Intelligent Design is Dead! Long Live Creationism?

By Professor of Biology Mark Schlessman
Intelligent Design is Dead!
Intelligent Design is Dead!

Intelligent design (ID) is the most recent incarnation of creationist attempts to masquerade religious beliefs as science. Proponents of ID claim that certain features of life are either so complex or so improbable that they must have arisen through the purposeful actions of a directing intelligence. Because the advocates of ID want you to accept it as a scientific alternative to evolution, they are usually very careful not to name their directing intelligence, or to describe it in any detail. In this respect they are rather like Harry Potter’s fearful friends who refer to Harry’s dark-arts-wielding antagonist as “he who shall not be named.” It’s clear to everyone in J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world that “you-know-who” is Harry’s nemesis Voldemort. In the continuing creationist attacks on evolution, everyone understands that “directing intelligence,” “intelligent agent,” and “master intelligence” are code words for God.

It’s surprising that in my 27 years at Vassar, only a handful of students have questioned the validity of evolution. After all, in a March 2007 Newsweek national poll, 48% of respondents thought that “God created humans pretty much in present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so,” and 30% thought that humans had developed from “less advanced” forms of life in a God-guided process. Only 13% thought that God wasn’t involved in the origin and development of humans.

So why haven’t I heard more about intelligent design from my students? Could it be that I’m not really as open to their points of view as my course evaluation questionnaires indicate? More likely, I think, it is that my students are a decidedly nonrandom, self-selected sample. Consider that the 2007 Princeton Review placed Vassar among the top 10 “least religious” colleges. Also, given our curricular distribution requirements, those who really don’t want to hear about evolution in their Vassar classes can easily avoid it. Whatever the reasons, in my professional life ID has been at most a minor nuisance.

The situation in our public schools is radically different. After three years of middle-school science, including the New York State Regents course in earth science, my son has seldom read or heard the word evolution. It’s difficult to determine with any accuracy how many teachers avoid evolution simply because they personally don’t accept it as a scientific fact, but anecdotal information suggests that the numbers are substantial. Some science teachers have minimal academic backgrounds in science and therefore may struggle with teaching evolution, especially if students and parents challenge them. Without a doubt, many teachers are both well-qualified and thoroughly dedicated to teaching evolution. Yet 31% of them, according to a 2005 survey, must withstand pressures from students and parents who want them to single out evolution for special criticism or offer creationist alternatives. For those teachers, ID has been a clear and present danger. That’s rather ironic because only 17% of Americans claim to be “very familiar” with ID, and ID is both scientifically and legally dead.

Intelligent Design is Dead!
Intelligent Design is Dead!
Even if you didn’t take any science at Vassar, you don’t need extensive background to understand why, scientifically, intelligent design is dead. Significant and lasting scientific theories have two major parts. Biologist and college textbook author Scott Freeman calls them the pattern and process components. Pattern components summarize broad sets of observations about nature, and process components describe natural mechanisms that can account for the observations. Consider Newton’s theory of gravity. The movements of falling apples, our moon, and nearby planets are the pattern components. For some of the pattern components, such as the behavior of falling apples, we can conduct manipulative, repeatable experiments. But others, such as the orbits of the planets, are obviously not suitable for experimental manipulation. The unseen gravitational force is Newton’s process component, the natural mechanism that explains how it is that apples fall toward the ground, our moon orbits Earth, and Earth orbits the Sun. Newton’s theory has been modified—by Einstein, for example—to incorporate new observations and expand its explanatory power.

In Darwin’s theory, evolution (he used the phrase “descent with modification”) is actually the pattern component. Much of On the Origin of Species is a summary of the evidence available to Darwin that living species are descended with modification from earlier ones, and thus are related to one another through common ancestry. Darwin focused especially on paleontology (fossils), biogeography, and comparative anatomy, development, and morphology. Ever since, new data from each of those fields, as well as genetics, molecular biology, and evolutionary ecology, have added support for descent with modification. Evolution, the pattern component of Darwin’s theory, is a solid scientific fact. Natural selection is Darwin’s original process component. Numerous scientific studies have confirmed that natural selection occurs and that its consequences can be theoretically modeled and accurately predicted. In fact, by analogy with the gravitational and atomic forces of physical science, biologists treat natural selection as an evolutionary force that can lead to differences between ancestors and their descendants. The same is true for sexual selection, the other evolutionary force that Darwin described. In addition, biologists have shown that other evolutionary forces, such as genetic drift (the sample size effect of having a small number of individuals in a population), also contribute to descent with modification.

In some cases it is actually possible to experimentally replicate the origin of a species. That’s been done, for example, with a species of wild sunflowers that arose from hybrids between two other wild species that still exist. Evolutionary botanists have artificially hybridized the presumed parental species. The experimental hybrid plants are essentially identical, both in appearance and genetic makeup, to the plants of the wild species that was derived from naturally occurring hybrids.

Scientific theories also allow us to make testable predictions. Indeed, as new observations and experimental results that are consistent with their predictions accumulate, scientific ideas that start as hypotheses mature into theories. For example, the numerous similarities between whales and land-dwelling mammals prompted the prediction that whales would have land-dwelling ancestors. Recently uncovered fossils have filled out a series clearly showing transitional forms, over a period of about 12 million years, from a terrestrial ancestor to a fully aquatic species very similar to today’s whales. All of the fossil species have distinctive ear bones that are characteristic of living whales. Resistance to antibiotics and pesticides, both excellent examples of observable natural selection, are easily predicted from Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Lastly, a scientific theory, no matter how well established, is subject to falsification. Good scientists should be able to imagine the kinds of evidence that would falsify a theory, or at the very least force a re-evaluation of its explanatory power. Indeed, a truly elegant scientific experiment is one that provides evidence against all but one of several possible alternative hypotheses, leaving just one viable explanation of the results. I don’t think it’s very likely, but if we ever find fossils of dinosaurs and fossils of humans that occur together and are exactly the same age, scientists will have to rethink the explanatory power of the theory of evolution.

Vassar Professor of Biology Mark Schlessman
Vassar Professor of Biology Mark Schlessman
If intelligent design is truly a scientific theory, we should be able to identify its pattern and process components, use it to make testable predictions, and describe observations that would falsify it. We face immediate difficulties because the proponents of ID place severe restrictions on the features of life that they accept as evidence for a designing intelligence. Consider Michael Behe’s “irreducible complexity,” the feature of life that he claims provides evidence for a designing intelligence. Behe defines an irreducibly complex structure as one that has several parts and will not function if any of its parts is inactivated or removed. Originally, he used a standard spring-loaded bar mousetrap as a man-made example. Unfortunately for Behe, tinkerers immediately fashioned working traps that lacked one or more of the standard parts. Behe’s biological icon of irreducible complexity was the bacterial flagellum, the whiplike structure that propels some bacterial cells. Here, too, it was easy to show that Behe’s definition did not hold. By turning off a few of the many genes that code for different proteins that comprise the flagellum, geneticists were able to produce mutant strains of bacteria, each of which had flagella with a different part deactivated. In each strain, the flagella still propelled the bacteria. I could cite several other examples of biological structures and processes that ID advocates have claimed are irreducibly complex but on careful examination clearly are not. Suffice it to say that the broad set of observations that would constitute the pattern component of ID is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find.

What about the process component of ID? There isn’t one. I have yet to read a description of the process through which the designing intelligence works. Testable predictions? Again, nothing. How can one make predictions without a process or mechanism to base the predictions on? Is ID falsifiable? To my mind the answer is no. That may seem a little strange, since I obviously don’t think that ID is a scientific theory. But that’s precisely my point. Scientifically, ID is dead. Intelligent design is also legally dead. Kitzmiller v. Dover, the case that put ID on the national media stage, then drew the curtain and turned out the lights, was really quite spectacular. In 2004 the Dover Pennsylvania school board required that a statement on evolution and intelligent design be read to students in ninth-grade biology classes. In part the statement said: “Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations. Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.”

I could write another entire article on this clever mix of truths and lies about scientific theories in general and Darwin’s theory in particular. I’ll settle for noting that the theory of evolution, both as Darwin originally proposed it and as we currently understand it, actually has very little to say about the origin of life on Earth. In fact, even if life got here from somewhere else or was created here, everything I’ve said about evolution, descent with modification from common ancestors, natural selection, and so on, would still apply. But for creationists who take the Book of Genesis literally, the origin of life on Earth and the origin of humans are essentially the same thing.

But back to the Dover case. Eleven parents brought suit. Federal District Court Judge John E. Jones ruled that intelligent design is a religious doctrine. Following precedents from earlier attempts to teach biblical creation in public schools, he further ruled that the Dover board’s ID statement violated the separation of church and state mandated by both the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Constitution of the State of Pennsylvania. Anticipating the spin that creationists would inevitably attempt to give his ruling, Judge Jones was careful to state that “this is manifestly not an activist court.” He went on to castigate the “breathtaking inanity” of the “ill-informed activist faction” of the school board that forced adoption of the ID statement.

This brings me to the aspect of the intelligent design story that concerns me the most. The people behind ID believe that if you acknowledge the fact of evolution your moral compass and your religious faith will be destroyed. That simply isn’t true. Yes, I have some scientist friends who are atheists, but I also know scientists who contribute to our understanding of evolution every working day and also seek out churches to attend wherever their scientific work takes them. Last February 617 churches from all 50 states and Washington, DC, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and five foreign countries participated in the second Evolution Sunday, an event sponsored by the Clergy Letter Project. As I write, 10,612 clergy have signed the project’s open letter on religion and science, which reads in part:

“We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as ‘one theory among others’ is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris.”

The many denominations represented by the signers include Baptist, Catholic, Church of the Nazarene, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, and United Methodist.

Last summer the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution included the full-day symposium “Intelligent Design on Trial: Lessons from the Kitzmiller v. Dover Creationism Case.” It was a wonderful, largely self-congratulatory day, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. In February evolution returned to the state science education standards of Kansas. Creationist legislation in New Mexico was tabled in March, and an anti-evolution bill in Tennessee appears to have languished. Also this spring, the Bush Administration has been forced to acknowledge that anthropogenic global warming is real, and the Supreme Court has told the Environmental Protection Agency that it must treat carbon dioxide as an atmospheric pollutant. Perhaps the neoconservative repression of science in our country has peaked. But even if it has, religious fundamentalism is still a significant political force, and scientific literacy is still weak. Creationist attacks on evolution won’t just fade away. I predict that the courts will continue to uphold evolution as a valid scientific theory and prohibit teaching creationism as science. But these legal remedies for creationist attacks have much in common with cancer therapies. They can be curative, but they are not preventative. They can thwart a particular creationist tactic such as ID, but they cannot in themselves change the conditions that make creationism politically viable. My prescription for that: we need better education — not only in science, but in religion as well.

An evolutionary botanist, Schlessman teaches introductory biology, plant diversity, evolutionary biology, conservation biology, ethnobotany, tropical biology, environmental science, and environmental studies. He is an active member of the Poughkeepsie First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ.

Resources/more info:
Clergy Letter Project: www.butler.edu/clergyproject/clergy_project.htm
Discovery Institute, Center for Science and Culture: www.discovery.org/csc/
Michael Behe’s Lehigh University faculty web page:
National Center for Science Education: http://www.natcenscied.org/

Photo credits. Blackboard: Beard & Howell. Mark Schlessman: Jim Smith