Intelligent Design

July 26, 2002 | Bad Science | By: Mark VandeWettering

Recently the topic of intelligent design has been getting
quite a bit of play in the media. Proponents of intelligent design claim
that the evidence for evolution is not really compelling: that the
biodiversity that we observe must have been the work of an
intelligent designer. Intelligent design theory is the “science” that
is supposed to prove the existence of such a designer.

The problem is that intelligent design has nothing to do with science,
and everything to do with the unconstitutional effort to put religion
into public schools.

At the center of this effort is the Seattle based Discovery Institute. They are
a think tank, with a fairly innocuous sounding mission statement:

Current projects explore the fields of technology, science and culture, reform of the law, national defense, the environment and the economy, the future of democratic institutions, transportation, religion and public life, government entitlement spending, foreign affairs and cooperation within the bi-national region of “Cascadia.” The efforts of Discovery fellows and staff, headquartered in Seattle, are crucially abetted by the Institute’s members, board and sponsors.

Well, that doesn’t sound too sinister, does it?

The truth is rather different: the Discovery Institute is merely a front for religious conservatives who seek the teaching of
religion in public schools.

In 1996, the Discovery Institute launched The Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture which proposed nothing less than the replacement of science with theism. In 1999, an anonymous person leaked an internal white paper from the CRSC called

“The Wedge Strategy”. I urge everyone to read it and carefully think about what is being proposed.

The theory of evolution (somewhat
innaccurately labelled Darwinism) is a scientific theory. It is biology,
supported by the evidence of thousands of individual scientists of
every faith from all over the globe. There is not a single statement
in the Wedge document that establishes any error or bias in the
conclusions of these scientists. The simple fact is that even if
the teaching of evolution were the cause of the ills of society,
it would still be true. To remove evolution from the
science classrooms of America requires that they show that
the theory of evolution isn’t science. To show that, they must
be able to show that the theory fails as science. This task is
not mentioned at all in the Wedge Strategy. Instead they
seek merely to gain publicity for their ideas, not by doing the
painstaking logical work of the scientist, but rather pounding the
table and publicizing their cause. They seek to convince not
by publishing in Nature or The New England Journal
of Medicine
, but rather in Time and
Newsweek.

Two names figure prominently in the ongoing debates: William Dembski and Michael Behe. Each wrote books that sought to challenge the
evolutionary paradigm that is the center of biology. These books
are lauded by creationists and religious conservatives as being
scientifically rigorous and having nothing to do with religion.

That of course, is simply a lie.

Behe is the author of Darwin’s Black Box. Behe has a PhD
in biochemistry and seeks to show through DBB that certain structures deep within the cell of all living things are simply too
complex to have appeared through evolutionary mechanisms. In
short, some structures are irreducibly complex. This means that if any part of the structure was removed, the overall
system wouldn’t function at all. Since the partial structure couldn’t
have provided any selective advantage, the overall system conveys
no reproductive advantage, so evolution couldn’t have produced it.

It is an absurd argument.

It first of all assumes that we can objectively determine what the
“function” of a system is. What is the function of an elephant’s ears?
If you were hopelessly naive, you might say that the elephant’s
ears was to enable him to hear better. But an elephant’s ears are
too large and flat to make reasonable sound reflectors. In fact, it
appears that elephant ears have adapted to help keep the elephant’s
brain cool by radiating energy from warm blood out through a large
surface area. The idea that there is a “function” or “purpose” to
biological structures is a presumption of design, not evidence for
it.

Secondly, evolution clearly can produce irreducibly complex
structures, not by addition of new features, but by subtraction
of redundant features. Suppose that genes code for a particular
protein A that is advantageous. Through evolution, this gene
becomes more common in the popularion, because A helps organisms
reproduce. Let’s further imagine that some member of the population
gains a mutation that codes for a different protein B that further enhances the advantageous nature of
A. Now B becomes common. Now another mutation happens in
A, further enhancing A’s advantage to the organism. The only
problem is that now A can’t function without B. Voila, irreducible
complexity. There is evidence that many so called irreducibly
complex systems arose through similar mechanisms.

When cornered, Behe admits that such processes are possible, but
considers them “unlikely”. And that is all he has to say on the matter.

William Dembski is the publisher of No Free Lunch
and The Design Inference. He holds degrees in
philosophy, theology and mathematics. His basic argument tries
to say that there are reliable ways to detect designed objects
through the detection of complex specified information.
The destruction of this argument requires a bit more work than
Behe’s essentially simple argument, but it is equally devoid of any
real content. Dembski argues that things which are both
complex
and specified possess a kind of
information which cannot be generated by evolutionary processes.
Complex specified information is an even more elusive than irreducible
complexity: in particular, it is awfully hard to pin Dembski on what
a specification actually is.

Dembski has been getting hammered on the Internet a great deal,
and has recently taken to replying to critics on ARN website. His recent postings
seem to stray ever farther from any intellectual content, and have
now travelled into claims of bias, bribery and conspiracy amongst
the scientific world. An excerpt from one of his recent postings:

…Mike, along with S&B, takes the “high road” that ID must first be developed further as a scientific and scholarly program before it may be legitimately taught in public school science curricula. Before the dissolution of my ID think tank at Baylor, my sentiments were largely the same. But I’ve come to reject this view entirely. Here are the relevant considerations from my end:

  1. Evolutionary biology has been so hugely unsuccessful as a scientific theory in accounting for the origin of life and the emergence of biological complexity that it does not deserve a monopoly regardless what state of formation ID has reached.

  2. ID is logically speaking the only alternative to evolutionary biology. Either material mechanisms can do all the work in biological origins or some telic process is additionally required.
  3. Why should ID supporters allow the Darwinian establishment to indoctrinate students at the high school level, only to divert some of the brightest to becoming supporters of a mechanistic account of evolution, when by presenting ID at the high school level some of these same students would go on to careers trying to develop ID as a positive research program? If ID is going to succeed as a research program, it will need workers, and these are best recruited at a young age. The Darwinists undestand this. So do the ID proponents. There is a sociological dimension to science and to the prospering of scientific theories, and this cannot be ignored if ID is going to become a thriving research program.

    None of these points is substantive, or even relevant. None suggests that Intelligent Design is superior to the Theory of Evolution in explaining biology, presumably the question under consideration.
    Point #1 basically makes the claim that any quack theory should
    be considered as long as it is in opposition to evolution. Point #2 is
    a false dichotomy. When pressured, Dembski admits that all the
    design of the universe may be “front loaded”, that in fact material mechanisms might be all that is required once our Intelligent Designer set the universe in motion. This is a third alternative: where both materialism and design are possible. Point #3 is just whining. The simple fact is that most students with an interest in science can
    see through the transparent nature of Dembski’s arguments. The
    reason that they have difficulty attracting smart students is that
    smart students aren’t taken in by crap like this.

    I’ll undoubtably have more to say about this as the mood hits me.
    You could do worse than read Orr’s excellent
    review
    of Dembski’s No Free Lunch. He’s much
    more knowledgeable and eloquent than I could ever hope to be…

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