not
designed' would ultimately be correct, lest his subsequent "research" be
dependent entirely on erroneous premises. Pardon me while I allow myself a
haughty chuckle, but how would one possibly confirm the veracity of such
classifications? One would not because one would literally have no idea from which fundamental principles
But let's have some fun. Let us assume that indeed, design
truly could be detected in things. It does not necessarily follow, however,
that only one designer is responsible for all that is designed. Indeed, Mr.
Bowman himself mentions the possibility of intelligent agents. Does this mean he would readily
grant the possibility that every single thing that is designed has a separate
individual designer? By recognizing the existence of design, we invite -- even
beg -- the possibility that there are as many intelligent designers as there are
things designed, since after all, the existence of multiple designs need not
imply a single designer. Many ID advocates like to point to paintings as
evidence of painters and buildings as evidence of builders, but we of
course know these things to be designed because we designed
them. If we apply this same exact logic to the natural world, we would have to
conclude that the sun is evidence of a sun designer, a tree evidence of a tree
designer, a human evidence of a human designer, and so on, because they are
separate things just like paintings and buildings are separate things and have
separate designers. To assume a single designer is to conceptually unify an
abundance of phenomena (meaning all the objects that are designed) without any
real or sufficient justification for doing so. Positing that a designer or
designers are responsible for those phenomena which we do not believe can be
explained by "natural" causes, is to provide an explanation which raises a
series of unanswerable questions about this hypothetical designer(s) (e.g. who
designed the designer/s and where did it/they come from?) and discourages
further scientific inquiry into those matters which have been explained away by
the invocation of intelligent agency. Such an explanation, of course, is no
explanation at all.
Mr. Bowman then asks if I deny that "what [natural
selection] has to select from is random." But the premise of this question is
wrong because natural selection does not select. Nature "selects" those organisms best-suited to survive in their
Next, Mr. Bowman, who says he is a scientist, goes
completely off-the-reservation. The remarks are worth quoting at length for the
sheer amusement they inspire:
we cannot know for sure why intelligences would construct lifeforms, there are
clear possibilities. One, to see what one can come up with, and to observe the
results, not that different from going to the movies for a vicarious
experience. A second possibility is that bioforms are vehicles for spirit entities
(you, for instance) to partake in an earthly experience. My conclusion, [Oh
please do tell us!] based on experimentation, is that consciousness is external
from the biological construct.
To be honest, personally I cannot discount the possibility of
a "greater reality" or a "higher consciousness" (but not a designer, mind you)
which we could not possibly begin to comprehend. Certainly, the puzzle of
existence is the greatest mystery of all. However, I would never allow a vague subjective feeling to color my
understanding of the physical world. Mr. Bowman's claims here (as elsewhere)
are pure speculation. Why would an intelligent designer(s) design? To him,
"there are clear possibilities," which means that Mr. Bowman must have access
to some information that the rest of us simply do not because many of us cannot
see these possibilities. Contending that an intelligent agent might be
motivated by the desire for a "vicarious experience" and "to see what [it] can
come up with" is to anthropomorphize said agent by ascribing to it human
motives, and this dear friends, reeks of the noxious fumes of creationism. His
second possibility, that organisms are earthly vehicles for "spirit entities"
is hardly a testable hypothesis. How does one test this "clear possibility"?
Indeed one does not.
But the news is not all bad. As you just read, based on Mr.
Bowman's own experimentation,
"consciousness is external from the biological construct." What an experiment
that must have been. For centuries scientists and philosophers have grappled unsuccessfully
with the mind-body problem, but at this moment Mr. Bowman assures us that he
has solved this conundrum once and for all through his own experimentation,
whose results he declines to provide. For my part, I have seen no evidence to
suggest that consciousness can exist separate from the organism to which it
Mr. Bowman then says that evolution is "not statistically
plausible." According to what model and figures we do not know, because again
he does not provide any data. Even if we were to grant him this point, he would
have to demonstrate that ID is more statistically plausible than evolution,
which he does not and could not. It goes without saying that that is one
scholarly article I will be waiting to read (in vain for the rest of my life).
Next, Mr. Bowman disputes my contention that "the [human]
eye may be rightly viewed as the intricate culmination of millions and billions
of years of evolutionary change in those organisms from which humans are
descended" by calling this, "Hand waving and conjecture." And why is it?
According to him, my remarks about the eye, as well as the extensive research
of Nilsson, "overlook the eye's inherent complexities, which are many." Truth
be told, while the human eye is impressive on many levels, it is far from
perfect. For example, human beings (and vertebrates in general) have blind
spots owing to the eye's inefficient composition. Due to the upside-down and
backwards configuration of our eyes, light must first go through the cornea,
then the lens, and then through all kinds of blood vessels and cells before the
photons finally reach the rods and cones of the retina. Only then is the data
(light) processed by the brain in the form of neural impulses.
For Mr. Bowman to say to that Nilsson -- a renowned, respected, and perhaps most
important, peer-reviewed authority on the human eye -- overlooks the eye's
"inherent complexities" (whatever that means)
is to make a very bold claim which better have some serious scholarship behind
it, because Nilsson certainly does. I have a feeling that Mr. Bowman cannot say
Lastly, Mr. Bowman declares simply, "Engineering and design
are evidence." Evidence of what? Engineering and design? Indeed, that would be
the world's most blatant tautology. But engineering (noun) and design (noun)
are only evidence of engineering (verb) and design (verb) if
we know that the evidence before us is in fact engineered and
designed. Let me say again that we do not know this for the reasons I have
stated in this article. To assert that the universe (or even just certain
objects or animals) are intelligently designed, is not only to assert an
understanding of what intelligent design looks like and entails, but is to
claim an understanding of what non-design and/or unintelligent design looks
like, and also to be able to tell the difference between them using what will
undoubtedly be arbitrary criteria. Therefore, ID is not a legitimate scientific
theory, but the exact opposite: a purely speculative hypothesis whose breathtaking
ambiguity serves not to advance understanding, but to stifle it by suggesting
the unknowable and the untestable as an explanation for natural phenomena.
 Ernst Mayr. "The
Objects of Selection". Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Vol. 94, No.
6. March 18, 1997. Available at http://www.pnas.org/content/94/6/2091.full.
 Christopher J.
Schneider. "Natural Selection and Speciation". Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Vol 97, No. 23. November
7, 2000. Available at http://www.pnas.org/content/97/23/12398.full.
 "What Causes DNA
Mutations?" at http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/archive/sloozeworm/mutationbg.html.
 Michael Behe. Darwin's Black Box. Free Press. New
York, NY. 1996.
 Richard Dawkins.
The God Delusion. Houghton Mifflin.
New York, NY, 2006.
 Michael Land and Dan-Eric Nilsson. Animal Eyes, Oxford University Press.
 Richard A.
Fortey, E.G. Briggs, and Matthew A. Wills. "The Cambrian evolutionary
'explosion' recalibrated". BioEssays,
Vol. 19, No. 5. May 1997
 For an
excellent overview of the evolution of the eye, see W.J. Gehring. "New
Perspectives on Eye Development and the Evolution of Eyes and Photoreceptors". Journal of Heredity, Vol. 96, No.
3. 2005. Available at http://jhered.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/96/3/171.