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Not Intelligent, and Surely Not Science

March 30, 2005|Michael Shermer | Michael Shermer is founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and the author of "Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown" (Times Books, 2005).

According to intelligent-design theory, life is too complex to have evolved by natural forces. Therefore life must have been created by a supernatural force -- an intelligent designer. ID theorists argue that because such design can be inferred through the methods of science, IDT should be given equal time alongside evolutionary theory in public school science classes. Nine states have recently proposed legislation that would require just that.

The evolution-creation legal battle began in 1925 with the Scopes "monkey" trial, over the banning of the teaching of evolution in Tennessee. The controversy caused textbook publishers and state boards of education to cease teaching evolution -- until the Soviets launched Sputnik in the late 1950s and the United States realized it was falling behind in the sciences.

Creationists responded by passing equal-time laws that required the teaching of both creationism and evolution, a strategy defeated in a 1968 Arkansas trial that found that such a law attempted to "establish religion" in a public school and was therefore unconstitutional. This led to new equal-time laws covering "creation science" and "evolution science." In 1987, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 7 to 2, said teaching creation science "impermissibly endorses religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind."

This history explains why proponents of intelligent design are careful to never specify the true, religious nature of their theory and to insist that what they are doing is science. For example, leading ID scholar William Dembski wrote in his 2003 book, "The Design Revolution": "Intelligent design is a strictly scientific theory devoid of religious commitments. Whereas the creator underlying scientific creationism conforms to a strict, literalist interpretation of the Bible, the designer underlying intelligent design need not even be a deity."

But let's be clear: Intelligent-design theory is not science. The proof is in the pudding. Scientists, including scientists who are Christians, do not use IDT when they do science because it offers nothing in the way of testable hypotheses. Lee Anne Chaney, professor of biology at Whitworth College, a Christian institution, wrote in a 1995 article: "As a Christian, part of my belief system is that God is ultimately responsible. But as a biologist, I need to look at the evidence.... I don't think intelligent design is very helpful because it does not provide things that are refutable -- there is no way in the world you can show it's not true. Drawing inferences about the deity does not seem to me to be the function of science because it's very subjective."

Intelligent-design theory lacks, for instance, a hypothesis of the mechanics of the design, something akin to natural selection in evolution. Natural selection can and has been observed and tested, and Charles Darwin's theory has been refined.

Intelligent-design theorists admit the difference, at least among themselves. Here is ID proponent Paul Nelson, writing last year in Touchstone, a Christian magazine: "Right now, we've got a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions such as 'irreducible complexity' and 'specified complexity' -- but, as yet, no general theory of biological design."

If intelligent design is not science, then what is it? One of its originators, Phillip Johnson, a law professor at UC Berkeley, wrote in a 1999 article: "The objective is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism versus evolution to the existence of God versus the nonexistence of God. From there people are introduced to 'the truth' of the Bible and then 'the question of sin' and finally 'introduced to Jesus.' "

On March 9, I debated ID scholar Stephen Meyer at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. After two hours of debate over the scientific merits (or lack thereof) of IDT, Meyer admitted in the question-and-answer period that he thinks that the intelligent designer is the Judeo-Christian God and that suboptimal designs and deadly diseases are not examples of an unintelligent or malevolent designer, but instead were caused by "the fall" in the Garden of Eden. Dembski has also told me privately that he believes the intelligent designer is the God of Abraham.

The term "intelligent design" is nothing more than a linguistic place-filler for something unexplained by science. It is saying, in essence, that if there is no natural explanation for X, then the explanation must be a supernatural one. Proponents of intelligent design cannot imagine, for example, how the bacterial flagellum (such as the little tail that propels sperm cells) could have evolved; ergo, they conclude, it was intelligently designed. But saying "intelligent design did it" does not explain anything. Scientists would want to know how and when ID did it, and what forces ID used.

In fact, invoking intelligent design as God's place-filler can only result in the naturalization of the deity. God becomes just another part of the natural world, and thereby loses the transcendent mystery and divinity that define the boundary between religion and science.

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