Intelligent Design: The New Creationism

By Sally Morem
[Note to readers: A shorter version of this essay was published in the October 2002 issue of Humanist News & Views] When we think of creationism, we think of the six days of creation in the Bible; the 6,000-year-old Earth; Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; Noah and his family, and all those animals in the Ark floating atop the Great Flood. Laughable stuff, really. Most religious people don’t take those old Biblical fairy tales seriously either. And as such, they’re not a real threat to evolution as an intellectually satisfying explanation of our origins. However, there’s a new creationism in town. It’s called Intelligent Design (ID). ID advocates depict it as the latest scientific theory explaining the existence of life. Actually, it’s the latest argument for religious creationism against biological evolution, the newest version of the old theological argument from design. I contend what the ID crowd is pushing is far more dangerous to our science educational well being than anything the Young Earthers ever advocated. It behooves us Humanists to become well acquainted with the arguments for and against ID. In a society in which science matters more and more to our prosperity and general well being, and in which sound critical thinking is even more essential, the continued maintenance and dissemination of modern evolutionary theory to the general public becomes even more important than before.

One possible source of confusion for Humanists is the fact that most ID advocates accept standard scientific explanations for the existence of galaxies, stars, planets, and geological formations, but then insist that there must be an Intelligent Designer for life due to what they perceived as design deep within. The Intelligent Design movement really began in 1996 with the publication of “Darwin’s Black Box,” a book in which Michael Behe, a molecular biologist at Lehigh University, claimed that the theory of evolution can’t account for complex organelles found within the cell. He said that recent advances in molecular biology and biochemistry reveal the existence of what he called “irreducible complexity.” “By irreducible complexity I mean a single system composed of several well matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.” (1) Behe, unlike earlier creationists, does admit the fact of common descent of all life on Earth, but insists that natural selection is incapable of evolving the first living systems incrementally. They can only come into existence as an integrated unit—a package deal. And so, only an Intelligent Designer could have devised the first ancestral cell—hence the name of the movement, Intelligent Design. Phillip Johnson, Law Professor at Berkeley, who had written such antievolution books as “Darwin on Trial” and “Defeating Darwinism,” immediately took note of the impact Behe was having on the debate on evolution in America and joined forces with him and other creationists to push the development and organization of ID as a force in American intellectual circles. Johnson is a full-fledged creationist who never reveals his precise creationist beliefs in his books or speeches. He developed what he calls the Wedge strategy for getting people to doubt evolution and admit the teaching of ID in science classes in American public schools as a genuine scientific theory. The core of Johnson’s anti-evolution stance is described by Robert Pennock this way: “…the only reason Darwinian evolution is accepted is that the alternative theory of intelligent design is never considered

since scientific naturalism bans all supernatural possibilities from consideration. An ‘open-minded science’ that allows theistic interventions would, they say, immediately hear the loud cry of ‘Design!’” (2) As a result of these developments, several proponents of ID founded the Discovery Institute and the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, organizations dedicated to the further development of arguments for ID and promotion of ID as an alternative to evolutionary theory. Apparently, this is an advocacy center and very little real science is done there. Another major player in the ID movement is William Dembski, mathematician/theologian/ philosopher and author of “Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science and Theology.” He developed what he contends is an effective mathematical system for detecting intelligent design in nature, “the explanatory filter,” and used it to deduce the “fact” that coded information, better known as genes, found in the DNA molecule is a true sign from God. The explanatory filter sifts through three possible explanations for the existence of a particular phenomenon: a regular feature of some well known natural law, chance, and design. If the researcher can eliminate regularity and chance as explanations, that leaves only design. In the presence of what is apparently complex, useful design in organisms, we are to assume the existence of some sort of designer. Hence Intelligent Design. Dembski uses this argument to show that the “fine-tuning” of the fundamental constants of the universe and the existence of irreducibly complex organelles in the body indicate the existence of True Design, and therefore, the Designer’s existence is proven, Q.E.D. Dembski also seeks to use ID to explain the growth of information in Earth’s biosphere over time. Information is depicted as that which only can be produced by intelligence. How can usable information increase without an intelligent producer of that information? This is merely a new twist on the old creationist question, “How can there be design without a Designer?”

ID has some useful socio-political aspects. It has the potential to break what creationists see as a stranglehold of secular humanism over American science and education. ID also eases the way for theology. It gives religious believers comfort by supporting creationists’ assertions about God’s creative power, avoiding the perceived purposeless of life, and anarchy they believe grow out of non-belief and philosophical materialism. A creationist expressed this sentiment in a very moving way. He was quoted by Kenneth Miller, “I felt again the warmth of believing that for every inch of infinity there has already been an accounting. Everything has a reason for being where it is… I had felt it before in childhood, when everything around me radiated with specific meaning and parental clarity. That, after all, is what creationists feel that evolution has stolen from them.” (3) As you may imagine, Humanists have many problems with ID. For instance, Behe’s irreducible complexity fails to consider alternative hypotheses for the very complex systems found in cells. First, the intermediate stages in the development of what is now irreducible, may have once served other functions. Biologists call that “evolutionary cooptation.” Second, slight modifications in the components may not damage the irreducibly complex system. Third, the inter-stages may also have included previously useful, non-irreducible complex components, which later were dropped by the system when they lost their usefulness—a kind of biological scaffolding disassembled when no longer in use. We are just at the beginning of learning to understand the molecular systems Behe describes so well in his book. It’s way too early to write off evolutionary explanations of their existence. Evolution does work on molecular systems: scientists have tested natural selection on the molecular level by breaking a piece off a human growth hormone receptor, then randomly mutating the hormone “key.” Miller describes how effective the random mutation strategy was in this experiment. “It generated a new version of the hormone that fit the new receptor 100 times tighter than the non-mutant version.” (4) The same problems with Johnson’s analysis of evolutionary theory can be seen in all his books. He bases his case almost entirely on what

Miller calls, “the argument from personal incredulity.” (5) Against the mountains of evidence for the existence of natural selection in nature, he continually insists on more, more, more! He is not convinced, and so his legal training leads him inevitably to “reasonable doubt.” But, since he doesn’t have the necessary scientific training, he’s incapable of going beyond doubt to the development of serious scientific objections to evolution. Dembski’s explanatory filter leaves out a fourth, very powerful explanation for the existence of complex entities: Unguided, unplanned selection working on genetic variety. Nature is fecund. Most organisms don’t have a chance to pass on their genetic inheritance to descendants. Thus, selection always takes place, by definition must take place, and it attains its own powerfully catalytic direction without any intended design whatsoever. Gene duplication and modification adds to the biosphere naturally. To Dembski’s charge that mutation just changes DNA nucleotides and doesn’t add anything, may I point out that there are several ways in which DNA can add information over the generations? One is by replicating previously existing genes on the same strand of DNA, then permitting these copies to diverge from the original over many succeeding generations. We see convincing evidence for this in the human genome. It’s loaded with duplicate genes. After many additional iterations of such duplication, the information load can greatly increase in the genome. There is another, even more serious charge to level against ID. It implies that our universe is a magic universe, one in which life doesn’t develop out of a series of physical causes and effects. Instead, it is under the command of a Great Magician-God, perhaps. Such beliefs are an anathema to science. All answers to questions of origins are neatly summarized by ID as “God did it.” The God of the Gaps. With such “answers,” learning must stop. And it does.

Some other curious implications of the idea of the Great Magician: 1. There is no logical explanation for limiting the Great Magician’s work to biology. Any Being that powerful could and would meddle in everything. If the Great Magician exists, its power and influence would spread out into geology, chemistry, physics, culture, politics, economics, science… 2. A Great Magician’s work is never done. Millions upon millions of new species over the ages to be created. Millions upon millions of old species to be killed off to get them out of the way. 3. The Great Magician is a trickster god. Making deliberate design look like evolutionary adaptations, such as fossilized bones and tracks, all those apparently related genomes, and all those apparently adaptive panda’s thumbs. This trickster god wants to make it really hard for us to believe in Him. 4. The Magic has apparently stopped fairly recently. No new miraculous creations have been noted in modern times. The Great Magician is on vacation. 5. The Problem of Evil rears its ugly head. All the things that go badly for organisms must be attributed to the shoddy workmanship or malevolent designs of the Great Magician. More seriously, the core problem with ID is its insistence on belief in the absence of good evidence. This makes ID a religion, not a science. We Humanists take our ability to perceive and understand reality as accurately as possible very seriously. We take the physical nature of reality very seriously. Matter and energy, cause and effect are to be respected, not derided. Biological evolution shows us how real biological systems work over a long period of time. It reveals our human origins and the history of what made us human. It shows us that we are responsible for what we do and what we become. Intelligent Design misleads us. Evolution informs us, and perhaps even inspires us—to be who we are and to do what we can.

Selected works on both sides of the debate:
The Creationists:
Behe, Michael, “Darwin’s Black Box” Dembski, William A., “Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology” Johnson, Phillip E., “The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism”

The Evolutionists:
Dennett, Daniel E., “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” Miller, Kenneth, “Finding Darwin’s God” [written by an evolutionary theist, but very well reasoned] Pennock, Robert, “The Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism” Ruse, Michael, “Taking Darwin Seriously: A Naturalistic Approach to Philosophy.”

(1) p. 132, Miller (2) p. 272, Pennock (3) p. 174 Miller (4) p. 144 Miller (5) p. 111 Miller