You are on page 1of 4

INTELLIGENT DESIGN: A BLIND ALLEY

Recently, I was in the audience when Munawar Anees spoke at the Jefferson Center’s
Summer Institute about science and Islam. Anees, a Muslim scientist turned social critic
and student of religion, argued that conflicts between science and religious doctrine were
alien to Islam. Afterwards, I asked Anees if this was not a strange statement, considering
that the Muslim world harbors perhaps the strongest and most successful varieties of
creationism in the world. He answered that Harun Yahya—the famous pseudonym
Turkish creationists operate under—and similar figures were aberrations, who could be
ignored when discussing the Islamic attitude toward science.
I wish Anees were right—that his idealized, liberal version of Islam was the more
popular, even dominant, point of view. Yet the fact is that creationism of the Harun Yahya
variety appeals to a large number of Muslims. And even the serious intellectual culture of
Muslims is not friendly toward evolution. Certainly modern Darwinian evolution, which
explains the common ancestry of organisms through purely natural mechanisms, seems
largely rejected by devout Muslims.
I find this disturbing. Although I am not religious, I was born and raised in
Turkey, and I continue to be concerned about how the Muslim world is a disaster zone for
modern science. For a long time, I have observed how creationism infiltrated science
education in Turkey, with a blend of traditional Islamic ideas and Protestant
pseudoscience imported from the United States. More recently I have watched Harun
Yahya’s version of creationism emerge and become an international phenomenon. The
overwhelming consensus of scientists today is that common ancestry is a plain fact, and
that natural mechanisms suffice to explain this fact. And yet, public acceptance of
evolution remains remarkably low. The August 11, 2006 issue of Science included a
paper presenting survey results from 31 European countries plus Japan, the US, and
Turkey as the only Muslim representative. Turkey was the most negative toward
evolution among the 34 countries—perhaps 25% of Turks favor evolution, while over a
half reject it. Some of this must be due to the inherent difficulties of evolutionary
thinking: as with most powerful scientific theories, there is much in evolution that is
counterintuitive. And evaluating the vast body of evidence supporting evolution requires
much specialized training. Nevertheless, it is clear that the main obstacle to the public
acceptance of evolution comes from popular religion. Countries where traditional
Abrahamic religious beliefs are strong, such as the United States and most Muslim lands,
are also home to strong creationist movements.
Responding to creationism can be especially frustrating for scientists, as
arguments over evolution often turn into religious debates, different from the weighing of
evidence and explanations that is usual in science. Moreover, popular creationism is not
intellectually serious. Harun Yahya and similar writers, for example, do not follow even
elementary norms of scholarship. Popular creationism is full of gross misrepresentations
of Darwinian evolution, such as the notion that evolutionists consider functional
complexity to be the result of pure chance. Creationists repeat claims that have long been
debunked, such as the claim that the fossil record lacks transitional forms. No one
familiar with today’s paleontological literature could agree with such a statement. Indeed,
the sheer amount of bad arguments and distortions in most popular creationist writings

And intelligent design also appears to have attracted attention in the Muslim world. After all. And it is not clear that even the most thorough presentation of creationist mistakes can influence committed creationists. intelligent design certainly looks more respectable than popular creationism.makes many scientists think that there is little to be gained in responding. Translations of books advocating intelligent design are easy to find in Istanbul bookstores. some who work in scientific disciplines. for example. laying the groundwork for chemical replicators and processes such as natural selection. naturalistic evolution in the Darwinian mold. might have some fun describing the mistakes in creationist allegations that the second law of thermodynamics preclude evolution. Even the elite intellectual culture among Muslims tends toward a view where it looks obvious that complexity in nature is due to divine design. Intelligent design proponents share some of the bad habits of popular creationists. this is just explaining established science. In the United States. it can be fascinating to explore how self-organization can take hold in a system driven away from thermodynamic equilibrium. intelligent design proponents include a number of academics. Well. Now. I have done such writing myself. I cannot help but think that intelligent design can only adversely affect the already weak state of science in Muslim lands. not significantly advancing knowledge. and the way they misrepresent the current state of science to portray evolution as a theory in crisis. Still. After all. there seems to be more intellectual substance to intelligent design. perhaps I should be less negative about the prospect of intelligent design ideas influencing the Muslim world. such as Mustafa Akyol. . Creationist writers display an impressive capacity for ignoring what mainstream scientists have to say. They avoid more blatant appeals to religion. Akyol has argued for intelligent design in front of American audiences as well as writing for Muslims. out of curiosity or a sense of responsibility for the public appreciation of science. If Muslims are going to be cool toward evolution. perhaps intelligent design can at least nudge them closer to accepting ideas such as common descent. A few scientists do get involved. and that intelligence cannot be reduced to the “chance and necessity” of merely physical processes. But in the end. Indeed. Local proponents of intelligent design have begun to emerge. Those Muslims who say they favor evolution typically accept common descent but reject the sufficiency of Darwinian mechanisms—they consider evolution to proceed under direct divine supervision. the “intelligent design” movement purports to be just such a sophisticated critique of Darwinian evolution. what about less popular but more intellectually sophisticated critiques of evolution—especially those that advertise themselves to be grounded in science rather than theology? In the United States. It can even involve a limited acceptance of evolution— acknowledging common descent while insisting that creative novelty is due to an intelligent agent responsible for new information. Nevertheless. a Turkish journalist. Their attack on Darwinian evolution is based largely on the notion that purely natural processes cannot create information—that genuine creativity requires intervention by intelligence. then. If this is so. preferring not to discuss sacred texts. emphasizing how this form of opposition to evolution expresses deep intuitions about nature and a creator that are common to all Abrahamic faiths. A physicist. such as their use of quotations out of context. most devout Muslims seem unlikely to be reconciled with full-blown. beyond religious populism. Such notions of guided evolution fit very well with intelligent design ideas.

developments have only strengthened our negative assessment. dismissive of how arguments are reviewed within the scientific community. I would discover that my initial expectations were wrong. My original interest was driven mainly by curiosity—following creationism for a long time. It raises some interesting questions. and intelligence. mathematics. Intelligent design will continue to be a . complexity. these closely relate to my particular background and interests. This eventually led to Why Intelligent Design Fails. such as declaring that the intellectual battle against “Darwinism” has been won. As it happens. since it is intuitively obvious to any observer that the biochemical machinery in the cell must be a product of a kind of engineering design. that brings together detailed scientific criticisms of intelligent design based on current biology. I thought I could learn something by finding out exactly how they went wrong. they seem to ignore or superficially dismiss not just our criticisms but scientific challenges in general—they prefer to address philosophical and theological arguments and to create the impression that opposition to intelligent design is driven by anti-religious ideologies. and who thought it was intellectually worthwhile to put together a scientific assessment of this newest form of creationism. and that I would be persuaded by intelligent design. but at least they were interesting. and even forensic science. intelligent design is alive and well. So personally. physics. And as with any critical enterprise. But in the late 1990s. intelligent design is a scientific blind alley. but that it fails spectacularly. Intelligent design theorists have not responded to our arguments. As a physicist. there was also a chance that as I got deeper into intelligent design arguments. I soon found a number of fatal flaws in the information-based argument for intelligent design. But far from a serious alternative to evolution. but these have already been answered.I have been criticizing intelligent design creationism for many years now. As a social and political movement. Moreover. I started communicating with a number of like-minded scientists who had become interested in intelligent design from a critical perspective. Indeed. In the wider public realm. These arguments did not directly address biology but concentrated on concepts of information. I had become somewhat bored by the lack of development in creationist arguments. In the scientific realm. So I started looking at the information-based arguments for intelligent design. We see no prospect of anything of scientific value emerging from the intelligent design enterprise. the intelligent design movement matured and claimed a new type of criticism of evolution. paranoid about persecution by mainstream science. I was especially interested in the arguments of leading intelligent design theorists such as William Dembski. the picture looks different. Darwinian evolution is as secure as ever. I do not think that there is much more of scientific interest left in intelligent design claims. and celebrating mindless pop-culture attacks on evolution by right-wing political commentators. Intelligent design will remain of interest to those of us who think about the relationship between science and religion. Our overall conclusion was not only that intelligent design was a failure. The intelligent design movement as a whole is looking increasingly like old-fashioned popular creationism—focused on legal and political battles. In the two years since our book has been out. computer science. Leading intelligent design proponents such as William Dembski have been reduced to bizarrely triumphal statements. I fully expected that they would be flawed. a book I co-edited with Matt Young.

become more prominent. can Muslims afford to indulge in embarrassments like the popular creationism of Harun Yahya? Is it really a good idea to go down a scientific blind alley such as intelligent design? I am inclined to think not.religiously attractive position. And unfortunately. regardless of whether they are more observant or more secular in outlook—they correctly perceive that Western accomplishment in science and technology is a key to unwelcome Western military and economic domination of Muslim lands. Kirksville. maybe I can also make a pragmatic point. Gert Korthof. I would like to see more liberal Muslim options. the Muslim world really is a disaster area. . But this is an appeal to authority. Moreover. and that we are the proper authorities to consult about the history of life on Earth. I have to be content with pointing out that the scientific community overwhelmingly supports evolution. it is an appeal to the authority of an elite. Otherwise. represented by scientists such as Munawar Anees. my contribution to the public debate over creation and evolution has to be somewhat unsatisfactory. But I see little alternative. including the best arguments put forth by anti-evolutionary thinkers. MO. If the Muslim world is to improve its scientific prospects. to be published by Prometheus Books in 2007. His latest book is An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam. At the least. Barring acquiring enough background knowledge to consult scientific sources. Where natural science is concerned. Taner Edis is associate professor of physics at Truman State University. and that we hold this position based on careful evaluation of evidence and arguments. I fear the future of science among Muslims will be as dark as the present. as far as I can tell. I have to claim that we—scientists—have the appropriate expertise. I am not a believer —I have no business telling religious people how they should understand the Quran or the Bible. Thanks are due Glenn Branch. the only way for someone to accept evolution is to be impressed with modern science and give a lot of weight to scientific consensus. intelligent design often makes good sense from a religious perspective. at a time when populist religious currents are very strong in both the United States and among Muslims. That being said. and Matt Young for helpful comments on this article. or how they ought to imagine their God acting in the world. Many Muslims are worried about this state of affairs.