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Taking on Science with a Fake I.D.

Cover of "Unintelligent Design"

Cover of Unintelligent Design

Copyright © 2005 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.

In the beginning was the word, and the word was “creationism.” By the end of the 20th century, this fundamentally fundamentalist argument against evolution had evolved into “creation science.” An oxymoron from its inception, “creation science” fizzled faster than the Y2K scare. Arising to fill its ecological niche in this century is a new beast with changed spots but a similar genesis: so-called “intelligent design.”

The difference between Darwinism and creationism is that the first is an incomplete theory while the other is a complete fantasy. Intelligent design, hereafter designated “I.D.,” implicitly acknowledges the superiority of the scientific paradigm, as did “creation science,” by purporting to imitate it. The new cult is abetted by the fact that two of its loudest proponents — William Dembski and Michael Behe — are respectively a mathematicism and a biochemist. With their ability to cloak their arguments in pseudoscientific obfuscation, they have managed to convince the weak-minded — e.g., school board majorities in the state of Kansas, Cobb County, Georgia, and Dover, Pennsylvania, as well as President Bush — that I.D. is simply a competing theory of evolution, equal if not superior to Darwin’s.

Bushit.

Twentieth century physicist Niels Bohr once reportedly said of another scientist’s theory that it was so badly formulated it wasn’t even wrong. That is, it lacked an organized body of evidence that could be used as a basis for hypothesizing, testing, predicting, and verifying — all essential to any process that can claim to be scientific. Although IDeists distance themselves from creationism by insisting they are not trying to prove the truth of the Bible or the existence of God, their writings are chock full of the hope that they can bring their own religious commitments to the discourse of science. As Dembski writes in his tome Intelligent Design, for example, “Christ is never an addendum to a scientific theory but always a completion.” Thus, it is not surprising that I.D. relies entirely on exegesis, rhetorical casuistry, and — frankly — a leap of faith or three.

Physicist Mark Perakh performs an excruciating dissection of Dembski, Behe, and co-cultists in his 2004 book Unintelligent Design. More succinct versions of the scientific objections to I.D. have appeared in two recent New York Times articles by Kenneth Chang (“In Explaining Life’s Complexity, Darwinists and Doubters Clash“; 22 August 2005) and philosophy professor Daniel C. Dennett (“Show Me the Science“; 28 August 2005).

All of the above refer to a question which lies at the center of these philosophical fisticuffs, one raised in the nineteenth century by the first-generation anti-Darwinist William Paley: if you found a watch lying on the road, would you assume it was a natural object or an engineered one? Its intricate complexity, of course, advertises the latter. Updating this analogy, I.D. biochemist Behe asks how the complicated system by which our blood clots, which depends on a chain of twenty different proteins, could have simply and blindly evolved. As experiments with mice have shown, if you eliminate any one of the proteins, the whole system breaks down and the animal bleeds to death.

But look a little further. Other such experiments with mice have revealed that if you eliminate a specific pair of the blood-clotting proteins, the system continues to work just fine. In other words, the intricate natural process that allows our blood to clot is in fact excessively and unnecessarily complicated, not at all the most intelligent design. Fortunately, it happens to work — most of the time — except when it doesn’t, as in the case of hemophilia. Like so much in nature, the blood-clotting mechanism looks like something cobbled together out of spare parts, a structure assembled by committee — a Rube Goldberg machine.

The IDeists often point to the eye as the best analogy to Paley’s watch. How, they ask, could this uniquely useful combination of flexible lens, transparent humors, and retina have simply emerged on its own? Scientists note, in fact, that it has emerged at least four times over the course of evolution precisely because it is so useful, but in four almost completely different forms, depending on whether the eye belongs to a vertebrate, an arthropod, a cephalopod, or a comb jellyfish. As the aforementioned Dennett observes, however, the mammalian eye is flawed: “the retina is inside out,” forcing the nerves to plunge through the back of the eye to reach the brain, creating the blind spot. “No intelligent designer would put such a clumsy arrangement in a camcorder,” he concludes, “and this is just one of hundreds of accidents frozen in evolutionary history that confirm the mindlessness of the historical process.”

It takes little thought to come up with more of these hundreds. To look at human beings alone, what does the appendix do besides threaten us with appendicitis? Or wisdom teeth, which lurk useless in the back of the jaw until abcessing? If human beings were intelligently designed to walk upright, why is our lower back the weakest link in our skeleton? Why do a significant number of women have pelvises too small for childbirth? What are male nipples for? Evolution theory can explain all of these as the result of elements of a work in progress, artifacts from earlier stages in mammalian development. I.D. can explain none, except to offer the old abysmal catechismal answer: “It’s a mystery.” For the IDeists, we are simply not intelligent enough to understand the intelligent design behind, say, cancer.

Like anti-Darwinists of similar creationist stripe, the I.D. cult argues that it still has a singular advantage over evolution: by making room for a Creator, it imbues the universe with a moral purpose lacking in scientific naturalism. Looking at the fact sheet, however, it is even harder to see a moral design behind the natural order. If a moral intelligence directs the course of life, why is so much of it premised on the strong destroying the weak? Why must the young of some species die to feed the young of other species? Why is there so much pain? Why must human children die to nourish amoebae and bacteria through malaria, dysentery, or tuberculosis? If religions represent the pinnacle of moral purpose, why have they too often yielded to the bloody rule of fang and claw through inquisitions, crusades, and jihads? In a moral universe, why would hundreds of thousands die from last December’s tsunami in the Indian Ocean? Why more hundreds of lives lost on the Gulf Coast in the wake of hurricane Katrina?

It is just as well the IDeists try to distance their intelligent designer from God, at least in front of the cameras; she/he/it comes across as at worst a sadistic bastard, at best a “colossal, immortal blunderer,” in the words of Joseph Heller’s Yossarian in the novel Catch-22: “When you consider the opportunity and power He had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid, ugly little mess He made of it instead, His sheer incompetence is almost staggering. It’s obvious he never met a payroll.”

No doubt George the Pretender finds such a designer just the sort of guy he would put in charge to manage a postwar occupation or a natural disaster, before awarding him a Medal of Freedom. Philosophically speaking, however, the notion of a centrally planned, top down universe refutes the modern ideology of the Republican Party, forged by the laissez-faire social Darwinism of the second half of the 19th century. If the best of all possible worlds can only emerge from the “natural forces” of a free market, why muddle the natural forces of biological evolution with the interference of gods, aliens, or any of the other candidates for intelligent designer? For that matter, why is Bush’s party so bent on destroying the environment if it was perfected by a superior being?

In the end, the worst thing about faith-based substitutes for science is that they have no pragmatic value. Scientific theories of evolution, Darwin’s natural selection foremost among them, provide our biologists, zoologists, epidemiologists, agricultural technicians, medical researchers, et al., with real-world tools for studying real-world problems. Knowing that avian flu virus could conceivably mutate via well-understood natural processes into a form transmissible between humans permits the world’s relevant scientists to prepare for that unwelcome possibility. Crediting a higher intelligence — by default an evil one — with the supernatural means to turn bird flu into a human epidemic leaves us passive and helpless, unable to predict when it will act and bereft of tools to fight it. Indeed, if this monster of the I.D. is morally superior to us by some grotesque Kierkegaardian standard, we have no right to defend ourselves against it.

Of such beliefs are Dark Ages born. Because only the fittest ideas survive, I.D. will ultimately go the way of creationism and other superstitions. We the reality-based must endeavor to ensure that it doesn’t take American civilization down with it.

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