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Critique of Intelligent Design

Evolution vs. Creationism

The Art of ID Stuntmen

Faith vs Reason

Anthropic Principle

Autopsy of the Bible code

Science and Religion

Historical Notes


Serious Notions with a Smile


Letter Serial Correlation

Mark Perakh's Web Site

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 ID is:

Intelligent 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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4] 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 looks like.

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"[5] -- 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,[6] 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.[7]

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,

Two 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.[8]

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 Advocate's Criticism

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 to proceed.

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 environments.

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:

While 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 belongs.

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.[9] 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 the same.

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.

[1] http://www.intelligentdesign.org/whatisid.php.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] "What Causes DNA Mutations?" at http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/archive/sloozeworm/mutationbg.html.

[5] Michael Behe. Darwin's Black Box. Free Press. New York, NY. 1996.

[6] Richard Dawkins. The God Delusion. Houghton Mifflin. New York, NY, 2006.

[7] Michael Land and Dan-Eric Nilsson. Animal Eyes, Oxford University Press. USA, 2004.

[8] Richard A. Fortey, E.G. Briggs, and Matthew A. Wills. "The Cambrian evolutionary 'explosion' recalibrated". BioEssays, Vol. 19, No. 5. May 1997

[9] 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.