Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Intelligent Design hoax

In the 19th century science was posing a huge threat to religion. Biblical authority and church teachings which had first taken a hammering with Galileo’s theories were now under siege. Geologists had shown that the Earth was very old indeed. Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 was followed by the Descent of Man in 1871 and both books advanced a theory of evolution that was at serious odds with the established view of a Creationist world.

By the 1870s, nearly all biologists agreed that life had evolved, and by the time of the Second World War most agreed that natural selection was a key force driving this evolution.

The churches and the powers-that-were didn’t take this challenge lying down. There was always the view that Darwinism represents a thinly veiled attempt to foist a secular religion—godless materialism—on Western culture.

According to a 2001 Gallop poll 45% of Americans concurred with the statement that "God created man in his present form within the last 10,000 years”. But it is harder to sustain outright belief in Creationism in the face of increasing scrutiny of biblical evidence.

In recent years, the Creationists have taken a new tack and have come up with a more sophisticated, pseudo-scientific and beguilingly named product called Intelligent Design. Slickly marketed, it is now the front face of creationism. It has very powerful friends.

US President Bush supported teaching alternatives to evolution in public schools with remarks such as schoolchildren should be taught about intelligent design as well as evolution. He said in August 2005 "Both sides ought to be properly taught . . . so people can understand what the debate is about. Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought. . . . You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes.”

The theory of intelligent design holds that life and the universe are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process such as natural selection. It deliberately does not try to identify or name the specific creation but many of its proponents state that the designer is the Christian god.

The idea is far older than Darwinian evolution. The first recorded arguments for a natural designer come from Greek philosophy. Heraclitus is associated with the philosophy of Logos which describes human knowledge and the inherent rationality of the universe. Plato spoke of a “demiurge”, a deity of supreme wisdom and intelligence who created of the cosmos. Aquinas posited the supernatural designer of the universe in the 13th century. In 1802, English theologian William Paley wrote “If we find a pocket watch in a field, we immediately infer that it was produced not by natural processes acting blindly but by a designing human intellect.” It arose again in the early 1980s with the publication of The Mystery of Life's Origin by creationist chemist Charles Thaxton.

The leading proponent of Intelligent Design today is American biochemist Michael Behe. He advocates the idea that life is too complex at the biochemical level to have evolved. The trigger for his involvement was the 1987 decision in the U.S. Supreme Court barring the teaching of Scientific Creationism from public schools. In his book “Darwin’s Black Box,” Behe maintained that irreducible complexity presents Darwinism with “unbridgeable chasms”.

The Christian think-tank The Discovery Institute was set up in 1990 and is a driving force behind Intelligent Design. Their mission statement is “to make a positive vision of the future practical”. Their agendas are to promote public awareness, lobby for teaching in high schools and instigating pro Design legal actions. They have powerful friends. The Gates foundation has pledged $10 million since 2000. Its major contributors are also the same major contributors to George W. Bush.

The idea is to present evolution as a ‘theory in crisis’ and to poke as many holes in it as possible. The mathematician William Demski, another proponent of ID, holds the concept of specified complexity. When something is both complex and specified, one can infer that it was produced by an intelligent cause. He provides the following example: "A single letter of the alphabet is specified without being complex. A long sentence of random letters is complex without being specified. A Shakespearean sonnet is both complex and specified”.

Despite the rhetoric, many critics say that intelligent design has not presented a credible scientific case. Instead it is seen as an attempt to teach religion in public schools and intelligent design has substituted public support for scientific research. The theory has little support in the scientific community. In October 2005 a coalition of 70,000 Australian scientists and teachers stated "intelligent design is not science" and called on "all schools not to teach Intelligent Design (ID) as science, because it fails to qualify on every count as a scientific theory”.

To date, the intelligent design movement has yet to have an article published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

In 2004, the school board of Dover, Pennsylvania, voted to require the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution in science classrooms. On December 20, 2005, U.S. District Court Judge John Jones ruled that the school district cannot follow through with its plan because it would violate the Constitutional separation of church and state. In his opinion Judge Jones wrote, "We have concluded that it is not [science], and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents".

It remains a dangerously powerful and popular bunkum. Intelligent Design is science’s equivalent of junk food. It is the newest evolution of Creationism and teaches us more about politics and religion than science.

It is no more scientific than those who write to the Kansas School board which was leaning towards Intelligent Design. The protesters state that they are of the strong belief that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster and it too should be considered for the curriculum. It is as scientific and more amusing.


Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster
Discovery Institute
How Intelligent Design Works
Intelligent Design Network
National Centre for Science Education
Natural History Magazine
New Yorker magazine: devolution
Talk Design
Washington Post: Bush Remarks On 'Intelligent Design' Theory Fuel Debate

No comments: