By 2006, the controversy over “intelligent design” (ID) has attained a prominent place in America’s public discourse. ID’s “hot-button issue” status comes after years of aggressive campaigning by a tiny group of conservative activists, particularly the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, combined with growing interest from conservative Christians seeking a constitutionally valid way to challenge evolution and promote fundamentalist-friendly “science” in public education and public discourse.
Fundamentalist school board members in places like Kansas and Dover, Pennsylvania, were the first to put ID on the popular map when they attempted to force it into public school biology curriculums. By mid 2005, colleges were debating the issue as well; Discovery Institute fellows were publishing op-eds in major newspapers and debating scientists on television; and right-wing pundits and politicians, including Senator Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and President Bush, were voicing their support.
The basic contention of intelligent design is ostensibly scientific: Proponents assert that modern life on Earth could not have developed solely through scientifically established processes of evolution but instead required the direct intervention of an “intelligent designer” to produce some or most of the biological phenomena in existence today. This argument, however, is also intimately tied to assumptions and claims about religious belief, political philosophy, policy, education, and public debate, and it is impossible to confront the ID movement in any of these areas without understanding its implications for the others.
Evolution and the Intelligent Design’s Challenge
A brief review of basic evolutionary theory is useful for understanding ID’s central “scientific” claims.
Evolution begins with mutations in biological organisms that occur naturally during the reproductive process. When such mutations provide advantages in survival and reproduction, they are more likely to be passed on to future generations — this is the process of “natural selection.” Over billions of years — 3.5 billion, in the case of earthly life — helpful mutations accumulate into the vast array of highly developed and specialized life forms found on earth today —life forms which, because they have been so rigorously adapted to their environments, often appear complex or even “designed.”
Intelligent design advocates offer several arguments to cast doubt on evolutionary theory and promote ID in its place.
Their most common claim is that some biological systems, particularly on the cellular level (the bacterial flagellum is a favorite), appear to be “irreducibly complex,” which means they must be fully formed with all their parts in place before they can serve their function. Such systems could not have evolved gradually, ID advocates say, because earlier nonfunctional stages would not have offered any advantages and therefore could not have been favored by natural selection. The only alternative, they reason, is that these systems must have been constructed all at once by an intelligence who knew how to arrange the pieces.
Irreducible complexity is usually the jumping-off point for “scientific” pro-ID arguments. Another widespread claim among leading ID proponents is that modern mathematics can prove that only an intelligence, not evolutionary processes, could have produced the organized and complex phenomena we find in the biological world today.
Some intelligent design advocates also critique evolution by pointing to gaps in the fossil record, the “Cambrian explosion,” distinctions between micro- and macroevolution, and specific biological organisms and systems which science has not yet explained in precise detail.
Scientific Objections to ID
Scientists are highly critical of the specific scientific arguments of the ID movement, as well as its overall claim that intelligent design is a scientific theory developed through scientific methods.
Regarding ID’s specific claims, scientists object that the concept of "irreducible complexity" relies upon a mischaracterization of biological mutation as a relatively linear process involving only the addition of more and more "parts," rather than a dynamic process that can also reshape, rearrange, or fundamentally alter existing elements and features. Systems that must be fully formed to serve their current function could have developed from earlier forms that served a different function, or could be significantly reorganized versions of an earlier form that served the same function.
Mathematicians are similarly critical of ID’s mathematical arguments against evolution, which rely on an excess of subjective calculations, manipulation of numbers, and misrepresentations of evolutionary models.
Moreover, scientists point out that while ID breaks some new ground, it far too often falls back on long-debunked arguments plucked straight from "creation science," such as the claim that evolution can only happen within species, or an exaggerated emphasis on (shrinking-but-still-present) gaps in the fossil record.
Flawed Methods and False Theories
The fact that ID uncritically combines new arguments from biological and mathematical research with a who’s who of old creationist canards points to larger methodological flaws. As Judge William Overton pointed out in his landmark pro-evolution ruling in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, it is “contrived dualism” to reason that “all scientific evidence which fails to support the theory of evolution is necessarily scientific evidence in support of” a preferred alternative notion, in this case intelligent design.
This, however, is precisely how ID proponents argue their cause. They claim that a loose combination of intelligent design arguments can stand toe-to-toe with evolution as a competing theory, even though it doesn’t meet technical definitions and standards set by science.
In order to be valid, a scientific theory must unite a broad range of observations, inferences, and facts under a detailed explanation which makes predictions about the outcomes of future experiments and observations. All theories have gaps which invite further investigation and testing, and through this process some theories are discarded, while others are strengthened. But when a well-supported theory falls by the wayside, it is almost always because an alternative has been proposed which accounts for more facts and makes better predictions (for example, the replacement of Newtonian Physics with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity).
In contrast, intelligent design is a less comprehensive alternative to evolutionary theory. While evolution relies upon detailed, well-defined processes such as mutation and natural selection, ID offers no descriptions of the design process or the designer. In fact, proponents do not even agree among themselves as to which biological phenomena were designed and which were not. Ultimately, this “theory” amounts to nothing more than pointing to holes in evolution and responding with a one-word, unceasingly repeated mantra: “design.” But unless ID advocates fill in the details, there is no way to scientifically test intelligent design or make predictions from it for future research. In short, it is not valid science.
The Influence of Faith and Philosophy
This scientific flimsiness of intelligent design, along with its strong echoes of “creation science,” has led many critics to dismiss it as religion — specifically, Christian creationism — in disguise. As more is revealed about the history and motives of leading ID proponents — particularly the infamous Wedge Document, released in 1999, which outlines the Discovery Institute’s promotional strategy for ID — such a conclusion seems on target.
However, many of ID’s leading defenders are interested in more than just conservative Christian theology. They seek to advance a political philosophy in the American public sphere that might best be described as theistic conservatism. These proponents believe that a well-ordered society must embrace certain “moral absolutes” (read: conservative political principles) and that adherence to these absolutes can only be achieved through faith in a Western conception of God (read: the God of fundamentalist Christianity).
In their view, evolution, which requires many “random” and “unguided” natural processes, inherently implies that life is an accident explainable in purely physical or material terms and therefore undermines both public faith in God and conservative principles, such as “personal responsibility,” that supposedly follow from such faith. Like strict creationists, they blame these aspects of evolution for the emergence of “materialist” philosophies such as Marxism and Freudian psychology.
In short, though ID advocates certainly hope that their concept will instill renewed faith in a creator, such faith is seen primarily as a means by which to advance a conservative political agenda in American society.
Theological and Philosophical Objections
Many scientists and philosophers argue that the philosophical and cultural implications of evolution are irrelevant to its scientific validity: They cannot and should not alter the outcomes of scientific research. Theologians also counter that the religious notions advanced by intelligent design are actually bad theology, while evolution is more compatible with religion than ID advocates allow.
For instance, many Jewish and Christian traditions hold that God can be found in “two books”: the book of scripture and the book of nature. This theological concept allows evolution as a means of God’s natural revelation. However, ID advocates claim that God’s appearance in nature can only come through intrusive, “supernatural” interventions, rather than natural phenomena. Rabbi Mark Levin of the Kansas-based Mainstream Coalition points out the theological limits of this view: “[T]here is no reason for God to act outside of the natural laws through which God creates.”
And while ID advocates worry that evolution is too “random” or “unguided” to permit faith in God, chief Vatican astronomer George Coyne contends that this openness actually squares better than ID with traditional Western theology. Rather than “a dictator God or a designer God,” Coyne suggests the conception of a parental God, who is wholly responsible for creation but who gives it an independent life of its own, interacting through continual revelation and “encouraging and sustaining words,” rather than direct manipulation.
Moreover, scientists point out that current scientific understandings of the universe and evolutionary processes involve more than random chance. The universe, Coyne notes, is “fertile,” containing a “chemical abundance of the elements necessary for life.” And science writer Robert Wright argues that the most prominent understanding of evolution today finds inherent trends toward complexity, and even intelligence and self-awareness, in the processes of natural selection.
An Exaggerated Debate
In addition to complaints that intelligent design is invalid science, narrowly-conceived philosophy, and bad theology, critics finally object to the methods and tactics used to promote the concept despite these critiques.
ID advocates employ an array of deceptive argumentation strategies:
- They exaggerate the challenge they pose to accepted science (evolution is “a theory in deep crisis”; there is “overwhelming evidence for design”), then demand that educators “teach the controversy.”
- They portray themselves as a persecuted minority criticized for their identities rather than their ideas, then point out that their opponents are “atheist,” “secular humanists,” and members of an entrenched “scientific orthodoxy.”
- As Kenneth Miller, biologist and leading critic of ID has observed, ID proponents “avoid scientific meetings like the plague” in favor of educational or pop culture debates — “they’d rather try to convince schoolchildren than adult scientists who are prepared to rebut and refute the evidence.”
These deceptive tactics have brought the movement limited success but cannot change the essential facts about intelligent design. ID offers scattered and questionable critiques of evolution as the sole evidence for “design” and promotes a vague notion which lacks the detail and scientific rigor necessary to constitute an alternative scientific theory. Furthermore, advocates push ID in an ill-conceived effort to challenge materialistic philosophy, advance faith in a narrow conception of God, and establish a politically conservative ideology in public life.
Their efforts actually undermine our strongest traditions and understandings of science, faith, and honest political debate.
Bryan Collinsworth was an intern with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative during the summer and fall of 2005. He graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and works for the Genocide Intervention Fund.