Monday, April 25, 2005

The Fallacy of Intelligent Design

The Dover, Pennsylvania school board recently adopted a policy requiring that high school science teachers teaching evolution tell their students that evolutionary theory, a theory that has been shown to explain the development of life time and time again, is flawed, and that intelligent design is a valid alternative. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), along with the AUSCS (Americans United for the Separation of Church and State), and 11 parents, are suing the school board, accusing the board of violating the separation of church and state (Banerjee A16). They are quite right. The sole purpose of “Intelligent Design” is to make creationism look like a scientifically credible theory, so that it can be perpetuated in public schools, among other places. Intelligent Design, however, is not supported by scientific evidence, and is invalid as a scientific theory.

To understand the problems with Intelligent Design, first it is important to understand the theory it is attempting to oppose, evolution by natural selection. The theory is this: If organisms reproduce, offspring inherit traits from their progenitor(s), a variability of traits exists, and the environment cannot sustain all the members of an increasingly large population, then those members of the population that have poorly-adapted traits (to their environment) will die out, and those with well-adapted traits (to their environment) will prosper (Darwin 459). Over a long period of time, this process leads to extreme complexity, and adaptedness.

The premise of Intelligent Design is that the universe is so unimaginably complex and perfect that it must have been created by an intelligent designer. The classic analogy used in this argument is that of the watch and the watchmaker. William Paley wrote in his book, Natural Theology:

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? Why is it not as admissible in the second case, as in the first (1)?

The watchmaker analogy attempts to show that just as a watch could not come into existence by random events, neither could a human being. All arguments for design are essentially derivatives of this argument, and none of them succeed in lending any credibility to Intelligent Design.

Michael Behe, in his book, Darwin’s Black box, puts forward an argument for Intelligent Design which he calls “Irreducible Complexity.” In the book, Behe argues that there are certain complex systems which cannot be explained by evolution. He compares these systems to a mousetrap:

The first step in determining irreducible complexity is to specify both the function of the system and all system components. An irreducibly complex object will be composed of several parts, all of which contribute to the function …

The function of a mousetrap is to immobilize a mouse so that it can’t perform such unfriendly acts as chewing through sacks of flour or electrical cords, or leaving little reminders of its presence in unswept corners. The mousetraps that my family uses consist of a number of parts (Figure 2-2): (1) a flat wooden platform to act as a base [for the attachment of the other parts]; (2) a metal hammer, which does the actual job of crushing the little mouse; (3) a spring with extended ends to press against the platform and the hammer when the trap is charged; (4) a sensitive catch that releases when slight pressure is applied, and (5) a metal holding bar that connects to the catch and holds the hammer back when the trap is charged. (There are also assorted staples to hold the system together).

The second step in determining if a system is irreducibly complex is to ask if all the components are required for function. In this example, the answer is clearly yes … If the wooden base were gone, there would be no platform for attaching the other components. If the hammer were gone, the mouse could dance all night on the platform without becoming pinned to the wooden base. If there were no spring, the hammer and platform would jangle loosely, and again the rodent would be unimpeded. If there were no catch or metal holding bar, then the spring would snap the hammer shut as soon as you let go of it; in order to use a trap like that you would have to chase the mouse around while holding the trap open (42).

Behe believes that the vertebrate eye, along with several other biological functions, is irreducibly complex. He tries to show that this is a fatal flaw in evolution because there would be no selection pressure for the intermediate steps in the construction of an irreducibly complex function. While this may seem reasonable, there is a clear way around this problem. Behe completely neglects the possibility that the eye, and other irreducibly complex systems evolved in steps in which the function of the system changed. In fact, Darwin anticipated this challenge in Origin of Species and gave a reasonable explanation of how this very thing could have happened with the eye (217).

Experiments with simulated evolution on computers have shown that Darwin’s explanation is extremely probable. In an article published in the journal Nature, computer science researchers used a program called Avida, to simulate the evolution of “digital organisms.” Digital organisms are pieces of computer code that replicate (Lenski et al. 139). They have a “genome” of computer instructions, which can combine to perform functions. They use “energy” to replicate, and can gain energy by performing any of nine logic functions. The more complicated a logic function was, the more energy an organism would gain by performing it (Lenski et al. 140).

The population in the experiment started as 36,000 identical digital organisms, which could not perform logic functions but could replicate. Even the most simple logic function would take multiple mutations to evolve (Lenski et al. 140). The most complicated function, EQU, appeared in the population after 111 mutations. At mutation 110 the organism actually lost one of its most basic functions, NAND. The researchers found that if NAND had not been removed, EQU would not have appeared. The researchers repeated the experiment 50 times and found that the number of mutations needed to evolve EQU ranged from 51 to 721 (Lenski et al. 141). Five of the 23 populations which developed EQU included a deleterious mutation in the step prior to its evolution (Lenski et al. 142). This demonstrates that parts of an organism can trade off functions, even losing them for a time, while evolving more complex and useful ones.

The EQU function depended on 35 of 60 instructions in the organism’s genome. Deleting any one of them would prevent EQU from being performed. The researchers performed the experiment 50 more times, and found that the number of instructions required for EQU ranged from 17 to 43 with a median of 28. The function is clearly extremely complex and fragile.

The researchers came to several conclusions as a result of their experiments. They found that EQU was only evolved when an organism could successfully use simpler functions. There was great overlap in the genetic instructions used in many different functions. Loss of simple functions was often a side effect of gaining complex ones. In agreement with Charles Darwin, they found that complex features evolve through the modification of existing simpler structures. Behe’s mousetrap must have had another function while it was in the process of creating its mouse trapping function. This seems absurd as applied to a mousetrap, but this has more to do with the simplicity of the mouse trap, in comparison to actual biological processes than the failure of Darwinism.

Moreover, it has been shown how many of the processes that Behe claimed were irreducibly complex, have actually evolved. He claimed that both bacterial flagellum and the immune system were irreducibly complex, but it has been shown that this is not the case (Matzke; Inlay). Clearly, irreducible complexity does not defeat Darwinism.

Another argument for intelligent design, put forward primarily by the mathematician and philosopher William Dembsky, is the argument of “Specified Complexity.” The term Specified Complexity was used originally by Leslie Orgel. His definition is:

In brief, living organisms are distinguished by their “specified” complexity. Crystals are usually taken as the prototypes of simple well-specified structures, because they consist of a very large number of identical molecules packed together in a uniform way. Lumps of granite or random mixtures of polymers are examples of structures which are complex but not specified. The crystals fail to qualify as living because they lack complexity; the mixtures of polymers fail to qualify because they lack specificity (189).

Dembsky’s Specified Complexity can be explained as follows. A series of random characters such as “icmalswejd” has high complexity but low specificity. The character string “aaaaaaaaaa,” on the other hand, has high specificity, since it has a distinct pattern, but low complexity, because it can be compressed into “10 a’s.” The sentence “I hate dogs” could be said to have specified complexity, because it cannot be compressed, and it has a pattern, that of the grammar and syntax of the English language (Wikipedia).

Dembsky argues that for something to be complex, it must have “multiple possible outcomes.” He says that if something can be predicted to happen with certainty, it is not Specified Complexity. In this way he precludes any deterministic explanation of Specified Complexity, thus making it require some external designer by definition. Specified Complexity essentially boils down to a tautology. The question then becomes whether Specified Complexity, as defined by Dembsky, exists at all. Dembsky doesn’t even seem sure of this, saying “does nature exhibit actual specified complexity? The jury is still out.”

A third argument for Intelligent Design is the so-called “Fined-Tuned Universe” argument. If certain physical constants were different, life would not exist, it is argued. For example:

If the strong nuclear force were to have been as little as 2% stronger (relative to the other forces), all hydrogen would have been converted into helium. If it were 5% weaker, no helium at all would have formed and there would be nothing but hydrogen. If the weak nuclear force were a little stronger, supernovas could not occur, and heavy elements could not have formed. If it were slightly weaker, only helium might have formed. If the electromagnetic forces were stronger, all stars would be red dwarfs, and there would be no planets. If it were a little weaker, all stars would be very hot and short-lived. If the electron charge were ever so slightly different, there would be no chemistry as we know it. Carbon (12C) only just managed to form in the primal nucleosynthesis. And so on (McMullin 378).

If one were to go fishing and catch 50 fish, all of which were more than ten inches long, one might reasonably make the hypothesis that all of the fish in the lake are more than ten inches long. Someone else might make another hypothesis, that only half the fish in the lake are more than ten inches long. It seems obvious that the first hypothesis is more likely. But what if, upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the net being used to catch the fish had holes that prevented it from catching fish smaller than ten inches, and that the fisherman left it in the water until it had caught 50 fish? This new information must now be incorporated into the hypothesis, causing both to have a likelihood of one, thus preventing one from being more likely than the other.

This situation can be directly applied to the fine-tuned universe argument. It may seem on the surface that the likelihood of a universe in which all of the constants are right for life given an intelligent designer is much higher than the likelihood that the constants are right given random chance. When we add in the fact that we are here to observe the universe, however, we find that the likelihood of a fine-tuned universe is one either way. If we are here we must be in a universe which is tuned to our existence. The likelihood of a fine-tuned universe given that there is an intelligent designer and that we live in a fine tuned universe is equal to the likelihood that we live in a fined tuned universe given that it was created by random chance and that we live in a fine-tuned universe.

Pr(Fine-Tuned Universe | Intelligent Design & Fine-Tuned Universe) = Pr(Fine-Tuned Universe | Chance & Fine-Tuned Universe) = 1

This is to say that since we are here we must live in a universe fine-tuned to our existence regardless of whether that universe was created by an intelligent designer or by random chance. Therefore, the fine-tuned universe argument does not, in the final analysis, promote either intelligent design or chance (Sober).

While proponents of Intelligent Design pretend to be scientists, this is not the case. Intelligent design does not meet the accepted standards of the scientific community for being a scientific theory. There is a concept in the philosophy of science of falsifiability. Karl Popper writes of this in his book, The Logic of Scientific Discovery:

...All the statements of empirical science (or all 'meaningful' statements) must be capable of being finally decided, with respect to their truth and falsity; we shall say that they must be 'conclusively decidable'. This means that their form must be such that to verify them and to falsify them must both be logically possible. Thus Schlick says: '...a genuine statement must be capable of conclusive verification'; and Waismann says still more clearly: 'If there is no possible way to determine whether a statement is true then that statement has no meaning whatsoever. For the meaning of a statement is the method of its verification (17).

Intelligent Design obviously does not fit this criterion. As should be clear by now, there is little if any evidence for Intelligent Design, but this does not prove it to be false. It is, in fact, impossible to prove it false. However unlikely it is that some form of intelligence created the universe, there is no way to verify or falsify the claim. God is invisible, we are told. He is undetectable. This is in contrast to Darwinism, which could easily be falsified if it were shown that some creature just appeared out of thin air, without any ancestors (though this may be difficult to prove, it would not be impossible). Therefore, Intelligent Design fails the test of falsifiability, and is therefore not a valid scientific theory.

As a result, the scientific community does not take Intelligent Design at all seriously. George Gilchrist of the National Center for Science Education conducted a search of all the peer-reviewed scientific journals published since the idea of Intelligent Design came about, and found no articles supporting it. In contrast, he found many thousands of articles supporting evolution.

So then, one might wonder, what do all of these Intelligent Design people really want? The answer is quite clear, after taking a look at a document titled “The Wedge Strategy,” which was leaked by the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, the main group supporting Intelligent Design, and a subsidiary of the conservative Christian think-tank, the Discovery Institute. The document starts:

The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West's greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences.

Yet a little over a century ago, this cardinal idea came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of modern science. Debunking the traditional conceptions of both God and man, thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment. This materialistic conception of reality eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art.

The cultural consequences of this triumph of materialism were devastating. Materialists denied the existence of objective moral standards, claiming that environment dictates our behavior and beliefs. Such moral relativism was uncritically adopted by much of the social sciences, and it still undergirds much of modern economics, political science, psychology and sociology.

Materialism, here, is a euphemism for modern science. The ironically titled Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture wants nothing less than the destruction of modern science. They even admit this explicitly, saying, “Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies.” They further state:

If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is intended to function as a "wedge" that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points. The very beginning of this strategy, the "thin edge of the wedge," was Phillip Johnson's critique of Darwinism begun in 1991 in Darwinism on Trial, and continued in Reason in the Balance and Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds. Michael Behe's highly successful Darwin's Black Box followed Johnson's work.

Intelligent design is primarily a Christian movement, and they admit this as well, writing, “Alongside a focus on influential opinion-makers, we also seek to build up a popular base of support among our natural constituency, namely, Christians.”

Just a few sentences after their admission that Intelligent Design is a Christian movement, they say, “We will also pursue possible legal assistance in response to resistance to the integration of design theory into public school science curricula.” Now it is all clear. The intelligent design movement is an attempt to bring Creationism back into the schools, something that has been outlawed by the Supreme Court, due to its violation of the separation between church and state.

Intelligent Design would not really be anything of consequence if it were not for its targeting of public schools. There are plenty of people with crazy ideas, conspiracy theories, and the like, who do not cause anyone any trouble. Unfortunately, Intelligent Design’s attack on the separation of church and state in our schools is something to be concerned about. It is a slippery slope, from the teaching of a theory with no scientific backing in the classroom, to school sponsored prayer in the classroom. It may seem like a stretch, but as soon as the line is blurred, it is much easier to rationalize each step until an extreme is reached. But it can be stopped now. As long as people are educated about the lack of scientific evidence in support of Intelligent Design, about its lack of validity as a scientific theory, and about the true motives of those who promote it, this religious movement disguised as science cannot gain a hold on the science classrooms of this country.

Works Cited

Banerjee, Neela. “An Alternative to Evolution Splits a Pennsylvania Town.” New York Times 16 January 2005: A16.

Behe, Michael. Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York: Free Press, 1998.

Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. New York: Gramercy, 1995.

The Design Argument. Elliot Sober. 2004. University of Wisconsin Department of Philosophy. Jan. 17 2005 .

Evolving Immunity: A Response to Chapter 6 of Darwin’s Black Box. Matt Inlay. 2002. 17 Jan. 2005 .

Evolution in (Brownian) Space: A Model for the Origin of Bacterial Flagellum. N. J.
Matzke. 2003. 17 Jan 2005 .

Explaining Specified Complexity. William A. Dembsky. 17 Jan 2005 .

Gilchrist, George. “The Elusive Scientific Basis of Intelligent Design.” Reports of the National Center for Science Education 17.3 (1997): 14-15.

“Intelligent Design.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 16 Jan. 2005 23:41 UTC. 17 Jan. 2005 .

Lenski, Richard, et all. “The Evolution Origin of Complex Features.” Nature 423 (2003): 139-144.

McMullin, E. “Indifference Principle and Anthropic Principle in Cosmology.” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 24 (1993): 359-389.

Orgel, Leslie. The Origins of Life. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1973.

Paley, William. Natural Theology. London: J. Faulder, 1809.

Popper, Karl. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York: Routledge, 2002.

The Wedge Strategy. Center for Renewal of Science and Culture. 1999. .


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quite an essay!
Now I run a blog that takes exactly the opposite position. I argue (well, I think) that ID is a very legitimate paradigm. In fact, my last several posts are about ID, and I invite you over to take a look.

8:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice essay. Just one thing -- Leslie Orgel is a man, baby.

1:14 PM  
Anonymous LoB said...

Thanks for the interesting essay. Is there any evidence that either christian or nonchristian supporters of ID are turning away from ID when they learn about the true religious motives behind the movement?

5:58 PM  
Anonymous L K Tucker said...

Natural selection works. Evolution doesn't.

To survive stress from the environment adaptations must exist before the stress is applied.

10:42 PM  
Blogger MichaelBains said...

thinkers ... portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces ...

That seems to me the crux of the opponents to evolutionary theory's problem. The "think" too much upon a false premise. The objective idea that we developed without the aid of a Creator makes us, and the universe writ large, even more sublime and wonderful.

Nor does this idea reject "objectivity" in morals or any other venue. In fact it replaces the subjective native of "belief" with the potential for utilizing objective knowledge of reality in determining the actual nature of morality, not just for our species but for examining any possible meanings for existence itself.

To "l k tucker"'s statement, if you had actually read the preceeding essay, you would see your issue resolved. Read it again amigo.

Kudos on one of the better analyses I've seen vis-a-vie the IDesign movement.

4:59 AM  
Anonymous L K Tucker said...

I did read the article. There is no credible explanation, only argument. Too many today believe that well crafted argument equals proof.

The scientific method cannot be used to establish a proof of Evolution.

7:52 AM  
Blogger Mime Narrator said...

What you say is actually true, but not in the way you mean it to me. The scientific method proves nothing, and isn't intended to. It makes arguments which over time become accepted within the scientific community, as more and more experimental evidence agrees with the theory. If some experiment can be shown to falsify a theory, it is discarded or altered. I would suggest you read Karl Popper.

10:48 AM  

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